A/N: Okay, so I'm so happy about all the support! I'm not new to fanfiction by any means, but writing in a new fandom is always tricky and you've all been so kind. I'm glad I've been able to relay the characters as true as possible. There is going to be a part 4, because I cannot pack everything into this fic. A few notes of interest if you will: my husband and I are that couple that dances in their kitchen for no reason, so that inspired the dance scene in The Question. Also, the popcorn + M&M mix is courtesy of my best friend from college. My husband is not a fan, but I love it. And despite googling many times over, I am NOT a doctor, so my interpretations regarding anything that has to do with medical stuff are just that. I went to art school, so cut me some slack. But if anyone knows the answer, hit me up and tell me. You'll see why later in the story. Lyrics are "All Of Me" by John Legend.
What would I do without your smart mouth?
Drawing me in, and you kicking me out
You've got my head spinning, no kidding, I can't pin you down
What's going on in that beautiful mind
I'm on your magical mystery ride
And I'm so dizzy, don't know what hit me, but I'll be alright
My head's under water
But I'm breathing fine
You're crazy and I'm out of my mind…
Riley stared blankly at her shredder. Had she really just done that? Destroyed evidence of…well, she wasn't even sure of what. It was the second time she'd found an envelope waiting for her after she'd shredded the first the day before.
From Mei Chen. From Amelia. From Lillian. From himself. Hell, even from her.
That's all that mattered and she knew that.
She swallowed hard. He wouldn't find out about this, she would make sure of it. She wouldn't report it. She would not tell Lillian. If any more envelopes showed up, she'd destroy them as she destroyed the others.
Riley stood carefully, gathering her bearings and moving about her room on autopilot. She blindly packed fresh clothes into her duffle bag, thankful for the simplicity of routine.
Before she reached her door she stopped. She forced herself to be calm and control her breathing. In. Out. In again. Until she was sure Gabriel would not be able to pick up on any unrest in her voice or discomfort in her body language. Riley supposed that any awkwardness she exhibited could be contributed to him asking her on an actual date Friday.
She shook her head, trying to rid that thought from her mind. Suddenly it felt like there were bigger things to be concerned about. She couldn't let him sense that though. She'd follow through with their proposed date.
She would act as if nothing happened.
As if nothing was wrong.
She stayed at his place two more days following the break in. He swept the outside via the street and building cameras and she made excuses to check her apartment.
There were no letters waiting, but Riley knew it was only a matter of time.
As it was, her reasons for staying at Gabriel's were starting to untether. Lillian cleared them both, took down the extra security she'd posted outside their complex and deemed it safe as it could be given the circumstances.
Riley remained hyper vigilant despite the 'Ok' they were given. Gabriel declared a movie night was in order to celebrate.
"I was wondering when you'd get back," Gabriel commented when he heard the key turn. "Almost started the movie without you."
She rolled her eyes playfully. "No you wouldn't have. I'm the one with the popcorn." She gripped her small duffle bag and tossed Gabriel the box of Movie Theatre Butter popcorn. "I'm gonna change. And don't forget the M&M's!" she called over her shoulder as she made her way to his bathroom.
"Who puts M&M's in their popcorn?" he asked aloud, more to himself than his partner as he removed the plastic and popped the bag in the microwave. "Women."
By the time the popcorn was finished Riley had reappeared in navy blue running shorts and, if Gabriel didn't know better, an almost scandalously low cut tank top by her standards. Well, and by his. It wasn't leaving much to the imagination. He blinked and looked away. If she'd worn the thin-strapped piece of fabric on purpose there would have been coyness in her eyes, and he wasn't seeing it. In fact, she looked distracted if anything.
He watched as she pulled two beers out of the fridge on autopilot, popping the tops off against his table like usual.
He decided to ruffle her feathers instead of pushing the issue as to why she seemed so preoccupied. It was always more fun. "That's a…uniquely scandalous outfit you chose for movie night. Any particular reason behind it?" Gabriel goaded.
Riley looked up at him, briefly confused. Then she felt the hint of a blush forming across her face. "I…haven't done laundry," she answered lamely. It was a lie, and she knew he saw right through it. She'd been too caught up searching her apartment for more letters and hadn't paid attention to what she'd thrown into her bag.
Gabriel raised an eyebrow, giving her a quick once over. "Sure, that's what they all say."
Riley crossed her arms over her chest under his scrutiny. "I don't hear any complaints," she mocked, using his own words against him.
He smirked, but it was kind. "No, you definitely won't."
She hesitated, caught in a staring match with her very handsome partner. One who'd asked her out on a date, she reminded herself. One that she'd accepted. Riley broke eye contact first, dumping the entire bag of M&M's into the bowl of popcorn, which she knew frustrated him to no end. "C'mon, movie time."
"Seriously, why do you always have to put the whole bag of M&M's in? Isn't the fact that the fake butter clogs the bejesus out of your arteries enough without adding processed colored chocolate into the mix?" He lamented.
She made her eyes wide and innocent, not a hard feat. "It's chocolate. And popcorn. It's sweet and salty together. It's literally the perfect combination," she chastised resolutely. "And I'm a girl, so I win."
"Yeah, yeah," Gabriel dropped onto the couch next to her, grabbing a handful of fake butter and processed chocolate, propping his feet up on his coffee table. "And you know I'll still eat it regardless."
"See, it's a win win," she smiled victoriously; popping a salt covered M&M into her mouth and tucking her legs underneath as she settled in.
They started the movie but he wasn't watching. It didn't hold his interest, and he'd seen it a million times anyway. She held his attention. Captivated him at times, more than he wanted to admit to himself. There were little things he noticed when she was around him; even more when she wasn't.
She didn't laugh often enough. She was witty and sarcastic, he had to give her that, but it seemed born out of self-preservation more than natural comedy. Something she had to use while training for a male dominated profession. She wasn't the youngest Presidential secret service agent for nothing. She couldn't be the weak little girl. She certainly wasn't, if she had any concerns. She was far stronger than any of them. She was also incredibly self-sacrificing, and that worried him the most. She could wax poetic all day about it being her job to take a bullet, but he knew even if it wasn't, she still would. Infuriating and proud were qualities some called character flaws, but they suited her somehow. She was stubborn as hell, and he had to admit that was when she was the most beautiful to him.
She scrunched her nose at whatever was happening on the screen, groaning lightly. She looked over at him, a reflex, to see what his reaction was. His solemn, focused gaze dimmed the smile on her face.
Riley tried to read his face, his eyes. They trapped her, sucked her into the blue. The look he had was different, one she hadn't seen before. Not one directed towards her anyway. "Gabriel?" she whispered gently.
The movie was lost to both of them. For the second time that night, all she could do was stare and wonder what it all meant. He looked like he was ready to say something when she glanced away, standing up abruptly.
"I should go," she stated quietly. Half of her screamed at her to stay; the other begged her to run as fast as she could. He nodded reluctantly. "It's late."
"Yeah, that's…right," Gabriel replied, disappointment evident. She gathered her bag together, grimacing when she realized she was in pajamas, but too obstinate to change and delay her departure. Gabriel read her discomfort and unzipped the hooded sweat jacket he'd been wearing, handing it to her over the distance she kept. "Don't want the neighbors getting ideas," he joked half-heartedly.
She offered a small smile, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. "I'll see you in the morning."
He nodded. "Promptly at six forty five."
"Night Gabriel," she said, slipping through the door and out of his grasp.
"Yeah," he said to himself. "Good job Gabriel, scare away your protector. Nicely done."
He shook his head, plopping back down on his couch, sighing heavily. It shouldn't be this difficult, he thought. But they'd alternatively loathed and liked each other for a year, culminating in a resilient friendship and partnership. Who was he to ruin that if she was already uncomfortable?
Maybe their 'date' wasn't such a good idea after all. He dropped his head into his hands, elbows propped on his knees.
He hated this.
Riley exhaled when she reached the comfort of her own apartment, back pressed against the door. They were getting too close. The last thing she wanted was to start something based on a lie…or a permissive suggestion. She carried the weight of too many secrets, ones she could only hold on to for so long.
She tossed her bag on the couch, stopping suddenly when she looked down. A beige envelope lay unobtrusively on the floor. Unmarked and unaddressed, just like the last two. Hand delivered for sure.
She warily pushed the seal back, apprehensive of its contents. There was no note this time, just a photo.
She tore it to pieces with shaking hands.
"Hey, Nelson, have you seen Riley? She disappeared as soon as we got here," Gabriel queried, leaning against the desk Nelson sat working at. It was shaping up to be a boring morning. Nothing scintillating on the news, no hostage situations or even a purse thief to cause a blip on his internal radar.
He was lost in what looked like stage one of his next great invention. "Something about the gym," Nelson replied distantly.
"Thanks," Gabriel grinned, giving Nelson a rough, brotherly slap to the shoulder.
Nelson finally tore his face away from the computer. "Must you do that?"
Gabriel nodded. "What, it comes from a good place?"
"Every time, I swear…" Nelson muttered, returning to his latest creation.
Gabriel chuckled, shaking his head as he made his way down to the gym. He slowed his pace when he reached the entrance. If she didn't want to do this, if it was stressing her out this much and causing tension between them, he wanted to give her an out, whether he wanted that or not. And he definitely didn't. He pushed the door open. Now or never he supposed.
She was sparring with Jacobsen, an agent exceptionally good at hacking, though not to Nelson's level. He also wasn't to Riley's level of sparring. The younger agent was starting to look…scared, if anything, as she jabbed with her left elbow and swung a punch with her right hand that stopped inches away from the man's nose.
Gabriel clapped. Riley whipped around at the interruption; Jacobsen took the moment to slip away, a grateful look on his face. "What do you want?" she demanded breathlessly, wiping away damp strands of hair with a small towel.
"It's boring upstairs. No one's trying to destroy the world right now so I thought I'd come bother you since you ran off so fast."
She'd ask how he found her but that would be redundant. Riley sighed. "I'm busy. I don't have time to entertain you." She turned back, only to realize her sparring partner was gone.
"Thought I'd give the poor guy a chance to run while he could."
The spark in her eyes crackled, furious. She threw her towel on the ground. "Fine, you're my new sparring partner then."
"Didn't bring my gym clothes," he answered. He could take her, it wasn't a question of strength or ability. But he still read distracted on her face…distracted, and something else he couldn't identify.
"Are you scared of me? Or do you not want your pride hurt?" She looked thoughtful. "Then again, I am the one that does all the tackling in this partnership."
He sighed, trying not to take the bait. His competitive spirit won over and he shrugged off his leather jacket, tossing it to the side. "You are a little scary sometimes. Now, show me again how you can bring me to my knees with one hand," he responded in the cockiest tone he could muster.
They sparred for several minutes, evenly matched. Neither was able to get ahead of the other.
"You know, I came down here because I wanted to talk," he grit through his teeth when she managed to block one of his jabs and land one of her own.
"About what?" she asked, moving back into position.
"Our date," he answered. She faltered, and he took that moment to flip her. The wind knocked out of her and she lie on the mat staring up at him. He backed away as she sat up. "I take it back, we don't have to go."
Riley looked at him curiously, pushing up off the floor. "Why?"
"Clearly it's been bothering you the past few days. You've been distracted, running off for no reason. You practically fled my apartment last night." She heard hurt in his voice at the end of his statement, immediately feeling bad for putting doubts where they needn't be.
She wanted to tell him it had nothing to do with him. Well…mostly. It wasn't easy, being the one that held all the cards. It wasn't easy knowing Amelia was alive, that Lillian wanted her to be Gabriel's distraction….that Mei Chen was stalking her.
Riley wasn't a rocket scientist, but she didn't have to be to figure that much out. Mei Chen was obsessed with Gabriel. She'd proven as much, watching him in his renders and claiming she wouldn't sell them out to the highest bidder because they were meant to be. She'd stabbed her once to get her out of the way already, without a hint of remorse or hesitation. But she hadn't killed her on purpose.
While that confused Riley for a time, she understood it now. Mei Chen watched both of them. Gabriel said he'd felt nothing, that lunatic wasn't something that turned him on and Riley knew he was telling the truth. But so did Mei Chen. Her desire to be Eve to his Adam went south faster than she could blink. In her twisted mind, Gabriel was playing hard to get. In her mind, Riley was now an obstacle in her way.
And Riley couldn't let Gabriel know that. He would spiral. He would hunt Mei Chen down like a bloodhound. Like he hunted for Amelia, and she knew it. And she had to protect him, even from himself. Even if it put her in danger.
"Gabriel, it has nothing to do with the date, really. It's just…I can't believe someone was in my apartment and I didn't know it. I didn't catch it. That's a mistake I can't afford to make again, not with you right nextdoor. If I can't even do my job…" She trailed, sounding as self-deprecating as she could. It was as close to the truth as she could reveal.
"Hey, it wasn't your fault. You can't be everywhere or everything, all the time. You're good at your job…I'm still here, despite my better efforts," he added, grinning.
Riley shook her head. "You don't have to be patronizing," she said, shoving his shoulder and taking her gloves off.
"I'm not. I'm here, because of you," Gabriel said in the soft tone that she'd only heard him use with her when he was sincere. He put his hands on her shoulders, coaxing her to look at him. "You hear me?"
She wasn't sure what possessed her to do it. They didn't…touch that often. Despite their dances, one a tactic and the other a soothing diversion, the most they'd done was shove each other or lend a comforting hand. She moved forward, her arms gently enveloping his shoulders as she pressed against him.
Gabriel was stunned for a moment as his arms drew her in automatically. In the year they'd been partnered they'd never…hugged. He couldn't figure out why. Distancing on her part he supposed. It wouldn't do for a secret service agent to get too attached to someone she was meant to protect with her life. But where did that leave them and what did that mean?
Riley kept the hug brief in the empty gym, pushing away quickly. "I'm gonna shower, and change, just in case we're needed," she stuttered, heading towards the restrooms. She turned around at the last moment, calling out to Gabriel. "We're still on for tonight, by the way."
He nodded, not letting his happiness show until she'd disappeared.
It took him a little while to figure out the other emotion that he'd seen flicker in her face, aside from palpable distraction.
Riley had nothing to wear, she decided, pulling one dress after another out of her closet. On any other given day she'd wear jeans, some decent boots, and a nice shirt. They'd gone out together before, breakfast and lunch, mostly, coffee from time to time, but other than his cooking for her they hadn't done dinner. Not dinner like this. The only instructions he'd given her were to wear something she wouldn't usually wear. Vague as hell, in her opinion.
She knew he'd been more than fond of the backless evening gown she'd worn a few weeks back. Riley sighed, doubting they were going anywhere that formal. Even so, combing through her closet she wished she'd stopped at a boutique on the way home.
"I really need girlfriends," she mumbled aloud. Another disadvantage of her job. Other women her age were engaged or married with two beautiful children shacked up in a nice house in the suburbs with a dog. Most of the friends she'd had couldn't understand her 'life choice,' like she'd decided to join a convent and stave off men completely. She'd never been one for normal anyway she supposed; her life revolved around a man almost ten years her senior with America's most expensive super computer in his head.
Normal was overrated.
Deciding to give Gabriel a taste of his own often times seductive manner, she chose a dress buried deep in the recesses of her closet. It was an impulse purchase she'd made while dating Charlie Griffin, though she'd never worn it. It was a beautiful, body hugging, royal blue bandage dress. The modest front had won her over; the bodice was squared with wide set thin straps. It seemed demure until she turned to view the back, straps crisscrossed in a dazzling pattern revealing pale, exposed skin. She grabbed a pair of silver heels and her standard black leather jacket, not wanting to reveal the whole dress until they were at the restaurant.
Riley put the finishing touches of her makeup on, navy rimmed and smoky eyed, thick lashes coated with mascara and a nude lip. Her eyes were her best feature, always had been, she thought as she turned her dark wavy hair into elegant curls. Loose and down and just slightly mussed.
Gabriel knocked. Him wanting to be the old fashioned gentleman picking her up at her door was something she was allowing for tonight. She took a deep breath, smoothing her dress and quelling the butterflies before she turned the knob.
The look on his face was a moment in time she wished she had a chip in her brain to capture. His jaw hung slightly, and his eyes traveled up and down her body slowly. And repeatedly. The blush on her face couldn't be stopped. He shook his head.
"You took what I said literally," Gabriel acknowledged. "You look…beautiful." He seemed to come to his senses once he started speaking. "These are for you. I think they're your favorite unless I'm mistaken."
Riley hadn't even noticed the flowers in his hand. She'd been too busy admiring how well he cleaned up. He wore deep black denim pants and a crisp black shirt with his own leather jacket topping off the sleek, edgy look. They were going somewhere nice, but she could tell by his appearance that it was trendy as well.
"They're beautiful, Gabriel," Riley smiled, accepting the bouquet of stargazer lilies. Again, she found herself not bothering to ask how he could have known. For all she knew he chipped a flower shop in her hometown where a high school boyfriend once purchased her flowers. "And they are my favorite. But you didn't have to do this."
Gabriel raised an eyebrow. "A gentleman does not show up for a date empty handed. That's Vaughn Rule Number One," he stated as she pulled a pitcher out of a cupboard and filled it with water, delicately arranging the blooms.
"And what are the other Vaughn Rules?" Riley questioned lightly. He smirked, holding out his arm for her. She wound her arm around his.
"You'll just have to wait and see, won't you?"
It was definitely new, and definitely trendy, and she realized he probably chipped the database to get reservations. More than a few limos were parked along the curb. Something about him forgoing red tape to do something like this for her made her just a little bit giddy.
"Name?" The petite hostess asked, eyeing Gabriel a little too long to be polite in Riley's opinion. The hand of hers that rested within the crook of his arm curled on reflex, and Gabriel covered it with his opposite hand, reassuring her somehow.
"Vaughn, for two," He answered evenly. The small, wisp of a hostess led them to their table, rattling off specials and their waiter's name, but neither really heard any of it. Gabriel released her hand, standing behind her to remove her jacket.
She was actively trying to kill him, he decided. Riley and her damn backless dresses would be his end. Riley felt him tense once he took off her jacket, and she couldn't help the sly grin on her face. "You okay?" she questioned as innocently as possible. He pulled out her chair.
"Oh, I'm fine," Gabriel insisted, taking his seat across from her. "Just remember two can play that game."
"We'll see," she replied coyly, opening her menu.
Gabriel couldn't stop laughing. "He didn't, I mean, he couldn't have?"
"He did. He regretted it immediately," Riley answered, taking a sip of her wine. Gabriel wished he'd asked about her little brother sooner when she'd mentioned him so long ago. Her face seemed to light up talking about him, as if he was all she had when she was a child. And given what he knew about her family history, that may have been so. She never mentioned how her relationship with her mother turned out after she killed her boyfriend, and he didn't feel it was his place to ask. When she wanted him to know, she'd tell him.
Gabriel set his glass down. "So…seriously, how did you get the nickname Thriller?"
Riley tilted her head. "That's killing you isn't it, not knowing? Because you can't use your chip to access why I have it."
He shrugged. "Call me curious."
She shook her head. "I'll tell you someday, when you've earned it."
"What do I have to do to earn it?"
Riley only smiled.
"Someone's good at keeping secrets," Gabriel said smartly. Riley's face fell. Gabriel narrowed his gaze. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I think I'm gonna…I'll be right back," Riley said quietly, standing. Gabriel stood with her. She had to give him, or his mother anyway, credit for the manners he displayed. He certainly was taking the date seriously. She headed for the front doors, not the restroom as he suspected. A strange feeling crept over him. It had been going well between them, or so he thought.
He waited five minutes, and when she didn't return he calculated the bill with the chip and threw down cash, grabbing the leather jacket she'd left behind.
Gabriel pushed through the doors, looking both ways and finding her leaning against a corner near the alley. "Riley," he said, approaching her carefully. "Did I do something wrong?"
She shook her head. "No," she responded. He placed her leather jacket around her shoulders, using it to pull her forward a few steps. "Probably one of the best dates I've ever been on," Riley said softly.
Gabriel smiled. "High praise."
It wasn't sarcastic, the way he spoke.
"I wouldn't mind doing it again…unless you're spooked," he added gently. She was staring up at him with wide green eyes, and he found himself glancing at her parted lips. Hands still gripping her jacket, he used the leverage again, pulling her forward.
Riley closed her eyes, turning away at the last minute and swallowing hard. Gabriel stepped back abruptly, releasing her.
"Sorry, I…misread that," Gabriel said faintly, running a hand through his hair.
"No, Gabriel, it's not…it's not that. I just, I can't…" Riley shook her head, and Gabriel could see a war brewing on her face. "I just can't do this anymore! I can't do this to you," Riley burst. "Amelia's alive, Gabriel. She's alive!"
Gabriel froze in his attempt to reach out to her. It felt like whiplash, he thought, like being hit by a truck. "What? No…she can't be, that's impossible! We were there! She blew up. She's gone, Riley," he said firmly, more to reassure himself than her. Riley watched his face transform when he saw the severity on her own features. A strange, hollow darkness came over him, his eyes narrowing, his demeanor becoming cold. Dominoes started falling as stories began lining up and quiet meetings with Lillian behind closed doors became clear. "How long have you known?"
"A little over a week. Lillian…she made me…" Riley breathed, gathering her thoughts and her words and steadying herself. "Look, I won't have a job tomorrow because I'm telling you this. Because I couldn't keep it from you. There was something Lillian wouldn't tell me, but I think I got it figured out. I think she was innocent, Gabriel. I think Amelia wanted out, and she chose the only way she could think of to escape," Her eyes shimmered brightly as she finished, desperate to express everything she'd been thinking and knowing she was hardly making sense. "God, I should never have listened to her…shouldn't have let you get that close," Riley said weakly, taking in his face and his stance and realizing everything she was losing in that moment. .
"That close? What does that mean?" he demanded coolly.
Riley looked away, licking her lips and shifting her weight. This would be her second defining moment. "Lillian…she wanted me to be your…distraction," she practically spat, caught somewhere between disgusted and embarrassed.
Gabriel laughed, but it was humorless. "That's just…fantastic. And I, what, played into this little charade perfectly, didn't I? You flirt and you comfort me and all the while you keep the fact that my wife is alive somewhere safe and sound in the back of your mind! Then what, you seduce me? You sleep with me? Was that the plan Lillian laid out for you?" He growled, shaking his head wearily, voice cold as ice. He couldn't look at her. This woman he thought so much of, that had become so much to him, had been sent in to use him. Maybe that was why Lillian had chosen her, all those qualifications aside. Tall, dark haired, beautiful, and manipulative, just like Amelia. Gabriel laughed again, tired and furious and eerily calm. "You know, you're a lot of things, Riley, I'll give you that. But I never thought I'd have to add—"
The crack from the slap reverberated throughout the small alley.
His face burned.
"Bastard," she whispered brokenly, green eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Riley hailed the first cab she could see, desperate to put distance between her and Gabriel. His words cut her deeper than any knife ever could. This was why she hadn't wanted to get involved. She should have never accepted this date, or hell, this job. Not that she'd had much of a choice in either instance.
She tossed forty dollars at the cab driver, not sticking around for change. She made it into her apartment, anxiously kicking off her heels and practically tearing her dress off, slipping a white tank over her head along with black leggings and running shoes.
Angry tears slipped down her face as she leaned her forehead against her front door. She tried to suppress the sound, clamping a hand over her mouth. She couldn't be this weak. She couldn't feel this way. It wasn't her job to get attached.
It wasn't her job to fall for her charge.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she whipped around, back pressed to the door.
"Hello, Agent Neal," came an eerily familiar voice.
Riley was on alert immediately, searching for her gun.
"Looking for this?" the woman asked, stepping into the light cast from the window and holding her gun. "You should really find another place to hide your toys. An electronic safe, what do you take me for?"
"A lunatic," Riley answered bluntly. Mei Chen smirked.
"Perhaps. At least I'm not a liar. I mean, after that little display at the restaurant…" she trailed, smiling sadistically.
"What do you even want, Mei Chen? Gabriel? He thinks you're insane, did you know that?" Riley grit through her teeth.
Mei Chen approached her slowly. "Let me ask you something. Which would you choose? An honest lunatic, or a beautiful liar?"
She nodded to someone behind her. Two large men emerged; Riley moved, ready to fight. They were large; looking at them she knew what they were. Mercenaries. Mei Chen sure got around, she thought. She landed a punch that nearly bounced back on her, shaking her throbbing wrist. The taller of the two men took her down with a swift kick to her ribs, and another kick when she dropped for good measure. She felt the crack before she heard it, and suddenly she couldn't breathe. Everything became slow and distant as she gasped for air. One of her lungs had been pierced by a broken rib. She heard Mei Chen scold the man.
"I said injure her, not kill her! Idiots, I need her alive. You broke her ribs. Now I have less time to work with," She chastised, sounding almost bored. "Get her to the van."
The last thing Riley remembered was being lifted up, before everything spun and the creeping darkness fell away into nothing.
Gabriel paced the length of his apartment furiously, vibrating with rage. His friend, his partner, betrayed him. Like his wife had. Like his boss. He stopped.
Lillian had directed her to seduce him. Her plan clearly hadn't gone as intended. Every time they took a step forward, Riley put a stop to it. She left when they got too close the night they watched the movie. She turned away from the kiss.
Gabriel flinched, wanting to slap himself. He'd been so busy accusing her that he hadn't stopped to truly see the look on her face when she'd told him. He breathed, rendering the moments of their conversation.
…she wanted me to be your…distraction.
Anger. Irritation. Disgust. Embarrassment. Contempt.
Her face and her eyes screamed all of those emotions. Nothing about her said intent or desperation or even a hint of compliance. She hadn't followed Lillian's instructions at all. She'd been resistant to everything he'd thrown at her over the past week, longer still. She'd been restrained and distant because she didn't want that to be the reason he wanted her.
And he'd nearly ruined everything with one word.
Amelia's apparent resurrection aside, his friend was a more pressing matter. He pressed the speed dial on his phone, waiting anxiously for her response. When he got her voicemail he hung up and tried again. And again.
Something was wrong.
Riley would never not answer.
Gabriel made his way to her place; having noted the light was on in her bedroom. Maybe she was ignoring him. He couldn't blame her.
He knocked, a few light knocks at first, growing in force as the minutes ticked by. He walked a few feet back, ramming his shoulder into her door. It gave way. "Riley!" he called out, going from room to room. "Riley!"
There was nothing, no one. But there was evidence of a struggle he noticed quickly. Her gun safe was open in her bedroom and her mail was scattered across the floor. Blood droplets formed a pattern near the door he'd burst through. He chipped the security cameras, and just like when her apartment had been broken into, they blacked out at ten fifteen. At least he had a time frame.
He looked down at the scattered mail, picking up a beige, unmarked envelope. He slit it open, letting the contents fall into his palm. His throat tightened.
It was the two of them in his apartment, dancing. Except a bright red target was drawn over Riley's profile.
"Oh, Riley. What happened?"
Gabriel had barely apprised Lillian of the situation when he felt like someone was…knocking in his head? He accessed the chip and it took him to his last render: he and Riley outside the restaurant.
"I can't manipulate your renders anymore, but I can certainly ring the doorbell."
He stiffened, rage seeping into every vein in his body. "Where is she Mei Chen? What did you do to her?"
Mei Chen rendered herself before him, arms crossed. "I just don't understand you Gabriel. All these women in your life lie to you and yet you forgive them so easily. Your wife, your handler, your boss," she stated, as if talking about the weather. "I'm the only one who hasn't lied to you Gabriel, and what do I get for being honest? You erase the very thing that binds us. That hurt, but I've forgiven you. I realize you're afraid of all that you can do, so I've decided to give you a test."
"What kind of test?" he demanded, wary and on guard.
She shrugged. "It's more of a decision, Gabriel. I'll give you five hours to make a choice."
The render changed to a live camera feed. Two rooms flickered before him. One held Riley, unconscious and limp. The other room held—
"Amelia?" Gabriel said, not louder than a whisper as if he'd blink and she'd be gone again. She was alive, tied to a chair. But she was also unconscious.
Mei Chen smiled darkly. "Make your decision Gabriel. Who matters more to you? Your partner? Or your wife?"
He gaped at the scene before him. "Why?"
"Because I'm bored," she lied swiftly. Gabriel sensed it.
"No, that's not your reason. I won't join your little solo act, that's why."
"Maybe, but you've only got four hours and fifty five minutes to decide which one lives, and which one dies."
Gabriel clenched his fists.
"Tick, tock, Gabriel."
Mei Chen vanished, leaving the video feed ticking in his mind like a time bomb.
He glanced between the women on the screens.
"I'll find you. Both of you."