Never Fade Page 29

“This is going to be great. It’s going to be so cool.” Jude’s Op folder was stained with specks of whatever he had eaten for dinner the night before, and he was looking a little soft around the edges.

I wanted to scream. Scream. It was another mouth to feed and another back to protect. Jude was the living embodiment of a distraction. But what was the alternative here? Sending him back to that hellhole, hoping he’d still be there, alive, when I got back and Cole put his plan in action?

No. Jude was dead weight, one I was going to have to carry on my shoulders the whole way, but I was stronger now. I could do it. I’d find Liam, and I’d keep both of them safe—because that was the only option. That was the only one I was willing to accept.

“Bartlett. What do you think he does?” Jude asked. The pages fanned under his fingers. “I recognize the other names. Frances is nice—she gave me a candy bar once. I like Lebrowsky and Gold and Fillman, too. Cool guys. They taught me how to play solitaire. And I like Leader, too. I’m glad Barton got promoted. But who the heck is Bartlett?”

“Don’t know, don’t care,” I said, focused squarely on the medical crates in front of me. Actually I did know who Bartlett was—some new guy who transferred in from the Georgia base of operations. I had overhead some of the Green girls in the locker room talking about what a “fine specimen” he was, but they had spotted me and split before I could find out anything useful.

Jude was humming now, one foot tapping out a frantic rhythm against the mats underfoot. The compass hanging around his neck had slipped out from under his jacket and was swinging in time with him. I don’t think he had stopped moving the entire five hours we were in the air.

“Bartlett got his training at West Point—do you think that means he’s good?”

“If you have the personnel files in your folder memorized, why are you asking me?”

“Because people are more than what a piece of paper or computer file says about them. I don’t really care that Bartlett’s specialty is knife fighting—I mean, don’t get me wrong, holy crap, but I’d rather know why he joined the League, what he thinks about that decision now. Favorite food—”

At that, I turned to look at him, half amazed, half horrified. “You think his favorite food is more important than knowing his preferred method of killing you in a fight?”

“Well, yeah, it kind of is—”

I couldn’t stop myself, and I couldn’t explain why anger flashed so fast and hot through me. “You want to know about Beta Team?” I could hear my heart hammering in my ears. “For the next twelve hours, they are the only six people who won’t be trying to kill you. But they don’t have to protect you, especially if it interferes with the Op. So follow Leader’s orders and keep your damn head down. That is all you need to know.”

“Jeez,” Jude said, blinking. “Not every adult in the world is trying to bury us.”

My tongue was trapped behind my clenched teeth. You think killing you is the worst thing they could do to you?

“I just want to know people,” he explained. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, sorry,” I said. “Most of them won’t want to know you.”

“No, I mean…” He waved his hands through the air, like that was going to unravel the mystery of whatever he was trying to say. “It’s just that nowadays people are so quick to boil you down to bare bones of info and upload you into a system, you know? And I think no one can ever really know another person unless you really pay attention.” He stopped, stretching his long neck out to glance around, but our minder for the Op was busy playing a game of cards with Frances.

“Like, look at Rob. His file is perfect. He went to Harvard, was an Army Ranger, then an FBI agent for a while. He’s six feet tall exactly and weighs two hundred and three pounds. He knows how to use firearms and speaks decent Spanish. But that… Nowhere in there is anything that hints at the fact that he…” Jude trailed off. “I don’t want to just see someone’s face; I want to know his shadow, too.”

I don’t think Jude had ever lost anyone before Blake. He had heard about agents killed on this mission, or on that raid, or in that explosion—but once you fully settle into the special brand of pain that comes with being separated from someone you know down to the marrow of his bones, you learn not to try.

“Yeah?” I asked. “And do you know my shadow?”

Jude looked away, down to where the heels of his comically large boots were bouncing against the mat. “No,” he said, so quiet it was almost lost to the thousands of miles of crystal blue air beneath us. “Sometimes I don’t think I’ve even really seen your face.”

It didn’t bother me. Feeling left my hands, but it was only because of the cold, not the ice that had somehow manifested between us in the span of a few seconds. My jaw only clenched to keep my teeth from chattering, not to bite back an ugly, frustrated noise. I didn’t need to be liked, or wanted, or cared for—I didn’t need friends, and I certainly didn’t need the kid who once brought down the League’s entire computer network tripping over his own huge feet, trying to guilt me into being something I wasn’t. I was fine. Just a little cold.

I burrowed down just a little farther into my coat, watching him fidget out of the corner of my eye. He was wringing his hands red.

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