Wow, I am absolutely stunned and so grateful for the response to the last chapter of this. It's incredible to me that people were so moved, and that that particular plot twist was so well received. Many, many thanks to those of you who took time to review...it means more to me than I can say.

I know I promised fluff for this bit...but, well, I'm getting to the fluff by way of more torture. What can I say? I like h/c. Also, this is the Chapter That Would Not Die, and so I'm afraid I must post a warning about the rather large cliff at the end...yup, this chapter is a multi-parter. Hope it is enjoyed!

Many thanks to Topper_885 for the conversation, the plot discussion, and some ideas that I wouldn't have thought of.

Skills, talent, and smarts get you pretty far in their world…but they won't get you all the way. In the end, the final step between failure and success, between capture and a clean getaway…well, it all comes down to luck. You can plan everything to the last detail, have all the equipment you need at your fingertips, train your body into the perfect tool for the job—but there's always that one instant in a con where everything rides on forces completely out of your control.

Most of the time, they've all enjoyed some pretty damn good luck.

Sure, things have occasionally gone wrong…more than once they've found themselves altering their plans on the fly. They've always managed to land on their feet, though. So, as often as they have tempted Fate—'tempting Fate' here having the meaning of marching up to her, smacking her across the face and screaming 'bring it, bitch!'—it shouldn't come as any surprise when their luck finally well and truly deserts them in the middle of a job.

Randall Chase is a stocky, thickset man in his early forties, with a shark's smile and a face like twenty miles of bad road, as his daddy would have put it. He's a brilliant businessman who has piloted his Seattle-based company's meteoric rise to the forefront of pharmaceutical research and development, and he is so deep in the pockets of South American drug cartels that he can't even see daylight. The FBI has been trying to make something stick to him for two years, now, but the frequency with which the few souls brave enough to help gather evidence meet with fatal accidents is disturbing, to say the least.

Unfortunately for Chase, the widower of one such soul has found them.

Michael Hall doesn't want spectacular revenge or massive amounts of money—he just wants Chase to pay for what he did to the man's wife, and enough resources to quietly vanish with his daughter and start over. They're going to provide spectacular revenge and massive amounts of money, anyway, of course. Service with a smile and all that.

It's been a nasty job from the word 'go.' The body count around Chase's company is nearing double digits, and some of the names that Hardison dug up in connection with Chase are enough to set off every internal alarm bell he has. He'd flat out refused to stay behind the scenes while Nate and Sophie worked the con, instead demanding that Hardison come up with a cover for him that would allow him to be with the two at all times. No questions, no excuses, no negotiations.

Nate had blinked at him owlishly before consenting with a raised tumbler of scotch, while Parker giggled to herself and Sophie shot him that infuriating, knowing little smirk. Her eyes had been warm, though.

Hardison had taken one look at his face and started typing even before he was finished speaking.

And so it is that two weeks after Michael Hall approached Leverage Consulting, Harding West (Wall Street tycoon with more money than God and a thirst for high-stakes investments), his younger brother Jacob (financial brains of the outfit but acquiescent to 'big brother's' every whim), and Elizabeth Reese (Harding's put-upon personal assistant) are closing an after-hours deal that will allow the fictitious West & West Investments to start laundering Chase's dirty money in new accounts overseas.

It's going beautifully…everything falling into place in about as neat a package as ever happens during a job. Parker and Hardison are parked nearby in the getaway car, and Hardison is ready to bring down the wrath of the FBI with a single phone call and a massive data dump that will send Chase and his cronies to prison for the rest of their lives, while

He himself is leaning against the frame of one of the expansive windows of Chase's boardroom, seemingly disinterested in what is going on behind him, but watching the proceedings intently in the reflections on the night-blackened glass. Nate and Sophie are seated at one end of the long, glass-topped table, one of Hardison's laptops set up in front of Sophie. Nate lounges casually in one of the chairs beside her, every line of his body painting a picture of spoiled indolence and unconcern.

It really is amazing, sometimes, how good Nate is at all this.

It's all going well, but that doesn't mean he's not on high alert. In addition to Chase, there are three other men in the boardroom, all security muscle. Earpieces, three-piece suits, the whole nine yards. Judging by the fall of their suits and the way the big guy on the left keeps his hand near his belt, they're all sporting shoulder and ankle holsters…and he'd bet good money that Big Guy knows his way around a knife. Probably ex-military—there's something about the guy's bearing that screams Special Forces.

To him, anyway.

The computer in front of Sophie beeps softly, and he hears Hardison's voice in his ear confirming that the money has been wired into the dummy account, and it will only take him a few minutes to hack the account numbers from the transfer and drain the rest. Sophie smiles politely and closes the laptop, nodding to Nate and rising smoothly to her feet. Nate claps his hands together with exaggerated enthusiasm, jumping up as well.

"Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure doing business with you," Nate says brightly, smiling with too many teeth. Chase rises from his own seat at the other end of the table, and brushes a few specks of imaginary lint from the cuff of his suit jacket. Big Guy suddenly puts his hand to his earpiece, cocking his head slightly as he listens to whoever is on the other end. There's no outward reaction to whatever is being said…but he glances briefly at Nate and Sophie before leaning over Chase's shoulder to whisper in the man's ear.

Could be nothing. There's no reason to think it's anything to do with them…but it raises his hackles all the same.

Chase looks mildly interested in whatever Big Guy is saying, but waves him off after a moment. "The pleasure's all ours, Mr. West," Chase says, his voice ringing with warmth that is about as genuine as crocodile tears. "I must say, you came along at a very fortuitous time."

He lets his eyes flick over the other three men, and though no one is making any threatening moves, he feels the back of his neck prickle. He has long ago learned to trust that feeling. He moves to Sophie's side as casually as he can, laying a hand on the back of one of the chairs and leaning in close as if he's going to say something to her.

"Well, in my experience, that's the very best time to show up for a business deal!" Nate guffaws loudly, as though it is the best joke he's ever heard. "But I'm afraid we do have other engagements to get to tonight. Jake, Elizabeth, you ready?" Nate's expression and tone do not change a whit, but he shifts himself closer to Sophie as well. He meets Nate's eyes for a split second of silent communication.

Nate quirks an eyebrow fractionally. "Everything okay?"

He narrows his eyes slightly. "Can't tell. Somethin's up."

Nate lifts his chin. "Do we need to pull the plug?"

His jaw tightens. "Just get out fast."

Nate's nose twitches. "Big Guy smells kind of funny."

Wait…that can't be right.

"—Whoops. Uh guys? We might have a slight problem here.—" Hardison's voice in his ear distracts him briefly, but he doesn't have time to wait for more details.

Nate's eyes suddenly go wide, and the man reaches for Sophie's arm.

Damn it.

He doesn't waste time turning around to see what is happening...he just grabs the back of the chair he is standing behind. Whirling, he hurls the piece of furniture at the group standing at the opposite end of the table with all his might. The chair is not nearly heavy enough to do any kind of damage, but Chase and two of his men duck away instinctively, giving him, Nate, and Sophie time to run for the door. He glances back over his shoulder, and is not entirely surprised to see that Big Guy was not distracted by flying office furniture, and a silencer-equipped Beretta is just clearing the man's holster.

Damn it.

"Go!" he shouts, unnecessarily, as Nate and Sophie are already ducking through the door. He sprints after them, ignoring the shouts behind him and hunching as low as he can without sacrificing speed. He hits the door just as there is a muffled, but all too familiar sound from Big Guy's general direction. He flinches to one side as part of the doorjamb explodes into splinters, mere inches from his head.

Okay. So. They're not playing around, here.

God, he hates guns.

He crashes through the door, and growls to himself as he catches sight of Nate and Sophie hovering only a few feet down the hallway that leads to the elevators, waiting for him. He frantically gestures for them to just go, and Sophie reaches down to pull off her ridiculously high heels. Nate places one hand on the small of her back, the other going to his ear.

"—Hardison, what the hell's going on?—" Nate demands over the comms.

"—I dunno! I must've tripped somethin' when I hacked into the accounts.—" Hardison's answer is frenzied, and just a bit disbelieving. He's a bit shocked to realize he shares the younger man's disbelief. Hardison doesn't 'trip' anything when he does what he does. "—No, no, aw, hell no…you think you gonna take me down wit' that?—"

"Hardison, focus!" he orders harshly, catching up to Nate and Sophie and ushering them further down the hallway, they turn the corner towards the elevators just as he hears the boardroom doors crash open a second time, and they have seconds, tops, before Chase's goons are on them again. "How we gettin' outta here?"

"—Right, right, right…aw, damn it.—"

"Hardison!" There's an edge to Sophie's voice, now, and he casts his eyes around the hall they are running down, looking for some kind of weapon. He misses the days when there were standing ashtrays down every office building hallway. Those were nice. His eyes light on the door to a fire exit stairwell.

"Nate, in here!" he shouts, yanking the door open and ignoring the shrill of the alarm. Right now, it's speed over stealth. There's more security no doubt converging on the floor, he's got Nate and Sophie to worry about, and while there's only three of them, Chase's men are armed. He needs to get to a place where he can counter the advantage of the guns without putting Nate and Sophie at risk. He holds the door open for his companions, glancing back down the hallway in time to see Big Guy and his buddies come barreling around the corner.

"Hey, you! Stop right there!" Big Guy screams, and he rolls his eyes. Yeah, that always works. He pushes the door shut and follows the other two down, taking the steps two and three at a time.

"Hardison, we need an exit," Nate gasps as they run. "Sooner is better, here."

A couple flights above them, the door bursts open. He hurries down closer to Sophie and pushes her as close to the wall as he can, indicating for Nate to do the same with a jerk of his chin.

"—They've locked down all the elevators an' security's coverin' all the stairwell doors on the ground floor. A'ight, look, get down three floors…there's a maintenance elevator I can unlock, get ya' to the sub-basement.—"

"Delivery bay," Nate catches on, and nods to himself. The crash of heavy steps on the concrete floors of the stairwell echoes down to them, interrupting further conversation.

"C'mon, we gotta move fast," he says. They hit the next landing, and he risks leaning out over the railing to get a glimpse of where exactly the security team above them is. He meets Big Guy's dark eyes over the railing just a flight above them, and for the second time that night he finds himself recoiling sharply as the man's gun appears, aiming for his head. The bullet strikes the metal railing far too close to him for comfort, and he huffs out a breath. "Guy's a pretty good shot," he says, a tinge of admiration in his voice.

"Great," Nate mutters. "How close are they?"

Before he can answer, there is a clatter of footsteps at the top of the stairs they've just come down, and they all three whirl to find Chase's three thugs standing above them, guns drawn, but pointing up into the air.

"Too close," he answers fatalistically.

Damn. It.

Big Guy grins, a nasty sort of smirk he himself has worn more times than can be counted. "Down on your knees, hands behind your head," the man orders.

He darts a look at Nate and Sophie. They're huddled by the door to the hall, with him on the outer-most edge of the group, furthest into the center of the landing. He makes the decision in a heartbeat.

"Run!" He throws himself sideways into them. Sophie yelps in shock and Nate hits the push bar with the momentum of his shove. The door swings open, spilling Nate and Sophie out into the office hall in a tangle of limbs.

Big Guy yells in surprise and outrage, and the stairwell is filled with the muted pops of more weapons-fire. He grunts softly as he crosses the threshold of the door, rolling into the fall and coming up on his knees next to Nate and Sophie. He hunches over, almost pressing his forehead into the thin, industrial carpet and concentrates on taking short, even breaths.

"You okay?" Nate demands, and he hears the man pulling himself off the floor.

"Yeah…yeah m'fine. C'mon!" he barks, staggering to his feet and reaching down with one hand to help Sophie up.

The three of them flat out sprint down the hallway they've come out on, uncaring of where they're going, just needing to put some distance between themselves and their pursuers. The hallway t-bones into another corridor, and he can hear Hardison over the comm, cussing a blue streak and muttering to himself as he frantically tries to find them a way out.

"—Left, go left!—" the young man hollers as they reach the end of the hall they're in. They speed around the corner just as he hears Chase's men explode through the stairwell door.

Nate and Sophie race down the hallway Hardison has indicated, but he skids to a halt just around the corner, flattening himself against the wall. There's no way Big Guy and his boys didn't see which way they went…if they're to have any chance of getting out of this, he needs to even up the odds and get the immediate pursuit off their tails.

He takes a deep breath, shrugging out of the suit jacket he is wearing as quickly as he can and ripping the tie off. He balls the jacket up, tucking it in close against his side, and leans his head back against the wall, trying to quiet his breathing as much as possible.

It takes a moment for Nate and Sophie to realize that he's no longer following them. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees them stutter to a halt, whirling back to him. He grinds his teeth in frustration, sharply waving them on. Nate moves as if to come back to him and he hisses softly.

"Nate, you an' Sophie out a' here, now," he grits out, knowing the comms will carry his voice to them. He can hear their pursuers running towards his position. "Ain't up for debate, I'll be right behind ya'."

He glares down the corridor at them, meeting Nate's eyes for a bare instant. The older man looks torn, but reluctantly grabs Sophie's arm and begins hustling her further down the corridor.

"—You better be,--" Nate orders grimly.

"—Nate, we can't just leave him!—"Sophie protests.

"—We have to get security off of us, or we're not getting out of here. Eliot can take care of himself, probably better if he doesn't have to worry about us. Hardison, talk to me.—"

He tunes out the rest of the conversation, satisfied that Nate and Sophie are all right for the moment. He has every confidence that Hardison will be able to guide them out without incident.

He's a little less confident about Hardison's ability to get him out of this. He looks down at the wad of what used to be a very nice linen suit jacket, pressed tightly against his side just below his ribcage.

The fabric is already stained a dark red, and slick, wet warmth is spreading rapidly against his hand.

He really. Hates. Guns.

The flashlight beams bouncing on the wall opposite him are getting brighter, and he can hear their three followers galloping down the hallway. They're not slowing down as they approach the junction of the corridors and he grins to himself. Big Guy should know better. But if they're ignoring as basic a pursuit tactic as 'check before you go careening around blind corners,' then Big Guy isn't expecting any kind of fight at all.

That'll work to his advantage…but he's under no illusions. This is going to have to be fast. He licks his lips and takes another deep breath, letting the jacket fall to the floor beside him. He shifts his weight to the balls of his feet as the thundering footsteps become louder and louder. He hunches his shoulders, consciously forcing his awareness of the pain radiating from his side down and away, somewhere deep in his own mind where it can't distract him.

It isn't Big Guy who rockets around the corner first, but one of his cronies—a dark haired man only a little bigger than he himself is. The man's holding his gun out loosely by his side, with only his flashlight up and for pity's sake…hasn't the guy even seen an episode of Law & Order before? He moves with all the speed and silence of a striking snake, coming in low and crashing his fist up against the man's jaw with shattering force. There's a satisfyingly wet crunch and the man doesn't even have time to yell as he grabs the lapels of his suit and swings him hard into the second guard, just behind them.

The two go down in a twisting pile, but he doesn't stop moving. He has a brief second to appreciate the comical look of shock painting its way across Big Guy's square-jawed features before he plows into the man. He jabs upwards with the heel of his hand, striking Big Guy's wrist and forcing the drawn gun upwards, even as he brings his knee up hard into the man's hip joint. The gun clatters to the floor and he kicks out blindly at it, sending it skittering down the darkened hallway. Not as effective a neutralization as ejecting the clip…but no one's going to be able to find it in a hurry.

Big Guy stumbles back with a grunt and he whirls again, this time to find the guard he threw the first one into gaining his feet. He lashes out with a swift kick as the man is hunched over, catching him on the temple with a steel-toed boot. The guard drops like a sack of potatoes, and he makes a mental note to crow about this to Sophie later.

The woman had wanted him to wear wing-tips to the meeting.

Then he doesn't have time for thought at all as he is grabbed from behind in a bear-hug and lifted off his feet. Big Guy actually roars in his ear as he is wrested around and slammed face first into the wall of the hallway. The sudden impact sends a bolt of near-incandescent agony rocketing out from the bullet wound, and he bites back a scream as he struggles to break the hold pinning his arms to his sides. Big Guy has at least six inches and sixty pounds on him, though, and it looks like he was right…the man knows what he's doing.

"Who the hell are you people?" Big Guy gasps into his ear, tightening his grip mercilessly.

He doesn't answer. Instead, he slams his head backwards, hitting Big Guy square across the bridge of the nose. Big Guy lets out a startled yell, and the hold loosens enough for him to finally get one arm up. He half-twists in the larger man's grip, bringing his elbow up hard against Big Guy's ear. The angle is too awkward for him to put his usual force behind the blow, but it's enough to make Big Guy release him.

He turns to face his opponent.

"—Eliot, man, what's goin' on?—" Hardison's voice is low and tight with worry.

"Not now," he grunts, hoping the other man has the sense to listen to him. He cannot afford any distractions right now.

"—Dude, I got Nate n' Sophie at the elevator, but I ain't gonna be able to hack it twice. They're lockin' things down tighter than Fort Knox here.—"

"Get 'em out," he orders shortly, and he sincerely hopes that his tone manages to convey just how irritated he is that they are even having this conversation.



He leans against the wall for a moment, breathing harshly and pressing his left hand against his side as tightly as he can. The wet heat of fresh blood trickles between his fingers. His shirt and pants already soaked through, and if he can't get somewhere where he can take care of the wound soon, staying on his feet is going to become an issue.

He pulls himself straight, clenching his teeth against the pain in his side. He ignores it. He doesn't have time to deal with pain, right now. Blood is spurting freely from Big Guy's obviously broken nose, but those six inches and sixty pounds are starting to look even more massive. Ordinarily, it wouldn't be a problem, but Big Guy knows how to fight. Still wouldn't be a problem.

Except for the small matter of the bullet lodged in his side.

"—Eliot, I got three security teams movin' in on your position. Ya' gotta get the hell outta there now, man.—" The tension in his voice has dissolved into outright fear, and that tells him everything Hardison isn't saying. If he doesn't get out of here now, he's going to have to get out on his own.

Problem is, Hardison just thinks that means the team will end up having to break him out of police custody. He knows better. If Chase had wanted the police involved, they'd have been here long ago. If security catches him, the only way he's leaving this building is in a body bag.

"Little busy, Hardison."

His opponent spits a mouthful of blood onto the floor, straightening slowly. The man rolls his neck from side to side, his dark eyes zeroing in on the rapidly-spreading bloodstain at his side. He braces himself silently, watching for any weakness in the other's defense.

He only has a few minutes before his only escape route is cut off completely.

He narrows his eyes, pressing his hand even harder against the bullet wound. This is bad…this is very bad. The guy smiles at him nastily, and darts forward.

He's forced to let go the pressure he's been keeping on the wound, raising both hands in a defensive posture as Big Guy rushes him. The man's fist lashes out towards his jaw and he groans a little as he deflects it with his forearm, forcing Big Guy's arm up as he slams his own fist into the larger man's gut. His opponent grunts in pain, but doesn't go down. Instead, the man's beefy hand comes down on a nerve cluster at his shoulder joint, pinching hard. White hot pain flares in his arm, followed by a creeping numbness. He lets his grip on Big Guy's wrist go slack, stumbling backwards against the wall again.

He huffs out a soft breath as his back hits the wall, rapidly trying to shake the feeling back into his arm as Big Guy dances in close. He ducks a hard jab, barely, and snaps out a kick at the man's knee. He's slower than usual, though, and Big Guy dodges it easily enough. He catches sight of the man's mouth twisting into a sadistic grin, right before a heavy fist buries itself in his wounded side.

A low, animalistic groan claws its way out of his throat as pain explodes through his whole body. His vision goes red for a moment, an alarming blackness licking at the edges of his sight, and he feels himself sinking to his knees.

"—Eliot! Eliot, what's going on?--" He knows Hardison's voice is right in his ear, but it sounds strangely far off., half-drowned by the roar of blood in his ears. The fire in his side blooms outwards, stealing his breath, and he clings to consciousness with all the stubbornness of a drowning man clinging to a life preserver.

He's had worse. He knows he's had worse. But God, he really, really hates guns.

Dimly, he sees Big Guy take a few quick steps backwards. Some part of him notes the tensing of the man's leg and frantically commands his body to move right now. The man's foot lashes out at him, aiming for his head and he forces himself, forces himself to get his hands up…because if Big Guy connects, then it's all over.

But then, he's faced down many people that are farworse than this guy has ever dreamed of being.

He snarls, baring his teeth as he catches the man's ankle just so. The impact jars his arms something fierce, but he merely tightens his grip as much as he can. He yanks forward with a vicious twist, and above the roar in his ears he hears the clean snap of bones breaking. Big Guy howls, and he yanks again, sending the larger man crashing to the floor in front of him.

He staggers to his feet, looming over his fallen opponent. Big Guy's lip curls in a disgusted grimace, and he actually moves as though he's going to try to get up.

It's his turn to wear the sadistic little smirk, though.

A steel-toed boot to the head hurts like a mother and drops you fast. A steel toed boot to an area a little further south? Well, that's just pure hell, there.

Big Guy screams, clutching at himself and curling into a gasping, retching ball. He glares balefully at the huddled man for a moment, before leaning down and simply punching him into oblivion.


He lurches back against the wall, grabbing his side and just gasping in great, gulping breaths. He swallows heavily, trying to get a handle on the pain…it was a pretty small caliber bullet, but any way you slice it, getting shot hurts like a bitch. And he doesn't even need to look to know he's losing too much blood. Hazily, he forces himself away from the wall and looks around for his ruined suit jacket.

"Hardison, what's happenin'?" he asks softly, spotting the pile of fabric near the fallen bodies of Big Guy's two companions. He grits his teeth as he moves towards it, testing his balance as he goes. "Nate an' Sophie?"

"—Are fine,—" Nate answers brusquely. "—We're almost to Hardison and Parker. You, however, were supposed to be right behind us.—"

"Got distracted," he mutters, bending down slowly to scoop up the jacket. He rolls it up again quickly, pressing it against the wound with a soft hiss.

"—Eliot, are you all right?—" Sophie's concerned voice floats over the comms.

"Fine," he replies automatically. No sense in worrying anyone right now. "Where th'hell do I need to go t'get outta here?"

"—Hardison?—" Nate asks, and he begins heading down the same hallway he sent Nate and Sophie down. He clenches his fist into a white-knuckled grip on the makeshift pad against his side as he forces his much-abused muscles into a loping jog. It takes him a few moments to register the silence on Hardison's end of the line.

He slows to a halt, bracing his shoulder against the wall and putting one hand to his ear and repeating Nate's inquiry. "Hardison?"

"—Eliot, they're almost on you,--" Hardison says softly. "—They got all the elevators an' all the stairwells locked down. I can't…there ain't no way out.—"

A cacophony of shouts breaks out over the comms at Hardison's words, Nate and Sophie both yelling at the younger man that he has to be wrong, that there has to be something they can do. He closes his eyes briefly, before shoving himself off the wall. A smear of his blood is left behind, and he breathes through the pain of the movement. He shoots a glance down either end of the hallway he is standing in.

Skills, talent, and smarts get you pretty far in their world…but they won't get you all the way. In the end, the final step between failure and success, between capture and a clean getaway…well, it all comes down to luck.

And if you stay in their world long enough, eventually your luck is going to turn on you.

To Be Continued...