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Midnight Rising (Chapter Twenty-four)

Panic flooded Rio's veins like acid.

The gunfire came again, another rapid report that split the night. The sharp staccato pops were coming from somewhere close; in his head they were cannon fire, the sound of them – the shock of a sudden attack – ripping through his senses, filling his mind with a thick fog that swallowed the here and now.

Dylan, he thought fiercely.

Had to keep her safe.

He was only barely conscious of his actions as he grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her down onto the grass beneath him. Her cry of alarm was muted, more felt than heard as he covered her body with his, willing to sacrifice himself for her.

Protecting her was all that mattered.

But as they hit the hard earth together, Rio felt his mind splintering off. Past and present began to blend, mesh…morph into a hazy confusion of thought and fracturing logic.

Suddenly he was in the warehouse again – Lucan, Nikolai, and the other warriors moving in on a raid of a Rogue lair in Boston. He was glancing up into the rafters of the abandoned building, noting the movement of enemies in the shadows.

Seeing the silver glint of an electronic device in the suckhead's hands.

Hearing Niko shout a warning that a bomb was set to blow…

Ah, fuck.

Rio roared as remembered pain blasted into his head, into every inch of his body. He felt like he was on fire, flesh burning, filling his nostrils with the stench of seared skin and hair.

Cool hands came up to his face, but he was too far gone to make sense of what was real and what was a nightmare from his recent past.

"Rio?"

He heard the soft voice, felt those soothing hands moving over his face.

And, from somewhere not far away the hoots and chortles of several human youths. The laughter was accompanied by the slap of sneakers on pavement, all of it growing distant now.

"Rio. Are you all right?"

He knew that voice. It filtered through the swelling madness that was engulfing him, a lifeline thrown to him in the dark of his mind. He reached for it, feeling her voice ground him where nothing else ever had.

"Dylan," he managed to rasp out between the panting of his breath. "Don't want you to get hurt…"

"I'm fine. It was only firecrackers." She smoothed her fingers over the cold clamminess of his forehead. "Those boys set them off by the railing over there. It's okay now."

Like hell it was.

He felt one of his blackouts coming on, and coming on fast. He rolled away from Dylan with a groan. "Shit…my head hurts…can't think straight."

She must have leaned over him, because he felt her breath skate across his cheek as she blew out a low curse. "Your eyes, Rio. Shit. They're changing…they're glowing amber."

He knew they must be. His fangs were biting into his tongue, his skin tightening up all over his body as rage and pain transformed him. He was at his most deadly like this, when his mind was not his own. When his devil's hands were at their most unpredictable, and most powerful.

"We have to get you someplace less public," Dylan said. She slipped her hands underneath his shoulders.

"Hold on to me. I'm going to help you stand up."

"No."

"What do you mean, no?"

"Leave me," he rasped.

Dylan scoffed. "Like hell I will. You can't lie out here like this in the middle of Manhattan and expect not to be noticed. Now, come on. Get. Up."

"I can't…don't want to touch you. I don't want to hurt you, Dylan."

"Then don't," she said, and put her weight into the task of hoisting him up onto his feet.

Rio had no choice but to put his hands on her shoulders to steady himself as the fog in his mind grew thicker, swallowing up his vision. He fought to keep the blackout at bay, knowing Dylan would be safest only if he remained lucid.

"Lean on me, damn it," she ordered him. "I'm going to help you."

Dylan wedged herself under Rio's arm and took his wrist in her hand, bearing as much of his weight as she could while she tried to find somewhere private for him to deal with the aftershocks of the attack that had come over him. She led him off the riverside walkway and up a one-way side street where there was less traffic, and far less people around to get close enough to see his transformation.

"Still good?" she asked him, hurrying toward an old brick church with plenty of shadows behind it. "Can you make it a bit farther?"

He gave a nod and grunted, but each step was more sluggish than the last. "Blacking…out…"

"Yeah, I kind of figured that," she said. "It's okay, Rio. Just hang in with me for another minute, okay?"

No answer this time, but she could feel him working to stay upright and moving. Struggling to stay lucid long enough for her to help him.

"You're doing great," she told him. "Almost there."

She pulled him into the dark behind the building, guiding him to an alcove near a rusted, padlocked door. Using the brick wall as back support for Rio, Dylan carefully eased him down into a sitting position on the ground. She threw a glance in both directions, relieved to see that they were fairly concealed from the side street and any passersby. They were safe there for now.

"Tell me what to do, Rio. What do you need to get through this?"

He didn't answer. Maybe he was incapable. Dylan smoothed his dark hair away from his face and searched his eyes for any sign that he was still cognizant. The thin vertical pupils were always a shock, but no more so than the blast of amber that surrounded them. Rio's eyes burned like hot coals set into his skull. Anyone driving or walking past the small church would have to be blind to miss the otherworldly glow.

Dylan glanced at the old door and its decrepit lock. She'd seen Rio turn on lamps and water spigots with his mind, so pulling off a B&E on the church should have been no big thing. Except he clearly was in no condition to attempt it. His head slumped down onto his chest and with a pained groan, he started listing to the side.

"Shit," Dylan hissed.

She left him only long enough to search the lightless lot for something heavy. She came back with a piece of broken cinder block that had been keeping the lid of a Dumpster closed. The brick was rough in her hands, and made an echoing crack and a bright spark as she slammed it against the padlock on the church door. It took two more hard strikes before the lock dropped away with a thump.

"Rio," she whispered fiercely as she lifted his thick shoulders back up. "Rio, can you hear me? We have to get you inside. Can you stand up?"

She raised his chin and stared into open eyes that were unseeing now, vacant pits of fire.

"Goddamn it," she muttered, then winced at the poor choice of expletives, considering she was about to bring an unconscious creature of the night into a heavenly sanctuary for protection.

Dylan eased the church door open and listened for any signs of occupation. It was all quiet, not a single light on inside the small antechamber or in the main area of the nave beyond.

"Okay, here we go," she said under her breath as she went around to Rio's head and grabbed his arms to pull him over the threshold.

He was heavy as hell, two-hundred-plus pounds of solid muscle and bone, none of it cooperating with her. Dylan tugged and dragged him into the darkness, then closed the door behind them.

It didn't take long to find a couple of candles and a box of matches in the cabinets. Dylan lit the pair of white tapers then ducked back outside to grab the cinder block as a makeshift holder. She stuffed the candles into the cylindrical holes of the cement brick, then went to check on Rio.

"Hey," she said softly, leaning over his sprawled, unresponsive body where he lay on the floor. His eyes were closed now, but restless behind his lids. A muscle in his jaw twitched, his limbs unmoving yet tense with a coiled energy Dylan could feel as she got near him.

She stroked his face with a feather-light touch, running the backs of her fingers over the flawless cheek that made him so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the other side that completely broke her heart. Who could have predicted these past several days, and all the things she would experience? What could possibly have prepared her for meeting this complicated, incredible man?

Would she ever truly be able to forget him, even if he erased himself from her memory like he intended to do?

She doubted it. Even if her mind were forced to forget him, she didn't think her heart ever would.

Dylan bent down and pressed her lips to his slack mouth.

Rio's eyes snapped open. His hands shot around her throat so fast, she didn't have a chance to draw breath enough to cry out.

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