"Need anything? I'm going to town." I looked up at the big man on the kitchen porch, trying not to show how urgently I wanted to leave. It would have been even more obvious if I'd left without asking, since trips to town were rare.
I kept myself from shifting my weight from one foot to the other. I was trying to stay casual, trying to avoid the inevitable.
"What for?" Calle asked the question anyhow.
"To pick someone up." I made it sound routine, but of course a trip to Medianoche never was. If you weren't caught by the Feds or robbed, and if you got what you were willing to barter for--hell, that made it an extraordinary trip. And if we returned, we never took new people past the portal.
"Rey?" Calle's face lit up. "Is it today?"
Calle was a big man who didn't talk much and never smiled. None of the men ever complained about his cooking, and it wasn't just because they wanted to be fed regularly. Despite his injury, his muscles were impressive, and his arms could reach wide enough to grab and knock someone against the wall before the other person could move. He'd proved that more than once...and all without changing his dour expression.
But now Calle was beaming like I'd told him I'd found a miracle cure for his crushed leg. Damn it. Where was the stolid cook I'd come to know when I wanted him?
"If he shows."
"If he said today, he'll show." Calle's smile left. He seemed to be thinking deeply. Then that smile came back full force, unable to be restrained. "Yeah. I need something. Bring sugar. We'll do something special for the meal tonight."
Shit. The man was going to bake a cake or something. The cook who always cooked chili on Monday, eggs on Tuesday, and so on through the week, following his routine without fail.
I already hated Rey. I'd spent three months busting my ass to manage the compound, and all I got was "Rey wouldn't do things that way." I was the freakin' boss's kid, but it didn't matter. No one took orders from me unless I got in their face and proved I could enforce or buy what I demanded. Otherwise the men just did what Rey had told them to do back when he was still around to give orders. After all, in their minds, he was still the foreman.
He'd been gone for years. While he'd been gone, the compound had withered. The campesino women and children had left first. Then the strongest and boldest of their men had vanished. I'd been sent to save the compound before the hands deserted us and everything fell apart. I'd arrived before the last of the campesinos left. I'd promised the hands double pay if they kept the remaining sharecroppers on our land without killing them. I didn't ask how they managed it, but the campesinos stayed. Just that was almost enough to make the compound sustainable if we ever needed to close the portal against the Federistas.
"Maybe Dog should go instead." Calle frowned. "He's strong."
"I'm touched that you worry so about my safety," I said. "But I'll do it."
I knew damn well what Calle was worried about, and it wasn't me. His concern was that I was too short, too weak, too city to pull off bringing Rey home.
I'd managed a miracle to get the compound back to life so quickly. I'd not just ridden but walked the entire compound to work it with the men. I'd done more than my share and never whined. But all I got as a reward was the short end of the Rey stick.
Those hands who stayed made it clear they did because Rey would be back someday. The campesinos didn't look at me or speak when I gave them orders. But they would sing at night about El Rey--and they didn't mean their primitive god. Unless, of course, they thought the man was their god. I wouldn't be surprised.
"But, Boss, if you let someone else go--"
"Don't argue with me." I stalked out.
My mood hadn't improved after waiting almost two hours at the station. No one from outside Medianoche stayed in one place that long once they reached town. And waiting at the station, a place officially sanctioned, was even more dangerous when you weren't sanctioned yourself.
The fans that provided some relief from the heat moved sluggishly, raising my temperature and temper by the minute. When was the coach going to arrive?
I wiped my face. Sweat had already stained my shirt through. Maybe I should leave. Probably he wasn't going to show. There were all kinds of dangers traveling by coach--from retired-soldiers-turned-thugs to interfering officials, all of whom required either a bribe or a beating before you were sent on your way.
I wasn't sure the new Rey would be able to manage either feat if he were stopped. From what I could gather in the brief message sent to me before the reception was jammed, Rey was returning because he was of no more use to our side. I didn't know what that meant exactly, but no one gave us back healthy, whole men once they became part of the endless fighting in the cities.
That thought sent a sudden chill through me. Maybe he'd been sent back to die. God, how would I manage the hands if that happened? Especially if it happened when he was my charge.
And then I heard the noise in the distance. No one else around me looked up, but I fumbled with my locator and caught the faintest blip of something foreign on the screen.
I stood up and pushed my hands into my pockets to keep them from shaking.
The same dilapidated coach that had spit me out here into my new world three months ago stopped again. The horses slumped under the shade, and the driver leaped down, more concerned about them than any of the passengers. The coach door opened, and I braced myself.
One passenger leaped down, apparently healthy, his face hidden under a wide-brimmed hat. Then he looked up.
Blue eyes in a tanned face. Blue eyes that looked right into you and almost made you miss that the rest of the man was equally beautiful. Almost. Perfection like that was hard to miss for long.
And hard was the word for that body.
I'd had no one since I arrived at the compound. But that wasn't why my body was leaning toward him.
It was him. He did it with one look at me.
"Mosquito?" His voice rumbled through my head, and I blinked.
"Traven." I answered automatically. Thank God I did still remember my own name.
"Yeah. Mosquito." His lips quirked up into an almost smile. "That's what the hands call you."
"Shit." Out here people lived and died being known only by their nicknames. At least none of them had called me that to my face. But to the hands I was a small pest--annoying but easily swatted away.
How the hell did Rey know what they called me before I'd found out myself?
"The name makes sense." He turned to survey the exterior of the station and, without warning, leaped up. I watched his arm muscles cord as he grabbed a porch rafter. Shit. I managed to catch my tongue between my teeth before it fell out. He swung his body close enough to knock a concealed camera away from the entrance. Then he dropped back down and, without taking a deep breath, said, "Your father is Mosca, after all."
Mosca might not sound much better for a name, except that my father had made it one people respected. Mosca was everywhere, watching and gathering information. The Feds feared the fly who knew everything.
I looked at the surveillance camera, now twisted toward the ceiling. For some reason I'd hoped no one would notice us. The realization that maybe they had just been waiting until Rey arrived made me swallow hard. "How anxious are the Feds to find you?"
"They know I'm back." Rey didn't quite answer me. He picked up the duffel bag he'd dropped at his feet just before he disabled the screening eye. "But let's not make it too easy for them."
"Then we'd better go now."
Rey was already striding down the dusty street before I'd finished my feeble attempt to take command.
I ran behind him, feeling more and more like a small boat in the wake of a much larger ship. A small boat that desperately wanted to be noticed by that ship. Obviously he wasn't going to be impressed by the boss's kid. What might impress him?
Well. I sure as hell didn't hate Rey anymore.
When the Feds stepped out of the shadows, I skidded to a halt, cursing to myself. Instead of thinking sweet thoughts about a stranger, I should have been getting prepared for battle. Right now I had my stunner safely tucked into the back of my pants, where I couldn't reach for it without the larger of the two men drilling me first. His stunner was firmly in his hands and directed at me.
Rey was already half a block away and gaining speed.
"Call your buddy back." The smaller Federista hooked his thumbs into his belt.
My head rang from the backhanded blow the smaller one landed on my face. Even though I expected it, no one really was prepared for pain bad enough to make them puke. I gagged a little as I tasted the blood in my mouth.
They said something, but I was focusing on staying steady, bracing myself--the next blow was harder. I yelled this time. Forget being a hero.
Rey's intervention happened so fast that I wasn't even sure what I saw. One moment he had come up from the shadows behind my two captors, and the next I saw--thought I saw--his arms reach to grab both of them around the neck. Honest, once I had time to think, I would have sworn his eyes were glowing as he grabbed them. Within three moments, they were slumped to the ground, their necks at obscenely odd angles. And Rey was looking at me with that half smile, which made my skin prickle with alarm this time. He'd just killed two government officials and looked as calm as he did when he first said hello to me.
"Hurry up, Mosquito. I don't have time to take out every Federista in this town before you start moving."
Every Fed in the area would be out to get him now. It was stupid to scoot back to the compound, where they might try to starve us out, burn us out...
I followed him. Because when Rey says something, that's what you do.