The truck was on its last legs.
Sophie Devereaux didn’t know much about motor vehicles (they were somewhere between laptop computers and hip waders on the list of things she couldn’t be bothered with), but she knew enough to realize that much. There was something of a wheeze in the hood area, and a strange vibration beneath her feet anytime anyone started it up, as if the floor was trying to separate from the walls.
I’m surprised it lasted this long, she thought as Eliot Spencer coaxed (and cursed, alternately) the shabby pickup over the crest of the hill. There were some things trucks like this simply weren’t meant for. Driving out of town in a hurry -- through a hailstorm of automatic fire -- was one of them.
It was luck, then-- and Sophie had to admit she was a firm believer in luck, now-- that they were near a town when the engine gave out in a spectacularly loud blast. Eliot just managed to hit the brakes and steer them into a field of corn stubble. All anyone could do was look at the billowing smoke before Nate turned in his seat, expression weary with a hint of annoyance.
“Alright, everyone, it looks like we’re looking at a nice fall walk to finish out the afternoon.” Well, at least he was trying for light and breezy, the Nate Ford of their cons. Sophie cracked the door and slipped from the truck, feet hitting the hard packed earth as she braced her hands on her lower back and looked about them. Looked at the horizon, the typical hazy gray of November, dark blurs just visible like smudges on the bottom of a watercolor painting.
She tried out a smile of her own as she looked at the others, Parker and Eliot crawling out of the truck a little slower than everyone else. “At least the temperature is good for a walk, yeah? Imagine if we were trying this in August-- no thank you.” Her eyes fixed again on the horizon and her smile wilted just a little. “Do you think that’s the town, then?”
“Sure is,” Alec Hardison replied, clearly muffling a groan as he leaned against the truck, his usually bright eyes dull as he followed her gaze. “Carthage, Missouri, population: nil.” He hiked his duffel bag over his shoulder, still glowering at the horizon before he kicked the truck’s back tire. “Man, why couldn’t you break in, like, Joplin? St. Louis? Somewhere with civilization?” He kicked again - and practically toppled head over heels when his sneaker bounced off, slammed into the running board instead. He hopped around, cursing beneath his breath.
“Beggars,” Nate said, archly, over Eliot’s less-than-enthusiastic damnit, Hardison! “Can’t be choosers.” He pulled his hat on, curls still escaping, as he came around to the back of the truck. “At least we don’t have to push it far.” He waved at the copse of trees just past the decimated field.
There was less in the truck than they had started with - two months on the road had severely depleted their scavenged, stockpiled and stolen supplies - but it was still worth hiding. Every little bit helped, especially when approaching a new town. One never knew if they would be run right back out of town, or worse.
Eliot was taking his third halting step back toward the truck when Parker intercepted him, as graceful - and yet abrupt - as ever. “Fall back, Sparky, we’ve-” She waved at the rest of them, and Sophie felt a pang not entirely unlike matronly pride at her insistence. “-got it.”
“Who cares about pushing the truck,” Sophie sniped, throwing her hands into the air with just a hint of the proper drama. “I’m thinking about walking to Carthage.” Maybe it was only a mile or two, but she could keep up her old ways, just so things would feel familiar. It wasn’t was that hard a walk, not anymore, and she’d stopped wearing heels a long time ago. They simply weren’t practical, not unless they were pulling a job, and those were few and far between. But if Eliot could concentrate on her complaints and scoff, well-- perhaps he wouldn’t try and insist he help them…
She patted him on the shoulder, though, on her way to the back of the truck; glad that at least they hadn’t parked in mud. Nate looked up from making sure that the back was shut as he laughed, genuine amusement and mocking in his tone as he jerked his chin at Parker, eyes sharp.
“I trust you behind the wheel more than I trust her, anyhow. You’re the, the-- ah... well, you’re making sure it doesn’t roll over us.”
The look Eliot gave Nate in return made it clear he didn’t believe the older man, but he pulled the door open again and stepped up into the truck. Sophie gave him a look of her own as she braced her hands against the cold metal-- since leaving Boston, they’d let Parker drive many times, but if Nate wanted to help out and get Eliot into the truck, then she wouldn’t stop him.
A damp wind blew past them and over them, and she shivered briefly, though it wasn’t as cold as it would get as the days continued on. It was enough that the bumper beneath her hands was chilly, that her warmer fingers left condensation in their wake. Hardison was still muttering under his breath as he planted his hands next to hers, eyes on the reddish-brown hair visible through the back window. His muttering stopped, but he still spoke, too low for anyone’s ears but hers. “He’s not got any better since Memphis, has he?”
She looked at him sharply. Warm, concerned brown eyes met her gaze. “You can’t really lie to us,” he said, still softly. “Maybe you can try, but if even Parker sees it...” He trailed off as the blonde thief joined them, leaning against the bumper. Nate fastened the corner of the tarp down again, a pile of cans, bottles and boxes at his feet - they couldn’t hit town empty-handed.
And….she didn’t really want to answer that question.
So she didn’t, not really, just settling for an abrupt shake of her head, refusing to look at Eliot in the driver’s seat. She braced her feet against the ground, looked at the grove ahead of them. The leaves were long gone, littering the ground beneath, tall skeletons of trees stretching towards the sky-- but it was alright. It’d work all the same: it wasn’t likely there’d be too many people coming in along this road.
There weren’t many people coming up from Louisiana in general, not really. They hadn’t seen anyone in the past few days, and it had been lonely. Like the grove, naked and dark against the gray sky. She felt the parking and emergency brakes let go as Eliot shifted in the seat, and she pushed, braced alongside the others. The truck car shifted easily, bumping lightly in the tracks left long ago by some farmer’s tractor.
“If you’d told me two months ago,” Sophie began as the truck’s momentum increased, “that I’d be pushing a broken down truck through some Nebraska--”
“--Missouri--” Nate corrected, and she snorted inelegantly as she tossed back her hair.
“--fine! Missouri corn field...” She snorted again, lips curled in an incredulous expression as the truck bumped out of the tracks and onto uneven ground again.
“You wouldn’t have believed him?” That was Parker, leaning back to look at Sophie over Hardison’s shoulder as she grinned. “I don’t believe it, and I’m seeing it. Oh!” The thief lifted one of her hands from the bumper, catching at her bangs and giving them a tug. “Maybe Hardison’s hacked my mind.”
Hardison chuckled that time, and the cold knot in Sophie’s chest --the one that had been there since September, since their last time in Boston, with the bombs -- loosened again, like it had at Parker’s taking Eliot’s place. He can still laugh. “I’m good, ma’, but this time I’d have to use my mind to hack your mind, and....”
“No, no, I know, you’re a Jedi! Like those movies you showed me!” Back before their world had gone electricity - and thus, movie - free. “‘This is not the Sophie you’re looking for....’”
The truck rolled a few more feet, and stopped, still smoldering, in the middle of the trees. Nate gave the two youngest members of the team a dirty look. “I’m pretty sure I did all the pushing there, you two were too busy talking.” But there was that twinkle in his eyes again, somewhere behind the blue, and Sophie knew he’d missed Hardison’s jokes and Parker’s...well, Parkerness as much as she had.
“When aren’t they too busy talking?” Sophie hadn’t even realized the window had been down or that Eliot had been listening, but it made sense. And yeah, there it was, cracked open, though Eliot was leaning back into the truck to lock it again before he slid fully out of the truck, one hand braced against the seat as his feet hit solid ground. “They talk so much you could track us by their voices alone.” He made little gabby motions with his hands as he stood, and Sophie let her smile broaden, glad to see this side of Eliot again.
Everyone was quieter, now, but some more so than others. Parker, well-- Sophie sometimes doubted you could really shut the younger woman up. She left the others behind defending themselves as she headed for the boxes Nate had lifted out earlier. It was getting later, and soon it would be dark, but she didn’t have the heart to nag any of them, not really. She wanted the moments where things were almost normal to last.
It still looks like rain, she mused, looking up at the sky as she lifted a couple of the bags. She glanced over her shoulder at the grove and the others. “Does it look like rain to any of you?” She questioned, turning around fully -- it wasn’t quite the same as nagging, not really.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t noti-”
“Has for the last hou-
“Hello, the sky’s all gray? Of course it’s--"
All four spoke at the same time; exchanged suspicious, embarrassed or amused looks. Nate threw up his hands in surrender before bending to pick up the biggest of the boxes. She watched as Eliot gave him another dirty look, which he met with a triumphantly smug smile; watched Eliot take four bags in retaliation, wince, and quickly redistribute the weight -- clearly he thought he managed before anyone noticed.
“It’s gonna rain within the hour,” he said, and it took all of Sophie’s skill to detect the strain in his gravel-silk voice. “So, stow the chitchat and let’s not get soaked, yeah?”
“I still don’t see how you tell,” Parker said, blinking up at the grey-white sky, frowning. She picked up the last bag, leaving Hardison with the very last of the pallets of bottled water. Sophie added that to the top of her mental list of supplies, noted Eliot and Nate doing the same exact thing. “All the clouds look the same to me. Except that one, that one looks like a Glenreader.”
Now Eliot’s expression was full of skepticism as he glanced at Parker, still juggling the weight, Sophie noticed. If there was a way to get him to pass a bag or two off, well... there wasn’t. She sighed instead, stepping closer to Parker as she shifted her own bags around, until they weren’t digging into the palms of her hands anymore. They dug into her fingers instead and tried to cut off her circulation, turning the skin pink and white alternately. “It’s the smell, Parker,” she sniffed, as if providing an example, and nodded. “Though how he pinpoints the time, that’s beyond me.”
Helpful though. If she could do something like that every time she wanted to wear a specific outfit, well! It would definitely come in handy. Only, not so much now, not when there weren’t diamonds and art and other shining things to try and get her hands on. The feeling of nostalgia was back, but she shoved it away again just as quickly as she started back towards the road. Nate followed after, scoffing lightly as he shifted his grip on the box he held close to his chest to check his watch briefly.
“Either way, we have an hour to make it to Carthage, before we find out if we’re all made of sugar and spice.” He paused, glancing over his shoulder with a familiar smirk. “Well, aside from Eliot, but no one would ever think that.”
Amd Eliot growled, as if to prove him right.