They received plenty of advice when they got together. From pretty much everybody.
Most of it was of the form: "That's great, I'm happy for you, but if you want a stable relationship, you're simply going to have to move past your immature habits/videogame addiction/dangerous job/grumpy attitude/fear of intimacy/behaviors that don't quite scream 'settling down material' or even, in some cases, 'normal human.'"
Things didn't actually happen quite the way everyone said they would. But it turned out there really were some things, some parts of who they used to be, that they had to move on from.
So that's what they did. In order to stay together, every single one of them had to find a way to move past the things that held them back.
But it wasn't easy.
The morning after the first night they shared a bed, Eliot woke up to the sound of Alec snoring and the weight of Alec's arm across his chest. Eliot rubbed his eyes and mumbled, "Where's Parker?"
"Ngrfhhh," Alec mumbled.
Eliot poked at Alec's shoulder gently.
"Wha — huh?"
Alec sat up and rubbed his face with the palm of his hand, and Eliot tried not to smile at the view. It was way too early in the relationship to use words like "adorable" without getting a glare in return.
But Alec was concerned about Parker too, so they got up and looked around until they found her curled up and sleeping on top of Eliot's dryer.
Hardison reached over to wake her but Eliot's hand stopped him.
Alec gave him a look that said, "Really?"
Eliot gave him a look back that Alec interpreted to mean, "I know I'm overprotective and that's a serious flaw of mine, but we both know Parker can be unpredictable and it's never a good idea to surprise a sleeping person."
It is of course possible that Eliot's look meant, "I don't care what you think, if it doesn't involve a keyboard, then it's my call." But Alec was feeling rather blissful and was inclined to give Eliot the benefit of the doubt.
A moment later, Eliot gave him another look, and there was no doubt that it meant, "I told you so"; Parker had lashed out when Eliot had placed a light hand on her arm, and anyone but Eliot would have ended up with a kick to the jaw.
"Sorry," she said, looking around as if she were confused. "Sorry, I… Sorry."
"It's okay, darlin'." Eliot smiled at her.
"We missed you, so we went looking," Alec told her, and a slow, shy smile crossed her face.
"You like having me around," she said, as if the thought were some flattering news that she had just figured out, and she grinned as she jumped off the dryer.
"Nothing better," Alec said, as he, then Eliot, kissed her.
"Who wants breakfast?" Eliot said then, and Parker and Alec quickly listed a variety of breakfast and non-breakfast foods they thought Eliot should make them. And as they headed into the kitchen for some Crepes Suzette, smoked salmon omelets, and meatball subs, Eliot and Alec assumed that Parker would be fine now that she knew she was always welcome.
Of course, the next time they woke up without her, she was sleeping in the bathtub. The time after, she was on Eliot's kitchen counter, holding a large bag of oatmeal like it was a stuffed animal. Eliot and Alec said nothing those times, just tried to make her feel like everything was fine, like it really didn't bother them that they had no idea what was going on inside her head.
But then the time after that, it took them an hour to find her. The night before had also been the first time Hardison — completely against his will — had mumbled amid their groping, "I fucking love you both so much." They all just kept moving their mouths and hands across one another's bodies, but there was no denying that they heard him, and even if Eliot and Parker couldn't say it back yet, their hands and lips had grown more urgent, so Hardison had taken it as a win.
But then they woke up and couldn't find Parker. And that didn't feel like a coincidence.
Her pants and shoes were still on the bedroom floor so they felt moderately certain she didn't walk outside half naked. Actually Hardison was quite certain, and Eliot wasn't certain at all, but Hardison figured that averaged out to moderately certain.
So they looked and looked until Eliot just started yelling her name loud enough to wake the neighborhood, at which point they finally found her.
Or she found them. She popped in view of the frame of the upstairs window in the room where they were shouting.
She was upside down. Hanging from the roof outside. Yawning.
"Where have you been?" Eliot said, trying not to sound upset.
"Sleeping," she answered, as if it were a stupid question, as she fluidly flipped into the open window to stand in front of them.
"On the roof?" Alec asked. "Even Batman doesn't do that."
Eliot gave him a spare me the nerdspeak look and then asked Parker, "Why?"
"It's a flat roof on the east side," she answered nonchalantly.
Alec could see Eliot's face tense up, reddening with exasperation, and so he put a hand on Eliot's shoulder and said, "That's cool, Parker, that's very badass. It's, you know, hot. But we were kind of wondering why you didn't sleep in the bed. You know, with us. You know we like you being around, right?"
"Of course I know that," she smiled, embarrassed almost by the statement.
"Is there something we can do to make you more comfortable in bed? Is it because Eliot hogs the covers?" Alec said, grinning.
"I don't hog the— you know what, never mind. We were looking for you for an hour, Parker!" Eliot said.
"You looked for an hour before you thought to check the roof?" Parker mocked as she pointed at them and chuckled.
"Not cool, Parker," Alec said, even as he kept a hand on Eliot to calm him down. The man was very expressive with his anger, Alec knew. It could be both a good thing and a bad thing, that he always let you know when he was upset about something.
"We just kind of thought you might sleep in the same bed with us," Eliot growled, "Instead of disappearing while we're sleeping."
"Aw," Parker said in her best imitation of a comforting tone, "Are you upset that you didn't wake up when I got out of bed? Don't take it as an insult to your professional skills, Eliot. Even big bad fighters need their sleep after they come."
"That's not why I'm — okay, that's only part of it!" Eliot answered.
"Why don't you ever sleep with us?" Alec said, sticking to the issue that mattered.
She snorted. "I've slept with you guys a bunch of times!"
"I mean in the same bed. Actually sleep as in lying together on a bed and getting some sleep. Is it… because of something I said?" Hardison asked.
She frowned. "Did you say something mean?"
"He said that he loves us, Parker!" Eliot yelled impatiently.
"Oh, that," she answered. "Yeah, I figured that out already. You're totally not subtle, Hardison. Wait, does that mean I have to say it now? Eliot didn't say it either!"
"Shut up!" Eliot said, suddenly looking nervous. As nervous as he ever looked, anyway.
"It's fine," Hardison said, rolling his eyes, "You know what, I'll make it official and then we can move on: Attention, emotionally stunted people, I officially bestow three-word amnesty on you. Because I trust you."
"Hey, it's not that I can't say it—" Eliot objected.
"Why three words?" Parker asked. "Oh, I get it, those three words."
"Can we just get back to the issue?" Hardison said — he was fine with being the only one who wore his heart on his sleeve — he really was — but he didn't exactly need the repeated reminder of his (somewhat embarrassing) unanswered words.
"Yeah, Parker, if you're cool with us, why don't you ever sleep next to us?"
She answered, "It doesn't have anything to do with you guys, or how I feel. I just like sleeping alone."
"Well, don't you want to try sleeping with us?" Alec asked. "Just to see how it feels to sleep next to someone?"
She thought for a moment before saying, "Nah. I'm just not into it." And then she walked toward the stairs, asking, "What are you making for breakfast, Eliot? How about French Toast with ginger ice cream on top?"
Alec and Eliot looked at each other. Eliot grunted as he stormed off, and it was more than just annoyed.
They knew that Hardison thought of privacy the way most people thought of top hats and tiaras and corseted ballgowns. Lovely and romantic and utterly charming in that old-timey way. But kind of a joke in the modern world.
And they knew that Hardison liked to slip trackers on them, feeling safer if he could locate them anywhere. Eliot particularly found this annoying, but he and Parker let it slide.
And it also wasn't a surprise that Hardison monitored their bank accounts. He even pointed out when they should move their investments around. Or in Parker's case, make some investments.
But both Eliot and Parker spent much of their life "off the grid." They assumed that meant that there was only so much one might learn about them from information in computers.
They didn't realize that Hardison was rather obsessively figuring out how to piece together their pasts, trying to know everything he could about them.
Only because that made him better able to protect them, of course.
And really all he did was keep meticulous observations about their eating, sleeping, sexual, and other habits, interpret the data using the latest psychological techniques, and invent a systematic way to quantify the information and a new search algorithm so that he could efficiently compare it to the information in tens of thousands of databases and thereby calculate almost everything they had done in the past two decades — everywhere they went, and every person they knew. And then he had checked into all those people's backgrounds, financial and psychological records both, as well as all phone or online communications they had ever engaged in, thus reconstructing every significant interaction Parker or Eliot had ever had with anyone.
They really had no reason to be surprised by this.
Even if Parker and Eliot were really the kind of people who liked the past to stay in the past.
Okay, maybe one might even decribe them as haunted by their pasts.
But still. It's not the Nineteenth Century. In the age of the geek, to the victors go the data.
It would have been fine, in fact, if Hardison had not tried to improvise during one of their jobs, and decided in the pressure of the moment that a good alias for Parker would be "Tammy."
Parker froze when she heard it. Then she yelled, "How could you, Alec!?"
Of course, this didn't make the mark feel all that secure since he had only known Alec as "Martin Chesovit." In fact, the mark was reaching for his gun when Eliot came up behind him.
Nate was issuing last minute changes to the plan in their earbuds, and Sophie was still in play down the hall, so they all silently agreed to wait until later to discuss it as they stepped over the unconscious man to finish the job.
Seeing their dirty looks, Hardison was not looking forward to the conversation.
Eliot has never been a one-place kind of guy.
Eliot is the kind of guy who goes where he's needed. And the world always has some place that needs a guy who can do what Eliot can do.
When he's on a job, he's all focus. But between jobs, if there's an old army buddy who needs him, or someone he owes a favor to in trouble, then Eliot has an obligation to leave. Just for a while.
Of course there are a lot of jobs that he doesn't have to take. Jobs that someone else could do, that don't involve old friends in peril. Sometimes he turns these jobs down.
Sometimes, when he's pissed off at Parker and Hardison, he takes them. He slams the door on the way out and leaves for two weeks or four days and when he comes back he remembers that whatever problems they have, it's better to be with them than without them.
It's a natural cycle, to spend time apart to help the heart grow fonder, Eliot says. His exact words might have been "I like you idiots better when I'm two thousand miles away." But they seemed to understand. Sort of.
But there's something about the thought of being trapped in a house with someone— or two someones — that makes him jumpy. Too much domestic bliss in one chunk make him nervous.
Though, truthfully, it might be because he's never been able to go long between jobs. He needs to work or to go crazy.
Well, that's not entirely true. If he's not working, he can train. He can devote himself to his craft, to physical and mental discipline, to studying new styles, learning new techniques, and of course getting better at what he knows. Doing martial arts training 24-7 is the only thing he has ever known that actually made him feel completely at peace.
And so maybe just a couple of those 'jobs' were actually going to an old pal's house who would give him a space to train. But he didn't have any release around Alec and Parker.
Okay, he had the most important kind of release.
And also he had a sense of love, stability, and home. For the first time.
But he also had constant distractions. People getting themselves into trouble by doing something stupid and dangerous, which would cause arguments that made Eliot say things he didn't want to say to people he loved. And maybe there were a few arguments about other things. Stupid stuff like not pouring orange soda into the organic herb garden. And some more serious issues as well.
But little distractions, too, even when they were happy. The fact that it was a constant effort to get something other than soda and popcorn into their diets. The fact that he was living with two people who were younger and — he hated to admit it — a little more energetic than he was, jumping from brilliant to adorable to sexy as all getout in a matter of seconds. And then of course there was the fact that only a fool would start a four-hour set of stance holds when there were two warm eager bodies in his bed, giggling that he should hurry up and join them.
So Eliot let himself settle in, let himself be a little less what he was, so he could be a little more to them. But every once in a while (especially after an argument), Eliot would decide that it was time for a change of scenery. He would tell them that he would be back in a few days and then walk out, blood pumping, angrily hating them for being impossible and hating himself for not being able to take it any more. But he would be back, and Hardison would be tracking him the whole time anyway, and so if Eliot needed to get away once in a while for the sake of their relationship, then that's what was best for all of them.
Even if Hardison and Parker didn't see it that way, Eliot sometimes just had to leave. He had to.
It was just built in.
Struggling for motion
"I really don't see why you care where I sleep," Parke frowned and folded her arms as if trying to slouch herself smaller. She was sitting on the couch alone, with Hardison and Eliot in the chairs facing her, and for a second Alec thought maybe she was feeling bullied by them.
"We don't. We just want to make sure it's for the right reasons," Hardison said softly.
"That's not what we talked about!" Eliot hissed.
"You guys talked about me?" Parker said, suddenly looking frightened.
"Only because we care!" Hardison assured her.
"It's pretty obvious you just aren't that comfortable around us," Eliot said to her.
"Why would you say that?" Parker said, sounding rather … uncomfortable.
"When you're with someone, you sleep with them," Eliot said. "You don't sneak off somewhere new where no one can find you."
"Because that's how it's done."
"I don't get it. Since when do you care so much about how things are done? Whatever that means."
"You know, what Parker?" Eliot said, and Hardison could already tell he wouldn't like where this was going. "You're right. If you were some girl who doesn't lock yourself in the closet so you can cry about things you won't tell us, and you didn't try to break up with us every time you got a reminder of something you lost, then we wouldn't make a big deal of it. But don't sit there and tell us that it's purely coincidence that you don't want to be vulnerable in front of us ever, and oh yeah, you also can't sleep in the same bed."
They were silent.
"Dude, that was not okay," Hardison told him. Sure, El could joke about how Parker "wasn't right" but no one wanted to hear that their deep dark secrets aren't all that secret. Especially not Parker.
But Parker seethed at Hardison and Eliot both, "If that's what you two think, then say it. Say I'm not normal. Say you're scared I can't do this."
"I didn't say that—"
"But not everything's about that! I just don't like sharing a bed! That's it. I like my own bed and my own space and to have everything cool instead of stuffy and warm, and I like a stuffed animal to hold, and I like not having to worry if I'll accidentally kick someone, and I like all the pillows and blankets to myself. And I slept on your shoulder on that train ride, Eliot, and I slept next to you when we did that swing shift job in Maine, Hardison, and I can do it, I just don't want to. And maybe I am messed up, and maybe everything that's wrong with us is my fault, and maybe I don't know how to act around people, but you don't get to say that everything you don't like is about how messed up I am! Maybe most of it, but not everything is about my childhood, and I don't care if you don't believe me!"
Parker was breathing hard when she finished. Her eyes were red and she looked like she wanted the conversation to be over.
It wasn't. The sleeping arrangements were just the first thing they talked about that night.
They managed not to yell any more. But they didn't reach any conclusions either. And not one of them managed to get it out in the open that Eliot and Hardison were the type who, more than anything, needed to know they were trusted.
After the "Tammy" incident, they asked him what he knew.
They felt they had a right to know what Hardison had found and why he had looked so hard for it.
Hardison couldn't deny them that. He offered to tell them individually, so as not to reveal Eliot's secrets to Parker, or Parker's to Eliot.
They didn't like that idea. It seemed that the misdeed was Hardison's alone, and any further revelations were worth it to know exactly how betrayed they should feel.
So he told them what he knew.
They weren't happy to hear it.
The list was long. It included a lot of things they didn't ever think anyone would know. At least not anyone they'd ever have to look in the eye again.
Why Eliot can't go about his business when a kid is in danger, for example. It involved a warlord that an 18-year-old Eliot was ordered to break from prison. It involved what that man then did to the families of the civilians in his hometown who had testified against him.
And then there was what Eliot did to the warlord when he found out.
Hardison also of course knew who "Tammy" was and why it was better for everyone if "Tammy" officially didn't exist.
He also knew what Parker did once to get a security guard to pretend he never saw her.
Similarly, he knew what Eliot did to get a guard to let him out of his cell in a Himalayan guerilla camp.
He knew now the real reason that Eliot doesn't like guns. An even less pleasant story than the one about the warlord.
Also why Parker doesn't like guns, not that she mentions it often.
Her story is worse than Eliot's.
And there was that time Eliot was married.
And how it ended.
That time a 19-year-old Parker tried to adopt a 12-year-old child who (like her) was living alone on the cold streets. How the child soon sold her out to a crime lord she had stolen from. She had tried to save the kid anyway, but she wasn't ever able to find him.
He knew about the man who taught Eliot to fight. He knew that Eliot loved him.
And he knew why Eliot eventually had to kill him.
He knew who taught Parker that she would never be good at anything other than theft.
And he knew the thing Parker did that made her decide she would never hurt anyone in a theft again.
And other things too — everything they were running from and everything they tried to forget, Hardison found. His voice trembled as he spoke, and it hurt to say these things, it hurt to bare their scars right in front of them as they sat there glaring at him. And he knew why they were making him say it out loud. They felt violated, and they wanted to make sure Hardison knew that he was violating them. They wanted him to know viscerally that he had taken something from them that they had not chosen to give.
When they were done, Hardison and Parker had tears on their face, and Eliot was red with rage or something else. But Eliot stood up, said, "From now on, you stop. Not just your special stalker algorithm. You stop everything. No trackers, no facial recognition, no monitoring us, no nothing. The only things you find out about us is by ASKING!"
Hardison stared up at him in disbelief. "You mean just for a while, right?"
Eliot and Parker walked out. Hardison shrugged at no one in particular. They had to be kidding. Asking him not to use computers to know where they are was like asking someone to close their eyes all day in case they see something embarrassing.
Eliot and Parker would get over it. Hardison hoped.
Hardison knew they would be mad for a while, but he really wasn't sure if he could change as much as they wanted him to.
He didn't think he could ever be the kind of person who just didn't bother to find out information that was lying right there. That would be like he wasn't even interested in who they were.
He was relieved, though, that they hadn't found out all the stuff he was doing to their old enemies. Sure, he felt justified in ruining some very bad people's lives to keep them distracted from coming after Parker or Eliot. But his partners would probably just see it as interfering, somehow.
It was hard, living with people who were so touchy, Hardison told himself. He tried to ignore what he knew about the people he loved; that they survived by keeping the past in the past and the unspoken in the dark, and that Hardison wasn't really capable of doing either of those things.
Sometimes when he walked out, he wasn't mad. He just nodded his good bye with half an apology in his eyes.
They didn't have to explain why it bothered them. Eliot knew that he was being a dick.
More than that, he knew that he was poking at the kind of insecurities that he should really let lie. Hardison grew up in temporary foster homes and Parker never even got that much stability. And then there was Eliot, demanding that they let him protect them on the job. And more to the point, elsewhere.
Eliot, convincing them to trust him to have their back, when that didn't come easy to either of them. Insisting that they get used to having a home, and sitting down with people for meals, and calling when they aren't going to be there for dinner.
He basically made them into the closest thing they ever had to a normal household.
And then he just walked out on them, rubbing salt in the abandonment issues that left a canyon-sized wound at least.
Yeah, Eliot was probably fucking them up in the head, and he had absolutely no right to do it.
He wished he had it in him to stay, to just get past this thing inside him that made him feel like a wild animal if he went too long without fighting.
He could see what it did to them. That they were angry at him. That they were scared it meant the end of what they had.
He told them it didn't. He told them he would be back.
But he still left. Even though it scared them. Because if he didn't, he would turn (even more) into the kind of man who didn't deserve to be with them. Eliot knew himself, and he knew his limitations, and this knowledge didn't come cheap.
He knew that he had anger. And that anger had to have a place to go. And there was only so many DVD nights and pancake breakfasts he could enjoy before he needed the silent, burning calm of fist on bone. And if there weren't a job around, then all he'd end up doing is yelling things at Parker and Hardison that he'd bleed anyone else for saying.
Eliot spent a lot of time wondering if Hardison and — especially — Parker were really ready to settle down. If they could really learn to live with other people. But sometimes, when he turned their back on them and walked away — when he knew it was hurting them and he did it anyway — he thought that maybe he was the one who couldn't handle it.
They tried for a long time to make Parker feel like she could sleep in the same bed as them. They tried negotiating, communication techniques, trust exercises, and a bunch of other things; most were useless, though some helped them learn to live with one another. But none of them made Parker want to sleep in a shared bed. More to the point, nothing made her feel like she should want that. To prevent them from worrying, she agreed not to sleep on the roof, and when she found Eliot's camping sleep-mat, she found it more comfortable than the bare floor or counter. But she never learned how to get more than a few moments of turbulent sleep with someone lying next to her.
After she and Alec had lived out of suitcases for a few months, they all agreed it would be easier to move in. They had all just gotten used to Eliot's place, and it's not like Eliot was going to give up his state-of-the-art kitchen or organic garden, so it was obvious where they would live.
Parker happily put her clothes in Eliot's bedroom, and at his insistence, she put her training equipment in the attic; it had lots of rafters she could practice swinging from, anyway. Eliot cleared out his basement so there would be room for Alec's computer equipment.
When they were almost all moved in, the delivery truck showed up. They took Eliot's old bed away and put a new, larger one in its place.
Parker said nothing as she watched.
The bed was large, but Eliot's bedroom was quite spacious — it had been two rooms before Eliot knocked the wall down to give himself more space. But Parker kept staring at the large bed, wondering if the first day they lived together, they were going to try, yet again, to change her.
And then she heard the delivery people ask, "What about this one?"
"Same room," Eliot said, and soon, Eliot's bedroom had a second bed, this one smaller and on the other side of the large room.
Alec and Eliot were standing together, and it was obvious that Alec had known about this too.
"I thought you guys said that when you share a life, you share a bed," she said, cautiously.
"We did think that," Eliot said.
"Then we got over it," Alec finished.
She smiled at them and jumped on them, hugging them so tightly her feet lifted off the ground.
"And this one?" the delivery person asked.
It was another small bed.
"In the attic," Eliot said, then turned to Parker, "For when you need a change of scenery.'
She grinned at them and announced, "I love move-in day."
Hardison brought it up a month after the Tammy incident, while eating Eliot's homemade Pad Thai on the couch and watching Parker beat Eliot at a videogame (Hardison kind of thought they both sucked at it, even though it was kind of a surprise that Parker seemed to be much better than Eliot at taking on the Dark Knight's personality during play).
"So… um… you guys know that I'm monitoring your movements again, right?" Hardison said, in his best impression of casual.
"We know you never stopped," Eliot said, in a no shit we know tone, before yelling, "Dammit, Parker! No using cheat codes! You know what? Videogames are for children…."
"So… is that cool?" Hardison said, surprised.
"No. Being a geek is not cool, Hardison. How many times do I have to tell you?" Eliot grumbled.
"Beating Eliot's ass at this game is cool, though," Parker grinned, eyes still on the screen.
Hardison put his plate of food down. "Seriously? I've been agonizing how to tell you and you — you—"
"We know you," Eliot said.
Hardison hesitated. "Sorry about looking into that other stuff," he mumbled, almost inaudibly.
They paused the game and looked back.
"Damn right you're sorry," Eliot said.
"That was really mean," Parker added.
The two looked at each other and then back and Hardison before Eliot added, "But the worst of it is out there now. It's done. And we're still here."
"So you guys trust me again?" Hardison asked.
"We trust you to be you," Parker said, and he could hear the accusation and forgiveness in her voice, in equal parts.
"We talked," Eliot said, "And we know that this is a part of you. We still hate it, and we'll probably fight about it next time you cross a line. But… we'll figure out how to move past it."
Hardison exhaled. He hadn't realized just how terrified he was.
"Besides," Parker added, "Next time you cross a line, you might find some of those board thingies in your computers have gone missing."
"That's not funny, Parker," Hardison said, "Even though you are obviously, obviously just kidding."
Parker and Eliot just smirked and returned to their game.
At first, when Eliot returned from one of his solo trips, it was awkward. It was anger and resentment and questions that none of them really had any good answers for.
Eventually, though, they had to be around one another for a job. And that just made it too hard to stay upset, when there were lives at stake and people with bigger problems than a boyfriend who goes stir-crazy when he doesn't get enough transcontinental travel.
Eliot started to leave them notes. "I'm sorry, I just needed some space temporarily," sent in an email to himself, which he knew Hardison would hack. A note that said, "I promise to come back to you," in his home safe, which he knew Parker would find.
It also helped when Eliot got a call to a public phone on a street corner in Dakar.
"Hardison? Is everyone okay?"
"Yeah, we're fine."
"Who's in danger?"
"No one. Parker and I wanted to say hi, that's all."
"Hi, Eliot," she said on the line.
Eliot knew that they would have found a way to use their alert word if they were in danger. And he knew that with all Hardison's methods, it wasn't really that surprising that the phone rang in the exact moment he walked by.
And he also knew that it was hard for them to ask. Even if they were asking without really asking.
"I'll finish what I'm supposed to do tonight, and then I'll hand off the job to a friend," Eliot said, "I'll be on a plane back by morning."
"Whatever," Hardison said.
"Yeah, whatever, we don't care," Parker said, then added, "And bring me a souveneir."
This time, when he came home, they acted like he hadn't been gone more than an hour. Just a casual hello before Parker asked for her souveneir and Hardison handed him a grocery list — they were low on everything.
After that, they stopped pretending that Hardison didn't know exactly where Eliot was at any given time.
Eliot also tried to think of ways to explain that he wasn't leaving because of them. Even though they were, at times, very very frustrating.
He wondered what they must think, how they must hate this about him. He still didn't know anything he could say that would make it right.
Until one day when Eliot was getting ready to leave and Hardison stopped him, kissed him on the lips, and said, "Have fun and be careful."
Parker kissed him too, then, and said, "Steal me something shiny," and smacked him on the ass.
Neither of them stared at him as he left like he was breaking their young fragile hearts.
When he came back, he was greeted with warmth and smiles and hugs.
"What the hell?" he asked.
"Are you really not upset that I left?"
"Sometimes you leave," Parker shrugged, "And then you come back."
Eliot was skeptical. "It really doesn't bother you any more?"
"Of course it bothers us," Hardison said, "You are a serious pain in the ass, Eliot."
Parker snorted a laugh as Hardison continued, "Look, we get it. We know it's just… how you are. You need to do this. It's not really because you're mad at us. It's because you're some kind of melodrama-loving dude who just needs to kick something sometimes. You're like one of those specially bred dogs that just isn't happy unless it's barking at ducks or something."
"Did you just compare me to a dog?" Eliot growled.
"Like one of those dogs who has sex with two other dogs but then has to go punch some ducks sometimes," Parker clarified helpfully.
"The point is, Parker and I talked about it, and we're fine if you need to go off on your little field trips. But we have conditions. Rules."
Eliot raised his eyebrows. This was becoming the kind of conversation that usually sent him out the door.
"Rule 1," Parker announced, "No dying. You are not ever, ever allowed to die. Especially not far away. Or close. Either one."
"Until you're, like, ninety," Hardison said.
"Not even then!" Parker said.
"Rule 2," Hardison told him, in the kind of condescending tone that usually put Eliot's jaw on edge, "We reserve the right to go after you and drag your ass back here if we decide to."
Eliot was about to voice his opinion on that one when Parker said, "Rule 3. You always come back."
"Rule 4," Hardison continued, "If you need us, you contact us. You ask us to do that for you, so you need to show us the same respect."
"Rule 5," Parker said with a dangerous smile, "When you get back from a trip, you totally have to make it up to us."
Hardison smiled. "That means we get whatever we want in bed, you cook for us whatever we want to eat, and you listen to us talk about whatever we want to talk about, even if you find it too 'geeky' and/or 'strange.'"
Eliot nodded slowly. That didn't sound one bit different than what he put up with anyway. "But I thought you hated it when I left."
They looked at each other. "We did," Parker said, "But then we got over it."
"But we are seriously not kidding about the sexual favors," Hardison said.
Eliot rolled his eyes. But then he didn't have any time to retort, because Parker and Hardison were already headed toward the bedroom.
When they were done, Parker fell asleep first. "Bake cranberry muffins in the morning?" she said before she dozed off and Hardison carried her to her own bed on the other side of the bedroom. He climbed back in next to Eliot then, sliding his hand up Eliot's chest and leaning his mouth near Eliot's ear to say, "Welcome home."
"Good to be back," Eliot said, trying to look like he had enough energy to flirt back.
"You're lucky I didn't tell Parker about that girl you flirted with in Prague," Hardison said, teasing.
"I wasn't — she was threatening to kill me, and I was bluffing that I knew her suppliers' names! That's not flirting!"
"Uh huh," Hardison said, amused that Eliot was getting mad at an accusation that was clearly meant in jest.
"Just — never mind. Wait, that was on a boat. On a cloudy day. How did you see me on a boat on a cloudy day?"
Hardison yawned unconvincingly. "I'm really tired, El. I'm going to try and sleep now. Hey, in the morning, after you put the muffins in the oven, make some bacon, okay? And some of those tomato-cheese popovers?"
Eliot grumbled something that sounded like a yes to Hardison, though an outside observer might have interepreted it as some kind of threat to injure Hardison's anatomy with a blend of Brie and Gruyere. And as they all drifted off to sleep, Eliot and Hardison lying with their limbs wrapped around each other, listening to the contented sleeping sighs of Parker from across the room, Eliot thought about all the things they had managed to move past, no matter how hard or painful or unlikely.
They really were a better team than he had ever thought they could be.