Desert Fire

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I follow Conner from the store after we’ve paid for everything, which he insisted on carrying, although, he did so without making any eye contact. When we get to the car, he puts the snacks on the passenger seat and the drinks in the cup holders before facing me. He holds the keys out to me and I raise my eyebrows after staring at his cracked knuckles for a long second.

“Can you drive?” he asks in a clipped tone, shifting his gaze to the pump, then the store, basically everywhere I’m not standing. “I think I need some rest. I slept like shit last night.” I take the keys with a silent nod, even though he isn’t looking at me. My fingers tingle and light on fire from grazing his. Wish my dumb hormones would realize he’s pissed at me and not react to his touch. “I’ll fill it up, you go ahead and get in,” he tells me, apparently not sharing in the endorphin dump I just experienced.

Not knowing what to say, I get in the car while he goes to put gas in. I adjust the seat, watching him get the pump ready with an ache in my chest. That was basically the most he’s said to me since we got on the road five freaking hours ago. When we left the house, he was pissed, tense; I didn’t even chance talking. I thought the anger would subside at some point and he would want to talk, but it never happened. I was a coward, unable to engage in a conversation, but I was also lost in my own thoughts.

We went through an entire Postal Service, Mumford and Sons, and Death Cab album on his iPod while thoughts of why he was so mad at me ran through my mind. I kept wondering if he was thinking about taking off and meeting up with his dad. Was he was getting tired of his continuous involvement in danger? He has to hate me for being the one to put him there. I also mulled over the whole incident from this morning, especially what the agent told Cadmar about them being sent to take us girls. It doesn’t make sense.

They should want me dead for killing one of the Elites’ finest. What would they gain by bringing me in? Were they planning on torturing me? I wouldn’t last long if that’s the case. But what about the other girls? Would they torture them to get to me? I could not let that happen. My conversation with Cadmar played over and over in my mind, until I came to a decision that will piss everyone off, but will also get me some much needed answers.

It’s been a horrible drive so far. I wish I could hope for it to get better when Conner finally talks to me, but I foresee it getting worse when I tell him what I want to do. As he pumps the gas, Reiley strolls over to the Jeep while Cadmar fills it up. I wish I could have given her more insight or comfort. When we spoke this morning, I knew she wouldn’t be able to wait long before confronting him, but she should have. Especially because of what happened at the house; he probably isn’t in a sharing mood. I would have loved to help her more, but my head is all over the place with my own drama.

When Conner’s done, Cadmar barks something at him before getting in the Jeep. He comes around to the passenger side, moving the snacks before getting in. He shifts around with the snacks on his lap, adjusting the seat. I follow Cadmar out of the lot and Conner gives me a hard look when we turn on the road.

“Go easy on her. She’s not used to long drives like this,” he grunts.

I roll my eyes. He knows full well I’m more than capable of driving his car nicely. It’s basically his only possession, besides the few things he could fit in his bag, but his doubt is insulting. “You know I’m a great driver; probably even better than you,” I point out jokingly, but only get another grunt in return, which has me grinding my teeth together.

“Do you want me to open a snack for you before I crash?” he offers and I shake my head; my stomach is in way too many knots for me to even consider eating something.

He shrugs before leaning the chair back and closing his eyes. I don’t want him to sleep. I’m sure he probably is tired because I tossed and turned most of the night, but I can’t handle eight more hours of silence. We’re crossing into New Mexico and the scenery is seriously lacking. I will go freaking insane.

“Conner,” I sigh. He glances at me from the corner of his eye, raising an eyebrow. “It’s been five hours. Will you please talk to me?”

Staying silent, he continues watching me before sighing heavily then rubbing his hands over his face. The sight of his split knuckles makes my stomach hurt. He sits the seat back up and finally looks at me full on with his brow knit together, his lips in a thin line.

“I know what you were going to say back there,” he says through grit teeth, as if he hasn’t cooled down at all over the last five hours. “I know you were going to start your ’you don’t need to protect me’ shit, and I just can’t handle another second of it! I heard Kay; those agents were there to take you and you’ve got to be freaking nuts if you think I’m going to stand off to the side and watch it all happen.”

I don’t say anything for a long minute while I think this over. He’s right. I shouldn’t expect him to watch everything happen and he actually has been extremely strong and understanding through it all. It’s still horrible to imagine him in the middle of it.

“I can’t handle even the possibility of you getting hurt,” I finally say, gripping the steering wheel while I follow Cadmar down the highway.

He makes an impatient noise in his throat. “Well, you’re going to have to get over it or I’m not going to stick around much longer.” I suck in a sharp breath when he gives me a deadly serious look. “I’m not kidding, Payton. I’m supposed to be here to help. And on top of that, I know something’s been going on with you. I’ve watched you completely space out to the point of not even realizing where you are. You should be able to lean on me, not just as a boyfriend, but also as your friend, but you’re not. You promised we’d talk and I know shit happened this morning, but now we’re away from it and I still have the feeling you won’t talk to me.”

“That’s not true,” I say, desperation pounding through my veins. I can’t lose him, not over something as simple as communicating. I can learn how; I’m sure of it. “I was going to talk to you this morning, before everything happened. I want to talk to you, if you’ll listen.”

An eyebrow hitches up again when he motions for me to go on. I do. Figuring it’s best to start at my beginning, I tell him about the lady following me in Chile, then about Scarlet’s ‘slip.’ When I go into the flashbacks and my conversation with Cadmar, I keep glancing at him, noticing his jaw twitching, his hands fisting on his knees. After getting out Cadmar’s and my conversation, I pause for a second, letting it all sink in before I blurt out what I want to do.

“I want to go see her,” I tell him, keeping my eyes on the road because I’m a giant coward.

He growls deep in his chest and I can’t help glancing at him. He’s staring out his window, but his posture is rigged. I want to know what he’s thinking, but I give him a minute to work through it all. He may think it’s a bad idea, but my reasoning is completely rational. Okay, maybe ninety-five percent rational, but all things considered, that’s pretty good. Even still, no matter what he or even Cadmar think, I’m going to find her with or without their help.

“That’s freaking stupid,” he finally says, making me jerk away from him, even though he’s still staring out the window. His gaze finally falls on me, eyes cold with anger. “You actually think finding the woman who abandoned you eighteen years ago is going to help the situation we’re in? What makes you think she’ll want to help you?”

His condescending tone instantly has my hackles rising. I glare out the windshield, wishing I wasn’t driving so I could direct it at him. “I don’t know if it will help,” I bite out. “Nothing appears to be helping right now. This seems like a solid lead to me. Not only because she may know what’s going on, but I also need to find out why she’s following me. I can get the answers from her, whether she wants to give them or not.” I grip the steering wheel, twisting my hands back and forth while he watches me with his brow pinched. “I’m not counting on a sweet reunion or anything of the sort, but I do need answers.”

“You really think Cadmar is going to let you take off on a wild goose chase while all this crap’s going on?”

“You really think I give a shit?” I snap, making his eyes flash with anger. “I’ll be eighteen in a couple weeks and it’s not as if I’m not already an adult in more ways than age alone. He knows I can handle myself, and I will do exactly that with or without his consent.”

Grrr. I hate fighting. It’s the first time we’ve had a real argument and it totally sucks; literally makes my skin crawl. But I also hate how he’s acting as if I’ve completely gone insane. I mean, maybe I have, but he doesn’t need to be a jerk about it. Everyone has their crazy moments. We fall into another dreadful silence, which I can’t stand.

I don’t want to fight; it’s stupid and pointless, but I need him to look at this from my perspective. It isn’t like he was adopted or never met his real parents. He lost his mom, which is awful, but at least he got to know her before she passed away. The only mother figure I have is Scarlet, and I’m certain any option is better than her. He doesn’t say anything for the longest time, making me think he’s done with the conversation, which has my anger boiling.

“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” he finally sighs in defeat as if the weight of the situation has worn him down. “I can understand why you would want to find her, but you have no idea why she’s following you. Whether her intentions are good or bad, it might be something to hurt you, and I don’t want to see that happen. I couldn’t bear it.”

“That’s very sweet of you,” I say in a patronizing tone. I should be trying to resolve this, but something in me wants to be defiant, needs to be It’s my biological mom; it should be my call. “You don’t need to look out for me, Conner. I’m a big girl. I’m not a child, nor am I delusional. I’m sure whatever she wants from me is anything but a nice reunion. But I have every right to confront her, to find out why she’s following me, hopefully put a stop to it and get some answers in the process.”

He stays silent for another long moment in which my stomach clenches into a million knots. I despise fighting with him. I should have agreed with him, because he’s probably right. This stupid argument would be over by now and we could be talking about anything else, but I had to stick up for myself.

“Really, Payton?” He sighs again, rubbing his hands over his face, them rasping over his whiskers while he groans loudly. The sound of his agony makes me shrivel up inside. I hate being the one making him miserable. This relationship stuff is not all roses and daisies.

Eyes full of grief, he goes on, “I thought we were done with this argument. I thought we were past the part of you thinking you need to handle everything by yourself. I can’t do this over and over again. I can’t be with someone who can’t lean on me.” He plants his face back in his hands, elbows resting on his knees. All I want to do is throw up.

“I don’t know how to lean on someone else,” I say in defeat. “I’ve taken care of myself and my sisters my entire life. We had Cadmar and Scarlet, but they didn’t really take care of us; they just taught us how to be tough.” I take a deep breath, trying to find my center, my calm. “I want to be able to lean on you, but I’ve never had anyone to do that with before. To have someone who is so willing to be there, through every bright and every dark moment of my life, is completely foreign to me.”

“We all have shit we have to deal with,” he says, sounding calm now, but his lips tug down at the edges; the sadness in his eyes rips through my chest. I keep my gaze trained on the road so I don’t have to focus on those desolate green eyes. “But it doesn’t make us weak to depend on those around us, to overcome our issues, to hold us up when we can no longer bear the weight.” He pauses, placing a hand on my thigh, which sends heat up my leg, seeping through my entire body. Stupid hormones betraying me when I’m supposed to be angry! Or sad…I can’t remember. “Please, let me bear some of the weight. I won’t ask again, so if you don’t want me to, you need to tell me right now. I don’t want to put any more effort into this if it’s for a lost cause.”

His words rip through my chest. I want this to work; we’ve already put so much into it, into each other. We’ve been through more than most couples go through in their entire lives. He left his dad, his home, and his friends, all for me. How can I not take this one small leap? Really, it’s not the huge thing I’m making it out to be. Allowing someone to carry some of my baggage should be easy; I just need to figure out how to do it.

“Okay.” I sigh after a long silence. “I will try to lean on you more, but I can’t promise anything, because I’m only human. And the ’you trying to protect me thing’ is going to be hard to get used to because I know how to protect myself.”

“You know how to protect yourself from people trying to kill you,” he says, his tone flat. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to protect your feelings, your heart, from being hurt.”

“Fine, I’ll give you that.” I roll my eyes, but give him a small smile, hoping to God he’ll accept it as a peace offering. The knots in my stomach slowly loosen when he returns it. “But still, I’m not promising I’ll be good at this; I’m just saying I will try.”

“You don’t have to be good at it, but let’s try this out. I understand you wanting to go see your mom and confront her, so if this is something you absolutely have to do, I would like to go with you.”

“Umm, I was kind of already banking on you going with me,” I admit easily.

“See, you’re not as bad at it as you think you are.” He gives me a full-on smile now, which lights up his entire face, making his greens sparkle.

The beauty of it makes my heart leap. Having everything out on the table makes me feel lighter than I have since we left the castle. When he flips his hand over, waiting for me to twine my fingers with his, the cramping in my stomach and the urge to throw up all over both subside. First argument ever…not so bad.

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