Parker had been their mastermind for barely a year when the first Kaiju made landfall... and suddenly made their business even more relevant. Leverage International was only a drop in the bucket of the cons going after the Black Book list, but the folks jumping in to take advantage of the new crisis? For every person who gave every penny that they could spare toward the budget of the new Pan Pacific Defense Corps, there was a shyster whose first question was not "how can I help?" but "how can I skim off a few of those shiny dollars?" And that was where Parker, Eliot and Hardison came in.
Taking those sons of bitches down was more than a job; it was a pleasure. And they made sure to leave enough space between jobs to help out with their other skills, too: which for Hardison meant striking up a thriving 'net correspondence with Dr. Caitlin Lightcap, a woman with bigger brass ones than any other coder he'd ever met.
Mission Impossible-ing a bunch of genuine scum on the one hand; helping program giant humanoid mecha to fight monsters from the deep on the other. Hardison was in geek heaven.
Aside, of course, from the possibility of joining the ever growing list of victims. Portland hadn't yet been hit, but as a port city on the Pacific Rim, it would always be at risk. And not even Eliot could fight one of those skyscraper-sized monsters and win, no matter what he muttered about vulnerable spots and his Hanzo sword.
But until that day came? They were exactly where they needed to be.
Inevitably, one of those penny-shaving assholes cut corners on the suppliers building the Jaegers, and a local worker brought the substandard materials substitutions to Parker's attention. As costly as they were, Jaeger teams were the only things short of a nuke that had ever killed a Kaiju before it could rack up a five-digit casualty count, and the Rangers' ability to make those kills was reliant on their ability to trust their mecha to do what they needed them to do. Muscle drivers that gave out at the wrong moment or struts that bent when a leg was extended past a certain angle wouldn't just be maintenance nightmares; they'd cost lives.
"I just wish he'd come to us sooner," Hardison fretted as he finished his briefing. "The last American Jaeger that rolled off the assembly lines was full of this crap, too. We might be able to save Lady Danger-- the one currently under construction-- without too much cost, if we can trigger an investigation in time. But to do that...."
"What do you think, are we drift compatible?" Parker mused, glancing over at Eliot.
"That's just not... You can't be serious," the hitter growled, giving her a startled, wary look.
"What?" She batted her eyes, feigning innocence. "The Jaeger testing facility is on Kodiak Island, Alaska, right next door to the Jaeger Academy. Why not walk right in the front door?"
"Blood relatives, Parker. Married couples. These are the kinds of people that get selected as pilot candidates." He jerked his chin toward Hardison.
"Hey, whoa, man," Hardison held up his hands. "You tellin' me you don't think you and Parker have enough chemistry to pull off a little show and tell? I'm lucky, not blind. 'Sides, I'm pretty sure in this plan of Parker's I'm supposed to use my correspondence with Dr. Lightcap to get inside; if y'all want to back me up, this is the best way in."
Parker made a moue with her mouth. "We could go in as a trio. I know it would work; we do our best work as a team, and they put a set of triplets through the Academy in Hong Kong. They're building them a custom Jaeger, why not us? But we don't actually need to make it through all twenty-four weeks of training; what we have to do is expose the defective Jaeger, and for that, we really need Hardison in the nerve center of the testing grounds."
Hardison exchanged another glance with Eliot at that, and was surprised to see a flash of something quickly buried in the other man's eyes... something that reminded him of that thing Eliot said the day Nate announced his retirement, that they'd never talked about since. Yeah. Yeah, okay; the idea kind of appealed to him, too. More than watching Parker and Eliot suit up alone, that was for sure. Or even being suited up, alone with either one.
"And why can't we just go in as techs, or mechanics?" Eliot replied, quickly.
"Call that plan B; but believe it or not, it's riskier," Hardison shrugged, letting him off the hook. "Their screening process for drift-compatible teams is a lot more lax than the ID checks they put the workers through; they can't afford to be too picky when the demand for pilots is so intense. And the turnover rate for the tech teams is seriously low; the culture's really tight knit. People know when replacements are arriving. We'd stand out like sore thumbs."
Eliot pondered that for a moment, then nodded slowly. "All right, then. When's the next candidate call? We're gonna need to do some more forms work before then; I hear they favor stick fighting. I've trained y'all on guns and hand-to-hand, but bo staffs are somethin' new."
"A week and a half from now," Parker bit her lip, glancing at Hardison again. "Seattle. Is that enough time to get an invite from Dr. Lightcap?"
Hardison cracked his knuckles ostentatiously, knitting his fingers together and stretching his arms out in front of him. "Geek goddess has been asking to collaborate in person for ages; but since she's been assigned to Brawler Yukon she's had to be ready to deploy at a moment's notice. The only times she leaves the Anchorage Shatterdome anymore are pilot graduations, and when new Jaegers are sent to the PPDC Proving Ground. Just so happens our defective Jaeger will be up for testing when the intake from Seattle arrives. Should be a piece of cake to wrangle an invitation."
"Ok, then. Let's go steal a Jaeger," Parker said, smiling a wolf's smile.
Two weeks later, they'd exposed the cost-cutting magnate at the champagne breaking ceremony; the faulty Jaeger was in for repairs; and the new Mark III would roll off the assembly line fully ready to kick Kaiju ass. Parker and Eliot had convinced the intake officer, an ex-pilot named Stacker Pentecost, that they were compatible enough to be worth the training expense, and Dr. Lightcap had been thrilled to meet Hardison. Everything had gone more or less according to plan, allowing for a couple times he'd had to get physically involved.
...Except for one thing.
They hadn't been aware that the former Marshal was transferring to a position in DC, and that the ex-pilot who'd screened them was following them there to take over. Unlike the Marshal they'd profiled, he was as sharp-eyed as Eliot... and nobody's fool. They found him waiting when they went to sneak into the cargo compartment of a supply ship leaving the island.
"And where do you think you're going, trainees?" Pentecost frowned, hands clasped behind his back as he eyed Parker and Eliot's cadet uniforms. "When I accepted you into this program, you promised me your compliance and your fighting skills."
Parker and Eliot exchanged a look, and Eliot opened his mouth-- but Pentecost held up a hand to shush him. For a wonder, Eliot actually shushed; and suddenly, Hardison was reminded of the look on Eliot's face during their planning discussion. Maybe... it wasn't such a far-fetched idea after all? He could be a tech, right? Run their comms, even if he couldn't be in it with them? And they could still run cons, even if they had to limit their scope a little more narrowly than before. Right?
"And you." Pentecost frowned more deeply, derailing that thought before it fully formed. "Dr. Lightcap's supposed associate."
"Nothin' supposed about it," Hardison objected, because damn if he was going to let himself get shut out at this stage. "All that code we collaborated on? That's legit."
"It's also, quite clearly, a waste of your time," Pentecost barked.
"Wait, what...?" he tried to object. That wasn't the tack he'd expected the conversation to take; where was Pentecost going with it?
The man replied by pulling one of his hands from behind his back-- and shoving a staff in Hardison's direction.
He stared at the length of wood as if it was a snake, hope and disbelief churning in his gut. Did he just...? Could that mean...? Why was he giving them this chance?
"Wait, what...?" it was Parker's turn to object, as wide-eyed as Hardison.
Hardison stared at her, then at the look on Eliot's face... and reached out for the staff. Good thing he'd played training dummy in Parker's training sessions, he thought, hysterically.
"How much of what went down this weekend did you see?" he fumbled, aloud.
"That's not the question you should be asking, candidate," Pentecost scolded, his tone every bit as demanding as most of Nate's non-suggestions.
...They'd been helping people for years now; maybe it was time to take it up a notch.
"How many staffs you still got behind your back?" he tried again-- and was gratified to see a spark light in Eliot's eyes, and Parker biting her lip in anticipation.
Pentecost replied with a tight smile... and held out two more.
Age of the geek, baby. Age of the geek.