They all heard through their earpieces the woman's voice say, "Eliot Spencer. I've been waiting for you."
Then there was static, then they could all hear each other except for Eliot, who didn't respond no matter how loudly Hardison shouted at him to do so. He could hear Nate trying to tell him to calm down, and heard Parker saying she was almost to the store where Eliot had gone. But there was no Eliot telling him to chill the fuck out, and no sound of Eliot beating the shit out of someone, and not even the sound of someone telling them they had taken a hostage and would they like to negotiate for his release.
Hardison was running as fast as he could down the sidewalk towards the store; he saw Nate coming from the other direction with Sophie right behind him. Fifteen feet, ten, then Hardison was swinging through the doorway and looking around frantically -- and saw Parker standing in the middle of an empty store that hadn't been empty two hours ago when he'd cased the place.
Well, it wasn't exactly empty now, either. Parker was just past the doorway in the rear of the front room, staring at the toddler who was standing in a pile of clothes, wearing a t-shirt that was about ten sizes too big.
Hardison blinked again. The toddler looked from Parker to him, then to Nate and Sophie as they crashed into Hardison's back. The kid had long brown hair -- long enough to make Hardison think it was someone's lost little girl and where the hell had Eliot gone, when the toddler suddenly scowled at them.
"Oh, hell no."
They took the kid back to the van -- and Hardison was having some serious trouble thinking of the kid as 'Eliot' even though he responded to the name and looked a hell of a lot like a miniature version of their hitter, and was in Eliot's shirt and had been standing in a puddle of Eliot's jeans. Nate was talking to him, trying to figure out if Eliot could tell them what had happened. But all the little boy had done was nod when asked if he recognised the team.
Which was a good thing, since Hardison didn't think they wanted to deal with a screaming toddler who thought he was being kidnapped by strangers. But it wasn't helping them figure out what had happened and how to fix it.
Hardison knew they made a strange looking bunch, with Parker carrying the rest of Eliot's clothes and Nate carrying Eliot, wrapped in his t-shirt, and Sophie and Hardison following along like bewildered ducklings. Any cop worth his salt should have arrested them on the spot -- but, Hardison admitted, was pretty much true all the time.
"We need to get him some proper clothing to change into," Sophie said when they reached the van.
"We need to change him into Eliot!" Hardison corrected, thinking he was doing a fine job of not losing his cool even if the look Nate said otherwise.
"Yes, obviously," Sophie said, rolling her eyes as if this sort of thing happened to her all the time. "But 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."
"Social workers," Parker said, grimly. She was staying away from Eliot, as far as she could without leaving the direct proximity of the team. Hardison wasn't surprised to discover she wasn't the maternal type; she kept looking at Eliot as if she was expecting him to turn into a pumpkin next.
Although, to be fair, there had been no reason to expect Eliot to turn into a toddler, either. Maybe pumpkin was next on the list.
Hardison sighed and rubbed his forehead. Had he stayed up too late last night, overdosed on soda and Pocky, and now he was having a nightmare? It was possible. He glared at Eliot, who was busy pulling a handkerchief out of Nate's jacket pocket with a look of intense concentration on his face. It was eerily similar to the look grown-up Eliot got right before he hit somebody.
"There's a shop just down the street, if you want to wait here I can get him something," Sophie was saying.
"Any excuse to go shopping?" Nate asked, giving Sophie a half-smirk. Hardison saw how, despite holding Eliot easily and quite expertly keeping Eliot's hands from getting anywhere near Hardison's computer equipment, he was clearly very uncomfortable.
Hardison didn't think he could blame the man. But he also didn't think he could offer to take Eliot from him without dropping Eliot on his head, or breaking him, or holding him wrong and making him start wailing. To look like he wasn't chickening out, Hardison climbed into the back of the van and sat down at his array of computer screens, and began doing a search for any information he could find on how to turn a mysteriously created toddler back into an adult.
He hadn't found anything, much to his total lack of surprise, when Sophie returned. She climbed in, sliding the van door closed behind her; Hardison glanced over, curious to see just how she'd elected to dress their mini!Eliot. She pulled a small package out of the shopping bag and tore it open, shaking out a pair of underwear.
"That is completely not fair," Hardison said. "I wanna be a toddler, too."
Sophie grinned at him and held up the glow-in-the-dark Batman briefs to show Eliot. His eyes lit up and he reached for them, nearly pulling himself out of Nate's lap. "Clearly I made the right choice," Sophie said, and she pulled out a Batman t-shirt.
"I like Spiderman," Parker said. "Did they have Spiderman underwear?"
"Sorry, Parker, I didn't see any." Sophie made it sound like it was a perfectly normal question. Hardison found himself irritated by how easily she seemed to be coping. He tried to remind himself that it was her job, and her nature, to roll with the punches without breaking character.
Eliot was squirming, now, trying to get the shirt from Sophie. Nate somehow managed to keep him from falling while also getting the Batman underwear on him. Hardison was impressed with his sleight-of-hand. Nate pulled the too-large t-shirt off Eliot and took the toddler-sized Batman shirt from Sophie, getting the shirt on him as Sophie held out a pair of solid-color navy shorts.
Eliot looked at them, then looked at his underwear and t-shirt. Then he looked back at the shorts, then up at Sophie.
"They're the same color, see?" Sophie said, holding the shorts up next to his shirt. "That means they're Batman shorts." She looked earnest and sincere, and Hardison wondered how normal, honest parents did this sort of thing. Maybe they were all grifters and just didn't admit it. But Eliot was accepting the shorts, letting Nate pull them on him.
"No shoes?" Nate asked.
"I wasn't sure of his size. With clothes it doesn't matter as much if I got it a bit wrong." She glanced at Eliot, who was tugging his shirt out and looking at Batman, upside-down. He was swinging his feet and wriggling happily, and Hardison made a note to tease Eliot about this at great length when they got him back to normal.
Which reminded him. He switched on the camera in the van, and made sure it was focused on Eliot. He saw all three of the others looking at him, and he shrugged. "Research. What if he doesn't remember this when he's back to normal?" He gave them his best innocent look.
Sophie tsked. "Blackmail is so ugly," she said. "I'm surprised you would stoop to such a thing."
"Oh, like you don't want copies," Hardison told her.
She glanced at Eliot, uncertainty on her face. They still had no idea if Eliot was still himself, or what was going on inside his two-year-old mind. Would he be pissed off and go around hitting everyone? More than usual? Well, from the look of it there was one thing going through Eliot's mind: Batman was Da Man.
Eliot giggled as he continued to stare at his shirt, and Hardison shivered as he found himself thinking how adorable he sounded.
"I don't think we all need to go in," Nate said. They'd parked at the local Target to get Eliot some shoes.
Hardison shook his head. "I'm still collecting research. And what if he suddenly re-ages? Or disappears? Or--"
"Come on, Nate," Sophie said, tugging at his arm. "We want to watch Eliot be a two-year-old." Nate was still holding Eliot, as none of the others had made a move to take Eliot from him. He'd settled Eliot on his hip, looking slightly less uncomfortable about it as he let Sophie drag them towards the store.
Hardison and Parker followed Nate and Sophie into the store, keeping their eyes on Eliot the whole way. Eliot noticed them staring and began staring back, eyes wide and unblinking. After a few moments Hardison started to get unnerved by it -- did Eliot remember more, was he getting upset by what had happened? Did he wonder why the hell they were bigger than him?
Or was he just playing the don't-blink game and doing a hell of a lot better at it than Hardison was?
He didn't seem scared or confused, and to Hardison's limited experience he seemed like a perfectly normal two year old. He certainly got distracted by the pretzels as they entered the store, then by some plastic pinwheels, then by another little boy in a cowboy hat and boots, then one of the shopping carts, then he was trying to get out of Nate's arms to run after God knew what. Nate kept him corralled simply by never setting him down. When they reached the shoe department, Hardison started looking for the Batman shoes, and Sophie was already picking up and cooing over a pair of miniature fisherman sandals.
But Eliot pointed and Nate followed his direction. When Eliot leaned over to grab the shoes he'd spotted, the entire team stared at him.
Hardison cleared his throat. "Eliot, man, those are purple. With unicorns. They sparkle."
Eliot was holding onto them, however, with the same look of delight as he'd received his Batman shirt. He held them up to Nate, who was trying to contain his look of horror. "You want those?" Nate finally asked, his voice sounding calm and collected.
"I think they'd adorable," Sophie said, and Eliot grinned happily.
Nate shook his head. "OK, let's figure out what size you need."
Hardison watched, astonished, as Nate got him to try on a couple different sizes, checking his toes and finally declaring a pair to be right. Then they all watched, stunned, as Eliot jumped up and down in his purple, sparkly unicorn shoes.
"And y'all said we didn't need pictures," Hardison scoffed.
Finally Nate scooped him up again, and Parker said suddenly, "He needs toys."
"What he needs is for us to fix this," Hardison began, but he stopped as Parker glared at him. He nodded, holding up his hands in surrender.
Which was how they ended up back at Nate's place, with Eliot sitting on the floor with a coloring book, crayons, and a large stuffed walrus beside him. There were two more bags of toys still on the couch; Hardison had to admit he'd wanted the fire engine for himself, and one bag was full of the things Parker had shoplifted. Nate and Sophie were making phone calls, trying to track down the woman who'd vanished from the store -- along with the entire store -- or even find someone who knew something about anything like this happening before, and how they could reverse it.
Parker was sitting on the floor near Eliot, watching him, looking both fascinated and terrified. Hardison had got his search programs working on the problem, and figured there was nothing more he could do except keep an eye on Eliot.
Eliot was focused rather intently on his coloring, though it didn't look to Hardison like he was staying inside the lines. Or, really, on a single page at a time. Hardison knew he ought to do or say something to Parker to help erase the lost look on her face. But he didn't have a clue how.
Even as he told himself he had to say something, even if it was stupid, Eliot looked up at her and held out a crayon. Parker didn't move. "That's OK, Eliot. You color," she said as Eliot pushed the crayon towards her. She frowned at him, then visibly forced the frown from her face, apparently thinking the scowl might upset him.
But Eliot stood up, picked up his coloring book and a second crayon, then carried them over to Parker. He set them on the floor in front of her, then crouched down beside her. He held out one crayon. When Parker took it, he simply went back to coloring.
After a moment Parker shifted a bit, then she lay down on her stomach on the floor, propped up on her elbows, and began to color. Eliot scooted over and grabbed the box of crayons and brought them over, setting them carefully between them, and continued to run his crayon back and forth across the coloring page.
Hardison was really, really glad he had the condo wired to be under constant video surveillance.
Sophie had taken Eliot -- and Parker -- to the kitchen for lunch and Hardison settled down on the couch to check his programs. It wasn't looking good, but there were enough weird-ass stories out there that he had plenty to sift through and maintain hope that he might find something useful.
He could hear Sophie dividing up carrot sticks -- one for you, one for you, one for me -- and every so often Eliot laughed. Hardison kept looking over to see what was going on, but all he could see was Eliot standing on a barstool, leaning on the counter, eating carrot sticks. After a bit he stopped worrying about it and concentrated on following up on stories that turned out to be fake, or fantasy, or rated X. He did find a couple of interesting stories about the Doctor getting de-aged and how Ace had to run things while trying to get him turned back. But that was fiction; Hardison read it quickly anyhow just to be sure there weren't hidden clues, like maybe the author knew something real.
He felt a tug at his knee and looked down in time to see Eliot scrambling up into his lap.
"What the-- er, hey, Eliot." Hardison patted him awkwardly on the back. "You finish your lunch?"
It was, he knew, a completely inane thing to say. But what did you say to a two year old? Hell, half the time he didn't have a clue what to say to grown up Eliot, but at least then he had the excuse of being too terrified of getting punched. But Eliot didn't seem to care, or even notice Hardison's nervousness as he settled himself in Hardison's lap, leaning back and staring up at the computer screens. Hardison quickly checked to make sure he didn't have any accidental porn on any of the screens, then looked back down at Eliot.
His eyes were half-open, and for the first time since he'd been changed, he didn't seem to be twitching or vibrating or whatever you called it when a two year old kept constantly moving. "Hey, uh, you need a nap?" He looked around for Sophie, or anyone who could take Eliot someplace he could lie down. The ladies were gone, but Nate was sitting at the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee. "Hey, Nate, man, you wanna come get him? I think he needs a nap."
Nate just glanced at him. "So? Let him take a nap."
Hardison scowled, and as Nate looked back down at his laptop, Hardison could see the evil little smirk. "Seriously, Nate, he's gonna--"
"What? Drool? I think you can take it." Nate smiled at him, then stood up and walked out of the condo. Hardison watched him go, mouth open and he barely remembered not to shout at him to get back there, because Eliot's head was drooping, now, and there was Nana's voice in the back of his head scolding him not to wake the baby.
Hardison looked down at Eliot, putting his arm around Eliot's tiny body to make sure he didn't fall. Eliot responded by scooting around and laying against him, and -- thank God for constant video surveillance -- sticking his thumb into his mouth. His eyes closed and Hardison could feel him grow limp and heavy as he fell sound asleep.
"I am going to kill them," Hardison whispered. "What do I do with a napping toddler? What if he--" Hardison looked around, frantically. "What if he starts screaming? What if I have to use the bathroom? What if aliens attack and I have to dive for a spear gun to fend them off? Does nobody think of that?"
But there was nobody except him and Eliot, who was fast asleep in his lap.
Sucking his thumb. And still wearing his purple unicorn shoes, and Hardison knew that no matter what else happened, he was going to get years of enjoyment out of heckling Eliot about that.
Outside of punching range.
By evening they'd come no closer to finding anything that was remotely useful about fixing Eliot. The only lead they had was the information that had led them to the woman's shop the first time; Sophie and Parker were out now trying to track her down. Nate had finally come back to take over child-rearing duties, getting Eliot his supper, then into the Batman pajamas Sophie had bought him.
There was also a Batman blanket, which Parker had picked out -- as well as a pink fairy pillow, because, as she'd said, she didn't know which Eliot would prefer. He'd grabbed onto them both, holding them tightly as Nate put him to bed, clinging to them like he thought someone might try to steal them away.
Hardison had made sure there were more photos, then he'd taken his laptop into the bedroom and settled down to keep working and keep an eye on Eliot as he slept.
All day they'd tried to ask Eliot questions to determine if he knew anything or remembered anything useful at all. But despite knowing who they were, and knowing quite clearly that he didn't like broccoli and was in no way, shape or form going to eat anything that might have touched broccoli at any point in its preparation, he hadn't been able to answer any of their questions.
Hardison had suggested that he'd lost most of his memories, and was genuinely two again, and that whatever mechanism had de-aged him had also exchanged his memories of his parents for his memories of the team. Of course, his other working theory was that this was a mass hallucination and that grown-up Eliot was laughing at them somewhere. Hardison thought that one was a lot more likely, but it didn't help them figure out how to get things back the way they belonged.
As he typed, Hardison glanced over at the bed. The room was dark, lit only by the glow of Hardison's laptop screen but it was bright enough he could see Eliot sleeping. His face was relaxed, and for a moment he looked almost exactly like himself so much that Hardison wondered if he hadn't imagined it all.
But the pink fairy pillow under his head was a give-away even if the size of the his two-year old body was not. Hardison watched him sleep, and tried to imagine what Eliot made of all this. He'd seemed perfectly happy to spend the day playing, alternating between helping Parker rescue G.I. Joe dolls from the evil Nate Ford, and scribbling in his coloring books, and running his fire truck into every piece of furniture they owned.
Through it all, Eliot had constantly run over to wherever Hardison was, sometimes climbing in his lap for awhile before wriggling away again, or just slipping his tiny arms around whatever part of Hardison he could reach and squeezing hard. Sophie kept making 'aww' faces whenever Eliot did it, and at one point Hardison had looked over, Eliot snuggled in his arms, and saw Nate giving him a knowing smirk.
But none of that explained why he'd been on edge all damn day. It was the question he hadn't let himself ask, the one he'd been too afraid to face: what if they couldn't reverse it?
What if Eliot stayed like this -- either stuck at two forever, or simply growing up all over again.? Not that Hardison didn't think the four of them would be awesome parents; maybe social services wouldn't agree with their methods or morals, but Eliot would have one damn fine childhood. Parker was already talking about building him a child-sized harness and teaching him to rappel off the stairs.
Hardison set aside his laptop and moved over to sit on the bed. Reaching over, he brushed his hand lightly over Eliot's head, grateful when he didn't stir.
"I got no idea if you even need an awesome childhood," Hardison whispered. Since they'd started working together, Hardison had learned a lot about the other man, but there were entire volumes left that he didn't think he would ever know. For all he knew Eliot's first childhood had been fantastic, full of Batman and family and pink fairies and unicorns.
But as he watched Eliot sleep, Hardison knew he wouldn't be able to bear it. He leaned down, pressed his forehead gently to Eliot's. "We gotta fix this, man," he said. It still terrified him, though at least right now it wasn't because he was afraid Eliot would punch him. He wanted to scoop Eliot up in his arms, but didn't want to wake him so he settled for lying down and putting one arm over him, moving as close as he dared.
Eliot didn't stir, as dead to the world as Hardison had never, ever seen before. It made his heart ache just a little, that Eliot was so carefree and happy and all Hardison could do was wish him back to the angry, gruff, scary-ass bastard that he knew and--
"I need you back, man," Hardison said, feeling the words close up his throat. "I'll even promise not to tease you about your shoes." He paused, then said, "Well, yeah, I will. Come on, they're purple unicorn shoes. I can't not tease you about them." He glanced down at Eliot's face, still deeply asleep and completely unaware of Hardison's confessions.
Hardison placed a very light kiss on Eliot's forehead, feeling his cheeks burn with embarrassment that Eliot would wake up and smirk at him, or remember this when he grew up, or, worse, that the video surveillance was being piped into somebody else's computer and Nate or Sophie or both were laughing their asses off at him.
But he closed his eyes and listened to Eliot breathe, and wondered if he was ever going to have the balls to tell Eliot how he felt, when or if he was ever back to normal.
When Hardison opened his eyes, Eliot was still in his arms. Full-grown, and extremely naked.
And he was smirking.
"Ah, hell no," Hardison said, and he closed his eyes again.
One week later Hardison ordered Eliot a pair of custom Doc Martens - metallic purple with unicorns on the sides. Eliot did punch him, but not very hard, and then he wore them all the time.
Hardison didn't ask where Eliot got the adult-sized glow in the dark Batman underwear, but he wore them as often as he could though he tended not to wear them in bed very much at all.