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Leverage fic: The Magic Job (6/7)

December 21st, 2016 (09:55 am)
angry

feeling: angry

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN



Nate reacted quickly, but it fell apart faster. He could almost feel it, the pieces slipping through his fingers, the bottom falling out even as he tried with all he had to hold it together.

Eliot’s breathing staggered painfully, and Nate’s own chest was tight as he got there just in time to soften Eliot’s downward slump to the floor. Awkwardly, Nate shifted, rotating Eliot until he was facing up, blinking dull blue eyes up at the ceiling with his mouth open, gasping for air.

“Too many shots,” he said haltingly, starting to tremble in Nate’s grasp. “I couldn’t -- I couldn’t -- the odds were against us.”

The odds.

Nate hadn’t cared about the damn odds. It wasn’t that he hadn’t known them, but he simply hadn’t deemed them relevant in his decision making process. The odds hadn’t factored in before. They’d always beaten the odds.

Eliot’s chest hitches as he tried to squelch a twinge of pain.

“It’s okay,” Nate said, woodenly. He swallowed hard and blinked his eyes, tightening his grip on Eliot. “We can do this.”

He looked up at the others. Hardison was standing, wide-eyed and still. Parker had actually retreated, face pale and posture rigid. Sophie had pulled up a step behind him, eyes fixed on the growing stain beneath Eliot’s jacket.

They’d believed him before because they had known he was telling the truth.

It wasn’t as easy this time.

Not when not even Nate knew for sure if he was being honest with them or not.

The truth didn’t matter, though.

Not now.

“Come on,” he said, hoisting Eliot up. “We can do this.”

-o-

Eliot was shorter than him, but as well built as he was, he was almost too heavy for Nate to carry. To his credit, Eliot tried to help, but his movements were uncoordinated and his legs tangled with Nate’s more than they hit the ground. Sophie leaned in to help, but she didn’t know where to put her hands to help, and Hardison’s attempts to clear a path were noisy and unproductive. Parker started to brush debris off the bed, moving it with such force that it nearly hit Nate square in the face.

Of course, Nate was too busy almost dropping Eliot to offer any advice.

The lack of coordination between them was disconcerting, but given the fact that Eliot was still bleeding, Nate really had more important things to worry about.

As he tried to lower Eliot, his grip slipped, and Eliot half fell to the bed, which was still strewn with pieces of glass and wood. The wall above the bed was badly damaged with entire portions missing. Worriedly, Nate pushed the jacket out of the way, trying to keep Eliot’s hands away while he pulled the shirt up to get a better look at the wound.

The marred skin was coated with blood, dark and hot as it welled up from the wound. Nate didn’t know a lot about medicine, but he knew enough about basic anatomy to know that the position of the wound was somewhat in their favor. To the side, it looked like it probably missed most of what would probably be considered vital.

Grimacing, Nate shrugged out of his own coat, using it to try to clean away the blood for a better look. Eliot did his best to stay still, but his body was stiff and his breathing heavily controlled, enough that Nate knew just how much the other man was hurting.

Furrowing his brow, Nate looked closer, trying to account for the amount of blood that was already collecting on the blankets. The entire bed was stained with red, and as Nate reached around, he felt more blood on Eliot’s backside.

Concerned, he tipped Eliot to the side, trying to get a better look.

That was when he saw the exit wound.

It was bigger than the entrance wound -- and bleeding copiously. The good news was that since the bullet wasn’t still inside, he wasn’t at as much of a risk for infection and septic shock.

Of course, at the rate he was bleeding, he’d be hypovolemic sooner rather than later, and blood loss killed you a lot faster than infection.

He rolled Eliot gently onto his back again, and tried to remember how to think. He was the mastermind, after all. It was his job to have the plan. It was his responsibility to know all the contingencies. He was supposed to prepare for things like this. Not off-chances, but eventualities.

This was what they’d been afraid of. This was the risk his team had been hesitant to take. This was the worst case scenario that all of them knew had been possible.

The outcome Nate had told them wouldn’t happen.

Not because he was naive or stupid or overconfident.

But because no matter how easy it was to grasp intellectually, nothing could have ever prepared him for the reality of it. Because he knew the job was dangerous, but he knew his team was better. He knew that firewalls were hard to crack. He knew that safes were hard to break. He knew that marks were hard to con. He knew that security guards were hard to take down.

That was what they did, though. All these years without missing a beat. This was what they did.

Magic.

This had never been about magic.

“Okay,” Nate said, swallowing hard past the emotions. He looked back toward the others. “We’re going to need bandages -- and lots of them. If the generator’s still working, we’ll want to boil some water, and look around to see if there’s anything resembling a first aid kit.”

They stared at him, each more dumbfounded than the last. Nate was a little out of practice giving orders.

His team was out of even more practice when it came to taking them.

Their implicit understanding wasn’t gone, exactly, but it sure as well was hard to make sense of between the overwhelming pain and fear between them.

Nate drew a breath, doing his best to steady himself. He’d never needed a spell before to get the job done. He had to think the same was true now.

He took another breath. “Hardison, find as many towels or blankets as you can find -- anything clean,” he said. “Parker, see if you can get some water to boil. Sophie, I’m going to need your help with him--”

They were scared and jarred, but they were still his team. Without a word, they each complied, and Nate turned back to Eliot with a smile. “As for you,” he ordered. “You just need to hang in there, okay?”

Eliot’s face twitched as he took another shaky breath. “You giving orders again? Really?”

Nate offered him an admonishing look. “Don’t worry about who’s giving the order,” he said, giving Eliot a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Just make sure that’s one you follow.”

-o-

Nate had been shot several times on the job, and he’d survived. One time, he’d gotten prompt medical attention. The second time, he’d at least been in an ambulance with Eliot’s experienced had to get him through.

This time, though?

They were in a remote cabin with close to nothing.

Hardison found as many blankets as he could, and then he started to empty out dresser drawers to boot. Parker managed to get some water on the stove, and Sophie was perched by Eliot’s side with her most disarming smile.

“I can’t imagine this is the first time you’ve been through this,” she said, voice cooing like silk.

Eliot grimaced heavily. “Another reason why I don’t like guns,” he muttered. “Gunshot wounds hurt like a son of a bitch.”

Unconsciously, Nate pressed down a little harder on the wound, doing his best to apply pressure from both sides.

“That’s your job, isn’t it?” she asked. “To take the pain?”

Parker clattered with the stove behind them; Hardison added more shirts to the pile.

This time, Eliot almost smiled. “No one can say I don’t do it well.”

Sophie chuckled, but Nate closed his eyes.

They were all doing their jobs.

Each of them.

That was all they ever did.

It wasn’t enough, though.

It wasn’t always enough.

That kind of thinking was too indulgent. Nate didn’t have the luxury of wondering what he should have done, what he could have done, what he wished he’d done. Not with Eliot’s blood on his hands and the rest of the team hanging together by a thread.

“Here,” he said to Sophie, handing off the makeshift compresses for her to take over. “I need to get a few things.”

She obliged without flinching, though Nate knew she wanted to. On his feet, he turned quickly, trying to steady his breathing. He ignored the way his hands were shaking as he went to the kitchen area, watching for a moment while Parker cleaned the towels before opening the cabinets hanging over the counter.

Holding onto the cabinet helped, and he was able to duck his head behind the door for a momentary reprieve. Bloodshed was always a possibility he considered, but he’d never taken plan M seriously.

Hell, there wasn’t even supposed to be a plan where Eliot took a bullet in the first place.

Of course, he couldn’t have planned for this.

Except, he could have. The others had. Nate just forgot sometimes that putting a plan in his head didn’t necessarily negate the possible outcomes.

Focusing his attention, Nate started through the cupboards. The first one was stocked with dry goods, but when he opened the second, he found the stash he was looking for -- alcohol. There was a lot of beer, which wouldn’t do him much good right now, but there was a shelf of higher proof liquors that would work as sanitizers. He unscrewed one of the bottles and took a whiff. With a quick swig, he confirmed its strength.

Closing his eyes, he took a second swig for good measure before turning back to Eliot and the others.

At this point, he was going to need all the help he could get.

-o-

Nate considered himself something of a jack of all trades. As an insurance man, he’d learned to dabble widely, and he had a vast knowledge about a strange assortment of things. Art, automobiles, wine, shipping, trade, law enforcement. And other things, too. Aviation, horse racing, cards, literature. He was a quick study, and he retained information as a practical skill set.

Of his many skills, though, first aid was not among them.

He’d always been more than happy to leave this sort of thing to Eliot when the situation demanded it, but since Eliot was the one bleeding, that didn’t seem to be an option this time around. He half expected Hardison would pass out, and there was no way he was going to ask Parker when she looked so skittish as it was. Sophie would do what she had to do, but he needed Sophie to be the calming presence throughout this ordeal -- for Nate himself as much as Eliot.

Pulling up a chair to Eliot’s bedside, Nate picked up on of the towels Parker had meticulously boiled for him. He had another on hand to soak up the blood and the bottle of open alcohol was perched on the ground. “Okay,” he said, bolstering as much confidence as he could. “Let’s get this thing looked at.”

On the bed, Eliot visibly rallied himself, tilting his head up to look down where Sophie was still pressing against the two holes in his side. “You’re going to need to flush it out -- a lot,” he said, the words tight. “Hot water’s a start, but you’re going to want an antiseptic--”

Nate reached down, sloshing the bottle of alcohol.

Eliot nodded curtly. “That’ll do it,” he said. “But you’ll want to use the whole bottle -- and pour in both directions. Hopefully you’ll flush out any debris, but if you see anything in there--”

Nate forced a smile. “We’ll deal with that if we have to.”

“I’m serious, Nate,” Eliot said, breathing heavier now. “This part -- it’s going to suck for both of us -- but if you don’t do it right now, then I ain’t got a chance in hell of getting out of here.”

Nate was out of his depth this time. Nate was out of his league. He had no business doing this. None whatsoever. He had been an insurance investigator, after all. And he could play a doctor, but makeshift surgery?

He had no right.

If not him, then who? They were counting on him, each and every one of them. He started this.

He had to see it through.

“Don’t worry,” he assured Eliot. “I’ve got it totally under control.”

-o-

For an honest man, Nate sure did lie a lot.

When Sophie moved her hands, Nate’s stomach churned at the fresh blood, and he quickly took the hot water, tipping it over the wound and pouring it.

Eliot stiffened and hissed in pain, his fingers clencing into fists. “Faster -- more--”

Nate obliged, almost against his own will. When the first bowl had been emptied, he helped Eliot roll to the side, flushing the wound out from the other direction with a fresh bowl of steaming water. After he used another bowl, he used a towel to wipe at the wound, leaning closer to pull the skin apart as best he could and take a better look inside.

Sophie looked away, eyes on Eliot’s face. Parker and Hardison stood shoulder to shoulder behind him, dumbfounded at the sight.

It was impossible to tell what he was looking for, but he dabbed at the wound anyway, cleaning it out as best he could.

On the bed, Eliot let out a tremulous breath before sucking in hard again. “The alcohol now,” he said shortly. His voice wavered, threatening to crack. “You can’t worry about hurting me--”

“Eliot--”

“You can’t,” Eliot hissed between ground teeth. He looked up at Nate with bright eyes. “If you want to save my life, you’re going to have to hurt me.”

Jaw threatening to lock, Nate nodded woodenly. He picked up the alcohol, and Eliot mercifully looked away. Face set like stone, Nate tipped the bottle up and started to let it trickle out. Eliot went ramrod straight at the first touch. When Nate poured more, his entire body threatened to convulse. As he tipped the rest of it out, Eliot’s voice caught on a cry, thick and strangled until it was gone.

Eliot didn’t look up this time, his heavy, unsteady breathing almost racking his body as he stared desperately at the wall. If anyone else noticed the wet streaks on Eliot’s face, they certainly weren’t about to mention it. Sophie leaned down, stroking his hair lightly with a reassuring litany in his ears while Parker and Hardison started to shift the soiled materials out of the way.

As for Nate, he packed the wound, using the strips Hardison had cut to tight them on as tight as he could. The process was long and cumbersome, and it left Eliot white as a sheet and slicked with sweat. Finally, Nate used the last bowl to clean his hands, rubbing off the blood and then drying his hands on one of the t-shirts Hardison had procured.

Getting to his feet, he squeezed Eliot’s shoulder. “Just rest, okay?”

Eliot didn’t reply, but gave a small nod of his head.

In a hushed voice, Nate said to Parker. “I want you to scout out the area and see what’s out there,” he said. “I want to know if there’s any sign that we’ve got company, and if there are any clear paths to the road. I know we want to wait a few days, but if we need to, I want to know our best route out of here.”

Parker nodded, and she was out the door by the time Nate turned to Hardison.

“Go over every inch of this cabin and see what supplies we have to work with if we are stuck here,” he said. “Listen over the radio and see what chatter you pick up. I want to know exactly what resources we have before we make our next move.”

Hardison was unusually quiet, eyes on Eliot for a long moment before he turned to get back to work.

“Sophie,” he said. When she looked back, he jerked his head to the side until she got up and soundlessly made her way next to him. “Keep watch on him. If possible, keep him awake. He’s lost a lot of blood, so he’s going to be tired but if we let him sleep too much--”

She nodded soberly. “He might not wake up at all.”

“Keep him calm,” Nate ordered.

Sophie pressed her lips together. “And what about you?”

“You all have your jobs,” he said. “And I have mine.”

-o-

Nate didn’t excuse himself, but he ended up outside all the same. He wasn’t sure what pretense he was working with at this point, but he had to think.

For the love of God, he had to think.

Strangely, it felt like he hadn’t thought properly in close to a year. Since this whole thing began, really. The last, clear-headed thing he remembered was the fleeting notion that a little spell wouldn’t hurt anyone.

The idea of it almost made him want to laugh.

Since that time, all of his thought processes had been severely compromised. Denial had been a big problem, and the blindness of acceptance had been just as damning. Otherwise, how else would he have let this happen?

And what the hell was he going to do to make it right?

They were coming apart at the seams, barely holding together. They were off balance, off kilter, out of tune. One bullet -- but it had hit all of them, each harder than the last.

Which was why, Nate figured as he half-hearted checked the perimeter, they needed to get out of here. This cabin had been a necessary contingency, designed to protect them from Derringer’s magic. That was still a threat, and Nate knew it, but no one could be cursed if they were dead.

Nate could clean out a wound and put on a pressure bandage, but he knew that might not be enough. When Sam had been near the end of things, the doctors had always been concerned with keeping his fluids up. Saline was used to make him comfortable -- to keep him alive.

For Eliot, it was more than saline. It was blood. Nate knew that the amount of blood looked worse than it probably was -- but that was a small consolation. At first glance, it might be easy to think Eliot was already dead with the pile of bloody rags and blankets. Eliot was pale and his pulse was thready. If he wasn’t in shock, he was damn close.

And if Eliot went into shock, then they really wouldn’t have any options.

Or time.

Nate wasn’t going to sit by idly and let that happen.

Nate never sat by idly.

That was how he survived.

Of course, that was also how he accidentally cast soul bounding spells on his team, but that wasn’t really the point right now.

The point was they needed to go. Convincing the team wouldn’t be a problem. Hardison hadn’t wanted anything to do with this job in the first place, so getting out earlier rather than later would be right up his alley. Parker was always looking for exits, so she wouldn’t be a problem. Sophie was pragmatic enough to know what it was time to go, and she’d hate the idea of sitting by, watching Eliot get worse.

Eliot, ironically, would be the hardest to convince. However, since the hitter was weak with blood loss, Nate actually felt decently confident that he could carry the other man out against his will if it came to that.

Although, Nate hadn’t counted on the cops interference quite this early. If they had successfully deflected the cops to Derringer, then she was probably already in custody. That meant that the idea of her keeping a dragnet in place was probably unlikely. Derringer should already be in custody, given the amount of information Nate had had Parker leave behind for them.

That meant that all they had to do was walk away -- and never look back.

So he’d let Hardison gather supplies; he’d let Parker scout the best exit. He’d trust Sophie to keep Eliot awake, and it would be up to Eliot to keep breathing until Nate got him out.

That was the plan.

It was a good plan.

It was the only plan Nate needed to finish this job once and for all.

-o-

That was the problem, though, with the best laid plans.

Worst of all, Nate should have known better.

Parker shook her head. “I’m telling you, there isn’t an exit,” she said after coming back from her scouting expedition. “Everything is flooded. Flash flooding or whatever. The little creek we passed by on our way here? It’s a raging river right now. It washed the bridges out and there isn’t even a road anymore.”

Nate sighed, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “That much rainfall in a short amount of time,” he said. “Plus it’s been a wet season so far. It could take days before it goes down enough to cross.”

“What about Derringer’s Farm?” Sophie asked. “That’s not as far. Can we get there?”

“Sadly, no,” Hardison said. “I’ve been listening to the radios, which can still pick up the police chatter thanks to a little tweaking I did to boost the signal, which is pretty impressive in forest this dense.”

Nate waved his hand through the air. “I’ll praise your genius later,” he said. “What did you hear?”

“Oh, just that the cops barely made it back to Derringer Farms,” Hardison said, sounding somewhat put out. “But the flooding knocked out even the main road. They’re effectively trapped there, which is awkward since they took Derringer into custody already.”

Sophie looked vexed. “So they’re just sitting there? Doing nothing?”

“They got a warrant faxed over, so they’ve been going through everything,” Hardison said. “But even when the waters go down, they’re going to have to repair the roads and the bridges. They’re talking about making a chopper landing tomorrow because they don’t think there will be road access for a week. Minimum.”

Sophie scoffed. “But there’s no way,” she said. “I mean, this place is barely standing as it is. And Eliot--”

From the bed, Eliot cleared his throat, blinking glassy eyes up at them. “Eliot is better off lying here than trying to swim through a flash flood,” he said with a weary inhalation. “I’m just going to be dead weight right now, and I won’t let you guys risk that.”

“But staying here is risky, too,” Sophie argued.

“I don’t like it,” Parker agreed. “Derringer already found us once.”

“Derringer has other concerns right now,” Hardison said.

“There’s no way, man,” Eliot grumbled. “If I can’t walk out of here on my own two feet--”

“But you’ve been bloody shot!”

“Well, I could radio for help--”

“There’s no place to land a chopper here.”

“And hello! Drawing attention to ourselves is not the point!”

“The point is not to die.”

“Well maybe we should have thought about that before we took a job with magic! Again!”

“Alright, alright, alright!” Nate said, getting to his feet and standing between them. “Stop acting like we’ve already lost this thing -- all of you.”

He looked at them each, even as they all looked like they wanted to tell him otherwise.

“Things are bad right now, and I know that,” Nate continued, resolving to be calm. “But we can still handle this.”

“How do you figure that?” Hardison asked, not quite defiantly.

“We’re trapped here,” Parker said.

“For too long,” Sophie added.

Eliot drew a heavy breath. “We’re vulnerable.”

“Except for the fact that we’re still together,” Nate said. “The five of us, we can do this.”

No one replied.

No one could find the words.

“I swear to you,” Nate said with as much conviction as possible. “We can do this.”

It was their rallying cry. The strongest reassurance Nate would ever have. It had always worked before.

This time, they didn’t believe him, though.

This time, Nate couldn’t blame them.

Because with the magic gone, Nate wasn’t sure what they had left anymore.

-o-

The rhythm was broken, and the unspoken silence was heavy with the things they couldn’t bring themselves to stay. No matter how hard they tried, there wasn’t enough to do to fill the stillness. They checked the perimeter; they organized supplies; they changed Eliot’s bandages and monitored his vitals. Small, disparate tasks, and they moved around each other with awkward distance, afraid to touch, but afraid to stay away.

When the darkness finally fell, Nate started a fire and let the lights burn low. Hardison sat, hunched over on a chair with his radio clutched tight in his hand. Parker was cross-legged on the table, eyes flicking from person to person in silent uncertainty. Sophie sat close to Eliot’s bedside, leaned over him so nonchalantly that it was almost hard to see her measure his breath as it came in small gasps between his pale lips.

On the bed, Eliot slept on and off, roused easily when Sophie jarred the bed intermittently. He growled at her accordingly, but he fell asleep a little faster each time.

Nate, he understood it. He felt as weak as Eliot did and as frustrated on Hardison. He was as restless as Parker and as worried as Sophie. He knew everything, but he didn’t know how to fix any of it.

They couldn’t find comfort in each other, not tonight.

But the idea of separation was still unbearable.

These were the things they’d never had to say before.

These were the things they were afraid to say now.

Sophie absently adjusted her hair, chewing her lip. Hardison fiddled with the radio, adjusting it with a short burst of static. Parker twitched, tipping her head to the opposite side. Eliot slept on, unwoken.

Nate sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.

This might just be the longest night of Nate’s life.

-o-

Morning came early and with no reprieve. Nate took a shower, but Hardison had already used the hot water. Parker tried making breakfast, but it was gone by the time Nate went to get a plate, and Sophie only found decaffeinated coffee, for all the good that did them. The only one who slept was Eliot, not that it seemed to have made much difference.

“Look, how was I supposed to know there was only enough hot water for one shower?” Haridon protested.

“It might have helped if you didn’t take thirty minutes in the shower,” Sophie muttered resentfully. “I mean, honestly, what are you doing in there?”

“I am scrubbing the woods off me,” Hardison said pointedly. “I had nature, like, all stuck in my bits. Do you know what that’s like?”

Nate ignored them, purposefully dumping a little whisky into his woefully under caffeinated coffee.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Sophie said. “Only mine is still there because I didn’t have any hot water.”

“Hey, I didn’t even get a turn yet,” Parker reminded them. “No one even asked me if I wanted a turn.”

Turning around, Nate took a sip. What it lacked in taste was made up for with alcohol.

“You was too busy making breakfast -- for yourself only,” Hardison said.

“I didn’t realize I was on cooking duty,” Parker countered.

“You didn’t miss much,” Sophie said with a huff to Hardison. “Canned peaches in a bowl does not constitute anything resembling breakfast.’

“Then open your own can,” Parker told her. “It’s not hard. Not even for you.”

Sophie’s mouth fell open in melodramatic flair. “What? Why, you little--”

From the bed, Eliot snuffled, taking a ragged breath and twitching. They watched, in sudden and stony stillness, as his lips parted and he drifted back into an uneasy sleep.

Nate cleared his throat. “You were all saying?”

They were duly chagrined. Sophie looked down, wringing her hands. Parker poked at the remaining peaches in her bowl. Hardison slumped accordingly.

“Look, this isn’t what we planned, and I get that,” Nate continued. “But showers? Breakfast? Coffee? We have other things to think about.”

“Like how much whisky you put in that cup?” Sophie asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Like how we can keep working together to get out of here,” Nate said instead, refusing to give even an inch. “We need to know exactly what the water levels are and what our safest exit is going to be. We need to keep Eliot clean and hydrated and rested. And I know that seems like a lot, but we can do this. We can do this.”

They were watching him now, each more hopeful than the last.

Nate drew his mouth into a smile. “We can do this together,” he promised them. “And everything is going to be fine.”

That was what they needed. That was the hope they could use to keep this together. A little optimism. A little undying faith that the fates might turn in their favor after all.

It lasted a good ten seconds.

Before the first raindrop fell.

And the second.

As the rain picked up, Sophie yelped. Parker stared up at it curiously. Hardison ducked out of the way to a part of the house where the roof was still in one piece.

Perplexed, Nate craned his head outside. The sky was overcast as far as the eye could see.

Magic?

Bad luck?

At this point, it was damn near impossible to tell.

-o-

The rain, while worrisome and inconvenient, at least gave them something to do. Nate wasn’t about to start looking at it as a blessing in disguise, but at this point, he would take what he could get.

They had to work together to shift the room around. One wall had been badly damaged from the earlier barrage of gunfire. Unfortunately, this wall happened to be where the bed was located. They had scrambled to get Eliot clear with Nate and Hardison lifting him groggily out of the bed while Sophie and Parker quickly relocated it. They realized belatedly that they needed to strip it and put on fresh sheets, which was a bit of a challenge since they’d already replaced the original sheets after they’d become soaked with blood yesterday.

Ultimately, they decided to lay down fresh blankets, and given the way Eliot struggled to keep his head up during the switch, Nate knew he wouldn’t mind.

As it was, Eliot wouldn’t have stayed upright without Nate and Hardison’s support, and he readily collapsed as soon as Nate guided him back to the relocated bed. Parker and Hardison turned their attention to the gaping holes, scrounging around for some tarps to block the worst of the rain while Nate and Sophie tried to get Eliot more comfortable.

Grimacing, Eliot let out a long breath. “More rain?” he asked.

Nate smiled apologetically. “This one’s not a downpour at least.”

“Still,” Eliot murmured, glancing over Nate’s shoulder to where Parker and Hardison were arguing about the best method to secure the tarps. “That’s not going to help our exit.”

Nate had done his best not to think about that.

Which was to say, that was mostly all he’d thought about.

“Yeah, well,” Nate said. “You did such a good job finding this place. Pity to see it go to waste.”

In return, Eliot smiled faintly. He was trying to keep up appearances, Nate could tell, but it wasn’t doing much good. Eliot’s color had only gotten worse over the night, and in the wan light of the cabin, he looked sickly. He wasn’t sweating, at least, but his skin was clammy, and his eyes lacked their usual acuity.

Blood loss had taken a toll on him.

A toll that Nate knew was probably going to get worse before it got better.

“Besides,” Sophie interjected, her voice far more chipper than the situation warranted. “This gives us a chance to check your wound again. Time for a bandage change.”

Eliot made a face, but he didn’t protest. Whether this was because he knew she was right or was too tired, Nate couldn’t be sure. But his willing compliance while Sophie lifted his shirt away was uncharacteristic. The bandage beneath was matted red, and no matter how gentle Sophie was, Eliot gasped rigidly as she peeled it away.

When Nate got a better look at the wound, he did the same.

The good news was that it wasn’t infected as far as Nate could tell.

But it was also bleeding again.

Sophie’s brave facade faltered, and Nate edged in with a fresh bandage, seamlessly moving her out of the way.

“Doesn’t look inflamed,” Nate reported, trying to act as though nothing was wrong even as he moved the blood-soaked bandage to the side. Hastily, he wrapped around another, trying not to notice the fresh blood still welling up.

Eliot lifted his head, craning it to look down. “Bleeding again?”

“Eh,” Nate said, feigning indifference. “We hadn’t changed these most of the night.”

“I can feel it,” Eliot told him. “The blood--”

“It just got jarred when we moved you,” Nate replied flatly. “It’s not a big deal.”

Eliot looked at him, all the doubts and all the questions evident on his face.

Nate tied off the new bandage tightly, making sure the pressure was even more pronounced than before. Eliot, though clearly uncomfortable with the pressure, held his gaze knowingly.

It was almost too much.

For Nate, the truth had always been about how much he believed himself, not what was objectively true. That was why he was able to make the impossible happen, not because he could defy fate, but because he knew how to redefine it. And his team, they believed in that, too. The trusted that. The glue that held them together. The knowledge that they could lie to everyone else, but the only thing between them would be the truth.

It was too much.

Nate forced himself to smile. “Trust me,” he said, pulling Eliot’s shirt back down and putting a blanket over him. “All you need to do is rest and trust me with the rest.”

Eliot didn’t argue, but Nate knew Eliot didn’t believe him.

Hell, Nate couldn’t fault him for that.

Not when Nate wasn’t even sure if he believed himself at this point.

-o-

There was nothing to do but wait.

So Nate made something for them to do. If anyone recognized the busy tasks as the pointless work they were, they weren’t about to say anything. The last thing any of them wanted was to sit there and stare at the bleak inevitability of fate.

Instead, they would work toward the bleak inevitability of fate with the same dogged determination they approached everything else.

With Hardison and Sophie on watch duty back at the cabin, Nate had Parker lead him on a patrol. Which was nothing but a fancy name for a long, wet walk in the woods.

For once, he let Parker lead as she retraced her steps from the day before. “It’s even worse today,” she muttered, standing at the top of a ridge that overlooked the creek. “It must have risen half a foot.”

Nate watched the water from where it was swelling over the banks. “The bridge?”

Parker pointed. “Used to be over there,” she said, sounding disappointed. “It must have been swept away.”

“Any low points?” Nate asked.

“I hiked all the way up and down yesterday,” she said with a shake of her head. “Maybe for a strong swimmer, but I doubt Eliot could do it.”

“I doubt Hardison could do it, either,” Nate said. “And I don’t think we’d get Sophie this far in the rain.”

Parker turned back toward him, pushing her wet bangs off her forehead. “So that’s it, then?”

“What’s it?” Nate asked.

“This,” Parker said, nodding emphatically at the flooded creek bed. “We’re trapped here.”

Of everyone on the team, Parker had a thing about exits. For as comfortable as she was in confined spaces, she was the one who always needed a clear exit to feel comfortable. Eliot always hedged his bets, but he always entertained the option of hitting his way out if the situation got that bad. Parker, on the other hand, had always relied on wiggling her way out of things, so the prospect of being cut off would bother her more than the rest.

Nate sighed. “Parker--”

But she shook her head abruptly. “I mean, Eliot’s trapped,” she clarified, her eyes intent on Nate through the rain. “Eliot’s trapped here, and he’s not getting better.”

For all the things Nate knew, he hadn’t been expecting that. The job had fractured his team, but it hadn’t broken them -- not yet. Working together, living together, being together -- it had never changed who they were at their cores, but it had changed their priorities. Parker, she would always want an exit, but being trapped was no longer the thing that scared her most.

Not with the life of one of the team on the line.

Nate knew this.

And somehow didn’t know it at all.

“Parker--”

“Is he going to die?” she asked in a rush, the words tumbling out over each other.

It was the question Nate had refused to ask himself, the one that Sophie would never give voice to, the question Hardison would never quite be able to formulate. Parker didn’t understand pretenses like the rest of them, and she was the only one who wouldn’t be able to talk herself out of it.

“No,” Nate said, keeping his voice above the sound of the rushing water below.

“He’s not getting better,” Parker said, and she wasn’t arguing, not in the simplest sense. She was speaking from her doubts, her fears. She was speaking the things she couldn’t explain away for herself.

“Well, he’s lost a lot of blood,” Nate said.

“And we need blood,” Parker said. “How can we make him better if we can’t get him what he needs?”

“Well, the bleeding is mostly controlled--”

“Mostly,” Parker pounced, eyes bright in the rain. “I saw the bandage you changed this morning.”

“It always looks worse--”

“Nate,” she said, voice threatening to break. “I need to know. Is Eliot going to die?”

She didn’t want his explanations or his hopeful interpretations. She didn’t want his plans or his superlatives. She didn’t want cliches or positive thinking.

She knew him too well.

For all that they’d almost lost on this job, there was still that.

And Nate -- he didn’t know how to make it better. He didn’t know how to get them out of there or heal Eliot’s body. He didn’t know how to assuage Parker’s fears.

That was all the more reason to try.

“Parker,” he said. “Eliot’s not going to die.”

Her face barely composed, her expression twitched. “Are you sure?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “No,” he replied.

She flinched at that.

Which was why Nate held steady. “But we’re going to do everything we can.”

Drawing her eyebrows together, it was clearly not the answer she wanted.

They both knew it was the only one she needed.

Finally, she nodded, looking back at the river. “I’ll cross it by myself if I have to,” she said. “Right now, right here, if it will help.”

“Like Hardison said, even if we got out, there’s no way to get back in,” he said. “Besides, I won’t put anyone else at risk on this job.”

“But Eliot’s at risk,” she argued. “And I can’t do nothing.”

This time, he smiled fondly. “You’re doing what you can, right now.”

“Scouting a flooded creek?” Parker asked skeptically.

“No, being here, sticking it out,” Nate said. “A lot of teams, when things get hard, they scatter. When you go through what we’ve been through -- a lot of people might things the smartest thing to do is to cut and run. But you -- you’re staying, Parker. For whatever we need. Whatever Eliot needs. You’re staying.”

Her forehead creased faintly again. “That won’t save his life, though.”

“Hey,” Nate said. “Stranger things have happened.”

“Like magic?” she asked.

“Parker, I told you--”

“It’s not about magic, I know, I know,” she finished with a sigh. Her expression turned earnest, though, as she held his gaze. “But, really, I think we could use a little magic at this point.”

Nate made a small sound in the back of his throat. Tipping his head back toward the cabin, he lead the way this time, starting them on their way back to the others. He didn’t quite have it in him to deny it, but there was no way he was ready to tell her just how right she was.

-o-

Nate was soaked by the time they got back, but he didn’t dare complain. Instead, he left his soggy jacket and shoes by the fire before checking in on Eliot.

Next to the bed, Sophie gave him a worried look.

Looking at Eliot, it wasn’t hard to see why.

His color was still bad, and his breathing had taken on a shallow, grating quality. More tellingly, he didn’t wake with Nate and Parker’s return.

“Well, let him rest a little longer,” Nate said. “We’ll get him up for lunch and change his bandage.”

“Speaking of lunch,” Sophie said. “I’m starving.”

“And I’m in, like, caffeine withdrawal, man,” Hardison chimed in. “Without my soda pop, I’m getting the shakes. Can’t hardly do nothing.”

“Ooh,” Parker said. “I can make something!”

Sophie made a face. “As lovely as canned peaches sound--”

“I was going to try pears this time,” Parker said, as though it were obvious.

“Uh, yeah,” Nate said, rubbing his hands together with a diplomatic shrug. “How about I get lunch?”

-o-

To Parker’s credit, there wasn’t much in the kitchen to work with. Some of it had been damaged in the firefight, and the rest was a poor selection of minimalistic rations. Given the lack of meat, Nate had to suspect the man relied on hunting to some degree, which didn’t help them out at the moment.

Still, Nate was nothing if not resourceful.

He busied himself with the task, scrounging the best ingredients he could find. Parker dried herself off and took a turn with Eliot, giving Sophie the chance to nap for a little bit by the fire. At the table, Hardison fiddled with the radio, letting different transmissions crackle through the static from time to time, barely audible over the steady sound of rain on the exterior of the cabin.

Glancing over at him, Nate nodded his head. “Anything new?”

“I got another signal boost,” Hardison said.

“That’s good,” Nate replied, trying to sound enthusiastic.

“It’s also pointless,” Hardison said, shaking his head in disgust. “We’re miles from civilization. And even if I wanted to raise someone on this thing, it won’t do us any good.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nate said, dumping a can of beans into the skillet.

“Well, I know,” Hardison said. “No one we can contact can do anything to help us, and worse -- we run the risk of getting implicated in Derringer’s takedown. I mean, those cops, they may realize Derringer’s the bigger threat, but someone’s bound to ask questions about the firefight in the cabin. And then, what, man? How will we answer those questions.”

“We’ll be long gone by the time they manage to come back,” Nate assured him, adding some rice.

“Will we?” Hardison asked. “This rain -- it ain’t letting up. All day, they’re talking. The water is rising all the way back in Hawthorne. Which is weird, because none of it is coming from the river. No, they’re talking like it started here. With this damn creek.”

“Ah, well,” Nate said, mixing the ingredients. “That’s bad luck.”

“Bad luck?” Hardison repeated with pure incredulity. “Are you really -- bad luck?”

Nate relented with a sympathetic shrug.

“Seriously, though,” Hardison said, tinkering with it again. “I told you, man.”

“I know,” Nate said, adding some spice.

“I told you exactly what could happen,” Hardison continued, sounding more indignant than before.

Nate tasted the sauce, adding some salt.

“I told you the risks, and you said, don’t worry,” Hardison said. “This isn’t about magic and all that. No, no, no.”

“Well, it’s not about the magic--”

“Come on,” Hardison said. “Really?”

Nate turned to look at Hardison. “Okay, okay,” he said.

Hardison stared at him, raising his eyebrows.

“What?” Nate asked. “I’m agreeing with you.”

“You’re -- agreeing?” Hardison asked, as if that was the more ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “Look, man, that’s not what I want.”

“Then tell me,” Nate said, mindful of the rest of his team across the room. “What is it about?”

Hardison opened his mouth and found himself at a loss. It took him a moment to regain his composure. “I want you to tell me it’s worth it.”

Nate frowned. “What?”

“That this, this whole mess,” Hardison said, gesturing around the cabin. “I want you to tell me that the job is worth it. That messing around with witches, dealing with curses and spells, it’s worth it.”

“We do the right thing,” Nate told him. “That job has always been the same.”

“I know that,” Hardison said. “But is it worth it?”

This was Hardison’s vulnerability. Not to ask the impossible but to feel like the sacrifice had meaning. Hardison could do anything. He just needed a reason.

With the team in shambles, he probably deserved a reason.

A far better reason than Nate could give.

Why were they here, after all?

To do the job?

To prove they could?

Because no one else could be?

Bad luck?

Magic?

And, in the end, did it matter? If Eliot died, did the rest make it worthwhile? If the team fell apart, was the job still a success?

He knew what Hardison wanted to hear. It was written all over his face. Hardison wanted to know, beyond all doubt, that this wasn’t in vain.

Unfortunately, Nate couldn’t give him that any more than he could give Parker an exit. All Nate had was the truth.

“I wish I could,” Nate said.

Hardison’s jaw went rigid as he pursed his lips for a long, hard moment. “Then what the hell are we doing here, Nate?”

“What we always do,” Nate said. “The best we can.”

Hardison looked away, back to his radio. “I’ll keep listening,” he said. “If we can confirm that they’ve got Derringer under arrest, then maybe we can at least be sure we won’t face any other natural disasters on our way out of this mess.”

“Sounds good,” Nate said, turning back to lunch. He let out a heavily breath. “It sounds like a plan.”

The best plan they had, at any rate.

Time would tell if it would be enough.

-o-

It wasn’t much, but Nate served lunch as best he could. It was hot, at least, and he positioned four chairs around the bed, taking the time to prop Eliot up enough to keep him awake and comfortable.

“Mm,” Sophie said, washing down a bit with a drink of water. “Do you remember the job at the Italian restaurant? That was good food.”

“Wait, the wedding job?” Parker asked.

“Right, man,” Hardison said. “Eliot made those little things -- with the -- with that...what was it?”

Eliot harrumphed, looking put out. “Lemon juice.”

“Those were good, man,” Hardison said with a grin. “Real good.”

“Really?” Sophie asked. “Why didn’t I have one?”

“I think you were too busy being angry at Nate,” Parker told her.

“Well, and we were working on taking down the mob,” Nate reminded them.

“Okay, then what about the potato?” Parker asked. “We should have been paid in French fries.”

“As long as it’s not frozen foods, right?” Sophie asked.

“I still can’t believe we left the rabbit behind,” Hardison lamented.

“I know a couple of ways to cook rabbit,” Eliot offered.

Parker looked aghast. “What?”

“Eliot, please,” Sophie said. “There’s no need to be crass.”

“You all didn’t have to be with him in his attempt to go fishing,” Hardison said. “I nearly got killed for an activity that is barbaric and boring.”

“You don’t complain when I grill up salmon,” Eliot hissed.

“With the butter sauce?” Hardison asked.

“Oh, the honey glaze,” Sophie said.

“And the French fries!”

Nate found himself laughing, and for a moment, things were how they were supposed to be. The team together, of one mind, one spirit. Doing the job; doing life. The team.

The tableau shifted, though, as they each fell silent. Parker poked at her food, and Hardison chewed woodenly. Sophie took another drink while Eliot sunk wearily deeper into the pillows.

The reminder of what they had was stark, contrasted with what they might yet lose.

The team.

To love so fiercely was to make yourself vulnerable. Nate had thought it was an acceptable risk, and now fate was calling that bluff.

And Nate wasn’t sure if he’d win this hand.

He looked down at the food, his appetite gone.

Swallowing hard, he took another bite anyway. Getting up, he reached for the pan. “Okay,” he says. “Who wants seconds?”

No one answered, but Nate served them all anyway. They didn’t object, and Nate sat back down wearing a smile.

“Besides, I think you’re all forgetting about the time you thought a polish sausage was the best gift in prison,” Nate quipped. “Because nothing says we’re thinking of you like heavily processed meat.”

“Hey!” Hardison said. “I made that sausage myself! You have no idea how hard it was to fill without ruining the earbud.”

“Or deliver,” Sophie said. “Honestly, I thought they were going to confiscate it at the checkpoint.”

“It did look suspicious,” Parker said.

“It was suspicious,” Eliot muttered. “We hid an earbud in it.”

“And did you even taste it?” Hardison asked.

Nate smiled again at the banter. He didn’t know if it would last forever, but for the moment, it was so damn good.

-o-

Eliot fell asleep before lunch was done, and the conversation tapered off. Parker took Hardison on the rounds again, and Sophie had settled back down next to Eliot. Nate tried to keep himself busy, but it was impossible to escape the fact that there was just nothing to do.

It was a kind of impotency he remembered well. When Sam had been diagnosed, he’d been in furious denial at first, researching treatments and cures with a tenacity that nearly cost him his job right then and there. But as the months wore on and the treatments failed while the money ran out, he’d been reduced to sitting idle by Sam’s bedside, waiting for an outcome he ultimately couldn’t control.

That hadn’t ended so well.

He didn’t want to think about the same outcome this time.

“Sit down,” Sophie said finally.

Nate looked up from where he was organizing the bookshelf. “What?”

“You’re wearing me out just watching you,” she said.

Nate turned back, switching a few more books so they were arranged by height. “You’re supposed to be watching Eliot.”

“Eliot’s resting,” she said.

“That’s good,” Nate said, pausing to admire his work. “That’s good.”

He heard Sophie sigh but didn’t turn around. Instead, he started on the next row. The volumes were old and veered heavily toward military history and the American revolution. When he blew the dust off the shelf, he made a face and he heard Sophie tsk her tongue behind him.

“You got something to say?” he asked, still not turning back.

“You finally going to listen?” Sophie returned.

Nate shook his head, feeling the tension ripple across his shoulders. “This really isn’t the time--”

“Isn’t it?” she asked sharply. “Because I’m not sure when else you think we’re going to have the time.”

At that, Nate turned. “Eliot’s going to be fine,” he said stiffly.

“Oh, and you’re sure of that now?” she asked.

“And you’re not?” he volleyed back.

“I believe in maintaining a little room for error,” she said. “If you hold to the possibility of making a mistake, you might just avoid the fatal ones.”

Hurt, Nate puffed his chest out. “So, what, it’s my fault now?”

“No!” she said, giving a furtive look over at Eliot. The hitter stirred in his sleep but didn’t wake. Sophie’s voice was quieter when she continued. “And don’t look at me like you’re the victim here. There’s only one person casting blame about, and we all know who that is.”

“You all had your doubts,” Nate reminded her.

“And we still all came,” Sophie said.

“Because you were following me,” Nate argued.

“Because we’re a team,” she retorted. She let out a breath, shrugging her shoulders. “You’re so quick to play the family card when you want to talk us into something, but when it’s time for accountability, it’s all about you again.”

“None of you would have taken this job,” he reminded her. “None of you.”

She wet her lips. “Maybe,” she said. “That doesn’t make us right.”

Nate looked away, watching as rain fell against the windows that were still intact. “I thought it was worth it,” he admitted, looking at her again. “I thought the risks were worth it.”

Sophie looked at Eliot for a moment, thoughtful. “You know the thing I’ve learned from being a grifter?”

“How to lie your way into anything?” Nate asked tiredly.

“No,” Sophie said. “That I can steal jewels and paintings and sculptures and money, but if I only take it to store it away in warehouses, then what’s the point?”

She looked at Nate.

“I can’t even remember half of the things I stole,” she continued. “Priceless artifacts. The best art in the world. More money than I can spend. And none of it means anything because I’ve stashed it away for safekeeping.”

“Well, with the things you stole, it’s be risky--”

“Risk,” she said, cutting him off. “That’s the point. The things in life that matter are the things you take the risk for. All the art, money -- none of it means anything because I never did anything with it. I never risked it, and I never enjoyed it.”

“So you’re saying the our risks as a team--”

“Are what keep us alive,” she said.

“Right,” Nate said, eyes settling on Eliot. “Until one of us gets killed.”

“Well, that’s the nature of the game, Nate,” she said. “And that’s not your fault. Not even a little.”

She meant it in the way only Sophie could. The others knew him well by now, but only Sophie knew how to talk to him in a way that could finally make him listen to the things he didn’t want to hear. Absolution was tempting, to be sure, but that didn’t change what had happened. “You know, we could blame fate. Magic,” he said.

“I probably wouldn’t argue that,” Sophie admitted.

“And that’s the problem,” he said with a sigh. “If I can’t blame myself, if I can’t accept the responsibility, then I have no control over any of it. If I accept inevitability, then what’s the point?”

She smiled, fainter now. “Don’t store up all your valuables just to say you have them,” she advised. “We started this with you. You owe it to us to let us finish it.”

“And if it ends here?” Nate asked. “If we don’t all make it out of here alive?”

“Then we’ll carry that burden,” she said softly. “Together.”

Together was a familiar mantra.

Eliot shuddered slightly on the bed, and Sophie swept the hair gently away from his face.

Nate turned back to the bookshelf to close his eyes.

Together might just not be enough anymore.