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Little Bat

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PARKER

 

She preferred vents to beds, though her back sometimes kinked up from curling against a grating. She tried to sleep properly – using blankets, being horizontal – but it didn't work. Her eyes dried out, her hands gripped air.

Long ago, Parker had worked out all that she needed: Bunny, warm clothes, a knife. She could lift anything else. It wasn't safe to have things. She could sleep on the subway, in the backseat of a car, in a diner booth, under a library table. Vents, when she discovered them, were an undreamed-of luxury. The inner seams of buildings, places that were defensible from all sides, where she lurked unseen.

She stopped using the bed she'd bought, slept as she had always done: a weapon in one hand, Bunny tucked under her chin. The top of her first finger against her teeth. Her feet pressed into the side of the vent, ready to kick. She rarely dreamt.

*

The first time she dropped off to sleep in bed beside Sophie, she woke gasping, gripping Sophie's shoulders, her knee seeking Sophie's groin. Sophie was quick as a cat, jerking herself free, her voice steady.

“It's just me, darling, it's Sophie. We're sharing a bed at the Metropolitan, remember? You're safe.”

Parker could feel she was still wearing clothes: sweatpants cinched at her waist, shirt falling past her stomach. That, more than Sophie's voice, reassured her. She drew her knees to her chest, staring at Sophie, and everything clicked into place.

She became aware of her pulse, high as a skyscraper, and Sophie's face, flushed, her hair sleep-tousled.

“Did I hurt you?” Parker asked.

Sophie shook her head. “You had a bad dream?”

Parker swung out of the bed, and up. She'd found the vent earlier that day, a narrow one, close and safe.

“Where are you going?” Sophie asked.

Parker wanted to make words come, but her tongue wouldn't obey. She wiggled down the vent away from the bedroom. They were here to grift a politician: Sophie was going to teach her what to say. They'd fallen asleep watching TV.

Sophie's shoulder had pressed against her own as a familiar sitcom played out. She'd barely missed Bunny at all.

She lay in the vent, rehearsing the memory of Sophie's warmth beside her. Sophie's gentleness when she spoke to Parker, how she didn't make fun of the mistakes Parker made. How much Parker had wanted to be there. She knew she wouldn't be invited again.

*

She was, though.

She wasn't sure what it meant. Why did Sophie let her fall asleep on top of her covers, why did Sophie squeeze her wrist, or hold Parker's head between her hands, containing Parker's thoughts with her fingers?

She hoped it meant that Sophie liked her. Liked her enough to teach her things – to teach her how to stop being an alien.

Parker remembered when she'd first figured out she was an alien. She remembered the scratchy shirt she was wearing, how she kept trying to pull it off. “Touch that again,” her mother said, pinching her hard under the arm. Parker heard the implicit threat.

She had a graze down her right cheek, and her fingers stung. She'd done something bad at recess, but she didn't really understand what it was. She'd wanted to be on the slide. One of the boys had been on it too, but she'd got on ahead of him. There had been screaming and biting, but she'd won.

She didn't know why she was in trouble.

It was something to do with one of the rules no one ever said out loud. The way they wanted to look at her, but she didn't want to look at them. How she was bad because when the class got too loud she banged her head against the floor.

The shirt was ants on her skin. Her mother slapped her hand again, and she moaned in frustration. Different, wrong. An alien. She'd figured it out, she wasn't dumb.

No one had really liked her, until she'd met her crew. No one had explained rules to her until Sophie and Hardison had spelled them out.

She sat at the edge of Sophie's bed as Sophie brushed her hair. “Your hair is a little long for an updo, unless we plait it first.”

Parker leant into the touch. She had no idea what Sophie was talking about.

“Now, when you want to convince someone to like you, the key is flattery...”

Sophie's words were a litany. Parker's eyes drifted shut.

*

Parker's shoulder was bruised from being kicked by one of the goons. She felt tired in every inch of her body, like even her toes had given up. It wasn't a good feeling.

She sat at the table in their office, nibbling dry cereal. The crunch between her teeth was always comforting.

Sophie smoothed back Parker's bangs. “Are you all right?”

“Uh-huh.”

But when she asked to see, Parker pulled her shirt off. Sophie touched the shoulder. “Let's go upstairs,” she said.

In Nate's bedroom, she examined the shoulder, fingers cold and painful. Parker didn't move. “It's going to swell. Let's get you some ibruprofen.”

Sophie took Parker home with her and gave her clean pyjamas. “Is it weird when I share with you?” Parker asked.

“In what way?”

“Like, is it a secret? Should I not tell the others?” Parker knew bed-sharing was often against the rules.

But Sophie shook her head. “It's not a secret, darling.” She kissed Parker's forehead. She smelt of mint, and Parker leant towards her, desperate for something she couldn't name.

Sophie held her. Parker could hear Sophie's heartbeat under her ear. The heat of Sophie's limbs. Automatically, the joint of her first finger went into her mouth. Sophie's fingers brushed through her hair. For this moment, it was better than an air vent.

*

“Your world is very small,” Sophie said. “Don't you see that, Parker? You only think about security systems and theft. You need more than that.”

It was an instruction. Parker listened to the instruction, turning it over. “What else do I need?”

“Something beyond the job. Something that gives you a goal. Something that steadies you.”

“What do you have?” Parker asked, curious. She was sitting on the kitchen counter, swinging her legs.

“Acting. Art, friendship.” Sophie smiled. “Clothes.”

“Those are all things you need for the job,” Parker pointed out. “Grifting is a lot of work.”

“It's not just the job,” Sophie said. “It's who I am.”

Parker cocked her head. “Who are you?”

*

Bunny's scent was so familiar to Parker she couldn't say exactly what he smelled of. Perhaps it was Parker's own smell, the barely detectable odour of her body. Regardless, she felt safe with her nose against his fur, though she knew to be suspicious of that safety. Bunny needed her protection, not the other way around.

She'd always known that. When she was a kid, people had taken Bunny, and she'd had to steal him back. He couldn't escape on her own, not like she could. Escaping was Parker's gift; theft was nothing if you didn't have a way out. Parker's thoughts were made out of escape plans for her, Bunny, some diamonds.

Was there anything else?

Who are you? she'd asked Sophie, and Sophie's face had closed up as though she'd said something mean.

“Who are you?” she said aloud in the airy vault of her warehouse, and repeated it over and over, listening to the echoes of sound, feeling the words on her tongue. All her life, she'd been erasing herself, carefully paring away until there was nothing left that could be hurt.

*

It wasn't a big argument. Parker didn't even know it was an argument until Sophie burst into tears.

Parker dropped the bowl she'd been holding. She didn't mean to, she didn't throw it at the wall like her third foster mother used to do. She saw Sophie's tears, and time seemed jump, and then the bowl and leftover milk and Cheerios were on the floor at her feet.

She looked at Sophie's face. Then she did what every part of her body was longing to do: she escaped.

*

Parker turned the diamond so it spilled radiance over the ceiling. Diamonds had no smell, no taste. They could turn themselves into millions of dollars. They were like a magic spell, scattering light and rainbow. She dangled upside-down from the beam, looking at the centre of her diamond.

It seemed like the diamond looked inside her, too. They refracted each other. She could hang here forever, becoming a diamond. Then Sophie could sell her for millions of dollars, and everyone would be happy.

 

SOPHIE

The diamond, sending out light. Parker hanging from the beam.

Parker was like a little feral animal, Sophie thought. A bat in a forest, frightened and frightening. “Will you come down?” she asked.

Parker swung for a moment, and then let go. She righted herself with such ease that it astonished Sophie. Parker's grace never got less impressive, no matter how many times she saw it. She wrapped her arms around herself, rocking a little. She looked defiant, but Sophie understood it wasn't defiance: it was fear, and something that could almost be described as shyness.

“I thought you'd be in a vent,” Sophie said.

“Not enough light.” Parker dangled the diamond. Sophie didn't think that was the whole explanation.

“That's beautiful,” Sophie said, holding out her hand. Parker kept the diamond in her fingers for a moment, twirling it, and then relinquished it. It was warm from the touch of her skin.

Sophie didn't know as much about diamonds as Parker, but she knew diamonds like this one had names, and were worth enough to retire on. “Where did you get it?”

“Australia,” Parker said. “Before, you know. We became good guys.” She paused, chewing her lip. “They had really good ice cream there too.”

Sophie swung the diamond, feeling its weight. The part of her that was, and would always be, a criminal, craved the diamond. Wanted to hoard it, to own its beauty.

“Are you going to make me give it back?” Parker asked. It was the tone of voice a child might use to ask if they could keep the kitten that had shown up at the back door.

Sophie returned it to her. “It's yours,” she said.

“Not really. The woman who owned it had a top-notch vault. I'd never cracked a system like that before.” Parker's hands flickered, nails scarping against each other. “I could do it faster now,” she reflected.

Sophie watched Parker swinging the diamond, her eyes following the core of light at its centre. She wondered if Parker would say she was sorry – or if Parker knew she had something to be sorry for. You aren't anybody either, Parker had said to her. You're a thief, like me. You're not as good a thief as I am.

Sophie could believe Parker had meant it as constructive criticism.

“Why do you think I was upset?” Sophie asked.

Parker touched the diamond to her lips, as though she were going to eat it. “I said you weren't a good thief?”

She was completely in earnest. Sophie saw it from the way she held herself, the movement of her eyes. Parker's honesty frightened Sophie. To be honest was to be utterly vulnerable – and yet Parker was tough, fearless.

“I didn't mean to make you cry,” Parker said.

“Sometimes people cry. It's not the end of the world.”

Parker cocked her head, assessing this information. “No. But I didn't want you to cry.”

“You touched a nerve,” Sophie said. “I change identities so often I've lost myself. I thought I knew myself, that I had a core somewhere that was always just – me. And now I don't know.”

Parker hopped on to the counter top, swinging her legs. Then she hopped off again, tucked the diamond into her bra, and said, “I like your apartment. It's much nicer than anywhere I've lived. But my place is … safe. Do you want to see it?”

*

The air was cool on Sophie's face, indicative of the warehouse's huge dimensions. Parker's few possessions were scrupulously tidy, her bed neat as one in a hotel.

“There aren't any chairs,” Parker said, looking suddenly anxious. As though that was the strangest thing about this place.

Again, Sophie felt the painful yearning inside her chest: the yearning to give Parker what she'd never been given. Kindness, Sophie knew, Parker had not had enough kindness, or affection. And something else too – a trust in other people. Sophie knew lots of people who had never had these things, but no one who had turned out quite like Parker.

Sophie did not want to remake Parker. But there was a rawness in her that Sophie longed to soothe. Sometimes she just wanted to hold her – show her that affection did not inevitably lead to betrayal.

Parker carefully removed a stuffed toy from between her pillows. “This is Bunny,” she said. “I've always… He's the only one who was always there.” She held the toy under her chin, touching a worn ear to her cheek. “I figured out I didn't need anything else. Just Bunny and my own body. Sometimes it was hard, to keep him safe, too. Once I tried to get rid of him, because he's a weakness. But I couldn't.”

She bent over the bunny, her hair falling in her face. She looked terribly young, suddenly – not the whip-fast adult Sophie knew, but a small, abused child.

Sophie touched Parker's hair, running a silky strand through her fingers. Parker didn't move, but she didn't object either. Her eyes flickered to Sophie, and away.

“I think sometimes I'm jealous of you,” Sophie said. The words came out rapidly – she hadn't planned them, and to speak without consideration was rare for her.

“Why?”

“Because you're always yourself. You've held on to the core of who you are. That takes strength, Parker. Such strength.”

Parker rocked herself slightly, back and forth, holding Bunny. “I barely got here...” she said slowly. There was a long silence, so long Sophie wasn't sure Parker would speak again. Haltingly, she went on, “I barely made it here alive. I had to let go of everything.”

Sophie touched Parker's cheek, and Parker looked up at her, not quite meeting her eyes. “Not everything,” Sophie said.

They lay together on the bed, on sheets that were clean but smelt unused. Sophie, as she had longed to, held Parker in her arms, and Parker held the precious Bunny. Sophie cried into Parker's hair, telling Parker that she was OK, that sometimes feelings came out like this, and Parker let herself be held, and gripped Sophie's hand, and wasn't afraid.

*

Sophie came up with the nickname a few days later when she found Parker once again suspended in the corner of her kitchen. She'd been going over some emails, hadn't heard Parker come in – but that wasn't surprising. She wasn't even startled. It was like being visited by a wild animal, one you had started to feed and to admire.

“Hello,” Sophie said, “Little bat.”

Parker's head tilted slightly. “Do you want me to go back to my cave?”

Sophie smiled. “No, I like you here. Hanging from my rafters.”

Parker swung back and forth, slow and deliberate. “OK. I might need to reinforce this beam one day. It's very comfortable but it's not built to sustain my weight for a long period.”

“Whatever you need to do,” Sophie said, remembering Parker's harnesses, the way she maintained her tools. She would know how to reinforce a beam safely. “Would you like some dinner?”

“No tomatoes.” Parker righted herself. “Anything else, though.”

*

She started saying it without thinking. “OK, little bat, here's what I think we should do.” “Have you lifted it yet, little bat?” “Eat your salad, little bat, some lettuce won't kill you.”

She caught Hardison watching her after she'd fixed up Parker's hair, and said, “You look good, little bat.”

“You going to come up with a code name for me?”

“I don't know,” Sophie said. Hardison was easy to read – too easy to read. He was nervous, asking this question. “Do you want one?”

He shrugged. “Parker's not like other people.”

“No, she isn't.” Sophie kept her eyes on him, giving him space to work out what he needed to say.

“Are you...” He paused, fingers flicking over his phone. “Y'all are close.”

Sophie leant against the desk, looking carefully at Hardison. He was asking her intentions, but not in so many words.

“It's funny,” Sophie said. “I know she's more than capable of looking after herself, but I still want to keep an eye on her.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Hardison ran his fingers over his chin. “She stays at your place a lot.”

“What are you asking me?” Sophie said, keeping her voice gentle, so it didn't sound like a challenge – but she was prepared to bristle, and make him feel in the wrong, if it came to that.

Hardison met her eyes, his gaze on her direct and steady. “She needs someone to show her what family is. I'm glad you're helping.”

There was an implicit threat in there somewhere. But there was also genuine concern. Sophie nodded. “I call her little bat because she hangs upside in my kitchen.”

*

If Hardison had asked her directly – Are you into Parker? – she couldn't have answered. She didn't want to sleep with Parker. She did want to hold Parker, to give her as much affection as she would tolerate, to fall into a routine with her. Those feelings weren't ones Sophie could easily name.

She did what felt right – brushed Parker's long hair back from her face, kissed her forehead when she was sleepy, fed her slices of apple.

“I like doing what you tell me to do,” Parker said. She was sitting at Sophie's feet, her head resting on Sophie's knee. Sophie had been idly stroking her hair with one hand, while she went over some notes for the con.

“During a grift?” Sophie asked. “You're getting a lot better, little bat.”

“No.” The first joint of Parker's finger slipped into her mouth, in the childish habit she had. “When you tell me what I should do, it makes me feel safe.”

Sophie tangled her fingers in Parker's hair. “You're not always good at following instructions.”

“Sometimes I know better,” Parker said. “If it's stealing. I know how to be a thief. But for everything else, I prefer it when you tell me.”

“I've been trying to teach you to help you make your own decisions,” Sophie said. She felt suddenly wrong-footed.

“Do I have to?” Parker shifted away from her, spine growing stiff. She wrapped her hands around her knees. If she'd been anyone else, Sophie would have caught her chin, tilted her face up so she could see into Parker's eyes. But she knew eye-contact was simply painful for Parker, and that Parker only looked people in the eye when she was pretending to be someone else.

Instead, she settled for pressing her leg against one of Parker's. “I don't want you to feel like you have to do everything I say. It wouldn't be good for you, darling. But I can give instructions some of the time, if that's what you'd like.”

Parker went back to sucking her finger. “I like when you tell me what clothes to wear, or what to eat. I'd like it if you told me to do more things.”

“What kinds of things?” Sophie asked.

Parker rocked slightly. “When to go to bed. Whether I should sit on the couch or on the floor. If I should go get you coffee. When I'm allowed to hug you.” She paused. “It makes me feel good.”

Sophie swallowed. Her face and neck grew warm. She'd been pushing Parker in one direction, thinking she was guiding her, and Parker had brought them to a different place entirely.

“I think … I think you're describing a different kind of relationship from the one we have.”

“Oh.” Parker let out a long breath.

“But that doesn't mean we can't… do what you're suggesting. We'll just have to have some ground rules.”

Parker sat up eagerly, and climbed onto the couch next to Sophie. She was all long limbs, a leg falling over Sophie's knee as she wound her arms around herself. Now that Parker had laid it out, Sophie had to admit to herself that she liked telling Parker what to do, she liked when Parker followed her instructions eagerly and ducked her head when she was praised.

“You can always say no to me, you know that, don't you?” Sophie asked.

“Uh-huh.” Parker nodded. “You're not scary. You're not going to take away Bunny or my food if I don't do what you say.”

Sophie felt a shiver of revulsion as she realised that these were consequences that had been imposed upon Parker – possibly quite recently. “Of course I wouldn't do that,” Sophie said. “None of us would do that.”

“OK.” Parker said. “You wouldn't have to punish me, anyway. I don't want to disappoint you. I like it when I make you happy.”

“Oh, Parker.” Sophie felt tears behind her eyes. “Oh, little bat.” Parker's complete honesty, her straightforward affection, was a gift. A precious thing, entrusted to Sophie. Parker didn't know how rare she was, how generous.

Sophie pulled her into a hug, kissing the top of her head. Parker acquiesced, nuzzling puppyishly at Sophie's neck. “OK, sweetheart,” Sophie said. “First we're going to have a little chat about autonomy. Then we'll talk about my instructions.”

*

Sophie knew the con had been hard on Parker. Grifting didn't come easily to her, and she'd needed to do a lot of talking. As well as that, the outdoor antiques show had been loud, hot, and bright, all factors that took a toll on Parker.

But she hadn't realised just how hard it had been until they arrived at Sophie's flat. Parker had been silent on the way there, following Sophie blankly. She was opening and closing her hands, but that anxious gesture was the only sign she was struggling.

Once they were through the door, Parker flopped onto the hardwood floor, as if all the energy had been sucked from her. For a second, Sophie thought she'd passed out. She lay on the ground, limp, and Sophie asked, “Are you hurt? What happened?”

Parker didn't move. Her hands clenched into fists, and she pressed her face to the floor. Then she made a sound, something between a whimper and a groan. She hit her head off the floor, once, twice, in a sharp, deliberate motion.

Sophie felt suddenly angry. She was tired, it had been a long week, and she just wanted a glass of wine and bed. She didn't understand how to help Parker, or what she wanted –

Then it dawned on her that Parker didn't want anything. Sophie always thought two steps ahead, read betrayal and manipulation into everyone's actions. But Parker couldn't manipulate anyone without being carefully coached first. She'd followed Sophie home because she felt safe here. And she'd held herself together until she was somewhere safe, but she'd pushed herself past her strength.

Sophie knelt by her. Parker's head hit the floor again, hard enough that Sophie winced. She touched Parker's hand gently, but Parker moaned and drew it away.

“Baby,” Sophie whispered. “Little bat.”

This was Parker at her most vulnerable. If I fail her now, she'll never trust me again, Sophie thought. So no pressure.

Parker curled up, drawing her knees to her chest. She gripped her hair with both hands, tugging, rocking herself. She wasn't crying, but she made little moaning sounds far in the back of her throat. The sounds were so raw they made Sophie want to run away. She wanted to drink a bottle of wine with someone who never expressed any feelings at all – to be in a bar or restaurant, a space with rules and boundaries she understood.

I didn't sign up for this, Sophie thought.

And then she thought: But I do want this. I want her. No lies, no cover stories. Just her.

“I don't know how to help,” Sophie said. “What can I do?”

Parker didn't seem to hear. She pressed her cheek to the floor, her hands tugging at her hair. Her eyes, which had been screwed shut, opened slightly. She peeked at Sophie, and then shut them again, as though Sophie's gaze was too much.

After a long moment, she said, “Sorry.” The word muffled by her arms.

“Why are you sorry? You don't have to be sorry.” Sophie touched Parker's hand, and Parker flinched.

Sophie's first instinct was to pull away, and then she remembered how much Parker liked firm touch, her wrist being squeezed, pressure on her scalp, a hand gripping the back of her neck. Sophie fastened her hand around Parker's wrist and squeezed hard, as hard as she could.

Parker stilled. She took a long, shuddering breath. Sophie had been ready to let go at once, but this touch seemed to be acceptable. Parker even leant into it. Her eyes opened again. “I'm being...” A long pause. “Bad. Having a tantrum. Bad.”

Sophie bit her lip. She wanted to draw Parker into her arms, but she restrained herself. Instead, she said, “I don't think you're being bad. I think you had a hard day. A hard week.”

Parker didn't reply. She looked away, pressing her forehead to the floor. Then she held her other wrist out to Sophie. “Squeeze,” she said.

Sophie took the wrist in her hand, and squeezed both of them. Parker moaned again, but it was a fainter, less desperate sound. She kept her head down, face obscured, hands held out to Sophie. And Sophie squeezed Parker's wrists until her own bones hurt. She thought how strange they must look, just inside the front door like this. One woman gripping another woman's wrists until they bruised.

Parker's breathing evened out. She was quiet now, and almost eerily still. Sophie gradually loosened her grip, Parker eased her hands away. She rubbed her eyes, and slowly sat up, turning her face away from Sophie.

The silence between them that had been so natural suddenly felt huge and awkward.

“Do you want something to drink?” Sophie asked. She was thirsty, tired out, thinking about the bottle of white wine in the refrigerator.

Parker didn't say anything. She rocked herself slightly, blinking, as though she'd woken up, disoriented, from a long sleep.

Sophie stood up. She went to the kitchen, poured herself some wine. Debated pouring some for Parker, and then got her a glass of ice water instead. In the living room, Parker was in exactly the same position.

“Maybe you should try sitting on the couch? You can't be comfortable.” Sophie put the glass in Parker's reach. “Or do you want to go to bed?”

Parker looked up at Sophie. Her hair, loose and sweaty, fell into her eyes. She was rocking very slightly.

Tell me what to do, Parker had said. It makes me feel safe.

Sophie experimented. “Sit by me on the couch,” she said.

Parker didn't move for so long Sophie thought she hadn't processed what had been said, but then she came and sat beside Sophie. She was flushed, her eyes red.

“Have something to drink.” Sophie passed her the glass.

Parker took it, pressed the cold rim of the glass against her lips, and sipped. Then she seemed to register that she was thirsty, and glugged the water rapidly. She finished the glass and wiped her mouth on her sleeve

Her hand snaked out, and she rested it on Sophie's knee. “Thanks,” she said.

Sophie wasn't sure how to respond. She wanted to say it was nothing, no trouble, but that would dismiss something important. “I'm glad I could help,” she settled on.

Parker touched the glass to her cheek, as if enjoying the cold against her flushed skin. “It helps… when you tell me what to do.”

Sophie didn't squeeze her hand, though she wanted to. “I know,” she said. She sipped her wine. They'd sit here a minute, and then she'd send them both to bed.

*

Sophie kicked off her Jimmy Choos. Her temples were throbbing. She flopped onto the couch, rubbing her head.

Parker appeared at the window, like a stray cat looking for tuna. She climbed through without ceremony, and stood at the corner of Sophie's living room.

“It was a disaster,” Sophie said. “Useless.”

“I heard over the comms,” Parker said. She paused, and then said, “It happens.”

“Not to me.” Sophie gave a frustrated groan. “Nate'll be so smug, he didn't think that con would work.”

Parker came to the couch. She shifted awkwardly, as though she didn't know what to do, and then she sank to her knees. She looked up at Sophie. “Can I rub your feet?”

Sophie was so frustrated it took her a moment to process that. Then she looked down at Parker and smiled, seeing her eager, earnest face. “Yes,” she said. And then as Parker's strong fingers went to work, she found herself saying, “Yes, good girl. Just like that. Good girl.”

And she relaxed, plotting an evening of simple instructions for Parker to follow.

*

“You and Parker… Uh...” Nate said, and he clearly hoped she would finish the sentence for him. Sophie didn't.

“I just, I… Need to know what's going on with the team.”

“We're reliable,” Sophie said. “That's all you need to know.”

It was all she knew too: they could rely on each other. They all could. This thing with Parker, it only made it easier. She was good at reading Parker now, knew what she could do, how far to push her. They could speak without words.

It didn't mean she knew how to name what they were to herself, let alone to Nate.

She read an article online about non-sexual kink. She started buying clothes for Parker, and realised she felt safe, too, when Parker eagerly did what she was told. They weren't lovers – not quite. But being with Parker was as intimate as being with a lover.

Parker, as ever, was one step ahead of Sophie.

They were cornered in a vault, Parker holding jewels, Sophie's heiress persona suddenly useless. For a second, they glanced at each other, two different plans forming in their minds. Two goons advanced, one holding a knife.

Suddenly, Parker was darting forward, as though about to attack them.

Sophie's vision clouded red. Her bones stiffened, she tasted iron on her tongue. “Parker!” she shouted.

The goon was gripping Parker, hand clamped to her throat. Parker wriggled savagely, seemingly unaware of the knife, the danger, the unpredictability.

Sophie wasn't sure exactly how she did it. Perhaps it was the self-defence she'd learnt from Eliot, perhaps it was instinct. It certainly wasn't how Sophie Devereaux normally responded to situations like this. She jabbed the goon in the eyes, the throat, and Parker used the diversion to kick his balls. He relaxed his grip, grunting, swearing. Parker tugged free, eyes wild, as though she still wanted to fight.

Sophie pulled Parker into her arms, shaking her. “Don't do that, don't act without thinking, don't --”

Parker looked at her, without any guilt in her expression, but said, “I didn't mean to scare you.”

“Don't you dare,” Sophie whispered, giving Parker another fierce shake.

The goon who wasn't cursing and groaning said,“What is she, your kid? You need to cut the apron strings.”

Parker squeezed Sophie once, showing she was whole, and let go. She said, “She's not my mom. She's my Sophie.”

Sophie took a deep breath. Yes, that about covered it. She was Parker's, and Parker was hers. They didn't need any other words for it.

Then Eliot arrived with an extraction plan. As they ran, Parker gripped Sophie's hand.