Nate was pretty sure that all started when Sophie broke her nail.
As if, at that moment, with who knew which random twist of fate, everything turned on its axes, and their good luck sank deep below their reach. He was even sure, though not completely, that he felt an unexplainable twitch of unease even before he was able to decipher what, exactly, went wrong.
For the last twenty five minutes Nate had been trying to ignore the drama in the back of the van by concentrating on the late afternoon traffic. They'd finished the job successfully and he was calm and content, and no one's nail was going to ruin that feeling. Hardison and Parker, both in the back of Lucille with Sophie, were also trying to avoid falling into the trap. Hardison was typing, and Parker stared blindly at the other woman, who was explaining the terrible scene of her broken nail resting on the dirty floor in that damn warehouse.
A usual day, he said to himself. A post – job briefing in the apartment would set their moods right again, and they were almost there.
Eliot escaped their fate by remembering that they had forgotten four cameras in the warehouse. The warehouse was deserted and the cameras were not in danger, they could pick them up tomorrow, but he obviously predicted this doom, and ran back. Going to the office by cab was nothing compared to listening to a desperate woman whining about a broken nail. On top of that, Parker was not happy; she had almost nothing to do, and she was bored. Never a good combination. Hardison's quick typing was proof that the hacker knew the storm was coming, and he was building a shelter to dig himself into.
They were three minutes from the office when Nate's phone rang.
He checked the screen. Eliot.
"Nate, where are you?"
"Two blocks from home. We'll stop and take something to eat, so don't linger. Why the phone, where's your earbud?"
"Smashed. Nate, park the van. Now."
There. Twists of fate always struck without warning. "What?" he asked slowly, not yet willing to accept that he knew, the moment he heard his voice, that something was wrong.
"Pull over. Stop the van. Park it. Now." Eliot's voice was calm, he sounded almost pleasant, and with a cold feeling forming in his gut, Nate found a free place to stop.
"What's happening?" he said firmly, listening to the silence on the other end of the line. The silence in the van was echoing.
"Trouble." He could almost see Eliot smile. He turned around and met three pairs of eyes, tense, but not worried. Yet. He put Eliot on speaker phone.
"Care to be more specific?"
"I was interrupted cleaning up the warehouse. Four Chileans. One escaped, so there's chance of reinforcement soon."
"You okay?" Nate listened; Eliot's breathing was low and even, controlled. Too controlled.
"Few bruises and one nasty blow to the head."
"And trouble is...?"
"I provoked them and told them a few things about their obvious mistakes, so they had to tell me how brilliant their plan really is. You know, holding guns, helpless victim, stuff like that...", Eliot's voice became even softer for a moment. "Four weeks of planning and research. Your place, our safe houses, and simultaneous actions... hitter is first, then the rest of the team. They are on the move. You have nowhere to go."
Nate looked down the street. He couldn't see anything unusual but he didn't ask Eliot if he was sure.
"It's a long planned revenge," the hitter continued when he said nothing. "Leave town, immediately, but stay together. And do it now. I'll do the same as soon as I check they're not following me, and join you."
Nate looked at Sophie; her eyes were closed, head down a little. She was listening and he could feel her concentration that analyzed every cadence in Eliot's voice.
So did he. "You don't sound angry or worried. Not even in a hurry," Nate said carefully.
" 'Cause I'm not. This is my job, and I'm simply... doin' it." Another calm smile. "Tell Hardison to do those geeky tracking/untracking things, and make sure no one can trace you.
"This is wrong, man, so wrong," Hardison hissed in the back of the van, reflecting everyone's thoughts, but he was already working, his fingers busy on the keyboard.
"So, when Eliot yells, danger is not big, but when he's calm, something terrible is heading our way?" Parker asked. "And he calls me insane?"
"I can hear you, you know?"
"I'm not leaving Bunny!"
"You don't have to worry about Bunny, they won't even look at her," Eliot smiled again and alarms started going off in Nate's head. One by one. "She'll wait for you to return, darlin'."
Sophie opened her eyes on his last sentence. They were very dark. And very worried.
"Nate." there was something in Eliot's voice, the way he hesitated, that silenced even Parker. "This is very bad."
Nate checked the street again, avoiding Sophie's stare. Thinking.
"When did you say you'll join us?"
"As soon as I check... Dammit, Nate, what're you doin'? I don't have time for your trust issues. I'm not hiding anything, and I certainly won't go hunting Chileans all over Boston. I'm pissed and trying to stay calm!" the last words sounded almost like Eliot. "I have to know you'll do what I tell you. This is my part of the job, and when I say run, how fast is the only thing you should ask. Just do it! It's not a con, it's not a job, it's deadly. They're coming to kill, and trust me, they know how to do it."
"I trust you, and you're right. We'll go..."
"Don't tell me. Just stay together and keep low. I'll find you, I'm already on the road." For a few seconds they could hear only silence. "And Nate..." The lazy smile was back. "Be smart, for a change, okay?"
He hung up.
"Something's not right." Sophie said softly.
"Besides mad Chilean killers swarming our places?" Hardison murmured.
"He wasn't lying," Nate answered Sophie.
"But he also wasn't telling the truth", Sophie continued.
Hardison's eyes narrowed. "You mean something's wrong with Eliot? Yeah, he sounded a little... off, but, man, the situation..."
"He was talking too much." Nate cut him off. "Can you track him?"
"Yeah." Hardison was already working. "Earbud is destroyed, but all y'all got small tracking devices on you."
"Seriously?" said Sophie.
"You're not supposed to know about them, that's the point. I did it after Parker went rogue with Archie. Never again... Yep, I got him. Here. Moving pretty fast from the warehouse, west. In the cab, I guess, he said he's already on the road. Even pissed Eliot can't run that fast."
"Already in the cab? Then why didn't we hear..." Nate stopped.
"What? Hear what?" Hardison murmured. "You're starting to worry me, and that's not wise. A worried hacker is a slow hacker. What's going on?"
"Track his phone. Now." Nate exchanged glances with Sophie.
"I don't see why..." Hardison's fingers abruptly stopped. "What in hell... His phone is still in the warehouse. And his tracking device is half a mile to the west and speeding."
Nate got up. "Parker, you drive. We're almost half an hour away." He ignored the stares of the others when he sat besides Hardison, letting the thief start the engine. "Take us back to the warehouse, as quickly as you can."
Lucille roared and hit the road. Parker smiled.
Hardison was busy searching his files and collecting data on Chileans. Sophie was, ironically, biting her broken nail in worried silence, if the screeching of tires can be called silence.
Nate suddenly raised his head. "He said he was interrupted while cleaning up the warehouse," he said to Hardison. "Not that he finished searching for the cameras. So that might mean that the cameras are still on and working."
"Already on it." Hardison started typing faster. "No luck with the first one, it's dead. Second is dead as well. Third has power...checking the signal... this one may... crap..." His voice faltered.
"Oh," Sophie gasped.
Three bodies were spread on the floor in the middle of the warehouse, close to the long back wall. Some boxes blocked the view of the third one, so they could see only one leg. Nothing was moving.
Not even Eliot.
He was sitting on the floor with his right hand resting on a raised knee, his back leaning on the wall. There was nothing relaxed in the way he raised his head, and turned it slowly to the left. Checking the door? For a man expecting another attack, Eliot was in the worst position he could find, in the middle of a big empty space, unable to reach and disarm attackers. And they'd be armed for sure; Nate could see a gun near the motionless hand of one of the Chileans.
"Camera four." Hardison said, unusually quiet, and the image switched to another angle, a little closer. They could clearly see Eliot's left hand wrapped around his chest.
The hacker muttered something that sounded like damnribsagain, as if he was trying to convince himself that broken ribs, again, were the worst case scenario, but they all knew, even before they saw the large dark stain, that Eliot was not protecting broken ribs.
He was pressing a wound to stop the bleeding.
For a few seconds they were all frozen, staring down at the motionless man on the screen.
Lucille abruptly jerked and Hardison's screen tilted. Parker's eyes were glazed in the rear mirror and Hardison cursed, quickly turning the monitors away from her.
"Is he dead?" She yelled and sped up. "Call him! Tell him we're coming. Tell him we won't leave him..."
"Parker, just drive."
"Call him! Talk to him! Tell him we won't... we won't let him die alone. Not again!" Parker insisted.
"Again?" Hardison raised his head.
"The mountain," she whispered. "Nobody should die alone. I won't let him..."
"Parker, focus!" Nate said tersely. "Keep your eyes on the road. We need you to get us there, so shut up and do your job. Sophie, call Bonnano. Explain the situation and tell him to go to the warehouse right now. Hardison, ambulance. Report the shooting and victims and send them to the warehouse. We're too far away," Nate explained lower when the younger man looked at him. "And there's too much blood. Lucille's first aid kit is of no use here."
It kept them all busy for next couple of minutes, everybody except Nate. He didn't have to check the time, he knew exactly where they were, and how many minutes Parker bought them with her crazy driving skills. The only thing he could do was watch the gray image that seemed more like a photo than a live recording. He couldn't see any details; Eliot's head was lowered and his face was hidden with whips of hair, making it impossible to see his eyes. Or if he was still breathing. The thing he could see, unfortunately, was that damn blood – too much of it covering his shirt – the middle of his shirt, for god's sake-
A light touch on his forearm stirred him from staring, from waiting. "Bonnano is very close to the warehouse, almost in the neighborhood. He'll be there before us," Sophie reported.
"And an ambulance is already on its way, it seems someone heard gunshots." Hardison's voice was hopeful, so Nate said nothing about that plural, just nodded and smiled.
"You should call him and tell him we are there in ten minu-"
"Never mind. Just call him, Nate." Sophie looked at him with an almost timid half-smile that didn't belong to her at all.
He took a deep breath, and picked up his phone.
Many times in Nate's life, time seemed to go backwards, and all those moments were full of fear and desperation. Those frightening seconds that were slowing, like watching Sam's heart monitor, or staring at a pointed gun… Now he had another finalist - hearing the phone ringing, and watching Eliot fail to answer it.
After six seconds, finally, Eliot's hand slowly moved, and they all started to breathe again.
Another four seconds passed as Eliot just held phone, not answering yet, just breathing, and Nate knew why when he spoke at last. "What now?" Eliot's voice, seemingly without any effort, sounded strong. The usual growl, maybe a little impatient. Sophie and Hardison both looked at Nate, then back to the wounded man who could barely move his hand, confused with discrepancy.
And Nate knew what he had to do. The words came with difficulty, a suddenly dry throat being no aid to the clarity of elocution, but they sounded just as he wanted them to sound. "Parker insisted that we call you again." Calm and normal words, in spite of Lucille's sudden wild jolt. "She said you're up to something. You're not planning any Bunny rescue attempts, are you?"
"Not at the moment... but yes, it crossed my mind. Hardison has secured this line?"
"Of course. He says it'll be wise to throw away that phone later, though."
"Tell him we are coming!" Sophie whispered. "Nate..."
"Yeah, I'll get rid of it..." A pause. Nate's eyes were fixed on the screen, and now he saw his eyes closing. "Don't call again… just in case." Eliot's words sounded just a shade lower. "Gotta go now."
"Take care." Nate nodded and ended the call, watching the painfully slow descent of Eliot's hand.
"What..." Hardison started, cleared his throat, and started again: "What did you just..."
"Why, Nate!" Sophie asked shortly. Angry.
"Because we might be too late," he answered quietly. Sophie stared at him for a few seconds, her lips moving as if she was about to speak, but he saw in her eyes that there was no need for explanation. Hardison, on the other hand...
"He might die," Nate continued conversationally, trying not to look at the monitors. "He might die thinking we're safe, on our way out of town. That he managed to send us away to safety. Or he might die knowing that he failed, that we're going back to him, right into the hands of the Chilean reinforcements that might be coming. What would you chose for Eliot, Alec?"
The hacker shook his head, silent and pale.
"He won't die," Parker said from the driver's seat, and no one had any comment to make on that. Soundlessly, wordlessly, they looked without expression at one another, then back to the screen. Just waiting. Minutes were running at Warp 9.
Nate checked the phone again to see when exactly Eliot's first call was, when Sophie called his name. "Nate..."
The light on the video feed had changed, the warehouse was brighter, as if someone had opened a big door and let daylight in. Chileans would use the small back door, Nate said to himself even before he recognized broad shoulders. Bonnano stopped to let three white clad men pass in front of him, and they completely blocked the team's sight of Eliot. Hardison's growl sounded strangely familiar. He turned the third camera on, but all they could see was that Eliot was now lying down, and the paramedics were doing... something. Bonnano was talking to someone, Eliot or the paramedics, they couldn't tell. One of the paramedics went to check the three Chileans, and it seemed to be a good sign.
Nate waited patiently until Eliot was on a stretcher, and then called Bonnano.
"He's alive, but barely." The detective didn't waste any time. "Bullet in the chest, punctured lung, and dangerous loss of blood. They're preparing everything for operation. Where are you?"
"Near. We'll go directly to the hospital. Patrick, don't tell him that we know, and don't tell him we're coming."
"What's going on?"
"I'll explain later. Any prognosis yet?"
Bonnano hesitated one long second. "He'll probably live."
"Did he say something?"
An even longer pause. "He said 'Hi'."
"Alive, but fairly broken. My men are ready if others show up."
"Thank you, Patrick. See you in couple of minutes."
Hardison turned the cameras off as soon as the warehouse was empty, and Nate leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. "Drive, Parker." He felt Sophie's hand in his, and tried to smile.
Patrick Bonnano sighed and went to his car, watching the ambulance speeding off to the hospital. Another van, with three Chileans, and a police car, went after the first. This was going to be a very interesting day.
He checked his phone to see if there were more surprises.
First call he received was from Spencer; in short, he asked for an ambulance, his presence, and to tell nothing to his team. Second call was from the rest of the Team; they too asked for an ambulance, his presence, and for him to say nothing to Spencer. The third call was from his informant in the Chilean gang; he also asked for an ambulance, his presence, and to make sure that no one knew he had called.
They were all going to same hospital - all his instincts were screaming about an impending catastrophe. And now he was in the middle of this mess.