Monday, April 22, 2013

Sneak Peek- From the Ashes

I was overwhelmed with requests for Charlie and magic, I chose to be generous. This is the entire Chapter instead of a scene. (Sorry for the color of the text. Blogger and I are NOT getting along this morning.

Hopeful for the end of the month release on all 827 pages.

Chapter Six
The Younger Generation
Near Hutchinson, Kansas

On duty outside, Marc listened to the muffled grunt with a hardened heart. After two weeks, he was handling Angela's pain better.
But, he still winced at the second low moan she couldn’t smother while she dressed.
John had just checked her wound and headed for the QZ camper, where they now did the things that required access to heat or water. It was a convenient upgrade that made things go much faster when testing the new arrivals.
“Did you take a pill yet?”
Anne's voice sounded strained to Marc as he listened. He was suddenly sure the nurse wanted something.
“I think half of one of these now would be all right, then.”
Marc heard the sound of a bottle rattling.
“If you think it’s okay, that would be nice.”
The edge of submission, of being in agony and knowing relief was finally coming, had Marc knocking back his anger again. He hated it that Angie had been reduced to surrender, that she was hurting and he couldn't help.
“Spit it out,” Angela's voice demanded weakly.
There was a pause, and then a soft snort. “Brady is mine, not John's or Adrian's. He won't carry tales.”
Marc grinned. So much for eavesdropping.
Anne’s answer was so low that Marc had to replay it to understand what she’d said.
“Will you help me become an Eagle?”
“The men won’t like it.”
“It’ll be hard for the camp, too.”
“Do you think I can?”
“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, control it.”
Marc heard Anne sigh.
“I’m not sure about doing this.”
“I know.”
“Then why would you…”
“Because you need to survive. They all do.”
Marc saw John look his way and met the man’s gaze with sympathy. Despite being here all this time, John still didn’t realize how fully Adrian meant the word we. It encompassed every living, breathing member of his herd.
It was a thought Marc hadn’t allowed until now, but it was obvious what would happen. Charlie would be in Adrian’s army, too.
“I already am.”
Charlie came from the shadows, looking much better than he had before they'd defeated the Slavers. Keeping Matt’s betrayals to himself hadn’t been easy.
Marc didn’t scold him for not revealing the duty sooner, only slung an arm around his son's shoulders. “We’ll get through it, boy–together this time.”
Charlie closed his eyes, absorbing his father's light, his comfort. Having a dad meant a lot. Before, when he'd had Kenn, he hadn't cared one way or the other. Now that Brady was back, Charlie understood why his mom had grabbed him and refused to let go even at so young an age. Marc was goodness and light, more so than Adrian, and Charlie already knew the difference in that power. Society might need hard, ruthless men–might follow them willingly during times of crisis–but most humans would give unflinching loyalty to those they could trust during peace. Marc would have been that type of leader.
“How long have you been in Adrian's secret service?” Marc asked casually.
Charlie didn't feel the need to keep hiding it. “Almost since the beginning. He has this way of drawing you in.”
Charlie looked up at his father’s frowning profile, speaking too low to carry. “He wants her–as much as you do.”
Marc winced, arm dropping to his side. Had he really been hoping that only he and Adrian would know? “She’s not interested.”
Charlie wasn't able to get directly into his mom's thoughts–she had them locked against his tinkering and prying–but he'd caught flashes...
“Would you like proof of how I know?” Marc asked, hoping Angela was still too weak to pick up this conversation. Some parts of her injury were convenient.
The teenager nodded, bracing for a memory, but Marc only leaned down and whispered, “She calls for me in her sleep.”
It was simple, but the heat behind it had the boy recoiling. “Yuck!”
Marc smirked, bragging. “That's good information for a man to have about the woman he wants.”
Marc noted a whirl of dust rising near the QZ, and mentally calculated how long before senior Eagles would move closer. That much dust meant more than one or two cars.
Charlie stored the words. “You got anything else like that? Stuff I could use now?”
Marc did not grin, as much as he wanted to. “Sure. Depends on what you’re searching for, though.”
“There’s no one I like that way, just curious about reading them, like you and...”
Charlie’s head suddenly snapped toward the incoming trucks.
Uneasy, Marc adjusted the volume on his radio. Wanting to know how Angela really was, he'd turned it down when he took up a position outside her tent so that he could listen.
Mitch's frantic voice echoed over the radio. "I'm warning you, we will open fire!"
Marc's free hand went to his holster.
Charlie's pupils grew foggy as he stared at the four trucks now speeding recklessly around the west entrance to the QZ. “Uh-uh. Not good.”
Charlie quickly went that way.
"Need you!" Marc called. His worry made the connection easy to find.
Angela came from the tent in concern and nearby camp members surged her way. Aware that she was off duty, they were demanding more of her attention. Marc quickly took her right.
"Stop at the tape!" Mitch ordered, sounding completely sober and scared.
Marc was glad to see Adrian duck out of his tent and head toward the QZ–after a fast glance to verify that Angela was protected. She'd heard him, but it was Adrian that Marc had been calling.
Marc slid a gentle arm around Angela's waist. “Easy, folks. Let her breathe,” he cautioned.
Eager to find out what had pulled their son, the couple deflected the crowd as quickly as they could, both casting anxious glances toward the now over-guarded Zone. The sense of trouble coming was clear.

The QZ was now a permanent fixture in the back corner of the camp–outfitted with a shower and bathrooms, a supply truck, and three extra guards that moved closer as the new people neared. Off-duty Eagles also picked up on the unease, and a full compliment of men waited in that deadly V formation as the trucks finally stopped at the tape in a wide spray of gravel and dust.
Charlie went straight to Adrian’s right, not waiting to be called over. While his mom recovered, this was his job. It hadn't been made official, but the teenager knew where his place was.
The scruffy newcomers got out of the trucks with their hands near weapons and wolfish leers slanted across their sore-riddled mouths.
“Well ain’t this a sight!” the largest among them exclaimed, hands resting on double holsters. "It's gonna be a good day, Badger!"
The men getting out of their dusty trucks around him cackled at the reference to the old world, at his scornful joke.
“Told ya I saw a lot of lights last night,” one of the other six men–Badger–exclaimed eagerly, mouth crawling with scurvy. His hand twitched restlessly as he waited, but his eyes stayed on his boss.
The man in charge broke away from his group, strolling toward Kyle, who was in the front of the V, gun in hand.
“I’m sure glad to find a group this size,” the man leered, sharp glance going over what he could see of the camp. “Thought there wasn't any survivors 'round here that we hadn't supplied yet!”
The traders wore guns that Kyle guessed had seen a fair amount of use from the way they were slung low and ready. These were killers. But you're not trained, he observed, seeing how the men left themselves open as they swaggered closer. Not like me and mine are.
"This is a Military refugee camp. State your business!” Kyle ordered, tone dangerously unfriendly.
"We're merchants," the big man sauntered closer, thick rings flashing in the dim sunlight. “We roam the wastelands and offer things that men need–for the right price, of course.”
“Things like what?” Kyle asked coldly, waiting for the kill-order he felt coming. Adrian hadn't sent Charlie out of the area and that meant the boy was picking something up. Blood was about to spill.
"The future. You guys don't have one without owning at least a few of what we're selling."
Kyle saw Charlie’s lips start moving, telling Adrian what it was that the men were guilty of, and the icy chill of battle came down over the QZ.
Until he knows when to keep the match from the fuse, there won't be any mercy while Charlie's on the watch, Kyle thought, ready to react. These men were dead the instant he felt them.
Kyle helped things along. "What are you selling?"

Adrian studied the traders as Kyle listened to the list of supplies the men said they could lay their hands on. It was all wrong and Adrian hadn't needed the teenager at his side to verify it. He would use the boy, though.
Adrian leaned closer. “They sell people, right?”
Charlie’s words were full of disgust and anger as he searched. “Yes. Didn’t bring them along–don’t always deliver, either.”
"We can get a whole silo of corn or a barn of tobacco, but not both in one visit."
Kyle and the trader continued to barter as Adrian found Angela nearby. When he raised a mental brow, she gave a reluctant agreement, watching from the tape with Brady and Dog. Consent or not, Charlie was already looking through their evil.
Stay close," Angela sent. "This feels hinky.”
Given permission, Adrian entered Charlie's mind. “I need you to figure out where they’re holding the hostages and then the Eagles will kill them.”
Instead of the fear or revulsion he and Angela were both half-expecting, Charlie’s surprised expression changed to eagerness.
“I don't hide it as well as my mom. You'll have to distract them so I can search for the kids.”
Adrian’s hiss of fury was covered by the sound of arrogant footsteps on the gravel as the other traders flanked their leader. They were selling kids!
"Yeah, we have three locations for water towers, but like with the silo stuff, only one big purchase at a time. And you'll have to pay, of course."
Adrian felt the inevitable coming, and didn't fight it. This was his job. He asked the last question that mattered. “Weapons or women? What do they want?”
The teenager's mouth twisted as he began breaking through deeper mental barriers. "Their females are in trouble..."
Charlie shoved harder.
The man he was reading became aware of him, but it was too late to stop. "They came...”
"I'll kill them all, boy. Tell him to give me what I came for!"
Charlie flinched back in stunned panic. That wasn't Adrian thrusting an order into his mind. The trader... he knew! He was... he...
Seeing the panic of youth, Adrian put a hand on Charlie's shoulder. The calming blast of energy allowed him to speak.
"A doctor. They came for our doctor!"
Adrian drew his gun, stepping in front of the un-vested teenager. Around them, the Eagles took up the same stance.
"Damn you!" Exposed, the leader of the traders spun toward Charlie, arm out to grab him.
Adrian shot the man in the head and his Eagles  opened fire. He shoved Charlie down as the man's partners tried to return the favor.
"There's more of them!" Charlie shouted, crawling to where Adrian's kicks to his leg were directing.
A second group of traders emerged from under tarps in the beds of the trucks, shooting and shouting in abandon. This group ran into the QZ like they'd been in it before, firing wildly at the Eagles and camp members in view. They found cover behind a tent, a camper, and the water trucks.
"Intruder alert!" Mitch screamed from the nearby com truck. "All off duty Eagles to the QZ!"
Radios and alarms blared across Safe Haven, interwoven with shouts and gunfire. Under that, was the sound of furiously running feet thudding across the dusty Kansas ground.

Kyle fired in fury, breaking the formation as he advanced into the QZ. There was only one tent there–his–and two of the traders were using it for protection. No longer shooting, they were without their leader and looking for an escape. They hadn't counted on anyone fighting back despite Safe Haven's visible armed security.
Kyle walked straight at the two men, picking out what he needed–a leg exposed, the side of a shoulder he could hit, and those amazing golden eyes lying at the bottom of the flap.
She's clear. Fire!
Two heavy thuds echoed as the men fell and Kyle slung his arm out, taking down the center pole. The canvas collapsed, clearing his line of sight.
Kyle pulled the trigger an instant quicker, slug catching the man by the medical camper in the arm. The trader's bullet slammed through the edge of Kyle's boot and flew out the other side.
Kyle barely noticed the lucky miss, busy putting another round into the man–his chest this time.
The trader dropped to the ground in a bloody sprawl and Kyle fired again, rage demanding it. This shot went deep into his skull.
Around him, Kyle's team was picking off the wounded.
The mobster turned, training in control.
Left? Clear!
Right? Clear!
Adrian and the others? Clear!
Anyone left to kill?
Kyle searched.
The influx of Eagles was more than the traders had been prepared for. Hoping to do a quick shoot and snatch from the QZ that they'd probably studied for the last week, the attackers were now pinned down behind the water truck instead.
John was watching from under the shower camper, along with Anne and Charlie. Adrian stood in front of them, firing quick slugs that kept the remaining  infiltrators pinned down from that side.
The other side of the water truck suddenly exploded with shouts.
"Hands up!"
"Drop 'em!"
"Surrender or die!"
"Open fire!"
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Kyle nodded in satisfaction. Neil and his team would make sure there were no survivors and they would do it in full view of the camp. The time for hiding how lethal we are is over, he thought. If the people living here in safety didn't like the protection that was provided, they were able to leave–mostly because of how lethal Adrian had taught his army to be. Death was always the price required for freedom.
Satisfied that the QZ was clear, Kyle motioned his team forward to take care of the cleanup.
"Wear the gloves," he instructed.
Before he joined them in the nasty chore, Kyle found Jennifer's wide gaze. She was still on the ground, waiting.
Kyle turned to his duty instead of responding to her silent call. She'll be fine without me. She'll be fine without me.
Jennifer watched him walk away with wide eyes and stomach cramps. She wasn't in labor–just dropped to her knees too fast and pinched something–but her mind was in chaos. She'd come to depend on him so much in just two weeks... and he was every bit the killer that Cesar had been.
Kyle didn't look back like she was willing him to, and Jennifer didn't send out a second wave of need, but it was a struggle. What if he woke up during the time they were apart? What if he realized what a burden she would be?
Jennifer dropped her head. I'll be fine without him. I'll be fine without him.

Adrian jerked a hand toward the panicking camp. “Shut off the alarms and sing to the herd!”
Neil came from the second battlefield behind the heavily pouring water truck, soaked and splattered in hard dirt chips that were melting into muddy furrows. "Double the watch and do a full perimeter check–inside and out! On the way, organize a catch-and-carry for whatever water's left here."
"Why did you do that?" Charlie asked from Adrian's feet.
Adrian ignored the worried parents, answering their child instead. “Because of Rick, I can't take the chance.”
Charlie didn’t open his eyes yet, even though John and Anne were being helped out from under the camper. Still frozen, the teenager was trying to handle the newest emotion to grace his hormones–bloodlust. He wanted to be shooting, drawing it himself. “What about the kids they're holding? I didn't have enough time to get a location.”
Adrian’s heart squeezed into a hard knot, but he forced his mouth to provide the answer that was expected. “Your mom will help me find them when she’s stronger.”
“And if she can’t?”
“Then I carry that guilt, not you.”
It was enough now, while youth and shock had him distracted, but Adrian knew a more detailed answer had to be in place for next time.
Charlie’s young gaze opened, flicked over the bloody bodies. He slowly crawled out and stood up. “They’re not all dead. I might still be able...”
Not asking Angela this time, Adrian moved aside. “You follow orders, or go no further in my army–ever.”
Adrian stayed close, gun in hand, as Charlie walked onto the battlefield without responding.
One of the traders–Badger–was lying on his side near the supply truck, blood puddling under him from wounds in his stomach. He'd clearly been hoping to play dead and crawl away.
The heavily bearded slaver flinched at the crunch of boot steps, hand coming up. “Please don’t.”
“Tell us where they are!” Charlie demanded, hoping the location was the first thing the trader would think of. His death was close.
The man’s face was ugly with sores and fear, but there was no remorse. “Fuck off, freak!”
Adrian started to use his gun.
Charlie knelt down in his line of fire. “I can heal you.”
Adrian put a hand out to jerk Charlie back, but Angela stopped him with two words. “He’s lying.”
Impressed and absolutely horrified, Adrian dropped his hand and made sure only the closest Eagles would witness whatever happened.
Frustrated by the man's panicked, painful thoughts, Charlie let his inner demon bleed through for the first time, blue eyes turning deep crimson. “Your life for theirs. Where?”
The man sucked in a lungful of air through the terror and the agony. “Outside Wichita. Kids like... you, locked in a boarding school.”
Charlie didn’t pull the heat back. This man was bad, and the hunger of the demon he’d let come forward was incredible. It rode him in heavy, gut-twisting seduction…
Angela’s voice in his mind was careful, cautious. “Must you become a killer already?”
The boy groaned. “I can just take…”
“But should you?”
It was a hard battle.
Adrian waited, wondering if he’d made a mistake by bringing the teenager in so soon.
Charlie slowly pushed the hunger away, barely aware of the trader now trying to cover his tracks as he sensed what was coming.
“It’s guarded. You won’t get in without me!”
Charlie turned around with a faint tinge of red still lingering around his pupils, set to ask Adrian for what everyone else wanted.
“Not yet.”
Charlie’s gaze swung to his father’s. "When?"
Marc shrugged, voice set. “A year at least, maybe two, before you make a team.”
“And until then?”
None of the rebellion they’d all, except Marc, been expecting.
“A few of us will donate time each day, give you layers of training above what your mom received. That fire has to come under your control.”
As he stepped back, Charlie didn’t flinch at the single shot from Adrian’s gun. Knowing he would be an Eagle and fight alongside his parents was all he cared about right now.
Marc trailed the teenager after exchanging a quick look with Angela. The intense dismay in it said he didn’t want Charlie fighting–to find a way to slow him down.
Angela agreed, but didn't start searching for another path. Charlie had made his choice and like her, he had the right to it.
Angela realized she was going to get what Marc had gone through while watching her make a team, and grimaced. She had a feeling she would have more sympathy for her Wolfman afterwards. Charlie was just as determined as she was.

“What would Adrian have done, if I'd killed the trader?” Charlie asked as they left the area.
“You’d probably be considered a threat and put under guard, like Matt," Marc said.
Charlie's voice rose. “But the man was bad!”
“Two wrongs. That phrase makes sense," Marc answered, steering them toward the empty training tent so that Charlie could work off some heat. They would start doing this regularly.
“Not usually to Adrian. He makes his own choices without worrying over the consequences.”
It was clear by Marc’s silence that he didn’t want to defend Adrian to his son and the Eagles close enough to hear respected him for doing it anyway.
“Not true, boy. Adrian doesn’t order a single damn thing without planning it out five levels beyond."
Marc grunted, loading weights onto the smaller bench. "He accounts for everything that can go wrong and makes his choice after he has it all covered.”
“But he hasn’t had it all covered. Look at what's happened.”
Marc grunted again, bitterly this time. “Believe me, I did, and I was wrong. I hate his methods, but he is one of the good guys. Sometimes things happen that no one can account for.”
“Adrian calls them fate’s wild cards–Kenn and my mom.”
“I’ve heard that. Wonder what he calls himself," Marc mused, flipping on power to the entire tent.
Charlie’s tenor lowered into adult concern. “Damned.”
Marc didn't know what to say to that. The truth–"He is, boy. More than anyone I've ever known."–seemed out of place.
They fell into the workout after that, listening to the sounds of the camp being put back to normal and worrying over what could have been. Marc was concerned about his son getting hurt. His son was afraid he might like hurting other people.

Left out because of her injury, Angela had time to study the people as her heart tried to regain a normal rhythm. She watched as Billy and Kyle dragged the lead attacker's body to his own truck and hefted him into the back of it. Kyle didn't speak to his men and they weren't including him in their looks of victory.
Kyle slid into the truck and followed the others out of camp for the dump and burn. As he drove by, he swept that single knocked down tent with enough personal torment showing to make Eagles frown at Jennifer.
"They won't accept her until they have their team leader back. I hope he knows that," Angela stated, frowning slightly.
Adrian shook his head. "He knows. It just doesn't matter to him right now."
Angela wasn't okay with the situation, but Adrian seemed to be, so that must mean it was for the good of the camp. Angela planned to watch and see how this newest mystery fit into Adrian's intricate puzzle. She had no doubt that the illegal couple were about to be at the head of a sharp change for Safe Haven.
Hope I get to help, she thought, stretching her sore shoulder carefully. Can't take much more of staring at my damn tent.
Adrian looked at Angela, at her ugly but healing stitch-line, and gave reluctant nod. "Light duty–in here only."
Angela smiled eagerly. "Finally!"
The recovering doctor immediately moved into the Qz, and Adrian chuckled. He didn't bother to assign her a guard. This was the safest area in Safe Haven right now.

John and Anne were busy tending a camp member, and Angela moved toward Jennifer, mind still half-clenched in a ball of terror. Charlie being in the battle-zone had rattled her so badly that all she could do was smother him in protection. It was what she should have tried to do for herself at the rest stop and then she probably wouldn't have been shot. But I'm a rookie in ways, she thought. It's a mistake well-learned.
"What should we do?"
Angela's gun was out before she had a chance to think. She hadn't realized Sam and Cynthia were on her flank.
Angela pulled the fire in and re-holstered as the two women moved hastily back. My Eagles... my first orders.
Sam and Cynthia had reached the QZ at nearly the same time, and hung back until needed. When Angela headed in, they'd shared a stiff look and followed.
Worried heart easing a bit more, Angela began looking around. "Um... John will need his bag... Have a new water truck brought into the QZ shower so that Kyle's team can get cleaned after they burn the bodies... Send someone else to deliver trays for Charlie at lunch Mess..."
Angela pulled a few more small things and the two females awkwardly divided up the list as she went to make sure Jennifer was okay.
It had openly begun now, her change in status here, but Angela doubted few would recognize it yet. There were too many other things to distract the camp–like Kyle and Jennifer, and even Seth and Becky, who were finally beginning to draw notice by how often they were seen together. Everyone was still adjusting to surviving the Slavers.

Pleased with Sam and Cynthia, Adrian turned toward the camp, sure his calming words were needed there. He wasn't upset over the attack, though, not like he would have been a month ago. Their progress was obvious, but since eliminating the Slavers, more and more of the future was becoming clear. The offspring of his army would be incredibly strong–even more so than their sires–and he had the honor of training them. Fate might be a fickle bitch, but when she was pleased, her generosity was staggering.
"Permission to go to Wichita?"
Adrian shook his head, thinking if they didn't find water there, it could mean trouble. Water was precious and that QZ tanker had been full this morning. "I need you here."
Neil opened his mouth, closed it without saying anything. The trooper left with slumped shoulders. Unlike the rest of the teams, who were excited about the coming Level tests, Neil and his weren't taking them and had little to look forward to.
Adrian understood the need to go, but they were only 50 miles from Wichita and already gearing up for a trip into that city. The camp was hoping for a new load of convenience supplies, like batteries and music, but Adrian was hoping to find fuel and water. They would add a search-n-rescue, but Adrian wasn't sending a team out yet.
Neil couldn't seem to settle down now that it was all over. Finding out about Becky's rape had really screwed with Neil's sense of worth and he'd been leaving camp every chance he got. Those opportunities were frequent, calls from survivors needing escorts were coming in almost daily. Many of these were minorities–something his herd was lacking.
Now that they’d beaten the Slavers and proved they were capable of defending their members, other races were finally starting to join. It was helpful that anyone considering asking for shelter could see other dark-skinned refugees in camp. It went a long way in calming old fears.
It was also helping Joseph, one of the few black men in Safe Haven, to understand Adrian’s words to him back in Wyoming. Guilty of expecting their leader to fix it all quickly, the professor had also become a convert. He was now regularly seen escorting the nuns as they rotated from area to area. Camp rumor said he had a thing for Missa, who had recovered enough to occasionally join the group on their morning activities. Scuttlebutt also said she wanted nothing to do with Joseph, or any other man. Only time would tell if she might recover in that way.
The kids from the airfield were a mix of races, as well, and fitting in well with the camp’s younger crowd. These college kids liked to have fun, but they were also old enough to want to help with the dream. It wasn’t uncommon for them to show up at the workouts and meetings–hopeful shadows in the background that Adrian would bring into the fold. Mixing multiple races together before the War had been a trial-n-error process that had to accommodate the chains of the past. To fix centuries of such negligence and abuse wasn’t something Adrian expected to achieve in six months or even years, but he was incredibly proud of the progress he’d made so far.
As the women and children from Cesar’s camp were cleared, they'd been put with a small group of females for their day-to-day lives, to help them settle in. That was the way Safe Haven had always handled new arrivals that were abused. The few exceptions to this were either Eagles or Leadership, and it wasn’t missed that Kyle’s camper and tent hadn’t left the QZ, even though he and Jennifer were clear.
The camp members had found out that Jennifer was carrying Cesar’s children, but it was quickly pointed out that several of the new kids were offspring of the enemy. It hadn’t taken long for the majority to accept them for what they were–victims. In eight weeks, Jennifer would give birth. If it came sooner, and the babies didn’t make it, that was fate. New life was always welcome in Safe Haven.
Adrian realized he'd misjudged a bit, though, thinking the herd wouldn't be able to handle it, or all the awful things the Eagles did on his command. Part of their acceptance was camp pride–Safe Haven had come out on top–but the rest was from the effects of the former slaves telling stories and convincing people without meaning to. There hadn't been another choice and that let his Eagles off the hook.
The rest stop had been looted when he'd taken the camp by it, but the carnage was clear. For Safe Haven, it was the sight of the sombreros and the bullet-ridden building that finally made the end real. For the Eagles, it was the stains from Angela’s blood near the door. For the former slaves, it was that once golden corvette, now charred and crushed under Adrian’s old semi. These things sank into people’s hearts and opened doors to terror that they were finally able to let go of. It was over. Thanks to Adrian.
A few people viewed him with resentment–Tonya, Mitch, Peggy–but the Eagles and the camp were firmly behind Safe Haven’s line-walking leader. He’d brought them through the fire with only a slight burn. If Angela hadn’t lived, things might have gone differently, but fate had saved them all.

"We're not taking the Level tests this time around."
It wasn't a surprise, but hearing it from their team leader sent fresh tension through the burning party. Other than curt answers, none of Kyle's team had spoken to him in a week. He hadn't expected their support, but the isolation was nearly intolerable.
"Let Daryl know what event you want to oversee."
Daryl, who was smothered in guilt over the way he'd graduate to second in command, said nothing. He thought their team was being unfair to Kyle, but if he spoke out, it would be viewed as sucking up. Right now, they were reluctantly accepting Kyle's decision to have Daryl replace their fallen XO.
"What event are you covering?" Shawn sneered, implying Kyle wouldn't be there.
Behind them, bodies burned hotly.
"I'm not."
Shawn glared. "Got better things to do now, I guess."
"I have duty over Angela." Kyle moved toward the trader's neat truck. "Brady is testing this time around, and doesn't trust anyone else."
Unaffected, Kyle climbed into the driver's seat and got set to roll back to where his heart now waited.
His men exchanged worried glances. The team leader they knew would have struck back at the open challenge.
"What the hell's wrong with him?"
"We need to talk to Adrian."
"Maybe call a vote?"
"I'll handle it." Daryl stated, choosing to do what he thought was right. Seen as sucking up or not, it was part of his new duties to support their team leader.
"How?" Shawn demanded.
"I'll start with talking to him instead of throwing challenges," Daryl responded pointedly. "We've looked up to him the entire time we've been Eagles. Why does that disappear without him even getting the chance to explain?"
"You think it's all innocent?" Billy asked snottily.
Daryl didn't lie–he was sure it wasn't. "No, but I do think there's a reason to his madness."
Daryl slung the bag of tinder over his shoulder, glad it didn't smell like the small pellets of shit that it was full of. "He isn't breaking any rules, you know. We've watched the shadows on that tent more closely than we ever did Rick's. We'd know."
Daryl's tone was grew hard as the others absorbed that light blow. "Kyle may want her, but he won't cross that line until it's legal. And yes, I'll bet my new place on it–for those of you taking notes and wanting my spot."
The six men shared leery glances. They were relieved not to have to talk to Adrian, but it was obvious that they didn't trust Daryl as their new XO. They wanted their team back the way it was.

“Judging by the lack of marks, I’d guess that it was Eagles this time, instead of camp members,” John observed, not reacting to the sudden nausea that sank into his stomach. He gathered a tray of supplies as quickly as he could. It had been a busy day for medical care.
“They don’t leave me as much evidence.”
“Eagles did this?” Ray asked angrily. As Kevin’s XO, he had a lot of interactions with the other Eagles and Adrian, and no longer had problems with the senior members. It was the incoming rookies that Ray usually had to set straight.
“No, not since you got hurt...”
“Saving Adrian,” John finished.
“Explain ‘this time’,” Ray demanded.
Dale and John both shut their mouths.
Ray scowled angrily. “Don’t worry over it. I’ll know before I hit the rack tonight!”
Dale groaned. “Don’t do that, okay?”
Ray tried not to relent. “Then tell me.”
Dale grunted. “Sometimes the rookies say shit to me.” The failed Eagle couldn’t hide his hurt. “And sometimes they want to see a little queer blood.”
“I won’t tell you that.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s like you said the other night while we were at the movie. I don’t have a real place here yet. When I do, they’ll leave me alone.”
“They should anyway!” Ray growled.
"Yeah." Dale dropped his head, chest heavy. Wasn't there ever going to be even a little peace and happiness for him?
Ray felt Dale's misery peak and moved closer. "Hey. Damn. Are you okay?"
John left the tent to give the couple a moment of privacy–one Ray would take advantage of to offer comfort. John personally believed the males had the right to love whomever they chose, but the idiots getting a free ride in Safe Haven weren’t about to accept that view. The three men who’d beaten Dale in the shower didn’t have a set place  here either.
John was angry, stomach aching loudly, and his feet took him straight to Adrian’s tent.

“Is it a variation of Stockholm Syndrome, in either case?” Adrian asked. In the hour John had been here, smoking and relaxing, they'd moved onto other topics.
“Unlikely,” John stated sourly. “Bonding after a crisis takes strange forms. In time, they’ll both recover and chose what suits them. I expect they’ll stand by their men, as well. From what I’ve heard from the other freed females, Jennifer is much harder than any of the men are giving her credit for. We already know how determined Rebecca is."
“And my camp?”
John blew out a tired grunt with the lungful of smoke. “Will fall in line, so long as you approve.”
Adrian didn’t respond to that. Yes, they would, but not without causing problems first, testing the strength of underage bonds.
“How about you?”
John stubbed the roach out. “I’m surviving.”
“Angela wants to try.”
“She’s not strong enough yet.”
“That’s what Marc said, but she makes those calls.”
John didn’t argue. The pain was becoming intolerable without the pills. He was spending too much time stoned on them.
“She’s healing well.” John wanted to ask Adrian how she was recovering so quickly and stopped himself. That would reveal a faint edge of envy that the doctor didn’t want known.
“In the next week or so. She’ll tell me.”
As they stood up, Adrian clamped John gently on the shoulder. “How about cutting off early and getting some rest? Bags that dark are not a good advertisement for a doctor.”
John looked at him without amusement. "When will we head for Arkansas?"
Adrian stared back steadily. "We have been all along."
John knew that. "I mean openly. When will the Eagles start gearing up for the fight waiting there?"
"Sometime after Wichita," Adrian answered lightly, pushing back the heavy worry. "Right now, they still need a break, too."
Adrian left to do his rounds, and John returned to the medical tent. Ray and Dale were gone and the doctor headed straight for the medicine cabinet. When the flap rustled a bit later, the doctor was in his chair, waiting for the pills to work.
Anne didn’t say anything as his angry gaze went over her muddy clothes and new bruises. She sat her broken glasses on the table and grabbed a bottle from the medicine cabinet. He had his demons to fight, and she had hers.

Marc found Angela in the usual place as full dark settled over dystopian Kansas views–perched on the top of the highest, sturdiest structure inside the perimeter. This time, it was Adrian’s semi.
It’s like she can’t get close enough to the sky, Marc thought.
He noted her shadows, and the newest layer of awning on the outer edges of the perimeter. It was a deflecting glint that would interfere with the sights on a scope and make it rough to pick out a single target. They only had one side of the camp covered right now, but it was something they added to every day that Safe Haven wasn't on the road.
Marc nodded to Kyle, Angela's senior shadow and the mobster quickly vanished toward the QZ. No doubt to check on Jennifer, who he hadn't been able to get near since returning from the dump and burn.
It would be a short moment, though, because Kyle had duty over the farthest perimeter from the girl for the next five hours. Now doing schedules together, Marc and Kenn had agreed that a separation was needed, and this first day of it had to feel like it wasn't ever going to end. Tomorrow wouldn't be any better.
Marc held only a bit of sympathy. He'd always been a little leery of the mobster, but he had honestly thought Kyle was one of the good guys. It's like he and Adrian switched places on me, Marc thought with a slightly resentful frown.
Reaching the semi, Marc called out first. “Permission to come up?”
Angela sounded relaxed. “As you would, Grunt.”
He cleared the top and stopped, stunned at the sight of the shield above the camp. Right over them, it was pure purple. Marc was glad the sheep weren't paying much attention yet. For now, only Adrian and a few of his Eagles knew of the magic building itself around Safe Haven.
“Now watch this…”
The colors above them faded, and then began to changed like a rainbow.
“It feeds off of emotions–reacts to them.”
Marc sat down next to her, mind racing for a response. “What is it?”
“Can’t you guess, Brady?”
His mind flashed to their clubhouse in the snow. “Protection.”
Angela flushed at the thoughts rolling through his mind. They’d experienced something like this once before. The shield had been a lot closer then, almost hot to the touch, but so strong that nothing could have gotten through. It was right after Brady had said I love you for the first time.
“It’s so nice to be able to remember those moments.” Angela slowly leaned against his arm,.
Happiness settled into Marc’s heart. He had Angie and Charlie. There was little else he wanted.
Angela didn’t bat a lash when his arm slid around her, still concentrating. She was making the shield fluctuate in small ripples now. Sort of like a pond, she thought.
"Brace." Angela inhaled deeply, pulling energy from the bubble.
“Noise coming.” Marc let off of the button an instant before a crackle of harsh static went through. It was loud enough to make the dogs start yapping and the wolf come from under the truck.
Curious, Marc waited.
Radios lit up again. “Just a pulse. At ease.”
Marc’s mouth dropped open as Angela let go of the mental link. “There’s something new for ya!”
Marc didn’t say anything, working on accepting it. She was able to send thoughts over the radio. What would she be capable of in a year? Or ten?
Angela had been lying low about her gifts over the last two weeks. She wasn't too weak to use them anymore. She wasn't sure she was strong enough to control them. Seeing Charlie in the line of fire today had reminded her how serious the challenge ahead of them was, however. Complete control or not, she wouldn't be sitting back anymore.
"Is that frightening to the big, bad Marine?” Angela joked awkwardly in the silence.
“A little.” Marc's expression darkened. “For you.”
“Me too, Brady, but for our son. He'll always be a target. First, to control me, then, to use him.”
Not sure how to change that, they sat in silence as the camp slowly settled back down from the pulse of energy she'd sent.
Neither of them were surprised when Adrian came through the shadows a minute later. His expression said he wasn’t happy about what she’d done, and a sharp glance passed between them.
The blond leader left soon after, delivering a hard, warning sweep of the guards as he vanished.
“What was that about?”
Angela leaned closer to Marc’s heat. “He wants to be sure I’m not preparing for a suicide run that I haven't told him about.”
Those words sent Marc’s profile into an instant scowl. “Are you?”
“No. One gunshot wound at a time, please.”
Marc wasn’t amused by the joke, still too hurt from the near loss.
Angela didn’t offer ear candy. He had to deal with it–like she did when the nightmares woke her up gasping for air.
“Are you sleeping through yet?”
Angela winced at his accuracy. “Some nights.”
“You can wake me. I’ll stay up with you.”
“And still work your shifts as alertly?”
That’s the line, he realized. If it would hurt the camp, or even affect them badly, it was too far. That was her limit now.
“Yes, it is.”
Marc's mind kicked into high gear, picking out the mind-reading and the things she knew, but shouldn't if she were too weak. Not only had she caught his conversation with Charlie, she knew he more than approved of the down time she was being forced to take.
Angela viewed him with shuttered eyes. “You know that I can block them, right? Your thoughts.”
Marc wasn’t sure where she was going. “...yes.”
“I'll can stay out of your mind.”
“No, please, don’t.”
His fast response had her raising a brow. “Why not? Most people find it to be…”
“I’m not most people!” Marc interrupted sharply.
His voice dropped into flames. “And I can love you there, baby cakes.”
Angela giggled, and the bubble above them flashed into a deeper purple. It drew their attention back to the shield.
“Why can’t the camp see it, but some of the Eagles can?” Marc asked.
“Belief, mostly.”
“But it’s always there, even if they don’t believe in… magic?”
Despite talking to Adrian, Marc had to ask. “What happens when they find out?”
Her answer was full of tremors. “Then I will have run out of time.”
“And you’ve considered…”
“Not letting them know? Of course, but it's unlikely this would remain a secret, Marc. It’s growing too fast, and I have to put it somewhere.”
He could find things.”
“He will now that he knows what you do–that I've been staying low–but it won't be enough. I'm still evolving. So are my gifts.”
Still evolving... like something else was... Marc met her gaze. “What’s coming for us?”
The Witch’s red eyes blended with roiling blue, matching the color of the bubble above them. “Everything you fear and more," the Witch answered sleepily. She'd been dozing contentedly while Angela played.
“Not long," Angela stated, refusing to let the Witch start revealing painful truths. She planned to fight that fate.
“What can I do?”
“Help me with my plans?”
Marc tugged her closer. “You know it, honey. We’ll start in the next week.”
“Tonight would be better.”
“Sure. At the Mess?”
Angela drew in a breath. She’d missed his heat last night while he stood duty. “My tent, in an hour.”
Marc’s body flared to life and he gave a jerky nod. “Okay.”
Catching his sudden nervousness, Angela snickered. “To make plans, Brady.”
Marc tried to snap out of it. “Yeah, plans.”
Angela laughed.
The shield responded with a wave of deep violet.
When they were happy, they were stronger… protected, Angela amended. She’d run a few simple tests on the shield, and suspected Adrian had, too. It didn’t let the bugs in or the smaller flying debris when the wind gusted. The bags and trash were caught on an updraft and disappeared into the clouds. That was something even the Eagles hadn’t noticed yet. Fascinating, it had caused Angela's nightly routine to end in a high place, studying it. She had the sense that the shield was important for more than just protection, and she was determined to figure what it was in time to use it. That Safe Haven was being gifted with it as a defense, she had little doubt.

“I’m Leslie.”
She’d come from the shadows in silence, but what she wanted shouted from her arched back and painted face.
“Nice night.”
Kyle grunted. She sounded nervous. And she should be. Need to accept one or not, he was in no mood to turn down yet another offer to replace the sleeping girl in his tent. None of them stirred anything in him, not even lust now.
"Do you... Can you talk right now?"
Kyle stared pointedly. "What do you want?"
Leslie stepped a little closer, top artfully sliding off one shoulder. “I'd like to help.”
There was no response from his body, but the mobster forced himself to try. “Why?”
It was more of a conversation than he’d given any of the other women who'd tried, and Leslie grinned, encouraged. “You’re high up here is why most of them chase you, I guess. I like it that you look after the pregnant girl. It shows you’re a gentleman.”
Kyle heard the lies as much as sensed them. She was off the list from that moment.
“I’m busy. Get back to camp.”
Leslie gaped... and then her true opinion emerged. “You’re making a fool of yourself. I hope you know that,” she sneered, painted face now twisting into ugliness. “Be careful.”
“What are you referring to?” Kyle led, eager to hit back with one of his glancing blows. He’d become as good as Kenn at delivering an insult.
Leslie didn’t back down, though she did back up. “I’m talking about you chasing Jennifer like a dog who’s found a bitch in heat. I’m talking about the way you’re not helping Adrian take care of this camp with all that attention on her. I’m talking about your hypocrisy–doing what others can’t, being alone with her all the time. People see the double standard. How long do you think they’ll put up with it? Everyone else has to follow the rules. Why not you?”
Kyle opened his mouth to fire back, but Leslie vanished into the shadows and he snapped it shut.  He’d expected the jealous tirade that some of the others had delivered, not the truth. And if one of the camp cliques had the sand to say it to his face, then everyone was thinking it. The line he was walking had just narrowed. The camp's women would interfere next. Was there anything he could do to ease their tension and buy a little more time?
“I’m pretty sure you stung her pride. She's not sure what turned you off.”
Kyle turned to see Tracy standing behind him, long, black hair flowing on the dry wind. It was the first time that she'd ever spoken to him that he could recall.
“She'll figure out lying was a bad idea and get over it. She just didn’t expect you to respond. It rattled her, I think.”
Tracy, normally an extremely quiet woman, took a step closer. Her generous curves pulled Kyle's eye. With those hips, in that short dress, from the front or back she was shaped like…
Tracy gave him a slow smile, the kind that had Kyle’s mind screaming for him to duck, that this one knew what she was doing.
“If you need a friend, I’m usually out on third shift. Catch my eye before Mess and I'll find you.”
Kyle stared at Tracy, running through what he needed, how long it would take, and, if he would ever use her that way. Could he?
Tracy knew he was evaluating, but didn’t say anything to convince. Instead, the high school teacher trailed her wrist near his nose as she stepped by.
Jennifer’s sweet scent slammed into Kyle's gut and he grabbed the camp whore's arm. “Wait.”
Tracy delivered a sultry look over her shoulder, aware of his eyes on her lips. "Maybe a taste? To be sure?"
Kyle let go as if burned. Yes, he could pretend with Tracy, if the need got bad enough.
“I won’t claim you.” Kyle’s tone lowered into misery. “I may never touch you.”
Tracy shrugged. “You need a friend, one the camp thinks you’re using even if you aren’t. You know that. It’s why you gave us both a chance tonight.”
Tracy moved away slowly, loving the heat in Kyle's gaze as he stared at her. He would think about it for a while, but in the end, he would come to her. They all did, because she gave them what they needed. With Kyle, it was wide hips and a maternity-like scent. For others, it might be a piece of clothing or a certain makeup style. It was the small things that a man appreciated, remembered, and rewarded.
The same was true of females, usually, but in this case, Tracy had big plans for herself. She'd been studying the leadership since she joined Safe Haven and if there was one thing she understood, it was the needs of men. It was something she'd gotten so good at while moonlighting as a stripper that continuing the tradition after the War had felt normal. Apocalypse or not, everyone needed physical contact. It was what kept the human spirit fighting.

"He will be ripped from your arms like grass from the earth. Do not cross that line!"
Angela gasped in terror, jerking awake.
“Are you okay?”
Angela was trying to remember how to breathe at the crushing desolation that wanted to overwhelm her. The dream had been so vivid!
Marc assumed it was one of her old nightmares and shifted closer, wrapping his arms around her. “I’ve got ya.”
The long day and pain pills had caught up with her and she'd fallen asleep while they were working on plans. Watching her in the flickering light had been so perfect that Marc hadn't been able to make himself leave.
Angela let him rock her, the feel of his warmth easing some of the panic inside. They needed to get Safe Haven ready to leave. Not this area or even this state, but this country. It was a lot to take in, even for the Witch, and they both huddled in the protection of Brady’s thick arms.
Marc tried not to notice how good she felt against him or how sweet she smelled. Even after twenty hours, he could still catch a whiff of her vanilla soap. That scent and Angie went together like butter and toast.
Already covered up, Angela shivered at the draft coming in through the flap, and Marc gently dislodged himself to go zip it. He clamped his lips shut to keep from asking if he should leave. All he wanted was a couple more quiet hours alone with her–nothing more.
Angela watched him come toward the bed, very glad she’d chosen to keep the inflatable mattress John had insisted on once she’d abandoned the warehouse for her tent. That had been a week ago, their first moving day since the final battle.
“Will you hold me?”
“Anytime you want," Marc sent immediately.
Angela folded the blanket back. “Now, Brady.”
Marc eased onto the mattress with a body that made it difficult to get comfortable until he reached down and made an adjustment.
Angela looked away with red cheeks, but sank into his warm embrace as soon as he motioned, eager to be close. All the thoughts in her mind were pushing and shoving, trying to get to the front to be solved, and all she wanted was…
Angela sucked in a breath as Marc settled her against his chest, letting their bodies press close. The hardness in the center of him sent fear into her mind, but his musky scent was also filling her nose with ghosts.
“Angie?” Marc waited for her to speak, worried she’d frozen.
“Workin’ through it, Marine. At ease.”
He grinned in the dim light. She was still growing, changing, and much of it was attractive. Especially with her hair wrapped around his fingers and her body pressed snugly against his hip. Was she ready for the next step? They'd been spending so much time alone together that the camp thought they already had an arrangement. Marc knew that wasn't the same to Angela. If he wanted her against his back at night, he had to ask–make a commitment. That wasn't an issue on his part.
"Will you move in with me?"
"Because the camp already thinks we're living together."
"I said yes."
"And Charlie won't mind, so we're all good there."
"Yes, Marc."
"And I don't expect sex or..."
"Damn it, Brady!"
Marc chuckled. "Just needed to be sure."
Realizing he'd been teasing her, Angela shoved him off the mattress. "Damn man."
He landed on his side with a loud thump. Rising to his knees, Marc's laughter mixed with hers. Heat sparked as their eyes locked. "You sure? No rush."
Angela held the blanket back again, grinning widely. "Yes. Now get under here–my toes are cold."
Marc wrapped her up as closely as she would allow, thinking this would be perfect but for her injury and him wanting to...
“Would you like to kiss me goodnight, Brady?”
Marc groaned. “Oh yeah, baby.”
Angela flushed in the darkness. “I could stand a little of that, maybe, if you go slow.”
Marc’s body woke, insisting that she knew what she was ready for. He denied them both. “You still have two more weeks before you’re allowed any physical…”
Angela tilted her chin up, lashes fluttering closed, and Marc surrendered. He pressed his mouth to hers, trying not to groan again.
My Angie!

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