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You Don't Need to Walk a Mile in My Shoes

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Eliot looked down at the dead body at his feet and sighed, then tossed the canvas tarpaulin over it, nudging the corpse over with the toe of his boot as he rolled it up into the tarp. It was quick work with some rope to get it secured, adding a few broken bricks for good measure. Then he hefted it over his shoulder and, with one last look around for witnesses, he headed out to dump the evidence in the river. Deep and polluted enough, it would be some time before anyone braved the winter-cold waters to search for a henchman that nobody would miss except the guy Nate and his team were putting behind bars for a year.

Criminals had long memories, but Eliot didn't plan on having anything more than a decomposing corpse to point any fingers in his direction. Bert Stalliers might suspect who'd done it, but he wasn't the type of guy Eliot feared. Stalliers fought with numbers and words; he hired men to do his hitting but not surprisingly, Eliot had simply hit back harder. It wasn't the first time, certainly wouldn't be the last unless Eliot gave up his line of work completely.

As he tipped the body into the river, Eliot paused. He didn't say anything -- couldn't think of any words to say, but he acknowledged the need in principle. Maybe somebody would miss the guy. Maybe not. Once he walked away he wouldn't give the man another thought; right at that moment, as the waves rippled around the disappearing corpse, Eliot bowed his head and gave the man a moment of silence for falling in the line of duty. Besides which, anything he said aloud would go over his earbud, and Hardison had apparently rigged them with a dead-switch so he'd know when somebody took theirs out of their ear. When he'd informed them about it he'd claimed it was for safety reasons, but he'd been looking right at Eliot when he'd said it.

Like he was the only one to ever take out his earbud during a job. Eliot didn't bother arguing, just stayed careful about what he said and didn't say when it was in.

When the water was still again, Eliot turned and jogged away from the river's edge, getting as far away from the area as he could before circling around to where he'd left his truck. He scouted the area before approaching, checking for any movement, looking into every shadow that might hide a person watching him. But it was clear and soon he climbed into his truck and drove away, and by the time he'd got five blocks away he was relaxed, expression casual, giving away nothing that would make a traffic cop want to pull him over and run his ID.

He got back to the hotel and hooked up with Hardison who was ensconced in the room monitoring the other members of the team. Eliot gave Nate his report, short and to the point that there hadn't been any trouble. Then he sat back and harassed Hardison while the other man tried to work, mostly by bouncing a Koosh off the back of his head until Hardison yelled at Nate to come up with another job for Eliot to do.

~~~

He told himself to wait a day or two, three even, to make sure he wasn't over-reacting and being paranoid. But Eliot knew that he had every right to be paranoid, it wasn't as though people weren't really after him. It wasn't even the list of countries with warrants for his arrest, because technically the United States wasn't on that list. Various individual states maybe wanted somebody that looked like him, but the name Eliot Spencer didn't come attached with a 'detain, extremely dangerous' tag. Possibly with the exception of one county in Oregon, but that was more to do with the Sheriff's fiance falling hard for a handsome, charming stranger than anything illegal that might have occurred while Eliot was in the area.

None of it mattered, since if the body did turn up too soon or not decomposed enough, then the local and federal police would be after him. He managed to wait half a day until they got back to Boston, then he begged off the post-job celebration and went back at his place where he found himself heading towards the closet where he had his getaway bag stashed.

He wasn't worried about the cops finding the body. He wasn't even worried about the fact there was a dead body. Eliot had so much blood on his hands that he'd long since stopped dwelling on it after the job was over. What drove him to grab that duffel were the looks on Parker's and Hardison's face when they'd stood together in the bar.

Parker had wanted to go get ice cream, grinning happily at them both and hanging onto Hardison's arm. She'd made a grab for Eliot's as well but he'd managed to duck her grip, telling her he wasn't in the mood. Hardison had smiled and said, "We could just head back to my place," and it was clear what was on the itinerary with that suggestion.

But Eliot had begged off, careful not to let them think he'd gotten injured -- then there'd be no shaking them, he'd discovered that much. But he was tired, so he let that show just a little and he'd encouraged them to head on without him, not to wait up and not to worry about him.

It wasn't the first time they'd paired off without him, and Eliot didn't suppose they'd find any reason to be suspicious of it tonight. As he grabbed the duffel he paused, wondering if -- how much -- they might hate him once they found him gone. Then he shook his head and shut the closet door because it didn't matter what they thought when he left because he'd be gone.

He blinked as he saw Parker standing on the other side of the door, watching him with her head titled slightly to one side. Eliot opened his mouth to explain, then stopped, because for all she knew there wasn't anything wrong.

Hardison was just coming in through the front door; both Parker and Eliot stood still until he'd walked up beside Parker and joined her in the stare-down.

"What's going on?" Eliot asked. "Thought you two were headed back to your place."

"Where are you going?" Parker asked, and her voice was small and tight.

"I'm not--" Eliot began.

"That's your getaway bag," Parker said, pointing. "You have three IDs which you never use any other time, and five thousand dollars in cash -- sorry, I took half of it." She gave him a slight shrug of apology. "And you have a change of clothing and pair of clean boots that have never been worn, and a set of keys to a 1992 Dodge Dakota that you keep parked in a garage on Hillsdale. It has 94,236 miles on it, and you haven't driven it in at least a year. It has exactly half a tank of gas, and there's a tennis ball in the glove compartment." She paused again. "I put the tennis ball in there."

Eliot stared at her for a moment, at a loss for what he could possibly say. He knew not to bother asking why she'd left a tennis ball in the glove compartment, and he didn't have to ask to know why she'd stolen the money. He was a little surprised she'd left half.

Hardison asked, "So where are you going?" He didn't look happy, and he hadn't stepped away from slightly behind Parker, both of them effectively blocking the hallway to the front door. As if that would matter, when Eliot was ready to leave.

He started to get angry, thinking of half a dozen lies he could throw them off with. Then he just shook his head. There was no way he could explain this, since he barely knew himself why it had taken so long for him to remember that he never stayed in one place for so long and never let himself get involved.

"I have to go," he said quietly, hoping they'd understand but knowing they wouldn't let him leave with only that.

But what could he tell them? That he wasn't the man they thought he was? That the man they joked with, who cooked them breakfast in the mornings after a night of fun and games, and who tried in vain to explain why cheering for the Patriots would only lead to grief, was not the man he really was?

It had been so easy, breaking the man's neck and letting him fall, easier and safer than leaving him alive to sound an alarm. He'd done it without a thought, felt the bones beneath his hands and felt the moment the man froze, knew that half-second of awareness had hit him before everything had fled away in one last attempted scream. Eliot had cleaned up after himself with no guilt or hesitation, but he knew what kind of man that made him and he knew, after long years of painful lessons, that it wasn't the kind of man who had a life with friends and lovers.

"I have to go," he said again, starting to feel an ache inside that he tried furiously to shove down, knowing this wasn't the time. He'd grieve for them later, when he was safely away and had the space to let it go. Add their names to a very short list of people he'd want to remember and should, if he was smart, do all he could to forget.

Parker looked at him sadly, then reached down and took his hand. "Did you know him?"

Eliot blinked. "What?"

"The man you killed," she said. "Was it someone you knew?"

Eliot stared at her, unable to figure how she'd jumped to that conclusion. He looked at Hardison, who was just watching him like nothing Parker had said surprised him. "How... no, I didn't know him," he snapped at Parker, yanking his hand away because she'd started patting him, like he needed comforting. He suddenly realised there was only one way they could know. "They found the body already?" He could have sworn he'd have more time, but if they'd found it -- he really needed to be gone.

With a look of surprise, Hardison shook his head. "No, man, it's cool. The cops don't even know he's missing." Hardison started to smile, then stopped himself as if remembering the seriousness of just what they were discussing. "I booked him a ticket to the Bahamas, leaving the day before yesterday. Not due back for a week, and nobody to start missing him, anyhow, with Stalliers put away."

Eliot couldn't believe what he was hearing. When Hardison didn't elaborate, Eliot asked, "You cleaned up after me?" He heard his voice, harsh and half-whispered as the words stuck in his throat.

Hardison slowly nodded, his expression serious, devoid of the usual joking smile that rarely seemed to leave his face. "Of course, man. Did you think I wouldn't?"

"You weren't supposed to know," Eliot said, not sure he'd meant to say it out loud, still not sure he was hearing what Hardison was saying.

"Are you kidding?" Parker asked. "Why wouldn't we know? You know I steal diamonds, right? And Hardison steals..." She wriggled her fingers, like she was typing. "Stuff. With computers. So why wouldn't we know that you hit people?"

"That isn't," Eliot began, but Parker was already continuing.

"Sometimes they don't get back up." She shrugged.

"I kill people, Parker," Eliot said quietly. "Sometimes, I kill people."

"I know," was all she said, and she slipped her arms around his, the one holding the duffel bag. She didn't make any attempt to get him to drop it, just stood there, holding him.

"But we got your back, man," Hardison said. "You don't got to worry about the cops tracking you down."

Eliot shook his head. "That... I wasn't...." He looked down, could feel them waiting for him. It took a deep breath, and wondering if he was crazy, then he said, "It isn't the cops I'm worried about."

"Then who?" Parker asked, looking genuinely confused. Eliot looked at her, then at Hardison, and back to her. She looked at Hardison and back, then asked, "The Feds?"

"No, he's running away from us," Hardison said, clearly only just figuring it out, his eyes widening as he stared at Eliot with disbelief on his face.

"Us? Why?" Parker stepped back, not letting go of his arm. "You can't leave, I thought you liked us."

"I do, Parker," Eliot told her, reaching up and taking a hold of her hand. "I do like you. That's why...." He felt his throat close up. God, but he didn't want to. He wanted to drop his duffel on the floor and go out to get ice cream, and head back to Hardison's place and pretend it was all still going to work forever. Lay back and enjoy himself and not be himself for a little while.

"OK, that's just stupid," Hardison suddenly said. Eliot glared at him, Hardison ignored it. "You seriously think you need to leave because you killed somebody, because of us? So we don't find out you're a bad, bad man?"

"I'm not--" Eliot began, and he stopped, fighting the urge to grab Hardison and show him what he was. Because he was exactly that: a bad, bad man. "I'm not fucking like you two, don't you get it? You rob people and have fun and the only ones that get hurt are the insurance companies. When I hurt people, they bleed. Bones break and people scream and people die." He was shaking, could feel his grip tighten on Parker's hand as he shouted at them, trying to drive the words and the reality behind them into their heads.

Parker just held onto his hand and the look on her face didn't change.

Hardison stepped forward, touching Eliot lightly on the shoulder, telegraphing his move clearly and slowly like he did when Eliot wasn't fully awake. "We know," he said. "We might not know all the names and numbers and details, but we know. We knew it when we started this band of merry thieves Robin Hood thing, and we knew it when we started sleeping with you, and we knew it when we came over here to stop you from running away."

Eliot clenched his jaw, because it was impossible that Hardison knew what he was saying. He had to fight the urge to smack the concerned look off Hardison's face -- or even to turn and smack the wall. He took a deep breath, then another, and suddenly realised he should let go of Parker's hand before he accidently broke the bones in her fingers. She just gave him a small smile when he let go and let her hand fall easily to her side.

"You dream about them," she said.

"I don't," Eliot objected, but he knew it was a lie even he couldn't believe.

"It's why you don't sleep much," Hardison said, and his hand was still on Eliot's shoulder, both of them standing so far inside Eliot's personal space that he had to remind himself that he had reasons to leave. No matter what they said, or thought they knew -- it was nearly too late. He should be gone, should have left long before now.

"You sleep 94 minutes when you're alone," Parker said. "When you sleep with us on the edge of the bed you sleep 103 minutes. When we put you in the middle you sleep almost 112 minutes -- that's an average because the first two times you only slept 98 minutes but it's been getting longer every time. Hardison and I have a bet to see how long you'll end up sleeping by the end of the year."

Eliot felt like he'd been hit with a large sledgehammer, and wondered if maybe he hadn't gotten a concussion somehow. He was used to Parker not making sense, but normally she didn't make sense about other stuff, not him.

He shook his head, because now he wasn't making sense, either. The Parker Effect, he called it, usually with a clink of a beer bottle with Hardison as they toasted her. Eliot frowned at her, trying to regain some sense in the conversation. "I thought you wanted to be on the side so you wouldn't feel trapped."

Parker smiled, proudly. "I'm a thief. And a liar."

"You've been making me sleep in the middle, so I'll sleep more than 90 minutes?" Eliot glared at each of them.

"So you don't have nightmares, moron," Hardison said.

Eliot raised a fist to him, ready to call him on the insult when Hardison's words sank in. And he realised: they'd started putting him in-between them months ago. They didn't sleep in the same bed often, but it had been getting more often lately, and every single time as they fell asleep, Parker and Hardison would scoot around and over bodies until Eliot was in the middle.

He'd thought it was Parker they were protecting. He looked at them again, taking in the way they were still so close, touching him and watching him like none of this was surprising or strange.

"I killed that guy today," he said, testing. It still didn't shake him, but he looked into their eyes, watched them for the slightest movements.

Parker leaned in, slipping her arm around his waist. Hardison just squeezed Eliot's shoulder. And they waited, saying nothing. Eliot found his grip on the duffel bag loosening.

"Do you...wanna talk about it?" Hardison asked, his voice still calm and serious, despite his obvious hesitation over the fact that he wouldn't have a clue how to go about talking over a thing like this.

But Eliot shook his head. "I don't need to," and he was glad to find his own voice was solid and steady, back to normal.

"Can we have pizza?" Parker asked, not moving her head from Eliot's shoulder.

Eliot looked down at her and sighed, then found himself smiling. "Yeah, we can have pizza." He reached up to pull her away, and dropped his duffel bag into the open closet. He shut the door and Parker took hold of his hand again, giving him a slightly distrustful look that maybe he'd still try to sneak out.

He wasn't exactly sure that he wouldn't -- it was hard to believe that they really understood all of this. It might just all be pretty words and smoke screens, and two thieves playing at being something more.

But he looked over at Parker again, and the way she gave him that half-smile, sad and content at the same time. He didn't honestly know what was going on in her head, but he could feel her hand in his, and he could feel the warmth of Hardison's body, so close to his own. It was almost the same position they slept in, if he turned just a few inches they would be mirroring it exactly.

He found his body relaxing at the memory of them gathered around him, arms and legs entwined. Eliot had once thought he'd never be able to sleep like that, swore he'd twitch awake with every movement and breath that wasn't his own.

Right then all he wanted to do was pull them down the hall and into bed, wrap himself up inside them and not think about any part of the entire day. He tugged on Parker's hand, reached up to take Hardison's, and with one last question to himself if he was really this much of a fool, he led them down the hall.

the end