SUMMARY: He’d always been there to take care of them, and no one ever wondered who’d take care of him. Written for leverageland's Forever Alone Challenge.
WARNINGS: Aging, chronic illness, MAJOR SADZ
AUTHOR'S NOTES: When I was in high school I met Muhammad Ali. It was over 20 years ago, but even then it broke my heart to see how the Parkinson's had ravaged his body. This story is inspired by that meeting, because—let's face it—given the beatings we've seen him take, Eliot's future isn't very bright. I started out writing one version of this story, and then I decided I wanted to approach it another way so I rewrote it and submitted that one. But I think they work nicely together as Before & After companion pieces, so I'm posting them both here. Leveragelanders will recognize part II, but part I is new to you guys.
Eliot had never married. He never seemed to meet anyone special, never settled down, not like others. He’d always put the team first, put their needs ahead of his own. He’d always been there to take care of them, and no one ever wondered who’d take care of him. Even after they all retired and Nate and Sophie moved away, Eliot stuck around to help Alec and Parker run the restaurant instead of pursuing his own dreams, whatever they might have been.
Parker was the first to notice that something was wrong. It was subtle at first, just a little extra pain and stiffness in his knees. He didn’t say anything, of course, but she saw the signs. She figured it was just age and years of abuse taking its toll. It was to be expected, really. Nothing to worry about.
But then he starting doing this thing with his hand, rubbing his thumb back and forth against his fingers when he wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t like it.
One day she went into the restaurant early and found him bleeding all over the prep sink. He said he’d cut himself dicing onions. His favorite chef’s knife was lying on the floor and there was a gash in his left thumb that went almost to the bone. Now she was worried. Eliot didn’t cut himself—ever—and he definitely didn’t drop his knives on the the floor.
When he’d finally staunched the bleeding Parker helped him bandage it. That’s when she noticed the tremor in his right hand.
Their eyes met. He must have known she’d seen it because he looked scared. Eliot wasn’t supposed to look scared.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he said.
She agreed. But it didn’t feel right. She knew trust was important, but she wondered if there weren’t some things that were more important.
She watched Eliot closely after that. The tremor seemed to come and go. On days when it was the worst he tended to make himself scarce, finding excuses to be somewhere else. Even so, she wondered how no one else had noticed by now. Eventually, he stopped cooking and started avoiding the kitchen altogether. When Alec asked him about it he just shrugged and said something about letting the sous chef grow into her role without him breathing down her neck.
Parker knew the tremor must be getting worse when he started spending even less time at the restaurant. He began avoiding her and Alec, too, begging off whenever they invited him over to hang out or watch a game. She could feel Eliot pulling away from them in order to hide his secret, and it worried her even more than the tremor had.
Finally, she broke down and told Alec. Even though she was betraying a confidence, it felt like the right thing. Alec would know what to do, how to help Eliot.
And he did. He went online and started doing research right away. He found a specialist, the best in the area, and he got Eliot an appointment. And then he went with her to confront him about it.
At first Eliot was angry. It hurt to see the betrayal in his eyes when he looked at her. But after they talked it out and he’d finally agreed to go to the appointment Alec had made for him, he actually looked relieved. Parker knew she’d done the right thing.
Eliot was sick, and he was all alone in the world.
Except he wasn’t, because he had them. They’d take care of him the way he’d always taken care of them. They’d get through this together, the same way they’d gotten through everything else.
That’s what family did.
His hair is short now, and almost pure silver. It matches the silver streaks in her own hair, which she has never bothered coloring.
He has to lean on her as they walk, but his frame is so slight she barely even feels the weight. It is a far cry from the solid mass of muscle he used to be. He takes short, shuffling steps, his frail body stooped and straining from the effort. She guides him to a shady bench and helps him to sit down.
They sit side by side, staring out across the lawn. It’s springtime, so the rhododendrons are in full bloom and the pond is full of baby ducks. The world around them is vibrant and shining with new life, and yet all she can think about is how quickly the light seems fade, how hollow the passage of time can be.
She and Alec are his only visitors. He never married, never had children of his own. He never told her why and she never dared to ask. She wonders if he regrets it now, but she’ll never ask him that, either. Even if she wanted to, it’s too late. It’s been six months since talking became so difficult that he just stopped trying. Another entry in the long list of things he can no longer do. The disease is stealing away his life, stealing away everything that made him the man he was.
He’s still in there, though, trapped inside his decimated body. She can see it in his eyes. The way he looks at her when she arrives for her visits. The attentiveness when she talks to him about people he knows and places he remembers. The sadness when she says goodbye.
She glances over and finds that he is staring at her. His eyes are still the same silver-blue, still shining with life despite the wrinkles that surround them. She smiles, and a tear slides down her cheek. He shakes his head and turns away.
The tremors have gotten quite bad, despite the medication. His hand shakes, scraping back and forth across his leg. She twines her fingers with his, stilling them for him, and is gratified to feel him squeeze her hand firmly in response. There’s a little of the old strength left after all.
She points up at the sky. “I think that cloud looks like a platypus, don’t you?”
He shakes his head slightly.
“You’re right,” she says. “It’s definitely more of a marmoset.”
Another head shake.
“An aardvark?” she suggests. “A polliwog? A bandicoot?”
He huffs out a short breath, the closest he ever comes to laughing anymore, and she grins at him. His face contorts into the grimace she’s learned to interpret as a smile.
They sit on the bench together until the sun starts to dip behind the trees and the unidentifiable cloud has passed out of sight. Then she guides him back inside and helps him into a wheelchair. She watches as the nurse wheels him away, back to his room.
“I miss you,” Parker says, when Eliot is no longer there to hear her.