A few months ago, Amy had been honest-to-goodness kidnapped. She still remembered the bitter taste of adrenaline in her mouth when the men had grabbed her, the way her whole body hadn’t stopped shaking for hours afterwards.
It was ridiculous that she felt the same amount of anxiety now. She in the back hallway of the brewpub, on a normal day on a normal shift, and everything was fine. Except the phone in her hand felt like a bomb, and everything was as far away from fine as it could get.
She could hear the sounds of her part of the brewpub: clanging dishes from the kitchen, chef barking orders, Savannah and George discussing their latest TV show obsession.
Before she could chicken out, Amy opened Twitter.
The longer she scrolled, the more her fingers shook. Anger, mostly, but the fear was there too.
“Amy, do you know where we usually put the towels? Eliot wants a towel, and they’re all out in the kitchen. I swear, it’s easier to hack the Pentagon than find something in this place. Maybe I should tag everything with a—hey. Hey, are you all right?”
It was her boss, because of course Hardison would choose this time to pop out unexpectedly. Amy wiped her eyes and mustered up a smile. “Towels are in the storeroom closet, bottom shelf on the left.”
Hardison (he didn’t like them to call him “Mr. Hardison”) ignored her. His face was concerned. “Amy, what’s going on?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.” Hardison was her boss. You didn’t talk about personal problems with your boss.
Hardison held up his hands in surrender. “It’s cool, it’s cool. We’ve all snuck off to have a good cry in the hallway. It’s just, you know, if something’s really wrong, you can tell me.” When he smiled, it was a bit of that safety Amy always felt at work. Amy wasn’t really sure why, but she felt safer in the brewpub than anywhere else other than her apartment. That was why she’d waited to look at Twitter until she’d gotten here.
If it had been anyone else, Amy wouldn’t have told them. Because anyone else would have sympathized, but they wouldn’t have understood.
Hardison, though. Hardison would understand.
Wordlessly, she handed him her phone.
Hardison’s face went through all the emotions she had felt while looking at what people had posted. Shock, disgust, anger.
Stomping footsteps announced chef’s presence even before his grumbling reached them. Amy firmed up her game face. Crying in front of Hardison was one thing. Crying in front of Mr. Spencer was something else.
“Hardison, there you are. How long does it take to grab a freaking towel?” Mr. Spencer smacked Hardison on the shoulder, hard. “What are you doing playing on your…” he caught a glimpse over Hardison’s shoulder, “…phone. What the hell is this?”
He snatched Amy’s phone without even asking, but Amy wasn’t going to make Mr. Spencer ask for permission. That would mean she had to talk to Mr. Spencer, and that was something she actively avoided. Amy had always given him a wide berth because of his glares and shouting matches with Hardison, and right now, the man looked absolutely terrifying.
“Hardison,” he said, slow and deadly, a snake in the water. “Trace these accounts.”
Amy stepped back. He looked like he was ready to take a swing at Hardison’s face.
Hardison didn’t look concerned. “Working on it.”
“I’ll get Parker.”
“Wait, wait! Hang on!” Hardison grabbed Mr. Spencer’s sleeve and tugged him back. “Just give me a second.”
“We’re taking this job, right?”
“So we need Parker.”
Hardison’s grip tightened. “No, man.”
“Why the hell not?”
Amy wasn’t sure what they were talking about. She also wasn’t sure why the chef was acting like Hardison’s fingers on his shirt were enough to hold him in place.
Hardison’s voice was full of a private meaning. “I can take these guys down in an afternoon. I don’t want her to see that stuff. We’re not sure what she’s—”
“What don’t you want to show me?”
Parker’s voice came from right behind Amy’s ear. “Parker!” Amy had no idea how she had gotten there, or when.
“Hi, Amy,” Parker said brightly. She didn’t even look in Amy’s direction as she sauntered over to the two men. “What is Hardison worried about, Eliot?”
Once again, Amy’s phone was passed around. “This.”
Hardison let his hand drop with an unhappy groan.
Parker flicked through the posts, frowning. She looked up at the two men, a quick, assessing look, like she was trying to read the context in their faces. She looked back down at the phone.
“Why is there a little girl’s head on the body of a naked lady?” she asked.
“It’s photoshopped, babe,” Hardison said gently. “Like what I do.”
“No, I know that.” Parker kept scrolling. “They’re not as good at it as you are. But why did they photoshop pictures of that girl where she’s all chained up? Why are they telling her to go back to Africa?”
Parker considered the pictures again. Amy couldn’t bear her curious expression. These pictures weren’t some kind of interesting puzzle.
“It’s because she looks like me,” Amy said tersely. When Parker didn’t react, she said, “She’s not white, Parker.”
“Oh,” Parker said. Then, blankly, “Oh. I get it.”
“Parker…” Hardison reached towards her.
Parker whirled away from him and faced Amy. “Is that your little sister? Reema?”
“Tell us what happened, Amy.”
Amy tried to think of a way to shape the insanity of the past five days into a coherent narrative. “My mom wrote an op ed piece for the New York Times criticizing the immigration platforms of some powerful politicians. Ever since the piece was published, people have been harassing my whole family. They’ve found her twitter and mine, and all my sisters’ social media. It’s been terrible.”
Parker turned back to the other two men. “We’re taking this job, right?” she asked, just like Mr. Spencer had, and it didn’t make any more sense the second time.
“We both want to,” Hardison said.
“Good.” Parker was staring into Amy’s eyes, serious in a way Amy had never seen her, even when she had been saving her life. “Amy, we’re going to stop this.”
Amy’s anger had been close to the surface anyway, and her confusion sparked it into flame. “What are you guys talking about? You run a brewpub! Why are you acting like this is something you can fix?”
“Because we can,” Parker said, still very serious. Amy’s stupid heart gave a lurch of hope.
“You can’t,” she said, as much to herself as to Parker. “Online harassment is practically impossible to prosecute. The police said they won’t take action unless there’s an explicit, actionable threat.”
“Good thing we’re not the police,” Mr. Spencer drawled.
“Then what are you?”
The three of them exchanged looks.
“Back room,” Hardison said. “We’ve got some things to tell you.”
* * * *
So, apparently Amy’s boss was part of a criminal gang.
“Only we’re good criminals,” Parker kept stressing. “Crime-fighting criminals!”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Maybe not, but we’re really good at it.”
The three of them had an idea to stop these people. They wouldn’t tell Amy the details.
“Girl, you just relax,” Hardison said. “Go home. We’ve got you. You don’t have to do anything.”
“It’s my family. I want to help.”
It was Parker who came to her defense. “She could.”
The incredulous looks of the guys were honestly a little insulting. She’d been kidnapped once!
“Amy’s tough,” Parker said. “If we needed her, she could help.”
Amy hadn’t known that Parker thought of her as tough. She hadn’t known Parker thought about her at all when her life wasn’t in danger. It was nice.
Hardison said, “Hmm” in a vague sort of way. Mr. Spencer crossed his arms and glared.
* * * *
“I haven’t gotten any nasty messages for a whole day,” her mother told her that night. She sounded lighter than she had been since this started. “And all the pictures are gone from the internet. It’s like a miracle.”
Amy didn’t think she should mention that no, it was actually thieves. If anyone was the miracle, it was her mother, who had stayed cool and unflinching during this whole nightmare.
“Hey, mom?” Amy’s throat felt a little tight.
“I’m glad you wrote that article.”
Her mother got quiet. “Yes,” she said. “I’m glad too.”
“You’re not going to stop writing, are you?”
“No. I don’t think I am.”
* * * *
Amy couldn’t wait to tell the others what her mother had reported. She had no idea how they had managed it, but every time she thought about it, Amy felt like crying all over again.
In the past, when the back room was closed, Amy joined the rest of the staff in staying far away. But this time, she knew what they were doing in that back room. Well, sort of. She knew the three of them were making plans.
Amy shook herself and went back to wiping down tables. She wasn’t in a crime noir film, and there was no need to be so dramatic.
Still, Amy had started her shift at eight o’clock and it was almost three. She hadn’t seen anyone come out of the room that entire time. If she lingered by the door, she could hear their muffled voices: Parker’s sharp, Hardison’s soothing, Mr. Spencer’s growly.
Parker and her team couldn’t help anyone else if they starved to death. That was Amy’s mental excuse for putting together a tray of sandwiches and three bowls of clam chowder. It was totally that she didn’t want them to die, she told herself as she knocked on the door. It had nothing to do with wanting to know their plans.
Their criminal plans.
Hardison stuck his head out of the door. His shirt was rumpled and he had grey circles under his eyes. “We’re a little busy. Wait, is that food? Amy, I love you. I love you. In here, right now.”
Amy let him draw her into the room, because it had been her objective all along.
Devastation greeted her.
Someone had created a model floorplan out of soda bottles and shoes and plastic cutlery that took up most of the floor space. There were two laptops on the floor and three on the armchair. Markers, pens, and pencils were strewn all over the sofa. Four whiteboards covered in neat writing were crammed against the walls.
Parker was hanging from the ceiling in what appeared to be climbing gear. She was shouting down to Mr. Spencer, who was writing on the last empty whiteboard.
“Nine seventeen, the mark leaves his office. Nine eighteen, secretary opens Tumblr. Nine nineteen, Parker.”
“Parker what?” Spencer asked, marker poised.
Parker flipped to give him an upside smile. “You know what.”
Amy was a little distracted by the general chaos, but she could have sworn the man smiled back.
Probably just a trick of the light.
“Food!” Parker shouted happily, waving to Amy. She unclipped her gear to fall from the ceiling and land in a crouch on floor.
“Careful!” Amy blurted out, just as Mr. Spencer said, “Parker, be careful.”
Parker laughed. Amy looked at her to avoid a moment of meaningful eye contact with Mr. Spencer at Parker’s expense. Sisters before misters, after all—especially when the mister was scary.
“This was nice of you,” Parker said, making her way over to Amy and snagging a sandwich. “You’re always bringing me food.”
“Well, you’re always saving me. I figured it was fair. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“We save lots of people,” Parker said. She was peeling apart her sandwich and handing Hardison all her lettuce. “It’s not like you’re special.”
Hardison put Parker’s lettuce on his own sandwich. He gave Amy a pained smile. “What she means is that it wasn’t an inconvenience. Seriously, it took six hours and Eliot got to use his FBI badge.”
Amy nodded slowly, trying not to feel upset.
After Parker had saved her, Amy had assumed they were friends. But the girl-time Amy had been hoping for had never materialized. She and Parker had been trading hellos in the hallway for a few months without much else. s
Amy liked Parker, was the thing. She could be bossy and sort of weird, but Amy liked her brand of weird. She didn’t have many girl friends in Portland, except for Savanah (and, to be honest, George sort of counted as one of the girls). She missed her sisters.
Parker thought Amy was tough, though. That had to count for something.
Mr. Spencer joined them around the sandwich tray. He tossed a white bottle to Parker, who made a face and tossed it back.
“I told you, Eliot, I don’t do drugs.”
“For the last time, it’s a vitamin.”
“It looks nasty. I’m not swallowing it.”
“You literally—” he gave up and addressed Hardison instead. “She literally hangs from buildings for a living. She needs calcium.”
Hardison made a big show of stuffing his sandwich in mouth and miming his inability to speak.
“Drugs,” Parker muttered darkly.
“It’s not drugs!”
Amy barely managed to hold back her smile. Parker and Spencer looked so offended, their arms crossed in identical gestures of stubbornness. This kind of arguing didn’t make her nervous. There was no heat to Spencer’s words, no bite in Parker’s. They argued like Amy and her second youngest sister, like a game of chicken. They pushed each other right up to the edge in an effort not to be the one who backed down. Amy and Sarah never pushed each other over that edge, and she didn’t think Parker and Spencer would either.
“Can you tell me what you’re doing?” she asked, before they were tempted to test her theory. “Is this for another job?”
Hardison swallowed noisily. “We’re running the Big Mac Bite.”
Spencer rolled his eyes. “It’s the Saint Louis Shuffle.”
“I invented it! I can call it whatever I want.”
“It sounds stupid.”
Parker reassembled her sandwich. “The Princess and the Frog.”
“Huh. Actually,” Hardison said, “that’s not bad.”
Amy was wishing she hadn’t asked. “Should I know what you’re talking about?”
They all looked at her, coordinated in a way that was slightly unnerving.
“Nope,” Parker said, satisfied.
* * * *
The next afternoon, during the lunch rush, Parker sprinted into the brewpub and dragged Amy to sit at a table by the window.
“Quick, pretend like we’re friends,” Parker said breathlessly.
Parker laughed, high and fake. Two women were peering in through the brewpub windows. Not their normal clientele. These women were wearing pearls and heels with their pantsuits.
“Barbra, you are so funny!” Parker slapped Amy on the arm, hard.
Amy laughed along, covering a wince. “Yes, that is always what they say at the—the—”
She tried to finish, but she was distracted by the stack of hundred dollar bills Parker had taken out of her purse. Parker didn’t normally have a purse. But she also didn’t normally wear pearls and heels, like she was currently doing, so.
“Don’t worry about lunch, it’s on me.” Parker was practically shouting.
Amy was honestly afraid to look at so much money. She had a sneaking suspicion that she was going to break it somehow.
“Ha ha.” Amy’s smile probably looked a little sick.
“So, have you been to our spinning class recently?” Parker asked, beaming. “I love the gym. All those sweaty people sharing bacteria.”
“They’re leaving,” Amy said, watching the two women scurry away, talking frantically. When they were out of sight, she smacked Parker’s arm back in retaliation. “A little warning the next time?”
Parker leaned back in her chair, satisfied. “Oh, don’t be a baby. You did fine.”
Amy couldn’t help the swell of satisfaction at that. “Yeah? Well, that’s good.”
“I said you could do it. You handled the news about Leverage pretty well. That must have been pretty strange, finding out your boss was such a good thief.”
Amy wasn’t absolutely sure, but she thought Parker might be trying to engage in small talk with her. She seized it eagerly.
“Honestly, it makes more sense than some of the staff theories about you three.”
Parker looked delighted. “There are theories? What kind of theories?”
All kinds. Earl, the college kid who washed dishes during late shift, was the hypothetical bookie for the brewpub staff. He had hypothetical wagers on most of the dynamics between their boss, his girlfriend, and his chef.
The bets were all hypothetical because Hardison always seemed to have distressingly accurate information about his staff. No one wanted to be the person who put actual money down on the odds of him dating Spencer behind Parker’s back.
Parker didn’t need to know that part.
“The best odds right now are on Mr. Spencer being part of an underground fight club. George and Savannah are going to be so disappointed.”
“Mr. Spencer,” Parker repeated. “You know you can just call him Eliot.”
Amy huffed out a laugh. “I don’t think I can, actually.”
“Because he’s scary.”
Amy wasn’t surprised Parker couldn’t see it. It wasn’t that Spencer acted differently around Hardison and Parker—he snapped at them much more than he snapped at any of the staff. It simply didn’t seem to register with either of them that he could be a threat.
But then, Parker surprised her. “We know.”
“You do?” Amy asked, confused.
“Sure. He knows too, and he doesn’t always like it. That’s why we act like he isn’t.”
“That seems a little backwards,” Amy said slowly.
Parker shrugged. “It’s us. We make it work. So that’s why you should call him Eliot.” Parker stood up. “Thanks for your help. I’ll see you around.”
Amy had been enjoying this conversation. Parker had told her something important, and she wanted to return the favor. She said in a rush, “It doesn’t have to be just pretend.”
“You and I. We could be friends for real,” Amy said. “Not just when you’re conning someone.”
Parker blinked at her. Her smile, when she finally smiled, was huge. “Cool.”
Amy felt happiness unfurl inside her. “Cool.”
* * * *
A few days later, Amy stopped by the grocery store to pick up some food and litter for her cat, Van Eyck. A cheerful package in the health aisle caught her eye and, impulsively, she threw it in her cart.
She brought it in to work with her the next day and waited until she saw Mr. Spencer—Eliot—emerge from the back room and head into the kitchen.
Amy was familiar with people seeing her as something she didn’t want to be. That was why she left her father’s business behind in New York and moved to Portland, just her and her sketchbook. Here, no one called her Ms. Palavi or Amy-the-daughter-of. She was just Amy.
She could give that same courtesy to someone else.
Before she could lose her nerve, Amy walked into the kitchen. She went up to where he was stirring a pot on the stove and set the package on the counter next to him.
“Chocolate calcium chews?” he asked.
“I saw them in the store.”
He looked at her with a different sort of appraisal, like he was seeing her properly for the first time. She steadied herself and appraised him right back.
She hadn’t ever noticed the laughter lines around his eyes.
He nodded and released her from his stare. “Alright. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Eliot.”
* * * *
It was a slow Thursday afternoon at work. There were no customers, and Savanah was on a supplies run. Bored, Amy poked her head into the kitchen to see if anyone was in there.
Eliot was methodically slicing an eggplant into perfect, tissue-thin rounds. Hardison stood next to him, leaning with his elbow against the wall. He was angled in towards Eliot, and Eliot was angled in towards him. They were the beginning of a perfect triangle, missing one piece.
They looked different than they normally did. It made Amy hesitate in the doorway, silent, trying to place it.
Hardison said something that made Eliot reply, “Only if you like stirring up hornets’ nests.”
“C’mon, where’s your sense of adventure?”
“No, see, that phrase doesn’t work on me. I’m still picking tar out of my hair from the last time you used that phrase.”
“I said I was sorry about that. Did you use the conditioner I bought you? I thought you liked that stuff.”
“That,” Eliot said, “is not the point.”
Hardison’s smile was extraordinarily fond. “Uh huh.”
Eliot sliced another perfect slice of eggplant. “If you want to keep buying it, I won’t stop you.”
“I still think you have terrible ideas.” Eliot’s words were defensive, but his tone wasn’t. It was as warm as Hardison’s smile, and Amy realized that was the difference. They were always performing for whatever audience happened to be around—usually the brewpub staff. Amy hadn’t realized how much their bickering was sharpened by that audience. Without anyone watching they were gentler, affection bleeding through every word.
Amy thought she should probably leave.
She did, slipping back without attracting attention. She and her sisters had spent a lot of time eavesdropping, but she still felt a little guilty.
The bell above the brewpub door jingled as Parker walked in, her arms full of shopping bags.
“You look like you had a fun morning,” Amy said, her guilt forgotten. “I love shopping.”
“I hate it,” Parker said cheerfully. “But fake CEO Parker likes it, so I went. I’m practicing my character’s voice.” She dropped her bags on the bar. “Look at all my stuff!”
Delighting over someone’s purchases was second only to shopping itself. Amy dove in. She held up a teal statue of a squirrel. “This is amazing. Really weird, but somehow also amazing.”
Further sorting revealed another squirrel. And then another. And another.
“Parker, did you only buy squirrel statues?”
Parker’s laughter was all over her face. “Our marks are only tracking credit card statements. They can’t see what I actually bought.”
“Shoes!” Amy almost wailed. “You could have bought so many shoes! Next time I’m coming with you.”
“Next time,” Parker agreed.
The kitchen door opened, and Eliot and Hardison came out together.
“Have fun?” Eliot asked. He took in the squirrel army with resignation.
Hardison wandered over and picked one up, examining it. “I can’t believe you spent your own money on this stuff.”
“I did no such thing. CEO Parker buys things with her boyfriend’s credit card.” Parker flicked a plastic card at Eliot. “Sorry.”
He pocketed it. “As long as those things don’t end up in my apartment.”
“Who cares? You stay here most of the time anyway.” Parker was straightening her statues into a neat line.
“What? I don’t—not—not most of the time.”
In that moment, it suddenly wasn’t difficult to think of him as casual-first-name Eliot. He looked like a normal guy, embarrassed and flustered at being called out.
Hardison, merciless, said, “You totally do. It’s all good.”
Parker didn’t look up from her squirrels. “The extra room isn’t so lonely.”
“Plus, random yakuza can’t kill us in our sleep. Important.”
Eliot looked so uncomfortable that Amy took pity and threw him a lifeline. “Hey, I bet you could keep the statues in the brewpub. They’re sort of hipster, don’t you think?”
Eliot ran with it gratefully. “I think they’re stupid and Hardison likes them, so they probably are.”
“Excuse you, what I have going on is urban nerd chic. You see me running around with a bushy beard and plaid flannel like I’m some kind of white boy Kerouac wanna-be? I don’t think so.”
Amy had always assumed her boss was dramatic just because he enjoyed it. But Eliot was clearly relaxing the longer Hardison ranted, and clearly Amy had been missing a piece of it.
She’d been missing a lot of pieces. These three had strange, sharp edges that snagged on everyone except each other. And for some reason, they were letting her see that.
* * * *
About a week later, Parker said, “Amy, don’t leave after your shift. I need your help.”
Help meant that Amy was in Parker’s bedroom, sitting on Parker’s bed, vetoing outfits.
“You said you’re supposed to be making everyone fall in love with you. That does not say romance. It says I’m going to climb a tree after talking to you.”
“That would be more interesting than these conversations are going to be,” Parker grumbled. She disappeared back into the closet, though. When she shouted, her voice was muffled. “Can I at least wear black?”
“Black makes you look like a thief.”
“I am a thief!”
“Pink! Or blue!”
Parker’s growl was very Eliot-like.
While Amy waited, she looked around Parker’s room. It was obvious that this wasn’t Hardison’s room as well. That was surprising, actually. Amy had assumed...well. It wasn’t really any of her business.
The room was meticulously neat, everything in straight lines and aligned at right angles. The bed had been perfectly smooth until Amy had ruined its crisp edges. Nothing on the walls, nothing on the dresser, nothing on the bed except a toy rabbit. The only thing to hint that Parker actually used this room was the massive walk-in closet.
Also, on the bedside table was the open box of chocolate calcium chews. There were definitely less in the box than when she’d bought it.
“Is this your bunny?” Amy called, picking up the stuffed rabbit.
Parker was magically back in the room, a dress on but still unzipped in the back. “Yes, that’s mine. Why? What’s the problem?”
“No problem. He’s just really cute, that’s all.” Daringly, Amy waved the rabbit’s paw.
“It’s mine,” Parker repeated.
Amy set the rabbit down, but she refused to be afraid of Parker’s frown. Parker had invited her upstairs into her bedroom, which meant Parker was taking her offer of friendship seriously. “I have my old stuffed elephant in my room. My sister Sarah said I should give it to Reema, but just can’t. I’ve had him ever since I was a kid. My other sister Nadeen still has hers! Besides, Reema has a princess Elsa doll that she carries everywhere.”
“Frozen is about sisters and it’s awesome,” Amy said. “Also, that dress is a no-go. Your character is supposed to be innocent, right? That dress is really not.”
Parker looked down at all the rhinestones. “Good point.” She headed back into the closet. “You can touch Bunny if you want to.”
“I wouldn’t want my elephant to get jealous.”
Parker raised her voice to be heard. “You really miss your sisters.”
“They’re family. But also more than that, you know? They’re my best friends.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Yeah? What’s your family like?”
A risky question, but Parker answered without hesitation. “Oh, they’re like me.” She came back into the room for inspection.
“Perfect,” Amy said. The dress was a dusty rose that flowed gently and softened even Parker’s exasperated expression.
“Oh, thank goodness.”
There was a knock on the door and Parker said, “Come in, Hardison!”
“How do you always—nevermind. Can you help me with this tie?”
When he stepped into the room, Amy did a double-take.
Hardison was wearing a lovely tuxedo that Amy was pretty sure cost more than she made in three months. It looked like something her father would wear, except that Hardison looked nothing like her father. Hardison looked good. Really, really good. His open collar and unknotted tie just added to the picture.
Parker would probably snap her femur if she even thought about caring, so Amy very explicitly did not care. But she couldn’t help noticing. “Looking sharp, boss.”
Hardison spread his arms with a flourish. “I’m like James Bond, if he was a black man with the cyber kung fu of Q. Parker, you look like a pink cupcake.”
Parker was standing still, staring very intently at Hardison.
“Parker?” Hardison said, a little more hesitantly. “Cupcakes are delicious and my favorite cake item, you know that.”
“I know.” Parker hadn’t taken her eyes off Hardison, and there was a bit of a flush in her cheeks.
Amy couldn’t blame her.
Hardison was starting to look smug. “Keep it up and I’m going to start to feel objectified. Can you tie this for me now?”
“I can’t tie bowties.”
“I can,” Amy offered.
“Eliot can,” Parker said, like Amy hadn’t spoken. “Have you seen Eliot? We should go see Eliot.”
“Parker.” The teasing faded from Hardison’s face. “Do you know why you want to?”
“No,” Parker said, frustrated. “Just come with me.” She grabbed Hardison’s wrist and pulled him out of the room after her.
“Okay, babe. Okay.”
Amy considered being offended—she was quite good at bowties, thank you very much. But really, there was no point. Amy knew she was a guest here, a permanent outsider.
She followed them out of the room, because what else was she supposed to do?
Eliot wasn’t dressed up. He was sitting on the sofa, reading. He looked up when they all walked down the stairs and, just like Parker, he went very still.
Hardison was chattering, seemingly oblivious. “Eliot, man, I cannot get this damn tie to do anything other than strangle me, and Parker’s no help at all.”
Parker was still holding one of Hardison’s wrists. “Why would I learn to do that? Sophie always did it for me.”
“I swear I can tie it around the bedpost just fine, but when it gets on my neck it’s like the thing is possessed or something. Can you help a brother out?”
That last part was addressed to Eliot. He put down his book and stood. “You can grift the secretary of state but you can’t tie a bowtie?”
“I can’t help that my skillsets are deep but narrow.”
Eliot stepped into their space. “Sure. You keep trying to play it that way.”
“That’s the way you want me to play it,” Hardison said.
Eliot didn’t answer. He just slipped the top two buttons of Hardison’s shirt back into place.
Amy had the same feeling as before, that she should probably leave. But there was nowhere to escape to without drawing attention and completely shattering the moment. She was trapped on the staircase, watching the three of them draw close together.
Eliot looped the tie around Hardison’s neck, reaching up to do it. He took his time smoothing it underneath the collar and tying it into a perfect bow. It had never taken Amy that long to tie her dad’s bowties, but Amy had never lingered.
Eliot was clearly lingering. It was making Parker smile.
When he was done, he didn’t move away from them. “Be smart tonight. I can get to you in four minutes, but it would blow my cover.”
“We’ll be fine,” Parker said. She patted Eliot on the shoulder with the hand that wasn’t holding Hardison.
“She’s right. We’ve got this.”
“You and your terrible ideas.”
Parker tipped her head at Hardison while still looking at Eliot. “Sometimes my terrible ideas are good, though. Right?”
Eliot reached out to straighten Hardison’s bowtie, even though it was already perfectly straight. “Sometimes.”
“Thanks,” Hardison said.
“You’re welcome,” Parker said.
* * * *
Amy wasn’t really supposed to go into the back room without an invitation. She never had before, but it was morning and her boss was nowhere to be found. The three of them would sometimes disappear for a few days, but it was concerning now that Amy knew they’d been pulling a con last night.
Amy knocked lightly on the door. To her intense relief, Hardison opened it, looking exhausted. He’d changed out of his tuxedo and was wearing a soft t-shirt and jeans.
“I was worried,” Amy began.
Hardison shushed her immediately, finger on his lips. He opened the door a little wider so she could see in.
In the bright morning light, she could see Eliot and Parker slumped on opposite sides of the couch. Parker was curled up and Eliot was sprawled out, and they were both unquestionably asleep.
“Oh,” Amy whispered. She hadn’t really thought of either of them as people who slept.
“I’ve been trying to make that happen for hours,” he said, his voice low and warm. “We had a late night.”
“Did everything go okay?”
“I think so. We’ll need a few more hours to be sure.”
Parker stirred in her sleep and Eliot shifted in response.
Hardison lowered his voice even more. “I swear, these two are allergic to sleep. It took me the first hour of the Pride and Prejudice mini-series to get them to close their eyes.”
“It’s a good thing they have you,” Amy said.
She felt sorry for Eliot and Parker that they couldn’t see Hardison’s smile. It was the kind to hold inside as a defense against bad days.
“It’s good they have you too,” Hardison said generously.
“That’s not the same.”
“Nah, but it’s still important. This might come as a shock, but Parker’s not exactly overflowing with friends.”
“And the entire staff thinks Eliot might snap their necks if they mispronounce the names of the cheeses.”
“Really? So we’ve moved on from the underground fight club theory?”
“I don’t think Savanah and George are ever going to let that one go.”
Parker muttered unhappily and reached out her arm until it bumped Eliot’s thigh. She settled again. Eliot curved his body towards her, unconsciously protective.
Hardison watched them like he never wanted to look at anyone else.
Because it was Hardison, Amy said, “I didn’t realize how close you three are.”
His smile turned wry. “Pretty sure I’m the only one who does.”
Amy thought about Parker dragging Hardison downstairs and Eliot’s lingering fingers on his tie. “I wouldn’t bet on that.”
* * * *
Amy’s apartment was kind of crummy. It had two rooms if she didn’t count the bedroom, which she didn’t because it was the size of the shower stall. The plaster was cracked in the corner of the ceiling and occasionally the whole thing smelled like cat, because Van Eyck was not fastidious.
But it was hers, bought and paid for with her own money, not her father’s. It was a magical, depressing, shitty, amazing place. It was a sanctuary—full of the prints of paintings she loved and the occasional sketch of her own that Savanah coaxed her into framing.
She had always felt safe there, and so when she stepped out of the bathroom, freshly showered and wrapped in a towel, she simply wasn’t expecting the other person in her living room.
Her brain, caught somewhere between a word and a scream, helpfully provided her with: “Ugh!”
“Hi,” said Parker. She was bouncing on her toes, dressed all in tight-fitting black.
“Parker!” Amy collapsed against the bathroom door, clutching her hands to her chest like some kind of Victorian heroine. “Oh my god.”
Parker held still for a second. “I startled you,” she said, like she was testing a hypothesis.
“Yes, Parker!” Amy took a deep breath. And then another. Her heart slowed to what felt like a manageable pace. “How did you even get in—no. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know. Why are you here?”
“I’m taking you on a trip!” Parker said loudly. She looked full of some kind of manic enthusiasm. “Where do you want to go? Panama? Let’s do Panama.”
“No, you’re right. Too close. Australia. That’s on the opposite side of the world.” Parker started poking around Amy’s bookshelf, flipping through her collection of Harry Potter books. “You have a passport, right? Where’s your stash of emergency cash?”
Amy hadn’t seen Parker in two weeks. Eliot had drastically cut down on his shifts and Hardison communicated mostly via text.
Parker did not look happy. She looked wild. Untethered.
“You don’t want to come? Fine then. I’ll go by myself.”
“Parker.” Amy made her voice as firm as she could while wearing a damp towel. “What is going on?”
Parker wrapped her fingers tightly around The Prisoner of Azkaban. “Nothing. I mean, why does something have to be going on? Sometimes friends just want to leave the country, Amy.”
There might have been a time when Amy would have believed that explanation. But she had spent enough time with Parker now to read the sharp light in her eyes as fear.
Amy took a step closer to her. She made her voice soft, the voice she used to coax Van Eyck out for strangers. “How about this. I’ll go change into some clothes and you promise to still be here when I get out. Then maybe we can talk.”
Parker deflated. She nodded.
“Okay,” Amy said. She retreated into her bedroom and closed the door. “Okay,” she said again to her print of The Great Wave.
She changed into some sweatpants and a t-shirt, took another deep breath, and opened the door.
She honestly wasn’t expecting Parker to still be there, but she was. She was standing right where Amy had left her, still holding that book.
Amy tried smiling at her. “Harry Potter fan?”
“I’ve only seen the movies.”
“I guess you are dating Hardison.”
“He made us do a marathon. He whined the whole time about the books and Eliot said—” Parker cut herself off. She dropped the book in her hands like it was hot. “Anyway.”
Amy felt foreboding swoop in her stomach. “Parker, is everything alright?”
“Yes,” Parker said, her voice going loud again. “Eliot is in the hospital, but he’s fine. I can’t get Sophie on the phone because she’s on some stupid cruise, so I’m going to Australia. It’s fine.”
“Wait,” Amy said, her heart starting to pound again. “Eliot’s in the hospital? Is he going to be okay?”
“Yes.” Parker’s glare was something scary. “He got out of surgery and they said he was. They said he would make a full recovery.”
“When did he get out of surgery?” Amy asked, piecing it all together.
“Twenty-seven minutes ago.”
“And you just left?”
“I had to.” Parker sounded strangled. Her eyes were wide. “I have to.”
“Do you think it was your fault?” Amy asked. She could test hypotheses too.
“No.” The answer was steady enough that Amy believed her. “Someone shot him. They paid for it.”
Amy had absolutely no doubt about that. She decided she didn’t want to know why that particular thought made Parker’s lips curl.
“Then I don’t understand. Why do you have to leave?”
“I just do.”
Parker prowled around Amy’s small apartment like it was too small to contain her. Amy had an image of her apartment windows shattering, blown out by Parker’s frantic energy.
Parker wasn’t going to talk until she was ready. In the meantime, Amy didn’t want her to leave and hop a plane to another continent.
“I was going to have a snack. Do you want some Fruit Loops?” Amy asked, moving towards her kitchen.
Parker trailed her, restless. “How do you know I like Fruit Loops?”
Amy pulled out two bowls and the cereal. “Well, we are friends.”
No milk in Parker’s bowl. She handed it to her, and Parker took it, frowning. “You said that before.”
“Guess I must mean it.”
Parker’s lips twitched into a reluctant smile. “I guess so.”
It was nice to see a mostly-normal expression on Parker’s face. Amy leaned against her counter and took a bite of cereal. She knew better than to try to get Parker to sit in this mood. Awkward leaning was probably the most she was going to get.
Parker crunched her cereal and Amy crunched hers. Van Eyck poked his head around the doorway and studied them before delicately crossing the room to nibble at his cat food.
“That’s the scrawniest cat I’ve ever seen,” Parker said. Then, after a pause, “Eliot would say it needs stronger bones. He would probably find cat vitamins for it.”
“Eliot is nice, once you get to know him.” Amy tried to keep her tone light, so Parker would keep talking.
Parker glared down at Van Eyck. “Hardison almost died once,” she said, practically spitting out the words. “Before we started dating. He almost died, and it was terrible. It was the most terrible thing to ever happen to me. It hurt, inside.”
Amy nodded, keeping her expression even. The thought hurt her too.
“That’s how I feel right now. Eliot almost dying hurts as much as Hardison almost dying. I didn’t expect it to, and I had to leave.”
“So you came here.”
Parker nodded once, a clumsy jerk of her head.
Amy felt affection rise up inside her. Parker sounded so lost. And instead of running away, she’d come to Amy.
“Parker,” she said gently. “It hurts because you love them. Both of them.”
“Is that…a bad thing?”
“I’m not very good at loving people.”
“From what I’ve seen, you’re doing okay.”
“I left them. In the hospital.”
“You can always go back.”
Parker made an angry slash with her spoon. “Sure, like it’s that easy.”
“You told me the three of you make it work,” Amy reminded. “So yeah, maybe it really is that easy.”
Parker stared at Amy for a long time. Amy raised her eyebrows.
“Okay.” Parker thrust her bowl at Amy.
Amy took it in her free hand. “Good luck.”
“I don’t believe in luck.” Parker squared her shoulders. “For the record, Amy, you’re a good friend.”
Then she was gone. Amy didn’t even hear the door open.
* * * *
“Sit him down here.”
“No, Parker. Hardison, don’t. That counter is supposed to be sterile for the—dammit!”
“Man, you need to sit down before you fall down. And I’m warning you now, if you fall down I can’t catch you, because your ass is heavy.”
“Someone needs to clean this counter before we make food on it. Amy!”
“Eliot, your arm is in a sling. You can’t make food like that. Here, let me help.”
“Parker, what are you—put down that knife!”
Amy and the rest of the staff stayed out of the kitchen all day, no matter what they heard. Sometimes discretion was the better part of valor.
* * * *
For the next several weeks, Eliot tyrannized the kitchen from the stool Hardison had brought him. George and Savanah went wild trying to decide what had happened, and Amy still joined in, because knowing the truth didn’t make the game less fun.
Parker took her shopping and Amy invited her over to have breakfast for dinner, which Parker loved.
Hardison started giving her some extra tasks at work.
“Hey Amy, can you stand in the window and look sad? Like your husband’s just gone to jail for stealing a famous Monet, maybe?”
“Hey Amy, can you wait until I walk by with the mark and then run up and slap me?”
"Hey Amy, read this into the recorder.”
Parker told her, “You don’t have to do it, you know.”
“It’s fun,” Amy said. “I like it.”
“Good, because I’m pretty sure Hardison is adopting you as our personal independent contractor.”
* * * *
“I feel bad leaving you alone with him,” George said as he took off his apron at the end of his shift. “It’s like leaving a poor little lamb alone with a grumpy lion.” He was mostly kidding, but not completely.
Eliot was in a singularly bad mood today. He’d been slamming pots around on the stove for the past hour and grumbling.
Amy laughed. “I think I can handle it, thanks.”
Because now, Amy knew some pieces that the others didn’t. She knew that when Eliot was muttering under his breath, he was talking to Parker and Hardison on the comms. This much talking meant that something was going down, but not drastically enough that Eliot had to stop doing prep work for tomorrow.
She had gotten into the habit of seeing Eliot through Parker and Hardison’s eyes. That man wasn’t scary—not even a little bit. He was a completely different person, with a completely different set of interpretations.
Tonight, Mr. Spencer the chef was angry.
Eliot was worried.
Sure enough, once Amy and Eliot were alone in the kitchen, he said, “I might need your help with something tonight.”
“Are Parker and Hardison okay?”
Eliot whisked a marinade with more force than strictly needed. “They’re fine. They’re stuck at a play with our mark. But Parker was supposed to be here tonight to meet a client.”
Amy waited for him to say what he needed. Hardison and Parker seemed to have no trouble ordering her to do odd jobs, but Eliot had never asked her for anything. He clearly didn’t want to do it now.
“Alright, alright,” he growled, and she knew the words weren’t for her. Eliot had a different voice when he was talking to Hardison or Parker. Less careful.
“I need you to fold napkins at the bar for the next hour,” Eliot told her.
That hadn’t exactly been what she’d been expecting. “Sure. That was on my list anyway.”
They didn’t talk again. Amy gathered up the box of paper napkins and set herself up at the bar to fold them. Eliot answered the door when someone knocked.
The girl was younger than Amy, maybe not even twenty-one. She walked into the brewpub with her body tensed and wary. Her eyes darted around the room, checking for danger. She stood far away from Eliot and didn’t take his hand when he offered it.
Afraid. So, very, very afraid.
“We’re really sorry,” Eliot said. “She did everything she could to be here.”
Amy just stared at him, because Eliot had magically transformed into a completely different person. He looked smaller, all his usual presence dialed completely down to zero. When he motioned the girl to the bar his movements were slow and contained. He let his hair fall into his eyes when he smiled, and he smiled a lot—shy and tentative. Everything about him had been reassembled to say nonthreatening.
It wasn’t enough.
The girl walked to the bar like Eliot had a gun to her head. He left at least five feet of space between them, but she still angled herself away from him.
When she saw Amy, though, the girl’s wariness slipped a little. The relief on her face was clear.
Amy didn’t know this girl’s story, but she understood now why Eliot had her sit out here in plain sight. When the girl picked a place at Amy’s end of the bar, just a few seats away, Amy made eye contact and smiled.
Amy didn’t try to listen to the girl’s quiet voice as she talked with Eliot. She didn’t need to know. Instead, she snuck glances at Eliot’s calm, unchanging expression. The tension in the girl’s back slowly lessened as she talked.
“We’ll help,” Eliot said, at last.
The girl stood. “I just told you everything. You’d better.”
When she left, Eliot shut the door behind her. He leaned against it and closed his eyes. His expression was anything but calm now.
He said, “I know.”
And, “I know.”
And, “You didn’t see how she looked at me.”
Then, after a pause, “Just. Finish that damn job and get back.”
When he opened his eyes, Amy didn’t look away fast enough to avoid getting caught staring. Eliot looked like he had forgotten she was there and wasn’t happy about remembering.
“Sorry,” Amy said, though she couldn’t exactly articulate what she was apologizing for.
Eliot sounded tired. “You can go home.”
Amy normally went out the back, but Eliot was standing at the front, all alone. She was scared of Mr. Spencer, but she wasn’t scared of Eliot. He looked like he needed someone to remind him of that until Hardison and Parker were around to do it.
Amy made sure to get close before waving him away from the door with a flick of her hands. “See you tomorrow,” she said, and brushed past him like she didn’t mind doing it.
Because, honestly, she didn’t. Not anymore.
* * * *
The next day, she received half a dozen emails congratulating her on purchasing memberships to every single art museum in Portland. She also got a confirmation of her enrollment in a master drawing class. The class was scheduled on her day off.
That afternoon, a box of gourmet cat food and another box of cat toys arrived for Van Eyck.
She was watching him bat around a cloth bird when Parker knocked on her window. Amy was no longer surprised by this, because apparently her window was the perfect height for free-hand climbing.
“Hello,” Parker said, tumbling into the room. “I came to see if Van Eyck likes his toys.”
“Yep,” Amy said.
“I picked them out. Hardison did the rest.”
“I figured.” Amy picked up the bird toy and threw it for Van Eyck.
“You don’t look happy,” Parker said.
Amy patted the sofa next to her and Parker sat, looking unsure. Amy ran her hands through her hair.
“Are you mad?” Parker asked. “Why are you mad about presents?”
“I’m not mad.” Van Eyck dropped the toy by her foot, and Amy nudged it so that he would pounce. “I believe in what you’re doing. I want to help.”
“We know that,” Parker said. “Why do you think we keep asking you?”
“What I mean is, I don’t need Hardison to bribe me to help you guys.”
Parker looked surprised. “He bribed you?”
Amy swept her hand at the boxes sitting on her floor. “Plus, he enrolled me in a class at Portland State College for the Arts! And I’m pretty sure he somehow rearranged the class schedule, because I checked last week, and there were no classes on my day off.”
Parker didn’t look worried anymore. She relaxed into the sofa. “He wasn’t trying to bribe you.”
“Well, it kind of felt like it,” Amy said rebelliously.
“Amy. When we first started dating, Hardison bought me a new pair of sneakers every week for a month. He buys Eliot all these weird imported spices and coffees. He sends things to Nate and Sophie, and they’re hallway around the world. It’s not a bribe, it’s how he says that he likes you.”
“Oh,” Amy said. She felt herself blushing. “Well, now I feel stupid.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
Van Eyck leapt up and curled up in Parker’s lap. She made a happy sound and stroked him gently.
“You’re my friend,” Parker said, a little stiffly. “Eliot turns his back when you’re around and now Hardison’s sending you presents. So, just—don’t worry, okay? We like you.”
Amy smiled down at Van Eyck. “Sounds good to me.”
* * * *
Hardison said, “Amy, can you take this coffee to that guy across the street and act really angry about it? Imagine your crazy boss keeps asking you to do things that weren’t in your job description.”
“Gosh,” Amy said. “I wonder what that would be like.”
Hardison looked innocent. “Excuse you, my job descriptions all say ‘other duties as assigned’. This right here is other duties.”
Amy took the coffee. “That guy looks smug and rich. I assume you’re making him less so.”
Hardison grinned at her. “You know how we do, girl.”
There was a thrill in knowing that “we” sometimes included her.
“Yeah,” Amy said. “I know.”