As he dangled over the edge of the ravine, forty feet above the ground below, Eliot wondered when, exactly, everything had gone so completely to shit.
It had seemed like a solid plan at the outset. Not without its risks, but everything in their line of work came with a certain element of risk. And the risks of this particular job had seemed manageable. Negligible, even, compared to some of the shit they’d pulled off. Which was probably the root of the problem, right there. They’d been coasting through this one and they hadn’t brought their A-game. Which was exactly the kind of mistake that would get you killed.
The first bad sign had come when Edward Creasy, the contact Eliot and Parker were supposed to be meeting, insisted on taking them to a second location to complete the deal. Eliot had had a bad feeling about it and probably he should have pulled the plug right then, but Nate was in his ear telling him to go along with it, that everything would be fine because Hardison had put a tracker on Creasy’s car. And it wasn’t like the little weasel presented much of a threat. He was just an accountant who’d gotten in over his head and wasn’t used to swimming with the big fish. Playing along with his paranoia had seemed like the best way to get what they needed from him. So he and Parker had gotten in Creasy’s Lexus and let him drive them to a rest stop on the highway outside of town that just happened to be out of comm range.
As soon as they got out of the car and Eliot saw the two hired thugs (ex-Special Forces, from the look of them) waiting for them in the parking lot with Glocks, he knew he’d fucked up. He weighed his odds of taking them down then and there, but they were pros, well-trained enough to make sure one of them kept him covered from a safe distance while the other blindfolded and handcuffed them, and he just couldn’t be sure Parker wouldn’t get hurt in the crossfire.
They were shoved into the back of a van that pulled out onto the highway and drove south for another half hour before turning off onto some rough back-country track—a fire road, most likely—that twisted and turned so much even Eliot couldn’t keep it straight in his head. Parker was crouched beside him, silently bouncing around on the floor of the van. After one particularly rough bump she tumbled into him and stayed there with her arm pressed against his. A few minutes later he felt her fingers go to work on his cuffs, loosening them enough that he’d be able to slip out of them when the time came.
A disconcertingly long time later—nearly two hours by Eliot’s estimation—the van finally stopped and they were dragged out, still blindfolded. He could tell from the sounds and smells that they were in the middle of the woods, miles from civilization. Their bodies would never be found out here, the rest of team would never even know what had happened to them. It was do or die time.
“If you’re gonna kill us,” Eliot said calmly, “at least have the balls to look us in the eye when you do it.”
He heard Creasy’s oily laugh. Then footsteps as one of the thugs, the bigger one by the sound of it, trudged over to them. He heard Parker’s sharp intake of breath as her blindfold was torn off and then it was Eliot’s turn.
As soon as his vision was clear he surged forward, slipping free of the cuffs, and twisted the gun out of his captor’s hand as he slammed his forehead into the soft cartilage of the guy’s nose.
Eliot swung the Glock around and squeezed off a round that dropped the other thug and sent Creasy diving for cover behind the van. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Parker duck behind a tree. This was the first time he’d ever killed anyone in front of her, but he didn’t have time to care about that right now.
The big guy swiveled and kicked the gun out of Eliot’s hand before he had a chance to get off any more shots. Eliot responded by grabbing his foot and twisting hard. As he fell the man managed to spin around, kicking Eliot’s legs out from under him. Before he knew it Eliot had toppled backwards and the man was on top of him hammering his fists into Eliot’s face. Eliot raised his hands to deflect the worst of the blows and brought his knee up into the man’s stomach. It gave him just enough of a reprieve that he was able to roll away and stagger to his feet.
The guy was a hell of a lot more agile than anyone the size and shape of a vending machine had any right to be. And he was fast. Already he was upright and closing in again. Eliot aimed the heel of his hand into the man’s already bleeding nose but the guy dodged and countered with a vicious elbow strike to the side of Eliot’s head that was immediately followed by a fist to his sternum. Eliot stumbled backwards, momentarily disoriented.
He didn’t even realize the ravine was there until he felt the ground start to go out from under his feet. By then it was too late, he was already pitching over the rocky edge. Eliot reached out, grabbed two fistfuls of the other man’s shirt and held on with everything he had.
The man rained blows down on him, trying to shake him off, but Eliot dug his feet into the rock face in front of him, determined to drag the man down with him, into the dry creek bed forty feet below. He almost managed it, too, but just before they both went over the edge he felt the man’s shirt start to tear. One last shove was all it took for the fabric to give way and send Eliot tumbling down into the ravine alone.
He twisted in mid-air, trying to drop into a roll, but ended up landing on his side with a bone-jarring thud. The edges of his vision darkened as the center exploded in multi-colored starbursts. A thick stand of underbrush seemed to have broken his fall somewhat, but there was a sharp, sickening pain in his left leg that told him it was almost certainly fractured.
The pain in his leg was nothing compared to the realization that Creasy and the big guy were still up there with Parker. And there wasn’t a damn thing Eliot could do about it from down here. He could only hope she’d had to the good sense to hide.
He rolled out of the brush and tried to get up but the pain in his leg was so bad he nearly passed out. As he stumbled to the ground the sound of a gunshot reverberated off the walls of the ravine. It echoed around the forest and through the walls of his chest, sinking into the pit of his stomach and forming a tight ball of fear.
“Parker!” he yelled. The only sound that came from above was the van’s engine turning over and the tires spinning out on the rough road as it drove away. “Parker!”
For all he knew she was up there bleeding out, or maybe she was dead already. And all because he hadn’t been there to protect her. He’d only had one thing to do on this job—keep Parker safe—and he’d failed.
He tried once more to stand up, using the rock face to pull himself upright, and got halfway there before his hand slipped and he fell over. This time the pain in his leg was so bad that he did black out.
* * *
It took a long time for Eliot to realize the pounding in his head was actually someone tapping him on the forehead. He opened his eyes, squinting against the blinding glare of the sun.
Parker’s face swam into his field of vision. “There you are,” she said. “It’s about time.”
He stared at her, shaken. “You’re not dead.”
“Well, duh.” She wrinkled her forehead the way she always did was she was trying to understand something. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I heard a gunshot. I thought you’d been killed.”
“Oh, that,” she said lightly. “That was me shooting the guy who pushed you over the cliff.”
“You killed him?”
She shrugged and half-smiled awkwardly. “It’s easier to shoot someone than I thought it would be.” Then she frowned slightly. “Is that bad?”
Jesus. How the hell was he supposed to answer that? Her expression had a slighty glassy look to it, one he’d seen on soldiers in the field a few times before. “You okay?” he asked carefully.
“Course I am, I’m not the one who fell off a cliff, am I? Creasy got away, by the way. He took the van and drove off before I could stop him.”
“So we’re stuck out here.” Eliot forced himself up into a sitting position and tried to take stock of his condition. His head and spine seemed to have escaped injury, but the left side of his abdomen was aching and tender. He pulled up his shirt and grimaced as he gingerly felt around the injured area. A couple of the lower ribs were almost definitely fractured. He’d had plenty of cracked ribs before, he could survive those, but with a fall like the one he just took, he could be dealing with internal injuries, too. He scooted himself over a few inches so he could lean back against the rock face and the bones in his broken leg grated against one another, causing him to gasp out loud.
“What’s wrong?” Parker asked.
“My leg,” he said through gritted teeth. “Pretty sure it’s broken.”
“Do you have a knife?” she asked.
He had a sudden terrifying vision of Parker trying to amputate his leg in the wilderness with a pocket knife. “Why?” he asked, alarmed.
“I need to cut your pants leg open so I can take a look at your leg.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said, awkwardly trying to shift his weight so he could reach into the pocket of his jeans.
Parker’s hand slipped in and out of his pocket without invitation, deftly retrieving the Leatherman he always carried. She flipped it open and sliced the leg of his pants open from just above his knee down to his ankle.
It wasn’t pretty. His femur was definitely broken: the lower part of his leg was twisted at an odd angle and his thigh was swollen and discolored. At least it wasn’t an open fracture, but a break like that needed medical attention. And the chances of him getting it out here were pretty much slim to hell freezing over.
“That looks pretty bad,” Parker said. “I guess you’re not gonna be walking out of here.”
Eliot had already come to the exact same, extremely sobering conclusion. “No,” he said grimly. “I’m not.”
She reached back into his pockets, brazenly digging around in his pants. “Hey,” he protested. “What are you doing?”
She pulled out his cell phone, fiddled with it for a few seconds and then tossed it aside. “No signal, just like the others.”
“The ones on the two dead guys. I searched their pockets before I came looking for you. There wasn’t much, but I did find two Power Bars and a pack of gum.”
“Great,” Eliot said without much enthusiasm. He did some quick calculations in his head. They had to be at least 60 miles from civilization. Parker was in great shape, but that was a challenging hike for anyone. And water was going to be a problem. “It’s probably going to take you a day and a half to hike back to the highway,” he said. “Maybe even two days. If you’re lucky you’ll get a cell signal sometime before that, though. And at least you’ll be able follow the fire road so you don’t have to worry about getting lost.”
Her forehead wrinkled up again. “What are you talking about?”
“You hiking out of here.”
She looked at him like he was the crazy one. “I’m not leaving you here. In your condition? No way. You won’t last two days on your own.”
“You have to. Like you said, I’m not walking out of here.”
“I’m not going without you. You need me to take care of you. You could be eaten by a bear or ... or starve to death. ”
He smiled and shook his head. “I’m not going to get eaten by a bear. And it takes a lot longer than two days to starve to death.”
“You could die of dehydration. Or exposure.”
That was possibly true. Likely, even. Assuming he didn’t die from hemorrhagic shock first, of course. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was getting Parker to safety. “I’ll be fine. What I need is for you to go get help.”
“Help is coming,” she insisted. “Hardison will find us.”
“You see any electronics out here, Parker? There aren’t even any power lines. We’re out of range of everything. Hardison has no way of tracking us down.”
She shook her head stubbornly. “I’m not leaving you here alone. You can’t make me.”
“No, Eliot!” Her face was flushed with anger. “I know what you’re doing. You want me to save myself and leave you here to die but I won’t do that! I would never do that!”
“Okay,” he said soothingly. “I’m sorry.”
He wanted to tell her that it didn’t matter, that he was probably going to die out here whether she was with him or not, and he didn’t want her to watch it happen. He’d do almost anything to spare her that, even if it meant dying alone out here. He couldn’t say those things, though. She wasn’t ready to hear them.
“So,” he ventured. “Two whole Power Bars, huh?”
“Yeah.” Her face brightened. “Oh! And I found a water bottle. It must have fallen out of the van or something.” She jumped up and went over to a pile of clothing he hadn’t noticed before—clothing that she had obviously stripped from the two dead men up above. She’d tied the two men’s jackets together into a makeshift knapsack and she rummaged around in it until she came up with a 16 oz Ozarka bottle, which she held up proudly. “And there’s a stream that’s only a ten-minute walk that way.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder.
It was the first piece of good news Eliot had heard all day. It meant that maybe they wouldn’t die of dehydration, at least. “That’s good,” he told her. “That’s really good, Parker.”
“Are you thirsty? I could go fill it up now.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe that’d be a good idea.” His leg was really fucking hurting him and it was taking a lot of his energy to hide just how much from Parker.
“I’ll be back in twenty minutes. Don’t go anywhere.” She waggled her finger at him, then laughed at her own joke. “Get it?”
“Hilarious,” he grunted.
As soon as she was out of sight he sagged back against the rock wall and closed his eyes, gasping for air. The pain was bad, getting worse, and his heart was racing in his chest. He tried a meditation technique to slow his breathing. It helped some, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
* * *
“I’ve got water!” Parker announced cheerfully twenty minutes later. “Eliot, what’s wrong?” She hurried to his side and knelt beside him. “Why are you breathing like that?”
His breathing had become shallow and fast. He couldn’t seem to get enough air in his lungs and he was shivering uncontrollably. “Cold,” he mumbled, clutching his arms across his chest.
“Jackets!” Parker said. “I’ve got jackets.” She hurried over to the stash of stuff she’d scavenged from the two dead guys and came back with two jackets that were only slightly bloodstained. She helped him pull one of them on and then laid the other one over him like a blanket.
“Good,” he said through chattering teeth. “Need to lie down. Elevate ... extremities.”
“Got it,” Parker said, jumping up. She grabbed him under the arms and pulled him sideways so she could lay him out flat on the ground. He couldn’t help crying out as his leg was jostled. “Sorry, sorry,” she muttered under her breath. She scooped up armfuls of leaves and dirt and pushed them into a mound beneath his good leg in order to elevate it above his heart. “This is probably going to hurt,” she said regretfully, then lifted the ankle of his broken leg and rested it on the makeshift pillow.
Eliot screamed. He couldn’t help it.
“I’m sorry!” she said, her voice rising defensively.
“It’s okay,” he gritted through the pain. He closed his eyes and tried to practice some progressive muscle relaxation. After few minutes he felt his breathing start to slow.
“Eliot?” Parker said tentatively.
“Yeah,” he said, opening his eyes. She looked frightened. He tried to smile at her. “I’m still here.”
Relief flooded her face. “Oh, good. Not that I thought you were going to die or anything. Because I didn’t. Not really.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Do you want some water?”
He nodded weakly. Now that she mentioned it, he felt like he was dying of thirst. Parker helped him raise his head and held the bottle to his lips.
“Thanks,” he said when he’d had enough. He wasn’t as cold anymore, but his pulse was still too rapid. If they could get his broken leg reduced and stabilized it would help the pain and reduce the risk of internal bleeding at the fracture site. “I need you make me a traction splint,” he told Parker. “You think you can do that?”
She perked up. “Sure! Just tell me what to do.” Having a project to keep her busy would probably help her state of mind as almost as much as the splint would help Eliot’s leg.
“You’re gonna need three good branches at least two inches thick and as straight as you can find. Two of them need to be about three feet long, and the third should be just under a foot. You’ll also need a smaller stick that’s an inch thick and a few inches long. And some vines or cloth strips or something to lash it all together.”
“Right.” Parker jumped up and ran off into the woods. She came back a little while later with a collection of branches. She laid the two long ones out alongside him to make sure they were the right length.
“Good,” Eliot said. “Now cut a notch in the bottom end of the two longer ones. You’re gonna lash the smaller one between them as a cross piece.”
Parker set to work. When she was done carving the notch in the two long sticks she started tearing the clothes the two dead men had been wearing into long strips.
“Okay,” he said when she had enough strips of cloth. “Now you need to tie the splint in place around my leg to immobilize it. Firmly, but not so tight you cut off the circulation.”
Eliot grit his teeth while Parker tied the splint around his leg in several places above and below the fracture site. Fortunately, her agile pickpocket’s fingers hardly jostled the broken bones at all. All that was left now was the traction. He had her make a wrap that went around his ankle and down to the crosspiece, with the small stick suspended in between. Since she was pretty much an expert with knots and harnesses, it took her almost no time at all.
“Now you’re gonna twist the stick,” he said. “That’s gonna create tension which will pull the broken bones apart and relieve some of the pain.”
She nodded solemnly.
“It’s going to hurt at first—a lot—but I need you to keep twisting until my left leg looks as long as my right, then lash it in place.”
“There’s a chance I might pass out.”
Parker bit her lip. “You’ll wake up again, though, right?”
“I promise,” Eliot said, hoping it was a promise he could keep.
“Okay.” Parker grabbed hold of the twisting stick. “Ready?”
He clenched his jaw and nodded.
By the sixth revolution he was sweating and shaking with the effort of not screaming. He didn’t cry out until she got to ten. After that he lost count. His awareness narrowed until there was nothing but the pain. It was excruciating, unrelenting, intolerable. Just when he thought he’d reached his limit, when he couldn’t take it any longer, it eased. It wasn’t gone altogether, but it was a hell of a lot more manageable. Gradually, Eliot became aware of a soft, warm pressure on his hand. It was Parker, squeezing his hand tightly between both of hers. He opened his eyes and looked up into her face. “Hey,” he said.
She smiled. “Hey yourself.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
She blinked and let go of his hand. “You didn’t.”
The pain in his leg was definitely better. He took a long, deep breath. His heart rate felt like it was slowing a little, too. “I think it worked. You did good, Parker.”
“You did real good.”
She squinted up at the sky. “Only a couple more hours until dark. It’s going to get a lot colder out here, isn’t it?”
He grimaced. “Yeah, it is.”
“Then we’re gonna need a fire,” she said.
Eliot really, really did not have the strength to teach Parker how to start a fire with nothing more than a couple of sticks. “Please tell me one of Creasy’s men was a smoker?”
She smiled and rummaged around in her stash and until she came up with a Bic lighter. “Ta da!”
While Parker was off gathering wood and kindling for the fire, Eliot closed his eyes and tried to rest. He hadn’t even realized he’d fallen asleep until Parker nudged him awake a while later. There was a nice campfire crackling a few feet away. She’d refilled the water bottle again and she helped him sit up enough to drink some more. Then she tore open one of the Power Bars and broke off a piece, which she offered to him.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, thinking about the long hike she was going to have to make back to the highway eventually. “You eat it.” If she insisted on staying by his side, giving him all of their food, she wasn’t going to have enough strength to make it out of here on her own.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You need to keep up your strength. I barely eat anything anyway.”
“Break it in half. I’ll eat as much as you eat.”
She frowned at him but she ate her half. Neither of them spoke for a while after that. Parker occupied herself by poking at the fire with a stick and Eliot watched the sun sink through the trees, wondering how many more sunsets he was going to see out here.
“Look, a firefly!” Parker exclaimed. Twilight had fallen, bringing the tiny glowing creatures with it, and one had landed on her arm. She smiled with delight and prodded it gently with her finger, causing it fly away.
The little dancing motes of light were everywhere, flitting in and out amongst the trees. They flickered and pulsed in the darkening air all around them, mirroring the stars that were just starting to come out in the sky overhead.
Fireflies always reminded Eliot of the summers he’d spent at his grandfather’s ranch when he was growing up. He and his sister had carried his grandmother’s pickling jars out into the yard in the evenings and chased the elusive bugs around, trying to capture them. Fairy lanterns, his sister had called them, and he’d thought they were magic. He’d thought the world was full of magic, back then.
In the morning, though, all that was ever left was jars full of dead bugs.
“It’ll be dark soon,” he said. “You should refill the water bottle one last time before you lose the light.”
“Okay.” Parker jumped up and trotted off into the trees.
When she was gone he raised up the left side his shirt. The tender area had darkened into a large hematoma. He’d had enough field medical training to know that meant he’d probably lacerated one of his organs in the fall and was bleeding internally into his abdominal cavity. The next step in such a case was to prepare the patient for immediate CASEVAC. But there wasn’t going to be any casualty evacuation for him out here.
Eliot didn’t say anything when Parker came back. She sank down beside the fire and went back to poking it with her stick, sending showers of glowing embers up into the darkness. He knew he should probably try to sleep, but part of him was reluctant to let go, afraid he’d miss out on his last chance to gaze up at the heavens. This far from civilization the night sky was alive with light, an ocean of stars glimmering overhead. He found the Big Dipper and tracked its progress across the dome of the sky, feeling empty and alone. By the time the moon peeked over the tops of the trees the temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees. He shivered and pulled the dead man’s jacket tighter around him.
“I thought you were dead,” Parker said abruptly.
“What?” He’d been so deep in his reverie he’d almost forgotten she was there.
“After you went over that cliff. When I looked over the edge and you were just lying there and you weren’t moving. I thought you were dead.” She turned and looked at him, but she was just a dark silhouette against the light of the fire and he couldn’t read her expression. “I’m really glad you’re not dead, Eliot.”
“I’m glad you’re not dead either, Parker.”
She came and laid down beside him on the cold ground, resting her head on his shoulder. He lifted up the jacket, inviting her into the meager warmth it afforded, and she snuggled closer, draping her arm protectively across his chest. Her body was warm from the fire and he was so cold. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer, not caring about anything except the warmth of her body next to his. Within minutes he was asleep.
* * *
The pain woke him several times in the night, pulling him out of dark, unsettling dreams that he could never quite seem to remember. Sometimes he was burning up. Sometimes he was freezing. But Parker was always there with him. The steadfast nearness of her body next to his was a comfort in the empty darkness, and he fell back into sleep.
* * *
Eliot came awake slowly to a gray morning and a cold, drizzly rain. He was soaking wet, chilled to the bone, his head was pounding, and his leg was aching like a motherfucker. He looked around groggily.
The fire had gone out and Parker was nowhere to be seen.
It scared him a little that he hadn’t woken when she got up, but it scared him even more that he didn’t know where she was. He tried to call out her name, but it came out as a half-hearted croak. Panic clawed at his insides.
Then he heard footsteps crashing through the forest behind him. He strained to turn his head and saw Parker strolling towards him. “You’re up!” she said cheerfully.
He felt like an idiot for getting so worked up. She was fine. She’d probably just gone for more water.
Toughen up, son. Don’t be such a goddamned crybaby.
“You don’t look so great,” she said, frowning down at him.
“I’m cold,” he said, shivering. “And wet.”
“Yeah, it’s raining.” Parker had an astounding gift for the obvious. “Too bad neither of those guys had an umbrella, huh?”
Eliot grunted in response.
“You’ll feel better when you’ve had something to eat. And some water.”
He accepted the water, but shook his head when she tried to give him another piece of Power Bar.
“You have to eat it,” she told him. “It’s for your own good. And it’ll warm you up.”
There was no way a quarter of a Power Bar was going to shake the cold sinking into his limbs. And he really wasn’t hungry. His stomach revolted at the very idea of food.
But Parker wasn’t taking no for an answer. “Look, I already ate my share, now it’s your turn. Eat it, Eliot.”
“Come on, eat it.” She waved the Power Bar under his nose and the smell of it was almost enough to make him retch.
He shoved her hand away. “I’m not eating the goddamned Power Bar, Parker, so just fucking drop it.”
She stared at him for a beat, her face shuttered. Then she seemed to remember something and her expression brightened. “I know what’ll cheer you up! Look what I found down by the stream.” She held up a rusty coffee can proudly.
“I’m wet and freezing and stranded in the middle of the woods with a broken leg,” he growled. “How is an old coffee can supposed to cheer me up?”
“Oh, quit whining!” she chided him. “It should cheer you up because I can use it to boost our cell signal so the others can find us.”
He looked at it doubtfully. “A coffee can?”
“A coffee can and the headphones I found on one of the dead guys, yeah.”
Eliot watched, dubiously at first, and then increasingly impressed, as Parker used his multi-tool to cut a small hole in the side of the coffee can. Then she stripped away the coating on the earbud cords, exposing the thin copper wire inside. She poked one end of the wire through the hole in the coffee can and held it in place with a wad of chewing gum. The other end of the wire she attached to the external antenna jack on Eliot’s cell phone.
“That’s really gonna work?” he asked.
“I’ve gone from zero to three bars with one of these babies before,” she said. “Of course that was with two cans soldered together and a proper antenna fitting. And I wasn’t quite so far out in the middle of nowhere as this, but it should at least help. And it’s not like the signal has to be strong. Even an intermittent signal is enough for Hardison to trace.” She pointed the can up at the sky and moved it around, trying different positions and angles while staring down at the phone.
“Anything?” Eliot asked, trying not to get his hopes up.
Parker frowned. “No. But it might be because we’re down in this ravine. Maybe if I go up to higher ground?”
“Do it,” Eliot said. That stupid fucking coffee can was pretty much his only chance of getting out of this alive.
“It’ll take me about an hour to hike up to the top of the ridge and back. Will you be okay while I’m gone?”
Eliot nodded. “Fine. Just go.”
“Okay.” She still looked reluctant to leave. “Eliot ...”
He forced himself to smile. “I’ll be fine, Parker.” But even as he said the words he knew they were a lie.
* * *
By the time Parker got back Eliot was shaking with cold. She knelt beside him and reached her hand out tentatively to touch his face. “You’re burning up,” she said, frowning. “But your hands are like ice.” She took his hands and rubbed them between hers, trying to force some warmth into them.
He was so weak it was an effort just to turn his head and look at her. “Did it work?”
She shook her head. “No, I think it might be the weather. Too much cloud cover. But I climbed a tree and left it up there. Maybe when the weather clears.”
Fuck. That was it for him, then.
Shit happens, boy. Then you die.
She must have read the despair in his face because she bit her lip and said, “I’m sorry, I really tried.”
“Not your fault, Parker.”
“What do I do, Eliot? Tell me what to do for you.”
“There’s nothing else.” He needed her to understand what he was saying. What the reality of the situation was.
“There’s always something. Think!” Her eyes were wide, pleading with him.
“Listen to me,” he said firmly. “You did everything that could be done. The only reason I even lasted this long is because of you.”
“No.” Her head was moving back and forth in short, jerky movements. “We just have to work the problem.”
“Not this time. Some things are out of our hands.”
“If Nate were here, he’d think of something.”
Eliot shook his head. “Nate knows the truth better than any of us.”
She stared at him, momentarily unguarded, the fear plainly written on her face. Then the walls slammed down again. “You need more water,” she said woodenly. She uncapped the water bottle and brought it to his lips. He tried to drink but it was hard to swallow and most of it ended up spilling down his chin. Her hand shook as she screwed the lid back on, and he really wished he hadn’t noticed because Parker’s hands weren’t supposed to shake, not ever. She drew in a shaky breath. “Maybe I can build up the fire again.”
She started to turn away but he captured her hand and pulled her back to him. “It’s too wet, the wood won’t burn.” He struggled to get his thoughts in order, to remember all the things he wanted to say. “I need you to tell the others ... tell them I’m sorry.”
She pulled her hand away. “Don’t talk like that.”
“I screwed up. This is on me.”
“I don’t want to hear this.” She turned her back to him and hugged her knees.
He kept going because he had to get it all out. He didn’t know how much longer he’d have the strength to talk and there were things he needed Parker and the others to know. “Nate’s gonna blame himself no matter what, but you tell him I said not to. Tell them all not to. Don’t you blame yourself either, Parker, you hear me? Don’t you dare.”
“Stop it.” She wouldn’t look at him, but she was hearing him, at least. And it was frankly easier to say the things he needed to say if he didn’t have to look her in the eye while he was doing it.
“This team, everything we did, it was worth it. You tell them I said that. It was worth it.”
She rounded on him angrily. “Shut up! I’m not telling them anything because Hardison will find us. You’re not allowed to give up, Eliot. You’re stronger than that. You’re the strongest person I know.”
He swallowed hard around the sudden burn in the back of his throat. “I’m sorry,” was all he could think of to say.
She curled up beside him and pressed her face against his shoulder. Her thins arms wrapped around his forearm, clutching him like a security blanket. “Hardison will find us.” She repeated the words like a mantra, murmuring them over and over again.
Eliot turned his head away. He didn’t want to die, goddammit. He wasn’t ready to get off the ride yet. Not that that counted for anything. He watched the rain dripping down the wall of the ravine and listened to the muffled sound of Parker crying until sleep finally came and took him away again.
* * *
It had stopped raining and a tepid sliver of sunlight was peeking through the clouds the next time Eliot woke. The pain had become a cold numbness that was seeping into every joint in his body. His chest ached with every agonizing breath and he could feel his heart laboring in his chest. At least he was too weak to shiver anymore.
Parker was still there beside him, still holding onto his arm like she could keep him alive by sheer force of will. He turned his head to look at her. All he could see was the top of her head, a tangle of blond hair.
“Parker.” It came out as a hoarse whisper.
She moved her head so she was looking up at his face. Her eyes were red and swollen. “Eliot.”
“I’m glad it’s you that’s here with me.”
She smiled at him through her tears. “Me too.”
He’d always thought he wouldn’t mind dying alone. He knew now he was wrong. It was good to have someone here with him at the end. It mattered.
He closed his eyes and thought about all the things he would miss the most. The taste of beer and pizza. The sight of the Milky Way in the night sky. The smell of onions sauteing on the stove. The sound of water lapping against a pier. Birds singing. Children laughing. Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman.” Parker’s special brand of insanity. Nate’s gruff protectiveness. Sophie’s gentle mothering. Hardison’s dumbass jokes.
At some point the people and places and events from his past began to blur together. Names eluded him. He couldn’t seem to think straight anymore.
The sunlight became a shining finger of gold that reached down to him from the heavens. He let it carry him away from the cold and the fear.
* * *
Eliot couldn’t understand why his mother was screaming at him to get out, leave her alone, just go and never come back. It was his father she’d said those things to, not him. And anyway his mother had been dead for almost ten years now. He was almost certain of that. He tried to reason with her, to tell her he never hurt her and never would, but she wouldn’t listen. He covered his ears with his hands until the screaming stopped.
* * *
His sister was with him now, pleading with him. “Please don’t go, Eliot. Please don’t leave me alone.”
No, wait. It wasn’t his sister, was it? It was Parker. Parker was the one who was with him.
He remembered now, he was in the woods. Which wasn’t really such a bad place to die when he thought about it. Hell, he’d always liked the outdoors. And at least he’d gotten to see the sunset one last time. And the stars in the night sky the way they were meant to be seen, away from the lights of the city. And fireflies. He’d liked the fireflies, and the way they’d made Parker smile.
He couldn’t feel the cold anymore, or maybe all he could feel was the cold because it had become a part of him. He couldn’t tell. His whole body was numb, everything but his lungs, which felt like they were filled with fire. Breathing was a battle he was starting to lose. He had to fight for every breath and he still wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
Set my spirit free, let me lay down my gun
Sweet mother Mary I'm so tired...
He didn’t want to do this anymore, didn’t want to be here anymore. He didn’t want to be anywhere anymore. He just wanted oblivion to come and take it all away. He was ready to get off the merry-go-round.
He tried to tell Parker not to cry for him, but all that came out was a moan. He was sorry to be leaving her alone out here, but she’d be fine. She was strong. Stronger than he was, even. He wished he’d told her that, but it was too late now.
She didn’t have to be sad for him. He wasn’t scared anymore. He was ready.
* * *
Someone, somewhere was yelling at him, and he couldn’t figure out if it was a dream or not.
There was so much pain. Everywhere, but especially in his leg and his chest. He wanted the cold oblivion to come back and take him away from all of it. Wanted to be left alone. But there were voices tugging at him. He tried to block them out, but they wouldn’t go away.
It was Parker that was yelling at him. “Don’t you dare give up, Eliot! Not now. I will kick your ass if you give up now, do you hear me? Fight!”
He thought he heard other voices, too, but he couldn’t make them out. They were probably just a figment of his imagination. The only one that felt real was Parker’s, dragging him back from the darkness. He didn’t want to go back, because that’s where the pain was, but he couldn’t help it. It was instinctual. Parker needed him to fight. He had to go.
One of his arms started to feel strangely warm and tingly. And then the warmth was spreading up through his shoulder and across his chest until it was seeping into his whole body. He couldn’t hear Parker anymore, the wonderful warm was carrying him away from her. He knew there was something he was supposed to do, but he couldn’t remember what it was.
And then he was gone.
* * *
The first thing Eliot was conscious of was the smell of antiseptic. Antiseptic with a subtle undercurrent of urine. Gradually he became aware of an electronic beeping sound coming from somewhere behind him. It was slow and steady and there was something about it that was incredibly comforting. It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t remember what. His head felt thick and fuzzy. He opened his eyes, but the light was too bright and he couldn’t seem to focus.
“Welcome back, Mr. Hickey.” A dark silhouette swam into view, leaning over him.
The voice was unfamiliar, the tone cheerful yet detached. There was a tube in his arm, and another one in his nose. It took a while for his brain to fit all the pieces together. A hospital. He was in a hospital. Which meant he wasn’t dead.
“You’re in the recovery room. You came through surgery like a star.”
Surgery? He felt a surge of fear. He couldn’t feel anything below his chest. He tried to ask what they’d done to him but his throat was raw and his tongue felt thick and he couldn’t form the words.
The dark shape moved closer and did something to the tube in his arm. “Get some rest now. You’ll see your friends in a few hours when you’re feeling better.”
He started to feel warm again. His fear softened and became more distant. The bed was so soft and his body felt so heavy he seemed to sink right through it until he was floating away.
He still didn’t know who Mr. Hickey was, though.
* * *
The next thing he heard was the subtle buzz of fluorescent lights and the murmur of voices. Familiar voices. They were distant and muddled at first but after a while he was able to make them out.
“Well, that’s certainly the last time we let you donate blood.”
“It ain’t my fault they took too much out. I’d a been fine if they hadn’t left me running on fumes.”
“Face it, you’re kind of a lightweight, there, Hardison.”
“Me? A lightweight? Naw, man. Please. That’s hurtful.”
“I saw you pass out once just because you hit your funny bone. It was funny. Hey, is that why they call it a funny bone?”
“Look, I got a low threshold for fainting, okay? It’s a medical condition, I can’t help it. Anyway, I never got my cookie. Where’s my damn cookie, people?”
“I think Parker ate it.”
Eliot opened his eyes.
The rest of the team had made themselves at home in his hospital room. It was a double, but the other bed must have been unoccupied because Hardison was stretched out on top of it with his hands behind his head and Parker was sitting cross-legged at the foot. Nate had settled into a chair on the far side of the room and Sophie was standing by the window arranging a bouquet of flowers.
Hardison directed a look of mock indignation at Parker. “You stole my cookie? That’s why I passed out, you know, it ain’t ’cause I was afraid of the needle or nothing. I had low-blood sugar.”
Parker responded by punching him in the leg hard enough to make him wince. “Wimp. I didn’t eat for two days and you didn’t see me passing out when I gave blood, did you?”
Nate looked over at Eliot and hauled himself stiffly to his feet. “Uh, hey, guys? I think our friend Mr. Hickey is awake.” They all turned to look.
“Hey,” Eliot rasped.
And then winced as Parker bounded off the other bed and threw herself across his chest. “Eliot! You’re awake! They wouldn’t let me hug you until you woke up.”
“Remember to be gentle, Parker, he’s just had surgery,” Sophie reminded her.
Surgery. All the fear Eliot had felt in the recovery room came rushing back to him. He tried to look down to see what they’d done to him, but he couldn’t see anything around Parker’s hair in his face and he couldn’t feel much through the haze of painkillers.
“You’re gonna be just fine,” Nate said, as if he could read Eliot’s mind. “Parker did a hell of a job with that splint, but we thought we’d let an orthopedic surgeon take another pass at it for you. You’ve got a fancy metal rod in your leg and a lacerated spleen the docs are gonna keep an eye on for a few days, but they seem pretty confident it can be managed non-operatively.”
Eliot let himself relax. The news was nowhere near as bad as he’d feared.
“Hey, it’s good to have you back, man,” Hardison said. “I’d get up but the nurse told me to stay on my back for a while. It’s a long story.”
“He fainted giving blood.” Sophie made a face at Hardison. “What do you know? It turns out it wasn’t so long after all.”
“Hey, Parker, come on, why don’t you give Eliot a break, huh?” Nate said.
Parker released Eliot from the hug and perched on the edge of his bed. She smiled at him happily. “Hi.”
“Hi yourself,” he said, smiling back at her.
“You two gave us all quite a scare, you know,” Sophie said.
“Yeah, if it hadn’t been for that cell booster Parker rigged I might not have found y’all in time,” Hardison said. “That was some serious ingenuity right there, I’m actually jealous I didn’t get to come up with it myself.”
“Told you Hardison would find us,” Parker said.
“Never been so glad to be wrong.” Eliot looked over at Hardison. “Thanks, man. Seriously.”
“What’d I tell you? Seven digits and I can find you on Mars. Besides, that’s what we do, right? We’re family, man.” He made a fist and thumped his chest with it. “I got you.”
Eliot rolled his eyes. “Lloyd Hickey, though? Really?”
“Hey, it was the alias with the best insurance. Believe me, you do not want to be paying retail for this shit.”
“So, how are you feeling?” Sophie asked.
“Kinda groggy,” Eliot said. “I can’t really feel much of anything, to be honest.”
“Yeah, that’ll be the drugs,” Nate said. “Enjoy it while you can.”
“They got you on the good stuff, thanks to that first class insurance I set you up with. Like I said, man, I got you.”
Eliot tried to stifle a yawn. His eyelids felt like they had twenty-pound weights taped to them.
“Say, uh, maybe we ought to get out of here and let Eliot get some rest,” Nate suggested.
“No, it’s okay,” Eliot said sleepily. “I mean, if y’all wanted to stick around ... that’d be fine with me. I’m tired enough to sleep through anything right now.”
Parker responded by curling up on the bed beside him with her head resting on his shoulder and her back pressed up against his side. He’d gotten so used to having her there it didn’t even faze him.
“You’re sure?” Sophie asked.
“Yeah,” Eliot said, closing his eyes. “I’m good.”
He was alive. And he wasn’t alone. For now, that was all that mattered.
“Hey, y’all think I could get one of those nurses to bring me some juice or something?” Hardison asked.
“It’s not a hotel, Hardison, they don’t offer room service,” Sophie said.
Hardison sniffed peevishly. “Bet if Eliot needed juice they’d bring him some.”
“Eliot’s a patient,” Nate said.
“Did y’all not see me pass out a little while ago? I’m just saying that ought to buy a man some juice or something.”
The comforting, familiar cadence of their voices enveloped Eliot like a soft, warm blanket.
Goddamn, it’s good to be home.