Desert Fire

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“That went well,” Cadmar’s sarcastic tone breaks through the darkness, coming from right above me. I usually love when he’s sarcastic, but not right now.

Before I can open my eyes, the pain registers all over my body. It would have been nice if someone caught me. My face hurts the most, which means it took the brunt of my fall. I’m such a pansy for passing out, but I’m pretty sure there’s only so much a person’s brain can take in one day.

“This was a terrible idea,” Kadence sounds pissed and I love her for it. This was a terrible idea. Cadmar should have told us who it was, should have given me a freaking heads up. “You could have given her a warning. I told you the secrets were weighing on us, but I was referring to this specifically.”

Does that mean she had it figured out? Am I really stupid to have taken so long to catch on? More importantly, what the hell is my mom doing here? A groan escapes my lips while I struggle to open my eyes. My face stings as if little chunks of gravel are stuck in it.

“Is she going to be okay?” Another voice chimes in. It sounds deep and throaty and kind of cool. It’s the voice that has my eyes snapping open. It’s as if I’ve been waiting my entire life to hear it. I hate that. I don’t wanna get all sappy about meeting my real mom.

“There she is,” Cadmar sighs, as if he was actually worried.

I’m flat on my back, the chill of the dirt seeping into my bones, whilst all three of them stare at me. Cadmar looks relieved, Kay looks worried, and my mom looks terrified. I think I probably would be too if I were in her shoes. I can only hope this reunion goes a lot better for me than it did Payton.

I stare at Rae, even though I’m in a super awkward position. Cadmar reaches a hand out to me and I take it this time, letting him help me up while Kay and Rae move out of the way. My anger toward Cadmar is still there from earlier, but it’s more like background noise now. I can’t be so mad at him anymore now that I understand why he didn’t want to blow this off or, I guess, blow her off.

Back on my feet, I brush my pants off again and run my fingers through my hair, a nervous energy thrumming through me all of a sudden. I’m meeting my real mom for the first time EVER! Am I supposed to be mad at her? I’m not sure I could be, especially after what Cadmar told me about her this morning.

She obviously had reason to leave me with Cadmar. And I hate to admit how ecstatic I am, which is a great feeling, as opposed to all the shit we’ve put up with today.

This is my mom! Her name is super cool and she even dresses fashionably, with black skinny jeans, a dark-gray shirt, black leather jacket, and black combat boots. Her attire is unlike any grown-up’s I’ve ever encountered.

My gaze finally settles on her face when I cross an arm over my chest, using it to hold my other arm up to play with the ring in my eyebrow. Cadmar and Kay stand to the side, muttering to each other with looks of concern in place. But I only have eyes for my mom. We stare at each other, both of us waiting for the other to make a move or say something.

And I can’t stand it.

“So, this is awkward,” I chuckle, dropping my arms to my sides. I don’t know what else to say. Do I hug her or yell at her or do a leap of joy? No idea!

But she smiles, as if I said the right thing. Yay me! She steps a foot closer, scanning my face, but then her eyes harden before she turns a glare on Cadmar. “What happened to her face?” she growls.

“Um, I just fell on it?” I offer, but reach up for my piercing again. “Or are you referring to this?”

She glances back at me, shaking her head. “No, that’s okay. He asked me for permission to do it for your birthday.” She smiles again and I can’t help but return it. She’s been involved in my life this entire time, even though she wasn’t around. But then her angry face returns. “I’m referring to the bruises.” She turns back to Cadmar, who squirms under her gaze. Awesome! Anyone who can make him uncomfortable is all right in my book. “You promised she wouldn’t get hurt.” She jabs a finger at him.

I flinch a little, because I totally forgot about the damage Bryn did to my face. The last time I looked, my black eye looked mostly yellow, with some purple on the inside, but it’s still visible. Kay squirms, too, probably still blaming herself for that whole debacle.

“He didn’t have anything to do with it,” I tell her and her fierce green eyes snap back to me. I’m kind of flattered she’s worried, but I don’t want her to be mad at him about this. If he had been there, he wouldn’t have let Scarlet near me. “He wasn’t there. He couldn’t control what happened.”

“Then what happened?” she demands.

“It’s a long story,” Cadmar says, shifting his feet around some more. Seeing him nervous is probably the greatest sight in the history of ever. “One we don’t have time for. We need to get this done.”

“I think we should put it off until tomorrow, anyway,” Rae argues, showing where my stubbornness came from, and it’s about to kick in.

“Payton,” is all I say, but it’s full of my demand. There’s no way we are postponing this stupid mission, thereby making Payton wait even longer.

“Payton?” Rae asks, glancing between Cadmar and me. “She’s your oldest, right?”

“Yes,” he answers, his tone stiff, angry. “She went to meet her mom today. Janet. I’m sure you remember her?” He pauses and Rae nods with a grimace, which has a pit grow in my stomach. If everyone dislikes this Janet so much, why did Cadmar let Payton go see her? “It was a setup. She handed Payton over to the Elites. They’re taking her to L.A.”

Rae hisses out a breath. “I understand the urgency,” she tells me, her gaze full of sympathy, as if she understands what Payton means to me. How much has Cadmar told her about me over the years? “But I scouted the facility about half an hour ago.” She pauses, turning to Cadmar. “At least thirty agents are guarding the gate, as if they knew we were coming tonight.”

Cadmar keeps quiet, as if he’s trying to figure out how they would know. I bet I freaking know how! He left Scarlet all by her lonesome back in that motel. She probably woke up and found a way to get free in order to let the Elites know where Cadmar would be. Crossing his arms over his chest, he rubs a thumb back and forth over his jawline while I bounce from foot to foot, waiting for him to say something.

“We can’t, Cadmar,” Rae snaps after a good minute of silence. His gaze jerks to her, his hands dropping to his sides. “We are not going anywhere near the facility while they have an army of agents waiting for us. Especially not with this one in the shape she’s in.” She waves a hand at Kay who’s leaning against the Jeep bumper for support, the moonlight shining on her dampened skin. I should probably go ask her if she’s feeling okay, but I don’t want to miss whatever Cadmar’s brewing up.

The chill of the wind should keep her from sweating, but her pain must be too much. Standing straight with pursed lips, she crosses her arms over her chest, lifting her chin in defiance. “I’m fine to do what needs to be done,” she tells Cadmar, who stares at her with the corners of his mouth turned down.

“Cadmar.” Rae tilts her head, her eyebrows drawn together. “I will not allow you to risk these girls’ lives tonight.”

His thumb goes back to his jaw, rubbing back and forth while he stares off in the distance before his gaze returns to Rae. “This needs to be done tonight,” he insists. “I don’t know what they plan to do with Payton and I cannot leave her hanging.” He pauses, glancing at Kay and me with his lips in a thin line. “I won’t put them in danger. I will distract the ‘army’ and you’ll get the girls inside to finish this.”

Rae opens her mouth at the same time I do, both of us leaning forward to argue, but he holds up a hand. “They’re my girls, Rae. I asked you here to help me keep my promise, but I won’t allow you to get in my way.”

She moves toward him, the gravel crunching beneath her combat boots. Standing on her tiptoes to get in his face, an eyebrow hooks upward, her hands fisting at her sides. “You atleast need to leave her—”

He cuts her off with his hand again. “Don’t even suggest it,” he growls, leaning down slightly. “If you tell her to stay, she’ll find some way to follow and end up getting killed.”

“Umm, I’m right here.” I glare at them, but a spark of excitement ignites inside me. Is he actually going to let me help?

Rae turns her head to smirk at me, but Cadmar gives me a hard look. “Yes, and we all know how prone to trouble you are,” he drawls.

“If we’re going to do this, we need to move,” Kay says on a heavy breath, leaning against the Jeep again.

“I don’t agree with this.” Rae shakes her head while I bounce from foot to foot again, anticipation bubbling through my veins.

“Let’s get it done with.” I rub my hands together, still bouncing, making Cadmar shoot me a glare. I shrug.

They can fight all they want when we’re on our way to California. Having my mom here is epic, something I don’t plan on letting go of anytime soon, but Payton must come first. They won’t be in the air long, and once they’ve landed, we have no idea what they’ll do to her.

Sighing, Rae’s shoulders slump, but she lifts them instantly, along with her chin. Snapping her fingers, she points at Cadmar, who looks down his nose at her with his arms crossed over his chest, his eyebrows drawn together. “For every scratch she gets, I will take it out a thousand fold on your skin.” Leaning closer, she tilts her head back further to get in his face again, but it’s mostly his chest she’s talking to. “This includes the bruises already on her face. Got it?” She bares her teeth.

Jeez, she’s freaking awesome!

Cadmar studies her for a long second with his brow still creased, his lips in a thin line before he nods once. He nods! As in, he’s actually acknowledging and accepting her threat. Mind. Blown.

“So what’s the plan?” Rae asks and they put their heads together, speaking in hushed tones.

I go over to Kay, who’s gripping the bumper with her eyes clenched shut. She opens them when I lean on the bumper next to her while tugging on my gauge. “How you holding up?” I ask, but keep my eyes trained on the trees beyond us.

I should have asked sooner than now, but other crap occupied our time.

“I’m alive,” she replies, but it doesn’t sound sarcastic. I glance sideways, but she looks off in the trees for a long second before facing me. “I’ll be okay, Reiley. We have been through a lot in the last week; I just want us to be safe.”

She twirls the braid around and around her hand, her eyes shifting back and forth. I want to be safe, too, but at this rate, we may never be. Rae and Cadmar continue talking, Rae moving her hands around, but she glances at me multiple times with her brow scrunched up while Cadmar keeps his arms planted over his chest. We should be in motion already, getting this done, but going in guns blazing is a bad idea, I guess.

“Are you holding up?” Kay asks, making my gaze jerk to her.

“Of course I am.” I shrug.

Dropping her braid, she places a hand on my arm, giving me her patented ‘mom’ look. “It is okay to talk about your emotions.” She squeezes my arm once, before dropping her hand. “Meeting her was a big shock, I’m sure.”

Watching them talk, I shrug again. “I don’t know what to feel, yet. I want to talk to her, to get answers, but we won’t have time for that until things calm down. And what if she decides to leave once they are?” My biggest fear falls from my mouth and I clamp it shut, my teeth clacking together.

“I’m not sure she will be able to, even if she planned to do so,” Kay says, her gaze finding them, too, her hands going back to her braid. “Even though the timing is not ideal, it is still pretty exciting you got to meet her and she seems very nice.”

I smirk at her, but can’t respond, because Rae and Cadmar stop talking, making their way toward us. They stop in front of us, Rae with her arms crossed over her chest and Cadmar with his usual emotionless mask in place; we’re back to business.

Cadmar pulls the black flash drive out of his pocket, before holding it out to Kay. She tilts her head, raising her eyebrows in question while reaching for it.

“The second you get inside, you need to find their main system,” he explains. “You get that plugged in, gather all the files you can locate. Copy them to that before destroying them. Then I need you to add me as one of their head agents, but disguise the data so it’s undetectable. Rae is going in the underground to find what she can.” His emotionless gaze falls on me. “You’ll stay with Kadence.”

Kay nods with her brow scrunched up, sticking the flash-drive in her pants pocket while I stare with my mouth hanging open. Does she really know how to do everything he just said? And what the heck is it he said? And what about him?

“Wait!” I yell, causing their gazes to focus on me. “Does that mean you’re really sacrificing yourself?”

His face remains blank, but he nods once, making my stomach drop to my ass. Kay doesn’t protest and Rae only watches me with her eyebrows raised slightly.

“But you can’t! That’s basically suicide!” I screech, throwing my arms out to the sides, almost whacking Kay who flinches away from me. Whoops.

What I don’t say is, “We need you! What the hell would we do without you? How would we survive?”

He’s such a solid thing, the only constant I know; the idea of him not being is inconceivable! He’s strong, always able to find a way out of a tight spot, but I can’t see him surviving walking into an ambush of thirty agents. He watches me with his jaw twitching for a long second before a hand grips my arm and my gaze moves to Rae…my mom, the person whom we have to put a lot of trust in right now.

Yes, she’s badass and I can understand her reasons for giving me to Cadmar, but I don’t know her. From what I’ve watched in the last fifteen minutes, I’m not so sure she would care if something happened to Cadmar. I mean, she might experience some regret, but it wouldn’t drastically alter her life the way it would ours.

“We need to get moving. It will be okay,” she assures, giving my arm a squeeze, but letting go when I glance at her hand with my brow creased.

And that’s that. I don’t get any more details on the plan before we’re getting ready for our mission. Kay gives me a gun and holster along with some daggers. Rae gives me a black beanie to cover my bright hair, and I pull on a black coat before helping Kay get ready. Even Cadmar puts on a black beanie and a black leather jacket to cover his shoulder gun holsters and chest dagger holster; he’s loaded with tons of weapons.

Does he think he can actually win this fight? Can he? Is my doubt going to solidify a terrible outcome?

Rae says something about cleaning my face up while I work on changing my attitude, but I brush her off. I’ve had worse injuries; a couple scratches won’t be a bother. We pile into the Jeep so we can get a little closer, which is good because Kay shouldn’t be hiking in her condition. Now look who’s playing the mom role.

After a few minutes of off-roading through the scraggly trees, Cadmar basically running any over that get in our way, he parks within another circle of trees on a high hill. We take a short hike after unloading, until mostly dead trees and thick brush surround us, but we have a good view of the structure, which is a good hundred yards away.

The path down the hill and the area around the eight-foot, chain link fence, which is topped in barbed wire, is covered in more trees and bushes. The fence surrounds a large, plain gray building, which had to have been used as a prison at some point. The crisp wind howls around us, blasting me in the face while we stare at the thirty men and women in black suits standing in front of the building.

They’ve got to be cold!

But even cold, there’s no way Cadmar will be able to get through them alive. He moves forward with his hands fisted at his side before glancing over his shoulder. “Wait for my signal then move.”

Without another word, he moves through the branches, stepping over bushes down the hill. I want to stop him. Or hug him. Or maybe cry, but that will only waste more time.

“How are we supposed to get in?” I whisper the question to Rae, but keep my gaze on Cadmar’s retreating form, which is beginning to blend in to the darkness. My heart pounds in my chest, perspiration building on my forehead, even with the chill of the wind.

“I have an area ready around the back, which I was able to prepare earlier in the day before the agents showed up,” she explains. “We’ll make our way around when he gives the signal.”

I only nod, sparing a quick glance at Kay, who’s watching Cadmar with her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. I have no idea what the signal is, but I squint to watch Cadmar’s every step, his arms hanging at his sides. Is he at ease? Is his heart pounding in his ears as mine is?

“Let’s move down a little,” Rae whispers, gesturing us forward with her gaze still on Cadmar.

We begin picking our way down the hill, trying to make the least amount of noise possible. My legs tremble with every step, until Rae motions for us to stop near the bottom of the hill where we have a better view. A cloud moves above, allowing the moon to shine upon Cadmar, who arrives at a clearing right in front of the fence. The wind whips around us, freezing my ears and cheeks.

The agents’ raise their guns while a gate in front of Cadmar rolls open automatically. They don’t shoot or yell when he continues forward, his empty hands held out. A hulking guy at the front of the pack appears to say something, but the howling breeze makes it impossible to hear. Cadmar shrugs his shoulders in response to whatever was said and drops his hands.

“That’s the signal,” Rae whispers and I want to ask what the hell kind of signal that was, but I’m being nudged to the left, away from the direction Cadmar went.

Rae moves through the trees ahead of us and I let Kay go in front of me, in case she needs help. Our pace is slow while we pick through more brush, but the trees thin out, so we’re forced to hunch over in order to remain covered. Kay’s breaths come out in sharp gasps when she bends at the waist, jogging forward. When we draw near the side of the fence, we’re only twenty feet from Cadmar, who doesn’t make any sign of seeing us, but appears to be conversing with the big guy in the middle.

What the hell is that about? Do they know each other?

None of the agents make any indication of noticing us in the brush either, since all eyes remain on Cadmar. My legs and stomach cramp with exertion when we approach the corner of the fence, letting me know I probably should have done some running over the last week. Sweat trickles down my forehead, dripping into my eyes like hot acid.

I jump when the big agent shouts at Cadmar, demanding he get on his knees. Stopping dead in my tracks, my gaze jerks to where Cadmar’s slowly lowering to his knees with his hands behind his head.

What happened?

Are they going to kill him?!

My ears ring loud enough, I’m unable to hear whatever Rae says when she turns to urge us on. Kay glances over her shoulder at me, saying something before they continue forward, but my feet are frozen to the ground while I watch the agent point his gun at Cadmar’s head and two other agents approach him.

Is he going to just take this? Let them kill him?

I can’t live with letting something happen to him. Switching tracks, I move in his direction, ignoring Rae and Kay’s urgent whispers behind me. I don’t know what my presence will help, but maybe if I hand myself over, or something, they’ll let him live. That’s a sound plan, right? The gun on my hip may be of assistance, but with the lighting and the way my hands tremble, it’s likely I’ll miss.

All thoughts are forgotten when the big one moves forward, pressing his gun hard enough to Cadmar’s temple, his head tilts to the side. His face isn’t visible, so I have no idea what’s going through his mind—well that, and the fact I’m not a mind reader—but it doesn’t matter.

Standing upright, I run with all my might, ignoring the prickly bushes grabbing at my pants. The wind whips against my face like tiny daggers, or maybe that’s the tree branches, but who gives a shit? One of the agents must have seen me, because more shouting sounds, but their words are jumbled.

“Cadmar, no!” I scream when I enter the clearing before the fence, not knowing why or how my words will help.

“Reiley!” Rae yells behind me right when Cadmar’s gaze jerks in my direction, an unfathomable glare stopping me in my tracks.

My breaths puff out in thick clouds while more shouting commences, agents move toward the open gate. Then Cadmar suddenly has the big agent on the ground and is pointing a gun at his head. Did he have this all planned out? Could he really have overtaken them? Did I ruin another damn plan?

Before we can find out, a loud thoonk, thoonk, thoonk, comes from the hill we just descended. Rae and Kadence both screech Cadmar’s name. He glances behind me at them then at the hill before dropping his gun and charging toward me. I almost want to run away, but my feet are planted.

What the hell, feet?

White ball-like things with clouds of smoke behind them fly behind Cadmar toward the building. Understanding clicks in my brain right before I’m bulldozed to the ground, my head bouncing off it while the world explodes around us, the ground trembling before everything goes black.

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