A/N: This chapter was supposed to be a short interlude to show that things aren't all sunshine and roses for Eliot and Tessa just because they're together now, but apparently they have way too much drama for a short anything. Leverage isn't mine, and reviews are always appreciated!
Between Hardison's Netflix subscription, Sophie's stash of Richart chocolates, and Nate's comfy couch and big-screen TV, Tessa was thoroughly enjoying her mini-vacation. The Leverage team would be gone for at least another 48 hours, which was plenty of time for her to replace the chocolates she'd devoured as well as the bottle of Lustau cream sherry that she'd been slowly working her way through as she watched a marathon of the first season of her new favorite show.
Several weeks ago, she'd overheard Hardison referring to her as 'Dexter' in a conversation with Nate. She hadn't gotten the reference at the time, but she'd looked it up later and found it to be an allusion to an American television series about a serial killer who killed other killers as a hobby. She'd been equal parts amused and offended for about fifteen minutes, and then put the whole thing out of her mind until she'd seen the show in the hacker's Netflix queue this morning. She'd spent the majority of today watching episode after episode, enthralled by the story of a man who, if he'd been just a tad less emotionally involved in his work, might have made a pretty good hunter.
"Taking trophies is a bad idea," she advised the screen for the hundredth time, taking another sip of sherry and popping a chocolate ganache into her mouth as Dexter dotted a victim's blood onto a slide for his collection. "Leave no trace, take no sign. It's the hunter motto."
The other hunter motto was 'Don't get caught'. It was shorter and more to the point. More of a corollary, really.
Her cell phone rang and she paused the show as she searched for it, finally finding it wedged between the couch cushions.
She smiled at the familiar voice, poking around in the box of chocolates and contemplating which kind she wanted to try next.
"Hey, Jinx. What's going on?"
"Not much. I meant to call you sooner, but I've been busy with this job in Peru. I wanted to say thanks. You know, for Russia."
"I'm just glad you're all right."
"Thanks, Tessa." The younger girl sounded relieved, and Tessa wondered what Jinx had thought she was going to say. They'd been friends for years, even if they hadn't seen each other in a while, and she was a little hurt that Jinx was surprised Tessa would help her without expecting some sort of repayment.
Four months ago, the thought of being offended by something like that would never even have crossed her mind. She might even have expected that Jinx would repay her, rather than considering the rescue as a simple favor between friends. Clearly, Eliot's team was rubbing off on her. If she wasn't careful, she might find herself signing on to rescue kittens from trees, or whatever other do-gooder nonsense they got up to on their jobs.
"So, how's Peru?"
"Politically unstable," Jinx said gleefully. "Which means my work here is done. But I wasn't just calling to say thanks; I have news for you."
"You know how much I love gossip."
"I don't think you'll love this," Jinx warned her. "Do you remember the list you gave me of people you wanted me to watch?"
"Of course." It had been about a dozen names of people she had one reason or another to keep an eye on. Jinx had put them into some sort of database that let her know if anything changed with any of them, and she kept Tessa updated periodically. "Is someone misbehaving?"
"Somebody took a hit out on one of your people."
Tessa frowned. Most of the people on that list were former clients or associates she'd struck up at least a casual friendship with. Whoever it was, she was probably going to have to get off the couch and do something about it.
Tessa bit back a curse as she reached for the remote to turn off the TV. Her day had just gone from lazy and peaceful to very unpleasant. Her first thought was to call Eliot; she'd only put his ex-girlfriend on her watch list because she knew that he still cared about her, although Tessa despised the other woman for the way she'd treated Eliot. She'd much rather make Eliot go to Kentucky and deal with whatever mess Aimee had gotten herself into. Unfortunately, he was in Arizona with the rest of his team, and she couldn't interrupt him while he was working and risk shaking his concentration. She'd have to deal with it herself.
"Has anyone taken the job?"
"I don't know, but Jason Carter was the one who put out the hit."
She did swear this time, hurriedly capping the bottle of sherry and shoving it and the chocolates onto the kitchen counter as she calculated how long it would take her to get to the airport. Carter wasn't the type to screw around when he wanted someone dead.
"Can you get me a flight -"
"Already done. It leaves in thirty minutes, and I'll make sure they hold it for you."
"You're the best, Jinx."
"Yeah, I know."
The job in Arizona had, for once, gone completely according to plan. Eliot could count on one hand the number of times he'd come home from a job without any new injuries to nurse, and as a consequence he was in a pretty good mood when they got back to Nate's place.
That good mood lasted right up until he saw Tessa. She was sitting in Nate's dining room with a pistol lying on the table in front of her. The fading bruises from her last job were now juxtaposed with a set of fresh ones, as well as a split lip and a cut on her cheek. Her forearm was bandaged with gauze and white paper tape and cradled against her chest, suggesting a more serious injury.
"What the hell, Tess?" Eliot demanded, dropping his duffle bag by Nate's front door and striding over to where she sat. The rest of the team followed him in, and Hardison gave Sophie a worried look. Tessa looked seriously pissed off, and he didn't really want to stick around to find out why. "You promised me you'd stay out of trouble while we were gone."
"Stay out of trouble," she repeated, sounding thoroughly unamused. "Like a child. Or a puppy."
"I didn't mean -"
"The only reason I ended up in trouble is that you stole from Jason Carter and he decided to get back at you."
Eliot's expression was thunderous. "He came after you? Because of me?"
"Oh, no." She picked up the gun, sliding it into a holster at the small of her back as she stood. "He's not dumb enough to come after me. No, he put out a hit on your girlfriend, and you weren't around to take care of it, so I went in your place and managed to get shot trying to keep that stupid twit out of harm's way."
Eliot looked angry and confused right up until Tessa said she'd been shot. At that point, he tuned out the rest of her rant, all other concerns dwarfed in the face of those words.
"Let me see, Tess."
She raised her left arm, pointing grimly at the gauze dressing there. "It's just a graze. I'll be fine, no thanks to you."
"How is this my fault? I don't even know what happened! And what 'girlfriend' are you talking about? You're my girlfriend."
"Am I?" Tessa shot back. "Because she doesn't seem to know that, and apparently you two are very close. At least, that's what she says, between you calling to check up on her and stopping by to visit her and, oh yeah, you having sex with her!"
"Stop it, Tess! This is crazy!" Eliot was acutely aware of his team standing behind them, doing their best to pretend they weren't listening. He knew it was almost impossible to defuse a fight with Tessa once something set her off; he was going to have to ride it out until she'd vented her temper enough to be willing to listen to reason. He would have preferred to take Tessa outside and let her yell at him there, or at least get her to lower her voice, but if he moved any closer to her there was a real chance she'd throw a knife at his head. He'd much rather let the team hear them argue than see them get into a physical fight, especially considering that most of them still hadn't warmed to her. Seeing her throw a knife at him wouldn't exactly endear her to them. "Listen to me. I'm not dating anyone else, and I'm sure as hell not sleeping with anyone else. Whoever this woman is, she's lying to you."
"You know what? I don't think she is. Maybe you should talk to her about it."
"Fine. Where is she?"
"Oh, wonderful," Nate muttered to Sophie, who stepped lightly on his toes.
"Stay out of it," she instructed him, sotto voce. "This is none of our business."
"It's your business now," Tessa informed them, slinging her bag over her shoulder. "She's Eliot's girlfriend, you're Eliot's team; you do the math. I'm out of here."
"I don't want to hear it, Eliot." She gave him an accusatory look. "I can't believe you would do something like this."
She stormed out of the room, leaving Eliot staring after her in bemused frustration.
"What just happened?" Eliot demanded of no one in particular. "Can somebody explain this to me, because I have no idea what the hell is going on! What girlfriend?"
As one, they all turned to the staircase, and Eliot's heart dropped when he saw the woman standing there.
"Oh, dear," Sophie murmured to Nate, who nodded.
"Yeah. This is not good."
Eliot was in the living room, talking to Aimee. His voice held an urgent undertone that was audible even from where Sophie and Hardison were standing in the dining room. Nate was making coffee, declaring that he couldn't deal with this situation without caffeine, and Parker -
Even as Sophie wondered where Parker had gotten to, the blonde was suddenly there, pulling Sophie away from Hardison and over to the far side of the room.
"What's wrong, Parker?"
"You need to go talk to Tessa. Right now."
Sophie frowned a little at how frantic the thief seemed.
"Don't get too worked up over this, Parker. Tessa and Eliot had a fight. Well, actually, Tessa had a fight and Eliot just sort of stood there. Anyway, I'm sure it's not the first time they've been angry with each other. You just have to give them both a chance to calm down."
"You don't understand. She's not happy. If she's not happy, maybe she'll leave."
"Tessa is an adult, Parker," Sophie pointed out gently. "I don't think she's going to leave just because she and Eliot had one argument, but if she does, that's her decision."
"She can't leave." Parker actually stomped her foot, as close to throwing a temper tantrum as Sophie had ever seen her. "If she leaves, she'll be sad and Eliot will be sad and Bunny will be sad."
"Bunny?" Sophie echoed, and Parker gave her an impatient look.
"Tessa and Bunny are friends. Keep up, Sophie, this is important! You're good at making people do what you want them to do, so go make Tessa not be mad at Eliot anymore."
Nate or Eliot would have run out of patience with Parker by this point, but Sophie gave the thief a good deal more leeway than they did. She knew that what mattered about this conversation was that Parker was truly upset about the idea of Tessa leaving, and instead of doing something insane on her own to try and rectify the situation, she'd come to Sophie for help. That was real progress, and Sophie needed to reward Parker's effort to reach out to her.
"All right, Parker. I'll talk to her."
Parker's hopeful expression could have melted a far harder heart than Sophie's.
"Good. She's on the roof."
"Eliot, what's wrong? What's going on?"
"What's going on?" he repeated, pulling Aimee away from the rest of the team and lowering his voice. "That's a good question, Aimee. What the hell is going on?"
"You think I know?" she demanded, hands on her hips. "Your friend Tessa showed up at the ranch and told me that someone was trying to kill me, and then two guys with guns showed up and started shooting. Shooting, Eliot! At me!"
"Did you get hit?"
"No." She exhaled heavily. "No, but your friend did. I like to think I'm a pretty strong woman, Eliot, but I've never seen anybody get shot before. I kind of lost it for a little while. She was incredible, though. She just grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her arm and dragged me out of there. We ended up at the airport, and she got us onto a flight to Peru -"
"Don't ask me how she did it. I didn't have my passport - I didn't even have my wallet, we left the ranch so fast, but she got us onto the flight anyway, and when we got to Peru there was a bag waiting for her in a locker. It had a first aid kit in it, and I went with her to the bathroom and watched her stitch up her own arm. Which was a little disturbing, by the way."
Eliot stayed silent, knowing that Aimee would be extremely disturbed by a number of the things he did on a regular basis.
"Then she pulled a couple of fake passports out of the bag, and we got on a different plane and ended up in Atlanta, and then Charlotte, and then New York City, and finally Boston."
"She was making sure no one could tail you," Eliot told her. "She must have had help to arrange the passports and the flights on such short notice." That help had probably been either Celia or Jinx, and given the type of help she'd received, he suspected it had been the hacker and not the demolitions expert. If Celia had been involved, something would have blown up.
"We never talked to anyone else, so I don't know. We spent basically two straight days on planes, Eliot. By the time we got here I was exhausted. She told me to go upstairs and sleep, so I did, and I woke up two minutes ago to people yelling. That's all I know."
"Aimee, listen carefully to me. What did you tell her?"
"Tessa?" Aimee asked, surprised by the question. "I don't know. We were stuck sitting next to each other for a really long time. She hardly spoke to me - I think her arm was bothering her - so when I wasn't busy being freaked out out, I just kind of babbled."
"Lemme be more specific. What did you tell her about us?"
Aimee's eyes widened, her mouth forming a small 'O' of dismay. "She's your girlfriend, isn't she."
It wasn't a question, but Eliot growled an answer anyway. "Yeah, she's my girlfriend, and she's furious with me because she thinks I'm sleeping with you behind her back."
"I didn't tell her that!"
"Well, that's what she heard."
"But I didn't -" Aimee paused, taking a deep breath. "Okay, let me think. I told her that I liked your friends when I met them in Kentucky last year, and that you and I had a good time reconnecting while you were there. And then…y'know, that was one of the only times she actually asked me a question."
"She asked if I still had feelings for you." She blushed lightly. "I told her that I did, a little, and that you did too, and that we'd tried to rekindle our old flame but you weren't the kind of guy who was ever going to settle down with a woman, and oh my God, Eliot, I am so sorry," she finished, clapping her hands over her mouth when she finally realized what she'd done.
She could tell just by looking at him that Eliot had clenched his jaw to keep from snarling at her. When she thought he had his temper under control, she made a tentative attempt to apologize.
"I really am sorry," she said, and he shook his head.
"Not your fault," he sighed. "You were just bein' friendly."
"I suspect she and I aren't ever going to be friends now," Aimee observed morosely, and Eliot snorted.
"That ain't your fault either," he assured her. "She wasn't ever gonna be your friend. She's…" Eliot racked his brain for an appropriate word that would describe Tessa's feelings toward Aimee without making her sound like a crazy person, and came up empty.
"She's possessive," Aimee supplied easily. "It's understandable, Eliot. You're a great guy and she doesn't want your ex stealing you away from her. If we were still together and you were spending time with her, I'd be insanely jealous."
"You would, huh?" he asked, his tone flirtatious, but he sobered quickly. If Tessa had been in the room when he'd said that, she might have shot him outright. It wasn't just his flirting; that was his default mode around women, and it didn't usually bother Tessa. It was the fact that he was flirting with Aimee, who was the only other woman he'd ever loved. In Tessa's mind, she was her only real competition for his affection, and at this point he doubted that any reassurance he offered her would convince her that there was no competition, that Tessa would always come first.
Aimee, who'd noticed the abrupt change in his expression, reached out to pat his shoulder reassuringly. "It'll all work out, Eliot."
"You sure about that?"
"I am," she confirmed. "She knew I was your old girlfriend, and she nearly got herself killed trying to save me anyway. She wouldn't have done that if she didn't really love you."
"Yeah," he agreed, still unconvinced. In love with him or not, Tessa could hold a grudge until the end of time.
"All you have to do is apologize to her."
"Apologize?" he demanded. "For what? I didn't do anything wrong!"
He gaped at her. If she thought he was going to apologize for something that was Tessa's fault, she was crazy. "She's the one who thought that I was -"
"Eliot, it doesn't matter," Aimee told him firmly. "Do you want to be right, or do you want your girlfriend back?"
"She's right," Nate volunteered from the kitchen, and Eliot turned around to glower ineffectually at him. "She's a woman and she's mad at you. It's your fault. Trust me."
"Yeah, it's like a rule. Ipso facto," Hardison chimed in, and Eliot growled.
"I didn't ask any of you -"
"That's the thing about friends, Eliot," Aimee informed him with a grin. "You don't have to ask."
Tessa was where Parker had said she'd be, sitting with her back to one of the brick barriers on the roof of the building. She looked up when Sophie came through the door, and the grifter caught a glimpse of something shiny in her hand. It was a knife, she realized with some alarm as Tessa tossed it into the air and caught it one-handed.
"That looks quite sharp," Sophie said, coming over to take a seat next to Tessa. She winced a little when her silk Fendi skirt made contact with the dirt and grit of the rooftop, and reminded herself that she was doing this for Parker. If she asked, the thief would happily break into Neiman Marcus and steal her a new skirt.
"That's kind of the point," Tessa observed humorlessly. "Pun intended."
Tessa clearly wasn't in the mood for idle chit-chat. Unfortunately, Sophie couldn't just leave her alone, which was what she was pretty sure they would both prefer.
"You know, I haven't been able to place your accent," Sophie said, searching for a safe topic of conversation. "It's sort of French, but with a Russian twist to it."
"Those are the two places I lived the longest," Tessa agreed. Her accent sounded strange to her own ears sometimes; she'd been born in New York, but had acquired a sort of blended European accent after living on the other side of the Atlantic for almost fifteen years. The accent was a shield, yet another safety measure to make sure that no one figured out who she really was. Even Eliot, who knew more about her than anyone else did, still didn't know her real name.
Thinking of Eliot brought back all of the emotions she'd nearly managed to quell, and she glared at Sophie.
"What exactly do you want?"
Sophie looked a little taken aback. "I'm just concerned. You seemed very upset downstairs. I wanted to see if you needed anything."
"A break," Tessa said, leaning back against the brick wall. "What I really need is a break from all of this. Which I was taking, by the way, before I got the call that Eliot's ex had made someone's hit list."
Sophie was silent for a moment, taking in Tessa's slumped posture and weary expression.
"It must be very hard for you," Sophie said finally. "You risked your life to save a woman you don't even like."
"I didn't have any choice. Carter put a hit out on Aimee because he wanted to hurt Eliot. You know Eliot, Sophie. What do you think it would do to him if someone he cared about was killed because of him?"
It would destroy him. Sophie knew it as well as Tessa did, and she felt a surge of sympathy for the younger woman.
"I appreciate what you did, Tessa."
"That's nice, but I didn't do it for you," Tessa pointed out. "And Eliot doesn't seem very damned appreciative."
That might have been because Tessa had turned on him the moment he walked through the door, not giving him a chance to figure out what was going on before she attacked him, but Sophie didn't think that pointing that out would be helpful.
"I'm not sure he wants to admit to himself that you put your life in danger for him," she said finally, which was probably true regardless of the situation.
"He knows I've always hated Aimee for the way she treated him," Tessa replied, a little of the old anger slipping into her voice. "What kind of woman makes a promise to a man who's risking his life fighting a war, and then does her best to break his heart and destroy his focus so he nearly ends up getting himself killed?"
"You hated her for that," Sophie agreed gently, guessing at another piece of the problem. "But you were also jealous of her, weren't you?"
For a moment, Sophie thought Tessa would deny it, and then the hunter shrugged, resigned.
"He loved her first. They were together before we ever met, and even after what she did to him, he still loved her. But when we first got together, he told me that it was over between them, and I believed him. And now..."
Realization hit Sophie suddenly, and the rest of the puzzle pieces fell into place.
"Aimee told you what happened between them when we took that job in Kentucky."
"She thought she was being friendly." Tessa rubbed a hand over her face. "It just added insult to injury. She thanked me for helping her and said that I must be part of Eliot's team if he'd sent me to Kentucky to rescue her, and that she was sorry she hadn't met me when the rest of the team had been down there helping her father. I asked her about it, and she…" She gestured vaguely. "She told me everything. That they made up, that they slept together. That he calls to check up on her. That he still has feelings for her."
"If it helps, that job was almost two years ago, and I don't think he's been back to Kentucky since. I'd be very surprised if he's been in contact with her at all since you came back into his life."
"It doesn't matter. He still went back to her," she said, through clenched teeth. "After what she did to him, and after he promised me that they were through, he went back to her."
"Mmm. Tell me this, Tessa. Are you angry with him for going back to Aimee, or are you angry with yourself because you know he never would have done it if he'd known you were still alive?"
There was a period of silence, during which Sophie suspected Tessa was thinking about doing something unpleasant to her.
"Who says I have to pick one?" Tessa snapped finally. "Just because I'm mad at myself doesn't mean I can't be mad at him."
"When he found out you were dead, he must have been heartbroken, Tessa. Maybe he turned to her for comfort because she was familiar."
Tessa buried her face in her hands with a groan, her hair tumbling forward over her shoulders.
"This is my fault," she admitted, her voice muffled. "I can't believe I yelled at him like that in front of your entire team. I swear I'm not usually such a shrew."
"'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'," Sophie quoted, relieved that Tessa finally seemed to be calming down. "You thought Eliot had betrayed you and you were angry. We can all understand that."
"Thanks, Sophie." She paused, then added, "Since we appear to be bonding, maybe now would be the time to tell you that I owe you a box of Richart chocolates to replace the one you were keeping in Nate's pantry."
"Thief," Sophie accused, not without humor, and Tessa flashed her a quick smile.
"So are you."
"Am I interrupting?"
They both looked over at the door to the roof, where Eliot was standing. Sophie got to her feet, giving Tessa a wink before heading over toward the door.
"I'll leave you two alone," she murmured, stepping around him and heading back downstairs.
Tessa got to her feet as Eliot approached, and they stared at each other for a long moment.
"I'm sorry," they both said simultaneously, and then laughed at themselves as the tension between them eased.
"I know what I'm sorry for," she said. "That list includes jumping to conclusions about you and Aimee and throwing a tantrum in front of your team. I'm not clear on what you're sorry for."
"Whatever I did?" he guessed, and she sighed.
"You slept with her, Eliot. You told me that you were over her, permanently, and then you slept with her. Even if we weren't together at the time, I still feel betrayed. Do you get that?"
"Yeah, I get it, Tess, but we weren't just 'not together' then. I thought you were dead." He studied her expression, trying to judge whether she was still angry. As usual, she was difficult to read. "You let me believe you were dead. You don't get to judge me for sleeping with Aimee when you let me spend three years believing that you were dead and it was my fault."
"You said you forgave me for -" she started to reply, heated, and then the rest of what he'd said sank in. "Wait. Eliot, Strasbourg wasn't your fault."
"I told you that Leontinev was selling kids, you confronted him, and you died. Sounds like clear cause and effect to me."
"Oh, God, Eliot," she breathed, reaching impulsively for him. He let her pull him into an embrace, her forehead pressed against his. "It wasn't your fault, it was mine. It was never your fault."
"You told me it was." His fingers were tangled in her hair now, the windblown strands tamed by gentle hands. "Back at the cabin, you said yourself that you only started looking into Leontinev after I told you to. If I'd stayed out of it, none of this ever would have happened."
"Sooner or later, I would've found out. He wasn't going to be able to hide something like that from me forever. You can't blame yourself."
"You blamed me, Tess. If you hadn't, you would have told me that you were still alive."
She closed her eyes, swallowing hard around the lump in her throat.
"I'm awful," she whispered, pulling away from him. "How could I have done this to you? I'm even worse than she is -"
"Stop," he instructed her, tugging her back into his arms and holding her tight against his chest. "Stop saying that, Tess. You didn't mean to hurt me. I don't think Aimee really meant to hurt me, either, way back then. That's why I never blamed her for dumping me the way that you blamed her for it. She was doing what was best for her, and so were you."
Tessa was crying now, which always made him want to punch something; preferably, whatever was making her cry. That didn't appear to be an option this time, so he just kept holding her and hoping she'd realize that this was a waste of precious time and energy, agonizing over stuff that was already done and over with. The past wasn't worth that kind of heartache.
"Listen to me, Tess. If Aimee hadn't dumped me, I wouldn't have ended up falling in love with you, and you were the best thing that ever happened to me. And if I hadn't thought you were dead, I probably never would have taken the job against Dubenich that led to me joining this team." His voice took on a note of fond exasperation. "I don't want to think about what my life would be like without Sophie and Nate and Parker, and even Hardison."
She laughed shakily at the way he said the hacker's name, with a little less 'fond' and a little more 'exasperation' than he'd said the other three.
"What's done is done, darlin'. All that matters is that we're together now, and I'm sure as hell not going to lose you again. Okay?"
Tessa sniffled, wiping roughly at her cheeks. "Yeah. Okay."
"Let the past go. Don't beat yourself up for stuff you did years ago. And it'd be nice if you could try and forgive me for the stuff I did years ago. Aimee and I are long over."
"I wasn't ever really mad at you for getting back together with Aimee," she admitted. "Or if I was, I was a thousand times angrier with myself because I knew it never would have happened if I hadn't let you believe I was dead. Sophie was right about that."
"She's got this annoying habit of being right about stuff like that," Eliot agreed. "Why'd she come after you, anyway? To be nice or to be nosy?"
"I don't think it had anything to do with me," she replied with a half-smile. "When I left Nate's place, Parker followed me up here. I didn't say anything to her; I was still fuming, and I figured if she really wanted to talk, she would. She watched me for a while and then disappeared, and not even two minutes later, Sophie was here."
"So Parker - what? Delegated the problem to Sophie?"
"That's my best guess. It wasn't a bad plan, Eliot. Sophie is very persuasive."
"It's part of her charm." He draped one arm around her shoulders, giving her a squeeze. "You ready to go back in there?"
"Do I have to?"
"We've gotta do something about Carter, before he puts out a hit on someone else." He touched her injured arm lightly with his free hand. "And I want to take a look at that."
"It was a pretty good one-handed suture job, if I do say so myself," she replied, inspecting the gauze dressing with an appreciative eye.
"You know you grossed Aimee out, doing that in front of her."
Tessa grinned, unabashedly gleeful. "I know."
"I know," she agreed again, and stole a kiss as they headed back inside.