The Leverage team had been together for three years already.
Time just seemed to fly by, Hardison could barely remember the last time he had been with the same people for that long. Maybe not since Nana pulled him out of foster care. In the role of a hacker, you don’t really come by people you can trust often… or people at all, really. Most hackers didn’t generally enjoy the company of other humans. But that wasn’t the reason Hardison had become a hacker, he loved being around people. The reasons actually were; one: he loved to code, and two: he has a secret. One that he never wants anyone to find out.
The truth is, Hardison is a little. But if anyone ever finds out it would probably be exploited. If he couldn’t even be that vulnerable in front of his friends, what if one of his (many) enemies found him in little space? The ramifications would be catastrophic.
So he just… wasn’t little. Sometimes when Hardison used to live alone, he would drop for a little while. Just a few times, to relieve the stress all littles felt if they were big for too long. But he hadn’t even been able to do that since now he’s around people 24/7. So he hasn’t dropped. In three years. And he’s reaching the end of his rope.
There are only two caregivers on the team. Nate and Eliot. Sophie and Parker are both neutrals. And no offense to Nate, but he isn’t exactly the most ‘caring’ caregiver. He’s a caregiver that works better with actual children or littles with a headspace in the 6-10 range. And that’s ok, but Hardison is neither of those.
So that leaves Eliot, and no way is he bothering Eliot with this. He doesn’t want Eliot to help him or care for him out of pity. So he had put off telling the team for the past two years. At first, it was because this was a one show gig, no encores. But then they had another job, and another, and another, and when they hit the one year mark they had basically become family. Now he was afraid that the team wouldn’t trust him anymore. If he had a secret this big what else was he hiding? So that settled it in his mind. He’s keeping this a secret until he can’t anymore. And that time seemed to be arriving sooner than he’d like.
The absolute maximum amount of time a little should be out of headspace with no ramifications was about three months. After that, there were symptoms, exhaustion, irritability, mood swings, a mild fever, and seemingly random outbursts to name a few.
The universal sign of a little out of headspace for way too long was what people referred to as ‘chemical-drops’ where, in a desperate attempt to get into headspace the brain would set off the regular chemical reaction that would create a drop, but since the little is unwilling it makes them very tired and unhappy instead. Hardison had experienced several of these ‘chemical-drops’ in the past few months. Thankfully never during a con, or god-forbid in front of the team. He knows he’ll drop into headspace all the way soon, and when he does drop, he’ll drop hard.
It happens on the next con.
The mark is just some run-of-the-mill bigoted asshole who had somehow acquired a business and started screwing people over. His name is Grant Rennolds, 46. He runs a real-estate business with his partner, Michelle Harris. Grant Rennolds scammed over 1,000,000 dollars off of unsuspecting people. Taking money meant to pay for utilities or improvements and using it for himself instead, then last minute he’d call for an inspection, the house would be deemed unfit, and the buyers would be left penniless and without a home. Then he’d pay off the inspector, get the records of the assessment wiped, and use the same house in the same scheme over again. The worst part was his partner didn’t even know. Michelle was really just a real estate agent. So they have to only take down Grant, without putting Michelle out of the job.
The only mishap in the con per-say is that Hardison ends up inside playing the secretary of Sophie, who had had to jump in to stop Nate from arousing suspicion earlier in the con. So here he is, fake typing reports for his ‘boss’ while actually trying to juggle hacking the security system with monitoring the team, as well as retrieve information to feed to Nate and Sophie to keep their covers, and trying to download as much data off of the system as possible.
After almost three hours there’s finally a lull in constant activity and a building headache behind Hardison’s temples. He takes his comm out of his ear and puts it in his bag, a decision he will soon regret. Hardison rubs a hand over his face and sits back in his shitty office chair for a moment of peace. His bit of relaxation is short-lived, however, as just then someone taps his shoulder.
He almost jumps, but he pushes down the impulse at the last second. He spins the chair around to face his ‘boss’, Grant.
“Can I help you?” Hardison says, in his best customer service voice. God, this sucks. He already had a headache before the human incarnation of a headache walked into his cubicle and he knows it’s about to double.
“Yeah,” he pulls a woman out from behind him that Hardison hadn’t noticed before and sits her down on the only other available chair. Hardison watches apprehensively as the woman makes a half-hearted attempt to get up and leave, but Grant grabs her shoulder and pushes her back into the chair. This cannot be good. Grant continues, “watch her for me. My partner, Michelle, is in a meeting, this is her little. She’s making me watch it. But it keeps whining and distracting me, the thing is just terrible. A perfect representation of how terrible they are. Amirite…,” he peers at Hardison’s fake name tag, “... Johnny?” Hardison tries to smile for the sake of his cover but he feels like crying, if Nana hadn’t pulled him out of foster care when she did this is probably where he’d be now.
Grant keeps going, “See, I never understood why caregivers even bother with them. I mean, I get caregivers have the drive to take care of things, but really? Wasting time on a thing that barely passes for a human and just demands things all day long. Do you even know how many caregivers I know who talk all day about how great their littles are? Because it’s a lot. Personally, I think they’re trying to justify to people why they keep doing whatever they’re doing with it and just hoping it dies soon. If you ask me we should go back to when littles were in psychiatric facilities. Who knows, they might even provide great subjects for experiments.” Grant laughs to himself as if he’s just told the funniest joke in the world, while Hardison is still in shock. It’s like every thought in his head has been turned to static except one, ‘Get out’. He glances over at the little Grant brought in with him, she’s just sitting meekly in the chair, barely listening as if she’s heard it all before. That’s it, he can’t do this anymore. He can’t think about the con anymore, he just stands up and mumbles something like “Sorry. Can’t. Emergency.” before he grabs his computer bag and his USB stick from the desktop computer. He slings the bag over his shoulder and starts walking, he has no idea where he’s going and doesn’t really care as long as it’s not here.
When Hardison shoves open the frosted glass door of the office building, a gust of wind and rain hits him square in the face. He shivers and tries to shrink into his cheap suit jacket, but it was almost too small to begin with and offers zero warmth at this point. He keeps walking, too far into his head to care about the rain anymore. He only stops when his legs almost give out from under him. Shit. His brain must’ve triggered a chemical-drop while he wasn’t focusing and that combined with how upset he is must’ve made it into a full-blown drop. Hardison forces down panic as all of the ‘what-ifs’ start to rise up in his head. He looks around and finds that he’s in a little courtyard off the main street, coincidentally the exact courtyard that the team had chosen as a meet-up point. He collapses down onto one of the benches and curls up, setting his forehead on his knees. Partially for warmth and partially because he’s started crying. How could Rennolds even say stuff like that? And no matter how much Hardison tries not to believe anything Rennolds said, he can’t help but have his words join all the others stuff about littles he’s heard over the years.
Hardison almost jumps out of his skin when a car horn beeps nearby. He jumps out of his curled up position and furiously wipes at his eyes. He hopes any remaining tears will be mistaken for raindrops. He takes a moment to gather himself before he unsteadily walks over to the car. He slides into the back next to Eliot.
The car only has five seats, so it’s pretty cramped. He almost starts crying again because the team is obviously upset with him. Why wouldn’t they be? He’s useless and unreliable, he left his post because someone hurt his feelings, they should just kick him off and be done with it. He shifts around in his seat until he’s as far from Eliot as possible and turns to look out the window.
What Hardison doesn’t notice is Eliot, Sophie and Parker sharing a worried glance, they know something’s wrong. But they don’t know what quite yet.
When they make it back to McRory’s, and by extension Nate’s apartment, Hardison swiftly exits the car, but not fast enough that he doesn’t hear Nate calling for a meeting in the living room. He takes the fire escape stairs two at a time and uses the spare key Sophie insisted he has to open the side door into the main room of the apartment. He quickly shuts the door behind him and ducks into the guest bedroom. He retrieves his bag with backup clothes from under the bed and steps into the bathroom to change. Hardison considers simply hiding in the bathroom until the team loses interest but he quickly dismisses the idea, they would definitely know something’s up if he does that. So he tries to breathe. He splashes water on his face, tries to convince himself that he isn’t slipping.
Hardison walks into their makeshift briefing room with a fair amount of apprehension, especially considering that the only spot left to sit is on the couch between Eliot and Sophie, as Parker is sitting in the only chair. He tries to sit down in a spot where he is equal distance from both of them, as he would rather not sit directly next to a legendary grifter or a hitter who could tell if someone’s CIA by their shoes when he is very badly pretending to be fine.
Nate stands in the center of the room to address the team. “Alright well, we successfully took down Grant Rennolds. But, because Hardison wasn’t at his post, we are now wanted by the police as possible accomplices in Grant’s exploits. The withdrawal of the money to repay his victims has now been seized and all his accounts have been frozen, so we have no way to obtain the money. What do you have to say for yourself?” Hardison feels sick. Nate’s looking at him in a way he’s seen many times before, it’s the look his previous foster parents had directed at him when he messed up really badly, usually right before they sent him back to the halfway house. Hardison opens and closes his mouth a few times, he doesn’t know what to say. He can’t explain without revealing himself and either way the team is angry at him.
“I-I’m s-sorry.” He eventually manages to stutter out. That’s obviously not the right thing to say, as Nate’s expression changes into one of barely restrained annoyance.
“See Hardison, ‘sorry’ doesn’t really undo what Grant did to all those people. May I remind you, we were hired by one of those people to get her life back, to make Grant pay. And because of you, I now have to tell her that yes, Grant might go to jail, but she’ll never be able to buy a house again. So ‘sorry’ isn’t really-”
“Nate!” Sophie hisses, bringing his speech to an abrupt stop. While Nate was ranting the other three had watched as Hardison shrank in on himself. His breathing had become rapid, he started shaking and his eyes had become glassy. What finally made Sophie snap at Nate was that Hardison had started crying. The scariest part is that Hardison isn’t responding to it, he gives no indication that he is going to wipe the tears away or that he even realizes Nate stopped talking. He just stares at the ground. “Hardison?” Sophie hesitated for a second, but when Hardison still doesn’t look up, she slowly places her hand on his shoulder. This has an immediate effect as Hardison’s head snaps up and he flinches violently away, making a noise somewhere between a squeak and a whimper. Sophie instantly withdraws her hand and gets up off the couch to give Hardison space. He’s still hyperventilating and is crying harder. His eyes look far away like he’s not really seeing them. Eliot shares a look with Sophie who gestures vaguely in Hardison’s direction before she pulls Nate into the kitchen and beckons Parker in after her.
“Hardison,” Eliot says softly. He waits for a few moments while Hardison processes that he’s there and looks at him, “Hey, it’s ok, you’re ok, no one’s mad at you, it’s just me, the rest of the team’s in the other room.” Hardison slowly glances around the room and sees that they are indeed alone, before looking back down at his hands. Eliot decides to take a page out of Sophie’s book and put his hand on Hardison’s shoulder. He moves slowly and deliberately so he doesn’t scare Hardison. When Eliot’s hand makes contact with his shoulder, Hardison tenses up but doesn’t flinch away. Eliot breathes a silent sigh of relief before he begins gently rubbing small circles on Hardison’s shoulder. Slowly, ever so slowly, Hardison starts to relax, even leaning towards Eliot a little, he eventually glances up at him.
Eliot smiles at Hardison, trying to somehow project that everything is ok and that nothing bad is going to happen to him. Hardison looks so lost, and it pulls Eliot’s heartstrings a little to see their usually very happy and animated hacker so quiet and sad. Eliot makes what in hindsight is a slightly rash decision and slowly raises his other hand and wipes away Hardison’s tears with his thumb. He isn’t quite sure if that was the right move as Hardison starts crying again, but Eliot realizes it was when Hardison wraps his arms around him in a hug and buries his face in his neck. Eliot hugs Hardison and gently rubs his back while he sobs, Hardison at one point cries so hard he chokes on his own inhale and this only upsets him further. Eliot whispers words of comfort every so often, but he otherwise just holds Hardison until he can’t cry anymore.
When Hardison does quiet down, he stubbornly clings to Eliot whenever he attempts to separate them so they can talk. He knows Hardison needs this, so Eliot settles for trying to talk to Hardison while he still remains as close as physically possible to him. “Alright bud, if you don’t want to talk I get that but at least listen to what I’m going to say,” Eliot waits until he feels Hardison nod against his collarbone. Eliot takes a deep breath to steel himself for the reaction to what he’s about to say. “Hardison, I know you’re a little.” His entire body goes rigid and Eliot thinks that the only thing really stopping Hardison from fleeing is Eliot’s arms around him.
“... ‘How?” Hardison whispers. “Don’t worry I don’t think the rest of the team has quite put the pieces together yet,” at this Hardison relaxes a little bit, just Eliot knowing isn’t so bad, “but Sophie will probably figure it out, and before you start thinking that if you hadn’t broken down today we wouldn’t know I can guarantee that’s not true. It may have taken me a little longer but I would have figured it out, Hardison. You try to keep vigilant but even I know you can’t be constantly aware of everything you do at every second of the day, and when you let yourself relax, it’s obvious.” Hardison curls a little closer to Eliot as if he can hide from the fact that the team would probably have found out eventually anyway. Eliot continues, “Now I know you haven’t been little in quite a while, exactly how long has it been? And no being little for half an hour just now does not count.” Hardison hesitates for a second, taking a moment to dismiss the irrational thought that Eliot might be mad at him, and holds up three fingers. “Three months? Hardison you know that’s not-”
“Years.” Eliot stops dead, thinking he may have misheard since Hardison said it so quietly. “Come again?”
“Years. Three… years.” Eliot sucks in a breath. No wonder Alec broke down, he’s never even heard of a little who has resisted dropping for three years. Eliot suddenly feels a little bit angry at Nate, he knows it’s not founded as Nate couldn’t have possibly known the kind of mindset that Hardison was in when he lectured him but of course, rationalization does nothing for emotions.
“Jesus Hardison, how have you not had to go to the hospital?” Hardison doesn’t answer, he just tries to cuddle closer to Eliot even though they’re touching from almost head to toe.
Eliot sighs a little, “At least tell me how old you regress to?” Hardison holds up two fingers, and there’s no mistaking what he means this time. Eliot didn’t think he could get more upset about this but he’s apparently wrong. Nate had been basically yelling at a toddler, an extremely distraught toddler at that, which reminds him, “What was it that set you off in the first place earlier? ‘Cause you were already upset when you got in the car.” Hardison stiffens up and it takes a minute of gentle comforting until he relaxes again.
Hardison reluctantly untangles himself from Eliot and fumbles for the remote for the briefing display before pulling up the security footage from when Grant had first come into his ‘office’. Hardison already knows what Eliot will see on the footage, but he doesn’t want to hear it again, so he hands Eliot the remote and returns to his previous position hiding his face in Eliot’s neck. Eliot apprehensively presses the play button on the remote and watches as Grant enters the office. During his viewing of the following encounter, Eliot feels an almost blinding rage and an urge to find wherever that son of a bitch Grant Rennolds has ended up and smash his face in. It takes him quite a few deep breaths and reminders that getting angry will probably upset Hardison more than the viewing of the video had, as Hardison is crying again.
Eliot gently pushes on Hardison’s shoulders until he retracts his arms and wraps them around himself instead in a sort of self hug. Hardison keeps his eyes downcast. “Hey,” Eliot cups one of Hardison’s tear-stained cheeks in his hand and gets Hardison to make eye contact with him, “You know none of what Grant said is true right? You’re one of the most valuable members of this team.” Eliot looks searchingly into Hardison’s eyes, and he can tell he doesn’t believe him. Hardison sniffles and looks away from Eliot before removing his face from Eliot’s hand. But Eliot isn’t going to give up so easily, he leans over into Hardison’s line of sight until he knows he’s focusing on what he’s doing. Eliot sits up straight and opens his arms in the universal gesture of welcoming a hug. When Hardison still doesn’t come closer, Eliot imploringly says “C’mere, buddy.” He can see the exact moment when Hardison gives in and slings his arms around Eliot’s neck.
Hardison’s crying harder, so Eliot makes the decision to ease them down until they’re lying on the couch with Hardison half on top of him. Eliot gently rubs Hardison’s back until his sobs taper off and he falls asleep, physically and emotionally exhausted.
When Eliot’s sure that Hardison is really asleep, he slips off the couch and decides to move him to the guest bedroom instead of leaving him on the couch. Thankfully, caregivers are naturally stronger to be able to carry littles, or Eliot would’ve never been able to carry Hardison to the guest bedroom without waking him by himself. He lingers for a second at the door, seeing how much more peaceful Hardison is when he’s asleep, all the knowledge he has of terrible things during the day is void when he’s asleep. Eliot knows it won’t be good if Hardison wakes up alone, but he’s betting there’s enough time for him to talk to the team.
When Eliot enters the kitchen it’s obvious that Sophie had already lectured Nate a bit, as he looked a bit sheepish, but Eliot still hasn’t quite forgiven him. Eliot takes a moment before dropping the proverbial bomb. “So,” he sweeps his eyes over his team members to really emphasize the gravity of what he’s about to say, “there is something all of you need to know about Hardison. -It’s nothing bad, just something you may not know.” Eliot blows out a breath before continuing, “Hardison is a little who regresses to around age two, and he hadn’t dropped in three years until Nate’s lecture put him into headspace. The only reason I’m not still with him is because he exhausted himself crying, and is now asleep in the guest bedroom.” He can see reactions immediately, Parker’s eyes widen before she glances at Nate, Sophie had the same reaction, but instead of remaining on shock her expression becomes annoyed instead, and Nate looks absolutely horrified. Eliot feels like he’s driven home the point, but there’s still one more thing. “Follow me,” he says, he leads the group to the living room, rewinds the security footage and waits until they sit down. He picks up the remote and looks at Nate “You wanted to know why Hardison left his post? Well, this is why.” He presses the play button and watches as everyone’s face settles into the same expression; shock mixed with a fair amount of horror. He feels a bit of morbid satisfaction, knowing that Nate has definitely learned his lesson. The footage ends and Eliot waits for one of them to say something. Surprisingly, Parker speaks up first.
“Is Hardison gonna be ok?” Eliot nods.
“Eventually. Right now he still believes what Grant said and still thinks Nate is mad at him.” Eliot explains. Nate speaks up next,
“Can I see him? To apologize?” Eliot gives Nate a searching look, he does truly seem guilty about what he did even if at the time he believed it to be justified.
“Definitely not right now, he’s probably going to be asleep for a while and he’ll be upset if he’s woken up too soon. But when he wakes up I’ll ask him.” Nate nods, satisfied with the answer he’s received.
“So…” Sophie starts with a look towards Eliot. “We’re not just gonna let Rennolds walk on this, right?”