Soldier, p.2
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       Soldier, p.2

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 

  “He’ll make a mistake,” I said. “Just like last time. Wes will catch it when he does. He can’t run forever.”

  “You don’t know Griffin,” Riley muttered. “But, yeah, I guess you’re right.” He shook his head. “Anyway, there’s nothing here and nothing we can do now. Let’s head back.”

  I followed him out the door, back down the hall to the parking lot. A dented black Mustang with tinted windows sat in a corner space, and Riley wrenched open the door, slid inside and slammed it so hard, the car shook.

  I sat down and closed my door with a little less force, then watched Riley gun the engine to life before squealing out of the hotel lot. Light from the streetlamps slid over his angry face, his jaw set, gaze glued to the windshield. Leaning back in the faux leather seat, I sighed and looked out the window. Another small Midwestern town, ordinary and indistinctive, sat beyond the glass. We’d been through so many lately, I didn’t even remember its name.

  I understood Riley’s frustration. The human we were chasing, Griffin Walker, had been one of Riley’s contacts before we discovered he’d been feeding information to both Talon and St. George on the sly. Griffin was the traitor, the mole in the rogue’s network. In Las Vegas, he had sold us out to Talon, and we’d nearly been killed because of it. But worse, because of him, all of Riley’s safe houses, all the hatchlings he’d gotten out of Talon, could be in danger. We had to find him and discover what he knew and how much he had leaked to the organization. But catching one human on the run was proving more difficult than we could have imagined. This was the second time in nearly a month that we’d gotten close, only to have our elusive quarry disappear yet again.

  It was beyond infuriating, but at the same time, it kept my mind off...other things. Issues I didn’t want to deal with right now. I was so busy helping Riley track down Griffin, I didn’t have time or the energy to dwell on anything else. And Riley was determined to save his underground, to keep his network safe and his hatchlings away from Talon; he was consumed with finding the traitor that had sold us out to Talon and St. George. In the days following Las Vegas, we’d barely spoken to each other about anything non-Griffin or Talon related, which was both a relief and a disappointment. If we slowed down at all I would start to remember...certain people, and I wasn’t ready to face that, yet.

  Back at our own hotel, we went straight to Wes’s room and locked the bolt behind us. The human sat hunched over his laptop on the corner desk, the same position we had left him in hours earlier. He gave us a weary look as we came in and shook his head.

  “Nothing,” he said before Riley could ask. “No phone calls, no new credit card transactions, bloody nothing. Trail’s gone cold, mate. Griffin is officially off the radar.”

  “Dammit,” Riley growled, stalking forward. “Slimy, slippery bastard. Keep looking,” he ordered, and Wes turned back to the computer with a sigh. “We were that close, Wes. We can’t let him sneak away now.”

  Rubbing my eyes, I turned away, knowing Riley and Wes would be working for a couple hours at least. Wes practically lived in front of a screen, and Riley’s anger would keep him going, but this constant breakneck pace was starting to get to me. “All right, you two have fun,” I said, moving toward the door. “I’m going to crash until you need me.”

  Riley looked back, gold eyes solemn as they met mine. For a moment, my dragon stirred, her gaze almost challenging as we stared at each other. Daring Riley—no, daring Cobalt—to come out and face her. He wouldn’t, and we both knew it; Riley certainly would not risk exposure by Shifting into his true form when there was no need. But my dragon instincts still hoped he would. Riley hesitated, as if he was about to say something, but then Wes muttered at him and he turned away.

  “Get some rest while you can, Firebrand,” he murmured, bending down again. “We’ll probably be leaving in a few hours.”

  Without answering, I retreated to my room across the hall, went to the bathroom and stripped out of my clothes. Including the black Viper suit, which I dropped unceremoniously on the floor. It slithered to the tile in a spill of rippling black fabric, and I wrinkled my nose at it before stepping into the shower.

  The near-scalding water hit my skin, and I sighed, closing my eyes as the steam rose around me. We’d come so close tonight. So close to being done with this crazy search, to discovering what information Griffin was leaking to Talon and putting a cap on it for good. I had no doubt we’d find him, sooner or later. No one could hide from Wes for long, and if you dared screw around with Riley’s hatchlings and safe houses, well, good luck to you. I wouldn’t call Riley obsessive, but he was certainly unyielding and determined, and his underground was everything to him. Plus, he could be a teensy bit on the vengeful side.

  After shutting off the water, I toweled, dressed quickly and wandered into my empty room, flipping on the television out of habit. Noise was welcome. Silence was depressing and kind of lonely. Worse, in the total silence, my thoughts went places I didn’t want them to go. Memories that were still too raw, too painful, to shine a light on. People whose absence was a great yawning emptiness in the pit of my stomach, or whose betrayal made it feel like a mirror had shattered within and the shards were cutting me up from inside.

  Flopping onto the bed, I turned to some random action movie and cranked up the volume, trying to drown out my thoughts. Focus, I told myself, watching some guy in a sports car speed down narrow streets, knocking over trash cans and barely missing passersby. There were more important things to worry about than my own jumbled emotions. I wasn’t a normal hatchling anymore, whose only concerns were having fun, fitting in and doing what the organization told me to do. I was a rogue, part of Riley’s underground and probably Talon’s most-wanted dragon next to Cobalt himself. Vegas had shown me exactly what the organization was capable of. If I didn’t take things seriously, more people, and more dragons, would die.

  A soft tap on the door made me look up. “Firebrand,” came a familiar voice through the wood, and my dragon perked at the sound. “You still up?”

  Pushing her down, I swung off the bed, crossed the room and opened the door. Riley stood on the other side, hands in his jacket pockets, dark hair hanging in his eyes. He looked tired, though his mouth curled into a faint smile when he saw me.

  “Hey,” he greeted in a quiet voice. “I...uh, wanted to talk to you before you crashed. Okay if I come in for a second?”

  I shrugged and moved aside, even as my insides began a crazy swirling dance, sending heat rushing through me. “Did Wes find anything on Griffin?” I asked, reminding myself to stay on topic.

  Riley shook his head. “No, nothing yet. But that’s not why I’m here.” Keeping his hands in his pockets, he leaned against the wall, watching me with solemn gold eyes. I perched on the edge of the mattress, facing him. “I’m worried about you, Firebrand,” Riley said. “Ever since we left Vegas, you haven’t been yourself.”

  I forced a grin. “What should I be?” I asked, and he sighed.

  “I don’t know. More...talkative? Stubborn?” He shrugged, looking frustrated and at a loss. “You haven’t really talked to me since we left Vegas. And everything I say, no matter what, you just...agree with. It’s disconcerting.”

  “You want me to argue with you?”

  “At this point? Yes.” Riley frowned, raking his hair back. “Argue with me. Tell me I’m wrong. Say something, anything! I don’t know what you’re thinking anymore, Ember. I know it hasn’t been easy for you, with Dante in Talon and—”

  “I’m just trying to pull my weight here,” I interrupted, before he could go any further. He blinked, and I pushed back the anger and grief that rose up whenever I heard my brother’s name. “I don’t want to slow you down. I know what’s at stake. How important this is, for all of us.” His brows furrowed, and I shrugged, looking over at the television. “I’m a rogue, now,” I said. “No more playing around. No more s
neaking off, or being distracted by human things. I’m going to have to learn to shoot and fight and...kill, or more of us are going to die.” My mind flickered to the image of a small purple dragon, sprawled on the cement floor of a warehouse, gold eyes staring up at nothing, before I shoved the memory down.

  “So...yeah.” I looked back at Riley. “I’m taking this seriously. Which means following your lead, and concentrating on the mission. Nothing else matters.”

  “Ember...” Riley sounded even more weary all of a sudden. Pushing himself off the wall, he stepped in front of me, his expression almost sad. “That doesn’t mean I want you to lose yourself completely,” he said, as I gazed up at him. “Don’t let this life break you. You’re young. You have a very, very long existence ahead. No, I don’t want you sneaking out or throwing crazy parties in the middle of the night, but it can’t be war and fighting every second of every day. You’ll burn out before you hit Juvenile. Or you’ll get so bitter and angry, you might do something really crazy.” The corner of his mouth twitched into a wry grin, then he sobered once more. I didn’t smile back, and he eased closer—close enough for me to smell his leather jacket, to feel the subtle heat that pulsed beneath his skin.

  “I don’t want you to hate being here, Firebrand,” he went on. “I don’t want you to regret going rogue. I know I’ve been distracted, but I want you to know you can come to me for anything. Don’t think you have to go through this alone. Trust me, I have been through everything you can imagine.” He snorted. “Just ask Wes. He can tell you horror stories.”

  My heart beat faster. Having him this near made my back itch and my skin feel tight from wanting to Shift so bad. Riley hesitated, as if just realizing how close we were, but he didn’t move away. I looked up at him and saw Cobalt’s intense, golden gaze peering down at me.

  For a moment, we teetered on the edge, both dragons close to the surface, waiting for the other to make a move. But then Riley’s gaze darkened and he stepped away, breaking eye contact.

  “You should get some sleep,” he said, as my dragon growled with frustration and disappointment. “It’s been a long day, and we’ll want an early start tomorrow. I’ll come wake you when we’re ready to go.”

  “Riley!”

  A sharp rap made us jump. Riley drew back, looking almost relieved, and strode quickly to the door. Pulling it open, he glared out at Wes. “Did you find him?”

  “Not quite, mate.” Wes spared me a quick glance and narrowed his eyes, before turning to Riley again. “But you’ll want to see this. Griffin contacted us. I just got a message from the slimy bastard.”

  “Where is he?”

  “No clue.” Wes shrugged. “But he wants to meet us soon, face-to-face. Said he wants to make a deal. That he has information he’s willing to trade...for protection.”

  Riley scowled. “Protection? What makes him think that I would...” He trailed off, shaking his head. “Dammit,” he breathed. “Talon. Talon is after him, too. He wouldn’t have contacted us if he wasn’t freaking out.”

  “Yeah.” Wes nodded, a grim smile crossing his narrow face. “That’s what I’d guess. And under normal circumstances I would say to hell with the two-faced cockroach—he can reap what he’s sowed. Let a Viper chase him around for a change of pace. But...”

  “But we need whatever information he might have,” Riley growled. “And we can’t let Talon learn what he knows.” He raked a hand through his hair and glared at Wes. “What does Griffin want us to do?”

  “Says he’ll contact us with a meeting place if we agree to his terms,” Wes replied, making a sour face. “Terms being that we won’t kick his ass when we find him, and that we provide him with a safe place to hide for as long as he needs it.”

  Riley growled again, clenching a fist. “Fine,” he said through gritted teeth. “I can’t risk losing any more safe houses, and I can’t let Talon get their claws on Griffin. He knows too much about us.” He gave Wes a brisk nod. “Contact Griffin. Let him know we agree to his terms. Tell him to try not to get himself killed by a Viper before we can reach him.”

  Wes nodded and ducked out of the room, and Riley looked back at me. The moment was gone; Cobalt had disappeared, and it was just Riley again.

  “Sorry, Firebrand,” he said, taking a step toward the door. “I should probably be there when Griffin contacts us again. Will you be all right?”

  I nodded. “I’ll be here,” I said simply, and he went, striding into the hall after Wes and closing the door behind him.

  For a moment, I stared after him, a heavy weight settling over me. I knew, logically, that Riley was distracted. Finding Griffin and keeping his underground safe was foremost on his mind, as it should be. Rationally, I accepted that.

  But at the same time, I wondered if Riley’s feelings toward me had changed. There had been no hints or clues of what he wanted from me, if he even wanted me anymore. Now that I thought about it, whenever we were alone—either in the car or in the hotel room—he was careful to keep his distance. To not get too close. Tonight was a good example. There had been something between us—we’d both felt it...but he had backed off. Had he forgotten his promise of a few short weeks ago? Or had I been a fleeting distraction that he’d gotten over?

  I hopped up, threw the lock and returned to the bed. The dragon still writhed and squirmed inside, making it hard to relax. Sleep would probably be impossible tonight, as it had been most nights since we left Vegas. I was exhausted, but my brain just wouldn’t shut off. When I did sleep, the dreams were waiting. Being chased through tight quarters by humans with guns, skinned dragon hides hanging on the walls and Lilith appearing every so often to taunt me. Or urging me to turn and slaughter everything in sight. I’d wake up covered in sweat, my blood roaring in my ears, while the echoes of screams and gunfire faded into the darkness.

  But those dreams weren’t the worst. The worst dreams were the ones when, cornered and trapped, I’d spin around to finally face my pursuers...and it was Dante who appeared from the shadows, green eyes hard as he came into the light. Or sometimes it wasn’t Dante, but a human with short blond hair and metallic-gray eyes, staring me down over the muzzle of a gun. Once or twice, it was a girl, delicate and pale, her dark curls tumbling down her shoulders as she stepped forward. Sometimes we spoke, though I could never recall the conversations. Sometimes they ended with an apology, sometimes with a gunshot that jerked me awake and sent my heart racing. But more than a few times, I would find myself in dragon form, wondering what had happened, and there would be a charred, blackened body sprawled on the cement. I wouldn’t recognize it at first, didn’t know what I was looking at, until its eyes opened—black or green or metallic-gray—and it would whisper a single word.

  Why?

  Those were the dreams where I’d wake gasping, my eyes blurry and hot. Those were the images that kept me from going back to sleep, where I’d turn on the television and all the lights and try to forget everything until morning.

  Riley didn’t know about the nightmares. He was too busy with the hunt and keeping his network safe. Sometimes, I thought Wes suspected something, the way he looked at me when I joined them in the mornings, his taciturn face almost worried. But I couldn’t break down. It was just the three of us, now: me, Riley and Wes. Riley needed an equal partner, someone he could count on, not some kid he had to worry about. I had to focus on what was important. I couldn’t let any more of us die.

  My stomach throbbed, a constant, low-grade ache from the stress of not Shifting. I could still feel Riley’s touch, the heat in his gaze when our eyes met. My dragon side wanted him; it was obvious now that I couldn’t ignore those instincts. But, at the same time, I still thought of him constantly. Where was he? What was he doing right now? The more I tried to forget, the more he returned to haunt me, making me realize that I’d made a mistake.

  I missed the soldier.

  Fro
wning, I straightened on the pillows. You can’t think like that, Ember, I scolded myself. He’s gone, and it’s better that way. He’s human. You’re a dragon. It would have never worked. Let him go.

  My throat felt tight, and I breathed deep, banishing the last of the memories, at least for now. Griffin would contact us soon, and Riley would probably want to move out as soon as he did. Not much time for sleep, but I wasn’t going to get a lot, anyway.

  Grabbing the remote, I turned up the volume of the television and leaned back against the headboard. Who needed sleep when you could watch car chases and random explosions all night? Settling into the pillow nest, I let my eyes unfocus and my mind go blank, as revving engines and Hollywood drama replaced reality for a little while.

  RILEY

  “Riley,” Wes said, sounding impatient. “Did you hear what I just told you, mate?”

  “Huh?” I turned back from the door to face my partner’s annoyed glare. “Sorry, Wes. What?”

  He huffed. “I said that if Griffin is in trouble with Talon, we’re going to have to be bloody careful ourselves. For all we know, this could be another brilliant trap we’re walking into. I wouldn’t put it past the bastard to set us up again.”

  I nodded. “Yeah, I know.” I scratched my chin, frowning. “But we don’t have much choice. Who knows what kind of information he has now.”

  “Bloody hell,” Wes growled. “For a computer illiterate, the blighter certainly can get his hands on a lot of intel.”

  I shrugged. “He’s been at this a long time, Wes, almost as long as us. He was a slimy little toad even before we met.” Back then, Griffin had worked as a liaison for Talon, infiltrating companies they wanted to acquire, learning everything he could—their policies, financials and dirty laundry—even turning a few of their own employees against them. All to set up Talon’s hostile takeover.