Stepping into the dimly lit bar, I pause to survey the room. The scent of an easy mark wafts my way, threading past the stench of defeat and perspiration. The couple by the restrooms will go their separate ways by the end of the night, though not by my doing. It's clear she's only been using him for the money he no longer has, ignoring his protestations of love. If I were a betting woman, I'd put my money on the dignified man at the end of the bar; he clearly looks out of place here, possessing an air of anticipation like that of a randy teenager. The urge to sidle up to him, snatch him away from the little tart, is strong. It would be so easy, too. I wouldn't even need to put on much of an act to do it.
But that's not who I want to be right now. I just want to be me tonight.
Aching eyes landing on the back of a familiar head at the bar, I head straight for the empty stool next to him. Easing myself onto the smooth leather, I signal the bartender.
"I want double whatever it is he's having, straight up," I say and point at my bar-mate, "and bring a second one right away."
The bartender -- how distracted am I that I cannot remember this new fellow's name? -- arches an eyebrow at me for a few seconds, then shrugs and does as I've asked. The first glass appears in front of me straight away, the glow from the overhead lights offering oblivion in the amber liquid.
"Ah, Sophie? You don't--"
The contents in the glass barely have the chance to settle when I raise it to my lips and down it in two hefty gulps. The glass slams onto the bar as heat explodes in my throat, burning its way down into my stomach. For what seems like an eternity, I can't breathe. The gut punch of alcohol reminds me that I haven't actually eaten at all today.
"Bloody hell, Nate! What is this stuff?" I gasp, blinking rapidly against the tears filling my eyes. "Liquid fire?" Before he can answer, I grab the second glass and motion for the bartender for a third. These I'll sip, I think.
"You don't shoot Glenlivet like a college freshman with a beer chaser, Sophie," he chides lightly, but I catch him signaling the bartender to forego the third drink I've ordered.
Opening my mouth to retort, I find I have no words, so I close it again. I should tell him to sod off, but the scotch seems to have burned my vocal cords to ashes. The bartender brings a glass of ice, which I gratefully scoop into my drink before sipping it.
After a moment or two, once my system has settled from the fiery invasion, he briefly touches my arm. "You wanna talk about it?"
"No, but I suppose I should." I sigh softly and reach for another ice cube to drop into my drink. "When did I become the bloody Mother Confessor in this group?"
"Since always?" he teases, and I can see his playful grin from the corner of my eye. "You absolve them of their sins and I punish them. Isn't that what parents do?"
"Couldn't we just switch for once? I'm tired of being the sensitive one."
A very familiar laugh drifts through the air from the far corner, and I turn to see the three of them seated at a table like they always are. Okay, maybe not like always; there's a definite tension between them that's not normal. Understandable, just not normal.
"According to Hardison, you kind of did both today," Nate offers gently, bringing my focus back to him for the moment.
"I just helped him understand a few things, that's all," I say, mind drifting back to a few hours ago.
Nate chuckles and nods at the bartender when another glass is placed in front of him, followed by a plate bearing a grilled sandwich and fries. He picks up one half of the sandwich and motions me toward the other half. Just the smell is enough to make my mouth water, and I tear into it ravenously.
I'm not surprised in the slightest that Hardison is the first one to come to me. The stiffness, the tremors racing beneath his skin, the wild look in his eyes: all signs pointed toward some sort of imminent breakdown. It will not be pretty if left uncontained.
"He doesn't get it, does he?"
No preamble. Hardison just launches right into his diatribe. Not that I'm surprised in the slightest. This is Hardison, after all. His measured treads across the carpet no doubt match the beating of his heart right about how.
"He just doesn't get it, man! This is my life we're talking about here!"
"Yes, it is," I reply calmly when he doesn't continue right away, pouring cream into my tea.
"I thought I meant more than that, you know?" He pauses briefly, pupils dilating even more than I thought possible at this point. "I mean, I know he needed to carry on the pretense of the meeting, but -- No, wait a minute! The pretense of the meeting was blown the minute he gave that guard his real name. I don't give a damn that it got us in the door to see Moreau. He broke cover, man! And nearly cost me my life. Man, I could have died in that pool! That's gotta mean something to him, right? He can't really be that cold-blooded after all this time, can he?"
Closing my eyes to take a sip of my tea, I let the mellow flavors spread across my tongue as I consider my words. It's not my first choice for this time of day, but the chamomile and rooibos blend is undoubtedly more suited to Hardison's agitation. The thought of any more caffeine charging through his system at this point is a terrifying one.. A touch of cream lends a smooth earthiness to the sweetness of the tea. Even the slightest hint of lemon might be too sharp for the delicate blend at this point.
The briefest of sighs mars the beauty of that first sip of tea, and I'm reminded that this isn't about me: this is about Hardison, about keeping this team -- this family -- together until the job is completed. None of us would really want it any other way. Another quick sip of tea to fortify, then I open my eyes to study the young man gripping the back of the chair across from me so tightly that his hands are shaking.
"Sit down," I say, tone sharper than perhaps I should be using with him in this condition, but I'll not have him ruining beautiful furniture unnecessarily. When his lips part to protest, I purse my own lips and point to the chair he's clutching. Confusion and defiance war for dominance in his eyes, but finally he does as I have ordered. "Now, would you like cream or lemon in your tea?"
"Damn it, Soph--"
"You've interrupted my afternoon tea with your anger. The least you can do to remedy this is have a cup with me. So, cream or lemon?"
"Whatever," he snaps. "Just give me the damned tea!" An arched brow from me has him rubbing at his forehead. "Sorry, Sophie," he replies in a sheepish tone. "I just don't get what Eliot was thinking. What if Moreau didn't give him those keys? Would he have let me die?"
"What do you think, Hardison? Do you really think that Eliot would have allowed something like that to happen?"
"You weren't there, Sophie."
"No, I wasn't. Drink your tea." Pausing until he actually lifts the cup to his mouth, I watch as he takes a first tentative sip, and a second. "I wasn't there, and you weren't privy to the conversation Eliot had with Moreau to get those keys for you."
"Right! And if he'd--"
"And if he'd needed to, he would have saved you, Hardison. How can you even think any differently?"
"I had to suck air out of a damned chair, Sophie!"
"Hardison!" My voice is much sharper than I ever intended it to be. "Do you even understand what he agreed to do in order to save your life? Has that thought even crossed your mind yet?"
Another mouthful of tea does wonders to ease the tension in my chest at the memory of Eliot's face when he confessed his secret to the lot of us. A second sip pushes from my mind the desire to add copious amounts of alcohol to my tea. For now.
"But… No, he said he has to kill Atherton, but Nate's not gonna let him do that. Nate's gonna find a way out of that. Isn't he?"
"Nate is just as flawed as the rest of us, Hardison," I say in the gentlest tone I can. "He can't fix everything all the time."
That sends Hardison to his feet, face ashen as he finally appears to understand. "Oh hell no! Uh-uh! Ain't gonna happen, Soph. I ain't gonna let Eliot go down like that."
Before I can stop him, he takes off out of the room, muttering to himself and gesturing wildly.
"Hey, Tony? Can we have another turkey melt over here?"
"You got it, Nate."
Before I can even ask about it, Nate is sprinkling malt vinegar on the fries. I pause long enough to swallow the mouthful of food I'm chewing and offer him a grateful smile.
"Thank you, Nate. I appreciate this."
He shrugs it off nonchalantly and we go back to eating in silence for a few more moments. Once the initial hunger is sated, I lean back and take a leisurely sip of my drink. Much better when it's sipped, definitely.
"So where the hell did Parker come up with the idea of hypnotizing tea?"
I nearly choke on the scotch in my mouth at that, laughter eventually spluttering out to replace the coughing.
"You really said that to her?"
"So where is it?" Parker asks, coming into the room about an hour or so after Hardison's dramatic exit.
Well into my second pot of tea by this point -- or is it my third? I've lost track -- all I can do is set my book aside and stare at her as she investigates every little nook and cranny in the room. I want to ask the question -- oh God, no I don't! -- but can't seem to find my voice just yet. Maybe I should have added alcohol to my tea like I'd wanted to after Hardison stormed out of here. Clearly, I'm incapable of this odd role I've found myself in today.
"What on earth are you looking for, Parker?"
"The mind control tea." She pauses to stare at me, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Is that what you're drinking?"
Laughter bubbles up from my diaphragm at the absurdity of her question. Really, after nearly three years working together, I should know better than to expect anything less than off the wall from this young woman standing before me.
"Mind control tea? Oh, come now, Parker. Surely you don't think I would have such a thing, let alone use it. Right?"
Confusion replaces the suspicion in her eyes, but she still doesn't move any closer to me. "I suppose… But Hardison said--"
"What exactly did Hardison say?"
With a deliberation of movement, I pour a fresh cup of tea. Her gaze is heavy on me as I go through the motions of blending cream and tea to the perfect flavor combination that I have come to adore. Lifting the cup to my lips, I inhale the heady aroma and take a sip, savoring it before I swallow.
"He said... Well, he said that you forced a cup of tea down his throat and then--"
"I did no such thing! I wanted him to drink the tea to help him calm down."
She has the grace to look sheepish at my outburst, and moves closer to sit across from me, one leg tucked up underneath her, elbow resting on the other knee drawn up close to her chest. She always looks so innocent and child-like in that position. And limber! I envy her that, but would never dare admit it.
"Oh, so the tea's not what made him have -- what did he call it? -- diarrhea of the mouth then?"
Shaking my head, I take another sip of my tea. Parker leans forward, nostrils flaring slightly as she sniffs the air. Biting back an amused smile, I push the tray toward her. She studies everything laid out before her for a long moment, then pushes the tray back toward me.
"I really suck at this proper stuff," she admits softly. "I can never get it right. You're so much better at it than me. Will you do it for me again?"
"Will you tell me what's on your mind if I do?" She shrugs, dropping her gaze to her lap. "Parker, did you really just come to see if I had mind control tea?"
"Well, after Nate hypnotized Hardison into playing that violin solo, and you tricked Eliot into serving you tea, I guess I was just curious if it was true or not."
Setting my cup aside, I lean closer and pull the tray back. Turning over one of the cups, I pick up the pot and pour a generous measure of the fragrant brew. Plucking up a lemon wedge, I study Parker's face for a moment; I know she doesn't like the bald scrutiny, but she weathers it admirably. A liberal dose of cream and perhaps a touch of honey, I think. Parker does love tea that tastes like a melted milkshake. Adding the ingredients to her particular taste specifications, I lift the cup and let the steam tickle my nostrils briefly before handing her the cup.
"Try it. I can fix it if it's not right."
"But there's no sugar. You always put a little sugar in your tea."
"Just try it, Parker. This should be sweet enough already, and I did add some honey for you. If you really want it sweeter, we can add a bit more honey, but I don't think you'll need it."
Shifting on the chair, she leans forward to pick up the cup without changing the orientation of her lower limbs. Her boneless fluidity is a poignant reminder that I am not as young as I used to be; not that I was ever as limber as Parker is. Taking a deep breath, she takes a tentative, experimental sip of the tea. Thankfully, she doesn't slosh it around in her mouth like she used to when we first met.
"It's already so sweet! Are you sure you didn't put any sugar in this?" When I shake my head, she frowns briefly before taking another sip. "Hunh! Can we have this tea more often in the future? I kinda like it."
"All you have to do is ask, Parker, and we can have tea any time you like. You should know that by now," I chide lightly and wink at her.
She grins and takes another sip of her tea. Silence falls over the room, and I can hear some songbird singing outside the window. As much as I was enjoying my solitude, I am enjoying the calmer company Parker is proving herself to be right now.
"What do you think Eliot did that was so bad?"
And there it is: the question that's probably been on all of our minds ever since Eliot uttered that heart wrenching admission earlier today. The admission that shook us all to our cores by its very existence, even if we've always known there were things in his past that he clearly wished would never see the light of day again.
"I don't know, Parker," I finally answer truthfully. "Does it really matter? It's happened, and he can't take it back."
She nods slowly and returns to drinking her tea for a moment. Between one moment and the next, Parker is on her feet and leaves the room, returning with a package of shortbread biscuits. The package is quickly opened and I am touched that she offers me the first one. Delicately dipping it into my tea, I watch as she mimics my actions.
"Is it wrong that I want to ask Eliot what he did?" Her words are so softly spoken, I almost miss them.
"No, I don't think it is. But, Parker, are you sure you really want to know? Once you know, it can never be unknown again. It could well change how you see Eliot, and not necessarily for the better."
Setting her cup on the table, she wraps her arms around her drawn up knee, hugging it close to her chest. "I know. And I know it's probably something really bad, too, but… Could it really be worse than what I've imagined him doing?"
"You know there's only one person who can answer that question, Parker, and it's not me."
"Yeah, I know. I just… I mean, I wanna know, but I don't, you know? He's like my brother now and we should all really support each other, no matter what our deep, dark secrets are. But I remember how we treated you after that whole fiasco with the two David statues, and that was really harsh."
Closing my eyes against the memories, I nod slowly. "But we didn't do that to Eliot, did we?"
"Hardison and Nate did."
"They had their reasons, Parker," I reply around the lump in my throat, still caught up in those old and painful memories, and cough in an attempt to dislodge it. "That doesn't make it right, but it does make them human and fallible."
"Yeah, I guess so."
Glaring at Nate, I finish chewing and swallowing my fry before answering him. "Do you deny it, Nate?"
"Beside the point? No, I don't think so. The distinction is important where Parker's concerned and you bloody well know it."
His mouth opens to argue, then closes as he scowls into his drink. The second sandwich platter arrives and I shuffle the last of the fries and the pickle spear from the first plate to the second. Malt vinegar is applied to the fries before I pop one into my mouth. The food is definitely helping my mood, and my eyes and throat finally feel less raw.
"Sophie, you don't think I was justified in being angry at Eliot for holding back about his history with Moreau?"
"It doesn't matter what I think, Nate. Why can't you understand that? Your feelings are your own. If you're honest about them, that should be all that matters. That is what I meant by what I said to Parker. You were understandably upset. Hopefully that will be dealt with, for the good of this team, this family."
He nods and picks up half of the new sandwich. After a moment, I grab the other half and tap it against his before taking a bite. We fall into a comfortable silence, the food and alcohol going to great lengths to restore my equilibrium.
"So do you think Parker asked Eliot what he did?" he finally asks.
"Not a chance. She wouldn't want her image of him changed in a negative way, no matter how curious she may be."
There's a sudden shift in the emotional temperature in the room, and I can't stop myself from glancing around in curiosity. Eliot's no longer at the corner table. This could be a problem, a big problem.
"Hey, Tony? That pizza ready yet?"
Eliot's voice comes from my right, and I turn to face him with a warm smile. "You're not making the pizza yourself?" I tease lightly.
"Nah, I wasn't in the mood to make any more food today," he says with a shrug, and pointedly doesn't look at Nate. He squints and studies my face a little more closely. "You doing okay?"
"I'm fine, Eliot, thank you," I reply and pat his arm. "And you?"
That wounded gaze flickers across his eyes, quickly suppressed, and he shrugs again. "I've been better. Ready to kick Hardison's ass for trying to convince me that pneumatics are the lifeline of the future, but other than that I'm okay."
I reach up to pat his cheek gently. "Give him time, Eliot, and he'll move past this. We all will."
"Yeah, I know." He leans in to press a light kiss to my cheek. "Thanks again, Sophie. I owe you--"
"No, you don't. We're all squared up."
The bartender arrives with a pitcher of beer and a plate of nachos. "Something got screwed up back there with the pizza. These are on the house while we get a replacement baked."
"Thanks, man," Eliot says, easily transfer both plate and pitcher into his grip. "Talk to you later, Sophie, Nate."
And then he heads back to the corner table and his compatriots.
"You know what he did, don't you, Sophie?"
"I don't believe you got him to tell you what he did."
It's only been about twenty minutes since Parker took her leave of me, shortbread biscuits left behind as a thank you gift. I could wait for Eliot to come to me, but I'd be waiting an incredibly long time. No, this time I'll need to take matters into my own hands. It only takes a moment's thought to determine where he'll be. With a sigh, I pick up my tray and head into the kitchen.
The heavenly scent of chai tea nearly overpowers my senses as I put the kettle on again and pull the tea from my private stash. Oh, I suppose it's not really all that private a stash, since everyone knows where it is; they just never touch it because none of them could make a decent cup of tea if their lives depended on it. Except for Eliot, of course. Not just because of the neurolinguistic programming, either. The man can do wonders in a kitchen.
Once the water has boiled, I fill two infuser bottles with the water and the loose leaves. A small thermos is used for the milk, and I just grab a few packets of raw sugar. A small reusable bag for wine bottles easily carries my beverage bounty as well a couple of the scones Eliot made me for breakfast.
I don't bother to leave a note for the others; I have my phone if they really need to find me and can't figure out where I am. The trek to the rooftop is quiet and warm; the breeze as I open the roof access door is heavenly in the early evening heat. The soft sounds of humming lead me to the small herb garden Eliot built to get the southern exposure.
"Care to take a little break?"
He looks up to stare at me for a bit before squinting off into the west and the setting sun. "Little late for afternoon tea, isn't it?"
"There are still parts of this country, this world, where afternoon tea hasn't happened yet," I reply with a nonchalant shrug of my shoulders. "I do believe you beer-drinking Americans have that saying of 'It's five o'clock somewhere'?"
His startled, amused laughter warms my heart and I move closer to join him on the bench in front of his herbs. Without preamble, I take out our little feast to share. Eliot takes the spent tea leaves to add to the composter as I add the milk and sugar to our specific tastes.
"How'd you know I'd be up here?" he finally asks, still just holding his infuser.
"I'm a grifter, Eliot, and a damned good one at that," I reply with a teasing smirk, but his eyes narrow in disbelief. "Oh fine, then. Lucky guess, I suppose. I knew you wouldn't be going far from home, not with all of the upheaval today."
"Yeah, about that…" He rubs at the back of his neck, staring down at his feet for several moments. "So, how come you didn't come at me with both barrels for lying?"
Shrugging, I take a sip of my chai and smile ruefully at him. "Because I said the truth then, and I'll say it again now. We all have a past, and that past will have things we're not proud of, things we'd rather never see the light of day again."
"I was so damned hard on you two y--"
My raised hand stops the recriminations. "Eliot, don't. Let it go. We were still far too green as a team, a family, back then. We were all far too comfortable working alone, purposely ferreting out each others' secrets to use against them. I forgave you, all of you, for that a long time ago."
I roll my eyes, feeling a little embarrassed to be talking about myself when I've come to let him talk. "I admit it took me a while, but when I was off trying to find myself after Chaos tried to kill me, I came to terms with a lot of things in my life. And that includes that whole fiasco surrounding the two Davids. I was awful to all of you and deserved your wrath."
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry anyway. I knew the demons in my own closet, and I never should have condemned you for your own."
"I forgive you if you'll forgive yourself."
He reaches over and plucks a couple of leaves from one of his plants to toy with them. Removing the lid from my tea infuser, he rolls the leaves between his fingers before dropping them in and re-closing it again. The heady scents of chocolate and mint permeate the air as he repeats the steps with his own chai.
"Give it a minute or so to really work in its flavor," he says, gently swirling his infuser. "I know you like chocolate with your chai, and you've always got the peppermint tea available, so I figured we could try this addition. If you don't like it, you don't have to finish it, but I think you're gonna love it."
While waiting for the tea to re-infuse, I look out over the skyline, more than a little amused that he's echoing the words I spoke to Parker earlier. "Sometimes I forget how peaceful it is up here. Maybe I'll have to have you build me a little reading nook for privacy."
"I can do that whenever you want it. All you have to do is ask. In fact, I'll make Hardison help. The geek needs to get out in the sun more often."
We fall into a companionable silence again, eating our scones and drinking our chai. I can almost forget the strangeness of the day. Almost.
"You know, Parker thought I had mind control tea," I say, leaning in conspiratorially close to him. "She was certain of it, wanted to know where I kept it."
"Mind control tea?" he asks with a chuckle. "Man, that girl is twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag. You did let her think you really have the mind control tea, right? 'Cause I'd love to use that on her at some point in the future."
"You're as bad as she is sometimes, you know that?" He puts on that wounded puppy dog face, the one that drives most women wild. "That doesn't work on me, Eliot Spencer. And no, I told her I don't have any mind control tea."
"Damn. That would have been a great way to get her off my back."
Remembering Parker's earlier question, his words sober me. "Is she bothering you about that?"
He shakes his head and takes a long drink from his chai. "Nah. She curious?"
"Incredibly so, but I don't think she'll actually ask you."
"I hope not. I really don't want to tell her."
Nodding slowly, I let the conversation lapse back into comfortable silence. Maybe if I wish hard enough, we can just stay in this moment up on this rooftop for the rest of eternity. The world and all of its bloody troubles can go bugger themselves for all I care.
But I know all too well that the world will break into this idyllic little setting. The Damian Moreaus of the world will not easily leave us behind.
"Eliot? May I ask you something?"
"Yeah, I suppose." The reluctance in his tone makes me think he knows what I'm going to ask him.
"What did you do?"
His head snaps up, eyes widening in fear. "Sophie, no, please."
"Eliot, yes. What did you do that you can't absolve yourself of?"
"You don't have to believe me, Nate," I say, willing the tears not to fall again at the memory of Eliot's story. "I'll never betray his trust, but I know…"
Nate shifts to face me and I bear the brunt of his scrutiny willingly. He won't get it out of me, but I won't deny to him that I know what happened. Eliot paid me the highest honor today in trusting me with his story. I won't betray that, even on my death bed.
"You really are telling me the truth, aren't you?"
I shrug and smile enigmatically at him. Taking another drink of my scotch, I turn my own scrutiny on him. "You know, you're the only one who didn't come to me about this."
"You said some pretty harsh things to Eliot today."
He turns to study the trio at the corner table for a long moment before finally saying, "I don't need to talk to anyone about it."
"You're lying, Nate Ford!"
"Nope. We said all we needed to say. We're square."
"Oh really? So that's why Eliot wouldn't even look at you when he came over here then?"
He scrubs at his face. "Sophie, we're fine. It's taken care of."
"Now I don't believe you."
"Hey, Sophie? Nate?" Eliot's voice calls out, making us both look over. "Tony had the kitchen make us an extra pizza, and that idiot Hardison gorged himself on the nachos, the pig. We've got extra pizza if you want to join us. I'm getting another pitcher, too."
I glance back and forth between the two men. That tension from earlier is still simmering under the surface, but it's far enough below the surface that I think Nate might actually be telling me the truth.
"I'd be delighted," I say with a bright smile and grab my drink.
"You don't have any of those weird toppings on that pizza, do you, Eliot?" Nate asks skeptically, as he and Eliot head toward the table ahead of me.
"What weird toppings? I don't put weird toppings on my pizzas."
"Oh, those little fish things aren't weird toppings?"
"Anchovies? Are you kidding me, Nate? Anchovies are a staple of good pizza. You're as damned crazy as Parker if you think like that, man!"
"Seafood doesn't belong on pizza, Eliot. Like I said, weird toppings."
Completely against my will -- and my wishes -- I feel the tears welling up in my eyes at their friendly, familiar bantering. We've weathered a lot over the last three years and stayed together as a family. We can weather Damian Moreau, too.
We have to.