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Midnight Rising (Chapter Thirty-two)

Rio didn't hear from Dylan again until late that afternoon. When his cell phone went off in his pocket, he was in the lab with Lucan, Gideon, Niko, and Chase, the five of them discussing Gerard Starkn's apparent snow job and how the Order could best take control of things with the Gen One situation. He excused himself from the meeting and took Dylan's call out in the corridor.

"What's wrong?" It wasn't much of a greeting, but he could sense her upset on the other end as soon as the call connected and the feeling went through him like live electricity. "Are you okay?"

There was a pause, then: "I'm okay, yeah. I'm going to be okay eventually, I think."

"How is your mother?"

"Tired," Dylan said, sounding weary herself. "Oh, Rio…I've been with her all afternoon at her apartment in Queens. She checked herself out of the hospital today, and she's refusing any further treatment. She wants to…she doesn't want to live anymore, Rio. She's made up her mind about that."

He swore softly, feeling Dylan's anguish like it was his own. "Did you tell her about Tess?"

"I tried to, but she wouldn't hear it. It's killing me, but if this is what she truly wants, then I know I have to let her go."

"Ah, love. I don't know what to say."

"It's all right. I don't know what I need to hear right now." Dylan sniffled a little, but she was holding herself together with admirable courage. "We spent the day talking – something we haven't been able to do for a long time. It was nice. I told her about you, that I met a very special man and that I love him very much. She's looking forward to meeting you sometime."

Rio smiled, wishing he could be there right now. "I'm sure that can be arranged."

"I talked with her doctor as we were leaving the hospital. He says that realistically, without treatment, Mom probably only has weeks left…maybe a couple of months. They're going to give her medicine for the pain, but they warned us that the time she has left isn't going to be easy."

"Shit, Dylan. Do you want me to come out there tonight? It's almost sundown. If you need me there, I could leave right at dusk and be in the city by around eleven."

"What about the Order? I'm sure you have other things you have to do."

"That's not what I asked you." In fact, he was supposed to be on a mission tonight, but fuck it. If Dylan wanted him with her, Lucan would have to assign someone else to the patrol. "Do you need me there tonight, Dylan?"

She sighed. "I'd love to see you. You know I'd never turn you down, Rio. Do you really want to come all this way tonight?"

"Just try to stop me," he said, sensing her brighten on the other end. In the background now, he heard a truck horn blast. "Are you driving somewhere?"

"Uh-huh. I'm on my way to pick up some of my mom's things at the shelter. We called her friends over there as we were leaving the hospital, just to fill them in on what's going on. Everyone's pretty worried about her, as you can imagine. And I guess some of the shelter clients and their kids made up a special card for her too."

"She'll like that."

"Yeah," Dylan said. "I'm going to swing by and grab some takeout for dinner back at Mom's place. She wants baby back ribs, sweet potatoes, and cornbread – oh, and some fancy champagne, as she put it, to celebrate my newfound love."

"Sounds like you have quite an evening planned."

Dylan was quiet for a moment. "It's really good to see her smiling, Rio. I want her to enjoy these next few weeks as much as she can."

He understood, of course. And as Dylan wrapped up the conversation and promised to call him when she was back at her mother's apartment, Rio wondered how he was going to get through the weeks – perhaps a couple of months – away from Dylan. It wasn't a long time, certainly not by Breed standards, but for a male in love with his mate, the duration was going to seem endless.

He needed to be with Dylan through this.

And he knew that she needed him too.

When he flipped the cell phone closed, he found Lucan standing outside the tech lab doors. Rio had told him earlier about Dylan's mother, and about what Dylan meant to him, how deeply he'd fallen in love with her. He'd laid it all out for Lucan – from the fact that he and Dylan were blood-bonded now, to the offer he'd made her concerning Tess's healing abilities.

Rio didn't know how long Lucan had been standing there, but the shrewd gray eyes seemed fully aware that things were not going well on the other end.

"How is Dylan holding up?"

Rio nodded. "She's strong. She'll get through this."

"What about you, my man?"

He started to say that he'd be fine too, but Lucan's stare tore through that bullshit before the words even left Rio's lips.

"I told her I'd be there tonight," he told the Order's leader. "I have to go to her, Lucan. For my own sanity, if nothing else. If I stay here, I'm not sure what good I'd be, to tell you the truth. She's the only thing that's held me together in a very long time. I'm a wreck for this woman, my friend. She owns me now."

"Even more than the Order?"

Rio paused, deliberating over what he was being asked. "I would die for the Order – for you and any one of my brethren. You know that."

"Yes. I know you would," Lucan replied. "Hell, you almost have, more than once."

"I'd die to serve the Order, but Dylan…Cristo. This woman, more than anything before, gives me a reason to live. I have to be with her now, Lucan."

He nodded soberly. "I'll put one of the other guys on your patrol tonight. You do what you have – "

"Lucan." Rio met the male's gaze and held it. "I have to be with Dylan until she's through this ordeal with her mother. It could be weeks, maybe months."

"So, what are you telling me?"

Rio cursed under his breath. "I'm telling you that I'm leaving to be with her, for as long as it takes. I'm quitting the Order, Lucan. I head out for New York tonight."

"Here's a box for those things, honey." Janet came into Dylan's mom's office carrying an empty copy paper container. "It's nice and sturdy and it's got a lid too."

"Thanks," Dylan said, setting it down on the cluttered desk. "Mom is kind of a pack rat, isn't she?"

Janet laughed. "Oh, honey! That woman hasn't thrown away a note or a greeting card or a photograph since I've known her. She saves everything like it was gold, bless her heart." The older woman glanced around the room, her eyes going moist with tears. "We sure are going to miss Sharon around here. She had such a way with the girls. Everyone adored her, even Mr. Fasso was charmed by her and he's not easily impressed. Her free spirit drew people to her, I think."

Dylan smiled at the sentiment, but it was very hard hearing her mother referred to in the past tense already. "Thanks for the box, Janet."

"Oh, you're welcome, honey. Would you like some help finishing up in here?"

"No, thanks. I'm almost done."

She waited as Janet made her exit, then she went back to the task at hand. It was difficult to tell what might be important to her mother and what could be tossed, so finally Dylan just started gathering papers and old photos by the handful and placing them in the box.

She paused to look at a few of the pictures – her mother standing with her arms around the thin shoulders of two young shelter girls with bad 1980s hair, tube tops, and short shorts; another of her mom smiling behind the counter of an ice cream shop, beaming at the "Employee of the Month" award the young girl next to her was holding up like a prize.

Her mother had befriended nearly every troubled young woman who came through the place, genuinely invested in seeing them succeed and rise above the problems that had made the girls run away from home or feel that they didn't, or couldn't, fit into normal society. Her mother had tried to make a difference. And in a lot of cases, she had.

Dylan wiped at the tears of pride that sprang into her eyes. She looked for a tissue among the clutter and couldn't find any. Just what she didn't need, to be sitting in her mother's office crying like a baby in front of the evening shift staff.

"Shit." She remembered seeing a stack of loose paper towels in one of the drawers of the back credenza. Pivoting her mother's chair around, she scooted across the worn carpet and began a quick search of the cabinet.

Ah. Success.

Dabbing at her wet eyes and face, she spun back around and nearly fell out of her seat.

There, standing before her on the other side of her mother's desk, was a ghostly apparition. The young woman was joined by another, both of them wavering in and out of visibility. Then another girl appeared, and still another. And then, finally, there was Toni again, the girl Dylan had seen in her mother's hospital room the other night.

"Oh, my God." She gaped at them, only half-conscious of the shelter employees going about their business outside, completely unaware of the ghostly gathering. "Are you all here because of my mom?"

The group of them stared at her in eerie silence, their forms rippling like candle flames caught in a stuttering breeze.

Help them, one of the unmoving mouths told her. They need you to help them.

Damn it, she did not have time for this now. She wasn't in the right frame of mind to deal with any of this right now.

But something prickled within her, something that told her she had to listen.

She had to do something.

He won't stop hurting them, said another ghostly voice. He won't stop the killing.

Dylan grabbed a scrap of paper and a pen and started writing down what she was hearing. Maybe Rio and the Order could help make sense of it, if she couldn't.

They're underground.

In darkness.

Screaming.

Dying.

Dylan heard the pain and fear in the mingled whispers as the dead Breedmates tried to communicate with her. She felt a kinship to each one of them, and to the ones they said were still alive but in terrible danger.

"Tell me who," she said quietly, hoping she couldn't be heard outside the door. "I can't help you if you don't give me something more than this. Please, hear me. Tell me who's hurting the others like us."

Dragos.

She didn't know which one of them said it, or even if – or how – she might have been heard through the barrier that separated the living from the dead. But the word branded into her mind in an instant.

It was a name.

Dragos.

"Where is he?" Dylan asked, trying for more. "Can you tell me anything else?"

But the group of them were already fading. One by one, they dissipated…vanished into nothingness.

"I almost forgot to give you these, honey." Janet's singsong voice in the doorway startled a gasp out of Dylan. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to scare you."

"It's okay." Dylan shook her head, still dazed by the other encounter. "What do you have?"

"A couple of pictures I took from the river cruise Mr. Fasso hosted earlier this week. I think your mom would like to have them." Janet came in and put a couple of color prints on the desk. "Doesn't she look nice in that blue dress? Those girls at the table with her are a few of the ones she was mentoring. Oh – and there's Mr. Fasso way in the back of the room. You can hardly make him out, but that's the side of his face. Isn't he handsome?"

He was, actually. And younger than she imagined him. He had to be about twenty years younger than her mother – in his late forties at most, and probably not even that old.

"Will you take these to your mom for me, honey?"

"Sure." Dylan smiled, hoping she didn't look as rattled as she felt.

It wasn't until Janet had toddled off again that Dylan took a good look at the pictures. A really good look.

"Jesus Christ."

One of the girls seated at the table with her mom on that river cruise a few short days ago was among the group of dead Breedmates she'd just seen in the office.

She grabbed a stack of older photographs from the box she'd packed them into and sifted through the images. Her heart sank. There was another young woman's face that she'd just seen in spectral form a minute ago.

"Oh, God."

Dylan felt sick to her stomach as she bolted out of the office for the ladies room. She dialed the number Rio gave her and barely gave him a chance to say hello before she blurted out everything that had just happened.

"One of them said the name Dragos," she told him in a frantic whisper. "Does that mean anything to you?"

Rio's sudden silence made the ice in her stomach grow even colder. "Yeah. Son of a bitch. I know the name."

"Who is he, Rio?"

"Dragos is the one who created the hibernation chamber in that cave. His son freed the creature that had been sleeping there. He's evil, Dylan. About the worst kind you'd ever want to know."

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