Perhaps it's foolish, thinking he can find her when she could be anywhere within the NYC, but Jake is willing to try.
He knows what she looks like and what she sounds like, which will be more useful to him than the name she'd given him. That could all too easily be a pseudonym. Still, given her appearance and her apparent ties to the dragons, Chinatown isn't the worst place to begin his search.
Besides, without his uniform, he blends in here—even if he can't speak of a word of any Chinese dialect. All he's done is covered up his birthmark with makeup, which isn't terribly unusual when members of the Huntsclan are going out in public anyway. Not knowing where the dragons are or what they look like, hiding their marks is essential.
He doesn't tell Rose what he's doing. Since the night of his capture, she has watched him more closely than before. It's not that she's worried that they might have done something to him, exactly. Not as far as he can tell, anyway. They had run an extensive series of tests to detect hidden magic—the same tests they had tried in secret before, back after Rose had first discovered his secret—and they had long ago learned how to destroy both magical and electronic trackers that had been placed on them. They had taken precautions that night. They hadn't been careless, yet….
There are secrets between them now. He wonders if Rose suspects something, if she knows that he's up to something now that stems from that night. He wonders what the American Dragon told her. He knows they must have exchanged information—she has already been giving him tips when they manage their private training sessions, away from prying eyes—but he does not know what she offered for it. She deflects every time he asks, the subject invariably sliding away even when he tries to press the point.
That's why he knows it's more than just giving the American Dragon her freedom.
He supposes he cannot point fingers. He only told Rose what she would already suspect: that while he was interrogated by the dragons, they kept their identities hidden. He isn't sure why he's keeping this excursion a secret from her when she knows everything else.
Probably because he hasn't told her what Susan had told him about the Huntsclan. About them. Those who are not recruited are stolen at birth and raised into the life.
It means they might still have families out there. Families who don't know what happened to them. Families who would love them. It's…unsettling.
Jake makes multiple trips to Chinatown whenever he can, trying to pretend he belongs there. He's been in so many shops, so many different marketplaces, and he doesn't know if he should start over or look elsewhere. When he finally does see her, he isn't sure if he's right, if it's really her.
He follows the woman anyway, convinced every time he catches a better glimpse of her that he's following the right person but not brave enough to call out.
Even with all his skills, she notices. She rounds a corner onto a less busy street, one he's frequented before, and he waits a moment before following. He doesn't wait long enough. She spins, turning back to confront him almost as soon as he's around the corner. He's caught off guard, too startled at finding her to properly recover.
"What do you want?" she hisses. Her mouth smiles but her eyes do not, and danger lurks in her tone.
Unbidden fear squirms its way to the surface, and Jake can't keep it out of his voice as he squeaks out, "Are you Susan?"
The false smile drops as her eyes narrow. Her hand comes down on his arm, hard. Not a grip he can't break if he tries, but it would be difficult. He lets her drag him into the nearest alley. "What do you want?" she repeats.
He swallows. "Help," he whispers. A forked tongue tastes the air before darting back inside his mouth, and a blink reveals dragon eyes. "Please."
Her grip falters. Drops. She's staring at him.
He licks his lips with his human tongue. "99 told me about you," he says quietly, calling himself by his Huntsclan number. He doesn't dare tell her they're the same person. He doesn't think he spoke enough when he'd been her captive that she would remember his voice, not when that night was weeks ago and has time to get muddled in her mind, and she never saw more than his eyes. He knows this is still a risk, but it's a calculated one. More to the point, it's one he's willing to make.
He hardly has a choice.
Ignoring the truth will not make the problem of it disappear.
"He said…." Jake trails off, trying to figure out the best way to say this. He's run over it in his mind so many times, but he now he can't remember the right words. "He said you might be able to help me."
She looks him up and down. Her expression gives away nothing, but her eyes slip right over his concealed mark. It's too early to relax, but— "Why would he say anything to you?"
Jake thinks of Rose, of everything she's risked in helping him, and answers honestly, "Not everyone in the Huntsclan is as terrible as you believe."
She looks unconvinced, but she knows the dragons, and if she knows the dragons, she is no stranger to stories of the Huntsclan. "Are you their prisoner?"
Jake hesitates, knowing what she's truly asking and not sure how much he can say. Her face is already closing off when he mumbles, "It's more of a reluctant partnership." He cannot pretend to be a captive of the Huntsclan. They would never let a prisoner wander, and he's far too healthy for that anyway—especially now that he's taken to avoiding sphinx hair as much as possible instead of trying to use it to suppress the dragon in him. She'd be able to see that he's well taken care of, or at least taken care of better than any prisoner would be, and she'd know enough about them to be suspicious of that.
"Do you want out?" Susan asks. "Or is this another ploy?"
He doesn't know.
He wishes he did.
It would be easier.
"I can't help you," she finally says when he can't break his silence. "I can't risk them."
The dragons, she means. The other dragons.
She looks like she might cry. He doesn't know why, but the sight of it makes something inside him twist. "Please," he begs. The desperation in his voice isn't faked. "Please, I don't know what else to do."
He wishes it weren't the truth, but it is.
He's a dragon, hiding from the Huntsclan, from the only family he's ever known, and he doesn't know what to do.
He no longer thinks this a mere curse, some ploy of the American Dragon and her friends. He still wants to deny it, but he cannot. If this is a curse, it was not laid on him by them. When Susan had asked after the well-being of the dragon, she'd wanted to know if he was safe. There had been no gloating in her tone, no hint of a secret he didn't know that she did, nothing that would indicate they were behind this.
His plan—Rose's plan—might not have worked as well as it had if they had found a way to curse him, after all. If they'd known to expect a foreign dragon, created by some magic of theirs, the American Dragon wouldn't have followed him so readily.
He is a dragon, just as he is a member of the Huntsclan. And he could be killed for it. Without hesitation. Without remorse. Rose is his only ally with them, and they would force her to turn against him. She would be expected to slay him, just as they are expected to slay all dragons. And the dragons…. The dragons won't accept him if they discover that he has been raised by the Huntsclan. If the truth comes out, both sides will want him dead.
The truth of it is terrifying.
He'll have to shed one side of himself for the other to survive, and he has no idea how he can do that.
"I'm sorry," Susan says, and now she is crying, even if she won't acknowledge her wet cheeks by wiping at her eyes.
"Even just you?" he asks. He knows she is protective of them, knows the fact that she showed him her face and gave him her name that first time was as much of a gesture of trust as he'd ever get. She hadn't revealed herself to Huntsgirl, even knowing he'd likely tell her anyway. Huntsgirl is too important, too much of a figure within the Huntsclan. As far as Susan knows, he is a simple initiate.
Except she might not believe that anymore, given Rose's exchange and the risks she took to get him back.
Given the fact that she thought him valuable enough to give up the American Dragon.
Susan might not need to see his mark to know that the Huntsclan is the only family 99 has ever known. The only family he has ever known. He never had to choose the Huntsclan; he had been destined to join them.
He wonders if that makes Susan wary, too, even though she doesn't know he's 99.
"Not them," he adds, trying to override the denial he can see forming on her lips. "Not the others. Not yet. But you? You must know something. You must be able to do something."
He needs help. He needs more than just Rose. Whatever information she managed to glean from the American Dragon isn't enough, and they both know it. He's good at keeping himself hidden—learning not to panic had been the first step in stopping himself from transforming any part of himself unintentionally—but his luck won't last forever. There could be diseases that he doesn't know about, dietary concerns, some common calamity that all dragons go through that isn't listed in any of the books in the Huntslibrary….
However careful he is, ignorance will expose him in the end.
He can't run away. He has nowhere to go. If the Huntsclan has records of where he came from—where any of them came from—they're kept somewhere other than the Huntslibrary. He cannot risk searching for them, especially when those records might not exist—or when his family might not still live. He doesn't want to think too much about that. He doesn't know what it is done to the families of those like him, the stolen children, but the Huntsclan does not take risks.
Besides, even if he had somewhere to go, he'd be tracked down as a deserter. He's been raised in this life; it's not as if he's within his first year of training. He cannot simply renounce his connection to the Huntsclan. He knows too much.
"Please," Jake whispers again. "Please, help me."
This time, Susan is the one who hesitates.