It happens by accident.
Eliot’s out running, and half a mile in, this mangy looking stray falls in with him, right at his heels. Stays there, too, stays there another seven miles. Eliot’s feeling kinda bad for it—it’s all bones, really; even skin and bones might be too kind.
“Stay,” he says, stopping outside a minimart. The dog looks at him, cocking its head, but sits, and that seems close enough. When he comes out, twelve bucks lighter and five pounds of shitty kibble heavier, the dog’s gone.
It’s back the next day, though, falling in at about the half-mile mark, and after that, it becomes a thing. Kind of a thing. Not a thing at all, really, except that the dog’s always there, and Eliot likes dogs, and this one reminds him more than most of one of the dogs he had as a kid. Champ had been a big, dumb mutt—twice the size of this guy, even if this one were fed up some—but loyal and gentle, right up until the day his legs stopped working and they’d had to do what needed done.
He picks up the pace. The dog stays right with him, though, and Eliot thinks, ok. After that, he runs with liver treats in his pockets. They fall into a routine easy enough.
So it’s kinda weird when, three weeks after the dog showed up, he’s just…not there, one day. Eliot gives it a minute or two, because it’s not like it’s his dog or anything, but it’s kinda nice to have someone—something—with him while he runs, for a change. He’s about to give up when a woman comes running up to him, a little kid toddling along after her.
“Hey,” she says, sweeping the kid into her arms. “I think I found your dog. You’re looking for your dog, right? You guys usually run now?” Her words come out in a rush, and she jiggles the kid on her hip. Eliot’s already got a bad feeling about this, but before he can make an excuse, he’s nodding, and she shakes her head and says, “You—um. He’s hurt pretty bad. I’m really sorry.”
Eliot’s already sprinting in the direction she pointed, hollering thanks over his shoulder.
The damn dog’s on the side of the road, whimpering in pain, one of his legs mangled bad enough that you can barely tell it used to be a leg. Eliot drops to his knees next to him, and the dog’s tail thunks dully against the asphalt.
Don’t fucking do this, Eliot thinks as he picks up the dog. He’s surprisingly light, lighter even than his skinny body would’ve suggested, and Eliot thinks of the unopened bag of kibble on the shelf in his pantry. You don’t have time for this, he tells himself as he takes off, running as smooth as he can towards his house.
This isn’t the kinda life that can fit a damn dog in it, Eliot reminds himself as they walk into the emergency vet, the dog resting his head on Eliot’s shoulder.
“What’s his name?” asks that nurse, and Eliot thinks, This ain’t your dog, Spencer, and he buries his fingers in the dog’s thick coat.
“Blue,” he says.
Blue notices first.
They’re just getting back from a run—the dog runs just as good on three legs as he ever did on four, and getting some muscle mass on him helped, too—and Blue freezes as they open the gate into the back yard. Eliot looks around suspiciously, because the house is pretty nice, all up, but it’s not in the best area, and this wouldn’t be the first time he’s chased guys outta his yard.
He doesn’t see anything, though, so he drops the latch and watches Blue, waiting to see what he’s after. He’s not usually the kind of dog that goes for squirrels or possums or anything like that, but there’s a first time for everything, probably.
Fast enough he would’ve missed it if he’d been doing anything but staring after the dog, a black cat shoots across the yard and under the back steps.
“Shit,” says Eliot, and bends to peer under the house. The cat grumbles a warning, and half a dozen sets of eyes reflect back at him. “Shit,” he says again, and stands up.
Blue noses against his legs, and Eliot steps aside so the dog can have a look. The cat makes the same angry growl it had when Eliot had got too close, but Blue turns in a circle and lays down.
“C’mon,” Eliot says, heading up the stairs. He’ll figure out what to do with the cat--the cats, he thinks—after he’s had a shower and some coffee. He’s at the door when he realizes that Blue isn’t with him, hasn’t even stood up. “Hey!” he calls, and the dog looks at him, then puts his head back down on his feet.
Eliot shrugs. “Suit yourself,” he says, “but I ain’t bringing you eggs out here.”
A shower and a half hour later, he does it anyhow, scrambling three eggs for the dog and three eggs for himself, then taking them all outside. He puts Blue’s in front of him and sits on the steps, watching the dew burn off as the sun comes up.
“This is stupid, you know,” he says to the dog, who whuffs like he’s agreeing. “As long’s you know,” Eliot says.
Blue doesn’t want to go in when Eliot heads over to the brewpub, either, and Eliot shrugs and brings the water bowl outside. When he gets home, Blue’s under the steps with the cats.
It’s a while yet before the kittens are big enough to leave their mama, and Eliot spends a lot of that time sitting on the steps while Blue sits under them. The molly’s feral as all get out and won’t let Eliot anywhere near her, but the kittens get used to him quick enough. Which makes it easy, six weeks later, to scoop them up and take them into the house.
The first two go to a home together, to a friend of one of the neighbors, and the third goes not long after to a friend of that friend. Eliot half figures he oughta put up a sign about the other two, but first it’s raining, and then it’s too hot to go stick up a free kittens sign, and then—well, and then he gets home one day and finds the kittens and Blue all curled up together, sleeping in a dog bed that’s really too small for the dog all by himself, let alone the dog and two kittens.
It’s kinda weird, Eliot knows, and he doesn’t really like the idea that he’s got one more soft spot that someone could use to get at him, but he keeps his mouth shut about them and boards them under a fake name when he’s gone for more than a day or two, or when the neighbor isn’t around to let them out.
He figures that he can have this, though. Nate and Sophie have each other, and Parker and Hardison have each other, and Eliot has Blue, and Blue has the kittens. Everybody has somebody, and that works out pretty good.
“You have arrived at your destination,” says the slightly robotic voice of Alec’s GPS system.
Alec looks up at the house and over at Parker, who’s clutching a bottle of wine and looking nervous.
“Hey,” he says reassuringly, “it’s just Eliot. You know? It’s no big deal.”
It’s a big fucking deal, though, and they both know it. They’ve only been officially dating Eliot—as determined, Alec admits, by when they started having sex with Eliot—for a couple of months, and they’ve never even seen his house, let alone been inside it, and suddenly he’s all stop over for supper and it ain’t gonna kill you to leave your orc friends for one night, Hardison and just come over.
“Haha!” Parker agrees, her laugh really obviously fake. “Right! It’s fine!”
They climb the steps to the porch, and Alec knocks on the door, because—well, in part because Nana would’ve been disappointed in him otherwise, but in part because even when you’ve been invited, it seems unwise to just go charging into the house of a guy in Eliot’s line of work, even if he is your boyfriend, without so much as a warning.
From inside the house comes not the expected shout that they should come in, but the sound of a very excited dog. Alec looks up, startled.
“Shit, did we get the address wrong?” he asks. “Are we at the wrong damn house?”
Parker says, “But we brought wine! And the computer said this was the—”
Then Eliot swings the door open, nudging a dog back with his foot, and says, “Hey, c’mon in.”
And Alec, he has manners, thank you very much, and this is super normal. Of course Eliot has a dog and a house, and of course the house smells amazing, like sage and pork and tomatoes, and—“Jesus, are those cats?” he says, and then says, “I mean, that’s pretty cool. My Nana used to have a cat. Kinda miss cats.” It’s totally normal, he tells himself, that Eliot has cats.
He follows Eliot into the kitchen, and they’ve made it as far as the starting to talk about drinks before they realize that Parker’s not with them.
They head back into the hallway, and Parker’s lying on her back just inside the front door, the dog climbing over her, happily whuffling at her hair. She’s giggling delightedly and playing with his ears, and Alec has a pretty high tolerance for weird, but this is too weird, even for him.
It’s sort of a relief when he looks over at Eliot and Eliot’s already looking back at him, his face a perfect expression of what. They both stand there for a moment, staring.
One of the cats comes in, and Parker rolls onto her belly, just like she does in bed, and Alec shakes his head to clear it of the memory. The cat flops onto the floor in front of her, and she croons nonsense at it while she rubs her face on its belly and plays with his tail and ears. Alec is pretty sure that either Eliot has the chillest cats ever or Parker’s actually something out of a Disney movie, because he hadn’t been joking—Nana’d had a whole series of cats, and not a damn one of them would’ve ever put up with this sort of thing from anyone, let alone someone they’ve just met.
Eventually, Eliot clears his throat a little, and Parker looks up like she’s just realized that they’re there. She grins like she’s just realized that she gets to jump off the kind of building that makes Alec's knees go to jelly.
“I didn’t even know you had friends, Eliot,” she exclaims. She doesn’t say it meanly, just saying things like they are, but Alec can feel the way that Eliot tenses a little next to him. “This is the best thing!” She sounds giddy, and that seems to set things right again, because Eliot laughs a little bit and holds out his hand to pull her off the floor.
“They can come in the kitchen with you,” he says, and she pops up and goes to explore the kitchen.
“Do you have other friends that we don’t know about?” she asks.
Eliot looks at Alec like he’s looking for help, but damned if Alec knows how to get out of this one. He shakes his head, and Eliot glares. “You know Shelly,” he offers, and Parker looks back into the hallway.
“I meant here,” she says. “Fun friends. More cats. Maybe a turtle!” The last bit is delivered with enthusiasm that is, frankly, a little bit creepy, and Alec immediately starts thinking of the list of reasons that they definitely do not need to get a turtle, not even a little bit. They’re full of disease and salmonella and disease and he’s not about to have some nasty-ass, disease-ridden reptile in his home, which is over his brewpub, no way.
One of the cats twines around his ankles, and Alec looks over at Eliot. “Hey,” he says, “what’s the cat’s name?”
Eliot doesn’t look up from whatever he’s stirring on the stovetop. “Baby,” he says.
“What’s the dog’s name?” Parker asks from the floor. She has one arm over the dog, which is happily licking her face.
“Dog’s called Blue,” Eliot says.
“You got two cats, right?” Alec says. “What’s the other one called?”
Eliot shrugs. “Baby,” he says again, and Alec glares.
“Naw, man, you just said this one was Baby.”
Eliot looks up this time. “They’re both Baby,” he says.
Also weird, Alec thinks. “You named both your cats Baby?” he says, because that kind of weird isn’t usually Eliot’s department.
Over at the stove, Eliot bristles a little.
“I didn’t name them, Hardison,” he says, “that’s just what they’re called. And they ain’t—” He sighs. “They’re not really my cats, all right? They’re Blue’s cats, and I’m not gonna name someone else’s pets.”
Alec closes his eyes, briefly, and presses his fingers against his temples.
“That makes sense,” Parker agrees, and Alec wishes, just this once, that he’d taken Nana’s advice and stayed in Chicago and settled down with a nice, normal girl.
“Ok,” he says. “So we…call the cats Baby?”
Parker shakes her head. “Eliot calls the cats Baby,” she says, like this should be obvious. “Blue named them, but you can’t tell us, can you?” She looks into the dog’s eyes and rubs her hands against his ears, and Alec gives up and nods. Normal’s overrated anyhow, right? he thinks. They might be weirdos, but they’re his weirdos.
“Cool,” he says, and then goes over to where Eliot’s still at the stove. He kisses the back of Eliot’s neck, softly, because physical apologies are the only kind that Eliot’s able to accept with any grace at all. “Can I help?”
After supper—which was every bit as good as it had smelled—they end up in Eliot’s living room, Blue and Parker sharing the loveseat and Eliot and Alec on the sofa.
“This why you’d never stay over?” Alec asks, eventually. He’s always wondered, and he and Parker have spent more than one night trying to figure out what they needed to do to make Eliot feel safe enough, or welcome enough, or whatever, to stay.
Eliot nods. “Couldn’t leave Blue overnight,” he says, “not without scheduling it with the neighbor or a kennel first.”
“Coulda told us.” One of the cats climbs onto the back of the sofa, and Alec scritches her absently, watching Eliot’s face when he says, “Could be that we like dogs.”
And it looks like something eases up a little bit, like there’s almost a smile in there somewhere. “Yeah, well,” says Eliot, quietly. “How do you feel about cats?”
“We love you,” says Parker, and Eliot jerks his head up. She looks at Alec. “That was what he was really asking, right?” And then, to Eliot again, “We’ve been talking about subtext lately. We were afraid you didn't know.”
“She’s not wrong,” Alec says, answering both Parker’s question and Eliot’s unspoken one. “We like cats just fine.”
A week later, Alec’s dead asleep when Baby lands directly onto his face and curls up on his head. Once his heart rate settles back down, he rolls over, wiggling his toes against Blue at the foot of the bed, and drapes his arm over Parker and Eliot both, over Parker’s waist and Eliot’s hip. It might not be normal, he thinks as he falls back to sleep, but it’s pretty damn good.