Alec wishes they would all stop glaring at him like he’s personally responsible for his flight arriving forty-five minutes late. He hadn’t planned for his first words to his dig team to be an apologetic explanation about the inevitability of a January flight out of JFK being delayed, but then again he hadn’t planned on pretty much any of this.
“And then they had to de-ice the plane again–“
“Planes crash from ice formation on their wings all the time. Pilots put the planes on autopilot, which hides changes in handling quality that may be a precursor to premature stalling or loss of control,” the attractive blonde cuts in cheerfully, like she’s saying something adorable instead of vaguely horrifying. When Alec gapes at her, she smiles back brightly.
“Uh, yeah, girl. Yeah, that’s why they had to de-ice it,” Alec says. “I’m Alec Hardison, by the way. The tech guy. Here to make sure you all have a few more tools at your disposal than they had when they built these tombs.” He waves to the group at large instead of shaking hands individually.
“Parker,” the blonde says. When they wait for a last name, she rolls her eyes. “Just Parker. One name.”
The man standing next to her, the one wearing dad jeans, sneakers, a short-sleeved button up and an actual fedora, raises his eyebrows in surprise until they disappear under the brim of his real-life, this-is-actually-happening fedora. “Parker? As in the Parker? The Saqqara dig site Parker?” She nods and Willingly Wearing A Fedora lets out a low whistle. Alec makes a mental note to look up the Saqqara dig site as soon as he finds WiFi. He doesn’t need anything complicating his plans, especially not hot blondes.
Or hot brunettes, he thinks, looking at the last member of their party. He is several inches shorter than Alec, solid with muscle. Of all of them, he’s the only one who looks like Hollywood’s expectation of a desert adventurer. His shoulder-length brown hair is pushed back from his face with a folded bandana and he is dressed in desert-tone clothing. Alec gives him a sup nod which makes him crinkle his face in distaste.
“Eliot Spenser,” he says reluctantly. “Safety and retrieval.”
This time Alec is the one who is impressed. “You were the one who rescued the Dashur dig, weren’t you?” Eliot shrugs, like saving the lives of nine archeologists is hardly worth mentioning on his resume.
They all look expectantly at Fedora. He holds out his hand. “Nathan Ford, call me Nate. I’m from the Field Museum.” So I’m your boss is implied, even when he doesn’t voice the words. Parker shakes his hand in what must be a viselike grip judging from the wince on Call-Me-Nate’s face. Eliot barely touches his hand before he’s pulling away from the handshake. Alec sees that it’s down to him to shake hands like a normal human being.
“Oh good, are we doing introductions?” an English female voice floats in. The group turns to see an dark-haired, elegant woman approaching. “Sophie Devereux. I’m your hieroglyphics specialist.”
“And a fourth-dynasty Egypt expert, as well as being the world’s foremost scholar on Khnum-Khufu,” Nate adds, saying the last bit thoughtfully. Alarms go off in Alec’s head at the mention of Khufu and he almost misses the sweep of Sophie’s eyes as she takes in Nate from toe to head. The soft way she looks at him is more than appreciation for his knowledge of her work; these two know each other. Alec files that information away, tucked alongside the Saqqara question in his To Investigate mental list.
“Great,” Eliot says gruffly. “Now can we get to the site and set up camp before the sun goes down?”
When they retrieve their bags from luggage claim, Alec has three times the amount of gear as anyone on the team. “Hey, a little help here, big guy?” he asks Eliot, who rolls his eyes and shoulders his single bag, a practical, military-looking tan and brown bag. Parker peeks around the corner of the baggage claim machine at the pile of black plastic crates around Alec.
“What is all of that stuff?” she asks.
“This? Oh, just the latest tech in archeological excavation,” Alec says proudly. “I designed most of it myself. This baby here-“ he nudges a crate with his toe “-can create a 3D map of anything I scan with that little bit of genius over there.” He indicates another box. “And this–“
“Come on,” Eliot snaps. “Enough showing off. Unless you want to wait and set up your gear in the dark, we need to get moving now. You can drool over your toys once we get camp set up.” Parker giggle-snorts and disappears behind the baggage claim machine. A few yards away, Nate is helping Sophie grab another one of her bags off the belt. She is giving him the same thoughtful look he had given her when he listed her credentials.
Alec should really have done more research on his dig teammates. But he was chasing something impossible and didn’t really have the luxury of research time.
Three months ago he was holding something impossible in his hands. He was on a dig only a few miles away from where he’s headed now. He was testing out a new piece of equipment he had designed, a device that could date an artifact while simultaneously measuring different composite elements which the device would use to determine the location of the object’s origin as accurately as possible. He had wanted to test it on-site, on items whose age and place of origin he already knew: eighth dynasty, all from within fifteen miles of his location. He had run twelve successful tests in the past two days, which was why he was so confused when the stone carving he was currently scanning appeared to be from the fourth dynasty. Which was impossible. It was also from several hundred miles away. Which was impossible.
The tomb had been sealed since the gross dead guy had been buried in it. The fact that it hadn’t been looted, not even a little, was absolute proof of that. So what was this artifact doing in this tomb?
Alec had said nothing to his then-team – they had a very comfortable animosity growing between them all that he hadn’t wanted to disturb by offering to include them in this possibly monumental discovery – and had quietly gone into town the next day where he could connect to the internet. He buried himself in research. After three exhausting days, Alec had come upon the slenderest, most delicate of leads: Khnum-Khufu.
Apparently Alec had slept through seventh grade history class, because he had never heard of Khufu before his research, but apparently the guy was a big deal. Like, built-the-Great-Pyramid-and-was-buried-in-it kind of big deal. The fourth-dynasty pharaoh was a megalomanic narcissist who even closed the temples so that he could make the priests work on his pyramid. There was no doubt that he had piles of treasure buried with him.
All the research that Alec had found said that the Great Pyramid had been emptied of all its treasure. And someone had taken Khufu’s body which was too nasty to think about. But the location of the Great Pyramid matched very closely the place of origin of the impossible object. The timeframe was right. It could be part of the lost hoard of Khufu’s death gift to himself.
The thought of being the one to find the rest of the treasure made Alec tingly all over. The thought of being the one to find it using technology he built himself was so pleasant that it made him a little dizzy. So when news came of a sandstorm unearthing some interesting ruins only a few miles away from the site with the impossible object, he had signed up for the dig team, not really caring who else signed up with him. He couldn’t get on the first team on-site, so he was in no position to be picky about who was on the second team so long as he was one of them.
There is some infrastructure on-site left over from the previous team. A few sun shelters over the ruins where the team was digging, some makeshift tables from overturned crates, and even a cluster of cheap foldout chairs. But most importantly, the previous team has done the bulk of the excavation and, you know, actual digging part of archeology. Alec has been on digs with people who became archeologists just so they could alway be the kid playing in the sandbox; they just really love dirt. The first team must have had some people like that, based on the sheer amount of excavation they had done in the relatively short time they had been on-site.
Alec sets up his tent quickly so he can start on unpacking his equipment. The camp is quiet as everyone settles in, focused on their own tasks. Nate is standing at the edge of the pit the first team dug. He looks over at Sophie occasionally, looking thoughtful and maybe a bit wary. Sophie is settled in front of the campfire, flipping back and forth through the pages of a worn book, pausing now and then to make a note or underline a sentence. Eliot is prepping dinner. Alec hadn’t pegged him as camp cook, but it looks like he’s making enough for all of them. And Parker is…gone? Alec scans the site but doesn’t see her. He shrugs and goes back to cleaning one of his remote scanning drones – Alec doesn’t like the d word but he has to pay his dues to preciseness when naming his gear – when a sudden voice in his ear startles him, nearly making him drop it.
“So are you going to show me how your toys works?”
“Where did you- they’re not toys, Parker, they are expensive and ingenious machines that are going to revolutionize, I say revolutionize the archeological field, just you wait.”
“Eliot says they’re toys,” Parker says. She glances over at Eliot who nods encouragingly at her before giving Alec a complacent grin. Alec reminds himself that he holds two PhDs and a Master’s, and that he is too professional to stick out his tongue at Eliot.
“They’re not toys,” he insists.
“They look like toys,” Eliot says.
“They are not- okay, I can see how your caveman IQ doesn’t allow you to comprehend the complexity of my little Lucille here-“
“Lucille? You named those things? You know how that sounds, right?”
“-but I’d like to see you try to even use one of these beauties let alone design them and build them like I did.”
“Oh yeah? Well which of us is going to be taking your little toys into the tomb? Is it me? That’s right, it is me. I’ll be doing the big boy work while you sit up here and press buttons.”
“I don’t know,” Parker says, cutting her eyes between the two of them. “It looks like I’ll be the one doing all the work while you two are up here having a pissing contest.”
“All right, children,” Nate says mildly, strolling over from the tomb ruins. “You’re all the best at what you do. That’s why the museum hired you to be a part of this team.”
Alec feels his whole body tighten with suspicion and it looks like he has company. Body language changes around the campfire. Arms are crossed, posture straightens. Only Sophie remains as she was, flicking idly through the pages of her book.
“It’s true that you hired the best. Did the museum have any particular reason for putting this team together?” Eliot asks levelly. “Is there something- special about this site?” Parker nods and Alec finds himself nodding too, cutting his eyes around the circle, suddenly feeling like everyone else is here for the same reason he is.
“Why are you three here? Is there something special here that you’re looking for?” Nate shoots back.
“Don’t deflect, it’s a bit pathetic. And obvious,” Sophie chimes in.
“Why are you here?” Nate asks deliberately.
A small smile curls at the edges of Sophie’s mouth. “I’m here to get a good anecdote for the opening chapter of my book on death in eighth-dynasty Egypt. Why are you here, Nate?”
“The museum wants to expand it’s eighth-dynasty collection for an upcoming exhibit on tombs from this region.” He glances around the circle, looking each of them in the eye. “And I never like working with anyone less than the best.”
“Hey, man, that works for me,” Alec says. “I’m just here to give my new gear a test run before I take it to the big leagues.”
“I like eighth-dynasty tombs,” Parker says. “Lots of fun tunnels.”
“The money’s good,” Eliot says.
“Yeah, that too.” Parker nods. “Money is good.”
There is a brief silence where they weigh each others’ answers. Alec is suspicious that someone else is on the trail for Khufu’s treasure, but everyone has good reason to be wary of unknown team members, even without a secret plan to find Khufu’s treasure. There have been at least three instances recently of archeologists hiding discoveries from their teams, selling artifacts on the black market, even a stabbing on a four-month dig in South America. There are currently eight on-going investigations looking into allegations that several archeologists had hired locals to steal artifacts from a dig and store them until the archeologists could return and sell them. Not exactly elegant – and definitely not Alec’s style – but effective enough. And enough to give them all good reason to doubt each other’s motives.
“We should eat and get some rest,” Nate says. “We have a long couple of weeks ahead of us.”
As they eat, Nate lays out a rough map of the tombs drawn up by the previous team. They plan their next few days’ work while Alec disparages the map and interjects with comments enumerating the map’s failings and the ways in which his map will be superior. Sophie points out a few areas that should be promising and Nate gives those spots priority in his plan. Eliot and Parker throw in advice of their own and by the time they say their goodnights and make for their tents, Alec is feeling damn good. What Nate said earlier is clearly true, they really are all the best at what they do. The way they ran through the plan felt like they were clicking. Alec wants to slap himself when he thinks that – he needs to be focused, not admiring his extremely temporary team – but he can’t pretend that it’s not true. Something special happened.
He can’t pin it down, can’t point to something someone said or did. There’s nothing specific, but something happened and the dynamic shifted. Alec isn’t sure what to make of it because he’s never had anything like it. Calling a group of archeologists working together a teamhad always just seemed like shorthand for saying that they all happened to be digging in the same place. There was cooperation and sometimes collaboration, but not anything Alec would call genuine teamwork. Especially not between his colleagues and himself. He isn’t a dirt lover, doesn’t know much about the history either. He knows his gadgets and whatever specific information he needs to know for that particular job. He’s used to being looked down on as some tech nerd, performing for the real scientists the same service that a caddy performs for a golfer.
Not so on Team Field Museum. So maybe he doesn’t really understand everything they say when they talk about the history and the specifics of the tombs. But they know that he understands what he’s talking about when he tells them what he can do for their dig. Even Eliot with his taunts and jokes asked him serious questions. They all did.
How quickly can you do this? Do you think you can do that? How long would it take you to perform this task?
It’s a big change from thanks but no thanks, geek boy. Let the real PhDs do the decision making. Go back to your toys.
The rest of the team felt that easy click too. Their early wariness got lost in their planning and suspicions faded to almost nothing. And no one seemed to know anything about the stone carving hidden in the basement of some museum in the American Midwest.
Alec hadn’t stolen the impossible carved stone from his previous site. It would have been unspeakably stupid to take a registered artifact into town and then never return it. Short of stealing it, he did the next best thing to keep anyone from finding it. He had mislabeled it so it would look extremely ordinary, like thousands of other pieces across the world. Then it would be filed as unimportant and stuck in the back of some museum’s storage room and forgotten about, at least until after Alec makes the discovery of the decade. He had dug it up just to rebury it in obscurity.
“I will leave you alone in the dark, Eliot, don’t push me. I’ll do it, I swear will,” Alec says, still brushing imaginary spiders off his back. He knows that there had never been any spiders, but he swears he can still feel their creepy legs all over him.
“Fine by me,” Eliot says, still chuckling a little. “Maybe I’ll be able to actually get some work done.” He holds out his hand for the next light. Alec hands it to him to hang on the wall. Once it’s secure, Alec flicks it on and off to test the remote control. The light obligingly turns on and off for him.
“How many more of these are we putting up?” Alec asks.
Eliot shines his flashlight down the underground corridor. “Seven.”
Alec looks too. “What if we hang two in that area, pointing in opposite directions?” He points at a patch of wall with some protruding stone. “That could light the whole back stretch of the corridor, save us some work.”
Eliot examines the wall. “We could try,” he says. Alec grins because he’s pretty sure that we could try is Eliot for you’re a genius, Hardison.
Alec is testing the light coverage – it works, of course it works, Alec is a genius – when the walkie-talkie Nate gave them crackles to life.
“Eliot, Hardison, come look at this,” Parker’s voice comes over the line.
“Where are you?” Eliot asks.
“Second corridor, about thirty-five yards down. Look for the living person with the flashlight.”
Alec and Eliot haven’t put any lights in that corridor yet. They catch glimpses of Parker in the blue-white light from her flashlight as she moves it along the wall.
“Look,” she says.
Alec looks. Not at the wall, at the way her skin looks in the beam of her flashlight. She turns her face, letting the light catch another patch of pale skin, throwing sharp shadows along her nose and cheekbones. The way the light moves highlights the natural liveliness of her features, so appealing that it makes Alec’s chest whomp. She’s beautiful, he thinks a little bit in despair. She could mess him up.
Alec forgets to look at whatever Parker is showing them on the wall, so he has to take Eliot’s word for it when he says, “These stones are different from the rest.”
Alec tears his eyes away from Parker’s backlit hair and the way it falls around her face. It’s only a small difference, but Eliot is right, one section of the wall is built with noticeably different stones than the rest of it. Alec runs his hand along the surfaces of the two types of rock, feeling the difference in texture.
“It looks like this was a doorway that someone sealed up,” Parker says.
Eliot and Alec meet each other’s eyes with the same question: Why would someone seal it shut?
“So we should go in, right?” Parker says. There’s a metallic flash in the beam of light as she swings her trowel up, ready to bring the wall down. Alec jumps back as he feels the whoosh of it on his face.
“Whoa, whoa girl! Let’s just put that down for now.” Parker looks disappointed, but she lowers the trowel. “Let’s start small. Get a sample of this, let me run some tests back at camp before we start remodeling the crypt.”
Parker knocks a small chunk out of both rocks. She brushes past the boys, calling for them to follow her back to the surface.
“Man, you almost wet yourself when she offered to take that wall out,” Eliot says gleefully.
“Shut up, man, she was like this close to taking my head off with that thing.”
“Do you need my hanky, Hardison? You gonna cry?”
“Who the hell even says hanky anymore? How old are you, dude?”
Sophie and Nate look very interested in the rock samples when Parker explains about the sealed doorway. They hover around Alec as he sets up his dating and locating equipment. He shoos them off, threatening not to start working until they all back the hell up. When they disperse across the camp, he lifts the false bottom from his equipment bin and pulls out the triple-protected tablet with all of his research on Khufu and the impossible artifact. He pulls up the dating and location information on the artifact. He has it memorized by now, but he needs to see it to physically compare it with the readings off of the second stone. Otherwise he wouldn’t quite believe that the data is identical.
Alec turns off the tablet and tucks it back into its hiding place, wondering what he is going to tell the others. He looks over to where Eliot and Parker are comparing flashlights, to where Sophie and Nate are pacing together impatiently, trying to give Alec the space he asked for, and he doesn’t want to lie to these people. He may not trust them, but he could trust them one day, maybe. They’re the first good team he’s been on since- since ever probably. Maybe he’ll bring them with him in the later stages of claiming his Khufu glory. He wouldn’t mind giving them a footnote in his success.
“Nate, check this out,” he calls. The whole team clusters around his laptop. It’s pleasantly claustrophobic. “See, the rock that matches the rest of the wall is from this region.”
“And the hieroglyphs Nate and I found on these walls indicate that it was carved some time around 2750 BC,” Sophie says.
“Right,” Alec continues. “Here’s where it gets weird. The other rock, the one used to seal up the entryway, it’s not from around here at all. It matches- well, it matches the stone used in Giza and Saqqara.”
“That’s where the pyramids are. The Great Pyramid is at Giza,” Parker says.
“Later pharaohs often sacked the tombs of earlier royalty,” Nate says in his lecture voice. Alec can just hear him giving this speech on a museum tour. “They’d take treasure and building materials. Sometimes they’d even destroy the mummies.”
“Did they ever move them?” Eliot asks.
Nate and Sophie glance at each other. “It’s possible,” Sophie says.
“Wait, hold up,” Alec holds his hand up for them to stop talking. “What are saying- that someone could have moved Oldy-Moldy from the Great Pyramid area and put him here? Why?”
Khufu, Khufu, Khufu, his mind beats. Mine, my discovery.
“I don’t know. What I do know is that I want to find out what’s behind this wall. What about you?” Nate lets the question hang. Alec feels himself nodding before he realizes what he’s doing. Damn, he has to be careful of Nate Ford, he’s good. Alec is gratified to see that he’s not the only one who got tricked; Parker and Eliot nod too. Sophie smiles and Alec can’t tell if that means she is with them or she is amused that the three of them would be so stupid as to agree to this.
“Good. It’s settled.” Nate offers them all a smile like they’ve made him proud. Alec ignores the happy bubble expanding in his chest.
They did not come prepared to take down a wall. At least, not without bringing the rest of the tomb down too. Alec recommends that they let Parker loose on it for a few minutes, but Nate reminds them that they want to take the wall apart brick by brick so they can examine each stone for anything remarkable. Alec guesses that’s a good strategy too, but it means waiting for a few days for the proper equipment to show up.
It’s not like they’re hurting for things to do around the site. They’ve made almost no progress on the job they were actually hired to do, which is get enough eight-dynasty artifacts to complete the Field Museum’s exhibit. They kick around in the tombs for the next few days looking for those artifacts.
Sophie and Nate spend most of that time up top together rather than in what Sophie calls “those stuffy tunnels” and Nate calls “someone else’s tomb- don’t want it to be mine too.”
Though neither Nate nor Sophie has said anything about a shared past, the more time Alec spends around them, the more he’s convinced that they have known each other for a very long time, maybe even dated at some point. It’s there in the way their movements compliment each other, almost like a mutual orbit. It’s there in the way they finish each other’s sentences- not just finish, but tweak and add on to them, improvising their way to perfect ideas and plans together. It’s there in the obvious mutual respect, the way they catch each other’s gaze for just a beat too long. They never talk about a shared history, but Alec can read it all over them.
Parker notices it too, Alec sees her watching it happen. She is sitting at Sophie’s feet as Sophie cleans a scrape on Parker’s shoulder she got wiggling her way through a particularly tight space. Nate walks over and the three of them talk, probably about the three jars Parker liberated from an antechamber earlier. Alec checks his laptop when an alert dings and he looks up a few minutes later to see that Parker has gone quiet and is tracking the discussion unfolding in front of her the way some people watch a tennis match. She sees Alec watching her and her focus snaps.
Eliot might watch them too, but if he does, he’s much less obvious about it.
Alec should feel suspicious about this alliance, worried about what it’s going to mean for his quest for Khufu’s treasure. He feels instead like he has a good team. The relationship evident between Sophie and Nate accelerates the trusting bond among the rest of them. It’s hard to be around the trust, so tangible, between Sophie and Nate, to see the way that they make each other better, and not try to have that.
The other side effect of Sophie and Nate orbiting each other is that Alec, Parker, and Eliot spend most of their time together in those four days they spend waiting for the gear to arrive.
At first it’s the time they spend together in the tombs. Despite what Eliot said about Alec sitting topside and pushing buttons on his laptop all day – and despite Alec’s expectations of remaining topside and pushing buttons on his laptop – Alec spends almost as much time in the tombs as Parker and Eliot do. He spends time down there when he and Eliot hang lamps in a lighting system that they make to double as a map, with lights hung at different heights to indicate each area of the tombs. (Follow the highest lights to find the sealed doorway. Follow the lowest lights to find the cold antechamber where Parker found the jars. Et cetera.)
He spends time down there when he scans the walls to create his 3D map, following Parker around and trying to step only where she steps. But Parker has a way of crossing rooms and navigating tunnels that requires a lot more flexibility than Alec is capable of. So he just trails after her, grinning like an imbecile and tripping over everything.
A couple times he’s down there on his own, fixing a light or testing his drones. But even then he’s with Parker and Eliot. Alec futzes with the walkie-talkies until they can receive and transmit simultaneously, like the ear pieces you see in spy movies. Or cellphones, whatever. With the modified walkie-talkies, they are always with each other. They narrate what they’re doing: Parker with her excited, slightly unanchored chatter interspersed with macabre or creepy observations, Alec by complaining when things don’t work how he intends them to, Eliot by describing to them what tasks their conversation is keeping him from doing.
“Dammit, Hardison, you made me drop the battery again.”
“It’s next to your left foot.”
“Sure it is, Parker. How would you- how the hell did you know where it was? Are you in here with me?”
“Then how the fu-“
“You wear your walkie-talkie on your left hip. I heard the battery hit it on the way down.”
They carry on like that, sometimes directing their commentary at him. Alec likes their voices floating around him as he works in the dark. Their mindless, meandering conversation cuts through the darkness better than the beam of Alec’s industrial-grade flashlight. It’s not like he’s scared of the dark or anything. No, he’s just cautious about being on his own in the dark in a freakin’ tomb. He has seen the movies, he knows the black guy is always the first to go when the angry dead thing gets undead. It’s a completely rational concern for his safety.
Thinking of disaster brings disaster, his nana used to say. Alec isn’t superstitious like that, but maybe he should be because sure enough, thinking about his not-fear of the dark is enough to make his flashlight flicker and die. He catches himself before he yelps, claps a hand over his mouth. In the pitch black, he takes a shaky breath. It’ll be okay, he tells himself, it’s just the dark.
Did he just hear something move behind him?
Did something just brush against the back of his neck?
“Hardison? You still there?”
Oh, right, Eliot asked him something right before his light went out. What had he asked? Alec can’t remember. He isn’t sure he trusts his voice to speak right now anyway. The tomb is suddenly both oppressive and immense, the dark making it an unknown quantity that is both too tight, making it hard to breath, and too big, too many places for something dangerous to be lurking. He needs light. He fumbles around for his bag. There is a spare flashlight in one of the outside pockets, he is almost certain of it.
“Yeah! Yeah, I’m here. I’m in the middle of something, hold on.” Alec is proud of how steady his voice sounds, especially seeing as how the something that he’s in the middle of is suppressing a panic attack.
He doesn’t actually keep his voice as sure and steady as he thinks he does because after a brief silence – he can practically see that silence, Eliot and Parker exchanging a glance as he’s seen them do so many times the past few days – Parker asks him what’s wrong.
“Nothing! I’m fine. I’m damn fine. I’m so freakin’ fine that you can’t even tell that I’m fine because you’ve never seen anyone as fine as me and therefore have no frame of reference for how absolutely, totally fine I am.”
He’s not even listening to himself babble. He has no idea what he’s saying as his fingers frantically reach for his spare flashlight. No, no, not there either. He tries another pocket, struggles with the zipper.
“Stay where you are, Hardison.”
“Fine, we know. Stay where you are.”
Nothing, no flashlight. No light, no life keeps wheeling through Alec’s mind for some reason. Very unhelpful. God, where the fuck is that flashlight? Just as he’s picturing the flashlight sitting next to his laptop up at camp, just as he begins to convince himself that he left it out when he packed his bag – no light, no life – his searching fingers close around the cool metal of the flashlight.
He yanks it out of the bag and turns it on just as Eliot and Parker round the corner into the antechamber He swings around and points the light at them.
“Guys, I’m fine.” Shaking a little, but it’s all pure relief.
Neither of them are convinced. Eliot crosses to Alec in one-and-a-half strides, grabs him hard by the shoulders, twists him this way and that looking for injuries. Parker walks the perimeter of the antechamber, scanning for anything dangerous.
“Dammit, Hardison!” Finding no injuries, Eliot shakes him one more time and pushes him away.
Alec can feel Eliot’s hands on his shoulders even though they are hanging at Eliot’s sides now. He brings one hand up to touch the place where Eliot’s palm just bruised. He rubs his thumb over the spot. He looks up to see Eliot watching him, expression impenetrable. Alec drops his hand. Embarrassment and guilt churn in his stomach, like the time he had been caught sneaking his nana’s cookies back to his room. He looks quickly away from Eliot, only to catch Parker’s eyes. She had seen that too.
Alec clears his throat, casting around for something to say. “I’m hungry,” he says because it’s the first thing he thinks of. Eh, he could have picked something worse. “I think I’m going to get lunch.”
Eliot and Parker exchange a glance. Alec has to hold in a laugh because he called it. They’re always looking to each other, like they’re checking to make sure that whatever Alec has just said or done is actually slightly bizarre and that they’re not just imagining it.
“Feel free to join me,” he says, pushing past them. Now that he has light, it’s easy to be in the tomb. He sees in his mind Eliot and Parker skidding around the corner, not sure what’s wrong, but running toward it anyway. He feels very safe in the tomb.
They catch up to him before he gets far. Parker throws one arm over his shoulders – her hand brushes where Eliot’s hand gripped him just a minute before – and her other arm over Eliot’s shoulders. She tugs them into her. She’s shorter than them, though only a little shorter than Eliot, and is walking on her tip-toes to keep her arms around them. Alec wants to slip his arm around her waist, but Eliot has probably already done that. They walk like that all the way to where they have to walk single-file up out of the tomb.
The sun is magnificent. That big damn ball of fire in the sky, keeping the creepy at bay. Lighting Parker’s hair until it shines golden. Heating Eliot up until he sweats, making him shiny all over. Right now it dazzles Alec’s eyes in the best way. He blinks the spots out of his eyes, smiling.
Eliot pulls food out of the ice chests, yelling to Nate and Sophie that they’re running low on pretty much everything, and offering to make them lunch in the same breath. They accept his offer of lunch, but don’t make any move to come over from where they are lounging in the coveted areas of shade across the camp near the car.
Alec drops himself into a chair and watches Eliot work. Parker drags a chair over to sit right beside Alec, stretching out her legs; one of her booted feet bumps Alec’s leg then rests there lightly.
“Everything okay?” she asks him quietly. Eliot can probably hear her, but Nate and Sophie can’t.
He nods, not sure how to tell her about his totally rational dislike of the dark, not sure that he wants to tell her. He doesn’t mind her knowing about it, but he’s not sure he wants to say it out loud for her. He’ll trip up on the wording.
Parker nods too, like she catches his whole thought process. “I used to be scared of the dark,” she says, kindly refraining from adding too at the end.
“I carry an extra flashlight when I go underground in case my headlamp goes out,” Eliot says. “We should finish getting all the lights up before we take out that wall.”
“Did you guys make any progress today?” Alec asks. He’s too grateful to thank them. If he tries, it will be too messy and everyone will be uncomfortable.
“Well,” Parker says, “I found a toe.”
“You did not.”
“Oh yes, she did,” Eliot says.
Parker reaches into her pouch and pulls out a dried out toe stump.
“Oh come on!” Alec jumps up and backs away. Parker laughs and Eliot smiles over his work cutting the tomatoes. “Y’all seriously nasty. There is something wrong with you.”
Things relax between them after that. Parker and Eliot stop shooting him worried, calculating glances, at least. Alec is glad; he’s tired of being treated like the tag-along little brother on trips. He can handle himself and he’s more than qualified to be at these digs. He doesn’t need his teammates to treat him like a scaredy kid, spooked by the dark and the dead. Even if that’s what he feels like sometimes.
And yet, and yet.
His mind replays Eliot and Parker running to his aid like goddamn superheroes over and over on a infinite loop. He has a goddamn problem.
Lunch is sandwiches and the sandwiches are delicious. Alec doesn’t know anything about food so when he roundly praises Eliot’s cooking genius he overuses the word tasty to the point where Eliot dares him to “say tasty one more time, I swear to God, Hardison.” Parker suggests alternate words, but Alec argues that tasty is the only word to describe the deliciousness of the food while also encompassing the unpretentious wholesomeness of the sandwich. Eliot glares hard and Alec tells him that he’s worried about his face getting stuck like that. But by the little twitches of his lips and the way he has to fight a smile, it’s easy to tell that Eliot is actually pleased. He’s eating up the good boy praise with a greater appetite than Alec has for eating the tasty sandwich.
Nate sends Alec down into the tombs again after lunch. He wants Alec to see if he can get a scan of the sealed chamber with “that thing you use to scan stuff.”
Parker looks at him like are you going to sound panicky and make me and Eliot come rescue you again? He gives her a look back that says no way, babe, I got this.
Parker apparently interprets it as more of a I’m probably not going to be okay, please stay close by in case of danger look because she practically attaches herself to his hip as he goes back underground. Not that he minds, of course.
“This might take a while, are you staying with me?”
He sets up his gear carefully. Even after all this time working with it, he never lets himself go on autopilot when he is assembling or using it. He likes to think of it as personal pride in his work. Also, it would be a hell of a shame to undo years of work building the stuff just to break it carelessly in set up. He narrates a little as he sets up, an unshakable habit that he fell into during years working a little lonely, talking to himself and his equipment. He’s somewhat startled when Eliot responds to one of the rhetorical questions he poses to his laptop.
Alec elects to ignore this abrupt appearance. He just gets Eliot working on the beacons he hasn’t given to Parker to set up along the wall while Alec makes the final few adjustments to the scanning program he is modifying to for the chamber. The minutes stretch as they work side by side by side in concentrated silence.
Eliot breaks it first. “Why are you even here, man?” he asks Alec.
Alec tenses, ready to go on the offensive. He’s a little on guard at the question to his motives here because he thought they covered that already, but mostly he’s hurt that Eliot is questioning that he should be here. He belongs here and Eliot should know that. His face must betray one or both of those thoughts because Eliot hurries to clarify: “You should be working for Apple or GE or- or NASA or something.” He waves one of Alec’s beacon to demonstrate his meaning. “How come you got into archeology?”
Alec relaxes and shrugs. “It’s where all the adventure is.”
Eliot huffs and Parker rolls her eyes at him. “Don’t pretend like that’s not why you wanted to become an archeologist,” she says. “You just want to be Indiana Jones.”
Eliot looks a little pained, so she’s at least partially right.
Alec laughs. “Seriously, man, is that why you became an archeologist?”
“Only part of the reason,” Eliot says quickly. He bites his lip like the words slipped out without permission. Parker opens her mouth, but Alec catches her eye and shakes his head slightly. Don’t push him.
Eliot sets up two, three, four more beacons in silence before he makes up his mind and starts talking. “The world was real small when I was growing up. Rural towns are always like that, from what I’ve heard. Drove me crazy. I loved it, don’t get me wrong, but it was killing me too- suffocating. As soon as I graduated high school, I enlisted. It was the only way I could think of to get to see a little bit of the world.”
His hands tighten around the beacon that he’s fiddling with. Any other time Alec would protest at the mishandling of his equipment, but he recognizes that clench. His nana would do the same thing when people would ask her about what she saw at the Rodney King riots in ’92. She would pull herself tight, like she was trying to keep the emotions from spilling out with the memories. Eliot doesn’t seem to Alec like the type to want to expose any of his wounds.
“When I was in Afghanistan,” he continues, his voice betraying nothing, “I did see more of the world. But it wasn’t any world I wanted. Then one day orders came down to escort a dig team – Americans and locals – out to some ruins nearby. It was- it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. We spent two weeks there and by the time we headed out, I was sure.”
He smiles, small and wistful, and Alec is glad that he looked up from his work to watch Eliot tell this story. He would have hated to miss that smile.
“One of the Americans from that dig gave me his number. When I was discharged I called him. He helped me through school and gave me a job when I graduated. Now I’m here.” His gaze falls to the beacon he’s toying with. “With you guys.”
“What was your first dig like? The first time you got to go into the ruins?” Parker asks. Alec is grateful that she did because he doesn’t know what to say to that story. It was so much more intimate than he had expected. Questions about people’s professions and how they got there were generally answered with phrases like ended up and was supposed to be temporary. Not the most beautiful thing and with you guys.
“Bad,” Eliot answers, but he’s smiling. “I was so nervous I accidentally pic-axed a skull. Took a real big chunk off the back.”
Parker laughs along with Alec and after a moment Eliot adds his laughter to theirs. The three sounds mingle together as they echo around the chamber.
“I accidentally took a figurine home,” Parker admits. They laugh harder.
“Completely accidentally. I had bundled it up in my socks to keep it safe because we didn’t have enough packaging for everything we dug up. Later I saw my socks sitting out and thought I should probably put them back in my bag. I forgot about the figurine until I got home.”
They’re practically howling now with their laughter. Parker and Eliot turn their eyes on Alec, inviting him to pile on.
That stops him short because he wants to, wants to so goddamn badly, but he has nothing to say. He wants to be part of the reason why their eyes are crinkling like that and their reckless laughter that is making the whole tomb tremble, and they way they are all bumping into each other as they sway with the force of their laughter. But he has nothing to say. He has hesitated too long now; some of their hilarity has died down.
He averts his eyes and shakes his head. “They didn’t- none of my teams have ever asked me to go down into the ruins with them.” That’s putting it gently. “I’m just the tech guy.”
You have to understand why we can’t just let you come, these artifacts are thousands of years old. We can’t risk…anything.
Parker frowns. “Never?”
You just don’t have the proper training for this work. Stay here where you won’t get in any trouble.
Alec shakes his head.
“Then how did you do all of this?” She gestures to the beacons, the laptop. His life’s work. Crowing achievements in the technological part of archeology.
“I didn’t. I showed them how to set it up and then managed it as best I could remotely.”
“You sat at the site and worked from your laptop?” Eliot asks incredulously.
Alec feels himself flush. “I also catalogued everything they dug up, dated it and everything. It’s not like I just sat around and did nothing,” he says hotly. He would never have found Khufu’s clue if he had been doing nothing. He almost says so too, just catching himself before he speaks.
Eliot pushes away from the table they are all leaning on and paces the chamber, checking on beacons. Parker tracks him with her eyes. Then she turns to Alec.
“That’s stupid,” she says. “I bet they were really bad at using your gear.”
Alec snorts and rolls his eyes. “Damn right. Girl, you should have seen my little Lucilles when they brought them back. I spent the whole trip fixing them to use and they’d keep bringing my girls back broken.”
She grins at him and it’s impossible not to smile back even though the memory is still frustrating and not particularly funny to him.
“Here, check it out,” Alec says, angling the laptop screen toward her. “Just in case Nate asks you to take over my job,” he jokes. Sort of jokes.
He talks her through the process, pulling her hand to the keyboard to press the keys herself when she seems to shy to do so. He pulls her in front of him so she can be directly before the laptop. His face fits perfectly above her shoulder, her hair tickling his cheek and chin. When he looks away from the screen he sees Eliot watching with that same inscrutable expression he wore before lunch when he caught Alec thumbing the warm spot on his shoulder where Eliot had held him. Alec returns the look until Eliot looks away. Alec steps away from Parker, the wheels turning in his mind. He isn’t sure whether he’s projecting, or whether the sexual tension is there among the three of them. The former is more likely, the latter preferable.
“I don’t want to,” Parker says when Alec tells her to start the scan. “You do it.”
She nods. “I like my job. I don’t want to do yours.”
“Fair enough. Eliot?”
Eliot shakes his head. He makes a vague hand gesture that could mean all yours, pal.
“Initiating sequence,” Alec says in a serious tone that doesn’t betray his childlike glee. He has always wanted to say that. You know, when there were other people around to hear it.
The beacons glow red as he, well, initiates the sequence. Beams of light sweep the chamber.
“Good news, there is almost definitely something back there. The chamber is the largest of all the ones we’ve come across so far,” Alec says. “Bad news, even with the equipment the museum is sending it’s going to be tricky to take this wall down. Eliot took a look at the scan and-“
“Taking down the wall could easily bring down the entire passageway,” Eliot says.
“How many stones can we take out before we threaten the structural integrity?” Nate asks.
“Three,” Eliot and Sophie answer together. “Maybe four,” Eliot adds.
Parker drops her chin onto Alec’s shoulder, looking at the screen. “How big are the stones?”
Sophie demonstrates with her hands and Parker smiles.
“Shouldn’t be a problem. If you can get four of those out, I can get in.”
“Then it looks like you can get in.”
She smiles at him, at all of them. Then she tugs Eliot over to the truck to check out the ropes and harnesses.
Nate asks Alec to turn the rendering of the chamber this way and that. It’s on the tip of Alec’s tongue to ask if he’s looking for something, and if so what he’s looking for. But Alec would rather trust Nate. So he keeps quiet and turns the map any way Nate asks him to.
Nate stands and claps him on the shoulder. “You’re doing good, Hardison.”
Alec preens. “It’s not as easy as I make it look, you know.”
“We know,” Sophie says. She hesitates for a moment, then touches his cheek briefly with her palm. The motherly gesture closes his throat for a moment and when he has regained his speech, Nate and Sophie have moved along.
After dinner they sit around the campfire making s’mores and telling ghost stories like they are middle schoolers at summer camp. Only Parker’s story is actually scary, though Eliot’s is haunting in its own way. Alec’s favorite – everyone’s favorite – is Sophie’s story.
True to the setting, she tells a story about a pharaoh’s curse, though it sounds more like a love story from where Alec is sitting. A thief stole a Pharaoh’s favorite necklace and ran off with it. The thief loved the necklace and decided not to sell it. Instead, she wore it every day. She loved the compliments people would give her and she loved the way it felt around her neck and she loved the fact that it had once belonged to the Pharaoh. She never told the people who complimented her necklace how she had come by it, preferring to keep that as her secret.
Sophie’s voice is hypnotic, painting the story more than telling it. Alec doesn’t see the campfire, he sees the Pharaoh storming around his palace, searching for his favorite necklace. He sees the disappointed jewelers turned away when they could not recreate the necklace. He feels the Pharaoh’s gaze on the necklace when his path crossed that of the thief.
“Thief,” the Pharaoh said, “you have taken my favorite necklace. Return it to me.”
The thief simply laughed. And then she ran.
The Pharaoh chased her for years, catching up just to fall behind again. He was haunted constantly by her image in his mind. She was in all of his dreams. After ten years, he was too old to chase her, so in a moment of anger and weakness, he told his priests and priestesses to curse the amulet. The curse was carelessly cast, and instead of dooming only the thief for wrongly possessing the necklace, it doomed the pharaoh as well for neglecting his people to hunt for it. Both died the instant the curse was cast, and their ghosts haunt the necklace to this day.
Parker rolls her eyes. “Sophie, you’re supposed to start with the ghosts, not end with them. That’s how a ghost story works.”
“Excuse me for giving them some personality and motivation, and doing some world-building in my story to make it more relatable,” Sophie says in that way of hers that would sound flustered for anyone else, but sounds playful in her voice.
“I like it,” Alec says sincerely. Parker mouths kiss ass at him and he throws a marshmallow at her. His aim is terrible. The marshmallow lands two people over, hitting Nate in the face and jolting him awake.
“Huh? What?” Nate mutters, rubbing his eyes. “I wasn’t asleep.”
“No? What was that snoring noise then?” Sophie asks.
“It was the ghosts. I was just closing my eyes a little. I was listening to your story. You want someone to buy you a necklace.” Sophie presses her lips together to kill the smile tugging at them.
“Maybe you should go to bed, old man,” Parker says. “You remind me of my grandfather, he used to fall asleep everywhere. This one time-“
“We should all go to bed,” Nate cuts in. “I want to get an early start on that wall tomorrow.” He gets up and gives them a little salute before heading toward his tent.
Sophie smiles at Alec, Parker, and Eliot as she stands. “I’m going to call it a night. Sleep well.” And she wanders after Nate.
The three of them remaining around the campfire sit there quietly enjoying the warmth of the fire and the dark of the night. Alec feels snug the way he does when he is wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, or tucked into bed with his laptop. It’s the kind makes the plastic chair he’s sitting on feel like an armchair.
“Truth or dare,” Parker asks, breaking the silence.
“No,” Eliot says as Alec says, “Dare.”
Eliot glares at him. “Don’t encourage her.”
“Dare,” Alec says.
“I dare you to kiss me,” Parker says.
Alec forces himself to laugh – because it’s a joke, she has to be joking – and it comes out strangled because he’s not really breathing at the moment. Parker doesn’t join in and neither does Eliot. Alec’s laughter putters out.
“No, come on, girl. What’s your dare?”
Parker hunches forward, her elbows on her knees. “What’s wrong with my dare?”
“This is why I didn’t want to play truth or dare,” Eliot mutters.
“Oh good idea,” Parker says. She turns to Alec “I dare you to kiss Eliot.”
Alec stands so abruptly that he knocks over his plastic chair.
“Parker,” Eliot growls.
He can’t look at either of them. His heart thuds erratically, that and the adrenaline running through him making him feel lightheaded. She knows. They both know and they’re mocking him.
“I- I- I’m going to bed too.”
He lays on top of his sleeping bag, the shame-embarrassment, anger-humiliation making him flush all over and too hot to climb into the bag. Occasionally an involuntary shake goes through him and he’s not sure if it’s suppressed manic laughter or suppressed sobbing.
Of course they know, subtlety has never been his gift. But it is common courtesy to ignore someone’s pitiful crush on you, isn’t it? He isn’t asking too much for her to pretend that she doesn’t know how quickly, how pathetically he fell for her – for both of them – is he? Besides, even if they liked him back, how could he choose just one of them?
He lays awake for hours.
They’re up at dawn, like Nate wanted. Alec hovers at the door to his tent, listening to the sounds of Eliot unloading the new equipment and waiting for his self-confidence to return. When that doesn’t happen, he forces himself to unzip the door and face this.
Nate and Sophie are packing up one of the trucks as Eliot and Parker unload the other. Alec looks at breakfast where it’s set up on the makeshift table, but Parker and Eliot are between him and the food. Alec walks over to Nate and Sophie.
“Are you guys going somewhere?”
“Morning, Hardison. Something happened and some of our equipment didn’t clear customs. Sophie and I are going to the airport to figure out how to fix it.”
“How long will you be gone?” Alec hopes they don’t hear the panic in his voice. He’s fine with them leaving, but they’re leaving him alone with Eliot and Parker. “Do you need me to go with you? I know equipment, I could help talk to the custom guys. Or whatever.”
“No, we need you here to help Parker and Eliot,” Nate says. “And we were going to get lunch with an old friend from the Cairo Museum. Very boring, nothing you’d be interested in.” Sophie levels a calculating glance at him, then cuts her eyes over to Eliot and Parker. Great, now everyone but Nate knows.
He tries to convince himself that it’s okay. That it’s a good thing, actually, because now no one will be looking for a deeper secret, a Khufu secret. Everything is fine. Shit, fuck, shit.
He waits until Nate and Sophie walk over to Eliot and Parker to say goodbye and give last-minute instructions. Then he quickly gathers his equipment and goes into the tombs where he busies himself with the setup. He does’t think about the day before when he was looking over Parker’s shoulder, her hair tickling his chin as he talked her through the setup process he’s doing now. He doesn’t see in his mind’s eye the soft way that Eliot watched them. He thinks about Khufu.
He checks the beacons that Eliot placed in the wall the day before. Then he boots up the program on his laptop that will let him monitor the structural integrity of the tunnel as they take the wall apart. He doesn’t want the whole thing coming down on them. That would suck.
Alec lays his hand on the stones of the wall. Behind this wall could be the key to finding Khufu’s horde. It could be nothing, too. But it could be everything. And Alec is going to find it on his own with equipment he built himself. The thought still gives him shivers.
A beacon falls out of the wall on the other side of the door. Alec rolls his eyes and laughs to himself. Yeah, yeah, pride goeth and all that.
He picks up the beacon, checks to make sure that it isn’t damaged. He sets his lantern down to use both hands to fit the beacon back into the wall. A chunk of stone is wedged into the hole. Alec brushes it aside and works the beacons back and forth to drive it further into the wall. Another small chunk of stone falls just as another beacon drops out onto the ground.
“This is not my fault,” Alec says to the empty tunnel. “Eliot must have-“
His laptop beeps out a panicked sounding alarm.
“No, no,” he tells it. “The tunnel isn’t collapsing. These beacons are just falling out. See?” He pops the second one back into its spot on the wall. The alarm doesn’t shut up.
“Aw, come on.”
Alec fiddles with the beacons, then the laptop. He opens the scan of the tunnel and overlays the data from the beacons.
“Oh, shit. Oh, no. No, no, no, no-“
Four separate points of instability show up on the scan. The prediction is for tunnel collapse in the next five minutes. A chunk of stone falls from the ceiling and the prediction is suddenly for tunnel collapse in the next two minutes. That doesn’t give him enough time to make a run for it, Alec realizes, dread settling into his stomach. He’d be crushed before he could make it back to the surface. His fingers fly over the keyboard as he frantically builds an equation to determine the safest place for him to stand as the tunnel collapses. Thank god he wrote that collapse-projection program when he was bored on a dig a few years ago. The program runs abysmally slowly. Cracks begin to appear in the wall as it loads- loads- loads-
“Come on!” Alec shouts.
Finally, it finishes. A section of the wall scan lights up and predicts a 87% chance of survival for that area. Good enough.
Alec grabs his laptop and bag. He drags it all over to the safe-ish spot that hopefully won’t kill him. The program on the laptop shows a green light when he gets there, just as a chunk of ceiling falls and crushes the table he, Eliot, and Parker had brought down the day before. After that, the rest of the passageway collapses quickly in a rumbling, crunching crash. Stones fall on all sides of him, scraping past his arms and legs, but not crushing them.
In the total darkness the only sounds are the trickle of sand and pebbles running down the wrecked stone and the rabbiting of Alec’s heart, pounding in his ears. The pressing darkness sparks with green light, like when you close your eyes tightly and then rub them.
His breath is coming in ragged bursts. He struggles to calm his breathing. He can’t. He is choking on the dust. It’s too dark, too- He has to force himself to think rationally, to figure out what his next step is.
Eliot. Parker. He needs them.
He rolls his shoulders to see how much room he has. Not much. His arms are nearly pinned to his sides, his left hand trapped in a space between two rocks. One foot is caught under a rock. As soon as Alec realizes that, a wash of pain runs through his foot, making him gasp. It feels like its broken, but then again Alec has a pretty low pain tolerance. Maybe it’s just bruised.
His right hand feels warm and when he rolls his shoulders, it scrapes against the rock and he feels how badly it has been cut. He hisses at the burn, but the pain helps him focus on something other than the crushing darkness.
His left hand is still trapped. He wiggles and twists it until it comes loose. He grabs his walkie-talkie out of his pocket. He turns it on. For a terrible moment there is nothing but static and Alec thinks it’s broken. Then Parker’s voice fades in over the static.
“…again. Please answer, Alec, come on-“
“Parker! Parker, help me. Parker…”
“Hardison!” He hears her call to Eliot and the next voice he hears is Eliot’s.
“Hardison, what happened?”
“Tunnel- collapse- please get me- out.” He can’t speak with his breathing coming in the short rasps.
“Hardison.” It’s Parker again. “Alec. Breathe with me, okay? In…Out…In…” She gently instructs him through a few breathing exercises until he calms down enough to be intelligible.
“Tell me where you are, Hardison,” Eliot says.
“I’m in the Khufu tunnel,” Alec says without thinking.
There is a pause. “Where?”
“The tunnel where we were yesterday. Tunnel six,” Alec clarifies. He takes a deep steadying breath like Parker had told him to. “The one that probably has a Khufu artifact in it.”
“We’re coming, Hardison,” Eliot says.
“Keep talking to me,” Parker says.
Alec tells them about Khufu. He tells them about the impossible object and about how he has been lying to them. He can’t stop himself. Everything pours out in one long rush. When he gets self-conscious and stops talking, Eliot prompts him to say more.
He can hear them shifting stone, first over the walkie-talkies and then, as they get closer, without the walkie-talkie.
The beam of a flashlight breaks the darkness. Warm, steady hands pull him away from the wall. He throws his arms around them, first Parker, pulls her from the waist into a tight hug. She winds her arms around his neck and tugs his body against hers. When he pulls away, Eliot grabs him by the back of the neck and hauls him in to a tight hug.
“Damn it, Hardison,” he says in Alec’s ear. He pulls back. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”
They start moving. Alec whimpers when he takes a step on his bad foot. Eliot takes Alec’s arm and pulls it around his shoulder.
“Go ahead, put your weight on me,” Eliot says. “I can take it. Did you hit your head?”
Alec shakes his head. “My foot and my hand.”
“Okay, come on. Parker- Parker! Come here and give me a hand.”
Parker scrambles over a nearby rock, tucking something into her pouch.”I’m here, let’s go.”
Together they struggle toward the surface. Alec is limping, pressing his weight onto Parker and onto Eliot when he can’t put it on his bad foot. Alec can’t tell how long it takes them, but they finally climb out of the tomb and into the sun.
Eliot settles him into a chair and runs to get the first aid kit. Parker paces in front of him. Every so often she will stop pacing and turn to him. She will look like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t. She goes back to pacing.
Eliot looks at Alec’s foot first. Alec tears up – god, get it together, man – when Eliot works the shoe off of his bad foot. The only thing that saves his pride is that he manages to clamp down on the little whimpers he almost makes. Parker slides her hand to grab his. His clings to her hand gratefully. Eliot moves his fingers along Alec’s foot, gently probing the tender areas. One touch makes Alec involuntarily cry out and jerk his foot away.
“I don’t think it’s broken,” Eliot says. He digs through the first aid box, coming up with a couple kinds of bandages that Alec can’t identify. “I’m going to wrap it up for you, okay? Parker-“
“I’ll call Sophie and Nate,” Parker cuts in. “They can get you some crutches from town.”
Once he has wrapped Alec’s foot, Eliot moves on to cleaning and patching up the scrapes on Alec’s hands and arms. Alec drops his head onto Eliot’s shoulder, too drained to stop himself. He expects Eliot to shrug him off. Eliot doesn’t. Alec’s head rises and falls with Eliot’s shoulder as Eliot cleans out a scrape on his arm. Alec doesn’t realize that Parker is standing next to him – that girl is sneaky – until he feels the almost timid brush of her fingers in his hair. He leans into it.
Maybe, if he hadn’t been almost crushed to death alone in an ancient tomb he would be embarrassed, maybe even angry about them treating him like this, hugging him and stroking his hair when he feels the way he does about them. But the thing it, he was almost crushed to death alone in an ancient tomb. He needs this. And he doesn’t care if they know. Keeping secrets from them seems-
Oh, god. He told them about Khufu.
He sits up straight. They must hate him.
“I- about the Khufu thing,” he starts, then he stops talking because he’s not sure what to say.
Parker and Eliot don’t say anything, just watch him and wait for him to finish his though.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” he says finally.
“You did tell us,” Parker says.
“But not until-“
“Not until you were ready.” Parker grabs two more chairs. She sits in one and pulls Eliot down into the other. “I came here for Khufu too.”
“Me too,” Eliot says
“I think Sophie and Nate did too,” Parker says.
Alec feels like he’s back in the tomb with the walls and ceiling collapsing around him. He opens and closes his mouth with no words finding their way out.
“How did you even know about it?” he asks finally. He had been so sure he hid the impossible object so that no one would ever look at it twice. He feels like an idiot. He had been so proud of himself for this secret.
“Remember that figurine I told you about?”
“The one you accidentally kept?”
It wasn’t an accident. Parker tells them that there was something about that figurine had felt off. It was different from every other artifact they found, in a way that Parker couldn’t articulate. She wrapped it up in her socks and took it home to figure it out.
She didn’t know where to start though, and it wasn’t until almost a year later when she was back in Egypt at the Cairo Museum where she saw an exhibit on the man who built the Great Pyramid that things started to fall into place.
She tore through the archives, through secondary scholarship, visited every Khufu gallery or exhibit she could. She became an informal expert on all things Khufu and Giza.
She also kept tabs on artifacts coming out of digs in Egypt. Going through the manifests from Alec’s dig, she saw the impossible object, and it gave her the same feeling of being out of place that the figurine had. She went to the Field Museum to see it. There was no way that it didn’t have a connection to Khufu.
“So when I heard about this dig, I had to sign up,” she finished. “There might be something here that could lead me to Khufu. I couldn’t pass up that chance.”
“Why do you want to find him?” Eliot asks.
“Treasure,” Parker says the way other people say duh. “Isn’t that why we’re all looking for him?”
Alec and Eliot shrug.
“I’m really just after what was behind that wall we were supposed to take down today,” Eliot says.
“You know what’s behind it?”
But he knows who wants it, he says. Eliot’s mentor, the man who got him into archeology and gave him his first job. He sent Eliot on a dig about three years ago and told him to look for a stone vessel and to bring it back to him. Eliot did, but not without trying to figure out what it was and why his mentor wanted it. He did some research and managed to link the vessel to Khufu, not that that meant anything to him. Then he handed the vessel over to his mentor and mostly forgot about it.
About a year ago, he had been sent into another dig to retrieve another item. This one, too, had some connection to Khufu that Eliot couldn’t really figure out. Eight months ago, he couldn’t get onto Alec’s dig, so his mentor told him to get the object when it was delivered to the museum. It felt wrong, stealing from the museum rather than the dig even though the end result was the same. When he couldn’t find the mislabeled object, he left.
“Oops,” Alec says. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
Eliot’s mentor had been furious. Eliot had never seen him like that. His anger made him slip up and reveal what he had even refusing to tell Eliot: why he was looking for these artifacts.
“What am I supposed to do now?” he screamed at Eliot. “Am I supposed to sit on my ass and wait for another piece of the Giza horde appears? How the fuck am I even going to track down the rest of it you can’t bring me the few god-fucking-damn artifacts that are out there right now?”
Eliot had left, walked out as his mentor shouted at his back. Afterwards, Eliot had expected- something. He had expected to be blacklisted from digs, or maybe to get a visit from the police about the artifacts that had mysteriously vanished from digs he had been on. Something. But nothing happened. He took jobs with no issues. He heard nothing from or about his mentor until about a month ago when this current dig was being put together. He got an email with the layout of the tombs, a white x over the walled-off, secret chamber.
“And you came?” Alec asks incredulously.
“No, Hardison, I stayed home. I’m on my couch right now, drinking a beer and watching football.”
“Why did you come? After everything…”
Eliot considers. “I was curious.”
“You weren’t going to take the artifact to him, were you?” Parker says. “You were going to find it and keep it. That way he couldn’t have it.”
“I was going to sell it,” Eliot says. “I know a few other interested parties who are looking for Khufu artifacts and would be happy to pay me well for it.”
Alec’s heart clenches at the mention of yet more contenders for his Khufu glory. He feels again like an outsider, a tech nerd in a world of intellectuals who have been on this hunt for years before he stumbled onto it. How can he compete in this world?
Silence falls over their small group. Eliot continues to place bandaids on Alec’s boo-boos. He’s cleaning one on Alec’s neck, his head inches away from Alec’s. His breath on Alec’s neck. Alec can’t see Parker, but he can feel her presence nearby as she talks again on the phone to Sophie, telling her about Alec’s secret. There’s a tangible energy about her that lets him feel her even when she’s out of reach.
“Almost done,” Eliot says. “Just a couple scratches on your face I want to clean out. This might sting.”
“Try not to sound so excited about that,” Alec says drily.
It does sting, stings like a bitch but Alec doesn’t want to give Eliot the satisfaction of seeing him wince as he spreads the antibiotic over Alec’s scratches.
“Okay, enough,” Alec says after a minute. He brings his hand to stop Eliot and in doing so traps Eliot’s against his cheek. “Now you’re just doing it to annoy me.”
Eliot doesn’t say anything. His hand twitches under Alec’s and Alec hastily drops his hand back into his lap. Eliot doesn’t pull his hand away though. He slides it against Alec’s cheek until his fingers can wrap around the back of Alec’s head and his thumb rests on the shell of his ear.
“Promise,” he says quietly, “you have to promise that you’ll never do that again.”
“I promise,” Alec says weakly.
“Good,” Eliot says. “You’re making my job a nightmare.” He squeezes once and then lets go. He starts shoving everything back into the first aid kit. He whistles, short and between his teeth. When Parker looks over, he points at Alec and she nods, still on the phone with Sophie. As Eliot goes to put the first aid kit back in the truck, she pulls up a chair next to Alec’s and drops down into it. She swings her legs up to rest her feet in his lap.
“I think he’s okay,” she says into her phone. She’s looking at Alec, but she’s not focused on his face. It’s like she’s looking past him- or into him. It’s unnerving, but not bad. “Can’t say the same thing about the tomb, though. Hardison does not mess around when he blows up tombs.”
“Hey,” Alec says, feeling obliged to cut in. “It’s not my fault the tomb collapsed!”
Parker raises her eyebrows, managing to look both deadpan and skeptical. Alec’s heart flutters helplessly as he falls another little bit in love with her. Come on, focus, he tells himself.
“I didn’t make it collapse,” he insists.
“I’m on the phone,” Parker says.
Alec throws his hands up in mild frustration. Parker sticks out her tongue at him. It’s blue. His heart does the fluttering thing again.
To keep himself occupied, Alec starts picking at his wounds. He worries the edges of a bandaid on his arm until the whole thing just peels off. The cut underneath it starts bleeding again.
“Blood,” Alec announces. He holds his arm up to Parker so she can see it. “My blood.”
She shrugs at him and gets up out of her chair to finish her phone call somewhere where she wasn’t going to be interrupted by people showing her their open wounds.
Alec meets Eliot’s eye across the campsite. He holds up his arm for Eliot to see. He can just feel the dammit-Hardison from where he’s sitting. Eliot goes to grab the first-aid kit that he just put away.
When Nate and Sophie get back, Sophie goes straight to Alec to check on his injuries, and Nate goes to the edge of the pit to stare down into the ruined ruins. Eliot joins him silently and Parker sits with Sophie as she examines Alec’s hands.
“We managed to get the equipment that was being held up in customs,” Sophie tells them. “Not that we really need it anymore,” she adds, casting a glance over to Nate and the pit.
“It’s not my fault,” Alec mutters.
“We know,” Sophie says gently. “These old tombs can be so unstable. We’re just pleased that you’re all right. Apart from, you know.” She gestures to his superficial injuries.
Alec doesn’t believe her. Well, he believes that she’s happy that he’s mostly unharmed and wasn’t crushed to death. But he also thinks that she does blame him for the tomb’s collapse. She knows about Khufu, so she must have at least considered the possibility that he knocked down the wall on his own to grab whatever was behind it, and brought the whole thing down to cover his tracks. It’s not a bad play, and Alec would be proud to pull it off. Except that he didn’t do it and he doesn’t want Parker and Eliot, doesn’t want any of them, to think that he did. He feels like an asshole liar thinking about it, because he knows that if he had thought of it, he would have done it. It makes him want to apologize even though it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the action, and he didn’t do anything. He really hates this feeling.
They don’t all talk together as a group until they sit down to dinner. Alec fights the urge to apologize, while Nate eagerly gets down to business.
“So,” he says, “guess we have a change of plans, boys and girls. Turns out we’re all liars and none of us are here for the reasons we said we were. Whoops. We’re all here because we followed Khufu here. I just want to make sure that we’re all still on the same team here.” He looks around at them all. “Are we? Because we really should be. We all got here with a hell of a lot of luck and a single-minded determination that would have honestly probably been better spent on something other than an ancient pharaoh’s theoretical treasure stash. But we aren’t the only ones hunting it down; we’re not even the best ones. There are plenty of people who are just as close to it as we are to it- just as close individually. But if we’re still a team, we have a slight lead on the rest of them. So, are we still working together, or are we going to working against each other?”
Alec knows what his answer is, but he doesn’t want to be the first to answer. He’s not a follower, but he’s not exactly a leader either. Alec Hardison: won’t do what you tell him, but kind of wants to hear you tell him anyway. Just as a way of figuring out what you want from him.
“Why do I need all of you?” Parker breaks the silence. “I’m the one with the artifact from the tomb.”
“You what?” Eliot growls.
“The-the artifact in the secret room?” Alec stutters.
“Yeah,” Parker says.
“The secret room that was sealed up and is now under thirty feet of rock and dirt?”
“The artifact from-“
“I grabbed it when we were getting you out of there,” she says rolling her eyes. She turns her eyes back to Nate, daring him to answer her question.
“Because,” Nate tells her. “You can’t read it.”
“Read? What, is the artifact a book?” Eliot asks. Ah, so he hadn’t seen her grab it either. Alec feels a burst of pride and awe at Parker’s skill, with a burst of fear and awe on its heels, thinking about how she happily left him in a dark and broken tomb to go grab the artifact. Yeah, left him with Eliot, his brain chimes in. He was in good hands. He pointedly does not look at Eliot’s hands when he thinks this.
“What, and you can read it?” Parker says.
“I can,” Sophie says. She holds Parker’s gaze as Parker scrutinizes her. Parker abruptly stands and goes to her tent.
“What’s the artifact?” Eliot asks again. Nate and Sophie exchange a glance. Eliot turns to Alec. “What’s the artifact, Hardison? Did you see her take it, do you know what it is?”
“Naw, sorry man, I was a little busy being crushed to death in a collapsing tomb to keep an eye out for it. You were there too, how come you didn’t see it?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Hardison, maybe I had other things to think about like saving your ass.”
Alec glares at him, too tired to think of a comeback. And even mentioning the tomb collapse is making his heart beat too fast and his breath shorten and he feels a little nauseous. He focuses on taking a calming breath, the way Parker had coached him to when he was down there, and that takes care of the symptoms. The root of the problem will just have to wait for another day.
Parker marches up to Sophie, holds out a little scroll-looking thing. “Okay, we’re a team,” she says. “Read it.”
Sophie turns to Alec and Eliot, giving them a chance to jump up and refuse to play nice with the group, to throw their hands up and say fuck the others, they’ll go this alone. They don’t. Sophie pulls on her white gloves and takes the scroll from Parker. Everyone except Nate fidgets as she unrolls it and begins to read it. Eliot leans in to look over her shoulder as she reads. Sophie twists to frown at him.
“I can’t concentrate with you looming over me like that,” she says.
“I’m not looming,” Eliot grimaces. “I just want a look at the centuries-old artifact that everyone is killing themselves trying to find.”
Sophie waves it under his nose. “See it?”
Eliot backs away slowly, his hands held up in surrender. “I’ll just look at it later,” he mumbles.
Sophie watches him until he has retreated a satisfactory distance. Then she turns her attention back to the scroll. Alec – and everyone else – watches in anticipation as she carefully unrolls it. She looks at the thickness of the paper first. She runs her finger along the edges. She looks carefully at the blank back. Only then does she begin to look at the hieroglyphs. The whole process drags along at a snail’s pace. Nate gets impatient around the time Sophie is looking over the paper’s edges. He is pacing by the time she finishes looking at its blank reverse side.
“Well?” he says when she is looking over the hieroglyphs. “Is it a page from the Book of the Dead?”
Alec frowns. The Book of the Dead? He has only the vaguest notion of what that is, but he thinks it is the book of rituals for preparing bodies for the afterlife. And sometimes mummies were buried with a page or two from the book, or something like that. All in all, not the artifact he expected after all this anticipation.
Sophie looks up in surprise, like she had forgotten Nate and the others were there. “No,” she says slowly. “I don’t think it is.”
“What is it then?”
She hesitates. “I’m- not sure yet. I need a little more time with the pages.”
“Pages?” Alec is pretty good with numbers, and if he is counting correctly there is only the one page.
Sophie smiles at them and rubs a corner of the page between her fingers. Then, in a movement that Alec does not quite follow, she tears the page open, and is suddenly holding two thin, fluttering pages, one in each hand. “Pages.” She smiles at Parker’s expression, a look of pure wonder. “Amazing, right? But if I’m going to really understand them, I need to hold onto them for a little longer.”
There is a small, knife’s-edge silence. Sophie rolls her eyes. “I’m not going to steal the pages and sneak off in the dead of night.”
The next morning Sophie, her tent, and all her gear are gone.
Alec climbs out of his tent at dawn and is greeted by the sight of Eliot staring at the patch of dirt where Sophie’s tent had been. Alec freezes, half-way out of his tent.
He’s hurt, gutted that she would run off with the pages before he begins to feel angry. The anger does come, though, to him and to Eliot. Eliot is very still, his breathing very controlled. Alec doesn’t know how he recognizes it as anger, only knows that it can’t be anything else. He approaches slowly, letting his feet scuff the ground as he does so. When he is next to him, he lets his shoulder press against Eliot’s. That’s how Nate finds them a few minutes later, shoulder against shoulder, staring at Sophie’s empty spot.
“She went into town earlier today,” Nate says, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice. “She packed up because she’s going to stay at a hotel with WiFi until she cracks those pages.” Nate twirls car keys around his finger. “I was going to go join her. Parker is going to dig around the rubble and see if she uncovers anything useful.”
Eliot nods. “I’ll give her a hand.”
Alec looks down at his crutch. No going into the tomb for him today. Eliot and Nate are both looking at him, waiting to hear his game plan. “I’ll- run some tests,” he says. Nate nods like that is a good game plan, but Eliot frowns.
Once Nate has left with a cloud of dust settling behind him, Eliot turns on Alec. “You’ll run some tests?” he says skeptically.
“Yeah, I’m gonna run some tests,” Alec says.
“What tests, Hardison?”
Alec glares at him. “Just tests. Don’t you have a tomb to be exploring?” He turns and begins to crutch and hobble his way over to his work station set up underneath one of their sun shelters. He hears Eliot sigh behind him, like he is crushingly disappointed. Alec throws himself into his chair and opens two of his laptops. He isn’t sure what he is going to do, other than look busy until Eliot disappears after Parker into the tomb.
A patch of sunlight appears suddenly across his laptop screen, making it difficult to see the screen. Alec looks up to see that part of the sun shelter has torn open. He moves his laptop around, but the table is too small to get it entirely in the shade.
“Fuck off,” he tells the sun coming through the tear.
Alec jumps. Parker’s voice had crackled over the radio that Alec had apparently left on overnight, still sitting on his table.
“Uh, not you,” he says. “I was talking…to myself?”
“That’s great, Hardison,” Eliot grunts. It sounds like he is moving something heavy as he speaks.
“Anyway, can’t talk now. Working on stuff,” Alec says. He flips a switch on his walkie-talkie so that he stops transmitting. He is still receiving, though, so he hears Eliot and Parker say “Hardison?” a couple times before agreeing that he has probably turned off his walkie-talkie.
“Is he angry?” Parker asks.
“Yeah,” Eliot says.
Alec grabs the walkie-talkie, ready to jump to his own defense and insist that he’s not angry. But he realizes that he is. He’s angry with himself. He feels it pressing in on him from all sides and wonders that he didn’t realize it sooner.
Alec sits down to sort out his anger. He hears his nana’s voice in his head: now, what’s eating you, Alec? Is it Khufu, is this because he thought he was special for tracking down Khufu’s treasure and now he knows he’s not? Is it Parker and Eliot and his school-yard-crush awkwardness? Or his injuries? The more he thinks about it, the more unanchored he feels from himself. He just wants to do something useful for five goddamn minutes. The sun catches in his eye, coming through the tear in the sun shelter to mock him.
“Fuck off,” Alec snaps at it again. A rare breeze ruffles the sun shelter, making the tear ripple and mock him further. That is the spark that lights the tinder of Alec’s helpless anger.
“Fine,” he says. “Fuck you, fine.” He grabs the first aid kit and pulls out the medical tape and bandages and scissors. He abandons his crutch and limps over to the tear. He holds the bandage up to the rip to judge its size, then carefully cuts out a rectangle in the same size and tapes it onto the shelter. He takes a couple steps back – stepping wrong on his bad foot – to examine his work.
It’s shit. The sunlight filters easily through the flimsy bandage. Alec puts strips of medical tape over the material of his patch. It helps, at least until the tape begins to peel back and sunlight comes through again. Alec starts making more strips, but his hands falter and he ends up just staring at the tips he has already made.
He wonders abruptly if he belongs here. If he has ever belonged on a dig or if he has just been fooling himself because he wanted it so bad. Had he imagined himself so many times on a dig, in the ruins, finding important artifacts and information with his homemade gadgets that he had actually believe his own spun fantasy? He knows how over-the-top, out-of-this-world incredible his inventions are. He just isn’t sure that he has ever put them to good enough use. He wants to think that he is an essential part of his gadgets, but could he just write a thorough manual and sit at home while real archeologists take Lucille onto digs? How can he belong out here when he can’t even patch the goddamn sun shelter? It doesn’t matter how much he wants to be this guy, how many times he had imagined himself as this guy as he was growing up, if he isn’t then he just isn’t.
“Fixing up the camp?” Eliot asks some time later, pulling Alec out of his gloomy thoughts. Alec glances up at his patch and says nothing. Eliot presses some of the drooping tape back into place. The stretch of his arm shows off his muscles in a way that makes Alec avert his eyes. Eliot takes the roll of tape out of Alec’s hands, his fingers skimming Alec’s as he does so. He tears long pieces to place horizontally over Alec’s strips and hold them in place. “There,” he says.
“Good job, you fixed it,” Alec says. There is no question that Eliot belongs here. Or Parker. The way they always have something to do around the site is demonstration enough of their belonging-ness. But on top of that, they are the superheroes who climbed through the collapsed tomb to pull him out of it. Parker has her reputation from Saqqara and Eliot has his from Dashur. They are real professionals, no one could possibly question their credentials.
“Parker and I managed to pull some stuff from the tomb,” Eliot says.
“Cool,” Alec nods. It is cool. He admires them.
“If you have time after you, uh, run those tests, you should give us a hand.”
“With what?” Do they need another tomb ruined, he just barely stops himself from asking. He doesn’t need to flaunt his pity party.
“We’re just pulling things blindly out of the tomb,” Parker says. “We were hoping that you could help us figure out where these things are coming from.”
“Like, historically?” Not really his strong suit.
“No,” Eliot says, the dumbass implied in his tone. “Where in the tomb. A lot of the walls are gone, which makes the floor plan a little different. We were hoping you would have some ideas.”
Alec is getting caught up in the way Eliot and Parker are calling themselves us like they’re a unit or a team or a- or a couple or something. He frowns. Of course they’re a team, he is being stupid.
“The Museum wants us to document where in the tomb everything is coming from,” Parker explains, mistaking the source of Alec’s confusion.
“Right,” Alec says, his brain wheels turning slowly and his focus coming back. “I could…I could overlay the old scan of the tomb with geographical coordinates. I’d need you guys to get me some reference points, but those should be easy enough, just a couple of beacons along the edges of the pit. Then when you take an artifact, just log your coordinates and I can place you in the tomb. Here, I think I have…” He limps over to one of his black crates and begins digging through it. “Yeah,” he says when he finds what he was hunting for. He hands one to Eliot and the other to Parker. “Just put it down where you find the artifact and just click the top button like this. All you have to do is read the numbers that will show up on the little screen to me.”
“Turn your walkie-talkie back on,” Eliot says as he and Parker get ready to go back down into the tomb. Parker is having trouble with her headlamp; the strap is too loose and it keeps slipping down into her eyes. Eliot adjusts it for her, gently tightening the strap and settling the light so that it is centered in the right place on her forehead. He lingers over his work longer than he has to. Alec’s mouth goes unexpectedly dry. Eliot’s hands resting gently on the sides of Parker’s face put many images into Alec’s mind that he doesn’t quite know what to do with. He can imagine Eliot pushing her hair back so he can kiss her neck. He can see Parker tugging him closer and tilting her head back to give him a better angle. And it makes his mouth dry and makes him lose track of the conversation for a moment. Eliot drops his hands and shoots Alec a quick guilty look, but Alec hardly notices, still wrapped up in his imagination.
“Hardison,” Eliot says. “Your walkie-talkie?”
“I’ll turn it on,” Alec says, once he figures out what Eliot is talking about.
It works even better than Alec thought it would. He gets the geographical map matched up with the old scan quickly. Parker and Eliot are good about logging their coordinates when they retrieve items, even trying to retroactively identify the places they found things earlier. They’re keeping Alec busy, reading out new numbers every time he gets finished locating their previous find. It’s good, it keeps him from thinking about Eliot and Parker’s we and how they touched and the sudden realization that this might not be an either-or choice for him. Maybe he could have both. Maybe they could all have each other. The thought is too bright and happy for him to linger over. He is glad for the distraction of their work.
It isn’t until later, until Eliot and Parker are climbing up out of the tomb for the last time that day when Parker says offhand, “That was a good plan, Hardison” that Alec realizes that without him, Eliot and Parker wouldn’t have been able to get anything done today. Not just without his gadgets, without him they would have been stuck pulling blindly from the tomb.
Nate and Sophie come back to camp a little after lunch time the next day. They bring both trucks back, so Alec, Parker, and Eliot think that Sophie has cracked the pages. They are surprised to see both Sophie and Nate climb out of the same truck. The other truck is trailing behind and has not reached their site yet.
“What’s going on?” Eliot asks.
“There’s not really time to explain,” Nate says. He glances back at where the second truck is pulling up next to the parked one. “The Museum sent someone to check up on us. We’re not telling him about the scroll, agreed?”
Alec, Parker and Eliot nod. Despite their confusion, they are willing to trust Nate.
“See?” Nate shouts out the the man getting out of the truck. “Everything is under control here, Sterling. Sorry you wasted a trip.”
The man – Sterling – looks out of place in their camp. He is wearing a business suit and seems preoccupied with keeping his shoes as clean as possible, stepping carefully around the dustiest patches of their camp. He extends his hand to Eliot, Parker and Alec. They all shake it briefly as they introduce themselves.
“What a lovely camp you have here,” Sterling says. He has an English accent that seems to irritate Eliot. Alec raises his eyebrows and Eliot scowls and looks away. Alec can’t tell if Sterling is being sarcastic; his eyes flick over to the ruined tomb as he say lovely.
“If we had known you were coming we would have tidied up more,” Sophie says.
“Yeah, maybe cooked a feast,” Eliot mutters under his breath.
Do you know this guy or something? Alec thinks. Either these two have a history or Eliot is just very protective of their Khufu treasure hunt. Overprotective. Protective to the point of paranoia. Alec is not thrilled about this stranger sniffing around the raw edges of their potentially monumental discovery, but he can at least play it cool. Still, there is something undeniably endearing about Eliot when he gets like this and Alec can’t help his smile, though he tries to keep it small. He meets Parker’s eye and she has his same smile on her face. Alec thinks of the we can all have each other epiphany and blushes. He tries to focus.
“The Museum was getting worried,” Sterling is saying in a tone that is much more smug than it is concerned. “You missed a couple of your check-ins, so they asked me to come out here and check on your progress.”
“Like we told you at the hotel,” Nate says, smiling but clearly irritated, “it was an oversight. Everything is fine here.”
Sterling raises his eyebrows and cuts another significant glance over to the wrecked tomb.
“We had a, uh, slight issue with stability,” Nate concedes. “But we’re handling it.”
“I hope no one was in that thing when it collapsed.”
Alec left his crutch resting against the table. He still has bandages on his hands, so he slips those nonchalantly behind his back. He can’t imagine that he could get in trouble for being in the tomb when it collapsed, but since Sterling went to the trouble of speculating, he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing the information. There is something about Sterling that just rubs him wrong. He doesn’t want to attract any more of his attention than is absolutely necessary.
When no one answers his question, Sterling continues, “I’d like to see everything you have recovered so far, as well as your catalogue if you don’t mind.”
He makes himself comfortable at Alec’s work table. Alec sets him up with his clean laptop, one that never had any information about Khufu on it. It has all of the information about their dig though, including everything that Parker and Eliot had managed to log earlier that day. Parker drags out their bins of artifacts from- you know what, Alec actually doesn’t know where she has been keeping those. None of them are keen to stick around and watch Sterling sort through their hard work. They gravitate toward the other side of the camp. Eliot and Alec drag over their chairs from around the fire pit and they all try to sit with their backs to Sterling.
“Who is this guy, Nate?” Alec asks for all of them.
Nate tells them about Sterling. He tells them about how he and Sterling began working at the museum around the same time, and tells them about their early friendship. He tells them about a time when he had thought that he could trust Sterling and had told him, four beers into their night, about this crazy story of a piece of Khufu’s treasure horde surfacing very far from where it had any right to be. Sterling’s face had lit up and Nate had been thrilled to have a partner in this wild hunt. And what a partner. Nate made almost no progress on his own in his search before bringing Sterling into the loop. The headway that they made together in the first year was staggering. Then-
Nate breaks off and looks at the group of them almost sheepishly, tinged with something much more serious and sad.
“It’s personal,” he says. “But something happened with- at home. I decided that I had to give up on Khufu. Just didn’t see the point in it anymore. I told Sterling and he got angry. I didn’t care. I left the museum for almost five years and when I got back I kept hearing strange things about Sterling and what he planned on doing with the treasure if he got his hands on it. There’s no need to go into the details. Suffice it to say that hearing about it was enough to make me start looking again, just to be sure that Sterling wouldn’t be the first one to find it. But to do that, I needed all of you.”
Alec jerks his head up from where he had been resting it in his hand. Parker and Eliot frown in unison. Sophie purses her lips and leans back into her chair.
“I looked into everyone I could find who was looking into Khufu.” Nate says it like an apology. “I had no idea how close Sterling had come to it, or even what the newest discoveries were. I knew I needed a whole team – all of you – if I wanted to catch up with him. I knew I needed you,” he says more quietly and mostly to Sophie, “if I wanted to actually beat him to Khufu.”
They all absorb this quietly for a minute. Sophie shakes her head and gets up. Nate follows her to the edge of the tomb. They argue softly, the way Alec imagines that parents do when they don’t want their children to know what’s going on. It’s mostly tilted heads and brushed-away touches to safe places like the shoulder or the elbow.
“What do you guys think?” Parker says crossly.
“I think we need to get this Sterling guy out of our goddamn campsite,” Eliot says lowly.
“There’s nothing about Khufu on the laptop I gave him,” Alec says. “There’s no way he can find anything important on it.”
“Are you sure, Hardison? You positive?”
“Yes, Eliot, I am positive.” He mentally reviews the likelihood that Sterling could find something from that laptop, but nope, there’s just no way.
“Maybe we should try to figure out what Sterling knows,” Parker says. Eliot and Alec look over at her. “Nate says he’s good. Maybe he knows something that can help us.”
“There’s no way to ask him without tipping him off that we know about Khufu and that we’re after the treasure,” Eliot says.
“So we tip him off. We can just split the treasure six ways instead of five,” Parker says. The guys stare at her. “Kidding.”
But Parker’s comment about splitting the treasure makes Alec realize that they haven’t discussed what they’re going to do with the treasure when-if-when they find it. Clearly Parker has thought about it. She seemed so sure that they are going to split it, and it makes Alec wonder if the rest of them actually have had a conversation, and besotted Alec was too distracted to even think to be a part of it. They must think he is such an amateur.
“Yeah, but who knows if the pages we found here even have anything to do with the treasure,” Alec sighs. There are too many uncertainties right now to worry about each individually. So he just has to focus on the important uncertainties, the ones he’ll get rich for figuring out.
“They will,” Parker says confidently. “They felt right.”
Alec can’t help reaching out his hand to her, palm up and inviting. She glances at Eliot for a moment – Alec’s heart stutters – then takes Alec’s hand. They lock their fingers together and Alec brushes her knuckles with his thumb. They both look at Eliot, who is watching their hands with a fond expression on his face that tightens as he looks. Alec and Parker both see it and unlink their fingers.
It is quiet after that. Alec can’t tell if it is an awkward silence or a comfortable one, and he fidgets as he casts around for something to say.
Sterling rescues him by calling out for Nate from across the site. They all go over to see what he wants.
“There’s quite a lot here. It will probably take me all day tomorrow to work through it,” Sterling says.
“If you want to take it all back to the hotel-“
“No need, I can stay here at your camp tonight.”
“Do you have a tent?” Sophie asks.
“Is that an invitation, Ms. Devereux?” Sterling asks unctuously.
“It’s Dr. Devereux,” Parker snaps. “And we have a hammock you can set up if you don’t have a tent.” She meets Sophie’s eye and they smile at each other.
Sterling looks bemused. “I have a tent,” he says slowly.
No one helps him set it up. To Alec it feels petty, but it also feels like the right thing to do. Sterling unsettles him.
They usually loiter around the campfire after dinner for a few hours, swapping stories about old digs. Even Alec shares, feeling more and more comfortable with the fact that his experiences with archeology have been radically different from everyone else’s, and Parker’s and Eliot’s in particular. But tonight no one is eager to stay around the fire. Alec can only take about thirty minutes of tuning out Sterling’s yabbering – that man can talk – before he goes to bed.
He isn’t tired yet so he lays there in his sleeping bag, listening to the others make their excuses and head to their own tents. Eliot rattles Alec’s tent as he passes by and Parker calls out a soft goodnight. Alec smiles to himself as he burrows more comfortably into his bag.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Alec asks shakily, the question echoing off the ruined walls of the tomb passageway.
Parker is scrambling over stone chunks of wall and ceiling too quickly for Alec to keep up with. She is at the very edge of the beam of his flashlight and he can just barely see her.
“Parker, wait up!” he calls. She is still dancing at the edge of his visibility.
Alec’s foot is killing him as he chases after her. A couple of the cuts on his hands have reopened from where he grabbed at the rough stones littering the passageway.
Alec hauls himself over a cluster of medium-sized rocks. He stumbles as he tries to find the ground again. His shoulder knocks into the unstable remaining wall and it trembles.
“Oh, no,” he whimpers.
The walls and the ceiling are shaking and cracking. Alec curls himself into a ball as the chunks of stone start falling around him.
He wakes with a gasp. It is so dark in his tent that for a moment Alec doesn’t know where he is, half-certain that he is in the tomb. Then his eyes focus and he realizes that he can feel the fabric of his sleeping bag around him.
His heart thuds erratically in his chest and he has to force himself to control his breathing. He counts as he does so, just the way that Parker taught him. The tent feels hot and cramped and the sleeping bag hugs him claustrophobically. He can’t stand how restrictive it is. He kicks it off of him frantically and crawls out of his tent. He tries to be quiet about it, but he is more concerned with getting the hell out of there as quickly as he can.
It is cool outside his tent and Alec sucks in grateful lungful after lungful of that fresh, clean air. He sits in his chair near the fire pit and leans back so that he is looking at the stars, reminding himself of the immensity of the universe. He continues to count his breaths, focusing on slowing his heartbeat. Both ratchet back up dramatically at a noise from behind him.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Sterling? What are you…” Alec lets the question trail off. He puts a hand over his heart to calm himself.
“I was taking a walk. Jet lag. I couldn’t sleep,” Sterling says as he lowers himself into one of the other chairs. It’s Eliot’s chair. “Please, sit.”
Alec had jumped up from his seat when he heard Sterling behind him and he sits back down into his chair now. He has no interest in talking to Sterling, but he has less interest in returning to his tent and trying to sleep without dreaming about the tomb.
Sterling pokes at the nearly-dead embers of the fire. It is surprisingly soothing to watch the embers jump and spark as Sterling jabs at them with the poker.
“You couldn’t sleep either then?” Sterling says quietly.
“You probably have too many ideas running around in that brain of yours, don’t you?” Sterling continues. Alec says nothing and Sterling smiles. “Oh, come on. You’re Alec Hardison. You invented infrastructure for that Gôbekli Tepe site that the dig couldn’t have survived without. You can’t expect me to believe that you don’t have something good cooking on your back burner. I’ve been working on your laptop all day. That reconstruction you did of the tomb was inspired.”
“I know, right?” Alec says eagerly.
“There are endless possibilities for your technology,” Sterling continues, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Think about all the discoveries you’ll be able to make with it, how far you’ll advance the whole archeological field. Think about the mysteries you’ll be able to unlock.”
Alec is nodding along and preening, but he draws up short when Sterling leans on the word mysteries. The suspicion – always lingering close to the surface since Alec decided to become a legend by discovering Khufu’s horde – filters back in.
Sterling must be able to read the tension in Alec’s body. He settles back in his chair and smiles self-importantly. “You know which mysteries I’m talking about, don’t you, Hardison?”
Alec might be a terrible person because he is flattered. He is damn flattered. Nate talked about Sterling like he was some kind of genius with a knack for finding clues to Khufu and Alec believes him. And here Sterling is, asking Alec for help. There is no other reason for bringing up Khufu right now. Bringing it up just to boast would be foolish. Sterling is proposing a partnership.
Too bad Alec already has partners in this venture.
“You’re talking about Khufu,” he says neutrally. There is no harm in hearing Sterling out; he might learn something.
“I’m talking about a discovery that will be worth millions, if not billions. I’m talking about getting your name in the history book, in textbooks in every college archeology class across the world. I’m talking about your technology becoming a touchstone in archeology, not just a nice supplement.”
He is saying the magic words, the words that Alec had told himself when research got boring and he hit a wall in building his gadgets and he lost the thread of Khufu and didn’t know what to do next. This is his motivation laid out in front of him as a carrot.
Nate was right, Sterling is good.
“What do you want from me?” Alec asks.
“I want you to agree to help me,” Sterling says. Looks like he isn’t going to give anything away after all.
“Sorry,” Alec says, not feeling sorry at all. “I’m going to get there on my own.”
Sterling’s expression clenches like his whole face is blinking in surprise. He clearly hadn’t expected that. “You don’t want to find Khufu with me?” he asks slowly. “Well, I must say, I hadn’t expected someone so bright to do something so stupid.”
Alec spreads his hands in an elaborate shrug. “I don’t know what to tell you, man. You’re just kind of off-putting.”
Sterling huffs and Alec stands up, feeling triumphant. It’s too early for that; Sterling might still beat them to Khufu, but Alec feels great. He has his team and they have the secret pages. Sterling was so threatened that he flew all the way out here to try to figure out what they knew. Alec feels triumphant.
Sterling reaches into his pocket. He pulls out two thin sheets of paper and Alec’s heart drops. The secret pages.
“Where did you get those?” Alec says.
“I saw them lying around,” Sterling says. He stands too now, slipping the papers back into his pocket. “And since everything you uncovered here belongs to the Museum, I thought I would take these pages back with me now. Just so they aren’t damaged here.”
Alec’s mouth works, but there are no words. He hates Sterling, he fucking hates Sterling.
“I’ll need to take your laptop with me too,” Sterling says. “The Museum will be interested in the tomb layout you built.”
Alec takes a step toward him. He has never really been inclined toward violence, and he has never been good at violence either. But he takes that step forward instinctively. Sterling raises his eyebrow, daring Alec to do more. Alec doesn’t. He knows that he can’t do anything right now.
Sterling taps his pocket twice, patting the place he is keeping the pages. “I’ll see you around, Hardison. Sorry I can’t stick around and say goodbye to the others, but I’m sure you’ll pass along my message to them for me, won’t you?” Sterling lingers long enough to smile at him and say softly, “As long as you haven’t changed your mind about joining my effort?” Then he is gone, hijacking one of their trucks as he leaves.
Alec collapses back down in his chair and rubs a hand over his face.
He falls asleep in that chair. Parker wakes him up with the soft brush of her fingers against his shoulder. Once she sees that he is awake, her grip on his shoulder tightens and she gives him a little shake.
“Didn’t like your tent? Also, where is the other truck?”
Alec rubs a crick in his neck. “Get the others. Everyone should hear this.”
It takes much less time that Alec hoped it would to get everyone gathered up for story time. He isn’t eager to tell them this story. As he recounts his conversation with Sterling, he sees himself ruining their day, not to mention their life’s work.
“There wasn’t anything I could do. The Museum owns all of this, including those pages.”
“Why didn’t you wake us up?” Eliot says angrily.
“Because there was nothing any of us could do. And I didn’t want anyone to do anything stupid like trying to stop him from leaving.”
Alec looks at Nate. He is fairly certain that he did the right thing, but he still wants to see that Nate thinks he did too. Nate gives him a little nod and Alec feels relief flood through him. He did good. Or, good enough.
“Did you get anything from those pages?” Parker asks Sophie. Alec isn’t sure which answer he would prefer, yes or no. If Sophie got something from the pages, that could be good for them but it would also mean that it would be good for Sterling.
“Yes,” Sophie says.
“Will Sterling be able to read those pages?” Eliot asks.
Nate and Sophie exchange a look. “Probably,” Nate says. “And if he can’t read it himself, he won’t have too much trouble finding someone who can get him close enough to understanding them.”
“What else did you let him take?” Eliot asks, rounding on Alec.
Alec glares at him for the wording, but he answers the question: “The laptop he was working on.” As he says this, an idea occurs to him. “Nate, how long will it take him to get back to the Museum?”
Nate looks like he is working on an idea of his own. “Between fifteen and twenty hours, depending on layovers.”
Alec says, “I need my laptop. My other laptop.”
He should have thought of this earlier, as soon as Sterling said the word laptop last night. He avoids Eliot’s eye as he limps over to his laptop; he isn’t sure how much scorched earth lies between them now. He avoids looking at Parker too, just until he cleans up this mess. He just stops himself from thinking about it as his mess. The mess is all of theirs, they all co-own this mess. Just because he was the bearer of bad news doesn’t mean that it’s his fault. It is easy enough to tell himself that, it’s harder to believe it with Eliot wearing that betrayed look and Parker keeping her face clean of all expression. Two different kinds of distance. It’s not his fault.
Alec boots up his laptop and buckles down, gets to work. And it’s cake. Fifteen minutes later he can look his teammates in the face again as he shows them his work.
“I don’t know what Sterling wants from the laptop, so I decided to play it safe,” he says. He directs it mostly to Sophie because she is the easiest one to focus on right now. “I remotely altered everything that is on the hard drive. I changed collection information and dimensions of artifacts and I even moved around some walls in the layout of the tomb I built. Whatever Sterling thinks he is getting from my laptop, he won’t find it. I know I can’t do anything about the pages he took,” he says, working to not sound apologetic, “but at least I can take the laptop out of the picture.”
Sophie gives him a smile and opens her mouth to say something that will no doubt be soothing, but she stops. Alec can see the moment that the idea dawns on her, the last puzzle piece falls into place. She twists around to look at Nate.
“Nate, the tomb. The map of the tomb,” she says, half in awe at her own epiphany.
Nate is caught up in it too. “The six tombs,” he says, probably brilliantly, but Alec has no clue what they are talking about. “If we look at the six tombs….”
And they’re off. Sophie is digging through her papers and Nate pulls his chair over next to Alec’s.
“Hardison, can you give me a basic layout of the tomb?”
Alec does so with a few keystrokes and turns the laptop screen toward Nate. Nate’s face lights up and he directs it toward Sophie.
“Here’s the first one,” Sophie says. She holds out a piece of paper to Parker, who looks at it carefully before bringing it to Nate. She looks over Alec’s shoulder at his laptop and something clicks for her.
“It’s a message,” she breathes.
Eliot is on Alec’s other side and its clicking for him too, leaving Alec alone in the dark. Nate hands him Sophie’s paper and tells him to put it on his laptop. Alec does, and he does so for the next one, and the next until he has five tomb layouts on his laptop screen.
“What about the sixth?” Nate asks.
“I don’t have it,” Sophie says. “I never did.”
Unexpectedly, Parker is laughing. Everyone looks at her and she smiles at all of them. “I though I was being paranoid, but I wasn’t,” she says, which is no explanation at all. Then she is pulling off her shirt – Alec and Eliot meet each other’s eye as they avert their gaze – and turning around. Across her back, dotted like a constellation, is a tattoo that even Alec can recognize as the sixth tomb, if only from the context.
Nate says, “Put it on the laptop, Hardison,” and points at it like Alec needs any encouragement to look at the smooth, pale skin of Parker’s back, or the way that her muscles shift restlessly under the surface.
“Um, yeah, no problem,” Alec says weakly. He shoots Eliot a look that Eliot doesn’t see because he is too busy looking at Parker’s back.
Alec copies the image as quickly as he can, which means he makes mistakes and it takes twice as long as it should have. He would be embarrassed, but damn it’s not like any of them don’t already know.
“Got it,” he finally, finally says. Relief and regret mix strangely as Parker pulls her shirt back on. “Any other tattoos I should put on here?” He looks hopefully at Eliot. Eliot still isn’t looking back at him.
“Now do something that will make them all line up on top of each other,” Nate says vaguely, motioning to the tomb layouts. Alec does and Sophie and Nate peer at the resulting image for a very long time.
“I can…,” Alec starts, then just goes for it and puts all of the artifact location information he has up on the maps. It’s only from this dig, but he can only work with what he has. “I could find the information from the earlier digs too,” he says.
Sophie grabs his shoulder abruptly, her grip much harder than he would have expected.
“Delete everything except this one,” she says. She puts her finger directly on his screen to indicate one of the artifacts he just put up. Alec does as she tells him, mystified. He knows which artifact she kept, though: the secret pages.
Parker makes a soft epiphany noise and points at another spot on the map. “There,” she says. “Add one.”
Alec drops a pin and it clicks for him. Everywhere they found Khufu artifacts on all their digs, that is what they’re marking. He puts a pin down where his dig found the impossible artifact. He meets Nate’s eye and Nate gives him a suppressed smile, the wheels clearly still turning for him. Alec finishes dropping pins where everyone tells him to and gets up from the table. He doesn’t know how long this will take the brain trust to figure out, but he thinks there should be time for him to get himself some food before they do.
He digs around in the cooler and comes up with a popsicle, one of the ones that Sophie brought back from town. He stands up and is suddenly face-to-face with Parker, who he hadn’t even heard approach.
“Je-esus Christ,” he gasps and nearly drops his popsicle into the dirt. “Has anyone ever told you that you should wear a bell?”
“You figured it out,” she says, smiling brightly at him. “With putting the artifacts on the map.” She gives a happy bounce and punches him in the shoulder. Alec doesn’t have time to protest before she is rising up onto her toes and pressing a hard kiss to his cheek. She shifts back onto her heels to take in his reaction. She smiles again – smiles more – and flits back off to where Nate and Sophie are intently debating something that is undoubtedly important. Alec can’t remember what it could be, though. If pressed, he probably wouldn’t be able to remember what he is doing in Egypt right now. Parker kissed him. Yes, it was on the cheek and not the lips. But Parker kissed him. His popsicle begins to melt over his fingers before he remembers about it.
He licks the juice off his fingers and sits down in his chair. Eliot wanders over to sit with him.
“So,” Alec says. “Parker kissed me.”
“I saw it, man, she kissed you on the cheek.”
Alec smiles and keeps himself from a doing a victory fist pump by starting to eat his popsicle. It is melting in the heat and most of it dribbles down Alec’s chin. He chases it as best he can with his tongue, licking his chin and lips to catch the juice.
Eliot looks away. “That’s disgusting, Hardison. Use a napkin.”
“Napkins are way far away and my tongue is right here,” Alec says reasonably.
“I know where it is, I can see-“ Eliot cuts himself off with a huff as Alec puts his tongue out again. Eliot stands and stalks over to the camp kitchen. He returns with a couple of napkins. “I swear, it’s like you’re a child.”
“Thanks,” Alec accepts the napkins. He drops them into his lap and continues to lick the popsicle juice off of his hands and face. He is trying to press Eliot’s buttons, trying to earn himself a dammit Hardison, but Eliot just looks sort of stunned. Alec will take it.
It shouldn’t feel like a win. Sterling is in the wind with information and his smarts. They have something but they have no idea what that something is. And on top of that, their time on site is over, their flights booked for the next day. But as they pack up around camp, it feels like a goddamn win. They have that something from the pages, they have Alec’s mixed-and-matched map, and they have a team.
That night it’s just the three of them – Alec, Parker, and Eliot – around the campfire. They’re supposed to go back into town and stay at the hotel tonight, they even packed up all the tents so they’ll have to head that way eventually, but everyone is reluctant to actually get in their remaining truck and go. Nate and Sophie have wandered off with a blanket saying something about wanting to do a little stargazing. Alec protested that they could see the stars just fine from the campfire, but Eliot had given him a shove and Parker had thrown him a meaningful look.
“Are they- together now?” Alec asks quietly, watching Sophie and Nate disappear from sight into the darkness.
“Are you surprised?” Eliot asks.
“I guess not,” Alec says. Finding love on an archeological dig? He had never seen it before, but he can believe it now. Shit. “Shit,” he says quietly, just to externalize it. Let the others in on it.
“Can’t believe this is over,” Parker says after a minute.
“It’s not over, is it?” Alec asks. “We still have…” He trails off.
“It’s over for now,” Eliot says. “We have to wait for the map to make sense.”
“So what do we do until then?”
The fire crackles in the silence.
“You know,” Eliot says quietly, unobtrusively, “I think we still have the stuff to make s’mores.”
Parker is on her feet before the sentence is fully formed and she is back with marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers in under thirty seconds. She divides it all up between them almost evenly; she gives herself a larger pile of chocolate and marshmallows than the others, but Eliot and Alec have equal piles. Their first attempts all catch fire and are badly burned. Parker eats them all anyway. Alec doesn’t quite have it in him to be grossed out as she licks the charred, sticky remains from her fingers.
They try again with fresh marshmallows and do much better the second time. This time the marshmallows all turn the perfect golden brown and the chocolate melts a little between the marshmallows when they build their s’mores. They do a three-count so they can all take their first bite at the same time. The whole thing is sickeningly sweet, sweeter than the marshmallows. Alec doesn’t even know what they’re doing but they do it again and again. They don’t even finish eating their s’mores before they’re making their next round. It’s almost frantic, like they’re worried that if they stop or even pause for too long it will all come to an end. But it is still good, still one of the best nights Alec can remember having on a dig. Or maybe even in his life.
Parker has given up making her s’mores neatly and is eating the pieces individually; she’ll take a bite of chocolate then eat a marshmallows, then a bite of graham cracker. She bites a marshmallow in half. It stretches between her fingers and her mouth in long white strands that catch on her chin. Alec unthinkingly reaches out his hand to brush it away and he catches himself when he is already touching her face. That is where he hesitates, fingers on the sticky patch on her chin. She is looking at him calmly like she knows whats is going to happen next. There is a heat in her eyes that makes Alec catch his breath. He pulls his hand back and she licks in broad swipes at the marshmallow guts on her chin.
Alec looks over at Eliot, who is staring back wide-eyed, the same expression he was wearing when Alec was licking melted popsicle off of his hands. Eliot flickers to eyes over to Alec and they’re looking at each other with something like intent. Alec has been embarrassed for long enough; now he doesn’t have time to be shy or coy. He holds Eliot’s gaze until they both look at Parker, who has been watching them. Alec’s heart is racing and he is very aware of his hands. He keeps the invitation in his expression as much as he can, but he can only be so brave. These two- god, these two. He loves them. He just needs an answer.
Those hours in the tomb together working quietly and listening to each other breathe have taught Alec about their silences. Concentration, frustration, amusement, and even pain- he knows what those silences sound like. This is something different entirely, but not totally unfamiliar.
Parker lounges back in her plastic camp chair like it is a throne. Eliot shifts slightly in his own seat like he is mirroring her body language. Alec does the same and it feels like a dance. He realizes that he is holding his breath. These are little things – a glance, a shift, a hard inhale – but they feel so big to Alec, so sharp and soaked in significance. The small physicalities of what he is feeling inside make Alec’s heart race.
When Sophie and Nate come back with their blanket and tell that that it’s time to go to the hotel, they’re still sitting quietly in their chairs, still looking to each other for permission to make the first move and hoping that someone else will do it.
The car ride is hell. Alec worries that this is actually what hell will be like. He is in the backseat with Parker and Eliot, sandwiched between them like a freaking hamburger patty between two buns. He can feel them pressed up against him on both sides, touching him from ankle to shoulder. His head is the only thing above water and he is trying not to gasp for his breaths. Every bump in the road sends them careening together. Eliot tries to hold himself tight and not sway at all. His expression is stony. Parker links her arm through Alec’s so that they move as one and don’t bump so much. Alec hopes he isn’t sweating.
He slowly, carefully slides his hand toward Eliot’s knee. He chickens out halfway there and ends up with the backs of his fingers pressed against the outside of Eliot’s knee instead. He can feel the tension in Eliot’s body.
The three of them rocket out of the car when they finally get to the hotel. Alec grabs his room key off the front desk as soon as the concierge puts it down. He heads toward the elevator and lets Nate take care of everything. Eliot and Parker are on his heels.
They don’t kiss in the elevator. They don’t even touch. When the doors open on Alec’s floor – Parker is on the floor above him and Eliot is three floors up – they all get off the elevator. Alec’s heart pounds as they all walk toward his room. He has to try a few times before he can get his key in the lock and his door open.
Parker jumps on him as soon as the door is closed behind him, literally jumps on him and wraps her legs around his waist. He slides his hands up her thighs until they settle under her ass. He tips his head back so he can kiss her. Parker has a good grip on him with her legs so as the kiss deepens he stretches out one hand toward where he thinks Eliot is. Eliot grasps it and Alec tugs him in toward them.
For a long time it is just this, the three of them kissing. Alec loses track of time, of who he is kissing, of everything. He is kissing one then the other, on the lips, the face, down the neck. Their lips are on him too and god it is so much more than he could have imagined. His body thrums with his arousal. He is burning up with it and it has him gasping desperate pleas against their skin. He is so hard, so hard that it almost hurts him.
Parker is the one who takes their hands and leads them to the bed. She pulls off her shirt and wiggles out of her pants. Alec takes his clothes off too – pants first, he knows his priorities – and Eliot tugs Alec’s shirt over his head before he starts on his own clothes. Alec doesn’t know what he wants to do first. He stands there slightly dumbfounded. Eliot gives him a look that wants to be exasperated, but Eliot is too far gone for it. He pushes Alec gently to the side and settles on his knees in front of the bed.
“C’mere,” he whispers to Parker.
She scoots toward where he is at the foot of the bed. Alec watches Eliot dip his fingers below the waistband of her underwear. She shivers and makes an encouraging noise. Slowly Eliot pulls her underwear down. Alec instinctively kneels as well. He kisses up her thigh, pausing to bite softly at her hip. He smiles when she moans and thrusts her hips up. Eliot begins to kiss her other thigh and Alec leans over to kiss her mouth, biting at her lips and groaning as she bites back. He lets his hands roam over her, feeling all the smooth, taunt planes of her like he has wanted to do since- since that first moment at the airport if he is being honest with himself.
Parker moans and bucks under him. Alec looks down to see Eliot’s head bobbing between her legs and Alec’s dick twitches where it is pressed against the bedspread. He can only watch for a minute. He takes in the strong and sure spread of Eliot’s hands over Parker’s pale thighs and Parker’s hands clenching and unclenching in Eliot’s hair.
Parker grabs at Alec and pulls him back toward her for another kiss. Alec can’t help taking himself in his hand and giving himself a few good pumps and- oh god, it feels so good. He moans into Parker’s mouth and he feels her smile.
She pulls back and says, “Tell Eliot what you’re doing.”
“I’m- I’m touching myself,” Alec says, a little embarrassed about how rough his voice is; neither of them have even touched him yet.
“Tell him more,” Parker says. Her voice is tight with pleasure and Alec’s hand speeds up on his dick.
“You look so good, you both look amazing,” Alec says. “I’m so- I want to watch you forever.”
“You just want to watch?” Parker asks him, her voice low and knowing and so damn hot.
Alec shakes his head.
“What do you want?” Eliot asks.
Alec looks at them both, so beautiful, and shakes his head. “Anything,” he says.
“Fuck me,” Eliot says.
Alec thinks he imagined it for about twenty seconds, but then Eliot is getting up on his knees and adjusting his position so that he can still eat Parker out while Alec- while Alec-
“Have you done this before?” Eliot asks. Alec nods, grateful for those awkward nights in his twenties when he mastered fingering.
“I don’t have…” Alec trails off as Eliot pulls a small tube of lubricant out of his jacket pocket.
“What?” he growls. “I like to be prepared.” He pulls out a condom too and Alec wants to laugh, except that would waste valuable fingering time.
He pours a generous amount of lube on his fingers. He runs his other hand down Eliot’s back, admiring the hard muscles just below the skin. He traces a single finger down his crack and Eliot shifts restlessly. Alec circles Eliot’s hole with his lubed up finger.
“Stop teasing,” Eliot says quietly. He is trying to look at Alec over his shoulder but he is trapped between Parker’s legs and can’t turn around enough. Alec gets Eliot in profile, and even in profile it is easy to see how desperate he is. His eyes are dark, pupils blown wide with his arousal. Alec gently guides his head back down to Parker with his clean hand and he slides the first finger into Eliot.
Eliot and Parker let out a simultaneous moan that makes Alec falter for a moment. He presses his finger in slowly, trying to read Eliot’s response, see how much he can take. Eliot is pressing back against Alec’s hand and trying to lean forward into Parker at the same time. It’s beautiful to watch him trying to split himself. Alec meets Parker’s eye and he can tell that she thinks so too.
Eliot doesn’t need as much preparation as Alec remembers doing his first few times. He is fucking himself gorgeously down onto Alec’s fingers and growling for more and more.
“Hardison, I’m ready. I’m ready, just do it,” he growls after only about five minutes. Alec loves fingering and he is really fucking good at it. But he doesn’t need much convincing right now. He rolls the condom on and slicks himself up with more lube.
He tries to go slowly when he finally presses into Eliot, but it’s difficult when Eliot is pushing hard back on him, trying to take Alec deeper, faster. Alec’s head spins with how good it feels, how hot and tight Eliot is. He forces himself to open his eyes and the first thing he sees is Parker’s expression. Her mouth is hanging open in an appealing red o. She looks like she is on the brink. He watches her hands in Eliot’s hair as she pulls Eliot’s face tighter against her pussy, grinding down on his face with short thrust of her hips. Alec watches her come and it is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen in his life. She pushes Eliot’s face away from her after she comes and lays there panting. She meets Alec’s eyes again and smiles at him quick and sharp. She raises her eyebrows and looks down toward where his dick is in Eliot’s ass.
Alec keeps his eyes on her face as he pulls out halfway and slams himself back in. Eliot lets out a huff and Alec worries that maybe that was too much, but on his next, much gentler thrust, Eliot whispers, “Harder.”
Alec is not going to last long. Not with Parker’s eyes on him, not with the tight and wonderful heat of Eliot around him, not with Eliot whispering things like harder and more in that fucked-out voice as he clenches around Alec’s dick. Parker slips her hand down to Eliot’s cock and runs her thumb over the head, telling Alec what she is doing because she knows that he can’t see it. Eliot comes with a shudder and a suppressed moan. Alec manages to hold out for a few more wild thrusts and then he is coming too.
He can’t move for a few minutes. When he regains control over his limbs, he pulls himself carefully out of Eliot. Eliot hisses, but when Alec sees his expression, he looks blissed. Parker wiggles her way up the bed toward the pillows.
“Get in bed,” she tells them.
They do, on either side of her. She tugs them in close to her. Alec buries his face in her shoulder.
“Shouldn’t we turn the light off?”
“If you want the light off, you can get out of bed to turn it off.”
They take turns hurling anything in reach at the light switch. Parker is the one who manages to hit it and turn it off.
Alec checks his pocket for his passport again. It’s the third time he has done it since they got in line for security at the airport. His bags are checked all the way through to his final destination. Parker’s bag is checked to hers and so is Eliot’s. Three separate final destinations.
Alec checks for his passport again.
Alec’s flight is first. They all walk him to his gate. He managed to get himself upgraded to first class, but that means that he has to board the plane first.
“First class, platinum, and executive platinum members may now board,” the gate agent says over the PA.
“That’s me,” Alec says reluctantly. He hugs Sophie first, then Nate.
“We’ll be in touch,” Sophie says. “As soon as we figure out our next step, we’ll call you.”
“I know,” Alec says. “Hopefully it’s soon, yeah?”
Sophie squeezes his arm then nudges Nate. They step back to give him room to say goodbye to Eliot and Parker.
Parker launches herself into his arms and hugs him tightly. “See you soon.”
“Where are you going to be?” he whispers into her shoulder.
“Not sure,” she says.
She kisses his cheek. Alec tries to turn into it, make it a real kiss, but she has pulled back.
Eliot walks toward him with his hand extended like he thinks that he is going to say goodbye with just a handshake and without giving Alec a hug. Alec wraps his arms around Eliot and holds him tight. It takes a second, but Eliot hugs him back just as tightly.
“Be careful, Hardison,” he says.
“You too, man. Seriously.”
Eliot chuckles and steps back. He claps his hand on Alec’s shoulder. “See you later, Hardison.”
Alec takes one more look at both of them and boards his plane. He sits down heavily in his seat. Technically Parker and Eliot are still right there, just eighty yards away or so. But they may as well be on another planet. Alec theoretically has object permanence, but it deserts him. He can’t see them, so they might not even be real anymore.
He sighs and drops his head back against the headrest. He is being dramatic. Sophie and Nate will figure out the message in the map soon, he tells himself. They’ll call him and he’ll be on the first plane to see them all again. And to find Khufu, of course.
A month passes. Then two. Alec gets a couple more jobs, easy stuff that he can mostly do from home. He goes back into everything he has ever dug up on Khufu and hunts for traces of Sterling. He doesn’t know how much of Sterling’s work he finds, but he can recognize his influence here and there. He manages to talk to a few archeologists from digs he can see Sterling’s fingerprints on – okay, maybe more like twenty – and he hears the same thing from all of them: their dig was visited by a strange little man who said that he was from their dig’s sponsor and here to check on their progress. A few of them checked with their patrons and his story always checked out. He would look through their dig finds and take one or two artifacts with him when he left. One woman Alec speaks to had been on two digs that Sterling had shown up on.
“One of the digs was paid for by the Field Museum,” Dr. Matsunaga tells him. “The other was a private group, IYS I think it was called. It was something I had never heard of before. I couldn’t believe he was there again. I guess he must have changed jobs.” She rolls her coffee cup between her hands and shrugs. “He didn’t really say much to us, just looked over our site and poked around our artifacts.”
“What did he take from your dig?” Alec asks. The dig notes say only that an artifact had been brought to the states via an alternate method of transportation, not what the artifact was.
“It was an amulet, about this big,” Dr. Matsunaga says, indicating with her hands. “It was nothing we thought was particularly interesting. We were actually kind of making fun of him afterwards. It was pretty clear that he just picked it because it was pretty, and he had no idea what was actually a significant find.”
Alec has to admire Sterling’s game. It probably would have worked on him too. An odd little man in his suit, clearly out of place on a dig, paying attention to all the wrong artifacts. He is grateful all over again that Sterling never showed up to the dig where he found the impossible artifact.
“Do you think he is stealing the artifacts and selling them?” Dr. Matsunaga asks. “Is that why you’re asking about him? There was definitely something off about that guy.” Her eyes are wide and her voice excited. She wants this to be an adventure. Of course she does, she’s an archeologist.
“Possibly,” Alec says evasively. He knows that she will take that as a surer yes than if he actually said it. Sure enough she presses her lips together in a knowing smile.
“Well, I have to get going. I have a class to teach,” she says. She pulls out her wallet and Alec automatically waves it away, saying that it will be his pleasure to cover this one. Her smile broadens. She is very pretty, Alec realizes belatedly.
As they leave she hands him her card and tells him to call her if he has any more questions. Her tone and the way she flicks her eyes down his body suggest that he is welcome to call her for other reasons as well. Alec tucks the card into the folder he made for her dig, but he knows he won’t call. As flattering as it is.
He notes down what she told him about Sterling and the artifact then sits back and tries to make sense of all the information he has uncovered over the past couple months. He has tabs on all of the artifacts that Sterling nabbed from sites. Most of them are sitting in storage at museums all over the world. A few of them are on display. Alec pulled the maps of the tombs from each dig that Sterling visited to look for hidden chambers like the one that Parker found at their dig, but so far he hasn’t found anything on that front. He recreated Sterling’s travel over the last five years, which is only minimally interesting. Every time he complies information he sends it along to Nate. He probably sends too many emails to Nate, but Nate never sends him any emails back telling him to stop. He doesn’t send Alec any emails back at all.
Alec adds the information he got from Dr. Matsunaga to an email he was writing for Nate and sends it off. He kicks his feet up onto the desk. His apartment is a huge mess. There are papers and books and laptops on every surface. Photos of sites and artifacts are tacked to his walls. But he has a system. The living room has the most recent digs and the bedroom has everything from more than three years ago. He has it organized along the timeline that he has constructed for Sterling’s career and his interest in Khufu. Things on the east side of the room belong to digs the more northern sites. There is a system, he swears.
The flaw in this system is the kitchen. The kitchen doesn’t have anything about Sterling in it. Instead, on the counter next to the stove he has all the information he has about Eliot and on the fridge is all the information about Parker. He has barely anything on them because it’s not like he digs around for news on them the way is he doing with Sterling. All he has are things that came up in his hunt for Sterling. A picture of Eliot and his dig crew. A report that mentions Parker. Little things that he would pass on entirely except that they are about Parker and Eliot.
He has heard nothing from any of them since the airport, but when he thinks about that radio silence he really only thinks about Parker and Eliot. He is keeping tabs on them loosely. He knows that Eliot took a job in South America and Parker is in Iceland. Three different continents, three different time zones. Neither Parker nor Eliot are anywhere with internet connection, or even cell service probably, but the radio silence still hurts.
Alec picks up one of the walkie-talkies from the dig and fiddles with it. He’s beginning to make a habit of doing that whenever he is thinking nowadays. He was working at a local coffeeshop and he reached for the walkie-talkie. His heart thudded hard in his chest and his breath quickened when his fingers grasped at thin air; he hadn’t brought the walkie-talkie with him. He was suddenly back in the collapsed tomb, all alone in the dark.
He had turned the walkie-talkie on once, about three weeks after he got home and he was aching with his loneliness. He said, “Hello?” into the static, not really expecting a response and not getting one either.
The ding of his email cuts into his thoughts. In the first few weeks back when he started sending Nate everything he thought would be remotely useful, he had jumped to check his email every time he heard the ding. He had even turned up the volume so that he would be able to hear it anywhere in his apartment. It was a pavlovian clusterfuck and he almost bruised his kneecap from the number of times that ding startled him into banging his knee into his desk.
He ignores it now. He suppresses a yawn and realizes that he is exhausted. It’s only ten-thirty, but who is going to know if he goes to bed early?
He brushes his teeth and crawls into bed. He loves his bed. He splurged on it more than he should have, probably, but he loves how soft the mattress is and the wooden bed frame and how fucking huge it is. It could easily fit three people.
His email sounds off again, then twice more in quick succession. Alec sighs and drags himself out of bed to turn the volume down on his computer. His eye catches on the email address on the most recent message in his inbox. It’s Nate’s. He nearly tips over his jug of orange soda in his haste to open the email.
Hardison, good work. Come to the exhibit opening at the Field Museum. You’ve earned it, don’t you think?
Attached is information about the exhibit’s opening party.
Alec books his flight.
Alec should have worn a cummerbund, shit. He is so underdressed. Why not just turn up in boxers and a Star Wars shirt? If he was going to look like a computer nerd with no class then he might as well have committed to it and gone all the way. He tugs uncomfortably at his jacket and looks around for a familiar face. He doesn’t expect to see Eliot or Parker there; they are both still signed to their jobs. But Nate or Sophie would be a welcome sight right about now.
The Field Museum itself isn’t exactly what Alec would call grand, but it has a sense of smug grandeur that– you know what, Alec is probably just projecting. It’s not the Museum’s fault that he wore his friend’s old tux from his prom and feels wildly out of place. The only thing to do is to put on his cockiest grin and swagger around the room like he owns the damn place. He slips one hand in his pocket and takes a slow turn about the room.
It is strange to see all of the artifacts from their dig in these little glass boxes. Alec hadn’t meant to, but somewhere along the line he must have started thinking of them as their artifacts. He feels jealously proprietary seeing them all like this, but proud as well. They did good work together and this is the proof made available for public consumption. He might frame the little brochure they gave him about the exhibit.
“Alec?” says a surprised voice from behind him. Alec turns to see Dr. Matsunaga coming toward him. She is not at all undressed; her long black dress is lovely and fits her perfectly.
“Dr. Matsunaga,” he says in similar surprise. “Hi, how are you?” He holds out his hand to shake but she smoothly turns the offer into a quick hug.
“I didn’t know you would be here,” she said. “And please, call me Helen.”
“Helen, right. Yeah, this is, well, my dig. I helped recover a few of these artifacts,” Alec says. He can hear the pride in his own voice. From the smile Helen gives him he knows she hears it too.
“Quite an accomplishment,” she says. “Tell me.”
Which is how he ends up navigating her around the room, taking her chronologically through their discoveries rather than follow the narrative the museum had created with them. They zigzag from artifact to artifact. It feels so good to talk about that dig, about everything he and Eliot and Parker did down in the tomb together. Alec is grateful to Helen for patiently listening to the stream of nonsense that pours out of him as he tries to articulate his whole experience. With the artifacts right there, he feels like he is showing her a photo album of that week and a half, not letting her turn the pages at her own speed as he has to explain each picture in detail.
“Sorry,” he says bashfully after explaining how he had thought the lights in the tomb were broken because they kept flashing randomly, until he realized that Eliot had gotten his hands on the remote and was spelling out country music lyrics with them in Morse code. “That was probably a lot more information than you wanted to hear.”
She tilts her head sympathetically as she smiles at him. Alec does a quick mental review of his story to try to figure out what he said to deserve sympathy. “I’m sorry for being so nosy, but I have to know,” Helen starts, then pauses. Alec raises his eyebrows to invite her question. “I have to know,” she says, “which one are you dating?”
“Eliot or Parker, which one?”
Alec gapes at her for a minute. Neither is probably the real answer, though both feels more like the truth. He thought he had been careful, though, not to mention anything about that aspect of the trip in his recap narration. Evidently even being careful was not enough to hide it.
Helen laughs at his expression and puts a bracing hand on his shoulder. “Alec, you’re not very subtle.” Alec laughs too, because how could he not? Helen squeezes his shoulder sympathetically.
“Hardison, there you are.”
Alec spins around as he recognizes Sophie’s voice. He isn’t sure if he has ever heard a more beautiful sound in his life. He just restrains himself from picking her up off the ground and spinning her around because she looks untouchably elegant, like a piece of art herself. Also, Nate has his arm lightly around her waist and Alec would probably die in any attempt to dislodge it.
So in lieu of hugs he settles for a huge grin and a couple of handshakes. Sophie raises her eyebrows just slightly as she takes in Helen next to him and Alec hurries to introduce her.
“Nate Ford, Sophie Devereux, this is Dr. Helen Matsunaga. She was helping me with my, uh, inquiry into Sterling.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Sophie says smoothly as Nate looks impatiently at Alec. Alec gives him a little shrug. What was he supposed to do, ignore social conventions? Yes, says the look that Nate gives him. Alec rolls his eyes.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Nate lies right to Hellen’s face. “I’m sorry but we’re going to have to steal Hardison away from you for a minute.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem,” Helen says pleasantly. She gestures at Alec like he’s all yours. Alec says goodbye and eagerly follows Nate and Sophie out of the gallery and upstairs to the offices. Nate stops at the office with the name Sterling printed next to it and Alec has to laugh at that. Nate has some serious balls. Nate winks at him as he lets them into Sterling’s office. Alec hadn’t thought to look for Sterling at the museum, but now that they’re in his office, he knows that Sterling isn’t at the exhibit opening.
“You said you figured it out,” Alec says. He wants to know everything.
“There isn’t time to tell you everything right now,” Sophie says. “We’re trying to keep this all…under the radar. But yes, we figured it out. It’s a map depicting part of the Abydos region. We can read it and it should lead us to, well, to Khufu. The problem isn’t going to be finding our way once we’re there.”
“It’s getting there,” Alec fills in.
“And making sure that we’re the first ones there,” Nate says. “If Sterling even sets foot on the site, he would own it, ostensibly.”
Alec nods, trying to process all the information. “We need to travel separately. We need cover stories for our trips. Hey, it’s like we’re spies or something,” he says delightedly.
Nate looks a little offended at the comparison, but he lets Alec have this one. “Can you get us all over there, Hardison?”
Alec is about to say yes when something occurs to him. “All of us?” he asks carefully. He knows that Nate and Sophie will know what he means. This won’t be a difficult dig where they need his tools, and it will just add to the risk of being caught if he comes along unnecessarily.
“All of us,” Nate says firmly.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Alec says.
He doesn’t ask about Eliot and Parker, and neither Sophie nor Nate offers up any information.
It’s hardly news that Alec Hardison is a goddamn, titanium-plated super genius. It’s just nice to have reminders like this every once in a while.
In the end it took eight dummy digs, fully staffed, to get them here. Which means it also took about twenty thousand dollars in equipment and travel, not that any of it was coming out of Alec’s pocket. He had managed to get real sponsors lined up for these fake digs. It took fourteen archeologists and a few Egyptologists, all standing around at fake digs that probably have no ruins or artifacts to uncover. It took Alec fucking Hardison and his big, beautiful brain.
Alec spends the whole plane ride, then the car ride to Abydos congratulating himself. It doesn’t occur to him until he is about four miles from their agreed-upon meeting place that this might not actually have worked. There is a sudden pile-up of what could have gone wrong playing out in his mind.
But his car is the last to pull up to the spot; everyone is there already, exchanging hugs and breaking out the gear. Alec is frozen in the driver’s seat for a second, a little overwhelmed with- with his genius, of course.
Can you still have a crush on someone you’ve had sex with? Is that still called a crush then, getting jittery butterflies in your stomach when you see someone who you have seen and touched naked?
Parker looks amazing. Eliot looks just as good. Alec sneaks a quick look at himself in the rearview mirror, but it’s not like he has time to primp. He gets out of his truck and walks over to the rest of them very, very casually. He slots in perfectly in the small circle they form. For a moment no one says anything.
“You’re late, Hardison,” Nate says.
Alec rolls his eyes, but he laughs along with everyone else.
Parker loops her arm through Sophie’s. “So are we going to find this treasure or what?”
“We don’t know if the treasure is here,” Nate cautions. “It might just be another clue.”
Parker sticks her tongue out at Nate when he turns his back to start unloading some equipment out of his truck across the site.
“Wait, Nate, not that,” Sophie calls out. She sighs and hurries over to correct him, leaving Alec, Parker, and Eliot alone for the first time since that night.
“I missed you guys,” Alec says, or rather he starts to say but stops because both Eliot and Parker begin to speak too. They all stop. Parker and Alec laugh, and even Eliot smiles. Parker tugs them in and gives them a little squeeze.
“Come on, let’s go find a dead guy’s treasure,” she says cheerfully.
They grab their gear out of Nate’s truck and Alec grabs a few extra things from his own. They circle up again when Nate sketches out their game plan. It’s so simple, but it’s just the bit of the iceberg sticking up out of the water. Alec knows that beneath the surface there is a whole alphabet of contingency plans, from A to Z. The plan that Nate shares: stick together, let Parker take the lead, be ready to follow instruction.
God, Alec missed this.
The best part about this is that there is no digging involved. There is no exploring either, up to a point. Their starting point is a very humble tomb that was uncovered in the early 1900s and stripped bare within a year of its discovery. No one has looked twice at this place since. But the map seems to indicate, Sophie promises, that there is a heretofore unexplored series of tunnels and antechambers that should lead them to the treasure horde. Alec corrects it in his head to Treasure Horde, giving it the capitalization and italics that such a discovery deserves. Looking down at the hole in the ground he feels the joy of being five and waking up first on Christmas morning.
Once he is in the hole, he feels the incapacitating fear of a man who has suddenly remembered the crushing inevitability of his own mortality. The darkness of the tomb’s tunnels stretches out in front of him and he can’t quite draw enough air into his lungs to breathe comfortably. He tells himself that he is fine, that he is safe.
“Guys, wait up. I can- if you want, I can do a quick stability check? Make sure that this thing isn’t going to…go anywhere. I mean, I could, if you want,” he stutters.
“It’s fine, Hardison, the tomb will be fine” Nate says. Gently. Fuck, Alec doesn’t want to need gentle right now, it’s making him feel like a coward.
“Cool, okay,” Alec says, trying for flippant.
They all look at him carefully for another moment, then they start moving forward again. Alec is frozen for two more breaths, three breaths, then he forces himself to walk. One foot in front of the other. He breathes the way Parker taught him too. He thinks hard about the way her voice sounded as she coached him through his breathing. The memory of Eliot pulling him away from the rubble sneaks to the front of his mind.
The tomb is eery in its bareness. Something this old should not be so empty, Alec thinks. It looks like the ancient equivalent of an empty office building with only little bundles of wires here and there across the floor. It survived for countless thousands of years only to be stripped down and rendered purposeless. Alec has never really gone in for the history side of this archeology gig, but shit this makes him legitimately sad. It’s actually a pretty good distraction from the ubiquity of tomb collapse related death.
The tomb is not large, and it isn’t long until they are at there at the x marks the spot. Here is where their map really begins.
“Parker,” Nate says, and Parker gets to work.
Alec has no idea what she is doing, but that is the wonderful thing about teamwork; he can sit back and be afraid of the dark while she does what she does best. It involves shimmying up walls and through tight spaces and somehow opening a secret door in the wall.
“Now, how in the hell…” Alec marvels quietly.
“I’ve stopped asking,” Eliot says.
“Found the doorknob,” Parker says, sticking her head through the newly opened door.
“Excellent,” Nate says. “Let’s go find our treasure.”
For a stretch, this bit of underground tunnels is the same as any other. They turn a corner and Parker, still in the lead, says, “Oh, Sophie, look at this.”
The walls in this passageway are covered with images in paint and carved into the walls. Sophie looks a little weak in the knees for a moment. It is several moments before she can speak.
“It’s so well preserved,” she murmurs.
“Sophie,” Nate prompts patiently.
“We’re coming back to examine this later,” Sophie insists. Nate holds his hands up in surrender.
Parker shouts back occasional instructions on where to step and where to avoid, but they are mostly silent the rest of the march to the treasure antechamber. It’s a lot to take in, even for Alec who has no real context for what he is seeing.
“Here,” Parker says simply. She stops them in front of a dark doorway. It’s too dark to see into the room, but Alec can feel that this is it.
“What are we waiting for?” Eliot smiles at them.
It’s too much treasure to look at, at first. It is piled high all across the chamber. Gold and bronze wink out at them in the light of their flashlights. Eliot is frozen in place. Parker keeps making little half-movements but stays where she is in the doorway. Alec busies himself with setting up lights and mirrors to light as much of the chamber as he can, only taking glances at the treasure out of the corner of his eye. After all the time he had spent trying to get here, Alec thought he would want to roll around in it. But despite all the time he has had to think about this moment – or maybe because of it – it is overwhelming. He had dreamt of and planned for it for so long now that now that it’s here it doesn’t feel real. Alec grins to himself because he knows he has all the time in the world to get used to it.
Once the lights are set up, Nate sends them into the maze of treasures to catalogue everything. They have a plan to get it all out of this chamber, but they have to know what is in it first. Alec won’t be much good here because he doesn’t have the same familiarity with ancient objects that the rest of them do. Strangely, he isn’t bothered by this like he usually would be.
He is reluctant to leave the chamber – packed full of everything he has been working for, plus a couple of things he hadn’t known he wanted – but he feels antsy. Yeah, they found the treasure (they fucking found it) but there is still work to be done before it can be theirs indisputably. So he gets to work.
He pulls the gear he needs out of his bag and walks back toward the passageway. It is dark and foreboding beyond the doorway. In the artificially lit treasure room, Alec had almost forgotten that they were underground. He tries to take a steadying breath. It’s not as bracing as he’d like.
Alec feels Eliot’s hand on his shoulder. He turns and Parker is there too.
“Did you bring your walkie-talkie?”
Alec’s hand dips to his hip where his walkie-talkie is clipped to his belt. Eliot smiles softly and taps his own hip. Alec sees his walkie-talkie hanging there. Parker is holding hers in her hand. Alec touches it with two fingers.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll be right back. Let me know if you need me.”
It’s like those first few days together in the tomb, with the three of them each working on their own jobs in different parts of the tunnels, but still chatting in each others’ ear. Mostly it’s Eliot or Parker giving Alec awed descriptions of artifacts that they’re logging into the record. Alec loves it. He peppers them with questions because he can just see their smiles as they indulge him.
Everyone is reluctant to leave the tomb at the end of the day, but they do manage to tear themselves away in time to set up camp and, in Eliot’s case, make dinner. No one talks about the months, four of them now, that they were apart. It’s almost like those months just didn’t happen. Instead, they talk shop. Everyone recounts something special they saw down in the chamber. They talk over the game plan for tomorrow and what they’re going to do with the treasure once they get it all out of the ground. It makes Alec’s heart clench with happiness when they’re all on the same page about it.
Nate and Sophie have either finally solidified their relationship, or have finally stopped being subtle about it. Either way, they say goodnight early and go back to their shared tent which is set up a polite distance from the rest of the campsite.
Eliot takes in this development with raised eyebrows, but no one actually says anything. They’re not exactly in a position to judge anyone for hooking up on the job.
Thinking that makes Alec think about that night in the hotel and it makes him go hot all over. He catches Eliot’s eye and Eliot is just as turned on as he is.
After a minute Parker says, “We’re going to have sex tonight, right?”
Alec laughs and walks over so he can kiss her. She bites his lower lip eagerly. Eliot steps close so he can kiss her too when Alec comes up for air.
“My tent is the biggest,” Eliot offers.
It takes a few days to rig up the conveyor system that Alec designs to get the treasure out. There is an especially tricky midsection portion, where it doubles back on itself for a few yards. Eliot does most of the building; Alec does most of the instructing. Parker hangs around and does most of the obstructing. Eliot grumbles that the whole thing would go much faster if Alec and Parker just left him to work on it alone. Alec can tell he is full of shit.
They test out the conveyor system on the fourth day. Eliot, Alec, and Parker sit in the carts to test out the smoothness of the ride and Nate and Sophie wait for them outside the tomb. It works, of course. Alec might have to make a couple adjustments to the speed for a few of the turns, but it works and they celebrate with some beer that Eliot swears by but makes Alec wish he didn’t have tastebuds. Later that night he is thanking god that he does have tastebuds because Parker is the best thing he has ever tasted and he wants to stay there on his knees forever.
“I didn’t know whether you would want to do this again,” he confesses to them both afterwards, in the darkness of the tent. “I thought that one time at the hotel might be it.”
“Hey!” Alec protests, poking her.
“I thought you were supposed to be smart, Hardison,” Eliot says on his other side.
“I don’t know why I love either of you,” Alec grouses. He realizes his word choice a beat too late, but he lets it stand. No one says anything else as they drift to sleep.
Alec wakes up the next morning with his phone buzzing in his ear.
“Hello?” he says groggily, not sure if he’s pressing the right end against his ear.
“Alec?” Helen sounds worried.
“Hey, hi,” Alec says, trying to sound more awake. Eliot is glaring at him so Alec gets up out of the tent. He walks a little ways away so that he won’t wake Parker too. “Is everything okay?
“You told me to call if Sterling showed up. He showed up,” Helen says.
Alec swears. Helen volunteered to go along on one of the fake digs that Alec set up to mislead Stirling. Her dig is right near where Alec found the impossible artifact, and Alec had planned that one to be the least tempting to Stirling. If he was already there, he must have already been to at least a couple of the others.
“Thanks, Helen,” he says. “Is everything going okay there?”
She laughs. “Yeah, Alec, it’s going great. Everyone realized that they’re getting paid to be here and not do work. I brought beer. We’re having a great time.”
“Good to hear,” Alec says, booting up his laptop. “I gotta go. I’ll call you when this is over and let you know how it went, okay?”
“Talk to you later, Alec. Be careful.”
“Thanks, I will.”
Alec checks flights. If Sterling hurried, he could have made it on the seven o’clock flight. He could be here in a few hours. Alec sighs and rubs his eyes. Why is it always on him to share Sterling-related bad news with the rest of them? He goes to wake everyone up.
Nate doesn’t seem as worried at Alec thinks he should be. “We stick with the plan,” Nate says. “Let’s move as much as we can out of the tomb before he gets here, and then we’ll worry about dealing with Sterling. Eliot, keep an eye out for him at the airport."
Alec tosses Eliot the keys to his car and Eliot takes off. The rest of them get to work emptying out the treasure room. Alec and Parker work as quickly as they can to load everything into the conveyor carts, but it is a three-day job and there is only so much they can do. Nate and Sophie wait topside to unload from the carts and secure the treasures in boxes. Nate radios down after a few hours to say that Eliot called; Sterling is on his way to the site.
Sterling rolls up in a Beemer because of course he does. At least he doesn’t have to steal one of their trucks to get back to the airport this time. Nate, Sophie, Parker and Alec are waiting for him in front of the tomb.
“Well, well. My own little welcoming party,” Sterling smiles at them all. “Is this your organized surrender?”
“It’s over Sterling,” Nate says. “We have it.”
Sterling puts on a pensive expression. “Really? And the fact that you uncovered it on an IYS-controlled dig site means- what exactly?” He pulls an envelope from his pocket and holds it out to Nate. “You can check the paperwork if you’d like. But I think you’ll find that it’s all in order. Anything you uncover here is officially the property of IYS and it will be my pleasure to take it off your hands.”
“We didn’t find anything here,” Nate says.
Sterling rolls his eyes, “Nate-“
“It’s true,” Sophie chimes in. “Your paperwork, I’m guessing you filed it for TT04, is that right? That’s this tomb here. We found nothing in TT04.”
“We did, however, find something in a new site, TT93. Quite a lot, in fact,” Nate says. “Show him, Hardison.”
Alec happily holds his tablet under Sterling’s nose. “See, this is TT04. You can see the perimeters are clearly defined. And it is right here, square in the middle of TT93 that we found- well, you know what we found.”
Alec thinks he should take a picture of Sterling’s face. It doesn’t seem fair to Eliot that he is missing out on such a baffled, outraged expression. Parker, as always, is one step ahead of him, pulls out her phone and snaps a picture.
Sterling’s expression resolves itself into something a little calmer. “It doesn’t matter, Nate. I’ll just refile and retroactively claim everything you’ve found. You don’t want to put up a fight on this one, Nate. Not when there is this much money on the line. IYS has legions of lawyers. You’ll be buried in lawsuits.”
Nate opens his mouth to say something, but at that moment Eliot’s car rolls up to the site. “Maybe so,” Nate says. “Maybe not.”
Eliot gets out of the driver’s side and a woman gets out of the passenger side. She marches straight up to the group. “Which of you is Mr. Sterling?” she asks.
Sterling looks like he is worried he might get sent to the principle’s office, but he raises his hand. “I am.”
The woman seizes his hand and shakes it firmly. “I am Dr. Ikram from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I want to say thank you so much for your extreme generosity. Your friend Mr. Ford told us that IYS wanted to work with us to keep these Egyptian treasure here in their home country.”
Sterling’s expression is even more priceless than before. Alec elbows Eliot to make sure that he is seeing this.
“We have already contacted the press about this wonderful story,” Dr. Ikram continues. “You must return to Cairo with me so that we can show our appreciation.”
Sterling meets Nate’s eye levelly. “It would be my pleasure, Dr. Ikram. IYS is always happy to help countries maintain their cultural heritage.” It’s a lie and it’s a lie that hurts him to tell. Alec and Eliot grin at each other. Parker gives a happy bounce.
“And your archeology team, they must come too,” Dr. Ikram says.
Sterling’s smile gets a little forced. “Of course.”
The five of them get a minute to talk as they’re packing up.
“I know it’s a little early for this,” Nate starts, “but I heard about some interesting things going on in the Dsojer region. I’m thinking we should probably head out that way, check it out. Is everyone in?”
Everyone nods. Parker slips her hand in Alec’s and Eliot bumps their shoulders together.
“Good, let’s go find another treasure.”