shinealightonme: (leverage parker/hardison)
[personal profile] shinealightonme
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."



Continued in Part 6.

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