Home > The Thief (Black Dagger Brotherhood #16)(17)

The Thief (Black Dagger Brotherhood #16)(17)
Author: J.R. Ward

Sola cranked around, and the guy took it as having an audience, flexing his biceps and singing to her, every word perfect and on pitch as if he had done this a million times before. “…It’s nice to see that humans never change…”

They began to bounce up and down over divots and dips, the music swelling as big-and-blond sang his heart out. “…What can I say except yooou’re WELLLCCCOMMMMMME!”

Sola blinked and looked at Ehric—who was bobbing his head to the beat like a dad riding tight in an Odyssey at carpool. As her brain tried to assimilate the Deadpool-meets-Disney extremes, it was impossible not to wonder why she kept falling down rabbit holes—although at least this one had a soundtrack she could stand. If it were Frozen? She would have killed herself.

Rhage tapped her shoulder like he wanted the attention back. “My kid loves Moana. We watch it all the t— What has two thumbs and pulled up the sky?”

When he got to the “this guy,” his leather jacket opened and she checked out a matched pair of daggers that were strapped, handles down, to his enormous chest. He had disappeared all their weapons into somewhere, and God only knew what else he was packing under his—

As Ehric slowed to a stop, she glanced out the front windshield and frowned at a decrepit old farm gate that was wing-and-a-prayer’ing it at the job of keeping anyone from heading farther on the lane. Clearly, they were just going to plow through the thing—

The old gate broke apart and moved in two halves out of the way, its structural failings clearly an illusion. And as they continued on, there was soon another…and another…and still others. With each succeeding barrier, the fortifications became newer and stronger, the ruse of no-security, this-is-nothing-special fading away.

Wonder how many hidden cameras are in those trees? she thought, as they slowed again for a twenty-foot barrier that looked capable of keeping a velociraptor in place.

“Are you guys with the government or something?” she asked.

The guy in the back seat was now busy singing “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” so he didn’t answer, but he probably wouldn’t have even if there had been low-level elevator Muzak going on—

Wait…something was wrong with the landscape, everything blurry, with the pine trees indistinct vertical blurs and the ground smudged to the point she couldn’t pick out the bald bushes or boulders or fallen trunks anymore. Was it fog? Except how was that happening in the dead of winter?

Pulling the sleeve of her heavy fleece over her hand, she rubbed her window, but there was no condensation on the glass. And leaning in closer did not help, either. God, the stuff was so thick, the headlights were illuminating a distance of no more than ten feet ahead. Past that, it was impossible to find any kind of focal point—

Holy Moses.

The last gate was a massive, military-worthy installation of concrete slabs, iron pinnings, and barbed wire. And as soon as they went through it, everything around the SUV became crystal clear again, the descent into an underground tunnel smooth over an asphalt road that had been professionally laid and maintained. Down at the bottom, a multi-level parking area appeared, and Ehric took them over to a reinforced steel door.

Yes, she thought. This was where Assail had taken her after the abduction. This was where she had been treated.

“We are here,” Ehric said as he hit the brakes.

Before Sola could unscramble herself from events a year old, the entrance to the facility swung wide, a blond woman in a white doctor’s coat bracing the weight open.

Sola recognized the doctor instantly, and that was when the trembling started. What was her name…Jo? Jules?

With a shaking hand, Sola opened her door. “Hey, Doc.”

The woman smiled. “Hey there, yourself. You’re looking well.”

Jane, she thought. They called her Doc Jane.

“Thanks.” Sola went over and felt an absurd impulse to hug the female as if they were friends. Which they were not. “I feel good.”

Liar. As the time she had spent in the clinic came back, she felt her inner Fiona Apple come on, all sorts of deep emotion warping her consciousness in ways she did not appreciate: She remembered arriving here, bloodied, bruised, and with a gunshot wound, Assail by her side. She had been seen by this doctor, assessed medically, and patched up. How long had she stayed? She couldn’t recall.

Everyone had been perfectly nice and professional, and all she’d wanted to do was see the last of them.

Doc Jane nodded a greeting at the men and then addressed Sola. “So Ehric’s told me you’d like to see Assail?”

“Yes.” She cleared her throat. “I don’t know how I can help, but…that’s why I’m here. Yes.”

Stammer much?

The doctor put her hand on Sola’s arm. “I’m glad you came. Let’s go down to him.”

As Sola stepped into a long corridor that was wider than a train tunnel, Doc Jane asked, “Tell me, how much do you know about his condition?”

“I know that he is dying.”

Ehric joined them. “We’re hoping that she will inspire him.”

“Miracles can certainly happen,” Doc Jane said. “And I am open to anything at this point.”

After the blond guy with the Disney tracks came inside, they went forward in a group, their footfalls echoing throughout the concrete hall. The men said a few things, Doc Jane answered, and Sola heard nothing of it. She was too busy looking around, trying to get her bearings, and praying that she kept her shit together when she saw Assail.

He had to be in really bad shape.

They went by many closed doors, none of which had any signage. And at one point, she could have sworn she smelled popcorn, like there was a mess hall or a break room somewhere close, but then the doctor was stopping.

“I want you to be prepared.” The woman smiled gently. “He’ll know you’re here, I promise you. Just talk to him as you would normally, he’ll hear you—”

“Wait, he isn’t awake?” Sola asked.

Doc Jane glanced at Ehric. “No. He’s not conscious.”

“Oh.”

“Are you ready?”

Sola stared at the door they’d halted in front of. It was such a generic one, the flat metal panel painted a soft gray, and yet her tangled emotions turned it into an obstacle course that was miles long.

Do it, she told herself. Go on. You drove for a day and a half straight to get here.

“This is harder than I thought,” she heard herself say.

“Do you want some extra time?”

What was really going to change, though? “No. I’m ready.”

Doc Jane opened things slowly, and at first, what was up ahead in the small, bare room didn’t calibrate. The hospital bed was expected, and so were the beeping machines, but what she saw underneath the thin blankets was not…

“Assail,” she choked out.

Stumbling forward, she caught her balance just before she fell, and then she simply stood there, unable to move.

If she hadn’t been told it was him, she would not have found one…feature…that was Assail’s in the patient lying, bald and shrunken, in that bed. His skin was white as snow, his cheeks hollow, his cracked lips parted as he barely breathed—

As Sola became aware of a pressure on her own mouth, she realized she had put her palm to her face to keep her reaction in.

How had this happened? she thought. How had he gone from being that healthy, strong man…to this?

Then again, cancer was a fucker.

“Talk to him,” Doc Jane prompted quietly, before raising her voice. “Hello, Assail. You have a visitor.”

As if he were a hundred years old in a nursing home.

Sola lowered her hand and tried to find something, anything, to say.

“It’s still him in there,” Doc Jane whispered. “The physical body may seem different, but the soul remains the same.”

“Oh, God…what do I say?”

“If you were lying there, what would you like to hear?”

I love you. You are not alone. I am not going to leave you. As her heart pounded and she felt sick to her stomach, those three simple sentences went through her mind over and over again. I love you…

   
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