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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Thirty-one)

It took a while for the aftershock to wear off, following the bomb Tegan had dropped about Jenna. While Kade and his fellow warriors had connected via satellite phone with the Order's headquarters to brief Lucan on the various developments and potential disasters in Alaska, Alex had remained in Jenna's bedroom with her friend the entire time.

with her friend the entire time.

She was worried about Jenna; Kade knew that.

Alex had tried to argue with Tegan and him that it wasn't fair to yank Jenna out of her world in Harmony and carry her off to Boston as if Jenna had no say in the matter whatsoever. But Tegan would not be swayed, nor would Lucan, once the Order's leader had been informed of the stunning revelation concerning Jenna Tucker-Darrow and the fact that the human female was suddenly speaking a language that hadn't originated on this planet nor been heard here for several centuries at that. A language that was recognizable only to the few, very oldest of the Breed, and one the Order hoped might somehow prove useful in their efforts against their enemy, Dragos.

Alex had been reluctant to leave Jenna alone with Kade's brethren when the time came for her and Kade to leave for his family's Darkhaven. Tegan had given his word that Jenna would be safe with them, but Kade noticed it was Brock's personal reassurance that finally eased some of the worry from Alex's eyes.

"He'll take good care of her until we get back," Kade said now, seated beside Alex in the cockpit of her plane as they passed over the lights of Fairbanks a few thousand feet below. Alex had also entrusted Luna to the warrior, having sent the wolf dog back to Jenna's cabin before she and Kade departed. "You don't need to worry, Alex. I've fought beside Brock for the past year, trusting him to watch my back as I've watched his. When he gives his word, you can count on him to keep it. Jenna couldn't be in better hands." Which was more than he could say for Alex, Kade thought grimly. If he hadn't needed the plane to transport Seth's body to his family's domain, he would have insisted that Alex stay behind in Brock's care, too. The reception that awaited him at his father's Darkhaven would not be pleasant–he knew that. The last thing he wanted was for Alex to witness his shame, or to see the pain his return was sure to cause in his kin when he brought Seth's corpse back to them.

That was a path he wished he could walk alone, but there was a small part of him that was grateful for her company beside him. Selfishly, he took a measure of comfort just in her presence at his side. Alex glanced over at him in his silence. "What about the rest of the people in Harmony? I heard Tegan say on the phone that he and Chase and Hunter were going to contain the situation while we're taking care of Seth. What exactly does 'contain the situation' mean? They won't … hurt anyone in town, will they?"

"No. No one will be hurt," Kade said, having been part of the discussion with Lucan and the others as they'd strategized the mission's final steps in Alaska. "You know how you said you wished there was a way to erase Jenna's memories of the Ancient and what she might have been through with him?" Alex shot him an incredulous look as understanding dawned on her. "You mean the whole town?

There are nearly a hundred people in Harmony. What are Tegan and the others going to do, walk down every street, knocking door to door?"

Kade smiled despite the gravity of the situation, including the chasm of unresolved issues that still gaped between Alex and him. "I'm sure they'll find a way to get the job done. Tegan is nothing if not efficient."

Kade glanced out the window as the dark landscape below the plane changed from the uniform terrain of city with its plowed streets and snow-covered rooftops, to the rugged, far-reaching wilderness of the bush. "My father's ten thousand acres begin just at that ridge ahead. There's a clearing where we can land on the other side of those tall spruce to the north. The Darkhaven compound is within an easy walk of the clearing."

Alex gave a nod of acknowledgment as she guided the plane to the ground where he had indicated. Once they had landed, Kade went back to the cargo hold and retrieved Seth's bloodied, blanketwrapped body. He carried the lifeless bulk in a careful grasp, Seth's weight a precious burden he would never know again. As much as he intended to bring his brother home alone, as was his duty, he had to admit Alex's presence as he made the trek to the Darkhaven compound lent a comfort he hadn't expected he would need.

She walked beside him in sober purpose, into the snowy yard of the main residence. It had to be late morning by now, probably only a couple of hours before the noon daybreak. Most of the Breed population of this small community would be inside their private quarters, sleeping perhaps, some of them making love.

Kade paused in front of the large house where his mother and father lived, reflecting that in just a few minutes, he would shatter their lives with grief and pain. The very things he had sought to protect them from in keeping Seth's secret for so long.

"Are you okay?" Alex hesitated beside him. She put her hand on his shoulder, a tender, warm touch that gave him more strength than she could have possibly known.

that gave him more strength than she could have possibly known.

He needed that strength in the moment that followed.

From within the Darkhaven came the sound of footsteps traveling swiftly over the wood-plank floors. His mother's voice called from somewhere inside. "Kir? Kir, what is it? Where are you going?" Kade's father did not answer.

The doors of the main residence burst open with the force of the elder Breed male's emotions alone. He stalked over the threshold like a tempest, clearly roused from his bed and having paused only long enough to tug on a pair of loose flannel lounging pants before he flew outside to face the news no parent wanted to hear.

Alex gasped at the sight of him, though her shock came as no surprise to Kir's surviving son. Six and a half feet of muscled fury, dermaglyphs seething with the dark hues of anger and alarm, stood frozen on the porch of the large log residence. Gray eyes burned with amber, flicking questioningly over Alex before landing on Kade in searing judgment.

"Tell me what has happened to my son."

Kade had never heard his father's voice shake, not even at Kir's worst. The tremor in that deep baritone now was like a knife to Kade's gut.

"Father … I am sorry."

Kir thundered down the steps and into the snow. He stopped in front of Kade and Alex, reached out with a shaking hand to lift the blanket that covered Seth's face.

"Ah, Christ. No." The words choked in the back of his throat, raw with anguish. He looked once more, longer now, as though forcing himself to take full measure of the Rogue's face that had been hidden beneath the shroud. "I prayed this wouldn't happen again. Goddamn it, not to one of my sons."

"Kir!" Kade glanced up as his pregnant mother strayed out to the porch, her silk nightgown engulfed by the large parka she'd apparently grabbed and thrown on inside the house. Her steps faltered as she saw Kade standing there in the snow, his arms filled with an unmistakable bulk. "Oh, my God. Oh, no. Oh, dear lord, no! Please tell me that's not–"

"Stay back," Kade's father barked. Then he gentled his voice to a heartbreaking softness. "Victoria, I beg you … don't come any closer. Please, my love, go back inside. Do as I say. You don't need to see this." With a sob, she inched back toward the door, aided by Maksim, who'd just come outside in that moment, as well. Max took her arm to steady her as he brought his brother's mate back into the Darkhaven.

"Give him to me," Kade's father said once the doors had closed and both Max and Victoria were back inside. "Let me have my dead son."

Kade released Seth to him, and watched as his father carried the body, barefoot through the ankledeep snow, toward the Darkhaven's chapel that stood near the center of the compound. There, as was custom, Seth's corpse would be prepared for the funeral rites to be carried out at the next sunrise. Kade felt Alex's arms come around him in a warm embrace, but it did little to ease the cold regret that gnawed at him like a vulture on carrion.

In just a couple more hours, nothing but a pile of sun-scorched ash would remain of his brother–or of Kade's place among his kin.

Back in Harmony, the warriors were hauling ass to clean up the situation with the locals, which had begun some time ago with the task of disappearing several dead bodies from cold storage at the airstrip and at the town's tiny clinic.

"One nice thing about all this snow and wilderness out here is there's a lot of goddamn snow and wilderness out here," Tegan remarked dryly as Chase and Hunter met up with him at their waiting snowmachines on a game trail several long miles into the bush.

They'd sledded out of Harmony with the Toms family, Big Dave, and Lanny Ham in tow, carrying all of the Ancient's recent victims to a cavern in the area mountains. A few strategically fired gunshots had collapsed the ice and rock at the cavern's mouth, sealing it off and ensuring that the dead would not be found until sometime well into the next ice age.

"Any word from Gideon about Phase Two of this operation?" Tegan asked Chase, who'd been charged with coordinating the in-town portion of their task list for the day

"Everything's in place," Chase said. "Gideon has spoken with one Sidney Charles, Harmony's acting mayor, informing Mr. Charles that the unit dispatched from the Alaska State Trooper pision in Fairbanks should be arriving within the hour to address the townspeople as a group and collect statements."

"And I take it the good mayor was agreeable to that?"

Chase nodded. "He told Gideon he would personally see to it that every citizen was in attendance. They're gathering at Harmony's church to wait for us as we speak."

Tegan chuckled low under his breath. "So, where does that leave things? Breaking and entering, evidence tampering, compromising a crime scene, impersonating police officers, scrubbing roughly a hundred human minds in one fell swoop and getting it done before first light …" Chase grinned. "All in a day's work."

Kade wasn't sure he would be welcomed in the Darkhaven chapel where all of the compound's residents had gathered to say their good-byes to Seth in the remaining minutes before daybreak. He had intended to sit the damned ritual out completely, pacing his quarters in front of Alex like a caged animal as the hour crept closer and closer to noon, when the winter sun would finally make its brief appearance. Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore.

"I have to be there," he blurted, stopping in front of Alex where she sat on the sofa in his cabin's living room. "Whether they think I belong with them now or not, I need to be there. For Seth. And for myself, too. Goddamn it, they all need to hear what I have to say."

He stormed out of the cabin and headed across the frozen grounds. The faintly blue-tinged snow, lighted by the approaching sunrise, crunched under his boots with each long stride that carried him toward the chapel.

The windows of the small log building were already shuttered tight in anticipation of daybreak. As Kade drew nearer, he heard the soft murmur of voices lowered in private prayer, mingled with the intermittent sounds of the grieving inside.

Even before he reached for the latch of the door, he could smell the paraffin odor of the eight candles that would be burning at the altar, and the fragrant scent of the perfumed oil that anointed Seth's body in preparation for the infinity rites about to take place.

Eight ounces of oil to bless and cleanse him. Eight layers of pristine white silk to shroud him until his body would be surrendered to the sun. Eight minutes of scorching ultraviolet exposure for the one who would be chosen from among the living to attend Seth in private for the final moments of the funeral ceremony.

"Fuck," Kade whispered, paused at the chapel doors as the reality of it all settled on him. His brother was dead.

His family was in mourning.

And Kade felt more than partly to blame for all of it.

He opened the chapel door and stepped inside. Nearly every head swung in his direction, some looking on him in pity, others staring at him like the stranger he had become in the year he'd been gone with the Order.

Everyone gathered in the chapel was dressed in ceremonial attire–females draped in black hooded gowns, males in belted long black robes. He found his parents in the front row of pews, standing with Maksim and Patrice, all of them garbed in black, their faces pale with shock, eyes rimmed in red, moist with grief. Had Seth been mated to Patrice, as his widow, she would have been gowned in hooded scarlet to signify their blood bond. His body, cocooned in white silk on the altar, would have borne a single crimson kiss where his Breedmate would have scored her own lips then pressed her mouth to his in one final goodbye. As Kade considered the solemn traditions of his kind, he couldn't help thinking of Alex. He couldn't keep from flashing forward to a future where he was the one laid out on the funeral altar, his face transformed as Seth's was, frozen by Bloodlust under the shroud of white silk. Would Alex love him then?

Could he really ask her to love him now, after everything she knew about him? After everything she had seen and heard in the past several hours, could he ever expect to have her trust or affection ever again?

For that matter, what about the people gathered in this chapel? Would his kin at this Darkhaven have anything but scorn for him, once he'd said his piece?

Kade didn't know. At the moment, he didn't damn well care. He strode to the center aisle, knowing how out of place he must look in his combat-worn, bloodstained black fatigues, guns and blades bristling from the belt around his hips while his lug-soled boots echoed hollowly over the polished wood path toward the altar.

His father's gaze narrowed darkly as Kade began to walk toward the front of the chapel. As he passed the rows of filled pews, he heard the quiet murmurs of prayers and softly whispered praises for his brother.

"Always such a charming boy, wasn't he?" someone reflected in a barely audible voice. "How tragic that something like this could have happened to him."

that something like this could have happened to him."

"Seth was the studious and responsible one," another detached whisper recalled. "He might have made a fine Darkhaven leader himself one day."

"Poor Kir and Victoria, they must be heartbroken," remarked yet another grief-choked resident, voice lowered so that Kade could hardly hear as he passed. "Would anyone have imagined that Seth could turn Rogue? What a waste, and what a disappointment for his family."

"Kir has refused to speak of it" came a hushed reply. "I understand he is so ashamed, he would let no one near the body after Kade brought Seth home."

"That's right," someone else chimed in confidentially. "It's only because Victoria insisted that Kir even permitted a gathering for the funeral rites. It's as though he wanted to simply sweep Seth away like he never existed."

Kade ignored the quiet wave of whispered speculation behind him as he made his way to the altar at the front of the chapel. His father's shame and disapproval didn't surprise him. The fiercely disciplined, rigidly perfect Kir would never tolerate a Rogue in the family, let alone willingly deign to admit that his favored son had fallen to Bloodlust.

Kade was ashamed, too, not so much for his brother's weaknesses and unforgivable misdeeds but for his own failure to help Seth turn his life around before it was too late.

"This moment belongs to my brother," he said, addressing the assembled group of his relatives and the other residents of the Darkhaven. "I have no wish to take even a second of this time away from Seth, but there are things you all should know. Things all of you need to understand before you condemn him for what became of him in the end."

"Sit down, Kade." His father's voice was low and level, but his eyes crackled with command. "This is neither the time nor the place."

Kade nodded. "I know. I should have come forward a hell of a lot sooner. Maybe if I'd said something earlier, my brother would've had a chance. Maybe he wouldn't be dead." His father rose, coming up off his seat on the bench. "Nothing you say here will change a goddamn thing. So hold your tongue, boy. Let it be."

"I can't," Kade said. "I've carried Seth's secret for too long. I've been carrying my own secrets, too. It's long past time I let them go."

Kade's mother blinked back a fresh rush of tears, one slender hand cradling the swell of her stomach, where another pair of twin boys was growing inside her. "What are you talking about? What secrets, Kade?

Please … I want to know."

He looked past the disapproving glare of his father, to the plea that swam in his gentle mother's moist eyes. Maybe what he said in this room, before all of these witnesses, would someday help the new pair of brothers who would soon be born with the same talent–the same seductive, wild calling–that he and Seth possessed. For that reason alone, he had to speak.

And then, there was Alex.

Kade's gaze strayed to the back of the crowded chapel, where she had entered in silence and now stood near the closed doors, her steady gaze as tender as it was strong. She nodded faintly, the only approval that truly mattered in this room.

"My brother was not well," he told the quiet gathering. "From the time we were boys, we both struggled with the ability we inherited at birth. Maybe in someone else, like you, Mother," he said, glancing at her as he spoke about the unique gift she also possessed, "the talent might have been a strength. For Seth and me, it became a curse. It was too much power for boys who were stupid with arrogance and too naive to understand the consequences. We abused the talent we inherited from you. At first, we treated it like a game, running with a pack of wolves in the woods, hunting with them … killing with them. We let the wildness rule us. At some point, I realized Seth could not stop."

"Oh, my son," she gasped. "I am so sorry. I had no idea–"

"I know that," he said, interrupting her before she could assume any more blame that wasn't hers.

"No one had any idea. It was wrong for Seth and me to conceal the truth. I made it worse when I left Alaska last year."

Kir's scowl deepened. "Worse, how?"

"Seth had killed a human." Kade ignored the horrified gasp that traveled the congregation, his eyes rooted on his father. "He'd killed, and I knew he had. He promised me it was a mistake he would never repeat. I didn't believe him. I wanted to, but I knew my brother too well. I should have done something then.

I should have found a way to ensure he wouldn't do it again. Instead, I left." Silence fell over the room as Kade spoke. It stretched endlessly, a cold, sodden weight that bore down on his shoulders as he weathered his father's unreadable gaze. Kade's mother rushed to fill the terrible quiet.

"You had to leave, Kade. The Order needed your help in Boston. You had important work to do there–"

"No," Kade said, shaking his head in slow denial. "I was glad to join the Order, but that's not why I left. Not really. I left Alaska because I feared that if I stayed, I would become like Seth. To save myself, I abandoned my brother–abandoned all of you–and I ran to Boston for my own selfish reasons. There was no honor in what I did."

He glanced to the back of the chapel as he said it, meeting Alex's gaze. She was listening without judgment, the only pair of eyes in the room that wasn't fixed on him in contempt or stunned disbelief.

"What Seth did was wrong," Kade continued. "He was sick, maybe beyond help, even before his weakness turned him Rogue. But despite all that, he died with honor. Because of Seth's sacrifice a few hours ago, I am alive. More important, there is a beautiful, extraordinary woman standing at the back of this room who's also alive because of Seth's actions in the final moments of his life." As a whole, the group turned to look on Alex. She didn't flinch at the sudden attention, nor at the whispers of speculation and curiosity that traveled the chapel on Kade's announcement.

"Seth wasn't perfect," Kade said. "God knows, I'll never be. But I loved my brother. And I owe him everything for what he did today."

"You honor him well," a male voice murmured from somewhere on Kade's left. He glanced over and found Maksim standing now. He nodded soberly. "You honor all of us here today, Kade." The praise from his uncle–his friend–was unexpected, and tightened Kade's throat. Then similar murmurs rose up from others in the room.

Kir walked forward and placed his hand on Kade's shoulder. "It's time. Daybreak is coming, and I must take Seth into the sun."

Kade reached up, wrapped his fingers around the thick strength of his father's wrist. "Let me. Please

… it should be me, Father."

He expected a curt refusal. A dark glare that would force Kade to insist on taking the burden–the final honor–of accompanying Seth's body for the eight minutes of solar exposure required by Breed funeral tradition.

But Kir did not argue. He took a step back, saying nothing as Kade stripped off his soiled combat shirt and weapons belt, then set them down on the wooden bench nearby.

No one uttered so much as a syllable as he went to the altar and lifted his brother's shrouded bulk into his arms, then began the walk through the corridor that emptied onto the chapel's snowy back garden, where the noontime sun was just beginning to break through the winter gloom overhead.

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