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all history's a winter sport or three

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Eliot has two planes, a helicopter, and a snowmobile ride up a mountain to work up a healthy rant for Nate once they arrive. He had plans, that was all he’s saying, and those plans involved a slow-cooked tangy spiced brisket and cautiously navigating the renewed relationship with his daemon, not hiking up a mountain in a blizzard. Reputation aside, he’d rather be simmering broth than anger. 

“Well, this ain’t Boston, is it,” he snarls, stalking over to Nate and Brigid, who are both making an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful effort to pretend that they aren’t freezing their asses off in this weather. Boudicca lopes by his side, having a much easier time in the snow than he is. 

“Good to see you too, Eliot,” Nate says mildly. Eliot thinks about punching him. It’s a familiar thought.

“Two weeks we’re supposed to lay low,” he growls, but Nate keeps talking calmly over him, as though it’s not reasonable to expect a bit of a break after stealing an entire country, narrowly escaping assassination, and oh yeah, taking down Damien fucking Moreau.

“You climbed in the service, right, Eliot?” Nate states more than asks, but Eliot won’t be mollified like that. Yeah, he climbed in the service. That’s how he knows this is a terrible idea. 

They walk into the big tent and Eliot discovers that rich man’s climbing is even dumber than what he did for Uncle Sam. There’s a guy over there with a gecko on his shoulder, who is he kidding.

Hardison walks right up to them and grabs Eliot into a hug. The hacker claims it’s for warmth, which probably has some truth to it, given the weather, but Eliot hasn’t forgotten the way Leia flinched from him back at Moreau’s hotel, nor the way they’d both hissed at him afterwards. He hadn’t expected them to willingly enter his space again, certainly not so soon, yet Hardison is hugging him with Leia tucked into his coat like an extra fur lining, her nose only a few inches from Eliot’s. It’s surprising, but...not unwelcome. 

His anger lapses a bit when he gets a look at the rest of the crew, whole and well. Part of him is always tense when they’re between jobs, when he doesn’t know what kind of trouble they’re getting up to without him there to protect them. It’s more of a relief than he expected to see Sophie’s ridiculous hat and Parker’s dragonfly peeking out from her jacket pocket.

It’s also more of a relief than he anticipated to hear the others echoing his concerns. Sometimes he feels like he’s the only one around here who gives a damn about safety, but Sophie and Hardison are worried too. He can stand between the team and thugs, between his family and bullets, but he can’t step between them and a blizzard. 

Brigid’s nose is twitching and her eyes are fixed on the mark. Nate’s not going to be swayed from this hunt. It doesn’t take long for the others to fall in line. After all, they’re already on the mountain. 

This job is a dumb risk, but Eliot’s done stupider things for far worse reasons. He knows what he's gotta do. 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eliot and Parker are about to set out when Nate says, “Eliot, a word?” 

He exchanges a glance with Parker. Nate’s gotta have more important priorities than yelling at Eliot for raising perfectly reasonable concerns about altitude sickness and alcohol withdrawal, but he follows Nate out of the gear tent anyway. Brigid is shivering, and her attention is focused on the big tent, where Sophie is about to approach the mark.

“What?” Eliot growls. 

Nate pulls out his earbud. Eliot, irritated, follows suit. At least he won’t be embarrassed by having Parker and Hardison hear Nate chew him out. 

But then Nate says, “You heard what Hardison said--he’s not sure the comms will work with all this snow,” and Eliot realizes this is a different conversation than he expected. “I don’t want to risk losing touch with you and Parker.”

“Then don’t send us up a freaking mountain in a blizzard, man!” 

He should’ve known Nate wouldn’t bring up a problem without a solution. The mastermind doesn’t have the guts to say it, but his eyes fall to Boudicca, and the implication is clear.

There’s a long moment of disbelief. Boudicca growls, a low rumble of a predator getting ready to tear you to pieces. 

Nate looks back with that same mild expression Eliot’s seen him use to piss off piles of frustrated marks, the one that says, not only does your blustering not intimidate me, I find it rather adorable.

“Here’s an idea, Nate,” Eliot says, baring his teeth as viciously as his daemon. “Why don’t we take Brigid with us, then you’ll know for sure what’s going on?” 

Brigid shudders. “So that’s a no, then,” Nate says, still mild. 

“Yeah, you damn well bet it’s a no,” Eliot growls, and storms off towards where Parker is bickering with Hardison. She’s tucking the dragonfly securely under her jacket, where he will be warm and out of the wind. 

“Let’s roll,” Eliot calls. Parker needs no further instruction-- she just adjusts her goggles and starts walking. Hardison puts his arms out for a hug, a second too late for Parker, so Eliot takes it as he walks by. There’s something reassuring about Alec’s lean body against him, shivering but wholly alive, and the obvious concern he at least has for his teammates' well-being. 

“What did Nate want?” Parker asks as they start to climb.

“Nothin’,” he grunts. 

She ignores the lie, obvious even to Parker. “You okay?” she asks, and Eliot is about to snarl that he’s fine, dammit, Parker, when he realizes that the question was directed to Boudicca, who has been growling softly for the last mile. 

“We’ll be fine,” Boudicca says, which isn’t really an answer but still more of one than Eliot would have given. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Any of the other team members would’ve pushed then, especially Sophie, but Parker just nods and changes the topic. 

“Let’s go steal a notebook,” she says, and makes a face. “That sounds so boring,” she complains. 

Over the still-working comms, Hardison grumbles, “At least Eliot gave me a hug.” 

And Eliot, with Alec in his ear and Parker by his side, can’t help but grin. 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eliot is not grinning a few hours later. Somewhere out there, Nate and their widowed client are alone on the mountain and there’s nothing he can do to help either of them. There’s a Spetsnaz agent here too, undoubtedly with more snow experience than he’s got, and if a goddamned Russian Special Operative were not enough, Hardison’s insisting that they’ve found Alan Scott even though they plainly haven’t.

And all that’s before he feels a very distinctive crack under his feet. Boudicca yelps. There’s just enough time to make horrified eye contact with Parker before they both fall through snow and ice to hit the ground hard. 

He takes stock. He’ll be one big bruise tomorrow but nothing’s broken. Maybe a cracked rib or two, he isn’t sure. He sits up slowly and meets Parker’s panicked eyes.

“Eliot!” she gasps. Something’s thumping under her jacket and for one twisted moment, Eliot thinks she’s panicking so badly that he can see her heart pounding through five layers of fabric. The world snaps back into focus and he realizes it’s the dragonfly, agitated enough to lose control. He’s only seen the dragonfly freak out like this once before, when that bastard psychic looked into Parker’s eyes and prodded at her deepest wounds. It’s enough to make him panic, and he’s by her side in another second, checking her over for injuries.

“Parker!” he says. “Parker, talk to me! What’s wrong?” He can’t find any broken bones. She’s doing the same thing to him, hovering and checking him over.

“You--you’re--” She can’t finish the sentence, but her panicked glance around the cave like she’s searching for someone finally clues him in. 

Boudicca isn’t here. He remembers, now, seeing her leap to safety, and he’s glad of it--It’s going to be hard enough getting the two of them out of here without trying to lift a hundred and twenty pounds of wolfdog behind them. 

“We’re okay, Parker,” he says gently. “I swear, we’re okay.” He means it. Boudicca is worried and frustrated, but unharmed. 

“H-how?” Parker stammers. She raises one hand to unzip her jacket, and the dragonfly wriggles out. Parker--both Parkers, all of Parker-- stare him down. Parker, who jumps off buildings the way most people drive cars, knows better than most the risks of falling away from your daemon. There’s a tether between human and daemon, five or six feet of separation before unbearable pain forces them back together. She knows that there are no good outcomes from a drop like that one, twenty feet in five seconds with no warning and no hope of staying close. For most people, that would snap the tether and either Sever the bond or kill them on the rebound, if they were lucky. 

But Eliot isn’t most people.

She flinches away as he reaches for her, and he steps back. Her fear hurts more than the mere thirty feet of separation from his daemon does.  

“There was a program,” he says reluctantly. This is highly classified, but she deserves to know. “In the military. We volunteered for it. Distance training, then Separation. We can get...pretty far from each other without any trouble. Boudicca’s fine, I can feel her.” 

She stares at him. Her eyes narrow. He’s expecting disgust or fear, but he knows that face. That’s the face she makes when she’s cracked a safe, just before she swings the door open. She says, “That’s what you and Nate were arguing about.”

He doesn’t have to answer, he knows she can see it on his face, but he nods anyway. “Yeah,” he says roughly. Trust Parker to skip past regular emotions and get straight to the puzzle-solving. 

“He wanted you to split in two so you could communicate if these didn’t work,” she guesses, tapping her earbud, which is, in fact, not working.

“Yeah,” Eliot confirms. He glances around. “And maybe we should’ve, I don’t know, we’d be able to reach the team better than we can now if we’d done that.” 

No,” Parker exclaims fiercely. She darts forward and grabs his wrist at the same time as the dragonfly darts forward to land on his arm. Eliot freezes. He’s wearing too many layers for it to really count as touching but it’s close, so close, closer than he deserves, far too much trust for a man who willingly left his own soul. She keeps speaking, as though she’s not aware of what she’s doing, of how close she is. “Eliot, no. He had no right to ask that of you. You’re a person, not a radio. No one should ever try to take you away from yourself, not ever.” 

There’s something of Hardison in her cadence, and he can almost see the hacker telling her gently that she’s a person, not a lock-pick. But there’s also something uniquely Parker, too. He’s never met anyone so unified with their daemon before, like they share a mind along with a soul. Of course she’s horrified at the idea of being split, and even more so at the idea of anyone else asking it of you.

(There’s a story there, too, one he doesn’t want to know or he’ll be on his way to cheerfully murder someone by the end of the week, someone who tried to take Parker away from herself. But right now they’re twenty feet down a pit with a corpse, so there are other concerns he can distract himself with.)

“Thanks, Parker,” he says, hoarsely. She nods. The dragonfly glides to her shoulder to shelter in her hair. By unspoken agreement, they turn to the corner they’ve both been carefully avoiding thus far.

A blanket covers a distinctively shaped lump, and there’s a glimmer he recognizes instantly as Dust. As he uncovers Alan Scott’s frozen face, Eliot misses Boudicca fiercely.  

“His leg’s broken,” Parker observes.

“Fell through the ice, broke his leg, and that was it.” Eliot sighs. “It’s going to be a bear getting us out, and there’s two of us. One man by himself? Never stood a chance.” 

“He died in here? Alone?” 

Eliot glances at Parker. He nudges her and nods towards the Dust. “Not alone,” he says softly. “Never alone. His daemon was with him.” Unwillingly, his eyes are drawn up and to the left. Exactly in that direction, he knows, through stone and ice and snow, his own daemon is pacing in tight circles, waiting. 

“Couldn’t find his beacon. Stone walls ate the signal. Storm sealed him in.” Eliot knows how to read a body, and this one is telling him that they’ve got to move if they don’t want to join him. “We’ve gotta get out of here,” he says, pocketing the notebook. “Inventory the equipment.” 

“And him!” Parker orders. “We’re getting him out too.”

Eliot turns back to look at her. The dragonfly hovers in front of the frozen corpse, those incredibly powerful eyes cataloging every detail of his death, while the woman stands firm as an oak. He’s desperate to get back to Boudicca, to find out what’s going on with the rest of the team, to take down Drexel and that repulsive stoat of his, but, well, he’d been a soldier once. He knows what it is to be left without anything. Hell, it won’t be the first time he’s risked his life to recover a body. It’s just the first time he’s risked Parker’s life for that. But she’s made her choice, and he ain’t gonna disrespect that. “Alright,” he says, and turns to the work.

They work efficiently. Parker knows ropes and pulleys. It doesn’t take long to rig up a lift, and Eliot’s able to throw the grappling hook easily enough. Getting the body ready to lift is harder, but he thinks it’ll hold. Eliot turns back to get the body as Parker starts to climb, trusting her skill.  

He hears her fall behind him. There’s a distant howl that must be Boudicca, feeling his panic. Her skill was impeccable, but they shouldn’t have trusted the rope. They can’t risk being out here after dark. It’s obvious what they have to do. For a moment, he wishes Parker will say it for him, but he curses himself for a coward and tells her. “I gotta take the rig off him. We need the rope.” He can’t meet her eyes. 

“No!” she yells, moving to get in his way.

“Parker! It’s done!” he growls. He hates growling at her, but he’d hate dying with her more. 

“No!” It’s the dragonfly this time, darting aggressively towards his face. Eliot flinches back. 

Parker cries, “This is what we’re supposed to do! We’re supposed to get him back to his wife! Nate would do it, Sophie would do it, Hardison would do it. They would do the right thing,” and her voice cracks right along with Eliot’s heart. 

The dragonfly returns to Parker’s cupped hands and they cry together, “We want to do the right thing.” 

Eliot says nothing. There is nothing to say. Parker knows what has to happen.

They turn together to retie the ropes. 

He watches her, hands as deft and efficient as always. No one ties knots quite like Parker. He’s selfishly glad for her company. He knows he ought to wish it was just him down here, no one else’s life at risk, but something in him quails at the idea of being down here alone, without even Boudicca by his side. 

“Hey,” he says. “It’s a good thing it was us.” 

Parker looks up at him like an angel. “Because we’d leave him,” the dragonfly says.

“Because they woulda kept trying, and they woulda froze right next to him.” Eliot answers. He’s not sure when he got so comfortable speaking with someone else’s daemon, but Parker’s always been different. He thinks about what it would be like, being here with someone else, about the rest of the team stuck in this cold, dark, cave. He thinks of Leia, whimpering next to one corpse and trying desperately to keep Alec warm enough to prevent him from becoming a second. “Especially Hardison,” he adds. “So it was a good thing it was us. The two of us, we do things they can’t. Won’t.” 

“That make us bad?” she asks. 

“It makes us....us.” Eliot is not a good person. He expects no redemption, not today, not ever. He takes it as a sacred duty, now, doing the dirty work to save his team the heartache. Ethics don’t come easily to Parker, but for all her struggles, there’s something pure in her he hasn’t seen in the mirror in more’n a decade. In this, though, he knows they are the same. They will not let themselves die for principle. Just for each other.

“You can take that as a gift,” he says, “Or you can take that as a curse. That’s up to you.” 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This time, the climb goes smoothly. Eliot allows himself thirty seconds to bury his face in Boudicca’s fur while Parker updates Hardison and Nate. They begin the long hike back down the mountain.

Eliot is focusing on regulating his breathing when Parker says, “Are you going to talk to Nate or do I need to do that for you?” and he loses his breath entirely.

“What?” he says. “No, no, that ain’t necessary.”

Parker tilts her head toward him. He figures she’s probably squinting under those goggles. “Wait, are you wrong about what you need, or about how Nate works?”

“I ain’t wrong, Parker!” Boudicca nudges his elbow with her head. She’s staying closer than usual, unsurprising after nearly losing him when the ground opened up. 

Parker looks at him like he’s a safe that’s left on the factory settings, like his confidence is adorable but she knows she could clear him out in less than thirty seconds. He sighs. "You wanna spell that out for me a bit more?"

“You say talking to Nate isn’t necessary,” she says, enunciating every word carefully. “Option One: You think it’s not necessary because you think you’ll be fine if he keeps acting like this, you can just keep saying no, but you’re wrong, because a) you growled all the way up the mountain even after saying no, and b) there’ll be a job you don’t feel like you can say no to, and then you’ll be hurt again.” She glances over at him. 

He says nothing, but Boudicca’s ears flick up, and Parker nods like he’s answered.

She continues, “Option Two: You think you already made your point, and he won’t ask again.” 

“Maybe he won’t, Parker,” Eliot huffs. “I was… kinda aggressive sayin’ no earlier.” 

Parker shakes her head firmly. “Nate’s like… It’s like a toolbox,” she says, gesturing. “He keeps track of every single thing in his box, everything all of us can do, so he can mix and match for every job, whatever’s relevant. Hardison can play violin. Sophie can do that creepy neuro-whatsit programming thing. You can flirt with anyone. Anything that’s in there, he can and will use. So if it’s not very clear to him that your… thingy... isn’t in his box, he’ll ask you to do it again, you know he will. And if you won’t tell him that, I will.” 

Boudicca is growling again, low and scared. “Those are the only two options, huh,” Eliot says, for want of something to say.

She shrugs. “Option Three is that you were lying.” She adjusts her goggles. 

Boudicca says to him, You did promise, El. 

“Take it out of the toolbox, huh?” he says.

Parker nods, the motion almost lost in the jolting of the hike. 

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, Parker, I’ll talk to him.”  

Then there is no sound but their labored breathing and the sweep of the wind. 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eliot and Parker get picked up by a park ranger and make it back to the base camp in time to watch Drexel and the Spetsnaz operative get dragged off by security. Alan Scott’s final message is no less affecting the third time. They watch Karen Scott cling to her Arctic fox daemon as her husband speaks to the camera. On screen, Alan Scott buries his face in his hands, sobbing. His daemon, a tawny owl, takes up the dialogue. “We just… love the hell out of you. And we always have,” she says fiercely. Alan lifts his head and runs a hand down the owl’s back, smoothing her ruffled feathers. She hoots mournfully. It is a haunting sound. Alan continues, “So don’t come up here looking for me, because I’m not up here. We are right there next to you, wherever you are, okay? We love you, pumpkin.” 

Karen whispers, “We love you too.” The tiny fox in her arms turns away from the screen to bury its nose in her hair. Eliot looks away. This moment is not meant for him.

But there is one thing left to say. He nudges Parker lightly. “You did it,” he says, nodding to Karen. “You brought him back to them.” He slips out of the tent, Boudicca silent at his side, before the thief can respond. 

He’d rather face the biting wind than any of his teammates right now. He can’t stop thinking about dying in the dark, alone, nothing to fight, no way out. He can’t stop thinking about his teammates down there, of himself unable to get to them. 

Everyone who goes up a mountain rehearses this speech in their head, Alan Scott had said. Eliot has been there, expecting to die, more times than he cares to count. He’s rehearsed some version of that speech over and over, for his dad, for Amy, for his siblings. But it’s been years since he’d planned for any recipients other than his employers, recipients who would care for more than the mission report, who would want an actual farewell. Now, it’s too easy to imagine Parker and Alec and Sophie crying over his message while Nate breaks bottles behind them. 

“Time to revise our will,” Boudicca suggests.

Eliot nods. “And no more mountain climbing for a while,” he adds. 

“Wimp,” she accuses him, nipping playfully at his sleeve. Her fur is dusted with snow. 

“Nah,” he says. “Just don’t want to lose you again,” and they tussle in the snow until the rest of the team is ready to leave. 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Nate,” he says. “Uh… a word?” He winces a moment later. He hadn’t intended to mimic Nate’s comment this morning, but it slipped out. Judging by Nate’s raised eyebrow, the mastermind hasn’t missed the parallel, but he comes to the kitchen anyway, Brigid trotting at his heels. 

Eliot hesitates, wringing the dish towel in his hands. It’s an obvious tell, but Nate knows he’s nervous anyway, and maybe it’ll help convince him how serious this is.

“Well?” Nate says.

Eliot puts down the towel. He thinks longingly for a moment of his knife rack. He’d rather fight the Butcher of Kiev with another tray of canapes than talk with Nathan Ford about his feelings, but, well. He promised Parker, and he’d made a vow to Boudicca. There’s nothing for it. 

“You’ve never asked me to use a gun,” he says. “Why is that?”

Nate eyes him. “You get your job done without them,” he answers. “And it’s your rule, no guns.” 

“Yeah,” Eliot says hoarsely. “And I broke my rule in D.C., to take Damien Moreau down.” He looks down at his hands and controls a flinch. “I used guns, and I killed people, and I sent my daemon away, and all of that was my choice because it was worth it to me--to us-- to put Moreau away forever.” 

Nate nods. “So this is about your daemon,” he concludes. 

“Yeah,” Eliot says. “It’s about Boudicca.” He looks at her, sitting at his feet. She’s licking her paw deliberately. “It’s about us,” he amends. “Nate, we gotta know that you won’t ask us that again. No splitting us up for easier communication. No sending me in on a con pretending I’ve got an ant or something so I’ll be underestimated.” Nate’s face flickers and Brigid shifts, so Eliot knows the thought had occurred to them. He’s grateful, now, that Parker insisted on this talk. “No keeping it as a fallback plan in case of emergencies, you know there’s an emergency every other week on this job, and you don’t get to decide what’s urgent enough to warrant leaving my soul behind. ” 

Nate looks at Brigid. She’s always a little droopy--bloodhounds droop, that’s just how they’re built--but she droops more under his gaze. Eliot thinks this may be what shame looks like on Nate Ford, and for a moment he wonders if he’ll get an apology.

Instead, Nate nods as though this were a simple business discussion, and says, “Noted.” He pauses. “We good, Eliot?” he asks. Eliot thinks of Nate in a jumpsuit, dodging prison gangs, asking that same question. He doesn’t answer today either, but Boudicca stretches out to lay down on the rug, and Nate seems to take that as an answer. He nods sharply and goes upstairs.

Eliot turns back to the dishes. Someone coughs in the living room. He drops the pot into the sink with a clatter and goes to investigate. 

Hardison and Leia peer guiltily over the back of the couch at him. “I was just.... sweeping for bugs,” Hardison says, waving a scanner of some kind. “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop, man.”

Eliot tries not to panic. He’d started to hope, this morning, that Hardison might come to trust him again. He thinks of how earlier, while he was cooking, Leia had casually climbed over Boudicca to get to the counter. A month ago, Boudicca would’ve snapped playfully at the raccoon if she’d done that, and they both would've laughed. A year ago, she would’ve flinched away. Tonight, his daemon had stayed absolutely still, like this trust was a bubble that would pop if she moved too much.

“How much did you hear?” Eliot asks flatly. He doesn’t know how this revelation will affect the cautious progress they’ve been making. Most people recoil at the thought of Separation. And he’d just admitted to killing people, as an afterthought to make a point. How can Hardison keep trusting him?

Hardison shrugs. “All of it,” he admits. “But Eliot, man, it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know.” 

Eliot blinks at him. Boudicca, at his side, actually sits down with a thump.

“You knew?” Eliot asks blankly.

Hardison stares at the ceiling like it’s one of his screens. “Project Cloud Pine,” he says, and that’s enough for Eliot to go cold. “Top secret military program with disturbingly high mortality rates and a significant financial incentive for the survivors… or for the families left behind.” He glances sideways at Eliot and finishes, “Separation training.” 

Boudicca leans her head over to nuzzle at Eliot’s clammy palm.

Hardison  fidgets with the scanner in his hands. “I hacked the Pentagon for the first time before I was old enough to vote,” he says. “I’ve known about Project Cloud Pine for years. And…” he glances at Leia, who says, diffidently, “I heard you. By the pool.” 

Now Eliot wants to sit down. It wars with his desire to stay on his feet, so he can flee if he needs to. He settles for walking around to lean on the back of the arm chair. Hardison and Leia watch him move, warily.

The one tiny silver lining of Hardison’s near-drowning had been that he wouldn’t be able to hear Moreau’s drawl, that he wouldn’t see…

“It took us a bit to put it together,” Hardison says. “We had other things on our minds at the time. But that’s what you were arguing about before we went in, right? You wanted to leave Boudicca behind, to protect her from Moreau. And…” he hesitates. “That’s why it took you so long to negotiate, even with me underwater. Moreau wanted to keep Boudicca.”

Boudicca makes a sound somewhere between a growl and a yelp. Eliot controls the impulse to reach for her. Alec watches both of them with dark sad eyes. Leia jumps easily to the coffee table and crosses rapidly towards Boudicca, till they are face to face

“I saw him,” she whispers, reaching out a paw to hover over the wolfdog’s muzzle. She’s exposed, her throat only a few inches from Boudicca’s long, sharp teeth. “We were drowning, we were so scared, and so angry with you, and I came up for air, and there he was scratching your ears like, like a pet, and I thought--”

“You thought I wanted it,” Boudicca finishes. She tilts her head slightly, examining the raccoon. There is no anger in her voice, just resignation.

“You were just trying to protect us,” Leia says, voice wavering. “And we lashed out at you. We were cruel.”

“I did take you into an extremely dangerous situation without full information,” Eliot points out. “We really deserved it.” 

“Nah, man,” Hardison says quickly. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish you’d given me a warning, and getting thrown into a pool really sucked-- ” he shudders, but continues talking. “It wasn’t your fault. You did everything you could, and you got us out of there alive. It’s Moreau that deserves our anger. For what he did to us, yeah, but also very much for what he did to you.” 

Eliot sits down, letting his hands linger in his daemon’s fur. He caresses the spot Moreau had touched back at the pool, overwriting the sensation with his own fingers. Boudicca hums. It’s an intimate gesture, a vulnerability he doesn’t show to other people, but this is Alec, who’s seen everything already, and is still here. 

Well. Nearly everything.

“The other thing I said before…” he begins.

“What, that Nate wants to use your Separation for jobs?” Hardison shakes his head in disgust. “Okay, I didn’t know that part, but I wish I was more surprised. Yeah, that’s bullshit, we’ve got your back there. He better not ask you that again.”

“Not that,” Eliot says, nonplussed. “The… the people I killed.” He fights the urge to look away. 

Hardison chuckles. “Oh, that.

“Yeah, that,” Eliot snaps before stopping himself. He was ready for condemnation, for disgust, for coldness or anger. He has not prepared for laughter.

“One day y’all gon’ stop underestimating me,” Hardison says, shaking his head. “I knew about the warehouse before the fires were out. That’s what I do, man.” 

Leia calmly begins grooming Boudicca, her nimble paws untangling knots and brushing out snarls. Boudicca is motionless under her ministrations. 

“Every time we go to a town, I hack the dispatcher so I know who’s calling the cops,” Hardison says, like it’s grocery shopping. “If you beat people up, I put out feelers at the local hospitals for people matching the goons’ description, to see if any law enforcement shows up to interview them or if they put out any alerts for a long-haired fighter with a wolf daemon. I’ve intercepted messages to Interpol, like, at least a dozen times.”

Eliot stares at him.

“You put your body between us and danger all the time,” Alec explains, gently. “This is just my version of that. I can’t take the hits for you the way you do for us, but I’ve got eyes everywhere, and I do what I can to keep those blows from ever coming near us.” 

“So you knew?” 

Hardison shrugs. “I was hardly going to miss multiple agencies fighting over a half-exploded warehouse full of corpses with international criminal records. They might've been totally confused, but I wasn't.” 

Eliot winces and Leia gives Hardison a dirty look. “I killed fourteen people in eight minutes and walked away,” he says. “That don’t bother you?”

Hardison’s expression darkens, and Eliot braces himself for judgement. But Hardison says, “I read Chapman’s file, before D.C. And you said all those guys were like that. Naw, Eliot, I’m not upset you killed them. I’m just grateful you survived to walk away.” 

Boudicca softens under Leia's touch while Eliot reels at the sentiment. He is trying to figure out how to respond when Parker says, “It’s a good thing it was you." Hardison yelps and Eliot controls a flinch, but Parker, perched on the back of the couch, just looks faintly puzzled by their surprise. Eliot has no idea when or how she got there. She continues, “If it hadn’t been you, Nate would be dead, Moreau would still be hunting, and all those men would still be hurting people. So. It was a good thing it was you.” 

Eliot thinks of Parker, putting herself in danger to keep him from having to fight a Russian special operative on his home terrain with cracked ribs. He thinks of Alec, staying up late after each exhausting job to make sure their trail is covered. He thinks of Parker, low and insistent, saying, “You’re a person, not a radio.” Unwillingly, he thinks of the stench of gunpowder and gasoline, of the explosions of Dust and fire, of bodies and bullets hitting the ground, of men he’d once fought beside dying under his gun. He thinks again about Alan Scott, about rehearsing your last words. Eliot does not expect to have the chance to leave a message, not in this line of work, but he knows now what he’d want to say. I regret a lot about my life, he imagines whispering to a recorder, but this ain’t one of those things. I will never regret keeping you safe.

“Yeah,” he says to Parker. “You're right. It's a good thing it was me.”