The moment they started to realize the wholesale goods company they were aiming to take down was actually a cover for, among other things, human trafficking, Hardison said, "We should call someone. The Feds, probably."
Parker's eyes darkened in thought. Finally, she said, "They won't believe us without something to show for it."
The bitch of it was, she was right.
It made the most sense for Parker, with her slight build and her dollface, to be the one who did the infiltration, but Eliot was adamant on this issue. He started with, "No," and ended with, "It's me or I shut us down," and while Parker could—and did—win most arguments between them, it was clear she believed him.
Eliot wasn't good at non-threatening, but he was good at dumb-as-a-brick-and-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time. It generally worked as a back-up.
Parker revised the plan and Hardison injected Eliot with a tracking device. At best, it would be a couple of days and a little bit of being shoved around and they would have what they needed. At worst, well. Their plans never came without an element of this-might-end-up-with-one-of-us-dead. This time it was just a little more likely.
The plan, such as it was, went wrong pretty much from the get-go. They had set it up to look as though Eliot had been sold off as a "disappeared" government agent, therefore useful for bodyguard work so long as he could be controlled. The downside to this was that he was likely to have to resist enough to incur "training" in order for the charade to be taken seriously. The upside was that he'd have a position of relative mobility and power within the world of flesh-trading.
So, of course, the merchant decided Eliot would make the perfect bed ornament for someone who liked them feisty, tranqued him and put him in wristbands that were soldered shut tightly against his skin. The right one—as demonstrated shortly after he regained consciousness—released a toxin that wouldn't kill him, but made him so hellishly sick he deeply wished it had. The left one would kill him.
They hadn't been able to risk comms for the op, so Eliot just hoped Parker and Hardison figured out there was a problem sooner rather than later. Until then, he could be patient, wait for a chance to kill every person in the ring and a few who were vaguely aware of it. It was a relief he had won the argument as to who went inside. Eliot was well-versed in coping, in waiting things out, in surviving. Beyond his most recent stint playing PTSD-ridden vet for the sake of Nate's plans, he'd spent his fair share of months in cells throughout the better part of the eastern quadrant of Europe, and some time in a particularly squalid prison in Iran. And sure, Parker had survival down, but Eliot would take apart anyone who made her re-sharpen the skill.
If the fact that he couldn't even hear the team's voices somehow made this time a little worse than the last, than all the times before, that was neither here nor there. Eliot was fine, and would be until his team found a way to get to him.
No, things were fine. Parker and Hardison had a tracker on him and would find him. In the meantime, he'd collect what information he could from this less-than-optimal position, and when he found a way out or they pulled him out, it would be go time.
Based on the scant routine of the 'merchants' he'd been able to surveil, Eliot thought it was his third day in chains. Lack of food had twisted his belly and begun to make him light-headed; he'd overheard some of the guards laughing about how hunger always made the goods more malleable. He didn't struggle when they dragged him into a large room full of people and tied him to a hook in the ceiling. He kept his face impassive as a guy listed his 'selling points.' There wasn't any bidding. He was given a lot number and he could only assume there was a system whereby people put in their offers electronically and the highest bidder won.
In his case, the highest bidder was a man who had the build of a football player and a very shiny, very bald head. When he came to collect Eliot, he smirked and said, "We meet again, Spencer."
Eliot racked his brain for who the guy might be, but couldn't place him. Even without remembering their prior encounter, Eliot was well-aware this was not good.
His buyer monologued a lot. It was annoying, but also useful. Evidently, the guy was convinced Eliot had 'despoiled' (his words, not Eliot's; Eliot hadn't said anything so far) his baby sister. And possibly stolen trade secrets from him. That second part was even murkier than the first. Eliot had never taken anything from a woman she didn't want to give, so the first accusation didn't worry him. It was possible the second had occurred during his mercenary years, in which case, yeah, he probably shouldn't have done it.
Not that he felt this response—human slavery as revenge—was appropriate on any level. He was just willing to acknowledge he'd done some pretty shitty things to people before Nate had come and reminded him there was something worthwhile left in him.
He suspected, from the few hints he'd been able to gather, that he was east of where he'd begun this op, but aside from that, he had no idea of his location. He was being kept in thin, sturdy steel chains, his hands bound in front, but with his palms facing away from each other. They'd broken his dominant ankle when he'd first arrived after being sold. Whether it was his buyer or one of his lackeys, somebody was a professional.
He'd been given water but still no food, and the four cement walls he was resting between weren't giving him any clues on the passage of time. He hated the lack of information more than anything, really. Eventually, the buyer came in with two other men. Eliot considered his options, but he didn't have any limbs free. They dragged him to a set of hooks anchored into the wall and braided parts of the chain through the hooks to keep him tied face first to the wall.
From behind him, Buyer said, "Evelyn liked that you were a cowboy," before the first hit. Eliot took the pain into himself and breathed it out. He couldn't place the precise kind of whip being used, but he suspected, given the context, it was some type of horsewhip.
Because he just couldn't help himself, he said, "And boy, was she a nice ride."
After that the blows came in intense, nearly rhythmic falls until Eliot forced himself to lock the room and everything in it away, behind the sound of Parker's laughter and the terrible taste of pilfered orange soda.
The second whipping came not long after the first, perhaps because Buyer hadn't been able to force Eliot to scream, or perhaps simply because once given a taste, he couldn't help himself. It didn't matter. What mattered was that he'd chosen a bullwhip this time, and Eliot's skin broke a lot earlier than in their prior session. What mattered was that Eliot's back was already a torn and bloody mess going into this round. What mattered was that, even if it was stupid, Eliot wasn't going to give this guy any more satisfaction than he was already taking for himself.
After the third round—riding crop; would have been laughable if there weren't open wounds involved—they doused him with salt water. He blacked out for a few minutes, not long, he didn't think, but he woke up on the ground. He was still chained to the wall, but there was enough give that he could lie on his side if he stayed close.
The team had set up a check-in for the fifth day. Eliot was ninety-nine percent sure he was on the sixth day, which meant that, assuming the tracker was still working, the cavalry would be here soon. Hardison had proven, over and over, that his tech could be trusted. Eliot was glad he had that to hold onto, because if he was left with these guys much longer, he was going to revert into someone he wasn't anymore and hadn't ever wanted to be.
He tried to sleep a bit: it was the only thing he could do to help his body out. The instinct to rest while he could warred with his need to be alert, producing a broken sleep. He startled to alertness when Buyer came down and triggered the release on his right wrist-cuff.
If he'd thought it was bad when he wasn't already beaten all to hell, well, he'd been wrong.
Eliot wasn't tracking real well, but all the same, he noticed when something changed. It wasn't in the noise or the vibrations of his cell, but he still knew, could feel the shift somewhere deeper than his conscious mind.
He almost laughed when he saw who was coming to get him out. Amidst swarms of federal agents emerged a terribly familiar figure with blonde hair, a dark suit, and a badge Eliot's own contacts had forged. She knelt down, one hand darting forward to brush hair away from his eyes while the other settled on his bicep, light as a butterfly. Her breath drew in sharply, and she snapped out, "I need medical over here, now." He didn't mean to say, "Hey," but he was in pain, he wanted Parker to meet his eyes.
She whispered, "This is not how we go about amassing evidence, mister."
Eliot smiled as best he could. "Worked, dinnit?"
The next time Eliot woke up aware of his surroundings, he was in the house they'd bought off the coast of South Carolina to be one of their operation centers. It wasn't the abode he was most familiar with, but he knew it well enough to be certain of where he was. He peered over, and, sure enough, Hardison was by the bed, playing on a tablet.
Eliot tried speaking up, but just coughed a bit. Hardison said, "Hey man," and stood up. The plastic cup he handed Eliot was three-fourths water, but had probably been ice chips at some point, judging from Hardison's, "Oh, sorry."
Eliot sipped a bit before asking, "Weren't we in Texas?"
"When this all started, yeah. Not when it finished."
It worried Eliot that he hadn't realized how far he'd been transported, but he decided to think about it later. "Thanks for skipping the hospital."
"We didn't," Parker said from the door, yawning. Eliot hoped she'd gotten in a decent nap, but from the look on Hardison's face, doubtful. "But you escaped while still technically unconscious, so we decided it wasn't the best place for you to recover."
Eliot tried smiling unrepentantly at her. He suspected it mostly came out as a flutter of his lips, but she seemed to get it, because she rolled her eyes. Then she took a running leap at the bed. When she landed on him, he let out a grunt of discomfort.
"Oh, stop being such a baby," she said, then snuggled in next to him and didn't move. Hardison wasn't even pretending to mind, so Eliot knew he'd scared them.
He murmured, "Sorry," into her hair.
They both said, "You should be."
Eliot didn't like hospitals; that wasn't the same as disdaining all medical treatment. He waited until the antibiotics course had finished and he could sit up without a wave of dizziness to carefully remove the IVs, slip on a pair of swimming shorts, buckle his ankle into a plastic walking cast, and pad down to the ocean-side. Most of his torso was still bandaged, and Eliot wasn't enough of an idiot to dunk half-healed flesh in salt-water, but he could walk for a bit, let the waves splash over his toes, cold and shocking and welcome.
He didn't stay out long, the fatigue of healing driving him back inside shortly. When he got there, Hardison was sitting at the table in the breakfast nook, tapping away on a tablet. He looked up and said, "Good to see you up."
Parker came out of the kitchen with two cups, both steaming. She handed one to Eliot, and he took a sip. English breakfast tea with a squeeze of lemon, exactly the way he liked it. She said, "We need to change your bandages."
He could see in the strange way she fidgeted that she had done it before, had seen the damage. Hardison reached a hand out and squeezed her knee. It settled her a bit.
Eliot said, "I've had worse."
"Not because of a decision I made," Parker said.
"Not the first time one of our exploits has gone to shit. Not even the first time since Nate left."
"We couldn't talk to you, man," Hardison said quietly.
Even more quietly, Parker said, "You were in my place."
"No," Eliot said. "No. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Hitter, remember?"
Parker's face went a little cold, and she walked out. Hardison sighed. "You didn't see yourself. She had to roll in on that and play the objective Fed. She'll come around."
"I'll make peanut butter banana pancakes after I sleep for a bit."
"Yeah, that oughtta do it."
Later that day, when Parker had partaken of the Pancakes of Abject Apologies and was changing Eliot's bandages, her fingers pressed the raised skin with a gentleness he wasn't accustomed to from her. To the side, Hardison winced and looked away.
Eliot bit back a sigh and whipped around, catching Parker's wrist before she could move. She kept her eyes level with his, but he could see it was a struggle, which wasn't normal. He said, "You have scars on your calves, whipping scars."
They were faint and they'd taken Eliot longer than he was used to to comprehend, but they were there. Her eyes went a little cold. "Foster."
"Did anyone put you to bed, make sure you had cold water, and feed you your favorite things? Did anyone check to see that the temperature in the room was just right and you could hear the crash of waves if you wanted, because they knew that helped with any claustrophobia you might have?"
"Setting the bar awfully low," she muttered, but she didn't pull away from him.
He tugged her closer, against his chest and put his arms around her. "They'll heal, Parker. They'll become scars some asshole from the past gave me that didn't even matter, because we brought down a human smuggling ring and I got some downtime with my family."
Parker, who would usually be struggling against the hug by this time, just made a mildly contented noise, and wiggled in closer. Eliot peered over at where Hardison was doing a crap job of pretending to ignore what was going on right in front of him and said, "C'mon."
Hardison broke into a goofy grin and joined, his arms steady and cool and stable over Eliot's shoulders. Eliot closed his eyes and listened to the tide making its way in for the evening.