He walked slowly towards the back door of the restaurant, trying not to think about the last time he was here. He wasn't sure if coming here unannounced was a good idea, but that had never stopped him in the past. He paused, shifted the cane to his other hand and reached for the knob. Before he could touch it, the door swung open.
"You wouldn't have been able to get in Eliot. The door is locked after closing, and you left your keys the last time you here." she said, trying to keep the reprimand out of the comment.
"Thanks Sophie – forgot about that." Eliot looked at her hair, her mouth and off to the side. He couldn't bring himself to look in her eyes. God, this was going to be a lot harder than he thought. "Can I come in?"
She smiled and stepped back. "Of course. You don't need to ask. Everybody is at the table waiting for you."
"Wait – everybody is what? I didn't even know I was coming here."
"Doctor called and told us you left the hospital – against his very explicit orders. Where else would you go?"
Realizing he didn't really have an answer to that he just tried a smile, but didn't quite succeed.
"Go sit before you end up flat on your face. " Sophie did smile, and gently squeezed his arm as he slowly walked past her to the dining room.
"Take-out? Seriously? You're sitting in your own restaurant and you have take-out Chinese on the table?"
"What can I say?" Nate responded. "Our personal chef has been out of the game for a few weeks. 27 days to be precise."
Eliot stood behind the empty chair, nervously licking his lips. Get it together – you're not some scared teenager asking for a date – You're Eliot freaking Spencer. You've just come back from the dead after a firing squad, and now you are too scared to ask to join the team at the table. That was the problem. He needed to ask to join the team again, and if they said no, just maybe his life really was over.
The meal was much quieter than usual. Even Parker was comparatively subdued, which meant she only bounced up and down from her spot about a dozen times. They talked about the restaurant, the great spell of weather the city had been having, and briefly touched on Hardison's success at crushing the latest Video game he was playing. Nate cleared the table and brought everyone a drink. He started to put a bottle of beer in front of Eliot, but was waved off.
"Can't drink on your meds?" he asked.
"Not taking anything". All eyes turned to him. They knew how badly he had been hurt less than a month ago. He shouldn't be alive, let alone on his feet and out of the hospital. And he sure as hell shouldn't be trying to get by without pain medication.
"So why no beer? Don't tell me you've lost your taste for it."
"I think he just doesn't want to drink with us" Hardison said, his voice missing the warmth it had just a few minutes earlier.
They waited for the inevitable "Dammit Hardison" from Eliot, but were rewarded only with silence. He sat quietly, staring down at his hands on the table, unconsciously rubbing the small scar from one his many IV's.
Sophie broke the silence. "Is he right Eliot? Is that why you haven't looked any of us in the eye since you got here? Why you haven't asked about work, or clients? Are you that pissed off with us?"
Eliot's head snapped up so quickly it took a second for his eyes to focus. "Pissed off? What the hell are you talking about? What makes you think I am pissed off?"
"You wouldn't let us visit you any more – told the hospital staff to keep us out. Do you know what it was like having to crawl through the air ducts to check up on you?"
Eliot slowly turned his head to Parker – "You spied on me from the air ducts?"
"Crap! I shouldn't have admitted that should I?"
"You watched me fall on my ass for the last three weeks every time I tried to get out bed? What about you Hardison – you have the room bugged so you could listen to my nightmares?" He turned to Sophie. "You grift your way into records, read my charts? Maybe talk to the shrinks who kept trying to figure out when I was going to melt down? Glad I was able to keep you all entertained." He stood up quickly, too quickly, and felt his leg betray him. Grabbing for the cane, and not quite reaching it he started to topple. Suddenly there were hands and arms around him, holding him up. They could feel him shaking, trying to shrug them off, and they held tighter. And that was his final breaking point. Eliot dropped to the ground and did something he had not done since his mother died. He started sobbing.
It was quiet in the room when he woke up. It took him a few seconds to figure out where he was, and when he remembered, he wanted to close his eyes and not wake up again. He didn't know exactly how long he had slept, but the others had all changed clothes. From the sun outside, it had to be the following afternoon. That startled him. Eliot rarely slept for more than a couple of hours. They were right. He shouldn't have left the hospital, but God he hated those places.
Through long ingrained habit he scanned his surroundings. Nate was at his usual desk, or what had been before he and Sophie handed over the operation. The clicking of a keyboard in the background meant Hardison was nearby, and he was pretty certain the other clicking sound was Parker playing with her lock picks. He sat up slowly, trying to draw as little attention to himself as he could. Nate spoke first.
"We finished recon on the Baxter building. Pretty sure the security has deep training. Take a look at the pictures on the table. What do you think – CIA? Military?"
He wanted to stand up and walk out, but knew he was too stiff to do so smoothly, and he would shoot himself before falling down in front of these people again. He glanced at the photos. "Masaad, although the guy in the back is likely a free agent." Talking made him realize how dry he was, and realized that if he was going to swallow anything his pride would have to be first. "Parker could you…"
She appeared beside him handing him a bottle of water before the third word, and placed a spare on the table.
He hesitated a moment. "So what's going on at the Baxter?"
"Nothing – we're just updating my data." Hardison volunteered "We are trying to be ready for anything. Never know when you will need to able to respond to something quickly. Minutes can matter." The last words were barely audible.
Sophie walked into room. Even in her most casual mode, she exuded class. "So, are we still tiptoeing around, or are we going to address the elephant in the room?" Class, with an edge like a blade.
Eliot stood up slowly, in part because that was about the only speed he had in him right now, but also to delay the inevitable just a few more seconds. He tried to look around to include them all in his field of vision, but they were spread out and he could feel the room start to spin again. While he gathered himself, they spotted the problem and grouped together. It wasn't the goal, but they did make a formidable force when they clustered like that. He knew exactly what he wanted to say – if he could get his voice to work. He gulped half a bottle of water and raised his head, finally taking a few seconds to look each one of them in the eye.
"I don't do this, so I am no good at it. But here goes. I am sorry. I didn't drink with you last night because I don't have the right to. I screwed up big time. I took the best thing in my life and tossed it in the garbage because I didn't know how to handle being afraid. I can deal with torture, I can deal with nightmares, I can deal with death. What I can't deal with losing any of you because of something I did. The General would have killed you to get to me, and there was no way I could cover all four of you. Tthere was no way we could take him down. I took the only route I could be sure would work and tried to make sure you guys were protected. But I get it – I crossed the line by shutting you out. If you don't want me around, I get that too. I'm sorry if you thought any of my decisions were because I didn't trust you, or didn't think I could count on you. I simply couldn't risk you."
He turned to walk out, but Parker was blocking him before he could take more than a step. He started to smile at her when she did something that he never saw coming. She slapped him. Hard. Then grabbed him so he wouldn't fall and she started shouting.
"How dare you! You were afraid? We were terrified. We are your freaking family, and you didn't let us help you. And we had to watch you die. Twice. How do you think it felt when I watched you fall and knew you didn't want my help to get you on your feet? We couldn't hold your hand when you had nightmares. We couldn't be the people there for you if you ever even considered letting yourself go long enough to melt down. We love you too you jackass, and you won't let us in." She pushed him, gently, back onto the couch.
He looked shell shocked, but they weren't done. Sophie's turn.
"You don't get to make the call about what risks we take. You give us the information, and we decide on what we can and can't handle. Then you do what you do. As part of the TEAM. No more solo heroics. No more "I'm expendable, they're not". You. Are. Not. Expendable."
"Do you have any idea how many times I have gone over those hours in my head when I was trying to put your emails back together and find where you were." Oh great – Hardison was going to have a turn at him. "Trying to figure out if I could have shaved off seconds that would have got us to that hillside before they opened fire." His choked back a catch in his voice before resuming. "We were 15 seconds late because you wouldn't share. 15 damn seconds and it was going to cost me my brother. 15."
Nate got up from his chair and walked toward Eliot, stopping about 10 feet away. Eliot slowly stood, and no one reached out to help him. The tension radiating from them was palpable in the room. He and Nate stared at each other, communicating more in silence than they ever could with words. Their last staring match had been Eliot's confession about his connection to Moreau, and Nate had accepted Eliot's motives then. He wouldn't give him that forgiveness again. Eliot had to understand his role, or he couldn't be part of the team anymore. It would be too dangerous for all of them. Anyone watching would think the room was a tableau. No one moved. No one even blinked.
Finally Eliot looked away, and took in a deep breath. He could feel himself trembling but whether it was exhaustion, tension or relief, he couldn't tell. "It never occurred to me that my death would matter to anyone. It just never did". He dropped to the couch, leaned back and closed his eyes.
"Well it matters. You matter." Sophie walked over to him, (you couldn't mistake those heels on the floor), brushed the hair from his face and gently kissed his forehead. He opened his eyes and looked around. "Anyone else tries that and I will find the strength to deck him" he glared at Hardison.
"I ain't going anywhere near you – don't worry." Hardison grinned for the first time.
Parker skipped behind him, tousling his hair as she passed. He growled softly, but said nothing. Nate quietly returned to his desk, sat down and looked at his family. He watched Eliot surreptitiously wipe something from the corner of his eye, but didn't let on he had seen the action.
"So – Eliot" The Hitter looked over at him. "What's for dinner?"