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Leaders and Followers

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“Where’s he going, Hardison?” Eliot asked over the comms as he stopped running after the mark’s limo, which was peeling out of the parking lot at high speed.

“Glad I had y’all install a tracker in the car. He’s disabled the onboard GPS,” Hardison said from Lucille after a flurry of typing sounds.

“Yeah, that’s great,” Eliot said sarcastically as he turned and started jogging to join Hardison in the van. “Where’s he going?”

“Shoot, hold your horses,” Hardison griped. “He’s taking a left on Archer.”

Eliot yanked open the van’s doors and climbed in. Parker wasn’t there yet, but a quick glance out the windshield showed her coming at a dead sprint towards the edge of the roof.

Eliot couldn’t help but hold his breath until he saw her harness catching her and lowering her steadily to the ground five stories below. Through the comms he heard a rush of air whistling past, and her tiny grunt as she landed on her feet. A moment later she’d disconnected herself from the ropes and was darting towards them, and Eliot started the van.

“Still got ‘im?” he asked Hardison.

“Comin’ in strong. He’s headed towards Old Town,” Hardison confirmed.

“Parker, you know the area?” Eliot asked. They were in an unfamiliar city, but Parker had said she’d done some thievery here on the side a few years ago.

Parker slid into the passenger seat and they took off with Hardison still sitting in the back on his computers.

“Old Town,” Parker said, and she wasn’t even the slightest bit out of breath. She hummed in thought. “There’s some theatres and community centers in that area. And lots of old rich people houses.”

“Old Town, old money,” Hardison observed. “He’s not turning in to any neighborhoods. Left here,” he instructed, and Eliot took a left. “Oh. Wait… yeah, he just turned in somewhere… Kellan Community Center Southwest. Now what are you doing there, Mr. Petrick…?”

Hardison started to laugh.

“What?” Eliot demanded.

“You’re gonna need to take us to a thrift store first,” Hardison said through his laugh.

Eliot obligingly slowed the van at an intersection. “Why?”

“‘Kellan Community Center Southwest presents its 8th annual ballroom dance competition’,” Hardison read.

“What?” Parker asked, turning around in her seat.

“No,” Eliot said, shaking his head.

“It’s the only thing going on today, it’s gotta be that,” Hardison confirmed.

“I’m not going to a thrift store to get dance costumes,” Eliot shouted.

“It is the only way in,” Hardison yelled back, punctuating each syllable with a tap on the desktop.

They both turned to Parker to decide.

She pursed her lips and her eyes darted about in thought.

“Might be fun,” she said, and then a grin broke out on her face.

“No!” Eliot shouted, and pounded the steering wheel.

“There’s a thrift store half a mile away. Take a right up here,” Hardison said, and Eliot couldn’t see his face but he heard a smile in Hardison’s voice.

He growled but obligingly turned where indicated.

 


 

“That’s good, that’s real good,” Hardison was saying on the other side of the changing room curtain.

Eliot scowled at himself in the mirror as he tugged at the hem of the shirt he’d just tried on.

“I like your sparkles,” Parker said, presumably to Hardison, and Eliot made a face. Hardison in sparkles… he hoped they didn’t want him in sparkles, too, because that just wouldn’t happen. Eliot Spencer was a flannel, leather, and denim kind of guy. He could be persuaded to wear linen and sometimes suede, but anything more luxurious than that was right out.

He eyed the tuxedo pants he’d pulled on. They were an inch too long and didn’t work with his boots whatsoever, but they’d have to do. He fiddled one more time with the hem of the deep red shirt and opened the curtain.

Hardison, as expected, was wearing sparkles. Sparkly shoes, that is. They looked like they had once been Oxfords and at some point had been dropped in a vat of silver glitter glue. Eliot was so busy staring at the shoes he didn’t even notice that Hardison was wearing a full tuxedo with a bright teal shirt until several seconds later.

“You like?” Hardison asked, pointing a toe in Eliot’s direction with a cocky tilt of his hips.

“No,” Eliot said, finally tearing his eyes away from the shoes to look at the rest of him. “We want to look inconspicuous, Hardison, not blind everyone.”

Parker harrumphed and Eliot turned to study her, too. She was less ostentatious than Hardison, but still wore an asymmetrical teal and silver dress that dropped to her knee on one side and hitched all the way up almost to her hip on the other. How they’d gotten so coordinated so quickly, Eliot didn’t want to know.

“Inconspicuous, maybe,” Parker said, and then stepped close to tug at his sleeve. “But you don’t even look like a dancer.”

“I’m not a dancer,” Eliot replied, pulling his arm away.

“Nah, nah, she’s right,” Hardison said as he stepped up, rubbing his chin. “Your shoes are all wrong and your shirt needs to be tighter.”

“I’ll get him something better,” Parker said, and then she flitted away without waiting for an answer.

“Something nice and colorful. Get him some shoes, too,” Hardison called after her, then squinted at Eliot. “What are you, a 40 chest, 16 neck? Short?”

Eliot grumbled and didn’t answer, just plucked at his sleeve cuff.

Hardison cocked his head. “No. 42 chest, 17 neck, short,” he corrected himself. He looked down. “Size 11 shoe.”

“Say short one more time,” Eliot warned.

Hardison grinned. “Parker,” he called. “Shoes size 11. Shirt size 42 chest, 17 neck.” He locked eyes with Eliot and his gaze turned wicked. “Short.”

Eliot growled and grabbed at him.

 


 

"Blend in, y’all, you look like you got all done up to just come watch,” Hardison murmured in between asking various single women if they were in need of a dance partner.

Eliot scoffed and let his eyes sweep over the event hall one more time, his arms crossed over his chest. Parker had found him a teal shirt that was just a little too snug, and the silver metallic shoes she’d pushed at him were pinching at his heels. He felt like a fucking locator beacon. Hardison had ditched his tux jacket in the van and Parker had lifted a shiny silver hairpiece as they left the thrift store.

“I look ridiculous,” Eliot growled, catching his reflection in someone’s mirrored sunglasses. Parker had shoved all up behind him in the van and done a French braid down one side of his head before pulling the rest of the length into a little bun. She’d wrestled her own hair into a similar style in two minutes flat. She was at his side, stretching and also searching the room with her eyes.

“You look great,” Hardison assured him, though directing it towards a woman who looked upset. He looked away, towards Eliot. “Dance is about to start,” he said.

“First up is a tango,” Parker said, nodding to a sign showing the schedule of events.

Eliot blinked, and she grabbed his elbow and pulled him off into a corner. “Do you not know how to tango?”

“I was in the Army , Parker. They didn’t teach ballroom dance,” he hissed.

“Yeah, and I went to juvy and they didn’t teach it either,” she replied, looking like he was an idiot. “Fine, okay, I have five minutes to teach you everything you need to know about tango.”

“I have eyes on Petrick,” Hardison said, speaking low. “Just watching for now, but I’ll sit the first dance out to watch.”

Eliot made a face as Parker took hold of his wrist and put it around her waist. “Why can’t you dance and I’ll watch?” he whined.

“Shoot, I look like I know how to tango?” Hardison asked.

Eliot growled.

“Hush. Pay attention,” Parker ordered. “Now, the basic rhythm is slow, slow, fast, fast, slow,” she said as she wrapped her arm around him to press her hand into his back, pulling them close together. She tapped the rhythm against his back. “Feel it?”

“Think so,” Eliot said.

“Okay, here we go,” Parker said, and, looking around briefly to ensure they had room, took a step back, pulling Eliot with her.

“P-Parker!” Eliot said as he tripped forward. She hadn’t told him which foot to lead with, and only her quick reflexes kept him from stepping heavily on her foot.

“Keep up,” she hissed, taking another step. “First step with your left, then your right, then your left, then your right. It’s not hard.”

Eliot groaned and dropped his head to Parker’s shoulder.

“Good idea, just feel it,” she said approvingly. “You try to learn tango with your eyes and you just look awkward.”

Eliot groaned again. He was going to make an ass of himself, he just knew it.

 


 

Parker danced like a goddamn professional. She was lithe and sure-footed and Eliot could feel the music surging through her body as they went around the circle.

He was considerably clumsier and honestly he had no idea what he was doing, and he was supposed to be leading, but somehow Parker led him without making it look like he was following, and by the end of the dance he felt like he'd taken an entire six week tango class.

Hardison sat the tango out and kept up a steady stream of observations as he kept watch of the room, but Eliot tuned him out to focus on his feet. As the dance ended, though, he and Parker took a bow and she whispered, “you get upstairs, I'll get the basement.”

“Huh?” Eliot asked at a murmur, having completely lost track of the conversation.

“The ledger,” she hissed as the audience applauded the dancers.

“Petrick handed off the ledger to an accomplice. Didn't see where he went,” Hardison explained.

“What'd the guy look like? Any guards with him?” Eliot whispered as he and Parker started to leave the dance floor.

Hardison’s reply was drowned out by the rush of people crowding Eliot and Parker.

“You were amazing,” one woman gushed.

“How have I never heard of you before?” a man asked, and his partner tugged at his sleeve.

“Miss Benoit, do you dance anything other than the tango?” the man’s partner asked.

Parker blinked, then turned to Eliot.

“How do we get out of this?” she hissed in French.

“Don't worry, my dear, I've got it,” Eliot replied vaguely, also in French, just in case any of their spectators spoke the language.

“Ah, Mademoiselle Benoit,” he said in English in as good of a French accent as he could muster, “she is… tired and must rest.”

Their fans obligingly parted and let them slip away.

“Y'all got a problem,” Hardison said. “Parker’s too good of a dancer.”

“So much for blending in,” Eliot muttered as they parted to search the building.

“Seriously, mama, where'd you learn to dance like that? Goddamn,” Hardison asked. Eliot saw him across the room slipping through a far door to sweep the ground floor offices.

“Tara,” Parker explained shortly at a whisper.

“Eliot, we’re registered for waltz in half an hour,” Hardison murmured. “We can skip out if we find the ledger first, though.”

“Please, God, find the ledger quick,” Eliot muttered. “Why the two of us? Why not you an’ Parker?”

“Men's doubles classification,” Hardison explained. “It's a new category.”

“Great,” Eliot grunted. “Find the ledger.”

 


 

They didn’t find the ledger or Petrick in the short time before Hardison called Eliot back to the main hall. Eliot grumbled to himself the entire time he trudged back down the stairs, shoving past a number of people on the stairs and calling French-accented apologies over his shoulder.

“Why’d you hafta pick French names for me an’ Parker,” Eliot hissed as he joined Hardison in the same corner he’d prepared with Parker in earlier. “You couldn’t’ve done Russian?”

“Didn’t have a lot of time,” Hardison said with a shrug. “Y’all were the ones who decided to play it up with the accents and all.”

Eliot growled and shuffled his feet. He felt eyes on him and narrowly avoided looking around to see who was watching them.

“Alright, now, we’re waltzing,” Hardison said, pulling him close by his elbow. “You wanna lead or should I?”

Eliot grimaced. He didn’t know how to waltz so he was tempted to give the lead to Hardison, but his stubbornness and competitiveness kicked in and he also wanted to lead. Eliot Spencer did not dance follow. But maybe Rene Faure did.

Instead of picking, he just glared at Hardison, who studied him with a bored expression, then sighed and picked up Eliot’s left hand with his right. “You lead,” he said.

“Thought you didn’t know how to dance,” Eliot said as Hardison maneuvered them into the correct stance.

“I don’t tango,” Hardison corrected, looking down and nudging Eliot’s feet into the right places. “Waltz is a ¾ time, so it’ll be dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun,” he hummed, tapping Eliot’s hand with his thumb to the beat. “One-two-three, one-two-three.”

“I know what a waltz is, Hardison,” Eliot snapped quietly. “I do play the piano. I just don’t know how to dance waltz.”

“Well, you about to learn how,” Hardison said mildly.

They heard a scuffle through the comms followed by a grunt of exertion and an impact.

“Parker, what’s up?” Hardison hissed, all but stepping back from Eliot.

“Nothing. Keep going. I’m alright,” she answered, and her comm went silent. She'd turned it off. 

Eliot cursed and made for the door, but Hardison held him in place.

“If she needs us she’ll let us know. Bet she’s just tryin’ to shoulder open a door,” he guessed.

Eliot grumbled and grudgingly got back into the stance.

“Alright, chill,” Hardison said. “‘Kay, now you’re leading, so you’re gonna step forwards with your left,” he instructed. “Now, diagonal with your right this-a-way. This-a-way. There we go.”

 


 

Hardison wasn’t nearly as good of a dancer as Parker.

Most of his steps were technically correct, as far as Eliot knew, but he was clumsy and awkward about it. His hands were clammy and his shoulders tense, and Eliot wasn’t much better. He would have looked down at his feet the whole time if Hardison hadn’t squeezed his hand hard every time he started to.

Still, they managed to finish the long dance with only a few toes stepped on and a handful of fancy moves thrown in.

At the end of the dance, the emcee repeated the names of each pair of dancers, and when he called Rene Faure, of Nimes, France, and Cardel Marais of Pretoria, South Africa, they bowed, to a polite smattering of applause, unlike the cheers and roar of applause after Eliot and Parker had danced earlier.

The dancers started vacating the dance floor and Eliot and Hardison were congratulated politely by a couple of spectators, one of whom had been in the swarm around Eliot and Parker earlier. They thanked them in their respective fake accents and headed for the stairs down to the basement, but stopped short at the doors out of the main hall.

Parker stood leaning against the door jamb looking bored, playing with the end of her braid. When she saw Hardison and Eliot she shoved off the wall and came close.

“When we get home I’m teaching you how to waltz properly,” she told them.

“We gotta find Petrick and the ledger first,” Eliot pointed out.

“Petrick is tied up in the bathroom in the basement, and his guys are cuffed hand and foot in the broom closet,” she said, fishing a thin leather-bound book out of the front of her dress, and Eliot and Hardison averted their eyes until she shoved the book at Hardison. “They’re probably all awake by now.”

Eliot balked. “How in the hell--”

“Taser,” Parker interrupted, pulling what looked like a tube of lipstick out of her cleavage. She pulled off the top, revealing a tiny taser head. “It’s not as strong as my good one, but it’s cute and small and works well enough. I just had to tase each of them maybe four times to knock them out.”

Eliot grinned. He’d gotten the discreet taser for her for Christmas.

“How many?” Hardison asked, tucking the book into his pocket.

“Three bodyguards, plus Petrick. Only took a couple minutes.”

Eliot glanced back towards the dance floor and then narrowed his eyes at Parker. “How long ago did you get done?”

She shrugged. “I got back about a minute before you guys went on.”

Eliot bit back a curse. “You mean we could’ve left? Without havin’ to dance?”

Hardison made an indignant noise. “You mean you didn’t want to dance with me?”

“No, I didn’t,” Eliot said, and pushed past them.

They trailed after him.

“Hold up, you don’t want to stay for awards?” Hardison called.

“No,” Eliot growled.

At the door he brushed away polite inquiries by the receptionists of the competition and then turned, one hand on the door handle, to wait for Parker and Hardison.

“We’re staying,” Parker called across the lobby in French. “The ceremony is in an hour. Go get changed and get dinner and then come back and pick us up.”

Eliot grimaced. “Fine,” he replied in French. “But keep your earpieces turned on and keep checking on our friends downstairs.”

And with that he pushed out the door.

He took his time changing in the back of the van, combing the braid out of his hair with his fingers before pulling out of the parking lot in a random direction. He listened idly to Parker and Hardison chatting quietly while watching other dancers as he took a few random turns and finally picked a Chinese takeout restaurant.

As Eliot pulled out of that parking lot, the van starting to smell like lo mein and sweet and sour sauce, he heard him and Parker win first place for their tango, and he laughed as Parker chattered excitedly about nothing at all in French while accepting the trophy and cash prize. A few minutes later Eliot and Hardison were awarded fourth place of five pairs of dancers for men’s waltz, which came with no trophy, no ribbon, no cash prize, and Hardison muttered to himself as they left the main hall to wait outside for Eliot. Along the way, multiple people congratulated Parker, who pretended not to understand, and Eliot snickered.

They climbed into the van a few minutes later, Parker gripping their trophy tight with a huge grin on her face. She leaned over and kissed Eliot on the cheek happily, and he grimaced.

“Come on, is that necessary,” he griped.

“We won first prize, Rene!” she exclaimed.

“Are you going to talk in French all the way home?” Hardison asked from the backseat as he rummaged through the paper bag of food.

“Oui.”

“Wonder how long it’s gonna take your fanbase to figure out Elise Benoit and Rene Faure aren’t real people,” Hardison said with his mouth full of egg roll.

Eliot laughed. “Long enough.”