"What, you didn't get an invitation?" Parker frowned at the red and white card in Hardison's hand.
"You can come anyway," she said. "I can bring a plus one."
Hardison still was giving her you're-being-weird look and Parker didn't get it. He was the one that was always going on about keeping up appearances. "You want to go," he said slowly, "to the FBI office Christmas party?"
"Sophie said it would be good practice. And," she tapped the card, "Santa's going to show up."
Parker watched Hardison's lips roll in, stopping himself from saying the first thing that popped into his head. It wouldn't have been nice, and Parker wanted to roll her eyes, but that wouldn't be nice either so she didn't. But he was being particularly difficult. "You want to go on a date or not?" she finally said impatiently.
Immediately, Hardison's whole face changed. "Oh." He smiled. "Oh, you're asking me out!"
"To the FBI Christmas party."
"Yes!" Now he was getting it.
"And you're sure you don't want to go to some fancy restaurant instead?"
"Hagan was invited," she said again, but he was coming around and Parker could tell he would give in. She'd have to bring something sparkly back for Sophie for planning out this conversation. Not that Sophie knew that the party Parker wanted to go to was at the Boston FBI offices.
"You were invited -- we were invited. Yeah, I got my invitation, too, I just wasn't planning on going," Hardison waved a hand in explanation. He was grinning now, sensing the possibilities, which made Parker bounce and grin, so excited now that he was in.
"Great! There'll be eggnog and we can check out the security upgrades on the evidence locker!"
"Upgrades?" And hooked! Hardison's eyes lit up with interest.
"Yeah, McSweeten emailed Hagen about them. They put on a --"
"Wait, McSweeten," Hardison interrupted, going suspicious again, but Parker just talked over him because it was an email with delicious information, telling him the details she'd gotten, the details they needed to get, and a hot tip about a drug bust that had landed cash in the cage.
Hardison grumbled the whole drive over, and Parker took the turns way to fast and lay on the horn for the Boston traffic until he feared sufficiently for his life that he got over McSweeten. It was an office party, so he was wearing a suit, but Parker picked out the tie and Sophie said she could wear her Christmas sweaters -- Parker would take the bulky one off when she got hot and voila! A whole other sweater! -- so they were appropriately festive.
Their badges got them through the door, and Hardison made small talk with the guards about their kids which Parker ignored while waiting for the elevator.
"Yeah, man, we been out undercover for months. This is the first piece of home we're getting before going back under," Hardison was saying with a heavy heart and a fist bump.
The party was in full swing, and so were some of Hagen and Thomas's coworkers with eggnog in their hands. Jingle Bell Rock was playing and Parker couldn't help the bounce in her step as she stepped off the elevator.
"Look at the tree!" she squealed. It wasn't as pretty as her tree that sparkled with twenty-four carats in a dozen varieties of gemstone and Eliot's origami cranes and frogs in every color of currency, but it had shiny balls and lights and kid's smiling faces on it, which was a nice touch.
"I'm going to get us some eggnog," Hardison touched her shoulder as he passed toward the table covered in bottles. Parker wanted a closer look at the tree, but was stopped half way by someone shouting Hagen's name.
The room was crowded enough that the short, bald agent that helped on the Big Store was at her elbow before Parker had turned the full three-sixty.
"Agent Hagen! It's so good to see you. I wasn't expecting you'd be able to make it." He grabbed her hand and pumped it enthusiastically. The short brunette woman beside him was smiling bizarrely wide.
"It's good to see you Agent --"
"Oh please, call me Bob," said Bob with a laugh that Sophie called the polite social laugh. Parker gave it a go and successfully extracted her hand from Bob's sweaty grip.
"Right. Bob. I couldn't miss the Christmas party," said Parker.
Bob leaned in close. "Unless you were undercover," he laughed. And the lady beside him looked confused but laughed anyway, so Parker laughed. This laughing thing was hard.
Parker felt bad for the woman though, so she explained, "Well, as you know, Bob, that's what they pay me for. I'm in the White Collar Undercover unit."
"Ah," said the woman. "How exciting!" And Bob finally introduced her as his wife while Parker barely bit back Alice when introducing Agent Hagen. Bob started talking about the sting on the fish guy and Parker chimed in with a few details Nate probably wouldn't kill her for dropping. It wasn't until Hardison got back with the alcoholic eggnog and asked what was going on that Parker realized -- "We were making small talk!"
She grinned, and Hardison had that slow smile, the real one that went all the way through his eyes and into the cant of his shoulders when he turned toward her.
"Oh yeah?" he said just for her before turning back to Bob and Margaret and saying, "Sometimes on the job we forget what civilized conversation sounds like." They all laughed again, and Hardison somehow excused them.
The kids on the tree were really cute and the sign next to it identified them as one of those programs where you buy gifts for needy kids. Parker remembered these, remembered presents from Santa that she wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Hardison was still looking at the pictures, and Parker didn't want to ask if he used to get presents from strangers too, so she spun around and surveyed the bustle of agents and analysts making small talk. She was surprised at how many faces she recognized, and ooh! There was McSweeten. And he saw them.
Parker hoped he wouldn't flirt too much, but on the other hand, he might want to talk about the evidence locker.
"Oh, no, do we have to?" said Hardison, catching sight of McSweeten too.
Parker stuck an elbow in his gut. "We're supposed to be nice," she said. "And look, you can talk to his friends."
Trailing behind McSweeten like baby birds were a pair of baby FBI agents.
"My probational agents," McSweeten proudly introduced Wakefield and Horace. "And this, this is Agent Hagen and Agent Thomas. They're two of the best."
"Hey now, don't you go selling yourself short," Hardison proffering a fist bump that McSweeten high-fived. "This man?" Hardison clapped a hand on McSweeten's shoulder and leaned in. "He brought down Moscone of the West Coast Mob, busted a Wall Street con man, and has taken out meth heads. This man has done it all."
"Meth heads?" Wakefield said surprised. "Really?"
"Oh yeah, check it out," said Hardison while McSweeten blushed and stammered, "It was nothing really." But Hardison was spinning a tale, and the baby agents were rapt as Hardison described a very Eliot-like fight that none of them were there to see.
While Hardison talked, McSweeten leaned in beside Parker. "Did you get my haiku?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah," said Parker grinning. No one had ever written a haiku for her before. "It was really sweet."
"Oh good," he said with a relieved sigh. "I was worried it would get lost in Bob's pocket."
"No, he got it to me," said Parker. "So hey, you said the evidence locker security got an upgrade?"
"Yeah!" McSweeten nodded. They talked motion sensors and laser patterns and rim locks, and even though McSweeten tried to change the subject and talk about Parker, she managed to get him back on track. Until he said, "Are you doing anything for New Year's? A friend of mine is having a party and I was wondering if you wanted to come with me?"
Before Parker had to think up a way to "let him down gently without using a fork," Sophie would say, Hardison was spinning around, eyes darting from McSweeten to Parker.
"Oh hey, McSweeten, I forgot to ask. You seen these pictures here?" Hardison plucked a photo of a little blonde girl off the tree and put it in McSweeten's hands. "Ain't that just adorable? You should totally get her that winter coat she needs. Kid can't be running around in the weather like this. And Wakefield, here." Hardison stepped neatly in between McSweeten and Parker to grab two more photos for the baby agents. It was blatant misdirection but Parker didn't mind. She let her arm brush Hardison's as she finished her eggnog in two long gulps.
"I need more eggnog." Parker waggled her glass, and Hardison took care of the rest, shaking hands, trying a high-five with McSweeten but getting a fist bump instead, and being jovial and full of Christmas cheer.
They ran into other agents and analysts, and Parker wasn't sure what the secret sign was that meant Hardison would just start talking with someone but she was sure there had to be a sign of some sort. They eventually made it back to the eggnog, and while Parker was ladling it into her cup, the woman beside her spontaneously said, "I love your bracelet."
"My bracelet?" Parker reflexively glanced at it and smiled. "Thanks. It's a --" She paused, wondering if this was an entrapment scheme for a second, before finishing, "My dating-type person got it for me." Not really, and Hardison had stolen her cred for these particular diamonds, but better safe than running straight into self-incrimination.
"Aw, he must care about you," said the woman. She was short with brown hair and was slightly plump, but she had a nice face. "I'm Daria, by the way, in Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering. How long have you been together?"
Parker shook her hand as she introduced her other self and bobbled her head back and forth. "It's complicated? We work together, so…" She liked the suggestive trailing off. Eliot had taught her that one. "How do you like laundering money?"
Daria laughed, though Parker wasn't quite sure why. "If only I could do it," she said, laughing again, and this time Parker realized she was supposed to join in. "You know how it goes, one minute you're scanning though another hundred pages of a company's books, the next you're hearing about the take down at the offices." Daria was smiling as she talked but she looked . . . wistful, like she wanted to be part of the take down.
"You don't get to go?" Parker asked.
"Me?" The laugh that accompanied Daria's words was definitely a fake laugh. "No. I could never. Even if I wanted to, I could never pass the tests to become field certified."
"I think you could," said Parker who didn't bother to laugh at all. It wasn't remotely funny -- it was sad that all this poor agent got to do was sit at her computer and do all the hard work without getting to do any of the fun stuff.
"You think?" asked Daria.
"Yeah. Totally. You just have to practice and become the best." Daria still looked doubtful, and Parker really felt bad for her. "Listen," she said. "If you need some tips, just let me know. My email's in the directory."
"Okay," said Daria, her face breaking into a bright grin. "I might take you up on that. Maybe we can have lunch sometime!"
"Maybe we should wait on that," said Parker, suddenly flustered by the thought of actually being this woman's friend. She had one outside friend already and she knew herself well enough to know that she probably couldn't handle two yet. Daria looked a bit put off, like losing a mark from the hook, so Parker tried out the laugh thing, and then Daria laughed, and then Parker had her card and a promise of an email in her near future.
Even before Daria stepped away, Parker could feel her grin turn from fake to giddy at having successfully navigated to and escaped from a social engagement. She was tempted to twirl.
Then, because he must have known, Santa showed up.
So did the boss, and Parker bounced impatiently from foot to foot during the boring speeches and more fake laughter -- she thought it was fake because the boss's jokes weren't funny at all -- until it was time for the presents.
Santa had a gift for everyone. It was a pen with "FBI" emblazoned on the side, which Parker squinted at as she tried to figure out where a pen might come in handy.
"This is messed up," said Hardison, holding his pen in both hands in front of his face. "Serve your country on the front line and all you get is a tool of your slavery."
"You were expecting a computer?"
"I was expecting something with a little more pizzaz."
A slow smile broke over Parker's face. Pizzaz she could do. It was time to check out that evidence locker.
Hardison whistled when he saw the lasers. "Damn, that is some nice equipment," he said. Then he shut up and watched while Parker undid layer after layer. "Damn, girl," he said again, but this time under his breath in that way he got that Sophie said meant he was undressing Parker with his eyes. She kind of liked that even though she wasn't sure what she should do about it yet.
Parker was inside the cage by then, however, and she had much better things to do with her attention. The box with the drug bust cash was in a Remington safe in back. It didn't smell as delicious as most cash -- the drug smell tended to linger -- but it had a nice worn currency homeyness that made Parker smile.
She didn't take all of it since she didn't want to get anyone in trouble, and she handed it over to Hardison and his phone before they broke back out of the cage so he could check it out and cover their tracks.
He grinned as he tucked his half of the money into his waistband. "You're beautiful when you do your thing, you know that?" Evidence was sealed up again and they were standing facing each other at the bottom of the stairs that led back to the main floor.
"I'm the best," said Parker.
"Mmmnn," said Hardison with that slow, appreciative smile on his face. He didn't move, even though Parker expected him to and took half a step closer, making Hardison's eyes widen just a bit. She was pretty sure she wasn't supposed to notice when his breathing sped up, but she did.
"If there were mistletoe, right here, right now . . ." he said.
But Parker didn't get an answer. Instead she got Hardison leaning in, slowly, slowly, until his lips were against hers. It wasn't like their previous kisses that had all been rushed and for the job. It was soft and careful and Parker wasn't sure what to do about it. But it felt good, and when Hardison pulled away to look at her, she was grinning because it felt more than good, it felt right.
She reached out and squeezed his hand.
Dancing had started when they rejoined the party, but thankfully Hardison didn't even bother to try and make her do that. They flitted from group to group as they passed from the stairs to the tree -- where they made their goodbyes to McSweeten who had drunk a lot more eggnog since they'd last seen him -- and then toward the front door.
Hardison turned the people who gave them odd looks into fast friends, and Parker shared the joy of gift giving, handing out photos to the agents who looked guiltable and practicing not taking no for an answer. The pen came in handy for writing down their names so she could make sure they followed through.
Getting the tree in the car was the only hard part, and Eliot was going to bitch about the needles everywhere in the van.
"We should get Eliot for the shopping part," said Parker, pulling the stacks of cash out of her sleeves. He liked kids. That would make him happy and make him forget about complaining. He wouldn't even have to spend his own money.
It was after midnight, and Hardison gave her the wide eyes as he pulled out of the parking garage. "I am not waking that bear up," he said. "Nuh huh."
"I'll wake him up," she said, which earned her the crazy eyes, but Parker gave him the rolled eyes because he was being a grinch.
She giggled, turning to look at the tree in back. Technically they were both being grinches and it made her heart feel three sizes too big. Everything was . . . really good.
"That was the best Christmas party I've ever been to," she sighed happily.
"The FBI party?"
"Didn't you have fun?"
Hardison glanced over and the teasing turned into his genuine laugh, the one Parker liked best. "Yeah," he said, "It was pretty epic."
"Told you," said Parker. "Christmas is awesome."
"True that," said Hardison, and when he reached for her hand, Parker let him hold it all the way to Eliot's. Then it was time to get the night started.