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and now this heart might fall

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There’s a problem.

Not with the latest job—that had gone all right, even if Sophie’s alias had done a bit too good of a job in convincing the corrupt Congressman that his constituents would withdraw support if he failed to relinquish the ongoing bribery he’d overseen since entering office.  They’d managed to balance out his erratic decisions in the end, and landed themselves a nice payout along with full child support checks (plus a few added funds from an alternate revenue stream) for their client.

No, Eliot is the only one with a problem, and the proof of it sits across the room in barstools, trying to build a model Glenn-Rieder safe with toothpicks and folded napkins.  Hardison leans over to whisper something as he stacks another toothpick on top, and Parker snorts.  When he tries to add another, with a pleased grin, his hand falters and the already-precarious sculpture crumples to the bar.  For a moment, Parker pouts, but then she grabs Hardison’s shoulders all in a rush and exclaims that the security system must have caught him then, and he’ll have to do better to crack a Glenn-Rieder before they can even finish building it.  And Hardison looks over his shoulder at Eliot, startled but laughing, and then he starts trying to unfold the napkins and start over, and Eliot has been watching them for—for a long time, for too long.

He knows them.  He knows them so well that sometimes it’s a curse, because not being in on the joke hurts more when it’s a joke you knew they would make.  He considers it as he twists the cap of the beer bottle in his hand, the tipsy laughter across the bar digging its way past the iron of his ribs and forcing him to put the situation into words. 

The problem isn’t that he’s in love with Parker and Hardison.  That would be ridiculous, unprofessional, and doomed to end in heartache besides.  He knows what love feels like, and he knows that while the cliff can sometimes sneak up on you, the jump is usually a choice you make.  Most of all, he knows better than to damn himself and the integrity of the team by making that bad choice.

Eliot isn’t in love with Parker and Hardison.

The problem is that he could be.

He knows it about himself, and it terrifies him.  He joined this team for a single job thinking it was a one-and-done scenario, no encores.  He didn’t think he would need to learn more than the others’ skill sets, faces, and names—now he knows their pasts, their takeout orders, and the places they go when they want to be alone.

He knows the brand of sickly-sweet orange soda that Hardison drinks, the coding software Eliot doesn’t understand and will swear he never recognizes, and the exact temperature at which Hardison will start to complain about it being as cold as that time on Mount Kibari.  He knows Parker’s favorite stuffed rabbit, where she keeps her favorite collection of lockpicks when they aren’t in use, and the way she sits more stiffly with her shoulders held tense when she feels overwhelmed.  He knows them like he knows his own breathing, and anyway, it’s been a long time since he’s paid more attention to his own than to theirs.

If he let himself mean that one smile, or relax into that one hug, or walk across the room instead of squeezing the bottle cap a little tighter, Eliot could fall in love with them.

And it would be so easy.

 

 

Sometimes he can put it out of his mind for a while, because it’s easier to act like everything is the way it’s always been when no one else can see what’s changed.

(Nothing’s changed, he tells himself.  Nothing.

Not yet.

Not ever.

There’s the potential for change, an empty space in front of him that would shift the world if he stepped onto it, but it’s a step he knows better than to take.  As long as he keeps his feet firmly in place and his hands in fists at the ready, where they’re meant to be, things will stay the same as they should.)

But some days, keeping it out of Eliot’s mind feels like swallowing back the pain of a cracked rib.  He’s been trained to withstand worse, so much worse, so more often than not he can straighten his back and walk like there’s nothing in his way.  He’s not a grifter like Sophie is, but he knows a thing or two about pretending to be something he’s not.  Some days, he’s able to trick himself into believing it that the racing of his heart is nothing, that his ribs are knit whole again and it isn’t a façade when he walks without faltering.

Then, some days, Parker and Hardison smile in just the right way and his con crumbles around him, because all of a sudden his lungs are too tight and he hadn’t just imagined the fractures in his bones, and he’s aching.

It’s painful to pack his wounds with silence on those days, but it’s better than the alternative of speaking up about it and watching their faces go tight with that look they get when they know he’s hurting.  As he told Sophie once, he can take the punishment.  It’s his job to take the pain so they don’t have a reason to lose their luminous smiles.

 

 

There are subsets of the problem, little things and factors that make it more serious when he forces himself not to take that step.  The worst is probably the touching.

In his line of work, it’s a good way to get yourself killed, or at the very least decked in the face because you thought you could be a wise guy and lay your hand on a hitter’s shoulder to get their attention.  You don’t touch someone like that without permission, or warning at a bare minimum.  You just don’t.

It isn’t an issue with the rest of the team.  Nate isn’t an affectionate person, thank God, and the most they’ve ever touched is when Eliot was stitching Nate up after he got shot in the bank, or maybe when Nate got blackout drunk missing Sophie back in Boston and needed help to get up the stairs.  Sophie is a bit more demonstrative, but she tends to favor verbal expressions of warmth, saving the hand-rests and arm-squeezes for special moments, at least once Eliot had a serious talk with her about her little tea conditioning grifts. 

But Parker and Hardison are always touching him, and he feels himself bending even as he reminds himself that he can’t make exceptions.  Maybe some of it began when he happened to be there to catch Parker when she jumped out of the window—maybe that was what had given her the expectation that he’d catch her any time she flung herself in his direction.

(He would.  He would catch her if she leapt out of a skyscraper without her rigging.  If she ever found herself without one of her own, he would be her safety net, her harness.)

It’s his job to do just that, so he protests more at the recklessness than the idea that he would be there for her.  He puts up with the incessant poking that happens whenever Parker notices that he has a few new bruises, and he supposes it’s because he doesn’t want to let her down, or think the promise to catch her is literal or conditional.

It’s not much more than avoidance, but at least it’s an explanation.  He doesn’t know what excuse he has for Hardison, who has somehow gotten it in his head that because Eliot didn’t break his arm like he threatened to after the job with the diamonds, he can get away with hugging Eliot whenever he feels like it.  And he apparently feels like it all the time, and all Eliot can do is mutter weak protests and push him around a little, because it’s his own fault for letting it become a regular occurrence.

(They don’t talk about the times he initiated a hug, because as far as he’s concerned, they don’t count.  It isn’t the same when you hug someone as a joke or after a near-death experience or when you can say that drugs made you do it.)

It’s easier to ignore these stirrings of feelings when he’s at arm’s length away from them, but he happens to be surrounded by two people who push those limits more by the day.

Eliot has been thinking about it more and more lately.  Each feeble attempt at rationalizing his problem is punctuated by another poke of Parker’s finger against his sore arm. 

The heart of it is this:  somehow, at some point, Eliot Spencer became a hitter on the side of the good guys, and he forgot what it feels like to be capable of saying no.

The ache in his bicep flares up again and he swats at Parker’s hand without thinking, but she takes it in stride and pokes him one more time before disappearing into the next room.  His hand covers the spot where her finger had been—an instinct at first, but then he leaves it there and it doesn’t hurt that much.  Without meaning to, Parker had shown him that he was wrong.

He still knows how to say no.  Hell, he tells them no all the damn time.

He just never means it, not more than he means yes or if you want it or anything.  And somehow this revelation is so much worse.

 

 

Eliot knows a thing or two about being a criminal, enough to know that when you come up against a boundary, it becomes second nature to test or push it.

Everyone on the team knows that he has boundaries even though he doesn’t often state them outright, because most of the time he doesn’t need to.  It’s a fact of life, one that quickly becomes a pattern.

Eliot has boundaries.  Hardison tests them.  Then Parker pushes them.

It happens all the time, he realizes now, but the pattern only begins to sink in when he can’t wear a comm for part of a con and the other two have to get creative.  Yesterday he ran into a thug who wasn’t afraid to play dirty, and normally he would walk off a fight with only one opponent, but it’s a different story when he has a ruptured eardrum and is faced with the choice of telling Parker and Hardison or shoving a small electronic device in his damaged ear to make an inconvenient situation worse.  So he grits his teeth and tells them that using the comm isn’t possible for his bad ear, and that it isn’t feasible for his good one if they want him to have any measure of situational awareness while he’s on the con.

The words come out in the tone of low, growled self-defeat, so they sound less like a medical assessment and more like I got the pain instead of you like I should, but I ain’t doing it quietly, so I’m still doing something wrong.  Whether they catch those undertones or not, Hardison and Parker both move to his left side where he can hear them a little better.

Hardison suggests tabling his role in the job until he’s healed, and Eliot isn’t having any of that.  He’d rather walk in there alone without a comm at all, but previous arguments and the fact that their mark had thugs wandering around at random made the line of communication nonnegotiable.  So Hardison keeps listing solutions that mostly involve complicated tech gadgets or Eliot not going back, testing the boundaries of Eliot’s job description and what he does for his team.

And Parker scoops up the comm on the table and darts in close, much too close, closer than she is when she pokes at his bruises.  It takes some shuffling and a lot of questions before she explains that he can keep a comm on his person and not against his ruptured eardrum if she ties it into his hair.

It’s a massive violation of his personal space, and he tries to tell her so, but instead he says that it’s ridiculous, which is so much milder.  So much more frustrating, when he knows that “ridiculous” is what he calls it when Hardison comes up with some overly involved alias, not when Parker casually announces that she wants to put her hands in his hair and braid his comm into it so he doesn’t hurt himself.  Her pushing used to feel like she was crossing a line he didn’t want her to, but he’s let himself get to the point where the line is something he won’t let himself cross.  He can’t reasonably be angry at Parker for pushing a limit that even he doesn’t want to have, and her eyes have an odd gleam at the prospect of putting the comm in his hair, so he capitulates.

In contrast to the blunt way she pokes at him, Parker’s fingers are surprisingly gentle as they part his hair and begin braiding a section toward the center of his scalp.  The area is small enough to be concealed by the rest of his hair in front, far enough from his ear to avoid further damage, and close enough to let him hear from the comm that she’s attached to a small twist tie.  His professional assessment is that she’s chosen a good placement for it, but there’s only so much professionalism he can manage when she’s braiding his hair and her face is inches away from his.

Eliot’s problem returns to his awareness with startling clarity.  He’s still not in love with Parker and Hardison—that’s still a choice he would have to make—but the precipice is so close that he can feel half of the problem’s breath on his lips.

If he were to take that step, he would lean into her tangled hands, would look up and meet Hardison’s eyes as his girlfriend does something softer and more intimate than anything Eliot deserves.  But if he won’t enforce his boundaries, then he’ll at least pretend that he still has any around these two, and stay professional.

The comm does its job hidden in his hair, and he grudgingly thanks Parker when he untwists it at the end of the day.  Hardison beams, the kind of smile that hurts like staring too long at the sun, and Eliot keeps his head angled slightly down toward his lap so no one can see that he kept the braid.

The biggest reason why he doesn’t voice his problem is just that:  it’s his problem, not theirs.  His job is to stand at their backs and protect them, not to stand at their sides and be with them, or at least not like that.  They’re happy together, the way they are now.

The smaller reason—the one he keeps buried deep behind the few defenses he has left—is that it’s for his own good.  He’ll be their safety net whenever they need him, but he doesn’t know what will catch him if he falls.

 

 

The whole problem would be easier if it was anyone but Parker and Hardison.  Then he would be able to disappear for a few weeks, distance himself, and maybe punch his feelings into submission; as it is, there’s nowhere he can go where they won’t track and follow him, and nothing he can do that will dim the light they carry with them wherever they go.  Because almost as well as he knows them, they know him, and he can’t just brush aside the people who will watch him revisit his worst days and still trust him to watch the door while they sleep.

So no, Eliot can’t put his problem on the shelf and forget about them.  He can’t take the step either, though, so the next best thing is to be their shield and to cook for them.

It doesn’t change his situation at all, but cooking for them helps, like when an addict gets his next fix in front of a crowd and finds a way to swear this one doesn’t count.  Food is a language of affection for him, and always has been, but with these two he can cook his feelings into as many meals as they want with a measure of plausible deniability.  He’s gone through a lot of reasons why cooking doesn’t count as an act of love when it’s for them, each with their own time and place.

One:  Eliot’s job is to protect his team, on and off the con, and that includes looking after their physical health by making sure they're eating well.  This excuse doesn’t work as well when he considers that they’re grown adults and that they managed fine all those times when he didn’t cook for them.

Two:  if he didn’t do it, both Hardison and Parker would resort to overly processed “meals” with very little nutritional value, leaving him to watch and wince as he saw what they were doing to their bodies. This one works better because it’s somewhat true.  He’s never seen anyone else consume so much cereal, chocolate, orange soda, and stupid gummy frogs.

Three:  cooking sometimes gives him the opportunity to prove Hardison wrong, which is a fun pastime of his in spite of his unwise fondness for the hacker.  Sometimes he gets to cook as part of a bet—like with the bachelor auction, even though Eliot still believes the bet should’ve been called off—but sometimes the food is the bet itself.  He’s lost track of the times Hardison has made some snide remark when going on about one of Eliot’s chef aliases (Ain’t no way you know how to make any of that fancy nonsense they got in that restaurant we tried last week) or one-up him in an argument about some comment he made during a con (You’ll have to do real good to convince me that our resident southern cowboy can make Hanson think the dishes came straight from Prague).  Eliot gets to cook a lot of complicated dishes he doesn’t normally have the occasion to, and he gets to wipe the smirk off Hardison’s face.  It’s a win-win with no ulterior motive.

Four:  he promised to help teach Parker how to like things, and it was a vague promise, but food is the way he knows how to communicate that feeling.  Of all his excuses, this one is probably the best.  He’d like to see the person who can see Parker upset about something and not try to fix it, and then he’d like to give them a piece of his mind.  If making a few intricate meals will help her feel a connection to something, it’s the least he can do.

All of which is to say that Eliot has found himself alone in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a dinner for Parker and Hardison and realizing that he made too much.  Sometimes he shares the meal with him, and sometimes he eats it as he cooks, but when he goes to the work of assembling a nice dinner, he knows that it’s best to keep his distance.  There’s a difference between setting up a good date and sitting next to it.

(Or, he thinks sometimes, being a part of it.  But those thoughts are for the guilty corner of his mind that intrudes on other people’s happiness and wants more than he can have.)

But now Eliot is putting the food on plates and he cooked too much, enough for three.  It’s a small mistake that most people would brush aside, but he doesn’t know what to do with the rest of it, and—

He thought he knew the rules of falling in love, thought he could stay in control of his feelings by refusing to make a choice that would set him spiraling in the wrong direction.  By all rights, it worked for longer than it should.  The only problem is that in trying so hard to avoid his affection for two thieves, he’s forgotten their cardinal rule.

That if they ever come across a rule, they find a way to break it.  That if there are rules to falling in love, Hardison and Parker will break those too, and if there are rules to loving someone, Hardison and Parker will be the exceptions.

—and Eliot was wrong because this isn’t a choice he can make or a step he can refuse to take, and all of a sudden he’s in love with them both and his heart is breaking.

It’s not a realization he expected to have today, or ever, and he doesn’t know what to do with it other than nothing.  He swallows down the tragedy like it’s a toast of champagne and brings two plates to Parker and Hardison, hoping the dinner doesn’t taste like heartache.

(Maybe they see something in his eyes, because they ask if he wants to stay and eat with them.  He’s not sure how he replies, or what he does with the rest of the food.  He just knows that he makes a quick getaway and thinks of the light in their eyes, and hopes they’re happy.)

If it was anyone else, he could work through his problem alone and then move on with his life.  But because it's Parker and Hardison, he can't let them go any more than he can keep them close—because he’s just unlucky enough to have fallen in love with his two best friends in this goddamn world.

 

Eliot isn’t much, and they deserve everything, so he doesn’t think he’ll ever talk about the problem.  When they finally learn of it, it goes like this:

It’s the end of a job and Eliot has more than just bruises to show for it.  He knows he really went through hell because Parker doesn’t try to push him around and instead of cracking jokes, Hardison goes quiet and opens the door to Lucille so he can get inside quicker.

Parker is driving, which would normally be the cause of nightmares and a funeral, but she seems to be going slower today.  Or maybe she’s just avoiding the bumps in the road.  She’s still probably over the speed limit, and he can feel every pothole like a physical blow, but his head isn’t hitting the ceiling of the van.  At the moment, he’ll take whatever blessing he can get.

Normally the silence in the vehicle would count as one of those blessings, but not now when it’s accompanied with a wide-eyed hacker.

”Dammit, Hardison,” Eliot growls.  “Quit staring.  I know you’ve seen worse.”

”I’m sorry, does that mean I have to rank your afflictions and find their place on a chart before I can stare?  Is that what this is?  Because you look pummeled, man, and I know how you feel about hospitals but I really—”

”Just…stop.”  It hurts to breathe, and everything below his left hip is screaming, and he hasn’t tried to take stock of the damage to his collarbone yet because it takes too much energy to assess.  Between all of those things, bickering with Hardison just isn’t feasible.

Hardison, rightfully, doesn’t look convinced.  “Like hell I’m gonna stop.  Right now your injuries are somewhere between bad and grievous, and if you don’t let us or a medical professional help, I’m gonna—”

”You,” Eliot rasps, before he can keep talking for an hour and give him a headache to make matters worse.  He’s tired, so tired, and if they aren’t going to stop without a fight, then he doesn’t see the point in putting one up.

He blinks.  “Huh?”

”You,” he repeats, too exhausted to snap.  “You or a medical professional, you said.  I don’t do hospitals.  If you two wanna fuss, you can do it at home.”

Parker makes an excited noise in the driver’s seat, and Eliot doesn’t have the energy to decipher it.  Maybe she’s that eager to play nurse.  Either way, Hardison looks stunned that he agreed so easily, and they pass the remainder of the ride in silence as Eliot rests his head against the window.

His mind is hazy as Parker and Hardison help him walk into the brewpub, and he sways on his feet almost immediately when they get upstairs.  Hardison catches him, supporting his weight instead of his bad leg and guiding him over to the bed.

Eliot doesn’t normally have a loose tongue, but maybe this combination of being exhausted and in pain and lovesick is what makes him manage it.  He falls back against the pillows, takes a shuddering breath, and says yes when Parker leans in close and asks if he meant it when he said this place was home.

Hardison is across the room gathering first-aid supplies, but he freezes in place waiting to hear the answer.  That tiny lack of motion is what finally clicks the lock into place and connects the dots in Eliot’s mind, as they begin tending to his wounds as gently as they can.

He hasn’t taken a step because he didn’t want to be in the wrong space.  Now he realizes that there’s been space for him for a long time now, and they’ve been watching him not take the step.

The way their eyes always meet his in a crowd.  The way they smile like it’s a secret meant just for him.  The way they touch him, a death wish and prayer all at once.  The way they change together, for better or worse, and the way they protect each other till their dying days.

They’ve been waiting, for all the time it took him to fall in love.

“I didn’t know what this would be like,” Eliot admits.  “This…here, with the two of you.  And I guess I don’t know what it’s like now.”

Parker’s hand goes still above his pulse point where she was checking his clavicle.  She smiles and says, “I think it’s like home.”

Hardison sits down on the edge of the bed, and for once, this position doesn’t make Eliot feel like an invalid.  It makes him feel loved.

”Welcome home, Eliot,” Hardison says softly.

It’s something out of a dream, something he can barely fathom that he’s hearing, something that deserves the most thoughtful of gestures.  But Eliot has gone through hell and back, and come out leaning on them every time.

(Not like crutches, he thinks.  Like walls, a foundation.  Like something that lasts.

Like home.)

So his eyes close in spite of himself and he falls asleep in their bed in their room above their brewpub, and he doesn’t think he imagines it when he feels fingers running through his hair and lips pressed gently against his forehead.

He sleeps deeply that night, and wakes in their arms, and thinks that he’d never really understood the rules of falling.