It was dumb luck that Eliot happened to be there when they came for Hardison.
They’d got into the habit of winding up their jobs at Hardison’s place. Big screen TV, bowl of popcorn, some stupid movie they could all agree was ridiculous. (“Those little cars are so cute. Are they real?” Parker asked as they watched a team of minis race through the Turin underground with a load of gold.) More often than not, Nate and Sophie ducked out right after the film, making their excuses while making eyes at one another; Eliot really didn’t care if they hooked up as long as it didn’t interfere with the job. Involvements like that just made it harder to keep your head in the game, and those two had already blown their cover once at the bank job in Juan. Of course, Nate had been shot and maybe if it’d been him in there, he’d have blown his cover too. Eliot couldn’t say for sure, which worried him more than he liked. There was a reason why he worked alone, why he’d always worked alone, and he wasn’t convinced it was a good idea to change what had kept him alive all this time.
Sophie and Nate slipped out the front door while the credits were rolling, and Parker hung around for a couple of games of Grand Theft Auto, but eventually got bored and threw herself off the balcony with a running leap.
“I hate it when she does that,” Eliot said, finishing his beer and peering over the balcony. He could see Parker’s blond ponytail bouncing happily as she skipped down the street and disappeared into the shadows.
“I hear you, man.” Hardison offered up another beer and they clinked bottles as they made their way to the pool table. Eliot racked up the balls and Hardison sharpened the cues. He knew which one Eliot liked, the light ash with the red stripe, and Eliot didn’t have to look up to catch it neatly in one hand. Neither of them said anything, but they functioned like clockwork. Like people who knew each other and knew what to expect. Like a team. A family.
It was the same as the last job and the job before. Movie. Sophie and Nate leaving early. Play station. Parker jumping off the balcony. Another beer. Pool. In an hour, Eliot would be falling asleep on Hardison’s couch, and shortly thereafter he’d feel the familiar warmth of a blanket being pulled over him, a light hand ruffling his hair. Eliot finessed the six ball into the side pocket and wondered if he should leave, if he was getting too predictable, or worse, too comfortable with Hardison.
In their business, it was bad to have habits. Habits meant you had routines, patterns of behaviour. Things that people could follow and learn, things that could trip you up when you least expected it. Eliot had worked very hard at exorcising habit from his life. He didn’t frequent any particular restaurants or bars. He didn’t date the same person twice—which Sophie had kindly pointed out wasn’t really dating at all. He didn’t take the same route to the office two days in a row. But somehow, after every job, he ended up here, doing the same things with the same people, and liking it. Truth was he even looked forward to it, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. They were getting too dependent on one another, and that was dangerous.
“What’s up?” Hardison asked, staring at him across the table.
“Nothing.” Eliot lined up his next shot, watching as the cue ball lifted off the table and into Hardison’s big dark hand.
“Uh-huh,” he said, looking at the ball he’d caught, then back at Eliot. “You want to talk about it?”
“No, I don’t want to talk about it.” Eliot scowled and flipped his hair out of his eyes. “Take your damn shot.”
Hardison settled the cue ball on the table and tapped it lightly towards the number seven. “I know this is kind of messed up.”
“Being the good guys. Being part of something.” Hardison leaned on the edge of the table and shook his head. “Some days I think maybe I’m in some kind of virtual reality where I made you guys up.”
“How do you know you’re not?”
“’Cause Sophie and Parker would be wearing a whole lot less, and you’d be a little more like Mr. T.”
“And I thought Parker’s head was a scary place.”
Hardison shrugged and sank another ball. “Child of the eighties, man. Raised on Tang and television. Mr. T was my hero.”
Eliot grinned. “You saying I’m, like, your hero?”
The eye-roll was anticipated. “I’m saying Mr. T was my hero. You are just a sad, short, white copy with messy hair and glasses.”
“I can kill you with this pool cue,” Eliot said conversationally, taking a sip.
“And you think Parker lacks social skills,” Hardison snorted and Eliot felt some of the tension leave him. Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. It beat bloody knuckles every Saturday night and an empty apartment with a stack of empty bottles. Plus Hardison was teaching him stuff—how to use his laptop for more than checking email and downloading porn. Even if the team thing didn’t work out, the Photoshop stuff would be a big help getting in and out of places in the future.
Hardison yawned loudly and scrubbed a hand over his face as he slid his cue onto the holder on the wall. “I put clean sheets on the spare bed. You’re going to have a hunchback you keep sleepin’ on that couch.”
“Staying? Oh, yeah, you are.” Hardison started turning out lights and setting the alarm system.
“I’ll take a cab.” Eliot crossed his arms and tried to look menacing. It seemed to be having less and less effect on Hardison, on all of them, if he was honest.
“It’ll take you an hour to get home, plus you’ve got no cash.”
Eliot reached for his wallet—everything was in place except the fifty bucks he’d been carrying for emergencies. “Shit!”
“Parker likes to keep in practice.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“And spoil her fun? Hell, no. I like her when she’s happy.” Hardison took the empty bottle Eliot handed him and put it on the kitchen counter. “Besides, it’s no big deal. It’s actually kind of nice not being here alone.”
Eliot nodded, avoiding Hardison’s eyes. He didn’t want to know that Hardison was lonely, missing his Nana and the noise of a house full of people. Eliot knew if he left now, Hardison would probably be up half the night on his computer, playing World of Warcraft or some other game so his apartment didn’t seem so big, so empty. They all had ways of keeping the world at bay—Nate drank and Sophie shopped, Parker leapt off rooftops and Hardison had a world of virtual strangers. Eliot hit people and had sex because sometimes he just needed to connect with another human being—it didn’t matter much who or how.
“Eliot?” Hardison was watching him again, dark eyes concerned, and Eliot forced himself to shift into an easy smile.
“Guess I’m staying, after all. Much obliged,” he said, and went to make up the bed in the spare room, telling himself this was the last time. It was time to break this particular habit before it got harder than it already was to be alone.
Eliot came awake all at once, but it didn’t do him any good. The men were already on him, holding his arms down, and he could hear Hardison’s yelp from the other room. Eliot cracked one of the men with his forehead, not caring about the faint ringing sound in his ears, and was an inch away from getting his hand on a gun when he got a face full of something sweet and sharp soaked into a white cloth. He felt the room spin, his arms yanked back and secured, a swatch of tape slapped across his mouth.
“You want we should bring him?” somebody asked, accent heavy, as the light started to dim.
“Might as well. Never know what leverage we might need to get Hardison to cooperate.”
Eliot was lifted onto someone’s shoulder, the floor bobbing nauseatingly beneath him before he gave up trying to concentrate and passed out.
“Eliot. Eliot, come on, man. Wake up. Don’t leave me in this alone. Eliot, come on, I need you.” The voice was soft, the constant chatter familiar. Eliot blinked against the harsh lights and saw Hardison tied to a metal office chair, face flushed with relief. “Oh, man, you scared me. You’ve got blood on your head, and you weren’t waking up, and I figured—”
Eliot tried to tell him to shut up, but all that came out was a muffled grunt.
“Oh, yeah, that tape’s gonna hurt when it comes off. Man, you won’t need to shave for a week, let me tell you.”
Eliot focused all his energy on Hardison’s eyes, willing the man to be quiet. He needed to think. He might not be the guy with the plans, like Nate, but he knew a few things about being captured and getting the hell out alive. But he needed information, and right now Hardison was his best chance.
Hardison went silent. Eliot nodded at him once, trying to look as reassuring as he could. He glanced towards the door and blinked meaningfully.
“It’s locked! And I’m tied to a chair. What do you expect me to—”
Eliot growled and let his eyes go dark.
“Oh, shit. Okay, don’t get pissed with me. I’m not well-versed in Eliot-gag-speak.”
Eliot rolled his eyes, glanced at the door again, then blinked slowly and carefully. Hardison studied him, then let out a breath.
“Okay,” Hardison said quietly. “I can do this. I counted six guys, two with heavy accents, maybe Russian. They didn’t knock me out, but they blindfolded me, so I don’t know where we are, but I’d say an apartment or office ‘cause they brought us up an elevator. At least fifteen floors up, I’d say.”
Eliot nodded, encouraging, and Hardison nodded back. “They seem to think I took money from them, or something.”
Eliot raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, I think I would remember stealing from the Russians!” Hardison shifted in his chair, and Eliot could see a tear at the neckline of Hardison’s green t-shirt. So, they were rough but not brutal, or both of them would’ve already been covered in bruises. And they probably weren’t pros—at least not what Eliot considered professionals, anyway. Chloroform was a weak man’s tool; usually meant the guy didn’t have either the stomach or the muscle to do the job properly, and that could only bode well for them.
Eliot listened to the rest of Hardison’s musings—impressions, thoughts, strange digressions into film plots and comic books—and methodically began testing out the strength of his bonds. Tight—everything was tight—and he only wished he’d been awake when they tied him because he could’ve made sure there was some play in the line, some room to maneuver, but this way, there was little chance he was getting out of this if somebody didn’t make a mistake and come close enough with a knife or a gun. For now, they’d have to wait and see.
“—and they seem to think you’re my boyfriend and we had a fight,” Hardison was saying, which made Eliot’s head snap up; his automatic what the fuck? coming from behind the tape was a low rumble.
“They don’t know who you are. They just think you’re some geek friend that stayed over or I don’t know, that we had a fight or something. You were sleeping in the spare room. In your clothes.” Hardison looked awkward and apologetic, and Eliot didn’t think he’d ever been pegged as being gay before he met Hardison. Now, someone questioning his sexuality seemed to be a weekly occurrence. He had no idea what to make of that. “I tried to get them to let you go, but …well, they seem to think they might need to persuade me to help them.” Hardison swallowed audibly and looked away. “I swear, Eliot, I don’t know who these guys are.”
The door opened then, two large men with dark hair and moustaches stepping into the room. “That is unfortunate, Mr. Hardison. If you can’t recall where you put our money, we might be forced to do something you or your companion here will regret.” The taller man motioned to the shadows in the hallway. “Bring them,” he said.
The muscle moved them into a spacious apartment, and Eliot figured Hardison had been pretty close on the fifteen floors mark judging from the view. They weren’t that far from Hardison’s loft. The tall Russian cut Hardison’s hands loose and set a laptop in front of him.
“You’ll return the money you stole from us.”
“Dmitri,” Hardison repeated, and Eliot smiled underneath the duct tape because Hardison really could talk to anyone and get him to open up. “There seems to be some sort of misunderstanding because I’m pretty sure I’d remember a smart-looking guy like you, and I’m almost certain we’ve never met.”
“No, we’ve never met,” Dmitri conceded, “but that did not stop you from taking fifteen million dollars of my funds and transferring them to your phony company.”
“Fifteen—fifteen million dollars! Oh, hell, no,” Hardison said, choking on the numbers. “Do I look like a crazy person to you?” Dmitri’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t answer that, but seriously, there’s no way I would steal that much money from one source at one time. That’s just—well, that’s not only sloppy, it’s plain greedy.”
“We hired Alec Hardison to provide confidential funds transfer from a number of international clients to secure bank account in Switzerland.”
Eliot closed his eyes. These guys were hitmen—not subtle, not savvy, but probably pretty damn efficient and getting better with practice. The mustached man who wasn’t Dmitri was flicking the safety on his handgun back and forth at a rate that showed he was very familiar with the action. The four other thugs were hanging out, watchful, waiting for instructions; they hadn’t undone any of Eliot’s bindings. Eliot suspected there were more guys outside the doors. This wasn’t a small operation, and fifteen million dollars being transferred over a short period of time meant a lot of bodies piling up.
Hardison was shaking his head. “I don’t know who you hired, Dmitri, my man, but it wasn’t Alec J. Hardison.”
“You’re lying. He’s lying, Dmitri,” the second man said, and this time the safety stayed off. Eliot growled underneath his gag, hoping that Hardison could tell when crazy homicidal Russians were getting angry.
“No, no, no,” Hardison continued. “I’m not lying. I don’t know what happened to your money, but I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“Enough!” Petr said, gripping Hardison by the chin. Eliot struggled in his chair, but couldn’t do anything. “You will give us back our money. Plus interest. And you will do it now.”
“I told you, I don’t know—”
Petr pressed his fingers into Hardison’s jaw, hard enough to make him wince. “And if you don’t, we will show you exactly what happens when you cross the Katelnikoff brothers.”
Hardison shook his head, although his chin only moved fractionally. “Dude, you need to chill because honestly, I didn’t take your money, and there’s no need for anyone to get hurt!” His voice shot up the octave as one of the thugs took out a blade.
Eliot felt a menacing shape move beside him, and then there was a tearing sensation that felt like half his face was being ripped open. Jesus, he hated duct tape.
“You know why we’re removing your boyfriend’s gag?”
“He’s not my—” Dmitri’s hand struck Hardison across the face.
“You’re going to regret that.” Eliot's voice was lethal.
“Undoubtedly. I repeat the question: do you understand why we have removed the gag, Mr. Hardison?”
Hardison shook his head, his eyes big and white, and Eliot murmured, “Stay cool, Hardison,” although it was unlikely he heard it. Eliot knew what the gag removal meant. They needed Hardison to move their money back, and he was pretty safe until all the keystrokes were done, but Eliot was expendable. Completely, totally expendable.
The guy behind Eliot spoke with clipped precision: “Do you want us to take him into the other room?”
“No,” Dmitri said. “Mr. Hardison may need some encouragement, and it will be best if he can see and hear everything clearly.”
If possible, Hardison’s eyes grew even bigger and Petr chuckled as he took the knife and ran into along the side of Eliot’s face.
“There’s no call to hurt anyone” Hardison said, reaching for the laptop. “I’ll figure it out—I’ll find your damn money, just don’t, don’t do anything. Don’t hurt him.”
Eliot looked at the men around the room, took in their stances, their eyes, the location of every gun and knife. Without a doubt, these were men who didn’t do things half-measure and didn’t leave witnesses. The only way he and Hardison were getting out of here was if there was some kind of miracle, and frankly, Eliot thought they’d used up their quota already with the job for Father Paul. He didn’t see the need to reward the bastards when all the Russians were going to do was kill them both in the end.
“Hardison, don’t give them a dime,” Eliot said, expecting the backhanded slap. He didn’t expect the sharp stab through his shoulder.
“Holy Mother of—stop!” Hardison yelped, taking his hands off the keyboard and trying to move in Eliot’s direction. Dmitri put a heavy hand on his shoulder and grabbed one of Hardison’s hands.
“Hardison,” Eliot growled. “Don’t move the money.”
“I’ll break his fingers, one at a time,” Dmitri said, holding up Hardison’s index finger.
“He can’t type with broken fingers,” Eliot countered, and he braced himself as the goon beside him calmly reached for Eliot’s left hand and broke his first finger.
“Eliot!” Hardison made an ineffectual grab for Dmitri’s weapon and got smacked for his troubles. “I won’t do it if you hurt him!”
“Then we’ll hurt you, Mr. Hardison,” Petr said smiling.
“You lay a hand on him, I’ll kill you in ways you can’t even imagine,” Eliot said, deathly calm. He felt his head snap back, tasted blood in his mouth. He turned back and grinned. “Don’t give them anything, Hardison. Not one red cent.”
Eliot felt a second finger break under meaty hands, and he winced through it, but didn’t cry out. Instead he bit through his lip—a little more blood didn’t mean anything—and started to laugh, sharp and insane, and even Hardison looked a little afraid of him, his hands hovering over the keyboard, uncertain.
“Eliot, Eliot,” Hardison was saying, and Eliot spit out blood and smiled, earning him another hit to the face, this time with a closed fist instead of an open hand. He felt the flesh tingle and burn along his cheekbone.
“Our money, Mr. Hardison.”
“If you touch him again, I’ll give you a virus that makes the plague look like a common cold. I will send your information to every law enforcement agency in the country and—”
Dmitri grabbed Hardison’s ear and pulled. Hard. “Our. Money. No tricks, no viruses. Or watch your friend die.”
“Give ‘em hell, Hardison. Geeks rule, man.”
The next thing Eliot felt was the knife splitting the thin fabric of his t-shirt from bleeding shoulder to aching hand, then a slice of lightning down his arm and he couldn’t help but cry out with the pain.
“Okay, look, I’m doing it!” Hardison was banging away on the keyboard, pulling up screens and windows, talking to himself in a string of numbers and swear words. “It’ll be okay, Eliot. It’s only money. It’s just moving a bunch of ones and zeroes around, I can do that. Jesus Christ, put the knife away and leave him the fuck alone!”
Hardison’s voice was quaking with fear, his fingers practically flying over the keyboard and Eliot hoped like hell Hardison was setting up a trojan horse virus or a wormhole or whatever geeks like him did to bad guys who threatened them. Eliot could feel blood trickling over his hand, warm and sticky, and he figured all he need to do was make them mad enough to smash his hand and he’d be able to pull it out of the rope. It was a chance, but it was likely the only one he was going to get, and he knew from experience he could still hold a knife with a broken hand. Sooner or later, he’d hit a point where the pain couldn’t get any worse, and then he’d be unstoppable. Or he’d be dead.
Just then the lights went out and among the shouts in Russian, Eliot heard Hardison cry out, and there was no way any of these Russians was walking out of here alive if they’d hurt him. Eliot would make sure of it if it was the last thing he did. There was the sound of heavy men hitting the floor and a popping noise that didn’t sound like any weapon Eliot knew.
“Eliot, hang on,” a woman’s voice whispered at his ear, and then his feet and hands were free, and there were arms wrapping around him. Parker. She smelled like jasmine and Eliot let his face fall into her hair as she looped a harness around his waist. Then they were flying—through the ceiling, through the floor—he couldn’t be sure, but Nate and Sophie were there, and in the distance there were sirens. Hardison was babbling about cops, Sophie was cooing reassuringly about how easy it was to scam an ambulance, and Eliot felt a firm hand on his shoulder just before the prick of a needle pressed into his skin.
“We’ve got you,” Nate said, and Eliot let himself be moved and attended to and comforted in a glorious haze of remembered pain and morphine.
Eliot woke up to an empty room and a limited edition Star Wars poster in his line of sight. He shifted on the bed, assessing the damage. He had a white bandage all the way down his left arm, and two fingers in splints. Surprisingly, he wasn’t feeling much pain, which he assumed was the result of the morphine or whatever drug cocktail they’d found for him.
Parker’s head popped up at the end of the bed. “He’s awake,” she called, and Eliot turned in time to see Sophie and Nate push through the door. Sophie flew over and settled on the bed beside him, a hand going to his forehead as if he were a child.
“How are you?”
“Alive,” he said, his voice feeling raw. He looked around. “Where’s Hardison?”
“He’s hiding,” Parker said helpfully.
“From the Russians?” Eliot asked.
“No, silly! From you.”
Eliot blinked and turned to Nate and Sophie for a saner answer. “Hardison might be feeling a little guilty about what happened to you,” Nate offered.
“He thinks it’s his fault you got hurt and that you won’t like him anymore.” Parker was now leaning on the end of the bed, her chin tucked in her hands. “He sat by the bed all night, you know? He only ran away when it looked like you were waking up.”
Eliot tried hard not to smile in the face of Parker’s frankness. God only knew how she’d present his side of the story to Hardison if their situations were reversed. “Tell him to get his ass in here,” Eliot said, and Parker leapt to her feet and bellowed, “Hardison, Eliot wants you!”
Even through his bruised and stitched cheek, Eliot could feel the heat rising. Trust Parker to cut through all the bullshit.
Sophie snickered into Nate’s shoulder and the two of them made a discreet exit, tugging Parker along with them. “But I want to stay,” he heard her say, but Sophie kept a firm hold on her and kept her moving.
Hardison appeared in the doorway then, half-stumbling on the last step. Eliot was pretty sure Parker had pushed him.
“Hey, dude, how you feeling?” Hardison didn’t move from the shelter of the doorway. “You look pretty damn awful.”
“You too,” Eliot replied sincerely.
Hardison nodded, but didn’t move closer. A slim white hand appeared on his arm and shoved him forward, hitting him in the ass with the door as it closed behind him.
“Parker!” he and Eliot both shouted.
“Kiss and make up,” she yelled from the hall.
“That girl is crazy in the head,” Hardison said, but he moved towards the bed and took a tentative perch on the edge. “So, listen, man, about the Russians—”
Eliot had to turn so he could reach Hardison’s arm with his uninjured right hand. “Hardison.”
“Look, I swear, I didn’t know them, and when I find out who’s been using my name for criminal activities I know nothing about—”
Eliot squeezed gently. “Hardison, I believe you.”
“You do?” Dark eyes turned towards Eliot unbelievingly.
“Yeah.” Eliot tugged and Hardison moved closer until he couldn’t help but reach out to anchor himself by hanging onto Eliot too. They were unsteady and awkward, and Eliot knew it was going to take time for the bruises and bones to heal, but right now that seemed less important than making things right with Hardison, who’d been steadily offering Eliot a home and a place in it over the last few months.
“I didn’t want you to get hurt,” Hardison said, eyes dropping down to Eliot’s bandaged arm. He shifted until he could look at Eliot’s face, reaching out a finger to trace the damage. “It was awful.”
“I’ve been through worse.”
“That really doesn’t comfort me, you know?” Hardison said weakly.
“How’d they find us, anyway? Parker, Nate, and Sophie, I mean—not the Russians.”
“Parker saw them break in.”
“She was spying on us?”
Hardison refused to meet Eliot’s eyes. He cleared his throat. “Apparently, she was hoping we’d have sex and she was sticking around to watch. She was, um … curious.”
“And disappointed, I imagine,” Eliot said, dropping his head. It was odd realizing that everyone else had figured out what he’d only just started to understand.
Hardison’s hands cupped his face firmly, lifting it. Eliot didn’t look away when Hardison leaned in and kissed him lightly. He let it happen, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and really, now that he thought about it, it was. His good hand snaked around the back of Hardison’s neck and held him there so he could kiss him again, lips pressing together sweetly if not entirely certain.
“If they’d hurt you, I would’ve killed them,” Eliot murmured against Hardison’s mouth, closing his eyes and feeling the heat of the other man, so close it made him feel like he had a fever.
“Yeah, I figured that out.” Hardison leaned their foreheads together. “And I’d have crippled their empire, wiped out all traces of their existence, and given every dime of that fifteen million to charity. Actually, I kind of did that anyway.”
“And people think I’m scary,” Eliot murmured, grinning. “I pity the fool who doesn’t show the proper respect for Mr. Alec J. Hardison.”
Hardison laughed and Eliot kissed him again, stronger, more luxurious, learning each other by taste and feel. This time he could feel his cheek hurting from the movement, but he didn’t care because everything felt right. It felt like coming home.
Hardison pulled him closer and whispered, “You’re no Mr. T, but I kind of like you anyway.”
“That’s good since I’m in your bed and probably not going anywhere for a while.”
Hardison just grinned. “I think I can live with that if you can.”
“I love it when a plan comes together,” Eliot replied.
“They’re quoting that stupid television show with the guys in the van,” Parker called from right on the other side of the door, “so I guess they’ve made up.”
“Parker!” four voices rang out in unison, but honestly, Eliot didn’t mind. Parker was family, and even if she was crazy, she was exactly their kind of crazy.
“I guess we should just be thankful we don’t have to break her crazy ass out of a Veterans’ Hospital every time we need her for something,” Hardison added, and Eliot grinned as he kissed Hardison again. Life with a geek and a band of thieves was bound to have its ups and downs, but it was never going to be dull.