Thea: How've you been?
Hartley: The last few days have been stressful.
Thea: Wanna joint-watch Escape from LA?
Hartley: Can't. Houseguest.
Thea: That sucks.
Hartley: Oh you have no idea.
[ . . . ]
Thea: You know that's usually when you tell me what's wrong.
Hartley: Just an awkward situation.
Hartley: He made a pass at me, I wasn't making sensible decisions and took him up on it, I told him I wasn't interested after, he took it badly.
Thea: Oh, ugh. Hon, are you okay? I don't want to get into how your work's going but you know I'll cover a couple weeks in a hotel or something until your place is usable again if you're having a cash flow hiccup.
[ . . . ]
Hartley: He's actually the houseguest, not me. Staying on the couch, which is why I'm avoiding the television.
Thea: I can spot him space in a hotel instead, then. How much longer have you got him for?
[ . . . ]
Hartley: That's complicated.
Thea: Can it be complicated while he's somewhere else?
Hartley: No, I mean it's a work-related issue. Someone needs to keep an eye on him, and I drew the short straw.
Thea: So you can't throw him out, and you haven't answered the question of if you're okay. Do I need to start worrying?
Hartley: I'm okay.
Thea: And safe?
Hartley: I think so.
Hartley: I promise I really do think so, and I've been considering the question rather a lot the last few days.
Thea: ...so there's this work-related guy someone needs to keep an eye on who made a pass at you and you took him up on it and just please GOD tell me it's not Mick.
Hartley: No definitely not.
Hartley: No and now I can't get the images out of my head.
Hartley: Dammit Thea.
Hartley: I'm going to remember you suggested that next time I'm in the room with him and it's going to be your fault.
Thea: Like you never thought about it.
Hartley: Dammit, Thea!
Thea: Was it Cold?
Hartley: I find it adorable that you are imagining that he'd hit on me, that he couldn't find a place to stay that wasn't my couch, that I'd call taking him up on it a stupid decision rather than the epic highlight of my year to date, and that I'd then stick my foot in my mouth by telling him I don't even like him when--as we've rather established--a huge point of contention between you and I is that I actually *do* like him.
Hartley: But no, it's not him. He's the one who thinks someone should keep an eye on my houseguest, and I drew the short straw, so I don't think either my guest or I are particularly inclined to start arguing the point.
Thea: You said that?
Hartley: Probably, but you've lost me. What specifically are you asking about?
Thea: You said that you didn't even like him?
Hartley: Yes. Why?
Thea: That's not the same thing as not being interested!
Hartley: Why does this warrant an exclamation point?
Thea: You know I love you, right?
Hartley: I know that this is one of the times that you say that right before you insult me.
Thea: But you know it, right?
Hartley: I know.
Thea: Even when we argue?
Hartley: Even then. Or now, given where this appears to be going.
Thea: So there's a guy on your couch and he made a pass at you and you two I-don't-need-details and then you said it was fun but he wasn't worth your time?
Hartley: Essentially. Although I didn't actually say it was fun.
Thea: Okay, Hartley?
Thea: I love you, but that was a shitty way to treat someone who literally can't leave because scary criminal with superweapon.
[ . . . ]
Hartley: Alright, what the hell would you suggest I actually do?
Thea: I don't know. What would you want someone to do to make couchsurfing in that situation suck less?
Axel was in the living room again. Hartley could hear him, and was going to try talking to him again in just a moment. As soon as he could finish putting a calm face on. Honestly, if he could survive getting unjustly fired and escorted out of S.T.A.R. Labs by security, he could survive being glared at by Axel Walker, who--unreasonably upset as he seemed to be--appeared to be escalating no further than the silent treatment.
The problem with that comparison was that at the Labs, he hadn't done anything wrong. This time--
He hadn't really been thinking about the dynamic from Axel's perspective. He hadn't had a reason to. He hadn't shared living space with anyone since university (visiting Thea didn't count), and he certainly hadn't thought of it as being responsible for a houseguest rather than bearing up under an inconvenience imposed by Cold.
He listened to the rats for a moment. Most of them were sleeping, but he could hear Coffee trundling her way along behind the kitchen wall.
Alright. Tarditas et procrastinatio odiosa est. Admittedly Cicero had also said Silence is one of the great arts of conversation, but that was rather cherry-picking and it probably didn't apply if you weren't actually in a state to have a conversation with the other person.
Hartley got to his feet and left his room.
Axel is sulking, which is honestly a pretty good state to be in; the alternative is seething, and that just ends up being bad all around. He's got the curtains drawn so the morning light doesn't glare off the TV screen and he's watching My Bloody Valentine with the sound on low when he hears Piper coming up and ignores the first thing the man says since that'll either be enough to make him go away or leave his sorry ass stuck there talking, and Axel is just fine with either.
Except Piper doesn't just keep talking, he reaches out and puts his hand on Axel's shoulder and Axel was not expecting that and he's on his feet with his shoulders up and his head down before Piper gets anything out past his name.
"Fuck you you don't get to touch me." Both hands into fists even if the right one's no good and his heartbeat's gone high and zithery in his ears because he hates drawing that line, it's not even any fun to fight over--
"Alright," Piper says, maybe a little paler than usual, holding up his hands and stepping back. "I won't do that. I'm sorry I-- presumed." And then he just... does nothing. Stays out of arm's reach and doesn't step around, so the arm of the couch stays between them, and generally looks as calm as he usually does. The guy can go so fucking still sometimes it makes Axel's skin itch just to look at him.
Axel breathes out, and when Piper still doesn't move he starts to relax, straightens a little. It just feels stupid to be getting ready to throw a punch at Piper when he's like this; it'd be like picking a fight with a mannequin.
"I'm sorry." Piper doesn't say if he means for now or for earlier. Axel guesses now because he's already tried talking about before, and that didn't go anywhere. He snorts and uncurls his hands (and the right one is singing at him, still swollen and bruised under the tape) and crosses his arms best he can; left hand folded into his right elbow, right hand tucked loosely under his left forearm. That's as far as he's willing to go about not picking a fight.
But Piper doesn't say anything else, either, and the air starts growing stale. Axel shakes his head in disgust.
"D'you want a bed?"
There's no poise in the offer; it's a graceless blurt, and it comes so completely out of left field that Axel finds himself just blinking; as if Piper'd offered him a set of encyclopedias. "What?"
"A bed," Piper says, still standing there with his hands up by his shoulders. "Do you want a bed? Instead of the couch."
"I'm not screwing you," Axel says bluntly, and Piper flinches and turns red. Looks away but keeps talking.
"No, I-- know I killed that option." He lowers his hands a little, pauses for a second and then lets them fall to his sides. "I just thought that-- sleeping in a living room doesn't seem very settled. If you're staying here, you might want a bed. Or if you don't want to stay here, I understand, I can-- there's probably something we can figure out. If no-one's taken you to see Bisrat I can at least do that, and we could talk to Cold." Piper takes a breath and looks back at Axel, who's torn between wondering what the hell has gotten Piper blathering on this way and trying to remember the last time he saw someone who had all their clothes on turn this red without shutting up.
"But in the meantime, I thought you might want a bed. And I thought-- there's the other room but we'd-- I'd-- it'd need to be cleaned it out first. I never really did more than look inside it when I started staying here and honestly I don't think anyone's touched it since the last real owner moved out, and it always seemed better to keep the workbenches in the basement and-- Although you could stay in the basement if you like. It'd mean rearranging the workbenches a little and obviously taking the lock off the door but I haven't even used that since the fifth day you were here. Or--" he raises his voice a little, because there's a moment of screaming on the TV, a tin-whistle kind of wheeze with the sound as soft as it is-- "I imagine you could fit a bed into the living room if you wanted, although frankly that seems a little odd, and I--"
Axel's trying not to laugh but it's getting a little difficult. Piper cuts himself off and looks at the floor for a moment, then straightens up.
"In any case. That was all. If you wanted a bed."
Standing there like what he's saying makes any kind of sense and this thing where Piper acts one way and then does a goddamn one-eighty is really irritating, and if he ends up jerking Axel around again then Axel cannot swear he won't lose his fucking temper. He straightens up and unfolds his arms, hears the joints in his neck crack as he rolls his head to the side and takes a step sideways.
"Piper," he says, grinning in the entirely unfriendly way that shows his teeth, lilt in his voice, "why the hell would a guy like you make an offer like that to a guy like me?"
Piper shrugs, looking like he'd be happy to leave it at that. Axel takes another couple of steps forward and sideways, letting Piper turn to track his progress, and lets the silence stretch.
"My friend pointed out that I hadn't been a very good host," Piper says finally, looking uncomfortable as hell.
"Your friend?" Axel can't hold back a slight giggle in the words.
Piper waves one hand at the TV and Axel blinks, feels his grin widen. "You've got a friend? I thought you just didn't want to admit you kept something an ex gave you."
"I've got a friend," Piper says. "Peculiar as some people find that."
"He sounds nicer than you."
"She probably is. But she made a good point. And a bed seemed like a practical sort of offer. In retrospect, it-- it seemed very--" Piper's turning red again-- "it struck me as an obvious oversight on my part to have not made better arrangements once I knew you were staying here."
"But you don't like me."
"But that's not the point," Piper says, like it's an apology, like anything he's on about is making sense, like it'd be just too much fucking trouble to disagree. It's that last that makes Axel's hands start to itch, and he crosses his arms again to keep his hands in close. "It shouldn't be the point."
"You want to get me a place to sleep on principle?"
"I'm offering to buy you something that I thought would be useful, to apologize for having failed to be a minimally decent host."
Axel is sure Piper thinks there's a difference that matters somewhere in there, but he is fucked if he can figure out what it's supposed to be.
"Your friend's idea?"
"She just pointed out the problem."
Axel turns that over, realizes it means Piper might have actually put a tiny bit of effort into coming up with the idea of buying a bed and figuring out where it could go. Which means he bothered to think about that after everything that happened, and Axel begins to seriously wonder if the guy's just incomprehensible.
But he's been sleeping on the floor half the time anyway, for the last few days, and there's the offer of space that came up along with the offer of the bed.
"Spare room sounds great."
"Don't you want to take a look at it?"
"I want a fucking door," Axel says, managing to keep his voice from cracking, and Piper looks guilty again. "Are you helping clean it out, or is that my own fucking problem?"
The room was... well, it was dry. It had a window (grimed outside, dusty inside, one-quarter blocked by an old dresser with no drawers), was across the hall from the bathroom, and was bigger than either the bathroom or the kitchen, although the fact that it had been used as a room-sized junk drawer and then left to gather dust for several years had done it no favours.
Hartley noticed there weren't as many cobwebs as there had been when he'd looked in the first time. Going by the dust trails, he guessed his rats had been around. That probably meant there weren't any spiders left, either. Any of the rats would eat them, but Bandersnatch especially loved spiders.
Axel was only using one hand, since his right was still bruised fairly badly ("Can't you help me lift this?" "Sure, you tell Boo why I'm ignoring her instructions."), and Hartley wasn't particularly used to doing manual labour, but clearing the room out went quickly since neither of them cared about anything left in there. Hartley left Axel to sweep it out and moved to the hall, where he piled the assorted junk into garbage bags and dragged them out front.
He'd said he'd help clear out the room. He couldn't in all fairness count the job as done until the junk was actually out of the house.
He went back to the kitchen and got a glass of water. Axel probably didn't really want him in the room right now. There'd been some being comfortably ignored while they'd been cleaning--Axel not pointedly ignoring him, just paying attention to something else--but mostly it had been a lot of cold consideration.
Well, he hadn't expected the offer to immediately fix things. And he was probably not someone to hold forth on what constituted a reasonable level of grudge.
"Hey, Piper," Axel said flatly from behind him, and Hartley had heard him coming down the hall and didn't jump. "You done?"
Hartley said yes. Or muttered something that counted as yes, at any rate, and put his glass back in the sink and turned around. Axel had cleaned the dust and grime off, swapped into a tee-shirt that didn't have any hand-painting on it, and was wearing a smile that Hartley would have categorized as cheerfully unpleasant.
"Great. Come on."
"Come on to do what?"
"Buy the damn bed." Axel's grin widened a little and grew no warmer. "How else're you gonna pay for it?"
"If you pick one out and let me know--"
"Nah, this suits me better. 'Sides, you're apologizing."
Hartley suspected that being brought along more properly counted as penance than apology, but he didn't think there was any use in getting specific about the distinction right now. He hadn't been getting much done trying to edge around Axel for the last few days; he could sacrifice an afternoon to completing the apology. "Alright. Do you have a preference for where to go?"
Axel snorted. "Like I ever bought a new bed before."
Hartley nodded. He'd made a list.
Axel was actually quiet for the first forty minutes. Hartley tried exactly once to start a conversation--
"I really am sorry that--"
"Just shut up."
--and let the topic drop. He didn't actually have a lot to say, and the quiet didn't bother him. The anger bothered him, but he couldn't think of anything more to say to fix that, so the quiet was no worse than any other option.
Axel apparently came around to feeling differently, halfway through the second furniture store.
"So who's your friend?" he said, not looking at Piper, just poking at a bed's leg with one toe. It was a steel-and-wood framed one that Hartley didn't particularly like, dark metal frame running through grooves in stained-dark wood, but he keeps his opinion to himself.
It was the first time Axel had started a conversation with him since the-- fight probably wasn't too strong a word. Hartley considered the possible fallout of mentioning Thea Queen's name and settled on "You wouldn't know her." Axel glanced towards him at that, angry narrow look, and Hartley added hurriedly "She'd have mentioned you."
That was apparently a diplomatic and believeable answer. Some of the glare went out of Axel's eyes, and he tilted his head to one side, but not in that odd rolling way he used when he was making a production out of talking. "She know what you do?"
"She does." Not that he and Thea were particularly thrilled with each other's current choice of associates, but they'd at least hit on a modus vivendi. Which was a relief. "We generally don't discuss it."
"She okay with it?"
"We generally don't discuss it," Hartley said, a little more dryly.
Axel looked curious. "She a cop? --no, can't be. What's her name?" Hartley shook his head. "We talking about your sister, or something?"
A simple no would probably have sufficed, but... "Of course not. I don't have a family."
Axel lifted both eyebrows and turned away from the bed, started walking backwards across the store in front of Hartley. "But you've got a friend who sent you that fancy a TV when you don't use it much. Why a TV? She can't be rich."
"We used to watch movies together," Hartley said, following. "Sometimes. Why can't she be rich?"
Axel shrugged, still strolling backwards. A woman coming the other way made a slightly startled noise and drew out of the way. "That TV's the only fancy thing in the whole house. If she was rich enough to buy you that just for the hell of it, she'd have bought you more things. If she wasn't, she'd have gotten you a new fridge 'r something."
Hartley opened his mouth and shut it again. Thea probably would have bought him more things if it had occurred to her to do so, but she had barely begun thinking of him as someone who might need money on occasion and he'd always tried not to burden her with his problems. The TV had been as casual a gift as the time she'd bought him drinks after a bad breakup.
"The fridge works fine," he said, absently trying to calculate if his own offer of buying furniture had been especially odd on that scale. He didn't think so. Axel and he were on reasonably equal footing in terms of income, and it was a manageable purchase--
"Yeah, but I heard Lisa tell Boo she helped you move it, so either you didn't have one or the last one was broken. But instead of something useful, your friend got you a TV."
"I didn't want to make my furnishings her problem."
"Is she local?" Axel said thoughtfully, turning a little and walking backwards at an angle towards one of the displays. "I bet she's not local."
"Why would you think-- Axel, there's a bed--"
Axel walked into the bed in question and flopped comfortably back across it, arms out to either side. Hartley stopped walking.
"Too soft," Axel said. "If she was, you'd have gone out to see her or she'd have come over by now."
Hartley took a step closer. Someone with a nametag was coming towards them. Not a manager or senior staff--you could tell--and Axel hadn't been putting his boots up on any of the bedding, so Hartley guessed they were probably alright. "You're right, I have a non-local friend that I'm not discussing with you."
"Where'd you meet her?" Axel snickered and rolled up onto one elbow. "Bet you don't usually get asked that about a girl."
Well, that was a clear no on taking the hint. "Family friend."
"I thought you didn't have family."
"I used to."
"Wow, how long has she been putting up with you?"
"Longer than I deserve and have you made any decisions about the bed?" Hartley said, switching tones as the sales clerk got into what a normal person would consider a conversational range.
"Can I help you find anything?"
"Sure," Axel said, sitting up, and the smile he gave the clerk was one Hartley had seen before a couple of times, but never directed at anyone else. There weren't any edges on it at all. "A pipe burst in the dorm--at CCU?--so I moved in with my cousin but--" slight self-deprecating laugh that didn't have even a hint of a giggle in it-- "I need a real bed before the couch-surfing gets to me. Maybe a double, wood frame, something simple...?"
Hartley blinked at him. The clerk smiled back, and Axel got to his feet, and she and Axel started crossing the display floor. He tagged along, feeling rather secondary and not exactly missing the discussion they'd been having, but...
"'Cousin'?" he hissed when the clerk had stepped away to look something up, and Axel gave him that light soft smile.
"Like I could sell anyone on the idea of you being a friend."
It didn't sting, exactly, Hartley thought to himself. It was just startling to see Axel... well, being politely detached.
He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but the bed Axel ended up picking was remarkably staid. It was an oak frame, had a half-solid half-slatted headboard and a--footboard, he supposed--with the corners on the legs and the bottom of the frame bevelled smooth. The sales clerk gave him an odd look when he lay down to see how much space there was under it, and Axel smiled up at her.
"His dog keeps chasing her toys under the couch," he said cheerfully, waving a hand at Hartley. "I figure if that happens with my bed, she at least won't need to wait for one of us to come home to get them out, as long as she can fit under and get them back."
The clerk smiled. "What kind of dog is she?"
"Chihuahua mix. A little rat-dog, I know, but she's kind of sweet. You have any pets?"
Things Hartley had never even conceived of seeing; the Trickster, junior, thoughtfully examining the laundry labels on bedsheets.
They're waiting for the bed to get delivered-- well, technically, Axel waiting for the bed to get delivered. Piper's staying out of it.
Axel's walking in slow circles in what'll be his room--is his room, even if the bed isn't there yet--looking thoughtfully at the walls. They're off-white, and there are paler or darker lines where sunbleach picked out the old furniture from well before the room was a junkroom, but they're clean. There's not even any dust anymore. And Piper promised the rats won't come in.
He had his own place once, for a bit. Before Iron Heights. He misses the stuff in it, and liked having his own space, but being in a house with someone else feels better. It doesn't get too quiet. He hated having a cellmate and the fucking bars instead of a wall and a door, but he doesn't really like living alone either.
If you'd asked him a week ago he'd have figured sharing a place with Piper and having his own room would be great, but...
Axel can't figure him out right now. He sits down on the windowsill--the window in the wall opposite the one that his room is sharing with Piper's, isn't that three things that are throwing him for a loop--and manages to get a cigarette lit one-handed, and smokes and thinks.
He gets not being liked, although usually it's because he doesn't give enough of a shit about someone to try to not be unnerving, and he was actually trying with Piper. He thought he'd managed. He gets people who try to help out on principle. But he hasn't met any of them lately, and he's pretty sure people like that aren't Rogues, not even the nice one.
Anyway from what he remembers people like that generally made a point of trying to like him on principle, which Piper is not doing. He's going through the motions of pretending to like Axel, but without actually pretending to do it.
It's like seeing a firework without hearing the whistle-bang of it going off.
Also those kind of people told him what he needed to do, they didn't offer him a blank cheque to get something he actually wanted. Hell, he'd dragged Piper along just to watch him, and the guy hadn't said a damn word one way or the other. Axel thinks of all the people who tried to help on principle, even a little bit, and he can't imagine any of them not eye-rolling or sighing at him when he checked for space under the bed and picked out sheets he actually liked.
Piper comes to the doorway and Axel sees him looking at the cigarette and bristles again. "What?" Being angry at Piper makes his head hurt, but it's still so easy, and his nerves are raw from the I-don't-like-you-but-I'm-being-nice whipsaw. "I can't smoke in my own room?"
Piper's quiet for a second, looks calm, and what he finally comes out with is just "Please be careful."
"I've never set a fire by accident," Axel says, grinning, and Piper just gets that slightly drawn look around the corners of his mouth and doesn't argue. Axel remembers him looking that way before, back in the beginning, before he knew how beautifully mad Piper could get.
He looks at Piper and considers that he's getting an apology for... being stuck crashing on the couch, or being insulted that night, or something. Insufficiently nice behaviour to a guest, basically, if you want to count being sent here by Cold like being a guest.
Far as he can tell, he's not getting an apology for Piper trying to beat his head in and needing to be pulled off by Mick.
That makes him feel a little better. He still doesn't get this, but at least it's not Piper trying to pretend he should treat Axel like some generic idiot who'd take that personally or something.
"You're a weird one, princess," he says softly.
Piper raises an eyebrow and tilts his head a little to one side. Axel shakes his head and holds the cigarette out the window. "You come here for something?" He's feeling milder than he was this morning. Part of that's being a little tired, but he guesses not all.
"I'm heading out for a little; do you need anything before I go?"
Axel waves the hand with the cigarette dismissively and looks away. "Shut the door behind you." His heart skips a little bit, daring to do that, but he hears the door close and when he looks back again the room's empty.
The whole room.
He manages to hold off on laughing until he's pretty sure Piper's out of earshot.
When the bed comes, Axel gets the long edge of it up against the wall with the window, so that if he sits on it he can lean one arm on the windowsill, and if he wants a breeze while he sleeps he can open it or at least have just the screen. He does that by setting his shoulders against the frame and shoving with his feet until it's where he wants it.
It leaves him tired and sweating, and he figures the bedding can wait until after he's taken a decent shower, so he sits down next to the bed, knees half-drawn up and hands flat on the floor for balance. The room looks taller from this angle, although it's still weirdly empty.
He thinks about it for a second, but it's his room and he's curious and he doesn't really need any more than that, so he slides under the bed.
There's not a lot of space. If he breathes in all the way the slats under the box spring press against his chest. Still, it's manageable. He folds his hands behind his head and looks out at the rest of the room. The light coming in through the window is starting to cool, and what he can see of the floor and walls are starting to dress up with shadows, but it's still pretty bright out there. Unless this is Piper's idea of a prank and next time he goes out he comes back to find the door and window bricked up, he'll maybe need to get curtains.
He doesn't think it's a prank. Even when Piper's being weird, Axel is pretty sure the guy's got no sense of humour.
It's nice being someplace quiet where no-one'll probably see him for a bit. Axel doesn't really care what people think, but it gets a little tiring always knowing that they might come in and look at you.
Underneath the bed, on the inside of the frame, with the tip of his knife (angular and fine, because he is doing it left-handed and he is just pressing a straight line into the oak and not trying to carve a curve; he's glad that his name is as many hard straight lines as it is) he prints AXEL into the wood, and runs his thumb over it to clear away the tiny fluff of the split grain, and calls it good. And then he listens for a while, to see what'll happen.
And he doesn't hear anything, and the door stays closed, and no-one comes in.
In the close space, in the dark, Axel breathes.