Hey y’all! This deleted scene takes place near the end of Deal With the Devil and contains maaaasive (MASSIVE) spoilers! If you haven’t read the entire book yet, you definitely do not want to read this deleted scene, which will make no sense and spoil the heck out of you!
I’m not kidding. I’m so not kidding I’m going to say it again.
A LITTLE BIT
Set between Chapters 27 and 29 in Deal With the Devil
Ava had never liked Atlanta, especially in the summer.
The heat was unbearable. Even her climate-controlled penthouse couldn’t entirely compensate, as if the humidity was so oppressive the only way for pressure to equalize was for it to creep inside. The shock of leaving her air-conditioned penthouse was almost as sharp as the relief of finally returning.
Considering the level of physical and psychological torture she’d endured in stoic silence over the last decade, it was irritating to find herself so discomfited by the weather.
That was definitely what was making her uneasy. The weather. Nothing else.
Ava stripped off her coat and unzipped her boots. Her penthouse was modest by the standards of Atlanta, situated on the top floor of a building that had only been absorbed by the Hill in the past decade. Dozens of families had been pushed out of the existing building so the owner could knock down walls and sell gaudy, high-tech condos to the up-and-comers of Atlanta: particularly innovative scientists with particularly lax morals, and anyone who provided the truly elite with goods and services that filled their pointless days.
Mostly, said up-and-comers were terrible people. Ava fit in well.
Beth didn’t. She’d been the one to insist on tracking down every family displaced from the building. Ava hadn’t argued with her, not even when Beth had found a way to provide all forty-seven of them with an anonymous credit windfall larger than their poorly maintained apartments had been worth. It had been a colossal waste of resources, and exactly what Zoey and Nina would have done, so Ava had let it go. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford it.
Beth hated Atlanta, too. The gleeful unfairness of the place scraped at her nerves, and if Ava left her unsupervised for too long, she was likely to come back and find that Beth had gone wildly off-mission in an attempt to right some wrong. She’d fit right in with Nina and her little band of improbable do-gooders.
Which was precisely why Ava had left her back at their home base in Charleston. The mostly flooded ruins of the pre-Flare city weren’t the most hospitable place they could have settled, but Ava rather liked being surrounded by water and ghosts. She had a very comfortable understanding with the smugglers who made their homes among the surviving high-rises and murky canals, and plenty of warning if trouble came knocking.
Beth was safe at home, assembling intel on future ops. And Ava…
“You look like shit.”
Ava was stalling.
She pushed away from the door and walked through the open archway that led to the dining room. Phoenix sat at the table in a black tank top, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Spread out before her was a truly impressive array of knives, and the rhythmic whisk of her drawing one across a whetstone filled the room.
That wasn’t good. Phoenix only sharpened her knives when she was fixed on a target.
“I heard you,” Ava interrupted. She crossed to the beverage chiller and tapped in the code for ice water. A few seconds later, a bottle dropped into her hand, that glass already cold to the touch. “Do you want a drink?”
Phoenix brushed away the question. “You went to see her, didn’t you?”
So much for small talk, not that either of them cared for it–or each other, in all honesty. Phoenix and Ava had never gotten along well, not even back at the Franklin Center. Phoenix had been called Cassandra then. Designation NJ-Gen7-C. Soft and gregarious and irritating in her effortless ability to steal Zoey’s attention away.
Ava had always been jealous of her sisters. And possessive. Irrationally, painfully possessive. If this latest debacle hadn’t taught her the folly of indulging that flaw, she wasn’t sure anything could.
It was irrational to still be jealous of the woman seated at her table. Zoey’s heart had been boundless, after all. Her love for Cassandra hadn’t diminished the love she’d felt for her sisters. But Zoey had loved Cassandra the way teenagers fell in love the first time, with lingering looks and stolen kisses, waking every day so bright-eyed and excited that Ava had felt dull and ancient by comparison. What Nina had indulged with quiet joy, Ava had resented.
Zoey was like Nina. Hers. The only two people in the world who loved Ava even when she was harsh, even when she was obsessed and focused and cold. She knew what she was. Not soft or gentle. Not easy to love. Ava was hard and lethal and possessive.
And protective. She hadn’t loved or even liked Cassandra…but Zoey had. So when Ava had discovered the other woman trapped in a cage, left to rot by the people who had created them, Ava had done the only thing she could. What Zoey would have wanted. What Nina would have demanded.
Ava had saved her.
But not soon enough. Soft, gregarious Cassandra was gone. The phoenix who had arisen from the ashes of that nightmare was unrecognizable as the girl Ava had once known. She was unrecognizable as a C-designation. Ava’s own anger was a quiet, deadly fire next to the volatile inferno of rage that consumed Phoenix. She’d chosen her new name with dramatic symbolism and vicious intent.
Phoenix was here to burn it all to ash–especially the people who had killed Zoey. It was a worthy goal. And Ava didn’t have to like her in order to work with her.
“Are you just going to ignore me?” Phoenix snapped.
“No.” Ava took a seat, cradling the cool bottle between her hands. “And yes, I went to see her.”
“That was phenomenally stupid.”
“I’m aware of your thoughts on the matter.”
“Are you?” Phoenix flipped her knife and stabbed it into the table, where it sank an inch into the surface. The expensive oak was already riddled with wounds from Phoenix’s bouts of temper. Ava usually chided her for her lack of control, but her high ground was admittedly shaky at the moment.
Maybe owning that was the best way forward. “I have not entirely been myself.”
“No shit.” Phoenix glared somewhere past Ava’s shoulder. She rarely looked directly at her, as if it was too painful to see Zoey’s almost-face staring back at her, even now. Or maybe she considered Ava an inferior copy, a poor substitute. Ava would agree with her there.
Phoenix hissed out a breath. “I’m so fucking pissed at you.”
“Hardly an unusual state of affairs.”
“Okay, I’m extra pissed.” Phoenix jerked the knife free of the wood with a scowl. “Do you know what Beth would give to find one of her sisters alive? What I’d give? You got the fucking miracle, and you threw a temper tantrum because you’ve always been a jealous little asshole.”
The flush that rolled through Ava was anger, not shame. It had to be. “I didn’t–“
Phoenix rode right over her. “And I bet you didn’t even try to fix shit with Nina. Did you even explain?”
“Explain what?” Ava snapped, then instantly regretted giving ground. Even that much of an admission opened a crack in her emotional defenses, and there was still a C-designation buried under all of Phoenix’s rage. They could pry open the slightest fracture and bare your soul if you let them.
She knew that was exactly what Phoenix planned when those brown eyes locked on her face. Her voice was brutally gentle. “That they broke you, Ava.”
Pain. The ghost of it crawled up her spine. Slithered down her arms. Curled around her body, layer after layer. Every time she caught sight of her unblemished skin in a mirror, it startled her. She should be nothing but scars after what they’d done to her, a latticework of agony. Some days, she wished she was. Pain like she’d endured should leave a mark. There should be proof.
No one would believe she’d lived through it without proof.
“They didn’t break me,” she said, forming each word with the utmost care. That would make them true. “They tried. They failed.”
“They broke all of us,” Phoenix said softly. “Until you admit it, Ava, you’ll keep behaving irrationally. You’ll do stupid fucking shit for ridiculous damn reasons. And that’s how they’ll win in the end. When you make a crappy call because you’re not being honest with yourself, and you go down. Or you take me down. Or Beth.”
The truth of that dug into Ava’s chest. If Nina had shot her in that clearing, Phoenix would have shrugged, taken the money, and continued her rampage of righteous vengeance and burning rage up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But Beth…
Beth wasn’t like them. Beth was still good.
If Ava was going to keep hauling the Franklin Center’s victims out of the hells into which they’d fallen, she had to be smart. Strategic. On top of her game.
How many times had she laughed at powerful men who thought they were being rational when really they were just lying to themselves? She knew the danger of allowing your thinking to settle into a rut of overconfidence. She had to be as brutal with herself as she was with the rest of the world.
She had to face it, the reason she couldn’t stay in one place long enough for the nightmares to catch her. The reason she woke with screams trapped in her throat any time she spent more than a few nights in the same bed. The reason she had bolt holes in every city. An escape route from every room she entered.
The reason Nina’s domestic little life made her ache with jealousy and shudder in horror at the same time.
Ava had to be smart, because that was all she had–her brains. Well, her brains and a lot of dead assholes’ money.
“They broke me,” she acknowledged. The words burned her tongue, and she washed it away with a gulp of ice water. “A little bit.”
Phoenix huffed and dragged her knife over the whetstone. “Sure, Ava. Just a little bit.”
The words were cheerfully hostile, and Ava relaxed into the familiar comfort of that. Things had been all ice and caustic silence between them since Ava had started down her questionable path of…what? Vengeance? Closure?
Phoenix was correct. She’d seen Nina, happy with her new family, and that possessive, broken, jealous little girl had torn through three years of numbness to make her grief and rage known. Abandoned and replaced, Ava had lashed out.
A temper tantrum, indeed.
She washed away the bitter taste with the rest of her water and rose to drop the bottle into the return slot on the beverage chiller. It hummed to life, washing and sanitizing it for reuse, and Ava turned. “I need to go back out. I have–“
“Some shopping to do,” Phoenix finished, rolling her eyes. “Someday, Ava, you’re going to have to stop trying to buy people’s love and use your damn words.”
Ava refused to stiffen. She’d given Phoenix enough vulnerability for the evening. That was the problem with C-designations, even angry ones. All that empathy, all that instinct. They might have managed to beat the softness out of Phoenix, but Ava could never forget what she was. Genetically modified with all the traits that let her see people. Know them. Understand them.
The Franklin Center hadn’t given her those skills without teaching her how to use them to manipulate, seduce, and control.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Relax.” The whisk resumed as Phoenix honed her knife. “I’m just trying to help, Ava. You got the miracle. Don’t blow it.”
Ava hesitated, then inclined her head slightly. “I appreciate your insight.”
“Sure you do.” Phoenix held up her knife and examined the edge. “Don’t panic if I don’t resurface for a few days. I may not be able to break cover. I’ll leave a message in the usual spot when I can.”
“Understood.” Ava turned to leave, but hesitated in the doorway. “Good luck on your hunt.”
“Good luck on yours.” Phoenix bared her teeth in something that Ava was too smart to call a smile. No one showing her teeth with that much glee was actually smiling. “Remember, use your damn words.”
The command followed Ava as she pulled on her boots and coat and retreated into the starkly decorated hallway. Instead of taking the elevator down, she let it carry her up to the roof as she called a car. It took a few minutes–her building was at the extreme edge of the service area–but soon enough she was reclining on soft leather as the automated driver lifted effortlessly into the air, carrying her toward the high-end shops on the opposite side of the Hill.
There were some perks to being in Atlanta, she supposed. Especially being rich in Atlanta.
The money would have to suffice. Phoenix could drone on all she liked about using her words, but Ava had never been good at those. She was good at strategy. She was good at supply. And she was really, really good at buying presents.
For now, that would have to be enough.