"That is not a healthy looking man," Hardison said, voice urgent in Eliot's ear. Which wasn't even a bit necessary, since he still had his earpiece in, and could have heard Hardison even if he were miles away. Eliot wished that were the case, since it would have made getting out of there a whole hell of a lot easier. "Eliot, that is not a man. That is something that used to be a man, and now is all messed up and I've seen this movie, all right? This don't end well for anyone who isn't Cillian Murphy, and-"
"Would you shut up," Eliot put enough growl in his voice to, hopefully, shut Hardison up. It was usually even odds whether or not it'd actually work.
"Talk to me," Nate's voice in Eliot's ear was that too-even calm that came when Nate was worried, and already trying to spin through solutions to a problem he didn't even know all the angles of, yet. Eliot had a whole hell of a lot of respect for the twists and turns Nate's brain ran along, but he didn't think this problem was in Nate's playbook. Eliot was pretty sure there wasn't a playbook for this. "Did you get the vaccine?"
"We found it. But this ain't a vaccine for some swine-flu bug. We're looking at what's really wrong. A whole damn warehouse full of it." Eliot eyed the cold units next to them, housing the vaccine. Their client had said that her husband died because Numatech was hoarding the vaccine that could have cured him, to keep rival drug companies from getting their hands on a cure for a disease Numatech had released in the first place.
The idea of a mutated swine flu had been bad enough, but this wasn't that. There were a dozen workers stumbling around the lab, faces vacant and pasty, jaws swollen and pushed out in a way Eliot was pretty sure meant they'd gotten some extra teeth in there. And the two normal-looking guards they'd seen on the way in hadn't fared too well, since the last time Eliot saw them, right before he and Alec were running to duck and cover, they'd had two of the diseased-types chewing on their faces. Eliot didn't know what they were, but they sure as hell looked like-
"Zombies," Hardison said, half urgent horror, and half geeked-out glee that made Eliot want to grind his teeth.
"Don't call them that," he snapped.
"Did you see? What am I supposed to call them? They were green-skinned and slow and smelled like-"
"Excuse me, but did you just say zombies?" Sophie's voice over the comms held just the faintest touch of disbelief. "There must be some kind of hallucinogen in the air. Or in-"
"It's the virus," the lab tech who'd been hiding under the table said, voice trembling, but oddly growling, too. Eliot had known he was there, but he'd had other priorities, since the kid wasn't in any position to move faster than Eliot could. "They're not zombies, they're infected. The vaccine. . . Dr. Rochester developed the virus, and the vaccine. It was supposed to be sold to the military, but Numatech wanted to release it. . . a controlled experiment. But there was some kind of contamination. . ." he swallowed, voice hollow. "It's happening to everyone."
Hardison crawled back down the wall he'd half jumped up when the tech spoke up, glaring at Eliot. "Would it have killed you to tell me he was there?" Eliot ignored him, and Alec peered down the hall, looking for any sign of zombies. "So they're. . . infected with a genetically mutated supervirus?" He started to reach for his laptop, and Eliot shot a hand out to stop him. If they had to run, he wasn't going to wait for Hardison to pack up, and he knew from experience that he wouldn't go without his hardware. "What about the vaccine? If they made it, can't they just shoot them up with it?"
"It only works before infection, and the only batch that works is batch 1408-b." The tech banged his head back against the wall. "There's dozens of them. Some of them just. . . left. . . they ate the mailman. Billy. We used to talk about things, when he brought packages."
"Eliot? What the hell is going on?" Nate's voice was a little more clipped.
Eliot didn't take the time to explain, eyes sliding to the cold storage again. "Get Sophie out, fall back and regroup. This ain't what we thought it was."
He caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye, and spun, reaching for Hardison to jerk him away, then stopping. Parker was just about the only person who could get that close without him knowing it. "There's a man with a letter opener stuck in his back eating a mailman in the lobby," she informed them. Behind them, the tech whimpered something that sounded like "Billy", and Parker looked at him, and then back at Eliot.
"We need to get out of here," Alec told him urgently. "I am not okay with the idea of being in the middle of a zombie movie, okay? Historically, horror movies are not kind to my people."
"Hackers, or black people?" Parker asked.
Alec made a pained sound and looked at the cowering young man under the lab table. "How does it spread? I mean, we've been breathing it in for a half hour, is Eliot going to start gnawing on people?"
"We thought it was physical contact, but then Emma changed. . . and she hadn't even been in that lab. It went through the air vents. . . it was 12 hours and she was gone," the guy practically wailed. Eliot thought he was holding his jaw funny. It didn't bode well.
"But the vaccine works? The 1408-b?" Eliot prompted.
"If you get it fast enough," the tech mumbled. He was starting to look vacant and useless, and like the kind of guy Eliot would really rather get the hell away from.
Eliot looked down the hallway, and then moved, reaching in to the cold storage. He'd already spotted the number, and he yanked out the right box, neatly packaged individual vials of a clear liquid inside. Eliot reached on to the table over the tech's head, grabbing a few of the syringes and needles there. Beside him, Hardison was babbling and explaining what'd gone on to Nate and Sophie while Parker hovered, already starting to pull their equipment over the fake cleaning cart they'd planned to hide the vaccine in, taking one of the coolers instead of the bulky cart and handing it to Eliot to pack the rest of the vials in.
Eliot took advantage of Hardison's distraction to jab the needle into his arm, pressing the plunger and then abandoning the used needle to reach for another one for Parker, who was scowling. Hardison yelped. "What are you doing? We don't even know what's IN that. I know a dude in California who could have it analyzed."
"Right, and by the time you shipped it, you'd already have a mouth full of zombie shark teeth," Eliot answered. He had a second needle in his hand, and reached for Parker's arm, but she evaded him easily, frowning.
"I don't LIKE needles," she told Eliot. "They remind me of when the doctor only let me have one lollipop."
Eliot would have bet his whole damn savings that she'd stolen every sucker in the jar after that, but didn't bring it up. "Do you like eating Hardison's face?" Hardison's muttered why's it always gotta be Hardison? earned a vague wave. "Your people always go first, remember?" He didn't look, but he could feel Alec glaring. Parker looked at Hardison, like she was considering the face-eating option, and then held out her arm reluctantly. Eliot jabbed the vaccine in, and then did the same to his own arm, grimacing at a burn from the liquid going in.
The lab tech made a moaning sort of growled noise, and from down the hall, someone deep-voiced and utterly inhuman sounding answered in kind. "Can we get through the vents?" he asked Parker.
She shrugged. "You have to crawl. But you'll fit." She led the way, and Eliot pushed a table over to the vent, boosting Hardison and then climbing in after him, following the two. He could hear a scuffling sound behind them - like something awkward and slow trying to hoist itself in after them.
By the time they got out, all three of them were weaving drunkenly on their feet from the vaccine's side effects, which seemed to be making everyone see double and feel like they were going to heave. As Nate's rental car pulled up in front for them to dive into, Eliot was half holding up Hardison, who was propping up Parker. They squeezed into the back seat as the car pulled away, the cooler Eliot had pushed through the vent in front of him perched on his thighs as he prepped another dose of the vaccine for Nate and Sophie. His head ached and he felt drowsy and strange. Hardison slumped into him, and Eliot made sure Nate had the dose, warning him to get somewhere fortifiable in a hurry once he took it, and that Sophie'd had one, and then leaned back.
"You called them Zombies," Parker said, voice slurred and drugged sounding.
"That's what they look like. It's what everybody's gonna call them, might as well not fight it," Eliot decided.
"You yelled at me for it," Alec muttered. Eliot shrugged, eyes shut against the spinning landscape outside the car. He was pretty sure he'd caught sight of a kid on a bike with a bulging jaw and dead looking skin, though, before they closed. "You gave it to us first," Hardison said suddenly. In the front seat, Nate was on the phone with the CDC while Sophie tried to get their client, whose son they'd been stealing the vaccine for in the first place. She wasn't getting an answer. Eliot thought that might actually be a perk, since it meant they probably didn't know how to operate a phone.
Eliot cracked his eyes open to look at Alec. "Huh?"
"The vaccine. He said to do it fast, and you got it, and you gave it to us first. And went last, out of the vent," Alec pointed out.
Eliot grimaced, uncomfortable with the implications, and with the vaguely impressed look in Alec's eyes. "Someone had to go last."
Hardison's lips pursed, and then he smiled, strange and grateful. "Guess so."
Parker shifted in closer to Alec, which pushed Hardison closer to Eliot. He didn't mind all that much. "This is going to be bad," she said, matter-of-fact about it, but Eliot could read the faint signs of upset in her expression. He lifted a hand to the back of her neck and met Hardison's already there.
"Yeah. But we'll deal with it," Eliot mumbled, and then went quiet, letting the stupor from the drugs wear off and staying alert enough to listen to the front seat. They'd need to hole up somewhere, and he'd have to make sure it was safe. Nate might have a lot of talents - but knowing how to lock down for a possible attack by overwhelming numbers wasn't his area. That was all Eliot.
"I thought you were doing research?" Eliot asked, lifting another of the heavy concrete blocks he'd brought inside and shoving it in front of the door, starting to stack them up and double brace them against one another. It wouldn't be a permanent solution, but they wouldn't stick around here long. Nate already had a line on a lab in Boston that had some research that might help. They'd get what was left of the vaccine up there, along with all the research Hardison had managed to hack in and retrieve from Numa's servers, find a lab that was safe enough to fortify as a home base, and figure it out from there.
"This is research," Hardison answered from where he was parked on the sofa in the house they'd commandeered for a few nights. It was technically for sale, but it was furnished, and there wasn't a lot of market going around right now, especially not when they were still only about a day's drive out from zombie ground zero. He had a TV tray in front of him, his laptop perched on it, a slew of windows that Eliot could only see half of open - though he recognized one as a game, at least - and his feet up on the coffee table. Parker sat next to him, occasionally reaching over to poke at his computer keyboard until he swatted her hand away. Most of Hardison's attention was on the large TV screen in front of them, though. Even Parker was half watching.
Eliot dropped the last block in to place and then walked over, crossing his arms over his chest. "That is not research. That's a demon cat."
"Zombie cat," Parker answered. "Next is actual zombies, and then zombie dogs, and then funny zombies."
"Cats don't turn into zombies. This crap isn't going to actually teach you anything." Eliot picked up the stack of DVD cases from the coffee table. "Pet Sematary? Really?"
Hardison grimaced. "You never know. There are valuable life lessons hidden in movies."
"Yeah, run up the stairs when you've got some psycho killing machine after you, and make sure you take off your top on the way," Eliot answered. He didn't actually mind the tops off, though.
"That happened in the last movie. And then there was an axe," Parker told him.
Eliot lifted an eyebrow at Hardison. "It's possible there was a few alternate genre movies mixed in," he said defensively. "But it's not like there isn't some relevance. Zombies can be set on fire. Zombies can have their heads chopped off. They can use an axe, probably. The brighter ones. This is all valid information."
The habitual orange soda next to Hardison was missing, an energy drink in its place. His eyelids were drooping a bit and there was a thick, tired note in his voice. Parker kept toying with a lockpick in her hand, playing with it in a restless way that made her look younger than she was. Nate and Sophie were upstairs, and Eliot considered for a moment, and then dropped down next to Parker, arm draping over her shoulders. "What's next? I don't like movies where they beat up on cats or dogs." They could all use a break.
Hardison looked over at him and then leaned forward, picking up Re-Animator and then giving Parker a speculative look before putting it down again, grabbing for Shaun of the Dead instead.
"You changed the order," Parker commented absently. "Is it actually funny?"
"Probably only to Hardison," Eliot answered.
"You people have no appreciation for fine comedy, or any of the other things I do. I don't-" Hardison cut off as Parker turned and suddenly kissed him full on the mouth, brief and, from where Eliot was sitting, too hard. A moment later she kissed him the same way, and it was definitely too-hard and abrupt, but he kind of liked it. It was very Parker.
"Put it on," Parker ordered. Hardison gave her a baffled look, but got up obediently, putting in the next disc and then dropping down again on Parker's other side. Eliot's hand dropped to his shoulder, and he left it there.
Halfway through the movie he was picking up Hardison's laptop and setting it aside so Alec didn't kick it over on accident, Hardison fast asleep with his head back against the sofa and Parker's head on his chest. Eliot turned down the volume and finished the movie, staying awake until Nate came down to take over watch for him.
"The building went into lockdown as soon as the alarm was triggered. Numatech acquired our company, took our research, and was in the process of getting rid of us when. . . at any rate, our base research is what they built theirs on. We'll have a solid way to start researching how to combat the virus, at least. But not if we can't get in to the labs," Dr. Norman explained. He looked haggard and worn down. Eliot couldn't blame him - they'd had a rough run. "We've managed to test the blood of the uninfected, and a few infected, but we can't isolate where the immunity lies to try to synthesize it, yet."
"And even if we could - we don't have access to the main labs. Or enough equipment or resources to replicate enough to do any good," Dr. Wilson added, shaking her head. She was younger than Norman, but Eliot got the idea that she was in charge, and had been for a while.
"We can get you into the labs," Sophie assured her quietly. "That's not a problem, I assure you."
"It's a standard bio lab lockdown. They based it on the same air-tight lockdown override they proposed for the Smithsonian's new security protocols, but never put in place, but simplified it," Parker told them. She was sitting on a table nearby, feet swinging, bored with the medical jargon. Which didn't mean she wouldn't remember it word for word later, even if she didn't pay attention to what it meant. "I figured out how to get past it from the specs, while I had lunch a year ago. Pretty snazzy security for some second rate bio lab that they were about to get rid of for being useless because they took everything already, though."
Wilson gave her a dark look, and then shrugged. "These are Numatech's labs. We were supposed to clear out by the end of the month. But since everyone with an official Numa badge is dead or infected, I'm thinking no one's going to care if we stay."
"You should stay. Right now, you're our best chance of helping people. We can make this place safe, and bring in more people to help. Machinery, whatever you need, we'll figure it out," Nate promised.
Eliot frowned. That was a hell of an assurance to make. "We'll do our best, and make sure you're set up for a quick exit, if you need one, without losing your research. We can get you into the labs," he qualified. He didn't make blind promises.
"On it!" Parker chirped, jumping up and disappearing into the next room.
Hardison already had his laptop out. "I'm going to upload a copy of everything we got from Numa onto your servers. I've got it all backed up a half dozen places or more so we can't lose it. Now we can start hunting down other doctors and people in the field who are still alive to get them here, but with transport lines going down fast, the best thing to do is set up a communication hub, and keep it running, so if we get some guy in Hungary who knows something about crazy big-toothed zombie mutants, they can work with you even if we can't get them here."
"That will work until the power starts to go down. It's already out in places," Dr. Norman answered, frowning.
"We'll work out where the power lines run, and help keep it organized and up and running," Eliot told them. "Hardison's right. These things - infected - they can swing an axe, but anything more complex than that, they can't do. So if we keep cell networks and computer crap up and running, it's the safest space we have to communicate."
Hardison lifted his head, giving Eliot a brief smile. "Age of the Geek. And the zombie experts."
"They're not zombies," Dr. Wilson snapped. She pushed her dark hair back though, and looked between them. "This. . . thing. It's not what we meant. It's not what we would have made. We just want to stop it. Help people. We can't undo what they did with our research, but. . . we can do the right thing now. Somebody's got to help everyone else."
Hardison looked thoughtful. "Yeah, someone does."
Eliot caught his eye and smiled, then shrugged at Wilson. "We know how you feel. Zombies are close enough. No one wants to run around fighting sick people, and if they don't do it, then they'll end up lunch. Better to call them something no one thinks too hard about having been their neighbor a few months ago. We'll get you set up." Eliot heard a heavy crash, and winced, getting up quickly, reaching for the nearest blunt weapon. He relaxed when he heard the slide of a door opening, and Parker's voice calling that the door was open.
The lab was clear for now, but there was still a hell of a lot of work to do to get it locked down and secure long term. Once that was done.. . then they'd go from there.
"There's a half dozen shufflers on the east hallway, and there's ten people in the panic room," Parker's voice came over the comms.
Hardison grimaced. "This house is like a wireless black hole. It's where signals go to die. I'm guessing the Feds had the place tapped before the virus, and left it running, and it's interfering all to hell. I can't get into the system without some time," he told them.
Eliot pushed Hardison toward the stairs. "Time we don't have," he snapped. "Parker, can you get them out?"
"I need five minutes, a hanger, some gum, and a motor," Parker answered.
"What kind of motor?" Eliot was already envisioning getting them all the way the hell down to the garage, back up again, and then out a last time with ten people for an exit to the waiting van and Nate. He was damn glad Sophie had stayed back at the lab to help organize the survivors.
"A little one. Like. . . oh, I know." Parker went silent, and Eliot could hear her rummaging through something faintly over the comms. There was a heavy, thudding step coming closer to him and Hardison though, and that was taking his attention away from wondering what Parker was stealing. He backed Alec another step up the stairs, surveying. Winding staircase was good, they'd have to come one at a time.
He heard Hardison audibly swallow next to him, and gave the taller man's shoulder a hard squeeze. "What the hell is that?" Alec asked as a whrrrrrr noise came over the comms.
"I found a motor," Parker said cheerfully.
"I know you did not just dig through this lady's drawers to find. . ." Hardison trailed off, and grimaced, mumbling something about Mrs. Kerrington, and apologies, but not saying anything else, largely because there was a shuffling brute, shoulder hanging limply from the first time Eliot nailed him.
Eliot had seen enough of these things that he could judge how far gone they were, most of the time. The jaw was bulging out, teeth protruding through the lips. The skin wasn't the leeched, colorless shade that the oldest ones got though. Probably infected for less than a week, he guessed. And from the monkey suit he still wore, and the size of him - Eliot was guessing he'd been part of the Kerrington's security detail. The virus made them all strong, dumb, and vicious. But it didn't take out every trace of who they'd been. Someone trained to fight before they turned was usually a lot harder to deal with then your average pencil pusher.
He could handle one. But there were at least a dozen more in the house. They liked to travel in packs, and somehow always found one another. The nerd squad of scientists thought it was a pheromone thing. "Open!" Parker chirped over the comms.
Eliot ran through the layout of the house in his head. "Go help Parker get them down," he barked at Hardison, stepping down toward the zombie.
Hardison hesitated. "But-"
"Go!" Eliot swung the sledgehammer, keeping out of range of claw-like fingers or protruding teeth. The heavy hammer made a satisfying cracking sound against the zombie's good shoulder as Hardison, finally, obeyed, darting up to meet Parker.
Eliot fell back a stair as the zombie growled, not slowing at all, though both arms now hung oddly, and bone showed through on one side. "We've got one injured. No one bit, just a broken leg," Parker told him over the comm. "Coming down!"
Eliot grunted, and then dodged a wild kick from the zombie. He spared a glance behind the lumbering thing, checking for more, and then lunged, getting in close and shoving down the stairs, swinging the blunt hammer when the zombie was off balance. It connected hard with the skull this time, and even Eliot grimaced at the crack of bone and the mushy, soft sound of brain and head collapsing.
Even with its head caved in, it still took another long minute before the zombie's altered system registered that it was a goner. It went down just as the escaping group got to the stairs. "We head for the van," Eliot told them. He glanced at the messy body and shoved it aside with a foot. "Cover the kids' eyes," he added.
Mom, dad, three kids, a maid, a gardener, the father's secretary, and a few neighbors. One big happy freaking family, and none of them looking like they wanted to step up and help if it got hairy. Parker had the youngest in her arms, and Hardison was on one side of the neighbor with the busted leg, the older gardener on the other.
They had a half a house to get through, and at least a dozen zombies somewhere on the grounds. Eliot rearranged the group, putting the kids in the middle, and the able-bodied on the outsides, starting to wind their way back through the parlor, toward the dining room, then out the kitchen entrance and through the side lawn to the service driveway, into the van where Nate was, hopefully, waiting. "We're on our way out," he told Nate, just in case.
"In position already, outside is clear," Nate answered, much to Eliot's relief.
"Time like this, I bet you wish you had a smaller house. See, this is why moderation is a virtue," Hardison told old man Kerrington.
They'd almost made it, the last of the group clearing the door out of the kitchen when Eliot heard the crash of the kitchen table, and turned to see three zombies - fresh ones, teeth only just bulging, and movements smoother than the older ones - too close. "Run," he ordered. Parker took one look and then hoisted the boy she held onto one hip, grabbing the mother's hand with her free one and dragging her along as the woman screamed.
They were slow, with the injured man, and the portly, arthritic father pulling the pace down, and Eliot spun, letting them run and stepping back to the doorway, where they could only come at him one at a time, aiming for the kneecaps of the first zombie, taking him down so he'd block the path of the other two.
It was working, and Eliot turned his head enough to make sure the last of their refugees was crowding onto the van before running after them. "Eliot!" Nate's voice in his ear warned him a second before Eliot caught sight of movement. from out of the bushes beside the kitchen door. It was a young woman, almost human looking, save for the red haze in the white of her eyes, and the bulging jaw that wasn't quite grotesque yet. And she was damn quick. Eliot dodged backward, stumbling over one of the stones edging the pathway and going half down to his knees.
He rolled out of her way, gathering himself to sweep her legs and then jump up and run for it when there was a distinctive popping sound, followed by a hiss and boom of flame. Eliot didn't even have to look to know what was going on. He rolled a few feet further to make sure he was the hell out of the path of fire as Hardison crowed, "this is my boomstick!"
Eliot was going to kill him. Later. When they both weren't already dead. "Hardison! What the hell did I tell you about leaving that flamethrower alone?"
"I am HELPING," Hardison argued. He had actually HIT the zombie, which Eliot knew was pretty much a big win for Alec, who still couldn't hit the broadside of a damn barn unless it was a video game. "I told you this would work, it-" Hardison cut off, eyes widening. "Oh hell no."
Eliot caught him up by the arm, dragging him back as the now-flaming zombie girl stumbled toward them, arms outstretched, singing the hairs on Eliot's arm before he managed to get them both moving back toward the van. The flames spread through her long, tangled hair, down over the torn clothes and skin beneath it, a solid, moving wall of flame that settled into a lurching run after them.
Eliot was never going to roast marshmallows again after this. He shoved Hardison in the van, vaulting in after him, sliding the door shut as Nate put the van in gear and pulled out with a screech of tires. Hardison was panting and sheepish looking and Eliot leveled a glare at him. "I'm going to kill you. There something wrong with you? What the hell was in your head?"
"You were about to get gnawed on by a zombie, forgive me for caring," Hardison answered.
Eliot was unmoved. "Next time you want to set things on fire . . .just. . . just don't set things on fire."
Parker still held the little boy in her lap, and she watched them with pursed lips, considering. "I'm adding a firetruck to the supply list." Eliot didn't argue. That actually sounded like a decent idea to have nearby, once they got everyone back to the safe house. "I thought fire killed zombies?"
"It just makes them pissy, I guess, " Eliot answered, giving the wide-eyed little boy a slight smile that was meant to be reassuring. Hardison settled in next to him, both of them pressed up against the back of the driver's seat. Eliot was annoyed enough that he gave Hardison's shoulder a rough shove before he just leaned into him, solid and reassuringly not-dead. Hardison leaned back.
Parker picked up the boy and gave him back to his mother, who had finally stopped whimpering. "People should know that. About the fire. They'll all probably think the movies were right, too. Even if they probably won't have a flamethrower lying around."
"Yeah. They should," Eliot agreed. Hardison made a vague sort of noise beside him, and then Eliot went quiet as Alec and Nate started fielding the family's questions.
"This place is a damned maze," Eliot muttered, shuffling, slow steps somewhere behind him, the tinny echo from the metallic walls making it impossible to tell how far behind.
"It's cool, I've got you. Hang a left at the next turn. You've got maybe another four minutes tops before you hit the outer wall, and then we're gold," Hardison's voice in his ear was slightly staticy, the vaults and metal interfering with the signal, just a little. Enough that Hardison had spent ten minutes trying to fix it earlier before Eliot threatened to take the damn thing out and go in without Hardison in his ear at all. "Hold up, no, my bad. It's a right."
"Hardison. . ." Eliot trusted Alec, with tech stuff, with always pitching in to help when it was needed, with remembering to try to get the fake pillows instead of feathers, because they made Eliot sneeze. He trusted him when it mattered. But once in a while, Hardison still operated on a slightly different plane of existence that made Eliot want to shake him until his brain rattled.
"Relax. I've got you," Hardison said again. "All right, the heat censors I rigged up are showing six bodies other than you. The zombies read lower, but still hotter than nothing. If you go left, you'll run into five. If you go right, you should hit one, and then you can get to the outside for pickup."
Eliot relaxed a little. One he could handle. "Right."
"Give it 60 seconds, and then you should be clear to go. There's another six on their way up though, so move it. Did I mention that us agreeing to come back to ground-frakking-zero was stupid by the way?"
"Had to be done. They needed the blood samples from the top floor. And you came too, so you couldn't have thought it was that lousy of an idea."
Hardison made a vague, unhappy sound. "Yeah, but my ass is waiting outside for you to come wandering out, and Parker's ass is waiting for you. So it's your ass in question, and you were the one who said you'd do it."
"I was the only one who could," Eliot answered. There'd been others who could try it, but no one else was trained like he was. He made the most sense.
"I know," Hardison answered, voice dropping a bit. "We should fix that, so it isn't the three of us running into the middle of a warzone, every time."
"I'm in place. And you two talk too much. You're lucky they don't hear that well," Parker told them.
"Go, Eliot," Hardison told him, and Eliot didn't question, darting forward, package in the backpack firmly strapped to his back, and a machete in his hands as he ran. The one zombie waiting between him and the outside was a bent-backed old man who would have been slow even without the virus, and Eliot took him down with one swing, head rolling free as Eliot kept moving.
He hit the secretary's lounge at a run, and reached into the bag at his side, pulling out the nailgun there and firing at the wide glass window, two shots breaking through, and then a few slashes from the machete breaking in the rest, flying glass shards scratching at his chin and arm. "Ready."
"Parker!" Hardison prompted.
A second later Parker was rappelling down in front of him, and he reached out, clipping the second line she held to his belt and then jumping, Parker controlling both of their falls as Eliot shut his eyes against the abrupt drop.
Five stories later, and they were on the ground, a dozen monsters starting toward them as they sprinted to the SUV where Hardison waited. Alec slid into the passenger seat as Eliot vaulted behind the wheel and Parker into the back. A second later they were away, Hardison flinching at the jerk and thud of bodies bouncing off the hood as Eliot floored it to get away from the zombie-heavy zone.
It wasn't until they were ten minutes away, and back on a stretch of clear road that they relaxed at all, Hardison's fingers tracing the cut on Eliot's face, and Parker crawling through the seats to crowd into the front beside Hardison. "We're good at this," Parker told them. "We're getting better, now that we know what to do."
"Yeah well, we've got a half dozen scientists teaching us how these things work, and years of running cons and adapting," Hardison answered slowly. "And Eliot."
"Eliot what?" he asked, shooting Alec a questioning look. "How long did it take you to climb up that wall when I went in, anyway?"
"We've got you," Hardison clarified. "This is kind of your field. And she did it in under five minutes flat."
"I bet there's people all over who need an Eliot. Or me. Or Hardison. And probably some that need a Nate to boss them around, and a Sophie to make them feel better after they do," Parker pointed out.
Alec drummed his fingers against the laptop he still held. "You still keep that book, right? Things about the virus and the zombies and all the ways to kick ass? The journal." At Eliot's nod, Alec hummed to himself. "People need that. We should put it out there for them to see."
"It's just common sense, Hardison."
"Not everyone's got that," Hardison answered, shooting Parker a significant look.
Eliot paused. "Point taken." He shrugged. "If you think it'll help."
Alec's fingers were already moving over the keys again, hunkering down next to Parker as she watched over his shoulder. "It will."
Eliot doubted it, but he'd give it a shot. He leaned across the pair, reaching into the glove compartment and then tossing the journal at Alec. "Don't add anything."
Hardison didn't answer, and Eliot focused on the drive while Parker dug out her phone to check in with the troops back at the base.
"What is it with you and cats, anyway?" Eliot asked. He winced as Parker pulled a stitch through the tear in his arm, shooting her a glare. Parker didn't bother to pretend she cared, sure hands steadily moving to knit the skin back together. She did a neat job, but she wasn't big on the sympathy. If he got an extra jab, Parker considered it his fault for moving, and Eliot had figured out how to hold really damn still by now.
"I just don't like them. I am a dog person. Dogs, they'll fetch you slippers, or a stick, or growl when someone robs your house-"
"Most of them will just eat if you bring hamburger when you're stealing their owner's jewelry," Parker interrupted.
Hardison shot her a look, and then continued. "What do cats do? Just walk around sticking their nose in everywhere, and stinking up the house with their boxes. And I mean, isn't that enough? They keep a box of their bathroom times in your house. That's just unsanitary, is what it is. It's like getting a pet and a side order of E. Coli. And they walk through their boxes, and then they want to walk all over the furniture or sit in your lap or walk all over your keyboard with their evil little faces, and I'm just having none of that, because-"
"That's it, isn't it? They get into your geek tech?" Hardison's mouth twitched, and Eliot's grin was cut short by Parker pulling the thread through his bicep. "Would you take it easy?"
"I like cats. More than dogs, anyway. They're like my plant. They don't really need that much upkeep. If you let it go outside, then it just deals on its own. Or dies," Parker answered. She smelled like a weird mix between Hardison's orange soda, which he'd spilled on her during the chase, Dial soap and antiseptic. Eliot thought it was probably damn strange that he was used to her smelling like that. "I don't think they're evil."
Hardison's mouth twitch was accompanied by an eyebrow twitch, this time. "My Nana had a cat, okay? It didn't matter what I did, or what I said, anytime I did anything, that cat would come rub all over me, step all over the keyboard in the middle of a raid, knock over the monitor. And it'd bite me. Everybody else, it just cuddled up to, but no, I nearly lost a finger on a daily basis. And you try to tell Nana, but she didn't believe it, because Snookie didn't try to scratch nobody's eyes out but mine."
Snookie. "Her cat was named Snookie? You hated a cat named Snookie?" Eliot pictured some big, fluffy cat with a smushed face that purred while Alec tried to cover his keyboard and yelled for his Nana. It was a pretty easy image to envision.
"I had to LOCK it OUT at night. It would sleep on my FACE. I have ALLERGIES," Hardison said, waving a hand in indignation.
"What about kittens? I mean, someone hands you a basket of kittens, are you just going to try to drown them, or what?"
"Kittens aren't cats. I mean, kittens are all tiny and bouncy and fuzzy, and they haven't learned how to be evil yet. Give them like, a year, tops, and then they're plotting things," Hardison answered.
"It's a good thing the virus doesn't effect animals. What if there'd been zombie cats?" Parker leaned forward and pressed a kiss just above the newly-sewn cut in Eliot's arm. "It's still going to scar," she informed Eliot. "I don't know why people think that's sexy. It's just all red, and then pink."
Eliot refrained from pointing out that she seemed to like the rest of his scars just fine, and his line of work had given him more than a few even before the zombie apocalypse. "We'd never have gotten Hardison out of that hotel in Phoenix if there were zombie cats. Remember that whole feral group out by the trashcans?" Eliot told her, looping his sore arm carefully around her when she dropped down to sit on the edge of the table next to him.
"You fed them tuna," Parker said.
Hardison's fingers jabbed at the laptop in front of him with greater vehemence. "Just you wait. Zombies take over the world, we figure out a cure, fix everything - and it'll be too late. Ten billion stray, nasty-ass cats with tuna breath will have mutated and taken over the world, and I won't even get to say I told you so, because they'll kill me first. Cats don't like me."
"It's probably because you don't like them. Or maybe you smell like food. Usually, you just smell like orange soda though," Parker reasoned. "Are you working on that thing again?"
"What thing? I work on a lot of things. I am the communication hub of the world, you know. I have responsibilities-"
"She means the guide. Did you put the section on defensive perimeters up?" Eliot answered for her. "You're not adding notes, are you? Because you don't know what you're talking about."
"Excuse me. On some matters, I am the resident expert," Alec argued. He didn't actually answer, but Eliot hadn't expected him to. He didn't expect Alec not to add his two cents either. And it wasn't like he could fix it himself. Hardison had managed to educate him enough tto use a computer just fine without making Alec get frustrated and take it away to do himself - sometimes, at least - but he didn't know jack about the website crap Hardison did.
"Did Sophie email?" Parker asked, the too-bland note in her voice that passed for Parker's version of wistful.
Alec looked up, pausing in whatever it was he was doing and smiling at her, softer and sweeter than either Parker or Eliot usually managed - though Parker had her moments. Alec assured him that Eliot had his, too, but he'd be damned if he could see it. "Nah, but I talked to her yesterday. She and Nate are good, still. Holed up in that lab while the doctors work on a cure."
"Someone's got to play egghead den mother," Eliot said.
Parker leaned against his side, glancing out the windows. They'd been here near a week now, and they'd given the survivors in. . . wherever this was some help and know how. Hardison beefed up their security, and Parker had rigged up some quick-exit routes while Eliot helped set up perimeters and sweep for survivors with the locals. It was about time they moved on, but they could afford a night to themselves, now and then. The locals' choice for hunkering down had been the local Hilton, so they'd gotten a pretty swanky suite out of the deal, at least. High rise enough that they even had a view out the windows, with no boards blocking it. Even the self-appointed organizers of the Zombie Resistance got a night off now and then. Parker seemed to be thinking along the same lines, since she pursed her lips, and looked thoughtfully away from the window to the bed. "Can we have sex now?"
There were many qualities Eliot had come to appreciate in Parker, but her bluntness was definitely in the top five. Eliot slid his hand along her side to her hip, fingers brushing along the side of her belly, which was answer enough for him. Alec didn't look up yet. "Just a minute, I need to finish this. There's this dude in New York State who hit up the forums and said that they've got about five hundred people in-"
Eliot cut him off by standing up, curling fingers under Alec's chin, and tilting his head up, leaning in to kiss him. Hardison's eyes had gone crosseyed by the time Eliot pulled away, and Parker was already on her feet, top off and heading for the bed. "Tomorrow," Eliot told him. "We survived the end of the world, remember? We've gotta take stock and appreciate what we've got. And when a lady asks to go to bed, we go to bed."
Hardison licked his lips, and shut the laptop, starting to stand up, apparently satisfied with that. Eliot kissed him again, leaning in to Alec's taller body and curling his tongue against Hardison's, hand slipping into his back pocket to squeeze his ass. "Besides, there's one pussy waiting that I know you like," he added with a smirk.
Parker looked over, sprawled on the bed already and bare down to her plain cotton panties and a knife strapped to her thigh that she always took off last. "Meow," she said, straight-faced, one leg bending up, thigh waving back and forth enticingly.
Hardison glared at him. "You know, mocking someone's innermost insecurities is not the best way to get them into bed."
"Pretty sure it's not going to stop you, either," Eliot answered, strolling over and stripping off his shirt on the way, shucking off his shoes and trusting Alec would follow. He wasn't wrong.
"You're Eliot." Eliot put the bottle of slightly stale beer he held down, turning to see a little girl staring up at him. He guessed she was around seven or eight. Her hair was half-braided, the rest of it a riot of curls that said she'd escaped in the middle of her grandmother's attempt to tame it down. Her arm was bandaged, and Eliot automatically checked her skin for any sign of color leeching, or her eyes for red, or her jaw for bulging. She just looked like a normal little girl. Her face was screwed up in a suspicious sort of stare. "You don't look like how you should. Gran read us all the things you said, 'bout fighting the zombies. How come you don't look right?"
Eliot looked around for any sign of rescue, but Hardison had a knot of people sitting around him while he taught them to use the new security system he'd set up, and Parker was sitting in the middle of the massive pile of supplies they'd managed to gather. Ostensibly she was sorting them, but Eliot thought she looked more like a dragon sitting watch over her hoard. (The comparison probably proved he'd been sneaking too many of Hardison's stupid fantasy books while he was bored on watch.) She'd gotten over loving money more than stuff right about the time money became incidental compared to survival. She missed stealing, though. Every so often Hardison found a bank vault she could get into, and made up a reason for her to break in, to keep her from getting itchy. The girl's grandmother was helping make Molotov cocktails with a few of the other survivors. So it was just them, and another little boy they'd found with his teenage brother during their supply run. He was hovering around the edge of the sofa, watching them without saying anything. Eliot hadn't heard the kid say a word yet anyway, though. No such luck with the little girl. "What's your name?" he asked her.
"Kaya," she answered. "You woulda known that if you listened to my gran before when she talked 'bout me."
"I learn a lot of names. Sometimes I forget them. Names are more Hardison's thing," Eliot answered. "How did you think I should look?"
Kaya considered for a moment, lifting her unbandaged arm to scratch at her nose with bitten-down nails. "I don't know. Different. Taller. Like my daddy."
Eliot didn't ask where her daddy was. You didn't ask those kinds of questions when he answers were usually all the same. There weren't all that many families that hadn't lost a few members, one way or another. He shot Hardison a look to see if he'd heard the comment, but he seemed oblivious to any conversations but his own, and Eliot shrugged to the little girl. "Can't all be like your daddy. But I'd bet he'd be proud of you, the way you've been looking after Tommy, there." He nodded toward the hovering little boy.
"You remembered HIS name," Kaya answered tartly. She looked over at Tommy though, and held out her hand. The younger boy hesitated and then scampered out from his hiding place, clutching her hand like a lifeline. "He's just a baby, and he lost his momma and daddy, so he's scared," she told him, sounding both too old and impossibly young. "Do you really fight the zombies? And go around helping people, like it says on the computer?"
Eliot watched Tommy's fingers curl tighter around Kaya's, and then nodded. "Yeah, we fight. And we try to help. Our friends are helping find a way to stop people from getting sick, and we try to help keep people safe, much as they can be, anyways."
"How?" Kaya asked, frowning.
Eliot wasn't sure how to answer that, and he looked around for help again, but finally he shrugged. "People write in on the computer, and tell us where they are, and what's going on. We go around, and we learn stuff about the zombies, and the best ways to keep them from doing anything to hurt people, and then we find the people who wrote us, and show them what we know, and then go to the next place."
"Like here," Kaya said. "Does that mean you're leaving soon? Who'll take care of us?"
"We'll stay for a couple more days, but after that, we go find more people to help. And that's what we're showing you how to do. Take care of each other. Like you're doing for Tommy."
Kaya looked a the little boy and then back at Eliot. "You have to show me how to fight then. So if they come back, Tommy an' Gran'll be safe," she ordered him. "And you can't go until after you do. And you have to say goodbye to Tommy, and come back. He likes that lady with you."
Eliot hid a smile at hearing Parker called a lady. "How do you know he likes her?"
"'Cause I WATCH," Kaya told him, tone of voice saying she thought Eliot was more than a little slow for asking. "So will you?"
Eliot looked from her to Tommy, and then lifted his beer, draining the last of it, standing up. "Parker," he called. She looked up from her hoarding and sorting and cocked her head. He nodded toward the kids, and she bounced to her feet, coming over. Now that he was watching, he saw the way Tommy lit up and held his arms out toward her. Parker picked him up readily, and Kaya let him go. "Come on, we're gonna go show them how to get away from any zombies that get close. You've got some more friends around here, right? Some other kids? Go round them up, we'll practice in the store room, there's enough room there."
Kaya smiled for the first time, and nodded, bounding off. Parker set Tommy down, but kept her hand curled in his. "You and me will play the zombies, okay? Can you growl?" she asked.
Tommy looked uncertain, and Eliot gave him a reassuring smile. Or he tried to. He was never quite sure if it came across, but the little boy relaxed, anyway, and nodded. He bared his teeth sudden, small, high-pitched voice making an unconvincing growl. Eliot offered him his hand, and Tommy took it with his free hand, Parker and him swinging the little boy between them. He looked back to meet Hardison's eyes, seeing Hardison already watching, and grinning a little. He was going to hear about this later, but Eliot didn't care, just swung Tommy between them, grinning to himself as the little boy finally laughed, sudden and startled, like he'd half forgotten how.