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Axe nodded like he had something to contribute to any kind of discussion about the Omega, the Lessening Society, or the ins and outs of the war. He really didn’t. He’d just happened to be at the right place at the right time tonight and hadn’t fucked everything up.

He felt like people were making him out to be some kind of hero—and he was anything but.

He alone knew exactly what a lie that was.

“So, ah, I’m going to take off now. Dr. Manello’s driving me back home.”

“You sure that’s a good idea, son?”

Axe glanced at Rhage’s family. “I, um … I got someone waiting for me.”

Rhage’s smile was slow and knowing. “Well, good for you, son.”

“Too good for me, is more like it.”

“Oh, I know that one. Again, I’ll say, trust me.”

Axe nodded at the two females and then started rolling himself back from the bed so he could K-turn and—

The little girl came around and stood in front of him. She was so tiny and frail looking, with wrists that seemed no bigger than one of his fingers and shoulders that were barely wider than the span of his palm. But her lovely brown eyes were bright and intelligent and her hair was thick and shiny. In her leggings and her cozy red Christmas sweater with its snowflake pattern …

… she was more terrifying than a pack of lessers.

What if he broke her? And not that anyone was asking him to pick her up. But what if, like, he breathed the wrong way, and she shattered like glass?

Well … for one thing, half dead or not, Rhage would get out of that bed and turn him into floor polish.

“Ahhh …” Axe glanced to the parents in a panic. “Ahhh …”

“Can I give you a hug? For saving my father?” the little one said.

Axe immediately looked at Rhage again. And yeah, Axe might possibly have shaken his head back and forth real tight. Kind of like you would if someone said, Hey, how’d you like to hold this snapping turtle? Or … How about you volunteer for malaria? Or the all-popular, How about you jump into this alligator-infested cesspool?

With pork chops tied around your neck and a rib roast shoved down your—

Axe frowned. Mary and Rhage both seemed like somebody had died all of a sudden. What the hell?

Jeez, he didn’t want to offend them.

He glanced back at the tiny female. “Ah … um, yeah. Sure—”

The kid was on him the next moment, her surprisingly strong hold taking his breath away. Reaching up, he patted her bird-like shoulder blades.

And then froze as she whispered in his ear, “He saved my life. I wish I could do what you did for him someday.”

She broke away from him just as quickly as she’d come at him, and it was weird. In the center of his chest, he felt this bizarre kernel of … he didn’t know what it was. But it was warm and seemed like the complete opposite of the freezing-cold self-hatred he usually carried around behind his sternum.

The kid went back to her parents. And before shit got even more too-much-emotion than it already was, Axe gave the family one last wave—and then the little girl had to come over again and open the door for him because he had no idea how to get out of the room without help.

Dr. Manello was outside in the corridor. “You ready?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s do this.”

The pair of them ambulated together, the good doctor on his feet in some kind of fancy loafers, him in his ass cruiser that had wheels that squeaked on the polished floor.

For the trip to the cottage, Dr. Manello made him ride in the back of the RV, in the surgical bay, because the front of the thing didn’t have tinted windows.

And Axe was more than fine without knowing the precise location of the training center.

It gave him time to think.

For some reason, that shit Rhage said was sticking in his head.

It’s the definition of stupidity to beat yourself up over something that fate decided was going to happen or not.

Axe groaned and rubbed his eyes. God, he was tired—

“Hey, we’re here.”

Axe jumped—and promptly cursed as his body lit up with agony, all of his pain receptors simultaneously firing.

Dr. Manello was in the back of the RV, standing over the wheelchair. “You want me to help get you out?”

“No.” Axe gritted his teeth and put his palms on the padded armrests. “I’ll do it.”

The surgeon stepped back, those keen, miss-nothing eyes of his checking for all kinds of organ and structural failures as Axe managed to haul himself up onto his two feet.

“You can keep the johnny and the slippers. Hell, take the wheelchair—please.”

Axe grunted as he shuffled to the rear doors. “Like they’re door prizes? And yeah, I’m leaving the chair.”

As the surgeon hopped around with admirable ease and opened the rear doors, Axe felt like he was a hundred and eighty thousand years old. But he managed to get himself to the ground with only a little help … and then he was doing the old man over to—

Why was there smoke coming out of the cottage’s chimney?

It was only three in the morning?

Shoving all of his owies aside, he focused on who was in his house—yup, it was his Elise.

Not that she was his.

Guess she had decided to come early—

“You got this?” the surgeon asked, puffs of white breath leaving his mouth in the cold. “You want me to help you get settled in there?”

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