“Seven little numbers, baby, they could be a start.”
—Boy, Little Numbers
The phone buzzes, rattling on the overcrowded desk.
Hardison glances at the clock on his screen—too late for Nana, too early for Parker. He reaches past the phone and unscrews the cap on his orange soda.
Megabyte looks up from the stuffed Ewok he’s disemboweling and lets out a long-suffering sigh that turns into a hiccupping snort.
“Seriously?” Hardison asks the dog. “You know how many wrong numbers I get. It’s a curse, MB. A curse. I am being punished for my genius.”
Megabyte snorts again.
Hardison has always heard that dogs are supposed to accept you for who you are, but Megabyte’s wrinkly little face has a definite judgy vibe.
“You know my dog in Skyrim never looks at me like that.”
Thing is, Megabyte’s right. Hardison’s lying. Lying to a dog! There has to be a special hell for people who do that.
“Fine,” Hardison says. “Sometimes I like the distraction. Not that you ain’t good company, little man.”
It’s just that having his own place—his own, awesome, clean, private, spacious place—is, well, a little quieter than he’d anticipated. In a good way. Totally good.
He talks to Nana every week and to his gamer friends every day or so, and now that Parker’s gotten comfortable dropping in, he even sees a real live human more days than not. When she’s in town.
If his phone is a little light on texts actually aimed at him, that’s totally temporary and he’ll be settled in here anytime now. And yeah, in the meantime, it’s a little bit interesting to see what the Wrong Number People have to say. It’s like a little window into other lives, even if it’s usually a depressing view.
Still, there were knock-knock jokes and birthday greetings and once even an ultrasound, no context given. People connecting. Or trying to.
The phone buzzes again, indignant at being ignored.
Megabyte circles twice and settles back down in his bed, resuming his Ewok-mangling.
“Fine,” Hardison says. “But let’s make it interesting. If it’s ‘u up?’ you get a new Ewok to replace that horrifying carcass. If it’s ‘sup,’ you pay me fifty bucks.”
Megabyte doesn’t bother responding, so Hardison assumes the bet is on.
“You better cross your paws, MB. You running a hell of a tab already. Freeloader.”
He picks up the phone.
(Received 02:52) 202-555-9830: Remember Prague? I’m calling in my marker. Need a ride. -ES
“Huh,” Hardison says. “That’s different. Guess we both lose.”
The phone buzzes in his hand.
(Received 02:52) 202-555-9830: Olmec Head.
“Okaaaay,” Hardison says. “I do not even want to know.”
He puts the phone down. He has work to do, after all. He’s supposed to be in the zone.
(Received 02:53) 202-555-9830: Bring sewing kit ASAP.
“Okay, you know what, I do want to know,” Hardison tells the dog. “It’s three in the damn morning. What kind of kinky shit involves a sewing kit and an Olmec head? …And I’m talking to you again. That’s…totally normal and healthy, right? Course it is. Ain’t like I’m talking to myself, here.”
Megabyte pulls a large wad of fluff from the Ewok’s rear and sends it wafting across the living room.
(Sent 02:55) 312-555-3355: In Grant’s Park? In Chicago?
There’s a pause this time. Hardison already has his coat on when the reply comes in.
(Received 02:58) 202-555-9830: y
“Getting impatient, are we?” Hardison asks, raising one eyebrow at the phone just like he’s been practicing in the mirror. “No textspeak on the first one. You even signed it. You know who signs texts? My nana, that’s who. My nana, and whoever’s having a sewing emergency in Grant’s Park.”
It isn’t that far away. And Hardison does have a sewing kit. Hell, he has a whole sewing machine. He’s actually exactly the right guy to text if you split a seam on your pants right before a date—or whatever the hell this person needs. He’d taken flak as a kid for making his own costumes, but just look at him now. His skills are freaking in demand.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. “Bark if there’s a crochet emergency while I’m out.”
Megabyte ignores him.
Last time Parker came back from a business trip she told him she’d free-climbed the Sphinx. Hardison had proudly reported how he’d found a new pizza place that was at least twenty percent better than the other one. Whatever this is all about, at least he’ll be able to tell Parker he’d actually left the apartment while she was gone.
“Hello?” Hardison calls softly.
Hardison has a feeling he’s not alone, but he can’t see anyone. He’s getting a little annoyed about that. Here he is, standing right at the giant head, and there’s no one in sight.
“Somebody order a sewing kit?” he tries. He should probably yell, but there’s got to be a security guard somewhere—the museum and aquarium are right there—and it’s starting to sink in how stupid this whole thing is. The wind is picking up now, full of the scent of a late-October Chicago storm.
“Stood up by a wrong number,” he tells the giant head. “This might be a new low.”
Then, because he might as well be thorough, he pulls out his phone and turns on the flashlight.
No, something. There’s a dark, brownish smudge on the giant face, almost—no, very definitely looking exactly like a handprint.
“Jesus, is that blood?”
The head doesn’t answer.
Hardison drops the light, looking around. There’s a drop of blood on the edge of the sidewalk, and another a few feet farther along. Like breadcrumbs.
Gross, scary breadcrumbs.
The wind is picking up, and Hardison hears the low rumble of thunder in the distance just as he spots a dark form propped against a tree, barely visible in the orange glow of the streetlight.
“Hey, you okay?” Hardison asks, stepping closer and aiming the phone light for a better look. He gets a quick impression of long brown hair and an alarming amount of blood.
The man rouses a little, turning his head and blinking into the flashlight. When he lifts his arm to shield his eyes—beautiful eyes, Hardison thinks, completely inappropriately—Hardison gets a look at the source of the blood.
“Whoa,” he says. “Hang on, brother. I’m gonna get you an ambulance, okay? Just a minute now.”
“No hospital,” the guy says, and wow, he has a nice voice too. Kind of rumbly, like a big cat. “Got a friend coming.”
He looks away, annoyed, like Hardison’s one of those assholes who hits on strangers on the El. Hardison almost backs away and apologizes.
“Uh,” Hardison says instead. He holds up the sewing kit, aiming the light to show it off.
The guy—the guy actually laughs. It’s a great laugh, like Hardison’s hotel sewing kit is the best joke he’s seen all year. He gives into it, doubling over, side heaving.
Then his eyes roll back in his head, and he passes out.
Right on cue, it starts to rain.
“Well, shit,” Hardison says.
Someone is watching him sleep.
Eliot holds still, keeping his breathing even. It takes him a moment to figure where he is—he feels drugged. And there’s a stabbing pain in his stomach.
Right. That thought brings up the relevant memory, more or less. The museum. The competition. Texting Mikel.
Eliot must have a concussion in addition to the stab wound, because instead of Mikel, his brain’s insisting on a stranger with a tiny, sticker-covered box offering him…what, a band-aid?
Well, he’s alive, so that part can’t be right.
Problem is, whoever’s watching him sleep, they’re breathing a lot too heavy to be Mikel—not that sitting at his bedside really seems like her style. A few stitches and a place to crash for the night (maybe a few nights if he’s in shape to make it fun), that’s Mikel. She doesn’t owe him more than that.
Something’s wrong here, and even the thought of having to deal with it sends a shivery wave of exhaustion through him.
Eliot opens his eyes.
A fat, wall-eyed pug sits on a throw pillow on the floor, staring at him intently and breathing like he’s just run a marathon. The pug has a bowtie on his collar.
Eliot shuts his eyes, counts to ten, and tries it again. The dog is still there.
Eliot accepts that people have hidden depths—hell, he’d know. But that? Is not Mikel’s style either.
The dog’s getting excited now, wiggling his whole stubby little body with glee at getting Eliot’s attention. Eliot wonders how long it’s been waiting.
And what the hell is going on.
He’s in a kid’s room (one exit door, plus a window that makes it clear he’s in a high-rise). Toys line the shelves on the wall, mostly action figures posed in elaborate scenes, with some vaguely familiar rabbits that don’t look like they’d appeal to a kid at all.
On the other hand, if Eliot’s learned anything from his role as over-generous absentee uncle, it’s that kids are weird and they like weird shit. The kid whose room Eliot’s in right now is obviously very weird—on one shelf, Batman is sacrificing Superman before one of the giant bunnies as the Hulk looks on—but it’s a nice, airy room, obviously expensively furnished (it’s not tacky, exactly, but it’s very…ostentatious) and professionally cleaned.
Eliot doesn’t know anyone with a room like this.
He sits up.
Pain burns through his midsection, tight and hot and all-encompassing. He doubles over, biting his lip. It’s a distinctive pain, even without the neatly taped dressing on his stomach to spell it out for him. Eliot won’t be fighting for a while. Hell, just moving is going to be a real bitch.
Not impossible, though. He waits for his breathing to steady, then grips the headboard and pulls himself to a sitting position, focusing on using only his arm muscles. The dog goes wild, flinging himself enthusiastically at the side of the bed with a series of increasingly demanding yips.
“Sorry, buddy,” Eliot says. “I don’t have any food.”
He pats his sides, as if to show the dog his empty pockets, but he doesn’t have any pockets. He doesn’t have any pants. Worse, he doesn’t have his jacket.
The dog, undeterred, barks at him, then seems to choke on his own enthusiasm.
“You okay?” Eliot asks.
The dog reverse sneezes for a minute, then pants cheerfully at Eliot. The bowtie’s a little lopsided now, and Eliot’s itching to pull the thing off and give the poor little guy some semblance of dignity.
“Can you make it up here?” he pats the bed. He’s going to regret this, he can tell, but hell, the dog has tags, doesn’t he? And Eliot needs any intel he can get.
The whining is getting frantic, but the little guy’s smart. He takes a running leap and gets his front paws up, and Eliot—ow—pulls him the rest of the way up by the scruff of his neck. The dog yips at that, then instantly forgives Eliot for the insult, pouncing on his lap—ow, fuck—and pressing himself close to let Eliot pet him. Eliot concentrates on breathing quietly until the spots stop dancing in front of his eyes. Then he takes the opportunity to pull off the bowtie.
“Megabyte!” a man’s voice calls. Megabyte, if that’s his name, ignores the voice, but Eliot watches the doorway, trying to be ready to move.
“Oh! You’re awake!” The guy from his hallucination is standing in the doorway, eyes wide with surprise. “Good morning! Or afternoon, I guess. Megabyte, get down from there. Sorry, man. I thought I shut that door—this is usually his room. Is he hurting you? Oh, no, Megabyte, you lost your tie!”
Eliot blinks at the flood of words. “Where’s Mikel?”
“Um.” The guy looks embarrassed. “That’s a long story.”
Eliot’s too tired and too drugged to deal with that. He needs his clothes, and his phone, and his jacket. And then he needs to get out of here.
“You know what she did with my stuff?” he asks, trying to sound like it’s not important. This guy’s built, but he’s gym-fit; he doesn’t move like he knows how to use it. Eliot could take him down in a heartbeat. Assuming the man’s fool enough to hold still while Eliot totters across the room. He’s smart enough not to step into range, so that might be a bit of a problem.
There’s no reason to go there yet, though, not till Eliot gets a read on the situation.
The guy hesitates. “You mean all those knives you had tucked up everywhere? I put’em in the kitchen.”
He seems to take Eliot’s addled processing time as a reproach, because he puts his hands up defensively. “That’s where knives go, brother. Not all up in your sleeves or in—how the hell do you not stab yourself when someone bumps you on a crowded train? Or is that what happened? Because there’s nothing on the news about any shenanigans at the museum last night. If you were worried about that. Anyway, like I’m always telling Parker, this here is a no-stabbing zone. So you can get them on your way out, cool?”
“Where am I, anyway?” Eliot growls. Megabyte squirms and licks him right on the face, and none of this is making any kind of sense. “This is your dog’s room?”
“It’s cool,” the guy says, smiling again. “He doesn’t mind. Anyway, it’s really the guest room, so this is perfect! You’re my first guest! More or less.”
Eliot takes a deep breath. It’s a mistake.
“Hey, you okay? Sorry, stupid question. Of course you’re not okay. Look, I got you some stuff.” The guy bends over Eliot, faster than he’d expected, and Eliot tenses automatically, which is another mistake. At least his host is in easy striking range now. Not that he seems to know it. The idiot’s petting Megabyte with one hand and shoving the Walgreens bag under Eliot’s nose with the other.
Eliot doesn’t take it.
“…Right. About that,” the guy says. “Let’s start over. I’m Alec Hardison. That right there is Megabyte. And you are…?”
When Eliot doesn’t answer, Hardison sighs. “Look. I don’t know who Mikel is. You texted the wrong number. Kind of. Anyway, I’m the one who got it, and I was curious, so I just…”
There’s a pause while they both take in how stupid this sounds. Hardison looks at the dog like Megabyte might speak up with a better explanation. Megabyte has his head on Eliot’s chest now and is sniffing contentedly. Like everything else today, it hurts. Eliot reaches up to shove the dog away, and Megabyte licks his hand.
“Aw, he likes you!” Hardison chirps.
It’s probably best to ignore the dog for now.
“You got a wrong number, so you went to the park in the middle of the night, found a guy in a pool of blood, and brought him to your apartment,” Eliot says, filling in the blanks. Maybe, he considers, he’s still hallucinating. Or just delirious.
“I wanted to know what happened in Prague,” Hardison says defensively. “And at least it wasn’t another random dick pic. Not that there’s anything wrong with sexting, just, you know, it’s all about consent, and my program’s all cancelled numbers, so most of the time the texts I get are too aggressive or too sad or both, right?”
“That’s how I got your text,” Hardison explains. “My phone cycles through recently cancelled numbers. It’s supposed to be just outgoing calls, like swapping out the SIM on a burner, only—do you want the tech talk? No? Okay, well, basically, it swaps numbers every few hours, then forwards to my VOIP. It’s totally untraceable and totally brilliant. Except it’s been glitching and letting calls and texts through for the cancelled phones. Like yours. Your…Mikel must have changed her number recently.”
Eliot shakes his head, denying it. Mikel would tell him if she changed her number. Probably. If she thought of it.
It has been a while since the last time, though. Damn it.
Which means last night could have gone even worse than it did. Carefully, ignoring Hardison, he peels up the edge of the largest bandage, the one on his stomach. The wound is curving and ugly and ominously warm to the touch, but the stitching looks good—better than he could have done under the circumstances. And there’s a lot of it.
“You do this?”
“Oh, hell no,” Hardison says. “I damn near fainted just looking at it. Nah, I hired a guy.”
Eliot’s host knows how to find off-the-books medical care on no notice—and has some kind of fancy burner phone. Not a civilian.
“Your guy does good work,” Eliot says carefully.
Hardison looks ridiculously relieved. “Good. I mean, he charged enough? But I didn’t exactly have time to check into his medical license or anything, you know? And I mean, finding a doctor—or whatever he was—is one thing, but I did not sign up for people dying in my spare room. Speaking of which, how you feeling? If you want to re-think your no-hospital thing, I can, you know, make that happen. Might be a good idea?”
Eliot can take a hint.
“No need,” he says. He pushes Megabyte off his chest. Megabyte wriggles back and manages to make himself heavier. “Thanks for the help. I’ll pay you back for the doctor in a couple of days. You, uh, already have my number. And seriously, thank you. If you ever need a favor, give me a call.”
“What? Where are you going?”
Eliot stops wrestling with the dog and considers his answer. Hardison’s no civilian, but even if he’s making some kind of play here—and seriously, who would bring home a wounded hitter without some kind of agenda—it’s not like Eliot can’t get out of it. If he has to.
“I don’t have much cash on me,” Eliot says, gesturing at his bare chest.
Hardison waves that aside. “No worries, man. Just—you’re leaving?”
“Like you said, you didn’t sign up for this.”
“Oh! Oh, no, man. Listen, I didn’t mean it like that. You’re welcome to stay till you’re back on your feet. I just thought you might want some real medical care. You know, what with the horrific stab wound.”
“Just my clothes,” Eliot says.
Whatever part of the criminal world Hardison’s in, he’s new enough that he hasn’t learned to hide his expressions at all.
“Yeah, about that...I put them in the incinerator,” Hardison says.
Eliot’s heart sinks. He’s going to be out of action for weeks after this, and now this idiot had burned the goods, which meant he wasn’t even going to be paid. This was supposed to be an easy job. A couple of nights in Chicago, a quick in and out at the museum, maybe an extra night with Mikel if she was in town. It had looked almost too easy, if he was being honest—maybe the competition at the museum shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“I did go through your stuff,” Hardison continues. “Sorry about that, but, you know, I wanted to know who was bleeding all over my nice sheets. I’m guessing that wasn’t a random mugging, huh? I actually have some questions about that? Like, first of all, your name?”
It’s definitely time to get out of here, clothes or no clothes. Eliot pushes himself up.
The world goes white with pain.
Hands grab his shoulders, and he automatically tenses, ready to fight his way out, but by the time his vision clears it’s obvious Hardison is easing him back against the pillows, his face an almost comical picture of dismay. The kid’s still babbling—does he ever shut up?—but Eliot can’t hear him over the buzzing in his ears.
Right. Time to reassess. Blood loss like this takes time to recover from. Forget the job; first priority in this kind of situation is a safe bolthole. A day or so of rest and fluids—and a little luck—and he’ll be in shape to plan his next move. He can’t go back to his hotel; he’s not sure how much time has passed, but enough for someone to track him down. He’s going to be conspicuous at best, getting a new one. He could break into someplace, but same problem.
“Hey, ES! ES, you hearing me?” Hardison babbles.
“What?” Eliot asks.
“Oh, thank God,” Hardison says. “That doctor was real clear about you staying in bed. And about his no-refunds policy, so, you know, if you do plan to pay me back, maybe just...chill a minute? Or a day. Or whatever. Whoever’s after you doesn’t know you’re here, you know. It ain’t like I told the doc anything about you. I don’t know anything.”
“Okay,” Eliot hears himself say.
“And I have top-of-line security, you know. Better than that! There’s the line, and then there’s me, way up—oh. Okay? Okay! Good. Great. You’re gonna like it, I swear. I have all the sports channels, or if you’d rather—”
“Do you have water?” Eliot feels a little bad about cutting him off, but he’s getting the feeling he might die of thirst waiting for Hardison to come up for air.
Hardison looks stricken. “What would my nana say? Hang tight, man, I’ll be right back.”
He bustles out. Eliot had kind of hoped Megabyte might follow, but the little dog’s curled into Eliot’s side, still panting happily. Probably grateful about being freed from the damn bowtie. Or he’s attracted to the blood. This dog looks about as far from a wolf as it’s possible to get, but a predator’s a predator.
“No scavenging today,” Eliot says, and rubs him behind the ears. “Bad luck for you.”
“Man, he is really into you,” Hardison says. He’s carrying a bottle of water, a bottle of Gatorade, and two bottles of orange soda.
Eliot takes a careful sip of the water, watching as Hardison stacks the other drinks on the bedside table. He decides not to comment on the scavenger theory.
“So, you’re really gonna make me guess your name,” Hardison says. “Seems a little untrusting, but someone did stab you last night; you’re probably allowed a little paranoia. Thing is, I got to call you something. Ernest? Eustace? Ebenezer? Eleazar?”
“Huh,” says Hardison. “Really? I was pulling for Ebenezer. Oh, before I forget: This was in your pocket.”
Very carefully, he pulls a tissue-wrapped object out of his jacket, unwraps it, and sets it gently on the bedside table. They both look at the little painted scarab, Hardison grinning proudly.
“I figured you must be worried about this,” he says. “But it’s all good. Didn’t even get scratched in all the hubbub. Is it from a famous tomb or something?”
Eliot drops his head into his hands, trying not to laugh.
How is this his life? He feels the laughter rising anyway, shaking his chest and burning through his gut.
“What the hell?” Hardison asks.
Megabyte sits up, eyes bugging out of his head in alarm. Eliot notices the frayed remains of a bowtie hanging from his ugly little mouth.
Eliot looks at the dog, and the scarab, and Hardison’s confused expression, thinks about the blood and sweat he’s poured into this damned job, and laughs so loud he scares the damn dog.
Eliot—and damn, it’s good to have a name for this guy—is laughing hard enough that Hardison’s honestly a little worried he might pop his stitches. It’s a wonderful laugh, though, better than the one last night, warm and happy and helpless and totally uncontrolled, unlike Eliot himself, who’s so self-possessed Hardison’s beginning to wonder if he’s human.
“It’s from the gift shop,” he wheezes. “Probably...made in China.”
“Eliot,” Hardison says slowly. “You telling me you robbed the gift shop?”
And here he’d been thinking the guy was some kind of Indiana Jones reboot come to life, robbing museums instead of graves.
Eliot’s wheezing now, hands braced against the bandages. Tears are leaking out of the corners of his eyes.
“Seriously,” Hardison says. “You have to be kidding me. I mean, apologies if I’m calling this wrong, but you are a criminal, right? You’re not just some eccentric tourist?”
“No, I’m a bad guy,” Eliot confirms. He’s settling down now, more scowling than laughing. Hardison hands him the bottle of water.
“A bad guy who robs gift shops. Eliot, you know they do have real jewelry in there, right? What’s that scarab even worth?”
“I stopped on the way out,” Eliot mumbles. “My nephew’s into archeology.”
“You stopped. In the middle of a heist. To get your nephew a present,” Hardison says, slowly. “That might be the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.”
That earns him a scowl. It’d be a damn scary one if Eliot weren’t trying so hard not to laugh again.
“I had some bad intel. Didn’t realize anyone else was on the job,” he confesses. “Never again, man.”
“So, sweet and stupid,” Hardison summarizes.
“Not as stupid as bringing strangers into your home,” Eliot shoots back.
Hardison concedes he might have a point. It’d be more of a point if the stranger in question were actually capable of getting out of bed. And if he weren’t using those blunt, strong hands to pet Megabyte with surprising gentleness. (He’s found Megabyte’s favorite spot, and the dog is practically melting into Eliot. It’s bordering on disloyal.)
“You do know they have a store in the airport?” Hardison asks. “Or there’s a little thing called online shopping? People rarely get stabbed on eBay.”
Eliot rolls his eyes.
“Just saying,” Hardison says. “You got stabbed for a souvenir, you’d better be getting some kind of World’s Best Uncle mug out of all this.”
“I didn’t get stabbed,” Eliot says. “It was more of a slash. Guy had a really good knife. An old Randall 1, and he’s been taking care of it.”
The man has actual knife envy.
Hardison takes a moment to cope with the fact that he has definitely brought a crazy person back to his apartment and installed him in the spare room.
“My mistake,” he says. “So, what were you stealing? One of those grow-your-own dinosaur sets? A nice set of postcards?”
Eliot doesn’t answer.
“There were some pebbles in your pocket,” Hardison teases. “Was this a pebble heist?”
“Actually,” Eliot says, suddenly serious. “Did you save those?”
Eliot, it seems, is not. And since the man got stabbed—slashed, whatever, Hardison is pretty sure it’s a meaningless distinction to everyone but Eliot—for those stupid rocks, the least Hardison can do is let him keep an eye on them. He’s pretty sure he didn’t actually toss them.
Sure enough, they’re on the kitchen counter, next to the knives. Hardison studies them for a moment, curious. They look like pebbles. A little dirty. Maybe they could be uncut gemstones, but if so, they’re pretty small. He wonders if Eliot would notice if he chipped one open. Probably.
He opens the fridge out of habit and his stomach growls at the sight of cold pizza, so he helps himself, and then, after a moment’s deliberation in his cupboard, he blows the dust off a can of soup and heats it for Eliot. If it’s good for a cold, it’s probably good for a stab wound.
While he waits for the microwave, he looks at the knives again. Last night, in all the chaos, they’d been—unsettling. A huge red flag on his rush to judgement in saving this guy, actually. Not that he’d assumed his guest was a babe in the woods, under the circumstances. And not that Hardison could have stopped to make a pros and cons list while the guy was bleeding to death. He’d acted on instinct, and his gut hadn’t let him down yet.
But the knives had thrown him.
Now, Eliot’s open admiration for the knife that stabbed him ringing in his ears, Hardison looks again. They still look scary as hell. But when he pulls one from its sheath and weighs it on his palm, the faint scent of oil is pleasant, and he can see the slight wear on the grip. The balance isn’t what he’d expected, either, and the weight of the handle is obviously deliberate, carefully chosen and maintained. It’s not a work of art, but it’s obviously a work of engineering, and Hardison can maybe sort of appreciate that.
It also feels like it’d be fun to throw. He’s always wanted to be able to do that. Okay, so “always” is more like “for about ten minutes whenever he watches a ninja movie or a circus act,” but the point is that now’s his chance. Hardison stacks some couch cushions into a comfortably large target, then gets interrupted by the microwave. Soup’s up. He sets it on a tray to cool and picks up the knife, narrowing his eyes in concentration.
He misses the target by about a yard and knocks over a table lamp.
“Must be defective,” he mutters, looking around to make sure no one saw that. “Thing didn’t even land point first.”
No one answers, of course, but there’s a suspicious thud from the guestroom, followed by a sharp bark from Megabyte. By the time Hardison opens the door, Eliot’s safely in bed, but Megabyte’s standing on his chest looking more like a guard dog than an elderly, half-blind pug should be able to manage.
“Good boy, MB,” Hardison says, scooping up the dog and putting him gently on the floor. Megabyte whines his indignation, then realizes he’s been relieved of duty and trots off to check for crumbs in the kitchen.
“Eliot, seriously, settle down. I got your pebbles right here. And soup!”
He sets the tray across Eliot’s lap, trapping him. Eliot looks at the soup, an expression on his face Hardison can’t quite interpret. A mix of suspicion and wistfulness, maybe. Wispicion?
“Why are you doing this?” Eliot looks up, and holy hell, the man’s eye contact feels like a full-contact sport. Hardison’s never seen anyone get this intense over soup.
“It’s from a can,” he says reassuringly.
Eliot takes a cautious spoonful, and Hardison pulls up a chair to eat his pizza. Eliot gives him another of those looks, like there’s something wrong with eating cold pizza for an afternoon snack. Or maybe he just doesn’t like the soup; Hardison doesn’t even remember when he bought that can. Oh well; it’s not like that stuff goes bad.
“So, what’s the story with the pebbles?”
Eliot takes another spoonful.
“You’re not going to hold out on me,” Hardison protests. “Come on, I am dying here.”
“So you have clients,” Hardison pushes.
Eliot ignores him.
“I thought we were friends, Eliot. I don’t even get to know what you do?”
Eliot pauses with his spoon halfway to the bowl.
“Friends,” he says slowly, tasting the word as cautiously as he’d tried the soup. “I don’t know anything about you. And you don’t hear me asking.”
“I’m a hacker,” Hardison says.
Eliot raises an eyebrow.
Hardison shrugs. “In for a penny, in for a pound. You had to know I was something.”
“Retrieval specialist,” Eliot admits.
“Oh, retrievals,” Hardison says, trying to sound like he has any idea what that means.
Eliot, the bastard, smirks into his soup.
“Probably a lot of travel, huh?” Hardison asks.
Hardison wants to ask if Eliot retrieves things in Chicago a lot. Probably not, if he had a dead number for his friend, or whatever she was. Well, he has Hardison’s number now.
“What?” Eliot asks.
Hardison has no idea what his face has been doing. Something that has Eliot squinting at him suspiciously again, anyway, and the man’s got laser eyes or something—it’s unfair. Hardison panics and says the first thing that comes into his head.
“Parker travels a lot.”
“Parker’s your girlfriend? Boyfriend?”
Eliot’s guess echoes through his chest, sending vibrations down through his stomach to…well, to everywhere. He wishes he could say yes.
“My best friend,” Hardison says. “She’s out of town this week, so I guess you’ll miss her. It’s too bad. You’d love her, man.”
Eliot’s somehow managing to laugh at him with just his eyes. “She cute?”
Hardison grins, and then regrets it. “Cute” makes Parker sound like she’s just some girl he’s giving the eye, and whatever Parker is, she’s a lot more than that. And why is he bringing her up at all?
“She’s brilliant,” he says. “And funny, and fearless, and amazing, and I don’t know anyone else in the world who thinks like she does.”
Eliot’s eyes are still laughing, Hardison can tell. But it’s a softer laughter. “But you’re just friends.”
It’s crazy, unloading on this guy, no matter how soft his eyes are. Eliot seems—well, not nice, exactly. He’s prickly and suspicious and the kind of guy who gets into knife fights, and also handsome and charming and confident even while recovering from a stab wound, not to mention the intense eyes and the shoulders and that laugh, so it’s not like he’s going to relate to Hardison’s geeky romance problems. It’s obvious he finds them funny.
But there’s something reassuring about those laughing eyes, like Eliot’s on his side somehow and laughing with him. And Eliot’s in—not the same line of work, exactly, but at least in the same general field. He’ll understand how isolating unconventional career paths can be.
Plus, it’s not like the guy’s planning to stick around. Hardison’s pretty sure he’d have been out the door already if he could walk that far. This is just one of those short-term friendships, like being stuck in an elevator. So it won’t matter if Eliot thinks he’s an idiot.
It’s not like Hardison has anyone else to talk to about this.
So he tells Eliot about Parker. How she blew into his life like a breath of fresh air. That she makes him try new and terrifying things, like BASE jumping. That she snorts when she laughs. That she’s different from everyone he’s ever met, and the way the sheer surprise always breaks him out of the slow rut of coding and gives him the perspective he needs to crack the job.
The way she disappears, for days or weeks, and then just when he’s going crazy missing her and worrying (Hardison doesn’t feel the need to mention what exactly he worries about), he realizes someone’s rearranged his figurines to act out scenes from whatever movie he’s just been watching.
That she’s been sitting closer on the couch lately, bringing him candy from Tokyo (she thinks about him while she’s gone!), even texting him random thoughts throughout the day.
He takes a deep breath and tells Eliot about the night she kissed him. And that other night they did more than kiss.
“But she isn’t acting like anything’s changed,” Hardison finishes. “And I don’t want to assume, you know?”
Eliot has the slightly glazed look of a man who wasn’t expecting a monologue, but he’s not laughing. His eyes are locked on Hardison’s face, like he’s looking for something.
“You try talking to her? Communication’s everything, man.”
“Says the guy who got stood up while bleeding out.”
“Mikel and I know what we are to each other,” Eliot says calmly.
Hardison wonders what that means in practical terms. He wants to know more—would this Mikel have come, if she’d got Eliot’s text? Does Eliot still think so? She’d changed her number without telling him, and Hardison can imagine Eliot inspiring love or rage and all kinds of passion, but not that kind of casual indifference.
Eliot doesn’t seem upset about it at all, though. He’s narrowing his eyes, waiting for Hardison to say something.
“I don’t want to freak Parker out,” Hardison says. “She doesn’t like feeling cornered.”
“I got to be honest, she don’t sound all that timid, man,” Eliot says. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“She could jump out the window and never talk to me again. Or stab me with a fork and then jump out the window and never talk to me again.”
Eliot blinks at that. “Well. You’d have your answer.”
Which is true. Healthy, even: Get the no, and move on. It’s what Nana would have said if Hardison had asked her, which is why he hasn’t. It’s what Hardison would tell someone else in his position. Only...it’s good general advice, but Nana and Eliot don’t know Parker. They can’t possibly understand.
“Look,” Eliot says, yawning. “Start small. When’s she coming back?”
“A week?” Hardison says. “Depends how her trip goes.”
“Okay, so here’s what you do,” Eliot says. “You get the place all cleaned up, put out some candles, open some wine, make her a nice dinner…romantic but cozy, you get me? No going nuts and covering the place in rose petals. What’s your best date meal?”
“You don’t want lobsters or anything fiddly like that,” Eliot explains, like he thinks Hardison would ever be able to boil a poor defenseless lobster. “A lot of people think that’s the way to go, but you got to crack all those shells, and the butter sauce gets drippy. You want her to be relaxed, not trying to crack open a skull bone and worrying about which fork to eat with. Does she like salmon? A good salmon, maybe a mustard glaze, that’s more like it. And just a little bit of really fluffy mashed potatoes. Most people don’t think potatoes are a romantic food, but that’s a mistake, because almost everyone associates them with holidays, so you get that connection with—”
“Um. Eliot? I don’t know how to make any of that. I mostly get take-out? Or frozen dinners.”
Eliot looks appalled.
“They have YouTube videos for that stuff, right?”
“I can show you,” Eliot sighs.
“You don’t have to do that,” Hardison says. “You’re a guest. You don’t have to cook.”
“Sounds like I do if I want to eat,” Eliot mutters almost too quietly for Hardison to hear. Louder, he says, “You might have saved my life, Hardison. I can teach you one recipe. Everyone should have at least one dish they can make when they need to impress a date.”
“Thanks, man,” Hardison says, meaning it enough to let that might have go. A little denial’s probably healthy enough under the circumstances. “And thanks for…you know. I really needed to talk this out with someone.”
“Anytime,” Eliot says wryly.
Belatedly, it occurs to Hardison that Eliot, good listener or not, is literally a captive audience—and an obviously exhausted one at that. He excuses himself before things can get more embarrassing, and finds himself in the kitchen, flipping through the cookbook Nana gave him when he moved out. He’d opened it before and even tried a few recipes that looked interesting, but: Was he supposed to just have all these things in the house? Like, all the time? And if he was going to have to go out and buy fifteen different things and then not use them up in order to make dinner, wouldn’t it be more efficient to just buy dinner?
Obviously, Eliot disagrees. Hardison’s pretty sure Parker doesn’t care whether or not Hardison can cook, but she might like the surprise of it. Maybe if he picks a breakfast food. Those are probably easier anyway.
He sets the book on the counter as a reminder to study it later; he does actually have work to do today.
Maybe he’s delirious. It would make more sense than the way this day is going.
On the other hand, Eliot’s never hallucinated anyone like Alec Hardison before. If this is some kind of fever dream, at least it’s a nice change from the last time. And if it’s not, well. Looking at it coldly, Eliot’s best play is to build some kind of rapport with his rescuer/possible captor. It’s not like it’s a bad thing that that’s turning out to be alarmingly easy.
Or that, for a criminal, Hardison is a bit of a surprise.
Eliot has a pretty clear idea of what professional geeks are usually like. He’s dealt with them before, even if it’s usually through a middleman.
Maybe Hardison even supplied—but no. Not after listening to him babble for half an hour about his maybe-girl, gesturing wildly with those long, agile fingers (something Eliot should not be noticing right now) and once almost falling out of his chair with enthusiasm.
Eliot kept waiting for him to veer into talk about the “friend zone” or some toxic bullshit like that—no one is as nice as Hardison seems, and the geek’s lonely and weird enough to be answering strange texts and pouring his heart out to Eliot Spencer, of all people. There has to be some kind of dark side here.
Instead, Hardison brimmed over with empathy for Parker’s apparent insecurities, support for her goals, admiration of her career. A willingness to set aside his feelings, mixed with a sweetly respectful hope that they might be returned.
Part of Eliot wants to shake him out of it, remind Hardison that the world is full of bad people and he’s going to get himself hurt. Instead, he hears himself offering cooking lessons like that’s the kind of favor people usually want from him. Like that’s the kind of favor anyone has ever wanted from him.
So it’s good that Hardison’s finally leaving him alone. Eliot doesn’t need to be fussed over, he doesn’t need a dog sniffing at his sore spots, and he doesn’t need some idiot chattering nonstop and asking too many questions. What he needs is to get the goods to his client, get paid, and get the hell out of Chicago, preferably—and Eliot isn’t going to think too hard about why, not when he has blood loss and a minor head injury to blame it on—before Hardison figures out exactly what kind of bad guy Eliot actually is.
Except he doesn’t want to leave. Part of that’s just cold calculation; no one who knows Eliot would think he’d have anything to do with Alec Hardison. He’s safe, he’s comfortable, and he—he can probably cope with Hardison. If that’s what it takes. At least the guy’s easy on the eyes, even if he never shuts up.
All in all, the smart play is to stay put, make nice—not too nice, given how twitterpated Hardison is over his girl, and that should not give Eliot any kind of pang at all, he is definitely concussed—and just roll with the punches for a few days. There’s no reason to be this on edge.
He leans back, shuts his eyes, tries to relax. One breath at a time.
Hardison’s doing something in the other room, opening and shutting cupboards like he’s on some kind of mission. It’s not loud. It reminds Eliot, disconcertingly, of being home sick as a child, sipping a Sprite and listening to his mama move around the kitchen. Half of him wants to lean into the feeling, let himself drift. The other half of him, the part that’s kept him alive all this time, tenses, trying to resolve the vague sounds into something clear, something distinctive. Some threat.
Eliot opens his eyes.
Very carefully, bracing his stomach with a pillow, he pulls himself up and swings his legs to the floor. It’s bad, but better than the last try; his body’s already starting to make up for the blood loss. Good. The next part’s going to be tricky. Eliot takes a deep breath, braces himself, and pulls himself up by the bedpost. The room spins again, and his stomach—Eliot breathes out through his mouth in short, hard puffs, waiting for his vision to clear.
It doesn’t, really, but pressing a pillow against his stomach helps with the pain enough that Eliot can pull himself up to standing. His body immediately insists that this is a very bad idea, but he’s pretty sure he can do it. It won’t even be as hard as that time in Malaga, and then he had to get past real soldiers, not one nerd who’d probably faint at the sight of blood.
With an exit plan more or less in place, Eliot relaxes—
Two steps later, and he’s shaking like a foal, biting his lip to keep from passing out and embarrassing himself. His vision blurs again, and he catches the shelf with one hand, steadying himself but knocking over some of the toys. The dog barks in the other room, then closer.
“What are you doing?” Hardison asks, high-pitched and horrified, and then something hits the back of Eliot’s knees and a surprisingly strong hand pushes him into what turns out to be a rolling office chair.
“I’m fine,” Eliot says, trying not to show how close he was to hitting the ground.
“What, and you just had to get a closer look at my Green Lantern bobblehead?” Hardison demands, spinning the chair around.
Eliot shuts his eyes, trying to block out the dizziness. “No,” he snaps, thinking fast. “Your toilet.”
“Oh,” Hardison says. “Right. Well. I already got a sore back from hauling your heavy ass, so just—ask for help next time. Okay? I don’t want to be picking your dead body off my floor. I don’t even know what to do with a dead body. What do people usually do? The river?”
He continues brainstorming body disposal methods as he pushes the chair right into the fanciest bathroom Eliot’s seen in an apartment.
“I got it from here,” Eliot says, and his voice echoes harshly against the gleaming tile. He has to fight not to smile at Hardison’s obvious relief.
He winces when he sees himself in the mirror, all dark circles and chapped lips, hair frizzing from his own sweat and the effects of bedhead. Not that it matters what impression he’s making, but still. He has his pride, and the hair at least is fixable. Somewhat.
Hardison’s waiting when Eliot opens the door. His eyebrows shoot up as he takes in the still-slightly-fluffy hair, and Eliot resists the urge to run his hand through it. Hardison doesn’t comment, just bites his lip as his gaze drops to the bandage on Eliot’s abdomen. He stares at it for a few seconds, long enough that Eliot checks for himself that it looks secure. Hardison's head snaps up like he’s been caught at something, and Eliot watches the man fumble with the damn office chair and with an odd jolt of pure satisfaction.
Then Hardison's shooing him into the chair, hands waving like he thinks he’s some kind of air traffic controller, which scuppers Eliot’s plan to recon the rest of the apartment, at least for now. He lets the frustration smother the relief—he’s hurt, but he ain’t incompetent—and tries not to notice Hardison’s long fingers as he’s helped back into bed.
Yeah, he’s definitely blaming this whole day on the head injury.
“Need anything else?”
Hardison asks it like he means it, looking at Eliot like he didn’t buy the bathroom story after all.
Eliot scowls on principle. Hardison doesn’t seem to be buying that either.
“Hang on, man,” Hardison says, like Eliot might climb out the window while his back is turned.
Eliot studies the view again just to rule it out, but it feels pretty damn good to be back in bed, if he's honest. Hardison bustles back out of the room, leaving the dog—now wearing a different bowtie, poor thing—to give Eliot an impressively smug look from the doorway. Hardison comes back with a book thick enough that Eliot has to settle it gingerly on his lap. It’s a cookbook, at least in theory. (To Eliot’s mind, a cookbook ain’t a real cookbook till it has sauce stains on the pages or least a cracked spine, something to show it’s been in an actual kitchen at least once. Till then it’s a paperweight.)
This particular paperweight has an inscription on the title page, wishing “Alec” luck and reminding him that there’s to more to life than mac and cheese, signed “Nana.” Eliot carefully does not smirk at this. Much.
“Okay,” Hardison says. “I don’t know if you were serious? But, you know, maybe we could sort of do a beta test on some date food? Only Parker’s more of a breakfast person. And a chocolate person.”
Eliot thinks. Maybe something with mole sauce, for the chocolate. He pages through the book, confirming its pristine condition; maybe not. A quiche might be easier. Eliot could always make a quick crust for Hardison’s freezer.
Hardison darts in and out again, filling the side table with bottles of water and several complicated remotes. Eliot only half-listens, thinking about side dishes, as Hardison rattles off a series of complicated instructions.
“Got that?” Hardison says.
Eliot nods, vaguely. “The input button,” he says, hoping that's right. His stomach is throbbing, his head aches, and quiche—quiche is not a romantic meal. Not to mention the onion problem. He frowns at the cookbook and barely notices when Hardison leaves.
Hardison deletes a line of code with a frown. He should be done by now. He can do this part of the job in his sleep, never mind the 23 tabs of procrastination he’s also too distracted to focus on.
He tilts his head again, listening for sounds from the guest room, but Megabyte’s snoring enthusiastically.
And anyway, Nana always said it was silence that spelled trouble.
Time to check on Eliot.
He moves quietly, and the doors in his place don’t squeak. Eliot won't even know he's there.
Except Eliot’s standing up again.
“Are. You. Serious,” Hardison demands. “What now?”
“I wanted to look at your kitchen,” Eliot says. “See what we’re working with here.”
“Oh my God, you’re like Parker,” Hardison groans.
Eliot’s brow wrinkles when he’s confused. It’s adorable, like everything else about him. “How am I like your girlfriend?”
Hardison smiles at the word girlfriend, then remembers that this is serious and glares instead.
“Because she can spend three days spying on me from the heating duct, but if you just ask her to sit still for five minutes, she’ll throw herself out the window to escape the boredom. You’re the same, aren’t you?”
Eliot looks like he’s mentally snagged on that heating ducts remark. Or possibly he’s realizing he hasn’t tried the window yet.
“Sit. Down.” Hardison says, not helping this time when Eliot grimaces. “Don’t move. At least Parker doesn’t get herself stabbed. Jesus. Fine. Fine, no more work today. It’s a Movie Day now, it’s official. And there’s no dying on Movie Day, so sit the hell still before you pop those stitches.”
“I’m fine,” Eliot says.
“You’re an idiot,” Hardison says. “I can’t believe you even texted someone for help instead of just fixing yourself up in some rat-filled alley.”
Eliot’s mouth twitches a little.
“Oh, that was Plan A, huh? Well, too bad for you, you got me instead, so you can quit acting like you think you’re the Terminator. Speaking of which, you like that franchise? Sure you do. Everybody does. Scoot over.”
He feels a pang of guilt at Eliot’s wince when he drops his weight on the bed, but hell, maybe it’ll teach the fool a lesson about using common sense after serious injuries.
It’s a comfortable bed—nothing but the best for Hardison’s guests—and Eliot’s a reassuring warmth next to him, like a man-size hot water bottle, and Hardison’s had a long, tense night, even if it ended well. He half-dozes, waking to say his favorite lines (“Come with me if you want to live”) and watch Eliot roll his eyes.
When he wakes up and sees they’re halfway through the second movie, he grins. Eliot’s enjoying this too, at least enough to click play on the sequel. Hardison’s warm all over…because, he realizes, he’s been using Eliot’s shoulder as a pillow.
“Shit.” He sits up. “Was I hurting you?”
“I’m fine,” Eliot says, sounding sleepy and almost as content as Hardison.
“Well,” Hardison says, settling back with his head against the headboard this time. “At least it’s a good way to keep your ass in bed.”
Eliot’s mouth twitches again, and Hardison is getting better at reading him, because that was definitely a smirk.
“I meant because you’re injured!” Hardison says. “Not. Not anything else.”
Eliot smirks again. He licks his lips, moistening them, and Hardison just watches, hypnotized.
And then Eliot jumps. “What the hell—”
Parker’s standing in the doorway, head tilted, studying them.
“Parker!” Hardison says. “You’re home early!”
And Hardison’s curled up in bed with a very attractive and slightly sweaty man.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” he says.
“Oh,” says Parker. “What does it look like? Ooh, Terminator 2. I like this one.”
She bounces onto the bed, shoving Eliot over into Hardison with a sway of her hips. Eliot’s eyes are wide, out of panic or because Parker’s just elbowed him to death.
“It doesn’t look like anything,” Hardison says. “Um. Parker, Eliot. Eliot, Parker.”
Parker looks Eliot up and down carefully, sniffs him, and then smiles. “You’re real,” she says.
And she grabs the bowl of popcorn from Hardison’s lap, like everything’s settled.
“Nice to meet you too,” Eliot rumbles, still looking distinctly unsettled.
“Parker,” Hardison begins, pausing the movie. “Why wouldn’t Eliot be real?”
Parker holds up her phone and clears her throat ostentatiously. “Hey P,” she reads in a loud monotone. “Seen any kangaroos yet? Quick question. Know those crooked vets who stitch up mob guys? Do you know any? Do they do house calls or anything? Asking for a friend.’” Parker looks up, scowling. "All your friends are orcs. Orcs don’t need doctors.”
“So you came home,” Hardison says. She must have walked off the job and gone straight to the airport. For him.
Parker shrugs like she hasn't just made Hardison's heart explode with happiness.
“It took a while,” she says. “So it’s a good thing Eliot’s real and you’re fine. You are fine, right?”
“I’m better than fine,” Hardison answers honestly. “Thanks, Parker. What about your job?”
“I can always fly back,” she points out. “But not today. It’s Movie Day!”
She bounces on the bed again, spilling popcorn across Eliot’s lap. Eliot's got his eyes closed, and he's muttering something that sounds a lot like “texted his girlfriend.” He's also got a hand pressed against his bandage and an alarmingly seasick look on his face. Hardison mentally runs the numbers on the odds of Eliot ruining yet another set of Hardison's very expensive sheets, then the odds that Parker will help him remake the bed instead of disappearing back to a land without unpleasant body fluids.
“Parker, I didn’t get hurt, but Eliot did,” Hardison says. “Try not to bounce the bed too much, okay?”
It’s the wrong thing to say. Parker pokes Eliot, hard, right on his bruised arm. “Does that hurt?”
“What about here?”
“mmph.” Eliot goes white.
“Huh,” says Parker. “How’d that happen?”
Hardison shoots her a warning look, but he’s been wanting a few more details himself—Eliot had sidetracked him pretty neatly, earlier, and somehow it hadn’t felt right to push the point further. Nana would have something to say if she knew he was interrogating his guests. Which was no reason not to let Parker try.
Eliot exhales through pursed lips, clearly trying to get on top of the pain. Parker tilts her head, waiting.
“I took something some people didn’t want me to take,” he says when he can talk. “It got bloody. That a problem?”
Parker shrugs. “When I steal things, I don’t let them catch me. You should try that next time.”
She pats Eliot's shoulder like she's pleased to share her expertise.
“Wait,” Eliot says. “Parker. The Parker?”
Parker smiles, pleased.
“Seriously,” Eliot says, raising his eyebrows at Hardison. “You and Parker. Are...friends. How the hell did that happen?”
Hardison should probably be offended, so he puts on a wounded look, but he knows what Eliot means. Parker's amazing. And, apparently, famous. Eliot looks seriously impressed.
“We met when I ziplined through his window,” Parker explains. “He offered me a gummy frog.”
“Oh my God,” Eliot mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“She liked my security system,” Hardison says. “We got to talking.”
“Your security is good on the door,” Parker says. “Your window security is terrible.”
“Because this is a penthouse apartment. People don’t come in through the window.”
“Except me,” Parker points out. “And you still haven’t fixed it.”
She looks at Eliot, shaking her head sadly at Hardison’s poor home security.
“Because you like coming in that way!” Hardison sputters happily. “You said I should get a dog, and I went to the Humane Society the next day. Practically the next day.”
They all look at Megabyte, asleep on a throw pillow and oblivious to the rising volume of their conversation.
“MB’s sweet,” Parker says. “But I meant a dog who still has teeth.”
“He needs a special diet!” Hardison says. “No one wanted him! And he looked so sad in that cage! What was I supposed to do?”
Parker and Eliot exchange a look. They both turn to him, and it is deeply unfair that he knows two people who make exasperation look this good.
He should probably defend himself—or at least defend MB, who is a good dog! And useful—no one looks twice at a man walking an elderly pug, or at least if they do, it isn't because they think he's scouting their security system. But Parker's already moving on.
“You’re Eliot Spencer, right?” Parker asks.
Eliot freezes. For the first time—including when Hardison found him bleeding out by the museum and the moment he woke up in a strange bed—Eliot looks nervous.
Hardison runs the name through his mental search engine and gets zero hits. His fingers literally twitch with the need to know what about his own name is putting that look on Eliot's face.
“I thought you might be, but you don’t really seem like I thought Eliot Spencer would be,” Parker says, as if that makes sense. “You’re cuddly.”
“It’s all about context,” Eliot says carefully. He still hasn’t relaxed.
“Yeah,” says Parker. “I like Hardison too.”
And she turns the movie back on, propping her head on Eliot’s shoulder.
Eliot gives Hardison some slightly panicked side-eye. Hardison shrugs. He’d been doing the same thing until Parker walked in, so it isn’t like he has room to complain. There’s clearly just something about Eliot that makes a person want to lean on him. Hardison figures he probably gets it all the time. He should be used to it by now.
“Am I how you thought Parker would be?” Parker asks, a full ten minutes later.
“Sort of,” Eliot says. “Shh, I like this part.”
Hardison settles back on Eliot’s other side and watches the two of them more than the movie, Parker relaxed and smiling to herself, Eliot pretending not to be tense.
After a while, it starts to look less like a pose. By the time they start Rise of the Machines—Hardison considers skipping it, but God help him, he’s a completist—Eliot’s eyes are closed.
“I didn’t know you knew Eliot Spencer,” Parker says quietly.
“I don’t,” Hardison says. “I mean, I didn’t. I don’t even know why you’ve heard of him.”
“Oh.” Parker looks away from the screen. “How’d he get here?”
“Wrong number,” Hardison says. “Good thing I didn’t fix the phone yet, huh?”
Parker chews her lip. “I was hoping you were friends.”
“We are,” Hardison says. “I mean, I’d like to be.”
“Parker, you know who I am,” Eliot says, not opening his eyes. “Why would you want that?”
Parker runs her fingers through Eliot's hair. Eliot's forehead creases like he's trying to scowl, but he doesn't pull away. Hardison helps himself to more popcorn and wishes he'd had the guts to try that. It's very pretty hair.
“Hardison’s kind of impulsive,” Parker says.
Hardison chokes on his popcorn. “Excuse me, I’m kind of impulsive?”
Parker talks right over him. “Sometimes I worry when he does jobs by himself. He’d be safer if he worked with you.”
Eliot’s grunt is a softer version of the noise he made when Parker poked him in the stomach. He opens his eyes and looks at Parker. “There’s something wrong with you.”
Parker smiles, pats Eliot on the head, and turns back to the movie.
“Anyway, it ain't like I’m any use right now. Hardison basically kidnapped me. It's embarrassing. This is all just...” Eliot waves a hand irritably. “Stockholm syndrome or something.”
“Um. I think the word you're looking for is rescued,” Hardison objects. “I rescued you. A little credit?”
Eliot rolls his eyes and resettles himself, his bare arm warm against Hardison’s. “That's why I’m not killing you to keep this quiet,” he says.
Hardison laughs, and Eliot’s eyes crinkle into a smile even as he scowls. He tips his head toward Parker, raising his eyebrows.
Hardison frowns at him, shaking his head a little.
Eliot sighs, raises his eyebrows again, and cuts his eyes to Parker, then back to Hardison.
“What’re you trying to—oh!” Hardison gets it. “You know, Parker, you and I could do a job together. If you want.”
As the offer hangs in the air, Hardison remembers all the reasons he hasn't asked this before, starting with how he isn't Batman and he does not want to zipline across Chicago and ending with what if she says no. Parker works alone; she’d said so that first night, and yeah, she likes him, but crime ain't everyone's idea of a date. He should’ve stuck with the damn cookbook like Eliot said.
But it’s out there now.
“It could be fun,” he says.
Parker's eyes narrow. She's considering it.
“There's a building I want to get into,” she says, and Hardison knows Eliot just felt his shiver of relief, but he can't bring himself to care. “I figured out the entrance and the lasers last week, but the vault I want has this fire suppression system that sucks all the air out of the room.”
“Wait.” Hardison sits up. “The Rogers Freeport?”
“There's a Leonardo in there,” Parker says. “And two Gaugins.”
“Yeah, and Lucas's first draft of The Adventures of Luke Starkiller.”
Eliot and Parker both look blank.
“It turned into Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” Hardison clarifies.
Parker nods supportively, if a little vaguely. Eliot just shakes his head.
“It's worth a lot of money,” Hardison says, like that's why he wants it. “Anyway. I have an in. Or I will. It’s a closed system, but they’re getting new vending machines next week. Complete with Wi-Fi. I spent the last week writing a little bug for it.”
Parker smiles. “I can wait a week.”
“You better wait longer than that,” Eliot says. “You cracked the security systems, that's a start, but that ain't all they've got.”
Hardison feels something bubble up through his chest. “You've been casing the Freeport too?”
“No,” Eliot says.
Parker deflates a little. Hardison does too. It would have been too perfect anyway.
Not that Hardison's ever believed in any such thing.
“But I’ve been in there,” Eliot continues. “It’s high-tech, but it ain't all tech; they have a tight guard rotation, and I’m not talking rent-a-cops. Those guys are armed and trained and they’re not messing around.”
There’s a pause.
“I could...” Eliot says. “I mean, if you wanted...I do owe you a favor.”
Parker’s eyes meet Hardison’s. She smiles again, as satisfied as if she'd planned this. “One job,” she says.
Hardison smiles back. “Maybe two."