shinealightonme: (tw owen)
[personal profile] shinealightonme
December


Sterling had found them horses, of all things, to help them move between cities.

Whatever goodwill he might have built up with Eliot through this was completely destroyed by the obvious-after-two-seconds fact that Sterling didn't have the least idea what to do with a horse. Or that they weren't cars, and had to stop to take breaks.

Though it could have been worse. At least he knew how to ride, decently enough. Only thing Eliot could think that'd be worse than riding with Sterling was riding with Sterling who couldn't stay in his saddle.

"Didn't sign on to give pony rides," Eliot muttered under his breath.

Parker slapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to hurt. "Can you do balloon animals?"

Eliot scowled. She hadn't been making life easier, either, given her refusal to get within fifteen feet of a horse. At least she could keep up well enough on foot; they weren't exactly running in a derby.

"We're making good time," she said.

"Good time to nowhere."

"Maybe the tip is solid."

They'd had word that Katie's mysterious "Jason," who seemed to know Emmerich, had been heading for a small town near the Great Lakes, so they'd turned north. Already, the weather was getting miserable.

Worse than the cold was the feeling that they were chasing ghosts. Assuming Katie hadn't lied to him, and assuming she hadn't misunderstood the vague things Jason had told her, it seemed likely that Jason had known Emmerich at some point. That didn't mean he knew where Emmerich was. Or that they'd find Jason. Or that Emmerich would even be any good to them.

"I think we shouldn't get our hopes up."

"What hopes? I'm just along for the ride."

"You're walking."

Parker rolled her eyes. "It's an expression."

Eliot figured, given two hours, he could break Parker of this whole fear of horses thing.

Maybe three hours, and the world's most cooperative horse.

Maybe he could just throw her onto a horse's back and let nature take its course.

He chuckled under his breath as he pictured that.

The bug-eyed look on Parker's face told him that she was enjoying the same mental image he was. "Enjoying" being an expression, of course.

"I wouldn't really do it," he said. "Wouldn't be fair to the horse."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Parker said, and stomped off.

-

Time was, Eliot didn't slog through snow to knock on people's doors like a vacuum cleaner salesman. It'd been a nice life. Now it felt like all he knew was frozen feet and standing, forever, waiting for families long gone to come open their front doors.

Of course, vacuum cleaner salesmen got to just take off when no one answered. Eliot'd broken through more doors and windows in the last week than he'd even walked through before, seemed like.

And every house was the same. Whatever scared off the folks that'd lived here, it hadn't been anything flashy like fire or earthquakes or tornadoes. The buildings were in fine condition, the furniture and possessions inside laid out like their owners'd be coming back for them any minute now.

It was a ghost town in the truest sense of the word. If it weren't so frozen outside, Eliot would've expected to see tumbleweeds. There weren't words for how much he despised it.

He wasn't sure whether Parker was giving him space or he was giving Parker space, or if it was just faster to search the town separately, but they split up every morning and didn't meet back up until nightfall.

Sterling had his own separate route, but there wasn't any ambiguity there; he was as tired of Eliot's company as Eliot was of his, if that was even possible, and said so, emphatically, on more than one occasion.

He never seemed to tire of Parker's company, which was a thing Eliot didn't even want to have to remind himself not to think about, but Parker could handle herself. She was as good as ever at scaring people away. Her latest tactic in unnerving her companions was to act aggressively normal.

"Hello Eliot, Sterling," she chirped, as they met up to go over the progress, pathetic as it was, of the day. "How was your day?"

"Surely you know," Sterling said, disbelief in his voice.

"Well I assume that if you had any big news, you'd have told me," she said blithely. "But you know what happens when you assume things!"

Eliot squinted at her. Maybe there was some kind of cold-weather mirage affecting his vision. And hearing.

"Though actually," Parker said. "No one ever actually told me what happens when you assume things. They'd just say, 'you know what happens when you assume things.' But I'm guessing it's not good."

"No, not good," Eliot said.

"See?" Parker smiled at them. Sterling took a step backward, and Eliot couldn't even blame him for it.

"Parker, you got a fever or something?"

"Nope, I'm fit as a fiddle!" She started pouring herself a glass of water. "I found a fiddle in a guy's house today. And some kind of mini-guitar. Maybe a banjo. You find anything interesting?"

And she was really asking. Trying to keep a conversation going out loud.

"No," he said, because whatever game she was playing, he might as well play along. "Lot of books, clothes. Some souvenirs. Can't blame people for traveling away from here."

"Surely this town must have been livable once," Sterling said. "Or at least more interesting than it is now."

"Metal rusting is more interesting than this town."

"Have you ever watched metal rust?" Parker asked. "It might be more interesting than you think."

Sterling smiled, like it caused him pain to do so. "I suppose you would have a higher threshold than most for surveillance."

"On account of how many pieces of art she's stolen away from people like you?" Eliot asked. "All that sitting around, watching for the security guard shift changes, patterns in the laser grid..."

"Yes, thank you Mr. Spencer for elaborating." Sterling's not smiling face looked just as pained as his smiling face. Eliot felt tired just watching his expressions.

"That kind of work does come in handy sometimes," Parker said, then laughed at them when they didn't get it. "Because we're doing surveillance right now?"

"I defer to your expertise on the matter."

Eliot just grunted. The waiting was always the longest part of a mission, but he could usually get through it because he knew that he'd need it if he was going to have any chance of being successful.

This, though, felt an awful lot like chasing his tail. He was surprised at Parker's patience; he'd have thought she'd have been itching at this even worse than he was. Or maybe she really was being strung along by hope, hope that they could find Emmerich, hope that he could undo -

Eliot interrupted his own train of thought, silently cursing himself for letting his mind get away from him.

Almost against his will, his eyes darted to Parker.

And found her humming to herself, playing with her food and looking just as uncomfortably cheery as she'd been a second ago.

Maybe his slip up wasn't so critical. Or maybe Parker had gotten better at keeping her feelings to herself.

Somehow, neither of those ideas sat quite right with Eliot.

-

It was two more days of living with Stepford Parker and an increasingly irate Sterling before Eliot figured it all out.

He was slogging through another slushy suburban road when an ear-piercing whistle caught his attention. He recognized it, of course. He'd told Parker off more than once for making that damn sound indoors, or right next to his ear.

It was only a few blocks to find Parker looking like a little kid on Christmas, bundled up in thick outer clothes and bouncing around like she'd just seen Santa.

"Find something in there?" he called as he got nearer, pointing toward the house.

"Not inside," Parker said, grabbing for him with both gloved hands.

She dragged him around the side of the building just as he saw Sterling turning a corner. Sterling never did move any faster than a stroll.

Eliot didn't have to ask what had got Parker so excited. The house's backyard edged on a wooded area, and right at the border of it, two trees had been felled and chopped into firewood. Inexpertly, and recently.

"Someone was here," Eliot said.

Parker nodded.

"Must've been yesterday," he continued. "Snowed the night before that."

Parker nodded again.

"So where're they holed up, and why haven't they come out to say hello?" Eliot asked, but he wasn't really thinking about either of those. He was thinking about Emmerich. There was no reason that this had to be Emmerich, but if it was, if it was...

Parker sat, with a heavy thump, on the nearer tree stump.

Eliot's focus snapped to her. He'd thought her paleness was because of the cold, the tension in her face from anticipation. Now he wasn't sure.

"I'm fi – " she started to answer, then cut herself off.

Sterling would choose that moment to finally grace them with his presence. Eliot had half a mind to chuck him into the woods.

At least the man wasn't stupid. He took half a look at the scene and said, "If someone's chopping firewood, someone will be burning firewood."

"Somewhere nearby," Eliot said. Sterling was searching the skyline over the trees and not looking at Parker, who'd taken a breath and stood back up.

Parker was watching the sky now, too, her back to Eliot.

Eliot crossed his arms – he hated these tricks – and very clearly thought Parker.

No response.

PARKER.

Nothing.

Eliot shifted his weight, feeling dumb and guilty at the same time, and thought, Parker, LOOK OUT.

Out loud, those words and that tone would have had anyone in a hundred feet dropping to their feet first and asking questions later.

Parker didn't even twitch.

Now she had him feeling crazy for trying to talk with his mind, and for feeling bad when it failed. A man ought to be glad of a little privacy.

Sterling broke up Eliot's thoughts. "We're too close to the trees. Let's fall back and find a better vantage point."

Sterling led the way, Parker chatting with him about where best to keep look out. Eliot followed, too preoccupied to chime in.

-

"You're supposed to be looking out for smoke," Parker told him. "And find your own tree. This is my tree."

It was Parker's tree because no one else on Earth would ever climb it. It looked like a light spring breeze would send it toppling over. Eliot had no idea how it supported Parker's weight, but he wasn't going to shout twenty feet up in the air to talk to her, so he clung to the trunk of it and didn't go any higher than he needed to.

"How'd you shut my thoughts out of your head?" Eliot had limited patience with small talk even at the best of times.

"I can't tell you," Parker sniffed.

"Parker."

"Eliot."

"Parker."

"El-i-ot."

She really might not have told him, at all, except that Eliot fell out of the tree.

The branch he was resting on cracked, and his grip slipped before he could shift over to a different one. The fall didn't hurt, much, just knocked the wind out of him and smarted his pride.

Parker fell-jumped-slid out of the tree because that was what she'd been doing since she was in diapers, probably, and landed next to him. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Because if you're broken, Sterling's going to get really snotty about helping you."

Eliot wheezed and nodded.

"Did you do that on purpose?"

He caught back just enough air to say, "You should know."

Parker sat down and started playing with some broken off twigs that had been casualties of his descent. "I've never known why anyone does anything," she said. "That worked for me."

"'S different now."

"Maybe it doesn't have to be," she shrugged. "Court had some people that seemed pretty in charge of what they could do."

Eliot could muster up a full response to that. "Court's people were psychopaths."

"Well, yeah, but it still worked."

Feeling mostly recovered, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. "Parker, you haven't been yourself lately."

She snorted.

"And you looked like death earlier, when we found the firewood. Whatever you're doing, it isn't going well for you."

"You don't know that, for sure."

"Maybe not."

Parker threw a twig at him. He batted it away with one hand.

"Sterling's brain is boring," she told him. "I thought at least he'd been slimy or awful but he's just – boring."

"Deal with it," Eliot said. "God, if you need a break, just take a break. Get some air. You don't need to kill yourself with this nonsense."

Parker pulled a face, but before they could talk any further, her eyes popped open and her hand flew up to point.

He knew before he'd even looked that she was pointing at a thin column of smoke rising up in the air.

-

Sterling had seen it too, or else he'd heard Parker's victorious whoop, because he met up with them at the tree line.

"Who – " he started, as Parker plunged in amidst the foliage.

"How should we know?" Eliot snarled.

Sterling glared at him in return as they followed Parker. Eliot found himself falling behind the others; Parker had a head start, and Sterling was faster than he had any right to be. Must help that he could push off the ground that much harder now, Eliot thought. He caught up with them just in time to see Sterling kick through the backdoor of a house.

"Have to make a big show of everything," he muttered.

Sterling spared him a glance. "I'm sorry, is the man who taught a teenage girl how to break down doors giving me a lecture on subtlety?"

Eliot gestured inside, where the door had snapped in half, flown off its hinges, and knocked over the kitchen table. He didn't want to stress the point, though, because Parker had pushed on ahead of them.

They'd checked two rooms in the house before Eliot got the feeling that something was wrong. He grabbed for Parker but missed her, so he settled for flinging an arm out to stop Sterling from going any further.

"You smell smoke?" he asked.

"We are looking for a fire," Sterling answered slowly.

"And there's the fireplace." Eliot nodded to the undisturbed appliance.

Sterling paused, but wasn't completely convinced. "There could be others."

"Guys!" Parker stuck her head back in the room. "Upstairs, come on!"

Eliot pushed ahead of Sterling. Parker took one look at his face and hung back to let him take the lead.

There was no need to poke around here; a trail of smoke was sneaking out under a door on the left. Eliot placed his hand on the door, and finding it wasn't warm, pushed it open a crack.

Then he swore, threw it open the rest of the way, and charged in.

The fire wasn't in a fireplace; it was chewing up one side of the room, starting from a filing cabinet and crawling up the walls and across the carpet.

That wasn't the most alarming part.

The most alarming part was the figure, laying prone on the floor, with his head bashed in.

It didn't take Eliot more than a second to be sure the man was dead. But they had time before the fire caught him, and the man hadn't hit himself over the head. He had to take a closer look.

He rolled the stiff over – he'd been dead for a day, at least – and heard Sterling spitting out words he'd figured the other man was too dignified to use.

"You got a problem?" Eliot asked. "Or just don't like getting your hands dirty."

Sterling's eyes blazed. "We all have a problem," he said. "That is Alfred Emmerich."

"Not anymore," Eliot said grimly. "Get his feet."

"He's dead."

"And someone made him that way. After the hell I've been through looking for him, I'd like to know who. Get his feet."

Sterling gave him one more glare before he hoisted Emmerich's uncooperative form up, easily, with one hand.

Right. Long as Sterling was happy to do the work, Eliot was happy to let him. "Parker," he said, raising his voice a pinch. The fire wasn't big yet, but it was plenty noisy already.

"On it," she said, and he turned just in time to see her enter the room holding a fire extinguisher like a shotgun in a bad action movie.

She lay waste to the fire as gleeful as a kid at a carnival, but Eliot didn't let that distract him. He started to head out.

"And where are you going?" Sterling asked, striving for a nonchalant look as he lifted a corpse up to shoulder level.

"We came here tracking firewood," Eliot pointed out. "I don't know about you, but I don't see any firewood."

Sterling blinked. "Parker, finish this up quickly and catch up with us, will you?"

She whooped.

Sterling and Eliot caught each other's eyes and shrugged.

They cleared the rest of the second floor and found nothing suspicious.

"Would you go put the dead guy down?" Eliot asked.

"Does he make you nervous?" Sterling replied.

"He smells bad," Eliot pointed out. "And there's no point in keeping him to look for evidence if you're just going to bang him into every doorway we pass."

"I don't care to misplace him. I've put in just as much work as you have to finding him – more, if you'll recall."

"Fine, then, just keep your souvenir out of my way."

Sterling switched Emmerich from one hand to another like he was a piece of luggage. "Easily managed. Now do tell, what are we looking for?"

"You set a fire in the room because that's what you need to make sure burns," Eliot thought out loud. "But if you're really worried about someone coming looking, you make sure the whole house goes up. You suppose this place's got a furnace?"

Sterling pursed his lips. "Basement."

Eliot led the way here, too, because Sterling was still carrying around his morbid trophy.

He moved quietly into the dark. The reek of smoke hit his nose as he climbed down the basement stairs, but not, this time, from fire. There was a voice in the dark, muttering, cursing.

Eliot stopped to let his eyes adjust, but there was precious little light to see by, and a dull clatter told him the mutterer was stacking firewood.

He descended on the stranger like a ghost. "Drop it."

The mutterer turned on him and lashed out, but he was moving by instinct, not training, and he was kneeling near the ground. Eliot got a good hold on him, wrapped him tight so he couldn't strike out again, and felt for his hands.

"You know what trouble you could cause playing with matches?" he asked.

"I didn't – I won't tell anyone, I swear, this never happened, just let me go," the man babbled in a hoarse voice.

"Oh, you're going to tell," Sterling said cruelly. "You're going to tell us why you killed Emmerich."

"I didn't – "

"Bring him up," Sterling commanded. "I want to see his face."

Eliot glared at Sterling – not that he could see – but it wasn't like he wanted to hang out in a clammy basement. Beside, he wanted to check on Parker.

The man didn't want to climb up the stairs, but Eliot could be very persuasive, and it wasn't long before they emerged back into the living room, which seemed suddenly cheerful for all that it was dusty and uninhabited.

"Parker," Eliot called.

Her face appeared at the top of the stairs. "What?"

"You get that fire out?"

She gave him two thumbs up, while still holding the extinguisher.

"Then come down and say hello to our guest."

She raced down the stairs.

In talking to her, Eliot had released his captive, who had turned and caught sight of Sterling. He went pale and started babbling again. "Please, don't kill me, I didn't even know about any of it, I swear."

"God's sake, Sterling, put the dead guy down," Eliot chided. "You're already a creepy fuck."

Sterling placed Emmerich on a recliner. Eliot wasn't sure if that was better or worse than returning him to the ground.

"You're in a very strange position for a man who claims not to know anything," Sterling said.

"I don't!"

He looked so pathetic that Eliot almost wanted to believe him, just so he could wash his hands of him. "Why're you trying to burn the place down, then?"

"Look, nothing good is going to come of – any of it. You see that. So just – I won't do anything, I couldn’t do anything to you if I wanted to. Just let me go."

Eliot had a thought. "Hang on, d'you think we killed Emmerich?"

"Well, obviously," the guy said, before the wisdom of condescending to suspected murderers could work its way through his skull.

"Hang on, no," Sterling said. "He's trying to confuse us."

"I don't know," Parker shrugged. "Sounds like he's scared pretty shitless of us."

"And you know this?" Sterling asked.

She shook her head.

Eliot and Sterling scowled at her, both mad she was blocking out the stranger's thoughts. Agreeing with Sterling made Eliot's skin crawl, though, so he turned his attention back to their arsonist.

"You know this guy?" Eliot asked.

The man shook his head, unconvincingly.

"You know, you do sound an awful lot like someone I heard about recently," Sterling said. "That lab assistant, what was his name? The one your friend told us about, Eliot."

Eliot nodded. "Jason."

He hoped that Jason never played poker. The man flinched so obviously that Eliot almost felt pained by it himself.

"So. That's the second lie you've told us in two minutes of association," Sterling said. "I think you'll find I don't appreciate being lied to."

And Sterling was on Jason before Eliot could move to interfere, if he'd even wanted to. Jason wound up on the ground with Sterling digging a knee into his back and grabbing hold of his arms.

"Let's try this again," Sterling said. "What happened to Emmerich."

"I don't know!" Jason said. "I just found him that way."

"Yeah, and I guess he just fell and hit his head tying his shoes one day," Eliot said. "What was the fire for, did the old man always want a Viking funeral?"

"I just – " Jason squirmed, but there was no getting out of Sterling's hold, not for a weakling like him. "Look, you obviously think his research was too dangerous. I just didn't want any of it causing more trouble."

"Think you missed the boat on that one," Eliot said. "By about nine months, actually."

"It's not like I knew what he was up to," Jason said. "Not at first. And then he spooked and ran here and I was just – checking up on him. Except you guys got here first."

"You're mistaken," Sterling said. "We didn't arrive until after you set your fire."

"Then who killed him?" Parker asked.

Every set of eyes – even Jason's, an inch from the floor – darted around the room. Like someone was going to be hiding in the fucking shadows behind the entertainment system.

"He's been dead for a day," Eliot said. "Day and a half, maybe. They might be long gone."

"Why didn't they take the research?" Sterling muttered.

"Maybe they did," Eliot said. "You sure you torched everything, kid?"

"How should I know?" Jason said. "He never showed me anything important."

"Wonderful," Sterling said. "Our mastermind is dead, his work is scattered, charred, or stolen, and all we are left with is this moron."

Jason was about to object to that before he remembered that the person who said it could easily break his spine. He shut his mouth.

Eliot felt a little sorry for the kid. Hell, it was hard to hate anyone who got a pounding from Sterling. "What're you doing here, kid?" he said. "Last we heard, you were working in Emmerich's lab until you up and vanished."

"Didn't do such a good job of vanishing, did I?" Jason said gloomily. "If you could follow me."

"Answer the question," Sterling said. "Before we start wondering how much you know of Emmerich's research."

"I don't know shit," Jason snapped, looking as unnerved as hell. Well, Sterling was holding him down with one hand, looking bored all the while. It wouldn't have taken a genius to recognize the threat of what he could do if he was really trying. "If you think that Emmerich told me anything important, you're crazy. I know it wasn't – it wasn't supposed to happen yet, it all went wrong somehow. Emmerich thought someone had interfered with his work. Maybe he as right, I don't know. But he split, he didn't even tell me where he was going. He didn't tell me anything."

"You were working for him," Eliot said. "Figure'd he'd keep you in the loop."

"That paranoid old bastard? He didn't even put his first name on his business cards, he didn't like people knowing that much about him. I graduated first in my class and he had me organizing his planner and ordering supplies, because he didn't want me to know what he was working on."

"You found him here," Parker pointed out. "And you had a copy of his work." Her face was getting paler by the second. Eliot wanted to tell her to leave. There was no reason for her to be here if she didn't want to read his mind. "You were living in his house, with his research, and you followed him here."

"I took some stuff from his lab, after he left," Jason admitted. "Most of it he took himself, but I found some copies. I didn't know what it was."

"You worked for the man for a year and didn't know what he was working on?" Sterling asked. "I find that...unlikely."

From the way Jason winced, Sterling had followed this observation with an increase in pressure, though subtle enough that Eliot didn't catch it happening. "I didn't think he was turning people into monsters," Jason said.

"Language," Sterling admonished, and Jason flinched again.

"I didn't know he was – doing this. When he skipped town, I got bored. I thought I'd read his files just to see what he'd been up to. And then – when I knew what it was, that he'd done all this, I thought, I had to see."

"How'd you find him up here?" Eliot asked.

"I asked his guy," Jason said.

"His 'guy'." Sterling couldn't have sounded less impressed. "Please, do elaborate."

"His guy, his helper," Jason babbled.

"Thought that was your job," Eliot pointed out.

"I was his assistant – I called people, I ordered supplies, I answered his fucking email. Big day came, none of that meant anything anymore. But Emmerich was still doing his research, for a while, so he found a guy who could help him out. Get him things he needed. Played by the new rules."

"This guy got a name?"

"None that I heard. But when Emmerich was really starting to spook, thinking someone was going to come after him," Jason shot a dirty look at Sterling, best he could with half his face in the dirt, "this guy said he knew a place Emmerich could go. Invited me along but I didn't want to go, yet."

"You seen this guy before the day?" Eliot asked.

"No," Jason said. "And he didn't show up for a month or so afterward, either."

"If Emmerich was such a suspicious bastard," Sterling said. "Why did he trust this drifter with no name?"

Jason moved, awkwardly. Eliot wasn't sure if it was a shrug or if Sterling was trying to jog his memory again. "Guy was a smooth talker," Jason said. "And one of Emmerich's friends set them up. Fuck, man, I had other things on my mind at the time."

"Like Katie?" Parker asked.

Jason stared at her. "Who?"

"Katie," Eliot said. "The girl you left behind at Emmerich's house."

"What, the kid?" Jason said. "She needed a place to stay. A lot of people did. Once Emmerich was gone, thought someone might as well get some use out of the house."

"So much for that love story," Parker muttered to Eliot. "He can't even picture her."

"You sure?" Eliot asked. "I thought you were..."

"I am," Parker said. "But I can still tell he's confused. When you're talking about Emmerich, he pictures Emmerich."

"You came up here to find Emmerich," Sterling asked Jason, but he was watching Parker and Eliot. "Did you see him? Or was he already dead?"

"I saw him once," Jason said. "He was crazier than ever. I shouldn't have even bothered."

"Crazy how?" Sterling asked. "What did he say to you?"

"He said they were on to him. Don't ask me who they were, I don't think Emmerich knew, even. I didn't think they were real. But he said I had to help him. He wanted me to hide him."

"Did you?" Eliot asked.

Jason looked up at them as best he could. "You don't argue with a guy when he's like that. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm cooperating with you guys."

"Smart boy," Sterling said. "And what about Emmerich's 'guy?' Did he come here with Emmerich, or haven't you seen him?"

Jason was talking, answering the question, but Eliot couldn't hear. All his attention was diverted by the way Parker grabbed his arm.

"Eliot," she hissed. Her fingers were digging in painfully.

"What the hell?" He tried to be quiet, Jason stopped talking and Sterling looked at Eliot in supreme annoyance.

Parker reached out with her other hand, found Eliot's, and mashed their fingers mashed together, painfully.

Least there was no more point in saying anything where Sterling could laugh about it. Parker was standing so close she had to hear him.

What has gotten into you?

Parker jerked her head, half a shake, and kept her eyes on Jason's.

"I don't want to know," she said, not even making a sound, just moving her lips to make tiny little letters.

So leave.

"I want to know."

Know what.

Slowly, slowly, Parker stood up and walked for Jason, pulling Eliot along behind.

"Jason," she said. "Who was the man who told Emmerich to come here?"

"I don't know his name," Jason protested.

Sterling chuckled to himself. "You don't need to say anything."

Parker let go of Eliot with one hand, keeping the death grip on his fingers, and reached out for Jason's face.

Jason flinched before contact, clearly expecting something painful.

But it was Parker who got hurt.

"That's impossible," she said. "That can't be right."

Sterling's amusement faded at the prospect of failure. "You never told me she could be wrong about something," he asked Eliot.

"Not the time, Sterling," Eliot said. "And get up off there. We got what we need and you're gonna break the man's back."

Sterling pulled himself up off Jason with a sneer.

Parker seemed oblivious to the whole exchange, as did Jason, who was staring up at her trying to figure out what she'd done.

"Why would he do that?" she asked herself.

"Who – " Sterling started, but super strength or no super strength, Eliot shoved him to shut him up.

Parker turned to Eliot and looked him square in the eyes. She didn't have that strained look anymore. She was listening.

After several long moments, Parker's shoulders fell, and she let go of his hand. "You really did it," she said. "You really shut them out."

"Parker," Eliot said, because he thought he knew what she was talking about, but he'd had seven months of not thinking and he couldn't break the habit now.

"I guess now we know why they didn't make it back to Boston," she said. Her voice had gone completely flat, even by Parker standards. Eliot had heard GPS directions with more emotion. "They were busy running some con on Emmerich. I wonder why. It can't have been for money."

"Parker," Eliot said. There was no reaction in her face that indicated she could even hear or see him. He fought down the urge to take her hand again, because that way at least she'd hear him.

Sterling moved to say something, but Eliot gave him the dirtiest glare he could muster, and Sterling held his tongue, though not without a look of his own that promised trouble in the future.

Jason used the distraction to pull himself back up to his feet, though he moved slowly, not immune to the tension in the air.

"Parker," Eliot said again. "Parker, I don't know what you're thinking," though he could guess, "You gotta use your words."

Parker exhaled, still not looking at him. "The guy who told Emmerich to come here was Hardison."

January


"Maggie," Sterling said. "You look lovely as ever."

"James, my time is a little short these days for flattery," Maggie said. "If there's something you want – "

"Actually, Maggie, it's more for us," Eliot said, stepping around Sterling so Maggie could see him through the crack of the door's opening.

Maggie looked surprised. "Eliot?"

"And Parker," he added, because Parker was still lurking out of eyesight.

Maggie looked from him to Sterling a few times, drumming her fingers along the door. "I'm going to regret this," she said warily.

"Probably," Parker said.

Maggie never had known what to make of Parker. Eliot had the feeling that this all would have gone much smoother if he could have left the other two behind – but Sterling had guided them here, and Parker was hard to lose if she'd made up her mind about something, so there was nothing for it but to show up on Maggie's door step with a posse.

-

Eliot had hit the ceiling when Sterling, oh so casually, revealed that he might have a lead on how to find Hardison.

"You don't think you could have told us you knew where Maggie was this whole time?" he fumed. The sight of Parker, staring at a wall and unresponsive even to his yelling, only made him yell louder. "You don't think that's a thing we should have fucking known about?"

"Why?" Sterling demanded. "What possible need to you have of that information? What obligation does she have to you? Do I have to you?"

"We helped you find who you were looking for," Eliot started.

"You said you would try to," Sterling said. "I had no guarantee you'd be useful, or even that you'd stick to your word. And you never once said you were looking for anyone. I had the distinct impression that you weren't."

"Only because we didn't think – "

Sterling steamrolled over him. "And how could your bothering Maggie have changed any of that? How could it have done anything but upset her, and distracted you from our task?"

Eliot had forgotten, if he'd ever really thought about it in the first place, that Sterling had known Maggie and Nate for far longer than Eliot had. That there had been a time when Sterling, at least, considered them all to be friends. That maybe Sterling was capable of having friends that he wouldn't want harassed.

"It doesn't matter," Parker said, standing up fiercely. "We know now. And we aren't distracted. We have to know anything she knows.

So that was that.

-

Maggie let them inside, moving reluctantly. She looked so guarded that she had to know something. And whatever it was, she didn't want to share.

There was always the obvious way around that problem, but that didn't make Eliot feel any more at ease.

"Still chasing troublemakers?" Maggie asked Sterling as she poured them all cups of tea from an honest to god teapot. It was a relief to see that the mugs were mismatched and chipped; there was only so much domesticity Eliot could handle at this point. "Or have you decided to face reality with the rest of us?"

"Why do you have to say that like those are two mutually exclusive options?" Sterling asked.

Maggie turned her gaze to Eliot. "I suppose you're on board with his plans for apprehending the person behind April's little surprise."

"Right now our interests are a little closer to home," Eliot said. "We just found out that Hardison is still alive. Or was, as recently as a few months ago. And that Sophie was with him."

"Shouldn't that be good news?" Maggie asked. "You don't look terribly happy about it."

Eliot could think of three things less pleasant than getting into that in front of Sterling and Parker, and two of those things were fatal. "It raises some questions," he said. "Where they are now. Where they've been. And where Nate fits into all of this."

Maggie smiled sardonically. "And you think I might know the answers – at least to that last one."

"They weren't too far from here," Eliot said. "And Nate isn't above coming to you for help."

"Not anymore, no," Maggie said. "Which is thanks in part to you two, and your group. So I suppose you have a right to ask me about him."

It eventually dawned on Eliot that she was not going to continue without prompting. "And?"

"I can't answer," Maggie said. "Not in a way you'll find helpful, at least."

"How is this hard?" Parker burst out. "Have you seen Nate, have you not seen Nate?"

Maggie looked down at her teacup, fighting the weirdest, ugliest smile Eliot had ever seen. "It's harder than you'd think. Nate contacted me, yes."

"When?" Eliot said, trying not to sound too eager – but hell, even Sterling was leaning forward, greedy for knowledge. "What happened? What'd he say?"

"It was a while back, and I haven't seen him since." Maggie stood abruptly. "I'm not sure I'd want to."

She cleared away the mugs in front of them – all of which, aside from hers, had gone completely untouched – and carried them over to a sink for washing.

Parker stood and followed her. Not touching, but fiercely invading her personal space.

Eliot decided to show their cards. "Did he mention a guy named Emmerich?"

"The name came up," Maggie said. "Look, Nate was getting himself involved in something that I didn't like the sound of. I didn't like your plans either, James, when you told me about them. I can't control his business, and I can't control yours, but I think you'd be better off if you stayed out of it."

She returned to the table. Parker took a seat across from Maggie – edging Eliot out of said chair, which ruined the intense watchful thing he was going for – and stared directly into her eyes. And stared. And finally frowned.

"Wait, how are you – you're not letting me read your mind. That's not fair. How are you doing that?" Parker demanded. She sounded like a little kid, someone who didn't have the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Still, it was too bad they couldn't get an answer.

"Have you been holding out on us, Maggie?" Sterling said. "I seem to recall you telling me that you'd been passed over during April's little surprise."

"I was," Maggie said. "I'm just same old Maggie."

Parker placed her hands on the table and leaned forward, eyes wide open, until her face was inches away from the other woman's. "This is witchcraft," she breathed. "How...?"

Maggie smiled tightly. "I have a very organized mind."

Eliot was torn between thinking this was horseshit, and feeling annoyed that Maggie was apparently better at keeping Parker out than he was. He'd meditated in sub zero weather, with broken bones. He was disciplined, damn it.

Parker sat back, rubbing her eyes in defeat. "Figures," she muttered in disgust. "Maybe I could have got it if Eliot wasn't being all 'grr, I'm tough manly man, hear me roar'."

"I do not sound like that," Eliot started, then cut himself off. There was no point in arguing with her; just because Parker had complete access to anyone's thoughts didn't mean she was any good at interpreting them, and if she couldn't get his thoughts what hope did words have?

Maggie watched. "You could try asking, before you poke around in people's heads."

"They don't ask before they go dragging me into their heads," Parker argued.

Her gaze shifted its accusation from Parker to Sterling, who spread his hands in a gesture of feigned helplessness.

"You were the one telling me to accept reality," he said. "We must use the tools we have been given."

"Am I a tool, James?" she asked.

"No," Eliot said. "You're a friend. Maybe we don't know each other so well, and maybe you don't want any memories of Nate coming around anymore, but it's a lonely time and I for one don't want to be tossing away any friendships I can find." He stood. "Thanks for the tea. It was – unexpected."

Parker and Sterling stood, a few beats behind him, but Maggie wasn't watching them.

"Oh, you're good."

"Me?" Eliot asked.

"You drip sincerity," Maggie told him. "I know those tones. I lived with those tones. I think I helped create those tones."

Eliot didn't deny or feel any shame. "Can't a man be sincere and calculating at the same time?"

"I'm not sure I have ever known any other kind," Maggie said drily. "If I have I've forgotten."

"Well, there's three here who won't be troubling you any more," Eliot said, and moved to put his outer coat back on.

"Wait," Maggie said, sounding resigned, but there was a trace of amusement in her eyes. "Come back here."

Sterling started for the chair across from Maggie, intent on resuming control of the interview, but friendly demeanor or no Eliot wasn't shy or gentle about dissuading him from that course of action.

"Had a thought?" Eliot asked, and looked quickly back at Parker. "One you'd like to share with us?"

Maggie sighed. "There's a place that Nate told me about," she started.

-

They'd been camped the old firehouse that Maggie had pointed them toward for three days, waiting for any sign of people coming or going, before Eliot started wondering if she'd just sent them here to get rid of them.

Probably not. The directions and description of the place had been too exact; she couldn't have pulled it out of nowhere. But even if she'd told the truth, it didn't mean that Nate was still using the building.

It was hard to keep any thoughts but gloomy ones alive, with Sterling sighing dramatically on one side and Parker chattering endlessly on the other.

Eliot chased Sterling away after a day – after it started to look like there'd be a wait – and left him to mingle with the scant population in the neighborhood. It was an older place, run down in a mundane sort of way with weeds and potholes, but largely untouched by large-scale destruction. While there weren't a ton of people, and none of them were too sure about Eliot and his friends, it was something. And anyway, Sterling was occasionally capable of charming people, ones who didn't know him. If Eliot were to mingle with them, in his present state of mind, he'd only help them make up their minds about him, and not for any good.

Parker was harder to shake, and after she shrugged off a few suggestions that some fresh air might be good for her, Eliot dropped it. He'd hardly had a moment without Parker by his side since this whole mess started, and most of those moments had been spent worrying about her. If she'd just sit still and stop talking for three seconds, he'd hardly notice her anymore than he noticed his left foot.

"But the Louvre, that was a joke," Parker snorted. "I mean, they have a pyramid outside. Who can take them seriously after that?"

Eliot didn't answer, anymore than he'd answered the rest of Parker's inane chatter. He had friends who'd gotten into trouble by underestimating French forces.

"...So after a few weeks I just retuned the painting. I mean, no one believed I'd taken it anyway, and it's not like I wanted that creepy woman smiling at me. So I swapped it back..."

It wasn't such a bad story, except that Eliot had heard it at least three times over, and one of them had had Hardison running commentary.

"...And of course I got caught when I was swapping it out the second time. They thought the fake was the original!" Parker snorted and shook her head. "You'd think could at least find someone who could tell the difference between an authentic and a fake. Even if it is a Caffrey fake."

"Parker," Eliot said. "Does this story have a point?"

"Nope," Parker admitted.

"Isn't your voice getting tired?" he demanded.

Parker shrugged.

"Fine," Eliot said. "But I'm focusing here, so don't be offended if I don't answer back to any of your talking."

"Offended?" Parker snorted. "I'm counting on it."

Eliot proceeded to not say anything.

"Look at me, I'm grumpy Eliot, talking is not manly enough for me."

Eliot settled himself back into his seat, not sure if he was amused or disturbed by Parker's impression of him. "I told you I don't sound like that."

"I am a master warrior and not a buffoon," Parker continued gruffly.

"If I'm such a drag, why're you always hanging around?" Because there was so much else for her to do, obviously.

Parker didn't drop the Eliot-impression. "I need no one, I am a lone wolf."

"Yeah, lot of lone wolves go hunting around the entire fucking continent looking for the rest of the pack," Eliot muttered.

For a split second, he thought he saw her façade crack. But he wasn't looking closely. It might have just been a trick of the fading winter light.

"I have to say the opposite of whatever Parker says." She was starting to get hoarse from mimicking his voice.

"I do not," he said, and winced, because that was exactly what he was supposed to say. Now he was starting to get angry. He didn't think like that, at all –

Obviously. She knew that.

Eliot relaxed a little, before tensing back up; this wasn't the kind of game he excelled at. "Oh, look at me, I'm Parker," he said, raising his voice just a note or two, because damn if he was putting on a falsetto, even with an audience of one, and anyway it wasn't like Parker sounded that girly anyway. Even that was too much, and he had to clear his throat before he could continue. "I want to build a skyscraper of money so I can jump off it."

Parker stared at him, the strangest look on her face.

Eliot just tried to enjoy the first minute of silence he'd had all day.

"I don't sound like that at all," she said finally.

"Yeah, yeah," Eliot said. "Guess we're not so good at getting in each other's heads after all."

Parker took a seat beside him and wrapped her arms around herself. "Guess not."

Eliot kept his eyes ahead of him. They were on a stakeout, even if he was the only one acting like it.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I was in Austria?" he asked.

Parker shook her head.

"All right then," he said, and told her.

-

Eliot was starting to make peace with the idea of failure. So he was just getting on to relaxing when he saw someone heading toward the building, skipping along from shadow to shadow.

Between the distance and the darkness, he couldn't get a good look at the person's face. He didn't need to. He knew that gait, even after ten months. He'd have known it after ten years.

At least Parker had ducked out to go nag Sterling, an activity that never quite got old for Eliot, no matter how many times he witnessed it.

Just now, he was glad to have the moment to himself.

He waited until the figure entered the firehouse, then followed, quietly as he knew how.

He'd scoped out the layout of the building early on, once he was sure that no one was inside. He was able to move about just fine despite the dark.

Ahead of him, he heard a muffled thump – a toe hitting a raised threshold, maybe – and a few mild curse words. Typical.

He hung back until he saw a light go on in a room up ahead. He waited a few more seconds for his eyes to adjust to the light, then crossed the hallway and stepped into the room.

He wasn't big on words, so he just let the door swing shut behind him to announce his presence.

Turning around slowly – so he was expecting someone – it took a few seconds for their eyes to meet, and a few seconds more before an exaggerated look of shock told Eliot that he'd actually been seen.

"Eliot," Hardison breathed, like he really didn't believe it. "Eliot, Eliot, man, is that really you?" he said, getting louder and louder as he talked. He stepped quickly toward Eliot, spreading his arms out wide for a hug.

The second he was close enough, Eliot punched him in the jaw.

Hardison rocked back, hands flying to his face, looking betrayed. Hardison never could keep his goddamn heart off his sleeve.

"What the hell," is what Eliot assumed Hardison said. It was garbled, but then, Hardison wasn't usually the one going out and getting hit in the face. And Eliot had never hit him before, not like he meant it.

"You don't get to what the hell me," Eliot said. "Me punching you is not 'what the hell,' that's what you deserve. Parker and I waited for you for three fucking months with a bunch of psychopaths breathing down out necks and you never showed because you're out here playing scientist with Doctor Doom. That's 'what the hell'."

Hardison'd been making a big deal of massaging and stretching his jaw, but he stopped when Eliot said Parker's name. His eye lit up. It didn't do wonders for Eliot's mood, since there was every chance in the world he hadn't heard a damn word Eliot's said after "Parker."

"Parker's okay? Is she here? Where – "

"Nope," Eliot said. "I get answers first."

Hardison sighed, but not even he could deny that this was way past the time for theatrics and sulking. "Look, man, we tried," he started. "After – it took us a while to get back together. I had to find Sophie, which wasn't too easy, and then we both had to find Nate and that was a job and a half, you would not believe how that man went to ground when the shit hit the fan, we'd probably still be looking for him if he hadn't stumbled over us one day – and then we were looking for you when we got wind of the magic man who'd handed out all these party favors. Plus some less than happy recipients who were planning on having some words with him about his taste in gifts."

Eliot's anger, briefly sated after he'd punched Hardison, flared back up. "So you decided to look for Emmerich before you looked for us?"

"We looked for you, man," Hardison said. Eliot didn't need Parker's gift to know that he was telling the truth. It didn't calm him down any. "We looked everywhere for you, where the hell were you?"

Eliot hadn't thought about those first few days – weeks – not since they'd happened. It came trickling back up now, the whole world blowing up in his face, Parker catatonic, and somewhere inside it all a little voice telling him to just cut his losses and run.

"Boston," he said finally.

"Well I'm sorry if we didn't have time to follow you across state lines when any reasonable person would have stayed put – " Hardison stopped himself, holding out his hands to stop Eliot from saying anything, either. "By the time we heard about Emmerich, there were already people looking for him, and not to tell him thank you," Hardison said, voice low. "You two – we hadn't seen you, we'd looked everywhere, and we knew you could take care of yourselves. Emmerich couldn't, and we couldn't risk that something would happen to him. He was the only one who knew anything about all this."

"So you pulled a con on him?"

"Why do you say that like it's something dirty? We weren't going after him for money or anything stupid like that. We were trying to protect the future of humanity."

Eliot laughed abruptly. "Really funny. What future? You even been out there, man? People with powers are killing people without 'em, people without powers are killing each other out of panic, little children are turning into ice – what was Emmerich possibly going to do about that?"

"Obviously, the man's plan didn't turn out perfectly."

"Obv-"

"But now Nate is the one doing the planning. And you know how the man can plan."

Eliot eyed Hardison carefully. "Maggie told me this plan was no good."

"There's still a lot of work to do, we have most of the science down. We can turn it around."

Maggie's reservations had not been about whether or not Nate would succeed.

Eliot leaned against a wall. His angry energy was ebbing away, leaving him tired and dissatisfied. After so long, there surely had to be more he'd meant to say to Hardison, but he couldn't think of a damn thing.

"So where are they?" he asked finally.

Hardison hesitated for a split second.

"I'm not going to punch anyone else, okay?" Eliot said. "I've got it out of my system."

"Nice to know I'm special, then," Hardison sniffed. "Come on, Sophie should be back soon."

Eliot made himself push off the wall and follow Hardison deeper into the firehouse, arriving at an empty, cavernous garage. Hardison turned on a light, illuminating a small patch of room around them and turn the rest to shadows. Well, just because they had electricity still didn't mean they could waste any. The light was enough for Eliot to see that the table it sat on was covered with papers: notebooks, charts, equations, most of them illegible scribbles. He didn't strain his eyes trying to read them. He had a pretty good idea of what they were.

Hardison sat, but fidgeted, while Eliot propped himself up again, still standing. The way he felt, if he sat down he's squirm worse than Hardison, and the thought was inexcusable.

It was an awkward wait until Hardison could get his words out. "But Parker's here, right?"

"She's around."

"Around – just around, you know, really soaking in the apocalypse, seeing the sights, getting into who knows what trouble alone with the Brotherhood of Mutants out there – "

"You got a lot of trouble around here?" Eliot asked.

"Not really," Hardison admitted. "But you never know."

"She can take care of herself," Eliot said. "And Sterling's with her."

For a split second, the look on Hardison's face made everything absolutely worthwhile. "What are you doing with Sterling?"

"Trying not to kill each other, mostly," Eliot said.

"That's mostly what you're doing, or your trying not to mostly kill him?"

Eliot was about to remind Hardison that he didn't care for semantic games, but he didn't get a chance, because just then a woman entered the garage, through the back door.

She looked about sixty, white hair and wrinkles all over, and wearing an unflattering paisley pant suit.

She didn't look at all familiar to him, but the look of surprise on her face, the way her hand moved up toward her face before she caught herself, the flick of her eyes to Hardison, looking for reassurance, those were all terribly familiar.

"Sophie," he said. "You look like hell."

"You always knew how to make a woman feel special," she said, in a crackled voice that sounded like Eliot's third grade teacher. "Do excuse me for a moment while I change. I didn't realize we'd have company."

She stepped back outside briefly.

Eliot looked over at Hardison. "What are you guys up to that she needs to be sneaking around in disguise?"

Hardison grinned. "The locals feel a lot better about us when we've got an old lady staying with us. Figure she can't be much trouble."

Eliot shook his head. He never was the best at dealing with Sophie; her switching faces didn't help, even if she stepped outside to do so discretely. Parker had told them, through Jason's memories, that one of Emmerich's old friends had vouched for Hardison. At least now Eliot knew how that had happened.

"See you learned a new trick," Eliot said as Sophie returned.

"This?" Sophie laughed dismissively. "Honestly, it's such a joke. Turn myself into anyone I want? I could do that already, thanks."

"See? See that right there?" Hardison said. "You don't even appreciate what you have. You have a gift, woman, and you're just complaining. Why couldn't I get a superpower? I've been waiting all my life for one. Even when they laughed at me, 'cause there were no radioactive spiders, only now superpowers are real and I still don't get one. Do you believe this?"

Eliot growled. "It's not all fun and games."

"I'm sorry, did you want to complain about how lucky you are, too?"

"No, I'm saying you should save your little speech about the awesomeness of superpowers until you've met Parker."

That brought Hardison immediately back down again. "You said she was okay. I thought you said – "

"She's walking and breathing just fine," Eliot said. "But she's not having a party."

"What – "

"You talk to her," Eliot said. "That's her business."

Sophie watched him cooling. Sizing him up. "Then what are you here to talk about, Eliot?"

"Can't just be here because I missed you?"

"I would love if that were the case," Sophie said. "But it isn't, is it."

"No," Eliot said. "I want to talk about Emmerich."

She took a seat next to Hardison and gestured grandly for Eliot to sit across from her. "We must have first made contact with him – what, in June?"

Eliot cut her off. "I don't care about that part. I was thinking more about how he got his head bashed in."

"The man had a lot of enemies," Sophie said. "It sounds like you might be one of them."

"Most people didn't know who was responsible," Eliot said. "And most people couldn't get past the three of you when you've got a plan. Or didn't you bring him up north to keep him safe?"

"I don't know if you've been paying attention, but 'safe' is a whole new ballgame now, one for which I do not have the rulebook," Hardison said.

"How about justice?"

"What does this look like to you, CSI?"

Eliot looked around the lab, where Hardison had spread out the scraps of Emmerich's research. "Kind of, yeah."

"Look, what Hardison is loathe to say – and myself as well, but let's be perfectly honest – is that Emmerich wasn't the priority anymore. He quite plainly didn't want to work with us, or anyone for that matter, so we got what pieces of his research we could from him and left him to his solitude."

"You left him to get killed."

Sophie spread her hands open, helplessly. "What more could we have done?"

"Anything at all?"

Hardison rubbed his eyes. "Look, nobody's happy about the guy dying," he started. "But we haven't seen him since Nate disappeared, and even if we could somehow figure out what stranger, probably with unknown superpowers, killed him, there are other things that are more critical."

Eliot frowned. "Nate's gone? I thought you said this was his plan."

"I said he disappeared, not that he was gone," Hardison answered. "He's still running the show."

"What does that – "

"Hello, Eliot," a familiar voice said from behind him.

Eliot spun around. There was no one there.

No, that wasn't quite right. He couldn't see anyone. But the door was open wider than he and Hardison had left it, and the draft that had been blowing through was diminished. Like something was blocking it.

Eliot looked down at the ground and saw faint smudges of new footprints on the floor. They stopped about ten feet in front of him.

He looked up from that spot, to where his eyes must have been. His face was blank, but inside he was thinking about Maggie almost laughing when they'd asked if she'd seen him. She could have given them a fucking heads up.

"Nate," Eliot said. "What've you done to yourself?"

February


Eliot hadn't predicted Hardison new set up.

He should have; Hardison had never let storms or power outages or the authorities separate him from his pretty screens for long, so what was a little thing like the apocalypse? Even if it meant building a system from scraps, and jury-rigging it to a wobbly generator, and doing so without the mixture of orange soda and online gaming trash talk that usually fueled his work.

Eliot would've been more impressed if he could see what any of that was supposed to accomplish.

"My baby can accomplish anything," Hardison said, running a hand over the screen, because the geek's creepy over-attachment to machines hadn't dampened in the least.

"I'd have thought what with the Internet and most of the power grids going down, you'd finally have gotten some sunlight and fresh air," Eliot said. "Somehow you're even worse than before."

"I'm sorry, could you recreate the last few decades of computer science using stone knives and bear skins?" Hardison demanded. "Even my great, Spock-like genius does not throw together this lovely contraption in a day."

Eliot snorted. Hardison's 'lovely contraption' took up most of the room, smelled like diesel fuel, and looked like the afternoon leftovers of a yard sale.

Hardison ignored Eliot. "And then there was all that time trying to wrangle a paranoid scientist, who also had systems in need of rebuilding, not to mention trying to make sense of the chicken-scratch he called handwriting – "

"You're one to talk," Eliot muttered.

" – So sorry if I haven't been stopping to smell the roses."

Eliot had mostly been frustrated and bored, up to this point, but now he was starting to get a real feeling of uneasiness. "You've really spent all your time working on this thing?" he asked.

Hardison patted his machines again. "Don't let the mean, uncivilized man call you a thing. You are beautiful." To Eliot, he answered, "After everything shook out the way it did?" Apparently even Hardison's glibness couldn't talk about the previous April too directly. "Yeah, it seemed like a good idea."

"So you haven't been out there?" he asked. "You haven't seen Boston, or any of the cities, or the towns? Anything?"

Hardison looked defensive. He thought he was in for another lecture, never mind that Eliot hadn't bothered since the first day. "You know I haven't seen Boston."

Eliot let it drop. If Hardison couldn't see what was wrong with that, Eliot wasn't going to beat his head on a brick wall trying to explain it. "What good is a computer supposed to do if you don't have anything else to hook it up with?" he asked. "There aren't any other computers for it to talk to."

Hardison's smile returned, the same condescension it always had when he talked to Eliot about tech things. "What is a computer good for, it's good for computing," he said, then looked down at the cryptic scrawls that passed for Emmerich's research notes. "And we can use all the help we can get."

"It can't hurt, right?" Parker said, thumping down in the seat next to Eliot and nudging Hardison with her elbow - or she would have, if Hardison hadn't jumped at her sudden unannounced arrival.

Eliot managed to stifle his own surprise, but just barely. The effort didn't leave him in a good mood. "What're you doing sneaking up on people like - "

Parker snorted. "Like what, a thief?"

Eliot scowled. That wasn't what he'd been about to say.

"I gotta practice," Parker said. If she'd heard what he'd thought, she ignored it. "Once we get things back to normal, it's breaking and entering, pick pocketing, and grand larceny for me." She sighed, dreamily. "My skills are getting rusty. I can't remember the last time I scaled a wall."

"You dropped down on those thugs just fine, in Boston."

"But that was ages ago," Parker said.

Hardison nodded.

Eliot felt a weird possessiveness at the gesture. Hardison didn't ask 'what thugs' - he just agreed. Parker must have told him about the things he'd missed.

The idea left a bad taste in Eliot's mouth, which made him more uncomfortable than ever.

"You don't need any practice being creepy," Eliot muttered, to have something to say. "You've always been just fine at that."

Parker pouted, so her feelings couldn't have been too hurt. "Being a thief isn't about being creepy."

"So what's your excuse?"

"What's yours, man?" Hardison asked. "You've been all 'stoic super soldier' worse than ever lately."

Parker clapped. "That's what I said!"

"Maybe I just think with all you optimists around daydreaming all the time, it couldn't hurt to have someone actually working," Eliot said.

"Oh, work," Hardison waved a hand. "I work, I work hard. Nothing's getting done until I figure out how Emmerich made all this happen. Now if by work, you meant 'sulking around being gloomy,' you'll want to go find Sterling or Nate for that."

"Yeah, if I could find him."

Hardison shrugged. "You get used to it, man."

Eliot had had a week now to get used to Nate, and he couldn't see how another week, or two, or a year would make any difference. "I don't like that he's hiding himself."

"You know what that is, that is prejudice against the super powered right there," Hardison said.

"I don't like Parker sneaking up on me either," Eliot argued. "I don't like people sneaking up on their friends."

"Don't blame Bruce Banner cause the Hulk kicked you around."

He scowled. "What does that even mean?"

Hardison threw his hands up in the air and turned to Parker, theatrical in his dismay. "Do you see what I have to work with? That's - I'm not even talking an obscure reference, I didn't just throw down Psychlocke, okay. Hulk is mainstream, even if the Ang Lee movie – "

"I think he just wanted to know why you were talking about the Hulk," Parker explained. "Not who the Hulk is."

"Oh." The wind fell out of Hardison's sails. "I'm just saying, it's not like everyone who's been affected by this thing has an exact idea of what they're doing, all the time." He couldn't quite stop his eyes from darting over to Parker's still face. "Which just makes it all the more important that I get my work done. You don't like not being able to see Nate, then stop bothering me and go find some cement blocks to chop in half."

Eliot grinned, in the way that he knew Hardison found spooky. "Anyone can chop a cement block in half. I've got my own ways to keep busy."

Hardison shuddered. "All right, Scary Stories with Eliot Spencer is wrapping up for this week, tune in next week when Eliot kills five men with a spatula, probably. You want to help me with this?" he asked Parker.

Parker shook her head. "In a minute. I'm going with Eliot. In case he can't find a spatula."

Hardison shuddered again. Eliot watched until he'd got back to pouring over lines of data on the screen, then followed Parker out of the room and down the hallway.

"Here I thought you'd had enough of me to last a lifetime," he said.

She stopped in the middle of the hallway, far enough away from Hardison's open door that they couldn't hear him muttering to himself.

"He's not here," Parker said.

Eliot raised an eyebrow.

"Nate. He's not here. So you can say whatever you want."

"Fine," Eliot said. "I don't like it. Him creeping around. I don't think Sophie or Hardison like it, either, but you wouldn't catch them admitting it."

"Because he might be listening," Parker added.

Eliot shrugged. "Yeah, that too. What is he thinking, walking around like that?"

Parker started to say something, but stopped herself.

"Do you know?"

She shook her head. "I'd have to see him to read his mind," she said quietly. "He's like Maggie – too good at keeping his thoughts inside."

"He always was a poker-faced bastard," Eliot muttered.

Parker quirked her mouth into a small, bitter small. "But I can tell if he's around. And I get a feeling..."

She didn't finish. "A feeling?" Eliot prompted.

"I think Hardison was wrong about him," she admitted finally. "I think Nate likes it. Being," she made some vague hand gesture.

"Invisible?"

Parker shrugged. "Yeah, that too."

"So you don't think he's stuck that way."

Parker very slowly shook her head.

"Great." Eliot looked back over his shoulder, not knowing what he expected to achieve with that. "Here I'd been thinking we'd find him and he'd be dead drunk."

"No, you'd been thinking he was dead," Parker said flatly. "But he's not, and neither's Hardison or Sophie, and that's supposed to be a good thing. So stop being all snide and mean to Hardison, or just go stomping off with Sterling. At least he expects you to not like him."

Eliot gaped at her, but Parker didn't stick around to watch. She walked back to Hardison's lair, for all the good it would do her.

-

"Why the hell are we playing like this is a job we're setting up," Eliot muttered as he got into his seat.

"I don't know, I rather like the ritual of it," Sophie said, sitting across from him.

"Pretending like Hardison can just set up some screens – "

"Hey, I worked hard for these screens, there isn't anything 'just' about it – "

" – and do the run through and we'll go con some people." Eliot shook his head.

"What's wrong with that?" Parker asked.

"There's nothing to con," he answered. "It's not like anyone has any money anymore."

"No," a voice from the head of the table said. Eliot and Hardison jumped; Sophie played it cool, but her mouth tightened and her hands shook, a tiny bit. Only Parker was truly unsurprised. Would have been nice of her to warn them. "People don't have money any more. But they have something that matters."

Parker's head whipped around. "Are you saying money doesn't matter?"

Glad as Eliot was to hear Parker sounding like herself, it wasn't enough for Eliot to be happy with the situation. He took it out on Sterling. "Nice of you to show up," he said, as Sterling strolled in.

"I beg your pardon," Sterling said, meaning anything but that. "Do continue, I'd hate to inconvenience you at all, Mr. Spencer."

There was a sigh from the empty chair at the head of the table. Apparently invisibility didn't stop Nate from getting annoyed. "Hardison, get us up to speed."

Hardison fell into the same patter he'd always used in these things, showing off what he'd learned. The graphics weren't as good as they'd have been a year ago, but it wasn't necessary. Everyone had a clear picture of what'd happened.

"Alfred Emmerich, deceased, scientist, near as we can tell went looking for ways to pimp the human genome. Bit of a recluse and a terrible conversationalist, by the way, man could make a brick wall feel chatty. And it beats me how he ever got anything done, since he left big gaps in all of his records – "

"Perhaps he was only writing down what he couldn't count on himself to remember," Nate observed drily. "And we know all this. We also know that he accomplished something, even if it wasn't what he intended."

"Ah," Hardison said, pointing at Nate's chair. "But do you know how he accomplished it? That, my friends, is my big coup de grace. My fait accompli. My Arc de Triomphe."

Sophie opened her mouth, then snapped it shut, shaking her head in resignation.

"The suspense is killing me," Sterling uttered.

Parker beat Hardison to the punch. "Nanobots!"

"Nanobots?" Eliot said. Things had been ridiculous, sure, but, "What've you been drinking in that lab of yours?"

"Nothing," Hardison said. "And it makes perfect sense – "

" – Do you even know what those words mean, 'perfect sense' – "

"There had to be an agent to work these changes," he said. "You can't just magic this into people. This took time. They were in the water, the air – they got into us one by one, biding their time, then bam – the switch got flipped to activate them. Which was not quite as simple or painless a process as Emmerich had hoped."

"But then, he hadn't foreseen a lot of things happening," Nate said. "His own murder included. But why only half the population?"

Hardison shrugged. "Search me. But I can tell you, he missed an opportunity there. There's nanobots in everybody. The half that changed was just the half who'd hit critical mass."

"Jason said it happened too soon," Parker chimed in. She turned to Sterling and Eliot. "You remember? He said it made Emmerich even more paranoid, because it wasn't supposed to have gone off yet."

"It was supposed to be worse," Sterling said. "Wonderful."

Eliot was suddenly, in a way he would never admit to, uncomfortable with the idea of tiny robots floating around in his body. He coughed. "So turn the bots off."

"Wow. Turn them off. That was – thank you, that was really insightful. Look now, do I tell you how to beat people up?"

"Yeah, all the damn time."

"So let me just do the technical stuff, all right?" Hardison continued as though Eliot hadn't answered. "The nanobots aren't the ones using the powers. They just made the change possible. Their job is done. Everything that happens after? That's all human, baby."

"Could we reprogram the nanobots," at least Nate didn't seem too happy about that word either, "to change people back?"

Invisible Nate was even worse than nanobots.

Hardison turned serious. "I don't know how," he admitted. "I've been beating my head on that and all it's giving me is a headache. We don't have the hardware, or the software, or the data. Emmerich might've been working on that, but the man did not like taking notes, and somebody killed him before he could say."

More than one head turned.

Sterling smiled. "I do believe I'm insulted. I would never have wasted a resource like Emmerich."

Hardison still looked suspicious, but he kept going. "Look, all I'm saying is, don't expect a rabbit out of my hat right now. It's going to take me some time to fix it."

"This is the end of the world," Eliot said. "You don't fix this, you survive it."

"This is a tech problem, sometimes it feels like that is all I do, is fix tech problems. What you did, just there? That's negative thinking, and it's small picture."

"How about you go out there and see what's actually going on in the world before you decide you know what the big picture is."

Parker groaned and thumped her head on the table. Sophie and Sterling limited themselves to a restrained eye roll. This was becoming an old argument. Hardison hadn't given up hope that something could be done, with what they had of Emmerich's research and equipment, to undo the changes. Eliot thought it was impossible, and that they'd all be better off if they could accept that and move on. Parker claimed to agree with him, but spent so much time helping Hardison tinker that Eliot didn't believe her. Sterling felt that a cure was a secondary goal to re-establishing order on a large scale, which sounded good in theory, but no one could agree on what exactly that order would look like, if it could even done at all. Sterling spent a lot of time pestering the people who'd remained in this relatively quiet corner of the world, when he wasn't talking with Eliot or Sophie about the places they'd been since April. Eliot was sparing with the details, and never stuck around to hear what Sophie had to say. He didn't care where she'd been; it hadn't been Boston.

Whatever opinions Nate had about any of it, he kept to himself.

That didn't stop Hardison, or any of them, from thinking of him as being in charge. It just meant they didn't know where they were charging to, and Eliot hated feeling blind.

"Hardison." Nate didn't let them get into it all over again. "See what you can do. There's no sense in making a decision without having all of the information. Eliot. You wanted to talk about Emmerich?"

Eliot sighed. "All we know is he was hit over the head. His assistant claims he didn't see anything useful."

"And he didn't," Parker said.

Eliot looked at her.

"What? You made it sound like you didn't believe him."

"Someone had to know something," Eliot argued.

"Plenty of crimes go unsolved even in the best of times," Sterling pointed out.

Sophie batted her eyelashes at him. "Stop it, you'll make me blush."

"And I don't like the thought that someone was interfering with his work," Eliot said. "Might have been none of this would have happened at all but someone screwed it up. Or sabotaged it."

"Unfortunately, Emmerich's office is hundreds of miles away, and he can't tell us anything about that," Nate said. "What precisely were you hoping to learn from any of it?"

Parker gave Eliot a weird look, which didn't go unnoticed by the rest of the table. So now he had to share what he'd been thinking or they'd know he was holding back.

"I want to know why the hell someone would do something like this," Eliot said. "This isn't science, it's playing God. Even if he didn't mean for it to happen like this. Aren't scientists supposed to start playing with rats or something, not unleashing their experiments on the whole damn world?"

"He has a point." The chair Nate was sitting in swung around from Eliot back to Hardison. "This is too widespread, even for an accidental exposure; we've covered half of the United States between us all, and the rest of the world must be in the same shape or we'd have seen signs of them by now. Rescue workers or invaders, either way."

"Or perhaps they prefer to leave the damned alone," Sterling said drily.

"Oh, you are in a mood today," Sophie chided him. "Who's the damned, then, the ones who changed or the ones who didn't?"

"Looks to me like we're all in the same mess," Eliot said.

"But not everyone is equipped to handle it." It was Nate's putting-an-end-to-this voice. "And I for one would like to know what can be done – anything – to change that."

March


Things didn't change much after their strategy meeting, except that as spring started to think about making an appearance, everyone became more and more restless.

Hardison hardly ever budged from his cave-like laboratory, and he and Parker would talk about nanobots and their programming and how they could have spread until their eyes were glassy and their voices worn hoarse. Eliot didn't spend much time with them; they either enthused to him about some new theory, wanting his input, or else snapped at him if he distracted them in any way. Since he didn't have any input, they spent most of the time snapping at them. Once or twice he found himself deliberately heading to the lab to disturb them, and shook himself off. He didn't think they had any chance of succeeding, anyway, so why was he trying to find ways to slow them down?

Sophie was almost worse for having no real focus for her direction. She found projects – the small community surrounding the firehouse had things they needed rebuilt, torn down, or fixed – but Eliot could tell they didn't keep her happy. He didn't like the thought of Sophie Devereaux trying to find ways to amuse herself.

He spent more time with her, shooting the breeze and playing card games, when she wasn't busy in town. This place was smaller than Cooperstown, but Eliot had a long memory.

Sterling disappeared late in February, claiming he'd be back if he found anything. Eliot doubted he'd find anything, but figured he'd be back at some point. There were too few familiar faces to go throwing some away.

That left Eliot at Nate's disposal for long stretches of time, and he found that Hardison was half-right. It didn't stop being weird that he couldn't see Nate. But he stopped focusing on it so completely.

"Parker says you met some interesting characters in Boston," Nate prompted him one day.

"Don't know about interesting," Eliot said. "One power-hungry man fast talking people into doing whatever he wants. You see that everywhere."

"Tell me about him anyway," Nate said. "I always like to know what my fellow con men are up to."

Eliot told him the story. In a way, it was easier than if he'd been able to see Nate's face, and his individual reactions to each detail. It was easier than telling Sophie or Hardison, too, because Eliot knew Nate wouldn't think the telling absolved him for his absence. Nate never absolved himself from anything.

After asking several questions about Lindsey's ability to find people like Parker, Nate sighed. From the sound of it, he was leaning back and resting his feet on the table in front of him. "I don't suppose the bar is still in good shape," he said thoughtfully.

"Could be worse," Eliot said. "Your place was trashed, though."

Nate laughed.

Sometimes Eliot could almost forget that anything had changed. Sometimes he could almost think they really were just out of town on a job, and there'd be a radio in his ear so he could hear Hardison complaining, and a harness for Parker, and some outlandish new accent for Sophie.

And then Nate would say something like:

"We could use a skill like that."

And Eliot would wake up again.

"I'm happy leaving people to their own business," Eliot said. "They've got enough to deal with, especially the ones that've changed."

He couldn't say how, but he knew that Nate was looking right at him. "Do you pity us that much?"

"All I know is, a lot of people I've seen haven't turned out so well in the head."

"Parker's changed."

"Parker is her own case," he said, which seemed both more and less cruel than saying she'd always had a screw loose.

"And Sophie?" Nate prodded. "And me?"

"It hasn't helped your social skills much," Eliot said. "But you only use those when you need something, anyway, so who cares?"

Nate hmmmed. "I'm almost positive you used to respect me."

Eliot stood up. "Then maybe you're not so well in the head after all."

Nate laughed again, and Eliot smiled a bit, and then he went off to find Sophie, because if anyone could ever tell what was going on with Nate, it was her.

She was alone in her bedroom, changing back from the old woman whose name, apparently, was Denise. Which just made Eliot wonder if there was a real Denise, which made him shudder. Still, he stepped inside the room and shut the door behind him too quickly for someone else to follow, just in case.

Sophie turned to him, eyebrows raised. "Can I help you?"

"Maybe," he said. "What's Nate really playing at here?"

"My, my, you don't beat around the bush," Sophie said.

"I never did," Eliot reminded her, "and you asked."

"No, you have always been painfully direct. And I suppose our long separation hasn't helped either my memory or your mood." She sat on her bed and motioned for him to join her. "Although I do wish you would stop blaming us all for that. There were some rather difficult circumstances."

Eliot scowled. "I'm not here to talk about that."

"No, but I am," Sophie said. "You have got to stop holding a grudge. I am sorry we weren't there, mostly for Parker's sake, though who knows if having more people around would actually have done her any good. And I wish we could have made it to Boston. Though you could have stayed and looked for us. I do wonder why that didn't occur to you first. Why you thought running away to a different city and leaving no trace was the simplest solution."

Eliot looked away. "Return to base. It's standard protocol."

"Or is it just that you were already out of town before the adrenaline died down and you even thought of us?" Sophie asked. "Maybe the only surprising thing is that you took Parker with you at all."

"I wouldn't leave her behind," Eliot snapped.

"You didn't seem to have any trouble leaving us behind," Sophie said.

He turned back to argue with her, but the look on her face stopped him. "That's no fair you turning my words against me," he said.

"Someone had to let you know how tiresome you've become." There was no shame or apology in her voice. She sounded rather pleased with herself. Not that there was any other way for her to be and still be Sophie Devereaux. Maybe it was a good thing. She, at least, had shown no sign of losing herself. "And maybe now you'll stop growling at Hardison and worrying about Nate. I don't want you to turn out a paranoid old man like Emmerich."

"Emmerich was right. He thought someone was after him, and someone bashed in his skull," Eliot said. It still irritated him that they couldn't find out who – with Lindsey fresh on his mind, it occurred to him that many people might have had new tricks for finding someone who'd wronged them, but he turned down that line of thought. "And Nate hasn't exactly been himself."

"Perhaps not," Sophie said slowly. "But who has?"

"You just told me that I'm the same as always," Eliot said. "Sterling's still an annoying bastard. Hardison's going to rebuild the Internet if it kills him. Not to mention the way you just played me like a mark."

She had a thoughtful expression on her face.

"So what is Nate up to, really?"

"What do you want me to say, Eliot?" she asked. "I don't know what he's planning. I'm not sure he has a definite plan yet or just an idea. If he doesn't even know his long game, how am I supposed to?"

"You know him better than anyone," Eliot said. "Guess."

She laughed, a little sadly. "I guess that he's going to do what he always does. Manipulate everyone, annoy you, infuriate me, lord about like he's the savior of the world, and somehow fix whatever it is he set out to fix against all odds. Call it business as usual."

"Man's been invisible for a year, how is that business as usual?"

"Oh, Eliot," she sighed. "Nate's always been able to turn himself invisible. Didn't you ever pay attention on any of those cons we pulled?"

"Don't give me metaphors," he warned her.

She patted him on the shoulder. "I promise to keep an eye on him for you – metaphorically," she teased. "If you shall promise to lighten up."

"I'm not sure that's something I can promise."

"I'll promise it for you, then," Sophie said. "And I always collect on debts."

-

Eliot went to poke his head in on Hardison and Parker. In the spirit of the promise he hadn't made to Sophie, he was planning on being polite, even if it meant listening to useless babble about nanobots.

It didn't go according to plan. Parker took one look at him and said, "Oh, that again."

"What again?" Hardison asked, because he was incapable of ignoring something that wasn't his business.

"Yes, that, again," Eliot said. "Which isn't why I came to talk to you."

"Yes, because you wanted to hear all about Hardison's progress with re-starting the bots," Parker rolled her eyes. "He's brooding about Nate again."

"Why are you brooding about Nate?" Hardison asked. "He's here, he's fine, we're all together. What is there to brood about?"

Parker rested her chin on her hands. "Eliot always finds something to brood about. He thinks Nate's up to something."

"Of course Nate's up to something," Hardison told Eliot. "Something called saving the world, and if you haven't noticed, some of us are trying to help."

"I didn't come here to save the world," Eliot said. "Or to talk to people who act like they're in the interview segment of a beauty pageant."

"What'd Nate do to spook you this time?" Parker asked.

"Nothing," Eliot said. "I don't like the way he talks about powers, that's all."

"How so?" Hardison asked, sounding interested. He actually looked away from the computer screen, for one thing.

"He doesn't sound like a man who's trying to figure out how to turn them off."

"Then why else would he be having me bust my ass getting these nanobots running again?" Hardison asked.

"Guess we'll find out soon," Parker said.

Eliot turned to her. "What do you mean?"

"Hello? I told you when you came in, Hardison's almost got the re-start problem figured out," Parker said. It was the same tone of voice she used when Sophie talked about going to museums to look at the artwork.

Eliot had lived through enough of Nate's crazy plans to know that they generally worked. Knowing that this plan was that much closer to being done should have made him feel better.

It didn't.

"So what now?" Parker asked.

"Nothing," he said. "Tell me more about nanobots."

Parker didn't buy it for a second. But it distracted Hardison and gave Eliot a chance to play nice for as long as he could manage. Then he escaped back up to his room to think.

Before he left, Hardison stepped out from behind his control center and gripped his shoulder. "Hey, man, it's okay," he said. "Nate's a bit freaky right about now, but it's going to be better once give those 'bots some termination-with-extreme-prejudice."

Eliot stared at Hardison. "You do terrible impressions. Have you ever even seen Apocalypse Now?"

"Hey you know what? End of the world, no Netflix, no Red Box, nobody to prove that that isn't what Apocalypse Now sounds like."

-

As Hardison took no end of delight in reminding him, Eliot wasn't a tech expert. He couldn't write new code or hack the Pentagon or untag those photos of him that Hardison had put on Facebook. But he wasn't completely clueless. It's just that his line of work didn't often call for creating things with technology.

He knew all about how to wipe things out.

Probably destroying Hardison's work once the geek had fallen asleep at his keyboard was a violation of Sophie's command to play nice, but he could make it up to them later.

-

He was sitting down to breakfast with Sophie and Nate, carefully not looking at the piece of toast that vanished bite by bite in mid-air, when they heard Hardison yelling from upstairs.

Eliot sprang up, running to the rescue, with Sophie close behind. A look behind showed him that she'd turned herself into a tall, muscled linebacker of a man, however much good that might do in case of trouble. As far as he could tell, Nate wasn't following, or at least not very closely.

Closer to the scene, there wasn't any sign of danger, just Hardison yelling. They arrived at Hardison's lab just after Parker, who marched straight in and grabbed Hardison's arm before he could throw one of Emmerich's notebooks at his computer screens. Since she wasn't wearing gloves, she must have known instantly what the fuss was about.

"The data's gone," she told Eliot and Sophie before they could ask. "Everything we'd been working out for the nanobots."

"How?" Sophie asked.

Parker shrugged. "It's possible there was a glitch in the system."

"A glitch? In my system?" Hardison asked.

"It is kind of thrown together," Parker said. "It's the nicest scavenged thrown-together end of the world computer system I've ever seen, but it's still – you know. Not perfect."

"Not perfect means it doesn't have an 80 inch screen and an interactive voice system that sounds like Majel Barrett," Hardison insisted. "It doesn't mean information could get wiped in the middle of the night."

"Apparently it does mean that," Nate said. At some point he had joined up with the rest of them. "Can you salvage it?"

Hardison's shoulders slumped. "I'll get to work on it, man, but this is a step back. And I'm going to have to check the whole damn system, too, so this doesn't happen again – " he kept muttering, more and more quietly, about all the things he had to do. The rest of them drew back to leave him to his work and his lamenting.

"Well, shit," Eliot said. "Not the best news to wake up to."

"Why Eliot," Nate responded drily. "I didn't know you cared. I thought you were indifferent about this project."

"I'm going to have to put up with him moping for days," Eliot said.

He knew he could keep guilt off his face. But however else Nate may have changed, he was still as sharp as ever, which meant he didn't need to see it to know it was there.

Whether he saw it or not, he didn't mention. "I don't think there's much I can do to help, so I'm going to finish my breakfast."

Sophie slipped back into her usual form. "Practical and selfish, I love it. I'll join you."

"Hardison could probably use another pair of hands," Parker said. "Maybe two. Eliot?"

"Sure, why not," Eliot said. "My morning's shot anyway."

They didn't re-enter the lab until after Sophie and Nate had gone, which gave Parker plenty of time to eye Eliot.

"Turn me in or don't," he said. "But don't glare me to death."

"You know he's going to be impossible to live with now," she said.

Eliot winced. He did know.

"I just hope it was worth it," she said.

"Yeah, me too."

-

The next three days were a blur of computer screens, Hardison's grumbling, and the distant view of the outdoors as Eliot passed the windows in the hallway. Spring was arriving, but the three of them were locked inside by obsession and single-mindedness. Hardison had finally given in and accepted that there was no recovering the lost data. That meant, after three supremely thorough checks on the system, having to reconstruct the work of two months as quickly as possible.

It got so tiresome that Eliot thought once or twice about just throwing his hands up and admitting that he'd deleted the data. What stopped him was the thought of Hardison's response. He wasn't normally intimidated by the geek, but this time he made an exception.

There was also the thought of what Nate would have to say about anything, though Eliot was pretty sure Nate knew he's thrown the monkey wrench into the gears. Nate didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. It's what Eliot would have suspected, if he'd been in Nate's shoes.

So he, Parker, and Nate all knew that Eliot had sabotaged their own goal, but they all got together to eat and get status updates from Hardison and pretended like nothing had happened. It was enough to drive a man mad, and it might have continued indefinitely if Sterling had come back.

Eliot figured that Sophie's promise for him to lighten up did not extend to Sterling. "Give up already?" he asked.

"Actually," Sterling said as he sauntered in. "I've met a rather interesting person."

"Don't keep us waiting," Sophie said. "God knows we could use some new faces."

"Not here," Sterling said. "She wouldn't come with me."

"I like her already," Parker grinned.

Sterling scowled. "But she's interested in meeting you all, for whatever reason."

"And why would we want to do that?" Nate asked.

"Good of you to ask. She makes things work."

There was a brief pause. Eliot ground his teeth. He was going to have to say something, wasn't he.

"I'm guessing you don't just mean she's a mechanic."

"Of course not," Sterling said, like Eliot was the one talking stupid. "She fixes things that have no reason to work, just by touching them. Her lights turn on and off despite her house not having any power."

"She could fix Hardison's system," Parker said to Sophie.

Sterling frowned. He'd missed that drama. "Or more to the point, she could fix these nanobots you're all so excited about."

"She could fix the nanobots we're all so excited about," Parker said to Sophie.

"What an idea, Parker, how fascinating," Sophie replied.

"You think it's a good idea to get some strange woman mixed up in this?" Eliot asked. "We don't know anything about her."

"No," Nate said, "But that's an inconvenience, not an obstacle. We can learn about her. And the payoff here would be immense."

That was what Eliot was afraid of.

-

They'd talked endlessly about Sterling's find, once they could drag Hardison away from his screens to come chime in, first in disbelief and then giddy fascination.

"But how does it work," he kept asked.

"Does it matter, as long as it does?" Sophie wondered.

"If you can't see how it works, there's no guarantee it is working," Nate mused.

That was one of Nate's few contributions to the conversation. If they'd suddenly found a new angle on a con, one that could speed their timetable up and give them a new way in, Nate would have laid out the new plan for them. Now he just listened, his own thoughts indecipherable.

Eliot kept quiet. He already knew what he needed to know.

It still got dark pretty early, so by the time they wrapped up their discussion they decided it was too late to do anything about the woman that night.

What they were planning on doing about her tomorrow was beyond Eliot. Was Nate going to come visit her and talk her into helping them? Because she was sure to be in a rush to trust a man who wouldn't let her see him.

It didn't matter what they were planning. Eliot wasn't going to let it come to that. He waited until everyone had settled down for the night and snuck outside. He could make his way along just fine. Sterling, usually suspicious, told them all how he'd found this woman in the first place. He clearly hadn't thought any of them would go looking for her in the middle of the night.

Eliot stopped to wonder for a second why he was doing this.

But if he'd had any doubts, they vanished when he heard someone behind him.

An honest man didn't worry that people were lying to him.

"You following me, Nate?" He didn't bother turning around.

"You going somewhere, Eliot?"

"Maybe I need some fresh air."

"Fair enough, you have had a stressful few days. Helping Hardison and Parker salvage data. Having to put up with Sterling again, I know you two don't get along so well. And of course destroying Hardison's work."

"You already know that," Eliot said. "You're just wasting time now."

"I am wasting time because I am trying to think why you would do something like that," Nate said. "I never thought you were so petty."

"I'm being petty?" Eliot asked. "Who's been sneaking around for months because it makes him feel important?"

Nate ignored that. "We should have come found you in Boston," he said. "And maybe things would have been better. Maybe. Or maybe Emmerich would have died before we could get any of his research, and there'd be no hope of fixing anything. Is that the idea?"

"I don't have any objections to fixing things," Eliot said. "Except I don't think that's what you're really trying to do. Sophie and Hardison are so convinced this is another stealing-back-from-the-big-bad-guys kind of plan, but I don't buy that. Maybe it's because they never stopped seeing you for who you were before April, and I had to meet you all over again. Maybe it just made me think differently about who you were before April anyway."

"I haven't changed, Eliot." Nate's voice was starting to sound tired. "I have not changed except that all my resources have been taken away, except for me and this team. The odds are worse than ever. This isn't some safe we have to crack. This is the future, Eliot."

"What business have we got breaking into the future?" Eliot said. "That's crazy talk, and I think you know it is, too, or you wouldn't be dancing around what you're saying. You'd come right out and say it."

Nate didn't take the bait.

"What do you really want to do with Emmerich's nanobots, Nate?"

"Now you're wasting time," Nate snapped. "You've figured it out already."

"I was hoping I was wrong," Eliot said. The cold night air was starting to seep into his bones, but the most he could do to warm himself just now was stomp his feet. "Emmerich was mad to turn half the world into freaks. Now you want to finish the job for him?"

"Better all the world than half the world," Nate said. "There's no undoing what Emmerich did, what all the people affected by him did. And leaving things like this is unsustainable. The only solution is to extend the same chances to everyone."

"You'd really wish that on everyone?" Eliot demanded. "On me, on Hardison, on Maggie? These powers, Nate, they kill people. They drive people crazy. They turn regular people into monsters. And you want to do that to more people? You don't get to make that decision for them."

"Someone has to make a decision!" Nate shouted. Eliot could picture him, ranting and waving his arms like one of the crazier prophets. "Someone has to save these people!"

"And you always know best for everyone else, is that it?"

Suddenly Nate was up in his face, all sound and fury and hot breath. "I know enough not to tear myself apart, which is more than can be said for the rest of the world."

Eliot stood his ground. "And you're going to give them more weapons to tear each other apart, is that it?"

"I'm going," Nate said very deliberately, "to level the playing field."

"This isn't like stopping some corrupt judge or businessman," Eliot started.

"This is exactly like that," Nate said. "This is about everyone getting an equal chance. Who would say no to that?"

"I would. You wouldn't be doing me any favors putting that kind of power on me, with all those delusions and fears. You'd just be making a choice for me. That's not equality and you know it."

"I really did hope that you would agree with me," Nate said. "I can see I was wrong."

Eliot took half a step back, standing more securely. "Are we really going to do this?"

"I can't let you sabotage my plans anymore," Nate said simply.

"And I can't let your plans go forward," Eliot responded in kind. "So it goes."

Nate took a swing at his head, which Eliot easily blocked. If Nate was counting on Eliot's inability to see him, he was mistaken. He didn't need his sight. The real problem would be if Nate had a weapon that Eliot didn't know about. He wouldn't hear that coming the same way he could hear Nate's trying to get around behind him.

At what point had this become about weapons?

Nate scored a solid shot to Eliot's right knee, which is what Eliot got for lapsing into nostalgia now, in the middle of a fight.

He'd had a hell of a lot of practice, the last year, at clearing his mind. He did that now, didn't think about Boston or con men or nanobots. Didn't think about anything except the sound of air moving around another body, the sight of grass bending under feet –

Tunnel vision was the only excuse for missing what happened next.

"What are you doing?" someone called out, and a hand descended on Eliot's shoulder.

Eliot struck back, instinctively, and hit Hardison in the face for a second time.

To his credit, Hardison didn't let go of Eliot, but he also got sidetracked from whatever he'd been about to say.

"Nate," Eliot said simply.

"Think he's gone, man," Hardison said. "What got into you? Why're you and Nate fighting?"

"Not now," Eliot said tightly. He could tell Hardison about Nate's real plan after Nate had no chance to put it into action. When it wouldn't matter whose side Hardison was on.

"No, now," Hardison said. "I'm sick of you not trusting me with stuff. Why can't you just tell me what's actually going on?"

"Maybe you're the one who shouldn't trust me," Eliot said. "Maybe there's too much trust here. You want to know? Nate's gone bad and I deleted your stupid data."

Hardison's hand dropped from Eliot's shoulder. "You and I are going to have a very serious talk later," he said. "I thought I just owed you for the two times you've punched me in the face, but this is – this is big league stuff, now. You're going to be paying me back forever."

"Not if we don't catch up with Nate," Eliot said.

This time, he did sense the person sneaking up on him, but thanks to Hardison's expressive face, he knew better than to attack.

Even if it meant he had Parker's whole weight thrown on his back.

"Why?" he asked dully.

"Remember Richmond?" she said. "Invisible woman?"

Her hands dropped over his eyes.

"That wasn't necessary then and it really isn't necessary now," he said.

"Giddy up, pony," she said. "Forward and to the right."

"I can hear you laughing, Hardison," Eliot said. "Keep it up and I'm not going to owe you anything, at least not anything you'll actually want."

"My kingdom for a camera," Hardison said.

"He's getting away," Parker whispered fiercely.

After all that, it didn't take long for them to catch up with Nate. He hadn't had much of a head start, and Parker was even less dependent on sight now than Eliot.

"Nate," Eliot said. "Come on. Give it a rest already."

"Yeah, Nate," Parker called. "Usually you have good plans but this one kind of sucks."

"No one bats a thousand," Hardison added, despite not knowing what they were talking about. "Maybe we can all get together and workshop this."

"Are you ganging up on me?" Nate's voice responded.

"We're trying to help you," Eliot said.

"You're kind of help is an awful lot like betrayal, Eliot."

"I'm not having this discussion with you while you're invisible," he finally snapped. "Come on out right now or I'm dragging you back."

There was no verbal response. Nate was trying to sneak off, quietly as he could, but between his own hearing and Parker's silent direction – maybe she was helpful, not that he'd tell her, except that she was sure to have heard – there was no way he could be quiet enough.

Eliot thought a quick apology to Nate, but that didn't stop him from lashing out and striking the man down.

As Nate fell to the ground – visible to Eliot's eyes for the first time in a year – Hardison whistled.

"Guess you were holding back when you punched me those times," he said. "Which doesn't mean you don't owe me. And right now you can pay up by explaining why I just helped you KO Nate."

-

Explaining to Hardison was bad enough. The geek had gone quiet and didn't say another word as Eliot carried Nate back to their headquarters.

Explaining to Sterling and Sophie, after Parker raced to fetch them, was even worse. Eliot couldn't make heads or tails of what their expressions meant.

"Do you realize how much some people would pay, to get the same sort of powers Nate or Parker have?" Sterling said finally.

"I bet more of them would rather not have their lives uprooted, again," Eliot growled. "Not to mention the little trend I keep noticing of powers making people go crazy."

"You can't mean Nate," Sophie said. "He's not – he didn't mean anything bad by any of it, I'm sure."

"That's what he said." Eliot shrugged. "It doesn't mean it wouldn't have been a bad thing."

"Of course," Sophie said. "But doing nothing..."

"Doing nothing might be the best bet for Nate, for now," Eliot said. "Don't let him spend so much time invisible. And stop him getting so aloof. We could really use him back as his real self again."

Sterling narrowed his eyes. "Why does it sound like you're planning on leaving?"

"Because I am," Eliot said. "Nate shouldn't be doing anything for now. Figured I might as well pick up the slack." He headed for the door, but stopped.

"Sterling – don't bother looking for that woman, the fixing one. I'm going to pay her a little visit, just in case you get tempted into following through with Nate's plan."

"I'd tell you that's unnecessary, but you wouldn't believe me."

"No, I wouldn't," Eliot said shortly. He looked over at Sophie, who looked graver and older than ever, for all that the face she was wearing was her own. "Sophie?"

She nodded at him.

"I'm going to try to lighten up."

She smiled crookedly at him.

"And I'm going to keep my eye on Nate."

He nodded at her in return and left.

-

He was a half-mile down the road before his shadows caught up with him again.

"How do you move so fast?" Hardison panted. "You got stumpy little short man legs. Shouldn't your steps be, like, three inches big?"

Eliot growled at him.

Parker danced up on the other side, walking backwards so she could look Eliot in the eye. "Now who's sneaking," she asked him.

"I could use some space, after that bad bit of business," he said. "And I'm sure you could use some space from me."

"Please," Parker said. "Your brain is like my home away from home by now."

Eliot couldn't even bother with being creeped out by that. He must be more tired than he thought.

"I need you to stay with Nate," he said. "Sophie's looking out for him, but there's no telling if he'll get it into his head to play with Emmerich's toys again, and I don't trust Sterling to stop him."

Parker rolled her eyes. "What do you think I was doing while you were whining at Sophie?" she asked, pulling one of Emmerich's notebooks out of her pack. "Nate might be the invisible one, but I'm still the best thief around here."

"Thief nothing, I handed that to you," Hardison pointed out.

"I took Nate's copies!"

"The man was unconscious, that's not exactly hard to steal from an unconscious man."

Eliot shook his head at them and waited for them to stop chattering at each other.

Unfortunately when they did, it was just for Parker to open her eyes wide and ask, "What happens now?"

"How the hell do I know?"

"You beat Nate," she said. "That makes you the new Nate."

Eliot wasn't sure which was worse. "I didn't beat Nate. And I sure as hell don't want to be Nate."

"You knocked him out cold," Hardison said.

Eliot glared at him. "Do you think he was right?" He was pretty sure where Parker fell in all this, but he had to know about Hardison. "Would you have helped if you'd known what he was trying to do?"

Hardison sighed. "I wouldn't have minded getting my own Spidey-sense," he said. "And – he's still Nate, you know. I think he meant right. And I think he was right that somebody's got to do something."

Eliot shook his head. "People take care of themselves. Every big disaster comes along, they bounce back sooner or later. This one might just take a little longer."

"What about people like Court?" Parker demanded. "What about Cooperstown?"

"What, they're all supposed to be my problem now?" Eliot asked.

"No, silly. Our problem."

Eliot thought about that for the next stretch of road. "I guess some people might need a little extra help taking care of themselves," he said.

"And that's what we do," Hardison said, laying a hand over Eliot's shoulders.

Parker swooped around to Eliot's other side and grabbed his arm. "That's what we do."

"I'm going to regret this," Eliot said.

Parker laughed. She knew as clear as he did – as Hardison must have, too – that what he really meant was, Yeah, that's what we do.

Profile

shinealightonme: (Default)
shinealightonme

June 2017

S M T W T F S
    123
45678910
11121314151617
18 192021222324
252627282930 

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Jul. 24th, 2017 12:47 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios