He heard her approach the doors. Moving away from them, he picked up their packs and tried to act as nonchalant as possible.
She was still plaiting her hair as she joined him.
He cleared his throat. “Are you ready for this?”
She wrinkled her nose in distaste, and yet the expression wrung his gut. How could any woman be beautiful while looking so disgusted? “Not really. But if we must go risk our lives and run into more people wanting to kill us . . .”
He didn’t respond as he hailed Vik. “What’s your status?”
In spite of everything, he laughed. “What’s going on out there?”
“Street’s basically clear. There’s a couple on the corner in a rover about to have sex—nasty people doing private things in public, get a room, you no-home-trained plebs. Other than that . . . looks promising.”
Syn slung his pack over his shoulder, then held hers out for her. Once she had it in place, he led her out of the building and made sure he ignored the couple in the rover.
Shahara frowned at his continued coldness as she followed after him. What had happened while she slept?
Well, that’s the last time I ever fall asleep around you, buddy.
“You always wake up this pissy?”
He arched single brow at her. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You were normal when I went to sleep. Now you’re like Kasen on a bender. Someone give you a willie while I was out of it?”
“I have no response for that.” His tone was completely dry.
She gave him no reprieve. “Yeah, well, if you were a woman, I’d swear you were on your period.”
Syn paused to gape at her. “You do know I am my father’s son, right? People don’t talk to me that way and live.”
“Oh, like I fear you. Never. Besides, a fight might dislodge whatever has crawled up your sphincter and bring back the much nicer version of you. No offense, but I miss that Syn.”
“Do you talk to you brother like this?”
“All the time.”
Syn shook his head. “And he worships you for it? I knew Caillen was certifiable.”
She made a hissing noise at him.
And still he was charmed by her. Even while she insulted him. I’m the one who’s certifiable.
Shahara let out a sigh as she watched him move up a little to lead the way. Tempted to shoot him, she looked up at Vik, who was keeping pace with them.
She just didn’t understand what had happened to him. He’d been so tender at the hotel.
I should never have told him I loved him. It was a mistake of titanic proportions. Now she’d lost her connection to him because he was too stubborn to accept the fact that someone could care about him.
I’m so sorry, baby. He lived in such a harsh place that she wasn’t sure anything would ever reach him there.
Trying to push that thought away, she scanned the street, amazed at how empty it’d become in such a short period of time. Absolutely no one was anywhere to be found. It was almost as if someone had dropped a virus bomb, killing all inhabitants and leaving just the buildings behind. If not for the lights twinkling dimly in the thick darkness, she would have really become suspicious. “Where is everyone?”
Syn followed the line of her gaze up to a nearby building. “They’ve taken refuge for the night. Shasra is a dangerous place after dark.”
“Dangerous? How so?”
“The temperature drops so low that you can freeze to death in minutes if you’re not careful.”
A twinge of fear skidded up her spine. “We’re not dressed for extremely cold weather.”
“I know.” His blasè tone alarmed her all the more. “Relax, I don’t intend for us to be out here all that long.”
That was supposed to comfort her?
“Yes, but in case it has escaped your astute attention, Captain Obvious, things keep happening to us that we don’t plan on.”
He let out an annoyed hiss. His lip was curled, which would have looked fierce had his eyes not been alight with humor. He might not smile, but he was amused. “So what do you suggest? We weigh ourselves down with coats? Encumber our bodies to the point where we can’t move our arms or legs in a fight? That’ll go over well, won’t it?”
So what if he was right? She still didn’t like the idea of freezing.
“Well, we better be quick and not become human popsicles. I’m going to be really upset at you if I freeze to death.” She reached into her pocket to pull out the map he’d given her inside his flat.
As he took it from her, she realized his clothes were still damp from her earlier dousing. A wave of guilt and dread fear went through her as she realized how cold he would get. “Maybe we should try this another day.”
“We don’t have time to delay. It’s now or never.” He headed in the opposite direction of their hotel.
Rolling her eyes at his stubbornness, she followed after him. A freezing wind tore down the street, whistling between buildings. She wrapped her arms around herself and wondered why Syn seemed immune to it. He walked forward as if the dropping temperature was nothing at all.
“Aren’t you freezing?”
“I used to sleep outside here on the streets without shoes. Trust me, this isn’t cold.”
It still didn’t make it right. Her throat tightened at the thought of how bad he’d had it in his life.
Who am I to complain to him?
He made her look like a wimp.
Seven blocks later, he stopped. Shahara stared up at the building in front of her and her stomach shrank. Like a hulking ghoul, it stood against the eerie backdrop of three pale moons. No light inside the building could be found, and what few windows were still intact were covered with rotting boards. Weeds obscured the broken walkway and an old faded sign swung over the door.
He went to the boarded-up door without commenting.
With great trepidation, she eyed the sign that threatened to fall on their heads. “This is useless. I’m sure it’s gone.”
He tore the large board off the door and tossed it to the ground. “Probably, but my research said the building was closed just days after I stashed the chip. There was nothing online to say what office I put it in or who owned it. I’m hoping we either find the chip where I left it or find a clue about what happened to it.”
“And if we don’t?”
Anger tore through her. “You don’t really think that after all these years the chip will be where you left it, do you? ’Cause if you do, I have some city property you might be interested in buying.”
He gave her a look that would have withered stone. “So what are you saying, we should just give up? After we’ve come so far?”
“No,” she said hesitantly in spite of the voice in her head that urged her to argue with him. She really had no desire to go inside another rundown building and face the unknown.
“Then follow me.” He bent over to crawl between the other boards.
This was crazy. Most likely suicide, and yet she followed in after him. Why do I bother? Surely there wouldn’t be anything left in the building. Well, nothing but dust and scurrying little things she didn’t want to bother identifying.
“I just love the places you take me.”
He didn’t acknowledge her comment in any way as he continued down the hallway. Shahara turned around, studying the abandoned office furniture covered by years of dust, debris and webs. Contrary to her prediction, but for the dust and decay, it looked like people had just picked up and left. There were even cups and dishes left on some of the desks they passed.
It looked like the workers had abandoned everything in one heartbeat.
Shahara caught herself as she tripped over a half-full trash can. “Don’t you find it weird that they left all this stuff behind?”
“Not really. Someone released a virus through the air ducts that killed fifteen workers in less than an hour. Those who were ill or unaffected ran screaming for the doors. My money says Merjack did it to cover his tracks after he had me in custody. I’m sure he crawled through every office and file here looking for that chip. And since he still wants me, we know he didn’t find it. Once the building was vacated, no one wanted to come back for anything since they feared it might be contaminated from what killed the others.”
“Should we be scared?”
Shahara couldn’t resist goosing him on the bottom.
“Hey!” he snapped, jumping away from her as he rubbed the cheek she’d pinched.
“That’s what you get for being such a pessimist. You’re lucky I didn’t go after something else.”
He growled at her as he limped away. “Next time I’m throwing you at my enemies.”
She didn’t comment.
Syn wanted to be angry at her, but he couldn’t quite manage it. In truth, he melted every time he looked at her.
Because she’d told him she loved him. He couldn’t get those words out of his mind. That was the only thing he’d ever wanted in his life. Did he dare believe her?
Why would she lie?
He kept trying to push her away, and instead she stayed and quipped with sarcastic humor that he actually found entertaining. Shoving that thought away, he continued his search.
Finally he found what he was looking for. A thick metal door sealed off the office he remembered so well from his youth. The last time he’d been here, his breathing had been ragged, his body sweating. Even now he could see the lights dancing from torches in the hallway, hear the angry voices as they searched for him.
Now he was back . . .
Shahara snorted as he fumbled with the old controls that were rusted out. “Forget it. You’ll never get that open.”
Ignoring her hostility, he pulled out his charger and studied the lock. True, there was no electricity, but he’d opened far more secure things than this in his time. “One day you will learn not to doubt me.” He opened the panel and began crossing wires, connecting some to the hand-held battery.
After several minutes, a spark ignited and the door rasped open.
Shahara gaped at what he’d done. “I’m impressed.”
He disconnected the battery. “Once a filch, always a filch.”
She frowned. There was an odd note in his voice. Bitterness, maybe. And she realized it must be strange for him to be confronting this part of his past. A part he must have struggled hard to forget.
The last time he’d been here, he’d gone to prison . . .
Her heart ached for him.
Without even glancing at her, he entered the office and began searching it. Taking out a lightstick, she trailed its beam over the scattered debris. “What am I looking for?”
“Something that can tell you who was once assigned to this office.”
“I take it the chip isn’t here.”
He shook his head. “We have to find something personal about the occupant.”
She groaned. “That could be anyone. And anything I find could be from someone who had this office long after you stashed the chip.”
“No. Look at the furniture and the dust. It’s at least twenty years old. Just like it said in my reports. They shut this place down and never returned to it.”
“The office still could have changed hands.”
He gave her a fierce glower. “Well, we don’t have anything else to go on, now do we?”
She held her hands up in surrender. “All right, don’t get testy with me.” She continued looking through the garbage.
Syn started going through an old desk.
Just as she was about to give up, her light flashed against a stationary pad. Taking three strides, she knelt down and picked it up. “Does the name Merrin Lyche ring a bell?”
He looked over at her. “What did you find?”
“Some old stationary.” She held it out to him.
Taking it, he nodded. “At least it’s somewhere to start.” He tore off the top sheet, folded it, and put it in his pocket. “Thanks. Now let’s get out of here before it gets any colder.”
Shahara flashed her light up at him and noted the blueness of his lips. “I am really sorry I pulled you into the bath.”
He smiled before moving the light out of his face. “Don’t be. I’m certainly not.”
She rolled her eyes at him and his warped reasoning. “Then lead me back before you die of exposure and I have to explain to someone why your clothes are frozen to your body on a clear night.”
His laughter warming her, he led her out of the building.
In no time at all, they were back inside the hotel. Shahara paused at the lift area while Syn continued past it.
Frowning, she hurried to trail after him. “Where are we going?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he entered a small boutique.
What in the nine worlds was he doing? Confused, she stopped outside and watched as he sorted through a rack of jackets.