“Dammit,” Hardison says between bites. “This is some great grub, man. How do you do it?”
Eliot appreciates the compliment. He assumed Hardison liked it, based on the way he’s basically shoveling the Thai curry inside. But it’s always nice to receive a compliment for hard work. He looks over at Parker, who hasn’t said anything, but is slowly eating with her eyes closed, up on her perch on the counter. After a couple of bites, she nods decisevely.
“I like this,” she declares, and starts eating with more gusto.
Eliot smiles and finally starts on his own plate. He likes feeding them, even if they don’t always agree on what constitutes good food, and neither of them really has a palate for the more sophisticated stuff. If it were up to Hardison, they’d survive on fast-food and soda, and Parker isn’t much better, with her love for breakfast food as breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack. So some of the cooking he does simply because it’s the only way they’ll ever eat anything decent.
But, if he’s honest, he likes taking caring of them. They’re very appreciative if he gets it right, and he’s been getting it right a lot, lately.
Hardison moans. See? Very appreciative indeed.
“Seriously, Eliot. How do you do this?” he asks, mouth full.
“It’s not hard,” Eliot says. “It’s like a well-run job really. You just need the right mark.” He points at them with his fork. “A good recipe, nice ingredients, and decent gear.”
Hardison and Parker nod in unison.
He’s not sure they get it entirely, but it doesn’t matter in any case. He’s the only one who cooks, after all.
“We need to do something,” Parker whispers.
Hardison would love to do something, but they’re currently stuck in a ventilation shaft above the mess hall of a big corporation. They’re waiting until the lunch rush has passed, but until then, they can’t move, so not to raise suspicion with any noises.
Hardison knows himself, he can deal with crawling through tight spaces, but he can’t deal with that silently.
“I don’t mean about the job, we’re good here,” Parker says, and presses herself a little closer.
Hardison has to admit, ventilation shafts do have their perks.
“I mean, about Eliot,” she says, but doesn’t clarify further.
Hardison tries to look at her, but there isn’t much room to angle his head, nor is there enough light to properly see her expression. He’ll have to play this by ear then.
“What about Eliot?” he asks. He’d thought everything had been going great with Eliot, amazing even. Pretty much almost a full year of awesomeness in his book. But maybe Parker felt differently.
“It’s almost our anniversary,” she says, and Hardison braces himself to object because he would never forget their anniversary, he has that shit covered, and it’s still more than half a year away.
“Not our anniversary, dummy” Parker clarifies and pokes him with her finger.
He’s always amazed how much force there is in such a dainty, little finger.
“Our anniversary as a triple.”
“Still not using that word,” Hardison says on autopilot, while he’s calculating back the time to the first time they’d slightly awkwardly seduced Eliot into their bed, and the even more awkward conversation the morning after where they’d seduced him into staying, permanently.
Still feels like the most important job he and Parker ever pulled.
“You’re right, we need to do something for that. Any ideas?” he asks and feels Parker shake her head against his shoulder. That’s a no on any plans from their Mastermind then. Damn.
“Man, I love Meatloaf Day,” their target, who has been eating in silence the entire time, says below them.
Hardison and Parker freeze.
He wonders if they’re thinking the same thing.
“Maybe, we could cook him something?” Parker proposes, voice low.
Yup, great minds totally think alike.
This was going to be epic.
Eliot isn’t sure what exactly, but there must be a reason Parker is suddenly spending way more time in his kitchen. She’s not in the way. At least, not once he’s cleared some space for her on the counter. She mostly keeps quiet, just silently watching his every move, so Eliot doesn’t mind.
He gives her a knife and carrots to chop one day, and she takes to the chopping with gusto.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the size of her chunks, but she’s fast and sure in her movements with the knife. It’s terrifying.
That doesn’t explain why he has suddenly gained a silent audience whenever he decides to cooks something. It bothers him more than he'd like to admit. He thinks they’re doing fine, but obviously, something’s off somehow, and he doesn’t know what. Or why.
The thing is, they don’t ask questions. Not unless it’s really, absolutely necessary. They all have more secrets than can be counted on their fingers, but they don’t generally keep secrets from each other. So if you ask, you’ll get an answer. It just won’t necessarily an answer you’ll like hearing, or feel good about making someone answer. So they don’t ask questions.
Which is why Parker’s eyes on his back in the kitchen make him tense, even if his movements stay smooth, and his shoulders stay supple.
It’s time for some comfort food.
Parker frowns when she sees his messy scrapbook, which combines a bunch of torn-out magazine pages with recipes, a lot of scribbled notes, and his favorite recipes printed out from his online drive, pasted in. He’s had to leave behind a couple of iterations of the thing, so he has a digital copy of most of what’s in there. But he likes to keep a hands-on version as well. It’s easier to make notes, to write down which variations Hardison likes best, and the dishes that make Parker take a second helping.
Plus, his mom used to have one just like it.
“You use real recipes?” Parker asks, still frowning. “I didn’t know that. I thought all your food magic was just something you did, like—” She snaps her fingers.
He shrugs. “It’s like a playbook for a con. It’s handy to have around if it’s been a while.”
Parker nods, but she still looks unsure. To distract her, he gives her two lemons and a rasp to scrape some lemon zest.
“What are you making?” she asks. She never seems to take into account her own help in the kitchen, even if she’s been helping more and more lately.
“Italian Lemon Custard Torte, on a butter-dough crust.”
Parker smiles a little and starts scraping the lemon. “Hardison will like that.”
They work together in a comfortable silence for a while. By now, there’s a certain routine in their motions, with Eliot simply putting everything Parker needs within reach on the counter, and Parker staying put and out of his way.
It’s not until the crust is settling and he’s finishing up the custard he hears Parker again. It’s a low gasp that he’s probably not supposed to hear. When he looks at her, she has snatched his scrapbook, and his hands itch with the need to grab it back. It feels personal.
But she definitely looks worried, so he tamps down the urge.
“We need to stop,” she says, panic obvious in her voice. “We need to start over. We used too much zest. Now it will be ruined!”
“Relax, Parker.” He points to the right page, where he wrote down a note to put zest in the crust as well, to make the torte even more lemony. “We used just the right amount, see? It’s right there.”
She reads over his notes on the next page, but the frown doesn’t clear from her face. “But the recipe didn’t say to put zest in the crust.”
“Yeah. But my recipe did. It’s not just about finding a recipe. It’s about having the perfect recipe.”
She’s looking at him weird but eventually nods decidedly. “Right,” she says and hops from the counter. “The perfect recipe.”
She hands him back his scrapbook and kisses him on the cheek. He tries to kiss her back, but she’s slippery today and already halfway out of the kitchen.
Something’s definitely going on.
He goes back to his custard.
The Secret Recipe is either kept safe at the diner, or at the Giontelli home.
They decided to try the diner first because stealing from people who hadn’t done anything wrong felt weird. Hardison sent her the address, but the diner building looks... shabby. Not at all like somewhere you’d keep safe valuable intel, which the Secret Recipe to the Secret Sauce to Eliot’s favorite food obviously must be.
On the upside, it would be easy enough to break in, the building being in such a ramshackle state. On the downside, it still doesn’t feel right. She can’t picture Eliot eating here.
“Are you sure this is where we need to be?” she asks Hardison, even though she trusts him with gathering intel. She can hear him tapping through her ear-piece, so maybe she isn’t the only one second-guessing their information.
“Looks like they fell on hard times a couple of years ago,” Hardison explains. “Mrs. Giontelli was involved in a traffic accident and lost the use of her right hand. Apparently her nephew has taken over as the chef, but it seems that they never fully recovered from that. They’re still paying off all the medical costs.”
Parker looks at the building again. Three of the windows on the first floor are broken. Two are boarded up, but either the third is new, or the boarding has fallen.
“Aimee said they were nice people,” Parker says.
Sophie had taught her that all contacts can be useful someday, and Aimee had proven her right. Parker needed to practice her phone people skills anyway, and Aimee had been a font of information.
“She said Mrs. Giontelli often cooked for Eliot and her after his mother died. They always got a second helping of pie.”
She’s sure this is valuable intel Hardison needs to know. Pie is important.
Hardison stops tapping. She wishes she could see his face. He has a useful face, not like Eliot's, or her own. You can see what he’s thinking and feeling almost all the time. It’s comforting. Unfortunately, no-one has made ear-pieces with hologram vision yet. Hardison should make some soon. She’ll have to make do and read his voice until he does. She hopes he’s thinking the same thing as her.
“Change of plan?” Alec asks in her ear.
“Change of plan,” she confirms. Time for Plan H. H for Help These People.
It’s Hardison’s turn to pick a name, so they’re doing the Lottery Winner For Realsies. So she’s trying on her ‘congratulations you’ve won the lottery’-hostess outfit. It needs to be exactly sleazy enough to make the Giontelli’s suspicious. Then Hardison can barge in later, inform them about the Lottery Fraud, and the Giontelli’s will actually believe they won money, even though they technically hadn’t participated. Someone trying to steal from you always makes you hold on tighter to it.
Giving people money can be tricky.
She wishes Sophie was here, to do the grifting part, but Sophie’s still on her honeymoon. So there’s nothing to it but be both the grifter and the thief on recon. If they are still doing that.
“We’re still stealing the Secret Recipe, though, right?” she asks.
“We’re only copying it, but yeah, we’re still stealing the Secret Recipe,” Alec says. “Eliot deserves the best meatballs there are, so we totally still need it. The helping them out is just a bonus. Like extra nice wrapping on a gift.”
She holds out her hand so he can high-five her. For morale. She’s never stolen a Secret Recipe before. Definitely not one that’s framed and hanging in a nice woman’s living room. She loves stealing new stuff.
Maybe playing the Sleazy Hostess would be fun.
Someone stole his cheese grater.
He’s having a shitty day, a shitty week even if he’s honest, and this is just the last straw.
“Dammit, Hardison!” he yells. He’s pretty sure Parker steals his equipment all the time, but she also puts it back, and always in exactly the same spot. He saw her fuss once over putting back one of Hardison's many USB-drives, so he assumes she takes the same meticulous care in making sure he never notices something has been gone at all.
So Hardison has his cheese grater, and Eliot is not in the mood. How is he supposed to make dinner if all of his stuff is missing?
The dining table, which they almost never use for actual dining at, is covered in nuts and bolts, and Hardison is tinkering with something that looks like one of the hands of Edward Scissorhands. Eliot stops to loom over Hardison, who simply ignores him.
Ever since they saw each other naked, Eliot has lost his intimidation factor. It’s been a year, or six, depending on how you’re counting, and Eliot is still grateful for that trust. But sometimes he misses the tactical advantage.
“Those better not be my kitchen knives,” he growls, in the hope that Hardison will at least regret whatever stupid idea it was that made him touch Eliot's gear.
Hardison doesn’t budge but keeps poking at something with small pliers.
“Dude, relax,” he says. “I wouldn’t dare to touch your knives even if you asked me nicely.”
He looks up at Eliot with his eyebrow arched.
“Which you aren’t at the moment,” he says. “Nice, I mean. You’re in a growly mood.”
Eliot doesn’t acknowledge that at all. Best to go straight for the point with Hardison. If you go along with him there’s a big chance you end up with three different arguments, missing clothes and broken furniture. Which sure, pretty fun, but not what he’s aiming for at the moment.
“Where is my cheese grater,” he says.
Hardison rolls his eyes again but points towards Eliot's’ beloved grater, which is standing seemingly unharmed on the far end of the table.
“Eliot, my man. Chill. I just needed to check something. I didn’t even use it. It’s all fresh and ready to go. So no harm, no foul.”
He’s smiling at him, and Eliot's stomach does the stupid thing it always does when Hardison smiles at him.
“What are you doing, anyway?” he asks, for lack of a better response.
Hardison turns back to his fiddling, and suddenly there’s tension in his shoulders. “It’s just a thing,” he says, evasive.
Eliot looks at the knife-robot thing in horror. “That contraption better not set a foot in my kitchen!” he bellows.
“First, why do you assume this is for you? Second, why would I gift you with a child of my brilliance, when you never appreciate modern technology anyway,” he says, counting on his fingers. “And third, it’s our kitchen, so if I wanted to make a highly capable, intelligent, supersonic kitchen-cutter, then I could.” Hardison has crossed his arms, and he’s wearing his ‘you-done-fucked-up’ face. He doesn’t even need to say it, Eliot can practically hear him.
“Fine. As long as that thing doesn’t enter my kitchen.” He points to the thing as menacingly as possible, grabs his cheese grater and goes back to the quiet of the kitchen.
Eliot feels like an ass.
Still, he has a reason to be pissed. Parker and Hardison went away without him, and he didn’t like it. They didn’t give an explanation why they left for the weekend, and Eliot didn’t ask for one. But he worried the entire time, kept his phone close. They didn’t call, and by the second day, Eliot felt left behind. Sure, they came back, snuck into their bed in the night, to cuddle him like they hadn’t been gone. And even after a thorough body-check Eliot couldn’t find any sign of either of them being hurt.
That didn’t make it right.
Parker doesn’t help him in the kitchen anymore. And now Hardison won’t even make him a kitchen robot. Something’s wrong, and Eliot is starting to wonder if maybe it’s them that’s not working anymore.
He slams the grater on the counter.
“Love you too, babe!” Hardison yells, and fuck it, Eliot's heart does the thing were it skips a beat and makes him warm on the inside. He soaks in it.
Today is A-Day, or in Parker’s case Triple A-Day, and so far everything is going to plan.
Eliot is at the gym, and shouldn’t be back for another two hours. They have all the ingredients for both the meatballs and the sauce. Hardison had wanted to get them double, just to have a back-up handy in case things went awry. Parker had stolen another extra batch. When he’d asked, she’d simply said: “Triple is better.” He didn’t have it in him to disagree.
So they had loads of food, they had the secret recipe, and now they just had to cook it.
Parker read the first step of the recipe aloud. “Brown some butter in a skillet pan.” She looked up at him expectantly.
He had no idea what a skillet pan even was. “That’s why we have google, I’ve got this, hang on. Got it.” He holds out a picture, and Parker fetches the skillet pan.
While he had Google handy, he searches for a Youtube video on browning butter. Age of the geek baby, there’s online tutorials for everything. He has a vague idea that it’s just frying butter, but you never know with these culinary types. He’s not taking any risks.
“We’re using tutorials for everything,” Hardison declares when they manage to not burn the butter. He holds out his hand, and Parker enthusiastically high-fives him.
They totally got this.
They don’t got this.
It’s only one hour later and Parker is already on an emergency run to steal some more garlic since apparently three batches of that wasn’t enough. Hey, it was Spencer 2000 first test-run, he just needed some fine-tuning, that’s all. So while they don’t got this, they also not not got this. If there’s anything Hardison has learned these past couple of years, it’s that every con has a speedbump, you just roll with it and trust your team.
In the meantime, Hardison is gonna queue up some more tutorials on his phone. The more he knows about this cooking stuff the traditional way, the better.
By the time they do a final tasting, there’s sauce from batch two dripping from the cupboards, and Hardison is pretty sure this is his last day on earth since Eliot will kill him once he notices the state of his kitchen.
But it’s absolutely delicious, so he doesn’t care.
He holds out the wooden spoon for Parker, who daintily takes a little bite of the sauce. As if there isn’t sauce in her hair already.
There’s actual butterflies in his stomach while he waits for Parkers judgment. If this is how Eliot feels all the time when he cooks, Hardison needs to make sure he’s appreciative enough. Cooking is hard work.
Parker opens her eyes and smiles.
“It’s delicious,” she says.
Hardison drops the spoon and goes in for a hug. They’ve earned it.
He knew something was up weeks ago, they haven’t exactly been subtle after all. Still, it’s only the last couple of days he realized that all the obvious secrecy is happening to surprize him — and that they were being obvious so he wouldn’t be spooked into thinking something serious was up. It hadn’t worked, but it was still a nice thought.
He still didn’t expect this.
What he can see of the kitchen is transformed into a battlefield, the dining table is cleared of all electronics and actually set, candles and wine-glasses included, and Parker and Hardison are wearing aprons and big smiles.
“We made you food,” Parker says, as if that wasn’t obvious yet. Eliot sniffs discreetly, but it smells nice. At least, nothing burned.
“Chill, we totally got this, nothing burned or anything,” Hardison says. He points at the table. “Sit your ass down, dinner is ready.”
Parker waits until he’s actually sitting down, then follows Hardison into the kitchen. There’s some frantic whispering, but they’re not really trying their best to be quiet.
“Is it ready? How do you know if it’s ready?” He hears Parker ask. Hardison is just mumbling about fancy plates and thermometers. Half of what Eliot catches doesn’t seem cooking related at all.
“There better not be any contraptions of yours in my kitchen,” he yells, without much heat.
“Our kitchen!” Hardison yells back, without a pause. “And my contraption did a marvelous job on this, just you wait.”
Eliot braces himself to like whatever the two of them cooked up for him. It’s obvious they put a lot of effort in it, even if they don’t have a head for cooking. He’s also getting worried about the state of his kitchen, but he’s trying to push that down for now.
Parker comes back, carrying three plates, Hardison close behind carrying a bottle of expensive looking wine. There’s a smudge of red sauce on Parkers cheekbone, and what looks like a piece of onion stuck in Hardison's hair. Eliot’s heart does the thing where it kind of cramps with emotion.
“What’s the occasion?” Eliot asks while he takes a peak at his plate. It’s kind of messy, but it looks like simple meatballs in tomato sauce, and it smells great. Huh. Maybe he underestimated their cooking skills.
“Can’t a boyfriend and a girlfriend cook a nice meal for their boyfriend?” Hardison asks while sitting down across him. “It’s for our triple anniversary,” Parker says at the same time. She sits down as well. On a chair.
“We’ve only been together for a year,” Eliot says.
“Exactly. Our anniversary, as a triple.” Parker explains, beaming.
Hardison rolls his eyes. “It’s not gonna catch on, babe.” But he’s beaming at Eliot as well, and motioning to Eliot's plate. “Come on, man, try it while it’s hot.”
Eliot doesn’t really know how to react — he didn’t know they were in the kind of relationship where they celebrate anniversaries. He feels a little guilty he hasn’t thought to do anything for them, but he’s touched they thought about him. He’ll make it up to them next year.
He takes a bite. It’s surprisingly good.
Parker and Hardison are eyeing him expectantly, so he’s glad he can be honest about it. “This is amazing,” he says, and takes another, bigger bite.
Hardison and Parker high-five, and finally, start to eat themselves. For a while, they’re all quietly enjoying their meal.
“Why meatballs?” He asks once he’s halfway through his plate. Parker stops her fork halfway through her mouth.
“Is this not your favorite? Aimee said Mrs. Giontelli’s meatballs were your favorite growing up. Don’t they taste right?” She’s not beaming anymore, and maybe Eliot underestimated just how much effort exactly they put in this.
He pats her on the arm reassuringly. “I love it, really. It’s delicious. Wait.” He turns to Hardison, who also stopped eating, and looks slightly worried. “You called Aimee?”
“Dude, where else would we find out what your favorite food is?”
“Dammit, Hardison, why didn’t you just ask me? She doesn’t need to know that…” he points at them for lack of a word that could explain them to someone like Aimee.
“We couldn’t ask you, that would have ruined the surprise!” Hardison says, completely missing the point. “Besides, technically, Parker was the one who called her.”
“I practiced my people skills on the phone. And it worked!” She throws Hardison a grin, and they do a complicated fistbump. “Achievement Unlocked: Phone People Skills,” they say in unison.
Eliot's heart does the thing again. Dammit.
“Okay, fine,” he says, and takes another bite. The food is too good to waste with arguments. And it’s really good. It reminds him of when he was a teenager when he used to eat meatballs at least once a week. Mrs. Giontelli always gave him an extra piece of pie, but really it was the meatballs that he came back for. It was her secret sauce that--
Parker and Hardison are both enjoying their food, but they keep glancing at him to make sure he’s enjoying it as well. They stop eating when they notice he’s not eating anymore.
“Is something wrong?” Parker asks.
“Are these regular meatballs? Or are these special meatballs? As in Mrs. Giontelli’s Meatballs?”
“We got it right!” Parker beams at Hardison, and then turns to him to tell the tale of how they stole the Secret Sauce, stole a lottery but not really, and apparently saved the Giontelli’s from financial doom. Hardison fills in with a couple of details, and Eliot lets it all wash over him.
His heart is doing the thing non-stop now. He’s pretty sure he’s beaming as hard as Hardison and Parker are.
Hardison moves an envelope over the table. “That’s the real present,” he says. “Happy Triple Anniversary.”
“It’s for your scrapbook,” Parker explains. “It’s the Secret Recipe for the Secret Sauce.”
“Thank you,” is all Eliot manages to say, voice cracking.
“I always thought secret recipes had secret ingredients,” Parker says, taking another bite.
They totally do, Eliot thinks, looking at the both of them.
The secret ingredient is love.