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Needle in a Haystack

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“We’re all right,” Eliot says, a ridiculous statement that Hardison generously decides he’ll blame on the fact that Eliot just got hit in the head.

He still can’t let it stand. “We are not all right,” he says. “We are in a tent, freezing our asses off, on the run from the mob, and in case you haven’t checked yourself lately, you don’t look so good.”

“I’m all right,” Eliot says, but he doesn’t look all right. Hardison would like to get out of this icy cold tent, hike themselves through the icy cold wilderness — all right, he’s not enthusiastic about that phase of the plan, but he can’t figure out how to skip it — and head right through the icy cold doors of a nice emergency room where Eliot can get patched up and Hardison and Parker can thaw out all their parts.

The gentlemen with guns who ran them off the road are the flaw in that plan. Eliot’s idea is that they are going to lie low in the woods until Nate figures out a way to get them some help. Parker’s idea is that they are going to trust Eliot. Hardison has a lot of ideas, but admittedly none that are actually better than trusting Eliot. This is just not his favorite day, is all he’s saying.

“You’re fine,” Parker says from behind Eliot, but she gives Hardison a worried look over Eliot’s shoulder. They’ve put Eliot between them because he’s the one who got the crap beat out of him, and this way at least he’s going to be the warmest.

“Let’s figure out a way out of here,” Hardison says.

“We’re going to brainstorm?” Eliot complains. One side of his face is purple with bruises, and from the way they had to steer him into the tent and the way he’s holding very still now, Hardison thinks his head is spinning when he moves. “How about we just shut up and get some rest?”

It’s definitely a bad idea for Eliot to go to sleep right now, and a worse idea for all of them to sleep, even if Hardison’s toes are starting to thaw out now that he’s pressed against Eliot, one arm wrapped around him like Eliot is a large and dangerous teddy bear. Eliot isn’t complaining about that, and Hardison scoots in closer. They’re huddling together for warmth. This is a thing people do, when they’re in the wilderness.

“We are going to break this down,” Hardison says. “When we hike out of here—”

“We’re not going to hike out of here,” Eliot says. “Nate and Sophie are going to work out how to get us out.”

“I’m just saying, we’ve lost the coms, so technically we have no way of knowing that.” It’s not that Hardison isn’t confident, but finding them in the wilderness has got to be much harder than finding a needle in a haystack — that just takes a strong enough magnet — and anyway, arguing with Eliot is a reliable way to keep him talking.

“They are.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I trust them,” Eliot says, and closes his eyes. Hardison shoots Parker a “help me out here” look.

“I trust them too,” Parker says, and shrugs when he makes a “what side are you on?” face. “But we should have a plan B, right?”

“Fine, Plan B,” Eliot says without opening his eyes. “We get some rest and then we walk out of here in the morning.”

“And then we get our asses shot off,” Hardison says.

“I didn’t say it was a good plan,” Eliot says.

“We need disguises,” Parker says. “And a cover story.”

“Trees,” Hardison says. It seems inspired in the moment. “We could camouflage ourselves as trees.”

That actually gets Eliot to open his eyes. “How are you going to camouflage yourself as a tree?”

“We cut off the top parts of trees—”

“With what knife?”

“You don’t even have a knife? I thought you were supposed to be all woodcrafty.”

“I threw it at the guy.”

“I have a knife,” Parker says.

“So, we cut off some trees using Parker’s knife, and we make, kind of, tree hats—”

“No,” Eliot growls.

“I think we should be park rangers,” Parker says.

“Right. Because park rangers are a thing that there are,” Hardison says, like he remembered that. He’s not sure why the trees need people to supervise the trees, except of course that right now people are running around the woods with guns, which is probably on the list of “don’ts” in the brochure they didn’t pick up at the park gates.

“You don’t have a park ranger’s uniform, Parker,” Eliot says.

“We could be undercover park rangers,” Hardison says, feeling inspired. “We’re undercover to track down big game poachers.”

Eliot puts his head to one side, and then looks like he wishes he hadn’t. “When you say ‘big game,’ what are you thinking of? I really want to hear this.”

“Like, bears.”

“I guess there could be bears.”

“We are the rangers. We speak for the bears,” Hardison says, with dignity.

“Except that before you get a chance to tell this really amazing cover story, the guys who were trying to kill us are going to try to kill us.”

“We hoped you wouldn’t notice that part,” Parker says.

“Are you trying to con me, Parker?”

“We’re trying to help, man,” Hardison says.

“I know,” Eliot says. There’s a long pause. “If you’re cold, get in here closer.”

Hardison is warming up, but he doesn’t have to be asked twice, and neither does Parker. They wrap themselves around Eliot, which at least makes Eliot’s shoulders relax a little.

“Wake me up when we get rescued,” Eliot says indistinctly, and that’s too relaxed.

“Eliot,” Parker says, and pokes him.

Eliot opens his eyes, scowling. “What, Parker?”

“You were going to tell me how to make that mushroom thing.”

“Duxelles,” Eliot says. “When we’re back in the kitchen, I’ll show you.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“Do we get to break out the lasers for this?” Hardison can’t help asking.

“We are never going to break out the lasers in my kitchen,” Eliot says, and then there’s the snap of a branch breaking somewhere outside, and Hardison is suddenly hoping fervently that it’s a bear.

Eliot is sitting up before Hardison can tell him not to, and Hardison reaches for the tent zipper, because if there are a bunch of angry men with guns out there, he would rather come out talking right now than have Eliot come out trying to fight. Parker presses a knife into Hardison’s hand, and he doesn’t want to have to try to use that, but he sticks it in his belt anyway, because things are not looking good.  

Then Hardison hears the sweet, sweet sound of Sophie faking an American accent. “Excuse me, but you’ll have to move to a marked campsite!”

He unzips the tent and tumbles out, his feet all pins and needles as he climbs to his feet. Sophie is wearing a park ranger’s uniform.

“Hah, I was right,” Parker says from behind him, and Hardison clears his throat, because two guys who might actually be real park rangers are coming down the trail behind Sophie. “That we shouldn’t have taken this trail,” Parker adds quickly.

“I am glad you showed up, because we are in need of some serious assistance,” Hardison says. “We got lost, and then we ran into a bear—”

“And then we ran into some guys who attacked us and tried to take our stuff,” Eliot says. His arm is around Parker’s shoulders, but he’s managing to stay on his feet.

“Probably organized crime,” Parker says. “Just a guess.”

“My goodness! Let’s get you back to the ranger station, and you can tell us all about it,” Sophie says. She presses an earpiece into Hardison’s hand, and suddenly he doesn’t feel as much like they’re going to die in the wilderness today.

“It was a really big bear,” Hardison says. “Massive.”

“I could have taken the bear,” Eliot says.

“Next time you stay and fight the bear,” Hardison says, draping Eliot’s other arm around his shoulder so that he and Parker can help get Eliot home.