Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE)

"ONE MORE VIAL and that should do it, Tavia," Gideon said from the other side of his makeshift tech lab. "How you hanging in over there, Harvard?"

Chase grunted his response, all he was capable of as he watched the other warrior withdraw the last of half a dozen blood samples he'd collected from Tavia's arm. Chase felt like a pussy having to sit clear across the room during the clinical procedure, trying his damnedest not to let the sight of those filling vials awaken his feral side. His fangs had erupted from his gums at the first pinprick that scored her skin, his hunger worsening to a fevered throb at the trace exotic scent of her blood.

Hard as it was for him to be there when his body was taut and on edge with thirst, sitting it out in the hallway while Tavia was run through a variety of exams and tissue samplings was out of the question.

Fortunately, Gideon kept everything quick and efficient.

"All set," he announced a moment later.

Chase stalked over as the blond warrior took away the containers of blood and DNA swabs to prepare them for testing. "You okay?" he asked Tavia, thoughts for his own well-being eclipsed by concern for her.

"Piece of cake," she said, rolling her long sleeve down over her glyph-covered forearm. "I spent the first twenty-seven years of my life in and out of private clinics and medical trials. I'm used to being poked."

Chase's grin was filled with another sort of hunger now. "I don't want you getting used to anyone poking you, unless that someone is me."

It was a possessive thing to say, and even though he had no right to think it let alone let the words roll off his tongue, he couldn't apologize for it. The past hours he'd spent with Tavia – baring his soul to her, laughing with her, making love to her, then making love some more – had set a hook in him so deep, he wondered if he'd ever be able to shake it loose.

Not that he wanted to.

And that was the hell of it, right there.

He craved this woman, cared for her more than he had anyone or anything in all his life before her. Some desperate, hopeful part of him wondered if the hole she filled in his heart might someday grow to fill the other, more ravenous one that threatened to consume him.

"Okay, kids," Gideon announced as he came back into the room. "I'll run the blood work and tissue analysis later today. We should have full results in a few days, but based on what I've already seen here, coupled with the data you found in good old Dr. Minion's clinic records, I think it's pretty obvious what they're going to return." He raked his fingers through the blond spikes of his cropped hair and exhaled a marveled chuckle. "Never dreamed there'd come a day when I'd be up close and personal with a female Breed – never mind a female Gen One with Breedmate DNA. You can blend in with humans if you have to, you can subsist on blood or food, and you can walk in the daylight without getting cooked after a few minutes. My God, Tavia. You're absolutely remarkable."

She smiled. "Hey, I've seen you working magic on these computers, Gideon. You're not so bad yourself."

Chase grunted, slanting an arch look at the warrior. "Yeah, and come to think of it, you've been up close and personal enough for one day."

Gideon smirked in Tavia's direction. "What can I say? He gets wicked jealous when I flirt. It's a problem for us."

She laughed along with him, as aware as anyone by now that the Order's resident genius only had eyes for his Breedmate, Savannah.

Gideon studied Tavia in open wonder, his head cocked to the side now, arms crossed over his gray Boondock Saints T-shirt. "Have you considered offspring?"

"Offspring?" Tavia shot an uncomfortable look at Chase. "Uh …"

"Oh, not that I'm suggesting," he quickly interjected. "I just mean, from a purely genetic standpoint, the possibilities are … well, exciting. Intriguing, to say the least. Don't you think so, Harvard?"

Chase couldn't have replied if he wanted to. The thought of Tavia pregnant had struck him both mute and stupid. He could imagine nothing more powerful than the idea of her giving birth. The fact that her children would mark the beginning of an entirely new generation of the Breed paled in comparison to the feeling that swamped Chase when he pictured himself as the father of her sons.

Or, Christ … her daughters.

Tavia's eyes were steady on his, and he wondered if her bond to him would betray the depth of his reaction. He couldn't hide what he felt, not with her. And even without the blood bond to tell her how powerfully she affected him, his unflinching, heat-filled gaze would have given him away.

Gideon cleared his throat in the weighted silence of the room. "You say there were clinic records documenting other cases like yours, Tavia?"

She nodded. "Dr. Lewis was treating others like me, but according to the files we found, the patients had all died over the years. If there were files on others who are living, I didn't see them when we searched the clinic."

"But there could be others like you out there," Gideon said. "Knowing Dragos, I'd lay odds there definitely are others. Women who are embedded in normal human lives as you were.

Women who will soon run out of their meds and begin transforming into their true Breed natures, the same way you did."

"Oh, my God," she replied. "If that's true … if something like that were to happen …" Gideon nodded. "Disaster time."

"And assuming there are others," Chase put in, "there's no telling what Dragos might be using them for. In Tavia's case, it was her photographic memory. Dragos was using her to collect various human government intel through her work for the senator."

Tavia inclined her head in agreement. "When I'd go in for treatments at the clinic, they also used that time to harvest details about places I'd been with the senator, security-sensitive things I'd been privy to as his assistant. It wasn't enough to exploit me as some kind of secret science experiment, they had to mind-rape me too."

Chase heard the anger in her otherwise calm voice. He reached over and slipped his fingers through hers. "Wish like hell I'll get the chance to deliver a little payback on that sick bastard. The more painful, the better."

"You, me, and the rest of the Order," Gideon said. He glanced to Tavia once more. "I don't suppose you have any knowledge – even the slightest bit of intel – about Dragos's operation?" "No. I didn't even know he existed until Chase tried to warn me about him." She shook her head, brow furrowed. "If I could get anywhere near Dragos, I'd love to use my new skills against him. Especially the lethal ones."

Although Chase understood her need, he bristled at the notion of her even considering getting close to evil like Dragos. "Not gonna happen so long as I have anything to say about that. Dragos is deadly, Tavia. You can never underestimate what he's willing to do."

"Harvard's right," Gideon said. "As much as I agree with him, though, I have to admit having a mole in his operation would be damned useful right about now." He gestured to a computer monitor with a program running some kind of split-screen script. "The data Hunter and Corinne brought back from New Orleans is password-protected and encrypted. I created a routine to break it down, but the damn thing has been cranking on that character sequence for a couple of days and we're barely halfway there."

Chase looked at the display. Of the thirteen-digit placeholders on the screen, only six of them were locked into place: 5, 0, 5, 1, 1, N.

Tavia's mouth curved into a sly smile as she turned to look at Gideon. "May I try?" He held out his hand in invitation and let her take the seat in front of one of his computers. He typed something on the keyboard, and the machine beeped, popping up an "Access Denied" screen that prompted for a password. "Knock yourself out."

Tavia entered the six digits from the deencryption program, Chase and Gideon taking positions behind her to watch her work.

She typed another seven characters to complete the sequence: 1, 5, 2, 5, 1, 2, E. And just like that, she was in.

"It's the same password that opened Dr. Lewis's clinic records," she said, looking fairly pleased with herself.

Gideon slapped Chase on the back of his shoulder and let out a whoop. "Well, fuck us both, Harvard. She's bloody brilliant." He pivoted away suddenly and grabbed a notepad and pen from his workspace. He handed both to Tavia. "Jot that whole thing down for me again."

She did, and when she passed it back to him, he hissed out a slow curse. "Bugger. I might have guessed it would be something like this." He brought up a browser and typed the sequence into a search engine map. "It's GPS coordinates."

Chase watched as the screen displayed a close-up of an area he immediately recognized. "It's a mountain region in the Czech Republic. Isn't that the area where we found the cave the Ancient had been hibernating in before Dragos woke him and imprisoned him in his lab?"

"The very one," Gideon confirmed. "And Dragos has been using its coordinates as the password to his entire operation." He barked out an incredulous chuckle. "That's the megalomaniac villain version of using your favorite pet's name, for crissake. Maybe there's hope of beating this asshole yet."

Gideon began clacking away at three keyboards, sliding from monitor to monitor, cracking open data files and laboratory intel on multiple computers like a maestro conducting an opus. Chase and Tavia were all but forgotten in the midst of his geeked excitement.

"I'm impressed," Chase told her, proud and more than a little turned on.

She gave him a smile that went straight to his cock. "We all have our talents."

He was about to ask her if she wanted to see one of his favorites when the thud of approaching boots sounded in the corridor outside. Lucan came in dressed for combat in fatigues and heavy arms, the rest of the warriors garbed likewise, trailing close behind him. They all wore grim expressions, steely-eyed looks that Chase recognized well.

The Order was preparing to head into battle.

"I'm in," Gideon said, wheeling around in his chair to meet them. "Tavia just got us past the security on the lab intel. I'm in it with both hands now."

Lucan's gray eyes swung to her in approval. "Good work."

She gave him a faint nod. "Whatever I can do to help."

"Appreciated," he said, then glanced to Chase and offered a neutral nod of greeting. "I've just spoken with Mathias Rowan to let him know our plans," he told Gideon. "We roll out at sundown tonight to sweep every Enforcement Agency hangout in Boston."

"You mean raid them?" Chase asked.

"Raid them. Raze them. Mow the motherfuckers to the ground, if that's what it takes," Lucan replied, his deep voice vibrating with violent intent.

Chase swore under his breath. "You can't be serious. The truce between the Agency and us is tentative at best. It always has been. If the Order goes into their turf with guns blazing, you'll be doing battle not only with Dragos but with the entire vampire nation."

"We didn't start this war," Lucan snarled. "But we're damned well going to finish it. Even if I have to hack through the ranks of the entire Enforcement Agency to finally get my hands around Dragos's throat. As far as I'm concerned, he and the Agency are two heads on the same snake. I'll gladly sever either one. Let Mathias Rowan sort the bodies after the dust settles."

Chase had never seen Lucan so virulent. Menace rolled off the Order's leader like a dark current, the cold of his rage a palpable force in the room.

"We have patrol tactics to discuss."

We, he said, but Chase could read Lucan's meaning in the level command of his gaze alone. We meant the Order, which didn't include him.

"Sure," he said, no animosity in his voice or his veins. He was a liability to the Order now, at a time when they could least afford them. He got that. And he couldn't blame Lucan for shutting him out from this mission.

As much as he might have wanted to think he hadn't lost his brethren completely, Chase understood that he still had a long road ahead of him if he wanted to prove himself worthy of their trust. He only hoped they'd one day give him that chance.

Tavia walked with him out to the corridor, saying nothing as she slipped her hand into his. She didn't need to say anything. She understood. She cared, and he wondered for the hundredth time how he could ever think he deserved her.

"Hey, Harvard."

The low male voice drew him up short in the hallway. Dante stood there, the dark-haired warrior's arms crossed over his chest. His curved titanium daggers – weapons that had taken out countless Rogues and had even found their way under Chase's chin not so long ago – were sheathed like huge claws on his weapons belt. His whiskey-colored eyes narrowed beneath the harsh slash of his dark brows. He gestured over his shoulder with a tilt of his chin. "About what just happened in there …"

"Forget it," Chase said. "I want what's good for the Order too. Right now, that's not me." He started to walk away, but Dante met up with him. Stilled him with a brotherly hand coming to rest on his shoulder. "I just wanted to tell you that it's good to have you back in the compound again. I'm glad you're here."

Chase felt Tavia's eyes on him as he absorbed the offer of truce from the warrior who had once been his tightest ally in the Order. His closest friend. A brother, in every sense of the word. "Thanks." Feeble reply, but all he could muster on his suddenly dry throat.

"Listen, Tess would love it if you and Tavia came around to our quarters sometime. I'd like it too. I'd like to give you a proper introduction to my son."

"Sure." Chase nodded. "Yeah, sure. Of course."

"We'd be honored to meet him," Tavia said, speaking the words that seemed to fail him so spectacularly in that moment.

"Great," Dante said. "That'll be great." He backed away, then abruptly pivoted around again, a wide smirk breaking over his face as his eyes met Chase's across the length of the corridor. "By the way, Merry Christmas, dickhead."

"Same to you." Chase chuckled, falling back into the easy camaraderie they once had. God, he didn't realize how much he'd missed that until just now. "Try not to get your ass handed to you tonight on patrol, yeah?"

Still grinning, Dante gave him a one-fingered salute. His deep laugh rumbled as he headed back to rejoin the other warriors.