Disclaimer: I don't own them. Dammit.
A/N: Yippeeeee!!!!! They are back for another season! *does a little happy dance*
My muse left me for a while, and then I wake up today to find not one, but about 3-4 one-shots running around in my head. Help! Hope I get them all down before they wander away like the rest of my brain usually does when I forget to put the leash on.
Reviews are like milk and good for the body, but sour ones make me sick….flames will be read, laughed at, and ignored. (You know who you are.)
And now on to the fun! ……we're sick, you know that? hahaha
"Are you missing something?"
The cruel voice that came over the phone made the little hairs on the back of Nate's neck shiver. It had nothing to do with the fact that Eliot was about a day overdue, and everything to do with the sadism that dripped from each word.
There were no more words as the phone was dropped, and in the background they all heard the unusual sound of a crack, followed by a strangled exclamation. Angry voices could be heard, and then a particularly sharp crack! , followed by Eliot's bloodcurdling scream.
Then the phone went dead.
Four Days Earlier:
Having finished the job against Oregon Financial Loan, the team decided to take a break and leisurely meander back to their new estate. They agreed to meet in three days, and then proceeded to make plans for their 'mini-vacations'. Eliot had mentioned something about a horse farm that he was familiar with in Montana, and the rest of the team knew that their resident 'cowboy' would be in clover for a few days. Therefore, Sophie and Nate took the Tesla on a cross country jaunt, and Hardison joined Parker as she meandered along the Canadian border searching for something shiny.
Montana Skies Ranch:
Eliot drove the rented SUV up the long drive to the main ranch house with contentment. Rarely did he let his emotions show….well, other than the angry ones, and he was beginning to feel the strain of holding them in. He really needed this break to center himself again. As he gazed over the open fields filled with grass and sunshine, he felt the healing balm of horse country begin to soothe him. The country-bred young man looked forward to the time he would spend among the horses and their riders, people who knew the earthy rewards of hard, gritty, sweaty work and the gift of being able to just 'be' with these magnificent animals. He could already smell the leather and dust, and almost hear the creak of the harnesses, saddles and bridles.
Smiling as he put the truck in park, he slid out of the driver's seat and reached in back seat for his pack. Walking up to the house he nestled his white Stetson on his head. The front door opened, and an older man, his thick hair now streaked with grey, stepped out.
"Thom! You old bastard!" Eliot rumbled as he was engulfed in a bear hug as soon as he stepped onto the porch.
"Chris!" Eliot heard another voice call out, and he turned to the door. A shorter woman stood there, stirring a bowl of batter, beaming from ear to ear.
Eliot dipped a finger into the batter and slipped it into his mouth, grinning, then backpedaled away from the spoon she brandished at him.
"You never could resist my shortbread, boy, baked or not!" she laughed.
The hard Retrieval Specialist melted into a meek young man as he ducked around the bowl and gave the small woman a hug bigger than the one he had received from Thom.
Laughing, the three friends ambled into the big cabin, Eliot putting the tremor that shivered across his shoulders down to paranoia. Surely here no one was out to get him.
After a hearty supper with the trail boss, Thom, his lovely wife Caroline, and the ranch hands, 'Chris' settled back on the porch with a bottle of oil and his old saddle. He relaxed as he breathed in the night air, listening to the crickets and horses sleepily 'whuffling' in their paddocks as he rubbed the oil into the saddle skirt. He heard spurs softly jingle and had to consciously refrain from tensing as he recognized Thom, who quietly came up to sit on the railing next to him.
"See ya got a few new hands," 'Chris' drawled.
"Yup, old Henry decided to retire. Them joints of his just weren't up to breaking the young geldings anymore. His boys decided to move with him down to Arizona, to help him out. Lost four of my best hands right there."
"That must'a been hard. I know how good Frank and Eddie were with the training, and little Jessie always had a heart of gold when it came time for the mares' birthin's."
"Yup," Thom said again, drawing from his cigarette.
"So, how are the new ones coming along?"
"I dunno. Two of 'em seem alright, Bill and Carson, they've been here about two months, but this other one, Greg……" The sentence trailed off uncomfortably.
Eliot heard the unspoken request in his friend's voice. "You want I should take a look?"
Relief showed in the other man's eyes as he said, "You always did know what I needed. How is that, you only stayed here for five months and yet you know me so well?"
Eliot just grinned, and kept massaging oil into the pommel.
"It's good to have you back, boy."
The next morning Eliot was awake just before dawn, and grabbed a couple of buttermilk biscuits from the sideboard as he strode out of the house. The sun was beginning to peek above the mountain ridges as he lowered his Stetson onto his brow and walked to the barn.
He greeted Randy and George, who were already hard at work filling the bins with hay as one of the new hands, Bill, tossed it down from the haymow. The other new man, Carson, was busy filling the water troughs. Eliot scratched the chins of several barn cats that remembered Eliot's gentle hands, then approached each of the horses with a tender caress or tidbit of apple, and then grabbed a pitchfork and joined in.
A few hours later the man that Thom was wary of finally meandered into the barn. His dark eyes were angry, and he didn't greet anyone. He grabbed a coil of rope from the tack room and stalked out of the barn again, intent on his own business.
That was something new to Eliot. Normally, all of the hands pitched in with morning chores in the barn, then went to breakfast, then to their separate duties. Shrugging internally, he decided that he would keep watching.
Breakfast was generous, as always, and Eliot swiped a few extra shortbreads to put in his saddlebags for the ride he planned to take that morning. Caroline winked at him as he left, and he realized that specialist or not, he never would be able to 'steal' food from that woman. More than likely, he would find more in his saddlebags anyway.
As he walked to the tack room near the door of the barn, he heard a loud thud, as if a body had forcefully met a wall. Hay and dust trickled down from the hayloft.
Tensed, he opened the door just as Carson barreled into him. Catching the younger man, he saw a bloody lip and bruises rising on the man's cheek before he wrenched himself loose and ran out of the barn. Angrily, Eliot faced the aggressor.
"What's going on here?" he demanded.
"It is none of your business," Greg spat. There was a trace of accent in the words, but Eliot couldn't place it.
"Hey, you work here, that makes it my business," he replied heatedly, grabbing the man's shirtfront.
"Do not meddle in affairs that do not concern you, you will get yours soon enough," the dark eyed man said cryptically, shoving past Eliot and out of the room.
Eliot chewed on those words, trying to decide if a ride this afternoon was a good idea, and then gave up. He needed to clear his head, and the best way to do that was just to ride.
The beautiful countryside was full of the sights and sounds he remembered, and each moment of that day had brought even more peace. The hawks soared in the sky, playing on the thermals, and rabbits bounded into the bushes ahead of his mount. Every now and again he glimpsed something else; an elk, a fox, even a doe and her fawn by the creek, but they were gone even as he turned his head. His mount was as smooth gaited as he remembered. Her hooves were sure on the path, whether walking or trotting, and in the open fields he let loose and galloped for miles, letting the wind play in his hair as he laughed, his arms spread wide. He felt like a fool and didn't care. Reluctantly, he pulled her to a canter, then a trot, then a walk to cool her off. Her name was Freedom, and by the bounce in her step, she was obviously ready for more.
He restrained her gently as he bent back, reaching into his saddlebag. He grinned as he pulled out a large sack that he hadn't put there. Caroline had packed his favorite 'riding lunch' -- a fried chicken sandwich with lettuce and garden fresh sprouts, beef jerky, peeled hard-boiled eggs, and more shortbread. He groaned as he ate the last of the sweets, thinking to himself that he'd gain at least ten pounds if he stayed much longer. Finishing the meal with a swig of sweet spring water from his canteen, he kneed Freedom back towards the ranch and let her have her head for another gallop.
Eliot returned late that night with his heart lighter than it had been for months, maybe even years. He dismounted and led Freedom towards the barn.
The closer they got to the barn, the jumpier Freedom got. Her head jerked up and Eliot stopped for a moment, confused.
"Easy girl," he whispered as he stroked her cheek and neck, "Easy there."
Somewhat calmed now, she let him guide her into the dimly lit barn.
'That's odd,' he thought, 'the lights should all be on, they knew I was still out riding.'
Freedom's stall was the first in the line, so he took her in and uncinched her saddle, heaving it and the blanket onto the stall railing. A sound in one of the stalls across the hall made him stop for a moment. A scratching, and then a thud. It didn't sound like one of the cats, and the horses were nervous. He mentally slapped himself as he realized something was wrong. The barn lights were mostly off, when by rules they were always left on for a late rider. The horses were nervous, which he should have noticed right away, had the peace of the afternoon not lulled him. Even Freedom herself had tried to warn him.
He went to the door of the mare's stall, turning his senses outwards. Not hearing anything other than the odd thudding, he slipped out of the stall, silently latching it behind him. He saw nothing unusual in the rest of the barn, so he crept to the other side of the hall. Finding the stall that the noises were coming from, he mentally crossed his fingers, hoping to just find one of the young boys in the stall with a girlfriend. He slipped the latch and pulled the door open.
"Oh my God!" he choked out. Lying on the floor were the bound forms of Thom, Caroline and George, the oldest ranch hand. Their hands and feet were tied with thick rope and duct tape covered their mouths. Thom's feet knocking against the wall was what Eliot had heard.
Eliot started towards them to untie them when Caroline's frightened eyes went wide.
Something hard smashed into the back of Eliot's head and he crashed into the hay at their feet, agony rippling across his skull and darkness creeping into his vision. He struggled to get to his knees, his hand going to the blood on the back of his head, but the pain forced him into darkness and he tumbled forward.
Eliot woke slowly and silently, his head throbbing. Letting the sounds tell him where he was, he discovered he was still in the barn. That mildly surprised him. He had been taken out by professionals, yet they hadn't transported him anywhere.
From muffled and angry grunts from at least two others in the background, he assumed that Thom, Caroline and George were still there, and still tied.
His shoulders ached, and he discovered that he was tied to the rafters, each wrist tied to a beam about three or four feet apart. His feet dragged on the ground, so when he had to, he could stand. He continued to play 'possum. Knowing the layout of the barn, he suspected that he was suspended in the hall below the haymow. That would mean that there were no walls or posts within his reach, and any hay bales would be stacked far away from his feet.
Other sounds now reached his ears. Birds sang in the trees and the rooster crowed, so Eliot knew he had been unconscious for about six hours. Two or three men spoke in a guttural dialect nearby, the words familiar but slipping away just before he could decipher them. Horses whickered nervously in their stalls, but for the moment were calm.
Smell came next. Sweat, hay and horse. Thankfully there was nothing frightening, like smoke or fire.
Eliot dared to open his eyes a slit, and found himself looking into the stall where his three friends were still lying. They didn't appear to be hurt, only frightened. Thom was looking intently at him, so he opened his eyes a little further and tried to project calm. Caroline saw his eyes open and looked at him, starting to struggle a little. He drew his brows together and she stilled, but he caught movement out of the corner of his vision. He quickly shut his eyes again and listened.
One of the men kicked one of his captives and Caroline yelped behind her gag.
"Knock it off!" Eliot roared, again mildly surprised that he wasn't gagged as well.
"So the little liar is awake," Greg said silkily into his ear from behind him. Eliot twitched a little; he hadn't heard or felt the other man come close to him. He felt the tip of a knife slide up his ribs, over his shoulder blades and up his neck. One swift flick and the band that had tied his ponytail snapped, leaving his hair free. The knife continued past his jaw and settled on his throat. Eliot's head was tilted away from Greg, his eyes fixed on Thom's. He saw the fright in the older man's gaze, and it startled him to realize that Thom was scared for Eliot, not himself.
"What do you want," Eliot growled. Caroline and George flinched at his tone. They had never heard 'Chris' so hard.
"My boss, he is so very angry with you, smutljivac. So we wait for you to come to your little place of peace."
"Martic," Eliot breathed.
"Yes, our divote voditelj is eager for your pain…'Chris'," Greg drew the name out like it was something filthy on his tongue. "Maybe we should tell these good people your truth, yes?"
"Go to hell," Eliot spat, and was rewarded by a vicious punch in the kidney. The other two men who had been watching from the background now stepped up. One of them stood near the three captives, gloating at the horror on their faces while the other held Eliot from behind like one would hold a punching bag. Greg stood in front of Eliot and punched him several times in the stomach, then a couple more times in the face. He switched to uppercuts to Eliot's ribs, then more jabs to his chest and again to his jaw.
After five minutes of beating, he stopped, and Eliot spit out a mouthful of blood. His ribs ached, and he knew he would be covered with bruises.
When he could speak again, he asked again, "What do you want?!"
Instead of answering him, Greg turned to the three in the stall.
"If you hurt them I swear to God I will kill you," Eliot whispered.
"Do not think for one moment that he is kidding," Greg said to the others watching him with trembling faces. "For you see, he has killed many people, in many different wars, in many different ways."
They all looked at Eliot with confusion in their eyes, pleading with him to tell them that this madman was lying.
"Eliot, excuse me, 'Chris', is a hard man, one who kills easily."
"Liar," Eliot spat, "Your precious Milan Martic was killing the villagers….men, women and children!"
"And so you thought to free them?"
"Hell yeah, I freed them!"
"With the lives of the soldiers of the government as payment," Greg said.
"Bloodthirsty mercenaries is more like!"
Out of the corner of his eye Eliot could see that Caroline, Thom and George were rapidly changing their view of him, and he was heartbroken. They had been his friends, and he had brought them fear and lies.
"I won't argue with you anymore, Greg, just let them go, please."
"My name is Dubravko Pupojec, and I am a general in my leader's army. They shall witness the punishment of a murderer."
Hands grabbed Eliot around the throat and squeezed, cutting off his air. He kicked and squirmed, trying to get his legs around his attacker, but stars sparkled in his vision and darkness crept in, and the last thing he saw were the faces of his three former friends.
When he awoke again, darkness was throwing shadows on the ground. He tried to stop the groan that came from his throat, but only ended up coughing. He was still hanging from the beams in front of the stall that held his friends. They were now untied, but the stall door was locked and one of the beefy men guarded it with an automatic rifle pointed at them.
"Chris, honey, are you all right?" The concern flowing from Caroline's voice comforted him; maybe they weren't lost to him after all.
"Caro.." his voice broke, and he gagged.
"Please," she begged, "give him some water."
"He wants water? Very well, he gets water." Eliot heard Dubravko chuckle.
His wrists were released, and before he could catch himself he was grabbed by two very strong pairs of arms. He tried to fight, but before he could do anything they were holding him in front of the water trough. One beefy hand was on the back of his neck and another plowed into his stomach, knocking his breath out of him and forcing him to bend over. They used that momentum to force his upper body into the water. He struggled, but he couldn't get his footing, and his vision started to go black. He was jerked up out of the water and he could hear screaming and yelling in the distance, but his head was shoved into the water again. He squirmed and kicked, but just as before was held firmly underwater. He started to go limp from lack of oxygen, and found himself hauled up once more. He gasped in desperate gulps of air, coughing and sputtering, and then was shoved in again. This time they held him under longer, and he couldn't stop himself from taking a reflexive breath, coughing and gagging as the water flowed into his lungs. He thrashed more from instinct not than training, and the pain in his lungs burned throughout his entire body as his oxygen starved brain shut down and he went limp.
He was surprised that he woke the next time; he thought that they had actually killed him this time. Drawing a tentative breath, he opened his eyes and found it was daylight once again.
His surprise must have shown on his face, because Thom said, "They threw you down onto the ground boy; I thought you were dead, but then you choked and tossed up a bunch of water, and they decided to tie you up again."
"…'m sorry I dragged you into this, Thom, I should'a …."
"Hush boy," Caroline scolded softly, "this ain't none a' your doin'. I'm so sorry for the water." Tears shone on her face as she listened to his rough, abused voice. It was obvious his throat had been damaged, both from the earlier choking and the near-drowning. She wondered how much more torture this young man could take.
"'s not your fault, Ms. Caroline, you weren't….."
"Oh, is this not a nice sight, Eliot is making friends," a greasy voice whispered in his ear. Once again, Dubravko had managed to sneak up on him. "Let us meet more of his friends, shall we?"
Eliot looked around in horror, thinking they had managed to capture his team, but all he saw at the far end of the barn was a cluster of nervous horses. Suddenly shots were fired from behind them, and the terrified horses bolted to the safety of the outside corral. The only problem was that Eliot was tied between them and the open door, and he couldn't move.
He tensed as the first horses ran past him, bumping him a little. The next few were bunched together and one slammed into his right side before running past, knocking the wind out of him. The last seven were even more panicked and a couple reared as they came up to the obstruction in their way. Eliot caught a hoof in his ribs, one on his hip and another on his thigh before the terrified animals were able to shove past him into the yard.
Eliot moaned as the pain in his body intensified with each strike. His shoulders were strained to their limit, and the places where the hooves slammed into him were on fire. Not making any attempt to move silently this time, Dubravko laughed as he came up behind the specialist once again.
"Do you think his shoulders hurt now? Maybe we help him a little, yes?"
The terror in Thom and Caroline's eyes were the only warning he had before he felt one massive hand slam onto the top of his right shoulder joint. The strain of the last few days and the sudden pressure of the blow forced his shoulder out of the socket and white hot agony ripped through Eliot's entire body.
He threw his head back and screamed.
Once again Eliot awakened from the darkness. This time it was slow and extremely painful, the multitude of injuries each sending spasms of agony through his body, making it nearly impossible to regain consciousness. He almost sank back into the blissful darkness, wondering why on earth would he want to wake up if they only tortured him some more? But then he remembered Caroline and the others. He had to make sure they were ok. So he struggled to open his eyes.
He found himself lashed to a fencepost this time, his arms spread out horizontally, and his body tied at the waist, hips and knees to a fence post. Groggily, he raised his head from where it had been resting against the post, and blinked in the bright rays of late afternoon. Sitting on lawn chairs about ten feet in front of him, feet and hands bound again, were Thom, Caroline and George.
He saw the tears in all their eyes, and knew they were scared out of their wits.
"What do you want?" he croaked, sharp razorblades slicing his throat with every word.
Dubravko smiled behind him, and said, "Nothing."
He heard something slice through the air beside him and heard a sharp 'crack' and realized that someone was behind him with a horsewhip. He felt a knife slice through his denim shirt and then it was ripped off, hanging around his waist by threads. He saw his friends' gazes go to his chest, and knew they saw the many scars there, as well as the dark bruises from the earlier beatings. Knife wounds, bullet holes, even a few electrical burns -- all were shown and he hung his head in shame. They knew he was a liar now, that 'Chris' had never existed and that the young man in front of them was familiar with a life harder and more dangerous than they could ever imagine.
"Don't, honey, don't hang your head down," Caroline's soft voice brought his head up.
"We're proud to know you, Eliot," said George.
"You're still our boy." Tears started to form in the younger man's eyes at Thom's words.
"This is very touching, very touching indeed," Dubravko sneered. He came up to Eliot's back, lightly tracing the marks there with his knife. "You know what it is to be whipped, I think. Yes?" he purred into Eliot's ear, deceivingly gentle as he caressed his cheek with the knife. The young man trembled as he closed his eyes. He remembered the burning slashes across his back from before, how the agony of each lash seared onto his back had ignited a fire of endless pain that only unconsciousness quenched.
"Know this, young smutljivac, after this we will leave you to your pain. This is what our leader had commanded, though why he wants you alive, I do not know. You will suffer, and your comrades will watch, and you will tremble at the knowledge that we will find you again."
The promise was whispered into his ear as he heard a phone dialing, and he was almost giddy when he heard Nate's voice on the other end.
"Are you missing something?"
The whip whistled through the air and wrapped it's agony around Eliot's back as he arched and fought to stay silent. The whip lashed him again, and a strangled groan was ripped from deep in his throat as he threw his head back. He knew that the phone was held up for Nate to hear his screams, but he hoped he would pass out before that.
Distantly he could hear the others yelling at their captors, demanding them to stop, but he could barely breathe. His breath came in choking pants, the ropes around his wrists and waist seemed to cut into his flesh with sharp blades. The sun beat down on his face, and the sky seemed to whirl and the tree limbs danced in front of him. A roaring filled his ears.
A sickening 'CRACK!' sounded to his ears and suddenly his body felt like it was on fire. A bloodcurdling scream of agony ripped from his throat and then all was darkness.
Translations: (These are from an online Croatian translation site, so if they are incorrect, please forgive me.)
smutljivac - troublemaker
divote voditelj – glorious leader