It's different for Eliot, Nathan decides.
Nate is the one who was married, who had a child, a family for God's sake, and who had honestly believed that he'd gotten over this "phase" in senior high, when Marc Russell blew him behind the gym after soccer practice and almost bit off his dick.
Eliot, on the other hand, is a – well, it's the truth – a criminal, a man who kills for a living; people expect him to be into knifeplay and bondage anyway – getting fucked in the ass is fairly tame compared to that.
He tells Eliot as much (in phrases slightly more polite) and wishes he'd kept his mouth shut as soon as the words are out.
"Is that what you think of me?" Eliot asks, voice oscillating between disbelief and disappointment, and then he walks out and doesn't talk to Nathan for a week.
(To say that Eliot is a private person is like saying that summer in Texas can get quite warm sometimes; he doesn't flaunt his feelings, and doesn't feel the need to hold hands with the person he likes, much less in the presence of other people.
But he doesn't see why he should hide his sexual preferences either; when someone doesn't like it, Eliot doesn't hesitate to tell them what he thinks about that, and the smart ones don't give him shit about it twice. He doesn't want promise rings or declarations of love, but he won't be anybody's dirty secret either – and that more than anything else is what makes him go back to his own place that night when he'd rather curl up on the couch with Nate.)
Nathan convinces the others that they fought over a job, and knows that there's no need to worry, because even if they didn't believe him, he's sure Eliot isn't going to tell them the truth.
But that doesn't change the fact that he's miserable. He has grown used to having Eliot in his bed at night, clinging to him like he's afraid that Nate might disappear if he lets go for too long, and the now empty space to his left makes it difficult to fall asleep.
He misses Eliot's cooking, the smell of his sweaty shirts and expensive shampoo, and the way the skin around his eyes crinkles softly when he laughs.
Also, his cock doesn't seem to have gotten the memo either, because it cannot be convinced to ignore Eliot's presence; still perks up whenever the man rolls up the sleeves of his shirt, runs a hand through his long, soft hair.
It takes two days of apologizing and begging and (literally) going down on his knees to make Eliot cave. The make-up sex is spectacular, and Eliot seems willing to let the matter rest, which Nate realizes, somewhere in the back of his mind, is so much more than he deserves.
"Thank God", Hardison says, grinning widely, perched on the edge of Nate's desk. "You fixed it."
"What are you talking about?" Nate asks suspiciously, and Hardison raises a brow.
"Well, whatever you did to Eliot."
"Who says I'm the one who did something?" Nate asks indignantly, because really, this whole thing has not been entirely his fault, even if he can hardly explain that to Alec.
"Dude, come on", Hardison says, "I might not be Sophie and read people's minds, but I still can see when Eliot is sulking." He pulls a face. "Actually, everyone can – man, he behaves like a weevil with a tooth ache when he's in that kind of mood."
Nate is not sure if he's more perturbed about the cryptic metaphor or about the fact that Hardison seems to know more about Eliot's tempers than he does. "Excuse me?"
Hardison takes a swig of his soda, deliberately ignoring Nate's interruption. "And nobody wants to see that, right? So, whatever you did to stop it – thank you, man, well done."
They take on a new job a few days later, and Nate has to convince Sophie that stealing from a woman for once has nothing to do with her gender, but everything with her less than ethical business methods; he soothes Parker who for some reason turns out to be terrified at the prospect of crossing a pineapple plantation; and then Hardison throws a fit because apparently it's not appropriate to bug the female supervillain's bathroom, which starts the whole sexism discussion off again.
"This is exactly why they can't know", he says that night, stretched out on the couch next to Eliot, watching the game with one eye. This, if nothing else, is something he thinks Eliot will understand.
"I'm not sure I know what you are getting at", Eliot says. His face is blank, though his mouth is tense around the corners.
"I'm their leader", Nate says, feeling like he's stating the obvious. "They need to be able to respect me."
Eliot looks pained. "Nate", he starts, then stops and sighs. "They do respect you."
"Because they don't know."
Eliot reaches for the remote and switches off the TV. His jaw is clenched, his eyes narrowed, and Nate realizes that this conversation isn't going exactly the way he wanted it to.
"They know you're an alcoholic, Nate. They've seen you completely wasted; and they still trust you."
"That's different", he says, almost believing it, and watches how Eliot's face turns into something very ugly.
"So", he says slowly, voice flat and cold. "What – vomiting all over your living room and crying for your ex-wife, for God's sake, like the pathetic drunk you are doesn't make you less of a man, but sucking cock does?"
It's by far the most cruel thing Eliot has ever said to him, and Nate flinches as if he's been struck. From the way his chest hurts, Eliot might as well have.
Eliot goes out that night, and shows up at the office the next morning with scraped knuckles and a bruise on his face, and Nate feels inexplicably guilty.
(A few years ago, Eliot spent 18 months in Florence State Prison, Arizona; and for most of that time, he had what they usually call a prison bitch.
A young man, more a boy than a grown-up still, pretty and small and obviously gay, and scared out of his mind when he arrived. The first night, two members of the Latino gang at Eliot's block cornered him after dinner; the next day, Eliot arranged for him to be transferred to his own cell, and nobody dared to touch him after that.
Two weeks later, the boy sobbed I love you's into Eliot's neck while he was riding his cock, and Eliot found that he felt more at home than he had in a long time, despite the bars on the windows and the prison garb around his knees.
When the boy died, it wasn't really anybody's fault – his appendix burst because he put off seeing the doctor for too long, and he was dead before Eliot could even call for help. Everyone, including the guards, came to tell Eliot how sorry they were, and most of them probably meant it; Eliot just hated that there was nobody he could kill for it.
Two days later, he broke out; and did his best to forget the boy's name.)
"Are you alright?", Sophie asks him later that day, when they are alone in the conference room. The others have left hours ago; Nate didn't ask Eliot whereto, and he doubts that he would have gotten an answer.
"Yeah", Nathan replies absent-mindedly, staring into his whiskey glass, and he can't even be bothered to try and make it more convincing.
"Does this have anything to do with Eliot's ..." She gestures vaguely towards her face.
"Damn it!" Nate growls, slamming the glass down on the table. "Why is everybody asking me that?"
To tell the truth, nobody has asked him so far; but Nate still cannot help feeling like he's under observation, as if everyone is just waiting for him to do something, to make it alright.
"Okay, fine", Sophie nods, voice placating and smooth; clearly not convinced, but apparently deciding to let it go. "I just wanted to make sure you are ... you know."
"I'm fine", he answers tiredly, raising a heavy hand to rub his neck. "Just – tense."
"Oh", Sophie makes, thoughtfully, and Nate knows what she's going to say before she even starts to speak.
There is a rule that says: No getting massages from people you work, but don't sleep with; and whom you intend to work with for a while, but don't plan to sleep with any time soon.
It's a good rule, that much is clear; but Nate was tense, and tired; angry at Eliot for getting into fistfights, and for getting Nate into this mess; and Sophie was right there, and – well.
"You realize that she has still, like, a crush on you?" Parker asks in a conversational tone.
She is in his kitchen when he comes home, eating dry granola out of the package, and Nate gets as far as to raising his eyebrows before she goes on: "I mean, I don't really understand why, because, let's face it, Hardison and Eliot are both much younger than you, and better looking, and I bet that their p - ..."
"Yes, Parker, thank you", Nate snaps, because he already knows how big Eliot's cock is, and there's really no way he's going to think about Hardison's – or if he is, he isn't going to discuss it with Parker.
She shrugs and chews, swallows. "I'm just saying", she says sweetly. "If you want her, just go on and do her already – and if you don't, you might want to think about telling her that."
"I don't want to hurt her", Nate says.
"Who?" Eliot asks, lazily, and maybe it's not the best idea to bring this up when they are still revelling in the afterglow of what has been an amazing fuck; but Eliot is always so relaxed after sex, soft and pliant, and Nate has taken advantage of this state of his before, after he found out that Eliot will agree to almost anything when he's like this.
"Sophie", Nate answers, and feels Eliot tensing against him before he's even finished speaking.
"What about her?" Eliot asks, voice rough, not raising his head from where it rests on the pillow.
Nate grimaces; reaches out to comb his fingers through Eliot's hair in what he hopes is a soothing gesture, more relieved than he likes to admit when Eliot doesn't pull away.
"It's just –" he says. "Come on, you know that she likes me. Everyone does. But we still have to work together, and if I blew her off ... don't you think it would cause trouble?"
Eliot finally turns around, and Nate's hand drops. "And all that unresolved and misdirected sexual tension doesn't? Most of the time, she's so busy analyzing you that she can hardly remember the job."
"That's not fair", Nate says defensively. "She doesn't deserve this."
"But she deserves being led on by you?" Eliot asks sharply, sitting up abruptly. He climbs out of bed, starting to pick up clothes off the floor, and Nate thinks that this is apparently becoming a habit – Eliot walking out on him – until he gets hit in the face with his shirt, and realizes that they are at Eliot's place tonight.
Eliot has never kicked him out before, always leaves himself when things get ugly, and Nate feels so humiliated that his hands are shaking when he buttons his pants. Eliot has put on his boxers and is waiting for him to leave, silently, arms crossed over his chest.
"You know what I think?", Nathan says, stopping in the doorway on his way out. "I think you are not even trying to understand."
Eliot stares, stony-faced. "And you know what I think?" he replies icily. "I think you really need to figure out what you want."
(Eliot has been left before.
There was Aimee, for once, who married someone else while Eliot was gone; there was the boy, whose name he tries not to remember, who died too young in Eliot's arms. People have left him because they had to; or because Eliot left them first, and too many times.
People have said "You know it's too dangerous" or "I can't wait forever"; they've said "Do you even love me?" and "I can't leave my wife".
But none of them, ever, left him because of who he is. That is, until now.)
Nathan survived the separation from his wife and the death of his son; he survived becoming a killer, survived being shot – he thinks he should be able to survive this, as well.
He'll live, Nathan is sure: It's, after all, not the end of the world.
And then Eliot gets hurt.
And Nathan finds himself wringing his hands in the waiting room of the Oregon Burn Center at the Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, thinking that if Eliot dies today, not knowing how Nate really feels about him, this will be just one more thing he'll never be able to forgive himself – and he's not sure he'd be strong enough to live with that.
He knows that he should probably try and comfort the others. Sophie is pacing, nervously sipping on a cup of dreadful hospital coffee. Parker looks like she's about to lose it any second now, and only Hardison's arm around her shoulders is keeping her quiet; of course, Hardison is shaking himself, as pale as his dark teint allows – and all Nate does is sit there and stare, and try to break the bones in his left hand with the fingers of the right.
"How is he?" he asks the doctor when he finally appears, and only when the doctor glares at him disapprovingly, he realizes that his hand is clenching tightly around the sleeve of his scrubs.
"Are you family?" the doctor asks coolly, raising a brow, and Nate wants to punch him in the face.
"I'm his lover", he says without thinking, and the doctor gives him a suspicious look.
"Are you married?" he asks, sounding almost bored. "In a domestic partnership? Because otherwise ...."
Nate stares, helplessly. It's easy to fake marriage certificates, even those issued by the state of Massachusetts; but of course they haven't done that, because, he suddenly realizes, this was not part of their plan.
"They aren't yet", he hears Hardison saying, smoothly, and if he is surprised by Nathan's slip-up, he hides it well. "But the date is next month. Oh, and this is Robert's sister – do you need to see an ID? Good, because she's really not feeling well ... Could you tell us now how he is? You understand that we all are really shocked and – God, how did that even happen?"
Nobody can resist Hardison's flow of words for long, and the doctor is no exception.
They finally end up in the cafeteria, with more of the disgusting coffee and vacuum-packed crackers; and Nate blindly stares out of the window, crumbling a tasteless cookie to dust in his hands.
He needs a drink.
"You know", Hardison says casually, leaning into his field of sight. "They always believe me when I say that I'm Eliot's boyfriend. And I am just pretending."
Nate's head whips around. Hardison is looking at him with something that could be amusement under all the exhaustion and pain.
"What", Hardison asks. "You really thought we couldn't tell that you were telling the truth?"
"Well, this actually explains a lot", Sophie says slowly. She doesn't sound angry, or even really sad; and when Nathan looks at her, she's smiling, albeit a bit wistfully.
"You could have told me" Parker pouts, rocking back and forth on her somewhat rickety plastic chair. "You let me give you relationship advice." She sniffs.
"Uhm", Nate says, dumbfounded. "It was still good advice."
Parker beams, bringing the chair to an abrupt halt.
"So why didn't you tell us?" Hardison asks, and when Nate looks around, three pairs of eyes are staring at him, all open curiosity.
"Do you trust us so little?" Sophie frowns. "You didn't think we'd actually disapprove, now, did you?"
Nate doesn't say that this is exactly what he thought, because he's got a feeling that it would not be well received.
"Wait", Hardison suddenly says, "is this what you were arguing about?"
Nate nods and buries his face in his hands, and prays with all his heart that Eliot is going to wake up, if only to say "I told you so."
(It's not the first time Eliot has woken up in a hospital. He tries to avoid it, usually, by crawling out of the ambulance while it stops at a red light; by forcing a male nurse to strip down to their underwear and sneaking out of the building in their uniform; by fleeing in the middle of the night.
Still, sometimes it just can't be helped – you have to be conscious to escape, after all. So from experience, he knows: Waking up in a hospital means paperwork, and unwelcome questions, and people who don't believe him when he says that he's fine. Most of all, though, it means waking in pain, confused – and alone.
So waking up to Nathan's head resting on the bed next to his, eyes closed and neck bent; his wrist firmly clasped in Nathan's hand, while Sophie smiles at him from across the room – that's a bit of a surprise.
But when he shifts carefully and feels Nathan's fingers tighten around his hand, he thinks it's one he can live with.)