About fifty heads came up as they entered the room, hopeful expressions on wrinkled faces that faded into resignation quickly enough. It made Eliot uncomfortable. "I hate old people's homes," he muttered. "It really is just like that Simpsons episode."
"Whoa! You're referencing The Simpsons?" Hardison said, all exaggerated surprise.
"Just cause I don't watch all that sci-fi crap that gets your panties wet, don't mean I never watch TV."
"I don't get it," Parker said flatly. She was striding towards the window where a young woman had diffidently raised her hand to attract their attention. Eliot figured she didn't even notice all the pathetic old people watching them wistfully.
"I'll explain later," Eliot said hurriedly, as Hardison opened his mouth. The last thing these people needed was to hear whatever tactless thing was bound to come out of Parker's mouth.
She wrinkled her nose. "It smells funny in here."
"That's old people smell, right there," Hardison said.
Eliot winced and held up 'don't blame me' hands as Sophie turned to glare at them. Along the way their team had become a kind of substitute family to all of them, and he got the impression that in Sophie's mind she and Nate were the parents and Eliot, Hardison and Parker their somewhat troublesome kids. They were certainly dysfunctional enough, with Nate's drinking problem, and the way Sophie squabbled with him about it but didn't leave. Parker looked at the two of them out of the corner of her eyes sometimes, when it was bad, like she was just waiting for Nate to start hitting, and that made Eliot mad inside. Not that Eliot believed that Nate would, ever, but he kept an eye out anyway. Even though Sophie and Parker could totally look after themselves, Eliot was raised to take care of his womenfolk, thank you. Besides, Sophie was hot and just every now and then she looked at him as though she liked him.
Nate and Sophie had taken seats opposite the young woman and the very old lady she was sitting close to on the window seat. The old lady's gnarled hands were curled around a small blue cushion with stitching in the shape of a menorah. She was staring fixedly out of the window. Eliot wondered if maybe her elevator didn't go all the way to the top. Parker had taken a seat on the floor at Nate's feet and Hardison had dragged over a chair from a nearby table. Eliot leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.
"How can you be sure your grandmother saw what she thought she saw?" Nathan was asking. "No offence, but…" Nathan gestured at the old lady.
"That painting hung over our fireplace for five generations," the old lady suddenly said, turning to look at Nate, her faded blue eyes sharp. Eliot revised his opinion: that old lady could give a rattlesnake a run for its money.
"Mrs Lieberman," Nate said gently. "Forgive me, but you must have been very young the last time you saw it."
"My father would sit with me and tell me stories about the people in the painting. They are my favourite memories of him."
Nate and Sophie exchanged glances.
"Why are you here, if you don't believe us?" the girl asked, misinterpreting.
"That's not what Nate meant," Sophie said, soothingly.
"Here we go," Hardison suddenly announced. He swung the laptop around so that everyone could see the screen. There was a screencap of some fat dude in a sharp suit.
Hardison tapped a couple of keys and the picture zoomed in on a painting in the background. "This is as good as it gets, people."
As far as Eliot could see the painting was of some ugly-ass people wearing robes.
Mrs Lieberman pointed at the screen, her arm shaking. "That's it," she cried, her eyes filling with tears.
The girl put a gentle arm around her shoulders. "Shh, Bubby, don't cry." She looked at Nate helplessly.
Nate leaned forward. "We'll get your painting back," he said confidently.
The old lady and her granddaughter looked at him like he held the answer to their prayers. It was kinda sad how desperate they were to believe in him. It made Eliot uncomfortable to watch.
"What will you do with it, once we get it back for you?" Parker asked. "You could sell it and get away from this place."
"You could go on a world cruise, maybe retire to Florida and hang out with all the other old folks," Hardison said. "I mean, people your own age," he added hastily. Mrs Lieberman smiled shakily at him and then turned to stare out of the window again.
"Parker, Hardison, we're talking about a precious family heirloom," Sophie said, gently chiding.
"Oh, they're right," the girl said, looking around at them all. "My grandmother is going to sell the painting and get this place renovated - as you can see, it's practically falling apart."
"I think I saw a rat," Parker announced.
The girl looked around. "There are good people here, but because of the lack of funding, it's severely understaffed. I do what I can, but I can't be here all the time and besides, a lot of the other residents don't have family to look after them. These are my grandmother's friends. She wants to see them taken care of."
Sophie nodded understandingly. "Of course she does."
"Have you turned the stove off, Frank?" Mrs Lieberman suddenly said in a querulous voice. She clutched the cushion to her chest with both hands, and looked around anxiously. "Frank? Where's Frank?" she asked, sounding frightened.
"Bubby, it's Beth, don't you remember? I'm your granddaughter." Beth took Mrs Lieberman's hand, but the old lady snatched it back and looked at her in alarm.
"I don't know you. Where's Frank?"
Beth looked at them. "Alzheimer's. I think you'd better go now if you don't mind. We don't know how long the spell will last."
"Of course," Nate said, getting up. The others followed suit. Eliot straightened up.
Beth held out her hand. "Do you need anything else from me?" she asked, as Nate and Sophie shook hands with her in turn.
Nate shook his head. "I think we got all we needed from our interview yesterday. We just needed to speak with Mrs Lieberman ourselves, you understand."
Nate led the way out. Eliot could feel all those old eyes follow him out. He repressed a shudder.
"Mind filling us in on the details?" he asked, when they were back in the office.
"Mrs Lieberman was watching an interview with internationally renowned securities trader and philanthropist, John Badcock, filmed at his home in London," Nate gestured at the screen, where Hardison had the interview on mute. Badcock looked smug as he held forth. Eliot didn't like him on principle. "She recognised the painting as one that was looted by the Nazis when her whole family was taken to the concentration camps," Nathan went on. "Mrs Liebermann was nine years old at the time. She was the only survivor."
"Didn't you notice the numbers on her arm?" Parker said matter-of-factly.
Eliot hadn't. In his defence, the old lady had been wearing longish sleeves, but really he'd been too busy checking out the cute granddaughter. He was obviously slipping.
"You're slipping," Hardison said, shaking his head in mock dismay.
"I don't understand though," Sophie said. "If this guy's such a philanthropist, why don't they just explain the situation and ask him to give it back."
"They did. Badcock was very obliging, had it checked out by an expert," Nate said. "Only thing is, the expert has verified that the painting is a replica."
"And you don't believe them?" Eliot asked.
"Why would a man like Badcock, who's loaded, have a fake hanging on his wall?" Sophie said.
Parker blinked. "And if it isn't a fake, why would he have stolen artwork hanging where the world can see?"
Eliot shrugged. "Maybe he didn't know it was stolen until the Liebermans contacted him."
Sophie frowned. "If it is the original, and he and the expert are lying, why are they? I mean, isn't he supposed to be a good guy?"
"I've been hearing whispers for years that Badcock's not the paragon of virtue he likes to portray himself as," Nate said. "I've had Hardison do some digging."
"Ooh boy!" Hardison said, practically bouncing on the spot now that it was his turn to talk. "This guy is nasty. The only reason no one's found him out before is that he has his own legal and security people who are serious about intimidating and/or bribing people to keep quiet."
"So? What? We're going to steal the painting back? Replace it with an actual fake?" Eliot liked that idea. It wasn't like Badcock would be able to say anything when the real one showed up for sale.
"Hell no," Hardison scoffed. Eliot glared at him. Hardison played around with his computer and architectural plans appeared on the screen. Blue highlighting zipped an outline around a square room in the centre of the building. "These are the original plans for Badcock's main residence in London. See that room? What's interesting is, in the final draft, this room has disappeared. I was only able to find the earlier version by using my very amazing technical-"
"Geek," Eliot coughed loudly.
"-skills. I'd wager Badcock doesn't know this draft still exists. Whoever originally deleted it did an excellent job." Hardison preened. "Obviously they were no match for me."
Sophie nodded seriously and Nate took a sip from his coffee mug. Parker was staring intently at the screen, no doubt memorising the layout out of habit. Eliot rocked back on his chair and smirked at Hardison. It was always fun watching Hardison get frustrated at the rest of the team's failure to be awed by his brilliance.
"So, what's in the room?" Eliot asked.
"That's a very good question," Sophie said.
"It might be money," Parker suggested hopefully. "Or jewellery. Jewellery is nice."
"You like jewellery?" Hardison asked, diverted.
"You can sell it and get money," Parker said happily.
"Of course," Hardison agreed.
"The room?" Eliot prompted.
Nate roused himself from whatever weird headspace he'd gone to. "If the rumors I've heard whispered – and I do mean, whispered – are true, possibly a secret room filled with Nazi treasure."
Hardison looked thrilled. "Like Raiders of the Lost Ark?"
"Like, stolen from Jewish families like Mrs Lieberman's," Nate said heavily.
"Oh boy," Hardison said into the silence.
"You said it," Sophie leaned back in her chair and folded her arms.
"So what's the plan?"
"Eleven days from now, Badcock is hosting a fancy dress party at that house. We're going to infiltrate it and find out what's in that room. And if it's what we think it is, we're going to arrange for the cops to bust in and find it so that Badcock is caught red-handed."
"How're we going to do that?"
"I have a contact at Scotland Yard," Sophie said nonchalantly.
Eliot stared at her. "You do?"
"Yay," Parker said, clapping her hands, smiling gleefully. "We're going to London."
Eddie leaned casually against the side of her desk and placed the cappuccino, one sugar, in front of Ms Moneypenny. She sat back in her chair and crossed her legs, her short skirt riding up further than Eddie would have thought possible while still remaining decent. She took the lid off the cup and took a sip. White foam coated her top lip as she smiled up at him.
Eddie gestured vaguely. "Er, you've got…on your…you know..?
Eddie sighed as his vision wavered and Moneypenny pouted seductively up at him. "I always swallow," she breathed, running her tongue sensuously over her upper lip, gathering up the foam.
Eddie blinked and straightened up. Moneypenny was dabbing delicately at her lip with a tissue. "Thank you for the coffee, Detective," she smiled.
Pippin was already in Superintendent Johnson's office. Johnson was looking serious. Well, he always looked serious, but he was really working it today. Johnson looked up and caught sight of him. He pressed the intercom.
"Carol, when Detective Arlette is finished with his coffee break, please do ask him to come in."
Eddie made sure to exchange a last smile with Moneypenny, then sauntered into Johnson's office.
"Take a seat, Detective."
Johnson tossed a folded newspaper on to the edge of the desk nearest him. "Do you recognise this man?"
Eddie picked up the paper and unfolded it. On the cover was a smug looking guy with a scantily clad woman hanging off of his arm. The headline read "Philanthropist to Host Charity Gala."
"Yeah, sure. Badcock, right? One of the rich do-gooder set, with more money than he knows what to do with?"
"It's pronounced Bad-coe, actually."
Eddie nodded. "Probably a good call. So what's this Badcoe guy got to do with us? It's not another babysitting gig, is it? Cause if I get my ass groped by some middle-aged two-bit celebrity again, I won't be responsible for my actions."
"It's not a babysitting gig, as you call it. John Badcock is one of our most well known and respected philanthropists. On the surface, at least."
"I think he's a crook." Johnson said bluntly. "Up until now the man's been untouchable. Rich. Influential. Hobnobs with royalty."
Eddie grinned delightedly. "Hobnobs?"
Johnson looked at him disapprovingly. "Try to stay focussed, Detective. As I said, untouchable."
"Until now. What's changed?"
"Inspector Pippin presents us with a very interesting opportunity. Apparently he has a very reliable source and that source has informed him that something is going to, as they say, 'go down'-" Eddie could hear the quote marks. "- tomorrow, at this charity event."
"Very reliable, huh?"
"Absolutely," Pippin said, leaning towards him in the chair. "I've known this person twenty years. Mostly she stays off the radar, but occasionally I get a tip about a prostitution ring, or something. Only heavy duty stuff."
Johnson opened an envelope sitting in front of him. "I've arranged invitations for the two of you-"
"Really?" Pippin interrupted. "I've heard these do's of Badcock's are exclusively invitation only – impossible to get into if you're not one of his chums."
"Badcock's a snob," Johnson said. And if that wasn't pot calling kettle. Eddie covered his smirk with his hand. Johnson gave him a sharp look anyway. "Your father's name was sufficient to get you on to the guest list," he said, handing the fancy looking invitation to Pippin. Johnson smirked. "You, Detective Arlette," he said, clearly enjoying himself, "will be his date."
Eddie's mouth dropped open. Was that a knowing gleam in Johnson's eye, or was he being paranoid? "Yeah, okay," he said, not giving Johnson the satisfaction. "I assume we'll be keeping a low profile, not mentioning we work for the police, for example."
"I think that's for the best, don't you?" Johnson agreed. "Just keep an eye on things; there'll be tactical response group officers on standby if anything happens."
"You want him bad, don't you? Why, what's he done to piss you off?"
"Usually Badcock keeps a very low profile, but a few months ago there was a case where an American holocaust survivor claimed that a piece of artwork belonging to Badcock had been looted from her family by the Nazis in 1940. Badcock did all the right things to establish the piece's provenance, hired expert researchers. Then, lo and behold, an art expert appeared, to reveal that the piece was actually a forgery. The original remains conveniently lost."
"You think he paid them off?"
"Badcock is an avid, one might say obsessive, collector of objects d'art. Let's just say this isn't the first time rumours have connected him to less than legal methods of acquiring them."
"So? It's not like he's a murderer."
"He swindled a penniless 80 year old Holocaust survivor. I don't like him."
The man had a point. "Yeah, me neither."
Pippin had insisted they take a cab to the party, even though there was a tube station within easy walking distance. "That's not the point," he'd insisted, but wouldn't say what the point was when Eddie asked. So they took the cab, dressed to the nines in real honest-to-God tailor-made matching tuxes that Pippin had insisted on buying them for the occasion. Eddie didn't like to think how much that had cost him. He'd tried to protest but Pippin had started talking about trust funds and keeping his boyfriend in the style to which he, Pippin, was accustomed and Eddie had given in just to get him to shut up.
"Do you realise this is our first actual real date," Pippin said, taking his hand, seemingly oblivious to other guests moving past them to get into the house.
"We've been dating for months," Eddie said, feeling exposed but resisting the impulse to pull his hand away because Pippin was looking so goddamn soulfully at him.
"No, we've been fucking for months. That's not the same thing."
"Jeez, Monty," Eddie said, looking around furtively to see if anyone had heard.
Pippin smiled at him. "You're my partner. And for tonight, we don't have to hide it." His smile faded. "I am going to kiss you now." It wasn't a question, but Pippin still waited, obviously giving him time to pull away.
"Yeah, all right," Eddie said. His chest felt tight suddenly. Pippin was so rarely serious about anything outside of police work.
Eddie did his best to ignore the people around him as Pippin leant in and kissed him. Just a light press of lips but Pippin's eyes were closed and his hand had tightened around Eddie's. Eddie thought, what the hell, and slid his free hand around Pippin's neck, under his hair, closed the distance between them, and made the kiss count.
When they finally stepped apart, Pippin held on to his hand as they mounted the steps. A haughty looking middle-aged woman in a puffy purple dress was looking at them disapprovingly. Eddie grinned. "Hi, I'm Eddie - how do you like me so far?" he said, as they went past. He didn't wait for an answer.
Pippin made a beeline for a waiter and grabbed them each a glass of Champagne. Eddie looked at it incredulously as Pippin handed him one.
"Don't knock it til you've tried it," Pippin said, taking a sip and looking around the room surreptitiously at the same time. "You haven't lived til you've tasted the good stuff."
"I've had good Champagne before."
Pippin got that superior expression on his face where he screwed up his nose and looked amused at Eddie. He shook his head. "No, you haven't."
"No, you-" Pippin broke off. "There," he said, pointing.
"That's her?" Eddie looked incredulously at the gorgeous woman in the eye-catchingly slinky dress that Pippin was pointing out. Even by Pippin's standards she was really something. "How do you know her?"
"I went to university with her. Well, for a year or two. I hear she got kicked out. Huge scandal, hushed up. Don't know the details."
"You're not jealous, are you? I told you, I am completely on board with this whole monogamy lark," Pippin said, squeezing his arm.
It was stupid to be jealous. "I know," Eddie said.
"Monty," the woman purred as they approached, "lovely to see you. It's been years." The woman tucked her arm into Pippin's. "Come and get me a drink," she said, as she steered him away. "We've got loads to catch up on."
Eddie didn't hear Pippin's response. He watched Pippin walk away and allowed himself a moment to admire the way his ass looked in the perfectly tailored trousers before he forced himself to turn back to the two men the contact had been talking to.
The tall good looking black guy wearing an old air force overcoat was smirking at him knowingly. Eddie refused to blush. "Who're you guys supposed to be?" he asked instead.
"Captain Jack Harkness, at your service." The man reached for his hand and shook it firmly. As their hands parted, Eddie distinctly felt fingers stroke across his palm. He looked up at the guy, startled, and blinked when the guy grinned at him and winked. Jeez, could everyone tell, now? "This is my associate, Ianto Jones." The guy next to him gave him a perfunctory smile and went back to scanning the room.
"You're American. I'm afraid I don't know my history well enough," Eddie said.
"Oh, nah. It's from a TV show. Torchwood."
Eddie looked at him inquiringly.
"Seriously?" the man exclaimed. "You haven't heard of Torchwood? Seriously? Highest rated BBC2 show?"
"Sorry," Eddie said. "My roommate mostly watches cooking and makeover shows, I think. I don't really watch TV much."
Harkness was gaping at him. Jones was smirking at his friend's reaction. "See?" Jones said. "Lots of people don't watch TV."
"You're still a freak."
"This from the man who has a giant poster of the cast of Buffy the Demon Slayer in his bedroom."
"Vampire slayer. And how'd you know about that?"
Jones looked at his friend and raised his eyebrows.
Harkness rolled his eyes. "Never mind. Where is Parker, anyway?"
Eddie was about to ask who Parker was when the two men both suddenly got distant expressions. Right, those headsets they wore weren't just for show, then. Eddie figured that since they'd been talking to Pippin's contact when they came in, maybe these two weren't just here for the party either.
Then Harkness blinked and said, "Who are you?" Eddie opened his mouth to answer. "Let me guess," Harkness continued, "James Bond?"
Eddie smiled. "Doesn't everyone want to be James Bond?"
"You said it," Harkness agreed.
A hand palming his ass and a familiar presence at his back and Pippin was back. Eddie realised resignedly that neither of the men opposite had missed Pippin's subtle grope. Jones was openly smirking at them.
Then Pippin reached around him to shake hands with - "Captain Jack Harkness," Pippin said delightedly. "Fantastic costume! I have to say - looks very authentic." He turned to Jones. "And you must be – don't tell me – Ianto Jones, am I right?"
"So I'm told," Jones said dryly.
"Love the suit, was thinking of getting one made just like it but pink isn't my colour, unfortunately."
"Usually it's not mine either," Jones said, glaring at his friend.
Eliot watched Sophie's contact flirting openly with Hardison while the man's boyfriend watched. British cops sure were different to American ones, that was for sure. Hardison didn't seem to notice that was what was going on though. He was rambling on happily about that show they both liked. Eliot thought about breaking it up, just for the fun of it, but the team was in a holding pattern until Parker gave the word anyway, and how often did Hardison get to talk geek? Eliot could be generous. Hardison's pout when the other nerd finally got dragged away by his friend was classic. Eliot was sure his lip wobbled.
"We might as well position ourselves closer to the door," Eliot said, putting his hand on Hardison's elbow to steer him in the right direction.
They stood near the door, pretending to watch the dancing. Eliot winced as Hardison knocked back a glass of Champagne in one go. Damn, that was a waste of a good Perrier Jouët. Still, you could probably say that about most of the people here.
"Easy there, cowboy," he said. "That stuff's stronger than you think."
"Would you like to dance?"
Eliot blinked at the young woman standing in front of him, looking nervous. He'd seen her approach but assumed she was heading towards the buffet table behind them.
"Er..." he said. Smooth. Thing is, normally he'd have accepted her invitation without a second thought. Silky brown hair that curled around her shoulders, a cleavage he wanted to dive into...
He stiffened as Hardison put an arm around his shoulders, already knowing what Hardison was going to say. Was it too much to ask to have one country that didn't think they were a gay couple? "Hi there," Hardison said, and was his tone slightly less camp than it usually was when he pulled this stunt, or was Eliot just, god forbid, getting used to it?
The girl's face lit up in recognition. "Captain Jack Harkness!" she cried. "And you're Ianto! Awesome!"
"Nice to meet you," Hardison said, still using that tone, managing to sound like he was trying to flirt at the same time. Eliot felt like he was missing something.
"Did you see the promo for the new series?" she asked, bouncing. "Jack and Ianto kiss! Isn't it brilliant that their relationship is one of the selling points of the show?"
WHAT? Eliot turned to look at Hardison. Hardison was looking everywhere except at Eliot.
The girl had obviously forgotten all about wanting to dance with him, her eyes round and excited as she looked up at Hardison.
"I'm in," Parker suddenly said. There was silence again. Then, "Wow".
"Well?" came Nate's voice, impatient.
"You won't believe this."
Parker didn't answer.
"Uh oh," Parker said.
"What do you mean, uh oh?" Hardison said, an edge in his voice. Eliot hoped his recent crushing on Parker didn't start affecting his judgement, or something would have to be done about it.
Eliot was already pushing through the crowd that had suddenly collected around the ballroom doors, Hardison sticking close to his heels. Out of the corner of his eye he saw James Bond watching them.
"Bad guys," Parker said calmly. "Now would be a good time for the cavalry to arrive. I mean you, Eliot. No offence, Hardison."
"None taken," Hardison said, "I hope you don't mind if I come along for the ride anyways?"
"Of course not," Parker said, "here goes trying to stall for time." She went into her routine of pretending to be a harmless young woman who'd gotten herself lost. Eliot noted absently that she'd gotten quite a bit better at acting since they all first started working together.
And then the space ahead of them cleared and Eliot lengthened his stride, not checking to see if Hardison was keeping up, but he could hear his footsteps thudding behind him; around the corner and down the stairs. Around the next corner, and there you go, a group of security thugs coming the other way. The guards froze for a crucial second and Eliot smiled. It only took him a few seconds to take them out of the equation.
"Uh, guys?" Parker said, sounding ever so slightly out of breath. There was a thudding sound through the mic. "Two down, but reinforcements just arrived."
"Almost there," Eliot said, and then he rounded the last corner, caught sight of the open door and threw himself through, coming up from the roll into a strike to the nearest guard's solar plexus and really, considering they were armed, it was embarrassingly easy to finish the rest off.
Eliot straightened and smoothed back the wisps of hair that had come free from his ponytail and only then took in the contents of the room. He felt his jaw drop.
"I know, right?" Parker said.
Behind them Hardison let out a low whistle. "I ain't seen nothing like this, ever," he said, and his voice was awed.
Eliot knew how he felt.
"Do you think Nate would let us keep something?" Parker asked. "As a souvenir?"
"Absolutely not," Nate said. "So I take it our suspicions were correct?"
"And then some," Hardison answered.
"Okay then. Sophie, make the call."
"I don't understand why we can't have one thing," Parker muttered. "There's so much junk here, it's not like anyone would miss it."
Eliot looked at her mutinous expression. "Because it would be wrong."
Parker stared at him blankly.
Eliot sighed. "Trust me on this."
"Guys, get out of there, now," Nate urged.
"Parker, Hardison, you go," Eliot said, drifting over to a particularly cluttered area near the door where he figured he'd be inconspicuous, at least for the time he needed. "I'm just gonna hang around a bit. Make sure no one else shows up before the cops get here."
Hardison was hesitating. "You sure you got a way out after?"
"No problem," he drawled, then noticed Parker's fingers reaching towards a gold statue of a saint or something. "Hardison," he hissed. "Get her out of here."
Hardison grabbed Parker's hand. "Come on, girl," he said, pulling her away.
Parker blinked up at him. "What are we waiting for?" she said and was gone before Hardison had a chance to answer.
"Lord, she's fast," Hardison said admiringly, and loped out after her.
Just in time, too.
The cops burst in, guns waving. Except for the part about the guns. And the bursting in. Actually they just kind of wandered in, arguing about whose turn it would've been to bust down the door, if had been shut when they came to it.
British cops really were a different breed.
"They're on the move," Eddie said, watching Jones and Harkness push their way through the crowd with some urgency. "We should follow them," he said, and started to move. He was surprised when Pippin moved to block him.
"No, Eddie," he said calmly.
Eddie looked at Pippin's hand pressed to his chest. "Why?"
"Because Sophie trusts me to trust her to deliver." Pippin took a couple of steps back and turned to look at the doorway through which the two men had exited. He raked his fingers through his hair. "If we make a move before whatever is going to happen happens and something goes wrong she'll vanish and be I'd be prepared to wager a thousand pounds we'd never see her again."
"Okay, fine," Eddie said. "It couldn't hurt to casually wander in that direction though, could it?"
"I think that's an excellent idea," Pippin said, and kissed him casually on the cheek. Eddie decided to just go with it, and linked their fingers together as they strolled towards the buffet table nearest the doors.
Pippin's phone rang and Eddie was surprised at the regret he felt that their 'date' was over.
"Come on," Pippin said, and took off, his phone to his ear. Pippin had taken them through several turns and a flight of stairs before Eddie realised that he was being given directions as they went. In one corridor they passed guards lying still on the floor. Eddie made to stop to check on one, but Pippin said briefly, "they're just unconscious," and they kept going.
Then Pippin stopped and pocketed the phone. Eddie looked at the open doors and reached for his gun.
Pippin glanced at him. "The room's empty," he said.
Eddie sighted down the barrel as they approached the door. "You won't mind if I don't take any chances."
"You Americans. You're just not happy if you don't get to kick in a door."
Then they were in the room and stepping over more unconscious guards. Eddie stopped and looked around at the literally hundreds of no doubt priceless objects, some carefully displayed, some just casually dumped in a pile, as though whoever had put them there had meant to get back to sorting them out later, and then never had.
Pippin whistled. "My God," he said. "You know what all this is, don't you?'"
"Whatever you do, don't touch anything. I've got to call Johnson immediately. We need Interpol on this."
"I figured as much."
Eddie caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and spun, raising his gun, in time to see a man slip out of the door. He recognised the pink shirt.
"Tactical response's ETA twelve minutes. We're to stay here and guard the artefacts. Johnson's on his way too."
Eddie snorted. "Of course he is. What's to bet there'll be media there to witness him personally arrest Badcock. Assuming Badcock hasn't already been tipped off, that is."
Pippin grinned. "He hasn't a clue."
"Don't tell me," Eddie said, smiling. He walked over to Pippin and slid his arms around his waist.
Pippin looked surprised for a moment, then intrigued. "Time for a quickie?" he suggested, waggling his eyebrows.
Eddie looked at him sternly. "I'm just going to pretend you're joking, even though I know you're not."
"What say after all this you and I go back to my place, have some really loud and possibly illegal sex that Fiona will complain about for days, sleep til mid-morning and then have breakfast in bed and swap newspapers like all those happy couples on TV do."
Pippin smiled slowly. "It's a date," he said.
Then one of the guards began to stir. Eddie went over to cuff him.
Eliot had been pretty unimpressed with Hardison's addition of an 'entertainment suite' in the new offices, though he'd come around pretty quickly to the idea once he'd gotten a look at the giant leather couches and matching footrests. In fact, it'd had been his idea to chuck in a bar fridge so they didn't have to keep getting up once they'd turned the game on.
Now he made himself comfortable, corn chips and cookies in arm's reach on the side table, ice cold beer in his hand. Yeah, life was pretty good.
"We're debriefing in here this time?" Hardison asked, as Parker practically marched him into the room by the elbow.
"Yes. I told you. What's so hard to understand about that?" Parker snapped.
Hardison looked from Parker to Eliot suspiciously. Eliot did his best to project harmlessness and innocence. Hardison knew something was up, unsurprisingly. Parker's acting skills weren't that good.
Eliot patted the sofa cushion beside him. "What's wrong with wanting to be comfortable," he said blandly. "I don't know about anyone else, but I'm still jet lagged." He held up the brew. "Plus – beer."
Hardison sat down beside him but perched warily on the edge of the seat. "Since when do you get jet lag?" he asked.
Eliot raised one eyebrow. "I get jet lag. I just suffer in manly silence."
"Uh huh," Hardison said. "No, really, what?"
Parker flopped down on Hardison's other side and flung her legs over his lap, distracting him. Automatically he shifted to accommodate her, and ended up sitting back against the back of the couch. Parker's bare feet rested against Eliot's thigh. Eliot curled his free hand casually around the nearest foot, watching Hardison's eyes follow the movement and widen. Parker didn't seem to notice, but Eliot didn't kid himself. He was flattered that she trusted him enough to allow him the intimacy.
Nate and Sophie wandered in. Sophie was holding up two bottles of the Perrier Jouët. Nate was carrying five champagne flutes.
"You stole them from the party, didn't you?" Eliot raised his eyebrows.
"Waste not, want not," Sophie said cheerfully.
"I don't think it would have been wasted, somehow," Eliot said.
"That's not important. What is important is celebrating!" Sophie said, opening the champagne bottle with a flourish.
"What's to celebrate?" Parker grumbled. "We didn't get any treasure, and the old lady didn't even get her painting back so she could get rid of the rats."
Nate stared at Hardison. "You didn't tell Parker?"
"She slept all the way home," Hardison said, wide-eyed.
"It's like you invite pain," Eliot murmured.
Parker looked around at everyone. "Tell me what?" she asked impatiently. "Does it involve me getting paid?"
"Oh, baby," Hardison said.
Parker narrowed her eyes at him.
Hardison smiled complacently. "Did I forget to mention certain Swiss bank accounts belonging to a certain crooked philanthropist we all know and despise, that I may or may not have facilitated the transfer of funds from, into our very own accounts."
"Yes, you did," Parker said, dangerously.
"And Mrs Lieberman?" Sophie prompted, perching on the arm of the couch.
"The nursing home is about to undergo extensive renovations by the best firm Nazi gold can buy, an employment agency has been contracted to hire more staff and the painting will be returned to the old lady once it's provenance has been legally established."
"How did you get his money without his passwords?"
Hardison looked vague. "Oh, Nate did his thing."
Nate started handing them each glasses of champagne as he poured them. "I merely pointed out to certain influential members of the Swiss banking community that John Badcock has been taken into custody for the theft and hoarding of artefacts stolen from Jews murdered by the Nazis and that any accounts of his were bound to come under the scrutiny of Interpol. I was able to persuade them that it would be better for everyone if the problem just went away." Nate raised his glass. "Prost!"
They all raised their glasses. "Prost!"
After Eliot felt the moment had passed, he knelt up and leaned over the back of the couch and retrieved the two extra large bowls of popcorn, putting one on Hardison's lap, and handing the other one to Nate, who was pulling one of the two-seater couches from against the wall around to face the screen, not surprised at all when Sophie moved over to join him. Even less surprised when she and Nate kept a respectable distance between them. They really were a lot like regular parents. Except with added angst.
"What's going on?" Hardison asked.
"Movie night!" chirped Parker and pointed the remote at the giant TV. Eliot blinked. He was sure that'd been on the side table behind the corn chips a minute ago.
On the screen Badcock was being taken into custody in the background, while a reporter talked earnestly about the incredible find and how critical it was to locate as many of the surviving owners as possible.
Parker pressed play. The lights dimmed automatically.
Torchwood. Outside the government, beyond the police...
Hardison hunched down into the couch and covered his face. He groaned, and rolled his head towards Eliot. "This is all about humiliating me, isn't it?" he muttered.
Eliot grinned. "You betcha."
Eliot had already watched enough clips on YouTube while they were waiting for their flight home to know what was what.
Sure enough, about half way through the episode, Sophie yawned audibly and stretched. "Ooh, I think I need to go home before I end up falling asleep right here," she said.
Nate jumped up. "I'll drive you," he said eagerly. Even in the dim lighting Eliot could see the way she smiled at Nate and held out her hand to be pulled up.
Eliot looked up at them. "Wimps."
"You bet," agreed Nate, and escorted Sophie out, a hand at the small of her back.
Which left the three of them. Parker was rapt. Occasionally she reached for popcorn and chewed it methodically, her eyes on the screen. Hardison seemed to be torn between watching the show, watching Parker, and looking at Eliot out of the corner of his eyes. His arms were curled over Parker's legs. They looked cute together.
Eliot figured he was nearly done with the revenge. Nearly. See, he'd also consulted Wikipedia.
He waited a while until Hardison relaxed and started actually watching the show. "So, what is it with you pretending we're lovers?" Eliot said casually.
Hardison's head whipped around and he stared at Eliot with a deer in headlights look. Eliot looked at him blandly.
Parker dug her toes into his thigh. Eliot looked over at her, startled.
"The clue bat broke, he's been hitting you so hard with it," she said, glancing at him, then back at the flickering screen.
Eliot looked at her, then at the way Hardison was cuddling her legs.
"I thought you guys…?"
"We want you too," Parker said, as though it made perfect sense, and maybe in Parker's world it did.
They were both staring at him expectantly now.
"Well he hasn't exploded with moral outrage," Hardison said in a considering tone to Parker. "That's a good sign, right?"
"Uh huh." Parker nodded.
"I'm right here," Eliot felt the need to point out.
They ignored him.
"Let's go home," Parker said, standing up in one fluid movement.
"Yeah, but whose?" Hardison asked, looking up at her.
"You have the biggest bed."
Hardison nodded in agreement. "Girl, I like the way you think," he drawled.
Eliot stared at them both. They seemed to think it was a done deal. He thought about the way Nate and Sophie had each other, even though he didn't think they were quite there yet. And he'd seen the way Hardison was so gentle with Parker, the way she'd slowly started letting him behind her defenses and he'd been happy for them. Eliot had been a loner most of his life, he liked it that way. Hell, that's why he'd kept running away from home, until eventually he'd stopped going back.
But something had changed since the five of them had found each other, found a kind of family that worked with the kind of people they were. Sure, it was weird, and this thing that Parker and Hardison were suggesting, had apparently been planning, that was beyond weird.
Parker was holding a hand out to each of them. Hardison had taken one. Eliot reached up and took the other. She tugged insistently and the two of them came to their feet. There was a moment of awkwardness when they were all crowding close, and Eliot wondered if they were supposed to group hug or something, but Parker let go of their hands and just patted them both on their chests in a satisfied manner.
"Home," she announced, and Eliot found himself following along meekly in her wake with Hardison. Hardison shrugged wryly. "I find it easier to just do what she says," he said.
Weird was his life now. And, he realised, he was fine with that.