The light was bright. No, it wasn’t bright; it was blinding. Her head throbbed. At first she thought it was the sudden ocular assault, but then she realized that she hurt everywhere. The throbbing started above her right eye, shot down from there into the pit of her stomach, and then blossomed out to her fingers. At least she thought it did. Too much focusing made the throbbing worse.
She closed her eyes, willing away the hurt, but it wasn’t paying attention. She tried blinking a few times, but by the third time her eyelids refused to open after snapping closed.
Voices floated around her. She could make out at least two distinct ones, maybe three. She tried to focus on the words, but it was too difficult. Her head wanted to retreat back into the blackness of sleep. Or unconsciousness. Wherever she had been up until that damn light flooded her vision.
A set of hands slid under her shoulders and gripped under her arms. Another set settled around her calves. Her body moved, or at least she thought it did. It all seemed very surreal, disconnected, distant.
The hands released their grip on her, allowing her body to settle onto something soft.
Her mind wandered, drifting. She caught bits and pieces of words spoken around her. Friends. Blood. Ambulance. Accident.
Accident. The last word jolted her brain awake. She had been in an accident. The panel van. The car she hadn’t seen approaching from the side. The impact against the utility pole. Then nothing. Blackness.
Where are the others? Her brain formed the words, even put them in the right order, but her mouth wasn’t working. No sound came out. She let out a breath that she realized she had been holding in. She tried opening her eyes again, but didn’t get very far. The light poured in through the slitted openings, but it was fleeting because the darkness was creeping in from all sides, pulling her back to where she’d been before.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“You do that and I’m not coming.”
Sam pushed through the heavy wooden doors, spilling a pair of shadows into the hallway. “You’d really sit out a Hanna Family Barbecue?”
“It’s not a barbecue if you don’t serve burgers.”
“I am serving burgers. Turkey burgers.”
Callen slid his bag off his shoulder as they stepped into the bullpen. “Not actually burgers.”
“It’s in the name,” Sam said, crossing over to the lockers, “turkey burger.”
“Burger is short for ‘hamburger.’ You can’t just change the main ingredient and keep the name.”
“I never got that.” Sam tossed his bag into his locker and slammed the door. “They’re not made out of ham. They should be beef burgers.”
Callen dropped into his chair. “They don’t need to be beef burgers, they’re hamburgers. Everyone knows they’re made of beef. You don’t need to specify what the meat is. It’s never in question.”
Sam pointed at him. “Unless it’s made of turkey.”
Callen sighed. “This is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever participated in. And that’s counting the time Deeks tried to convince me avocados are fruits.”
“Avocados are fruits.”
Callen snorted. “Yeah, right. And so are tomatoes.”
Sam made a pained face that looked eerily similar to a stress toy being strangled.
Callen decided it was time for a subject change. “Speaking of Deeks,” he glanced around the empty room, “where is he?”
“Late,” Sam said, checking his watch. “Maybe he lost track of time.”
He shrugged. “Maybe she’s a little tied up.”
Callen made a sour face. “I hope you don’t mean what I think you mean.”
Sam grinned. “What do you think I mean?”
Callen opened his mouth to respond but thought better of it. He pushed out of his chair. “I’m going to go ask the wonder twins. Maybe they’ve heard something.”
“I’m afraid that will be difficult,” Granger said, stepping to the edge of the bullpen. “We’ve lost contact with Mr. Beale and Miss Jones.”
Callen exchanged a look with his partner before turning his attention to Granger. “Kensi and Deeks?”
“I thought they were in Vegas,” Sam said, crossing over to join the conversation.
“They still are.”
Callen raised his eyebrows in a silent request to continue.
“They aren’t answering their phones. GPS puts them in adjoining suites at the Luxor, having been stationary since yesterday afternoon.”
Granger shook his head. “No answer. Hotel staff says their belongings are there, but the agents are not.”
“Find out what happened in Vegas.”
It was only years of experience with her sudden appearances that kept Callen from jumping in surprise at Hetty’s command.
She met his gaze and held it.
“Ensure it doesn’t stay there.”
Nell swam back to the edge of consciousness. It was dark. Not too dark, but a welcome contrast to the bright lights the last time her eyes had been open. She felt more than saw the room surrounding her. Her heartbeat increased and her eyelids fluttered open and shut, working away the sleep from the corners of her eyes.
Her eyelids stopped in the open position, frozen at the realization that she had no idea where she was. Her stomach lurched. Her breath came out shaky, shallow. The walls felt close, too close. The thin layer of cotton stretched out over her prone figure was suffocating. She had to move, needed to move. Her muscles tensed up, readied for her command. Fight. Flight. Both, probably.
Then it hit her. The sudden impact. The sharp tenor of glass shattering. The darkness. The light. The dull, persistent throbbing. At least that was consistent, the throbbing.
Come on, Nell, she commanded herself. You’re fine. Or, you’ll be fine. You’re safe now.
She reached up with her hand to inspect her face, feel for bandages, damage, anything. Except she didn’t feel anything. Her hand never made it to her face. She focused and tried again, urging her hand up but it wouldn’t move. The monster in the pit of her stomach returned at the possibility of what it meant that she couldn’t raise her hand.
The accident played again in her mind. The panel van. The car she hadn’t seen approaching from the side. The impact against the utility pole. Then nothing. Blackness. It played a second time. Panel van. Car. Utility pole. Blackness. A third. Panel van, car, utility pole, blackness. Fourth. Panelvancarutilitypole.
Stop. Just stop.
She awoke to the smell of garlic. It was warm and slightly stale. She inhaled and filled her lungs with the pungent odor. Her stomach lurched, and not because she was hungry. There was something off about the smell. It came again, stronger, warmer, washing over her face. It was as if someone had packaged day old sautéed garlic and was fanning the aroma over her face. No, it was closer. More immediate. It was more like someone blowing garlic breath at her. She wrinkled her nose at the offending bouquet and slowed her breathing, thinking it might pass if she gave it a minute.
Then it hit her again and it was stronger. It felt hotter. It felt hotter. That last realization sent shocks all the way down to her toes. She could feel it. The smell wasn’t wafting into her room from some nearby hospital cafeteria; it was emanating from a source about six inches above her face.
She felt sure it had to be a nurse or an orderly, checking her vitals or changing a bandage. But then she realized the mouth the breath belonged to must have been lingering above her for a few minutes now and everything started feeling wrong. She kept her eyes shut and focused on slowing down her breathing in spite of the fact that her heart felt like it wanted to pound its way out of her chest.
The mouth finally moved, and with it a feeling of weight. The body carrying that mouth around was a large one. And it wasn’t moving with particular grace. She sensed more than felt the figure lurch down toward the end of her bed. With the overpowering aroma out of the immediate vicinity, Nell’s other senses came back online. The footfalls were muffled. The breathing uneven. The grunt it made when it sat into what must be a chair beside her bed was masculine. It became a him.
As he settled in beside her and the sounds of his presence died down to a patterned series of breaths, she realized her room was quiet. There was no whirring of computers, no buzz of fluorescent lighting, no bustling in the hallway as hospital staff whizzed by on their way from room to room. Wherever she was, it was all wrong.
She unclenched her fingers, letting the tension flow out through her fingertips. She needed to relax, to gather her wits and figure out what was happening. Kensi had been teaching her some mental calming exercises during their time working out together in the gym back at the mission. Now was as good a time as any to put them into practice.
Sharp inhale. Her fingers had been clenched! Her heart began beating rapid-fire again. She could move her fingers! She tested her toes and, after a positive result at that extremity, began flexing her way up her body, not stopping until she had made it all the way up to her eyebrows. The elation at knowing she had control of herself again sent a burst of euphoria through every inch of her.
She stilled herself in the quiet of her room. The room. The man beside her hadn’t moved. His breathing had slowed. She decided opening her eyes to gauge the situation would be worth the risk, if it was any risk at all. Maybe she was just being foolish. She had been in an accident, after all. She wasn’t firing on all cylinders yet and maybe all the trauma of the last– she became aware suddenly that she had no idea how long she had been in and out of consciousness. At any rate, she needed to know where she was.
Her eyelids raised and took in a mirror at the foot of the bed. Cheap art hung on the walls, and not much at that. A pre-flat screen TV on a dated dresser.
What the hell? A hotel room?
She tilted her head ever so slightly to take in the man beside her. His closed eyes confirmed her suspicions that he had nodded off, hands gripped loosely around an MP7.
The rumble of a car engine pulling up outside her room brought her focus off the dull black of the weapon. The rumbling stopped, settling down into an idle.
It didn’t matter. Even if the car didn’t belong to someone about to come in to this room, she wasn’t going to luck her way into a better opportunity than a single snoozing guard. If it all turned out to be a mistake, she could apologize later when he woke up. But right now she had to assume the worst.
She eased herself over to the edge of the bed closest to the man, not wanting to make any sudden moves that might alert him to danger. One leg dropped off the bed and cautiously found its way to the floor. The other leg followed and when both feet were firmly planted on the ground, she pushed herself up on to her elbows.
The man was only two feet from her, the weapon in his lap just out of her reach.
A car door opened and slammed outside, steeling her resolve.
Now or never, Nell.
She moved in a blur, coming off the edge of the bed all at once. As she came to her feet, the man’s eyes opened, a look of wildness about them. His hands tightened around his firearm, but by then the bedside lamp was crashing down on top of his head. He cursed as he fell out of his chair onto the floor. She looked for his firearm, but it must have landed underneath him.
“Roger?!” A voice called out from the exterior. “What the fuck was that?”
Roger rolled over, groaning.
“You little bitch,” he muttered as he put a hand to his head.
Nell’s eyes darted around for another weapon, a tool, anything.
Kleenex box. Notepad. Cell phone. Pack of playing cards.
She grabbed the phone off the table and launched herself for the bathroom door. Roger came to his feet behind her and she heard the exterior door push open, an additional voice entering the room together with the big body it came in with.
Her fingers wrenched open the phone even as she was slamming the bathroom door shut behind her. She knew it was only seconds before one of the men put a shoulder through the door and put an end to her impromptu breakout. She said a silent prayer, hoping he would answer.
When the line picked up, she didn’t even wait for him to say hello. Her words came gushing out even as the door came crashing in.
Sam kept one eye on the road, but his attention was fully on his partner. “Talk to me, G.”
Callen ignored him, punching numbers into his phone and bringing it back to his ear. “I need a trace on the last incoming call to this phone.”
They sped past a sign. Las Vegas: 51. Salt Lake City: 472. Complete and total desolation: arrived.
Sam tried again. “G?”
“She must have jacked a phone. She got cut off.”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing helpful,” Callen answered, but before Sam could ask for more clarification, Callen turned his attention back to his phone call. “Okay, thanks. Text me the address.”
“So this isn’t a case of them having one too many margaritas.” Sam hadn’t ever actually believed his teammates were too drunk to find their way home, but a small part of him had clung to the hope that was the case. He thought maybe they’d gotten lost in the Venetian canals, or been temporarily disappeared by Criss Angel. His fingers tightened their hold on the steering wheel. There went those theories.
“They’re in trouble.”
Sam’s foot pushed the pedal to the floor as the tension in the car threatened to smother them. Callen’s jaw was clamped so tightly Sam worried it might lock.
“We’ll get them back, G.” Sam tried to even out his breathing. “It won’t be like that time with the rabbit.”
He managed to garner an eye roll from Callen, which he considered a step in the right direction. “I can do that trick just fine.”
“Just like the one with the knives,” Callen insisted.
Sam let out a tense bark of laughter. “You mean ‘the trick of the century’?”
“It’s pretty amusing that you think it warrants that name when you didn’t actually manage to pull it off.”
Callen cut his eyes to his partner. “It’s not my fault you blew my cover.”
“We both know that’s not the reason you botched the trick.”
“I didn’t botch-” he cut himself off with a shake of his head. “I can do that trick.”
“Stop saying that.”
“While we’re in Vegas we should see about getting you a stage. I’m sure the crowds there would love to see it.”
“We should,” Callen agreed, bolstered by his defensiveness. “I’d put on a great show.”
“Maybe you can make that delusion disappear.”
Callen’s phone pinged with a text. He punched the address into his GPS. “Let’s make the team reappear first.”
Nell heard them before she saw them. Cries of “Federal agents!” were followed by gunshots and the thud of her abductors hitting the ground. One, two.
Callen burst into the room first, his weapon dropping to his side in relief the moment his eyes met hers.
“Clear!” he yelled and Sam echoed it back, joining them in the small, dingy bathroom.
“You okay?” Callen asked, his eyes scanning her for injuries, coming to rest on her forehead. If the concentrated throbbing was any indication, there must have been a large gash there. He pulled the gag from her mouth. “They hurt you.”
“Not really,” she said, voice scratchy and shaken. “I’m responsible for most of it.”
Callen’s fingers brushed her wrists as he untied the ropes. She hadn’t realized how tight they were until they’d fallen away.
“You beat yourself up?”
She shook her head. “Poorly planned, horribly executed escape attempt. I’ll be fine. It’s the others I’m worried about.”
“You know where they are?” Sam asked.
“I don’t know.” She tried to remember everything she heard, all the bits and pieces. She tried to put them together, to assemble the puzzle and form a single, coherent picture. Her head hurt, everything was fuzzy, but some things were clicking into place.
“They’ve got them holed up somewhere,” she said after a moment. “They’re using Kensi and Deeks, using me as leverage to get Eric to do some hacking for them. They told Eric they took me to the hospital to get him to start working, but they must have been holding me here to use again instead.”
“Who are they?”
“I have no idea,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt. Nell slid the ropes all the way off her wrists and tried to hoist herself out of the bathtub. It was a stupid move, and not even the adrenaline coursing through her was enough to keep her on her feet.
Sam was beside her in an instant, his strong arms wrapping around her, supporting her weight. “Take it easy, Nell. You don’t look so great.”
He guided her out of the tub and through the bathroom door, easing her onto the foot of the bed.
“I need,” she shook her head to try and clear away the edges of creeping blackness, “I need a laptop.”
Sam nodded, his arms slipping out from under her. “There’s one in the trunk. Stay still and I’ll bring it to you.”
Callen’s brow was creased in a deep frown. “Should you be lying down? That seems like a nasty gash and you’re looking exceptionally white, even for a redhead.”
She would have glared but she didn’t have the energy. “I’m okay.”
“Nell, tell me what happened. Start at the beginning.”
“I will, but first I need you to take ID photos of these guys. Send them to ops. Have them run facial rec. It seems like they were just hired for the job, but there may be a way to connect them to their employer.”
“And what are you going to do?” Callen asked as Sam stepped back into the room, a laptop clutched in his hand.
Nell reached for it.
“I’m going to find our team.”
To Be Continued…
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