It's the kind of bar that makes Eliot comfortable from the start. Dark interior, longhorns mounted on wooden panels, street signs reflecting the dim fluorescent lights, music that's caught halfway between rock and country.
He pauses just inside the door, letting the mood wash over him, letting his eyes adjust. Stale beer with a hint of cigarette smoke, salt sweat tinged with stale perfume, tinny recycled air and old, faded wood.
The man sitting closest to the door hasn't shaved in the last ten years and probably hasn't washed in at least as long. He's got an eye out for someone, and he's packing since the bulge at his flank isn't his wallet, which is presently deforming his ass from his jeans pocket. Eliot gives him the eye, but doesn't see him as a threat.
A cluster of young women giggle as they toss blonded hair over their bare shoulders, showing pink shell ears hung with dangling bits of glass and plastic. The nearest one eyes Eliot, then smiles with the allure of Eve and the calculation of a hunter. Eliot smiles back with the distance of a man who doesn't much like being hunted, no matter the gender.
There's a few people lined along the bar - regulars, no doubt, here to get a quiet drink and watch the game, a group of out-of-place junior execs in fancy suits eyeing off the bare-necked blondes and talking in low, frat-boy tones. Several of the booths are filled, and the cadences of heated argument can be heard from the one in the corner, even if the participants are keeping their voices down beneath the level of the music.
Eliot strolls to the bar, having given the room his once over and satisfied that no-one's going to ambush him, challenge him, or recognise him.
Then he changes his mind as a woman emerges from the ladies and heads for the bar with a cool, measured stride.
She's got skin the colour of a latte, hair like a shot of caramel fudge, a bone structure that screams 'mixed blood', and a confidence with her body that shows in the way she walks - like a lioness on the Serengeti. She owns the place, and she isn't afraid to show it.
Parker looks pretty, innocent, and harmless. Of course, that's all part of a natural disguise.
This woman doesn't bother with disguises.
Eliot notices, though. And he's just been ambushed. Hard.
Some people, however, are just unobservant. Or stupid.
As the lioness passes the table of fratboys, one of them steps out in front of her, barring her way. Eliot nearly winces as he catches her chin between his thumb and forefinger and tips her chin up. "Gotten tired of your boys, sweetheart? Let some real men show you a good time..."
Could the man be any more cliche? Eliot sighs and figures that he's going to get the full nine yards from Alec about starting fights in bars; and when that's done, he's going to get the full ten yards from Parker about starting fights in bars and not inviting her to pick every pocket before he tosses the bodies out into the street.
But sometimes a man's just gotta do what's needful.
Eliot cracks his knuckles loudly enough to be heard over the game announcer and the jukebox. He takes a step to the left so the lady can see him standing beyond Fratboy - and so he can speak directly to her. "Ma'am, if these men are bothering you, just say the word."
Around them, people are surreptitiously craning their necks the better to see what's going on. Heads poke out of the booths, curious about what's happening. Up at the corner booth, one guy has leaned out and another is nearly parked on his shoulder, a PDA lighting up both their faces, and casting the outer guy's dreadlocks into sharp shadows. The man they're facing is turning to look as well, but none of them look like they're going to interfere - nobody looks like they're going to interfere.
It's just as well that this woman doesn't seem to feel in need of a rescue. She's caught Fratboy's wrist in her hand, her expression vaguely annoyed. Given her size and colouring, Eliot bets she gets all sorts of shit from assholes.
"Thank you," she says, her voice low and assured. "But I believe it should not be necessary."
There's a noise like a squeak, and next moment Fratboy has been spun around and is down on his knees on the bar floor, his arm twisted up behind him.
Eliot blinks. That was fast moving - even to him.
People gape, too stunned by the turn of events to object, and the woman speaks into the silence. "Now," she says, her tone exquisitely polite given that she just put a man on his knees, "I am sure that you did not intend to invade my personal space, any more than I had any intention of putting you on your knees. However, I am willing to let you go now, and in return you will let this go. We will both go about our business and nobody will get hurt. More hurt," she amends after a beat, because the guy is struggling to get out of the armlock - which Eliot could tell him is pointless - and she's not letting him up.
However, by now, Fratboy's fratfriends are starting out of their seats, clumsy and slow. Eliot slaps a hand down on the table in front of the nearest one, hard enough to made the beers jump on their cardboard coasters. "I wouldn't recommend it."
Eliot sees them measure his muscle and bulk, sees them consider the conversational tone, knows they're trying to work out if it's worth starting a fight or not. He smiles - what Parker calls his, 'nice but really nasty' smile: stretched lips, a little teeth, and no change in the eyes at all.
They subside - a sensible decision.
The lioness hasn't taken her eyes off the fratboy. "Are we agreed?"
Fratboy struggles a little, but the lady's got all the leverage on her side and no hesitation about using it. "Okay," he says at last.
It's not as though he has a choice.
"Very well." A moment later, Fratboy's down on his hands and knees on the ground, and she's walking to the bar as though she's just swatted a fly.
Eliot smiles at the guys, then straightens up and follows her to the bar - incidentally putting himself between her and any retaliation Fratboy and friends might decide to indulge in. Common sense isn't high on the list of brain functions engaged when the ego gets bruised.
She glances briefly but not dismissively. "Thank you. It was kind of you to intervene."
"Yeah, well, unnecessary in the end." He notes the fifty in her hand, out and ready to pay for her drinks and pulls out a bill of his own. "Mind if I buy you a drink?"
"Again, it is appreciated, but unnecessary. As you can see, I have money myself."
It's a polite brush-off, at least, and Eliot's willing to leave it there. Then her mouth quirks a little as she looks past him at someone coming up behind. "Yes, John?"
Eliot glances back and meets the level and assessing gaze of one of the corner booth guys - the one who was facing away when the trouble started. Dreadlocks looks like a roustabout, and PDA guy screams 'geek', but 'John' looks military - perhaps ex-military since he doesn't quite have the spitshine and polish that a guy of his age and background probably ought. He doesn't seem to be packing, but Eliot wouldn't be surprised if he was.
Eliot could take him though.
Not that he would. He'd end up having to take the lady, too - and while he thinks he could, he's not sure. It's a new feeling.
All this passes through his head in an instant, before he gives 'John' his 'dumb hick Texan' smile. It should work on a guy like this; but it doesn't. 'John' lets his gaze flick over Eliot, measuring him up and down before he answers the lioness' question. "Just a reminder that Rodney doesn't want the lime in his Corona."
Her brows arch. "Then it is just as well that I ordered him one without."
"He wanted to make sure."
"Did he?" She glances back towards the corner booth and smirks. "How unfortunate that Rodney does not trust my memory."
There's a jab in the comment, in the way she leans on Rodney's name. Eliot watches the way John almost-but-doesn't-quite smile, but doesn't ask what's being said. It's not his business, he's staying out of it.
"Well, you know Rodney."
"I do. Thank you, John."
John ambles casually back to the booth, not-so-casually staying out of the line-of-sight of Dreadlocks so the guy has a clear view of the bar and Eliot.
Oh, this is familiar.
Eliot knows this - the fluid interactions, the subtext hidden beneath the text, the letting the others deal with the situations they can handle, and coming in to deal with the situations they can't. Of course, he's usually the inside man rather than the outside one, but he knows what this is.
And he knows why he's not going to get anywhere with the lioness - if she was even interested, which she's not.
And when he looks back at her, he can see he's been made - just as he's made her. Her lips quirk, though, so she's not worried about him.
He's not worried about her.
Still, Eliot can't help asking, "Are you good?"
Once again, her brows lift in surprise. But she doesn't ask what he means, or pretend she doesn't know what he's talking about. "I believe Rodney would say, 'We're not just good, we're the best!'"
Eliot smiles and doesn't offer to help her carry the four drinks back to her table.
Later, when he leaves the bar, they're still there, comfortably seated, comfortably talking. He catches the lioness' eye and nods once.
She smiles and nods back, and Eliot smirks all the way home with the memory of the way the guys' expressions stabbed him in the back as he walked out the door.