AN: I sort of felt that Hardison and Eliot had to work through what happened by the pool in the Big Bang Job. The show doesn't offer much on the subject, but in my eyes it's not the kind of thing that just goes away. (Obviously, that means this contains major spoilers for that episode.) Here's my take on it:
"Are we good?" Eliot asks him, before they split up for the evening, after everything. Hardison can't believe what he's hearing.
"Are we good?" Hardison can hear his tone is shrill, and a lot louder than Eliot's muted question. None of the others are around though, and he can't bring himself to care further than that. "Are we good?" He repeats again, and he can still feel adrenaline and anger pumping through his veins, jacked back up to this morning's levels by the question. He might have put it aside for the sake of the job, but aside and behind him are two very different things. "You lied to us Eliot, to me, and you let me walk in there thinking… I got thrown in a pool, man. For all you knew I drowned, and you just… You should have told me, before, we could have adjusted the plan, anything. So no, we are not good, we are far from good because you left me down there to drown while you cozied up to Moreau, and I had no warning, and I'm not ready to forgive you for that yet." He can feel himself rambling, but he thinks the point is getting through.
Even now, a lot of distracting work later, Hardison is scared. The panic is sitting at the edge of his consciousness, the only thing holding it at bay being the anger, hurt and betrayal he feels at the thought of Eliot's treachery. With Moreau the hitter had been cold and indifferent, with sharper edges, and he had looked like he belonged in a way that made Hardison question if he really knew him at all. Eliot had been on first name basis with Moreau for God's sake. The way he acted like it was all nothing afterwards did little to alleviate Hardison's feeling, nor did the defensiveness and refusal to take responsibility for his actions.
Eliot hasn't moved a muscle during all of Alec's tirade. He stands and takes it like he's offered a free punch, and maybe in a way he has. "Okay," Eliot says, showing his palms in a placating gesture that never reaches his carefully neutral face. He turns around and leaves Hardison alone.
Alec heads home to wait out the night. He knows he won't sleep because with that comes dreaming. The feel of water pressing against him from all sides, the anchoring weight of the chair, the staleness of the air from the pneumatic, the smell of chlorine that still clings to his skin; it's bad enough while he's awake.
A lot of orange soda and gummy bears gets Hardison to the office next day, but it's not his first all-nighter. He knows from experience that the rush of the finishing stages of a job will keep him alert. In fact, it does more than that. As he jumps off a bridge unto a moving train with Parker Hardison is so high on adrenaline that everything afterwards is a very detailed blur (and yeah, maybe that's some overtiredness right there).
The thrill of Parker has Alec's heart beating furiously and he can't help grinning as they get back in the car and start their trip to the airfield. He feels like he's flying. Reality isn't forgotten, it's just far below him and easy to ignore compared to the wonders of soaring.
Stepping into the hangar, seeing Eliot again, is like crash landing.
"Hey, you want to grab a drink somewhere?" He asks Parker as they're about to go home. "Keep celebrating that we're living heroes and not dead terrorists?" The weightlessness is gone, but there's still a fizziness in Hardison's body as he thinks about the pretzels-comment. Parker's hair whipped behind her on the roof of that train, her eyes shone as she looked at Hardison, and he can't wait to get more of that. Not that he thinks this will be a particularly fast change in the dynamics between them.
The thief shakes her head. "You're busy," she says.
"Excuse you?" Hardison says, uncertain how to interpret Parker's answer. "I'm very sure the new episodes of Doctor Who will still be around when I get home." He talks too much he knows, should keep his tongue on a tighter leash and his wordcount down, but he rarely manages it.
"You're going to see Eliot." Parker says it like it's a sure thing. The sun rises in the morning, people have no sense of digital security, and Hardison is going to see Eliot.
"Excuse you?" Hardison repeats himself, with more feeling this time. Parker looks at him with that sharpness in her eyes that makes Hardison think she can sometimes see right through people.
"You need to talk to him." Parker says. "You are looking at it all wrong."
"Me?" Hardison can feel the volume of his voice rising with indignation, the slick feeling of anger filling him. "I'll tell you; I am not the problem here. Eliot lied. He left me down there. To drown! And then he just acted like it was nothing, like he didn't even care. Getting all defensive like it was unreasonable of us to be angry, when he was the one who lied. I'm not even…" He trails off, unable to form proper sentences. At least he can admit to himself there's more than a little fear and hurt mixed in to fuel his tirade.
"See? That's exactly what I mean." Parker's comment is enough to stop Hardison's mind before it spins completely out of control. There's something urgent about her. "You're supposed to wonder 'why?' Hardison. That's who you are. You are kind, and smart, and you keep us together. You are terrified of a lot of things that won't hurt you, or at least not so much, but then you are not scared of people – which is a lot more dangerous than jumping of buildings. But most of all you think about things and you wonder why. I need you to be you about this as well."
For once in his life Hardison can't speak. Not sleeping sure amplifies the twists and turns of his emotional rollercoaster. He's decently sure Parker just gave him the biggest compliment of his life, even if it might not have sounded like it to an outsider. "Parker, I…" Hardison begins, and it might come out a little strangled from the tightness in his chest.
"You're family," she breaks him off, speaking fast like the words burn her tongue. "And Eliot's family too, and I can't let you break that over some stupid misunderstanding. You're all I have." She snaps her mouth shut.
Hardison reaches out slowly and clearly, as if approaching a spooked animal, and pulls Parker into a hug. He is surprised she lets him. "You're my family too." He gets her hair in his mouth as he speaks but can't make himself mind very much. It feels amazing to have her close like this, tangible in a way he's only been hoping for. "I'll try, okay?"
For a fleeting moment Hardison thinks he can feel a smile forming on Parker's face. She then punches him in the side, hard enough to make him squeak, and steps away. "Great!" She says, being overly chipper in the way she is when she's unsure how to act. "Gotta go, things to steal, buildings to climb, you know the drill!" She basically somersaults up on a garbage bin and continue up a fire ladder. Hardison wonders if she consciously chose her exit route to be one where she knows he can't follow.
"Why me?" It's the question that has ended up on the top of the mental list Hardison has made while driving to Eliot's. Normally he thinks he should maybe lead with something less direct, like "hey man, what's up?" but, well… At least he's here.
Eliot's baseline annoyance is laced with tiredness, and maybe that's because he seems to have been working out. (Or rather beaten the shit out of a sandbag, but who is Hardison to judge). "Really?" Eliot asks, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of a wrapped hand. "Now? It's the middle of the night."
"Uh, yeah, well, are you going to sleep? Like right this moment?" Hardison knows he himself isn't, and Eliot doesn't seem like he is. Now that he's here he'd rather get the answers to these damn questions that has popped up since talking to Parker.
A sigh is the only audible concession Hardison gets, but Eliot steps out of the doorway and motions him inside. They move to the kitchen and Eliot opens the fridge. "Beer?" He asks, and he hasn't really met Hardison's eyes in a while.
"Sounds good." It doesn't, but hey, Alec's hardly going to say that. He understands he's too tired for alcohol, even if he's wired enough not to feel it. He'll hold the bottle though, and pretend to drink it, because he can sure use the distraction.
The glass is cold against Hardison's fingers as he watches Eliot unwrap his hands. Most of his anger at seeing the man is replaced with a need for explanations, but the stabbing feeling of betrayal is still there. It hurts more when he's not angry.
"'Me and Hardison will hit Moreau.' You said that, and you don't make a lot of calls like that, so the question remains: Why me?" Hardison looks at Eliot pointedly, and the hitter no longer seems to be actively avoiding his gaze. Alec raises the bottle to his lips but only allows a few drops of beer to touch his tongue. It's a good brew, maybe he should drink it. "Sophie is the better grifter," he says. "Nate analyzes situations like a machine. Either of them had probably done a much better job at staying in character than me."
Leaning back against the countertop Eliot crosses his arms as much as possible while holding a bottle loosely by its neck. It's more of an alignment of forearms, left hand tucked into the right arm's crook and right hand dividing its grip between the bottle and his left elbow. He takes a breath that leaves him standing a little straighter. Eliot is hard to read, Hardison thinks. In anyone else crossed arms are an indication of defensiveness or insecurity. Yet Eliot never crosses his arms in a situation where he feels threatened, and maybe that should be expected in a man who's made violence into a career. The military posture that Eliot has going on behind those arms though, that's definitely not his relaxed look.
"Is this really necessary Hardison? Right now?" It comes out of Eliot annoyed, but with Hardison's anger gone and his mind in its sleep deprived, razor sharp, pin-prick-focused state Hardison knows it's not. It's most likely a plea for him to leave the subject.
By now Hardison's been working with Sophie long enough to have picked up on some things. He remains silent, waiting, because he does know how to do that, thank you very much. The moment Eliot gives in is clearly visible, a slight correction of stance that Hardison can't put his fingers on. It looks so wrong on Eliot that Hardison nearly calls it off and goes home. That's not really an option though, not if they are going to go back to normal, and Parker isn't the only one who wants that (who needs that).
"I'm sorry," Hardison says, and he knows the way he half hugs himself with his beer-free arm is a protective pose, but he lets Eliot see it. "I just have to make sense of this to be able to let it go."
"I picked you 'cause I could guess how you'd react, okay?" Eliot's voice is still, well, Eliot, and Hardison is more relieved than he'll ever admit hearing that. They're so far from their usual place that for a moment Hardison expected to hear a different language. "I needed to be sure there were no doubt that whoever was with me showed true surprise, because that'd give us a better chance to get out alive." Eliot seeks out Hardison's eyes to drive home the point. "Moreau is one of the most dangerous men I've met, and if he had thought anything was suspicious we'd be worse than dead now."
"So you picked me because I'm not a grifter?" Hardison doesn't ask why he didn't pick Parker. As amazing as she is she's still a loose cannon, even if her people skills have gotten a lot better. (He also carefully does not ask for details of 'worse than dead', some things a man is better off not knowing about.)
"Yes! And because I…" Eliot cuts himself off, takes a sip of his beer and draws his eyebrows together in the annoyed look he wears like it's his face.
It's a signal the subject's closed, but Hardison is curious by nature. "Because you what?" He asks.
"Because I…" Eliot swallows and there's something shaky about him. Hardison flashes back to their meeting with the team in the park. Without the haze of anger to filter the memories Eliot's behavior at the time no longer comes off as indignant. In fact, Hardison wonders how he ever thought that. In the park, Eliot had made a roundabout promise to answer Parker's questions, and Hardison realizes too late that it might have transferred to this conversation as well.
Eliot swallows again. "I needed to know if…" Hardison feels like he's got an asthma attack and food poisoning at the same time. He wants this to stop, it was a bad idea of him to come here. Eliot doesn't owe him this answer and shouldn't be responding like he's bound by an oath. He opens his mouth to tell Eliot this, to let him know he doesn't need to do this, but the other man beats him to it.
"If you could see that and still want me around…" The reasonable thing would be for Eliot to look away, Hardison thinks, but he doesn't. His eyes are glued to Hardison's. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, given how Eliot always faces threats head on. This is a different matter though, with different stakes.
"Jesus Eliot…" Hardison reacts on instinct, reaches out like he did with Parker. He's stopped before he has taken the first step.
"Don't." Eliot says, and expressed like that Hardison listens. There's no threat of any kind, and that is just wrong. Where Eliot's fingers rest against his arm marks are forming, and Hardison won't be surprised if there's bruising tomorrow.
"Shit man, I…" Hardison's heartbeat is speeding up, but this is not the time to get his first panic attack. Instead he forces himself to take a deep breath and form a semi-coherent sentence. "I just… I got so scared. I couldn't get loose, and I couldn't move, and I couldn't breathe, and you… You were up there, I could see your back, but you…" It is Eliot finally turning his eyes away that makes Hardison realize he has tears trailing down his cheeks. He can't decide whether he's mortified to cry in front of Eliot, or relieved to let some of the panic seep out.
"Being angry is easier than being scared, you know?" Hardison swipes at his tears before he continues. "And Eliot; I'm sorry about that, I really am, okay? It just got to me, you in there, the way he looked at you, how you…" He cuts himself off before he says something he'll regret. In fact, he might have said too much already, his mouth tends to run especially unfiltered when he's under stress.
Hardison changes direction to the one question still burning in his mind. "I still don't understand why you didn't tell us from the start? The first time his name came up?" He's rewarded by Eliot's eyes whipping back to meet his.
"What good would that have done? Huh?" Eliot sounds furious, but a small voice in the back of Hardison's head repeats his own words from earlier. It's easier to be angry than a lot of other things. "You gonna tell me Nate would have listened and backed off?" Hardison can't off course, they both know it. "He'd just have built his plan around it, and it would have gotten us all killed."
The image of Eliot's kitchen light on the back of his eyelids is all Hardison sees as he allows himself a moment to let Eliot's words sink in. "Fair enough," he finally says. It still hurts that he was not trusted, but what Eliot said is valid. Nate is like a pissed off Rottweiler with a bone when it comes to cases he's decided on. The tension in the kitchen goes down noticeably at his words.
The tears are hanging from his cheek now and Hardison needs to grab a piece of paper and blow his nose before he can keep talking. "Just… Eliot?" He says once he's done. "Trust is something that works both ways. I can't trust you if you're not returning the favor." It feels almost sanctimonious saying it, but even so getting it out is liberating.
"Dammit Hardison, you can't expect me to tell you every little thing." The voice is hoarse and angry, and Hardison holds out his hands in a placating gesture.
"I'm not, okay?" Hardison's irritated, and crying, and angry at the fact that he is crying, but he can't seem to stop. He should really go to sleep instead of having this minefield of a conversation. "I just want to be able to trust that you'll tell me anything actually important, before it stabs me in the back." It comes out harsher than planned and Eliot blinks in a way that might be a flinch.
Truth is, the thorn from yesterday is still stinging inside Hardison. Eliot's admission of insecurity and wish for acceptance have dulled the pain of it, but it's still there. "I'm not asking for you to tell anyone else." Hardison clarifies when Eliot fails to say anything. "And you don't have to explain the exact circumstances of things, or answer questions you don't want to. Just don't lie about things that matter, okay?"
"Lying by omission is still lying." Hardison cuts Eliot off.
"Alright," Eliot snaps, eyes locked somewhere over Hardison's right shoulder. "I lied. You ended up hurt because of it. I'm sorry. I'll try not to do it again. That's what you wanna hear?"
"Yeah," Hardison says. It feels like the thorn has finally been ripped out, leaving a slightly smarting red pinprick that'll be healed soon enough. Sorry is a powerful word. "Yeah," he repeats. "I think it is." It's the renewed flood of tears that makes Hardison realize how much his crying had diminished.
Looking down at his shoes Hardison longs for a hug. He could sure use one right about now. But Eliot's not the hugging type, and it's not like Hardison is going coerce him into it. He likes his hugs freely given, thank you very much. Instead he takes a couple of deep breaths and waits for the suffocating feeling of crying to lessen. When he has calmed down he looks back up. Eliot is studying him, a blank look on his face that Hardison has no idea how to interpret. He pretend-drinks another sip of his beer and realizes there's one rather important question still hanging in the air unanswered.
"I'm sorry too." Hardison says and looks up to confirm Eliot's paying attention. "I freaked out. I know you better than that," he says, trying to convey his sincerity. The words are stilted, and wrong, and do a poor job of expressing what Hardison's thinking.
That Eliot thinks he'll be rejected for this was an important confession. It's sobering to realize that without Parker's intervention they might have lost each other to this. Maybe not physically, but in every other way that matters. Hardison needs to get this right because with friends as emotionally stunted as Eliot and Parker he's never sure there'll be another chance at a peek behind their walls. He tries again from a different angle.
"You're family." He says, and it's Parker's words but Hardison means them from the first letter to the last. He just hasn't put that word on their relationship until tonight. "So I expect you to stick around." (I want you to, he doesn't say, but he hopes Eliot can hear it anyway.)
Eliot is standing as still as Hardison has ever seen him. "You're not the guy who worked for Moreau, you're ours now, different, better." Hardison continues. Apparently, it's the wrong thing. The strain that's been leaving Eliot snaps back with such force Hardison twitches.
"Not the guy?" Eliot parrots before Hardison can continue. "Different? Better?" There's an intensity in him that's so strong Hardison can't see through it to guess what it's based on. The force of Eliot's stare crushes Hardison's lungs.
"I killed fourteen guys today Hardison. Fourteen. In cold blood. I picked up a gun, took them out and left them to burn with the warehouse. That's who I am. And someone could argue that I did it to get Nate and the Italian out safely, but that's only where it started. I could have gotten out after them, I could have left as many as possible alive, but I didn't. I killed every single one of the men Moreau sent, for no other reason than that I could."
Hardison is certain that this, right here, might be the most important conversation he'll ever have with Eliot. Mainly because it might be their last if he screws it up. The man may have offered his jugular not five minutes ago, admitting his fear of rejection, but right now, right here, Hardison's got the man's soul in his hands and it is eggshell thin and painted in cracked lines. That means no little pressure on how to answer.
"Okay," Hardison says carefully, stalling for time. Obviously it's no news that Eliot has killed, a lot. But that he'd done so just yesterday… "Okay." He takes a breath. "You plan on making that a habit from now on?" He doesn't feel the need to ask, but it's a point needing to be made. To Eliot or to himself he doesn't really know.
"I might not always be able to leave people alive." Eliot says, which is not an answer to the question.
"So that's a 'no' then." Hardison clarifies. The conclusion Hardison comes to is immediate and holds no surprise to him, and maybe that means his subconscious has already worked through this scenario. Either way he's relieved to be able to continue speaking without pause. "Which means;" he says. "We, are, fine." The words are slow and clear, hopefully enough so to penetrate Eliot's thick skull. "I'll probably never advocate killing, but I'm not living in some fantasy land either, I know enough of your background."
Hardison hasn't let his eyes stray from Eliot's, but even so he catches the physical signs that the nameless intensity is fading and being replaced with something else. Eliot swallows compulsively and Hardison thinks it might be fear. It's a strange timing, now that the worst should be over, but maybe that's what makes it possible.
"I'm going to repeat myself here:" Hardison says. "You're not the guy who worked for Moreau, you're ours now, different, better." Eliot clamps his teeth together and Hardison ruthlessly fights down another impulse to go over to him. He's a tactile guy, but he respects that Eliot is not. "You're family," he repeats instead, "and short of going on a crazy murder spree you're not going to get out of that."
There's a very suspicious sheen to Eliot's eyes that Hardison's carefully pretending not to notice. "Unless of course don't want that, in which case a murder spree is not actually necessary, and you can just convince us you mean it." A small smile twitch on the edge of Eliot's lips, just like Hardison hoped it would.
"Yeah Hardison," Eliot says, and he's back to the annoyed tone he uses when he's making threats they know is perfectly unharmful. "Who'd like you as their family anyway?"
Just like that they're back to usual, and Hardison feels like he's soaring again. "Says the grumpy old man." He says. It's not his best come back ever, but it's irrelevant. He raises his forgotten beer to touch his lips.
"Are you actually gonna drink that or just keep pretending?" Eliot calls him out.
Hardison shrugs and looks at the clock on the wall. "I haven't slept since the day before yesterday," he admits. In the light of everything it's a small thing. "I have a half-hour drive home and I can hardly stand as it is. Don't think beer is going to help my case." A yawn escapes him at even the thought of how long he's been awake. It feels like he might be able to close his eyes tonight.
Looking back up Hardison finds Eliot looking at him, a crease between his eyebrows. "Drink the damn beer Hardison," he says. "You're not driving anyway. Take the couch, or a cab if your too fancy for couches."
The thought of closing his eyes is much easier with someone around, so Hardison takes his first proper sip of beer. "The couch sounds great. Who has the energy for hacking the cab line anyways?" The adrenaline from the conversation is fading fast and Hardison can feel his blinks getting longer.
Eliot puts his beer down and goes to get him a pillow and blanket and Hardison might be beginning to zone out because he has no idea how long the man is gone. When he falls onto the sofa, halfheartedly dragging the blanket over himself the beer is still three quarters full. He can't bring himself to care.