Turning her palm over, she remembered the blisters.
It had been as cold as it was now the night it had happened. But she had been determined to dig. She had used a kitchen knife to stab at the hard, frozen earth and then had clawed the loose dirt free with her bare hands. Three feet down, and then she could go no farther because her hands were too shot.
She had gone back into the house then.
The young she had wrapped in a dishtowel—a clean one that had no holes.
Back out by the grave, she had leaned down and placed the tiny bundle in the earth. Her tears had been the first thing that had filled what she had dug. And then that dirt, falling in chunks that she had had to press down, her blood mixing with the clay soil.
Concerned that predators would find the site, she had turned back to the house. Stones set aside for some kind of terrace project that had not come to fruition had been stacked by the back door. One by one, she had carried them over and made a cairn.
Then she had sat in the cold until she had shivered from hypothermia.
Much like she was doing now.
Only the blazing burn of the sun’s earliest rays had motivated her to go back inside—and even then, she had retreated not because she wanted to live, but rather because she had been determined to clean up her blood on the kitchen floor.
And also because of that old wives’ tale about not being welcomed in the Fade if you killed yourself.
At nightfall, she had dug up that bush and replanted it…and then she had left with no idea where she was going.
She had spent the first few days on the streets, keeping sheltered from the sun in alleys behind Dumpsters. She’d wanted to believe she could meet her young eventually.
She still wanted to believe that.
Oddly, she recalled how busy the city had been during the day. Having only known Caldwell at night, the amount of traffic on the city streets, and all the walking, talking humans, and the bustling activity had been a surprise.
Eventually, she had decided she had to do something with herself. She had found a job as a short-order cook at an all-night diner, taking the third shift that paid relatively well because most humans didn’t want to do the late hours.
And then she’d seen that post on a closed Facebook group about the Brotherhood’s training program.
Letting herself fall back onto her ass, she stared at the stones she had laid, one upon the other.
“Serenity,” she said out loud. “I’m going to name you Serenity. Because I hope that is what you have found in the Fade…”
“You are my uncle’s special friend.”
At the sound of a small voice, Saxton turned away from the closed door of the operating room. Bitty was standing beside him in the training center’s corridor, both of her parents behind her, a toy tiger dangling in her hand. The little girl was in a red dress, her dark hair curling at the ends, her eyes innocent, yet very old.
This one had known so much suffering. Thus, she was used to this sorrow, wasn’t she, he thought sadly.
Clearing his throat, he eased down to her level so he could meet her eye to eye. “Yes, I am. How did you know?”
“My uncle told me all about you. When we were doing our puzzle the other night. He said you were his special friend and he loved you very much.”
Saxton had thought that he was all cried out: After the trip in on the surgical van, with Ruhn coding twice, and then watching the door close as Doc Jane and Manny went in to put some kind of a tube or something in the male’s throat, he’d assumed he was dry as a bone.
His eyes started to water all over again. “I love your uncle very much, too. He is my special friend as well.”
“Here.” She held out her stuffed tiger. “This is Mastimon. He has always protected me. You can hold him now.”
With hands that shook, he accepted the precious gift, and as he tucked it into his heart, he pulled the little girl close to his chest. Her arms did not fit very far around him, but he drew strength from her.
Rhage looked heartbroken as he spoke up. “Any news…?”
Saxton stood and was surprised as Bitty kept her arm around him. It seemed so easy to rest his hand on her small shoulder, the pair of them hurting together.
“Not yet,” he told the Brother. “They’ve been in there forever.”
“Do they know who did this?”
“Vishous is looking into it. I can’t really even focus on that right now. All I want is for Ruhn to…” He stopped himself. “We’re just going to pray for the best, aren’t we, Bitty?”
“Yes.” The little girl nodded.
“Can we bring you anything?” Mary asked.
“No. Thank you, though.”
Other Brothers stopped by, asked for updates, chatted. Someone brought him a coffee, but when he tasted it, all he could think about was what Ruhn had made for him just twelve hours ago.
That coffee had been perfect. Everything else was ruined.
He was never going to be able to drink the stuff again.
God, it seemed impossible that life had been going at such a happy pace…only to have this brick wall of horror slam into him—
Down at the far end of the corridor, the office’s glass door opened and Wrath came charging through. The King’s face was cast in a dark fury, and his Queen, Beth, seemed to be holding him back—and getting nowhere.
As Wrath came down and stopped in front of him, Saxton had trouble meeting his ruler’s eyes even though they were blind.
“Who did this,” the King snarled. “Who fucking did this.”
“I think it was the humans who…” Saxton took a deep breath. “Ruhn and I were staying at the house to help that homeowner who was getting harassed.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you call for more help!”
As that autocratic demand was barked out, Beth yanked at her hellren’s arm. “Wrath! For crissakes, will you back off—”
“It’s okay,” Saxton said with exhaustion. “He is just upset this happened at all and it’s coming out badly. We go through this on the job, he and I—”
The King’s arm shot out and dragged him forward so hard and so fast, Saxton’s head spun—at least until it banged into a chest of granite.
“I am so sorry,” Wrath muttered. “I didn’t know you two were together.”
Abruptly, Saxton found himself clinging to the far-larger male, Wrath’s undeniable physical and literal power exactly what he needed at that moment.
“I didn’t know he was yours,” Wrath said tightly. “I would never have sent him out with you if I had known.”
“He wasn’t mine then,” Saxton choked out. “When we started…he wasn’t yet mine.”
At that moment, Manny and Doc Jane emerged from the operating room, sure as if they had been summoned by a royal decree. The two surgeons pulled their masks down in sync, and it was hard not to read into their tired expressions that things had not gone as they had hoped.
“So this is what we’ve got,” Doc Jane said. “He’s stable, but in critical condition. He’s having a hard time finding a steady blood pressure and heart rate.”
“He coded again,” Manny added. “And since we can’t give you all transfusions, it’s just tough. His brain has gone without oxygen for a couple of minutes, a couple of times.”
“I’m so sorry,” Doc Jane concluded, “but we’re not sure…whether he’s going to wake up.”
As Bitty ran to her parents, Saxton covered his mouth so he didn’t start screaming again.
When he was able, he said, “Can I see him—can she and I see him?”
Doc Jane glanced at Rhage and Mary. When they nodded, the doctor did as well. “Okay, but only the two of you. Talk to him, tell him how much you want him to fight. We’re not going to move him right now—and you can’t stay in there long. He needs to rest.”
“All right. Okay.”
He took Bitty’s hand and looked down at her. “You ready?”
When the little girl nodded, Manny opened the door for them.
It was cold inside the operating room, so much colder than he’d been prepared for. And there was a purpose to everything that was in the tiled space, from the medical equipment to the multi-light fixture overhead to the glass-front shelves with all their instruments and supplies.