Summary. Nate finds out why two of his team members are sniping at each other. Now he has to figure out how to fix things without breaking an important promise to Eliot. Good luck, Nate...
Nate sighed and shot a fast, surreptitious glance behind him at the bar set-up he hadn't quite finished dismantling and transforming into storage and serving for non-alcoholic drinks. Especially at moments like this, when Hardison and Eliot were verbally sparring and driving their fearless leader insane, Nate simply couldn't see any benefits to sober life whatsoever. Grimacing, he rose to his feet and spoke over the din, determined to solve whatever the problem was before he backslid and left to find replacement liquor.
"Eliot! Hardison! Enough! Downstairs, both of you."
The command silenced the combatants for a moment, but they both soon began to protest the decree loudly and simultaneously. Nate glared and shouted them down once more. "Quiet! I'm sick of this and I'm putting an end to it. Go. Now!"
Still glaring daggers at Nate and each other, Eliot and Hardison stomped across the room and down the stairs, grumbling under their breaths and mildly striking out with shoves and slaps in the manner of siblings since time immemorial, enmeshed in endless rounds of 'Don't touch me! Dad, he's touching me!'.
As he turned to follow, Sophie stepped between him and the exit and laid a cautionary hand on his chest.
"Don't you dare, Nathan Ford. They always find some way to work things like this out, you know that. The last thing they need is for you to go mucking about in their problems..."
"Normally I'd agree, but it's been two days and I can't take it anymore. Plus, something's... different this time. I get this sense that if someone doesn't do something. this... whatever *this* is, will end up in an actual fight. Hardison would end up in ICU if that happened."
"I won't interfere, Soph. I'm just going to... facilitate."
Gently shifting her out of his path, he jogged swiftly down the stairs to join the other two, fearing the fight scenario would come to pass if he left them alone together much longer. He was intensely relieved to find the men on opposite sides of the room.
"I am *not* sittin' at a table with him, Nate... so don't even ask." Eliot declared the moment he saw his boss enter.
"Never crossed my mind. Far as I'm concerned, you can both stay right where you are. As long as one of you talks, that is. I'm telling you both right now, if I don't hear some discussion and forgiveness pretty soon, ... you'll not only be sitting across from each other, you'll be cuffed together for the next week."
"Like to see you try it..." Eliot growled.
"Trust me... it won't even make me breathe hard." Nate countered, a dangerous glint in his eyes that Eliot knew all too well. The younger man backed off one step, turned and kicked the wall hard. Hardison's jaw dropped.
"Wha... how... that don't... you ain't..."
"I can and will... unless you two get this out in the open."
"Ask him, damn it." Eliot finally grunted, still facing the wall. "He's the one who's got a jealousy problem."
"Jealous? Me? Man, you have *got* to be kiddin'! I'm a lotta things, but jealous? That ain't one of 'em! You... man, you got nothin' I'd ever be jealous of."
Eliot spun around, his face flushing brick red with anger.
"Yeah? Funny... didn't look that way from my side a'that studio glass."
Nate breathed slowly and stepped away, fading into the background. Now that the conversation seemed to be on a roll, he wouldn't speak or intervene again unless it appeared the two men were on the verge of violence.
"I was tryin' to give you constructive criticism!"
"Comin' from somebody that couldn't carry a tune in the cargo hold of a C-130, that don't mean a hell of a lot!"
Hardison took a step toward Eliot, then backtracked. A moment later he did it again, sputtering all the while.
"You... urrrnh! You did *not* just... man... if I didn't know I'd get my head knocked into next Thursday, I *swear* I'd..."
"What? C'mon, little man, tell me what you'd do then step up and see what happens. Forget Thursday! You'll end up in 2013!"
"I'm good with that! At least nobody there's gonna steal my thunder and go smilin' at me after like he's got no clue what he just did!"
The silence that followed Hardison's furious statement was the heaviest and deepest Nate had ever experienced. Intensely worried, he watched the younger man fumble for a chair and drop into it, the awareness of what he'd let slip causing his expression to shift rapidly from shock to embarrassment and back to anger. The role of pseudo-dad fell on Nate with considerable solidity and a good deal of pain, but he still held back, determined not to butt in at that critical juncture. When he saw the surging rage abruptly dissipate in Eliot, replaced by confusion and concern, he knew he'd made the right choice. The smaller man took a cautious step toward where Alec sat, paused, then took one more before his instinct told him to stop.
"Run that by me once more?" Eliot requested, his seemingly calm tone clearly underscored with wariness.
"No. No way."
"Damn it, Hardison..."
The other man huffed out a frustrated breath, rose and turned his back. It was a few long minutes before he spoke again, but Eliot somehow held onto his patience, sensing how hard Alec was struggling.
"You don't get it, man... none a'you do. I used to like bein' mostly behind the scenes... I'm more comfortable there, ya know? Then I got to stand in that damn concert hall... everybody cheerin' and clappin' for *me*. Parker... she said you guys almost got caught 'cause you stopped to listen. It's been years since I've really thought about it... but once Nate pushed me back into that spotlight, man... I remembered how good it feels."
"An' you wanted to be the only one in it."
"I wanted *somethin' * none a'the rest a'ya'll had. Sittin' there, tryin' not to admit how good you were... I got so mad I couldn't stand it an' the four year old in me just... took over."
"Dang it... that's no excuse. I don't show that side of me to anybody, Hardison. That night in the club... it was the first time I've played for strangers in God knows how long. Thinkin' I'd have that demo to listen to... have the memory to keep the walls from closin' in for a little bit longer... that meant somethin' to me."
"I know. I still couldn't stop myself." Alec admitted, gradually shifting around to face his friend. "If I could scam a couple hours in a local studio... to make it up to you... I swear I'll keep my trap shut this time."
"Yeah... yeah, that'd be good. Long as you bring your violin."
"Now you're just bein' mean. You know we sold the Strad..."
"An' I went out to a used instrument store and found you a replacement. It ain't a million dollar antique... probably needs some work. I figured you'd know how to fix it up."
"But... you never spend your money... on anything. Ever."
"After what I heard in that vault I couldn't let you give it up again. See, I knew how much *your* night meant to *you*."
"Damn... El, I..."
"Don't, okay? Neither one of us is good at all the mushy crap. The case is in my room. Go on up and have a look."
Alec hesitated. "Get movin'. I'll be right behind ya."
The other raced off up the stairs, his face split by a mile wide grin. Eliot drifted off, mostly following, but angling toward where Nate stood in the shadows. When he got close enough, he found himself being tugged into a gentle embrace.
"I didn't take on the fight for you. My vow is intact..."
"Mmmm. Mostly... but it's all good. We needed the kick in the ass. Not likely any of that stuff woulda come out on its own."
"Agreed. So... do we have an appointment for mushy crap later on?"
"Hmmmph. The only thing that'll be mush when I'm done... is you."
"God, I hope so."