Nana always told him—told all of them—to leave the new kids be. Never leave them out, but make sure they had as much or as little room as they needed and wanted. It was kind of hard, those times the house was crowded, but they all made it work. Because everyone else made it work for them, when they were new.
Just, passing on the flame, really.
Some kids had no problem getting dragged into whatever rough-housing the older kids got into. Some needed their space, needed their corner, but were fine to watch, and cheer and egg on.
Hardison wasn’t either of those. Not at first.
Looking back, he couldn’t say why it was such a big thing with him. But by the time he got to Nana’s, it just was .
He didn’t like being crowded in. Didn’t like the noise that came from all the kids running around and around and around—echoes of the tangles and criss-crosses inside his own head. Didn’t like a hand on his arm, dragging him around, or a hand on his chest, pushing him back, moving him around. He just. Didn’t like it.
He didn’t have a room to himself—just enough kids to make a big house feel small. And Nana was friends with so many people in the neighborhood, if it hadn’t been the kids that got to him, the loud adults hanging out in the living room and kitchen would’ve been just as bad.
He got to Nana’s, and for those first couple of months, all he wanted was out .
And Nana? Nana got it. She sat Hardison down with Jamie—the older kid he was sharing a room with—had a discussion about space. What would work for both of them.
Hardison would never admit to nearly crying, right then and there, but Nana had seen - had offered him a hug right after, hadn’t been hurt when he’d carefully, shyly, shaken his head no.
(But her smile had been so, so bright, when he’d come up to her, not a week later, and asked if that hug was still on offer.
“ Always,” she’d told him, “always.”)
There were some bumpy times of course—no house of kids is ever fully contained or controlled. That’s just how it was with kids, despite any parent’s best efforts. So, some kids, mostly new ones, pushed boundaries. Got in Hardison’s face when they found out it made him squirm uncomfortably. Pushed him around and said they hadn’t seen him. Poked and prodded and yelled and talked too fast.
If it wasn’t Nana on their heads soon enough, it was Jamie. Always, always.
Hardison never grew into one of those kids that rough-housed around the house. But, he could cheer with the best, from his corner. Could throw a barb just right, send the kids into another round or send them running, while he and Jamie laughed in the corner, holding each other’s shoulders to keep upright.
He never got used to being dragged around, handled roughly. Never got used to people he didn’t know—kids and adults alike—getting ahold of him, in any way, friendly or not.
But he liked the weight of Jamie’s arm around his shoulders. Liked the hugs he got from Nana that always smelled of lavender and home. Liked the handshakes and fist-bumps some of the newer, shyer kids felt comfortable with.
Figured out, if he liked the people, the touch wasn’t so bad. Was something to be actively sought out even. It never really spread too far—a handful of kids after Jamie moved out. Nana. That was about it.
But that was all he really needed.
He never really grows out of what he learned at Nana’s.
He could fake a smile and a handshake with the best of them. Loud noises no longer threw him for a loop as his brain learned to block and follow its own path. He was never going to be the one throwing himself into the thick of it, but he worked just fine, if not better, on the sidelines.
And he still didn’t like touching, or being touched by, most people.
Parker’s not most people. She doesn’t push and shove. Doesn’t move him around, doesn’t force him one way or another.
She exists in his space. Flows in and out without disrupting a thing most times. Except when she’s clinging to him, arms wrapped tight and heavy around him. From anyone else, it’d be choking—something to remove immediately. With her...the weight is comforting, grounding—across his shoulders, at his side, or on his chest. She’s just there , solid yet fluid—a livewire with no interest in holding still.
Hardison wouldn’t trade her for the world.
Eliot’s not most people. He does push and shove, but only after he’s checked himself hard enough that Hardison’s pretty sure he caused himself to trip a bit, those first couple of times. The man is careful . And, Hardison knew, if he gave even the barest hint of being uncomfortable, Eliot would back off so fast he’d probably end up hitting himself with the door on the way out. There’s something safe , about that knowledge.
He makes it so tempting to reach out and touch.
Existing with them—trading hugs and comfort and teases and kisses and...and space —is so, so easy .
It wasn’t this immediate cascade of comfortable touching—of trading honeyed kisses and affirming touches, teasing shoves and questioning grips. Not with this group.
But Parker had existed in his space long before that bright smile and delight in the idea of pretzels. And Eliot had been careful with him years before they—an absolutely terrified Hardison and Parker—had dared to offer themselves up.
It wasn’t immediate. Of course not.
But it never stopped being easy.
He knows Nana would laugh herself sick, if she could see him now. Him, sitting on the couch, his thief stretched out behind him, balancing precariously without a care in the world, one arm curled around his shoulders, and his hitter sitting crosslegged on the floor in front of him, leaning heavily against the inside of his leg.
He feels heavy, warm, and safe.
And he’s kind of tempted to call her.