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Guard Your Eggshell Heart

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“Hey,” Parker said, and grabbed Eliot’s arm as he went past her, feeling him still under her fingers, his muscles tensing sharply then relaxing by slow degrees. “Thanks. For breakfast.”

She watched him carefully as he looked away and nodded. His normally sober expression had cracked a bit when she thanked him, softening into something that was almost a smile, before he seemed to remember himself and his face went back to its impassive mask. He couldn’t hide the tinge of red growing on the back of his neck from her, though, even though his hand came up and he rubbed at it as he walked back to the kitchen.

Parker had a theory, and her theory was this: it made Eliot really happy when they noticed the things he did for them. It made Eliot happy when they made sure he knew they noticed the things he did for them. And when Eliot thought they didn't notice, it made him- not unhappy, but something worse, something like he knew that was all he could expect from anyone and he'd resigned himself to it a while back. Once she'd noticed it, she couldn't stop, and the realization of how often they took Eliot for granted made her stomach twist uncomfortably.

Later, after Eliot had left to go do Eliot things, she went and rested her weight on the back of Alec’s gaming chair, making it tip backward until he was hunching forward to keep the keyboard within reach.

“Alec,” she said.

“I’m listening,” he said, and she reached forward over his shoulder and hit the pause button on his weird keyboard and waited through his indignant squawking until he settled and tipped his head back to look up at her. “Fine, woman, what?”

“Have you ever noticed-” she started, and stopped, not sure how to put it into words that made sense. She pushed the chair around until Alec was facing her while she tried to pull her thoughts into order. He patiently watched her, and she felt a soft swell of love for him go through her body.

She finally decided on, “Have you ever noticed how Eliot really likes it when we’re nice to him?”

Alec’s eyebrows furrowed, a little crease forming between them. “You mean like when we-” he started, but she was already shaking her head no.

“Not like that,” she said. Not nice like in their long-term seduction plan, where they eased Eliot into the idea of maybe fucking them, maybe dating them, maybe, eventually, being their partner all the time, not just for work. “I mean the way his face goes all funny when someone says thank you.”

Alec was looking at her. “His face goes funny,” he said. He was clearly waiting for her to explain more, but it took her another minute to decide on what to say.

“Like he’s happy.”

“You think he’s not happy?” Alec asked her, his brow furrowing further. He looked worried now, but he still wasn’t getting it.

“No,” she said, then, “Maybe? Maybe we can... make him happier?”

“Okay,” Alec said, nodding seriously. “We just gotta be nicer to him, you think?”

“I think,” she said, slow and careful because Eliot deserved that consideration from her even when he wasn’t there, “I think maybe he needs us to notice when he does things for us?”

Alec was quiet for a minute, then said, “So you’re saying we gotta appreciate him more?”

Parker shrugged. She wasn’t sure if that was exactly what she was saying, but it sounded close enough.

“Yeah, we can do that,” he said, smiling blindingly at her, and then waggled his eyebrows at her. “Maybe it’ll help our other project.”

She grinned back at him, a little relieved, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll come up with a plan," she said, and spun him back around to face his computer again.

###

It didn’t really strike Eliot as odd the first time Hardison made a pleased noise as he was eating a bite of beef stroganoff and mumbled, “This is amazing, thanks,” around it.

He ignored the rush of pleasure, the hot redness he could feel climbing up the back of his neck, and, when Parker made a noise of agreement around her own mouthful, made a mental note to make stroganoff for them more often. He didn’t think it was anything special, not compared to some of the meals he’d pulled together for them, but clearly they felt different.

The next job involved him taking out half a dozen guys so Parker could get into a vault, and he was running down a flight of stairs after dropping the last one when Parker’s breathless, “Thanks, Eliot,” came over the comms.

He missed the next stair and almost managed to catch himself on the one below it. Almost wasn’t good enough, though, and he tumbled down, banging his knees into what felt like every step. He landed hard on his already-bruised shoulder and couldn’t stop the grunt of pain that escaped.

“You okay, man?” Hardison’s voice in his ear sounded mildly concerned, like he’d heard everything and knew exactly what was happening.

“Yeah,” Eliot said, and picked himself up. He continued down the next flight, to the ground floor, and tried not to think about the way Parker’s thanks had made it feel like something hot and fizzy had popped in his chest.

At first, he thought that their sudden and continual thanking him was just him noticing something they'd been doing all along -- like when you learn a new word and it's suddenly everywhere -- and he'd… never noticed before. He tried to ignore the warmth that welled up in his chest every time one of them noticed that he’d done something for them, every time they acknowledged that he was of use to them.

“Thanks,” Hardison said when Eliot let go of his controller long enough to hand him another bottle of soda in the middle of the start countdown of a vicious MarioKart tournament. He bumped his shoulder into Eliot’s, not quite jostling him enough for it to be an attempt to throw him off his game. It didn’t matter, though; in the half second he was distracted by the hope that Hardison wouldn’t notice the blush Eliot could feel spreading up his cheeks, the race started and he immediately ran into a banana peel and careened off the course.

“Dammit, Hardison,” he growled under Hardison’s whoop when he crossed the finish line seconds ahead of Eliot. “You know I’d kick your ass at drag racing in real life.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” Hardison said, standing up and doing an embarrassing victory dance.

“My turn,” Parker said, jumping over the back of the couch and landing so her elbows were knocking against Eliot's. He waited for her to slide away like a normal person and give him some space, space he needed to be able to feel like he could breathe again, but she didn’t. Instead, she pressed herself against his side and plucked the controller out of his hands, her fingers brushing over his.

Hardison dropped down on the other side of her, pressed against her close enough that she couldn't move away from Eliot even if she wanted to. The arm of the couch was already pressing into Eliot's ribs, and there was nowhere else for him to go. Parker wiggled a little, settling more firmly against him, and he felt every small movement like it was the tide rolling in, implacable and inescapable.

“I’m gonna go start dinner,” he said, forcing himself up and away from both of them. “Steaks okay?”

Hardison nodded, already engrossed in the game, and Parker hummed in agreement, adding, after a beat, “You make good steaks.”

He hoped they were both too busy trying to kick each other’s ass to notice the shiver he couldn’t quite suppress, or the way he could feel his cheeks heating up.

Over the next couple weeks, he tried not to let the little spark of warmth he got every time they said something affect his behavior, because that would just be- The first time he caught himself glancing over at Hardison expectantly, waiting for him to say something about the roast chicken, something that felt a lot like shame twisted in his gut.

“You okay?” Parker asked, poking his arm hard.

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head a little to dislodge the thought that he was getting too reliant on their gratitude and this wasn’t going to end well for him. It was a single slip-up that he wouldn’t make again; they didn’t owe him anything.

No matter how much he told himself he wasn’t going to expect anything out of them, that he wasn’t going to get so used to them saying nice things to him that he started to almost look forward to it, he still found himself looking to Parker and Hardison every time he did something that he- Something that they might appreciate.

The shame that never quite went away burned hot in his chest the one time Parker met his gaze when he glanced over and immediately said, “Thanks,” like she knew he was expecting it. He felt sick with it, like he was going to empty his stomach even though he knew it wouldn't make the feeling go away.

It was almost enough to make him start avoiding them, to make him stop coming over three times a week and sleeping on the couch when he let time slip away from him, to make him stop trying to take care of them as much as they would let him. Almost.

“So,” Parker said, hopping up onto the counter next to where he was doing dishes, poking him in the side with her foot until he stopped washing knives and turned to face her. “Have you thought more about what we talked about?”

It took him a moment, took him thinking back to before he noticed this whole thing starting, to realize what she was talking about. “I’m not moving in, Parker,” he said, turning away from her and scowling down at the sink full of soapy water.

“You’re here all the time anyway,” she said seriously, and he had to bite back the instinctive, “Sorry,” and the kneejerk, “I can give you guys more space.”

“I need my own space,” he said, instead, reminding himself of all the reasons why it was a bad idea to move in with them. Not least of which was that one day he’d have to move out, and he didn’t know if his heart could take that after living in their pockets more than he already did. It was bad enough he found himself climbing the back stairs to their loft so often, bad enough he was going to have to give that up some day, and go back to being-

It would just be worse if he lived with them.

He watched her nod out the corner of his eye, and was relieved that she was taking his second refusal seriously. Then she said, “That’s why you’d get your own bedroom.”

“That’s not-” he said, and sighed. “I can’t-” he started again, not sure what he was going to say that would make her understand that he couldn’t remove one of the last separations he had from them, not when he wanted a buncha things he couldn't have. He needed the distance.

After a long minute of silence, she hopped off the counter and patted his shoulder. “Okay,” she said, and walked out of the kitchen to join Hardison in the living room. His shoulder was warm where her hand had been, like he could still feel the weight of it there. He shook his head and went back to soaping up the knives with a sinking feeling that she wasn’t agreeing to drop the subject forever, just for the moment.

###

“He said no again,” Parker told Alec that night, after Eliot had left. She had her head pillowed in his lap, his hand running through her hair, and it paused for a moment before resuming the semi-soothing strokes.

“You know we’re doing this backward, right?” Alec asked. “You’re supposed to date someone for a while before getting them to move in.”

She shrugged a little and pushed herself up, dislodging his hand and putting some space between them. Letting people that close to her was exhausting, sometimes, even with Eliot, even with Alec. “I don’t like it when he’s not here.”

“I know, me either,” Alec said, shifting over a little to give her more space. “He’ll come around.”

She hummed a little, not so sure. Eliot was stubborn, and didn’t always want things that would make him happy. It was too bad, because happy was a good look on him. Maybe he’d never let himself date them, and she tried not to let that thought upset her, but things would be better if at least he didn’t have to go home alone at the end of the night. If his home were with them.

“What if-” she started, already thinking of ways they could convince him to accidentally move in with them, but Alec was shaking his head no.

“Don’t go there,” he said. “He’d be so mad if we conned him into moving in here. He’s gotta do it on his own.”

She frowned down at her hands where they were clenched hard around each other in her lap. He was right, but that didn’t mean she had to like it, not when it would be so much easier to just make Eliot want to live with them (want to date them, a little, cruel part of herself whispered, and she shuddered inwardly at the way it reminded her of other things, things she didn’t like thinking about), instead of waiting for him to come round on his own.

“Hey,” Alec said, leaning over and laying a smacking kiss on her cheek. “It’ll be fine, he’s not stupid. He’ll come around.”

“Yeah,” she said and turned, capturing his lips with hers. She let herself get lost in the kiss. Eliot would come around; they just needed to keep reminding him that they wanted him here. She could be patient about this, patient like Hardison had been with her, patient like Eliot deserved.

###

The continuous acknowledgement that Eliot was doing things for them was bad enough, keeping him just enough on edge -- worried they would notice how much he liked it, how weak he was -- that he could never quite relax anymore. It wasn’t until they started actively praising him that he started getting suspicious about their motives.

The first suspicion that something weren’t right with them crawled down his spine when Parker punched his shoulder and said “Good job, Eliot,” after he used the hired muscle’s own gun to knock out the muscle and one of his buddies without ever touching it himself.

He turned away fast, felt the blush staining his cheeks no matter how much he hated himself for it. When he turned his head enough to glance back at Parker, she was smiling softly at him, looking pleased with herself. He didn’t know what she could be looking so pleased about, unless-

He scowled and was glad when a guard came around the corner in front of them, providing a distraction from the growing suspicion in the back of his mind. He had an itching feeling that this wasn’t at all something he'd just been not noticing until recently, this was them wanting something out of him and trying to con him into giving it to them without having to ask for it.

That night, Parker leaned against the counter next to him while he was chopping onions, close enough that he could feel the heat of her body. “Thanks for making dinner tonight,” she said.

Eliot rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, looking at the floor because he didn’t want her to see the way he couldn’t quite stop a small smile from playing across his lips. “Parker, you don’t gotta- I mean-” he said.

“I know,” she said, and walked away, walked into the bedroom Hardison had already disappeared into, that Eliot had never seen the inside of and didn’t want to see the inside of. If he kept telling himself that, maybe one day it would be true.

They had to want something from him. You didn’t just start being nice to someone you’d never been nice to like that before for no reason. It didn’t make sense, though. They had to know that they didn’t gotta, by that point. They’d been right there when he’d promised Sophie that he’d never leave them. But maybe- maybe they needed some reassurance or something, something to show that he was in this for as long as they’d have him.

He wasn’t sure how to do that, though, except maybe stick closer to them on jobs, go over to the loft more, finally give in to the not-so-subtle hints they’d been dropping more frequently -- along with outright suggestions -- that he move in with them. He tried not to let himself notice how much those were all things he wanted to do regardless, things that he’d been forcing himself to not do. Things that might make them realize realize how much he wanted to be bound to them more closely, so enmeshed in their lives nobody could tell where they stopped and he began.

“Hey,” he said when they reappeared for dinner. “I could-” he started, and was surprised to find a fierce roil of nerves in his stomach. He usually let them come to him and suggest he come back; he never put it out there himself. He forced his voice to stay steady, even if he couldn’t quite meet their eyes because what if they said no. “I could make a pork roast for dinner, tomorrow,” he suggested, and hurried to add, “I gotta pick up some stuff for it, but-”

“That’d be great,” Hardison said, grinning at him, and the nerves started to disappear. “You want to just stay here tonight?”

He did. He wanted to wake up on their couch, knowing that there was nothing but a thin wall separating them, that they were safe and anyone who wanted to get at them would have to go through him first. He wanted to be there to stick a plate of eggs and toast under Hardison’s nose when he finally stumbled out of bed, to wake up to Parker staring at him from her perch on the chair, waiting to tell him she was hungry.

And maybe- maybe it would be okay if he did. Maybe that was what they needed, to know that he wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe it would be okay if it were about what they needed and not what he wanted.

“Sure,” he said, his throat dry, because this wasn’t like when he just didn’t notice the time and suddenly Parker was throwing a blanket at him and telling him to just stay. This wasn’t like when they got home late after a job, and he was bruised and bloody and achingly exhausted, and Hardison made him get in the shower and the couch was all made up by the time he got out, ready for him. This was full of intent, he couldn’t pretend that it was just an accident that he was there too late and didn’t want to leave.

They both looked relieved, and that just solidified for him that they were worried about him leaving, that they didn't know he never could.

He had every expectation that when he started coming over more often, started being there almost every day, they would back off the whole... praising him thing. Once they were reassured that he wasn’t going anywhere, they would remember that they didn’t need to try so hard. He tried not to let himself mourn that knowing they knew how hard he worked for them would come to an end. It was his own damn fault for getting so used to it that he was going to be upset when it disappeared.

But it just... didn’t.

“That was great,” Parker said, her eyes bright with adrenaline, and Eliot spit out a mouthful of blood from his split lip and hoped the bruises from their last job were covering the fact that the warm feeling in his stomach was probably translating to a pleased blush on his cheeks. “Are you coming over tonight?”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I’ll bring sushi?”

“Get extra soy sauce,” Hardison said over the comms. “I think we’re out. You might as well stay over, too.”

“You should just leave some clothes at home,” Parker was saying, and Eliot realized that maybe this desire they were showing for him to move in was about the same, making sure that he wasn’t going anywhere, not just to make him easier to find for client meetings and running the brewpub, or a whim that was going to end with him picking up the pieces of his life and moving out. That maybe they needed for him to be there always, so they knew he wasn’t going to just disappear on them some day.

He tried not to let it hurt that they doubted him that much, but his heart still ached at the realization that they still didn’t trust him not to leave. He didn't think he had given them a reason to doubt him, had promised to Sophie outright that he'd be with them until he died for them, but clearly that hadn't been enough.

The next day, after a meeting with a new client in the brewpub, he almost let them get up and leave to go back upstairs without saying anything, almost told himself that he could have a few more days of them being so fucking nice to him before he had to reassure them that he wasn’t going anywhere.

But that wasn’t fair to them. “So,” he said after the client left. “That room at the end of the hall still empty?”

There was a long minute of silence. Then Parker was turning a blinding smile on him and Hardison was high fiving her, not even trying to hide it, and saying, “Knew you’d give in eventually.”

Eliot thought with a surprising amount of regret that this time he’d solved it and they’d stop. That this time he was really going to lose that pleased feeling he carried around all the time now, that even though relying on them to make him feel good made him less able to pick up and leave if he had to -- as though he could have in the first place -- he was going to miss it when it was gone.

Still, there was something warm curling in his stomach at their obvious excitement. Something that he didn’t want to be there because it could only be a weakness, and he wasn’t the sort of person who could afford weaknesses.

Parker kissed his cheek and said, “Thank you,” before getting up and bouncing up the back stairs. Hardison kissed his other cheek and said, “Thanks,” before following her, and he was left alone at the little table in the back of the, reeling a little because had they just-

That was when it finally clicked for him, for real, what they wanted out of him. Why they were suddenly being nice to him, and he knew, he knew it shouldn’t matter, but something sunk like lead into the pit of his stomach, making him queasy.

It wouldn't be the first time someone had been being extra nice to him just for sex. People tended to think that if he was fucking them, it meant he was more invested in their welfare than he would be otherwise. It shouldn’t bother him that Parker and Hardison weren't any different. But it was- It was somehow different, this time. Somehow, it made him feel betrayed.

He thought about it while he drained the pint in front of him, thought about it while he picked at the basket of fries they’d left behind, thought about it until he realized that no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t move in with them if that was what they expected in exchange, if that was- if that-

It wasn’t that he didn’t want it. He wanted it so much he felt like something was dying inside him, but he couldn’t let them use sex to manipulate him into- Into something that he was already doing. He couldn't sleep with them if it was based around them wanting to feel secure, not around them just wanting.

So he went upstairs, his feet heavy. Parker and Hardison were sitting at the kitchen table, heads bent together, talking quietly. They both looked up when he came in, and grinned so widely at him the he- he couldn’t- He almost turned around and walked right back out the door, but he had to do this, even though his gut was churning with anxiety.

Part of him wanted to- to just stop. Not to take the sex they were offering, because he couldn't do that to himself, not when he knew that- when he knew that it wouldn't end well. But to not bring up the subject at all so they would keep showering him with this steady- steady affection, steady attention that was definitely gonna stop now that he knew the reason behind it. If he was lucky, that was all that would stop. If he was lucky, their friendship wasn't predicated on the idea that one day they'd get him into their bed.

“I’m not gonna sleep with you,” he said, hovering by the door, not willing to come closer so he could make a quick exit when he needed to.

They both blinked at him for a moment, and he was half expecting them to tell him that well, in that case, they didn’t want him moving in with them, that they didn’t want him working with them anymore, that they didn’t want him around. Sure, they'd do it so fucking gently, probably thinking it would make it hurt less, but nothing could make losing his entire- Nothing could make it hurt less.

He was already getting ready to turn tail and run, but all Hardison did was say, “Okay,” like that was all. And all Parker did was nod seriously, like he had answered a question for a job.

“Do you still want me to move in?” he forced himself to ask, making himself to meet their eyes and not flinch away from Parker's confused look and Hardison's tired frown, like Eliot had done something wrong.

“Of course,” Parker said. “Why wouldn’t we-”

“Then I’m just gonna-” he interrupted as he hooked a thumb over his shoulder and beat a hasty retreat, trying not to let it get to him that now that he'd set the record straight, they weren't going to be trying to make him feel- That the compliments and gratitude were going to stop and things would go back to normal.

###

“You know we have to stop, right?” Alec said, after Eliot had left. “With the- the touching, and the crowding and the-”

“I know,” Parker said, frowning down at the table. She hadn’t planned for this. Eliot was never supposed to realize what they were doing and outright say no. He was supposed to like them being in his space all the time. Eliot wasn't like her; he liked having people that he trusted around, touching him and being close to him all the time. Eliot turning that down wasn’t what she wanted at all, and she wasn't okay with the feeling in the pit of her stomach that came from knowing they’d been making him uncomfortable.

“It’ll be fine,” Alec said. She knew he was watching her carefully, but didn’t know what he wanted her to do. “He’ll- At least he’s still moving in.”

“Yeah,” she said, and finally managed to identify the hot feeling coursing through her as an uncomfortable mixture of disappointment, sadness, and embarrassment. She didn’t like it.

“Are you okay?” Alec asked. When she looked up, the corners of his eyes were pinched and stressed. She wondered if he was feeling it too, that tight feeling when everything blew up in the middle of a con and she had to think fast to get things back on track.

Except this wasn’t a con and she couldn’t get things back on track because they had never been on track to begin with. Eliot didn’t want to fuck them, didn’t want to date them. Eliot didn’t want them like that.

“Yeah,” she finally said, even though she thought maybe it was a lie. “I’m okay. Are you?”

“I will be,” Alec said, and reached across the table for her hand. She let him take it, because he looked like he needed the contact. “It’ll be fine.”

She wondered which one of them he was trying to convince.

“We can still tell him when he’s doing a good job, though, right?” she had to ask, to make sure, and was glad when Alec nodded.

“That’s completely different, that’s just making him happy,” he said. “We can still make him happy.”

That was good, because she didn’t want to stop that. She didn’t want to lose the warm, squirmy feeling that she got when Eliot looked so pleased that they’d noticed he’d done something good.

“It’ll be fine,” she repeated. Maybe they were both trying to convince each other.

###

Except-

Except.

It didn’t stop.

It was like now that Eliot had point-blank told them that he wasn’t gonna fuck them, they were trying double hard to convince him otherwise. Being there all the time just made it worse, because he couldn’t escape it. He couldn’t escape the way it was making him feel warm all over when they noticed him, even though he should be getting used to it. It shouldn’t be affecting him even more now that he was in their space all the time, staying in the spare room at the end of the hall.

They just didn’t let up.

“Thank you,” Hardison said with a warm smile as Eliot laid out breakfast. When he took the plate from Eliot, their fingers didn’t brush, but that didn’t stop a tingle from going through him.

“Good work,” Parker said after he used a throwing knife to take out the muscle menacing her, looking like she was about to go to punch his shoulder but pulling back awkwardly at the last second. He shook off the tingle that went down his spine, and tried not to let her see the red creeping up the back of his neck.

“This is amazing,” Parker said around a huge bite of reuben. It wasn’t like it was a hard sandwich to make, but he still blushed and turned away hurriedly to put away the corned beef.

“Woo!” Hardison shouted in his earpiece from safe outside in the van as he finished walking Eliot through hacking into the outdated security system. “Couldn’t’ve done it better myself. Well, no, I could’ve, but that was damn good for your first time.” Eliot blamed the shivery feeling on the shock he’d gotten from the electric system.

They didn’t let up, not at home, not on the job, and the stream of terrifying niceness made him feel raw and exposed, like one big nerve ending. He didn’t want them to stop, but he kinda needed them to stop, and he couldn’t just bring it up, because what was he supposed to say? Stop being nice to him?

It was making him twitchy, making him meaner. Not a whole lot meaner, but it was like he’d regressed back to the year before Sophie and Nate left, where it felt like he was snapping at someone every time he opened his mouth.

“Sorry, I’m here, sorry,” Parker said, running late into a briefing that she had called and skidding to a stop at her chair.

“I got stuff I need to be doing, Parker,” Eliot growled and turned away, ignoring her furrowed brow and staring resolutely forward at the screens. “Get on with it.”

Later, after the job finished smoothly, all things considered, they sat down in the brewpub to have a drink. It didn't take long for listening to Hardison’s self-congratulatory chatter to start making Eliot's skin crawl.

“Oh, no one but you coulda got into that system,” Eliot said, his face twisting up in mockery. “What about the guy and his mercenaries that got there before us and were already in? That I had to take out?” He dropped his empty shot glass on the bar and stood up. “I’m going to bed,” he said and escaped upstairs and into the spare bedroom before they could stop him.

He didn’t like the person he was becoming, nerves stretched taut and waiting for something to break. Something was clearly wrong, and if they weren’t gonna tell him, all he could do was prepare as best he could for whatever it was.

###

It got to the point where Eliot was so turned around by the way they were making sure he felt appreciated that he ended up punching the wall of the van in the middle of a job and snarling, “Dammit, Hardison, I said I’m not gonna sleep with you!”

Hardison just held up his hands and said, “We know, man, message received, loud and clear.”

Eliot tried not to feel like something was breaking inside him when Hardison said that. It was what he wanted, for them to know that he couldn’t be bought with sex, that he wasn’t going to fuck everything up by sleeping with them.

He expected, again, that it would all stop, but again, it didn’t. So he went to Parker, because- It wasn’t that he wanted them to stop (god, he didn’t want them to stop), but he knew they were gonna and figured it’d better be sooner rather than later, sooner before he... before he got any more reliant on it.

“I’m not gonna sleep with you,” he said, quietly, after dinner one night, “so you can stop-” but he couldn’t bring himself to actually put a name on what they were doing to him.

Parker just looked at him and said, “I know,” and sounded so fucking sad about it that it felt like something was tearing him open.

He found himself stammering out half sentences like, “It’s not-” and, “I mean-” and, “You’re both-” -- trying to explain how you don’t shit where you eat without actually saying that -- before Parker took pity on him.

“It’s okay,” she said, making what he was almost sure was an aborted move to pat his shoulder before walking away, leaving him alone with nothing but the dirty dishes to keep him company.

He folded his arms on the table and thunked his head against them, reminding himself that this was what he wanted. He wanted them to stop, and they were going to. It was better that way; they were making him softer and easier to break. He couldn't get too comfortable with people noticing him when his job relied on not to being noticed. He was the backup and the muscle and not- Not some needy kid who wanted to be praised every time he did his god damn job.

Except they didn’t fucking stop.

He worried at it and turned it over in his brain and tried to figure out what the fuck they were doing. They were just so fucking nice when he did something right. And every time they outright praised him, he could feel the back of his neck growing hot, even though he tried to tell himself he didn't care that much. He couldn’t stop himself from sneaking glances to them when he expected one of them to say something, just to see if this time was going to be the time they stopped (was what he told himself, but really he just wanted to see Parker’s blinding grin when she told him good job, and the way Hardison looked almost proud when Eliot did something that wasn’t exactly within his expected wheelhouse).

He was making breakfast one morning, weeks after he moved in, weeks after he had told them both individually that he was not going to sleep with them, and he was chopping up spinach, Hardison at the table with a laptop and Parker sitting on the counter next to Eliot.

“Your omelets are so good,” she told him, and he was sure she could see just how that made him feel, positive that his pleasure was showing up in the very outline of his body, positive she knew exactly what each little compliment did to him and maybe that was why they were doing it. Maybe it was a game to them, see how much we could make Eliot blush. Maybe they were laughing at his desperate need for- for some fucking approval from someone. Maybe that's what they talked about when they disappeared into their bedroom at night, a bedroom he still didn’t want to see (no matter how much there was a tiny piece of him screaming liar! liar! you’re a liar! every time he reminded himself of that).

He slammed the knife down, hard, onto the counter. “What the fuck are you doing?”

He was embarrassed at the way a piece of him was glad that they didn’t jump or flinch at the sudden violence, that they trusted him enough that Parker was still sitting there, the knife an inch from her thigh, her head cocked like he was a safe she’d never seen before and she was trying to puzzle him out.

They didn’t insult him by pretending that they had no idea what he was talking about. Instead, Hardison motioned to him and said, “Because of that.”

Eliot cringed internally and looked down at himself, trying to figure out what the fuck Hardison was talking about, what “that” meant.

Parker must’ve sensed his confusion because she added, “Because it makes you happy.”

Nothing could have prepared him for the burn of humiliation that swept through him at the realization that he was being that obvious.

“That’s all,” Hardison said. “We just want you to be happy, man. You spend so much time taking care of us, it’s only fair we try to, you know. Do the same.”

Parker was nodding along with what he was saying like it was obvious, and Eliot could feel his cheeks burning, knew that his eyes were skittering while he looked for an escape route because the conversation had somehow turned physically painfully.

“You don’t gotta do that,” he forced out. “I’m not gonna-”

“I think you’re missing the point, here,” Hardison said, and Parker added, “We want to.”

Eliot couldn’t deal with that. He needed to get out of there, breakfast be damned, so he turned off the stove and motioned to the door with a short, “I gotta-” Before they could say anything, he fled the apartment, cheeks still burning, chest feeling weird and tight.

He sat in his truck but didn’t go anywhere, didn't have anywhere to go. So he just sat there, where it was parked behind the brewpub, and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. He didn’t know what to do with people just wanting good things in his life and not expecting anything in return. It was an awful lot of effort to put into someone you didn’t even want to sleep with, he thought, and something ugly was swirling in him because he wanted- And they didn’t. They probably never had, because apparently this wasn't about trying to get in his pants, this was about-

They wanted him to be happy, but they didn’t want him, not the way he’d been assuming. He hadn’t realized how much the idea that maybe someday he was going to be good enough to deserve them, good enough that they would want him back for him, had been keeping him going.

Eliot didn’t know how long he’d been down there in the parking lot, but eventually a shadow fell over him, and Parker tapped on the window so he rolled it down for her.

“Do you want us to stop?” she asked, and she sounded small and unsure, like the Parker he’d first met who didn’t really get how people worked.

He couldn’t- He couldn’t make himself answer that question. Because no, he didn’t want them to stop; the entire thing had been torture because he didn’t want them to stop and knew that someday they were gonna. But he couldn’t say that, so instead he stayed silent and just looked at her.

She must’ve seen something in his gaze, because she nodded and said, “Okay,” Said, “We’re ordering Thai, do you want anything?”

He followed her back up to the loft and tried to ignore the way Hardison glanced at him quick and then looked away, tried not to feel ashamed of the way he’d run away from making them brunch so he could have a breakdown in his truck.

Parker went over and had a quick, whispered conversation with Hardison, and then Hardison was turning a grin on him and it made the ugly thing twisting in his stomach grow because he hadn’t done anything to earn that grin.

He thought that life would go back to the new normal, now that he wasn't worrying that there was an expiration date on what they were doing, except instead it just opened a whole new can of worms. Once he wasn’t spending all his time trying to figure out what they were doing, he had time to notice all the things they weren’t doing anymore. Like how Parker didn’t sit too close to him when he sat on the couch, and Hardison didn’t bump his shoulder affectionately with his anymore. There was suddenly careful space around him that no one intruded on, and he fucking hated it.

He would have assumed it was his breakdown in the truck that stopped everything, except he kept thinking back to before that. There were times when Parker had looked like she was going to punch his shoulder and didn't, or Hardison didn't force a hug on him. He wanted to ask what he had done wrong, if it wasn't running out on making them brunch to hide, but he couldn’t quite get over the what ifs. What if they looked at him and told him they had no idea what he was talking about. What if they told him there was nothing he could change to make the closeness come back. What if they told him it wasn’t them, it was him, and it was something unchangeable and he needed to leave.

The real kicker was that it meant all those little touches, all those little bits of closeness, were just because they had an end goal in mind. They weren’t because they liked him and wanted him to feel- they were because they wanted to get him in their bed at one point in time, and they'd stopped because they didn't anymore.

They weren’t kicking him out, though, not yet, at least. It was probably only a matter of time. He knew he should make it easy for them, but he couldn’t bring himself to give it up. He’d make himself scarce, and maybe they wouldn’t- maybe they’d let him stay on the fringes of their life. They might not want him anymore, but maybe they’d let him keep that much.

His plan wasn’t complicated. It was easy enough to tell Hardison and Parker that he had stuff to do when they started up a movie, easy enough to tell Hardison he was too tired to game with him. He told himself that it didn’t matter that when Parker hopped up on the counter on the other side of the sink from him to watch him make dinner instead of sitting so close he half-worried he’d catch her with the knife. But he stopped making complicated meals, stuck to basic things that didn’t take long to make, and ducked into his bedroom as soon as the dishes were done.

He started pushing himself harder on his morning runs, took them from long to grueling. While he was running, he didn’t have to think, could just lose himself in the pounding of his feet on the pavement and eventually he’d make it back to brewpub, wrung out and too exhausted to do anything other than shower fast and collapse at the table while breakfast for Parker and Hardison was cooking.

It was fine, he was fine, everything was fine.

###

“Is Eliot mad at us?” Parker asked, quietly, into the dark of their bedroom. Alec made a noise next to her. She felt him rolling over to look at her, but stayed on her back, staring at the ceiling. “He’s-” She made a frustrated noise. “He’s been acting weird for weeks. It’s too long for this to just be him feeling awkward because we told him we wanted him to be happy and weren’t trying to sleep with him anymore, right?”

“I don’t know,” Alec said, soft and serious. “Eliot’s, you know.”

She didn’t know, but nodded anyway. “Do you think he doesn’t want us to do that either?”

“What?” Alec asked. “Try to make him happy?”

“Maybe he just wants to be left alone,” Parker said, trying to keep her voice steady. “Maybe- Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe he was trying to tell me he wanted to be left alone and I didn’t get it.”

“No,” Alec immediately said. “No, that can’t- That’s not it, it-” He paused, the silence filled with the sound of his unsteady breathing and her own carefully controlled breaths.

“I miss Sophie,” Parker said. Sophie would’ve known what to do. She would have been able to look at Eliot and tell them what they were doing wrong and how to fix it.

“So do I,” Alec said, his words quiet enough to be almost lost under the sounds of the city around them. “We- I think we need to talk to him. Find out if- if we did something to offend him, how we can make it right again.”

That sounded awful, but she knew he was right. She made herself voice the little thought that had been bugging her for weeks. “Do you think he wants to move out?”

Alec’s “I don’t know” wasn’t the reassurance she was looking for.

“Okay,” she said and rolled over, hiding from the sad look on Alec’s face. Maybe things would be better in the morning.

###

One morning, before his run, Parker said, "We need to talk," and the bottom felt like it was dropping out of Eliot's world. He considered just running. Considered literally saying, "When I get back," and getting in his truck and just leaving.

It’d be easier, he thought, because then they wouldn’t have to actually tell him, and he could always wonder if maybe, if he’d stayed, it would’ve gone differently.

Instead, though, he turned around and walked back to the chair he usually sat in, dropped down in it and looked up at her.

"Hardison!" Parker hollered. "We're doing it now."

Eliot tried not to flinch away from that. They were going to do something to him, and he knew, he fucking knew that they were going to be breaking his goddamn heart all over again at best, because nothing good ever, ever came from those words. Not for him.

Hardison came in and dropped onto the couch next to Parker, their sides touching, and Eliot tried not to be jealous of how close they were sitting.

They both just watched him, for a long moment, until he finally snapped, "What?" just to start the conversation. The sooner it was over with, the sooner he'd be able to grab his go bag and go.

He should've started looking for a new apartment as soon as he agreed to move in. He never should've agreed to move in in the first place, should've kept his old apartment after he did, but he had thought that maybe…

"Did we…" Parker started, and then looked to Hardison, like she wasn't sure how to finish the sentence.

"Did we do something," Hardison finished for her, "to make you…" and then he drifted off.

Eliot felt like squirming in his chair. Maybe he had misinterpreted the whole thing, he realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

He shook his head, forced out a raw, "No, nothing you did."

They looked at each other, and then back at him. “Do you need some time off?" Parker finally asked, and he was grateful that they weren't just going to kick him out, but if they needed a break, needed space from him, he would go. All they’d ever needed to do was ask.

"No, I-" he croaked out, embarrassed by the way his throat was closing and his eyes were prickling, even though he had told himself he wasn't going to be upset by this because it was his own stupidity that got him into this situation in the first place. "No," he repeated.

"Then why-" Hardison started, looking just as frustrated as Parker did, only to be interrupted by Parker's harsh, "What's wrong with you?"

The only flinch Eliot allowed himself was a quick blink. "I don't- I don't know," he said. "I just thought- It was stupid. I oughta-" he hooked a thumb toward the room he'd been staying in, meaning he oughta go get his things and leave.

His eyes were burning, and he wasn't sure how long he could control himself, how long it would be before they started watering for real and he humiliated himself further. He went to get up, but Parker was suddenly in his space, pushing him down, and standing in front of him, her knees knocking against his for a minute until she took a step back. Not far enough that he could get up, but far enough that they weren't touching anymore.

By this point, he shouldn't be surprised when she did that. He shouldn't feel a sting of hurt, but every time they almost got up in his space and then backed off hurt just as much as the first time he noticed it.

"You thought what?" Parker asked. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she was staring at him belligerently, daring him not to answer.

He looked over to Hardison, but Hardison was no help, the way he was watching Eliot like he was worried. Like he was worried Eliot was going to-

Eliot cut off the thought with an unconscious shake of his head.

Parker was still staring at him, and he forced out, barely above a whisper, "Nothing."

A confused silence descended, and he couldn't take it anymore. He put his hands on her waist and moved her over just enough that he could get up and retreat to his room — no, not his room, the room they'd been letting him stay in — to grab what he could.

"Eliot-" Hardison said but Eliot didn't stop. His face was wet and it felt like his cheeks were flaming when he got to the room at the end of the hall and started rummaging through the closet, looking for his go bag and silently cursing that he'd let it get buried underneath a pile of things -- bags and bandages and boxes and just things that he didn't need, that he shouldn't have been keeping. You kept stuff at your home, and this had always been just a temporary stopping place before exactly this situation happened.

"Eliot," Hardison said, his voice not close enough for him to be inside the room, but too close anyway. Eliot rubbed a hand across his face and stilled, but didn't turn around. "Think we're having two different conversations here."

He forgot to breathe for a moment, then scrubbed his hands across his face again.

"What're you talking about?" he asked, his voice rough.

"We're trying to figure out why you're acting so weird," Parker said, sounding like she was closer than Hardison was. "This counts as weird. This is weird, right, Alec?"

"Yeah," Hardison said. “Definitely weird. What did you think we were talking about?"

"I-" Eliot said, and swallowed, hard, backing out of the closet until he could see them hovering in the doorway, then moving to the bed so he could collapse down to sit on it. "Nothing."

"Okay," Hardison said slowly, coming over and dropping down to sit next to him. There was a good six inches of space between them that Eliot was trying hard not to notice. Then Parker dropped down on the other side of him, another six inches away, and he couldn't be there anymore, had to stand up and move away instead of having to face how obviously they couldn't stand to be close to him anymore.

After a moment of silence, of collecting himself, he turned around, his arms were crossed over his chest. He forced himself to drop them, to look as nonchalant as he could, to look like none of this mattered to him.

"Did we do something?" Parker asked, leaning forward a little. "Do you want to move out?"

Eliot couldn't stop the choked noise he made at that any more than he could stop them from noticing it.

"Do you?" Hardison pressed. "You can just tell us, we're not gonna- We're not gonna try to keep you here if you don't wanna be here."

"It's okay if you do want to move out," Parker said, and it sounded so fucking rehearsed, like they'd stayed up late at night practicing this conversation over and over. This conversation where they weren't kicking him out.

"No," he said, cringing internally at how his voice broke on the word. "I don't."

He watched the floor while they watched him, waiting for whatever they were going to say next. Waiting for the conversation to make sense.

"Then why are you being so weird?" Parker finally asked when he glanced up, Hardison nodding along with her and looking at Eliot expectantly.

"I'm not being weird," he said, crossing his arms over his chest again and fighting the urge to move away, to sit down again and lean toward one of them, to just spill his guts and lay his soul bare and let them take what they wanted and leave him to put the pieces back together later.

"You are," she said stubbornly.

Hardison was still nodding, and when Eliot looked at him, he shrugged and said, "You are. You're not hanging out with us anymore. You're not- If you want this to be a- a business arrangement, fine, but if we done something…"

There was no way to say to them that they had broken his fucking heart, not when he hadn't expected anything out of them in the first place. Not when it was entirely on him that he- that they didn't want- Not when the problem had nothing to do with them and everything to do with him.

"Do you want to go back to this being a business arrangement?" Parker asked, eyeing him, and he didn't tell her that it hadn’t been a business arrangement for him since that first job.

"Do you want us to move out?" she demanded when he didn't answer. Hardison made a frantic face at her, but she just said, "What? You bought the pub for him anyway," and ignored Hardison's frantic shushing motions.

Eliot almost missed that last bit, too busy being filled with vague panic at the thought of them moving out and leaving him with nothing to fill the big, empty space but their ghosts.

"No," he was saying when the second thing registered. "I don't want-" He had to stop mid-sentence and stare at Parker, before turning enough to stare at Hardison.

"You bought-" he started, and then tried again. "I thought-"

Hardison wasn't looking at him, was looking anywhere but him, and he could feel Parker's eyes boring a hole in the side of his head. "Look, man," Hardison said. "It wasn't just- It was a good deal, okay."

Eliot's head was spinning a little. "Why would you…"

"Okay," Hardison said. "Why don't we turn this little ‘Interrogate Hardison’ train around and go back to figuring out what is wrong with you.”

"There ain't nothin’ wrong with me, Hardison," Eliot said, choking down the bubble of hysterical laughter that wanted to escape.

Parker was still staring at him, and when he turned back to look at her, she said, sounding frustrated, "Something's wrong, and you won't tell us what, so we can't fix it."

"There's nothing wrong!" he said. "I just-" he started before he bit back the words that wanted to escape.

"You just what?" Parker said. "Why are you so unhappy? We thought-"

"I'm fine," he said after she drifted off, a beat too late to come out as anything other than a lie.

"You're lying," she said, and he cursed every minute she had spent with Sophie.

"I'll be fine," he ground out, and added, "I just need some space," even though space was the last thing he wanted.

"We've been giving you space," Hardison pointed out. "I'm pretty sure more space is the same as us moving out, or you moving out. Are you sure that's not what you want?"

"Of course that's not what I want," Eliot snapped, and then ran a hand through his hair, because that was- that was too close to admitting that there were things he wanted.

Parker reached out and grabbed Hardison's hand. Eliot tried not to let himself stare at where there hands were connected, tried not to let himself be jealous of the way they had each other and he had no one and-

"Then what do you want?" Parker asked, jerking him out of his thoughts.

"It doesn't- Dammit, Parker," he said, feeling shaky at the way he'd almost outright said to them that it didn't matter what he wanted, that he wanted something from them that they couldn't give.

"You don't want to move out," Parker said slowly. "You want space, but we're already giving you space. You're avoiding us even though you say we didn't do anything, and it doesn't-"

"Look," Eliot said as he watched her get closer to figuring it out. "I gotta go-"

"No, you don't," she said, sure and confident. Hardison was raising his eyebrows at Eliot, daring him to disagree.

"There's nothing wrong," he tried, as Parker talked over him.

She continued listing off the facts that she had, watching him. "You like it when we say nice things about you. You don't want to sleep with us. You-"

He must've done something when she brought up the times he'd told them point blank he wasn't going to be pushed into their bed for the wrong reasons, because she stopped and cocked her head at him.

"No, that's not right, is it?" she said slowly. "You said you weren't going to sleep with us. Nothing about not wanting it."

"Semantics," Hardison muttered, and let out an "oof" when Parker elbowed him in the ribs.

"I-" Eliot said, his throat feeling tight. "I really gotta-" He took an involuntary step back, putting himself closer to the door, because this was awful. This was like laying himself bare for them without getting a choice in the matter, with them just ripping into his flesh to see what was underneath without caring for how it was going to be put back together.

"You don't," Parker said. She stood up, and he took another step backward, less involuntary this time.

"You do want to sleep with us, though," she said, and he couldn't force himself to shake his head no, couldn't make himself deny it even though it felt like she was pulling out a dirty secret by its threads. "You want to, but you're not going to."

"I don't get it," she added at the end, eyeing him and frowning slightly. He could see her trying to puzzle it out.

"You can't just manipulate people into feeling things, Parker," he said, ignoring Hardison's offended noise. "You can't just- I'm not gonna sleep with you just because you're suddenly being nice and want to know I'm not going anywhere. That's not how it works."

A hurt look crossed Parker's face, gone in a flash and replaced with a lack of expression so complete that he wanted to cringe, wanted to take back the entire conversation. Her quiet, "I know that," was almost entirely drowned out by Hardison's angry, "For fuck's sake, Eliot."

"Didn't we have this conversation?" Hardison was saying. "Am I the only one who remembers having this conversation?"

Eliot felt his insides twisting up into something terrible because Parker- Parker was looking at him, but it wasn't the Parker that hopped up on the counter next to him while he was cooking, or the Parker that hung upside down from the ceiling and watched him and Hardison play video games together. It was a Parker he wasn't sure he recognized, a Parker he didn't want to recognize because this Parker didn't even want to do those things. This Parker had shut down those things in favor of never being hurt again and it made him want to go back in time and burn down the world to make sure she never had to feel like that again.

"We're not trying to fucking manipulate you into anything," Hardison snapped at him. "We like making you happy whether you're-" He made a disgusted noise, reached up to rest a hand on the small of Parker's back.

Eliot couldn't help but shake his head as he watched her shifting her weight slightly backward into Hardison's touch. "It ain't- That's not-"

"It ain't what?" Hardison said, while Parker just watched Eliot. "It ain't fair? Because if Parker's right, what it looks like right now is just you thinking you can't have nice things and taking out your fucked-upness on us."

"Just because I want something don't mean it'd be a nice thing. Even I know that." Eliot said it before he could stop himself, biting his tongue as soon as the words were out and wishing he could take them back as they hung in the air between the three of them.

Parker made a small noise in the back of her throat and stood up fast, walking out of the room with a wide step around Eliot.

"You do what you gotta do, man," Hardison said, and followed her.

After a full minute of standing frozen in place, staring at the bed where the covers were still flattened where they had been sitting, he turned and walked out of the room. He didn't know what he expected, maybe for them to be in the living room or the kitchen, somewhere he could track them down and apologize, or fuck things up more. Instead, their bedroom door was closed and he could hear Hardison murmuring quietly behind it. Parker's replies were sharper and sadder, but still indistinct.

He went back to the bedroom and finished digging out his go bag, and then slipped out the front door, shutting it quietly behind him.

He sat in the truck for close to three hours, staring at the car parked in front of him in the lot, not sure what he was going to do.

He could- He could just leave, but the idea didn't fill him with any less dread than it had when he thought he was going to be kicked out. He reached for the key to start the engine half a dozen times, and stopped before he ever even touched the keyring, every time.

Maybe a year ago he would've run. Four years ago, he definitely would've run. But this had been-

Before he’d started fucking things up, it had been the best year of his life. He couldn't just let that go, couldn't even do it knowing they'd probably be happier if he just left.

So he grabbed the bag and went back upstairs, the anxiety in his chest heavier than that time he'd been dragged out in front of a firing squad.

He went back to the- his room. His room, goddamnit, and took out the few nonessential things in the bag -- the few things that he'd been hiding away just in case he had to make a quick exit because of them and not because, say, they needed to blow up the building again -- and put them away. Put them away, even though his gut was telling him it was a mistake, that he was gonna have to pack them right back up again as soon as he tried to talk to Parker and Hardison. Gut feelings had kept him alive most his life, but maybe... maybe it was time to stop relying on his, in this one circumstance, and start relying on someone else's.

Then he went and knocked on their bedroom door.

"What?" Parker said, and she sounded so goddamn tired he wanted to-

"I'm sorry," he said through the door, his voice hoarse. "I'm not- I don't wanna fuck up what we have."

"Yeah?" Hardison said, opening the door and standing there in a tank top, his arms crossed like he was guarding the entrance from Eliot. The thought hit him like a punch in the stomach. "How's that working out?"

"Not great," he admitted. "I don't- I'm sorry."

"You don't what?" Hardison asked. "You said you weren't gonna sleep with us and we backed off everything we was doing to try to get you to. It ain't like we tried to force your hand. So you don't what?"

"I don't know what to do," Eliot admitted, and it felt like defeat.

Hardison sighed, and moved to the side a little, letting Parker join him to fill the doorway and keep Eliot out. Her eyes were red rimmed, and Eliot could do nothing but offer another apology to her. "I'm sorry."

She stared at him for a long time, so long Eliot wanted to start to fidget under her gaze, so long that he had to force himself to keep meeting it, to not hunch his body inward and try to hide from her.

"Okay," she finally said.

"That-" Hardison said. "That's it? He says all this shit and you just-"

"He's sorry," Parker said, shrugging a little. "When people are sorry, you're supposed to forgive them."

"That- That is not how things go, no," Hardison said. "No, uh-uh, I'm still real angry and he can't just-"

"It's fine," Eliot said, pulling his shoulders in and shifting his weight to turn away and give him space. "You don't gotta- It's fine."

"I will though," Hardison said before he could move. "Eventually. You know that, right?"

Eliot could feel his entire body slump in relief without his permission. "Yeah," he lied. "I know."

Parker darted out and kissed his cheek, lightning fast, before slipping back under Hardison's arm. "You don't have to do anything," she said. "But-" she glanced up at Hardison. "But we're right here, when you- if you change your mind."

Eliot swallowed, hard, around the sudden lump in his throat. "Thanks," he said, and forced himself to turn away, to walk to the kitchen and start a late lunch with hands that wanted to shake.

It took Hardison two days before he stuck his head into Eliot's room and asked if he wanted to play Call of Duty, and Eliot decided to take that as a sign that, if he wasn't forgiven, then he was getting there.

###

Over the next month, Parker and Hardison spent a lot of time carefully asking Eliot if he wanted to do things with them. They never looked hopeful, but always looked relieved that he said yes. The lack of pushing did a lot to make it easier for Eliot to be around them. One night, after the movie had wound down and he'd put away leftovers and couldn't delay any longer, he screwed up his courage and said, "Is- Is the offer still open? For, you know-" He made an awkward, abortive gesture that he hoped conveyed something a lot more smooth-sounding than "lots of sex," or "dating me," because he was pretty sure they were offering at least one of those things.

"Yeah," Hardison said, and "Always," Parker said.

Something that had been coiling tight inside of him since their fight started to loosen at Parker and Hardison's identical grins. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to happen, but it wasn’t for Parker to slide over on the couch and pat the seat between her and Hardison.

“C’mere,” she said. When he looked to Hardison, Hardison nodded and echoed her, his grin fading to a soft smile that made Eliot's heart speed up in his chest. “C’mere.”

He went. As soon as he was sitting down, Parker swung a leg over to straddle his lap, planting her hands on the back of the couch on either side of his shoulders. His hands automatically came up to rest on her waist, not holding her there, but just for something to ground himself with. She didn’t give him time to think about what she was planning, just bent down and fit her mouth against his.

For all the swiftness of the gesture, her touch was gentle, her lips soft and sweet. She pulled his bottom lip into her mouth and bit down on it, not hard enough to hurt, but enough to make his cock take notice, hard enough that his mouth parted involuntarily and she could let go of his lip and slip her tongue inside.

He let himself get lost in the slick slide of her tongue against his, in the exploration of her mouth, in the wet sound of their mouths moving together. It felt like an age before Parker pulled back a little, opening her eyes and licking her lips, a satisfied smile on her face.

“My turn,” Hardison said, his pupils blown. For half a moment, Eliot thought that he meant with Parker, but Parker was already running her hands down over Eliot’s chest and then up under his shirt. He shivered, both from her touch and from Hardison’s fingers on his chin, turning his head until Hardison could slot their mouths together.

Eliot didn’t waste time, instead parted his lips and licked his way into Hardison’s mouth. He tasted sweeter than Parker, and he made greedy little sounds in the back of his throat that went straight to Eliot’s cock.

Parker made an appreciative noise as she rucked up his shirt, spreading her fingers across his ribs. She moved them slowly, carefully, and it took him a minute to work out what she was doing, that she was tracing the scars. He remembered, suddenly, why he usually didn’t take off his clothes when he was sleeping with people unless the lights were dimmed.

“Sorry, I-” he said, breaking away from Hardison, who was looking mildly dazed.

But Parker shook her head. “I like them,” she said. “They mean you survived.”

He had to swallow hard at that, and lean toward Hardison to catch his mouth again and hide the way it felt like Parker had reached into his core and pulled out the right words to make him feel almost -- almost -- loved, hide how much that meant to him. Not just that she wasn’t pulling away, but that someone cared that he survived. That there were people who were glad he’d escaped everything thrown at him with nothing more than a few scars to remember it by.

He must not have been entirely successful in hiding the effect her words had, because Hardison’s hand was gentle on his cheek, thumb sweeping back and forth, and he softened the kiss to gentle presses of lips against lips that had Eliot feeling shaky inside. Parker’s hands skimmed over bruises she usually liked to poke at; she didn't linger on the freshly-healed skin that was still sensitive and kept her touch gentle on his skin. She bent down and dragged her teeth along the tendon in his neck, closed her teeth over the spot where his neck met his shoulder.

Eliot couldn’t stop the yelp that escaped him at that, couldn’t stop the way his hips jerked. His pants were distinctly uncomfortable, and he really wished that they could move somewhere else. The bed in his room was a twin, though, and he wasn’t sure if they would let him inside their bedroom, not- not yet anyway.

Parker gentled her bite and sucked at his neck, hard, raising a hickey on the skin there. It felt like she was marking him, showing the world that he belonged to somebody now, that he was permanent enough to mark up. He tried not to let them feel the pleased shudder that ran through him at that, but it was hard, with Parker on top of him and Hardison pressed against his side.

“How about we take this somewhere more comfortable?” Hardison asked, pulling back from Eliot’s lips just enough for Eliot to nod. He went in for one more swift kiss before he let Hardison back off, and then put his hands behind Parker’s thighs so she wouldn’t fall when he stood up. She just twined her arms around his neck and clenched her legs around his waist, kissing him until he was lightheaded and staggered a little under her weight.

“To the bedroom,” she directed, undulating her hips against him.

Hardison was lazily palming his cock through his jeans, and for a brief, fierce moment Eliot wished he could be the one doing that. He wished he could drop to his knees right there and swallow Hardison down. Instead, he let Hardison lead the way, so focused on the feeling of Parker's lips on his neck and finally being able to look that he almost walked into the edge of the doorway.

"He's got a great ass," Parker said, twisting around in Eliot's grip to follow his gaze.

"I know," Eliot said absently, his head clouded with lust, and had a panicked moment of worrying that admitting that he already knew that -- that he'd been looking beforehand -- was too far. Then Hardison added a little shimmy to his walk and turned his head to leer at them, and the worry leeching away was almost a physical relief.

As soon as they crossed the threshold, Parker dropped to the ground and pulled her shirt off, then her bra. She stood there, eyeing them both; her nipples were pebbled and the thought of being able to lay her down on the bed and suck on them had Eliot's mouth watering and his cock throbbing.

“You should get undressed,” she said, and he wasn’t sure which one of them she was talking to, or if she was talking to both of them at once, but he stripped out of his clothes faster than he’d ever done before.

By the time he was naked, Hardison was crowding up behind him, pressing against him and smoothing a hand down Eliot’s front to his hard cock. Parker skinned out of her pants and sat down on the bed, her hand going to work between her thighs as she watched them.

“You like this?” Hardison asked, his voice rough, and Eliot could only nod as Hardison stroked slowly over his cock and thumbed the slit, spreading the little bit of precome that had leaked out as he did. Eliot’s hips stuttered forward, and he let out a choked off whimper when Hardison let go and pushed him gently toward the bed.

Parker had her legs spread and was rubbing her fingers over her clit, occasionally dipping them into her cunt and thrusting shallowly before going back to rubbing her clit. It made Eliot’s mouth go dry with want.

“Can I-” he started, feeling his cock throb as he watched her fingers move.

“Get on the bed,” she said, and Hardison reinforced the idea with another little push, like Eliot might change his mind.

He crawled onto the bed as Parker scooted back and around until she was sitting against the headboard and there was room for him between her thighs. As he got closer, he could smell her, and wanted nothing more in the world than to bury himself in her cunt. She guided his head down with a hand in his hair, and he happily spread her folds and licked a long stripe up between them, making her shudder beneath him.

He could feel Hardison behind him, and wasn’t surprised when he felt a hand caressing his ass, squeezing and kneading at the flesh there as he licked and nibbled gently at Parker’s clit.

“You’ve got one fine ass,” Hardison said approvingly, and Eliot was glad that his head was hidden between Parker’s thighs so they couldn’t see the blush staining his cheeks; was glad that he was laying on the bed so they couldn’t see the way his cock jerked.

He pulled away from Parker a little, replacing his tongue with his fingers, so that he could say, “Yeah? You wanna fuck me? While I’m eating her out?”

Hardison swore, and Parker seemed to like the idea, if the moan she let out was anything to go by.

“Yeah,” Hardison said. “You good with that?”

“I wouldn’t be offering it if I wasn’t,” Eliot said, too busy watching his fingers slide in and out of Parker’s wet heat to put as much exasperation into it as the question warranted. His thumb worked over her clit, a counterpoint to his fingers, and he was able to feel every minute movement of her hips.

Parker tugged his hair, making him look up at her. “Roll over,” she said. “I want to sit on your face until you make me come.”

He could feel every pound of his heartbeat in his cock as he licked her taste off his lips and rolled over. A drawer opened and closed off to his side, and then Hardison was easing one of Eliot’s legs up and running a finger over his hole and pressing inside.

Parker lowered herself over his face, and he lost himself for a minute, in the taste of her on his tongue and the feeling of Hardison slowly working him open.

“You’re so good at this,” Parker gasped out, grinding down on his tongue. “You’re so good-”

His cock jerked, and he was glad again that his face was hidden because even though he knew that she didn’t mean it -- even though he knew that it was just the start of an unfinished sentence -- something hot was burning through him at her words.

“I think he likes that,” Hardison said as he worked a second finger into Eliot’s ass.

“You like being told how good you are?” Parker asked. Eliot could feel a hot flush of embarrassment spreading through him, but he couldn’t deny the way his cock twitched again at her words, the way he was harder than he’d ever been just because she’d told him he was good.

He didn’t nod, though, just sucked on her clit to distract her from the thought. He alternated pressing on her clit with his tongue and gentle sucking, glad she wasn't pressing for him to answer. She tasted sweet and tangy, and no matter how long he did this, he'd never get enough.

Hardison was working his fingers in and out of Eliot's ass, brushing over his prostate with every thrust. He was grinding back down on Hardison’s fingers, shamelessly trying to get him to move faster, but Hardison was maddeningly slow, rubbing what he probably thought were soothing circles with his other hand on Eliot's hip. Instead, it was maddeningly not enough and he reached down to grab Hardison's hand to make him stop. Hardison did, but then tangled his fingers with Eliot's and squeezed, and Eliot wasn't sure that was better.

Parker moaned above him, the sound going straight to his cock. She was so wet that he could feel his face growing slick as she ground down against his tongue. He pressed it against her in short, quick little beats, making her let out a shuddering moan again, and he could feel the sheet beneath him moving like she was fisting it as she rode his face.

Hardison still seemed determined to drag out preparing him a torturous amount, and if Eliot's mouth hadn't been busy he would've been swearing and begging Hardison to just fuck him already. At that rate, Eliot was going to be able to get Parker off more than once before Hardison could slide into him.

Like she was reading his mind, Parker ground down on him harder and he pressed his tongue up against her until she was shouting and coming, distracting him from Hardison’s fingers. He kept his tongue pressed against her through the aftershocks, tasting as much of her as he could, before she was shifting off of him and baring his face, wet with her juices, to the world.

She bent down and kissed him, hard, licking her own taste from his lips and making a satisfied hum. Hardison was still dragging his fingers in and out of Eliot's ass, slow as anything. Eliot’s skin felt too small for his body. His cock was hard and leaking a wet spot onto his abs, twitching every time Hardison brushed over his prostate. Hardison had to know how desperate Eliot was by now, but he just kept teasing him with his fingers, not giving him enough to come.

Parker pulled back enough to say, “You taste good.”

“That’s you that tastes good, darlin’,” he said, his breath shuddering out of his body as Hardison withdrew his fingers. Eliot tried not to whimper at the empty feeling that left behind.

Something must’ve shown on his face, though, because Parker cupped his cheek, crooning, “It’s okay, you’re doing so good. You’re so good for us.”

Eliot had to turn his head away, his face hot and eyes prickling, as his cock jerked. Her fingers were gentle on his chin as she tried to turn his face back to her, but he resisted, refusing to look at them, especially not with Hardison still rubbing gentle circles on his hip, waiting for some unknown signal to fill Eliot with the cock he was desperate for.

He wished they could go back thirty seconds, to when Parker wasn’t lying to him -- or, at least, deluding herself into believing she wasn’t lying -- and his cheeks weren’t flaming and everything was just about sex.

“Hey,” Hardison said, and Parker’s fingers were insistent on Eliot’s cheek, so he finally turned his head and stared at the wall behind them. “Maybe now’s not the time to say it but-”

“Then don’t,” Eliot spit out, not wanting to hear whatever was coming next. “Can you just-”

He flicked his eyes over to Hardison, who, after a moment, seemed to give up. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry.” Then Hardison was hooking Eliot’s leg over his shoulder and sliding into him in one slow, easy push. “Fuck, you’re so-”

Hardison’s eyes were closed, and he was bent down low enough that Eliot could push himself up and claim Hardison’s lips, could eat the words Hardison was trying to say and make sure they never saw the light of day.

“C’mon, is that all you got?” Eliot said, when Hardison didn’t look like he was planning to speed it up any time soon. “I thought you were gonna fuck me, not-”

Eliot’s words cut off with a grunt as Hardison snapped his hips forward, hard, driving the air out of Eliot’s lungs. He fisted his hands in the blankets and let his head drop to the side so he could see Parker, who was fucking herself with her fingers while she watched them.

“You feel so good,” Hardison gasped out. “So hot.”

“So good,” Parker said, her fingers glistening as she pulled them out of her cunt and started rubbing her clit. She worked over it slowly, and Eliot couldn't tear his eyes away. He was so damn lucky to be in bed with her and Hardison.

Eliot was so hard it bordered on painful, and not even the bright flush of embarrassment at their words could stop him from moaning at the feeling of Hardison’s cock sliding in and out of him, at the lust in Parker’s eyes as she watched and fingered herself.

Hardison reached a hand between them and curled his fingers around Eliot’s cock. It wasn’t enough to get him off, so Eliot dragged his eyes away from Parker and covered Hardison’s hand with his own, making the loose circle of his fingers tighter. Hardison was watching him, a soft smile on his face. He opened his mouth to say something and Eliot, desperate not to hear whatever it was, put a hand on the back of Hardison's neck and pulled him down for another kiss.

Hardison gave as good as he got, and by the time they broke apart Eliot was panting and Hardison was grinning down at him as he stroked Eliot's cock. Between Hardison’s cock in his ass and their joined hands on his own cock, Eliot could feel himself getting close, his world shrinking down to just sensation. He needed a push to get over the edge, but before he could do anything, Hardison's cock glanced over his prostate and that was enough to make him come, the orgasm wrung out of him, so intense he couldn't make a sound.

When he opened his eyes -- he didn’t remember closing them, but must have at some point -- Parker was coming, biting her bottom lip and shuddering until she flopped, boneless, onto the bed beside Eliot. She turned her head just enough that she could kiss him, could run her tongue over the roof of his mouth and teeth.

It didn't take long after that for Hardison to come with a sharp cry and collapse over them both, his cock slipping out of Eliot’s ass. He lay sloppy kisses on both of them when they broke apart, and rolled off them, panting, to lay on Eliot’s other side.

“You're so good,” Hardison said, laying wet, open kisses down the line of Eliot’s neck.

“Don’t,” Eliot croaked out. “I’m not-”

“You are,” Parker said suddenly. “You’re ours, and you are.”

He felt trapped, suddenly, and skittish, and he nearly jumped when Parker laid a hand on his chest, right over his heart, and Hardison covered her hand with one of his. They were both looking down at him, faces serious like they weren’t laying in bed, naked and exhausted from sex, and he felt like an ant under a magnifying glass.

"Just so there's no misunderstandings again," Hardison said, quiet and intense like this was something important. Eliot braced himself, tensing; Parker slipped her hand out from under Hardison's and ran it down Eliot's side, soothing and gentle.

"No misunderstandings," Parker echoed. There was nowhere for Eliot to look but at them, and he had been already planning his escape, how to slip out before they kicked him out, but it looked like he was too late for that.

"This isn't just a one-time thing for us," Hardison continued. "We want you for as long as you'll have us."

“You’re our good Eliot,” Parker said seriously, and Hardison nodded, and Eliot settled back against the bed, warmth blooming in his chest.

He was theirs, and that was what mattered.

THE END