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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage Fic: The One Week Job (2/3)

December 27th, 2015 (02:22 pm)
mischievous

feeling: mischievous

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

He worked for another two hours before Eliot’s advice seemed pretty good. With a fresh flash drive in, Hardison left the system on automatic and got himself ready for bed. Stopping by the fire, he added another log before pulling back the blankets on the bed Eliot had made up for him.

Settling down, he glanced toward Eliot, who was sleeping soundly.

“Sleep well, my man,” he said, snuggling down deeper. “But if you make beans for breakfast, I swear to God--”

They would have words.

Hardison let his gaze linger on Eliot one more time. He still looked pale, and he was cradling his injured arm just slightly. Enough for Hardison to see.

Which was a lot more than usual.

Sighing, Hardison closed his eyes.

They would definitely have words.

-o-

It was a long, miserable night.

Part of this was the fact that Hardison didn’t actually sleep in a bed all that often, but when he did, he opted for comfortable beds. Not, you know, cots that were a decade old with frozen springs. Plus, the thing was made for short white men, because Hardison’s feet literally hung off the edge. And the blankets? Where had Eliot even found these blankets. Scratchy and smelly.

And the air was so damn dry that Hardison could feel his sinuses protesting in the most spectacular fashion.

Add all that to the sound of the wind as it slipped through the cracks in the walls and there was no way Hardison was going to get a good amount of sleep.

The fact that every time he closed his eyes, he kept seeing Eliot going pale and slipping to the floor had nothing to do with it at all.

-o-

Somehow, against all odds, Eliot still woke up before him.

Nevermind that he had been injured yesterday or that there was no way to see the sunrise with all that damn snow. Hardison was fairly confident that Eliot had gotten up first just to spite him.

Because he would do something like that.

Groaning, Hardison sat up in his bed, rubbing his eyes. He could hear Eliot tinkering in the kitchen, and when he finally got his eyes to focus, he saw the other man standing at the stove.

He was about to complain about that, but it smelled good.

Lifting his nose, Hardison tried to steal a better look. “Is that--?”

“Hash browns and sausage,” Eliot reported as something started to sizzle. “A little heavier than I would normally go with, but morning like that? I figured what the hell.”

Up and out of bed, Hardison dragged his blanket with him, too cold to start traipsing around without it. “Hash browns and sausage?” he asked, peering at the skillet curiously.

“Chopped the potatoes myself,” Eliot reported.

Hardison had to admit; he was impressed. “So you’re feeling better then?”

Eliot didn’t look at him.

That was the first giveaway.

Then, he smiled. “No worse for wear,” he lied.

And that was the second damn giveaway. Because Eliot smiling? Yeah, it happened, but not like this. This was friendly and easy. It was small talk.

“Do you want me to look at your arm?” Hardison asked.

Eliot pulled his arm closer to himself. He was wearing a fresh shirt, so it was impossible to see the bandage. “I’m fine.”

“I mean, you cleaned it and all--”

“I said I’m fine,” Eliot said, a little bit gruffer. “I think I have more first aid training than you do.”

“Hey, I’m not trying to insult your skills or question your abilities or nothing,” Hardison said. “I just want to make sure a brother is okay, you feel me?”

Eliot gave him a harsh look. “I can feel you or I can make you breakfast,” he said. “Which do you prefer?”

Hardison held up his hands. “No need to get testy,” he said. “I was being nice.

Eliot viciously stirred the hash browns. “Why do you think I was making you breakfast anyway?”

“Because you’re a control freak who doesn’t trust me to cook food?” Hardison asked, making his way from the stove to the table.

Eliot was about to reply, but he paused, closing his eyes for a second.

“You sure you’re okay, man?” Hardison asked, eyeing him with a bit more concern.

“Yeah,” Eliot said, picking up a plate and shoveling food on it. He turned, putting it down in front of Hardison. “Now eat up.”

Hardison looked at the plate. Then he looked at Eliot.

One pissed off hitter with a axe wound and possible concussion.

One steaming plate of delicious goodness.

Somehow, it wasn’t a hard choice to make.

-o-

The funny thing was, it was actually kind of a nice day.

Yes, the storm was raging outside. Sure, Hardison missed his Internet connection. And okay, it was a claustrophobic being in a small space with Eliot.

But they had a good sort of rhythm, the two of them. They always did in the field; it was something that they came by naturally. And really, they were friends. It just sometimes manifested itself in contentious ways. Which wasn’t Hardison’s fault, by the way.

Today, though, Eliot let Hardison listen to his freestyle music.

Hardison didn’t push Eliot’s buttons quite as often.

They gave and took, silences and short conversations.

Hardison complained about Nate; Eliot concurred.

Eliot voiced concern over the team structure; Hardison validated that point.

In short, Eliot was easy to get along with.

When he was stuck in a blizzard off the grid while nursing injuries from an avalanche.

In short, this would never happen again.

That just made Hardison appreciate it all the more.

-o-

Appreciate -- and worry.

Because it was a nice morning, sure, but by lunch Hardison couldn’t pretend not to notice that something was off. It wasn’t just that Eliot was injured -- Eliot had been injured before -- but he was rundown. It was small stuff, really. The way he moved a little stiffer than normal. The way he talked just a tad slower. He sat down deliberately and only got up when he had to.

And, most glaringly, he only insulted Hardison half of the time.

It wasn’t hard to see that he was off, and the flush on his cheeks couldn’t be attributed to anything but the only heat source Hardison would object to out here.

A fever.

When they sat down to lunch -- sandwiches this time around -- Eliot hardly ate anything at all.

“You feeling okay, man?” Hardison asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

Eliot drew a breath and swallowed with a wince. “I’m--”

“Fine?” Hardison asked for him.

Eliot looked at him.

Hardison didn’t back down.

“It’s not a problem,” Eliot said.

“If the wound is infected--”

“It’s not a problem,” Eliot said again, a bit more insistently.

“Like you’d tell me if it was?” Hardison asked.

Eliot looked at him, unflinchingly. “You’ll know,” he said. “You’ll know if it is.”

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Hardison asked.

“No,” Eliot replied. He took a small sip of water. “But it’s supposed to be the truth.”

-o-

The computer whirred, chugging through the data. The wind slapped snow against the clapboard siding. The fire crackled, and the generator hummed.

The afternoon passed quietly, Hardison doing the best he could to stay busy.

Eliot doing the best he could to stay upright.

They were both successful.

Barely.


-o-

By dinner, Hardison had backed up another flash drive.

This was not an impressive feat.

Eliot, on the other hand, managed to read two chapters of his book and stoke the fire.

Somehow, Eliot’s accomplishment seemed more spectacular, the axe-wound and fever being considered.

When Eliot got up to make dinner, Hardison objected.

Loudly.

And excessively.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked with more incredulity than was probably needed.

Eliot glanced at him stiffly, still making his way to the kitchenette. “Starting dinner.”

“You look like you’re about to fall over,” Hardison said.

“Probably because I need to eat,” Eliot said, opening the cupboard and reaching for bean.

“Nice try, but I’m not buying it,” he said. “You should sit down, let me cook this time.”

Eliot pulled out a can opener. “You can’t cook--”

“And you can’t even stand up straight,” he said. “I think I win.”

The lid of the can popped open, and Eliot dumped the contents into the skillet. “You going to stop me?” he asked, half taunting.

Taunting.

While he had a fever.

Hardison drew a breath, searching for some semblance of calm. Freaking out was in his nature, and it certainly wouldn’t be without cause.

But -- and this was a big but -- Eliot probably needed to stay calm. And if Hardison actually challenged him, the idiot would probably try to hold his ground, which was the last thing either of them needed.

No, Eliot needed kid gloves at a time like this.

That was ironic.

And disappointingly, Eliot was too sick to take advantage.

“How do I know you’re not going to spread your disease to me?” he finally asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I’m not contagious,” Eliot said. “I checked the wound. It’s red and tender. That kind of infection doesn’t spread from person to person.”

“Well that’s...not encouraging,” Hardison said, furrowing his brow. “Seriously, man, you don’t have to cook for me.”

Eliot picked up a spatula, shaking his head. “You do the computers,” he said. “I got the rest.”

“You know, you don’t have to prove anything to me,” Hardison said. “I know you’re tough as nails. Me making dinner for you won’t change that.”

Eliot scoffed. “Do you think that’s what this is about?”

“Then what is it about?”

“My job, Hardison,” Eliot said. “I’m just doing my job.”

A simple answer.

With a thousand rebuttals.

That Hardison couldn’t bring himself to make.

Because Hardison was finally pretty comfortable with his place on the team, and changing that? Sort of scared him.

The idea that it might have to change?

Scared him even more.

-o-

All of Eliot’s hard-headed posturing aside, dinner was pretty simple that night. Red beans and rice with no frills.

Hardison wasn’t going to admit that it was still delicious.

Not when he was concerned with the fact that Eliot didn’t even finish what was on his plate.

-o-

When Eliot got up from dinner to do the dishes, he paused.

Bracing himself against the table, he closed his eyes for a moment while his face paled and he wobbled.

Before he could fully recover, Hardison reached across the table, taking Eliot’s plate and stacking it on his own.

Eyes open again, Eliot gave him a curious look.

“You did the cooking, at least let me do the dishes,” Hardison said. Before Eliot had a chance to protest, Hardison cocked his head. “I don’t want to be next to that ancient machine any more than I have to. Part of me wants to kick it, just out of principle.”

It was pretty obvious what he was doing, but Eliot’s mouth turned up a little anyway. “Can’t have that now.”

“No, we cannot,” Hardison agreed, taking the dishes to the sink. “Because if I kick it, I’ll probably break it, and then I’d have to fix the damn thing, and I do not want to be here longer than a week.”

“Well, I do think you need to work on your kicking skills,” Eliot quipped lightly.

Hardison emptied the remainder of the food on Eliot’s plate into the trash. “You really think I should try it against inanimate objects?”

“Might be the only way you don’t hurt yourself.”

Hardison stood up, scoffing. “You did not just--”

“You sort of walked into that one,” Eliot said.

“Because I was trying to be nice--

“I can do the dishes,” Eliot offered.

Hardison stopped him cold with a hard glare. “You sit your ass down or I will throw you out into the snow,” he snapped. “Do you understand?”

It was Hardison’s toughest voice and his most vehement inflection.

It never worked on Eliot.

Tonight, though.

Tonight, Eliot bobbed his head down and pushed his chair back. As he moved by the sink, he clapped Hardison on the arm. “Understood,” he said on his way past, not stopping until he got to the bed.

Hardison watched, a little too shocked to be impressed. It wasn’t often that he could make Eliot do something.

Somehow, though, as he started to run the water and Eliot sat down on his bed, it didn’t feel much like a victory.

-o-

The dishes were a pain in the ass to do.

Seriously, the entire cabin was archaic. Who actually did dishes by hand anymore? And how the hell did you scrape burned rice off of a cast iron skillet without destroying your fingernails? And dishwater hands?

That was a real thing, damn it.

As incredulous as Hardison was at the task, he was still glad Eliot let him do it. Sitting by the fire, Eliot didn’t even pretend to read his book, and he was blinking sleepily by the time Hardison drained the sink and patted his hands dry.

“Storm’s reaching its peak,” Eliot murmured a little.

Hardison looked to the window, where the snow swirled in the darkness. “How can you tell?”

“You can hear it in the pitch of the wind,” Eliot said.

“Let me guess,” Hardison said. “It’s a very distinctive sound.”

Eliot looked at him.

Hardison eyed him back.

“Another day, maybe two,” Eliot continued, turning his palms up to the heat of the fire. “We should have more than enough supplies to weather it.”

Should,” Hardison said. “What contingencies do we have?”

Eliot didn’t shrug; he didn’t have to. “Don’t worry,” he said instead. “I promised Nate I’d get you through to the other side.”

That was a promise, and Eliot kept his promises without fail. Weak and tired as he was, Hardison didn’t doubt him -- couldn’t doubt him. Eliot would get him through this, no matter what.

Problem was, Hardison thought as he put the last dish away numbly, he wasn’t sure who would get Eliot through this.

-o-

Eliot was asleep before Hardison could get settled back at the computer. Eliot needed his rest, but somehow it made Hardison even more restless in turn. Because without Eliot being awake, Hardison had no one to pretend for. With Eliot asleep, Hardison was, instead, faced with the painful reality of just how terrible their situation was.

One week, Nate had told him.

What could happen in a week?

Now, in reflection, the better question was what couldn’t happen in a week?

And this wasn’t just about drawing the short straw or something like that. No, Hardison knew he had to take his punches, metaphorically and otherwise, just like the rest of the team. They were all in balance, the five of them. Nate and Sophie and Eliot and Parker and Hardison.

Everyone in their place, and a place for everyone.

When that worked -- damn, it worked.

When it didn’t, though.

Well, that was when Hardison knew more than ever just how perfectly their balance was.

Because in times like these? When the balance was off?

The whole world was askew. It was like walking sideways. It was unsettling and disorienting and terrifying.

The computer chugged along and Hardison watched Eliot anxiously.

“One week,” he mumbled to himself, shaking his head indignantly. “After this, I deserve a week off. Two weeks. Hell, a month.

Eliot shifted restlessly in his sleep before settling back into stillness.

Hardison wiggled his toes, the anxiety beginning to dig a pit at the bottom of his stomach.

“Don’t worry, bro,” he said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. “We both do.”

-o-

When Hardison couldn’t stand to watch the computer process as slow as a tortoise with a broken foot, he finally went to bed. He wasn’t tired in any particular sense, what with anxiety and discomfort and all. The bed wasn’t any more comfortable than the previous night, and no matter how Hardison tried to tuck himself under the covers, he still felt like he was freezing.

Finally, he hunkered down, blanket pulled over his head while he peaked out. For a while, he tried watching the fire, but when that made him start to worry about the quality of the chimney flue and the likelihood of fire engulfing their tiny cabin in less than five minutes, he turned his attention to Eliot instead.

The hitter was still asleep, passed out where he had laid down hours ago. His breathing was audible and steady if a little shallow. Absently, he wondered if Eliot was dreaming -- or what someone like Eliot would dream about anyway.

Hitting people? Getting into fights? Flirting with pretty girls? Eating beans?

Or maybe he didn’t dream; maybe he had nightmares.

Maybe he remembered the missions he’d gone on or the times he’d been captured. Maybe he thought about the people he’d killed.

Or the ones he couldn’t save.

Eliot didn’t talk about that.

Then again, Eliot didn’t talk about a lot of things.

Shivering, Hardison pulled his blankets tighter as he shut his eyes. He wrapped his fingers in the sheets and stilled his breathing as best he could to clear his mind and start to drift.

Dreaming, he decided with certainty, was overrated anyway.

-o-

The next morning, Hardison turned over and peeked out from his covers.

He hoped to see the sun shining through the windows and a roaring fire. He hoped to see Eliot’s bed, empty and neatly made with breakfast on the stove.

What he saw, however, was not so encouraging.

The window was still a blur of white, and the fire was burning down. And Eliot’s bed was rumpled and very occupied with one feverish hitter still tucked in where he had been the night before.

Hardison swallowed hard, flopping on his back.

“One week,” he reminded himself. “Just one week.”

-o-

It would be nice to think that with such a auspicious start to the day, things could only get better.

Yeah. Right.

Like that was ever how their luck went.

For as many wins as they’d had as a team, they’d had even more close calls. It kept things interesting, maybe.

If interesting was another word for terrifying.

The good news was that Eliot woke up not long after Hardison, flushed cheeks and fever bright eyes. He even managed to get himself out of bed, moving slowly toward the kitchen area while Hardison checked the progress of the computer.

“No, man, you’re not going to cook,” Hardison said.

Eliot took a small, strained breath. “Got to eat--”

“Uh, yeah,” Hardison said, hitting a few keys before making his way after Eliot. “And you need to not pass out.”

Bracing himself against the counter, Eliot took a breath. “I’m--”

“Fine, right,” Hardison said. “You look like hell, man. Really.”

For a moment, Eliot worked his jaw, clearly contemplating his options. He was feverish, but he wasn’t completely out it.

And that was the bad news.

Eliot was sick enough that it mattered, but not sick enough to keep him flat on his ass. Which meant that Hardison had to try to talk sense into a man who could probably still punch him out.

“Come on,” Hardison said, putting a hand on Eliot’s arm. It was impossible to miss the heat pouring off him. “You go back to bed.”

Eliot looked back to him, face framed by the untamed strands of his hair.

This required a light but firm touch. A fine line when nuance was not Hardison’s forte. “I know you think you’ve got to take care of me, but I’m running a computer all day. I think I can cook for the both of us for once,” he said. “Besides, we’ve only got a few days left, and I need you back on your feet to drive us the hell out of here.”

Hardison was getting better at this sort of thing, finding that point of leverage and knowing just how much pressure to apply.

That, and Eliot was pretty damn sick at the moment.

Brows drawn, he nodded faintly.

“Good,” Hardison said, pulling him gently toward the bed. “You let me do my job, a’right?”

Eliot nodded again, allowing himself to be led. “Don’t burn the food.”

“You’re the one burning today,” Hardison said.

“Fire runs hot,” Eliot continued, almost like he hadn’t heard him. “You got to--”

Hardison nodded patiently, pulling back the sheets as Eliot sat himself down.

“You got to watch the heat,” Eliot said, blinking up at Hardison with surprising earnestness. “The heat--”

“No burning, I got it,” Hardison said. “You lay here and try to do the same.”

Eliot just looked confused, and Hardison swallowed guiltily.

“Don’t worry, man,” Hardison said. “I got this job, okay?”

At that, Eliot nodded again, sinking back into the bed weakly.

Hardison lingered for a moment, watching as Eliot blinked a few times and settled back into sleep. Drawing a breath, Hardison looked back to the kitchen.

“I got this,” he said again, to himself this time. He shrugged, making his way back toward the stove and opening the cabinet. “How hard could it be?”

-o-

Okay, so it was pretty hard. Eliot made eggs look easy, but Hardison’s were clumpy and dry. He added salt to counteract the bland taste, which only made them taste fake and cheap.

Still, he served them to Eliot in bed, sitting himself on the opposite bed and taking a bite.

He made a face in disappointment.

Propped up on his bed, Eliot took a bite and managed a smile. “Not bad.”

Hardison’s eyebrows went up.

Eliot visibly swallowed. “Not bad at all.”

Hardison speared a piece of clumped egg with a scoff. “Now I know you’re delirious,” he said. “Because these eggs are awful.

Chuckling softly, Eliot put the plate aside, most of the eggs untouched. “Let’s just say I’ve tasted worse.”

“Ah, and there it is,” Hardison said. “Damning with faint praise.”

“It’s good,” Eliot said again, meeting Hardison’s eyes. “Really.”

Somehow, that was a truth and a lie.

All at the same time.

-o-

No matter what Eliot said about his cooking, it was impossible to miss that he didn’t eat more than a few bites. He sipped at his water and was about to unwrapped the wound on his arm when Hardison objected.

“I don’t even have to get up for this,” Eliot said.

Hardison reached over anyway, taking the edge of the bandage and starting to unwrap it. “Maybe if you let someone look at this in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Eliot eyed him.

Hardison purposefully didn’t look back, unfurling the last of the bandage and making a face.

“So,” Eliot said. “Thoughts?”

Thoughts? Hardison had a lot of thoughts. He had thought about blizzards and corrupt oil men and ancient computer systems and how hard it was to make good eggs. He had thoughts about the things he was going to say to Nate in great detail when they got back from this job.

The only thoughts he didn’t have were the ones that might actually be helpful. Thoughts about how to identify and clean an infected wound. Thoughts about how to treat a raging fever.

For a second, Hardison stared at the wound. The edges were red, but it looked clean overall. The skin looked tender, but the man had been flayed by an axe in an avalanche, so that probably wasn’t unexpected. If he had to guess -- and, at this point, he did -- he would say it was infected but there was no apparent course of action that would actually change that.

“Well,” Hardison said, resting his hands on his thighs as he tried not to sound as useless as he felt. “That looks like it hurts.”

“You think?”

Hardison chewed his lip for a moment. “Do we have…”

“First aid kit,” Eliot reminded him. He shifted, as if to get up. “I can--”

“Uh uh, no way,” Hardison said, hastily getting to his feet. “I’ve got this one, remember?”

“You sure?” Eliot asked.

“Says the damn fool with an axe-wound,” Hardison said.

“I really can do this,” Eliot said.

“You’d pass out the second you were on your feet,” Hardison chastised him.

“And you’re about to pass out just looking at it,” Eliot said.

“Well, it’s an axe wound!” Hardison said. “You split the skin right open, man.”

“Yeah…”

“You know, just let me,” Hardison said, retrieving the kit from the floor. “I got this.”

Eliot looked at him unconvinced.

“You’ll see,” Hardison said, opening the box with purpose. “My magic fingers are good for more than computers.”

-o-

Magic fingers, maybe.

But he also didn’t have any supplies that would remotely help. There was fresh gauze, which he used, and some antibiotic salve, which Hardison applied liberally despite Eliot’s winces. He topped it off with a dose of Tylenol, which Eliot dutifully took in an anticlimactic conclusion to Hardison’s examination.

“So that’s it?” Hardison asked, rummaging through the bag again, expecting to find something new and utterly useful.

“What were you expecting?” Eliot asked.

“Like medicine or something,” Hardison said. “Shouldn’t we have antibiotic?”

“You need a prescription for that stuff,” Eliot said.

“Like that has ever stopped us before,” Hardison said.

“I’m not going to steal medicine.

“No, but I can steal a prescription,” Hardison said. “We can pay for it and everything.”

“A first aid kit usually just has the basics,” Eliot said.

“Sure, if we had a basic job.”

Eliot flattened his lips, clearly annoyed. Whether he was more annoyed with Hardison or the weather, wasn’t immediately clear. “It wasn’t supposed to snow.”

“And I shouldn’t be out here at all!” Hardison said. “Next time -- next time we’re bringing actually medicine. And a scalpel or something.”

“You’d just cut yourself,” Eliot grumbled. “Slice your finger clean off.”

“I’d at least like a sterilized option to do so,’ Hardison returned. “And shouldn’t we have an IV? With fluids? That’s a thing, right?”

“Yeah, it’s a thing--”

“So why don’t we have some of that?” Hardison asked.

“Because I’m not a medical professional,” Eliot snapped.

“But you do have an axe-wound.”

“It’s a one-week job.”

“Yeah,” Hardison said. “Longest week of my life.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your inconvenience,” Eliot said facetiously.

“Oh, no,” Hardison said. “No you don’t. You don’t get to be the martyr just because you have the axe wound. You’re the one who fell. You were probably having fun.”

Eliot’s face contorted darkly. “Oh, yeah, I was having a blast.”

“I was the one, in here, against my will,” Hardison said. “Working.

“I thought you were going to clean the wound,” Eliot objected.

“I don’t have anything to clean it with,” Hardison said. “Because someone packed the worst first aid kit ever.”

“It’s fully approved--”

“Approved by who?”

“--and it exceeds minimum requirements--”

“Whose requirements?”

“We didn’t have a lot of space on the snowmobile, man,” Eliot hisses. “I did what I could.”

“Uh uh,” Hardison said again. “Want me to tell you again about the gash in your arm that is currently infected?”

Eliot’s mouth snapped shut, his face paling. “Just finish the bandage,” he said sullenly.

Hardison unrolled a bit of gauze with an incredulous shake of his head. “Uh huh,” he said, more smug that he should have been. “That’s what I thought.”

-o-

In truth, Hardison felt a little guilty about brow beating Eliot in his current state. He did look horrible, after all.

But he was also far more cooperative, so Hardison wasn’t feeling guilty enough not to take advantage.

That said, Eliot was compliant when Hardison re-bandaged the wound, and he mercifully said nothing when Hardison had to wrap it several times to get it to stay on correctly. He even submitted himself to getting his temperature taken, though he glared at Hardison fiercely as he moved Eliot’s hair to the side to stick the thermometer in his ear.

When it beeped, Hardison did a double take and then checked it again.

103.8.

He looked at Eliot, who was watching him wearily. The other man didn’t ask what it said; Hardison suspected he didn’t have to.

“Give the meds some time to kick in,” Eliot told him instead. “Trust me.”

“I swear to God, if you say you’re fine--”

“I’m fine enough,” Eliot said. “And you have a job to do.”

Hardison glanced toward the computer, which was still chugging along.

“It’s why we’re here, man,” Eliot reminded him. “I promise, I’ll rest.”

“Like you could get out of bed anyway,” Hardison sighed, getting to his feet. He put the thermometer down. “But I tell you, if you try--”

Eliot lifted a tired hand in submission. “I promise.”

Hardison raised his eyebrows. “You promise?”

“I said I promise,” Eliot agreed.

“All right, then,” Hardison said, squaring his shoulders as he headed back to his work console. He muttered under his breath as he sat down, shaking his head as he did his best not to look back at Eliot. “Stupid ass job.”

-o-

Stupid ass job, indeed.

It was slow, monotonous and stupid. Hardison hated this gig before it started snowing, and well before Eliot went and got himself sliced up and fevered. It occurred to Hardison, during his long hours of nothing, that it was particularly easy to take Eliot’s contributions to the team for granted. All the bad guys they’d gone up against, and Eliot hadn’t so much as blinked. Outnumbered, outgunned, out everything, Eliot put everyone on their asses.

But now it was Eliot on his ass.

And it wasn’t even a bad guy.

It was a damn blizzard and an axe.

It figured, honestly. This was the man who could take out several armed guards at once but fell victim to a carnival ride. It wasn’t actually fair, when he thought about it, the way the universe seemed to use inanimate objects and acts of God to even the score against someone like Eliot.

For all that Hardison ranted and preened about his role on the team, he knew that everyone had their own unique skills and their own special place. They were a complete set, the five of them. The quintessential quintet. That was why it had been so hard when Sophie went her own way, or when Nate was lost in the bottle. Because they needed each other to get the job done.

Hardison rocked back in his chair, casting a surreptitious look back toward Eliot.

It was more than the job.

Eliot was...well, Eliot was Eliot. He was the hitter, sure, but he was Hardison’s friend. He was fiercely protective of the team, and nothing made him waver in his commitment to keeping them safe. He glared a lot and made a point of looking put out, but he was the first one to drag Hardison up out of the grave when it counted. And he hugged the hardest and the longest, even if he’d never admit to it later.

They were brother, Eliot and Hardison. Family.

Eliot shuddered a little, drawing the blankets tighter around himself as he blinked at the book he was reading. He hadn’t turned the page in over five minutes.

Hardison glanced back at his computer.

The job came first, this much was true.

But Eliot had always understood that sometimes the job changed.

They cared about their clients, but the client couldn’t come first, not when it came down to the wire. When it was a question of life and death, they all knew what came first.

Well, most of them. Nate when he was drunk was a question mark, but Eliot had always been certain.

Hardison understood it now.

Because Nate had told him the job was to copy the files to bring back home.

Sitting there, watching Eliot struggle to stay awake, Hardison knew the real job was to make sure they both got home, safe and sound.

Hardison would see that job through.


Pushing away from the computer, he went to the kitchen and got a fresh glass of water. He offered it to Eliot, who looked up at him in surprise.

“Get the files done?” he asked, voice rasping.

Hardison shrugged. “Still processing,” he said. He shrugged, holding the water out a little closer. “Needed to stretch my legs.”

Eliot took the drink, fingers shaking just a little. “You sit at a computer all day, every day.”

“I maintain a perfect life balance,” Hardison said. “I could kick your ass at Dance Dance Revolution.”

Taking a small sip, Eliot scowled. “Let me know if that ever comes in handy.”

“No reason fitness can’t be fun,” Hardison said.

Eliot put the drink down, pulling his blankets up higher again. “You should get the job done,” he said.

Hardison’s smile fell, and he looked at the blizzard outside. “I’ll get it done,” he said, turning his gaze back to Eliot. Tired as he was, Eliot met his gaze and held it. Hardison nodded. “Don’t you worry about nothing.”

-o-

The computer whirred all afternoon, humming over the sound of the generator as it kicked into high gear. The snow reached a frenetic pitch over the afternoon with the wind whistling so loud that Hardison felt colder just listening to it.

And Eliot got sicker.

He barely touched lunch, and he gave up the pretense of reading in the mid-afternoon. He dozed restlessly while Hardison listened to music, lapsing in and out of consciousness with intermittent wheezes.

The worst part was -- and Hardison hated this, more than anything else -- was that there was nothing he could do about any of it.

There were no computing tricks to make the ancient machine go faster. There was no way he could stop the snow or silence the wind. And he sure as hell couldn’t do anything for Eliot’s infection, which raged with a steepening fever no matter how many fluids Hardison made him drink and how much Tylenol he provided.

Hardison could fret and plan and flounce.

But none of it -- and that meant absolutely none of it -- would make this week go any faster.

-o-

With Eliot sleeping, Hardison couldn’t take it anymore. His back was aching and his stomach was grumbling and Eliot needed to eat.

Which meant, it was time for Alec Hardison, hacker extraordinaire to become Alec Hardison, chef magnifique.

Remembering his breakfast debacle, Hardison drummed his fingers on the pantry instead, trying to make sense of Eliot’s choices. He’d been so flustered about coming all this way that he hadn’t thought to help pack this end of things. In fact, he’d made a point not to pack since none of his normal gear would be worth anything this far out.

And truthfully, it wasn’t so much that Hardison couldn’t cook as much as it was that he didn’t care about it. He was a busy person, and he had a lot to do in a given day. He didn’t usually want to spend an hour in the kitchen when it could be spent doing...anything else.

That said, he could follow a recipe and watch a youtube tutorial and make many exquisite things.

He didn’t have a recipe, though, and he sure as hell didn’t have a youtube tutorial.

Instead, he had a lot of beans, stewed tomatoes and rice.

This was perplexing in that 1. no one could possibly eat like this, and 2. Eliot had made so many good meals out of so few ingredients.

Hardison peeked around toward Eliot, who snuffled in his sleep.

Yes, Eliot snuffled.

That would be damn hilarious if it wasn’t so terrifying.

Sighing, Hardison grabbed rice, stewed tomatoes and beans.

“Come on, then,” he murmured to himself. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

-o-

A half hour later, dinner was ready.

It didn’t look like anything Eliot would have made, but it didn’t smell half bad, and when Eliot shuffled to the table, he didn’t offer a word of criticism.

In fact, it actually tasted okay, and Hardison was happily on his second serving when Eliot put his fork down.

Hardison looked at him, trying hard not to notice how little Eliot had eaten.

“Don’t like it?” he asked.

“What? No,” Eliot said. “I just...I’m not that hungry.”

That much was probably true, given how bad Eliot looked. It was dark outside, and the lights inside their cabin gave everything a sickly glow. This effect was more pronounced on Eliot, who looked positively ghastly. Hardison wasn’t actually sure how Eliot was sitting upright at all, much less holding a conversation over dinner.

“Well, you should try to eat a little more,” Hardison suggested, trying to sound nonchalant. “Or you can guess what we’ll be having for breakfast.”

Eliot made a small sound, but didn’t agree or disagree. He also didn’t eat anything else.

After a moment, Hardison put his own fork down, making a show of stretching. “It’s still coming down out there,” he observed, more for something to say than to add something relevant to their non-existent conversation.

“It’ll peter out soon enough,” Eliot said. “Too early in the season for it to last more than a couple of days.”

“A couple of days too long, if you ask me,” Hardison said. “This whole place is not actually suited for human life.”

“Aw, I don’t know,” Eliot said, shaking his head. “It’s not so bad out here.”

Hardison blinked with an overly dramatic scoff. “Not so bad? Not so bad?” he asked. “Did you forget about the part where you were trapped in an avalanche.

“A small one,” Eliot clarified, as if that made any difference whatsoever.

Hardison sat back, arms crossed over his chest. “Dude, that must be the fever talking, or you’re crazier than I thought.”

“I’m serious,” Eliot said.

“I am, too.”

“I just mean, there are no distractions out here,” Eliot said.

Hardison gestured to the window. “Except the blizzard that lasts for days,” he said. “And the axe wound.”

“But you know what matters,” Eliot said.

“Uh, yeah,” Hardison replied. “Hospital access and proper medical care.”

More wearily than before, Eliot sighed. “You just know,” he said, picking up his fork again. It looked like torture for him, taking another forkful and putting it in his mouth. The very act of swallowing seemed to wear him down to nothing, and Hardison almost felt guilty.

“Yeah,” he said finally, picking his own fork back up and looking at the concoction on his own plate. “I guess you do.”

-o-

Eliot went to bed early, and Hardison kept watch as long as he could. He watched the computer as it processed, the snow as it blew, Eliot as he slept.

He watched, thinking about Nate and Sophie back home. About what he would feel when he finally got to see Parker again.

About Eliot and how much could change in a week.

He was right, unfortunately.

Place like this, you know what mattered.

Hardison didn’t doubt it.

Not when he was so close to losing it all.

-o-

In the morning, Hardison heard Eliot stir. Startled, he almost fell out of his chair, stumbling over to throw another log in the fireplace as Eliot sat up. He was still blinking away his disorientation when Eliot tried to swing his legs over the edge of the bed.

And toppled forward, crashing toward the ground.

Hardison cursed, darting his reach out and just barely snagging Eliot before he hit the ground. Sitting him back up, Eliot looked at him in total confusion.

“What--?” he started breathlessly, eyes clouded with the fever.

Hardison’s stomach churned, and he reached a hand up, pressing it to Eliot’s forehead.

The burning heat was the only reason Eliot didn’t push him off.

Instead, Eliot’s brow wrinkled. “Hardison?”

“Yeah, man,” Hardison said, trying to keep the waver out of his voice. “Maybe you should lay down--”

Eliot was already sinking, shivering as Hardison tucked him back under the covers. He tossed his head, disoriented before looking at Hardison again. “The job?”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Hardison said, stomach as cold as the ice outside. “I got it, man.”

Eliot nodded without understanding it at all. “Gotta get--” he started, moving again as he rustled the sheets. “Gotta get--”

“Hey, hey,” Hardison said, putting a gentle hand on Eliot’s shoulder to hold him down. “I got you just like I got it.”

Eliot breathed heavily, chest hitching. “One week--”

Hardison squeezed Eliot’s shoulder, hoping to be as reassuring as he could be. “Don’t worry,” he said again, not just a challenge, but a promise. “I got you.”

-o-

Eliot’s fever was pushing 105, and he even though his eyes were open, he wasn’t all there. Hardison tried to get him to eat breakfast, but Eliot seemed to forget about the food the moment he put it in his mouth. Drinking wasn’t much better, and more water ended up down Eliot’s front than it did in his mouth.

Hardison dressed the wound again with no visible change. Eliot grimaced and tried to pull away, but the fever had robbed him of any real fight. The only consolation was that he seemed to trust Hardison, obeying compliantly with all requests as best he could.

Which wasn’t very much.

That was the thing, really. Eliot Spencer was strong, smart and good, but the fever had laid him lower than Hardison had ever seen before. He’d seen Eliot walk off concussions, and limp away from cuts and bruises. In all their years together, the man hadn’t been to a hospital once, no matter how rough the job got.

Even in pain, Eliot always took as good as he got.

Yet, here they were.

One week, and Eliot was spent.

One week, and Eliot was losing the fight.

And Hardison could only watch.

-o-

Hardison made food at noon, doing his best to serve it to Eliot. They worked together to get Eliot propped up, but the meager movement was more than Eliot could take. Tremors ravaged his body, and try as he might, he couldn’t even pick up the fork.

“The j-job, Hardison,” he said, teeth clenching as he shivered violently. “We h-have--”

“Job’s fine, okay?” Hardison said.

Eliot squeezed his eyes shut. “I-I just--”

His breathing was fast and furious now, and when he opened his eyes, they almost looked wild.

“Gotta do the job,” he slurred, words rushed together so quick that Hardison almost couldn’t make them out. He started with a jerk, trying to get out of bed. “Gotta--”

“Whoa, hey!” Hardison said, reaching out to stop him.

He wasn’t quite fast enough, and Eliot toppled his plate, sending food everywhere. For his part, Eliot didn’t even noticed. Instead he struggled, resisting as Hardison forced him back down.

Pinned down, Eliot looked up at him with wide eyes. “Said I’d get you out,” he said haltingly, the words hauntingly clear. “One week.”

Hardison’s throat was so tight, he couldn’t talk. He could barely breathe.

Then the fight drained out of Eliot, and he slumped back, mouth slack as he dragged heavy breaths in sleep.

Hardison stood there, hands on Eliot’s shoulders, staring down at him, too scared to let go.

This wasn’t how it was.

This wasn’t how it was.

This wasn’t Hardison’s job; this wasn’t how it played out. Hardison could hack any system, he could research any problem and come up with half a dozen brilliant solutions. He was cool, calm and collected.

Not this.

Not helpless, not stranded. Not this close to losing everything with no solution in sight.

Not Eliot, dying right before his eyes, wasting away from a string of bad luck that no one could prevent.

No way, no how.

The medicine wasn’t working, and Eliot was slipping. His bouts of coherency were fewer and further between, and Hardison didn’t have to be a doctor to know where this was headed. Eliot needed actual medical treatment from actual doctors.

Not Tylenol and a damn hacker.

Eyes burning, Hardison looked at the ground where the lunch was scattered. The disparate pieces, all the right ingredients and Hardison’s best efforts -- for nothing. For once in his life, when he wanted to go above and beyond, he couldn’t even reach the bare minimum.

The job.

That was what it came down to, whether Hardison liked it or not.

They had to do the job.

Determination settled in the pit of his stomach, and Hardison looked at Eliot again.

“There’s nothing in this cabin,” he said. “Absolutely nothing here that will do us any good.”

Eliot’s face scrunched up, head tossing, but he didn’t rouse.

Hardison squeezed one more time. “But I think I might know a place where there is.”

-o-

Hardison had already been wearing numerous layers, but he unpacked every garment he had and a few of Eliot’s for good measure. By the time he squeezed into them all, it was hard to move, but he hoped it would be enough.

Nervously, he looked at the window. It was late afternoon by now, but the snow was relentless. The sound of the wind made him cold, just listening to it.

He turned his gaze to Eliot, sleeping restlessly on the bed. His chest tightened. If Eliot woke up and needed something, there would be nothing Hardison could do. Hell, knowing Eliot, he’d probably wake up and try to come out after him, if he knew what was what. The thought of a sick and delirious Eliot falling out into the snow was enough to make him pause.

But the thought of sitting here, doing nothing, when there were perfectly good medical supplies just over the hill was something he simply couldn’t abide.

Because there were medical supplies. The base over the hill was designed for long term living arrangements -- Hardison had pulled the specs himself -- and there was a small infirmary, outfitted with everything from an AED to IV meds. Hardison had thought it was over the top during his research, but he understood it now. When you were stuck out in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard, you wanted all the help you could get.

“Look, man, it’s just over the hill,” he explained even though it was clear Eliot couldn’t hear him. “So I’ll be fine, okay? Don’t get any crazy ideas. Stay in bed, rest up, and I’ll be back in no time.”

As a precaution, he scrawled a quick note, telling Eliot to stay in bed, no matter what. He put it on the table next to the bed, propped up in hopes that Eliot couldn’t miss it. Then he finished his winter ensemble with a thick pair of gloves and tromped to the front door.

Taking a breath, Eliot gave Eliot one last look.

The job.

He had to do the job.

Then he opened the door and headed out into the snow.