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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage Fic: The One Week Job (3/3)

December 27th, 2015 (02:24 pm)
optimistic

feeling: optimistic

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



It had felt like the right thing to do, bundling up and braving the elements for the sake of his friend. Back in the relative security of their little cabin.

Out in the elements, it just felt cold.

And not just cold -- freezing.

The temperature was only part of the problem. The bone chilling cold was made worse by the wind that whipped around him and the nonstop flurries of snow that swept up in his face. It numbed his cheeks and froze to his eyelashes, making him realize just how much he appreciated the crappy little generator and ample supply of firewood back inside.

More than that, the blizzard was hard to move in. The wall of white was hard to see through, and the snow on the ground was waist deep in some parts. For several minutes, he flailed around, turning back to see how far he’d come.

His heart dropped.

Five feet.

He’d managed to make it five feet and his feet felt like ice blocks and his fingers may have actually fallen off already, along with his missing nipples.

This was an inhospitable wasteland. Jack London be damned; this place was wrong.

If Hardison were smart, he’d march himself back inside, throw another log on the fire and find something warm and alcoholic to drink now.

This wasn’t about being smart, though.

This was about being part of the team.

They had a responsibility to each other, which was why Eliot had been outside in an avalanche in the first place. Sure, Eliot believed it was his job to keep Hardison safe, and that was all well and good, but for the first time, Hardison wanted to make it very clear that such a thing was a two-way street. All of Hardison’s hacks and plans were devised to keep his team safe, but he wanted to let it be known that he would do anything.

Whatever it took.

Eliot could take on the avalanche.

Hardison would brace himself for the blizzard.

And damn it, they were going to win.

-o-

It wasn’t easy.

In the long list of difficult things Hardison had done for his team, this was probably one of the most taxing. And that was counting the time he’d made a statue bleed, the job he’d spoofed a security system with artificial intelligence, and the gig where he’d jumped on a train and disabled a bomb before it detonated in downtown Washington, D.C.

Even with all of that -- and more! -- this wasn’t easy.

The snow was hard to move in, and the wind was disorienting. Every part of him felt frozen, and he was a little certain that he was going to fall down and die out here.

But then he saw it.

Through the haze, right where he knew it had to be.

The oil camp.

The idea of success fluttered in his chest, but he was too cold to indulge it.

“Meds first,” he said to himself as he trudged onward. “And celebration later.”

-o-

The front door was locked, which Hardison found somewhat amusing, but cracking the keypad was quick enough. It would have been faster if he’d had any feeling left in his fingers.

When the door unlocked, Hardison tumbled inside. It was only after he was clomping his boots on the floor that he considered that barging in might not be his best approach. Eliot had said the place was abandoned -- and the head count had matched Hardison’s specs on the place -- but it wouldn’t be hard to get those things wrong on either end.

For all Hardison knew, there was an armed guard just waiting to pop him.

That would be something, wouldn’t it.

Survive a blizzard; die of a gunshot wound.

At least they had medical supplies here.

Medical supplies.

Supplies Eliot needed.

Hardison peeled off his gloves, moving to the computer in the entryway. The compound wasn’t large, but compared to their isolated, abandoned cabin, it was downright spacious. More than that, the mark had spent considerable money to upgrade it with passable computer and security systems.

Passable was a generous description.

Rubbing his fingers together, Hardison hastily pecked at the keys, bypassing the first layer of security and then infiltrating into the second. Within a minute, he had access to the entire system.

That sounded impressive, but it wasn’t. The system, for all that it was better than their cabin, was rudimentary, and it still lacked all wi-fi capabilities. That meant it was a closed system with limited resources, and although it could process data at a far higher rate, it had no external communication capabilities and, truth be told, the security system was just for show.

But this far out, what security did you need anyway? Who in their right mind would come this far to rob you?

Hardison appreciated the practicality of such logic.

“You all have never met Nate Ford, obviously,” he murmured, bringing up the schematics to the place. He tapped quickly, narrowing his search until he found the small infirmary. “Gotcha.”

He made his way quickly through the compound, stopping at the kitchen to grab a bag and threw in a few food items for good measure. He added a few blankets on his way to the infirmary, opening the doors and stepping past the bandages and Kleenex boxes. There was a cabinet on the far end, locked with another keypad, which Hardison hacked in less than a minute.

Opening it up, the cabinet was well organized and impressively stocked.

“Oh, thank you, Lord,” Hardison said, reaching up to read the first label. “This is the best thing I’ve seen all day.”

Antibiotics, IV fluids, it was all here.

He grinned, stuffing everything he could.

“Scratch that,” he said, taking what he needed -- and then some. “This is the best thing I’ve seen all week.

-o-

Stocked up, Hardison stopped by the front desk, wiping the security system and all video recordings before he left. They were supposed to leave no trace of their surveillance, but plans change sometimes.

It was the job that mattered.

At all costs.

-o-

Going back wasn’t any easier, but finding the supplies had motivated Hardison. And, truth be told, when Hardison was motivated?

There was nothing he couldn’t do.

He made good time, ignoring the bite of the wind or the frost in the air. He didn’t care if his damn toes froze right off, he was getting this supplies back to Eliot.

Hacker, mountaineer, field medic.

Best friend.

Hardison could do it all, baby.

-o-

All posturing aside, it was more than a bit of a relief to see the cabin when he crested the hill. Exhausted as he was, Hardison slid most of the way down, tumbling and slipping as he did his best to keep his numb fingers wrapped around his stolen pack. He had to wade through snow up to his chest as he got to the door, and it took more than one try to get his fingers on the handle and jimmy it open.

He all but fell inside, collapsing to the ground in a huff of snow and cold. For a moment, he lay there, half sprawled on the ground before he managed to lever himself up and slam the door shut against the howling wind again.

Falling to his hands and knees, Hardison took another moment to breath, trying to see if his digits were, in fact, still intact. When he accounted for all his toes and fingers, his breath caught in his still frozen chest.

He’d made it back, which was a win, to be sure.

But that wasn’t the real victory.

Hell, that wasn’t even the point.

Getting to his feet, he trudged across the floor, ignoring the large clumps of snow that fell from his body as he walked. He was crusted with white, from head to foot, and it would be hell to clean up later.

That wasn’t his problem, though. At least, it wasn’t the most pressing problem.

He had to work to unwind the scarf from his face, and he dropped it on the ground, shaking himself out of his gloves, too. He was relieved to see that Eliot was still in bed, the note at the bedside untouched.

As he approached, though, that relief turned to fear.

Eliot was still.

Eliot was very still.

Panic caught in Hardison’s throat, and he reached down, taking Eliot by the shoulder.

“Eliot?” he asked -- demanded, begged. “Eliot.

There was a split second, a brief moment, when Hardison feared the worst. When he thought that he’d braved the elements just to leave Eliot here to die -- alone. That no matter what Hardison thought he could do, it would never be enough. That for every time Eliot had saved Hardison, he couldn’t return the favor when it mattered.

What would he do, then? How would he finish this job? How would he survive the week?

What would he tell Nate? How would he explain it to Sophie? How would he comfort Parker?

Would he have to go Amy? Would he have to find Eliot’s sister and nephew? Would he have to track to Eliot’s father and explain that his son was gone?

How would he keep going? How would he pretend he could keep doing this?

How would he act like he wanted to?

Then, Eliot moved.

Small, at first, but then he moved again, his face turning toward Hardison’s touch as his eyelids fluttered.

“Hardison?” he asked, voice barely audible.

Hardison almost laughed just as much as he almost cried. “Yeah, man, it’s me.”

With obvious effort, Eliot wet his lips. His hazy blue eyes blinked, as if trying -- and mostly failing -- to focus. “You okay?”

The energy it took to speak was palpable, and Hardison hated that his first and only question was about him.

“Yeah, yeah,” Hardison said, and he held up the snow caked bag with a grin. “And I brought a surprise.”

-o-

It was no small chore getting Eliot upright, but by the time they managed it, the other man was at least more coherent if all the more exhausted. Being thus encouraged, Hardison wasted no time getting the medical supplies out and lining them up by the bedside, as proud as he was careful.

He gave the antibiotics first and then started with the IV, but when he extended Eliot’s good arm, the other man hissed in displeasure.

Startled, Hardison stopped cold. “Did I hurt you?”

“No,” Eliot said. “But you’re freezing, man. What are you doing?”

Hardison’s concerned turned to annoyance. “Of course I’m freezing,” he said. “We are in the middle of a damn blizzard.”

Eliot wrinkled his nose, pulling away a little. “It’s like you put your hands in an ice bath.”

Hardison felt inclined to point out that he had just walked through said blizzard to retrieve the medical supplies for Eliot’s well being, but -- and this was a concession on Hardison’s part, given the current circumstances -- he knew that playing to his own pride would make Eliot play to his.

See, Hardison wasn’t the only one with a tell.

Sometimes it was so easy to push Eliot’s buttons, it wasn’t even funny.

What was harder, then, was not pushing his buttons.

Hardison closed his mouth, reaching for Eliot’s wrist again. “I’m not freezing; you’re just hot.”

Eliot’s consternation deepened. “Are you hitting on me?”

“Do you want me to be hitting on you?”

“Just shut up and do your thing,” Eliot muttered with a frump.

Hardison shrugged, duly mollified. He’d won the verbal sparring and gotten his way. Carefully, he picked up the supplies, using an alcohol swab to clean a spot on Eliot’s forearm. When he reached for the port, Eliot gave him a quizzical look.

“Is that an IV?”

“Well, obviously,” Hardison said, prepping it.

“Do you know how to use an IV?”

“It goes into a vein, right?” Hardison said, nodding to the supplies. “Medicine and fluids, directly into the bloodstream. Magic of modern medicine, right here, baby.”

Eliot did not look relieved by this. If anything, he appeared even more nervous. “But do you know how to administer one?”

“Needle into vein,” Hardison said. “How hard can it be?”

Eliot shook his head. “No,” he said. “No, I--”

“Relax, man,” Hardison said. “I’m messing with you.”

“You’re a hacker, man,” Eliot returned. “A hacker with no medical background.”

“But who has read about medical procedures in excess,” Hardison said.

“You’ve read about medical procedures?” Eliot asked. “Next you’ll tell me that you watched an episode of ER.”

“Grey’s Anatomy, possibly,” Hardison said. “But no, actual medical textbooks. And a few youtube tutorials, just for good measure.”

“Youtube tutorials,” Eliot repeated, pulling his arm away. “You’re crazy, man. You ain’t coming near me.”

“It’s legit, okay?” Hardison said. “I implant a tumor into a brain, did I not?”

“On a dead person!”

“And it worked!”

Tired as he was, Eliot still worked up an impressive indignation, which was just lacking its normal vigor. The valiant effort, though, was worth noting. “I don’t want to die!”


“And I don’t want you to die!” Hardison said. “So give me your damn arm and let me start this IV before you dehydrate yourself worse than you already are.”

Eliot was quiet, regarding Hardison skeptically.

“After Nate was shot -- the first time,” Hardison said. “I couldn’t stand the thought of something going wrong in the field and not knowing what to do. So I read up. I practiced. I know what I’m doing.”

Eliot watched him, the internal struggle plain on his face. Trust was a delicate thing in their line of work, and Eliot was more used to taking care of people than being taken care of. Vulnerability wasn’t something he did, and Hardison knew Eliot well enough to know it was something he considered an unacceptable weakness. Not that he thought himself impenetrable, but that he gauged his worth on his ability to protect the team.

Laid low by a fever didn’t fit that narrative, not even a little.

And Hardison already knew Eliot would do anything to save his life, even if it came to killing. That was a hell of a thing, to trust someone enough to do that for them.

It was even more impressive, then, to trust someone to do the same for you.

That was what Hardison was asking, in effect.

For Eliot to trust him.

Completely.

Reluctantly, Eliot loosened his hand, shifting his wrist back toward Hardison. He laid his head back stiffly, staring at the ceiling. “Don’t mess it up,” he grumbled.

Hardison took that as the quiet acquiescence that it was.

That Eliot Spencer, against his better judgement, trusted him.

Somberly, Hardison picked up his supplies again, looking carefully at the veins on Eliot’s wrist.

Now Hardison just had to prove he was ready for that trust.

Swallowing hard, he pushed back his fears and his doubts -- for Eliot’s sake, mind you -- and pressed the needle to the skin and slid it under the surface.

Eliot winced, but didn’t move, and Hardison quickly hooked up the IV, checking the connection before hanging a bag of fluids on the wall above the bed.

“There,” he said, feeling somewhat proud of himself. “That should do it.”

On the bed, Eliot nodded vaguely but didn’t meet his eyes. He looked spent again, and Hardison’s sense of accomplishment faded.

This wasn’t over yet.

Not by a long shot.

“Okay, man,” he said, patting Eliot’s arm. “You just rest up, and I’ll handle the rest.”

Eliot breathed deeply, complying almost against his will. “Hardison,” he said, turning his eyes upward.

Hardison looked back.

“Don’t forget why we’re out here, okay?” Eliot said. “Remember the job.”

Throat tight, Hardison still managed a small, half smile. “Don’t worry,” he said, holding Eliot’s gaze as long as he could. “I couldn’t forget it if I tried.”


-o-

The job.

The job could be damned.

Hardison checked the computer, which ran its same churlish program and beeped intermittently for Hardison to change the drive or press the return button. He knew it was important to the client, but it was worse than sitting through hours of wedding planning for a mob boss. It wasn’t just boring, after all. It was frustratingly in the way.

Because Hardison knew the real job.

That started with a medical run in the snow.

And it would continue with a brilliant dinner.

All so they could go home in two days.

Together.

One week.

One job.

No matter what.

-o-

After plugging in a fresh drive, Hardison started dinner.

This was as much for himself as it was for Eliot because being a mountain man worked up on hell of an appetite. Seriously, facing down the elements and surviving had to burn more calories than, like, three hours of DDR.

And besides, with his raided supplies, they could have something more than beans.

For the first time in his life, Hardison spent all afternoon in the kitchen. He chopped vegetables and peeled potatoes until the food was sizzling on the stove. He even took the time to put it on plates, organizing it to absolute perfection. It was a treat for the eyes, the nose and the mouth, thank you very much.

When he put it on the table next to Eliot, the hitter roused. For a second, he looked confused, but as he levered himself up, his eyebrows raised. “Did you make this?”

Hardison sat down on his bed, beaming proudly at Eliot. “Damn straight I did.”

It was work for Eliot to sit up, and he only managed to get up high enough to rest against the pillows. “But where did you...?”

“Medical supplies weren’t the only things I took,” Hardison said. “I thought, all things considered, we could use a menu change.”

Eliot didn’t say much, but reached over for the plate instead. He took a long moment to adjust his grip before trying to lift it. He faltered, the plate nearly tipping, and Hardison was ready to reach across to steady it before Eliot got it up on the next try, transferring it to his lap.

He was breathing heavier at the exertion, and it was impossible to miss the way his fingers shook as he picked up the fork.

Trying to be discreet, Hardison took another bite off his own plate. “You good, man?” he asked. “Because if you need--”

Eliot’s fingers locked around the fork and, very purposefully, he arranged a bit of potato on it. “I’m fine.”

“Because if you do--” Hardison said.

“I’m fine,” Eliot growled, jerking the fork up as best he could. Most of the food fell off, and Eliot only managed to get a small bite into his mouth.

It was a point Eliot clearly didn’t want to acknowledge, and one Hardison was too embarrassed to press.

After another meager bite, Eliot put his fork down.

Hardison shook his head. “Come on,” he cajoled. “I know I probably added too much salt, but I think the consistency of the potatoes is spot-on.”

“Salt’s fine,” Eliot said, tucking his trembling fingers under the blankets. “I’m just not hungry.”

“But you have to eat,” Hardison said, because that was a point he’d press. For Eliot’s sake.

Eliot let out a long breath, sinking back down wearily. “Save my plate,” he said. “Maybe later.”

“I went through a lot of trouble,” Hardison said, and he had no shame playing that card. If he could guilt-trip Eliot into eating, then so be it. He’d take the emotional repercussions over the physical ones at this point.

Of course, that didn’t make the look on Eliot’s face any easier to take. Because, damn it all, Eliot wanted to eat the food. It was written all over his face. He wanted to eat it by the forkful, for his own benefit and for Hardison’s ego. Eliot was sick, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew how this worked, just as well as Hardison did.

But even Eliot Spencer had his limits.

When your strength was gone, something had to give.

“I know,” Eliot said, sounding genuinely apologetic. “I just...I’m tired…”

He was fading again, face looking as white as the snow outside. Even as he tried to think of a further explanation, he was already asleep.

Hardison sighed, reaching over and taking the plate off Eliot’s lap. He set it by the bedside, hoping that maybe Eliot would be up to eating some when he got up.

Sitting down again, he looked at his own meal. It still smelled amazing, but suddenly Hardison wasn’t hungry either.

He put his own plate down.

They’d eat together, he decided.

When Eliot woke up.

-o-

Problem was, Eliot didn’t wake up.

Hardison changed the IV and checked his temperature, but he found Eliot’s vitals mostly unchanged. He was still running a high fever, and his breathing was growing shallow and his heart rate thready. Clearly, the fluids weren’t helping.

Or, if they were, Hardison hated to think the state Eliot would be in otherwise.

“Just another day, man,” Hardison said as he settled next to Eliot’s bedside. “Just another day and this job is done, okay? We can make it one week.”

He closed his eyes and listened to the wind hitting the walls, the crackling of the fire, the computer whirring.

Eliot’s breathing.

In and out.

Hardison blew out a breath, and opened his eyes again, looking up at the ceiling.

“It’s just one week,” he pleaded, with Eliot, with Nate, with God, with no one and everyone in particular. “We have to just make it through the week.”

-o-

When Hardison woke up in the morning, the sun was out.

Yeah.

The sun.

Startled as he was, Hardison almost tripped over his own feet as he ran to the window. The sun was shining, almost blindingly bright across the white expanse.

The storm had broken.

A new day had dawned.

Hardison felt warmer, just on principle alone.

Just then, the computer buzzed, making a horrific sound that had him turning back in an instant. Moving over to it, he prepared for the worst and was pleasantly surprised to find that the automated task was done.

All files were copied.

Relief flooded over him, so palpable that he almost wanted to cry.

Hell, he wasn’t ashamed to admit he teared up a little.

This had been the longest week of his life. Slow computers, cabins in the middle of nowhere, and sick teammates--

With that thought, Hardison turned back toward the bed, looking hopefully toward Eliot. Hardison’s luck was hitting two for two this morning, and he had reason to hope that it would last.

“Eliot,” he said, moving across the room. He ignored the cold food at the bedside. “Eliot, wake up. The sun’s out.”

But Eliot didn’t move.

Didn’t even twitch.

Just that fast, Hardison’s hopes crashed.

He’d swung for the fences.

And struck the hell out.

Because the sun could come out and the files could be copied, but Eliot was sicker than ever.

-o-

With a temperature of 105, Eliot was pallid and limp. He didn’t rouse, not even when Hardison changed his IV and not when he shook his shoulder.

Hard.

He didn’t make a sound as Hardison changed his bandage, and he didn’t respond to insults, compliments or veiled come-on lines.

Yes, Hardison was desperate, and Eliot could punch him as long as he was awake.

Everything was slowing down, instead. His breathing, his heart rate, everything.

This was death, Hardison realized keenly.

This was what it was like to die.

The body was shutting down, system by system until there was nothing left to reboot.

Some fights, you couldn’t win.

Some fights, not even Eliot Spencer could win.

And this might finally be one of them.

-o-

No.

That was the only coherent thought Hardison had left.

No.

No, Eliot wasn’t going to die.

No, Eliot wasn’t going to die from an infected axe wound in the middle of nowhere.

No, Eliot wasn’t going to die when Hardison was alive and breathing right next to him.

No, Eliot wasn’t going to die.

It was that simple.

Now it was up to Hardison to figure out how.

-o-

First things first, Hardison considered leaving. He had set up an IV, but he wasn’t a medic. Eliot needed a hospital, because that was what hospitals did: they saved lives. And Hardison liked to think of himself as a jack of all trades, but he wasn’t so proud as to not acknowledge his limitations.

In short, doctors were good. Hospitals could be helpful.

They were also miles upon miles away.

Even in the sunlight, moving outside was treacherous. It took him a good twenty minutes to dig enough to get step out the front door and when he did? The snow had drifted over his head. He would have to tunnel for hours to get anywhere, and even then, it would be a guessing game to locate the snowmobile. And even if he managed to find the snowmobile, it wasn’t like could clear a path out until the snow receded at least a little.

Besides, it was damn cold outside. Hardison’s nose felt frozen after his short stint out the front door, and the extreme elements were the last thing Eliot needed. If he dragged Eliot out in this current condition, chances were that he’d be dead before they got back and the only thing Hardison would have done was get Eliot home in time for his own funeral.

And that wasn’t acceptable.

No way, no how.

But what was he supposed to do? If Eliot was losing this fight, what could Hardison do?

The answer, as it turned out, was actually pretty simple.

Eliot couldn’t win this fight alone.

So Hardison would fight it with him.

Every step of the way.

-o-

Back inside, Hardison set to work.

First things first, he cleared the blankets off of Eliot’s bed, stripping them clean off and throwing them on the floor. Then, he used plastic bags and packed them with snow, putting one under each of Eliot’s armpits and then under his legs. If the Tylenol couldn’t keep the fever down, he’d do it the old fashioned way. Because, most of the time, it wasn’t the sickness that killed -- but the symptoms. Hardison had to give Eliot’s body time to fight back the infection before the fever fried his brain and systematically shut down his organs.

Which meant he needed to stay cool.

And he needed to eat.

The IV nutrients, they were one thing. But Eliot needed more than that. Eliot needed to stay strong if he was going to have any chance in hell of coming out on the other side of this thing.

Problem was, of course, that Eliot was past the point where he could feed himself. Mostly comatose at this point, he would waste away until there was nothing left.

Except Hardison was more than capable of eating.

And he was more than capable of making Eliot eat.

That was the job, after all.

Hardison would do anything for the job.

-o-

Eliot was still propped up on pillows, but Hardison went a little further, dragging the pillows from his own bed to sit Eliot up even more. He carefully positioned them, arranging Eliot as best he could on top until he was mostly upright. Using a blanket, he rolled it up, putting it behind Eliot’s neck to keep his head tipped forward. Belatedly, he brushed strands of hair from the stubble growing fuller on Eliot’s face, straightening it on the pillow.

It seemed a bit like overkill, but Hardison was going to need all the help possible for what was coming next.

He dragged a chair up closer, sitting down and reaching for the unfinished plate next to Eliot’s bed.

“Told you, man,” he said. “What you don’t eat for dinner, you’re eating for breakfast.”

Eliot took a rattling breath, exhaling heavily.

Hardison picked up the fork, preparing a bite. “And, you and me, we’re going to eat these meals together,” he said, quite decidedly now. “So, open up, bro. Incoming.”

He moved the fork to Eliot’s mouth, prying it open a little with the fork to finagle the bite inside. That, of course, was the easy part.

It was harder to close Eliot’s mouth and cajole him into chewing, and he had to poke and prod until Eliot fumbled distantly with consciousness, just enough to mash the food up. To help him swallow, Hardison poured water straight into his mouth.

Some of -- okay, a lot of it -- splashed down his chin, splattering on his shirt, and for a second, Eliot spluttered, and Hardison worried that he might have just choked his best friend and he mentally went over the specifics of the Heimlich maneuver, just in case. But then Eliot swallowed visibly, the water taking the food down with it.

It was a tense process, and an awkward one. Physical contact on this level? It just wasn’t done. More than that, the reality of it was stark. With Eliot incapable of feeding himself, Hardison was willing to do the heavy lifting so to speak, but it wasn’t something that either of them would want to talk about later.

Eliot would hate this -- he would hate this. He would bitch and moan the whole damn time and do it himself, if he could.

But he couldn’t.

And that was the point, as much as Hardison hated it.

Eliot could chew him out later. He could curse and belittle and whatever he pleased.

Just as long as he got better.

“Alright, bro, one down,” Hardison said, prepping another bite. “And a lot more to go.”

-o-

Hardison fed Eliot every bite.

Bite after bite, until the plate was clean. Forkful by forkful, followed by mouthfuls of water, straight down Eliot’s throat. It was messy, and it was damn strange, but Hardison didn’t stop. Didn’t even miss a beat.

When they were down, it was hard to say who was more exhausted. The tension of it had worn heavily on Hardison, and he could feel the tension burning in his shoulders, the stress of feeding someone he cared about pounding through his head. Eliot, in turned, seemed relieved even insensate as he was. He finally went lax, slipping back into the throes of unconsciousness before Hardison even put the dish in the sink.

It was an accomplishment, to be absolutely sure.

Hardison just hoped it would be enough.

-o-

Hope was a powerful, pervasive thing.

But Hardison knew that hard work and determination were just as important. And hell, it wasn’t like he was leaving Eliot’s survival to chance.

After expending energy Eliot didn’t have on a prolonged morning meal, Hardison checked his vitals and administered a fresh dose of medicine before keeping tabs on the rest of the cabin. With the computer processing finished, he shut down the machine and redirect the full power of the generator to the room. Then he stoked the fire before packing fresh bags of snow in Eliot’s most sensitive areas.
Yeah.

The most sensitive.

“Trust me,” Hardison said. “It’s personal, but not like that.”

Then he cleaned the kitchen and packed the things, straightening his things before suiting up to head outside.

The day was sunnier now with the sun high in the sky. The landscape was still pristine, and the snow was still over his head. It was daunting, maybe, but Hardison wasn’t daunted. Not by snow. Frozen water -- that was all it was.

Hardison could deal with that.

He picked up a shovel and started to dig.

-o-

An hour later, Hardison was cold and soaked to the bone. His back ached and his fingers were numb and raw, and he had to tweak his nose a few times just to be sure it was there.

Inside, he left his wet out layers by the fire to dry and checked on Eliot.

Unconscious, fevered, but still breathing.

“Hey, man,” Hardison said, settling down in his chair next to Eliot. “Got to start somewhere.”

-o-

That night, Hardison cooked dinner.

True, he had been cooking for a few days now, but this time, he pulled out all the stops. It was his belief, and rightly so, that if he was going to do something, he was going to do it right. Alec Hardison didn’t do things in half-measures. Uh-uh, no way. Alec Hardison was full-on every time.

That was what made him brilliant.

Sure, in the field, sometimes it made him oversell.

But in the kitchen?

That was where genius was born.

“You’ll see,” Hardison said to Eliot, who was still lying placidly on the bed. “This is a meal you’ll want to wake up for.”

-o-

See, this time, Hardison thought ahead. With the meal warm, he managed to mostly puree Eliot’s portion, for safety and convenience. That made it look somewhat less appealing, but seeing as Eliot was still completely out of it, Hardison could assume he wouldn’t object.

It would still taste good, though.

A fine mix of ingredients, a delectable blend of spices.

He’d outdone him, no doubt about it.

“Okay, okay,” Hardison said, setting Eliot’s plate down and dragging his chair up close again. He already had a glass of cold water, ready to go, and he’d scrubbed the dishes until they sparkled. “See here, this is how you serve a meal. There’s flavor and there’s flair, all mixed into one. Now I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking that I probably didn’t account for all the textures, and I know that water is probably not the right thing to wash it down with, but I’m working with what I got, all right?”

The only reply was Eliot’s breathing, which hitched at the sound of his voice, his head turning listlessly toward him.

Hardison prepared a bite. “And honestly, you’re not going to notice the texture since I had to massacre your portion, but -- but--” he said, adding as much inflection as he could. “You and me, we’re going to share this meal together.”

He lifted the spoon toward Eliot’s mouth.

“And, mark my words -- really, you can mark them,” Hardison continued, the fork at Eliot’s lips. “It’s going to be the best damn meal all week.”

-o-

Best damn meal, that might have been debatable.

Eliot didn’t disagree, though.

He ate every last bite.

He even got seconds.

Hardison ate his fill, finishing the rest straight out of the skillet.

Best meal or not, Hardison’s stomach was full that night.

-o-

After dinner, Hardison did the dishes. Checking Eliot’s vitals, he found them mostly unchanged. Stable, was what they called it. Critical but stable.

His own sleeping patterns had been greatly disturbed over the last few days, which was to say he’d slept in odd positions and in strange increments, mostly without realizing he’d done so at all. Sleep deprivation was a thing for him on a regular basis, and he knew the weight of his current exhaustion had less to do with his sleeping habits and more to do with Eliot’s.

He’d never seen the other man so still, not for this long, not in this manner. Eliot was a man of self discipline in a way that Hardison would never understand -- would never want to understand -- and this prolonged weakness was hard on both of them.

Sleep was probably the logical choice since Eliot wasn’t going to be much company. And besides, what more could Hardison actually do? He’d administered the meds. He’d packed on the ice. Hell, he’d force fed him for the better part of the day. Hardison had done everything he could, more than anyone would ever expect of him.

It was Eliot’s game now.

His move.

Hardison just couldn’t admit how scared he was that Eliot would make the wrong move. That he’d slip away, surrendering to the ultimate enemy once and for all.

And the idea of sleeping through that? Of dreaming while Eliot struggled? Of waking up to the aftermath?

Hardison couldn’t do it.

Wouldn’t do it.

Instead, he sat. He paced.

He talked to Eliot, about anything, everything. He sang songs and played music; he told Eliot about growing up in the foster system, about how Nana had changed his life. He explained the way he hacked his first computer, and he wove a tale about the first major felony he committed. He talked about watching Star Wars for the first time and why Star Trek was an awesome show to marathon on a quiet weekend.

He told him about Parker, and the way she made him feel. He talked about how Nate was the father he never had and Sophie was the mother he didn’t know he needed.

He told Eliot that he’d had lots of foster brothers, some he liked more than others. But he’d never understood brotherhood, he’d never quite got the grasp of family, until he met the team. He explained how Eliot had changed his life with that first punch on that first job, and nothing -- and he meant absolutely nothing -- had been the same since.

When he paced to the window, though, he couldn’t help but fall silent. The moon was out, bright and clear in the sky, almost lost in the brightest stars Hardison had ever seen. It was pretty damn spectacular, as much as Hardison hated to admit it. The vastness reminded him just how small he was.

Eliot was right.

It was simpler in a place like this.

No distractions.

Just the stark reality that life was fleeting and hard to hold; the universe couldn’t be bought and it couldn’t be conned. You were at its mercy, whether you wanted to admit it or not.

Simple.

A curse or a blessing, but mostly perspective.

Out here, place like this, you remembered what mattered.

You know what you really need.

Hardison crossed the floor, back toward Eliot.

Because it sure as hell wasn’t wi-fi.

-o-

It was a long night.

Longer than the whole damn week together.

Second by second, minute by minute. Hardison lived it hour by hour, letting each one of Eliot’s tenuous breath measure the passing of time.

This was what they did, their team. They finished the job.

Together.

It didn’t get any simpler than that.

-o-

Sometime after dawn, Hardison reached over to check Eliot’s temperature again. It was about time for another dose of meds, once Hardison got up enough energy to drag his ass out of the chair. His fingers pressed against Eliot’s forehead, and then he sat up in surprise.

The heat -- the mainstay of Eliot’s condition -- it was gone.

Then, his surprised doubled when Eliot stirred.

And not just stirred.

He tipped his head toward Hardison, eyelids fluttering before he opened his eyes and looked at Hardison.

Straight at him.

Tired, weary, beat to hell.

But clear.

Crystal clear and coherent.

“Hardison?” he croaked, voice strained and ragged from the illness.

Hardison, for all of his resolve, almost choked on a laugh. “Hey, man!”

Eliot scrunched his nose, shifting his listless limbs with a wince. “What happened?”

Exhausted, Hardison chuckled. “What didn’t happen,” he said, rubbing the top of his head with his hand. “Man, it has been one long week. I told you this was the worst mission ever. I told you.”

It was hard to say which emotion was more pressing for Eliot -- confusion or annoyance. One was genuine and the other was a well honed reflex, but hell, Hardison would take them both -- and anything else the other man wanted to offer.

“Look, just listen,” Hardison said, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. “I’ll tell you all about it over breakfast.”

This idea did not seem to be one Eliot particularly liked, but considering he was still bed ridden from a week-long infection, his preferences couldn’t outmatch his obvious limitations.

Hardison patted his arm, grinning widely. “My treat,” he said. “Trust me.”

-o-

By this point, Hardison was pretty adept in the kitchen. He wouldn’t throw around the word chef just yet, but Hardison was a quick learner and most of his knowledge was self-taught. His cooking skills had advanced from nonexistent to not bad in less than a week, and to think -- that wasn’t even his greatest accomplishment this week.

While he made breakfast, Eliot puttered around the cabin. It took him a damn long time to use the bathroom, and Hardison tried his best not to loiter outside, just to make sure he was okay. Still, when Eliot came out of the bathroom, he was somewhat cleaned up. He’d left the beard, but Hardison knew better than Eliot did what being comatose for two days did to a person. And Hardison, he’d do a lot of things for Eliot, but even he had his limitations.

Mercifully, he trusted that Eliot wanted to talk about that less than Hardison did.

With fresh clothes and brushed hair, Eliot shuffled to the table just as Hardison served breakfast.

“Now I know it’s nothing fancy,” Hardison said, by way of introduction as he ladled potatoes and eggs onto Eliot’s plate. “But I hope you’ll find it satisfactory.”

Eliot looked at his plate, then turned his gaze curiously up to Hardison. Eyes narrowed, he asked, “You made this?”

Hardison put a helping on his own plate. “With my own two hands.”

“You couldn’t even cook last I remember,” Eliot said suspiciously. “What exactly happened over the last few days?”

Hardison let out a long, low laugh. “Man,” he said, sitting down across from Eliot. “Are you sure you want to know?”

Eliot regarded him with obvious doubt. “Probably not,” he admitted, picking up his fork. “But tell me anyway.”

-o-

It was a long story.

Actually, it was a relatively short story, but Hardison knew how to milk it. Add in some dramatic elements; punctuate the entire thing with embellished details. With a few well placed pauses and the right intonation, it was also a damn good story.

Eliot listened, quiet and intent, chewing his breakfast.

“You did that,” he said, when Hardison finally concluded. “You did all of that?”

Hardison sat back, more proud than smug for once. “Never let it be said that I do not rise to the occasion as needed.”

Eliot swallowed, pausing before he loaded up his fork again. “Okay,” he said, nodding.

Hardison waited, expecting more. “Okay? I sat by your bedside and nursed you back to health, and all you can say is okay?”

Eliot shrugged.

“It’s a lot more than okay!” Hardison said, indignant now. “You were sick! Like, really sick! I thought you were going to die on me, man, and you scared the crap out of me. And if nothing else, that fact, that little fact right there, deserves a hell of a lot more than okay.”

Watching him, Eliot put his fork down. He sat forward and looked at Hardison. “Right there,” he said. “That’s what I believe.”

Hardison crumpled his face. “What?”

“Hard to tell with the rest -- too many distractions,” Eliot said. He jabbed his finger at Hardison. “But there, that’s the simple truth. And that’s why I owe you.”

Hardison was ready to protest, a long spiel of his own self sacrifice poised on his tongue.

But then he heard what Eliot actually said. “Wait -- what?”

“Thank you,” Eliot said, plain, simple and honest.

Hardison did a double take, wondering if he was hearing things. “Did you -- did you just thank me?”

Eliot nodded, matter of fact. “I know what you did for me,” he said. “That’s what you say when someone saves your life.”

“Are you -- I mean -- are you for real?” Hardison asked in disbelief.

“I was out of it for, what?” Eliot asked. “Two days?”

“More like four, on and off--”

“And you were there for me,” Eliot said. “And I know you didn’t have to.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Hardison said, holding up his hands. Because all the embellishment and preening -- that was well and good. It went with the territory. And Eliot’s earnest thanks -- well, that was something else. Something to commemorate, no doubt. But there was a point Hardison needed to make. And he needed to make it clear. “As much as I appreciate the sentiment -- and to be clear, I do appreciate the sentiment, and I do deserve the sentiment -- what the hell do you mean? I didn’t have to?”

Eliot’s face was still plain. No guises. “It’s not your job description. The physical stuff, the survival things -- that’s on me. I screwed it up, and you bailed me out.”

Hardison gaped.

Like, actually gaped.

“What?” he asked cuttingly. “Boy, I ought to -- I ought to hit you, you know that?”

Eliot’s brow creased in surprise.

“Not my job description?” Hardison continued, frustration starting to mount. Any self control he might have had -- which, to be fair, would have been sparse -- ws gone by now. That was the price of getting very little sleep. “That’s exactly my job description.”

Eliot made a face. “You’re a hacker.”

“No, I’m part of this team,” Hardison corrected pointedly. He used his finger to gesture between the two of them. “This family. And that’s the only job description that actually matters. You came out here to get me out. Well, bro, that goes both ways, all right? Both ways.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the response Eliot had expected. In fact, given Eliot’s lack of a comeback, it was clearly not a response that had even registered with him just yet. He didn’t look surprised, and he didn’t look quite angry.

For a second, he looked uncertain.

As if he wasn’t sure he wanted to let himself believe it. In all of this, it rarely occurred to Hardison that Eliot’s rough persona wasn’t just about protecting them. It was protecting himself.

That was gone now, because a week like this, just the two of them, they didn’t have the same secrets anymore. Eliot would want to balk, to object -- but he couldn’t.

Because Eliot, he was a good man.

Whether he thought so or not.

Finally, Eliot inclined his head and picked up his fork. “Okay,” he said again.

This time, Hardison would take the okay.

He would take every damn okay there was, as long as Eliot got it.

“Okay,” Hardison agreed with a perfunctory nod. He took a deep breath, calming his frayed nerves as he lifted his own fork again.

Eliot poked at his eggs before spearing a potato. “For the record, it is impressive that you managed to do it all,” he said. “Did you really go through the blizzard to get supplies?”

“IV bags don’t grow on trees,” Hardison said. “And even if they did, I’d still have to go outside to pick them.”

“But it was a white out,” Eliot said.

“I looked like a damn yeti,” Hardison told him.

Eliot nodded. “You’re lucky an avalanche didn’t come along again,” he said. “Ground that unstable from the first.”

Hardison stopped, considering this. “Avalanche?”

“All that snow, fresh disruptions,” Eliot said, putting more food in his mouth.

Hardison’s eyes widened. “I didn’t even think of that.”

“Happens all the time up this high,” Eliot said.

“I could have been swept away!”

“Just have to be careful how you walk,” Eliot said, pausing to take a drink. “Train your steps.”

“Train them?” Hardison asked. “I couldn’t see anything!”

“Nah, I’ll teach you,” Eliot said. “We’ll go on another trip, you and me. High altitude, deep snow.”

“Whoa, wait,” Hardison said. “Training?”

“Intense sessions with a real world context--”

“Intense? Real world context?” Hardison repeated. “Did you miss the part where this mountain almost killed you?”

“All the more reason to be prepared,” Eliot said.

“All the more reason--” Hardison repeated, shaking his head. “You’re crazy. You know that?”

“Hey, you’re the one who saved me!” Eliot protested.

“I’m the only one of y’all that had enough sense to say this job was a bad idea from the start,” Hardison reminded him emphatically. “Damn mountains.”

Eliot shook his head. “It was the job--”

“It’s a dumb job,” Hardison interjected.

“You don’t pick the job.”

“Except we do,” Hardison said. He shook his head, hands up. “You know, whatever. When we get back, you can explain to everyone how I did the job and saved your ass. How’s that for intense, real world training?”

“Oh, okay,” Eliot said, sitting up a little straighter. “That’s how it’s going to be?”

Hardison crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m just saying.”

“You saved my life just so you could hold it over me?” Eliot asked.

“No, but a little gratitude--”

“I said thank you!”

“And then you wanted to take me into another death trap!” Hardison said.

“For training!”

“For suicide,” Hardison returned.

Eliot huffed. “You know what? Nevermind.”

“Nevermind?”

“Nevermind!”

Hardison sat forward. “Nevermind what?”

Eliot threw up his hand. “Nevermind any of it,” he said crossly. “Next time, just let me die.”

“Oh, and give you the satisfaction?” Hardison said.

“Oh, please,” Eliot muttered.

“Just eat your damn eggs!” Hardison insisted. “They’re getting cold!”

“Hey!” Eliot shot back. Then he stopped, a bit conciliatory. “The damn eggs are actually pretty good.”

The thank you had surprised Hardison.

That admission, though? That little tidbit, right there?

Floored him.

“Really?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Eliot said, shrugging one shoulder as he fiddled with his fork. “You got the consistency right this time.”

Hardison sat forward, more eager than ever. “Matter of timing, right?” he said. “Can’t let them overcook.”

“You know, butter helps,” Eliot said. “Texture and taste.”

“I went lighter on the salt,” Hardison said. “But added in the pepper.”

“Try chili powder,” Eliot suggested. “Gives it a kick when you don’t have a lot of vegetables to add, though the potatoes are a nice touch.”

Hardison started to smile. “I’ll remember that,” he said. He tweaked his eyebrows suggestively. “For next time.”

Eliot watched him, careful and detached. He almost smiled. Almost. “Next time.”

Hardison grinned enough for both of them -- and then some.

Next time, he hoped there wouldn’t be mountains or snow or archaic computer systems. He could do without infections and fevers and feeding your best friend.

But, the simple fact was, there would be a next time, which almost wasn’t the case on this one.

All things considered, next time sounded pretty damn good.