"Man, you don't gotta do this every time," Hardison complained. Eliot could hear him scooping ice out of the brewpub's ice machine through their coms. Nate and Sophie had hardly more than offered suggestions on this job, and were already off. Eliot and Hardison were only still wearing theirs because Parker's chosen route home to the brewpub involved a lot of free-climbing and celebratory jumping off buildings, if the grunts of effort and occasional happy squeal were anything to go by.
Hardison was still talking, as he pushed into the back room with a freshly filled ice pack. "We got backup plans. We got backup plans for the backup plans. You just say 'there are more guards than we planned for' and we go to the plan that plans for that! You don't have to--"
"Yeah, I kinda do," Eliot interrupted, grabbing the ice pack from Hardison's hand and pressing it to the achiest bruise on his torso. Once that one numbed, he had one on his shoulder and another on his cheek that needed the ice next. He'd get them all on rotation with the ice, and it wouldn't be too bad. He grabbed the tape back up to finish wrapping his split knuckles, ignoring Hardison's face, which was doing the hurt 'I don't understand' thing. It wasn't as bad as Parker's version, at least. Easier to ignore. Or, you know, possible to ignore.
"Why?" Parker asked, breathless over the coms.
"Yeah, why?" Hardison echoed. "Is this some macho thing? Letting yourself get beat up to prove something? 'Cause we already know you the badassest of the badass."
"Damnit Hardison," Eliot snarled, tossing the tape down. "This ain't about me. Taking them on is my job. Giving the two of you all the time you needed was the least risk. And it worked." They'd gotten in and out with the files they needed, and broken the reputation of a very nasty person. Everything had gone perfectly, and it wouldn't have gone nearly as well if Eliot hadn't done his damn job.
Hardison couldn't just let it go, though. His expression set mulishly. "You didn't have to get hurt."
"I can take it!" Eliot tossed his hair back to glare Hardison down harder, not that even the best glare had phased Hardison in years. And that was the beauty of it, and a good part of the problem. "I can't take..." He cut himself off, shaking his head.
Once he would have gone directly to his own place to patch himself up after a job, avoided the rest of the team until the worst of it was over. He'd gotten used to being here for it, though. He'd gotten used to people keeping his ice pack topped off, to Parker poking his bruises, to being part of a team as they unwound; picked apart their last job and planned for their next together. He'd gotten used to feeding the team when he felt the itch, or eating the brewpub's leftovers, or just sitting back and enjoying whatever takeout Sophie conned restaurants who didn't even do takeout into bringing them.
He probably shouldn't have, if it came to this. Eliot stood to leave, get out and go to his own place to clear his head, but Hardison blocked him as though he had a chance of stopping Eliot from doing whatever the hell he wanted to do. Only it did stop him. Hardison's arm across his body, hand warm on his chest, anchored Eliot in place how no actual barrier ever could.
Hardison's brow was furrowed, those deep brown eyes peering into Eliot like he was one of his computers – just a tricky bit of code he could crack open if he tried hard enough. "You can't take what?" he asked. "What can't the great Eliot Spencer take?"
Oh, Hardison needed it said now? Right now? After everything? After all Eliot had done to make sure neither of them ever had to question it? Eliot shoved him off, growling. No one in their right mind pushed Eliot, but 'in their right mind' never had described anyone in the team, had it? Hardison was still watching him like he expected an answer, and it snarled its way right out of Eliot's mouth. If Hardison liked words so much, he could have some.
"I can't take the risk of you gettin' hurt! Either of you." Eliot was more than aware that he was talking to both of them, with Parker's sharp inhalation over the coms, even though he was only seeing the surprise on Hardison's face. "I'll take the beatings and bullets and knives. I'll take any punishment anyone can dish out. I'll take on anyone and anything for you. I'll be your hitter, your attack dog, if that's all you need me for. I'll take anything either one of you can give me, even if it's nothing. I'll back off if you want, but I'll never leave you unprotected. I ain't putting the people I love in unnecessary danger."
"I..." Hardison was momentarily speechless, mouth falling open as he drew back from the vengeance of Eliot's tirade. Eliot grabbed him by a fistful of his shirt collar, dragged him in close so he'd have to see the truth of it deep in his eyes.
"I ain't gonna walk away when you need me."
Eliot shoved him away, and Hardison went like a ragdoll. Still speechless, and not looking happy. That wasn't unexpected. Eliot hadn't even let himself imagine Parker or Hardison welcoming the confession, in the unlikely scenarios he'd imagined actually telling them.
"Hardison?" Parker's voice was shaky on the other end of the coms. Scared. The faint sound of footfalls and huffed breath betrayed that Parker was sprinting. "Eliot? We need--"
Whatever Parker said next, Eliot never heard. He ripped his earpiece out, throwing it into Hardison's chest as he finally did what he should have in the first place and escaped to his truck and then his own place. Hardison didn't try to stop him; and neither of them called him, or texted him, or broke into his apartment to annoy him.
He was left alone until he chose to come back.