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He’s always been good with women, is the thing. A blonde in Memphis once told him he could get anyone he wanted and all he had to do was smile and say something kind with his honey-thick accent.

She’s been right so far.

He’s always been good with women, so when he wants one that’s off-limits, he’s always been able to get over it. Sure, he can’t have that one, but there are a whole lot more that he can.

So when Parker gives him that dangerous smile, says “Eliot” like every time she sees him just gets more exciting, he’s able to tell himself that they work together and that never works out, and that she’s off-limits, and that’s that. He still gets hard when he thinks about some of the things she’s done, but it’s always in private, and he’s always able to tell himself no.

When she starts dating Hardison, she’s shifted from “work means off-limits” to “my best guy’s girl means she’s off-limits,” and he can stick to that, too. If he categorized levels of off-limits -- which he doesn’t, because off-limits is like being pregnant and you can’t be just a little off-limits -- but if he did, best guy’s girl would trump work, every time.

It doesn’t stop him from getting hard, but that’s all right. He can’t control his subconscious, but he can control his actions, so he does. End of story.

He’s good at control, and he’s good at compartmentalizing, so he knows how to deal with his dreams about Parker: walk it off, forget it, and move on.

When the dreams change -- when Hardison shows up, too, and Eliot’s brain approximates the feel of kissing another man, and he wakes up sticky in a way he hasn’t in a long time -- it’s a little harder to walk it off, forget, and move on. His control never slips, his compartmentalization never fails, but it still sits with him longer than it should.

He’s always been good with women, is the thing. So when the dreams linger, and get a little more intense, he does what he always has. He goes out, lets himself smile slow and steady, and tells the prettiest girl in the bar that she’s the prettiest girl in the bar, and he’d be damn lucky if she decided to spend a little time with him. He gets laid, and the sex is fantastic, because he’s good enough that the sex is always fantastic. He gets laid, and the dreams slip back where they should be: out of sight, out of mind.

He walks it off, forgets about it, and moves on. When he has the next dream, he starts the process all over again, because he’s good at control, but he’s even better at ritual.

**

He objects to the idea straight off. Parker makes a face, but he sticks to his guns. “No. When has this plan ever not blown up in our faces? I’ll tell you when: never.”

“Eliot,” Parker says, trying for that air of I-know-better that Nate always used to use. She tries, but she fails.

“The answer’s still no,” Eliot says. He crosses his arms and Parker reflects his movement back at him. He’ll admit she’s good at this and always has been.

Manipulation and a mask to get away with it are two of the strongest tools in her toolbox and Eliot’s never found a way to be annoyed with it. That doesn’t mean she always pulls it off; more often than not Eliot goes along anyway, not telling her that the trick wasn’t necessary.

Sometimes, though, he doesn’t just go along with it, and this looks to be one of those times.

Parker says, “Eliot, really, it’ll work out fine.” She turns to look at Hardison, who is leaning against their kitchen island with an amused gleam in his eye. “Help me out here,” she says.

Hardison straightens, but he can’t shuck the amusement from his face the way Parker or Eliot could; he’s just not a deceptive person, and Eliot will always be amazed that Hardison’s managed to be a thief for so long without picking it up. “It’ll be completely controlled,” Hardison says, shrugging a shoulder toward the paper-white wall he’s begun using as a projector screen. “It won’t even last a day.”

It’s a good effort, but Eliot repeats, “No. No one has ever bought Parker and me as married. Not once.”

Parker rolls her eyes and slips completely out of her Nate impression. She hops up onto the island, in between Eliot and Hardison, and leans back on her hands. Her feet swing a little as she says, “I’m definitely not the problem.”

Eliot feels himself start to scowl, but doesn’t try to stop it. “We’re both the problem,” he says. “You forget not to treat me like your brother, and I forget not to let you.”

“That is true,” Hardison agrees, though he raises his hands in surrender when Parker raises an eyebrow at him. “You can pull it off in the moment, but your maintaining it stinks.” He shrugs, then says, “I’m with Parker on this one, though. It’s just for however long the garden party lasts. I’ll be in your ear the whole time and this is the type of shindig where the men mingle with the men and the women mingle with the women. Not a lot of room to fuck up.”

“There’s always room to fuck up,” Eliot says. He shifts one of his hands to the corner and the other to his hip, keeping the disapproving look on his face even though he knows now that he’s going to cave. He always does, eventually, when they both want it, even when he knows it’s going to wind up with him shot, again. He’s a bit of a sucker, when it comes to the people he cares about. He wouldn’t disagree at all, honestly, except that sometimes they come around to his rationale. Rarely, but it happens.

Parker lays down on the counter and turns until her head is next to Eliot’s hand and she’s looking up at him. Eliot can pinpoint the exact second she knows she has him. She says, “Yeah, but no one at the party is going to have an automatic weapon on them. Even if we fuck up, all we’ve done is roast the con.”

She swivels again and sits up when Hardison dumps her feet off the island. “Gross,” he says, wagging a finger at her. Parker smiles her most innocent smile and Hardison crosses his arms. He lets out an “uh-huh” that’s more a groan than real words before he looks over to Eliot to add, “She’s right.”

Eliot lets out a breath, resigning himself, then says, “I’m going to regret this.”

Parker smiles, teeth flashing, and says, “It’ll be great.”

**

It’s not great. Mostly, it’s the guys mingling with the guys and ladies mingling with the ladies event that Hardison promised it would be. He plants all the bugs he needs to plant in the first two hours, spends the next pulling bits of information out of the drunk mark, and is ready to go when the mark’s wife corners him.

Maybe not “corners.” She walks up to him in the middle of the lawn, all the partygoers still in the yard, and links her arm with his, placing her other hand firmly on his biceps. “I feel so terrible about having abandoned you this evening, Mr. Taylor,” she says. Her lips are in a fake pout and her eyes are hungry. “Please, do let me make it up to you.”

Eliot tries to step out of her grip, but all she does is tighten her hand, her nails digging lightly into his skin. “Oh, not to worry, ma’am,” Eliot says, stretching his drawl out and smiling like he’s slow on the uptake. “I’ve been plenty entertained.”

“I’m so glad,” the woman, whose first name is possibly Margaret, says. She smiles up at him and moves closer, her breasts firmly up against the back of his arm. “But Mr. Taylor, I’m sure there’s something else I can do for you.”

She’s abandoned subtlety, but Eliot can’t without blowing his cover. He opens his mouth to try to politely discourage her, hoping they’re still in that territory, when Parker appears from nowhere, says, “Darling,” and kisses Eliot full on the mouth.

Now, it’s not that he hasn’t kissed Parker before, for one reason or the other. No, it’s because since his mouth was already open, Parker takes the opportunity to slide her tongue in and make the kiss filthier than is appropriate for polite company.

Margaret, while not polite company, drops Eliot’s arm abruptly and steps back, wearing a scandalized look on her face. Someone chuckles on Eliot’s left, and one of the wives catcalls.

Parker disengages, but keeps her hands looped around Eliot’s neck. Her smile is toothy but looks genuine, and she says, “Oh, my apologies, Margaret, I didn’t see you there.” She looks back up at Eliot and kisses him once more, quickly. “I think it’s all the wine.” She pulls one of her hands from the back of Eliot’s neck to fan herself lightly. “He always just looks so much more scrumptious when I’m drunk.”

There’s laughter from both sides of the yard as more people notice the spectacle. Parker is giving the impression that she’s only staying upright because she’s hanging onto Eliot. Her smile is almost Cheshire, but her wobbling drops it down to just drunk and happy.

Eliot’s hands had drifted to Parker’s waist while they were kissing, and he removes one while sliding the other onto the small of Parker’s back, keeping up the appearance of holding her upright. He uses the other to catch hold of the hand Parker’s fanning herself with and shifts slowly so that their sides are pressed together, his arm wrapped all the way across her back to her other hip.

Margaret looks murderous, and Eliot keeps himself from laughing by putting on an expression of total adoration and looking down at Parker. “Honey,” he says, his accent strong, “I think we better leave before you can’t walk at all.”

Parker giggles and nods, pressing the side of her face into his chest as she says, “I think you’re probably right.”

Eliot looks up and makes a show of looking around the yard for the mark. He drops Parker’s hand and waves when he spots the man, calling, “Sorry, Brett, but I think we ought to go.”

The mark raises a glass as if to toast him and calls, “Of course. You should go on home and take care of the missus.”

Smiling like he’s in on the joke and agrees, Eliot nods before waving to the party at large. “Have a night evening,” he says. He gives Margaret a cursory “ma’am” before he starts walking to the gate that leads from the yard to the street, catching Parker as she stumbles a little. They keep up the ruse until they’re in the car Parker rented and Parker starts laughing.

“Did you see her face?” she asks, still laughing. “I thought she was going to claw my eyes out.”

Eliot agrees, but says, “That was risky.”

Parker just waves a hand back and forth. “Oh, I started playing tipsy an hour ago. They definitely bought it.”

“All the bugs are checking in,” Hardison says into their ears. “That was some show.”

Parker bows in her seat, even though she knows Hardison can’t see her. “Oscar-worthy,” she agrees.

Eliot makes a sound of agreement, but stays quiet the rest of the drive. He tunes out Parker and Hardison’s chatter over the comms, instead putting all of his focus onto the road. They take a detour to switch out the rental for Eliot’s car in an overnight garage before heading to Parker and Hardison’s house.

When they arrive, Parker greets Hardison with a skip and a kiss before they make it through the doorway. Eliot makes sure the garage is closed and locked before he heads inside, shutting the door behind him and locking that too.

Parker is heading to the bedroom, unzipping her dress as she goes, when Eliot makes it into the open kitchen-living room space. That’s normal -- that’s Parker -- but Eliot feels discomfort curdling in his gut.

When Hardison offers him a beer, Eliot accepts, draining a good portion of it with his first swig. Hardison gives him a look, but doesn’t say anything. Parker prances back into the room in a plain T-shirt and flannel pajama pants and swipes Hardison’s beer. Hardison only laughs as he heads back to the fridge to grab himself a new one.

“Eliot,” Hardison says. He moves toward the couch on the other side of the room. “Take off your coat and stay a while.”

Eliot rolls his eyes to cover up his momentary hesitation before he sets his beer on the island and pulls off his coat. He walks it to the coat hooks near the back door, absent any coat but his, before he picks his beer back up and walks toward Hardison. He sits in the armchair off to the side of the couch and finishes his beer, putting it down on the glass coffee table in front of him.

Hardison is on the couch and Parker has sat down on the back of the couch, near Hardison’s head. She’s looking at Eliot like she looks at new and different locks.

“What?” Eliot asks, crossing his arms. He wishes he had another beer but doesn’t move to get one.

“You look not right,” she says, twisting around so she can slide down onto the couch, her back to Hardison’s side and her feet up against the armrest.

Eliot crosses his legs and raises an eyebrow at her.

She squints her eyes, then asks, “Are you mad I kissed you?”

“No,” Eliot says, then pauses. He tries not to lie to his team, unless it’s really necessary. “Sort of.”

Parker frowns and moves so that her arms are crossed over the armrest she just had her feet against, balanced on her knees. “Was it bad?” she asks.

Eliot takes a moment to remind himself that however perceptive Parker may be, her brain will always be a mystery. He says, “No,” then adds, “it was fine.”

“Fine?” Hardison asks. He’s raised his eyebrows and has a crooked smile on his face. “Man, that kiss looked fantastic.”

“What?” Eliot asks, frowning before he can stop himself. “Parker’s your girlfriend.”

“Yeah,” Hardison says, “so I would definitely know it was fantastic.” He’s got a look on his face that Eliot can’t quite place.

“Most people would be pissed I kissed their girlfriend like that,” Eliot says, then immediately regrets it. The more he thinks about it, the more he thinks he should have insisted they debrief tomorrow.

“Huh,” Hardison says. “Yeah, I guess so.” He pushes himself off the couch with his hands and walks toward Eliot, gesturing for him to stand up.

Eliot does. He’s not sure what’s going on -- he hadn’t actually expected Hardison to mind, he just didn’t manage to clamp down on that part of himself that thinks Hardison should mind. It’s not a mistake he makes often, applying should to his teammates.

He’s still unsure when Hardison stops in front of him, and he’s about to ask when Hardison grabs the back of his neck and kisses him. Hardison takes the advantage Eliot’s shock gives him to press his tongue into Eliot’s mouth, bringing the kiss from awkward to filthy in only a few seconds.

It’s a few more seconds before Eliot’s ears stop ringing and he realizes that he’s kissing back. He shoves his hands into Hardison’s chest harder than he ever would while thinking clearly and has to catch him before he falls onto the coffee table. Eliot drops Hardison’s arm and steps back as soon as Hardison is stable, nearly tripping himself with the chair. He takes another step to the side, then says, “What the fuck, man? What the fuck was that?”

Hardison is aggravatingly calm when he says, “Now we’re even.”

When he catches her out of the corner of his eye, Eliot sees that Parker is smiling widely, obviously pleased. “What?” Eliot asks, bringing his attention back to Hardison. “What is that, ‘we’re even’?”

“Parker and I,” Hardison says. “We’re even. Now we’ve both kissed you.”

“That is--” Eliot starts. He takes a breath. “That is insane. Why the fuck would you kiss me? That is-- No one would do that, Jesus. That is so fucking weird.” When Hardison opens his mouth to respond, Eliot talks over him. “I’m going to go. We can debrief tomorrow.” He heads toward his coat and scoops it off the hook, not stopping to slide it on before he has the door open. “I’m going to go,” he repeats, shutting the door behind him.

He lets himself into the garage, locking the door as he closes it, hits the switch for the garage door, and backs his car out onto the street without thinking. He makes his decision subconsciously.

**

The bar isn’t familiar. He usually stays close to his own apartment, and this is still in Parker and Hardison’s neighborhood. It isn’t familiar, but it’s bright, clean, and populated, so he doesn’t really care.

He takes a moment to glance around the bar, stopping when he catches a brunette smiling at him. She ducks away, but once he has his beer, he slides into the seat next to her. He puts out his hand and smiles, then says, “Eliot.”

She takes his hand with a smile of her own. “Rebecca,” she says. She takes another sip of what looks like a gin and tonic, looking at him expectantly.

Eliot doesn’t like to disappoint. “Rebecca,” he says, “you are a very beautiful woman, you know that?”

Her smile widens. “It’s always nice to be reminded,” she answers. She takes another sip of her gin and tonic, but keeps her eyes on Eliot. “So who are you, Eliot? Just a man in a bar?”

Eliot laughs like he should and says, “Nah. I’m a whole lot less interesting than that.” She laughs brightly and Eliot takes a swig of his beer. He’s surprised when he sees he’s already most of the way through it; he’s been taking longer drinks than he should.

“I like you, Eliot,” Rebecca says. “You’re clever.”

“Like me enough to put up with me a little longer?” Eliot asks. He swirls his beer, then finishes it.

She looks him up and down, then smiles wide, showing almost picture perfect white teeth; she does know she’s beautiful. Rebecca takes another drink, long enough to finish her gin and tonic. “I suppose,” she says.

Her apartment is in walking distance, so Eliot doesn’t even bother offering to drive. They walk side by side, Rebecca sharing an anecdote from her work day, Eliot adding comments where a few pauses indicates he should. The apartment itself is nice, a one-bedroom that isn’t so small as to be claustrophobic. Rebecca doesn’t offer any of the not-just-sex diversions and simply pulls him into her bedroom, unbuttoning her shirt as soon as the bed is in sight.

The sex is fantastic, and into the afterglow, Rebecca says, “Do you want to use the shower before you leave?” Eliot laughs a little, enjoying the bluntness, and takes her up on it. He’s back in his car heading home only a couple hours after he arrived at the bar.

During the drive, he takes his usual moments to push everything but the sex out of his mind. When he can’t, he has to resist the urge to press his palms into his eyes, if only because while he’s frustrated, he’s not kill-himself-in-a-wreck frustrated.

Maybe it’s because the kisses were real, unlike the dreams, and maybe it’s not. Either way, Eliot finds himself feeling uncomfortable after a minute or two, and is puzzled until he recognizes the feeling as guilt.

He feels guilty for having gone and gotten laid. Eliot has never felt guilty for getting laid before, even when he probably should have. He’s never felt guilty, but he does.

It’s crap, and ridiculous, and he doesn’t know what the fuck to do with it.

**

The next day’s debrief is awkward, but the con closes without a hitch. The client cries gratefully into a handkerchief, and Parker and Hardison invite him over for drinks. For the first time in a long while, he says no.

It stays awkward, and Eliot knows it’s his fault. Neither Parker nor Hardison has said a thing, and they’re acting like business as usual. Eliot knows it’s his fault, because he can’t control this -- he can’t compartmentalize it. He sees them and he thinks about Parker’s kiss, which was fantastic, and about Hardison’s kiss, which was also fantastic, and the closest he can come to controlling his reaction is to shut down. He acts on auto-pilot, going through the motions.

He doesn’t have a going-through-the-motions sort of job. He’s good, but even he fucks up when he’s so far up his own ass he even mentions it. That far up his ass, it’s not a surprise he gets shot. What’s a surprise is that he lives.

**

Surgery keeps him alive, but gut shots are always hard to come back from. Maybe he’s not going to die, but he’s not going to be moving either, and if he doesn’t want to feel like shit, he has to take enough painkillers to knock out an elephant. Worse, the doctor’s won’t release him unless he can have someone around to make sure he doesn’t move, tear his stitches, and bleed out.

Parker and Hardison are cheerful when they load him into their new-ish Volvo, Hardison with Eliot’s care instructions still sticking out of the pocket of his coat. He gave up trying to tell them they didn’t need to take care of him after an initial token protest. He wasn’t ever going to win that fight, and he was in too much pain to put any energy into a lost battle.

They’d pulled out the hideaway bed in the couch for him and surrounded it with bottles of water and things they thought might keep him entertained.

When he stares, Parker says, “The spare room is all the way upstairs.” She gestures at the junk surrounding the bed. “Also we have no idea what you do for fun, Eliot.” She stares at him. “Why don’t we know what you do for fun?”

Because he isn’t going to get painkillers before she gets an answer, Eliot says, “Because when I have downtime, I’m at my apartment.”

Parker throws a pout in his face. “Why? Don’t you like hanging out with us?” she asks, settling onto the side of the hideaway like she isn’t planning on leaving until Eliot’s been fully interrogated.

He lets out a breath that might have been a sigh, in someone else. “I like hanging out with you plenty,” he says, ignoring the part where he’s been avoiding them for the last week. “But if I’m here, I’m being social, so I’m not doing any for-fun alone stuff.”

“Which is super cool, right?” Hardison asks, bumping Parker to the side so he can hold out a few pills and a glass of water. Eliot takes the pills and downs the water like a drowning man gasping for air.

Parker gives Hardison a look, then frowns. “Yeah, it’s cool,” she says. She smiles at Eliot before frowning again at Hardison.

Hardison smiles at Eliot before physically removing Parker from the hideaway. “Let’s go do something that isn’t this,” he says, hauling her out of the room. Eliot has a few moments to appreciate it before the drugs pull him under.

**

After a week, Eliot’s not actually which is more painful: the big chunk he has missing from his gut, or the effort all three of them are putting into not being awkward. Since the effort isn’t actually stopping them from being awkward, but his gut is healing fine, Eliot decides it’s the effort.

Eliot’s down for the foreseeable future, so they haven’t taken any new jobs. This means that Parker and Hardison don’t have anything to do that isn’t lounge around, check on him, or have sex. They made it about thirty hours going without before Parker stood up, yelled “no!” and dragged Hardison away. It’s less awkward than Eliot thought it would be.

That isn’t saying much.

What’s more awkward is watching Parker and Hardison interact when they’ve forgotten he’s in the room. Not in a sex way, though there is that, but in a comfortable way. They’re so used to one another that they act almost without thinking. When Parker says, “Ceiling!” Hardison says, “Attic!” without ever looking away from whatever else he’s doing. When Hardison says, “Where?” Parker tells him, no matter that he hasn’t actually named an item.

Unlike the indefinable guilt, Eliot knows exactly how his jealousy feels. He wants that, someday, with someone. After the second week, he’s able to admit that he wants that, now, with them.

Eliot knows how he feels, but it doesn’t match anything he thinks he should feel, and that’s so far from in control that he reacts in the one way he knows he shouldn’t: angrily.

For all that he can tear down anyone standing between him and his team, Eliot never really lets himself get angry. Rage and terror are one thing, but anger is another. He can remember being angry, all the time, and shoving that anger down into calm efficiency and competence. He can remember when the anger got out, and he can remember that he hates the person he was when it did.

He learned to control the anger because he had to. How angry he is at his loss of control, he really should have predicted.

Parker and Hardison chalk it up to his usual grumpiness, just magnified because while he’s healing, he still can’t walk farther than the bathroom without help. The bathroom is ten feet from the hideaway.

They seem to let it slide when he picks fights and goes straight for the jugular. It’s almost like he can say anything at all, no matter how horrible, and they won’t fight back. It’s frustrating, and all Eliot does is get crueler in response. Watching them lean on each other and work together isn’t helpful, either. He says a lot he doesn’t mean, and more than a few things he does, but wishes he could take back.

When Parker asks, “You’re good for a couple hours, right?” it’s a Tuesday afternoon, Eliot’s been there a little over three weeks, and he has no idea why they haven’t just killed him yet. He would have, but he can’t stand up long enough to do anything irreparable.

Eliot says, “Yes.” He watches her throw Hardison’s coat at his head, pull on her own, and tear through the back door.

“We’ll be back?” Hardison says, but it sounds more like a guess.

“Sure,” Eliot agrees and closes his eyes before Hardison is out the door.

**

When they return, Parker shakes Eliot awake and says, “I love you, but you suck when you’re angry.” Eliot can see Hardison in the background trying to hold in a smile.

He isn’t sure what he did to deserve them, but all he manages to say is, “I know.”

Parker kisses his forehead and then flicks it with a nail. “Try to stop,” she says, then stands up. Hardison follows her out the room, but smiles and shrugs in Eliot’s direction as he goes.

The anger’s bled away when he wakes up next. All he feels is guilt, jealousy, and like an asshole.

**

Painkillers make him sleep for shit. He never feels fully himself, but it’s worse when he’s waking up or falling asleep. They both feel the same and he can never really tell if he’s dreaming or awake. He tries not to say anything, because it seems safer in either case, and waits for things to resolve themselves. About half the time, he’s not sure they ever do.

**

He can feel two dips in the hideaway, one on either side of him. In the weeks since he was shot, he’s had quite a few dreams that start this way, both bad and great.

He knows Parker and Hardison are whispering, but the first thing he catches is Parker asking, “What do you think we should do, Alec?”

There’s some movement to Eliot’s right and he thinks Hardison shrugged. He can’t open his eyes, so he doesn’t know for sure.

“I know you said to wait, but I don’t want to anymore,” Parker continues. “He’s stupid and miserable.”

The same movement, then Hardison says, “That’s gotta be up to him.”

“What if he never figures it out?” Parker sounds somewhere between angry and sad and it makes Eliot’s chest hurt.

“He’s not an idiot,” Hardison says, but he doesn’t sound sure.

“Sure he is,” Parker disagrees. “He’s stupid, miserable, and stubborn.” Eliot doesn’t know what they’re discussing, exactly, but he knows it’s about him. He wouldn’t be dreaming it, otherwise. Or maybe not dreaming it. He really doesn’t know.

“Nah,” Hardison says. “He just needs a minute.”

Parker growls. “We’ve given him a whole lot of minutes, Alec. Years of minutes.”

“He knows it,” Hardison says, and the hideaway shifts again, like he moved closer to Eliot.

“He wouldn’t be like this if he knew it,” Parker argues. “If he knows it, he’s sure being a dick about it.”

“I don’t think he knows any other way to be about it,” Hardison says. “It’s not really par for the course, if you know what I mean.”

“He’s not par for the course. He should get it.” Parker’s voice is sulky, and Eliot can tell she has something else to say, she just needs to work up to it.

“He gets it,” Hardison says. “He kissed me back.” That’s what Eliot was waiting for: the specific. It’s one of those dreams. The ones where it’s not weird, and they love him like he loves them. The ones where he doesn’t mind that it isn’t normal and there are no voices arguing that it’s wrong, and a mistake.

“I know,” Parker says, though she doesn’t sound like she agrees. “I saw it.”

“He needs to wrap his Texas brain around it,” Hardison says. Oklahoma, Eliot corrects. “It’s not black and white and he’s freaking out.”

“What if we’re wrong?” Parker asks. “What if he doesn’t love us?” I do, Eliot argues. His chest is tight.

“He does,” Hardison says. “You know that.”

Parker lets out another growl. “I know,” she says. “I know he does. But what if he doesn’t like that?”

The hideaway shifts again and Eliot hears them separate from a short kiss. “He does,” Hardison repeats. I do, Eliot agrees. There’s a pause, then Hardison lets out a breath that might be a laugh, but might be a sob. “See?” he says. “He does.”

“Eliot,” Parker says. She’s using her Nate voice, the one she thinks gets Eliot to do things. He’s never mentioned that it doesn’t. It didn’t even when Nate was the one using it. Making the effort is what makes him do things. “Are you sure?”

Yes, Eliot says, or tries to say. He can’t hear his own voice, but in dreams, it doesn’t matter.

Parker takes a slow breath and Eliot thinks she might be crying. His chest pulls tighter, even though he knows it isn’t really Parker, and she isn’t really crying. After a few more seconds, she asks, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

That’s the question, isn’t it? Because he’s always been good with women, is the thing. And if he tried, Eliot thinks he’d be pretty good with men, too. He knows what to say, and how to say it. It’s as easy as breathing.

This, though, this is about as easy as breathing in a vacuum.

When he tries to think about it, a little piece of him just shuts down and he has to stop, just leaving the whole mess to linger in the back of his head. When he doesn’t try to think and just lets himself react, it’s easier. He knows he’s attracted to both Parker and Hardison, and not just in a curious sort of way. He’s attracted to them equally, both separately and together. When he doesn’t think about it, it’s easy.

Only, he has to think about it. He’s never been the reaction guy: he rarely lets his feelings impact his actions, and when he does, it’s always been in a life or death situation, where he needs to trust his gut or die trying. He has to think about it, but he can’t, so he gets stuck.

He gets stuck, and he doesn’t know how to unstick himself. He’s good with women, but he’s never really tried to be in love with one. Living so much in the here-and-now, in the short-term, he’s not sure he knows how.

So he answers, I don’t know how.

“Sure you do,” Parker answers. “They’re just words, Eliot.”

Just words. Which words? He has to think to get the words; he’s never been good at just knowing the ones that’ll work. He asks, Which words?

He hears Parker laugh, her breath a little watery. “There are only three.” He feels Hardison shift, but if he was shifting to say something, he keeps it to himself.

Three words. I love you. By themselves, they’re easy; Eliot knows how to love. He knows how to care, how to protect, how to be loyal. But being in love isn’t the same as loving, is it? He thinks that’s what he is: in love. His mind isn’t as stuck when he’s dreaming. He thinks he’s in love. What he doesn’t know is what the difference is. It still feels like caring, protecting, and being loyal. Is sex the difference? Is that it? Shouldn’t there be more?

Even if sex is the only difference, isn’t “in love” supposed to be unique? Shouldn’t he reserve it for that one special someone? Is the problem that he loves them both? Falling in love has always been in the back of his mind. Not important, but something that will happen when he meets the right woman. He knows that can apply to a man, too, and he doesn’t have a problem with it. The only problem he has is that he doesn’t like men, and never has done. Only, that isn’t quite true anymore, is it?

Three words. I love you. They aren’t the only three, but they are the most confusing three. Eliot says, I don’t know.

“I do,” says Parker. “I love you, and if you don’t know it, you’re stupid.”

Hardison laughs. “We both love you,” he says. His voice is reasonable where Parker’s is exacting. “And if you don’t know it, I guess we’ll just have to tell you.”

This is one of the great dreams, then. The ones with a happy ending. Maybe when he’s awake again, he can find that feeling.

**

When Eliot wakes up, the last fog of the worn-off painkillers clearing out, he pulls himself into a sitting position and tries to spot his pills. For the first time since he took up residence on the hideaway, they’re nowhere in sight.

He considers getting up to look for them, but drops that almost as soon as he thinks it. Without the painkillers, walking around to find anything will just hurt too damn much. He had an appointment with the surgeon the other day and she said it looks like he’ll recover fully, but that he won’t be up to taking care of himself for at least another few weeks. Eliot didn’t waste any time being embarrassed; it was what it was.

There’s a squeak above his head, so at least one of his teammates is home. He can wait until someone comes downstairs. He knows his limit and he’ll yell before he gets there, but if he doesn’t have to, he won’t.

He swipes a bottle of water from the side table and drinks about half of it. The stairs creak as both Parker and Hardison, still in their pajamas, come down and into the kitchen. Hardison heads for the coffee pot while Parker heads for Eliot.

“Eliot!” she says. Her voice is bright and cheerful like Eliot hasn’t heard it be in a while, even if he does wince at the volume.

“Hey,” he says. It comes out as a coarse cough, so he clears his throat and repeats himself.

Parker throws herself onto the side of the hideaway hard enough that it bounces and Eliot winces again. She doesn’t seem to notice. Instead she just smiles at Eliot and pulls her feet up underneath herself.

Eliot goes with it. “New lock?” he guesses.

Her smile drops some and her eyebrows furrow for a moment and she glances over at Hardison. Eliot can hear Hardison walking over the same moment he smells coffee in the air.

“Parker?” Eliot asks. She turns back to him and smiles, though it’s not as bright as before. Before Eliot can ask anything else, Hardison sits down on the opposite side of the hideaway and hands Eliot a new bottle of water.

“How’d you sleep?” Hardison asks, turning so he has one leg tucked up underneath him and leaning against the couch’s arm. Parker scoots a little closer to him on the bed until Eliot can feel the warmth of her through his sweatpants.

“Fine,” Eliot says. He thinks about asking Parker what’s up before he just goes with it. It’s Parker.

Parker scoots closer again, this time lodging herself between Eliot’s thigh and the arm of the couch.

“Parker,” Eliot says, fighting past the ‘it’s Parker,’ “if you move any closer you’ll be in my lap.”

“So?” she asks. Eliot glances at Hardison, but Hardison only raises his hands and shrugs.

“You’ll have to find my painkillers first if you’re gonna do that,” Eliot says. He doesn’t know what she’s doing, but he’s not going to fight it if Hardison isn’t. That lesson has been well learned.

“Oh, shit,” Hardison says, standing. “Sorry, man. I got them refilled and dumped them all into one container. I bet it’s still in the bathroom.” Eliot watches him walk to the bathroom and check. It feels safer than watching Parker. Hardison pops back out and says, “Yup, found them.”

“Great,” Eliot says. He watches as Hardison sits back down on the hideaway like he never left and waits for the pills to get handed over. They aren’t. This is weird, now, even for them. “Everything all right?” Eliot asks, flicking his eyes between Parker and Hardison. “I feel like what’s for dinner.” He tries to keep his voice light, but isn’t sure he manages, and crosses his arms over his chest in a defensive gesture he stops trying to fight.

Parker immediately moves to grab his wrists. “Everything’s great,” she says, uncrossing Eliot’s arms and dropping his hands back into his lap.

“Yup,” Hardison agrees. He’s smiling a lot like Parker is, and Eliot cracks.

“Okay,” he says. “One of you tell me what’s going on.” He looks between Parker and Hardison, but still gets caught off guard when Parker launches herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and mostly landing in his lap, like everything he’d mentioned about painkillers had gone in one ear and out the other. He shouts, “Fucking ouch!” just as Parker proclaims:

“I love you, Eliot!”

Eliot bites his lip to keep from yelling again, Parker’s words only just starting to register as Hardison yanks her sideways.

“Oh, nope, Parker, baby, you’re going to kill him, how will that help?” Hardison pulls Parker into his lap and wraps his arms around her waist to keep her in place. It’d be in vain, but Parker lets him.

A lot of the shock is subsumed in the massive pain in Eliot’s gut. He takes a few seconds to just breathe through the pain, using some lamaze he wishes he didn’t know. When it feels like he won’t have to get his insides sewn back in again, he yells, “What the hell!” and stares at the pile that is Parker and Hardison. He puts one arm across his stomach and regrets it immediately, biting off another cuss.

“Okay,” Hardison says, “I’ll admit that wasn’t well done--”

“I love you,” Parker interjects

“--but, yeah, that, ditto,” Hardison concludes.

“I,” Eliot starts, then stops. He feels his eyebrows furrowing together, but can’t keep his confusion off his face. “Thanks?” he guesses. He’s sure there’s something he’s missing, but it wouldn’t be missing if he knew what the hell it was.

“Oh, seriously,” Parker says, the words mostly under her breath as she leans forward and kisses him, wrapping one arm around his neck and using the other to balance herself against the back of the couch. Eliot almost has time to react when she pushes back to look him in the eyes. “Like that, stupid,” she says. “We love you like that.” She pauses and narrows her eyes. “Stop looking like we punched your puppy.”

“I don’t--” Eliot starts, but Hardison cuts him off.

“Yeah, you do,” he says, looking at Eliot with a smile.

Eliot opens his mouth again, gets out, “Ah--” before Parker flops backward across his lap, this time missing any of his injured areas. He hisses anyway at the pressure.

“It’s okay,” Parker says, “we know you love us, too.” She crosses her arms behind her head on the mattress, awkwardly laying with only her back in his lap, her legs tucked up against his side. If this was the weirdest position Eliot had seen Parker comfortable in, he might have been concerned.

He stares for a moment, almost hearing something in his head shake loose. “Right,” he says. “Okay.”

“Hey,” Hardison says, pulling Eliot’s attention away from Parker’s self-satisfied smirk. “It’s fine.” While Eliot is staring, Hardison leans in and kisses him.

“Not fine,” Parker says. Her voice startles Eliot out of his shock. “It’s great, not fine.”

Eliot lets Hardison kiss him for a few more seconds, not really contributing, before pushing him off with a hand on his shoulder. He sees Hardison’s eyebrows furrow but tightens his grip when Hardison tries to move away. Eliot stares down at Parker for a few seconds, watching her smile stick firmly in place, before shifting to Hardison, whose brow had unfurrowed and is staring almost exactly like Parker. He breathes out, then says, “I fucking hope so.” He pulls Hardison back to him with a hand at the back of his neck and kisses him.

He feels Hardison move to balance himself off the back of the couch like Parker had done, shifting so that his thigh is pressed against Eliot’s. Hardison drags the fingers of his free hand through Eliot’s hair and Eliot hums lightly, opening his mouth to deepen the kiss.

Parker’s laugh is like bright, and some insane part of Eliot’s brain compares it to bells ringing. Something else tells Eliot that this is good, this is right, and Eliot can’t do anything but agree.