“Parker! What a charming surprise.” A woman purred over their earpieces.
“Don’t!” A staccato protest then static.
“What’s going on in there?” Nate demanded. “Hardison, do you have a visual?”
“Working on it! She wasn’t even supposed to be in there!” His fingers hit the keys hard enough to send shocks through his hands.
The thud of Eliot’s roundhouse kick meeting a door blasted into their ears. “I’m in!”
Silence. Hardison was sure he could hear every one of their heartbeats racing through the earpieces, a concert of panic. He worked faster trying to hack into the building's cameras until the worst occurs to him. The tiny shop meant only as a staging point for the heist wasn’t large enough to boast any electronics to speak of except for the cash register.
“I’ve got her.” Eliot interrupted. “Sort of.”
“Green button on the back.” Sophie chimed in.
“Green button?” Hardison looked up from the keyboard.
“Emergency release for the harness.”
“Really not the problem.” Eliot bit off. “Round up at the van.”
The last thing Hardison expected was Eliot holding a miniature Parker bundled up in his hooded sweatshirt, eyes larger than an anime character’s.
“Found her like this.” Parker peered out at all of them, expression utterly blank. Her small arms wrapped tight around Eliot’s neck, the voluminous sleeves of the sweatshirt falling down to reveal skinny pale arms. “Whoever did it to her was long gone.”
“Parker?” Sophie leaned in a little. Parker drew back, hiding her face in sweatshirt’s neck.
“We should get off the street.” Eliot said gruffly. “Can’t look good the five of us and one kid.”
Nate took the wheel.
"We need to get her some proper clothing to change into." Sophie said when they’d left the neighborhood well behind.
"Clothes?” Eliot stared at her. “That’s our priority?”
"Unless you happen to already know of a way to turn a toddler instantly into an adult, it's going to take us at least a little while to figure it out. And carrying an infant around dressed like this is going to attract the wrong sort of attention." Sophie turned to Nate. “There’s a store nearby. I’ll run in and get her something.”
“Take the corporate card.” Hardison glanced up in the rear-view mirror. Nate looked worried. Not good.
“No skirts.” Someone said. Hardison winced when he realized it was him. “I mean, she doesn’t like the frilly stuff right?”
“She’s a child.” Sophie scoffed, then glanced at the little girl still holding a death grip around Eliot’s neck.
“She’s still Parker.” Eliot said as he tried to find a way to sit without unsettling the limpet attached to his neck.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Hardison tried to start researching while Sophie was gone, but he kept getting distracted by the prickling feeling on the back of his neck. Every time he turned around, Parker was staring at him. Eliot talked to her in a steady low murmur of nonsense that Hardison suspected he usually used on horses.
After the fifth time he had to stop working, he gave in and stared right back at her. Even in miniature Parker wasn’t exactly cute. Her features were too sharp, her haircut too plain. The crazy huge blue eyes won her back a lot of points though. The preternatural stillness reminded him of his first weeks with Nana. He’d been a tiny kid too, curled up in the corner of the cozy kitchen praying so hard he’d be allowed to stay that he hadn’t room in his head for anything else.
The reminder made him uncomfortable, so he did the only thing he could think of. He stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes at her.
For a second she didn’t react and he plunged into cold sweating panic. Then she squeaked.
“Nice.” Eliot rolled his eyes. “You freaked her out man.”
“No way.” Hardison grinned. “I know that sound anywhere. That’s a mini-Parker laugh, watch and learn.”
He pulled his nose up and bit his bottom lip. She squeaked again and this time smiled to match the noise. He made every funny face he knew in rapid succession until her arms finally came down off of Eliot’s neck so she could try to make them back at him. The huge sleeves of the sweatshirt hindered her, making her laugh harder.
“You sound like a mouse.” Eliot stared down at her. When she looked up at him with a broad smile, he laughed. “Are you a mouse?”
“Mouse!” She wiggled fingers around her nose for whiskers. “Eliot mouse?”
“Uh uh. Eliot’s a dog.” He growled at her.
“Eliot, don’t scare her.” Nate climbed back to them.
“Does she look scared to you?” Hardison pointed.
Mini-Parker was trying unsuccessfully to repeat the growl at Nate which apparently cracked her up because she kept laughing through her attempts. Sophie returned the van to find three adult men making various animal noises and Parker red in the face from giggling.
“Parker, do you want to get dressed?” She offered her arms to the little girl. Parker froze, retreating into the over-sized sweater.
“It’s Sophie.” Eliot reassured her. “She brought you clothes, ok?”
“No.” Parker said from the depths of the sweater.
“Parker, do you want to dress yourself?” Nate asked slowly.
Comprehension dawned over them all as she nodded rapidly. Hardison wanted to do a thousand things at once and wound up doing nothing as Sophie held up a ratty old blanket to let Parker get dressed in privacy. He caught Eliot’s eyes. They held a short silent conversation.
“An interesting artistic decision.” Sophie said gently as she lifted the blanket away.
Parker had apparently made her own outfit from the choices Sophie had given her. The brilliant yellow top sported a cheeky looking rubber duck. She’d matched it with black and lime green striped leggings.
“Pretty.” Parker insisted, then climbed back into Eliot’s lap, leaning her head on his chest. Freed of the sweatshirt, she looked delicate...breakable.
“Yeah.” Eliot said hoarsely, wrapping a protective arm around her. “Nice choice, kid.”
"No shoes?" Nate asked when the quiet reigned for too long.
"I wasn't sure of her size. With clothes it doesn't matter as much if I got it a bit wrong." She frowned, everything looked a bit loose on Parker’s tiny frame. “I asked for two year old sizes. Maybe she’s younger than that?”
“How old are you?” Nate asked Parker gently.
“Three.” She held up three fingers to underscore her point.
“No lying Parker.” He chided her. She frowned at him, eyebrows wrinkling in a familiar expression.
“Dude, why would she lie?” Hardison cut in when her lower lip started wobble. “She says three, she’s three.”
“Target!” Sophie interrupted with a smile so falsely broad, Hardison thought it might crack her face in two. “We can get her shoes and whatever else she’ll need.”
"Hardison and I can stay here, get started on figuring out what happened." Nate said.
“Aw no man. I don’t..” He trailed off helplessly. Glancing over at Parker he felt something rise in his throat. “She needs us.”
"Come on, Nate," Sophie said, tugging at his arm. "We can move faster as a group.”
Eliot was still holding Parker despite Sophie and Nate’s offers to her. She had clearly chosen her protector and clung to him with all her usual stubbornness. For his part, Eliot didn’t seem inclined to discourage her.
“Have you taken care of children before?” Sophie asked as she pushed a shopping cart into Nate’s hands.
“Some.” He juggled Parker a little so she could look out over the store. Of course, that also put her between him and Sophie’s questions.
It turned out that Parker’s hands hadn’t forgotten their craft or maybe she’d always had naturally sticky fingers. In the short walk to the shoe section, Hardison pried a box of screws, a Tupperware container and two packages of cereal from her hands. Her nose wrinkled up each time he took the items back, but her annoyance disappeared as soon as the next object caught her attention.
The aisle of tiny shoes was unnerving. Sophie picked up a pair of red sparkly flats dreamily then set them rapidly back down with a slight flush.
"I played Dorothy in a school play. One of my favorite roles.” She explained. “What do you want Parker?”
“These.” She squirmed to reach for a shelf.
“The green ones?” Hardison picked them up. They barely covered his palm, but their toxic neon shade made up for their petite size. The designer had also seen fit to bedazzle the damn things in mind melting spirals. He tried to follow the pattern and wound up cross-eyed and sea sick. Definitely intended to summon an Old One. “You sure?”
“Gimmie!” She lunged for them. Both Eliot and Hardison grabbed her. She wound up hanging up-side down from Eliot’s arms laughing hysterically as Hardison tried to remember how to breathe.
“I just lost like a year off my life, seriously.” Hardison told her.
“Kids are good for that.” Nate said solemnly. Sophie put a hand on his arm.
“Parker is always good for that.” He knew that she would be fine every time she launched herself off the side of a building, but it still freaked him out a little each time.
“Toys.” Eliot swung Parker back up right and settled her up on his shoulders. “She needs toys.”
“She needs us to fix this.” Hardison withered a little at Eliot’s glare.
“You want to take care of a bored Parker?”
The walk through the girl’s pepto bismo pink aisle produced no interest in their pint size co-worker. Not even the fake jewelry aroused her interest. When they turned into the stuffed toys, she did treat them to another heart attack.
“Bunny!” Was their only warning before she leaped from Eliot’s shoulders onto the shelves. She made it this time and wrapped her arms around her prize before they manged to get her down. The stuffed toy wasn’t anything special to look at or particularly soft, but she couldn’t be cajoled into a different one. So Bunny stayed, released only momentarily to be scanned at the register along with a metric ton of other toys and the potentially Apocalypse causing shoes.
Back at Nate’s place, Parker immediately scrambled under the coffee table with Bunny, a coloring book and the largest box of crayons money could buy. Relieved of the immediate practical concerns, Nate and Sophie turned to their cellphones dialing number after number to track down the mystery woman and her strange little store that according to every record shouldn’t exist.
Hardison sent his best bots out to dig out anything on rapid de-aging. When he was sure no one was looking at him, he dug through an encrypted file of information he’d downloaded years ago, but never read. Looking through it quickly proved his initial instinct had been right: bad news. He didn’t want to look at it, but forced himself through the whole record despite his stomach cramping up in wincing sympathy. Tapping a finger on the mouse, he left it up and retreated to the living room.
Squirming a little, he managed to get underneath the table. Bunny had been propped up next to a coloring book. The picture had once been some kind of Disney Princess, but Parker had carefully drawn a black box over the simpering head and turned the dress into a cascade of greens that made Princess Whoever look like a distant relation to Cthulhu. Eliot sat on the couch, his feet intruding under the table. Whenever she added a color, she knocked on his boot and he would look down to inspect her progress.
“Looks good.” He smiled at her. Then glanced over at Hardison. “What?”
“What?” He asked back, eyes rounded in innocence.
“You look like you know something I don’t.”
Hardison smiled back in what he thought was a mysterious manner.
“You video taping all this?” Eliot accused.
“Like you don’t want evidence of Parker being cute.”
“Did you find anything out?”
“Later.” His smile fell away.
“Bunny says snack time.” Parker stared between them. “Goldfish.”
All three of them gave Sophie big eyes until she gave in and brought them goldfish crackers, a juice box for Parker and soda for Eliot and Hardison. They shared out the bounty under the coffee table. It was a tight fit with two grown men, but totally worth it.
Parker went willingly with Sophie to lunch though she didn’t allow her to hold her hand or pick her up. She didn’t protest out right, just shrank away each time Sophie got too close.
“It’s ok.” Sophie told her brightly. “Sometimes a girl has to help herself, right?”
“Show me.” Eliot demanded once they were out of hearing range.
“I don’t even know if I should have seen it.” He led him to the computer anyway and pulled up the records. “When we all started working together, I looked into her a little, but I couldn’t...didn’t seem right to read it.”
“Didn’t seem right?” Incredulous didn’t sit right on Eliot’s face. It always veered into intense sarcasm.
“I can’t have morals?” He asked then crumbled under the force of Eliot’s glare. “It freaked me out. Who has a record that deeply sealed before they hit double digits? I knew it had to be ugly and it was. Look for yourself.”
Eliot read with a squint and Hardison absently wondered if he needed his glasses. It was easier to think about that then what he’d found. They couldn’t make it go away, couldn’t fix it. There was no one left alive to maim or con in revenge. Only a stark string of facts that explained a lot and nothing at all about Parker.
“We’ll do better.” Eliot finally said. “If we can’t re-age her....we’ll do better.”
None of them were any kind of parent. Maybe Nate had been once upon a time, but time and drink had wrecked havoc on him. Four of them might make it though. And really, if the bar had been set any lower, it would have gone subterranean.
“Yeah, of course, we will. ” He rubbed a hand over his face. When his eyes refocused, Eliot was still looking at him. “What?”
“Thought you’d be more upset about all this. I thought you and Parker...”
“I’m plenty upset. Upset enough that I came back out the other side to numb.” He found a smile from somewhere, it felt rusty and wrong. Eliot must have noticed because his frown deepened, the wrinkle between his eyes becoming a deep crevice. “Anyway, Parker and I are friends. If she’s ever ready, I’m there, but I’m not holding my breath over it.”
If he were expecting a follow up question, he would have been disappointed. Eliot walked away, leaving him to his work. There was plenty to go through, but most of it was clearly useless. A few interesting pieces of fanfiction that he saved to read later and some cool hoax sites. His usual enthusiasm was dampened and he was grateful when he was interrupted by Parker climbing into his lap, clutching Bunny in one hand.
“Hey, Parker.” He lifted her up despite a cry of protest.
“Sad?” She asked, reaching to touch the edges of his lips, her fingers coming away wet. Had he cried? He couldn’t remember crying. Must be from when the Mountain Dew bottle sprayed his face earlier.
“Not sad.” He dredged up a smile.
“Good.” She settled against him like she had with Eliot. Her shoes glittered ominously in the light of the desk lamp.
“Want to play a computer game?” He leaned over her to pull up a kid friendly site with bright colors. She only watched, eyelids starting to droop.
“Oh, hey let’s get you into a bed...” Too late. She fell asleep against him, Bunny secure in one arm. Petrified of waking her, he wound up playing one of the kid friendly games with the sound turned off, checking on her every other minute. One of her nostrils whistled a little and the sound was unreasonably endearing.
Eliot made chicken nuggets from scratch carefully cut into animal shapes. Hardison staged a vicious nugget on nugget battle with Parker, each gleefully eating their losers.
“That is disgusting.” Sophie said through her laughter. “You're teaching her terrible habits.”
“Survival of the fittest.” Hardison dipped a hippo into ketchup before exaggeratedly biting it’s head off. “Good to learn that young.”
The pile of useless printouts lingered at his elbow stained with food. None of them gave him any ideas about turning Parker back into an adult. The only lead they had was the one that brought them to the shop in the first place which had been purely tangential to the actual case. Sophie bundled up Nate and herded him out to follow up on it anyway.
After eating a few more Oreos than Hardison would have guess possible for someone of her weight, Parker started to doze in her seat again.
“Bedtime.” Eliot scooped her up. “Think Sophie remembered pajamas?”
Searching the myriad plastic bags that had apparently been breeding when they weren’t looking, Hardison located a pair of footie pajamas with romping sheep on it. Apparently Parker’s objections to being helped were all for Sophie or faded with fatigue because she docilely let Eliot stuff in her into her nightwear.
In the pajamas, one of Bunny’s ears clenched in her fist, Hardison had to swallow hard around the lump rising in his throat. The Parker he knew was all sharp edges and quirks. He’d spent careful long months excavating her, plying her into softness to get a look at what was underneath.
This Parker needed no such careful handling to get at her vulnerable underbelly. She was all give with her limited vocabulary, anime eyes and reaching hands. Grown up Parker would have laughed at the idea of needing Hardison or Eliot to protect her. Toddler Parker went easily into their arms and snuggled in for the duration.
“Story.” She insisted through a yawn even as Eliot was drawing a blanket over her. She was a dot on Nate’s bed, nearly swallowed by the adult sized pillow.
Eliot looked expectantly at Hardison.
“Why me?” He crossed his arms over his chest.
“Just tell her about your latest Warcraft victory or something that should put her to sleep.” Eliot settled back on the bed.
“I hate you for the record.” He sat down on the very edge of the bed. “Let’s see... age appropriate story for a mini-Parker....”
He tried to remember the of fairy tales his Nan had told him, but time had swept them into nonsensical fragments. The pressure to perform coming to bear, he blurted,
“Ok, once upon a time there was this boy called Luke Skywalker.” He settled against the headboard, ignoring Eliot’s snort. “He lived on a farm with his aunt and uncle, but what he really wanted to do was fly.”
He watched Parker carefully as he talked, trying to keep his voice low and soothing. She struggled mightily to stay awake, but her heroic efforts finally failed her. The quiet whistle in her breath alerted him and he trailed off into silence. He waited for Eliot’s wise crack, but apparently the day had worn him out too. Eliot was out cold, one arm curled around protectively around Parker’s pillow.
Leaving them asleep, Hardison tiptoed back to the living room rig and started his search anew, hoping to find something that had been left behind. He must have fallen asleep because he woke to someone trying to stick something up his nose.
“zzmgfl.” He protested, opening blurry eyes.
Parker stared back at him, finger paused en route to poking him again. Her hair was a messy cloud of wisps.
“Cereal?” She asked plaintively.
“Let’s see what Nate’s got, ok?” Speaking of, Hardison looked around as he stood up with her in his arms. Nate was sacked out on the couch and Eliot was already in the kitchen, frowning at the contents of the fridge. “Morning.”
“Think she’ll eat an omelet?”
“If she won’t, I will.”
Parker apparently approved of eggs only if scrambled with ketchup much to Eliot’s displeasure. Nate woke up enough to tell them that Sophie was tracking a tenuous lead to California.
“If it works out, I’ll need to fly out to meet her.” Nate eyed them both. “Can the two of you handle Parker?”
“Yeah.” Hardison said immediately. “Yeah, we can do that.”
Belatedly, he looked to Eliot, who was methodically wiping off Parker’s ketchup laden fingers. When he finished, Hardison caught his eye, but couldn’t decipher the look he got in return.
After some negotiation, it was deemed that Hardison’s apartment was slightly more Parker-proofed than Eliot’s weapon strewn condo. Eliot took her out to the park while Hardison worked on tucking away his valuables (vintage Transformers, a life size replica of a Bat Leth and still in the original packaging G.I. Joes that adult Parker had showed far too much interest in) and vacuuming his rarely used guest bedroom.
The room was clean if not entirely welcoming. In the few minutes he had left before they came back he did some quick online ordering. If Parker was a grown up tomorrow then he could just donate it or send it back.
The door opened with a clatter just as he confirmed his order. Eliot had apparently gone grocery shopping, the counter weighted down with bags. Parker happily nibbled on a croissant that left a trail of crumbs behind her.
“How was the park?” He picked her up and plonked her on a stool.
“Went high!” She beamed.
“Swing set.” Eliot explained. “She’s fearless.”
“Sounds like our Parker.”
Their eyes met over head.
“I know I agreed to this for you.” Hardison offered weakly. “If you don’t want to stay, I can probably-”
“Said we’d do this, didn’t I?” Eliot piled fresh vegetables into the previously empty bin in the fridge.
“Yeah.” He took a sip of Parker’s juice. His mouth had gone very dry. “Yeah, all right.”
They spent the afternoon laboring over Candyland. Parker seemed to grasp the general concept of the game, but had a hard time letting go of the cards once they’d been used. They wound up switching to poker with Parker in Eliot’s lap, fingers lodged firmly in her mouth as she methodically destroyed any chance he had of winning by calling out the numbers she recognized.
That night when he started to unfold the sofabed, Eliot halted him.
“What’re you doing?”
“Well Parker has the guest room, so...”
“I’m not sleeping on that thing.”
“You did that one time.”
“Because you put Percocet in my coffee.” Eliot growled.
“You skull was leaking onto the tile.” Hardison crossed his arms. “I got that imported from Italy and you were dripping brain parts onto it.”
“No sofa bed.”
“Fine, I’ll take it.” Of course that meant he’d have to wait for Eliot to fall asleep so he could unbend the bar that made the damn thing so uncomfortable. It held the green lockbox in place, the one that was full of cash and a spare identity. Parker hadn’t found it yet despite having discovered the last four locations in under an hour.
“Your bed is huge, it can handle two people.”
“You never showed an interest in sharing a bed with me before.” He tried to sound cool and collected.
“That was before I knew the alternative was a sofa.” Eliot on the other hand, always succeeded in sounding cool and collected. Or angry and collected...or was it cool and angry? Either way he did it.
Hardison wasn’t sure what he was expecting when Eliot slid under the covers with him. He lay still. Feigning death was how you handled approaching bears, right? Nothing happened. After a few long tense minutes, he figured Eliot really had just gone to sleep. When he woke up, he found Parker slumbering peacefully between them, Bunny clenched like a shield in front of her.
Hardison’s order arrived just after breakfast. There was bunny themed bedding, a squat white bureau, a low table in hideous plastic primary colors with matching chairs, a child friendly laptop and glow in the dark stars to put on the ceiling. He let Parker help him with the stars, hoisting her up on his shoulders so she could reach. The constellations came out as some kind of lopsided smiley face and a drunk looking cat.
“Those won’t come down easy.” Eliot commented as he finished setting up the coloring table. He filled the cups with crayons. “Strong adhesive.”
“I like them, they can stay up.” He had an extra pack squirreled away to hang in his own room later.
“Nate and Sophie called. They don’t have anything new to go on.”
“Damn, well hope they pick up the trail soon.” He bounced Parker on his shoulders, grinning as his listened to her laugh.
“Yeah.” Eliot looked down to check the steadiness of the table, his hair swinging down to cover his smile, but Hardison caught the edges of it anyway. It filled him with a disconcerting warmth.
It only took a few days for routine to settle in. Always an early riser, Eliot woke up first and went for a run. Hardison and Parker stayed in bed, him drowsing, her watching cartoons until Eliot came back to start breakfast. They’d eat together, get Parker cleaned up and dressed for the day before taking showers. In the morning, Hardison did what little work he had, helping Nate and Sophie, maintaining his longer running hacks and siphoning interest from his various accounts to his charitable interests. All the while, he could hear Eliot in frank discussion with Parker. They played, but Eliot slipped lessons in a seamless way that Hardison envied. Alphabet songs, number games and an increasingly large pile of books read aloud became the theme music of his mornings.
Lunch was usually out. Parker would walk between them down the street, occasionally hanging from their hands monkey-like. The waitresses stopped looking at them sideways after the third or forth time they went to the sidewalk cafe. Some of them even cooed over Parker, who in true con man form played into their hands until she received her extra cookie.
Eliot took the afternoons to do whatever it was he did in his free time. Hardison assumed it had something to do with plants. He always returned with semi-circles of brilliant green under his fingernails to match the magic marker streaks Parker doodled over his knuckles. After a short nap, Hardison and Parker would head out into the world. The city opened to them and he reveled in having a pint-size pass to attractions limited to the under three feet tall crowd. They explored the science museum, pressed their faces to the glass of the aquarium and climbed over the duckling statues in the public gardens. The shoes turned out to be a useful evil. He could spot them from a half mile away when she ran off after a squirrel.
Sometimes people shot him bewildered or concerned looks that never failed to make him a little angry and a lot glad that he’d drawn up fake adoption papers. He’d even put a picture in his wallet that Sophie had taken of him and a grown up Parker grinning at each other. When someone got a little too interested, he’d strike up friendly conversation and show them the picture of his supposed wife. That usually deflated them and if he did it right, made them walk away with their tails tucked between their legs. When it didn’t and a rigid grandmother turned her harsh eyes to Parker and asked firmly,
“Is this man your father?” While he gritted his teeth so hard they cracked, Parker stared right back at her.
“Daddy.” Parker told her defiantly, lifting her arms up to him. “She’s scary monster ugly.”
He didn’t regret the ice cream cone he bought her right after, even if it took the better part of an hour to clean the remains of it off of her.
When they got home, he told Eliot about it, looking to share the laugh. Instead he found himself pulled into a hug that was over so quickly he couldn’t say for sure whether or not it had really happened. He was left with a fleeting impression of warmth and profound confusion.
Eliot’s dinners sprang forth in such abundance and quality that Hardison started doing laps in the rooftop pool again to keep up. The meals left him placid and willing to do dishes, while Eliot negotiated Parker’s bath. He hid his laughter at their haggling by running the water in the sink.
He kept telling Parker stories at bed time equipped with the books Eliot had bought. They always ended with Goodnight Moon, read in the appropriately solemn singsong until she was deeply asleep.
Nights...nights were strange. Hardison had tried to stick to his usual diet of MMORPGS and downloaded episodes of foreign science fiction shows. Somehow though, Eliot was always watching something that looked more interesting or experimenting in the kitchen and needed a taster or he found something that Eliot needed to see. More often than not they wound up on the couch, television bubbling in the background as they talked idly about the day or whatever Nate and Sophie had phoned in.
They continued to share the bed as chastely as they had the first night until Hardison started to think insane things like “What if I rolled over and threw my arm over him?” or “What does the skin feel like where his shirt rides up?” Then inevitably, Eliot would roll over or snort and Hardison would flinch, the sheer terror of his thought being discovered enough to push them from his mind.
It was comfortable and predictable, so of course it ended abruptly with Sophie calling excitedly about a cure. Hardison found himself wavering over telling Eliot. He chickened out and waited until after Parker was asleep.
“They found her. The woman that cursed Parker.” He blurted as Eliot picked up the remote. “She told them how to reverse it.”
Silence pervaded. Hardison shifted uncomfortably. Eliot slowly set the remote down.
“Good.” Eliot said quietly. “That’s good.”
“I dunno.” His mouth was running away with him. “What about doing it better? I mean, we said we could...we have been.”
“She deserves to be herself.” Eliot’s gaze was fixed into space to the left of Hardison’s face.“We can’t take away thirty years of her life and make her a different person. She has a life.”
“Right...you’re right.” He shook his head. “I’m going to go for a walk, you want me bring anything back?”
“Yeah, we’re out of milk.” Eliot looked him over. “You want company?”
“No...no I just need to think.”
The fresh air sparked something in him and before he could think about it too hard, he broke into an easy jog and then a run. His lungs burned and his feet hurt, but his head was blissfully clear. He ran until he had to to stop or risk falling over. A brick building provided a convenient place to lean while he caught his breath.
He’d never wanted children. Hell, he’d never been with one person long enough to give it any kind of serious thought. And he liked Parker the adult. She was weird and funny and she seemed to like him. Their flirting banter had become a high point of his day. He even liked that she didn’t get normal social cues. It wasn’t often that he got to be the suave one. Changing her back should be a no-brainer. Sure the last two weeks had been fun, but they’d been fun partially because they were temporary, an anomaly. Yet, the thought of kissing adult Parker had lost a lot of it’s appeal after taking care of her as a kid. It felt wrong somehow in his head. Like Luke and Leia’s kiss once you knew they were twins.
He’d miss her. The little her. Some deep instinctual part of him had liked having someone to look after and take care of. He liked showing her the world. Even more he’d liked sharing that with Eliot. Their lives with Parker slotted them together in a way they wouldn’t ordinarily fit. As soon as Parker was back to herself, Eliot would be too. He’d move back into his own place and it would probably be as if it never happened at all.
The moon painted the pavement on his way back. He passed the convenience store and bought milk. Even if there was no one left to drink it come tomorrow, he could drown his sorrows with it. With that in mind, he bought two large boxes of Lucky Charms. Sugary cereals hadn’t been allowed in the apartment after the day Parker had slurped down a bowl of Fruit Loops and had to literally be peeled of the ceiling.
Eliot was still awake when he came back, stretched out in front of the TV with one game or another playing.
“I’m going to go take care of it.” Hardison said carefully, heading towards Parker’s room. He didn’t think of it as the guest room anymore.
“Wait.” Eliot got to his feet. “Just give me a minute.”
“Yeah...yeah sure.” Hardison waited in the hallway.
When Eliot emerged, his eyes were tight and he pushed past Hardison without a word. Hardison pressed his lips together and went in. Whatever Eliot had said to Parker, it had been done quietly. She lay sound asleep.
It’s the easiest thing in the world, Sophie had said over the phone, someone just has to tell her they love her and mean it.
Maybe Eliot had already done that though he had a hard time picturing it. Eliot didn’t seem the type for last minute confessions. Probably he’d kissed her forehead as he had the past few nights before she fell asleep. The blankets were tucked up carefully around her and he could easily picture Eliot smoothing the covers over her.
“Well, it’s just you and me.” He said quietly. Parker twitched her sleep, nose wrinkling. Her hold on Bunny tightened. He sat down next to her, stroking her hair lightly. She went still and quiet again, except for her whistling breath.
“Sophie says that it’s easy, but she’s a liar.” He stared up at the drunk cat constellation. “I told you once I liked how you turned out. I meant that. So don’t take this the wrong way when I say I’ve been glad to give you something else. I don’t know if you’ll remember any of this in the morning and if you do, maybe you’ll hate me for it. I hope not. The past few weeks have been some of the best I’ve had in a while. Though if I never have to catch you jumping off the top of a bookshelf again, I’d be ok with that.”
He lapsed into silence, watching the unblinking green stars. Parker stirred again, throwing an arm loose over her head and onto his leg. Slowly so as not to wake her, he bundled her up in the blanket and drew her onto his lap. She tensed briefly than let out a soft sigh and sagged boneless against him. He kissed the top of her head.
“Remember that creepy book we read last week? The one about that stalkermom? I think I get it now.” Very quietly, he recited: “I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be.”
Nothing happened, but Sophie had mentioned that it could take a few hours to sink in. Reluctantly, he tucked her back into bed. When he opened her door, he found Eliot leaning against the opposite wall.
“Yeah, man, it’s done.”
“You owe me a rematch on Call of Duty.” Eliot pushed off the wall and headed towards the living room.
“I’m not-” He started to protest, found a controller shoved into his hands.
It was hard to concentrate on personal angst when you were getting shot at, Hardison remembered quickly. Video game skills versus real life training usually won out for him from the comfort of his couch if not in the field, but it took serious effort. After he kicked Eliot’s ass by a slim margin, the cable kicked in and they watched a few episodes of CSI which was always good for a laugh. Even cable had it’s limits of crime solving though and eventually the channel faded into a string of late night product evangelism.
“It dices, it slices.” He mouthed along with a perky blond host. “It’ll make Ghandi appear on your toast.”
“Bed.” Eliot hustled him off the couch.
“I’m not going to sleep.” He protested.
“So why-” Eliot was suddenly very close and Hardison closed his eyes against his own obliviousness. “Oh.”
“Oh.” Eliot mocked. “Want me to send you an e-mail or something?”
Lacking a witty retort, he kissed him instead. He tasted like marinara and smelled sharply of spicy aftershave and plant-life. The height difference made his neck ache and his palms itched with spontaneous panic sweat.
“Don’t freak out.” Eliot ordered.
“I’m not. This is me, not freaking out.” He leaned in to kiss him again to prove it.
“Liar.” It sounded nearly affectionate.
“Why’d you wait?” Hardison pulled away, walking pointedly towards the bedroom.
“Why did you?”
“Kinda preoccupied with the midget.” He offered lamely. The real reason eluded him right then. Kissing Eliot ranked up there with hacking a Swiss bank in his newly revised list of Excellent Things to Do. So why had he been avoiding it?
“You going to keep talking?” Eliot pushed him hard enough onto the bed that he bounced a few times. Oh, that’s right because Eliot was a violent little sociopath. Hardison grinned at him.
“Yep.” He shimmied in just the right way that most of his clothing fell away, a trick he’d picked up from an ex. “That a problem?”
Apparently, it wasn’t.
The world was shaking. Earth quake? Hardison pried open his eyes. No, the bed was shaking.
“Go back to sleep, Parker.” He muttered into the pillow. “It’s early.”
“I want pancakes.” The demand came along with the familiar poke to his ribs. It hurt substantially more than usual.
“Pancakes?” He sat up slowly, rubbing at his eyes.
Eliot mumbled something that sounded like ‘Go to hell’, but it was difficult to say considering his head was under a pillow. Man had some strange sleeping habits.
Parker, now regular size and dressed in what looked to be Eliot’s discarded t-shirt and work out pants, sat Buddha like between them. Her hair was still adorably fuzzy from sleep and she had pillow wrinkles on the left side of her face. Hardison’s heart clenched.
“How about some Lucky Charms?” He offered. She was old enough to peel herself off the ceiling.
They all wound up bent over cereal bowls though Eliot’s contained something with bran in the title while Hardison and Parker slurped down psychedelic milk.
“Do you remember anything?” Hardison asked as Parker stole his green marshmallows.
“Everything.” She smiled her bright, jagged smile. He’d missed that smile. That’s apparently all she has to say on the subject because she disappeared into the bathroom soon after, trailing cereal crumbs behind her.
“They grow up so fast.” Hardison sniffled.
“You miss her already.”
Parker reappeared a half hour later dressed in the clothes she’d been wearing the day of her sudden shrinkage. She had a rucksack over one shoulder and Bunny hanging limply from one hand.
“I’m going now.” She announced. “But I'll be back."
"Ok." Hardison smiled at her. "I'll keep your room open for you."
"Thank you." She nodded sharply, before jumping out the window. He fought himself not to get up and check that she'd gotten down all right.
Later, he'd get online and special order a pair of woman's size six unnaturally green and bedazzled shoes. He'd put them on Parker's bed and not say a word when she turned up wearing them a week later though he'd never heard her come by. Sometimes he'd pine for the small her, but mostly he'd be glad that she was grown again.
Now though, he drew Eliot to him, kissed him and didn't think about Parker at all.