"If that happens, if yours is the bond that breaks," Riley said, sitting up to face her, "SnowDancer will treat you as its own, you know that. You know."
"The woman understands," she said softly, breaking his heart with her sorrow, "but the leopard doesn't. All it knows is that if I take my wolf, I might lose everything else that ever mattered."
The next morning, by mutual agreement, Mercy and Riley drove to meet Nash down the road from Nate and Tamsyn's house. The entire Baker family was staying there while their home was being fitted up with all sorts of high-tech security.
The drive was quiet. Neither of them mentioned the painful truth they'd talked about in the den, but the fact that they hadn't been apart since the night before . . . well, it spoke for itself.
"Thanks for meeting me out here," Nash said, taking a seat at a picnic table in the backyard of Zach and Annie's house - the couple had already left for the day, but Zach had called Mercy with the location of the hidden key. Using that key, she'd put on the coffee while Riley escorted Nash over. She'd figured the boy would do better with a male.
Now she put three empty mugs on the table as Riley headed in to bring out the insulated pitcher. "You didn't want to worry your parents, right?"
A nod from the young man across from her. Brown eyed, with hair a few shades lighter, he was good-looking in a gentle kind of way. But there was an underlying toughness to him, the lynx within.
"Coffee." Riley poured and grabbed a seat. "I'm going to cut to the chase, Nash. It's been a week and we're still not clear on why the Alliance targeted you rather than any number of more experienced researchers. MIT's playing the commercial sensitivity card and you haven't exactly been cooperative, either."
"Secrecy's vital to our funding." Nash met Mercy's eyes. "We all had to sign complex nondisclosure agreements."
Given the alacrity with which the lynx had agreed to this meet, Mercy had a feeling he simply hadn't wanted to say anything in a medium that could be recorded or traced back to him. "Okay, I get that," Mercy said. "But we need to calculate the odds of another attempt - whether by humans, changelings, or Psy. It'll affect not only the security arrangements we make for you, but your family's as well."
Nash didn't even take a moment to think about it. "Odds are very high. Any of the three, but changelings probably not so much."
"Damn, that's what I was afraid of." Mercy chewed on her lower lip. "This company that's sponsoring you, will they pay for bodyguards?"
"I think so."
Riley nodded, as if following Mercy's line of thought. "We'll provide the bodyguards."
"You would anyway," Nash said. Then smiled. "But the sponsor doesn't have to know that. The pack might as well get paid for protecting my ass."
Mercy grinned. He was okay, was Nash. "They're also the most likely source of the leak."
"Yeah. I had a call from the managing director to say they're going through all personnel who might have links to the Human Alliance."
"Good." Riley tapped a finger against his coffee mug. "This company - your gut reaction?"
Nash's face turned serious. "They're out to make money, but they're willing to put in the hard time funding research that might never go anywhere. I figure that's fair."
Mercy agreed. "Their ethics?"
"They've agreed that if I'm successful, they'll allow medical use at cost or less if possible. Everyone else will pay a premium." Nash met Mercy's eyes. "The owner's daughter has a condition that might be helped by my work. Believe me, he won't withhold it from other kids. He's one of the good guys."
That convinced Mercy as nothing else could've done. Heart, love, it had a way of fighting off darkness. "I have to admit I'm curious as anything about what you're doing, but I understand commercial sensitivity. We can work with what we've got."
Nash thrust a hand through his hair. "When I started, I didn't realize all the implications. I was thinking of purely medical use, but, well . . . everyone wants to be stronger."
Mercy went motionless at the oblique hint. "No wonder the Alliance wants you." She despised their tactics, but could see what drove them. Humans were the weakest of the three races - Psy were weaker physically, but had psychic abilities to compensate. If humans could at least level the playing field so they had changeling strength . . . yeah, she could see the temptation.
"It's a very long-term project," Nash told her. "I think the Alliance thinks we have functioning prototypes. We're nowhere near close."
"But you're on the right track," Riley said. "Enough to make you a serious target."
Another shy grin. "Good thing I have leopards and wolves on my side, then."
In a van parked on a street packed with tourists out to sample the area's world-famous crabs, several screens came to life. "We have eyes on Nikita Duncan," said the operator.
His partner watched the Councilor enter the office building and - frustratingly - take the stairs to the mezzanine floor, where she apparently had a meeting, judging from the focus with which she walked toward the first door on the left. "Damn."
"Don't worry. She'll move."
"It wasn't supposed to be like this - we were meant to act when we knew what her exact movements would be."
"We're still on schedule."
"But we lost hours trying to keep ahead of the wolves and cats. Our reconnaissance wasn't anywhere near as good as it should've been." A pause. "Maybe we shouldn't have killed the information broker."