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Beneath the Trees

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Logan was acting squirrelly. And not the pudgy, half-tame squirrels of their high school campus. No, Logan was acting like an Alaskan squirrel, sneaky and determined to get into her loft and steal the snacks she had hidden there. But Logan had his own snacks, since his family still had a chef who made him cheese biscuits even after leaving the White House, so she wasn't sure what he was trying to pull, but she was pretty sure she wouldn't like it.

Which was why Maddie was hiding under Logan's messy, barely-used desk in Logan's father's mansion, while Logan ditched his guard outside the door. "I'm not going to climb out the window," he said, with a note of mocking in his voice. "And even if I did, someone would see me." It was Keith this afternoon, tall and calm; Maddie could see his head over Logan's tall shoulder from her vantage point in the corner. His clean-shaven face was professionally blank as he nodded. She was pretty sure he knew she was in the room, but Logan couldn't seem to stop fighting his guards–even if everyone told Maddie he was much better now than he had been before–and Maddie was still a Manchester, so none of them would give her away.

Logan shoved the door closed in Keith's face, not quite slamming it, and fished out his phone. He waited until the shadow had disappeared from the crack beneath the door to open some phone app and jab at his screen. "What do you want?" he hissed into the phone the moment it connected. He paused, listening. "What? No." He started pacing, and Maddie could almost feel her own legs cramping as she held absolutely still. "I'm not going to put you in touch with either of them." More pacing. His responses now were monosyllabic, nos, grunts, and sharp laughs. Maddie couldn't follow it, and she bit her lip to keep in a snarl of frustration.

"Why should I believe you?" Logan growled finally. He was choosing his words very carefully. It all could have been addressed to someone at school, but Maddie had a feeling it wasn't. Logan didn't care this much about anyone at school. "You may have helped in the end, but you lied to me, and you hurt people I care about." Logan listened again, his grip getting tighter and tighter, until he finally burst. "Didn't you learn anything about keeping Natalie safe from trouble?" He winced after he said that, looking almost like he regretted the words.

Maddie frowned. She didn't know a Natalie, but for some reason the name tugged at her memory. She ran through the names of their graduating class and added the juniors for good measure, even though she had never seen Logan voluntarily paying attention to any of the younger students. No Natalies. The teachers' first names were harder, but none of the teachers she and Logan had asked for recommendation letters were Natalies, at least. She was tallying their parents' contacts with increasing skepticism when Logan added, "Tell me you at least have plenty of insulin."

That hit her. Squirrelly, sneaky Logan, Anglicizing the name of Stefan's sister so that no Russian sounds would set off alarm bells for his new guards. The only people who would connect those dots were Maddie and her father, because the three of them had kept their promise to cover for Stefan, and no one else knew the name of Stefan's sister or of her diabetes.

Maddie had had enough of things being kept from her. She bounced up from behind the desk and grabbed Logan's phone from his hand before he could react. "Hi, Steve," she chirped. "I think I'm mad you didn't call me for help. I'm much more reliable than this guy."

There was a very long silence on the other end of the line. Maddie waited, and took the opportunity to brush off her pink jeans. The rhinestone accents scraped her hand, but the floor under Logan's desk was dusty, and she really wanted to get it off her. The best thing about Washington, D.C. was how much easier it was to keep dirt and mud out of the house than it had been in Alaska. Logan really didn't appreciate that.

Finally, Stefan spoke. "You are much less easy to reach on social media. Leaving a message on your Facebook page would have raised an alarm. I asked the boy to contact you."

Maddie's eyebrows shot up. She turned to glare at Logan. "He asked you to talk to me?" she demanded. Logan went to grab the phone back from her. She dodged.

Logan stopped. "You're doing a lot, and he doesn't have a good reason for getting you involved. He doesn't have a good reason for getting me involved." He looked frustrated, but he was still keeping his voice down, so he didn't want to attract attention. That helped her.

She cocked her head at Logan. "Do we need to go over how badly everything goes when you lie to me? Again?" She didn't give him time to answer, just raised the phone again. "Okay, Steve, explain it to me, since he clearly won't. What's wrong with your sister?"

"A surviving deputy of the Wolf has almost entirely succeeded in taking control of the remnants of his organization," Stefan said shortly. "I am no longer certain I can keep my sister safe and hidden, and I would like to send her to you and your father in America for a few months."

Maddie couldn't tell by Logan's scowl whether he had heard the story or not. She gave the phone her best dubious look, even if Stefan couldn't see it. "Logan and I are still pretty high profile, even now," she pointed out. "She'll probably wind up in the press, and we definitely can't take in a girl without a visa." Logan's teeth clenched, but he gave no other indication of surprise. Stefan had probably told him, then.

"I have obtained a visa. The Wolf's organization no longer has such good contacts with your State Department, and I bribed the consulate workers to keep her application discreet."

Maddie stared up at the ceiling, hoping for patience. Bribed the consulate, she repeated silently. When she glanced down again, Logan looked vindicated. She glared at him. He shrugged. She glared at the phone. Logan made a half-hearted grab for it, and she danced away and started over again, "Right. We need to have my father on board for this, and there's no reason to do it all through Logan's phone. Is there any reason you can't talk to me directly now that I know?"

Rude, Logan mouthed at her. Maddie put her free hand on her hip, while she listened to Stefan's response with half an ear. "Great," she said with finality, ignoring Logan's increasing twitches. "Give me your number, and I will find you in," she pulled the phone back from her ear to check the phone's screen; it showed a powdery blue app, "Signal, so we can talk to my dad." She pulled a pen out of her pocket. Trust Stefan to have picked the most secure of the half-dozen calling apps Logan kept on his phone.

Stefan hesitated for one more long moment, but he gave in at last. Maddie wrote the number on her hand, memorized it for good measure, and hit call disconnect. She offered the phone to Logan with a flourish, and braced herself. She had won and it was all over but the shouting. Maybe if she kissed Logan, he'd forget about being mad? She felt the tension in his arm as he took his phone and reluctantly gave up that idea. No, there would definitely be shouting. She sighed and kissed Logan anyway.

***

"'It'll be fine, Logan,' you said," Logan muttered in Maddie's ear. His bicep ached where a bullet had gone through it and Maddie's extra scarf was tied around it to stop any blood from dripping out to attract bears. Who were, Maddie had told him pointedly, not hibernating because this was New England and black bears here only went into torpor, which was a lot more lively than hibernation. "'She can pretend to be an exchange student, Logan.' 'Don't be an ass, Logan.'"

"She did make a very convincing exchange student," Maddie hissed back, eyes still scanning the snow-blocked woods. Natalia was watching in the other direction because apparently her eyes were better than Logan's.

Logan was stuck staring around at the untrampled snow, patchy despite the nasty snowstorm three days ago and the flakes beginning to swirl ominously around them. There were plenty of areas with gnarly roots that jutted up above the snow or frozen piles of dead pine needles sheltered by particularly thick branches. It seemed so typical that they could come out here in spring, in April, weeks after the equinox, but they were still hit by two snowstorms, only one of which the weather service had properly predicted. Maddie stared at the blank spaces, and Logan wondered if she could see anything. He had resumed asking Mr. Manchester for tips about spotting the signs of an attacker, but that was in the city. Somehow, he hadn't remembered that the fake wilderness of a New Hampshire resort could be almost as deadly as Alaska under the wrong circumstances. "Which is why we're stuck in the White Mountains before a sudden snowstorm trying to avoid the people who will be sent out to find us," he retorted, voice low enough to keep Natalia out of the argument. Somehow, provoking Maddie to talk made the pain fade away. "With no cell reception."

"Fine, none of us would have been on the ziplines to be shot at if I hadn't been pretending to be a normal high school senior on a normal spring break trip, I get it," Maddie finally snapped. "And none of us would be here if my dad hadn't screwed up and hired a mole onto your bodyguard team. I get it. It doesn't change things, so can you please shut up and let me concentrate?"

Logan flinched. He hadn't meant to hurt her. "That's not what I meant." Maddie had been favoring one leg since their scramble to get below the evergreen canopy, and it was even more obvious now as she stood tense and ready, almost all of weight on her left leg, even though the rest of her body was stubbornly square. She had to be aching as much as he was, and he wanted to bite off his tongue for his sarcasm. He hesitated, caught between letting her focus on business the way she clearly wanted and making her see that he didn't blame her for this mess.

Natalia pushed between the two of them. "There is no trace on that side, but I think we will not be able to walk there without leaving tracks." Her voice was studiously neutral.

Maddie refocused on the other girl, then looked behind her. "You're right," she agreed. She pointed a series of large roots. "We can try walking across those. Just try not to scrape off any bark. We'll leave mud behind, but it might not be too obvious. And there's a pretty solid mat of pine needles over there."

Natalia nodded and set off. Logan was face to face with Maddie again, no one between them, but he still didn't have words. Maddie just hugged him and pushed him forward. It seemed almost easy to jump from root to root, much easier than picking his way through a freezing Alaskan landscape. He felt Maddie following him and turned to watch her, noting her every wince as her leg tilted at angles on some of the uneven roots. She made it across the roots before her leg finally gave out. Logan caught her when she nearly fell.

"Sorry," she gasped, voice thin. Her body was shaking minutely.

He couldn't keep swallowing the words. "You're hurt, Mad Dog."

"Not really," she mumbled into his chest. He started to kneel, but she kept him up with an iron grip. "It's just my ankle. A sprain, I think. Nothing big. We can deal with it when we've gotten to shelter."

"It is not far now," Natalia said quietly. She gestured beneath the trees to one of the trailers that ringed the mountain slope with the ziplines. One of the benefits of fake wilderness: someone always planned for accidents. Logan could see a flash of blue paint through the trees.

Maddie sighed, relaxed a little under his hand, and pushed forward. Logan didn't let her slip away; he threaded his arm around her waist, and pulled hers around his, to take some of the weight off her bad ankle. He felt the pressure when she let herself lean on him. They made good time, but Natalia stumbled to a halt right before leaving the cover of the trees. Logan saw what must have alarmed her: a faint flicker of light inside a window. When Maddie stiffened, he knew that she had seen it, too. Logan pointed silently to the dirty snow on the edge of the trailer. He couldn't tell if it was old or new; there was a thin layer of new white over the muck, but he had no idea how long it would have to snow here to make that. Snow melted in DC.

"You should go inside," a gruff voice with a Russian accent said from behind them.

Maddie startled, but Logan never forgot. He looked back. "Stefan," he said.

***

Once Stefan had confirmed that his sister was unharmed and wrapped her tightly in a fleece blanket, he handed her half the contents of the trailer's first aid kit and told her to take care of Madeleine Manchester. He was in no mood to listen to the two American teenagers insisting that the other be treated first. He cleaned Logan's graze quickly, applied a pressure bandage, and handed him a sling and a blanket, ignoring the way the former president's son flinched as the antiseptic stung his wound. "Put it on," he said, loud enough to be heard clearly in the small space, when Logan seemed inclined to toss the sling aside.

Madeleine looked over from across the room. "Yeah, Logan, put it on. You don't need your arm right now, and we don't need you to start bleeding again if that bullet clipped bone." Stefan declined to say that the wound had not been deep enough for any such thing. His sister kept her head down, focused on wrapping Madeleine's ankle, and avoided the conversation.

Logan's movements were jerky as he forced his arm into the sling. "What about your ankle?" Logan asked Madeleine pointedly. Stefan stood, and Logan's eyes snapped to him. "Where are you going?"

Stefan gestured to Madeleine and Natasha. "That will need ice. We have a great deal of ice outside the door."

Madeleine laughed, strained but amused. "Not as much as Alaska." Natasha hid a smile by shifting to drag a chair close enough to elevate the other young woman’s leg. Logan looked about the room and seemed to realize that there was no power and thus no indoor freezer. The only light came now from camp lanterns; the snow outside had grown thick enough to block all sun.

"Not as much," Stefan agreed. "But enough." He turned to the door, plastic bin in hand, and paid no attention to the idle argument behind him about whether digging snow from outside the door would make their presence too obvious as he skimmed snow from the drifts beside the door. The storm would erase his presence soon enough.

He pulled the bin back inside the trailer and closed the door behind him. Natasha met him with resealable plastic bags. Silently, the two of them packed most of the snow into the bags, thick enough not to melt in the heat of the warming trailer but loose enough to wrap around an ankle. She pointed him to a small cooler in the corner and handed one of the filled bags to Logan, who hovered over Madeleine, to the young woman's visible pleasure and growing irritation.

After Stefan finished putting the rest of the packs of snow away, he and Natasha snugged the opaque thermal blinds across the windows. Discreetly, he checked the sight-lines from each. None of the chairs arranged around the glowing heater seemed easy to target, but he doubted the sides of the trailer would resist heavy weapons fire. They would have to trust the blizzard to disguise them and hinder their pursuers.

“Have you spoken to your father?” Stefan asked Madeleine. He poured snow melt into a small pot atop the camping stove he had left beside the larger heater and turned on the stove.

Madeleine shook her head, and Logan glared at him. “We didn’t have time to try calling him in the canopy, and the trees and weather kind of clobbered reception.” She pulled out a phone and grimaced. “No bars, and I don’t think I want to risk just calling 911.”

“Have you tried?” Logan challenged. "How did you even know what was happening? Natalia didn't have time to make phone calls either."

Stefan handed his satellite phone to Madeleine and faced Logan, "I did not. I hoped to find a way to meet with Natalia and grew alarmed when I recognized one of your guides here. I admit, I did not expect your bodyguard to shoot at you. Though perhaps I should have." The water was near to boiling now, and he ripped open bags of sweetened energy drink powder to shake into the styrofoam cups that Natalia had laid out.

Madeleine's outraged voice forestalled any reply Logan might make. "This thing does texts. And email. My dad told me I couldn't have a smartphone and a sat phone. Liar." Stefan could not tell if she had not heard a word he said or if she was deliberately defusing Logan's temper. He had not been able to see to her motives two years ago, either, so he supposed that was nothing new.

Logan's expression faded from furious to affectionately exasperated as he turned his gaze from Stefan to Madeleine. Unseen by their American audience, Natasha shot Stefan a disapproving look, as eloquent as the longest of Madeleine's speeches. Stefan avoided her eyes in favor of pouring water into the cups and stirring them.

The phone connecting snapped the silence. "Dad!" Madeleine exclaimed. "We're stuck in the middle of the Bretton Woods woods with someone trying to kill us!" Stefan shuddered to think how he would react should Natasha ever greet him in such a fashion.

His sister leaned over to whisper to him, "Perhaps I will do that someday."

"Don't," he returned flatly. He pushed her cup toward her, then handed two to Logan. He took a sip of his own and nearly grimaced. Salt and sugar and artificial American flavors.

"Yes, of course I have coordinates. I'm calling from Stefan's sat phone. It has GPS. You owe me one of these, by the way. I could totally bedazzle it, and it texts. See?" Presumably, she sent her father the coordinates by text; she was hitting the right buttons for it. Then her voice dropped. "Dad? They got to Keith. He shot at us." The room was very quiet for a long time after that.

As soon as Madeleine had finished her call and tossed back his phone, Stefan handed her his spare hand gun. Even constrained by a bad ankle, she was the better fighter and the better shot of their little group. She turned away from all of them and sighted the Glock 9mm, aimed at an empty corner. Then she checked the safety again before placing the gun on her footrest. She accepted a cup from Logan and sipped it. They all warmed from the hot water and sweetness, and finally Madeleine pulled off her melting snow compress and laced her foot back into her boot. "I'll keep it elevated, but I want to be able to move if we have to."

As if to punctuate her words, the ringing slam of body hitting metal siding punched through the room. For a long moment, Stefan could not even identify the direction. Then all four of them were looking to the west of their chairs, around the side from the trailer door, as though they could see through walls. They could not.

Then Stefan was moving, stepping over to the door on feet silent despite heavy boots. He slipped outside the door before the other three could follow. The man outside looked cold, exhausted, and not at all alert. Stefan slammed a fist into his temple, and the man dropped. Natasha appeared behind him, and he nearly jumped to see her. He had heard nothing over the roaring of the wind. She shook her head when he opened his mouth to send her inside immediately. Instead, the two of them carried the unconscious deadweight into the trailer together. Madeleine and Logan pounced, so he let them take the unconscious body and frisk it. The man–Keith, it seemed–carried his own weapon, which Logan appropriated, and his own satellite phone, out of which Madeleine popped both battery and SIM card. "No need to give them a GPS trail to us," she said.

Natasha had Keith's hands and feet bound with layers of gauze bandage before he woke. They left him on the ground, tilted on his side to look at the two Americans and Natasha, while Stefan stood behind him. He woke with a nearly imperceptible twitch and kept his eyes closed for a full five minutes before Logan lost patience. "We can see that you're awake," he snapped.

Keith's eyes snapped open, and he tried to lunge. Stefan stepped on his side. "Do not move." The man froze as he seemed to notice Madeleine Manchester's gun, trained upon him with steady hands. His head tilted at an awkward angle to see Stefan. Then he turned back to Madeleine and raised his hands as if to bite through the gauze.

"Stop that!" Madeleine ordered, gun steady.

Suddenly, Logan lunged, trying to wrench Keith's hands down. In the next second, Madeleine followed him, discarding the gun and swearing viciously. "How did we miss that?" Together, they pulled Keith's hands away from his face, and a barely punctured pill fell to the floor, leaking liquid. Keith began gasping.

Stefan leaned forward to snatch up Natasha's half-full cup, rinsing the man's mouth and forcing the glucose-laden liquid down his throat, hoping that the pill had been cyanide and not another, less recognizable poison. Keith continued to breathe harshly, even as his eyes slipped closed, but his pulse remained steady when Stefan checked it. "He will need medical assistance as soon as possible."

For a moment, there was silence. Then Logan whispered, "That's not good. That's not a hired killer. That's a fanatic."

"Or a victim of extortion," Stefan pointed out, "promised that a quick death would be better than what is in store for him or his loved ones should he be captured alive."

His sister nodded. There was much to discuss, but there seemed nothing to say at that moment. They waited, listening and on-edge, to see who would find them first: Madeleine's father or Keith's erstwhile allies. When they finally heard helicopter blades cutting through the dying winds and Stefan's phone rang only thirty seconds later, he could see Madeleine nearly sag with relief. She answered the phone. "Is that you, in the helicopter?" She listened. "Oh, good. We have Keith, but he tried to take a suicide pill we didn't even realize he had, so he's unconscious and needs a doctor soonest. Hurry up and land, okay?" Her silence was too short to be listening for an answer. "Okay, okay, I'll stop distracting you. I love you, hurry up." With that, she broke the connection.

In the silence, Stefan contemplated trying to slip away into the trees. His sister clamped a hand about his arm. "No, you will not leave me again," she hissed.

Across from her, Madeleine nodded in agreement. "We've tried doing this our own separate ways. This time, we're doing it together."

Stefan did not argue. Instead, they stood, the four of them in a rough square around their unconscious captive, and listened to the approaching helicopter together.