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Eliot drops the shovel. Thunk. The sound is muffled by the pile of soil it lands in, but it might as well be a bell. Leastways, it’s his death knell. Strain sits across his shoulders and the bruises from earlier echo it in a dull throb, but Eliot refuses to let any discomfort show. Instead, he raises his gaze from the freshly dug hole and glares across it.

The guy standing the other side of the hole doesn’t look pleased. If anything, he looks grim and businesslike, but the bastard has any sign of real emotion locked down. There’s no hint of a conscience. He doesn’t seem to feel anything about dragging a man out into the middle of nowhere, pointing a gun at him, and ordering him to dig. Then again, far as Eliot can tell, he’s got no personal interest. This isn’t the guy calling the shots. Every move this guy makes is being fed to him through an earpiece.

A couple of other guys stand nearby, the first with a duffel bag at his feet, the other holding one of those tablets Hardison likes to carry around these days. More men form a ring around them all, far enough back that Eliot couldn’t reach one before another shot him down. Not that he’ll be trying. Further back, trees stand guard over the clearing, blocking the sun. Slanting lines of light form bars along the ground, bars that have gained a reddish tint over the last little while. It’s almost sunset.

‘We gonna stand around all night?’ Eliot asks. It’s shaping up to be a cold night, and they stripped his jacket from him, stripped him right down to his jeans and a T-shirt, before they beat him. That was hours ago, miles away. Now, he’s at gunpoint, has been made to dig a hole than can only have one use, and he’s known for years he’s already damned, but he’ll go into the ground without breaking.
Earpiece ignores Eliot’s challenge. On one level, Eliot respects the professionalism. On another, he could do without the almost-mirror to his past self. It’s a flawed mirror, even if not as flawed as he could wish, but in his last moments he’d rather not dwell on the man he used to be: the man he still is, he knows, because that kind of stain is forever. But for Parker and for Hardison, he’s buried those fragments of himself deep as he can. For reminding him of those, now, when these are his final minutes to hold the people he cares for in his mind, he wants to cause the guy pain.

It doesn’t take as much as his team would like for those fragments to resurface.

Eliot takes grim comfort in the fact that Hardison and Parker can’t hear his thoughts. They don’t know how shallow the change in him really is.

He recognises the look on the guy’s face as someone speaks through the comms in his ear. Eliot hasn’t seen the boss’ face or heard their voice, but everything that’s happened today has spun around whoever’s on the other end of that channel.

‘It’s done,’ the guy says. A pause, then a nod at Goon 2, who flips open the cover on the tablet and taps at the screen.

Eliot hates to betray any reaction to these people, but he can’t entirely suppress the way his lips move, the way his frustration and disgust try to manifest on his face. The goon slides the volume up and sounds of crying can’t be loud enough to fill the clearing, but Eliot flinches as though they’ve hit him. He blinks, his jaw clenching, and makes himself look at the screen when it’s held up and turned to face him.

It’s too far to see all the details, but even from several feet away he sees the huddled forms in a harshly lit room. One is far larger than the others and is slumped against a wall, a smaller shape sitting pressed up next to him. Jed and his daughter Maisie.

Earpiece doesn’t do anything so amateur as gesturing with the gun. His focus never wavers. Not that it matters. The gun isn’t what’s keeping Eliot in line. The bastard orchestrating this has done his research.

‘In,’ Earpiece says.

Narrowing his eyes, Eliot takes two steps forward and lets himself drop into the hole. Grave. He knew before they handed him the shovel that he’d been brought to his grave. Shooting him in it will mean less to clean up outside, though that isn’t normally the main concern when bringing a mark to such an isolated location. Typical they’d let him climb out after digging it only to order him back in. Whoever’s listening in on that line really wants to press home how firmly they have Eliot leashed.

‘Lie down.’

That’s less usual. For a moment he feels that spark of energy that drives him into a fight. He has to force himself not to leap right back out again and tackle the nearest man, to be a force acting upon the world. Turns out, he finds it easier to face his death than he does to lie down in front of a threat, to be passive. To be nothing.

Eliot can hold himself back from action when the action would cause harm.

If it were just his life at stake, he’d call this guy’s bluff. Make him shoot Eliot where he stands. Make it hard. That’s not the case, though.

With his lip curling, Eliot lowers himself to his knees. The earth is damp beneath him, the cold and the wet soaking through his jeans, and a crease in the material pushes a hard line into his left shin. There’s almost no sound. Chill air brings the faint rustling of leaves, but mostly Eliot hears his own breaths and the slow slide of earth slipping back from the edges into the grave.

‘All the way,’ Earpiece orders, curt and ungiving.

Eliot’s heartbeat picks up as he stretches out on his back. The moment the ground and the people around him vanish from view, the moment the dark sides of the grave become the boundary of his world, he has to swallow panic. Panic isn’t normally what he does, and he’s damn good at pretending it’s never, but this isn’t how he expected to go out.

He’s built his identity around being able to take the pain, to take whatever he has to, but it’s never just been for the sake of it. He takes the blows until he can hit back. Sometimes defending others means allowing harm to himself, but it’s tough to feel he’s being a shield when he’s on his back waiting for a bullet.

Which is why they’ve reminded him, of course. As though he could have forgotten the sight of all those terrified kids, of Jed battered and thrown in with them. If he complies, fully and with no harm to any of the men around him, Jed and the kids go free.

Eliot holds himself still.

When Goon 1 drops into the hole, landing with his feet either side of Eliot’s legs, it takes a conscious decision not to use that to advantage. The lack of a gun confuses him, a confusion that grows as the man pulls a set of restraints from the bag he holds.

‘Remember what’s at stake,’ Earpiece says, and he’s there at the edge of the grave, that gun ready. From the angles, shooting Eliot would mean shooting right through the guy standing over Eliot, but nobody seems worried about this. ‘Bind him.’

That’s addressed to Goon 1. Eliot fights to let the guy fasten manacles around his wrists, each one weighted. Restraints are added around his ankles, and now he lies with his hands together on his stomach, his shoulders already feeling the pull of the position. The goon tugs at the restraints, jolting Eliot, and nods. Weird as it is to restrain a soon-to-be-corpse, it’s weirder when the man reaches back into the bag and pulls out a thin loop. The glimmer tells Eliot it’s metal. It takes a moment to spot it’s not a complete circle. There’s an opening, leaving it more of a semi-circle with extended arms. He swears the goon looks…sorry, almost sorry, as he leans down and slips the loop of metal around Eliot’s throat, the sides grazing his neck. He hears the crunch as the prongs sink into the dirt beneath him and a thin, cold line nips his throat.

‘Don’t do this, man,’ Eliot says, quiet, intense.

Dying, he can handle. He’s been prepared for a long time. But dying tied up? Dying pinned down?

The goon hesitates, but there’s no real sense he’s going to break orders. He looks away, and leaps partway out, catching another guy’s hand and leaving Eliot alone in the ground.

Earpiece stands at the edge, regarding Eliot impassively. He lowers the gun and holsters it, and it’s like he’s punched Eliot in the gut. Goon 2 steps up to stand next to Earpiece, the tablet held at an angle that has to mean he’s recording footage. Another blow.

They aren’t going to shoot him. They’ve had him dig his own grave, and now, instead of getting it over with, they’ve pinned him to the earth and they’re filming it. They want him helpless and humiliated. Despite himself, he shifts, testing the weight and the slack in the restraints.

‘He’s resisting,’ Earpiece says.

The stakes were made very clear: Eliot fails to comply, a kid dies. He fights back, they all do, starting with Maisie. And they’ll make Eliot watch.

He tamps down his impulses, takes one last look at the darkening sky, and closes his eyes. Calming his breathing under stressful conditions is something he can do. Controlled breaths, the conscious relaxing of muscles that do not want to relax, are harder than taking an iron bar to some bastard’s skull, but there’s more than one kind of fighting. Let them bury him. Let them film it. His body doesn’t matter, not anymore. There’s no need to think about being in fighting shape for the next job, not when there won’t be one for him, and they can’t control what happens inside Eliot’s head.

The first shovel of dirt hits him. Eliot thinks of his old buddy Jed, of Jed’s daughter, of all the other kids being held hostage just because they were on the same school bus.

Another shovelful smacks down. He tells himself Jed and the kids will be safe, that they’ll be released soon enough. One way or another, they will.

Several piles land at once, the pebbles in the dirt smarting where they strike bare skin. Eliot grimaces when they hit a bruise. He summons Parker and Hardison in his mind’s eye. Leaving them isn’t what he wants, even though he’s never fooled himself he’ll have long. He holds them there as he’s covered, but it doesn’t feel right to trap them in here with him, even in his thoughts. Parker is meant to fly free, and Eliot can’t stand the thought of Hardison being back in a grave. Besides, they’ve never belonged to him the way they belong to each other.

As the pressure on his body builds, Eliot lets them go.

***

Hardison almost ignores the notification at first. He’s deep in a lair, looking for the last item in this quest, and the kid screaming in his ear is only driving him to focus on getting this done. With Parker in planning mode, and Hardison waiting for his little birds to fly back through the web to him with more information on the next mark, it’s the perfect time. A message from Quinn can wait. Except when does Quinn contact them? Not like the dude calls to chat about his day.

Sighing, he sits back and speaks into his mic. ‘Sorry, Zeke. Gonna have to deal with something.’

Zeke’s cursing is as inventive as ever, but Hardison’s guild gets that he needs to be gone when something comes up. They think he’s some kind of agent. He’s heard them talk about it when they think he’s already signed off.

Now, he shakes himself out of gaming mode and pulls up Quinn’s message. Apparently, the man needs to talk.

‘If this is some kinda joke Eliot’s put you up to, I swear to the gods of little Hackers, I am going to find a way to hang the both of you off of a building,’ he mutters to his screen, but his fingers are already flying, setting up a secure line to the contact details Quinn has supplied.

A few moments later, the hitter’s face takes over Hardison’s screen, the usual smirk dialled down until the guy looks almost sincere. Bad sign. Hardison goes still.

‘What you gotta tell me, Quinn?’

Quinn narrows his eyes. ‘Where’s Eliot? He should hear this.’

‘I’ll be sure and tell him.’

With a shake of his head, Quinn glances away and back. He looks wary.

‘Fine. But you get this to him quick, you hear me?’

Hardison opens his mouth to remind Quinn only Eliot gets to speak to him like he’s a poorly trained dog, but Quinn’s tension is clear. Whatever this is, it’s serious. Hardison nods.

‘I’ve been hearing rumours,’ Quinn says, voice low and intense. ‘Didn’t pay them much mind at first. There’s always that kind of rumour flying around. Only a source I trust confirmed this one’s real. Someone has a contract out on a long-haired, white man with a Southern accent.’

Hardison’s brain freewheels for a moment. Which is to say, multiple references and comments spin about, but he isn’t immediately presented with a solid option to share with the world. He pulls a face and part-shrugs instead.

‘An assassin turned retrieval specialist,’ Quinn goes on, and when he isn’t being smug and cocky, it’s easier to think of him as being in the same field as Eliot. ‘It’s a hit on a guy who sounds a lot like me. And a lot like someone else we know. You following me?’

If Eliot were here, Hardison would turn and check on him, just to reassure himself his man is fine. But Eliot isn’t here. Eliot left before dawn to drive the six hours to his buddy’s place, and Hardison hasn’t heard from him since.

‘Say again?’ He needs to check he heard right, and he needs Parker. ‘Parker! Come hear what Quinn’s saying.’

Parker is by his side before the sentence is over, even though she was nowhere in sight.

When Quinn repeats his information, Parker’s face shifts. She was already in planning mode, but this is a step up in focus.

‘It’s another two hours until check in time,’ she says, and taps the comm in her ear. ‘Eliot?’ she asks. There’s no reply. Parker tenses, reaching out and setting a hand on Hardison’s shoulder. ‘Why isn’t he answering? Where is he?’

Hardison stares at the data on his secondary screen, a sick, worming feeling already writhing in his belly. Every piece of Eliot’s tech is offline.

‘I don’t know.’

***

Giles Corey was crushed to death by rocks, placed one at a time on his chest by people determined to see witches in Salem.

Eliot read The Crucible way back, sitting in the same class as Aimee and thinking more about hiding away in the barn on her daddy’s land than he was about injustice and torture in the past.
Still, he’d felt sick at the thought of a guy having to choose death like that, at how deliberate it was, how cruel.

He’s learned since that most everyone resists torture. The urge to spit in the tormenter’s face is stronger than the one to fold. Something else he's learned: isolation can be harder to take than a beating.
Down here in the dark, he catches the thoughts that try to bloom like mushrooms, the ones that try to conjure up what might have been. He won’t allow them. Better that Parker and Hardison never know how Eliot really feels. Better he never had the chance to ruin things by trying to be more than he should be. He’s had years of family and friendship, of a belonging and a purpose he thought he’d never get. It’s been enough. It has to have been enough.

The weight of the earth keeps building, and with every new shovelful, Eliot wonders if his ribs will crack, because there comes a time when the only hope is that it’s over.

***

Parker pulls up in a car that looks like it’s about to go to warp. Hardison doesn’t ask where she got it. The last signal from Eliot’s earbud came from Bellingham. Anything that can cut the time that takes to reach is a-okay by him.

He drops his bags in the trunk and hardly has his ass in the seat before Parker slams the car forward. She’s glaring out at the road as though she will tear it up with her hands if it doesn’t compact itself, drawing Bellingham closer.

‘We’ll find him, Mama,’ he tells her, wishing that didn’t taste like lying. ‘We’ll find him and we’ll get him back.’

‘I know,’ Parker says, but her knuckles on the steering wheel are white and she doesn’t glance away from the road.

Hardison pulls his tablet out of its case and continues his part of this. By the time they make it to Bellingham, he wants to have access to everything in that town. Whoever has stolen Eliot, Hardison and
Parker are going to make them give him back.

***

Some air still makes it through to him, the dirt around his head loose enough that he can’t calculate whether lack of oxygen or weight of earth will end him. The only reason he knows anyone is still out there is the patter-thud of dirt and the slow increase in pressure. People have survived for days under hundreds of pounds of weight. Others have died within minutes. Given the choice, he’d rather go out quick.

There’s a twinge of guilt at that, a feeling that he’s turning his back on his duty, but he pushes the feeling down. Nothing he can do now but wait.

He doesn’t want either of them to see his body, anyway. It’ll bring back too many memories of Hardison in that coffin.

With the blood pounding in his ears, it takes him longer than it should do to realise there’s been no new dirt for at least a minute. The spike in his heart-rate isn’t helping him, and he deliberately sets his mind into something close to a meditative state, or as near as he can come to it right now. There. Calmer. Quieter in his own skin. Definitely no noise above. No more dirt. They can’t have put it all back, not every shovel he dug up. Which means, for whatever reason, they’ve left him here with enough earth pressing him down to leave him alive. For now. Explains the manacles. They want him to lie here in the ground.

He’s going to suffocate in the dark, knowing he’s leaving Hardison and Parker, knowing they’re unguarded. He’s going to have time to think about what comes next, and what he’s going to be paying for. He’s going to die alone.

It feels like a worn thought, but he pushes that aside. He wouldn’t be rethinking conclusions he already reached. He’s sharper than that. Smarter.

For a long time, he accepted his early death as simple fact. No point getting weepy over it. Someone like Eliot, they took a bullet or caught a knife wound and they bled out someplace their body might not be found for weeks, and the few people who might have felt some sadness at their passing never knew about it. As far as peace could be made with such a fate, he made it.

Comes as something of a shock to find he’s stopped being peaceable about it.

Flexing his hands, feeling the dirt push back against even that movement, he considers his options. The men set to bring him here could still be out there, waiting, making sure he keeps to his end of the bargain. Eliot follows instructions or innocent people die. Kids. He was told to lie in this grave, and he did it, but no way will he get away with a technicality like that. If he fights his way up and out, and the guards are still there, still able to pass that information on to whoever is on the other end of the comms…

Eliot can’t be the cause of kids dying.

He doesn’t know the guys are gone. He doesn’t know they’re still there. Any attempt to get out of this is gambling with the lives of kids.

Eliot shifts his body, feeling how much movement he has, how much give. Without the metal, he wouldn’t be in too much trouble. There can’t be more than a couple of feet of dirt, rather than the amount there should be. The…the torque around his throat is the biggest issue, the sharp ends firmly burrowed into the ground so any movement means garrotting himself.

Parker and Hardison won’t know where he is. Eliot’s earbud was smashed in front of him, his phones taken, his body checked for any tracking device at all. Far from the worst thing he’s gone through, but not pleasant, even so. The worst part is the thought of his team, his family, not knowing where to look for him. They’ll know he hasn’t walked away from them. They will.

Right?

Right. By now, there can’t be much space for doubt on that score. Not unless they think he’s run off as some way of protecting them. And maybe that’s worse than the pair of them knowing Eliot’s corpse is rotting someplace. Maybe.

He isn’t supposed to be thinking about them. He remembers deciding not to let them be buried in the dark.

He turns his attention to himself instead. As he moves through a process of tensing and relaxing each muscle group, from his toes up, feeling out any injuries and keeping himself near-meditative at the same time, Eliot runs over the events that brought him here.

A trip to visit an old buddy asking for some help. Nothing major. More the kind of thing an honest guy might help out with. And a chance to see how little Maisie is growing up. Just him, leaving Parker and Hardison back in Portland planning out the next job. Arriving in Bellingham to find Jed’s house wearing signs of a fight and blood splatter revealing it hadn’t ended well. Reaching up to tap his earbud on, only to be stopped by a man stepping into view, wearing an earpiece and holding up a tablet showing Maisie with a knife at her throat.

So, his team knows he was in Bellingham. They’ll have some idea how far he could have been taken since. It’s been hours since he found himself ambushed, since he was shown the kids with Jed in that room and told what would happen if he made any attempt to disobey.

Did he still have his comms on him at that point? It’s getting harder to think.

His chest feels tight. Lot of things can cause that, from lung trauma to cyanide. He finds himself cataloguing his body’s responses, feeling his breaths shorten and sweat prickle on his skin. Eliot doesn’t panic. He doesn’t. But the feelings are close enough to times he used to panic that it takes conscious effort to reassure himself he hasn’t lost his calm. Keeping control of himself means knowing how his body reacts, and he notes the subtle differences, wades through thoughts thick like sludge to a conclusion. Not a panic attack. So. This is hypoxia setting in. He’s already running out of time.

Think, damn it. If he had the earbud when he was shown the kids, then Hardison would have that location. Even if he hadn’t been listening in, he’d check for a recording. Had Eliot tapped the earbud to record?

The wheezing in his chest catches on a cough. There’s still some air getting to him, but it’s too little; the small space around his mouth will be more carbon dioxide than anything. Eliot’s been denied his breath before, and he’s gotten through it. At least this time freezing water isn’t involved, but he’d far rather be beaten than suffocated.

Probably not the best thing he has opinions on which torture he prefers.

At some point, he had the information on how long a person typically survived this kind of thing, but just now any attempt at thinking of times slithers away. He doesn’t even know how long he’s been down here in the dark earth, breathing his death.

They’ll have noticed he’s missing by now, his team. Parker likes him to check in when he’s away on a side-mission, even if it’s just to help an old friend move house or repair a fence. He struggles to catch hold of the time he reached Jed’s, of any sense of how long he’s been in his grave. Was it early morning when he reached the house? Or was that when he left Portland?

A cough wells up in his throat, and he can’t stifle it. His hands strain against their restraints and his back arcs the fraction of an inch it can manage, the cough turning into a fit that leaves him dizzy and sick. Pain prickles across his skin, over his chest and his back, the strain on his body too much.

If he could calculate the time, if he could be sure about his earbud, he’d be able to assess the risk to those kids. Because Parker and Hardison wouldn’t let kids die. They’d save them, get them someplace away from whichever bastard planned this. And Eliot could try and claw out of here.

But he can’t. Can’t grasp a sense of time, can’t be sure enough to try it, possibly can’t get out of here now anyway.

Another coughing fit takes over, feeling like rocks have been stuffed into his lungs, and his body’s spasms press his throat into the torque.

This fit is brief. It leaves him wrung out and his breathing shallow and scraping. The skin across his throat stings.

Even with his mind fogged, Eliot’s not stupid. If he’s going to make an attempt to get out of this, if he’s going to risk being so wrong about how long it’s been and about his people having the kids safe, then he has to do it now. Already, he’s weakened, and he hasn’t got anything like the leverage he needs. Getting his hands near his throat to unpin his neck will mean having to move much more than he’s managed so far.

He has a hazy memory of thinking he needed to stall. But he remembers knowing he’ll die, too, and if only he could get a clean breath of air, if only he could clear this fog from his head, he’d remember if that conclusion was because his team would take too long to get to Bellingham from Portland, or whether he didn’t think they were coming at all.

His chances of being able to claw out of this grave are slim, but it’s uncertainty that makes his decision. He can’t be sure of the threat level to those children. There are too many factors that’ll mean a room full of small corpses.

A meditative state will give him the chance to survive a bit longer. Be easier, in a lot of ways, to get dying over with, but he can’t do that to them. To his family. He can be sure they’ll look for him. He has to decrease the possibility that they’ll be finding a body. He doesn’t want them to find his body.

Hasn’t he already tried meditating? He must have slipped out of it. Hardison would go on about Eliot not being as zen as the claimed if he knew. Parker would prod him. Eliot’s wearing a whole bunch of bruises she’d love to poke right now, and he’d scowl and tell her off and hide away any sign he wanted her to touch him in other ways.

He shouldn’t think about Parker like that. Hardison, either. He shouldn’t be thinking about them at all, down here in the ground.

His chest is tight. He was meant to be trying something, but he can’t remember what. Hardison would laugh at Eliot for being forgetful. He would… He would…

God. Eliot just wants to hold them both, to tell them he loves them. Right now, he can’t gather his thoughts enough to think why he never has.

He needs air. Why hasn’t he got enough air? Why can’t he move?

Hardison will joke about… about… And Parker…

His whole body convulses with a coughing fit, and the last of his thoughts fracture into nothing.

***

They leave a trail of unconscious men and corrupted tech behind them, the fierce look on Parker’s face something Hardison thinks might be echoed on his own. Eliot has taught them plenty over the years, and even though neither one of them is in his league, they know a lot more about putting someone on the ground than they did back on that first job.

They also know a lot more about working in concert to take down people considered untouchable by almost everyone else.

Nate and Sophie help from a distance, advising and playing roles over the phone, and they’ve only been in Bellingham for a couple of hours by the time they’re watching Jed and the kids being bundled into ambulances.

Parker stands the other side of the carpark with her shoulder pressing against Hardison’s, her arms folded across her chest as though she’s holding herself in.

‘We never told him,’ she said.

‘Told him what?’ he asks, but he’s pretty sure he knows.

‘We thought he might run, so we didn’t tell him.’

The tablet bleeps, announcing the last of the stolen files are ready to view. Hardison brings up the first one and feels Parker lean in so she can look, too. The screen glows bright in the darkness, and that’s the reason Hardison has to swipe a hand across his eyes to clear them.

‘We’ll find him,’ he says, feeling fiercer each time he says it,’ and we’ll tell him. We won’t let him run away.’

Not that either of them would bind Eliot someplace he didn’t want to be. That’s not the same as letting the man stomp off in a rage because he can’t accept being loved.

The third video shows Eliot on his back in the dirt. It takes a few moments for Hardison to process exactly what is going on, but when he does, he wants to throw up.

Parker makes a noise that shows she’s seen it. It’s an angry, pained sound, and Hardison never wants to hear it again.

‘They’re burying him,’ Parker says.

The timestamp is one of the scariest things Hardison has ever seen. Now he has this, it only takes a few seconds to work out the location.

‘They buried him,’ he tells Parker. ‘Hours ago. We’re gonna need something that can drive off-road.’

***

Parker drops the last guard, her usual fierce joy at using her taser turned hard and unyielding by Eliot’s plight.

‘He has to be close,’ she says.

Makes sense. Why guard a clearing with nobody in it? It’s almost full dark by now, and they scan the ground as quickly as they can, Hardison using a light and Parker using, well, being Parker. She’s the one who finds it.

‘Hardison!’

She’s on her knees and scooping dirt, and Hardison lands next to her, his heartrate up and his breathing jagged. They’ve buried him. They’ve buried Eliot. There’s knowing and there’s seeing. Seeing the freshly dug earth is worse than being punched. It’s far, far worse. It dredges up thick air he can’t breathe and darkness smothering him, and his skin is slick with sweat.

‘Hardison. Alec!’

Parker’s voice jolts him into movement, the memory of darkness and earth pressing all around him sending him from unmoving to frantic action.

‘It’s shallower here,’ Parker says, and directs him to help her shift the dirt at one end.

Hardison feels his heart lurch when his fingers touch something soft and tangled. Hair. Eliot’s hair.

‘Eliot?’ he asks, even though no way would Eliot be letting anyone touch his hair if he were awake. At the very least, he wouldn’t let them get away with it quietly. ‘El, hang on. We’re here. We got you.’

The lack of response is terrifying, but Hardison keeps clearing dirt until they have Eliot’s head free, until Parker presses her fingers against Eliot’s pulse.

‘Does..? Is he..?’ Hardison can’t get his worry out into words. Eliot’s eyes are closed. He looks like he’s sleeping. But people don’t always die with their eyes open.

Parker doesn’t answer at first. When she does, the tightness in her voice is stark. ‘I’ve got a pulse. But it’s weak and fast. Really weak. And…’She growls, low in her throat, a sound people probably shouldn't be able to make. ‘There’s something round his throat.’

The torque is something Hardison will try to forget. The restraints on Eliot’s wrists and ankles aren’t pleasant to see, but he’s seen Eliot chained up before. He’s never seen his man pinned to the ground this way.

‘We don’t know how long he’s been in there for,’ Hardison points out. ‘He won’t have been getting enough oxygen.’

‘Get what he needs,’ Parker says, no doubt in her tone that Hardison can find out what that is and get hold of it. ‘We’re taking him home.’

***

Eliot jolts awake. He’s groggy. His chest and his head hurt. What he isn’t, is buried under dirt. Not much of the time after the earth covered him is clear. He remembers wanting something, desperately. Probably air. To be free of the ground. A niggling sense that he’s lying to himself is harder to shove down than usual, but he manages.

He doesn’t recognise the bed he’s in at first, but the framed posters on the walls and the scale models of spaceships clue him in.

‘Hardison?’ Eliot tries to shout. It comes out as a croak. He swallows and finds he needs to take a few breaths. For a moment, the sensation of a cold line across his throat is overwhelming, and he lifts a hand to check there’s nothing there, no metal holding him down.

He uses the time to work through what he can remember. He’s got nothing on being found, but flashes of being in some vehicle and of being carried into a building do come back to him. Not the Brewpub. They must have stopped someplace to treat him before heading back home. He remembers not being able to breathe, even when there must have been air around him. Perhaps better his mind has buried a lot of it.

And that is not a word he likes the feel of, not just yet. Maybe never.

‘You’re awake.’

As usual, Eliot hears no footsteps to signal Parker’s arrival, but when he opens his eyes, she’s there at the foot of the bed, looking wary.

‘Yeah,’ he offers.

She nods, like he’s said everything that needs saying, even though there’s no reason to have put him in Hardison and Parker’s bed. He’s got his own down the hall. Before he can ask about that, she’s gone, returning shortly after with Hardison and a glass of water.

‘I get thirsty when I’ve been stuck in a small space for ages,’ she says, matter-of-factly.

They sit on either side of the bed as he sits up and drinks the water, the trembling in his limbs irritating him. They don’t say anything about him spilling drops of water onto the covers.

‘Man, I am going to get you one of those implants,’ Hardison bursts out at last, miming shooting something into the back of his own neck. ‘You got any idea how worried we were? I damn near lost half my weight just sweating with worry.’

‘No more solo missions without back-up,’ Parker announces.

Eliot scowls. ‘It wasn’t a mission, was it? I went to help the guy put up a shed.’

He’s relieved to hear they got Jed out, and his kid. And the other kids.

‘And you just got right on into that grave and got yourself stretched out ready,’ Hardison says, taking the now empty water glass from Eliot and setting it down on the nightstand. Without a coaster. ‘I am going to have nightmares about that, Eliot. You ain’t supposed to help the bad guys.’

Hardison’s hand pats at the covers over Eliot’s knee as he says it, and Eliot resists the impulse to take hold of that hand and keep it there. Trapping Hardison into an intimacy he doesn’t mean is firmly on the list of things Eliot won’t do. Not even if he wants it, for one fierce, burning moment, as desperately as he wanted air in that grave.

They’re close, the three of them, but they aren’t…that. Instead, he protests Hardison’s words, a familiar bickering rhythm that only falters a little whenever he has to stop to take a breath or for the newest wave of dizziness to pass.

He falls asleep partway through telling Hardison exactly how much easier it’d be to kill him than to kill Eliot, and he’ll go back into the ground before he tells them how much he likes knowing they’re keeping him safe.

***

It’s two days before they let him get out of bed for more than a bathroom break.

‘I can walk, damn it,’ he grouches, trying to brush off Hardison’s attempts to hold his arm as they head into the main room.

Parker snorts. ‘I told him that.’

She doesn’t make any attempt to hop down from the back of the chair she’s perched on to make Hardison let go, and she doesn’t say anything that’ll make him back off, either. Instead, she watches with a slightly furrowed brow as Hardison guides Eliot to the chair and insists he sits there.

Eliot is about to argue. There’s no need for him to sit in the same chair Parker’s using. He can choose his own damn seat! But his breath hitches and he lands in the chair more heavily than he’d intended as yet another coughing fit takes hold.

Black dots crowd the edges of his vision and he feels a thick buzzing in his head. His chest is tight. Air hurts.

‘Take your time,’ Parker says, and her legs are either side of Eliot’s shoulders, her hands smoothing over his hair. ‘You’ve got loads of air. And we’re here. Steady breaths. Don’t force them.’

If the air in his lungs hadn’t turned to hard lumps, Eliot would tell her to get off him. It’s been years since he genuinely disliked her touching him, but he locked down any ideas he could act on that just about as soon as he realised the desire was there. Too late to dig that up now.

Hardison crouches in front of the chair, looking up at Eliot with those warm, expressive eyes that Eliot will never let himself stare into the way he’d like.

‘We’re both here, El,’ he says, resting his hand on Eliot’s knee again. It’s like he’s forgotten they don’t do that, the number of times it’s happened since Eliot got back. ‘Right here. You ain’t in that hole. You’re home. You’re safe.’

Hardison mustn’t realise he’s stroking circles on Eliot’s thigh, just above the knee.

His breathing steadies, the tightness lessening to the usual background pressure he’s felt since he woke up. Eliot closes his eyes and lets himself have a moment with Parker stroking his hair and Hardison stroking his leg, their hands a weight of a different kind. A kind that makes him feel light and free.

Neither of them has spoken for longer than they normally manage. Parker knows how to be quiet, but expecting both her and Hardison to stay silent for long is a delusion Eliot long since abandoned.

He opens his eyes to find Hardison having some kind of silent conversation with Parker over his head. It’s the kind that’s all eye contact and expressions, and even with only part of Hardison’s side of it, it looks intense.

‘What?’ he asks.

Their hands stop moving. He waits for the contact to end completely, but all that happens is Parker shifts so her legs are pressing against him, and Hardison sets his other hand on Eliot’s other knee.

‘What?’ he asks again. His voice is still scratchy.

‘We got something to say,’ Hardison begins. He pauses, glancing at Parker and back to Eliot. ‘Um. We can leave you alone if you want. I know you need your space, man. But…thing is…we don’t want to leave you alone.’

Eliot just keeps staring at him. He could say that, yeah, he’s noticed. The pair of them haven’t left him on his own since he first woke up, always one of them nearby if not both. He could growl about privacy and being smothered. He doesn’t.

‘Okay, so,’ Hardison says.

‘So…?’ Eliot prompts, when Hardison seems to go into standby.

Parker leans in, sliding her hands down from his head, over his shoulders and onto his chest, where she locks her hands together like a safety harness. Her cheek presses against his. She avoids his throat, doesn’t get too close to his neck at all, and he feels a pulse of relief. The scabbed line where that torque cut into him is something he’s been avoiding looking at in the mirror.

‘We weren’t going to tell you, because we don’t want you to feel trapped,’ she said, apparently missing the irony that she’s chosen to say this whilst wrapped around him.

He would pretend he feels trapped, if he could, but this is nothing like the dirt pushing onto him. It’s nothing like the invisible ropes tying him in place as he watched kids on that screen.

‘What?’ he asks. ‘What weren’t you going to tell me?’

Hope flares. Hope, and fear. Maybe they’ve tried to hold down their feelings, too. Maybe. Or maybe they’re going to say something he’s never even considered. And if they do…care about him, then what? Unpicking the ties that hold their trio in place might send them tumbling apart completely.

‘We don’t want you to panic, man.’ Hardison sounds sincere, the way only Hardison can be. ‘Seriously. You don’t like what you hear, we can deal. You hear me? We just want you to know your options, here.’

The speed of his heartbeat is nothing to do with being crushed right now. Not by anything physical. He glares at Hardison, but all he gets back is warmth and concern.

Parker speaks just as he’s about to tell them he needs to go back to bed.

‘We love you,’ she says.

‘Eliot?’ Hardison asks, concern laced through his voice. ‘You going to cough again?’

Eliot shakes his head. He can’t speak, and his chest is tighter, but it’s not the cough. It takes him several breaths before he can respond.

‘You…?’ Another breath. ‘You love me? Both of you? That’s what…what you needed to say?’

He’s got more, but Hardison moves so he’s kneeling, his hands sliding a little further up Eliot’s thighs. He doesn’t seem to be aware of that.

‘Eliot, before you say anything to make this into a joke or…or a rant or whatever, I need you to hear us. We love you. We’ve loved you for years.’

‘The way we love each other,’ Parker adds, sounding more upbeat. Maybe she expected him to literally get up and run.

‘As in, we want you in our lives, man, and in our relationship, and in our bed.’

‘He’s already been sleeping in our bed,’ Parker points out.

‘Yeah, but with us in it, too,’ Hardison says.

Parker nods, the movement nuzzling her cheek against Eliot’s, and he has another reason to catch his breath.

‘Hardison means for sex,’ she tells him, as though he’s the one most likely to miss an implication like that.

‘For…?’

Eliot has got to find a way to speak in sentences again. He’s got to find a way to focus properly on what is happening, because Hardison’s hands are warm and Parker is pressed up so close and sex might be beyond him for a few days yet, but that doesn’t mean all of him is on board with a delay.

‘Parker,’ Hardison says, and her weight disappears.

Eliot makes a noise low in his throat and can’t even bring himself to care. Parker appears next to Hardison, who takes his hands off Eliot and stands. The two of them look down at him, looking unsure of themselves.

‘You okay?’ Hardison asks. ‘Do you want us to go, give you some space? Pretend we never said anything? You need to shout?’

‘I…’ Eliot closes his eyes, taking hold of his thoughts and reaching for those ideas, those desires, that he buried and walked away from. He worked too hard on that to simply pull them all up into the light now, as though his team, his family, haven’t just shifted the ground beneath his feet with a few words.

Of course, it took a long time to work out how he felt, and a long time to cover it all up. He doesn’t have to do this all in one go.

Opening his eyes, he sees worry on their faces, and that won’t do at all. He’s meant to protect them, to defend them, and he can’t promise he’ll stop ranting or telling Hardison he’s being a geek or wincing at some of the things Parker eats, but he can show them he doesn’t feel trapped by this.

Some words are more frightening than any amount of death threats, but in this, they can all keep each other safe.

Eliot lets what he’s feeling show on his face. The smile feels soft and warm and freeing.

‘Let’s start with something simple,’ he says, and pulls Parker down onto his lap.

The kiss is gentle, without heat. There’ll be time for heat later. It is full of tenderness and safety and belonging, and Eliot has never felt less trapped in his life.

‘Simple can be good,’ Hardison says, sounding slightly dazed and happy about it.

Eliot holds out the hand that isn’t holding the back of Parker’s head and feels Hardison take it. He drops the guard he’s had up around them, the one that’s kept him from crossing a line it turns out wasn’t there.

Parker weighs nothing at all in his lap, and Hardison’s hand is a lifeline. Eliot feels too much to put into words, and he makes no attempt at all to bury it.

Instead, he pulls back from Parker and takes a moment, eyes closed and breathing a little too deep for his current state. Okay, so…anything athletic is going to have to wait, for sure.

‘Did I break him?’ Parker asks.

Eliot opens his eyes to find Parker with her right hand poised to poke his shoulder, an assessing expression on her face. He lets go of Hardison and catches her wrist.

‘Not broken, Sweetheart,’ he says, feeling the tug of a part lie. But it’s true that Parker hasn’t caused the cracks. ‘Just…’

He pauses. Eliot’s never told them everything. One of the reasons he feels safe with them is that they let him keep his secrets hidden away. This isn’t a secret, his love for them. He didn’t really think he’d kept it from them completely, of course he didn’t, but aiming to say it out loud still feels like prising something precious from stone-baked earth.

‘All the time you need, El,’ Hardison reminds him.

Eliot laughs, then, a small, almost disbelieving thing. That he’s here with one of the people he loves on his knee and the other making sure Eliot isn’t rushed is the stuff of fantasy. Hell, just having Hardison slow down and cut the jabbering for Eliot’s benefit is a declaration of love.

Parker frowns. She makes no move to pull her wrist from Eliot’s grip, but she moves her hand as though she’s imagining moving a dial.

‘You sure we didn’t break him? Just a bit?’ she asks.

‘’Nah, girl,’ Hardison says. ‘My brain kinda short-circuited the first time we kissed. Give him a minute to reboot.’

‘Rebooting is like resting,’ Parker says, apparently to inform Eliot. She slides off his knee, not reacting to the hitch in his breathing, pulling him slightly forwards until he thinks to let go of her wrist. Parker wiggles the fingers of that hand at him. ‘Come on. Bed is for resting.’

Hardison just grins when Eliot looks at him.

Their bed has taken on a whole new meaning in the last ten minutes, but all Parker does is make Eliot get under the covers and lie back against a pile of pillows. Hardison tucks the covers over Eliot.

‘Just gotta check,’ Hardison says, as Parker adjust the blinds to dim the room again, ‘you ain’t panicking in there, right? Coming up with all kinds of reasons you don’t deserve love or anything?’

There’s something about the intonation of that sentence that makes Eliot hear the ghost of another one. Hardison is leaving one question unasked and Eliot knows he hasn’t said he loves them back. Not yet. He still doesn’t seem to have the words dug up. But actions have always been his wheelhouse.

Eliot pats the space beside him. They’ve put him right in the middle and it’s a big bed.

‘Come here,’ he says. ‘Both of you.’

Eliot has never much liked being hemmed in. He forced himself to deal with his claustrophobia all those years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s keen on being restricted. After the…after what happened in that clearing, he half expects to be twitchy as they settle beside him, their shoulders not quite touching his. Parker slides her hand into his and Eliot squeezes it.

There’s no twitchiness. Eliot doesn’t feel any urge to run. To his surprise, he finds there’s too much space between them.

‘You, um, you want to be a bit…closer?’ he asks.

Parker makes a happy noise and snuggles up, resting her head on his shoulder. Hardison is slower, but his weight and his warmth pressing along Eliot’s side feels like an essential piece clicking into place.

The bed is soft beneath him, his partners’ warmth soaking into him at the points of contact, and there’s almost no sound. Eliot hears not just his own breaths, but Hardison’s and Parker’s, too.

Parker shifts against him, tucking her chin onto his upper arm, and that’s something else he’s not let himself think about: how lithe and toned and flexible she is.

‘Hardison hasn’t had his kiss,’ Parker says.

It takes a moment or two to process that. Eliot has to drag his mind back from thoughts that are only inappropriate now in timing, and not in their entirety.

‘She’s right,’ Hardison agrees. ‘But I can wait. Or, you know, if you only want to kiss Parker, I can deal.’

But Eliot has waited long enough. They all have.

His heartbeat picks up as he squeezes Parker’s hand again and turns his head towards Hardison.

‘Kinda tucked in a little tight, here,’ he says.

Hardison grins and rolls closer, lifting himself so he’s slightly above Eliot. It wouldn’t take much more before he’d be lying on top of Eliot, which is a thought he carefully takes and folds into the same space in his mind where he’s keeping thoughts of the ways Parker can move. Plenty of time for that when he’s got enough breath in him for more than ten seconds of action.

This kiss is warm and slow and ends up deeper than the one he shared with Parker, but it’s just as sweet.

Eliot’s breathless when Hardison draws back, and he doesn’t even protest at the way Hardison strokes along Eliot’s jaw like he can’t quite bring himself to end the moment. Parker works a hand up into Eliot’s hair so he’s being petted by both of them.

He has a lot to think about.

‘Okay?’ Hardison asks.

Eliot can only nod.

‘I think that went well,’ Parker says. ‘Now sleep. Eliot needs to reboot.’

He drifts off with Parker still stroking the hairs at the nape of his neck and Hardison’s hand on his chest. This isn’t how he expected things to go, but he’s good with it.

Most of the way asleep, he realises he has something he needs to say. Hardison might be asleep already and Parker’s movements have been slowing, but Eliot can tell them again when they wake up, and again whenever he wants to. He’ll tell them the ways he’s always told them, by protecting them and cooking for them and caring for them in all the ways he knows how, and he’ll tell them in the ways he thought he never would, through kisses and through touches and through any kind of physical pleasure they want to share with him. And he’ll tell them with words, words he finally has ready.

‘I love you,’ he says, the words only a little slurred.

Parker makes a drowsy, happy noise and somehow manages to wriggle even closer. Hardison is as close as he was during their kiss. Here, with his partner’s creating a shield to either side of him, Eliot lets go of some of his need for control, and sleeps.