A continuation of Competence, possibly more than a one-shot. Nothing owned by me, of course, except the order of the words.
I'd like to thank everyone who left a review for Competence, especially those who didn't sign in because I couldn't reply to them. Of course, all comments were very much appreciated!
Nate used to drink because he enjoyed it.
He liked to swirl the liquor around the glass, watch as the colours danced like firelight captured in crystal; burgundy and amber and honeyed brown drawing him into their warmth, liquid jewels more alive than any cold stone could ever hope to be. He'd bring the glass to his nose, close his eyes and inhale – the same way others would a fine cigar. His mind would conjure wood smoke and hot sultry nights, a long slow river and the promise of something indefinable yet yearned for and he'd wait to take that first sip, anticipating the intricate flavour weaving across his taste buds like a complex harmony, dissolving on his tongue like vapour to begin the slow burn down his throat and the blossoming warmth within. His muscles would loosen, his mind letting go of the stresses of the day; he'd allow the alcohol to sift through the burdens like a breeze across a desk, stacks of paper slipping carelessly to the floor. It wasn't every night but on the occasions he indulged, Nate would go to bed relaxed.
Then after the illness and the hospital and the tiny coffin resting in cold, wet earth Nate drank with purpose. He poured with an unsteady hand and sweat on his upper lip, tipping his head back and swallowing hard. The alcohol burn was the only thing that could cover the taste of the bile in his throat, scorching his vocal chords into something rusty and bitter and beginning his descent into hardened silence. While Maggie talked and cried and sometimes screamed at him, Nate would drink and stare out the window and tap his fingers on the leather arm of the old chair in his office. It was easier not to talk anyway. He never said the right things, in too much pain at first to speak, then unable to become drunk enough to voice his hurt, the ache soaking up the liquor like a sponge and by the time he was ready to tell Maggie much of anything at all, she had gone and nothing held any attraction anymore. There was the bottle and reaching the end of it and reaching for another in an endless cycle of oblivion. Sometimes, upending the bottle and watching in a state of numbed apathy as the last drops fell, Nate would wonder if there would be enough liquor to last out his grief.
Tonight he poured a drink to look at it, to test his strength and dare it to break him.
Nate had a streak of sadism, a callousness he never suspected of himself, but after tonight's events he found himself seeking out more pain. He persecuted himself, tempting his resolve by slowly pouring up to the brim of the glass, watching as the liquid hugged the sides in syrupy narcissism, slow to let them go and caressing them teasingly as it did. He allowed himself a deep inhale through his nose, the familiar beckoning call as strong as any siren's song and closed his fingers around the glass. It was at his mouth before he knew what he was about and for a moment he teetered on the precipice before he noticed his lips were pressed into a thin line and his brow was drawn in a frown. Not even acknowledging he had turned the drink aside – to catch himself he'd had to slip up in the first place and that wasn't anything Nate would call a victory – he set the glass down on the counter and watched its contents spill over the rim and onto the wood. It sat in a sticky puddle, pulling together and drawing up; shiny barriers keeping as much of it away from the surface as it could. Nate smirked. Here it didn't ooze charm, seductive and clinging like fine perfume. Here it showed its true nature, oily and sneering.
With a snort, Nate turned away. He was too sober for that sort of thinking but he snatched up the glass again and brought it with him to the couch.
The younger man was instantly alert, grey-blue eyes opening to regard him and the drink he held out. One glance at Nate was enough for him to reach out, to take it and knock it back, rubbing the glass between his fingers while Nate wiped his on his pants leg. He liked that about Eliot, he knew when silence was enough, when a shared glance said all there was to say. Aware he was standing over the hitter, Nate forced himself to step back towards the single chair and allow Eliot the space he'd been wanting. Still, while Eliot studied the glass, frowning and glaring at it and obviously deep in thought, Nate allowed himself to observe the man.
A job going south wasn't exactly unusual – hence the plans going up to and past M – they'd been ready for that eventuality in the form of Eliot, as always a one man escape route. What they hadn't been ready for, what Nate hadn't been prepared for was Sophie being made long before they'd realised she had been. The baddie of the week had calmly let them go about their business, had let Nate continue to think he was one step ahead and Sophie, and therefore Eliot, had walked right into an ambush which was why Eliot was glowering at his glass as if it had done him some personal wrong and Nate was testing the limits of his self-discipline.
He would never forget the effort it took for Eliot to get up off that alley floor.
Nate was aware Eliot had many talents and interests – you could go spelunking in the man's hidden depths – but it was his sheer force of will that never ceased to amaze him. He'd watched with a kind of horrified fascination as he'd forced himself upright, as he struggled to find the strength to rise, as his breath came in shuttered gasps and his arms wrapped around himself. For a moment, taking in the damage done to the hitter's body and the seven unconscious men scattered behind them, Nate had doubted him and he'd stepped forward to get Eliot to his feet himself. Sophie had stopped him before he'd taken half a step – a white knuckled grip on his arm that would leave bruises – and the sudden jolt of unexpected touch had brought clarity of wisdom, the type that only happened once or twice in a lifetime.
Eliot had needed to do it himself. He couldn't allow himself to come to expect help; relying on others spelled the end for a hitter and for all that they were a team, for all that he was allowing himself to relax marginally around them, Eliot's facade, his aura of invincibility needed to remain intact to better enable him to do his job. If the team perceived any weakness on Eliot's part, the spell would be broken and they'd no longer trust blindly, they'd always hold back, watching and wondering if this time Eliot would fall. Sophie hadn't let go until with another herculean feat, Eliot stood.
He'd swayed unsteadily, his head bowed and his lungs working like bellows despite the pain of what Nate recognised as broken ribs and suddenly there hadn't been a force of nature strong enough to stop Nate from moving to Eliot's side then. Together they'd gotten back to the van, Eliot's weight steadily growing heavier as Sophie went ahead to open the back door. Nate hadn't been surprised when Sophie had climbed in the back with them, she'd had that steely look in her eye that no amount of cajoling, flattery or common sense would budge and Nate didn't pause to consider leaving himself, which left Parker riding shotgun as Hardison peeled out, demanding to know what was going on.
With practised ease, Nate had ignored him, concentrating on Eliot instead. He'd pulled apart Eliot's over shirt while Sophie found the scissors in the medical kit, neatly snipping up the centre of the tee-shirt Eliot had worn underneath to reveal the injuries below. In the dim light, Nate had had a hard time figuring out what to tackle first, not made any easier by Parker, who'd casually wondered why Eliot wasn't speaking. She had turned around in her seat completely, her knees on the cushion and her hands folded on top of the headrest, her chin resting on her knuckles to watch them.
"He normally swears by now," she'd shrugged, unfazed by his glare and he'd returned his attention to Eliot, who'd begun struggling to prove he wasn't as completely out of it as he appeared to be. As always seemed to happen, Sophie had beaten Nate to it.
"No, don't move," she'd advised, even as Eliot had reached for the small kit. Ignoring her and sending a muted glare in Parker's directed, Eliot had snatched up a wad of square bandages and clamped them hard against his shoulder, beneath his torn clothing.
The immediate problem of blood loss dealt with, Nate had settled on worry number two; there was, he'd suspected, a nasty lump hidden somewhere under all that hair because despite his best efforts, Eliot's balance had been all over the place and the way he'd pressed his lips into a tight line had signified a headache and Nate hadn't liked the colour of his face or the look of his eyes. Eliot had jerked irritably away from his touch but Nate had persisted silently, skimming his finger tips through his hair and over his scalp, wincing when he found the swelling above Eliot's right ear. The hitter had grunted and Nate had noticed his eyelids beginning to droop, his grip slackening on his shoulder and had told Sophie to put her own hands there and to keep pushing down hard. A little wild about the eyes, she'd glanced at him even as she'd moved to comply.
"Concussion," he'd muttered, sitting back with a sigh and rubbing his face, watching as Eliot had let his head fall back and his eyes close. Turning back to Sophie, he'd not been able to do any more than shrug at her.
She'd stared back, nodding to her hands and the bloodstained makeshift bandage and if her voice had been a little higher than usual, no one had commented. "Does he need to go to the hospital?"
Eliot had roused himself enough to veto that idea, struggling to sit up straighter and take an active role in his own treatment. Nate had watched as his hand had trembled as he'd returned it to his injured shoulder. Sophie had wordlessly grasped it, still applying pressure to the wound but her eyes hadn't left Nate's. As much as he'd have liked to give Eliot the consideration he deserved, Nate had shaken his head. Considering the con they'd been on and the way it had panned out, the authorities and the questions they asked just hadn't been an option.
"Eliot's right," he'd conceded. "Hardison, take us to the apartment."
No one had had to ask which apartment Nate had meant; over the course of the last few months he'd become accustomed to finding one or more of his team members referring to his home as 'the apartment', as if they belonged there too. Only Eliot had had a problem with Nate's decision, growling that he was all right and could go home and becoming pissed when no one had taken any notice of him. No one had taken much notice of that either, Nate recalled.
Wrapped in their own thoughts, both Nate and Eliot jumped when Parker dropped unexpectedly into the seat next to Eliot. For a moment she stared at him as if expecting him to pull a coin out from behind her ear or maybe produce a rabbit out from one of the cushions before she raised a finger and made for his shoulder. When Eliot jerked away with a short hiss, she'd raised her eyes from the white square pad taped into place and smiled curiously.
"Does that hurt?"
"Does now," Eliot growled, that low, rumbling sound that warned most people to stay out of his way but for some reason only ever made Parker smile brighter.
Without warning she ducked her head, pressing the side of her face against his chest and surprised, Eliot could only look over the top of her hair at Nate in bewildered exasperation, both hands, Nate noticed, hovering over her shoulders but not pushing her away. He smiled back at the hitter lazily, casually calling the thief's name.
Unembarrassed, she shook her head. "He sounds right."
"Right?" Galvanised into action, Eliot pushed her away. "What's wrong with you, get off me."
Springing easily to her feet and apparently unperturbed by Eliot's reaction, Parker sauntered towards the door. Her fingers curled around the handle, she glanced back at Nate, her expression serious. "He sounds right, Nate. You've got to make sure he sounds right."
Without another word, she was gone, leaving Eliot annoyed and Nate amused, shaking his head and standing. Advising Eliot to get some sleep, Nate headed for the stairs and his bed, more than willing to finally put the night to rest and feeling normal for the first time since he'd heard the gunshot. Closing his eyes, he paused to consider that sentence. When had Parker's oddities become normal? Still, if she could effectively halt his and Eliot's post job-gone-south musings with a strange bit of normalcy, he wasn't complaining.