Eliot had once said that pictures of him couldn't be online because too many people wanted him dead. The bounties on him were big enough numbers that if Hardison had been a different kind of guy, he might have given some thought to collecting one or two himself. Instead, he was the kind of guy who wrote and ran programs meant to track down all of those pictures a modern person couldn't avoid having taken—traffic cams, ATM security, CCTV, random tourists who thought Eliot was the most photogenic thing she'd seen that day—
All right, so the last one was just Eliot, who had the damnedest luck “happening” to be in the selfies of attractive women which they “needed” to plaster all over social media.
—and scrubbing them off the internet before they could find out if Eliot really did have a fatwa on him.
It would have been tedious work if Hardison didn't trust his programs enough to let them do most of it for him. Every now the facial recognition software needed human verification. Mostly it was false positives, and Hardison could happily let an innocent Instagram page go untampered with. Other times...
He hit the key to print this picture so he'd have the physical evidence, then put a temporary 404 on the website because, really, this one couldn't be legit. It couldn't be. But, if it was? It was all Hardison could do not to whoop at the possibilities. First, he needed his own verification.
“You wanna explain this, man? You wanna explain this?” He slapped the incriminating picture down on the table in front of Eliot and slid it over. They were in the back booth of the latest bar they'd chosen as their place to meet clients, and Eliot had the wild-eyed look he got when they'd gone too long without a con to run. It meant Eliot was looking for a reason to punch someone. For this, Hardison was willing to take the risk.
Eliot's gaze flicked down and back up. He betrayed no sign of recognition. “What's it supposed to be? You been playin' with that PhotoShop stuff again? You know I told ya to leave me out of that.”
Hardison grinned briefly at the memory of the afternoon he'd spent manipulating Eliot's picture. The mashup of Eliot's head with that of a springer spaniel with particularly floppy ears was some of his best work, if he did say so himself. It was the hair, man. He couldn't have done it without the hair. The grin faded as Hardison realized the mistake he might have just made; lots of other people had PhotoShop, or equivalent programs.
No, he'd spent enough time staring at the picture in disbelief that if it had been a fake, he'd surely have noticed. He could identify a counterfeit FBI badge at a glance, man. Spotting fakes was the kind of thing he did. Besides, the picture had only been digitized a week ago. Finding it had practically required his software to flag it, which meant someone would've had to know what he was doing.
“See, that's the interesting thing,” Hardison answered, confidence recovered, “because the girl—” He tapped a finger against the relevant person in the picture— “I looked her up. According to official reports, she died a few years back. But this picture of you, it sure don't look like you did five years ago. In fact, I'd say it's pretty recent. For certain values of recent, if you get what I'm saying.”
Hardison took the lack of expression on Eliot's face to mean that he did, in fact, get what Hardison was saying. The guy had secrets. Lots of secrets. Ones even Hardison couldn't hack. And the woman in the photo wasn't the one Hardison was currently interested in. He propped his arms on the table and leaned into them. “So, maybe you can tell me what you're doing hanging out with a dead girl who looks...awfully damn alive.”
Again, Eliot's eyes flicked down to the picture. They took a few seconds longer to return to neutral space. “How should I know? I've never seen—”
Hardison cut him off with a raised eyebrow and a shake of his head. “Don't you be giving me that. How long we been working together? How long we been this close?” He illustrated their closeness by curling his first two fingers together. “I know when you're holding back.” He did, too. Eliot could be taciturn to the point of sometimes seeming to not have emotions at all, but Hardison had learned to read between the lines, and right now he could see that Eliot was hurting.
Eliot ran a hand over his head, smoothing back a few strands of fly-away hair. When he spoke, his voice had picked up the gravel that was his tell. “How'd she die?”
“So you do know her!”
That was one question answered, if not the right one.
“Hardison,” Eliot growled.
“Officially? Boating accident. Unofficially?” Hardison scooted the photo a couple centimeters closer to Eliot, in mute suggestion to the idea that any death had been exaggerated.
“Five years ago, you said?”
Hardison nodded. That's what the death certificate and news articles all said, for all that they could be trusted. “Technically, she disappeared in a storm and was declared dead. No body was recovered.”
Eliot nodded like he now understood something that had been nagging him as wrong. “We've worked together a couple times. Been on opposite sides a couple others. Can't say that ended well...for either of us.” That admission only confirmed what Hardison had sussed out on his own; most people didn't carry escrima sticks strapped to their backs unless they expected to need to use them. At last, Eliot took the hint and picked the picture up for a thorough examination. “You're sure this ain't a fake? Because I sure as hell don't remember this.”
Eliot, clean shaven, wearing a fedora and a suit, standing next to a coifed blonde woman in an old-fashioned dress outside a—as Eliot would say—very distinctive building.
“Maybe—” Hardison squinted as if he was just now coming up with the possibility— “that's because it hasn't happened yet.”
“What hasn't happened yet?” a new voice interrupted.
They both looked up, and Hardison let out an undignified, but completely warranted, squeal. The woman in the photo was standing at their table, dressed in a white jumpsuit that should have brought every eye in the room on her, yet somehow made the clientele far more interested in looking away. The tips of the sticks stuck up over the tops of her shoulders, just as they did in the picture. Lhasa Apso, he thought, suddenly. The kind with the long, white fur. He managed not to say that out loud. Instead, he snatched the photo from Eliot and thrust it at her. “1933 World's Fair, baby. I mean, it has happened. Over eighty years ago it happened. It hasn't happened for us, yet.” He stopped and sucked in a breath before he could muddle himself any further. “Verb tenses, man. How do you keep track?”
The woman, Sara—according to the obituary—turned to Eliot and greeted him with the wariness of someone who knew exactly who she was talking to. “It's been awhile. I hear you're one of the good guys now.”
“I hear you're dead,” Eliot countered. He sat up a little straighter and twisted on the bench so he could jump out of the booth quickly, if he had to. Hardison saw Sara acknowledge the defensive shift, though she didn't give any hint of being frightened by it. That made her one dangerous lady in her own right.
Sara gave a slight shrug. “I was, for awhile. Long story. Now I'm trying to make up for it. I could use your help.”
“My help?” Eliot questioned, somehow managing to look less threatening without changing anything in his posture. “For what?”
Sara rolled her eyes in a silent question about Hardison and Eliot tipped his chin up in equally silent verification that it was OK to talk in front of him. Sara studied Eliot for a moment before asking, “What do you know about time travel? Me and my team are on a mission and we need some extra muscle. I thought of you, and I knew I could find you here and in between jobs.”
Inwardly, Hardison crowed, because Eliot wouldn't have been here right now except for Hardison summoning him in, and the only reason he'd done that because of the picture. Past and future, playing out exactly like the doctor'd ordered. Not the Doctor, of course. He was fictional. And Sara was very, very real, and probably not a doctor—which didn't matter, because Hardison had been right.
“What makes you think I'm interested?”
“There's some people who need their life's savings restored,” Sara explained. “I understand that's your expertise these days.”
“Yeah, these days,” Eliot confirmed. “I don't know how I feel about messing with the past.”
“Looks like you already made that decision,” Sara answered, nodding at the proof on the table. She and Eliot were the only two people in the photograph, standing in front of an old-style building that looked just built. Three words were painted on the wide inverted V of its eaves, marking a location that had been meant to be iconic and ironically didn't outlast its decade. “World's Fair, 1933,” she added. “I've always wanted to go there.”
Hardison squirmed in his seat, only barely managing not to shout out his own desire to see that exhibition. Really, he was more interested in laughing at all the wrong predictions about the future, but everyone had to get their kicks somehow. Now, here he was, finding out time travel was real, and it wasn't being offered to him. Life wasn't fair.
“We're a team,” Eliot said, suddenly. “Me, him, and a third person: Parker. Package deal. You want me, you gotta take all of us.”
Hardison's mouth dropped open, his eyes widening. That had to be the nicest thing Eliot had ever done for him, discounting all those times Eliot had saved his life. Just for that, Hardison would never morph Eliot's image with a dog's again. “Hey, thanks, man,” he managed.
Eliot shrugged in response, his reasoning clear. He only liked fights he could win, and he was smart enough to know that keeping Hardison away from a time machine was not one of them.
“Where did you find this?” Sara looked straight at Hardison for the first time, and in the set of her face, he truly saw Eliot's equal. He scooted back in case she was prone to talking with her fists. “We can't have pictures like this out there.”
“I-It's not,” Hardison responded, swallowing hard. “This is the only one left. I took care of the others. They gone. Wiped clean. Not a single digital trace left anywhere.”
Just like that, the threat vanished, and Sara looked as much like a completely normal person as Parker did. “Good.” She gestured for Eliot to move over, then slid onto the bench next to him. “So, what's a girl got to do to get a drink around here?”
“Uh. Shouldn't we be going?” Hardison asked. He inched toward the door, eager to go see the definitive proof.
Sara shook her head. “There's no hurry; 1933 isn't going anywhere. Besides, we gotta discuss a few things first. Logistics. Ground rules. That kind of thing.”
“Like what?” Eliot asked, brows drawing together.
“Well...” Sara took one last look at the picture, then folded it up and tucked it into her jacket, making the last piece of evidence disappear until it was created again. Hardison had a sneaking feeling that he was going to be the one responsible for that, because who else would know how, and when, to get a picture of Eliot to him? “For starters, what do you know about superpowers?”