What Else Would You Have Me Be?

Chapter 15


Now's really not the time to think about it.

They were already in the car, heading to meet up with Nate again, before reality starting trying to set in.

While Tara drove, Sophie was filling them in on her ordeal. Eliot was only half-listening. The story was so typical, so perfectly matching what he'd been expecting that it was hard not to focus instead on Hardison.

Hardison, who was sitting on the other side of Parker, watching Eliot out of the corner of his eye and fighting to maintain a straight face.

Hardison, who'd made the first move and then followed his lead. Who he'd kissed, and who'd started kissing back confidently once he'd realized it was happening. Who could span Eliot's throat with one hand, easy.

Right now, Hardison looked like he was wavering between being unbearably smug and completely thrown. Like he wasn't so much wondering if it was going to happen again, and more about when.

Not. The. Time.

"…ordered Chinese food," Sophie was saying. "I had to eat with a plastic fork, since the cuffs…"

Eliot caught himself again, on the verge of grinning. This was getting childish. Yeah, they'd talk about it at some point- preferably only after he'd gotten his head around it- but really? Sophie had just been retrieved, and even though Nate had just gotten done clearing up Eliot's billionth mistake, they really were in a hell of a lot of trouble, here.

Killing's starting to roll off too easily, man. Again. You might want to get a handle on it.

Hardison had freaked out, no doubt about it, but he'd seemed more concerned about Eliot getting caught than Retzing going down. That was what had done it, that was all it had taken.

It had been perfect. It had also been a little convenient.


He'd rarely worked with Miranda, less, towards the end. Something had gone down between her and Chapman, but it was impossible to tell what, exactly. Maybe they'd fallen into bed together, or maybe they'd fallen out. Either way, it wasn't any of his business.

What was his business, though, was getting the hell out of Sarajevo. The cease-fire had just been announced, but with all the NATO forces still roaming the area, the trunk full of Bosnian manuscripts they'd…recovered… from the wrecked library was going to be a problem.

Word on the street was that the borders would be opened in another week. They didn't have that long.

There'd been planning. A night route. And now there was a guard post that had been paid off better by somebody else, and there were bullets, but not enough of them in their own guns.

There were three days in a burned out hotel room, and only one bed. Miranda, she'd hit the wall, figuratively at first, then literally, as they caught their breath enough to hear the rumors and noise from outside. Both of them were fried, with no lines of communication, no idea if they'd make it to the drop, and too much suspicion that they'd been burned. The bullet she had to dig out of Eliot's leg wasn't helping matters, either.

Her panic was nearly enough to set off a thousand powder kegs. It was to distract her. They wound up fucking instead. Made promises in the pre-dawn hours that neither intended to keep, but Miranda insisted, afterwards, on keeping up the illusion. She probably would have kept it up until they reached Podgorica.

They kissed on the side of the road four minutes before the locals- a bunch of kids Herzog had paid off- spotted them and opened fire.

Eliot was the only one who actually made it to Montenegro. He made the handoff, took the payout. Lied to himself and promised he'd forward Miranda's cut to her family, but he had no idea who they were. It was easier, eventually, just to drop it. Just business, anyway, and he had to get on to Belfast.


Hardison's glances weren't like Miranda's. He was nothing like her, and that Eliot was sixteen years ago, now.

That Eliot wouldn't be sitting crammed in a backseat trying not to grin like an idiot just because he'd kissed somebody. He wouldn't be worrying excitedly about anyone else noticing him, either.

But Parker had barely glanced at them when they'd stepped out of the bathroom; she'd merely hooked a thumb over her shoulder and told them they were taking off. Joining them back at the car, Tara had stared at Eliot's arm as they'd all climbed in. Sophie, however, had barely even registered the bandage, not with the way her gaze kept bouncing between him and Hardison.

But she hadn't said anything, yet. And probably wouldn't. He was merely misreading the glances she kept shooting into the backseat; they were nothing more than her attempt to include everyone in the conversation.

"… so Dennis and Donovan took turns keeping an eye on me, but by about one in the morning I was so bored I fell asleep despite myself…"

Hardison was staring out the window now. The corners of his mouth wouldn't stop twitching towards a grin. And now Parker was starting to notice Eliot's line of sight, her eyes narrowing, darting back and forth between them. Any second now, she was going to say something, and there was no way of knowing what that would be.


Thankfully, Tara was pulling into the parking lot of a TGI Friday's or Applebee's or something else that Eliot forgot the moment they stepped inside. It was busy, and he was surprised to realize that it was only the lunch rush.

He'd watched a hostage exchange, gotten shot, watched a man die, and kissed Hardison, and hadn't even eaten lunch yet.

The location was a good choice on Nate's part. Packed and loud, it the sort of place where nobody expected anything out of the ordinary, so nobody ever saw anything out of the ordinary. Maybe it was something in the pre-aged not-quite-faux advertisements lining the walls, or the fact that the place considered chipotle dipping sauce a bold move- there was an entire spread on it in the menu, as if nobody had heard of it before- but nobody had looked twice at them as they'd filtered into the booth.

Nate hugged Sophie awkwardly, once he arrived. Once seated, though, his eyes lit immediately on the shirt- Hardison's- that Eliot was wearing, and he quirked a brow in Hardison's direction. He didn't have far to shift, not with them sitting next to each other like this.

The booth was crowded. That was all.

Hardison's knee pressed into his own underneath the table when Nate looked away to order iced tea. Eliot's first instinct was to complain, but it would only backfire, Nate or Sophie's attention would shift back to them. So he pressed back, briefly, and bit down on the inside of his lip to keep from smiling.

The urge passed, though, on its own once the food had arrived. Small talk had fallen by the wayside, and Parker was stabbing at the ice in her drink with her straw.

"So what happened with the cops?"


Alec felt Eliot tense the moment Parker opened her mouth, and there, yeah, that's it, sorry, so long, the high he'd been riding since the rest stop evaporated instantaneously.


He wondered what Eliot was thinking- wondering what he himself was thinking, making out with the guy less than an hour after killing a man. Accidentally.

And this, here, wasn't a date. This was business, and Nate was filling them in.

"I called 911, and two deputies came out with the police department and coroner. I told them that I'd been called out there by Retzing, who'd come to my church for the first time this weekend. See, he'd been in rough shape, and I'd given him my number in case he wanted to talk. This morning, he called and told me to meet him out there." Nate sipped his tea. "He seemed suicidal, not quite sane. Tried to get through to him, but he wound up pulling out a gun."

Eliot hadn't moved his leg away yet; Hardison could feel the muscles growing tighter, as if he was planning on bolting. Nate continued to fill in the conversation

"I didn't know if he was planning to use the gun on himself or on me, so I backed off. When he realized I was leaving, he began shooting, but he only hit the van's tires. I was hiding in the van when I heard him start his motorcycle, but then he went silent. I got out of the van and began to make my way back towards the ditch where he'd been, and found him dead. I said a prayer, turned off the bike, and called them in."

"Did they believe you?"

"I may have mentioned my services at the jail while we were making small talk, after that, they were very agreeable." Nate frowned a moment. "But that's not all I said."

Eliot had been coiled this whole time, listening to Nate, but Alec didn't become acutely nervous until Sophie did.

"Oh, Nate," she groaned. "What have you done?"

"I may have, you know, in roundabout ways, repeated what I could remember him saying. The guilt over knowing about a cover up, and a man named Miller."

She sighed wearily, and after a moment, shook her head reproachfully. "Leaving aside the distastefulness of using a man's death for our benefit, you won't be able prove a direct connection."

"Don't have to," Nate shrugged. "Not anymore. When they searched his body, they found the financials I shoved in his pocket. They're enough there to connect him to Miller through Larson. Figure they'll figure it out on their own."

"That's a little open-ended, man. Even for you," Eliot almost sounded apologetic. "You're black boxing it. They have some bit of information that ain't that solid, and you don't know that they're only going to use it the way you want."

"It's fine."

"They find Larson, depending on how deep they follow it, it could come back on us."

"That's a bit of a stretch," Sophie said, her eyes darting over to Alec as if she'd been expecting to hear the complaint from him, instead. "Investigations only rarely are tied up with a lovely little bow."

"She's right," Alec cut in, finally having a hook into the conversation. His wrenching motivation to ease Eliot's mind notwithstanding, Sophie had a point. "Most of the cases we handle, the authorities tie up every loose end because we deliberately leave them there, making sure every sign points to our mark."


"Real life is chaotic, man. Evidence doesn't turn up, or gets mishandled, or just doesn't lead anywhere. And when a department's as screwed up as the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, a few things not adding up after the fact won't surprise anyone."

"Especially when the best lead is dead," Eliot muttered.

There goes my smug sense of satisfaction. Already, Alec thought. Aloud, he said, "Eliot, dude. It was an accident. Right?"

"Yeah, but. If I'd wanted him dead, I wouldn't be pissed right now." Eliot spoke quietly enough that Sophie and Tara were leaning in to listen. He shredded the corner of his coaster. "As shitty as this is gonna sound, we've got a problem. He died before I could get any answers out of him."

"Like what?"

"How he knew where to find us."


Nate sent Parker and Tara to check in with McSweeten, in case they were getting anywhere with the evidence Nate had planted.

In the meantime, Sophie had suggested that the rest of them return to their respective rooms, citing Alec's obvious discomfort and the suggestion that Eliot might want to get his arm seen to. Alec couldn't help noticing the way she leaned slightly towards Nate as she suggested it.

But it was the wink Sophie gave him over her shoulder as they parted ways in the hotel hallway that really threw him for a loop. He waited until they'd disappeared into the suite before turning to Eliot, trying to figure out what he was supposed to be thinking.

"You think she knows? I think she knows." He frowned. "Shit. You think Nate knows?"

Eliot rolled his eyes and waved irritably at the door that Alec still hadn't unlocked. "Either way, ain't like they can lecture us about screwin' up the team dynamics."

It might not have been so awkward if they'd stepped into the room after the sun went down, or after enough drinks to take the edge off, but the moment the door was closed behind them, Alec had no idea what he was supposed to be doing next. It didn't help that Eliot looked like he might have been thinking along the same lines.

"So now what?" He didn't have to check his watch to know that they had several hours before they were going to be needed anywhere.

"I'm gonna go check this," Eliot decided, shrugging to indicate his arm. "Maybe take a shower."

Alec nodded, wondering if this was a play for distance, but the fact that Eliot was grabbing the front of his shirt and stealing a kiss as he passed did, however, alleviate it. A bit.

He turned the television on and mindlessly booted up his computer. The route map to get to the drop location was still on the screen, and he tried, for a while, to guess where Larson would've headed, but he was coming up blank. Larson had probably ditched the car the first chance he got, anyway.

Chasing after him wasn't going to work, Nate had said as much at lunch. They needed to get ahead of him. A nice idea, but right now? Alec was out of ideas.

It ceased to matter a few moments later, when Eliot poked his head out of the bathroom, holding up a box of butterfly bandages. "You mind?"

"You don't need stitches?" He shoved at Eliot's arm, trying to get a better look under the fluorescent light.

"Not enough to actually wait around a hospital all afternoon."

Right there. That surge of frustration and worry. That was new. But Eliot's stubbornness wasn't.

"Whatever," he shrugged, fastening the first one where Eliot indicated, then the next. He really only needed three, but got five, and another large one on top to keep it clean.

"What about you?" Eliot asked, waving at Alec's torso. "Yours still holdin' up?"

The truth was, he'd been sweating and the tape had gotten tacky. It felt unpleasant, but he could handle it, and he told Eliot as much.

"That's really not the point."

Eliot hadn't bothered putting his shirt back on, and as he pulled Alec's over his head, Alec decided that he could roll with this. He pulled the bandage off as Eliot ran more water, grabbed a fresh washcloth and got to work cleaning off the tape.

Part of him really wanted to point out that it would be easier to take care of it in the shower.

Part of him ran screaming.

So it was mostly a relief when Eliot got down to business, cleaning and drying the area completely before taking out a fresh bandage. "Another few days and you won't even need this. You set up an appointment to get the stitches out?"

"Three days," Alec answered, wondering about the shift in Eliot's tone, and why he was being so careful to keep his eyes on task as he taped off the bandage. And why he didn't look up when he was done.

Something had shifted. Whatever the moment had been, it had passed, and it was following Eliot out of the bathroom.


The stitches were nothing. The wound was healing up fine, but Eliot hadn't seen it since it had happened, and it was throwing him more than he wanted to admit.

But that wasn't what he was thinking about, regardless of what Hardison might be thinking right now. He had to be thinking something, after all, or he wouldn't be hiding out in the bathroom, giving Eliot space. It wasn't like he needed it, not really.

At least it meant that Hardison wasn't right here, distracting him, making him think about things like if he was supposed to start calling him by his first name, now, or what this all meant, or why they'd kissed or if this was real.

Eliot could prioritize, though. Right now, if he was being honest with himself, Alec -'cause yeah, might want to try to get used to that- wasn't number one with a bullet.

Bad choice of words.

Stop it.

Alec finally came out of the bathroom, trying to seem unconcerned as he leaned against the dresser and fixed him with a quizzical gaze.

"What's up?"

"Nothing. Just thinking."

"About?" And no, if they were going to do this thing, they weren't going to be those people. But it wasn't worth mentioning, not at the moment.

"Just trying to figure out what comes next." Hardison's eyes went wide, and at least Eliot didn't have to wonder what he'd been thinking about while hiding out in the bathroom anymore. He shook his head and clarified. "I mean Larson. Between the audio recording and the testimonies, and the evidence Parker gave McSweeten, Arlington's going down and Miller's going with him. But Larson made it out of there with ten grand."

"Yeah, but. It's not that much cash."

"That ain't the point. He's still out there."

Hardison shrugged, sat down on his bed and gestured at his computer. "Yeah, and Retzing's not around to pay him off anymore. So. I mean, yeah, I'm already looking for the guy." His tone suddenly shifted, became accusatory as he rounded on Eliot. "You're trying to figure out what you're going to do with him when we find him."

"I'm not planning anything."

It wasn't a total lie, though it would've been nice, because yeah. Those priorities he was so good at setting out? They were starting to get a little bit blurry, running into each other more than he would've liked. He hadn't meant for Retzing to get killed, and he wasn't planning on killing Larson, either, but…

It wasn’t hard to imagine how little of this shit Hardison was going to put up with.

"Okay." Hardison eventually said. "Cool. So we'll figure something out. Truth be told, if-"


"Nothing, I just." He grimaced. "That right there? Was me about to say something really stupid."

"Tell me anyway."

"I was just going to say. If Larson had an accident? It wouldn't bother me so much. I just mean. The guy's comin' after us. He's pulled some shit. I want him gone. Now, it don't mean I want him killed, but. I'm just saying, if it happens, I just hope that it's not 'cause things get so fucked up on our end that you have to-" Hardison cut himself off apologetically. "Again. Totally not coming out right."

Eliot swallowed, still lost. In his experience, feeling insulted or feeling relieved were mutually exclusive. He had no basis, no idea how to proceed. He could deck Hardison for pissing him off again, or hug him for trying not to, but the phone rang, and he didn't have the chance to do either.


"Sorry for the interruption," Tara teased, once they'd all gotten on comms. "But we're here. She told McSweeten her flight out of town was delayed for a few days because of bad weather in Milwaukee, and it turns out McSweeten's got family there. He just took a call, we've got a moment, but Parker's frozen. What do I do?"

"Parker, are you there?" Alec couldn't tell if he was imagining how winded Sophie sounded.

"Yes," Parker said, tersely. It wasn't hard to imagine her gritting her teeth.

"This is good," Sophie assured her. "If he thinks you're lying about the flight, he'll be wondering about why you're here now. Unfortunately, when he asks you to dinner, you're going to have to say yes."

"When he asks me to what?"

Alec listened as Sophie and Tara ran Parker through it, but a moment later, they could hear McSweeten coming back. He had news.

"That lead you gave me was great," he said. "But it looks like Miller's clear, on the evidence front. There was amended paperwork filed a few weeks after the shiv was initially logged, where he explains that he'd screwed up the evidence handling when he was logging it back in after they'd run the prints. Since they'd already gotten an ID off them, it didn't matter in the long run."

"But he logged it in again after the stabbing last week, too," Parker insisted.

"While executing his normal duties," Arlington insisted. "Just a coincidence."

"So much for my conspiracy angle," Parker moaned. It was a little over the top, but Alec kind of felt like joining in.

"Maybe not," McSweeten said, his tone dropping. He'd just stepped closer, enough that his quiet murmur was easily picked up by the mic in Parker's phone. "It's too early to tell yet, but this morning, we found a lead that might blast this entire case wide open."


"I can't tell you about it," McSweeten said. Even Alec, from here, could hear him bullshitting. "Not officially, since you're not on the case. You know. But I'd be more than happy to fill you in. Maybe over dinner tonight?"


"This doesn't change anything," Eliot insisted once they'd all gathered in the suite. "Best way to cover up evidence tampering is to file paperwork saying it's been tampered with."

"But why?" Sophie turned to Nate. "Why wait so long to amend the paperwork?"

"Something spooked him after the shiv was checked for prints, but not before. Why?"

"Same reason anyone tampers with evidence. He was covering his tracks, or covering someone else's."

"Who's? Arlington's?"

"Doesn't make sense. Santiago's prints being on that shiv was the best evidence against her. He wouldn't want those wiped out."

"What if there was something else? Other prints, maybe?"

Parker perked up and raised her hand, which Nate ignored. "Sure, but why wouldn't they have been identified when Santiago's were?"

"It had a taped handle, people," Parker was irritated, and sounded very disappointed in each and every one of them. "What did I tell you about taped handles?"

Nate snapped his fingers, grinning at Parker. "Right. So. They ran the prints, found Santiago's, and stopped there. The shiv logged back into evidence. A few weeks later, he amends his paperwork, admits that while bagging it again, he'd accidentally smeared the prints. Nobody worries about it, because they've already got the information off of it, and by this point Santiago's already been convicted."

"So, again," Eliot asked, "why?"

Nate turned to Hardison. "When did Santiago's first request for an appeal go through?"

"Three weeks after Miller amended the evidence paperwork," Hardison confirmed, his face falling. "The appeal wouldn't have been on his radar yet."

"Not on his, but on someone else's." Nate sat down, holding up three fingers. "Arlington knew that the prints were the nail in the coffin, he wouldn't tamper with it. And Retzing and Larson weren't even in town yet." Nate sighed. "We're missing someone."

Sophie waited a moment before asking. "So what now?"

"What we should've done the moment we got here. We talk to Santiago."


"No, Parker. We're holding you in reserve on this one," Nate explained. He probably hadn't forgotten her suggestion that she work the jail from the inside. "Tara's already in place."

"At least I would've been on comms."

"Well, Tara doesn't she doesn't have the proper appreciation for Nate being in her head," Sophie smirked, checking her phone for the third time in as many minutes. "She'll be fine."

Eliot rubbed his eyes, contemplating running back to the room for his glasses. Hardison had print out everything they had on the case, and they still had a lot to go through. Evidence logs, reports, court documents, coroner's reports, staff and inmate rosters and rotation schedules. A stack of booking sheets several inches high, and financials for everyone who was on either side of the bars.

Apart from finding that Miller had spent a long time working security for the women's chain gang detail out in Tent City before being transferred inside, they were coming up empty handed.

Worse, though, was the fact that they'd already been over this stuff before. If there were something in there, they would've seen it by now. Last night, they'd worked on it until their eyes had been crossing, gotten up, and had started all over again this morning.

Hopefully, Tara was having better luck with Santiago.

As if waiting for the cue, Sophie's phone buzzed, and she put it on speaker.

"I'm sitting in the jail's parking lot," Tara said. "Just went met with Santiago and her lawyer, to drop the hint about how the FBI's investigation into Arlington might set things up nicely for another appeal of Santiago's case. Somebody was coming in, though, as I was coming out. Sally Branson."

"Her old cellmate?" Hardison checked the visitation logs. "She's there all the time. They were friends."

"Yeah, but you'll never believe who kissed her before dropping her off."

Sophie pulled her phone from her ear to look at the picture Tara had sent, startled by what she found.

"What is it?"

Sophie held the phone out so they could all see. The picture was of a car. Silver, with four doors. And sitting in the driver's seat was Larson.


"Hardison? What do we have on Branson?"

Branson's file was thin, still way down in the pile, and it took a few moments for him to dig it out. "Bad checks. Eighteen months. I've got her booking info and her phone-"

"What is it?"

Hardison warily considered the stacks of files they hadn't gotten to yet, before turning to his computer instead. "She called the same number almost every week."

Parker was flipping through the visitor's log. "Larson visited her every week the entire time she was in there, even before Santiago got caught in the riot and wound up on the other side of the bars."

Nate had thrown up his hands, glaring at Hardison. "How did we miss this?"

"We were looking for Donovan, not Larson," Eliot guessed, smirking at how quickly Hardison's eyes darted back down to his screen with a grin that he hadn't been quick enough in hiding. It more than made up for Nate's weighty consideration of the two of them, but after a moment, he'd moved on.

"Okay, so Branson and Larson are connected. Larson gets a job from Retzing. What was that job?"

Eliot frowned. So far, this was all theoretical. "He was comin' after us," he guessed.

Nate was nodding, flapping his hand to prompt them, probably already knowing the answer himself. "And what's the best way to get at us?"

Eliot wanted to punch something, finally catching on. "Drawing us out." Infuriatingly enough, though, he still couldn't see the connection. "Walk us through it."

Nate glanced at the file. "About a month after Henry Retzing dies, Dennis hears about it, and he's probably been fantasizing about taking us down for months, right? He's in prison, word gets around, someone knows someone who knows someone, and he's able to strike a deal with Larson. To do what?"

"To create the perfect trap," Sophie said, and Nate snapped his fingers, pointing at her as she thumbed distractedly through another file. "Okay. Retzing contacts Larson, whose girlfriend resides at the most awful jail in the country. She knows that Arlington's corrupt and that Santiago's going against him."

That was a problem, and Eliot gestured for the files. Flipping through them, he stopped when he found matching requests from Santiago and Branson to become cellmates. It was good move if you wanted to keep an eye on someone, but they were still missing something. "I don't know," he said, looking around the room. "Stuck in that place? Branson's more likely to side with Santiago, isn't she?"

"Yes," Nate agreed. "Unless she wanted to create a martyr."

Hardison was nodding. "So, okay. Larson and her are talking, he mentions the deal he made with Retzing, and either he asks, or she suggests setting Santiago up."

For a few minutes, they all mulled it over. There were still a few things that didn't fit. The people showing up in Boston could've been a recon team, or just a misdirection that Larson set up. But so far, there was nothing to explain why Miller had gotten involved.

"It's a theory," Nate eventually admitted. "But I'll bet you all that it's Branson's prints all over that shiv."

Eliot sighed. It was better than nothing, and it might lead somewhere. "So how do we play this?"

"Simple," Nate said, his eyes rising warily from Branson's file to Parker, undermining the confidence in his voice. "We steal the FBI."

Hardison groaned. "Again?"




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