Eliot was struck, sometimes, by how much had changed in the last three years. (And how much hadn’t.)
Sure, he still woke up some days and had remind himself that he was trying and that that was the important part. He still sometimes took a look at the warzone that was his house ( his house , and wasn’t that a trip in and of itself) and had to remind himself that one day soon it’d be done, he just had to try a little harder (even if the idea of actually finishing everything sometimes sat like a stone in his stomach).
If he was being honest, he was really only struck with either idea on mornings like this. Sitting on his porch, watching the occasional pair of headlights trace slowly down the curving road as a car rolled by the otherwise deserted street—pale grey morning light was only just starting to peek over the hills to the east. Breathing around the weight in his chest that had kept sleep at bay. It wasn’t as heavy as it’d once been, didn’t shoot ice through his veins as it kept his feet on the ground; it was grounding now, rather than suffocating, but still unequivocally there .
He had someplace he considered home now—with all the incumbent baggage that came with it, sure, but it was still home . He did favors, not jobs—picked where to give his skills and when to keep to himself—and had yet to regret a single one. They didn’t add to his sleepless nights.
He could do absolutely nothing all day, if he wanted to. Or he could work on the house. Or just… disappear for a little while. No one was waiting on him, watching for him, hunting him.
(That weight in his chest was the only thing keeping him on his feet, mornings like this, and he was self-aware enough to recognize that, while it seared his lungs, he needed it to breathe, to stay in one piece.)
Then, almost without fail, Megs would come ambling out of the house and attempt to hop up onto his lap, coffee mug or general complications of dogs that size be damned. Collies were not meant to be lap dogs. Megs never seemed to get that memo, and Eliot didn’t really have it in him to try to teach the fluffy mutt otherwise. And, so, also without fail, he’d slide to the ground and let Megs sprawl over his lap.
And when the melancholy of the morning decided to take a hike, as it inevitably would, no matter how bad the night before had been, he’d get up, feed the dog, and start the day.
It wasn’t perfect. But it was getting there. And running through the list of things that had changed ( for the better, all of this was for the better ) could keep him going until then.
This morning followed that basic layout—up to, and including, Megs nearly knocking over his coffee—but with the addition of a black van pulling up to the house next door. There was enough land between the two of them that he could get a look at the young couple that stepped out of it, but not their expressions.
It was weird, sure—there hadn’t been anyone in that house since he’d moved in three years ago, and, if the older folk of the neighborhood were to be believed, far longer than that—but neither of them moved with any kind of purpose to set off any alarm bells. So, rather than dwell on it—they’d either stick around and he’d end up meeting them, or they wouldn’t and it wouldn’t matter—he shoved the 50lb mutt off his lap and headed inside. He needed to redo the drywall in the living room today, and the sooner he got started, the sooner he could move on.
Theoretically, Hardison could appreciate where Nate was coming from. He could understand, on some level, that this was actually a good idea. Him and Parker could disappear sure, but they had no idea how far down they were burned. So, until they figured that out, using a bolthole unaffiliated with any of Hardison’s creations or Parker’s warehouses was probably the best idea.
Theoretically, Hardison was also cool with the idea of surviving strictly off orange soda, hot pockets and gummy frogs.
Realistically, he knew that was a horrible idea and he still had horrible memories of how his stomach disagreed with that.
And so, realistically, he knew this too, was a horrible idea and was going to blow up in all their faces.
“Nate. This is not funny Nate.” He could practically hear the eye roll over the phone, even before the muffled mumble of what was possibly a ‘what?’ from the other end of the phone. “Why do you even own this?” And why had he not known about it? He’d been pretty sure he’d tracked down most of the team’s holdings.
...with absolutely no ulterior motive. At all.
It took a couple moments (a couple muffled grunts and grumbles and what Hardison was pretty sure was impressively colorful cursing for a guy that had just woken up) but eventually he heard Nate actually getting out of bed (or off the couch, whatever). “It’s one of Sophie’s.” And that made more sense at least. Somewhat. “And we agreed we’d split for a couple of months. We’ve been over this Hardison.”
“Right, but you two get to galavant across Europe while we’re stuck… here.”
“You know, ‘here’ is a pretty nice place, from how she described it.”
‘Here’ was, actually, much to Hardison’s annoyance, a very nice place. Large ranch-style house (though he was pretty sure those were normally single storey. With the exposed ceiling, the height was closer to two, which Parker was already all over), looked practically brand new, updated interior, already furnished. Hell, he’d set up worse bases for their cons that he’d considered pretty decent. It wasn’t so much the house that he had a problem with. It was where the house was.
Specifically. The middle of Nowhere, Colorado. The house was dropped into what could, maybe, loosely be termed a neighborhood in the foothills of the Rockies. They could see their neighbor’s house to the south but not to the north (if there even was someone there, and not just an empty house. The quick look he’d taken as they drove past had been unclear on that).
“Not the point Nate. I have boltholes everywhere, we could’ve gone there—kept working and everything.”
“We don’t know how much they’ve managed to dig up on all of us yet—”
“What about the connection to Sophie then? And I can hack the FBI, Nate. Pretty sure I can make us disappear.”
“It’s just for a couple months Hardison, while we figure out exactly where we stand. It’ll be fine. Enjoy the fresh air or something.”
“You can’t just avoid the question Nate—Nate? Really?” Yep, he’d hung up. Great.
And, honestly, Hardison wasn’t completely upset about the change in scenery from Boston but… when Nate had said they’d had a bolthole him and Parker could use while the two of them vanished into parts unknown, completely unaffiliated with any of them (and he’d have to look into how this traced back to Sophie, honestly, if Nate was confident about that , but not his abilities at disappearing. Only mildly insulting, that), this was not what he’d pictured.
Then again, this whole scenario was so far outside what he’d pictured happening in the last couple of months, that, honestly, he shouldn’t be too surprised at this point.
One bullet getting a little too close to home, and all their plans had gone out the window. Sure, they’d successfully trussed up their mark—served him up on a metaphorical silver platter and gotten the hell out of dodge, like normal. They’d even figured out why he was so important in the first place. But the bullet that had gone through the apartment window to lodge into Nate’s wall… none of them had really been expecting it.
They should’ve of course. You couldn’t go after one of the heaviest hitters in the global black market and not expect things to slide sideways, honestly.
But walking into the apartment, to see Nate just eyeing the hole in the wall, jaw set in that stupid stubborn scowl of his that meant he’d made up his mind, fallout be damned… Hardison had felt his stomach drop to his feet in that moment. And since then, he’d been tossed from one surprise to another, as Nate announced that they were blown, that they needed to scatter for a little while, figure out how to get out of this mess in a way that wouldn’t put all of them in danger—and none of them were fooled by that, that Nate wouldn’t readily throw himself into the fire if he thought it would help (not that it ever did. Ever. They were all kind of sick of it) but they had the good grace not to point it out.
Hardison would like it to be known that that had been a heroic effort on his part, and that he officially held told you so rights since he called just how bad an idea this was since things started falling neatly into place after they busted Nate out of jail.
(But, since he was also self-aware enough to realize he was being petty because it was better than being scared, he kept his mouth shut.)
“So, one neighbor with a dog. Other house is empty.” He didn’t jump. He didn’t , okay? He was used to Parker popping up out of nowhere with no conceivable cover for her to have used.
(Maybe he jumped a little. Maybe. He took it as a positive sign concerning his survival instincts.)
“When’d you go over there?” She gave him an odd look, raising an eyebrow.
“While you were arguing with Nate.” She shrugged. Which. Fair enough.
And, not like he could really fault her for going to check them out—he’d be doing the exact same thing, just with the computer instead of, you know, actually going outside to look, the moment he got the chance to. Sure, he trusted Nate and Sophie not to send them to live next to anyone comically and obviously dangerous, but, for all their intelligence and scary know-it-all abilities, they couldn’t find what he could. That was just fact.
But, if all Parker was commenting on was the dog? Good first sign that their neighbor was probably your average neighbor out here, and not, you know Michael Myers.
She wandered off to do who knows what—he saw ropes and a couple backpacks already tucked into the exposed beams, so maybe fine tuning that mess—while he decided to cut his losses with Nate for now and unpack what he could out of Lucille. He was already compiling a list of things he’d need to order to make the house liveable, and the sooner he got those orders in, the sooner this place could be at least somewhat comfortable.
Hearing absolutely nothing but the wind through the still open door settled the first thing on the list though. Music. And lots of it.
It wasn’t until later that first night, when he’d finished setting up what electronics he’d brought with him and made room for those that would be delivered later that week (just because they had to lay low did not mean they were going to sit still and do nothing) that Hardison could, grudgingly, admit that Nate was probably (definitely) right sending them out here.
Splitting up was, of course, the logical first step. So, Nate and Sophie off to the far reaches to track down what they could, while also providing a moving target for whoever was looking for them. They could do subtle with the best of them, but, as Hardison had quickly learned, they worked much better as peacocks. Hardison and Parker, then, could remain stateside, in the absolute last place anyone would look for them, searching for what information they could.
Which. That part was actually tripping Hardison up still. Why was Parker with him?
Not that he was complaining mind you. At all. He wasn’t too ahead of himself that he couldn’t admit that when Nate had suggested (ordered) splitting up again, he’d gotten a flashback to the first time they’d tried that and an unpleasant accompanying drop in his stomach at the idea of Parker being in the wind again.
He could erase their steps, their very history, carve new futures out of code and paper. But he was still working with anchors, tangible points of data (at least, tangible to him). She could vanish into thin air, with nothing tethering her to the past, present, or future, when she wanted to. He was very familiar with how fast she could do it too, and despite the last couple of months, he hadn’t been sure she’d stick around (not that that fear was founded, at all. She’d been right there with him, every single time he had insisted they all stick together. But, still, it was a fear. No one said those had to be rational).
And yet, when Nate had suggested they go together, she hadn’t hesitated to agree. And she hadn’t balked when, the closer they got to the address Nate had given them (with no explanation mind you, which Hardison realized was a very careful choice only once it was too late to turn around), the more obviously they were heading into the middle of nowhere. (Which was more than could be said for his own reaction.)
He was curious about it, sure. Hopeful, maybe. (Definitely). But he certainly wasn’t going to question it. If it ended up bothering her, she’d tell him, and if not, he’d take the time they’d been given and just… be happy about it, honestly.
And you know what? Suddenly, being out in the middle of nowhere didn’t seem so bad.
“So, who are we here?” He blinked, glancing up. He was currently surrounded by wires and ties, trying to put together the last of his set up that had arrived that morning, while sitting in the corner of the expansive great room (which took up most of the floor plan actually), while Parker was perched in the beams up above. She’d been scurrying around all morning, putting together who knew what, and while he hadn’t lost awareness of her up there, he had kind of stopped paying attention to every movement.
This was the first either of them had spoken all morning too—which was… nice? In its own way. Just. Moving around each other in the same space without needing to keep everything updated. He wasn’t sure how much was due to them being focused on their own stuff and how much was actual comfort around the other, but he hoped it was mostly the latter.
“Um…us?” She scrunched up her nose. Not the right answer then. She didn’t elaborate immediately though—which he took to mean she needed a moment, and so turned back to his wires. He would have a set up to rival what he’d had at Nate’s if it killed him.
“It’s like a con right? Us hiding? So who are we?” He blinked, glancing back up. Right. IDs. He was normally on top of that, but, in his defense, this week had been weird. And would they even need IDs, outside of the ones he was running the deliveries through? If everything went well, they wouldn’t really be interacting with too many people (if everything went really well, they’d be out of here in a couple weeks, at best).
“Do you think we’ll need to?” His gut was saying only as a backup, if they had to scram quick. But Parker was getting a lot better at seeing curveballs coming that he couldn’t. So, if she thought they needed better IDs, he could work on that. Just as soon as these damn wires lined up.
“Who’re the neighbors?”
“An older couple across the road. Been here since the seventies. Two single-parent families to either side of them, been here for the past couple of years. Not a parking ticket to any of their names. ‘Cept the old lady, but that’s from the eighties. And an impressive number at that. The house to the north is owned by one Commander Shelley, who is supposedly stationed in Italy right now, but who knows. He’s not here is the point. House to the south is owned by a Toby Heath, who currently works out of Portland, so it’s probably a vacation home—”
“Someone’s there though.”
Which. Yeah. He’d noticed that too. Hadn’t really gotten a good look at the guy, but he’d seen the dog as it rolled down the hill behind the house. It was a very graceful creature, far as he could tell. Very artful in its flailing. “Maybe he’s a family friend or something? Keep the place up while Heath’s not around?”
“...find out about him? And if we’re in town, maybe have an extra on us?”
He nodded. That could work. No real history to keep updated (already partially taken care of by the house being under one of Sophie’s ancient aliases. He’d found it that first day and… well, damn. He’d been impressed), but the basics in place in case they needed to rabbit.
The rest of that day was spent figuring out tiny details like that. Using none of their accounts (that’s what he had Nate’s for anyway, carefully led through so many shell accounts, even Hardison thought it might be overkill). Using none of Hardison’s handles (he had some new ones he wanted to use anyway). Figuring out where/how they’d be getting groceries (who delivered out this far). Planning the best times to call Nate to wake him up (completely on accident and definitely not payback for hanging up on him, definitely not). Finding where a high quality hardware store was around.
With each detail that fell into place, Hardison felt a little bit more confident that this could work. For a little while, at least.