They were exhausted. All of them. Hardison was dragging his duffel bag of computer equipment behind him so that he didn't have to carry it. Parker's shoulders were slumped and she was breathing raggedly, her eyes on the floor. Sophie's makeup was smeared, something that never happened, and she was leaning heavily on Nate, whose hair had come loose from its gel and was hanging in his eyes. Eliot himself had jarred his ankle when a pair of armed gorillas dropped him over a stairwell, and he was limping badly, grimacing with each step he took.
It had been a rough job. A tiring job. Now all that Eliot wanted was to trip back to their temporary headquarters in Nate's new apartment, debrief quickly, and head home for a shower and a nice long sleep. The thought of hot water and his pillows was almost enough to make him moan. A nice hot meal wouldn't hurt either. Maybe a beer and a football game…
Pulled back into the present as the team reached the end of the hallway, he leaned one shoulder against the wall to take his weight off his ankle while they waited impatiently for Nate to jangle through his ring full of keys. Just as he located the right one, Eliot picked up on a low hum just on the other side of the wall. Pushing his hair back roughly, he tipped his head towards the door to isolate the sound. In the flash of a single second, his hand snapped out and grasped Nate's wrist, stopping him just before the key hit the deadbolt.
"You hear that?"
The team froze, each of them straining to hear through the door. A grim muffled voice was just audible, low and steady with a clamoring sort of background behind it.
"You leave the TV's on Hardison?" Eliot asked.
The hacker's eyes went wide and he shook his head vehemently. Eliot's mouth twisted grimly as he took the key from Nate, turning it in the lock and looking back at the group, nodding once before he pushed the door open and silently stepped inside. A preliminary scan from the threshold showed him nothing, and he was only two steps through the doorway when he felt the rest of them span out behind him, forming a half circle around the back of the couch. A hockey game was blaring on the screens, but there was no other significant sign to suggest an intruder. Behind him, the team relaxed.
Eliot knew better.
The whole apartment smelled like popcorn, and the hair on the back of his neck was standing straight up.
There was someone here. He could feel them.
Someone slouched low on the sofa, invisible from where he stood.
A young, female someone, judging by the sound of her voice.
"Come on Zetterberg," the voice mumbled. "Come on…"
Turning back to his wide-eyed team, he placed a finger to his lips and took a silent step closer towards the sofa. He almost yelped when the girl lounging on the other side rocketed to her feet, whooping and cheering as a puck went sailing across the bank of TV's and the into net, buzzers sounding and the crowd going wild.
"Yes!" she shouted, pumping her fists into the air and jumping up and down. "Wooo!"
Swallowing down his heart, Eliot frowned and strode forward, intent on grabbing the girl who'd broken into their headquarters and hauling her back over the sofa to face the lot of them, only to stumble violently backward himself when a big black shepherd with an even bigger mouthful of sharp teeth surged up and over the couch towards him. This time, he did yelp. A sharp command in German, one he only just heard, rang out, and the animal dropped to its belly, but Eliot didn't stop. His momentum carried him backward across the floor until he crashed into Nate and managed to catch his balance again.
"Jesus!" he gulped. He didn't like dogs. At least not protection trained ones that were coming at him with teeth bared. Another command had the dog returning to the girl's side, the girl, who had finally acknowledged their presence and was now perched on the back of the couch facing them, her head tilted to one side as she looked at him intently. He narrowed his eyes at her and one side of her mouth quirked up in a half-smile before her gaze moved on, looking each of them up and down one by one. He took the time as a gift, and didn't waste a second of it before looking her over fully in return.
She was young, but not as young as he'd first thought, in her mid to late-twenties perhaps. Slim, and about as tall as he was, she had thick, curly, chestnut colored hair, and her skin was just pale enough to be noticed as such. There were fat golden freckles scattered over the bridge of her nose, setting off eyes that were a startling shade of dark, mossy green, a darker green than he had ever seen before. She was dressed in black jeans and a Red Wings jersey with three quarter sleeves, a black string bracelet tied around one wrist. Heavy black combat boots adorned her feet, and there was a set of shiny silver dog tags woven through the loose, sloppy laces. They glinted in the sun that was slanting through the windows, drawing his eye, and he had to wonder; she didn't look military.
She was pretty.
The thought jarred him. It was strange, not that he noticed, but that he noticed before he looked closer. Before he assessed her stance and found her anxious. Eliot relaxed. She was holding all that tension in her shoulders; she was nervous, but not about to attack.
Not like she needed too. She clearly had exquisite control over the massive black Shepherd at her side, and while the animal was lying perfectly still at her side, he could see that it was tightly coiled, its muscles bunched, ready to spring. And its brown, almond-shaped eyes were fixed solely on him. Eliot's lip curled, unconsciously flashing his teeth at the canine before he turned his attention back to its human commander. She had finished her perusal of the team and was now staring intently at Parker, waiting for… something.
Eliot looked across the group and over to the little blonde thief that he thought of as a baby sister. All the color had leached out of her face and her hands were clenched into fists, shaking at her sides. Wide eyes were shocked and almost a little bit afraid, and it was that whisper of fear that had him straightening up and leaning forward on the balls of his feet, ready for whatever might come. For a few, silent seconds, it was like an old-fashioned standoff there in the living room, the team against the newcomer with the wide expanse of floor standing bare and quiet between them.
Finally it became clear that Parker wasn't going to be making introductions, and the girl sighed softly, a single breath laced with pain.
"Hey Parks," she murmured. "Long time, no see."