Hardison had put up with a lot of crap over the years. Stuff like getting tossed off of high-rises, nearly drowning in some fancy rich-person swimming pool, and who could forget the pants-wetting terror of the Spanish flu, just to name a few. Not to mention that one time his dentist told him to cut back on the orange soda. He still had nightmares about that one.
But this—this was personal.
He pushed away from his desk, spinning around in his ergonomic chair in a way he most certainly hadn’t practiced in front of a mirror to make it look cool.
“Ah, hell no. No they didn’t.”
There was no one in the room to appreciate his flair, but that was okay, he didn’t need an audience to have style. Swinging around towards the keyboard, he dived back in. The bank of monitors on the far wall flashed brightly to life as his fingers flew across the keys.
He was still typing when all the lights in the room came on, searing like some kind of wave particle pickaxe into his head. He blinked against the sudden stabby blindness.
“Seriously man, sitting alone in a dark room with your computers. That’s not creepy at all.” Eliot was still mostly a halo-like blur as he moved to stand near Hardison’s chair.
“What, like you never sat alone in a dark room before?”
“I have!” Parker bounded into the room behind Eliot. “I like small spaces.”
“You two are meant for each other,” Eliot muttered, but he was smiling as he said it, shaking his head in that look Hardison recognized as fondness (now that he could see again).
“Alright, alright, enough insulting the computer genius.”
Hardison pointed to the picture splashed across the wall of monitors, showing a modest brick building with a large terrace area framed in wrought iron. “This here is the Portland Gastro Pub, and it’s our next job.”
Beside him, Parker leaned forward, a predatory glint in her eyes. “Ooh, are they lying about food safety? Stealing from their employees? Or trying to force someone out? Are they a front for criminals?”
“What? No!” Hardison pressed a key on his computer and the picture changed to an interior shot of the main dining room. Another button brought up the bar area. And lastly, the private rooms in the back.
“Looks kinda familiar.” Eliot said from behind them.
“Familiar, huh?” Hardison looked between Eliot and Parker, waiting for the outrage to pour forth.
Eliot only shrugged, and Parker was squinting at the pictures, as if expecting something to pop out and declare crime.
The bad kind of crime, that is, not what they did.
One more click of the keyboard sent two sets of blueprints up onto the large screens. Even to an untrained eye (not that Hardison’s eye was untrained, it’s just that he was only a little bit of an architecture expert) the similarities were glaring.
“That there on the left is the gastro-whatsit restaurant,” he explained, “And on the right is our Brew Pub.”
Sitting back in his chair, he crossed his arms and scowled at the screen. Fraud, that’s what this was. Restaurant fraud. These people were going down, and Hardison was going to damn well enjoy himself as he sent their fake empire tumbling.
“So?” Eliot rolled his eyes and, hell no, the man might be a tiny scary dude with great hair, but that didn’t mean Hardison was going to take this mutiny sitting down.
He stood up, because he was a man of his word.
Except before he could spell out exactly why this insult to gastronomy wouldn’t stand, his own hot mama turned against him.
“Yeah, I don’t get it. Who cares?”
Hardison would have stood up if he hadn’t already been standing.
“Who cares? It’s- it’s like a forgery. A bad forgery. Our brewpub is a flawless, colorless, priceless diamond, and that—” Hardison flapped his hand at the screen, “—that is like that ruby from the job in Milwaukee last month.”
Parker’s lips pressed into a tight line at that, her eyes narrowing as she took in the computer monitors with new eyes.
Emboldened, he turned back to Eliot. “I bet they don’t even use fresh ingredients.”
Eliot raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like the kind of problem that’ll solve itself. They’ll be out of business in three months, tops.”
And okay, this was gonna be a harder nut to crack. And whoa, down, brain, not thinking about Eliot and well—that—in the same sentence. Got to keep it above the waist, here.
Parker migrated over to the monitors to have a closer look.
“You’re with me, right baby girl?”
Parker wrinkled her nose. “Bad forgeries offend me.”
Inside, Hardison was rubbing his hands together with glee. Now for the last holdout. “Come on, Eliot. You’re not gonna back out on a job, are you?”
“This ain’t a job. This is some kind of weird vendetta you got going on.”
“What, like you never had a weird vendetta? I remember that one time with you and Mikel and the handcuffs, and if that’s not a—”
Eliot actually put his hands up, like he could physically fend off the words. “Fine okay, I’m in. Just…stop talking.”
Parker clapped her hands once, and they all fell silent. Her face split into a wide grin. “Let’s go steal a forgery.”
“A bad forgery,” Hardison added.
Parker nodded. “A bad forgery.”
Entering the Portland Gastro Pub was like stepping into Bizarro-land.
The Pub wasn’t a complete carbon copy of their own restaurant, but it was familiar enough that every step felt like falling further and further into some weird mirror-verse. Hardison half expected copies of him, Parker, and Eliot to jump out of the shadows, sporting evil goatees and plans for world domination.
The décor was different too, dimmer and heavier and all around inferior compared to what Hardison had furnished their base of operations with, if he did say so himself. But it also had the same high ceilings and exposed roof work, the same layout of tables, and the same long bar that drew the eye and made the space seem even bigger.
Eliot asked the hostess for a table, and Hardison resisted the urge to roll his eyes when Eliot added a little wink, sending the pretty hostess into a fit of giggles.
To add insult to injury, the place was packed.
“Creepy,” Parker stage-whispered, as they were seated at a table in the middle of the floor.
The hostess gave them a strange look but didn’t comment.
“Nice,” Hardison corrected, giving the woman a benign smile. “She said it was nice.”
The moment the woman was out of earshot, Eliot leaned across the table to mutter into Hardison’s ear, “Really, man? Nice? That—that sounds nothing like…were you even trying?”
“Hey, don’t mock it if it worked. And even you gotta admit, this place is creepy-town.”
Eliot stilled in that way he had that meant he was taking in the entire room. Their hitter had situated himself so that he could see the large mirror behind the bar out of the corner of his eye in addition to both exits. Not that they were expecting trouble, but it was a nice touch of real comfort while surrounded by all this false feeling of familiarity.
After a moment, Eliot let out a breath. “Okay, yeah. It’s a little weird.”
“Creepy,” Parker said again, and that was that.
They ordered their meals and a bottle of wine to share. The wine was at Eliot’s insistence, since ‘If we’re gonna do this thing we ain’t cutting any corners.’ The food, Hardison was happy to report, wasn’t as good as theirs.
“The noodles don’t taste like happiness,” Parker agreed.
Eliot hid a smile behind a sip of wine but it couldn’t hide the warmth in his eyes.
Or maybe that was just the candlelight, but Hardison liked to think otherwise.
By the time they’d finished dessert, the strange déjà vu had faded to the point where the whole evening was feeling more like he was on a date than a job. It wasn’t the date spot he would have ever chosen for himself, since the place was a cheap knockoff of his own precious establishment, but well, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
(Also, it probably didn’t count as a date if one of the date-ees didn’t know he was on a date.)
By the end of the night, they’d hacked into the building’s internal security, planted their own bugs, discovered the bartender and the head chef were secretly dating, and gotten copies of the restaurant’s paper documents going back five years.
Not bad for a night’s work, Hardison figured, as they stepped into the crisp night air.
They’d start the serious planning tomorrow. For tonight, Hardison was content to make his way home with his people by his side, Parker’s arm around his waist and Eliot a solid, steady presence watching over them.
Eliot couldn’t shake the feeling he’d just been on a date.
The thought was a like a scab that refused to be left alone to heal, and he found himself picking at it on the short drive home.
He’d been on a lot of dates, and what had just gone down in that restaurant with him and Parker and Hardison—that ticked all the boxes: Parker’s face glowed in the candlelight when she smiled at him. Hardison ordered the cake for dessert, which he knew Eliot liked, rather than the brownie a la mode that he usually went for. Jesus, even Eliot himself picked out the wine with an eye towards both of their preferences for sweets rather than focusing on how it would pair with the meal.
All that was missing was the freaking good-bye kiss, and maybe the invitation to come in for a coffee. He shook his head like he could actually, physically dislodge that particular thought from his brain.
(There was a time when he thought they’d figured it out.
Nate had stood in front of him and said, “You never need anything.”
The truth had clawed its way out of Eliot’s throat before he could stop it, laying him bare with a single sentence. “I don’t have to search anymore.” He’d looked over and seen them looking back. Parker smiling brighter than a vault full of gold, and Hardison looking at him like he’d finally come home, and Eliot had thought—
He’d thought wrong, was what he’d thought.)
Once he was home, he ran through all his usual security checks, took one look at his empty bed and walked right back out of the bedroom. Sleep wasn’t going to come easy until he got his head on straight, and there were only three types of things that had a shot at getting him there.
A fight was tempting, but he wasn’t anywhere near the right kind of headspace for that. He discarded the idea as too dangerous for anyone he went up against. A fuck would just be pathetic considering the direction of his thoughts. Which only left him one option.
Decision made, he tossed his clothes into the bathroom and pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a warm shirt. Lacing up his running shoes, he did a couple quick stretches and headed out.
It was a cold, overcast night, but after the first couple miles he barely felt the sting of the wind. Settling into the pace, he felt his muscles loosen up the rest of the way. Now if only his mind would do the same. Another mile and he picked up the pace again, and again until the sound of his breath and the pounding of his feet against the pavement filled his ears. He ran until he was sweating in the cold, until the burn in his muscles and his lungs mercifully drove all the thoughts from him mind.
All except for the one he came out here to get away from.
What do you do when you want something that’s not yours to have?
The answer, when it came, was so obvious he nearly tripped over his own damn feet. He stumbled to a halt, hands on his knees, his chest heaving. If there were any passing observers this late at night they might have thought he was wheezing. They’d be wrong.
He was laughing.
(You steal it)
Eliot walked into the Brew Pub with his guitar slung over his shoulder.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this. What’s this supposed to accomplish again?” he muttered, as he set up his gear on the makeshift stage that Parker had cleared for this exact purpose.
Despite his insistence that this wasn’t a real job, they all had their earbuds in. And what did it say about Eliot’s life that, when he maybe got a bit antsy before playing in front of a crowd, the familiar weight of it in his ear helped soothe his nerves.
“I told you, it’s a test.” Hardison squawked over the comms, right on cue. “We’ve been advertising acoustic Thursdays all week! If the Gastro-Posers start their own music night, everyone’s gonna know they’re copying us.”
Truth be told, Eliot didn’t really mind that he got drafted into this part of the plan. Something about being up there, just him and his guitar, settled something deep inside him. And if he enjoyed the way his teammates’ eyes riveted on him while he played, well, he’d keep that to himself, too. But that didn’t mean he was gonna pass up a prime opportunity to rile up Hardison.
“Yeah yeah, whatever,” he replied.
He gave an experimental strum and started on the first song of the night.
Near the end of the set, Parker came out of the back rooms to perch on a barstool. He flashed her a grin and she waved back. Hardison was nowhere to be seen. Probably in the back, watching over things from behind his computer.
Now was as good a time as any. With a wink towards one of their security cameras in the ceiling, Eliot donned the cowboy hat he’d brought specifically for this purpose, and started in on his next song.
Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy probably wasn’t the most appropriate music choice for their kind of venue, but seeing as he was the one with the guitar, he figured that meant he got to choose the music. He winked over at Parker as he hit the chorus, and saw her giggle in return. Not the reaction he’d been hoping for, but making Parker happy made him happy, so he counted it as a win, anyway.
Hardison didn’t make any mention of his choice of songs once they closed up for the night, and Eliot had to assume he hadn’t been watching after all. A swing and a miss. Eliot thought he was being pretty obvious but maybe it was time to step things up a notch. Maybe he’d go buy that Kiss the Cook apron he saw at the farmer’s market the other weekend.
Or maybe they just weren’t interested and didn’t want to say it outright in case it messed with the team. The thought slipped like ice water down his spine. Hardison and Parker both were more of the speak your mind sort, but sometimes people got funny when it came to this kind of stuff. He’d give it a few more tries, he decided, and if nothing came out of it he’d hang up his hat.
That settled, he packed up his guitar and headed out.
The whole thing was a bust anyway, because the following week the Portland Gastro Pub hired a piano player to sing covers of popular music twice a week.
Hardison didn’t seem too upset about it when Eliot brought it up during a job the next town over. They were taking down a gym owner who thought it was okay to install cameras in the locker-room and use the video as blackmail. Seeing the owner leave the office, he abandoned the bench press and slipped inside.
“Upset? This just proves my theory. Baby, we’re just getting started.” Hardison said, monitoring the situation from Lucille. “Two guys coming your way. Get ready.”
Eliot took the first one down, ducking his shoulder and using the momentum to flip the guy over his back. “What does that even mean, huh? It’s not like you can do anything about knowing you’re right.”
He grunted, blocking a punch from the guy still on his feet. The goon went down as easily as his buddy, and Eliot went and grabbed the flash drive from the owner’s computer.
“All part of the plan, my man. Now get on back here, Parker’s already on her way.”
Hardison insisted on driving, claiming that having Parker behind the wheel took years off his life. In the back of the van, Eliot swapped out his shirt for a fresh one. He thought he saw Parker glancing at him and so he took his time pulling the shirt down over his head. By the time he was done, she was looking in the other direction.
The con went down exactly according to Parker’s plan, and the next day the Brew Pub came out with a seasonal autumn cocktail list. Which was a fancy way of saying that Hardison and Parker shouted out their favorite fall spices and foods, and Eliot worked them into the drinks.
His favorite was the Golden Apple, a honey gin drink the same color as Parker’s hair. Hardison bitched about the Falling Leaves drink containing a slice of caramelized orange and no orange soda, but Eliot refused to change it. That crap was a crime against good taste, and had no nutritional value whatsoever. He did, however, add a little extra orange liqueur.
The next week, their copycat published their own, similar list.
December rolled around and fall colored cocktails gave way to peppermint flavors and mulled wine. Their rival did the same. And while Eliot maintained that they couldn’t really fault them for transitioning to a winter menu, Hardison very much held them accountable.
If either of them noticed that Eliot fashioned his two bestselling drinks after them, they didn’t say a word.
What made this whole thing worse, Hardison decided, was that the other restaurant was a completely legitimate business.
Hardison checked, oh did he check. If they’d been sketchy, he’d have shut them down quicker than Firefly was cancelled, and grinned at their grubby little idea-copying selves as they were hauled off to prison.
Fortunately for their copycats, Hardison was not only a good looking, brilliant, world class criminal, but a good looking, brilliant, world class criminal with morals. Putting someone away for bad taste wasn’t a line he was prepared to cross, no matter how irritated he was.
“If you think about it,” Parker said, her voice echoing from somewhere above, “it’s not really bad taste. I mean, they’re copying from us.”
Hardison made a noise he would forever deny was a squeak. Looked like he had one more hole in his digital security to patch. There were perks to working with the best of the best.
“You’re up early,” Parker said, as she lowered herself to ground level and shucked off her rappelling gear. Every month or so, she liked to check up on her various bolt holes and warehouses. It usually took all night; she must’ve just finished up.
“Up late,” he corrected.
Aside from his war of attrition with the Gastro Pub, he’d been doing the clean-up from their last job, meticulously erasing their digital footprint from anything associated with the corrupt credit union they’d taken down. His searches had indicated that there was no chatter on the web that even hinted at outside involvement, which was just the way he liked it.
He continued to work while Parker dragged in boxes from the storage closet. Christmas decorations for the Brew Pub, he realized, when she reached into one of the boxes and put on a Santa hat.
“What’s your endgame with the other Brew Pub? You do have one, right?”
Hardison leaned back in his chair. “Give ‘em just enough rope to hang themselves with.”
“You’re going to hang them on Christmas?”
A couple years ago he’d have thought she was being literal, but now he could see the playfulness around the edges of her smile. “No one’s killing anyone,” he said anyway. He shrugged. “I just want them to know we know, you know?”
Parker got back to hanging Christmas items on every available surface and soon enough Hardison was more absorbed in the digital world than the real one.
An hour or so later, Eliot stalked into the room. “Please tell me we got a real job, and not more of this War of the Roses restaurant crap.” He stopped and blinked at the ornaments, lights, wreathes, tinsel, and tiny figurines scattered around the room. After a moment, he shrugged, taking the explosion of Christmas decorations in stride. Then again, the man had seen actual explosions in actual warzones, so maybe that wasn’t too surprising.
Hardison might have been annoyed at his dig at their latest Brew Pub related plans, except he’d seen Eliot practicing new songs between the lunch and dinner rush when the kitchen was slow. And even when his fingers were taped and bandaged from a fight, he never missed a Thursday night. Hardison might have felt just a teensy bit bad about that, except that when Eliot was strumming at the guitar, he looked happy. Peaceful and relaxed in a way they didn’t often get to see him.
There was also the memory of Eliot’s husky voice singing Ride a cowboy. Hardison had needed to stay in the back room and take ten after that one, and was barely able to look him in his stubbly face when they’d said goodbye at the end of the night. He could only figure Eliot had been playing it up for the ladies; he’d seen several of them slip him their phone numbers at the end of the night. Not that Hardison was bothered about that. Just because Eliot had pledged to always be there for him and Parker in a team-like, platonic way, didn’t mean he couldn’t go out and keep doing his thing. Hardison could respect that, even if he wished the man would look a little closer to home. There were two people there waiting for him if he ever decided he wanted it.
Eliot took his usual seat the table. This close, Hardison could see that his hair was still slightly damp and curling under his beanie. Probably just came from a workout, or beating up some poor, defenseless punching bag. It brought to mind the way Parker had looked the other night in their bed, her hair damp for an entirely different reason. Which led to thinking how Eliot would look in their bed, him and Parker both pressed against either side of him, mouths and fingers—
“Yo, Hardison, care to share with class, or you too busy thinking about elves or whatever.”
“I dressed up like an elf in bed last Christmas.” Parker, bless her, seemed to be on the same highly inappropriate wavelength he was surfing.
Hardison almost grabbed his own crotch to make sure the coincidence was actually a coincidence, and that he wasn’t inadvertently giving himself away, but stopped himself at the last minute. Parker had an uncanny knack for reading him, and they’d already had The Talk– the one where they both admitted they wanted Eliot in their life as more than a friend.
There was no doubt that the man would lay down his life for them (which, no way, not on Hardison’s watch—not ever) but the question still remained if he wanted to take off his clothes off for them.
The point was that it was hardly a surprise that Parker was in tune with his mood. No need to make a bad situation worse, was what his Nana liked to say. He suppressed a full body shudder. This was really not the time to be thinking about his Nana.
Luckily, that horrifying thought was brought to a halt because Parker was still going “…and then Hardison used the candy cane to—”
“Whoa!” Eliot slapped a hand over his own eyes.
Hardison nudged him in the shoulder. “Last I checked, that doesn’t block sound.”
Eliot still had a hand over his face. “Shut up, I don’t care. You ain’t supposed to do that with food, man.”
Hardison suppressed a wave of disappointment. Because if he needed a gigantic waving flag that proclaimed Eliot was not interested, here it was, in all its glory.
Parker abandoned her Christmas boxes to sling an arm over Eliot’s shoulder. “I could tell you about that other time, instead. Hardison dressed up like Iron Man and I was Captain Ameri—”
“Okay!” Hardison clapped once and pointed to the monitors. It was time to get this train wreck back on track before he did something embarrassing.
In a few short moments, he’d outlined the next phase of his plan for dealing with their rival gastro pub.
“It’s perfect,” he concluded.
Eliot ran both hands through his hair. “It’s stupid.”
“Hey, just ‘cause you didn’t think of it doesn’t mean you got to get all grumpy about it.”
Eliot gave him a Look. It was the kind of look that sent hardened criminals either running, wetting themselves, or reaching for the biggest gun they could find. Hardison rolled his eyes and sent a grin towards Parker. It was cute that Eliot still thought his angry face had any impact on them.
“Come on, Eliot. This is a team effort, here. Be a team player.”
“I’m already doing my part. I don’t see either of you singing every week.”
Parker’s hand shot up. “I can—”
“No!” Eliot and Hardison both interrupted.
Parker was scary good at a lot of stuff but her singing could be classified as some kind of Geneva Convention violation.
Parker pouted, but didn’t otherwise argue.
“It’s a great plan,” Hardison reiterated. “If they copy us on this one, that’s like, blatant.”
“What do you think Eliot wants for Christmas this year?” Parker asked.
Hardison bit his lip as Parker adjusted herself where she was straddled across his hips, wearing nothing but the Santa hat she’d sported all day. Her breasts bounced as she moved but Hardison didn’t try and touch. He’d learned early on that Parker liked to set the pace, and well, Hardison would be lying if he said that he didn’t love to watch her work.
A win-win for all parties involved.
She pinched at her own nipple, rolling it between her fingers and letting her head fall back. “We could get him sex,” she continued.
Most people might think this was a strange conversation to be having at a time like this. But Hardison, luckily, wasn’t most people. He rolled his hips as Parker lowered herself down on him again. “I don’t think Eliot needs our help with that, baby.”
“I know that. Eliot’s good at getting his own sex.” She paused, wetting her lips with her tongue. “I meant sex with us.”
Parker clenched around him and Hardison nearly saw stars. Followed shortly by the image of him and Parker clad in nothing but a large red bow, sitting under the Christmas tree and waiting for Eliot. It was a sad, sad statement on his life that it kinda turned him on even more.
“We should probably stick to kitchenware,” he managed to get out between short gasps of breath. “Maybe a car.”
The words were lost on Parker, her eyes clenched shut as she rode out her second orgasm of the night. Her hair hung in damp strands that framed her face, flushed with pleasure and happiness. It was easily the most gorgeous thing he’d seen all day. Maybe all year.
Scratch that. Definitely all year.
Then her eyes snapped open and she gave him a lopsided, sated grin. “No, that’s boring.”
Hardison stood corrected about her attention span. Damn his girl could multitask. “I don’t think he’s interested, babe.”
She pursed her lips in the way she did when she was considering a new piece of information. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Before he could come up with so much as a ‘huh,’ or wonder what she was seeing that he wasn’t, Parker grabbed his wrist from her waist and guided it between her legs. She started moving again and Hardison lost the ability to think entirely.
Afterwards, when they were both exhausted and loose-limbed in bed, Parker wrapped herself around him like she was his own personal blanket and whispered, “Merry Christmas,” into his ear.
“It’s barely December,” he whispered back. Then he reconsidered. “But alright, close enough. Merry Christmas.”
She sighed happily against his back and they both fell asleep. In his dreams, Parker danced through a laser grid made up of Christmas trees.
Eliot’s Christmas gift remained an unsolved question, but Hardison set it aside for the more immediate matter of their rival restaurant. Today was the first day of the next step in his grand plan. And it was grand, no matter what Eliot had to say about it.
“Alright y’all, this is how it’s gonna work.” Hardison gestured towards the group of people who’d showed up for the Brew Pub’s first tabletop gaming afternoon. “Everyone pick a table and have a seat, we’ll be switching the games out games every forty-five minutes or so. You can order drinks at the bar.”
All in all there were around fifteen people, men and women ranging from a small huddle of teenagers to a pair of women who looked to be in their sixties, and everything in between. He also recognized a couple of regulars. Not a bad showing. To be honest, he hadn’t been all that sure that anyone would show up at all when he set up the event. Tabletop games and brew pubs didn’t exactly go together, but Hardison figured there were enough people out there looking to get their nerd on that it was worth trying.
There was nothing like the satisfaction of being right.
The main room had been reshuffled so that the large circular tables were all out in the middle. Each table had a different game and if everything went to plan, everyone would have a chance to play a bunch of different games before the evening was over. He’d picked a wide section of easy games for this first meeting, new games and old games. If it went well, he’d think about breaking out the big strategy games later.
“It’s looking good, boss.” Amy Palavi appeared from the cold storage room, wiping her hands on her apron. The kitchen was short staffed today and Amy had jumped in to pick up the slack without complaint.
Hardison made a note to give her something nice for Christmas. Did she need a new car?
“You ever play?” Hardison asked.
“Once or twice. I’m a bit busy these days.”
“Go on, take a load off. Have some fun.”
Amy looked skeptical, and Hardison shook his head at her. “The place isn’t gonna fall down around our ears if you sit down for a couple hours.”
Amy’s face lit up and it took Hardison a moment to realize she wasn’t grinning at him. Turning around, he saw Parker come in from the back rooms and make her way over.
The women hugged. “Amy! I thought you were off today.” Parker’s ponytail whipped at her face as she looked around the main dining room. “Did something happen? I still have my crutches somewhere if you need me to hit anyone. I also have my taser!”
Amy laughed, and Hardison wondered if she realized Parker was dead serious.
“No, just the usual. My father keeps wanting to know when I’m planning to get on with my life and go to medical school. Or worse, the family business. To be honest, I’d rather be here than back there right now.”
Parker’s face scrunched up in sympathy. “Come on, let’s go play some games. That’s what Hardison tells me, it makes things better.”
She steered Amy in the direction of the game laden tables.
Hardison watched them go. It was nice to know the Brew Pub was in good hands when a job took them out of town. It might be high time to be thinking about making her a more permanent offer with the team. He made a note to bring it up to Parker.
But for now, it was showtime. Soon enough, the Brew Pub was filled with the low buzz of people chatting, cards being shuffled, and the occasional whoop of enthusiasm.
After kicking some zombie ass (more like tossing his fellow players into the hungry maw of the awaiting zombie hoard, but who’s counting) Hardison made his way over to the table where it looked like Parker and Eliot were…arguing over playing cards?
Eliot’s hand was halfway to a stack of cards when they were pulled out from under him with a triumphant shout.
“The Dinosaurs are mine!”
“Dammit Parker, no. I let you have the Ninjas. There’s no way I’m giving you the Dinosaur cards too!”
“Well how am I supposed to have Ninja Dinosaurs without the Dinosaurs.”
“For the last time, it’s not Ninja Dinosaurs, it’s Ninjas and Dinosaurs. There’s no such thing as a Ninja Dinosaur.” Eliot crossed his arms. Clearly, he knew better than to try to take the dinosaur cards back. Parker was scary quick, and nothing short of a full brawl was gonna get him that deck back.
Parker knew it too and she grinned in victory, clutching the stolen cards to her chest like the rarest of diamonds.
Eliot growled out a terse, “Whatever,” and studied the five remaining piles of cards. “Be prepared to get your ass beat by my Pirates and,” he picked a pile from the table, “...and Zombies!”
Parker’s eyes widened, “Ohhh, Zombie Pirates. But they still won’t be match for a Ninja Dinosaur.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, there’s no such thing as a—”
“Hardison!” Parker finally seemed to notice his presence. “Tell Eliot that Ninja Dinosaurs exist.”
Hardison took that as an invitation to join in. “Ah hell yeah, I love this game.” Taking a seat, he immediately scooped up two piles of cards and shuffled them together with the all the flair of a Las Vegas card dealer. He was style was a capital ‘S’, baby. “Wizard Aliens are in the house, my people. Prepare to be dominated!”
Eliot snickered. “The only thing that’s going to be dominated here is your overinflated ego.”
“Aw, ain’t that sweet. By the time I’m done with you, your Zombie Pirates are gonna be Zombie Cry-rates.” Hardison leaned back in his seat and laced his hands behind his head. Damn, he needed a cigarette after that burn.
“That doesn’t—that doesn’t even make any sense!”
Parker shuffled her decks, too. “It means that your guys are going to be crying when they lose. Get it? Pirate. Cry-rate.” Her ensuing laugher was more of a series of snorts than anything resembling laughter.
“I know what it means, Parker. I’m just saying it’s stupid.”
Hardison waggled a finger at him. “Won’t be so stupid when I kick your ass all over this here game.”
Eliot muttered something about breaking that stupid finger, but Hardison only laughed. The idea that Eliot would ever physically hurt either of them was about as laughable as Hardison willingly hanging up his keyboard to start doing everything on paper.
They finished setting up the cards, and soon they were engrossed in the game.
“You know, Eliot,” Hardison said, laying down another card to attack the Tar Pits with his Enchantress. “For a guy that fights all time, you kind of suck at this game.”
Eliot studied his cards like he was planning a real life battle. The crease between his eyebrows smoothed out and he let out a laugh, the kind that usually sent low level goons running if they knew what was good for them. Hell, sometimes it sent the high-level goons running, too. The smugness practically radiated off him as he laid his card on the table.
Hardison sputtered as he read the text. “’Oh come on, that ain’t fair! You can’t do that!”
Eliot gave him a wide eyed, innocent look that wasn’t fooling no one, and took Hardison’s best damn card off the table. “I’m sorry what? Who here’s not good at this game, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of you crying.”
Beside him, Parker cackled with delight. “Oooh, who’s a Cry-rate now.”
Hardison put a hand to his chest. “Betrayal! In my own home!” Next to him, Eliot snickered into his hand and that was the last straw. Hardison turned to him. ”Oh no, hell no. You are going down, you hear me! All the way down!”
Eliot stretched languidly in his chair. “Never had any complaints before.”
Hardison’s retort got stuck in his throat at the sudden image of Eliot crouched on his hands and kness, sweeping aside his hair to bury his mouth between Parker’s legs, struggling to keep his rhythm as Hardison stroked him until he begged.
He was saved by Parker playing her card and winning the game, and he could’ve kissed her right there and then, except she was only one half of the persons currently at this table that he wanted to kiss.
The next Sunday, Betsy and Judy, the older couple Hardison had seen on the first day, were back. This time, he made sure to get in a game with them. To his delight, they turned out to be longtime gamers. And computer programmers, to boot.
“Since the 70’s,” Judy whispered to him, when he and Parker sat down at their table for a round of two-on-two Mastermind. He hadn’t originally planned to go quite so retro with some of the games, but Parker’s eyes had lit up when she saw the name, and Hardison couldn’t resist anything that made her smile like that.
(The newly bought game had spent its first evening abandoned on the floor in their living room when Parker had taken her shirt off and Hardison had pulled her down onto the bed with him, but well, that was a whole other story.)
“I feel like I should warn you ladies,” Hardison laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. “That I am a code-breaking expert. And my girl here is an actual real-life mastermind!”
Parker’s over exaggerated wink made the jingle bells on her headband rattle.
Betsy laughed and elbowed her partner, whose eyes danced with amusement. “Judy and I met programming mainframes together. You kids don’t stand a chance.”
Hardison rubbed his hands together. “Now you’re talking my language! Pascal or FORTRAN?”
Judy twirled the brightly colored beads of her glasses chain. “Oh, a little of this, little of that.”
The game was on.
Later that day, after all the patrons had gone home, Parker sat at the barstool in the main room and dipped her sleigh bell headband over her face so it covered her eyes. Hardison took the seat next to her as Eliot poured three of their winter ales from the tap and took the third stool for himself.
The warmth of Eliot’s laughter curled around the three of them. “I can’t believe you two were hustled in Mastermind by a pair of little old ladies.”
“I ain’t ashamed,” Hardison responded. “Those women were fierce!” For his ego’s sake, he was happy that if they were gonna get trounced, at least it was from a pair of worthy adversaries.
Parker pouted and pointed a finger at Eliot. “We needed our hitter.”
Hardison wasn’t sure but he thought he saw Eliot fighting a smile.
“Think we should ask them to join the team? Maybe rotate them in as back-up Masterminds,” Hardison teased, nudging at Parker.
“I don’t think they have time to be on the team.” Parker replied, not taking the bait. “They play poker on Thursdays, and Mah Jongg all day Saturday, and also co-run the youth county programming league.”
“Guess your job’s still safe, then.”
Parker swatted his arm. “Or I could give them some orange soda and they can be the next Hardison.”
“Hey now, that’s—”
Parker cut him off with a kiss. Her eyes were dancing as they pulled away. “On second thought,” she said, “I bet they don’t kiss as good as you. You can stay.”
Hardison kissed her on the nose. “Nice to be appreciated.”
Then Parker leaned across Hardison and kissed Eliot on the cheek. “You can stay, too.”
For a long moment, Eliot was perfectly still, a strange, almost pained expression on his face that Hardison couldn’t read.
And that there was all sorts of not-right, because he thought he’d seen all of Eliot’s reaction faces by now. There was his personal favorite, the Dammit Hardison scowl. Which was different from his regular irritated scowl, and a pale shadow of the Death Glare he sported whenever he put himself between the two of them and danger, guarding them with an intensity that Hardison should have found frightening but didn’t.
And there was the silly goofy grin he got when he learned a new skill or a new useful piece of information, the one that softened his eyes and lit up the room like a beacon. Hardison would be lying if he said that wasn’t half the reason he was constantly banging his head against a wall trying to teach him computer things.
There were more, but the point was that Hardison didn’t know this one. It was a bit like his I-got-stabbed-and-I’m-not-gonna-say-anything face but with a touch of Death Glare thrown in.
(Later, he’d look back on this moment and wonder how he missed the big picture so spectacularly. But for now, he just shook his head and laughed.)
Three days before Christmas, a package came in the mail with a return address of the Portland Gastro Pub.
Eliot insisted on checking it for explosive residue before letting Hardison open it, grumbling all the way about how, “I’m already playing guitar once a week, and I’m showing up to your little game afternoons. Whatever’s in here, you gotta let this Pub thing go.”
“First of all, as a small business owner, I take my imaginativity very seriously. This is my intellectual property and my space to create. Second…” Hardison trailed off as he worked the package open.
Inside was a colorful box. A board game. And a note.
Hardison read it, his smile getting wider and wider until he punched the air and did a little dance. “The sweet, sweet smell of surrender,” he said, to no one in particular.
Eliot raised an eyebrow. “This mean no more guitar playing on Thursdays anymore?”
Hardison was about to tell him that yeah, that’s exactly what it meant. Vindication had been had and he was free to have his nights back to do whatever it was he did alone in the evenings. But there was a glint in Eliot’s eye that told Hardison that might not be the right move.
There was something about the way Eliot relaxed when he was up there with that guitar. Not that he ever truly let go like a normal person. He was always checking for stances and haircuts and hidden weapons, and whatever else went on in that very attractive head of his. But when he was playing, it was like some of the weight he carried was lifted off his shoulders. And hell if Hardison was gonna be the one to take that away from him.
So he put on his most nonchalant face and shrugged. “It seems pretty popular. Would be a shame to stop, but if you don’t want to anymore, it’s cool.”
Something lightened in Eliot’s expression and Hardison mentally patted himself on the back for a job well done. He might not be a world class grifter, but if there was one thing he was, it was a people person. And he took care of his people.
Christmas Day rolled around, and Eliot turned up on their front door early in the morning with enough grocery bags to feed an army.
“I’m surprised you didn’t bring the pots and pans, too.” Hardison joked, letting him in. “And the kitchen sink.”
“Do you ever even use your own kitchen, man?” Eliot asked, shaking his head. His arms bulged as he set all of bags down on the countertop.
Hardison was confused, right up until Eliot swung open one of the pristine cabinets to reveal several racks of shining kitchenware.
“We own these?” he asked, peering down into the cabinet to get a closer look. There were pots of all shapes and sizes, and while Hardison didn’t know a lot about cooking, he did own a Brew Pub and he knew quality when he saw it. These were top of the line.
Eliot huffed out an amused breath. “It was either buy a second set or keep lugging mine over here. How did you never notice? Do you even use this kitchen? What’s the point of having a pro kitchen if no one uses it.”
“Hey man, I’ll have you know I use the microwave all the time.”
“I know you know that doesn’t count, so I’m not even gonna say it.”
With that, Eliot pulled out an apron from the bag, tied it around his waist, and got to work.
Hardison was content to hover around the edges and watch him do his thing. If anyone had asked him years ago if it was possible to make cooking look like a fight between the cook and the ingredients, he’d have laughed in their face. But watching Eliot cook was kind of like watching a brawl. No surprise that Eliot always turned out the winner.
Finally, the roast was in the oven and Eliot wiped his hands on a dishrag and started tidying up the counter space. Once he was done he reached behind him to take off the apron and Hardison nearly choked on his tongue when he caught his first sight of it, unobstructed by dishrags and bowls and hands holding knives for the first time since Eliot had donned it.
Eliot tracked his line of sight, his hands falling to his sides. There was something in his expression, something that up until the other day, Hardison would have said he didn’t recognize.
It was a touch of the Death Glare.
Slowly, Eliot took a cautious step forward, like he expected Hardison might bolt if he moved too fast. Like he was nervous. And wasn’t that a kicker. This was a guy who took down dudes twice his size with nothing but his bare hands and a smile, who ran towards the thugs with guns instead of away from them, who was one of the most badass people Hardison had ever met in his life. And he was nervous. Of Hardison. Like Hardison, unlike everyone else who wanted a piece of Eliot Spencer, could succeed where they failed, and actually hurt him.
Hardison suddenly wanted to smack himself, because for a genius, he was a damn idiot. It was staring him in the face – literally in Eliot’s face—the whole freaking time. Because the Death Glare wasn’t just about beating people up when he or Parker was directly in danger. It wasn’t just about blind rage. It wasn’t just protection. It was love.
The little hints Parker had dropped all came together. She had seen this coming, of course she had. She’d just been waiting for them to catch up.
One more step and Eliot was right in front of him, his chin slightly upturned to look Hardison in the face. “Well?”
Throwing caution out the window (Hardison never liked windows anyway) he fisted his hand in Eliot’s ridiculous “Kiss the Cook” apron and kissed him.
And what did you know, the cook kissed back. And groaned into his mouth and pulled him close and Hardison was tempted to pinch himself to make sure this was actually happening.
“About time!” Parker piped up behind them.
Hardison startled. Eliot didn’t, of course he didn’t. The world could be ending in a hoard of brain-eating zombies and the man wouldn’t miss a beat.
“Hey girl,” Hardison beamed at her. “You know, there’s room for one more, here.” Then he froze, eyes flicking to Eliot. Because they hadn’t actually talked about anything, he’d just assumed, and what if—
“What the hell are you wearin’?”
Okay…that wasn’t what Hardison was expecting, but when he turned and caught sight of Parker, Eliot’s question made a lot more sense.
She was decked out in a green and gold velvet dress with reindeer patterned stockings but that wasn’t what Eliot was referring to. Nah, that was probably the hat. Or well, hat-like object might have been a better term. It must’ve been new because Hardison thought he’d seen all her Christmas gear and he didn’t remember this one. It was shaped like an elf’s pointy hat, except that the very tip had a thin metal rod protruding outwards to dangle a sprig of mistletoe slightly in front of her face above her head.
“It’s mistletoe. For Christmas.” Parker flicked at it, sending the sprig spinning in circles above her head. Her eyes went cross-eyed as she watched it move.
Eliot’s horrified glare melted into a tentative smile as she came closer to where Eliot still had his arm around Hardison’s waist.
“Yeah, Eliot. For Christmas. You do know how this stuff works, right?” To demonstrate, Hardison ducked under Parker’s mistletoe hat and gave her a kiss.
It was a good kiss, a nice kiss, though somewhat overshadowed by the way Hardison’s heart was busy spazzing out like a subwoofer on steroids. They broke apart, looking over at Eliot to gauge his reaction. Hardison barely had a moment to hope that they weren’t reading this very, very wrong before Eliot stepped forward, cupped his palm around Parker’s face, and swooped in to kiss her with a fierce kind of desperation. If Hardison had any doubts that Eliot wanted this as much as they did, that swept them straight away.
He was still lost in thought when they both shot out an arm at the same time, pulling him into their embrace. He let out a manly yelp as he lost his balance, but they didn’t let him fall.
They’d have to talk about this eventually, he knew. Make sure they were all on the same page, and all that other relationship stuff. But for right now, his bigger priority was Eliot naked in their bed. And for all their bickering over the years, the hungry look in Eliot’s eyes said that they were on the exact same page.
On the way to the bedroom, Eliot jerked to a halt. “Wait.”
“What?” Parker froze in place, the wild look in her eyes saying she was just as nervous as Hardison suddenly felt.
“The roast, we gotta remember to take the roast out or it’s going to be dry.”
Relief surged in Hardison’s chest, coming out as a half-hysterical laugh. This was about dinner? New rule: Eliot was never allowed to make fun of Hardison’s priorities again. Never ever. “Hold up, so you’re okay with…” he pointed between himself and Parker and Eliot, just to make sure he hadn’t missed the memo or whatnot.
Eliot brushed his thumb over Hardison’s knuckles where they were still holding hands. “Oh yeah, we’re good.”
“How long does the roast take,” Parker asked, slipping naturally into her role as mastermind and coordinator as they started moving again.
“Six hours, give or take.”
“Six—six hours?!” Hardison looked at them both. “What the hell do you think we’re gonna be doing for six—”
His protest was cut short as Parker and Eliot both dragged him to the bedroom. Not that he was complaining, or anything.
The roast made it out of the oven on time, but it was a close thing.