So! This is the last of the AU oneshots – for now. Might I come back someday and do more? Who knows! But they've been fun in the meantime.
Now I will be taking 2 weeks off while I attend/work at/run my home convention, CONvergence. If you happen to be there, come to the Bridge and ask for me. I'm usually there. Otherwise, I'll have a Leverage 3-shot for you when I return in July.
Thanks, everyone, for being part of the journey!
Eliot's phone rang an hour before the news even hit the internet. He was in the brewpub kitchen, taking stock of supplies. He answered it one-handed, without looking.
"Spencer. Vance. It's gone Black."
Eliot froze. He pulled the phone from his cheek so he could check the caller information, just to be sure. Swore.
"Everywhere. Reports coming in from airports all over the country."
Eliot growled. "That means there was an initial mass dispersion, not just one or two original infected."
Eliot swore again.
"Spencer. They wanted me to call you in."
Something in his chest snapped with cold fury. "I ain't coming."
"I know. That crew of yours, right?"
"Then get lost. Fast. This thing...it's worse than any projection we had. Take them and go."
He still had to ask, "What about – ?"
Vance's words were cold. "There's nothing you can do, nothing anyone can do. They're already dead. Save the ones you can."
"I will." Eliot swallowed. "Vance. What about your family?"
"Already called them. They're on the move."
Eliot wanted to say something more, but he couldn't decide if it was better for Vance to run with his family and abandon his country, or abandon his family to save his country. A few years ago, Eliot would have been caught in a similar position himself.
But not now.
"I'll keep this phone. If it goes clear, let me know. Or…"
"I won't call you in unless there's no other choice," Vance said. "Make sure you're alive in a week."
Eliot thumbed the phone off. He gave himself just one moment of stillness, of utter quiet in his mind, his heart, his body. Just one.
Then he burst into motion.
"Hardison! Parker!" He charged out of the kitchen into a nearly full restaurant. He spared them not a glance. There was nothing he could do for them. There was nothing he could do for countless innocent people. The millions who did not know they were already dead and just waiting for it to set in.
But he could save these two.
"Hey, man." Hardison met him at the door to the briefing room. "What's got you all worked up? Look like you've seen a ghost."
"I'm up here." Parker was hanging upside-down from one of the rafters.
Eliot drew in a deep breath. "I need you two to listen to me and I need you to do it now."
Eliot watched them grow still and serious. He grumbled at them regularly, barked opinions and insults and orders, and sometimes even shouted. But they could count only a handful of times Eliot had gone quiet like this, quiet and intent. And every time, it had meant their lives.
"I don't care if you believe me or not. I don't care if you think I'm nuts. You're going to do what I tell you right now, or I'll kill you where you stand."
"Eliot?" Hardison asked, taking a nervous step back.
"Do you understand me?" Eliot stared at the hacker, unflinching. He was not exaggerating and he needed them both to know it.
"We understand." Parker went quiet, too, and dropped from the ceiling, unhooking her harness and taking Hardison's hand. "We're with you."
Eliot nodded. Then he turned and locked the door behind him. He didn't care if customers were curious as to why their orders were late, or if the staff came looking for him.
They're already dead. Save the ones you can.
"You have exactly two minutes to pack up anything you genuinely treasure. If you would mourn its loss or destruction, grab it now. But keep it small. Very small." Then he hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "And do not go out there. No matter who knocks on the door. You stay where I can see you."
Hardison opened his mouth to argue, but Parker shook her head. She met Eliot's eyes with a gaze of mixed steel and trust and the edges of something hard and decisive and strong.
"What's going on?"
"After. Pack now. Two minutes."
Parker and Hardison scattered. Parker ran to one of the filing cabinets and drew from it a suitcase. She bolted through the main room, opening drawers and secret hiding places and stuffing handfuls into the bag. Hardison, meanwhile, went straight to his work area and threw two laptops in a backpack, then piling in drives and cords and other items Eliot didn't bother to track. Hardison, to Eliot's surprise, was even faster than Parker, and before the two minutes were up, he stood with a heavy backpack and one rolling box that only just barely closed. Parker was right behind him with her suitcase and a lumpy pile of blankets and pillows lashed together with tape.
Eliot began leading the way out of the brewpub through the back. But he stopped at one intersection where the hall narrowed and drove the sharp point of his elbow into the drywall.
"The hell?" Hardison asked.
Eliot picked a bit of the wall apart and reached in. All he needed was in one knapsack which he pulled on securely. Then he broke open another wall and retrieved a pair of handguns.
Parker's eyes went slightly wide. "Eliot?"
Eliot checked them both, then tucked one into his pocket. The other he held ready as he exited the building and entered the alleyway.
"Get in the van."
Eliot could feel their growing apprehension as he covered them with quick, military movements. Only when they were both inside did he join them, slamming the doors and locking them.
"Parker, you drive. Head west. As fast as you can."
"Uh, are we not worried about traffic cops and speeding?" Hardison asked, his voice a little breathy.
"No. As soon as this breaks, they won't care about us. They'll probably be running, too."
Eliot paused. Then he caught Parker's arm before she settled in the front seat.
"If I tell you, you have to do exactly what I say. No matter what."
Parker nodded sharply. "Okay."
"Are you gonna tell us what the hell is going on?" Hardison asked.
Eliot nodded. "After we're out of the city." Then he pushed past Hardison to take the front passenger seat, gun in his hands. "Unless your little internet friends get wind of it a lot quicker than I hope they will."
Hardison popped open the laptop that always lived in the van and started typing frantically.
With Parker's driving, they were clear of the city and its suburbs in a very distressing thirty-five minutes. She took the clearest freeway and raced west out of Portland, and at Eliot's increasingly dark scowl, sped up on the open roads.
Eliot was just gathering himself to say something when Hardison let out something between a scream and a whimper. It was only Parker's reflexes that kept her from turning them off the road when she jumped in surprise.
"Eliot!" Hardison appeared between the two seats, eyes wide. "Man! This...This ain't...it ain't, right?"
Eliot hated the raw terror in Hardison's voice, but this was the right time for terror, so he didn't attempt to be calming.
"Vance called me. It's real."
"What is?" Parker asked, sharp and annoyed and now a little scared, too. Eliot noted that she hadn't been afraid until this moment. She had never been afraid of Eliot. Now, though, now she was afraid. Because Hardison was afraid.
And because they were running.
"It's called a Code Black," Eliot said. "It means some form of biological contaminant with dangerous implications has been released into the population."
"Biological…! Dangerous…!" Hardison almost swallowed his tongue. "Eliot, this is a real-life zombie apocalypse!"
"Like, in all of those movies? With the groaning and the brains and the eating people?" Parker asked.
"Yes." Eliot kept his eyes forward, not able to meet theirs. "It hit the airports already. By now, millions may have been exposed. Depending how fast this thing spreads, the infection rate of the major cities could be as high as fifty or sixty percent by nightfall."
Hardison was breathing too hard, too fast. But Parker turned until Eliot met her eyes, her expression stony.
"Do you have a plan?"
"Okay. What do we do?"
"First, we had to get clear of the population centers. Next, we need a boat."
"Why a boat?" Hardison managed not to squeak.
"People can walk or run for miles. No matter how high up a mountain or how deep in the forest you hide, someone can follow you. But they can only swim so far. We'll be safest on the open water."
"So we're stealing a boat?" Parker asked.
"No." Eliot shook his head. "I already have a boat. We just need to get to it."
He let out a breath.
"You've seen the movies. You know that there's no place safe enough where they can't reach you. We can't...we can't fight this. We can only run, and wait until it dies down – or until everyone dies."
"Eliot, man." Hardison gulped, then made a visible effort to rein in his panic. "It's cool if you've got a fishing dinghy or something, but this...I mean, if this is real…"
"It's real, Hardison."
"Then...I mean...we're talking about the end of the world here."
"And we're gonna wait it out on your boat?"
"That's the idea."
"Is it stocked?" Parker asked.
Eliot couldn't let himself relax, but he certainly felt relieved. If she was already planning, already making the mental adjustment, this would go easier. He always knew it would be harder on Hardison.
"Yeah," he said. "It's a liveaboard catamaran. Bought it with that first big payout we got after Dubenich. Once a month, I go down and resupply it, just in case."
"In case of zombies?" Hardison wanted to know.
"In case of anything."
Parker nodded. "Where is it docked?"
"I'll turn onto 6. That's the best way to get there, right?" she asked.
"Eliot...man…" Hardison was shaking his head. "Shouldn't we, you know? Warn people?"
"And tell them what?" Eliot knew he was snarling but he didn't care. "Tell them that they're probably going to die in pain and scared to death? Get them to panic and start a stampede, or start killing other people just because they have guns and don't know what to do?"
"Hardison." Eliot turned to him, facing him unflinchingly. "I have one job. Protect you two. That's what I'm doing. If you want to launch a nationwide panic on social media, I don't really care. Just don't do it until after we get on my boat."
Hardison rocked back, shocked at the coldness.
"Alec." Parker's own voice was soft, but stern. "We have to trust him."
"But we could save people!"
"We can't." Eliot couldn't let himself feel the words, so he didn't. "We can only save ourselves."
"But what about my Nana? What about Nate and Sophie?"
Eliot closed his eyes. "Fine. Call Nate. Tell him to do exactly what we're doing."
"And my Nana?"
"No." Hardison straightened up, sharp and angry. "You tell me we're gonna save my Nana. Tell me, Eliot."
Eliot sighed. "We're too far away. But I can call in a favor."
"Yeah, you better."
Eliot nodded and pulled his phone out again. He scrolled through a series of contacts listed only by acronyms and numbers, settling on 'HR-84.'
"It's me," he said as soon as it connected. "Calling in that marker."
"Not surprised," replied a gruff voice Eliot hadn't heard in the better part of a decade. "You tell Vance to stuff it, too?"
"Not exactly. You gonna tell me to stuff it?"
"Depends on what you're paying."
"I have a boat ready. Wyandotte. Under the name Ben Grimm. Haven't seen it in person for a while, but the guy taking care of it is solid. You tell him you're running an errand for Ben's Nana and he'll give you the keys."
He ignored Hardison's snort at the alias, and the recognition of why he'd chosen it.
"Nice. What do you need?"
"There's an old lady. Delia Hayden. You get her out safely and you bring her to me. You tell her that Alec and Parker sent you. And you treat her nice." Eliot growled. "You mess with her, and I will end you."
"What, she your grandma or something?"
"Something." Eliot glanced at Hardison and Parker. "We got a deal?"
"I'll text you her address and the marina. Go now. Call me with the phone on the boat when you're out."
"Nice doing business with you, Spencer."
Eliot hung up. He looked at where Hardison and Parker were staring at him.
"It's not a promise," he said. "We've got it easy. The whole Pacific is right in our backyard. But they'll have to get through two lakes, Niagara Falls, and all the way up the St Lawrence. Anything can happen between there and the open sea. And that boat ain't as good as mine out here. If they make it to the ocean, they're gonna have to stay close in to land. It's not…"
But Hardison, after searching his face for a moment, put a hand on his shoulder.
"Thanks, Eliot." And he shuddered with it.
Eliot looked at the man who was his best friend and brother and everything else. "You're welcome."
"Do you have boats everywhere?" Parker asked.
"No. Just where they're needed." He shook his head. "But not enough. There won't be nearly enough for everyone. You understand that, right? Both of you?"
Parker glanced to Hardison before they both nodded.
"Okay. Hardison, you call Nate and Sophie. I'm gonna try to call a couple of others."
Within fifteen minutes, Hardison had Nate and Sophie running for the nearest harbor and Eliot had been told off by the last members of his family whose contact information he had. Nate was going to call Maggie, but he didn't even know what country she was in. Hardison called Bonnano in Boston, who refused to leave because he had a city to protect. Other clients, especially those with children, they alternated, calling and warning and giving instructions.
And Eliot felt it like a knife in the gut with every attempt. Because he couldn't save them all. He couldn't even save most of them.
But he would die a thousand times before he'd let harm come to the two beside him.
A trip that usually took more than two hours at rush hour was accomplished in a little more than half the time, so just as news stations were picking up the internet rumors and video evidence and piecing together eyewitness reports and demanding answers from the government, they slammed into Bay City at 90 mph.
Parker followed Eliot's directions to the private marina, darting through traffic with the ease she usually reserved for dodging laser sensors. But the streets were emptying of people as the news spread, except where there were grocery stores or gun shops. Those were drawing a crowd.
Hardison had taken to monitoring the situation from his laptop. He looked up as they avoided another mob outside a corner store that was rapidly emptying of everything.
"Is there anything we don't have on the boat that we'll need?"
"It's fully provisioned," Eliot said. "Food, supplies, water, fuel, medical stuff. Even some tech stuff for you."
"Did you know this was going to happen?" Parker asked.
"This? No. But something like it, someday? Yes." Eliot twisted up half his mouth in a not-nice smile. "Figured it'd be Ebola, actually."
"And not, like, us having to flee the country?"
"Hardison," Eliot answered, "if we were in that kind of trouble, we'd already be gone."
When they got to the marina, there was a small crowd gathered around the gates. Eliot scowled.
"Stay in the van," he said. "No matter what." And he slipped out, leaving his bag behind but taking both guns with him.
He approached the drive-up gate slowly. "Problem here?"
One of the locals turned. "Old Rick ain't lettin' us in. Says we're all infected."
Eliot raised an eyebrow. "Are you?"
The local chuckled. "Not yet. And not plannin' to be."
"Then let's not stand around waiting." Eliot pushed through the crowd, every sense alert. It wasn't terribly likely that the contagion had spread to such a small place so far from an airport by now, but it wasn't impossible.
And with his luck, the whole crowd would be halfway to zombies right when Hardison and Parker were vulnerable.
Eliot drew his gun and fired at the padlock on the gates, breaking it. He threw the chains to one side and pushed the gates open. The crowd rushed into the marina like a breaking tide.
Eliot waited until they were gone, then waved the van to come through. But he didn't get back in; instead, he walked ahead of it, leading the way to his berth in a secluded spot at the far end. The air filled with the sounds of motors starting up and arguments about who could cast off first.
Eliot kept his gun out.
He wasn't surprised to see a figure standing on his boat.
Eliot didn't have time to think about regret or anger. There was only a burning, driving need to get Hardison and Parker away from danger. Nothing else mattered, not even fury.
"Rick!" he yelled, waving at the van for Parker and Hardison to stay put.
The figure on his boat held up a shotgun.
Eliot moved down the dock, shifting so that the van was out of the line of fire, so that the shotgun, when pointed, would be aimed squarely at him and not at the van or its occupants.
"Rick, that's my boat!" Eliot yelled.
"No! I need it! I ain't gonna die like that!"
Eliot was just as glad he hadn't watched any of the footage currently spreading across the internet as the world started its spiral to an end. He could imagine it, and he expected to see it for himself soon enough; right now, though, it might have been a distraction – one he could not afford.
"Rick, I'm gonna tell you one more time to clear outta there," Eliot said. "And then I'm gonna do what I have to."
He edged a little closer. Close enough to see the staid old man who had run this marina for decades – red-faced, wide-eyed, and shaking.
"You come one more step closer and I'll shoot you dead!"
"No, Rick. It's gonna be the other way around unless you get down right now."
The shotgun came up and around, barrels pointed to his chest.
And Eliot lifted his gun and fired.
The shotgun spun away and a spurt of blood showed where Rick's hand had taken a bullet.
Rick fell with a cry.
Eliot bolted the last few yards to his boat, leaping onto the deck and kicking the shotgun out of reach. He levied the gun at Rick's face, now red and pale in turns.
"Get off my boat. Now."
Rick was almost hysterical, clutching his hands to his chest and shaking and crying. And Eliot considered pulling the trigger again. A man like this wasn't going to last long in the world being born from death and terror all around them. A man like this was going to die, maybe horribly, and possibly taking others with him.
But then Eliot looked up to the van, to what he could see of one pale face and one dark face, watching him.
"I ain't gonna kill you," he said, not lowering the gun. "Even if you only got an hour before hell itself comes rising up out of the ground. Take the hour you've got and do something good with it. But get off my boat."
Rick blubbered something unintelligible.
Eliot felt his heart move and he hated it. He did not have time for anyone other than Parker and Hardison.
But it was the end of the world. Maybe he could steal a little time before the end.
"You got one of my old inventory lists, right?"
"Take it and take your own boat. Get as much of that stuff as you can. It'll keep you alive. And if you love anybody, tell them to do the same thing. But I can't do it for you. I got my own to worry about."
Rick closed his eyes. "Take me with you."
"Please. I don't want to die like that."
"Then pick another way to die." Eliot didn't say it unkindly. "It's your life, until it ain't. Use it how you want."
And Rick looked at him with pleading eyes. "I...I can't…I need...please."
Eliot pulled his phone out. Without even glancing at the phone, without breaking eye-contact with the desperate man before him, he called Hardison.
"Why? What's going on?"
There was a slight scuffle and Parker's voice came over the phone. "Is he sick?"
"No. Just scared. Too scared."
"Oh. Okay." She hung up.
Eliot put the gun into his belt. He held Rick's eyes with a measured stare. "Are you sure you want this? Are you sure you want to die right here and now?"
Rick's face was wet, but he nodded. "Yeah. Before...before. Please. I got nobody. Please."
Eliot nodded too. "Okay. I'm sorry."
In a move quicker than the eye could track, he spun Rick to face away from the van and snapped his neck. He lowered the body to the deck, checking for breathing and heart-beat. Both were stilled. Then, because he couldn't just dump the man overboard, couldn't just leave him that way, he got the body up over his shoulder and walked back up the dock. He passed the van without looking at it and hauled Rick all the way up to the office, where he set him in his chair and covered him with a blanket.
By the time Eliot got back down the dock, Parker and Hardison were hauling things from the van into the boat.
"Thought I told you to stay in the van."
Hardison looked like he had recently been sick, but his hands were steady where he carried his van laptop and a handful of cords. He paused on the dock beside Eliot.
"Thought we'd...you know. Spare you. Since you were...busy."
Eliot waited for the judgement, the censure, the fear. But there was none. Not in Hardison and certainly not in Parker, who was poking into every part of the catamaran she could. Parker's gaze, when it held still, was cool and even sympathetic. Hardison's was...sad.
"You okay, man?" he asked.
Eliot barked a laugh that surprised them both. "Not really. Just killed an old guy whose only mistake was being dumb enough to ask me to do it."
Then Eliot considered Hardison. "You okay?"
"Uh, hell no. Zombies? End of the world as we know it? And I don't feel fine? Hello?" But Hardison swallowed and managed what might have been a smile in a past life. "But we're alive. And you're gonna keep us that way. And...that's, like, better than ninety percent of people in horror movies. So I'm good."
Eliot didn't know he was going to do it – he flung his arms around Hardison and held him tight. He had no words. He could never have words for this.
But Hardison held him back, bumping Eliot's spine with the edge of the laptop and being altogether too tall to really hug, and nothing else would ever matter.
And then Parker's thin arms were around them both and she huffed what might have been a sob, just once.
Eliot forced himself to break the hug long before he was ready.
"Come on. We need to find a place to meet up with Hardison's Nana and then go get Sophie and Nate. And I don't want to be anywhere near any shoreline when it gets as bad as it's gonna get."
"Can we really fit Nate and Sophie and Hardison's Nana on this boat with us?" Parker asked.
Eliot shrugged. "Maybe."
"What do we do if we can't?" Hardison wanted to know.
"We'll do what we do. Adapt."
"No." Parker managed to find a fold of a smile in her face. "We'll steal a bigger boat, of course."
That made some of the frozen cold in Eliot thaw a little. "Deal."
And before the sun even touched the waves, Eliot was teaching Hardison about the controls and telling Parker not to play with the radio, and the Harlin Leverage IV was heading away into the west.
And Eliot felt okay.
The world was ending, sure.
But his world, and the only people in it, were going to be fine.