"Uh-huh," Hardison said while scrolling through a list of video feeds, looking for the one that showed their current client's… He looked up. "Eliot's what now?"
Parker was staring into the bowl in front of her, empty spoon thoughtfully suspended in mid-air. Inside said bowl was Eliot's most recent creation, a garlic-whatever soup with some sort of mushrooms in it. ("Chanterelles, Hardison, it's not that difficult to remember!") He hadn't tasted it yet, but it smelled fantastic.
"Sad," Parker repeated, glaring. "Eliot's sad."
"And how, pray tell, did you come to this conclusion? He seems pretty normal to me. Angry, maybe, but that's kinda Eliot's normal."
"It's in here." She took another spoonful of soup, frowned and pushed the bowl in his direction. "You try."
Hardison did. The soup tasted even better than it smelled. "It's deee-licious. Eliot's a wizard in the kitchen. Magic, I swear," he said. "You gonna finish this?"
"Really?" Parker said. "You don't think it's…"
"What?" Hardison said.
With a look of deep betrayal, Parker slipped from the stool. "Nothing. You eat it."
She was gone the next moment, silent like a ninja, quick like a snake, mad as a hatter. Would anyone ever understand this woman? Even dating her wasn't much help solving the mystery that was Parker. Hardison shrugged to himself and dug in.
* * *
A week later, Hardison did not feel like shrugging it off anymore. This had gone way past shrugging it off. He cornered Eliot, which was never a smart idea, but he was getting desperate.
"Look," Hardison said, blocking the escape route back into the pub.
"No," Eliot said and furiously stirred a red liquid inside a steaming pot. "I'm busy. Go away."
"Can't," Hardison said. "You gotta stop cooking unhappy food."
Eliot's frown deepened. "What?"
"Yeah, I don't get it either, but Parker, she won't eat your stuff anymore. Says it tastes sad, whatever that means. I don't know what you're doing wrong, man, but you gotta stop doing it."
Eliot didn't wear confusion well. Confusion, like a great number of things, made Eliot angry.
"There's nothing wrong with my food," he growled and lifted a cooking spoon threateningly.
Hardison raised his hands in a placating manner. "Tell that to Parker. Who do you think has to drive her around for takeout and to restaurants? Me, that's who. Her food critic impression? Not as much fun when it's the millionth time. We never eat here anymore, and I like your food. It's amazing. I miss it, but I can't have it, because, apparently, it tastes sad. So stop cooking unhappy food."
"You think my food is amazing?" Eliot looked surprised. Almost bashful. Hardison would go so far as to call it adorable, even.
"Yeah, sure it's amazing. Of course it's amazing. Keep up, that's not the point."
Eliot went from almost blushing to grumpy in no time at all. "What is the point? Start making sense."
"Tell that to Parker, okay? It's all her."
"Yeeees," Hardison said. "And?"
"Crazier than usual," Eliot amended. "Taste this."
Eliot practically shoved a spoon filled with the red stuff into Hardison's mouth. It tasted like hacking the Pentagon. Possibly even like lifting billions of dollars from corrupt banks via internet connection.
"Oh my god," he moaned and licked every drop of sauce from the spoon. "Perfection. Sheer perfection."
Eliot turned away to hide his self-satisfied little smile. "Knew it. Needs more thyme."
Hardison glared, offended. "Excuse you, what did I just say?"
"Like you know anything about good food. You bought a brew pub without even thinking about the menu at all."
"I got you for that, don't I?"
Hardison leaned against the kitchen counter and watched Eliot stir this pot and then that, chop peppers, crush garlic and grate cheese. Eliot force fed him more stuff, berated him continuously and mocked his sense of taste, but never told him to leave. Somehow, Hardison had no idea how, he had fun during all of this.
Sometime after the lasagna went into the oven, Parker stuck her head into the kitchen.
"That smells really good," she said, sniffing the air.
"Hallelujah," Hardison said and threw his hands in the air, sending soap bubbles flying everywhere.
"Watch it," Eliot growled and rubbed dishwater from his cheek.
"You," Hardison told him, "be grateful I'm helping with the dishes. I'll have you know I'm allergic to chores. Deathly allergic."
Eliot rolled his eyes. "Parker, get Nate and Sophie. Dinner's about to get cold."
They sat down together and ate. Though Hardison would never admit it out loud, he loved their family dinners. They weren't family in the genetic sense, but the name kinda got stuck in his head when he first thought of the event like that.
Parker took her first bite, oblivious to Hardison watching her like a hawk and Eliot trying very hard not to look like he was watching like a hawk.
"Huh," Parker said and eyed Eliot speculatively. "Nice."
Hardison breathed a sigh of relief and took a big forkful himself. It really was fantastic.
"This is really good," Sophie said.
Nate nodded along, mouth too full to form words.
"Tastes like friendship," Parker said with a smile.
Hardison loved Parker, he really did, but sometimes her smiles still freaked him out. They could be fragile little things, like pieces of delicate machinery put together by laymen with the help of a confusing manual.
"Friendship," Eliot repeated doubtfully.
"I'm just ecstatic you like it," Hardison said. No more restaurants, no more food critic impressions. Thank god. "Because this is fan-tas-tic."
Nate and Sophie both hummed approvingly. Eliot ducked his head a little at the compliment. Again: improbably adorable.
Parker was still smiling her creepy smile.
* * *
Watching Eliot work in the kitchen somehow became one of Hardison's favorite pastimes. He snarked and mocked, got verbally abused in turn and regularly hip-checked out of the way. He helped, sometimes. Actually helped. And learned stuff he never wanted to know about cooking.
"Stir this," Eliot said and went to get something from the fridge.
"What, no cream?" Hardison asked upon his return, while hectically beating the white sauce in the pot.
Eliot took the whisk from him with the air of a man relieving a life-long pacifist of an automatic weapon. "Cream's too heavy."
"Right," Hardison said, mock-serious. "Sure. It's too heavy."
This prompted Eliot to launch into a twenty minute monologue about the creation of the right sauce for the right dish with a detour into textures and different thickeners. It was like they were back at culinary school. Eliot looked so animated Hardison didn't have the heart to interrupt him. He retaliated with some very detailed information on proper cyber security for your personal devices. Eliot seemed almost interested.
Afterwards, Parker thought the casserole tasted "like camaraderie", whatever the hell that meant.
* * *
Hardison hardly believed his eyes when he found Eliot in the kitchen, right arm in a sling, one eye almost swollen shut, cursing up a storm because he couldn't get the pan he wanted from the stack one-handed.
"Ah, no," Hardison said. "Put down the cooking implement and step away from the stove. What do you think you're doing? You should be resting. This is not resting. This wouldn't look like resting to any normal person. "
"We need food," Eliot growled, like this physiological requirement was a personal affront.
Hardison pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I'm gonna whip up something, okay. You can supervise, or whatever. Sit down before you fall down."
He steered Eliot towards a chair in the corner and proceeded to make Mac and Cheese, because one could never go wrong with that. Or so he thought. According to Eliot, one could go wrong with Mac and Cheese at every turn.
"Enough from the peanut gallery," Hardison finally grumbled. Sure, a lot of Eliot's friendly suggestions had led to improvements, but enough was enough.
Parker suddenly appeared next to him, like the process of beaming had just been invented and she'd volunteered as the first test subject. It almost wasn't a surprise anymore, he told himself, with his heart beating in his throat. She planted a kiss on his cheek, stuck a finger in the boiling-hot pot, what the hell, and tasted the sauce.
"Mhm. Creamy," she said. It was one of her saner assessments. "Like synergy," she added and skipped out of the kitchen. "I'll get Nate and Sophie."
"You do that," Eliot said and exchanged a disbelieving, one-eyed look with Hardison.
Hardison shrugged. "As long as she eats it."
* * *
Parker dropped down from her favorite vent, took two steps over to the couch and punched Hardison in the arm. Hard. And all this before he even had time to yelp in surprise.
"Go apologize!" she yelled and dumped something in his lap.
Upon closer inspection the something turned out to be the remains of one of Eliot's breakfast burritos. Without a plate or anything. Eew.
"Woman, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Hardison yelled back.
Parker's eyes sparkled dangerously when she pointed a finger at him. "You go and apologize to Eliot right now." All that was missing from this disturbingly authentic display of parental indignation was an attached young man .
Hardison rubbed his arm. He looked at the burrito, at Parker's accusatory finger, at the burrito again. "Aw damn, is he cooking 'unhappy' food again?"
In hindsight, actually miming the air quotes was as close to courting death as he'd come in a while.
"No," Parker said. "Hurt. Make it right."
In her best gravity-defying manner, she jumped and flipped and whatnot, back up into her little hidey-hole.
Hardison took a few seconds to stare at her surprisingly vivid after image. Then he scooped up the mess from his lap as best as he could and tried to get to the kitchen without spreading burrito ingredients everywhere. He didn't have much success. Eliot was gonna blow up about that later. If he turned up at the pub again anytime soon. On second, third and fourth thought, this seemed highly unlikely.
On any random regular day Hardison wouldn't trust Parker's opinion on the subject of human behavior any more than he would hand her a pot of gold for safekeeping. But she was probably onto something here.
Eliot had stormed off suspiciously quickly that morning after breakfast, stone-faced and quiet. With Eliot, quiet was bad. He was always playing like he was this super tough guy, steel-plated, kevlar-reinforced and stuff, when he was actually a really decent person with a sensitive soul underneath. No-one who liked their intestines on the inside of their body would ever phrase it like that to Eliot's face, but still. Truth.
Only, Eliot was really good at the indestructible terminator act. Hardison was one of the few people on planet Earth capable of choosing the right (wrong) ammunition and perfect (most vulnerable) target area to inflict damage. It was a truth easily forgotten and difficult to grasp: Alec Hardison was capable of hurting Eliot Spencer.
So maybe suggesting that Eliot didn't give a shit about the health and well-being of their current mark's eight year old son had been kind of a horrible, terrible thing to do. No-brainer, now that he thought about it. How could he have gone a whole night without realizing that? This was Eliot, who had a soft spot for kids a mile wide and a knack for wrangling them to match.
Hardison hadn't been thinking, was the whole thing in a nutshell. There was banter, and then there was hitting where it hurt.
Parker had realized. Parker. How had that happened? And how was he supposed to fix this? Maybe she was onto something with her crazy food theories. Maybe this was the time for desperate measures.
* * *
"They smell so good." Parker said, laying it on thick with the starving-puppy-dog eyes. "Why can't I..."
"You know they're not for you." Hardison lifted the pan as high above his head as he possibly could. "I made them for Eliot. This is the fifth try! You know how long it's been since I willingly touched flour?"
"Thursday, when you helped Eliot make thing with the stuff," Parker said helpfully.
Hardison rolled his eyes. "On my own, by myself, no supervision, is what I mean. I would seriously not survive doing this a sixth time, so keep your thieving paws off the merchandise."
"I like your plan, but shouldn't someone test them? What if they taste awful?"
"Thank you, Parker. Your faith in my skills is astounding. You fill me with positivity and optimism, and I shall forge onward with a battle cry in my heart."
She was still eyeing the cakes like they were Fabergé Eggs stuffed with emeralds. "Just one? I am an expert, you know."
"Parker," Hardison said warningly.
"But they smell like…" She stopped to reflect on possible endings for the sentence. "…Like I should try them."
"No. I gotta put the frosting on these things, so shoo."
Parker made one last attempt at stealing the pan and was surprisingly out-maneuvered by Hardison and his long arms. She tried groping his ass next. As a distraction technique, it was promising, but Hardison retreated quickly. "Don't make me call Nate."
"Nate would make you share," she pouted.
She had a mean pout. An effective pout. And a point.
"Fine," he sighed and held up a warning finger right in front of her nose, 'cause subtle wasn't the way to go where Parker was concerned. "One. You get one."
She stole three, of course, and tiptoed out of reach, stuffing the first one into her mouth.
Her face did something really interesting.
Hardison had a bad feeling about this. "What? Do they taste like I'm sorry, I know you better than that, but sometimes I can't keep my stupid mouth shut Please tell me that's what they taste like."
"They taste like…" she said carefully around a mouthful of half-chewed cupcake.
"What? Spit it out, girl!"
Parker's take on his request was much too literal. She caught the mushy remains in her palm. "Like you can't tell sugar from salt."
"Shit, really?" Hardison said and grabbed a cake to confirm the mix-up. "That's six hours of my life I'll never get back," he groaned towards the heavens.
"But the texture provides a pleasing sensory experience," Parker carefully enunciated and patted his shoulder. "You'll get it."
"Hey," Hardison said with justified outrage. "What did I tell you? No more food blogs for you! Food blogs are poison for your innocent mind!"
Parker plainly laughed at him. What she intended to do with the two other cupcake-disasters in her possession, Hardison didn't want to know.
* * *
Hardison was working intently on his sixth batch when Nate walked into the kitchen and poured himself some juice. He leaned against the fridge, glass in hand and watched with a knowing half-smile on his face.
After a ridiculously long silence Nate said, "Hardison, what are you doing?"
"Cooking meth. What does it look like I'm doing?" Hardison started spooning dough into the cupcake pan, dividing it evenly between the moulds.
"Baking doesn't seem like your style."
Hardison licked a bit of stray dough from his finger and picked up the pan to stick it into the oven. "Yeah, yeah. The things I do."
Hardison closed the oven and focused on Nate for the first time during this conversation. "Huh?"
"For what?" Nate repeated. "The things you do for what?"
The dishwater was cold when Hardison stuck his hands in. He pulled the plug and shrugged. "I felt like trying it," he said. "I'm expanding my horizons . Everyone should expand their horizons. Isn't that, like, a thing?"
"Uh huh," Nate said, obviously not buying what Hardison was selling. "The ones before were a little salty. Parker was kind enough to let me have a bite."
So that was why she'd stolen the cakes. Poor Sophie was probably tricked into tasting one right now.
Hardison rolled his eyes. "Kind, yeah. That's Parker."
To his complete and utter surprise, Nate wandered over, handed him the empty glass to wash, picked up a dish towel and started drying. After a few minutes of what could tentatively be described as companionable silence, Nate said, "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"
Okay, so Hardison was never great at hiding when something was bothering him. Not from the people who mattered. "You really have to ask? You were there yesterday. When I said the thing. To Eliot."
"You piss Eliot off every other day."
"Not like this. This was… over the line."
"So. You're trying to apologize?"
"Eliot says things with food. Ask Parker, she'll tell you about it. She won't stop telling you about Eliot and his unhappy food. So I thought I'd try it. I thought he might appreciate it. You don't think he'd appreciate it?"
Nate suddenly had his panicked oh-no-feelings face on, like he was evaluating the quickest exit route in his head. "I think Eliot will appreciate anything you do for him," he finally said.
Hardison looked at him incredulously. "You have met the guy? Eliot, yay high, permanent frown on his face, anger issues up the wazoo. Appreciative is not a word I would use to describe Eliot."
"Right," Nate said and rubbed his eyebrow.
"Have you tried talking to him?" Sophie asked from very close behind them, smirking as they both jumped. Damn, the woman was sneaky when she wanted to be.
The look of complete relief on Nate's face was almost comical when he made a what-she-said gesture.
Hardison snorted. "I value my life."
"If these turn out right," Sophie said and inclined her head towards the oven, "they might be just the conversation starter you need."
"Eliot might faint from shock," Nate added.
Hardison sighed. "That's kinda what I'm counting on."
Sophie peered into the oven, then sauntered over to the counter to read the recipe. The print-out was barely legible by now. "This seems like a lot of work."
"Yeah, try doing it six times with two trips to the store in between."
Nate and Sophie exchanged a look.
"What?" Hardison asked.
"Six times," Nate said.
"Two trips to the store," Sophie said.
They exchanged another look.
"So what?" Hardison said, somewhat alarmed by their interest in these details.
"You wouldn't go to this kind of trouble for just anyone," Sophie said in a voice that invited him to draw his own conclusions in an irritating, shrink-like manner.
"Uh, no?" Hardison said.
"Just what, do you think, are these going to taste like?" Sophie kept prodding. "To Parker. Or to Eliot."
And suddenly Hardison wanted to pull the cakes from the oven and dump them in the trash. He'd been worried they might not speak to Eliot. He hadn't considered they might be saying too much.
"Use vanilla for the frosting," Sophie said.
"Eliot likes vanilla," Nate agreed and got pulled from the kitchen by Sophie, who apparently thought their work was done.
Thanks for nothing, Hardison thought bitterly. Now what was he going to do?
* * *
He put vanilla frosting on the cupcakes.
He sat down with Parker in the kitchen and gave her one to try.
"You know what this tastes like?" Parker said and eyed him speculatively.
Hardison winced. "I might."
"Good," Parker said.
"Uh." Hardison blinked. "What? Aren't you…"
"Jealous?" Parker finished. "Why? I love Eliot, too. He's great."
He blinked again. This was… weird. A crazy idea. Something to consider. Maybe?
"So you think I should… We should…"
"Give Eliot your apology cakes. Yes." She was at the door, the box of cupcakes under her arm, in the space of a blink. "Right now, Hardison. I'm not a very patient person, you know."
"I kinda noticed that about you," Hardison said faintly and followed her.
They found Eliot in the storage room doing inventory or something. He was switching cans around on a shelf and muttering about sell-by dates and incompetent staff. So they were catching him in a great mood. Awesome.
Parker was largely immune to those kinds of vibes, of course.
"Eliot," she shouted with great enthusiasm.
Eliot dropped a can of peaches, which narrowly missed his foot. He picked it up and glowered at her. "Dammit, Parker! We've been over this. Don't sneak up on me! Hardison, you know this!"
"We didn't sneak," Parker protested.
Hardison shrugged. "I'm physically incapable of moving quietly. Your words."
Eliot sighed, clearly unwilling to contradict his own assessment. "What do you want?"
"Here," Parker said and held the box out. "From Hardison, for you."
The box was cheerfully printed with flowers and balloons and what was probably supposed to be cakes with candles on top. It had been the only one available at the store.
"It's not my birthday," Eliot said and crossed his arms.
Why, oh why, did he have to be this naturally suspicious? Was there something inherently unsettling about receiving presents that were wrapped in a colorful manner?
"It's not for your birthday," Parker said with an eye roll.
"Just take the damn box," said Hardison.
He was suddenly very eager to get this over with. Nervous, even. Possibly reluctant. But it was too late now.
Eliot accepted the box. He opened the lid like he expected to find a nuclear bomb inside.
Frowning, he asked, "You bought me cupcakes?"
"Hardison made you cupcakes," Parker said.
"Made," Eliot repeated, clearly baffled. "As in baked?"
"Yes," Hardison said.
"As in mixing ingredients into dough according to a recipe?"
Hardison threw up his hands. "It's not rocket science, people. Why is it so hard to believe I can bake?"
"Since when do you want to?" Eliot said dubiously.
Parker took this as her cue to ram her elbow into Hardison's ribs. He winced. Sometimes the woman just didn't know her own strength.
"Tell him," she said out of the corner of her mouth. Eliot was probably not supposed to hear, but subtle she was not. God, Hardison loved her.
Eliot looked between them, expression morphing from suspicion to confusion. "What's going on?"
"Can you just, you know, try one?" Hardison said. "They're just cupcakes. No poison. Promise."
Parker jumped forward, snatched a cake from the box and took a big bite, smearing frosting across her face. She waved the remaining half demonstratively.
The expression on Eliot's face could best be described as fond as he watched Parker shove the rest of the cake in her mouth before giving him a thumbs-up. God, Hardison loved him. Loved them both. Oh, man. They were really going to do this.
Eliot put the box down on one of the shelves and picked up a cupcake. He savored his first bite for the longest moment.
"You really made these? From scratch? Without goggles and lasers?" Eliot still sounded disbelieving.
"I was motivated," Hardison said and felt Parker's hand grasp his and squeeze. "I'm sorry. For what I said yesterday. I didn't mean it. I know you better than that, okay?"
A muscle in Eliot's jaw twitched. He looked down at the rest of the cupcake in his hands. "Okay," he said.
"It's not okay," Hardison said.
"But he accepted the apology," Parker said. "Doesn't that make it okay?"
It wasn't enough. It wasn't all he meant to say.
Hardison stepped up and crowded Eliot against the shelf. Eliot had never ever backed down from him, but he took a step back now.
"What…" Eliot started to say, and Hardison kissed him, with Parker still clutching his hand.
By the time they came up for air, Parker's face was free of frosting and Eliot's mouth tasted like vanilla. Parker looked smug. Eliot looked a little shell-shocked.
"I've got an apartment upstairs," Hardison observed. "There's a bed in it."
"It's a very nice bed," Parker said.
"For now?" Eliot asked. "I mean, just tonight?"
"What do you think," Hardison said.
"He means no. For longer," Parker said.
"I got that," Eliot said. He cupped Hardison's cheek with his right and Parker's with his left, his thumb brushing Hardison's cheekbone in a tender gesture. "I would very much like to take both of you to bed now, if you want."
* * *
Sunlight was streaming through the windows. Hardison blinked his eyes open. He contemplated the contents of his bed for a moment and considered it a minor miracle that Eliot hadn't slipped away at the crack of dawn. He would have bet good money on Eliot being gone in the morning.
Parker stirred on Eliot's other side. "So early," she mumbled into the pillow. And then, after a moment of consideration. "'m hungry."
Hardison's stomach grumbled. "Eliot?"
"Are you kidding me?" Eliot complained towards the ceiling. "Is that why I'm here? To cook you breakfast every morning?"
"No." Parker was suddenly awake enough to pull Eliot's face towards her and kiss him, deep and easy. Her hand slid down Eliot's neck and along his chest in a slow, light caress that just didn't stop.
Hardison followed it with his eyes, watched it progress under the sheet. Eliot's gasp was a thing of beauty. When Parker started nibbling on Eliot's earlobe, Hardison took over kissing duties, which was no hardship at all.
"When we're done with this," he said against Eliot's lips, "I wouldn't say no to breakfast, just so you know."
"Frittata," Parker said, breathy and half-muffled against skin. "Can you make your frittata?"
"You got yourselves a deal," Eliot said, tightened his arm around Parker and pulled Hardison in for another kiss.
* * *
The first bite of Eliot's morning-after frittata made Parker's face light up like a Christmas tree.
She smiled down at her plate, Eliot hummed some country song at the stove, and Hardison enjoyed a delicious breakfast in the best possible company.
"Here's to happy food," Hardison said and raised his coffee cup.
* * *