‘Okay,’ Breanna says, without preamble, flinging herself onto one of the stupidly expensive barstools Hardison’s kitted out the kitchen with and leaning forward on the breakfast bar. She’s dressed already. ‘Sophie’s teaching me how to craft a character; Parker’s gonna have me lifting like a pro—when do I get to learn how to knock someone out with my thumb, huh?’
He’s not about to tell her this, but Eliot likes the kid. Sure, he’s predisposed because of Hardison, but she’s smart and funny, and she has a hunger to do something that he recognizes from his youth and has already silently vowed to help her channel somewhere good. Any other morning he might be keen to talk—learn more about her, or just prod her for embarrassing stories about her brother, maybe.
Today, though, there’s a selfish part of him that wants to shoo her back to bed. Dawn light is filtering through the half-cracked shutters, and Eliot’s only awake and dicing onions and mushrooms and bright bell peppers because Hardison’s flight leaves hours from now, and he’s damn well going to eat something decent before he goes. There are three plates and three sets of cutlery laid out on the counter, same as it’s been most mornings for eight years; there is sharp cheddar grated and eggs beaten to a froth, and part of Eliot wants this last morning like he planned. He wants the familiarity of Parker clattering about with the coffee maker and Hardison humming as he unloads the dishwasher. He wants to hear them bitch about the early hour and bicker comfortably with them while they enjoy the food he’s made.
But Hardison’s important to Breanna, too, and the kid’s about to be left alone with three strangers and Parker.
‘You can’t knock someone out with your thumb,’ he tells her, sweeping the veg into a neat pile at the edge of the chopping board.
She slumps in her seat. ‘Well, that’s a bummer.’
His lips twitch. ‘I’ll teach you other ways to knock someone out. What’re you doing awake?’
‘I don’t sleep that well in new places.’ Eliot quietly catalogues the way her eyes cut down and away, the brief pause, the tiny shake she gives herself before she continues cheerfully, ‘And I heard you up, and we haven’t had much chance to hang, and I thought we could…’ She raises her fists in a mock one-two punch. ‘Y’know?’
‘Sure,’ he says. ‘I’m gonna do breakfast; Parker’s gonna drive Hardison to the airport, God help him, and after they leave we can start with some self-defense stuff, go from there.’ He nods at the ingredients on the counter in front of him. ‘I’m makin’ omelettes; you want some?’
‘Uh, based on everything I’ve heard about your cooking, yeah.’ She props her chin on her hand, watching him as he taps three eggs on the worktop and cracks them one-handed into the bowl with the rest, as he pulls out a cast-iron frying pan and turns on one of the burners on the state-of-the-art range hob. Everything the way Eliot likes it, the way it’s been in every kitchen in every base they’ve had for nearly a decade. Hardison’s long since stopped pretending it’s not completely for Eliot’s benefit—hell, Eliot knows if he opens the cupboard down to the right, there’ll be utensils in there whose purpose Hardison doesn’t even understand, but that he buys anyway. Eliot, for his part, has long since stopped pretending anything about this bothers him.
‘Why aren’t you driving Alec?’ Breanna asks.
He glances up at her and turns away to grab the butter. ‘’Cause I’m not.’
‘Are you gonna miss him?’ Her tone is light, carefully so, enough that in the back of Eliot’s brain an alarm trips.
He turns back. The butter hits the pan and begins to sizzle and spread.
‘Are you gonna miss him?’ he asks, taking up the bowl of egg mix so he can whisk in the three he’s just added. Okay, so it’s not the neatest bit of misdirection. ‘Think we’d’ve had you work a few more jobs before we took the training wheels off if we could’ve, but he’s only a phone call away if you ever—’
Her offense is immediate and exactly what he was going for. ‘Hey, I don’t need “training wheels”,’ she objects, with exaggerated air quotes. ‘I totally proved myself when we were in Panama, and I’ve barely got started, okay? My little drone you destroyed—’
‘Sorry,’ he mutters.
‘—I built that in like… two hours on zero sleep. I have so much cool stuff we can use.’
He tips some of the veg into the pan and gives it a shake. ‘Yeah? What’s your favorite thing you’ve made?’
‘Beer pong robot,’ she says, without hesitation.
‘It moves about while you play,’ she says, miming, her hands sweeping back and forth over the counter.
‘What job are you picturing us using that for?’ he asks.
‘Come on,’ she says. ‘I’ve heard at least one story about asshole frat guys.’
‘Fair point,’ he concedes.
‘I mean, it’s not the fanciest thing I’ve ever done,’ she admits, ‘’cause it’s basically a remote-control car with cup holders on top, but it’s one of the most fun.’
‘You shouldn’t be drinking beer,’ he tells her.
She sighs. ‘Are you gonna be super boring about this?’
‘It’s not—I’m not being boring; I’m not boring!’ he says indignantly. ‘I’m saying we’re not having underage drinking in my jazz club.’
‘This from the guy who helps head up an international network of criminal gangs.’
‘That’s—it’s—’ He huffs and starts over. ‘I’ll make you a virgin Ramos fizz; you won’t even be able to tell the difference.’
‘So what’s the deal with you and Alec and Parker?’
He hesitates for only a split second as he reaches for the pepper mill, but he can feel Breanna watching him like a hawk, and he knows she’s done it on purpose: let him lead her away from the question she wanted to ask so she can circle round and catch him off-guard.
Still, he’s been doing this considerably longer than her, and she hasn’t cornered him yet. So he seasons the eggs like it’s something he needs to pay attention to, lets his expression settle into something relaxed and distracted and just a touch confused, and asks, ‘Whaddya mean?’
‘I think you know exactly what I mean,’ she says, narrowing her eyes and leaning forward to rest her chin on steepled fingers, injecting her words with a healthy dose of drama, as if they’re in a movie and there are no consequences if this conversation keeps heading where it’s headed.
He gives a little shake of his head and tries to sidestep. ‘We work jobs just the three of us, mostly, ’cause we’ve been doing it long enough, but there’re a couple of freelancers we sometimes—’
‘Right, and when you’re not on the job?’ she presses, waggling her eyebrows. Any other time, he might laugh.
‘What the hell’s Hardison been telling you?’ he asks, managing to deliver it with a derisive snort, as opposed to reaching across the breakfast bar to frantically clutch at her shoulders.
‘Just, y’know…’ She shrugs.
‘I really don’t.’ He turns his back on her and opens the fridge, acting like he’s perusing the shelves while he tries to get ahold of himself. He’s about to ask her if she’s happy with the omelette fillings or if she wants something else. If he can just get through this, if he can just steer them through this one conversation—
‘Everything, he told me everything,’ she blurts.
Eliot closes his eyes and whispers ‘Damn it, Hardison,’ into the open fridge. For a second, he just breathes, and then he opens his eyes and faces her. ‘Really?’
And he sees it on her face before she says it: the most important secret he’s kept for eight years and it’s sitting out in the open because a kid who can’t even legally drink yet just used the oldest bluff in the book.
‘No.’ She winces. ‘But you kinda just did.’
He kicks the fridge door shut behind him. ‘Yeah,’ he agrees, resigned, coming back to nudge the veg around the pan, breathing in the warm scent of cooking onions. ‘Sophie’s right; you do got potential.’
Breanna brightens. ‘She said that?’
‘To Parker and Hardison.’
‘Who are… your… partners in both crime and life?’ At his look, she raises her hands. ‘Okay, I’m sorry! I’ll stop pushing. I swear, I didn’t realize it was like a big secret. For the record I have no problem with the polyamory thing; that’s pretty much the coolest thing Alec’s ever done.’
‘Hacking the Pentagon isn’t cool?’ Eliot asks, sudden spike of defensiveness on Hardison’s behalf a welcome distraction from the panic thrumming under his ribcage.
‘Um, not really. A toddler could hack the Pentagon.’
‘And I definitely, definitely have no problem with two guys together,’ she continues, ‘’cause y’know—’ she jabs both thumbs at herself and lets the end of the sentence hang in the air.
Eliot takes a deep, steadying breath and offers her a small smile. ‘I know you don’t have a problem with it. That’s not why I was keeping quiet.’
‘Well…’ She frowns. ‘Okay, so do you have a problem with it?’
‘No. Not the kind you’re thinking, anyhow.’ He thinks about turning the heat off under the vegetables and sitting, but he needs to be doing something with his hands, so he takes up the bowl and whisk again even though the eggs don’t need it. ‘How’d you know? Lucky guess?’
‘I mean, there were clues. Alec didn’t tell us tell us, but you should hear how he talks about you, man. It’s honestly kinda gross.’
‘What the—who the hell is “us”?’ he splutters.
‘Just me and Nana and…’ She pauses and then finishes in a rush. ‘…Okay, maybe some of our other foster siblings.’
‘Maybe a few,’ she says, which does absolutely nothing to clarify the situation. ‘My brother Mikey was the one who went hard for the triad theory. I was actually way off base for a while, ’cause Alec made it sound like he was maybe dating Catwoman and Batman at the same time, and no offense but I was kinda skeptical ’cause I’m pretty sure back in the day he posted that exact fanfic on his LiveJournal—which,’ she adds hastily, ‘if he asks, I definitely haven’t found.’
Eliot blinks. ‘I didn’t understand a lot of those words, so… secret’s safe with me.’
‘Then I came here, and like, used my eyes and stuff, and yeah.’ She shrugs. ‘I guess I owe Mikey twenty bucks.’
‘Guess so,’ he says.
‘So, spill,’ she says. ‘Why the big secret?’
Eliot adjusts the heat and pours some of the beaten egg over the vegetables, watching it start to cook as he thinks about how to answer. ‘Your brother ever tell you what I did before we put the team together?’
‘Uhh, no, but I’m guessing like accountancy.’
He smiles. ‘No.’ He prods at the egg with a spatula, drawing it methodically from the pan edge to the center.
‘You don’t have to tell me anything,’ she ventures. ‘I can sort of guess. Big punchy guy, knows a scary amount about weapons and like… vantage points and shit. I can fill in the blanks.’
‘Yeah, well.’ He grimaces. He’s never really let himself envision “meet the family” scenarios, but if he had, it ideally wouldn’t have included any discussion of his résumé. But here they are. May as well lay it all out. ‘I did what you’re thinking and then some, and I did it really well.’
He thinks she might be holding her breath, and he wishes she wouldn’t. It’s too quiet; it feels too much like the world is listening in.
‘You do anything really well, there’re gonna be people interested in getting you to do more of it,’ he says, tilting the pan to redistribute the egg. ‘Only I stopped, and a lotta people didn’t get the memo. Or… they did, but a lot of ’em figure everyone’s got a price, and they just gotta find mine, right?’
‘Okay,’ she says slowly. ‘I get that. But what’s that got to do with—’
‘’Cause I do have a price,’ Eliot says, voice very soft, setting down this truth between them as gently as he’s able. ‘And it’s upstairs, in bed, cutting it pretty close for a flight that leaves in less than six hours.’
‘Oh,’ she whispers.
‘No one knows about us,’ he continues, still quiet, ‘’cause if someone were hurting them, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to make ’em stop. And that’s not information I can have out there, so… no one knows about us.’
Breanna breathes out.
‘And they’re okay with that?’ she asks.
‘Jesus, no. No, we argue about it at least twice a year.’ It’s nice, actually, because he’s never once budged and Parker and Hardison know he isn’t going to; they keep picking this fight to reassure him that they believe he’s worth loving openly.
‘But,’ she starts, and then pauses. ‘Okay, not to be a downer… but I’d’ve thought there’d be a few people who’ve got a pretty big grudge against them anyway. I mean, you’ve made a pretty successful career out of pissing off rich assholes—what’s a few more?’
He shakes his head. ‘It ain’t the same. The marks we take down—we don’t leave it so they can get back up again. And I know ’em all—names, faces. The people I’m talking about could be anyone, and a lot of the time I’m not gonna know where or when they’re gonna show up or what they’re gonna want.’
‘Come on. That’s kinda paranoid; I mean—when was the last time someone—’
‘Tuesday,’ he says flatly.
Her eyebrows shoot up. ‘Oo-kay, so not paranoid.’
‘And no one knows? Not even Sophie?’
‘No. Well…’ He ducks his head to hide a smile, because it’s kind of cute that she’s still imagining a world where you can get anything past Sophie Devereaux. ‘Sure, Sophie knows, but she doesn’t… know.’
‘So… it’s just…’
‘Me, Hardison, Parker…’ He adds, grumbling, ‘Hardison’s entire family, apparently.’
‘Hey, if it helps, half our foster siblings think he completely made you up.’
‘Thanks,’ he says, ‘that actually does help.’
‘You want me to try and throw them off the scent?’ she asks. ‘I can do it; I got no problem keeping Mikey’s money.’
‘Yeah, I want you to do that, if you can. Breanna,’ he says, and waits until she meets his eye, continues gentle but firm, ‘Seriously, I wish I were going overboard with this. Truth is, just people knowing we’ve been on the same crew this long scares the hell outta me. But you can persuade any group of criminals to work together as long as the money’s good enough; doesn’t mean there’s gotta be any loyalty beyond that. If anyone found out there’s more to us than just the jobs we do…’
‘Okay. I got it.’ She nods at him, and he nods back, and returns to redistributing the eggs around the pan until the adrenaline starts to ebb.
Breanna drums her fingers on the worktop, a far-off look in her eye. ‘Hey, Eliot.’
‘I’m…’ She sighs. ‘Hey, man, I’m sorry.’
‘It’s fine. You didn’t know.’
‘No, I mean… it’s just really sad. You know? That you’ve gotta keep it so quiet.’ Her fingers still. ‘I don’t know, dude—is it worth it?’
He stares at her, absorbing the question, and he wants to laugh, because she’s right. It is sad that they have to keep it quiet, when some days all he wants to do is take people by the shoulders on the street and say, You see those two? The two best people in the whole fucking world, and they’re mine and I’m theirs. If someone had told him, fifteen or so years back, that he’d be in his mid-forties, alive, with anyone around who gave a damn whether he stayed that way, he’d never have bought it, and yet here are Parker and Hardison, patching up his black eyes and split knuckles and broken ribs. Here are Parker and Hardison, bugging him into cooking their favorites and stealing the bedclothes and forcing him to sit through a million hours of Star Trek . Here are Parker and Hardison, all these years later, and he’s revealed to them every ugly part of himself and they’ve stayed anyway. That he gets to have all that, and pay for it only by putting a little distance between himself and them when other people are around? It makes him feel like he’s pulled the greatest con in history.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘It’s worth it.’
The kitchen door opens.
‘Nice of you to join us,’ Eliot says, without turning around.
‘Morning, baby,’ Hardison says groggily, then registers Breanna’s presence and tries to cover. ‘Sister!’ he adds. ‘My… baby sister, and also Eliot.’
‘She knows, man; I told her,’ Eliot sighs, reaching for a handful of cheese and scattering it into the pan.
Hardison, suddenly looking far more awake, shoots him a quizzical, delighted look and moves a lot closer. ‘Oh, you told her?’
‘I mean, I didn’t have a whole lotta choice,’ he says defensively, ‘she kinda ambushed me with—you and me are gonna have a long talk about subtlety, by the way.’
Hardison puts a hand to his heart, offended. ‘I’ll have you know subtlety’s my middle name. Bre? Wasn’t I subtle?’
Breanna wrinkles her nose, shaking her head.
‘She’s a liar. Don’t believe a word she says,’ Hardison advises, wrapping his arms around Eliot from behind and peering over his shoulder. ‘This smells good. You do know there’ll be like a McDonald’s at the airport, right?’
‘Seriously? Your last morning and you’re gonna make me fall out with you?’ Eliot asks, pained, but accepts the kiss Hardison presses to his cheek with minimal scowling. ‘Where’s Parker?’
‘Roof,’ Hardison says. ‘She’ll be down soon.’ He unwraps one arm from Eliot’s waist and reaches across to steal some grated cheese.
‘This’ll be done in about twenty seconds,’ Eliot grumbles.
‘I’m—this is just a little taste test,’ Hardison assures him, already reaching again. ‘Oops, and one more.’
‘I’m gonna kick you out of my kitchen.’
‘Hey, who got us a place with a weekly farmer’s market around the corner, huh?’ Hardison asks. ‘Who did that, Eliot?’
‘Yeah, that—thank you, but all the same—’
‘If I weren’t here you’d be paying some real estate agent thousands and you’re gonna complain about a little cheese?’ He kisses Eliot’s cheek again, smiling against his skin like he's getting away with something, before letting go of him fully and going to sit next to Breanna. ‘So, you got him to spill, huh? You know what a big deal that is?’
‘I already promised not to tell anyone,’ she says.
‘Hey, it’s not my rule,’ Hardison says.
‘Don’t start,’ Eliot warns.
Breanna reaches over to steal some of the cheese as well, and Eliot lets her because she’s new. ‘It’s kinda romantic,’ she says, chewing thoughtfully. ‘Obviously in a way that deeply sucks on several levels, but still.’
Hardison catches Eliot’s eye. ‘I guess it is.’ He turns back to his sister. ‘You sleep okay?’ he asks her.
She shrugs. ‘It was all right.’
Eliot busies himself with folding the omelette over into thirds and sliding it onto a plate as Hardison hesitates, then says, ‘You know if you need a different mattress or like a white noise machine or something—’
‘The mattress is fine, Alec,’ she says, rolling her eyes fondly. ‘That’s nice of you to think about, though.’
‘Whatever you need,’ he assures her. ‘If you want, I could move my flight a couple days—’
‘Nah, man; go save the world,’ she says. ‘I’ll be fine; I’ll have people looking after me here.’
Hardison lifts his eyes to Eliot’s again, his smile impossibly warm. ‘Yeah, you will.’