It was a fairly typical afternoon around Nate’s apartment. Parker and Hardison were sharing the couch – the hacker was absorbed in his laptop, and the thief was watching cartoons. Sophie on one of the bar stools, reading the latest Nora Roberts romance, was slightly out of the ordinary, only because Nate was downstairs in the pub, vetting a client. Also out of the ordinary was the fact that Eliot was sitting with him on this one. Parker remembered the talk about this client having approached Eliot first – something about her being married to somebody he’d known in his army days.
That fact seemed to make it okay to everyone that they were doing things a little differently. For Parker, it meant an opportunity to follow up on a plan she’d been nursing for a few weeks. Stretching her leg across the couch, she poked Hardison in the side with her toe. “Hey.”
The hacker glanced at her, giving her a quick, appreciative grin. “Hey yourself.” He started to turn his attention back to the computer, but Parker poked him again. “Something on your mind, mama?”
“You know everything about us, right?”
That got his attention. “I know a lot,” he said carefully. “I have to, in order to make IDs and keep the feds and other nasties off us. You wondering about anything in particular?”
They’d caught Sophie’s attention, but Parker figured letting the grifter know what she was thinking couldn’t hurt. “When’s Eliot’s birthday?”
“April 27th,” Hardison said automatically. “Why?”
Parker brightened. “That’s in a couple of weeks! That’s perfect!”
Sophie actually set her book down and slid off the stool – moving towards them. “Parker, are you thinking about having a birthday party for Eliot?”
“Isn’t that what friends do?” Parker asked, trying not to be annoyed at the way Hardison’s eyebrows were trying to crawl up into his hairline. She was just trying to be normal. If I’m not doing it right, the least he could do is say so.
Almost as if he’d heard her thoughts, Hardison said, “Parker, you know Eliot doesn’t like people making a fuss over him. I’m pretty sure he’s going to hate the idea of a birthday party.”
Relieved at that being his only concern, Parker waved it aside. “Sophie already told me that’s his defense mechanism, all the growling he does. A party would show him how much we appreciate him.”
She brightened when Sophie rested a hand on her shoulder. “It would indeed, Parker. I think it’s a brilliant idea. I even know a baker on the North Side that makes a wonderful chocolate cake.”
Parker shook her head. “Bought cakes are cop outs. If we want him to know how much we care about him, we have to make the cake. From scratch.” She didn’t have to look at Sophie to know that the grifter was as excited by the idea as she was – Parker could tell just by the way the grifter’s hand tightened on her shoulder.
Nate, predictably, was no help at all. “If it keeps her distracted until we get this job off the ground, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing.”
“Nate, she’s talking about an old-fashioned birthday party!” Sophie moaned. “Where she does everything, including bake the cake!”
“Good luck with that,” the mastermind countered. “You’re not using my kitchen.”
In the end they decided to use Sophie’s, since it was the largest of the three they would have access to. Hardison immediately volunteered to find Eliot’s present, but Parker put him on decorations. “Sophie’s the best at shopping,” she reminded him. “After she helps me learn how to make the cake, she’s going to figure out what Eliot would really like and where we can get it, and I’ll steal it.”
After such a touching vote of confidence from the thief, Sophie didn’t have the heart to tell her that she only really knew enough about cooking to realize that having take-out on speed dial was always going to be her best option. “And you’re not going to tell her otherwise,” she hissed at Hardison after the hacker set Parker to looking up cake recipes on the internet.
Hardison raised his hands in surrender. “No argument here, but don’t you think you should at least steer her in the direction of a box mix? I don’t think anybody but professionals like Eliot make things from scratch anymore.”
Sophie bowed her head and rubbed the spot between her eyebrows, trying to convince herself that she was not getting a stress headache, dammit! “That’s why she’s not going to go for the mix option,” she reminded the younger man. “She really believes I can teach her how to make a cake that will stand up to Eliot’s palette.”
“I’m not sure Carrie Biggers-Burnett can make a cake to stand up to Eliot’s palette!” All their fears and doubts aside, they really were stuck. Even though it was filtered through her own warped perception of the world, this was the first time Parker had emotionally invested in a normal activity for the benefit of somebody besides herself. The more of herself she poured into planning and preparation for the event, the more Sophie was determined that – if it couldn’t be the success Parker wanted it to be – that the cake at least not be the unmitigated disaster it seemed destined to be.
“It doesn’t look like the picture.”
It took most of the first week before Sophie felt comfortable enough to do a trial run of the recipe Parker had seized on, and…well…she couldn’t say the thief was wrong in her assessment. “Let’s try it anyway,” she suggested, trying to be upbeat. “A lot of things taste better than they look.”
It was her rotten luck that the cake turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. “Okay,” she assured her compatriots, “I think I know what I did wrong. Let’s clear this mess away, and you two go back to the store and restock.”
As they set to cleaning up, Sophie’s phone buzzed for her attention. It was a text from Nate: You need to get over here. He knows.
“Trouble?” Hardison asked, as she swore under her breath.
“What? No,” Sophie assured them. “Nate just needs to see me about something. I’ll be back by the time you two are back with supplies, and we’ll dive right into round two!” Locking eyes with Parker, Sophie tried to sound as encouraging as possible. “We’ll get this figured out, Parker. I promise.”
The thief seemed completely unruffled by the blooming chaos. “I know.”
“You could have put a stop to it, you know.” Eliot was gripping the back of a chair so tightly that the skin across his knuckles was dead white, but the alternative was pacing until Nate accused him of wearing a track in the floor.
Seated at his desk, the mastermind made an annoyingly non-committal sound. “I’ll tell you what I told Sophie – I don’t necessarily think this is the worst thing in the world. You know how antsy Parker gets at the beginning of a job, until I have something concrete for her to do. This keeps her distracted, and helps her learn how to interact with people in a more normal way.”
“Yes,” Eliot was forced to concede, “but you’re using my birthday to do it!”
Still unruffled, Nate shrugged. “That’s what I do – use each of you in the way that best benefits the job.”
The sound of the apartment door opening cut off what Eliot liked to convince himself would have been a blistering retort to Nate’s assessment of things. “You!” he snapped, rounding on Sophie. “I don’t care what kind of psychological healing you’re hoping Parker will get from this, but you people are not using my birthday to get it.”
The hitter had just enough time to register Sophie’s less-than-perfectly coiffed state, before he was pinned with a gaze so cold he visibly shivered under its weight. Oh, crap.
“You,” she growled, “have no idea what I’ve been through this week, Eliot. None. For some reason I cannot fathom this is important to Parker, so as the closest thing she has to family the least we can do is be supportive.” She took a step forward, and Eliot instinctively drew closer to Nate. “In your case, as someone who had a normal upbringing with parents and siblings and birthdays, that means you get to be the grown-up here. You will put a smile on your face. You will eat the damn cake and open the damn presents, or I will damn well know the reason why not!”
And just like that, she was gone, and a thick, heavy silence swelled to fill her place.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only little more than a minute, Nate said, “You didn’t really think I was going to protect you against her, did you?”
Ignoring the snark, Eliot rounded on his leader. “Nate, this is going to be worse than I thought. We’ve got to do something!”
Still clearly more amused than Eliot felt anyone should be, Nate finally said, “I suggest you figure out a way to steal your birthday back.”
Meet me at my apartment tonight. Midnight. Don’t tell anyone else that you’re coming.
Parker didn’t know what to think. What she did know was that after reading the text from Eliot, her stomach was twisted up in that funny way she’d learned to associate with bad things about to happen. She didn’t like associating that feeling with any member of the team. She was supposed to be safe with them – that was the deal.
But it was Eliot, and if he really was mad at her about the party he would just say so. He wouldn’t put all this mystery around it. She had to believe that, and so at midnight she appeared on his balcony and knocked on the sliding glass door.
His expression, when he pulled back the curtain and let her in, was calm. Not angry, which made her stomach feel better. “You know I have a front door, right?” he asked, stepping aside and gesturing her in.
She didn’t answer him, figuring it was one of those ‘rhetorical’ questions people occasionally asked. Eliot of all people had to know that coming in the front door every time wasn’t safe or smart. “You wanted to talk to me?”
He nodded, leading them both to his living room. He took the chair she knew was his favorite; Parker curled up on the sofa. “I did want to talk to you about the party,” he admitted. “I’m not mad, Parker. I promise. But I got to thinking, and there is something I would like you to give me as a present.”
Well, she hadn’t expected that, but Parker knew from her research that it was normal for people to ask for really important things that they wanted. And besides, she and Hardison and Sophie were still arguing about what to get him. “Okay, what?” she asked.
“Let me teach you how to make a cake. From scratch.”
It sounded strange at first, and Parker’s first instinct was to call Sophie, but then Eliot explained how sometimes a shared experience was as good as a thing when it came to presents. “And when I realized how important it was to you to be able to make my birthday cake, I figured that this would kill two birds with one stone.”
Parker had almost no formal schooling to her credit, and few enough people in her life that had ever cared to teach her anything beyond what she needed to survive as a thief. Sophie was trying to teach her how to live around regular people, but that was something everybody had decided she had to learn. Baking was something she had chosen for herself, and if someone as talented as Eliot was willing to be her teacher, she wasn’t going to say no.
“Baking from scratch isn’t hard,” Eliot told her, once she’d followed him into the kitchen. “The first thing to remember is to make sure your ingredients are as fresh as you can get them. Then you need a decent recipe.”
“I found one on the internet,” Parker told him, “but we couldn’t make it work.”
She could tell by Eliot’s expression that she’d made a mistake, but to her surprise and delight he actually explained why it was a mistake in a way that made sense to her. “Working with an internet recipe is like buying intel on a security system from somebody you don’t know. They might know what they’re talking about, but they could just as easily be selling you garbage.”
He set her to wash her hands, while he arranged ingredients on the counter. “I’ll let you take this recipe with you, so you can use it when you guys make the real thing.”
“So this isn’t going to be your birthday cake?” Parker asked, momentarily confused.
Eliot shrugged. “It can be. My birthday’s still almost a week away though – my suggestion would be to practice on this one we make tonight, and then make another one with Sophie and Hardison right before the party.”
It took two tries before he was happy with the cleanliness of her hands, but then they moved right into discussions of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ ingredients and why the two were blended differently. Eliot turned out to be a great teacher – more patient than she would have expected, and very good about explaining things in ways that she could follow. The cake itself was slow going, but by morning the two of them were seated at Eliot’s kitchen table, enjoying glasses of cold milk and slices of very good chocolate cake.
“Did you like your present?” Parker asked, finishing off her milk and reaching for the bottle to pour another glass.
Eliot was smiling. He had a nice smile – Parker wondered if she should tell him, but decided that it was probably one of those things you didn’t say to people. “Yes, Parker, I enjoyed it very much.”
“We’re still going to get you some things, though,” she added. “For your other presents. That’s okay, right?”
He laughed. “Yes Parker. That’s fine too.”