‘So I need you to look into someone for me,’ Eliot says, rolling onto his side and resting the hand holding his phone on Parker’s pillow. His conversation with Hardison, who’s down in Caracas, has cycled through work, Hardison’s thoughts on the risotto recipe Eliot sent him, Eliot’s theories about the season of Stargate Atlantis he and Parker are currently watching, how the three of them should spend date night this Friday, what Parker’s most likely to bring back from her solo trip to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and where exactly they’re going to put it.
From Eliot’s phone screen, Hardison makes a face at him. ‘Right now?’
‘Sooner rather than later,’ Eliot says. ‘It’s a U.S. Marshal. Maria Shipp.’
‘She up to something hinky?’ Hardison asks.
‘No. Well, maybe. It’s more to check she’s not up to anything hinky.’
Hardison sits up on his bed; Eliot finds himself staring at the ceiling of Hardison’s hotel room as Hardison grabs his laptop. ‘Potential client?’
‘So you want me to just check a random U.S. Marshal isn’t into any shady business and you want me to do this at—’ He pauses. ‘—One-thirty in the morning.’
Eliot snorts. ‘Like you were planning on sleeping anyway.’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Hardison reappears on the screen, having presumably propped the phone against his laptop. ‘Why can’t Breanna do this?’
It’s not like he’s expecting that answer not to invite further questions, but he still shifts uncomfortably when Hardison narrows his eyes. ‘Okay. How exactly did this Maria Shipp get on your radar, Eliot?’
‘We met on a job.’
‘And… now she’s texting me.’ He winces. ‘Kind of a lot.’
‘Ohhh.’ Hardison waggles his eyebrows.
‘She fell for the old Eliot Spencer charm, huh? Tell her we’ve all been there.’
‘It’s not like I do it on purpose,’ Eliot mutters.
‘Quit bragging,’ Hardison teases. His fingers tap over the keys and he asks absently, ‘Why don’t you just tell her you’re in a relationship?’
‘’Cause something she said made me think she might know who I am, and if she does, then I sure as hell don’t want her knowing who you and Parker are.’
‘What’d she say?’
‘She said, uh—’ His face grows hot; he knows it’s kinda dumb but if he didn’t err on the side of caution he’d have died about eighty times over by now. ‘She said that the way I disarmed her was distinctive.’
Hardison stops typing for a second to grin at him. ‘Think you may be overestimating your monopoly on that word.’ His expression softens, and he kisses the tips of his fingers and then touches them to the screen. ‘Go to sleep, babe. I’ll let you know if I find anything.’
There’s a part of Eliot that feels bad about not turning Marshal Shipp (‘Maria,’ she’d insisted) down outright, but not being willing to open Hardison or Parker up to scrutiny limits his options. Simply saying he’s not interested runs the risk of shutting down all conversation, which he doesn’t want, because he thinks they could probably use her.
He’d feel bad about that, too, but Eliot’s nothing if not practical. It makes him jittery as hell—he’s never been able to bump shoulders with law enforcement in quite the casual way that Nate could, but the fact is that having a handful of allies there has always been useful to them, and right now they’re lacking in numbers. And, barring Hardison digging up anything that suggests otherwise, he can see Maria lending them a hand when they need it.
The immediate problem is that she seems to mostly want to talk about work over coffee, or dinner, and he suspects that if she had her way they’d dispense pretty quickly with the work part.
So he walks this fine line, not giving her too much while avoiding distancing himself entirely. He’s honest with Parker and Hardison about his thinking and finds them equally resigned to the need for someone with a badge who they can rely on. Harry and Breanna, meanwhile, quickly become bored of making fun of him for it; Breanna just as quickly finds other things to make fun of him for.
Sophie, though. Sophie’s making it difficult.
In fairness, he should absolutely have told her the truth by now. He’s not sure why he hasn’t—paranoid habit, maybe, or the fact that he’s done it so infrequently that he’s not sure how to go about telling someone. And Sophie, as far as he knows, has only ever seen him pursue women, casually and one at a time, so that’s a whole other thing to navigate. Not that he thinks Sophie would have a problem with the three of them, but it feels like it’d be easier if she’d just pull a Breanna and trick him into telling her, or if Parker or Hardison would for once ignore Eliot’s rule and tell her themselves.
But also, he’s so sure that Sophie knows, on at least some level. Sophie, who’s the most astute person he’s ever met, who watched the three of them circle closer and closer to each other for five years, who looked him in the eye and made him promise to keep Parker and Hardison safe. She has to know.
Apparently she doesn’t, because any time she hears his phone ping she gets that sly look on her face.
‘Is that your Marshal?’ she asks, low and warm and teasing as Parker and Breanna debate the finer points of the job they’ve just taken on, and Eliot mutters, ‘She ain’t my anything,’ and shuts off his phone for the rest of the con.
‘She’s keen, isn’t she?’ she notes, with an arched eyebrow, as she and Eliot wait in line for coffee one morning, and Eliot answers with a terse, ‘Guess so,’ and stomps off to grab one of the ridiculous chocolate chip cookies for Parker to go with her equally ridiculous cream-and-sprinkles-topped frozen hot chocolate.
‘I hope you don’t let this slip past you, Eliot,’ she advises one evening, when his phone dings softly as he’s clearing up the kitchen after dinner. Sophie’s sitting at the breakfast bar, picking at leftovers and, he notes, not helping. He’s offered her dessert, and she’s said no, so he’s pretty sure she’s stuck around so she can corner him.
The text is actually from Hardison, though it’s about Maria. She played the trombone in her school marching band, he’s written. Do we trust this??
Eliot smiles and shuts off the screen, looking up at Sophie. ‘What’s that?’
‘This!’ She nods at the phone. ‘You’re clearly smitten, don’t pretend you’re not. Your face, it—it lit up just now.’
He sighs. ‘Don’t start this again, Soph. I told you it ain’t going anywhere.’
‘Yeah, and it’ll keep not going anywhere if you don’t do something about it.’
He pockets his phone and grabs a cloth to wipe down the countertop. ‘I’m saying I don’t wanna do anything about it.’
She bites her lip, looking briefly torn between the sensible decision to drop it and the less sensible but inevitable decision to push ahead. ‘I just—I think this could be really good for you, and if you’d just open yourself up to—’
‘I’m telling you, I ain’t interested,’ Eliot says, through gritted teeth.
‘Well, you need to give the poor woman a chance to—’
‘Knock it off!’ he snaps, and she falters, blinking. ‘Just—just stop it, all right?’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, recovering. ‘I don’t mean to push. It’s private, I understand that, but as your friend—’
‘No, you don’t understand!’ The damp cloth hits the counter with a slap. There’s blood rushing in Eliot’s ears; his heart’s pounding furiously. ‘It’s—this is nothing,’ he continues. ‘There ain’t anything happening between us; I don’t want anything to happen between us. And even if I did, you think I’d ever let a cop get that close to Parker or Hardison? Or—or any of you?’ He shakes his head. ‘Someone we’re—friendly with, someone we can call if we really need to’s one thing, but that? I’d never. I’d just—’ He breaks off, breathing hard, and jabs an emphatic finger at the countertop. ‘I’d never, Sophie.’
The silence that follows his words hangs heavy between them. For a second Sophie looks stricken. She sets her hands very carefully on the counter in front of her, palms flat, same way he’s seen people do—has done himself—to show they’re unarmed.
‘All right,’ she says softly. ‘So maybe Maria Shipp isn’t the right person for you. But—’
‘But what?’ he demands. ‘You gonna tell me I oughta get on one of them dating apps? “Swipe right if you wanna commit a felony together”? Why the hell you pushing this so hard, huh?’
She swallows, looking down at her hands, and even through his anger Eliot suddenly wishes he could wind the conversation back thirty seconds.
When Sophie speaks again, it’s with a barely-suppressed quaver in her voice. ‘It’s just,’ she says, ‘it’s so hard, with Nate gone, not to think of all the time we wasted. And I just—’ She breaks off and—oh, crap—dashes at her eyes.
All the fight goes out of Eliot at once; he’s closing the short distance between them to wrap his arms around her before he has a chance to think about it, and Sophie doesn’t cry, but she does squeeze him back, pressing her cheek into his chest with a long, shuddering sigh.
‘I’m sorry,’ she manages. ‘I just don’t want to see anyone I care about make the same mistake.’
For a moment, Eliot doesn’t answer, just holds her and breathes in, breathes out, until his heart rate slows. ’I know,’ he says. ‘I know. C’mere, Soph, it’s okay. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped.’
‘No.’ She shakes her head. ‘No, I shouldn’t have pushed you.’
‘Probably not,’ he agrees, rubbing her back in soothing circles, ‘but still.’
She sniffs hard and then pulls back to look at him askance. ‘How do you know about swiping right? Are you on a dating app?’
‘No,’ he says, grimacing. ‘That’s Breanna rubbing off on me.’
She doesn’t start up again but does narrow her eyes in mock suspicion.
‘Seriously. Memes. TikTok. The, uh, the little—gif things.’ He clears his throat. ‘’S’just like learning a new language.’
Sophie laughs, but she’s watching him expectantly, that keen-eyed look she gets when she’s trying to pin down exactly what’s going on inside someone’s head, and Eliot knows this is it.
He takes a deep breath.
‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I know what you said about your whole life changing when you met Nate. But mine did too, all right? I already got exactly what I need.’
‘It can’t all be about the job, Eliot,’ she says. ‘You need—’
‘No,’ he bites out, and then catches himself, squeezing his eyes shut, gentling his voice. ‘No, you’re—you’re not getting it.’
He’s trying to find the right words, now that he’s definitely about to tell her something he should have told her a long time ago. How dizzyingly, terrifyingly happy Parker and Hardison make him—have made him for years, now, since long before Sophie and Nate left, since long before the three of them bared hearts and bodies and souls to each other. How he no longer sleeps in fitful ninety-minute bursts but still finds himself jolting awake, sometimes, with horror at how easy it would be for someone to take it all away, at the number of people whose radars he’s on who might try. How he’ll protect what the three of them have with his whole life to keep from ever being the reason they get hurt. To keep from ever losing them.
And this, when it comes down to it, is why he hasn’t told her yet: she’s already lost her person. To give her even a glimpse of his own happiness when hers has been taken from her, his own fear when for her the worst has happened, seems cruel.
But he takes so long to speak again that he has time to watch Sophie’s expression shift, the furrow in her brow deepening and then smoothing out as her eyes search his face and then widen. She’s looking at him like she’s stepped right up to the line and is waiting for him to give her the final nudge across it.
All the words are sticking in his throat.
‘Sophie,’ he whispers.
And now her face goes soft, understanding dawning in her eyes. ‘Was that Hardison?’ she asks.
‘Who texted you?’ she prompts. She tilts her head, lips curving upward. ‘I mean, I know it can’t be Parker; she’s only upstairs.’
He laughs, a shaky exhale. ‘You’d be surprised,’ he says. ‘Just ’cause she’s got six ways to get from the top of a building to the bottom where most people only have one, don’t mean she can always be bothered to use any of ’em.’
Sophie nods, smiling. After a moment, she says, ‘I did know, you know.’
Her smug tone is exactly what he needs right now. He smiles back and says, ‘Bullshit.’
‘You were tryna set me up with someone else five minutes ago! If you were just playing at being clueless then take a bow, darlin’, ’cause that—that was the performance of a lifetime.’
‘No, I—all right, so I didn’t know,’ she admits, and then smacks him lightly in the shoulder. ‘Which might have something to do with the fact that you didn’t tell me, which I’m absolutely furious about.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘But I knew—’ She clasps her hands together, looking briefly upward. ‘—Oh, I don’t know. I could see how you all felt about each other, back then; I’d have to have been stupid not to.’ The smile she gives him is so fond—she’s so happy for all of them, but, Eliot realizes with a jolt, so happy for him, in particular. ‘But society’s ever so rigid about these things, isn’t it? I didn’t know if you’d figured it out, or if you’d do anything about it even if you did figure it out. I shouldn’t have doubted you.’
He ducks his head, bashful suddenly. ‘Well, I can’t really take the credit. They’re the ones who, uh—’ Showed him they wanted him. Gave him the best damn thing he’s ever had.
There aren’t words for it.
‘Don’t underestimate yourself,’ she says, and then swats his shoulder again, lips pursed. ‘Although, seriously? Furious. The three of you are in so much trouble.’
‘Don’t blame them,’ he says. ‘That part is all on me.’
‘Hm.’ She gives him an appraising look, and he knows this conversation isn’t over, that she’s going to want a full explanation for exactly why he felt it necessary to keep even her in the dark.
But that’s later. For now she gives his arm a squeeze and says, ‘Then if you’d like to make it up to me, I think I might want dessert after all.’