A/N: Just a little free styling to work through some writer's block. It's not particularly great but reviews are welcome and appreciated.
Disclaimer: Unfortunately they aren't mine…but if the opportunity presents itself I have dibs on Hardison and Eliot. Unbetaed so all errors are my own.
There is a time in every hitter's life where if they survived to the ripe age of thirty, their body protested every movement just a little bit more. Their instincts declined a hair…but that's all it took in their line of work. It only took a second, a millisecond really, for anyone…for everyone to get the jump on them. They got up a little slower, it took them a little longer to take a threat down…or out. Their reaction time was slightly altered…and of course, it took a little longer to recuperate and bounce back.
Eliot was one of the fortunate ones.
He learned to postpone the inevitable. He grew his own food for starters. He kept active and stayed fit. He had people who cared about him, and though he never liked admitting that…it somehow made all of the difference. Most importantly, he rested. Grant it he only slept ninety minutes a day, give or take an hour…but resting before and after each job put him completely at ease. It was time to meditate, reflect, and further hone in on his skills. That was why he was so adamant that Nate postpone the latest job. Give them all time to rest, take a break from four weeks straight of harrowing, draining, grueling work. But Nate was on a binge, blinded once again by one of his many demons. Nate was the only man he knew who was just as dangerous off the spirits as he was on them. Like any addict, in an attempt to fend off the cravings for alcohol he threw himself into new addictions, post-job debriefings of-with Sophie, and the adrenaline rush he got with each new task.
Given the choice of sitting out a job or having all of their backs, he'd always choose them. So despite the protest his body made, despite the warnings his subconscious gave him, he went along. He always did. And there it left him, sprawled out on the ground, bruised, beaten, and slightly drugged. If his body wasn't so worn down, if his mind wasn't so sluggish, his reaction time would have been better. If he weren't so impaired he wouldn't be lying there, staring down the barrel of a gun and growling at the mark's "muscle".
His body gave out on him in pure exhaustion. The moment he hit the ground and was incapable of scrambling back up quick enough it was nothing more he could do. He narrowed his eyes at his opponent and flipped through the dozens of tactics he could use. He quickly ruled out his opponent's partner. He had taken the man out first and his body and more importantly his gun was too far away for him to make a move for it. He vaguely heard his name being called somewhere in the distance. One of the others in the comms perhaps.
He could just make out his opponent pressing an index finger against the trigger. But there was nothing. No long lost memories flashing before his eyes of a time when he was a child, innocent, pure, when the only dirt on his hands was from digging up his mother's roses. No dark nightmares of the many other instances where he found himself on the brink of death. No last haunting of all the people he killed…many of them deserving, some of them not. Not even any memories of the last few years he'd spent trying to redeem himself.
His steely blue eyes flickered, watching the darkening fury of the man holding his life in his hands, because he would not close them. He would not give the man the satisfaction or the ease that comes with taking the life of a person who closes their eyes in supplication. The only fleeting thought passing through his mind, was the hope that his friends, his team, his family made it out okay without him, because if he had to die it had to be so that they could live. His blue eyes blazed murderously and defiant, his jaw set tight while he silently prayed to a God he didn't talk to nearly enough when he heard the BANG.
He felt the man collapse on top of him and it literally took a great deal of his strength to shove the man over. Blood slowly seeped from the man's chest; his lids fluttered before eyes froze into place, the last exhalation of air came out in a ragged spurt before his head lolled to the side. Eliot's vision was still blurry from the concussion, and his eyes were stinging from the blood mixing in with the sweat but he made out the dark jeans, the graphic tee shirt with the geeky vest over it, the big bright eyes staring shell shocked at the extended limb gripping a gun tightly, as if he didn't recognize his own hand.
The sight of his friend, paralyzed by shock and fear holding a loaded weapon was enough to kick start his body again. "Hardison!" He ground out through gritted teeth as he rose from the ground sluggishly.
"Hardison! Eliot!" Nate called out in his ear.
"Is everyone alright? Boys?" Sophie's voice was just on the verge of being frantic.
Parker didn't say anything but he could hear a low whimper, and then labored breathing and the wind whipping behind her as she took off running.
"We're fine." He growled as he walked slowly towards the hacker, who was still frozen in place.
"Hey Hardison," he said gruffly as soft as he could muster. He winced a little, favoring his right side where his ribs were cracked, the jostling coming from his movements sending pains everywhere. "Hey, man…why don't we put down the gun..."
The Hacker's attention was caught when he finally noticed Eliot in front of him, blocking his view from the body lying on the ground bleeding out. His arm was still outstretched, the gun was still gripped in his palm and he seemed to be having a hard time letting it go.
"How about I help you, buddy?" Eliot asked quietly, his deep blue eyes never breaking away from his friend's dark brown ones. The Hacker merely nodded.
He was momentarily distracted by the three figures rushing towards them. Nate, Sophie, and Parker closing in on them.
"El...I…they can't…" the Hacker finally regained control of his voice, it came out small and childlike and extremely frightened. He stared at Eliot with a panicked expression and Eliot nodded at the young man in understanding.
"Nate," Eliot barked out, his eyes never leaving Hardison. "Get them back, Nate!" he ordered. "Don't let them come any closer."
He could barely make out the commotion going on, as Nate tried to settle Sophie and Parker down. He shook his head and focused on the task at hand. He never broke eye contact with his friend as he slowly reached down and gripped the gun; he extracted it from each of the Hacker's fingers. "Easy does it."
The Hacker's arm fell limply to his side, and Eliot still never broke eye contact as he disassembled the gun and tossed it to the ground before kicking it beneath the banister and hearing it fall into the lake.
He knew better than to ask if his friend was okay.
He reached out to the Hacker, grabbing him by the back of his neck and pulling him into as much of a bear hug as he could muster in his current state. He noted that it took Hardison a moment to return the hug.
"I-I-I was aiming for his shoulder," the Hacker whispered, his voice muffled from being so buried into Eliot's shoulder. "I didn't…I wasn't trying to…"
"I know Hardison. I know." His own eyes flooded with tears that would never make it past his eyelids. He squeezed Hardison tighter, his expression dead as he met Nate's eyes over Hardison's shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut in supplication when he heard Hardison let out a strangled, broken cry, and felt the warm drops of liquid drip onto his shoulder.
"We should…uhh…clean this up," Nate supplied quietly, his voice taking on that calculated tone that he manages when he's attempting to be detached emotionally.
"I'll do it," Eliot grumbled harshly.
"No, maybe you should go let Sophie clean you up or-"
"I said I'll do it!" Eliot interrupted coldly. His tortured blue eyes met Nate's and Nate gave him a brief nod. "Hey man, why don't you head back to the van with Nate and get cleaned up." He patted the Hacker on the shoulder until the Hacker was able to pull himself away.
He didn't anticipate the Hacker's reaction. Hardison nodded and attempted at swiping away the tears that he had shed, only to discover the blood spattering his t-shirt. He froze before swiping at the blood frantically, trying to wipe it out with the palms of his hands. He flayed about in a panic, anguished shrieks escaping his lips as he tried with no success at making the blood, a symbol of the ghastly act he just committed, disappear.
"Hardison," Eliot said quietly trying to duck into the line of sight of the Hacker. "Alec!"
He clapped his hands on either side of the Hacker's face firmly until the Hacker was forced to stare at him. His bright eyes even rounder than usual with the tale-tell signs of hysteria. "It's my blood, okay?" he nodded at the Hacker, his eyes never leaving his. "My blood." Hardison visibly calmed down a bit and Eliot dropped his hands to the Hacker's shoulders. "Let Nate take you back to the van to clean you up."
The Hacker made no attempt to move until he turned suddenly and violently retched over the banister that was near. He reflexively flinched when Nate grabbed him by the shoulder and begin steering him towards the van. Eliot noticed it, recognized it, and understood it. The adrenaline was still coursing through the body, still seeking out an immediate threat. Hardison's gait was off too, shaken but a bit too alert.
The van ride home was quieter than it ever had been. He never did realize just how much empty yet amusing fodder the Hacker provided after a case to lighten the mood. Hardison sat in the back of the van, his back pressed firmly against the side panel, his knees brought up to his chest and his expression more vacant than he ever seen it. There were no words, nothing exchanged between them outside of Sophie and Nate exchanging worried glances in the front seat. Parker was otherwise preoccupied, her expression blank but her eyes undeniably concerned. She made small attempts at sitting near the Hacker, curling up next to his form. She was momentarily startled when the Hacker seemingly recoiled from her touch. She didn't pull away, only pressed her side closer to his and mirrored his stance.
Parker didn't understand it, to her Hardison was inadvertently shifting roles, taking her place as the closed off recluse who shied away from intimate gestures and personal contact. If the situation weren't so melancholy, so cataclysmic…he probably would have chuckled at her confusion, guffawed at how Parker-esque Hardison had become…and how she responded in kind like so many others who truly care and orient themselves around another person…by balancing him out, becoming the "Hardison" to his "Parker" behaviorally. Parker didn't get it…or better yet, she didn't want to get it. But he did. He looked on with bleary blue eyes at his best friend before him, as he wrapped the bandages around his ribs. When Hardison wasn't looking at his hands, studying them as though they were barbaric and bloodied, he met Eliot's gaze, his eyes still disturbingly vacant. Eliot knew that Hardison couldn't look at Parker, look at her mischievous innocence, meet her supportive light eyes, because he feared she'd see him differently now.
The van stopped suddenly and Hardison bolted out faster than anyone foresaw. He was a blur climbing up the stairs to Nate's apartment, and when the rest of them made it up he was gathering up laptops and preparing to head out the door.
"I was planning on postponing the debriefing until tomorrow," Nate grumbled, running a hand through his disheveled hair.
"W-we could maybe order in some dinner or something, "Sophie suggested quietly, her voice wavered only a bit when Hardison jerked away from her touch.
"I'm not really hungry," the Hacker murmured quietly. He refused to make eye contact with any of the others, as he slung his messenger bag over his shoulder and headed for the door. "I'll uh…I'll see you guys later.
Later. Not "tomorrow" or "in the morning" but "later". Eliot knew what that term implied…it was a term Hardison used to bid someone farewell. He said it countless of times with clients he was fond of but never anticipated seeing again or acquaintances he suspected he'd lose contact with in the future. It was his substitute for "goodbye".
"I'm coming with you!" Parker said loudly, he could hear the slight hysteria and desperation in her voice. He suspected she picked up on Hardison's terminology as well. Always more intuitive, more perceptive than any of them ever really gave her credit for.
"No…I'm just, I'm tired. I just want to…sleep," Hardison replied his dark eyes facing the door, voice low and sullen.
"We could sit on Nate's couch and watch movies or som-"
"I said NO Parker!" Hardison roared, jerking away from her final attempt at awkwardly patting his shoulder. He still never faced her directly his eyes desperately seeking out the door as if it were his final and only salvation.
Parker's mouth gaped open in surprise as she stepped back, thrown off so much by the Hacker's outburst that she not only bumped into Sophie but allowed the older woman to rub soothing circles in her back and pull her into a half-hug. Eliot wasn't too surprised at that, Hardison had never actually yelled at the Thief before. Never really yelled at any of them before. He sassed back, threw out snarky comments, but somehow managed to be boisterous and yet gentle.
"Hardison," Sophie started gently, soothingly, in one of her "con voices".
"Let him go." Eliot cut her off firmly. The other three stared at him in protest but he shook his head firmly and clenched his jaw. "Let him go home."
Hardison met Eliot's eyes briefly before dropping his gaze again and hurriedly rushing out the door.
"But this is home," Parker sniffled as she yanked away from Sophie and bolted up the spiral staircase.
He vaguely heard Nate and Sophie questioning him, then them presumably bickering with each other, the clinking of glass, the sloshing of hard liquor and occasional shuffle of the ice cube tray. He ignored it all. The others didn't understand…because he never wanted them to. He spent most of his time making sure that they would never understand what it meant to take a life. Understand how it feels, what it does to your soul, your mind, your being. He spent all of his time making sure that as screwed up as they all were, as morally grey and ambiguous as they had become, that they all remained pure in that aspect of their lives. He didn't wish killing on any of them, wouldn't wish the horrors that come with taking a life on even his worst of enemies. It was his job to protect them from losing that one piece of self that separates the humans from the monsters. It was his job, his mission to guarantee that none of them would ever become like him. He failed them…he failed his best friend, which was infinitely more gut-wrenching then the others because Hardison always radiated goodness, he was always bright and luminescent, and possessed an innocence reminiscent of a child. Out of them all, Hardison was the least jaded, and Eliot always felt extremely protective of that. He was as close to morally good as any of them could actually be. The irony that the purest of them all was somehow destroyed in the milliseconds that it took to pull a trigger was not lost on him. The incontestable grief that he felt for the best part of his friend dying was nothing compared to the undeniable guilt that he felt because his friend did it save him. He did nothing to wipe away the lone tear that fell from the corner of his eye.
"I'm surprised to see you here…" Eliot whispered into the darkness after he heard the soft click of Nate's apartment door closing and the soft padding against the floor.
The Hacker startled, clutched at his chest and muttered an obscenity. He leaned against the armchair as a sudden bout of anxiety took over him and his breathing became louder and more labored. "Water," he gasped as he fumbled to the kitchen sink and gulped down a glassful.
"That gets better," Eliot muttered quietly. "In time."
He could barely make out the silhouette of the Hacker from the moonlight streaming in through the windows as the young man nodded and made himself over to the armchair before him and sunk down.
"What gets better? The shakiness or the anxiety attacks?" Hardison whispered quietly, his voice hoarse and small.
He studied his friend for a bit, somehow seeming frailer, more defeated, and older. "Both."
He could see the barest hint of relief in his friend, but all he could really focus on was how the younger man's leg bobbed up and down, thrumming with nervous energy, and how he clasped and unclasped his long fingers before him, his eyes alternating between the floor and the window. "Couldn't sleep…" it came out more of an observation than a question.
"Does that get better?" Hardison asked quietly, his voice cracking. His dark eyes rose to stare at some point past Eliot rather than looking directly at him.
"No, man." He said rather bluntly, he bit his lip and sighed after a beat. "It doesn't."
"Huh," Hardison let out in a half-sob and half bitter laugh. "You sure as hell know how to sugarcoat don't ya El?"
He nodded and swallowed thickly, a small smile that looked more like one of his grimaces tugging at the corner of his mouth. It was the closest Hardison came to sounding like himself since the incident. He was about to respond when the Hacker begin speaking again.
"Is that why you're here…lurking at Nate's…at three in the morning?" Hardison inquired, he attempted to toss in some of his trademark humor and sass but it was ridiculously flat.
"No. I stayed because I hoped you'd be back…" Eliot answered gruffly.
"Hoped?" Hardison asked, not meeting his friend's eyes. It was the type of word he'd typically pick out just to crack a joke about it, but this time he was sincere in his confusion.
"You said you'd see us later. That's something you only say when you aren't sure you'll see anyone at all," Eliot said evenly. "I hoped that when you had trouble sleeping you'd come back."
"Is this umm…" Hardison paused, scratched at the back of his neck before forcing himself to look directly into Eliot's eyes. "Is this the real reason you only sleep ninety minutes a day?"
He looked Hardison dead in the eyes his voice never shaking. "Yes. It's one of the reasons….but it's different for me."
"Because you've killed more than one person," the Hacker supplied, reading between the lines. He ignored the way Eliot nodded in concurrence. "I…" Hardison's voice broke as he tried to maintain his composure but continued to fail miserably. "Every time I close my eyes I see his face…his eyes."
He let out a shaky breath as he heard the fear and discomfort in Hardison's voice could see the defeat in the Hacker's eyes. "I wish I could tell ya that it gets better, kid. But it doesn't. I see them every single day. I hear their voices. I see their eyes. Some days it can be harder than other days but…it hurts a little less… over time."
Hardison ducked his head down rubbing his chin and shifting in his seat. "So in time I'll be back to normal…"
"You'll never be back to normal Hardison!" he bellowed gruffly before tuning his voice down and continuing softly. "Time isn't the antidote to a curse. It's just…the thing you need to keep you going. There is no going back Hardison…there is no being 'normal' again. In fact the second you become 'normal' is the second you've lost sight of the humanity you have left."
"I don't know how to face them anymore Eliot…" Hardison said quietly. "They're going to look at me differently…they already are. And…and Parker-"
"Parker…loves you, man. They all do. We all do. No one is going to think less of you Hardison. I'd be lying if I told ya that it ain't gonna alter things a bit. But it won't change the fact that they care."
He shifted in his seat awkwardly, his ribs still throbbing and his head still pounding a bit. He reached out and grabbed a couple of more aspirin, swallowing them dry. He made the task stretch on longer than necessary, granting Hardison enough time to wipe away at the tears that had been streaking his cheeks, as he pretended not to see.
"I should probably apologize to her. I…couldn't help but push her away a bit. I just…I need…I-" Hardison stammered as he tried to find the right words to sum up how he was feeling. He went back to clasping and unclasping his hands anxiously.
"Parker understands, man. She wasn't angry she's just…"
"Parker?" Hardison offered with a small smile, a meager attempt at the brilliant one he flashed so often.
He chuckled, biting back the urge to mention that something was seriously wrong with that girl. "Yeah. Parker."
The silence between them stretched on for some time. He could hear the faint snores of Nate and Sophie from upstairs. Sophie never left…even after Parker did. She merely stayed by Nate's side, watching as the Mastermind pounded back drink after drink before she helped tow him up the stairs. Parker was long gone…drawing into herself and distancing herself from them all. She went up the roof for a bit, teetered off the ledge for a while before taking off, undoubtedly seeking the comfort of Bunny and the soothing task of unlocking and locking hundreds of locks in the safety and confines of her storage unit home. He called her twice just to check up on her, hear her voice, and assure her as much as he could that things would be better…grasp at that last attempt to shelter the other kid in their group. He'd never rid himself of the responsibility of protecting Hardison and Parker. The weight of guilt sat heavily on his chest and finally he broke the silence.
"I'm sorry." His voice was raspy even to his own ears and the agony he was feeling must have reigned through as Hardison met his eyes questioningly.
"Dammit Hardison!" He growled as he pounded his fist against the coffee table…a myriad of feelings muddling the words he was trying to formulate. "I never wanted this for you!"
He glared at the Hacker prepared to growl at the younger man if he dared open his mouth to respond but to his surprise Hardison didn't say a word. A flash of knowingness caused his eyes to darken but again to Eliot's dismay he remained blessedly silent.
"It's my job to protect you guys. It's my job to make sure nothing happens to you…and yes…that includes you going off and killing somebody."
Hardison flinched at the callousness of the words but again chose to say nothing.
"It's my job to make sure that none of you end up like me." He said bitterly as his blue eyes bored into those of his friend. "When you kill someone…" he paused a beat and watched the Hacker again recoil at the words. "You kill a part of yourself too.
"I never wanted to see that part of you die, Hardison. I try damn hard to make sure that y'all never…" he paused and found himself sniffing back the threat of tears. "That y'all never, ever, have to turn out anything like me."
"Eliot-" Hardison started.
"Let me finish!" Eliot grunted out. "Look man, I bust your chops all the time but…" He growled to himself, not knowing how to properly word what he was feeling, not wanting to word what he was feeling…how much his best friend's youthful exuberance minutely cleansed him of his horrible past deeds. How he somehow reminded him that there is still hope in this world… that people are still capable of being inherently good regardless of their murky pasts. Instead he merely settled for the accusatory annoyance. "You shoulda left me there…" he growled. You shoulda-"
"Let you die?" Hardison said quietly, his dark eyes boring into Eliot's. "You know I couldn't do that man."
"It's my responsibility to-"Eliot protested, squeezing his eyes shut as the guilt hit him again.
"Look man, you ain't the only one with responsibilities," Hardison interrupted quietly, his voice starting to sound a little more like its usual self. "I…" the Hacker took a shaky breath as he tried to control another onslaught of anxiety from taking over. "I have to live with what I did for the rest of my life," he whispered. "But I don't regret doing it if it meant that you got to live." He said more firmly.
He was taken aback by the Hacker's words and found himself stunned into silence. He narrowed his eyes at the young man, scrutinizing his haggard appearance and the nervous twitches and habits that he continued to engage in.
"You know Eliot…sometimes it's easy for us all to believe that you're invincible," the Hacker mumbled as he stared at his hands. "But for the first time I...you..." he cleared his throat and scratched at the back of his neck awkwardly. "You scared me, because it was one of the first times it hit me that you may not make it and…it was one of the first times I seen you look like you were giving up."
"Hey…" he growled defensively. "I never give up. I'll never give up on any of you."
The Hacker nodded and gazed out the window at the incoming signs of dawn. "It really sucks caring doesn't it?" he chuckled darkly as he met Eliot's eyes with a knowing look before averting them again. "Sometimes….sometimes I'm afraid that I care too much." He whispered quietly.
"You shouldn't want it any other way," Eliot shot back gruffly. "That right there is what will keep this all from swallowing you whole. Caring too much means you'll never not care at all, Hardison. Caring too much means that you'll never let this moment define you, even though it will alter the rest of your life. And for that…you'll be better off than I ever could be." He said sincerely, holding the Hacker's gaze for as long as he could before the younger man looked away.
"You're not a monster, man." Hardison said quietly yet firmly as he continued to stare off towards the window.
The stillness stretched on as the sun begins to break across the horizon and light filtered through the blinds of the window. They sat in a comfortable silence for a long while watching the sunrise bringing with it the promise of better days and a hope for healing.
"I'll be here to help you get through it bro," he says quietly stealing a glance at the Hacker and giving his shoulder a firm squeeze before rising and heading to kitchen.
He hears the stirring upstairs and the loud ding of the elevator in the distance. Nate and Sophie rising with the sun no doubt and Parker treading down the hall with a growling stomach. He begins the relaxing task of making breakfast for them all, watches silently as the Hacker opens one of his laptops and begins clacking away at the keys, slowly at first but with an ease and comfort. A small smile tugs at his lips as he turns the eye to the stove on and listens to the soft tapping of fingers against a keyboard, the sound of the front door unlocking and two pairs of feet padding down the spiral staircase. He silently prays that they all make it through.