That first job, when Eliot still thinks it’s going to be the only job, he definitely checks Parker out when she strips off her shirt in the elevator. Sure, it’s only her back, but he can see the muscles in her shoulders from the climbing she does and how slim her waist is, and right then, he realizes exactly how she must look naked.
She might be bugfuck crazy, but she’s also hot. But he has two rules: don’t fuck crazy (which started with the girl who tried to stab him with a butter knife when he was sixteen) and don’t fuck coworkers (which started when he joined the army and it became automatically illegal to do so—since most of his fellow soldiers were men—and has always stuck with him). Even when she won’t be a coworker anymore, she’ll still be crazy, and he’s not interested in seeing how she might try to kill him. Probably garrote him or hang him with one of her climbing ropes.
Yeah, he’s not finding out.
On that job, he pays less attention to Hardison for two reasons: one, no one in their line of work knows he fucks guys, and two, he realizes fast that the guy is the most annoying person on the planet. Including over Aunt Barbara, who always wants to know when he’ll ‘meet a nice girl and stop running around playing superhero, start a family, carry on the family name!’ No matter how many times he reminds her that Kevin has the family name thing covered with his two boys and Angie has plenty of kids to make up for his (hopeful) lack, she doesn’t let it go. (He’s long since given up on the ‘playing superhero’ thing.) Since Hardison is worse than her, he’s automatically a non-starter on the sex front. And it would violate the coworker rule as long as this job lasts.
Four years later, and he’s seriously rethinking the coworker rule. They’re newly in Portland, where no one knows them, and sure, Parker’s still crazy, but she wouldn’t try to kill him with a climbing rope now, and okay, Hardison’s still annoying as hell—at least once a job, Eliot explodes with a, “Damn it, Hardison!”—but Eliot’s mostly adjusted to that. Hardison, though, is probably out because Eliot doesn’t know if he fucks guys, and it’s not an easy question to ask when he’s not out to anyone except the guys he picks up for one-night stands, which leaves Parker.
And the problem with Parker is that Hardison has made it clear that he’s interested in her, just waiting for her to make a move, and Eliot’s not enough of an asshole to get between his best friend and his dream girl.
Of course, Hardison doesn’t tell Eliot when things with Parker have advanced. That would be appropriate best friend behavior. Eliot has to find out at the briefing about the cargo plane crash, when Sophie asks if there’s anything else and Parker answers, like it’s nothing, “Hardison and I are dating.”
It’s not nothing, of course, he knows that. He knows Parker too well to think it’s simple or easy for her. She still doesn’t get people, emotions or anything, that well. It’s probably the hardest thing she’s ever done, and there is absolutely no fucking way he’s going to damage that for her.
Still, for a moment, he does think about if he’d said something before, how he could be in Hardison’s place now. Then he dismisses the thought. It’s not worth really considering.
After the meeting, when Parker’s gone off into the brewpub—she said it’s for food, but Eliot thinks it’s to lift things from pockets, since she had that itchy look she sometimes gets—he punches Hardison in the arm, not hard.
Even so, Hardison says, “Ow! What was that for?”
“Baby. It wasn’t hard.”
“I’m delicate, Eliot. I bruise easily. You know that! So why is there a bruise forming on my bicep as we speak?”
“You didn’t tell me about you and Parker.”
Hardison looks at him blankly. “Parker didn’t tell you until now.”
Eliot just looks back and waits for him to realize why that’s a stupid thing to say.
“… Right, because she’s Parker. I was busy getting thrown off buildings!”
“I’m supposed to be your friend, man. I expect to have to explain to Parker that you tell friends when you start dating someone. I expect you to be more aware than that.”
“Look, I’m sorry. Now it’s your turn. ‘Hardison, I’m sorry I damaged your arm.’”
“It’s not damaged, Hardison! You’re fine.”
“At least give me an, ‘I’m sorry I hit you.’”
“Let me fix your menu.”
“There is nothing wrong with my menu! And I noticed you didn’t say it, don’t go changing the subject.”
“Hardison, you think cereal and leftover steak is an appropriate breakfast. You cannot create a menu without help.”
“My menu is fine, Eliot. Ask Parker.”
Eliot gives him a disbelieving look. “Parker lives on dry cereal.”
“She ate plenty of non-cereal food whenever she wasn’t throwing me off buildings. Girl can eat. Especially pastries and chocolate. Do you know how much we spent on chocolate? It was painful, Eliot.”
“She’s in the same shape I am, just with less muscle bulk. She needs to eat.”
“I’m not complaining. It just surprised me.”
Just then, the door swings open, and Parker walks in, holding a tray with four plates on it balanced on one hand. “I don’t know how servers drop these. It’s not hard. What surprised you?”
“That you kept trying to kill me by throwing me off buildings,” Hardison says easily. “Who’s the fourth plate for?”
“Me. I haven’t eaten since breakfast.” She sets the tray on the table. “Come eat.”
Eliot watches himself after that. He doesn’t let his gaze linger. He avoids looking at Hardison’s ass or arms—he’s gotten surprisingly fit, mostly because Eliot hounds him to come to the gym and to go running with him—and definitely doesn’t looks at Parker’s chest, waist, ass, legs… basically anything below her neck. And even her neck can be distracting.
The thing that makes it easier is that it’s purely physical. If he wanted either of them in more than a vague sexual way, it would get frustrating, he’d get snappish and too irritable, probably pick a fight with Nate over some detail or Hardison over taking too damn long to hack something (because he can’t fight with Sophie or Parker, and it’s not out of chivalry—it’s that they scare him, not that he’ll ever say that out loud), and it would just hurt the team.
And he doesn’t want to damage what they have. That’s why, when they’re busy planning how to convince Kanack he’s made first contact with aliens and Hardison says, “Parker wants to rappel in a cave,” Eliot just says, “What do I do next?”
“It’s like all she wants to do together is jump off or through things,” Hardison continues. “I know she’s never dated—”
“And you have?”
Hardison ignores him. “—but I don’t know how to get it through to her. Sophie’s better at that, but she won’t help. You have any ideas?”
“It’s your relationship. You figure it out. When I’m in, what do I do?”
“Some help you are,” Hardison grumbles. “All those women, you were engaged, and you can’t help your best friend out with woman trouble.”
“I get in. What do I do?”
Hardison’s brow furrows. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“No, man, I get into Kanack Worldwide. What do I do there? Not with a woman, you don’t need to know about that.” He pats Hardison’s shoulder. “It’d be new territory for you.”
“Hey! I have had sex, Eliot. I have regular, amazing sex with Parker. Do you remember how flexible she is?”
Eliot makes a face. “Damn it, Hardison, don’t tell me that!”
“Don’t imply I’m a virgin!”
Great. So now, besides finding them both attractive, Eliot’s going to picture Parker being all bendy and naked with Hardison, who’s probably less bendy but, in his head, also naked.
He considers hitting his head to try to jar the images out, then figures if the Kanack job goes south, he might get hit in the head anyway.
During the job, there’s this thing, this time they’re in Lucille Three, and Hardison starts singing, putting them as a kind of unit in these, “Two good ol’ boys,” lyrics of his. Which Eliot likes more than he should, the idea of him and Hardison paired up like that, but it’s not something he can really acknowledge. If he even admits it to himself, he’s truly screwed, because it has implications he can’t face. Not when he still doesn’t know if Hardison fucks guys and especially not when Hardison’s with Parker. He can’t fuck that up for them. He just can’t. Everything else he’s done would pale in comparison to hurting Parker like that.
So he sings along because damn it, it is catchy, and he ignores everything else, tells himself it’s just friendship and nothing else that he feels, and keeps driving toward the trailer so he can be deliberately kidnapped. He also gives Hardison a look like he’s the weirdest guy Eliot knows, but that one’s just plain true. Even weirder than Nate.
Of course, Hardison does most of the work on the job, and Eliot is man enough to admit it. It’s kind of hot that the guy knows how to drive a man completely insane with fake aliens, but that, Eliot’s not admitting.
He doesn’t get hit in the head, let alone hard enough to jar those thoughts of Hardison and Parker fucking out of his mind, of course; he takes out a squad of security whose fighting skills are laughable without breaking a damn thing besides heads, and that helps convince Kanack he’s going to be kidnapped by aliens. Eliot’s character helps with that—and so does Lenny’s kidnapping and probing—and he can’t help but be proud when he’s the first to show up to the press conference and help make the man look as crazy as Parker, just in a bad way.
Just a few days after they wrap up the Kanack job, two things happen: Toby comes to him because he’s lost his job and his students don’t get their shot at good jobs anymore, which results in admitting a couple of things to Nate that Nate takes with an ease that implies Eliot can trust him with absolutely anything; and Eliot learns that Hardison’s a tightass who doesn’t tip, even though he owns a restaurant where his staff relies on tips to get by. That first thing just pisses him off; that second thing doesn’t help and ends up making Eliot feel like he’s nagging Hardison the way only someone in a relationship with him should do. Or a sibling or parent, but that’s just wrong.
For that matter, so is the relationship thing, so he puts it out of his mind, just like everything else with Hardison that’s not sheer annoyance.
Parker lately, though, Parker’s different. She’s trying to get things, to learn how other people work and how to deal with emotions, and that gets to Eliot in a way he can’t explain. It doesn’t make him feel protective, exactly, but he wants to help her and shield her from people who could fuck it up. That, he tells himself, is just being a good friend, even if he’s failing at really helping. Still, he’ll keep trying whenever he has time.
“Hardison,” he snaps one evening after teaching that fucking cooking class, when he’s looking at the menu Hardison’s cobbled together because he’s almost too hungry to cook, “this is a fucking mess.”
“Everything I touch is art,” Hardison replies without looking up.
“No,” Eliot growls, “it’s not. Who taught you about food, man?”
Hardison’s head whips toward him. “Nana did,” he says, almost sounding dangerous.
Eliot tries not to laugh.
“Don’t you make fun of what my nana taught me, Eliot, I can get into your accounts and credit cards, I can ruin you, so don’t you laugh at what Nana taught me.”
“She teach you to tip?” Eliot shoots back.
Hardison pauses, looks away, goes back to tinkering with whatever it is without answering.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. And you have no idea how to pair food, man. This is a disaster. I’m gonna—I’m gonna have to fix this, aren’t I? Damn it, Hardison, you should have just asked in the first place, then maybe this wouldn’t be happening.”
Parker appears from the ceiling, legs bent up and face down, her harness secure. Eliot tries not to jump. “What wouldn’t be happening?”
“He wouldn’t have fish gumbo on a brewpub menu. You have to cook gumbo all day, and I bet no one even orders it. And if they do, it’s probably terrible because it’s made in a few minutes. Besides, you don’t make it with fish, the fish falls apart.”
Parker somehow shrugs. “It tasted okay to me.”
Eliot growls something, turns, stomps out of the room toward the brewpub.
Behind him, Parker asks, “What’s wrong with him?”
He can’t hear Hardison’s answer, but he bets it’s a wrong one.
He makes room for himself in the kitchen, finds the ingredients he wants and moves out to the bar so he’s out of the paid chefs’ way, and finds Parker at the bar. She looks down, and when she asks him to teach her to like stuff, he has to make himself not snap, because it is not the fucking time. When he’s not trying to help a friend and run a cooking class and plan a restaurant’s opening night dishes and hunt down trafficked truffles, he can do it, but right now, he just needs to eat so he can get back to that shit. And maybe plan a gastropub menu while he eats, no matter what Hardison thinks about that.
Except then she looks so down, so almost hurt that he’s not helping with this thing that’s troubling her so much, that something tugs inside him. He curses in his head and says, “I’ll make you something.” He’s going to be late to that class, but his spoiled students can just wait. Parker’s more important.
A lot more important, he realizes. Almost too much, and he has that flash again, that “what if” about making a move before Hardison. Of course, he’s had that “what if” about making a move on Hardison before Hardison could on her, and it all feels tangled up in his mind, frustrating and getting harder to ignore.
It’s because she’s so important, and because her confusion over feeling things gets to him so much, that he opens up to her, explains the way food makes him feel, lets her inside his head. She starts to get it, he can see it on her face, but it doesn’t click for her the way it should. So he’ll keep trying.
Besides, she eats it and says it’s good, which is more than she usually says about food, even his food. Something he said worked for her, at least a little. He’ll try more later, when he actually has time. For now, he has to get to class and get Hardison to take this job seriously, instead of playing around.
The pair of them are going to drive him crazy, and it’s mostly going to be Hardison’s fault.
At least Hardison skips out on the evening class. One less student to drive Eliot crazy. And it gives him a chance to volunteer Parker to grift—and, if he’s right in this gamble, learn—without having to be face-to-face with anyone on the team. Might make him feel guilty if he was. He wants her to learn, wants her to feel, in ways that he can’t quite define. So he might as well start with food. He can help with other stuff later.
As long as he doesn’t have to help with her feelings about Hardison, that is, because that just might push him closer to crazy.
The next night, when he has to run a restaurant’s opening night—not even his restaurant, which would be okay if it was Toby’s or even the brewpub, but it’s damn Lampard’s—Hardison does his damnedest to finish driving Eliot absolutely crazy. Eating his food, failing on getting supplies, trying to get to the molecular gastronomy crap, and all that when Hardison’s supposed to be breaking into the safe and be out of the kitchen. The craziness isn’t helped by having to deal with three huge guys in a row interrupting his cooking and trying to get him out of his kitchen, but he can deal with that, it’s his job.
At least he’s got Parker starting to feel something, actually responding to his food with the spring rolls and salsa verde. And the next dish she gets, it clicks for her and makes her really feel. It sends warmth through Eliot when she says it, pleasure and pride and something else he probably shouldn’t feel. She has Hardison, not him, and he shouldn’t feel anything like wanting or desire toward her.
So Eliot disregards it like he’s been disregarding so much else, instead turning his attention to the kitchen and the earpiece. Parker’s loving the food, Hardison’s dealing with liquid nitrogen and the safe (and bitching about supply duty, which he hasn’t even been doing all night), and he has a kitchen and students to manage.
And things go to shit and ruin Eliot’s one night running a restaurant kitchen and helping Parker while doing a job, all because Hardison gets caught emptying the safe by Rampone.
Which might not be Hardison’s fault, really, but it does mean Eliot has to save his ass and avenge Toby in one go. And at the moment, saving Hardison’s ass feels a hell of a lot more important. Toby might have saved him, but Eliot has all those mixed-up feelings toward Hardison, and one of them is protecting him with his life. The Toby part only comes back to him when he has Rampone pinned back and the point of a knife to his chest, and that’s the job, that’s why he’s doing this, and there’s no way he’s mentioning Hardison anyway.
Though the threat to Hardison does play into the threat of cutting off Rampone’s head.
Toby gets his money, the promise to keep the doors open, and as soon as he leaves, Hardison gets a package from the same bike delivery guy. Immediately, Eliot feels thrown back into the nagging partner role, which is just wrong on so many levels, and all because Hardison didn’t listen to his nana about tipping people. Which is why he hands that off to Nate and tries, very hard, not to strangle Hardison for the molecular gastronomy crap he wants to do to replace actual food.
The fact that he succeeds in not killing the most annoying man alive probably says something, but Eliot’s getting good at ignoring that kind of thing when it comes to Hardison. And Parker, even if it’s different with her.
They only have a couple days’ break before a cheerleader coach shows up, and right away, Eliot doesn’t like the job. Nothing against cheerleaders—he’s all for protecting them, and he knew a lot back in high school, as in the Biblical sense of the word—but the whole idea of messing with the government gets his hackles up. At least it gives him a break from all the tangled-up mess with Hardison and Parker, even if Hardison does actually let Eliot touch his precious phone during the first committee meeting. That feels like it should mean something, but it can’t, so he ignores it like everything else and focuses on the job. The only time during the whole job that he even comes close to acknowledging anything he feels toward either of them is at the very start, during the briefing, when he tells Parker, “I thought it was funny,” about pushing a screaming Hardison off buildings. And that’s maybe said a little flirtatiously, before he can censor it out, so getting to avoid them the rest of the job is a relief. Can’t give anything away if he’s dealing with a congressman instead of either of them.
The D.B. Cooper job has a lot of apart time, too, except by this one, he misses being around them. Sure, he sticks around for the briefing and points out the guy’s probably dead, with that jump into mountains and thick trees, laughs at Hardison’s whining about the size of the case file, but then he corners Nate and asks, “You need me on this one?”
“We could always use you,” Nate replies in a measured voice.
“There’s no heads to bust here, Nate. If he’s alive—and I still think he’s dead—he’s an old man. He won’t fight.”
“There’s something you want to do.”
“I want to help Toby with his school.”
“Go,” Nate says. “We’ll tell you when we’re working the Schmidt job.”
As it turns out, Eliot misses being around Parker and Hardison this time. Not a lot—he doesn’t have time, he spends the whole job helping Toby get everything back in order and get his school running again, get students back in, since the team can handle a cold case without needing anyone hit—but it’s getting to him on some level. He’s used to them, Parker’s crazy and the way she’s feeling her way to being more normal, Hardison’s annoyingness and tech babble. At least he gets to laugh at Hardison’s whining whenever he has the comm in while he works with Toby, but it’s not the same as being there. And it’s the first job he can think of when he doesn’t get to snap, “Damn it, Hardison!” which makes him feel somehow empty. Like he needs that sentence in his life to make things right or something.
The Schmidt job is easy and fast, and before Eliot knows it, they have a job involving WitSec and federal marshals. His oh-so-exciting part, to start with, is recon, but by within hours, Hardison calls him.
“Hey man, we have to set up a rare car competition.”
“That’s the easy part. Craigslist, boom, done. The hard part is we need a 1934 Packard 1101 roadster coupe. Sophie called it the Motor City Mussolini.”
“If we find the actual Motor City Mussolini, we’re not using it as bait, Hardison. I’m keeping it.”
“Please, I am good, but I cannot find a car that dropped off the map in World War Two in under a day. But I can find a stand-in. How do you feel about driving to Sacramento to borrow one?”
“I feel pretty good about it.”
“Good, because that’s what we’re doing. Come on back, man, his schedule’s easy to track, and he’s not going anywhere until Friday.”
“Give me an hour.”
“You’re twenty minutes away, Eliot, and you can drive it in fifteen, I have been in a car while you drive.”
“Hardison, we’re going to need a truck and a trailer. I have to pick those up. So give me an hour, get the chef to come up with food we can eat on the road, and we can go as soon as I get there.”
“I am perfectly capable of packing snacks.” Hardison sounds offended. “I’m the king of snack food.”
“Gummy frogs and orange soda don’t count. Get real food. Get a cooler if you have to, there should be one in your storage closet.”
“Have you been stealing my storage space?” Hardison demands. “Because I told you—”
Eliot cuts him off. “One hour. I’ll be there.”
Hardison spends the first hour of the drive on his phone, thumbs flying across the touchscreen, and the second hour actually talking on the phone. As far as Eliot can tell, he’s using about five different personalities to set up the car competition and a sixth to let someone know they won a sweepstakes. If they had any other jobs, he’d seriously consider having Hardison committed. The third hour, Hardison starts to talk. Monologues, things Eliot doesn’t need to respond to, and by the time it’s too much, he’s starting to look tired. So Eliot cuts him off by turning up the music, Hardison makes an offended face, puts his earbuds in, turns toward his window, and is out within twelve minutes. Eliot times it.
He doesn’t wake up until Eliot reaches over and shakes him so he can read the directions to the guy’s street. By the time they have to get behind the bushes at the man’s house, Hardison’s perfectly alert. Eliot figures it has something to do with all the sugar in the two-liter bottle of soda he half-drained like it was nothing. They might need to get into the house just to avoid stopping at a gas station the second they leave this street.
Nate, of course, seems to think they’re magical and got to the house in nine hours instead of ten, since he’s asking as Eliot pulls the truck in if they have the car. Eliot lets a growl into his voice because, seriously, he’s going to have to drive ten more hours back to Portland with Hardison hopped up on soda and his damn gummy frogs, towing a million-dollar car that he’s going to have to haul back in a few days. Nate can have some fucking patience. Eliot takes out his comm as soon as he answers; he doesn’t want nagging.
When they get the garage open to reveal the car, practically mint-looking, Hardison says, “No way am I giving up this life to be an ordinary person.”
Eliot knows the answer to this, and he knows what Parker would say, but he can’t help asking, “Did you talk to Parker about that?” He keeps his voice and expression neutral, but Hardison really should stop making unilateral decisions when he’s in a serious relationship.
Then, when Hardison starts freaking out at the idea, Eliot has to try not to laugh.
By the seven-hour mark on the drive back, when they’ve made fifteen miles of progress in forty-five minutes because the interstate is jammed solid, Eliot’s about ready to kill something. Hardison’s passed out again, lucky for him, because he’d been talking about World of Warcraft again and Eliot seriously considered hitting him in the head to make him pass out. Eliot glances at his comm, sitting in the cupholder, and picks up his phone to dial Parker.
“Eliot, hi.” She sounds out of breath.
“You busy, Parker?”
“No. I’m on the roof.”
He doesn’t ask which roof. “You have your comm in?”
“Nope. Why, should I?”
“No, no. Listen. Hardison’s been freaking out. It’s my fault, but it’s funny.”
“What? Why’s he freaking out? Did something happen?”
He laughs. “Nothing like that. I just implied that you might want to retire and he’d have to talk to you about it.”
She barks laughter. “He believed that?”
“Seems to be considering it. You should talk to him when we’re back.”
“Okay. I’m going to jump off the roof now,” she adds.
“Have fun.” He hangs up and glances at Hardison; the man hasn’t even twitched.
At ten hours, when they should already be back and prepping the car for Erickson’s inspection, Eliot reluctantly puts his comm back in. He’ll have to deal with any of Nate’s bitching about how long it’s taking them to get back, but the team needs to know.
Fortunately, Nate doesn’t say anything. No one does for another two hours; then, apparently, everyone wakes up for the car show. Eliot’s sort of surprised that Parker hasn’t said anything already, if only to check where they are. (Answer: interstate. Still.)
After the car is finally set, Eliot drops Hardison at Lucille and leaves to swap cars. As soon as he does that, he picks up Sophie, and they get on their current job of harassing the marshal. It involves a lot of sitting in the car, parked down the street from Erickson’s house, until she comes out and he drives past, slow enough for Sophie to wave. Then it’s off to the hardware store, and Eliot makes certain to drive so he’s easy to tail.
They split up in the hardware store, and Eliot’s phone rings when he’s pushing a cart over to the axes. He glances at the screen and answers. “Yeah, Parker.”
“Eliot.” She sounds unusually serious. He tenses. “Take out your comm. I need to know something.”
He takes it out and asks, “What?”
“You know how you like food because it makes you feel something?”
“Yeah,” he says warily.
“Do you ever like people like that?”
He pauses, considers lying. “Yeah,” he says at last. “Yeah, I do.”
“Do Hardison and I make you feel like that?”
“Parker,” he says carefully, “what are you asking?”
“I just asked it.” He can imagine her frown, a little confused and a little annoyed. “Do we?”
He could lie to her, but she’s Parker, and outside teasing, he has a policy of trying not to lie to her. “Yeah. You do.” He reaches for an axe.
“Good,” she says brightly, “because you make us feel something, too. Want to have sex?”
He stops dead, right in the middle of testing the axe’s heft. “What.”
“I asked Hardison, after I told him I don’t want to retire, and he said yes. So it’s up to you. Want to?”
“Can we have this conversation later?” he tries.
“No, I want to know now.”
He grits his teeth, grinds out, “Yes, Parker, I do.”
“Good! That’s settled. We’ll get naked tonight, Hardison’s place. Bye!”
He stares at his phone, then shakes his head and pockets it.
Breaking two of his rules, and he can’t even bring himself to care.
“Hardison,” he says once he’s put his comm back in his ear, “I’m fixing your menu.”