shinealightonme: (leverage parker/hardison)
[personal profile] shinealightonme

"Any progress?" Eliot asked as Sterling entered the room he had staked out for himself and Parker.

"Ah, if our search were fueled by your gratitude, we undoubtedly would have found our target by now," Sterling said.

Eliot stared. Sterling had come to him, he didn't have to be polite.

"No progress yet," Sterling said. "Though this would all be much simpler if Parker would cooperate."

"That's Parker's call," Eliot said.

"No," Parker said automatically. She hadn't opened her eyes with Sterling entered the room and was still lying on her back in bed. "I don't like the kind of people you get information from. Their minds aren't nice places to be."

Eliot turned back to Sterling. "There you go, then."

Sterling sighed dramatically. "Then this might just prove to be another dead end."

"You've been real good at finding those." Eliot was getting tired of criss-crossing the countryside on the basis of one rumor some flunkie had heard somewhere.

"If you have a better idea, by all means." Sterling swept out an arm, graciously, but they both knew what the simplest way of finding their target was, and they both knew that wasn't going to happen – at least, Eliot knew, and Sterling claimed to know, though he kept bringing it up over and over again.

"Maybe Eliot could help," Parker said. "He's good at making people tell him stuff."

"Parker – " Eliot started in exasperation.

"You don't have to torture anyone," Parker said. "Just stand around looking scary."

"If you think you can manage that," Sterling added.

"I think I can handle some scare tactics."

Sterling smirked. "I couldn't say; I don't find you particularly intimidating."

Eliot fingers twitched, longing to curl into fists, or wrap themselves around Sterling's neck; anything but have to hang idly as Sterling reminded Eliot that his week in bed recuperating, and his lingering full-body soreness, were his handiwork.

"It's gotta be better than listening to you talk," Eliot said finally.


As far as Eliot had gathered, Sterling's new operation – financed by secrets and intimidation and half-truths – had started when he'd realized that some people weren't completely surprised by the new world order.

(Eliot wasn't sure what Sterling did in the very early days, before he realized that. He liked to imagine that Sterling had been at a loss for what to do, but can't quite buy that. The man was always a cockroach.)

So he'd started digging, using methods that he was intentionally vague about, like a magician hiding his damn tricks, until he'd somehow come up with a name: Alfred Emmerich.

When Eliot and Parker had run into Sterling, they'd been forty miles outside Emmerich's hometown and had stumbled into his search for anyone who'd ever known anything about Emmerich: who he was, how he'd been involved, where he was now.

It had been a long search, and not a terribly productive one.

Eliot wasn't sure if the lack of progress had motivated Sterling to start accosting anyone he met, hoping for answers, or if that methodology was the reason for the lack of progress, but he had his guesses.


Eliot'd been in more interrogations than he'd care to remember, sitting on both sides of the table, so it didn't take him long to figure out that the poor girl Sterling's guys had found didn't know anything.

He was there to loom, not talk, but he'd never needed words to get his displeasure across, and after a while even the thick-skulled goons Sterling had running the show could pick up on Eliot's mood. They did have the sense not to present a divided front to the target, so instead of kicking him out they called an early halt to the questioning and showed the girl to a second room, where she was bluntly informed she would be staying until they'd decided what to do with her.

"She doesn't know anything," Eliot told the goons. "Just let her go."

"Oh yeah?" one of them demanded. "Last time I checked, you couldn't read minds."

"Last time I checked you didn't have one," Eliot said.

The whole thing ended up getting taken to Sterling anyway. If Eliot couldn't find a way out of running into the bastard several times a day, he was going to have to rethink this whole "working together" thing. He and Parker hadn't been doing so bad on their own.

Hell, who was he kidding. At least Sterling's idiocy gave him something to do.

"Eliot, you were supposed to simplify my life, not complicate it," Sterling admonished.

"Your people are idiots," Eliot said. "And they're badgering some girl who doesn't know anything. How is my scaring her more supposed to simplify anything?"

"She's hiding something," the second goon insisted. "She's shifty."

"She thinks we're going to murder her," Eliot said. "You need to drop the secret agent bullshit, you all suck at it. You'd get better results just knocking on doors and asking politely."

"We did knock on a door," Sterling reminded him. "Alfred Emmerich's door. She was living there."

"She was squatting," Eliot said. "Happens all the time. Parker and I lived in a dead guy's house for a week last month. There aren't any change of address forms anymore, in case you hadn't noticed."

"She could still know something about where Emmerich has gone to," Sterling said.

"You oughta let her go," Eliot said, and turned away.

"Where do you think you're going?" Sterling asked.

"To do the obvious thing," Eliot answered.


"Ewww," Parker said, wrinkling her nose. "This place is a dump. Literally, a dump." Then she cocked her head and reconsidered. "No, not literally a dump. Literally a septic tank."

"Just watch where you step and stop talking," Eliot snapped. "The more you talk the more you're going to breathe it in."

The girl who'd been squatting at Emmerich's house had not been the most conscientious visitor, and neither had her friends – one person couldn't have made this much of a mess. There must have been others living here at some point, quite recently, and Eliot wondered where they were. Sterling hadn't brought them in. Maybe he hadn't known about them.

Eliot had sneered at Sterling for not doing a thorough search of Emmerich's house, but given the state it was in, maybe the joke was on Eliot and Parker.

Parker nudged a pile of broken glass, the remains of a tall standing mirror that had fallen and shattered.

"Why'd you think it's bad luck to break a mirror?" she asked.

"Cause no one likes cleaning up broken glass."

"Yeah, but it's not bad luck to break a window."

"Maybe a mirror's just easier to break," Eliot said.

Parker frowned. "Please, nothing is easier than breaking a window. I must have broken a dozen before I was eight."

Eliot was not going to ask. He wasn't. But. "Play a lot of catch as a kid?"

"No. Why?"

Eliot wasn't going to ask. "So how'd they break?"

"Projectiles of different kinds," Parker said, "I jumped through a couple of them, ooh, there's this trick you can do with a vacuum cleaner! Also a lot of them blew out in the explosion."

"Where'd you think Emmerich went?" Eliot said, loudly, because otherwise he was going to keep asking other questions that he really didn't want to know the answers to.

"No idea," Parker said. "But it looks like he packed. Maybe he did know what was coming, after all."

He had packed, that or been robbed. The drawers in the master bedroom weren't completely empty, but they were light on clothes, especially the basics – underwear, socks, shirts. There wasn't anything valuable in the place, except the things that were too large to move easily, including the frame around Parker's broken mirror, which looked like real silver.

There also weren't any photographs.

Eliot tried to tell himself that this was a setback, of sorts, because knowing what Emmerich looked like could have helped them find him. They still didn't know much more about him than his name. But he couldn't get over a weird feeling of relief at not having to see any more half-burned photos of people who were probably dead.

"Do you really think he's dead?" Parker asked, because a man wasn't even allowed a private moment of nerves anymore.

"I don't know," Eliot answered. "Seems like the odds aren't too good on any single individual."

Parker chewed that over for a moment. "Sterling thinks he knew it was coming."

"Yeah, I put a lot of faith in what Sterling thinks."

"He might have been smart," Parker said. "Maybe if he was really smart, he could have made it out."

"Sometimes the other guy's just smarter than you," Eliot said, like Parker even needed the reminder. "Sometimes there's just too many of them."

"Yeah, but, if he was smart. If he got out. He could still be alive. We might find him anywhere. Hiding out, waiting for things to get quiet."

Eliot focused on the room around them. There was something off about it, and damn it, he was going to find out what it was. "Things've been quiet for a while," he said slowly. "Even when we were getting the shove in Cooperstown. Even with Court's crowd. There wasn't the same complete upheaval as there was at first. How quiet does it need to be?"

Parker didn't answer. When Eliot snuck a glance over his shoulder, he found that she wasn't looking at him.

"What's wrong with this room?" Eliot said out loud, when the silence was starting to get to him.

That, Parker had an answer to. "The carpet is clean."


"I don't like this," Eliot grumbled.

"You've said that about four times now," Parker said. "And you've thought it about another twenty."

"You just know that asshole is going to do something – stupid – awful – " Eliot ran his hands through his hair. It was getting long, even for his tastes. Someone must have a good pair of scissors around, but damned if he'd seen one in months.

"We don't have to tell him," Parker suggested.

That was tempting. But there was every chance in the world that Sterling knew something they didn't about Emmerich, something that he wouldn't come forward with until he had to, and if they couldn't entice him to share by telling him what they'd found in the house, there wasn't any reason to bother with him at all. They might as well just give up on Emmerich entirely.

"Later," Eliot said. "I want to talk to the girl first."

Parker walked him to the room Sterling's men had thrown the poor girl into, but hung back as he looked for a way to open the door.

"Not coming in?" Eliot said, just hoping that he didn't sound annoyed, or angry. It wasn't like Sterling was the only one who realized how convenient it would be to have Parker take over questioning suspects.

She shook her head.

Eliot watched her walk down the hall and turn a corner, vanishing from sight.

He gave up on finding a key anywhere and just forced the door open. There was a frightened yelp from the other side, the sound of someone scurrying away, and he berated himself. No sense in getting pissed off and scaring some kid any worse than Sterling's goons already had.

"Sorry!" he called into the room, leaving the door open just a crack. "Couldn't find a key – thought maybe they'd left it under a doormat, only there ain't any doormat. You okay in there?"

The silence that followed was awfully long, but he could be patient – he was pretty sure he'd have to be patient as possible for the next hour or two of his life. "I'm fine," a high-pitched voice answered, finally. The speaker hadn't moved any closer to him.

"Mind if I open the door the rest of the way?" Eliot said. "Only I have a few questions for you and I hate not being able to see the person I'm talking to."

What exactly he'd do if she said no, he wasn't sure, but that didn't come up.

"Okay," she said, after another long pause. "Okay, you can come in."

Eliot swung the door open slowly and gently as if he was showing off his chivalry on a first date. "Hey there," he said, spotting the girl. She had backed up against the opposite wall, pushing her back right up against it, like she might launch off it to attack him. And maybe she would. She was about fifteen years old and tiny, but the last few months had taught an awful lot of people an awful lot of nasty tricks – especially the people who hadn't been handed down any special skills they could defend themselves with. "We met the other day – didn't catch your name, though. I'm Eliot."

The girl looked him up and down – for a weapon, or a trap of some kind, or just for sheer curiosity. She licked her lips. "Katie," she said.

"Katie," he said. "Thanks for letting me in."

"You kicked down the door."

Eliot smiled and shrugged. "Used my shoulder, actually," he said. "Wasn't such a stubborn door. They usually aren't, when they're interior doors like this."

Katie crossed her arms. "I wouldn't know."

"The trick is, you aim at the edge, here, see?" Eliot ran his hands along the door to show her. "Movies, they always kick the door right in the middle. Stupid thing. Next time you're locked in a room you don't want to be in, you remember that. Or sometimes you can just break the hinges and pop the door off."

The suspicious teenager didn't know what to do with this turn of events. "Break down a lot of doors, do you?"

"Me, I've got a habit of sticking my nose places that people don't want me to," Eliot said. "Like that house you've been staying in."

"God, would you guys just let that go already?" Katie said. Apparently she was too annoyed to act afraid of him anymore, because she dropped from her defensive stance on the wall and plunked herself down into a chair. "I don't know anything about the stiff that lived there. I only found this place a few months ago, and I only stayed cause it seemed like less trouble than leaving. If I'd known you all were going to come harass me I wouldn't have bothered. It's not even worth it, the place was a dump before I even got there."

Eliot let her vent. He even nodded along and put on a sympathetic face. Katie needed a friend more than she needed threats right now. Maybe that was the flaw in Sterling's strategy. Everyone these days was so used to feeling unsafe, scare tactics were hardly even worth noticing.

"I believe you," Eliot said. "Every sign we have says Emmerich left town before any of this even went down." No need clarifying what 'this' was that had gone down. "But you haven't been totally honest with us, have you, Katie?"

Katie glared at him in sullen defiance as only a teenager could. "You're the ones who are liars. Those guys said they'd let me go."

"Tell you what, Katie, end of this little conversation we're having, I'll let you out myself," Eliot said. "Won't even make you break down any doors, I'll hold them open for you."

"Oh right, like you won't just keep me here if you don't get what you want."

"I promised, now, and I don't break that kind of promise," Eliot told her. "There's a catch, though, which is that this conversation doesn't end until you tell me the truth. Now, I feel great, I could sit here all day and all night and not get tired, and frankly everyone in this building is driving me insane right now so sitting in here getting away from all them sounds pretty good to me. I'm guessing you'd much rather just get it over with so you can be going. But it's up to you."

Katie shifted in her chair, like she'd just realized how uncomfortable it was. "I didn't lie," she insisted.

"You didn't tell us about the other people living in Emmerich's house, though," Eliot said. "How many were there?"

Katie stared him down for a long, long while, but he'd played this game with hit men and psychos and military despots, and eventually she looked away. "Three," she said. "I didn't know two of them too well, they left pretty soon after I got there. I think they were just passing by, same as me. But Jason – " She cut herself off, her cheeks turning pink, and glared up at Eliot, defiantly.

Eliot kept his face in the same genial, polite expression he'd had all along, but inside he sighed. Things got so complicated when people were in love with each other. And no one in the world could be in love with someone quite so fanatically as a teenager.

"How'd Jason know Emmerich?" Eliot asked.

Katie sat bolt upright. "I didn't say he did."

"You said the others were just passing by, but Jason wasn't. So he had a reason for being there. I'm just assuming he knew Emmerich, maybe he was there to rob the place – "

"He'd never!" she said, but caught her temper quickly. "You're being sneaky," she told him. "You come in here pretending to be nice but you're worse than those other guys."

Eliot sighed. So much for that strategy. "Katie, we found the files under the carpet."

Katie crossed her arms and shut her mouth and wouldn't say another word to Eliot no matter how he prodded her.

At least, not until he stood to leave.

"You said you'd let me go."

He looked back at her.

"Conversation's not over," he said.

The downside of breaking a door was that you couldn't close it back up after you. Eliot walked halfway down the hallway and leaned up on a wall, one eye on Katie's room. They were in an abandoned office building now, and he could just move her to the room next door. But he'd rather leave her to think for now, and he'd never been happy about having her locked up in the first place.

Sterling found him after about ten minutes.

"You've been holding out on me," he said.

"Like you haven't," Eliot said.

"Such animosity," Sterling sighed. "You know, I'd rather hoped we could put aside whatever differences we'd had in the past. That was such a long time ago, don't you think the reasonable thing to do now is to cooperate?"

Eliot didn't even bother to look at Sterling. "So you tell me what you really know about Emmerich."

"Perhaps it is time we share."

"Once I got something solid, we can talk about it," Eliot said. "Though any conversation going to have to start with why the hell you bothered to invite us along just to hide shit from us."

"Caution is a virtue. You never have to worry about taking back something if you didn't say it in the first place."

"Yeah, answer for everything." Eliot shifted his weight. His body wanted to threaten Sterling, and had to keep being reminded that there wasn't much he could to do hurt Sterling now. Not physically, anyway. And that put him in a bad mood all over again. "Get lost, you'll probably scare her off."

"I leave the girl in your competent hands," Sterling said, making it sound like he was doing Eliot a big favor by letting him do all the work.

Why the hell was Eliot doing all the work anyway?

That was it, he thought as he watched Sterling depart. He was getting Parker and getting the hell out of here. They were just wasting their time on some stupid wild goose chase –

"Hey," Katie said, subdued, from the doorway. "Did you really find something at the house?"

"Yeah," Eliot said. "Yeah, we did."

Katie crossed her arms, uncrossed them, and crossed them again. "What was it?"

"Don't you know?" Eliot asked.

Katie hesitated before shaking her head. "He wouldn't show me," she said. "And then he was gone and I thought about looking – but I wasn't supposed to. It didn't – it didn't say where he went or anything, did it?"

Eliot shook his head.


"You want to tell me about this guy?" Eliot asked. "Can't find him if we don't know who he is."

"You aren't really going to look for him."

"We're looking for Emmerich. If he knew Emmerich, we might find him, too."

"Okay," Katie said. "Okay, but I'm leaving this room."

Eliot gestured down the hallway. "Fair enough."


"So?" Sterling asked, once more settling himself in Eliot's room like he owned the place. "I assume you've found out something useful, since you let the girl go."

"We didn't have any business keeping her here in the first place," Eliot said. "I just held the door open."

"Yes, about that. There are so few buildings in this town that are still in one shape, why exactly did you feel you had to lay waste to this one?"

"Breaking things is what Eliot does best," Parker chirped.

Eliot knew he didn't react, because his poker face had done a lot more than just win him games of poker. But Parker was looking right at him, and Sterling was looking right at her, and apparently a man can't have secrets anymore.

"Sorry," Parker muttered.

"Did you read the damn files?" Eliot asked her.

"I opened them, and I looked at them," Parker said. "It's mostly a lot of science. Not the kind that helps fry security cameras or re-direct laser beams either, so it's not really in my wheelhouse."

"It's gotta be important, or they wouldn’t have hidden it."

"They who?" Sterling asked. "And hidden what? You're holding out on me."

"You started it," Eliot said. "So come clean. Who's Emmerich and why're we looking for him?"

"You have such a distressing lack of imagination," he sighed. "Emmerich is the reason we are where we are today."

"Yeah, I figured. But why exactly are we looking for him?" Eliot asked.

Sterling blinked, like Eliot had actually managed to disturb his self-involved calm. "Isn't it obvious?" he asked.

"Oh, would you both just shut up," Parker said. "'Oh, I'm a big tough guy, I don't answer questions.' 'Oh, I'm a big tough guy too, I don't even ask questions, I just snap and glare.' 'I'm snappier than you are!'" She threw her hands up in disgust while Sterling and Eliot eyed each other uneasily, both trying to figure out which one of them Parker was madder at. "You could just talk. Since neither of you knows anything, it isn't even like you'd have to talk to each other very long."

She turned to Eliot. "Eliot, Sterling thinks that Emmerich is the one who caused the superpowers, and he wants Emmerich to change it back." She looked at Sterling. "Sterling, Eliot and I found some of Emmerich research at his house, though it's not like we can read it and it's not a recognized currency in any nation on Earth, so I'm not sure why that's supposed to be exciting. Also that girl you found knew a guy who knew Emmerich, but he vanished into thin air so Eliot let her go because what else was she going to do for us?"

"That's an...adequate summation of events, I suppose," Sterling said. "It does lack the flair I would have given it."

"I thought that was a little too much flair," Eliot said, eying Parker carefully but not stepping toward her. She was looking at the ceiling now, which her cheeks puffed out in annoyance, and he didn't think a pat on the back would exactly help her mood. "You really think this Emmerich guy can change things back?"

"If anyone could, it's probably the man who caused it."

"You really think that's a good idea?"

Parker's cheeks deflated, and Sterling looked surprised again. Apparently, while physical intimidation was off the table, Eliot could still throw Sterling off his game by implying that his plans weren't foolproof.

Arrogant asshole.

"In case you haven't noticed, the world as we know it has more or less ended," Sterling said slowly, like Eliot was a little kid. "Generally speaking, people aren't in favor of that."

"People made the world what it is," Eliot said. "And I don't think the genie's gonna go back in the bottle as easily as you're hoping."

"So why are you here?" Sterling asked. "Aren't you supposed to fight for people who can't fight for themselves? Or have you just been waiting for an opportunity to undermine my operation?"

"Don't flatter yourself. I've just been so bored I need anything to do." Eliot tried to believe it. It's what he'd been telling himself all along.

Sterling didn't buy it, but who cared.

Parker didn't buy it, and wouldn't even look in his direction.

"Here's your damn files," Eliot said, handing over the papers they'd found in Emmerich's house. "They aren't going to do you any good, but they're no use to me. You can have them and choke on them."

"Charming," Sterling said, but his hands clasped the files, just short of being a grab, and he wasted no time in flipping through it.

Eliot smirked a little as confusion flickered in Sterling's eyes.

"Told you," he said.

Sterling snapped it shut. "No matter. If you can't do something yourself, find an expert. There are still people in the world who can tell what this means, even if Emmerich can't be located."

"Good luck," Parker snorted.

"I take it this means our involvement has ended?" Sterling asked.

Eliot shrugged. This ball was in Parker's court, now; his game was up.

Parker shrugged, as well. "I'm tired," she said suddenly. "I need a nap." When Eliot and Sterling failed to move, she flapped her hands at them. "Shoo, shoo. You're keeping me awake."


Eliot slowly opened the door later that night. Hearing Parker's rhythmic breathing, he crept into the room and fell into his bed, making himself fall asleep.


Eliot knew, in the moment between waking up and opening his eyes, that the room was empty.

It didn't take him long to figure out where Parker had gone, either.

It was a small town, with few tall buildings, and most of them had suffered some damage in the last few months. Eliot found the tallest one still standing and started climbing stairs.

Parker was on the roof, standing right on the edge.

A voice in his head whispered that if she fell, he couldn't catch her.

She turned around, and he knew the voice was whispering in her ears now, too.

"Hey, Parker," he said.

"Hey, Eliot." He didn't think she'd looked straight at him for this long since she'd changed.

He walked right up to the edge and stood next to her like it was something he did every day, like his survival instincts weren't screaming at him to get back, get off the roof, get himself to a bunker and wait this whole thing out. "You going to bed soon?"

"It's quiet out here."

Eliot shrugged. "We could sleep out here. But we'd need to step away from the edge first."

Parker stayed put. She was still watching him like she'd never seen him before. He knew what he was thinking, but had no idea what she was making of it.

"You going to let me in on what's going on in there?" he asked.

Parker looked away, finally.

"I liked it better," she said. "Before."

They stood several moments, statues in an empty world, before Eliot sighed. "Yeah," he wrapped an arm around Parker. "Me too."


Sterling had found them horses, of all things, to help them move between cities.

Whatever goodwill he might have built up with Eliot through this was completely destroyed by the obvious-after-two-seconds fact that Sterling didn't have the least idea what to do with a horse. Or that they weren't cars, and had to stop to take breaks.

Though it could have been worse. At least he knew how to ride, decently enough. Only thing Eliot could think that'd be worse than riding with Sterling was riding with Sterling who couldn't stay in his saddle.

"Didn't sign on to give pony rides," Eliot muttered under his breath.

Parker slapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to hurt. "Can you do balloon animals?"

Eliot scowled. She hadn't been making life easier, either, given her refusal to get within fifteen feet of a horse. At least she could keep up well enough on foot; they weren't exactly running in a derby.

"We're making good time," she said.

"Good time to nowhere."

"Maybe the tip is solid."

They'd had word that Katie's mysterious "Jason," who seemed to know Emmerich, had been heading for a small town near the Great Lakes, so they'd turned north. Already, the weather was getting miserable.

Worse than the cold was the feeling that they were chasing ghosts. Assuming Katie hadn't lied to him, and assuming she hadn't misunderstood the vague things Jason had told her, it seemed likely that Jason had known Emmerich at some point. That didn't mean he knew where Emmerich was. Or that they'd find Jason. Or that Emmerich would even be any good to them.

"I think we shouldn't get our hopes up."

"What hopes? I'm just along for the ride."

"You're walking."

Parker rolled her eyes. "It's an expression."

Eliot figured, given two hours, he could break Parker of this whole fear of horses thing.

Maybe three hours, and the world's most cooperative horse.

Maybe he could just throw her onto a horse's back and let nature take its course.

He chuckled under his breath as he pictured that.

The bug-eyed look on Parker's face told him that she was enjoying the same mental image he was. "Enjoying" being an expression, of course.

"I wouldn't really do it," he said. "Wouldn't be fair to the horse."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Parker said, and stomped off.


Time was, Eliot didn't slog through snow to knock on people's doors like a vacuum cleaner salesman. It'd been a nice life. Now it felt like all he knew was frozen feet and standing, forever, waiting for families long gone to come open their front doors.

Of course, vacuum cleaner salesmen got to just take off when no one answered. Eliot'd broken through more doors and windows in the last week than he'd even walked through before, seemed like.

And every house was the same. Whatever scared off the folks that'd lived here, it hadn't been anything flashy like fire or earthquakes or tornadoes. The buildings were in fine condition, the furniture and possessions inside laid out like their owners'd be coming back for them any minute now.

It was a ghost town in the truest sense of the word. If it weren't so frozen outside, Eliot would've expected to see tumbleweeds. There weren't words for how much he despised it.

He wasn't sure whether Parker was giving him space or he was giving Parker space, or if it was just faster to search the town separately, but they split up every morning and didn't meet back up until nightfall.

Sterling had his own separate route, but there wasn't any ambiguity there; he was as tired of Eliot's company as Eliot was of his, if that was even possible, and said so, emphatically, on more than one occasion.

He never seemed to tire of Parker's company, which was a thing Eliot didn't even want to have to remind himself not to think about, but Parker could handle herself. She was as good as ever at scaring people away. Her latest tactic in unnerving her companions was to act aggressively normal.

"Hello Eliot, Sterling," she chirped, as they met up to go over the progress, pathetic as it was, of the day. "How was your day?"

"Surely you know," Sterling said, disbelief in his voice.

"Well I assume that if you had any big news, you'd have told me," she said blithely. "But you know what happens when you assume things!"

Eliot squinted at her. Maybe there was some kind of cold-weather mirage affecting his vision. And hearing.

"Though actually," Parker said. "No one ever actually told me what happens when you assume things. They'd just say, 'you know what happens when you assume things.' But I'm guessing it's not good."

"No, not good," Eliot said.

"See?" Parker smiled at them. Sterling took a step backward, and Eliot couldn't even blame him for it.

"Parker, you got a fever or something?"

"Nope, I'm fit as a fiddle!" She started pouring herself a glass of water. "I found a fiddle in a guy's house today. And some kind of mini-guitar. Maybe a banjo. You find anything interesting?"

And she was really asking. Trying to keep a conversation going out loud.

"No," he said, because whatever game she was playing, he might as well play along. "Lot of books, clothes. Some souvenirs. Can't blame people for traveling away from here."

"Surely this town must have been livable once," Sterling said. "Or at least more interesting than it is now."

"Metal rusting is more interesting than this town."

"Have you ever watched metal rust?" Parker asked. "It might be more interesting than you think."

Sterling smiled, like it caused him pain to do so. "I suppose you would have a higher threshold than most for surveillance."

"On account of how many pieces of art she's stolen away from people like you?" Eliot asked. "All that sitting around, watching for the security guard shift changes, patterns in the laser grid..."

"Yes, thank you Mr. Spencer for elaborating." Sterling's not smiling face looked just as pained as his smiling face. Eliot felt tired just watching his expressions.

"That kind of work does come in handy sometimes," Parker said, then laughed at them when they didn't get it. "Because we're doing surveillance right now?"

"I defer to your expertise on the matter."

Eliot just grunted. The waiting was always the longest part of a mission, but he could usually get through it because he knew that he'd need it if he was going to have any chance of being successful.

This, though, felt an awful lot like chasing his tail. He was surprised at Parker's patience; he'd have thought she'd have been itching at this even worse than he was. Or maybe she really was being strung along by hope, hope that they could find Emmerich, hope that he could undo -

Eliot interrupted his own train of thought, silently cursing himself for letting his mind get away from him.

Almost against his will, his eyes darted to Parker.

And found her humming to herself, playing with her food and looking just as uncomfortably cheery as she'd been a second ago.

Maybe his slip up wasn't so critical. Or maybe Parker had gotten better at keeping her feelings to herself.

Somehow, neither of those ideas sat quite right with Eliot.


It was two more days of living with Stepford Parker and an increasingly irate Sterling before Eliot figured it all out.

He was slogging through another slushy suburban road when an ear-piercing whistle caught his attention. He recognized it, of course. He'd told Parker off more than once for making that damn sound indoors, or right next to his ear.

It was only a few blocks to find Parker looking like a little kid on Christmas, bundled up in thick outer clothes and bouncing around like she'd just seen Santa.

"Find something in there?" he called as he got nearer, pointing toward the house.

"Not inside," Parker said, grabbing for him with both gloved hands.

She dragged him around the side of the building just as he saw Sterling turning a corner. Sterling never did move any faster than a stroll.

Eliot didn't have to ask what had got Parker so excited. The house's backyard edged on a wooded area, and right at the border of it, two trees had been felled and chopped into firewood. Inexpertly, and recently.

"Someone was here," Eliot said.

Parker nodded.

"Must've been yesterday," he continued. "Snowed the night before that."

Parker nodded again.

"So where're they holed up, and why haven't they come out to say hello?" Eliot asked, but he wasn't really thinking about either of those. He was thinking about Emmerich. There was no reason that this had to be Emmerich, but if it was, if it was...

Parker sat, with a heavy thump, on the nearer tree stump.

Eliot's focus snapped to her. He'd thought her paleness was because of the cold, the tension in her face from anticipation. Now he wasn't sure.

"I'm fi – " she started to answer, then cut herself off.

Sterling would choose that moment to finally grace them with his presence. Eliot had half a mind to chuck him into the woods.

At least the man wasn't stupid. He took half a look at the scene and said, "If someone's chopping firewood, someone will be burning firewood."

"Somewhere nearby," Eliot said. Sterling was searching the skyline over the trees and not looking at Parker, who'd taken a breath and stood back up.

Parker was watching the sky now, too, her back to Eliot.

Eliot crossed his arms – he hated these tricks – and very clearly thought Parker.

No response.



Eliot shifted his weight, feeling dumb and guilty at the same time, and thought, Parker, LOOK OUT.

Out loud, those words and that tone would have had anyone in a hundred feet dropping to their feet first and asking questions later.

Parker didn't even twitch.

Now she had him feeling crazy for trying to talk with his mind, and for feeling bad when it failed. A man ought to be glad of a little privacy.

Sterling broke up Eliot's thoughts. "We're too close to the trees. Let's fall back and find a better vantage point."

Sterling led the way, Parker chatting with him about where best to keep look out. Eliot followed, too preoccupied to chime in.


"You're supposed to be looking out for smoke," Parker told him. "And find your own tree. This is my tree."

It was Parker's tree because no one else on Earth would ever climb it. It looked like a light spring breeze would send it toppling over. Eliot had no idea how it supported Parker's weight, but he wasn't going to shout twenty feet up in the air to talk to her, so he clung to the trunk of it and didn't go any higher than he needed to.

"How'd you shut my thoughts out of your head?" Eliot had limited patience with small talk even at the best of times.

"I can't tell you," Parker sniffed.





She really might not have told him, at all, except that Eliot fell out of the tree.

The branch he was resting on cracked, and his grip slipped before he could shift over to a different one. The fall didn't hurt, much, just knocked the wind out of him and smarted his pride.

Parker fell-jumped-slid out of the tree because that was what she'd been doing since she was in diapers, probably, and landed next to him. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Because if you're broken, Sterling's going to get really snotty about helping you."

Eliot wheezed and nodded.

"Did you do that on purpose?"

He caught back just enough air to say, "You should know."

Parker sat down and started playing with some broken off twigs that had been casualties of his descent. "I've never known why anyone does anything," she said. "That worked for me."

"'S different now."

"Maybe it doesn't have to be," she shrugged. "Court had some people that seemed pretty in charge of what they could do."

Eliot could muster up a full response to that. "Court's people were psychopaths."

"Well, yeah, but it still worked."

Feeling mostly recovered, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. "Parker, you haven't been yourself lately."

She snorted.

"And you looked like death earlier, when we found the firewood. Whatever you're doing, it isn't going well for you."

"You don't know that, for sure."

"Maybe not."

Parker threw a twig at him. He batted it away with one hand.

"Sterling's brain is boring," she told him. "I thought at least he'd been slimy or awful but he's just – boring."

"Deal with it," Eliot said. "God, if you need a break, just take a break. Get some air. You don't need to kill yourself with this nonsense."

Parker pulled a face, but before they could talk any further, her eyes popped open and her hand flew up to point.

He knew before he'd even looked that she was pointing at a thin column of smoke rising up in the air.


Sterling had seen it too, or else he'd heard Parker's victorious whoop, because he met up with them at the tree line.

"Who – " he started, as Parker plunged in amidst the foliage.

"How should we know?" Eliot snarled.

Sterling glared at him in return as they followed Parker. Eliot found himself falling behind the others; Parker had a head start, and Sterling was faster than he had any right to be. Must help that he could push off the ground that much harder now, Eliot thought. He caught up with them just in time to see Sterling kick through the backdoor of a house.

"Have to make a big show of everything," he muttered.

Sterling spared him a glance. "I'm sorry, is the man who taught a teenage girl how to break down doors giving me a lecture on subtlety?"

Eliot gestured inside, where the door had snapped in half, flown off its hinges, and knocked over the kitchen table. He didn't want to stress the point, though, because Parker had pushed on ahead of them.

They'd checked two rooms in the house before Eliot got the feeling that something was wrong. He grabbed for Parker but missed her, so he settled for flinging an arm out to stop Sterling from going any further.

"You smell smoke?" he asked.

"We are looking for a fire," Sterling answered slowly.

"And there's the fireplace." Eliot nodded to the undisturbed appliance.

Sterling paused, but wasn't completely convinced. "There could be others."

"Guys!" Parker stuck her head back in the room. "Upstairs, come on!"

Eliot pushed ahead of Sterling. Parker took one look at his face and hung back to let him take the lead.

There was no need to poke around here; a trail of smoke was sneaking out under a door on the left. Eliot placed his hand on the door, and finding it wasn't warm, pushed it open a crack.

Then he swore, threw it open the rest of the way, and charged in.

The fire wasn't in a fireplace; it was chewing up one side of the room, starting from a filing cabinet and crawling up the walls and across the carpet.

That wasn't the most alarming part.

The most alarming part was the figure, laying prone on the floor, with his head bashed in.

It didn't take Eliot more than a second to be sure the man was dead. But they had time before the fire caught him, and the man hadn't hit himself over the head. He had to take a closer look.

He rolled the stiff over – he'd been dead for a day, at least – and heard Sterling spitting out words he'd figured the other man was too dignified to use.

"You got a problem?" Eliot asked. "Or just don't like getting your hands dirty."

Sterling's eyes blazed. "We all have a problem," he said. "That is Alfred Emmerich."

"Not anymore," Eliot said grimly. "Get his feet."

"He's dead."

"And someone made him that way. After the hell I've been through looking for him, I'd like to know who. Get his feet."

Sterling gave him one more glare before he hoisted Emmerich's uncooperative form up, easily, with one hand.

Right. Long as Sterling was happy to do the work, Eliot was happy to let him. "Parker," he said, raising his voice a pinch. The fire wasn't big yet, but it was plenty noisy already.

"On it," she said, and he turned just in time to see her enter the room holding a fire extinguisher like a shotgun in a bad action movie.

She lay waste to the fire as gleeful as a kid at a carnival, but Eliot didn't let that distract him. He started to head out.

"And where are you going?" Sterling asked, striving for a nonchalant look as he lifted a corpse up to shoulder level.

"We came here tracking firewood," Eliot pointed out. "I don't know about you, but I don't see any firewood."

Sterling blinked. "Parker, finish this up quickly and catch up with us, will you?"

She whooped.

Sterling and Eliot caught each other's eyes and shrugged.

They cleared the rest of the second floor and found nothing suspicious.

"Would you go put the dead guy down?" Eliot asked.

"Does he make you nervous?" Sterling replied.

"He smells bad," Eliot pointed out. "And there's no point in keeping him to look for evidence if you're just going to bang him into every doorway we pass."

"I don't care to misplace him. I've put in just as much work as you have to finding him – more, if you'll recall."

"Fine, then, just keep your souvenir out of my way."

Sterling switched Emmerich from one hand to another like he was a piece of luggage. "Easily managed. Now do tell, what are we looking for?"

"You set a fire in the room because that's what you need to make sure burns," Eliot thought out loud. "But if you're really worried about someone coming looking, you make sure the whole house goes up. You suppose this place's got a furnace?"

Sterling pursed his lips. "Basement."

Eliot led the way here, too, because Sterling was still carrying around his morbid trophy.

He moved quietly into the dark. The reek of smoke hit his nose as he climbed down the basement stairs, but not, this time, from fire. There was a voice in the dark, muttering, cursing.

Eliot stopped to let his eyes adjust, but there was precious little light to see by, and a dull clatter told him the mutterer was stacking firewood.

He descended on the stranger like a ghost. "Drop it."

The mutterer turned on him and lashed out, but he was moving by instinct, not training, and he was kneeling near the ground. Eliot got a good hold on him, wrapped him tight so he couldn't strike out again, and felt for his hands.

"You know what trouble you could cause playing with matches?" he asked.

"I didn't – I won't tell anyone, I swear, this never happened, just let me go," the man babbled in a hoarse voice.

"Oh, you're going to tell," Sterling said cruelly. "You're going to tell us why you killed Emmerich."

"I didn't – "

"Bring him up," Sterling commanded. "I want to see his face."

Eliot glared at Sterling – not that he could see – but it wasn't like he wanted to hang out in a clammy basement. Beside, he wanted to check on Parker.

The man didn't want to climb up the stairs, but Eliot could be very persuasive, and it wasn't long before they emerged back into the living room, which seemed suddenly cheerful for all that it was dusty and uninhabited.

"Parker," Eliot called.

Her face appeared at the top of the stairs. "What?"

"You get that fire out?"

She gave him two thumbs up, while still holding the extinguisher.

"Then come down and say hello to our guest."

She raced down the stairs.

In talking to her, Eliot had released his captive, who had turned and caught sight of Sterling. He went pale and started babbling again. "Please, don't kill me, I didn't even know about any of it, I swear."

"God's sake, Sterling, put the dead guy down," Eliot chided. "You're already a creepy fuck."

Sterling placed Emmerich on a recliner. Eliot wasn't sure if that was better or worse than returning him to the ground.

"You're in a very strange position for a man who claims not to know anything," Sterling said.

"I don't!"

He looked so pathetic that Eliot almost wanted to believe him, just so he could wash his hands of him. "Why're you trying to burn the place down, then?"

"Look, nothing good is going to come of – any of it. You see that. So just – I won't do anything, I couldn’t do anything to you if I wanted to. Just let me go."

Eliot had a thought. "Hang on, d'you think we killed Emmerich?"

"Well, obviously," the guy said, before the wisdom of condescending to suspected murderers could work its way through his skull.

"Hang on, no," Sterling said. "He's trying to confuse us."

"I don't know," Parker shrugged. "Sounds like he's scared pretty shitless of us."

"And you know this?" Sterling asked.

She shook her head.

Eliot and Sterling scowled at her, both mad she was blocking out the stranger's thoughts. Agreeing with Sterling made Eliot's skin crawl, though, so he turned his attention back to their arsonist.

"You know this guy?" Eliot asked.

The man shook his head, unconvincingly.

"You know, you do sound an awful lot like someone I heard about recently," Sterling said. "That lab assistant, what was his name? The one your friend told us about, Eliot."

Eliot nodded. "Jason."

He hoped that Jason never played poker. The man flinched so obviously that Eliot almost felt pained by it himself.

"So. That's the second lie you've told us in two minutes of association," Sterling said. "I think you'll find I don't appreciate being lied to."

And Sterling was on Jason before Eliot could move to interfere, if he'd even wanted to. Jason wound up on the ground with Sterling digging a knee into his back and grabbing hold of his arms.

"Let's try this again," Sterling said. "What happened to Emmerich."

"I don't know!" Jason said. "I just found him that way."

"Yeah, and I guess he just fell and hit his head tying his shoes one day," Eliot said. "What was the fire for, did the old man always want a Viking funeral?"

"I just – " Jason squirmed, but there was no getting out of Sterling's hold, not for a weakling like him. "Look, you obviously think his research was too dangerous. I just didn't want any of it causing more trouble."

"Think you missed the boat on that one," Eliot said. "By about nine months, actually."

"It's not like I knew what he was up to," Jason said. "Not at first. And then he spooked and ran here and I was just – checking up on him. Except you guys got here first."

"You're mistaken," Sterling said. "We didn't arrive until after you set your fire."

"Then who killed him?" Parker asked.

Every set of eyes – even Jason's, an inch from the floor – darted around the room. Like someone was going to be hiding in the fucking shadows behind the entertainment system.

"He's been dead for a day," Eliot said. "Day and a half, maybe. They might be long gone."

"Why didn't they take the research?" Sterling muttered.

"Maybe they did," Eliot said. "You sure you torched everything, kid?"

"How should I know?" Jason said. "He never showed me anything important."

"Wonderful," Sterling said. "Our mastermind is dead, his work is scattered, charred, or stolen, and all we are left with is this moron."

Jason was about to object to that before he remembered that the person who said it could easily break his spine. He shut his mouth.

Eliot felt a little sorry for the kid. Hell, it was hard to hate anyone who got a pounding from Sterling. "What're you doing here, kid?" he said. "Last we heard, you were working in Emmerich's lab until you up and vanished."

"Didn't do such a good job of vanishing, did I?" Jason said gloomily. "If you could follow me."

"Answer the question," Sterling said. "Before we start wondering how much you know of Emmerich's research."

"I don't know shit," Jason snapped, looking as unnerved as hell. Well, Sterling was holding him down with one hand, looking bored all the while. It wouldn't have taken a genius to recognize the threat of what he could do if he was really trying. "If you think that Emmerich told me anything important, you're crazy. I know it wasn't – it wasn't supposed to happen yet, it all went wrong somehow. Emmerich thought someone had interfered with his work. Maybe he as right, I don't know. But he split, he didn't even tell me where he was going. He didn't tell me anything."

"You were working for him," Eliot said. "Figure'd he'd keep you in the loop."

"That paranoid old bastard? He didn't even put his first name on his business cards, he didn't like people knowing that much about him. I graduated first in my class and he had me organizing his planner and ordering supplies, because he didn't want me to know what he was working on."

"You found him here," Parker pointed out. "And you had a copy of his work." Her face was getting paler by the second. Eliot wanted to tell her to leave. There was no reason for her to be here if she didn't want to read his mind. "You were living in his house, with his research, and you followed him here."

"I took some stuff from his lab, after he left," Jason admitted. "Most of it he took himself, but I found some copies. I didn't know what it was."

"You worked for the man for a year and didn't know what he was working on?" Sterling asked. "I find that...unlikely."

From the way Jason winced, Sterling had followed this observation with an increase in pressure, though subtle enough that Eliot didn't catch it happening. "I didn't think he was turning people into monsters," Jason said.

"Language," Sterling admonished, and Jason flinched again.

"I didn't know he was – doing this. When he skipped town, I got bored. I thought I'd read his files just to see what he'd been up to. And then – when I knew what it was, that he'd done all this, I thought, I had to see."

"How'd you find him up here?" Eliot asked.

"I asked his guy," Jason said.

"His 'guy'." Sterling couldn't have sounded less impressed. "Please, do elaborate."

"His guy, his helper," Jason babbled.

"Thought that was your job," Eliot pointed out.

"I was his assistant – I called people, I ordered supplies, I answered his fucking email. Big day came, none of that meant anything anymore. But Emmerich was still doing his research, for a while, so he found a guy who could help him out. Get him things he needed. Played by the new rules."

"This guy got a name?"

"None that I heard. But when Emmerich was really starting to spook, thinking someone was going to come after him," Jason shot a dirty look at Sterling, best he could with half his face in the dirt, "this guy said he knew a place Emmerich could go. Invited me along but I didn't want to go, yet."

"You seen this guy before the day?" Eliot asked.

"No," Jason said. "And he didn't show up for a month or so afterward, either."

"If Emmerich was such a suspicious bastard," Sterling said. "Why did he trust this drifter with no name?"

Jason moved, awkwardly. Eliot wasn't sure if it was a shrug or if Sterling was trying to jog his memory again. "Guy was a smooth talker," Jason said. "And one of Emmerich's friends set them up. Fuck, man, I had other things on my mind at the time."

"Like Katie?" Parker asked.

Jason stared at her. "Who?"

"Katie," Eliot said. "The girl you left behind at Emmerich's house."

"What, the kid?" Jason said. "She needed a place to stay. A lot of people did. Once Emmerich was gone, thought someone might as well get some use out of the house."

"So much for that love story," Parker muttered to Eliot. "He can't even picture her."

"You sure?" Eliot asked. "I thought you were..."

"I am," Parker said. "But I can still tell he's confused. When you're talking about Emmerich, he pictures Emmerich."

"You came up here to find Emmerich," Sterling asked Jason, but he was watching Parker and Eliot. "Did you see him? Or was he already dead?"

"I saw him once," Jason said. "He was crazier than ever. I shouldn't have even bothered."

"Crazy how?" Sterling asked. "What did he say to you?"

"He said they were on to him. Don't ask me who they were, I don't think Emmerich knew, even. I didn't think they were real. But he said I had to help him. He wanted me to hide him."

"Did you?" Eliot asked.

Jason looked up at them as best he could. "You don't argue with a guy when he's like that. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm cooperating with you guys."

"Smart boy," Sterling said. "And what about Emmerich's 'guy?' Did he come here with Emmerich, or haven't you seen him?"

Jason was talking, answering the question, but Eliot couldn't hear. All his attention was diverted by the way Parker grabbed his arm.

"Eliot," she hissed. Her fingers were digging in painfully.

"What the hell?" He tried to be quiet, Jason stopped talking and Sterling looked at Eliot in supreme annoyance.

Parker reached out with her other hand, found Eliot's, and mashed their fingers mashed together, painfully.

Least there was no more point in saying anything where Sterling could laugh about it. Parker was standing so close she had to hear him.

What has gotten into you?

Parker jerked her head, half a shake, and kept her eyes on Jason's.

"I don't want to know," she said, not even making a sound, just moving her lips to make tiny little letters.

So leave.

"I want to know."

Know what.

Slowly, slowly, Parker stood up and walked for Jason, pulling Eliot along behind.

"Jason," she said. "Who was the man who told Emmerich to come here?"

"I don't know his name," Jason protested.

Sterling chuckled to himself. "You don't need to say anything."

Parker let go of Eliot with one hand, keeping the death grip on his fingers, and reached out for Jason's face.

Jason flinched before contact, clearly expecting something painful.

But it was Parker who got hurt.

"That's impossible," she said. "That can't be right."

Sterling's amusement faded at the prospect of failure. "You never told me she could be wrong about something," he asked Eliot.

"Not the time, Sterling," Eliot said. "And get up off there. We got what we need and you're gonna break the man's back."

Sterling pulled himself up off Jason with a sneer.

Parker seemed oblivious to the whole exchange, as did Jason, who was staring up at her trying to figure out what she'd done.

"Why would he do that?" she asked herself.

"Who – " Sterling started, but super strength or no super strength, Eliot shoved him to shut him up.

Parker turned to Eliot and looked him square in the eyes. She didn't have that strained look anymore. She was listening.

After several long moments, Parker's shoulders fell, and she let go of his hand. "You really did it," she said. "You really shut them out."

"Parker," Eliot said, because he thought he knew what she was talking about, but he'd had seven months of not thinking and he couldn't break the habit now.

"I guess now we know why they didn't make it back to Boston," she said. Her voice had gone completely flat, even by Parker standards. Eliot had heard GPS directions with more emotion. "They were busy running some con on Emmerich. I wonder why. It can't have been for money."

"Parker," Eliot said. There was no reaction in her face that indicated she could even hear or see him. He fought down the urge to take her hand again, because that way at least she'd hear him.

Sterling moved to say something, but Eliot gave him the dirtiest glare he could muster, and Sterling held his tongue, though not without a look of his own that promised trouble in the future.

Jason used the distraction to pull himself back up to his feet, though he moved slowly, not immune to the tension in the air.

"Parker," Eliot said again. "Parker, I don't know what you're thinking," though he could guess, "You gotta use your words."

Parker exhaled, still not looking at him. "The guy who told Emmerich to come here was Hardison."

Continued in Part 5.
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