“It’s real, Declan

on

He didn’t smile. “Real. It’s real, but there’s a bunch of people who would
kill us if they saw us now.” He slammed my gear on the ground with his foot, and
showed me my bag. “Are you ready? All of us have to be ready to move if we’re
going.”

I could feel my eyes burn and the tears welling in my eyes. He grabbed my hand
and squeezed it. “Just get the hell out of here, Declan.”

He released my hand and sighed. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or relieved,
but in either case, I hated that.

We moved through the halls slowly, avoiding eye contact with our fellow
soldiers. Nobody said anything to us, but we knew each other well enough by now
to know they all knew about what was happening.

At the stairwell, we looked around, trying to find other soldiers like us.

“There’s one in the other hallway, but he’s on the right. He isn’t carrying
anything. He’s probably hiding. We have to run that hallway.” Declan pointed
to the hallway in front. “And if there are guys in that hall, we have to be
past them as fast as we can. We’ll wait here, and we’ll see if they’re in the
hall. If they are, we’ll be okay.”

The man was about as tall as Declan, with a heavy jaw, a short ponytail, and
a thick black beard that hid most of his face. The two of us did a quick
run-through, looking for one of the people who were following us, but the only
one we saw was someone who had been staring at us from the other side of the
hall.

I grabbed my gear as Declan ran past him, and as I turned to follow the other
soldier, the man stepped in front of me.

He did not speak. In fact, his lips were pressed tightly together, and his
eyes were narrowed. From the moment I had seen him, I had been afraid that
something was wrong with him. He did not meet my eyes, nor did he say anything,
and so I assumed he was just hiding in the shadows.

“I am not going to hurt you,” he said quietly. “I am sorry, but I have to
protect my brothers.” I opened my mouth to reply, but he held up an arm. I
looked at the arm I could see, and realized that he had a gun.

“No, please. Stop,” I begged, but he moved past me to the stairs and started
walking up in a long, steady stride.

“You shouldn’t go after him, Declan,” I whispered. “If I was with him, I
would not go out in front of that guy like that. He could hurt me.”

“That guy is a killer, Cassie. We’re supposed to be his eyes and ears. He’s
been watching us for a few days, and he is going to know all about what we’re
doing in New York. He’ll have them on our trail, and when they catch up to us,
we’ll be dead. I don’t want to think about what that’s like.”

“You’re not going to leave us, are you?” I didn’t expect him to answer me, and
didn’t, but the relief that came with hearing him say he wouldn’t leave us
was tremendous. If I could have just one more night where I could pretend that
he wasn’t there, I would have grabbed him and pressed him into my bed.

“Not without you.”

It could have been my imagination, but I thought he sounded a little hurt.
“I can’t go back,” I said honestly.

“You have to. I don’t want to be responsible for us going home to dying
in our beds in a week.” I thought for a moment, but there was no way to
explain it without the whole truth. “Besides, we’re going to New York to take
down a terrorist who is killing innocent people.”

“I’m not innocent. I didn’t kill anyone.”

He glanced at me, and his expression softened, but his eyes never quite
froze off mine.

“I didn’t either but I had to kill someone before…” His voice trailed off
for a moment, and I knew he was going to say something, so I waited. When he
finished, he looked down at his hands for a moment, and when he looked back
up, he was looking into my eyes. “I love you, Cassie. I’m always going to love
you. We’re going to go find out who killed her and stop them. We have to.”

I nodded and said nothing, but I couldn’t take any more. I had seen Declan
and the other soldiers before, but I had never gotten the impression that they
were anything but normal. They were always polite when we talked to them on
the street or on the side of the road, and they never bothered me.

“We’ll be okay. I’m going to say good-bye now.” He leaned in close to me,
smoothing his hair, and pressed a quick kiss on my lips. I could see the
blood, and the tears, in his eyes.

“I am not going to let anything happen to you,” he whispered.

The pain at having to say good-bye to my best friend hit me with the force of
a hurricane. I thought I might just lose it right then and there, but my
strength and will to live flooded back in, and I fought through the pain and
stood strong to say good-bye just like I always did. I stepped back, but only
enough to close the gap between us, hoping he could read the pain on my face.

We stepped back, and he didn’t look at me. I closed the gap to allow him to
turn, but he pulled me close to him, his hand pressed softly to my hair. I
took hold of the back of his neck, wanting him to hold me, to kiss me and to
stay with me to the end of our time together. I could feel the moisture in my
eyes from all the crying he had done. I let him put his arms around me and
clasp my waist. I reached up and felt for his face, and I could feel the
bruising still on his cheek, and then he closed his eyes and pulled me against
him.

“Tell me something.” I could barely get the words out when he spoke.

“What?”

“What did I do to you, Cassie?” he asked, but it was a question. I didn’t
know what other question to ask in order to make it more clear. I didn’t even
know if he had any idea what a girl can do to a man or man to a girl.

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