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Hotel Heart

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Eliot Spencer hated psychics because of their carelessness.

His targets (one white female, one black male, neither older than twenty-six) had stolen some data from the Bureau of Psychic Affairs in Portland. Victor Dubenich, the director, had reached out to Eliot with the job.

Containment and cleanup. That had been the order. Dubenich hadn’t needed to spell out the details: cleanup would be needed because Eliot was expected to make a mess first. He didn’t like jobs like this, but the Bureau had never reached out to him before, and staying on their good side was important in his line of work.

Dubenich was not a good man—he’d hired Eliot, after all. The targets had to know it. Eliot had been expecting to spend a few days hunting them down, ferreting them out of their hole.

But three hours after Dubenich gave him their files, Eliot had tracked them to a Starbucks outside Portland. They hadn’t even left the city.  They were sitting at an outside table right in the middle of the goddam sidewalk.

So maybe Eliot Spencer hated psychics for a lot of reasons, but right now, it was the carelessness that was pissing him off. He was on the roof of an office building across the street, and he had a sniper rifle scoping the girl’s bright eyes and the guy’s smile.

Eliot had professional pride, okay? He didn’t usually take hits, but when he did, they were the impossible cases. The jobs no one else could do.

He didn’t massacre naive morons.

(Not anymore.)

Dubenich wasn’t just a bastard—he was smart. He wouldn’t have been paying Eliot’s fee if these targets hadn’t required it.

Eliot needed a closer look.

 

 

 

“All I’m saying is, how do they know it’s the largest ball of twine in the world? I mean, the world is a pretty big place, Hardison. What did they do, go around to every house and ask to see their balls of twine?”

“Some things you just got to take on faith, girl.”

“No I don’t. In fact, that’s pretty much the opposite of what I do.”

Eliot barely bit back a groan. It had been like this ever since he’d gotten close enough to hear their conversation. He was lying flat in the backseat of a car parked close to the Starbucks. The targets’ voices drifted through the open windows.

“Tell you what, Parker. I will personally look up any and all challengers to the title, and then we can visit each one on our way out of town.”

“Really?” Parker sounded excited. “Can we visit that mountain that’s made of rock candy?”

“You do know that’s not a real thing.”

“…yes. Duh. Obviously not a real thing.”

“I can feel it when you lie.” Alec Hardison’s voice was teasing, but cold trickled through Eliot at his words.

The files said Alec Hardison was an empath.

He’d heard rumors of Parker: an amazing thief who mainly used her telekinesis to jump off buildings. But he hadn’t known about the empath. If he had, Eliot wouldn’t have taken this job.

“Cheater.”

“Ow! Look, we can go to that candy place that’s your favorite, ok?”

“Okay.”

Eliot’s skin was itching. He was too close to the empath. He should have taken the shot before, out of reach of his warm voice.

(Moreau’s voice had been like wine and dark chocolate. Bitter on the tongue, but addictive once it went down.)

“Hardison?” Parker’s voice had grown concerned. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” the empath said, the voice of someone in pain but trying to make light of it. “Someone around here has got some serious baggage, that’s all.”

“We’re leaving,” Parker said immediately. “C’mon.”

Him. The empath was feeling him. Eliot took a deep breath and tried to think of happier things.

Damn,” the empath said, strained. “Do you see them? I could help.”

“No,” Parker said. “We’re going to the candy store. Everyone’s happy in that place.”

“Yeah?”

“I told you, it’s my favorite.”

Eliot waited until their voices faded before he slipped out of the car, heart pounding. He was better than this. He used to be—

It didn’t matter. He still had a job to do. He had to retrieve the drive that held the bureau’s data.

Parker’s file indicated that she didn’t do her own jobs: she worked on commission. They would have to give the information to their employer at some point, and Eliot would intercept it when they did.

And then he would finish the job.

 

 

The candy shop ended up being an actual candy shop—not the rendezvous Eliot had been hoping for. So he spent an hour lurking outside while the targets did whatever you could do in a candy shop for an hour.

The day did not improve.

There was a stop at a tech shop, which had seemed promising until he realized the empath was only there to fawn over the computers. Eliot was pretty good at reading lips, but he didn’t catch most of the techno-babble the guy exchanged with the shop owner.

Parker amused herself by picking the locks on the glass display cases and snatching increasingly larger and larger items, which she stashed around the store while the owner’s back was turned. In ninety minutes, she relocated seven iPhones, four tablets, six laptops, and five printers. And then she moved them all back.

She didn’t use her powers at all—she was simply that good. Eliot found himself smirking as he watched her. Parker had a wild kind of joy that ignited her gestures and expressions. She was mesmerizing in her grace, exhilarating in her skill. Everything the rumors had said.

Only, she kept touching the empath: resting her arm on his shoulders, shoving him lightly when she brushed past, tapping his back to get his attention. Eliot wanted to drag her away and shout at her to be more careful, which he knew was the height of irony, but what-the-hell-ever. Empaths’ powers started working the second they had eyes on their victim and grew increasingly stronger the closer they got. Touching an empath was basically begging for them to shove whatever feelings they wanted directly into your heart.

(Moreau had kept Eliot very, very close.)

Parker either didn’t know or didn’t care. When she and the empath finally left the store, she pushed close to him while they walked down the sidewalk.

Eliot followed at a safe distance, not close enough to hear exactly what was being said, but enough to get the gist. The empath was excited about something he’d bought—Eliot had no idea if it related to the Bureau data or not. Computers were really not his thing.

The empath waved his arms around enthusiastically, talking a mile a minute. Parker laughed at him.

They were staying in an apartment building with conveniently sloped roofs. It was easy for Eliot to climb up and position himself in a shadowy corner where he could see and hear, but not close enough for the empath to get a read on him.

Good god, the empath was eating canned ravioli. Directly out of the can.

Eliot let his head thump back against the brick wall. How had these people survived long enough for Eliot to kill them?

 

 

They settled eventually; the empath at the kitchen table hunched over his laptop, Parker perched on the table munching a bowl full of dry coco puffs.

“Alien invasion,” Parker said.

The empath kept typing. “Are you kidding? I’d live forever. Age of the geek, but like, times a billion. You would be toast.”

“I would not.”

“You can’t even get Gmail to hook up with your phone! I, on the other hand, could hack their alien systems and save the world.”

“What if they have laser eyes? How would you survive in a world full of laser eyes, Hardison?”

“Eh, you’d take care of the lasers.”

Parker flicked a piece of cereal directly between his eyes. “I thought I was toast.”

“Not if you’re with me.”

Parker looked pleased. “So we’d both live forever.”

“You know it.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “Damn. This is some heavy-duty encryption the Bureau’s got on these files.”

“Makes sense,” Parker said darkly, “considering what it is.” She used her spoon to crush her cereal against the bottom of the bowl.

Eliot had been listening to them for hours as the empath tried to decode the Bureau’s data. He didn’t know why he was doing it. He had a clear line of sight. Even telekinetics weren’t fast enough to stop a bullet they didn’t know was coming. If he took Parker out first, the empath would be an easy shot.

His rifle was in his hand. It had been in his hand for a long time.

“Babe,” the empath said. “I don’t know if I can crack this.”

“You have to,” Parker said.

“But—“

“Those kids aren’t going through what I went through,” Parker said, too loudly.

What the hell? What kids?

“I know, but I—“

“Make it happen, Hardison!” Parker jabbed her spoon in his face.

“Okay,” he said, a lot gentler than Eliot would have been with Parker’s spoon near his eyeball. The empath went back to his typing. “So. Giant earthquake?”

Parker relaxed a little. She snorted and went back to eating her cereal. “I’d live forever. You’d last eight days.”

Eliot tuned out a rant about the importance of internet connection. Dubenich hadn’t mentioned anything about kids, but it seemed Dubenich hadn’t told Eliot a lot about this job.

His thoughts were distracted by a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. Eliot immediately snapped to attention, all senses alert.

It had come from the roof of the apartment building across the street. Eliot swung his rifle up to his shoulder and used the night-vision scope to scan the roofline. The figure was dressed in black, bent over and assembling something that might have been a telescope but probably wasn’t. He hadn’t seen Eliot.

Someone else had put a hit out on his targets. Had to be. With a package this hot, Eliot wasn’t surprised. It was a small complication, nothing he couldn’t handle.

But then the figure stood up. He turned around.

The figure stood up and turned around, and even with the night vision, Eliot recognized him. There was no mistaking the sharp, hard lines of that face.

Eliot’s body recognized him as well—his stomach flipped over.

Distantly, he heard the empath say, “What the hell?”

It was Chapman. Moreau’s lieutenant and favorite telepath. All of the sudden, it was ten months ago, and Eliot was back on the tile floor of some godforsaken Italian villa and he was screaming.

(Chapman had smooth, slim fingers that Eliot could have broken without trying. But Chapman didn’t need to be strong when he could bring men to their knees with just a twist of his thoughts.)

Chapman had a rifle to his shoulder as well, but it wasn’t a sniper rifle. It was a tranquilizer gun, and it was aimed directly at the open widow of Parker and Hardison’s apartment.

Eliot was under no illusions about the kind of man he was. He’d crossed almost every line there was to cross. But this?

Traq guns meant that Moreau wanted the targets alive. He might want the data too, but he definitely wanted them—these idiots who spent hours in a candy shop and were yammering on about helping kids.

Moreau always got what he wanted. He had wanted Eliot, and so Eliot had become his.

(His—his—)

Eliot had crossed a lot of lines. He wasn’t going to cross this one.

Chapman jerked his head sharply up in Eliot’s direction, and Eliot knew the telepath had caught the scent of his mind from a distance. The man swung the rifle around and sharp pain sliced through Eliot’s arm. Eliot fired, but even as Chapman tumbled backwards he knew it hadn’t been a kill shot.

Inside his head, Eliot could still see himself on that tile floor.

There was indistinct shouting blurring in the air around him, and his muscles were loosening without his permission. The tranquilizers. Eliot stumbled forward, trying to make it off the roof, but his knees buckled. His eyes were drifting shut as strong hands yanked up upright, but he was too far gone to see who it was.

 

* * * *

 

“We should throw him out the window.”

“No!” Hardison said. Again.

“I could use my powers. You wouldn’t have get up.”

“You can’t use them like that.”

“Let’s try.”

Hardison was giving her that look that made it very clear how patient he was being. “Parker. The man probably saved our lives—“

“You don’t know that!”

“—and he’s passed out on our couch. He’s practically a guest. You don’t go throwing guests out the window.”

Hardison was right about one thing, the stupid man was certainly unconscious. He was also sprawled on the sofa where Hardison and Parker had thrown him, so actually Hardison was right about two things.

Parker didn’t like the guy. Even asleep, his body looked dangerous, built out of violence. She’d grown up around guys like him patrolling the Bureau holding centers, wearing uniforms and carrying weapons they’d enjoyed using. Guys like him hurt people because they couldn’t not. They hurt people the way Hardison liked people—easily, quickly.

“I don’t want him here,” Parker said. She couldn’t stop moving, pacing circles around the apartment, bouncing on her toes, clenching her hands.

Hardison had pulled a chair close to the couch and was draped over it backwards. He frowned at her. Hardison was on a mission to make her “feel more compassion for the experiences of others.” Well, Parker had a mission of her own, and it was Keep Hardison Alive.

“We should go,” Parker said. “Grab the file and run. We don’t know who else is out there.”

Hardison did not look impressed. “We can’t leave him here. What is someone comes while he’s still out?”

“Exactly my point! I can’t stop bullets, Hardison!”

Parker had tears in her eyes. She didn’t know why, because she didn’t feel sad. Parker didn’t usually feel much of anything, which was one of the reasons she and Hardison got along so well. He said she was restful.

Parker didn’t feel restful now, she felt like a hurricane.

Hardison had his hands up in a calming gesture. “Woah, woah. Take it easy. You don’t have to be scared.”

Parker sniffed and balled up her fists. She stared at Hardison from the other side of the room. “Is that what this is?”

Hardison gave a wincing smile. “You feel like you did that time in Georgia. You’re really freaking out, huh?”

“Guys like him are everything we’re trying not to be. Also, gunfire makes me twitchy.”

Hardison looked at her with warm, dark eyes that always understood her. Until Hardison, Parker hadn’t ever met someone who actually listened to her. He always listened, and more amazingly, still liked her after she was done talking.

“Want me to get rid of some of it?” he offered. He looked upset, but Parker knew Hardison’s face well enough to understand that he was upset for her, not because of her.

“Yes,” Parker said, all in a rush. She couldn’t think when she had a hurricane inside.

She bounded over to Hardison and slapped a hand on his arm. It was easier for him when they touched.

Hardison closed his eyes and breathed out in a long, slow stream.

There was a door inside Parker that she always kept shut. She’d double-locked it after the Bureau had taken her to the second holding center, and after that, she’d never opened it for anyone.

But then she’d met Hardison, who had laughed at her jokes and stolen stuff and jumped off buildings with her. He’d never asked her to open the door, which was why she’d started doing it. Only sometimes, and only a little, but Hardison was safe. Parker could trust him with the stuff inside her head.

Now, she took breath of her own and tried to make herself open up. As soon as she did, the hurricane calmed to a soft drizzle.

“Want me to give you some calm?” Hardison murmured, eyes still closed.

“You know that doesn’t work on me,” Parker said, trying to make her voice go quiet like his. Hardison was sometimes quiet in a soft way that Parker couldn’t quite mimic.

A smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “Someday I’ll get it.”

“Not now,” Parker said. “Now, we need handcuffs.”

 

 

Parker used her favorite pair, the ones from Brazil that had taken her a full five minutes to pick. After some forceful persuasion, Hardison had thrown her a roll of duct tape, which she’d used to tape the guy’s ankles together. She also took his boots.

Not a moment too soon, either. She’d just finished throwing the boots across the room when the guy blinked awake.

Parker turned on her taser and let herself be comforted by its gentle electric buzz.

“No tasing people in the living room! It makes the whole place smell like burnt hair, and you know I have a sensitive sense of—holy hell what is that?”

Parker spun around at the horror in Hardison’s voice, but there wasn’t anything strange in the apartment. There was just the guy, now definitely awake, staring at them.

Hardison was backing away from the couch, hands flapping in distress. “Seriously,” he said. “What. The. Hell.”

“Hardison, what’s wrong? Can I tase him now?”

The guy was lying still. Like, freakishly still. Parker wasn’t sure if he was breathing.

Well, she didn’t have time to check on that and Hardison, so hopefully he was.

Parker crowded close to Hardison where he stood against the far wall, sideways so she could keep the guy in sight. “Hey,” she said. “Is he too loud in your head?”

Hardison was staring at the guy, his eyes wide and focused on something only he could see. The guy bared his teeth in a soundless snarl.

Parker snarled back.

“It’s not—it’s not loud,” Hardison said, stumbling over his words. “It’s like—He’s just all—Who did this to you?” This was addressed to the guy.

He just glared at them. Parker remember holding that still when the holding centers had inspection days. The only thing that gave that kind of stillness was the fear that oozed out from behind your locked door.

Hardison’s face was hurt. His eyes were wet and his mouth was all crumpled.

Parker didn’t know what to do about that, so she patted his shoulder.

“I can help,” Hardison said. “I mean, I’ll do my best. I’m not the best empath in the world or anything, and I’ve never seen anything like this before, because this is some nasty stuff, but I can—“

“There are twenty-seven bones in the human hand.” The guy’s voice was like bare knees skidding on gravel. “You try to get inside my head? I will break every single one of yours. And I won’t do it fast.”

Hardison blinked. “Okay, that was…overly hostile. And disturbingly specific. In fact, I’m beginning to think that everything about you is disturbing.”

“I wanted to throw him out the window,” Parker reminded.

“You know what? You did. And I am starting to see your point.”

Hardison was rambling. His eyes were still wide and he wasn’t moving from his place by the wall.

Time to get things back on track.

Parker advanced, Taser held threatening high. The guy focused on her. Even lying on his side, he looked distinctly unthreatened, which was disappointing.

“What were you doing on our roof?” she demanded.

“Saving your lives, apparently.”

“Told you,” Hardison said, subdued but still triumphant.

“Who sent you?”

The guy ignored the question. “You two have somehow managed to piss off a very bad man. The guy I shot worked for Damien Moreau.”

That brought Parker up short. “As in, Most Powerful Empath in the Northern Hemisphere Moreau?”

“As in, Into Tons of Hinky Stuff And I-Do-Not-Want-To-Know-Details Moreau?” Hardison asked.

“So you know him.”

“He must want the file,” Hardison said. He looked a little ill. “I mean, I expected it to be hot, but this…”

“We have to get out of the country,” Parker said. She had go bags made up for both of them. “We can be on a plane in an hour.”

“You won’t last a week,” the guy said. He said it like the words were heavy.

“Says you!” Hardison said, voice rising in panic. “And what do you know about it anyway? The shape you’re in, I’m amazed you can even order a latte without breaking into tiny man-pieces. Who the hell even are you?”

The man on their couch shrugged. It was the first time since he’d woken that Parker actually saw him move. “I’m the guy who lives forever in this particular worst-case scenario.”

That game belonged to her and Hardison—how did he know?

Hardison didn’t look surprised. “You’ve been following us since this afternoon at Starbucks, haven’t you? I knew something felt off all day. Man, I mean it, I will help—“

“Twenty-seven bones,” the guy reminded.

“Okay, okay.”

“So you’re the guy who lives forever,” Parker said loudly. “And I’m going to guess that you weren’t hanging around our roof with a sniper rifle meaning to help us.”

“No,” the guy said. “But I did.”

“Why?”

He shifted, an embarrassed movement that made him suddenly seem more human. “I’ve got a score to settle with Moreau.”

“Uh huh,” Hardison said, unconvinced.

The guy growled at him. “You better not be reading me, empath.”

“Believe me when I say that I am trying not to.”

“Look,” the guy said. “I don’t like psychics and I don’t trust thieves. But you’ve got something Moreau wants badly enough to send his right-hand man after. Which means, whatever that is, I want it kept away from him.”

Parker crossed her arms. “I’m pretty sure you came here to shoot us.”

The guy’s smile was whisper-faint. “Yeah, well I didn’t. And I won’t.”

Hardison nodded his head. He caught her eye and nodded again.

“Really?” Parker demanded. “Really?”

“My name is Alec Hardison. This is Parker.”

The guy on the couch said, “I’m Eliot Spencer.”

 

 

Eliot Spencer looked steady on his feet for someone who’d been drugged for the better part of an hour. From her favorite corner, Parker watched him pace around the living room to check the sightlines out the windows. Hardison was on the couch, his legs crossed under him, staring at the floor.

“We’ve got to move,” Spencer said. “This place is burned.”

“Safety is all relative anyway,” Hardison said wildly. “I mean, you’re more likely to die in your bathroom than in a war zone.”

Parker frowned. “I don’t think that’s true.”

“It’s not.” Eliot Spencer slammed the window shut.

“Man, I get claustrophobic!”

“Gosh, man, I didn’t realize. I’ll just open it back up again, let the tranquilizer darts fly right through. You can say hi to Moreau for me.”

“Damn sarcastic,” Hardison muttered to the floorboards. “Unnecessary—“

“What’s on the drive?” Spencer drew the curtains across the window and faced Parker, arms crossed. He kept directing the conversation to her. In fact, he had his whole body angled away from Hardison, toward Parker. People never did that. It was weird.

“Stuff,” Parker said.

“Stuff.”

“Secret stuff.”

“We don’t have time for this! Moreau’s guys will be back.”

Parker glanced at Hardison, who gave her a pleading look.

“If we trust you, you could take it back to Dubenich.”

“Dubenich what now?”

Parker liked Hardison, but sometimes he didn’t see what right in front of him.

“Dubenich hired Spencer,” Parker told him. “I got bored waiting for him to tell me and figured it out.”

Eliot Spencer’s smile was like a blinking light on an alarm system. One quick flash was all the warning you got that there were live wires ahead.

Hardison was muttering again. “I have got to stop thinking things can’t get worse. I’m sorry, Parker, this is my fault. I literally had that thought five minutes ago.”

“How could that make it your fault?” Parker asked, confused.

“He’s kidding,” Spencer told her.

Parker stared him right in the eye. Normally that made people turn funny colors and back away, but Eliot Spencer caught her gaze and held it. Parker was reminded, bizarrely, of that moment in every jump when her powers caught her mid-air, holding her strong and safe.

Hardison’s powers had told him something that made him think this guy was trustworthy, but Parker’s couldn’t do that. She had to test him another way.

And she had to do it fast.

“Dubenich is a bad person,” Parker said. “You work for him.”

“Tells you something about me, doesn’t it?”

Parker lifted her chin. “I did a job for Dubenich once. Over ten years ago.”

Hardison sat up straighter on the couch. He looked concerned.

“It wasn’t relevant before,” Parker told him, but she kept her eyes locked with Eliot.

“I know.” Spencer said. “Dubenich gave me your file.”

“So, what does that tell you about me?”

“It tells me you were a kid in over your head, trying not to piss off the guy who controlled your life. Smart move,” he added. “Kept you alive.”

That was—

That was exactly how it had been.

“Birth records,” she said. “That’s what on the drive.”

Hardison picked up the narrative, talking to Spencer but looking at the wall. “The Bureau created a computer program that can sort through post-natal medical exams and compare it to known markers of psychic abilities. The program made a list of all the psychic kids in the country born within the last ten years before it suffered a mysterious system failure. Today. When we happened to be breaking in to steal the final copy of the list. Pure coincidence, of course.”

Eliot Spencer’s face was full of some emotion that Hardison would have no problem identifying, but that escaped Parker’s understanding. His eyes weren’t wet, but his mouth was all twisted up.

“Moreau can’t get his hands on a list like that.”

“Obviously,” Parker snapped.

Hardison, carefully still looking at the wall, said, “Do you know what the Bureau does with the psychic kids they collect?”

Parker’s hands clenched in a sudden spasm. Spencer’s eyes tracked the movement.

“I’ve heard rumors.”

“Whatever you heard, it’s worse,” Hardison said. “Trust us, man. Dubenich can’t get this list either.”

Spencer glanced at Hardison out of the corner of his eye. “So destroy it.”

“We will. After we make sure everyone on the list is safe. Visit the families, maybe explain that just because little Johnny can make pencils float doesn’t mean he’s the devil.”

“Why is that your job? Why do you care?” Spencer said it aggressively, just like Parker had when asking him about working for Dubenich. She didn’t know a lot about feelings, but Parker knew a test when she heard one.

“They’re a bunch of kids in over their heads,” Hardison said.

“We want to keep them alive,” Parker added.

Spencer’s eyes were full of something she wanted to understand. She didn’t trust him, but she wanted—something. That was rare enough that she tried to make her words sound like in invitation.

Eliot Spencer looked like he was about to respond when gunshots erupted for the second time that night.

“Get down!” Spencer shouted. He slammed her to the floor, his body heavy and suffocating and terrible on top of her.

“Let go! Hardison? Hardison!”

Parker!

“Stay still,” Spencer said in her ear. His voice rumbled against her back.

Parker swung her elbow back with all the force she had and caught him right in the throat.

He rolled off her, gagging. There were more gunshots and the sound of breaking glass—the windows were shattering. Parker sprang toward the couch where Hardison had been sitting, and there he was, crouched behind it.

“I’m okay.” He held up the flash drive to answer her second question.

“This way!” Eliot Spencer was in the doorway, poised and deadly with a pistol in his hand. Where did he get a gun? Parker had searched him. Twice. “Now!”

Parker clamped her hand on Hardison’s arm and dragged him with her across the room while Spencer covered them. They rushed into the hallway and he followed them, kicking the door shut behind them and disassembling the gun into parts before throwing them away.

“Got an escape route?” he asked tersely.

“I’ve got three,” Parker said. She was holding Hardison’s arm very tightly. She could feel him shaking.

“Then let’s go!”

“Where?” Hardison asked. “Our van’s in the street, we can’t get to it.”

“Dammit, just go!” Eliot said. “I’ll tell you on the way.”

 

 

* * * *

 

When he was a kid, Hardison walked past lots of abandoned houses on his way to school. They used to give him the creeps and he hadn’t known why. It hadn’t been the emptiness of the homes that had unnerved him. It hadn’t even been the dark and general spookiness.

It wasn’t until he was older that Hardison realized his disquiet came from the way the doors had been forced open and left hanging on mangled hinges. It was the gaping holes where secure windowpanes should have been. Houses were supposed to be places of safety, and there was something wrong about seeing them gutted, vulnerable to anyone who wanted to ransack them.

Looking at Eliot Spencer took Hardison right back to standing on his childhood street, staring at those houses and finally understanding the word “violated.”  

So of course, because this was just how Hardison’s life worked, he was currently jammed right up close to Eliot in a dark alley, gasping for breath and bracing his powers against the worst thing he’d ever seen done to a person.

Sometimes, Hardison’s life sucked.

“We lost them.” Parker didn’t even sound winded. She probably wasn’t—the traitor.

“When we crossed Second Street,” Eliot confirmed.

Hardison wasn’t sure how they knew, but that was their thing and he was happy to leave them to it. His head was pounding from Mister Walking Travesty beside him.

“Just pull a blanket over your head, sweetheart,” Nana had used to say, when his powers got too much. “Pull it up tight and shut them all out.”

Hardison took a breath—which was hard to do after running for his life, thank you very much—found that barrier deep inside himself, and pulled.

Relief was sudden and immediate. The gaping holes of Eliot were still there, but they were muffled, easier to ignore.

Hardison let out a shaky breath. “Does that mean we can stop running now? My heart was not built to withstand games of death hide and seek, people.”

The faint orange of a streetlight caught Eliot’s face as he moved back. “We’re here,” he said.

The alley had a dumpster in it and not much else. Hardison could feel the familiar vague tangle of emotions that meant a large group of people were close, but he couldn’t see them.

Eliot reached into his jacket pocket.

Parker tensed behind Hardison’s shoulder. “Hey!”

“Relax!” Eliot pulled his hand out of his jacket slowly, holding a ring of keys. “I have a safe house in Portland, and I brought you to it. You happy now?”

He directed that last part to Hardison, so viciously that Hardison took a step back. “Um. Yes?”

Eliot turned away and stomped down the alley. Streams of emotion trailed after him: the expected blast of anger, puzzling amounts of fear, and a shocking amount of protectiveness.

“Makes no damn sense,” Hardison said to no one.

Parker brushed his shoulder as she passed him. Eliot had passed her tests enough that she didn’t think he would shoot them. That was comforting.

Parker herself was comforting—her mind as impenetrable as a locked safe. It was like a cool hand pressed to his throbbing head. Not for the first time, Hardison was fiercely grateful that he’d met her.

Eliot had stopped in front of a rusty metal door further down the alley and was wrestling with the key.

“If this hidey-hole has bugs, I ain’t staying,” Hardison said.

“You’d rather be shot?” Parker asked.

He fell into step behind her. “At least getting shot would be quick. Roaches gnaw on your bones for weeks, Parker. Weeks. There was a woman they found dead in Idaho with little nibbles all taken out of her, like a damn roach buffet.”

“Really?” Parker sounded delighted, like she always did at the prospect of something horrifying. She stopped beside Eliot, still outside of his personal space, but pretty close for Parker and strangers, and frowned at the man. “Really?” she demanded.

Eliot’s key clunked in the lock. “It was Nebraska,” he said.

And before Hardison had time to process what the hell had just happened, Eliot put his shoulder to the door and shoved it open.

Warm light spilled out into the alley, along with the most delicious cooking smells Hardison had inhaled since that Thai place in Chicago. Eliot disappeared through the door and Parker followed, and Hardison no longer cared if there was a roach army waiting for him—this was clearly a door to food heaven.

It was actually a kitchen. A really big, busy, amazing-smelling kitchen.

“Spencer!” an old man in an apron shouted. The pan in his hand was on fire. He didn’t seem to care.

A few other people looked up from their chopping and stirring to echo the shout.

Eliot said, “Hi Toby.”

The old man put his flaming pan back on the stove and dodged around two teenagers carrying trays full of food. “Thought you were going to be gone for a few weeks.”

Eliot huffed an exasperated breath that told Hardison all he needed to know about Eliot’s depth of relationship with this man. “Things took a turn.”

“Things do that,” Toby said. He had a calm way of speaking, even though he was almost shouting over the din of the kitchen. There was serenity humming inside him that was blissful after the night Hardison had just had. He edged closer.

“Who are these two?” Toby asked.

Eliot hesitated. “They’re with me.”

Hardison smiled winsomely. In his experience, smiling at people who had food increased the chances of having food lovingly bestowed upon him. “What is this place?”

“The Vargas Culinary School,” Toby said proudly. “We take in kids and teach them to cook. Give them a second chance.”

Hardison hadn’t known there were places that did that sort of thing. “I love you already.”

Eliot’s mood flipped suddenly, blackness seeping through Hardison’s mental barriers. He pushed himself roughly between Hardison and Toby.

“Excuse—”

“Is my room empty?” Eliot asked, biting off the ends of his words.

Toby was watching the whole scene with amusement. “Since this morning? I’d hope so.”

Eliot turned on his heel and growled into Hardison’s face. “Follow me. Now.”

“What—oh forget it.” Hardison turned an offended look to Parker, but Parker hadn’t been paying attention. She’d managed to steal a magnificent sandwich from somewhere.

Hardison’s look turned beseeching.

“Uh uh.” Parker took a bite and shook her head.

“Parker, c’mon.”

“I’m hungry!”

“Walk,” Eliot said. “Now.”

That tone must have had a channel directly to Hardison’s lower brain, because he was suddenly moving, legs propelling him after Eliot without conscious thought. The man was like a tiger. Or a timber rattler. Or an orca whale, and Hardison was the innocent little baby seal about to be turned into dinner.

That…was not a comforting thought.

 

 

The room was just that—one room, with a bathroom attached. The single window was big enough to jump out of in a hurry. In one corner was a twin bed, neatly made. In another was the tiniest stove and refrigerator Hardison had ever seen. There was a table with two chairs. A few cabinets on the wall. Three lamps. That was it.

“Small,” Parker pronounced, turning around in the room.

“Taj Mahal was booked.” Eliot roamed around the room snapping on lamps. The light was cozy and warm, and honestly, it made this room feel like the safest place Hardison had been all day.

Exhaustion flooded through his body, like it had been waiting for Hardison to relax. He sunk into one of the wooden chairs and groaned. “This has been the most stressful three hours of my life. Next time Damien Moreau tries to kill us, let’s just take a pass on that.”

“This last hit wasn’t Moreau,” Eliot said. “Parker, stop.”

Parker was opening all the cabinets, half-eaten sandwich in one hand. She took a wreath of garlic off her head and put it back in the cabinet. “I thought you said Moreau was trying to kill us.”

“I said you pissed him off,” Eliot countered. “Chapman was using traqs. He wanted you alive. These guys didn’t care.”

“Every time you talk, I feel worse.” Hardison laid his head down on the smooth tabletop.

“Hardison gets grumpy when he’s hungry,” Parker whispered loudly.

“Hardison gets grumpy when people shoot at him,” he corrected.

“We’re thinking that was the Bureau, right?” Parker asked.

“They were using government issue ammo rounds. They have a very distinctive smell,” Eliot said.

“Makes sense,” Hardison muttered against the tabletop. Then he stopped and thought for a second. “Actually, hold up.” He lifted his head and frowned. “The Bureau only hired Eliot this morning. There was no reason for them to think he’d gone off mission.”

Eliot was already shucking off his jacket, examining every inch of his clothes for listening devices. Hardison dug his phone out of his pocket and opened up his sweeper app. “It scans for bugs,” he explained.

Eliot nodded quickly, and Hardison stepped close to scan him. It was easier to block Eliot’s emotions when Hardison had tech to focus on. “Clean.”

“Nothing,” Eliot said.

“Then someone must have told them you’d ditched,” Parker said.

“No one knew!”

“Chapman knew,” Eliot said quietly. He was clutching his jacket in both hands. “Hard to misinterpret a bullet to the shoulder.”

“Moreau and the Bureau are working together?” Parker asked. There was uncertainty in her voice, which in Parker meant she was actually getting afraid.

Dread trickled cold into Hardison’s chest. It was his, but it was also Eliot’s.

Without a word, Eliot walked into the bathroom and slammed the door.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Hardison said.

“This is really bad.” Parker was pacing. Never a good sign. “We’re going to die. Unless Moreau gets to us first—then he’ll probably whammy us into being his mindless slaves for the rest of our lives. And the kids! The kids are going to be rounded up—“

“Not helping.” Hardison could handle his own panic, and he could push away Eliot’s. But when Parker’s started to ooze out of her like this, he couldn’t block her, and he definitely couldn’t calm her.

“Hardison, give me something to do. Anything.”

Hardison tried to slow his mind down enough to think. Parker needed him. “Okay. Okay. Well, I need a new computer to finish decrypting the data. Mine got shot.”

“On it,” Parker said immediately. She unlocked the window and flung it open.

“You’re going now?”

Parker gave him a Look. “Laptops aren’t going to steal themselves.”

It would get him mocked, but Hardison was incapable of letting her dive into a night full of hitmen without saying, “It’s dangerous out there.”

“You’ll be fine,” Parker said, swinging her legs out the window. “Eliot’s here.”

She closed the window behind her and vanished.

Hardison looked around the empty room. “Really?”

He pulled out his phone and spent several heartbreaking minutes searching for a decent wifi signal. “Really?

The bathroom door opened and Eliot strode into the room, as if he hadn’t been hiding for the last ten minutes. Maybe someone else would have thought he was calm.

“Where’s Parker?” Eliot demanded.

Hardison was fiddling with his phone to have an excuse not to look at him. “She got a little freaked, so she went to steal some stuff. It’s her thing. She’ll be back in a couple of hours with who knows what.”

Sparks of burning anger shot Hardison’s way.

“You sent her out there alone?”

Oh joy. Here was his headache, back again right on cue. Hardison just wanted to curl up in a server room with some beautiful, emotionless computers and lose himself in code. He was tired of being blasted by this guy.

Hardison met Eliot’s glare dead on. “You know what? I think it’s time to get something straight.”

Eliot somehow managed to make himself look even more murderous. The man made Hardison’s legs shake, honest to God.

“I don’t send Parker anywhere.” Hardison’s voice might have squeaked a little. It wasn’t a proud moment. He cleared his throat. “She just goes. She wanted to jump out your window and walk around in a city full of people trying to kill us, so that’s what she did. You think I could stop her?”

“Yes,” Eliot said flatly.

Hardison had been planning on a speech, not a conversation.

“Well…I don’t,” he said lamely.

Eliot raised his eyebrows. “Maybe you should of have used those little notecards. Organized your thoughts.”

“Oh, shut up,” Hardison grumbled. “Besides, what the hell, man? Even if I could order people around, I wouldn’t.”

Eliot’s emotions gave a frightening surge.

It was the kind of clarity Hardison sometimes had just as he found the key to an encrypted system. “Oh.”

Someone—some empath—had systematically destroyed the defenses in the emotional parts of Eliot’s mind. Hardison had known that the minute he’d laid eyes on the guy.

He hadn’t actually stopped to consider why an empath would do something like that. It would certainly make someone easier to control. Theoretically, if someone’s mind was defenseless, empaths could make him feel whatever they wanted, like hacking a firewall and taking over someone’s system. Hardison had done a lot of hacking, but he could honestly say that this kind had never occurred to him. It was so wrong, he didn’t even have words.

He remembered Eliot in the alley: “You happy now?”

“You think I whammied you into liking us. So you’d protect us.”

“I’ve never brought anyone to this place before,” Eliot said, in that same flat voice. “I don’t even know you two, and I brought you here because I felt—” Eliot shook his head, cutting himself off.

“Why does your brain jump to the most terrible conclusion possible? Is that, like, some sort of skill they teach in assassin academy along with general deathliness?” Hardison might have been getting a little hysterical.

Eliot had a stubborn clench to his jaw. “It makes sense.”

“No,” Hardison said, flabbergasted. “No, it does not. You chose not to shoot us way before I ever laid eyes on you. Parker asked for your opinion. You played ‘I Would Live Forever’!”

“I did not,” Eliot argued.

“Look,” Hardison said. “I would never do that. Maybe we all just get along. You know, like, we’re all cool with each other.”

Eliot smiled, so fake that Hardison’s senses started pinging alerts. “I’m inclined to believe you.”

“Ah, really?”

“Sure.” Eliot’s voice had become very Southern all the sudden, like maple syrup poured over a bowl of broken glass. “But that’s what you do, isn’t it? Incline people.”

Eliot was right that they didn’t know each other. It didn’t make sense for his words to slice deep into Hardison and lodge there, stinging.

But they did.

 

* * * *

 

Eliot tried to remember if Moreau had ever looked sad.

Mostly, his brain spat out images of the man looking smug. Sometimes outraged.

(Usually pleased, though. Moreau had been so pleased with Eliot’s work, right up to the end.)

Alec Hardison had retreated without responding to Eliot’s accusation, settling himself back at the table and turning partly away from him. He wasn’t doing a very good job of pretending to be engrossed in his phone—staring at the screen for long periods of time before noticing it had gone black.

And, look. It wasn’t Eliot’s fault, alright? He called it like it was. There was a 98 percent chance that Hardison had twisted himself inside Eliot’s mind and planted little seeds of something.

It was the only explanation for why Eliot didn’t want to look at Hardison’s sad face anymore.

Eliot considered the gun hidden underneath the sink. He didn’t like guns, but he used them for jobs. He imagined what Hardison would look like dead. He imagined Parker’s face when she came back to the apartment and found it empty. Eliot let his eyes close briefly when he realized that both pictures were equally unacceptable to him.

He imagined himself dead. In that scenario, Parker and Hardison ended up as Moreau’s playthings within a week. Also unacceptable, and he had no idea if it was his choice or the empath’s.

Hardison’s shoulders hunched even further. He looked miserable.

Dammit.

Eliot opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pot of chili. He slammed it down on the stove and turned the burner on high. It didn’t take long for the spicy smell of chili powder and onions to fill the room. It made his stomach wake up and remember that he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

Hardison’s stomach growled loudly.  “Shh,” the man hushed, sounding mortified. Like a kid, he snuck a glance at Eliot to see if he’d heard.

It was all so unfair.

When the chili was hot, Eliot ladled some into two bowls. He grabbed spoons and plunked the whole bundle down on the table.

“Eat,” he said, flinging himself into the other chair.

Hardison rubbed his forehead. “You’re giving me whiplash, you know that? This here is emotional whiplash chili with a sprinkling of mixed signals on top.”

Eliot reached out to take the bowl. “You don’t want it?”

Hardison snatched it back. “I never said that!”

“Then shut up and eat your damn dinner.”

Parker’s voice came from the window. “I want dinner.”

Eliot didn’t jump, but Hardison did. Eliot did raise his eyebrows when he saw Parker somersault through his open window. He lived three stories up and she didn’t have any climbing gear. Apparently she could use her telekinesis for getting up buildings as well as down them.

“How’d it go?” Hardison asked, when he was done coughing.

Parker wasn’t carrying anything. “Great,” she said. “No one followed me.”

Hardison waited. Parker smiled serenely at him.

There was never any doubt in Eliot’s mind who would be the first to crack.

“Well?” Hardison demanded, “Did you get it?”

“Get what?”

“Girl!”

Parker flicked a set of car keys to him.

Hardison frowned. “Laptop, Parker. Laptop!”

“Wasn’t sure what you wanted,” Parker said. She wandered over to the stove and inhaled deeply. “The truck’s outside.”

Hardison’s eyes went very large, very fast. He jumped up and sprinted downstairs without a word.

Parker watched him go, looking satisfied.

“You’re going to attract too much attention,” Eliot said. It was self-defense. He had to dim some of that brightness on her face before it blinded him.

She wrinkled her nose at him. “I’m a thief. I think I can snatch a few dozen computers without anyone noticing.”

“A few dozen? Parker—”

“Hardison needs them,” Parker interrupted.

“I’m sure he can run his little geek program with only one computer.”

“No. Hardison needs them.”

“If you say so.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “That’s right. I do.”

Parker’s face had coldness that Hardison’s didn’t, the kind he recognized from when he looked in the mirror. It was strangely comforting.

 

 

 

Hardison claimed the corner of the room with the most outlets and proceeded to build himself a computer fort.

That’s what it looked like, anyway.

He stacked his tech on the two card tables Parker had thoughtfully provided, making a barrier of plastic and blinking lights that separated him from the rest of the room. Then he set to work, engrossed in the blue light of the four screens he’d set up.

The only thing Parker had stolen that wasn’t for Hardison was a wooden chair, remarkably similar to the two Eliot already owned.

“There’s three of us,” she said, catching Eliot looking.

The night deepened and darkened. Parker was doing stretches on the floor that might have needed telekinesis to keep her upright, or maybe she was just that balanced. Hardison hadn’t said a word to them in hours, too busy frantically typing and muttering to himself.

Eliot could go a long time without sleep, but he was starting to feel exhaustion misting his thoughts. That was dangerous. His wooden chairs weren’t very comfortable, but there was no way in hell he was sleeping in his bed with these two around. Eliot closed his eyes and let himself drift for twenty minutes of light, uneasy rest.

When he opened his eyes, Parker had dragged her chair behind the wall of computers and put it back to back with Hardison’s. She was leaned back, head tipped so it rested against Hardison while he worked. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was steady. It couldn’t have been a comfortable position, but she looked peaceful, someone who was exactly where she wanted to be.

Hardison reached back to absently stroke the top of her head, eyes still glued to his lines of code. Even obviously exhausted, he looked peaceful as well. His body had lost the tension he’d been carrying since Eliot had met him. The corners of his mouth had lost their pained tightness. Eliot hadn’t realized until now that he had never seen Hardison relaxed, and seeing it felt satisfying.

Eliot was in trouble.

The room was cluttered with empty computer boxes, the silence filled with whirring and typing and the sound of two extra bodies breathing. He’d been living in this apartment for four months, and it was the first time the place had actually felt like a home.

After Moreau, Eliot had thought he had finally severed the connection between feelings and action. But then he’d stumbled into Toby’s school and spent four months learning to cook. And now, these two…

Parker grunted in her sleep and turned to burrow her face into Hardison’s shoulder. Hardison smiled, and it was just like one of those stupid kitten-meets-dog videos that Toby’s kids made him watch.

Trouble.