Barely Holding On To You
The jungle around them was frightening, Nigel wouldn't kill that. He couldn't deny that even in the ridiculously early hours of the morning it felt deadly beyond the thick leaves. Even from the edge of camp, he couldn't see further than a few inches through the rainforest. The sun was an hour away from rising yet there was a greyness in the air that let him know it was approaching. He couldn't relax enough to go back to sleep though, he'd been awaken a short while ago by a strange animal noise which sounded close to the camp, and now the air felt too still, too strangely silent for him to relax. A rainforest should be alive with sound, even in the edgings before sunrise – the birdsong has gone, the scurrying had stopped. It was odd, to say the least.
The relic they had been chasing had lead them into the thick of this unknown part of the jungle, they'd crossed so many borders he could barely remember which part of South America they were in. It was so dense and surrounded by mystery that even their guide group had only taken them as far as where they would set up the camp – any further they would have go to alone. They had done, of course, and naturally they had found their goal relic, but their guide wouldn't travel back to the local town until the sun had risen. Once the sun went down, no one moved in that part of the jungle, not even if they needed to meet their transportation to take them to the city airport. No one moved.
He didn't blame them for the suspicions because he felt them himself. Sydney had strayed a little ways into the jungle, wanting to get a better idea about the area they were in, and no more than thirty meters into the jungle he had caught up with her standing in another small clearing. It turned out she just wanted to see the sky, as their camp was under a thick canopy of tree branches which let in enough light but didn't give the view of the stars that she insisted was beautiful in this area. He agreed that they were stunning, but urged her back to camp when they first felt that awfully familiar sensation of being watched.
They arrived back at camp moments later, but no more reassured, to the faces of their relieved guides. An uneasy hour later they had each surrendered to the three-day exhaustion catching up with them and had crawled into their respective tents to get a few hours sleep before sunrise. Nigel had tossed and turned for a few nights but that feeling of being watched had crept up on him again in the thick darkness. He panicked that he was hearing noises, but he was in a rainforest, of course he was hearing noises. He had an overactive imagination in moments like this, and usually he was sharing a tent with Sydney which would make him feel safer, and for a brief moment he considered joining her in her tent, but he shook himself and turned in his sleeping bag. Jungles were alive in themselves, after all.
When the sky began to lighten, Nigel dressed and left the tent, eager for them to pack up and leave as soon as possible. The guides were already preparing to leave, which pleased him to no end, but Sydney was nowhere in sight. Her tent was still closed up as it had been when she went to sleep, and he realised that had only been three hours ago. "Sydney asleep?" he asked.
The lone guide who broke some broken English nodded. "Professor is quiet still. Asleep, yes?"
Nigel nodded softly. He was just about to reach for his water canteen when something in the distance caught his attention. He turned his head towards the trees, staring through them as if waiting for something to burst through. "Did you hear that?" he asked.
"I hear nothing," the guide told him. "Only birds."
But he heard it again, coming from South of the camp. The guide frowned, having clearly heard it for himself this time and he stepped in line with Nigel, the two of them looking into the leaves. The guide reached for his knife, holding it defensively in his hand. The sound came a third time, in a higher pitch and slightly louder. The non-English speaking guides began mumbling words similar to the warning which had been expressed to them when they first set out in the jungle and Nigel felt the bile rise in his throat. He edged slowly towards Sydney's tent and rapped the wrist of his watch against the pole.
"Syd, we have a problem."
He tried again. "Sydney?"
When no answer came, he opened the tent, hoping to see her exhausted form curled up in the sleeping bag, but instead there was just a pile of makeshift bedclothes. It only took him a second to panic when he gazed upon her boots, tossed aside as carelessly as her favourite jacket. Her hunting knife was visible beside the jacket, which she had either thrown aside or been using as a pillow. Sydney had a habit of being messy sometimes, but not when the idea was to be as alert as possible.
He'd been working with Sydney long enough to recognise the discreet signs of a struggle and suddenly felt his stomach drop. Those noises he'd heard in the hours before, he'd tried to pass them off as animals and jungle sounds – something had been in Sydney's tent. Or someone.
"She's gone," he announced, and shared a look with the guide, who looked on into the jungle with a new sense of fear.
And the noise again, louder. Much louder. Clearer. And he felt the bile rise in his throat.
It was a scream. A woman's scream.
"Sydney," he muttered.
Immediately, he took off in the direction of the scream. Sydney's scream. He'd never heard her scream, but he knew it was hers. The guides could barely keep up with him where he was putting all his strength and energy into the sprint, ignoring the twigs that scratched and grazed the skin on his forearms. Because of the scream, that guttural, awful scream, that he could never have imagined to come from Sydney, he had forgotten all about the dangers and the warnings about this part of the rainforest. He'd forgotten about everything except that sound. It had awoken an unknown part of him, an ache and an indescribable pull towards her.
But after three minutes of sprinting, the screaming, the constant echoing screaming, ceased to a dead halt. Nigel stopped alongside it and listened – the sound had been so close a moment ago, they had to be near to her, but the abrupt stop scared him. What had happened? Without the screaming, they wouldn't know what direction to go in. He'd already lost all sense of direction and had no idea how far away they were from the camp.
"SYDNEY!" he called into the jungle with his remaining breath, shouting her name in all directions to coax out a response, but getting none.
He took off in the direction he had been running in anyway, barely giving the guides a chance to catch up. He ran until his chest ached and his legs burned, and he still didn't stop then. He didn't care how much pain he was in, all he cared about was Sydney. If the situation was reversed, and it had been many times, she wouldn't give up on him, so he couldn't possibly consider giving up on her. She was his boss. She was his friend. She was his best friend. She was his...
He stopped in another clearing surrounded by close-knit groupings of trees, from what he could see, the only entrance into the clearing was the one he'd just burst through, almost completely covered by large plants and vines. These same vines covered most of the trees, winding their way into any and every gap they provided. Wound together, they stretched up high, covering until the very height of the jungle where the sky was barely visible, and slowly, swinging from a solitary vine leading down from a crossing of branches, was a noose...
...and hanging from it, as still as the morning air...was Sydney.
Nigel instinctively yelled out in anguish when he saw her body hanging, bruised and broken from the branch. She wasn't fighting. She wasn't lashing out. Her arms were limp at her sides, her bare feet covered in dirt and blood just inches from the ground. She was just hanging...hanging...
The foreign expletives from the guides fell upon his ears as they caught up with Nigel, who had helplessly knotted his hands in his hair, staring at her still form. One of them immediately moved into the tree that would lead up to the branch and another went to grab Sydney's body. Nigel snapped out of it and pushed him out of the way as he took over the job, holding her body so that when the other guide cut the line she wouldn't fall to the ground. It was odd, he would think later, that her feet were only inches from the ground and not higher. He could easily stand level with her and come up to her shoulder in height, but it wasn't like this. She wasn't wearing any shoes and the only time she was this much taller than him was when she was wearing heels. Barefoot, he should look her directly in the eye, but her eyes were covered with a dirty rag tied around her head. Not satisfied with the safety of his hold on her, he lifted her bridal style in his arms.
When the guide finally managed to cut through the vine, Nigel gently bought her body to the ground along with his. He loosened the knot and slipped it from around her neck entirely. His stomach turned as it revealed the horrific rope burns and early bruising across her perfect skin. Placing both his hands behind her head to loosen the rag around her eyes, he spoke with a trembling voice. "Syd...Sydney?"
He leaned close after a lack of response, horrified to feel none of her warm breath hitting his skin. "She's not breathing," he mumbled as he laid her flat and begun to give her compressions.
He hated that the body beneath him was Sydney. He'd taken first aid classes in university in the hope that he would know what to do if a bystander collapsed in front of him, or that he could help someone in a minor accident, and when time went on he realised that it had become invaluable to know how to treat a small wound in the middle of nowhere, especially when you were following Sydney and she only occasionally thought of her own personal safety. But to revive her? He'd never considered. He couldn't have. Seeing that image of her hanging before him, eyes covered and limbs still, it killed him. This was Sydney. The warrior. The fighter. The hunter. She'd saved him countless times and now she was on the brink of-
Tears were falling rapidly from his cheeks now. The guide saw them, but could do nothing to help. Nigel was trying furiously to revive Sydney now, and as the seconds ticked on he became more desperate. A withheld sob that he needed to clear overwhelmed him as he pounded another compression onto her chest. He needed her to live. He needed her to survive this. She could not leave him alone in this hellhole. She could not leave him to explain her death to their friends, to her father. He could not allow her to die. She was the strong one, not him. She was the one that people depended on. She was the one that they needed. Why should she be allowed to stop fighting? She couldn't. She spent most of her life fighting for things – for family, for memories, for history, for passion, for others, for friendship. She needed to fight.
"Don't you dare die," he told her breathlessly as he continued to pound her chest. "We're a team, Sydney Fox, you do not get to leave me."
"You're not allowed to leave me, Sydney."
"Don't leave me, Syd."
He breathed another bout of air into her lungs, begging whatever God or local deity would listen why he would need to place his lips to hers for this reason, he felt her struggle beneath him. Movement. From her. Pulling back, he heard her gasp furiously for air. She was alive! He gathered her upper body back into his arms and held her tight.
"Oh, Syd," he panted, breathless himself but nowhere near as much as she was. "Sydney." He kept repeating her name while she struggled to get her breath back. Her body needed oxygen and she wasn't going to deny it any longer. Her head fell back and her eyes found his once her vision begun to clear. He watched her unfocused eyes start to flitter around and then settled on his.
"That's it," he mumbled. "Just breathe. Please, just keep breathing."
She was powerless to do anything else – no matter how deep her breaths were she was unable to satisfy the burning in her lungs for oxygen. It seemed like a while later, but eventually her breaths became steadier and less desperate, but she kept her eyes on Nigel all the time, and he never let her gaze be torn from his. He'd been fearing he'd never see those eyes again and he wasn't at all ashamed or embarrassed when he put a hand on her cheek to hold their eyes together. "Please, keep breathing. Please."
He continued this mantra until he felt it was stable enough for his liking. That was when he noticed how much they were both trembling – for him it was just from shock, but for her it was the violent shakes which was overtaking her entire form. He held his arms tighter around her, holding her in the more than friendly hold he'd always wanted to. Despite the strength in his arms, there was a tenderness, and that set in reality for her. The shakes turned to silent sobs, where her throat wasn't allowing any sound to escape her yet. He stroked her hair and face gently, hoping the contact would prove to her that she was alive.
"It's ok," he said to her firmly, though his face was still running with tears and his voice was thick. "It's ok, Syd. You're ok now, you'll be fine. I've got you."
It was those three words that bought a sense of safety to her. I've got you. Three words, and they made her feel safer than she had done in years.
"Nige," she croaked, her voice sounding hoarse and battered.
It was hard, because it was her. She was always so brave, so together, so confident, and now she was terrified, she was hurt, she was trembling. It was heartbreaking. It was terrifying. He knew that she was hurt and that they should get her out of here as soon as possible, he needed to use what adrenaline to find the strength to carry her back to the camp where they could get in a car and drive back to town. He should take her home as soon as possible. He should take her somewhere safe, because somewhere in this jungle around them was whoever had did this to her. Someone in this jungle had been strong enough to overpower her almost silently and hang her from a tree. Someone had waited to pick her off in the dead of night and try to kill her in a display of dominance. But all he could do was hold her, to reassure them both that she was alive.
"Nigel," she whispered again, raising her hand to his face.
They were now in the most intimate position they had ever been in. His heart was pounding and he wanted to kiss her so badly, but he also wanted to wrap her up in cotton wool and hide her away from the rest of the world. He'd always felt protective of her in his own way, but this had kicked him into overdrive. He'd never experience this combination of fear and relief in his entire life, even including the four years he'd been working with Sydney now. This time was different. It was different from a bullet or a fist fight. He'd never had to force air into her lung before. He'd never held her technically dead body in his arms.
If he hadn't ran as fast as he did...
He stood up with her in his arms, completely unaware where this strength was still coming from, but she didn't struggle. She didn't try to stand, insist she was fine, attempt to walk it off. She was as afraid of this jungle as he was. She moved her neck to lean against his shoulder, but in doing so she aggravated her throat and whimpered in pain. It was a pitiful sound, not one he'd expected from Sydney, but she was still weak. His lips found her forehead as his hands were occupied with holding her. "It's ok," he whispered, as she placed her arms around the back of his neck. "We're getting out of here now, I'll take you home."
It only took them thirty minutes to get back to the small town they'd set out for, which made them startlingly aware of how close this small town was to such a horrible danger. He lifted her out of the back of the truck and carried her straight up to the small guest house they were staying in. He'd told their guide to send for the towns doctor as soon as possible but the look he received in return told him that it would be a long wait. This was a small down and their supplies were few at best. But regardless, he took her up to their room, pleased with their usual arrangement of sharing a hotel room and then awkwardly huddling to the far side of the mattress for fear of awkwardly touching in the middle of the night. He went to lie her down on the bed, noticing that she appeared to be losing consciousness again, and he sat on the mattress beside her, placing his hands on either side of her face to bring her attention to him.
"Sydney. Sydney, look at me."
Her eyes rolled to meet his and he nodded at her. "Good, just stay awake. Don't close your eyes, ok? Just focus on my voice. Stay with me."
She didn't answer at first, but every breath she took was still wheezing horribly. "Nigel," she moaned, bringing a hand to her neck.
"Wait, don't touch it!" he instructed quickly, leaving her side and disappearing into the adjoining bathroom. He came back moments later with a small cup of water and bought it to her side along with her brand new, still unused washcloth. He dabbed it with water and sat back down at her side. Gentle, he eased it towards her neck but she recoiled away from him before he could. "Syd, you need to let me clean it," he told her. "The doctor will be a while and it needs to be clean. I'm sorry. I know it's going to hurt but you have to let me."
She hesitated but stopped moving, allowing him to apply the damp cloth. Usually in this situation she would suck up the pain and grit her teeth against it, but she didn't hide the tears that fell down her cheeks or the horrible moan that escaped her strained throat. Her hands balled up the sheets beneath her as she complained against the pain. When he finished, he laid the damp cloth lightly along her neck to keep it covered.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, wiping away her tears with his thumb. The gesture just made her want to cry more. "I'm so sorry."
"Shh," he hushed gently. "Try not to talk, ok?" he brushed the now-matted her out of her eyes. "Everything's ok now. We're far away from there. You're ok."
He bit his lip. "Syd, it's just going to hurt more if you speak, love. Try to relax." Neither of them dwelled on the fact that he had called her 'love', but he followed the word through and placed another kiss on her forehead. "The doctor will be here soon, he'll be able to give you something for the pain."
"Don't leave me," she whispered.
He kept his forehead against hers, his hands still on her face. Their breath was mingled together and if he were any closer they would be kissing, but instead it was a reassurance. She needed to feel him close to her and needed that security that only he had ever given her, and he needed to feel her alive and breathing against him. "Never," he whispered, stroking her cheek. "Never, Syd."
He didn't move from that position until the guide came in through the open door and announced the doctor. He stayed at her side, only moving when it was necessary. Unfortunately, while the doctor did assure them that he could so no long term damage, only bruising and perhaps a few small scars from the deeper grazes, he was unable to provide her with a dressing for the wound. He told them that he had a contact in the nearby city who would hold some by for them tomorrow before they were due to fly out. He left some pain pills for her, which Nigel realised were the same over-the-counter prescriptions he could have picked up in a gas station back in the states, but he was gone before he could question it. The guide followed him out and closed the door behind them, this time leaving them completely alone.
The doctor had helped her to sit up and get comfortable against the pillows so that they were now level again. They shared a look for the longest moment until Nigel looked down at her hands, noticing they held the same bruises as her neck, and embraced her still trembling hands in his own. "Syd, I'm so sorry. I should have gotten to you sooner. I should have been paying more attention. I should have-"
She leaned forward from the bed, resting her head on his shoulder to silence him. He instantly wrapped his arms around her. He knew that she was trying to convey that it was ok but not able to put it into words. Someone had nearly killed her. When he had first held her in that clearing, she had been dead. She remembered feeling scared. She remembered that fear, that realisation that she had been overpowered and that she could die. Then she remembered pain, so much pain, and the feeling of that vine around her neck, and then a screaming that she hadn't realised for a while was coming from her. Then she remembered darkness. Darkness. And then Nigel. Nigel holding her. Nigel talking to her. Nigel crying. Nigel saving her. Nigel protecting her. Nigel. Nigel. Nigel.
She spoke his name out loud and that was enough for his tears to return. She couldn't see them but she felt one hit her shoulder.
"God, Syd, I really thought you were dead," he spoke through the thick lump in his throat, placing a hand on the back of her head to hold her against him. "I thought I'd really lost you this time. You can't ever do that to me again, ok?"
"You saved me," she whispered.
"I was almost too late," he admitted. "I'm sorry I wasn't paying attention. I'm sorry I ignored the noises in the jungle. I'm so sorry I couldn't stop this. When I saw you hanging there, part of me died inside, knowing that I might have lost the one good thing in my life. You're all I've got left, Syd. You're all I have. And we're going to get far away from here, back to the States, and no one will ever do that to you again. I know I'm not much for strength and protection but I promise you I will not allow that to happen to you ever again. I promise you, Syd."
She said nothing, just held herself to him. It took him a long time to release her, but he knew that she was in pain and that she needed to take the pills that the doctor had left. But his words were still grounding them together and though he was worried they might later be forgotten after the situation had died down, he meant them with every inch of his being. He wanted to be strong enough to protect her, even if all the strength he could provide was here in his arm. He'd been dancing around his feelings for her, burying them beneath the surface, for too long now. He'd almost lost her today, held her lifeless body in his arms and he would not pretend for a moment longer that he would not only be losing a friend if that were to happen.
Finally pulling away from her, he looked at her slightly calmer eyes and kissed her cheek, his lips lingering for a moment longer than they should. "I'll get you some water."
He fetched a fresh cup of water from the bathroom, making sure that he left the door open so that she could see him the whole time. However, when he came back she was still trembling again. He passed her the water then held her other hand to steady her as she raised it to her lips. Once she had taken the pills she raised her hand to her throat again as if to press against it. He captured that hand as well, pulling it away just in time.
"Syd, no," he whispered. "You can't touch it. We'll get a dressing in the city before we board the plane tomorrow and we'll have another doctor look at it properly once we're home."
She shook her head, about to argue the involvement of another doctor, but he insisted firmly. "Syd, for me?" he requested softly, lacing his fingers in her hair. "Please?"
She nodded, choosing to speak softly. "You always save me, Nige," she told him.
"I try to," he whispered, before sighing. "The bus to the city doesn't leave until dawn. You should get some sleep."
No words were said as he searched in her luggage for her usual nightwear, and he turned around politely while she changed. He heard the rustle of the bedclothes and turned again to see her slipping beneath the sheets. He pulled the curtain across the window, even though it did nothing to hide the fact that it was barely the middle of the morning. He pulled off his mud-stricken shirt and changed into some pyjama bottoms – he desperately wanted and needed a shower, but he didn't want to spend that time away from Sydney. Instead, he fell onto the bed beside her, sitting up against the wall.
"You too," she told him, when she noted he hadn't lied down to be comfortable like she had.
He shook his head with a sad smile. "I know what I'll see when I close my eyes, and I never want to see that again. I'll sleep when we're home."
She reached across and took his hand, opting for the one on his far side so that their clasped hands rested on his chest. "Sleep, Nigel."
"Syd, less than two hours ago I held your body in my arms, and you weren't breathing. I had to force you to start breathing again, and until today I've never had to force you to do anything other than get a few hours sleep once in a while or eat a full meal before we chase after a lead." He focused hard on their entwined hands, not able to meet her eyes. "Nothing had ever hurt me as much as it did to see you like that, to think that you were basically dead in my arms." He choked out the words painfully. "That sight will haunt me for the rest of my life. I can't close my eyes yet knowing that I'll see it over and over again. I need to spend more time seeing you alive first."
At this, his eyes raised to hers again and she understood what he meant. She was afraid of the darkness as well, but she hadn't seen her attacker. She didn't even know if there was one or twenty of them. It had been the dead of night, she'd seen nothing that she could be afraid of, but the sensations were there. She felt afraid of an enemy that she could not identify, an unknown evil in that jungle which had overpowered her so easily and attempted to discard of her as a warning. That scared her.
Slowly, she moved closer to him, not stopping until she had wound herself under one of his arms and nestled against him in a way that didn't hurt her throat at all. Her chest was pressed against his side so that she knew he would be able to feel her heartbeat. "Take as long as you need," she told him.
He was silent for a while, but she felt his arms loosen around her as he relaxed into the position they had settled in. "And if it takes forever?" he asked.
"Then we do this every night," she told him.
He smiled a little and rolled onto his side, now they were facing each other with their entwined hands between them on the mattress, foreheads touching. "It's not night," he told her. "It's morning."
"Then we do it at morning too."
Her eyelids were dropping now that the shock was starting to wear away, leaving her exhausted. He wondered if she truly knew what she was saying, but for now, it was enough. She was alive. She was ok, and she was going to stay that way.
"I can live with that."