The whole damned building was getting ready to blow.

 

In that instant, Rick forgot protocol completely. All that mattered was Tamia's life.

 

"Tamia, get the hell out of there!" He ordered. "That place is going to--"

 

A loud explosion cut him off, and his heart catapulted into his throat. No!

 

"Blade! Tamia! Damn it, answer me!" He lurched from his concealment behind the barracks. Not her. Not now. Silence hovered over the COMlink, broken only by the sound of settling shrapnel and the crackle of flames. Then came the sweetest sound he ever heard -- a wheezing cough.

 

"Tamia!"

 

"Ace, I'm... What happened?"

 

"Are you hurt? Can you move at all?"

 

"I think I'm... I'm bleeding, but that's it. Shrapnel must've winged me."

 

"Dear God, Tamia." He was near the ruined building, now. His gaze scanned frantically over the burning wreckage, searching for her. "I shouldn't have sent..."

 

"I'm fine. Really. Could use some help getting these damned plaster blocks off of me, but I'll manage." Her voice was too light, too casual. Something was wrong. He heard her labored breathing, and the sound of her struggling.

 

"Where are you?"

 

She drew a sharp breath. "Southwest corner. Only side of the damn building not burning. Guess I'm one lucky bitch, huh?"

 

He would have cried at the forced lightness in her voice, if he was that in touch with his emotions. Right now, he wasn't even in touch with his sanity. Here he was, out in the wide open, and the ghost was walking.

 

"Angel standing by, request go-ahead," came Gypsy's voice over the COMlink.

 

With barely an awareness of it, Rick answered, "Negative, Angel. The ghost is walking. Palace gate is closed."

 

He reached the area Tamia described without even realizing he moved, and his heart stopped as he saw her. She lay a few feet from the main ruins, just outside the range of the flames. Either she crawled there in the last few minutes, or the explosion threw her there. Judging from the lack of rubble around her, he'd say it was the former. She just proved beyond doubt that she was one tough lady.

 

"Tamia!" He rushed to her side and pulled off his mask as he fell to his knees next to her. She obviously removed her mask recently, as well. It lay beside her, a barely recognizable scrap of fabric and plastic. Her face was contorted in pain, and her hands gripped her side, where blood oozed, black in the firelight, through her fingers. The blood was heavy and dark, and fear plunged through Rick as he saw the amount of blood on her clothes. She was pale, and her dark suit was ripped open in several places. Blood trickled from lacerations on her arms and legs. "Oh god, sweetheart..."

 

Her eyes opened at the sound of his voice, her pupils dilated in pain, and she looked up into his frightened face.

 

"Guess it looks pretty bad, huh?" Her breathing was labored, even as she struggled to make light of her dangerous injuries.

 

"Dear God, Tamia," his voice cracked as he reached out to touch her face. He choked on the surge of frightened panic trying to claw its way through his chest. Now was no time to battle his demons. Tamia needed help, and fast.

Contact Esther Mitchell at:

esthermitchell@esthermitchell.com

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