Eliot stops by McRory's after he gets back from his little side mission, after he's done waiting on a U.S. Marshal to stop by the house of a dark-haired kid whose father's hands need staying, whose whole heartbreaking fucking story struck a little too close to home. He stops by, but he can't bring himself to stay. They're celebrating, the rest of them, and Eliot doubts he has it in him to put on that act just now -- he's sure of it, sorry he even came here, when Hardison follows him out of the bar and grabs him by the arm on the street corner. Eliot whips around with his body tensed even though he knows full well whose touch this is, hates himself a little for the way he's spoiling even now for confrontation; instead Hardison asks, of all things, if Eliot's all right. And who knows — Eliot thinks this with a wildness, a wounded animal clawing at the back of his throat — honestly, who the fuck knows why? Maybe Eliot put just a little too much of himself on display today, didn’t play his cards close enough to the chest. Maybe Hardison's just too smart, too perceptive for his own good, notices too easy when Eliot's a little off. Maybe he's just asking on instinct, or because Eliot got stuck fighting a fellow trained killer six hours ago, and probably still has a little blood somewhere that he didn’t quite manage to wipe clean. Maybe (ha, ha) he genuinely wants to know. Hardison’s not the guy, hasn’t even seemed like the guy, who goes looking for a vulnerability to exploit, but they haven’t known each other that long in the scheme of things and Eliot knows too well that he can’t know that shit for sure. Even so, he probably has a perfectly legitimate reason for asking, but Eliot doesn't, can't, stick around to find out. Eliot snarls that he's fine and jerks his arm away and pretends for weeks that he doesn't see it -- the way Hardison's face creases, twists, in something that's either real hurt or a damn good imitation -- every time he closes his eyes.
A few months later a fake psychic rips something all too real out of the vault that’s Parker’s heart. Eliot aches for her, though, if he’s honest, more at her exposure than her loss. The whole team rallies around her but eventually it’s just the two of them, Eliot and Hardison, waiting in Nate's living room for Parker to wash the tear-tracks off her face; into the pained silence Hardison says, “You'd really kill that guy for her, wouldn't you?” like he wishes he wasn’t asking the question. Eliot doesn't say anything back, but he can feel Hardison taking that for the affirmative answer it is, and they both sit there for a few stretched-thin seconds, pointedly not looking at each other. When Hardison says, “But nobody'd ever do the same for you, right?" there’s this tone to his voice that even Eliot, with all his various expertise, can't quite parse -- bitterness, maybe, or sarcasm. Could even be vulnerability. He’s not sure, just now, how the hell a person’s supposed to know. He never gets the chance to work it out, anyway; Parker comes out of the bathroom, and Hardison turns towards her before Eliot can catch the expression on his face. He tells himself that he's relieved about that. He tells himself, again and again, that he doesn't want to know what it would've looked like.
After they send that sweetheart of a singer and her guitar down her road to stardom, after the night he spends tossing and turning with dreams of being the Johnny to her June, Eliot looks up from his breakfast and Parker's inside his apartment, somehow. She’s sitting in front of his guitar, and she doesn't say anything but he can always tell when she's thinking her way around something; he just sits down on the floor next to her and waits. When she finally says, “I don't really know what I’m supposed to do now," quiet, like an admission, he wants to laugh, wants to say: Jesus, kid, me neither. He doesn't, though. He gets it, that she's trying. He gets it even though it's as hard to believe, in its way, as Hardison was that night on the street corner more than a year ago now -- even if he still thinks sometimes about that hurt creasing Hardison's face and wonders what would have happened if Eliot had just trusted him enough to give him a real answer. It's a fucking ridiculous thought, of course; he doubts he could give Hardison a real answer even now, to that question, to so many others, even if the same thing were to happen tomorrow. But he doesn't want to see that twisted up look on Parker's face the way he saw it on Hardison's so he picks up the guitar and plays her something, something lighter and easier than is maybe his truth but is what he means, anyway, is what he would tell her if he thought he knew how. She settles a little. It feels like enough.
Moreau gets on the plane and Eliot’s reeling, viscera dripping from that old wound carved deep into soul, the one he’ll never be able to heal over; Hardison almost drowned and Eliot had to stand there and pretend to be fine, like it was nothing, so that none of those snakes would see how he easy he is to get at these days. Eliot had to kill people, again, and sure they were bad people and sure he killed them for good reasons but they're dead at his hands all the same. He itches inside of his skin, itches to get out from under the stain of all the selves he's been, all the blood he’s spilled, and he keeps waiting for one of them to -- fucking Parker and Hardison, if one of them would just -- it would all be so much easier if they'd just do it already, if they'd just prove themselves to be worse people or stop making him a better one. Some days, moments like this, he feels like the anticipation is literally killing him. But instead they fucking come and find him, come down to the bar where he's drinking even though he doesn't, mostly, because he knows it's dangerous for a guy with hurts like his, because usually even the sweet oblivion of not having to remember it all isn’t a good enough bargain for ceding his control. They fucking come and find him, and Hardison sits on his right and Parker sits on his left, and they bracket him with their easy warmth and their arms just brushing his and they, god, they talk about nothing. About stupid shit. About Hardison's favorite video games and Parker's strange little worldviews, things they've stolen and want to steal; how to break out of a pair of handcuffs, for next time. Finally, hating himself for it, hating the way it comes out of his mouth, Eliot says, “What the hell are you guys doing here?"
Parker and Hardison look at each other, at him. When Hardison says, “We're not asking, man," Eliot understands it, but he doesn't understand it at all.
After the beatdown he takes at that carnival Eliot tells them he hired a nurse and it’s true, sort of. Gail's an old friend and she's willing to -- she can -- they can sleep together, if they feel like it, and he can throw her some cash here and there to run errands for him, help him dress a wound he can't reach or whatever, while he waits for his useless fucking corpse to heal up. She doesn’t want anything else from him, or, far as he can tell, from anyone; it’s why he doesn’t feel exposed, hurting in front of her. It's a standing arrangement. It works for them. He thinks she might even really be a nurse, although he's never strictly speaking asked her about it. But this time it’s -- Gail’s fine, good, they do what they do and it’s what he wanted, expected, it’s the same thing as always and that’s how he likes it, but Hardison and Parker keep sending him these texts that he doesn’t know what to do with. Hardison's messages all ask how he’s feeling and Parker's are mostly like, horrific images of cicadas crawling out of their exoskeletons and shit, but honestly Eliot thinks he prefers Parker’s; at least Parker's make a weird sort of sense. He does kind of feel like a cicada, all raw and fucked up after shedding its latest skin, and it's so easy to send back “There's something wrong with you, this is disgusting," and get her little “:D” in reply. But Hardison’s… what the fuck is Eliot supposed to say to him? Why does Hardison still care, why do either of them still care, what the fuck is it going to take; he's been waiting and waiting for so long and they never seem to let up.
By the time they actually show up at his apartment with chicken soup and a copy of some horrible movie that Hardison insists is a classic, Eliot's so confused and pissed off and afraid of keeping them and afraid of losing them and hurting, still, everywhere, all over, that he almost wants to throw in the towel, just grab them both by the throats and demand answers. He almost wants to shake them, to scream at long last that they can't do this to him, they can't keep after him like this like he matters to them, like he's important; they can't make him love them this way because it's too awful, because he won't be able to stop. But instead he eats the stupid soup and tells them that it's terrible, and it is, it really is, it's just some godawful fucking soup, but it makes him feel better than a whole week with Gail has and he hates them -- the world -- himself — for it.
They get back from Dubai and fucking Sterling fucking drugged him; Hardison grabs Eliot’s arm on his way out of the bar, says, “Hey, Eliot. You all right?" And Eliot isn't, he so isn't and he'd rather do anything than say it, but he can't bear to see Hardison's face crumple again, hasn't ever been able to quite forget that first time. So he just lets out a low, grunting sort of growl, something that isn't even words, and Hardison looks at him in this way that -- in this way that Eliot can't look directly at. Hardison looks at him like he's thrilled even with that shit-bare answer, that totally inadequate thing. Hardison says, “Come on, come do something with me," and Eliot doesn't even know why he goes except that he does know, of course he knows, he can’t fucking seem to escape knowing, and Hardison takes him to this ridiculous old-school arcade instead of anywhere normal or useful or sane. It helps, is the worst part, it totally fucking helps, Eliot wins at skeeball and one of those stupid hammer strength games and watches Hardison beat six different versions of that damned impossible crane thing, and he's not sure if it's all of that or the way Hardison keeps cutting looks at him, brow all furrowed in concern, mouth soft, that makes Eliot feel so much better, so much more like himself. (He is sure. He just -- god -- he just wishes he wasn't.)
During that job where he has to play at tortured veteran (and what a hard sell that is, ha fucking ha), Eliot's teeth chatter in his freezing cold cell until Parker sneaks in through the locked door. He thinks at first she's just there to give him a coat — that was the plan, that’s what she did for the others — but after she tosses a thick blanket over him she says, “Scoot." When he stares at her, uncomprehending, she rolls her eyes and gives his shoulder a little shove and, Christ, Eliot’s so tired; he hasn't slept in two days and he's so deep in the murky parts of his brain he tries not to traverse that it's hard to even think, let alone come up with things to say out loud. He wants to mount a real objection but all that comes out of his mouth is, “But... Hardison," who he hears laughing softly a moment later through the comms.
"Hardison knows," Hardison says, “and anyway, Parker does what she wants.” Then, softer: “Come on, man, you're freezing. Don’t think that we don’t know.”
Parker shoves at him again, which is easier, adds, “I said scoot, you're not scooting," and Eliot’s body moves even though his mind is still stuttering its bewilderment, even though he can’t understand the way she just climbs in next to him at all. She wraps her arms around him -- Parker -- and presses his face into the crook of her neck, manages to keep still for all of seven seconds before she makes one of her soft little discovery noises and starts playing with his hair. “I’m gonna give you a bunch of little braids," she says, sounding pleased with herself, "and then take them all out again. Secret braids,” and Eliot falls asleep to the rise and fall of her breath, the warmth of her body against his, the feeling of those clever little fingers pulling lightly at his hair. He thinks he dreamed it all the next day until, at lunch, he finds one braid hidden underneath the rest of his hair, complicated and woven from seven strands, that looks nothing like the ones he sometimes does for himself. He wonders -- is still wondering -- if she left it for him on purpose. He doesn't know how to ask her about it. He doesn't know that he would ask her, even if he did know how.
They buy him a fucking brewpub. He has to -- he has to pretend like he's mad about it, he has to pretend like he doesn't know that they -- that it's -- that they want him to be happy, like he doesn't see the way they look at him every time he starts playing with the menu, and then at each other, like they're so proud of themselves. He has to pretend not to notice the both of them trying so goddamn hard not to push anything on him, like they really want to let him back his own slow, careful way into this -- into whatever the fuck -- into the way that they care about him, still, somehow. It's -- fuck. Sometimes he wants go outside and laugh until he cries, to cry until he runs out of breath, to gasp until he just falls over, right there, right on the sidewalk. Sometimes he wants to grab likely-looking people off the street and… and hit them until they tell him exactly what it feels like to have somebody love you, really, honestly love you, so he can know for sure if that's what this looks like, if he's just kidding himself. He wants to get on his knees at their feet, Parker’s and Hardison's, and plead until they just -- until they just -- Christ, he doesn't even know what. Until they do exactly what they've been doing, probably. Until they never, ever stop.
The first time they sleep together Eliot has to excuse himself, afterward, to go sit out in the hallway and pointedly not have a like -- like a fucking panic attack or something. A run-away-and-never-come-back attack, that's what. A get-out-now-Spencer-you-idiot attack, because now all of his eggs, every last egg that he's got, they're all in this one basket and he knows better, he always has, than to set himself up to fall like this. God, but he knows that this is stupid. God, but he knows that he should have made any other choice. He's working himself up to it, honestly, the good old honest up-and-run, when he realizes that they would... understand, probably, if he did that. They might even be able to find him, but they wouldn't if they thought he didn't want to be found. Hardison would make that face, the crumpled-up hurt one, and Parker would break into his apartment and sit waiting for him for as long as she could stand, but they would... understand. They wouldn't try to still him for their sake, if being stilled wasn't what he so (desperately, pathetically) wanted. The knowledge sits on him like a lead weight, except that he doubts a lead weight could be quite this comforting; it sits him on him like -- like shoes on a horse, then, or -- or the old, threadbare blanket he always wakes up underneath, when he falls asleep on their couch. It sits on him like the fact that he even can let himself fall asleep where they can see him, and it hurts and it doesn't and he's never going to understand why, probably, but. But. He gets up. He goes back inside.
Parker catches him by the elbow, another night, another rough job, another street corner, Hardison just behind her with that soft look in his eyes. It's Hardison who says, “Hey man, you all right?" but it's Parker who holds his gaze, who stares right at Eliot until the “No," punches out of him -- worse than a bullet wound. Worse than a lung full of blood. But it's, shit, they don't ask about the big things so he thinks, maybe, that he can give them the little ones sometimes. He thinks that he'll never understand why they love him, but loving them is like... like actually having something he once believed in the way a man can believe in a god. For years Eliot venerated real adoration as something he could think about, could see in the abstract, but never get close enough to touch. And now somehow there’re these flesh and blood people who fit against his torn-up edges, who let him care for them in his gruff, dangerous way, who lay bare for him the bests and worsts of themselves and know without asking that he'll honor that. There're these much better souls who keep making the choice to sit down with his wounded one, trusting him to tender himself when they’re hurt or they’re sick and sit up with them when their nightmares come, who know in spite of all the terrible men he’s been that he’ll always, always have their backs. And it's the best goddamn thing in his whole stupid, fucked-up life, the two of them and the liberties they keep letting him take, and he thinks -- he thinks that maybe letting them love him doesn't have a damn thing to do with understanding why they'd want to. He thinks that he can let Hardison pull him into a hug right here on the street, let Parker press up against them both with one of Eliot's hand in hers; he thinks that he can let them hear the way his breathing quickens, roughens, settles back down.