"Eliot, am I doing this right?" The mastermind was fumbling with the girth, trying to remember how exactly the younger man had tied that unfathomable knot.
The hitter leisurely walked over and eyed his boss's work. "Yeah, just needs to be a bit tighter." Nate moved towards the back of the horse to give Eliot room to finish the adjustments, but as his hand brushed the animal's hindquarters the large bay struck out with his hind leg. Nate jumped back and narrowly evaded the hit, his heart rate suddenly twice what it was a mere second ago. The horse calmed immediately as Eliot put a hand on the animal's shoulder, while Nate took a deep breath and moved to the far side of the hitter.
"Why exactly did I get the spirited one?"
Eliot chuckled and nodded towards the fiery chestnut pinto the blonde thief was perched on. "Parker got the spirited one. Horses can't see directly behind themselves, you scared him, that's all."
The mastermind was trying still to get his breathing back under control. "The feeling's mutual."
Meanwhile Sophie was having a tender moment with her horse, weaving a delicate braid into the petite black mare's forelock. Parker was sitting legs crossed on hers, bareback, and backwards, studying the two of them. "Eliot, did you give Sophie that horse because it matches her hair?"
Eliot looked back at them and smiled. "Just a coincidence, Parker. I tried to pair each of you up with the horse I thought best suited your abilities."
Nate had to stifle a nervous laugh, which rewarded him with a dirty look from the hitter.
"Would you rather ride mine, Nate? I'll happily trade if you think you can handle him." The mastermind thought back to that tense moment in the pasture earlier, Eliot's buckskin rearing and striking the metal gate with an ear-shattering clank as an unexpected leaf floated by. He shuddered and tried to press that image out of his thoughts. Not helpful.
"No no that's OK, this one's fine." He figured he might as well try to bond with the animal, at least out of self preservation. "What's his name?"
Eliot finished up adjusting his own saddle as he replied, "Guinness."
Nate paused momentarily before turning and sending an accusatory look towards the hitter. "Uh, let me guess – coincidence?"
Eliot laughed. "A happy one I will admit, but yeah." Great, Nate thought to himself. Killed by Guinness. They could carve that onto his tombstone.
Eliot must've seen the angst on Nate's face, and casually added, "Don't worry, you'll be fine." Perfect, he thought. Another line they can put on the tombstone. It'll be fun they said, you'll be fine they said...
Just then Hardison called out from the back of the line, still busy trying to brush the crusted mud out of his horse's coat. "While we're at it Eliot, why the hell did I get the white one? Seriously man, I'll be here for days. And why are we cleaning them before we ride?"
Eliot turned and gave the hacker a knowing smile. "He's gray, Hardison, not white. And how would you like to put on fresh clothes if you were covered in mud?"
At that Hardison turned back to his gelding and brushed with renewed effort, mumbling to himself. "He looks white to me..."
"Everyone ready?" Eliot put one foot in the stirrup, and gracefully swung the other over to land softly on the adorned western saddle. He took the reins in his left hand, and let his right casually hang at his side. He then turned his horse around to get a better view of his protégés.
Sophie mounted just as gracefully, landing gently on the sleek English saddle she'd chosen to use. The grifter had done a bit of dressage when she lived in Europe, and Nate had to admit she looked damn good in those riding boots. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all, he thought. Or maybe he should take the opportunity to tell her he loved her one last time before he perished.
Parker walked her still-bareback horse into the large indoor arena to join them, and sprung onto the mare's back with enough finesse to make even the best Olympic gymnast green with envy. The patterned mare tossed her head and pranced energetically at the move and Parker giggled. "This was a great idea, Eliot. I like this horse. It's all bouncy."
Eliot smiled. "Yeah, she's a lot like you." He thought about the mare's crazy, unpredictable nature, but if push came to shove Parker knew how to fall safely so he wasn't concerned, saddled or not.
Farther back the hacker's horse was practically asleep, eyes closed, lower lip drooping, resting a hind leg. Hardison on the other hand was stuck half-on, half-off the horse, unable to swing his leg over the gelding's back. He tried to worm his way up for a few minutes before he ran out of steam, and slowly slid down the animal's side. Out of ideas, he turned towards the hitter.
"Uh, a little help over here bro?"
Eliot swung around and rode smoothly towards the hacker, stopping directly alongside him but facing the opposite direction. Without a word he reached down and swiftly grabbed the back of Hardison's jeans, hoisting him roughly up and into the saddle. The hacker quickly composed himself after an awkward landing, and sent a cold stare towards Eliot as he and the buckskin circled back around.
"What? You said you needed a hand."
Hardison narrowed his eyes. "That was undignified."
The hitter laughed. "The only thing less dignified was watching you struggle to get on that horse. He's only 14 hands, after all." Eliot had been purposefully avoiding using the term 'pony', not to save the man any embarrassment but mainly because he knew Hardison could probably empty all of his bank accounts with a single ill-placed click.
"Hands, Hardison. Horses are measured in..." Eliot paused, his patience clearly wearing thin. "Actually you know what, let me rephrase that: he's not that tall." He forgot, when it came to outdoor endeavors he had to talk to Hardison like he was seven years old.
"Not that tall?! I could've broke a leg if he decided to take off while I was getting on!"
"He's a schooling horse, you'll be fine."
"Is that supposed to mean something to me?" Make that four years old.
"It means he won't do anything you don't ask him to."
"Oh, so that's why he bit me earlier? Seriously man, I didn't know horses had teeth."
Nate had to smile at that, at least he wasn't the only one having difficulties so far. Getting whipped in the face with Guinness' tail had been unpleasant, and not something he was ever hoping to relive. For some reason he assumed that a horse's tail would be soft, but he'd found himself painfully mistaken.
Nate took his attention off of Eliot and Hardison and studied the animal standing in front of him. He was tall and much stockier than the others, almost reminding the mastermind of those horses from the Budweiser advertisements. God his hooves were big. He started to wonder if this was Eliot's way of getting back at him for that comment he made about his soup last night.
The other members of the group were busy chatting amongst themselves, so Nate figured now was as good a time as any. He took the reins and grabbed onto the saddle's horn with this left hand, and put his left foot in the stirrup. Then he grabbed the back of the saddle with his right hand, and mentally prepared himself to make the jump. He closed his eyes and slowly counted down. Three, two, one...
Just as the mastermind lifted his right leg off of the ground to swing it over the saddle, Guinness unexpectedly walked forward.
"Shit..." The move threw Nate's momentum way too far back, leaving him clinging to the horse's side and unable to pull the reins back. It also didn't help that the gelding had a fast walk. He struggled to pull himself up as the animal continued moving but finally managed to get his leg over the saddle, albeit gracelessly. Once he gathered the reins he quickly cued the horse to halt, which he thankfully did.
Nate glanced back at his team to see how many of them had witnessed his less-than-dignified mount. Oh good, he thought. Only all of them.
"Are you OK, darling?"
He cleared his throat and straightened in his seat. "Fine Soph, all under control." Yep, never again would he insult Eliot's soup.
Parker trotted over from the side to add her two cents. "Don't worry Nate, at least we're not outside yet. In here that horse would've only been able to drag you around the arena. Out there you could've ended up, like, anywhere."
Hie shifted his gaze to the blonde, taking a small amount of consolation in the fact that she at least meant well. He hoped. "Thanks Parker, that's comforting."
Hardison seemed less worried about the mastermind's near death experience and far more concerned with the thief's words. "Whoa whoa whoa mama, what do you mean outside? It's perfectly nice in here. You know, safe, enclosed, less...outsidey."
Eliot shot him a look. "Of course we're going outside. Why do you think they call it 'trail riding' Hardison?"
"Excuse me Mr. Rugged Outdoorsman, but did you actually see the flies out there? They're the size of freaking canaries!"
"They'll be less of them once we get past the pastures and out to the trails." Just to torment the hacker, he decided to add a few more juicy tidbits of detail. "Out there all you gotta worry about is a few spiders, hornets, maybe a snake or two..." He trailed off, struggling to hold in his laugh when the hacker's eyes widened.
"You're really selling it, man."
Hoping to get this God-awful day over with sooner rather than later, Nate stepped in to get the team back on track. "Don't worry Hardison, I'm sure we'll be fine. Eliot, lead the way?"
The hitter nodded and his horse turned towards the large barn door at the back of the arena. Nate watched the two of them for a moment, wondering how Eliot was actually communicating with his mount. They moved as one, the younger man not even seeming to give the horse any perceptible cues. The mastermind had never believed in telepathy, especially with animals, but right then he was starting to think he should reconsider.
Nate cued his horse forward, with Sophie and Parker following suit. As Eliot reached the large door he grabbed the handle with his free hand, then walked his horse alongside to slide it open. Meanwhile Hardison hadn't moved an inch from the far end of the arena, and was sporting a bewildered look on his face.
"Uh, Eliot? How do I get him to go forward again?"
The hitter didn't even look back as the other members of the group starting filing outside. "Squeeze with your legs."
Hardison closed his eyes for a second and then gave the horse a gentle squeeze, bracing himself for the inevitable doom that was sure to ensue. Instead his horse stayed motionless, barely flicking an ear at the hacker's feeble attempt to communicate.
He called out again. "If that doesn't work?"
Nate rode at the back of the line so he could keep an eye on the other members of the team, at least that's what he'd told them. In all reality the position made it less likely that they'd witness any more of his blunders, which were more numerous than he would've liked. Among other things he had a small heart attack every time the large horse tripped, which seemed to be a lot.
Excluding the fact that he nearly fell off the horse before he technically even got on, he was actually enjoying the ride. The fresh air was rejuvenating, and he was getting pretty confident in his ability to control the imposing animal. The views were stunning, Eliot definitely knew how to choose a destination. He thought back to some of the other excursions the team had taken and smiled to himself. This one was definitely better than that night Parker had coerced the group into repelling off the roof of the bank, in Batman costumes.
An argument in front of him drew his attention out of his thoughts and back into the present. Eliot and Hardison were going at it again, while Sophie and Parker were nonchalantly laughing on the sidelines. He briskly rode up next to the girls to catch up on the action.
"Come on, Hardison, he barely moved. Hell, on the weekends they even use this po – horse, for little kids' birthday parties."
"So what exactly are you trying say, man? That I got stuck riding Pinkie Pie?"
"He'd be less stressed out if you'd calm down. Horses can sense your anxiety, you're making it worse by freaking out every time a knat goes by."
The hacker thew his hands in the air, clearly exasperated. Parker rode over to comfort him, and started circling her horse around his.
"Aww Hardison, you can ride mine if you want. She's so fast you wouldn't even be able to see the bugs."
"Yeah no thanks mama, this one's plenty fast. I mean, did you see us galloping across that field?" He'd been trying to show off, but to his dismay the young blonde had been too busy threading random flowers into her horse's mane to notice.
Sophie laughed. "That was a trot, Hardison, and a glacial one at that."
The mastermind smiled at her words. The gray gelding's trot was hardly faster than Guinness' walk, but Hardison was way out of his depth and Nate thought he still deserved some credit for the valiant effort he'd been putting in. He rode up to Hardison and gestured Parker away with his hand.
"You're doing great, Hardison. Honestly, I've seen Sterling ride after a couple months of lessons and you're easily doing twice as well after just a few hours."
The hacker beamed with pride, and sat a little taller in his saddle. "Thanks man, at least there's always one member of the team that's got my back." He then turned towards the hitter. "And how about that lunch, Eliot? I'm starving!" Sophie and Parker clamored in agreement.
"Alright everyone, let's go." Eliot took the lead once more as the team circled around and headed back to the arena.
"Can we come back tomorrow, Sparky? This horse really likes me." Parker leaned forward, wrapping her arms tightly around the mare's neck to give her new best friend a hug.
Sophie gracefully hopped off and then slipped a treat to the gentle mare. "I'm with Parker, that was a great ride and we should definitely do it again." She rubbed her horse's shoulder, and the black mare reached back to nuzzle her gently in return.
Eliot was on the far end of the arena using his horse to slide the barn door closed, and called back to the others. "Anytime you guys wanna ride, just let me know. Always nice to have company."
Hardison was still thinking about how sore all of his muscles were, including the ones he didn't even know he had. "Uh, sorry to be a party pooper guys but I'm pretty busy tomorrow. And you know, for the rest of the week – year, I mean. How about a rain check?"
"Awwwww!" the two women exclaimed in unison. Glancing between the two, Hardison couldn't help but notice that Parker's eyes were also peering deep into his soul. So deep. He realized he needed to squelch this now or he'd never be able to.
"On second thought, maybe I'll just stick with Red Dead Redemption. You know, better graphics and all." The hacker then pulled his right foot out of the stirrup and swung over to dismount, but he hadn't accounted for his other leg being asleep. He shrieked in an octave even Parker rarely managed, flailing his arms wildly before landing on the sandy footing with a muffled oomph.
"Are you alright Hardison?" Sophie was more worried about his ego than anything else, but she kept her concern neutral.
He sprung up and quickly started brushing the dirt off of his clothes. "Oh yeah I'm fine, just uh...doing a random gravity check."
Nate sat back leisurely in the saddle and watched the others. He wasn't exactly in a hurry to get off; he figured Guinness would probably try to walk away again as soon as he did and this time he was going to be sure that no one was looking.
Suddenly a deafening metallic shudder echoed in from the road outside. Nate saw Hardison and Sophie's horses dart frantically to the side, panicked by the unexpected sound. His heart skipped a beat as he braced for his horse's reaction, but to his surprise Guinness merely lifted his head out of curiosity.
At that moment a piercing scream drew everyone's attention to Parker, who was clinging precariously to the side of the bucking pinto's neck.
Hardison's terrified voice crossed the arena. "Do something, Eliot!"
The hitter tried desperately to get his horse to settle down, but the gelding was just unraveling further. Normally he would've swiftly roped the mare, but with Parker hanging on her neck that wasn't an option. In all reality, he wasn't going to be able to do anything if he couldn't get his damn horse under control. Hoping to at least keep the others out of harm's way he yelled, "Everyone get back!"
Sophie and Hardison each pulled their frightened horses into a corner of the arena, trying to get as much space between themselves and the crazed pinto as they could. Eliot was thankful that at least the mastermind hadn't dismounted yet, right now that was definitely safer than being on the ground. Nate and Guinness seemed to be frozen in time as they watched the scene unfolding on the other side of the arena, but just then Eliot saw him abruptly drive his horse forward towards Parker's.
"Nate!" The hitter spurred his horse again, but the buckskin merely responded by rearing up before lashing out at the wall with his hind legs. He cursed to himself, this was not good.
Nate didn't even hear Eliot shout as he pulled his horse up behind the thief's. He stopped a few yards short of them and quickly assessed the situation. The mare was moving erratically around the arena, and her behavior was sending the other three horses into a renewed panic if she got even remotely close. He wasn't sure how long Parker would be able to hold on but he knew he didn't have much time.
The blonde was hanging off of the mare's left side, which at his moment was facing the inside of the arena. He couldn't risk her getting crushed in between the two animals, so he cued Guinness forward and to the right. Being sandwiched between the deranged mare and the arena wall wasn't a particularly appealing option, but it was the only one he had.
The pinto continued to lash out wildly as Nate got into position alongside her. Guinness snorted and threw his ears back at the assault from the smaller horse, but obediently stayed on course. Just as Nate reached for the reins the mare veered right and crashed directly into him and Guinness, throwing both of them hard into the unforgiving arena wall. Parker used the sudden change in momentum to get herself back on top of the horse just before the mare bolted off at lightning speed.
Shit, he thought. That's gonna hurt tomorrow. Honestly it hurt right now, but he quickly pushed the pain out of his thoughts. The mastermind circled around and picked up speed, galloping his horse alongside Parker's. He pulled a little farther ahead this time, and used Guinness' immense size to force the mare between himself and the arena wall. He was able to slow the pinto down only slightly, but he hoped it was enough to let the blonde thief make a move. He yelled to her, "Jump, NOW!"
Parker grabbed the back of his saddle and swung herself up and across the bay's hindquarters, landing softly on the ground behind them as they continued forward. Nate then steered his horse left and away from the wild mare just as Eliot galloped into view and threw the lasso.
Several hours later the team arrived back at Nate's apartment. Nate went directly over to the sofa and sprawled out gingerly across it, while Eliot took up residence in the nearby armchair. Parker and Sophie unloaded their bags next to the door and then headed for the kitchen to grab a much-needed snack.
Hardison wasn't particularly hungry anymore, but made a pit stop at the fridge to grab an orange soda for himself and a Sprite for Nate. He could tell the mastermind was still on edge from the day's events, and he felt a bit guilty that he hadn't been able to do a better job of cheering him up. He cracked open his soda as he walked into the living room and then handed the other to Nate.
"You're welcome." The hacker hesitated, then added, "At least it should heal well, the doc said it's just a simple fracture."
Nate sat up painfully and shot a sarcastic look towards the hacker. "Oh good, and here I was worried that it might be broken." He looked down at his cast, it went from his wrist to just below his elbow. Parker had taken the liberty of drawing a bunch of little stick horses on it, using the Sharpie she'd lifted from the radiographer. She and Hardison both meant well, but their attempts at comforting had been anything but.
Sophie knew he was tense after spending the entire afternoon at the hospital, and decided to give the worn-out mastermind a reprieve. "Parker, Hardison, how about we go grocery shopping and then we can pick up the rest of Nate's meds at the pharmacy on the way back?"
"Yay shoplifting! Let's go Hardison!" Parker grabbed the unsuspecting hacker by the arm and started dragging him towards the door. Sophie opened her mouth to correct the thief but then thought better of it, deciding to wait until they were in car to tell the blonde they'd actually be paying for the items. She grabbed her keys and followed the young couple out, blowing Nate a kiss before she closed the door behind them.
Once they were gone Eliot leaned forward and looked the mastermind in the eyes. "That was quite a stunt you pulled, took a lot of courage. Thanks for saving our asses. Or more specifically, Parker's ass."
Nate took a sip of his soda and smiled. "You know if Hardison hears you say the words 'Parker' and 'ass' in the same sentence you're a dead man, right?"
"Ha, you're assuming he actually could kill me."
"True. Good thing you don't have a virtual self, or he probably would've put an expedient end to you years ago." He paused a moment before continuing. "On another note, can I ask you a question?"
"All of the horses freaked out except mine. Why? And don't give me that 'they can sense your anxiety' crap, I was about ready to shit my pants."
The hitter smiled, his voice soft. "He's an ex-police horse. He may have picked up a few bad habits since retirement, but he's rock solid when it counts."
Nate took that in for a minute, and couldn't help but realize that last statement was as true of himself as it was of the horse. Suddenly he felt guilty for thinking that the hitter would've chosen the worst possible mount for him; in reality it had been just the opposite. Eliot knew he'd be able to count on them if it came down to it, and neither one had disappointed.
"I'm sorry, Eliot."
The younger man looked at him quizzically. "For what?"
"For what I said about your soup last night. That the only thing less tasty was the bowl it came in."
Eliot's expression suddenly changed. "What?! I thought you said the only thing this tasty were the rolls at Kayman!" The restaurant was high class, and he knew Nate absolutely adored those fancy dinner rolls.
Both men froze, processing the unforeseen revelation. Then their eyes met for all of three seconds before Nate abruptly bolted, with the raging hitter taking chase mere milliseconds behind.
A/N: I got the idea for this story from prompt #307 of The Absolutely Epic Plot Bunny Army. I hope you enjoyed reading it :)
For those of you who are curious, the names of other horses in this story are: Ransom (Eliot's buckskin gelding), Ellie (Parker's pinto mare), Magic (Sophie's black mare), and Captain Sprinkles (Hardison's gray pony).