“It’s a process each man has to go through, you know,” Hardison said, counting on his fingers. “You wanna be Luke, you wanna be Han, you wanna be Lando. That’s the evolution of man.”
If Hardison got started on this crap he’d go on all night, but shutting him down was a finely-calibrated exercise. Come down too hard, he’d get indignant and go harder. Give him too much rope and he’d unwind for hours. The first few hours after a job was wrapped up could get real weird if you gave Hardison free reign to speak his mind.
So keep it cool to start off with. Say no, but don’t get all excited about it. “Ain’t every man goes through that process, Hardison, I promise you.”
Hardison looked at him closely, three fingers still held up theatrically in the air. Then the comeback came to him. “You still got time, man,” he said, and the condescension set Eliot’s teeth on edge. “It’s cool. It’s not a race. I mean, yes, technically it is a measure of progress, and you’re behind on it, relatively speaking, you know, but –”
“It’s a flawed premise,” Parker said.
Hardison’s eyes wheeled to the other side of the room. “Say what now?”
Parker hopped down from where she’d been perched on the little round motel-room table and stomped all over Eliot’s plan of de-escalation. “It’s a flawed premise,” she repeated, coming over and forcing her way in between the two of them on the couch, poking Hardison twice in the chest with two fingers and looking impassively factual. “You’re all of them.”
“All of – how can –”
“Because it’s accumulative,” Parker said, clearly thinking that explained it all.
“Parker,” Hardison said as he scooted over to let her in properly, “I respect your analysis, you know that, babe, but I’m saying wanting to be –”
“All. Of. Them,” Parker said firmly.
It had been comfortable with two on the couch, Hardison gangling and Eliot taking up the normal amount of room for a person to take up on a couch, and their legs barely even touching. And now Parker’s hair was in Eliot’s face and her elbow was in his ribs and she still stank of chlorine from diving for that gun nearly five hours ago now, and Eliot just knew the conversation was about to spiral out of control.
Hardison looked set to argue the point, but then he put on his wise-man face and nodded serenely. “I know what you’re doing,” he said, sliding his arm around Parker’s shoulder, looking somehow more comfortable than he had been before the Parker incursion. “Star Wars Troll 78 has logged in, right?”
Parker leaned away from Hardison to look at him better, so that now the entire back of her head was in Eliot’s face.
“Take a shower,” Eliot said, and applied measured and persistent force to push her back over to Hardison. Parker, for a miracle, didn’t resist it. She didn’t put in any of her own effort to move, but she went where he put her.
“If I was trolling,” she said, now inches from Hardison’s face, “I’d say something that was incorrect. That’s what trolling is.”
“Lando, babe,” Hardison said. “I’m not – you don’t get to be all – I’m Lando. Eliot’s –”
“If you try comparing me to some made-up guy from space I will smack you in the eye,” Eliot said. “Don’t think I won’t.”
“How can a made-up guy be from space?” Parker said. In the process of turning around and frowning at Eliot, she fully sat on Hardison and put her feet up in between the two of them. “He’s made-up.”
Hardison grinned. “Logic Master 78 has logged in.” He made some kind of weird hand gesture in front of Parker, like he was presenting her as a prize on a game show. Parker sat up ramrod straight and smiled a smile that belonged in a horror movie. Presumably she’d never tried that one out in front of a mirror.
Or, you know, maybe she had and just hadn’t seen anything wrong with it.
“Damn it, Hardison,” Eliot said, since it was obvious they were just going to stay frozen like that until they’d gotten some reaction out of him. “You gotta encourage her?”
“Pillar of a healthy relationship,” Hardison said, without shame and without remorse. He flourished his hand at Parker again, and then at his own damn self. “Her dreams are my dreams. Mi casa es su casa.”
“But you won’t jump with me into the Grand Canyon,” Parker said, relaxing her face and rolling her eyes. Since Hardison had no way of seeing that, Eliot had to assume it was for his own benefit. He gave that the reaction it deserved: none at all.
“Well, you know, babe, that’s medical reasons.”
“According to what doctor?” Eliot asked.
Hardison heard and dismissed the question. He’d moved on. He gave Eliot a measured kind of a look and settled his arms comfortably around Parker’s waist, clasping his hands loosely in her lap. Then he said, “Eliot, you never – you never played that game before?”
Eliot had no idea what the question was about, but something about the way Hardison had asked it screamed emotionally butt-nekkid, and he was more than ready for bed. Unfortunately, all three of them were sitting on his bed at this exact moment, and he didn’t have a hope in hell of moving them until they were ready to move. “What game?”
“I know it’s not a manly game,” Hardison said, wagging his head from side to side in the way he thought was snide and devastating, when actually it screamed to the sky that he was feeling self-conscious. Hardison really had never listened to Sophie at all. “Ain’t no balls anywhere, you don’t get to punch anyone –”
“What game, Hardison.”
“You know, the what-if game. If you were in Star Wars, who would you be? What woulda happened if E.T. crash-landed in your backyard? Which Ninja Turtle would be your best friend, you know? You gonna be Geordi’s young beloved protegee, or his up and coming dastardly rival? What you gonna do when Morpheus tells you you’re in the Matrix? When the TARDIS starts materializing right in front of you?”
Parker started making that busted-up broken machine Doctor Who noise, and it was loud even from where Eliot was sitting. Hardison leaned back slightly and scrunched his eyes closed at the sound, which just went to show what an incredible genius he really was.
“No,” said Eliot, once Parker was done and Hardison had opened his eyes again.
Parker’s legs twitched a couple of times, and Eliot made sure he leaned sideways out of the way of whatever ridiculous kind of acrobatics she was about to do. Hardison hadn’t seen the signs on Parker, but he saw Eliot move and lifted his arms away just in time for Parker to shift slightly off him, get her feet under her and do some kind of impossible backwards hands-free flip to end up sitting on the back of the couch. Then she spun around, lifted her legs and lowered herself down to lie down perfectly straight on her back, her head on Eliot’s side and her left calf brushing against the side of Hardison’s head. The chlorine smell was even stronger now, with her head right above Eliot’s, but at least he had room to sit in again.
And Hardison could look straight across at Eliot now if he wanted, but he wasn’t. He was staring somewhere over both Parker’s and Eliot’s heads with an unusually closed expression.
“Not just that, too,” he said, in a tone with no performance in it at all. “Who would you be if you was someone else? What if you grew up in a home other than the one you did? How’d you end up if you got adopted by, like, LeVar Burton as a baby, or Nichelle Nichols, or, James Avery, or like … Prince? Donna Summer? Three-time NBA All-Star Glen Rice? You never played that game?”
Hardison’s eyes turned to Eliot and slowly focused again, but Eliot had nothing to give him. He wasn’t like Hardison, and he wasn’t like Parker. He’d spent his whole childhood with his birth father, and sure, he’d thought about leaving plenty of times over the years – and had left, in the end – but he’d never imagined a new family as part of that deal. However Eliot might have felt about his father, however he felt about him even now, facts were facts and family was family. There was no rewriting history. “I never played that game, man.”
“I started playing it a few years ago,” said Parker. “I didn’t realize it was a game.” Her hair tickled against Eliot’s as she moved her head. “Is it really a game? Are you supposed to win?”
“Naw,” said Hardison. “You can’t win it.”
“How is it a game then?”
“Okay, okay. Thought experiment. It’s a thought experiment.”
“I got other stuff to think about,” Eliot said. “A lot of other stuff. Important stuff.” Hardison’s eyebrows were going just a little bit higher every time Eliot said “stuff”, so he shut up.
“But, like, you never wanted to be, like … Indiana Jones, man? Seriously?”
“I ain’t got no comment on Indiana Jones.”
“Rocky? You never looked at Rocky and just thought … yeah?”
“You’re gonna make me guess? I can keep guessing. You know I can keep guessing. I can guess for –”
“You can guess all you like, man, I never played the game.”
Hardison gave him a considering look then relented. “Alright,” he said. “Whatever you say, Mr Non-fiction. Close yourself off to a whole world of self-actualization.”
Sometimes Eliot wished he could just take a leaf out of Parker’s book and go with the guy, change as a person, open up new ways of living. He could see what it had done for her. But every day he saw the two of them together and he felt old, and he was old. Parker always came across kind of ageless but was plenty younger than Eliot, and Hardison was genuinely still a young guy, and Eliot was there to look after the both of them, not the other way around. Maybe neither of them agreed with him about that, but Eliot knew what he knew.
But he’d said certain things, they’d agreed to certain things between the three of them, and Eliot was trying, these days, to be a man of his word. He’d made his own bed, and now he had to lie in it.
“For what it’s worth,” he said, because he had to, because that was the promise he’d made to them, “I saw Aliens like 20 times at the movies.”
“You saw –” Eliot saw comprehension dawn on Hardison’s face, and their eyes met, and there it was. Vulnerability and its reward. Hardison smiled slowly, appreciatively, intimately. Eliot felt something raw and deep humming in his chest and needed a moment to find himself again.
Eliot had always thought he’d been the one holding himself and his feelings back from Hardison over the years, for countless ever-changing, very important, completely valid reasons. If any one reason stopped holding water, he could always come up with another one, and that was how it had gone. He’d had no idea just how much Hardison had been doing the same until these last few months. Ever since their relationship had shifted into – whatever it was the two of them were now, Hardison had felt free to be as affectionate, as intimate and as downright romantic as he liked in Eliot’s direction, and it was like floodgates opening. Hardison had always been a lot, just as a matter of general principle; now, when the mood took him, he was irresistible, and it was playing havoc with Eliot’s emotional regulation.
It didn’t take much to set him off either, now he had the all-clear. Eliot hated this stupid pop culture shorthand, didn’t see why going to see a movie a couple of dozen times 25 years ago would mean anything like what Hardison was going to read into it, but that was the language Hardison spoke, and boy had they just communicated. And Hardison, new double-boyfriend Hardison, the bottomless pit of affection, would not be shy in letting Eliot know it.
Eliot took three deep breaths and came to terms with the way his heart rate had risen, the heat in his face, the slight dizziness to his thoughts, the precise awareness of the exact distance between him and Hardison. This was fine. It was good. He felt alive.
“Ripley,” said Hardison, smiling wider and wider. “Ripley, man.”
“Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” said Parker. “I love that show. Wait, that’s your favorite show, Eliot?” She dropped a hand down to poke at him, demanding his attention, as if using his name and speaking less than a foot away from his ear hadn’t been enough. “They don’t play TV shows at the movies, do they?”
“No, babe,” said Hardison, his smile dimming by a couple of shades. “Come on, we’ve seen Alien. You remember.”
Parker stopped poking Eliot and just let her whole arm lay across his shoulder. He could see her hand hanging limp in his peripheral vision. “We made up fake aliens,” she said. “They were fake. Not real.”
“No, no, the movie. You know, with the –” Hardison mimed the chestbuster with way more relish than was called for, at all. It wasn’t a good look on him, and Eliot was grateful for it. Between that and Eliot’s current role as an armrest for Parker, the vibe in the room was just about back to normal and his heart rate was settling. Maybe soon the two of them would shut up and Eliot could go to sleep, as a person might think would be appropriate after four solid days of intensive criminal activity.
“Bleeeuuruurugh,” said Parker, and Eliot would bet her version of the chestbuster was ten times as creepy as Hardison’s. He was not going to turn his head to confirm. “Yeah, I remember.”
“Ripley’s the main character,” Hardison said. “With the hair, and the cat.”
“Oh,” said Parker. “I get it.” She paused for a moment. “I get it.”
“You know, I was just a kid,” said Eliot. Never mind that it had been just as much about Hicks as it had been Ripley, at least in the beginning. Never mind that when he’d had dreams about that movie every single night for weeks, he could end up in the shoes of either one of them, or both. Never mind that he’d never wanted to go see it with anyone else – not his sister, not Aimee, not the football team, not anyone – because he feared it would expose him in some devastating, irreparable way in front of them. Even as a kid, Eliot didn’t usually watch movies 20 times on their first release for fun. There’d been something he’d been trying to work out, something deeply confusing that needed untangling, but Eliot had never solved it. The movie had stopped showing, and he’d moved on with his life. There was nothing now that it could possibly speak to. People changed. Eliot sure had.
Hardison shot Eliot a look, and this one was different. This one was knowing, smug, kind of gloaty. “I never played the game,” he said. “Nice try.”
Eliot shook his head. If he had to listen to Hardison, Hardison would have to listen to him. This was not a man you should ever let run unchecked with an assumption. “It was never a game or a – a thought experiment. Your mind goes all these places, man. Parker’s too, God knows where. Mine, not so much. I don’t sit around and speculate like that. I’m just saying I liked the movie. That’s all. I was fourteen.” Eliot wanted to say more, articulate exactly the difference between the way Hardison looked at these things and the way Eliot did, but the words didn’t come to him.
“It spoke to you,” Parker said in that careful, precise way she had when she was using someone else’s words and not her own, like she was trying to understand them even as they came out of her mouth.
Eliot didn’t know if she’d consciously been trying to help him or just thinking out loud, but either way, it gave him a path to run his thoughts along. The movie had spoken to him, sure. Eliot just didn’t know what it had been saying – and so he seriously doubted Hardison had it figured out either. If Eliot’s math was right, which it usually was, Hardison hadn’t even been born yet when Aliens had hit theaters – or maybe just barely. He liked to think of himself as a pop culture guru, but for some things you had to have been there, and this was well before Hardison’s time. His leap straight to “Eliot is Ripley” was either projection on his part or some kind of terrifying Sophie-level insight that Eliot didn’t even want to think about Hardison having.
“You know, if you got Ripley in here,” Hardison pounded his fist on his chest, “I ain’t even going to hold it against you if you never get to Lando. Han is fine. I’m cool if you end up on Han.”
Eliot was not going to give a second’s thought to the parallels between him, an actual real person in real life, and Han fucking Solo, and he wasn’t going to reach for the differences either in an attempt to prove Hardison wrong. That was how he got you, and Eliot was wise to it. “Real big of you, man,” he said. Casual, dismissive. No wriggle room there.
Hardison grinned at him. Eliot clenched his jaw, not sure exactly what feeling it was he was clamping down on. Hardison rolled his eyes, indulgent, and rubbed a hand over his head, stretching his back out where he sat. “But I mean, we all learned something today,” he said, “and I feel good about it.”
“I feel good about it,” Parker echoed.
Eliot didn’t know if “good” was the word to describe how he felt, but at least he’d held up his end of the bargain, and yeah, it had led to another moment, but he was starting to get used to them. How could he not, when Hardison was practically scheduling them biweekly in his calendar?
Eliot knew Parker and Hardison had had their struggles early on with the concept of date night, but Eliot had never even been given the option of jumping off buildings or picnics under the stars. Hardison had just come and kept coming for pieces of his soul – and he kept uncovering pieces Eliot didn’t even know he still had.
“I want to watch the Ripley episode with the elephants,” Parker went on, tapping the side of her foot repeatedly on Hardison’s head. “Do you have that?”
“When we get home,” said Hardison, yawning enormously and batting her foot away. “I’ll get it for you at home.”
“Okay.” Parker flipped herself off the couch. “Going for a walk!”
And then she was gone.
“See, that didn’t hurt you none,” said Hardison, pushing himself up to his feet.
Eliot got up too. Only a couple of joints popped, and there was only a bit of an ache in his foot when he put weight on it. A couple of days’ rest would sort that out, if he could get it. “It ain’t a revelation either, man,” he said. “Just a kid’s favorite movie a long time back. Help me with this damn couch.” He picked up the couch cushions and tossed them to one side, but Hardison didn’t move a muscle to help him pull out the bed.
“We need it?” Hardison said. “Job’s over. We got a big bed.”
Eliot was just so fucking tired, which went a long way to explaining why Hardison was playing him so easy tonight, how all that stuff about Hicks and Ripley had come flying back to the surface so easily. “I can’t have you and Parker crawling all over me, man,” he said. “It’s 800 miles home tomorrow and you know who’s driving like 600 of those.”
Hardison sighed, which turned into a yawn halfway, and leaned down to grab one side of the foldout. “Ninety minutes a day, my ass.”
God, but that was an old memory by now. Nostalgia wasn’t new to Eliot, but this was nostalgia without any pain layered beneath it, and it was like walking on air. He had good times behind him these days, and memories firmly on the sweet side of bittersweet.
He didn’t quite have his grin hidden away by the time they’d lowered the bed down to the ground, and it earned him a bleary glare from Hardison. “What’s so damn funny.”
For a second, Eliot toyed with telling him, just saying, Well, you know, my life is good and I love who we are. He could say that, if he wanted to. Hell, Hardison said the same kind of thing himself damn near every week. This was a man who believed in feelings and the feeling of them.
“Damn Cheshire grinning-ass cat,” Hardison grumbled. “Keep your damn secrets.”
“Come on, man,” Eliot said, but he couldn’t fight back the grin, so if that was what was bugging Hardison, nothing he could say was going to help.
“Good night,” Hardison said decisively. “Enjoy your inch-thick, hundred-year-old probably diseased-as-hell mattress. I’ll be over here all by myself in the lap of luxury. All your bed are belong to me.”
Eliot watched Hardison walk over to the bed, take off his shirt and get under the covers with a pointed flourish of the comforter. Eliot didn’t spare him much sympathy; he’d be asleep well before Eliot had even finished his security sweep, and no doubt he’d be waking up with Parker in the morning.
And tomorrow night they’d be home again, and Eliot could slide down two or three levels of vigilance, cook them all dinner, not listen to Hardison go on about all the incredible, amazing, groundbreaking work he’d done during the trip home and how lucky the two of them were to have him, then after dinner, depending on Parker’s mood, either go through the official debrief or watch the elephant show and whatever other junk she or Hardison were determined to share with him.
This time Eliot would remember to bring out the pillows and blankets before they even moved over to the couch, so Parker didn’t have to get up and fetch some once Hardison had fallen asleep on Eliot in an unmovable kind of way. In the beginning, he’d started out making forays into Eliot’s personal space boldly, pointedly, to test what was and wasn’t gonna fly. An arm around the back of the couch, then, next time, onto Eliot’s shoulder. Sitting touching at the shoulder, the knee, the hip. Trying first his feet, then his legs, then his whole goddamn head on Eliot’s lap. The testing phase had barely lasted two weeks before Hardison had gone ahead and adopted the whole package as the new status quo. Eliot was in no position to complain; he just wasn’t in the habit yet of planning ahead for it.
Eliot had long been used to Parker casually leaning on him, draping her limbs over him, sitting so close he could hear her breathing, standing just slightly inside what Eliot considered his own personal space. She did it like she was exercising a God-given right, but she didn’t like when anyone drew attention to the fact she was doing it. And Eliot could respond as he liked but never reciprocate. If he pushed her gently away, she could stay. If he pushed her harder, or twice, she went. They’d never discussed these rules; they’d never had to. It worked for Eliot, and it worked for Parker, and Eliot didn’t want to look too close into it any more than she did. It didn’t have to mean anything. It just was.
That wasn’t how it worked with Hardison. Hardison liked eye contact. He liked back-and-forth. He liked to talk about every damn thing and laugh about it as he went. He was always looking for meaning, starting up conversations, effortlessly flipping the switch between talking out his ass and from the heart.
And yet the two of them fit together so well, and Eliot loved and lived for both of them, and all he could say was thank God for Nathan Ford and Victor Dubenich. Eliot had been in two minds about taking that job, and he couldn’t even remember, now, what it had been that tipped the scales in its favour. But without it …
Hardison might go in for alternate universes where he was raised by any number of celebrities, but that was pie in the sky stuff. He was never going to live with the same kind of bitter regret Eliot did about the choices he’d made. For Hardison, sliding doors moments were always going to be thought experiments, idle musings, topics for late-night conversations in motel rooms. They were never going to hurt him, let alone burn him almost out of existence.
Eliot was going to make sure of that.
Hardison hadn’t moved since his head hit the pillow. Asleep and dreaming by now, definitely, and Eliot should be the same. Well, asleep, anyway. Dreams had never done Eliot any good.
In a move that was still just as easy as shucking off a jacket once he’d decided to do it, Eliot stepped outside of his emotions and his imagination and got down to business. A quick check outside, secure the door, secure the main window, the bathroom window. A drink of water, a few stretches, and then to sleep.
Eliot had stepped through a lot of doors in his time, and most of them had been categorically the wrong ones, but in the end they’d brought him here, and so here he was. It was better than he deserved, but it wasn’t like he could change that. Things were how they were, and tomorrow would be tomorrow.
It was a pleasant thought to fall asleep to.