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Perfect Strangers

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The first time Eliot crossed paths with Parker and Hardison, he was barely aware of their existence. He was new to PISCES—freshly recruited from the throng of potential agents offered up by Special Forces.

His assignment was entry-level and relatively easy: attend a party, drop a roofie in the champagne of Dustin Couture—a businessman who’d been cozying up to the wrong side of the War on Drugs. Once he was done, his superiors said, he could feel free to enjoy a couple of canapés and the atmosphere for exactly six minutes before shuffling himself to the exit. They dressed him in a suit that cost more than his rent, and sent him in with an annoying hum in his ear from the earbud they’d handed him before pushing him out of the van down the block.

He’d felt like every eye was on him from the second he passed by the armed guards waiting at the front door. But they barely gave his invitation a cursory glance before waving him in. Apparently the suit was as effectively at camouflage as fatigues had ever been.

“There might be more than one agency here tonight,” Nate said in his ear. “Be charming, but not noticeable. We don’t want anyone to remember you.”

Eliot smiled at a small cluster of forty-something women gathered by one of the Grecian-style columns decorating the foyer. One of them—the diamond on her finger easily mistaken for a promotional golf ball—waved and winked. He managed a smile, and continued threading his way through the house, managing a quick survey of the ground floor layout and accepting a flute of champagne.

He found his mark lingering rather closer to the wet bar in the library than their host probably would’ve preferred, halfway through a bottle of what looked like disgustingly expensive scotch. Sweat beaded Couture’s forehead, and his hand trembled as he raised the half-filled glass to his lips and downed the liquor like it was coloured water.

A member of the wait staff lingered nearby, hanging onto a tray void of anything save a couple of empty glasses, looking uneasy at the amount Couture was packing away.

“Sir,” she said meekly, “Are you sure I can’t get you—”

“You can get me some ice,” Couture told her, sloshing some more scotch into his glass. It was a shame, really. The stuff was way too nice to puddle on the hardwood. “Isn’t there any damn ice in this place?”

“Is he as drunk as he sounds?” Nate asked. “Maybe we won’t have to roofie him after all. Spencer, see if you can get the blond out of there and encourage him to have a couple more.”

Eliot took a couple steps forward, smiling easily when the waitress turned her attention on him. “Can I offer you anything?” she asked, gesturing to the bar.

Eliot shook his head. “I’m good, thanks.” Their eyes met, and for just a second there was a flash of… something. Something Eliot wasn’t used to seeing when he looked at service workers. Something sharper and more intelligent. It put him on edge. Nate did say there’d be more than one agency here.

“Just wanted to check in with my good friend Dustin,” Eliot said. Couture shifted his attention towards Eliot. “Top up his scotch.”

“You’re a great friend,” Couture told him, swinging his arms wide and spilling yet more tawny gold. He stumbled a few steps closer and slung his arm around Eliot’s shoulders. “Did I tell you about the time I killed a lion? I keep its head in my bedroom.”

The blond’s lip curled. “I like lions.” She put her tray down on the bar. “The females do all the hunting.”

Couture’s brow furrowed, and he pointed at her but seemed to lose his train of thought. Eliot eased the glass out of his fingers and went to pour him another, slipping open a compartment on his cufflinks to pour an eighth of a teaspoon of white powder into the glass while he did. He side-eyed the waitress, who was looking away so deliberately she must’ve seen what he was doing. Whether she was a foreign agent or simply uninterested in the fate of a man who’d apparently offended her on a deep, personal level he wasn’t entirely sure.

The lights overhead flickered and the blond’s back straightened. “I should go check on the kitchen,” she said.

“Right,” Eliot nodded. “I’m going to go have a canapé.”

She looked him up and down and nodded brusquely. “Avoid the bruschetta. Tomatoes aren’t in season.” With that, she swung around and headed out of the room, ponytail bobbing back and forth.

Eliot tucked Couture into a high-backed leather chair and left him to wallow in the scent of the scotch he’d spilled and headed back out of the library. It was easy to count minutes in his head as he smiled and wove his way through the crowd. When a waiter approached him with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, he took a piece of brioche laden with seared foie gras and some sort of chutney—a single acknowledgement of the evening. He avoided the bruschetta.

Exactly six minutes after he’d lowered Couture into his chair, he returned to the waiting van.

“We’ve alerted Couture’s people to his unfortunate state of inebriation,” Nate said. Eliot couldn’t tell if the smell of wood chips and band-aids was leftover from whatever Couture had spilled on his suit or Nate’s own helping of late-evening spirits. “They’re on their way to collect him, and our security detail is going in. Good job.”

It sounded a bit hollow. After all, it wasn’t really all that hard to slip an already-drunk man something that would knock him out further.

If this was all espionage was, maybe it would be easier than Eliot thought.

“Seriously, though,” Hardison muttered in Parker’s ear as she slid along the side of the building, hanging on by her fingertips. “Who hides anything at the Canadian consulate? They’re all maple-syrup chugging hippies. Why are we breaking in?”

“Attack beavers,” Parker said sagely. She reached across a span of brick to the next windowsill and swung the rest of her body across in a single, smooth movement.

“Attack beavers,” Hardison repeated.

Parker tried the window. This one was locked too. Ugh, there was just no trust among neighbours anymore. Not even at sixty feet. She inched along the sill until she could reach out to the next one.

“I heard they had a program back in World War Two,” she said. “They trained beavers to carry bombs on their backs and released them near enemy dams.”

Attack beavers?!” Hardison said again.

Parker sighed and tried the next window. It slid up and open. Finally. She’d only had to go around the entire building. It’s not like climbing out of the women’s washroom was a huge inconvenience or anything. “Look it up.”

“I promise you I am not going to look that up,” Hardison told her. “Which window did you go in?”

Parker glanced back outside. “Fourth from the left.” She looked around. “I seem to be in someone’s bedroom.” Thankfully unoccupied, at present, though the lingering smell of cologne made her nose itch,

“Okay. Head out into the hall, bear right and go down three doors. That should get you to the server room. Then I’ll walk you through how to install the software.”

“You could have done this,” she said. She knelt down next to the door and slipped a small mirror out. The hallway looked empty. Rising to her feet, she eased the door open to confirm. She wasn’t sure why she was worried, save for the possibility of bomb-toting beavers rearing up out of nowhere and blowing up the universe. Stupid beavers. Like they were fooling anyone with their nasty teeth.

“My area of specialization does not include hanging out of windows.”

She rolled her eyes. “Like it’s hard.” She grabbed her lock picks out of her vest and examined the server room door. Hardison would likely have eyes in there any second—apparently the Canadian security system was more reliable when it came to its surveillance system than its windows.

“Woman—” Hardison cut off, presumably as something in the van caught his attention. “Are you in the server room yet?”


“Then who the hell is?”

Parker stepped back from the door as it opened. She straightened and tried to look calm, cool and collected. It wasn’t as though a woman slinking around the hallways of the Canadian consulate at two in the morning was suspicious or anything.

She recognized the man who stepped out. Silly hair. Permanent glower. He’d been the one to drug Couture at the party she and Hardison had been scoping out.

They stared at each other for a long moment.

She smiled, trying to remember how to be chipper when she wasn’t dressed as a member of a high-end catering company. “Did you end up trying the bruschetta?” She and Hardison had been checking for a new, high-end hallucinogen that the host wanted to try out on his guests. The bruschetta, in addition to its definitely non-seasonal tomatoes, had eventually turned the entire party into what Hardison had dubbed a ‘Greco-Roman orgy-rave.’ Fortunately they’d managed to confiscate the remainder of the supply and capture the supplier before it got much further than the doorstep. Unfortunately she and Hardison had been front row centre to a bunch of middle aged debutantes deciding that clothes were optional and flicking the lights on and off was almost as good as a strobe light. She still occasionally had nightmares.

He stared at her a second, baffled. “No. But the foie gras was decent.”

Parker’s nose wrinkled. “The liver?”

“It’s a carefully prepared delicacy,” he countered, sounding outright offended. “Geese and ducks are specially fattened up for… Why are we talking about the goddamn canapés?” He made a frustrated sound. It was sort of adorable.

“I like geese,” Parker told him. “They have teeth on their tongues.” She sidestepped neatly past him. “Thank you for your input. If you’d like to hire us for your next event, please contact Be Our Guest Gourmet Catering.” She closed the door behind her and narrowed her eyes.

“Was that Hot Businessman?” Hardison demanded.

“Yeah,” Parker sighed, leaning against the door and smiling. “Bad news: he’s still hot.” Actually, the way she’d described him the first time had been ‘unfairly good looking,’ but Hardison had seemed a little put off by that. And obviously not a businessman. At first she’d thought he was just another skeevy criminal trying to get a foot in the door by drugging Couture before the bruschetta could get to him. In retrospect, and considering current circumstances, she mentally upgraded him from ‘Hot Businessman’ to ‘Hot Secret Agent.’ Hardison was going to have a field day.

She listened to him sputter on the other end of their coms for a second and then crossed to the bank of computer servers lining the far wall. “So? How do I do this?”

Hardison refocused immediately. Which was good… it wasn’t like he really had competition. Much.

Hardison, of course, didn’t get to meet Hot Businessman-slash-Hot Secret Agent until a few months after Parker ran into him in the Canadian consulate. Parker was out with the flu—something she’d picked up on the flight over—and he’d left her to cough up a lung in their hotel room as he navigated the tenuous social waters of a high society jockey club, waiting for the opportunity to bump into their target and clone her cell phone so their head office could begin keeping accurate call logs. It wasn’t usually the sort of thing he and Parker dealt with, but it’d been slow going lately, and they’d both jumped at the chance to take on anything other than sorting through their archives looking for case files that hadn’t been closed off.

He was within ten feet of the lady in question—her bodyguards finally easing off a bit on their whole ‘eagle eyes’ shtick—when someone slid their arm into his and steered him away.

“Can I help you?” Hardison asked, immediately on edge.

“You’re gonna get caught.” The voice was familiar, and a puff of warm air brushed past his ear. Hardison frowned and allowed his eyes to twitch sideways. And down. And, yeah… Hot Businessman was definitely Hot Secret Agent. Emphasis on ‘hot.’ “You think they backed off because they didn’t notice you circling her?”

“I might just be interested in getting her number, you think of that?” Hardison demanded.

“I thought of it,” Hot Secret Agent muttered, “And then decided to save us all the goddamn spectacle.” He manhandled Hardison to the bar—not hot, except for how it was—and waved the bartender over. Unfortunately, it being a Sunday afternoon, all they had was white wine and a couple of too-sweet cocktails. Too bad… Hardison would’ve paid good money to listen to the guy order a vodka martini.

“I take offense to you disparaging my character and my skills,” Hardison told him.

“Whatever,” Hot Secret Agent said gruffly. “If you get busted, it’s going to put everyone on edge and my job will get a hundred percent harder. Ask me if I’m interested in my job getting harder.”

“Listen, man—”

Ask me.”

Hardison rolled his eyes. This was why he spent time in the van. Parker was so much easier to deal with. “What’re you here for, then?”

“Not really your goddamn business.”

“You know, if your agency offers seminars in soft skills, I highly recommend you sign up.”

Hot Secret Agent leveled a glare, and Hardison took a sip of his white wine spritzer, trying to hide the fact that even when he was trying to kill you with his eyes, Hot Secret Agent lived up to his name and Hardison was definitely not unaware of the fact. They lingered at the bar, and Hardison watched as the bundle of bodyguards slowly reconvened around his target. In retrospect, yeah, they’d totally been looking to catch someone for straying in too close. Apparently their target wasn’t wholly unaware of the amount of trouble she was in. Then again, she was known for letting “gentleman callers” rifle through her husband’s study as foreplay, and when your husband was the American ambassador to Syria, people tended to take that shit seriously.

They watched for a few more minutes, as another would-be superspy closed in on the target and managed to completely bungle it up. He was tackled by a mountain of beef-cakey muscle-for-hire, and in the suddenly upswing of polite British confusion, Hardison and Hot Secret Agent separated. Hardison managed to get within five feet of the target and clone her cellphone, a careful press of a button and then a smooth exit.

Through the mass of upset debutantes, Hardison spotted Hot Secret Agent one last time. His lips were pressed in close to the ear of an attractive woman, his smile bordering between cloy and flirtatious. Hardison spared half a second to feel a stab of unwarranted jealousy and then took off. First to get his results logged in their servers, second to get Parker some chocolate ice cream and chicken soup. The latter because she was sick. The former as a mini-apology; first for doubting her estimate of Hot Secret Agent’s hotness, secondly for the moment when he imagined those lips pressed against his.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Parker said later, shoving a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth on the tail of slurping up a generous amount of noodles. Hardison tried not to wince. He’d brought this on himself, after all, and now he had to watch as she ate both simultaneously. At least she hadn’t dropped a scoop of ice cream into the soup… he had no desire to relive the Blair’s Hot Sauce-Apple Cider affair. “I mean, I’ve had dreams about Hot Secret Agent. Sex dreams.”

Hardison felt like he should probably have a stronger reaction, but the only one forthcoming was a sudden need to adjust his pants. “Should I be worried?” He tried to keep his tone light, but Parker looked up anyway. Sometimes, he wondered if it wouldn’t have been better for his sanity if she was still the semi-sociopathic kid ZOOT had picked up; the day she’d figured out how emotions worked had spelled ‘doom’ for a lot of people. Including him.

“No. We both like the same things anyway.” She peered at him. “Take soup and ice cream.” She dipped a spoonful of ice cream in her soup and then popped it in her mouth.

Hardison recoiled. “That’s disgusting.” Especially when she stirred around the melted remnants of chocolate floating in the bowl.

“No. It’s delicious. But it would be more delicious if we added pretzels.” She smiled. “I love pretzels.” When his face didn’t relax from the contortion of horror, she sighed. “Remember when you made me watch The Avengers?”

“No. Mostly I try to forget the experience.”

“And Tony and Pepper were together? And I said that it would be hot if Tony, Pepper and Steve were together?”

“No. I went to the Lab and made them give me something that would erase my memories of the entire thing.” They’d laughed when he’d asked the first time. The tenth time they’d offered him counseling.

“So, Hot Secret Agent is like Pepper, right?”

Hardison blinked. “Who am I in this scenario?”

“Tony, obviously. Duh.”

“So you’re Steve?” Parker nodded. “But Steve and Tony weren’t together first.”

She waved a hand, displacing the blanket he’d tucked around her shoulders earlier. “I’m obviously Captain America. Hot Secret Agent is Pepper. And all three of us together would be just as good as soup, ice cream and pretzels.”

“You’re demented. I don’t know why I love you.”

Parker frowned. “Me either.” Her eyes flicked down to her soup and Hardison sighed. He slid his chair across the distance and cuddled up to her side. Parker was stiff, as always whenever relationship stuff took a left turn, and yet she slowly relaxed when Hardison didn’t push the point. She put her spoon down and let her hand dangle at her side, under the table, until he caught it up in his own and tangled their fingers together.

“I think we need to get to know Hot Secret Agent a bit better before we decide he’s the Pepper to our Super Husbands,” Hardison told her. “I mean, we should probably figure out his name.” Parker shrugged, but there was a small smile tugging at her lips. “And, hey, I love you because no matter what, you’re the Spock to my Kirk.”

Parker wrinkled her nose. “I liked the reboot. Bones and Kirk were totally banging.”

Hardison drew back. “No. No. You did not just… no.”

For some reason, she kept smiling as he began railing against the evils of lens flare.

During Eliot’s second year with PISCES, Nate was fired.

Nate had been a good spotter. Good to Eliot, at any rate. He had a way of reading people and coming up with unbelievably complicated last-minute plans which nonetheless always worked.

There were lots of rumours about why. Eliot mostly believed the prevalent one—he was caught drinking on the job—though he didn’t say as much aloud. But there were a couple others: that he’d requested security for his family when a job he’d finished went south and after it was denied his kid was killed in the crossfire. That one was quashed quickly enough that it made Eliot wonder if it wasn’t true. He hated to consider it; he liked thinking he worked for a decent group, one that wouldn’t throw you under the bus or leave you and yours to die if shit got sour.

It stuck in the back of his mind, though. Especially when it was decided that, instead of being out in the field with him, Nate’s replacement was perfectly capable of giving his instructions from behind a desk.

Latimer was apparently one of the best PISCES had. But Eliot always had the feeling Nate would find him a way out if a mission went downhill. Latimer would probably look for ways to make himself look inculpable, and leave Eliot out to dry. Fair or not, it made Eliot’s skin itch whenever he heard Latimer’s voice in his ear.

It itched more the day Latimer called him into a meeting and told him PISCES was going to be meeting up for a job with ZOOT.

Eliot frowned. “I thought we hated ZOOT.”

“They’re a business rival,” Latimer said. “That’s all. And we can put the rivalry aside when it means we benefit from it.”

Eliot knew his face well enough to know he was probably looking pretty unimpressed. “Last week you said they were all unprofessional hippies who couldn’t successfully spy on an ant farm with a magnifying glass.”

“I said no such thing.”

“I can read between the lines, Latimer.” Eliot leaned forward. “What’s the angle?”

Latimer held himself a bit straighter. “We would like to work with ZOOT so we can share resources. Resources like their particularly well-developed surveillance systems. If we can get access, we’ll be able to use their technology to update our own.”

“So we’re not actually working with them. You’re arranging a bullshit job that gives us the chance to bug their systems and steal their software.”

Latimer smiled, obviously satisfied that he hadn’t had to spell it out in such crude terms. “Exactly.”

“Not interested.” Eliot stood. “I didn’t sign up for corporate espionage.”

“You signed up to do as you were told.” Latimer frowned at him. “Do you think you’re really anything more than a drone here, Spencer? My secretary has higher clearance than you do. Nathan Ford might’ve thought you were worth investing in, but all I’ve seen of you is that you’re good for easy jobs that don’t require long words to explain.”

Eliot’s hand balled up into a fist.

Latimer noticed, and his frown transformed into a smile. “Of course, you could always quit.”

Eliot had heard stories of employees who left PISCES; either quit or terminated. Despite everything, management wasn’t really able to keep the nastiest of the rumours at bay.

“Fine,” Eliot said through his teeth. “What do I have to do?”

“It’s simple. We’ve already arranged for their best team to meet up with ours.” The implication of where that left Eliot was clear enough. “You’ll be meeting with their back end team.” Latimer opened a drawer to his left and flicked a tiny USB drive Eliot’s way. Eliot caught it with ease. “For when they’re not looking. It will only take a few seconds to get it up and running, and it’ll provide us full access to their systems. Surely you can find something to do to distract them. Check in with Alice for your travel arrangements.”

Eliot nodded stiffly and left Latimer’s office, doing his best not to slam the door shut behind him.

Alice was at her usual station outside Latimer’s door. She balanced precariously on a line between ‘door mouse’ and ‘sophisticated’ and he didn’t know how. She hid behind glasses that were too big for her face and a messy bun that kept long locks of brunette hair back from her face. Her accent was something nasally and mid-Western, but it always struck him as practiced instead of natural. Not that it was his business; everyone in PISCES had secrets.

“Tough meeting?” she asked.

“You could say that.” He waited as she began upturning the countless number of pages on her desk, looking for his itinerary.

She finally got her hands on it and handed it his way. “You fly out to Toronto tomorrow.” She leaned forward. “I upgraded you to first class. Don’t tell Latimer.”

Eliot managed a smile, his first all day. “Believe me, I won’t.”

Toronto hid a lot of its illicit activities behind its attempts to convince everyone it was New York. Eliot was staying in a rat-hole of a hotel off Yonge, and tried not to focus too much on the possibility that the ancient parquet flooring wasn’t supposed to be its current dingy shade of dark brown.

He didn’t have to wait very long after checking into the room he was supposed to be sharing with ZOOT’s operatives. He’d barely gotten the chance to drop his suitcase in the bedroom and bemoan the lack of a minibar when the sound of a key card in his door grabbed his attention. He braced himself for a fight.

What he wasn’t braced for was the incompetent field agent he’d run into in London less than a month past.

The guy looked as shocked as Eliot felt, for a second, before it fell away. “Hey, man.” He offered a generous smile that took up most of his face. “Welcome to the party.” He dropped a bulging laptop case on the counter beside Eliot’s kitchenette and offered his hand. “We didn’t really get to introductions back in London. I’m Hardison.”

Eliot looked at his hand, but didn’t take it. His impressions ‘back in London’ hadn’t been particularly favourable. “You actually work for a reputable organization?”

“Cold, man.” Hardison withdrew his hand and grabbed his laptop case again, carrying it across the room to set up at the coffee table in front of the television. “I’m half of ZOOT’s best team. The ‘behind the scenes’ half. My better half—who likes geese—is schooling your boys in what constitutes a proper B&E. They thought traipsing through the front door was a fine idea.”

Little surprise that the men Latimer had picked for the job were idiots. Eliot didn’t say as much. He waited until Hardison had pulled out a laptop and booted it up before inching forward. “Call me Spencer.”

“Good to put a face to a name. Parker and I have been calling you ‘Hot Secret Agent’ for almost a year.” Eliot remembered Parker. More because he’d been taken aback than anything else. Nate had told him about ZOOT when he’d brought her up and never mentioned it again; he was a lot more complimentary than Latimer had been. ZOOT specialized in ‘bad guys’ and didn’t really give a lot of thought as to who was taking them down once they had the information they needed. Eliot’s organization was a lot more interested in making sure the governments they worked for paid up in full after a job was completed.

“Here, go plug this into the Ethernet port on the desk there,” Hardison said, handing him what looked like a phone wire.

“The what?” Eliot asked.

Hardison stared at him for a moment and then, shaking his head a bit sadly, stood and plugged it into the big phone cord plug-in. “Depressing, man.”

“Whatever. I don’t have time for the geek stuff.”

“Yeah, it’s all geek stuff until someone needs a live video stream of the ROM’s security system.” With a few keystrokes, Hardison suddenly had a screen full of small videos. Eliot recognized the layout of the ROM’s back rooms, which were apparently being used as a means to smuggle drugs and weapons because sometimes his life really did resemble True Lies.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“It’s pretty sexy,” Hardison told him. “See, I came up with this program. It’s like a virus, right? Except it self-uninstalls when I disconnect it…” He must’ve seen something on Eliot’s face, because he coughed. “Anyway, it lets me take over the video surveillance of any networked security system. Unless they’re literally recording things onto VHS in their basement on a close circuit system, I’ve got full access.”

That’s the thing Latimer wants access to, obviously. Unless he was lying, which… Eliot wouldn’t put it past him.

“And you came up with it?” Eliot asked.

“Don’t sound surprised, you hardly know me.” It wasn’t even chastisement, really—just a friendly smile in Hardison’s voice. “So what landed you in here with me? I thought you did field assignments.”

And it wasn’t like Eliot could tell Hardison he was the assignment. “They want me to learn the spotting stuff.”

“Spotting’s a thousand times harder than being in the field,” Hardison told him.

“How’d you figure?”

“Well, if your agent matters to you, you’ve got to listen to them put themselves in danger and deal with the fact that there’s nothing you can do about it if they get hurt.”

Hardison was sleeping with Parker. It shouldn’t have made Eliot’s chest feel so tight.

He took the seat next to Hardison and listened to him extol the virtues of Linux, quietly waiting for the moment he could slip in the USB drive and get the hell out of there. Hardison’s voice was surprisingly soothing, even if the words could’ve been in Swahili for all Eliot understood them. About an hour after he’d arrived, Hardison set something to run on his computer and headed for the bathroom. Eliot reached into his pocket to palm the drive.

When Hardison got back, the drive was still in his pocket, clenched in his fist.

Parker returned that evening, looking for all the world like she wanted to murder someone. Eliot wasn’t sure how he knew what that look looked like on Parker, but yeah… she was definitely plotting someone’s demise. Probably Stevens, if Eliot had to name names.

“We’re going to go in with a group of interns who are cataloguing the Victorian china,” Parker told them. She looked thrilled by the prospect. “Your brilliant coworkers,” she made finger quotes, and Eliot tried not to find it attractive, “Are getting IDs made up for us. How long are we supposed to be here?”

“Just until we’ve got confirmation on which one of the museum administrators is working with the smugglers,” Hardison said. “Once I’ve got it recorded, you bunch can go in and grab him. Or them, if we get lucky. We’re borrowing PISCES’—” Eliot heard the finger quotes again, even if Hardison’s fingers remained alighted upon his keyboard “—manpower in case the smugglers actually show up.”

From what Eliot remembered of the file, it was pretty off-season for them. But there was always the element of ‘just in case.’ Nate had specialized in keeping the ‘just in cases’ non-violent. Latimer didn’t care as long as PISCES got paid in the end.

Parker curled into Hardison’s other side on the couch, letting her fingers drift across his arm for just a moment. Eliot swallowed and returned his attention to the laptop screen. He didn’t care. It didn’t affect him or his ability to do his job. He barely knew them.

Hardison ordered delivery on his laptop—Thai from someplace on Yonge that everyone on UrbanSpoon seemed to adore—and eased back, flipping on the television.

“Not even pay-per-view,” he said. “Sad.”

Eliot rolled his eyes, but didn’t move. Even when Hardison and Parker’s combined weight began to list towards him, leaning into his side. It was warm, was all.

If he took a little extra time to lever himself up when the food arrived. Well… Still warm.

“Apparently, if you wrap china in newspaper, the print can stain the sides,” Parker said. Hardison had hooked Spencer up with another ear piece, and they traded slightly worried looks. Parker had filled their ears with quiet recitation of random facts so far, but if she was scraping the bottom of the barrel and actually talking about the china she was inventorying? That spelled trouble.

Parker had sticky fingers. It came from a childhood where she been bounced to foster home to foster home before finally being picked up by ZOOT. Apparently there were certain rules you had to follow in the foster care system to make sure that you got to keep your stuff. Cutthroat rules. Rules she’d never really grown out of.

“This teaspoon was apparently used by Alexander Mackenzie. And that’s a big deal.” She didn’t sound convinced.

“Please don’t put it in your pocket,” Hardison begged.

“But the spoony part is shaped weird,” Parker said. “And it’s not like they’d miss it. It’s just going back into storage when we’re done.”

“Parker—” Spencer began. He paused and grabbed Hardison’s shirt. “Is that what I think it is?”

Hardison shifted his attention to the video feet in the top right corner of the television screen. “Finally.” He changed the channel on the ear piece so all the agents on site could hear him. “Okay, kids, we’ve finally got movement.” Their suspect—Hardison would have to review the ROM’s staff files again to figure out who it was—was rifling through a sarcophagus for the two kilos of coke Parker had already retrieved last week. “Parker is going to take him down. All PISCES reps stand by.”

“Sorry.” Spencer’s eye twitched as Latimer’s voice interrupted. “But we’ll take it from here. Agent Spencer, please meet us at safe house delta in about an hour. PISCES thanks ZOOT for its assistance, but really you weren’t actually needed.”

The ear pieces went dead, save for Parker’s, and Hardison watched as PISCES agents swarmed into the back room, cornering the startled-looking curator.

“Well, that was bullshit.” Hardison slammed his laptop shut. “Two weeks of sitting around on our asses waiting for this, and for what?” He cast a look at Spencer. He was looking just as annoyed. “I still don’t know what you’re doing here.” Not officially, anyway.

Spencer looked like it was on the tip of his tongue to speak, but instead clenched his jaw and shook his head. “Neither do I.” He stood. “I’ve got to go report in. Apparently.” His voice was bordering on a growl, and Hardison fought the shiver threatening to run down his spine.

Their stuff was spread haphazardly across the room—mostly his and Parker’s, though Spencer had a couple of things he’d left out. Nothing personal, of course; a pair of jeans he’d draped over the side of the bathtub to dry after Parker had accidentally knocked over a glass of Hardison’s soda; sunglasses. Hardison got the feeling that Spencer wasn’t the kind of guy to bring personal belongings out into the field. The one thing they’d actually found out about Spencer the person was that he liked sour candies over chocolate, a story told by the mostly-empty bag of Fuzzy Peaches left next to the kitchenette sink.

Spencer grabbed it all and shoved it away into the boring grey bag he’d kept out of their reach. Parker had rifled through it, of course—trying to keep Parker out of anything was like trying to stop a cat from knocking over your valuables—but found nothing beyond more of the same impersonal collection of clothing. When she’d complained about it to Spencer, he’d glared his most constipated glare at her for about an hour.

Spencer glowered the entire time, avoiding Hardison’s eyes, and when he was finished stowing his stuff, made his way to the door.

“Nice working with you,” Hardison said.

Spencer’s hand paused on the doorknob. “Tell Parker I said goodbye.” His voice betrayed nothing and everything, and he left without looking back.

When the bolt slid into place behind him, Hardison switched the frequency on his ear piece again. “Hey, HQ, Spencer just left. He did not try and infiltrate our systems.”

“Please confirm,” the scrambled voice returned. He didn’t make the Darth Vader joke, for once. Sophie really hated that joke.

“Confirmed,” Hardison said with a couple quick keystrokes. All of his software had detailed activity logs, and it wasn’t like PISCES would’ve been able to use his program without a proper security key anyway. “My stuff is clean.”

“Recommendations for recruitment?”

“Pending approval from Parker, I’d say let’s bring him aboard.” Hardison smiled.

A few minutes later, he headed into the bathroom. He wasn’t really surprised to find the crushed remnant of a thumb drive hidden at the bottom of the trash can.

Latimer took one look at him and shook his head. “I find myself sadly unsurprised you failed. After all, it’s not like I asked you to punch the computer, or anything.” Eliot gritted his teeth. “Fortunately for you, we had other alternatives in place.”

Eliot frowned. “Like what?” His voice was flat, overly quiet. If Latimer noticed, he didn’t say anything.

“I had one of my agents—the competent ones—get hold of the ZOOT girl’s phone. Fortunately for you, it had all the information we needed.” Eliot’s stomach soured, as though he’d swallowed milk past its best date. Hardison had shown a lot of pride in his work. The quiet sort of pride that came when you knew how to balance your genius with your ego. He suddenly hated the thought of Latimer using Hardison’s tech for anything.

If any of it showed on his face, Latimer didn’t notice.

Eliot hated being stabbed.

He’d been tagged twice back in his service days; one a grazing line of pain that cut through the flesh on his arm and the other a solid blow to the fleshy part of his thigh. Neither had been pleasant. But he seriously hadn’t been expecting how mild both of them seemed in comparison to getting a serrated blade to the abdomen during what was supposed to be a relatively simple op in Hong Kong. Go in. Plant a bug. Leave.

He chalked it up to a monumental fuck up in intel that no one had bothered telling him that the place he was planting a bug was some sort of underground gambling ring hosted by British expats who took security very, very seriously and really didn’t appreciate anyone they didn’t recognize snooping around.

Black spots were beginning to dance in front of his eyes. He wasn’t a fan. They hadn’t even cut him that deep… there must’ve been something on the knife.

He stumbled and hit the side of a wall. His pursuers were going to catch up any second, and that’d be it. They’d either put another bullet in him—his forehead tingled imagining it—or they’d draw out his last few minutes with questions while his sucking chest wound did him in slowly.

Eliot wasn’t really ready to go.

He tried to push himself along the wall, but his legs were suddenly being incredibly uncooperative. He managed another couple of feet before stopping again.

And suddenly someone was ducking under his shoulder, securing an arm around his waist and keeping him from toppling over once more. Eliot’s head lolled to the side and he peered under the brim of the hat suddenly obstructing most of his field of view.

“Goddammit, Hardison,” he muttered. “What are you even doing here?”

Hardison didn’t reply. He shoved a roll of gauze under Eliot’s shirt, right up against the knife wound. Eliot hissed when the pressure turned into burning pain. Hardison grabbed one of Eliot’s hands and slapped it up to hold the bundle in place and dragged him forward.

They took an unexpected left and Eliot’s stomach lurched when it tried to stay about a foot behind them. “You know, we’ve had eyes on that club for the past six months. Hell, I’m pretty sure my superiors sent a report on it to yours, which I can summarize in two words: Stay Out.” Another left. It was starting to get dizzying; Hardison was moving a lot faster than Eliot really appreciated. “But God forbid they actually read anything we send them. Might as well go busting in there and try to get shit started on your own. You guys really are the dumbest assholes on the planet.”

“Hey,” Eliot protested weakly.

“Shut up,” Hardison said. They came to a halt in a back alley. “Parker’s gonna be here right away to get you.”

“Why? Where are you going?” Eliot demanded. Mewled. Whatever. He hoped he didn’t sound nearly as plaintive as he feared.

“I am going to go and fix the mess you made,” he said. “Unlike you, I actually spent the time constructing an ID that could get me a membership.” He ducked down and poked Eliot’s forehead. “Stay here.”

Before Eliot could protest, Hardison disappeared down the other side of the alley.

“Dammit,” Eliot whispered. He tried to pull himself up the wall using his free arm, but it just scrabbled against the siding of the building Hardison had propped him up against and he gave up before the useless attempt sucked the last of his strength.

What was probably a couple of minutes felt like hours, but Parker appeared under a lavishly decorated umbrella.

“You look terrible,” she said.

“No shit,” Eliot muttered. The black spots were coming back. “I can’t get up.”

Parker hummed and leaned down to help him up. The wiry strength in her arms surprised him every time. She didn’t say much, just led him back the way he and Hardison had come. When they reached the end of the alley, she tucked him into a rickshaw and alighted next to him.

The cabbie took off without being prompted.

“Where’re we going?” Eliot asked.

“Somewhere safe,” Parker replied. God, Eliot hated the whole double-talk thing so much. “Don’t worry.” Parker placed a hand on his knee, though he could hardly feel it with all the nerve endings in his chest lit up with pain. “We’ll take care of you.”

Apparently his subconscious considered that to be good enough, because Eliot promptly passed out.

When Eliot woke up, there was a low humming ache in his abdomen—the active pain had passed, as though aloe vera had been applied to a sunburn. When he tried to sit up, though, the ache brightened and sharpened again and he settled back. The bed was perfectly firm, and whoever had set him up had left the pillows to either side of his torso instead of under his head.

He wondered if Parker and Hardison were still around or if they’d left him to convalesce on his own.

“Well.” Eliot’s head whipped to the side, pulling on what felt like a generous number of stitches, and he berated himself for allowing the pain to distract him. It took a second to realize he’d heard the same voice in his ear for half his career.

“Nate?” He had to roll his head back awkwardly, until he spotted his former spotter sitting in a high-backed armchair next to the headboard of the bed. He’d been in enough hotel rooms to recognize the stale smells of wherever it was they’d put him up.

“When I hired you the first time, I told them you were talented, but would be better suited as a back-up defensive player instead of a major piece.” When all Eliot did in response was frown, Nate shook his head a bit. “Knights need specific strategy points planned well in advance to be effective. That’s not you. You play your best when you can adapt, and don’t have to worry about restrictions. More like a rook. You’re our heavy piece, Eliot.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Nate?”

Nate straightened and leaned forward so Eliot could stop craning his neck. “You can keep working for PISCES, and deal with a team who can’t use you properly.”

Eliot glared. He was getting awfully sick of Nate jerking him around. At least when he’d been drinking he was straight forward with you. “Is there supposed to be an ‘or’ in there?”

“There might be,” Nate finally nodded. He stood. “Your room’s paid up through the week. I’d recommend thinking about whether Latimer is really the man you want making decisions about your life, when his people set you up with an ID that didn’t stand up under a blacklight.” Nate tucked a pale cream business card under the pillow next to Eliot’s left arm and left without another word.

Honestly? Eliot was sort of relieved to see him go—especially when the heavy door’s security lock clicked behind him. He was in enough pain without puzzling out Nate’s chess metaphors. The tension of being in the presence of another body while hurt and vulnerable slowly eased out of him, and he let the welcome lack of tightness in his shoulders lull him back to sleep.

When he woke up, there was a bouquet of flowers and a teddy bear holding a ‘get well soon’ card sitting at the foot of the bed.

“Goddammit, Parker,” he muttered once before falling back asleep.

It took him a couple of days of rest to finally get himself back on his feet for more than necessary trips to the bathroom, and he was sure that he’d need some sort of physio to get back to one hundred percent. When he was pulling on the clothes that’d been thoughtfully left for him on the dresser across the room, he noticed Nate’s business card half-hidden under the bed—knocked over the side by a stray elbow or careful stretch. He almost left it behind; PISCES had recruited him, trained him… and he couldn’t help but wonder about the rumours that had accompanied Nate’s departure.

Then again.

He scooped it up—unsurprised when, at first glance, it appeared blank—and showed himself from the room.

Latimer looked surprised to see him back; probably because he’d thought Eliot was dead in a gutter somewhere in Hong Kong.

“It would have been a waste of resources if you’d died,” he said. “And I’m not a fan of waste.”

Funny, that. Considering how much spewed from his mouth on the average day.

“The ID you sent me in with was a piece of shit,” Eliot said. “Not nearly good enough to stand up to the security they had on hand.” Latimer remained impassive and Eliot barely managed to catch hold of the frustration welling up like heartburn. “Either PISCES flopped by giving me shit ID, or our intel flopped by not realizing what their security was like. Either way, I almost died and someone here deserves a fist in the mouth.”

“It’s really unfortunate how your default response seems to be violence,” Latimer replied.

“Are you fucking kidding me right now?” Eliot demanded, unable to bite back the words before they slammed out of him. “Actually fucking kidding me?”

“When I took over, I promised the higher ups effective change.” Latimer stood, but didn’t round his desk. Instead, he stepped closer to his window, looking out over the city. “You were hired at a time when PISCES was scraping the bottom of the barrel for profit, and we were putting certain unnecessary priorities over the bottom line.” He flicked his fingers across the horizontal blinds, and then rubbed them together. “PISCES is moving in a new direction. One where we can operate in the black, as it were, without operating in the black. You know what I mean?”

“Did you send me into that place to die?” Eliot finally asked.

Latimer didn’t answer.

Eliot ran through it in his head. A sprint between where he stood and Latimer’s desk, a vault over, and a hand on Latimer’s throat before he could do more than let out a squeak of surprise. Easy. Or, at least, it would’ve been. But Eliot had joined PISCES because he was sick of combat; he wanted to do something different. Something to help people. He’d just apparently chosen the wrong place for it.

“If I quit, are you going to send people after me?”

“I told you, Spencer: I hate waste.” Latimer finally glanced over his shoulder. “Make sure you check in with Alice before you go, hmm?”

Eliot turned on his heel and headed out. There wasn’t anything more to say.

The card Nate had left felt heavier in his pocket than it had the entire flight back from Hong Kong, a lit coal trying to sear its way through to his skin. Maybe he could just find some freelance work; or go back to the kitchens where he’d spent most of his adolescent years. Cooking always felt better than interacting with people. Easier, in some ways. You always knew what to do with food in order to make it good; some people it didn’t matter what you added, they stayed rotten.

“Alice,” he said with a nod. He pulled off his ID and left it on her desk. He’d turned down their offer of a sidearm. Eliot had never been a fan of guns.

“That’s it, then?” For a second, Alice’s voice lost the high-pitched, nasally quality. Eliot brusquely inclined his head. “It’s a shame. We seem to be bleeding good people right now.” She pulled out a manila envelope. “Here’s all you’ll need to know about leaving PISCES. If you need a new identity, please check in with the IT department before you leave the building.”

Eliot thought of the card in his pocket. Of Hardison and Parker, and the possibility of working with them. Nate had said ZOOT was different; hell, Latimer had said ZOOT was different. Eliot just wasn’t sure if ‘different’ in this case wasn’t just more of the same with a different coat of paint.

He considered swinging by IT, but the lingering pain from the stab wound reminded him of how effective they’d been at building a reliable background. He’d run into enough people in the last couple years that he knew a few who’d do as good a job, if not better, with fewer strings attached. And there was the added bonus of PISCES not actually knowing where he was going.

“Take it easy, Alice,” he said.

She smiled gently. “You too, Eliot.”

He headed out, leaving the sting of disappointment behind him.

They waited for two days after getting home from Hong Kong before descending on Eliot’s apartment, both of them hoping the week’s head start he had on them wasn’t too long.

“He should’ve called,” Parker said, her brow drawn into a frown.

“He might just not want the job,” Hardison pointed out, trying not to let it show how much the idea bothered him. Eliot had been good, from what he’d seen. Too good for the heavy-handed corporate stuff PISCES had taken on recently. Good enough that Hardison would trust him to watch Parker’s back if they were in the field (presently, there wasn’t anyone in ZOOT he considered to be that good).

“Well then he should’ve called us,” Parker muttered.

“He didn’t have our number.”

“He’s a spy. He could’ve found a way.”

Hardison conceded, and allowed Parker to continue her work on the unsurprisingly good lock on Eliot’s front door. When she finished jimmying it open, they both stumbled inside.

The place was deserted. The furniture was all generic, the art on the wall augmenting the sort of ugly neutrality you could buy at a Wal-Mart. It didn’t even smell like Spencer, absent any sign of touches that could make it a home.

Parker frowned. “He’s gone.” It sounded less like an observation and more like a disappointed complaint. Hardison placed a hand on her arm and squeezed gently. A couple of back-and-forths, a few meetings… it wasn’t like Hardison was expecting him to feel the same well of affection/attraction they did. Hardison and Parker focused on their gut feelings; and it was more the loss of potential. The Something That Could’ve Been.

“Come on,” Hardison said. “Let’s head back to HQ. Sophie’s gonna have something for us.”

“Right,” Parker murmured. She bumped against his shoulder, quiet felinity. He sort of wanted to rub her tummy. Instead, he eased her back out the door.

The ride back to their hotel was full of silent disappointment. Hardison drove—Parker was absolutely and in no way allowed behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, ever—while Parker checked in to get the coordinates of their mobile HQ. They moved bases pretty often, using their online servers to transmit messages. It allowed for quick turn around on local assignments.

“Nate says there’s something big coming up,” Parker said. “A local assignment.”

That was a nice bonus; long plane rides made both of them twitchy. Parker plugged the directions into their GPS and Hardison turned, heading to the city’s industrial area. He had most of his gear in the back, and he lugged it into the single-floor office building, the ‘For Lease’ sign just recently glued over. Nate was inside, looking a bit less hungover than usual. Being in the same city as Sophie was obviously good for him.

And beside him…

“Hey, Spencer,” Hardison said, trying not to smile too obviously.

Parker’s entire body lit up. Anyone else would’ve chirped out an exuberant welcome, but the light in her eyes was just as good. She twitched a bit in place, and her hands fluttered in nervous excitement at her side.

“Hardison, Parker,” Spencer said, gruffly. He glanced at Nate. “Took your boss up on his offer for a job.”

Nate’s mouth quirked upwards. “Spotter,” he corrected. “The boss is already undercover.” He gestured to a nearby television—old, obviously abandoned with the space, but still usable—and Hardison quickly hooked up his laptop, responding easily to Nate’s commands. Nate tossed him a thumb drive with the new file on it, and it took Hardison less than a minute to get everything up and running for their review. “We’ve gotten word that our current target is trying to play both sides of the field, as it were.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Spencer muttered as pictures danced up onto the screen. “We’re going after PISCES?”

“PISCES’ leaders are… concerned about the management and who’s actually running the show.” Nate flicked his fingers and Hardison followed to the next screen. “This is Jack Latimer. He and his buddy in corporate, Victor Dubenich, have been focusing too much on the bottom line and not enough on potential casualties. There’ve been a few deaths—” Nate’s voice broke and he coughed. “A few deaths as a result. Now, the owners have assured me they had no hand in it, so we’re going to be looking into what they’re doing and offer an outsider’s prospective.

“Now, we’ve already got two ins,” he continued. “When we worked with them last year and they decided to infiltrate our systems, Hardison provided them with absolutely useless code—”

“It signs all their agents up for about a hundred different porno mags,” Hardison said.

Spencer turned an angry look his way. “That was you? Goddammit Hardison—”

“But it also gave us a backdoor into their systems.” Nate managed a smile, though it was watery at best. “We’ve also got some… unique inside intel. One of our operatives has been posing as Latimer’s PA for the past few months and, believe me, does she ever have a few things to say about him.”

Spencer smiled. The pull of his lips looked reluctant, if Hardison had to put a word to it, but it changed his face. Made him less austere. It was nice.

From the way Parker pressed closer against him, she noticed too.

“Some of the operatives are already familiar with Parker, so she’ll be entering PISCES as a new agent who’s recently become dissatisfied with ZOOT. Hardison will be running background intel, and Spencer, we’ll be relying on you for some back up if things go sour.” Nate smirked. “Let’s go spy on some spies.”

For lack of anything better to do—his apartment was cleaned out, and his new employers hadn’t really given him any accommodations beyond a slightly questionable hotel room on the far side of the city from PISCES’ HQ—he accepted the silent invitation extended by Hardison and Parker and followed them home. It was mostly delivered in nudges; Parker touched his elbow and slipped around him like she was dancing, and Hardison brushed up against his other shoulder and met his eyes for half a second. It was enough encouragement for Eliot to trail behind them in his Jeep, eyes fixed on their taillights like a beacon.

Predictably, they ended up at the same hotel. Nate’s car was probably around somewhere, too.

The walls in their room were painted with the same dingy neutrality, and Hardison lowered his laptop case onto a chair beside the door. Parker curled away from them, leaning against a far wall and watching closely, as though dissecting Eliot and Hardison both and figuring out how they worked together.

Hell, Eliot didn’t know how they worked together.

“What am I doing here?” he asked after a few moments of uneasy silence. He meant for the words to come out gruff. Instead they were almost plaintive. A bit too close to desperate than he liked. Eliot had worn a bundle of different hearts on his sleeve over the years; rarely had they been his own.

“We’re going to be a team,” Hardison said. “Nate wouldn’t have had all three of us together if he wasn’t planning on it, even if you’re technically sitting this one out.” He looked inordinately pleased by the idea, and the warm stirring of the unknown welled up in Eliot’s stomach, braced for something he couldn’t identify.

“I like the idea of the three of us together,” Parker said.

“Professionally,” Eliot clarified, manfully resisting the urge to ball his hands into fists.

Parker’s smile turned enigmatic and she shrugged. Eliot was about a hairsbreadth away from fucking right off out of there—he wasn’t in the mood for any goddamn mind games—when Hardison touched his arm.

“We’re nervous, too,” he said. He slanted a fond look Parker’s way. “She gets weird when she’s nervous.”

“Pretzels,” Parker said, as if that made any sort of sense. Eliot didn’t know why he liked these two.

But he did.

“Why don’t you just hang out for a bit,” Hardison said. “We can figure things out as we go along. The three of us. We’ve got this assignment coming up, but once it’s done…” His hopeful eyes finished what his words didn’t.

“Yogurt-covered pretzels,” Parker continued.

“Woman!” Hardison snapped. Parker shrugged and turned around to jump on the bed, her ponytail swishing behind her.

“…they are pretty delicious,” Eliot admitted.

Hardison turned a bright smile his way. “You’re gonna fit right in, man.”

For a second, Eliot thought they were going to kiss. And he didn’t… he wasn’t ready for that. Even for something so simple. All his romantic conquests in the past few years had been jobs, and he wasn’t sure his brain was in the right place for anything more. But instead, Hardison just bumped up against his shoulder again and nudged him towards a couple of chairs next to the bed.

“It’s my turn to pick what’s on, right?” Parker asked, playing with the TV’s remote control.

“Right,” Hardison nodded. “As long as you pick whatever’s on SyFy.”

Eliot rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help a small smile from curling across his lips, either.