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Eliot smiles at Marie, putting as much reassurance and good cheer as he can into it. The woman looks about ready to offer to wash his hair and he does not need strangers near his head.

There are times he wonders how his life has turned into this. There are times he still wonders if it should have, if someone like him can shave off enough of the sharp edges, but he’s going to keep trying.

“It’s not a problem,” he says, taking a surreptitious half step back. It takes him closer to the red ribbon he needs, anyway. “Adds to the seasonal atmosphere, right? Hey, maybe we should add some more? Really make me look all Christmas personified. What do you say?”

Marie bites her lip and glances again at the clump of hair she’s accidentally sprayed with fake snow, but Eliot sees her believe him, and sees the flicker of a smile as she finally relaxes.

“Maybe we shouldn’t get carried away,” she says. “Don’t need it to look like I’m employing a snowman.”

Eliot laughs, the soft, friendly sort of laugh he rarely finds natural, and assures his new boss he’d still be able to work the till just fine even with a carrot for a nose. By the time he’s done, Marie is a giggling, blushing mess and Eliot desperately wants a shower. And to hit something. And then another shower.

This job had better not turn out to go on for weeks. He can’t stand working here the remaining five weeks until Christmas. The fake snow matting up one side of his hair is bad enough, but he’s already gotten glitter in places glitter should not go.

It’s only going to make going home to the Brewpub even worse, knowing he looks so ridiculous. Parker will want to tug at his hair or point at where the glitter has settled onto his cheek, and Hardison will have some joke ready. The guy always has something to say. And then they’ll turn to each other and Eliot will be shut out, and he’ll have to take himself off to his own apartment, the one carved out of the space right next to their loft, and try hard not to think about the two of them in bed together as he tries to get some sleep by himself.

Eliot’s gotten very good at not thinking about that over the years he’s known them, about either one of them or the two of them together, and he pushes the thoughts out of this head now, too. He has a job to focus on. Parker wants him working here and so he’ll work here. What Parker wants, Parker gets.

It’s just… It’s not even December yet, and he’s already heard more songs about good will and seen more fake snow and sneered at more pictures of reindeer and robed men bearing gifts than he has room for in his life. There’s a cut-out candy-cane standing by the door to the shop and twinkling lights in the window display and he isn’t any more jolly than he was back when Nate made him play Santa, and-

He catches himself before he can rant out loud. This job is about keeping watchful, not about drawing attention to himself. During the day, Eliot has to keep an eye on things. They have a couple of people on payroll now, when they need them, and they’re taking care of the night watch. Eliot’s trained them up himself.

Right now, he makes himself focus on tying the red ribbon neatly. There are plenty more presents to take care of. He didn’t realize working in a gift shop would mean wrapping people’s presents for them. It feels a bit like cheating.

For a while, he gets to focus on nothing but choosing and manipulating festive paper, his awareness of his surroundings as low as it ever gets on a job.

Eliot’s wrapping up a box of colored tissues, the silver ribbon curling over his index finger, when he hears Marie stop several feet away. Glancing up, he sees her leaning in the doorway to the back room, a mug of something in her hands and a soft smile on her face.

“You’re good at this,” Marie says. She gestures at the present. “At the whole wrapping thing. Got a real touch for it. I swear, I’ve already heard people say they’re coming back so you can wrap more for them.”

“Good to know,” Eliot says, and manages not to throw anything across the room. Really, Hardison should be proud of his restraint.

“Unless they’re coming back for something else, of course,” Marie says, and this time her gaze travels over all of him.

“Oh, I doubt it,” Eliot says, glancing down and putting on the flustered act. “Folks will just be wanting their presents all prettied up with ribbons, is all. My momma showed me how to do it.”

It’s an act he more usually uses when playing guys with egos, the kind who want to know they have someone a bit more basic than them to feel superior to. He isn’t quite sure why he’s going with it here, but Marie seems to melt a little more each time he shows vulnerability, and he isn’t going to question what’s working. Parker was very clear - Eliot is to stay close to Marie but he isn’t to let her know why.

“It’s nice to meet a guy who listens to his mom,” Marie says, and if she doesn’t stop with the blushing then the customers are going to think there’s something going on. “I was just wondering if you wanted to come out for a drink after work.” She must catch sight of something in Eliot’s expression, because she hastens to qualify her question. “Oh, no. I didn’t mean… I mean, not that you aren’t lovely, but I wasn’t trying to ask you out. I just thought, you know, you might like to meet some people. You did say you only just moved to the area, right?”

He did say that, because that was part of Hardison’s cover story for him and because it gave Eliot an excuse to ask all sorts of questions about the shops and people in the area that a local might have been weird for asking.

“Well, I don’t know,” he says, and this time it’s him blushing. Sophie would be proud. Even with the not asking him on a date thing, it might still throw the kind of guy he’s pretending to be. “I wouldn’t want to intrude…”

“You wouldn’t be. Won’t be,” Marie says. “Honestly, I have friends who would love to meet you. Please come.”

Eliot lets himself be persuaded, because they still don’t know who in Marie’s life is causing the problem and his part of the con involves meeting as many of them as he can without getting so involved with Marie himself he adds to the issues. Hardison’s ten minute speech about that is seared into Eliot’s brain and he still hasn’t decided on the best form of payback. There was never any danger he’d turn up and break the woman’s heart. If Hardison hasn’t noticed Eliot’s pretty much stopped dating, even the one night stands the team always used to give him trouble over, then the guy is managing to be suddenly dense.

Of course, maybe Eliot’s love-life, or the lack of it, just isn’t important enough to notice.

By the time he’s done with his shift and has let Marie brush as much glitter from him as she can, it’s long past dark out and the lights people have strung up to show they know it’s the Christmas season are washing the street in color. He’s had to spend ten minutes in the washroom getting the fake snow out of his hair and he’s seriously thinking it might be easier just to cut it again. It’s grown longer than he meant it to in the last year, but he’s caught Parker looking at him in something close to approval a time or two and that’s been enough to stop him.

At some point, he needs to have a serious think about that.

Marie sways towards him more than once as they cross the street and head down the road to the bar she’s meeting her friends at, and Eliot thinks it would be so easy just to reach out and take her arm. She’s interested. Even before learning from Sophie, he’d have been able to tell that much. Now, he could describe exactly what about her facial expressions and body language indicate her level of attraction to him, and he could explain what’s telling him she won’t make a move. For whatever reason, Marie has set Eliot as off limits.

He’ll have to get Hardison to scan her emails or messages or social media posts or something, to see if there’s a hint there she’s got something against him, but she’s been friendly and she’s asked him to come out, so perhaps she’s just not up for even casual dating. Or a one night stand.

For a few seconds, Eliot entertains himself imagining taking Marie to bed, imagining peeling her out of her top with the embroidered roses up the side and…and he can’t picture beyond that.

Fuck. It’s been the same way with everyone he’s tried to think of that way lately. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. It’s not like he’s only just realized how he feels about Parker and Hardison - he’s known for at least two years. Just why in the last few months he’s stopped being able to find any comfort or enjoyment with other people is beyond him.

“Just in here,” Marie says, and does touch a hand to his elbow to guide him into the bar.

It’s almost chivalrous and he still isn’t over it by the time they’ve sat down at a table and Eliot’s been introduced to a group of people ranging from just below Hardison in age to around about Nate’s age. It’s a real mix.

Marie insists on buying him a drink and he sets himself to getting to know these people, pushing all thought of his team mates out of his mind. He’s a good enough grifter now he almost believes he’s managing it. Almost.

The Christmas song playing in the background grates, but Eliot smiles and makes eye contact with strangers and tries to work out which one of these people might want Marie dead.

***

“So, what’s his story?”

Marie glances up at Chelsea to find her friend staring at Michael, that heat in her eyes all too familiar as she regards Marie's new employee.

“I don’t think he’s interested,” she says.

“He’s looked at you at least ten times in the last few minutes,” Chelsea says. “And he bit his lip twice. Not to mention all that playing with his hair. He keeps pushing it around.”

“So?”

Marie refuses to just accept Chelsea’s insinuation. The woman’s watched far too much Criminal Minds and Lie To Me and other shows of the kind, and is sure she can read people the way mystics in storybooks read tea-leaves or tarot cards. It doesn’t help she’s partway convinced she’s the great-something grand-daughter of Sherlock Holmes, and it doesn’t matter how many times everyone reminds her that’s a fictional character. Chelsea just taps the side of her nose as though that means anything and smirks.

“I’m telling you, he’s into you,” Chelsea says now. “And if he wasn’t?” She shrugs, her mouth pulling up at one corner, and it’s a good job Michael isn’t looking over right now, because the way Chelsea trails her eyes up and down the guy is indecent. “I’d not mind taking him for a spin.”

“He isn’t a car, Chel,” Marie says. “Or a bike.”

Chelsea giggles.

“I can think of plenty of things I’d enjoy riding less,” she says and takes another sip of her drink. It’s her third one and she’s already a good way down it, but that sort of thing seems to make little difference to Chelsea anyway. She says she has a hollow leg.

“Leave him alone,” Marie says. “The poor guy has something going on.”

“Oh?” Chelsea asks, the interest in her eyes changing. She loves gossip. “Bad break-up? Controlling girlfriend? Controlling boyfriend? I can see him taking orders, you know. Not that it’s the same kind of controlling I’d think he’d be in to. Come on, what is it?”

“I don’t know,” Marie says, skating by the last part of her comment for now. “Just a few things he’s said. He’s new to the area and I think it’s got something to do with someone he cares about, only he hasn’t come right out and said.”

“So you have nothing?” Chelsea asks. “Want me to find out?”

“Chel, no,” Marie says, and just about then Davidos leans over and asks about throwing together a dinner party for an early Christmas thing, and Chelsea gets drawn in to debating what would be the best way to cook lamb. Turns out, Michael is surprisingly passionate on the topic, and it’s the happiest Marie’s seen him all day.

Chelsea and other friends can accuse Marie of being a bleeding heart all they want, but she already feels weirdly protective of this long-haired guy and she decides then and there to make sure he finds friends in the city.

“You can’t steal all of Michael’s ideas and not invite him,” she tells Klaudia when they wind up deciding she’ll be the one hosting. “You’ve room at that huge table of yours.”

Michael, in a way she’s already starting to anticipate, tries to defer, but the group have taken to him, as Marie knew they would, and he’s persuaded to join them with only about half an hour of arguing. Marie swears he looks pleased about that. Chelsea isn’t the only one who can read people.

***

“And now I’ve got to go to a dinner party!” Eliot says, slamming the cupboard door and yanking the next one open in his search for whatever random-ass ingredient he’s after.

“So?” Parker asks, glancing at Hardison. “You like dinner parties.”

“No, I don’t!” Eliot says.

Honestly, it’s more a snap, but Hardison’s had to downgrade his descriptors for Eliot or his mental narration would include nothing but shouting and growling and the like. Either way, he shakes his head when Parker opens her mouth again and she stays quiet. It’s something they’ve agreed on for when Eliot’s ranting about something and they don’t know what the real cause is. Parker asks about it, but if he keeps snapping then she stops. Eliot’s more likely to rant properly at Hardison. With Parker, he’ll swallow what he wants to say and the two of them will risk learning nothing.

“Eliot, it’s just one meal,” Hardison tries. “Not like you have to organize a banquet every night for the next year or anything. And it’s not like it’s the Red Wedding. Come on.”

“I ain’t organizing this meal, either!” Eliot says, and even he knows about the Red Wedding, because Hardison made him sit down and watch it, mostly to see which aspect of it would get Eliot the most angry. Turned out he had a list. “So I offered some suggestions. Do you know how they were going to cook that lamb? Do you?”

“Nah. Not real invested in that kind of thing,” Hardison says. “But if you ain’t cooking it, what’s the problem? Turn up, get another chance to work out who wants after Marie, eat free food and leave. And you said she had a load of single friends.”

“She has a load of friends who kept looking at me like I was a free meal,” Eliot says and shudders. It’s far too noticeable to be real. Eliot still hides most of his real reactions to things, if they aren’t irritations, anger or at least something in that ballpark. “What if I get there to find I’m on the menu?”

“Then we’ll come get you,” Parker says, like Eliot’s their kid facing his first sleepover. “We promised we’d do this one.”

And it isn’t the kind of thing they normally work on, not these days. It’s too small and too focused for that, with no big business involved as far as they know. But Peggy asked, and Parker announced Alice wanted to help her friend, and even Eliot’s over trying to get Parker to remember that she is Alice. Which means Parker has written down ‘Alice’ as the client.

“I know!”

Eliot shoves the latest cupboard door so hard it bounces back open as he strides away, leaving the kitchen counter littered with ingredients that Hardison has no idea what to do with. He can’t even tell what it is Eliot might have been about to make.

“Are we going to wait for him to come back?” Parker asks, as the door to the loft slams open and shut again.

A few seconds later, the door to Eliot’s apartment does the same thing, and Hardison shakes his head.

“Think we’re on our own for dinner, mama,” he says.

Eliot still hasn’t reappeared by the time the pizza arrives, even though Hardison tries comms and sending messages, and he reassures Parker that they’ll work out what the issue is. Eliot is more and more prickly and Hardison is starting to worry there’s an underlying cause.

He hasn’t dared voice it to even Parker yet, but he’s wondering if Eliot has finally grown tired of being part of Leverage. Hardison is starting to worry the guy might up and leave them, and there is no way in hell he’s going to be okay with that.

He just hasn’t worked out what to do about it, yet.

***

Michael has a coffee ready for her when she gets in and she leans back against the counter and sips it as thoughts tumble through her mind. She’s still convinced he has some back-story that means he isn’t looking for anyone, but she allows herself five minutes of imagining it were different. Having that man in her bed and in her home wouldn’t be terrible, she’s sure, especially as he’s already shown himself to be thoughtful and kind-hearted and, well, sweet. All the blushing and ducking his head is just too cute.

Whoever it is that’s upset him, they need to rethink their choices.

“So, the gang love you,” she says, as Michael finishes opening up the shop and returns to the wrapping station where a pile of presents is already waiting.

A quick smile flashes across his face and fades, like he thinks she’s just being polite.

“They seem nice,” he says, his eyes on his work.

“They are. A bit much, sometimes, but they’ve got good hearts. Any one of them would rush to help if I needed it, you know?”

He doesn’t look like he believes her. He must have been badly hurt by someone.

“It’s good to have people who’ve got your back,” he says, after a beat too long.

“Do you?” she asks, and immediately regrets it. Too much. She’s his boss, not his confidant. Even if she does think he needs someone to talk to. “Sorry. Shouldn’t pry.”

He pauses, the ribbon from the latest gift curled over his fingers and across the back of his right hand. It’s red. It also looks unfairly good against his skin. She finds herself staring at it because she can’t quite bring herself to look him in the eye.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says, and starts moving again.

“Okay,” Marie says, and watches as that red ribbon is wound around itself into something far prettier than she could have managed. “How about I make another drink for us both? Not like we’re drowning in customers yet.”

It’s early, and it’s normally quiet at this time, but she wishes some customer or other would come in, just to cut the tension she’s put there herself. So when she gets back with a fresh mug of coffee each, after too long spent trying to work out how to make it taste as good as Michael managed, she’s relieved to see a woman with light hair standing at the counter, talking with Michael.

She is until the woman laughs, reaches over to pat Michael’s hand, and turns away. The longing that flickers over his face as the woman moves to the other side of the shop makes her want to hug him. She has got to stop wanting to hug her own employee.

When the woman turns back to face him, Michael’s face is a pleasant, friendly smile again, and Marie steps forward.

“Hey,” she says. “Friend of yours?”

There’s a split second where she thinks they’re both going to deny it.

“You are allowed to have friends visit at work,” she says, quickly. “It’s not as though it’s stopping you working.”

And it hasn’t. He’s wrapped another pile of presents while Marie’s been out of the room. The guy is nothing if not efficient. It’s a good job, given how many people have come in to use their present wrapping service since Michael’s started working here.

“Friends,” the woman says, her head tilting. The expression on her face is hard to read, but there’s a focus there Marie finds uncomfortable. When she grins, it’s got a hard, shining edge to it, like diamond. “Hah! Yes. Known each other for years. We’re great friends.” And she bounces over to the counter, swaying forward and slapping Michael on the arm. “Right, Michael? Mikey?”

“I hate Mikey,” he says, which isn’t really an answer at all.

“Sure. Okay. Anyway, I’ve got to go now. Bye.”

The woman waves and disappears out of the door without any more interaction, and Marie finds herself lifting both eyebrows as she hands Michael his coffee. He takes it without making eye contact.

“She seems… Um. Nice?”

“She’s special,” Michael says, his voice gruff.

And…yeah. Marie can just tell she is.

“I thought you didn’t know anyone here?” she asks, trying to keep her voice light. She really isn’t accusing him of lying or anything. She just wants the chance to find out more about this strange man who’s much more interesting than any of the people her sister keeps trying to set her up with. Really, it’s wonderful Peggy’s found someone she’s so besotted with, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs a boyfriend. “It’s good there’s someone around.”

“I knew her from Boston,” Michael says, and looks a bit surprised at what he’s said.

“Boston? You lived in Boston?” His resume didn’t mention Boston, but it did paint a picture of someone who’s moved around a lot. “My sister lives there now. She’s meant to be visiting for Christmas, actually, and bringing her new man, but I don’t suppose you’d know her.”

“Oh, I…” He shakes his head and pulls out yet another smile, this one self-deprecating and awkward.

“Yeah, I know. Two people living in the same city don’t automatically know each other,” Marie says. “I think she’d like you, though. She’s a chef.”

“Why’d that mean she’d like me?” Michael asks, sounding genuinely confused.

“Well, you were into talking about food last night,” Marie says. “She’d love to talk to someone who cares that much about which herb goes best with lamb.”

“Not what your friend Davidos was suggesting-” Michael says, and for a moment there’s more heat in his eyes than Marie has seen yet. He stops mid-sentence, blinks, and is back to the mild guy he’s been since he asked about the job a few days ago. “I mean, yeah. I guess I have an interest.”

Marie sips her drink and considers whether she’s about to do something stupid, but in the end she just can’t let it lie.

“So, your friend,” she says, watching him closely to see if he freezes up, “You like her.”

He shrugs.

“Well, sure. Yeah. She’s a friend. Kinda helps to like them.”

“No.” Marie turns her body so she’s facing him more and tries again. She’ll back off if he really looks uncomfortable, but that vibe she’s been picking up on, the one telling her to stay back and not to make a play for him, even if she was the kind to make a move on an employee, is saying this is the answer. “I mean, you like her. You’ve got a thing for her. Right? And she doesn’t know?”

He doesn’t stop moving this time, but the way he moves changes. It becomes smoother, somehow, more fluid, and he was already more than competent, but now his actions have a deftness to them that goes beyond what he’s shown so far. The look in his eyes is distant, like he’s not really aware of what he’s doing. Marie fights the urge to hold her breath, in case she breaks whatever spell this is.

“Pretty sure she knows,” he says, at last. “She must do. Don’t matter.”

He shrugs, shoots her a sad looking smile, and just like that he’s back to moving the way he was before. Marie could so easily doubt what she saw, that he shifted away from blushing and cute and into moving like someone in control of everything his body did. She could, but she’s been trying to believe herself, even if hardly anyone else will believe her about some stuff.

Still, she’s pushed Michael over some line, here, and she doesn’t want to be that person, so she just nods and drinks her coffee and thinks about people building walls around themselves that just don’t need to be there.

***

Eliot walks in to Hardison and Parker’s loft to find them arguing. About what, he doesn’t know, because they’re at the stage where Parker is one step from vanishing and Hardison is so far into geek-speak that it might as well be another language. Hell, Eliot understands a bunch of other languages. He’d be better off with it if Hardison spoke Farsi instead of obscure reference.

“I don’t want to!” Parker announces, and a blink later she’s gone.

Hardison drops his head into his hands, slumping as he sinks down onto the armchair that’s normally, by unspoken agreement, Eliot’s. Eliot doesn’t say anything about it.

“I was gonna cook that pasta she likes,” he says, crossing to the kitchen and setting down the bags of food he’s picked up on the way home from work. Not that it’s really his job or anything, but it’s been five days now and he’s starting to feel like he’s worked at Marie’s shop forever. “Should I making something else?”

He’s asking if Parker will be back, because Hardison can nearly always tell. Not that they argue much. Nothing like Sophie and Nate, who the last time they visited and joined them on a con were in the middle of a week long argument about Sterling that no-one else managed to get to the bottom of. It did seem to have something to do with a scarf Sophie was wearing, and Eliot refused to think how that played into anything.

“Nah,” Hardison says, his voice muffled. “She’ll need about an hour. You get your freak on, man.”

“My frea…? What?”

Hardison doesn’t answer and Eliot grumbles to himself as he unpacks and starts cooking. Freak on. Like he’s up to something deviant with food. It’s not like Eliot’s getting it on with any actual people, unless he counts himself, and he isn’t talking about that, so-

“You know I can hear you, right?” Hardison asks, just as Eliot’s dropping the garlic into the pan.

“You… What? No you can’t.”

“Yeah, I can, though,” Hardison says, and he’s right by Eliot’s side all of a sudden. “I can make out one word in ten, anyway. The rest is in Eliot.”

“In Eliot?”

He realizes he’s standing with his hand in the air ignoring the now sizzling garlic, so he turns from Hardison and tries to pretend the guy isn’t right freaking there.

“Yeah. Eliot. Growling and grumbling and muttering all angry like. You gonna tell me what’s going on with you lately or what?”

No. No, he really isn’t. Promise number one: keep them safe. Promise number two, issued only inside his own head: keep them safe from him. That includes messing with their relationship.

“Nothing going on except you standing so damn close I can’t work.”

“Right. Right. And that’s why you’ve got a scowl pasted onto your face the whole time,” Hardison says. “You had it tattooed on to save you the effort or what? Come on, man. I can’t help if you won’t share.”

“What were you and Parker arguing about? You gonna share that?”

He hears Hardison breath in sharply, hears him take a step back, and tells himself he’s getting the reaction he wants when the guy turns and leaves. It would be easier to believe if he didn’t have an ache somewhere under his breastbone.

Eliot watches Hardison surreptitiously as the guy wanders the room, picking things up and putting them down. He looks to be thinking, and whatever it is he’s thinking about, he isn’t happy about it. Eliot leaves him to work out whether he wants to say anything, because Eliot is sure not going to be the ones who does.

“Parker’s worried about the case,” Hardison says, from back in the armchair a minute or so later. “She’s worried we don’t have any leads yet for Alice to tell Peggy about. This is Peggy’s sister, El, and she’s in danger.”

“I don’t get why Peggy won’t just tell her,” Eliot says, even though he does, really.

“You’d tell your sister if Quinn was the one who passed on the information?” Hardison asks.

“I ain’t sleeping with Quinn,” Eliot says, and he still can’t quite get his head around that one, but Peggy and Quinn both swear blind it’s working for them, so more power and all that. “And I don’t get why Quinn can’t be the one guarding her, either. He’s Peggy’s boyfriend now.”

“He doesn’t exactly have your skills at flying under the radar,” Hardison says. “Look, Peggy and Quinn will be out here for Christmas, and if we know who put the hit out on the sister by then, I’m sure Quinn will help to handle it.”

“Marie,” Eliot says.

“What?”

“Her name’s Marie. Not ‘sister’.”

“Okay,” Hardison says slowly, clearly not sure why that matters to Eliot so much.

Eliot doesn’t tell him it’s because going unseen can sting. Going unseen to certain people, anyway. And Marie’s nice. She’s been trying to help him fit in and find his feet, even though he already has his feet firmly on the ground here in Portland. And she’s cute, and she thinks he’s cute, and if one sister can date a hitter, there’s no reason to think the other one would run away. Maybe the issue is he’s been trying to hit if off with people who don't’ know him, who don’t see him, and maybe if he just came clean to Marie…

And he has no idea where that came from.

He makes the rest of the meal in silence, except for the slamming of the odd cupboard door and the muttering he catches himself at. Hardison doesn’t speak to him again, not until Parker slips back in through a window and drapes herself over Eliot’s back as he’s plating up.

“I’ve told you not to do that, Parker,” he says.

She nuzzles at his hair with her cheek and clings tighter for a moment before letting go and going to do the same to Hardison. Not that he has hair like Eliot does.

“You okay now, mama?” Hardison asks, and the gentleness there sounds like something Eliot should not be overhearing. “You need anything?”

“Just you,” Parker says.

Eliot clatters the last plate on the counter top and pretends he hasn’t heard anything.

***

Michael seems to be in a good mood on Monday morning and Marie decides it’s time. She’s spoken to Chelsea, almost against her better judgment, and had a chat with Peggy. Peggy seemed really amused by the whole thing, but Marie didn’t speak to her for long. She was almost sure the noises she was hearing meant the new boyfriend was trying to get Peggy interested in something else, and Marie doesn’t ever want to hear that. Peggy seemed more concerned that Marie wasn’t on her own too much, and once Marie assured her she had Michael in the shop with her all day and that she was pretty much with people every evening, Peggy relaxed. And the dubious noises began. It’ll be good to have her sister there in person over Christmas, though, but for now she has enough advice about Michael and his situation that she thinks she’s ready to try helping him.

She hopes she’s doing the right thing.

He hums as he works and she listens to him for a little while, the early winter light washing the shop in pale stripes and his music filling the space. There’s a burr to his voice, even when he’s humming, that she wants to lean into. But he’s pining for someone else and she isn’t that sort of person.

“Hey, I was thinking,” she says, as though it’s just occurred to her. “You could bring your friend to the dinner tomorrow night.”

“What?” he asks. “What friend?”

“The woman who was in here.”

He frowns, the gentle good humor he normally carries with him disappearing for a moment. Then he shifts, his smile returning and his eyes lighting up.

“Oh, yeah. I don’t think so. She ain’t exactly the dinner party kind. But thanks for asking, though.”

“Oh, right. Okay, then,” Marie says. “I just thought it might give you chance to spend time with her without it being, you know, pressured. It can be easier to talk to people that way sometimes.”

“I talk to her just fine,” Michael says, bending his attention to another present.

“Yeah, but, you know, when you like someone-”

“Whoa,” he says, his hands leaving the ribbon for the first time. “Whoa. What? Who says I like her?”

“You do, though,” Marie says, letting it go that he already admitted it. If he wants to pretend that never happened, that’s up to him. “There isn’t anything wrong with-”

“I do not like her,” Michael says. “I’m not attracted to her. She is… She’s…”

He grinds to a halt, his face looking like it’s trying out about five expressions at once, and Marie waits. If she’s really upset him, she needs to apologize, but she wants to see what feeling he lands on first. She sees the moment he gives in, his shoulders slumping.

“Look, I ain’t ever gonna tell her, so let’s not worry about how easy it might be to talk to her. All right?”

“I know it’s none of my business-”

“Yeah. No. It’s not.”

That’s sharper than she was expecting. It’s sharper than she’s heard him speak so far, a snap of command in it that takes her aback. A moment later, he casts her a look that has none of that heat to it, shy embarrassment coating his face.

“Look, I just… It’s real nice you want to help out or…or whatever it is you’re trying for, here,” he says. “But my friend and me? It ain’t gonna happen. So I ain’t gonna mess up what we have. All right?”

“All right,” Marie says, even though he doesn’t sound sure about it. Not at all. “You still want to come to the dinner, though?”

“Yeah,” he says, softer, and now it’s almost like the last few minutes didn’t happen, so he can’t be too upset. “Yeah, sure I do. Looking forward to it. You can tell me more about your sister.”

***

The dinner party was as irritating as Eliot had been expecting it to be, but the more time he’s with her the better protected she is. The other guys are good. They have to be, or he wouldn’t let them work with the team at all. It isn’t the same as knowing he’s on the job himself, and he finds he likes Marie. She’s friendly and warm.

He isn’t so sure about being here, exactly, in this apartment that could do with someone sorting out the color scheme and rearranging the furniture. From the smell of it, the food is doing okay, but it could so easily be lifted with just a few simple-

“Hey, Mikey!” Chelsea shouts from the other side of the room, waving at him and then pulling a face. As she makes her way over, she waves again, this time more as though she’s trying to brush something away. “Sorry. You don’t like that name, do you? Michael. So, how’ve you been? Found any hot dates to bring with you?”

“Dates plural?” Eliot asks. “You saying I’m that kinda guy?”

He ignores the way his heart pulses at the thought.

Chelsea laughs, slapping him on the arm, and Eliot doesn’t react. He doesn’t, even though it’s louder in here than it needs to be, and more cramped, and he’s surrounded by people he doesn’t really know. It’s not his favorite kind of situation, is what he’s saying. And he always has to work harder to still those twitching, violent reactions when he’s tired or stressed. So far, he’s stayed in control of himself, but it’s easier when he’s been able to let off some steam lately. He’s been at the shop for over a week and not been near a fight.

Maybe when Quinn gets into town, they can meet up and spar. Sparring with Quinn always translates into the kind of brutal workout that has Hardison ranting about The Thunderdome and The Hunger Games and whatever other geek-loving thing he brings up. Eliot just likes fighting someone who can keep up. More or less.

Right now, he smiles back at Chelsea and lets her pull him across the room to be introduced to a girl at least ten years younger than him, who smiles prettily but has a wary look in her eyes. He makes sure to avoid any hint he’s checking her out or leering at her or anything else that might upset her and latches on to a comment she makes about Game of Thrones.

“I didn’t know you were into that stuff,” Marie says, appearing at his elbow with a bowl of chips in her hand.

“What stuff?” Eliot asks.

“You know,” Marie says. “Geek stuff. I didn’t know you were a geek.”

Eliot hasn’t turned his comms on in hours, because the length of time he’ll be at this job means he doesn’t want Hardison and Parker in his ear the whole time, and he is very grateful. The idea of Hardison hearing that comment is just too much.

“I ain’t a geek,” he tells her, aware his body language has become more defensive than it should be. He also sees the way she blinks, and, oh. Oh, right. She wants him to be a geek. And he needs her to trust him. If anyone in Marie’s immediate circle is the source of the threat, he needs to be able to talk to these people and work it out, and that’ll be so much easier if they’re all relaxed around him. More than that, he needs Marie to trust him. If an attack happens, he needs her to follow his lead.

He puts on a smile, another of the head-ducking, bashful ones that Sophie once told him could melt almost anyone’s heart if he just angled his head…so and modulated his voice right. The smile almost becomes real as he remembers Sophie advising him how to tuck his hair back just at the right time. “I mean.. I don’t really…”

Marie melts. Score one for Sophie’s direction, even when she isn’t around.

“Oh, I get you,” Marie says. “There’s all this geek stuff in mainstream now, but some people are still weird about it, and I get all sorts of comments from some people. As though being passionate about something is a bad thing.”

Chelsea grins and pats Marie on the arm.

“I’ve told you,” she says. “No judging here. Right? Safe space. You should see my collection of scarves.”

“Five of them are Doctor Who scarves,” Marie says, nodding.

“Seven if you count the two Osgood scarves,” she says.

It’s like Hardison is right there. With a British accent. And in a woman’s body. And half the height. But close enough.

“Yeah,” he says, “That sounds…it…”

Chelsea rolls her eyes.

“You don’t have to like the same things we do,” she says. “Why don’t you tell us some things you do like. I mean, cooking, right? You like cooking? Regular Gordan Ramsey, are you? Or are you more Heston Blumenthal? Ooh, or Marcus Waring. I love him.”

“I don’t know who that is,” Eliot says, because he figures Michael might not know about British celebrity chefs. “I just like cooking now and then, you know. My mama gave me some recipes and my sister, she was real good at baking.”

She was, too. And he hasn’t let anything real about his personal life slip into a con like that for years. Not from his time before the army, not unless it was sharing a quick snippet with Hardison or Parker. Something about this con is throwing him. Not that it’s really a con, as such. He’s lying to this woman, the sister of a friend of Parker’s, so practically family, so they can keep an eye on her and stop her from being assassinated, only they have no idea who or why or when and have only the bit of intelligence Quinn grabbed hold of by accident. It’s probably a waste of time and Eliot should just tell Marie he quits.

Maybe after the meal, though. No need to be rude. Marie wants him to be a geek and have a drink, so that’s exactly what he’ll do.

***

Michael is late to work the next morning and Marie rolls her eyes and grins at him when he walks in, something about his posture stiffer than normal.

“Sore head?” she asks.

“What?” He frowns. Scowls, really, and for a second he looks a lot less friendly. The moment passes and his eyes dart away, his expression one of clear embarrassment. “Uh. Yeah. Yeah. I shouldn’t drink that much, I guess. You gonna dock my pay?”

“With how fast you work?” Marie asks. “I might let this one slide. Especially as I poured that whole second bottle of wine into your glass.”

“Flagon,” Michael mutters, in the tone of someone who really regrets letting himself be persuaded that something holding over half a bottle wine was a good choice. “And…thanks. I guess I’ll get to work.”

He shrugs off his coat and serves the next three customers who come in without once looking at Marie. She doesn’t know if he’s annoyed or embarrassed about the night before, but she can’t see any reason for him to be. Once the businessman in the long black coat has finally stopped speaking down to Michael and left, she takes him a coffee and sets it down quietly.

“I thought you might need a few hours more sleep,” she says. “That’s why I didn’t wake you.”

He nods, but the color in his cheeks grows.

“You…do remember what happened, right?” she asks. “I mean, we didn’t…that’s not what… You don’t have to be embarrassed.”

He stops still at that and turns to face her, picking up his coffee and rubbing his free hand over his face as he leans back against the counter. He swallows before he starts speaking.

“I don’t let myself get drunk,” he says. “Not for years.”

“It’s okay-”

“No,” he says. “No, it’s not. I… I got my reasons, okay? And I shoulda gone home, not ended up in your bed.”

“I slept in the guest room,” she says. “Really, it’s all right. I didn’t feel like you were really coming on to me. You just had a few too many drinks, needed someone to talk to, and the wine caught up with you.”

“Yeah,” he says. “In your bed.”

All Marie can think to do is shrug.

“Hey, at least I wasn’t on my own, though, right? Normally, it’s just me and the cats.”

He smiles a little at that, his lips quirking up at the corners, and by the time the coffee is done he’s meeting her eyes again.

***

Eliot doesn’t go over to Parker and Hardison’s that evening, or the next evening. On the third, he opens his front door to find Hardison standing there with a look on his face that is decidedly unhappy.

“What?” Eliot asks. “I let you know there’s nothing going on. I’m telling you, man, this whole thing is a waste of time.”

“Quinn says-”

“Like Quinn knows anything,” Eliot says, turning and going back to the couch, where Hardison joins him a moment later, his long legs sticking out. “I did what you said. I played up the whole drunk thing and stayed over. I’m telling you, I went through every inch of that place and nothing. And no assassins broke in while I was there. This is… This is…”

Hardison raises an eyebrow as Eliot stutters to a halt.

“There something going on with this you ain’t shared with the class?” Hardison asks.

Eliot thinks of Marie and her bumbling attempts to get him to open up about his crush, like she could advise anyone how to win Parker’s heart. Always assuming it was free to be won.

“No,” he says. “I just don’t like taking advantage of her like this.”

At that, Hardison gets the look on his face that says Eliot’s shocked him, and that he isn’t sure yet how upset to be.

“Take advantage? Eliot, you didn’t! That’s Peggy’s sister. Come on, man.”

“What?” Hardison’s assumption dawns on him and he pulls a face. “No! No, I didn’t… I didn’t have sex with her, Hardison. I was playing too drunk to walk!”

Which is far from the only reason, and he might play with a woman’s affections for a con, but never that far. Besides, Marie had been drinking too and Eliot’s killed people, a lot of people, but he’s never been with anyone who didn’t one hundred percent want to be there, free and clear.

“Right,” Hardison says, but his expression says he’s filing that away to think about later. “But something’s wrong, though. You ain’t been near us in days, man. Parker’s hungry.”

“Then Parker can feed her damn self,” Eliot says. “When did the two of you stop eating unless I was around? You think I’m your personal chef?”

Hardison blinks.

“Nah. Nah, man. That ain’t… Look, maybe this is a waste of time, but better we waste our time than Marie gets killed, right? And Quinn sent me some files, so I might be able to find something soon. They are encrypted all to Hell, but I’ll be into them real soon. If we’re wrong, we should know in the next couple of days. You just…you just hang out in the shop and wrap presents. Parker said you’re good at it.”

“Oh, well, in that case I’ll just stay there full time,” Eliot says, and doesn’t miss the way Hardison’s face goes tight. He doesn’t have it in him to care whether Hardison is hurt, though, or confused or anything else. Being surrounded by Christmas cheer and wrapping paper and a chirpy boss who is desperate to help Eliot with his non-existent love life is wearing him down. He just wants a fight. “When will Quinn be here?”

“Three more days,” Hardison says. “And then he can take over guarding Marie, as long as Peggy comes up with a reason. Just hang on a while longer without murdering Christmas, all right?”

Eliot nods, but he really isn’t sure he can promise anything of the kind.

***

When the tall, well-dressed man steps into the shop, Marie finds herself checking him out. Discreetly, but still. It’s at least a couple of minutes until she realizes Michael is checking the man out, too. It’s maybe five more before she realizes Michael isn’t having unrequited feelings for just the one person.

Poor guy.

She gives them space when the man leans on the counter and chats to Michael, watching the way they are with each other and becoming more and more sure they both want something more than whatever it is they have. She can tell.

Once the guy's gone, and once the shop is empty, she brings it up.

“No way!” Michael says. “No. I don’t… I don’t want…”

“What’s wrong with this one?” Marie asks. “Or is it you can’t decide which one you like best?”

“I like em both the same,”he says, and looks startled.

He clearly didn’t mean to say that.

“Okay,” she says. “So, you said she was taken, right? What’s his story.”

Michael sighs.

“Same,” he says, and won’t talk about it anymore.

***

Marie is getting coffee from the place down the street when she sees the man again, and she almost drops the cup she’s holding when she sees the woman arrive and give him a quick kiss on the lips. Oh. Oh, poor Michael. It’s not just that they’re both taken. They’re taken by each other. That has to hurt.

She resolves to keep out of his love life for now. There is no way she is qualified to help him with that mess.

She does buy him a muffin to make him feel better, even though she doesn’t tell him why. He looks grateful anyway, and surprised when she hugs him and asks if he’d like to try a movie night at her place. She thinks he looks touched when he agrees.

***

“Movie night?” Hardison asks, as Eliot moves around the apartment, vanishing to his bedroom and reappearing in different clothes at least three times. It’s like the guy is getting ready for an actual date. “I thought you said you weren’t gonna take advantage.”

“I did,” Eliot says. “She ain’t gonna be drunk tonight, though, is she?”

Hardison tilts his head to the side and doesn't even want to know what his face looks like. He doesn’t think he looks jealous, or scared, or any of the things he’s feeling. If Eliot goes off with Marie, though, he might pull away from them even more. Besides, he just can’t picture Eliot with Marie. The woman looks like she knits.

“I guess you can keep a closer eye on her,” Hardison says. “Those files really do say there’s someone after her, but I ain’t finished with them yet, so I don’t know who.”

“Right,” Eliot says. “And Parker’s got her in sight this minute? She ain’t on her own?”

The guys they pay aren’t available tonight, but they really use them to give themselves a break, and with Hardison finding something more concrete it feels better to have Parker on guard duty.

“Parker’s watching your girlfriend,” Hardison says. He tries not to mind that Eliot doesn’t argue about the description. “She’s late night shopping.”

He doesn’t tell Eliot what Parker’s late night shopping for. He does tell his friend the blue shirt looks better than the gray one, and manages not to sound like he’s too invested in the opinion.

***

Marie hands the next option over to the woman Michael likes, making sure to stay professional and not to ask her why she doesn’t like the great guy Michael is. It wouldn’t be fair.

“Hmm. I don’t know,” the woman, Bess, says. “I want something more…shiny. And sharp.”

“Is it possible you’re thinking of a knife?” Marie asks. “We don’t sell those.”

“A knife would be cool,” Bess says, a gleam in her eyes that is frankly worrying. “But I want something cute, too. Ooh. Maybe a little knife? A cute one?”

“We don’t sell those, either,” Marie says.

This has been a long interaction and she’s shown the woman nearly every gift in her shop. She’s always prided herself they have something for everyone, but she’s starting to think she might be wrong.

“Oh,” Bess says. “I wanted one of those presents that are all pretty with ribbons.”

“You can bring something else in and we’ll wrap it,” Marie says.

Bess shakes her head, then stops and tilts her head as though she can hear something. A moment later she smiles.

“Good idea,” she says. “Hey, don’t let me stop you from getting to movie night. And make plenty of popcorn. It isn’t a real movie night without popcorn.”

Marie doesn’t remember mentioning movie night, but she must have, and five minutes later she’s alone and locking up. It gives her time to stop by the deli and pick up some food she thinks Michael will like.

***

Movie night. Movie night has never been this difficult before. Marie stands and surveys her apartment, her hands on her hips. Her sister is due tomorrow, and she’s said she’s bringing her new boyfriend, which is great but has sent Marie into a frenzy of cleaning and sorting and she forgot she’d piled a load of stuff in the cupboard in the hall and now isn’t sure where some of what she wants is. The deli food is on the coffee table and she has one blanket over the couch, but she likes the idea of Michael getting to snuggle under a blanket, too. Not with her. She isn’t assuming anything. The guy is pining for not one but two people, for crying out loud.

“Stop over-thinking it,” Chelsea says, her voice only a little distant over the laptop. “You’re having a friend round to watch a film. Just go with it. He’s stayed over already, anyway.”

“Yeah. When he was drunk.” Marie says. ”And he was really embarrassed about it the next day, too.”

“So don’t get him drunk this time,” Chelsea says, as though Marie was the one who started the drinking last time. “What are you going to watch?”

Marie hears the knock on the door before she can come up with an answer, and she tells Chelsea to end the call as she tugs at her clothes to straighten them and goes to the door. Michael is standing on the other side in a deep blue shirt that does really interesting things to his eyes. He’s holding a bottle of wine.

“Er, I guess I thought we should stick to one,” he says, and smiles that crooked smile she likes best.

And she isn’t going to hit on him. He’s a friend and he’s pining.

Once he’s inside she gets the basics over with, the pointing out of food and the pouring of wine and the choosing of a movie. Michael seems happy enough to watch the one she suggests, even if she isn’t sure what she’s suggested. He’s sitting closer than he was and his body heat is distracting.

She’s almost glad when a cat jumps up onto him and he jumps.

“Oh, yeah. Ramoth likes to see who’s here,” she says.

“You're cat is called Ramoth?” he asks, like he gets the reference. “I remember this one from last time.”

She watches as Ramoth steps up onto Michael’s thighs, treading and settling, and as he lifts a hand and traces it along her back. He has a gentle touch, his hands graceful, and Marie knows that people love who they love and that pushing someone into anything isn’t going to work, but she wonders if either of the people Michael pines for know he’s even an option.

She spends the next five minutes berating herself for even thinking a couple should split up so one part of it could date her employee. He just looks so…so in need of a hug, somehow. His attention is so focused on Ramoth, who’s purring, her eyes half closed, and his face has a softness to it she hasn’t really seen before. He’s looked cute and embarrassed and bashful and a host of other things, but this seems more real in a way she can’t pinpoint.

“Did you ever try to tell them how you feel?” she asks. “Shit. Sorry. I didn’t mean to-”

Michael looks up and away again, his lips pressing together.

“I really am sorry,” Marie says. “Look, just…just forget I said anything, okay? I’ll go make popcorn. You stroke Ramoth. And erase the last two minutes from your mind.”

She’s done with the popcorn and still cursing herself when Michael appears next to her, cat hairs sticking to his sweater. He takes the bowl from her and smiles reassuringly, an expression which is mostly in his eyes, as she startles.

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” he says, sounding oddly regretful, like he’s tired of having to say that. She has trouble imagining anyone being scared of him, really. “And, no. No, I ain’t ever told either one of them. Wouldn’t be fair. You understand?”

“You’d rather they were happy with each other?” she asks, and she didn’t know she could feel for him any more than she already did, but when he nods she wants to hug him, so she does.

She hears him breathe out like she’s smacked into him with more force than she meant to, and a moment later his free arm winds round her back, his head dipping to touch against hers.

“Hey, what’s this for?” he asks, but he doesn’t try to step back.

Marie shrugs, an awkward movement when she’s tangled up in a hug.

“A friend can hug a friend,” she says, and damn her voice for wobbling. He doesn’t need to think she pities him. It isn’t pity, anyway. Not exactly. Sympathy, yes. She’s no stranger to the person she loves not loving her back. “I mean, if…”

She tries to pull back, suddenly realizing she should have asked, but he tightens his grip, just for a moment, before letting go.

“Yeah,” he says. “A friend can hug a friend. And a friend can eat all the popcorn, so hurry up if you want some.”

***

Peggy stops partway up to Marie’s apartment and checks again that her hair is right and that she has all of her bags.

“Stop fretting,” Quinn says from two steps below her. “Your hair’s just fine and you didn’t leave anything behind. Let’s get up and meet your sister. Spencer will be wanting out of babysitting duty.”

Turning, she sees him grinning up at her, looking, just like he always does, about two seconds from making a sarcastic comment. She’s come to love that, even if it did throw her the first time they had sex. The sarcastic comments did not enhance the experience for her. Now, she almost has a Pavlovian reaction to it. And her hair might be fine, but his is far longer than Marie will be expecting on any man Peggy is with. Their mom always made a point of saying a man should have short, neat hair and a steady job. Although she supposes Quinn does work fairly steadily. It’s her mom’s fault for not specifying it shouldn’t be in hired violence.

“Do you not want to introduce me to your sister?” Quinn asks, and there’s just that slight slipping of his smile.

He’s probably joking. Probably. Of course, he’s also let Peggy see the softer side, the one that does care, when they’re wrapped up together in the dark or sitting drinking wine or cooking together. Well, Peggy cooks. Quinn makes loud and obnoxious comments about hitters who cook, and sometimes takes a break from even pretending to help out to send Eliot messages with the best insults.

“I absolutely want my sister to meet you,” Peggy says, as firmly as she can.

For good measure, she leans in and kisses him, letting his body balance her on the stairs, and he looks far more like a purring, contented cat once she’s done.

“Okay. Let’s go do this,” she says, and makes it the rest of the way without pausing.

***

Marie jumps at the knock on the door, and Michael has to steady her. She hadn’t really noticed how close they’re sitting, but she’s practically pressed up to his side, one of her blankets over their legs and a cat on each lap. Ramoth has stuck with Michael, but Canth has chosen Marie as his seat of choice. Now, both cats look unimpressed as she stands and crosses to the door.

Pulling it open, she feels a bizarre impulse to explain herself at the sight of her sister. An excuse for why Michael is in her living room, like Peggy could know he’s one of Marie’s employees, lines itself up on her tongue. She squashes it.

“Peggy! You’re early,” she says. “Oh, let me take those.”

Once she has Peggy and her bags inside, she turns back to see a tall man with long, dirty blond hair tied back in a neat ponytail staring, not at her, but at Michael.

“Cosy?” the man asks, one eyebrow quirking up and a warm amusement in his tone.

“Shut up,” Michael says.

The bite in his voice is not what she expected. A moment later he blinks and ducks his head.

“I mean, yeah. Cosy. Nice to meet you.”

“Don’t tease, Quinn,” Peggy says, smacking the man on the arm and moving in to hug Marie. “I am so glad to see you. This is Quinn. If he gets cheeky, smack him on the nose with something. I usually use a ladle.”

Quinn shoots Peggy a look of such pride and affection that Marie almost takes a step back.

“Right,” she says. “I’ll remember that. Ladle. Um. We were watching a movie.”

“All curled up under a blanket. Sweet,” Quinn says, and now his smile is a grin, like seeing this is some kind of present for him.

She could be wrong, but when she’s in the kitchen area making drinks with Peggy, she thinks she sees Michael and Quinn leaning in as they sit near each other, looking like they’re having a heated conversation.

“So, Quinn,” she says. “How’d that happen?”

Peggy shrugs. She looks far more relaxed than Marie remembers her being, and she tries not to think about what kind of stress release her sister is getting up to. Then she thinks about what Quinn looks like and lets herself imagine at least his side of things for a moment. Yeah. She’s going to need a stronger drink.

“Met him on a job,” Peggy says. “Sort of. I was on a catering job. He was on a…security job. Kind of ran into each other.”

“Why do I feel there’s more to that?”

“Okay,” Peggy says. “So I thought he was attacking me and I threatened him with a knife. What? Oh, I have had some weird days since I met my friend Alice.”

Marie decides she’ll work out if that was a joke of some kind later and leads her sister back to join the men before soft-spoken, gentle Michael can get into a fight with Peggy’s boyfriend. If Quinn works in security then Michael could end up getting hurt if they get into it, and she doesn’t want that. There’s something going on here she isn’t getting, and it isn’t making her feel any better about anything.

She sits back down, further away from Michael as Quinn is in her old spot, and takes a larger sip of wine than she meant to.

***

“Okay,” Hardison says, looking up from his tablet to see Parker staring fixedly at the wall of the apartment. He has no idea what she’s seeing, but she’ll tell him if she wants to. “So, it looks like a developer, one Ted Logan, wants to build some entertainment complex and Marie’s shop is the last piece of real estate he needs, only she owns the building and the land it’s on, and she’s said no.”

“We didn’t get that before?” Parker asks, frowning.

“Yeah, no, girl. It’s been going on for a while and it’s been kept out of the press. The guy’s acted like he’s dropping it, but I just got into some records and emails that say he’s done no such thing. I’m thinking this is our guy. I’m opening his emails and messages now.”

He throws his working up on the screens on the wall, and sees Parker turn slowly to keep an eye on things. She still looks like her mind is elsewhere, though. Not that Parker needs her full mind to make clockwork patterns and get things to click. As the emails and other messages fill the screen, he sees her track some of them, her lips pursed.

“What’s that?” she asks, pointing at a text message.

Hardison’s almost sure he has the edges of it, now, and he nods.

“He’s still going ahead with it under another company name,” he says. “Masking it with other projects. They have until… Well, shit. They have another couple of months to get this done, or the permit expires. And Marie’s left the building to some guy in LA, which I really do not get. Oh, no. Wait. He’s an ex…husband.”

“Ex-husband? She was married?” Parker asks. “Then why is she having Eliot over for movies?”

Oh. So that’s the issue. Parker doesn’t want Eliot having movie night with Marie. Hardison takes a moment to frame his thoughts.

“Mama, Eliot has the right to his own life,” he says. “If he likes Marie, he can see how that goes. Might wanna tell her who he really is, at some point, but yeah.”

“Peggy knows who he is,” Parker says, because Peggy might have found it weird to be told exactly what Leverage do shortly after confirming she and Quinn are an item, but she took it in stride. Mostly, she insists Quinn doesn’t bring his work home with him and gets on with her own life. “Eliot could just tell Marie now, if he wants to go and live with her.

“I don’t think… Parker, Eliot doesn’t want to go and live with Marie,” Hardison says. “I mean, yeah, if he likes her and dates her, then, maybe, at some point…”

Parker isn’t looking any happier, and Hardison finds himself hit by images of Marie, with her bouncy curls and warm smile, picking out china or vases or whatever it is normal people pick out, Eliot by her side. The image falters a little at that, and becomes more about Eliot grumbling about the right kind of vase to hide a knife in, but it’s still a stronger image than Hardison wanted.

“Hey,” he says, “Parker, we gotta let Eliot be happy. Right?”

“He’s happy with us,” Parker says, folding her arms and glaring at the screens.

Except there’s an edge to her expression that says she’s starting to doubt it. It’s what they’ve argued about lately, as much as they ever truly argue about anything. Hardison is worried Eliot wants out, and Parker is stubbornly insisting he doesn’t.

Hardison is trying not to think this might be the last Christmas the three of them spend together. It’s why the two of them have gone to such lengths to find Eliot the perfect gift. Parker is determined it should be special, and they still haven’t quite got it right. They still have a few weeks, though.

And, hey, if Eliot does like Marie, at least he might stick in Portland, and with the team. He’ll just have a girlfriend. Not like having Peggy has slowed Quinn down any. If anything, he’s even more irrepressible now he has the love of a good woman - a woman with more knives than he owns.

“Let’s get this job done,” Hardison says, “and let Eliot be.”

Parker nods after a beat, and they don’t mention it again.

***

Eliot’s phone chirps at him as he stifles yet another comment aimed at Quinn. The guy is playing up to the fact Eliot can’t hit him, poking and prodding at ‘Michael’ being such a soft, good-natured type, and Eliot already has a tally of all the ways Quinn is going to pay for this.

He checks the message and scowls, but catches himself before Marie gets back with yet more popcorn from the kitchen area.

“What is it?” Quinn asks, all joking dropped. He speaks quietly enough Marie won’t be able to hear.

“Parker and Hardison have a name. They’re going to get the documents they need to leak the guy’s involvement in shady deals and put an end to him being able to use Marie’s dea- Er. To put her in the clear.”

“You can say the word, Eliot,” Peggy says, slapping his arm from her place in between him and Quinn, where she put herself after declaring Quinn to be a bully about ten minutes ago. “And they’re sure they’ve got the guy?”

“It’s Parker and Hardison,” Eliot says, and sees Quinn and Peggy nod in acceptance.

“So, this is all nearly over,” Peggy says.

“You can go back to being grouchy Eliot any time now,” Quinn says. “Shame. I kinda like the softer version. You look like you could do with a cuddle.”

And that’s Quinn finding out which arm-lock Eliot prefers underwater, right there. There’s a pool he can break them into to practice.

He checks on where Marie is, to make sure he has time to say anything at all back, and spots the red light just as Marie takes her first step into the living room area. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Quinn’s eyes widen, sees him start to move, but Eliot’s already on his feet and lunging, is already stretching himself full length to reach Marie. He hits her, his arm wrapping around her middle as he carries them both to the ground, and he hears the sound of a bullet in the same moment.

When he hits the ground, he lies still, lies silent, and tells himself to move.

“Eliot!”

Quinn’s there, grabbing his shirt at his shoulder, pulling at his arm, and Eliot lets himself be dragged, pulling Marie with him back into the kitchen. When Quinn stops, Eliot twists round and sees Peggy crouched on the floor between the couch and the coffee table. The look on her face is fierce and she’s gripping her scarf as though she wishes it were a weapon. Eliot’s partway to believing she could make it one.

He can’t see where the first shot landed, but a second one hits the floor where he was a moment ago, and he hears Marie whimper behind him.

“Hey. You’re all right,” Quinn says, sounding calmer and far more reassuring than Eliot would have expected. But then, future sister-in-law, he supposes. “Missed you. Say, you got any spare dishcloths or anything? Something clean and dry you don’t need?”

He sounds too calm and casual, now Eliot thinks about it.

“What do you need those for?” he asks.

“Quinn?” Peggy calls from across the space. She looks tense. Well, she will do. Someone’s firing at her sister and they’re all pinned down. Makes sense. “What can I do?”

“Just stay there!” Quinn calls.

“But-”

“I need you safe!” Quinn shouts, and his calm breaks for a moment.

Eliot sees Peggy nod, a tight movement, and she looks…upset?

There’s movement and Marie is right there next to Eliot, pulling him round. He isn’t sure why he hasn’t moved, why he isn’t working out angles and trajectories and escape routes.

“Michael?” Marie says. She sounds upset, too. “Michael? Stay with us. Okay? He…he isn’t responding.”

“That’s because he ain’t Michael,” Quinn says, and is right in front of Eliot and…above him? “Eliot. El. You stick around, you hear? I ain’t having Parker come after me for losing you. And I like my emails the way they are. Okay, buddy?”

Eliot tries to ask what’s going on, but before he can there’s a third shot. He wants to tell them to get to better cover, to ask why they all look and sound so worried, but the thoughts aren’t connecting up to his mouth. He parts his lips and instead of words he gasps, and the pain rushes in.

“No. Stay still,” Quinn stays. “Marie, press that, right there. Keep up the pressure.”

And…oh. Oh, he’s been hit. He couldn’t see where that first bullet hit because it hit him. Parker’s going to kill him. She hates it when he gets hurt. Her face always goes tight and pinched and she brings him presents he doesn’t understand and sits closer to him than he lets anyone else get. And Hardison…Hardison fusses and buys things and streams sports events Eliot didn’t even know were on, even though the guy clearly has no idea what he’s watching.

“Eliot!”

Quinn’s voice jolts him awake.

He’s on his back in Marie’s kitchen, pain burning in his side, and he isn’t keeping anyone safe.

“Looks like it’s still in there,” Quinn says, but he doesn’t sound like he’s talking to Eliot. “No. No, I can’t. Listen, we’re under fire. You need to get someone here right now. Hardison!”

Hardison is going to be rambling. He rambles when he’s nervous. Eliot needs to speak to him, to tell him not to spiral.

It’s a lot colder in here than he thought it was.

He fades out again and comes back to the sound of a crash. That sounded like wood splintering. Like a door.

Someone’s still near him, but he’s having trouble working out who, and even as he tries to move, to help, because he might be bleeding and he might be shivering, but Eliot Spencer doesn’t quit a fight until the fighting’s all done, he feels his last hold on consciousness slip from him, and he’s folded into darkness.

***

Marie watches the blood well up, red and wet, soaking Michael’s shirt. No. Not Michael. Eliot. Peggy’s boyfriend called Michael Eliot. And someone’s shooting at them. Someone’s shot Mi…Eliot.

She does as she’s told, pressing on the wound and sending out a fervent prayer to any god that might be listening. Michael, or whoever he is, has been kind to her and whatever the story is she’s almost sure he just saved her from being the one bleeding out on the tiles.

Quinn’s ended whatever call he was on and is crouched by the edge of the counter, focused on something. She sees Eliot’s eyes open a fraction and tries to speak to him, but a crash pulls her attention away. The door. There’s someone bashing in the door.

She doesn’t have time to react before it cracks and splinters, bursting inward, and three men erupt into the room.

Quinn meets them. He moves quickly, avoiding a punch and striking the first guy in the nose hard enough to drive him back. After that, it gets hard to track what’s happening.

She jumps when Peggy arrives next to her, panting, a manic look in her eyes.

“Which knives don’t you care about?” Peggy asks. When Marie doesn’t answer right away, Peggy snorts and pats her on the back, hard. “Never mind. I’ll use that pan.”

Before Marie can ask what her sister is going on about, Peggy has the heavy iron pan and is out in the main room, swinging the thing harder and faster than Marie thinks should be possible. That thing is heavy. Seriously heavy. It also does serious damage to the arm of the man it hits, a man who was about to stick a knife in Quinn’s back.

After that, Marie ducks her head and focuses on keeping as much blood inside of Eliot as she can.

***

Peggy keeps her arm around Marie’s shoulders as they talk to the cops. Paramedics took Eliot away a while back and Quinn is over in the far corner spinning some story. Parker’s backing him up, in full FBI mode, and it’s not something Peggy is quite over, seeing the woman she thought was Alice and then thought was a spy manipulating the cops so easily. Still, as long as it means everyone is out of danger and out of trouble, she’ll learn to be okay with it.

Everyone except Eliot, of course.

Hardison is cleaning up the con, removing all traces of Parker being inside the mark’s offices at the time the attempted assassination took place, because while three men were trying to kill Marie, Parker was taking what they needed to end the whole situation.

Peggy is sure both Hardison and Parker would rather be where Eliot is, but neither of them were at Marie’s in time to get in the ambulance and Eliot apparently has strict rules about not leaving the job unfinished if he’s injured, at least not once he’s past them being able to help.

Peggy doesn’t like to think of the other ways in which Eliot could be past help. At least this way he’s headed to the hospital and care his team can’t provide.

“I don’t get it,” Marie says again. It’s at least the tenth time. “Why was Michael being Eliot?”

“He’s really called Eliot,” Peggy says in a quiet voice. The cops have been given Michael as the name and are buying it. “He works with Quinn.”

“In security?” Marie asks.

Peggy doesn’t want to keep it from her sister, not now she knows as much as she does. She argued with Quinn about keeping Marie in the dark in the first place, when it became clear there was a hit out, but Quinn talked her into keeping quiet. He insisted panic wouldn’t help and that Eliot would keep Marie safe. Which he has.

“Yes,” she says now. “Sort of. Look, I’ll explain it after, okay? Let’s just let things settle down first.”

“He saved me,” Marie says. “We were eating popcorn and then you were here and we were still eating popcorn and then he saved me from a bullet.”

She’s shivering under Peggy’s arm, even with a blanket wrapped around them both.

“Yeah,” Peggy says. “He does that. But you’re safe now. It’s all over.”

“You hit that guy with a pan,” Marie says, as though that’s the hardest part of all to grasp.

“Yeah.”

She hit him more than once and turned on the last guy, swinging that pan into his groin before Quinn took him out with a knee, but she skips that for now. She also skips how Quinn looked at her with such heat she knows they won’t be doing much sleeping tonight. A year ago, Peggy would have been appalled at how violence can so easily lead to sex, but now she’s past letting it trouble her. She enjoys the pride in Quinn’s eyes maybe even more than she loves the sex, and the sex is pretty damn great. There are a few new things they’ve talked about trying and maybe tonight… Well, she can think about it later.

“I’m going to be sick,” Marie announces calmly, and shoves the blanket and Peggy’s arm away before bolting.

A few minutes later, the cops are leaving and Parker comes to perch next to Peggy, Quinn taking the place on Peggy’s other side. Parker looks tight and focused, and she’s tapping a finger over and over and over again on her own thigh.

“It’s done?” Peggy asks.

“All clear,” Quinn says. “Right, Parker?”

“Right,” Parker says. “Your sister’s safe. All sorted. In time for Christmas.”

There’s a brittle kind of cheer to that and it puts Peggy’s teeth on edge.

“And Eliot?” she asks.

“Hardison’s keeping tabs on what we can get,” Parker says and tilts her head. She’ll have an ear-bud in, and Hardison will be able to hear what’s happening here. “Eliot’s in surgery. Does Marie want to go to the hospital?”

“She might, I guess,” Peggy says. “She probably feels responsible and I think she likes Eliot.”

Parker nods and looks away.

“Right,” she says. “Well. Okay, then.”

“But you go ahead,” Peggy says. “I know you must be worried sick about him, you and Hardison.”

“We must?” Parker asks, her nose scrunching up.

“Well, yeah,” Peggy says, and takes Quinn’s hand. He squeezes her fingers and leans into her. “Eliot’s your family, right? And you both love him.”

Parker turns to her, eyes wider than normal.

“He’s ours,” she says, like she’s just worked something out. “Right.”

Peggy doesn’t ask why Parker is being weird. She’s just had to play at being a Fed when one of her lovers is being rushed to surgery. It took a while for Peggy to work out what was going on between the three of them, but now she’s quite proud of herself for being so relaxed about it. She’s honored they let her see the way they are with each other. It’s being heavily involved with a trained killer that does it, she’s sure. Non-standard relationships just seem fine now. And it’s not like Eliot’s unattractive at all. Or Hardison. She can see the appeal.

“I’ve got to go", Parker says, and is out of the door before Peggy can ask what’s going on now.

With Marie still in the bathroom and no-one else around, Peggy turns to Quinn and raises an eyebrow. He grins and pulls her closer. Might as well make use of any time they have.

***

Eliot wakes to beeping and tubes, and would swear if he could get everything lined up right. He’s in hospital. He was real clear on that the last time, so if he’s here then it was serious or he was hurt away from Parker and Hardison, and someone else sent him here.

He doesn't know how long it is before he senses movement next to him, and then Parker is leaning over him. She peers at him, her face serious, and calls over her shoulder.

“Hey. He’s awake. Alec!”

Hardison arrives, looking about as serious as Parker does, and Eliot tries to grouch at them to back off and give him some space. He just about manages a low moan.

“Hey. Hey, don’t strain yourself,” Hardison says. “You lost a lot of blood and they had you in surgery for long enough I almost grifted my way in to help. Don’t look at me all eyebrows like that! I could be a doctor. Just give me half an hour.”

“But you’re okay,” Parker says. “They fixed you. You have to stay in bed now and no running or fighting for a while, so Quinn says he’ll stick around. Peggy wants to make Christmas dinner for us all, too, so you get to stay resting. And she says no arguing about the stuffing or she’ll stuff you.”

There’s a pause, and Parker glances at Hardison the way she does when she’s checking whether something’s okay, whether she’s doing it right. Hardison nods. He looks like he’s preparing himself for something. Eliot readies himself for news he might not want to here. Fixed doesn’t automatically mean all the way back to right. Perhaps he’s injured permanently. It’s not like he’s ignored the possibility. He has plans in place. He can take it.

Parker looks back at him and takes his hand. At least, she curls her fingers into his palm where his hand lies on the bedding. She has her intent face on, the one that means she’s being as honest as she can be. With Parker, that’s pretty damn honest.

“You aren’t allowed to leave us,” she says. Hardison clears his throat and Parker grimaces. “I mean, you can. If you want. But we don’t want you to. All right?”

Confused, Eliot nods. He hasn’t planned on leaving. He wonders how close this one was and resolves to get hold of his notes as soon as he can do. It must have been pretty bad to put that look on Parker’s face.

“Sure thing, sweetheart,” he says. “I’m staying wherever you are.”

It creeps out low and soft, and Parker’s fingers tighten in his. A moment later, Hardison rests his hand on Eliot’s shoulder, and it isn’t until later that Eliot thinks he must have been on the good drugs to not worry at all that he said it.

***

Eliot makes it home on Christmas Eve. At least, he makes it to Hardison’s. They won’t let him go to his own apartment, saying he needs looking after, and he doesn’t have it in him to protest. Being told he’s staying with them is…pleasing.

He isn’t expecting to find Marie, Peggy and Quinn already in the place, turning round from hanging decorations with grins and good cheer. Quinn has a hat on. It’s green and red stripes with a bell on top, and he looks thrilled with himself.

“We got one for you, too,” Parker tells him, smiling like Eliot might actually want to hear that, and they get him settled on the couch with a blanket over his legs, even though he doesn’t need one, before Peggy arrives with a mug of something hot and spiced.

“Just you relax,” Peggy tells him. “I’m taking care of food. And you have the best stocked kitchen. Seriously. I’m the professional and this is like Christmas, just seeing what you have.”

Eliot doesn’t tell her this isn’t really his kitchen. He just keeps a few things here, for in case he needs them. Such as when he cooks for his team every now and then.

“It’ll be weird having someone other than Eliot cook,” Parker says, following Peggy back over to the kitchen area. “He makes the best pasta. Are we having pasta?”

“For Christmas?” Peggy asks.

Eliot finds himself tuning out as they argue about what counts as traditional, with Parker insisting a gingerbread house is all you need to make it Christmas food and Peggy explaining a gingerbread house wouldn’t go with pasta. There’s affection there, and no need for him to be on alert, and with Quinn in place for any physical defense and Hardison’s security system active he can let himself drift.

He jolts back awake as someone sits next to him. Marie. It only takes a split second to work that out, and by the time he’s turned to her he has his Michael smile in place. A few weeks can be enough to build a habit.

“So, you’re really Eliot,” Marie says. She looks shy. “And you were there to keep me alive, not to wrap presents.”

It takes a moment to shift back to being himself and he sees Marie’s eyes widen as he does it. Sophie’s lessons have helped a lot, but they do mean a larger change in how he comes across to people now.

“Hey, I pride myself on my bows,” Eliot says, because Marie is sweet and kind and he doesn’t want her to look startled and sad.

She manages a small smile.

“That’s good,” she says. “Um. I have one more present for you to wrap. Client really wanted you to wrap it. If you could?”

Eliot’s got nothing to do and now he’s not sleepy he already feels jittery about being confined to the couch, so he nods. Marie leaves long enough to bring back a bag from somewhere in the apartment, and she spreads paper and ribbon and everything he needs out on the coffee table, chatting about how strange all this is as she does.

“It’s not every day I find out I’ve been protected by my own undercover bodyguard,” she says. “Chelsea says it should be the plot of a romcom, but she says that about everything. And she thinks it should involve lasers.”

“Everything should involve lasers,” Hardison says from nearby.

He hasn’t been far from Eliot since Eliot woke up, not unless Parker has been keeping watch. It’s irritating and comforting at the same time. When Nate and Sophie arrive in a few hours, Eliot expects to feel even more smothered.

“I ain’t gonna be in a romcom,” Eliot says.

Marie blushes.

“Well, no,” she says, and glances over at Parker and Peggy, then at Hardison, as though there’s some significance in that.

Eliot’s too tired to worry about it. Just moving is more effort than it should be, and the doctors have told him it will be a while before that changes. It’s not like it’s the first time he’s been through something like this, but he’s older now, and it’s easy to forget how bad it was anyway.

Instead, he focuses on folding the shining silver and red paper around the box Marie’s handed him to wrap, tying the ribbon just so and ignoring the way Hardison’s watching him. If he lets himself think about it, he’ll think words like ‘affectionate’ and ‘mine’, and he’s been working very hard on not letting those in. Lying in a hospital bed gives plenty of time for thought, and Eliot’s pretty much decided that come the New Year he’s going to take steps to shift out of Parker and Hardison’s way a bit more. He isn’t leaving. He’ll never do that. But he is going to make sure he isn’t intruding on their relationship, either.

Still, he can have Christmas, and he can stay here until he’s recovered enough to cope more easily on his own. After that, he’ll see.

***

Sophie fusses over Eliot for at least thirty minutes, insisting on making him tea and tutting when Peggy brings some she’s already made. There’s nothing wrong with Peggy’s tea, but Eliot has to admit he likes Sophie’s better.

He does pull his head away when Sophie reaches out to stroke his hair back from his face. There are limits.

Nate frowns at him and tells him to be more careful, then walks off and comes back with a drink.

The evening passes quietly. Quinn only adds three more points to Eliot’s mental tally, and he’ll be acting on those once he’s well. Parker only tries to tie one pendant into Eliot’s hair. He doesn’t care what she says, he isn’t being a human Christmas tree.

Quinn wears his elf hat the entire time and doesn’t even look ashamed.

***

Peggy has the food underway before they all sit down to open presents, and Marie shuffles a little awkwardly until Quinn pulls her down to sit next to him. He nudges her with his shoulder and hands her a squishy parcel she didn’t see under the tree the night before, and just like that she’s part of a family instead of sitting on her own in her little apartment.

The parcel turns out to have a scarf in it, one Quinn apparently knitted, and if it has weird shapes on it that might be knives, Marie isn’t going to complain. The man helped to save her life the first time they met. That gets him a lot of leeway. Even if she has heard her sister having loud sex a lot more than she should ever have had to over the last few days.

She watches as the others opens their presents, seeing Parker and Hardison move the shiny silver and red parcel onto the present pile, seeming to change their minds about where it should go. Eliot doesn’t appear to notice, but he is looking less alert than he was. Apparently, the surgery is taking him longer to recover from than expected. Expected by the Leverage team, anyway. The doctors are all amazed at how speedy it’s being.

Finally, Parker slaps Hardison’s hand away as he tries to move the present again and instead places it in Eliot’s hands. He blinks down at it, looking confused. Then he shakes his head and smiles, and this one is far gentler and warmer and…and sadder than any she saw on him as Michael. This one, she realizes, is real.

“No, Parker,” he says, and tries to hand it back. “This one is for a client of Marie’s.”

“Yes.” Parker nods. “Me.”

And she pushes it back.

“You had me wrap a present for me?” Eliot asks, a grumbling growl setting up in his voice. “Parker, that’s-”

“You wrap the best,” she says, like that makes sense. “You make them all shiny. I wanted you to have a shiny present.”

Eliot opens his mouth again, scowls, and looks a little lost.

“Why don’t you open it?” Sophie asks. She has an expectant look on her face, and Marie wonders if she knows what Parker and Hardison got for Eliot.

She curious herself. Parker handed her the box but she didn’t look inside.

Everyone watches Eliot unwrap the present he wrapped the night before, Quinn making a comment about Eliot liking shiny things and thinking he’d more want a knife, but Peggy shushes him and he falls quiet.

“You all just gonna stare at me?” Eliot grouches, and opens the lid.

And freezes.

“Is it all right? Do you like it?” Parker asks.

“It’s a bracelet?” Eliot says.

“Yes,” Parker says. “Sophie said that jewelry is traditional.”

“Well, Parker, I didn’t exactly say-”

“It’s a bracelet made out of a…out of a knife?” Eliot goes on, holding it up. And it is. It looks like someone has bent a slender silver knife into a circle, adding a hinge and a clasp. “Parker, this ain’t any use. How am I meant to use this?”

“Hey, come on,” Hardison says. “It’s a knife. You love knives. And don’t pretend you hate jewelry, because we know you like it.”

“I actually said they should get you a ring,” Sophie says, her gaze on Eliot assessing.

“But you like things on your wrists,” Parker says, and maybe only Marie hears the way Quinn coughs. Parker’s holding up one of her own wrists and circling it with her other hand, as though Eliot might not know what a wrist is. “You said you like-”

“How about another drink?” Peggy says, and Marie finds herself dragged up and into the kitchen.

They’re joined less than a minute later by Nate, pulled along by Sophie, and Quinn, who seems to have brought himself. He’s grinning.

“Likes things on his wrists,” Quinn says happily.

Peggy slaps him on the arm and he just laughs.

“Why are we all in the kitchen?” Marie asks.

“Because we’re hoping they’ll finally get their heads in gear and tell Eliot how they feel about him,” Sophie says, sounding exasperated. “Honestly, I thought it was hard work for Nate and me, but those three are giving us a run for our money.”

Peggy looks surprised.

“Wait. They’re aren’t together already?”

Quinn just laughs harder.

***

The bracelet is odd. No doubt about it. Quite where thy found a bracelet made out of a knife is beyond him. Unless Parker stole the knife and had it made. He wouldn’t put it past her. Hell, Hardison could have made it. Guy’s crafty.

“Don’t you like it?” Hardison asks.

Eliot knows they’ve been left alone in the room, but it hasn’t really hit him that it’s strange everyone cleared out that way until he picks up on the tension in Hardison’s voice and the way Parker’s sitting like she’s ready to run.

“What exactly is this about, man?” Eliot asks. He thinks he knows what he wants it to be, but that can’t be right.

“I didn’t like you having movie night with Marie,” Parker says. She slams her mouth shut once she’s spoken, but she looks determined now, like she’s started on a path she’s intent of following to the end.

“Yeah,” Hardison says. “And, yeah, we get it, man. You ain’t chained to us. You want a life away from this? From us? You can have it. Not gonna get any heat from us, no matter what you said under the influence of hospital drugs.”

Parker makes a noise, but Hardison reaches for her hand and she quiets.

“But,” Hardison goes on, “we talked with Sophie on the phone while you were in surgery, and she said we should make it real clear what we want before you walk. So. This is it. Us making it clear.”

“Making what clear?” Eliot asks.

The silver is warming in his hands. It’s comforting. Maybe it will feel nice on his wrist.

“We want you,” Parker says. “Like…like with us. Here.”

“I’m here,” Eliot says. His heart-rate is spiking. He can feel it. Getting shot made him feel numb, to start with at least, but this is setting his nerves on fire.

“In our home,” Hardison says.

“I’m staying in your-”

“I swear to god, Eliot,” Hardison breaks in. “You are smart. I know you like people to think you ain’t, and I get it. I do. You have this whole…action sports guy thing going on. But come on. You gotta know what we’re getting at here. We want you. Both of us. In our team, and in our home, and in our bed.”

Ah. Right. Not much mistaking that.

“So you got me a knife?” Eliot asks, because his brain hasn’t landed on what he ought to be saying yet.

“We got you a ring,” Hardison says. “Only it’s you, so, you know, a big knife ring you can wear on your wrist.”

“Because-” Parker says.

“I swear to god again, mama, Quinn already looked like you gave him Christmas the first time,” Hardison says.

“But you should wear it,” Parker says. “If you want to belong to us.”

“With us,” Hardison corrects.

And if Eliot thinks, maybe, Parker may have accidentally hit on something about him they are not meant to know, he keeps quiet. If this is real, if this goes the way it’s looking like it might, then they can always explore that later. He doesn’t think they’ll know why he shivers.

“You want me,” Eliot says, slowly, turning the bracelet over and over. It gleams in the lights from the tree. “You both want me.”

“If you want us,” Parker says. “You can…you can date Marie, too, if you want.”

“Marie?”

And, yeah, he thought about it. But he never really wanted it.

“Or not,” Hardison says, a smile creeping onto his face.

“Not,” Eliot says. “Might want to hang out with her, though.”

“Hey, that is a gift of love, my man,” Hardison says, gesturing at the bracelet. “Not a damn collar. Not gonna try and tie you down. Just want you to know you got a home here.”

This time, he’s almost sure he sees a speculative look in Hardison’s eyes when he shivers, but the guy doesn’t say anything. Instead, he sits forward, reaching out and taking the bracelet. He looks a question at Eliot, who holds out his wrist.

When the clasp shuts, he can’t help but keep staring at the silver metal against this skin. The blade is smoothed out, but it’s still an elegant little knife this has been made out of. He thinks he should find it a shame, that it’s been reshaped, that it’s been made less deadly, but he doesn’t.

He feels the couch dip as Parker comes to sit beside him, and again as Hardison arrives on his other side. They don’t do anything other than sit next to him, and lean into him a little, and it’s no different, really, to how it often is. Except for how it’s completely different.

“It’s okay,” Parker shouts after a minute. “You can come back in now. Eliot knows he’s ours now!”

And Quinn gets at least five more marks on the tally for the way he smirks at Eliot when he comes back in. But it’s worth it.

As everyone settles back down, Nate and Sophie bickering over how a con in France went down, Peggy and Quinn folding up together in a chair in a way that makes Eliot think Quinn’s the one needing a damn collar, he catches Marie’s eye. She smiles at him, and gives him a thumbs up.

Eliot sits back between Parker and Hardison and lets the warmth of it all surround him. The bracelet is smooth and reassuring on his wrist, and this is the kind of Christmas cheer he can cope with. He doesn’t even complain much when Parker sneaks that elf hat onto his head, or when she takes his other wrist and ties red and silver ribbon around it, a smile in her eyes. She’s Parker, and Parker gets what Parker wants. And she wants Eliot. And so does Hardison.

He’s still not sure how his life has turned into this, but he’s more than happy to accept that it has.