Never Fade Page 15

He had a few inches on his brother, which I became well aware of as he leaned down to study my face, a pirate’s smile working across his own. Cole might have been narrower through the shoulders and waist, but there was something familiar about his stance.…

I shook my head, trying to clear the flush from my cheeks as I knocked on the door. It brought the argument inside to an abrupt end. Alban rose from behind his dark wood desk as I came in, shutting his laptop and cutting off the low murmur of the radio scanners on the nearby table. Rob and the frog-lipped adviser were already standing, both of their faces flushed from the argument. Seeing us, Rob rolled his eyes up and away, leaning against one of Alban’s many shelves of useless knickknacks from his old life.

“Sir,” I said, “you wanted to see me?”

“Goodness, sit down, sit down,” Alban said, waving a hand toward one of the folding chairs opposite him. “You both look dead on your feet.”

“I’m fine,” I said, then added, “thank you,” as an afterthought. I hated how small my voice became around him. Hated it.

Alban settled back down into his seat, lips pulling back to reveal a smile of mostly yellow teeth. The man didn’t make it out that much in public—not with a hefty bounty on his head. If they needed him to make a recorded video speech, they always cleaned up his pockmarked skin and brightened his complexion in post-production. They also liked to Photoshop him into pictures of American landscapes or cities to give the impression that he was a lot more fearless about going outside than he actually was.

“I’d like to have a casual debriefing about the operation to retrieve Agent Stewart last night, if the three of you are agreeable. I don’t think it can wait.”

He waited until Cole had eased himself down into the chair next to mine before reaching across the desk to clasp his hand. “I can’t tell you how good it is to see your face again, my dear boy.”

“Well, lucky you.” Cole dragged the words out, with no short supply of bitterness. “It seems like you’ll be seeing a lot of this beautiful boy from now on.”

Cut it out, I told myself, before I could tense. Cole was not Liam, no matter how much alike they looked. No matter how similar their voices were. Focus on the differences.

Cole was more solidly built than Liam, and cleaner cut, too. He’d buzzed his hair down since I’d last seen him, making it look two shades darker than the blond I knew it was. The Liam I had known was scruffy around the edges, warm in every way imaginable. And here was his older brother, stiff and beaten within an inch of his life, looking like he had been carved from ice. Not looking all that different from the state I’d left Liam in. And it was so awful, so horrible how quickly my mind swapped in one brother for the other. How much it lifted my spirit and eased the tightness in my chest to imagine Liam was here next to me again.

Stop. It.

Frog Lips shut the office door and retreated to the corner of the small room, slipping into Alban’s shadow.

“—would never normally interrupt your recuperation,” Alban was saying, “but after hearing Agent Meadows’s oral report, it sounds like there was some, shall we say, confusion. I’m interested to hear what happened from your perspective, Ruby.”

I didn’t register he had spoken to me at all until Rob pushed himself off the bookcase, the wide expanse of his shoulders spreading as he took a deep breath. Before leaving on the Op, he’d buzzed his dark hair short again; it made the bones in his face more pronounced. It changed the way the shadows fell against his skin.

God, why were we doing this? Where was Cate? I was never debriefed without her and never here, in Alban’s office, behind a closed door. I was surprised by how anxious I was; I didn’t trust her, but somewhere along the way, I guess I’d gotten used to her silent, steady presence waiting to catch me if I tripped up.

“Are…we waiting for anyone else?” I asked, careful to keep my voice steady.

Alban understood my question. “This is just a casual talk, Ruby. The level of secrecy surrounding this Op means that we can’t hold the debriefing in front of the whole organization. You should feel free to speak your mind.”

I pressed my hands down on my knees, trying to keep them from bouncing.

“Agent Meadows,” I started, sounding too loud to my own ears, “ran through the mission parameters with us on the flight, laying out the objective and what we knew about this particular bunker’s layout. He also reminded us of the fallback plans we had discussed prior to leaving.”

Alban’s mouth was wide and fairly unskilled at hiding his feelings. One corner twitched up. “And did any of these fallback plans include you and Vida leaving the bunker?”

“No, sir,” I said. “Agent Meadows ordered us to hold our position in the stairwell to cover them from there.”

Alban placed his elbows on the table and leaning his chin against his fingers. “Can you explain, then, why you left?”

I didn’t turn to look at Rob, but I knew he was looking at me. Everyone was, and from the weight of their stares, I got the impression that “Meadows” had already answered this question himself.

If I get Rob in trouble, I thought, how much trouble will I be in? He had a hot temper. I had known he’d be angry even when I made the choice to stay outside with Vida, but it would be nothing compared to his fury if I sold him out and told the others about what happened on the stairs. I couldn’t let them see the creeping suspicions on my face; I couldn’t ask the questions I wanted to. Why didn’t you warn us? My comm had been working then; I would have heard him.

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