Title: Five Time Eliot Spencer Thought He Was Going to Die

Disclaimer: I do not own Leverage.

A/N: This has some preseries spec based on what we know of Eliot's backstory. I don't have a beta familiar with this show, so I gave this one a quick read myself. Mistakes, therefore, are because I am a very sloppy writer.

Summary: Dying's never part of the plan, but sometimes we do what we have to do.

-o-

One.

He's not supposed to play there, and he knows it. His daddy has tanned his hide more times than he can count, and his mama wags her finger at him every morning when she admonishes him out the door.

"Keep out of the Odell yard, and don't you dare sneak into Mrs. Clark's vegetable patch," she says while he rolls his eyes and crams a piece of toast into his mouth on the way out. "And for the love of all that is good and holy, stay out of the Sanderson barn loft!"

These restrictions, at the age of seven, seem insurmountable and hopelessly unfair. Everyone knows that the Odell yard is the best place to dig up arrowheads, and Mrs. Clark has the only ripe carrots in town. And the Sanderson barn is the only place fitting for a spaceship, rodeo roundup and fire station.

Parents, as best Eliot could figure, just didn't understand.

In his defense, Kenny Sanchez is the one who insists on playing dinosaurs, and they climb the back of the brachiosaurus until they're at the top. Kenny's the one who stomps his feet like a t-rex once they get there, and of course, they need to decide who will win the epic dinosaur battle of the ages.

Eliot's brachiosaurus turned pteranodon turned raptor is doing pretty well until Kenny feigns left and Eliot loses his balance. Problem is, of course, that he's not a raptor or a pteranodon or even a brachiosaurus. He's a scrawny seven-year-old kid playing barefoot in a decrepit barn loft.

When he's falling, Eliot looks up at the ceiling and wonders if a spaceship could save him if the dinosaurs don't. He wonders, just maybe, if this is what his mama has been talking about all these years. The only consolation is that when he hits the ground and dies, his daddy won't be able to whip his bottom raw for ignoring every order he's ever been given.

Naturally, he doesn't remember much after that. He doesn't remember hitting the ground, and he doesn't remember Kenny Sanchez crying all the way home. He doesn't remember, much to his absolute dismay, the fire truck or the ambulance or the emergency surgery to repair a rip in his spleen.

No, Eliot remembers waking up in the hospital and being pleasantly surprised that he's still alive. His parents presumably hope this will make him listen to them more.

Eliot merely learns to climb better, jump more carefully and judge his sense of depth perception that much more accurately.

And that he should always be the t-rex in the dinosaur battles.

Two.

He's driving too fast, and he sure as hell knows it. But damn, he's sixteen and the only freedom he's ever had in this backwater town is the open road straight out. He knows he has to go back; he knows he'll hit the county line and be short on gas. He knows that the engine will give out if he tries to make it to Missouri, and honestly, trading one no-where town for another ain't his idea of breaking free.

No, Eliot going to have to go bigger than that. Farther, at any rate. Because the pull of that small damn town he grew up in is going to have a hold on him until he rips out all the ties. He's not sure how to do that, though; he's not even sure he wants to.

But maybe, he thinks. Maybe he'd like to try.

Because he already knows where all the tools in his dad's store are, and he knows the names of every single person in that dead-end place. He's dated all the girls and drunk all the boys into the ground. He's been the starting quarterback and prom king, and as far as Eliot can tell, the only place for him to go in a town like that is down.

Sure, he can run the family store and own the same plot of dusty earth his family's owned for two generations. And maybe, if he's really lucky, he can buy a house on main street. Become sheriff. Run for mayor. Open a car dealership on the side with ads that run in the newspaper in Oklahoma City.

The thought of it, it makes him sick to his stomach. He feels like an eagle with clipped wings; a damn lion who spends his life in a cage. Doesn't matter how pretty it is. It's not as much as he wants.

And damn, Eliot, he wants everything. He wants to see the world; he wants to experience life. He wants to know how other people live, and he wants to understand the best people have to offer. He wants to make a difference, damn it. He wants to make a difference.

So he pushes the pedal to the floor, listening to the engine whine. The whole thing starts to shudder as his speed ticks up, and he feels the well worn tires strain against the asphalt as he storms over it. Faster, faster.

Round the curve, the car pitches hard and Eliot eases up just long enough to pull it back under control. But when he hits the straightaway, he presses it harder still.

80 miles per hour.

85.

90.

The whole damn car feels like it's ready to fly apart, and he doesn't stop. He holds both hands on the wheel, arms straight as he tightens his knuckles until they're white against the dark night.

95.

100.

He's going to lose control; it's just a matter of when. And going this fast, in a car this old, it's probably something a little like suicide. They'll talk, back home. They'll talk about what the hell he was thinking, and the good old boys at the bar will tip back another and shake their heads at his apparent belief in his own invincibility.

That's not it, though.

That's not it at all.

Eliot doesn't believe he's invincible. He's not so foolish as to think he can't die.

No, Eliot just knows that he's been dying all along. He's been suffocating in a town that's too small for him and all the things he wants to do.

This?

This is just trying to live, just for a moment.

The tires slip and the steering wheel jerks in his hands. He tries to hold it, but he's too young, too inexperienced. The car veers, his the edge of the pavement and just like that, Eliot's airborne. The car turns, flipping over, and Eliot's suspended in the air. Trapped, for a second, between where he's been and where he wants to go.

He sees the ground coming up at him through the windshield, and it's all he can do to brace himself for impact.

His last conscious thought is, dying like this is better than living like that.

He's almost dismayed when he wakes up three weeks later, bandaged and stitched up with a patch of the hair on his head shaved away. Everyone tells him how lucky he is, that despite a three week coma, he's really no worse for wear. He'll be ready for football season next fall, in fact. He'll be stocking shelves in three months.

All over again, he's bracing for impact.

This time, though, he's scared of the darkness.

Three.

Joining the army had seemed like a smart way to go. He gets to travel the world, hone his skills, and make the world a better place - while getting paid, no less. He's doing God's work like a good American boy, and that feel-good is almost enough to make him forget the look on his daddy's face when he walked out the front door.

Of course, that'd been before his deployment to Afghanistan. His desire to see the world isn't quite fulfilled when there's damn gunfire every time he turns a corner. Still, he tries to see the good in things, and he takes comfort in the fact that he's a long way from Oklahoma, and he's a far cry from the kid he once was. No one cares here, who his daddy is or what position he played in football. No one cares if he dated the prettiest girls or worked for nothing every weekend of his life.

They just cared that he shot straight and did his job.

That's how they all lived, after all. They each did their jobs, and they would each come home alive. That's the implicit promise they make one another, and Eliot, well, he believes it. It's not that he's naive necessarily, but he's been raised to think that good things happen to good people. Doing the right thing means the right things happen to you. Do God's will, and sure as hell, it'll all be fine.

It's fine, Eliot tells himself.

It's fine, it's fine, it's fine.

Except he's bleeding like a stuck pig, and he never even saw the damn shot. Making a sweep, and bam, he ends up on his ass with his chest on fire. The guys, they're all over the place, chasing after whoever popped him while Hank, the medic, rips open the front of Eliot's uniform to get a better look.

Craning, his head, Eliot looks down and almost passes out.

The blood's everywhere, and Hank's hands are already coated with it. Someone barks orders into the radio as Hank rips open a bandage and presses down hard.

His chest explodes again, and he struggles to breathe. It hurts like a son of a bitch, though, and he can't even get his lungs to work right anymore. Things are started to fade around the edges, faster than Eliot can keep up with, and he wonders what his dad's doing right about now. Opening the store, maybe. Facing all the shelves and dusting down the register. He's turning the little sign over, yes, we're open!.

It won't be any different for him, at least. Eliot lives; Eliot dies; his dad's already had to move on, Eliot's made sure of that. This is his fault.

He feels his heart stutter, blood in the back of his throat.

This is his fault.

This is what happens, when you run away. This is what happens, when you turn your back on the people who care. Life, you see, it's not fair. Good things don't happen to good people, and good little soldiers aren't the ones who come home in the end. It's easy to take everything for granted, but when you're bleeding everything you love away, it's hard to ignore.

Because Eliot's not going to see the world; Eliot's not going to be the hometown hero.

No, Eliot's just going to be dead.

Hank leans over and yells in his face, but it's too late, too soon, too everything.

Three days later, he comes to in a field hospital. He earns a purple heart and gets two months to recover before he's back on the front lines. He works harder, then, because he's not going to trust his life - his future - to anyone else. He's going to be the best, not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the only way he's going to survive this.

Every time he pulls a trigger after that, he can't help but wonder if his daddy flinches.

Four.

The entire time, Eliot tells himself he's been in worse situations.

He's been captured before. He's been held in small, dirty prisons, and dragged through fast farcical trials. He's been shot, beaten, water-boarded and shocked. He's been kept awake for a week straight, and one time he actually dug what was supposed to be his own grave.

And he's gotten out.

That's what he does.

That's why they send him and no one else.

So he tells himself, with some amount of comfort, that he's been here and done this. This is nothing, old hat, same old, same old.

Until, that is, they put a gun to his head.

Really, even that's not such a stretch. Eliot's been held at gunpoint so many times that he's lost count, but most of the time, he's got his hands free. It's not so much the fact that he's tied down that bothers him. And it's not even the first time they pull the trigger, releasing the empty barrel with a harmless click.

It's when they do it again.

And again.

Eliot's counting the bullets, accounting for every chamber that he saw loaded. One bullet in six.

The third time, Eliot's really starting to sweat. The odds aren't in his favor anymore, and given how little he's told them after two weeks of nonstop interrogation, he knows they might be ready to cut their losses.

One of the men lays down money on the table, offers a bet.

The man with the gun takes it with a laugh.

He smirks at Eliot as he lifts the gun again, pointing it this time between his eyes.

Eliot's breath catches when he pulls the trigger, but another empty chamber echoes in his ears. He shudders visibly, blinking rapidly against the unconscious tears in his eyes.

The other man puts more money on the table and pounds his hand down with a resounding cheer. The man with the gun matches it before walking back to Eliot.

Four empty chambers.

Two left.

It's a fifty-fifty proposition now, and Eliot's starting to think he underestimated his situation. He's almost managed to dig a hole out of his cell under his bed and he's already sharpened a piece of rock into a blade to defend himself when he sneaks his way out. He's planned on being back stateside for a while now, make things right with Amy. He's already thought of the ways to explain that he's a little late, but it occurs to him belatedly that he'll have no explanation by the time his dismembered body shows up several years later.

He tries to think, a little frantic, if he told her that he loves her. He tries to remember if he said two weeks or three - and if it's been two months or three. He tries, damn it. He tries.

This ain't horseshoes or hand grenades, though.

Pity, he's pretty good at both.

But this is the choice he's made, no matter how many times he pretends he hasn't. This isn't just a job, what he does; this iswho he is. He wants to ask Amy to marry him, but he's not ready to forsake all others. Not when he's willing to die in a place like this without even telling her where he is and what he's actually doing.

It's nice to think he can have it both ways, but he can't.

She's probably better off without him, anyway.

The man pulls the trigger, and Eliot flinches, prepared for the worst. If this is it, if this is the way Eliot's going to die, then he's not going to feel stupid for it later. There's a split second when his ears ring and he's breath chokes him in his throat. A split second when he sees the man he could have been, watching Amy walk down the aisle as he promises to love her forever.

This isn't it, though.

The empty barrel clicks, and the man across the room claps gleefully as he takes the money. The man with the gun groans, sliding the barrel out and letting the bullet fall out of the last chamber.

He's not dead, Eliot thinks as he forces himself to start breathing again. He's not dead.

But halfway around the world on a horse farm in Kentucky, the man he might have been dies a much less dramatic but not less auspicious death. He doesn't go home for another three months, and he finds Amy's promise ring in a sealed envelope of his unopened mail. There's no note, no return address.

It's just as well, Eliot knows.

Five.

By the time Eliot takes the job with Moreau, it's really all the same to him. Following orders is following orders, and if he's going to risk his life, he may as well get paid for it. This isn't about getting away from his daddy anymore, and he's not going to serve a country that asked for his blood and gave him nothing back. No, Eliot's just doing a job, working paycheck to paycheck, just like everyone else.

Except his paycheck comes with a lot more zeroes.

And a lot more blood.

It's not his first choice to get himself captured by the competition to serve as a trojan horse, but Eliot doesn't get paid to make those kind of distinctions. Besides, Moreau promised to send in the full extraction team after him, just as soon as Eliot had enough footage of the interior.

A day, tops.

That's the promise Moreau made.

Three days later, Eliot's still dangling from the ceiling with a broken nose and five cracked ribs.

"He's not coming for you," comes the taunt. "His most trusted employee, and he's hung you out to dry."

The man pushes Eliot so he swings limply as he hangs from his wrists.

"You may as well tell me what I want to know. I'll meet his salary, and double your bonus."

Not that it's not a good offer, but Eliot's not up for a bribe. At this point, he's pretty sure he doesn't owe Damien Moreau anything, but that doesn't mean he's going to sell out to the next knock-off who thinks Eliot can make him great.

That's all Eliot is to them, a tool, a means to an end. His father's son, a good little soldier, Moreau's body guard. What happened to the dreams he had? What happened to the things he'd wanted to do?

When Eliot fails to answer, two cords are brought in. He doesn't have to ask why.

He braces himself, because if this is how it is, then this is how it is.

The current runs through him, head to toe and back again. He smells the burned flesh on his chest as the charge is exacted again and again.

His body convulses, the hair on his arms standing up. He can still feel the current, trembling under his skin even when the cords are removed for a temporary reprieve.

"Come on, Spencer," is the cajole. "What is Moreau to you anyway?"

Eliot grits his teeth and closes his eyes. "No more than you," he spits.

This time, the charge jolts him and tingles painfully through his limbs. It dances along his spine and sizzles between his ears. It builds and builds and builds until his lungs seize and his heart skips a beat.

Eliot's faced death countless times, countless ways.

This is the worst.

Not because it's the most painful or the most preventable.

But because it means the least.

If Eliot is only fighting for a paycheck, then he's dying for nothing.

The shock of that hurts worse than the electrocution as he's wrenched away from consciousness. It serves him right, he thinks. The man who wanted to live for everything dies for absolutely nothing.

When Moreau rescues him, he spares no expense in restoring Eliot to health. He never apologizes for being late but caters Eliot's meals with the best food and the prettiest women.

"You understand," is all Moreau says of the matter. "Sometimes compromises must be made."

The thing is, Eliot does understand.

Which is probably the problem.

Two months later, Eliot rips up his last paycheck.

He'd rather live on his own terms than die by someone else's.

And the (First) Time He Did

When Eliot goes under, he doesn't expect to come back up.

The water is rough, and Eliot's only semiconscious at best. He's taken one too many hits this mission, and getting hit by a car on the bridge is really just the icing on the whole damn cake. But Nate has a plan and Sophie needs more time and Parker's almost out and Hardison just needs a little more evidence to finish this thing.

And Eliot, well - Eliot's collateral damage.

He tumbles, head over heels, and for a second, he tries to orient himself. But his head is spinning and his lungs are exploding and he just hopes whatever distraction he provided with this last stunt will be enough to get the rest of them clear.

His limbs go numb, and stars explode behind his eyes. He inhales by accident, and water clogs his nose and throat. He tries to cough, but that just makes it worse, and by the time he manages to keep himself still, it's really all over.

He's falling out of a barn loft and flipping his car. He's taking a bullet in Afghanistan and being forced to play Russian Roulette. Someone holds jumper cables to his chest and Moreau shakes his head as he says, almost apologetically, "Compromises must be made."

And Eliot's compromised a lot of things over the years, a lot more than he should. But, when it counts, this time he's picking the mission first. He's picking them.

At the expense of himself.

That's a compromise he's willing to make.

At least this way he'll die for the right cause.

When he comes to, his chest is killing him and Hardison is bent over him with wide, terrified eyes. Eliot gags, pushing him away and spends a minute retching. When he's done, he sits up and looks at Hardison is dismay.

"Did you-?"

"Drag your ass out of the river and save your life?" Hardison asks. "Yes, yes, I did."

Eliot looks around, a little dumbfounded. Nate, Sophie and Parker - they're nowhere to be found. He narrows his eyes at Hardison, rubbing his chest. "So you-?"

"Did things we will not be talking about," Hardison confirms.

Eliot takes a breath and feels more okay than he expects. "So I was-"

"Dead?" Hardison asks, and his anger is a poor mask for his obvious concern. "As a damn doornail."

"Huh," Eliot says, starting to get to his feet.

Hardison is all over him, hovering far too close. "Huh? That's all you can say?"

Eliot wavers a little, but still shoves Hardison away when he steadies Eliot. "What do you want me to say?"

"How about thank you?" Hardison says. "How about you won't go off and get yourself killed again because swimming isn't my game? How about you'll come up with a plan that involves not dying."

"Dying's never part of the plan," Eliot tells him, taking another painful breath as oxygen continues to revive his starved brain. "But sometimes we do what we have to do."

Hardison shakes his head in disgust. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

Eliot chuckles, and this time he doesn't push away Hardison arm as he guides Eliot back up to the van. "Yeah," he agrees. "It probably is."

Still, he thinks as Hardison fusses over him, that doesn't make it any less true. Because Eliot, he knows what it's like to die.

It's time to find out what it's like to live.