The next day, as Eliot slouched in the door late, Parker popped up and waved something under his nose: "Look!"
It was her phone, showing a photo of three cats in what he presumed was some sort of insanely expensive cat-box. It was upholstered, and crammed with teeny cat-size gymnastics challenges, and Hardison's hand could also be seen in the photo, making one of the cats wave a paw.
"Hardison helped me name them," she explained. Eliot very carefully did not wonder if she'd called him 'Hardison' all of last night.
"This one is Benjamin," she said, pointing at one who was looking off, unfocused, "and this one is Susan," the one Hardison was using as a posable action-figure, "and the black one is Grover."
Eliot couldn't help help asking. "Like the muppet?" He couldn't quite imagine kid-Parker watching Sunday morning TV in her pyjamas, eating Froot Loops, but she'd grown up in America, so she must have.
Parker looked at him like he was a new kind of idiot. "Like the thousand. They're mommy's little one-thousand, one-hundred and one dollars," she proclaimed. And Eliot had thought Parker in a relationship would be weird.
That began the month of daily cat stories. Nate would put on his sunglasses and sip thoughtfully at whatever he had in his hands, as if he was listening. Sophie made vague encouraging noises. Hardison, apparently, was excused, since he had explained to her about cat-litter. But Eliot was required to demonstrate interest in each and every update, such as:
"Benjamin broke into my closet and spread all my socks out across the hallway! I told you guys he was a natural."
Or, "Susan can jump 62 inches from a standing start. That's phenomenal, isn't it? Think what she'll be able to achieve after training!"
And even once, terrifyingly, "He likes his belly rubbed," which had caused Eliot to cry out in horror, before she clarified, "Grover, I mean."
At first Eliot suspected her good mood was from getting laid regularly, deflected onto the cats since she was incapable of expressing normal human appreciation. But eventually he concluded that she was, in addition to just plain nuts, also nuts about the cats.
Presumably she was nuts about Hardison too, since he wandered around with the dazed look of the well-laid man, but she didn't ever talk about that.
It was a little weird, Parker and Hardison; not just because, well, Parker, but also because he suddenly became aware that he had been spending time with them, and now they were spending time with each other, and, well. Awkward. Still, he was a grown-up, so he gave them space.
Which would have worked out better if Parker hadn't dragged him to her home (and, really, he knew Parker had a place to live, but he hadn't ever associated it with the word "home", and if he'd thought about he might have imagined a well-padded coffin) "to meet her cats."
"No, it's okay, I-- I feel like I know them already. From your stories."
"But they don't know you, Eliot, although I've told them about you. They need to become familiar with you now so that when it comes time for you to teach them to fight, they're comfortable learning."
He gaped at her.
She looked at him earnestly, and then collapsed giggling. "I'm kidding. You'll like them. They're thieves."
"Is Hardison going to be there?" he asked warily. It felt weird if he was going to be alone in her apartment with Hardison's girl.
"Would you like him to be?" asked Parker, in a way which made Eliot dimly suspect that he and Parker were having two subtly different conversations.
"Well, that's-" he started, and gave up. It wasn't as if Parker had any inclinations in his direction, which, thank god. Even if it wasn't very flattering. Sophie might have been crazy for Nate, but at least she looked now and then. "No, it's fine."
And it was fine, until Parker opened the door and took one step inside, and froze. "Someone was here," she said, and Eliot automatically pushed her behind him, scanning the painfully clean apartment as he edged through doors.
The place was empty, but one of the window panes was broken; a clumsy job, he thought, although they'd have to get Hardison in to check how the security had been compromised.
"They're gone," he reported, returning to the kitchen. "Did you call the others?"
Parker was staring at a note taped to the fridge. "I can't," she said, her voice flat. "He took them."
And Eliot realized that the apartment was empty empty.
"He took them. He took my cats," Parker said. She kicked the fridge door, emptied the knife block into the sink, and then slid to crouch on the floor, making high, suffocated noises that were much worse than real crying.
Eliot's usual response to upset women was the standard shoulder-pat-there-there, but Parker was coiled like a rattlesnake. Instead, he gently tugged the crumpled note out of her hand, careful not to touch her, and scanned it.
It was pretty much what he'd expected; do this job and get the cats back, I'm watching you, tell no one. It was signed "Fish."
"Someone you know?" he asked.
"Fish is why I started working alone," Parker said, her face drawn into stark lines. "I can't believe this. He took my cats."
"It'll-- " and Eliot had been accused of being slightly prone to charging into rescue a damsel in distress, but first, Parker was no damsel, and second, cats. She was making the quiet, high noise again, and he didn't know if she knew she was making it, and he had to make her stop. "It'll be okay. We'll get the team on it, Hardison and Nate will find him, and then we'll fuck him up so bad that his grandpa will walk funny. We'll get them back."
She grabbed his ankle, still on the floor, and her fingers were like claws. "No. I am doing what he says. I am getting my cats back. They're small and mine, and if he hurts them, then-- I'll do the job, and get them back safe. Don't tell anyone don't you fucking dare."
She was crunched into a small space in a corner where two cupboards met, and he couldn't tell if she looked small and fragile or like a bomb about to explode.
He moved carefully, and slowly. "Okay. Okay, whatever you want. Just. I'd really like to rearrange this guy's face, and maybe his ribs, so if you could see your way to introducing us, that'd be. Good."
She looked at him properly for the first time, and something sparked in her eyes. "Okay. You come with me. When I make the drop."
He nodded, and carefully did not say that if this went like most hostage situations, in his experience, the guy only needed one cat to make his threat good. "What's the situation? Why'd he target you?"
"He was the people man," she said. "He did logistics and mapping from the inside. But I didn't like him. More than I don't like most people. And he touched me sometimes."
There was a familiar black roaring in his ears, a sound that usually indicated he was about to put someone's head through a wall.
Her mouth twisted up at the corners. "He was addicted to Turkish Delight. You know, the candy? So I dusted a new laxative tab into the box every time he put his hand on my knee." She sighed happily. "He had diarrhoea for three weeks. And then I took the score, both his half and mine, and moved to Rome."
Not a damsel. Right. But still... "Okay. If he's watching, which he probably isn't, then he already knows I was here," he said. "You're coming back to my place tonight. You can't stay in a compromised location."
"Okay," she said, and unfolded. "I'll do the job on Thursday. Don't tell anyone, don't, or I swear-"
"I promise," he told her. "Grab your things."
It was pretty grim at the office. They weren't actually running a con--a job, as Nate liked to call it--but they were doing the prep-work for one, checking out a client's story to make sure they weren't being worked, checking out their target for soft points. His work was mostly warm-body stuff--strolling around outside the target's mistress's apartment to see what the security was like, for no reason he knew of yet; just big picture stuff which would turn into whatever fiendish plan Nate would eventually produce in bits and pieces, pretending he didn't love screwing the mark.
Parker didn't pretend nothing was wrong, precisely; she just shut down, and didn't react to anything at all. Luckily, she was supposed to be planting bugs in the target's corporate headquarters, but even in the brief period she was in the office to get the electrical company coveralls, he realized how much of her was just missing. And that six months ago, he wasn't sure it had even been there to go missing.
He caught her shoulder as she left with her toolbox. "Hey. You okay?"
She looked at him dead-eyed, but when he didn't let her go, she slowly regained a little bit of animation, some kind of emotion appearing in her eyes. He sort of thought it was passionate hatred, but he also sort of thought he preferred it to zombie-Parker. He sort of thought he might be a little fucked up.
"Busy. Job to do," she said, and bared her teeth in something smile-shaped.
"Hey, Parker," said Hardison, swinging around the doorway, "you want me to come along in the van and keep you company over the ear-pieces? 'Cuz you know I don't mind talking to all my invisible friends. I've got a spider digging through his history," he added, to Eliot, as if he needed to defend his work ethic, "It won't turn up anything for a couple hours, if there's anything to find."
Parker turned to Hardison, and some play of emotion crossed her face that Eliot couldn't decode. She was struggling with something, and Hardison's easy smile slowly faded to something more confused, and then to suspicious as she still said nothing. Eliot realized his hand was still on Parker's shoulder and snatched it back.
"I don't--" said Parker, finally. "I don't want you to. Thank you." And left.
Hardison looked at him, open confusion on his face. "That was weird, right?"
"Honestly, I can't tell normal Parker-weird from weird Parker-weird," Eliot said, but had no idea if he sounded convincing. Hardison was giving Eliot a slightly milder version of the baffled and concerned look he had just given Parker. "But, yeah, that was maybe a little bit weird. Because... of the thank you."
"Oh, she's thanked me before," Hardison said, but it didn't come off as smug as he probably wanted it to, and his forehead wrinkled immediately after.
Eliot tried to play along, grimacing. "I don't need to hear that, like, ever. And if you're itching for action, you can come with me."
"Why, where are you going?"
"Jogging," Eliot said.
Hardison nodded. "Yeah, okay. I got some sweats in the closet."
And he went to get them, while Eliot's jaw dropped. "What the fuck?" he muttered. Still, Thursday was tomorrow. He could take this one day of Parker being weird and Hardison catching it from her. He'd promised. And if Parker got three furry little bodies back instead of three furry little thieves, he was breaking that promise and bringing the others in to rain all holy hell upon this Fish's ass.
But he didn't really want to talk to Hardison -- who apparently thought "sweats" should be colour-coordinated and matched with high-end cross-trainers, jesus -- when he couldn't tell him the truth, so he set the pace high. Hardison kept up, for a mile, and then stumbled to a halt, bending over to gasp.
Eliot jogged back and ran in place, keeping his knees up.
"Just tell me-" Hardison gasped, and then bent again, coughing hard "-just tell me, is she gonna break up with me?"
Eliot stopped. "Wha-?"
"Like, has she come up to you all, 'Hey, Eliot, you break up with people. How do people do that?'" Hardison had a great poker face, but it was nowhere in evidence. "I mean, I thought we were doing okay, but-" and he shrugged, and in that shrug Eliot could see all the insight and understanding a man dating Parker would have to use every day, and his respect for Hardison rose several notches.
"No, man, no," he said, and risked: "Nothing like that. Maybe it's just her, you know... that time."
"That was last week," Hardison said absently. "Yeah. I don't know."
Eliot accepted that he was now going to have a mental calendar ticking off weeks for Parker that he would never be able to be ignorant of. Then he realized that might be the best-case scenario: if things went wrong this time, he didn't think sending Nate after her in her mystery bolt-hole would cut it.
"Listen," he told Hardison awkwardly, "it's probably just-- you know, temporary. Maybe if you give her some time?"
Hardison squinted up at him, still bent over. "You think?"
Eliot wanted to say, "I promise," but that would sound too suspicious and was stupid besides. "Probably?" he said instead, even though it sounded pretty weak.
He kept the pace down on the jog back, pretty much from guilt, and at a more reasonable pace, he thought it was possible that Hardison's fitness actually might be improving. Then he suddenly thought about where Hardison might be getting his exercise these days and sprinted the rest of the way back.
The images wouldn't get out of his head, though, and that was really unfortunate, because Parker was sleeping in his bed. Of course he'd offered the bed, and of course Parker didn't know she was supposed to say, "No, thanks, Eliot, that's very generous, but I'll sleep on the couch." She'd just said, "Okay," and started stripping.
So he lay on his couch, which was great for watching the game on, but not long enough for proper leg extension, and stayed awake, and tried not to think of Parker and Hardison doing whatever Parker and Hardison did,
He had dreams that night that he was never going to admit having to any living soul, and woke sour-faced and angry at 4 a.m., when Parker slipped in the door.
"I got them," she said, hoisting a small black bag that clinked. Her face had none of the evil joy that usually accompanied a successful score, and he was moving to hug her before he even thought about it.
If he had thought about it he wouldn't have done it, and Parker stiffened for a moment that made him afraid he'd done a very bad thing, but then she awkwardly put her free arm around his waist and squeezed.
"It'll be all right," he said, moving slowly as he let her go. "What time's the drop?"
"Six," she said. "I'm gonna. Go lie down."
Eliot tried to do the same thing, but he couldn't forget that skinny little arm curling around him.
Fish hadn't killed the cats. He turned up at the warehouse on time, with all three caterwauling in a carrier that was way too small; didn't the man know anything about animals? He was a tall guy with balding blond hair, and a face that said "trust me". Eliot knew the type.
And Fish knew Eliot, at least by reputation, because his face sort of stuttered for a second when he saw him standing beside Parker.
"Yeah," Eliot said, unfolding his arms. "I'm Eliot Spencer."
"I don't want any trouble," Fish said carefully. "I just want the score, Lucinda. Just what you owe me."
"Give them back to me," Parker said, zombie-calm.
Fish took a careful step forward, and set the carrier down on the concrete of the warehouse floor without looking away from Parker. Eliot couldn't decide whether he approved of Fish's respect for Parker's abilities, or if he was going to make sure that he mentioned to Fish that he didn't like being overlooked while he broke his toes.
"Lemme see 'em," said Fish, and Parker upended the bag into her palm and tipped it slightly toward him so he could see the uncut gems. She picked one off the top and underhanded it to Fish. She didn't even throw it so he'd have to scramble to catch it; just an easy lift of his hand and it was trapped. Fish pulled out a loupe from around his neck and gave the stone a cursory inspection, but apparently he didn't think Parker was going to try to pull a switch, because he pocketed the stone.
"Okay, Spencer sits down cross-legged, you put the stones by the door. When you put them down, I'm going to leave the cats, and you can come get them while I leave the building. Understand?"
Parker nodded her agreement, and started walking, but Fish said, "Wait. Spencer first."
Apparently Fish wasn't completely stupid. Eliot knelt down on the filthy concrete, sitting seiza.
"Cross-legged," said Fish, and unlatched the carrier door to gently flick one of the cats' ears. Parker took a shaky breath next to him that Eliot was pretty sure Fish couldn't hear.
"Hey," Eliot tried, "Parker's the flexible one, not me. You want me to dislocate a hip?"
Fish didn't look terribly bothered by the thought, so Eliot unfolded himself and sat cross-legged. Fish nodded at Parker, and she wordlessly stalked toward the building's only remaining entrance.
Fish looked at Eliot curiously. "She paying you for this, or are you here because she's... flexible?"
Eliot smiled at Fish in a way which communicated, he hoped, the joys of having one's larynx crushed.
"You do know she's totally bugfuck, right?" tried Fish. "She won't give you whatever she's promised, and she'll screw you over just for giggles."
Eliot was actually planning to go with 'smile like you're going to enjoy his pleas for mercy,' but found himself saying, "Coming from a guy who kidnaps cats, that carries a lot of weight."
Fish looked baffled and fascinated by Eliot now, which he hadn't before, but Parker put down her bag of gems and started walking back. Fish jerked his head to one side, pulled out something, and Eliot was already rolling, rather than try to get to his feet fast enough, but it wasn't a gun, it was a can, and Fish maced him, then turned and ran.
Parker sprinted back toward her cats, but when Eliot yelled, (a manly bellow of indescribable fucking pain) she hesitated between the carrier and Eliot. Eliot could still see, sort of, through his tears, out of one eye, so he waved Parker off. "I'm good, check the cats," and her hesitation before doing so was kind of flattering, if one could feel flattered while crying tears of snot and agony.
"I am going to FUCKING TEAR OFF HIS EARS AND USE THEM AS BARMATS," Eliot choked. He'd been maced before, and he knew he'd survive it, but god and all his harp-playing angels, it didn't feel like it. Blindly, he began stumbling toward the door.
"Eliot-- hold on," said Parker, suddenly in closer than he realized she was, and putting a hand on his arm. "Stay here, I'll get the saline from the van."
So Eliot kept the cats company in the middle of the warehouse, all of them making pathetic mewling noises. After a moment he opened the carrier door, mostly by feel - they must have been fucking cramped in there - and let them crawl over him. One settled in his lap and rolled over, and he dimly remembered to rub its belly.
Parker made a choked noise, and leaned over him. Her hands were shaking slightly, which was a bad sign in a world-class thief, but she got the saline into his eyes and he blinked and blinked until his vision cleared a bit, to show him Parker's face, a couple of inches from his own.
There were tears running down her cheeks, but she was smiling like the sun coming up. "It's okay," she said, gasping a bit. "You told me it would be okay, and it is."
Then she kissed him. It was just as well that his arms were full of cats, or he would have tugged her down onto the concrete floor right then and there, and that would have been the biggest fuck-up of his impressive personal record.
This is just a thank you kiss, he told himself. She's only - she's not right, she don't know how people - and then he gave up and enjoyed it until she pulled away.
She looked faintly startled, as if she'd surprised herself too, and then she picked up the grey tabby and snuggled her. "I'm here, Susan," she cooed. "Mommy is here. She will never leave you behind. She's going to get the bad man. Yes, she is! Yes, she is!"
"Right," Eliot said, staggering to his feet with Grover and Benjamin batting at his jacket. "Let's get to the office." Where they had the means for incredible revenge, and the really good painkillers.
But Parker wanted to go by her apartment first, to pick up all the cat junk she claimed was necessary to get them over this traumatic period. He had to concede that if the kittens went to the bathroom on any of Hardison's stuff instead of in their litter box, there'd be hell to pay. His stomach sort of curdled when he thought of Hardison, but it was just a thank you kiss. It didn't mean anything.
Parker had to lead him up her stairs, which was just humiliating, and he mentally added fingernail extraction to his list of entertainments for Fish. But his eyes were clearing more every second.
Enough so that when Parker pushed the door open, and froze, he could see the reason why.
"So," Nate said, lounging in the corner of the kitchen. Sophie was inspecting the curtains, but she turned to smile at both of them. Hardison wasn't smiling, arms folded as he slouched against the table. "Tell us about Mr. Fish."