This time she has a plan. She has Eliot and Alec safely secured to their chairs, and they seem to be paying attention.
Alec opens his mouth and it doesn't look as though he's about to use a 'please get me out of these ropes' safe-word. He looks as though he's about to use his reasonable voice.
"No," Parker tells him. "It's my turn to talk."
* * * *
Twenty-five hours earlier
Parker thinks that this is Nate's fault. Alec is making a sad face at her and Eliot looks like he wants to punch things even more than usual and she doesn't really know why, except that it started with Nate and mice, a few hours ago.
Parker had said, "We should get a pet."
Alec said, "Like a dog? I'm not cleaning up after some-."
"No," she said. "Something little." They might need to make a quick escape one day, and dogs are less portable. She thought about it. "Like a fish. Or a mouse!"
Eliot (who likes animals, so she doesn't know why he wasn't on her side) said, "No vermin in the house, Parker."
"A little one," she said again. "It could have its own house, it wouldn't make a mess." She had cupped her hands together, to show how tiny and non-troublesome a mouse would be. "It wouldn't be in your apartment anyway. We could keep it here."
She spends more time in Eliot's apartment than anywhere else, with both Alec and Eliot. But she's here a lot too. Often enough to feed a mouse and clean out its cage.
Sophie asked, "Why do you want a pet?" Sophie always wants to know the whys of what Parker does.
Parker said, "I haven't had one before. I want one."
More why, and 'now' had been tricky as well. Most of the things Parker wants, she has no particular sense of wanting now or later. Most of the time, it's about whether she can have it or steal it, not whether or not she should wait a little longer.
Nate had smiled. "Funny how things change when you stay in the same place for longer than a week at a time. Anything can happen." He had walked off, which he does sometimes when he says something like that. Like he has plans.
She had followed him. "What sort of anything?"
He looked at her. "Like having to shift your life around other people. Tell people things they might need to know, things that could affect the job. Or other things." He gives her a pointed stare. "You might need to remember, for example, who gets upset when you come in unexpectedly through the window. Small things. Buy the right type of coffee, don't mess with the radio stations, don't use all the milk. Living together things. Which I did not plan to do again, by the way. Tell Hardison to stop drinking all the coffee."
She nodded. "Okay."
Then Sophie had come to take Parker shopping for a new dress for the con they were running. Job. Nate says they're jobs. So Parker had forgotten about the other stuff until later that evening.
She's sitting in between Alec and Eliot on Eliot's couch. Eliot is kissing her neck and Alec has one hand on her thigh. "Oh," she says. "Nate says you need to buy him more coffee. And I don't like sex."
* * * *
They've been talking at her for an hour now. Alec's mouth is twisted in an unhappy tight line. Eliot is pacing the floor.
"Parker," Alec says. "If we ever- if we did anything that-."
"Did someone hurt you?" Eliot demands. "Is that- you need me to go see someone? Because I'll be on the next damn plane."
"I didn't say that," she says. "I just said I didn't like sex. It's not awful. I just don't like it."
Alec runs his hands over his head. "We've had sex. With each other, I mean. And I know it's only been a few times, but I thought that we had something that was- I don't know."
"We do." She tugs on her hair. "I like that we do. I never said that we should stop. Do we need to stop? Is that it?"
Eliot kneels down in front of her on the floor, resting his hands on her knees. "Parker. If something happened, if you need us to be careful, or you want to- damn it, I don't know. But all you need to do is tell us what's wrong."
"Nothing's wrong! Nothing, nothing, nothing. Why aren't you listening to me?"
Alec and Eliot look at each other over her head. They swap places, Alec on the floor and Eliot beside her on the couch. Alec sighs, "Look, I know it wasn't exactly easy for you, growing up. And I want you to know that we're here for you, whatever you need. If you want to talk, or if you want to set out some guidelines, even just sit here for a while. That's cool."
She closes her eyes as tightly as she can, screwing up her face. When she opens them, Eliot and Alec are still there, looking at her with their big sad eyes. "I'm going to the bathroom," she says.
The window is just about big enough to climb out of in a hurry.
* * * *
In the morning she has to pretend to be a librarian. Their mark is walking around the first floor gallery and she is trying to focus on keeping her eye on him from the desk downstairs.
It doesn't help when Alec's voice whispers in her ear. "Parker, you okay?"
"I still don't want to have sex with either of you."
There's a cough, from both inside the library and inside her ear. Nate says mildly, "Parker, we're all wearing comms."
"I know. He asked first."
"That doesn't mean-." Eliot.
Sophie's voice is carefully pitched. "Parker, sweetheart, do you want to talk?"
Nate says, "Not now. Can we just focus on the job at hand please?"
Sophie sighs, but he's right. They have work to do. Parker is still mad at Nate though. He started all this with his 'tell people the truth' talking. This is what happens when she tells them the truth. They hear the first five words and ignore everything else she says. It shouldn't matter what the first words are – they should still listen to the rest.
The mark is wandering towards the stairs. Parker adjusts her pretend glasses and the buttons on her sweater. Their job is all pretending. They keep telling her she doesn't need to do that when it's only them. She sighs, and click-clacks across the library in her pointed heels.
* * * *
Alec managed to get access to the records system, and Parker has made a copy of the security pass to the archives. It seems a lot of trouble for some old books, but then this isn't her specialty. She didn't mind the library anyway – it was nice and quiet in there.
This isn't quiet. Eliot and Alec are having a hissed conversation about her over by the kitchen cabinets. Nate and Sophie are having a conversation at the other side of the room just by looking at each other and then looking away.
Parker gets up from the couch. "I'm going to the bathroom."
Sophie grabs her arm instead. "Let's go down to the bar, shall we? We should get in some girl time."
Sophie pulls her downstairs and ushers her to a quiet table. Sophie drinks wine, which Parker doesn't like much, but she takes the glass.
"Now," Sophie says. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Parker explains, as simply as she can. She ends on, "and so I don't like sex, and they're being weird about it."
"Parker," Sophie says, "I know having sex can be scary, sometimes, but it's also a wonderful, sharing experience between two - or more than two – people. You have to be willing to-."
Parker cuts in, "I'm not a virgin."
"I didn't say you-."
"I've had sex. It was…" She chews her lip for a moment. "Blah. Not fun. Rappelling is fun. Stealing's fun. Lots of things are fun. Not sex."
"Well, clearly you just haven't met the right-."
"I like Alec and Eliot. Lots."
"Well, then that's good," Sophie says. "That always helps with the-."
"I don't want to have sex with them. I don't like it. Like tofu, or… knitting, or making dumb conversation. I'll do it for the job if I need to but not on my time."
"Parker." Sophie looks at the table and plays with the stem of her wine glass. She taps painted nails against the table and the words come out in a rush. "Did something happen? One bad experience shouldn't- or was it something else?"
Parker can run faster in her flats than Sophie can manage in heels, and she's better at dodging the crowds.
* * * *
Nate finds her on the roof, or she finds him. Either way, he's there and so is she. He's clutching a Styrofoam cup that smells of coffee. She sits on the edge of the roof and dangles her feet over it.
He exhales loudly and sits beside her. "Hello, Parker."
"I'm not broken."
He looks at her quickly. "I didn't say you were."
"That's what you meant."
"Would you like to talk about it?"
"No. I tried that. I talked and then they talked and they only hear themselves." She doesn't know why it's so hard. Why 'I don't like it' and 'I don't want to' are things they can't hear when it's sex. If it was role-playing as a naughty schoolgirl or Mondrian's later work she was rejecting, they wouldn't be kicking up such a fuss. She doesn't understand people sometimes.
"Okay," Nate says. "Okay. I'm just going to ask this once, all right? Is there anything you want to tell me? Anything that happened that maybe we could try and-."
"No," she says quickly. "No."
"If it had, I wouldn't ask you to do something. I'd do it myself. I always do it myself."
"I know that." He does; he's seen her files and pushed other files together.
"I didn't tell them because I wanted fixed."
"I told them because I wanted a mouse and you said I shouldn't have secrets."
"That's not really what I was thinking about, but all right."
"I've never told anyone before. People don't like it when you tell them that after sex."
"I thought you said-."
"I tried just telling them I hadn't liked having sex with them, but that didn't work either."
One corner of Nate's mouth turns up. "I wouldn't think so."
"You believe me."
"Then why did you ask all the-?"
"I had to check that part first."
No, he didn't have to. He could have just agreed that she was telling the truth the first ten times. But this is Nate. He likes to be the one asking the questions. She's still mad at him but he's quiet now and not telling her she needs to be helped. Parker kicks her heels against the brickwork. She says, "Priests don't have sex."
"No. But that's not quite the same thing. That doesn't come out of lack of desire for sex, it's just a choice to refuse to act on it. That's not what you mean, is it?"
"No. So you do want to have sex. I mean not just with Sophie or Maggie. You like sex."
He turns a little red, which is weird, in their line of work. "Yes, Parker. I like sex."
"But you still believe me that I don't."
"The others don't."
"The others are… confused. And I've had longer to think about it. You didn't spring it on me unexpectedly. Also I have no vested interest in whether or not you have sex."
"Eliot and Hardison are in a- I don't know what you're calling it. With you. So it matters to them whether or not whatever that is has a sexual component. And they're two highly… They like sex. And they're interested in having it with you."
"No," he says. "Probably not Sophie. Sophie just worries. And Sophie asks you to flirt with men and act as though you're interested. She might feel bad about that."
"That's dumb. Sophie flirts with guys she doesn't want to sleep with all the time."
"Well, not all of-."
"And she only wants to sleep with you."
Nate colours again. It really is weird. Parker doesn't like sex but she doesn't think it's bad to talk about. Nate just told her he likes sex but every time she says something he tries to change the subject. He says, "What do you want to do about it?"
"No. About Eliot and Hardison. If they're…" Nate doesn't really like to talk about feelings either. Parker appreciates that about him. He worries about feelings – worries that they'll stop the team from doing their jobs. So that's probably what he's frowning about now. But he looks turns around to look her in the eye. "I'll-."
"No," she says. "They're not trying to talk me into it."
Nate exhales loudly. "Good. Good."
Parker wonders what he would have done if she had said yes. She can't really picture him having that conversation with Eliot and Alec. No one's ever gone to talk sternly to a boy and told him to leave Parker alone. She laughs out loud at the thought of it.
Nate's gaze flicks to her and then to the ground far beneath them. He asks her, "You like them?"
She hums. "Yes."
"And you want to keep doing… whatever it is you're doing?"
"Then you need to have a conversation with the two of them."
"I don't want to talk about it. I told them – why isn't that enough?"
Nate sighs. "They don't understand. They need to ask questions and demand explanations and drive you nuts first. They'll get there eventually."
Nate knows little bits about lots of things and she believes that probably he knows more about people than she does. Probably he's right that this is what they will want to happen. But she decides, then and there, that it is not what will happen. She doesn't have time to wait for them to catch up with her. Either they understand or they don't. She shakes her head at Nate's suggestion. "No. I don't like that."
She stands up and drops off the roof. The fire escape is no distance straight down and Parker hits it easily. She has her own plans.
* * * *
She knows they'll be in Eliot's apartment. The two of them are sitting around the dining table: three plates pushed aside, one still with food on it. Alec slides a coffee cup towards Eliot. Alec can't cook, but he does know how to work Eliot's complicated coffee machine. Parker can work the locks.
She creeps up behind them, staying low to the floor. Eliot must know she's there, by the time she drops the rope over him. But Alec reacts more slowly, so she has the time to get them both. She doesn't tie complicated knots, because that isn't the point.
Eliot is staring at her coolly. He doesn't fight to get away – he knows he could break the bonds if he needed to. Alec rocks his head back against the chair and gives up without more effort. Neither of them looks surprised. She does things that they consider strange all the time. This is just one more.
They're not tied together - her being 'not right' and not liking sex. They're two different things about her one self. Why can't they see that?
Alec opens his mouth.
"No," Parker tells him. "It's my turn to talk."
He nods. "All right. Okay."
Eliot says, "She said not to talk."
"And I was telling her that was okay," Alec says.
Parker knew she should have brought gags. But then safe-words would be impossible and Eliot might have overreacted and broken the chair getting himself out of it. He doesn't like it when they break his house. Parker doesn't like mess either.
"I talked to Nate," she says. "He said I should let you ask all your stupid questions."
"And?" Alec asks.
"I decided I didn't like that plan."
Eliot laughs. "Yeah? That part was clear, darlin'. What else?"
Parker sits on the edge of the table and looks at them. "I don't like sex. It's messy and makes people stupid and it doesn't make me feel good. I don't- I don't look at you and want it. Not that way."
Alec says it again, the bit that he can't get over. "We've had sex."
"I don't hate it either," she says. "But it doesn't work. Not for me."
She says, "You like it."
Alec closes his eyes like she slapped him. She could do that, if it would help snap him out of it. He says, "But you don't."
"No." She tries to make it clear. "But you do things you don't like, because Eliot does. And he came with us to watch the space movie even when he complained. I don't mind it all the time." She brushes against his foot with hers. "I like touching."
Eliot coughs. "That's all?"
"Would you like a list?" she asks, "I can make a list." She's not totally unreasonable.
"I'd like you to untie us so we can finish the conversation," Eliot says.
This wasn't meant to be a conversation. She meant to tell them to stop being dumb. They mess up all her plans. Parker gets back on track. "So I don't want to explain any more. You can have sex with each other. You don't need to have sex with me. Not lots anyway. Unless- I can go? If it matters, I can go." She tenses up, to run if she has to run.
"Parker," Alec says, "untie us now."
Eliot has already slipped the knots. He stands up easily and wraps his hands around her arms. "Don't go anywhere." He rubs his thumbs over her wrists before walking away again.
Alec is trying to get out of the knots but only makes them tighter. Eliot crouches behind the chair and unties the ropes. When they're loose, Alec bounces up and towards Parker. He stops and looks to be thinking about it. He decides on sitting beside her on the table. His hand settles on her back. "So you're stuck with us."
"Okay," Parker says. "So you two can have sex."
She shrugs. "If you want. You didn't have any last night or at the weekend. And Nate says-."
"Oh, please do not tell me you've been talking about our sex life with Nate." Alec's eyes go very wide.
She looks at him. "No?"
Alec shakes his head despairingly. "We're gonna talk about this later."
"Oh good," Parker says. "More talking."
Eliot's bark of laughter makes her feel more settled. He says, "The girl has a point. C'mon."
Alec is standing before he remembers to ask the question. "What?"
Eliot grabs his arm. "Less talking. Parker, stick that plate in the oven if you want something to eat – it should heat up okay. This won't take long."
Alec protests that as he follows Eliot towards the bedroom. Parker breathes out. That went okay. They never react the way she thinks they will react – the way she might react – but it went okay.
Parker goes to investigate the leftovers. The remains of something Eliot made are better than anything she could make herself, even with all of the contents of the fridge and cupboards put together. It smells good and she turns the oven on.
It will take a while to heat up so she goes to find something else to do. She's settling down onto the couch when Alec reappears. He leans over the top of the couch so he's upside down. "Hey."
"Kissing's okay, right? You're cool with kissing?"
This way up, she can't tell if he's smiling or frowning. She smiles and wonders if he's having the same problem. "Kissing's okay."
He cups her face with one hand and kisses her softly. He says, "I'll see you in a little bit."
She waves at him before he vanishes off to have fun with Eliot. She hears the bedroom door close behind him.
Parker hangs her feet over the arm of the couch. She has a book. Alec does this thing where she says that she hasn't read/watched/played something and then he freaks out. Lord of the Rings was the latest. She told him that she wasn't sure about any book where the primary objective was to get rid of treasure, but he was insistent. It's not so bad.
She remembers about the food and goes to get it, to eat while she reads about the wood elves. When she's finished eating, it's gone quiet in the other room and anyway she's tired now. It's been a long few days, between the job and all the talking. She walks down the hallway and opens the door. In the morning, Eliot will trip over the clothes she dropped on the floor to match Alec's, and he'll yell at both of them.
But for now there is a space in the middle of the big bed that is made for her. Alec allows her to climb over him to get into it, mostly because he's already snoring into one of the pillows. He smiles in his sleep.
Eliot blinks up at her and pushes hair out of his eyes. "Hey there, beautiful." He's most of the way asleep and sex-stupid.
"So," he says. "Are we good? Or do we need to- do you want to talk some more?"
She burrows into the warm space between them, all covered in blankets. "We're not talking people."
"We can be…" It's a weak protest. They can talk, but they've done a lot of it today. Now is for sleeping.
"We're good," she says.
He nods and turns onto his side. Very, very carefully, he rests his hand on her waist. She grabs onto it and holds on tight. On her other side, Alec rolls towards her.
She waits until they're both pretty much asleep. "But," she says, "I do still want a mouse." Tomorrow, she'll tell them that she assumed their groans were agreement.