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A Secret History of Salt

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Awareness returns with a surge of pain, and a cold pressure squeezing him from all directions. He breathes through it, his muscles tensing against the restraints. He blinks once, twice, and gradually the room comes into focus.

It’s a lab. This is familiar, even if he can’t remember where he’s seen it before. Poured concrete walls still bear the mark of long-destroyed wood framing; computer equipment hums and beeps. Men and women in white lab coats scurry like spiders. They check the lights and dials on the edges of the tube he lies in. He's still too weak to move.

Only one of them even looks at him. A blonde woman, her eyes clear behind dark-rimmed glasses, reaches in to place her bare hand on his wrist, as if to check his pulse. Her fingers are burning hot against his cold skin.

"Are you ready?" she whispers, lips barely moving.

She waits a moment, but seems unsurprised when he doesn’t respond. Her eyes slide away like water and she draws her hand away; no one else in the room even noticed that she spoke. She drifts back to one of the computer terminals and disappears into the background noise of the lab.

Two men in tactical armor stride into the room, followed by another man in a suit. One of the soldiers is familiar, again without a specific memory to place him. He is talking into a cell phone even as he walks. He objects to something being said; falters; then turns to stunned placation.

He waves brusquely at the other soldier, who approaches the tube. The walls finish drawing back, the table tilts, and feet touch the floor.

It's too fast. All that holds him upright are the restraints, and those are quickly snapped away. He leans his weight against the back as he forces his muscles to adjust.

Even with the soldier nearby, it is the suited man who draws the eye. He has a searing confidence in the set of his shoulders, in the hint of snarl behind his smile. Even the lab technicians notice, glances flickering his way, as the patterns of their movements shift to give him space.

The smile widens when their eyes meet, gleaming against his dark skin. "Good, you're awake."

"Don't expect much response." The familiar soldier sneers. "The Asset's not a person."

"I expect nothing," the suited man says, turning to raise a cold eyebrow, "except compliance."

"Of course." The soldier drops his eyes, and the suited man snaps his fingers once.

"Hurry up. We're on a timetable."

The soldier straightens, and turns toward...The Asset, he supposes. It sounds familiar.

"This is Mr. Cavanaugh. You will follow him." The next few words are nonsense, the syllable slipping away even as they're heard, but the sense of them snaps into place. Mr. Cavanaugh is his commander; he will obey.

It's still difficult to stand, his muscles chilled and leaden from sleep, but standing is part of compliance. He stands up straight, and as steady as he can.

The soldiers provide him with his armor and weapons. This goes more smoothly than standing, the motions clearly embedded more deeply than memory. Mr. Cavanaugh's impatience barely registers above the comfort of being able to attempt something, and have his body agree.

When Mr. Cavanaugh leaves, he follows.

*****

Their path through the sub-basements of the building is straight-forward, and yet somehow peels off from the soldiers who accompany them. By the time they reach the loading dock, the rest of the assault team is nowhere to be seen. Mr. Cavanaugh waves him into the back of a van, and gets into the passenger seat himself. The driver, at least, is a soldier, even if he's dressed as a janitor -- the scars on his knuckles are obvious against the steering wheel.

The van is simple: a few seats along either gray wall, narrow slit windows that allow air flow and weapons discharge without permitting others to target inside. But the holsters and ammo lockers are as empty as the other seats.

They drive out into bright sunlight, brilliant even through the thin windows.

Mr. Cavanaugh slumps in his seat and strips off his tie in a single motion. He drops it between the seats with an expression of disgust. "Next time, you get to 'Hail Hydra' for a while, man."

"You did good, Hardison," The driver murmurs, his eyes flicking up to the mirror. "You okay back there?"

He turns his head to acknowledge the question, but doesn't speak.

"They said not to expect a lot of responses." There's nothing commanding about Mr. Cavanaugh any more. His confidence has shifted into a jittery energy that's more difficult to read.

The driver doesn't seem bothered by the change. "Doesn't mean we shouldn't ask."

The van comes to a stop. When the back doors open, a blonde woman in a white lab coat jumps in. She pulls the doors closed behind her as the van begins to move again. She smiles at him, then strips off the lab coat with the same speed that Mr. Cavanaugh had shed his tie.

Her face is familiar, but it takes him a moment to recognize the doctor from the lab. Along with the lab coat, she takes down her hair, and her demeanor shifts. He doesn't know how she could ever fade into the background. Her movements are sharp, precise, and slightly manic.

"So, do you like pizza?" she asks.

The driver shakes his head. "Parker."

"What?" She pauses in the middle of toeing off her shoes. "I'm offering to share."

Mr. Cavanaugh laughs and pulls out his phone. "I guess we're getting pizza."

The driver sighs and changes lanes.

The woman turns her gaze away from the front of the van, then waves a hand vaguely. "You won't need all that."

He ignores her comment. It isn't important.

She frowns. Without looking, she reaches over to thump the back of Mr. Cavanaugh's seat hard enough to shake dust motes into the sunbeams coming in the windows.

"Hardison. Tell him to take off the weaponry."

The man turns in his seat, but doesn't look up from his phone. "Do as the lady says, Mr. Soldier."

The driver makes a sharp noise and smooths a hand down the front of his shirt. "We can't call him that."

"Why not?"

"It's disrespectful." He glances in the mirror again.

Mr. Cavanaugh snorts. "I'm not going to call him 'The Asset' like he doesn't have a name."

"He's got a name," the driver insists.

"Do you know your name?" Mr. Cavanaugh puts his phone down to study him through the shadows in the back of the van. "It's okay if you don't remember."

He can prove he's been paying attention. "Mr. Soldier."

The woman makes a face, as if she's tasted something sour. "I guess we could call him Saul."

The driver hums disagreement. "He looks more like a Jimmy to me."

"Jimmy! Jimmy Saltzman." The woman nods sharply. "What do you think, Hardison?"

"I can work with that."

The woman turns back to him. "So we're going to call you Jimmy. Will you answer to that?"

"Yes."

"Good." She beams at him. "Now tell me whether you like pizza."

He doesn't know how to answer that question, and nothing they've said gives him a response. "I have no preferences," he says eventually.

She shakes her head sharply. Wrong. "Maybe the soldier didn't, but Jimmy does. All red-blooded Americans have pizza preferences."

She stares at him. He stares back. It doesn't make her uncomfortable.

"Yes or no, Jimmy." The words are a command.

Mr. Cavanaugh told him to follow her orders. "Yes."

"Good!"

The driver slaps a hand sharply against the steering wheel. "He's not a dog, Parker."

"No. But he's ours." Her face softens into something he can't read. "We stole you, you see, and we're not going to give you back."

These words make no particular sense, but they aren't a command either. He waits.

"It's okay," she says gently. "You don't have to have an opinion about that."

*****

Although he can't be sure -- he has no clear memory of past missions to judge by -- being Jimmy feels like the most unsettling task ever set to him.

The base of operations is a renovated brew pub. Most of the first floor is open to the public, and the employees obviously lack military training. The space is vulnerable to coordinated attack, with perimeter surveillance but no active defenses. The walls are thin wood against large windows that bring in the grungy gray light from outside, while hundreds of people pass by on the sidewalks.

Jimmy is not supposed to worry about that.

He spends his first forty-eight hours in the private area behind the bar. Fewer windows makes it more secure, and the security to enter is... slightly more adequate. The walls are broken up by video monitors and paintings in equal measure, while the furniture clusters into separate uses in the otherwise open space.

Jimmy isn't supposed to worry about this security, either. They give him standing orders for personal maintenance and readiness, but no specific tasks to perform. So he waits.

He spends the third day waiting in the pub kitchen amongst the metal shelves and boxes of supplies, because his commander waved him out of the back rooms.

"Go lurk somewhere else for a while," was the direct order, unhelpfully non-specific.

No one refers to the commander as Mr. Cavanaugh; it's always Hardison, or occasionally Alec. Jimmy plays along. The woman's name is Parker, the driver is Eliot -- Jimmy isn't sure if those are first or last names, but they're all that are used. Even the staff of the pub use them, without honorifics, and mostly without fear.

No one carries a weapon.

Jimmy is expected to wear civilian clothes at all times. After a brief argument among themselves, he's given long-sleeved shirts and a single glove to wear over his metal hand. He is supposed to "fit in."

As an order, that is also unhelpful. Jimmy lurks.

The third evening, Eliot moves him to a small table in the corner of the pub. He has good sightlines from the chair, his back to a wall, but the table itself could be overturned easily and wielded, if needed. There is a single sunflower in a glass vase next to the salt shaker.

Eliot also hands him a well-worn paperback, the spine cracked and the pages slightly furled. Pride and Prejudice, the cover reads, by Jane Austen.

"Here, read this," he says, and wipes his hands down automatically against the white towel tucked into the belt of his chef uniform. "Come tell me when you're done."

Jimmy finds that the contents match the cover. It is simple enough to read the book and still maintain watch, although it takes him past the closing hour of the bar. He notes everyone who walks in, and most who walk past outside. The last employee locks the door behind him but leaves the lights on.

Nothing happens.

When he finishes the book, he goes into the back and finds Eliot. The bedroom is quiet and dark, noises muffled, but he can hear the other man's breathing. He's awake, and aware of Jimmy's presence.

Eliot flips on the bedside light, casting shadows across the ceiling. "Knock before you come in my room. I could've taken your head off."

He freezes in the doorway. The first part is an order, but the second is dangerously false. "No."

Eliot sighs and rakes a hand through his hair. "Okay, probably not. Not many people I'd say that about, either."

He considers how quickly the man moves, and the easy way he handles a knife. "No."

"You're here about the book, right?"

"Yes." He holds up the book; he is following orders.

Eliot cocks his head to the side. "What did you think?"

He has no idea how Jimmy is supposed to answer that question.

"Yeah, that's okay." Eliot scrubs a hand across his face, then reaches to an untidy stack of books on the night stand. He takes the second one from the top and tosses it effortlessly at Jimmy. "Here's another one. Get some sleep first, read it tomorrow. I'll set up a shelf so you can get to the rest without having to wait for me."

He shouldn't speak. He shouldn't, but the room is dim and close, and this is easily the most confusing mission he could imagine. "Reading?"

Eliot's face transforms in a slow grin. "You got something better to do?"

Jimmy draws himself up straighter, but doesn't respond.

"Reading's good for you. Wakes you up a little."

"I'm awake."

"Yeah." Eliot laughs softly. "I'm beginning to think maybe you are. G'night, Jimmy."

He nods.

The other man's voice catches him as he slides out the door. "Jimmy. Someone says goodnight, you say it back."

He stops. "Goodnight."

"There you go."

He can hear the blankets shift, and the light goes out. The hallway is dark, too, but the sounds are sharper than the ones in Eliot's room. He waits for the bed to creak before closing the door behind him.

He stands in the hall, listening to breathing. Eliot in his room, Parker and Hardison in theirs. The soft sounds of relaxation, exhalation, sleep. No one is keeping watch.

It's... unsettling.

Jimmy goes back to the room they provided for him, with its pillowy mattress and woolen blankets. There's a scientific illustration of petunias framed on the wall, for no reason he can discern. In his room, he can't hear the others breathing, only his own. He stares wakeful at the ceiling until morning.

*****

The Omnivore's Dilemma is a completely different book from Pride and Prejudice. It has more facts than story, but still makes a story out of it, in a way that he can't quite put his finger on. There are layers of notes in the margins of the pages, some in pencil, some in pen. The book is also a document, the annotations their own level of meaning. He reads it like a cypher, like information about a target.

It's still unsettling.

He finds himself missing his weaponry. The weight of it strapped to his body, the heft in his hands. The ritual of putting it on in the mornings, and taking it off at night. He was perfect when he wore it. A perfect weapon, himself, and able to affect the flow of history.

Here, he affects nothing.

A dozen books appear on the identified shelf by the end of the lunch rush, but before the smell of spaghetti sauce fully clears. Eliot leaves no indication of the order in which to read them, and waves Jimmy away distractedly when he presents himself to ask. So he stares at the shelf, ignoring the noise of the pub out front, and the sounds of Hardison and Parker moving around behind him.

"They won't bite you," Hardison says after a minute.

There is the clink of the spoon in Parker's cereal bowl, but she says nothing.

"I mean, they're just books. Maybe give you a million paper cuts, but..." Hardison's voice comes closer. "Hey, do you like to read?"

He lifts The Omnivore's Dilemma, still in his hand. "I finished this one."

"Huh." Hardison leans around him to scan the titles on the shelf. He latches onto one, pulling it out. It's a hardback with a new dust cover, with three women staring out at the world. "Hey, I saw this one! The movie, I mean, but I'm guessing the book is fine. Unless you'd rather watch the movie?"

He ignores the question as best he can, and just takes the book.

Parker smothers a giggle somewhere behind them.

"Okay, reading it is." Hardison turns back to the shelf, then rubs his hands together. "Jimmy, my boy, I think we can liven this up a bit. Once I get my hands on some hardcopies -- hell, I could set you up with an e-reader no problem...?"

He thinks about the notes in the margins, Eliot's comments changing over time. He shakes his head.

"Got it." Hardison cracks his knuckles and grins broadly. "I can work with this."

Jimmy takes the new book -- Hidden Figures -- back to his table.

*****

Jimmy devours the first twelve books, and more appear.

Some are brand new, still smelling of ink and freshly deckled pages. Some are old, thin, and browning, with pages so fragile he thinks they might crackle and powder as he turns them. There are books with plastic dust covers that rustle every time he shifts his grip; many have library stamps inside. There are more notes in the margins, opinions and arguments and random symbols that have no meaning.

He tries to read the books in order from left to right on the shelf, but the books are frequently rearranged. He gives up, and simply reads whichever his hand falls to first.

All of the books are different. He doesn't know why this surprises him so much.

*****

Two weeks into his new mission, Jimmy is a familiar feature in the pub. The regulars nod at him as they come in, glance at the cover of the books he's reading, and nod again. Then they ignore him. In all honesty, Jimmy has stopped watching them, too. The security of the perimeter is not his assignment.

So it surprises him when one of the waitstaff comes over to his table and sits down in the other chair.

She ducks her head toward him, as if sharing a secret over the blue flowers of her shirt. "Are you okay?"

He knows the answer to this question. "Yes."

"Are you sure? You're crying." She gestures at her own face gently.

He is. He hadn't noticed that his face is wet. He isn't sure when that happened. His stomach roils. Jimmy shouldn't be crying --

"Is it the book? What are you --" The woman tips the book so she can see the cover, then grimaces. "Oh, Eliot loaned me that one, too. I cried like a baby. It made me angry, too, but mostly just sad."

His hand clenches against the spine of the book as his stomach drops again. "Sad?"

"Yeah!" She pushes a strand of dark hair off her forehead absently. "Lily just fights so hard, and she keeps trying, and she never gets to win."

He doesn't mean to ask, it's unimportant, but -- "Never?" The word comes out anyway.

She winces again and tugs on her apron, fingers nervous. "Oh, dear. I didn't mean to spoil the ending for you or anything. But yeah, it's kind of a tragedy."

Eliot looks back at the book. All of them are different; this one is a tragedy.

"I told Eliot after that: no more sad books! And he listened." She touches the table near his hand. "He's good about that, you know. Not that there's anything wrong with a good cry, I guess."

Something shifts in his head at her words, something about the people here... "He had you read?"

"Well, yeah, I think he has everyone read," she says, laughing a little. "He's kind of the secret sensei of everyone in the kitchen, you know. Improve your heart, improve your life kind of thing. But he's really a giant teddy bear." She leans even closer to whisper, "Don't tell him I said that."

"I won't." It's a promise, and it sends a shiver down his spine. The gray day seems suddenly brighter, despite the clouds outside. They have a secret, one he will keep safe. He won't reveal that she told him.

"Cool. I'll let you get back to your book, then, Jimmy." She smiles at him, open and happy, then startles as the kitchen bell chimes peremptorily. "Hey, is it okay if I call you Jimmy? I mean, we don't really know each other, but you're here all the time..."

Jimmy smiles back. "It's fine."

"Okay. I'm Amy, by the way." She taps her name tag. "Not that you didn't know, or anything."

He tries the name anyway. "Amy."

She gives a little wave and strides back into the kitchen.

He has to calm his breathing, the weight of the secret she told him almost too much to bear. They're like him. All of them. At different stages of the assignment, of course -- he's the new one. But all of them, every last one of them... He thinks of Mike, and his seriousness as he peels potatoes. Javier, the evening busboy, who chatters with Marisela about a soap opera they both watch. Amy. Kathy. Peter. Everyone here is like him.

He's not sure how that works, since none of them have ever been soldiers. But Eliot has, and is, and he's teaching them.

Jimmy won't tell. He doesn't stare into the kitchen with new eyes to watch the way they move. Their easy confidence. Their joy. Eliot sees them all too clearly, and he might guess that Amy told. So Jimmy doesn't look.

But the thought warms him, that he's not alone.

He looks down at the book instead. The House of Mirth. He has about a quarter of it left; it will take him almost no time to finish it. And yet. Amy said: no more sad books.

Jimmy doesn't want to be sad, not with this secret thrumming through him.

It occurs to him that, if there's no order he has to read the books, then he can finish this one later. After reading something else. Maybe after everything else. There are so many books on the shelf; this one can wait.

*****

Jimmy knows he has nightmares. He used to know it as a fact, something to measure against the strength of his body when sleep eluded him. Now, when he wakes sweating, heart pounding, he knows. He can't remember his dreams, but he can still feel the unsteadiness inside of him. The fear.

He was never afraid before.

He glances at the latest book, unfinished beside his bed. Catching Fire. The first was difficult enough, but this one... He's not sure why he didn't let it wait. He remembers laying it down last night, his hand trembling against the blanket, and making himself sleep. He has a sudden wild desire to walk out, not just of the room but outside -- to abandon the book and the mission and these strange people and feel the rain on his face.

The thought frightens him even more. He does as he's told. Even Jimmy takes orders.

His heart is still racing, but he makes himself take the book. He can return it to the shelf. It can wait. No one has to go anywhere.

There is a light on the far side of the main room as he passes through, a soft glow in the shadows. Hardison and Parker are curled together on the couch, talking softly. They turn to look as Jimmy walks by.

Jimmy freezes as both sets of eyes find him. See him.

Parker's eyes flick down to the book in his hands, and she frowns. "Alec! You gave him The Hunger Games?"

"What? They're kids' books!" Hardison looks uneasily at the book before Jimmy can hide it. "Eight year olds read those."

He tries to make his feet move. The shelf is only a few feet away; he can get a new book. He doesn't have to stand here. But they're looking at him, and it pins him in place.

Parker clambers gracefully over the arm of the couch and plants herself in front of him. Her pajamas have cows on them. "Where are you? In the book."

It's a direct question; he has to answer. "Katniss has to go back into the arena again."

Parker swivels to glare at Hardison. "That's what."

"Aw, crap." Hardison's face falls into worried lines. "I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking about that part --"

Parker has the book in her hands before Jimmy can react. He snatches it back, unthinking. It's his book; he has to return it.

"Katniss wins, you know." Hardison has moved closer, too, hovering outside of a normal man's reach. "I mean, a lot of shit happens and that sucks. But she gets to be happy. She gets the boy, too. You know you can skip to the end if you want to, right?"

Jimmy stares at them both. Parker stares back.

"Don't stab me," she says suddenly, then ducks forward to wrap her arms around him.

Jimmy freezes again.

Parker doesn't move.

She's tiny. She takes up so much space that he hadn't realized how small she actually is. Her hair smells like flowers.

"You put your arms around." She keeps her face tucked against his shoulder, her voice muffled. "This is a hug. Friends do it when one of them feels bad. Then you feel better."

His eyes flick to Hardison, whose face is doing something else now. Something softer, and resigned.

"You may as well give in," he says.

Jimmy puts both arms around her, the book pressed awkwardly against her spine. She doesn't flinch from his left arm; he doesn't squeeze. She smiles against his shoulder. "Group hug?"

Hardison sighs, but steps forward, his long arms wrapping around both of them. "Don’t stab me either."

Light pools softly on the empty couch. There is no mission parameter that makes sense here. The position is awkward for all three of them, and their response times would be slow.

But he does, gradually, feel better.

*****

They're gone the next day, and the next. Amy says that they do this sometimes, Eliot and Parker and Hardison -- sudden trips with no warning, then back again.

"I think they're spies," she says.

Jimmy thinks of Diamonds Are Forever, and disagrees.

There is food in the refrigerator, and new books on the shelf. Parker leaves her cereal box on the counter; it's a suggestion. But it's too quiet once the pub is closed.

Jimmy ends up sitting at the bar with the televisions on, the background voices soothing the sense of emptiness. He's reading On Her Majesty's Secret Service (again; this is Amy's copy, with her notes scribbled in the margins, which changes the story) when a voice comes over the speakers.

He finds himself on his feet, looking for the threat. But there's no one here.

The television shows a man in an expensive suit. His face and voice are familiar, and send a shiver down Jimmy's spine. His awareness of the room falls away.

The view switches to a news anchor. "That was former Defense Secretary Alexander Pierce at a news conference last week."

New footage rolls: the same man, disheveled, dirty and ranting at the camera.

"Pierce was arrested this morning and indicted on corruption and espionage charges. He is accused of embezzling federal funds and selling top secret military intelligence to several foreign powers."

The camera closes in. Pierce's face is flushed, his eyes wild and unfocused.

"Attorneys for Mr. Pierce have no comment at this time."

Jimmy stares at the television as it cycles to commercial.

At some point, it occurs to him to turn it off. The pub is still empty, the sky is still dark. He doesn't know why he feels like everything has changed. But he knows how to find out.

*****

He breaks into their computer system.

It isn't simple, but he has been paying attention to Hardison all these weeks. He can improvise.

They have the recording of the call they intercepted, to Pierce, from the soldier at the lab. From the day Jimmy was assigned to them. The day they stole him.

They have a dossier on Pierce. They have bank records, property records, phone calls. Business associates. Names. Some of them are familiar. Some of them, he only knows once he sees their faces. There are more he doesn't know at all.

All of the scientists from the lab. Photos from other labs. Photos of him --

He stops there. Closes the files, cleans his fingerprints from the keyboards automatically.

They stole him.

He still doesn't know what that means.

*****

He's waiting for them when they come back. He put Parker's cereal away, and cleaned all the dishes. He put the books back on the shelf. He left a single light on, to cast his shadow across the floor, and sits patiently on one of the stools.

They smell like the stale air of planes when they tumble through the door, but their excitement bleeds through.

None of them startle when they see him. Lurking.

He's been trying to figure out the right question. A big enough question, to hold all of it, but small enough to ask. "What did you do?"

They shuffle for a moment, until Parker puts a hand on Eliot's arm. He stills.

"I said, they couldn’t have you back," she says, and it makes him wonder why they sent Hardison in as the commander. Parker's the one who moves all the pieces on the board.

"He deserves it, you know." Hardison shrugs at the tension in the room and deliberately saunters over to flop down on the couch. It bounces gently. "He really was selling secrets to other countries."

"Not these particular secrets, and not to these countries." Eliot tips his head, considering. He keeps his hands loose. Ready. "But basically the same thing."

He can still take Eliot down in a fight. They both know that.

Parker still hasn't moved from Eliot's side, her whole body acting as an anchor. "Hydra thinks you’re in North Korea."

"And it’s almost impossible for them to find out you’re not," Hardison tags in from the couch without looking. He's pulled out his phone.

Jimmy would think that Hardison was tuning them out, if he hadn't broken into their system. Hardison controls the security; he's as much on-edge as Eliot. They don't know what he'll do.

He doesn't know, either.

He catches Parker watching him, and she nods slowly. "So they won’t be able to get you back."

He considers. They haven't told him how they did it, but they've admitted they're responsible. He should fight them; he knows he's supposed to be loyal to Pierce. He remembers that, even if he remembers very little of his time there. Pierce wants him to change the course of history.

History is a long way from this room. A long way from these people.

Jimmy doesn't want to go.

The thought centers him, and his next breath comes more easily even as he realizes there will be consequences. "They'll come after you."

Parker's face slowly lights up with delight, and Eliot relaxes, all at once.

"Pierce still thinks we work for one of the Mexican drug cartels." Eliot grins. "He can go after them for all I care."

"Difficult to do, from prison," Hardison adds.

"I know it’s a lot to take in, all at once," Eliot says. "But you’re safe. And you’re free."

Hardison folds his arms over the back of the couch, watching. "Whenever you're ready for it."

Parker slides closer to where Jimmy is sitting, close enough to put a warm hand on his shoulder. "You don’t have to have an opinion about this, either."

Jimmy doesn't have a past. He doesn't remember much about what he was before, but what little he does... he's glad to be rid of it. Freedom is an unsettling feeling.

But he's getting used to that.

"Thank you."

He sees Parker's weight shift a moment before she launches herself at him. "Group hug!"

The hug is even more awkward with four people than with three, he finds. But yes, it does make him feel better.