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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Thirty-one)

"How old are you, anyway?" she asked him, her breath puffing out in little clouds. He gave her another one of his shrugs. "Fourteen."

"Oh." Mira counted off the difference in her head. "You're pretty old, then, huh?"

"Not old enough," he said, and from where she walked alongside him, his face seemed very serious. "Today I asked Lucan if I could join the Order. He told me I had to wait until I was at least twenty before I even thought about asking him again."

Mira gaped at him. "You want to be a warrior?"

His mouth took on a hard look, his eyes narrowing on some unseen point in the distance.

"I want to avenge my family. I need to win back my honor after Dragos stole it from me." He blew out a sharp laugh that didn't sound like laughter at all. "Lucan and my grandfather say those aren't the right reasons to join a war. If they're not, then I don't know what is."

Mira studied Kellan's face, her heart hurting for the sadness she saw in him. In the few days she'd spent with him since he'd arrived at the compound, Kellan hadn't said much about his family or his feelings about missing them. She had seen him crying a couple of times alone in his quarters, but he didn't know that.

He also didn't know that she'd taken it upon herself to be his friend whether he liked it or not. Every night she said a little prayer for him, a ritual she'd started the moment she first heard the boy had been kidnapped from his Darkhaven. She'd kept on praying for him, even after his rescue, because it seemed to her that he'd needed the extra help in getting better. Now it had become a habit for her, one she figured she would stop once she was able to look at Kellan and not see so much private sorrow in his eyes.

"Hey," she said, trudging alongside him deeper into the gardens as they continued on after the dogs. "Maybe I'll ask Lucan if I can join the Order someday too."

Kellan laughed – actually turned a surprised look on her and laughed out loud. He had a nice laugh, she realized, the first she'd ever heard it. He had dimples too, one in each lean cheek. They appeared as he chuckled and shook his head at her. "You can't join the Order."

"Why not?" she asked, more than a little stung.

"Because you're a girl, for one thing."

"Renata's a girl," she pointed out.

"Renata's … different," he replied. "I've seen what she can do with those blades of hers. She's fast, and she's got killer aim. She's wicked tough."

"I'm tough too," Mira said, wishing her voice didn't sound so wounded. "Watch, I'll show you."

She veered off their path to hunt for something to throw. Searching for a good stick or a rock – anything she could use to impress Kellan with her abilities – Mira weaved through the covered flower beds, around the burlap-wrapped shrubs, and into the maze of statuary and evergreens that spread out across the long backyard of the estate.

"Just a second," she called to him from within the cover of the gardens. "I'll be right … back …"

At first, she wasn't sure what she was looking at. Up ahead of her on the moonlit ground, shadowed by the surrounding pines and shrubbery, was a large, dark form. Luna and Harvard stood near it, alternately pacing and pausing to sniff at the motionless shape. The little terrier whined as Mira drifted closer.

"Come here, guys," she ordered the dogs, waiting as they both loped over. Her heart was hammering in her chest, beating a hundred miles an hour. Something was wrong here, really wrong. She glanced down as the dogs circled nervously at her feet. Their paws left dark stains in the snow around her boots.

Blood.

Mira screamed.

Hunter brought the young assassin into the back of the box truck and laid his motionless body on the floor. Corinne was beside him, holding her son's hand, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"His hands are so strong," she murmured. "My God … I can't believe it's really him."

Hunter said nothing to spoil her moment, but he knew very well that the boy was far from safe yet. It had been a risk simply to remove him from the house. The UV collar around his neck would be programmed to allow only a certain distance from the assassin's cell without Dragos's permission. With the Minion dead on the front porch, the risk of the collar detonating was doubled.

As though the boy himself sensed the tenuousness of his situation, he began to rouse back to consciousness. He started struggling, his eyelids lifting wide. Corinne drew in her breath, her tension and worry spiking Hunter's pulse through their bond.

Hunter held the boy by the collar, his fingers wrapped around the thick black polymer. He gave a warning shake of his head. "You must be still. There is nowhere for you to go."

"Nathan, don't be frightened," Corinne soothed, her voice gentle and warm. "We're not here to hurt you."

The boy's gaze flicked between the two of them. Hunter suspected it was knowledge of the collar's purpose that kept the teenage assassin from risking escape, more so than the compassion Corinne offered. Nathan's nostrils flared as he panted under Hunter's hold, his face as untrusting as that of a trapped wild animal.

"We have to get rid of the collar if the boy stands any chance of leaving this place," he told Corinne. "Dragos may already be aware that his handler is dead. He could have sensors and communication devices planted all over the grounds."

"How can we remove the collar?" she asked, meeting his gaze with a stricken look. "I know what happens if it's tampered with. We can't possibly take a chance that it …"

When she didn't seem able to finish the thought, Hunter told her gently, "We have to try something. If we don't, it could be only a matter of seconds before the collar detonates in my hand."

She glanced away from Hunter then, looking back down at her son. He was listening to every word they said, silent but absorbing all of his surroundings. Calculating his means and odds of escape, just the same as Hunter would be doing if he was the one trapped by a pair of strangers.

"We are here because we want to help you," Corinne told him. Her smile was sad, hopeful. "You may not remember me, but you are my son. I named you Nathan. It means 'gift of God.' That's what you were to me, from the moment I first laid eyes on you."

He stared at her for a long moment, blinking quickly, studying her face. Then his struggles began again, a careful twisting and bucking, testing Hunter's hold on the collar.

"I once wore one of these too," Hunter said, catching the wild gaze and holding it steady.

"I am a Hunter, like you. But I found my freedom. It can be yours too. But you have to trust us."

The boy went wild now, and Hunter had to wonder if it was his words that had terrified him so much – the mention of freedom, a concept both foreign and dangerous to their kind – even more than the threat of the collar.

In Nathan's struggles, the thick black ring of polymer and high technology knocked hard against the floor of the truck. As it did, a small red LED blinked on.

"What's that light mean?" Corinne asked, panic edging her voice. "Oh, God, Hunter … we can't do this to him. You have to let him go … before he hurts himself. Please, I'm begging you, let him go, Hunter."

A sudden flash of Mira's vision shot through his mind at Corinne's terrified words. He pushed it away and focused on the task at hand. "If we let him go, he is dead for certain. The detonator is active now. He can't run without setting it off."

And now that the LED was blinking, time was even more fleeting. He glanced around him, searching for a tool to use in removing the collar, even while he understood too well that tampering with the device would only hasten its explosion.

Then he remembered the cryogenic containers.

The liquid nitrogen.

"Stand up," he told Nathan. "Do it carefully."

Corinne gaped at him. "What are you doing? Hunter, tell me what you're thinking."

There was no time to explain. He walked the boy over to the tanks, his hand still wrapped around the lethal ring at his neck.

"Hunter, please don't hurt him," Corinne begged, a further confirmation that Mira's precognition could not be thwarted. "Can't you understand? I love him! He means everything to me!"

Hunter held fast to his conviction that he was doing the right thing – the only viable thing – to possibly save her child. With his free hand, he reached for the hose that connected the cryo container to the tank of liquid nitrogen that fed it. He yanked it loose. White fumes spewed from the severed hose.

"On your knees," he told the boy, firmly guiding him to the floor. "Take off your shirt. I want you to place it over your head like a hood, tucked between your skin and the collar."

"Hunter," Corinne cried, weeping now. "Please, just let him go. Do it for me …"

Her fear clawed at him, but he couldn't stop now. "This is the only way. It's his only chance, Corinne."

Nathan obeyed, silent, uncertain. When the tank top was in place, Hunter told him, "Lie down on your stomach."

Slowly, the boy got into position on the floor. Hunter wound the tail of the cotton shirt around his hand then took a firmer hold of the collar, the liquid nitro hose in the other. He exhaled a low curse, then brought the hose toward the back of Nathan's head and held the plume of freezing chemicals directly onto the collar.

Clouds of white steam frothed up into the air. Even through the layers of fabric protecting his hand, his skin burned from the intense cold blasting the impenetrable casing and circuitry of Dragos's cruel invention.

Beneath him, Corinne's son was utterly still. He panted quickly, quietly, just a terrified kid who was giving all he had to hold himself together in what could very well be the final seconds of his life.

All too soon, the liquid nitrogen began to thin and sputter from the hose. Hunter would have liked to freeze the damned collar for a lot longer, but the tank was petering out. He'd have to take his shot right now and hope for the best.

"What's happening?" Corinne asked. "Is it working?"

"We're going to have to find out." He threw down the hose and reached for one of the daggers sheathed on his thigh. He took it out and turned the hilt around in his hand, ready to bring the butt down on the frozen collar.

Corinne's hands took hold of his arm. "Wait." She shook her head, her face stricken with fear. "Don't do this. Please, you will kill him."

He might end up killing the boy and himself, if his gamble failed and the device went off in that next moment. With Corinne weeping, pleading futilely for him to stop – the vision playing out just as Mira had predicted – Hunter pulled his arm out of her grasp. Then he brought his fist down on the collar.

It shattered.

The pieces broke away, crumbling down around Nathan's shirt-covered head as the device disintegrated. Hunter got up and stood back from the boy. Corinne threw her arms around him.

"Oh, my God," she breathed, clinging to Hunter, sobbing and laughing at once. "Oh, my God … I can't believe it. Hunter, it really worked!"

Nathan was motionless for a moment, still lying prone on the floor. Then he reached up and pulled the tank top from around his head. He stood, turning to face them. His fingers shook a bit as they climbed up to trace the bare skin of his neck.

Nothing but a white-tinged ring where the chemicals had burned him. The skin would heal in a short time. The miracle was, he was free.

"Wh-what have you done to me?" he asked, the first words he'd uttered to them. His voice was deep but carried the rough scrape of fading adolescence.

"You are free," Hunter told him. "No one can control you anymore. Thanks to your mother's love, her determination to find you, you are finally free to live as you choose."

Corinne stepped away from Hunter's side and held her hands out to her son in welcome.

"I want to bring you home with me, Nathan. We can be a family now."

He swung a look on her as she approached him. Guarded, mistrusting, he frowned and gave a faint shake of his shaved head.

Before Hunter could register the change in the boy, from caution to cornered, Nathan was moving. In a flash of Breed motion, he had grabbed one of the broken shards of his collar and held it tight against Corinne's throat. She gasped, totally unprepared for the assault. Hunter growled, his eyes trained on the jagged, makeshift blade that was poised at his Breedmate's carotid. Whether this boy was her flesh and blood or not, he had just declared himself an enemy.

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