Crabby, Wet, and . . . .

by Juli

May 2009

The bad thing about being a part of a team was that it involved too damn many people. Eliot Spencer was far more used to working alone and, while he was learning that teamwork had its advantages, he found that he still preferred being on his own.

Especially when he was injured.

Sophie, Hardison and Parker were arrayed between Eliot and the door, as though forming some sort of gauntlet. Eliot bared his teeth; obstacle courses were something he was used to and, hurt or not, he had no intention of letting the others stand in his way.

"Eliot, you've been injured," Sophie was the first to speak. "I'm sure you want to go somewhere and lick your wounds, but you shouldn't be alone right now."

"I'm fine," he assured her in a drawled growl. Damn. When his accent kicked up, Eliot knew he was in bad shape. "I just need to hole up and sleep it off."

"Dude," Hardison spread his hands in a gesture of dismay. "You've been shot, stabbed, and beat so bad you've got four broken ribs. Even for you, that's a busy day."

"I'm not sure it was a good idea for you to treat your own wounds," Sophie added, a delicate worry frown wrinkling her forehead.

"Yeah, like I can just waltz down to the hospital when I've been shot," Eliot countered gruffly. "You know that they report stuff like that. Besides, I can tell when it's serious enough to need a real doc."

"Not to mention, he didn't patch himself up, I did it."

As one, the small group turned to look at Nathan Ford. He'd just joined them, having been washing up in the bathroom where he'd been working under Eliot's direction, cleaning and binding wounds. He was still drying his hands on a towel and made sure each finger was clean before going on.

"Eliot is our retrieval specialist and defacto medic," Nathan finally stated. "If he says that nothing major was hit, then we have to trust him."

Eliot told himself that he didn't need the small frisson of pride that ran through him at their leader's words. A lone wolf, after all, didn't crave praise the way a domesticated dog did.

"I assume you have an ample supply of antibiotics?" Nathan directed his question to Eliot. "It's no good stitching you up if infection is just going to set in."

"I'm a professional," Eliot huffed. "I've got plenty of pills."

He made another step towards the door and the elevator just beyond it. Eliot had managed to stagger out of the bathroom the minute that Nathan finished. When Sophie had exclaimed at his unsteady gait, Eliot had maintained that he needed to get somewhere more comfortable and less bright. Being a professional grifter herself, Sophie probably figured he was lying, but with any luck she wouldn't figure out what the lie was; namely that it wasn't the room Eliot needed to escape, but the man in it.

"Hey, son, where do you think you're going?" Hardison reached towards Eliot as Eliot continued his slow way towards the door.

The glare Eliot gave him was full of disbelief and pain. Hardison took one look at his face and dropped his hand.

"Home. This job's over and even if we have another one lined up already, I'm gonna have to sit it out," Eliot snarled at his colleagues in general, the pain really getting to him. "Since I'm only good for beating people up. Hard to do that with one arm."

"You aren't driving anywhere," Nathan planted himself firmly in front of Eliot. "Hardison left a broken collarbone off your list of injuries. You have no business behind the wheel in that condition."

"Oh, that's just sweet," Eliot snorted. "Look who's talkin' about not being fit to drive."

Sophie tried to play peacemaker. "Eliot, Nathan's right, you shouldn't be driving - or left alone for that matter."

"Fine," Eliot felt ganged up on, but he didn't feel capable of kicking one of their asses at the moment, let alone all four. "I'll just stay here." He turned to make his painful way to his office, where there was another couch.

"Good!" Parker responded before any of the others managed to open their mouths. "I have to water my plant and pluck off the dead leaves. I can take care of you at the same time."

Eliot halted mid-step. His imagination came up with all sorts of scenarios that involved Parker taking care of him while holding a watering can. None of them were good.

"All right, one of you can drive me home," Eliot gave in. His good arm had been wrapped around his torso, but he lifted it long enough to jab a finger in Parker's direction. "As long as it's not her."

"I'll be driving you home," Nathan stated in a flat tone of voice that indicated that it would be wise not to cross him.

Unfortunately for Nathan, Eliot had never been interested in being wise.

"Like hell you will," Eliot retorted. "I did not survive taking down Tempsti's goons, all seven of them, just to have you wrap the car around a telephone pole or something."

Nathan's eyes went flat. "I don't drink on the job, Eliot, you know that." He held up one hand horizontally, so that everyone could see how steady it was. "You'd just intimidate Hardison into letting you do things for yourself that you're really not ready for and you'd charm Sophie into it. I'm your only option."

Eliot didn't bother to point out that Nathan had left out Parker in his assessment. That, more than anything else, proved to Eliot that Nathan was reasonably sober.

"Fine," Eliot gave in with as little grace as possible. "But we're taking my truck and not that wind-up little electric car of yours."

Nathan's eyes twinkled. "Fine, but I'll need your keys."

The keys. It sounded so simple, but Eliot kept his keys in his left pocket, the same side that was currently totally fucked up. And Nathan knew that too. The bastard. Eliot started to reach across to dig them out of his pocket, but pain washed over him. He stopped before he revealed the actual level of hurt, not wanting the others to see. It was a moot point anyway.

"These keys?" Parker dangled them in front of Eliot's face, grinning like a fool.

"Yes, those keys," Eliot grumbled as he snatched them from her. He suppressed a gasp from the spike of agony that the fast movement caused. "And you're supposed to keep your fingers outta our pockets."

Parker just grinned at him in that way that made Eliot doubt she even knew that he was upset with her, let alone why. Still, when the job had gone briefly sour and Temptsti's lead thug had been pointing at gun at Parker, Eliot had found himself launching himself at the man before he even thought about it. Teamwork definitely had a detrimental effect on Eliot's self preservation instincts.

"I'll take those," Nathan stripped the keys from Eliot's fingers. "Come on, the sooner we get you home, the sooner you can rest."

"I'm fine," Eliot's retort was automatic. Sophie rolled her eyes and Parker giggled, but Hardison was the only one who actually said something.

"Riiiiight," he drew the word out. "That's why you're walking like you're even older than Nathan."

"Hey!" Nathan protested as he ushered Eliot into the elevator. To Eliot's surprise, though, Nathan wasn't objecting to the slam to his age. "Be nice to Eliot while he's hurt."

"That's right, dear," Sophie patted Hardison on the arm. "Because Eliot will feel better eventually."

"And then you'll be sorry," Parker added.

Eliot smirked as the elevators doors shut, hiding the other three from view. It was about damn time that they'd decided to gang up on someone else.

The walk out to his truck took too long. The best that Eliot could do was a brisk shuffle, he couldn't hide the fact that he was hurt any better than that. It left him feeling vulnerable, which in turn made him cranky. That situation didn't improve any when they finally made it to the truck and Nathan made as if to help him inside.

"Hands off, Nate," Eliot grumbled and carefully shrugged out of Nathan's grasp. "I said you could drive me home, not that you had to lift me up into my own truck. I am not that hurt."

"Right." Nathan had agreed readily enough, but to Eliot's embarrassment, the older man waited on the passenger side of the truck until Eliot had gotten himself in the seat. It wasn't pretty and it hurt like hell, but Eliot managed.

Without another word, Nathan shut the door before going around to the driver's side and clambering in. Although Eliot had managed to get in the truck, getting his seatbelt on was another matter. Like with the keys, it hurt like a bitch and he couldn't move the way he needed to. Nathan didn't bother to offer, just took it from Eliot's hand and buckled the restraint in place.

"I could have got it," Eliot muttered under his breath.

"Sure you could have," Nathan was calm as he started the truck. "The question was if you'd manage to shift one of your broken ribs into a lung while you did it."

Eliot should have had a sarcastic answer for that, but was too tired to try. Instead, he leaned his head against the truck window and watched dully as the scenery passed by. He briefly thought that maybe he should give Nathan directions, but the other man obviously knew where Eliot lived. Eliot made a mental note to be pissed about that later, when he felt better.

The ride took place in a comfortable silence and it wasn't long before Nathan was pulling up in front of the building that housed Eliot's loft. Eliot actually owned the whole space, but only lived in a quarter of it, leaving the rest empty. Well, not empty precisely. There was a good-sized physical training area and storage, everything a retrieval specialist needed.

After opening his own door, Eliot swung his legs around and managed to awkwardly exit the truck. He locked his knees as his feet hit the ground, knowing his legs weren't going to be too happy about receiving his weight. Most of the damage had occurred above his waist, but Eliot's whole body was starting to protest how he was using it.

"Home sweet home," Nathan was too cheerful as he got out and joined him.

"Don't get comfortable," Eliot warned him. "You've dropped me off, now you can leave."

Nathan grinned at him. "Not so fast, tough guy." He held up Eliot's keys. "I've got these, remember?"

Eliot blew a stray lock of hair out of his eyes. "I don't have anything stronger than beer," he warned Nathan, figuring the lack of booze might drive Nathan away.

"I told you," Nathan stated quietly. "I don't drink on the job."

Nathan could be so laid back that it was easy to forget that he was also one stubborn son of a bitch. Eliot kicked himself for forgetting that. The only time that Nathan had caught him, back in the day, was because Eliot had underestimated him. Of course, the French police that Nathan had turned him over to had returned the favor, which was why Eliot had been free to join Nathan's cockamamie team in the first place.

"Suit yourself," Eliot stumped up to the door, frustration giving him temporary energy. The effect was ruined some when he then had to wait, seething, until Nathan caught up with the key.

Wisely, Nathan said nothing as he unlocked the door. Eliot made sure that he was the first in and turned on the lights. He also keyed in a password into the security system, thereby deactivating some nasty booby traps.

"Nice," there was genuine appreciation in Nathan's voice, but when Eliot looked at him, he realized that Nathan had not directed his praise to the security system. Instead, the older man was looking around the loft.

Eliot had chosen contemporary furnishings for his living space, liking their clean lines. The kitchen was particularly impressive, with its stainless steel professional appliances gleaming softly in the light. Eliot smirked. He often got stereotyped as a cowboy because of his accent and the way he dressed. Even hurting, it was kind of fun to see the all-knowing Nathan Ford realize that he'd pegged Eliot all wrong.

The amusement kept Eliot going for exactly three steps into the loft and then he sagged from the continued effort of keeping upright.

"Where's your medicine chest?" Nathan asked as he grabbed the elbow of Eliot's good arm.

Before he knew it, Eliot found himself guided to a stool at the breakfast bar

"Bathroom," Eliot jerked his head towards the door right off the kitchen.

Nathan's cheerfulness had drained away, leaving him very stern-faced. "Stay," he ordered, pointing firmly at Eliot for a moment before turning towards the bathroom.

Even feeling like leftover crap, Eliot couldn't let that slide without a comment. "Woof."

The bathroom on the lower level was small, a half bath. Eliot used it to stock his medical supplies, though, knowing that if he were injured that it would be difficult to drag himself upstairs to the bigger one. He'd installed a decent-sized cabinet to hold everything and he could hear Nathan rummaging around in it.

A few minutes later, Nathan emerged from the bathroom, a pill bottle in each hand and a scowl on his face.

"How can you have every antibiotic known to humanity and no painkillers stronger than ibuprofen?" Nathan demanded.

Eliot shrugged and then grimaced. "Happy pills make me lose focus and, in my business, that's dangerous. I don't have a death wish."

Nathan crossed the last few feet to the breakfast bar where Eliot was sitting. He set the pills down hard and then moved over to the sink to start looking through the cabinets. By the time Eliot roused himself to point out which one the glasses were located in, Nathan had found them and was already filling one up with water.

"Cipro," Eliot commented as he picked up the prescription bottle. He always got the kind with the easy-open top. They were meant for senior citizens, but Eliot used them because he never knew when he'd be injured in a way that would make opening up a bottle difficult. Like, for example, the current situation. "Good choice."

"Gunshot wounds are nothing to mess with," Nathan told him as he handed Eliot the glass of water. "And I don't know how clean that knife the big guy was using was either."

Eliot had shaken a pill out onto the counter and put it in his mouth, grimacing as it quickly started dissolving on his tongue. While he washed it down, Nathan dug out three capsules from the ibuprofen and held them out for Eliot. He had a mulish look on his face, as though he was daring Eliot to protest the dose. As it happened, it was the same amount that Eliot would have gotten out for himself, so he took them without comment.

Once he'd drained the water, Eliot pushed himself up with his good arm, managing not to stagger as he slid off the stool. "You know where the door is; I'm going to bed."

Nathan shrugged. "I'm going to hang out here for a while."

Eliot scowled. The loft was his retreat and he didn't lightly let anyone in. He hadn't ever brought any of his romantic liaisons homes, although there weren't nearly as many of those as he pretended there were, nor were they all female. Eliot wasn't sure that he'd be able to rest with Nathan present, but doubted he had much of a choice.

"Your choice," he tried to be nonchalant as he moved towards the stairs. "Drink all my beer and I will kick your ass."

"Your beer is safe with me," Nathan sounded irritated, but Eliot didn't turn around to check.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know," Eliot grunted as he went up the first stair. "You don't drink on the job."

Eliot wasn't sure if he liked the idea of Nathan taking care of him being lumped into the 'job' category. He decided that it made him crabby, never mind why. He just needed the extra fuel that his irritation gave him for the climb up the stairs.

What Eliot really wanted to do once he reached his lofted bedroom was flop on his stomach onto the mattress and forget the world for a while. He couldn't do that, for two reasons. First, his injuries made that a very bad idea; the last thing he needed was to jostle a broken rib into his lung or some other vital organ. Second, Nathan Ford was downstairs. There was no way, Eliot figured, that he would be able to sleep with the other man in his house.

Instead of flopping, Eliot carefully lowered himself onto the bed. If he couldn't sleep, he reasoned, at least he could rest. He was wrong, though. Almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, Eliot was out like a light.

There were different kinds of sleep. The catnap snatched in between jobs. The restlessness after a job gone bad. Or, Eliot's personal favorite, the satiated fuzziness after a good round of sex. What he experienced was none of those. Instead, it was the virtual unconsciousness of a body pushed beyond its limit. Unfortunately, it was the kind of sleep that Eliot was all too familiar with.

Consciousness came slowly. Eliot had long ago learned how to wake up while still seeming asleep. He did that instinctively; some part of him remembering that he was injured and would need to be cautious. It wasn't needed. As awareness returned, Eliot realized he was in his own bed.

Eliot carefully tried to shift position, but something hampered his movement. He immediately stilled, the softness behind his back leading him to think that someone was in the bed with him. Slowly, though, it occurred to him that there was no sound of breathing and no warmth in the softness pressing close. Not a person, then.

How did a pillow get behind his back?

"Wha' the hell?" Eliot muttered. His mouth felt sticky, like it was full of peanut butter. He lifted his head, his gaze caught by a large sheet of paper propped up against the nightstand. The top half of the paper had a black and white photo of Nathan on it. The bottom half was lettering that read:


With a groan, Eliot let his head fall back to the pillow. Seeing Nathan's picture started to bring it all back to him. That job that went sour, getting hurt, and Nathan insisting on accompanying him home.

Eliot carefully sat up, his good arm coming around to wrap around his stomach. When he swung his legs around, equally carefully, he noticed that his shoes were off. His memory of going to bed was a little hazy, but he was pretty sure that he hadn't bothered to remove anything. Since he wore boots, it wasn't like he could have kicked them off while he slept. Besides, from the pristine condition of the bed, Eliot hadn't moved since collapsing on it, making the kicking off theory even less likely.

Which left only one option; if Eliot hadn't removed them, someone else had done it for him.

"You have some explainin' to do," Eliot glared at Nathan's picture.

Pushing off on the mattress with his good hand, Eliot swayed a little as he got to his feet. He hadn't expected to be off-balance, since none of his injuries had been to his head. As he woke more fully, though, Eliot had vague memories of waking during night and someone giving him water. Or maybe water and a pill?

Eliot glared at Nathan's photo again. "Make that a hell of a lot of explainin' to do."

After a quick, but awkward, trip into the bathroom, Eliot clumped down the stairs. He'd forgotten to look at the clock, but he didn't really care what time it was. If Nathan was sleeping, then it was just too damn bad.

He was almost sorry to see Nathan in the kitchen, leaning against the counter and reading the paper.

"You drugged me," Eliot accused.

"Yup." Nathan didn't even try to deny it.

"I told you that I don't do pain pills," Eliot ground out between clenched teeth. "What gave you the right to slip 'em to me?"

Nathan folded the paper before putting it down. "I figured that if you were out of it enough to take the pill, then you obviously needed it."

Eliot groaned. "That sounds like Parker's reasoning."

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Nathan smirked. "Come on, I'll get you some soup."

"Soup?" Eliot shuffled over to the breakfast bar. "That's a strange thing to serve in the morning."

"Guess again, Morning Glory, it's after lunchtime," Nathan chuckled as he dished up some soup from a pot that had been simmering on the stove. "I guess you needed the sleep."

Eliot hadn't thought he was hungry until Nathan put the food down in front of him. He took a spoonful and, to his surprise, it sat pretty well on his stomach.

"S'good," Eliot muttered before taking a second spoonful.

"I'll tell Sophie," Nathan told him. "She brought it."

Eliot choked and looked down at his bowl as though it had betrayed him. "Sophie made this?"

Nathan shook his head. "I didn't say she made it, I said she brought it. I told her about a decent deli near here."

"Don't scare me like that," Eliot sighed in relief. Sophie was many things, but a cook wasn't one of them.

"Hardison dropped off a PlayStation 3 and some games he said you could play with one hand," Nathan went on. "And Parker brought a flower."

Eliot swallowed. "A flower?"

"That's what I think it is," Nathan placed a plastic flower pot in front of Eliot. It contained equally plastic flowers. "There's a card."

After putting his spoon down, Eliot took the card and read it. "She says that that this kind is easier to take care of than the real thing."

"She has a point," Nathan agreed. "And a real flower can't do this."

Nathan pushed a button on the bottom of the pot. To Eliot's horror, the flowers started to sway to a badly recorded version of "You are My Sunshine."

Eliot looked at Nathan. "Make it stop."

Chuckling, Nathan hit the button again and the sound immediately ceased. "I guess I know what to threaten you with the next time you misbehave."

"I guess I know what I'm using the next time I do target practice," Eliot countered.

Nathan lifted one eyebrow archly. "Really? I want to be there when you tell Parker about it."

Shoving a spoon in his mouth kept Eliot from having to answering that. He ate the rest of his soup in silence. It was a comfortable silence, though, Nathan seemingly not inclined to try and fill it. Eliot liked that, especially since the rest of the members of their team chattered like jackdaws.

"You done?" Nathan asked as Eliot pushed the bowl away from him. "There's more if you want it."

"Nah." With his basic needs met, Eliot's skin began to crawl. "I'm gonna take a shower."

Nathan frowned. "You've been stabbed and shot. You can't risk getting water into those wounds just yet."

Eliot worked his way to his feet, grimacing as the movement caused his broken ribs to shift. "I think I been shot a few dozen times more n' you, Nate. I'll be just fine."

To Eliot's surprise, Nathan didn't argue anymore. The older man just watched silently as Eliot made his slow way across the kitchen and towards the stairs. Eliot's steps grew lighter the higher up he went. The pain was still there, but the prospect of a hot shower encouraged him.

The bathroom was another area where Eliot had splurged. The shower was large, tiled in marble and had the biggest showerhead that Eliot could find. It had taken three retrievals to pay for the whole thing, but the cost had been worth it. His body was Eliot's first and best weapon; it was worth a lot to keep it in prime condition. Sometimes, in fact, Eliot thought the most successful relationship in his life was with his shower.

Which was why he got so enraged when he saw what Nathan had done to it.

"Nathan!" Eliot bellowed when he saw the damage. Yelling hurt his ribs, but he was too angry to care. "Get your ass up here."

"You called?" Nathan answered, a heck of a lot closer than Eliot expected. The bastard must have followed him up the stairs.

Eliot turned to confront him. "What the hell did you do to my shower?"

"Took the showerhead off," Nathan shrugged at the obviousness of his answer. "You aren't supposed to get open wounds wet until they've had a chance to close and I had a feeling you'd get impatient."

"You had no right," Eliot sputtered.

"When you're feeling well enough, you can kick my ass for it," Nathan was implacable. "Until then, a sink bath will have to do."

Eliot glared at him. "I am not taking a whore's bath."

"I don't care what you call it," a hint of steel entered Nathan's voice. "But if you want to get clean, that's the only option you've got right now."

And then he left the room.

After gaping for a few moments, Eliot yelled after him. "We'll be talking about this later, Ford."

"I'm counting on it." Nathan's voice was fainter, probably because he'd already started going down the stairs.

Grumbling to himself, Eliot shuffled around the bathroom. He winced as he pulled his t-shirt over his head. Even the simple matter of removing it aggravated all of his major wounds, but it had to be done. It didn't take long to fill the sink with water and he set to washing as best as he was able. He was careful, despite the urge to spite Nathan, not to get his bandages wet.

The sink bath wasn't particularly satisfying, but by the time he was half through, Eliot's energy was seriously flagging. He looked around at the water splashed on the tiles and the towel that had slid onto the floor. Without thinking, Eliot bent to pick up the latter, but stopped short when pain sliced through him.

"What the hell, Nate can deal with it," Eliot muttered. He grinned as he realized that Nathan's mother henning could have an up side.

After shuffling back to his bedroom, Eliot crawled back into bed. He had every intention of falling asleep, but was interrupted before he could drift off.

"Not so fast," Nathan was in Eliot's room again. "You didn't take your antibiotics."

Eliot opened one eye. "You have got to be kiddin' me."

Nathan rattled the pill bottle. "Take your medicine like a good little retrieval specialist and I'll leave you alone to take your nap."

With his injuries, Eliot's options were few. His body was simply in no shape to hurt Nathan to the extent that the comment deserved.

"Gimme," Eliot held out his good arm for the pills. Nathan, wisely, didn't smile as he handed them over. Eliot swallowed them dry as he contemplated the older man.

"You know, it occurs to me that you could stand to get some basic self defense training," Eliot drawled. He smiled a nasty smile when Nathan winced. "I'll see to it myself when I'm up to snuff."

"Goody," Nathan didn't look as thrilled as his response suggested.

With that satisfaction bolstering him, Eliot slid into sleep almost as soon as Nathan left the room. Unlike the previous night, Nathan didn't wake Eliot to trick him into pain medication. It meant a less restful nap, but at least when Eliot awoke, his head was clearer. And if he was in more pain, he wasn't about to complain about it.

Something had awakened him, but Eliot couldn't quite figure out what. Maybe it was a noise, since he wasn't used to having someone else in his place. He didn't spend much time wondering about it, once he lay still enough to determine that there was no threat. Eliot's body informed him that he needed to make a quick stop to the bathroom. Once there, he noticed that it had been cleaned up while he slept. It didn't matter; he was still planning on giving Nathan those self defense lessons.

Eliot went back to his bedroom long enough to shrug a button-front shirt on, choosing an old one that had worn soft with repeated wearing and washing. Leaving the shirt open, Eliot went downstairs to figure out what had woken him up.

As he approached the lower level, Eliot realized what had disturbed his sleep. It hadn't been a noise; it was a smell and a delicious one at that. Nathan wasn't in the kitchen, though. The older man was sprawled on Eliot's leather-look couch.

"Tell me you didn't cook." It was half plea and half demand. While the food smelled good, the idea of Nathan cooking was only slightly less appalling than Sophie doing it.

"You can relax, your precious pots and pans are safe from me," Nathan drawled as he got up to join Eliot in the kitchen. "I can order take-out with the best of them."

Eliot breathed a sigh of relief, wincing as it caused his ribs to twinge. "Good."

Nathan pulled a foil-covered tin from the oven. Plastic plates and utensils had already been set on the breakfast bar, so it didn't take long before he was dishing up something for each of them.

Eliot's nose had been telling him what was on the menu, but he didn't believe it until he saw it. "Barbeque, huh?"

"I figured, given where you're from, this'd be comfort food," Nathan licked a stray splotch of sauce off of his thumb. "You need to get something in your stomach so you can take more pills; might as well be something you like."

It was with some difficulty that Eliot tore his eyes away from Nathan's glistening thumb. "Yeah, I guess so."

They ate in companionable silence for a few moments. Nathan had ordered pulled pork barbeque instead of ribs, but Eliot didn't mind. He could admit, since it was only to himself, that ribs would have been hard to eat with his current physical state.

"I wouldn't have figured you for a vinyl guy," Nathan commented out of the blue.

It took Eliot a minute to figure out what the other man was talking about. "You mean the couch?" When Nathan nodded, Eliot shrugged and went back to eating. "It can just be wiped off if any body fluids get on it."

"Body fluids?" Nathan frowned. "Like blood?"

The question put some of Nathan's actions in perspective. "Is that's what bothering you, that I got hurt on this job? You've been acting all fussy."

"I had your blood on my hands, literally," Nathan answered quietly. "I don't want that to happen again, ever."

Eliot blinked at the vehemence in the other man's voice. It made sense, though. Nathan was their leader and leaders, the good ones anyway, tended to take it personally when their people got injured.

"Well all righty, then," Eliot responded. "Keep my hide in one piece, I'll be sure to add it to my priority list."

Nathan glared at him. "You better."

The rest of the meal was finished in silence. When they were through, Nathan stood to remove the plates before Eliot could even move.

"I ain't that hurt, Nate," Eliot complained. His scalp started to itch and he scratched at it before tucking his hair behind his ear.

"I know," Nathan grinned. "That's the great thing about take-out, cleaning up is easy." He gathered up all of the empty containers and plates and dumped the whole mess into the garbage.

"And I'm supposed to be the thug of the group," Eliot complained. "You got no couth, Nate."

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Nathan replied.

Eliot snorted with laughter. Unfortunately, his body was at an odd angle and it caused unexpected pain and he flinched a little.

Nathan got serious. "Okay, let's see what the damage looks like."

"Come on, Nate, it's fine," Eliot protested. He did not like the determined glint in Nathan's eye. "I just moved a little wrong is all."

"I need to check and make sure infection's not setting in," Nathan insisted.

"Think I've been shot and stabbed enough that I know what infection feels like," Eliot snarled, whatever good mood the meal had brought rapidly dissipating.

"You say that like it's a good thing," Nathan shook his head in dismay, but didn't back down. "Buck up and quit being a baby about it."

Eliot held still as Nathan moved his shirt aside enough to loosen his bandages. He didn't know why he was acting like a virgin on her prom date, but for some reason, he was twitchy about having Nathan's hands on him. When the touch came, though, it was light and gentle. Eliot hardly felt any pain as the bandages were carefully pulled back and then just as carefully replaced.

Apparently Nathan was pleased with how the wounds were progressing, which was fine, except for soft sound of approval Nathan made. The sound went straight to certain parts of Eliot's body and it took everything he had to not embarrass himself. At least his injuries came in handy, though, making it easier to quell certain urges than it normally would have been.

"Looking good," Nathan informed Eliot.

For some reason, the older man hadn't pulled back and he was right in Eliot's face when he made his comment. They were close enough that Eliot could see the flecks of gold in Nathan's eyes.

"I could have told you that," Eliot snarled as a way to distract Nathan from seeing how much his nearness disconcerted him. "In fact, I did tell you; you just didn't listen to me. I'm not stupid, Nathan, even if you did bring me on this team because of my muscles and not my brains."

Huh. That last bit rang more true than Eliot had intended. Maybe his snarl wasn't as feigned as he thought. Confused, Eliot was almost happy when his scalp started to itching again. He scratched it while glaring at Nathan, hoping that the older man would back off.

It worked. Nathan moved away a few feet, although it seemed like he was using the distance to study Eliot.

"For the record, I didn't put you on the team, Victor Dubenich did," Nathan clarified. Eliot felt his stomach sink. "But I kept you on the team because you're smart and resourceful, not just because you can hit harder than anybody I know. Are we clear on that?"

Eliot looked away. "Fine."

An uncomfortable silence descended over the two.

"You're awfully pissy, even for you," Nathan eventually said. "What's the matter?"

The last thing that Eliot wanted was to tell Nathan the truth and, although Eliot was well versed in lying, he didn't want to do that either. Feeling like a goof, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"M'hair's dirty," Eliot muttered.

The expression on Nathan's face was almost worth the embarrassment that the claim caused.

"Your hair is dirty?" Nathan repeated, clearly trying not to smile.

"Since somebody wouldn't let me shower, yeah," Eliot had committed himself to his excuse and decided to go on the offensive with it. "And you know when you give me the showerhead back that I'm gonna beat you with it."

Nathan ignored the second comment and focused on the first. "If your hair's dirty, then I'll just have to wash it for you."

Eliot's mouth dropped. "That's, that's not necessary."

"Nonsense," Nathan waved off Eliot's protest. "It's only fair, since I'm the bastard that won't let you shower. You probably keep your shampoo upstairs, right?"

Nathan was bounding up the stairs before Eliot could say yes or no.

"Ah, hell," Eliot muttered under his breath. "Eliot, old son, you have a big mouth."

When Nathan came back, he had the shampoo bottle in his hand and a couple of towels under his arm.

"Look, you're not touching my hair, Nate," Eliot tried to dissuade the other man. "No way, no how."

"Okay," Nathan surprised Eliot by agreeing.

"Yeah?" Eliot was startled into saying. He grimaced and tried again. "Good, glad I didn't have to beat some sense into you."

"Not a problem," Nathan was a little too affable about the whole thing and Eliot's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "I'm sure that Sophie won't mind coming over and doing it for you."

Eliot gulped. "Sophie?"

"She's been wanting to help out," Nathan explained. "I think Sophie's got some lines for an audition she needs to work on too. I can go over those with her while she's washing your hair. That way it's a win-win situation."

The thought of being immobilized while Sophie washed his hair for him, forced to listen to her practice her acting, sounded as far from a win-win to Eliot as it was possible to get. He'd seen Sophie in a play and that was an actual performance; she was bound to be even worse when she was just practicing.

"You are an evil man, Nathan Ford," Eliot accused Nathan.

Nathan's grin was slow and satisfied. "Why do you think I was so good at chasing criminals?"

Eliot blew a hank of hair out of his eyes. "Let's get it over with."

"You sound like you're about to face a firing squad," Nathan retorted.

The comment caused Eliot's memory to flash back to a tense situation in a Chinese prison. He gave Nathan a baleful look. "It's worse."

Nathan snorted, but didn't comment. Instead, the older man moved into the living room.

"What are you doin?" Eliot asked. "You going to rearrange my furniture for me?"

"Not hardly," Nathan replied. He grabbed Eliot's easy chair and picked it up. "With those broken ribs, it's not like you can bend over the sink. This should help make it as painless as possible for you."

Had it been a normal easy chair, it wouldn't have worked, but Eliot had chosen one with a sleek Scandinavian style. Like the couch, it was covered in vinyl made to look like leather and, once Nathan put it in front of the sink, Eliot realized that it actually looked like a barber's chair. It sat a little too low to work well with the sink, but Nathan fixed that by taking all of the cushions from the kitchen chairs and stacking them onto the easy chair. Not only would Eliot sit taller, but he'd have a mighty soft seat too.

"I'm ready when you are," Nathan made a grand gesture towards the chair.

Eliot sat down gingerly, as though he expected the chair to bite him. It didn't, but he was still startled when Nathan made the chair lean back. Nathan had positioned it so that Eliot was facing out towards the kitchen, with his back to the sink. The tilt allowed Eliot's head to be practically in the sink.

"You okay?" Nathan asked. He probably had noticed Eliot stiffen at the movement.

"Peachy," Eliot retorted, forcing the words out between clenched teeth.

Thankfully Nathan started the water without saying anything more. The sink in Eliot's kitchen had a hose and Nathan used it to wet Eliot's hair. The water he used was warm and Eliot found himself relaxing minutely at its touch. If he thought that was good, though, it was nothing to compared to when the water stopped and was replaced by Nathan's fingers. The older man worked shampoo into Eliot's hair and then began to massage it into Eliot's scalp.

"S'good," Eliot murmured, eyes closed so he could concentrate on the sensation.

"I thought you might like that," Nathan sounded smug, but Eliot was too content to open his eyes to look. "You surprised me again, Eliot."

"Why?" Only mildly curious, Eliot remained unwilling to open his eyes.

"Your hair," Nathan explained. "I thought you kept it long because you didn't want to be bothered to cut it, but this shampoo's the good stuff. You don't keep your hair long out of neglect."

"Spent too many years with my hair short because somebody else insisted on it," Eliot surprised himself by revealing. Maybe Nathan's shampoo treatment was a little too relaxing. He opened his eyes, but since he'd started, decided to finish explaining. "I promised myself that when I was free to choose, that I'd keep it long."

Nathan nodded. "Makes sense."

The two men lapsed into silence as Nathan continued to wash Eliot's hair. It was almost with regret that Eliot felt Nathan stop his massage action and begin to rinse his hair. He was limp with pleasure and figured that maybe he needed to start going to a hair salon on a regular basis.

"Okay, sit up now," Nathan instructed when then rinsing finished.

Eliot needed help getting upright, which undid some of the relaxing that the shampoo had accomplished. Nathan, however, wasn't done. He started carefully toweling Eliot's hair dry and when he was done with that, picked up a comb.

"I can do that," Eliot insisted, reaching for the comb.

"You can lift your hand that high up with broken ribs?" Nathan scoffed. "I don't think so."

Eliot was forced to sit and let Nathan comb his hair for him. It made him feel like an invalid or, worse yet, some sort of doll. Neither idea sat very well with Eliot and the good feelings from the massage were stripped away. By the time Nathan was through, Eliot was scowling again.

"There you go," Nathan said with some pride as he finished. He stepped back to take a look at his handiwork.

"What?" Eliot scowled. "You aren't going to braid it or put in ribbons or anything?"

Eliot was looking right at Nathan, but he still couldn't quite figure out what the expression on the other man's face was. No doubt if he were a grifter of Sophie's skill, Eliot could have been able to decipher the look as amusement or fondness.

"Has anyone ever told you," Nathan asked as he moved back into Eliot's personal space, "that you're adorable when you're crabby?"

"What?" Eliot blurted out. Nathan had obviously gotten some shampoo in Eliot's ears, because surely he hadn't heard that correctly.

"You're adorable when you're crabby," Nathan repeated, leaning down so that his mouth was almost touching Eliot's. "And when you're crabby and wet, you're irresistible."

And then their mouths were touching as Nathan pressed a kiss onto Eliot's lips. Startled, Eliot didn't do anything at first, then with a needy noise, he leaned into Nathan. He tried to reach up to pull the older man closer, but in the heat of the moment, used his bad arm by mistake.

"Hey," Nathan broke the kiss gently and bumped his forehead against Eliot's. "I appreciate the enthusiasm, but don't hurt yourself more than you already are."

"What is this, Nate?" Eliot asked, voice hoarse. "What are you doing?"

"Kissing you," Nathan said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Eliot pressed the issue, although he didn't try and move away. "Why?"

"I told you, you're irresistible when you're all cranky and wet," Nathan replied with a shrug.

"And you picked when I'm hurt to spring this one me?" Eliot demanded.

Nathan's lips twitched with a smile. "What better time to try it? I figured if you didn't like it, then at least I had a fighting chance of getting away before you killed me. That wouldn't be the case if you were healthy." He pulled back and gave Eliot a worried look. "You don't want to kill me, do you?"

"I'm serious, Nate," Eliot ignored Nathan's hangdog expression. It wasn't easy, which made him even more irritated. "What the hell kind of game are you playing at?"

"It's not a game," Nathan protested. "And I am not playing you."

"Yeah, right," Eliot scoffed. "Because a man still in love with his ex-wife suddenly has the urge to make a pass at me."

"There's nothing sudden about it," Nathan stated quietly. "At least, not on my side."

Eliot snorted. "You're assuming I have a side."

"That kiss says you do," Nathan asserted.

Damn. Nathan was right. Worse yet, from the smug expression on Nathan's face, Nathan knew it too.

"Maybe," Eliot ignored the way that one word caused Nathan's face to light up. "You still haven't explained the ex-wife part."

"I love Maggie; I probably always will," Nathan said bluntly. "But Sam's death changed both of us. She's not the woman I married and I'm sure as hell not the man she exchanged vows with."

"And you've noticed that I'm a man?" Eliot pressed. For a smart guy, Nathan could be a little slow on some stuff.

Nathan's smile grew lecherous. "Oh, yeah, I've noticed." Eliot kept a blush off his face by sheer willpower and, at his stern expression, Nathan toned his own down a bit. "Maggie and I both kept our options open before we married, but while I was married, I didn't stray. With either sex."

Eliot believed him and relaxed a little bit. Nathan noticed and sidled a little closer. The movement was not lost on Eliot.

"Not so fast," Eliot put a hand on Nathan's chest, preventing him from coming any closer. "What about Sophie?"

"Sophie?" Nathan sounded, and looked, frustrated, which pleased Eliot no end. "What does she have to do with anything?"

Eliot snorted. "In case you haven't noticed, she's sweet on you."

"Oh, that," Nathan waved his hand as if dismissing something unimportant. "We talked about it and I told her I would never be involved with another woman."

"Just like that?" Eliot frowned. In his experience, women weren't so easily dissuaded.

"Sophie's a thief, Eliot," Nathan explained. "With her, it's the getting, not the having. Once I pointed out that I was on to her, the joy of the pursuit was over." His grinned lopsidedly. "Besides, I think she's going to be a little busy."

"Oh yeah?" In spite of himself, Eliot's interest was piqued. He still didn't know what to do about the whole teamwork thing, but wasn't sure he wanted something like a romance breaking the group up. "With what?"

"Parker apparently hasn't been able to determine if she likes boys or girls," Nathan explained. "And so she's decided that she needs one of each, in all the combinations that it's possible for a trio to have."

"Oh," Eliot said. Then it hit him what Nathan was implying and he repeated it rather more forcefully. "Oh."

"Yeah," Nathan's grin widened. "Good thing that Alec's young and has all that stamina. He's going to need it."

"Huh." Eliot's mind was doing cartwheels, just trying to picture Parker, Hardison and Sophie all in one bed together.

Nathan took advantage of Eliot's distraction to move even closer. "So does that take care of your list?"

Eliot snapped back to the conversation at hand. "What list?"

"The list of things you need to know before you can admit that you want me too," Nathan explained.

"You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?" Eliot snorted, wiggling uncomfortably on the chair.

"When it comes to you, I am," Nathan's voice gentled. "It's not easy for you to trust, Eliot. I know that."

Eliot stilled. "I've had one too many relationships go south on me."

"I won't be one of them," Nathan promised. "I'm relentless, you know that. I've chased you before."

"Yeah, I remember," Eliot glared at Nathan. "Does this mean you're gonna follow me around forever and give me the puppy dog eyes until I give in?"

Nathan nodded, not looking the least bit sorry. "Pretty much."

"All right," Eliot conceded.

"That's it? 'All right?'" Nathan seemed amused rather than angry.

Eliot snorted and started to stand up. "If you wanted kittens and sparkly hearts, you should have tried to get in with Parker's group."

Maybe Eliot was moving slower than normal or Nathan was just quicker than usual, but Nathan got a hand under Eliot's good elbow and helped him get to his feet. Once they were both standing, they were closer to eye to eye. Nathan smiled gently and brushed the hair out of Eliot's face.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Eliot."

It was obvious that Nathan wasn't talking about physically hurting Eliot, since even injured, Eliot could probably wipe the floor with the older man. No, Nathan was talking about a different kind of hurt; one that was much harder to see and even harder to heal from.

"Yeah, I know," Eliot admitted.

"It's about time," Nathan slid his arms around Eliot and pulled him close, careful of Eliot's injuries. Their third and fourth kisses were gentle and full of promise.

"Come on, you need to get more sleep," Nathan tugged Eliot towards the stairs.

"Sleep?" Eliot allowed himself to be lead, but it didn't stop him from protesting. "After the discussion we just had, I'm thinking there are other things we ought to be doing in that bed."

"Later," Nathan said primly. "When you're more healed." The look he gave Eliot was full of steam. "Besides, you're going to need all your strength for tomorrow. I can't hold the others off any longer than that."

"The others?" Eliot was not pleased. "I do not want Parker and Hardison and Sophie over here."

The men had made their way up the stairs and were entering Eliot's bedroom.

"They're your team, Eliot, whether you like it or not," Nathan pointed out. "They care about you and just want to check and make sure you're okay."

Eliot made a rude comment, causing Nathan to laugh.

"Come on, Eliot, there's no I in 'team,'" Nathan chastised him.

They stopped just short of the bed and Eliot gave Nathan the hairy eyeball. "Ain't no I in blow job, either, Nate."

Nathan opened and shut his mouth a few times, not having a glib answer. Finally, he visibly deflated. "I'll call the others and tell them not to come."


Eliot was suddenly too tired to be smug about his victory, small as it was. He let Nathan help him into bed, silently holding out his hand to ask Nathan to join him. To his relief, Nathan did, wrapping around Eliot from behind like a living blanket. They exchanged a couple of chaste kisses, but unfortunately Nathan proved to have better self control than Eliot did.

"You need to sleep," Nathan stroked Eliot's hip. "I'll still be here in the morning."

"You better be," Eliot growled. He spoiled the effect by yawning, though. Nathan snorted with laughter and, with as much dignity as he could muster, Eliot ignored him and snuggled deeper into the covers.

"Nate?" Eliot asked before sleep could completely overtake him. He wasn't sure he could say this looking Nathan in the eye.

"Yeah," Nathan kept up his rhythmic petting of Nathan's hip.

"You know how you said that crabby and wet was a good look on me?" Eliot continued before Nathan could respond. "You know what's a good look on you?"

Nathan sounded amused as he responded. "No, what?"

Eliot took a deep breath. "Sober."

The hand stroking him faltered, but just for a moment. "Okay, I can do that."

"Good," Eliot held out the breath he'd been holding. He doubted it would always be that simple between them, but it was a good start.

"Go to sleep, Eliot," Nathan encouraged him again. "I've got you."

As Eliot did as he was bid, he couldn't help but think that maybe the whole teamwork gig wasn't as bad as he originally thought.


~the end~


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