Hardison almost dies, and Parker leaves town.
“Baby,” he says on her voicemail, his voice a raggedy ruin, “it’s Alec, can you please—” and she hangs up because she doesn’t want, she does not want, any more messages from Alec-all-frayed when she knows she was seconds away from listening to that person die in a shallow grave. She wants arrogant, gentle, easy, alive Hardison, and she’s fucked up but she’s not so fucked up that she doesn’t understand that’s not okay to want right now.
(One time Hardison said to her, I like how you turned out. She thinks about that a lot. She thinks it’s maybe only true because she has the rest of the team around her. Then she’s pissed at the idea that they’ve changed her. They haven’t changed her. It’s just.)
She deletes his voicemail, and the next one, and the next one. She texts Eliot “I’m on a job, go see Hardison” and throws her phone in the river and figures out a job.
Alec asked her one time, while he was tracing the line of her sternum and she was feeling luxuriant, if she ever thought about Eliot like that.
“No?” she said, which she figured was the right answer. It wasn’t the true answer, but it was the true answer for the question she was pretty sure he was really asking, which was does she choose Eliot instead of him.
“Okay.” Alec’s voice was so low she almost couldn’t hear it, even though he was propped up on one elbow right by her ear. So maybe she gave the wrong answer after all.
“Why, have you?” she asked.
She happened to look up as she said it, so she happened to see the way Alec’s face went carefully blank, like how he looked in the seconds of switching between being himself and playing a role for the job. His hand stuttered on her collarbone.
“Eliot doesn’t— He likes girls.”
Parker wriggled her shoulders to remind Alec of what he was doing. They hadn’t had sex yet then, but they’d started sleeping in the same bed, and she liked—likes—how Alec touched her the way she told him and didn’t try to make it anything else. He had pretty fingers. She never used to watch him type but now she sometimes watched him type and thought about him touching her with those fingers, exactly like this, careful strokes up and down between her breasts.
“What do you like?” she asked.
“You,” said Alec, and he smiled at her, that distractingly pretty smile.
But she was a good thief, and she could focus on more than one thing at once: the way he made her feel like she was dissolving into bubbles, and the slow drag of his fingers on her skin, and if his heart skipped and turned over like hers did when she thought about losing Eliot. “So if Eliot liked guys—”
Alec wet his lips and lowered his face to her bare shoulder, then guessed that was too much for her (it wasn’t, but she liked him for guessing it might be) and lifted it back up.
She didn’t want to get this wrong, this thing with Alec. Everyone knew Parker was crazy, but he was—not that. He was good at people; he was exceptionally good at her. For the longest time Alec didn’t say anything.
“You can put your head—” she said, tugging at him.
So he put his head down on her shoulder, and she pulled his arm across her stomach and tangled one of her legs up with one of his, so he was lying halfway on top of her. It felt excellent. One of her arms was trapped under him, but she wrapped the other one around him and dug her knuckles into a knot at the back of his neck.
“Mmmmm,” he said, nuzzling her. “Feels good. I don’t want to screw up with you, Parker.”
“Me either,” she said right away. She squeezed her arm around him so he knows she means it. “Is, um, is that why you keep not saying you’re attracted to Eliot?”
Alec’s body jerked the tiniest bit. Finally, he said, “Yeah, maybe.”
“I don’t—” She thought she had it right now. She was pretty close to all the way sure. “I don’t want Eliot instead of you. But maybe it would be good to have both.”
Alec’s shoulders relaxed, and he said, “Okay. Yeah. That’d be good.”
When she lands back in Boston, she picks up a phone at the CVS in the bus station, charges it, and calls Eliot. “I’m back in town,” she says.
There’s a long silence. Then: “You okay?”
“I told you I was on a job.”
“That a yes?”
The inside of her head feels itchy and off-kilter. “Yes.”
Eliot swallows. “Okay, good. Hey, Hardison.”
“No, don’t—” She can hear Hardison in the background, the rumble of his voice. “Don’t put him on the phone,” she says, and her voice almost cracks, but doesn’t quite.
“Okay,” says Eliot, gentle like he’s talking to a kid or a spooked horse. “Okay, darling, I won’t. I’m just going to tell him you’re okay.”
She doesn’t want to look too closely at that darling and how it makes her feel, like warmth spreading from the nape of her neck all the way down her spine, like someone’s just put a heavy hot blanket around her after days in the cold.
“That’s her?” says Hardison’s voice in the background. She hates how he sounds, even muffled by distance and Eliot’s hand over the phone’s microphone. She knows she made him sound like that. She’s been hiding from knowing it ever since she threw her phone in the Charles. Eliot’s voice as he talks to Hardison is a steady whir like gears of a complicated safe clicking open.
“Parker?” says Eliot, into the phone.
“You need me to come get you?”
She’s at the bus station. She’s been sitting there for a couple hours thinking about stealing a car, maybe a police car to make things exciting. “Yes,” she says.
Eliot’s sitting on one of the stools at the kitchen bar in Hardison’s place, his hands beating an uneasy tattoo against the wood counter. Easy as anything, Hardison comes up behind him and slides his arm down Eliot’s, pushing his hand down into stillness. Parker puts her head to one side to watch them. Hardison leans down and tucks his chin into the space between Eliot’s shoulder and neck, nuzzles his mouth against Eliot’s jaw.
“Stop,” says Eliot. He’s frozen still as a prey animal, and the words sound like they’re being ground out of him.
Hardison backs off right away, the way he always does when Parker says no, but there’s this look on his face she doesn’t think she’s ever seen before. He looks smaller than usual, hurtable. Maybe that’s how he looked when Parker didn’t answer his voicemails. She wants to punch Eliot in his face for making Hardison look like that. He takes a sip of whiskey.
“Tell her,” he says.
“I told you,” says Hardison, “it ain’t like that, man.”
Eliot clenches his jaw. “Fine, I’ll tell her.”
“Eliot slept in the bed with me last night.” Hardison makes his hands do a frustrated kind of ta-da!
Parker shrugs one shoulder. “And?”
“And?” Eliot gets up so fast and so hard the stool slams into Hardison’s legs, and Eliot doesn’t even notice. “And, I made a pass at your boyfriend, that’s what and. While he was all—”
“Quit it,” says Hardison.
“—you know—sad.” Eliot spits out the word like it’s an insult.
“Because of me,” Parker points out.
Hardison catches her eye. “Naw, look—”
“Doesn’t matter why,” says Eliot firmly. “Wasn’t right. And yeah, since we’re talking about it, it was because of you. Why the hell’d you text me and not him, huh?”
When Parker looks over at Hardison, that’s when she figures out that he wants to know the answer too. That he doesn’t already know, even though she thought it was obvious. “So you wouldn’t be alone,” she says to him. “Even though I had to be.”
“Okay,” says Hardison. “Okay. That’s good, it was good being with Eliot. But just—tell me that next time. I was scared something happened to you, okay?”
“Okay,” Parker agrees. She goes to him and tips up her face to be kissed. When that’s done she looks around, relieved, for Eliot. He looks— His face is just— He looks like somebody’s split him open right down the middle, like he’s been shot in the gut and it’s too soon after the shot for it to hurt, but not too soon to understand he’s gonna die.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” says Hardison. He lets go of Parker and heads for Eliot, his hands out to touch, but Eliot swats him away.
“I ain’t something you can hand around when you feel like it,” he snarls at them. “If it’s gonna be like that, I’m out, I’m off the team, you can find yourself another hitter, because I ain’t—” He lets out a shaky breath, and Parker thinks it’s going to be okay, that they can talk about this, but he just shakes his head and shoves past Hardison and out of the apartment.
“Hell,” says Hardison.
Tears prick at Parker’s eyes. She feels exhausted, and she wants to just lie down next to Hardison and burrow into his solid warm chest and sleep for a week. But she can’t do that. She’s done enough running away for one month.
“What happened when I was gone?” she asks.
Hardison gives a small, helpless shrug, one shoulder jerking forward just a bit. “S’like he said. I was sad.”
She throws herself at him in a ferocious hug, and he catches her, because he always catches her, even though it rocks him back. They melt into each other, her face buried in his neck, his arms tight around her. Not dead, not buried and suffocated. She doesn’t know how to do without him and she doesn’t have to do without him.
Eventually she lets go, slides down his body back onto her own feet, and looks up at him expectantly. “You were sad,” she prompts.
“Woman,” says Hardison affectionately.
“You were sad, and?”
“And I told Eliot I didn’t want to spend the night alone.” Hardison ducks his head. “I missed you. So he stayed.”
She doesn’t expect how nice it makes her feel to picture the two of them wrapped up together in bed. Hardison loves lying half on top of her, his head pillowed on her shoulder, and maybe it was like that with Eliot too, Eliot’s long hair messy across the pillow and his hand folded into Hardison’s and resting on his chest. She shakes her head to clear it.
“He was—sweet,” says Hardison.
The way he talks, it’s like he’s expecting her to be surprised, but she’s not surprised. She knows Eliot can be sweet, because he’s sweet with her, for an Eliot definition of sweet. Protective. The way a parachute protects you, not like locks and safes.
“Did he really make a pass at you?” asks Parker.
Hardison smiles at her. He looks so happy she can’t figure out why she ever wanted to be somewhere that he was not. Also, she doesn’t know what to do with someone looking that happy because of her, so she heads to the kitchen to look for a snack. She shoulder-checks him as she goes, so he knows she still loves him.
A raid of the pantry turns up a jar of peanut butter and a two-thirds empty box of graham cracker sticks. She swings herself up on the counter and opens the peanut butter.
“Who says make a pass at?” Hardison’s still smiling, leaning against the kitchen door frame. She sweeps her eyes up and down him, because she likes the way he looks, and he likes that she likes it.
“I guess Eliot,” she says with her mouth full. She thinks it is about three percent likely that Eliot made a pass at Hardison, because Eliot shows he’s interested and then waits for people to come to him. Which is what Hardison did with her. Which is why if they, she and Hardison, want to bring Eliot into their circle of two, they have to be the ones to ask.
Before she can think too much about it, she says “I’m sorry I left.”
Hardison’s eyes flick up to hers. He has enormous eyes. Like a Disney princess. And she left him alone without saying anything, and she didn’t sent Eliot until later.
“I know you—” She has to stop and clear her throat. “I know you needed someone there. Because of—”
“Parker, I wouldn’t ask you—”
“No, stop that,” she says. “I know. I mean, I get it. You wouldn’t ask me to ever do anything I couldn’t do.”
“Yeah,” says Hardison.
“But I still left you.”
Hardison bites his lower lip, doesn’t say anything.
“You should,” says Parker, “be with someone who can—”
“Whoa.” Hardison pushes himself off the door frame and into the kitchen, so he can wrap his arms around her. When she hugs him back, the peanut butter falls onto the ground, with a noise loud enough that Hardison startles at it. He always has broader shoulders than she remembers.
I love you, she thinks, and she does, she does, she does. It’s just that she’s fucking terrible at loving anyone. She’s good at stealing things. Maybe she stole Hardison, a little bit. Making him think she was something other than what she is.
“You don’t decide that for me,” Hardison says, muffled, against her shoulder. “You don’t decide what I want.”
When he pulls away, his eyes are extra-bright. She takes his face in her hands. “I’m not good at taking care of people. Eliot’s good at that, but I’m just—”
“Baby,” says Hardison.
“I’m just not. And I won’t ever be, even if you need me to be. Even if that’s what you need.”
Hardison closes his hands around her wrists, very gently. “You told me how to breathe underground. You sent Eliot over when you blew town. That is taking care of me. Tell me you’re leaving next time, we’ll be all good.”
She tilts her head so their foreheads are resting together. Slowly, slowly, he relaxes. She can feel it where her little fingers touch his neck, how the tension bleeds out of him, until he’s halfway slumped against her, his head resting on her shoulder.
“Okay, mister,” she says, eventually. “Let’s get you into bed.”
Hardison sighs and lets go of her. She jumps down from the counter, puts the peanut butter back on the counter, and takes Hardison’s hand. He pulls back. “We need to go talk to Eliot. I tried to tell him how we, uh, that we’re into him, but he didn’t really—”
Suspiciously, Parker peers up into Hardison’s face. “You’re all tired,” she says. “You need to sleep.”
“I’m not tired,” says Hardison, around a yawn. At her skeptical face, he says, “That’s just cause you said tired, everyone yawns when someone says tired. I’m good for it. I’ll go over there.”
“I’ll go.” Parker puts up her chin.
“I don’t even know if he’s gonna let you in.”
Parker narrows her eyes at Hardison, and he grins at her. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, okay.”
He lets her tuck him in before she goes. One secret she does know about Hardison is that he likes when someone fusses over him. She’s not a fusser usually, but she can make noises like one, if she concentrates. Soft pajama pants, water for his bedside table, smoothing her hand over his forehead when he lies down.
“Hey,” he says, in the instant before she shuts the bedroom door.
She knows what he’s going to say, so she beats him to the punch. “I love you.”
Hardison’s eyes go so soft and big and wide.
“Now you say, ‘I know,’” Parker instructs.
He laughs so hard he almost can’t get the words out, and he’s not laughing because she’s funny, he’s laughing because she makes him happy, which is the most confusing and most good thing about Hardison out of everything good and confusing in the world.
Hardison’s right. Eliot won’t let her in. She knocks four times and yells his name twice, but he doesn’t answer. Maybe it was a dumb idea to come here alone. She almost picks the lock, but then one of his neighbors comes by and makes a face at her, and she doesn’t want to cause any problems for Eliot. The building has a fire escape, anyway, which is kinda cheating in Parker’s opinion. She climbs up it and bangs on Eliot’s window until he hears her.
He says something. She can’t hear it, but she thinks it’s go away. When she gets out her glass cutters, he sighs and comes to open the window and lets her clamber inside. “What the fuck, Parker,” he says, but he can’t get any force behind it. She wants to throw herself at him the way she did at Hardison.
“Please don’t be off the team.”
A breath escapes Eliot; it sounds like it hurts. “Okay,” he says.
Okay, yeah, but he still looks the way he looks, and she can’t seem to stop hurting him. Panic is climbing up her throat, and she wishes she’d brought Hardison so it wouldn’t just be—this, them, the tricky mess of being a person with other people. “Did you kiss Hardison?”
Eliot looks down.
“Or he kissed you?” Parker guesses.
“A—” Eliot clears his throat. “Just—a little. He’d been—he was— I dunno. Yeah. A little.”
She wants to kiss Eliot too, to see what it’s like. When she’s seen him kiss people, he’s done this thing where he puts his hands on their waists, really delicately, like he’s holding them with just the tips of his fingers but he’s also ready to take all their weight if he needs to. And then he tips his whole head sideways into the kiss, so his mouth is doing all the taking that his hands aren’t. She wonders if he did that with Hardison.
Too much time has passed since he talked, so she says something: “We talked about having you too. He didn’t think it would be a big deal.”
Eliot’s shoulders hunch. “You talked about having me,” he says.
“You and Hardison.”
“You and Hardison talked about—” Eliot swallows. “You ever think about talking about it with me?”
He’s still, she realizes, angry. It’s hard to tell because he sounds so tired, and because he’s angry all the time, but he’s almost shaking with it. “We’re talking about it with you now,” she says.
Because her voice comes out small, Eliot wipes his anger off his face. He always does that, folds his feelings down down down; she recognizes it because she does it too. Hardison’s just a lot more—easy about his emotions. It’s one of the things about him that makes her feel safe and relaxed, but she’s finding that the opposite thing makes her feel safe and relaxed too, when it’s Eliot.
When Eliot doesn’t say anything else, she flops down onto his couch and looks around his apartment. She hasn’t been here before. It looks really decorated, like someone took trouble over making it look the way it looks, but at the same time it’s not Eliot at all. Like if you were doing what’s wrong with this picture, you’d look in there and realize right away that the wrong thing is Eliot. He was twitchy and nervous at their apartment with Hardison, sure, but he didn’t look like someone had dropped him into completely the wrong place. Parker’s pissed about it, and she’s not sure why or who at.
“Beer?” says Eliot.
“Vodka?” Parker suggests.
Eliot heads out to the kitchen, clinks around with bottles and cabinets, and comes back with a beer for him and a red drink in a martini glass for her. “What’s that?” she says, suspiciously, taking it out of Eliot’s hand and peering at it.
“Raspberry cosmo,” Eliot says. He clinks the top of his beer bottle against the rim of her glass, shakes his hair out of his face, and sits down in the armchair.
“Do you think,” she says, but stalls out.
She takes a sip of the drink. It’s good. Maybe too sweet. “Do you think Hardison’s okay?”
“Yeah, he’s okay,” says Eliot.
“Yeah, but is he going to be okay?”
Eliot leans forward in his chair and rests his elbows on his knees. His hair falls into his face, and Parker thinks about brushing it back. “Yeah. He just—”
“Cause if anything happened to him—” Parker says, interrupting.
Right as she’s saying it, feeling desperate, Eliot looks up and meets her eyes and it’s like, oh. It’s like, oh, wow. Eliot knows. He knows, because he looks the way she feels, thinking about something happening to Hardison. It’s elemental, visceral. She knows if she wanted to right now, she could go over to Eliot, straddle his hips, and kiss him, and he’d fuck her on the floor of the living room. Just that thing between them would be enough, that thing of both of them wanting to burn the world down if it would mean Hardison would be safe.
It’s so much more intimate than sex, in a way.
Eliot feels it too, because he looks away. His voice is rough. “He’s just—”
Even though he doesn’t finish, Parker knows what he means. Hardison’s the youngest of them, but more than that, he’s just, he’s not broken like they are, not the same way, not so broken he couldn’t have a normal life. If he wanted to he could have a normal life, and every job they do with him pulls him further away from that, and it’s not right, maybe, but she’s too selfish to give it up.
“If you ever have to choose who to save,” says Parker.
“Stop,” says Eliot. He presses his beer to his forehead. “I ain’t gonna have to choose.”
“Okay, but if—”
“Stop it, Parker.”
Parker has another few sips of her drink. She waits long enough that Eliot sits back in his chair again, tilts his head back, and shuts his eyes.
“With Moreau,” he says.
Even though he’s not looking at her, Parker freezes. He hasn’t brought up Moreau since it happened. Never talked again about the person he was back then, the things he did. She feels like if she moves or breathes, it’ll be wrong and Eliot won’t be able to say what he needs to.
“You know Hardison made a big thing about—” Eliot swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
“Because Moreau tried to drown him,” says Parker, trying to help.
Eliot’s mouth is trembling, but he clamps his jaw shut over it. When he talks again, his voice sounds steady. He’s always so steady. That’s something he and Hardison have that’s the same, that steadiness like the earth. “And I didn’t pull him out. I didn’t pull him out of the water.”
Yeah, she remembers. Hardison kept saying that Eliot must’ve known he’d be able to get out of the handcuffs. Right, Eliot?, and Eliot didn’t agree or disagree. But she’s worked with people like Moreau before, so she knows that wasn’t the truth.
“Moreau would have killed him if you’d gotten him out of the water.”
That gets Eliot’s head up off the back of the chair. His eyes blaze into her. “Yeah, he would’ve.”
“Because he’d have known you were lying.”
“Yeah,” says Eliot. “Best case. That’s best case.”
Parker shivers. Alec’s face when they took him out of that coffin. He was crying. He was alone down there, crying. She shot holes in the turf to get him air, and if she’d guessed wrong about which way for him to turn, she’d have shot him, but bullet wound is still easier to solve than brain damage from oxygen deprivation, so she knows she chose right, and she knows she did, and she knows that, but—
Eliot’s still staring at her, that way he does, hard, a little too much. She gets off the couch and folds herself up alongside Eliot’s legs, so she can’t see his face. He shifts so her back’s against the chair’s seat, but she can still feel the warmth of his body, this close up. Maybe he always runs warm. That’d be good if he did. Boston winters are too cold for her. Used to be she could just leave when a place got too cold.
“He’d have kept him?” says Parker.
“Maybe,” says Eliot. Now that she can’t see his face, he just sounds comfortingly matter-of-fact.
Eliot doesn’t touch her. She doesn’t rest her cheek against his knee. After a while, it hits her, what he meant by best case. “Oh,” she says. And, bleakly, “Oh.”
“If Moreau knew he was family?”
“No good way out of that,” says Eliot, and he still sounds normal, but a shiver ripples through him, and another one.
Moreau could have kept Hardison. The best hacker in the world plus leverage over Eliot, forever. He could have used Hardison to make Eliot do things. Hurt him. He could have hurt him.
Eliot’s the one that pulled Hardison out of the grave.
Delicately, Parker unfolds herself upward and climbs into Eliot’s lap, tucking her feet into one side of the chair and her ass into the other side. He doesn’t say anything, but he’s shivering for real now, so she knows she was right that he’s not okay, about the grave or the pool or anything, ever, that would put Alec in harm’s way. She curls up, leans her whole weight into his chest, her head tucked onto her knees and under Eliot’s chin.
When she sat on him, Eliot put his arms up, giving her space. Now he brings them back down, very very gently, one resting on her legs, the other on her back. The only part of him that’s moving is the hand on her back, his thumb stroking lightly over her shoulder blade.
She doesn’t like thinking about Eliot with Moreau. She doesn’t like knowing that there’s somebody out there who made Eliot go still and scared. Usually she doesn’t hurt people—that’s his job—but she closes her eyes and imagines slashing a knife across Moreau’s smug face. Across his throat. The wet red mess of blood. She would say don’t ever touch him don’t you ever ever touch him.
Under her, Eliot is breathing heavier than usual. She pushes her body into him harder, and he tightens his arms around her.
“He’s okay,” she says.
She feels Eliot nod, the stubble on his chin a pleasant rasp against the back of her neck.
“And you are too.”
That one’s more of a question, but Eliot doesn’t nod, or say anything. Parker lets a minute tick by, and another minute, and a third one, before she uncurls herself and looks Eliot in the eye. Their faces are really close, and she wants to kiss him. “Come home with us,” she says.
Eliot’s eyes search her face, and she tries to look like whatever it is that he wants, whatever it is that he’s looking for.
“Just,” she says, “just to sleep. Just come home and sleep. Hardison wants you to. Hardison—”
She stops because Eliot’s getting that same look he did before, all gut-shot agony, and she has no idea why. If he would just come the hell back with her, she’d have Hardison there and he’d be able to say this right and Eliot wouldn’t look like that.
When they get back to Hardison’s place, he’s fast asleep like she hoped he’d be, but he wakes up long enough to mumble something affectionate at her as she cuddles up to his back. Over his shoulder, she watches Eliot, a fuzzy uncertain shape in the room as her eyes adjust to the darkness. He’s kneeling down, untying his shoes, one hand raised to the back of his head.
“Hey Alec,” she whispers.
“Mm,” goes Alec.
“Tell Eliot to come to bed.”
“Come to bed, Eliot.” Alec stretches out a hand, and Eliot makes a very soft noise. Something like a sigh or a gasp or a stifled sob, and it hurts her hearing it, but Eliot takes Alec’s hand and lets himself be tugged into bed, Alec’s arm slung over his side.
Alec’s back to sleep right away, but Parker can’t stop thinking that Eliot’s going to leave if she’s not keeping an eye on him. Things are better than they were when he left the apartment, but they’re not good yet, because she didn’t find the right words to make them good. If he can just—know what it’s like, this, the three of them, and if he can just stay until morning then they can figure it out. She reaches over Alec and grabs a fistful of Eliot’s shirt, closes her fingers up tight around it.
Eliot says, “Go to sleep, Parker,” so she does.
She’s the last one to wake up the next morning, which means the bed’s empty and cool. She stretches out like a starfish across the whole length of it, overcome by her own sense of well-being. Then she gets up and goes into the kitchen, where Eliot is making omelets and Hardison is chattering.
“Heyyyyyy,” Hardison says. When Eliot turns around, Hardison makes “help me help me” face at her.
Around a yawn, she says, “Morning, Hardison, morning, Eliot.”
Eliot kicks up his chin in acknowledgement.
“Eliot’s just making himself an omelet.” Hardison gestures at his own plate, which is most of the way empty. “Want some coffee?”
“She can have it,” says Eliot. “I’ll take the next one.”
“Okay!” says Parker, but Hardison narrows his eyes at her sharply. “Or, uh—no?”
“Yeah, man, you eat yours, you made it how you like it.”
Eliot flips the omelet. He does it so nothing falls out of the omelet, which is a good illustration of why he’s the one making the omelets and Parker’s just sitting watching. “I make it how everyone likes it.”
“I don’t like breakfast anyway.” Parker circles around Eliot to get herself a cup of coffee, nudging him with her shoulder affectionately. He doesn’t exactly pull away from her, but he twitches, and then finds a reason—salt—to shift to the other end of the counter while she’s pouring her cup.
“Why are you being weird?” she says.
Eliot shoves his hair back. “I’m not. You want your omelet, or not?”
She doesn’t want to fight, so she goes and sits by Hardison, leans her head against his shoulder. They’re both watching Eliot work, which should be exactly exactly right but is just—weird, and crappy, somehow, because Eliot is being weird. He’s all tense. Tense in a different way than normal Eliot Spencer punchy tense. He’s acting wary, and she doesn’t get why.
Under the counter, Hardison folds his fingers around hers.
“Hey,” he says to Eliot.
Eliot glances at him, then pretends to get distracted by the project of scraping his omelet, which he’s giving to Parker because she’s there, out of the pan and onto a plate. He gets a fork and plunks the whole thing down in front of Parker.
Hardison squeezes her hand. She says, “I don’t like bell peppers. You eat it.”
She expects Eliot to be pissed at that, but his face just sort of crumples. When he reaches out for the plate to take it away again, Hardison grabs his wrist.
“Eliot,” he says. “Hey, man. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Eliot sounds furious, but he doesn’t take his hand out from under Hardison’s. He’s looking down at the plate like he wants to smash it on the hard tile of the kitchen floor.
“You don’t have to be—” Hardison’s mouth forms the w of with us, but he changes it at the last minute, pretty smoothly. “—here, if you don’t want to.”
Eliot’s eyes go to Parker, accusatory, and Hardison catches it.
“What?” says Parker defensively. “I told him what we talked about. I told you I was going to! I don’t know why he looks all—”
“I look fine.”
Hardison gives him an up-and-down look and a very, very broad smile. “Yeah you do,” he says.
Now Eliot’s supposed to smile back, only he doesn’t. He doesn’t even do that thing where he pretends like Hardison’s driving him up the wall. “You don’t gotta do that,” he mutters. “I already—I told Parker.”
“No you didn’t. Told me what?”
With his free hand, Eliot braces himself on the counter, leaning a little towards them. “Told you I wasn’t off the team.”
“Right, but—” Hardison glances towards Parker, checking that they’re on the same page, and it’s just Eliot being—Eliot. “Look, let’s back up a couple steps, okay? Cause I’m getting the feeling we jumped ahead of ourselves. What do you think we’re asking for?”
Eliot makes a face like he thinks Hardison’s being really stupid. He does this forward shrug that’s seventy-five percent using his shoulders to point at himself, and twenty-five percent the kind of curling in you’d do if you were about to get hit.
“Okay,” says Hardison cautiously. “And that’s—you don’t want us back? Is that why you’re—”
“I told Parker I’m in.”
“In, as in—”
“In as in whatever!” Eliot explodes. “In like omelets, in like sleeping in the—your fucking bed with you while you fucking drool on me. Whatever. In.”
Now it’s Hardison who looks a little crumpled, Parker who squeezes his hand under the counter.
There’s a thing they’re missing, Parker knows. She remembers being maybe eight or nine and trying to teach herself how to pick locks, back when she was young enough that she’d sit scrubbing at the house locks with a paper clip and her shitty little rake pick until they clicked open. Eliot’s like that: not complicated, maybe, but she doesn’t have the right tools, doesn’t know how to crack him open. She feels like everything they talked about last night, everything they talked about maybe ever, is a tumbler, and if she can just keep track of them all—
“I don’t want,” Hardison begins.
Eliot says, “We don’t have to have a whole—”
“When you were with Moreau,” says Parker, talking over them both.
Hardison turns his head to give her a look he rarely gives her but that everyone else gives her a lot. (So she’s good at ignoring it.) A look like I can’t believe you are saying this thing.
“I don’t want to talk about him,” growls Eliot.
“You don’t have to,” Parker says. “I’ll talk. When you were with Moreau, the way he kept people.”
“Parker.” Hardison’s voice is low. Eliot looks like he’s about to crack down the middle, or run out like he did last night.
“Maybe you think that’s how we want to keep you,” she says. (This isn’t the kind of problem Hardison has the solution for, Hardison who is good at loving people, Hardison who has always been loved.) “Cause of the stuff you do. Hit people for us and make omelets and baby-sit Hardison when he’s—”
“Hey,” says Hardison, playing at being offended. He’s trying to lighten things a little, because Eliot’s lips are parted, and his eyes are on Parker, wide and unsure.
(That’s how she knows she’s right.)
She reaches across the bar and covers Eliot’s free hand with hers. “It’s not that. We just like you. Not what you can do. You you.”
Eliot says “okay” so quietly there’s nothing of it to hear but the soft explosion of the K.
They make a complete circuit, Parker’s hand on Eliot’s, Eliot’s on Hardison’s, Hardison’s folded up tight with Parker’s. It’s so obviously good and right, the kind of thing you can’t teach or explain because it’s in your bones or it isn’t.
“I just gotta, uh,” Eliot whispers. He sounds lost.
“Eat,” suggests Hardison, and he takes his hand off Eliot’s wrist, so he can take the plate. “You’re letting your omelet get cold, man.”
The omelet is kinda cold, which Parker discovers by poking it with one finger and then stealing a bite before handing the fork over to Eliot. Flavor’s still good, though. While Eliot’s eating, Hardison takes his plate to the sink to wash up, then circles back and wraps his arms around Eliot from behind. If Eliot doesn’t exactly relax back into it, he doesn’t tense up, just keeps eating the stupid, cold omelet with bell peppers.
(She doesn’t not like bell peppers. She doesn’t like Eliot looking like if he puts one foot wrong she’s going to drown someone he cares about.)
Behind him, Hardison starts giggling, stifles it in the back of Eliot’s neck. He shrugs, pretend-annoyed, and Parker boosts herself up on the bar to lean all the way over and put her mouth right by his until he closes the half-inch between them and kisses her.
It’s light, exploratory, just his lips sliding against hers, barely tasting her. He’s still holding the fork with one hand, and the other is kind of pinioned with the way Hardison’s holding him, so he doesn’t reach up to pull her closer. When they separate, there is one single second where she thinks about teasing him for having them right there and not kissing her harder, but he’s so—breathless, and surprised, that she can’t do anything but smile at him, at Hardison behind him, at the absolute pure good luck that her life has turned into this.
“Eat your omelet,” Hardison rumbles into Eliot’s ear.
“It’s gonna be like this, huh,” says Eliot, rolling a shoulder back against Hardison.
“He’s bossy,” Parker says.
“Real fucking bossy for someone who only eats radioactive orange foods,” Eliot agrees. He takes another bite of his omelet and doesn’t protest when Parker takes the fork out of his hand to steal the corner piece with all the cheese.
“It’s good, right?” she says with her mouth full.
Eliot rolls his eyes, but there’s a smile tugging at his lips. “It’s an omelet, Parker. It’s not a metaphor.”