There's no reason why someone who weighed, at most, 120 pounds - and that was soaking wet and wearing a climbing harness - should have made him jumpy. So he didn't jump, quite, when she came out of fucking nowhere, and said, "Eliot. You sometimes have sex with women."
"Uh," he said, and then: "But... no, because y'see we work together and it's not that you're not attractive," and then his brain shorted out like that bad time with the guy who liked electricity in Shanghai, because Parker wasn't attractive. She was good-looking, sort of, but... no.
"Ha ha," she said politely. "Anyway, so, sometimes women must want to have sex with you, right? And you notice."
In a fair world, this would be the lead-in to a steamy dream about Amy and Sophie, but the kitchen smelled like the rancid dish-soap Hardison bought, and that wasn't part of any dream that Eliot's subconscious would produce.
"Are you... going somewhere with this?" he asked. There was a nerve ending at her shoulder which would drop her for forty seconds, and then he could take the back stairs, but the problem was that she could take them faster.
It wasn't that he was afraid of what she might do, it was that he had no idea in hell what that might be.
"You're sort of an expert. I guess," she said, and looked doubtful. "So if a person-- I mean, a woman, wanted to have sex with another person, how would she let him know?"
"Isn't this a conversation you should be having with Sophie?" he asked. "You know, girl talk?"
Parker made a face. "Ew, no!"
"Or Nate," he said, because Nate was kind of their - he shied away from "dad" - boss, and should therefore deal with these little problems, and also because sometimes Eliot was not very nice.
Parker snorted. "Please. Nate has an ex-wife."
Well, she kinda had a point. "So who do you want to... uh, you know?"
"Briefing room, five minutes," Hardison said, poking his head through the door. "Eliot, man, soda me."
Eliot did a reverse grab twist - nothing flashy - and the bottle smacked squarely into Hardison's palm. He nodded his thanks, smiled at Parker, and vanished again.
Parker's face stayed blank for a second, then it smiled back, at the space where Hardison was. Not the terrifying smirk she got when she was diving off something tall, but a creaky, careful thing she seemed to put together from old components.
"Oh," Eliot said. "Oh, no."
Parker's smile vanished. "Why not?" she said, fierce. "You never said dibs."
"We don't say dibs on people-- I don't want-- You can't do that to Hardison!" Eliot wasn't quite sure why not; he hadn't exactly thought about it, but the idea was plainly bad.
Parker looked confused, but it was deceptive, because she was the source of all confusion. "Why not? You like sex, right?"
Eliot slapped one hand over his eyes, and one over an ear, but that left the one ear exposed, and he heard Parker continue:
"Or maybe you just like it when women slap you. I tried google already," she added. "There's sites for that."
Eliot dropped his hands. "Do not listen to the internet when it comes to sex!"
Her expression brightened. "See? I didn't know that. You knew that."
Eliot almost said "Everyone knows that!" but clearly that is everyone who is not completely crazy. Eliot would freely admit that he had his moments where sanity is on the other side of a wide river, but Parker lived on the far bank, and that was why this whole thing was a very bad idea.
And then a terrible, awful thought occurred. "What if I don't help?" he said, and couldn't stop himself from centering his balance, this was so stupid, 120 pounds
Her eyes narrowed. "I guess I'll just have to try on my own," she said.
Eliot had been threatened by Triad leaders and Czech assassins and English aristocrats, but he was pretty sure he had never heard anything more gut-tremblingly terrifying than those words in Parker's monotone.
God only knew what horrors she'd perpetuate if she started flying blind. And he liked Hardison. Hardison was a good guy.
"Okay," he said, and tried not to consider the consequences. "Okay, but first we are going to this meeting, and then you are going to get me drunk, because I am not doing this without beer."
"Okay!" she said, and god help him please jesus, she was actually almost skipping.
In the end, he took her to the lesbian bar he got bounced out of half a year ago; he figured no matter what Parker did there, she couldn't hurt his chances.
It turned out beer is just one more human thing that Parker does not get, at all. "It makes me tip," she said, but was willing enough to keep him topped up. He noticed she was as good at pouring as any bartender, though he made himself not wonder.
"Right," Eliot finally said. "The first thing is-- Okay, do you actually like Hardison?" Which wasn't even what he meant to ask, and there was no way the drunk plan was already working; he chalked it up to the Parker effect.
"I might?" said Parker, like it was the same kind of mystery as the weather.
Oh Jesus. "How does he make you feel?"
"Feel," Parker said thoughtfully. "Sometimes my heartrate increases when he's there."
"No, I mean..." he palmed his hair out of his face. "More beer. Okay. Do you want to spend time with him? More time than with the rest of us?"
"Yeeeees? Yes. I'm almost sure."
"How can you not be sure?"
It came out sharper than he meant it, but she didn't look insulted, only puzzled. "Feelings are hard," she said finally. "But he's a good kisser. And he stopped when we had to stop."
There was something really dark and nasty behind that sentence, and Eliot did not want to go anywhere near it, other than taking a mental note to hurt some son of a bitch if it turned out that was required.
"Anyway," she said. "The feelings part doesn't matter. I want to have sex with him. How do I let him know that?"
"Well, there's. Uh." Flirting, Eliot did not say, because obviously, if Parker had the slightest idea how to flirt, he would not be right now trying to anaesthetize himself with hops. "Okay, touching more than usual, sitting closer, getting up in his personal space, that sort of sends a signal."
Parker nodded as if he was Moses handing down the law, god almighty, and he could see where this one would go horribly wrong already. "But don't do it too much and freak him out, okay?"
Parker's eyebrows crunch together. "How much is not too much, then?"
"I don't-- Uh. Well, you pay attention, and if he's trying to get more space, that's too much."
"Space. Got it."
"And you can laugh at his jokes, or wear things that he likes."
"What does he like?"
"How would I know?"
"Well, what do you like?"
Eliot firmly repressed his first impulse, because Parker absolutely would turn up for work wearing nothing but a push-up bra and matching panties, and whether Hardison would like that or not, he knew he couldn't handle it. Instead he looked around the bar for inspiration. "That girl in the jeans; those are good jeans. And she has that sparkly necklace, that makes you look at her, uh-" he waved his hand by his chest.
"What? Her breasts?" Parker pulled out the neck of her plain black shirt and stared down it with a calculating expression.
"I have to go to the bathroom," he blurted.
When he came back - some minutes later - Parker wasn't sitting at their table. She was talking to the girl by the bar, the one in the jeans, who was smiling back at her and laughing and reaching out for her arm and oh crap.
He made for Parker, and the thing was, he was actually (although no one would ever believe him) trying to rescue some poor lesbian before Parker broke her brain. He came up on them from the side, since sneaking up on Parker was iffy.
"Hey," he said to Parker, trying to signal desperately with his eyes that she needed to stop talking and leave.
Parker saw him but kept talking. "I never tried that! Is it hard to take pictures of your ass?"
"Not if you bring a friend shopping with you," the lesbian said, and jesus fucking god it was so wrong that she was wasting that tone of voice on Parker.
"Alice," said Eliot.
"You know this guy?" the lesbian asked Parker, ignoring him.
"Yes," said Parker.
"I'm her parole officer," said Eliot, because he was not going to say 'husband.'
The lesbian scowled at him, and then ignored him some more: "He bothering you? We can get rid of him."
Eliot realized that he was going to get bounced out of the same damned dyke bar twice, and this time he wasn't even hitting on anyone's girlfriend.
But Parker, bless her crazy little head, said, "No, he's helping me with something. You did too, though, thanks!" and stepped around the lesbian to bring another pitcher of beer back to their table.
Eliot pretty much followed her only because he really needed that beer.
Parker put the pitcher on their table. "We should leave now."
"Because I stole her necklace."
Of course she had. Eliot stretched and cricked his neck to catch a look at the mark in the reflection of the mirror above the fireplace. She was still looking at Parker, so they couldn't make a quiet exit. What would Nate do? "Parker. You have to vomit."
"Okay, okay," he said, ten disgusting seconds later, "Out we go, Alice, you're okay."
Parker moaned piteously, clutching at his belt with her thieving little hands as they staggered for the door. Everyone was looking at him like he was the bad guy, and it was just as well that he didn't even like the place, because ruining a man's drinking spot is the kind of thing Eliot took personally.
Outside she straightened, scraped her tongue over her teeth, and headed for the van. "Hey, tomorrow, we can go shopping for jeans! You can take the photos."
"Tomorrow we're on the job," he said, instead of, "You are certifiable, you didn't even say thank you, no way, no how, never again."
"Not until three," she said. "Come on. It'll be-" she struggled for a minute. "Fun? Friends go shopping, right? It's a fun thing friends do."
The next day was hell. Eliot had been dragged along shopping by women before. Hell, Amy used to think a trip together to the mall was a romantic date, and at the time, he hadn't even minded, which, christ. But Parker marched through stores like they were hostile territory, and Eliot had to scamper after her righting mannequins and children she'd knocked over in her quest to get in, get the goods, and get out.
Also a new kind of hell: do these pants make my ass look sexy. Parker had decided pictures of her butt would be useless to her, and Eliot could simply tell her.
"No-- I don't know!"
Parker scowled at him. "How can you not know? You're supposed to be my expert."
And that was why Parker had brought him in, he realized, brokenly, in the ladies' fitting room of Nordstrom's. Parker was assembling her own tiny team for a job. The worst part was, he wasn't sure if he was Sophie in this team, or Nate.
Oddly, once he started thinking of this as a job, and not him being some sort of substitute gal pal, it got a lot easier. This wasn't shopping; it was assembling the required equipment.
He looked her over again. "Not those ones," he said. "Bend over? Yeah, no. Try the dark blue."
The dark blue worked, but the necklace wasn't going to, not with that silhouette. "You need a push-up bra," he said, and lead the charge to the lingerie department, where he charmed the attendant into giving his "little sister" all the specialized help she needed.
"She's a sweet girl," the attendant confided, while Parker was in the dressing room going through a pile of satiny lacy things in nine colours.
"So sweet she gives me toothache," he said, and did the lazy smile under his eyelashes that was a guaranteed phone number getter. He didn't even mind when Parker caught him at it and made him repeat it in the parking lot for her edification.
"Are you sure about this thing?" she said, and looked down the front of her shirt again. There was a lot more to look at. Not that he was looking.
"But they're all elevated and in the way. What if I need to rappel?"
"You won't need to rappel on a date!"
"But what if I DO? And there're these wires." She shifted uncomfortably, and then he had to not-look some more.
"Hey! You wanted expert advice. I am the expert! Take the advice."
Her mouth pursed, and she settled back in the seat. "Fine," she said, then after a breath. "What's our next move?"
Normally his next move would be something like catching Hardison in a half-nelson until he passed out and then delivering him to the client, but he could already see how that could go very wrong. Hell. What would Nate do? "Assessing the target," he said, with as much authority as he could manage.
Parker seemed to perk up at that, although Eliot had to smack himself in the head for the thought that immediately followed 'perk up'. Once they were back in the van, she started to strip. Eliot kept his eyes on the road, sort of. "Uh--"
"I can't break in like this. You can get him out of his apartment, and I'll check his home for information that will help us plan."
Getting Hardison out of his apartment wouldn't actually be that hard, since Eliot had already, twice, in the throes of boredom, showed up on Hardison's doorstep and bullied him into going for a jog, insisting it was for 'physical conditioning.' Honestly, it was for his own good; sooner or later a job would go wrong and they'd have to run to beat the devil, and Hardison would be glad he'd built up his wind. Something did feel slightly wrong about the idea, but Eliot was pretty sure that was just today's absence of beer.
Parker jack-knifed back into the passenger seat, looking like a long-haired seventeen year-old boy again, and Eliot sighed. "Make sure you don't damage any of his gizmos getting in, or you're never getting laid."
Parker scowled. "I'm not stupid."
"Nah, you're not," he said, and she gave him a peculiar look that was almost a smile.
Hardison took forever to answer the door, and Eliot spent the time shifting from foot to foot on the doorstep. The guy was on his side and all, but knowing that he was being scrutinized by probably three or four gadgets make him edgy.
When he did appear, he looked shifty, running his hand over close-cropped hair and eyeing Eliot out of puffy eyes. "Hey, man. Something up? We starting early?"
"No. You want to go jogging?"
Hardison looked over his shoulder, then back, slightly shame-faced, and Eliot noticed with a sinking feeling in his gut that he was in a loose T-shirt and jeans he might have just pulled on over boxers. "I'm kinda in the middle of something here."
Eliot's stomach hit freefall. He knew that face. He'd made that face. "Do you have a woman in there?" he demanded, and if he sounded like a scandalized maiden aunt he did not actually care.
"What? Uh, not exactly."
Eliot leaned in, and dropped his voice low. "And what does that mean? Exactly?" Damn it, if he'd done all this work for nothing…
Hardison recoiled. "No! I just… I just got my Alliance side Death Knight last night, see, and she's starting the Darrowshire quest chain, and-"
"We're going jogging," Eliot growled.
"Jogging. Right," Hardison said, and then tried a pathetic attempt at recovering his spine. "It's just that, this little girl lost her doll, and she wants Titania to find- Okay! Jogging. Yeah. Right."
Eliot felt a little bit ashamed - but not much, not after the scare Hardison gave him �" so he didn't give Hardison hell for playing a girl. He delivered him back home with enough time to shower and shave before they had to get to work, and reconvened with Parker in the van.
"So," he said. "What did you find?"
"He has a big poster of a girl wearing some kind of--" and she makes a gesture that he can only interpret as 'boobs', "made out of tinfoil in his bedroom. And she has pointy ears. Is that normal?"
Eliot figured Hardison could owe him for this one. "Yes. Lots of guys like, um. elves. Anything else?"
Parker thought about that. "Well, she does have a really sweet knife, I guess. He has pictures of a woman taped inside his cupboards, too, with 'You man, what are you eating that didn't come from a can?' written underneath."
Eliot considered that. "I think-- I hope that would be his nana."
"His socks are sorted by colour. And there was a cat licking his computer screen. From the inside."
Sending Parker in to gather data on a human being might have been a mistake. On the other hand… "Cats, huh?"
"Yes. Oh, and the woman in the cupboards is holding a cat in the picture."
He could sort of see the beginnings of a plan. "Do you like cats?"
"I guess? Not as much as bunnies. What did he say to you?"
"Mostly wheezing," admitted Eliot. He should probably harass Hardison into jogging more often. "Okay, listen, I think the cats are the angle. How about this…"
The next day, while Nate and Sophie gave the check to the grateful client, Eliot iced his cheek and made sure that Hardison didn't go anywhere, even though the other man was clearly dying to get back to his chick knight thing.
"Hey, where'd Parker go?" Hardison asked.
"No idea," Eliot said hastily. "Haven't seen her. Why would you ask that?"
"It was just a question," Hardison said, and gave Eliot a weird look that �" oh crap.
"No, I wouldn't- Why would you even think that I'd �" she's crazy!"
Hardison was starting to look downright suspicious. "You're a grown man," he said. "I mean, I trust you to make honorable decisions, do you hear what I'm saying?"
"I hear you, man, I'm just saying that-" but he didn't get a chance to put that right because his phone rang. It was Parker. Of course it was.
"I have acquired the bait," she said. "Come and help me move them."
"I can't leave them outside in a carrier! I'm in the back utility closet. Come meet me there and we'll move them outside and then you watch them while I go in to tell him I found them and show my good heart."
"Uh, roger that," he said, and hung up. "I gotta-"
"Private business?" Hardison said, his eyebrows raising.
"Uh, job. Sideline job."
The utility closet was where they stored their coats, which mostly meant Sophie's coats. It was close quarters, and the space smelled like Sophie's perfume, which was probably manufactured to get a reaction out of Tibetan monks, so it was uncomfortable in more than one way.
Parker didn't say anything as he slipped in, just presented him with the cat carrier. Eliot had to admit the kittens inside were completely adorable, but he didn't look at them much, because then Parker unzipped the bag which held the jeans and the necklace and the special bra, and pulled her shirt off.
Which was, of course, the moment that Hardison opened the door.
"Not now," said Parker to Hardison, while Eliot cringed so hard his ears felt it. "Wait until I'm ready."
"Uh, my mistake," said Hardison, backing out with one hand over his eyes. "I didn't see nothing. I wasn't here. I was-- I'm leaving now.
Parker started putting on the bra. Eliot covered his face with the hand not holding the bait-kittens. "Parker-- we've got to abort. We've been compromised."
Parker paused. "Are you sure? I don't think he saw the kittens."
"Oh, he saw the kittens, all right," said Elliot, and banged his head against Sophie's silver lame thing seven or eight times.
"So... what's plan B?" asked Parker, putting her shirt back on.
"Parker, there is no plan B. This is 'they found the bug, they figured out there is no company, they saw you putting on the fake blood,' okay? You clear out, and try some other target."
Parker's face went kind of-- He was expecting it to go hard and angry, but it went all soft, like a kid who's been thrown from his first horse, and wasn't expecting it to hurt, shocked and unprepared. "I-- What do you mean? No, this was supposed to work! You were-- we had a plan, you were my expert, this was going to WORK!"
"I'm sorry, Parker, okay? I'm really-- Listen, maybe you want to try beer again?" he offered.
Parker grabbed the cat carrier back from him, roughly, and then clutched it to her chest, as if it weren't a hard plastic box. "Give me back my bait. I'm-- I'm going to go somewhere else now."
And she swung the closet door open so quickly it clipped Eliot in the ear, and left.
If Eliot had realized he wouldn't see her again for nearly a week, he might have run after her.
On the fourth day, Hardison moved from giving him dirty looks to making loud remarks about respect being a cornerstone of every relationship and men who treated women like dirt, and what should happen to those men. Eliot felt like knocking him out just to get out from under the weight of his own guilt.
Then Nate and Sophie cornered him in the kitchen, where this whole disaster had started, and things got even worse. Eliot reminded himself that he had been tortured by information retrieval experts, and firmed his jaw.
"Talk," Sophie said.
"I don't know-"
"Tell. Me Everything," she said, poking him in the chest with every word.
"We're a team, Eliot," Nate added, standing ostentatiously in the doorway. Which they both knew was a purely symbolic gesture, but Eliot got the point. "You can't endanger the team with personal conflict."
Sophie flicked Nate a look, and then refocused on the problem at hand; i.e. him. "We can fix this," she purred. "Just tell me what did you do to Parker."
And that was it. He broke. "I didn't do anything to Parker!" he hissed. "Parker made me do girl-talk, and take her shopping, and help her break into Hardison's house. I'm not the bad guy here! I was trying to save the team from personal conflict."
Sophie settled back on her heels. "All right," she said. "From the beginning."
By the time he was finished, Nate was rubbing at his stubble thoughtfully. "Okay. It seems simple enough. Sophie and I explain to Hardison-"
"No," Sophie said.
"No. Hardison won't believe it coming from us. He knows that we'd lie to keep the team together. Besides, it has to come from Parker. That's our end-game." She and Nate shared one of their irritating psychic connection looks, and Nate sighed.
"Okay," he said. "Here's what we're gonna do. I'll get Parker. Sophie holds the fort. And Eliot, you bring Hardison to the office at 18:00 hours. Conscious."
Eliot didn't really want to bring Hardison anywhere if it had to be conscious. "Shouldn't I go with you to get Parker? I mean, I did get her into this."
Sophie looked like this was a mildly persuasive argument, but Nate shook his head. "It's-- She won't thank you for invading her privacy there. She won't like that it's me, but she'll like it even less if I bring someone."
"Why does it have to be me who gets Hardison, then?" he tried weakly, but Sophie only raised an eyebrow at him as if to say 'really, Eliot?' and Nate didn't even pause in his way out the door.
"Hardison's mad at me," he complained to Sophie, and he could hear the petulant edge, but he couldn't seem to stop it.
"There, there," said Sophie, patting his shoulder. "It was a kind thought. Inasmuch as it could be considered a thought."
Retrieving Hardison was demoralizing, and mostly because of what he was reduced to: begging.
"Seriously, just. Just come, okay? It's-- and not that you'll believe me, Nate said you wouldn't believe me, but I have never laid a hand on that woman except while trying to keep her from removing my testicles. Sometimes she just takes her shirt off!"
Bizarrely, Hardison seemed to find this last almost persuasive.
They got there at 16:00 exactly, marched past Nate, who tipped Eliot the wink, and into the conference room, where Parker and Sophie were sitting at the other end of the table.
Hardison stopped dead.
"All right," Sophie said, patting Parker's hand. "Like we practiced. Speak honestly, and from the heart."
Parker stood up. "Hello, Hardison," she said. "I think I like you romantically, maybe. Would you like to have sex with me? Or go on a date sometime?"
Eliot is behind Hardison, so he can't see his face, but Sophie's expression indicates a favourable response.
"Hm," she said, standing up and moving to snag Eliot's elbow. "That wasn't quite how we rehearsed it, but effective enough." She placed one hand on Hardison's back and shoved him forward, with a lot of force for a skinny woman.
"I have cats now," Parker added, pulling at her top. "Um, maybe you could help me name them? I just gave them numbers, but Nate says people usually prefer names. Also I have this red bra on, it's very uncomfortable, but Eliot said you might like it."
Hardison turned to stare at Eliot. "Thanks, man," he said hoarsely. "Now get the hell out."
"We're gone," Sophie said sweetly, and drew Eliot out of the room.
Outside the room, of course, Sophie and Eliot immediately turned to press their ears to the door. Nate rolled his eyes at them and went looking for a drink.
The sound wasn't too good. "--romantically too--," Eliot caught Hardison saying, and then some inaudible mumbling, "--cats?"
"They were supposed to be bait," admitted Parker, whose voice, for some reason, travelled better. "But then you came into the closet. Would you like to see my bra?"
"I would-- hold on a minute," said Hardison, his voice growing clearer, the significance of which both Eliot and Sophie realized at the same moment and jerked their heads away from the door, just as Hardison yanked the door open. "Seriously, y'all, get out of here. For real. Or you will never in your life get another email that isn't about Viagra." The door slammed.
Nate looked smug at them from across the room.
"Well," said Sophie, "I think we've done good work here today, and deserve to celebrate."
Hardison's sound system suddenly started blaring 'O Fortuna' two rooms away.
"You mean we should get out of the office?" Eliot asked, but Sophie had already grabbed his cuff, and snagged Nate as she dragged him out the door.
"Now, Eliot," said Sophie, as they rode the elevator down, "you can't intend to be single for the rest of your life. Why don't you let me introduce you to some nice girls?"
Eliot hadn't climbed an elevator cable in a while, but it was amazing what came back to you in times of need.