A/N: Please watch your step, some unrepentant mushiness ahead. Rest assured, there will be a hint of a plot showing up soon.
The Building Blocks Job, chapter 2
Eliot didn't mind that people underestimated him. He welcomed it, in fact. He had a sharp mind and picked most things up very quickly. He had been told once or twice that he could go far in life if he would only apply himself. Trouble was, he didn't have time for stuff like that. He took the time to make sure he got decent grades in high school, but the rest of his time was taken up with working at the barn, helping Lizzie with homework, tending Mama's garden (he still thought of it as Mama's), baking pies, and cooking dinner...And football, which was pretty much all he had just for himself.
So, he preferred to let people think he wasn't as smart or wasn't as motivated as he really was, so they would stop pestering him to spend more time in studies, time that would cut into his responsibilities to his family. He did feel a little guilty about this because his parents had always worked hard and had always wanted their children to reach their full potential. But Dad was now too busy running the store to notice, and Mama...well Mama would have been shocked that he played down his cooking skills so the bosomy home economics teacher would spend more time with him. He felt very guilty about that one but, well, teenage hormones won out.
Twenty minutes after leaving Parker's office, while dicing carrots, celery and onions into tiny, precise pieces, Eliot began to question his decision to leave Parker unattended. He had heard the shower starting up down the hall about fifteen minutes ago, but nothing else since then, and was beginning to think she might have snuck out after all.
The bathrooms had been one of Hardison's genius ideas in the renovation of their floor of this building. He had taken the two standard multi-stall office bathrooms and had them each converted into full baths fit for any home. Sophie, who had very nearly squealed upon seeing them, had immediately claimed one for her and Parker's use only, and left the other for "the three Neanderthals" to share.
Ten minutes after adding chicken broth to the lightly-sauteed vegetables, and while methodically shredding a couple of boiled chicken breasts, Eliot debated the wisdom of just going down the hall and seeing for himself if Parker really was still here.
Ten minutes after that, he most certainly did NOT breathe a sigh of relief when he heard the shower turn off. His light chicken soup was gently bubbling and ready to go, and he was ladling it into bowls by the time Parker appeared, dressed in sweats and looking more haggard and drawn than when he left her.
She didn't say anything or even look up at him as he placed a bowl on the counter in front of her. She plopped down on a stool and stared at the bowl almost as if it was Sophie on stage, but gamely picked up her spoon without him having to press her further. Parker's diet of choice may have been straight sugar, but when Eliot cooked, Parker always tried what he put in front of her without complaint. At least she didn't act like a child in that regard.
Though Parker could seemingly put away more food in one sitting than any other two team members combined, she didn't seem to have much appetite tonight. When it became obvious Parker couldn't eat any more, Eliot took her bowl and wrapped it for later.
As Eliot finished his own dinner, he watched Parker wrap herself in her blanket from earlier and curl up on one end of the couch in the lounge. And he brooded. Parker was a lot like him, he had noticed in these long months they had worked together. Oh, it wasn't anything obvious, it was more...intangible. It was in her hyper-awareness in unfamiliar surroundings, in her aversion to being touched or even sitting too close to any of them sometimes. In her softness toward the orphans, the innocents, in Serbia...There was no way she had a past anything like his and yet...yet, he recognized something in her.
And so, he was pretty sure he had enough of an understanding that he could make a few basic assumptions. Assumption One: Parker needed to be in control of herself at all times. Sure she jumped off buildings, but he had watched her while she checked her gear. She was meticulous, not reckless. She had a tendency to stab people with cutlery, but that was when she was cornered, panicky. It was a reaction, not an action. Assumption Two: willingly taking a drug would be willingly giving up control. Not gonna happen. Assumption Three: the antidepressants hadn't been her choice.
So that left the question of why? And the only answer he could come up with was: Hardison's fault. With a few exceptions, Hardison created all their aliases for jobs. In this case, he had given Nate an alias with an alcohol addiction to keep him close to Hurley. He had made Parker a kleptomaniac, put her in a different wing so she'd have more excuse to wander the halls between her room and the dayroom where the therapy groups met. Eliot wasn't entirely sure, but he thought he read somewhere that antidepressants were used to treat kleptomania. If Eliot vaguely remembered reading that, then Hardison, with his infinitely annoying obsession with research, should have known better and figured something else out. Was it the kid's idea of a joke? Eliot was going to be making a very early phone call tomorrow morning.
Shoving his anger down deep for Parker's benefit, Eliot cleaned up the dinner preparations, then joined her on the couch. He was surprised to see her still awake and just staring at the blank television screen, curled up tighter than a frozen cat. It was truly extraordinary just how small she could make herself, almost like she really did want to disappear. "Thought you wanted to sleep?"
"Not yet." But she wasn't interested in the remote when he offered it to her. He flicked the television on, looking for something worth watching among Hardison's forty-five million channels.
"I turned the heat up in here. Feel any warmer?" A shrug and Parker burrowed deeper into the corner of the couch. Eliot finally settled on a showing of the classic western, Shane, and though Parker grimaced every time a horse came on screen, she didn't object. Eliot wasn't entirely surprised that as the movie wore on, Parker gradually uncurled from her corner and, when she thought he wasn't paying attention, crept ever so slowly across the couch toward him. He deliberately ignored her and she eventually pressed up against his side, apparently seeking further warmth. She already looked half-asleep and Eliot was willing to oblige, he just needed to adjust his arm...and drape it over her shoulders to get more comfortable. But no sooner had he settled his arm over her than he was rewarded with a very pointy elbow to the ribs as Parker shoved frantically away from him and all the way back to the other end of the couch.
"Damnit Parker! You're the one who got all cuddly with me!" He sat up and leaned forward, rubbing at the stinging pain in his side. That was gonna leave a bruise.
She didn't look at him, just pulled her blanket tighter around herself. "You're warm."
"Well, yeah, I kinda figured that was why. I was trying to help you get more comfortable." He checked his fingers for blood. That was a sharp elbow!
"It's just...the last time..."
"The last time, what?" Did she mean the time he had picked her up in the hospital hallway? She hadn't reacted well to that at all, but they had reached an understanding and moved on. Or he thought they did. She had come to him afterward, asking for some self-defense instruction to avoid scenarios like that in the future. That instruction was going pretty well, Parker was handling the hands-on aspect without too much trouble. There were times when he needed to back down and give her nerves a break, or call it a day, though that was happening less and less often now, and she was showing a lot of trust in him. Trust Eliot never intended to violate. Surely, an arm around the shoulders on the couch when she didn't feel well should have been safe?
She hadn't answered him. "Parker, the last time, what? Did someone hurt you?" Was it me?
Still silence. Ah, hell. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Hardison had damn well take it real slow if he wanted to have any chance of courting her. Like, the loser in a snail race slow. Body armor might be a good idea, too.
Parker was shivering, and Eliot wasn't sure if it was only from cold. "Hey, you know I'd never hurt you, right?" Silence. "Parker, tell me you know that." Finally, a nod, and Parker seemed to relax a little bit. She looked utterly exhausted, and he knew from some bitter experience that her nerves were probably shot all to hell. Just this afternoon she had been higher than a kite, no inhibition. Now it probably felt like she had jumped from a building and her rigging snapped.
"Hey, if you want to try this again, I promise I won't put my arm around you, OK?" Eliot settled back into his seat and returned his attention to the movie. Best to just let Parker decide what she was comfortable with. It took a few minutes, but she eventually moved back over and leaned up against him again. He shifted a little, very slowly, to give her more of his chest to lean against, and she pulled the blanket higher up over her shoulder as she burrowed deeper against him. Apparently, he was going to be her hot water bottle. It was a little awkward sitting that way, but if it made Parker comfortable, he would deal with it. After all, he had slept in much worse positions, in much worse places.
Parker seemed to be swinging back to "clingy" now. She rested her head under his chin and, to his great surprise, whispered "I trust you." Thoroughly bemused now, Eliot wrapped his arms loosely around her, as gently as if she were a priceless vase.
"It's just a cold, Sweetheart. Get some sleep, and I'll have Mrs. Morris from down the street stay with you tomorrow. I have to be at the store and Eliot has to be at school." Twelve-year-old Eliot watched from the doorway as Daddy tucked Lizzie in and kissed her goodnight. Daddy wasn't doing it right. It wasn't that he didn't care, but that he didn't really know what Mama used to do. It was Lizzie's first cold since Mama...he didn't want to think about that. Lizzie had been weepier than she usually was when sick and Daddy had been patient, but he just didn't get it.
Eliot waited until Daddy went down the hall to call Mrs. Morris, then went into his sister's room and sat on the edge of her bed. She wasn't asleep yet, and he could see a few tear tracks on her cheeks.
"I miss Mama," she whispered.
"Yeah, me too." Eliot almost felt like he wanted to be weepy, too. But he was too old for that. "You want some of Mama's tea?"
Lizzie sniffled and nodded, and Eliot left to make some. Mama had a special herbal tea that worked wonders on colds, and Eliot knew how to make it just like Mama had. They were low on honey, so Eliot made a note for himself to add two peach pies to the batch he was going to bake this weekend. Mr. Jennings, a beekeeper who lived a few blocks away, used to trade Mama honey for pies. Eliot kept up with Mama's customers because, while Daddy's store paid the bills, it was Mama's extra income that had kept them "comfortable," and he wanted that for Lizzie at least.
He took the tea to Lizzie and helped her sit up, sliding himself in behind her to lean against the headboard. Lizzie breathed better when sick if she was propped up a little bit. That was something Daddy didn't know, because it was always Mama who sat up with her. Daddy had to be up early to open the store, anyway.
Lizzie finished her tea and leaned back against Eliot and they just sat a while, and talked quietly about Mama, Eliot directing the conversation to happier memories. Finally, Lizzie fell asleep and Eliot dozed, ignoring the uncomfortable position he was in against the hard headboard. And if he got in trouble at school the next day for falling asleep in class, twice, Eliot didn't mind. Because that's what you did for family.
Sometime after the movie ended and Eliot had let himself doze off, Parker woke, pushing up and away from him again. Leery of the last time, Eliot let go of her immediately and just watched as she struggled upright. But he realized she wasn't pulling away from him in fear, she needed to...vomit. On the floor. Well, he had been expecting that sooner or later, and better the floor than him.
Moving slowly and deliberately, making sure she could see him in her peripheral vision, he reached over and pulled her hair back with one hand. With the other, he gently tugged her hairband off her wrist and secured a loose ponytail. He figured she wouldn't accept any comforting words or back rubs right now, so he just retrieved a small trashcan from the end of the couch. Her blanket had slipped off to the floor when she sat up, and had caught most of the mess, so he bundled it up, and placed the trashcan in front of her.
By now she had thoroughly emptied her stomach and had been reduced to dry heaves. He waited it out with her, wordlessly, until that also subsided and she simply sat slumped forward, like a crumpled rag. It seemed she never did anything halfway.
"Feel any better?"
A slow shake of the head. "Dizzy, like I still have to puke." Still moving deliberately and where she could see him, Eliot reached a hand out to brush her forehead and cheek, gauging her temperature. Feverish, but not dangerously so.
Eliot pulled a clean throw off one of the armchairs and draped it over her shoulders, then went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of cool water, which he pressed into her slightly trembling hand, and a damp cloth to wipe her face. While she did so, and damnit he hated this timid, quiet, and compliant Parker, he wiped up the rest of the mess on the floor, gathered up the soiled blanket, and returned to the kitchen.
Sophie had insisted upon the addition of a small laundry room when it became obvious the team was spending more and more time at the offices, during and between jobs. It was becoming a second home for more than just Hardison, apparently. Even Eliot had spent a night or two sleeping on the couch in his office, for the sake of convenience. Now, as he tossed the blanket in the washer and set the cycle, Eliot silently thanked Sophie's insistence on domestic touches.
Daddy had asked Eliot once if he would mind doing a few extra chores here and there. Laundry, dishes, just an extra night or two every week, since Mama wasn't there to do them, and Daddy had to run the store. The store paid the bills, but it was too small to hire another employee so Daddy ran it alone. Eliot didn't mind. Lizzie did her own share of the chores, but she was only seven and Eliot wanted her to enjoy being a kid, and not have to worry about too many things. Neither Daddy nor Eliot ever mentioned that the "extra night or two" gradually became every night, and the chores were in addition to his job at the barn, homework, cooking, baking, gardening, feeding the chickens, any number of other things. Eliot suspected Daddy felt guilty about it, but he didn't ever mention that, either.
Eliot returned to the kitchen, filled the kettle and set it to boil, then pulled down the small stash of tea he kept here. His was stacked on the left-hand side of the cabinet while Sophie's stash took up the right-hand side. After a few small but intense skirmishes in what Hardison now referred to as The Great Los Angeles Tea War, Eliot and Sophie had reached an agreement: Respect my tea and I will respect yours.
Coffee tended to be Eliot's go-to morning drink, especially after...well, there was a reason he was sometimes grumpier than usual. But there were teas Eliot simply enjoyed drinking, and others that were medicinal. He pulled out a chamomile blend.
While waiting for the water to heat, Eliot watched Parker over the counter. She looked so small, fragile, miserable, and completely unlike herself. He thumped his fists on the counter and turned away. Damnit, this should not have happened! Hardison was gonna get a piece of his mind, shake up his happy vacation a little bit.
Eliot brewed the tea strong, then diluted it with cool water so it was the perfect temperature to take out to Parker. He crouched on the floor in front of her, and handed her the mug, "Here, sip this slowly, it'll settle your stomach."
She held the mug as if it might bite her, and he couldn't blame her. After a bout of vomiting like that, you felt like you never wanted to eat or drink anything ever again.
"D'ya want something to help you sleep?" Eliot didn't take anything pharmaceutical if he could avoid it. Being under any kind of influence, having his reactions dulled could mean death in his line of work. And now, he had more than just himself to think about. He couldn't afford to be hindered in any way. Even so, he kept a few necessities in his "First Aid Kit On Steroids" as Hardison had once called it. He might avoid taking things, but if one of the team needed something, it was there.
"I don't do drugs." Parker seemed suddenly suspicious and scowled down at the mug still in her hand. Then she met Eliot's eyes.
"No, I wouldn't do that to you. All that's in there is ginger, chamomile, and mint. It'll calm your stomach, help you relax a little, but it won't make you sleep. Try to drink the rest of it, slowly. I'll be right back." He returned a few moments later with a load of pillows and blankets, which he deposited on the couch next to her. As he took the now-empty mug from Parker's hands and crouched again in front of her, he asked, "If you don't like taking drugs, why did you take those?"
"That Dr. Frank at the rehab cornered me, said it was part of the therapy." She shrugged. "I didn't want to blow my cover. He said it was perfectly safe. He said, 'Antidepressants are taken by twenty million Americans every day to treat a variety of behavioral disorders.'" Eliot scoffed at that, and almost missed what she whispered next. "Then it just felt...good. You know? I was...happy?"
"That a statement or a question?" Another shrug from Parker, as if she weren't quite sure herself.
"OK, Parker. One last question, and then I'll drop it. Why didn't you just palm the pills? I know you could've."
"I guess...I thought it would make me more normal. That's what one of my foster parents said once. 'You need to be more normal.' I didn't like them then, either."
Eliot rolled his eyes at that. "'Normal' isn't normal for you, Parker. There's nothing wrong with you."
"Don't do that again, please?" At his questioning look, Parker continued. "Like before, when you thought I was afraid of you. You started acting like...not you."
Eliot shook his head, "OK then, maybe there is something wrong with you." To which she finally smiled. Yeah, definitely beyond exhausted.
"All right Parker, think you can lie down now? I want to try something else to help you sleep, if you'll let me. No drugs, I promise."
She settled on her side, stretched out on the couch and facing him, still kneeling on the floor. She watched him sideways, suspiciously, as he reached for her arm, but made no move to resist. He kept his grip and touch light enough that she could pull away at any time, and he explained what he was doing as he pressed firmly into a spot on the underside of her wrist.
"I picked up a lot of things over the years, you know. Always good to learn things, never know when it might come in handy. There was this Chinese woman I met once, this little spitfire who gave the best massages..." And maybe there was a little too much leer in his grin then, because Parker rolled her eyes.
He switched to the other wrist and at Parker's expectant look, continued his explanation. "It's called accupressure, like accupuncture but without the needles, old part of Chinese medicine. Anyway, doin' this is supposed to help you sleep."
"Does it really work?" Parker sounded like she was trying to hold back a yawn.
"Dunno, never had a use for any sleep while I was with her..." Another eye roll. "Well, does it feel like it's working?"
"Mmmm hmmm..." And whether it actually did work, or exhaustion was simply catching up to her, Parker was having trouble keeping her eyes open now. Eliot tucked her arm back up on the couch and pulled the blankets over her.
"You're really good at this, you know," she whispered, even as her eyes closed.
"What's that, Sweetheart?"
"Caring." He sat back on his heels, and watched as Parker's breathing evened out into the rhythm of sleep. Well hell. It seemed that, despite his best efforts to keep these people at arm's length, the little thief had snuck past his defenses.
Eliot didn't mind that he was getting a new baby brother or sister. Mama and Daddy seemed to think he would, but he was just excited about the fun they would have. Mama and Daddy had talked about "responsibility" and what a big brother was expected to do...All he could think of was that he would get to teach the new baby everything he knew!
Eliot stood in the doorway of Mama's hospital room and he was suddenly a little terrified. Mama was holding the most delicate-looking thing Eliot had ever seen. Daddy gently guided him into the room to stand next to Mama's bed, and Mama reached over and placed a sleeping baby girl in Eliot's outstretched arms. Daddy stood behind him, supporting his arms, but he needn't have bothered. Eliot would not have dropped her for anything. Not even if a big ol' stinkin' bear burst into the room and tried to eat them. He would have punched that bear right in the nose without even waking his sister!
A/N: Parker's quote from Dr. Frank is taken directly from the 12-Step Job episode transcript, courtesy of the website Leverage, Seriously!
I always thought that in another era, Eliot would have been a lot like Shane.
Eliot picking Parker up in a hospital hallway is from The Snow Job episode, and my subsequent story The Finding Trust Job.
The last little paragraph contains a roundabout shout out to sapienlover's awesome Leverage story A Walk on the Wild Side. I was working on a very early outline of this story while reading that one, and when I needed a villain suitable for a five-year-old Eliot, this one presented itself.
Also, it is pure dumb chance that Eliot's sister here and a certain little baby in sapienlover's stories share a name.