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The thing about Hardison leaving was that it kind of threw off the whole balance of their relationship. Obviously the most important part was that they were going to miss the hell out of him. Hardison was the heart of them. He always had been. Eliot was already aching and they hadn't even looked at flights yet.

It wasn't a problem that Parker didn't really like sex. It had never been a problem. And it wasn't even that she didn't like it, exactly, just that she wasn't particularly interested most of the time. She had particular tastes and moods, both of which usually involved all three of them. And that was fine, when all three of them were there. Hardison and Eliot had slightly different needs, and they managed to satisfy each other just fine when Parker wasn't into it (and it wasn't infrequent that watching them satisfy each other got Parker into it, but that was another story). Without Hardison, Parker was even less likely to be in the mood, which was fine. Eliot understood it wasn't about him (at least he did by now).

"Hey," Hardison said, catching Eliot by the arm. "We gotta talk."

"About Qatar?" Eliot said. "Or Yemen or Texas or wherever it is this week."

"About us," Hardison said, his eyes soft.

Parker dangled her head down from her thinking hammock. "Not the bad talk."

"You had me a little worried there," Eliot said.

Hardison chuckled quietly. "You think anything could mess with this?" He asked, gesturing between the three of them. "Nah, man. There's nothing more solid than this."

"Gold," Parker suggested.

"No," Hardison said.

Eliot shook his head. "Gold's soft. You can't put much pressure on it. You know that."

"Diamonds?"

"Parker, no," Hardison said. "Remember, this is our serious conversation. We talked about this, baby."

"So you pre-gamed this one," Eliot said.

"You know how it is," Hardison said with a shrug. "She's always thinking about diamonds."

"I am literally always thinking about diamonds," Parker confirmed. She flipped down from her hammock. "Okay. Serious conversation. Eliot, we think you should see other people."

"That is not a kind of diamonds I was familiar with," Eliot said. "I mean, when it comes to being solid."

"Not like that," Hardison said quickly. "We think you should stay with us. That's the number one thing. Parker and me, neither one of us is letting go of you. When I said we were solid, I meant it."

"Solid as a rock," Parker put in. "A really big solid rock. Like a mountain. Or a volcano. Except for the exploding and oozing parts, not that."

"That's good," Eliot said. "Because it's not sounding that way."

Hardison took Eliot's hand in his. Parker curled her fingers lightly over Eliot's shoulder. "Listen, 'til our dying days, all right?"

"Until then," Parker echoed. She never liked to say the dying part.

"All right," Eliot allowed. "But I should see other people."

"We just want you to have options," Parker said. "For gettin' busy." She winked broadly and made some gyrating motions that both Eliot and Hardison looked away from. They shared a glance with each other instead, and suppressed their smiles.

"That's verging on grotesque, darlin'," Eliot told her.

"You know what I mean," Parker said. "It's not that I don't think you're a juicy side of beef or whatever, but I'm just not wired that way. I don't want you to be sad if I don't feel like having sex. I want you to feel good. It's okay with me if you feel good with other people."

"Right," Hardison said. "I mean, first of all, phone sex is great, but it's not the same. And I don't know what kind of time I'm going to have, and the time difference, and all that. We just thought it might be time to open up this marriage, or whatever we're calling it."

"But you're not exercising your options," Eliot said.

Hardison shrugged. "I'm gonna be too busy remaking the world. You're gonna be at home, basically, doin' all the things we do. That's different."

"Except probably not some of the things we do," Parker said, winking exaggeratedly again. "I mean, not as often as we do them now. It's not you."

"I know it's not me," Eliot said.

"I just like...us," Parker said. "It's more fun when we're all here."

"I get it," Eliot said.

"We know how much abuse your hands already take," Hardison joked. "Don't want to ask more of 'em. We're not breaking up with you."

"Not now, not ever," Parker said.

"I appreciate all this," Eliot. "Or at least I'm gonna, when I stop being confused as all hell. Y'all know you could have talked to me about this from the beginning. We're a team, right?"

"Always," Parker said.

"We were trying to be kind," Hardison said.

"No, I get it," Eliot said. "And I only feel a little bit like some kind of third wheel in our decade-long relationship."

"Baby, that is not how we meant any of this," Hardison assured him.

"Of course you're a third wheel," Parker said, her brow furrowing. "We're a tricycle."

"Sometimes maybe the big wheel needs to roll away on its own every now and again," Hardison said. "Run into some other wheels. Get the grease, you know what I'm sayin'."

Parker raised her hand. "I don't know what you're saying."

"Nobody does," Eliot grumbled.

"I'll grant you the metaphor got a little strained," Hardison said, "but the important thing is this. Eliot, we love you."

"We love you a lot," Parker said. "Like a whole lot. Like more than..." she winced. "Uh, more than...phewwww." She shook her hands out and cracked her neck.

"You can do it," Hardison encouraged.

Parker took a deep breath. "More than money." She sighed and sagged against Eliot.

"Thank you, sweetheart," he said, kissing the top of her head.

"We want you to be happy," Hardison said. "You'll be happier if you can get physical. That's like Eliot Spencer 101. If you're not fighting or fucking, you can't express yourself fully."

"I mean that does sound like me," Eliot mumbled.

Parker put her hand over his heart. "Be you. For us."

"It's not the end of anything," Hardison assured Eliot. "It's not even a new beginning. It's just a patch for a bug we discovered that keeps this situation from being optimal."

"It's like when we started Leverage International," Parker said thoughtfully. "We're not adding new members to our main team. Just your branch of it. Our team is still us and then you've got...contacts."

"We all need a specialist from time to time, you know?" Hardison said. "You don't have to call on anybody else's expertise if you don't want to. We just thought you should have options."

"I guess that's the best solution," Eliot said reluctantly. "I know you're giving me space and that's different from cutting me loose, but I still need to wrap my head around it."

"Just to be clear, we're still your number one," Parker said, gesturing between herself and Hardison.

"Can't imagine a world in which that isn't true," Eliot said gruffly.

"And you don't have to tell us about it if you don't want to," Parker said.

"Just be safe," Hardison said, waggling his eyebrows.

"The hell you know about being safe?" Eliot growled. "I'm the one always dragging your ass out of a bad situation."

"Why don't you remind me what that feels like?" Hardison asked, crooking his finger into the V of Eliot's half-unbuttoned shirt.

That was about the end of that discussion. But it was on Eliot's mind now and then. He did have lonely moments, after a fashion, when he might have liked to reach out and touch somebody, and Parker wasn't in the right headspace for it. He hadn't had to deal with that for a long time, since long before Nate Ford had introduced all of them. When he ran into Maria, it felt like an opportunity to test the waters, so to speak. So he flirted with her, told her his name, gave her his number. All the things he'd done a thousand times, before he'd committed himself body and soul to Hardison and Parker.

Maria was different than a lot of the others, at least the others of the post-Aimee, pre-Portland years: older, wiser, smokin' hot without being a model or an assassin. Maybe it wasn't the best idea in the world to even think about getting involved with a marshal, especially after the whole job had started with a bad apple cop and way too many cameras run by software way too smart for Eliot's tastes. But then again, Eliot wasn't exactly famous for good romantic decisions and he'd always had a soft spot for tough ladies in law enforcement. Maybe it was the badge. He texted her back.

They had dinner. They had a few beers. They went back to her place to have another. He liked her. She understood the nuances that made things distinctive. If she hadn't been a marshal, they could have been friends. It was easy to make a connection to her. It felt natural, up until the point where she kissed him. Parts of him responded, and parts of him retreated from the sudden unfamiliarity of her mouth.

"Whoa, hey," he said, smoothing his hands down her arms. "Before we go any further, I need you to know that I'm, uh, already in a relationship."

She leaned back and looked at him. "Uh huh. And why am I just hearing about this now, Mister Spencer?"

Eliot fidgeted. "I'm not cheating. I swear. We have an agreement. I just, uh, haven't tried it out before."

"So that makes me your first?" she teased, pushing her elbow gently into his ribs.

"The first first in a very long time," he grumbled.

"That's kind of sweet," she said, pushing her hair out of her eyes. "Tell me about this arrangement."

"I guess I better start with the fact that I've got two partners," he said.

"Unexpected, but not necessarily unwelcome," she said, looking him up and down. "Women?"

"One of 'em," he said.

"I see." She nodded her head. "Also not a dealbreaker."

"Good," he said. "Though I won't say it didn't take me a little time to come to terms with it myself, so I'd understand if you needed a minute."

"I need a few minutes," she said, "but not for that." She kissed him again. He kissed her back. It felt as natural as breathing in a way, and as strange as his first kiss in another way. He hadn't kissed anybody but Hardison and Parker in a long time. He knew every quirk of their lips. His stomach fizzled at the thought of kissing her more, but it was hard to tell if it was delight or a touch of dread. Maybe both.

Fuck, he used to be able to do this in a new city every week and move on with nothing but fond memories. Being part of something serious had changed him. But he owed it to Hardison and Parker to try. They were right: the physical contact, that kind of release, was something like therapy to him. Ne needed it. He liked Maria and he wanted her and whatever supposedly-better angel in his brain kept yelling could shut up for a while. It wasn't like he hadn't learned to ignore that little voice a long time ago, and hey, this time, it actually didn't have the right side of things. He leaned into her mouth, slid his hands up her body. He eased down the zipper of her dress and let his fingers dance over her skin. She did the same. Everybody had a damn good time, he made sure of that. And it was fun as hell. Reminded him of his wayward youth, and his wayward thirties. He hardly thought of Parker or Hardison at all, at least until after, when Maria was curled up in the circle of his arm.

"Pretty sure some of that was illegal in a couple of states," he joked. "Although I'm gonna go ahead and admit to you that I ignore any law that says I can't give somebody a real good time."

"Yeah, well, I'm currently off-duty," she said.

He laughed. "I won't report this if you won't."

She yawned. "I believe I'd have to take myself in too." She rolled out of the bed. "But the one thing I have learned is that UTIs are no fun. I'll be right back."

He shuffled his shoulders deeper into the pillows for a second and then rolled out of bed and started to drag his boxers on. He didn't think she was slipping out to call for backup, but he hadn't stayed out of prison this long by taking that kind of chance. He wasn't going to leave. He just didn't want to be nude if somebody busted down the door. He'd had that fight already, a couple of times, and it wasn't ideal. Too much swinging in the breeze. When he looked up again, she was standing in the bathroom door, drying her hands on the towel she'd wrapped around herself. Her eyes were soft.

"I wasn't leaving," he said. "Just wanted to cover the subject, so to speak."

"I had a great time," she said.

"Me too," he told her. "Seems to me nobody says it quite like that unless the good time is over, though."

"I don't know if this is for me," she said softly. "I want to be somebody's number one. Or at least I want something that might one day lead to me being somebody's number one. Or co-number one, I guess, but I'm not sure that's my life."

He swallowed hard. "Fair enough."

She sat back. "I know it's a big ask considering my job and all, but I'm past the point of casual hookups, you know? For myself. They can be a hell of a lot of fun."

"I feel you," Eliot said. "I'm out of practice myself."

"It was good," she assured him. "It's not because it wasn't good."

"I wasn't too worried about that," he said, smiling at her. "I'll see myself out."

"See you around, Eliot Spencer," she said, and closed the bathroom door behind her. Eliot finished getting dressed and left.

At least he'd done it. He could tell the others he'd reached out and touched somebody. Parker would be relieved - he'd never pressured her, made sure not to, but she also knew what he expected out of a relationship, and she'd be pleased he'd found it somewhere. Hardison might feel a little less guilty about leaving them, not that he should feel any at all. It was going to take some adjustment, he thought, but it was a potential solution to their particular difficulty.

Eliot whistled to himself as he headed home.