How the hell did I end up here?
Eliot frowned as his eyes combed the street. The lamps created small oases in the deepening twilight, but shadows pooled and overtook most of the scenery. Small traces of movement, tiny reflections of light showed him where the nightlife began to stir. The few denizens who skirted near had been scared off with little more than a look. The big fish in this darkened sea recognized a visiting shark.
"Tell me again, why are we doing this?" He leaned against the wall and sent a half-hearted glare towards his companion.
Parker bounced on her toes. She gave him a bright grin over her right shoulder. "I want one and Tara said he's the best in the city."
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You talked to Tara?" Parker had never gotten close to the blond grifter. She considered her an interloper in their weird little family unit.
"Yeah," Parker nodded. "Sophie told me she knew all the good stuff about New York."
His lips twitched. That made more sense; Sophie's approval would make it okay for their thief. Didn't all kids want 'Mom's' approval? "Okay," he acknowledged, "but why do you want one?"
"I don't know," she shrugged. "I just do. They're pretty."
He groaned and rubbed his face. "Parker, sweetheart, they're permanent. You know that, right?"
"Well, duh." She gave him a frown.
"I'm just checking," he said, hands going up in a conciliatory gesture. "This isn't something you can change your mind about next week or sleep off in the morning."
She stopped bouncing and turned to look at him. The manic excitement slid off her face. Something serious crept into her eyes. His spine stiffened in concern. He pulled away from the building and reached out to her. "Parker?"
She took a deep breath as he touched her arm. "I'm not right," she said. She shook her head as he started to speak. "No," she insisted. "I know I'm not like other people. There's a dark place in me. Sophie and Hardison try to ignore it because it makes them nervous. They think they can teach me to be normal."
Eliot stayed quiet when she paused, but he started running his hand up and down her arm. He could feel her relaxing each time his touch moved from her shoulder to her elbow and back again.
She gave him a grateful look. "They keep teaching me what to say, and Sophie's helping me learn to act, but that's all it is…an act." She shrugged. "I don't mind. It makes them happy, and it's helped me on our jobs."
Parker paused again. Eliot tilted his head. "What about Nate?"
A small, but genuine smile drifted over her lips. "Nate knows. Nate knows everything." Her nose wrinkled as he gave a soft snort. "Well, he notices almost everything then. He helps distract them when they start pushing too much. He's got darkness too."
"Can't argue with that," he agreed.
"And so do you," she whispered.
Eliot's eyes focused on hers. "I know that, darlin'. You and Nate don't really compare to me."
"Nate doesn't," she said, eyes darting away as his gaze narrowed even further.
"Parker." He coaxed her back. "Talk to me."
She fidgeted. "A lot of things happened when I was a kid, and I don't want to talk about it." His mouth snapped shut as she glared at him. "But I learned how to survive. I like what I do, but I learned it to survive. Sophie and Hardison do their stuff because they completely enjoy it. Nate does it because he wants to do what's right. You and me…" Her voice trailed off.
"Its how we learned to survive," he finished for her.
"Yeah," she nodded. Both of them stayed quiet for a few moments. He continued rubbing her arm and she rolled the other shoulder. "Now we belong to these guys, and Nate's teaching us something more than just surviving. I like it. I want to show it."
Eliot glanced across the street and then gave her a searching look. "Why'd you ask me to come?"
"Would you have let me go by myself?" she retorted.
"No," he acknowledged, "but you're avoiding the question. Why me?"
She bit her lip. "I figured you'd understand why I wanted to do it." Her chin tilted up and he raised an eyebrow at her. He remained silent and she sighed. She fidgeted once more before tilting her chin down and peering up at him through her bangs. "I want you to get one too."
He gave her a flat stare. "Parker…" He trailed off as she turned a pout on him. He rolled his eyes. "Sophie has got to quit showing you how to do that stuff."
The pout melted into a grin. "I like it."
"Yeah," he nodded. "You would. It's not like you don't already have us wrapped around your finger."
"Hunh?" she asked, her nose scrunching up in confusion.
"Never mind," he said lips quirking in a slight smile. "Why this?"
"Because it's permanent. I've never had anything permanent before." She bounced in place. "Well, except Bunny. Oh, maybe-"
"I'm not getting a rabbit," he interrupted. He wanted to nip that in the bud. Eliot froze as a beaming grin stretched across her face. Did I just agree to this? He gave a low curse. "How the hell do I let you do that?" Her smile turned impish and he started grumbling under his breath.
"If you don't want a bunny, we can look -" she started.
He shook his head, letting go of her arm and pointing at the shop. "No, Parker. I want it decided first. I'm not going in there for you to be distracted by something."
She frowned, but leaned against the building. "So what do we get?"
He ran a hand through his hair. "What do you want it to say?"
"Say?" She blinked. "Should it be words?"
"No," he laughed. "It could be, but what do you want to think of when you see it?"
"Oh." She crossed her arms over her chest, thinking.
Eliot glanced up and down the street once more. As one of the shadows sidled closer he gave a silent snarl. The figure pulled back and hustled away. Parker clapped her hands. "Got it!"
He turned a look on her. "So what it is?"
"Defender," she replied with a cheerful grin.
She rolled her eyes. "We were just survivors. Now we help defend people."
"I guess so," he said with a shrug. It still surprised him when he stopped to think about how much his life had changed. One of these days I'm going to figure out how I ended up volunteering for this.
"No, really," she insisted, giving him an intense, focused look. He resisted the impulse to twitch as her eyes never wavered. She reached out and touched his hand. "We know the darkness the others don't, and when we help others we keep Sophie and Hardison safe."
The team… His gaze flickered. That put things into a different perspective.
As his eyes softened slightly, she nodded. "Nate doesn't need it so much, but they don't like seeing that part, and we get to help keep it away from them just by helping other people and taking the especially bad guys down before either of them have to face anything too nasty or…"
"Whoa," he laughed, twisting his hand and catching hers. "Was that a sentence?" Eliot smirked as she huffed out an exasperated breath. She stuck her tongue out. His lips softened into a sincere smile. "I get it – defender."
"Defender," she agreed. "I just don't know what it should be."
His eyes went hazy for a moment before he focused on her once more. "We want it simple right? But still hard for people to describe?"
"Well, yeah," she said sarcastically. "It'd be bad if people could describe it to the cops."
"What about Hebrew then?" he suggested, scratching his chin. "Most people don't recognize the script."
"So, what, 'defender' written in Hebrew?" she asked.
"Right," he nodded. "It's a got a different look and feel. I think you'd like it."
Her eyes went wide with curiosity. "What does it look like?"
He fished in his pocket for a pen. He pulled a piece of paper off the side of the building and drew out the characters with quick, fluid strokes. With a final flourish he handed her the page.
Parker stared at the word for several long moments. He let the silence draw out, knowing she needed to let it settle in her mind. Finally she looked at him. She spoke with a soft, sharing voice. "Will you get this with me?"
"I wouldn't have come up with it otherwise, darlin'," he answered. He leaned back against the building and folded his arms over his chest. "Is that what you want?"
She nodded. "It is; it actually is. It's something from me and from you, and it means both of us." She glanced back down at the paper.
Eliot smiled. He reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She slowly looked up to meet his gaze. Their eyes locked and a deep understanding flowed between the two of them. He stepped back before she could get nervous and gestured. "Come on, sweetheart, let's go get this done."
She smirked. "I wonder what the others will think."
"Sophie'll complain about it," he answered.
"Bet Hardison will be confused," she countered, walking backward, trusting him to keep her from stumbling.
"Oh, yeah," he agreed. "Nate's just going to shrug."
"He'll smile," she disagreed.
"Maybe," he stated.
"You watch," she challenged.
He did not bother to argue. He pulled open the door and gestured her in. Parker began bouncing once more as she entered the store. Eliot cast a glance up at the sky with fond exasperation.
How the hell did I end up here?