The rain pelted down as he made his way up the ridge, thick sheets that obscured his vision and made the terrain slippery and treacherous. Overhead, a large black bird with a colorful beak swooped in, almost sending Ben skidding into a ravine.
He whistled low, a deliberate pattern, one of the team’s signals. He repeated the sound as he approached where Maddox was supposed to be. An answering signal came from a dense thicket of green vegetation.
“It’s me. Hold your fire,” Ben called as he slipped into the mass of trees and roots. The plants here were nothing like the ones back home—giant heart-shaped leaves and bright rubbery flowers that almost looked bird- or insect-like. The trees had massive, visible roots covered with moss, and were connected by thick vines that could easily be mistaken for a deadly snake.
Below him, he could see the encampment, SEALs scurrying around. The injured hostage and Issacson, their wounded radio man, were carried out, which had to mean the chopper was close. Time to haul ass. “Maddox?”
“Here.” Maddox slid out of the shadows, rifle at the ready, just as Ben had expected. “Com’s down for you guys too?”
“Yup. Chopper’s coming in. LT sent me to bring you in. No time to waste. Issacson took a bullet, but he’s stable, and one of the hostages is in bad shape. Possible hostiles escaped, but Rogers and company are hunting them down.”
“Got it. Lead the way.” Maddox let Ben take point as they made their way down the ridge. They had to skirt the edge of a steep drop, every muddy step cautious even as they needed to make haste.
Two things happened at the same instant—gunfire broke out above them and a chopper approached, engine noise making it hard to track the source of the shots. But Maddox was already on it, crouching low, rifle ready. Another shot whistled over their heads and Maddox returned fire. They both left the trail and headed into the brush, intent on finding the hostiles.
The chopper circled low, then went back up. Fuck. The chopper was struggling to land in the encampment clearing, which meant the next pass was critical. Still staying low and gun ready, he inched forward. No more gunfire had followed Maddox’s, but that didn’t mean he could let his guard down for a second.
The chopper circled again, but the terrain had shifted and Ben could no longer see the encampment beneath them.
“Fuck.” Maddox never cursed, so Ben whipped his head around just in time to see Maddox slipping off the poor excuse for a trail.
Ben scrambled on his stomach, stretching out an arm, trying to catch Maddox. “Grab on.”
“No. Don’t—” Maddox didn’t get the sentence out before they were both tumbling down the muddy incline, heading straight for the ravine that lay between them and the encampment. Ben tried to slow their descent but his attempt to grab at some vines only resulted in the foliage following them down.
Maddox screamed, a legitimate yell that chilled Ben to his boots because Maddox never lost composure. Ever. Ben had once watched Wizard put sutures in Maddox’s scalp while Maddox hummed, never dropping his tune.
Ben grabbed for him again and— Pop. Ben’s arm pulled at an unnatural angle, caught up in a tree root and not Maddox’s strong grip as he’d intended. He wrenched loose but the damage was already done, and still he slid, mud carrying him faster, rocks and vegetation raining down after them.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Ben’s arm and shoulder were on fire and he was still moving, sliding, nothing working—
Boom. The bottom of the ravine arrived without warning, a muddy bog that sucked him down, but it was hardly a soft landing, rocks and plants poking at him. His arm had him cursing, eyes watering. He’d seen Rogers dislocate a shoulder last year in the grinder obstacle course, and at the time he’d rolled his eyes at how Rogers had carried on. He had a sick feeling that he’d done the same or worse to his shoulder, and he got the urge to cry and howl.
“Oh fuck.” His stomach heaved and he barely made it to his side before he threw up from the pain. He turned his head and almost lost his guts again. Maddox lay a few feet from him, leg at an unnatural angle, blood dripping from his head, helmet nowhere to be seen. Not talking or cursing.
Clawing at the rocks with his good arm, Ben pulled himself closer, looking for the telltale rise and fall of Maddox’s chest—and not seeing it.
“You are not fucking with me,” Ben growled. “Mad? Come on, man.”
Still nothing, not even a ghost of movement across Maddox’s pale lips. Terror, nothing Ben had ever known before, froze his veins, made him lightheaded from more than just the fall. He refused, utterly refused to live in a world where Maddox wasn’t okay.
“Maddox. Horvat.” He shook his shoulder, cursing under his breath. No, no, no.
Whoosh. A chopper—the chopper—flew overhead, much too far to spot them down this ravine, and heading away from them.
Sputter. Maddox let out a mighty cough. It might have been the most beautiful sound Ben had ever heard, because it meant Maddox was here, that he was fighting, and Ben started to laugh with relief until Maddox spoke. “Heck. They’re leaving us.”