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I say goodbye but mean hello

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December

Eliot’s not used to being blindsided.

He’s supposed to be the one doing the blindsiding, preferably with his fist in the face of whatever two-bit thug is stupid enough to bring a gun to a fistfight. Or even a not so two-bit thug—Eliot’s willing to take down professionals and amateurs alike. It’s just what he does.

Except it doesn’t always work out that way. And the blows aren’t always physical.

It happens in the early afternoon on a typical dreary Portland day at the Water’s Edge Hotel.

He and Hardison are playing newlyweds, getting handsy right there at the check-in desk of a hotel with more Christmas decorations than good sense. Eliot pretends to laugh and places a kiss against Hardison’s neck, all the while keeping eyes on their mark from behind a stray lock of hair.

And that part—the touching and the kissing and whatnot—that’s not the part that catches him with his guard down. They’ve been doing that kind of thing for a couple months now, him and Hardison and Parker. No, what catches him across the jaw like the sucker punch from hell is what comes after.

The mark crosses the room, over towards where Parker’s waiting, exactly according to plan. And then Hardison cups his jaw, brushes their lips together, and takes a sledgehammer to Eliot’s entire world with three stupid words.

It feels kind of like that one time in Barcelona when the flirty bartender he was eyeing turned out to be less of a bartender and more of a hitman. Hit-woman. Whatever. Point is, one second he was winking and asking about the sparkling sangria, and the next he was on his back with a killer lump on his head and a dangerously pointed stiletto heel pressed hard against his throat.

This thing that he’s feeling now, it’s a little like that.

“Eliot.” The snap of Hardison’s fingers in front of Eliot’s face echoes like the blast of a gunshot through his thoughts. “Snap out of it, man, what’s up with you?”

What’s up with him? What’s up with him? How about what’s up with Hardison. Because you don’t—you don’t just say things like that to other people, not even on a con. Eliot clamps his mouth shut before he actually says that out loud and gives the game away.

It’s easy to spring back from a punch, or even a stiletto heel to the throat. (He’s not one to kiss and tell but let’s just say that particular incident ended with him on his back for a second time that evening, except with a whole lot less clothing involved.)

The other stuff, not so easy.

Finally, his professionalism re-joins the party and he shakes his head, rolling his eyes and letting an annoyed growl slip past his lips. It has the added bonus of getting the hair out of his face.

The gambit pays off as Hardison sputters, gearing up the way he does when Eliot cuts off one of his technical mumbo-jumbo talks. “Really man, really? You’re going sub-vocal on me? Take the scary dude thing down a notch before everyone in this fine hotel runs out the front door screaming.” Hardison drops his hand from where it’s curled around the back of Eliot’s neck, settling it warm around his hip instead.

“Shut up.” Eliot falls into step beside him as they walk out of the ornate lobby of the Water’s Edge Hotel and into the heated indoor pool area.

It’s decorated with as much Christmas zeal as the rest of the hotel, and Eliot pauses for a moment to grumble about second rate interior designers and electrical engineers because, seriously, who puts a Christmas tree right next to a swimming pool? Who thought that was a good idea?

A chuckle comes from beside him as Hardison follows his line of his sight. “She’s gonna want a swimming pool now isn’t she?”

It takes him a second to make that make sense, and when it does he cuts off his scathing response about how he’s more concerned about deadly volts of electricity near the water. Instead, he resists the urge to put his head in his hands. Because Hardison’s right, like he usually is in all things Parker.

“Crap,” he says, suddenly in complete agreement.

There’s no way Parker is getting a pool to go with her damn tree. Not if Eliot has any say in the matter. Except he’d said that about the matching ugly Christmas sweaters and the ridiculous Santa hats that played carols and the stolen priceless treasures on the Brew Pub’s Christmas tree. And about the cookies that she snatched bare-handed straight from the oven even though he warned her, he warned her about burns and that he wasn’t going to patch her up when she finally hurt herself.

(He still hasn’t decided whether to be relieved that she hasn’t, or angry at consistently being proven wrong.)

Anyway, what matters now is that the Brew Pub is a swimming pool-free establishment and it needs to stay that way. He looks over at Hardison and gives a half-hearted shrug. “Maybe she won’t notice?”

The lights in the pool turn on, lighting the water in waves of red and green.

Hardison hangs his head, until his forehead is pressed into Eliot’s hair. “We are so screwed.”

For once, Eliot can’t argue.

Aside from that, the rest of the con goes off without a hitch. Over the next couple days the thieves are caught, the jewelry recovered, and the blackmailers blackmailed and sent away to think about what they’d done.

It all wraps up right in time for Christmas, to Parker’s delight.

Her excitement is infectious. They’re all laughing when they stumble up to the private rooms above the Brew Pub later that evening, content that all the loose ends have been accounted for and their digital presence has been scrubbed from the scene. Eliot feels anticipation build in his chest at their choice of location.

When Parker and Hardison want time alone to be a couple, the two of them head home to the building that Hardison owns near the river. Eliot can’t pretend that doesn’t feel like a knife twisting in his side just a little—maybe that’s their way of giving him space but it’s just as likely they’d rather be alone.

His misgiving are easier to forget on nights like this. Nights when they go to the rooms above their base of operations.

All three of them.

(There’s more to it than that, including a conversation that Eliot can’t put off for much longer, but he doesn’t want to ruin the moment by thinking about that right now. After Christmas, he tells himself, before sealing off that part of his head and getting back to the matter at hand.)

Parker’s got her top off before they even get to the large bed in the largest room, and Eliot’s mouth goes dry. Because damn, the girl still hasn’t taken to wearing a bra, and she’s a sight to behold, miles of smooth skin and lean, shifting muscle, her beautiful breasts just begging to be held.

She pulls him in for a kiss, and Eliot lets himself be swept away. He gets his hands on her hips, fingers sliding along her soft skin.

Hardison presses up against his back, kissing his neck while Parker shifts to nipping at his collarbone. Without thinking, Eliot tilts his head to the side, offering up his throat to the two people who mean the most in the world to him. Parker grabs a fistful of his hair, holding him in place while Hardison bites his neck hard enough to bruise.

One of them, he’s not sure who, gets a hand down his pants. Eliot’s hips jerk, and he pulls against the hold on his hair to press a sloppy kiss to Parker’s lips. She giggles as she molds her body to him, mouth opening to let him inside.

Behind him, Hardison hums in appreciation. The hands at his waist push his jeans down, and a moment later they’re pooled at his feet along with his underwear.

“There, that’s better,” Hardison whispers against his neck.

He can feel Hardison, already half hard where he’s pressed against Eliot’s skin. Eliot breaks the kiss with Parker to lean back and say, “You’re wearin’ too many clothes, hot shot.”

Hardison’s shirt goes sailing overhead across the room. As one, they move towards the bed, and Eliot barely kicks his shoes off in time to keep from tripping over his own damn pants. By the time they make it to the bed he’s completely naked.

The pieces of his life slot back into place.

They’ll shatter again when he slips away in the middle of the night but he’s not thinking about that now.


He’s not thinking about it on the lonely drive home either, or when he’s back alone in his own bed.

Even with the lingering hum of pleasure beneath his skin, Eliot can’t sleep easy. His house is dead silent around him, too empty without the steady drone of two others asleep beside him. What he needs is a distraction. Like the muffled thud of an intruder’s footsteps or the shifting in the air as a door swings silently open.

The possibility isn’t just wishful thinking. The domestic warrants on his head have all quietly been wiped away after that thing with Vance last year in D.C., but there’s still a price or seven on his head in the rest of the world. And he’d kind of like for someone to try collecting right about now. The release of a good fight, that rush of skin and bone yielding under his knuckles is exactly the kind of distraction he needs to get his head together.

He strains his ears, listening.

Unfortunately, the bounty hunters, retrieval specialists, and assassins of the world are apparently living it up on vacation, because the silence is absolute. It’s just him in the house. Finally, exhausted and tired of fighting himself, he rolls over onto his back and dips a hand under the waistband of his boxers. It’s been long enough since Parker and Hardison that he can go for another round.

If he can’t get release from a good fight, he’ll try the next best thing.

It’s easy to bring up the memory of the gorgeous woman he’d seen at the hotel bar during the con, all wild dark hair and full lips. He can practically feel those soft lips trail down his chest and stomach, lower and lower until they close hot and tight around his cock.

Eliot groans, frustration rather than arousal. His dick barely twitches in his hand. He gives it a couple more tries—hot mystery girl riding him wearing nothing but his old cowboy hat; him burying his head between her legs, tongue on fire as he listens to the noises she makes; her cuffing him to the bed with his own cuffs and teasing him until he begs.

None of it’s enough to get him there and Eliot can’t even pretend to be surprised. He’s exhausted from lack of sleep and tired of pretending he doesn’t want the one thing he wants. He knows he shouldn’t, not after the conversation he overheard the other day. But the only thing he’s gotten from fighting himself tonight is beat up. Defeat and anticipation tangle together and settle heavy in his stomach as he makes up his mind. Letting out a breath, he lets the image behind his eyes change.

It becomes Parker on one side of him and Hardison on the other, his favorite memories of their nights together playing on repeat in his head. And crap, he’s already harder than he’s been since he left the Brew Pub, just thinking of the two of them. Hardison’s muscular back shifting as he moves, and Parker’s lithe figure bending in ways that shouldn’t even be possible. Eliot breathes hard through his nose as his body comes fully on board, chest heaving and toes curling as he picks up the pace. He’s rock hard in his hand, hips twitching with each stroke, like maybe if he presses himself hard enough into his hand he can pretend it’s not just him in the bed.

Just as he’s teetering on the edge, the memory from that afternoon at the hotel, a rough, “I love you,” echoes in his ears. But this time it’s both their voices, enveloping him and pinning him in place and giving him everything he can never ask for. White blossoms behind his eyes and with a last sharp breath, he squeezes his eyes shut and lets it take him.

Too tired to move and afraid that if he does, he might actually have to think about how screwed he is, Eliot cleans himself off with his boxers, chucks them into a corner, and falls asleep.


May (Seven months earlier)

The first time Eliot sleeps with Parker and Hardison, it doesn’t go down anything like how he anticipates. Not that he spends time thinking about it or anything. Just…he’s just saying that the whole thing was a bit unexpected is all.

It happens shortly after Nate and Sophie have run off to get married and pretend to be retired (he hears it mostly involves taunting Sterling, and that’s a plan Eliot can always get behind).

It’s also mostly a blur, thanks to how spectacularly shitty the preceding days are. It goes something like this.

He’s tied to a chair at the wrists, ankles, and chest, and not in the way that leads to a good time for all. The guys who put him there fought like pros. Unfortunately, they also tied knots like pros. And thanks to Eliot taking out most of their buddies before he went down, they weren’t exactly gentle about it. His entire body aches, and his left knee is about the size of a baseball due to a painful dislocation. What it all adds up to is that unless these guys blow it big time, which seems unlikely given what he’s seen so far, Eliot isn’t getting out of here on his own.

But that’s alright; he knew that going into this.

The break-in should have been a simple in and out. Hardison had finally tracked their corrupt CEO through multiple shell companies and dummy corporations until he hit upon The Larson Foundation. It all went downhill from there.

They were fighting with each other from the start, bickering about stupid things that Eliot can’t even remember. They were all off their game and as a result, none of them had seen the signs of a second security team until it was too late. Any embarrassment at being caught at such an amateur move had been swept away when he realized the second team was heading straight for Hardison’s position, holed up in the van and too far away for either him or Parker to get to in time.

Eliot had done the only thing he could. He’d smashed his earbud and broken his cover in the loudest, messiest way possible. It worked perfect, and drew their attention straight to him.

The room he’s being held in isn’t actually a room at all. The quality of the echo tells him the walls are some kind of corrugated metal. A cargo container, maybe. There are no windows, and one point of entry, the lone door at the far end. The only light comes when it’s opened, otherwise it’s just him and the dark.

It’s a common interrogation tactic, which is perversely comforting. His bruised chest aches as he laughs.

According to his internal clock it’s been approximately sixty hours since he was taken. Give or take, because he’s got no clue what the sun’s doing in the world outside. Instead, he uses the growing hunger pains in his stomach and the dryness in his parched throat to mark the time. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before.

There isn’t much to do while he waits. Even if he could get his mouth to his wrists, this isn’t the kind of rope he’d once joked to Sophie about being able to chew through.

So he sits back and gathers his strength. If an opening presents itself, he’ll be as ready as he can get.

When the door to his makeshift cell opens, the little bit of light sears like a pickaxe into his brain. His vision adjusts, and he recognizes the leader of this little group standing over him. The guy’s flanked by three goons, two of them Eliot recognizes and one he doesn’t. The lot of them are backlit by the open door like some kind of arch villain lineup straight from one of Hardison’s comic books.

The leader is tall and lean, all solid muscle. There’s a bruise blossoming on his jaw that’s a perfect match to the scrape on Eliot’s knuckles.

Eliot eyes it and smirks. “They finally send the big boss in, huh? What’s the matter, the hourly guys not earning their keep?”

The man smiles, unfazed, and looks pointedly at the chair Eliot’s sitting in. “They did their part.” The bland, accentless voice practically screams ex-CIA.

“Ain’t that sweet,” Eliot says. He makes a show of looking around. Parker had theorized that their scumbag of the week had a silent partner; Eliot figures he’s found him. “This is a nice little summer camp you got going on. We gonna hold hands and sing next? Or how ‘bout some s’mores, they’re always a crowd favorite. Funny story actually, I got this great recipe off a guy from—”

“Enough,” the man cuts him off. “The girl and the hacker. Where are they?”

Eliot spits a wad of blood at the guy’s feet and laughs. It’s the same answer he’s been giving the underlings for the past sixty hours. Give or take.

He knows what comes next and braces for it the best he can.

“I hate to break it to you man,” Eliot grunts as his face snaps back with yet another blow, “but on a scale of one to twenty your interrogation skills are about a—” another blow renews the tang of iron in his mouth— “a three and a half,” he finishes. Eliot’s got a lot more to throw at him, a whole lecture series about the quality of the guy’s training and how maybe it’s time to take a refresher course because Eliot’s taught classrooms full of children who were more intimidating. None of it’s anywhere near true but that’s not the point.

Even as his vision goes a little fuzzy, he clings to the fact that every hit he takes is one Parker and Hardison never have to bear. He’ll gladly take the punishment if it keeps them far away from this.

Of course, it’s exactly when he’s thinking that when it happens. When he smells the gas.

Instinct kicks in and he’s already holding his breath when the door slams closed with a foreboding clang, plunging the room into darkness. There’s the erratic patter of footsteps and several pained grunts. Two bodies hit the floor with matching thuds and then a mask is pressed against his mouth. Eliot’s halfway to head-butting whoever’s behind him when he realizes those hands are familiar. He stills immediately. A rush of clean oxygen sweeps through him, cutting through the fog at the edge of his vision.

His voice sounds muffled as he says, “What the hell, Hardison. You—I almost broke your—”

“Relax man, we got you.” Hardison is securing the mask to his face so he can fumble with the ropes binding his wrists. And if Eliot maybe leans into the touch a little bit, it’s only because of exposure to the gas.

Between the gas working its magic and Parker lighting up the room with bursts from her trusty taser, it isn’t long until two more thuds reach Eliot’s ears. They’re both too heavy to be Parker, which makes all four bad guys down. Parker clicks on her own flashlight and sprints over to them. Eliot can see her eyes are wide behind her mask. Together, they get the last of the ropes off him, and he grits his teeth against the pain as they each sling one of his arms around their shoulders and heave him to his feet. It’s like that time in D.C. and Eliot relaxes, lets himself lean on them as they get the hell out of dodge.

He lets himself drift in the van as they drive. Hardison bats his hands away when he tries to grab the first aid kit and patch himself up. Which is ridiculous. Eliot’s a trained field medic. He’s patched himself up after worse.

It’s only when Parker turns around and fixes him with her best glare and a stern, “Let him do it Eliot, or I’ll drive the fun way,” that he’s convinced to maybe sit back and let Hardison work on him.

Hardison grins like Eliot’s just offered to play some of that Witches and Wardrobes game. Eliot would glare right back but it’s more effort than it’s worth.

Meanwhile, Parker’s driving like she’s decided traffic laws are the new bungee cords. A mental picture of her holding a Stop sign while wearing a yellow day glow crossing guard vest floats through his mind and he lets out an amused huff.

“Excuse me, what about this situation is funny?”

Hardison’s voice sounds far away. The familiar tones wash over him and it’s kind of nice. Maybe they’ll all be traffic wardens on the next con.

It’s too much to mull over so instead he drifts along to the alternating sensations of caring hands on his skin and the low buzz of pain as Hardison swipes antiseptic over his injuries. He’s gonna crash soon—gonna crash hard—and the knowledge sends a last-ditch rush of adrenaline straight though him. Only a hand on his shoulder keeps him from bolting upright. He hates losing control, especially out on the open road like this. It isn’t secure, he needs to get his team to cover before he can let go. Except his body isn’t on board with that particular plan and as he falls asleep the last thing he feels is a hand clasped in his own, their joint heartbeats thrumming a steady patter of safe safe safe in his ears.

He wakes up warm in a bed that isn’t his and his first thought is that Hardison must’ve carried him back to Hardison’s own apartment and crap, Eliot’s never going to hear the end of that. He most definitely isn’t thinking about how he’s in Hardison’s bed. The bed he and Parker share.

He does a quick inventory on the damage to his body. Relief washes through him when he confirms that everything is where it should be, followed by a frown when he realizes his dislocated knee has been set and splinted. The memory is distant, except for the red hot ball of agony that roars back to life when he tests the mobility in his leg. Years of training and habit keep him still and silent as he rides out the pain. When it goes down to a dull ache and he can think again, he sort of remembers Parker setting it while Hardison held his shoulders down. Or maybe it was Parker who pressed him down. Fine, maybe he can’t remember all that well. For all he knows he set it himself in the van and dreamed up the rest.

The thought is forcefully ejected when he realizes he’s not alone in the bed.

Hardison’s there too, asleep right next to him with one hand splayed wide against Eliot’s stomach under his shirt like he’s trying to touch as much of Eliot as possible without agitating his cracked ribs. On his other side, Parker is curled into a tight ball, tucked under his arm and pressed against his side. For a moment he just blinks at them. It’s been a while since he trusted anyone enough to let them slip past his radar and get close without him noticing, especially when injured.

Very close, he suddenly realizes. Close and warm and soft against his skin where they’re touching him. Eliot’s suddenly, overwhelmingly grateful he’s beat all to hell because otherwise he’d be on the verge of seriously embarrassing himself. As it is, his body is more interested in getting rest than getting off.

On its heels is a rush of something he can’t place. Anger that they put themselves in danger for him—he gave himself up to keep them safe and they up and walked straight into the lion’s den— but that kind of thinking is stupid and he knows it. He settles for relief that they came for him, if only so he can keep being there to protect them.

That settled, he rests his hand on top of Hardison’s, pulls Parker closer, and goes back to sleep.

(Looking back, this is the exact moment when he realizes just how screwed he really is, because Jesus Christ, this isn’t what people mean when they say they’ve slept together, except Eliot’s messed up head apparently begs to differ.)

Later that evening, Eliot goes back to his own apartment, against Hardison’s ear-splitting objections. Parker’s not happy either, but she’s less vocal about it. It involves a lot of poking at his injuries.

The change of location doesn’t stop them from letting themselves in to check on him every day. Eliot grumbles about being able to take care of himself, but the truth is he’s happy for the company.

None of them comment about the fact that Eliot’s never actually given them a key. (Eliot figures they’d be offended if he’d tried. They’re not the best thieves in the business for nothing.)

Today, Eliot only hears one set of footsteps approaching his bedroom before the door opens.

“I’ve got Firefly and Battlestar Galactica.”

Eliot slowly sits up, hiding a wince as the movement pulls at his ribs. “That some kind of disease or something?”

Hardison clutches at his chest and all he’s missing is a set of pearls to make the picture complete. “Oh no, you just didn’t. Oh, hell no! Get ready, because I am about to rock your sick sad little world.” There’s a crinkling noise as he pulls a large, flat packet from his backpack and waves it around like he’s trying to swat flies. “And look! I brought snacks.”

“Dammit Hardison. How many times I gotta tell you that microwaved popcorn ain’t a snack. It’s a—a travesty, that’s what it is.”

Hardison laughs and Eliot has to force himself to look at down his fingernails rather than at the long line of Hardison’s throat as his head falls back.

He’s immediately disgusted at himself because Parker. Hardison loves Parker and she loves him right back and Eliot is a crap friend for even thinking like that. Except that doesn’t help one bit because now he’s also thinking of how Parker felt curled against his side in Hardison’s bed. How good it felt to fit right in between the both of them.

He should never have let himself pass out in the van. He should have made them take him straight home where he could’ve woken up in his own bed. Alone. Ever since waking up with Hardison’s hand on his skin and Parker pressed against him, it’s like a dam broke in his brain and all the things he never let himself want have come spilling out. The only consolation is that it’ll be easier to tuck the feelings away once he’s healed up. He’s just a bit tired and it’s making him sloppy is all.

He snaps his head back up as Hardison says, “Oh, you think you can do better, is that it? Better than the joy of microwave popcorn and delicious spray butter, oh I don’t think so.”

“Spray—spray butter? What the hell is wrong with you? That stuff ain’t even butter, it’s all chemicals. How can you eat that crap?” Inappropriate thoughts of Hardison’s neck are pushed aside in the wake of this ongoing crime against food and nature. He struggles out of bed, gripping the headboard to steady himself as he gets upright. Hardison moves to help but stays still as Eliot fixes him with a glare.

“Alright, Alright.” Hardison holds up his hands. “The big scary dude can do it himself. He’s too good for a little help from the friend who’s ass he saved by getting the crap beat out of him.” Hardison points a finger at him. “And don’t think we won’t be discussing that little stunt of yours later.”

Eliot starts to shake his head and stops. The last time he did that he nearly dropped and he’s not eager to repeat the experience. “Fine,” he bites out. “Come here, then.”

Hardison smiles bright as he gets his shoulder under Eliot’s arm. The warmth of him presses hot into Eliot’s side and he lets himself lean into it.

Turns out Eliot’s not much for spaceships, and if he maybe falls asleep on Hardison’s shoulder once or twice, it’s just ‘cause the entertainment is lacking.


July

There’s no big revelation. Eliot’s been in love before, remembers the slow slide of falling for another person. He’s self-aware enough to know it when it happens again. The knowledge slots into place without any kind of fanfare during his morning workout. His ribs mended weeks ago and his knee is finally healing up enough for him to be of use again, and so he’s dusting off one of his old katas to test it out.

He begins, settling into the rhythm of the movement, his thoughts finding order along with his body. He knows Hardison and Parker care for him, too. How could he not notice? He isn’t stupid. Or blind.

He’s seen how Hardison’s eyes go soft when they look at him after Eliot’s saved his ass for the fiftieth time. It’s in the way Parker sits with him between jobs and demonstrates how she makes her rigs, pressed up close to him the way she only does with the few people she trusts. How they all sprawl together on Eliot’s couch after Eliot cooks for them, watching whatever geek television Hardison is having conniptions over at the moment.

It was during one of those nights when Hardison had flicked off the television and turned to him, mindful of Eliot’s still healing leg propped up on the coffee table. “You are not expendable, Eliot. You hear that?”

Parker had nodded in agreement and gripped Eliot’s biceps tight, just over the last of the fading bruises.

Eliot had run a frustrated hand through his hair. The answer was obvious, even if he was the only one who could see it. “It’s my job. I’d do it again.”

“Then we’ll come get you again,” was all Parker said in return, and without another word, Hardison fired up the last movie in their impromptu Die Hard marathon and they all drifted off together to the sounds of Bruce Willis and explosions.

Eliot remembers that night like it’s burned into his brain. He has no doubt that whatever depths of hell he’d sink to in order to keep them safe, they’d do the same for him.

He even sees the way they look at him sometimes, when they think he isn’t watching. Truth is, they’ve been doing it for years, but Eliot’s never let himself think too hard on it. But now that the dam in his brain is compromised, he finds himself thinking about it a lot. Hardison in particular seems to like staring at his ass. The guy may be a genius but he hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that all it takes is the reflection in a pane of glass or the glimpse at the side mirror of a parked car and Eliot sees it all.

It should be simple, he thinks as he launches himself into a series of spinning kicks. His knee aches, but it holds his weight.

The problem, as usual, is Eliot. He doesn’t just want to be the friend they have mind-blowing sex with (and there’s no question that the sex would be mind-blowing, between Parker’s flexibility and Hardison’s creativity, and Eliot’s toes curl just thinking about it). Eliot is selfish. He wants it all. The whole damn pie and the ice cream, too. He wants them to be Parker and Hardison and Eliot, not Parker and Hardison with Eliot. But he’s not a horrible enough person to risk screwing up the relationship his two best friends have with each other if it doesn’t work out.

That’s all there is to it, really. That’s what it all comes back to. The risk he’s not willing to take, the line he’s not willing to cross.

He finishes up and moves to the punching bag. It feels good to hit something.


In under a week, Eliot shows up at the Brew Pub and declares he’s back in fighting form. Hardison gives a disbelieving scoff at that, but Parker just nods at him. It’s Eliot’s job to know his limits and it’s her job to let him do his.

Hardison mutters something about hitters with a death wish, but doesn’t say anything else as Eliot takes his usual seat in the briefing room.

“I called in a tip to the FBI. Or rather, Agent Thomas called in a tip.” Hardison puffs his chest out, a dumb smile pulling at the corners of his mouth that Eliot most certainly doesn’t want to kiss off of him. “Anyway, the Larson Foundation is done for but there’s one complication.” He goes on, explaining, “You were right about our mysterious silent partner. Now, unfortunately, he got away clean but what he doesn’t know is that I’m tracking his technologically-challenged behind with this little beauty.” He holds up a device that’s the match to the tracker he embedded in the Larson Foundation’s server room before the job went south.

“Technologically-challenged behind,” Eliot can’t help but jump in. Not with an opening practically gift wrapped with a shiny tag that reads, ‘Care of Eliot Spencer.’ “Really, man? How old are you, twelve?”

Hardison looks at the ceiling and mutters, “Give the man a bad guy and this is what I get. Verbal abuse, that’s what. What did I ever do to deserve—Hey!” He cuts off as Eliot flicks his ear. “Alright, alright, why you gotta be Mr. Violence about everything? What has my poor ear ever done to you?”

“Get on with it. Sometime this decade, Hardison.” Eliot smiles to take the sting out of it. He looks around to share a grin with Parker—they both enjoy riling Hardison up a little too much—but she’s disappeared into thin air somewhere along the line.

“I don’t get no respect. No respect, you hear.” He flaps a hand before Eliot can offer any more encouragement, and grabs at his keyboard, typing furiously. The large screen in front of them flares to life, showing a fuzzy video image. According to the timestamp in the corner, it’s a live feed. “I hacked into the cameras he’s using for security. Here he is.”

Eliot recognizes the figure sitting behind a large desk in what looks like an otherwise empty office as the leader of the security team who nabbed him, the one so intent on getting Hardison and Parker’s location from Eliot. He narrows his eyes at the screen, but the man doesn’t look up from the desk.

“Name’s Anton Sawyer. Nasty piece of work. Set up shop in Des Moines after we busted you out. According to his computer,” Hardison presses a bunch of buttons and the camera feed is replaced with a series of documents, “he’s recruiting, looking to kidnap another rich dude’s kid and try again.”

It wasn’t the kind of job they usually took, but Eliot had a special place of hate in his heart for people that hurt kids. It hadn’t been hard to convince the other two that they needed to take the job when it first came on their radar.

“He’s being careful,” Hardison adds. “Nothing damning enough that we can send to the cops to get him arrested. Parker and I have been doing what we can to spoil his plans but it looks like he’s getting ready for something big. I figured now that you’re back…” he trails off and Eliot has no trouble picking up from there.

“He’s ours.”

Parker chooses that moment to drop from the ceiling into a soundless crouch on the table. “Good,” she says, grinning from ear to ear. “Because I’ve already booked our tickets. We leave in two hours.”

In the end, bringing down that pile of garbage is surprisingly simple. Sawyer has no idea he’s being watched, and even less idea who’s coming for him. It’s a pleasure to watch his eyes widen when Eliot steps through the door of his safe house.

Sawyer reaches inside the desk for what Eliot would bet the Brew Pub is a gun and Eliot springs, sliding over the desk and getting his hands on the weapon. A quick smash of Sawyer’s hand against the desk and the gun skitters across the floor.

Eliot follows it up with a strike to Sawyer’s throat, which is blocked. The guy’s good, Eliot has to admit, as they exchange blows. Not good enough, though. He makes the mistake of going after Eliot’s weak knee enough times to make him predictable. With a quick twist, Eliot side steps another kick and comes up beside Sawyer, grabbing his wrist and getting his arm in a lock. Eliot knocks him out and lets him fall to the floor.

“Got it!” Parker lifts her head up from where she was working on the safe. Inside is a hard drive, which she tosses to Hardison. They grin at each other, faces flush with victory, before turning to Eliot. “Let’s go home.”

Parker throws an arm around both of them as they walk back to the rental van.


October

Each year, Parker celebrates her birthday on a different day.

“What’s so special about October fifth, baby girl?” Hardison asks as they pile out of the car at a county fair in North Carolina.

They’re still riding high from their last case. A city baseball coach for a local non-profit had discovered their corporate sponsor was using the organization to launder money and had been fired amidst false accusations about inappropriate behavior with the teens. They’d managed to prove the man’s innocence, uncover the drug operation behind the money laundering, and secure enough funds to keep the kids in quality sporting goods and scholarships for decades.

After the con wraps up, Parker declares it her birthday and they go to celebrate at the local fair they’d seen on their way in.

She bounces over to Hardison, taking both his hands and leaning in to whisper against his ear, “It’s a secret.” She pulls back, laughing, and drags him forward towards the ticket booth at the entrance. “I want funnel cake! And caramel apples. Oh, oh, and cotton candy. Can we get cotton candy?”

“Yeah, girl. Anything you want for your special day.”

Parker bounces in place and looks over at Eliot, who’s trying his damnedest to look like he’s not freaking out about the thought of Parker on a sugar high. He’s seen that in action and he still has nightmares. “You hear that, Eliot? I can have anything I want today.”

She reaches out a hand, wiggling her fingers until Eliot gets the hint and takes it. He sneaks a look over at Hardison to gauge his reaction, but he’s got a dumb grin on that’s every bit as wide as Parker’s as he looks at them. Eliot tells himself he’s being ridiculous and curls his fingers around Parker’s hand.

He nearly growls when the guy guarding the Ferris wheel won’t let the three of them share a compartment.

With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, Parker steps aside. “Fine. You guys go. I’ll meet up with you later.” She’s pointing to the Ferris wheel with one hand while she says it, the other shielding her fingers like that’s actually gonna stop the guy from seeing that she’s pointing right up to the top of the damn wheel. It’s the least subtle thing Eliot’s ever seen.

Luckily, normal people don’t speak Parker, and while the guy clearly thinks she’s got a few screws loose, he doesn’t stop Hardison and Eliot from getting into the compartment together while Parker scampers off.

It’s one of those contraptions that’s open to the air, not encased like the fancier ones, and neither of them is surprised when, not three minutes later, Parker drops from the support beams above them to sit between the two of them. It’s a little snug, but the three of them fit comfortably enough.

“Not bad,” Hardison says, looking at his watch. “A couple seconds off your best time, though.”

Eliot swings his head around to look at them then reconsiders. “How many times have you—you know what, never mind, I don’t even want to know.” He lets out a breath and leans back in his seat.

Parker giggles and kisses him on the cheek before snuggling into Hardison.

Eliot watches them with a soft smile. They’re happy—Hardison sprawled out with his arm around Parker, pulling her in close to his side— and that makes Eliot happy.

Like some kind of cliché storybook, the sun is just beginning to set, throwing an orange glow over them, as if their happiness is a thing that stretches out and touches everything from here to the horizon. If anyone deserves peace like that, it’s the two of them.

So it takes him by surprise when Parker reaches out with a giggle. “You, too, Eliot!” she demands, and pulls him into her. Before he can blink, her arm has migrated to curl around his waist. He knows when he’s trapped, and so he settles in for the long haul as they continue to rise higher into the sky.

Far be it for him to disappoint Parker on her birthday.

After a moment, a weight settles on his shoulder. It’s Hardison, he realizes, reaching across Parker to get an arm around them both. Eliot swallows, not knowing what to say, or if he’s supposed to say anything at all. He decides on silence; it’s nice, sitting here like this, and he lets himself enjoy the breeze in his hair and the good company.

The fairgrounds get smaller and smaller as they continue to rise, until they reach the very top.

He looks over and notices Parker and Hardison having some kind of silent conversation. Whatever it is looks serious, and involves a lot of pointed glances and eyebrow raises. Just as Eliot’s worried he’s gonna end up stranded sky-high in the middle of lovers' spat, it ends in a kiss. Guess they sorted out whatever it is they’re not speaking about.

In unison, they both turn to look at him and then he’s on high alert all over again. It reminds him a little of being in the crosshairs of a sniper’s scope.

“Hardison already gave me a birthday present.”

“That’s good,” Eliot says even though what he’s thinking is more along the lines of, How the hell did he know it was your birthday when you only decided forty minutes ago. But there’s something in the air, they’re building up to something and he doesn’t want to break it.

“Are you going to get me a present?”

“What do you want?”

She tilts her face up to look at him, lips slightly parted as she leans forward, and Eliot feels his world shift beneath him.

“Only if you want to,” she says, for the first time looking unsure of herself.

Eliot wants to wipe that look off her face. More than that, he just plain wants.

And so he leans in and kisses her.

Gentle at first, a soft brush of lips. Then Parker’s hand around his waist tightens and her tongue presses against him and it’s like a tidal wave bursting deep within him. With a helpless groan, he opens his mouth and lets her in, and it’s everything he ever could have hoped for. Her tongue tastes like sugary cotton candy as it sweeps across his mouth like she wants all of him and she wants it now. It’s intoxicating, and Eliot presses closer, cupping her jaw with his free hand as they kiss.

When they break apart, the world’s still spinning. The town, spread out beneath them in hues of orange and purple, seems to sway. It’s the gentle rocking of the Ferris wheel, he knows, except it’s not that at all.

And then Eliot sees Hardison and it all stops. It’s another jolt when he realizes Hardison is grinning at them like he just won the lottery. Or stole the lottery, more like.

The moment stretches on. The wind ruffles Eliot and Parker’s hair as they all look at each other in silence.

“That was really hot,” Hardison finally says.

Eliot grins wide, suddenly giddy in a way he usually is only after a near brush with death. He leans in closer. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Hardison pauses, and somehow that toothy grin gets even wider. “You know, it’s my un-birthday today.”

Never let it be said that Eliot Spencer can’t take a hint. Sitting right there in a stupid rickety Ferris wheel, he leans forward the rest of the way, mumbles, “Happy un-birthday,” against the stubble of Hardison’s jaw, and kisses him, too.


Early December

“We need the biggest tree they have!”

“Nah,” Hardison says, playing with a tablet computer he pulls from god knows where. It makes him nearly drop the umbrella he’s holding. The ensuing spastic fumbling looks like some kind of strange chicken squawk dance but finally Hardison gets himself situated with a huff. “I took the measurements of all the doors and walls, ran a simulation. What we need is a tree that’s exactly—”

“We need that one,” Eliot cuts him off, pointing to a tree in the distance. Hardison’s a genius alright, but Eliot’s learned to trust his eyes. And his eyes say they’ve found their tree.

He’s ready to take the damn thing and go. Preferably somewhere dry. He’s long since given up trying to stay under Hardison’s umbrella, and though the parka he’s wearing is taking most of the brunt, his hair is already plastered uncomfortably to his scalp.

Parker apparently agrees, at least about the tree, if the way she jumps into his arms and wraps her legs around him is any indication. And all of a sudden Eliot’s not so bothered by the rain.

Even after a couple months, it feels strange to be able to kiss her whenever he wants. Almost whenever, he reminds himself. They haven’t talked about what’s sprung up between the three of them, how Eliot’s more than a casual hook up but how it’s not a real relationship either.

Except for that first time, Eliot’s never stayed the night. And even that’s a bit of a gray area because they were already sharing a hotel suite as part of the con they were running. Once they got back to Portland it was different; they’d fallen into bed together, but Eliot had woken up in the middle of the night, taken one look at the two of them curled into each other, and felt like an intruder. After that, it had just kind of become a precedent. He’s never actually come out and asked them if he’s invited to stay, but they’ve never tried to stop him leaving either.

Hardison’s words from the Ferris wheel echo back at him. That was really hot.

And maybe that’s all this is.

Eliot’s observant, he’d be long dead if he wasn’t, but he’s not all-seeing. He can read the intentions in the drop of a shoulder before a punch, or in the shifting of a stance and the flicker of an eye towards a hidden weapon. What he can’t do is pull people’s motivations straight from their head like Sophie or Nate, can’t hack into them like Hardison, or simply steal them like Parker. If this was a tactical op, he could out-strategize them, but it’s not. No matter how hard he looks, he can’t figure out what they really want.

Parker giggles in his arms, and Eliot’s whipped back to the present. She twists and then somehow she’s sitting on his shoulders. “Come on, Eliot! To the tree!”

He’ll talk to them, Eliot vows. Just, not today.

“Yeah, yeah, hold your horses,” he says instead. Despite the grumbling, he breaks into a brisk walk towards the tree.

Halfway there, Parkers hands freeze where they’re gathering his wet hair into a ponytail, and she leans in to whisper, “Hardison’s checking out your ass.”

“Maybe he’s checking out your ass,” Eliot replies, turning around to check. The potential to rile up Hardison isn’t something he’s gonna pass up.

A quick glance confirms it. Hardison has his head ducked as if he’s looking at his tablet, but his eyes are at ass level. Eliot catches Hardison’s gaze and raises an eyebrow.

In retaliation, Hardison trots up to them and swats Eliot’s butt. He has to angle the umbrella away to keep it from hitting Parker, and now he’s getting wet, too. He reaches up, handing off the umbrella to Parker, who holds it above all their heads. Then he swats Parker’s butt. Eliot feels the jolt in his shoulders.

“If you two are finished, I’ll have you know I’m checking out both your asses,” he says.

Together, they continue towards the tree, Hardison occasionally knocking his hip against Eliot’s as they walk.

(He doesn’t talk to them tomorrow. Or the next day, either.)


It’s all Sophie’s fault.

Which probably isn’t all that fair, seeing as Sophie ain’t even in the country at the time. But Eliot feels fully justified in blaming her, because without her presence Parker has turned the Brew Pub into a Christmas nightmare.

“A winter wonderland,” Parker corrects, as she surveys her handiwork. The bells on her reindeer headband jingle as she moves. And she moves constantly.

Eliot looks despairingly at the fake snow sprinkled over the bar and on every table. There’s tinsel in places tinsel has no right to be. Parker must have gotten up before dawn to get all this done.

It’s not like they didn’t decorate the year before. There was Christmas stuff last year—in the restaurant dining area, draped across Eliot’s bar, hell they even had decorations strung up all over the private back rooms that comprised the Leverage headquarters area. There was a tree in literally every room in the building.

“But those were tasteful,” Eliot says for at least the fourth time that day. Which, for the record, doesn’t count all the times he’s said it the day before, and the day before that. “Bountiful but subtle. There was—there was an elegance to them. Not like this, like a drunk elf vomited all over the place.”

Parker quickly covers the oversized ears of her Elf-print sweater while making furious shushing noises at Eliot. “How could you! He’ll hear you!”

Eliot gives in and presses his palms over his eyes until he can see little starbursts in his vision.

Hardison’s poorly muffled laughter from the bar doesn’t help. Traitor.

“Besides, I’m not done decorating yet. I barely started on the tree,” Parker says, arms crossed the way she only does when she’s in it for the long haul. The last mark that had seen that particular stance ended up turning themselves into the cops before the con was even over.

Eliot chances a look at the poor tree, sagging under the weight of every Christmas decoration known to man. He breathes in and pinches the bridge of his nose. When that doesn’t work, he glances over to Hardison, looking for a little moral support here. Hardison’s eyes are wide, and Eliot just knows he’s weighing the consequences of letting Parker loose with the Christmas decorations, or facing her wrath if he doesn’t.

Just when this whole thing can’t get any worse, it does.

Parker’s face falls. “Okay,” she mumbles, shuffling away from the dozen or so boxes scattered at her feet.

Eliot’s being played, and not particularly well, but it works. “Fine,” he says, “Do it your way.”

Immediately, Parker spins on her heel and engulfs him in a hug. “Fooled you!”

She kicks something as she runs and the head of last year’s Baby Feels-A-Lot goes rolling across the floor, a demented dance of joy and rage as it makes its break for freedom. Hardison scrambles up on one of the barstools as it crosses his path.

Despite the horror show of a doll, Eliot can’t help the warmth that spreads from his chest. Parker’s excitement lights up the entire place, and if it means being neck deep in Christmas decorations, so be it.

From the corner of his eye, he sees Hardison grinning at them both.

Two days later, Eliot nearly spits out a mouthful of risotto that he’s taste testing at the bar when he sees their Christmas tree. More specifically, when he see the Rosalind diamond hanging proudly from one of the branches. On closer inspection, it’s not the only stolen piece of jewelry mixed in with the lights and tinsel.

He does a quick scan of the restaurant. The place is in full swing but no one is giving their tree a second glance. Marching over and taking the massive diamond off the tree would only draw attention, so he forces himself to stay put.

It’s at that moment when Parker bounds out of the back rooms with Amy Palavi in tow. The two of them are talking enthusiastically, all hand gestures and big smiles. Eliot has a sinking feeling Parker is arranging for more decorations. He knows this because it’s the same feeling he used to get when he was millimeters away from stepping on an active land mine, and he’s learned to listen to it.

Parker looks at him then, and follows his line of sight to the enormous Christmas tree in the corner where the diamond is glinting like a miniature pink sun in the soft light.

Eliot schools his face into a look that conveys, Really, Parker? Really? Or more specifically, Please move the stolen goods to the Christmas tree that isn’t in full view of the public.

The operation is a failure, because she only winks at him and flashes a double thumbs up. Eliot doesn’t have the heart to spoil her fun, even if it does mean their possible impending arrest.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t dare leave the main dining room, and he keeps a surreptitious eye on the tree all evening.

The risotto doesn’t pass muster, and he decides on beer braised chili instead.

Later that night, Parker wears nothing but the diamond to bed and Eliot decides she can keep the damn thing on the tree for as long as she wants. Everyone will just think it’s a fake anyway. Judging by how quickly Hardison shimmies out of his clothes, he’s in agreement. As good as Parker looks now, Eliot soon discovers she looks even better writhing under his mouth, her back arched as Hardison swallows down all the noises she’s making.

The sweat is still drying on his skin when Parker rolls over and nuzzles Hardison’s cheek before stretching over him to place a kiss on Eliot’s nose. “Merry Christmas.”

“It ain’t Christmas yet.” His head’s still fuzzy from when Hardison sucked him down and didn’t let him come until he’d ridden Parker’s fingers so hard he was gasping for them to finish it. “Still weeks to go.”

He can feel Hardison’s chest rumble with laughter. “Guess we’ll just have to keep doing this till it’s Christmas, then. Wouldn’t want to disappoint the hot mama here, would you?”

“Wouldn’t want that,” Eliot sleepily agrees.

If either of them are disappointed when Eliot slips away before dawn, they don’t say.


“We have to tell him, Parker.”

“Why? What if he’s mad? Things are good now. Why can’t they stay good?”

“Good!? This is as far from good as we can get. We’re using him. It ain’t right and you know it. We got to tell him the truth.”

On the other side of the door, Eliot feels like he’s been punched in the stomach with a set of brass knuckles. His first thought is that maybe he’s misunderstanding this whole thing, jumping to the wrong conclusions, when…

“…can’t keep taking him to bed with us like a lost stray. It ain’t right.”

“Leaving out the truth isn’t lying it’s—okay, fine, it’s just as bad. I get it. I get it, Hardison.” A pause. “I just don’t want him to take it badly. What if he wants to leave because of us?”

“Then that’s his choice, baby.”

Eliot swallows the sick feeling crawling out of his stomach and into his throat.

He’s heard enough, and retraces his steps, making sure to make plenty of noise as he re-approaches the back rooms. Even so, Hardison practically jumps out of his skin when Eliot enters the room and takes his usual seat at their briefing table. Parker’s a little more subtle about the whole thing, which is some kind of Christmas miracle in itself, but she’s still looking closer at Eliot than usual.

Trying to assess whether Eliot had heard them talking, he realizes. And he may not be at Sophie Devereaux levels of grifting, but he’s not half bad at it either, so he puts an irritated look on his face and glances between them both.

“Whatever you two’re planning, it ain’t gonna work. All the cookies are on lockdown till Christmas Eve, you hear. You’ll just have to wait for the day.”

It’s not the same as conning his crew. It’s not.

“Lockdown.” Parker laughs until she snorts and Eliot feels like ten kinds of crap. She winks at Hardison. “He’s adorable.”

Hardison makes a show of looking at Eliot from head to toe before replying, “Oh yeah, that he is.”

Normally that would be enough to send all three of them upstairs, but now all Eliot feels is vaguely nauseous.

They take their seats and Hardison starts the briefing. A picture of a smiling elderly couple fills the screen. “This is Louis and Mary Winston, owners of the Water’s Edge Hotel here in Portland. And though they might look all sweet and innocent, let me assure you they are not.”

From there, Hardison takes them through the financials and Parker gives a summary of her meeting with their newest clients. Before the day is out, the first part of the con is in motion.

--

“Newlyweds?” Eliot sputters, when they regroup later that evening. “You can’t be serious.” It’s bad enough that he overhead what he overheard earlier, but now he’s gotta play happy couple with Hardison on top of it? Give him a break.

Parker frowns where she’s standing in front of the bank of monitors. “We know that the Winstons are preying on same-sex couples. It’s the perfect opportunity to take them down at their own game.”

She’s right, is the annoying part. Eliot’s a professional, he can do this.

And he does, right up until the point when Hardison says those three stupid words on the con. The words aren’t even meant for Eliot, they’re part of their cover, but they’re stuck in his head now. Eliot’s no stranger to cruelty; he’s been on both sides of it more times than he wants to remember. But this—this constant echo of what he can’t have, it’s messing with his head. He does his best to forget it. He’s even doing okay, right up until he fails spectacularly that evening in his bedroom.

The next morning he wakes up and admits he can’t keep going like this.

He wanted to wait until after Christmas to have this conversation. But tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and Eliot can already tell he’s not going to make it that long.

Before he knows it, he’s standing in front of Hardison’s building. Yeah, that’s right, building. Because of course the guy can’t just buy a riverfront condo like a normal person. He has to go and buy the building just because he can.

Even if Eliot didn’t know which floor Hardison lived on, it’s pretty easy to tell which apartment is his. There are no less than three wreathes on the door.

Eliot rings the bell.

He’s been trained to handle high stress situations, which is the only reason his heart is beating a steady patter in his chest and not jumping into his throat as he waits.

The door opens and Hardison pokes his head out, eyes lighting up when he sees it’s Eliot on his doorstep.

Eliot’s hit with the smell of pine before he even takes a step inside. If he had thought the Brew Pub was Christmas central, this place puts it to shame. There are Christmas trees in every room, barely visible behind the sheer number of lights and ornaments of every size and color. The large bay window in the eating nook is trimmed entirely in garland and mistletoe. Hell, even the coffee table in the living room has been transformed into a miniature winter town, complete with tiny people in the shops and lights in the windows. The miniature town is, of course, decked out in Christmas decorations.

Hardison’s watching Eliot study the apartment. “So…” Hardison starts. They’re standing in the no man’s land between the living room and the kitchen, and Eliot can’t help but think it’s an apt metaphor.

“Parker around?” Eliot asks.

“Yeah, man, she’s just up there,” Hardison gestures to the staircase opposite the hallway where they entered. “You want to talk to her? We can just…” Hardison waves him forward and walks towards the stairs and the master suite.

Eliot’s moving before either of them realizes, snagging Hardison’s arm in a vice-like grip that brings them both to a standstill. Because he can’t…he can’t have this conversation anywhere near a bed. Especially not the one where he first woke up in, injured and groggy and surrounded by the two of them—he’s got a lot of willpower but he ain’t a saint.

Some of it must show on his face, because Hardison gives a quiet ,”Alright,” and calls out, “Hey Parker! Babe! Come on down, Eliot’s here.”

A moment later she comes into view at the top of the stairs. Her hair’s a mess and she’s dressed unsurprisingly in a pair of red pajama bottoms and a green tank top.

Except for the first and only time Eliot’s ever stayed the night, he’s never seen her fresh from sleep like this. Sure, there have been times when they’d been forced to share a hotel room or sleep overnight in the van while on a job, but it’s not the same. This is much more intimate. Eliot drinks it all in while he can.

Hardison gives her a kiss and they both head towards the living room couch. Eliot deliberately takes one of the overstuffed side chairs, moving a throw pillow out of the way and placing it in his lap as he sits. Hardison and Parker are pressed together on the couch, still holding hands.

And isn’t that the way of it. Eliot was a fool to think it could ever be otherwise. The only consolation is that they’re still as together now as they were that first time on the Ferris wheel. A long breath of relief flows out of him. What he’s got to do suddenly doesn’t seem half as hard as it did ten minutes ago.

He straightens his back where he sits in the chair and looks at them both. No point in drawing this out. “I think you know why I’m here.”

Parker gives a wry smile. “Time to talk, huh?”

Parker’s like Eliot, not big on talking when it’s not necessary. Neither of them are like Hardison, who wears his heart on his sleeve for everyone to see.

Eliot shrugs. “Yeah, guess so.”

Neither of them speak.

Finally, Hardison clears his throat. “This is a great conversation, y’all. I feel better already.”

A huff of laughter escapes Eliot, and then Parker’s snickering behind her hand. Hardison leans back, looking pretty pleased with himself.

Eliot wants nothing more than to go over to them. It would be so easy to slot himself in place on the other side of Hardison and pretend like he didn’t come here to tell them it was over. The thought sobers him immediately.

“I’m done,” is all he says.

The remnants of Parker’s laughter turn into a choke. Crap, even her bottom lip trembles, and Eliot needs to stick to his guns here or else he’ll never be able to do this.

Getting shot is easy. This here, this is worse.

“With the team?” Parker says quietly, and that damn near rips Eliot’s heart out.

The thought hasn’t even crossed his mind, and his throat tightens just thinking about it. The idea of them out there without him makes him physically ill. Hardison’s smarter than anyone Eliot’s ever met and Parker’s actually pretty impressive in a real fight, but neither of them are him. He’s the one that keeps them safe while they do what they do, and Eliot wouldn’t give that up for anything.

“No, Parker, no. Of course not.” He’s halfway out of his chair before he realizes what he’s doing, and he forces himself to sit back down. “I mean,” he gestures between himself and them, “I mean this. Us. It ain’t working.”

If anything, Parker’s looks even worse after he says it.

“Excuse me?” Hardison pipes us. “You seemed pretty satisfied last—” Parker shoves him in the ribs and he falls quiet.

“Really, man?” Eliot can’t believe this crap. “‘That’s not what you said last night.’ That’s what you’re going with, here? You’re cracking jokes?”

Hardison’s hands clench into fists in his lap. “I didn’t think last night was a joke. I guess that doesn’t make three of us.”

“What the hell’s that even supposed to mean?” Eliot stands, sending the tiny pillow tumbling to the ground. “You know what, I don’t care. You wanted me out, and I’m out. Happy?”

Hardison shoots to his feet as well. It would almost be intimidating except, well, it’s Hardison. “Out? Who said anything about out? If you want out Eliot, just say so. Don’t pretend you’re doing this because of us.”

Parker bites her lip, tucking her legs under herself where she sits and looking up at Hardison. A quick tug on his hand is enough to get his attention. “He heard us talking.” Parker looks at Eliot then, “Didn’t you Eliot?”

No point trying to pretend. “When’d you figure it out?”

“I wasn’t sure at first, but now I am.”

Eliot barely stops himself from rolling his eyes. Girl must be channeling Nate because that wasn’t any kind of answer at all.

Hardison gives a weak laugh. “Conversation…you mean the one before the Water’s Edge job? The one where I said we couldn’t keep stringing Eliot along because of some certain pretzel-like feelings on our part? About how it wouldn’t be fair to keep having incredibly steamy sex without telling him that first. That conversation?”

“Cookies,” Parker corrects. “Eliot is cookies, not pretzels, remember.”

“Right. He does make some damn fine cookies.”

Whatever Eliot was expecting, it wasn’t this. He doesn’t have the slightest clue what kind of nonsense they’re talking about, but a traitorous sliver of hope is worming its way into his chest and taking up residence.

“Forget what you thought you heard us say. Look at us. Look at me.” Parker unfolds herself from the couch to stand next to Hardison. They’re facing him from across the corner of the ridiculous winter village coffee table. “Do I look like I want you to leave us?”

Hardison takes her hand. “Yeah, Eliot. Tell us.”

For all Parker isn’t a talker when it comes to the big emotions, she’s always had an expressive face. More so when she isn’t trying to hide anything. She isn’t trying now. Her mouth is a tight line, pinched at both ends and so at odds with her cheerful holiday pajamas. There’s a flush of color on her cheeks and her eyes are wide and unblinking and a little bit shiny. The entire line of her body is tight and he can see her knuckles are stark white where her hand is gripped in Hardison’s.

For his part, Hardison has just as much of a death grip on her. His face is a gathering storm, jaw locked and a deep furrow between his eyebrows. There’s a glint in his eye that Eliot has only seen once before; outside that CIA mobile command unit back when they were chasing the Spanish flu. He’d been terrified then, and it’s that same desperation shining through now.

There another emotion there too though, mirrored in Parker’s gaze as well, but Eliot isn’t ready to put a name to it. He doesn’t think he can get through it if he names it and he turns out to be wrong. He puts that puzzle piece aside for the moment.

Eliot’s not a mastermind or a grifter or any of those things. He prefers to deal in hard intel, things he can see and touch. What he’s seeing is clear. This thing that binds them together, it’s more than just real good sex.

It’s like coming up for air after being held underwater for too long. The tightness in his chest loosens and his shoulders sag. “Okay,” he says.

Neither of them say anything and for a heart stopping second Eliot thinks he’s too late. That he’s messed up the best thing to ever happen to him.

And then Parker’s smiling, so maybe Eliot didn’t mess it up, maybe it just took a second for it to sink in. Her face is shining like the sun after a storm, the kind that goes all the way to her eyes and lights up her whole face. It’s the most gorgeous thing Eliot’s ever seen. The both of them are.

Parker takes a tentative step around the coffee table, as if he might bolt if she makes any sudden movement. Hardison’s eyes are practically boring holes into Eliot, like he’s waiting for Eliot to disappear with the first blink.

It hits him then, that this was hard for Parker and Hardison, too.

Hardison’s words from a moment ago finally click into alignment; Eliot knows the origin story of their relationship, and to think they both might feel like that about him…it’s like someone found all the things he’s kept under lock and key and presented them on a silver platter. It makes him cringe to think that this whole time, they’d thought Eliot didn’t want it, that maybe he was just in it for some kind of X-rated stress relief.

“Come ‘ere,” Eliot says, stepping in to meet Parker halfway.

She gives a delighted shriek as he picks her up and swings her around, careful to sidestep enough to avoid the creepy Christmas-town and the Christmas tree in the corner.

They’re quickly joined by Hardison, and then it’s just the three of them wrapped in each other’s arms. Eliot’s chest is full to bursting and he pulls them tighter against him. It’s finally sinking in. Everything he’s always wanted has been right here in front of him the entire time. If the strength of the arms clinging to him is any indication, he’s not the only who’s come to that particular conclusion.

It’s not even Christmas and he’s already got the best present he could have asked for.

“You know, Eliot,” Hardison whispers in his ear, voice low and rough. “You must’ve also missed the part of the conversation where I wanted to tie you to our bed and tell you we loved you until you finally get it through that head of yours.”

And there it is. That word again. Eliot’s breath catches in his throat.

“Yeah,” he manages to croak out against Hardison’s shoulder. “Yeah, you can do that.”

None of them are willing to let go yet, so they move in an awkward huddle back to the couch, where they collapse in a pile of limbs. Eliot’s head is in Hardison’s lap with Parker’s straddling Eliot’s waist. It’s warm and it’s perfect, and he never wants to let go of this.

Parker grabs a Santa hat from some hidden stash behind a couch cushion and puts it on her head. “This is the best Christmas present ever.”

“I ain’t a present, Parker,” Eliot protests, but his heart isn’t in it.

“Don’t be silly. You’re ours now.”

Warmth floods up from Eliot’s toes right to his heart and he blinks several times. Giving in to impulse, he pulls Parker down to him and kisses the top of her forehead right under the ridiculous white trimming of the hat. “Mine,” he growls as she giggles.

He can’t reach Hardison without dislodging Parker, so he catches him by the wrist and brushes a kiss across his knuckles. “Mine, too.”

Hardison’s looking down at him with a familiar soft look in his eyes. “Hell yeah.” He smiles wide at the both of them. “Looks like we’re ready for Christmas.”

Parker takes off her Santa hat and places it on Eliot’s head. “No, now we’re ready for Christmas.”


Christmas

Eliot isn’t ready for Christmas.

It’s weird without Nate and Sophie there. Eliot can admit it, if only to himself. They’ve closed up the Brew Pub and it’s just him, Parker, and Hardison perched on stools at the bar, looking out over the silent restaurant. They could’ve stayed holed up at Hardison and Parker’s place, but some invisible pull brought them all here.

Problem is, they’re here now and the place has never felt emptier. Specifically, empty of two particular people.

He keeps expecting to look to the side and see Sophie, watching them like she can unravel all their deepest thoughts (she can, and it should be scary but it’s not), or Nate looking at them like if he tries hard enough, he can stop seeing the shadow of his old family looking over at the new (he can’t, and he never will). They’re all a bit broken, all five of them in their own way, but their jagged edges fit together. Only now they’re missing two pieces.

“It’s weird, right?” Hardison’s voice forcibly drags Eliot from his thoughts. On closer inspection, he can see the two of them are just as thrown as he is.

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” It’s a blatant lie, but neither of them calls Eliot on it.

Well, not unless he counts the way Parker wrinkles her nose, or how Hardison’s eyebrows practically shoot towards the ceiling like some kind of surface-to-air missile of silent judgment. Which, of course, Eliot doesn’t count.

The moment passes as soon as it comes and silence once again sweeps in, settling calm between them. There’s something familiar, something comforting about knowing that even in this they’re all together. There’s a warmth in their eyes that Eliot doesn’t want to think too much about. It makes him wonder what they’re seeing in his own gaze.

They’re doing alright on their own. Hell, they’re doing better than alright. Parker has proven herself in her new role, not that he or Hardison had ever doubted her, pulling apart puzzle pieces with the same effortless energy that she uses to dance through laser grids.

Even in that other thing, the thing they finally put a name to the previous day, they’re better than good. Eliot feels a rush of heat in his face as he recalls how they spent the rest of the previous day once they’d finally gotten up off the couch and made it to the bedroom. And the shower. And then back to the couch. Eliot had drawn the line at the kitchen. He has plans for that kitchen that involve actual food. Point he’s trying to make is, it was pretty damn incredible. So there’s no reason that this, their first Christmas going at it solo, should feel so wrong.

But it does, and one look at Parker and Hardison is enough to confirm it.

Eliot clears his throat, looking away, his eyes catching on the massive Christmas tree that Parker had strong-armed them into buying. Which is fancy talk for how Parker had looked forlornly at every Christmas tree in the whole damn city, even though they’re already agreed to get a tree. And how Hardison had ogled Eliot’s ass as he wrestled the stupid tree into his truck and then into the Brew Pub. One or two of their regulars had complimented them on the unique decorations, and Eliot tries not to think of their reactions, or the reactions of various law enforcement agencies, were they to discover that the treasures hanging from its branches were as far from fake as could be.

Leave it to Parker to do the unthinkable and actually make it work.

So of course it’s Parker who finally solves this weird thing hanging in the air between them, as if here and now is the final piece to her settling into her new role. “One truth,” she says, an echo of Nate and their Christmas together one year ago today.

None of them had spoken after Nate’s confession about his son last year. The silence was too heavy; it hadn’t felt right. But now, that same silence settles like a worn blanket over the three of them. Comfortable and just a little stifling, but warm and familiar. Eliot can see clear as day that Parker intends to finish what Nate had started.

He wonders if he and Hardison will be in any condition to speak once she’s done, or if the truths they all have to share are so heavy that they can only be done one year at a time.

Like an echo of the previous year, Parker begins to speak.

“I never had a family. I mean, Archie, he took me in, but I was never….you know.” Parker’s voice is perfectly steady, as if through long experience with this particular tale, though Eliot knows—the same way he can tell the discharge of an AK-47 from a P90 even through the chaos of a firefight— that she’s never shared it before. His gaze cuts to Hardison, listening in rapt attention, his hands clenched tight around the wine he only ever drinks on special occasions.

Eliot can relate. He dreads and anticipates hearing what’s to come with equal intensity.

They let her talk.

“I broke into this house in the suburbs when I was a kid. The alarm system was easy but it had this safe buried in the floor of the master bedroom. And I knew I could crack it, I just knew. I cased the place. Waited until they left with their kids. People move slower when they have to drag their kids along so I knew I’d have time.” She takes a breath. “I’d forgotten it was Christmas until I was inside the house.

“It’s funny, you know. I’d always thought that kids getting all these presents was just in the movies, right. Stories and fairy tales. But this house—there were presents everywhere. In stockings, under the tree, around the fireplace, in the garage.”

Parker’s eyes are unfocused, like she’s still inside that damn house. Eliot can see it like he’s right there with her. A gangly, teenage-sized Parker all alone in someone else’s empty home, looking with wide eyes at a bunch of presents wrapped in shiny paper that aren’t for her. It breaks something inside him and before he knows it, he’s slid off his barstool to wrap his arms around her, his chest pressed firm against the warmth of her back. Distantly, he sees Hardison doing the same, standing between her legs to bracket her from the other side. A Parker sandwich, she likes to call it, and that makes him feel a little less awful.

“I hid inside the storage cabinet all night.” Parker’s voice is barely a whisper as she continues. Pressed as close as they are, Eliot can easily make out every word. “The family came home a few hours later. They didn’t know I was there.”

“Course they didn’t,” Hardison adds in a low voice. “You’re the best, girl.”

“Yeah.” Eliot can’t see Parker’s answering smile but he knows it was there by the way her muscles relax slightly within the circle of his arms. “I heard them opening presents and I—I pretended I was there with them. My first Christmas as part of a family.”

At this very moment, Eliot wants nothing more than to put his fist through a wall, or even better, hunt down everyone who’d ever hurt Parker and show them the meaning of violence. But one look at Parker is enough to stay his hand.

Hardison has her face cupped in his hands, his thumbs tracing along her cheeks as if he’s wiping away tears that aren’t there. Parker’s gone still and quiet under his touch, her eyes closed and a tiny smile stretched across her lips. It’s strange to see her like that. Girl’s normally so full of energy, constantly fiddling with the closest object she can get her hands on, incessantly poking at him or distracting Hardison while he’s trying to type. It drives him crazy but that’s the natural order of things. Eliot wouldn’t change it on his life.

They all stay huddled together for a while, wrapped in each other’s arms until their breathing unconsciously syncs up. Hardison is the first one to move, leaning forward to place a kiss on Parker’s forehead.

“It’s okay,” Parker says.

“It’s not okay.” Eliot tries not to growl but a little slips out anyway.

Parker doesn’t seem to mind, if the way her smile gets a little bit bigger is any indication. “No, I mean,” Parker opens her eyes to look at them both. “I have a family now, so it’s okay.”

“Yeah, baby, you’ve got us. You’ve got us forever.” Hardison’s looking at Parker but Eliot knows he’s addressing them both.

“Yeah, we’re not going anywhere.” Eliot echoes, and he feels the truth of it down to his bones. The three of them, they’re in it for the long haul.

Eliot closes his eyes and leans into them both, content to listen to the sound of their breathing. It's not just Parker who has a family now. They all do.

“I’m done with being sad,” Parker finally says, pulling Hardison in closer by his belt loops and leaning back into Eliot. She’s got that glint in her eyes the same way she does before jumping from impossible heights. “Can we have Christmas sex now, instead?”

Hardison barks with laughter and Eliot’s right there with them.