The Price We Pay

Chapter 7

Eliot set the stove to a low simmer, just enough to keep the food warm. He went about setting the table for two with his real set of plates and cutlery. It was even a matching set. His normally mismatched hodge-podge of a chipped mug and a cheap plate had been retired to the back of one of the cupboards for the evening. He pulled up the shades on his window to check for any approaching figures on the street for the second time in twice as many minutes. Disappointment fell across his face. He sighed, shook his head, and took a seat at the table. Hardison wasn't coming. Eliot had fought dirty, just as he was always willing to do, to get what he wanted. And he had wanted to be alone. And now he was, so why was the notion so alarming all of a sudden?

Could a little more than a day's worth of experiences really change his outlook that much? Eliot snorted to himself. Of course it could. And for once Eliot didn't want to be sitting here at this table alone.

And then there was a sound of a key jingling in the lock. He listened for another moment just to make sure that he wasn't imagining things into existence simply to fulfill his latest desires. But the door opened. He was on his feet and down the hallway before he'd even realized he was moving.

A familiar face greeted him with a grin. "Hey. What's up?"

Eliot closed his eyes for a moment to balance his emotions and calm himself. Had to be cool, damn it. He wasn't going to blow this now. "Oh, uh, nothing much. I made dinner, if you're hungry."

Hardison shrugged. "Sounds good to me. I was working at that little bakery down the road all day. And damn, the smells just had my mouth watering!"

"You already eat? It's ok if you did…I know it's pretty late for dinner," Eliot said quietly.

"Oh, no. I was just saying, for the next briefing I'm going to pick up some of their stuff." Hardison threw his bag on the couch, rubbed his hands together and walked past Eliot and into the kitchen like this were his own home. "So what are we having? Whatever it is, it smells absolutely delicious."

"It's fish, I got the recipe out of that recipe book Parker gave me for Christmas."

Hardison nodded. "So this is a new recipe for you?" he asked as he pulled out a chair from the table and dropped himself into it.

Eliot turned off the stove and laid out the food on the table before sitting down himself and tossing his oven mitts onto the counter. "Yeah. I think it came out ok, though."

They sat there for a few odd moments there. Eliot had been taught his manners as a child, his mother had seen to that. The others guys constantly mocked him for his gestures. Sophie called him a regular southern gentleman when he held the door for her, a small smirk on her face. Despite the smirk, however, for her and Parker, the gazes weren't mocking, not really. There was a shocking sense of surprise and awe there, as if he were the last bastion of chivalry in a world where manners had become outdated. And of the things his mother had taught him, one of the first lessons had been that guests served themselves first.

"Oh, uh, you can go ahead and serve yourself."

Hardison cocked his head as if Eliot was speaking a foreign language. Maybe Hardison hadn't been raised with the same lessons he'd had. The hacker shrugged. "Fine by me." He dished himself a fillet of fish from the pan and a full two scoops of the fresh vegetables that Eliot had cooked as a side. Most of the hacker's plate disappeared beneath a pile of food.

After Hardison served himself Eliot began to dish his own up. "So how was your day?"

"It was fine. I worked a bit on the Italian Woman's job."

Eliot sat up a bit straighter at that. "Has Nate picked a new target for us to go after toward that ultimate goal?"

"No. I told him I was taking some time off and suggested the rest of the team do the same. I think everyone was beginning to show a little weariness with everything. And when people get tired they get sloppy and stupid and they make mistakes. Those don't bode too well in our line of work."

Eliot knew that Hardison was lying to him then. The rest of the team wasn't starting to show it. He was. And that had apparently been enough of a reason for Hardison to go and demand some time off. And demand he had, Eliot was sure of that. Nate wasn't the type to just drop everything for a quick vacation when there was work to be done, and if Hardison had been anything but firm, Nate wouldn't have given in. Eliot knew when to pick his battles, though, and he chose to let that one go. He deposited a forkful of food into his mouth and nodded. After he swallowed he continued. "How's the food?"

"Very good."

"So you're definition of a vacation includes spending an entire day doing research for a con?"

"I spent the whole day sitting in chair. How strenuous do you consider that to be?" Hardison rebutted.

How strenuous indeed, Eliot thought. Hardison liked to joke about how sugar ran in his veins instead of blood with the amount of pop and junk food he consumed. Eliot had seen Hardison's eyes red in the late hours of the night. They had taken on a haunting glow as they reflected the light of the computer screen in the otherwise dark room. The man would reach a shaky hand for another caffeinated beverage, would chug a bit, and then continue waging his technological warfare without even glancing away from the screen. Hardison's job didn't come without its own sacrifice.

"It's still not taking time off."

Hardison's voice took an edge then. "And you're one to talk?" When Eliot failed to respond Hardison returned to his food.

"So you find anything?" Eliot asked.

"Not much," Hardison replied nonchalantly.

"Anything remarkable happen today, then?" Eliot prodded further. He wasn't good at this small talk stuff. He normally relied on Hardison to come up with the conversation topics and Eliot would work to keep up with the flurry of words that would slide off the man's tongue. All of a sudden Hardison was dumping that responsibility into Eliot's lap and the hitter was fumbling badly.

"Nope. Just a quiet day at the bakery."

Eliot waited for his friend to ask about his day. When the awkward silence continued Eliot started in anyways, unprompted. "My day was pretty quiet too. I just watched some TV and cooked and stuff."

"Good. That's good," Hardison responded in a neutral tone, even as his eyes remained pointedly focused on the food in front of him.

Eliot growled low under his breath. What did the man want from him? He was playing some sort of game, obviously, and Eliot hadn't quite caught on. A few more questions found Hardison delivering equally bland answers.

And as Eliot watched the man, it finally clicked. He fell silent himself, then, as he pondered his choices then. The set-up was one that Willy had taught Eliot as a boy. And it was a tactic that Eliot himself had used on more than a few stubborn foals in his day. When you were first teaching a horse, often times a frisky foal wanted nothing of wearing a halter or being led about on the end of a rope. There were so many more interesting things to do like rolling in the dirt or searching for grass along the fence line where perhaps other horses hadn't been smart enough to look and nibble it down to near nothing. You took the foal into the ring; it would be just the young horse and the horse trainer. You would try to halter the horse for the first time, and more often than not it'd throw up its head, balk, and prance off across the ring with its tail high in the air. And then the trainer would turn his back to the horse and face the fence line for a time. It could take awhile. The foal had to satisfy all his curiosities, but eventually it came down to the man and the horse. The horse was afraid, at first. It was asking a lot, to trust the trainer enough to let him lead. It was asking the horse to cede the unbridled life it'd led up till then. But almost always, without fail, the foal would wander up to the trainer, ears pricked anxiously for the slightest sound that would indicate a threat. But the trainer stood there and waited for the horse to approach on its own time, to snuff at his sleeves and investigate. And when the horse finally stilled its movements, then, and only then, was it time to turn around and gently brush the nose of the foal and whisper encouragement as you slid the halter over its head for the first time.

Hardison was doing that right now. The hacker had given Eliot every reason to trust him. He'd come into his home and assisted him in every way he could. He'd taken the brunt of Eliot's harsh words and rebukes and retreats from every effort Hardison made to reach out to him. Like that frisky colt, Eliot had retreated to his bedroom and slammed the door or he'd gone at the punching bag or he'd taken that frustration out as he sprinted along the blocks and blocks of cityscape that made up the heart of Boston. Hardison hadn't demanded anything from him. He'd waited patiently, waiting for Eliot to come through on his own time.

Hardison was drawing a line, now, though. Eliot could remain barred up in the prison he'd created for himself to contain the tumult of emotion that ran beneath his façade every moment of every day, or he could step over that line and instill trust in someone else as he never had before.

Almost always a colt would come up the trainer and investigate. It would fuss and buck around the ring for awhile, but eventually it would come up and trust. In all the time that Willy had mentored Eliot, only one foal had failed this test. Willy had stood there at the fence line looking out on the rest of his farm and his herd for an entire afternoon and well into the evening after the sun had dipped behind the horizon. He'd turned around finally, shaking his head sadly. "There are some horses you never can train, Eliot. Not many, but a handful. This guy is one of those."

And Eliot had asked what was to be done with a horse like that.

"You can't trust a horse that can't trust a trainer. It's a two way street. And when one doesn't give, it's a broken dynamic. Doomed to fail," Willy had responded mournfully as he climbed the hill.

The colt had been gone when Eliot had returned the next day. He'd never worked up the gall to ask Willy what had happened to it.

Eliot put down his fork and pushed his plate away. Hardison kept eating, ignoring the gesture.

The hitter took a shuddering breath. He was on a precipice and had to dive to one way or the other. Bolt or bend to another's will, to Hardison's plea that Eliot let down his walls.

"I was angry, you know, after that school reunion a month or so back."

Hardison stopped eating and finally looked up from the food.

Eliot continued, not quite meeting Hardison's gaze. "You guys were all in there slow dancing with one another and I was limping out of the building having just fought with some armed thugs. I was sore and tired as ever and you guys were slow dancing like you didn't have a care in the world. Like you didn't care about me. And yes, I was angry. But it's just the way things are, isn't it? And I did think to myself, 'It shouldn't be like this, but it is.' And I just went home and started piecing myself back together."

And finally, Hardison abandoned his icy demeanor and began speaking in earnest, meeting Eliot halfway. "It doesn't have to be that way, Eliot. And changing that aspect of the team dynamic, it has to come from you. We- I-want to help. But I can't read your mind. And I certainly can't force you to do something that you yourself don't want."

Eliot grimaced. "What do you want from me out of this?"

Hardison put down his own fork, focusing his full attention on Eliot. "What do you want, Eliot? You just said that you sometimes wished things were different. That true?"

Eliot gave a slow half nod. Not quite sure of the answer himself. He battled with that sentiment every day. It fluctuated. When he saw the rest of the team caring for one another, helping one another, sometimes he wanted that for himself too. And other times he…he just wanted to bury all that in a little ball in the furthest depths of his mind where no one would ever discover the pain or the hurt. "Sometimes," he muttered softly, "Sometimes I wish it were different."

Hardison nodded. He waited for Eliot to meet his eyes before speaking again; pouring all of the emotions that had been boiling within him all day into his words. "You're not a second-rate member of this team, Eliot. You're not some mule to carry all of us through all the dangers we put ourselves in at risk and harm to yourself. You understand that, right? We all know this job is dangerous and we all willingly and consciously choose to walk into each and every con together."

"I'm more capable of protecting you-"

"No, Eliot. You're not. Plain and simple. You seem to forget that we all survived the time before our little band of criminals came into existence. All of us survived that. We may not have the combat prowess that you have, but we have street smarts."

Eliot mulled over that for a moment. Hardison was partially right on that. He didn't really think much of what happened before they were a team. Eliot respected that each of them had their own pasts and histories that they had a right to keep private if they chose to. Really, for him, the time that mattered was the time after they had all stepped into the ring together to fight against the corruption in the world. And as they did that, he'd assumed the role he knew best. That of the protector, bearing the brunt of the onslaught to protect the ones he'd come to love. He spoke the next words quiet enough that Hardison leaned forward to listen more carefully. "I don't want to see you guys get hurt."

"That's a two way street, Eliot. We don't want to see you constantly hurting. That's too high a price to pay."

Eliot breathed in and out several times. That was what the argument came down to. He viewed it as a fair bargain. His pain for the peace of mind that they would walk off safely after the latest con. Hardison was rejecting that dynamic. Eliot had lived and operated by this creed for his entire life. It was a revolving cycle that he never really had the escaped from. Hardison was holding the door open for him, offering him an out to abandon everything he'd ever believed in. Offering him the chance to break the circle. He didn't know what waited on the other side. No, that was a lie. He knew what laid out there, he'd seen the sentiment reflected enough between the gazes of his teammates, a look of devotion and care that ran so deep he often had to stop and wonder just how much his life had changed in these last few years, just how close he had allowed himself to grow to these remarkable individuals. Just how weak he had let his defenses fall.

And there was Hardison, sitting across from him as patient as ever with admiration reflected in his eyes practically screaming to be seen, to be realized, to be accepted, by Eliot. It was burning a hole through Eliot's defenses, burning a hole through which Eliot could climb out of the prison he'd buried his emotions and pain within. It had always been for the sake of the team. Or so he'd thought. Here Hardison was burying that philosophy in a grave so deep that Eliot knew if he let it go of it Hardison would never let him resurrect it.

Hardison would wait patiently for Eliot to shed the layers of defenses he'd built up between himself and others. But he knew without asking, just innately knew,that Hardison would throw himself between any attempts Eliot made to retreat back to that place once he'd ventured out beyond it. No, if he gave this up, if he gave himself over, there was no going back. He'd be out in the open, exposing the soft, fragile bits of himself to another. And that took a sort of faith that Eliot didn't know that he possessed.

All of a sudden he was afraid, afraid to give all of himself over to another person. That emotional prison seemed more like a safe haven, all of sudden. It was familiar; Hardison was trying to draw him into a world that was totally foreign.

He opened his mouth to speak but the words wouldn't come out. The words were swallowed in his throat. He steeled himself and forced the words out, softly, without much weight or confidence behind them. But he spoke them all the same. "I'll try, Hardison. I'll try. That's the best I can give you."

Hardison's stern gaze finally cracked and a breathless smile emerged, and it swept Eliot away. "That's all I ask."

"I'm tired," Eliot admitted.

The progress they'd made was a victory enough for tonight.

"Go to bed. I'll clean up here," Hardison said.

For a moment, while Eliot didn't respond, Hardison worried that Eliot might fall back into his familiar rut and reject the offer. The man hardly ever accepted help from anyone with anything. But the hitter surprised him, not for the first time that night. Hardison had kept his bag packed by the door. And if Eliot had refused to let down his walls even an inch, Hardison had been prepared to walk out of here tonight and be done. But Eliot had given himself over, just now, and he didn't retreat backwards. Like the man he was, he stood and faced the uncertain with an unwavering resolve.

"Thanks," Eliot responded. And with that he rose from his chair and retreated toward his room. He paused at the doorway. "Oh, Hardison, I expect my punching bag to be back in its rightful place tomorrow. I know you had nothing to do with it and all, but I'm just saying. If you happen to have any information on its whereabouts, you might suggest to said person that they return what's not rightfully theirs."

Hardison smirked, he felt the heat rise into his cheeks as he blushed and the glint in Eliot's eye let Hardison know he'd been found out. "Um, I'll see what I can manage."

Eliot nodded and disappeared completely from view as he stepped into his room. Hardison waited to hear the slam of the door and the click of the lock. But the sound didn't come, prompting him to look upward from where he was gathering his dishes on the table.

The door hung completely open.

He finished cleaning up the dishes and returning the kitchen to the paradigm of perfect order that Eliot commanded of every corner of his home. He laid out his bedding on the couch and flicked out the lights and fell asleep. And when a terror-stricken cry pierced the night, he'd risen from his bed without a second thought. There had been a moment of hesitation at the doorway, some unseen barrier pinned him there. That frozen moment melted, then, and he straightened his back and walked into the bedroom.

They had been teammates and friends before that night. But as Hardison stepped into the bedroom he knew that phase of their life was ending and something completely new was being founded on the trust that two men were willing to instill in one another. He reached down, whispering Eliot's name softly in his ear, dragging Eliot from the depths of the sorrowful sea that the man had been treading in all his life.

Eliot's eyes opened as he surfaced for the first time after an eternity of solitude. The terror faded as he saw the calmness and serenity in Hardison's eyes. It was the rock in a storm and he clung to it with every ounce of strength he possessed. His ragged breaths evened out. Hardison smiled down at him with a gaze that promised a future Eliot wasn't sure he was good enough a man to deserve. He became aware of the hand that Hardison had gently placed on the hitter's sweaty shoulder to ground him.

And for once, Eliot forsook the guilt and doubt that clung to his every thought. Damn his past and the rightness or wrongness of the opportunity that he'd been given. He seized Hardison's hand in his own and didn't let go.