The rest of the Team knew before Parker knew. Not that Hardison had told them, not in so many words. He would never, ever do that, not before he told Parker. But the signs were there, unmistakably spinning out thinner and thinner until there was nothing left but ghosts and regret. He didn't even have to ask them to clear the bar: as soon as he was crossing the room Eliot and Sophie were slipping out awkwardly, heads bowed, while Nate pulled two fresh pints, sliding them expertly across the bar with one hand and slipping the bowl of pretzels into his pocket with the other.
Sometimes the little things, the silly things, they matter.
Like the fact that she understood. It was the simplest of things, sometimes, that Parker had never learned, the ones time only made harder to accept. When Hardison found the rest of the team, a small knot huddled at the building's corner, he only said three words: "she gets it."
They watched him walk away, figure bent as much by disappointing himself as he was by disappointing Parker. Everyone had known it might not work out, but no one could say he had not tried.
"Do you think I ought--"
"I guess someone needs--"
They spoke at once, stopped abruptly, laughed into the momentary crack in an uncomfortable buildup of tension.
"I'll go check on her." Nate spoke first, twisting his torso to glance over his shoulder at McRory's door. The Mastermind always had a plan, by nature and by nurture, but from the troubled eyes and the twisted brows, the only letters he had now were last string backups. WTF and OMG. He knew that he knew things, things he would say to anyone else. Words about faith, and broken trust, how you needed to decide for yourself just how strong you are, and hope, if you're not strong enough, that the people around you are. He could say those things and mean them, but what he couldn't answer was the one question Parker would ask him: why? He was still asking it of himself, and he had no answer; not for himself, and not for Parker. But he would go, and he would try. Parker trusted him, and he had faith in Parker.
Sophie let him take a step before tugging him back by his sleeve. "No, Nate, let me. One woman to another, you know. It's better." There were so many things she and Parker had talked about already. From flirting-without-stabbing to quickly gaining trust, from putting on alluring makeup to walking in stilettos. Sophie was a Grifter, wise and wonderful in all womanly ways – after all, her gender was one of her most persuasive tools. Except there were holes in her experience, a certain lack making her bite the inside of her cheek because Parker deserved more than the appearance of reassurance, she deserved a friend who really knew...
"No." Eliot had taken tiny steps backward each time the other made a move toward the door, not even appearing to pay attention as his eyes slid off their concerned faces. "Go home, I'll take care of it." He casually tossed his hair at the stairs leading upstairs, and waited for them to move.
"Eliot," Sophie bristled, "this isn't something you can just take care of. Parker is in there, hurt and alone, and yo—"
"—And what she needs," Nate cut in, eyes flipping between his Hitter and his Grifter, "is a little more gentleness right now--"
"You think I don't get it." Eliot's voice was flat, but his shoulders tweaked back, body readying for a confrontation his body couldn't help with. He left the uneasy glances to their own devices, focused on the stillness around McRory's instead. "You think I don't get her."
There was something in his voice, the way he intoned that last sentence, which kept Nate and Sophie silent. It wasn't as if they ever thought Eliot would hurt Parker, at least not intentionally. And they knew he had been there, or somewhere close. But it had never been a warm relationship between the two, never deep. Pokes and punches and grumpy dialogue bouncing off sessions of skill trading. Shallow. Big brother, little sister. They'd never say, but as soon as Hardison had walked up they were braced to pull Eliot off of him.
Eliot stood there, eyes on the distance while two members of his makeshift family decided if they had anything more to say. His shoulders were relaxed now, entire body loose. He would walk through them if he had to, and they wouldn't stop him.
Sophie was the one who finally stepped forward, looking at Nate before placing her hand on Eliot's arm. "We'll be upstairs if you need us." A gentle squeeze and she was holding on to Nate, the sidewalk empty.
For a minute Eliot was the only one on the street, concealed in shadow with his back to a wall. Always a good place from which to begin. He took a deep shaky breath and used his diaphragm to blow it out hard, instantly settling his nerves and clearing his head.
When the door opened Parker didn't even look up, but kept twirling liquid designs over the stained bar with one finger, her head so tight against the wood all she was seeing must be the dome of water tension keeping drops and streaks vertical..
"Go away." Her face creased in concentration, a parody of engrossment in her play.
Instead of replying, Eliot sat on the stool on the far side of her, so that she'd have to sit up to look at him. And there he sat, propped on his elbows, and waited. Because one thing he knew about Parker was that words only worked when she wanted to hear them. So he was quiet, and he waited; two things he was very, very good at. And even in the most dangerous of situations, skills he loved having. Being invisible required very little mental power: just reserve enough attention to alert you when something moved/made a sound/felt wrong, and you were free to think of anything at all, at peace in the certainty that this wasn't wasted time, and there was nothing else in the world you could be doing at that moment than what you were doing already.
In spite of himself, he was surprised when Parker broke out with a tiny, lost "Eliot?" Of course his body was too well trained to spasm in alarm, but his elbows did slip on a greasy patch, almost knocking into Parker's shoulder.
"Yeah." He answered, and it came out gruffer than he wanted.
Parker went back to drawing patterns, and Eliot tried to go back to waiting quietly, only his thoughts were lost and his eyes closed as he watched Parker. It worked better that way; the other senses provided more information, a rounder picture than sight – a face too many people never learned to see.
Every few breaths there was a hitch, but the red-rimmed eyes and sheen of dried tears had been obvious even in bar lighting. The glide of her finger sent up a random patter of tiny squeaks: she was using her finger pad rather than the violence of her nail.
He took a slow, full breath, mouth slightly open as if he were assessing a new wine. Putrid, on the whole, but after all, it was a bar. But not Parker. She smelled of nothing at all, save a tinge of fear which settled a tang on his tongue.
Touch... There wasn't a way to put his palms onto the bar without being obvious about it, but his elbows were pretty sure Parker, aside from one arm, was as still as he was.
A sliver of vibration in the bar, the edge of a rasp as individual fibers raked against grain. Eliot knew Parker was going to move, probably before she did herself. He waited as she unfolded, trying not to think about what he -should- do. The answer to that was "who the hell knows?" He should have let Sophie go, or Nate, maybe, would have been better. The only reason he was here now was a throbbing in his gut, like he'd been hit a few times by someone who knew how to follow through. It had picked up whenever they talked about Parker, faded when he pictured himself entering the bar.
He thought she was looking at him, but it was hard to be sure.
"Is it the curse?" Parker's voice was low but steady: she wasn't crying anymore, he was relieved about that.
He wasn't relieved about the question. It was the one thing he didn't want to talk about, the one place he didn't want to go.
If Nate were feeling philosophical, he'd say that was exactly why Eliot had been so adamant about being the one to talk to Parker. To get the demon off his back, or at least shake him off for a moment. There were times he really didn't like Nate, not even the Nate in his mind.
"Eliot? Is it?"
It'd be easy enough to just tell her he didn't know what she was talking about and try to steer her off the topic. But he knew exactly what she meant.. Every line of their conversation still circled through his head every night, as he lived again through being stuck deep enough in a mountain they were wit's width from death. It had been something he needed to say, to keep them both alive, but it was also true.
"Did I give it to Hardison?"
He wasn't sure if he regretted it afterward. Not the bit where they were still alive, but the bit where Parker sometimes smiled at him like she knew a secret and he was the only one who knew it too. Or the one where Parker finally said yes to Hardison and with Nate and Sophie slowly becoming a -something- the Team dynamics were shifting and he started to always feel like the odd man out or the favourite cousin hanging around on a very long vacation.
"He said he had to."
He didn't regret making her feel alright about what they had to do. It wasn't alright, of course it wasn't. But Parker could understand it, and no matter how crazy she might be, everyone needs to know who they are, and what they can do.
"Is it because of the curse?"
He did regret telling her so much about himself. No, no he didn't. Especially not when all Parker would ever tell the others about their time in the makeshift tomb was that they "had to, there was no other way."
"Did I give it to him?"
He didn't regret that they took Adam Scott out with them. It wasn't his body, but what they took was more important. Maybe it was a little bit of Scott's soul, left in a ghost of words and rough video, bits and bobbles or whatever it was computers stored data in. Snagging the phone - that wasn't something he would have thought of, not when he was focusing on getting them out.
"Did he leave me so he wouldn't freeze to death?"
He wanted to turn towards her, but kept himself rigidly still. "What did he say?"
Parker's head shifted, she sniffled and ran her hand back and forth. "He said we weren't working, and it wasn't my fault." Her voice dropped so low, he wouldn't have caught it if the bar wasn't empty. "But it was my fault or he wouldn't have left. I was weighing him down."
Some things, they need to be said, even though there's no easy way to do it. "Yes." He said it simply, and cringed inside.
"What?" She sounded hurt and lost. "Nate and Sophie wouldn't say--"
"—I'm not Nate." Eliot cut her off, spinning a quarter circle on his stool and opening his eyes to a dim morning after the darkness behind his lids "And I'm not Sophie either. But," he caught her eye, almost by force of will, "neither are you."
She stared at him like a deer in headlights, a few tears wending down her cheeks.
"Hardison doesn't want to leave you. He's got to. And maybe you did give that to him, the ability to leave, and maybe that's a good thing. Hell, maybe I was wrong, and he's always had it in him to survive." He kept their eyes locked, hoping she would let him get through this. "But he's not just leaving you to freeze, Parker. He doesn't want to die, and he doesn't want you to die either. This was the only way he saw – if the two of you stay together, you both go down. Break up, and you can both keep climbing."
The tiny little nods as he spoke told him she was listening, really -listening- to him, and he felt the same old twist of discomfit he had whenever she displayed depths beyond his original judgment.
The metaphor made enough sense for now: it was a memory, but a memory she could see and touch and hear.
"How do you know?"
Anyone else would be asking him if he and Hardison had talked, if he knew anything she didn't. Not Parker. He didn't even know if that other question would occur to her.
This far in he had to answer. It wouldn't be fair otherwise. They were an "us," two people who might be, were almost, could easily be monsters. He'd given her a label and very short list of compatriots. He'd made himself the only one she had, in times like this, and he wasn't at all sure that his immediate concerns hadn't served as an excuse for this eventuality.
"I've been there." It wasn't a place he wanted to go, but he would. But not looking her in the eye. "You met Aimee."
It was a statement rather than a question, but Parker nodded like a solemn little girl at storytime. "You were going to marry her."
"Yeah. Well I left the ranch and signed up with the military, and uh, I had a choice. I could have gone back, anytime, those first years, at least to visit. But I didn't."
"You were leaving her behind."
Part of him wished she would stop interrupting. It wasn't that he was irritated, so much as too tightly on edge. "Yeah. It was the best thing for her, you know. Gave her a chance to find someone... else. Stay with her dad, with the ranch, her horses, everything she loved."
In his peripheral vision he could see her head cock, hair flicking out almost enough to graze his arm. "But she loves you."
"Yeah." He sighed. "Look, love – you know it's not like it is in a story, right? You can love more than one person, and you can love someone and maybe you're not supposed to spend the rest of your life with them."
When there was no response he flicked a quick glance across his shoulder. Parker was staring expectantly back at him.
"It's not always a corpse in an icy pit, Parker. Sometimes it's a living girl in a bed of flowers." And that was it. The flip side.
She thought, hard, mouth pouting and brow furrowed. "Did you want to leave?"
"Yes." A night for hard truths. Or rather – he checked his internal clock – a very early morning. "That's it Parker, I'm not even sure I was saving her. I was saving myself. I liked the idea: marry Aimee, live on the ranch and sing country on the weekends. But it would have killed me. I would have done everything I was supposed to, and I'd be dead inside. Only I guess I'm..." The words caught in his throat.
"Then why didn't you tell her that?"
"Because no one wants to hear that. 'I love you, but I hate you?' I couldn't say that to Aimee. Not to her father. People don't understand that sort of thing, they don't want to hear it so they hear something else instead. They pretend. And that kind of thing, you can't unsay it. It gets remembered."
Parker edged closer, until her knee bumped into his thigh, pushing harder until he turned towards her in exasperation.
"I understand. It's like jumping off a building. You don't want the prettiest harness, even if it took you a year to figure out how to steal it."
At this moment he wasn't even curious, but he stored the reference away to investigate later.
"You want the harness that will catch you and not tangle you all up."
She was smiling like a kid who knew the answer to a math problem none of her classmates could solve. Childish and wise all at once, and he wondered how he'd ever thought she was nothing but crazy. Of course she was crazy, but then he was a trained killer. It wasn't his place to judge.
"That's exactly it. You and me, see, we get things – things the others don't, wouldn't. Or I wouldn't have told you. Couldn't have, you see?" Not the best of smiles, but it was genuine.
In a flash Parker was up and over the bar. "Let's have a drink!"
The first hints of light were peeking through the windows.
"Because we're friends!" Parker exclaimed, setting two glasses of beer in front of him. "You told me something personal, that most people don't know." The last bit she recited, mantra learned all those years ago.
"Parker, we-" He was about to say they already were friends, had been for years. But maybe she was right, and what they'd always been was... family. Not quite friends. "To friends," he raised his glass for a clink. It hadn't been a bad idea, actually. His nerves were raw and emotions scraped up and that made him edgy. One beer wouldn't do more than blunt the tip "Doesn't that mean you have to tell me something about you?"
She licked her lip and bit down on it, playing her fingers through the condensation forming on her glass.
"Everyone thinks I don't know things, even you. Only sometimes I do know. Like I knew Hardison liked me, ever since we became a Team. Before, even. Only I knew … I always weigh people down, and I didn't want to do that to Hardison, like Aimee did with you."
"--And now I was right, and it's not just me but now the Team is gone. I'll go, if you guys want. I should, I'm the best Thief but there are some out there nearly as good."
She looked miserable, and he wasn't feeling much better. If this is what women went through all the time... Or maybe it was just them, because there were only the two of them, and a lifetime alone could store up a lot of secrets.
"No one's leaving the Team. Not unless they really want to."
"But you couldn't be with Aimee again, at least not for years and years. And if I'm keeping Hardison back, then I don't want to be here."
"It's not the same, Parker. I was- I needed to get away, because all I had back there was a dream. Hardison, he needs to go back to how it was, all the good things you have and the Team has. He still needs you. If he didn't, he would have told you." Pacifying words, but true. He was only slightly surprised to realize this.
"How do you know?"
He took a sip of beer, considering. "I know Hardison. And he's a better man than I am."
Heart of hearts, he was hoping she'd contradict him. She didn't, instead gave him a considering look over the rim of her glass and took a healthy swig herself.
It was his turn to play with his glass, looking for solace in the deep. There's always a line, too much honesty, when you ask a question you shouldn't and find something about yourself that you always told yourself couldn't be true, not really, not if you asked the right person.
Parker hopped the bar again, throwing her legs neatly to the side. He figured she was going to leave, but instead she tugged at his elbow.
"C'mon, let's watch the sunrise!"
Five minutes later he wasn't surprised to find himself on a rooftop – rooftops were one of the places Parker seemed to like best. For his part, he always liked sunrise, no matter where he was watching from. The air was clean and crisp, shiver of cool air lingering from the night. And a new day ahead, still pure and innocent.
When Parker wrapped her arms around his waist and snuggled her head into his shoulder, he let her. Then he wrapped his arm around her because he wanted to, and not just because there was no place else to put it. They stood there like that until the sun cleared the horizon, and the fiery greeting faded into the morning commute..
Maybe it was just for a handful of minutes, but Eliot felt as free and light as he ever had. This, he knew, in a burst of insight, was how Parker felt when she jumped off a building. Like she'd managed to shake off the devil on her back, and was free to dance.