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Game On

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Parker stayed in the bar a long time after Hardison disappeared back upstairs. She could feel his kiss still warm on her cheek, almost warm enough to counter the tears drying on her cheeks and the cool metal of the compass in her hands. Almost. Lost in thought, she reacted instinctively to the creak of a footstep behind the bar.

Eliot caught the compass backhanded and pocketed it in one smooth motion. "Manners," he said mildly.

"How did you get back there?" She didn't know why she asked anymore, apart from a vaguely envious professional interest. He was capable of making an ungodly racket, particularly when she was trying to concentrate on something fiddly, but when he wanted to he could move almost soundlessly. Quieter even than a thief; more like a ghost, or fog, drifting past on little steel-toe booted cat feet.

He ignored her question in favor of pulling two beer bottles from behind the counter. He uncapped both and slid one across the bar to her. "You should go upstairs and play video games with Hardison," he said. "He's not gonna sleep easy anytime soon."

"Maybe in a minute," she said. She wondered if she should say Hardison kissed her. Wondered if he already knew. He took a long draw from his beer, watching her all the time. She swallowed. "We were almost too late."

"Almost being the operative word." He set his beer down and let his hands rest on the counter. "I wasn't worried." She glared at him and he grinned. "Okay. Maybe a little."

"That was a long hug for someone who was only a little worried."

He shrugged. "For morale," he muttered, and she knew she wasn't supposed to understand. Maybe that was how Eliot managed the risk of caring for people, fragile and changeable as he knew them to be: divided himself up into parts, so the loss of any one of them didn't seem so catastrophic. She remembered the jacket straining across his back as he spoke low and fierce into Hardison's ear. If that was his plan, she didn't think it was working very well. "But I knew we'd get him back."

"How?"

"Because I know what a man will do, to get back to a girl like you." He smiled at her, a sweet, conspiratorial look that she knew was hers alone. "He'd have clawed his way out of that thing with his bare hands before he'd have given up on you, Parker. Count on it."

She blinked at him for a moment in unalloyed astonishment.

"Ah." He ducked his head to hide a grin. "Guess you hadn't realized that that whole needing thing is a two-way street, huh?"

"He doesn't - " He quirked an eyebrow at her, a gentle warning, like he was waving her back from a precipice she hadn't noticed was there. "He was buried alive, Eliot. He was scared and alone. He needed my help, but that's not the same - "

"Honey, I'm not the one you need to have this conversation with." He picked up his bottle and hers, too, though she hadn't touched it, and tossed them into the recycle bin. "But I'll tell you this much. He wasn't alone." He shooed her away from the bar and she stood, almost reflexively. "Go on upstairs. I'll be along."

She found herself standing just inside Nate's apartment without any clear memory of climbing the stairs. Hardison was on the couch, ensconced in a bright circle of light and sound from all the lamps in the living room, the laptop chattering from the cushion beside him, and the thumping music of the video game he was playing. There were a worrying number of empty soda bottles on the table in front of him. Nate and Sophie were looking at her from the kitchen with their kindest parent-y faces, and she repressed the urge to stick her tongue out at them.

Hardison smiled at her sidelong when she plopped down cross-legged on the couch next to him. "You wanna play?"

She made a face at the screen. "Is it one where I have to watch the boring little movies?"

"They're called cut scenes, for the umpteenth time, and no. This one is all action."

She accepted the controller and fiddled with it for a few moments. "I meant everything I said," she said, so fast it came out as one word. She could practically taste how hard Nate and Sophie were straining to look like they weren't listening.

"I know," Hardison said quietly, in a tone so warm she almost blushed. His hand closed over hers and he leaned in. "You feeling better now?"

She clutched the controller hard enough to hurt. "I wasn't the one trapped in a coffin."

"'Course you were," he said, calmly as if he was talking about the weather. She turned to look at him. "I remember you being right there with me."

From the dining room table Eliot cleared his throat in the smuggest manner imaginable. Dammit, she hadn't even heard the door.

"I'm - I'm okay," she said, and Hardison grinned and nudged her elbow with his own as two garishly colored stock cars roared across the screen.

"Then game on, girl."