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the punchline to this

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Friday afternoon, Eliot finds himself alone. Hardison’s gone out doing his gaming thing, some kind of raid or something, and Eliot doesn’t expect him back until well past dark. He’d kinda thought that Parker would be around, but Alice, she’d said, (and “you are Alice,” Eliot said, but he’s basically given up, anymore) had book club.

He’s almost relaxing into the rare solitude when someone knocks on the door. And that’s fucking weird, right there, because nobody they know’s gonna show up without calling first. The last time someone had knocked on their door unannounced and it wasn’t a delivery guy, it was a fucking hitman. A bad one, but even so, Eliot’s not thrilled about the idea of dealing with another one. Not answering and letting the guy break in (or worse, lay in wait for Hardison and Parker) seems like even less of a plan, though, so Eliot pulls his shit together, dumps a couple empties in the bin, and walks over to the door, where the security camera is—

Showing him a tiny, elderly black woman?

She raises her fist and knocks again, harder, and Eliot pushes his hair back and straightens his shirt, because—well, cause it seems rude to open the door to a little old lady looking like you’ve been watching SportsCenter and porn all afternoon, even if that’s exactly what you’ve been doing.

He opens the door and says, in his very best and most charming normal-person voice, “Can I help you, ma’am?”

The woman narrows her eyes at him a little, and then looks down at the surprisingly fancy-looking phone in her hand.

“Is Alec here?” she asks, and Eliot shakes his head awkwardly.

“I’m afraid not, ma’am, but maybe I can help you?” he offers.

The woman laughs, her eyes crinkling behind her silver cat-eye glasses. "You must be Eliot,” she says, cheerfully. “He warned me you were charming. Where is he?”

Eliot’s stomach drops as he realizes that this is a terrible fucking mistake, because this ain’t a random elderly woman showing up to collect cans or take up donations or whatever it is that elderly woman in weird fucking places like Portland do. This is Hardison’s nana, and Eliot has just opened the door to the apartment—to Hardison and Parker’s apartment—like he lives there.

Which he does, kinda, in the sense that he—that he hadn’t had a lot of stuff anyhow, and after a while it’d seemed stupid to keep paying rent on an apartment that he never slept in. That doesn’t mean that it’s the kind of thing you want to go broadcasting to your grandmother, though.

“Uh,” he stutters a little and bites his tongue for half a beat, making himself get a damn grip. “Why don’t you come in? He just, uh, went out for a little, and—and you know, I’m sure he’ll come right back when he finds out you’re here,” he says.

She nods and slips past him before he even moves out of the way, and it’s only habit that makes him move to take her luggage from her. (Her luggage, he thinks, and jesus, how’d he fucking miss that?)

“Will you—will you be staying?” he asks as she looks around the room, looking for all the world like she’s already assessing the place and figuring out ways she could redecorate.

Eliot tries not to sigh with relief when she shakes her head. “Oh, no,” she says, “I’m just here for a few days. I miss my boy!”

She seems content to stand there and survey the living area, so Eliot takes the opportunity to take her luggage to the guest room—the weirdly clean and unused guest room, where he hasn’t slept once all the time he’s been sleeping here, apartment of his own or not. It takes a minute of standing there, staring blankly at the unrumpled bedspread, before he pulls himself together and grabs his phone.


It’s not until he’s pushed the send button and is waiting anxiously for a response that he realizes what he’s sent. The second message is slightly clearer:


He glares at the phone and resists the urge to snap it in two. Goddamn tiny phones and their goddamn pokey screen keyboards and—

HARDISONS NANA IS HERE, he finally types, laboriously picking out every letter with his index finger. SOMEONE HELP

By the time he’s sent it, Hardison’s nana has followed him down the hall and into the bedroom, and any hope that he’d be able to wait for a response evaporates.

“You—uh, this is the guest room, Ms…” he trails off, abruptly realizing that he has no idea what Hardison’s nana’s name is.

“You can just call me Nana,” she says serenely, and sets her bag on the bed.

Eliot nods jerkily. He can do this. It’s fine. “So,” he says, “do you—have you eaten supper?”

She looks at him curiously. “I didn’t realize you cooked,” she said, and Eliot tries not to be hurt by that. Why the hell would she know that he cooked? It’s not like him and Hardison and Parker—it’s not like they had a relationship, not really, not like normal people. Having a friend living with you and sleeping in your bed and making you supper ever night ain’t normal, not really. And Hardison’s nana’s a nice, normal lady who lives him and wants the best for him. Eliot gets it.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, “I cook.” He tells himself that this is a job, a job that he’s doing for Hardison, and he can do this.

“Well, I’d love a little something,” she admits, and Eliot smiles at her.

“My pleasure,” he says. “Just lemme—you know, just lemme call Har—Alec, lemme call him and see if he thinks he’ll be home quick enough to eat with us.” He keeps smiling, smiling so hard that his face hurts with all this damn smiling. “Why don’t you freshen up a little,” he suggests, hoping like hell that she takes the hint, “and I’ll let you know when it’s done.”

He heads to the kitchen about twice as fast as usual and is dialing Hardison before he gets out of the hallway. There’s been no response to his text, and the first call rings and rings until it kicks over to voicemail. He curses, then remembers that Hardison’s nana’s down the hall and bites his tongue, hangs up, and calls back.

Hardison picks up on the fourth ring. “I know you’re not calling to interrupt my raid,” he says when he picks up, “and I know that because I feel certain that we have discussed this, and because unless someone is dying—”

Eliot growls a little bit. “You gotta come home,” he says, interrupting, and Hardison sputters in apparent outrage. “Your nana’s here,” Eliot grits out, and apparently that’s the magic word, because Hardison stops complaining.

“Nana’s there?” he asks, sounding more suspicious than Eliot would really like.

“Yeah, little old black lady, about 5’2”, hundred sixty pounds, silver glasses—”

“Nana’s there!” Hardison yells jubilantly. Eliot winces and pulls the phone aware from his ear until he’s pretty sure that Hardison’s back to more or less a normal volume. “She said she might visit sometime, but I didn’t think it’d be now.”

“Hardison,” Eliot says, “you gotta come home. You can’t just—I’m—”

“I’m coming!” Hardison says, and he sounds pretty damn excited for a guy whose orc party just got broken up.

“I’m—I’m making dinner,” Eliot says, and that feels awkward and weird, telling his—telling Hardison that Eliot’s at home, at Hardison’s home, making supper for Hardison’s nana.

But the weirdness seems lost on Hardison. “Make enough for everybody,” he says, “and I’ll stop and get Parker on my way back.”

Eliot rolls his eyes, because sure, no problem, he can pull together a nice meal for four people on no notice with just what’s in the fridge. “Yeah,” he says, “all right. But hurry up.”

Hardison’s nana comes into the kitchen as he hangs up.

“What can I do?” she asks, pushing up her sleeves and looking around. Eliot looks around, too, abruptly desperate to find something to give her to do, to distract her so that he doesn’t have to look at her or answer questions that he doesn’t really want to think about. Or questions that he does want to think about. No questions at all.

“Alec says he and Parker will be here soon!” he says, too brightly. “I’m not sure what we—what’s in the fridge,” he says, suddenly aware that he’s gotta stop talking like this is his life, his place.

He looks through the fridge, and then the cupboards, and then the fridge again, because somehow it feels like they have exactly no food, and certainly nothing that he can cook for Hardison’s damn nana. Eventually, though, he produces some mushrooms in the back of the produce drawer, and, digging through the freezer, a package of chicken thighs, and--ok, he thinks. He can make this work.

“How do you feel about chopping?” he asks Hardison’s nana, because she’s still looking expectantly at him. He tries not to be relieved when she nods and holds out her hand for the onion he’s offering. He sets her up with a knife, looking through three different drawers before he “finds” the one that he needs, nevermind that he put the knives in these drawers over a year ago, before he’d even moved in, and is pretty sure he’s the only one who’s touched them since.

Once she’s settled, he sets himself up at the stove, quickly sautéing rice, digging out lemons and olives and a jar of artichokes from various cupboards while the chicken thaws in a bowl of water. It’s not long before the risotto’s going, and he arranges the chicken and veg on a roasting tray, sneaking what he hopes are subtle glances at his phone, because where the hell is Hardison?

Hardison’s nana’s stopped chopping and is sitting at the counter, watching him, not saying a damn word, and somehow that’s even more unsettling than having her all up in his business would be.

It seems like he’s gotta do something else, something more impressive than chicken and rice and roasted vegetables, even if the rice is mushroom risotto and the roasted vegetables are artichoke hearts and mushrooms and tiny sweet peppers, and he goes back into the cupboards and digs until he finds gelatin and a bag of amaretti cookies that Parker hasn’t managed to eat more than half of yet.

He’s whisking pureed raspberries into the panna cotta mixture when Hardison and Parker burst in, all smiles and loud voices, and Eliot hadn’t realized how quiet it was until they got there and filled up the house. Hardison’s nana is quickly caught up with them, and Eliot’s glad of it, because he’s busy trying to figure how long he’s been working in silence, save for that one bit when he started humming Hank Williams.

He pours four ramekins of panna cotta, and then dumps the rest into a bowl, because he knows damn well that Parker’ll eat all the leftovers for breakfast if she’s given half a chance, and he tucks it all into the fridge and goes back to stirring the risotto, trying not to watch Parker and Hardison and Hardison’s nana hugging and cooing over each other.

He’d feel left out, but he reminds himself—again—that it ain’t really his place.

After a few minutes, Hardison escorts his nana into the living room (finally, Eliot thinks,) and Parker comes to stand next to Eliot.

“So…” she says, and then kisses him, gently. He pulls away immediately, looking to make sure that Hardison and nana—Hardison’s nana, he reminds himself—are in the other room and not anywhere they could see. Parker looks hurt, and Eliot kisses her back, quickly.

“I didn’t want—” he says, trying to explain. “She’s a nice lady. A nice normal lady. I don’t wanna make things weird.”

Parker nods. “I know,” she says. “That was a lot of touching.” She looks towards the kitchen door, and Eliot wonders if she can see them from where she’s standing, if Hardison and his nana are talking about—whatever, redecorating or orc raids or whatever it is that they talk about. That he doesn’t talk about.

He stirs the risotto again, and Parker looks away from the door to watch the steam rise contemplatively.

“Do you…” she starts, and Eliot shakes his head.

“Don’t ask me questions, Parker,” he says, cutting her off. “This ain’t—you gotta ask Hardison this stuff, whatever it is. It’s not right to go speculating on other people’s lives.”

She nods, her face still and sad, and then disappears. It feels like that oughta be a relief, kinda, that he should be glad there’s no one here to—

Eliot stirs the risotto until he feels like his damn arm’s going to fall off.

Hardison comes in to grab drinks (more orange soda for himself, a glass of water for his nana, and what the hell had Eliot been thinking, forgetting to offer Hardison’s damn nana a drink?) and kisses Eliot quickly.

“Thanks,” he says, and Eliot nods, peeking into the oven and checking on the chicken.

“About ten minutes,” he says, reaching for the plates, and Hardison picks them up and hands them over.

“I didn’t know she was coming,” he says apologetically. “I mean, we’d talked about—I mean, she knew that I wanted her to be here for—but I didn’t think that she’d really come, you know? And not without telling me, or—”

It feels like he’s waiting for Eliot to say something, but Eliot’s not sure what he’s got to say. “It’s fine,” he says. He means it, too, because of course Hardison’s nana wants to come see him, wants to see what he’s making of his life. And all up, really, Hardison’s…he’s doing a good job. He’s living the kind of life that a parent should want to see their kid living, and Eliot can’t hold that against him.

“Hey,” Hardison says, softly, and Eliot looks up from the risotto and regrets it, because Hardison’s watching him like he knows everything going on in Eliot’s head, and it makes him twitchy. “She’s—I know she can be kinda pushy, but she’s a great lady, Eliot. She’s gonna love you. Just give it a chance, ok?”

Eliot’s not sure what he’s supposed to be giving a chance to, but he nods anyhow, and Hardison looks more relieved than Eliot would’ve liked. “Ten minutes to supper,” he says again, and this time Hardison nods an acknowledgement and heads back into the living room, and Eliot stares intently into the pan and tries not to hear the soft rise and fall of laughter in the other room.

He tells himself doesn’t care and plates the food, busting out his secret stash of truffle oil to finish the risotto, and calls everyone in.

It goes—ok, he thinks. Hardison’s nana talks more than she eats, but she praises the food, and asks for seconds of the panna cotta. Eliot curses himself a little for not putting at least another serving or two into the nice cups, but he scoops some out of the big bowl and drizzles it with raspberry coulis and showers it with crushed amaretti and figures that it’ll be ok.

“That was delicious,” she says when she finishes, and it feels like he shouldn’t be quite so relieved that she liked it—he’s a good cook, he’s a damn good cook, and he knows it—but he grins without meaning to and quickly looks down at the table.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he says. As he stands to clear the plates, he pushes his chair back fast enough that it nearly topples. Apparently everyone takes that for the hint that he guesses it kinda was, because a minute later he’s alone in the kitchen, Hardison mouthing thank you over his shoulder and Parker carrying her third bowl of panna cotta as they head into the living room.

He’s got all the plates in the dishwasher and is starting in on the silverware when he abruptly realizes that—fuck. He can’t just stay here when Hardison’s nana’s here, can’t just disappear into the master bedroom with its giant bed, and shit, he really hopes that Hardison’s nana doesn’t look in there, because it’s pretty obvious that it’s not just occupied by two people, that—

One of the forks clatters to the floor, and he shakes his head, pulling himself back to the present and away from the thoughts of how he’s gonna mess up Hardison’s relationship with his nana. Hardison’s nana seems like a nice, normal lady, and she’s—well, nobody’d be thrilled about their kid shacking up with him, he knows, but he’s pretty that someone’s son shacking up with him and Parker, who—well, who at least looks like she’s pretty normal…

Eliot’s not dumb, no matter how he has to play sometimes. He knows that the complicating factor here is him—that it’s always been him—and he squeezes his eyes shut.

When he opens them, Hardison’s nana’s standing there, watching him, and he doesn’t let himself startle at it. “Thank you for dinner,” she says, “it was delicious.”

“Thank you,” he says automatically, and drops the rest of the silverware into the dishwasher, trying not to notice that she’s just standing there. Like she’s scrutinizing him. Like she’s waiting for something, looking for something. “Can I—is there something you need?” he asks. “Where’s Har—Alec?”

She shakes her head. “He’s in the living room with Parker,” she says mildly. “Such a nice girl, isn’t she?”

Eliot doesn’t let the way his heart twists show on his face as he smiles broadly and agrees, because she’s right; Parker is a nice girl. She’s gotten more obviously nice over the years, gotten good enough at performing normal that the kindness she’s always had is almost always obviously what it is, now. She’s gotten easier for people to be around, if not actually more normal. But maybe that’s changing, too.

The knives are still in the sink, and Eliot picks up the largest and carefully washes it down, not thinking about what else knives can be used for, in the right hands. In his hands. He dries it and washes the next, and is almost relieved when it slips and nicks his thumb, because blood and the pinprick of pain is, at least, something he knows how to deal with.

Hardison’s nana watches as he rinses off his thumb and slaps a bandage onto it, then finishes washing the remaining knife.

“Well,” he says, carefully slotting the knife into the knife block, “I guess that’s about everything.” She looks at him expectantly and doesn’t say anything. “So, uh, I should be going,” he says.

“Don’t you want to come look at pictures with us?” she asks. Eliot winces a little, because, yeah, obviously he wants to go look at pictures—he’s pretty sure that those pictures have prime blackmail material in them—but it feels invasive, like it’s the kind of thing that people do with family. And Eliot knows well as anybody that just cause somebody’s your family don’t make you theirs.

“Oh no, ma’am,” he says. “It’s getting late—” which is a lie; it’s only barely seven— “and I gotta get going.”

He heads towards the door and hopes that Hardison and Parker don’t make this weird. They don’t even seem to notice him until he’s almost out of the room, and he breathes a little easier. “Night, guys,” he says, “I’m heading…out,” he finishes, sort of lamely. He doesn’t think Hardison’s nana noticed the stutter there, though, and it doesn’t matter if Parker and Hardison did.

“What?” asks Parker, looking up, her forehead creased.

“See you later!” Eliot says with forced cheerfulness, and then closes the door behind him before she can ask any questions.

In the hallway, he leans heavily against the wall and takes what feels like his first deep breath since he’d opened the door to Hardison’s nana four hours ago. Getting out went better than he’d hoped it would, and he’s almost about to be relieved about that when he realizes that he got out, sure, but he’s got nothing on him other than his car keys and his wallet, and that’s—

He signs, because going shopping isn’t really what he’d planned to do tonight, but fine. He can go shopping and get enough stuff that he can hole up in a hotel for a few days. Fine.

He goes to a mall (and he can almost feel Hardison and Parker glaring at him: buying things in a mall, Jesus fucking Christ) and buys himself a couple shirts, and boxers and undershirts, and pair of jeans, and a pair of cargos, and then another pair of jeans because they’re buy one get one half off and the elderly woman at the register seems so worried that he’s not taking advantage of the “great deal” that he goes and grabs another pair just to shut her up.

It seems like a lot of clothes, but he has no idea how long Hardison’s nana’s going to be here, and this isn’t an exercise that he wants to repeat if she ends up staying more than a couple days. He doesn’t remember the last time he bought clothes in a store instead of just letting Hardison order them for him, and it feels weird and oppressively suburban and—and just fuckin’ weird.

On his way out of the store he stops in the shoe department and buys another pair of shoes, because that’s the kind of thing that women notice—wearing the same shoes every day. It’s not that he expects to see Hardison’s nana again, but just in case. He knows better than to be caught out with this kinda shit, and he sure as hell isn’t going to fuck it up with Hardison’s nana.

Several hundred dollars later, he’s back in the car, feeling vaguely murderous and staring at the wheel, because—well, now what?

He rolls his eyes and heads towards towards the boulevard of glowing signs, half a dozen of which are advertising rooms for $89 a night. He pays the deposit in cash, because he doesn’t trust the security of this place at all, and the last thing that Hardison and Parker need is an awkward phone call informing them that he’s been murdered in his bed in a cut-rate motel. Not, he realizes as he heads down the hallway, lights flickering against the pea-green walls, that they would get a phone call. The ID in his pocket says his name’s Jason Lewis, that his address is unit seventeen at one of the low-rent apartment complexes that Hardison runs, solidly an hour away. There’s nothing to tie him to anyone, not unless there’s a report and the alias pings one of Hardison’s security alerts.

That’s how it oughta be, he reminds himself. It’s safer that way.

The room’s shitty, with a great view of the dumpsters, a ring of rust around the bottom of the shower, and the lingering scent of mold and sweat. He’s paid more for worse, though, and the mall was fucking exhausting, so whatever. He drags the (definitely filthy) blanket off the bed and tosses it to the floor, then drops onto the sheets.

The hotel doesn’t have any sports channels, and it’s not really worth watching anything on his phone—he doesn’t even have his damn glasses—and he’s already eaten, so he finds himself lying in bed at just past nine, watching as headlights streak the ceiling and feeling weirdly alone.

Which, for a guy in his line of work, is bad news. He knows better than to get used to falling asleep bracketed by warm bodies. He knows that it’s not the kind of thing that lasts, no matter how good it is; knows that it only makes the people he—cares about, he thinks, makes the people he cares about vulnerable, too. There’s a time when you gotta admit that the risks outweigh the benefits, cut your losses and head out.

So it’s probably for the best, he thinks. Better that he break himself of this now, because maybe it’ll mean that when the time comes, he’ll be able to see it for what it is and leave before anybody gets hurt. He spares a thought for the idea that this is the time, and tells himself that it’s ridiculous, but once he’s thought it he can’t unthink it. Can’t stop thinking about still having a price on his head in optimistically half a dozen countries. Can’t stop thinking about Parker, looking almost bored as she rappels down the side of a building; can’t stop thinking about Hardison mildly saying “Ok, done,” as he breaks yet another security system. Can’t stop thinking about the idea that maybe he’s gonna see them again in a few days and find out that they’re going straight and settling down, that they’re moving back to Chicago to be closer to Hardison’s nana, that—

It plays out in his head, over and over, a different way every time, until he falls asleep, the dull weight of his thoughts pressing into him like a rock on his chest.

Sometime later his phone rings, the giggling, sing-song cartoon theme that Hardison put on it and Eliot has yet to figure out how to change. (It only happens when Parker or Hardison call—he can change the damn ringtone, he just can’t—change whatever this is.)

He jerks awake and grabs the phone, because if something’s wrong, or—or if something’s happened and it’s the first night in years that he’s not there, he’s going to set the whole fucking world on fire.

“Eliot?” Parker’s voice sounds small.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, and there’s a pause.

“Where are you?” she says.

So it’s that kind of call. Which is better than the alternative, he reminds himself, better than—

“I’m in bed,” he says, hoping that it’s enough to reassure her. “Where’re you?”

“Hardison and Nana went for a walk,” she says, and he doesn’t miss that it’s not Hardison’s nana, it’s just Nana.

He squints at the clock. Ten thirty. “Kinda late for that, isn’t it?” he asks, and he can just about hear Parker shrugging.

“I think that Hardison wanted some time with her,” Parker says. “You know. Without me. But I don’t think that they think that they can say that. So they went for a walk.”

Something in Eliot’s stomach tightens uncomfortably, because of course Hardison wants to talk to his nana, of course, because he wants her to approve of Parker, to—

He coughs against the sudden lump in his throat.

“Are you ok?” Parker asks, and she sounds concerned enough that Eliot feels kinda bad.

“Yeah,” he says, swallowing hard. “Yeah, I’m—I’m fine.” He hopes that she can hear what he’s not quite able to say, which is that he’s going to be fine, and that he hopes that she and—he figures he better actually say that part. “I hope you guys have a good weekend,” he says, softly. “Hardison and his nana probably just wanna catch up—it’s not about not wanting you around, you know?”

He waits for her to make a soft noise of assent before he continues. “I’ll stay outta your hair; let Hardison have time with his nana, let—you know. You can get to know her. Never was good at this meeting the parents type of thing. Half the time I’d about get run off with a shotgun.”

Parker starts to protest, he thinks, and he cuts her off. “You know you can always call me if you need me, botha you,” he says. “Always. No matter what. And you know I’m always gonna come.”

“Yeah,” she says, and she sounds soft and sad, like she does sometimes when it’s late and one of them can’t sleep, when they end up— “Yeah,” she says, louder. Steadier. “You promised.”

Eliot makes himself to smile, because Sophie’s told them all a hundred times that people can hear if you’re smiling, and makes himself speak evenly. “Say the word, and I’ll come for you. Every time.”

“Ok,” says Parker. “Ok.”

They sit in silence on the phone for a moment, and Eliot figures that this is enough, that he needs to end this.

“Hey,” he says, “I—I gotta get going. Take care of Hardison, ok? Don’t let him fuck up my kitchen.”

“Ok,” Parker says again. “Will—” she says, and Eliot interrupts, gently as he, can, “Have a good weekend, Parker,” and hangs up the phone.

It takes him a long time to get back to sleep, but he does it; stays in bed and stares at the ceiling and counts the headlights, and somewhere in the three hundreds he finally slips into dreams.

The next morning, he pays for another three nights, because it sounds like Hardison’s nana’s here for the long haul, and what the hell’s he going to do otherwise? After arguing—again—with the guy at the desk about paying in cash, he avails himself of the (shitty) breakfast buffet, which is basically half a dozen tiny boxes of cereal, three yogurts that’ve been on the table long enough that they’re warm, some slightly bruised fruit, and a bag of stale bagels. He ends up grabbing one of each, then heads back up to the room, which somehow manages to smell worse now than it had when he’d come in last night.

He gulps down a warm yogurt and wonders, briefly, what Hardison and Parker are eating—if they’re eating real food at all, or if they’re just drinking huge quantities of orange soda and hot chocolate and eating those horrible neon sugarbomb cereals that Parker likes. Then he reminds himself that it doesn’t matter what they’re eating. They’re adults, and they’ve got each other, and they’ve got Hardison’s nana, and they’re fine.

The hotel doesn’t have a gym, and Eliot’s not about to go back to the brewpub and work out there, so he resigns himself to running. It’s not his favorite thing, but it’s something, and he figures what the hell. He runs until the crawling feeling under his skin goes away, until it’s him, and his feet against the pavement, and his lungs against the cool autumn air, and the world is narrowed to just this. It’s almost distracting.

He spends the rest of the afternoon channel surfing restlessly, hitting the button almost before the picture’s settled from the last time he hit it. When he feels like he can’t stand it anymore, he shuts the whole thing off and goes out, driving aimlessly until he sees somewhere that looks like it might make for an interesting dinner.

It does, but in the sense that it’s interesting that this place is still open when the food’s this bad and the total lack of investment on the part of anyone working there is this obvious. He eats his shitty chicken anyhow—damned if he’s going to go to another restaurant and risk striking out again—then heads back to the hotel, grateful for the relative quiet of the room.

His relief at the lack of piped-in music is short lived, though, because the room’s all wrong, too, just in a different way. The TV still isn’t playing anything good, and his phone still isn’t giving him any texts or missed calls, and there's no one talking at him or— He changes channels again, jabbing at the button hard enough that his finger hurts with it.

Eventually he falls asleep.

In the morning, he has no messages. He dials the number for time and temperature automatically and listens to the weather in Oklahoma City, the weird, almost mechanical voice informing him that the low is 38 and it might rain tonight. The phone’s working fine, and he glares at it a minute before turning his glare at the television again.

The Broncos are playing at one, so eventually he heads over to the shitty bar next to the hotel in hopes that he can convince someone to put the game on. He does, and spends three hours sitting there, nursing mediocre beers and a questionable cheeseburger, before the Broncos give it up to the fucking Steelers.

After sulking his way back to his room, he flops onto the bed, staring at the ceiling, again, pointedly not looking at his phone and the total lack of calls or texts. He knows it’s unreasonable of him to be upset, really—they’ve got Hardison’s nana there; it’s not like they’re gonna need him for anything, and he flat-out told them that he’d stay out of the way—but that doesn’t mean that he has to like it.

He stays there until he starts to feel like the walls are closing in, and eventually hauls himself out of bed and goes for a run. Two days in a row, and he’s kinda wishing that he’d bought sweats or literally anything other than jeans and boots, but—well, but fuck it. You never know when you’re gonna have to run. Might as well be used to it.

He runs until he feels limp with it, but even that’s somehow unsatisfying, leaving him feeling worn out and soft. In the shower, he watches the water swirl down the rusty drain, and doesn’t let himself think about Parker and Hardison. Five years ago he couldn’t have imagined them ever going straight, or even really dialing it back any, but lately it’s—well, they’re all spending a lot more time in the brewpub than they used to.

He knows that part of it’s him, that they worry that he’s not as—that they worry. His left knee throbs like it agrees and he looks down, cursing when cheap hotel shampoo gets in his eye. It ain’t just him, though, and he knows it. Has known it for a while, if he’s honest.

When he feels lightheaded from the heat, if not actually cleaner, he gets out of the shower and goes to watch shitty made-for-tv movies until he passes out.

It’s past nine when the phone rings, and he’d about given up thinking that he might hear from them at all this weekend. It’s Parker, and he tries not to sound too relieved when he picks up.

“Hey,” he says, casually, like this isn’t as long as he’s gone without seeing them, let alone talking to them, in—in more than a couple years, if he’s honest. Even before he lived with them, between jobs and the brewpub and trying to make sure that they were eating something green a couple times a week, it’s not like he’d ever had to look hard for an excuse to stop in for a while.

“Hey,” she says, and stops.

“What’s up?” he says after a good thirty seconds of silence.

She doesn’t say anything for long enough that he looks at his phone to see if the call’s dropped or something, but the clock is still ticking away, so he waits, because sometimes it takes Parker a while to get things out. It’s easier for him when they’re in the same room, when he can distract himself watching Hardison or doing dishes or whatever, but he can do this, can wait for her to tell him whatever she doesn’t want to tell him. He braces himself for it, ignoring the way that his stomach’s gone hot and tight, and instead listening to her breathing, trying to suss out how this is gonna go. The ceiling has a water stain on it, and he stares at it, wondering how fresh it is, if the hotel’s taking water damage right now, right now while it’s pissing down rain and he’s on the phone in a shitty hotel waiting for his—waiting for Parker to tell him that things are changing.

“When are you coming home?” she asks, finally, and that’s not what he was expecting, but he guesses it’s not what she thought she was going to say, either. “They went for another walk,” she says, not actually giving him enough time to respond and sounding surprisingly upset.

“Hey,” he says, shifting modes as fast as he can, “what’s up? What’s happening?”

It’s some work, because going from waiting in dread to being emotionally supportive is a lot harder than Sophie makes it look, but he can do it. For her. For them.

“They went for another walk,” she says, and her voice sounds blurry, like she’s not far off crying. “They keep—I don’t know, Eliot. You need to come—” And now she is crying, and the ember burning in his stomach catches tinder and turns clean lick of righteous, burning anger.

“Hey,” he says, and Parker snuffles into the phone. “Hey.”

“What,” she says flatly, like she’s gone right through sad and come out on the other side where you don’t feel nothing at all, where it’s all empty and blank.

“It’s gonna be ok,” he says, knowing that it’s not enough, that it’s maybe a lie, almost before the words cross his lips. “You—”

“Just come home,” she says, and he can’t—

“Ok,” he says. “Look, I’ll—I’ll be there in an hour, all right? I’ll call before I get there, and if you still want me there, I’ll come up, ok?”

“Ok,” says Parker, and Eliot’s already on his feet, pulling his shit together.

“Just gimme an hour,” he says, as reassuringly as he can, because he’s going to kill Hardison, going to tear the man limb to limb because this isn’t how you fucking propose to someone, Hardison, this ain’t how you convince someone that you want to spend the rest of forever with them, and it’s especially not how you do it when that someone is Parker and you know she— “Dammit,” he says after she hangs up.

He punches in Hardison’s number so fast that he gets it wrong the first time, and the second time it goes straight through to voicemail.

Eliot jams his feet into the stupid ill-fitting boots that he bought at a stupid fucking department store in a stupid fucking mall just outside of stupid fucking Portland, and he’s gonna kill Hardison, he is, going to tear a strip offa his—

The phone rings with the jittery ringtone that sounds like evil clowns and icicles.

“Hardison,” he barks, and Hardison laughs happily.

“Hey, man, what’s up? Sorry about that, I wasn’t fast enough when you called.”

Hardison,” Eliot says, and Hardison must notice that it’s not Eliot’s happy voice, because he sobers up right quick.

“What’s the matter?” he asks.

“What’s the matter?” Eliot says, because his stomach is burning again and he can’t stop thinking about Parker crying on that stupid fucking giant bed with its soft blankets and huge pillows and soft, imported sheets that smell like— “What’s the matter is that you’re out and Parker’s sitting at home, freaking out because you bailed on her, and look, I don’t know what you’re trying to do here, but it’s not working. If you wanna breeze in there and propose or whatever, you gotta—you gotta do it right, Hardison, you can’t just—“

Hardison’s sputtering on the other end of the line, and Eliot finds that he’s temporarily out of words, if not out of the sick tightness in his chest. The other end of the line’s gone real quiet, suddenly, and Eliot’s fucking exhausted.

“What’re you talking about?” Hardison asks, and Eliot sighs heavily.

“Your nana visiting?” he says. “Parker? You an’ Parker, you two, I don’t know, getting white picket fences and a dog, or whatever. I don’t know what’s goin’ on in your head!”

“Wait,” Hardison says, “what?”

And this is somehow worse than Eliot had been afraid it’d be, because it’s like Hardison doesn’t even know what this looks like.

“Hardison,” Eliot says heavily, “are you telling me that you’re not going to ask Parker to—to—”

The words stick, and he stalls out, some, but Hardison’s sputtering again, and Eliot sits on the edge of the bed and puts his head in his hand, closing his eyes against the ugly rust-beige carpet. “Your nana’s here,” he says, defensively.

Hardison says, “Just Nana, Eliot. Not my nana. Just Nana. Didn’t she tell you to call her Nana?”

Eliot shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, “but we both know it ain’t—c’mon, man, you know that’s not how it goes. I’m not…” He can about hear Hardison bristling, so he charges forward, hoping for the best. “You guys—you know, you’ve—”

Hardison cuts him off. “I know you don’t do—why do you think I’ve left you alone?” he says, sounding indignant. Eliot chokes a little, because that’s rich, like Hardison’s doing him some kinda favor here, but Hardison’s still talking. “I know you’re not—not comfortable with everybody’s families and stuff, so I wasn’t gonna push! I figured you’d go…I don’t know, go punch things until you were ready to come back.”

“Oh, so that’s all?” Eliot says. “You just figured I’d hit shit until it went away?”

There’s a beat, and Eliot’s not sure if Hardison’s just realized how deep he’s dug this hole or what. “I mean, kinda, yeah,” he says, eventually. “Maybe metaphorically punching things?”

“Go home, Hardison,” says Eliot, dropping back onto the bed. Time was he would’ve been glad to argue it, but anymore— “Talk to your girlfriend. Tell her what you gotta tell her. I promised her that I’d come—I’d come—I’d be over in an hour, if she still wants me to be, so that’s what you’ve got. Fifty minutes, now. Go sort this shit out.”

He presses the end call button without giving Hardison a chance to answer him, a chance to keep fighting, because Eliot knows how to let someone else concede.

It takes a minute, but he stands up, off the bed, and pulls on one of the flannels from the grey department-store bag that still holds his clothes. He trudges out to the car, out into the pouring, bone-chilling rain, and sits in the driver’s seat, turning the heat to high and refusing to let his teeth chatter.

He’s still got forty minutes to kill, forty minutes where Hardison’s probably—well, where everybody’s probably planning a different life to the one they’ve got now. And that’s ok, he thinks, it’s good for them.

Once the car’s warmed up a minute, he pulls onto the road, and then pulls back off and into the parking lot of the liquor store across from the hotel, its windows fluorescent with signs advertising shitty beer, the word LIQUOR in the store name reduced to IQU R in a burnt red. He goes in and buys a couple airplane bottles of Patron and a bottle of Jack, and all of that gets him down to twenty-nine minutes, which feels like more than he should have to handle.

He drives anyhow, pulls over at the all-night laundromat half a mile from the pub. The tiny bottles of tequila go down easy and kill another half a minute, and then he’s left with nothing to do but sit there and look at Craigslist on his fucking phone, looking at the shitty studios and SRO kind of places that he’d told himself he was never going back to. But he could. He’s not so far removed from that, from—he’s still Eliot Spencer, he tells himself. He knows how to do the job, do it dirty if that’s what needs done, and it’ll get him a job, get him jobs, every fucking time. And there’s no point having a nice place when you’re traveling all the time anyhow.

Feels like he’d need a job, all up. This is—this whole thing, the mall and the motel and the laundromat parking lot—it’s what happens when you get soft. He tried it, tried settling down and running a restaurant and being like a normal person, and it ends like this, he thinks, and it’s not— Once is enough.

Fourteen minutes before the hour’s up; eleven minutes before he’ll let himself text Parker, let her tell him that things are ok and it was just a misunderstanding, tell him that he can go back to the hotel. He’s cold despite the blasting heat, and he closes his eyes against the sodium vapor glare of the lot lights, then he opens his eyes again and sets an alarm on his phone for ten minutes out. He can have this, he thinks, before the world falls apart: ten minutes of thinking about their huge fucking bed, about the slow drag of skin on skin, about Parker climbing over them to claim dibs on the bathroom or Hardison throwing his head back with laughter, about—

The alarm goes off sooner than he woulda liked.

He thinks about driving away, about not—about just going, leaving right now so he doesn’t have to hear that this is really how things end. But he’s not a coward, and he owes them this. He promised.

He brings up his texts and types carefully, taking his time.

all good now? he asks, because that’s at least something that she can say yes to, and then he can go, and it won’t be like—he hits send before that train of thought goes too far off the rails.

And then he waits, weirdly tense, staring at the phone. She might not even respond, he reminds himself. Hardison might be proposing right now, might—

The phone buzzes.

come home, it says, and Eliot hadn’t really prepared himself for that.

is Hardison there? he sends back, because if Hardison hasn’t shown up yet, it—


He’s not sure what to do with that, just stares at it for a moment, considering. The phone buzzes again.

come home

The phone buzzes.

you promised, it says, and—and ok. He can do this, too, whatever this is.

He pulls into the lot behind the brewpub and takes a deep breath, then checks his phone again, just in case they’ve changed their minds. Just in case.

There’s nothing, though, so he throws the car into park and gets out. He cuts through the pub and up to the living area, and stalls outside the door, unsure if he’s supposed to knock, or if he can still just walk in.

He knocks, finally, as softly as he can while still calling it a knock, because he doesn’t want to—doesn’t want to wake anyone, or…or whatever, he tells himself. The door swings open a moment later, and Hardison’s nana beams at him.

“Oh, you’re back!” she says, sounding pleased, and Eliot takes a step back. He’d forgotten that she was here, somehow, so caught up in everything that he’d forgot how it’d started.

Parker appears behind Hardison’s nana and carefully scoots past her, wrapping her arms around Eliot like she’s going to climb him. He pats her awkwardly, because it doesn’t feel like this is the impression that they oughta be making on Hardison’s nana.

“Parker,” he whispers, close to her hair and moving his mouth as little as possible, “we’re—she’s—”

And Parker backs away a little and kisses him, hot and needy and with tongue, and Eliot is going to hell and they’re right in front of Hardison’s goddamn nana. Who, Eliot realizes a shocked moment later, is just watching them serenely.

He doesn’t want to push Parker away, doesn’t want to risk hurting her feelings or hurting her, but he knows enough to know that this definitely ain’t how you act in front of anyone’s nana, let alone someone who you might be—

The door opens wider as Hardison steps up next to his nana, and Eliot freezes, dead solid, because there’s no way for this to end well, no way for them to play it off or…

Parker lets go of him, finally, and beams.

“Good night?” he asks as mildly as he can, pretending that it doesn’t matter that his mouth tastes like her chapstick, pretending that he can’t still feel where her body was pressed against his. Pretending that he can’t feel Hardison watching them, that he’s not fighting the instinct to reach out and pull Alec up against him, too.

“You gonna come in, or just stand in the hallway all night?” says Hardison, sounding calm, sounding completely different to how he’d sounded on the phone earlier.

Eliot nods, though, nods and steps past Parker and Hardison’s beaming nana and through the doorway, and then stops in the living room, not sure where he’s supposed to go now. It feels like everyone’s watching, and his skin prickles with it as he stands there awkwardly. Finally, giving up any hope of dignity, he says, “I don’t know what you want me to do here, Hardison.” And then he waits.

Hardison’s nana is scrutinizing him. “You really are a sweet boy, aren’t you,” she says, sounding like he hadn’t just been making out with her son’s girlfriend. “Everything’ll work out.” She looks at Hardison when she says that, and then back at Eliot and Parker. “I’m going to bed, then.”

“Night, Nana,” Hardison says softly, not taking his eyes off of Eliot.

“Night, Nana!” chirps Parker, sounding a lot happier than she had on the phone.

“Good night, ma’am,” Eliot says, because it’s clear that he’s expected to say something, but he has no idea what else to offer, here.

Parker looks at him with vague disappointment, and Eliot looks away, looks anywhere but at her, because he doesn’t want to see whatever that look on her face changes into. Hardison’s nana tuts gently and shuffles out of the room, and Eliot keeps waiting, because it’s clear that there’s another shoe here just waiting to fall.

“You wanna tell me what that was about?” Hardison asks, sounding more patient than he usually does, and it makes Eliot cold inside.

“What—what bit?” he says, eventually, when it’s clear that Parker’s not gonna save him; that Hardison’s not about to offer anything else.

“I dunno,” says Hardison. “Could be the part where Nana shows up and you damn disappear for three days. Or the part where you called me sounding like you were about to kill something, yelling at me about fences and dogs.”

Parker perks up a little. “Wait,” she says, “what? Can we get a dog?”

“No,” says Hardison at the same time that Eliot says, “Later, Parker.”

“Can we—” says, and then stops, because he doesn’t really have the right to ask that they take this conversation to the bedroom—their bedroom—and he finally walks over and sits carefully on the sofa. “Ok,” he says, because—because he can do this. Whatever this is, he can do it, for them.

Parker drops onto the cushion next to him, resting her shoulder against his in a way that he’s come to associate with—he forces himself to straighten up and pull away a little. Forces himself to not notice the way that her face changes when he does it.

“Ok,” he says again, and then it’s back to waiting, and it feels like the silence is stretching out inside of him, pulling him like taffy.

“So?” It’s clearly a prompt, but Eliot’s got no idea what Hardison’s asking, not right now.

He shakes his head. “What?” he asks, because he doesn’t have the—he’ll give them what they want, whatever that is, but he can’t guess at it, can’t play games like that, even though he knows that he probably should, that it’d be easier, kinder, not to make them ask.

“Why’d you leave?” Parker asks after a moment, soft and sad by his shoulder.

“It seemed better,” he says, eventually, staring at the far wall, unwilling to watch their faces as they realize that he’s right. “Hardison’s nana was—”

“Just Nana,” Hardison says, and Eliot shrugs it off like water, like nothing.

“—was here,” he says, ignoring the interruption. “She seems like a nice lady. I’m not great at—at family things, and it seemed like you could be—normal, you know? Seemed like—”

“Oh,” says Hardison, and his voice is gone cold. “It seemed like we were gonna run off and get a little house in some suburb, maybe get a dog, have a couple kids, once a year get real drunk and laugh about the people we used to be, raise a toast to the guy we used to know? That you’d just call it a day and head out?”

Eliot hadn’t thought it through quite that far, if he’s honest, but now that someone’s said it, it lodges under his skin like a splinter, and he flinches at the sudden clarity of the image. Of how easy it’d be for them, if they wanted it to be.

“Yeah,” he croaks out, “something like that.”

Hardison glares at him, and Parker shifts away from him on the sofa, twisting to see him. “What about you?” she asks, and he shakes his head.

“No, really.” Hardison sounds warm again, and Eliot tells himself not to think about it.

He shrugs. “I’d find something,” he says, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “I always do.” And he’s not lying; he does, he would, even if it wouldn’t be this, wouldn’t be—

Hardison drops to his knees in front of Eliot. “You’re really dumb, man, you know that?” he says.

Eliot’s already told himself that he’s not going to argue with them, so he shrugs at the wall and tries not to notice that Hardison’s got his hand on Eliot’s knee. Eliot holds himself still, waiting for the punchline to this. Whatever the punch is.

“Eliot,” says Parker.

“Eliot,” says Hardison.

He blinks, hard, and looks between them, Parker next to him and Hardison on the floor, and it feels like choking.

“You thought we were going to ask you to leave,” says Hardison, sliding his hand from Eliot’s knee to Eliot’s hand and wrapping his fingers around it. Eliot nods, makes himself nod, because they have to know that it’s ok, that he knew— “No,” Hardison says. “We were— I— I was going to ask you to stay. Both of you. For—forever,” he says, and drops Eliot’s hand to rummage through his pocket.

“This isn’t quite how I’d planned it,” Hardison admits, and then he fumbles and curses, a little. When he opens his hand in front of them, there’re three golden bands in his palm, glinting softly in the lamplight. “But I thought,” he says, “if—you know, if you wanted. I, uh, I had Nana help,” he admits.

Parker makes an undignified squeaking noise and picks up the ring that’s clearly hers, a band of perfect, sparkling diamonds, and holds it up to the light.

“I know what you and Sophie said,” Hardison says tentatively. “I wasn’t sure how serious you were, but I stole it special.”

Parker’s smile is so bright that it hurts to look at her, and Eliot looks back at Hardison’s hand, still open, and then looks at his face, not able to quite conceal his suspicion, not sure what he’s looking for, really.

“You don’t—” Eliot starts, and freezes, the words catching in his throat. He tries again. “You don’t have to,” he says, “It’s—I’m yours anyhow,” he says, glancing at Parker. She’s stopped examining her ring and is instead watching them, watching him. “You can—” Eliot makes a gesture with his hands, not sure what he means by it.

“We know we don’t have to,” Hardison says, “but I just thought—”

“We want to,” says Parker, like she and Hardison are already in perfect agreement, like they’ve talked this over and figured out exactly—

Then it’s like he’s deflating, suddenly, sagging against the sofa in relief as he realizes what Hardison must’ve been doing these last few days, hashing out with his nana what rings to get and how to ask and— And not just for Parker. For him, too; for them.

“Sorry,” Eliot says. “Didn’t mean to—y’know, mess up your plan, or—” He pauses, and then, because maybe it was important: “What was your plan?”

Hardison laughs a little, but it sounds wet and maybe, Eliot thinks, maybe Hardison’s not…maybe it ain’t that easy for him, either. “I didn’t—you know, didn’t have one, really, but I thought, you know, fancy dinner, flowery speech—”

“This was better,” Parker interrupts, and Eliot nods.

“She’s right,” he agrees, “this was better.”

When Hardison looks up, his eyes are unexpectedly wet. “Is that a yes?” he says, and Parker’s knuckles are white where she’s gripping Hardison’s hand.

“Yeah,” Eliot says, softly, not choking on the feeling that’s caught in his chest, “that’s a yes.”