There's a shrill, persistent ringing somewhere. It's annoying and making his head ache, and he vaguely thinks he wants it to stop, but he can't seem to muster the energy to find out where it's coming from. Or what's going on, at all.
He's on cold ground, it's dark, and for some reason, his limbs feel too heavy to move. He can't remember how to make them anyway, he's too muzzy to think straight. So he just stays where he is and allows himself to drift for a bit.
There's little else he can do.
“I got nothing on comms.” Breanna's voice is deceptively calm.
Sophie on the other hand is nowhere near as composed: “But- can't you locate him?”
“No. He must have lost his earpiece, and I can't get anything on his cell either. Batteries probably died in the cold.”
There's a heavy momentary silence, then Parker speaks up, her voice accompanied by the tiniest bit of static: “Last contact was before the drop, right?”
Her voice sounds calm too, but also slightly smaller than usual, which Sophie notices at once.
“Yeah. We went radio silent for two hours to avoid being detected, and Eliot's signal never came back online.”
Nobody says anything for a while, as everyone's struggling with the implications of what it might mean.
“Parker, Hardison,” Sophie then asks. “Where are you?”
“Just leaving the hangar.”
“I need you to go back. We've got to find Eliot, but we can't cover this much ground per car, not in these conditions. Is the pilot still there?”
Breanna turns around to her, her eyes huge now; they're all aware that this isn't one of the times they can't just leave Eliot to fend for himself and hope for the best.
It's 14°F out there and everything is covered by a thin layer of snow. Plus, there might be predators other than the human ones they're currently dealing with. In Canada, of all places.
So on top of having lost Eliot in the wilderness in rather unsavoury weather conditions, with no means to locate him and no idea what happened to him, they've also got to be careful not to attract the attention of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
To make matters even worse, there's a storm coming up. The odds really seem against them this time.
“It's gonna be all right,” Sophie nevertheless mutters to no one in particular, though she's not sure she believes it herself.
“Yo,” Hardison says a moment later. “We got two choppers. We comin' to pick you up.”
Momentary relief makes Breanna's knees weak. With shaking hands, she starts to pack up her gear; when the two choppers arrive some ten minutes later, Sophie and she are outside, ready to go.
The ringing is still there.
With a groan, Eliot manages to roll onto his back, though he doesn't remember making a conscious decision to do so. Or what to do next, and how. He still feels heavy and not at all in control of his body; despite the coldness, he's unable to get off the ground, and he can't help it when his eyes close again.
"Har'sn," he grinds out, in the futile hope that his earpiece is still there and working; he can't quite feel it, but then, he can't really feel much of anything right then because he's chilled to the bone. No answer, as expected. Probably lost it.
The next thing he knows is something blurry moving into his line of vision. It seems darker than before, so maybe some time has passed, but he can't be sure. He blinks at the figure above him, too dazed to be alarmed; he does shrink back when there's touch though- something cold that almost feels moist, accompanied by a brief moment of warmth, like a puff of breath.
It's a dog nosing at his face. Or no, not a dog. It's a... wolf?
The two choppers are following a coordinated search grid Breanna has drawn up based on the parameters at hand; she and Sophie stayed together while Parker and Hardison are in the other aircraft.
Hardison's still monitoring the proceedings. When he reports that their target, the CEO of AureateNorth Corp., a mining company that's been running one of the diamond mines in the area, has effectively been stopped from scarpering because his chopper just went down, as planned, while an extensive dossier of his crimes, including pretty conclusive audio files, has just been delivered to the authorities, also as planned, it's only a small relief. The worry about Eliot outweighs their victory.
Hardison glances at Parker, who's scanning the ground with narrowed eyes, her posture tense; he wants to say something reassuring, but he can't find the right words. After all, there's nothing even remotely promising in this kind of situation.
The wolf's gone.
For a moment, Eliot isn't even sure that it was really there, but then there's another figure leaning over him, and this time, it's definitely human. A man, who now comes closer because he's crouching down; he's wearing a felt hat and regarding Eliot attentively. He's got a somewhat lined, still handsome face, and what's visible of his hair is white.
“Hey there,” he says, not unfriendly. “Can you hear me?”
Course I can hear you, what kind of stupid question is that? Eliot wants to reply. All that comes out however is an almost inaudible, pathetic little croak.
“Let me help with that.”
The stranger promptly produces a canteen and, seemingly effortlessly, lifts Eliot's head so that he can drink. Which Eliot does, even though he wouldn't in normal circumstances, not knowing the guy and what's in that canteen. Turns out it's water, and it tastes wonderful.
“Are you injured?”
The question is repeated twice until it registers with Eliot. He shakes his head: well. He's pretty banged up, but it's no worse than a bad day on the job. Nothing to concern passers-by with.
“Think you can sit up?” the stranger then asks. “We should really get you out of the snow. My name's Fraser, by the way, and that's Ray.” He motions towards the wolf, which is sitting next to him. No hallucination then, which is good because it means that his hypothermia isn't too bad yet.
Eliot frowns, unaware that he's zoning out again. Or that there's a bloody wound on his temple.
“Sir? Can you try to sit up?” Fraser asks with a bit more force.
Concentrating. Eliot manages to get out a sound that resembles a yes, even though he's not convinced he can move that much. He can't even feel his hands or his feet right now. With Fraser's help though he soon is more or less upright; the guy's reassuringly strong.
The world immediately tilts unpleasantly however, and Eliot starts to retch. Fraser never lets go of him as he wriggles sideways and throws up. It's not much, but it's a lot of effort to get it out.
When the bout's over, Fraser offers Eliot the canteen again, but the latter pushes it away with a clumsy hand: “No... thanks.”
Fraser nods: “Two questions. What are you doing here and what happened to you?”
“I dunno,” Eliot answers truthfully, because he can't remember. It's all so muzzy. “We in Canada?”
He's got a vague feeling that he should get going.
“I... gotta get a move on,” he mutters hoarsely. The sad truth is that he knows he won't even make it off the ground on his own. Or where he should go.
“I was thinking the same,” Fraser says. “You're obviously in some kind of trouble, and you need warmth and medical attention. Especially since there's a storm brewing.”
He forestalls Eliot's protest by raising an eyebrow. Eliot closes his mouth again; the guy's right, and he knows that Eliot knows it. Dammit.
“Since there's no other settlement within easy reach,” Fraser then says, “I'm going to take you to my place to get you warmed up and call for help.”
“Call Hardison,” Eliot mutters because it's what came to mind just now.
"Was he with you?"
“Okay. We'll do that then.”
“Phone.” Eliot unsuccessfully tries to reach into his pocket, then huffs in frustration: “Would you?”
“Sure.” Fraser pulls the phone out: “It's dead. The batteries are probably affected by the cold. I doubt that we'd have gotten any reception out here anyway.”
He puts the phone back: “Don't worry. I don't have a cellular telephone, but there's a radio at the cabin.”
Eliot's frowning again because something's bothering him, and it's not only the question how they're going to get to said cabin.
Which he must have said out loud, because now Fraser smiles: “With my dog sled, of course.”
Later, Eliot doesn't remember things very clearly, but he keeps wondering how he didn't notice the dog sled with its five Huskies.
“Huh,” he says.
In any case, it doesn't take long until he's safely ensconced in a few blankets and furs. He's never ridden on a dog sled before, and because he's still not entirely sure he isn't dreaming this, it all seems rather surreal.
The dogs are fast and Fraser apparently knows what he's doing. For the most part, it's an unexpectedly smooth ride, though there are a few slopes and occasional bumps which jostle the sled in a way that only serves to increase the nausea Eliot's feeling.
When they finally arrive at the cabin, it's almost dark.
Fraser opens the door, then he comes to get Eliot. Who starts retching again as soon as he's on his feet, but it's mostly bile by now. Just as before, Fraser patiently supports him until Eliot's able to straighten up again.
He's relieved once they're inside: the wind's picked up something fierce, his face feels as frozen as his hands and feet by now, and it's noticeably warmer inside.
The cabin is small and rather sparsely furnished. Fraser takes Eliot over to the couch that's sitting opposite a large open fireplace and eases him onto it: “Better not lie down yet,” he says. “It might only induce vertigo.”
For the moment, Eliot's just grateful to be stationary.
Fraser gives him a sympathetic look: “I'll quickly stoke the fire first. Be right back with you.”
Which is funny, kind of, because the cabin's so small that he only needs to turn around to attend to the fire. Maybe it's just his way of being polite, though.
With practised movements, Fraser pokes at a few still glowing embers and puts a few more logs onto the rekindled flames, then he briefly disappears from view as he ducks into a narrow supply closet and pulls out a few blankets, a towel and a first aid kit: “We need to get you out of your wet clothes.”
“Call... Hardison,” Eliot mutters drowsily.
“Don't worry, we'll call him. Warm you up first, then everything else,” Fraser says accordingly.
If Eliot weren't so cold, he'd mind having to accept help from a stranger, but as it is, he can't make any headway with the buttons on his shirt or the rest of his clothes because his fingers don't seem to work; also, he feels weak as a kitten.
Fraser's swift and effective though; in no time, Eliot's wrapped up in the blankets.
“Rub your hands together,” Fraser instructs him while he crouches down and begins to rub Eliot's feet with the towel. It's awkward and Eliot's vaguely embarrassed, but it's actually helping.
Next, Fraser cleans the wound on his temple and puts a piece of gauze over it, then he takes Eliot's clothes and drapes them over two chairs so that they can dry.
When he's done, he hangs a kettle over the fire to boil some water: “I'll make you some ginger tea to help with the nausea.”
“Thanks.” Exhaustedly, Eliot leans back.
A moment later, the couch shakes; unaware that he closed them, he opens his eyes again, slightly startled, to find that the wolf just claimed the free space next to Eliot; he walks in a circle once, twice, then he settles down. The warmth he emanates is palpable.
With a sigh, Eliot closes his eyes again, listening to the crackling sounds of the fire and whatever small noises Fraser is making as he's busying himself in the kitchen area; the ringing is finally beginning to subside. Small mercies.
“What's your name?” Fraser unexpectedly asks, apparently not minding that Ray is taking liberties.
“Eliot Spencer,” Eliot mutters; it doesn't occur to him to give a false one. Besides, he's already mentioned Hardison.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Spencer.”
"Eliot." Fraser hands him a hot water bottle: “Are you feeling any better?”
He doesn't, but at least the cold is lessening ever so gradually. Inside the blankets, Eliot slowly flexes his fingers against the hot water bottle. “Yeah,” he rasps. “Thanks.”
“'kay.” For a moment, Eliot gets the impression that Fraser doesn't quite believe him, but it's fleeting. With heavily lidded eyes, he watches the older man as he prepares the tea. Soon, the scent of ginger fills the air.
Fraser takes a mug over to Eliot: “I'm going to take care of the dogs, then I'll try the radio,” he tells his guest.
Eliot nods; he gets that the animals have to come first. He wouldn't do it any differently.
Once Fraser's back inside, he ducks into the closet once more and gets out an old radio set that's definitely seen better times. After a moment though, it does crackle to life.
“Does your friend have a call sign?”
Once more, Eliot is grateful for Hardison's prudence; they all got call signs (which can be redirected to his cell, in case they should only have a radio to communicate). It has already come in handy once, during the hurricane job.
“Yeah,” Eliot mutters, giving Fraser the frequency and the call sign.
The wolf eyes him with a soulful expression before it tentatively puts its head on Eliot's thigh. Since the latter can't keep his eyes open any longer, he doesn't see the small smile this elicits.
It's getting dark. Nobody wants to say it, but their chances of finding Eliot today are diminishing rapidly.
“We gotta turn back,” one of the pilots now urges, “else we'll get caught in the storm.”
It's one of the hardest decisions they ever had to make, but in the end, they agree on breaking it off and continuing on the following morning, if the weather allows it.
Hardison can see that Parker's crying silently, but he still doesn't have any words of consolation, on the contrary: he feels close to tears himself.
Fraser tries to reach Hardison for about half an hour, but he only gets static.
“It's the storm,” he says apologetically. “By tomorrow, we'll have a meter of fresh snow, so you can imagine what's going on out there.”
Eliot, who's feeling a little more together now that he's regaining some warmth, nods: “Sorry to inconvenience you.”
“You're not,” Fraser says lightly. “It's been a while since we had any company.” He motions towards the wolf. “Ray likes you.”
“How come you got a wolf?”
“Technically, he's only part wolf,” Fraser says. “I once got saved by Diefenbaker, his grandpa, who stayed with me for the rest of his life. He sired a litter of puppies, of which I took one in, and years later, history repeated itself when that one also sired puppies, one of which was Ray.”
He smiles somewhat wistfully: “Diefenbaker was the best buddy I could have wished for, and he helped me through some rough patches. I'm glad that he lives on in his offspring.”
He reaches out to scritch Ray behind the ears; the wolf obviously enjoys it.
“How did he save your life?”
Fraser sighs: “Long story short: I almost drowned in an icy river. For some reason, Dief jumped in to save me. His eardrums subsequently burst from the cold, resulting in him remaining deaf. So I kept him and trained him. Least I could do.”
“I'm part Cherokee,” Eliot hears himself say after a few moments of silence. “Wolf's my spirit being.”
He doesn't usually share these things with people he doesn't know, but for some reason, it doesn't seem wrong in this case.
Fraser inclines his head as he regards Eliot with fresh interest. “He'd probably have saved you as well, then,” he says softly.
Eliot averts his eyes: there's a time when he'd have been happy to believe this. Now however he surely isn't worth the honor anymore, considering everything he's done in his life, before Leverage.
“I'm going to make some soup,” Fraser says, sensing that Eliot doesn't want to talk about it further.
What he's seen so far is a man who's got a lot of physical scars; he's muscular and obviously in a rather good shape, apart from the obvious. His clothes are of good quality, and he's overall clean and kempt. He speaks with a Southern drawl; not a Canadian, then.
The question is what he was doing out there on his own, and what happened that rendered him so dazed that he would have frozen to death if Fraser hadn't found him. He definitely has a concussion, and Fraser thinks he's seen some injection marks on his arms, so someone might have drugged him. His pupils seem to be confirming both, and nothing indicates that he's a permanent user. Maybe someone drugged him and left him there; someone who had access to some kind of aircraft, since Fraser didn't see any vehicle tracks.
For some reason, he doesn't think that Eliot poses a threat to him though. Even without Ray, who's a very reliable indicator for a person's trustworthiness, he does have a feeling that Eliot and he are seeing eye to eye. With that thought in mind, he starts to peel a few potatoes.
Parker is pacing. They're back at the hotel, the only one in the area, and even though it's late, they're all still up, gathered in one of the rooms, since none of them feels like sleeping despite a general exhaustion that's making itself known.
They can all hear the wind howling outside, and they can all see the snow that's being blown by and against the window.
The notion of Eliot being out there on his own is terrible enough; the notion that he might be injured or worse... it renders everyone silent.
“We should have found him,” Parker mutters, turning on her heels restlessly.
“We did our best,” Sophie tries to appease her, but since she doesn't believe it herself, it doesn't sound convincing. In hindsight, it's always easy to see things differently. What if they were close but simply didn't spot him?”
Hardison's chewing on his lip: “If he was there at all.”
It's an option they don't like to think about either. Eliot wasn't on the helicopter that crashed, but that doesn't have to mean anything.
Parker closes her eyes: “He's got to be okay,” she whispers.
Breanna shares a despondent look with Sophie: they all know that it's less likely the more time passes.
The pilots, Rod and Harvey, who have been handsomely paid, are going to be on standby as soon as they'll be cleared to fly once the storm passes, but until then, it's going to be a long night.
Eliot's still feeling a little queasy, but he manages a mug of the soup and it does stay down. Afterwards, he leans back again with closed eyes; the wind is the loudest sound there is right now, and from the way the fire is smoking up the cabin ever so slightly, they can tell how fierce it actually is. Not what Parker imagines when she's talking about white christmases in a cosy hut somewhere.
He's pulled out of these thoughts when Fraser, who's been sitting at the kitchen table reading, gets to his feet: “So far, it's been quiet,” he says. “Apart from the storm, obviously. Before we tuck ourselves in for the night though I need to know if we might be expecting any unwelcome visitors.”
His tone remains light, but his gaze is steady. “In which case I'd rather stay up and take watch.” He glances at the rifle which is hanging on the wall by the door.
Eliot still only has a very fuzzy recollection of how he ended up in the wilderness, but he's certain that the diamond guys thinks he's dead; after all, they weren't very thorough to begin with, considering how he's still alive.
“It's unlikely,” he mutters.
“Good.” The corners of Fraser's mouth quirk up a little. “I'll take your word for it.”
Eliot, who appreciates the kind of situation the other man has found himself in, takes a deep breath: “If everything else went according to plan,” he says softly, “we have just stopped a very bad guy from doing a helluva lot more bad things. It's all I can tell you.”
Fraser regards him: “Understood.” His gut feeling is agreeing to this. He really hopes he and Ray aren't wrong.
In the early hours of the new day, the wind starts to lessen.
The Leverage team is still up, listening. They're all sitting down by now, even Parker, who's leaning against Hardison ever so slightly, just to feel that he's with her.
They stopped talking hours ago; there was nothing more to say, and anything else would probably have lead to an argument and unjustified recriminations because everyone's feeling so helpless that it would have been relief to have someone to blame. They know themselves and one another well enough to be aware of this though, so they just remained silent.
Shortly after six, Hardison gets a notification on his phone and sits up rather abruptly: “We're good to go!”
Breanna blinks: “I'll call Rod and Harvey.”
Half an hour later, they're back in the air.
Fraser's up early. During the night, he's been up a few times to check on Eliot, who has lain down properly at one point and actually slept; no surprise there, considering.
To Fraser's relief, he was rather lucid upon being woken up and able to answer most of Fraser's questions, though he didn't know the name of the Canadian Prime Minister, which admittedly is a little worrisome.
After getting up, Fraser went to check on the dogs; the storm didn't leave any visible damages to the cabin this time, which is a relief, but as predicted, there's about a meter of snow covering the ground. Which is why he had to get outside through a window and then shovel his way back to the front door.
Eliot's just sitting up as Fraser comes back in.
“Good morning,” he says, taking off his hat. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Eliot clears his throat. “Sorry that you had to sleep on the floor.”
“Thank you kindly, but there's absolutely no reason for that: I always do. There's nothing like a good bedroll.” He smiles.
Eliot thinks that it's weird, but to each their own, right?
Fraser now sits down at the table: “The good news is that the radio should be working now. I'm going to try and reach your partner.”
“What time's it?”
“Just gone seven.”
Eliot runs a hand over his face: about time, then.
The landscape's thoroughly transformed by the masses of snow. It's a magical sight, but it's also dreadful: if Eliot didn't find any shelter, he didn't stand much a chance, after all.
Hardison's startled when his phone begins to buzz. He quickly rubs his eyes because they're streaming a little from the effort of looking at the gleaming snow: it's an unknown call sign from a radio, therefore he doesn't identify himself when he picks up: “Yeah?”
“Am I speaking to a Mr. Hardison?”
“Depends on who's asking.”
“My name is Benton Fraser. I'm calling on behalf of your partner, Eliot Spencer.”
Hardison almost shouts: “You got Eliot? He alright?”
“Not entirely,” Fraser replies truthfully. “He was slightly concussed and moderately hypothermic when I found him, and I can't tell if there are any hidden injuries. But he's had a good night's rest and seems to be doing better than yesterday.”
Hardison lets out a whoop: “That's the best news I ever got! Where are you?”
Fraser gives him the coordinates, then they end the call.
The team, once they've recovered from the adrenaline rushes of their collective relief, decide that it's not necessary for both choppers to go and get Eliot, therefore it's only Parker and Hardison who're headed towards Fraser's cabin.
While Fraser makes some porridge, Eliot manages to get dressed on his own, now that the drugs have worn off; also, he meanwhile recalls most of what happened, though he'll keep it to himself for the time being.
It doesn't escape Fraser that his movements are rather measured, but it's good to see that he's not so muzzy anymore.
“Thank you for everything,” Eliot says quietly after breakfast. “I owe you my life.”
“You're welcome,” Fraser gives him a small smile. “The funny thing is- I wouldn't even have taken that route if Ray hadn't been obstinate and led the pack astray.”
As if on cue, the wolf, who's sitting next to him, inclines his head.
“Yes, Raymond, I'm talking about you.” Fraser sounds affectionate.
Eliot thinks of the spirit animal his grandma used to tell him about, feeling a well-known pang.
He clears his throat in order to drown out his own thoughts: “If you don't mind me asking- what're you doing out here, all on your own?”
“Oh, I'm currently trying out retirement,” Fraser replies. “I'm actually still living in Chicago.”
“With your wolf and the Huskies?”
“Only with my wolf. The Huskies belong to a friend.”
“Huh.” Eliot frowns. “Is it allowed to have a wolf in the city?”
“I actually got a special permit.”
“Right... So- what is it that you do? Or did?”
Right then, Ray's ears perk up and he starts to bark; moments later, they can hear chopper blades.
“We better get going, then,” Fraser says.
Since the chopper can't land in the deep snow, Eliot'll have to climb in while the machine is hovering, and Fraser knows where there's a rather handy rock of the perfect size hidden in all the snow.
The instant Eliot's safely in the chopper, Parker pulls him into a bear hug while Hardison exchanges a few shouted words of gratitude with Fraser.
They all wave at the man with the felt hat and his wolf before the chopper gains height and turns around.
Hardison also hugs Eliot tightly: “I'm so glad we got you back, man!” he mutters, sounding choked.
Eliot looks pale: “Me too,” he mutters.
Parker holds his hand in a death grip all the way to the airfield.
At the hotel, Sophie and Breanna have been waiting impatiently. Once Eliot's been hugged and kissed and fussed over (which he patiently endures for a change), they try and piece the whole story together.
“I was on my way out when it must have happened,” Eliot says, frowning because this part is still a bit fuzzy. “So they drugged me and threw me out, probably thought the cold and the storm or a wild animal were going to finish me off.”
Parker shudders at that.
“And then this Fraser guy came along?”
“Yeah. With a dog sled.”
“That's so cool!” Parker claps her hands.
“I'll love him forever for rescuing you,” Sophie says, heartfelt.
Breanna, who's at her laptop, clears her throat: “Benton Fraser?”
“Did he look like this?”
She shows them a picture. It's a bit grainy, since it's embedded in a newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune published in the mid-nineties, but it's definitely Fraser. He's younger in the picture, of course, and he's wearing a uniform. A red one. And next to him, there is a white wolf.
Hardison and Eliot exchange a look. The caption of the article reads: “Mountie Saves Family of Five From Burning Building.”
“Mountie?” Parker and Sophie repeat simultaneously.
“He said he was living in Chicago...,” Eliot mutters. “I never got round to ask him-” He breaks off and looks at the picture again; looks at Diefenbaker. It all makes sense now.
“We gotta leave.” Hardison jumps to his feet. “We gotta leave right now !”
“I don't think-” Eliot begins, but Parker follows Hardison's example, shrieking a little just for the excitement.
As Breanna begins to pack up her rig, she heaves a long drawn-out sigh, then she starts singing under her breath: “Oh, Canada...”
After his guest has left, Fraser tidies up the cabin and puts the blankets up on a clothesline to air them out; nothing like the clean winter air, after all.
His gaze wanders over to Ray, who's digging in the snow, and he smiles to himself: what an interesting encounter.
About a week later, Fraser takes the dog sled back to his friend and walks the seven kilometers to the airfield; time to return to Chicago.
He used this particular vacation to engage in some soul-searching because time and again, certain people have been suggesting that he's past sixty by now and therefore old enough to retire, and he was admittedly very tempted, which is why he went up to the Northern Territories with a view of at least giving it a go. He misses the North whenever he's in Chicago, after all, misses the quietude and the undisturbed nature.
However, it only made him realize that he doesn't want to quit working yet. Neither does Ray, from the looks of it, so they'll probably carry on for a while longer.
At the airfield, he checks in and is being told that his flight is delayed, therefore he buys a newspaper and sits down in the small waiting area. The lead article is about one of the gold mines and how its CEO recently was arrested for fraud and consciously negligent disregard of safety measures, among others things.
For years, the next of kin of a number of workers who died or were seriously injured in accidents due to safety issues demanded justice but remained unheard. What exactly happened recently or who unearthed the evidence that was just submitted is of yet unclear. What seems clear though is that said CEO was about to flee when his helicopter went down because of technical difficulties, and since he had already been reported by then, he was arrested on the premise. As were the select members of staff who were with him.
Eliot's words come to Fraser's mind: If everything else went according to plan, we have just stopped a very bad guy from doing a helluva lot more bad things.
With a pensive smile, Fraser closes the paper: very interesting indeed.