Immortal Past | Teen Ink

Immortal Past

January 17, 2021
By Gremlinchild17, Liberty, Missouri
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Gremlinchild17, Liberty, Missouri
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The men followed me again today.

Normally, I could evade them, and I had several times. But I was exhausted today and could hardly put one foot in front of the other. 

I knew I put way too much effort into my job as an investigator, especially since nearly all of the things I covered were about the local gangs. I had uncovered plenty of drug cartels they supported and some other illegal activity, and, frankly, they wanted me out of the picture.

God, what the hell was I thinking going the back way home while I was this tired? And this close to cracking a serious case about possible trafficking.

I glanced behind me, finding the three of them closing in.

I broke into a sprint. It was just a straight shot through this alley, I could make it.

Three more men appeared, blocking my path. 

Sh*t. I didn’t know my way around these back alleys very well, and I would likely get lost in the maze if I went a way I wasn’t used to. But I guess being lost was better than being dead.

I turned right, all the while looking frantically around for anyone who might help. Or anything I could throw at my pursuers.

But there was no one in sight. And the only objects around were large dumpsters. Much too big to hurl my pursuers.

And so I sprinted onward, my breaths rasping.

It must’ve been a full minute I ran through alleys, desperately trying to find a way onto the streets, where these gang members could no longer follow me, when I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder.

I turned to look, hissing when I caught sight of a dart sticking out of me. I ripped it free and tossed it behind me, wincing a little. 

Drugged me. They drugged me. How the hell was I gonna get out of here now?

It seemed hopeless, but I kept running. And then, there, to my left, a small gap between two buildings, just wide enough for one person to squeeze through.

I didn't hesitate. I ran right for it, scrambling through the small space and onto the street, where I continued running, though I allowed myself to slow a little.

I didn’t fully recognize the buildings around me, but that didn’t matter much. No, all that mattered right now was finding somewhere relatively safe to pass out.

The drug was certainly taking effect fast, making the world sway before my eyes and my limbs heavy. I was shaking too, despite the summer heat. But then I noticed a man heading towards me. A man I recognized, though I wished I didn’t.

He was the leader of one of the gangs, the Shadows. I’d known him long before I realized he was involved with one of the gangs, and we had spent plenty of time together even after this realization, and he’d never once tried to kill me. Of course, today, I was most certainly not in the mood to deal with him, but thanks to the drug working its way through my system, I was just a little too slow as I turned to duck into the nearest alley. Which, being honest, was a terrible idea, given what had just happened.

“Fancy seeing you here, Elijah,” Aiden said, grinning.

I turned away and started in the opposite direction.

He followed me, saying, “What are- hold on a second.”

I gritted my teeth, pausing but still not meeting his gaze. “What?”

“It’s hot and humid, and yet you’re trembling.”

“I’m not,” I objected, turning to face him.

He didn’t believe me, I could tell when he said, accompanied by an eye roll, “I’m not blind, I can see you shaking. And you were stumbling earlier- Have you been drugged?”

“None of your damn business,” I snarled, purposely not meeting his gaze.

“‘Cause it’s either that or you’re very drunk, which is unlikely. You have work tomorrow, and you never drink if you have to work the next day. At least, not enough to warrant stumbling.”

“Why the hell do you know my habits so well?” I muttered.

“Do you forget the months we spent together?” he said, smirking. “And, plus, of course I’m gonna keep tabs on the investigator that has made it his mission to take down the gangs around here. I do run one of those, y’know.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” I said, now incredibly annoyed. “God, can you just leave me alone? I’m really not in the mood to talk to you right now.”

He grimaced a little, to my surprise. “Let me help you, Eli.” I glared stubbornly, but then he added, “Please,” which made me soften, just a little.

Only a moment later, my eyes drooped, and my knees weakened. Aiden lunged forward just in time to grab me before I fell.

The last thing I remember before falling into unconsciousness was Aiden saying, “Seriously, you’re gonna make me carry you all the way to my place?”

I awoke in a warm bed with a headache. Light streamed through a nearby window, and I held up a hand, squinting against it. God, where the hell was I?

And then it all came rushing back to me. Running through alleyways, trying to escape those gang members. Getting shot with a dart, drugged. And then running into Aiden…

I groaned, rubbing at my face. Oh God, Aiden.

“I hope you’re groaning because you’re thinking about me.” I practically jumped out of my skin at the voice.

“Where did you take me?” I muttered as I sat up and looked around the room.

It was fairly plain. The only furniture was the queen-sized bed I was sitting on, a bedside table, a TV that sat on a stand before the bed, and a chair that sat in the far left corner of the room. Aiden was currently sitting in it, an ankle crossed over a knee. He was staring at me intently.

“My house, Elijah,” he answered. “Where else would I take you?”

“I don’t know, your little gang hideout maybe,” I said.

He sighed deeply. “I told you already, I don’t want you involved in any of that. Why do you think I haven’t killed you? Surely you know I’ve had plenty of chances.”

“Don’t you understand that my goddamn job is to investigate the crimes you commit?” I argued. I paused a moment, looking at the amount of light coming through the window. “What time is it?” I didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, I immediately began searching my pockets for my phone.

“Bedside table,” Aiden said.

I quickly turned and, sure enough, there it was. I grabbed it and turned on the screen. “Noon?!” I cried. I hurriedly climbed out of bed. “Sh*t, sh*t! I’m late, I’m so late-”

“Relax,” Aiden said. “I called in for you.”

I paused at this, looking Aiden dead in the eyes. “You what?”

“I called in for you,” he repeated. “I mean, come on, Eli, you were drugged last night. How did you expect yourself to function at work today?”

“Don’t call me Eli, damnit,” I said through gritted teeth. I ran a hand through my hair. “Argh, I was so close, and you screwed it all up!”

“You work too hard,” Aiden said. “You deserve a break.”

“No, you don’t understand.” I began to pace the room, rubbing my hands over my face. “This is human trafficking I’m dealing with. People are dying out there. And now, thanks to you, the Immortals will have another day to cover their tracks.” Two, actually, since tomorrow was my day off.

I didn’t even see him move. It was almost as if he’d teleported to a spot right in front of me and took my shoulders in his hands. “Calm down, Elijah. It’s not the end of the world.”

I shoved away from him. “Don’t touch me you bastard!” I snarled.

“I can help you,” he said. “I run a gang; I can get whatever information you need.”

“I don’t want your help,” I growled.

Aiden only stepped back, shrugging. “Fine then, let all of those innocent people die, I guess.”

I gritted my teeth. “I can’t believe that I once thought you were a decent person.”

His eyes darkened a little at this. “If I weren’t a decent person, you’d be dead,” he said. “I’m offering you my help, Elijah, which is something that I most certainly don’t have to do. A little appreciation would be nice.”

“Appreciation?” I said, my voice little more than a growl. “You wanna talk about appreciation? How ‘bout when I picked you up in the pouring rain after that gang fight you got caught in a couple years back, huh? Or when I went out in that snowstorm after you called and told me you’d been stabbed?” I gave a soft, bitter laugh. “And what do I get for it all? Ghosted. Ignored, shut out, and cut off.”  

He clenched his jaw. “I did it to protect you,” he said through gritted teeth. “Do you know how many people would be so eager to get their hands on you if they found out? I don’t exactly work with people who are pleasant and kind. Some of them respect me, and some of them don’t. But the ones who don’t, they would kill you, Elijah, to get to me.”

“If you’re gonna do something like that then at least try to make it so our paths didn’t cross again,” I snarled. “How often would I see you out at the store and try to catch up with you?” It never worked though. He always ended up losing me. “Y’know, for the longest time, I thought that I was the problem, and it tore me up. I spent months analyzing it all, trying to figure out what I did wrong. But then one day, it just hit me. I didn’t do a damn thing. It was all you.” I jabbed a finger at his chest in emphasis.

I’d never gone off on him quite like this before, and he actually flinched a little, taking a step back.

With that, I turned and left the room, heading down the hall and towards the living room.

Aiden followed me. “Where are you going?”

“To do my goddamn job,” I growled as I slipped on my shoes. He’d left them at the door, like he always did with his own.

I opened the front door, but before I left, I turned and pointed at him. “Don't you dare follow me,” I snarled. “In fact, I don’t ever wanna see you again.” With that, I left, slamming the door behind me.

Of course, I didn’t listen. I followed as closely as I dared, careful to stay out of sight.

He’d kill me if he found out I was following him, but I had seen first hand how deadly these people could be. And they were incredibly pissed at Elijah for ruining a lot of their primary sources of income.

They had come close yesterday, I knew, to killing him. Closer than he would probably ever admit to me. It was pure luck I had run into him and, frankly, saved his ass. Elijah would never admit it, but if I hadn’t found him, those gang members probably would’ve.

He headed across town to an abandoned warehouse. It was a couple miles from the pier and held a bunch of old cars and parts. A bunch of junk that no one really wanted anymore.

Elijah had recently received an anonymous tip that led him to speculate this was where the Immortals often received or gave away their human cargo. And so I imagine he came here to scope it out. Dangerous. Especially considering the warehouse was pretty far out. If he was caught, his chances of getting away, or of the police getting here in time to save him, were slim.

There was a large pile of junk on the left side of the building. And near the top of that pile was a window.

Elijah wasn’t the best climber. His build was more suited to actual fistfights, though he wasn’t much of a fighter either. He was broad-shouldered and, if he’d actually take the time to learn a few things, would be able to easily hold his own in a fight. Maybe even take on some of these gang members.

Maybe if he had, I wouldn’t worry so much.

He managed well enough getting up to the window and, with a shove, it opened on squeaky hinges.

Once he disappeared inside, I quickly climbed up the pile. I was a much better climber than Elijah. I was thinner, lithe. Which was why no one expected me to claw my way to power. And why some didn’t think I was a good enough fit for the position. But they had not seen me fight. I was fast and a lot more agile than most, which I had learned to use to my advantage.

I got to the window in record time and, since it was so rusted, it had remained open after Elijah had climbed through. I peeked inside just in time to hear shouts, and then pounding footsteps. Moments later, I caught sight of him running for the window I was currently looking through. I saw the moment he noticed me, a brief rage clouding his eyes. 

I shook my head in what to him would look like disappointment, but in reality, I just knew it would piss him off.

But then the pursuing gang members tackled, and after only a moment of struggle, subdued him.

He glanced back at me as they dragged him away, still angry and bitter. Likely because he knew I was going to save him. And then gloat about it.

I palmed one of my knives.

*    *    *

Aiden was taking his sweet time, it seemed.

The Immortals had tied me to the hubcap of a beat-up old Chevy. And had proceeded to beat the sh*t out of me.

A group of about five of them guarded me and the poor girl they’d brought here, leaning against cars or sitting on stacks of tires. While one of them had beaten me up.

The girl was tied to a stack of tires, and trembling from head to toe. The tears that ran down her cheeks soaked the gag tied around her mouth.

The man who’d beaten me knelt in front of me and grabbed me by the hair, forcing me to meet his gaze. "You're a slippery little bastard, y'know that?" he said. "But it was about time you slipped up."

He struck me again, across the face.

I gritted my teeth. “You’ll regret this.”

“No one’s coming for you, Elijah,” he said. “Not this far out. Even the police are learning not to screw with us. And we’ll use your death as a message to them. Once they see what we do to you, they’ll never mess with us again.”

He hit me again, and this time, I heard a crack as pain exploded over my nose. I felt warm blood dripping from my nostrils.

When would Aiden finally take these guys out? Would he ever? God, I hoped so. I hoped he was just taking his time killing these guys. ‘Cause if not, then he’d just left the girl and I to die.

And then, there, I caught a flash of movement between some cars. Aiden. 

I fought to keep my face blank, and to keep my eyes off of where I had seen him. Instead, I focused on the man before me.

“You’re not gonna kill me,” I rasped. “And I’m not gonna let you guys get away with this sh*t. I’ll tear down every single operation you make, I don’t care how long it takes.”

One by one, then men behind him fell, their throats cut open, but I didn’t dare focus on them. Instead, I smiled coldly and said, “Maybe next time, you should watch your back.”

The man stood and whirled, only to come face to face with Aiden, who slashed his knife across the man’s throat.

He then shoved the man aside and knelt before me, untying the rope around my wrists. “And this is exactly why I don’t want you involved in all of this.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Screw you too,” I said.

He stood and held out a hand.

I ignored it, getting to my feet on my own. I tried to push past him, but he grabbed my shoulders. I watched as his eyes roved over every cut, every bit of blood on me.

“Come on, let’s get you someplace safe,” he said.

But I shrugged out of his grip and instead, headed over to the girl and knelt down before her. I pulled the gag out of her mouth and held out a hand towards Aiden, saying, “Knife.”

He wordlessly handed me his weapon, and I used it to cut the bonds on the girl’s wrists. “What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Aubrey,” she murmured, wiping at her eyes. “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” I said. “I’m with the Monterey PD. I work as an investigator.” I pulled my badge out of my pocket and handed it to her, letting her examine it for as long as she needed. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to escort you down to the station so you can tell us all what happened.”

Her throat bobbed at this. I doubted it was easy to think about, all that had happened to her. And it was probably even harder to talk about. But… “Please, you could save countless lives, Aubrey.”

She thought for a moment, then nodded and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And I promise you, the police will put you under witness protection. The gangs won’t be able to touch you.”

“We should go,” Aiden spoke up. “Before whoever was supposed to pick her,” he motioned to the girl, “up gets here and finds us.”

For once, I actually agreed with him. I stood and helped Aubrey to her feet as well. And then we all started for the police station.

My coworkers gawked at the state I was in when I entered the building.

I quickly assured them that I wouldn’t need an ambulance, and that the most serious injury I’d received had been the broken nose. And then I explained everything, though, in my story, I claimed I had no clue who Aiden was. He was just a man who happened to be there to help. Of course, all of them were very concerned about him since he did murder five people, but I said I didn’t get a very good look at him.

Once that was over with, I had them take care of Aubrey, ensuring that they had a woman talk with her about what she had seen.

And then I headed to the gas station a few blocks down the road to meet up with Aiden. Why I bothered, I wasn’t sure. I knew he’d probably just gloat about how he’d saved me, yet again.

But when I arrived, he didn’t say a word. Instead, he grabbed my shoulders and looked over the damage those men had done once again. He kept his face unreadable.

After a moment, his emerald eyes met mine, and he said, “I’ll make them pay for this.”

I blinked. “But… you killed them.”

“I mean the Immortals as a whole,” he said. “I’ll make sure they pay for what they did to you. Today and last night.”

“No. Nonononono. You don’t need to go starting any gang fights for me-”

“It’s too late. Orders have gone out.” 

I sighed. “Why do you have to do this?”

“Because they hurt you,” he said. “And though part of me wishes I didn’t, I care about you. Now let’s get you home.”

“I still hate you,” I murmured as we started for my place. “What you did really hurt.”

“I know, that was kinda the point,” he said. “I needed to hurt you so you would stay away from me.”

“But you feel differently now?” I asked.

“You would be dead if I hadn’t followed you today,” he murmured. “Clearly, pushing you away only puts you in more danger. I only wish I would’ve realized that years ago.”

I fought the urge to turn to him. Knowing how his face would be softened, just a little. As it used to be whenever he looked at me.

I missed it, I realized. And I hated that I did. He had hurt me, why should I feel anything but resentment towards him?

But I couldn’t help but remember that soft smile on his lips. How it felt to be wrapped in his arms, my head leaning against his shoulder. He always gave really good hugs.

I shoved those memories aside, focusing on how it had felt to stare at my unanswered messages. How I had stayed up, night after night, hoping that maybe he’d return. At first, I’d thought he was either seriously injured or dead, but then he’d finally answered my texts, informing me that he was fine and very much alive. But the one that came after crushed me. The one where he told me that we were done, that he wanted nothing to do with me anymore.

I hadn’t understood. Not really. I’d sat there for hours, reading that text over and over. But even then, the true weight of it didn’t settle in me until the next morning, when I awoke to an empty bed.

For the rest of that week, I had held out hope that maybe, just maybe, he’d change his mind and come home. I would’ve accepted him if he had, with open arms, probably. Hell, even after the first few months, I probably would’ve welcomed him.

But he had not come home.

Once we finally made it back, I stepped inside, but kept Aiden from entering, closing the door so that it was blocking at least half the entrance.

He sighed. “Come on, Elijah. Let me in.”


“I’ll sleep on the couch,” he said.

“The answer is still no,” I said. “And even if I did let you stay here, did you seriously think I would let you anywhere near that bed with me?"

His eyes widened in panic. "Oh, nononono I- the expectation was the couch. I know better than to try anything after what I did." 

I only said, "Good. Now leave before I have to call the police.”

“The cops, Elijah? Seriously?”

My face didn’t shift.

He looked down at his shoes. “Look, you’re in danger. The Immortals probably know where you live. And they have to know you’re close to cracking this case. Let me stay here. I don’t even have to come inside. I’ll sleep in your goddamn car, I just… please.”

“It’s too late y’know. To get me back,” I said. “I waited for you. For weeks I waited, and you never showed. Now it’s too late.”

His face crumpled a little at my words. “I know,” he breathed. “Believe me, I know how badly I screwed this up. But I’m not trying to get you back. I’m trying to keep you safe.”

I waited what had to be at least thirty seconds, not saying anything. But then I sighed and said, “Let me get my keys.”

He really did sleep in my car. The whole night he stayed there.

God, it had to be sweltering in there. I’d rolled the windows down so he could at least get some air in, but that didn’t change the fact that it was mid-summer and hot out.

Maybe I should’ve just let him sleep inside. I mean, all he wanted was to make sure I didn’t get hurt.

I went out at dawn to check on him, finding him awake and looking exhausted. I doubted he slept much at all.

I knocked softly on the car door, and he jumped, whirling to face me. “It’s just me,” I said placatingly. 

“Oh.” He rubbed at his eyes. “Sorry. I’ve been jumpy all night.”

I leaned against the car, folding my arms over the window. “It’s weird to see a badass gang leader all jumpy like that.”

“Yeah, I just, I…” He sighed. “I got nothin’. Honestly, after what happened yesterday and the night before, I started to realize that this is very dangerous for you. And that scares me.”

“I’ve known you three years and you’re realizing that now?”

“Well, I’ve known it was dangerous, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But I guess I never realized exactly how dangerous until a couple days ago. They never even got close to catching you before, but that night, if I hadn’t been there…” 

“Well, I can assure you, Aiden, that my home is very secure. I’ve got a great security system that has never failed me before,” I said. “I’ll be okay here without you.”

He was quiet a moment, then sighed deeply. “Yeah, yeah. You’re right. I should probably just go.” 

He climbed out of the car and gave me a smile. It wasn’t a real smile though. I could see it in the sadness in his eyes. Resignation, even. Perhaps as he realized that this was how it would be between the two of us. Forever. And that it was entirely his fault.

*    *    *

I sat down hard on the couch, rubbing at my eyes. What the hell was I thinking all those years ago? Why hadn’t I understood that pushing him away wouldn’t keep him out of danger, but push him towards it?

“I’m such an idiot,” I breathed.

I might’ve stayed there for hours, wallowing in self-hatred, when the phone rang. Not my regular phone, that I used with friends and family, but my work phone.

I picked up, expecting a report of how the fights had gone. I’d ordered them started last night. But what I got instead chilled me to my core.

The man on the phone was one of my closest friends within the gang. “Aiden,” he said. “Some of our guys got to talking with some Immortals last night. They said they have video of you helping Elijah Hall escape yesterday. I didn’t wanna believe it, but they showed us the video, and I can’t deny that they’re right. This place is in uproar about it, so I figured I’d give you fair warning. Get out of here while you can, Aiden. ‘Cause there are a lot of angry people here, and you know how these guys get when they’re pissed.” With that, he hung up.

For a long time, I could only sit there, the phone still to my ear.

Sh*t. Holy sh*t. I stood abruptly and ran for my room, where I kept a backpack full of any items necessary for survival. And then I sprinted out to my car and floored it back to Elijah’s house.

I doubted he’d be on board with my idea, but I prayed that he at least took this seriously. Surely he’d understand the danger. If I had taken the time to help him, it had to mean that I, at the very least, thought of him as a friend. They would understand this and likely come after us both. Maybe even Elijah first.

Kidnap him. Force me to then attempt a rescue that they’d ensure failed. And then they’d use him to torture me.

Oh God, Elijah, please be here.

I pulled into the driveway, not even bothering to shut off my car before I climbed out and ran for his front door.

I pounded on it. "Elijah!" I cried. "Elijah, open the door! Please!" 

He did, and I nearly sank to my knees in relief. Instead, I grabbed onto the door frame and sighed. "Thank God," I panted. "You're okay."

He looked puzzled. "Uh, yeah I'm okay. You've been gone maybe an hour; trust me, nothing's gonna happen in that amount of time."

"No but something did happen," I said, then explained everything, including what we now needed to do.

"Hell no," he said immediately after I told him. "I'm not just gonna run away with you because you have a hunch that the gang members are coming after me."

"It's not a hunch. I know that they're gonna come after you," I argued. "Please, I know this sounds insane, but these people, when they're angry… I, I've seen a lot of messed up things. Done a lot of them myself, even. I'll admit it. But these guys, Elijah, if we stay here, they will catch us, and they will tear us apart.”

I knew he wasn’t convinced. It was in his guarded posture and the mistrust in his eyes. Both were things that I fully deserved for walking out on him all those years ago. But I still needed him to come with me. Because if I left him here, the Shadows and the Immortals would easily find and kill him.

I grabbed his shoulders and met his gaze. Held it as I said, “Look, we are both in serious trouble right now, and it is all my fault. So please, just come with me because I don’t know what I’ll do if you die.”

He sighed deeply. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but fine, I’ll humor you. But once this all blows over, and it will, I want a break from you, understand? No contact for at least a week. Probably longer.”

I nodded, even as my heart twisted. “I understand.”

“Good,” he said. “Wait in the car. I gotta pack.”

He didn’t say a word to me as he drove.

I could tell he felt awful. It was in the way he wouldn’t look me in the eye, and in the way he kept silent.

“You’ve never been this afraid for me before,” I said.

“Yeah, well, you’ve never gotten that close to dying before, so, yeah,” he muttered. He kept glancing in the rearview mirror.

I sighed. “Aiden, calm down. Look, I know you’re scared, but we’re gonna be fine.”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand. I’m an enemy to my own gang now. That was my livelihood. Without it I, I’m screwed. I’ll end up jobless and living on the streets. And once I end up there, they’ll find and kill me.”

“That’s not gonna happen,” I reassured. “You’re too stubborn to die like that. Just like I’m too stubborn to die at the hands of the Immortals.”

He glanced in the mirror again.

“You’re not gonna find anything,” I said. “You know people hardly ever go this way.”

“Yeah? Well, we’ve got company,” he said.

At this, I looked behind to see, sure enough, a black sedan closing in from behind. “A coincidence,” I countered, but I couldn’t deny that they were moving fast. “They’re probably just in a hurry. They’ll pass us soon enough.”

Sure enough, they moved into the opposite lane, technically going the wrong way, but since no cars were coming, it didn’t matter. But instead of passing us, they gave a jerk of the wheel and slammed into us.

Sh*t!” Aiden snarled as he fought to steady the car once again.

“Okay, I take it back, you’re right!” I gripped my seat so hard my knuckles turned white. “What do we do?!”

“Why the hell should I know?!”

“Because you’re an ex-gang leader, I guess, I don’t know!” I cried.

“Well, I’ve never been in a car chase before, so I have no clue what I’m doing!”

“That’s very reassuring, thanks!”

They hit us again, and I had to clamp a hand over my mouth to keep from throwing up.

“Don’t you dare vomit in my car!”

“That’s what you’re worried about right now?!” I asked.

“I don’t even know what I’m worried about anymore; I’m just panicking in general!”

They hit us a third time, and this time, we went flying off the road and down a large hill. We nearly hit at least thirty trees, and it seemed those were what Aiden was most worried about. But in reality, it was a large rock that screwed us over.

We hit it just right, and it sent the car rolling.

It all happened so fast. We flipped over and over, the world passing by in flashes of grass, trees, and sky. Glass shattered all around me, and I could feel bits of it cut my cheeks, my arms, my hands. And the crunch each time our car hit the ground was deafening.

Pain shot through my arm at a particularly hard impact and I screamed against it. But we just kept rolling and rolling. At least, until we finally slammed to a stop against a tree. The impact crushed my already likely broken arm, and I let out another scream at the pain. 

My vision swam, and darkness pressed in, threatening to drag me into unconsciousness. But then there were hands against my shoulder. Grabbing me, I realized. Trying to pull me out.

“Elijah,” Aiden rasped. “Elijah, come on. We gotta get outta here.”

I managed to turn my head towards him, but my eyes refused to focus.

He touched a hand to my cheek. “Please. Come on, we have to go.”

I blinked a few times, and finally, my eyes focused in on him. God, he was banged up. Covered in cuts, and his lip was bleeding.

I doubted I looked much better.

He reached over and unbuckled my seat belt, then wrapped an arm around me and began to slowly help me out of the car.

With my door pinned against a tree, I had to climb over to the driver’s side in order to get out. A slow and excruciating process. I winced with every movement.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Aiden murmured at a particularly bad spike of pain that had me letting out a small cry. “We’re almost there.”

He was right. Moments later, we were crawling out of the car.

I landed on unsteady feet, and his arm tightened around me to keep me standing. “Here, come over here,” he murmured as he led me to an overhang not far from where we’d crashed.

He gently set me down and said, “I’ll be right back; I’m gonna go grab our stuff. Just stay quiet and you should be fine.”

He started to turn away but I rasped, “Aiden,” making him pause. “Be careful.”

He only nodded, then turned and continued on his way.

While he was gone, I looked down at my right arm. It was already starting to swell, and when I prodded it with a finger, the pain instantly spiked. I winced. Yep, definitely broken.

I sighed and leaned against the rock behind me, utterly exhausted. Maybe I could just close my eyes for a second…

*    *    *

I awoke to darkness.

For a moment, terror filled me, but then I noticed a small fire to my left. Barely the size of my palm. Aiden was sitting beside it, using the light to read something, it looked like.

“Aiden,” I rasped, trying to move closer.

He jumped at my voice, then scrambled over to me. “Oh God, Elijah. I’m so sorry, this is all my fault-”

I shook my head. “It’s not your fault,” I murmured.

He didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t argue either.

“Whatcha readin’,” I asked, trying to lighten the mood a little.

“Oh. I’m just rereading the instructions for the splint I made you,” he said. “Making sure I got it right before I put it on.”

It was then that I noticed it, the splint he was talking about. It was sitting probably a foot or two from the fire and looked to be made out of cardboard.

“Whoa, you made that?”

He nodded. “Yep. You fell asleep, so I figured I’d make myself useful.”

I gave a small smile. “Thank you.”

I was almost positive he blushed, but in the dark, it was hard to tell. He did duck his head though. “It’s the least I could do.”

“Ah shut up,” I said, waving him off. “You saved my life bringing me along. If I had stayed at the house, those Immortals would’ve killed me.”

“They might not have,” he said.

“I’m sure they would have,” I argued. “How else would they have known where we were unless they saw us drive away.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” he said. “But still, your arm’s broken now.”

“Yeah, well, I’m alive,” I said. “And I’d much rather be alive with a broken arm than dead without one.”

“Again, fair.”

“So you agree with me then,” I said.

“I never said that.”

I sighed deeply. “Whatever. Just put the damn splint on me.”

He laughed softly. “You don’t usually let me get to you, Elijah. What’s the occasion?”

“Uh, how ‘bout how we just barely survived a car crash,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess that’s fair.” He grabbed the splint and brought it over. It was shaped like an L. “Okay, you just set your arm here,” he said, gently taking my arm in his hand and placing it in the longest area of the splint. “Your elbow will rest here.” He moved my arm back until my elbow was against the rest. “Alright, perfect. Now I just need to fill in the spaces on the sides of your arm, then slap some duct tape on to hold it all together.”

He then went over to the far end of the overhang where he’d set our backpacks. He rifled through his own, pulling out what looked to be a few shirts and maybe even a couple pairs of pants.

He then came back over and shoved them into the spaces on either side of my arm. “How does that feel? Good?”

“It feels fine, I guess,” I answered. “Though I’m not entirely sure how it’s supposed to feel since I’ve never had this happen to me before.”

It was quiet for a moment while Aiden went back to the packs in search of duct tape. “Y’know, you’ve been acting kinda weird lately,” I said, breaking the silence. “You've been more open, I guess. More than you’ve ever been since you called things off between us.”

“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure you already know the reason for that,” he muttered. “I wasn’t lying when I said I cared about you at the gas station. Because I do, Elijah. I really damn do.”

“Okay, but why now?” I asked. “Why do you decide now, after years of being apart, that you care about me again?”

He sighed. He’d found the duct tape now, but he didn’t make any move to come over to me. “I never stopped caring,” he murmured, running his thumbs along the roll of tape. “When I pushed you away, Elijah, it hurt me too. I hated the words I wrote to you. I hated how I had to turn away when you desperately sought me out at the store.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” I argued. “Why now? Is this all some sort of elaborate scheme to get me back?”

His head shot up at that, and he turned to face me. “What? No, of course not! I would never do something as dangerous as this!” 

Okay, that was pretty fair. If he really did want me back, why risk killing us both? But still… “I don’t know… It all just seems really convenient timing for you.”

“It’s a coincidence. Elijah, I swear, my goal in this has never been to win you. You’re not just some prize that I’m playing for. You’re a human being, and all I want to do is keep you safe.”

I believed him, though I wasn’t sure why. He was an exceptional liar, and this wouldn’t be the first time he lied to me. But I did have a trick to figure out if he was lying or not. He could never look me in the eye and lie to me. He always had to be looking away. And the car crash was so dangerous. It didn’t fully make sense in my theory. So either he’d taken one huge gamble, and had gotten much better at lying to me, or he was telling the truth.

He sighed and looked back down at his roll of duct tape. “Look, whether you believe me or not, can you at least stay here tonight?” he asked. “I don’t have to be anywhere near you. Hell, I’ll even sleep out from under the overhang if that’s what you want.” He turned his gaze back to me, his eyes hopeful. “We can reevaluate everything in the morning; I just want to make sure you have time to rest.”

“I’ll stay,” I said. “But I want you to know, if this turns out to be just some ploy to get me to fall in love with you, you and me, we’re done. Got that?”

He nodded.

“Okay, now bring that tape over so we can get this thing finished.”

The morning came a lot faster than I expected it to. Probably because I was exhausted from the night before.

I looked to my right, where Elijah sat slumped against the rock behind us. He’d let me sleep under here so long as I stayed on my side. I hadn’t shifted so much as an inch closer to him for fear he’d somehow notice and demand that I stay away from him forever. Though I knew Elijah wasn’t like that, the thought still haunted me.

I stayed quiet, looking out at the trees around us.

A few birds sang in what must’ve been a tree right in front of us. It was to their song that Elijah awoke.

He groaned softly and started to lift his right arm, presumably to rub his eyes, but stopped and winced.

“Hey,” I said, turning to him and managing a small smile. “Good morning.”

“Good morning my ass,” he muttered, rubbing at his eyes with his left hand. He started to get up and I immediately moved to help him, but then stopped abruptly, fearing he’d see me trying to help as trying to win him over.

So instead, I said, “If you need a hand, let me know,” figuring it’d probably go over smoother if I acted on his request.

But he only said, “I can handle myself.”

And he did. Got a hand on top of the overhang and crawled out, though a little clumsily. He gave me a small smile. “See, told you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, crawling out as well. “So, plan for all of this?”

“Uh, not die, I think is a pretty good plan,” he said.

I rolled my eyes. “Sarcastic this morning, I see,” I said. “But look, in all seriousness, what should we do? ‘Cause I don’t know if the Immortals and the Shadows think we’re dead or if they just assumed we’d gotten away and that they’ll find us again sometime soon.”

He shrugged. “My guess is they assume we’re dead,” he said. “Do they have any reason to believe otherwise?”

“Well, our bodies weren’t in the car, and neither were our backpacks,” I countered.

“If they had gone to look in the car, you would’ve heard them,” he argued. “We didn’t exactly go far from where we crashed.”

“Hmm. Okay, you make a good point,” I said. “Maybe they do think we’re dead.”

“So, now that we’re dead, what do we do?” he asked.

“Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is finding somewhere isolated to call home,” I said. “Away from the gangs, away from society. Hell, I might even try to grow my own food.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “I mean, for a hardened criminal, I expected, well… I don’t actually know what I expected. But it definitely wasn’t that.”

I laughed softly. “A hardened criminal? Do I really look like a hardened criminal?”

“I mean, sometimes you do,” he admitted. “Like when you told me you’d make the Immortals pay.”

“They had it coming,” I muttered. “But I guess that didn’t exactly work in my favor, did it?”

“Well, that depends entirely upon your goals,” Elijah replied.

I sighed. “I’m not doing any of this to get you back. That was never the plan. I already told you that.”

“I’m aware of what you told me,” he said. “But I’m also aware that you have lied. So I’m sorry, Aiden, but I have to be careful.”

“You don’t sound very sorry,” I muttered.

That was the wrong thing to say. I knew because he stalked over to me, looking at me with a cold anger in his eyes. 

I flinched away. 

“Yeah? Well you didn’t seem very sorry when you ripped my heart into tiny little pieces,” he said, his voice so quiet it made my blood run cold. “So why should I show you any goddamn remorse?”

I looked away, unable to meet his gaze, and sighed. “No, you’re right,” I breathed. “What I did years ago, that was awful of me. I could’ve done so much better.” I swallowed hard and managed to meet his eyes. “Is there any way I can fix it? Anything I can do to… at least make sure you never look at me like that again?”

He took a long time to answer, and I waited, an odd mix of hope and fear churning in my stomach. But he only said, “Nothing that I can think of, no.”

I bit my lip, willing my face not to crumple, and turned away, murmuring, “Okay.” My voice actually cracked a little, and I prayed he didn’t notice.

If he did, he didn’t show it, only headed back to the overhang and grabbed his backpack. 

“Where do you plan to go?” I asked.

“Hospital,” he said, motioning to his broken arm.

I nodded, and he started walking away, up the hill, but I stopped him when I said, “Can I go with you?”

“And this is why I’m being careful,” he said. “You just can’t seem to leave me alone.”

I winced. “Look, I won’t say a word to you while we walk,” I murmured. “I’ll even walk behind you if you don’t wanna see me. Or in front if you don’t trust me. Or, hell, I’d stay as far away from you as you want me to, I just… The Immortals and the Shadows are still out there, and yes, they think we’re dead, but if they recognize you, Elijah, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill you.”

“They wouldn’t hesitate to kill you either,” he countered.

“No, but at least I might be able to fight back,” I argued. “You don’t know that first thing about combat.”

He didn’t have anything to say to that. Instead, he just glared at me.

I managed to hold his gaze.

And then, he finally said, “Fine. Get your backpack and let’s go.”

Immediate relief filled me, and I did as he said.

I kept my head down. Wouldn’t look Elijah in the eyes as we walked.

He hadn’t demanded I stay far away from him, and he hadn’t made me walk directly in front or behind him either. So I stayed only a step behind him on his right.

Occasionally, I’d shoot a glance at him, but for the most part, I kept my eyes on my feet. I wasn’t sure, exactly, what he’d count as trying to get him back. So, just to be safe, I kept my distance. Never speaking, and never looking at him for longer than a second.

“You're very quiet,” he commented.

“Yeah, well, I’m just trying to convince you that I’m not doing all of this because I’m trying to get you back,” I said.

“Trying awfully hard, it seems.”

I sighed deeply. “I just can’t win with you can I? I'm nice and I’m trying to get you back, I’m distant and it’s the same deal.”

“To be fair, both are pretty suspicious,” he said.

I stopped walking, and he soon did as well. “Look, do you want me to leave?” I asked. “‘Cause I don’t want to, but if you really want absolutely nothing to do with me, then just tell me, and I’ll go.”

He was quiet for a while, long enough to make me nervous, but then he said, “There’s a part of me that wants to say yes, and a part of me that wants to say no. Because part of me wants to hurt you just like you did to me years ago. But another part of me knows that you are really worried about the Immortals and the Shadows.”

I didn’t say a word. Just waited for his decision, looking at my feet. Please just let me stay. Please just let me stay.

“Look at me, Aiden,” he said. It was more of a command than the gentle, urging way I was used to hearing it.

Still, I did as he said, meeting his gaze.

“What is your goal?” he asked. “What do you want from me?”

“I don’t want anything from you,” I answered. “Like I said, all I want to do is keep you safe. But… if something did happen, if you started to love me again, I wouldn’t push you away. It’s not my goal, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it happening.”

He looked at me for a long time, his eyes scanning every inch of my face. Finally, he said, “Now that, I can definitely believe.” And with that, he kept walking.

I followed. “You… you don’t mind?”

He shrugged. “If I were in your shoes, I’d probably feel the same.”

“But… we’ve been walking for an hour. Why didn’t you do that earlier?” I asked.

He shot me a small but cold smile and said, “I wanted to hurt you, just a little. A fraction of what you did to me.”

I nodded, looking down at my shoes. “I deserve that,” I murmured. 

We walked in silence for a while longer. Only when I began to see the outline of town did I speak again. “How does your arm feel?”

“About as good as it did yesterday,” he said.

“I uh, I’m really sorry,” I said. “Again.”

“I already told you, it wasn’t your fault.”

“I, I just feel like I could’ve done something to stop it,” I murmured. “I don’t know, maybe I’m just beating myself up over this.”

“You are,” he said. “There wasn’t anything you could’ve done to stop my arm from being broken. In fact, my broken arm was probably the best outcome you could’ve hoped for. We could easily be dead right now.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “I just can’t help but feel like this is all my fault.”

“Well, you shouldn’t.” He looked sidelong at me. “‘Cause I don’t blame you for this, and if I don’t blame you, you know it’s not your fault.”

I managed a small smile. “Maybe I can try to be a little nicer to myself about it then.”

“That’s better.”

My smile softened, and I looked over at him. “Y’know, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve said to me in a while.”

“Well… listen, you’ve got enough enemies on the outside,” he said. “You don’t need one in here,” he tapped his head, “too.”

 *    *   *

We arrived at the hospital a lot faster than I expected to. 

I, of course, had to sit in the waiting room while Elijah got checked out. I didn’t think the break was too bad, but still, I couldn’t help but worry.

I doubted many gang members would be coming to the hospital since there was probably a temporary truce to find and kill Elijah and I. But, they did probably think we were dead, so maybe they’d ended the truce by now. So just to be safe, I kept my eyes peeled.

It had only been one night, so I would hope they could get along long enough for Elijah to get checked out and both of us to get out of town. Or whatever Elijah decided to do.

I would try to get him to go with my decision and find someplace isolated to live. If only until his arm healed. But I wasn’t sure how okay he’d be with the idea of living with me that long.

Of course, I could understand why. I mean, I’d walked out on him with virtually no explanation. I ghosted him, as he put it.

And things had been going great between us. I’d moved in with him, and we got everything that came with that situated. Everything was just… great.

But then Elijah’s job and mine started to clash.

For one, he realized exactly what my job was, and long story short, I slept on the couch for a few nights. And then, a year later, Elijah’s clashes with the gangs became more serious, and he was put on our hit list.

I panicked. I thought that living with him would put him in more danger, and so I left. 

Looking back, that was stupid of me. My being there didn’t put him in more danger. If anything, it made him safer. ‘Cause he didn’t know how to fight. He did own a gun, at least, but I wasn’t sure he even knew how to use it.

It was a long time before Elijah entered the waiting room again, closely followed by, I assume, his doctor. They exchanged a few words, and then Elijah came over to me. He was wearing a brand new cast, this one, had a sling.

I stood, and he led the way out of the hospital.

“What’d he say?” I asked.

“Just a common fracture,” he said. “Should be fully healed in probably about six or seven weeks. Maybe eight. Oh, and he wanted me to come back in a few weeks to see my progress.”

“Okay,” I said, then asked, “Soo, what’s the plan? ‘Cause, we could try to go back to our homes, but somehow I have a feeling that even if they think we’re dead, they’ll still be watching our houses.”

He nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. So, as much as I don’t necessarily like it, I think our best option is to do what you said. Find someplace isolated to set up camp for a while. We’ll lay low while everything settles down.”

“I’m glad you agree with me,” I said. “‘Cause I really hated the thought of leaving you alone.”

“I’m not entirely helpless, y’know,” he countered. “I’ve done just fine getting away from the gangs in the past.”

“I know, but…” I sighed. “They got close to killing you in the warehouse. If I hadn’t been there…”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, you saved my ass.”

“I’m not trying to gloat,” I said. “I just… I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you, Elijah.”

He glanced over at me at that. “Y’know, if I would’ve known you were still in love with me, I probably would’ve tried a little harder to contact you.”

“I’m not in love with you,” I objected.

He sighed, “You’re seriously going to deny it after literally telling me you cared about me?” he said. 

“Well… caring about you is different than loving you,” I argued. 

He only sighed again, then stopped walking and grabbed me by the shoulders, turning me to face him. My eyes locked onto his. “Are you in love with me, Aiden?”

I swallowed hard. “No,” I said, but I could feel a blush creeping to my cheeks. God, why did he have to be standing so damn close?


I shrugged out of his grip and quickly turned away. “Why does it matter?” I found myself asking. “What we had is gone; you’ve made that very clear.”

But… after the car accident. He’d been hurt and disoriented, yes, but, the way he’d looked at me- No. Don’t get your hopes up. All it’ll do is crush us when it turns out we’d been wrong.

“Yeah, I guess it was cruel of me to bring it up,” he said, and continued walking.

I chose not to comment on that and instead followed only a step behind him. “So, I think I know a place that we could stay for a while, if you’re okay with it.”


“Well, uh, I bought this house a while back,” I said. “It’s a small, two-bedroom house. But it was pretty isolated and… I don’t know, I guess part of me always worried that something like this would happen. So I bought this place to be a sort of safe house.”

“You promise it’s a two-bedroom?” he asked.

“Yes, Jesus,” I said. “Look, I may be in love with you, but I know that the feeling isn’t mutual. And I’m not about to ruin this tentative companionship. Even if you don’t seem to care about me much at all.”

It was quiet a moment, but then he asked, “How much food do we have?” obviously changing the subject.

“In my pack alone, probably only enough to last the two of us a few days,” I answered. “But I don’t know how much you brought.”

“I’ll show you once we get to this house you have.”

I gave a nod, and that was the end of the conversation.

I’ve known he was in love with me for a while now. 

It had honestly caught me off guard when I first realized it. When he told me he cared about me. But I guess it did make sense considering he’d saved my life back in the warehouse. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t care.

  And a part of me wondered if maybe I could fall in love with him again. 

Of course, I wouldn’t tell him that. I didn’t want him to actively try to get me back. If it was gonna happen, I’d rather it be more of an accident.

But still, maybe I shouldn’t lie to him like I had earlier, when I told him there was nothing he could do to atone. I was sure there was something he could do to make up for it, I just didn’t know what that something was.

I guess I was still angry with him. He’d hurt me. I’d trusted him with everything I was, and he’d crushed it. But hadn’t he been through enough recently? And he was already beating himself up over all of this. Did I really need to contribute to his suffering? 

Maybe I should ease up on him a little. Not be his lover or anything, but not his enemy either. A friend or an acquaintance maybe.

He’d probably need one to get him through this. Hell, I might too.

*    *    *

The house was indeed small. It also looked to be pretty old, with chipping white paint and a creaking wooden porch. 

I did as I promised and set my backpack on the coffee table, showing him the food I brought. Nothing special, just whatever snacks I had lying around. I’d figured they’d be good things to bring since they wouldn’t go bad anytime soon. But they wouldn’t last us forever by any means.

“Okay, between the two of us, we could probably make this last a week and a half if we rationed it,” Aiden said. “But I don’t see any real need to do that so it’ll probably only last a week.”

“And once we run out, who’s making trips to the store to grab more?” I asked.

“Well, I would prefer it if it were just me,” Aiden said. “I just don’t want you to get hurt, and since they haven’t found this place, I imagine you’ll be safe here.”

“Yeah, I guess I can stay here,” I said. “‘Cause I’ll need to take it easy with my arm too. Wouldn’t wanna hurt it more than it already is.”

“Hey, uh, is it just me, or are you acting a little nicer?” Aiden asked, almost hesitantly, as if he didn’t want to bring it to my attention. “I, uh, I mean, I don’t know. I felt like you’d usually fight me on this sort of thing. Give me the whole I’m-not-helpless speech.”

“Well, I decided that you’re already beating yourself up over all of this, so I don’t need to add to your suffering,” I said. “And there’s no need for us to argue; it’ll just make surviving this harder.”

He sighed. “That’s a relief. I really hated having to fight you almost constantly.”

“There’s still boundaries though,” I said. “I’m your friend, nothing more. Can you handle that?”

“Yeah, yes, I can handle that.” He turned his gaze to the floor. “I, I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable or anything.”

“Okay good. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ve got some ideas for the future,” I said. “Once I’m healed, I think we should get revenge.”

“Revenge?” Aiden asked, looking up once again. “That’s… uh, that’s not an easy thing to do.”

“You were gonna say it’s a stupid idea, weren’t you?”

He turned his gaze away. “Um…. No?”

I sighed. “Well, I know it’s probably pretty stupid, but I want to get back at them. And think we can if we’re careful.”

Aiden gave a long pause, looking back at me once again, getting serious. “Look, I wanna get back at them too, believe me. But I know these people, Elijah. It would take more than just the two of us to pull this off.”

“Really?” I asked. “‘Cause I’m pretty sure I caused both gangs a lot of trouble single-handedly.”

“You were a nuisance, yes,” Aiden said. “But you didn’t stop us. You didn’t even get close, actually. The gangs have a far reach, both of them, and it didn’t matter how many operations you stopped, because another one always popped up in its place.”

I sighed. “Well, I wish I would’ve known that before I went off risking my life countless times.”

“No, don’t say that,” Aiden said. “You did good things; you saved many lives. It wasn’t all for nothing.”

“I know I just… That was my goal. To get rid of the stupid gangs and all of the crime that they brought. I wanted to make this place safer,” I murmured. “If I would’ve known that wasn’t realistic, I would’ve gone for something smaller. Or I would’ve gotten a team of people to help me.”

“I didn’t realize it meant that much to you,” he said.

“Of course it meant that much to me,” I countered. “This is my home.”

He thought for a moment, then murmured, “Maybe there is something we could do. I… I’m not sure. I’d need some time to think about it, but there could be a way.”

“Well, I hope so,” I said, then stood. “I’m tired. I’ll see you in the morning.” And then I headed down the hall towards the guest bedroom.

But I stopped near the entrance of the hallway when Aiden said, “For the record, I always admired you for doing what you did. You saved people, Elijah. Many people. And you did it at your own risk. I could’ve never done what you’ve been doing all these years.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I didn’t say anything at all. Just continued down to my room and tried to sleep.

*    *    *

When I awoke the next morning, Aiden was already up, sitting on the couch and snacking on some Doritos. He looked over as I approached and smiled when he saw me. “Oh, hey. You’re up.”

“Unfortunately, yes, I am,” I muttered, sitting on the opposite end of the couch.

“Didn’t sleep good?” he asked.

“No. I couldn’t get comfortable thanks to this stupid cast.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”

I sighed. “Yeah, me too.”

We sat there for a moment, quiet, but then Aiden said, “Actually, I think there is something I can do. If you want, I can go to the store and see if I can find anything to help you sleep.”

“That would be… great, actually,” I admitted. “But I wanna go with you.”

“Uh, I thought we decided-”

“Yes, but this is a little different,” I argued. “You’re getting something specifically for me, and I’m sorry, but I don’t trust you enough for that.”

He nodded, looking down at the floor. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. And you don’t need to apologize. It’s perfectly reasonable for you to not trust me.”

“Oh, uh, okay,” I said, not sure how to respond. “So, when should we leave? Noon?”

“Noon works, yeah,” he answered.

I only nodded. God, it felt so awkward and weird, sitting here with him. Getting along with him.

He cleared his throat. “Wow. I don’t like this.”


“Well…” His head shot up. “Oh, I have an idea! There’s this cool place out back. It’s kinda far, but I could show it to you. If you wanted, of course.”

“What is it?” I asked skeptically.

“It’s just a place, that I think is kind of cool,” he said, not at all answering my question. “You’ll like it. Trust me.”

“And why, exactly, should I trust you?” I countered.

He sighed, looking away. “I don’t know. Why does anyone do anything?”

“There isn’t a reason, is there?” I pushed.

“Look,” he murmured, “I get it, okay. I don’t deserve a second of your time. I know that. But can you just give me this one thing? Please?”

“Now you’re making me feel bad,” I said. “Fine, alright. I’ll go. But if I even think something is going on, I’m gone, capisce?”

He turned back to me again and nodded. “Capisce.”

“Okay then, let’s go.”

I kept my distance from Elijah as we walked down the trail behind the house, trying my hardest to appear non-threatening. He only seemed more on-edge, but I didn’t really know what else to do.

There were two trails behind the house, but I led Elijah down the left one. We hadn’t spoken much as we walked. I honestly didn’t know what to even talk about. What do you talk about when you’re on the run with someone who really doesn’t want to be around you?

“So, uh, nice weather, huh?” Really, the weather? Come on, we can do better than that.

“Yep.” Okay, come on. You can make some effort too y’know?

We walked in silence for a few minutes before I decided to try again. “What’s your favorite color?” It was such a simple question, but I couldn’t recall ever asking him.

“Sea green,” he said. “You?”

“Royal blue,” I answered.

He glanced over at me at that.

“Why do you look so surprised?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I just figured it’d be black or something.” He motioned to my clothes, which were all black, despite the summer heat.

“Yeah, I guess that’s fair,” I said. “But it’s blue, I can assure you.”

“Why?” he asked.


“Why blue?” he said. “Why not yellow or orange?”

“I… I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been asked that before.”

“Me neither. I just wanted to see how you’d react.”

“Oh, um, okay,” I said. “Is there some secret plot you’re coming up with here I’m not recognizing?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to wait and see.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all,” I said jokingly. But he didn’t respond, so I added, “Please don’t murder me in my sleep.”

He laughed softly. “You really think I’d kill you?”

“Well, no, I just…” I trailed off.


“No, seriously,” I said. “Look, I’m more just saying, whatever you have planned, if you have anything planned, don’t beat me into the dirt with it.”

He stopped walking and turned to face me, so I did the same, though I couldn’t quite meet his gaze. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I don’t love you, but like I said, I don’t think being your enemy is our best option. I’m not gonna hurt you. Not unless you do something first.”

“Oh, okay. Good. Thank you.”

“Why are you thanking me?” he asked.

“Uh, because you said you’re not going to beat me into the dirt,” I said. “And I appreciate that.”

“It’s just basic human kindness,” he said. “Seriously, unless you do something awful, there’s no need for any sort of action.”

“But I did do something awful,” I countered.

“Years ago, yes,” he argued. “But you’ve already been through enough for that.”

I bit my lip, looking down at the ground. “I disagree.”

He sighed deeply. “Don’t do that, damnit. You are perfectly deserving of kindness.”

I could only shake my head. No, I didn’t deserve anything, especially not from him.

“Aiden, look at me.” 

I did as he said, meeting his gaze, then swallowed hard as I stared into those soil eyes, so filled with concern. I loved him, damn me. I loved him so damn much. And I knew I needed to stop, since it was obvious we’d never be anything more than friends, and even that was shaky at best. Of course, it was my fault, so I guess I deserved it, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.

I blinked, focusing back in on the conversation we were having, finding him looking at me expectantly. Obviously, I’d missed something.

“You weren’t listening, were you?” he said.

“Um, well, I-” I sighed. “No. Can you… repeat what you just said? Please?”

“I said don’t beat yourself up,” he said. “You don’t want me to beat you into the dirt, and yet you’re doing exactly that. So stop.”

I looked away. “It’s kinda hard to do that when you know you’re the reason your whole world went to sh*t.”

“So you hate yourself and feel like you deserve all the pain in the world, and yet you want me back,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s exactly it, actually,” I said, facing him again. “Because I miss you. So much. More than I have ever missed anything. And I know damn well that I don’t deserve you, but I can’t just stop. Trust me, I have spent years trying to, and it just doesn’t happen.”

I sighed deeply and turned away. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I know you don’t care and that what we had is gone and everything. I, I know. And I’m sure that made you feel uncomfortable, so I won’t say it again, but it’s all true.”

I swallowed hard when he didn’t respond and said, “Come on, let’s just… keep walking. We can forget I ever said anything.” Please.

He still didn’t say anything but followed me as I continued down the trail.

God, I was an idiot. Now things would be even more awkward. If I had just kept my damn mouth shut, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad.

It was twenty minutes of tense, awkward silence before we finally entered the flower-filled clearing.

“Here we are,” I said, pausing a few steps inside.

He looked around the clearing, seemingly trying his hardest to look uninterested. But I could see that look in his eyes. See the smile that he tried to keep from playing at his lips.

“It’s nice,” he said.

I couldn’t help but smile. “I knew you’d like it.”

We stood there for a while, neither of us saying anything, but then Elijah broke the silence. “Look, Aiden-” He sighed. “I know how you feel, and I… Part of me feels awful because I did love you once, and I remember how that felt. I remember being there for you through thick and thin. But I still can’t forget what you did. It hurt, more than anything I have ever experienced. And I know I said we were friends now, and I’d like to be, honestly. It’s just… hard to trust you.”

I couldn’t look at him as I murmured, “Yeah, no. Don’t, don’t worry about it. I get it.”

“I hate saying that, ‘cause I know it hurts you. And I know that earlier, I wanted to hurt you, but after what you said, I… I don’t know, I just feel bad,” he said.

“Yeah, well, don’t worry about me,” I murmured. “Trust me, it’s you who deserves better in this case. Not me.”

He touched a hand to my arm. “Aiden-”

I jerked my arm from his grasp and turned away. “Don’t do that, damnit!” I said, walking away a few steps and placing my hand over the spot where his had been. “Please. Don’t do that.” I sighed deeply, shaking my head. “I’m sorry. Clearly, all of this was a mistake. We should’ve gone our separate ways at the car crash.”

Goddamnit, Aiden! I am giving you the best chance you will ever have with me, and yet you’re throwing it away!”

I whirled to face him. “What chance?!” I countered. “There is no chance! The only chances I’ve ever had I tossed out the window years ago!”

“The fact that I am here right now is your chance! Don’t you see that?” he argued.

I paused at this, my anger faltering. “You… you mean… You’d be willing to…?”

“Possibly,” he said. “Earn my trust first, and we’ll go from there. But I am at least willing to be your friend. A real friend, not whatever awkwardness that was earlier.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said. “Cause I, I really don’t wanna go through that again.”

“No promises that it won’t be like that for a little while, though,” he warned. “Keep in mind, I’m trying to get used to this again too.”

I nodded. “Of course, yeah. I, I understand.” Honestly, I was just glad to know that it would end soon. That we could be friends again, at the very least, anyway. And I could live with that, I knew. Even if it was painful some days, even if he moved on and found someone new, as long as he was in my life in some way, I knew I would be alright.

“We should, uh, probably head back,” I said. “I, I mean, unless you’d wanna stay here for a while. I would be okay with that too.”

He gave me a small smile. “Let’s stay here a while. I don’t feel like my skin’s about to melt off today, and I wanna enjoy that while it lasts.”

I laughed softly. “Yeah, I feel you,” I said. “Felt like I was gonna die when I spent the night out in your car. It was nice of you to leave the windows down though. It helped a lot.”

“Well, as complicated as things are between us, I don’t want you to die,” he said. “Even then. Hell, even after everything you did sunk in and I was so incredibly pissed, I would’ve never wanted you dead.”

“I’m glad for that, at least.” I tried to say it jokingly, but it came out just a little too quiet. 

I managed a weak smile, hoping to balance things out a bit, but Elijah murmured, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t’ve brought it up.”

“No, no. Don’t apologize,” I said. “Please, it’s just so much easier if you let it go.”

“Alright, alright. I’m letting it go.”


“Let’s sit,” he said. “I’m getting tired of standing, especially after walking all the way here.”

“Agreed,” I said.

We sat, staring out at the flower-filled clearing before us.

“It really is beautiful,” he murmured. 

“Yeah,” I said. “Y’know, I never forgot how much you loved flowers, and even just plants in general. And every time I came out to this spot, it always made me think of you. Which is why I haven’t been in… God, I can’t even remember. But it’s been a very long time.”

“You seem to remember a lot about me,” he said.

I nodded. “Believe me, I wish I could forget,” I murmured. “I thought I would, honestly. Thought the pain would last for a little while, and then it’d go away. Everyone always said these sorts of wounds just take time. But surprise, surprise, right? Everyone was wrong.” I sighed deeply. “God, I’m sorry. I really need to stop doing that. It just all wants to come out at once because you’re the only person that I can talk to. Vulnerability in the gang is frowned upon, and I’ve never felt very comfortable sharing anything like this with those guys anyway just because it’s so hard to know who you can trust.”

“I understand,” he said. I could tell he meant it by the hint of pain that passed over his features.

“Well, thank you. But, please, if I am making you uncomfortable by talking about any of this, let me know,” I said. “The last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to tell you if you overstep any boundaries.”

“Okay, good,” I said.

We sat there, quiet, for a few minutes, but then Elijah broke the silence. “Hey, uh, kind of random question, do you remember when we went to that zoo? I forget which one it was, but it wasn’t the one close. It had the butterfly garden.”

“Of course I remember,” I answered. “I brought you there for your birthday, and we got ice cream afterwards.”

“Oh yeah. We did, didn’t we.” He sighed. “That was a good day.”

“I knew you’d like that place,” I said. “All those flowers. I mean, the butterflies were great too, don’t get me wrong. But I mostly brought you because of the flowers.”

“I know,” he said, “but the butterflies were actually really cool too. You remember that one that landed on your nose?”

I winced a little. “Yes.”

He grinned. “And then how you let out that high pitched squeak of pure terror?”

“I don’t recall that particular detail, no,” I said.

“Very convenient of you to forget the most embarrassing part of that trip,” he joked.

“Well, look, it was sudden, okay?” I said defensively. “It just startled me a little, is all.”

He laughed softly. “I know, I know. We went over that after it happened. I just thought it was cute. And funny. Especially since you act like a badass all the time.”

“Not, not all the time,” I murmured, looking into my lap. “I was softer with you.”

“Sort of, yes,” he said. “But you were always more guarded than most people, I felt like. I mean, I understand why, of course, but it was kinda nice to see a more sensitive side to you. That whole day, it was different somehow. You were different.”

“That was… also part of the surprise,” I admitted. “I wanted to make a conscious effort  to be more transparent with you.”

“Well, it worked,” he said. “That day, it was something special.”

“I’m glad.” It was nice to know that at least at one point, I had made him truly happy. Perhaps I could get to that point again, if I earned his trust. There was no guarantee that he would ever accept me back fully, but even if he didn’t, I could still make him happy. Make him smile and laugh. I’d be his friend, even if it destroyed me, tore me to pieces. 

I just hoped that he’d let me.

“So, uh, take your pick, I guess,” Aiden said, motioning to the shelf full of Melatonin before us.

I looked over my options, wondering if maybe I’d been overreacting when I said he had to bring me along too. ‘Cause I wasn’t exactly an idiot. If the protective seal was broken on the bottle he got me, he’d likely tampered with the contents, meaning that the pills inside were no longer safe. And I certainly wasn’t dumb enough to take a pill he just handed to me.

But the fact that he still brought me along made me feel a little bit better about him. At least then I knew he was really trying to earn my trust. Though I suppose it’s for what that I should be most worried about. Was he trying so hard to earn my trust because he wanted me back in his life or because he wanted to kill me.

Well, perhaps not kill me. If he wanted to do that then, well, he could just y’know, stab me or something. I guess get back at me was probably more like it. Make me pay for ruining his life. 

I grabbed a relatively small bottle and said, “This is probably all I’ll need.”

“Okay,” Adien said. “Do you… want anything else? While we’re here? Anything, by the way. It doesn’t have to be, y’know, medical related.”

“I can’t really think of anything else I need, no,” I answered.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “It’s not a problem.”

I sighed. “Aiden, you don’t need to buy me anything. You don’t owe me.”

“I disagree,” he said. “But I’m not gonna be a weirdo and force a gift on you. I would like to buy you something though. Something at least semi-nice, since all of this is my fault.”

Goddamnit, you’re still on that?” I questioned. “I thought I told you to be a little nicer to yourself.”

“Yeah.” He touched a hand to the back of his neck. “I mean, I thought that conversation earlier would’ve told you that that’s not exactly easy…”

“I know it’s not, but could you at least try?” I countered. “Look, I know you, Aiden, and I know the sort of stuff you try to pull. You’d do this sh*t all the time. Tell me I’m too nice to you or I do too much for you, and then buy me something to ‘make up for it.’ Don’t start with that bullsh*t again. You are worth it. I don’t care what you are to me, everyone deserves to be bought things and to feel good about themselves for Christ’s sake.”

He looked down at the floor, shaking his head.

“I’m serious,” I said. “Please don’t treat yourself like that. I know that things are awkward between us, but I know what that feels like, so don’t do that to yourself.”

He looked up at this, confused. “You? For what? You’re like, the nicest person on Earth.”

I managed a small, sad smile and said, “Kindness is born from darkness, Aiden.”

He looked at me for a long moment, and I saw the second my words sunk in. His eyes darkened. “Who hurt you?” he growled. “I swear to God, I’ll kick their sorry-”

I waved him off. “Yeah, I know, I know, you’ll knock ‘em right into next year. But I’m over it all now. What’s done is done.”

“Come on,” he said. “Give me a name. You don’t have to tell me anything about them or what they did to you.”

I turned away. “I already told you, what’s done is done. I’m not gonna drag up old feelings just so you can go make someone your punching bag.”

“You can’t even say their name anymore, can you,” he murmured.

I sighed. “I could, but I’m not gonna do it for this. Now come on, we should go check out.” I started back down that aisle.

“Elijah, wait,” Aiden said.

I reluctantly paused and turned to face him again. “I’m not telling you their name.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “Just… tell me it’s not me. Tell me I didn’t hurt you so badly that…” He trailed off.

“No, Aiden. This had nothing to do with you,” I murmured. “It happened way before I met you.”

He loosed a breath of relief. “Okay, good. I, I mean, not good that it happened but-”

“I know what you meant,” I said before he could dig himself a deeper hole. “Now, like I said, we should probably go check out.”

“Right,” he said. “Right.”

I turned and started walking again, but stopped when I heard him say, “Elijah?”

“What is it now?” I asked, turning to face him again.

“I, I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” he murmured. “Whatever happened, I can tell it was difficult for you. But I also want you to know that you are the kindest person I know, and whoever hurt you will never be able to take that away. You are a good man, Elijah. And that automatically makes you better than the bastard that hurt you.”

I gave a half smile. “Well, thank you, but I’m not the one who really needs that encouragement right now, am I?”

“I… Well…”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “You’re a good man too, Aiden. I mean, sure, you’ve made mistakes, and you have flaws, but-” I shrugged, “-that’s what makes us human.”

“Yeah, well, my mistakes aren’t exactly redeemable,” he muttered. I knew he wasn’t talking about ghosting me. Not this time.

“Anyone can be redeemed,” I said.

“You weren’t so sure about that after the car crash,” he countered.

“I was angry then,” I said. “But I’ve calmed down now, and I know that yes, you did some bad things, but you can still be redeemed. I’m a firm believer in second chances.”

He sighed. “Well, I can’t say I believe you, but it is nice to hear you say that. I really do appreciate all of this. Just you being here is a miracle to me, so thank you for that.”

“Of course. Like I said, I’m a firm believer in second chances.”

It was dark when we arrived home, and the moment we entered, Elijah went into the kitchen and filled a cup with water. And then he tried to open his Melatonin, but it seemed he was struggling with the protective seal. I, of course, could understand. I’d struggled to get those things off plenty of times.

“Here, let me help,” I said, reaching out to take it from him.

He jerked the bottle out of my reach. “Absolutely not.”

I stepped back, holding up my hands. “Okay, okay, jeez. I just wanted to help.” 

“Well I don’t want or need your help,” he countered.

I blinked at the bite in his tone. “I, I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong?” He’d been quiet on the way home. Maybe I had done something to antagonize him without realizing it, and his silence was his way of showing me.

He sighed deeply and, without looking at me, said, “Look, I’m just tired, and I want to get some sleep, alright?”

“Yeah, no, that makes complete sense. I shouldn’t’ve bothered you, I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I’ll just… go to sleep. See you in the morning.” I turned and started from the room.

“You weren’t bothering me,” he said, stopping me.

I sighed and turned around. “Well then what was I doing? ‘Cause it sure as hell seemed like I was bothering you.”

“Y’know what, fine, you were bothering me,” he said. “Because of this.” He held up the bottle still in his hand.

“You’re upset because I bought you what you asked for?” I asked, confused.

He let out a frustrated sigh. “No, it’s because I don’t want you touching this bottle. It’s mine, and I don’t need you messing with it.”

“What am I gonna do with it, poison you?”

“I don’t know, maybe,” he countered. “Look, the fact is, Aiden, that I have no idea what you have planned for me, so I need to take precautions.”

“Well that’s great and all, but what happened to the ‘gee Aiden, I know you really well. You’re a redeemable. Good. Man’,” I said mockingly. 

“Well, y’know what, maybe I don’t know you at all, damnit!” he yelled. “I thought I did but goddamnit, I just don’t. Not anymore.”

I let out a soft, bitter laugh. “And here I was hoping that something good might actually come out of all of this.” I shook my head. “Guess I should’ve known it was too good to be true.”

“It’s not too good to be true-”

“Really?! Then why the hell isn’t it?!” I countered. “All I want to do is earn your trust, and I thought we were making progress earlier! Hell, just twenty minutes ago, you were being so nice and friendly with me! So what the hell happened?!”

“This is what happened!” he argued. “Because you can’t just sit back and let this happen slowly! You’re trying to force it instead of letting it happen on its own!”

“Then y’know what, maybe I should just leave,” I said. “Because clearly I’m the problem here, and there’s no sense in staying where I’m not wanted. I’ll pack up tonight and be out of your hair by ten tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll be happier this way.”

I wanted him to object. To tell me he didn’t mean it and that he was sorry and wanted me to stay. But he only said, “Y’know what, maybe I will.”

*    *    *

I couldn’t sleep that night, despite the pills I’d taken. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Aiden had said.

He’d leave tomorrow, all because I lashed out at him and made him feel like he was no longer welcome.

Should I have been kinder to him? Probably. God, all he’d wanted was to earn my trust, and yes, maybe he was trying a little hard, but I could’ve gotten him to calm down with it a little. The conversation didn’t have to end like that. With me telling him I’d be better off without him.

I didn’t believe it was true. Yes, his presence came with its fair share of challenges, but I wasn’t so sure if I would be better with him out of the picture.

I sighed deeply, rubbing at my eyes. But he wouldn’t really leave, would he? No, he’d sleep, realize we both overreacted, and then this will all blow over. Yeah. 

Still, I couldn’t fight the uneasy feeling in my gut as I finally slipped into sleep. 

*    *    *

Aiden wasn’t there when I awoke the next morning. I checked every room, but he wasn’t here. And his pack was gone as well.

He’d actually left.

I sat down hard on the couch. “Sh*t.” Aiden, you weren’t supposed to actually leave.

Well, what the hell do I do now? Do I just sit here and wait him out? What if he doesn’t come back? Do I want him to come back? 

I honestly didn’t know at this point. But he’d been kind to me. Yes, we argued, but most of those arguments were initiated by me. Goddamnit. I’m the asshole, aren’t I? Aiden is trying his best to make me happy, and yet I’m doing everything I can to push him away. All because of the off chance that he wanted to hurt me. Which was a ridiculous assumption at this point since, if he wanted to hurt me, why would he leave like this?

I need to go after him. I need to find him and apologize. Or at least something. I needed to do something.

I stood.

But… where would he go?

I sat back down.

Where would he go? Surely nowhere in town. He wasn’t that stupid, right? But I did know one place he liked to go when he was upset, and it did happen to be in town. The park where we first met.

But, then again, I wasn’t sure if he’d want to go there since it was probably like the flower-clearing and made him think of me.

I paused at that. The flower-clearing. Would he go there? I wasn’t sure, but I guess it couldn’t hurt to check. It was much closer than the park, at least.

I stood again and quickly headed to the door. I scooped up my shoes, putting them on as I went, and when I got to the forked path in the backyard, I headed left.

It was a long walk to the flower-clearing, but it would be worth it if I found Aiden there. ‘Cause I knew if I didn’t find him soon, he’d likely get himself killed out there.

I didn’t call out to him as I hurried along the trail. If he knew I was coming, he’d probably run or hide. Even if I was obviously looking for him, I knew he wouldn’t wanna talk to me.

When I finally caught sight of the flower-filled clearing, I slowed my pace, taking extra care to quiet my footsteps. 

And then I peeked around a tree to find that Aiden had indeed come here. He was sitting on a rock near the middle of the clearing, twirling a daisy between his thumb and forefinger. His backpack was sitting on his right, leaning against the rock.

I crept a few steps into the clearing, then cleared my throat.

Aiden scrambled to his feet and whirled to face me, eyes wild with fear. But by the stance he took up, I knew he’d be ready if a fight ever came his way.

“It’s just me,” I said as Aiden lowered his hands.

He quickly turned and grabbed up his pack. “You weren’t supposed to be up so soon. I, I’m sorry, I’ll get out of your way-”

“Aiden, stop,” I interrupted. “I’m the one who should be sorry. Look, I was way outta line last night. I didn’t mean what I said to you. I don’t want you to go.”

He sighed and shook his head. “I can’t keep doing this, Elijah. This back and forth. Either hate me or don’t, but don’t flip back and forth between the two. ‘Cause I can’t take it.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been fair to you. But I’m going to try my absolute hardest to do better. And I’m gonna start by telling you the truth about why I lashed out at you yesterday.”

He didn’t say anything, and I took that as my cue to continue. “Look, I… I really lashed out because…” I sighed. “Because talking about what happened to me, even just that little bit, put me in a very vulnerable position. And I hated it because it made me feel weak and helpless. So I needed to do something to make myself feel stronger, and when you tried to take that bottle from me, well, it gave me an excuse.”

He blinked once. Twice. “Oh. I, I had no idea. If I would’ve known-”

“No, no, no, it’s not your fault,” I said. “It’s mine. I should’ve recognized what was happening and stopped myself, but I didn’t. So I’m sorry.”

“You’ve apologized enough,” Aiden said. “Uh,” he looked around for a moment, then stepped closer, leaving only a few feet between us, and held out the daisy he still held, “here. Just… as a symbol of forgiveness, I guess.”

“You’re forgiving me just like that?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. I don’t exactly want to leave.”

I laughed softly. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

It was quiet for a moment, but then he broke the silence saying, “So, uh, should we head back inside?”

“Oh, uh, yes, yeah. We should definitely do that,” I said.

Aiden shouldered his pack. “Alright, I’ll lead the way.” 

He started back down the trail, and I followed close behind. But I couldn’t help but stare down at the flower I now twirled between my thumb and forefinger, feeling a smile tug at my lips.

*    *    *

We didn’t talk much for the rest of the day. It was much later, closer to seven, that we finally managed a full conversation again. 

Elijah, surprisingly, was the one to initiate it. “Hey, uh, I know things have been busy lately but have you happened to get a chance to think about how we could take down the Shadows? ‘Cause I understand it’s risky, I really do, but I do want to get back at them for putting us through all of this, and the city would be so much safer with them gone. And I’m not sure how long we can keep this up, hiding like this. I mean, we have to figure out a way to make money somehow, right? And we won’t be able to do that with the Shadows and the Immortals hunting us down.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said. “Do you wanna take down both gangs?”

“Well… yeah, I guess we would need to,” he said. “But we should probably focus on one at a time, right?”

I nodded. “Yeah, we definitely can’t take them both at once. The real question is, can we even take one?”

“I mean, you said there might be a way,” he said. “You just needed time to think about it.”

I sighed and leaned back against the couch, scratching at my chin. “Yeah. Yeah, there could be a way. Something I just haven’t thought of yet. But wouldn’t it be smarter to just pack up and leave?” I proposed. “We could get out of state, make a life for ourselves somewhere completely different. It’d be a fresh start.”

His face fell a little at this. “Well… yeah. Yeah, I guess that would be smarter. And safer. But… I’ve spent years trying to get rid of the gangs and make this place safer. And if you say we have a shot, I…” he sighed. “I have to take it.”

I blew out a breath, rubbing at my face with my hands. “Alright. I’ll think about it more before I go to bed tonight, okay?”

He nodded, then stood there for a moment, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Well, I uh, guess I should probably go to bed. See you in the morning.”

“See you in the morning,” I answered as he turned and started down the hall. 

*    *    *

I sat there on the couch for a long time after Elijah had left, trying to find some way to make it work.

When I had been in charge, I had made my good friend Deion my second in command, which would mean that if all went well, he would be in charge now. But somehow, I didn’t think that’d be the case. Because there was a group of guys who absolutely hated me within the gang. They thought I had killed the leader before me so that I could claim his spot. I hadn’t, of course. He was an older man and had died of a heart attack. Purely coincidental. 

The leader of this little group was named Renato. A champion asshole. But, as it turned out, Renato was the old boss’ son.

I was surprised when I found out. It was odd that his father hadn’t made him his second in command. I guess he just felt that he wasn’t fit to lead.

But either way, Renato was pissed at me. For allegedly killing his father and also for taking a spot that should’ve been his by ‘birth-right.’ Which was a pretty stupid argument considering things weren’t settled that way in the gangs. At least, not in ours. But some people stood by him.

It was pure luck that the rest of us finally got them to settle down and act like reasonable, civilized people.

But though Deion should be in charge, I had a feeling that Renato would’ve stepped up to the plate, seeing as after I betrayed them, I doubted they trusted Deion, who had been my friend, to lead them.

So assuming Renato was in charge, how could we take them down while staying alive? What would be the easiest way to ensure chaos ensued?

I sighed and rubbed at my eyes, then stood and headed for my room. Not to sleep, I doubted I would be sleeping much at all tonight, actually. No, I needed paper, and it just so happened that I kept a stack in the bottom drawer of my dresser.

I grabbed a few pieces and a pencil from the holder atop my dresser then headed back to the living room. 

I spread the paper out across the coffee table and began to draw.

I was awoken sometime before dawn by Aiden shaking my shoulder. I groaned and pulled the covers over my head, swatting at his hands.

“Eli, er, Elijah, sorry. I think I got it,” he whispered excitedly.

At this, I moved the covers back, and groggily asked, “Got what?”

He grinned. “A way to take down the Shadows.”

It was then that I noticed the dark circles under his eyes. And though his grin was genuine, there was utter exhaustion in it. “You… Did you sleep at all?”

“Maybe,” he said. “I’m not actually sure. But if I did, it was probably for maybe thirty minutes. A brief blackout.”

“You didn’t need to stay up all night planning this,” I said. “You do know I won’t be able to do much of anything while my arm heals, right?”

“It meant a lot to you,” he countered.

“Yes, but… You didn’t need to do all of this in one night.” Only for me, I knew, would he ever do something so selfless. The thought might’ve made my heart flutter. Or maybe I was just imagining things.

“Don’t you wanna at least look at it?” he asked.

I sighed, but started to climb out of bed. “Yeah, I guess I can look at it.”

He led the way down the hall and into the living room. He had spread three pieces of paper out across the table and drawn what looked like floor plans on each. “The building has three floors. I mapped each of them to the best of my ability,” he said. “So, in order to take that place down, we need to cause chaos, and we need the group to scatter. So what I had in mind was, first, we kill the-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I interrupted. “We have to kill people?”

He sighed deeply. “Yes, Elijah. In order for this to work, we’d have to kill the current leader and his second in command.”

“Isn’t there something else we can do?”

“No, there’s not. Because if the leader or his second in command is alive, then they will just get everyone together again, and they’ll find a way to keep the gang going,” Aiden said. “But if there is no clear next in line, then they’ll fight over it. Now, it’s a bit of a longshot, but these fights could get deadly, and if they do, the gang could scatter.”

“That’s… I don’t know…” I rubbed at my chin. “You’re definitely right, it is a longshot. But I don’t know if it’s maybe too long of a shot.”

“Well, it’s the safest option I can think of,” Aiden countered. “Come on, man. I spent all night thinking about this.”

“You did, and I appreciate the gesture. That was really nice of you,” I said. “But I think maybe you should take a step back from it for a little while. Sleep. We can talk again once you wake up.”

He sighed in frustration and muttered something under his breath, but ultimately started for his room.

I sat down on the couch, rubbing at my eyes. I did feel bad. He’d spent all night working on that just for me, and then I basically told him it was a sucky idea. But it did seem like a lot had to line up in order for this to work. But, then again, he knew the gangs a lot better than I did. And, God, I hadn’t even heard his entire plan.

How would we kill the boss and his second in command?

Aiden had probably figured that all out, but I hadn’t even let him get that far. Goddamnit.

And so I stood and quietly opened the door to his room. I probably should’ve knocked first, considering I found him in his underwear, getting ready to climb into bed. “Oh!” I quickly averted my gaze. “Sorry, I should’ve knocked.”

“Oh, uh, wow, this is awkward,” he said. “Here, would it help if I…” I heard the sighing of the blankets as he pulled them aside, then climbed beneath them. “Is this better?”

I finally turned to him again, finding him sitting against the headboard with the blanket pulled up to his shoulders. “Uh, yes, actually. Thanks,” I said awkwardly.

He grinned. “Are you blushing, Elijah?”

“No,” I scoffed, though I did duck my head. “How would you even know? The light’s off.”

“The light may be off, but the sun is rising,” he said. “There’s enough light in here to tell.” His grin turned into a sly smirk. “Are you falling in love with me, Elijah?”

“What? No! Nonononono!”

“Okay, well, based on that answer, it’s most certainly a yes,” he said.

“Why are you smiling at me like that?”

“Because I’m glad you’re starting to come around again,” he answered, and as he did, his smile softened. I could tell he meant it.

“Just because I blushed when you were in only your underwear doesn’t mean I’m in love with you though,” I argued.

“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “And honestly, I said that as I joke. I didn’t think it’d actually be true.”

“This doesn’t change anything, by the way,” I said. “The boundaries I set are still the same, and if I think you’re trying to purposely get me back, we’re done. I may be falling in love with you, but I’m not all the way gone just yet. I can step back if I need to.”

“It’s not as easy as you might think,” he countered. “If I could stop loving you, Elijah, I would’ve done it the day I broke things off. It is not something you can control.”

“You wanna make a bet on that?” I challenged.

He was silent for a long moment. Then his throat bobbed, and he said, “No, no I do not.”

“I didn’t think so.”

He sighed. “Why, exactly, are you here? I thought you wanted me to go to bed and think over my, apparently, horrible idea.”

“Hey, I didn’t say it was horrible; I just… wasn’t sure it would work.”

He shot me a look that said, Well? 

“I, uh, I actually came to apologize,” I said, touching a hand to the back of my neck.

He was surprised, I could tell because he didn’t say a word. Only waited for me to continue.

“You stayed up all night to do that for me, and then I crushed it. So, I’m sorry, that wasn’t right of me,” I said. “And if you’re willing to tell me, I’d like to hear the rest of your plan.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell you,” he said. “But we’ll have to go out to the living room so I can show you on the maps I made. Is that okay?”

“Um, yes, just… Could you throw on some clothes first? Please?” 

He smirked but told me yes.

So I left and sat down on the couch to wait. I didn’t have to for long, of course. Only a minute or so later, Aiden entered the room, once again wearing clothes.

Still, I found it hard not to imagine his muscled chest. He was thinner and nimble, but goddamn did he have some muscle.

I felt myself blushing again and immediately turned away, hoping he didn’t notice. Sh*t. What the hell am I doing? Remember, this guy broke your heart years ago, he could do it again.

But… why? What would be the point in hurting me? Especially after he’d saved my life three times.

Could it all just be some elaborate scheme? Was he just trying to get back at me for all the trouble I had caused his gang?

I quickly dismissed the idea, or, at least, tried to.

“So, here’s what I was thinking,” Aiden started. “I’ll go in and head up these stairs,” he pointed to the top left corner of the map closest to him. “They go all the way up to the top floor. I’ll go in alone and kill Renato, the guy who I believe will be in charge right now, and his second in command, who will probably be Aerona. Once I’m finished, I’ll text you some sort of code, and then you’ll start a fire on the bottom floor here,” he pointed to the opposite corner of the stairs, the boiler room.

“You want me to start a fire while you’re still in the building?” I asked.

“Yes, yes I do.”

Hell no, I’m not putting you in danger like that,” I argued. 

He sighed. “Relax, I’ll be out in time,” he said. “And if you’re worried about me being in danger, then you should be more focused on how dangerous it is to go in there and kill their leader and his successor.”

“Alright, that’s fair,” I said. “How, exactly, do you plan to do that?”

“Well, we’ll need some sort of distraction. Something to get a good number of people out of the building. And… I was thinking maybe your friends at the police station could help with that.”

“You want the cops involved?” I asked.

“Look, it’ll be dangerous, yes, but it’s the perfect distraction,” he said. “I know where one of their biggest drug cartels is. Literally everything down to how they get in contact with their buyers. If I give the police all of that information, they’ll go there, and once they do, there’ll be a gunfight. It’ll be deadly and awful, and yes, good people will die. But once word gets out to Renato, and it will, he’ll send a majority of the gang to go deal with it, leaving the main base exposed.”

I opened my mouth to object, but he interrupted me, “Please, Elijah. I know you don’t want to put good people in danger, but this is the safest option for us.” He grabbed my shoulders. “Think of how safe this place will be with the Shadows out of the picture. Think of how many people we’ll save.”

I loosed a breath. “I need some time to think about this, okay?”

“I understand,” he said. “And you’ve got plenty of time. Like you said, we won’t be able to do any of this until your arm heals.”

I didn’t bother to go back to bed. Instead, I just sat on the couch and turned on TV. It didn’t seem like much was on, so I figured I’d watch the news, see if anyone was talking about Aiden and I’s alleged deaths.

I watched for an hour at least but so far, nothing had come up about us. So I grabbed a bag of Cheetos out of my backpack and leaned back, shoving a handful into my mouth.

Was I seriously falling in love with him again? No, no I couldn’t be, not after all the pain he’d caused me. And yet… how I felt around him had changed. I still had doubts, but even those were wavering. I could feel it. And I wasn’t sure I liked it. What if I was just playing right into his hands? What if all of this was just some elaborate scheme to tear me into pieces? As if his first blow years ago hadn’t been enough.

But if it was, then why admit to being in love with me? Was he lying? That didn’t seem right. I was fairly certain that if he looked me in the eye, he was incapable of lying. But maybe things had changed now that we were no longer together. Maybe he truly did despise me after the trouble I’d caused.

I sighed deeply, rubbing at my forehead. And then I looked towards my right, at the kitchen.

Almost absently, I stood and headed over. “What kinda drinks you got here, Aiden?” I murmured to myself as I opened the fridge. 

I had no intention of getting drunk. Aiden would surely notice when he awoke that I wasn’t sober. But I figured a drink or two couldn’t hurt.

At the very least, I figured it’d quiet the thoughts swirling around my brain for a little while.

I found a six-pack of vodka on the middle shelf. Aiden always did seem to like the hard stuff.

I grabbed a bottle and sat down on the couch once again. I set the bottle between my knees and grabbed my bag of Cheetos, setting them on the cushion to my right.

Cheetos and vodka, what an interesting combination.

*    *    *

I awoke around noon to find Elijah nearly asleep on the couch, a bottle of vodka on the coffee table.

I laughed softly, grabbing up the bottle. “You never could take your liquor, could you?”

“Shut up, I’m not drunk,” he muttered. “You know drinking makes me tired, whether it’s one bottle or five.”

“I know, I know. I’m just teasing you,” I said, then went into the kitchen and tossed the bottle in the trash. And then I opened up the fridge and grabbed a couple more.

I came back over and offered one to Elijah. “It’s no fun to drink alone.”

“I wasn’t gonna drink more than that one,” he argued.

I only smirked and said, “Isn’t that what we all say?”

Still, he said, “Well, maybe I don’t want to drink with you.”

“Why?” I asked. “I thought we were friends now.”

“Yeah, well…” He sighed and turned away. And I understood then. That look in his eyes right before he looked away from me.

“Ah, I see, we’re being distant again,” I said, unable to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

“I don’t know what you mean ‘again,’” he countered. “We’ve been pretty distant this whole time.”

“Yeah.” I gave a soft laugh and rubbed at my face. “I guess I just thought something changed earlier this morning. But I was clearly wrong. So I, uh, I’m sorry if I bothered you.” I gave a closed-lip smile that I tried not to fill with hurt, and headed back into the kitchen, putting the bottles back in the fridge. And then I headed to the front door.

“Hey, where are you going?” Elijah asked.

“Just going for a walk,” I said as I opened the door.

Elijah sighed. “Aiden, look-”

I closed the door before he could finish and then hurried to the back of the house where the trails sat. I headed down the right path this time.

It went on for miles, I knew. I’d mapped it years ago, in case I’d need to use it to get out of town. Of course, I didn’t plan on using it for that today. No, I just needed to get away for a while.

There was a river that was about a half-hour walk from here. Actually, it was probably much too small to be considered a river, but I still called it that.

Near the river was a large tree. One of those trees that was perfect for climbing.

By the time I got there, my feet were starting to hurt, but I paid them no heed. It didn’t matter anyway. I’d be sitting soon enough.

I climbed up onto one of the lower branches, then went up a few branches higher and sat down, watching the river.

I sat there for a few minutes before murmuring, “Am I just an idiot?” Have I been harboring all of this hope for nothing? He’d said he was falling in love with me, but it sure didn’t seem that way to me. But I guess maybe he wasn’t nearly as willing to love me as he had been years ago. After all, things had changed a lot since then.

I sighed. Maybe it’d be better if I just gave up hope on it. It’d probably hurt less that way. But, then again, wouldn’t there always be some part of me subconsciously hoping that he took me back?

“Elijah, why do you have to make things so goddamn difficult?” I muttered.

I sat there for a while, just listening to the river. But then an idea came to me.

I pulled the small journal out of my back pocket along with a pencil. I never went anywhere without them. 

I opened up to the next blank page and began to draw.

*    *    *

“Aiden!” I called into the trees. “Aiden, come on!”

I’d seen him go behind the house, but I wasn’t sure which trail he’d gone down. So, I’d guessed left. But I’d been walking for probably an hour now, even went past the flower-clearing, and still hadn’t gotten a response.

“It’s hot out here,” I said. “And I’d like to go inside where it’s cooler.” I might as well have been talking to a rock.

I sighed. “Come on, Aiden. Please? I’m sorry, is that what you wanna hear?”

He probably wasn’t even here. He’d probably taken the other path, and this was a complete waste of my time. But each time he didn’t answer, I couldn’t help a stab of worry. The gangs may have thought we were dead, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill us on sight. If anyone in the gangs recognized us, we were as good as dead. And out here, it’d be a lot easier to hide the body. I may never find it.

Sh*t. Stop thinking like that. We’re probably just overreacting. I’m sure he just went down the other path.

And so I turned around and headed back the way I came.

“Aiden, seriously man, you’re starting to scare me,” I said. “So if you can hear me, please come out.”

Still, nothing.

I quickened my pace as I started for the other path, though I knew it’d be about an hour before I reached the fork.

*    *    *

I must’ve sat there for another hour and a half before I started to hear voices. No, just one voice, calling out my name.

“Eli?” I asked, forgetting to use his true name instead of his nickname.

“Aiden? Oh thank God. Where are you?”

“I… I’m just in a tree,” I said. “Keep going down the trail, you’ll see. It’s by a river.”

Only a few moments later, I heard his footsteps as he entered the clearing. I looked down and saw him through the branches. “Why did you follow me?” I asked.

“Because… I don’t know. I was… worried, I guess,” he said, then changed the subject. “What’s that?”

“What? This?” I held up my journal. “It’s just a drawing journal.”

“Really? I didn’t know you liked to draw,” he said.

“Well, you don’t know everything about me, Elijah,” I said. “I picked it up not long after I left you. It was one of the ways I coped with it, I guess.”

“Oh. Well… are you good?”

“I mean… I don’t know. I was usually pretty satisfied with what I drew, but I never thought it would be good enough to, y’know, make it big in art or anything. Do you… wanna see?” I’d never shown anyone my artwork before, but I figured Elijah might as well be the first.

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “But could you, y’know, climb down?”

I laughed softly. “Yes, I wasn’t gonna make you climb all the way up here.” So I started down the tree again, but while I climbed down, I asked, “So, you were worried about me?”

“Well…” He touched a hand to the back of his neck. “Yeah, I, well, it’s just that if any of the gang members happened to find you out here…”

I dropped to the ground and gave him a small smile. “Well, I’m glad that you at least care about me enough to be worried when I go off alone.”

The moment I looked at him, his brown hair, mussed, maybe from running his fingers through it again and again. And wearing that T-shirt he loved so much. It was a white shirt with a bright orange setting sun that looked like it was melting into the water below it. And those khaki pants he probably hadn’t taken off since we’d started this whole thing. I knew there would be no way I could stop loving him.

“Aiden, look,” he started. “I didn’t mean for it to be like that, back at the house, really. I, I’m just scared, okay? Honestly.”

“Scared of me?” I asked.

“Sort of, I guess,” he admitted. “I’m just scared that… you’ll hurt me again.”

I was startled enough that I actually took a step back. “No. Nonononono.” I reached out to touch him but paused at the last second and drew back. “Elijah, that’s not what I wanted to do. That’s never been what I wanted to do.”

“But how can I be sure?” he asked. “How can I know for sure you don’t have some twisted scheme in the back of your mind?”

“You can’t, I guess, but…” I sighed, then held my journal out to him. “Here, look through this. I draw what I feel. Or sometimes I just draw whatever I’m in the mood to draw. Like, I think there’s a picture of a giraffe in there somewhere. But you won’t find anything violent. At least, nothing violent directed at you.”

I watched, silent, as he flipped through the pages. He kept his face carefully unreadable. Sometimes he’d pause on certain pages, as if analyzing what he found. But then he hit that last page I’d drawn on. He looked at it for a moment, then turned to me.

“Should I be concerned about the number of broken hearts in here?”

“Oh, no, no, no. Those are all just how I was feeling,” I said. “You remember that I told you it hurt me too when I left.”

“I know,” he said. “What I meant was should I be concerned for you.”

I blinked. “Oh. Um, no, I, I deserved all of that. Trust me.”

But he shook his head. “No, you didn’t. Maybe some of it, but… God, there has to be like, thirty variations of broken hearts in here. Why didn’t you ever talk to me? I could’ve helped you; we could’ve worked something out.”

I turned my gaze to the ground. “I didn’t think you’d want to talk, considering all the times I turned away from you.”

“Well… I probably would’ve been pretty pissed, yes, but… I still would’ve talked to you,” he said. “Even if it wasn’t right then, I would’ve found time at some point.”

“Really?” I asked, looking back at him.

He gave me a small smile. “Really.”

“Wow, I uh, wish I would’ve known that forever ago,” I said. “But I am at least glad that I know now.”

His smile softened, and he handed my journal back to me. “Me too,” he said. “And, for the record, I think your drawings are beautiful. In fact, I think a lot of them are good enough to be tattoos. They just seem like that sort of artwork to me.”

“I have thought about that, actually,” I admitted. “Getting some of them tattooed on me. I haven’t yet though, because I just wanna make sure that it’s something that I really want, y’know?” 

“Yeah, I get it,” he said. “But if it’s something that means a lot to you, I’d get it. Unless it’s my name. Please do not get my name tattooed on you. I’d hate for you to get it and then things not work out between us and now you have a tattoo that just hurts to look at.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, yes, I’m aware. But, I do think your name would look really nice right here.” I ran a finger over my forearm. “Elijah Alexis Hall, in your handwriting.”

“Oh God, not my middle name,” he groaned. “I hate my middle name.”

I shot him a wicked grin. “I know, that’s why I’d add it. Just so you’d hate the tattoo even more.”

He shoved my shoulder playfully. “Whatever, Aiden Romeo Bright.”

“Oh my God, please don’t,” I said. “You’re gonna give me flashbacks to reading Romeo and Juliet in high school.”

He grinned at me. “That’s the point,” he said. “Payback for the flashbacks you just gave me.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh whatever. I think your middle name is cute.”

“I’m sure you do,” he said, amusement in his eyes.

I held his gaze for a moment. Both of us were smiling. And we were standing awfully close together, I realized. Close enough that I could’ve kissed him if I leaned in.

I jumped back at the thought, bumping into the tree behind me. “Sh*t, I, sorry. I, I didn’t realize we were standing so close.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” he said. “If I had a problem with it, I would’ve let you know, trust me.”

“Still, I shouldn’t’ve… I, I mean, y’know, the boundaries and all that.” I swallowed hard, shaking my head and looking down at the ground. “God, Elijah, I don’t know if I can do this.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, I don’t know if I can be just your friend,” I said, glancing at him. “I just… I think I love you too damn much, and I’m worried that I’ll do something to screw everything up.”

He sighed. “If anything, Aiden, what you’re doing now will screw it all up,” he countered. “Just calm down, okay? Breathe.”

I swallowed and tried to do as he said.

“Okay, good. Now tell me what happened,” he urged. “What made you react like that?”

“I, I just realized how close we were standing, and then, I don’t know, just, a thought popped into my head, and it freaked me out a little.”

“What thought?” he pushed.

I sighed, knowing that the answer could very well destroy our tentative friendship, then said, “I realized I could kiss you.” I looked at him, met his gaze.

“You could’ve,” he agreed after a moment of thought. “But you didn’t. You held back, which tells me you will do just fine being my friend.” He came closer and touched a hand to my arm. “You want me back, don’t you?” 

“I, yes, I do,” I said.

“Then make sure you do this right,” he said. “Be my friend first; that’s how it’s supposed to be. The longer we are friends, the more I’ll trust you.”

“Thank you,” I murmured.

He cocked his head to the side. “For what?”

I gave him a small smile. “For giving me a chance,” I said. “You have no idea what that means to me.”

“Oh, I think I do,” he said. “I can see it in the smile on your face right now. And, I will admit, it’s nice to see you genuinely happy.”

We just stood there for a moment. It was nice to see him smile. To see him look at me like he used to when we first started hanging out. 

“Well, I uh, guess we should probably head back,” I said, breaking the silence.

He stepped back, his hand sliding from my arm. “Yeah, I guess we should.”

And so we started back. But I could’ve sworn that where his hand had been, a warmth that had nothing to do with the summer heat had blossomed.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Elijah and about all that he’d said. It warmed me, the fact that I actually had a chance with him again, but it also terrified me. Because what if I screwed it up? What if I did something wrong?

And yet these fears didn’t deter me from climbing out of bed and tiptoeing down the hall. On silent feet, I slipped into Elijah’s room. I used to do this on the nights he was in bed before me. Just stand there for a while and watch him sleep. He always looked so adorable when he slept.

Believe me, I knew it was weird. I knew I should’ve turned right back around and left. Because if he found me here, whatever trust I’d managed to build would be crushed. And yet I stayed there, transfixed by how soft he looked in sleep.

I reached out a hand to touch him but pulled back at the last second, fearing I’d wake him. I sighed softly, dropping my hand back to my side.

“Elijah,” I murmured. “I know you’re not really listening, but I just want you to know that I really am sorry for everything I put you through. I’m just not sure if I ever actually said it, so I’m saying it now. I missed you every day. And I just… hope that maybe in some dream-land, you can hear this. Because I really do mean it.”

I stood there for a moment more, then turned and left the room.

*    *    *

I waited until I was sure he was gone before I opened my eyes and sat up. I rolled those words over and over in my head. I just want you to know that I really am sorry for everything I put you through. I could tell he meant it, at least, the pain in his voice had sounded real. But why come in here late at night to say that? Why not just tell me in the morning?

Scared probably. Scared of bringing it up, and of my reaction if he did.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about him coming in here like that, but… I don’t know. I knew that he liked to watch me sleep. He had so many embarrassing pictures of me sleeping. And yes, it was weird, him coming in here like that, but no harm had come from it.

Maybe I should confront him about it tomorrow. I mean, it’d probably be better if I went ahead and set some boundaries for that as well, ‘cause, well, I wasn’t sure I was comfortable enough to have him in here while I slept.

But I also wanted to talk to him about what he’d said. Because I couldn’t deny that those words warmed my heart. I’d known, of course, that he was sorry, but somehow, hearing him say it felt different. 

All of this would come tomorrow, however. ‘Cause right now, I was too tired to do much of anything.

I laid back down and fell asleep once again.

*    *    *

When I entered the living room around nine the next morning, I found Aiden already up. He was sitting on the couch, watching TV.

He looked over when he noticed me approach. “Look,” he said, motioning to the TV. “We’re on TV.”

I followed where he’d pointed to see, sure enough, both of our pictures displayed on the screen while a reporter said, “If you have any information, please call the number on your screen now.”

“Should we call?” I asked Aiden jokingly, taking a seat beside him.

He laughed softly.

“What’d they say about us?” I asked. 

“Well, they found my car,” he said. “Searched it, probably. And I think they found your phone in there, that’s how they knew you had been there too. As of what they think of that, from what I heard, it sounds like they think I kidnapped you. So that’s great. Now, not only do we have to worry about the gangs, but the cops too.”

“You should let me take the trips to the store,” I said. “I’ll go to one in a different town. It’ll take longer, but at least then, people will be less likely to recognize me. But I especially don’t want you leaving this place.”

He waved me off. “I’ll be fine-”

“You probably have a warrant out for your arrest,” I countered. “If the police catch you, you’ll go to jail. And I’m not exactly in a position financially where I can bail you out.”

“No, but you could show up to defend me,” he argued. “Tell them I didn’t kidnap you.”

“I could, and if it did come to that, I’d do it,” I said. “But there’s no need to take unnecessary risks. Please, just let me do this.”

He sighed. “Alright, but take a burner phone with you. I keep a couple on my dresser just in case.”

“I’ll do that,” I said. “And I’ll be very careful when I go out.”

“Thank you,” he murmured.

“No problem,” I said. “So, about last night…” 

“What about last night?” he asked, now sounding nervous.

“Oh, y’know, just how you came into my room around two in the morning,” I said.

“I, uh, I wasn’t in your room-”

I sighed, interrupting him. “Aiden, don’t play dumb; I heard everything.”

He loosed a breath, looking down at the coffee table. “I’m sorry, I, I don’t know what I was thinking. I know better than to do stupid sh*t like that-”

“Hey, calm down,” I said, touching a hand to his arm. “I’m not mad at you. I mean, yes, it’s kinda weird and even a little creepy, and I’d rather you not do it again, but I’m not mad.”

“Really?” he asked, turning to face me. 

“Yes, really,” I said. “Trust me, I’m well aware of how you feel about me, and I understand that sometimes you just wanna toe the line a little bit. Get as close to something intimate and romantic as you possibly can.”

He gave me a small smile. “Well, I’m glad you understood my intentions better than I did. ‘Cause I had no clue what the hell I was doing.”

“But please don’t do that again ‘cause like I said, it was kinda creepy,” I said.

He touched a hand to the back of his neck. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I won’t do it again. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable or anything.”

“I’ll admit, when you first walked in, I was pretty freaked out,” I said. “I wasn’t really sure what to think. But then, well, you started talking, and I relaxed after that.”

“Yeah,” he said, suddenly getting quiet. “I, uh, I meant it, y’know. All of it.”

“I know.” I gave him a small smile. “And I accept your apology. You’re forgiven, Aiden. For all of it.”

He blinked in utter shock. “Wait, really?”

I nodded.

“But… but you said I- You’re serious?”

I nodded again, my smile widening.

He seemed to be near tears he was so happy. “I, I don’t know what to say, I-” He shook his head.

“I haven’t seen you this happy in a long time,” I said.

“That’s ‘cause I haven’t been this happy since I left you,” he murmured. “But I’m beyond grateful for this second chance, I guess you could say, and I promise I’ll be the best friend you’ve ever had, even if a friendship is as far as we go.”

“Okay, that was actually pretty damn sweet,” I said. “I wasn’t expecting that from you.”

“I just want you in my life, Elijah,” he said. “Even if sometimes it’s unbearably painful, I, I couldn’t imagine you not being here with me.”

“Wow, I must really mean a lot to you then.”

He nodded. “Trust me, you mean more to me than I could ever articulate.”

I gave him a small smile. “Again, very sweet.”

He cleared his throat. “So, uh, want some breakfast?” he asked. “We have a wide variety of chips and… I might have some Twinkies left. Here, just check the bags.” He motioned to where they sat, near the right side of the coffee table. “You can have first dibs since you’ve been very nice this morning.”

I laughed softly, then began rifling through the bags.

We continued on as friends from there. Hanging out, watching TV, drinking on occasion. Days turned into weeks, and I found myself actually enjoying my time with him. 

I still couldn’t bring myself to trust him completely, and I felt like an asshole because of it. He was always so nice to me, and he never did anything that would make me uncomfortable. Always asked before he so much as touched me. 

I knew he got anxious whenever I went to the store, but nothing bad had happened so far, and I always kept the burner phone with me, so I could call if I needed to.

I was at the store now, actually, the burner phone in my back pocket. Aiden and I had both decided that we wanted some better food around the house. So I figured I’d buy the cheapest decent food I could find, which is what led me to the frozen goods aisle. Since we didn’t exactly have jobs right now, Aiden and I couldn’t afford much, but I’d buy what I could. Hopefully we’d stay stalked up for at least a week.

I’d put a couple frozen pizzas in the cart and a bag of tater tots when I noticed a few guys down the aisle staring at me. This, obviously, wasn’t normal. People never looked twice at me. I was just some guy buying groceries like everyone else here. And something about these guys felt really off to me.

Immediate fear flooded my veins, but I tried to stay calm, acting like I hadn’t noticed them at all. I headed down the aisle, in the opposite direction of where they were, and towards checkout.

I wasn’t sure who these guys were or if they had anything to do with the gangs, but I wasn’t about to take any chances.

They followed me, and I saw one of them glance over to their right, where a few more men stood, heading towards them.

I tried to glance around inconspicuously, finding a couple more groups spread throughout the store. There was no denying it now. These men were all part of the gangs.

My eyes locked on a man from the nearest group. 

He smiled when our eyes met. The kind of smile that made your blood run cold. He touched a finger to what I assumed was some sort of earpiece and said something, though I was too far away to hear what.

That was all I needed to see. I abandoned the cart and took off at a sprint.

The groups immediately gave chase, following as I made a mad dash for the entrance. Only when I got closer did I notice they had groups there too, ready to grab me if I tried to escape. 

I turned right, heading for the other exit.

Come on, please, just let me get out of here, please just let me get out of here.

My heart sank as I found two more groups guarding this entrance. This left me pretty much one option, the very back.

I’d have to go through the employee’s only section, but considering it could save my life, I didn’t really care. I turned right again and headed deeper into the store, all the while doing everything in my power to dodge my pursuers.

“Please, please, please,” I panted under my breath. “I just gotta get out of here.”

But they had a group guarding this door too. I couldn’t fight them, not all at once. Certainly not with a broken arm. But if I surrendered, then they’d just take me prisoner and use me to get to Aiden. I couldn’t let that happen. Somehow, I had to find a way out.

My gaze shot to the bakery, where they made all the cakes.

I didn’t think, just ran right for it, vaulting over the counter to the dismay of the man standing there.

I landed on my feet and kept running, praying that the kitchen led to either a way out or another employee's only section that would bring me to a way out.

To my utter relief, I found another door near the back. I burst through it, startling a few employees, who looked like they were getting ready to stock shelves. I sprinted past them.

One of them, a man, shouted, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be back here!” I heard his footsteps pounding after me.

“Listen, this is a matter of life and death!” I called back. “I’m sorry to bother you while you’re working, but if I don’t find a way out of here, I will die!”

“What the hell do you mean?” the man asked.

I sighed and paused, turning to face him. “Look, I’m sure you’re not going to believe me. Hell, you’ll probably think I’m on drugs or something, but I swear to God, there are gang members all over this store. I don’t know if they followed me back here, but please, I’m begging you, just let me go.”

“Hey, wait a second, I recognize you,” he said. “You’re that guy on the news, Elijah something.”

“Yes, yes, that’s me,” I said.

“Holy sh*t. So that guy who kidnapped you really is a gang leader.”

“What? No. Well, sort of. It’s complicated,” I said. “But he’s innocent. He didn’t kidnap me; he saved my life. Now please, can you just show me the way out?”

“Yeah, yeah. Follow me.”

I did as he said, following as he led me down a few hallways, and then to an exit. I sighed in relief and thanked the man repeatedly as I opened the door, then slipped outside.

I ran like hell once I was out. I was exhausted and could barely do so, but I managed somehow, running through the streets, trying to get as far away from that store as possible.

But apparently, not even that was enough.

My fear returned in full force as they found me again, chasing me through the streets.

A hallway flashed before my eyes. A scene so vivid I stumbled, barely staying upright. It was just a plain old hallway. Immaculate, empty white walls and a brown carpeted floor.

No. Nonononono, not this again!

I blinked and I was back on the street, still running for my life.

Sh*t! Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t!

I glanced around frantically, trying to find a way to get these guys off my tail. I knew I wouldn’t be able to evade them for long, not with having sprinted all through Price Chopper trying to get away from them, and then running through town. And certainly not while having flashbacks.

I was getting closer to the edge of town and noticed a copse of trees in front of me. I headed straight for them, knowing if I could lose my pursuers inside, I’d have a real shot at escaping them.

I zigzagged through the trees, trying to find someplace I could duck into and become invisible.

My pursuers were fairly close behind. I could hear their footsteps pounding against the dirt behind me. But they weren’t close enough to see me dive beneath an overhang and scrambled behind a bush.

I clamped a hand over my mouth, trying to quiet my breathing.

Their footsteps slowed as they came closer to my hiding spot, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Please, please, please, please. I just repeated that word over and over again in my head. ‘Cause if they caught me here, it was game over. I had no strength left in me to get away.

“The hell did he go?” one of them asked.

Sh*t, I think we lost him,” another one said. “Fan out and search the area. We’ll find the bastard.”

I heard their footsteps, much softer now, as they moved slowly through the trees.

“Remember, if you find him, don’t kill him,” another man said. “Renato wants him alive.”

Renato. So these guys must be with the Shadows then.

I trembled in my hiding spot, keeping my eyes tight shut, as if not looking at them meant they couldn't see me.

Eventually, their footsteps faded, and so did their voices. But still, I stayed hidden, not even daring to breathe too loudly. I silently counted the seconds, then minutes. Only when I reached one hour did I dare take my hand from my mouth and loose a breath of relief. 

My relief, however, didn’t last long.

Flashbacks. I’m having flashbacks. Again. 

I rubbed a hand over my face. “Sh*t. How the hell am I supposed to...” I sighed and again murmured, “Sh*t.” 

It took a few minutes before I was calm enough to realize I definitely should be calling Aiden right now. So I pulled the burner phone from my pocket and dialed his number.

He picked up almost immediately. “Holy sh*t, what the hell happened? Why aren’t you back yet? I’ve been worried.”

“The Shadows, they found me,” I breathed. “I, I managed to get away, I think. I ran into the woods to try to get away from them, and it’s been about an hour since I’ve heard or seen them.”

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“No, no, I’m fine,” I said. “But I don’t know if I can leave. They could be watching this whole town for all I know. And I… God, I’m scared.”

“It’s okay, just hang tight. I’ll come to you.”

“No, don’t. Please, just stay at the house. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I’m coming to get you,” he said. “Nothing you can say will stop me.”

I sighed. “Please, just… be careful.”

“I will, I promise,” he said. “See you soon.” With that, he hung up.

I grabbed whatever food we had left, shoved it all into my backpack, just in case, then left, heading for the town Elijah always went to for food.

They’d found him. I couldn’t believe it. After weeks of safety and security, they’d found him. Oh God, Elijah, please be safe.

I kept to the trees, and even with the added cover, I watched my surroundings like a hawk. ‘Cause there was no way in hell I’d let these guys stop me from getting to Elijah.

The walk into town was excruciatingly long, but I made it.

Once I got to the edge of town, I called Elijah, asking him where he was.

“The middle of the woods,” he answered. “I, I think I passed a Denny’s right before I noticed the trees. I’m somewhere around there, but I don’t wanna risk coming out of my hiding spot. Half the time, I don’t even wanna risk breathing.”

“It’s gonna be okay, Elijah. Stay where you are,” I said. “I’ll find you, I promise.”

“Can you stay on the phone with me while you look?” he asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” I said.

He loosed a breath of relief. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” I said. “So this Denny’s was near the edge of town, right?”

“Yes, it was one of the last things I passed before I ran into the woods,” he answered.

“Okay. Do you remember any buildings that were close to Denny’s?” I asked.

“Um… Oh! I think there was a Starbucks around there,” he said. “And maybe a Taco Bell too.”

“Great.” I scanned my surroundings. “And it looks like there’s a Taco Bell sign not too far away. I’ll head there.”

“Please be careful,” he said. “I don’t think the Shadows have given up yet.”

“Oh, I know they haven’t,” I said. “They’re all very stubborn, and, plus, it sounds to me like they got very close to catching you. They don’t want to go home empty-handed.” I waited a moment, then added, “But I won’t let them lay a finger on you.”

To my surprise, he laughed softly. “My knight in shining armor.”

“I’m not a knight,” I said. “But I am a goddamn nightmare for anyone who messes with you.”

I could tell he was smiling as he said, “Okay, my goth knight in black armor that looks metal as hell.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Alright, that I can accept. I’m still not a knight though.”

I walked in silence for a while, watching my surroundings carefully. I noticed a few groups here and there who did seem a little suspicious. They weren’t really doing anything. They just stood there, looking around. Looking for Elijah.

I stayed as far away from them as I could, hoping that they’d all be too busy looking for Elijah to notice me. It also helped that I, for one, was taller than Elijah by a pretty obvious amount, and, for two, was wearing clothes that didn't look very similar at all to Elijah’s.

When I finally reached the Taco Bell, I did indeed notice a Starbucks nearby. And there, just a few blocks down, it looked like, a sign for Denny’s.

I headed straight for it.

“Okay, I see Denny’s,” I said. “So you ran, like, right past it? Feet away?”

“Yes, feet away,” Elijah answered. “I had to cross a few parking lots and a couple streets, but after that, I was in the woods.”

“Okay, and when you were in the woods, did you turn at all?” I asked.

“No, I zigzagged but I don’t think I turned at all,” he said.

“Alright, great, thank you.”

“Of course,” he said. “I do want you to find me y’know.”

I laughed softly. “Yes, I know, I’m just being polite.”

“You? Polite?” he said, feigning shock.

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.”

“But, hey, in all seriousness, it’s really nice to hear your voice right now,” he murmured.

I couldn't help but smile at the warmth those words brought. “That-” Something slammed into me from behind, cutting me off and knocking me to the ground.

I whirled and scrambled away, finding a few Shadows members, and that the something that had knocked me down was, in fact, someone.

“Well, look who it is,” one of them, I believe his name was Darren, said. “Come to save your Prince Charming, Aiden?”

“Aiden? Aiden?! What’s going on?!” I heard Elijah’s voice through the phone, sitting to my right. 

I picked it up without looking away from the three people before me and said, “Stay hidden, Elijah. No matter what happens, you stay where you are, understand?”

“No. Nononono. Please no.”

“I’ll do what I can,” I said. “But no matter what, you have to make it out of this.”

“No, Aiden, please-”

“Stay. Hidden.” With that, I hung up and stood, raising my fists. 

*    *    *

I fought with wild abandon, and with a savagery I didn’t even know I had in me. I took plenty of hits, and they knocked me down more than once. But I always got back on my feet again. ‘Cause I still needed to get to Elijah.

If they beat me and took me prisoner, Elijah would try to save me. And then likely get caught doing it. Well, that or he’d try to make some sort of deal with them that they’d ultimately end up breaking, because really, all they want is to torture us. Elijah for everything he’d done against the gang and me for betraying the gang and saving his life.

A couple of them managed to grab me and pin me against a wall of the nearest building. And no matter how much I struggled, I wasn’t able to break their grip.

I spat in the face of the man before me. “Bastards,” I snarled. “I’ll kill you all, I swear to-”

Darren punched me in the gut.

“I’m sure Renato will be thrilled when we bring you back,” he said. “The man who killed his father.”

“I didn’t kill his father! Why the hell does everyone think that?!”

“You should take it as a compliment. We think you’re ruthless enough to do something like that,” the man to my right, Tyrrell, I think his name was, said.

It didn’t feel like a compliment to me though, to be branded as a murderer.

Darren pulled a knife out of his pocket and moved to touch the tip to my throat. 

I moved as far back as I possibly could, unable to hold back a wince when the cold metal touched my skin.

“But I don’t think he’ll mind if we have a little fun with you first,” he said, digging the knife in just a little. Enough that I felt a drop of blood drip down my throat.

Bastard,” I breathed. “If I get free, I swear to God, I’ll kill you.”

He smiled. “I’m sure you would,” he said. “Too bad though, you won’t get free. Because you, Aiden, are weak.” Then he looked at Tyrrell and said, “Gimmie his hand.”

I gritted my teeth, fighting to keep my arm pinned to the wall this time. “No,” I growled. But I wasn’t strong enough. Tyrrell yanked my arm and held my hand out to Darren, who moved the knife over my hand.

“Which one should I take off first?” he asked me.

I clamped my mouth shut.

He smiled. “Always so difficult,” he said, “so stubborn.” His smile widened. “I can’t wait to break you.”

I fought my wince this time as he touched the knife to my thumb.

“So, either you’re going to pick a finger, or I will. It’s your choice, Aiden.”

I wouldn’t’ve been able to answer if I wanted to. ‘Cause moments later, there was a loud clang, the sound of metal against skin, and Darren fell to the ground revealing Elijah, armed with a rusting metal rod. There was a rage in his eyes I’d never seen before.

“I suggested you two get the hell away from him,” he said in a quiet but threatening way. “Unless you wanna end up like your friend.”

My captors looked at each other, then down at Darren, whose skull was now caved in due to Elijah’s blow, then back to each other.

No words were spoken, they just let go of me and ran.

Elijah watched them for a moment before sighing in relief and dropping his weapon. He looked down at Darren’s body, a look of horror crossing his features as he realized the man was, in fact, dead.

I grabbed his shoulders, forcing him to face me. “It’s gonna be okay, alright? Come on, we gotta get outta here before they bring their friends.”

His throat bobbed, but he nodded, and I led the way as we, slowly but surely, started back towards home.

I didn’t speak on the way home. I couldn’t. I just kept seeing how that man’s skull was caved in and covered in blood and gore.

Dead. That man was dead, and I had killed him.

I sat down on the couch and looked down at my trembling hands. One of those hands had wielded the weapon that smashed that man’s head in.

“Eli,” Aiden murmured as he sat down beside me. I couldn’t even bring myself to care that he used my nickname. “Is it okay if I…?” He wrapped an arm around my shoulders.

I nodded absently.

“I, uh, I still remember my first kill,” he said. “It’s hard not to, ‘cause it was similar circumstances to yours, actually. I was only thirteen then. But, y’know, life went on and, well, killing, it got easier.” He touched a hand to my cheek and guided my gaze to his. There was such gentleness in his eyes, I couldn’t make myself look away. “But I don’t ever want that to happen to you. So I will do everything in my power to make sure you never have to do that again.”

I bit my lip. My eyes stayed glued to his for a long time before I wrapped my good arm around him and leaned my head against his shoulder.

He was shocked, I knew because it took him a moment to react, wrapping his arms around me too.

I closed my eyes, taking this moment in.

“Eli,” Aiden murmured again.

I only held him tighter.

“I’m here for you, okay?” he said. “If you need anything, tell me, and it’s done.”

“Thank you,” I breathed.

He shook his head. “Thank you for saving my ass earlier.”

I pulled away and managed a small smile. “I told you, I’m not entirely helpless.”

He returned my smile. “I definitely believe it,” he said. “But hey, in all seriousness, I really am grateful for that. If you hadn’t shown up when you did, I’d probably be missing a finger right now.”

“I couldn’t just leave you to die,” I murmured. “I couldn’t live with myself if I had sat in my hiding spot and let those guys torture you.”

It was quiet for a moment, but then he said, “So, what does this make us? ‘Cause I, I mean, you just hugged me, and well, this is new territory, I guess. I just don’t know what to do from here. Are we still just friends, or are we something more?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said.

He laughed softly, then waited a moment and said, “Well, it’s been one hell of a day.” He glanced out the window, and I followed his gaze, finding that it was getting dark. “We should probably go to bed.”

I nodded. “Yeah, we should.” And yet, the thought of being alone in my room, alone with the thoughts swirling around my brain… “Can you… sleep in my room tonight? Not like, in my bed or anything, but, y’know on the floor?” I asked. “I, I can lay my blanket out for you, so you have a bit of a buffer if you want, I just-”

“No, no, it’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to give up your blanket for me; I’ll be fine. And, hey, if you can’t sleep, you let me know, okay? I don’t care if I’m already asleep. Just wake me up. I won’t be mad or anything. This sorta stuff can really screw with your head, and I don’t wanna leave you to face that alone.”

“Thank you,” I murmured.

He gave me a small smile and said, “Anytime, Elijah.” And so I headed into my room and climbed into bed.

Aiden appeared moments later with a pillow and blanket and laid down near the foot of my bed to sleep.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured after a few minutes of silence.

“It’s not a big deal-”

“No, not about that,” I said. “I just… I was an ass to you before a few weeks ago, and all you wanted to do was keep me safe.”

“You were angry then,” he said. “And you had every right to be. I hurt you. I deserved-”

“No, no, stop. You beat yourself up too much,” I interrupted. “You’ve been through so much pain, don’t you think maybe now you deserve something good?”

He sighed deeply, then murmured, “No.”


“I’ve done some really bad things, Elijah,” he said. “Things that are worse than you could imagine.”

“Try me,” I challenged. “I’ve seen plenty of gruesome murders.”

“Yeah? Well have you seen me slit a woman’s throat right in front of her husband? Have you seen me torture a man until he was covered in blood and gore?”

“No, but-”

“Have you seen me hammer a nail into a man’s skull?” he interrupted. “Trust me, Elijah, I don’t deserve an ounce of kindness.”

“Yes you do.”

“Why?” he countered. “Give me one reason.”

“Because when it comes to me, you’d do anything,” I said. “You would’ve gotten yourself kidnapped and tortured today if I hadn’t stepped in. All for me. So there is good in you, Aiden, and it comes out whenever you look at me.”

“Okay, that’s actually really sweet,” he murmured. “And… maybe true. But I still feel awful.”

“I’d be worried if you didn’t,” I said.

He let out a soft sigh. “And this is why I’m in love with you. In case you were ever wondering,” he said. “You saw the good in me when no one else, not even my family, did.”

“Everyone deserves a second look,” I murmured. “Take you, for example. You look tough and even unapproachable, but really, you’re just a big softie who had been deprived of kindness and compassion.”

He laughed softly. “Tough and unapproachable, huh?”

“You were literally sitting in the sunniest area of the park wearing all black. And you had an angry look on your face,” I said. “Yes, you looked tough and unapproachable. But… I don’t know, I just had a feeling you’d be a little different when I got to know you. Don’t judge a book by its cover, y’know?”

He laughed again and murmured, “I love you, Elijah. You always know how to make me feel better.”  

I felt my lips curve into a small smile. 

Only when I heard his breathing change to a deep, even rhythm, did I breathe, “I love you too.”

I couldn’t sleep. Despite Aiden’s presence and the conversation we’d had before bed, I still couldn’t do it.

I knew Aiden would want me to wake him up, and I knew it wouldn’t bother him if I did.  But he hadn’t been asleep for very long at all, and with everything he’d done for me today, he deserved some rest. 

I can handle this, I told myself. I just need… some fresh air. Yeah. 

As quietly as I could, I climbed out of bed and headed to the door. Just as I grabbed the handle, I looked back at where Aiden slept, near the foot of my bed. My chest filled with warmth, and I couldn’t help but smile as I turned back to the door and slipped silently out into the hall.

It was so quiet out here, in the middle of the woods. None of the sounds I was used to hearing in the city. But I found the quiet nice.

I stepped out onto the front porch and sat down on the steps, looking up at the sky. I couldn’t see much of it, thanks to the trees over my head, but I could see stars twinkling between the branches. It was beautiful.

“Should I tell him?” I asked them. “That I love him?”

He’d be thrilled, I knew. But… was it too soon? I mean, technically, we’d never actually started dating again. But I did love him. I realized it the moment he decided to risk his life to come find me earlier.

I sighed, rubbing my thumb over the cast on my arm. “I guess I probably should, huh?” I murmured.

He deserved to know, after all.

I stood and turned back to the door, but a figure stood there.

I stumbled back, grabbing onto the railing to keep myself from falling. The man who stood before me seemed to be wearing all black. Or at least dark enough clothing to look black.

I swallowed hard, taking a few more steps back only to run into another man. I whirled, jumping back. A few more men appeared out of the nearby foliage. Surrounded. I was surrounded.

“I suggest you make this easy on yourself, Elijah.”

I whirled towards the voice, finding the man who’d stood in front of the door now mere feet from me.

“You can’t beat all of us,” he continued. “Certainly not with a broken arm.”

He was right. I couldn’t run, not this time. And if I fought, I’d only get myself hurt. I swallowed hard. “Can we make a deal?”

The man smiled in triumph. “What kind of deal?”

“I’ll go with you back to wherever it is you guys congregate. I won’t fight, you can do whatever you want to me. But in return, you let Aiden go,” I said. “You stop looking for him, and even if you do see him, you don’t lay a hand on him.”

The man hummed thoughtfully. “Well, we could accept your little proposal. Or we could just take you by force and not have to deal with the conditions you made.”

“Just let him go,” I pleaded. “It’s me you want. I’m the one who caused you so much trouble.”

“That is true,” he said. “But unfortunately, my orders are to retrieve both of you.” He motioned to one of the men behind me, and they immediately grabbed me.

I struggled, fighting with everything I had to break free. “No, no! Aide-”

The man shoved a damp cloth over my mouth, cutting me off.

The man who’d spoken to me touched a finger to his ear and said, “We’ve got Elijah. Aiden should be inside. Do you want us to grab him too?”

There was a moment of silence, in which the man smiled, then said, “Will do.”

That was the last thing I remembered before falling into unconsciousness.

*   *    *

I awoke in a cold dark room. No, not a room, a cell.

I had been kidnapped by one of the gangs, likely the Shadows, though there was no way to be sure. 

Whoever they were, they hadn't bothered to give me basic amenities. I had no toilet or even a bed. Hell, they hadn't even given me a goddamn blanket. And they'd removed my cast. I shuddered to think how they'd use my still healing arm to their advantage. Idly, I placed my other arm protectively over it.

And… and Aiden, where was he? Was he okay? Alive?

Oh God, please don't be dead. I didn't know what I'd do if they killed him. I hadn't even told him I loved him. God, I should've just told him last night, before bed. Or I should've woken him up like he told me to. Maybe if I had, we could've gotten away.

I braced my left hand on the ground and slowly got my feet under me, then stepped over to the metal door. “Hey!” I called. “Where the hell am I you bastards?!”

No answer.

I pounded on the door with my fist. “Hey!” I repeated, louder this time. “I know you can hear me, damnit! Tell me where I am! And tell me where you’re keeping Aiden!”

Still, nothing.

I gave the door one final punch filled with pure rage, then went back to the corner I’d awoken in and sat down, again, wrapping my good arm protective around the broken one.

Would I see him again before the end? Would I get the chance to tell me what he meant to me? He deserved to know before he went. I needed him to know. ‘Cause to never be able to tell him… it would haunt me for whatever time I had left, which wasn’t much but… still… for him to never know… No. He will know. I’ll tell him somehow, I’ll find a way. It was the least I could do for getting us into this mess. 

I hadn’t been sitting there for more than five minutes when there was a clang from the other side of the door, like a heavy lock being undone. The door opened on squeaky hinges, and three people entered. One of them, to my surprise, was a woman.

Most of the time, women didn’t end up joining the gangs, at least, not for the purpose that this woman obviously had. But, then again, this woman looked like she could face the devil and come out unscathed.

I swallowed hard as I scanned them.

The one in the middle was obviously the man in charge. He carried himself like a man who was used to giving orders. And having those orders obeyed.

The woman carried herself in a similar manner, perhaps his second in command.

The third one didn’t carry himself quite like the other two, but he didn’t look any less tough and menacing.

“Who are you?” I asked, speaking to the man in the middle. “And where’s Aiden?”

The man laughed softly. “I’m surprised Aiden didn’t tell you about me. My name is Renato. And to answer your other question, Aiden is perfectly safe.” He glanced at a watch on his wrist, an apple watch, it looked like. “He’s probably waking up about this time, actually. It’s only a matter of time before he realizes you’re gone. And once he does, he’ll come crawling back to bargain for your freedom.”

“You’re wrong,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “Am I? Aiden didn’t hesitate to come after you once he knew you were in danger yesterday. Today will be no different.”

“He knows better,” I countered. “He knows you won’t let me go.”

“Even if he does, he’ll still show up,” Renato said. “If not to beg, then to try to break you out. Which, I will assure you, won’t succeed, so don’t bother getting your hopes up.”

I sighed, turning my gaze to the ground. “Look, just… make it quick. Take as long as you want with me, but don’t make him suffer.”

“He killed my father,” Renato growled. “He deserves to suffer.”

“He… he what?”

Renato laughed. “Of course, he didn’t tell you that little tidbit either. My father was the old boss; he chose Aiden as his second in command instead of me. The last mistake he ever made. Aiden poisoned him, killed him, so that he could lead instead. A position that he was never cut out for.”

I shook my head. “Aiden would never do that.”

“Oh really?” Renato countered. “Surely you know some of the awful things he’s done. I doubt poisoning someone is the worst you’ve heard.”

Those confessions from last night rang through my head. Have you seen me slit a woman’s throat right in front of her husband? Have you seen me torture a man until he was covered in blood and gore? Have you seen me hammer a nail into a man’s skull?

Renato smiled. “I thought so.” He turned to go, and the woman wasn’t far behind, but the other man stayed. Renato glanced back and said to him, “He’s yours for the next hour and a half, Deion, make it count.”

I swallowed hard, hearing the door latch shut behind Renato and the woman who I could only assume was Aerona, Renato’s second. Locking me and Deion inside.

He stood there for a long moment, staring at me. “You’re not gonna fight?”

“Fighting will only make it worse,” I murmured. “I’d rather you just do it. Get it over with.”

He took a few steps closer. “You got my brother locked up, y’know that?”

“I got a lotta people locked up,” I said. “It’s my job.”

He was silent for a long time at this, then changed the subject to something completely unrelated to that particular topic. “You really love him, don’t you?”

I didn’t need to ask who he was referring to. I nodded, then sighed and said, “Look man, what do you want from me? You’re locked in here with me for a reason. Is it a revenge thing?”

“No, not really,” he said. “I’m here because I want to know if Aiden is okay. He was my friend, still is, I’d like to think. I just wanna know how he’s doing.”

“Overall, I’d say he’s fine,” I answered. “But I won’t say any more than that.”


“Because I have no way of knowing if you’re really his friend,” I said. “I don’t wanna risk giving up anything that you could use to hurt him.”

He smiled. “Well then, there’s certainly no denying that you have done your best to keep him safe,” he said. “I respect that, and I’m glad he’s had someone looking out for him.”

I didn’t let my guard down. Not for a second. “So, that took about two minutes. What do you plan to do for the next eighty-eight?”

His smile turned a little cold. “My feelings about you, Elijah, are very mixed. On one hand, you got my brother thrown in prison, but on the other, you’ve been there for my friend. So it’s a matter of being loyal to blood or friendship.”

“If you lay a finger on me, Aiden will never forgive you,” I said.

“I know,” he answered. “Which is what makes this decision so difficult. Because my brother would never forgive me if he found out I let you go unpunished. Either way, I lose someone.”

“Somehow, I get the feeling I know where this is going.” I wrapped my good arm a little tighter around my broken one. “Just do me a favor and avoid my broken arm, okay?”

“What makes you think I’m going to hurt you?” he asked, surprising me. He smiled at that, finally catching me off guard. “This may surprise you, but Aiden was kinder to me than my brother ever was. And to me, blood is nothing compared to that.”

I swallowed hard. “You… mean that? ‘Cause I don’t wanna be toyed with. If you’re gonna torture me, just do it. Please.”

He shook his head. “I’m not gonna torture you. You’ve been kind to my friend. However, I am gonna need you to help me out.”

“Okay… what do you need?”

“If I don’t come out of here with some information for Renato, he’ll get suspicious and probably have me killed,” he said. “So, I need you to give me some false information regarding Aiden. Something that could leave him vulnerable if it was true, y’know? Personal information.”

I nodded. “And you just want me to make some up?”


“Okay. Yeah. I can do that.”

No, nonononono! This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening!

Those were the only thoughts going through my head as I frantically searched the house, calling out Elijah’s name.

I hadn’t been worried when I awoke to find that Elijah wasn’t in his bed. Naturally, I’d just assumed he’d gotten up before me and was in the living room or the kitchen. It was when I hadn’t found him in either of those places that I began to panic, which led me to this point.

Running through the house, opening every closed door, even the closets. But he wasn’t here. “No, no, please,” I breathed.

I hurried out the door, not even bothering to put on my shoes as I ran around the house and to the trails.

“Elijah!” I yelled, taking the right path. “Elijah, please, tell me you’re out here!”

It felt like hours before I finally reached the river and the tree where I had shown him my artwork, though I knew it couldn’t’ve been more than twenty minutes. I’d ran all the way here and now bent over my knees, panting.

“Elijah… Elijah, please…. tell me you’re up there?”

No response.

My heart sank, and I fell to my knees, putting my head in my hands. “No.” Because, really, the only explanation for his absence was that one of the gangs had taken him. Though, why they hadn’t grabbed me as well, I wasn’t sure.

Maybe they wanted me to suffer as much as possible. It seemed fairly likely, especially if Renato was the one who found him. He truly believed I had killed his father, and I was sure he was itching to make me pay. And I had a feeling he’d do it by killing Elijah.

I couldn’t let it happen. Somehow, I had to find a way to get him out.

But I couldn’t do it alone. I wasn’t dumb enough to think I could bargain for his life, and I certainly wasn’t dumb enough to think I could break in without help.

But who would help me? Certainly none of my friends within the gang. Even if they wanted to, it was way too risky for them.

But what about my family? My mother was out of the question, I hadn’t spoken to her in years, and my father was six feet under. But my brother… 

I looked up.

It would be risky. I hadn’t spoken to my brother in a very long time, nearly as long as I’ve been distant from our mother. He’d taken a similar road I had, but his had held more bloodshed and violence. Brutality.

I swallowed hard, then stood and pulled my phone out of my pocket and dialed his number.

He took a long time to pick up, probably deciding whether or not he cared to. “Aiden,” he said. “Finally decided to come crawling back?”

“We both know that’s not why I called,” I said.

“No, I guess it’s not. But, I’m sure it does have something to do with how your picture is being displayed all over the news. Need some help, brother?”

I sighed deeply. “Yes, I need your help, Alex.”

He laughed softly. He loved power, in whatever way he could get it, so I knew it must’ve been so satisfying for him to hear me admit it.

“Alright then.” There was a brief pause, and then the shuffling of papers, and he said, “Unfortunately, my schedule is very busy for the next couple days. So whatever this is will have to wait. I will contact you in a few days.”

“Wait,” I said before he could hang up.

He sighed deeply. “Yes?” 

“Is there any way you can make time to meet today?” I asked. “I, I need your help now.”

He laughed again. “Careful, you don’t wanna sound too desperate.”

“I am desperate, damnit,” I said. “Please, is there any way you can make time today?”

There was more shuffling and then a sigh. “Sorry, but I really don’t have time today.” My heart sank, but then he added, “However, I can make time tomorrow.”

“Great, what time?” I asked, trying not to sound as relieved as I felt.

“Just give me your address,” he said. “I’ll show up whenever I can.”

“Like hell I’m giving you my address.”

“Okay then,” he said. “I guess you better find someone else to help you. Next time, just don’t bother wasting my time.”

“Waitwaitwaitwaitwait!” I cried. 

There was a long, suffering sigh, and then Alex said, “What?”

“I’ll give you my address; just promise me you’ll get here tomorrow,” I said.

“Okay, I promise, I’ll get there tomorrow. Now, address.”

I relayed it to him, explaining that my house was in the middle of the woods and only accessible by dirt road. It was risky, I knew. Even riskier than asking for his help. But I didn’t exactly have much choice.

“Perfect,” he said. “See you tomorrow, Aiden.” And with that, he hung up.

I couldn’t help but flinch at the way he said my name. A threat. It sounded like a threat. And it reminded me that this most certainly would cost me something. Alex didn’t do favors just for the hell of it. So in order for him to help me, I’d have to find some way to make it worth his while.

I swallowed hard. 

I didn’t exactly have much to offer. Money was certainly off the table since, well, I no longer had any, save what I’d brought in my backpack, and that was normally what I traded in. But maybe he already had something in mind.

 If he did, I was sure it was something I’d regret later, but if it could save Elijah, it was well worth it.

I’m gonna get you out of there, Elijah. No matter what it takes.

They didn’t bother to feed me. And no one answered when I banged on the door and complained. Well, save another prisoner, who told me not to bother.

“Trust me, they never answer,” the prisoner said.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Name’s Ryan,” he said. “You?”

“Elijah,” I answered.

“Elijah Hall, I’m guessing.”

“Am I really that well known around here?” I asked.

“‘Course,” he said. “Anyone who’s been in one of the gangs knows your name. Honestly, I can’t believe they finally got you. I thought you might stay just outta their reach forever.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Not much longer than you,” he supplied. “Only a day or so.”

“And why are you here?”

“Went AWOL,” he said. “My brother and I, we just weren’t cut out for this crowd. So we ran. Tried to get out of state. Didn’t go so well.”

“Is he here too?” I asked. “Your brother?”

“Not as far as I know,” he said. “I bought him time to get away, so I’m hoping he’s long gone by now.” He waited a moment, then added, “And what about you? I heard you say something about the old boss yesterday. Aiden. Everyone was pissed at him because he saved your life. What’s the story with you two?”

“Complicated,” I said. “At least, it was weeks ago, when this whole thing started. But I guess it’s simpler now.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?” he asked.

“Because I realized and accepted that I love him,” I said.

There was a long, stunned silence, then Ryan said, “Oh. I never even considered… Damn. That’s crazy.”

“Trust me, I know.”

“Well, for his sake, I hope he stays away,” Ryan said. “Renato hates him for what he did to his dad. And I can’t really blame him. I’d be pretty pissed off too. He’ll use you to hurt him.”

“I know, and I’m sure Aiden does too,” I said. “But I also know that he’ll do whatever it takes to save me, and I’m worried about where that might lead him.”

“Well, I wish you both luck,” he said. “‘Cause it’s over for me. My execution’s tomorrow.”

“Oh. I… I’m sorry.”

He sighed. “Yeah.” 

“Aren’t you, y’know, scared?” I asked.

“Oh, you bet your ass I am,” he said. “But… my brother… he’d just turned eighteen, and I just wanted him to get a chance to live his life, y’know?”

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked. “Any way I could convince them to let you go?”

There was a brief pause, and then, “You’re a good man, Elijah. If you ever make it outta here, find my brother, his name’s Luke Jones. And tell him that I said he needs to make it. That he needs to find something out there that he likes and to go for it. Give the world hell. Can you do that for me?”

“Of course,” I said.

There was another short pause, and then Ryan said, his voice cracking a little, “Thank you.”

“I’ll fight for you, too,” I told him. “Even if it doesn’t amount to anything, I’ll do what I can for you.” 

“That’s very kind of you,” he said. “But I wouldn’t waste your breath.”

I gave a small smile, though he couldn’t see it. “I think we both know I’m going to disregard that statement.”

He laughed softly. “Well, thank you. It’s a nice gesture, even if it doesn’t amount to anything. And if somehow, it does work, I’ll definitely owe you.”

“You wouldn’t owe me anything, but if it makes you feel better, that’s fine with me,” I said.

There was a long pause, then he asked, “Why are you so… nice? I mean, you risk so much for people you barely know and ask for nothing in return. Why?”

I hesitated a moment. “I don’t know. Some people are born good, I guess.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

With that, I went and sat back down in my corner.

I don’t know why I lied to him. Actually, scratch that, I knew exactly why I lied to him. Because I was not ready to share that particular piece of information. Not with anyone. Even Aiden.

I still could hardly think back on the whole thing without getting intense feelings of anxiety and dread, so talking about it was out of the question. Especially here, where word would undoubtedly find its way to Renato, and then he could use that information to tear me apart.

A simple beating, I could take, I had learned how to over the years, though even those would likely have psychological repercussions. But if Renato knew, he’d go beyond that. He’d use it to attack my mind. My soul. And it would break me.

A room flashed before my eyes. The same white walls and brown floor as the hallway. It had been my room, once, years ago, but it had felt more like a prison. I hadn’t been allowed to paint the walls. Hell, I hadn’t even been allowed to decorate them with anything. No posters, no stickers, nothing. Everything had to be clean and perfect. At least that’s what I’d always been told.

I was sitting on my bed. It was just an ordinary, blue bed, and the mattress had countless yellow stains from when I’d peed the bed, but was too afraid to tell anyone. And it was nothing like the race car beds kids from my school were talking about. No, those were too ‘over the top’ and ‘didn’t fit the house’s aesthetic.’ Whatever that meant.

And then I heard those familiar heavy boots coming down the hallway, towards my room.

I knew what that meant, but I also knew there was nothing I could do. 

I tucked my knees to my chest, beginning to hyperventilate. But when those footsteps got to my door, instead of the usual slight click of the doorknob, I heard a loud, metal clang.

Just like that, my room was gone, and I was back in my cell.

Sh*t. Stupid flashbacks.

I tried to steady my breathing as the door squeaked open and a man I didn’t recognize entered the room. “The hell do you want?”

He smiled. “Temper, temper,” he said, stepping further into the room. “We actually just happened to hear you talking with another prisoner, and, frankly, we didn’t like what was being said.”

It was then that two more men entered the room. One of them held a gun to the other’s head.

“So,” the first man continued, “we figured we’d move up his execution to make it clear that this won’t be happening again.”

I shook my head. “No. Nononono. Wait.” I swallowed hard. “I’ll never do it again; just let him go. Let him get back to his brother. I swear on my life, if you let him go, I’ll stay quiet. You won’t ever have to hear me again.”

The man’s smile widened. “Oh, you’re going to be quiet either way, I can assure you,” he said. “‘Cause if you don’t…” he stepped aside and motioned towards Ryan and the man who held him.

The man who held him pointed the gun at his leg and pulled the trigger.

The bang was deafening, muffling my voice as I got to my feet and cried, “No!”

Ryan cried out and collapsed to the floor.

“You bastards!” I ran for the man who shot him, but I hadn’t taken more than two steps before the other one grabbed me and shoved me against the wall. He took my broken arm in his hand and yanked it behind my back, and I screamed at the white-hot agony that shot through me.

But even through the pain, I managed to turn my head just enough to see Ryan, now pushing himself onto his hands and knees.

“Just let him go,” I said to the man with the gun. “He doesn’t deserve this.”

More pain shot through my arm, and I cried out once again.

“Stop, Elijah,” Ryan rasped. “Don’t do this for my sake.”


“They were gonna kill me anyway,” he interrupted. “I’m just glad I got to talk to you before the end. Talking with you actually helped me make peace with everything.”

I could only watch as the man pressed the gun against Ryan’s head, but I squeezed my eyes shut just before he pulled the trigger, unable to watch.

Only when my ears stopped ringing was I finally released.

I couldn’t watch as the men dragged Ryan’s lifeless body from the room, but once they were gone, I murmured, “I’ll find your brother, Ryan. I don’t care if it kills me. I swear, I will find some way to pass your message along to him.”

I didn’t bother trying to sleep that night. Instead, I just sat on the couch, fighting the urge to grab a drink from the fridge. No amount of alcohol could numb this pain anyway, I told myself. I knew it was true. It’d take something much stronger than a few drinks to dull this sort of pain. And, of course, I did know how to get my hands on such things. However, Elijah would kill me if I did something like that. Especially if I got myself addicted. So that was absolutely out of the question.

Still, as I sat there, staring at nothing, I couldn’t help but wish I had something to distract me. The house was so quiet without him here, and even if I turned on the TV, it never distracted me for very long. My thoughts always found their way back to him.

Elijah, where are you? Are you okay? Have they hurt you?

I, of course, got no response, but I didn’t really need one. I knew the answer to all of those questions.

All prisoners were kept in a secret underground area in the main base, accessible only by an elevator. The door leading to the dungeon, I guess you could call it, was always locked and could only be opened with a retina scan.

He was most certainly not okay. No one would be in his situation. And I was almost positive they would’ve hurt him by now. Renato would never kill him, not without me being there to witness it, but there was nothing stopping him from torturing him. And Elijah already had that broken arm. Renato would certainly use that to his advantage.

God, the pain he must be in…

He didn’t deserve this. Elijah had done only good for the world, and yet he had to suffer. And I couldn’t help but feel like it was all my fault. Because surely there was something I could’ve done to stop it. I should’ve been on my guard, especially after the Shadows had found Elijah earlier that day and nearly captured me.

But… there was just something about him that always seemed to disarm me. Something in the way he looked at me, and the way he spoke to me. 

He’d so casually dismissed those things I’d confessed to. He knew what sort of monster I could be, and yet, he wasn’t afraid of me. He trusted me.

And what did I do with that trust? Let him get kidnapped. Not willingly, but I should’ve been more careful. I should’ve just stayed up with him, at least until he fell asleep. Instead, I’d gone to bed, and he’d been kidnapped.

I sighed and rubbed at my face with my hands. God, why did I have to be such an idiot?

I sat there all night and about half of the morning before I heard a knock at the door. I stood abruptly, nearly running to open it, but then I remembered who, exactly, I was dealing with, and instead calmly walked.

Alex knew I was desperate, but I didn’t want him to have any more proof of that particular fact. ‘Cause the more desperate I appeared, the more he would demand of me.

When I opened the door, I found that Alex indeed stood there, but he’d also brought two other men with him. “You didn’t tell me you were bringing friends,” I said by way of greeting.

He shrugged. “You didn’t demand I come alone. In fact, let’s be honest here, Aiden, you’re in no position to demand anything from me.” 

He was right, of course.

I sighed and muttered, “Whatever, let’s just get this over with.” Then stepped aside to let him through.

“Wait here,” he said to the men behind him.

They didn’t answer, only took up positions on either side of the door while he came inside, closing the door behind him.

“Let’s sit,” he said. He didn’t bother waiting for my response, just took a seat in a chair to the left of the coffee table, while I sat down on the couch.

“So, I guess we should probably start with what do you need from me,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

“I need your help getting Elijah Hall out of the gang’s prison,” I answered. “They captured him yesterday.”

“And you know where this prison is?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I know where it is, what you need to get in, everything.”

He was quiet for a moment, clearly thinking about something. “What is he to you, Aiden?” he said. “‘Cause I don’t think I’ve ever seen you act so unselfishly. I mean, calling me of all people, for help… You’re obviously desperate. And for you to be so concerned about this man’s safety…”

“He’s a friend.”

Alex smirked at me. “A friend? Really, Aiden? We both know you wouldn’t do this for just a friend.” He waited a beat, then added, “You love him, don’t you?”

I willed my face to remain blank. “No,” I said. “He’s a friend. Nothing more.” I couldn’t let him know what Elijah meant to me. ‘Cause if he knew, he’d use it to his advantage, if not now, then in the future.

But he wasn’t fooled. “You’re a terrible liar.”

I sighed, turning my gaze to the ground. “What do you want?”

“I’m glad you asked,” he said, sounding so self-satisfied it was an effort not to get up and sock him right in the jaw. “All I want in return for saving your lover is simply a favor.”

“What sort of favor?” I questioned, meeting his gaze again.

He crossed an ankle over a knee. “Basically, I want you to work for me for an extended period of time,” he said.

“How long?” I asked.

“Anywhere from six months to a year.”

I couldn’t help but wince, making him laugh softly.

“What’s wrong, Aiden? Are you afraid?” he taunted. “I think it’ll be interesting, being in charge of you. Especially after everything you’ve done.”

I sighed. “Look, just swear to me that you won’t bring Elijah into this, and then we have a deal.”

He smiled in triumph. “Alright, fine, I swear I won’t get Elijah caught up in this. Now, deal?”

I nodded. “Deal.”

“Perfect,” he said. “Now for the actual planning. Tell me everything you know about where Elijah’s being kept.”

I did so, not leaving out a single detail, though I also made sure he knew that they were likely taking extra precautions in expectation of a rescue.

“Of course,” he said. “But you don’t need to worry about that. My men can take care of it.”

“So, that’s it then?” I asked. “That’s all you need?”

“Well… there is one more thing,” he said, standing up. 

I stood too, watching as, without a word, he turned and went over to the door, knocking three times. He then moved out of the way, and the door burst open; the two men who’d been waiting came inside. They ran right for me.

“Hey, hey! What the hell is this?!” I shouted as they grabbed me and shoved me face-first against a wall. I felt a sharp pain just below the back of my neck that had me crying out.

Goddamnit, Alex! What the hell did you just do to me?!”

“You’re naive, brother. Too trusting,” he said, the smile in his voice unmistakable. No. No, no, no. “The Immortal Shadows, as they call themselves now, can offer me much more than you can, Aiden. And their asking price is simply, handing you over to them.”

“You bastard!” I shoved hard, managing to break free of my captors, and whirled towards my brother, trying so hard to punch that stupid smile off his face. But my limbs were slow and heavy thanks to whatever he’d injected into me. He easily evaded me, and then his bodyguards grabbed me.

“I’ll kill you,” I snarled, even as my knees gave out. “I swear to God, I’ll kill you.”

He shook his head. “Come on, Aiden. We both know that once I hand you over, you won’t be alive for longer than a few days.” And then he said to the guards without looking away from me, “Make sure he’s secure before you get him in the car.” He gave a triumphant smile. “Wouldn’t want him to slip away on us.”

“I’ll kill you,” I said again.

His smile never faltered. “No. You won’t.”

I awoke what might’ve been minutes or hours later, hogtied and gagged, in the back of what looked to be a van.

I blinked hard, trying to clear my vision, and looked around. There were four men in here with me, sitting on benches that had been built into the van. I recognized two of them as the bodyguards who had attacked me earlier. The other two, I didn’t know.

It wasn’t long before one of them noticed I was awake. He elbowed his buddy next to him, saying, “Hey, look who’s up.”

All four of them turned to me.

I was virtually defenseless, and I knew it. But I still managed to muster a glare of pure hatred, making a couple of them laugh.

“You think you’re all big and bad, huh?” one of them said. “Well, lemme tell you something, bud; you’re not. Everything you’ve done, all those things that make you ‘ruthless,’ that’s child’s play.”

I gritted my teeth, fighting to turn my hands just a little. And to get one finger in the air.

He laughed. “Well, you are one stubborn bastard, I’ll give you that.”

And then the van jerked to a stop.

The men immediately stood and hauled me to my feet. I fought them, even though I knew it was stupid. Pointless. And, sure enough, all my efforts bought me was the butt of a rifle to the gut.

They dragged me out of the van and into a darkened alley, where I found my brother conversing with a group of three men. One of which I recognized as Renato. 

He smiled when he saw me.

Renato and Alex exchanged a few more words, then a large briefcase. After this, Alex motioned towards me, a gesture that seemed to say, he’s all yours.

Renato stepped forward, and his guards seemed to take this as their cue to grab me. Satisfied that I was now Renato’s problem, my brother left along with his guards.

You piece of sh*t! You goddamn bastard! You- Those insults played over and over in my head, and I wished so badly to scream them at him as he walked away from me. 

His brother. I was his brother, and yet he left me here to die.

Renato touched a finger to my chin, tilting my head up just an inch or two. “My father’s killer, finally being brought to justice.”

I didn’t kill him! I wanted to scream. How can you not understand?!

“Bring him inside,” he said to the guards. “And make sure he’s in the cell with Elijah. I want him to watch while we kill him.”

*    *    *

I was shoved into a cell and hit the floor with an oomph. They hadn’t bothered to untie me.

“Aiden!” Hearing his voice… God, it felt like a balm. But knowing that he was here, that we were both trapped with no hope of escape… that hurt.

He was kneeling beside me in an instant and pulling the gag from my mouth.

“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, but he only shushed me gently and untied my hands and feet.

Once I was free, I sat up and wrapped my arms tightly around him. “I’m sorry,” I said again. “I, I tried to get help, but my brother he, he sold me out. I-”

He shushed me again. “It’s okay. None of this was your fault.”

I shook my head. “I should’ve known, I should’ve been more careful-”

“Aiden, stop,” he said, running gentle fingers over my back. “It isn’t your fault. It’s mine. Because I didn’t wake you up like you told me to. I went and sat outside instead, and then the Shadows found me.”

“It’s not your fault either,” I said. “You had no way of knowing that this would happen.” Our words were falling out in a scatter of what needed to be said in these final moments. Stiff, awkward. Because the sentiment he deserved was dampened by this cold dark cell and the dread pressing down on our shoulders. “And apparently, they’re called the Immortal Shadows now. I think maybe the two gangs have banded together.”

He pulled away a little, taking my face in his hands. “Well, now that we’re totally screwed, I think now is a good time to say that I love you very much,” he said. “And I truly mean that, Aiden. I’m not just saying it to make you happy.”

My heart swelled at those words. “Thank you,” I murmured. “I’m glad I can know before… well…”

He nodded.

I sighed, looking away. “They’re gonna kill you first,” I breathed. “They’re gonna make me watch.”

“I know,” he said. “Renato, he hates you for what you did to his dad-”

I jerked away at that, the movement violent enough that Elijah moved back as well. 

“What?” he asked.

“What they told you is a lie,” I said.

“So you didn’t kill him?”

“No. God, no. He was a decent guy; I respected him,” I said. “Renato just wants to blame me because his father chose me as his second instead of him.”

“Oh, okay.”

“You… believe me?” I asked.

“Well, I mean, yeah,” he said, a little confused. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“It’s just that… most people tend to think I did it. I, I just thought that you might’ve been like them.”

At this, he gave a small smile. “Well, most people, Aiden, don’t know you like I do.”

“Well, still, thank you for believing me,” I murmured, my cheeks heating a little.

He came over to me again and wrapped me in a gentle embrace.

“So… how have you been?” I asked. “I mean, I understand, not great, but have they hurt you?”

“I wish I could say they didn’t,” he murmured. 

I could tell by the pain in his voice that whatever he’d gone through in the short time he’d been here had been awful. 

“They killed a man in front of me,” he breathed. “His name was Ryan. He, he had gotten himself caught to protect his brother, Luke Jones. He asked me, if I ever got out, to deliver a message to him.”

I held him tighter, rubbing a hand over his back. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

He leaned his head against my shoulder, just like he used to before everything went to sh*t. When we’d sit there on the couch, not a care in the world, and just hold each other. I missed those days.

“I wish things could go back to how they were,” I murmured. “I wish I never would’ve left you. We would’ve got married. And I wouldn’t’ve minded trying to adopt a kid. I know it’s harder for us, but I still would’ve liked to at least try.”

“I would’ve liked that too,” he said. “I would’ve liked that a lot.”

I loosed a breath. “How’s your arm?” I asked. “I noticed they took off your cast.”

“Yeah, I’ve been trying to keep it in the same position as the cast would have, but I don’t know how well that’s working,” he said. “They messed with it a little bit, when they killed Ryan, but other than that, no one’s touched me.”


“I talked with Deion.”

I pulled away at that. Deion. My friend. The man who had warned me about leaked footage of me and Elijah. The man who had saved both of our lives. Or, bought us time, I suppose. “What did he say?”

“He was just wondering how you were,” he said. “He told me he was your friend, but I wasn’t sure if he was just trying to get some personal information about you, so I just gave him a vague response.”

“He’s my friend. Or, was, at least,” I said. “Did he hurt you?”

“No, no. He didn’t lay a hand on me. All he wanted was to know how you were.”

“Good,” I said.

After a moment of silence, I took his face in my hands. Stared into his beautiful brown eyes.

He gave a small smile and touched a hand to the back of my head, pressing my forehead to his.

“I love you,” I breathed.

“I love you too. And I know this isn’t exactly how you would’ve envisioned it, but I, uh, I wouldn’t mind kissing you, at least one more time, before we die.”

I gave him a small smile. “This isn’t how I envisioned it at all,” I said. “But I wouldn’t mind kissing you either. At least one more time.”

He laughed softly, the warmth of it caressing my skin. And then he leaned in, and his lips touched mine.

The kiss was tentative at first. Light, but sweet. This feeling, how his lips felt against mine, how his hands felt against my skin and in my hair, it was utterly familiar and yet different somehow.

Ultimately, it was Elijah who decided to be a little bolder, pressing me against a wall.

I laughed softly and pulled him into my lap, kissing him hard. If we hadn’t been locked in this cell, things might’ve escalated from here. But instead, he pulled away, a small smile on his lips. “That was nice.”

“That’s all you have to say about it?”

“Well, I mean, it wasn’t the best kiss I’ve ever had, but it was definitely somethin’,” he said, his smile turning to a grin.

I rolled my eyes and muttered, “Whatever.”

“I’m just teasing you,” he murmured, leaning his head against my shoulder. “The kiss was incredible.”

I smiled and said, “I know,” making him laugh. I wrapped my arms around him, tucking him in closer.

“Are you worried?” he asked. “About what they might think?”

“I don’t give a sh*t what they think,” I said. “We’re gonna die fairly soon. I’ll be damned if I let you out of my arms for even a second.”

“Good,” he murmured. “‘Cause I don’t think I ever wanna leave. You’re just so damn warm.”

I let out a soft laugh but pushed him away a few inches to scan his face. “You should try to sleep,” I said. “You look tired.”

He sighed at this, looking away. “Yeah, I probably should.”

He leaned against my chest once again, and I murmured, “I’ll be here with you, Elijah. Up until the very end. I promise.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m just not ready to leave this world yet. I’m not ready to leave you.”

“Me neither,” I murmured. “But I’ll find you again somehow. In the next world, the next life, I will find you again.”

“That’s comforting,” he said, making me laugh.

“That was kinda the point,” I replied. “Now get some sleep. You need it.”

He didn’t say anything more, and eventually, his breathing changed to a deep, even rhythm. And I just sat there, holding tight to him. Memorizing everything about this moment, knowing that it was the last one we’d ever share that was quite like this.

Never again would I be able to hold him as he fell asleep in my arms.

I touched a feather-light hand to his cheek, smiling down at his sleeping form. He looked so peaceful. And I wondered how anyone could hate him, how anyone could want to hurt him. He was the kindest, most selfless man I’d ever met. When I first met him, years ago, he changed my world for the better. He helped me see the good in it. For him, everyone deserved kindness, and I never realized how starved I was for it until he came along.

I sighed, rubbing my thumb over his cheek. “You were always so good to me, Eli,” I breathed. “You deserve better than this.”

I awoke to the cell door squeaking open.

Elijah jerked awake in my arms, likely hearing it too, and I held him tighter, running a gentle hand over his back to calm him.

It was Renato and two of his guards that stepped inside. His lip curled a little in what I took to be disgust when he saw Elijah and I.

I bared my teeth, holding Elijah tighter.

He pulled a pistol from the utility belt at his waist and pointed it right at Eli. “Hand him over,” he ordered.

“I think you’d be better off killing me right now,” I said. “‘Cause I’m not letting him go.”

“Maybe I will.” But he kept the gun on Elijah, even stepped a little closer. Close enough that the pistol was only a few inches from his head.

“You’re gonna kill him anyway,” I said. “And I’d rather him die in my arms than in theirs.” I motioned towards the two guards with my head. 

Renato glanced back at them.

That was all Elijah needed, apparently. I’d swear I didn’t even see him move. One moment, he’s glaring down the barrel of a gun, the next, the gun’s in his hand and pointed right at Renato’s head.

We got to our feet, and he grabbed Renato, using him as a shield for us both as he pressed the gun against his temple.

“Holy sh*t,” I said. “You didn’t tell me you could do that.”

He shrugged, not taking his eyes off the two guards, who had now raised their rifles. “I was gonna become a cop, before I decided on a last-second career change. I learned a few things.”

Damn. All this time I thought you were practically defenseless.”

“Well, you technically weren’t wrong,” he said. “That little trick is about all I know in terms of self-defense.”

I grabbed the knife from Renato’s utility belt, pressing it against his throat and grabbing him. “I got him,” I said. “You focus on the other two.”

“You bastards-” Renato snarled, but I pressed the knife a little harder against his throat, cutting him off.

“You’ll suffer for this, both of you.”

“Shut up,” I hissed.

Elijah pointed his gun at the two guards. “Either of you make a move, and your boss is dead, understand?”

One of the guards gave a curt nod.

“Good, now drop your weapons over there.” He motioned to the left side of the room with the gun.

They didn’t move.

“Do it!” I snarled. “I’ll kill him! I swear to God!”

At this, they finally did as we said, dropping their rifles and kicking them to the left.

“Knives too,” I ordered.

They each tossed a few different knives on top of the cache.

“Good,” Elijah said. He kicked the rope they’d used to bind my hands and feet over to them, then pointed his gun at the one on the right. “You, tie up your friend,” he ordered.

“We’re gonna need to hurry this along,” I murmured to him as the guard reluctantly got to work binding his friend’s hands.

“Trust me, I know,” he answered.

Renato slammed his elbow into my gut, forcing me to loosen my grip. He grabbed at the knife, trying to pry it from my fingers while I wrapped an arm around his throat.

The guards were frozen, looking between Renato and Elijah, likely trying to determine whether or not they should jump in to help.

Ultimately, they decided yes. They ran for their boss’ rescue, grabbing my arms and pulling me off of him.

A loud bang sounded as I was pushed against the wall, and I watched as Renato fell, clutching at his chest.

I turned to Elijah in disbelief, watching as he then pointed the gun at the guards holding me. “Let him go,” he ordered, his voice low, threatening. “Or you’re next.”

One of them lifted the knife they’d ripped from my grasp to my throat.

Another bang sounded, and then that man was on the ground, a hole in his forehead.

The other man’s throat bobbed, and he lifted his hands, slowly stepping away from me. Elijah kept his gun on the man as he slowly backed up against the opposite wall. But then his eyes widened.

“No! No!” he shouted, moving towards me.

I realized why a second too late. A bullet from the rifle in Renato’s hands embedded itself in my abdomen.

I looked down in horror, watching as blood gushed from the wound.

Another gunshot might’ve sounded, maybe even two. And then Elijah was there, wrapping an arm around me. “Come on. We gotta go,” he said. “Right now.”

But we only made it a few steps before the door was open again, and a group of what had to be at least a dozen men entered. All of them carried rifles and had bulletproof vests.

Eli sighed in defeat. “Sh*t.”

“We had a good run,” I rasped. “We almost made it.”

“We did,” he murmured. “We did.”

But then the group stepped aside to reveal Alex.

“What the hell?” I breathed as he stepped forward. Elijah stiffened beside me, but my brother only held out a hand.

“We’re here to help,” he said.

Bastard,” I snarled. I would’ve loved to punch that stupid smile off his face. But honestly, I could barely hold my weight. Any punch I threw would certainly be off-target. “Sell me out, then show up here and act like the hero. Goddamnit.”

Elijah glanced at me, then at Alex’s hand. He didn’t take it. “Who are you?”

Alex, noting that Elijah clearly wasn’t going to shake hands, dropped his and said, “I’m Aiden’s brother, Alex. Now, I suggest we hurry up and get out of here. There are a few bombs set to go off in…” He checked what must’ve been a timer on his wrist. “About three minutes.”

“Holy sh*t! Three minutes?!”

“Yes, which is why we need to hurry.” He wrapped my other arm around his shoulder. “Come on, my men will cover us.”

“You asshole,” I growled.

“I needed you to believe it,” he said. “That way, Renato wouldn’t suspect anything. Also, just a heads up, I injected a tracker in you earlier, just below your skin. So that we could find exactly which cell you were being kept in.”

“If I wasn’t about to die right now-”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said. “You’d make the worst mistake of your life and try to kill me. Just shut up and let me help you, okay?”

“I hate you,” I snarled, but ultimately, did as he said.

We hurried through the halls, Adien practically a dead weight between mine and Alex’s shoulders.

“You do know where we’re going, right?” I asked Alex.

“Of course,” he said. “Trust me, we planned this for hours. There is no way-”

He was interrupted by a deafening boom. The entire building shook, making me lose my balance. I hit the ground with an oomph, hearing Aiden’s cry of pain, likely as he too, fell.

Only when my ears stopped ringing did I slowly push myself up onto my elbows, finding that the dozen men around me had fallen as well. 

They seemed to be dazed, though some were rising up onto their elbows like I was.

I managed to rise up onto my hands and knees and crawl towards Aiden, who laid motionless only a few feet from me. “Aiden,” I rasped, touching a hand to his cheek.

He groaned, his eyes fluttering open. “What happened?”

“I… I don’t know. I think one of the bombs might’ve went off early. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” he said. “I'm okay.” He tried to sit up but immediately groaned, wincing.

“Hey, shh, shh,” I murmured, gently pulling his head into my lap. “It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna make it through this. I promise.”

I looked around, watching as some of the men around me managed to get to their feet, helping some of their comrades around them. Alex was among one of the men standing, and when he noticed Aiden and I, he hurried over. I’d swear he looked worried.

“What happened?” I asked him.

“What do you think? One of the bombs went off,” he said. “We think some of the Immortal Shadows found it and tried to disarm it, but failed, obviously. Thanks to the explosion, the exit we had planned to take is now blocked. Ask Aiden if he knows another way around.”

I did so, and Aiden managed to lift his head to look around, but I didn’t see any recognition in his eyes. Either he’d never been in the particular hall, or he’d lost too much blood to fully comprehend where we were.

“I don’t think he knows,” I said.

Alex sighed deeply. “Well, then sit tight, I guess. I’ll get some teams together to figure out where we need to go from here.”

I nodded.

“You’re gonna want to keep pressure on that,” he said, motioning to Aiden’s wound.

“Right, right,” I said, quickly placing both of my hands over Aiden’s blood-covered abdomen. 

He gritted his teeth, letting out a groan.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” I murmured, hearing Alex walk away and begin to shout out orders.

He opened his eyes once again, his gaze locking onto mine. I nearly winced hearing his pained breaths. “I love you, Elijah. So much.”

“Don’t talk like that,” I said. “We’re gonna make it. I know we are.”

He managed a small smile. “What? You don’t love me back?”

I sighed. “I love you too. So much. Which is why I need you to stay with me, alright? Just keep looking at me.”

He nodded.

“And once we’re done with all of this. Once we’re out of here, and once you’re healed, we’ll celebrate, okay?” I said. “We’ll go get ice cream or something. How does that sound?”

“Good, just as long as I can have my usual five toppings.”

I laughed softly. “Get as many toppings as you want. You’ve earned that at the very least.”

He gave a small smile and reached out, touching a hand to my cheek. “I won’t stop fighting for us, Eli. I’ll fight even if it doesn’t matter. Even if I die here, I’m gonna make damn sure I spend as many moments as I can with you.” He winced as he finished, letting out a small cry of pain.

I shushed him gently, and murmured, “God, you’re so damn sweet.” Only with me, I knew, would he ever act this way. So kind and sweet, and with that softness in his features. I leaned over and pressed a kiss to his cheek, and when I rightened again, I found that his smile had widened.

I opened my mouth to speak, but I heard a commotion behind me and instead turned.

A group of three men had returned from scouting out possible routes, dragging a man with them. They tossed him at Alex’s feet.

“What is this?” Alex demanded. “You’re supposed to be finding a way out of here, not taking prisoners.”

“He says he can get us out, sir,” one of them answered.

The man rose up onto his elbows, and I realized I recognized him. It was Deion, Aiden’s friend.

Alex sighed. “We don’t have time for this. He’s obviously going to lie to us and get us killed. Just get rid of him and keep looking.”

“Wait!” I called.

All five of them turned to me.

“Let him help us,” I said. “He won’t lie.”

“And how, pray tell, do you know that?” Alex questioned.

“His name is Deion. He’s Aiden’s friend,” I answered. “He wouldn’t get him killed.”

Alex still didn’t look convinced. “Aiden, do you know this man?”

Deion had pushed himself up onto his hands and knees now. He looked at Aiden with pleading eyes.

Aiden managed to turn his head. I watched as he scanned Deion, then turned to his brother. “He’s my friend,” he said. “Kill him, and I swear, you’ll regret it later.”

Alex looked back and forth between Aiden and Deion for a moment before sighing deeply. “Alright, show us the way out and you can live. But if you lead us into a trap, I promise you, you will be the first to die in that encounter, understand?”

Deion gave a curt nod.

“Good, now get up,” Alex ordered. “And somebody help Elijah with Aiden.”

“I can do it,” Deion said.

“Why?” Alex asked, suspicious.

“So I can talk to my friend,” Deion answered. “Why else?”

Alex sighed. “Whatever. Just do me a favor and don’t kill him. I need him for later.”

Deion didn’t say anything else. Instead, he came over to where I knelt beside Aiden. “How is he?” he asked me.

“He’s hanging in there,” I said.

“Oh whatever. I’m fine,” Aiden said.

Deion sighed and shook his head, saying, “You stubborn bastard. Come on, let’s get you up.”

Slowly, Deion and I got Aiden to his feet, wrapping his arms around our shoulders. “Y’know, I kinda thought you were dead,” Aiden said after a moment.

“Please, you really think I’d let myself die like this?” Deion countered. “You think I’d let these goons that asshole over there,” he motioned to Alex with his head, “sent in, kill me?”

Aiden rolled his eyes. “Whatever, you’re not immortal, Deion. Now hurry up and get us the hell out of here.”

With Deion’s instructions, we moved through the halls with renewed urgency. 

Aiden and Deion didn’t talk much, but I assumed that was because Aiden’s condition was worsening. He could hardly keep his eyes open.

“We need to hurry,” I said.

I hadn’t said it to anyone in particular, but Deion turned to me, saying, “Trust me, I know. But we’re close; the exit should be just around this…” He trailed off as he turned back to the path ahead.

I turned too, finding that our way was blocked by a group of men, most of which were covered in blood and grime.

Deion only stared, confusion turning to panic in his eyes. “I… I didn’t.” His eyes locked onto Alex’s. “I didn’t know.”

Alex seemed incredibly calm, considering the situation. He only said, “And this is exactly why you should never trust the enemy.” He pulled a pistol from a holster at his waist and leveled it at Deion.

“Stop,” I said. “He didn’t know they’d be here.”

“But he did,” Alex argued. “Of course he did. Just admit it, Deion.”

But Deion shook his head. “I wouldn’t sell out my friend.” He turned to Aiden, who looked like he might've been unconscious. “Right Aiden? Come on, you know me. You know I wouldn’t do this.”

I pulled out the pistol I’d kept in my waistband and pointed it at Alex. “If he dies,” I said, “so do you.”

Alex slowly turned his head towards me, raised an eyebrow, then sighed and said, “You’re a fool, Elijah,” then lowered his weapon and turned towards the men blocking our path. “Don’t be surprised when he stabs you in the back.”

Deion turned to me and nodded his gratitude.

I nodded back, then put the gun away and watched as the men moved aside and Aerona stepped forward.

She, too, was covered in blood, but by the way she moved and the grin on her lips, I doubted it was her own. She leaned casually against a rifle she was holding up on her right side.

“I don’t remember seeing you boys around before,” she said, scanning our group. “Hmm, except for you three.” She motioned to me, Aiden, and Deion. She turned to Alex, likely sensing he was the one in charge here. “Tell you what, you give me those three, and you and the rest of your friends can leave.”

Alex laughed softly. “I’m afraid you are not in a position to be making demands here.”

“And why, exactly, is that?” she asked.

I was impressed by her ability to seem utterly unfazed, even when faced with a dozen men with rifles.

“Your little group behind you is in no condition to fight,” Alex said. “You might take some of us down, but not nearly all of us before we overwhelm you.”

“Hmm. No, I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong,” she said. “This isn’t nearly all of us.”

As if on cue, I began to hear the pounding of footsteps from somewhere near Aerona’s right.

“Toché, Aerona,” Alex said. “Everyone, get into defensive positions. Elijah, Deion, get Aiden around that corner. We’re facing these bastards head-on.”

Deion and I instantly complied, backtracking and setting Aiden down against a wall.

“Thanks,” Deion murmured in the brief moment of quiet we had as we waited for those footsteps to reach us. “I owe you my life.”

“Yeah, well, let’s just hope Alex and his guys win this fight. ‘Cause if they don’t, then what I did won’t matter.”

He might’ve said something else, but gunfire erupted, drowning him out.

Aiden stirred at this, but he was too weak to do anything except jerk away from the noise.

I wrapped my arms around him, shushing gently, though I wasn’t sure if he could hear me. He did lean into me though, and I could tell he was taking in whatever comfort I was managing to give him. “It’s gonna be okay,” I breathed. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Eventually, the gunfire died down, then stopped altogether.

I slowly pulled away from Aiden and glanced nervously around, finding, to my horror, Aerona standing before us.

She held a finger to her lips, then lifted her rifle.

I turned, putting myself in front of Aiden, shielding him with my body. I didn’t care if all it bought him was a few more moments to live; he still deserved a chance to make it.

A gunshot rang out, making me jump, but… I didn’t feel any pain. Slowly, I turned to look behind me, finding Aerona lying on the floor, blood pooling around her head. I turned to the left, finding Alex, his pistol still leveled at where Aerona’s head had been.

A smile flashed across his lips, then he said, “Come on, get up. We gotta hurry and get out of here before this place explodes a second time.”

I couldn’t’ve agreed more.

“Get out of the way!” Aiden’s brother yelled once we were finally clear of the building. “We got an injured man over here!”

He’d once again had to help me with Aiden, since Deion peeled away from us soon after we left the building. Where he was going, I wasn’t sure, but I hoped he managed to find refuge before this place went up in flames.

We were nearing a van parked at the end of the alley. But the way was blocked by a crowd of people. I imagined they worked for Alex, since they immediately moved out of the way at his voice. 

We worked together, quickly hauling a barely conscious Aiden into the back of the van. A few more men then climbed in after us, and Alex started to get out, but I stopped him when I said, “Can you save him?”

“Of course,” he said. “We have an outpost not far from here. We’ll bring him there and patch him up.” He then pointed to the man closest to Aiden, besides myself, of course. “Bandage him up as best you can,” he said. “If he dies before we get there, it’s on you.”

“Yes sir,” the man answered. He then knelt beside Aiden and pulled some bandages out of a sack attached to his utility belt. “Get that shirt off of him,” he told me.

I did as he said, and he immediately got to work, wrapping the bandage around his wound.

Other than that command, no one spoke to me the entire ride.

*    *    *

I wasn’t allowed in the operating room. Instead, they made me sit out in the hall. 

No one told me anything, though they had at least been kind enough to get me a cast for my arm. 

A few times, a woman would enter, then, a little while later, exit the operating room. But she never answered my questions.

I watched as she came down the hall yet again, carrying a tray. “Excuse me, ma’am?!” I called as she got closer.

She ignored me.

I stood, waving a hand to get her attention.

Again, she showed no sign that she noticed. 

“Ma’am, please,” I said as she got to the door. “How’s he doing? Is he-”

She slammed the door behind her, cutting me off.

I sighed and sat back down. “Thanks,” I muttered to the closed door. “Really appreciate it.”

“He’ll be fine.”

I turned towards the voice, finding Alex leaning against the wall. “You’re sure?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I’ve got the best doctors working on him.”

It was quiet for a moment, but then I said, “Hey, uh, you seem like the kind of person who, if I wanted to find someone, hypothetically speaking, someone who was probably off the grid, maybe even changed their name, you could find them.”

“Who are you looking for?” he asked.

“A man named Luke Jones,” I answered. “His brother asked me to relay a message to him.”

“Sure, I could find him for you,” he said. “But it’ll cost you.”

“Cost me what?” I asked.

“Well… I think working for me for six months to a year would be sufficient.”

“Six months to a year?!” I cried.

“Mm-hm,” he said. “These kinds of things aren’t exactly easy. And we both know you don’t have nearly enough money to offer me.”

Hell no. I’m not gonna work for you for a year.” Especially not since he obviously worked in a pretty shady business. At least, sure seemed that way after everything that happened in the gang hideout.

He shrugged. “Alright then, good luck finding this guy on your own then.” He turned to go.

But… Ryan died thinking I would pass that message on to his brother. What kind of man would I be if I passed up the chance to find him now? “Wait,” I said, stopping him.

He turned back to face me. 

“I’ll do it,” I said. “But, I’m not gonna work for you until you tell me where I can find Luke. And don’t tell Aiden. I don’t want him involved in this.”

He smiled and said, “My lips are sealed,” making a zipper motion over his mouth. “And that actually works perfectly because I won’t need you for a while yet.”

“Good, so we gotta deal?” I asked.

“I think we do,” he said. He came over to me and held out a hand for me to shake.

I took it.

His smile widened. “A pleasure doing business with you, Elijah.”

The way he said my name and that smile on his lips… I felt a chill run down my spine. And I couldn’t help but remember what Aiden had said about him. Calling him an asshole, a bastard. He certainly didn’t think highly of his brother, and I’d just made a deal with him. A deal that would practically leave me at his mercy.

But… maybe I was overreacting. Maybe this would all turn out fine.

Still, as he walked away, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

*    *    *

I awoke in what looked to be some sort of hospital room, though it was hard to tell, thanks to the glaring overhead lights.

I groaned and held up a hand in front of my face, hearing a gasp from my left. “Eli?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me,” he said, coming over to my bedside. “I’m here.”

“Thank God,” I said. “Can you turn off that light? It’s super bright and giving me a headache.”

“Yeah, of course.” He turned on a lamp sitting on a nearby table, then stood and flicked off the overhead light.

I sighed, my eyes adjusting much easier to the softer light of the lamp. “That’s much better, thanks.”

“No problem,” he said, pulling a chair over to my bedside and taking a seat. “So, how do you feel?”

“All things considered, pretty good,” I answered. I didn’t bring it up, of course. What had happened in that room, the three people Elijah had shot dead. I knew he didn’t want to talk about it. “Do you, uh, happen to know where, exactly, we are?”

I vaguely remembered being hauled into the back of what was probably a large van, but after that, nothing.

“We’re in one of Alex’s outposts,” he said. “It’s not far from where we had been held prisoner.”

I couldn’t help but wince at the mention of Alex. And Elijah, apparently, noticed, because he said, “You aren’t very close with him, are you?”

“No, not at all,” I murmured. “But part of that is my fault. I did something a very long time ago that drove a wedge between us. And those resentful feelings, I guess you could say, have stayed.”

“What did you do?” he asked.

“I… I’d rather not get into that right now,” I murmured. “Besides, shouldn’t we be more focused on where we go from here?”

At this, he smiled. “Well, I, for one, fully plan on marrying you,” he said. “Maybe not like, y’know, right now or anything. We’ll wait a while, get our lives back together and everything. But definitely at some point.”

I smiled too. “I can definitely agree to that,” I said. “And I would like to start figuring out the adoption process too. If you’re okay with that.”

“Absolutely I’m okay with that,” he said. “I’d be thrilled if we could adopt a kid.”

I reached out, touching a hand to his cheek. “Y’know, I uh, I’m really glad things turned out like this. Between me and you, anyway. Not so excited about getting shot, though.”

He laughed softly. “Yeah, I am too.”

“I really did mean it when I said that getting you back wasn’t my goal, but I think there was always some part of me hoping for it. And I’m just so happy it actually happened.”

His smile softened, and he placed his hand over mine. “I’m happy too.”

We stayed like that for a long time, but then the door opened.

Elijah and I both turned towards it to find Alex sauntering in. “How are you feeling, brother?” he asked, coming up beside Elijah, who stood as he approached.

“Like beating you to a pulp,” I said through gritted teeth.

He laughed. “That’s cute,” he said, reaching out to finger the healing wound over my abdomen. “If only you could-” 

Elijah grabbed his wrist, making him pause. “Don’t touch him,” he snarled.

“Hmm,” Alex said, pulling his hand away. He turned to face Elijah fully, and immediate fear filled me at that look in his eyes. But ultimately, he only said, “I like you, Elijah. Few people would ever dare do what you just did. Though I can’t quite tell if that makes you incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.”

“Probably a combination of both,” he said.

Alex laughed at that, then glanced over at me. “Well, it was nice meeting you, Elijah, even if it did happen to be in the middle of a gang war.”

“Gang war?” Elijah asked.

“Oh, right, I forgot you’re probably not well versed on my current… occupation,” Alex said. “I run arguably the most notorious gang on the west coast, the Brotherhood.”

Elijah’s throat bobbed, and he glanced over at me.

“Not quite so brave now, huh?” Alex taunted.

Eli’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t say a word in answer.

He patted Elijah’s shoulder, then started for the door, but he paused at the threshold and turned to face us. “I will be seeing both of you again, I assure you. Not soon. It could be months, years, even, but I will see you again.” And then he turned and left.

Eli loosed a breath once the door closed behind him. “I’m beginning to understand why you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, he, uh, he sucks, honestly,” I said.

“Should we, y’know, worry about what he just said?” he asked.

“Oh definitely,” I answered. “But… can we worry a little later? Like after we get our lives back together.”

He laughed and said, “I guess I can allow that.”

I chuckled softly, but sobered quickly, sighing. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t want you involved in anything that had to do with my work. Except for the things that clashed with your work, but I guess I never really liked that either. I promise I will do everything I can to keep you out of whatever happens with my brother.”

“Yeah,” he said, a little awkwardly. “That, that would probably be best.”

I raised an eyebrow but ultimately chalked it up to him being a little shaken up from what just happened with Alex. “And please don’t feel like you need to protect me. I can handle myself.”

“That is clearly a lie considering that if it wasn’t for Alex, you’d probably be dead,” he countered.

“Alright, I guess that’s fair,” I said. “But… just stay safe, okay? Please?”

He gave a small soft smile at this and touched a gentle hand to my cheek. “I will do my absolute best,” he said. “I promise, love.”

I loosed a breath of relief. “Good, because I really can’t lose you, Eli.”

“I can’t exactly lose you either,” he said.

“I know, and I’ll be careful too.”

It was quiet for a moment, but then Elijah loosed a breath and said, “Welp, I think that’s enough of that conversation.”

“Agreed,” I murmured. 

“So, moving on, where should we live?” he asked. “‘Cause honestly, I’ve been liking it in our current house. I like that it’s secluded, and I like the trails in the backyard too.”

“That works for me.”

“Cool, got that out of the way,” he said, smiling.

“One down, about a hundred more to go,” I said.

“It’ll be worth it in the end, though.” He ran a thumb over my cheek, his smile softening. “It’ll all be worth it.”

 And somehow, even lying on a hospital bed and fully within my brother’s grasp, I believed him.

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