He came to to the smell of trees, the sound of birds chirping so loud that his head hurt and the nagging pain in his arm. He felt disorientated, but he needed to get to water. He needed to clean himself up and make sure that there weren’t any toxins on him. If he was tagged, maybe he got lucky and would be able to get rid of that too – but that was unlikely.
The mission had been a complete failure. Despite the solid intel and Joan’s insistence on accompanying Jason out in the field, things went wrong very quickly and the Golden Child’s inability to shepherd his operative made him want to punch him. Auggie was lucky to be alive, but for now, he was lost.
They took everything from him, including his cane and that was just rude. It would make things quite tricky for a while until he’d find a stick long enough to serve as one. Getting to his feet, his head spun a little and as he ignored it, he started to shuffle in a direction, careful not to trip and careful not to hit his head as he felt around with his hands.
He collided with the first tree, and broke off a branch to extend his vision. If he truly was surrounded by trees, he’d find a longer one soon enough.
There was a river nearby, he could hear the water flow over the rocks and sand, hitting the banks. Straight ahead. He didn’t foresee any problems unless there was going to be a stray rock in his path and he’d fall over. He did not want to fall over.
The water was refreshing. The river wasn’t too deep, but good enough to get himself completely soaked in the heat, rinsing off old sweat, blood and other smells. The gash on his head and the broken skin on his arm were nagging, but he couldn’t give in to the pain. It had to be a motivator to keep going, not a hinderance. Nor the thought of having lost Jason. He’d deal with that later.
He needed to find civilisation and call for an extraction team. Auggy ripped his shirt and made a makeshift sling out of it for his arm and after he was certain he was clean, he started to walk downstream.
And hoped he wouldn’t walk into alligators.
Bella Swan sat outside at her favorite cafe in Volterra, Italy, enjoying the sunshine, morning newspaper, and espresso. She smiled as the waiter passed by her, setting down a frittata. “Grazie,” she murmured as her eyes followed the handsome man back inside.
Her attention was distracted by her phone that rang in her purse unexpectedly. Seeing the caller, Mommy Dearest, her surprise rose even more. She hadn’t heard from her in nearly a year. Only had communicated directly with her handler.
“Pronto mamma,” she smiled, her eyes glancing around her for any eavesdroppers. “Come sta papà?”
“Good morning, darling, are you free to talk?”
“Sto facendo colazione in un caffè. La frittata è buonissima.” (I am having breakfast at a cafe. The frittata is delicious.)
“That is great! Your father and I just wired some money into your account, we figured you could use a holiday away from your holiday. For your brother’s birthday, you know he loves it when you surprise him.”
Bella’s eyes narrowed at the mention of her friend and her body tensed on instinct. “Mamma, tutto bene a casa? In cosa si è cacciato, adesso, mio fratello?” (Something happened at home Mama? What has my brother gotten himself into now?)
“He was on holiday in Morocco. Last time we’ve spoken to him was when he crossed the border into Algeria a few days ago. His traveling companion didn’t make it that far. But we figured you would like to go and find him, your father and I are too busy to make the trip ourselves.”
She drew a deep breath as she stood from her seat, her frittata untouched due to the news she received. “Certo, mamma. Mandami un’email col suo itinerario. Mi assicurerò di fargli una bella lavata di testa appena lo trovo.” (Of course Mama. Email me his itinerary and I will be sure to beat some brains into the boy when I find him.)
“Thank you, zuccherino. If you need anything else, your dad and I are more than willing to help you whenever we can. Expect an email soon.”
“Di’ a tutti che li voglio bene. Spero presto di spedire un po’ di regali a casa.” (Send my love to the family. I hope to mail home some presents soon.)
“Your dad and I can’t wait. We’re still using your last present quite often, your dad in particular liked the naughtiness you’ve sent us from Amsterdam.”
Bella only chuckled as she shook her head, her tinkling laughter filtering over the phone before she hung up. Her amusement died down quickly after as she awaited the email as she begun the walk back to her apartment, wondering what had happened to her friend. She only hoped it was not the same dark ending his mission partner had faced.
There was no end to this river, was there? He had fallen in a couple of times, and the last time actually managed to snatch a branch long enough to keep him from making the same mistake over and over again. He had been walking for a good day now, at least that was what it felt like, and he hadn’t stopped for a break. Only to drink some water.
He had a feeling that he wasn’t in Kansas anymore, the heat was different and the mosquitos vicious. Then again, it could be his mind playing tricks on him. It surprised him that he hadn’t encountered a human so far. Wherever he was, he must be somewhere remote.
By day two, he wanted to give up, but decided to take a break instead. He needed some sleep and continued somewhat rested the next day. When the river seemingly ended, he didn’t know whether to feel relieved or aggravated, because it didn’t seem to get him anywhere.
No sounds of industry. Cars. People. No sign of civilisation. Reluctantly, he turned around and headed back to where he came from. Maybe he’d have more luck the other way around.
It had taken her a few days, but Bella eventually, through some questionable but dependable contacts she developed along the Algiers border, through Tunisia, learned of a possible direction that her friend may had gone. Growing up in Washington State, she set off into the wilderness well equipped for the possibility of a short term stay. After all, she wasn’t sure of what she might find.
Backpacking wasn’t a new thing for her. It wasn’t in her taste as a child, but she had grown to respect it more and enjoy it once she was forced to endure life on her own. Taking forced vacations once she began working with the CIA, the solitude was a normalcy for the girl. It even shocked her father when she suggested one such trip when she returned home to visit.
Her thoughts had strayed to the past, shaking her head to clear it, she attempted to focus on what Charlie Swan taught her about survival. Her eyes taking in every piece of damaged shrubbery and disturbed patch of soil with a critical eye.
Knowing Auggie as she did, she followed the natural growth, knowing it would lead to a source of water, and in hope, to him.
Two days of walking the woods with breaks only for small snacks and water, Bella’s concern grew deeper. She didn’t want to begin to consider that something more sinister happened to him, before she could see him one last time. She regretted not seeing him the last time she was in the States to see her father, only checking in with Arthur and Joan, before flying back to Europe to resume her ongoing mission.
He heard some movement to his right, but he couldn’t be bothered by reacting to it. It was better if people approached him anyway, he’d have the element of surprise. The element that other people didn’t have as he could hear them far away. He was tired. If it was a predatory animal, all the better, something he could kill and eat. He was starving. And, for some reason, he had Cyndi Lauper’s song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun stuck in his head and couldn’t help but giddily sing along.
“Ho sentito dire che certi impazziscono quando si perdono, ma tutto questo è ridicolo,” a female spoke loudly. (I’ve heard people go crazy when lost, but this is ridiculous.)
Italian. Fine. At least it was another person. Someone who could help him get to civilisation. “Il sono ridicolo,” he replied as he kept his eyes fixed on the river in front of him. “Parla Inglese?” (I am ridiculous, do you speak English?)
“Be’, lo so da anni. Sì. È difficile passare da una lingua all’altra, lo puoi ben capire.” Bella snorted as she made her way closer. (Well, I’ve known that for years. Yes. It’s hard to switch between languages. You understand.)
He cocked his head a little as if he was processing the words. The voice. It sounded familiar but he wasn’t quite sure. He was going to be bold and just ask. This person already thought he was crazy, so why the hell not? “You still like to get drunk and dance naked on the table?”
“Auggie…” Bella growled, dumping her backpack on the ground. She frowned as she reached him, confused as to why he hadn’t moved or faced her. “What is wrong?”
“Concussion and a broken arm. At least that’s how far I came with assessing the damage,” he said with a wide grin. “So Arthur and Joan sent you to get me, huh? It must be my lucky day!”
Rounding the tree he was leaning against, she blinked as she took in the sight of him. “Yeah, they did. You seemed to have also left out some details from our conversations. I think she assumed I knew more than I actually did.”
“What? I grew an extra head?” He said shocked as he lifted his good hand and started to feel around.
“How about the fact that you’re blind? Were you ever going to tell me? You know, nevermind. Let’s get you patched up and set up camp. I could use a night’s rest before we head back and get you out of here,” Bella replied, shaking her head, going back for her pack.
He sighed as he managed to grab her arm gently. “I didn’t want to worry you,” he muttered as he turned his head in the direction of his arm and smiled. “I’m okay.”
She looked up at him as he stared over her shoulder. “I would have been concerned, yes. But I don’t like lies.”
“It wasn’t a lie. It still isn’t. I just neglected to mention it to you because I’m still me.”
“A lie of omission is still a lie, Auggie. As long as you would have been alive and okay, I would have been satisfied. This mission? No one knew what happened and Joan knew I would come find you, no matter what I was doing. Hell, even Mom was concerned.”
Sighing, he let go of her and leaned his head against the tree again. “Jason and I were in Tangier, things went not as planned.”
“Clearly. Peters was an idiot and I’m surprised he even passed the psych evaluations. Hell, half the time I saw him with a gun in his hand, I was worried he might shoot himself in the foot.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at that. “This was supposed to be a low-risk mission, you know. You’d think that Mom would let me out of the house if it wasn’t?”
Bella frowned and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “You do know that she won’t let you out even to the park now. Take a load off while I get a fire going and make something to eat. I have some granola bars to hold you over in the meanwhile.”
He heard her move around for a little while and fumbled with the wrapper of the bar. “Hey, Bella?”
He managed to open the wrapper with his teeth and sighed again. “I’ve been meaning to tell you… three years ago I was in Iraq and a bomb went off. I don’t think I’ll ever see your mug ever again.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll still get to dance with the Devil at the office Christmas party,” she grinned. “Just don’t keep shit like that from me again. I might not be so forgiving next time.”
“Duly noted, Satan,” he smirked before devouring the bar as if it was the best thing he’d ever had. “Things could have been worse.”
“Let’s not go there,” Bella muttered, a clear indication of where her thoughts had been earlier. “Fire is building slowly. I’ll get the tent up, but hate to break it to you. We’ll need to share. I wasn’t about to carry for two.”
“Need a hand? I’ve got one good one.”
She gave a light laugh as she continued with her task. “I’ve got it. You just take it easy now. As soon as I’m done here, I’ll take a look at your injuries. Any cuts that needs stitching?”
“No idea. I know there’s a gash on my head but not sure how deep. Not really sure of the state of my arm either,” he said calmly. “I kinda ignored it all and hoped it went away.”
Giving him a hum of acknowledgment, she pulled her first aid kit out and set it aside before assessing him. “Typical man. Let’s get it over with now. You won’t be able to see a real doctor until you’re extracted so you’ll have to make do with me.”
He allowed her to check him over and make a splint for his arm and even though the moving around hurt, he was grateful for the relief. She handed him another granola bar and continued to clean him up. “Question. Where in the hell are we?”
Bella paused as she was cleaning his cuts, thinking of what to say. “Um, fifty miles or so from Algiers in the national park.”
“Are you sure?” Of course she was sure, she had found him, hadn’t she? Last thing he remembered was being in an abandoned building somewhere in Morocco before waking up in the woods. “Interesting. They went all through this trouble to dump me somewhere where they could have just killed me.” Then a big smile appeared on his face. “On the other hand, you’re here. So it’s good that they haven’t killed me.”
“It entirely depends,” she said with a grin, it wasn’t as if he could see her smile like a lunatic anyway.
“On what?” she was smiling, he could hear it in her voice. This was good, it took his mind off of things.
“Whether or not I’m going to kill you in your sleep tonight. Payback for being an idiot and an asshole.”
“I apologized for that,” he countered. “Not good enough? I’ll buy you a nice bottle of Jack. Or a pony. Your choice.”
“Next time I’m stateside, I’ll take you up on that Jack, or maybe the pony too but it would need to be a grown horse. I want to go horseback riding and your lack of eyesight isn’t enough to convince me that you can’t join me.”
He snorted. “My lack of eyesight hasn’t stopped me from doing anything. Well… apart from driving a car or observing a “target.”
Bella shook her head. “Shame that awesome car is going to waste then.”
“Not really. I still use it.”
“How…? You know what… don’t answer that,” she said quickly, her face reddening. “Jesus Auggie…”
He fought back a laugh, but he was clearly amused by her reaction. “What?”
“You know what. Don’t pull that act. I know you better,” she mumbled as she rolled her eyes.
“As if I’d defile my beautiful car! I’m shocked!” He put his hand on her arm. “Don’t roll your eyes at me. The car’s perfectly safe. It can’t go anywhere and the engine still purrs like music.”
“Mmhmm…” She didn’t entertain the topic further as she finished patching him up, lightly slapping him on the cheek before getting up to tend to the fire and food. “Soup should be mild enough for your stomach right now. I bought the canned stuff.”
“I love the canned stuff. And it’s chicken, what a surprise!” he replied and slowly got to his feet. Fire was to his left, water was straight ahead of him. He could walk around the fire and help her set up the tent. Then again, it was easy to erect a small field tent for shelter and it was possible that it was already up. “Anything I can do?”
“Not fall in the fire? Just relax until morning when we leave. I have things managed.”
Sighing, he sat back down again. For the first time in days, he was going to try to get things sorted out in his head. What the hell had gone wrong in Morocco? He knew that Ben’s handler had fucked up – royally – but he hadn’t thought of Ben being this erratic. No, there was something else at play, something he needed to figure out. Was this all Jason’s fault? Maybe it was his own fault, thinking he had covered all bases but obviously had missed the bigger picture.
The adrenaline was working off too, now that he was with someone he trusted and could relax, he could feel every muscle in his body act up and told himself to suck it up. “Did you find out anything about the people who are responsible for this?”
Bella made her way over to hand him his food and let out a breath. “I don’t know anything about your assignment other than your itinerary. I wasn’t read in and I didn’t ask. My mission was to find you and I did. That was all I cared about.”
“I’m so screwed,” he said as he put the mug on the ground and circled the brim with his finger to check for sharp edges or whatever. All he needed to do now was to wait for it to cool some. He tried moving his broken arm but it was still broken and kinda needed two hands to figure out where the mug was going to go for the first time when drinking it. “Got a spoon on you?” He didn’t want to wait.
“Sorry. I brought easy, basic stuff. Next time I come to rescue you in the woods, I’ll be sure to bring utensils for a seven course meal for you,” she teased.
“Ah well, I’ll wait,” he mused as he covered the mug with his hand in case bugs would get into his soup. Extra protein, sure, but unwanted. “I take it there’s no cell reception here?”
She sat beside him with a tired sigh. “I lost reception about five miles up. We have to make our way down before we can call anyone. It’s up to you if you want to come back to Italy with me before we make that call. I could tell Joan that you are fine but wait on the extraction but you know her.”
“Considering I hadn’t been out of touch long enough before she broke protocol and contacted you… I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d be on the first flight out and pick me up herself.”
“They got confirmation that Peters was dead. I think it was justified,” Bella whispered. “What did you expect us to do?”
He wasn’t sure about that. Treat him like any other operative, maybe? It wasn’t as if things like this hadn’t happened before. Then again, if the situation had been reversed, he’d be the first one to jump to the chance to get Bella back. Auggie moved his hand away from his mug, making a mental note where it was, and found her upper leg, that he gently patted. “Thank you, Bella.”
She laid her head against his good shoulder and smiled. “Anytime, Auggie. Anytime.”
He kissed the top of her head and smiled. “So, horseback riding. There’s this trail in Virginia that has the best views someone could wish for. And cabins. We could do a long weekend away, recharge and have fun. Drink loads of booze.”
She grinned at the thought. “Make sure to leave our phones at home. Completely untraceable weekend from Mom and Dad.”
“Oh, that sounds to be the makings of the best weekend ever. Good booze, great music, the open air… and no parents,” he let out a deep breath. “It’s been far too long since I had a weekend like that.”
“The only question is when because I still have my op I’m on. I don’t know how much longer it’s going to go but I know it’s a long ride,” she admitted hesitantly as she eyed him, not wanting to give too much.
“I know that,” he sighed and squeezed her leg. “But it will be the first things we’ll do when you’re done and come back home.”
“That and I cause some hell for any new faces of course,” she grinned.
“And I’ll gladly facilitate some of your more… outrageous ideas,” he smirked. “I have the world at my fingertips at home. Last month I pulled a prank on Barber, it was glorious. I had arranged a marching band to march through his street at 3 am and stop in front of his house and then, a mariachi band followed him around wherever he went for the entire day. He was off duty, of course, but when he returned, I had replaced all his hidden snack stashes with healthy alternatives,” he laughed at that before slightly shaking his head. “So the mariachi band was probably a little bit over the top. But I was bored.”
“We will have to come up with something bigger. Depending on who we are going after. But for now, eat and rest. The sun is going down and it’s going to get cold soon.”
His hand moved back to his mug and dipped a finger in it to see if it had cooled down enough. “All this talk about eating and yet, I haven’t heard you eat something yet.”
“I’m fine. Just tired now.”
“So am I,” he replied as he lifted his mug to his lips and carefully took a sip out of it. He felt fortunate that it was a standard sized cup, less possibility to embarrass himself. “But you went out of your way to heat up this delicious soup, it would be a shame for it to go to waste.”
Bella smiled, her eyes closing. “I promise I will have something in the morning with you before we head out. Okay?”
“You’d better,” he said as he took another sip, a bigger one this time, and loved the feeling of it sliding down his throat and warming his body despite it having had some time to cool off. He quietly finished the rest and then reached out to ruffle her hair. “Let’s get you inside that tent of yours.”
She hummed a pleased response as her own adventure to find him had finally caught up with her as well. Lifting her head, she looked around, making sure that everything was truly well and fine. “Do you need help with anything?”
“Well, if you could guide me to the tent, that would be appreciated, seeing as there’s still a fire burning and I have no idea how big you made it.”
Standing, she took his hand with hers. “Come on then. Let’s hit the sack,” she teased lightly, pulling him to his feet. “I just hope you don’t snore. I can’t stand guys who snore. I will smack you in the face while you sleep and shove your dirty sock in your mouth.”
“If you snore, I’ll pull you out of the tent and throw you into the river,” Auggie replied with a big smile on his face as he followed her. “Now that those threats are out of the way, I still don’t snore.”
“Here we are,” she smirked as she put his hand on the tent.
He felt around for an opening and slowly crawled inside before flopping on his good side to make room for Bella. “You got enough room?”
She shuffled around, until she was comfortable and her head settled with a sigh. “I have enough room. I don’t take up nearly as much as you and your ego. How’s your arm?”
“Still broken,” he replied as he tucked his good arm under his head. “And my ego is bruised. I mean, it took a girl to find me. A girl!”
“I’ll be sure to request to have Mom have you be the one to come rescue me if I need help next time I have trouble. Though with my luck…”
“You’d think that Mom would allow me to stay with you for the remainder of your mission? You get in trouble a lot.”
Bella turned on her side so that she could look at him and pouted. “I’m not that bad. And no, I don’t think she’d let you stay, even though I would like it. I think I may have annoyed the parentals with my last care package I sent home. You will have to let me know if she says anything to you when you do get back though. I know she won’t make a comment to me on what I got.”
“Did you send them another strap on?” Auggie laughed. “I mean, I wish I could have seen her face when she opened the package!”
“Everyone knows that Joan has a set of balls now,” she shrugged innocently, her fingers playing with his shirt button. “Maybe I should get Arthur a tutu?”
He couldn’t help but burst out laughing at the idea of Joan with the strap on and now the balls to go with it. “Arthur in a tutu? How about a princess dress? Including a long blonde wig and a tiara.”
“Steampunk? They don’t pay me enough to get a costume that he can’t rip apart that fast. I’m still thinking. I saw online a steampunk Batman costume. I think Dad might like that. For Halloween or something…”
“It’s an idea,” he mused as he moved his arm a little and ruffled her hair with his fingertips. He thought it was nice that she had a different kind of relationship with Arthur and Joan than he had. Sure, Joan was an overbearing lioness – especially to those she favoured, but he could always hear it in her voice when she spoke about Bella. “Get some sleep.”
“You too. It’s safe enough around here. I think whoever took you dumped you without a second thought. What are the odds of a blind man surviving in the woods? They just didn’t know that you didn’t have a Bella nearby to come rescue you,” she grinned as she settled down alongside him with a content sigh.
“I would have kept going until I reached civilization. It’s nice how people tend to underestimate the handicapped sometimes,” he tucked his arm back under his head. “But I’m really glad you came to get me, makes it a lot easier.”
“Sleep,” she said with a smile in her voice.
“Yeah yeah.” Only when he was sure that she was asleep, he allowed himself to drift off as well.