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It happens sometime between the horse job and the rehab job and Eliot doesn’t really see it coming until it’s right in front of him and spitting in his face.

But he’s pretty sure that he can pinpoint the beginning and that’s when Parker breaks into the stud farm and finds Kentucky Thunder without looking for him. Until right then her fear of horses was fun. (I saw a horse kill a clown. Come on it was as a drunk guy in a plushy horse suit and of all the traumatic things she undoubtedly survived, she picks that to get hung up on?)

But then she lands next to the horse and through the comms he and Hardison can both hear her short, gasping breaths as she tries to stay still. That’s not fear. That’s panic. (And it’s not all that fun.)

It passes, she survives and they finish the job with a flourish and a bit of floundering but done is done, even if the perfectionist in all of them is a bit peeved at how close they cut it with Sterling, who, by the way, major hang ups. Five days in the trunk of a car? Eliot’s dedicated to his work, but that’s obsession and his mama always said that things like that ain’t healthy.

They make their way back to LA, the office, the ugly painting of old-Nate and the whole thing is over and done with.

.

Except for the memory of Parker’s short, gasping breaths in his ear as she fights not to scream.

Damn.

.

A week and a quick job later, Eliot finally succumbs to the last vestiges of his compassion and makes a few calls before slipping into Hardison’s office (because he needs a distraction and there’s no-one quite as distracting as the hacker, and Eliot doesn’t necessarily mean that in a good way) and saying, “You gotta help me with Parker, man.”

Hardison blinks and asks, “I do?”

“Yes.” Annoying kid genius. And does he have to look so pretty when he bats his eyelashes? Goddamn illegal.

“Oh. Okay. Hold on. With what?”

“Parker,” Eliot reiterates, crossing his arms because maybe he’s not quite comfortable with being thoughtful and caring. It’s been a while. A long while. (Geologists might refer to such a span of time as an ‘eon’.)

Hardison closes his laptop and leans back, demanding, “Run that by me again.”

Eliot sighs, considers beating the kid up and then moves out of the doorway to sit on the edge of the desk and say, “I’m taking Parker horse riding. I need you to run your impossibly big mouth off at her so she won’t catch on until we’re miles from civilization and she has no escape routes.”

“That,” Hardison informs him after he loses the surprised goldfish look, “Sounds vaguely sinister.”

Eliot grins and rubs his hands together.

Also vaguely sinister.

.

Getting Parker to go to an undisclosed location with them is surprisingly easy. Either it’s a miracle she survived as long as she has, or an unexpected show of trust that makes both men squirm slightly in their undies.

All they have to do is tell her that they’re going somewhere fun and if she comes along, they’ll buy her more Lucky Charms afterwards. (Baiting a girl with the promise of candy. There’s probably a special place in hell reserved for people like them.) Hardison grins a very white grin and Eliot remembers Parker’s panic in his ear and that he’s doing her a favor.

.

She catches on a few miles out of town and when their explanations as to where they are going (please, okay, thanks a lot) aren’t very convincing, or even coherent, she tries to fling herself out the moving car.

Hardison makes a grab for her at the last possible second, slamming her into the worn backseat and throwing himself on top, shouting for her to calm down, damn it. She kicks him in the nuts and squirms out from under him just as Eliot hits the locks and yells, “Stop!”

Whether it’s his tone of voice or simply having heard the phrase too often in their youth, both of them still instantly and look at him guiltily.

“It’s just horses,” he tells Parker in an attempt to reassure her.

“Horses eat people,” she counters.

“You said they weren’t as homicidal as you thought,” Hardison inserts.

“They have big teeth,” she says and you have to give the woman points for being damn stubborn.

“They’re used in therapy, you know,” Hardison tells them and he absolutely googled that because he knows about as much about horses as Parker does.

“I don’t need therapy,” the thief snaps, suddenly completely defensive. Great.

Eliot snorts. “Darlin’, we all need therapy. You don’t get to be the best without being a few bucks short of a million.”

“Money,” Parker chirps with a bright smile.

Why are they doing this again?

.

“Why are we doing this again?” Hardison asks from where he’s trying to contain a mildly bucking Parker while Eliot checks the saddle and bridle of the horse he’s rented for the afternoon.

“Good question,” he mutters to himself but doesn’t answer out loud. Instead he steps back from the brown mare and waves. “Come here.”

Parker stills and the hacker cautiously loosens his hold, breathing a sigh of relief when she doesn’t take off running. “I don’t want to,” she informs them, her voice very small and childish.

“She ain’t gonna hurt you, I swear. Just come here for a sec, yeah?”

She moves. One step. This might take a while.

Another and another. Hardison keeps up with her, moral support or jailer, no-one is sure. Once she’s within six feet of the horse, Eliot starts talking.

“Basic safety rules. Never sneak up on a horse from behind. Let it know you’re coming. Offer it your hand to smell. Slow movements. Stay away from the eyes and ears. Here.” He holds out half an apple to Parker who looks at it quizzically until he informs her, “It’s for her.”

He hooks a thumb over his shoulder at the mare. “Her name’s Pinkett, by the way. Now c’mere.”

(Don’t ask him how long it took to find a horse with a name ridiculous enough to put Parker at ease and make her think of something other than rampaging horses come to eat the flesh from her bones.)

For some reason he will never quite understand, she comes to him, gripping the hand he offers tightly, holding on like his little sister used to when she was seven and scared of lightning. She trusts him.

When the fuck did that happen?

Hardison meets his gaze over her blonde head and he sees his own dazed realization blazing from dark eyes. She trusts them. Well shit.

“Hold your hand out flat, like this.” He bends her fingers open, places the apple on her palm like a sacrificial offering. (Which it is, come to think of it.) Slowly, he directs her hand towards Pinkett’s big head, feeling Parker trembling beside him.

There’s a moment of panic when the horse accepts the offering and goes for it with single-minded determination. Then she licks Parker’s hand clean of apple juice and the blonde giggles hysterically, waving her hand as if to make sure it’s still there. She’s kinda pretty, all giddy and smiling like that.

Eliot and Hardison both grin too widely for words.

.

She falls asleep in the car on the way back into the city, curled into herself on the backseat, one palm pressed against the window, flat. Exhausted, but not afraid anymore. She’ll never love horses the way Eliot does, but she doesn’t feel the urge to run screaming anymore.

Hardison sits next to her, leaning against the door on his side of the car, watching her for a long time. Then he suddenly moves, squeezing himself between the front seats and folding up shotgun. “That was a good thing you did today,” he says, quietly.

Eliot, who’s not sure what to say, says nothing. He’d tell the kid that he helped, but his head is already big enough. Besides, he knows. He usually does. They’re all a lot more perceptive than they give each other credit for.

“You’re not as hardass as you pretend to be, are you?”

“I can still break your face,” Eliot informs the hacker, unwilling to concede that he’s a big teddy bear at heart. (Which is he’s not, by the way.)

Hardison laughs and shakes his head. “But you won’t, man. You won’t.”

Like that makes all the difference.

Maybe it does.

Parker stirs and mutters something about blueberry pancakes running away from her fork.

.

That’s how it starts.

.

This is how it goes on:

.

During that damned botched wedding job (Nate as a priest, doesn’t anyone else see the omen in that?) he faces the Butcher.

(Who has had a starring role in his nightmares since Moscow, the flickering of heat on his face, the wild, animal rage on his opponent’s face and the knowledge that he’ll never make it out of there alive. Awake, Eliot has no problem with going down fighting. But in dreams helplessness and weakness creep up on him like the flu and incapacitate him long enough for the Butcher to cut a Cheshire grin into his neck.)

Faces him and kills him. (Eliot doesn’t like killing people. He breaks bones, not lives.)

Nate is off in his own world with Sophie tagging after him, nagging, and Parker disappears as she sometimes does, without a trace. Hardison, back at the office, takes one look at him and says, “You need a drink, buddy.”

He does. Oh God, he does.

.

They are both completely smashed by the time they leave the bar and they don’t bother splitting up. Eliot has a couch with Hardison’s name on it and they drag each other toward it, stumbling and laughing and making enough noise to drown out Eliot’s demons. (Why doesn’t it surprise him that Hardison knows exactly where he lives?)

Seven floors up and for some reason they won’t remember later they take the stairs, arriving at his door breathless and, in the hacker’s case, giggling. Eliot unlocks the door, waves his colleague in with a grand gesture of his hand and runs his fingers through the tangles of his hair before letting the door fall shut behind him.

Suddenly it’s silent and Hardison turns to take in the apartment first and then looks at its inhabitant, head tilted curiously, like a tired cat. (Detached interest, lazy observation, sluggish desire.)

It’s one of those accidents. You know the kind, where someone stumbles and lands with their tongue in someone else’s mouth? Yeah, that’s what it is.

It’s some of the best drunken sex Eliot ever had.

.

In the morning he wakes to an empty bed and the smell of coffee. He stumbles after it, nose in the air, eyes still closed, finding a full pot on the counter and, not so surprisingly, a fully dressed hacker sitting at his kitchen table, fumbling with the milk carton, looking as unsure as a kid on his first day of school. (Bad metaphor. It makes Eliot feel like a pedophile.)

He stills, mug of coffee held under his nose, and inhales deeply, telling the alcohol partying away in his liver to get the fuck gone, thanks a lot. Then he focuses on Hardison, who squirms.

(It’s easy, most of the time, to forget that although Sophie and Nate have somehow set themselves up as the ‘parents’, leaving the rest of them to fill the category of ‘kids’, Eliot is really closer in age to their fearless leader and his hopelessly smitten sidekick. Hardison and Parker are the babies of the group and the kid sitting at his kitchen table now has spent most of his life in a high tech tower, hidden behind screens and numbers.)

Kid has no idea how to deal with the morning-after-you-fucked-one-of-your-colleagues-in-a-drunken-stupor-and-don’t-really-find-it-in-you-to-run-screaming.

Which Eliot finds mildly surprising. Not the doe-eyed confusion he’s currently looking at, but the don’t-want-to-run-screaming. On his part, that is. He doesn’t even like the kid. He’s arrogant, completely crazy, whiny and he drinks way too much of that orange shit.

But he doesn’t… aw, shit. Who cares. The sex was good enough to make the hitter wonder what it’ll be like sober. So he swoops in and kisses the other man, slowly and carelessly.

The milk ends up all over the floor.

(That is not a metaphor.)

.

Nothing much changes except that they tend to sleep in the same bed three nights out of seven and there’s a beat of awkward silence when, during one of their meetings, Eliot screams about crazy plans and getting them all killed and in the middle of his rant, calls Alec Alec (“…because if you’re fucking me then you’re damn well calling me by my name, Eliot.”)

Sophie does that traumatized goldfish expression of hers, Nate coughs into his glass and Parker doesn’t react at all because chances are, she already knew and so no-one needs to spell it out for her, bless her stunted little heart.

They still fight most of them time.

.

“Are they…?” Sophie hisses later, looking around, checking if anybody’s listening and missing Eliot standing in the hall. Her survival instinct seems to be shriveling up, now that she’s all cozy, set up in Nate-land, where everything is good and rivers flow with candy floss.

Eliot can hear Nate grunt and take another sip of his ever present drink. “Why would I care, Sophie?”

She huffs, shuffles some papers around and says, “Well, do you think they are?”

Eliot can practically hear Nate roll his eyes. “Are they what? Screwing around? Madly in love? Watching a lot of movies together? It’s none of our business, Sophie, as long as it doesn’t screw with the job.”

Thank you, Nate. Eliot lets himself out of the offices quietly and makes his way home, where, rather unsurprisingly, he finds Hardison asleep on his sofa. He doesn’t know how ‘we screw often and well’ turned into ‘I’m not giving you a key but feel free to pick the locks at any time’, but somehow it has. In less than a month. Damn that kid.

Eliot considers waking him up just to kick his ass outta the door, but instead he finds himself standing in the middle of the room like an idiot, watching the kid. He’s all long and dark and sleek and sometimes, when he’s not paying attention, he’s even graceful. Pretty.

Eliot’s been called pretty a lot in his life, before he beefed up, back when he was just blue eyes and curly hair. He hated it every single time he heard the word and usually he wouldn’t apply it to anyone else. Not someone he likes anyway. And certainly not a guy who’s half a head taller than him and has some serious muscle going on under the geek. But. It’s the only right word.

Hardison is still baby-soft around the edges, still sweet. He believes in things Eliot hasn’t believed in in an age and he’s up for anything, ready to face the world and come out on top. Pretty boy. Damn pretty boy, screwing with Eliot’s software enough to make him do this, stand here, in the dark, contemplating this.

Damn this. He tugs the keyboard Alec’s still holding on to out of his hands and sets it aside. Then he grabs one arm, none too gently, and pulls it over his shoulder. One heave-ho and he’s got several hundred pounds of hacker thrown over his shoulder, dizzy and wailing in confusion. He smacks his butt hard, shutting him up.

“Eliot?” still sleepy sounding. “Eliot, ma man, what the hell are you doing?”

Eliot, not feeling much like talking, simply says, “My place, my game.”

He kicks open the bedroom door and makes Hardison bounce on the bed. He squeaks. “Oh, hells to the no!” he yelps when his big brain finally catches up with the rest of him. “Eliot, I was asleep. You are a cruel, cruel…”

An extra tongue in his mouth is a very effective way to shut Alec Hardison up. Make note of that.

.

Parker slips in like she always does, silent, invisible, a cat on silky feet. Eliot watches her in Belgrade after she forks the mobster. She’s silent, more so than usual, less quirky. (And that’s saying something because Parker is loud and quirky even when she’s sneaking around skyscrapers with a tail of fifteen security guards on her. And psychotic. Don’t forget psychotic.)

And Har-(Alec. His name is Alec.) Alec stays at her side, just as silent but a lot more solid.

While Nate and Sophie are busy playing Hollywood, he finds them sitting on the back of the prop truck, Parker tucked into Alec’s shoulder with her trademark pout, saying nothing.

“Why’d you do it anyway? I mean, besides the whole Dracula gig he had going?”

She shrugs. “You heard what he said.”

(They all did. Downplaying the horrors of war, the orphans everywhere. The beautiful and strong survive. He tried to use it as a pickup line while inside Parker’s head, a reel of all the not beautiful-and-strong undoubtedly played endlessly. Eliot didn’t grow up like them, like Alec and Parker, shoved around the system, unwanted. He had a Ma and a Pa and they raised him okay, even if he’s not quite sure they loved him. But he understands their reasons well enough and when he looks at them now, Alec and Parker, he thinks:

The beautiful. The strong. And the broken.)

“Yeah,” Alec allows and they fall silent again, morose and sad and that’s not like them at all. Not like the girl that pets money and compulsively picks any pockets she can find (even her own), not like the guy that wears striped scarves combined with hats with stars in colors that give you eye cancer.

He steps forward, coming to a halt in front of them, hands held out, one for each of them.

“Come on, you crazy kids,” he tells them as he pulls them to their feet, “Let’s go raid the buffet.”

.

After the ice-cream stop just behind the border, they drop the kids off and find a hotel to stay in for the night, all of them way too tired to bother with getting their asses to the nearest airport, finding a flight, fighting with Sophie about whether to Paris or not to Paris. (They all know they’ll go to Paris, no matter how much they fight, but that still doesn’t mean they won’t grumble about it.)

Paris is okay, though, as long as they’re rid of the kids. They loved everyone, including Nate, because he paid for the ice-cream, but they started screaming every time they set eyes on Eliot. One of them called him an ‘angry bear’ and unfortunately Sophie speaks the language as well as he does, so she picked up on it. Eliot does not like to be teased about his default facial expression, even if it is a bit… edgier than that of most people. He could always break your face, if you don’t like his, so there. But somehow he can’t break Sophie’s face. Or Alec’s. Or Parker’s or even Nate’s. (He has no idea when that happened.)

Anyway.

Like during high school trips Eliot vaguely remembers, they get to bunk together. Boys and girls and Nate, big Daddy Nate, gets his own room. There is half an hour of silence on their floor, during which they all shower, change and raid the mini bars. Then Alec drags Eliot to their king sized bed with the squeaky mattress, lies him down and curls into him like a cat.

“Shitty day,” he mutters into Eliot’s shoulder and the hitter just nods. The door of the room one down from theirs sounds. Footsteps. Then the door to Nate’s room. That’s Sophie, going to snuggle up with Nate. (Eliot hasn’t quite figured out where exactly they are in their sexless love-affair, but he figures it doesn’t really matter as long as Mommy and Daddy don’t throw furniture at each other.)

Alec squirms and wriggles and finally scoots backwards, claiming there’s a spring digging into his back. He pulls Eliot along and then he’s lying on the spring. They shuffle, rearrange and finally give up the middle of the bed as a lost cause, leaving space between them. Eliot doesn’t mind but Alec is a closet cuddler and whines like a baby until Eliot threatens to gag him, and not in a fun way.

Silence.

The first door goes again and then there’s rattling at their own door, the jiggling of someone breaking in. Parker slips into their room with a smile that’s as bright as it’s fake. She makes her lock picks disappear into her pj’s and pouts, blinking soulfully at Alec. “Can I…?”

She doesn’t know how to ask, but the question’s obvious. Subtlety is not her strong suit. Alec frowns and shifts, not sure how to go about this. Kid wants to comfort Parker, that much is obvious. Eventually he sits up and waves a hand toward the door, saying, “How about I come with you…”

Eliot rolls his eyes and tugs the idiot back into bed with a hand on his neck. Then he nods at Parker, who practically dives into bed. She ends up right on top of the bad spring but doesn’t seem to mind. She wraps herself around the hacker like a living vine, arms and legs and hair, and holds on for dear life. Alec holds on just as hard, smoothing her tangled locks, murmuring in her ear. Reminding her of the kids they saved, the good they did today and the ice-cream they had.

Eliot watches for a while and then, with a put-upon sigh, rolls over to wrap an arm around both their waists, anchoring those crazy kids. (Protecting them, but he won’t say that out loud.)

.

In the morning, Parker stretches languidly, smiles brightly and gives both of them a short, sweet kiss of thanks before flitting towards the door to get back into her own bed before Sophie comes back from Nate’s room.

Instead of ‘goodbye’ she says, “You can have your morning sex now,” before magnanimously slipping out the door.

Alec chokes. Eliot laughs.

.

“Can we go to the Louvre?” Parker asks around noon. Sophie tried to drag her shopping, but she literally locked herself into her bathroom for an hour until the grifter gave up and just dragged Nate along to carry her bags. After that, Parker decided that Eliot and Alec needed entertainment and popped out of an air-vent just as they were about to go do some sightseeing. Apparently, hackers don’t get out of the country much. Alec’s never been here.

Eliot eyes the thief over the rim of his third cup of coffee. (He’s gonna need it to keep up with the crazies, he can tell.) “Are you going to steal anything?”

She shakes her head solemnly, which means she’s lying. He shakes his head. “No.”

“Aw, man,” Alec starts, throwing an arm over the back of his chair. Eliot glares at him very levelly until he removes said arm and withdraws to his own side of the table. “I wanna see the Louvre. I’ve never been to the Louvre.”

Eliot snorts. “Buy a picture book. We’re not going there with Parker in a stealing-mood.”

“I said I wasn’t going to steal anything!” Indignant and, yes, there’s the pout.

“You lied.”

“I did not!”

“Yes, you did. Now shut up. We’re not going to the Louvre.”

“But I want to!” Alec this time and how did he get stuck with two whiny babies to look after?

“Please?” Parker adds, looking pathetic and psychotic. In that order. How does she do that? It’s like a poodle with three inch fangs. For a moment, one very blissful moment, he considers simply letting them have the run of Paris for the next few days. Sit back and watch the mayhem.

Nate would kill him.

He tries to take another sip of coffee, finds his cup empty and growls. Alec visibly gulps, half turned on, half scared. (It’s a good look on him.) Then he leans in and whispers, way too loudly, “If we can go to the Louvre, I’ll do that thing that-”

“Okay!” he yells. “Okay. We’re going.”

Twin grins.

“But Parker is wearing skintight clothing.”

Her grin dims.

“And she’s staying within sight at all times.”

And dims.

“And we stay away from anything small enough to hide on a person.”

And dims.

“And if you don’t stick to the rules, I’ll damn well strip search you. Is that clear?”

For some reason, the grin is back. She jumps Alec with a squeak (knowing full well that jumping Eliot that way will end in tears) and they hug like little girls. And here Eliot was under the impression he was fucking a guy. He pinches the bridge of his nose and flags down the rude waiter for more coffee.

.

Later she poses in front of the pyramid in black leggings, her usual combat boots and a shirt that might as well be painted on. She scrounged up a beret somewhere and looks very French indeed. Alec takes pictures, one after the other, as she moves around and makes silly faces. She strikes a pose, lets herself fall backwards into a handstand, puts her feet down, holds that position, twists around and stands, putting one leg straight up.

Alec keeps clicking away with his phone and tourists stop to watch her twist and spin.

Eliot rolls his eyes, watches with his hands in his pockets, put upon expression on his face and thinks that a) he’s never seen her smile like this and b) Parker’s kind of pretty, too. Not the same way Alec is, because there’s little innocence left about that girl, but in her own, psychotic way.

Then Alec pushes the phone at Eliot and goes to play imaginary Twister with Parker. They weave together, Alec flailing, Parker shifting to accommodate his wayward limbs, until they’re all tangled up, the tourists applaud and they laugh so hard, they fall over and Eliot can’t do anything but watch.

(Half an hour later, Alec is still harping on him for not taking any pictures. Eliot lets him because he’s not explaining why he didn’t.)

.

During their three day pit stop in Paris, their sleeping arrangements stay the same (if only so Eliot can be sure Parker doesn’t go out in the middle of the night to go and rob the Louvre after all. He saw the way she eyed the setup for the Mona Lisa. Don’t think he didn’t.). They sleep with Parker in the middle, Alec wrapped around her for comfort, two orphans holding on to each other, and Eliot on her other side, half annoyed, half fond, with an arm around them both.

He never complains out loud, but when Parker starts kicking, he ruthlessly kicks back.

.

They’ve been back stateside for a week when Eliot finds a gift basket filled with all kinds of expensive foodstuff on his doorstep. Caviar. Truffle. Belgian chocolate. Ridiculously expensive wine.

He spends fifteen minutes inspecting the thing before giving it up as anonymous and putting it away in a corner because there’s no way he’s touching food when he doesn’t know where it came from. Most of his enemies are the kind that likes to sit on your chest and watch you drown in your own blood, but he wouldn’t put it past a few of them to get tired of getting beaten up and try and poison him. Ergo, no touching that gift basket.

Alec asks about it (because somehow, these days, the little shit manages to hang around Eliot all the time, and not just to raid his fridge) but Eliot just shrugs and says he has no idea. They leave it at that.

Later, at work, Alec marches into his office and comes right back out with a dazed expression on his face. There’s what amounts to a hundred gallons of orange soda inside that room, all in neatly stacked boxes, along the walls. On the desk is a single, different box containing all seasons of Dr. Who, from the very first from the sixties, right up to the newest.

One strange gift is one thing. Two strange gifts are easier to pinpoint. But it’s the DVDs that give it away because when Alec was bitching about missing Dr. Who yet again, there were only two people within earshot. Eliot was one of them. The other was…

“Parker,” Eliot barks, causing the thief to jump in her seat at the conference table. Nate and Sophie look up from their conversation, startled. It’s been a while since Eliot used that particular tone.

Parker blinks like a baby owl when he grabs her wrist and drags her away. Alec is hovering in the doorway, looking confused, too, and he snatches his wrist for good measure, pulling both of them along. Sophie calls something that might be a question, but no-one answers. He shoves the thief into his (never used) office first, followed by the hacker. Then he steps inside, slams the door and says, “You sent those gifts.”

Parker’s expression goes uh-oh and she says, “Yes?”

“Why?”

She sticks her hands into the backpockets of her jeans and straightens. “Because it is a customary way to thank someone for doing something nice for you. The gift should be well thought out and personal, so the receiver will like it.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when Parker goes to Sophie for advice. The grifter might understand human nature perfectly, but she has no clue about Parker nature because the blonde can’t make heads or tails of shit like that and then just takes it literally. Although, in this case, literally was pretty much the only way to interpret it, which means Sophie was thinking high society, instead of a bunch of thieves, when she gave the explanation. Still. Saying shit like that to Parker? Is asking for disaster.

And when the hell did Eliot figure out how you need to talk to Parker to successfully navigate past her crazy?

Shit.

He’s still mentally ragging on Sophie, when Alec asks, “What are you thanking us for?”

She shrugs, posture returning to her usual half slouch, half curl. “You were nice to me,” she says, sounding painfully childish. “You gave up sex to let me sleep in your bed.” And very direct, as always.

Eliot finds himself quirking a smile. “A simple ‘thank you’ would’ve done the job, darlin’.”

Confusion. “But Sophie said…”

“Ah,” he interrupts and he knows that he’ll regret that offer later, but he can’t help it, not when she’s looking like this. “When you need to ask someone about how to deal with us, you ask us, okay?”

She nods absurdly fast, smiling prettily. All is well again on Planet Parker, it seems.

“And it was no trouble havin’ you sleep with us,” Alec tacks on, because he probably thinks that needs to be mentioned. Eliot silently vows to kick the little shit all night long, every night, for the next week, just to see how he likes it.(Because of course Parker never kicked Alec, did she?) But he doesn’t protest.

“Ohhh,” Parker coos, stretching her arms out, zombie style, grinning widely. “Let me hug you!”

She falls on Alec like a plague and the guy struggles and splutters, trying to get out of the chokehold Parker calls a hug, to no avail. By the time he thinks to yell for Eliot to save him, the hitter’s on the other side of the building, cackling at the strangled noises he hears over the comms.

.

That night he cooks with stuff from the basket and Alec drinks orange soda with the duck instead of wine, before making Eliot sit through ‘forty years of TV history, man’.

He is going to murder Parker.

.

Somehow, Parker starts popping up. Not like she hasn’t done that before, dropping out of ventilation shafts, in windows, or through skylights. It’s getting suspicious, though, because a) she always knows whose place they’re at and b) it doesn’t seem like she’s stalking Nate or Sophie, who, until then, was one of her favorite stalking victims because, apparently, Sophie makes great noises when she figures out she has an audience when she’s changing or showering. Kind of shrill, Parker says, but amusing.

(Eliot does not ask what that means, thanks a lot.)

Point is, she keeps popping up. Half the time, she even uses the damn door, which, for Parker, is like coming in through the piping for regular people. It’s just not done. At this point, he suspects the girl has some sort of childhood trauma involving doors, but he’s not opening that can of worms. He helped her with the horses. That’s enough nice for a decade and in their business, trauma is pretty par for the course.

Some nights she even brings them things. Food. DVDs. Video games. Once she brings a kitten she ‘borrowed’ from her neighbors. She and Alec spend the whole evening on the floor, cuddling and rolling around with the kitten. They both pout like he cancelled Christmas when Eliot tells Parker she has to give the fluffball back.

Parker crosses her arms and shakes her head, in full sulk mode. Alec pats her on the shoulder as he stands, coming back with a towel to wrap the sleeping kitten in, and then offers to drive her home.

.

And that’s the other thing that’s not quite kosher: Alec.

He never seems surprised when Parker comes around, or annoyed, or in any way unhappy with her constant invasion of privacy. Hell, the thief’s costing them sex-time and he’s not complaining. Alec turns off his computers for more sex-time.

When Eliot tries to kick her out when she shows up the fifth night in a row, or tells her to give back stolen kittens, or to stop bouncing on the couch, Alec sides with her. He tells her to come in, helps her give back the kitten and arrange kitten play dates for her, joins her in the bouncing.

Eliot isn’t great in defining relationships or, in fact, having them. He’d never call Alec his boyfriend or anything similar. Some days, he doesn’t even want to call the man his friend. But he’s pretty sure that, in personal matters, you’re supposed to be on the side of the guy you’re fucking.

And he’s pretty sure Alec got that memo, too, so what’s he doing, siding with Parker, knowing when she’ll turn up and not telling Eliot?

.

Enough is enough when Eliot pushes Alec through his front door, kissing, groping, pants halfway undone, shirts all scrunched up for better access and hears that the TV’s on. He breaks away from Alec, who thumps his head against the wall, eyes closed in frustration.

Eliot, pissed as hell and with a case of blue balls, marches into the living room, grabs the remote from Parker, who’s sitting there with a bowl of popcorn like she’s at home, and switches off the TV. Then he takes the popcorn from her and points a finger at the slightly open window to his left. “Out.”

Parker blinks. Goldfish look.

“Out,” he repeats, more growl than word. It’s the kind of growl that usually leads to dismemberment by butter knife.

Parker blinks again and then, miraculously, the two ounces of survival instinct she has kick in and she scrambles. Up from the couch, across the room, toward the dining room table (to pick up her lock picks and hat) and then out the window like an Olympic diver. Eliot doesn’t even go to check if she goes splat on the pavement. He just stalks into the kitchen and throws away the popcorn, rumbling like a very pissed off bear on the way.

Alec opens his mouth to say something, makes some noise that’s half question, half yell, and then shuts his mouth at the glare he receives, looking guilty.

The fuck?

.

So, yes, in case you missed the memo, Eliot can be a vindictive bastard. There was that one thing with the Russian mobster that really pissed him off. It involved paperclips and a stapler and let’s just say he got his revenge with change to spare, okay?

Screwing someone? Doesn’t mean that person is exempt of his vindictive side if they pull any shit on him. And Alec’s face is full of shit, as of right now. The kid needs to work on his poker face because he’s got guilty stamped all over him.

Eliot returns to him, a slow smile spreading on his face that might be a tad too predatory to be reassuring but Alec’s high on his dick and a dose of adrenaline and he either doesn’t notice or is too far gone to care. Eliot crowds him back into the wall, nudging a knee between his and shoving up until his thigh is wedged between Alec’s, dressed up in lurid green jeans. The younger man’s head falls back, long neck exposed, control all shot to hell.

He kisses a line up the hacker’s jaw, nibbles on his ear and then changes direction again, going down as far as Alec’s shirt collar will let him.

“What the fuck was Parker doing here?” he asks into the dark, soft skin of Alec’s neck, and there’s no mistaking the tone in his voice.

It works like a bucket of ice-water. Alec tenses up from head to toe and tries to jerk back, hitting his head hard against the wall, jerks forward and falls into Eliot because he can’t find his footing. “Wha- you did that on purpose!”

He tries to squirm away, but Eliot shoves his thigh higher, earning himself a hot groan and effectively trapping the other man there. “Hardison,” he barks and instantly the hacker stills.

“Eliot,” he whines, pushing against the hitter’s chest without really trying. He’s caught good and well and he knows it. And that’s where Eliot’s vindictive streak ends and the getting-information streak begins. “Come on.”

“No. You knew Parker was here and you still stuck your hand down my pants in the hall. Why?”

Nothing. Blank look. It segues into an innocent look, which Alec really, really sucks at. He flutters his lashes too much.

Eliot sighs and pulls back because as much as he’d like to bury his fist in the plaster next to his… friend’s head and demand the truth, this isn’t a job and Alec’s not a mark. He isn’t sure what the hell the kid is, but he’s not a mark. So he steps away and runs a hand through his hair, saying, “Man, if you want to screw Parker, just say so.”

Silence. Complete and utter silence. It may be the first time in their acquaintance that Alec is actually completely silent. No talking. No fiddling. No tap-tap of a keyboard or a mouse. Nothing. The kid just looks at Eliot like he just ran over his puppy.

Twice.

“Eliot, man,” he starts, fumbles, stops. “That’s not…”

O-kay. Message received. Eliot nods and straightens his shirt, stepping around Alec. He’s getting out of here. Only suddenly the kid does that thing where he moves way faster than you expect him to and blocks the door. “Hell, no!” he snarls, hands out to stop the hitter. “You don’t get to run away. Nu-huh.”

“I’m not running away,” Eliot growls and makes to push Alec aside. “I’m leaving. There’s a difference.”

Alec twists, evades grasping hands and somehow manages to stay in front of the door. Eliot might feel proud of him any other day. Right now? Not so much, seeing as he’s the one that’s being blocked and he doesn’t really feel like knocking Alec around.

“Eliot. Eliot, would you listen?”

He did. Alec didn’t seem to have anything to say. He scowls, growls and pushes again, getting tired of this game of keep-away.

And then Alec blurts, “Threesome!”

.

.

“What?”

Alec slams his mouth shut so fast, Eliot can hear his teeth clink together. It’s not a nice sound. “Nothing,” he manages to mutter from between closed lips.

Raised eyebrow, “Did you just say…”

… And Alec breaks like a little boat made of matches, all alone, out on the ocean, in a storm. “You see, it’s kinda like this. We was talking, one night and you kinda came up in conversation, you know, all casual like, and Parker might have possibly said that she’d like to…” he trails off, makes a shove-push-stuff gesture that could mean ‘stuff something in a closet’ or ‘screw the both of you until your brains leak outta your ears’. With Alec it’s sometimes hard to tell. “And then I was like, whoa, girl, you can’t say things like that to me. My head’s gonna explode. And she just looks at me, you know, pouting an’ all, with her eyes narrowed all psychotic like and I kinda…”

“Freaked and agreed to whatever weird courtship plan she came up with?” Because, Eliot realizes, that’s what this is. The constant visits. The movies and the snacks she brought. Her invitation to ‘go steal something’ with her over the weekend. That’s Parker’s idea of courting someone. She wasn’t being intentionally (or even obliviously) annoying. She was flirting.

Eliot pinches the bridge of his nose to stave off a headache. Funny how he never seemed to get them before he hooked up with these crazies. “And you didn’t just tell me that why exactly?”

Alec waves a finger in his face. “I told you, man. Just here, you see,” he points at the spot of wall that previously held him up, using both hands for emphasis, “Right here. I told ya.”

“About a month too late.”

“Yeah, well…” he does that liquid shrug where he first rolls one shoulder and then it sort of flows into the other and Eliot will never, ever admit how much that move turns him on. Ever. Alec is tall and awkward a lot of the time, all geek. But sometimes he does something strangely graceful and completely out of character and when he does, Eliot looks.

And imagines Alec doing the same thing naked. Maybe with Parker sitting on his lap, equally naked. Two pretty people, black and white, chiaroscuro. And when exactly did a naked Parker slip into that particular mental image?

He sighs, pinches his nose again. It doesn’t help. Parker’s in his head now, right there next to Alec, dark and light. They look great together. He knows it, has known since the Louvre and their impossible Twister act, right there on the street, laughing like children instead of thieves. And naked? They’d be art. And Eliot can’t help but think…

Eliot is not a greedy person, or a possessive person. But he takes what he can get and he holds on hard. So why, his downstairs brain asks, not make a matching pair out of the one pretty thing he already has?

Alec and Parker, naked and entwined on his bed.

His brain short circuits. Fries. And slowly reboots. Wow. He’s speaking geek now. In his head.

“Parker!” he yells because he knows she’s still around. In the ceiling or outside the window. Somewhere. She didn’t run after she forked Count Dracula and she didn’t run now. She’s here.

She comes swinging in through the window, does a handstand and lands in front of him, eyes downcast, looking for all the world like a scolded child. Eliot glares at her for a long moment. Then he glares at Alec a lot longer because Parker has an excuse: absolutely no social skills. Alec should have known better.

He looks away, cowed and repentant. Right. If it lasts longer than a minute, Eliot will eat his favorite pair of boots.

He crosses his arms across his chest, looks at them both and itches to see if they’ll be as pretty together as he thinks they will be.

“Strip,” he says.

They scramble.

.

So yeah.

.

The sex is awesome.

It’s the people who are killing him.

Whoever said threesomes are fun obviously never considered that outside of bed, there is suddenly twice the amount of people that can, quite literally, lead you around by your dick and make your life a living hell.

It’s not that Parker and Hardison are mean, or anything. If they were, he’d kick their asses, strip them naked and tie them to a flag pole. Preferably in front of a police station with their rap sheet taped to their foreheads.

No, it’s simply that they’re Parker and Hardison.

During the first week he comes home to find them having sex on the kitchen island. With whipped cream and chocolate sauce. On the kitchen island. Naked. And did he mention the kitchen island? Mess with the man. Mess with the merchandise. But do not mess with the place where he prepares his food.

Somehow, between jobs, they discover iced coffee for themselves. Sugar and caffeine in one. It’s the longest twelve hours of Eliot’s life, made worse by the fact that, unlike toddlers, they’re smart enough to know when they’re about to crash and need to reload. In the end he flushes all the ice-cream down the toilet to get some peace.

Two days later they drag him to some crappy martial arts movie and then forbid him from critiquing the bullshit fighting styles. They wake him up and bully him into making them breakfast. (On the kitchen island.) They steal the remote from him. They giggle like teenage girls. They hide his favorite boots because they don’t like them.

It’s not that Alec didn’t do all those things on his own, it’s just that now that he has backup, Eliot needs un-pick-able handcuffs and ball gags to get some quiet. They’re loud. They’re bright. They’re childish. And they’re everywhere!

.

And then they do the whole rehab job and it’s all wrong.

Nate sober is a monster of guilt, self-loathing, sharp words and arrogance. Sophie going head to head with Nate sober is even worse and Eliot flashes back to being six years old and hiding in the closet until Ma and Pa are done screaming. He doesn’t like it.

The bomb. The Koreans and Russians and Italians and French and whatever the hell else is after that guy. The bomb again. He hates that bomb, just for the record.

And Alec just has to pull out the wrist-flapping queer act and Parker is suddenly all determined and happy and it’s not the same happy that makes her eat two bags of cheetos or rob a museum for kicks. It’s the other kind of happy, the precarious one, that ends in tears and despair. It’s the dangerous kind of happy.

Eliot doesn’t like it. And he especially doesn’t like that she’s inside that goddamn rehab place, out of his reach. And he especially especially doesn’t like that he doesn’t like that because, goddamn, he already filled his caring quota for, like, the century with those two and he hates that they can make him grind his teeth in anything other than frustration and annoyance.

He hates that they pull all this shit and he doesn’t even get really angry but when someone messes with them (bomb, drugs, therapy) he suddenly feels like going on a little murder spree before lunch and what the fuck is that all about? Huh? What?

(This is not a river in Egypt.)

.

It ends like this:

.

Eliot and Alec standing next to each other on the green and Parker racing towards them, bouncing like a six year old on speed, all happy and light and drugged to the gills, throwing her bag at Nate and then jumping Eliot, hugging him like a monkey.

Somehow Eliot finds himself holding on to her, hugging back, one tight squeeze. Then he passes her on to Alec and after he got in his hug, they trap her between them and she wraps her arms around them too tight. She giggles loudly in Eliot’s ear and he should hate it, but he doesn’t and that might have happened when she trusted him more than the instincts that told her to run from the big, bad horse, or when she didn’t rob the Louvre because he told her so. It might have happened when Alec met his gaze over her head and they both looked gob-smacked. It might have happened when she apologized for having sex in his kitchen or when she spent a month trying to flirt with him in her idiotic, stunted, sweet way. It might have been when Alec looked like a kicked puppy after that first night, or when he tried not to after the second night and the third, too.

It might have happened when Eliot told them both to strip for the first time and they did it, eager and happy and trusting.

Eliot is a killer. He calls it something else, but he kills people and somehow, those two find it perfectly reasonable to strip themselves of all their defenses on his command.

It ends with Eliot tucking Parker tighter into his side and ruffling Alec’s short hair over her head and knowing that he’s completely fucked and not giving a damn anyway.

.