Alec learns to read when he’s five and a half years old.
People call him an orphan, the new boy, the poor dear, and he wants to run away from each one of these names, from the life that gave them to him and refuses to take them back.
Alec wants his family, but everybody around him looks at him with the cold eyes and forced pitiful expression when he talks about it, so he stops.
Alec’s five years old, he’s desperate, and he knows the letters, knows which of them makes which sound, even though he can’t say the alphabet in the right order, other than in the song.
He takes the small book for children that someone has read to him last night till he stopped crying and fall asleep, he opens it and he tries to make sense of things, tries to add on one letter to another, to make the word from them, like his mom wanted him to.
It’s hard, and he stumbles, and blinks, and grits his teeth, and wants to scream, to throw the book across the room, and I can’t do that, mom, I already told you!
Alec blinks again, and the text is unsteady, uneven in front of him, and the first word suddenly makes sense. He reads it aloud, it lingers in the air in his crooked voice, and he knows this word.
Yeah, he thinks, and sobs a bit, and takes on the next word.
His words - no, his Words - appear later, both at the same time, on his forearms, in bold black letters. They change a lot, but most of the time they read like Eli and Girl, just that. Alec stares at his Words every minute he can find. He doesn’t imagine who his people are, but he dreams about meeting them. Adults say to him that it’s unlikely, that Words are less of the promise and more of the hope.
Alec refuses to stop though.
Nana meets him, and tells him to call her Nana, and her Word is pale. Alec knows what that means, but Nana doesn’t look heartbroken. She adopts him, and Alec feels the enormous relief. He feels that he’s someone’s. He feels free.
Alec thinks that it’s a little like meeting his soulmate.
Math is beautiful. Equations are fun, and numbers are easy to work with, and he always regrets when he finishes his homework. Nana notices, because she always does, even though she works and parents him and his adopted siblings all the time, and buys him another textbook. His fingers are itching to open it, but he scoffs and tries to look uninterested.
“‘m not a nerd, Nana,” he says. He’s not exactly sure what the word means, but he’d heard it being used as an insult.
She raises an eyebrow.
“Being a nerd means enjoying comics, Star Track, math and whatever you like. You’re sure you don’t wanna be a nerd, dear? Suffering the comics-less world sounds nice to you?”
Alec thinks about it. Then he snatches his new textbook and goes to his room.
When he’s ten, one of his Words changes - not for a day or two, like earlier, but for a long time. It shifts from Girl to Parker, and he wonders, if she likes Spiderman, if she reads comics like him. He starts reading Spiderman seria too, even though he likes Iron man better.
(He asks Parker about it later. She shrugs and says that she stole a pen from her father. She says that he screamed about his silver parker for days, that he suspected it was her, but had no proof. It was a clear job, and he couldn’t punish her that time, so he gave her a cold shoulder for two weeks with occasional outrage here and there, instead.
Parker laughs when she tells the story. Alec does, too, even though he doesn’t want to.)
Later, Eli changes to Champion for two solid weeks, and when it comes back, it’s Eliot. Alec doesn’t know what he thinks about it.
He’s fourteen when he discovers the wonderful world of programming and therefore hacking. In a way, hacking reminds him about math problems and chess, about looking at the numbers and logic and finding the question and the answer. About using rules to work against each other. He creates, and cracks, and makes code better, and makes it his.
He collects the scraps and buys details and builds his own computer, and it’s fast and reliable. Mostly.
He starts playing videogames online, and quickly abandons his original nickname because it’s lame, capital L Lame, and there are hundreds of players that try to look cool using something similar. It’s stupid. He starts using Hardiman, and later switches to Hardison, because it both sounds like a real last name and isn’t one.
He likes it so much that he knows without a doubt that his soulmates can find it on their skin.
When Hardison’s fifteen he learns to hack for real. He doesn’t do anything at first, just tries to break the defence around national test results, then - around Boston City University. He changes some things, then changes them back. He plays, not really believing all of this for real. He hides his trails, he buries himself so deep into systems that he wouldn’t find himself. He creates the new student in BCU and gives him all the highest marks.
He wipes everything out and laughs, raises his hands and woops. He looks at his Words and thinks that his people would be amazed, that they will be amazed. He only gonna get better at it.
Adults keep saying that the chances are slim. Nana says to him that love is always a choice, if it with soulmate or not. She doesn’t look at her Word once in the entire time of the conversation.
Yeah, Alec thinks, but if they are my choice?
Parker switches to Thief, and back to Parker, and back to Thief, and again. Alec laughs and thinks that him and his girl (his Girl) are suited to each other. There’s a basic code for milking hundreds of accounts of National Bank of Iceland on his computer. He tries to be smart about it, small draws from every account, so no one notice outright, long way through the different countries so no one will trace money. He got it.
He works for months, while Nana’s face gets more and more calm on the sight of medical bills, while her smiles get wider and wider, while she hugs him more and more frequently. He works not breathing a word of it to her, not daring to give her hope he can be forced to take away.
At the night of the operation, of the job, he shakes like he’s freezing, but his fingers are steady and fast.
It goes without a hitch.
“Yeah!” he whispers to the ceiling, feeling the widest grin on his face, feeling euphoria and relief in all of his body, from toes to ears. He lays on his bed and knows without a doubt that his soulmates can read Fucking Genius on their skin, or maybe just Genius, but Fucking gives a ring to it.
Because he is, baby, he is.
He leaves Nana’s when he’s nineteen because he is starting to try out the big shit. He tries to create people that never existed and ruin these that did, make government forget for a while that some average John Smith has ever been there. he works on his tech and his soft, and he’s starting to look over his shoulder to see if he’s not followed.
So he leaves and hides all the ties and calls Nana to complain that he misses her cooking and professors are all stupid.
His first apartment is a shithole, and he survives on the orange soda and take out and doesn’t bother with setting up any real furniture. He codes in his boxers and tinkers with his tech, and he’s alone, alone, alone.
Soldier on his right arm switches to Commander. Hardison doesn’t know what he thinks about it.
When he realises that he stopped to go out and started feeling weary all the time, he starts attending the nearest gym. It’s both a torture and a blessing. Hardison researches the chemistry and hopes it’ll become somewhat of an addiction for him, as scientists promise.
Internet helps, too.
He gets more and more famous as a hacker. Someone with nickname Q asks him if he’s interested in working in Britain. Hardison answers that he doesn’t dig tea and work for foreign governments. It’s just a wild guess, but Q shuts up, disappears and doesn’t leave any trace. So yeah, totally MI-whatever.
One of the trainers in the gym is a sweet girl with the nice smile and ability to kill anyone with her thighs or sharp tongue. Hardison flirts with her back and forth, just because it’s fun. She tells him one day that she’s found her soulmate a couple of years ago.
“Did it work out?” He asks her. She laughs and looks down just for a momen. He’s never seen her flustered.
“Yeah,” she says. “Wasn’t easy, too.”
“I want to meet mine.”
“You need to go out more for it, you know,” she answers. Hardison freezes in the sudden spike of fear. She shouldn’t know about his way of living. He calculates in his head, while looking directly at her.
Government. Corporation. Secret agency.
She shakes her head a little. He nods and gets out of there.
Hardison changes his flat, his identity and his gym. Also he starts taking on jobs that require his presence on the scene.
Parker flicks a couple of times to The Best , and Hardison smiles at the Word and thinks - of course you are, babe. Of course you are.
Nana gives him the literal hell for not visiting her on holidays. Hardison feels stubborn, guilty and scared. He pays off any bills he can find and he doesn’t feel better.
Then Commander changes to Eliot and then to Murderer.
Hardison can’t sleep for two nights.
He thinks about Champion, about Soldier, about Commander instead. Most of all he thinks about Eli.
He thinks about how he and Parker, probably, can be soulbonded to murderer.
He thinks what kind of person he is, what kind of soul he has if he’s bonded to murderer.
The darkness feels heavy on his chest.
Hardison tries to stop waiting after that.
He goes out with girls and guys. He makes friends and enemies in the hackers’ community. He almost steals some fancy-ass knife from the big event just because he can.
He doesn’t look at his forearms anymore.
Then he meets Nate Ford. He meets Parker.
He thinks for some time that it’s some different Eliot. It’s not like it’s a unique name. This Eliot is an asshole, but in the same way Hardison is an asshole. He provides the most grumpy sass imaginable and says he won’t save Hardison, and then he does anyway.
Then Hardison sees the way Eliot watches Parker, and thinks, oh. Fuck. Oh fuck.
Eliot watches Parker like she’s a nonsense riddle. Like she’s a paradox. Like he can’t stop watching.
Hardison knows the feeling.
So after that first clusterfuck of a job, after they’re tricked, and after they trick right back, and start Robin Hooding all around, Hardison decides that he has time.
Love is a choice, his Nana said. He always researches before he makes a decision.
Parker (his Girl, his Thief, his Best) is damaged, is hurt and thinks she’s worse for it. Hardison swallows the pain and the sympathy and supports her, tries not to press her into anything. She looks like she knows about them both and is terrified. Hardison is pretty sure that it’s not about him or Eliot, it’s about her.
He has time. He gives her time.
Eliot keeps being a grumpy sarcastic asshole. He never uses guns, and Hardison is so relieved about it, even though he knows what Eliot can do with his bare hands. Eliot chooses not to.
(Love is a choice. Peace is a choice.)
After they save the first child, Hardison looks at his right forearm again.
It says Eliot . Hardison wants to cry.
They develop the secret handshake, the inside jokes. Eliot lets Hardison to try his food.
Hardison still doesn’t know his story, but he’s less and less scared.
Eliot protects him and laughs at him and says Dammit, Hardison, and Parker throws him from the buildings, and pokes Eliot again and again, like she waits for him to snap, to attack her or to tell her to go away and mean it. Hardison is pretty sure she’s more afraid of the latter.
It’s hundreds of jobs, of tight spots, of adventures, it’s dinners and laughs and fucking Christmas gifts. Nate is their jerk, and Sophie’s everybody’s mom, and watching her grift becomes a little embarrassing.
Hardison loves it all so much, he can feel it in all of his body, it’s warm and glistening presence.
Then Moreau happens.
Hardison swims in the pool, his eyes are burning from the chlorine in the water, and he thinks that he fucking hates secrets, and he swallows the air from the chair’s arms and thinks - any second now, Eliot.
They drag him out, and the water drips from his suit, and Eliot looks at him just for a moment with his face unreadable. Moreau laughs at him and they make a deal.
“Did you know that I’ll use the air from the chair legs?” Hardison asks. He’s pretty impressed with himself, and he doesn’t want to think about Eliot and Moreau, about how close they stood, how intense their talk was.
“Of course I fucking knew you will, Hardison,” Eliot answers, and his tone means he didn’t, means he was standing there and counting to himself, getting ready to jump in the pool, while looking Moreau in the eyes.
Eliot looks like he wants to lean on Hardison, to close his eyes and sigh, but won’t let himself, he stands just that bit straighter, holds himself tighter. Hardison starts getting it.
He checks his Word when he’s alone, and yeah, it’s back to Murderer .
They get through it, and Eliot stitches himself back together, slowly but surely. Parker goes to Hardison for her pretzels, and it’s euphoric, to have her so close, to be hers. They don’t talk about Eliot directly, just in glances and codes, because Parker is still scared of herself, and Hardison finds that he is scared for Eliot now, even though it’s Eliot again, not the Murderer.
But Eliot still cooks for them, and teaches them self-defense, and looks less and less morose with every day.
Hardison hugs him any chance he has.
Then there is a giant target on their backs, and everything evidently goes to shit, and Nate makes his last plan, the one that includes that he and Sophie retire.
Hardison feels like he’s leaving Nana again.
But they pull through it, and Sophie says to them, again and again, to call her if they need help, and Nate nods at them, the best fucking asshole of a father figure.
Hardison finds the new base for the three of them, and they are going to meet their first client, when he notices that the Word on his right arm changed again.
Protector, it reads, and Hardison shows it to Parker, basking in relief, in happiness, in sharp and fresh hope.
Hardison kisses her and thinks that they will kiss Eliot soon too, that they won’t let him slip away, that love is a choice and he’s pretty sure Eliot will choose them.
“Why are you smiling?” Eliot asks when he sees them. He looks suspicious.
Hardison grins and shakes his head.
“Dammit, Hardison!” Eliot hisses.
Hardison laughs, and Parker giggles, and the client rings the door.