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it's a lot it's a lot it's a lot it'S A LOT IT'S A LOT I T ' S A L O T L I K E L I F E

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Nate has a strict no interference policy when it comes to intimacy. 

When the music came online after blacking out for a few hours on a random April Tuesday night, Nate… well, first he stumbled from his office and threw up into the bathroom sink. Rinsed it and his mouth. Drank some water from cupped hands. Tried to aim for his bedroom but saw Maggie sitting on Sam's bed, holding the boy close as he slept. She caught his eye and she looked… like she would have been apocalyptic if only she didn't also receive the news that all signs point to their son dying in six months. Now her eyes were empty and her mouth sung ♪ You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you, so please don't take my sunshine away. ♪ She was horrible at karaoke, and she didn't have perfect pitch usually, but it came out so hauntingly beautiful Nate didn't think anything of it. A miracle for a day of shit. One blessing to her voice when it should have gone directly to Sam.

 

— 

 

There's only so many reasons a child can feel so deeply they have to sing about it. And if they do, they come up with their own rhymes and rhythms or they use ill-situated Disney and sing-song speech that slips in and out of songland, nothing that can be recorded or looked up later. Sam sang Can't Wait To Be King twice in the five months two weeks five days they ended up having—and nothing else.

Mostly, with Sam and after Sam, Nate heard Maggie. Mostly he heard her grief and her resentment towards Nate's increased drinking and how little she wanted to be touched—except for when she did—as if it was Nate's fault for contributing to the conception of a son promised to die. Then, as he tried to chase her love again, he took every opportunity of a heartsong to do better. And he did. But he was lost between numbers, and he was lost in how to move forward, and she couldn't tolerate the up-and-down. (♫ And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man. ♫) It hurt her so much more knowing Nate could be different but must choose not to be most of the time. Big gestures and temporary fixes did not a marriage make, after all.

If it wasn't Maggie he heard, it was the mindless drive and drawl of the people around him. The heartsongs gave him no way in to save Sam, and they didn't tell him how to live on. 

What was the point of them, then? 

To cause drama and upset, that's what. From his best friend turned musical confidant, Nate heard a distracted ♫ I want the one I can't have, and it's driving me mad. It's all over, all over, all over my face. ♫ He didn't tell James he heard that particular song, then, since Sam was still alive, and the doctors were checking into an experimental treatment, and Maggie still could stand him. But divorce papers signed and sent along, Nate found his way back to James to weep, and then The Smiths' frenetic need reprised and so Nate grabbed James and drew him in. Kissed him savagely. Ugly. Cruel. 

"I won't be your rebound, Nate."

"You sure? Your heart's telling me otherwise."

Nate never blamed James for kicking his drunk ass out of his house, his friendship, and his life that night. He had lost his wife and friend in the matter of hours. All for fucking with a magic he should have never, ever be messing with. 

 

 

So Nate doesn't interfere with matters of sex and romance. Too much to go so, so wrong so, so fast. 

A starting amount of heartsongs obsess about just that, though: love, or fucking, or missing an ex-love, or wanting to fuck, or loving tender fucks, or fucking the wrong person, or fucking the right person at the wrong time, or loving more than one person at once and feeling angst about it, or being cheated on, or a loving or fucking that hurt, or wanting something new in your life, or—just… Over the years, Nate has tuned into a lot of ways a person can possibly want a person. He's become numb to it, and not only because of all the alcohol though that may help. Sheer exposure can do that, because there's only so many ways to choreograph funky duets of You're The One That I Want, and only so many ways to go Walking on Sunshine before someone deserves to be tripped. There's only so many ways a man can see My Heart Will Go On performed without wanting to follow that big ugly jewel Old Kate Winslet threw over the railing.

 

 

Leverage changes many things for Nate. Not only with dancing around abstract concepts like white hat, black knight, thief, and honest man—the phrases twisting over time like a slowly developing chorus. But now, he also tunes into every ♫ With a humble heart, on bended knee, I'm beggin' ♫ and ♫ I need a hero! ♫ and ♫ Won't you please, please help me, help me, help me, oh ♫ and he makes himself actually stop and listen.

 

 

There's Sophie, and there's Sophie and Nate, and there's Sophie and her show tunes. Every number is a unique and thrilling production, and she sings for the grifts she really cares about, which introduces an entire range of character songs that have no other possible application. 

It would be a lie if her variety didn't make him love her just a little more. When he eventually tells her about his ability, and he tells her how attentively he listens to her every production, she spends weeks with an iPod Hardison helped prep filled with as many Broadway albums as could fit. Then, when that's done, Off-Broadway. Then Off-Off-Broadway. Then— 

Nate has a ring for her. Just need that one last job… the last job done, and he will—  

 

 

And then… then, there's Parker, Hardison, and Eliot. 

Nate quickly realizes that he will not be able to filter out these excitable, intelligent people feeling new and deep things for each other all the time. They are at least consistent, Nate will give them that. Every meeting the team has—especially ones they are coming off a break of more than four days—Nate allows a good three to five minutes of silence to pass to make sure any pressing feelings can be let out before they can get anything done. No one is suspicious about why Nate pauses for his extended thinking breaks because they just assume he’s hung over—which, granted, he certainly was for most of the first half of their adventures together. 

But no, the pauses are not because he was nursing a whiskey headache. Instead, for the past four and a half years, Nate just has had the honored and royal pleasure of having a front row seat to the slowly braiding knot that is that very special love/lust/comradery triangle.

Even with all his planning and scheming and masterminding, Nate wouldn't know how to interfere. Who to get with who? Or multiple whos—is that something that won't backfire horrendously? And for what endgame—a cheap quick fuck? a lifelong romance? a curious experiment? No, no, Nate couldn't decide that. So. He didn't interfere. It's easier to let the songs run their course—no matter how ridiculous or cheesy or grossly inappropriate for a workspace environment. (Well, he doesn't count getting rid of the couches in Boston as interference, and then not allowing them in the Portland HQ. Even if they only occurred in songland, the amount of indecent activities on the couches because, oh, Parker's hair looks so nice where she's sitting on my armrest, or oh, Eliot is sitting near me, or oh, why isn't Eliot sitting near me, or oh, Hardison is sinking into the cushion and making a pleasant sound… No. No, the couches had to go. Getting rid of a biohazard is not an intervention; it's just proper workplace safety protocol.)

 

— 

 

Nate sat through the dozens and dozens of distracting musical start-stops for Parker's heartsongs. Because for years, Parker never sang her own songs. Sometimes she hummed in reality, and she always had a strong agential presence in her accompaniment roles as backup or dancer, particularly for Sophie. Things have changed, especially as her relationship with Hardison deepened. She has begun to open up, singing about her like/love of Sophie and Hardison and chocolate and diamonds and general thievery. Yet even now, Parker rarely sings more than an ambiguous verse about Eliot. She has never dueted with Eliot—a conspicuous and entirely suspicious absence, given just how much the man sings. Purposeful, even. The same purposeful it feels that she has never directed a song at Nate. Nate knows she… doesn't hear quite like him, but sometimes she winks at Nate in songland or—once—she struggled through the magic to glare at Nate to stop the heartsong as Eliot… She got Nate to stop the music, once. 

But for the most part, she kept blessedly silent or sang heartsongs that never felt like interruptions, not to Nate.

Hardison, however, interrupts. Hardison makes his affections known again and again and again and again—whether for his computers or Lucille or for the team as individuals or for the team as a whole or for his Nana or for his siblings who he checks in on often through a group text chat or for the thrill of the chase or for his online friends—and, of course, for Eliot and Parker specifically. 

Nate has sat through Hardison’s puppy love for Parker: his sappy ♫ There just ain't no doubt about it, I'm in love ♫ and his Music-I-Know-'Cause-Nana-Taught-Me-Right's ♫ If I ever saw a girl that I needed in this world, you are the one for me. ♫ Sat back as Hardison's infatuation grew to a mature and patient ♫ I need to find, find someone to call mine, but mama said, you can't hurry love. ♫ Then—nauseatingly precious duets with a suddenly vocal Parker as they figure out how to be with one another. They vacillate between showstopping classics (♫ At last, my love has come along ♫) to contemporary bops (♫ Over the edge, I'm just breathless; I never thought that I'd catch this lovebug again ♫—which Nate thought was a bit tasteless, given the whole buried alive incident, but he wasn't going to say as much).

And Nate suffered the whiplash as that same man would then turn to Eliot and sing the very horniest solos at Eliot (or, occasionally, duets with Eliot) that Nate has ever seen performed. Hardison is an adult—and Nate appreciates this—but getting the play-by-play of his dewy-eyed attraction chafed Nate. At one point, he definitely considered abandoning the stumbling beginnings of Leverage to no longer have to witness Hardison in possession of a sexual appetite. An appetite he obsessively directed at an older, lethal, grisled man like Eliot who at that time mostly just projected a general miasma of I'm watching you and might kill you accidentally? Sorry not sorry? to Nate. Which… was something indeed, to experience. The pair's call-and-response has moved past just the physical desire of those first two years, thus giving Nate a break from the intensity of debauchery; but, it cannot make up for Hardison's past choices—and more recent ones, too. 

Nate dreads flashbacks to Hardison's rendition of Can You Handle It

 

 

And… goddammit. 

Flashback.

Nate shudders at the thought.

 

 

And finally, there's Eliot.

Nate has long been tormented by Eliot's heartsong solos. 

Granted, they aren't all exactly torture. Some are achingly sweet and thoughtful and vulnerable, and Eliot's heartsongs are uniquely visceral because it is his real singing voice—in the same way there is something different in the texture of the experience that Nate felt seeing Kenneth Crane on that Texan stage a few lifetimes ago now, knowing it wasn't Hardison's tech adjusting his pitch. Maybe it's his connection to music that makes it so Eliot is usually the first to break ground on founding homes in the boundaries between them. 

It's when, during the time Sophie took her break, Tara once said her name offhandedly and Eliot sprang into a sad little ♫ sister, oh, sister, I miss your shadow, I miss your shade. ♫ 

And it's Eliot and Nate quietly prepping for a con at McRory's, and Eliot interrupting with an invocation of the eternal graces of Sophia, Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy: ♫ Your heart is true, ♫ Eliot sang toasting his beer, ♫ You're a pal and a confidant. I'm not ashamed to say, I hope it always will stay this way. ♫ Nate drank to that.

And it's every lullaby Eliot sings to any scared child that crosses their paths. 

It's Eliot who names what Leverage would truly become to them all: it was on the way back from that job with the bank that went sideways and Nate got shot. Eliot had looked around at the team in the back of Lucille with Parker driving and Sophie's hand on Nate's bandages and Hardison napping against Eliot even as he hung onto Eliot's shoulder for safety—and Eliot sang, ♫ We are driving driving in your car, speed so fast I feel like I am drunk. City lights lay out before us, and your arm feels nice wrapped 'round my shoulder, and I have a feeling that I belong. I have a feeling I can be someone, be someone, be someone. ♫ 

Too subtly for Nate to catch—they became something deep. Together, and also—someone on their own. Someone they could stand. They all found something they needed, and it started in a few places, but Nate remembers that moment above all. 

 

— 

 

If it was just that, Nate wouldn't complain, of course. More sentimental than his tastes, but he wouldn't mind.

But that's not all of Eliot's heartsongs. 

No.

And for this fact, Nate needs a fucking award beyond, you know, the money; finding love with a woman who truly understands him; healing into a sort of peace from the hollowness of his grief; and gaining friends who he truly considers kin with a fervor that he would have never expected. 

Because—sure—those things are nice.

But Nate deserves so much more for four years eight months and about three weeks of 24/7 For Your Convenience neon Vegas strip sign reminders that his Aggression In The Flesh, Divine Spirit Of Brawl Descended Upon The Earth, Walking Night Terror, Apex Predator Growl On Legs hitter is, in his heart of hearts, the most submissive of bottoms currently capable of spawning under natural circumstances. 

That?

That's information Nate has now. Just another small print side effect of this unfortunately intimate, invasive magic. 

And don't get him wrong. It's not that Nate judges him. Eliot is obviously a man of distinctive tastes, and Nate gives credit to a person who knows something of what they want in the world. It's not like Nate doesn't have his own bag of tricks (which apparently every one of his spying colleagues have rifled through at some point out of curiosity, earnest interest, security, or habit). And while he is only just starting to reconnect with this side of himself being with Sophie, after giving it up alongside his cruising days once upon a time, Nate has certainly spent enough time on his back (literally and figuratively) and his knees to appreciate just what Eliot's chasing. 

But a man has his limits of tolerance. 

Because songland Eliot? He has inspired a new subset of those Your Mama jokes that were popular around the water cooler back in the 90s for anyone socially desperate enough they were willing to recite the lines their children heard during recess.

Like: Eliot is such a bottom, songland Eliot has bared his neck to Parker and Hardison more times than in any harlequin Twilight-rip off. 

Like: Eliot is such a bottom, songland Eliot polished the hardwood floor in Nate's loft to a hypothetical brilliant shine with how often the denim over his knees swept over it.

Like: Eliot is such a bottom, songland Eliot's favorite piece of clothing is a henley because of how easily they can be torn down the placket in order to—after a few twists and well-positioned jazz hands—form perfectly adequate, wildly indecent, artfully distressed arm cuffs.

Like: Eliot is such a bottom, songland Parker and Hardison never actually slap songland Eliot (that kind of physicality just doesn't happen in heartsongs, especially for crushes), but if Nate checked their palms and found beardburn, he wouldn't be surprised. 

Like: Eliot is such a bottom, songland Eliot found sex in a damn Randy Newman theme song. And… Eliot? A word? Because… why? Eliot has a steel trap for a memory and apparently this trap contains a robust catalogue of every potentially kink-adjacent song to ever exist. Yet, with all his references, Eliot's heart thought it appropriate to sing with a desperate moan: ♫ There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you. We stick together and you'll see me through, 'cause I want a friend in me.

At the time, Nate hadn't even known that much editing was possible in songland yet here Nate is, years later, still unable to uncouple children's animation from Eliot's sultry voice.

 

— 

 

Beyond Eliot's liberal use of lyrics and savant-level created-on-the-fly countrified covers, there's the hair petting . And hair pulling. And general hair fixation that makes Nate want to cut off Eliot's mane just to save them all from the sensual vulnerability attached to it. In songland, there's only so much physical interaction that actually goes on—there's a figurativeness to the interpretative dance that is preferred by the Powers That Be behind the magic. The petting and pulling and obsessing are, in a way, just gestures to petting and pulling and obsessing. But, lord, Nate wouldn't have guessed it based on how viscerally Eliot reacts to each swipe at his hair. 

It doesn't have to be this way. It really, really doesn't. Eliot can sing his ballads and seductions without the crawling or the offered up wrists or the whine in his voice at very strategically chosen lyrics that adds on an innuendo in order to, once again, remind Nate just how much Eliot wants Hardison and/or Parker to tell him what a… a… a fucking good boy he is. 

Nate is wounded in a deep and personal way from what he has witnessed. 

Because… is it Eliot specifically who caused Nate to jump off the sober wagon during that Irish mob job? No. Of course not. But does Nate deeply, deeply appreciate being able to drink after any one of Eliot's particularly enthusiastic numbers? Yes. 

And Nate? Nate loves Eliot. He does. 

If he did heartsongs instead of just observing them, Nate would certainly sing to Eliot something brotherly and thoughtful and full of comradery for all they built together. Or it would be a trashy drinking song. (Probably a trashy drinking song. But not one about beer: he'd elevate it slightly with Streams of Whiskey. That would be nice.)

He loves Eliot.

But.

He also hates Eliot. Just a little. Sometimes more than little. 

Nate tries not to. Eliot obviously has had a hard knock life, as signaled by Nate's unfortunate glimpses into Eliot's psychosexual landscape. Whatever Eliot's longing for in Parker and Hardison surely must be an improvement that the kind of play Eliot is used to. Better not to interfere, because that was a tower of precisely piled china plates Nate had no business poking. It was hard to keep to his commitment, sometimes: there were those nauseating months while they were chasing Moreau, and He Hit Me followed Eliot as a discordant haunting: it spilled as a few chords here and there Nate couldn't identify, and the occasionally breathed out ♪ It felt like a kiss ♪ before Eliot walked out of a room. After Eliot finally sang the full song on the flight to San Lorenzo, Nate could really piece together the colossal mess they were walking into, at least to Eliot. After that, Nate did everything in his power to keep Eliot away from Moreau—including assigning Eliot stapling, putting up posters, poisoning a government official's watch, and other intern-level busywork. Nate even gave Eliot a puppy to cuddle! That? That was an act of love. Kindness. 

See, he didn't hate Eliot…  

Usually. 

Because some things Eliot must be doing to fuck with Nate, specifically; he must. (He isn't, of course… but… maybe…) For example, Eliot somehow knows enough about British 80s indie rock to sing the same heartsong James once sang to Nate. Eliot directs it at both Parker and Hardison once those two have coupled off—except with the lyrics skillfully changed so it's about the ones Eliot can't have. Except Eliot has none of James' eloquent refusal to let his feelings show in the light of his (seemingly) unrequited feelings; he has none of James' respectful, responsible distance. Instead, when Eliot sings it, Nate knows exactly what Eliot wants ♫ all over, all over, all over ♫ his face.

 

—  

 

Admittedly, something changed in Eliot after a Sophie-level production at the San Lorenzo airport there declaring that it was a great day to be alive. And something changed in him even two weeks later once he and Parker came out of that cave. And something kept changing, as it did for them all. 

The lust was still there in Eliot—hovering like sweat in a humid August heat. But over the next year, as Hardison and Parker found their stride and (eventually) named their connection as a mutual, confirmed, ecstatic love, Eliot walked alongside them but only as a foil. Unrequited, ambiguous, melancholic—but still love. Always love. It was a building pressure in Nate's head—Eliot's heartbreak versus the joy of Hardison and Parker falling into their groove. Eliot's enthusiasm for his friends finding one another versus Hardison and Parker's unresolved longing for their third.

It's a pressure that builds up until a con gone sideways. An inexperienced hotrod in the midst of the security team gets paranoid over Hardison's cover. He's technically correct, but he had no reason to suspect Hardison based on his information. He gets jumpy as Hardison weaves a completely plausible tale. He tries to detain Hardison and yells at Hardison not to get mouthy. 

Then there's a gunshot.

"Bicep," Sophie immediately identifies from where she's in Lucille, watching the cameras. Besides Nate, Eliot has already jabbed the elevator button for the fifty-second floor, five below where they had been on their way to. 

Even with the bleeding, even with Hardison reciting word-for-word Sophie's perfect script she calmly calmly dictates to him—the guard won't stand down. Nate hears the jump in Hardison's distress as more voices join the hotrod in the background. But… maybe if—

"Parker?"  

"Be there in—" She's closer, but she's running up from the forty-five.  

"No," Eliot growls. "Stand down." Eliot is almost entirely out of his suit. He's even tossed off the tiny golden hoops he had in today. He thumbs at the silver pick he wears almost like dog tags before deciding to add that to the pile. 

"Eliot—We're still in Plan H. Parker has the clearance. She'll—"

Eliot taps his comm like it pains him to spend one moment away from Sophie and Hardison doing their best to manage an untenable situation. He won't look at Nate. He stares at the display as the numbers crawl upwards. "Ain't gonna listen to nothing nobody tells them," Eliot growls in his deepest drawl as he hops on the balls of his feet, stretching as quickly as he can. "This ain't some goon leading the charge. But a good guy becoming a bad apple," Eliot spits. "Right now, our man ain't a genius hacker too soft for his own good. He's just a Black guy who ain't listening, and they'd say, Well, he should have…"

Hardison groans just as Eliot turns his comm back on. Eliot doesn't react, at least, not in any discernible way.

Instead, Eliot just pushes Nate to the side of the elevator before looking him over. "Belt." Nate immediately takes his off and hands it to Eliot, who holds it folded in half in his right hand. He drops down like he's readying himself for a sprinter's opening block in front of the doors. 

"Nate's finishing the job. They'll be distracted. Parker—"

"Didn't listen."

"I know, sweetheart." The numbers draw upwards. They are nearly there. "Wait for me."

The doors ding as they meander themselves open. Eliot takes off, shoulders scraping the doors in his rush to approach. He's barely out the elevator when Nate hits the door close button. He bends down to pick up Eliot's discarded accoutrements. "Sophie, I need you to—" 

 

 

It's a tense few days afterward in the brewpub as they wrap up the job. They will not get every task completed, and the charges likely won't stick, and someone'll need to follow up in a year or two, once things have cooled down. But they'll get it done. Started. Whatever. 

Hardison has been shut in the room over—his workshop—for most of the day. Says he's working on a prototype and monitoring the bug. Parker dozes off on the La-Z-Boy Eliot dragged in for her because she was having trouble staying upright on the stools in her cast, and Nate and Sophie make phone call after phone call in character trying to figure out the mess of the situation. It's a lot of busywork, but they can stand the monotony. 

Nate is also looking into another job for when Eliot's better. Something tamer. Something overseas, maybe? Something that will calm the quiet yet frenetic energy of the team, even if it means leaving Parker behind. 

It's getting late but something keeps them locked in place. Waiting, and close to each other. 

Except for Eliot, who comes in just as Sophie, Nate, and Hardison are nearly done eating dinner at their seats. He's in long sleeves, and he's got a beanie down low (low enough to hide the gash at his temple, undoubtedly), and he's in his aviator sunglasses indoors but that's not enough protection for him to not flinch as he enters their HQ's fluorescent glare as opposed to the brewpub's dim lighting. (Maybe something to mention to Hardison…) 

Eliot catches the state of the main room, with both Sophie and Nate on the phone, so he just nods in their direction and walks towards the workshop. It's rare that Hardison closes the door fully when he's in it; Eliot visually hesitates to enter as freely as he usually would. 

He knocks. Leans against the threshold as he waits for Hardison to peek open the door. 

They are a team of crooks and also nosy and also extremely used to cross-talk, so it's almost a compulsion for Nate to listen in to Eliot's soft, "Hey."

"What's good?"

"Just checking in." 

"I'm aight. Shot, but who hasn't been, these days. You?"

Eliot shrugs. "Sleeping."

"All day?" Nod. "Still?" Another shrug. "If I take off your shades, will I find one big ass pupil and one small baby one?"

"Nah, nothing like that. Mostly blood loss." Sophie makes eye contact with Nate at that. She frowns. "Or… blood redistribution under my skin."

"I don't find that funny."

"Sorry." Eliot shifts. Mostly out of awkwardness, probably, but it's also got him further into Hardison's space. Close enough that most people would step away. It's thoughtless. Their intimacy. "Need anything? See you got food, but… need your toxic orange sludge?"

"Sticking to water, which I got in the fridge."

"Good. Your bandages? I can—"

"Sophie changed them. Nate says it's healing fine. Seriously. I'm good." 

Music begins to swell. Fuck.

"Don't make that face at me. I had a bullet gouge my damn arm, yet I'm more worried about you at this point."

"I can handle this. You, I ain't sure about."

"I can get shot."

"That's not what I'm talking about. Or not only. If you need to, I don't know, process? I—"

"I've been processing this since I was old enough to know how to."

"I know, I know but—"

"I got folks to talk to, I swear, who honestly? Will get it more than you. I appreciate the offer, but Eliot, you look awful. Please, what you can do is just go home. Rest."

"Okay. Fine. If you need anything, though—call? Because…" 

And here, Eliot steps away, palm flat against the threshold while his arm holds outstretched like a temptation. Sophie is locked into a standstill next to Nate, and Hardison freezes as well. The caller on the other end of Nate's phone goes silent. Nate hangs up; he figures he can call the person back rather than try to piece the call together once the songland time ends and regular time either continues or resets.

But the stillness cannot contain Eliot's voice as it breaks even on the first notes of his heartsong: ♫ I'd give up forever to touch you, 'cause I know that you'd feel me somehow. ♫ At this, Eliot draws in close again; from behind, it looks like they may be kissing; Nate knows better. ♫ You're the closest to heaven that I'll ever be— ♫ Eliot pushes against the door, vaulting backwards as if pulled by puppet strings. He turns around in a move that's more taichi than interpretative dance twirl, but the movement still reads as being stuck in place. He whispers forward and away from Hardison on every next word: ♫ —and I don't want to go home right now.

Now in the middle of the room, Eliot rotates around in a low sweep kick that he pushes through several jarring rotations. ♫ And all I can taste is this moment — ♫ He stops in his crouch, looking away from Hardison. ♫ — And all I can breathe is your life.

Eliot begins to rise but stops partway: he's up on one knee, fists curled against his chest collapsed inward as he has just exhaled the very breath of Hardison's he says he just took in.

From the door Eliot left him at, Hardison easily picks up the rest of the verse. ♫ And sooner or later it's over. ♫ He steps forward in a rush after Eliot, bending down and curtaining Eliot's form with his own without touching Eliot. ♫ Don't wanna miss you for the rest of my life.

Eliot finishes rising, leaving a frozen Hardison behind embracing air. ♫ And I don't want the world to see me, ♫ Eliot sings, pulling off his beanie and glasses and tossing them aside, revealing the bruised wash of red around the cut along his hairline. ♫ 'Cause I don't think that they'd understand. ♫ He ends up at the opposite wall from the workshop, fists raised and forearms flat against the glass window. 

Again there is an exchange: Eliot stills, and Hardison charges to Eliot, mirroring his position a yard behind him as he sings, ♫ When everything's made to be broken, I just want you to know who I am.

The instrumental tumbles a drum that wakes them both up. Eliot beats against the wall in time with the music, and with every hit Hardison pops backward as if Eliot's shoving him. But Eliot turns, reaches his hands towards Hardison, and dramatically pulls his hands back like he's trying to yank Hardison in, before he turns around and returns to the fists-up, forearms-flat position. Hardison takes the invitation. He strides up to Eliot and, with a great deal of hesitancy, he uses the advantage of his height and the length of his arms to bracket Eliot in without—again—a touch. 

With the power of songland, when Eliot pushes against the wall to jump backward, Hardison does too perfectly in time. Together, they spin that low sweep kick from earlier. And now, Hardison's the one walking away in slow measured steps and spins, but this time, Eliot chases. Eventually, their steps are as one: perfect mirrors, so when one moves the other joins him; in such a small space, they inevitably draw closer. Their voices collapse into one strangled parabola cry as they sing, ♫ And you can't fight the tears that ain't coming, or the moment of truth in your lies. When everything feels like the movies— ♫ And Hardison chimes in solo: ♫ —Yeah, you bleed just to know you're alive.

The rest of the song is repetitions of the chorus, but to Nate, each time feels new and heartbreaking. One voice comes in, one comes out, sometimes together, sometimes discordant or a second's breath delayed. Sometimes they mirror their movements. Sometimes they trade off. But the touch… they don't touch. Once, Eliot falls backwards, back arching and hips raised and head leading his descent, as if expecting a dip or someone to catch him. For Hardison to catch him. But Hardison is arching his back using the workshop's threshold as leverage: a mirror, not a partner, in this dance. Eliot tips over and has the finesse and skill and songland influence to twist just so, so he ends up in a handstand that leads to a set of athletic tumbles.

The song is almost done when Nate hears sniffling that doesn't follow the beat. Nate gets up out of his stool and follows it—unsurprised when he finds its source on the La-Z-Boy. She's curled up, eyes still closed from her nap, but Nate can see how she strains an ear toward the sounds of the duet behind her. Straining until there's cords in her neck from the effort. He knows she's hearing something. An echo. A whisper. Music or words. Or maybe just the way Hardison and Eliot's hearts yearn for one another. 

Nate stays at her side as the song draws to a close with Hardison and Eliot back at where Eliot pounded the glass wall. In lockstep, they trudge their feet to the workshop threshold again like the delay of the inevitable will strike them dead. They take a detour to pick up Eliot's glasses and beanie, which he pulls back on. But otherwise, they just obediently go back to their starting positions, and together they sing, ♫ I just want you to know who I am ♫ close enough that they look like they're kissing from behind, but Nate knows better. 

Eliot steps away from Hardison, the disruption cutting open songland to reset time. Sophie continues her sentence exactly where she left off, and next to him, Parker blinks her eyes open, tears beading in her lashes. 

Nate wants to cry a little himself at the mess of gut wrenching angst he just witnessed, but he feels surprise wash over him to the exclusion of all other emotions when he sees Hardison snap a hand out. His index finger has hooked Eliot's belt hoop, allowing Hardison to pull at Eliot enough that Eliot immediately turns back to Hardison. Nate can practically taste his eagerness.

"Hey," Hardison says real low. "Thanks. Sleep well."

Eliot nods slow. Brushes his knuckles against Hardison's to knock his hand out of his belt hoop. "No problem. Tell the rest I said g'night."

"Will do."

With that, Eliot leaves, stage right.

 

— 

 

Nate considers texting Parker, IRIS BY THE GOO GOO DOLLS, to make sure she knows what to look up.

He considers getting up and telling Hardison to find something for Eliot to do for him. Anything. Anything to make Eliot feel useful when only a few days before, he spent an elevator ride wondering if each breath he heard over the comms would be Hardison's last.

Nate considers following Eliot out and just… telling him… heaven's on earth for him already; they're just waiting for him to reach just that little bit forward. What is he waiting for?

Nate thinks he might actually have to go against his rule and interfere with them all and their relationship.

But… 

 

— 

 

 

 

James was skinnier, then. He shaved close to the skin and often, and he slept more, so his cheeks fell smooth under his eyes. Nate, however, remembers him closer to as he is now: thick but not quite soft around the middle (not yet, although Nate wouldn't complain either way), sporting a well-kept beard, and staring out with perpetually hooded, put-upon eyes. The taste of whiskey clung to James' lips, then, from his own light pour but mostly from what Nate kissed into him. 

Nate loved James. Wanted him, too, in the way that Nate wanted most men who were built like James and who were witty and who were a little mean. He didn't choose friendship with James because he was the kind of guy Nate would've fucked before he settled down with Maggie; but it's not something that escaped him. It was a joy to spend time with James—and he reminded Nate of the chattiness of a world he quietly stepped away from. He knew he didn't have to; Nate told Maggie he was bisexual, and she wouldn't judge him for keeping friends from the family. But Nate… he considered himself a good man, then, but… he worried: if a certain fondness for spirits passed down, maybe the adultery would too. Nate was truly a man of excess—of drama, of obsessive curiosity, of anger, and (what he convinced himself of with the faith of a flexibly devoted Catholic, wrongfully he would later realize) of sexuality. And of the drink, of course: Nate drank too much before Sam got sick; this is a secret he keeps to himself. Maggie has forgotten because the end was so much worse, and James couldn't see how Nate chased their drinking with more at home… But Nate had this first drink before his feet hit the floor when sitting at one of McRory's stools, and he hasn't stopped since.

He wouldn't give up every excess—especially the one that perhaps mattered the most—but he could give up one. And he never cheated on Maggie. At the time, he credited his commitment because he compared every woman to her and made sure he found the others faulty, and he kept himself from men who were too much like himself in the ways that excited him, and he convinced himself chasing Sophie was for the sport of it all. Maybe that wasn't necessary. No—it definitely wasn't necessary. But it felt like it, at the time. 

With James, it was different. It was easier to spend time with him. And Nate couldn't quite see himself with the man romantically, not for long; too alike, in too many of the wrong ways. Even with his heartsong confession, Nate believes James also felt that was not in the cards.

But there was something else there. Something sacred and something good even if it were to be short lived. Something that looked like fun. Care. Trust.

Nate trusted James. It was James—not Maggie—Nate told about the songs screaming at him. The first person he told, and the only person until Sophie. It was James who sorted through the potential rules of songland, and it was James who named them heartsongs, and it was James who got Nate through those early unhinged months of this curse.

When Nate pulled James on top of him that disastrous night, it had been hours after signing the divorce papers—weeks after Maggie asked him to leave their house—four months three weeks three days since Sam died—ten months since the prognosis was declared grim and ten months minus one day that karaoke night went biological in Nate's brain—and two years since Sam's sudden fainting spell at school shattered open Nate's entire world. 

When Nate unbuttoned his shirt, when James bit at Nate's collar and neck, Nate was still wearing his wedding band. 

On the day that your mentality catches up with your biology, come round.

It's a lie that Nate never faulted James for kicking him out. Nate raged. He yelled. Stole a near-full decanter of something good off James' bar. Nate ignored James' civil yet warded offers for dialogue. Called him… a lot of fucked up shit at work, might have outed James (although Nate was too brownout to really know what was going on)—it actually wasn't the reason he was fired, but it all added up. Nate despised James for not giving him what he wanted. What he needed. What James' heart said it wanted. What James' heart promised Nate.  

And his relentlessly arrogant greed cost him his best friend.

 

— 

 

Nate considers doing… something.

But… he stopped interfering with heartsongs about intimacy for a reason.

He can't predict everything. Didn't anticipate the utterly pedestrian complication of racial profiling, and look what happened. 

They're better off without him in this. 

 

— 

 

He holds fast to his decision. 

(He's a coward.)

 

 

He holds fast to his decision.

(He must.)

 

— 

 

But… 

He also saw how Parker woke up at the end of Eliot and Hardison's heartsong. From the throne of her La-Z-Boy, she was fitting together pieces from what she did have. Thinking. Components spinning. She didn't have everything, but… enough, maybe.

He hopes for… something. 

Because he can't do this forever. This masterminding. He's tired. He doesn't want to. 

He wants to be with Sophie. He wants her productions. He wants her characters and her real laugh and the way she challenges him and the way she wears flowing button-up pajamas when she really wants to sleep in (which is more and more often lately) because to her, they are the true mark of luxury. He wants her to be his wife, and he her husband. He wants to spend his life with her and not have to fight so hard and to continue to figure out how to have sex even as her heart sings such beautiful words to him. He's greedy for her, that way.

 

— 

 

It's not long after that Iris episode that Parker, Hardison, and Eliot welcome a new dawn to their relationship with the tercet, Good Morning. With that saccharine number, Nate figures it is done. Nate figures he doesn't need to feel tempted into interfering anymore. Figures he doesn't have to worry about if he is fucking over the dearest friends he's had in his life with a policy that was more sentimental than logic. But after that good morning, Nate figures things would likely improve even though technically, yes, there of course was also a potential for this to spell even more misery for Nate, because that's just the way Nate's life seemed to work out. But a small part—a part Nate is learning to remember to tap into—thought maybe, maybe, he would be given some peace now that the desperate pining was abated.

His hope, unfortunately, was very, very misplaced.

There are solos. 

There are duets. 

There are a few tercets. 

There are mash-ups. So many mash-ups, as the three eagerly tousle over each others' lyrics to share just how much they love the others in their own special, unique, lovely, wholesome and not so wholesome, truly extraordinary way. 

Their heartsongs won't leave Nate alone even though they got their hearts' desires. Now, there are a flood of insecurities but there are just as many assurances. More, in fact. Deeper than the worries. They look happier. They work better together, which seemed impossible but they manage it. 

It's 9 AM, and they are prepping for that big last final job to say goodbye on. The one they moved to Portland for. The one everything else has built toward. Nate's on his stool, Eliot's hunched over a stack of papers, and Hardison is in the corner, making calculations on the clear board. It's been a quiet twenty minutes of hard work. Behind them, the door opens—Nate turns around to see as Parker appears in the threshold to the main area.

"No Sophie?" Parker says, bouncing in.

"Rehearsal," Hardison answers.

Parker hip checks the stool Eliot's sitting on, hooking her chin over his shoulder. She grimaces in disgust: "Ugh. Looks like it's a lot of reading today." 

Nate barely catches the movement, but Parker slips her hand to Eliot's side and pokes hard at his waist with her thumb. 

Eliot doesn't react, even as Parker finds another spot and digs in. "It's a lot, yeah," Eliot says quietly. Suspiciously quietly. He slips off his reading glasses. Lays them on the table.

Nate doesn't know it yet, but a part of him dies when Eliot reaches down to cover Parker's retreating hand with his own, aligning fingers on top of fingers. 

With the delicate coordination only possible in songland, Eliot guides her hand back down to his side and then down a couple scant inches. "It's a lot," he says plainly, so plainly Nate desperately wants to believe they aren't slipping into what he can feel in his gut is happening. "It's a lot," Eliot adds as Parker and him instinctively slip open their fingers just enough to hold the suggestion of a muffin top Eliot's been packing on. "It's a lot." Eliot presses his fingers down into Parker's, digging the tips into his shirt. "It's a lot." Parker follows his lead, tendon in her forearm straining as she grabs at Eliot with all the strength she probably has—a considerable feat for anyone to sit through, even an anyone built like Eliot Spencer. But Eliot must be all for it, because—

Ah yes. The classic throw-the-head-back-and-expose-the-throat move. Eliot does that, sitting up straight like he's been electrified—and the industrial-chic music drops and Eliot moans in a new register: ♫ It's a lot like life. ♫  

Goddammit, Eliot. They had a chance at a peaceful morning.

As the plucking tones of a synth rise and fall like a xylophone, Eliot spins around on his stool either by his own accord or Parker's hand; either way, he's twirled around so Parker stands momentarily between the cradle of his thighs ready to hold her. The tableau doesn't last for long because this heartsong's tempo is a race: in four beats, Eliot braces his heels into the stool's footrests. He pulses slightly upward on the fifth, but sits back down on the sixth. Then, as the six-note section repeats, a wave travels up his body bottom to top in four juts. He's arcing up towards Parker, and her hand finds his stomach to push him down to his seat on the fifth beat. On the sixth, they rest. Eliot rises again, and again she sits him down. Once more—a heartbeat staccato. 

Nate wishes he still carried around a flask as Eliot does his wave again. This time, Parker doesn't push him down. Already moving on the third note, expecting him, she uses the so-far absent other hand to slap Eliot across the face.

The palm… connects.

It… it actually connects.

The sound is a thunderclap that Nate jumps at, and Eliot's face snaps back from the force. He dips his body back to exaggerate the hit by spinning the stool seat around following the momentum. He's back to position for the rest at six. He attempts to rise again, and there Parker is at four to slap him again. This time he snaps his head forward—rebellious—and hitches his body into a prowl instead of spinning again.   

As the music introduces a new layer of percussion, Eliot leaps off the stool, forming that same arch in air, landing beyond Parker. He stomps—keeping time—to the wall behind the desk, fists raised and forearms flat against the glass window in what feels like a too-perfect parallel to the Iris number. He beats against the wall again, turns, reaches his hands towards Parker, dramatically pulls his hands back like he's trying to yank her in, then turns around and returns to the fists-up, forearms-flat position. He pushes against the glass as if with enough effort he can walk through it, feet still keeping that time. From one rep to another of the same pattern, his temple and cheek find the wall to hold his inclined body up as his hands drop to the bottom of his henley. (Everything… is happening very fast.) He slides the shirt and the tank underneath up, each quarter-inch revealed always always in time, and maybe he also shimmies his pants down by sucking his stomach in tight, and—in the slice of skin now displayed, Nate can clearly see two bruises at his hips, a pair of hands, narrow thumbs pointing to spine and the other four curled around him. 

It can't have been more than twenty, twenty-five seconds since the song started. 

Nate is losing his mind. 

Parker knows what to do, it seems. She strides up behind Eliot and in a smooth motion, one fist holds up Eliot's tops at the hems, and one palm slides around Eliot's neck to grip his throat. Eliot's hands are freed at the contact; he tuts his arms in artful, angular movements as Parker uses a rest to dig her chin between his shoulder blades. Together, they work to roll Eliot's hips to the wall and back to her; and, feeling somewhat faint at the train barreling to a wreck in front of him, Nate notes that this… this is really not how it's supposed to work.

But with Nate struck with surprise like Parker had slapped him too, there's no stopping what's coming (and please, for the love of all the cosmic brownie points Nate must've earned from Leverage work, let it not be who's coming also). 

In a tumbling fall of notes, Parker and Eliot reverse their positions: Parker now with her back to the wall, Eliot's back to her chest. They've both got their knees bent just so, so Eliot's… so his—and yeah, Nate doesn't know the song, but something feels weird as the instrumental keeps a moment too long. No extra complexities are brought in. Obviously songland has decided to bless Nate today by adding a second layer of time distortion to gift Nate an extra moment to freak out in slowmo because okay, so Nate is a bisexual man who can understand that his friends have bodies and those bodies have parts and those parts can be used in a pleasing matter, and he's seen Eliot and Hardison pull all sorts of wacky sexual shit in songland (don't think of Can You Handle It, don't think of Can You Handle It), and yeah drunk very drunk, Nate does the gay thing gay people do and thinks about his gay friends being very, very friendly with him even if they aren't his type, so yes, Nate understands that Eliot has an ass and a decent one and yet? and yet to name Eliot's ass here tucked so carefully into Parker's pelvis is… a lot for Nate to handle at 9-someting AM on a Wednesday. It's a lot. (It's a lot.)

But because God is punishing Nate specifically, probably for dropping out of seminary school, Eliot's ass tucks carefully into Parker's pelvis. Parker slots her hands right where they belong, right where she left a promise of herself marked to Eliot's skin. Together the two move to drop down to a squat and—on the rise back to position—Eliot lets Parker's thrust lead them up again. It feels like a very practiced move, even for songland, because they manage to find their pace remarkably quickly. They barely leave each other no matter how low they flex to, moving together in tandem like Parker has hitched them together with one of her harnesses. They keep this repetition going without much alterations, even as a new percussive layer is added into the music—another strange breaking of rules; songland prefers variation in its interpretative dance. 

But apparently the pair's need for a decent simulated magical pegging supersedes any sense of order. So, instead of moving on, Parker holds on tight, and Eliot has one hand lost in Parker's hair and the other tugging his pants up by the belt so they don't slip the rest of the way down his happy trail as he follows Parker's lead. Every muscle in Eliot's neck is corded tight as he rests it back on Parker's shoulder, eyes flickering and mouth dropped open just enough to huff through. Parker latches her teeth to one of these cords, and Eliot huffs harder.  

It's definitely a dance. Of a sort. Maybe. Parker is definitely helping Eliot live out his best and truest bottomest boy fantasies and Nate is here to die.

It's been forty seconds. Forty-something, perhaps, fifty? Nate has developed a keen inner songland timer over the years but today all he knows is that it's been an eternity. This is hell. If Nate doesn't let this happen, a song of this intensity will undoubtedly follow him until songland feels it's done: it will be every ringtone and in every elevator and every honk in traffic and on the tongues of strangers on the street and Nate never again wants to see a meter attendant hump a streetlight belting out the words one of his friends had meant to sing (Hardison, why is it always Hardison—). And there's something to the magic that makes it so he really can't look away, he really is just in this now and stuck and trapped and… So the song just needs to play out and so this is hell. Literal actual hell on earth, and Parker and Eliot are crouched down low when, finally, lyrics: ♫ There's a new game we like to play, you see, ♫ Eliot croons breathily. 

As he sings, Parker releases Eliot's hips (and the bruises look a little deeper set from the glimpse Nate gets of them). She rubs her palms in a mirror up Eliot's back, pushing him forward and using him as leverage to stand up with her body bent at the waist over him. 

A game with added reality. ♫ Eliot is nearly kissing floor with how low Parker has him, but that apparently isn't enough. Parker nudges Eliot forward with a calf to his taint (oh god, Nate, there are other ways to describe that area—he's woozy again, and nothing can be as bad as Can You Handle It, but this number is already in society with that fucking disaster). With explicit instruction, Eliot drips forward to kiss that granite. Or lick it—hard to tell with the waterfall of his bangs hiding his face. Wonderful. 

You treat me like a dog, ♫ he sings, lips muffled by Parker downward-dogging on his shoulder blades. Eliot flexes just so, so he's kneeling, taking the next lyrics, ♫ get me down on my knees, ♫ quite literally. 

Parker yanks at Eliot, and he keeps his face to the floor but does pop his ass up before settling again. ♫ We call it— ♫ Another small yank-and-pop. ♫ Master and servant. ♫ Parker grabs at the shirt at Eliot's shoulder but also moves to hold onto his belt. ♫ We call it— ♫ Another yank, but this time, with the heroic strength of two very able, very determined people, Parker marionettes Eliot onto his feet. ♫ Master and servant. ♫

She bites his neck in the same place as before then shoves Eliot forward. He leaps again, the wild curve from earlier, but he doesn't land on his feet. He tumbles a tumble that's all tactile without a hint of dancerly finesse. Ends up across the room on his knees again—and, wow, of course! Parker aimed Eliot right to the corner where Hardison had apparently been absently waiting for his cue. As distracted as Nate was, he hadn't noticed Hardison had stopped writing on the board—he'd moved it aside and now was leaning against the small bookshelf in the corner of the room. With this new prop arrangement, the roll puts Eliot right in front of Hardison, with his knees bracketing Hardison's feet and Eliot's nose tracing Hardison's fly. 

What a fucking miracle that songland so helpfully orchestrated this artistry to occur so, so smoothly. 

Hardison greets Eliot by grabbing a fistful of hair and leading his head slightly back and sideways. And Eliot… laughs. Not on beat. Just laughs—earnest and silly—jostling as he arches enough so he, like Hardison, can catch Parker in his periphery.

Over Eliot's ♫ It's a lot like life, this play between the sheets, ♫ Parker gives them both a disarmingly sweet smile and slowly slinks her arm upward. She snaps her fingers, and her obedient and enthusiastic dog follows her command: he pops with a thrust of his hips against Hardison's calves. She does it again and again and again, and Eliot acts his fill.

(Distantly, very distantly, Nate… does his mastermind thing and makes connections, and he remembers that one guy Rampone at Toby's school. In a distant echo, Nate hears Rampone's comment about Nate calling off his attack dog and… please, please for the love of Jesus H. Christ and Mother Mary both, let it have been a coincidence.)

With you on top and me underneath— ♫ And Eliot's humping Hardison's legs at Parker's command. Whatever. Whatever! It's a fucking lot. It's a lot.

(Let this not be a known thing in wetwork circles. Like. Eliot? Eliot, let this not be a thing everyone knows. And… oh no. Oh, God, maybe the muscle thought Nate… 

Nate can't help the revolted groan screaming out his mouth. At least it's on beat? Or is that worse? That's definitely worse.

Nate's soul might have evacuated his body.) 

Forget all about equality. ♫ Parker waves some kind of signal that tells them Eliot is released from her puppetry. She teases her fingers down her body until she can slip a hand over her—nope. No. Nate dares his eyes steadfastly to Hardison and Eliot in order to not see Parker mime palming herself over her tights. Or… god, is she actually… No! No.

With the other two, Eliot thrusts at Hardison's legs a moment longer and, with a small change to the music, he shifts to kneeling upright again, aiming his face directly into Hardison's crotch. The wet sound of a mouth opening along with a distinctive movement of Eliot's head signal Eliot licking at the placket of Hardison's pants. But Hardison's still got that fist in Eliot's hair. He pulls upward quick enough it has to hurt songland Eliot (and, again, this? this shouldn't happen, it should all be gestures and approximates; Nate has been listening in for over half a decade now to people's innermost heart's desires; he knows the game and this ain't it), but Eliot doesn't complain about his hair being manhandled. He jumps up onto his feet in a heavy, hulking jerk.  

Let's play— ♫ Hardison sings, and that throws Nate for a loop—he startles again, not realizing that this would be a duet. Or, apparently, a tercet—because Parker from across the room finishes the line with, ♫ —Master and servant. ♫ 

Hardison drops his forehead to Eliot's, his next line likely breathed onto Eliot's lips: ♫ Let's play— ♫ And again, Parker: ♫ —Master and servant.

Upbeat xylophone is back, and Eliot rolls his neck, purposefully making sure to strain at the distance of Hardison's hold on his hair. Getting the picture, Hardison leads Eliot through a wide circumference, and then another that dips Eliot into a limbo. Coming up, Eliot grabs Hardison by the neck and draws him to his own. Hardison intuits the same place to bite as Parker did, sucking on the skin there like he needs it to keep living. (So… Nate was right about that vampiric harlequin romance comparison, huh?)

It's a wet suction so Nate shudders as he hears every smack from halfway across the room. Meanwhile, Eliot thankfully(?) continues singing because that's the only way for this to stop. ♫ It's a lot like life, and that's what's appealing. ♫ Hardison must be distracted by the kiss/suckle/swallow, and so his grip drops from hair to trace whispers down Eliot's spine until he can slip his index fingers into Eliot's belt hoops, long fingers reaching forward to try and grasp at the seat of Eliot's pants. Nate can feel Eliot's eyeroll and dammit, Hardison at the man's lack of commitment to the overall scene, even if he's bruising up Eliot's neck like a georgian peach with his enthusiasm. 

But, as they rock together, Eliot's voice is unbothered and sure and fond as he summarizes a lot of why he must have held out so long for Hardison and Parker: ♫ If you despise that throwaway feeling from disposable fun, then this is the one. ♫

Eliot kisses whatever he can reach—likely Hardison's ear—as the verse ends and the instrumentals pick up again. He playfully shoulder checks Hardison and uses Hardison's chest as a launching pad to spin himself around. Eliot looks at where he left Parker who—Nate tentatively looks over—thankfully no longer is rubbing herself. Instead, she does a little lightfoot jump action, like she's getting ready to box. By the intensity in her eyes that matches the swell of the music, she might be doing just that.

At the same beat, Eliot and Parker nod then… 

It's a small room; there's not a lot of space to run and yet! And yet these two idiots jump up simultaneously and start sprinting at each other. Nate's heart stops as Parker hunches over like she's going to tackle Eliot—again, Nate tries not to judge but tackling? come on, guys! 

But… 

But as they reach each other, Eliot collides his stomach to Parker's sternum. By sheer momentum of the hit and Parker standing up with her hands around Eliot's thighs, they turn and—

Oh.

Domination's the name of the game. ♫ 

It's a lift. 

That's… very sweet, actually.

Parker started off low to better manage Eliot's size, but even in songland, it's difficult for her to spin. But she holds him, and he has his hands clutched onto her shoulders, and it's like no lift Nate has ever seen, but it not only gets the job done; it works. It works for them. ♫ In bed or in life— ♫ Or… it works until Parker maybe overestimates her ability, and she goes for an extra fraction of a rotation. Her knees bend like they're giving in, and Eliot's weight should have tipped them over but— ♫ —they're both just the same. ♫ —Hardison is there. He hugs the two in his long arms and helps stabilize them both. 

Except in one you're fulfilled at the end of the day. ♫ Eliot slides into the space between his partners' embrace wound circles around his trunk of a chest. They stay knotted as Eliot finishes the verse. Eliot kisses Parker besides her eye, then the side of her nose.

Hardison starts, ♫ Let's play— ♫ and Parker finishes for him with a strict reminder: ♫ —Master and servant.

He runs the back of his hand up Eliot's arm and neck, and Eliot moans, ♫ Let's play — ♫ But Parker insists, ♫ —Master and servant, ♫ so Hardison, in one fluid motion, fists Eliot's hair at the root again and yanks as he takes a step back. Eliot twists and growls as he tries to follow, but Parker's got a hold on his hips tight, so Eliot just needs to surrender to the arch. The synth goes wild, and still Hardison dips Eliot further, shuffling backward in half-inches as needed. He slides his free forearm along Eliot's spine, tensing the muscles there and in his legs to secure the weight the arm holds. 

Eliot scrambles to hold onto something—anything—one hand ends up at Parker's wrist, the other at Hardison's elbow—and his breathing is heavy. Apparently that doesn't work: Hardison releases Eliot's hair to arrange it so Eliot's arms cross over his chest, hands gripping his own biceps. Hardison goes back to Eliot's hair and keeps tugging it to encourage him lower.

"Come on, Eliot," Parker hisses urgently, in a voice that is more herself than songland. ♫ Come on.

At Parker's ambiguous but forceful command, Eliot grunts and thrashes in his partners' hands, but whatever Parker was hoping for doesn't seem to happen. They wait until he settles before they continue. The cords in Eliot's neck are back, and it'll be a miracle if he doesn't pop a blood vessel. 

But still he follows Hardison's direction down down down, past his back being held parallel to the floor. Hardison has shifted his thigh to help support Eliot's weight, and although his biceps shake from the effort of the changing position, Hardison will undoubtedly shake and shake and shake as long as he's right where he needs to be, doing what he can for his partners. And still Parker holds on on on, even as she moves to straddle Eliot's knees and thighs to allow for Eliot's slow descent.

Until. 

Until she looks up at Hardison, squints at him and does something with her eyebrows, and then—she lets go of her hold on Eliot's hips. Just enough for Eliot to drop a few inches, and then she catches him with his waist in her hands and his thighs between hers. Hardison had bunkered down so Eliot wasn't at risk of hitting the floor. Yet, as gravity drowns him just for that second or two, something snaps in Eliot with a bestial roar and his entire body stiffening like he's been electrocuted. 

But, just as quickly as every muscle in his body strains, legs fall limp even as he maintains the whip of that damn fucking curve. 

Parker and Hardison don't so much as scramble when Eliot becomes dead weight in their arms, as much as they rapidly shift through several interlocking positions. Parker also doesn't quite kick Eliot but instead shuffles a leg just so, so she can position Eliot's feet and calves underneath him comfortably. 

Slowly, so slowly even as the instrumentals of the heartsong shake in the vibrancy of the song's apex, they guide Eliot down to his knees. Between Parker and Hardison's legs, there's a legitimate issue with an obscured line of sight to Eliot that makes Nate remember, oh, he, Nathan Ford, exists in the world. He is a real person who can breathe (or who songland has been pumping oxygen into so he can witness the… whatever just played out in front of him), and he doesn't know how long he's been sitting there glued to his seat but he knows he's clammy like he gets when he tries to go cold turkey. He is spooked and somewhat sick and the instruments are fading out to a complete stop but his own pulse beats just as loudly in his ears. He can't see Eliot tucked away as he is, but Nate hears his harsh breathing.

Hardison and Parker hug over him, pecking kisses on each other's lips but mostly just holding each other tight.

And this…

This has to be the end, right? 

That's… a good place to stop. Eliot has stopped. The music has hushed. Nate's soul left his body for a moment; that should be enough penance for all the sins he's committed, all his excesses, and his every blasphemy.  

Usually, when Eliot belts out his enthusiasm for submission, this is where things end. Him on his knees, him zoned out having whatever counts as an orgasm in songland, maybe him invading the space of Parker and/or Hardison… and Nate hates himself that he can estimate a "usually" in this situation. 

But… nothing goes back to normal. 

Nothing resets. 

Eliot's breathing hard, and Parker and Hardison stand as wards around him. 

Then… Parker crouches down. 

Then… she rubs her thumbs into Eliot's cheeks. Bumps her forehead against his. ♪ Master and servant, ♪ she sings soft like a lullaby. It's the tone she uses when talking to her second and third favorite tasers (Big Bertha Jr, apparently, finds it condescending). Nate is incredibly grateful Eliot and Hardison are both turned away from Nate, so he cannot see their expressions at Parker's gentleness. From what Nate does see, Eliot doesn't react but Parker doesn't seem to mind. She just kisses Eliot by his eye, then (Nate assumes) by his nose, then one last one on the massive hickey deepening on Eliot's neck. 

She gets up and walks away towards the attached workshop.

Eliot slumps against Hardison's legs. Hardison reaches down and pets the very hair he's yanked over the last few minutes—because that's what it's been (technically, despite songland's time distortion probably allowing for more time for action than it should've)—it's been on a scale of minutes since Eliot led Parker's fingers to his side and pressed into his bruise. ♪ It's a lot, ♪ Hardison sings in a whisper. 

Eliot breathes hard. 

It's a lot.

And Eliot stays breathing hard—so Hardison lets out a small hmph. Carefully, he folds in on himself until he can join Eliot on his knees. There's a moment in-between Nate recognizes hazily: Eliot, down low on his knees? a knee? and Hardison, his bent form curtained above Eliot without them touching. But the movement doesn't stop there. The dance keeps going. Hardison kneels so close behind Eliot, it's an easy thing to fit Eliot right into his lap. Eliot drops his head back onto his partner's shoulder, a soft reverb echo of earlier's pseudo-strap action—but this time Eliot turns into Hardison's neck, lips likely held against the skin there. 

Hardison clasps over Eliot's hands with his own, leading them so all four rest cupped and palms up on Eliot's thighs. Hardison holds his thumbs to Eliot's lifelines. 

It's a lot.

And Parker is back, now armed with a bundle which she spills next to them as she joins Eliot and Hardison on the floor. 

She shakes out the very expensive, very luxurious giant afghan Nate recognizes immediately as the one Sophie got her last Christmas; Sophie had Nate spend weeks helping her search for one that was deemed worthy of Parker but that was also accommodating of potential touch hyposensitivity (even though it wasn't confirmed, but just in case because with gifts it's really the thought that matters, Nate). Parker said then she liked it with the greed of someone not willing to share this precious thing she now owned; Nate thought he would never see the blanket again. Now, though, Parker brings it around Hardison's shoulders and down over both his and Eliot's arms. The weight of it settles over them in a wash of pale blue. 

Next, she brings one of the microfiber cloths Hardison uses to wipe down his equipment to Eliot's face. She pushes back his hair with the cloth and wipes his forehead, down his jaw, to his neck and the bruise she and Hardison left. People don't really sweat in songland—but the actions still feel urgent. Appropriate. Maybe Eliot is sweating. 

Once that's done, she focuses on his cheeks again. His eyes. She ends up in the middle of Eliot's face and—

It's a lot.

The particular shake of Eliot's head is a known entity for Nate, as a father who once had a partner to observe taking care of a child with a cold—Parker's likely squeezing Eliot's nose to clear it out. And… 

It's a lot.

Nate recoils in his seat, realizing only then that all the motions together probably mean Eliot's crying. Silently, without sobs to interrupt his still heavy breathing, but enough that this care is necessary.

…Care.

Nate— 

It's a lot.

He—   

It…

It clicks for Nate.

Oh.

Fuck.

No.

It's a lot like life.

This is worse than Can You Handle It. This is worse than the cumulative damage dealt by every Hardison and Eliot duet. This isn't worse than, you know, his son dying or his dad dying or his mom. It's probably not worse than the heartbreak he experienced when Sophie took her leave from Leverage, but maybe.

Because apparently… 

Apparently now that he's had the real deal, songland Eliot fucking needs aftercare now.

It's a lot.

Let Nate have just died on that fucking boat three years ago. Better to have died the moment he turned tail from white hat to thief, right there on the Maltese Falcon, rather than to live toward this inevitability. 

It's a lot.

Nate doesn't interfere, but he will interrupt—rarely, especially with his team since their songs tend to linger, but he will. He needs to interrupt. This has gone from spellbound trainwreck to what is feeling like a clawing violation scratching down his throat. He knew the three loved each other and desired each other and worked well together. He's had nearly five years of history as a witness to the intricate ways they have latched onto one another. 

It's a lot.

But there's something… something here that—

They care for each other. 

They care after each other. 

It's a lot.

There isn't music. Hardison's sung soothing comes not along a beat, but as spontaneous spells. 

There aren't exaggerated gestures. As Parker picks up a sports squeeze bottle, one that isn't the one they used at that MMA gym years ago but that strikes Nate as wildly close… as she picks it up, she is patient as she brings it up to Eliot's mouth. Her motions read of utility. Purpose. Intention. When Eliot tries to dig his nose deeper into Hardison's neck, Hardison shifts around under the blankets, and Nate can see his hand come up to guide Eliot's jaw and (with it) the rest of his face upright and back. Parker waits as Hardison squeezes to make Eliot open his mouth, and then she feeds Eliot the straw. 

This is barely a heartsong, anymore. This is… 

This is an intimacy that Nate has no business witnessing.

It's a lot.

Nate… doesn't interfere. He rarely interrupts. He must now. He has got to leave the room, he has got to get away, he has to… He… 

Nate can't get up. 

He tries. 

He can't.

That… isn't possible. Nate doesn't get stuck in the songland time fuckery. People nonessential to the song (meaning, not the heartsong singer, their backup vocals, or dancing accompaniment) wait in perpetual limbo until time can right itself. Nate could always move. Nate was the observer, not the victim. 

Nate… realizes then that he hasn't moved his body the whole song. He turned his head a bit, looked away, and followed the madness unfolding in front of him. But… the room is small enough that he didn't need to twist himself to do any of that. How… 

How long has he been stuck?

It's a lot.

Nate breathes out an experimental, "Fuck." 

He always wished that someone else could see what he did. He got that, in part, with Parker—but it felt odd to bring it up with her, like a betrayal of the weird game played out across songland. If this was what she always felt… if this is what it's like to be held by the magic…  

She… might be able to stop this. She's interacted with songland before as a relatively free agent. He tries.

"Parker," Nate calls out. She ignores him, preferring to kiss Hardison over Eliot again. "Parker! Need you here." 

Nate closes his eyes. Holds them closed for a long, long time. Opens them. No time has passed, or maybe time has shifted but Parker and Hardison and Eliot's aftercare have not progressed beyond the moment he left them.

Because Nate is a dick and lashes out with words when he doesn't have anything else to go off of, he quips, "Don't I get a safeword?" 

And because this is Nate and this is the one of the worst things that's ever happened to him, that? Saying safeword

Parker jolts back from Hardison, and her head swivels toward Nate. Their eyes lock.

It's a lot like life, ♪ Hardison continues as if Parker's face hasn't shifted from a state of fixed dedication to an alert fierceness that takes Nate's breath away.

"Stop this," Nate asks and nearly winces at the horror in his voice.

It's a lot.

Parker isn't like Nate; isn't as in control for all that he wants and needs her to be right now. She looks back at her partners and her eyes glaze over a bit, drawn into the song.  

It's a lot.

"I'm not part of your little 'master and servant' scenario, Parker," Nate says, trying to inject his voice with just enough a scold to sound like when she drops the ball on a con. It works. Attention back to him. 

It's a lot.

Parker nods like it hurts her. Bracing herself, she pulls the blanket tighter around Hardison and Eliot. She holds her forehead to Hardison's for a few seconds, then kisses at Eliot's hair. Then, struggling, she stands. 

It's a lot.

Nate can see how Parker drags herself across the room to get to him. 

"Help me end this. Get me out." 

It's a lot.

She shakes her head viciously.

"Parker, come on."

It's a lot.

"Care… is safety. Mine… to protect." (♪ It's a lot like life, ♪ Hardison and Eliot intone from across the room. A Greek chorus for Parker's searing confession.)

"It's… not real, Parker," Nate stumbles out. But… it's a hard thing. Her earnestness is so immediately convincing. But she doesn't have his ability. She doesn't know. "It's a performance. It's magic. Everything will reset anyway. Eliot… he won't drop."

"No. It's—" Parker screws up her face. She sways along with the music for a moment, but Nate practices patience for once: he waits for her. He lets her find herself, her words. And when they come out, they flow because… this… they are hers. ♫ —a lot like life and that's what's appealing. I despise those throwaway feelings from disposable fun— / "—and they are the two for me. So—so, Nate… Please."

This is hers.

Maybe a tercert of a kind, with a lead-in starring performance given to Eliot and a long refrain given to Hardison, but… at its core: this… must be Parker's heartsong. Maybe in his shock, Nate allows for a moment of speculation, because otherwise he will have to think about the awful begging conclusion of Parker's request, but… Nate's smart. He can piece things together. Eliot would have changed the lyrics to masters—plural. Hardison wouldn't sing this song—wrong genre, wrong tone, and throughout, he contributed to the play and the a lot care but never truly the domination. He was static when not involved, versus (and as humiliating it is to remember) Parker… She was certainly active when it was just Hardison and Eliot as the lyrical focus. 

It's her song.

So… Nate was right. Eliot wouldn't have included this second half. This intimacy. Maybe never would've thought to, so deeply that even his heart never allowed time for it in the years he's been singing in front of Nate. 

And that's… 

"I hear you," Nate says. "It's your call." 

Parker smiles wide. Christmas-wide.

"Sorry for"—interfering—"messing with your flow. I guess… go on?" At this, Parker makes a face and reaches out for Nate's hands. "What're you—" 

She yanks Nate onto his feet, and he stumbles into her, legs numb. Which apparently still works for her just fine: with songland grace and likely some of her own, she drapes Nate's right hand on her left shoulder and she clasps his left in her right. Parker's left goes to his side, thankfully much higher than from where she held Eliot. She points their clasped hands towards the workshop and starts humming. Behind her, the instrumentals of the heartsong echo lightly. 

Parker swings them back and forth, and somehow in the ebb and flow of their clumsy tango, Nate finds he can keep up with her steps. 

He follows her lead, laughing despite the chaos that's been his life for the last however long it's been; he even throws himself into the spin she twirls him through as they cross the threshold into the workshop and then again before she tosses him into a chair. 

"Thanks," Nate chuckles at her solution. "Clever."

Given her urgency to convince Nate to let the three continue with their aftercare, he expects her to zip out the door. Instead, she… runs to a set of drawers, one of the ones with Hardison's tools. She pulls open one drawer and out of it she takes a microfiber cloth. And from a low drawer, yet another blanket—and Nate immediately recognizes it as the lime green fleece he never could find after Hardison used it for that job with the Doyles at McRory's. Apparently, this is where it's ended up.

Nate makes an educated guess at what's happening even before she gets to the minifridge. "You really don't have to do this."

She shakes her head vigorously. Takes out a water bottle (thankfully a regular one, not like the one she retrieved for Eliot).  

"I don't need—" 

She looks at him like he's stupid. Maybe he is, at this point, brain cells fried by this morning's events. "If safeword, then…"

God, fuck you. This is why Nate lapsed.

"Fine," Nate groans to the heavens, deciding that fighting this will only delay the inevitable. "Just what you got's fine," Nate says as he catches Parker eyeing the treats stacked on top of the fridge. She skips over to him and, without fuss, tucks the blanket around Nate's shoulders, pats down his (yes, admittedly very uncomfortably clammy and sweaty) face and hair, and helps him get down some gulpfuls of water before he figures that's enough.

"You have work to do," Nate complains to shoo her off, before adding with what lines up too perfectly with a swell of music to be accidental: ♫ Go on. ♫

With a quick kiss to Nate's temple—so quick Nate isn't sure he imagined it—Parker walks off. The workshop door closes behind her. 

And Nate then waits.

And waits. 

And wishes desperately he had someone to talk to about this. The entire number. The breaking of what Nate swore were steadfast songland rules. The horror of being stuck. The bittersweetness of a glimpse into something so precious and kind. The build-up of Eliot's history of heartsongs, versus the startling admission of Parker's latent Domina-ness, versus Hardison's sweetheart devotion that threads through his every gesture of care to his partners.

Sophie... She understands him and he loves her and he has a ring, a ring he will give her, and hopefully she'll follow him away from this world into something softer.

But with heartsongs, especially about heartsongs for Hardison, Eliot, and Parker, she can be a bit protective. She moves very quickly between enjoying his recounts of their songs because it's the height of romance, to telling Nate she would prefer not to know what exactly they are singing; she just wants to know they are doing okay.

What Nate needs is a mean queen. A real asshole who will listen and joke and help smooth off the edges of Nate's judgment through teasing. Needs wit and a silver tongue that will soothe the ache of Parker, Hardison, and Eliot's affection laid raw. Nate needs a voice callous not because of scorn or ridicule, but for the whiskey they share, the cutting of the amber making speech husky.

He wants James, in a way he's forgotten to want the man he once spent routinely countless hours pissing time away on the roof of their company business. 

He wants his friend back. 

There's still that attraction, don't get Nate wrong. There's a certain wanting of the man that is inescapable, but the feeling still holds the same weight as it did so many years before: a collegiate sensuality that Nate misses so desperately he feels it in his teeth. It's different from the queer something he knows runs under the surface of his friendships with the crew—together and separately. A kinship of peers with Parker, Eliot, and Hardison; a deep consuming love and eroticism with Sophie. 

There was just a cattiness to James and Nate that… that Nate misses. It was an intimacy he chose to push aside in deference to his pettiness and alcoholism and pain.

Nothing can happen now. 

It's too close to this last big job. Nate can work around the surprise of running into James at the art auction, but another moment of contact would... 

It would put everything at risk.

Nate can't interfere with this plan. The final plan. The last big job, for him (and hopefully Sophie). But... 

But he thinks of Parker and Hardison and Eliot. He thinks about what they contribute and what they don't to one another; what they withhold and give and share. It's so easy to see them as a unit. It's so easy to trust that once they get the Black Book, they will continue. Together. He put this play together with Hardison before the three got together. 

Nate… didn't interfere. But… he trusted them. He trusted them to get their shit together. To fix themselves. To hold themselves accountable.

So, Hardison, can they handle it? 

Yes, yes they can.

And Nate knows this because over the last nearly five years, he has been witness to just how much they love each other, truly. In any and every configuration, because in the end, they would always be of a team, of a similar soul, of the same ilk and heart… always friends… even if they didn't figure out the romantic part of it. 

And that? 

That gives Nate pause. It gives Nate… hope. 

Because maybe… Maybe there's something he can say that won't completely destroy what he has… can have with James. There has to be a moment… somewhere… 

A choice given, maybe. 

One that would open Nate up to some vulnerability. (Just Nate, not for the others, but maybe… just himself; he can risk himself for…) 

Nate can lean into that, he thinks. That trust.

 

— 

 

(Blink, he's in the workspace.) 

(Blink, he's on his stool, turned to face the door as Parker appears in it.) 

 

— 

 

Eliot's hunched over a stack of papers, again, and Hardison is in the corner, making calculations. The afghan is nowhere in sight, but an unmistakable bruise smears red and purple on Eliot's neck. His collar is popped up more than usual, but it does nothing to hide a mark that wasn't there before but now is. 

Because of course it is.

"No Sophie?" Parker says again, bouncing in.

"Rehearsal," Hardison answers again.

Parker hip checks the stool Eliot's sitting on again, hooking her chin over his shoulder. She opens her mouth again and— 

"Eliot is in the middle."

Parker turns to look at Nate with a question in her brows, cheek on the nape of Eliot's neck until Eliot elbows her off him. Hardison stops in the middle of crossing a T, bugging his eyes wide at Nate. "As in…?"

"In the van. You know, Eliot—he falls in, Parker pushes him to the middle. Closes the doors. You're lined up: you, then Eliot, then Parker. It'll be good." 

"Nate," Hardison says slowly, like he's talking to a child. "You've been… staring off for the past fifteen minutes. Of all parts to focus your big brain planning, that… that is literally the one thing we already knew for sure." He caps his marker, using it to point. "Parker carries me to Lucille, brings me in deep so Eliot has space to jump on or—as it'll happen—fall forward as he gets blasted into the back. She couldn't have known Eliot would need someone to close the doors. Why complicate it?"

"No, no, it will work. What's a detail here or there? I'm going to be raving mad anyway. Might as well, if I'm at it." Nate looks over to Eliot, an eyebrow raised to beg his input.

Eliot pulls off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Told you, as long as I go first, 'cause it's the only believable scenario. The rest…" Eliot shrugs.

"I like it." Parker says. She's looking at Nate with that curious head tilt he usually associates with her tuning into a heartsong. There's a flicker of recognition that passes in and through her like a glimpse of a whisper of a gesture. 

Hardison sighs. "Mama, the whole point is that it should be obvious enough that it don't make any sense that you croaked from a love tap from a bullet on your shoulder—but not obvious enough that they realize it right away. Nate should know that the extra details'll just muddy it."

Eliot weighs in: "We can trust him on this, I think. Hardison may know a thing or two about overselling a grift." Hardison gives him the stink eye.

"Yeah, sure. It's fake. But"—and Nate can't fight the refrain even though he knows it's coming—"it's a lot like life, too. Figured you guys wouldn't want to leave Eliot alone." 

And Nate…

Nate doesn't interfere. 

But… maybe he can accept. 

Affirm. 

Support. 

Care.

"You know," Hardison says, slowly.

 

— 

 

Once, there was a stack of manila folders three high, each containing a story Nate had known the edges of as part of his old work—his old life. It was his part of the job to bring them together. To see the papers as contributions to a larger master plan. Or—plans. Plan A. B. C. D. E… etcetera. Their variants. Plan M.

Once, last year, he said that Hardison died in seven plans. Eliot, zero. Parker, zero. Sophie… there's a lot Nate would do before they get to those four (four and three halves, whatever). What he didn't say was that the number used to flex between ten and sixteen. What he didn't say was that the jobs with grievous injury to Parker and Eliot shot up. Sure, he mentioned the scar from Plan T that ran through Eliot's eye because he knew Eliot would get a kick out of it, but… there were others. Because Nate heard the heartsongs over the years, and Nate felt things shift before he really knew how to name it.

And now…

Now? There's still Plan M. There's Plan F. But… Hardison is at two. Exactly the two. M, Eliot dies—first—then Hardison, and Parker follows after Hardison, mostly just out of heartbreak. F, Eliot dies—first—then Hardison; Parker lives on—perhaps captured, perhaps not in variants that don't really matter because either way Parker breaks. But… other than those two, the balance has shifted. Forced horribly. Eliot dies in seventeen, now, and Eliot always dies first—his life for Hardison's, for Parker's, for Sophie's, for Nate's. Then Parker, for those seven; Hardison's old seven: C, M to Q, but X instead of F. Between Eliot and Parker, some of those don't even prevent Hardison's death: they simply absorb his potential grievous injuries. Then, Sophie's at a stubborn three. Nate, a stubborn three as well. (But always, Eliot first. It makes Nate sick, sometimes, to think about that certainty. About how Eliot's number is so high but the others' don't drop down significantly enough to make his sacrifice worth it. They would have died anyway, but no matter what, even Nate in his most hypothetical of plans cannot force Eliot to not try to protect them right to his end.)

Things changed after Hardison was buried alive. It changed for the trio, but it wasn't just them. Nate stopped leaning into those plans with high risk, hoping they come up sunny. Counting out the numbers and seeing the balance slide so horrifically so quickly humbled Nate so completely until Plan M became a joke for him, because now? Nate knows it won't come to that. Because he has destroyed a lot in his life, but he's starting to think he… no. Nate knows between them five, they can really make something here instead. Several somethings: the all of them, the three of them, Nate and Sophie.

Soon, he won't plan his friends' deaths anymore.

He can't wait to see them live.

 

— 

 

"You've been song-and-dancing around each other for five years now," Nate says, sharing a private glance at Parker who smiles knowingly. "Yeah—of course, I know. And do that before the con," Nate says, pointing obnoxiously at Eliot's neck, "and I'm writing it in."

The blush that floods Eliot's neck and ears ruddy is remarkable and wildly entertaining. A true palette cleanser for the morning. He slaps his palm over the bruise. "Dammit, you two! I told you to be careful," Eliot grimaces at Parker and Hardison, but can't escape the embarrassed smile that screws his lips. 

Hardison holds his hands up defensively. "And I told you to cover it up."

"We're out of color corrector."

"No, man, you're out of yours. It ain't my job to keep your stuff on hand." 

Nate helpfully points out, "Don't you stock all our general supplies?" 

"Nate—your input? Unnecessary."

"'Cause he's right?" Eliot says as he makes to get up, but Parker drops her elbow on his shoulder, keeping him in his seat.

She slides her hand under Eliot's and pulls it away. "He's already seen it. Don't be so dramatic." Eliot shakes his head at her even as he lets her bring their clasped hands to the tabletop. "Ooh! In the van: have us hold his hands! Hardison." Through some kind of supernatural mindlink, Hardison knows to drop his hand over Eliot's right from across the table. "That'll really sell it to Sterling."

That seems to reach Eliot's tolerance for shenanigans. He shakes off his partners. "Stop fooling around, Parker." 

"Make me." In a flash like lightning, Parker flicks the hickey on Eliot's neck. Hard. Very hard, apparently, because Eliot—Mister Eliot Immune To Bullets Spencer—winces with an audible ow. Parker makes her escape: she sprints out the door she just came in through.

Eliot tosses his glasses onto the table on top of the pile of paperwork he's been combing over. "One moment, Nate," Eliot growls, honestly sounding apologetic, before he gets up and stalks after Parker, leaving Hardison and Nate alone.

Hardison stares off after the two for a long, quiet, distracted, fond moment. Nate has been so used to seeing that expression paired with the opening notes of a heartsong. Now, though, the world around them allows for this to be as it is: Hardison, comfortable to express this with someone that isn't the twisting knot that is the triad's loving loops. Hardison, present and still, but not static. Here.

Nate can trace the moment when Hardison remembers there's a life outside the love he's drifting in.

He shyly looks over at Nate. "Thanks for being cool about…" Hardison wags his finger around, trying to communicate the totality of what he and Parker and Eliot are to one another.

Nate… has not been cool. About most things. He doesn't say as much, and he doesn't accept the appreciation. He only shrugs, "It felt inevitable."

Hardison makes the same face he did earlier, like Nate's grown a second head. "Really didn't feel that way on the inside."

"From where I stood? It was." 

It really was.

 

 

As Hardison walks back to his calculations, he turns back and quips, "Sophie is gonna be real mad she missed this."

"Don't worry. I'll catch her up."