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I woke up gasping for air, clawing toward the ceiling. Only until I realized I was not free falling from a plane without my wings did I stop, running my fingers through my hair and relaxing on the damp, lumpy mattress. My thin blanket had been pushed onto the concrete floor during my nightmare. Shivering, I stood and wrapped it around my shoulders, slipping on my flimsy tennis shoes. I wouldn't go back to sleep after such a stunning episode, so I would make the most of my insomnia.
"Hey," I called, waving at the camera perched outside my cell.
It wiggled back and forth.
"I can't sleep. I want to go to the Practice Room and make sure I'll ace the test."
It wiggled again, almost like it was nodding, and I heard a loud clang, my door sliding open smoothly.
I stepped out of my so-called room slowly and smoothly. They were watching, waiting for the moment I would give them any reason to beat me into submission. This game was not only physical, but mental. I couldn't let them beat me physically, but to keep living I had to follow their rules. The thin line had to be treaded on carefully. Overestimating or even underestimating most certainly meant death on the spot.
The concrete tunnel lead me straight to the Practice Room. It was actually a series of rooms, each made to contain one person at a time. I was the only one awake at this hour, so I closed the door of the first Practice Room behind me, flicking the harsh lights on.
Like everything else here, the floors, walls, and ceiling were concrete. There were no decorations. This was a facility built for function, not opulence. Everything had its purpose here.
Especially the only machine worth looking at in the Practice Rooms. The Flight Simulator was as tall as the wall and had tons of screens covering half the room so it would look real.
I strode onto the screens. They flickered as my weight was put on them. When I stopped, the vest swung over me and paused right behind me. Pushing my arms through it, I buckled the straps into place and tightened them, swinging my arms to make sure nothing was too tight or loose. It was all ready.
"Begin Simulation," I ordered.
"Beginning Simulation," the dead, expressionless voice replied.
Mechanical arms extended over me, fastening at my shoulder blades. The screens beneath my feet blurred, then became grass. Grinning, I took two running steps and leaped up, the screens revolving beneath me and the arms reacting, picking me up and allowing me to level off and shoot through the unmoving air.
I balanced my weight on the arms so I was straight and aerodynamic. I then leaned back slightly, the images beneath me becoming so much smaller and more distant. Finally, I leveled off and focused on maintaining my balance.
"Ending Simulation," the cold voice said without prompting from me.
The arms shifted me so I was upright and the screens turned black. Knowing it was nothing I had done to cause the sudden shutdown, I unbuckled myself and threw open the door. It was one of the little robots that carried messages to us from the soldiers that protected us, but we never saw.
"Confirmation," the robot prompted.
I held out my wrist to it. The compact silver computer scanned the symbols that had been tattooed there when I was ten, then beeped once loudly.
"From Lieutenant Wang for Subject 17403, otherwise known as Maia." It paused, then I heard a female voice it had recorded. "Congratulations, Maia. You are being tested today to see if you will get your wings. A robot will lead you to the testing rooms later today. Good luck, and I hope you will be pleased with your results."
The robot beeped again, then turned and disappeared through a hole in the wall.
I was completely stunned. Did everyone get this message from the Lieutenant? I'd never heard of that happening. I hadn't even known there was a lieutenant.
Unsure if I was allowed to continue practicing for the test, I decided to take a shower. It wouldn't work in my favor to knock out the testers before they even determined if I should get my wings.
I closed the Practice Room door behind me and looked up at another one of the cameras.
"Wanna let me in to the showers?"
It nodded once and I heard the sliding of metal on greased metal. Nodding in thanks, I went down the hallway and turned left at the brightly lit corridor. It was tiled, but you could see where fights had knocked some out that it had the same boring gray concrete underneath. There was a clock fastened to the wall, and it told me the time was 04:00. Others that qualified for the wing test would be waking up soon. Those that hadn't were getting a day off to rest in their rooms. I didn't see the logic in giving the mediocre a day off while the elite had to be tested, but I was a soldier and I followed orders. Begrudgingly, though. I didn't like taking orders, but I knew it was necessary in order for me to keep my life.
I took off my tank top and shorts, shoving them down the laundry chute. My shoes went down after that. The machine would scan them and find my DNA, then give me the uniform required for the day.
I walked past the motion sensors, and they switched on a shower head. Steam rose around me as I rubbed the shampoo and conditioner into my long crimson hair as it was dispensed to me. I had finished washing my body and was relaxing underneath the pressure of the hot water when I became aware of a presence in the bathroom with me.
"How are you feeling?" I asked without opening my eyes.
"Ready to beat you," Carissa purred, stepping past the sensors.
The shower in the opposite corner sputtered on, creating more steam. Carissa seemed to not care, sauntering over until she was inches away from me. She smelled like sweat.
"I will do better than you. I am the one they will make an Angel."
I smirked. "Easier said than done, Carissa. You'll have to kill me if you want to win."
"So be it."
I blocked her left fist, kicking out at her knee. She moved to avoid it, but she was unsteady on her feet. I wrenched her left fist to the right and Carissa slipped on the soapy water covering the floor, smacking her head onto the tiles with a stunningly loud crack. Blood trailed from her head and swirled down the drain.
I ran over to the red button and pressed it three times, the sign for injury. I knew I had to leave or they wouldn't come, so I went into the area where I could get my new clothes and dry off. The lights flashed red and thick black glass slid into the doorway, completely blocking my view of what was happening.
I felt guilty for hurting Carissa, but not. She had been willing to kill me so she could win the wings. She knew what she had been getting herself into, though. We were at the top of our classes in everything, and so we were always paired together. I was much better at hand-to-hand combat, and she knew that. I always beat her. But did I have to go so far as to make her hit her head on the tile that badly? I could have pulled up a little so it didn't hurt her as badly. We were both guilty in this, and I couldn't take all the blame.
I heard grunting as they hauled Carissa away. Wrapping the towel around me, I sat on the cold metal bench. My hair was sticking to my arms, making it look like blood was running down them. Finally, the black glass was cracked open just enough for a robot to slip through, then closed tightly again. The short robot was blue and came up to my hip. It stopped in front of me and I heard the soldiers speaking to me through it.
"Maia, what happened?" a man asked.
"She was saying she was going to beat me at the wing test, and I told her she'd have to kill me first. She threw the first punch, and I ended it."
The robot bobbed its head once and went back through the door, which was opened for me. I wasn't in trouble.
I stood shakily and dried myself off, wrapping my hair in a towel so it would be out of the way while I dressed. There was a cubby with glass over it, my name glowing on it. Carissa's was right next to mine. With a trembling hand I touched the glass covering my uniform. It flashed green, then withdrew so I could get my clothes for the day.
I set them on the bench, then slipped the skintight black suit on, buckling the belt around my waist and lacing my knee-high leather combat boots. Whipping off the towel, I let my hair loose and stepped on the yellow mat. It whistled as the machine blew my hair down, combing my hair with the hot burst of air. It powered down just as quickly, and my hair was dry and curly.
Striding out of the bathroom, my boots slapping against the concrete, I went to the Media Center and sat on the rigid couch. A red light scanned me, then the TV powered on.
"Thank you. I would like to see-"
The TV turned off and a tiny black robot that was the size and shape of a soccer ball rolled in. I had never seen one before, but I had a feeling I knew what it was for. I stood and allowed it to scan my wrist.
"Subject 17403. Confirmed."
It rolled slowly out the door, and I followed it. We went down hallways I had never gotten access to, the dark glass sliding smoothly out of the way and back into place when we were past.
Finally, it halted at a thick metal door.
The door slid open, screeching a little bit. I resisted the urge to cover my ears. They were undoubtedly watching me already. Taking a deep breath, I entered the room where my fate would be determined. The door closed behind me, sealing me in darkness.
I felt my eyes adjust. There was almost no light, but just enough for me to see vague outlines. I could hear better than I could see, though, so I closed my eyes and took slow, measured breaths to decrease my heartbeats.
Careful footsteps whispered over the padded floor. They were behind me, a few feet away. I kept moving my head around, acting as if I were panicking. My tester seemed to believe the ruse. Their heartbeats grew faster, and I could hear them better than my own. One more step in my direction, and I struck.
Lightning fast, I pivoted and used my momentum to slam my fist into their unguarded and definitely not female chest, sending the man flying into the wall with a sickening crack and the sound of a limp body slumping on the floor. I was off to a good start.
My heart rate was up, so I stood still, concentrating on my breathing again. Once it was down, I noticed more footsteps. Three people. I crouched behind what I was pretty sure had to be some boxes, closing my eyes again and breathing slowly, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
They were in an arrow formation, with one at the front and two behind them, side by side. I allowed the leader to pass, then struck out at the person closest to me, punching them in the back of the neck and leaping over their crumpled form to strike the other on the temple. The leader was facing me, breathing loudly. I slowed my breaths a little, then jumped forward and kicked her in the abdomen. All three were down, each from one hit.
I jogged lightly through the maze of junk, then ducked down in a corner, shutting my eyes again and breathing as slowly as I could. This strategy had not failed me yet, but this would be the last time I'd use it. The testers were probably watching to see what I would do and using it against me.
A group of seven this time, walking closely together. I could hear the mechanical hum they brought with them. Probably night vision goggles.
They didn't check my corner, parading past like a couple of elephants. When the last person passed me, I hit him in the back of the head. Diving over the unconscious body, I tackled two more, pushing down on their heads. They didn't move after that, so I punched the nearest soldier in the groin. I heard an intake of breath, but they didn't collapse completely, so it was definitely a woman. A stupid mistake. I punched her in the stomach, and she flew into a pile of boxes. Standing, I landed a solid kick to someone's chest and felt two arms grab me, then another pair. The only one in front of me whaled on my face, grunting. Once, twice, then pulled back their arm for a third. I elbowed one of the people holding me in the face, the other in the sternum. Taking advantage of the leader's surprise, I kicked him in the chest.
Seven unconscious figures around me. I jumped over the maze wall and almost landed on the only soldier I hadn't heard coming. We both froze for a millisecond, then training took over and we struck out, blocking and attacking at the same time. It was the only time I had felt challenged. I heard the deep grunting and knew it was a man. He was stronger, but I was faster. I struck here and there, too fast for him to catch me. Each individual strike probably didn't hurt terribly, but the deluge of them had to. He couldn't keep up, and so he tried hitting me, ignoring the pain, but I was able to sidestep his attacks, knowing I couldn't block them without hurting myself.
I took a step back to avoid a kick to the chest and felt strong arms grab me.
"Gotcha," a smug male voice whispered in my ear.
Snarling, I hit his smug face with the back of my head, feeling his nose break.
I had to end this quickly. They were rested and I was not. I had barely slept the last night.
The last man held up his arms in surrender, his body outlined only a little bit in the poor lighting.
"I surrender," his deep voice cut through the eerie silence.
"I don't believe you," I answered.
He leapt forward without hesitating, aiming a punch toward my face. I ducked beneath it and stepped out of the way. He landed awkwardly having assumed my body would slow his down. I landed a neat punch to the back of his head, and he collapsed before he knew what had even happened.
When his body hit the ground, the lights flared, and in saw the maze I had been put in. The man with a broken nose was holding it gingerly as blood dripped onto the dusty floor. His partner was slumped on the ground, covered in black and blue bruises, some already turning purple.
I heard a door slide open, a different one. This door didn't squeak.
Heels clicked on the concrete, and a woman in a business suit came around the corner.
"Hello, Maia. I must say I am very impressed with what you've done. I would be delighted for you to join the Angels."
"Yes, ma'am, thank you very much. I would love to."
She raised an eyebrow. "But?"
How had she known I had a question?
"Isn't there a flying test?"
"No. We want fighters in the Angels, and we can't teach that kind of skill and quick thinking. We can teach flying easily, although it does help to know how the students do at the Flight Simulators."
So they have always been watching us. I had thought they were, just hadn't expected for a recruiter to admit it without me asking.
"You have done exceptionally well, Maia. All soldiers were either knocked unconscious or put out of action. You acclimated to your environment almost immediately and were able to keep a cool head throughout, even when you were put up against a real challenge and ambushed."
"Thank you, ma'am."
I felt my heart soar. I was an Angel! The recruiter has accepted me and I'm going to fly!
"Come. We are going to the Angel Compound. This military school has taught you all it can. Now the Angels will do the same."
She didn't tell me her name, barely spoke except to give me directions. I felt as if the point of that was to intimidate me or make me curious, but I didn't really care. I knew it would probably be that way if I made it in with the Angels. It's not like they got here by telling every person every little secret of theirs.
After I had accepted her invitation to become an Angel, she lead me out of the maze, not bothering to make sure the soldiers I had beaten were well taken care of after their ordeal. She clipped a metal bracelet on each wrist, explaining that they were going to allow me access into the Angel Compound until I was put into the system. After that, she and I exited the military school I had lived in for as long as I could remember. I couldn't help but feel a little breathless as we were let off the grounds, the gates screeching loudly.
We walked perhaps a mile and crested a hill, seeing a helicopter at the top. The pilot nodded to the woman and opened the door for us. We jumped in and locked it. The blades chopped the air, hurting my ears a little as we hovered in the air.
The flight was probably an hour but passed in the blink of an eye as I soaked up everything I could see. This was the first time I had ever been off school grounds, and I was determined to make the most of it. I was aware of the woman watching me, but I couldn't be bothered to make small talk. The ground moving beneath us was much more interesting anyway.
The Angel Compound was suddenly beneath us, and we were landing on the helipad. I adjusted the tight bracelets. When we landed, the woman threw open the door and we walked in the doors of the Angel Compound.
It wasn't grand and richly decorated, but it was much nicer than the military school. There was drywall and granite covering what I was sure had to be concrete, but there wasn't an inch of it in sight. I was in heaven.
The woman lead me through empty corridors, never glancing back to see if I was keeping up. I got the message. This wasn't baby school anymore. Age didn't matter here. If you couldn't keep up, you were done. No negotiating, no excuses.
She turned and entered a room with an open door. I followed closely, scared to lose her and my status as an Angel in training. A man in a long white coat turned to see us.
"Just passed the test?" he asked.
The man smiled kindly and motioned for me to sit on the table covered in thin, crinkly paper.
"I am the doctor. Congratulations on passing your test."
I smiled shyly, unsure if I was allowed to speak at all.
He produced a small spray bottle from his pocket.
"Close your eyes and don't breathe."
I did, and he sprayed it all over my face. It felt like it was sinking into my face with icy pins ever so slowly, but it wouldn't react. I couldn't. I had to show them I could endure whatever they decided to throw at me, and that I would do it willingly.
It slowly faded away.
"It should be done by now. Your face is healed."
I opened my eyes and took a deep breath.
"Do you have any other injuries?"
"I don't think so," I answered honestly.
"Come," the woman ordered without waiting for another second.
"Thank you," I said as I brushed past him and out the door.
Just down the corridor, she held open a door for me. I entered and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the metal table gleaming in the harsh light. Three doctors clothed from head to toe, their eyes only visible through their clear glasses, watched me, their expressions unreadable.
"You must be prepped for surgery immediately. It is set to happen in thirty minutes," she prompted pitilessly.
I stepped forward uncertainly.
"You must step into the showers first," one told me.
I nodded, then turned left and went through the door labelled SHOWERS. Shivering, I peeled off my boots and black uniform. I stepped under the shower head and it blasted me with unbearably hot water for fifteen minutes. It didn't dispense any soap, so I assumed it mixed the soap in with the water.
When it finished, I stepped onto the mat and the dryer pushed scorching air down onto me.
Finally, I was done.
The cubby in the wall held a thin gown made of paper. I tied the flimsy string behind my neck and stepped back into the surgery room.
One doctor held a syringe full of a green liquid. They beckoned me closer. One each held my arms as the third pushed half of the liquid into one arm and the rest into the other arm. Immediately, I began swaying, the world dipping dramatically beneath my feet.
"Whoa," one of the doctors said, grabbing my shoulders.
The other wrapped their arms around my feet, and the two of them lifted me effortlessly onto the icy table. My head bobbed uselessly. I couldn't move, and I found that that scared me more than the idea of people cutting me open.
"Knock her out," the third doctor, a woman, ordered smoothly.
One of the other doctors inserted a long needle into my arm and flipped a switch loudly. I began to feel groggy, and the world slowly blurred, and then was no more.
I was being torn apart, piece by piece...
I was being sliced open...
I was being remade...
I was laying on foam...
I was walking on a cloud.....
I was floating in the water.......
I was being torn from the peace of my mind...
I was being pulled to the surface...
I was being forced awake.
"I know you are awake, Maia," a male voice pierced through the silence, feeling as if it was vibrating in my chest.
I unashamedly opened my eyes then. The low light seemed to me to be as bright as the sun. I could see every shadow and what lay in it. I felt as if I had enough energy to tear the world apart piece by piece. Strength flooded my veins with each breath I took.
I was in what looked to be a bedroom. I was laying on a soft bed and covered with a thin blanket. White walls and light wooded flooring made it seem light and happy. A tiny table was next to my bed and held a vase with fake flowers. A sweating glass of water dripped condensation onto the table. The man perched on a comically small white chair, watching me take in my surroundings.
"How do you feel?" the man, who I noticed couldn't be more than two years older than me, asked slowly.
He was attractive with long legs, clothed in black pants and a tight black shirt. High, prominent cheekbones casted shadows on his face. Pale skin and black hair made a startling contrast. Black tattoos traced his arms in thick lines. Bright blue eyes watched me warily, as if unsure of what I would do next.
In response, I sat up and threw the blanket off. Before he could stop me, I stood.
"Nice job, Griffin," another guy said, entering the room through the doorway. "You were supposed to keep her laying down, not encourage her to get up."
This one was lanky as well, but not as built. He had shoulder length brown hair and green eyes. Tan skin was covered with the same black clothes Griffin wore. He also had thick black tattoos covering his arms, but in different designs.
Griffin glanced at him irritatedly. "Was there any encouragement in asking her how she felt?"
Both of the guys seemed oddly familiar, but it couldn't quite place why...
"So how do you feel?" Griffin asked, returning his attention to me.
"Fine," I croaked a little. My throat felt more dry than a desert.
"Want water?" Griffin offered, seeming to read my mind.
I nodded uncertainly. Nobody had ever offered to do something for me without either wanting something in return or using the chance to tell me I had to be a good soldier and be strong enough to get it myself.
Griffin handed me a glass full of ice and water, the cup covered in condensation. I took a tentative sip.
"It's not poisoned," the other guy retorted.
"Ryder," Griffin reprimanded.
Ryder immediately stopped leaning on the wall and stomped out of the room.
"What was that about?" I asked, taking another sip of water.
Griffin ran his hands through his black curly hair and sighed.
"Want to sit down?" he asked.
"No," I answered.
He plucked the glass from my hands and set it on the flimsy table and led me out of the room, then took a few quick turns to finally arrive at a door. I was completely lost. Glancing back at me, he slid the bolt back and twisted the knob. When he opened it, fresh air rushed in and blew my hair back from my face. I smiled and breathed it in, taking an unconscious step forward.
Griffin stopped me. "Can I trust you not to run?"
He seemed completely serious, and I couldn't help but laugh.
"You're an Angel. I'm sure you could stop me easily."
"You are too. You got the same operation everyone else did. Without it, you were able to take down Ryder and I. I'm not so sure I could stop you no matter how hard I tried."
I blinked in surprise. I had fought Griffin and Ryder and beat them? While they were Angels? I was completely baffled.
"I fought the two of you?" was all I could get out.
"Yeah. Ryder was the one that ambushed you."
"I broke his nose."
Griffin laughed a little. "Yeah. You knocked me out pretty good too. Whoever trained you did well."
"I was trained with the rest of the soldiers at three and from there I moved up in the ranks pretty fast."
"When did you reach the top?" he asked, motioning for me to go outside.
I smiled and stepped onto the thick, cool grass, my bare feet itching a little as the grass poked them. A slight breeze toyed with my loose hair, pushing it away from my face again.
I wondered for the first time what I was wearing. Looking down, I saw pretty much the same thing Griffin and Ryder were wearing. Tight black pants made of a tough material came all the way down to my ankles, and a black shirt of the same material covered my abdomen, the straps as wide as about two of my fingers. A heavy belt kept my pants cinched tight around my waist, and I had a feeling it had more uses than keeping my pants up. There were about five silver zippers holding pockets closed. I had the black tattoos as well, but instead of being thick like Griffin's and Ryder's, mine were thin and graceful, covering my muscled arms in swirls.
"Maia?" Griffin asked uncertainly.
I smiled widely at him. "I haven't been outside very often."
He nodded knowingly. "I didn't either, not until I came here. I guess they assume that since we've worked so hard to get where we are, we truly want it and won't throw it all away."
"I was seven. When I was at the top and wasn't beaten for a month," I added, answering his question. "After that, they brought in whoever they could whenever they could to teach me. It took about a week until the trainers would get bored of me beating them."
I pressed my lips together and looked around. Angels- at least who I assumed to be Angels- were jogging around the compound, not bothering to even look at the chain link fence that I was sure had been placed to keep people out and not in. After all, how could you keep winged people in without there being something keeping them from isolated from the sky?
Other Angels were sparring in patches of grass, exchanging blows until one had been effectively pacified. There were also numerous obstacle courses with Angels scurrying through them like a squirrel up a tree.
Something was strange about this, though.
"Do we have wings?" I asked Griffin.
"Yeah. They have a tendency to hide though," he smiled a little at the joke I didn't understand. "I'll teach you tomorrow. Today is supposed to be your acclimation day, and then we're going to start your training."
"Good. I don't like sitting still."
Griffin threw his head back and laughed. "You don't say."
I blushed a little and smiled. "I never have. There's always something to do and something to get done. Before I reached the top, it was to be the best fighter. After that, it was to master weapons. Then my classes I had. By that time, the only thing I could do was practice on the Flight Simulator and hope I could become one of the Angels."
"You passed the test with flying colors. I think you actually broke the previous record."
"How long had it been in place?"
"It was the record of the first Angel."
I felt my heart plummet to my toes. "Are you kidding?"
"No," Griffin said seriously, his light blue eyes wide in honesty.
I had nothing to say. What could I even say to that? The Angels had been established over five hundred years ago, and that record had held for all of them until I had taken the test.
"So what are the rules here?" I asked.
"There aren't that many."
"Good. Include the unspoken ones as well."
"Yeah. The ones everyone follows but they aren't exactly official rules."
"Okay. Well if you get into a fight, and an Angel dies, it's frowned upon, but not exactly worthy of intervention on the side of the higher ups. The rest of us, though, will probably do something about it. Ummm... We have to go to our classes and practice whenever possible. The surgery gives us incredibly effective immune systems, so you can't fake an illness. It is appreciated but not required to tell your Team Leader if you're leaving to fly outside of the compound."
"Team Leader?" I wrinkled my nose. It made us sound like a group of harmless children playing a game.
"Oh, yeah! I forgot to tell you about those."
At this moment it occurred to me that perhaps Griffin wasn't super reliable at following instructions.
"I'm your Team Leader. Our code is A1 because we're the best of the best and got the highest scores on our tests. Ryder is the only other one in the group."
Griffin grinned at me. "He's pissed because you're the first woman to become an Angel in the last twenty years and he had been hoping it would be his sister. But now you did even more and got a better score than the two of us combined."
"Is his sister in the running to becoming an Angel?"
Griffin's smile grew even wider. "Only if she suddenly becomes a good fighter."
"Oh," I smiled a little.
We walked around the compound right next to the thin fence. My black clothes soaked up the sun, warming my skin to a nice temperature. I felt peaceful strolling along on the shorter grass, the stubs poking at my calloused feet.
"Want to spar?" I asked Griffin.
He looked over at me, the tips of his lips turned up.
"You're supposed to rest today."
"Since when do you listen to the rules?" I challenged, referencing him letting me stand when I wasn't supposed to. I was also quite sure he wasn't supposed to let me outside.
He looked straight ahead, sighing heavily every once in a while, finally looking at the ground and hunching his shoulders.
"Sparring tomorrow, racing today!" he cried, sprinting forward.
Beaming, I leaned forward at a potentially dangerous angle and dug my toes into the ground, my feet drumming the ground rhythmically. My hair streamed out behind me like a bright red banner. We both had long legs and seemed to be well matched. I was barely a step behind him, and we were both breathing loudly. After going around the compound half of the way, I noticed with a jolt of surprise that I was ever so gradually pulling closer to beating Griffin. Gritting my teeth, I pounded my feet on the dirt, taking longer strides.
He noticed I was gaining on him and matched my long strides. However, I could tell that in endurance Griffin couldn't match me. He had sweat dripping down the back of his neck and his temple. I, however, had half the sweat on my body. I could feel the beads of perspiration on my forehead, but I could also feel that my body was able to continue at the pace until we reached our starting place.
We were at the final stretch.
Griffin and I both leaned even further and pounded our feet into the sharp blades of grass. I was gaining just a little, just enough to-
We passed our starting point at exactly the same time.
Griffin began leaning back almost immediately, and I did the same. He flopped onto the grass, gasping for air and throwing his arms out so his body formed a t. I sat down beside him, inhaling as deeply and evenly as I could.
Griffin was still huffing and puffing when I had regained control. Standing up, I extended a hand to him. Griffin sat up, gripping my wrist. I wrapped my fingers around his and pulled back with all the weight of my body. He nodded in thanks when he stood in front of me, still unable to talk.
"Griffin," Ryder called, jogging toward us.
Griffin was still breathing heavily, but I saw the unconscious straightening of his spine.
"They called us in."
Griffin glanced at me. "What about Maia?"
"I asked that. They said you would have to make the decision."
Ryder glared at me and clenched his jaw.
"Is there a problem, soldier?" Griffin questioned quietly.
Ryder straightened a little and looked full on at his leader. "No, sir."
"I thought so. How much time do we have?"
"Good. We have plenty of time. Go get ready. Rest up if you need to."
Ryder dipped his head and glared at me one last time before turning sharply and jogging back into the building. Griffin sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair, then motioned for me to follow him as he jogged into the building after Ryder. We took the opposite hallway, though, and he took me to a hallway labelled A1 with a shiny black plaque. He turned the knob on a door and pushed it open.
"This is yours."
I walked in before him and marveled at its contents.
There was a bed that could have easily fit three people. It was covered with black sheets and a deep red quilt. There was a table on both sides of it, one holding a clock, and the other a silver lamp with a black lampshade. There was a wardrobe in the corner and to doors in the other. In between the two was a red love seat, a polished wood table between the bed and couch. Opening one door, I saw that it led to a walk-in closet that was filled with black clothes, presumably my uniforms. The other was a giant bathroom filled with black and silver. There was a bathtub in the corner that had a faucet almost on the ceiling, so wide it looked as if it could be a small waterfall. There was also a giant shower that was boxed in completely by glass. The shower head was immense and looked as if it could also model a waterfall of some sort. The sink, however, made me relieved to see that it was overall pretty normal.
"I know you're probably not used to all this, but you'll need to go through it all later. We have work to do," Griffin said impatiently.
He nodded. "You'll need to change into your Battle Gear. It's always on the right, top rack. Get your boots too. I don't know what else you'll need, but we'll get weapons when you're ready. Wait outside your room for me when you're done."
I nodded, mostly because he didn't seem like the type of person to enforce the usual military rules.
Griffin shut the door behind him and I threw open the closet door.
"On the right, top rack. On the right, top rack," I murmured to myself as I searched.
The first stack of folded clothes seemed like a good option, so I grabbed it and set them on the table. Picking the uniform up that was on top, I realized that it was all for one uniform.
I unzipped the uniform I already wore and peeled it off, tossing it into the hamper. I jumped into the tight, thick suit. It was all sewn together, so I zipped the back up and was almost ready. I buckled the heavy belt around my waist and the holster to my right leg. Last came the gloves that cut off at the first joint, essentially just protecting my knuckle in case the situation called for fists. Finally, I laced up my knee high boots. I was ready.
Griffin and I exited our rooms at exactly the same time. I grinned.
He walked to the end of the hallway and peeled back a piece of carpet. Pressing a button, he laid the strip back down and rose as a panel in the wall slid out of the way. A small light scanned us as we stepped through the doorway.
"Access granted," it said in the usual robotic monotone as Griffin and I stepped through the doorway.
"I'm in heaven," I murmured as I took in my surroundings.
"Exactly what I thought when I first saw it," Griffin replied, walking straight toward the racks. "Here's a watch and your earpiece. You'll need those whenever we leave for things like this."
He handed me a thin watch and a black earpiece. I buckled the watch on my wrist and stuck the earpiece into my right ear, then returned to marveling at my surroundings.
Covering the walls were racks and racks of weapons of any kind.
"Grab whatever you want and know how to use. I'll teach whatever you want to know next time, but right now we're on a schedule," he informed me curtly.
I raced over to the gun rack and pulled out my favorite type of gun. I loaded the clip and the other three, buckling my loaded gun into place and clipping the three extra clips onto my belt.
I caught Griffin's raised eyebrow.
"What?" I asked.
"When I had been told we would be testing a girl, I never imagined you the way you are."
I nodded. "Good. I'd hate to be obvious."
Griffin laughed and we exited the room, ready to go. He kicked the wall and the door slid shut behind us.
"Now for some actual training."
"What am I learning?"
"You have exactly four and a half hours to learn how to fly like you've been doing it your whole life," he said, checking his watch.
"Should be easy," I replied, shrugging.
It wasn't easy.
I was on the rooftop of the compound, Griffin explaining to me how exactly our wings work.
"The tattoos you see are actually just metal beneath your skin. You see, when your wings are retracted, the metal spreads out so you can seem normal to those who don't know about our neat little tricks. When you pull your wings out, though, you'll see the metal moving and it'll reform at your shoulder joints. When there's enough metal for them to start coming out of your skin, they will. You'll feel it, too."
"It's not that bad. It mostly just itches."
I felt like my stomach would fold in on itself. I was going to learn how to fly today- really learn how to fly. I knew it couldn't possibly be super easy. There was going to be something about it I wouldn't be able to grasp, and the Angels would kick me out for it.
"So how do I do this?" I asked, raising my voice a little to be heard over the wind, spitting my hair out of my mouth.
"Feel the metal, and tell it to move and become what it was meant to be." Griffin smiled widely. "Wings."
Shining black metal peeled out of his back, and Griffin fell backwards off the building. I ran and leaned as far over the edge as I dared, watching worriedly as he calmly flapped once, twice, and again to step lightly on the railing of the roof. He grinned again and jumped onto the concrete.
The door screeched as someone opened it, and I saw exactly who I dreaded to see walking toward me: Ryder. He was actually much more muscular than I had originally thought. The combat uniform brought it out nicely.
"Ryder," I murmured.
Griffin just nodded in greeting.
"Not from you," I retorted before Griffin could answer.
Ryder glared at me, his green eyes suddenly looking as if they were on fire. He advanced on me, getting in my face.
"Do you know who has the record for everything to do with flying?"
"Do you know who has the record for highest test score?"
I shoved him as roughly as I could, and to my surprise he stumbled back a bit.
"This has gone far enough. Shake hands," Griffin demanded angrily.
We didn't even look at him, just continued surveying each other icily.
"Soldiers!" Griffin barked. "Shake. Hands. Now."
Narrowing our eyes at each other, we slowly extended our hands into the space between us, gripping hands and shaking them once. Almost immediately after that, we separated.
"Maia, accept the help. Ryder's the best flier we have. Ryder, stop acting like she ruined your sister's chance of becoming an Angel. She'd be lucky to even get into the army with all the fighting skills she has."
We both turned to argue with him, but Griffin straightened into the no nonsense stance I already knew meant to not challenge him. Sighing heavily, we regarded each other glumly. We were stuck and we knew it.
"You need to start with learning how to get your wings out. I'm sure Griffin already briefed you on what is happening. So, imagine the metal moving from your arms to your back and lifting away."
I did, but nothing happened.
"Try again," Ryder urged when my eyes opened.
I tried again and again and again. Still nothing.
"Roll up your sleeves," Ryder ordered.
I didn't question, just followed orders. After all, he was the expert.
When my sleeves were rolled up to my elbows, Ryder nodded.
"Look at the metal and make it move."
I concentrated as hard as I could, urging the tattoos to move move move to my back and become wings.
Still nothing. No movement, no itching.
I growled and turned to Ryder.
"I need to try something else."
"Okay," he said, shrugging.
Before I could react, Ryder's shining black wings were out and he had grabbed my wrist, hauling me into the air with him. I bit back a scream, squeezing my eyes shut.
"Scared of heights?" Ryder yelled over the sound of the wind.
"Just falling," was all I said, and it seemed to be enough.
Ryder didn't say anything, just kept going up up up.
Finally, when I felt as if I could touch the clouds, Ryder's wing beats slowed and we were hovering.
"Get your wings out and fly," he ordered.
I looked down at my arms and the swirling tattoos.
"No. Feel the metal, know what it is and what it does. Most of all, understand it. It knows you and trusts you, so you must trust it. And fly."
Ryder's grip loosened and I frantically reached up to grab him, but it was too late. I was free falling without wings.
My organs felt as if they were still in the clouds with Ryder, floating, while my body was hurtling toward the ground, waiting to be crushed the moment I touched a blade of grass.
"Maia," I heard Griffin say in my earpiece. "You can do this, I know you can. I'll be right next to you the moment your wings are out, and we'll fly. Trust me and trust yourself. You can do this."
Hearing his voice brought calm to my mind.
I had to do this.
I would not throw away fifteen years of work just because I didn't want to fall.
I closed my eyes, feeling my nerve connections, feeling my bones, feeling my muscles, feeling my lungs, feeling my blood. It was all connected, like the metal just underneath my skin.
I opened my eyes, feeling like bugs were crawling underneath my skin, rolling toward my shoulder blades. They converged, and I let out a breath and I told them to show themselves.
With the sound of one hundred feathers brushed against each other, my wings revealed themselves.
"What do I do?" I screamed, praying that Griffin or Ryder would be able to hear me.
"Make them move! Feel them move!" Ryder yelled, cutting through the sound of wind.
"How?!" I cried, tears filling my eyes as I saw the ground rush ever closer to show me the fate I had always feared.
Strong arms embraced me, enveloping me in warmth as my descent was slowed down. We collided with the ground, wheezing as our bodies took all the force of the impact.
I didn't move for a full five minutes, desperately trying to get enough oxygen to my lungs. Inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale .
Two hands, both on my left arm, turning me onto my back. Black hair, wide blue eyes came into view, blocking the piercing sunlight.
A rough shake.
I was able to get air into my lungs now, but I was still recovering, so I nodded. Just enough to show him I'd live.
"Fine," I gasped. "I'm fine."
Griffin nodded, eyes still wide. He let out a long breath.
"Do you want me to help you up?"
I nodded, wrapping my fingers around his wrist. Griffin pulled me up, still holding on to my wrist until I was steady on my feet.
"What happened?" Ryder asked, boots hitting the grass with a muffled thud.
Griffin wasn't holding onto my wrist anymore, so he had both hands to shove Ryder as hard as he could.
"You call that teaching?" he yelled. "She almost died!"
Ryder straightened a little, but didn't answer.
I saw what was going to happen before it even did, and I had to intervene. There would be a drill or mission of some sort they had to get done, and I probably wouldn't be going, so they had to be able to work together without killing each other.
I grabbed Griffin's right arm, his dominant one, and pulled back a little. Gently, but firmly.
"Calm down. Both of you."
They didn't break eye contact.
I put a hand on both of their chests and pushed them apart.
"Both of you stop! You have a mission to do today and fighting about training methods won't help you during it! Ryder, if you pull something like that ever again I'll kill you myself. Griffin, calm down because I'm not dead and I will get flying down before our next mission."
They stared at me in shock.
Both boys laughed a little.
"I don't think anyone's ever broken up a fight for two A1 Angels," Ryder explained while Griffin was still trying to get himself under control.
"I have better ability to do it than most."
I looked at Griffin for a moment.
"What?" he asked.
"Ryder is good at flying, and my skill is hand to hand combat. Am I supposed to assume you're specialty is weapons?"
"That and strategy. That's why I'm leader."
That made sense.
"Okay." I checked my watch. "You have ten minutes before takeoff."
"You're coming too," Ryder told me.
"I can't fly."
"Our wings are designed to allow us to carry our own body weight, equipment, and another person all at once. We can take you."
"What if we need to take someone with us?"
"We have backup from A2 tagging along," Griffin answered.
I nodded, relieved to not have to stay behind.
Griffin gestured for us to follow him, and so we did. There was another building on the territory of the compound, still inside the fence, but it was separate from the main building, and that was where we were headed.
While we walked, Ryder coached me on putting my wings back in place. We had finally succeeded by the time we arrived at the building.
It was two stories, not super wide. Made of concrete walls and flooring, filled to bursting with equipment and weapons.
A2 was already there, all five of them men. I was probably the only female Angel on the entire property.
"About time," one of them grumbled, the other four nodding in agreement.
"Maia, you'll fly between Ryder and I, and we'll both hold on to one wrist. It's not going to be a long flight. We are going to drop you ten feet from the ground when we first land so you can drop and be unrestrained the minute your feet touch the ground. I'll be on the rooftops covering everyone, so don't forget I'm there. Ryder will be the leader on ground. The mission is to find three rebels. They have been killing soldiers and stealing from the government's banks. Mainly one woman and two men, but they probably also have others guarding their place. Should be fairly easy, but the government wants them taken down now. They go underground, and they're ghosts. We have one shot."
We all nodded as Griffin gave us his directions. They were well thought out, and we had enough direction to tell us what to do, but not limit us in bad situations.
Last, Griffin looked to the men. "Do not count Maia out just because she's a woman. If you do, you'll have her to answer to, and she's not in A1 for no reason."
With that, we knew it was time to leave. The seven men straightened their spines a little, and I saw the light glint off of their dark wings.
Without words, they all raised their metal wings and looked to the sky. Griffin and Ryder wrapped their warm fingers around my wrists.
They took off, suspending me between them.
I couldn't, wouldn't look down. I refused to lose my cool. The A2 men seemed dubious enough about my abilities, and I refused to make myself look weak in their eyes.
Instead, I focused on the sky, watching the clouds ahead of us.
Before I knew it, I heard Griffin through the earpiece.
"The building below us. Stay up, A2. Ryder and I will drop Maia and let her take care of the guards, then we'll have you come down and help us capture the rebels."
"Negative," the leader of A2 said. "If she lets them get away, it's all of our reputations."
"Hey," I snapped. "I'm neither deaf, dumb, nor incapable, so shut up and take the orders of the leader of the operation. It's his orders you're operating under, so it's his reputation. If you want to settle this after the mission is over, you know where to find me."
There was no answer, so I nodded to Griffin, and he and Ryder began their descent. The closer we came to the ground, the faster they went, streaking through the sky like dark comets. At the last minute, they pulled up, flapping rapidly. They let go of my arms, and I rolled to get rid of my momentum, ending it just behind a dumpster.
"Yeah, I'm on the building. Ryder's with me, call him in if you need help."
"I'm not going to."
"I know you don't want them to think-"
"Griffin, I won't need it. Tell me where the nearest one is, and I'll take care of them all," I snapped.
"Okay. Ten in all, closest on 2 o'clock. Show 'em why you're here."
I nodded even though he couldn't see me and narrowed my eyes, slowing my breaths and focusing on my heartbeats.
Boom boom. Boom boom. Boom boom. Boom boom. Boom boom.
I leapt over the dumpster, throwing a neat punch to the closest man's head. He fell to the ground with a muffled thump, knocked out cold.
I threw my head both ways, searching for the next guard. They were all oblivious, looking different ways.
If there was one thing I knew, it was that there should always be guards for your guards, closer to the inside, always watching for someone like me to come in, beating down their defenses.
My insides turned to mush, but I kept moving, dragging the unconscious guard into a shadowy alcove.
"These people aren't stupid, not at all. It takes smarts and planning to go against the government."
"So there will be surveillance on their guards, and they probably know I'm here."
"Get out. Now."
"Negative. If they know, I need to work faster."
Without waiting for a reply, I sprinted toward the group of three, kicking one in the back, and punching one in the throat and the other on the temple. I dragged two by their arms and put them in some of the frequent shadows, stacking the third on top.
I spotted my next targets. Sneaking through some more shadows, I climbed on windowsills and jumped down from two stories up knocking out the two guards in the process. Another two were nearby, so I ran and kicked one in the stomach, punching the second in the nose hard enough to knock him out as well.
"Eight down, two to go," I whispered as I took care of the unconscious bodies.
"Good, Maia. A2, go ahead and begin your descent. She should be finished by the time you're here."
"Griffin," I murmured after a few moments. "Where are the other two?"
He cursed. "Running down the road on your left."
I didn't answer, just turned and began sprinting for all I was worth, pumping my arms at my sides. They weren't super far away, but the less time they had to raise the alarms, the happier I'd be.
I caught up quickly and leapt forward, tackling them both. They went down hard, but reached for their guns immediately. I took mine out and hit them on the back of their heads with the butt, standing when I knew they were unconscious.
"All ten guards down," I informed A1 and A2.
"Well done," I heard a voice say, but it wasn't from my earpiece.
Not thinking, only reacting, I turned and leapt toward the voice, swinging my gun to hit them with it. It was shadowy, though, and I had miscalculated just enough for her to sidestep.
She moved fast, faster than most soldiers.
"Maia?" Griffin asked.
I couldn't answer, not until I had taken care of her. She must have been hiding well for Griffin to have missed her.
We punched and blocked, punched and blocked. Neither of us could land a blow. We were too evenly matched.
Our breaths cut loudly through the quiet, both of us concentrating too hard to speak.
Finally, I saw the smallest fraction of opportunity, and I took it.
Dropping to the ground, I swept her feet out from under her. The woman went down, hitting the ground with a surprised gasp.
But my victory didn't last long.
I felt a heavy object smash against my skull, and the last thing I saw was the dusty ground rising up to meet me.
Bright light shone through my eyelids, blinding me the moment I regained consciousness.
I remained as still as I could be, breathing peacefully through my nose, not moving a muscle.
I heard only one other person in the room, breathing calmly.
There was only one reason they'd be calm.
I sat up explosively, yanking against the cuffs I knew would be there as hard as I could. There were two on each hand and leg, and I ripped the shorter ones out of the metal table, but the longer ones kept me in place.
The woman I had fought leapt up, dropping her magazine onto the floor.
I was pulling against the chains as hard as I could, but they wouldn't budge.
"Hey!" she yelled. "Stop!"
I didn't. If anything, I tried harder so I could show her I didn't follow orders blindly. I knew she was a rebel, and it wouldn't take orders from someone contrary to the law.
"Alvar!" she cried, her golden eyes wide in fear.
The woman's wavy white waist long hair flew everywhere as she frantically looked around the room for something.
"Alvar, she's awake!"
A man the size of a mountain ducked through the only doorway. His deep blue eyes narrowed at me, and he dominated the room with his behemoth of a body.
"Calm. Down," he said slowly, as if I wasn't capable of understanding him if he spoke normally.
I switched to only working on one cuff at a time, hoping if I had at least one arm free I'd be able to fend him off long enough for Griffin and Ryder to get here.
"Do you want to be knocked out again?" Alvar asked me.
I didn't answer, just stopped and sat up straight as if I were queen of the world.
"Better. Now, Elva here is going to talk to you. You don't have to say anything, just listen and stop with that awful racket."
He sat in the chair Elva had been reading in and settled in it, sighing as it creaked in protest.
Elva cleared her throat, swinging her arms at her side.
"Spit it out," I snapped, wanting her dull rebel spiel to be over before it had even begun.
She shrank back a little, and Alvar stood up abruptly, sending the chair crashing into the wall behind it. He stepped over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"I'm fine," she told him, straightening a little and brushing him off.
Alvar nodded and returned to his chair, tipping it back until I pitied the poor chair legs.
"Do you know what happens during the surgeries?" she asked me, making eye contact for the first time.
She seemed to be waiting for me to answer, but I refused to.
"Ummmm... Okay... Well..."
She was cut off by a loud rumble and crash. My heart soared.
"They're here," Alvar told Elva, suddenly appearing at her side. "We need to go."
"But-" she protested, looking back at me with her strange golden eyes.
"She'll be fine," Alvar told her sharply. "She's one of them."
Elva nodded, and they swept out of the room, Elva the only one to look back at me before leaving.
As soon as they were gone, I began working at the cuffs again, gasping as I strained to pull the metal links apart like I had done before.
I heard the pounding of boots on the concrete floor.
"Griffin! Ryder!" I yelled.
Griffin ripped the curtain down, charging into the room. Ryder followed closely.
"They turned right. The woman and man. Catch them! Go!"
Griffin nodded to Ryder, and Ryder sprinted out of the room, turning right.
"A2, two of the rebels have been spotted turning west onto Corridor C. Ryder is in pursuit," Griffin said, speaking through his earpiece. "We found Maia safe."
He then clicked the button that muted his voice so they wouldn't be bothered by our conversation.
Since he was done, I resumed trying to break the cuffs.
"Maia, stop," Griffin said gently, grabbing the thick chain and yanking it until two links separated just enough for me to be free. He moved on to the next one, and the one after that until I was free. "We'll get the cuffs cut off when we get back to the compound. Did they hurt you?"
His light blue eyes seemed to burn as he asked me that, his voice a growl.
I shook my head. "No. The man, Alvar, knocked me out with a rock. After that, I woke up here. Elva, the woman, wanted to tell me something but didn't get it out before they left."
"Good," he massaged his temples. "I swear, if they had hurt you-"
"They didn't, and now we need to find them before they go underground."
"Ryder and A2 are on it. I told them that was what their mission was, that I would be looking for you before I pursued the rebels."
I nodded, looking at the thick cuffs circling my wrists.
"Let's go," Griffin said kindly, offering me a hand.
I took it, and he helped me off the cold table, gesturing for me to leave the room first.
I patted my ear and holster. "My earpiece-"
Griffin held it out, and I smiled a little, sliding it into my ear.
He handed me the cool, smooth metal of the gun, the weight comforting after being without it. I slid it into the holster, buckling it in and breathing a sigh of relief. All was well again.
I squared my shoulders and strode out of the room, looking back and seeing Griffin walking out behind me. We turned right and walked down the gray hallway.
After a moment of peaceful silence, Griffin spoke. "You know the higher ups are going to be suspicious of you, right?"
"I had a feeling," I responded wearily.
"But know that I trust you, and I will defend you."
For some reason, the last part of that made me angry.
"Defend me, Griffin? I don't need you to defend me! I can protect myself! That's what I've been doing my whole life!"
He turned on me, eyes icy. "We are on the same Team, Maia. That's what we do. Defend and protect each other! If you can't get that through your head, I'll take you to the higher ups myself and tell them to delete your file here and send you to the war front."
I must have really hit a nerve. The war front was awful, with nothing but death and sadness. Anyone deployed to the war front would be dead after a month, most after two weeks. That was a common threat among leaders, to send soldiers there if they had been rather difficult to deal with, but this seemed a bit extreme.
"Is that what they do, Griffin?" I asked him quietly. "Send the ones they can't force to do their bidding to the war front? Soldier dead, all their knowledge gone, and the government wins because they probably took a couple of rebels down with them?"
He shook his head. "What happened to you? What did they say? Before this, you wouldn't have asked a question like that."
"You only knew me for a couple of hours before I got taken! And you never answered the question."
Griffin shook his head and kept walking. I knew the reaction. That was what soldiers did when they could neither confirm nor deny something. They were unable to confirm because of their vows, but unable to deny because they didn't want to lie.
I followed a step behind him, feeling a little bit guilty for putting him in that situation, but grateful that he hadn't blatantly lied.
My earpiece crackled a little bit. I made a mental note to replace it once we returned to the compound.
"Male rebel has been caught, Ryder in pursuit of female," an unfamiliar A2 voice said.
"Good job, boys. Is one of you going to take him back to the compound?" Griffin asked.
"Sir, this guy is huge."
"Okay. Use as many of A2 as you need, and send the rest as back up for Ryder."
"We've loaded him onto the net and we're going to need all five to carry him and keep him down," the A2 soldier informed him.
"Then fly and Maia and I will back up Ryder."
"Yes, sir," five deep voices murmured.
"Let's go," Griffin ordered, not even looking at me.
He checked the display on his watch, seeing where all of his soldiers were. Ryder was the fastest moving dot, going down a hallway labelled as Corridor T2.
Griffin began sprinting down the hallway, and I followed closely, allowing him to lead. He obviously had a plan.
"Ryder, heading toward you. Don't be surprised if we come out of nowhere and take her down."
Ryder's only reply was breathing, and I knew that was the only one he could give. He had been sprinting for a while, so he had to be tired.
We made several turns, and I heard feet slapping on the concrete.
"I've got her," Griffin told me.
I didn't answer, just maintained my pace. He undoubtedly was outclassed by her when it came to hand to hand combat. I was going to stay close in case she knocked him out. Griffin could take quite a few punches, but I was used to taking more and not backing down.
Griffin leapt through the doorway, tackling Elva.
They hit the ground hard, exhaling loudly in the silence.
She barely waited, just used the opportunity.
Griffin was still a little shocked by how he had hit the ground.
She scrambled up and turned.
And ran right into the barrel of my gun, pointed straight at her rebel heart.
Elva stood proudly as Ryder cuffed her, Griffin having since recovered and got up to help me intimidate her into submission.
There was something bothering me, though.
I ignored it, forcing myself to concentrate on the task at hand.
Elva was cuffed and ready for transportation.
"I'll take her," Ryder said, hand clutching Elva's arm.
"I've got Maia," Griffin said.
Elva guffawed. "An Angel unable to fly?"
"Didn't have time to learn before you started making trouble," I told her coldly.
"Poor little Angel, grounded for life," she mocked, giggling.
Ryder dragged her away, seeing the rage displayed in my blue-gray eyes.
"Put it away," Griffin told me gently, holstering his own gun.
I gritted my teeth and shoved the weapon into the holster on my leg and buckling it.
"Let's look around," he suggested, turning down one hallway and entering the first room.
I followed, asking, "Aren't we supposed to go back, though?"
"Our job was to catch them, and now that we have, we should try to understand them so next time we won't have to waste so much time finding and catching rebels."
"Gotta watch your back when they're around," I rubbed the lump on the back of my head.
Griffin looked over his shoulder at me, seeing me rub the lump.
"Does it hurt?"
I nodded a little. Griffin seemed to value honesty, and I seriously believed he would never doubt me just because I was the only female Angel.
"Sit," he ordered, pushing a chair toward me.
I straddled it so he'd be able to look at it without having to lean over the back of the chair. I felt his calloused fingers gently peel back my hair, and I hissed as it pulled at the scab that had formed.
"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled, more concerned at making sure my head was okay.
I heard a pocket unzip and heard spraying. The sting I had felt when the doctor healed my face before surgery was now penetrating the back of my skull. I gripped the chair, wood creaking in protest as I felt the sting move deeper.
"It's done," I informed the leader as it faded away.
Standing, I didn't say anything, just looked at the papers cluttering the wooden table. There was no tangible organization I could see.
"Are Angels going to come and gather the evidence to try and figure them out?" I asked Griffin.
"Probably, but whatever evidence of future plans would most definitely be much appreciated," he replied.
"You think they have accomplices. Well, besides the male we didn't catch."
"I'm positive they do."
"What happened to the guards I knocked out?"
"We cuffed them together and left them for the summoned patrol to bring in."
I nodded, still lost in thought about what they had been planning.
"I think they wanted me to be on their side," I murmured.
"What did they say?"
"Elva, the woman, was trying to tell me something about the surgery before you guys blasted your way in. She didn't get past saying surgery when they decided to run."
"Good. I don't want your credibility with the Angels being questioned in the slightest."
I didn't want it to be, either. Being scrutinized made me uncomfortable, especially when it was all the time. That's why I had never liked the military compound I had been raised in, with all the cameras and access being documented. It had made my skin crawl.
Griffin and I searched a couple more rooms, but finding nothing of value, we exited the building.
"How do you want to do this?" I asked him since he was flying solo this time.
"Trust me, okay? I promise I won't drop you. Put your arms around my neck."
I rolled my eyes. I already knew where this was going.
I wrapped my arms behind his warm neck, already a little too much into my personal space. I looked up a little. Griffin was only about two inches taller than me.
His eyes were a pure blue, like pictures of lakes that haven't been touched by contamination and the cancer that the human race is on this Earth. They were speckled with little bits of deeper blue, and-
I looked at my toes. Didn't want to send the wrong message.
Griffin bent his knees a little and swept me up, cradling me like a baby.
I heard the sharp noise of his wings releasing and he bent his knees more this time, then launched into the sky. He flapped loudly, the clap cutting through the breeze whistling in my ears.
He leveled off, drifting on the thermals and occasionally flapping, chest parallel to the ground so I was practically hanging beneath him.
I once again forced my view to be of the darkening sky and the stars that were slowly revealing themselves. Every once in a while, out of the corner of my eye, I'd see Griffin's eyes flick to look at me, then return to scanning the ground and sky ahead of us.
Just when I felt as if I had begun to relax, I felt Griffin begin a steep descent. I clung to him, my arms tightening around his neck, frozen in place until he stepped lightly onto the roof of the small building.
"Let go, Maia cat. We've landed."
I let out a pent up breath and loosened my grip a little, sliding to the concrete and letting my arms drop. I suddenly felt exhausted.
"Come on. Let's go and get some rest."
I nodded dully, stepping off the side of the building and bending my knees so they absorbed the shock of my fall.
The walk passed by slowly yet quickly, ending when we were in the A1 hallway.
"Maia," Griffin said, stopping me before I entered my bedroom. "I just want you to know that you are a part of this team and you have earned your place as an Angel already. You have had no Angel training and you've already taken down rebels. I am your leader as well as your friend, and I want you to know that you can always trust me."
I nodded blearily. I couldn't think of something eloquent to say in return, so I just replied, "I believe you, and feel the same way about you. You're a great leader."
It seemed to be a good response to him, because he grinned broadly.
"Good night," I called, pulling the thick wooden door shut behind me.
Exhausted, I unlaced my boots and set them beside the door, putting my earpiece and holstered gun on the bedside table before collapsing onto the bed in a deep slumber.