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static on the line (i hear it all the time)

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He wondered, sometimes, how things would have gone if Lena and Jacks hadn’t been in the car.

If the bastard who’d shot his tires out had aimed for him instead. If he’d been on a different road, in a different car, and paying more attention to anyone who was tracking him. If the semi hadn’t been behind him. If he’d hit the gas instead of slowing like the bikes were going to pass by him instead.

If she hadn’t been on the driver’s side of the car. If his sister hadn’t been an alpha and her children little medical miracles, barely possible because of her shithead beta ex-husband.

If he hadn’t been a freak of nature who’d gotten involved with Damien in the first place.

There were a lot of things that could’ve changed that night, but Aiden didn’t know which one to point to as the one he wanted to blame. The guilt rode him hard, chasing him in his sleep and hunting him when he woke, always lurking at the edges of his thoughts for a chance to pounce. He’d thought that finding the shooter might help, but that looked less and less likely the longer the search stretched on. It didn’t matter how many steps he took down that road, Lena’s voice followed him.

He’d enlisted help, because he needed it. Aiden was good at breaking things—systems, encryptions, people, laws—but finding things was a different matter. Jordi had been his choice, because the fixer was known as being methodical and obsessive about the details; it made up for his personality. Mostly. Badboy17… now there was a mystery. His DedSec friend had contacted him to help, and Aiden had taken him up on it because he needed someone with that kind of access, but he didn’t trust the hacker. Blackhats weren’t altruistic by trade, and DedSec was full of them. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

One time was enough.

Either way, it paid off. He had the shooter now, unconscious and bleeding on the floor of a supply closet underneath the baseball stadium. Maurice Vega, a beta and contracted killer, who’d targeted his family because Aiden had pissed off someone big. If he wanted simple closure, he could take care of this problem now and leave the mess for the janitors, but he didn’t want closure anymore.

And he’d need Maurice’s information if he wanted revenge.

He stepped out of the closet and looked around, trying to figure out where the hell Jordi had run off to—it was hard enough getting a couple of Viceroys into a secluded area, but he hadn’t wanted to risk Vega catching wind of this, so he’d accepted the issue that the other gang members would pose. Or, more to the point, he’d left that cleanup to Jordi.

Who wasn’t here.

“Yo, Maurice, what’s shaking—”

The omega that rounded the corner froze in shock, then pulled a gun. He hadn’t expected that; the Viceroys weren’t exactly known for their tolerant attitudes, but the scent was muted, an undertone of acrid gunsmoke that was faint enough to be mistaken for something else. Suppressants, likely. Not every alpha was as sensitive to scent as he was, so he might have flown under the radar as a beta.

“Where the hell were you?” Aiden asked, hands in the air as his gaze shifted, the rich scent of tobacco wrapping around him.

The omega stammered, then choked into silence as Jordi’s knife slid into his side. The fixer had a smile on his face like he’d done something naughty, which wasn’t a good sign—Jordi only looked that excited when he’d pulled off a clever scheme. And Jordi’s clever schemes ended up with Aiden in the crossfire more often than not.

He should’ve hated it. He did hate it in the moment, and he’d hated it with Damien, who wouldn’t stick his neck out if he could get someone else to do it for him. But there was always a hint of danger in Jordi’s smile that appealed to a baser, dumber part of him. If Jordi hadn’t been an alpha, it might not have held so much sway over him.

Aiden nearly didn’t care that it did.

It was a stupid, stupid idea—call the cops? Really, Jordi? But it was a stupid, stupid idea that he was running with, creeping his way back upstairs as Jordi hightailed it out of there with Vega. The cops were looking for him. They weren’t completely wrong about who had caused the shootout, but Aiden refused to take credit for Jordi’s idiotic stunt.

And Badboy17… he was always so helpful. Always had a solution on hand, his fingers dancing in ctOS’s code.

As Aiden bolted out of the stadium under the cover of darkness, he thought about that. Hard to tell over text what rank someone was—it was one of the appeals of online dating and chatrooms for many minorities who might otherwise be verbally abused in public spaces—but he was willing to bet Badboy17 was a beta at highest. Maybe an omega. Alpha men had a particular cadence to their texts, a tone that carried over from the real world to the online one. It could be mimicked easily enough if someone knew what they were looking for, but it was hard to drop even if an alpha tried.

The bar crowd was loud with anxiety, their scents spiking with fear and turning the air sharp. Mostly betas, a few omegas whose presence was like acid in his sinuses, a few alphas who’d taken their role in society too seriously and started to move towards the doors to protect the others in the room. Aiden brushed past one, then was free, the cold air and rain washing away the smell of fear.

There was a car in a garage two alleyways over, Jordi’s little parting gift for all the trouble he’d caused. Whoever had dropped it off was smart enough to use the kind of soap that stripped scent off the skin, so it didn’t smell like anything but whatever cleaners the chopshop used.

He pulled out into the street and drove away, careful to follow the speed limit and keep an ear on the police scanner. They were still caught up in trying to figure out the situation at the stadium, and he was out of their range in no time. His motel wasn’t more than ten minutes away, so he’d call Jordi in the morning to see where he’d stashed Vega.

It was Jackson’s birthday tomorrow. If this revenge was going to mean anything, he’d have to show up—there was no point in getting payback for Lena’s death if he let Nicky and Jacks slip through his fingers at the same time.

If he played his cards right, he could show up after everyone had left, though.

“I need you to trace a phone call,” Aiden said as soon as Badboy17 picked up. The man who’d been crank calling his sister was sprawled out on the pavement underneath him, his head bleeding sluggishly from the impact into the pavement. He might not get up again. Aiden didn’t really care.

His sister’s warm leather scent had been overlaid by a sour note of fear when she’d gotten that phone call. It wasn’t the first. He should have been paying attention long before now—the cameras in her living room clearly weren’t enough. And he’d been gone so long that she hadn’t wanted him to help, hadn’t wanted to get dragged into his bullshit again when it meant that her son might get hurt.

Aiden remembered what she’d told him at Lena’s grave. If she figured out that he’d lied then, he’d lose them both. He couldn’t let that happen. Wouldn’t let that happen.

Badboy17 couldn’t trace it completely, but he could get enough of a line to tell Aiden where he needed to go next. Once he got his hands on the man that had paid this fucker, he’d make sure everyone knew better than to fuck with his family. And that voice had been familiar. Who did he know who would start this kind of petty shit with his family?

His phone buzzed, and Aiden answered it without thinking, wondering if Badboy17 had another lead for him past the ctOS center.

“So, we have a problem,” Jordi said, irritation threading through his voice. Faintly, in the background, someone whimpered.

“What kind of problem?” Aiden asked, turning back to his car and driving away from the alpha he’d half-beaten to death.

“The kind of problem where I can stick Maurice in a little box for a couple days with food and water, but I can’t promise to watch him. I’ve got a rut coming up, so… I mean, I know someone who can watch him, but I can’t exactly do the whole rut thing alone and my last couple fucks have either skipped town or died. You’re available, right?”

He nearly hit the back of a truck in surprise, yanking his steering wheel to the side and skidding out before he regained control. The man couldn’t be serious. An alpha man could fuck a lot of people without remonstration, but other alpha men were off limits. The sort of people who forgot that rule ended up as lessons to everyone else, beaten within an inch of their lives—if they survived at all.

Aiden had watched it happen more than once. Omega men, even beta men, were permissible, even if a proper alpha male wanted a woman. He could be gay, but only if he stuck to specific boxes. He could fuck men, but only if they weren’t real men. Only a freak would want other alphas. Only a freak would say yes.

“You know we’re both alphas, right?” he said, stalling for time as he tried to figure out Jordi’s angle. Had he figured out that Aiden wanted him? Had he caught some note in Aiden’s scent, despite how rigidly Aiden controlled his own reactions?

Why him?

“Yeah, and I really don’t give a shit. At least I don’t have to worry about knocking you up even if I’m sterilized.” Jordi’s voice was still annoyed, nothing else in it to indicate the game he was playing at. It wasn’t really a surprise that he was sterilized either—those kinds of treatments were technically illegal, but it wasn’t like murder was fair game either. And Jordi had always been open about his free and easy preferences, wasn’t shy about saying when he was going into rut.

And because he wasn’t shy, Aiden had entertained that fantasy more than once. He knew Jordi’s rut schedule almost better than his own. “Weren’t you in rut only a couple months ago?”

“Hence the sterilization. I’m a fucking stallion, Pearce. Do you want a ride or not?” The annoyance had shifted in direction towards him now.

If he said yes, he was painting a target on his back. Even if Maurice Vega didn’t live—and Aiden wanted him dead at the end of this—he was still listening in. There was that crank caller to follow up on, and if Aiden dropped off the grid for a couple days, Badboy17 would want to know why. His sister… his sister was used to his disappearances by now, so she might chalk it up to their argument. Might. It was an unacceptable risk.

And yet…

“Where am I meeting you?” Aiden asked, swallowing hard as his fingers tightened on the wheel. This was a mistake, but he’d made a lot of mistakes over the last year. One more wouldn’t kill him.

“I’ll text you the address.” Jordi hung up before he could change his mind, the text coming moments later. This wasn’t the safehouse Jordi was keeping Vega in, he knew that much, but he’d never seen this address before. A condo in Mad Mile was a lot pricier than he would have expected based on Jordi’s usual haunts, but maybe the suit should have been a clue.

Not safe to take a hot car all the way up there, though. Aiden dropped it in a parking garage, then took the L up north. Walking wouldn’t kill him, and he could figure out a better approach to the ctOS center on his way back.

A tingle of excitement shot down his spine as he remembered that he wasn’t likely to be thinking of work for the next couple days.

Had to get control of himself. He locked that reaction down, the way he’d locked it down over and over again throughout the years, and hoped that no one else on the train had gotten whiff of the brief surge of arousal. No telling what they might have thought.

Everyone scented things differently. There was a chemical reason behind it, but Aiden had never bothered to figure out what it was. Nicky smelled people as baked goods—alphas were like spiced bread loaves, she’d told him once, while betas and omegas were cupcakes and sweet rolls, delicious and appealing in their own way. The subtle variations in scent were like different flavors in the dough; her ex-husband had been rich, warm vanilla. Aiden, she’d said with a laugh, smelled like cinnamon rolls doused in rum.

For him, it was smoke and leather, sometimes the hot tang of metal. Damien had been the faintest scent of warm plastics in a computer, not quite appealing but not repellant either. Most omegas were too sharp, too bright, too sour in his nose, their scents overwhelming and harsh enough to make his eyes water. Scared omegas were the worst. It made his job as the Vigilante easier, stupid name though that might be, but it meant he couldn’t stand to be in a room with one for longer than an hour sometimes.

Jordi though—Aiden could roll in Jordi’s scent. Most alphas were appealing, rich and warm in a way that drew him like a moth to a flame, but Jordi was almost as addicting as the cigarettes he smoked. Appropriate that he smelled like pipe tobacco, the vice that Aiden couldn’t resist.

He stepped into the condo building, then made his way back to the elevators. The doorman was busy checking in the guests of some other occupant, and didn’t look up as Aiden walked past him. If he looked like he belonged, then he must. Jordi had been kind enough to give him an apartment number, and he only needed to spend a couple minutes at the elevators to break into the system.

One of the higher floors. The ride was smooth on the way up, the interior done up in dark woods and brass. Expensive place.

No one else on the floor, which was a relief. His face was blurred on the cameras, but human memories were harder to erase. The fewer people who knew he was here, the less risk there was to both of them. Not that he needed to worry about Jordi, but he worried nonetheless.

The condo had been listed under a different name, but Jordi’s scent hit him like a wall when he stepped in through the unlocked front door. It could be a showroom condo, the shelves neatly stocked with books and DVDs, the furniture clean and uncluttered, but little hints of life poked out—a gossip magazine on the coffee table next to an empty coffee mug and the television remote, a raincoat slung over the back of a dining room chair, rinsed dishes on the kitchen counter next to a well-stocked spice rack and wooden cutting board.

And all of it smelled like Jordi. This wasn’t a place he’d picked out on a whim—he was living here.

Aiden’s thoughts flew back to his own motel room, dark and messy and piled up with enough computers to make a conspiracy theorist cry with joy. Compared to this, open floor plans and massive windows with a gorgeous view, he was living in a hovel.

He locked the door behind himself, then pulled off his coat and set it on the table.

There you are,” Jordi said, coming out of the bedroom. He’d just showered, his hands vigorously working a towel through his still-damp hair. Another towel was wrapped around his waist, but it didn’t hide much, the hard planes of muscle shifting under his pale, tattooed skin as he headed towards the kitchen.

The tattoos curled over his thick muscles with abstract, pitch-black designs, no color to lighten the heavy lines inked into Jordi’s skin. The longer he stared, the more he could make out—tigers, dragons, violence drawn out in patterns so dense that they were hard to tell apart.

Aiden watched a droplet trail down Jordi’s back, tracing the dip of his spine before disappearing into the plush fabric of the towel around his waist. His own skin was too hot, clothes too tight, and he couldn't tear his eyes away from all the warm, biteable skin on display.

That was the other reason he was silent about his tastes. Any pair of alphas that went into rut near each other would turn it into a dominance fight—it was the reason why even straight alpha couples got sour looks sometimes, why alpha women were considered less desirable. What alpha man would want a mate who would fight him in the bedroom with all the viciousness at their disposal? It was wrong. It was unnatural.

Right now, it was the thing Aiden wanted most in the world.

He drifted towards Jordi without thinking, following him into the kitchen. The first towel was draped over a stool next to the island counter, Jordi’s hair ruffled and messy despite some attempt at combing it into order. His fingers itched to touch, the desire overwhelming enough that he clenched his hands into fists instead.

“So we’ll probably be down and out for a couple days—three tops, I don’t go for long. That’s not going to be a problem, right? When’s your rut coming up anyways? You haven’t taken a break for fucking months now, what the shit.” Jordi frowned down at the toast he was making, then glanced over his shoulder. Something in his face shifted, his gaze growing sharper and more predatory.

Aiden’s mouth went dry at that look. He swallowed a couple times, leaning back against the island and trying to fight his own reactions down. His scent had to be all over the place, but the condo smelled so much like Jordi that he couldn’t detect any shifts in the other man’s. Overwhelming, but in the best way.

“I’m on an annual schedule,” he said eventually, closing his eyes like it would help. As if he wasn’t going to have the sight of Jordi’s skin burned into his memories forever now. “Mine should’ve come last month, but I skip sometimes too.”

Or maybe he’d just delayed it, unknowing, in the hopes that maybe Jordi would look at him one day. Like the way Jordi had looked at him moments ago, as if Aiden was something to be devoured. Because his skin was burning, his soft sweater harsh where it rubbed against him, and he knew that even if he left, he’d be out of commission for a few days, maybe even a week, anyway. Too late to turn back.

Hot hands slid under his sweater, Jordi’s fingers like brands on the skin of his stomach as he stroked up slowly. Aiden sucked in a hard breath, squeezing his eyes shut tighter as his hips jerked up, nails biting into his palms viciously enough to make him bleed. Jordi’s thighs pushed his own apart, and then that broad expanse of skin was pressed against him, Jordi’s breath hot against his ear.

“Oh, I don’t think you skipped,” Jordi said, voice low and hungry. Aiden jerked his hips again, turning his head to press his face into Jordi’s neck. The only thing he could smell was tobacco and smoke, Jordi’s scent flooding him and washing away everything else.

His hands unclenched, reached for the towel around Jordi’s hips as Jordi’s fingers went to work on his clothes. Aiden let him pull the sweater off, then immediately went back to touching, worshiping the hard muscles pressing into him. He couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, had to touch and lick and rub against the alpha that was grinding into him and doing his level best to get Aiden naked.

Jordi growled softly, then yanked him away from the counter and kissed him hard, tongue thrusting between Aiden’s lips as hands grabbed at his ass. His own hands were roaming, fingers digging into Jordi’s skin as he snarled into the kiss, trying to force Jordi back towards the bedroom. He was done trying to bury the part of him that wanted this, done trying to pretend like he didn’t enjoy the fight as much as he did the heat of Jordi’s mouth against his own.

Pain shivered through him as Jordi slammed him into the wall next to the door. He grunted, then hooked an ankle around Jordi’s calf, flipping them into a tumble that ended with both of them on the bedroom floor, Aiden on top with blood in his mouth. It didn’t last long, Jordi bucking underneath him and sending him tumbling.

He snarled again, trying to grab Jordi and wrestle him down, but the other alpha evaded his grasp, stumbling upright. It took too long for Aiden to get his thoughts together enough to try and chase him; by the time he started to sit up, Jordi was shoving him down again, biting at his mouth in reprimand.

The fight was short but vicious, his nails raking bloody lines across Jordi’s tattoos before he was finally pinned. Aiden struggled harder for a couple seconds, then went limp, chest heaving as he glared up into Jordi’s dark eyes. Jordi’s cock was thick and heavy against his own, their hips rolling together despite the way Aiden kept trying to break free and turn things around again.

He couldn’t quite manage it, especially not when Jordi took advantage of his struggling to pin both of his arms with one hand. That left him with the other hand free, which wrapped around Aiden’s throat hard enough to bruise. Despite the furious way he arched and twisted under Jordi’s hands, Aiden couldn’t escape, and black began to creep into the edges of his vision.

With one final jerk against the grip on his hands, he finally stopped fighting, going limp under Jordi as he struggled to breathe. His heart was pounding, soft gasps catching in his throat as he shuddered and tipped his head back. It left his neck more vulnerable, but the pressure lightened, Jordi’s grip easing as he stopped pinning Aiden’s hands entirely.

They both knew which alpha had won. It should have grated—in a small way, it did. But more than that, he was thrilled by the fact that he could be put down at all, that he wasn’t expected to play the dominant role to whatever hapless beta or omega happened to wander into his path. Jordi’s hands were unyielding, his grip on Aiden’s throat still solid even as his other hand slid up underneath the firm curve of his ass.

He didn’t know when Jordi had managed to lube up his fingers, but he wasn’t expecting it when two pushed into him. The sudden stretch made him arch again, a whine threading its way through his gasps as he let his thighs fall apart. The low rumble from Jordi was approving, fingers on his throat flexing as the fingers inside of him slowly worked him open.

The pressure on his airway increased, pushing everything into grey as Aiden fought for a chance to breathe. It felt like hours passed, like he hung on the edge of consciousness for an eternity as his fingers scrabbled weakly at the hardwood floors of Jordi’s bedroom. He was losing the battle, more and more black creeping in—

And then, abruptly, the pressure was gone. The first breath hit him like a truck, his back arching as his gasped and clenched tight around the fingers—four now—fucking into him and spreading him wide. Jordi’s husky laugh flowed through him, his cock grinding into Aiden’s as he thrust his fingers in a final time before pulling them free.

He choked out something that might have been Jordi’s name, but he couldn’t manage anything coherent. Jordi’s hands forced his legs further apart as he shifted position and bent over Aiden fully. The fight was gone from him now, hands grabbing at Jordi’s shoulders for support as he lifted his hips encouragingly. This was why he’d agreed to this, consequences be damned.

His nails raked over Jordi’s shoulders as Jordi pushed in, rocking carefully against him before driving in with a single hard thrust. Aiden could feel blood welling up under his fingers, but Jordi didn’t seem aware of it. There was another slow roll of his hips, and then he shifted, hitching Aiden’s legs up as he bent him in half and began to fuck him in earnest.

What little focus Aiden had shattered again, hands grabbing at any part of Jordi he could reach before tangling in his hair. The air between them was too hot to breathe in, leaving him gasping as he tried to drag Jordi lower, tried to catch his mouth with his lips—or failing that, his teeth. His legs tightened around Jordi’s waist, each thrust driving another desperate noise out of him.

Jordi leaned in further, finally gave him the kiss he’d been hunting for, biting into Aiden’s mouth like he could claim that too. Blood and tobacco, metal and smoke—he couldn’t taste anything other than Jordi, was so caught up in the body of the other alpha that he couldn’t think either. His cock was caught between their stomachs, hard friction feeding into the fire of rut in his veins, and Aiden gasped a final time before coming, his muscles locking as he broke the kiss and threw his head back.

The bruised line of his neck was exposed and Jordi took full advantage, dragging his mouth over the tendons there before sinking his teeth into the muscle of Aiden’s shoulder. His hips stuttered, then he slammed his cock home as his knot swelled, locking him deep inside of Aiden. Aiden’s fingers scrabbled at the rigid planes of muscle in Jordi’s back, his back arching despite himself as he moaned.

He’d never been knotted before. Never even tried with some of the toys that were on the market. There’d been enough experience with his own cock that he’d been able to imagine some compelling scenarios, but the reality was something entirely different.

If he was saying words, Aiden couldn’t tell what they were, his face pressed tight to Jordi’s shoulder as he shuddered underneath the other alpha. Every twitch of Jordi’s hips drove a moan out of him, his body hypersensitive and too caught on the edge for him to come down from his orgasm—without a tight hole to fuck, his own rut wasn’t satisfied, and it kept pushing him to try and move even while he was tied on Jordi’s cock.

Jordi’s tongue dragged over the wound in his shoulder and Aiden keened, sinking his nails into the muscle of Jordi’s back again. It was too much, an overload of sensation that he couldn’t handle.

“I can’t,” he whispered, voice breaking as Jordi’s hips jerked again. “Jordi, I c—I can’t.”

“Shh,” Jordi crooned in response, lips soft against Aiden’s ear as his hands smoothed over his thighs. Somehow, that helped, the steady touch giving him something to brace against as another wave of pleasure crashed over him. “I’m gonna take care of you, I promise.”

He could refuse, could try and ride this out on his own again. But Jordi’s body was heavy on his, and for all that the pleasure was so sharp it hurt, Aiden craved it more than he’d ever thought he would. His body wasn’t made for this, wasn’t made to cater to another alpha like this, and yet—

“Hold on tight, I’m moving us to the bed,” Jordi said low in his ear, grip shifting to something more secure. Aiden obeyed, despite his misgivings; he wasn’t a light man, and Jordi was muscular but he was also still locked deep inside of him.

When Jordi hefted him up into his lap, Aiden bit down on his shoulder to muffle a scream. It was like lightning had been poured under his skin, like every single nerve ending in his body had picked that moment to fire. It only got worse as Jordi stood, the few moments between being lifted and carefully dipped down into the sheets becoming a breathless, floating moment of pure ecstasy as he came again.

The taste of blood filled his mouth as Jordi settled his weight back down on him again, palms pressing into Aiden’s sides reassuringly. It took a couple seconds for him to unlock his jaw and hide his face in Jordi’s neck again. Aiden couldn’t tell if he was in heaven or hell, but either way he was pretty sure he’d died from that.

“Oh, we’re going to have fun together,” Jordi purred in his ear as he began to grind.

Aiden had planned to be out of commision for three days. Four, if Jordi’s rut ran long.

Seven days later, he jerked out of a restless sleep, heart pounding and the sound of metal crunching chasing him into the waking world. The bedroom was dark and silent though—not even the sound of Jordi’s breathing. Which would explain the nightmare. What little rest they’d gotten between fucking like animals had been dreamless for him, but he’d always woken with Jordi wrapped around him.

He listened for a couple seconds longer, then relaxed when he realized the shower was going. Not a bad idea, to be honest. It was going to take a while to get the smell of sex out of this room, but Jordi’s scent had shifted again, back to rich but soothing instead of utterly intoxicating. Technically, Jordi had finished his rut a few days before.

Aiden, on the other hand…

A week was a long time to be out. He’d have to hit the ctOS center on his way back to his motel, get the information about the crank caller’s boss before checking his recordings of Nicky’s house. There was a lot that could happen in a week, but the feed on his phone showed Jacks fiddling with his tablet in the living room, which meant they were doing okay still.

That left Vega, but Jordi said that was taken care of. Aiden would stop by to interrogate him once he’d made sure his family was safe. He rolled his shoulders, then winced and reconsidered that. Maybe he’d interrogate Vega once he could move without flinching instead.

Carefully, he sat up and catalogued his injuries by the dim light of the cracked bathroom door. Most of them wouldn’t impede his movement despite their lingering aches, but he had a few that he’d have to keep an eye on. Thankfully, the cold weather was an excuse enough to stick to his high-necked sweaters; mating marks were distinctive, and he didn’t want to answer any questions about why he’d had another alpha’s teeth in him.

The bruises and scratches along his hips and thighs were nothing compared to those bite marks along his shoulders. A gentle touch to his neck proved that he had bruises there too, the skin still tender from Jordi’s winning move in their dominance fight. He’d had more control over his rut than Aiden, but not by much—it seemed like every time he’d knotted, his teeth had found another piece of unbroken skin to damage.

Touching a bite sent a spark of fire down his spine, so Aiden pulled his hand away. He didn’t have the energy for that. Better to play it safe, because Jordi had proved that he could already play Aiden’s body like a fucking instrument.

The shower was still going when he finally stood and limped towards the bathroom, trying to ignore the mess of come and blood on his skin. Jordi must have figured out how to feed them both, but Aiden’s recollection of his ruts was always a bit foggy—he didn’t remember eating, and it was pretty unlikely that Jordi had managed to get him into the shower. Frankly, it was a wonder anyone ever survived their ruts. He couldn’t imagine how awful it must be to see an omega through heat at the same time.

Like the rest of the condo, the bathroom was luxurious, marble and dark wood with brushed steel fixtures. Jordi’s shower had two shower heads and a low bench, the frosted glass hiding the details while giving enough impression of the shapes. He limped past the bath and broad sinks, then leaned against the shower door, relishing the heat of the glass. Eventually, he opened it and stepped in.

There were only two bites on Jordi’s shoulders—he must have been better at avoiding Aiden’s teeth after the first one—but the gouges on his back and sides more than made up for it. There wasn’t an inch of skin that hadn’t been clawed up, like he’d been mauled by a wild animal rather than fucking Aiden into the mattress for the last week—Aiden wasn’t sure how well the tattoos would fare with that, but at least a few of them were permanently marred.

He probably should have felt bad about that. Perversely, Aiden was pleased he’d left an impression.

“You put any antiseptic on those?” he asked quietly, voice rasping a little.

Jordi turned and pulled him under the combined spray, wrapping his arm around Aiden’s waist. Another jolt of heat fizzled through him, but Aiden managed to keep himself under control, running his fingers over the bite marks on Jordi’s shoulder before tipping his head back under the water. It felt good to get clean again.

“Eh, most of ‘em are scabbed over by now. Not worth ripping them up just in case, might give me scars. I’m going to want to look at your neck though, one of those bites looks like it might be inflamed.” Jordi’s voice wasn’t any better than his own. That helped too—little reminders that if the rut had been intense for him, it hadn’t been any gentler on Jordi.

“I’ll defer to your expertise there. I need to be out of here soon though, I’m behind schedule.” Aiden leaned heavier into Jordi, dragging his fingers through his own hair. None of the bottles in the shower were from brands he recognized, and the idea of fighting to find the right one for his hair—or his skin, since he couldn’t see a bar of soap either—was exhausting. Maybe he’d wait for a proper shower until he got back to the motel.

“Behind sched—What fucking schedule? I told you I got someone to babysit your wayward duckling, he’s sitting pretty until you want to deal with him. Well, technically, he had to be moved to someplace pretty, my guy gave me a call about that while we were fucking, but he’s safe now. You owe me for that by the way. I was out of commission when a job for me came in so someone else got the payout.”

Jordi sounded annoyed, but his hand was still lazily smoothing over Aiden’s hip, so he assumed the annoyance wasn’t that great. It was a hard reminder of how much he’d missed too, and it was possible his crank caller was dust in the wind now. And he was further indebted to Jordi, who was already doing his level best to drain Aiden’s bank accounts dry.

A whisper of fear slithered through him at the thought. If he stopped being able to make payments, was Jordi going to use this against him? Aiden was the one who stood to lose if his attractions were made public—Jordi could lie about how he’d figured things out, but Aiden wouldn’t be able to deny it. And Jordi already knew the worst people to tell, because he’d been hired to find the shooter in the first place.

Jordi knew where his sister lived. Jordi knew just how badly it would ruin him if Nicky ever found out what kind of freak her brother was.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said quietly, pressing his lips to Jordi’s cheek where thick stubble had grown in. He was beginning to sport a beard himself. “I’ve got something to follow up on first, someone’s targeting my sister. Once I take care of that, I’ll get you some extra cash.”

“Don’t bother, I’ll figure out some way to charge you down the line. Someone’s taking potshots at your family again? I didn’t think Maurice was a big enough fish for that.” Jordi drummed his fingers against Aiden’s hip.

“It started before we picked him up. I can handle it, Jordi, I just need some time.” And wasn’t that a cruel joke from the universe—for almost a year, nothing and no way to distract himself from the death he’d caused. And now? Now he could barely focus on Lena for all the things happening at once.

Thankfully, Jordi dropped the issue. Aiden leaned back into the spray as Jordi pulled away, then took the offered bottle of what turned out to be shampoo with a mutter of gratitude. Cold air invaded when Jordi stepped out of the shower, but once the door shut, the heat of the steam returned.

Badboy17 would be wondering where he’d disappeared to. That ctOS access was something he’d wanted too, which meant DedSec might be breathing down his neck since Aiden hadn’t delivered. That was an issue, but not a major one—he didn’t care for DedSec, and while Badboy17 was useful, getting too close to that swarm of data locusts was a recipe for disaster. They could suck it up. Aiden wasn’t obliged to give them any more access than he wanted to.

He dragged his nails through his burgeoning beard, then grabbed a bottle of body wash. The sooner he was out of here, the sooner he could put this behind him.

Despite all the consequences he’d have to face, Aiden couldn’t regret it. A part of him had craved this from the day he’d presented as an alpha, and if this helped silence that part, it would be worth it. He’d finally gotten what he wanted—an alpha man, just as dominant and violent as he was, fucking him through his rut like he’d always dreamed about.

Even if it didn’t silence those cravings, it had been worth it.

His clothes were sitting on the counter when he stepped out of the shower, neatly folded but unwashed. There was the faintest scent of Jordi’s rut still buried in the fibers, and he breathed that in as he pulled his jeans on, leaving the sweater and undershirt off for now. Dangerous to tempt himself like this, but he liked a little danger in his life.

Jordi was fully dressed and cooking breakfast, a dark suit and bold shirt underneath it, his ink hidden away once more. He’d shaved—probably while Aiden had been washing his hair—and looked for all the world like he’d spent the last week relaxing on the couch and not fighting Aiden between the bedsheets. There were two plates sitting on the island, and one of the stools had been pushed out in obvious invitation.

Aiden sat, setting his sweater off to the side, and tried not to look at himself in the dark glass of the balcony door.

“I’ll see where Maurice is stashed, and then give you a call,” Jordi said, filling the plates with bacon and scrambled eggs both. There was toast. Aiden couldn’t shake the memory of Jordi’s naked back, still damp from the shower, standing in front of the counter.

“I’d appreciate it. With any luck, this will be easy to wrap up. Once we get him talking, it won’t take long for me to find the people in charge.” He took a bite, eyebrows shooting up at the taste. Had he known Jordi was good at cooking?

Then again, it was scrambled eggs and bacon. Hard to fuck up. He’d managed it once, but that wasn’t saying much.

“Mm. Sit still.” Jordi set a first aid kit on the counter, the lid propped open and various supplies practically bursting out. It was much better stocked than his own, currently tucked under the sink in his motel room. Aiden couldn’t even remember the last time he’d opened the damn thing. Trying to get to it might bury him under empty pizza boxes.

He tipped his head obediently when Jordi tapped his jaw, then hissed at the sting as Jordi dumped alcohol on one of the bites.

Jordi worked fast, smearing antiseptic on the worst of them and taping down gauze over his shoulders. It would be a couple days before he could shower again, but hopefully the worst would have healed up by then. Aiden would just have to watch himself when he broke into the ctOS center.

“Thanks,” he said as he pulled his sweater on, twitching it into place over the bandages.

Jordi grunted in return before grabbing his plate, waving a fork vaguely in the direction of the front door. “Whenever you’re done, just dump that in the sink and get out of here. I’ll probably be a few hours before I call so try not to get too lonely while we’re parted.”

“Asshole,” Aiden said without heat, popping the last strip of bacon in his mouth as he stood. The words made his stomach turn—Jordi could have made the comment just to be a dick, but he could’ve been hinting at blackmail too. There was nothing he could do about it now, so he didn’t try and pry for any hints as to Jordi’s motives; for now, he was still paying the other fixer, which meant Jordi was going to be on his side.

And when he wasn’t… Aiden would burn that bridge when he got to it.

The ctOS center was still logged into his GPS, second to last recorded destination. He selected it and started hunting for a bike to steal—Jordi’s connection could probably hook him up with something, but it was easier to jump a motorcycle and speed off on it. Most people didn’t bother with proper steering locks anymore.

On his way back towards the Loop, he called Badboy17.

“Where have you been? You were supposed to get access for us.” The electronic modulation hid a lot, but it couldn’t hide the frustration in Badboy’s voice. Too bad Aiden didn’t really care.

“Got caught up in something,” he said evasively, switching lanes as he sped over a bridge. “Listen, I’m on my way to the ctOS center now—do you think you can still track our caller if I get you the access?”

“It’s possible, but don’t bet on it. It would have been easier if you’d gotten me access right away.” The accusatory tone turned sulky.

Aiden ignored it. “I’ll call you once I’ve got access, and you can tell me whether or not it’s possible.”

“Good luck.”

He ended the call and lowered himself over the handlebars, kicking the throttle up as he swung tight around a corner. Should’ve stopped to arm up with something heavier than the pistol and tactical baton, but he’d been distracted by Jordi’s call. By Jordi, in general. He couldn’t let himself get distracted again.

The ctOS center was in a construction site, half-built and crawling with guards. Blume had been investing in military contractors recently, the kind that hired only alphas because they liked the sort of reputation it brought. Violent bastards, but good at their jobs. Edgy as he was right now, Aiden didn’t want to run face first into that mess.

Thankfully, he had moderate access close to the server he needed to hack, so he parked his stolen bike out of sight of the guards and pulled his phone out. Not many cameras—go figure that Blume wanted to watch everyone but themselves—but enough for what he needed. Once he had the access codes from the admin on site, it was just a matter of finding the guard with the button camera and using that to hit the server access point.

This was his wheelhouse. He couldn’t pull some of the tricks Badboy17 could, couldn’t set up some of the traps Damien had shown him, couldn’t play the mind games some hackers loved to toy with, but this? Aiden was the best when it came to this. Cracking security, dodging firewalls, breaking encryption—it came naturally to him in a way that other types of code didn’t. In some ways, it was a mind game of its own, one that he played against himself and the distant system administrators in some Blume office deeper in Chicago.

ctOS opened up for him like a flower, giving him access to the entire sector here. Aiden pulled out, then started the bike and rolled away from the construction site. With Umeni-Zulu none the wiser. He loved it when a job went off without a hitch.

“Got your access,” he said as soon as Badboy17 picked up.

“I’ll find your caller,” the hacker said in return before hanging up.

Which meant he was left with nothing to do for now. Until Jordi called, he wouldn’t have an idea of where Maurice was. Until Badboy17 called back, he couldn’t track the guy making threats against his family.

His thumb hovered over the button to call Nicky, just to check on her. The cameras were good, but he’d forgotten how much he’d missed the sound of her voice, had forgotten what it felt like to see Jacks smile, and he wanted… He wanted, but in the aimless, frustrated way that he’d wanted for the last year. They were safer, if he was a little bit apart from them. That crank call had come in while he was at their house, and he was paranoid enough to wonder if that had been deliberate.

If he got close to them again, would someone else he loved die?

Before he could call, a notification popped up that ctOS had detected an imminent crime—their algorithms touching on someone with a history of violence and someone else standing in an alleyway with limited street access. A purse-snatcher’s wet dream.

Aiden put his phone away and turned the nose of his bike back into the Loop, heading for an easy distraction from the thoughts that wanted to chase him down.

Some hours later, he pulled up to one of the pedestrian entrances to the underground. Badboy17 didn’t want to meet him, but was insisting on it—that got his back up. Aiden wasn’t certain if this was a setup of some kind; it didn’t matter if they’d been working together for months now, Dedsec wasn’t a group to run afoul of. They had no qualms about using other people’s information for their own ends.

Badboy17’s desire to meet could be because of pressure from above, or it could be because he’d been paid off to set Aiden up. The Vigilante had some notoriety already, and he wouldn’t put it past another hacker to put two and two together.

That just meant he had to get the drop on his anonymous friend.

He stepped down the stairs slowly, phone out as he tracked over the few other people he could see. Which one was it? The man crossing the road, or the one coming up the stairs? One of the people who’d been up above?

Alpha, alpha, beta—there. Aiden narrowed his eyes and stepped forward to put himself in the path of the man headed upstairs, then paused at the faint hint of an omega somewhere out of sight. The beta passed him without hesitation, the stairs empty once he was gone.

The screens above the stairs flickered on. He turned and looked into the shadows beyond the stair rail.

He’d guessed the rank right, but the gender wrong. Badboy17 was an omega woman, her scent refreshingly light, the clean, cool smell of fog in the morning with only the barest traces of the sharpness that usually irritated his nose. Despite the difference in gender, her appearance was about what he’d expected from one of the hackers running with Dedsec: tattoos and piercings, her head shaved and streaked with white.

She would have known he was an alpha man, diametrically opposed to her in every way that counted. For all that she was controlling the show right now, she’d put herself in a very vulnerable position here—Aiden could kill her right now, and all that would be said was that she must have expected it. He couldn’t help a sense of begrudging respect for that, and the balls that sort of move displayed.

Didn’t mean he was going to let himself be jerked around, though.

He pushed up into her space, pretended like he couldn’t see the way her eyes widened slightly, scent going sour with the first hints of fear. Shorter than him too, and unarmed. Either very brave, very stupid, or both.

“I know you’re angry, but,” she said, her pulse fluttering in her throat, “this wasn’t access I could give you except in person. Right now, we’re the only ones with these hacks. I need to know that I can trust you.”

“That’s rich, coming from someone who’s been lying to me this whole time,” Aiden said, eyes narrowing as he reached for her phone. She pulled it away, but didn’t step back, standing her ground.

He respected her a little more for that.

“I didn’t lie, I just… let you believe your first impressions. This is important, Aiden. I’m not supposed to have these hacks. If I give you these, you have to promise you won’t spread it around.” She held her other hand out for his phone. A demand, not a request.

“You can trust me. Can I trust you, Badboy17?” Aiden asked dryly. After a moment of internal debate, he handed his phone over, watching as she uploaded the scripts for the tricks Dedsec had figured out with ctOS.

She handed it back soon enough, the tang of fear fading from her scent as a faint smile curled over her lips. “Clara. You can call me Clara.”

He’d done something that played into her expectations. Aiden puzzled over that, the shift from fear, no matter how well-hidden, to confidence. His own actions had been threatening enough— the way he’d loomed, how he’d forced himself into her personal bubble—she couldn’t feel safe with him.

And yet, the fear was gone, and she was stepping away slowly but easily. None of the hunted animal wariness that a threatened omega would normally display. Somehow the script had been flipped on him, the power moving back into her hands. How?

He didn’t get a chance to ask. She slipped away, leaving him there with his phone and his new selection of tools to use. And… a goal. The caller had routed through offices near here, which was why she’d wanted to meet down here in the first place.

No chance to use cameras to find his access here—he’d have to go up into the offices himself. Aiden ducked around the back of a ctOS van, watching the Umeni-Zulu guards patrol. A quick check of the garage via the cameras gave him a headcount, three by the door inside, one against the wall watching them, one against the wall on his phone, and the final sixth guard roaming back towards the garage door.

Time to play with his new toys.

He pulled the silenced pistol out from his jacket, then set off the alarms on two of the cars inside the garage. As expected, the guards all whipped around, no longer paying attention to their posts as they edged forward towards the malfunctioning vehicles. For military contractors, they weren’t that smart. Aiden lifted his pistol, took aim, and fired.

The first man fell without anyone noticing, far enough behind the others that none of them turned to look. The second fell with more fanfare, drawing attention—but the third was carrying a grenade that had a wireless trigger, and staggered back into the group in his panic as he tried to claw it off. It was just unfortunate for them that there was an electronic panel underneath them all.

As the final bang of the explosion faded away, he walked into the garage and hit a hack to make the door descend behind him.

There wasn’t anyone in the room just beyond, some kind of storage or janitorial closet. Maybe just an employee access. Aiden ducked through it into the bottom floor of the office, edging up to the side of a vending machine. The soundproofing in this building was good, since no one had come to investigate—and his camera access showed there were plenty of guards who could have.

Faint music played over the speakers as he crept down the hall, keeping an eye on the movement of the guards. The men up top weren’t watching the bottom floor, but there was no reason to draw their attention anyways. He holstered the gun and pulled out his tactical baton, then started a slow circuit around the outskirts of the room.

The first couple guards went down silently, his baton cracking into their skulls with vicious finality. The pair near the stairs presented more of a problem, but hacking the phone of one gave him enough distraction that he could choke the other one out before beating them both into the floor. He wiped blood off the tip of his baton, then drew his pistol again and crept up the stairs silently.

One of the upstairs guards turned the corner and started to head down, then fell with a thud as Aiden shot him clean through the eye. The thud had been enough, though, one other guard frowning as he turned and walked over. Swearing under his breath, Aiden ducked back under the opaque railing of the stairway, counting his breaths as the guard descended and asked his companion if he’d tripped.

A moment before the guard reached the body, Aiden burst out of his hiding spot and grabbed him, arm locked solid around his throat until the man stopped struggling. All of these alphas wore the security-mandated cologne that Umeni-Zulu dictated they wear—a common tactic to try and subvert any attempts to sniff out a single guard. It burned like acid in his nose, too sharp and too clean over scents that should have been rich and mellow.

As the body fell from his arms, he pressed his face to his jacket to try and get the burn out of his watering eyes. Jordi’s scent caught him by surprise, the comforting warmth of tobacco smoke filtering into his lungs. Normally, his own scent was strong enough on his clothes that they would smell mostly neutral to him, but he’d forgotten that they’d absorbed so much of the ambient scent of Jordi’s condo.

Maybe it should have irritated him, but he found himself pathetically grateful that the scent hadn’t faded yet.

None of the other guards had heard him take down these two. Aiden shook his head to lose the last lingering scents of cologne, then shifted up to a spot at the top of the stairs, scoping out the remaining men. Three, and all three of them within sight of his spot here.

He fired three times. Three bodies toppled over the railings, the last halfway reaching to his radio as he died.

Free and clear. Aiden straightened, forcing himself not to sniff at his own jacket again, and walked across the top floor to the receptionist’s office. There was a panel here that he could open, plugging his phone in just long enough to establish a connection. As he began to worm his way through the encryptions, he called Clara.

“Got a name for me?” he asked, looking through the directory. With all the building’s cameras at his disposal, there was a lot he could do here; ctOS was funny like that, most effective when devices were within a few dozen feet of each other. If he could see it, he could hack it.

“Bradley Caughlin. Beta, unsecured—oh no. He’s a security director.” Clara laughed, soft and husky. Aiden felt his lips quirk up in response as he found the office of the man in question.

“Incredible, isn’t it?” The man in question was on his phone, bitching about some advertisement in front of his stunning city view. Completely ignoring his computer. Aiden didn’t even have to try and hide his presence.

“It’s always the ones that think they’re clever,” she agreed, right as the beta turned around and made a liar out of him.

“Damn,” Aiden muttered as alarms went off, too late to stop him from getting in, everything going red and loud. His head ached, the hint of pain from the guards’ cologne magnifying under the cacophony surrounding him.

“Câlisse! Police are on their way. I’ll trace the caller, you get out of there.”

He didn’t need any more encouragement than that, already disengaging from the security panel and slipping out of the reception area. He could hear men starting to rush in, and that was his sign to use some of those new toys DedSec had granted him access to.

He knocked out the communications of the security forces coming in, then knocked out the lights. Without comms and without vision, none of them spotted him bolting through the closest set of doors, sprinting across the road and ducking into another alleyway. Luck was on his side as he found a car parked there, and it was a matter of seconds before he’d broken in and was speeding away.

Clara was silent as he skidded around a corner, then made a faint, triumphant noise. “Got him! It’s an apartment in the Loop, I’m sending you the address. Be careful—it’s like he wanted you to find him.”

He made a noise of agreement, then plugged the address in, pulling a sharp u-turn and heading that way. Wanted him to show up, huh? Well, he’d hate to disappoint. The niggling worry about that voice came back—he recognized it from somewhere. Someone he’d pissed off recently?

No, that wasn’t it. But who?

The alleys behind the apartment building were empty, which didn’t make him feel any better. Aiden parked his stolen car across the entrance of the alley so no one could drive in after him, then climbed up to the ctOS access point he needed. His sense of unease only increased as he looked over the potential shooting gallery behind him, but there wasn’t anyone around.

If he made this quick, he’d be out of here before the caller could bring in reinforcements. The firewalls were weak and he was in the apartment within moments, looking around with the camera. It was an absolute mess, garbage and used coffee cups everywhere, papers scattered and writing on the walls.

The handwriting was familiar. Aiden swapped over to the camera set in front of a television and watched the slideshow playing out, then felt his gut clench at the symbol that flickered briefly before the show began again. He wanted to be wrong. He wanted that voice to belong to someone else.

A cellphone sitting in front of the television rang. With a flick of his finger, Aiden answered it through his own phone connection.

“Hello, Aiden,” Damien said.


His voice was distorted just enough by the connection to explain why Aiden hadn’t recognized it immediately. The handwriting, the symbol, the crank calls—of course it would be Damien. Who else would target his sister like this? Like this, not like the attack on him a year ago. That had been vicious, brutal, and quick.

This slow torment, this psychological warfare against his family, setting little hints just for Aiden to come hunting him down… that was Damien to the core.

He pulled out of the system and ducked down behind a railing. There was the sound of someone swearing—his car was in the way—and another group calling out their positions as they moved into the alley. Aiden flicked through cameras, blew two circuit boxes to take out the snipers that had moved up there, then exploded a panel underneath one of the cars before knocking the lights out.

While the fixers yelled in shock and tried not to shoot their fellows, he bolted down the stairs and sprinted for the pitch-black alley that wasn’t blocked off by cars. One man caught sight of him and got his windpipe crushed for his efforts, and then Aiden was free, sprinting across the road and looking for a car.

Predictably, that’s when his phone vibrated in his pocket.

He picked up without checking the caller, swinging himself over a barrier as he detoured towards a sharp-looking sports car. “Yeah?”

“We have a problem,” Jordi said, sounding irritated.

A sense of deja vu overtook him, like Jordi was going to talk about his rut in a second and Aiden would go to him again. And again, and again, because unlike Damien, Jordi could give him what he wanted. Unlike Damien, Jordi hadn’t threatened his family.

“Little busy. I’ll call you back,” he said, unlocking the car and sliding into the seat as it started. The roar of other car engines wasn’t far; the fixers must have realized their quarry escaped, and were trying to find him.

“Yeah, don’t bother. I’m sending you a location. Get there in the next hour, you can’t afford to wait.” Jordi hung up on him, which left Aiden with all his focus back on the road.

He had a trace on Damien’s call. Once he’d lost his tail, he could find the man—that trail had been, like the apartment, deliberately planted—and figure out what the fuck this was about. And then he’d take care of Jordi’s problem.

And then, he’d go home and sleep for a week. Probably.

Ten minutes later, he pulled up to the park. The Bean loomed in the early evening, its mirrored surface still reflecting the traces of the horizon. It was one of the biggest eyesores in Chicago, and Damien loved it—no wonder he’d wanted to meet here.

He climbed the steps two at a time, anger driving him forward. The open space around the sculpture was empty, concrete bare and scrubbed clean by wind. For a second, he wondered if he’d been stood up, but Damien’s limp was audible as he came around the far edge of the sculpture, a drag-scrape on the concrete as he hauled that leg forwards. As if Aiden needed the confirmation that those x-rays belonged to his ex-partner. The brace looked like it hurt. Spitefully, he hoped that it fucked up Damien’s life as badly as Lena’s death had fucked up his.

“You’re late, Aiden,” Damien said, though his tone was calculating rather than annoyed. Not always a good measure for him—Damien lied like a rug, and his shifts in mood had a bad tendency to catch Aiden off guard.

“I was busy. What’s with the games? Why have some punk call my sister?” Aiden’s shoulders tensed as Damien held out the bottle of champagne he’d brought over. Like hell was he going to trust that, no matter how much of a show Damien made of opening it in front of him. Wouldn’t be too hard to lace it with something and refoil the cork.

“I wanted to get in touch with you. You’re looking so grim, has the year apart really been that hard on you?” The question was solicitous, but there was that edge of mockery to it—always mockery with Damien. His fingers itched to rearrange that smug expression into something better. “If you missed me this bad, you should’ve come to find me before now.”

“Get to the point,” Aiden said, voice tight as he reined himself in. Damien’s light cologne gave him the advantage, hiding shifts in his scent; if he wanted to play at the same level, Aiden had to control his own emotional responses more tightly than ever.

“You take yourself too seriously.” Damien gave him that nasty little smile, then dropped the bottle. Neither of them flinched at the sound of shattering glass. “I want my partner back, Aiden. You and me, together, like we used to be. Me behind the computer, you in the field like any proper alpha… I just want to help. We’re both looking for the people that hurt us. And you’ve hit  a wall. You need me.”

It made him sick, hearing Damien’s voice curl around the word ‘partner’ like that, a burning nausea that wasn’t quite grief and wasn’t quite rage either. This was so typical, Damien bringing in some hint of something and expecting Aiden to do the legwork, as if his little tidbits of information and leads were worth all the effort. As if Aiden couldn’t figure shit out on his own, even if it was taking so damn long for him to get to the bottom of the tragedy that had ripped his family apart.

And that was the crux of it, wasn’t it? Maurice Vega could be the smoking gun or a dead end, and he wouldn’t know until he could sit down and talk with him. A lead, but an uncertain one. It had taken eleven months just to find the shooter. How much longer would it take to find the people who sent him out in the first place?

It stung to hear Damien say it like that, though. As if Aiden had ever been a ‘proper’ alpha. As if Damien hadn’t known he was a freak from the beginning, hadn’t used that like he used Aiden’s skill with guns and cars, hadn’t set off this whole mess in the first place. As if being partners had ever been a reciprocal thing instead of Damien using and using and using him.

“I don’t need you,” Aiden bit out, not sure if it was a lie but desperate for it to be true.

“Like hell you don’t. You’re chasing all the wrong threads, looking in all the wrong places. What you should be asking yourself is what started this? And I’ll tell you—the Merlaut.” That smug satisfaction grated like a room full of omegas, getting under his skin and itching.

Aiden forced himself to stop clenching his jaw, flexing his fingers in his pockets. “The Merlaut was your fuckup.”

“Bullshit!” That had gotten an honest reaction. Aiden breathed in the spike in anger that managed to pierce through Damien’s cologne, like a spark that burned the plastic casing of something before the fire truly caught. “If you’d stood by me, like a partner, we would have gotten away with it! You fucked that up! We were this close!”

“You got too greedy,” Aiden said, fighting to keep his voice steady, “and now a six year old girl, my niece, is dead.”

“Oh, of course you blame that on me. ‘Damien did a bad thing, Damien made the bad men angry’, as if I’m the source of your familial strife. Well, what about me, Aiden?” Damien’s voice grew louder as he stepped closer, trying to use his size for intimidation like he’d forgotten what Aiden was. His thin little shoulders in that ugly jacket, the stupid sequined vest he was always so proud of, and even without the limp he was a couple inches shorter—if it weren’t for the fact that Aiden knew what he was like, he might have felt pity for the beta.

Might have, if it weren’t for the way he kept pretending like this wasn’t his fault. Aiden meant to keep himself under control, meant to let Damien do all the talking until he let something slip, but that was too much. He shoved the beta back a few steps, snarling, “What about you, Damien?”

“They took everything from me! They made me a cripple! All that I worked for, and it was gone just like that! You’re not the only one suffering!” Damien’s stumble nearly took him down, only highlighting his point. He jerked his hands down towards his leg, then stepped forward again, voice turning intent. “Don’t you see? It binds us together, makes us the same—”

“Like hell it does. I don’t need this.” Aiden jerked away, unwilling to listen to whatever bullshit Damien was going to try selling him. This had been a mistake, from start to finish, like everything that had ever been touched by the beta’s hands. He never should have come.

“Wait. Wait. There was another hacker.” Despite his limp, Damien could move quickly, moving to cut Aiden off. “There was a second hacker. It’s a lead, Aiden.”

He pushed past without looking, hating that the faint traces of Damien’s cologne clung to his jacket. “I don’t care. You need me, Damien. But I’m not playing this time.”

Before Damien could come back with another reason to stall him, Aiden stretched his legs out and stormed off. The brace kept Damien from catching up and his stolen car wasn’t far. He had to meet Jordi anyway, somewhere far away from all of this… shit.

That’s what it had always been. Shit.

He’d thought, when Damien first approached him, that this would be a way to get into something different. To pull out of the harder life and shift into the kind of crime that would actually make some money. Even then, in the wake of the dotcom bubble, computers were the way to go; shaking down a bunch of people for money couldn’t net him the sort of payouts that a single good hack on a bank could.

And Damien… Damien had been so much more than a mentor. He’d been a friend. He’d been someone Aiden felt comfortable with. He’d been, if not an alpha, a man that didn’t repel him completely, and for a while Aiden had thought that maybe, just maybe, handing control over to Damien would be good enough. Would feel right enough. Would help silence that bone-deep craving for something he couldn’t have.

He’d been wrong about everything, as it turned out. And if the shitshow that was the Merlaut hadn’t proved it well enough, Lena’s death had.

Well, fuck Damien. Maybe he had info that would actually help Aiden figure out who’d attacked them, and maybe he didn’t—Aiden would get it some other way. It wasn’t worth playing into Damien’s games, not when doing so the last time had gotten his niece killed.  He had Maurice. That was enough.

More to the point, he had way too much on his plate to play Damien’s games right now.

Aiden pushed the thoughts away as he came to a stop on the curb near the river. Ignoring the few lingering pedestrians, he hauled himself up the side of the building to the balcony Jordi had asked him to meet on. Another one of his condos?

There was a couple, bound and blindfolded, visible faintly through the sliding glass door. Not another one of Jordi’s condos. Before he could move to go inside and free them, Jordi appeared in the glass of the door, startling him badly enough that Aiden took a step back and reached for his gun. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the sudden appearance of the other alpha, but his scattered attention was hard to focus back to the task at hand.

“Hi,” Jordi said with a flash of a smile, picking up his rifle case as he walked over to the balcony. “What the fuck were you doing, anyways?”

Aiden was tempted to divert, ask Jordi who the hell those people were and why they were meeting here specifically, but… Well, that would probably take him down a road he didn’t want to go down too, come to think of it. Easier to just answer the question. “Found the guy harassing my sister—he had some men to back him up.”

“So what, that’s taken care now? That was fast.” Jordi’s voice was bored as he pulled the rifle out, checking the sights and leaning against the railing.

“Not quite. Old partner of mine, Damien. I don’t know if he’s going to do anything else. What’s this?” He waved a hand at the sniping setup Jordi had—it didn’t escape his notice that they were overlooking a shipping yard with river access, the area dark with a few figures patrolling in the shadows.

Jordi grunted. “So, while we were busy, fucking, because somebody had a rut of his own he wasn’t paying attention to—you’re welcome, by the way—the police were busy too. That stiff from the stadium? Yeah, turns out he’s not so stiff anymore. Got released from the hospital a couple days ago and he’s getting ready to be moved from county lockup to a nastier breed of prison.”

Ice spilled down his spine, cold fear cutting through him. The Vigilante had more of a news presence than Aiden would have liked, but as long as it was held separate from his real identity, he could tolerate it. If the stadium survivor blew that cover open, he was going to lose his advantage. He was going to lose his family.

His voice was harsh when he asked, “And how the fuck did that happen?”

“Kick me while I’m down, why don’t you,” Jordi said, lifting a hand helplessly before turning back towards the shipping yard. “See that down there? That is your meal ticket, my friend. My guy holding Maurice, he says that they sent out a call this morning, looking to grab this clown and squeeze. Cops are bad enough, but every motherfucker in the crime business wants to know who you are. This guy is the one running it.”

Aiden leaned against the railing of the balcony, jaw clenched. The anger was almost overwhelming—first Damien, now this? For one day, one fucking day, he wanted something to go right. “I’m guess I’m going to go talk to him then.”

“Yeah, only this time don’t do the empty gun thing. Poor Maurice nearly pissed himself. You left an impression. Oh, and don’t kill this dickhead—you kind of need him.” Jordi hooked a chair over with his ankle and settled in, pulling his rifle out. There was an earpiece already tucked discreetly in his ear, which Aiden took as a cue to call him as he turned and headed down towards the dock.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” he said as soon as Jordi picked up, swinging over a railing and landing on the deck of a small speedboat.

“If you could make it fast, I’d appreciate it. These people are gonna start whining any second now, and that shit gives me migraines. I get a migraine, I am useless to you.” There wasn’t much upset in Jordi’s tone now, just that distant caustic tone he usually had during jobs like this.

“Believe me, you’re not the only one who wants this done quick.” The faster the better. He needed this loose end tied up so he could swing back around and check on his family. Should have called Nicky when he had the chance but…

“Sticking my dick in you won’t turn me into a mind reader, you know. How the fuck am I supposed to know what you want?” The words sent another river of ice down his spine, the casual reminder that Jordi knew what he was now—and could use it against him without even trying.

Aiden kept his voice even as he hauled himself up onto the dock, edging towards the stairs that would lead him up to the shipping yard and ignoring the pain in his shoulders. “Not big on empathy, huh? The faster this is done, the faster I can deal with Damien.”

“Never had a reason for it,” Jordi said absently, the near silent whistle and crack of his suppressed rifle followed by a soft thud. The guard closest to Aiden was dead, no one but him the wiser. “When you say ‘deal with’, how big a ticket price are we talking here?”

God, that was tempting. Aiden didn’t respond at first, creeping around a set of wooden pallets with his own pistol drawn. Take over Maurice for himself and unleash Jordi on Damien and whatever the hell he had planned. If he could be certain that Damien was bluffing, maybe he would. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He couldn’t tell what Damien was thinking.

He was good at reading people. Damn good. But Aiden was forced to admit that Damien had always been a closed book to him. Not unlike Jordi in that respect.

“...I don’t know if that’s how I want to handle him yet,” he admitted eventually, sighting a guard.The man fell before he could pull the trigger, Jordi’s distinctive rifle whispering death if he stopped to listen hard enough.

“Ah, sentimentality. That’s going to get you killed one of these days. Or your family—you care about that, right? There’s a mistake right there too, you’re just full of them.” His gut clenched at the words, but only because they were true.

“A mistake like sleeping with you?” Aiden asked before he could think about the words, silently cursing himself for it the moment they were free. He shouldn’t even be talking, not while he was in enemy territory. No matter that the enemy was falling one by one, his bullets and Jordi’s ending lives before the men were even aware what hit them.

“That? That’s probably the only good decision you’ve ever made. Other than hiring me, of course. When was the last time you let yourself go during a rut?” When Aiden didn’t answer, Jordi’s tones turned smug. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. We should do that again sometime. It’ll be fun.”

Now there was a trap if there ever was one. Aiden didn’t bother responding to that either, choosing to unlock the gate that led deeper into the yard. His mark would be in there, and he’d figure out how to deal with this problem once he had the information he needed.

And Jordi… he’d deal with Jordi once he’d dealt with everything else.

Fool that he was, he’d forgotten the mating marks.

The plan to break into—or at least cheat his way into—the prison had been a good one, no matter what Jordi said. There wasn’t any other way for them to get to the omega that could ruin him, and Aiden wasn’t going to risk the guy squealing. Just because it was frowned upon to beat up omega inmates didn’t mean it never happened—and in a prison like this one, it was common enough to blame the unstable alphas trapped in there with them.

Place this high-tech, it wouldn’t be a problem for him to move around as long as he had his phone. And the was the crux of it: Aiden needed his phone for this to work, which meant Jordi had to pull strings to get him that phone.

But the fact that he needed his phone also meant that he’d been forced to hide it in his underwear as he dressed in the short amount of time allotted for him to change. No good if the guards could find it right away too, so he’d spent his time making sure they couldn’t—and that meant that he’d only gotten his pants on by the time they’d walked in.

At first, he’d thought the looks were over the scars on his chest, the reminders of shrapnel and the mess from the car accident. He’d pulled the shirts on as quickly as he could to hide them again, then moved to walk out of the room like he assumed they wanted, ready to go to his cell.

The hand firmly in the center of his chest stopped him. Aiden glanced down at it, then up again, eyes narrowing at the blatant hostility in the man’s face. They couldn’t know. The whole point of this was to prevent his identity as the Vigilante from being spread around, and he’d hacked the computer to register a false identity when he’d been pulled through intake. There was no way they knew.

The fist in his gut said otherwise.

He doubled over, arms wrapping tight around his stomach as he stumbled back a step, just in time to get a sharp knee to the face. It wasn’t the first time he’d been knocked down in a fight, but it never got any easier. The tactical baton pressed hard into the small of his back, and he felt a brief surge of anxiety for his phone—if he had to fight his way out of this situation, he would, but he’d definitely need it to escape after that.

Before he could commit to fighting back, the snide drawl of the guard stopped him cold. “Looks like we got ourselves a faggot, boys.”

Shock made him slow to react, so the foot to his side landed solid, sending him toppling over again with a sickening crunch. Aiden sucked in a sharp breath, ignoring the screaming in his chest, and rolled away as best he could, trying to get away. Closed room. No way out, and his clothes in a heap too far away to work as weapons.

If he fought back, they might stick him someplace that made it near impossible to get to the omega. And if he killed one of them in the fight, he’d end up somewhere much worse, probably stripped down and with his phone stolen away.

He couldn’t fight back. But he wasn’t going to let them kill him either.

His attempt to duck away from the grasp of one guard only sent him into the hands of another, who yanked his hair hard enough to bring tears to Aiden’s eyes. They pulled him to his feet, a guard at either side, and the resemblance to some of the beatdowns he’d taken part in was close enough to make him sick. This wasn’t a random act of violence. This was sending a message—and Aiden was unlucky enough to be the freak delivering it.

He could have broken their necks. The guard on his left wasn’t holding him right, was too limp-wristed to properly lock those joints down. All he would have needed was to break that hold, use the guard on his right as a shield, then pull his baton out and get to work. He’d done it before, with more men—it wasn’t hard to beat someone to death. It just took dedication.

Instead, he tried to curl up and protect himself, stomach muscles tensing to take the worst of the hits. Couldn’t afford to kill these men yet. Couldn’t bear to listen to the shit they were saying about him, because some of it was true.

They took their time. Aiden… endured.

He was choking on blood as they dragged him to his cell, pathetically grateful that at least he hadn’t lost any teeth. Most of the blows had landed on his chest and stomach, with only a few directed at his face—probably didn’t want to risk hurting their hands on the bones of his skull. It meant he kept his teeth and his nose for the most part, and more importantly, his hands.

If they’d really wanted to do damage to him, they would have broken his hands. But a crippled prisoner couldn’t work, so maybe they’d just wanted to save themselves the trouble down the line.

He hit the floor hard, one wrist sharply protesting at the impact. The door slammed shut behind him as the guards headed off, laughing about… the game, maybe. Not him. Aiden was a footnote now, something to feel smug about but no reason to brag. They’d put the aberrant alpha in his place. Done their duty to society. Reinforced what his role should be.

Aiden spat out a glob of spit and blood combined and wiped his face as he sat up. He’d remember their faces, if not their names. The scent of burnt toast from the beta, newly washed vinyl and smoldering oak wood from the alphas. Sooner or later they’d run into him again and then—

He dug his phone out, setting his tactical baton down carefully as he did. The earpiece was clipped on the side, easy enough to pull free and twist into his ear, and the Dedsec hacks were online and running, this entire prison ctOS integrated. For a long couple of seconds, he sat there, remembering that he wasn’t trapped, that he could get out at any time. That this plan was still the best one.

Then he called Jordi.

“Jordi. I’m in,” he said as soon as the phone picked up. The door of his cell was still locked, but Aiden hauled himself to his feet and peered out the window—the guards all had cameras. He’d be able to get out of here as soon as he put those to use.

“Obviously. You sound like shit, by the way.”

“Go fuck yourself.” The anger bubbled up for a second as he flicked his way between guards, hunting for an angle to see the camera over the door controls. “I should have sent you in here. You’re the one that just had to play with your food.”

“Mm, kinky. Start yelling too loud and they’ll put you in solitary—I can’t get you out of there.” Jordi’s voice was lazy, for all that he was supposed to be acting as support to him right now. Even the thought of being trapped here was enough to make him sick. If he never got out, what would Nicky say?

Nicky. Jacks. Damien. God, he couldn’t worry about them right now, not with the threat of the guards still looming.

“Jordi—wait.” Aiden inhaled carefully, trying to ignore the agony flaring up his side when he breathed too deeply. “While I’m taking care of this, I need you to do something for me.”

“Uh-huh. Does this ‘something’ involve playing pretend with Maurice, because let me tell you, he is whiny. And he wants you to go find some phones or something? I’ll be honest, I started tuning him out after a bit.”

“No, it doesn’t have to do with Maurice. You know where my sister lives?” This was a risk, but Aiden couldn’t shake the gut-wrenching terror of Nicky and Jacks getting hurt while he was trapped in here. Even after he got out, he wasn’t going to be at his peak condition—every breath he took was accompanied by a surge of pain. At least one of his ribs was definitely broken.

“Uh, yeah. Why?” For once Jordi sounded genuinely confused rather than sarcastic. He’d take the brief moment of sincerity.

“I need to you go over there, stake it out. Keep an eye on them. I’ve got cameras in her house but you probably won’t have access to them and I can’t check them right now. Just in case. Five grand a day for every day you’re watching them.” Aiden closed his eyes and swallowed, hoping Jordi wouldn’t question it. His face felt raw and tender even with as few hits as it had gotten, and he was worried that he might not be able to open the left eye again in a few more minutes.

Finally, after a silence so long he thought Jordi had hung up, he got an answer. “Yeah, alright, I’ll go babysit your goddamn family. You owe me, Pearce.”

“Thanks. I’ll be in touch.” The conversation dropped and he stood there for a few seconds more before unlocking his cell door. This floor wasn’t being looked at now, and his cell was out of the sight of the few stationary cameras. Lucky for him—though it was probably in case they wanted a round two.

Silently, Aiden padded around to the office, ducking behind columns and laundry carts to avoid being spotted. These guards were complacent, assured in the security of their positions and the technology they used to run this place. None of them even thought a breakout would be possible. Their laziness would be to his benefit.

The prison reeked of misery. His nose had stopped bleeding, and wasn’t stopped up enough to block the scent out—the smell of blood would have been preferable. Scents overlapped, alphas and betas, the occasional sharp note of a terrified omega. These guards didn’t wear cologne, but they wouldn’t have to; no one would be able to pick up an emotional read from them with the overwhelming pressure of despair pushing against them.

He hated it. His breaths were already shallow in an attempt to ward off the pain, and he made them shallower still to cut the taste of the other inmates off his tongue.

At least it helped hide his own scent as he ducked against the wall under the guard station. The men who worked here were probably noseblind by now—most people who worked in violent professions ended up like that. Aiden was unlucky enough to not be one of them. He tried not to think about that as he swung through the cameras, tapping into the feed that lead to the rooftop rec area—the omega would be there.

He bounced from camera to camera, scanning the faces of the men hanging around and heckling the guards, before spotting those distinctive face tattoos. Right where he was supposed to be. The question was, how was Aiden going to—


“Shit, Jordi, the guards are taking him someplace. I need to move.” He edged along the wall, swapping back to the cameras overlooking the elevators. A flick of his finger and it started descending for him—too slow. He’d have to keep it open and hope the guards didn’t question it, because one of them was already on his way back.

Jordi was swearing softly in his ear, which meant he was probably doing his best to locate where they were taking their mark. After a couple more seconds, he said, “Laundry room. Probably going to shake him down, you need to get there now, Pearce.”

Aiden grunted in response, then bolted across the hall, ducking behind the door of the elevator as it started to close. The guards didn’t notice, thank god, and then he was headed down. This had been a fuckup, from start to finish, and his ribs… Couldn’t think about that. His left eye wasn’t swollen shut yet, so at least he’d be able to see the hits coming.

The halls leading to the laundry room were quiet, the guard station empty. A shotgun rested on the desk, two boxes of ammo underneath—he grabbed them all, loading the shotgun carefully before rolling his shoulders and taking a deep breath. The pain just meant he was still alive. And the closer he got to the laundry room, the more he could hear—the omega begging and guards jeering at him as they tried to beat answers out of him.

“I’m here. Call you back when I’m done.” As he paused at the door to listen, he caught the faintest whiff of vinyl and toast. Lucky him. Two out of three.

He shot the first man as the door swung open, blowing his knee to pieces before liberating him of his brain. The guard’s pistol was loose in its holster, so he liberated that too, tucking it in the back of his pants as he ducked low to avoid the burst of fire from the rest of the guards. Ashes and plastic. He rolled, ignoring the burst of pain, and shot the first guard in the face and the second in the chest—another shot and that was three down, six to go.

Ceramic tiles shattered as bullets whizzed past the column he was hiding behind, but they were more wary now. Aiden pulled out his phone, leaned just far enough around to confirm his angle, then set off one man’s headset. While the guard screamed hysterically, he whipped the pistol out and shot him three times in the chest, putting him down, before ducking again to avoid the return fire.

Burnt toast had crept up on him while he was reloading—as much as Aiden wanted him to suffer, he wanted to get out of this alive more. The beta got a load of shotgun pellets to the neck, damn near blowing his head off with how close he was. Aiden pushed forward, catching the next guard in the shoulder, then stomach with two more shotgun blasts. The man behind him fell as he was clipped by the fire, then died as Aiden made sure he wouldn’t get up again.

Two left. He fumbled the second box of ammo out of his pants, loading the shotgun as quickly as he could, ears straining for the sound of the other two guards. One of them had moved out, maybe to the station in the laundry room—he’d noted it on his way in, mostly protected and a foot higher than the rest of the room. The other was coming up on his left, probably hoping to catch in on his blind side.

He tossed the empty box in the man’s face, swinging the shotgun up to blow a hole through his head while he was distracted, then stopped to listen again. None of these men had been the alpha leading the beatdown, which meant vinyl was the one who’d tried to hide in the guard station.

Aiden grinned, shifting the shotgun to his off hand and grabbing the pistol.

Two bullets in the thigh and one in the arm—vinyl had been paying attention to the wrong side of the room and missed Aiden creeping up on him. He went down screaming, trying to stop the gush of blood from his leg, though he wasn’t going to have much luck with that. Aiden set the shotgun down on the desk, making sure he could grab it just in case, and the pistol beside it. His actual target had left the room, probably crawling away from the violence; the sickly acidic scent of omega fear led through one of the sets of swinging doors. But he bet the man wouldn’t get far.

With a flick of his wrist, his tactical baton unfolded. Vinyl’s screams had faded to whimpers. and there was fear in his eyes as he stared at Aiden.

“If I were nice, I would give you a chance to fight back. But I’m not feeling very nice right now,” Aiden said amiably, before bringing the baton down on the man’s fingers.

He relished the screams, the sounds of bones cracking, blood splatter on his clothes—a firefight was thrilling in its own way, but this base, brutal violence sang to a part of himself that he rarely let free. It was the same part of him that wanted Jordi like he wanted cigarettes, the part of him that was as addicted to the chase as it was to the payoff. They’d wanted to beat it out of him, but twenty years of trying had taught him this: violence was Aiden’s breath and blood, the desire that kept him moving forward, the thing he dreamed of at night.

Aiden lived for this. He’d never learned how to do otherwise.

The sound of the doors getting kicked open caught him off guard. He launched himself away from the pulpy remains of the alpha, grabbing the shotgun on his way down, and barely avoided the spray of pellets that took out the glass of the guard station.

When he peeked around the corner, he had to bite back a groan of frustration. This guard was kitted up in a flak jacket, helmet, shoulder pads and armor—the whole nine, with a massive shotgun in his hands to boot. It’d take a lot more shots than he liked to put the man down, and he was injured enough that trying to take him down physically seemed like a bad idea. Alright. Fine. This prison was wired up to ctOS in all the ways that mattered, so he’d just have to turn the building into a weapon.

With a sharp, painful breath, he bolted out, taking a wild shot at the enforcer before diving behind a counter. The tiles where he’d just been exploded, a shotgun blast powdering them completely. But more importantly, the man began to move, following Aiden around the corner.

He waited just long enough to bait him forward before dodging again, swiping his finger over his phone as he tucked the shotgun under his arm. One of the gas mains exploded, flames licking over the enforcer’s armor as the handle slammed into his head.

It didn’t send him down, more’s the pity, but he was staggering as he followed Aiden again. The guard’s shotgun blast went wide, catching the ceiling instead—Aiden took advantage of that to fire twice more into his chest before ducking again. There was a set of pipes for hot water and steam to one of the laundry tubs and… there.

He flicked his finger again, blasting the enforcer with enough steam to blind him. Taking his chance, Aiden popped out of cover, unloading the rest of his shells into the man’s chest, blast after blast that finally had an effect. The enforcer took a few stumbling steps back, then fell and was silent, a final rattling breath signaling that it was done.

Aiden waited a few seconds longer, breathing hard as the adrenaline kept his pain from registering. No one else came down to hunt him, so he supposed that meant he was in the clear. And his little snitch…

The omega was curled up in a tight ball just outside the doors, clearly in pain from the beating he’d been given. He whimpered at the sight of Aiden, trying to push back harder against the railings, as if that would save him. He was just lucky that Aiden had no desire to kill him.

Slowly, achingly, he crouched next to the omega, eyes narrowed and locked on the man’s tattooed face. The sick, acidic scent of his fear cut through the blood and violence clinging to Aiden’s skin, sharp enough and vivid enough that it threatened to give him a headache. He could almost feel pity for the poor bastard; an omega in a prison like this one didn’t last long, especially one off scent blockers for the first time.

“Have we met?” Aiden asked, his voice deep with lingering rage.

“What?” the omega whimpered, feet digging uselessly into the steel of the walkway. As if he could somehow fade into the bars at his back and escape Aiden again. Fat chance. “How did you get in here?”

“Prison’s usually built to keep people in, not out. A high-tech joint like this one? I just had to walk through the doors.” Aiden smiled grimly, pulling his phone out and pulling up the omega’s record. Two months was a long time for an omega in the clink, but in the scheme of things… “Looks like you’re here for sixty days, less on good behavior. But places like this, it’s not just their physical security that’s all wired into ctOS. Their records?”

He held up his phone, a mock version of what he could do on display. The omega, already sallow from pain, paled further.

“Have we met?” he asked again.

“No man—never seen you in my life,” the man whimpered, curling his arms around his gut in pain, fear, maybe both.

His point made, Aiden stood and pocketed his phone, walking slowly towards the freight elevator at the back of the utilities area. It was going to be difficult getting out of here like this, but he could probably manage. Still…

“Finished what I came here to do,” Aiden said as soon as Jordi picked up, pulling his gory prison shirt off and wiping his face and hands off with the few clean spots of cloth. It didn’t feel like it was working very well.

“Left a present for you. I’m off to your sister’s place now—you still need me to keep an eye on her?” There was a hopeful note in Jordi’s voice. As much as he hated babysitting, the alpha clearly liked money enough to tolerate it.

His chest was a mess of black and purple bruising, what little unbruised skin smeared with blood. He’d be out for a couple more days at least. Aiden sighed, then said, “I’ll come relieve you when I can. Probably not for a couple more days though. You’re making at least fifteen, maybe twenty.”

“Mm, well, can’t complain about numbers like that,” Jordi said before hanging up. The freight elevator arrived at the same time, door sliding open to reveal a duffel bag and Aiden’s jacket on top.

It was a good present. He wiped his phone and tactical baton off, then set them on the floor of the elevator. His pants were even worse than his shirt, but the backs were clean enough for Aiden to wipe down with. He did his best to get his face completely clean, and his hands as well as he could, but blood had already dried in some of the small nicks and wrinkles between his fingers. There wasn’t much more he could do.

Getting dressed again hurt, especially now that the adrenaline was ebbing away; his ribs ached worse now, if anything, and his left eye was swollen almost completely shut now. Would fuck up his aim. Had to do his best to remember that.

As he tugged his sweater on, he brushed his fingers against the bite marks that had set all this off. A tiny flicker of heat flared low in his belly, but it wasn’t anything more than a half-remembered reaction. He was too tired, and in too much pain… and this had been a good reminder of why he’d never let himself do something like that before.

Pity he’d had to learn the lesson again. Would’ve thought his father’s fists were enough the first time.

The duffel bag also held his pistol, the suppressor screwed on tight, and a rifle. He slung the rifle over his shoulder with a wince, then pocketed the pistol with his baton, giving his phone another wipe as he told the elevator to take him up. The prison would be on high alert now, so walking out the front door wasn’t likely. But this prison had a parking garage attached, with rooftop access—ctOS did a good enough job to make it a nonstarter escape route for most inmates. But Aiden wasn’t most inmates, so that would be his best bet.

He leaned against the wall of the elevator as it ascended, checking his rifle and handgun, loading them both as he forced himself to breathe deep. Once he was out of this, then he’d give in to the urge to curl up and hide from the pain. Maybe get drunk. Raid the collection of pill bottles in his motel bathroom. At least one of them was bound to have something to numb him for a while.

The halls in the upper floor were silent, stretching endlessly until he finally found the security checkpoint to the rooftop parking. He flicked the interior door unlocked, then started towards the exterior one—and paused.

Helicopters. The crackle of radios as officers exchanged information. Men moving around, cocking guns, calling out sightlines.

Son of a bitch.

Shooting the rifle with one hand was going to be difficult, especially when his aim was off, but the clip held more than the pistol did, and the bullets had more stopping power. Maybe he should have saved that shotgun, hunted around for more shells. Could have used it to throw at someone, at least.

He counted silently to three, then kicked the exterior door open, firing his first few shots blindly. The explosive exit caught them off guard though, so he was able to duck behind a cement barrier as bullets whizzed above his head. Too many of them. Aiden’s thumb danced over the screen of his phone, navigating to the comm hacks to stop a call for reinforcements.

There was a car just a few feet away. Metal exterior. Sturdy frame. Probably a decent airbag. He wasn’t getting off this rooftop the safe way, so he’d take the fast one. It unlocked with a flick of his finger—god bless people who updated old junkers like this one with the latest toys—and he checked the opposite side of the barrier.

The cops pushed forward, making a move. Aiden rolled, yanking the door open as two holes were punched through it, missing his head by inches.

And then he was in, starting it, hitting the gas as he worked the clutch. Most of the officers dove out of his way, a few waiting until the last second so they could keep firing. The glass cracked, cracked again, bullet holes compromising the integrity as he flew across the lot to the edge of the roof.

Aiden grabbed the handlebar above the door, pulling his foot off the gas as he brought his legs up out from under the steering column. For a few, breathless seconds he was in freefall, eyes shut tight as he pressed himself back into the chair as hard as he could, bracing every inch of himself for the hit.

Glass shards flying past him, safety glass that left little nicks instead of jagged slices. The crunch of metal meeting pavement as the nose hit and the car rolled. The bang of the airbag deploying and the crunch of his already damaged nose breaking all over again as it smashed into his face. Screams from civilians, and then the movement stopped, the car coming to a rest on its roof.

Everything else was quiet, but the civilians were still screaming. Sirens in the distance. Had to move fast.

He let go of the handlebar, biting back a scream of pain as he let himself fall. The windows were out and he hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, so Aiden was able to crawl out of the side window, shifting the rifle around so it would fit. People were staring at the car, calling emergency services, taking pictures—his face wouldn’t show in any of them, Aiden had his camera presence wiped, but it was still too much attention. He pushed himself up, scanning the street for another car.

The first step sent him back down again, his left leg crumpling under his weight. The rifle saved him, acting as a makeshift crutch as he forced himself back up, then forward again, using it like a cane with each stumbling step. He yanked open the door of a sports car parked against the curb, hauling himself in with a groan of pain.

His hands were shaking as he started the ignition and pulled away, phone on his lap as he knocked out the cell service around him. Might buy him a few minutes, at least. The sirens were too close, the cops in the prison parking lot coming down as more of their fellows came from other streets. Had to lose them before he could get away.

Aiden jerked his wheel, heading for one of the bridges. The police helicopters were ctOS enabled, which meant he could knock out their navigation when they got too close, distract them a little. Setting one of the bridges to lift as he flew over it took care of the cars behind him.

And then he was on the highway, blazing past the rest of the afternoon commute, police scanner on his phone crackling with frustration as they lost him. He’d have to ditch the car, but that was fine. His identity was safe, he was in the clear, and his family… Jordi would take care of his family.

It ended here. He hoped.

The same nightmare. Motorcycle engines, Lena’s sweet voice in the backseat, the bang of a gun and the much louder crunch when the car flipped for the first time. It would be boring if the sick terror didn’t overwhelm him every time, keeping him locked in the same old motions, rising tension and the knowledge that it didn’t matter what he did in the dream, Lena died every time.

He snapped awake, his phone buzzing against his cheek. For a few, blessed seconds, he couldn’t remember why he’d fallen asleep half-dressed—then he tried to breath and the pain nearly knocked him out all over again.

With shallow, desperate pants, he slowly pushed himself up, trying to fight back the fire that shredded his sides. His motel room was dark but for the faint light of his computers, but he knew the shape of it by heart, stumbling back to the bathroom while ignoring the rising nausea low in the back of his throat. The pain wasn’t sharp anymore, it was grinding, an overwhelming ache that threatened to wear him down into dust.

Under the harsh fluorescent light in the bathroom, he got a good look at his face. The swelling around his eye had gone down, but black-purple bruises ringed it instead, smearing over the bridge of his nose and down one cheek as well. The bites on his shoulders were a little more healed, the red marks faded and sickly green-yellow replacing the bruising on his neck—but the pitch-black spread over his chest more than made up for it. There were marks on his arms and legs too, but nothing so bad as the damage on his side, one knee swollen enough to need watching and a wrap for stability but little else.

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think right now, hands shaking as he caught himself holding his breath again and again, trying to ward off the pain of for a few seconds longer. Aiden fumbled out a bottle of pills, and then a different one, hunting through his stockpile of stolen medication for something, anything, that would help.

He swallowed a handful of them, cupping his hands under the faucet and drinking to wash them down. His hands were still shaking as he turned the water off and considered whether it would be worth a shower; there was still blood crusted on his skin from yesterday, but trying to lift the cleaning supplies currently occupying the shower floor would be a bad idea. The urge to be clean warred with the cowardly urge to avoid pain.

Inside the motel room, his phone buzzed again.

The possibility that it was Jordi—or Clara—or Nicky drove him out there, answering it without looking at the number on the screen. His mistake, which he realized when Damien’s voice filtered through the speakers.

“Aiden, our last meeting didn’t go quite as planned. What happened to us? We used to be perfect together. And now… is that you in the news? Big time hacker, just like I taught you, and with a name like the Vigilante…”

God, he was so not up for this right now. “What do you want, Damien? You said there was a second hacker, fine, but we knew that already. Why not just tell me whatever new shit you’ve dug up?”

“What, for free? Not likely, my boy.” Damien’s voice was faintly mocking and it made him almost as sick as the agony that was still beating through him. “No, I want to meet. Again. And this time, we’ll be a little nicer.”

“If you want me to meet up with you, you’ll give me the information now." Aiden fought to keep his voice even and bored, not letting any of the pain filter out. Couldn’t afford to look weak. Damien was all about exploiting weaknesses.

“My information. My rules. And I’ll bring a red this time—clearly champagne isn’t your style.”

Seconds after he hung up, Damien texted an address, which meant he expected to meet now. Great. How long could he put this off before Damien grew impatient and withheld the information out of spite?

The problem was, Maurice could be a dead-end. Despite all of Aiden’s righteous fury from the last time, he knew that. If Damien had a lead on the second hacker, on whoever decided to target them after the failure of the Merlaut, Aiden needed that. If for no other reason than the fact that he wasn’t going to squeeze Maurice until his face was healed—an interrogator that was more banged up than their victim wouldn’t command much respect.

Swearing softly, he made his way back to the bathroom, biting back the pain long enough to move everything and get undressed. If he was going to meet Damien, then he was at least going to be clean. The hot water felt wonderful on his damaged body, even if these motel showers weren’t the greatest. He’d take anything at this point.

The combination of heat and the pills finally kicking in made it easier for him to get dressed again, and he almost felt like he could take a full breath as he pulled his jacket on. That was good. He’d be able to save face if he wasn’t gasping like a fish on dry land the whole time he was talking to Damien. Everything else was a bit fuzzed at the edges, but that was a risk he was willing to take.

As he limped down stairs bathed red by the sunset, the compression wrap around his knee only doing so much, he wondered if it was worth it to call Jordi. But if the alpha was busy, he’d be annoyed by the interruption, and right now, Aiden needed as much goodwill as he could get.

No news was good news. If Jordi had a problem, he’d call.

The real question he needed an answer to was ‘what kind of information had Damien dug up?’; Aiden had followed the hit called out on his family, but Damien… he hadn’t followed up on the thugs that broke his leg, it looked like. He’d turned his attentions elsewhere. The Merlaut was as good a target to blame as any.

The Merlaut. Aiden’s jaw tightened as he flew over the highway towards the Loop district, trying not to think about how badly his body ached even with the painkillers he’d taken. The Merlaut was a good operation—ctOS had just been integrated, most people hadn’t even considered what the possible security leaks would be, DedSec hadn’t started their campaign of terror on Chicago’s streets, and the hotel had been ripe for the picking. Aiden had been fine taking on the big risks of being their access point, because an alpha was safer than a beta when it came to suspicious activity in a public space. All Damien had to do was stick to the plan and funnel the money through him.

And could he do that? No, he fucking couldn’t. Distracted by the second hacker, too eager to chase down ghosts instead of play things safe, too willing to risk Aiden and never himself. Damien had his flaws, had always had his flaws, but the Merlaut had been such a stark display of them that Aiden couldn’t stomach it any more.

If Lena had lived, maybe he would have gone back to Damien eventually. But he didn’t have time for those petty games anymore.

Now Damien had something. Some lead, or what he thought was a lead—once Aiden saw it for himself, he’d make that judgement. Damien could be brilliant, but he was hasty and too eager to throw others under the bus to save his own neck too. If this lead was more of the same, Aiden wasn’t going to bite.

It could be something real though. And that’s what kept him on track to the meetup, parking his stolen car on the curb and carefully taking the steps down to the riverside. The guards might have focused on his chest, but he’d wrecked that knee worse than he’d thought taking the car off the top of the parking garage. Needed to be aware of that.

Focus. Had to stop worrying about looking weak; with Damien, a weakness was a dangerous thing, but Aiden could use it to his advantage. Play to Damien’s pride, get him talking so he’d drop the information and Aiden could choose to go one way or another with that.

The walk was busy even now, people scurrying from place to place with their scarves wrapped tight around their necks, but he couldn’t see Damien—no distinctive limps, no sequined shirts. He’d been under the impression that this was an immediate meeting. Was Damien trying to play mind games with him again?

His phone buzzed in his pocket, Damien’s name on the screen when he checked it. With a frown, Aiden answered it, turning a slow, aching circle trying to catch sight of him. Where was he hiding?

“Find a screen, Aiden,” Damien said, sounding too smug to be healthy.

Aiden looked up at the LED screen up on the side of a building across the water, usually meant for displaying ads. It flickered off the sports car ad, glitching briefly as someone accessed it—and then his heart stopped.

That was Nicky’s house. That was Damien in his sister’s house.

“No,” he whispered, heartbeat kicking back in as it pounded ferociously in his ears. Damien wouldn’t. Damien couldn’t. This was a bluff, somehow, some way to scare him without any follow up. There was no way the beta was stupid enough to try and get between an alpha and her child, no way he’d try and hit Aiden where it hurt the most.

His pulse stuttered, panic flooding him as he remembered that Damien had never cared about his own son. What were the odds that he hadn’t even considered Jackson?

Aiden took the stairs two at a time, ignoring the pain in his leg and chest. His last car wasn’t fast enough, but there was a sport bike parked across the street—easy enough for him to hop on it and start it up, and easier still to weave between cars as he sped back to Nicky’s as fast as he could.

Still too slow. Too, too slow. Damien was one step ahead and he was falling further and further behind.

He hopped off the bike before it had even stopped, uncaring of the way it wobbled forward and toppled over in the road. The door was unlocked, the door was open, maybe Nicky had taken Jacks to the mall but her car was in the driveway, no, no

Damien, standing in the kitchen, holding Lena’s stuffed lamb. The house, coated with the scent of other alphas, Nicky’s leather scent buried under the sickening richness. His family, nowhere to be seen, and their bedrooms in disarray like they’d been dragged out without warning.

A bullet hole and faint spatter of blood on one of the walls, at just the right height for a child.

“Where are they?” he snarled, slamming Damien into the counter with his baton at the beta’s neck. “Where are they?!

“Gentle,” Damien said, infuriatingly unfazed despite the faint noise of pain he made. “If something happens to me, you’ll never find them, and sooner or later my men will get tired of missing their paychecks. Then where will you be?”

He was right. God damn it, he was right, and Aiden needed to get a handle on himself. He sucked air through his teeth, sharp heaving breaths that burned like fire across his chest. His broken ribs hurt, like someone stabbing hot pins into his chest, and his heart…

Nicky and Jacks were in danger. Because of him. Aiden’s heart ached.

With another snarl, he yanked himself off of Damien, collapsing his baton. Had to stop and think, had to fight through the haze of drugs and rage, had to keep himself under control. If Damien died, he wouldn’t know what happened to his family. It didn’t matter how much he hurt or how scared he was, he had to stay calm.

“You’ve certainly seen better days. What have you been getting up to, my boy?” Damien rubbed his jaw as he straightened up, eyes narrowed as he looked over the bruises on Aiden’s face. The beta’s clothes were rumpled now, but just as frilled and pretentious as they’d always been. If he’d been here for the kidnapping, it wasn’t obvious—more likely, he’d waited until the dirty work was done. That was more Damien’s style.

Aiden’s jaw clenched and he looked down at the hard drive Damien was holding. Pretending like his hands were clean had always been Damien’s style.

“What did you do with my family?” Aiden asked in return, not reaching out. If Damien wanted him to help, he’d have to give him something to work with first.

“I’m just keeping them safe as… collateral, let’s say. A way to keep you honest. This drive has everything I was able to get before our second hacker had me locked out—you’re going to find out where it leads.” Damien lifted the hard drive again, waggling it a little. “If you get me something good, I might even let you have a phone call.”

Nothing in his scent to hint that he was lying. It was hard to smell him though, with the violence and fear from earlier overlaying everything in a fog of unhappy emotions. Aiden hesitated, then snatched the drive away, swallowing back the anger as best he could. No room for that. Had to keep a level head.

Had to get back to his motel room and check the cameras, figure out how Damien got access to them.

“It may take me a couple days to get anything,” he said, tasting bile on the back of his tongue.

Damien flapped a hand dismissively, like his threats on Nicky and Jacks didn’t even matter. Like this was all some fun little game that he was winning, and the only reason why Aiden was so upset was because he was a sore loser. The flippancy rekindled the rage burning low in his gut and Aiden looked away before he did something stupid.

“Well, you don’t get to talk to dear, dear Nicky until you do. So for your sake, I’d work fast.” It was as clear a dismissal as any. Moving almost mechanically, muscles tight with anger, Aiden turned and stalked out, hands shaking as he pocketed the hard drive and lifted the damaged motorcycle up from the sidewalk.

Fine. He’d been thinking of chasing up Damien’s lead anyway, this just meant he could do it without trying to trick the information out of the beta. Damien didn’t know about Clara, so he’d have a partner helping him find whatever it was that Damien wanted to ferret out. And Jordi…

He called as he rolled out of the gated community. Jordi didn’t pick up.

Okay. Motel room, his cameras, Clara, and the hard drive. If Jordi wasn’t answering, that meant he was busy. Maybe tracking his family down, though Aiden doubted it, or knocking Maurice around. He wasn’t dead, because the idiotic fixers Damien could afford weren’t good enough to take him down—Aiden had hired the best to track down the shooter. So that meant Jordi was busy, and when he wasn’t, he’d call back, and Aiden would find out why he hadn’t been watching his family.

Why he’d let Damien take them, when that was so obviously Aiden’s biggest weak point.

Before he could lose himself in that directionless, thwarted anger, he called Clara. They needed to meet up if he was going to get her help with this.

“We need to talk,” Clara said as soon as she picked up, sounding upset.

He couldn’t imagine why, because he hadn’t done anything to deserve it, but he was too tired to even try and find out. “Yeah. Meet me at my motel room, I have something I need to show you.”


“In person, not over the phone,” he said, cutting her off. “I’ll see you soon.”

Before she could protest again, he hung up. Whatever she was angry about, she could tell him in person. Maybe it was cruel to do, making an omega go toe to toe with an already angry alpha, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Either she could, or she couldn’t. It didn’t matter one way or the other to him.

He dumped the bike a few blocks away from the Owl Motel, smoking the whole walk over. The nicotine helped a little, driving some of the pain away as it calmed him down, even if it made it harder to breathe. By the time he walked in and plugged the hard drive in, he was almost rational again.

That all left him the moment he realized Damien had wiped the cameras in the house.

Five hours earlier, Nicky and Jacks were working on homework in the living room, but everything after that was gone. Desperately, Aiden tried to recover something, anything from them, some hint at where they’d been taken or who had stolen them away. It was a futile effort—Damien must have rerouted the footage to his own hardware and broadcast it from there, because Aiden didn’t even have recordings on his dedicated storage device.

God, he might have been able to catch it if he hadn’t collapsed in bed as soon as he’d escaped. If he hadn’t let himself get all beat to hell in the first place, if he’d fought back, if he’d finished Jordi’s fucking kills for him because this useless shit had hurt his family

The door swung open and Aiden drew his pistol without looking. It wasn’t until he heard Clara swear in French that he looked up, reigning the anger back in again as he holstered his gun with rigid, jerking motions. Careful. Careful. Couldn’t let it take control, not when he needed to be at the top of his game to face Damien.

“What the hell, Aiden?” she said, scent spiking sharply in fear. He had to bite back a snarl, turning instead to his computer and pulling up the information on Damien’s hard drive. Recordings and an IP address.

“I need to trace this. I need your help for that.” Aiden watched as her brow furrowed, shoulders stiffening at the demand. Her scent was mellowing, fear replaced with anger—he still didn’t know what he’d done to deserve that, but at least an angry omega was gentler on his nose than a scared one. He’d take angry.

“You need my help? Do you have any idea how much shit I’m in?” Clara’s voice was incredulous. Offended. It looked like she was winding herself up for a lecture that he didn’t have time for, so he cut her off before she could really gain steam.

“Clara, I can’t do this on my own, and he has my family,” he said, shoving away from his desk, staring her down. The anger warred with confusion on her face, but it wasn’t enough, she wasn’t helping him fast enough. “I can’t—I need to trace this so they don’t get hurt. Please.”

It was enough. She hesitated, foggy scent fluctuating with whatever she was thinking. “Who has them?”

“Damien. Damien Brenks. My ex-partner.” He would have expected more confusion, or maybe even irritation—Damien had been pretty good at keeping his name out of his less savory business—but Clara’s eyes widened in shock. And fear. She was afraid again.

Aiden straightened completely, ignoring the twinge in his ribs and knee as he turned towards her. She’d stepped back, staring at the hard drive like it was made of poison, and the soft mist of her scent had turned smoggy and sour. He took a half step forward as she started to stammer out an apology, then paused and tipped his head at the faint scream of rubber on asphalt. One car was maybe someone peeling out. Four of them meant a group arriving in a hurry. A large group, every one of them slamming their doors seconds after they’d pulled in.

He grabbed Clara’s arm, ignoring her soft hiss of outrage.

“Back of the room. Go, go, grab the hard drive and go,” he said, pushing her deeper into the motel room. Feet on the stairs, hard-soled shoes, and they didn’t have much time. From the way they’d parked, the direction they were coming from, they already knew what his room number was.

But this was why he’d never let go of the paranoia after Lena’s broken body was fished out from the wreckage of his car. Better to be prepared than be caught off guard again. Hopefully his next door neighbor had already checked out.

His door slammed open as the first gunman kicked it down, Aiden’s thumb flicking over the screen of his phone before the sound had stopped. He grabbed his gun off the desk, firing twice, then ducked under the desk as the detonator triggered to Clara’s shout of alarm.

The gunman fell, flames licking up the plaster next to his body. Clara was gone, already through the once-sealed over doorway between rooms, the hard drive gone with her. Aiden sucked in a hard breath, then bolted after her, swinging around the corner just in time to see her get grabbed, his name on her lips.

Lena. Jacks. Nicky. Now Clara. Enough.

He fired before he was even aware of aiming, sending blood and bone into the wall past Clara’s head. With a soft gasp of fear, she clawed her way free of the dead man’s grip, then stared at the body on the floor beneath her. Even with the smoke filling the rooms, he could taste the sour edge of her terror. Too much to hope that these men weren’t connected to Damien somehow… and too much to hope that he hadn’t already painted a target on Clara’s back.

“The hard drive,” he said, touching her shoulder and pretending he didn’t see the way she jumped. “That’s what they’re after. It’s the only thing that makes sense. We need to get out of here.”

“You’re going to get me killed,” she said, finally tearing her eyes away from the body and drawing a small pistol from her hidden shoulder holster.

“Yeah, I know. Let’s try and make sure that doesn’t happen.” Aiden moved past her, peering through the doorway, then waved for her to follow as he ducked down beside the concrete railing of the upper floor. She tucked herself in a doorway further down, tight behind cover, while he popped his head up long enough to mark the three snipers on the roof. This was going to be hell to get through.

“Aiden, the stairs,” Clara called, still hidden in the recessed alcove. From his brief look, he didn’t think the snipers would have a mark on her, but better safe than sorry. If she fell, he wasn’t healthy enough to get them both out of here alive.

“Eyes up top. You take care of them, I’ll take care of the snipers.” Harder to get a mark with a pistol that didn’t have a scope, but he had their locations burned into his memory. Trusting Clara to have his back, he popped up again, firing two shots before ducking. There was a crack, part of the concrete wall breaking off as a bullet came down from an angle, buried deep in the opposite wall.

Only one though. His first two shots had hit true, then. He took a slow, even breath, ignoring the way it tore through his chest, then rose again, firing at the final sniper. The man’s body fell past the balconies on the other side of the motel, and Aiden had a front row seat to Clara’s bullets finding their marks, her little pistol just as effective at killing a man as his was.

He gave her the signal and moved forwards, swinging around the U of the upper floors to the safety of the stairs on the opposite side from his apartment. More cars were arriving as they stayed low in the stairwell, tires screaming against the asphalt and doors slamming as fixers poured out. Clara’s car wasn’t in the parking lot, and he’d bet it was tucked away in one of the alleys behind the motel. If he wanted to slip in unseen, it was where he’d park. And...

This was a deathtrap, he realized, his stomach sinking. They’d have to cross the parking lot to get to it, and he wasn’t sure they could.

“Clara,” he said, voice low, “I’m going to kill the lights. Run as fast as you can to your car.”

“And you?” she said, her scent acrid with fear and concern both.

“I’ll be right behind you.” Hopefully true. But at least this way, he could be sure she’d survive, the way the possessive, animal thing in his chest demanded he should.

When she gave him a nod, he pulled his phone up, feeling the ache in his ribs, his knee, his face. No second chances. He blew the transformer, taking out two cars in the process. The explosion rattled the windows and doors of the motel, shockwaves of sound traveling just ahead of the darkness as the lights went out, the glow from the fire offset by the plumes of smoke pouring out of his room.

She ran, swinging wide around the burning pile of cars in the center of the parking lot, her smaller frame moving with a swiftness he couldn’t match. Aiden paused long enough to drill bullets into the foreheads of a few of the stragglers, unwilling to leave an enemy at his back, then jolted forward at the sound of Clara’s voice rising in outrage.

The pain in his knee was irrelevant as he launched himself over a car, slamming the butt of his pistol into the back of the alpha’s head. Clara wrenched herself free, yanking her own gun up to shoot at the men swarming out of the stairwell like ants. Too many for the little bullets in it, even when she was hitting them dead in the throat, the head, the chest—too many, and he wasn’t going to let them fall now.

“Watch my back!” he barked, whipping his tactical baton out and taking two men out at the knee. From behind him, he heard the crunch of Clara’s boots on gravel, the crack of her pistol drowned out by the roar of fire and the shouts of the men he slammed into. Necks, knees, elbows, the fragile joints that left the fixers screaming in pain right before he slammed the weighted steel of the baton through their skulls.

A break in the tide, no more cars arriving as he bashed the final man’s face into a wall. It left a smear of blood on the brick, gleaming dully in the light of the burning cars in the parking lot. Aiden figured that was the best chance they would get. “Clara!”

“I’m on it!” She dove past him, sprinting down the stairwell to the alleyway on the other side, taking the corner without a glance back. He followed, the tendons in his knee protesting as he tried to keep pace, but she was already in her car by the time he caught sight of her, starting it up even as he hastily holstered his pistol again.

Her brakelights flared, bright red in the darkness of the alley, then dimmed as she hit the gas and skidded around the corner. There were more cars arriving in the motel parking lot, but none of them had come from her direction—Clara was probably safe for now. Aiden turned and limped away as fast as he could, brushing ash off his shoulders from the fire now consuming the roof of the motel.

A nondescript sedan was sitting in a driveway only a few yards away. He unlocked it automatically, climbed in the driver’s seat, then hesitated. There were sirens in the distance—the fire department, and likely police too. The fixers would have to clear out before they arrived, and so would he. But…

He and Damien had shared an apartment once. It wasn’t a place that he’d kept much sentiment in—a photo of his sister that he’d taken when he left, some clothes, his first desktop tower—but it had been a home for a while. When he’d moved into the motel, he’d stripped even more of that away, leaving most of his personal attachments in a storage unit under Nicky’s name. His room had never been home, not when a base of operations served him better.

Server racks. Pizza boxes. Old coffee cups. Boxes and boxes of hard drives. The projector he’d used for his information wall. Guns, ammo, chemicals for building homemade bombs. And a picture of Lena, because he’d wanted one little reminder of her in the dark hole that his life had become.

Aiden regretted not grabbing the picture. It was such a little thing, but he felt like he’d failed her all over again.

He sucked in a hard breath, refusing to let that be the thing he cried over, and ignored the fire it lit along his ribs. Forgot to grab any of his stolen medication too, but he’d figure that out later. The flashing lights were getting closer as he carefully pulled out and drove away, swinging towards the Loop, but none of them peeled off to follow him. Good.

Jordi didn’t pick up when he called. Clara, thank god, did.

“Did you get away safe?” he asked, shifting down as he settled into the flow of traffic over the bridge. No point in playing speed demon now. They’d have to come up with a plan. 

“I did, but you can’t stay with me. It won’t be safe. For either of us. So I found someplace better for you,” she said, sounding quietly triumphant on the last. He wondered at that, but couldn’t bring himself to care much. The longer he knew her as Clara instead of BadBoy17, the more he was getting used to her odd shifts in mood.

He might trust her more than most, but she was still DedSec. All of them were a bit off in the head. The same could be said about any other fixer. 

“Alright, tell me about this find of yours.” He shifted, passed a semitruck going too slow in his lane, then downshifted again, gritting his teeth against the complaint in his knee. Probably needed to check the wrap on that at some point.

“I’ll do something better. I’ll show you. I’m sending coordinates to your phone, meet me there.” She hung up before he could ask for more information, and his phone buzzed a second later. With a sigh, he plugged the coordinates in, taking the next exit off the highway. At least it wasn’t too far away.