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The Black & White Job

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The team dynamic had changed. It wasn't as simple as Nate and Sophie leaving and the other three having to fill the gaps they made. There would be no way to do that even if they wanted to. Team Leverage in its original form had now ceased to be, and in its place a set of three people who were the same as they had always been in some ways, and completely different in others.

It would be hard to say who was the leader now. Nate was the Mastermind the whole time they were a five piece, and it was taken as read that Sophie was his second. Now the balance of power shifted so often, there really was no chain of command at all. Eliot, Parker, and Hardison were all equally as capable as each other when it was their turn to take point, when the situation called for one persons expertise in particular.

Down time was a little different. As much as they were all adults and should probably take their turn at chores and such, it never really worked out that way. More often than not, Eliot played big brother to the other two, ensuring Parker and Hardison were looked after, and well-fed too.

Left to their own devices, Hardison would sit in front of his computer screens twenty-four seven, eating gummy frogs and drinking orange soda until his body gave out from the sugar overload. As for Parker, so long as she had a box of cereal to hand or any other junk she could shove into her mouth without hardly having to pry her attention away from lock picks, dollar bills, or similar, she was happy. The two of them would probably be in diabetic comas by now if not for Eliot, at least that was what the hitter told them.

Unless a job demanded otherwise, Eliot tried to make sure his team got at least one decent meal a day. They moved around a lot since becoming a threesome, but no base was ever made that didn’t have a decent kitchen for the hitter to work out of. Somehow he could always find the nearest farmer’s market, a decent butcher's shop, that kind of thing. Eliot seemed to have a knack for finding the best ingredients and creating food that was good for his team, and that they would actually eat.

Getting healthy food into Hardison wasn’t too hard. He was at least willing to try things and usually ended up loving whatever Eliot created. Parker was a tougher nut to crack. As grown up as she was capable of being these days, she seemed to just love reverting to a child when the mood took her. When it came to vegetables or anything else healthy that she decided she just wasn't going to like, the pouting put in an appearance. The folded arms and grumpy looks had no effect on Eliot, he forced the issue, he made her try. In the end she usually ended up loving things she professed to hate just moments before. He wondered why she ever really bothered to argue with him.

Of course just getting the two of them to stay at the table was a feat in and of itself. Eliot didn’t mind quite so much if Hardison needed to stay by his monitors because there was some urgent business to be done for a job, but as a general rule, if he had spent the time to make a decent meal, Eliot believed those eating it should give that food their full attention. The worst times with Hardison were when he was knee-deep in some mission on a video game he thought was more important than any other thing ever. Eliot tried all kinds of things to keep his attention off the monitors on the wall, and the smart phone that seemed to be permanently attached to the hacker’s hand at times. In the end, he found the simplest way was to resort to tactics parents used with unruly kids - withholding dessert if everybody didn’t behave. Even if Hardison was prone to letting his attention wander, Parker would slap him upside his head for his trouble if she thought she might miss out on dessert because of him.

Eliot was actually pretty proud of himself, even if it was a minor victory. He had Parker jammed to her seat every dinner time, her full attention right where he wanted it, and as an added bonus she was doing a great job of keeping Hardison in line too. It was most definitely a win-win.

“See, ain't it better when you actually take thirty minutes outta your screwing around time to appreciate the food?” he asked the hacker.

“Hey, I ain’t denying this is good cookin', man,” Hardison agreed, cleaning off his plate with a scrap of bread, to ensure he didn't miss a drop of the delicious pasta sauce.

“It is great,” agreed Parker. “But we behaved all through the meal,” she prompted, eyes sparkling.

Eliot never knew a woman get so excited about pie, but then Parker was most definitely like no other person he ever met, in all the best and craziest ways. Some people would just think she was childish and silly as she bounced in her seat, waiting for Eliot to serve her dessert. The truth was very different, as anyone with eyes and ears could tell the moment a spoonful of whatever sweet treat she was allowed got into Parker’s mouth. The moaning and sighing, the way her eyes literally rolled back in her head sometimes, it was all kinds of sexy, though Eliot was pretty sure she had no idea what she was doing. Hardison never told her, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to either. Parker wouldn’t get it, so it wasn't worth the fuss.

“This might be the best one yet!” she enthused around a mouthful of apple and cinnamon, crumbs of pastry flying from her lips.

That sure broke whatever spell she might’ve put on the guys just a minute before when she was reaching some kind of ecstasy on her first taste of dessert. Hardison shook his head and concentrated on his own food again. Eliot was only glad the hacker wasn't too freaked out by Parker continuing to be just as Parker ever was after everything that had happened. They both seemed oddly okay for a couple that were no longer that.

Eliot had seen it coming, from way back before it had hardly even begun. It wasn't that Hardison wasn't good enough for Parker or that she was too crazy for him necessarily. They were the best of friends, Eliot knew that, and he was glad about it, but trying to make things romantic between them, he could never see it working out long term. The job took over everything, which meant there would be no happily ever after with two-point-four kids and roses around the door. Not that Eliot thought Parker ever really intended to have that. He did wonder about Hardison though.

In the end, the decision to call it a day on the dating seemed to be mutual. Eliot had a long talk with each of them, more by coincidence than design. Hardison talked a little too much about his feelings for comfort, but he seemed okay. He still loved Parker like no-one else, but he knew now that it wasn't the kind of love that got you married or whatever. It was just there, as were his deep feelings of connection to Eliot, Sophie, and Nate.

For herself, Parker said very little, and what she did say probably wouldn’t have made sense to many. Eliot understood exactly, which at one time might’ve scared the hell out of him, wondering if he was finally as damaged as Parker herself. Now he knew he just understood her because actually they were very much alike. A part of her always wondered if she really deserved what she had got now, a family of sorts, the love of good people. Eliot didn't bother to tell her that no matter how much they tried, none of them would ever really be all that good. He just let her hug him when she tried, and promised her nothing had to change all that much if she didn't want. They were a team, always had been always would be. She smiled when he said that and shook her head.

“More than a team,” she told him. “But I know what you mean.”

After that, things continued on much the same as they had always been, three people who loved each other all in their own ways, working together to do their best for the world, and atone for their individual sins. It just worked, and Eliot couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

It didn’t bother him that just as soon as dinner was done, Hardison and Parker disappeared from the table like The Flash and Jesse Quick. What bothered Eliot was that he had listened to enough of Hardison's comic book talk that he even just made that analogy! Focusing on the task at hand, he cleared the table and washed all the dishes, sipping from a bottle of beer as he did so. He let his mind wander and get lost in thought a while, a potential bridge for the song he had been working on lately coming into his head. For once the team had nothing else to busy themselves with tonight. Seemed like it was going to be a quiet one.

Eliot felt his eyes start to sting and laid the guitar down carefully. He checked the clock and noticed it was closing in fast on midnight. Probably best that he got some sleep while he had the chance to do so. Under the bedroom door, he noticed the lights in the living room still blaring. Hardison was probably still out there, and by this late hour he was either hyped up on sugar or fast asleep on the keyboard.

Eliot stood up slowly, working out the kinks in his muscles from being in one place too long and crept out into the main room to check on his friend. As he had expected, the hacker was out for the count, his headphones crooked on his head, as he snored quietly.

“I swear to God, it’s like havin’ kids sometimes,” Eliot muttered as he wandered over and took Hardison’s technological items away, pulling the blanket from the back of the couch up over the other guy.

The hacker barely flinched, just turned his head away a little and continued on sleeping. Eliot moved towards Parker’s room then. Somehow he doubted she was in it, and if she were, it was unlikely she would actually be in the bed. One thing that had come out of the three of them practically living together on a regular basis was the realisation that Parker was much more comfortable in spaces that barely fit her lithe form than a convential bed. Though he didn't exactly like to ask about it, Eliot was almost certain Parker hadn’t even stayed in a bed with Hardison when they were together.

Half the time she could be found in closets, under tables, hidden away in some little corner with a pillow under her head, a blanket wrapped tight around her like a straight jacket almost, and her bunny tucked under her chin. Eliot tried to ask her about it once, and only once. It wasn't worth the tears when she tried to explain. It all went back to her childhood, the messed up time when she had been pushed from one kid’s home and foster family to the other, before finding her way onto the dangerous streets on cities too numerous to mention. It bothered Eliot sometimes, to think of all that might have happened to her in the past. He got this itch in his hands that too easily formed fists. Eliot wanted to find every person who ever laid a wrong hand on Parker, hell, everyone who ever said a cross word to her, and he wanted to make them suffer. He couldn’t do it, since she would never give him the list of names he wanted even if he asked, and he never had directly. He’d like to think she knew though, that no ma
tter what happened, he had her back. That nobody, but nobody was ever going to mess with her ever again.

It was a duty Eliot took seriously, looking out for both Parker and Hardison. He promised Sophie when she and Nate left that he would be there for ‘the kids’ until his dying day, and he meant that truthfully. They were his family, the missing pieces he had been looking for his whole life, though he hadn't known it until suddenly they were all together, all depending on each other.

Now all Eliot needed to find was where Parker was holed up for the night. He tried her room first, both the closets in there, and then the one in the hall. He softly called her name into any and all voids he could think of, and yet she wasn't there,

If she heard him she would answer. Parker knew Eliot didn't like to admit that he cared much, but it was clear enough to her that he did. If he called on her to check she was okay, she did him the courtesy of answering. There was a flicker of something in the back of Eliot’s head when he realised he couldn't find her at all. Parker knew better than to leave home without telling anybody. She had tried it once or twice before and got such a response from Eliot as to never try it again. He got so mad at her, very nearly lost his temper altogether, and only managed to rein it in because she had been so damn sorry for scaring him and Hardison both. She could not have skipped out with good reason, which made the uncharacteristic panic Eliot was feeling start to treble in a second. If Parker wouldn't leave of her own accord, the only other option was that she went against her will somehow.

Eliot doubled back into the living room with plans to wake Hardison up, when suddenly a glint like crystal or glass caught his eye. Crouching down he peered under the kitchen table and saw one of Hardison’s gizmos hidden there. Pulling out the tablet computer, Eliot knew instinctively that it was Parker who left it under there, not Hardison. For one thing the hacker knew better than to leave expensive tech on the floor of all places. This thing had to be something he gave to Parker - the plastic skin on the back with a picture of the tallest high rise in the world gave it away as belonging to their little thief, if nothing else.

Hitting the power button made the picture reload on the screen, and Eliot frowned. From what he could tell, Parker had been watching movies. Though tech wasn't his strong point, Eliot did understand what Netflix was and how to access the last thing watched on it. His eyes went wide when he saw the title of the movie Parker had to have seen before she left the apartment.

“Hardison!” he yelled so loud the hacker jumped in his seat and promptly tumbled straight off the couch.

“Damn, Eliot!” he complained as he realised what had happened and scrambled to his feet. “Why you gotta wake a person up like that? I mean, where in the hell is the fire...?”

He stopped talking as Eliot stalked over and shoved the tablet in his face.

“What? This is Parker’s,” he said pointlessly. “What in the hell she doin’ in my Netflix queue?”

“Gettin’ crazy Parker-style ideas?” suggested Eliot crossly. “She watched Black Fish, Hardison, by herself!” he explained, though obviously the hacker could already see that.

A movie about the plight of beautiful, majestic sea creatures, being captured and often killed by those who would keep them for places like SeaWorld and the like. Of course Parker would hate to see that, and she wouldn't waste a moment in seeing justice done, just like the Leverage team always did.

“Oh, hell no!” Hardison gasped then. “She... she gone out to steal an Orca?”

Eliot sighed and shook his head as he walked away, knowing his friend was right, deciding apparently that in some small way at least this was all the hacker’s fault.

“Damnit, Hardison!”

“You got anything?” asked Eliot as he returned from searching Parker’s room.

She hadn’t taken much with her on her impromptu trip. He still wasn’t sure how she got out without anybody noticing, but this was Parker so maybe he should know better. For all he knew she had gone up into the vents, out of a window and rappelled down the side of the block. With Parker, anything was possible.

“Nah, man,” Hardison shook his head as he answered his buddy’s question, still tapping away on the keyboard. “Far as I know we only got a couple of trackers still live on her. Her favourite running shoes that I fixed years back, which weirdly she didn’t wear today, and... well, hold on a second here.”

Eliot looked from the hacker to the screen which showed a map. At first there had been just one blinking red dot right on top of their heads, but now things were changing. The angle shifted, the map turned and then they were in a different part of town, a new dot highlighted in a corner somewhere by the river.

“We got her,” said the hacker proudly.

Eliot didn’t look so impressed.

“She could move any second,” he pointed out. “Besides, that might not be her in the first place,” he said, gesturing towards the mark on the screen. “If she figured out there’s a tracker on her, she could’ve dumped it, maybe in the water."

“I doubt it. Pro’ly wouldn’t even get a signal if it was floating in the river,” said Hardison thoughtfully. “Besides, it’d be moving a whole lot more than it is right now. You think Parker changed her mind about the Orca heist?”

“I don’t even know if that’s her plan yet,” Eliot shook his head, though honestly, he wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was the kind of thing Parker was thinking of.

No matter how much she grew and developed as a person, Parker was still impulsive and just this side of crazy. That didn’t mean the guys didn’t love her, or even understand her impulses these days, but sometimes she just dived right into trouble without a second thought, and that was dangerous.

“Got the address,” said Hardison suddenly, holding up his phone for Eliot to see. “So, we headed for this place?”

“I’m headed for it,” Eliot confirmed. “I need you to stay here, Hardison. If she changes her mind, comes back, calls for back up, somebody has to be here,” he said definitely even as his hacker friend opened his mouth to argue.

Hardison knew Eliot had a point. As much as he wanted to dive in and do his part, going on the road trip to find their girl, somebody did have to stay behind in case she came home. If Parker had stopped off at some other place in town before going to release a whale or whatever she had planned, Hardison knew Eliot was the best person to talk her out of it. He was just good at that kind of thing, the convincing of people to do things, by fair means or foul.

“Okay, I’ll stay,” he agreed, texting the address across to Eliot’s phone which immediately vibrated in his pocket as he received it. “But the second you find her, you let me know, okay?”

“You got it,” the hitter promised, slapping his buddy on the shoulder in a brotherly way as he grabbed his jacket and left the apartment.

All the way down the stairs he was thinking about what he would say when he found Parker, if he found her at all. Blackfish. Of all the movies she could watch it had to be that one. Eliot and Hardison were pretty careful about the kind of TV and movies they watched with her or even in front of her. Parker wasn’t great with people but she loved most animals. She also had a severe hate for anyone taking advantage of any person or creature. Eliot had yet to see the movie, but he had heard what it was all about. Keeping any animal in a cage just for entertainment always seemed wrong to him, and he knew Parker would go crazy finding out how they weren’t always kept in a decent way. He couldn’t argue with the fact she was on the right track by wanting to release Orcas from captivity, but not alone, not without a solid plan.

Leaping into his truck, Eliot headed for the address that Hardison had given him. It looked to be the warehouse district, which actually made a lot of sense. If Parker had another safe place to go, it couldn’t be an apartment or a house like any regular person. She liked her space, and a warehouse had suited her well before.

It didn’t bother Eliot that she had another property in the city. Truth be told, he had a little spot of his own too, and figured maybe Hardison had as well. As much as living together worked for them much of the time, sometimes every person needed an escape, and Eliot sure had to get away once in a while, for everybody’s sake. Parker could have her own place and she didn’t even have to tell them where it was, but there was no way in hell she was getting away with going off into a potentially dangerous situation all by her sweet self.

Taking the next right, Eliot glanced at his phone and knew he was almost there. He checked off the numbers of the warehouses, right down the row until he hit the one where Parker was supposedly hiding away. Parking up, he hopped out of the truck and was not surprised to find himself in front of an electronic keypad lock.

This was the part where Hardison might've been useful. Eliot could break actual locks and bolts with his hands or boots. Parker picked conventional locks in a second. Electronic stuff like this was strictly a hacker's domain, unless of course Eliot could figure out what code Parker would use. Eliot thought for a few moments, and then he smiled, punching in a combination he was pretty confident about. The lock beeped and clicked as the roller door released and moved away. The grin on his face was as wide as had ever been seen on Eliot Spencer, except there was nobody there to see it.

Wandering into the warehouse, Eliot made sure to close the door behind himself. If Parker was here, he didn’t want her sneaking out and if anybody was watching, he didn’t want them coming in either. It was pretty dark inside, Eliot wondered if it was worth looking for a light switch when suddenly he felt something under his foot. The pressure pad made him stop and think, but Eliot knew as crazy as Parker could be about her privacy and about intruders, she wasn’t going to blow anybody up, at least he was pretty sure she wouldn’t. Besides, the fact he got passed her password protection ought to prove he was nobody who wasn’t welcome. Holding his breath, he moved his foot just slightly... and then watched all the lights click on over his head. Trust Parker to be too lazy to find a switch in the dark.

Eliot picked up his feet and kept on walking, as the rows of long electric bulbs clicked on from above, revealing everything Parker had used to furnish her ‘home’.

It wasn’t a surprise, no more than the first time when he saw the kind of place the little thief chose to live. Her warehouse in Boston had been similar to this, only there was physically more stuff crammed into this place. It was like a whole set of rooms, partitioned from each other by curtains on rails. Eliot supposed it made sense in a Parker sort of way, but then he got right in amongst her possessions and realised things were not entirely what they seemed.

Eliot tilted his head as be observed the decorative items on the shelves. Where most people had pictures of loved ones and a few sentimental knick-knacks, Parker had boxes of cereal collections of lock picks and other tools, plus one or two pieces of art that were almost definitely genuine and worth a small fortune.

The stuffed bunny that Parker took just about everywhere was not on the bed where Eliot would expect to find it. It wasn't in her room at the shared apartment either, so chances were she had bolted and taken her treasured possession along with her. A rail of clothes contained a couple of harnesses and a lot of black, skin-tight gear. This was all just so Parker, it was almost scary.

Wandering over to the desk, shaking his head, Eliot realised the pen pot on the corner was in fact a small vase. Honestly, he was pretty sure it was old and Chinese, maybe not a Ming but still. Anywhere else, he’d say it was a fake, but this was Parker’s place, and he had no doubt that she was keeping her pens and pencils in a a priceless artifact, much like she was keeping her paintbrushes in a Waterford Crystal vase on the other side of the desk. The so-called paperweights holding down papers, blue prints, and more, they were special too. An Egyptian statuette, a maquette that appeared to be the Venus de Milo, a large piece of glass or crystal maybe, that looked suspisciously like the Orloff diamond. Eliot might have spent longer admiring Parker’s collection of seemingly priceless items and their odd uses, if his eyes hadn't fixed on a particular piece of paper on the desk, a print out of flight times headed to Florida. When he picked it up, he found a SeaWorld pamphlet underneath.

“Damn it, Parker!” he cursed, knowing his and Hardison’s suspicions had been right all along.

Whatever the tracker had been on, it was something Parker left behind. She had taken herself off to the airport already, he was sure on that, and goodness knows how long she had been gone.

Eliot speed-dialled Hardison, taking the paperwork from Parker’s desk as he hurried towards the door. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate what she wanted to do, but his little thief was about to get herself into a whole barrel load of trouble. No, not on Eliot Spencer’s watch.

“Hardison!" he snapped, the second the hacker picked up. “Fastest way to the airport - now!”

Parker was sat in the departures lounge when Eliot caught up to her. It took a decent amount of fast talking and a pretty nifty lift to get him into said lounge without spending a fortune on a ticket - Eliot could have afforded it, but it was the principle of the thing! He sat down in the seat beside Parker without a word, and her eyes never left the phone in her hands, still she knew he was there instantly.

“You can’t stop me, Eliot,” she grumbled, shifting in her seat to put her back half to him.

Eliot was mostly just impressed that she could sit lotus style in a chair like that and shift around without falling out onto the floor. She never did fail to amaze him, that was for sure.

“Darlin’, I didn’t come to stop you,” he assured her. “At least, not exactly.”

Parker spared him a quick glance then but was soon back to playing with her phone in a second, her bunny balanced in her lap as if he too were engrossed in whatever she was doing. Eliot didn’t know what it was, but he’d bet his last buck she was researching something for her planned heist or reading up on whales. He let out a long sigh as he tried to think what to say to Parker for the best. Just telling her she couldn’t go steal or release an Orca from a sea life park wouldn’t do any good. She would do what she wanted, and was twice as likely to try if told not to do it, that was just the kind of person Parker was. Honestly, Eliot understood it, mostly because he was the same. There was nothing sweeter than doing something you weren’t supposed to or that someone believed you couldn’t handle, but this wasn’t a good plan, simply because there was no real plan at all.

“Parker,” he said, a hand on her arm.

She didn’t flinch. Parker never did when it came to Eliot, and honestly, neither of them ever really figured out why. After all these years maybe it wasn’t so strange that they were used to each other, comfortable being friendly and close, but this had been from the very beginning, all but Day One. If anyone else touched her, Parker reacted one of two ways - fight or flight. One guy got a fork in the hand for his trouble, another a kick in the head. With Eliot she was okay, Parker just felt safe, always had, always would, she supposed.

“Eliot,” she countered, saying his name in the same exasperated tone that he had said hers, finally turning to meet the bright blue of his eyes. “You don’t understand!” she told him then, perhaps just a little too loudly.

She noticed other people were watching; Eliot noticed too. They both realised they needed to keep their voices down and leant in a little closer to each other. Parker’s eyes were still flashing with anger - she wasn’t backing down.

“They hurt the Orcas, Eliot!” she told him, clearly both angry and upset about it. “They catch them, and when they struggle, sometimes they die. The ones that live get taken and put in the big tanks at the park. They cry, Eliot. They cry for their families and for their freedom. They cry and nobody cares!”

Eliot could hear her voice cracking with emotion, see the pain in her eyes. This wasn’t all about the whales that got hurt or worse, that were captured and kept in captivity. That was a part of it, Eliot knew, because the thought of harm coming to such beautiful and innocent creatures would cut deep with Parker. The other reason for her frantic actions and internal pain was because she was actually empathising with the Orcas. It wasn’t just straightforward sympathy for their plight; it was a much deeper understanding of what they went through.

Parker might have been taken from her family, or given up by them at least, even she wasn’t absolutely sure. Foster family after foster family seemed to reject her, nobody in her life was a constant. She had cried, he had no doubt, tears upon tears that nobody cared to wipe away. She got no comfort, no understanding. She was the odd little girl that was more trouble than she was worth to most who encountered her. She was trapped and alone, until she found her own freedom, and even then she kept on searching for that family she so needed.

Parker probably hadn’t even known that the right people were what she needed, Eliot certainly hadn’t realised it, until there they were. Him, Parker, Hardison, they were made to be a family, all misfits in their own ways, loners too, yet in some strange way always calling out for the rest of the herd, the group they could genuinely belong too, and at long last they had found it. This was what really hurt Parker, remembering how alone she used to be, how awful it had felt to think she would never find a family, never be that happy.

“Sweetheart, I do understand,” Eliot told her softly, even as she turned her face away. “C’mon, you know I do. You think I don’t know how deep this runs with you? You forget, I know you better than anyone.”

Parker would’ve liked to argue the point. She liked to act a little crazy, ensure that nobody could ever second-guess her, but Eliot had almost always been one step ahead. Sometimes he saw her next move coming before she even planned it herself. He just seemed to get her, in ways even the rest of the team never did, in ways even Hardison couldn’t, and they had dated. Eliot was always different, and as much as Parker’s instinct was to deny it, she couldn’t.

“It doesn’t matter what you know,” she shook her head, not denying he understood her feelings but certainly still ready to battle him on whether or not she was getting on this plane. “I’m going, Eliot. I have to. They don’t deserve this, they need to be free,” she said definitely, words deliberately soft and vague alike, just in case anybody overheard any part of the conversation in the semi-quiet departure lounge.

“I’m not saying what you want do ain’t right, Parker,” he assured her. “But this is not the way. Sneaking off in the middle of the night with a half-assed plan? No back-up?” he questioned. “You’re smarter than that.”

Parker frowned and ducked her head. She could argue with him. She was pulling heists by herself before she ever met Eliot or the rest of the old Leverage crew. Nothing this big though, and certainly never without the proper amount of prep. It was a dangerous and foolhardy mission, and whilst that never really stopped Parker before, it did seem kind of silly to be running off into the unknown by herself when she didn’t have to.

“I didn’t know if you’d wanna help,” she muttered, and then more loudly as she met his eyes. “Sometimes you just think my ideas are crazy and... and sometimes I don’t think when I get upset!”

Eliot couldn’t help but smile at that. It was quite the admission for Parker to make, but they both knew how very true it was. Sure, he could be hurt that she didn’t turn to him for help with this, that she didn’t feel she could come to him with her plan, or trust him with her pain. On the other hand, Eliot also knew how difficult it still was for Parker to verbalise sometimes, especially when she got into one of her emotional and impulsive moods. This was freeing kids from a Serbian orphanage all over again, except this time he caught up to her before she was neck-deep in trouble.

“Parker, if you’ve got your heart set on this thing, then we’ll do it,” he promised her, eyes locked onto her own as he made his vow. “You and me, maybe Hardison too, we’ll make plan, a solid one, and then we’ll go on down to Florida and we’ll teach those SeaWorld people a thing or two,” he told her with a smirk he couldn’t help when a smile started to take over her face. “We’ll get the job done, just like always, but we’ll do it the right way, together. Okay?”

Parker blew out a sigh, like it was so tiresome of him to make her do the sensible and sane thing, but honestly, she liked the warm glow that always filled her up from the inside whenever Eliot talked to her this way, looked at her exactly like that. He cared so much, and though the rest of the team all loved her in their own ways, Parker knew Eliot was her protector, the one she would most often turn to, the guy that always, always had her back.

“Okay,” she agreed eventually with a nod of her head, a yawn overtaking her a second later as she unfolded herself out of the chair.

Eliot stood up too. He grabbed Parker’s bag from the next seat over, and she hugged Bunny to her as they headed out of the departure lounge.

“Eliot?” she said as they continued walking, another yawn stealing her voice a moment. “Teach me how to live on ninety minutes sleep a day.”

Eliot was ready for his bed. It didn’t happen much that he got so tired, but the team had kind of slipped from their last job into fixing things up around the apartment, and right when Eliot had been planning to catch up on some rest, Parker had pulled her disappearing act. Getting her home from the airport wasn’t so bad, and he figured she’d want to sleep just as soon as they hit the apartment. Boy was he ever wrong!

Parker came alive in the truck on the way back, chattering endlessly about her plans for releasing an Orca right out of SeaWorld. That was soon growing exponentially to releasing all the sea creatures that were held in every place that had them, plus scaring the people running these places so good that they never took any whales, dolphins, or anything else ever again. It all got very ambitious extremely fast, and Eliot had to rein Parker in just a little bit. Hardison was just glad to see her back unscathed and without her name on another warrant. He was all for being part of the big plans, and they certainly had got big.

It was nightfall again before Parker ran out of steam and took herself off to bed. Eliot told Hardison he should get some sleep too, and when he was sure everything at the apartment was good and safe, Eliot set the alarm and left the other two to their rest. Their protector would be back by morning, but tonight he needed to be his own space, his own apartment.

It was like sleeping with one eye open at the team’s place. Hardison shifted a lot in his sleep, and Parker tended to yell in dreams and nightmares both. Any little sound had Eliot awake in a second, even though he knew damn well there was no danger, he just couldn’t help it. He had to get a couple of nights a week in his private home if he possibly could, and that was where he headed now.

Keys thrown on the table, jacket tossed in a chair, Eliot wasn’t hungry but he needed to shower before bed. He discarded all his clothes into the laundry hamper without a care, grabbed some clean underwear, and got cleaned up, the warm water taking away some of the muscle stress from being cramped in a chair making plans all day long, plus the leftover jittery panic that always came over him when he thought Parker, or even Hardison, had got themselves in too deep to be rescued.

Eliot was wearing nothing but his boxers as he wandered into his bedroom, towel-drying his hair as he went. He got to the closet, opened up the door, and immediately fell into a battle-ready stance when he realised somebody was in there. Frowning, he shifted back to a more relaxed position when he was sure no threat was present, only Parker.

She looked oddly angelic, curled up in the bottom of the closet, a blanket over most of her body and Bunny under her chin. Eliot always knew his little thief liked to hide herself away in strange places to sleep, but hell, he didn’t even know she had a clue where he lived. How she had got out of the team apartment, over here, and fallen asleep in the closet before he ever got there himself, Eliot hadn’t an idea, but that was normal when it came to Parker’s antics.

Crouching down to her level, Eliot reached out a gentle hand to her shoulder.

“Hey, Parker?”

“Hmmm”, she murmured in her sleep. “Eliot?”

He smiled at the realisation she had probably forgotten she even came here. That was quite the compliment really, that she would know somebody was there and yet remain asleep. It showed great trust and that was not something Parker was known for, even now after all this time. She trusted Eliot though, and that meant a great deal.

Fact was, he was not happy about leaving her asleep in the closet, regardless of whether she put herself there voluntarily or not. That would just be too weird. Still, forcing her fully awake when she seemed so peaceful seemed just as bad somehow.

“Okay then,” Eliot muttered, reaching into the closet to pick Parker up bride style and pull her out.

She didn’t protest or make any sound at all. Parker just leant her head against Eliot’s shoulder and snuggled in, quite happily apparently. Eliot took her over to the bed and laid her down on one side, tucking her own blanket in around the most of her body, and then pulling his own covers up around her for good measure. He turned back to the closet to grab some sweats and without a thought came to lie down beside Parker, on top of the covers.

Eliot was sure Parker was fast asleep and wouldn’t even know what had happened until she woke in the morning. It occurred to him that might not be a good thing and he might get a smack in the face for his trouble, but Eliot needn’t have worried, as Parker proved when she suddenly spoke.

“I’m sorry,” she said sleepily.

“For what?” he asked, up on his elbows, trying to see her face but failing since her back was to him still.

“Running, not talking to you, making you worry,” she sighed. “I am sorry,” she repeated, eyes open now as she turned a little to look over at him.

Eliot saw the worry in her eyes, like she was fearful of having him upset at her at all. He shook his head.

“Doesn’t matter,” he promised. “Just... just don’t do it again, okay?”

“Okay,” she nodded, shifting closer to him.

Eliot wondered if the movement had been deliberate, though he ought to have known it was. Everything Parker did was deliberate, especially when it came to interactions with people. When she reached behind herself to grab his arm and curl it around her waist, Eliot was surprised, but he didn’t mind at all. She just wanted to be close, to be safe, so he let her be.

Eliot laid there just listening to Parker breathe for a while, but before long, her peacefulness lulled him to sleep as well, the two of them safe in the comfort of each other.