November 2013 - Leverage International on the job
Parker rolled her eyes at the amount of complaining that was about to start. Over comms, she said, "Eliot, come back here. I need three more minutes."
She beckoned to Eliot with one hand while hanging from the balcony with the other.
"You've got to be kidding me," Eliot said, coming back to the condo. "You're still not done?"
Hardison said, "No, she's not done. I can't remote hack through wifi if the computer's never on. Get its browsing history, sure. Email, no problem. But what we need is what's on the hard drive."
"Yeah, you've said that," Eliot said. "What I'm not getting is why Parker's not done yet." He went to the mark's door and knocked. Quietly, he growled, "Parker, you'd better be --"
The door opened. From where Parker was hanging, she could hear their mark say, "Oh. It's you." The mark wasn't thrilled to see Eliot again.
Eliot said, "Sorry. I know this is awkward but... Ah, can I... Would it be okay if I came in for a minute?"
The woman let Eliot in. Through the sliding glass door, Parker saw her tell him to wait, then she went to another room.
From the rental van, Hardison said, "Oh, this is gonna be good."
Eliot growled, "Keep pushin' it, Hardison. You're --"
As the woman came back, Eliot's scrunchy face changed into an apologetic smile.
Parker asked Hardison, "How long now?"
Hardison answered, "Your surveillance blackout's in... twenty-one seconds."
Parker grabbed hold of the railing with both hands and watched Eliot work.
Eliot stood there, nodding and agreeing with the mark as she chewed him out for standing her up the night before. Her words weren't coming through Eliot's comm.
Hardison griped, "Aw, he did that on purpose. He's got the bone conduction mic bud 'stead of the ambient. Doesn't want us listening in, in case he had to make a love connection."
To the mark, Eliot said, "Again, I'm... I didn't mean --"
The mark interrupted him, waving her hands in frustration as she told him off.
Hardison said, "Parker, you're clear in five... four... three... two..."
Parker pulled herself up over the railing and through the window. "Yep, computer's off," she said as she plugged in the flash drive and turned the computer on. "It's working."
Hardison said, "Sweet, sweet data, come to papa."
The lines of writing sped by, running command after command. She took a quick look around for anything that might be useful while she waited for Hardison's flash drive to finish up.
Eliot said. "Yeah, like I said, I have no defense. But I wanted to tell you it wasn't you. I'm a jerk, I know that."
Parker grabbed the drive when the monitor blanked. On her way back to the van, she told Eliot, "I'm out!"
Eliot told the mark, "Yeah. And I'm just making it worse being here. I think, I'd better go. Again -- I'm really sorry."
Hardison barely looked at Parker, he was so eager to get into the new stuff on the flash drive. Eliot hopped in the driver's seat and headed for the freeway.
Eliot pulled his comm out of his ear while he drove. "You think I grabbed this earbud on purpose, Hardison? Like I even knew it was gonna go down like that. You should have told me we changed plans. You wanna get me started on what stuff around here is and isn't happening on purpose?" He threw his earbud behind him without glancing in the rear view mirror.
It bounced off Hardison's cheek. "Hey, man, that is not cool! No throwing the tech! If you knew half the work I put in just so you --" Hardison scrabbled around, looking for the comm.
Eliot continued, "-- we'd be done by now if we'd done it like we said. If you guys would stop messing around and counting on me to make it work anyways..."
Parker crossed her arms and stared out the window. For the zillionth time that week, she wished Nate and Sophie were there.
"There you go," Hardison said with a final click of the mouse. The video conference software blinked. Sophie appeared on the screen. In the background was Sophie and Nate's place in Rochester, New York.
"Sophie!" Parker bounced on the couch cushion. Eliot growled and shoved a bit when she bumped up against him. She settled a bit then nudged his knee with hers. "Where's Nate?"
Sophie looked off-screen and said, "Nate, come say hi."
"Hi, guys," Nate said, ducking into the frame for a quick smile then leaving again. Parker tried not to be disappointed that he didn't stay. He did, sometimes. But not as much as she wished he would.
The three of them filled Sophie in on their latest adventures. Eliot always stayed for this part so he could complain about the extra trouble she and Hardison had caused. Then he'd leave for some date or a night out with the guys or go check on his plants. Hardison stayed too, but the longer they talked, the more he found things he needed to check on his phone or his laptop. Half an hour in, he'd be typing and clicking on his laptop, pretending to listen. A half hour later, he'd have headphones on.
Two hours in, Hardison shouted, "Yeah, that's what I'm talking 'bout!" at his screen. He was dancing to the music from his headphones. He had to be working on some big project.
He was so wrapped up that his orange soda would be flat and warm before he remembered to take another drink. That's why he had to buy so much soda, 'cause he was always throwing it out and getting more.
Parker said, "I've got a question, but you can't tell anyone I asked."
Sophie said, "Of course I won't say anything. What is it?"
"Why is Hardison being weird?"
"Sweetie, Hardison's always weird. You're going to have to give me more information than that."
"He talks weird. To me, I mean. Not to anyone else."
"Why don't you try asking him?"
Something inside Parker recoiled at that. She didn't ask people why they were being weird. Not if they were being the kind of weird that felt, well, weird.
"So, you get the banquet hall yet?" Parker asked half-heartedly.
November 26 was the big date. Then Sophie and Nate would be all alone on their secret honeymoon that Hardison wouldn't tell anyone where it was. For a month. They were coming back in time for Christmas. How was she going to go without talking to Sophie for a month?
Sophie was off, describing the battle to get the wedding arranged. For people who could steal a country, two mountains, and someone else's wedding, they sure were making this wedding planning stuff look hard. But maybe you needed five thieves to steal a wedding. Hardison, Eliot, and Parker were too busy working the west coast to pitch in much.
The Leverage International team was burned in Portland, so their home base was Hardison's loft in Seattle. Eliot had a house with a greenhouse nearby. Parker had a nice warehouse in a quiet part of town. But she couldn't just drop by Nate's, and that meant Seattle wasn't as good as Portland at all.
Parker kept Sophie on the line as long as she could. Sophie was always up for talking for hours. Good thing, 'cause Parker didn't have much to say. They'd give up for the night when Sophie couldn't keep her eyes open. It always happened too early since their clocks were three hours apart.
Alone in her warehouse, she told Bunny, "The worst part of having just three of us is, there's too much time alone."
Bunny nodded sagely.
It had been a week since she'd last talked to Sophie. Earlier that night, Sophie had canceled on her. "Sorry, Parker, maybe next week. Things are a bit hectic here."
Eliot was off on a date somewhere and Hardison had chased her off. "Gimme a couple hours and I'll be done, a'ight?" Which was a lie. Zombie flat orange soda mode lasted seven hours, minimum.
Her special angry place was getting louder and louder every day, and that scared her. People didn't like it when she got angry. She had to stay happy or people would go away. She was starting to think really mean things about Hardison, and she couldn't stop. And she tried hard. She'd already lost Sophie and Nate. She couldn't bear to lose Eliot and Hardison.
"There's something wrong with you," were the best words in the English language. They were the best when Eliot said them, and he was the only one who said them any more, so they were always the best. They meant he saw her for her, not for who she could be.
Everyone Parker grew up around wanted her to become what they wanted her to be. She had to "be a good girl" or "make mommy happy." She never had to make Eliot happy.
She had to make Hardison happy. Well, she didn't have to. But he wanted her to. She didn't like that.
She tried to show him she didn't like that by getting him into her rig. She tried to show him by pushing him off buildings and down elevator shafts and over bridges and... The big baby didn't like it, so you'd think he'd get it when she didn't want to do the things he liked.
Okay, she hadn't really been trying to teach him anything. It was fun to push Hardison off things.
Anyways, he should know what it's like when you don't want to do the things other people like. He still thought she'd change her mind if she just gave his his video game a chance or watched "the first fifteen -- well, maybe thirty -- forty-five?" minutes of another boring old movie. She tried sometimes, to make him happy.
Parker didn't think there was a way to make Eliot happy. She liked him all grumbly and growly and pouty. To prove it, she stole his light blue t-shirt and drew a storm cloud with raindrops and hearts underneath it.
Eliot pretended he didn't know why she did it. That's just silly. Everyone knows Grumpy Bear from the Care Bears. Even grumpy old scowly hitters.
She stole the Grumpy Bear shirt back to make sure he wouldn't throw it away. Some day, she was going to get him to wear it.
"Parker, stay out of my house," Eliot growled.
Eliot's house was fun. He was always changing the security just to try to keep her on her toes. And nothing was off limits, not really, besides the footlocker in his closet.
Sacred military footlocker. Parker wouldn't even stand on it to get to the closet shelf. It'd probably eat her. He probably taught the footlocker some Eliot-fu.
Her favorite moments were the dark ones where he acted all military. The times where it was just her and Eliot and they both knew that the bad guy might not live to see tomorrow. When they both knew that if the chance was there, even Parker would kill, to protect the team. Her family. "The two of us, we do things they can't. Won't."
Those times reminded her that she was more like Eliot than anyone else in their little family. She'd never had to hurt anyone, not the permanent way. But that didn't mean she wouldn't. And Eliot knew it too. And that was okay with him.
If it had been her aiming the gun at Dubenich's chest at the dam, Eliot wouldn't have tried to talk her out of it. Because he'd know, if she went that far, it would be because it had to be done. And he'd know there was no talking her down once she decided it, so maybe he shouldn't make her feel like he didn't approve.
Not that she would have held the gun to Dubenich's chest. You don't bluff about those kinds of things. And you don't start it if you're not all the way sure you're going to finish it. And you definitely don't get that close to anyone when you hold a gun. Eliot taught her that.
If you have doubts, that's what a stun gun's for. And if you can't get a good shot in with a stun gun, that's what a hitter's for. Why let someone stay fully conscious while you decide to kill them? So they can find a way to escape?
And if you're trying to get them to talk, a taser's more convincing than a gun. 'Cause they know you'll use it again.
She couldn't help but smile.
"What?" Eliot asked, suspicious.
"Tasers are fun."
"There's something wrong with you."
When Hardison tried to kiss her for real and not just for a con, she wanted to stab him with a fork.
Just in the thigh, not anything serious.
She finally understood what it meant that he was being weird.
She waited for Hardison to leave to pick up something from the post office, then she called Sophie for advice. Sophie was on the big screen while Eliot cooked.
"I know why it's so weird that Hardison is being weird."
Sophie asked, "Why's that?"
"He wants to kiss me. And stuff like that."
"Yes, well, you two have been dancing around that for a long time."
"No, we haven't. At least, I haven't. Eliot, tell her I haven't."
Eliot hesitated. "That's sure what it looks like."
"It's not supposed to be. We joke around, but I'm not -- I don't want that. Why doesn't he know that?"
Sophie said, "He thinks he's being patient and understanding. You've got to tell him the truth."
"The truth? It's never that easy," Parker argued.
Parker looked to Eliot, who said, "I'm staying out of this."
As usual, the conversation wandered back to the endless wedding plans.
When Hardison walked in, it came out in a rush. "Hardison, I don't want to kiss you. Ever. Not for real. I'm sorry." She steeled herself for the reaction.
She didn't know how he'd react to something like this, and that scared her. She wanted to run, wanted to find some air duct he couldn't fit into, wanted to go hide behind Eliot. She knew Hardison wouldn't hurt her. She knew that, but there was something about this sort of thing. It wasn't Hardison that was scary. It was the situation.
She grew up knowing that saying no about this sort of thing was the not-even-a-little-bit-fun kind of super dangerous, even if she didn't know why. The best way to fix it was to stab someone so they'd know she was the most dangerous person in the room. And it always worked. No one ever got past Parker's defenses. Not even once.
But she couldn't stab Hardison. That's why she had to do it while Eliot was still here. Because everyone knows Eliot's the most dangerous person in the room.
"Okay," Hardison said slowly. "That's okay, girl. We still friends."
She looked to Eliot for reassurance that it was really okay, and he nodded. She finally relaxed a little. "Good."
"Parker," Archie chastised. "Do pretend to have a good time."
Parker straightened up and tried to be cheerful. It was hard. She was happy for Nate and Sophie, she really was. But she didn't like that they were going to be gone for a month.
Sophie had wanted a big wedding, but that was hard to do when you didn't have loads of relatives you could call. She made up for it by filling the tiny little banquet room with flowers and china and crystal and lace. So much that it crowded out the twelve people in the wedding party.
Peggy and Hurley hadn't gotten off the dance floor all night.
Maggie was all teary-eyed. She stuck close to Father Paul all evening.
Tara and Archie were being too polite to each other. They had some sort of history that neither would talk about, some connection through some job or something.
Hardison kept fiddling with his laptop, even though he kept saying that the laptop could deejay the wedding all by itself. He'd asked his nana to come. His nana couldn't get away, but Hardison promised all three of them would go visit her before Christmas. Since then, Hardison mostly talked about how much his nana was going to like Parker.
Eliot and his Army buddy Shelley were chattering over comms from opposite sides of the room. They had assigned themselves as security, each with their own door, but Sophie had insisted they mingle. They pretended to, but mostly they stood around talking to the air like creepy secret service guys in a movie. But without the silly secret service curly cord stretched between their ear and their collar.
"Ahem," Father Paul said as he raised his glass. "Well. Thank you all for coming. I never thought I'd be in a room of this many people who know about Nate's most recent career path. It has been... eye-opening, to say the least."
"I'll bet," Hardison said with a grin.
"Nate and I, we had a lot of dreams when we were growing up. I was going to be an archaeologist or, maybe, work for the peace corps. Anything that'd let me travel around the world. Nate, he wanted to own a bookstore or play in a jazz band. We never had the same dream, not once, until we both decided to go to seminary.
"Then Nate got swept up in numbers and probability and statistics, leaving me to ponder faith and hope and joy on my own. I thought he'd lost his way. And I was absolutely sure of it when I found out how far he'd gone to save my church... which I haven't entirely forgiven you for, by the way," he looked pointedly at Nate.
"Well..." Nate said, in his, 'I totally have a good reason, you'll see' voice.
Father Paul continued, "So imagine how surprised I was when I found out he hadn't just joined a band of thieves, out to right the wrongs of the world. The five of you have become a family. Today we celebrate the bond between two of you, and also that the five of you are here, sharing in it. Here's to Sophie and Nate. We wish you a lifetime of peace, love, joy, and contentment."
Parker waited almost two hours for Hardison to leave the room. She silently snuck up to the back of the couch, behind Eliot. She knew he knew she was there. He was just pretending not to know.
She leaned over the back of the couch, careful not to squish it and make it move. She took a slow, silent breath in, smelling the mix of manly soap and Eliot. He twitched, so she ducked down behind the couch, out of sight.
He had a beer in his hand and bowl of popcorn on his lap. Parker bait.
She reached over him and grabbed a handful of popcorn. He caught her wrist before she could get away. She didn't drop her fistful of popcorn.
Hardison came back into the room. "Ease up man," Hardison teased. "Can't even let a girl steal some popcorn." Hardison sat back down, pulling on his headphones. She heard the music leaking through.
Eliot hissed, "Were you sniffing me?"
She twisted her wrist the slightest bit. He let her go. She tumbled over the couch and sat next to him, grinning, tossing some of her stolen popcorn in her mouth.
"It's not -- I didn't say you could -- This --" he waved vaguely at his neck "-- this isn't okay, Parker."
Confused and dismayed, she asked, "Why?"
He growled in frustration. "It's just -- You -- Hardison --" He started helplessly, glancing around again to make sure they didn't have an audience. "'Cause I'm not gonna explain, and Hardison --"
She leaned against him. "I never get caught, silly. Not if I don't want to be." She grabbed another handful of popcorn.
Parker sat down right next to Eliot at the breakfast table. He pretended she wasn't there, so she wrung her sealed bag of fortune cookies until they made a super-loud pop.
"Damn it, Parker." He nudged her arm. "It's a big table, you don't have to sit by me."
"Of course I do." She cracked open the first fortune cookie. She read, "Life is a whim of several billion cells to be you for a while."
"What? Where did you get those fortune cookies?"
"Hardison pulled out all the fortunes and put in new ones. It's why he needed the bag sealer thingy. To close them back up so I wouldn't notice." She read, "Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious animal on earth." She added, "Most vicious animal. Hah! Guess they've never met you."
When he didn't respond to that, she nudged his foot under the table. Then again. And again.
She wondered if he had any bruises she could poke. They really hadn't been getting him into any fights lately. Maybe that was why he was so cranky. She settled for stealing a piece of cubed potato from his plate. He pushed his plate as far from her as he could, then stood up and brought his plate with him to the breakfast bar. She grabbed another cube from his plate as he went.
The moment he sat down, he said, "Gimme back my wallet."
She tossed his wallet to him and cracked open another cookie. "The cost of living hasn't affected its popularity." She tossed the cookie in her mouth and grabbed the bag, then hopped up to sit on the breakfast bar. Eliot groaned and dropped his head to the counter. She stole a piece of his toast.
"Mm, this is good," she said, munching on the toast with homemade three berry jam.
"Yeah, and it was mine," he said. "You know I'd make you some if you asked nicely."
"I'm fine. I've got fortune cookies. See?" She held up the bag, crushing the plastic so it would crackle and squeak.
He twitched in irritation. That was her sign to settle down a bit, before he exploded. But she didn't want to. It was too much fun. And she always settled down when he did that, so what was the harm, just this once?
She grabbed another cookie. "Old age is the most unexpected of things that can happen to a man." She swung her legs, letting her heels bounce off the side of the breakfast bar.
Eliot's eyes got wide and his jaw tensed. "You need to stop. Now."
She giggled and smiled.
He shook himself out of it, looking at her suspiciously. "You're not -- Are you on something?"
"Yeah, a countertop," she grinned, opening another cookie. "A nuclear war can ruin your whole day."
"No, I mean drugs. Are you high on something? Where did those fortune cookies come from?"
"Oh, stop worrying," she said, jumping down to give him a hug. "It's okay, really."
"Hand over the antidepressants, Parker."
She clung to him, giving him puppy dog eyes, though she didn't know how that was going to work 'cause he couldn't see them.
He said, "Now."
"Fine," she said, skipping over to the couch, where she'd hid the bottle in the couch cushions. She tossed the bottle to him. "When my angry place gets too loud again, it's your fault."
Things changed after she told Hardison she didn't want to kiss him. Hardison stopped being weird and she started really liking hanging out with him again. He was fun and safe again. And a lot of his movies were totally worth it if you could wait through the first fifteen minutes. Or thirty. Or forty-five.
And Eliot, he'd gotten got even safer. That didn't make sense, how could someone who's safe get more safe?
Back when the fakey psychic made Parker cry and she'd asked Eliot, "I wanna kill him. Can we make that happen?" And Eliot said, "Yeah. I can... I mean, I could..." That's when Parker knew she'd trust Eliot forever. That's when she knew he'd do anything to keep her safe. He didn't want to kill ever again, but he'd do it, on purpose, just because the mean psychic made her cry.
And Eliot really meant it. Really, really. He wasn't just saying it. She'd know. The part of her that could defend herself that way could recognize the part in him that would defend her that way.
That's when she knew, if he ever invited her into his world, she'd leap first and look later. Because she knew she'd always be safe with him.
But ever since she'd told Hardison no, Eliot felt even more safe, and that was really confusing.
Eliot was paying more attention to her. He wasn't always going out on dates. He sat even closer than usual on the couch and he'd just barely fail to hide a smile when she leaned into him. He was always trying to get her to stay so he could cook for her. But if she was so antsy she itched to get to a zip line, he'd say, "Never mind. Get out of here."
She didn't stop smiling for three days when she went over to his house to find he'd installed four additional deadbolts on his back door, where his neighbors wouldn't see her breaking in. They were the best in high-end home security solutions, all different brands, all in one lovely column. Thirteen minutes, twenty-four seconds and an eighth was her best time so far. She'd get better. The next time she saw him, she petted his arm and said how nice he was.
Something changed in her, too. She used to only think about how he made her feel, but now she was noticing other things.
She used to only know if he was mad or not. But she now knew when he was trying to hide something. She couldn't read it on his face, but she could feel the room get different. And no one else could. Not even Nate and Sophie.
It was like a superpower. An Eliot mind-reading superpower.
When the room got empty and too quiet, she'd ask him to cook for her, then badger him to explain every little thing. She'd steal things or hide things in his stuff, just to remind him that she was thinking of him. She'd disappear just to make him wonder where she was, but never long enough to make him worry.
When the room felt jumpy and twitchy, she'd poke his bruises and sit on him and refuse to leave until he'd let her near him with a hairbrush. She'd put two tiny little braids in, the way he did sometimes, so you could only see them if he moved a certain way. Later, she'd sit cross-legged on his dresser and watch him while he slept. And he'd let her.
When the room felt like the sting after a slap you weren't sure you earned, she'd keep him company by sitting on his balcony, where he could pretend he didn't know she was there. She liked it out there anyway. She could sit there for hours, digging the marshmallows out of a box of cereal and eating them one by sugary one. They tasted like freedom.
When Eliot heard the gunfire and Hardison did the smart thing -- he ran out of the warehouse -- that's when Eliot knew it was going to be a good day.
The shooter had three friends. That made him brave. He had a lot of bulk. That made him confident. He had taken a shot at Hardison. That... was not gonna end well for him.
Eliot stepped into the warehouse aisle. A quick jab to the chin took out the smallest guy.
The second took a few punches to the ribs before he caught Eliot on the jaw.
Before Eliot could return the favor, the third guy came in too low, off balance. A knee to the solar plexus left the guy gasping. Eliot darted under his guard to disarm him.
Eliot held the gun he hadn't yet unloaded, luring the second guy back in. They traded a few blows before an elbow to the temple dropped the guy.
The third guy was still holding his gut. A kick knocked him out, leaving only the big guy conscious. Eliot straightened up and advanced on him.
"You don't want to do that," the big guy said, aiming his gun at Eliot. Eliot rushed the big guy, sweeping him off his feet. A few good punches and a few broken bones later, they were all out for the count.
Eliot disarmed the guns and walked away. "Let's go," he said as he hopped in Hardison's car.
Eliot's patience frayed as Hardison clacked away on his keyboard, fiddling with his briefing slideshow. It was only the three of them now but Hardison still had to showboat.
Parker hovered between them. She had been picking and poking at Eliot and Hardison all day. She was pointing at the screen and asking random, pointless questions about Hardison's work in a voice that was too loud and too shrill.
She was ignoring Eliot for the moment. Mostly. Maybe Hardison was more satisfying to bait. Maybe she was saving the best for last. Either way, Eliot tried to enjoy the reprieve while it lasted.
It didn't work. Parker's constant, erratic movement was setting Eliot's teeth on edge.
If this had been the first year or two the team had been together, it would have almost have been normal Parker behavior. But she'd calmed so much over the years. The only time she'd really been this out of control was a few weeks before, when she'd been sneaking those antidepressants. She was too unhappy for that to still be the reason.
There was something chaotic on the edge of Parker's behavior. Sure, she was upset about Nate and Sophie being gone but that only accounted for so much. He couldn't categorize it and that bugged the hell out of him. He only felt right about the world when everything and everyone fit into their distinctive boxes, even if it was a box for one. Parker wasn't fitting into her box.
The more Parker vibrated like a spooked hummingbird, the more Eliot itched to do something, anything. Something in him empathized with that barely reigned energy. He would feel so much better if he had someone deserving to punch. He'd almost enjoy it if Sterling walked in right now. And Nate wouldn't even be here to stop him.
He was fantasizing about sending Sterling across the room face first when Parker's movements jostled Eliot's arm. A shock of tension spiked through his body. Eliot snapped, "Would you STOP!"
She froze for a fraction of a second, then instantly changed her manner to something closer to normal. He could feel Parker's nervous energy just under the surface, struggling to come back out. It was creepy to watch Parker, of all people, showing that much self-control.
Something about this was dangerous in a way Eliot couldn't begin to describe. He felt himself drop into the calm focus that came over him in a fight. He pushed a hand through his hair and said to Hardison, "Give us a minute?"
"Yeah, I'm 'onna... over here, I'll jus' check the numbers... it's..." Hardison stammered as he retreated to Eliot's office.
Eliot's first instinct was to apologize and ask forgiveness. For what, he wasn't sure, 'cause he'd snapped worse many times before. But it didn't matter. You couldn't open with an apology, not with someone as skittish as Parker was. Instead, he went to the kitchen and grabbed a peace offering -- a box of her favorite cereal and a package of chocolates he'd hidden away.
She pulled the box closer but didn't open it.
He tried to keep the worry off his face as he opened the chocolates and took one from the package, holding it out to her. She grabbed the chocolate, eating it with quick, exaggerated chomps.
He said, "There, that helps, right?"
She didn't respond.
"You startled me, is all. I'm not mad at you."
"It's a tough day for you," he continued, handing her the package of chocolate. She dug out another chocolate and ate it just as fast, then dug for another and another.
He'd been looking for anything that might lure her out of this strange mood, but he wondered at the wisdom of giving chocolate to a Parker who had already been vibrating out of her skin. Still, if it made her happier, it would be worth it.
He itched to ask her if there was something about this client or mark that was getting to her. He wanted to fix it, to protect her from it, and he couldn't do that until he knew what "it" was.
He wished Nate were here. Nate had a way of telling him which direction to look in without saying a word. Reaching for something, anything, he suggested, "C'mon, let's go outside."
He pulled on his jacket while she looked worriedly at the half-empty chocolate package.
"Take it with you. C'mon."
She pocketed it and followed.
As he stepped out of the roof's access door, he realized Parker hadn't bothered to grab a jacket. He started to ask her if she wanted one, but she was gone. "Parker?"
A giggle drew his attention upwards. Parker was hanging from her knees on the scaffolding she'd set up for her rappelling rig. She was thirty feet above him, dangling, her arms spread beneath her as she rocked back and forth. Eliot's stomach dropped and he instinctively moved to catch her if she fell. He wanted to yell at her to get down but he wasn't going to risk making things worse.
As the moments passed, her energy calmed and brightened until she was looking out on the city's lights with a quiet delight.
Then in a heart-stopping moment, she let go, in a freefall until she caught the bar ten feet below the first. She swung around to dangle from it, switched her hands so she was facing him, and swung forward and let go, leaving him to break her fifteen foot fall.
"Damn it, Parker, don't do that!" he growled as he eased her down.
The package of chocolates was on the ground. He retrieved them and stuffed them back into her pocket.
Parker rubbed her arms. The air had a bite to it. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
She stuffed each arm into its sleeve and pulled the front closed around her, then ducked her head toward the material and breathed in, giving the fabric her 'I have a secret' smile.
It felt stupid to say it, but he was too busy trying not to shiver to think of anything better. "I would have brought you Bunny if he was here."
She looked up at that, her eyes wide. It must have been the right thing to say because she was directing that secret smile at him. She caught him in a hug that was uncomfortably tight.
Helplessly he wrapped his arms around her. Although he'd been trying to avoid it, he added, "I'm sorry I snapped at you."
Still clinging to him, she leaned back and looked at him with curious confusion. "But that's what Eliots do."
"Yeah, but... Not when you're having a bad day."
"Oh. That's okay." She let go and grabbed him by the hand, bouncing on her toes for a moment, then pulled him to the building's roof access door. Whatever the weird vibe he'd been getting from her was, it was gone.
The warmth of the stairwell was a relief. She was in front of him, and he nearly ran into her as she stopped abruptly. She asked, "Can I tell you a secret?"
"Okay. Yeah," Eliot agreed, eager to know what was bothering her.
"I want you to snap at me. When you want to, I mean. Even if it's a bad day. Especially if."
"Because I like it. Means I can go as far as I want. You'll tell me when it's too much."
"Not that you ever listen."
"I listen when you really mean it. You know. When you get all serious, like Nate does."
He was still waiting to find out something that would explain this bizarre episode. "Okay. You said you were going to tell me a secret, though."
"I just did, silly."
Confused, Eliot said, "Say it again, in different words."
"I like it when you get bossy." She waited a moment, then started back down the stairs. "Hardison's waiting."
Still dwarfed by Eliot's jacket, Parker perched cross-legged on the briefing counter, apparently back to normal. She was chatting with Hardison and finishing off the chocolates.
Hardison looked at Eliot questioningly, but Eliot shook his head, baffled. Without looking away, Hardison said, "Well, we ready to do this?" Hardison picked up the remote and started the briefing.
Eliot glanced over to find Parker with her hand in the cereal box, happily munching away.
After Eliot had dropped Parker off at her warehouse, he met Hardison at the pool hall.
"I still don't know why my place ain't good enough," Hardison complained. "My pool table's nicer than these."
"I'm not spending another night cooped up if I don't have to. Take your shot."
Hardison hesitated. "Listen man," Hardison said. "I just want you to know, whatever's going on with you and Parker, it's cool. She needs someone to take care of her, you know?"
"What are you talking about? Nothing's--"
"No, I know that. I'm not thinkin' you've crossed any lines or nothin'. I'm just sayin' if you do, you know, it's not a thing. We cool. I know you'll treat her right."
Eliot growled, "I'm not making a move on Parker. Take your shot."
Eliot wiped the lemon juice off his hands and grabbed his phone. Maggie. "Hey, Maggie. Thanks for calling me back."
"Sure, it's good to hear from you. You never call often enough. What's going on?"
He hadn't thought this through. Several answers tumbled through his head, but each was less discreet than the last. He couldn't even put into words what was bugging him about Parker; how was he going to describe it to Maggie without saying a lot more than he should say?
He said, "I'm worried about Parker. She's taking it hard, not getting to talk with Sophie while they're on their honeymoon."
"Yes, she seemed unhappy at the wedding," she agreed.
And before that. With the antidepressants. But he couldn't tell her that. "I'm looking for ideas. She's driving me nuts, and I'm out of ways to distract her."
"Well, it is December. And she likes Christmas, doesn't she?"
The next evening, Eliot arranged to get the team together at Hardison's, though it was supposed to be a day off. Hardison set up a video conference with Maggie.
"Hi guys!" Maggie said. "Sophie and I found a way to get Nate to be less of a Scrooge this year. I'm gonna help set up a Secret Santa exchange for the five of you."
Parker said, "You're my hero."
Maggie smiled and continued, "Rules are, I give everyone someone to get a gift for. You can't tell anyone who you're giving to. But if you want someone else from the team or Nate or Sophie to help make part of your gift, I'll set it up. But you can't buy anything, or Nate won't go along with it. It has to be handmade."
"What if we steal it?" Parker asked. "That's not buying."
Maggie cringed. "I don't know, what would Nate say?"
Hardison said, "He'd say, as long as it was from someone who had it comin'."
Parker pulled a new cereal box down from the cupboard and tore the flap open. "Hey, where's my cereal --" Parker said, tugging the gift out of her cereal box. Eliot watched curiously. He was the one who'd hidden the gift, but he didn't know what it was.
"Parker," she read the gift tag. "Don't open until December 1." She flipped the package over. "Hardison, what day is it?"
"Yay!" She tore open the paper. It was a piece of cardboard, with a bunch of pods of plastic on the back. The cardboard had a cheerful picture of Santa and his reindeer. Parker asked, "What's a 'chocolate advent calendar?'"
"Oh, I've seen one of those," Hardison said, coming over to look. "You use it to count down how many days 'til Christmas. You get to open one door every day. Here, pull the cardboard up, right there."
She tugged where he showed her and a flap opened, revealing a piece of chocolate. "Chocolate!"
Eliot groaned. "That's exactly what we need. Thanks, Hardison. Feeding Parker chocolate every day 'til Christmas."
"Wasn't me." Had to be Maggie, then. The three of them were taking turns coming up with cheap gifts in hopes they'd help distract Parker.
Parker popped the chocolate in her mouth, admiring her new toy as she chewed.
Hardison said, "Wish I'd thought of it."
"Must have been Sophie," Eliot said. "That box has been up there a while."
Hardison was pointing at the cardboard. "You know, you can open the first two days too, since you missed them."
Delighted, Parker opened two more flaps and munched on the chocolate hidden behind them.
"It's not Sophie's handwriting," Parker said with her mouth full. "I'd know."
"Whose is it, then?" Hardison asked.
"Must be Santa's!" Parker said.
"Santa's not 'til Christmas--" Eliot cut himself off, annoyed he'd been dragged that far in.
"Okay, it's one of his elves then."
"Could be your Secret Santa," Hardison said.
"Oh, you know what?" Parker said brightly. "I brought decorations! Come help!"
Eliot tried not to groan. He and Hardison followed her down to her car and helped her bring the boxes in.
As Parker dug through the boxes and found the perfect places for everything, Eliot was reminded of the last time she was so bouncy -- the evening they'd gone to the roof. The evening she'd told him she wanted him to reign her in. It had weighed on him since, wondering exactly how much she meant it and exactly how far he was supposed to go.
Willing himself to be okay with the fact that this might be a big mistake, Eliot called Parker over.
Instead of his usual angry nagging, he took a page out of Nate's book, pinning her with a calm look and an even tone. "I want you to stop and eat some breakfast. And I mean right now. Last thing I need is you on an empty stomach when the sugar wears off."
She got even more delighted, and he hadn't thought that was possible. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and said, "Okay!" then headed directly for the kitchen. The abrupt compliance was the oddest part. On the rare occasions where she didn't ignore him outright, there was always one more poke, one more complaint, or one more bounce.
Hardison said, "Man, if I knew that'd work, I'd've told you to try it ages ago."
Parker had her hand in a box of graham crackers. She tugged a bag open and started cracking them apart, not caring where the crumbs went. She glanced at Hardison, who had started back in on soldering some tiny electronic toy. She gave Eliot her 'I have a secret' smile.
It took more time than Eliot expected to arrange the advent gifts for Parker. Maggie said, one little gift every day 'til Christmas. Maggie, Eliot, and Hardison would each get six little presents for Parker. The first one was the advent calendar. Eliot had a few others hidden in his footlocker. Each day he'd grab one and hide it at Hardison's place.
The Christmas bustle brightened Parker right up. It had better. They were six days in, and he was already run ragged. Even his own home wasn't safe from the chaos of Christmas. Parker had decided that the missing December 2nd gift had to be in Eliot's house somewhere. He'd come home yesterday to find her rifling through his kitchen. He'd stood there and supervised as she put everything back where it belonged.
Sophie was still taking her well-deserved break from tending to Parker, but he knew how to contact Nate and Sophie. He'd dragged Sophie into the game, so now there were four people putting wrapped gifts in for the gift-a-day advent project. The beauty of that was plausible deniability. December 3rd was a bottle of bubbles that he'd never admit to buying. But it was worth it, just to watch Hardison scramble to cover his precious keyboard. It didn't take Parker long to figure out, if she wanted to drag Hardison away from his computer, all she had to do was threaten to blow bubbles at his screen.
Eliot didn't know if Hardison was to blame for December 4th remote control mini helicopter. Eliot had lost count of how many times that damned thing had crash landed into him or his food. Eliot was itching to see if Hardison's newest EMP gun would take it out.
He'd put up with the helicopter, though. Hell, he'd encouraged it. The first time it bounced off his head, she'd watched just a little too carefully to see just how irritated he was. But she wasn't scared. She was trying to get a reaction, any reaction.
He'd had something to prove, he guessed. He'd wanted to show her that he liked it that she was having fun, even if it was at his expense. So he'd given her the tiniest little nod of approval and handed the helicopter back. Then he'd started ranting about how she should play with it outside. She knew he didn't mean it, so she ignored it.
Minutes later, he was ducking the helicopter again. When it landed on the countertop, knocking the sriracha bottle into the crab cakes he was forming, he pinned her with a look and said, "Enough." There was the secret smile again. She dropped the helicopter's controller on the counter and skipped away to put up more decorations.
The December 5th slinkies were a dud. "It won't go down stairs, alone or in pairs!" she'd said, offended. But December 6th yielded waterproof socks, which were the solution waiting for the perfect problem.
Parker's half-manic glint had shifted away from something that had been frightening her. In its place was her usual Christmas delight. Eliot still wanted to know what had put the fright there in the first place. Still, he wasn't a man to question his luck too closely.
Although, he could've done without the yearly gingerbread house.
When he'd gotten home later that day, his house was nice and quiet. Parker's car wasn't in his driveway or on his street, but that was never a guarantee with her. She delighted in appearing out of nowhere.
His greenhouse had been calling him all day. He had carrots by the armful and the bok choy was ready to go. The new batch of fava beans weren't up yet. The remains of the spinach bed were ready for some globe onions to be put in. The scent of a winter greenhouse never failed to soothe Eliot's mind, and he needed some peace after all the Christmas activity.
He stepped into his greenhouse to find Parker attacking his spinach bed with a garden spade, looking for the December 2nd gift. His temper flared to life. But even as he drew breath to yell at her, some corner of his mind taunted him that she'd just ignore him if he say it calmly. It was a hell of a struggle, but he forced himself to settle down. Finally, when he could trust himself to speak, he held his hand out and said, "Give."
Watching him curiously, she handed over the spade.
It was the spinach bed, so she hadn't done anything he hadn't intended to do himself. But that wasn't the point. She'd crossed a line she shouldn't have crossed. He asked, "Are you expecting me to punish you?"
"You can if you want," she said, almost hopefully.
Eliot's mouth went dry. The idea of punishing her didn't sit well with him at all. But he shoved his discomfort away, reasoning that it could mean anything and nothing, coming from Parker.
Struggling again to speak calmly, he asked, "Are you asking me to spell out every line and limit in detail? I can't do that. You knew I wouldn't like it if you were digging around in here."
She looked mutinous, but she didn't argue.
He asked, "So what's the line here? How do we keep something like this from happening again?"
"I don't know. Isn't that your job to figure out?"
"You're not a child, and I'm not gonna treat you like one. I'll--" he searched for the words for a long moment. "If you want me to be bossy about this-- do you?"
She nodded emphatically.
"Well, then. Then you and me, we've gotta come up with the 'how' together. I'll tell you when you go too far, but we both have to come up with the rules."
"That's going to be hard," she complained.
"For you and me both. And we're gonna start with this." He waved the spade. "How do we keep this from happening again?"
"I have to ask to go in your greenhouse?"
"Is that gonna keep you out of the next thing you're not supposed to get into?"
"If it's in your greenhouse or your footlocker, yes."
"Not good enough. You knew this would probably make me mad, right?"
"Yes. But everything makes you mad."
"Mad enough that punishment could come into it?
"Oh. Yes, I knew."
"Then the rule is, if you know it might make me that mad, you ask first."
"And if I don't know it'll make you mad? That mad, I mean?"
"Then when I catch you, we have another talk to figure out where the lines should be."
That secret smile appeared again, but then she looked down. "I'm sorry."
"Hey," he said. Despite himself, he nudged her chin up and rubbed a bit of dirt off her cheek. "We're both gonna make a lot of mistakes if we're gonna do this. We gotta be patient with each other."
She smiled. "Deal."
"You can be in here whenever you want, if you don't mess up stuff," he said. "It's off limits to Secret Santas, though. You're not gonna find any gifts in here."
When Eliot returned to his house with a handful of bok choy, Parker had moved her car to the driveway. It was an odd rhythm they'd gotten into. She'd sneak in and make herself at home. He'd pretend she belonged there all along.
The Christmas mania usually burned off by this time of night. He went into his bedroom to find her on her stomach on his bed, candy-cane striped socks waving in midair above her. She had her basket of padlocks and her stopwatch. The locks that weren't in the basket were sorted into two neat piles.
He got ready for bed, knowing she'd probably be gone when he was done. But she was still there when he climbed under the covers with a book. She could be good company. He got caught up in the words on the page, barely noticing how she hissed "Yes!" when she beat a lock faster than she expected and how she huffed in frustration when it took too long.
He dared to rest a hand on the small of her back. She shifted closer. She pulled the basket over and put the piles where they belonged, then went back to picking her locks.
"I wasn't going to let anyone know who's delegating to who on the Secret Santas," Maggie said over the phone, "But I get a feeling you're going to need all the facts on this one."
"How bad is it?" Eliot asked, looking through his pantry.
"Parker wants to steal something from Chaos."
"What did he do to you guys, anyway? I mean, he was a jerk when we worked together at the dam, but..."
"He tried to kill Sophie with a motion-activated bomb. Safe to say we could burn his house down and Nate wouldn't complain. Much."
"Really?!" Parker delightedly squealed from somewhere under the floorboards. She was in his crawlspace looking for the December 2nd advent gift, but he hadn't thought she'd be able to hear him. "Fire? Please? I have some plastique with Chaos' name on it--"
"No arson, Parker," Eliot said.
"Well, I could put Chaos' name on it--"
"No arson, Parker!"
Later that night, Eliot and Parker were still at his house, cleaning the dinner dishes. Parker said, "So, Chaos."
"Yeah, you got a plan?" Eliot asked.
"Get in, get out, make his house go boom. No time for a con anyway."
"No explosions, Parker. We don't need the attention. You already figure out what Hardison would want?"
"No. But if it looks like something Hardison would have, we grab it."
"Have you given this any thought at all?"
"No. You'll just change it anyway. And you're lots better than I am at getting intel. We can't plan without intel."
"So, exactly what part of this is your job? 'Cause there's a whole lot of 'we' here."
"What's wrong with that?" She rinsed off her hands, turned off the faucet, and flicked water at him.
Not much, he admitted to himself. He snapped at her with a towel, intentionally missing by six inches. She shrieked, wetting her hands so she could flick more water at him.
Hardison's nana was a short, feisty woman with a strong southern drawl whose eyes lit up whenever she saw or heard a child. Eliot had an aunt like that. He winced in sympathy for the kids because his aunt's "I'm disappointed in you" lecture was deadlier than her spankings.
Hardison and his nana were talking a hundred miles a minute while somehow finding ways to keep Parker and Eliot in on the conversation. All the while, Hardison's nana -- "Jus' Nana, dears. You jus' call me Nana" -- had an eye on all four of her charges, catching the sibling bickering before it could get out of hand and finding activities for them before boredom tempted them into misbehavior.
Her oldest slunk past the group of adults and Nana broke off, saying, "Missy? Missy, now you come here. Let me see what you got."
The nine-year-old glared as she handed over the pile of junk mail. Nana flipped through them and put them on the counter behind her. "You know better. You already got enough junk up there. You want new ones, you gotta trade me for some old ones."
Missy crossed her arms and huffed off.
"My little clutterbug," she said fondly, waiting for Missy to get out of earshot. Quietly, Nana said, "Her momma died in a house fire last year. Since then, it's all about collecting stuff. Junk, all of it. Give her somethin' nice, and she trades it for more junk. An' I already caught her stealin' stuff twice."
Hardison looked at Parker, which led Eliot and Nana to look at Parker. Parker said, "Why are we looking at me?"
Hardison looked away, trying to innocently go back to the previous conversation.
Later that night, after Nana had put the younger ones to bed, Eliot looked for some excuse to leave Hardison alone to talk to his nana. She must have had the same idea, because as she sat down she asked Missy, "Why don't you show Eliot and Parker some of your things?"
Missy eagerly lead them to her room. He could hear Hardison and his nana laughing hard, enjoying each other's company. Eliot settled into the little desk chair as Missy dug out little bits of found junk to show off, proudly saying where she'd found what.
It was tiring, watching Missy talk endlessly, but it made him smile anyway. It made his heart glad when a kid was showing off what they loved. And if it was a foster kid showing off a pile of junk? Whatever worked.
Parker wasn't helping with the conversation at all. And he'd started repeating himself ten minutes ago. Parker was getting more and more antsy, but Missy hadn't wound down yet and it wasn't quite her bedtime.
"You know, there's one thing you haven't told me about," he dared. "And it's very pretty." He looked pointedly at the earring hanging from one ear. It was a striking opal surrounded by an intricate black hills gold setting. It didn't have a match; her other ear had a plastic blue sphere that was roughly the same color as the opal.
As Missy touched it, her voice grew sadder and her voice small. Silent tears started, but she tried to ignore them. She put down the collection of pencil erasers that was in her other hand and sat down on the bed. "It was my momma's. They found it in her car, so they let me have it."
Reluctantly, Eliot said, "My daddy held on to my momma's stuff when she died. Made him feel like part of her was still there."
"Your momma died too?"
"Yeah. When I was little. She always loved to decorate the house, and when she died, he wouldn't throw anything away, even if we didn't need it any more."
Missy's hand went back to her earring.
"One day, I remember I was eleven years old, and I was playin' catch in the house. Ball went long and I ran into the table. I couldn't catch my momma's lamp before it fell. Then it broke, and I just knew my daddy was gonna tan my hide good."
She had her hands covering half her face. "Did he?" she asked with wide eyes. She tried to hide that she was wiping away her tears.
"No. When he got home, he got all quiet. He just told me to sweep up the pieces. Then he started staring at the matching lamp he had left, like he lost her all over again. I felt bad and I swore to myself I was gonna make it right. So I took a picture of the other lamp and I asked everyone where I could get one like it. I saved up all my money so I could get it when I finally found one. Took me over a year. And when I did, I brought it home to him, thinkin' maybe it'd make it okay."
"But it wasn't the same," Missy said. "Even if it looked the same."
"Yeah. He wrapped up the one I'd found and put it in the attic. So I told him, just before I went into the army, I told him--" and damn, did that hurt, thinking about the last fight they'd ever had, but he could do this. "I told him, if she was still alive, she would've gotten another one. It didn't make sense, he couldn't accept it just 'cause she's gone. 'Cause she would've wanted him to have it, since it meant that much."
Hardison had stayed behind to sleep on his nana's couch. He said he didn't want to miss her waffles.
On the ride back to the hotel, Parker asked, "So, what happened? Did your dad change his mind about the lamp?"
"I don't know. I went to Ok City so I could talk to him, after we did the Value More job. He didn't come to the door."
She squeezed his shoulder and changed the subject.
The next day, he asked around for a jeweler who did custom pieces. When he picked Hardison up, he handed Missy the jeweler's business card. He told her, "You ever want to save up for the other earring, this guy will make it for you. He said it'd cost a hundred bucks and he'll make you a copy. He'll even put a little mark on it so you know which one belonged to your mom. But you gotta promise me something, all right?"
She nodded, holding the card close.
"No stealing that money. And no trading, either. You gotta save up gifts or earn it."
"You don't have to settle for junk. Your momma's gonna want you to have nice things even now she's gone."
Behind Missy, Hardison's nana beamed at him. He slipped Nana a business card, just in case Missy lost hers.
Without Hardison in the loop, there was no temptation to run the heist on Chaos' playing field. This heist was strictly old school. Eliot had called in a few favors and got all the intel they needed. He tossed the printouts onto the table in front of Parker. She picked it up and looked at the first page. "Alaska?"
"Weakest point of attack. You know how Hardison can get into his own computer from a mark's machine?"
"Yeah," she said, still looking over the file.
"And how it didn't lose any of his computer files when he blew up the office?"
She nodded. She always got sad when someone mentioned the first office. "I didn't get to see it blow up."
"I know. Hardison's sorry. You were kidnapped at the time. Anyway. It didn't ruin his programs and stuff when it blew up, 'cause he has more machines. Lots of them. Different places in the world, and they're all copies of each other. So does Chaos."
"So we just go steal one of his copies?"
"Yeah. There's a machine with hard drives in Alaska. Should be enough to make Hardison happy."
"And what happens when Chaos finds out?"
"To find out, he'll have to be near a computer." He tossed a second pile of papers on the table. It was surveillance data on Chaos.
"What do we do with that?"
"We steal Chaos. He won't mind being tied up 'til Hardison gets the drive."
She grinned. "You say the sweetest things."
That was almost flirtatious. Doing his best to ignore it, he said, "Shouldn't be tough. Geeks don't think too hard about physical security, especially outside their homes. But we'll have to wait for just before Christmas. We don't want to hold him captive longer than we have to."
"Day before. There and back to Alaska's gonna be a long pair of flights." That wasn't the worst part of it, though. The big challenge would be to keep Parker away from the explosives.
Eliot stopped by Maggie's place to get the latest batch of advent gifts. "You know," he said, "This is a pain in the ass, but it worked. Gotta hand it to you."
"I'm glad," she said with a fond smile. "How's she liking the latest crop of gifts?"
"She finally found the December 2nd one. I thought it'd be anticlimactic. Who knew she'd like pink camouflage colored duct tape so much?"
"I try not to think too hard on what's actually going to catch her eye," Maggie said with a smile. "Or why."
"No kidding. And wait 'til you see this picture of her favorite one so far." He pulled out his phone.
"And her second favorite," Eliot pulled up his sleeve to show a band-aid that looked like a piece of bacon.
Maggie laughed. "The real question is, how'd she get you to leave it on?"
"Well." He tugged his sleeve down, looking for a distraction. "And then there's the Mr. Potato Head--"
"Oh no, you don't," Maggie said, still smiling. "There really is something between you, isn't there?"
He glared. Maggie's smile got even brighter.
"Speaking of, Parker wanted me to ask you something."
"She wants to know why you hadn't kissed her yet."
"Good one, Maggie. Try another one."
"I'm not joking. I won't break her confidence by telling you what she said, but Eliot, if you're not going to do something, at least you've got to see you're stringing her along."
Eliot grabbed the bag of advent gifts and headed for the door. "I'll keep that in mind."
It was a simple fact of Eliot's life that he'd have days where he'd open his eyes and find just how big a fix he'd gotten himself into.
Now that Maggie had pointed out -- hell, really, it was Parker who'd seen it before anyone -- he saw it. Things had gotten a lot closer between them than he'd allowed himself to admit.
He felt kind of stupid for not catching it earlier. He'd thought that, since he wasn't pursuing her sexually, it didn't count. Now he realized things had headed for serious without him seeing it. He was totally out of his depth.
He'd always let lust lead the way when it came to women, and he'd never had trouble getting exactly what he wanted. Like Aimee.
Aimee had been a flame that had nearly burned him alive. It was heady and dizzying while it lasted. He wanted her desperately and he struggled to appease her temper time and time again. When he'd gone missing that final time, he hadn't dared to face her. After that, he'd never let a woman get close.
Until Parker. And sure, Parker had a great body. If he didn't know her, he'd try for her any day of the week. But she was Parker. There was an innocence crossed with fierceness that he wasn't sure how to approach. Something about her said, 'Hands off.'
His mind wandered back to Aimee and why that didn't work. The romance was as passionate enough to guarantee he'd keep coming back. But when he was around, she spent a lot of time reminding him of her demands. It felt like the easy way out at the time -- there's a woman he'd never have to play guessing games with. But she also wasn't too forgiving when Eliot couldn't live up to what she wanted.
Parker never asked for anything. She was self-sufficient and proud of the fact. But more importantly, she never asked more of Eliot than he could give. That's what had forced him to run from anything good ever since Aimee -- women always wanted explanations and signs and declarations. And he couldn't do that. It wasn't in Eliot to bare his soul with words. He didn't know it when he was a teenager, but he knew it now -- he couldn't live with a woman who thought he owed her any explanation she might demand.
If Parker asked him to tell her something personal, he'd tell her. But only because there were so many things she let him keep to himself.
More nights than not, Eliot came home to find her there. He'd started to expect it. But he didn't dread it. She seemed to know when he needed quiet and when he was up for her antics. She knew when she could push him and she knew when to back the hell off. Even though Parker was a walking boundary violation, she had always known when to be careful of him, and it wasn't out of fear. And she did it in a way that kept everyone from knowing she was doing it. She didn't avoid annoying him. She just picked times when he was calm enough to take it.
He caught himself over and over, encouraging her. Letting her take liberties that he'd never let anyone else take. For the sake of that manic little smile, he'd let her get away with all sorts of things.
That mattered -- her habit of picking and poking at him around Hardison and the others. Eliot was a private person, and he didn't think he could take it if suddenly she'd started getting all meek and mild at Hardison's. If anything, Parker's harassment had kicked up a notch. She got a thrill out of pushing Eliot's buttons, and she was even more fearless now that she wasn't the one who had to set the boundaries on it.
Which didn't get him anywhere on coming to a decision. He knew he liked being around her. The question was what kind of relationship that could add up to, and whether he could be part of that.
Eliot had already given up other women. He hadn't dated since... well, since Hardison gave him the go-ahead. That spelled commitment, and that was something Eliot didn't do.
As much as he wanted to deny it, he was falling for her. Which meant, he had no defenses with her.
And that was the problem. Eliot wasn't a man who could tolerate being defenseless.
Eliot opened his pantry and froze. There, propped up against the roasted edamame was a very distinctive envelope. It was his mom's stationery, the rose pattern no one was ever, ever allowed to touch. Scrawled across the front was "Eliot" in his dad's jittery cursive script.
Taking a steadying breath, he eased the edge open with a paring knife. The sheet inside held a single sentence:
"Please come home, son."
Parker hadn't asked him to cook for her that night. That proved he wasn't hiding any of this as well as he thought he was.
He had been sitting on his couch, staring off into space, when he heard a soft scratch of metal on metal and the slightest snick of a deadbolt. He went to the kitchen and watched as each lock in turn rotated and opened. She was on the last one, and she always saved the hardest for last.
Hating himself but knowing he couldn't trust himself to be kind to her right now, he went to the door and locked the deadbolts she'd already opened.
The scratching silenced. He leaned back against the door and slid down it, slipping back into his dazed stare.
Five minutes later, he saw a flicker of movement in the upper corner of his kitchen window. He didn't move, didn't so much as look in her direction. But he knew she could see him. His instincts urged him to get up and pretend everything was normal. But this was Parker. He didn't always have to pretend.
Five days earlier...
"Archie?" Parker asked.
"I'm gonna marry Eliot if he lets me. Is that dumb?"
"Only the 'if he lets me' part."
Parker knocked and knocked and knocked on the aluminum screen door, shouting, "Hello? Mr. Spencer? Hello?" Her lockpick set was burning a hole in her pocket. He had twenty-two more seconds and then she--
A man opened the door. Eliot's father. He asked, "Something wrong?"
"You've got the same eyes. And voice," she said, fascinated. His hair was graying and his body was compact and strong, showing he'd worked in physical labor for years.
"The same...? Can I help you with something, little lady?"
"You answered the door for me. Why didn't you answer the door for Eliot?"
A thousand confusing things happened on the man's face, and he asked, "Is Eliot all right?"
She nodded quickly. "Of course he is."
"You his friend?"
"I'm his wife. He just doesn't know it yet."
He hesitated, then opened the door wide. "Why don't you come in? What can I get you to drink? Tea?"
She nodded as she followed him in, distracted by how she'd just gone back in time. The TV's screen was the edge of a silvery bubble housed in a huge cabinet, and it had rabbit ear antennas. There was phone with a long, curly cord hanging on the wall. The Christmas tree had delicate glass antique ornaments hanging from it.
There was a big turntable with a glossy black record on it. On either side, there was an end table, each with a matching lamp. Next to one was an old wedding photo. Next to the other lamp was a picture of an eleven year old boy. As he handed her the glass of iced tea, she asked, "Is that Eliot?"
In that deep, gravelly voice, he said, "Yeah. That's my boy."
She took a sip of the iced tea to find it was loaded with sugar. She loved it. "Why didn't you let him in?"
He looked stricken. "I hoped it was him, what brought the beer. I wish I was here when he came..."
"Then you've got to tell him so."
"I don't know how to find him."
He stared at the picture of Eliot as a child, lost for a moment. She wished she had a new photograph of Eliot to give him. But all she had were the ones on her phone.
Eliot's dad asked, "Will you bring him something?"
He went to the roll-top desk and got out an old, thin box covered in gold and silver foil with a lid of fragile, yellowed clear plastic. He pulled out a sheet of fancy paper and a matching envelope.
She curiously watched as he twirled an old felt pen around his fingers while staring at the blank page. She looked away, studying the picture again. She didn't want to distract him. These things were too important to mess up.
The longer she looked at the picture of Eliot, the more she really did want to get a new photograph for him. "Mr. Spencer?" He still hadn't uncapped the pen.
"Call me Jack, darlin'," he said as he walked back over to her. "What's your name?"
"Parker Spencer, huh?"
That was weird. Too weird, thinking of having a last name. Speaking too fast, she said, "Not yet. Just Parker. Umm, I want to go get something. Can I come back in a few hours and get the letter?"
"Sure," he said. "Whatever you want, little lady." He walked her to the door.
"I'll be back," she promised as she left.
"You'd better," he said with a tilt of the head and a tiny smile that was just like Eliot's. "Say, Parker?"
"What city's he living in?"
"Seattle," she answered, then worried that Eliot might want to keep that a secret. Well, if Eliot didn't like it, they could move.
"My son's in Seattle," he repeated softly, with a bit of wonder.
Somehow she felt like she'd just given him something precious, but she didn't understand what.
The day after she left the envelope in Eliot's pantry, Eliot had disappeared without a word.
Hardison said, "I don't think you're gonna get your snow this year," trying to distract her.
Parker said, "I don't want snow. I want Eliot. Santa has to bring Eliot home."
Eliot drove through the Washington downpour, making his way home, with his heart hurting in all the best places. His dad let him in. His dad forgave him.
He hesitated as he turned the corner of his block. His front room lights were on. Parker's car was in his driveway. He pulled over, trying to decide if he could face her.
He'd been counting on some time alone to let things settle in and get himself together. He didn't know who he was, if he wasn't Jack Spencer's greatest disappointment. He didn't know how to accept his dad's love but there was no denying that it was there.
He was raw and vulnerable from all the changes his life had seen in the past few days. All he wanted was time to hide away from the world and recover. He considered finding himself a hotel room for the night.
While sitting in his car halfway down the block from his house, he watched Parker's silhouette in his kitchen window. He didn't know if he could keep his composure with her. He felt like everything he was would just fly apart if he lost focus for a minute.
But he realized that that might work out all right. He trusted her to see him like this. She was the one woman who knew when to push and when to give him room. No matter what she saw in his eyes, she wouldn't ask.
He grabbed his dad's satchel and walked the rest of the way to his house.
Parker checked over her suspension rig, anticipating the mad rush of the fall. Even now, in the middle of a job that had Eliot all tensed up, she knew everything would be okay. He'd do what he had to do, she'd do what she had to do, and everything would work out exactly the way it was supposed to. After a few changes in plans, of course.
"All right, Parker. Let's get this going," Eliot said over the comm.
Suppressing a delighted squeal, Parker leaped over the edge. Air rushed past her as the ground rushed closer and her heart pounded in her ears. She tensed against the pressure of the straps as the line hit its stop.
Unhooking herself, she thought about how it never lasted long enough. Then she was creeping down the halls of the old savings and loan building, keeping an eye out for security, rushing to open the secure room that held Chaos' hard drives.
The drives were in a modified Glen Reeder 2320 vault. One of her favorites. She loved Alaska.
And she loved knowing Chaos was in Shelley's basement, tied up with way too much pink camouflage duct tape. That's what you get for trying to kill someone in Parker's family.
Eliot wouldn't shut up while she listened to the tumblers for the Glen Reeder vault. She loved that, too.
On Christmas eve, Eliot was at home, pulling apart raw chicken for dinner. Parker had been acting weird the last few days. He didn't know how to respond to it, so he waited and watched.
She said, "You're looking at me again and pretending you're not. Are you mad at me?"
"Why would I be mad at you?"
"I broke the rule."
He had no idea what she was talking about. He said, "Let me put this away." He wrapped the chicken and put it back in the fridge, then washed his hands.
The rule was, she was supposed to ask him before she did something that would piss him off. But that wasn't much of a hint.
He looked up from the dish towel to find her still standing in the middle of the kitchen, looking lost.
Eliot said, "So, tell me."
"It was really a good thing, you know. I mean, Nate broke us. We can't even do something wrong without doing something something right. And it all worked out for the best, so maybe..."
"Quit dancing around it and tell me."
"You already know. I talked to your dad."
"Yeah, you did."
In all the worry about how things would go with his dad, it was easy to forget that Parker had made it all happen. And since it turned out all right, it was easy to forget she'd done something she had no business doing.
He said, "And if you broke the rule, that means you knew it'd make me really mad."
"No, not maybe. If we're gonna do this, you're not gonna hide from me. Tell me how it happened."
"Well, I went over and knocked on his door..."
"No. How you decided to do it. Without talking to me first."
"I don't know. I just did."
His shoulders tensed at how she wouldn't give him a straight answer. She had betrayed his trust, gone around him to do something that could have gone very wrong. But it was Christmas Eve, and he hadn't gone through all this trouble arranging gifts and everything just to ruin her Christmas with a fight.
Eliot said, "Well. We'll leave it for later, if that's all right with you. It's not something I want to look too closely at right now. But... I can say, we'll work it out somehow. All right?"
She kissed him on the cheek. "Okay."
Maggie knocked on Hardison's door. She hoped it wasn't going to be too awkward, sharing Christmas with the newlywed Sophie and Nate.
Parker opened the door and grabbed her hand. "Maggie! I've got to show you something!" Parker's grip on Maggie's hand was a bit too tight. Parker led her to a Christmas tree that was decorated with impossibly expensive jewelry. Under it were three gifts and two cards. There was an old Operation game lying open and there was a collection of tiny plastic bones on the floor.
"Parker, no electrocuting Maggie," Nate said sternly.
"But Nate, it's Christmas!" Parker argued. Maggie wondered what that had to do with it. She hadn't tried the game in years, so she sat down and reached for the pliers.
Eliot pushed the box away from her with his foot. He said, "Game's rigged. Set off the buzzer, get an electric shock. Parker thinks it's hilarious."
"You're not supposed to tell!" Parker said.
Maggie laughed. "Advent gift?"
"Yep!" Parker said. "And these." Parker uncapped a marker and waved it under Maggie's nose. Cherry scented. She smiled, trying to hide the bittersweet memories. Sam had a set like that. His favorite one was the black licorice. A glance at Nate told her that he remembered, too.
"Well," Nate said, clapping his hands together. "Let's get started."
Parker jumped up and bounced onto the center of the couch. Hardison and Eliot sat on either side of her. Maggie reached for a gift and read the tag. "To Parker, from Nate."
Parker bounced up and took her gift.
Inside the box was a large, folded piece of antiqued paper. Parker spread it out on the floor for everyone to see. It was a treasure map, and nicely drawn, too. Nate had delegated the art to Hardison, and Maggie had to say, Hardison had talent.
Everyone wanted to know what the goal of the map was, but Nate just smiled. "Follow it and find out."
Maggie picked up one of the cards. "To Eliot, from Sophie."
Eliot tore it open and read, "Eliot, you're a tough man to shop for, and moreso when Nate won't let me spend a dime. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted you to know you have my trust. For Christmas, I'm giving you carte blanche. I'll call in any favor I can call for you, no questions asked, no limits. You have but to ask."
Eliot looked up at her, startled. "Thanks, Sophie."
"Don't mention it," she said, pleased.
The next present was "To Sophie, from Hardison."
It was series of file folders. Sophie glanced at the first page of each silently, tugging away when Nate tried to take a peek. She rifled through a few papers then looked up, holding the papers to her chest. "They're leads. Lost and stolen artwork, Nate, look at this--"
Maggie was wildly curious, but she guessed she didn't want to know what Sophie and Nate might be stealing in the near future. Tearing herself away from the mystery, she reached for the last present. It was too heavy to gracefully move. She pulled off the tag and read it. "To Hardison, from Parker."
Hardison tore open the package to find ten identical hard drives.
Parker said, "We didn't know which one you'd want, so we grabbed them all."
He read the printing on the drive. "Four terabytes a piece. And I didn't get you anything."
"No promises they won't self-destruct when you turn them on," Eliot said. "Chaos likes his booby traps."
"You stole them from Chaos? Aw, you shouldn't have!" Reverently, Hardison carried them one by one to his workbench, stopping to type a few lines into his computer. Thirty seconds later, he was on the floor, disconnecting the wires from his computer tower. Then the tower was on his workbench with the cover half off.
"And last, From Eliot to Nate," she said, handing the card over.
"Wait!" Parker said, jumping up. "I gotta give Maggie her gift. Where is it?" Parker was looking around the branches of the tree. "Got it! Close your eyes!"
Maggie looked at Nate for assurance and closed her eyes when he nodded. She felt something cool draped around her neck. Maggie held her hair up so Parker could fasten the necklace. "Keep your eyes shut," Parker said, steering Maggie across the room. "Okay, open."
Maggie's expertise was art, not diamonds. She'd recognized some of the priceless items on the tree, including the Lion of Gilgamesh. But she had no words to describe the stunning diamond and sapphire necklace Parker had given her. "Parker, it's too much," she argued.
"Nope, absolutely not," Parker said from the other side of the room. "Not even close." Parker came back with a matching bracelet, fastening it around Maggie's wrist. "It's not hot, I promise."
"Stolen. Or at least, no one knows it is."
Maggie wanted to keep arguing that she couldn't accept it, but she could see the hope in Parker's eyes. Maggie gave in. "I love it, Parker. It's amazing. Thank you, so much."
"You're welcome!" she said, skipping back to the couch. "Nate, what did you get?"
Maggie tried not to cringe as Nate tapped the card to the side of the envelope and tore the edge off the envelope centimeter by centimeter. It was one of his more annoying habits. And then there was the puff of air to make the envelope bulge out...
Nate read, "I know you don't like gifts, so I didn't get you anything." Nate looked up and smiled at Eliot. He continued, "But I've got some memories to share. If you're interested." Nate looked up expectantly.
Eliot grouched, "And no, I'm not showing any of the rest of you. You already got your gifts."
Eliot pulled an old leather satchel from behind the tree. From Parker's expression, Maggie guessed that Parker had already seen what was in it. Hardison looked up for a moment, then went back to his computer. Sophie drifted over to Maggie, trying to resist her own curiosity.
Eliot pulled out an old photo album, yellowed and faded, that had to be as old as he was. "I got this from my dad a few days ago," he said. He handed it to Nate and turned away, bodyguarding the thing from everyone else in the room.
When Nate was finished, Eliot tucked his album back into its satchel.
A little too loudly, Parker whispered to Eliot, "I saw the lamp in the front room when I was there. The one you bought him. You know what he said about it? He said you weren't playing catch. He told me you were going through 'a juggling phase.'"
Eliot didn't answer, but he did look a little caught out.
Parker said, "I want to see you juggle."
"No. Forget it, Parker. Maggie, you wanna help me in the kitchen?"
Maggie helped Eliot hand out hot cider and egg nog. Parker was the last to get her drink, a huge mug of hot chocolate. Maggie's curiosity perked up when she heard Parker whisper, "Can we?" and saw Eliot nod.
Parker announced, "Okay, I want to tell you my secret."
When they had everyone's attention, Eliot pulled Parker to him, holding her close. There was an intimacy there that Maggie wouldn't have imagined either of them capable of showing. Parker was proud, but Eliot was defensive.
Maggie beamed at him, willing them to know how happy she was for them, but not wanting to ruin the moment by intruding on it. Nate was smiling that smile he got when he was happy but too embarrassed to show it.
"How long has this been going on?" Sophie asked. "Parker, why didn't you tell me? Nate, did you know about this?"
Nate shushed her. He said, "This is not the time."
She gave him an indignant look but quieted.
Hardison was the first one to congratulate them, and there was no missing that it was genuine. He said to Eliot, "You don't take care of her, I'm gonna kick your ass."
Eliot said, "I'd like to see you try."
Parker said, "Don't worry, Eliot. I'll defend you. Wanna see?"
She tugged forward, but Eliot didn't let her go. She struggled, grinning as she tried unsuccessfully to get loose, barely keeping her hot chocolate from spilling.
Eliot said, "Settle down." Maggie was waiting for the protest, but she leaned against him, breathing in the steam from her cup of hot chocolate.
Later that evening, Maggie pulled Nate aside. She said, "So, give. What does the treasure map lead to?"
Nate pulled a card from his wallet. "Oh, just a place here in Seattle where she'll find this." The card said, 'Welcome to the home of Nate and Sophie Ford.'
~ The End ~