Title: The Question Mark Job
Prompt/Summary: Eliot comes down with the flu during a job.
Characters: Eliot, Nate, Sophie, Hardison, Parker
Disclaimer: Recognizable characters/plot elements/etc. don't belong to me, alas.
Warnings: Unrepentant h/c. Very mild swearing.
Neurotic Author's Note #1: This is a very late contribution of mine for helpbrazil2011. The auction was won by the lovely and very generous usakeh, so congratulations, babe! She requested sick!Eliot with the flu, and his team mates taking care of him. Unfortunately, Eliot decided to remain close-mouthed about his past, but at least I got the h/c part down. (I know, you are all astonished that I wrote h/c. I never, ever do that.)
Neurotic Author's Note #2: So this is me venturing back into Leverage territory, and the subject matter is very similar. It's a shocking turn of events, but what can I say? Eliot apparently begs to be whumped as far as I'm concerned.
Neurotic Author's Note #3: This ended up unbeta'd, for which I apologize. I have, however, tinkered with it to within an inch of its life, so hopefully it turned out okay.
They're in the middle of a case when Eliot gets sick. It's a local case, which means that for once he gets to sleep in his own bed. It's a nice change of pace, but the respite is short lived. At first he attributes the poor nights of sleep to the nagging worry he's had for months about the team, and Nate especially, but when he wakes up aching and groggy after a day of nothing more strenuous than climbing several flights of stairs, he has no choice but to accept the fact that he's come down with something. He takes a few extra minutes in the shower, turning the hot water up as far as it will go in an attempt to ease the stiffness from his muscles, but it doesn't do much good.
He surprises himself by breaking into a coughing fit when he steps out into the steam-filled room, the slightly colder air making him shiver. Just great, he thinks, he's getting a cold. That's just what he needs. He shivers as the air turns cold, sneezes wetly, grabs a tissue from the box on top of the toilet tank, and pulls out a packet of non-drowsy decongestants from his medicine cabinet. He doesn't get sick often but he believes in being prepared, and that means keeping a well-stocked medicine cabinet, just in case. Working at less than full capacity sometimes means the difference between life and death, so today it means he'll be walking the fine line between feeling sick and being groggy from cold meds, and given the choice he'll always take the latter over the former. Grogginess he can compensate for, but sickness is an unpredictable beast at best.
He forces himself to eat a proper breakfast, but even cooking it this morning holds very little interest. It's disappointing, because he was pretty excited when he found fresh basil at this time of year yesterday at the market, and had been looking forward to making a really tasty omelette. As it is, the food mostly tastes of sawdust this morning. He pops two more cold pills and a couple of aspirin for the headache that's building quietly behind his eyes just before heading to meet the others. He pockets the cellophane packet of pills, and tries not to worry about how quickly he's starting to feel worse. He's not badly congested, but it feels like there's a weight pressing on his chest, and his throat hurts from coughing.
His team mates are waiting for him at a secluded table in a small restaurant. Nate and Sophie are each nursing a coffee, Parker's tucking in happily to a stack of pancakes that's almost taller than her head —Eliot really doesn't know where she puts it all, she's so tiny— and Hardison is making short work of a couple of eggs and breakfast sausages. Eliot pulls up a chair, gestures to the waitress with a nod and a wink that gets him a coy smile, and points to Sophie's cup of coffee to indicate he'll have the same.
"Coming right up, sugar!"
"Seriously, how do you do that?" Hardison asks around a mouthful of sausage.
"The fact that you're asking me with your forkful of sausage rammed halfway down your gullet speaks for itself."
Hardison glares, but swallows the sausage. Point made, and he didn't even have to say more than one sentence aloud, for which his throat is thanking him. Sophie, however, hasn't missed a damned thing. That's the problem with grifters: they're perceptive.
"Feeling all right, Eliot?"
He shrugs. "Got a cold." He swivels in his seat to fix Hardison with a glare, raises a finger at him. "Not. One. Word. Not one."
Hardison puts up his hands, eyes wide and rolling, eyebrows shooting to his hairline in an expansive demonstration of "Hey-I-didn't-say-a-word," which is undermined only slightly by the fact that he's already got another piece of sausage speared onto his fork.
"Okay," Nate brings them all to order quietly, with a sip of his coffee which Eliot suspects is already irished up in preparation for the day. "Are we all still clear on today's objectives?" There's a round of nods, so he continues. "Hardison, you're still on van duty. I want every conversation recorded and ready to be used at a moments' notice. Parker, you're on standby with me, in case we need physical evidence extracted on short notice. Sophie, Eliot, we're reeling in McAffrey, and today and tomorrow are going to be crucial for that. First meeting is in two hours, which gives us plenty of time to get into position."
Eliot nods, drinks his coffee in a few gulps and gestures for a refill, and it's just hot enough to soothe his throat. With any luck he'll be able to knock this thing back before it gets out of hand, but it's not like he's never worked while he was sick before. Two more cups of coffee, and he's all but convinced himself he'll be fine. He ducks into the van with Hardison long enough to change into the nondescript suit he's been wearing as part of his disguise as Sophie's bodyguard, and grab a bottle of water. Abruptly he sneezes into the crook of his elbow, then breaks into another coughing fit, thankfully short-lived, and Hardison shoots him a sceptical look.
"You sure you're okay? You kind of look like hell."
He shrugs, fishes a tissue out of a box next to one of Hardison's computers to blow his nose. "It'll pass."
"Whatever you say, man."
When he joins Sophie, she's looking even more radiant than usual, her hair up in a simple twist, kohl applied perhaps a touch more liberally than usual, draped in an elegant dark red suit that sets off her skin. She's glowing, he thinks a little dazedly, then reaches up to wipe a trickle of sweat away from his hairline. She smiles at him, and his heart kind of skips a beat in his chest.
He pulls himself together with an effort and nods. He hooks a more obvious —but fake— earpiece in place over his ear, to fool whoever might be looking into thinking he's communicating with an entirely different security detail, rather than his own team. "Lead the way."
She moves ahead of him, hips moving ever so slightly suggestively. This persona is all business with a touch of class and just a hint of unbridled sexuality kept tamped down under the power suits, and it's a good look on her. He follows a pace behind her, and she tilts her head ever so slightly and sub-vocalizes to him.
"Eliot, are you sure you're all right?"
Two people in less than twenty minutes. He must look about as sick as he feels, which is the first red flag. "I'll let you know if I'm not."
Eliot settles into his role, glad at least that his team trusts his judgement when it comes to this. He reaches up to wipe at his forehead again, and a tremor runs through him. Shit. If he's already running a fever, no matter how slight, it's not going to go well. He should have known, in retrospect. His body always tends to want to fight off even the smallest bug by running a low-grade fever, like his own personal detox system. He keeps step with Sophie as she sweeps into the glassed-in lobby and makes her presence known to the already-intimidated receptionist. As long as today stays about following Sophie and just making sure nothing happens to her, then he can do this, Eliot tells himself. He'll tell Nate he needs to call it an early day, have someone else back up Sophie later on tonight if she needs it, and just go sleep whatever this is off.
After only a little while, though, he can tell that it's definitely more than a cold. Sweat is trickling down his back, beginning to soak uncomfortably through his shirt, and he feels like he's been sitting in a freezer for hours rather than a nice warm office building. It's all he can do to keep from shivering, his teeth from chattering, though at the very least the sneezing has stopped, and he's been able to keep the coughing under control, but it's only a matter of time before he won't even be able to do that. It's probably the 'flu, of all inconvenient things. Whatever this is, it's hitting him like a damned freight train, although he has no idea where he picked it up. Probably somewhere in that office building during their last job —cubicle spaces are like giant incubators, which is why he's always preferred to work out in the open, and on his own. He never used to get sick when he was out in the field. Freaking office buildings. One person gets the 'flu, the whole place comes down with it in the next few days.
It's not like Eliot lacks all common sense. He's going to be a liability to the team like this, so the rational course of action is to pull back, go home and hole up until this has passed, whatever it is. It's just that the timing is really freaking inconvenient. When he does get sick, it's usually between jobs, when the adrenaline has worn off and his body decides it's had enough, not right in the middle of a job.
Sophie is shaking the hand of a tall, white-haired man with a smile like a fox and a handshake like a hyperactive marionette. His sleeve pulls up as he courteously shakes Sophie's hand, revealing an odd scar, shaped rather like a question mark. He gives Eliot a once-over, then nods once, briefly, in his direction. Eliot doesn't move —that's not what he's there for— but the gesture seems odd, out of place somehow, though he can't quite put his finger on it. Security is meant to be invisible, just a menacing presence lurking in the background. To be acknowledged like that... he clamps down on another shiver and wishes there was some way he could excuse himself to the closest washroom and maybe pop another few pills, just to get him through the morning.
Instead he just squares his shoulders, clasps his hands behind his back, and tries not to sweat right through his jacket while Sophie works her magic. Even with his head throbbing, he can't help but admire her technique —especially when she's not using it on him to force him to serve her tea— a touch here, a laugh there, a carefully-placed word in the man's ear. Eliot forces himself to watch their surroundings, to make sure nothing untoward is happening, but his gaze keeps coming back to the man he's can't help thinking of as a silver fox —he can't seem to hang onto his name, which is worrying. He's getting increasingly light-headed, his concentration shot, and his head is aching even worse than before. His chest burns with the urge to cough, but there's nothing he can do but simply try to hang on and wait for the first available window of opportunity. He can't talk into his mic now —even trying to sub-vocalize would attract too much attention— but he needs to get out, quit before he screws up the whole job. Sophie is engrossed in her role, reminding him of nothing so much as a cobra holding its prey in thrall, and even the slightest misstep on his part could not only ruin the job, but put her directly in harm's way. Eventually he manages to catch Sophie's eye, and when she tilts her head ever-so-slightly in acknowledgment he barely manages not to sigh in relief.
"Excuse me," she lets a perfectly-manicured hand trail down the man's arm for a few seconds. "I'm just going to powder my nose. Don't go anywhere without me!" she lets out a musical laugh, drifts through the doors, and that's Eliot's cue to follow her, which he does gratefully.
"What's wrong?" are the first words out of her mouth as soon as they're in the clear. Her voice is low, and though her expression is still calmly neutral, a woman in power conferring with an employee, he can see the faintest flicker of worry in her eyes.
"I can't do this." He shakes his head. "I'm really sorry."
"Eliot?" Nate's voice comes over the com, his tone worried.
"I'm too sick. I thought it would be okay for today," he forces himself not to clench his teeth when he makes the admission. "But I can't."
Sophie presses a hand to his forehead, and he's too surprised —too shocked by the intimacy of the gesture— to even think of stopping her. "Nate, he's burning with fever."
"All right, I'm pulling the plug," Nate says, and Eliot can almost hear the gears in his mind turning away, already working on a new angle to the job, and finds that he's kind of pathetically grateful that Nate isn't questioning him, trusting him to know his own limits. "Sophie, make an excuse to get away for a couple of hours. I can rig up a cell phone call, call you away for an emergency meeting somewhere, and we'll set up Hardison as your bodyguard this afternoon."
"Why does Hardison get to be the bodyguard?" Parker's voice comes over the comm, and the whine in her tone stabs right through Eliot's ear drums. "I never get to be the bodyguard."
"Because I still need you on standby for burglarising an office if we need to." Nate's tone doesn't change, but it's clear the subject is closed. "Eliot, can you hang in there long enough for us to get you out? Shouldn't take more than ten minutes."
He nods, even though he knows Nate can't see him, rubs the back of his wrist against his forehead. "Yeah, it's... it's not bad. I just need to sleep this off. Sorry."
Sophie takes him by the elbow and casually steers him into the unisex bathroom. "Did you bring anything with you?"
He reaches into his pocket and produces the cellophane packet of cold pills he shoved in there earlier, and she shrugs.
"Better than nothing. Have some water," she lets her hand linger at the small of his back, and even though he knows what she's doing, he can't bring himself to care, because it feels good. Reassuring somehow, grounding.
He swallows two more of the pills and splashes water on his face, bracing himself against the sink for a moment to catch his breath, trying not to cough. If he lets himself go now, he'll never be able to stop. Sophie stays by his elbow, and he has to force himself not to lean into her touch, firm against his spine. Damn, he must be really far gone. He swallows as much water as he can manage, trying to cool the burning in his chest and throat. After a moment he pulls himself together, gives her a nod, and she turns back, heels clicking loudly on the bathroom tiles, not hesitating for a moment. He follows her out, already feeling a little better at least now that he knows there's an exit strategy, clasps his hands behind his back and tries not to waver too obviously when he feels their mark's gaze linger on him a little longer than he's strictly comfortable with. He doesn't blink, simply stares at a point somewhere over the man's shoulder and tries to radiate quiet hostility, and after a moment the man breaks his gaze, turning his attention back to Sophie. She doesn't give Eliot a second look, turning up the charm as far as it will go in order to deflect all attention from the fact that Eliot is about two minutes away from having to lean against the nearest wall for support.
It takes another twenty minutes to engineer a fake emergency and get out, and by the time they clear the front doors and he automatically gives Sophie his hand to help her into the van —more out of habit than necessity— the lining of his jacket is soaked with sweat, and he has to stop when the coughing fit he's been holding back finally bends him almost double.
"You look really bad," Parker says, eyeing him critically.
He shrugs, is saved from answering by Nate. "I've got a cab coming," he says, his expression apologetic, as though he thought Eliot might have been expecting a personal escort back to his place. "It should be here any second. You let me know when you're home, and I'll fill you in later."
"Are you sure you'll be all right on your own?" Sophie asks quietly. "One of use can come with you..."
"It's fine," Eliot murmurs, giving her arm what he hopes is a reassuring pat.
A minute later he spots the cab already rounding the corner, and heads off, not even bothering to take his leave properly. He drops into the back seat, gives an address a block away from his apartment purely out of habit, and realizes once he's handed over a couple of bills to the driver that he now has to walk the rest of the way. After less than ten feet he's so hot that he wavers and almost has to brace himself against the nearest building when the whole world threatens to flip on its axis. He pulls off his jacket and is immediately chilled as a cool breeze blows against his sweat-soaked shirt. He braces himself against the cold, puts his head down and just concentrates on getting one foot in front of the other until he finds himself by his own front door, fumbling with his house keys with shaking hands.
He tosses his jacket over the back of one of his kitchen chairs, goes through his routine security checks on autopilot, locking down his apartment for the night even though it's not even afternoon yet, making sure no one got in while he was away, and making doubly sure no one can get in while he's here. He sheds the rest of his clothes and drops them into the laundry hamper out of habit before pulling out a couple of 'flu tablets and some ibuprofen from his medicine cabinet and washing them down with a glass of water. He splashes water on his face again in a futile attempt to cool down, braces himself against his sink as he starts coughing again, fighting off another wave of dizziness and mild nausea. He pulls in a couple of deep breaths to steady himself before he's able to stand upright again. Stripped down to his boxers, he drags himself as far as his sofa, crawls under the knitted throw blanket he keeps there, and finally lets himself succumb to the pull of sleep.
His sleep is filled with restless dreams, faces drifting in and out of focus. Sometimes it's his team, but more often it's people from the past, and the face of the man he can still only think of as the Silver Fox keeps coming back, smirking at him from across a conference table.
"What was the question?" he asks, and is surprised when his voice comes out as a hoarse croak. He blinks confusedly, disoriented until he recognizes the familiar outlines of his own furniture, the events of the morning returning slowly to his memory, and gradually he relaxes enough to fall asleep again.
The next thing he's aware of is a presence a few inches away from him. He comes awake with a start that sends pinpricks of pain up and down his spine and into his head, and he curls in on himself, coughing painfully. Gradually he gets the fit under control, and when he looks up again the golden blur above his head comes into focus. He allows himself a quiet groan.
"What do you want, Parker?" He doesn't bother asking her how she got in. She's the only person he's ever met who can get past all his security measures. Well, maybe Hardison, too, but Hardison has never tried, whereas Parker has, and succeeded at it.
She beams at him, and for a moment he almost feels guilty for growling at her. "You're awake! Great! I thought I would have to wake you up, and I know you don't like being surprised. It makes you grumpy."
"I'm surprised now," he reaches up to scrub at his face, makes a grimace when his hand comes away covered in sweat. "What do you want?"
"You should be in bed," she tells him solemnly. "You'll just make yourself sicker if you stay out here. Sofas aren't restful."
He buries his face back into the crook of his elbow. "Parker, I'm an adult and I have had the flu before. If you don't have a good reason for being here, then you should go back and finish the job with Nate."
"I do have a good reason. I'm making sure you're okay. And now you need to get up," she tugs on his arm, "so you can sleep in your bed. And then I'll bring soup, because that's what you eat when you're sick."
Even raising his head hurts, so he doesn't bother. "I'm fine, go away."
"That's a lie," she tugs harder on his elbow. "Come on! Get up and sleep in your own bed. Come on, get up! Get up, get up, get up, Eliot!"
"Okay, okay," he pushes himself up with his free arm, trying to ignore the way the whole room tilts and swings. He's too tired and dizzy and hot to be overly embarrassed when she catches him by the shoulder and holds him steady while he succumbs to another coughing fit, chest tightening painfully. He can't quite figure out the quiet little smile she gives him when he catches his breath enough to look at her again.
"Come on, I'll help," she chirps, and the next thing he knows she's pulling him to his feet with more strength than he thought she had. He can still break her like a twig, of course, but that's not the point, and he wonders bemusedly just how much about Parker —about all of his team— he might have misjudged. The thought isn't a comforting one.
Parker keeps a firm hold of his elbow, resisting his attempts to shake her off as he makes his way to his bedroom, and by the time he's at his bed his legs are shaking enough that he's even a little grateful for it, not that he's ever going to tell her that. She was right about the bed, too, he thinks, easing himself under his bedclothes and letting his head sink onto his pillow. It really is much more comfortable than his sofa. The sheets are cool against his skin, the fading smell of detergent soothing. He starts a little at the feel of her hand brushing gently against the overheated skin of his neck.
"You should take some more aspirin. It'll help with the fever."
He curls up a little tighter under the bedclothes, already feeling the pull of sleep. "Took some a few minutes ago."
"No you didn't. You were asleep."
That rouses him a little. "What time is it?"
"It's nearly three o'clock."
He's lost almost five hours, he realizes. Before he can say anything, Parker has disappeared. She reappears almost like magic a moment later —although now he has to wonder just how much time he's losing to this damned fever— and hands him a glass of water and an open bottle of pills. He downs all of it in record time, settles back on the bed, and doesn't bother protesting when she pulls the covers on his bed back over his shoulders in an oddly tender gesture.
"You should go back to sleep if you're not hungry. I'm going to stay until Hardison gets here."
Eliot cracks open an eye. "No. Absolutely not, Parker. I don't want people here. Just... look. It's not that I don't appreciate the sentiment," he clears his throat as his voice threatens to give out, "but I'm fine. I'll sleep this off, and I'll join up with you guys tomorrow."
"Uh-huh," Parker nods, expression bright, and his heart sinks a little as he realizes that nothing of what he's just said has sunk in at all. She's always had the uncanny ability to switch off her listening skills at will when it's something she doesn't want to hear. "I'm going to be in the living room. I have some new harnesses I want to test out. You go back to sleep, and I'll get Hardison to bring you soup later."
He's too tired to argue with her. If necessary, he'll deal with Hardison if and when he gets here, but he's holding out hope that the others will know better than to invite themselves over. He's still trying to figure out a way to get Parker out of his apartment when he falls asleep again.
He wakens from another unsettling dream about the same man leering at him across a conference table, surrounded by inky darkness. The table itself is vast and tilts at a crazy angle, but the man doesn't seem perturbed and continues to grin in a way that makes Eliot's heart skitter crazily in his chest. What was the question? the man asks him, and the air is filled with laughter. He comes to full consciousness with a painful jerk, only to realize that what awoke him was the sound of quiet scuffling by his bed, and he finds himself staring at a very sheepish-looking Hardison.
"Oh, hey man. I wasn't trying to wake you up or anything, 'cause it seriously looks like you could use the sleep. I just thought, I mean, you know, since you're sick and all, you might want something to do when you're not sleepin'. I know I always get bored if I can't get on the internet, so I, uh, brought some things. You know, books, couple of magazines, laptop, and you don't have any DVDs, so I brought a couple of movies and whatever." He waggles what looks like a boxed set of DVDs in front of Eliot's face.
"Battlestar Galactica?" Eliot manages, even though it comes out sounding like a croak and sends him into another coughing fit. If anything, he feels worse than he did before he went to sleep, which is more than a little frustrating, since he was expecting to be at least a little better by now. He's been asleep all day. Immediately Hardison has dropped the box onto the night table, and holds out a glass of water for him to take.
"You sound like nine kinds of crap. And don't be knocking BSG, it is quality TV."
He ignores the water. "Hardison, I already told Parker I'll be back tomorrow. Seriously, go away."
"Yeah, it doesn't sound like it to me. You take your temperature?"
He glares. "No. What does it matter? Why are you even here?"
Hardison shrugs a bit. "Nate's worried. And, you know, if Nate worries, then we worry. So we're just making sure you're okay."
"Uh-huh, sure," Hardison doesn't bother trying to temper the sarcasm in his tone. "That's why you ain't so much as opened your eyes since I got here an hour ago." The thought of Hardison coming in unnoticed —even aided by Parker— is a disturbing one. "So I brought take-out soup and some of the orange stuff in case you get bored of water, and I'm gonna sit here with my laptop."
"Watching people while they sleep is creepy," Eliot mutters into his pillow.
"Which is why I have my laptop. Edward Cullen I ain't. I have work to do, but unlike some, I can bring my work anywhere I want to. You need anything?"
"Take that one up with Nate."
"At least take your solitaire game into the living room," he concedes defeat, but that doesn't mean he has to be gracious about it. He's already drowsing by the time Hardison starts complaining about having stuff that's way more complicated than plain old solitaire on his computer, and is half-asleep when he hears the door to his bedroom click shut, plunging him into welcome darkness.
He's freezing cold when he next awakens, shivering so hard that every muscle in his body hurts. Sometime during his sleep he kicked off the bed clothes, and he twists on himself, trying to pull them up again, except that he can't quite wrap his mind around all the movements that would normally make that happen. His head throbs, and a wrong move has him curling up and coughing so hard that lights pulse behind his closed eyelids and bile rises in his throat. He makes a grab for the waste basket he keeps by the bed, keeps coughing until he throws up what little was left in his stomach. He manages to disentangle his legs from the sheets and staggers to his feet, has to rest his shoulder against the wall to keep himself upright on the way to the bathroom.
"Hey, man, y'all right?"
Hardison's voice follows him, but it's all he can do just to make it all the way to the bathroom before half-collapsing onto the edge of the tub, dropping his head into his hands and already beginning to cough again, shoulders shaking with the effort of trying to keep it contained because he really, really doesn't want to throw up again.
"Hey, Eliot..." Hardison pokes his head around the door. "You doing okay?"
He's coughing too hard to answer, and as much as he wants to snap Hardison's arm above the elbow when he feels his hand gently clasp the back of his neck, somehow he doesn't do any such thing. His stomach flip-flops, and suddenly he's actually kind of grateful for Hardison because the toilet seat lifts as though by magic when he pitches forward and pukes again in spite of his best intentions.
"Easy does it," Hardison says, and even if he sounds more than a little awkward, his hand is still resting just between Eliot's shoulder blades. "You want some water?" He doesn't wait for Eliot to answer, just fills the glass by the sink and holds it up to his mouth. "Come on, man. Rinse and spit. It'll make you feel better. And please don't be ripping my arm off, all right?"
He shakes his head, fumbles with the glass and has to hold it with both hands, but it feels nice to rinse the sour taste from his mouth. He reaches out with one hand to flush the toilet, braces himself against the wall to get up, only to have his knees buckle. He lists to the side, lands on his ass on the cold tiles, and lets his head fall back against the wall with a thunk, eyes slipping shut.
"Man, you are a mess." He can sense Hardison shaking his head, even if he can't bring himself to open his eyes. "What in the hell did you do to yourself?"
Eliot is tempted to just say he's fine, he'll be fine as long as they let him sleep this off, but he's not sure that's true anymore. Hardison presses another glass of water into his hands, and he drains it, doesn't so much as protest when it's refilled and given back to him along with a couple of pills, swallows the lot of it.
"I have to go back to bed," he manages after a moment. He pries open his eyes, swallows his pride. "I, uh, I could use a hand." He's pretty sure he won't be able to stand up by himself.
"Yeah, okay. I'll make jokes about it being the End Times later," Hardison grabs him by an elbow. "You okay if you lean on me?"
He manages a weak nod, has to hold onto Hardison with both hands until he's got his feet under him. The room is spinning, but Hardison keeps a good grip on him, and it's a lot easier to get back to the bedroom than it was to leave it. He stumbles as he gets to the bed, and comes close to sending them both sprawling, but Hardison catches them, bracing a knee against the bed, and eases him back down.
"And you said I wasn't learning anything from those sparring sessions," Hardison jokes quietly, pulling the covers up. "Man, I've felt furnaces that're cooler than you. I'm getting a thermometer."
Eliot mumbles something he hopes sounds enough like a protest, but it apparently has no effect, or maybe he didn't say what he thought he said because a couple of minutes later Hardison is trying to stick said thermometer in his ear, taking advantage of the fact that all of Eliot's coordination appears to be screwed to hell. The thermometer beeps shrilly, making him flinch.
"Oh, hell no," Hardison exclaims, and Eliot flinches again and wishes, not for the first time, that Hardison wasn't quite so loud. "That's it, that shit ain't normal at all. I don't care any more, I'm calling Nate and we're getting you to a doctor."
"Don't need a doctor," he groans, pulling away from the grip Hardison still has on his bicep from when he checked his temperature.
"Eliot, dude, you got a fever over 105. Like I said, that shit ain't normal. You gotta have antibiotics or something. Or a hospital. Yeah, definitely a hospital. You sit tight, I'm calling Nate."
He protests, or tries to, but Hardison is already gone, and he can feel his chest tightening threateningly, giving him no choice but to lie back down before he starts coughing again. The last thing he wants is to throw up again, because all that's left is bile, and his throat is already raw and burning from the last bout of vomiting. He can hear Hardison in the next room talking animatedly into his phone, but the conversation is lost on him. He should be going out there, he thinks distantly, reassuring Nate that it's not nearly as bad as Hardison's making out —that's the problem with people like him, Eliot tells himself, soft and so used to being coddled that they overreact to everything— except that he thinks that, for once, Hardison might have a point. He doesn't remember being this sick in years, and in the moments that he's able to keep his thoughts together for more than a couple of seconds at a time, it occurs to him that he might have to worry a bit about how fast this illness hit him.
He drifts. He doesn't mean to, but the pull of oblivion is too strong. The same dreams return, more intense than ever. This time he can see Sophie clearly, standing on the other side of the table, stroking the Silver Fox's arm with her hand, head tilted to the side, a smile playing on her lips. Eliot can feel his heart hammering in his chest, but when he opens his mouth to warn her —of what, he's still not entirely sure— his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth and his throat closes up. Before him, the man's face seems to twist and melt, morphs into increasingly vulpine features, until he's staring at an actual fox head. The fox grins at him, licks its chops, then lunges across the table, plunging one still very human hand into Eliot's chest to grasp his heart in fingers that are colder than ice. What was the question?
"Shh, it's all right. Eliot, it's all right, you're okay."
It's Nate's voice, and he realizes that it's the sound of his own moaning that awoke him this time. He's shivering again, realizes that there's something cold pressed against his chest when Nate grabs his hands and places them firmly on top of it to hold it in place.
"It's just an ice pack," Nate tells him. "We have to get your fever down. Hold still."
He forces his eyes open, and all he can see is the fox's smiling face hovering in the darkness. He knows he should warn Nate, tell him about the danger, and he finds himself tripping over his explanation.
"Don't worry about that now, all right?" Nate hushes him again, and normally he'd already have taken Nate down a peg for being a condescending asshole, but the ice pack feels pretty nice, and he shudders in spite of himself when Nate carefully places two more under his arms. "You can thank me later for respecting your explicit desire not to be carted off to the nearest hospital. Leave your hands there, I need you to hold that in place or else we will have to go to the ER, and nobody wants that."
Nate hates hospitals, Eliot thinks dazedly. He should be warning him, but it's all getting away from him, his thoughts fraying around the edges like a damaged piece of tapestry. All he can remember now is how cold it was. "What're you doing?"
"What does it look like?" Nate sounds amused. "You're sick, so someone has to make sure you're taken care of."
He shakes his head, which only makes it ache more. "Don't have to. Been handling things on my own just fine for a long time now."
"Just because you're able to doesn't mean you should have to. Besides, whatever you've got looks pretty bad. Having some back-up doesn't seem like a bad plan to me."
"Why are you here?" He still can't quite wrap his mind around Nate's presence in his bedroom.
"I'm here because I got a panicked call from Hardison about how friends aren't supposed to let their friends' brains boil from fever."
He can't help himself. "I thought I wasn't your friend?"
He's only half-joking, but he starts coughing again before Nate can answer. By the time he's able to stop, Nate has carefully rearranged his bedclothes, then quietly picks up a wet facecloth that he must have found in the bathroom, folds it and lays it on his forehead.
"You remember that, huh?"
He shifts on the bed, shrugs, lets out a small sigh of relief as the heat and throbbing pain recede under the cloth, but he doesn't answer. A moment later Nate picks up the cloth again and begins wiping his face, moving it over his neck and chest before refolding it and starting the process again. Eliot can't see his face, and he's too out of it be able to pick up on what might be going through his mind just by his body language.
"I don't think about it," he tells Nate, and it's true enough. The remark had stung at the time, and he supposes it must have stuck with him, if he remembers it now, but it's not something he's ever dwelled on. He'd struck a nerve, and the man had lashed out, and that was understandable. "Sorry I brought it up."
"It's okay. We'll chalk it up to the fever. Delirium makes people say all sorts of crazy things. Hold still, you're going to knock the ice packs loose."
He squirms a little as water trickles from the cloth into his hair, but he already feels less like he's about to suffocate. "When d'you get here?"
"Not too long ago. A few hours, maybe."
He's lost time again, probably most of the day at this rate. "What time is it?"
"It's just past midnight. Hold still, I'm going to check your fever."
"Stop telling me to hold still," he mutters.
"I will when you actually do it," Nate retorts, not bothering to wait for permission before placing the thermometer back in Eliot's ear and switching on the bedside lamp in order to see the digital readout, making Eliot blink painfully. "104. Better than before, but not exactly great. I'll be right back."
Eliot curls back up under his blanket once he's alone, coughing so hard it feels like his lungs are tearing themselves apart from the inside. Nate comes back while his lungs are still trying to make a hasty exit through his oesophagus, and perches on the edge of the bed. He lays a hand between Eliot's shoulder blades, rubbing gently with his thumb.
"I tell you to hold still for two minutes, and you can't even manage that," he says in mock-disapproval. "You dropped your ice packs. Come on," he leans forward and slides a hand under Eliot's shoulders in order to sit him up. He smells faintly of sweat and alcohol, and Eliot wonders if he still has his flask on him or if he's graduated to a real bottle yet. "I need you to drink all of this. We need to get your fever down, okay? Here we go... up!"
Nate grunts a little under the strain, but a moment later Eliot finds himself sitting up and propped up against the man who's usually either halfway to drunk or else barking orders at him through his earpiece, and the feeling is disorienting, to say the least. But even though he hasn't been working with him all that long, Eliot learned very quickly that Nate is one of the few people he's willing to trust with his life, much to his own surprise. He honestly can't remember how long it's been since that's been true for him. He's become accustomed to relying entirely on himself, his physical prowess and mental agility, in order to keep himself alive, and placing his safety in someone else's hands, well, it's not something to be done lightly. It takes a very little encouragement on Nate's part for Eliot to swallow the pills he gives him, along with the entire contents of what tastes like a lot of really disgustingly-flavoured Gatorade. Nate smiles mirthlessly when he complains about the taste.
"It's my own recipe. Best electrolyte replacement you'll ever be able to find. Easy to make and easy on the stomach, and I daresay even you wouldn't be able to come up with anything better."
"Tastes gross, though," he makes a face at the glass as Nate refills it.
"That's what my son used to say. Drink it anyway."
He does as he's told, watching Nate over the rim of the glass. "You used to give this stuff to your boy?" It's dangerous territory, this, a subject which has already earned him a quick but no less devastating dressing-down, but this time he's not the one who brought it up.
Nate retrieves the glass, sets it on the bedside table, and shifts until Eliot is lying down again. "By the end Sam couldn't keep much down. Kept spiking fevers. So I experimented, and this is what I came up with. It tasted terrible, but it kept him going. For a while, anyway. We had to switch to IV fluids after that."
"Yeah, me too." Almost absent-mindedly Nate brushes the back of his fingers against Eliot's forehead, checking for fever. "Still too hot. We'll try some more ice packs, and if that doesn't work, well, we'll see. At least you're lucid enough to hold a conversation, so that's something."
Eliot grunts softly to show exactly what he thinks of that, and the next thing he knows Nate has replaced the folded-up wash cloth over his forehead. He closes his eyes, figuring he'll probably just wake up again when Nate comes back, but he never does.
A coughing fit wakes him in the morning. Sunlight is streaming through the window of his bedroom through the gap in the curtains. It takes a superhuman effort for him to sit up, still coughing, and for a moment everything spins so badly he almost has to lie down again. Aside from himself, though, there's no movement at all in the rest of the apartment, and he thinks that the team must all finally have gone home. He braces himself against the bed and carefully swings his feet to the floor, waits for the dizziness to pass, then gets slowly to his feet. His dresser is only a couple of feet from the bed, but it's still something of a chore to pull out a fresh pair of boxers, some sweatpants and a wife beater —his current clothes are stiff with dried sweat, and the sooner he's out of them, the better— and pull on his robe, which he keeps hanging on a hook on his door.
There's no way he'll be able to work today, he notes with some dismay. He can still feel the fever lingering, held at bay a little by hefty doses of ibuprofen and Nate's liberal application of ice during the night, but nonetheless still present. He checks the time, sees that it's still early by most standards, figures that he'll have plenty of time to call Nate before today's part of the job gets underway, and tries to ignore his irrational twinge of guilt and fear at the thought of leaving the team unprotected. He has to lean against the door frame in order to get through the bedroom door, but there's no other way to get to the kitchen. He hasn't eaten anything since yesterday morning, and he's experienced enough to know that he needs to eat even if he isn't hungry.
He keeps one hand against the wall, makes it to the bathroom and is pleasantly surprised when he manages to take care of business and even brush his teeth without anything going terribly wrong. The feeling is short-lived, though, when another coughing fit hunches him over the sink, eyes watering and ears ringing from the sheer force of it. He spits out a mouthful of phlegm and grimaces at it before turning the tap back on. Trust this thing, whatever is it, to have settled right in his chest, where it would be most inconvenient. Nothing like not being able to breathe to keep him sidelined. Keeping one hand pressed uncomfortably against his sternum, he decides he may as well try for the kitchen now, before he changes his mind and ends up spending the day without food.
He starts violently at the sudden intrusion and almost overbalances, catching himself on the back of a chair, his head throbbing in protest, and bends double in yet another fit of coughing. "Jesus, Parker! Warn a guy..." he mutters when he can breathe again, rubbing a hand over his face.
Her face falls, expression repentant and not unlike a puppy that's just had an accident all over the rug. She's wearing his own apron over her usual black outfit, hair pulled back in a pony tail, and now that he's paying attention he can smell something cooking, though he can't identify exactly what it is. "I'm sorry. Are you feeling better? I made toast and oatmeal," she adds, answering his unspoken question.
He makes a so-so motion with one hand. "You guys taking it in shifts to invade my apartment, or something?"
"Pretty much. Nate said they don't need me right away today, so I should stay here and make sure your fever doesn't go too high again. That's my job, because today we're not breaking into the building. He gave me a recipe for a drink I'm supposed to give you later. You should go back to bed, you still look really sick. Do you want toast or oatmeal or both?"
He reels, a little dizzy from the flood of information, then decides that the idea of food actually makes him feel sick to his stomach. "Uh, toast, I guess. I thought I'd..." he gestures vaguely to the sofa, and she gives him a dubious look.
"Well, bed is better for you, but I guess if you're eating... did you want to watch one of Hardison's DVDs?" she asks, in a tone that suggests she would find reading the phone book more engrossing.
In this case he's inclined to agree with her. "No, I'm just gonna try to catch some more sleep later."
He drops onto his sofa, grateful at least that the place came with really comfortable furniture, and rests his head against one of the cushions. A moment later Parker all but drops a plate with a stack of slightly-burnt toast in his lap.
"How much did you make?"
"I got bored. Oatmeal just means adding water and using the microwave, but your toaster makes funny dinging sounds! I like it, it reminds me of toaster strudels. Besides, you can't live off just two pieces of toast. There aren't enough calories in it. So I made more."
He refrains from rolling his eyes, takes a bite of toast under her watchful eye, and doesn't protest when she picks up the throw blanket and tucks it around his shoulders. After a moment, he realizes that she's watching him expectantly, waiting for him to say something, and it takes him another minute or so to figure out what that is.
"Uh, thank you."
She beams at him, and the sight makes him feel oddly warm. "You're welcome!"
He takes another bite of toast, and watches her as she simply stands there, apparently still waiting. Sometimes he thinks that there must be something about Parker that might actually be diagnosable, which would explain her... oddness around people. Her weird propensity to stick to the letter of social conventions that she doesn't fully understand. "You may as well sit, if you're just going to stand there and watch me eat."
Immediately she curls up in one of the armchairs facing the sofa, looking like a very sleek, very smug cat that happens to be wearing an apron. The sight is more than a little incongruous, and he finds himself smiling down into his toast. He can't manage even a whole slice, just lets the plate sit in his lap, eyes drifting shut of their own accord. He doesn't even feel it when Parker deftly removes the plate and heads into the kitchen, humming softly to herself. When she comes back, it's with a glass of Nate's electrolyte solution and more ibuprofen.
"Go on, you have to have all of it."
"Didn't you say you didn't like being around sick people?"
"Uh-huh." She shoves the glass at him until he takes it and washes down the pills with the contents, but he can't manage more than a few swallows.
"You don't have to stay if you don't want to. I can manage on my own."
"Why wouldn't I stay?"
"Because you don't like being around sick people," he points out as reasonably as he can.
She looks genuinely surprised. "But you're not sick people," she says, as though he's just said the most ridiculous thing in the world. "You're you."
His face heats up, but he finds he's absurdly pleased at being the exception to the rule. "Okay, then." He tries to settle more comfortably on the sofa. "Where's Sophie?"
"Out with the mark."
The thought makes him uneasy for no reason he can determine. For a moment he thinks he's dreaming again. What was the question? He finds Parker staring at him, wrinkling her nose.
"You're making a funny face."
He starts coughing before he can assure her that he's not making a face of any kind, fumbles with the glass, the liquid soothing on his raw throat. He slides the glass back onto the coffee table when it's empty, lets his head drop back onto the throw cushion on the sofa, and while he doesn't exactly wish he was dead, unconsciousness doesn't sound so bad. His head still hurts and every breath feels like he's dragging broken glass over his lungs. He can't remember the last time he ever felt quite this bad, except maybe for that one time he got caught and tortured in... he shakes himself. No sense dwelling on it.
"Eliot?" Parker is still waiting for him to say something, he realizes, but he can't think what it was anymore. She uncoils from her chair, hops over the table, neatly missing the empty glass. She drops to a crouch next to him. "My mother used to check for fever like this," she says, putting her hand lightly on his forehead, "but I can't really tell much. You're kind of hot, though, and sweaty, and that's not right. Nate said to ask you if you thought you need a doctor."
Dealing with Parker's strange stream-of-consciousness is hard enough on a good day. "No, I'm fine. I mean, I don't need a doctor."
"Are you sure?"
It's hard to keep her face in focus when she's pressed up this close, and if he's honest with himself, he's not really sure at all. "Maybe later."
"Nate said I should take your temperature, and if it was over 103 that I should insist you go to a doctor or call him."
"It's not that high," he tells her, already feeling exhausted even just from talking to her for five minutes.
"How can you tell?"
"I've had fevers before. I can tell. It's distinctive."
"I'm going to check anyway. That way I won't have to lie to Nate." She fetches the thermometer from his bathroom, then gives it to him. "Here, you do it."
It's actually something of a relief to be able to do this himself. When the thermometer beeps he brings it up to his face to check the readout, and finds he can't quite make it out. Sheepishly, he hands it to Parker, who carefully notes down the number.
"103, so I guess if you don't want a doctor then we don't have to go." She stares at him, and it occurs to him belatedly that she probably has no idea what to do next.
He pulls the blanket a little further up over his shoulders. "I'm going to sleep for a while, Parker. Why don't you find something to do? Didn't you say you had harnesses or something to work on?"
"I did that yesterday, but I brought a book," she says brightly. "I'll read while you sleep."
"Okay, you do that." His eyes are already closing, and he doesn't stay awake long enough to see whether she does.
Hardison makes an appearance sometime in the afternoon, bringing even more DVDs with him, although he doesn't appear put out that Eliot hasn't watched any of the ones he brought the day before. Eliot doesn't bother moving from where he's still stretched out on the sofa. His whole body feels like it's throbbing in time with his heartbeat, and the terrible feeling of suffocating from before is coming back, his wifebeater clinging to him, drenched with sweat.
"I take it you ain't feeling better?"
"He was a little better this morning," Parker supplies helpfully.
"You take his temperature lately?"
"No. Was I supposed to?"
Hardison rolls his eyes. "Next time Nate's gotta give you more explicit instructions. Yeah, you gotta do it regular, so we can monitor the fever, get a baseline, stuff like that."
"Could you maybe not talk about me as though I'm not right here?" Eliot mutters, making a failed attempt to sit up. He coughs instead, curls in on himself a bit.
"Sorry, man. But you ain't exactly working at the same processing speed as usual, and that's already kind of slow."
"You are lucky I'm too sick to kick your ass into next week."
Hardison just holds the thermometer to his ear. "That's kind of the idea. I'm getting away with it while I can, bro. And you have officially tipped back over the magic line into boil-your-brain territory," he says, reading the digital display. "I'm taking you to a medical professional, and you don't get to argue this time."
"Or you'll call Nate and tell on me?" Eliot manages a shaky grin, then starts coughing again. There's a sharp, tearing sensation in his chest, and he tastes copper on his tongue. It feels as though he's trapped in a fire, flames licking at his body, even though he knows he's in his living room and perfectly safe. Hardison's hand is hovering an inch or so above his shoulder, as though he wants to offer some kind of comfort but is too nervous to actually touch him. Eliot swallows gingerly, throat raw, then nods. "Yeah, okay."
"Okay, I'll see a doctor."
Hardison's eyes widen almost comically. "You will? I mean, yeah, you will. Absolutely. Glad you're seeing reason. Uh..." he glances around, as though he wasn't expecting Eliot to comply with his demands. "I'll get you your clothes. And some shoes and whatnot. You, uh, stay put."
By now, Eliot thinks, he should be used to things getting blurry around the edges. He doesn't remember much about how he gets to the clinic, only that images come and go: the car, Parker, Hardison, flashes of red and green that he thinks are probably street lights. He remembers voices, thinks Hardison might be talking, maybe to him or on the phone, he can't really tell. The clinic they end up at is a private one, covered by the medical insurance Hardison cooked up for them, and he slumps tiredly in a chair in the waiting room, only half-listening to Parker babbling on about something or other. The doctor is a kind-eyed woman about his age, and she clucks her tongue at him only half-ironically as she listens to his breathing, the stethoscope cold against his skin. She unceremoniously kicked both Parker and Hardison out of the exam room, for which he will be eternally grateful to her.
"And this started yesterday morning?"
He nods tiredly. "I was feeling off before that, but I thought I was just overtired. I'm actually sort of feeling better."
"Moving around usually provides temporary relief, especially if you've been lying down for two days. Well, we'll take x-rays just to be sure, because I don't like how high your fever is, but it sounds like you've got a pretty nasty chest infection. I'm going to prescribe antibiotics, and the usual combination of rest and fluids, which I'm pretty sure I don't need to spell out for you. Do you need a note for work?"
He huffs a laugh, then breaks into a fit of coughing as even that makes his lungs protest. "No, I'm good. I work independently, mostly. Fever's not as bad as you think —I get 'em every time I'm sick."
She nods, visibly making a mental note, for which he's glad, because there aren't all that many medical professionals he's ever encountered who actually listen to their patients when it comes to their own physical needs. It's a refreshing change to not have what he's saying dismissed. In fact, he thinks as he submits to an x-ray, the lead vest heavy on his shoulders, she's the second person in his life who actually seems to implicitly trust his judgement. Her and Nate. He holds himself very still as the machine whirrs around him, trying not to cough and screw up the imaging. He doesn't actually know if it would screw it up, but he's not willing to take the chance.
He falls asleep again while they're waiting for the results, and dreams of Sophie again. The man with the fox face is standing behind her, hands on her shoulders, teeth bared in a feral grin. He wakes up in a cold sweat to find Hardison propping him up and trying very hard not to look awkward. The doctor is standing in front of them, holding the envelope with his x-rays in it.
"What's the verdict, doc?" Hardison asks as Eliot straightens up, wiping at his face and trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he's been sleeping on Hardison's shoulder the entire time. His heart is still pounding in his chest, and he can't quite catch his breath, can't shake the uneasy feeling that's been following him around since yesterday.
"The good news is, you don't have pneumonia. The bad news is, you've got a hell of a case of bronchitis. So we're breaking out the big guns in terms of antibiotics."
"Nuke 'em from orbit," Hardison agrees.
"That's right. You're officially off work for ten days, and I want you back here for a follow-up then. I also want you to come back if you still have a fever the day after tomorrow. If your fever goes up, you go to an ER, you understand?"
Eliot nods vaguely. "Can I go home?" He needs to get back to Sophie, he thinks vaguely. He can't quite remember, can't put his finger on it, but he's sure he needs to be back there, with her and Nate, watching their backs.
She scribbles down the prescription on her pad, tears off the paper and hands it to Hardison. "Sure. Just make sure you have someone keeping an eye out for the next couple of days."
"Oh, we're on that," Hardison assures her. "C'mon, Eliot. You ready to head back?"
"She's with Nate and McAffrey, remember? Come on, let me give you a hand," Hardison jams a hand under his elbow, shoves him to his feet, holds him steady when his knees threaten to buckle. "Easy, now."
He shakes his head. "We have to go find her. It's not safe..."
Parker eases herself alongside him, flanking him on the way back to the car, and he realizes that he lost track of her during the last few hours. She was probably outside, far away from all the sick people.
"Where did they go?" he asks, trying to think past the haze of pain and fever.
"McAffrey's taking Sophie to dinner, and she's going to work her mind-mojo on him, or whatever," Hardison makes a these-aren't-the-droids-you're-looking-for gesture with his free hand. "Nate figures we'll have it all in the bag by tomorrow afternoon. I just got some hacking to do tonight, and if we're lucky Parker won't even have to break into the offices. Hey, easy, now," Hardison grips his elbow tighter when he stops so abruptly he almost knocks the two of them over.
It's right there, dancing around the edges of his memory, like a question he's not even sure how to formulate. "What was the question?"
Hardison snorts. "Dude, if you're having one of those nightmares where you're back in school and you forgot there was a test, then you're farther gone than I thought."
They're back at the car, but he doesn't quite remember getting there, though he seems to have done so under his own power at least. He's sure that, whatever it is, it's right there, if he can only reach far enough, make Parker and Hardison understand, but his thoughts won't come together properly. "No, there was a question, about the silver fox. I just —I don't remember."
"Oh, hell no. You are not going to go all delirious on me now, are you? I ain't equipped to deal with that. You just wait until it's Nate's turn."
He takes a deep breath, tries to quell the feeling of being steamed alive. "Not delirious. I just can't remember the question. It's important."
"Yeah, because that doesn't sound like you're delirious, at all."
"Damn it, Hardison, this is important!" he braces himself against the car, resisting Hardison's attempts to force him inside. "I can't remember... we need to get Sophie, it's not safe."
"She's fine," Hardison pats his bicep, and Eliot is tempted to just twist his arm right out of its socket just to prove a point, except that he'd never hear the end of it.
"If Eliot thinks it isn't safe, maybe we should be listening," Parker opines from somewhere above their heads. Eliot doesn't even want to know how or why she's perched on the roof of the car.
"What the hell are you doing up there?" Hardison apparently has no such reticence.
"I'm just saying, Eliot's the security expert. If he's concerned, then we should tell Nate. Nate trusts his judgement." Parker hops down to the ground, landing silently, cat-like as always.
"He can't even stand up on his own from the fever he's running. I would say that that brings his judgement into question. But that's just me."
"He's standing up just fine on his own, and Eliot always knows what he's talking about."
"Eliot is standing right here," Eliot grumbles, leaning harder against the car as the world slowly starts to rock on its axis. "Call Nate."
"Fine, fine," Hardison throws up his hands in defeat. "Why does no one ever listen to the voice of reason, is what I'd like to know?" He pulls out his cell, holds it to his ear, turning his back on Eliot and Parker in what Eliot assumes is meant to be a physical protest of what they're making him do. After a couple of minutes, though, he turns back, lips pressed together, staring at the blank screen of his phone. "He ain't answering."
"We need to go," Eliot insists, closing his eyes as the ground lurches under his feet again. What was the question? He slides into the passenger seat, one hand against the dash, bracing himself. "Try calling again. Where are they supposed to be?"
Parker somehow materializes in the back seat while Hardison shuts Eliot's door and makes his way around to the driver's side, muttering under his breath and dialling the number again. "What did you mean about a question, Eliot?" he asks, pulling out of the parking lot with a screech of tires against asphalt.
What was the question? It's taunting him, now. He pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger with the hand that's not bracing him against the dashboard. "I don't know, it's right there... Where are they going?"
"McAffrey wanted to take Sophie out to dinner, remember? I just told you less than five minutes ago. Nate's going as back-up."
His head is throbbing, and he can feel himself slipping again, the fox leering at him across the table in the darkness, tapping a furry wrist where a watch band might be. You're running out of time. What was the question?
"I can't remember the question. About the fox."
"Eliot, man, you gotta focus and tell me what you're going on about, 'cause you ain't making sense. There's no fox. And what do you mean about a question?"
The dream swims back into focus. The fox shimmers, its features twisting and morphing until they're almost human. Parker's voice cuts through the vision.
"Maybe he means McAffrey. He looks like a fox to me."
"Parker, this ain't the time to be playing what-animal-are-you."
It all comes back in a rush. Eliot struggles to sit up. It feels like his mind is wrapped in several layers of cotton wool, but he's got it now, seeing the fox tap its wrist in his mind. "No, that's it. He was... it's not him. On his wrist." He's tripping over his words, rests his head in his hands.
"Eliot. What are you talking about?"
"The scar. It's not him," he tries to explain, starts coughing instead, but he's lucky enough that Parker apparently understands semi-incoherent speech.
"The scar on his wrist. Eliot recognized him, it's not really McAffrey!"
Hardison twists in his seat. "Seriously? Dude's completely out of his mind with fever and you understood that? How did you even get that from what he said?"
Eliot can almost see Parker rolling her eyes in the back seat. "Duh. He's got a scar shaped like a question mark on his wrist."
He draws in an unsteady breath. "It's a very distinctive scar."
Hardison snorts. "I'll bet it is. So who is he?"
He knows who it is. He's seen the scar before, can picture it in his mind, but it's slipping away again. He lists to the side a little as the car rounds a corner, and a jolt of pain goes through him as his shoulder collides with the door. Someone lets out a small moan of pain, and a moment later he realizes it must be him. A hand squeezes his shoulder, and there are voices murmuring around him. They sound worried, but he can't make sense of what they're saying, his thoughts splintering and crashing like a building under a wrecking ball. He has to explain it to them, has to make sure Sophie and Nate are safe, that his team is taken care of but his mouth and tongue won't cooperate. Then the darkness that's been creeping along the edges of his vision encroaches further and further until, finally, it swallows him whole.
The next time he awakens, it's to a light so bright it hurts his eyes. He squints painfully, coughs, realizes there's something sticking into his arm, just at the crook of his elbow, uncomfortable but not painful. He struggles to sit up, and immediately there's a silhouette by his side, a smooth-skinned hand resting lightly on his forehead, keeping him still.
"Take it easy, Eliot. You're okay, just take it easy."
His tongue is three times its normal size, but he has to know where he is, what's going on. He knows the voice, it's a voice he's learned to trust.
"Your fever went too high, we had to bring you to the hospital, but you're going to be fine. Go back to sleep, I'll explain everything later, I promise."
He manages a small sound of distress, which isn't what he had in mind at all, and the hand moves a little, smoothing his hair away from his face. "Trust me, Eliot. It's fine. You're safe, the team is safe. Everyone's fine. You can let go."
He can't even nod, eyelids weighted down by lead. He doesn't dream, for which he's grateful, and when he's able to pull himself out of the darkness again, he no longer feels like he's alternating between free-falling and suffocating. This time no one moves to stop him when he shifts in his bed and looks around at the pristine-looking hospital room. It's clean and white, and there's a framed photograph with flowers —lilies, he thinks— on the wall. There's light coming in through a window, though it can't compete with the brightness of the overhead lights. It's a nicer room than the ones he's accustomed to, he thinks.
"That's because we're not in a third-world country," comes the dry remark, making him start violently. Eliot didn't even realize he said the words aloud, nor that there was anyone else here with him. He looks over to see Nate sitting in a visitor's chair next to his bed, hair lank against his face, his tie loosened, the first couple of buttons on his shirt undone. "Hardison has first-rate medical coverage for us, you know."
Eliot licks his lips, mouth dry, and Nate reaches over and uses the controls to raise the bed, then hands him a large cup of water with a straw. Ice cubes clatter and slosh against the plastic in his hands.
"How are you feeling?"
His hands are shaking, but not so badly he can't manage to sip at the water, and it's the most wonderful thing he's ever tasted, cool against the burning of his throat.. "Like ten kinds of warmed-over crap." He's lost his voice, he notes with some annoyance. It sounds like his vocal cords have been scraped down with sandpaper. "Where's Sophie?"
"I sent her and the others home to get a shower and a change of clothes."
That throws him for a loop. "They were here?" He can't figure out why.
Nate gives him a small, indecipherable smile. "Where else would they be?"
He's too tired for guessing games. "What happened?"
"What happened is that everyone's safe, and because of you. The rest can wait until you're over this fever. You had us worried, you know."
He clears his throat. "Yeah, well, ditto. I remember his name, now. Androvitch. He was there during the Steinberg job. Recognized him, but I couldn't tell at the time. It was the scar that gave him away. I'm sorry I didn't see it sooner. Off my game."
Nate just nods. "Yeah, you were, but considering just how high your fever's been, I think you did pretty well, all told. None of the rest of us recognized him either, he made sure of it. If you hadn't spotted it, I'd be dead and God only knows what would have happened to Sophie."
He can't believe how tired he is. "I don't remember. Did Hardison tell you?"
"Once he and Parker figured out what you were saying, yeah. I think they'll want to tell you that part themselves," Nate smiles indulgently, like a parent whose kid is clamouring for them to watch them perform a trick in the swimming pool. "It was pretty clever."
"Not sure I want to know. Might knock ten years off my life."
"It might," Nate takes a pull from his flask, and Eliot feels a pang of guilt. Nate shouldn't have to be here. None of them should.
"You don't have to stay," he says, shifting in his bed. "I'm okay."
"Yeah, I know," Nate doesn't specify exactly what he's talking about, infuriatingly enough. "Finish your water, and go back to sleep. And don't look so damned guilty. None of this is your fault. If anything, I should have spotted that guy long before. I didn't catch it, Hardison's background checks didn't catch it either, none of us would have seen it before it was too late, except you."
"Still..." he shakes his head. He kind of wishes he could at least see the others, make sure with his own eyes that they're not dead in a pool of their own blood somewhere because he's been too out of it to keep them safe.
It turns out Nate can read his mind, because he gives Eliot's knee a brief pat. "They'll be by later, you can make sure they're all in one piece then. In the meantime, you let that IV work its magic and go back to sleep. I promise I won't let you sleep through anything important."
Eliot shifts again, uneasy about it all. "I'm not..."
"Eliot." Nate leans on the railing on his bed, wrapping his long fingers around the bar. Idly Eliot wonders if he ever played the piano before. "Trust me on this. We've got your back, you don't need to worry."
Part of him wants to stay awake until the others get here, and another part of him wants to just check out of the hospital AMA and to hell with all of this. But the larger part of him, the part of him that does trust Nate to have his back, keeps him right where he is.
"You'll wake me?"
"I will, I promise. You might not thank me when Parker starts explaining things, though."
He chuckles at that. "I'll keep that in mind. Thank you," he adds, not quite as an afterthought, letting his eyes close and blocking out the light that's getting increasingly painful to look at.
"You're welcome. Go to sleep. We'll be here when you wake up."
The last thing Eliot hears as he drifts back to sleep is the scrape of Nate's chair against the tiles, drawing closer to his side.