Title: If I Ever (Hell or High Water #4)
Author: S.E. Jakes
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Release Date: Janurary 21, 2019
Genre(s): Contemporary/Law Enforcement/Military
Page Count: 300
Some ghosts refuse to stay buried . . .
Prophet and Tom have been through the wringer more times than they can count, both as partners in the field and in life. Yet despite it all, they’ve built something great together. But now they need to protect it again: Prophet’s old nemesis, John Morse, is back and threatening everything he loves.
Prophet is driven enough to take John down alone, and with a chance to do exactly that on the table, he runs with it, risking himself in the process. But trusting Tom to help him is so much more than mission critical.
It’s the final stand, and with Tom and his team behind him, Prophet’s in for the fight of his life. Then a figure from his past goes missing, and the consequence of an old mission rears its head. As complications and destruction mount all around them, getting out alive becomes the most important mission of their lives.
Buy LinksPublisher Amazon Amazon Global B&N iTunes Smashwords GoodReads
Hell or High Water Series
About SE Jakes
SE Jakes writes m/m romance. She believes in happy endings and fighting for what you want in both fiction and real life. She lives in New York with her family and most days, she can be found happily writing (in bed). No really…
SE Jakes is the pen name for New York Times Bestselling author Stephanie Tyler, and half the co-write team of Sydney Croft. First published in 2011, SE Jakes has quickly risen to be a bestselling author in the LGBT romance genre, as well as a fan favorite. Her books are frequently highlighted in USA Today and her books have been reviewed by Library Journal and RT Books Magazine. She’s been nominated by several sites for Favorite M/M author of 2013 Tyler-2-big-2and finaling in the Goodreads MM Romance Readers Choice Awards in 7 categories. She writes for Riptide Publishing and she Indie publishes as well.
If I Ever Chapter One
In the story of Prophet’s life, he’d played his own hero enough times to know that waiting to ride off into the sunset with one of his own was both unrealistic and stupid.
But shit, he’d still hoped for it every single time.
At least that’s what he’d always thought, even if he’d never said the words out loud. Everyone wanted a hero, no matter how goddamned capable they were. If anyone said differently, they were goddamned lying.
But the man he was currently leaning on for support as he navigated the snow-covered sidewalk with bare, numb feet wasn’t a lie. Farthest thing from, and Prophet had bet his own life on that enough times to be sure of it.
“Come on, Proph—got you,” Tom said quietly, his voice a soothing drawl that Prophet had come to depend on.
That would bother the fuck out of him some days more than others, but he’d have to remember the times it didn’t. Like now, as he let Tom guide him the whole way back into their building, lock the door behind them while never mentioning the fact that he still held Prophet’s boots in his hand even as Prophet shuddered from the cold.
Instead, they stood together in the hallway for a moment, processing. Assessing. Having his best friend turn into his biggest enemy had been a betrayal he’d known about, but discovering that man had been in his house, with Tom, with Remy?
Now, it was war.
His wrists ached, the way they always did in extreme cold, but he’d be damned if he’d pay them any special attention. Instead, he directed his burning hatred of the guy who’d once been his best friend like it could inject itself directly into his bones and heal them. That anger? That would pull him through hell every time.
But the cold had fucked with his head, the thaw happening too slowly for his own good.
“What’s in the basement?” Tom’s interruption to his thoughts was quiet but Prophet heard the tension in his words, felt it in the arm of steel wrapped around his rib cage. “Cameras?”
Prophet blew out a harsh breath, his lungs still pained from the cold. “Yes, but there’s no egress in the basement.”
“Think maybe he made one?” Tom refused to say John’s name. Prophet couldn’t blame him. He eased away from Tom’s hold, forced himself to stand steady on his numb-as-fuck feet and only then did he draw his weapon. Tom followed suit and took point on the steps, Prophet following close behind. They found the big room empty, save for the boiler and water heater, along with the generator and electric panels and several storage boxes that Prophet recognized as Cillian’s. It was clean and dry with no place to hide.
“Cameras seem to be in working order. I’ll have Cillian run the footage,” Tom said. “I’m surprised neither of you thought to make this a panic room.”
“Cillian had plans drawn up, but we’d need elevators. Secret panels in the wall. It got complicated.” But now that Remy was in the picture, those complications suddenly didn’t seem so complicated.
Tom knew full well that ordering Prophet back up the stairs and to their apartment before he died of hypothermia wasn’t the way to go. Instead, Tom waited—with a patience he didn’t know he had until he’d met Prophet—as his partner continued to stare around the room like he was waiting for the answers to appear on the walls in front of him. Finally, Prophet blew out a muttered curse and headed back up the stairs to the main hallway.
In turn, Tom followed, locked the basement door, hit the alarms for the main doors and waited for them to arm. And waited some more until Prophet finally said, “Let’s go up and check Cillian’s place by camera,” and Tom again followed him up the stairs. Even though Prophet’s feet still held an unhealthy tinge of dusk, the interior hallway was warm enough that he’d stopped involuntarily trembling.
Still, he paused at the top of the stairs to let Tom open the loft’s heavy steel door. Tom walked inside but Prophet paused, shook his head.
Because as he’d unfrozen, so had his anger. “We’re going to end this,” he promised. “I’m finding John and I’m ending this. Do you understand?”
“Let’s take it one step at a time,” Tom urged him.
“He’s been in my house,” Prophet growled. “Near you. Near Remy. So no, I’m not going to take time to think about the next step.”
“Fine. What is the next step?”
“Check the cameras. And stop treating me like a bomb you’re trying to defuse.”
Tom bristled at the orders, but he did as Prophet asked, on both counts. “Then put your goddamned socks on.”
“Yes, daddy,” Prophet said absently as he headed toward the bedroom. He was in there for a while, long enough for Tom to call him a motherfucker, out loud, several times, and run the searches on the computer connected to the cameras in both Cillian’s and Prophet’s apartments, as well as the one pointed out from the building, and pour two mugs of coffee.
Finally, Prophet wandered out of their bedroom, socks in his hands and the envelope with John’s jacket in it under his arm, and Tom could practically hear the wheels moving inside his head as he headed to the kitchen.
“Cillian’s apartment’s clear now. I went back several hours—no disruptions in the tape,” Tom called over his shoulder.
No answer. He glanced over and saw Prophet leaning against the countertop, writing something. Then he rooted around inside the envelope, pulled the jacket out and instead slid the paper inside. He left the jacket on the floor, yanked on socks and boots.
And then he went back into the bedroom, opened the window, and went outside via the fire escape. By that time, Tom was watching him jump down off the final leg of the metal ladder in order to slide the envelope into its original place behind the dumpster, and scale back up the metal scaffolding.
Tom moved aside to let him climb inside, then watched him carefully close and lock the window. Only then did he go past Tom and into the living room and Tom muttered at the ceiling for more patience before joining him.
“Can you sit down now?” he asked, and Prophet actually did, let Tom wrap a blanket around him, and took the warm coffee from the table. Then he pulled Prophet’s boots off and tugged his legs up so Prophet could settle them into his lap. Tom attempted to rub some circulation into Prophet’s feet through the socks.
Finally, Prophet informed him, “I told John that it’s his turn.”
Tom frowned. “His turn?”
“This whole time, I’ve been trying to catch him. And he’s been evading. Poking at us. That’s what he’s really good at. I forgot that. In the beginning, I was desperate to get him back, to prove he had nothing to do with it. To show everyone I wasn’t an asshole for caring about him the way I did.”
Prophet gave him a lopsided grin that made his heart skip a beat, and answered in a way Tom didn’t expect. “You and me? We chased each other.”
Tom swallowed hard as he processed that. It was obviously a major difference in the two relationships. “Yeah, we did.”
“With John, it was one or the other. Always. Cat and mouse. Trying to prove to the other who cared more. The guy could hold a grudge. And as long as I was doing the chasing, he’d hide. Now I have to turn the tables and force him to catch me.”
“And that will help?”
“John sucks at being the hunter. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a relative suck. Better than ninety percent of people. But not better than me.”
“Where do I fit in here?”
Prophet paused, but it didn’t matter—Tom knew exactly what he was going to say. “I think you need to stay here.”
“Because of Remy.”
“Because of Remy,” Prophet repeated, his eyes haunted.
“Not because you’re worried about me.”
“If I thought John would come after you, I’d never leave you here without me,” Prophet said honestly.
“We’re going to do this,” Tom said fiercely. “Remy needs both of us to come back.”
Prophet blinked. “You think this is my version of a suicide run?”
“Is it?” Tom pressed.
Prophet stared at him, gray eyes like rising smoke. “I have to end this. It started with me. It has to end with me. If that makes it a suicide run, then so be it . . . but since I plan to come back and drive you fucking nuts for the rest of your life, then no.”
Tom smiled. Reached out and touched Prophet’s bottom lip with his thumb, stroked it. “Just needed to hear you say it.”
“Maybe I just needed to say it,” Prophet countered. They sat in silence for a long while, Prophet staring out the window and Tom rubbing his feet. “No one ever noticed the paint, just like I didn’t,” he said finally.
“Proph, the guy was practically invisible. He used your dreams.”
“John always said he felt invisible.”
“Nah. I was never melodramatic. Besides, people noticed me.”
Tom held his tongue on the melodramatic part but couldn’t help adding, “You were always an asshole too.”
“It’s one of the most endearing qualities.”
Tom stroked a hand through Prophet’s hair. “Most definitely.” Prophet smiled in satisfaction. “Did you ever consider he was real before this?”
“Not until the night we left for Djibouti. Right before you came in.”
“I know you have flashbacks. PTSD episodes. You said you hallucinate during them. I’ve seen some of them. But this? This is different.”
“It’s happened like this before,” Prophet insisted. “I just didn’t realize it, but it’s happened for a while.”
Tom softened, because Prophet was already frustrated as fuck and he wasn’t helping. “How long?”
“When I was first rescued, if you want to call what the CIA did a rescue, I was in the hospital. Recovering. John visited me. I figured it was the pain meds.” Just how much Prophet hated revisiting that time showed clearly in his face, and the flash of pain and anger, the barely contained hatred in his voice at his circumstances made Tom immediately flashback to the video that had given him his first glance of an angry, young Prophet being interrogated by the CIA, and nearly killing the agent stupid enough to believe that Prophet wouldn’t break his own wrists to kill him.
“And what, he assumed you’re going to have flashbacks like this, so he visits you?”
“I’ve been having them for a long time. Before Hal,” Prophet confessed. “Not this bad, but John was always there. My shrink said I manifested them for comfort.”
Tom shook his head at the absolute irony of that. “Maybe you forgot to turn a camera off. What if Cillian saw a flashback incident and he’s playing with you?”
“Even you don’t think Cillian would pull that shit. He wanted to drive me crazy, but he doesn’t need to fuck with my flashbacks to do it.”
Tom knew that, but he wanted to believe anything other than the fact that John had been here. “What does it mean that he’s been this close to you—to me—and we’re still alive?”
“I have no goddamned idea what to think of that, Tommy.”
This was serious—especially because Remy was now here. And there was nothing to stop John from hurting him. Just because he’d left Prophet and Tom alone for now meant nothing. John would figure out a way to threaten Remy so they’d leave John alone. “Do you think . . . he missed you?” Tom asked hesitantly.
Prophet stared at him. “Staying hidden’s tough, you know? You can’t show who you really are. If violence happens, you can’t help anyone. For someone used to walking into the fire, it’s torture to survive like that.”
Tom pretended not to notice Prophet had ignored the original question. “And John’s not like that?”
“Just the opposite. Like he was relieved not to have to carry that burden of who he was all the time,” Prophet explained. “On one level, I caught the appeal. I just couldn’t do it. I just kept moving after I showed my hand. I’m good at escaping.” He stared at the window, but Tom noticed his fingertips—there was still black paint on them from where he’d touched the windows, and he was touching his pointer to his thumb as if feeling the stickiness. “Should’ve fucking known.”
“The paint was my trick, to cover our tracks when we snuck out. You always end up scraping off paint when you break in or out. He knows I would’ve noticed.”
“And these windows aren’t alarmed?”
Prophet shrugged. “Fourth floor. I mean, hell, why would anyone bother? You want me dead, you’ll shoot a bomb through the glass. Besides, he was bypassing cameras already. I’ll bet this system’s not a problem for him, but he’s not behind all of my flashbacks.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t think you’d sleep through a firefight,” Prophet said wryly.
“So John was the trigger. He’d leave and then . . .”
“Yeah, and then the fireworks started. But they’d start without me seeing him more often than not. Even though I know he’s the cause of the shit going down all around me . . . I still look for the bastard . . . every single time.”
Prophet practically spat his last words, not sure if he was angriest at himself. Probably so. He’d been told numerous times throughout his career incarnations that having a conscience would fuck him over every time.
They were right, but hell, where John was concerned, the time for worrying about his once best friend was long gone. Now, it was about not being able to ignore John any longer. Because of him, Mal and Ren and King and Hook couldn’t safely remain in the US—or anywhere else, really—because they all had a bounty on their heads. Their work remained on the down low, and suspicion would always dog Prophet as well. Suspicion—and secrets that lived inside of him.
And even if they could continue to live with all of that, as they’d been doing, the fact that John might have a plan that could impact thousands of lives? That was something Prophet and his teammates couldn’t turn their back on. Especially because they carried the weight of the crimes John had already committed, and that albatross was strangling them.
“I still look for the bastard . . . every single time.”
PTSD: the bitch that kept on giving.
Tom had stayed quiet, just watching . . . but when he finally spoke, there wasn’t an ounce of judgment or jealousy there. “You want to save him before you can’t,” was all he said of John, and it was nothing like what Prophet expected to hear, or even deserved, and his throat got too tight to speak, tighter even when Tom added, “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”
Finally, Prophet managed, “You’re not on the ‘Prophet’s in denial’ team then? Because you’d be in damned good company with Mal and King and Ren.” His team, the men who’d stuck with him even as they’d been dragged through hell because of him.
Tom shook his head slowly. “Never have been. Never will be. But I can see why they are. It’s because you want them to be there, on that in-denial team. You’ve always got your reasons. But you’ve got them fooled with this one, because they think John’s your kryptonite.”
“Doesn’t everyone have a kryptonite?”
Tom tapped his fingertips on his thigh thoughtfully. “I guess my partners always dying was mine. My curse.”
Prophet shoved aside the thought that maybe Tom’s curse was Prophet himself, because that was too maudlin for an already maudlin afternoon. But Tom’s fingers stilled and he narrowed his eyes at Prophet.
Fucking Cajun voodoo bastard. “Shut up, Tommy.”
“Fine.” Tom pressed his lips together before continuing. “Are you in on this with John?”
Prophet leaned back against the couch—a nondefensive posture to be sure, but that didn’t stop the hurt from flashing for the briefest of seconds in his storm-filled gray eyes. “You and your fucking voodoo shit—why don’t you answer that question for me?”
It was probably the hardest question Tom would have to ask him. Prophet gazed at him, his eyes cool, and for a split second, Tom saw the machine behind the man, the special forces operator, trained, bred to kill, to follow the mission to its logical end.
And then Tom answered his own question. “No, you’re not.”
Prophet’s jaw clenched. Tom ran his hand over Proph’s cheek, and the jaw unclenched, expression softened. “So what do we do now?”
“It’s not your war.”
“It involves you, so yeah, it is.”
“It’s getting harder to . . .” He motioned to his eyes, and Tom told him, “Then let me be your eyes on this.”
“There’s never been a choice, has there?” Prophet asked him. “Not from the goddamned beginning.” He sounded half-angry, half-pleased as Tom shook his head. “John’s not my kryptonite, Tommy. Not by a long shot. But you . . .”
“Yeah, but I don’t make you powerless, bébé.”
Prophet gave a wan smile, but his mind was obviously moving too fast to settle onto anything. “What if this fucks up the adoption?”
“I don’t know.”
“You and Remy could go into official protection.”
“By the time all this goes through, we hopefully won’t need it. And while we’re away, the foster visits . . .”
Prophet sighed. “We’ll just have to say we have jobs out of town sometimes and that he’s got significant supervision.”
“Mal is considered ‘significant supervision’?” Tom groaned.
“He’s an adult. We don’t have to use the word ‘appropriate,’ but man, you’ve got a Special Forces operator and a doctor watching this kid. How could he be safer?”
“Don’t you think we might need Mal with us?” Tom asked.
“Shit.” Prophet frowned. “I’m trying to keep all of them away but . . .”
But life—and John—didn’t always work like that. They might need all the resources they could muster.
“How long, Proph? Really.”
“Could be a week. Three weeks. A month. Depends on his timetable. But John’s escalated. My gut says under a month. And if I press, we can bring him out sooner.”
“I will, T. Dammit, it hasn’t been a game, ever. But he’s treating it, and my life, and Mal’s and the others’ lives like it is.” Prophet sounded firm, not defeated. “I’ve been looking through his things, looking for a mistake, a sign, anything that links his banking to any of this. Mal’s got some hits in offshore accounts, but beyond siphoning out his money, there’s not a lot to go on.”
Tom nodded. “He seems to be spiraling.”
“As the plan comes to an end . . . this spiral, this letting us get close? Could all be an act.” Prophet shook his head. “He’s still the same . . . as much as he’s changed, he’s stayed the exact goddamned same.”
“Would I have liked him, back then?”
Prophet glanced at Tom like he’d asked a trick question. “You’d have hated him on sight.”
“I feel closer to Mal than I ever have.”
Prophet snorted. “John’s an acquired taste. We didn’t love each other as much as we hated to love each other. It was complicated, and not in the good way.” He looked at Tom meaningfully. “We need to end this.”
For so many reasons.
“We will,” Tom promised him.
“Tell me what you want. Spell it out,” Prophet told him.
Tom gazed at him, so full of goddamned trust, with none of the wariness like there’d been the first time they’d done this. “I want you, Proph. All of you. Good, bad, sick, well. You. That’s all. You’re my goddamned family. You, Remy. Doc. Even Mal.”
Prophet smiled. “Even Mal?”
“You tell him I said that and—”
“I won’t. But he knows, T. He knows.” He ran a thumb along Tom’s bottom lip. “So you’re in it.”
“Suppose it gets ugly?”
Tom gave a small, lopsided grin. “I’ve seen ugly, Prophet. We’ll get through it.”
Prophet believed it, believed Tom meant it. But sometimes when you’re in the thick of it . . .
He stopped mid-thought, because Tom’s voodoo-meter must have pinged. Tom was palpably angry when he grabbed Prophet’s biceps, hard. “Don’t you fucking underestimate me. I’ll fuck that right out of you.”
“I’d like to see you try,” was all Prophet got out before Tom’s mouth was on his, as rough and punishing as his grip. And Prophet relished it. Wanted all of what Tom could give him, wanted him to leave marks all over his goddamned body.
Wanted Tom to erase this day, purge the memories and leave Prophet whole again . . . for as long as that would last.
He was beat down exhausted. Fragile. Pissed and sad and on the verge of losing it completely, and Tom knew it. Prophet wanted to throw him off, buck him away, but Tom would fight him every step of the way.
There was nothing else he could do—nothing to do—but let Tom take him, anyway he wanted to.
He surrendered into Tom’s fierce kiss and unrelenting grip, to accept the warm slide of Tom’s tongue along his as Tom forced him toward the bedroom. There wasn’t an escape, not into himself, because Tom wasn’t going to let that happen, like he knew it was too dangerous for Prophet to disappear into there . . . because if he went down that road, he might not come back.
Instead, Tom set about keeping him on the damned road, crawling, cut and bleeding, instead of walking, but going down the road just the same. Stripped him down physically, and set about doing the same to his mind.
“Knees, Proph,” Tom told him in a tone that brokered no argument. Prophet turned reluctantly, forehead pressed to the mattress as his arms were pulled behind his back, not roughly, but enough to remind him that leaning on them wasn’t an option. Tom wrapped the leather cuffs around his wrists, and there was enough chain between them so Prophet’s arms didn’t feel the strain. But he was still bound. Open. Vulnerable.
God, it fucking hurt to do that, especially now. He wanted to glance over to the window where John had come in God knew how many fucking times to violate him, over and over again, but he didn’t. Instead, he screwed his eyes tight and just breathed as Tom spread him, buried his face in his ass in a way that forced Prophet to whimper, helpless against the onslaught. Forcing him to feel, to react, to need.
“Fuck you, Tommy,” he muttered and Tom dug in deeper, letting Prophet know it was message received. His tongue took Prophet until his balls tightened and he ached to come, thrust his hips into air, needing something to touch his dick, to grind against him and let him release.
Frustrated, he cursed—at the ache, at Tom, at everything—and with the pull to the window becoming more possible to ignore, he didn’t. He turned his head and opened his eyes and stared at the reflection of Tom lording over him in the glass. He saw another figure there, above them, and he blinked and forced himself not to say shit, because it wasn’t real.
He had no right to be there, but every goddamned reason to be.
Suddenly, Tom stopped, but it took Prophet a few seconds longer than it should’ve to realize it. The room chilled, even as Tom’s hand swatted Prophet’s ass several times, hard as hell, bringing him back to earth.
“You want to stare at the window?” Tom taunted. “I’ll do you one better.” He grabbed Prophet roughly by the biceps and dragged him up and toward the window, slamming his upper body against the glass. With a palm on the back of Prophet’s head, he forced Prophet’s forehead against it and said calmly, “Open your fucking eyes and look for him. Look at him, for all I give a fuck, because I’m the one who’s here with you. Inside of you. You’re mine, goddammit it. So say it.”
Tom thrust up into him and Prophet growled at the invasion, the taunts, the orders. But Tom wasn’t having any of it, thrust up into him over and over with an unrelenting motion until Prophet mouthed, You’re mine.
He didn’t say shit out loud, he hadn’t even been able to hear his own goddamned voice, but somehow, Tom did.
“You’re mine, Proph. And better than that? I’m yours.” With that, Tom pulled out of him entirely and then entered him again, and Prophet cried out, eyes staring down at the alley below until it blurred under his gaze and melted away into nothingness.
Only then did he smile.
With Prophet pressed against that window, Tom fucked the ghosts out of him—all of them, the best he could, until Prophet’s body relaxed, part bliss and mostly exhaustion, and Tom didn’t care so long as Prophet found momentary peace.
When he helped Prophet back into the bed, Prophet stared at him for a long moment . . . and Tom didn’t see any of the ghosts there, just a reflection of himself before Prophet closed his eyes.
For Tom? No such luck, at least not tonight. He lay there, a leg thrown across Prophet’s body, staring at the window John had been sneaking into and wondering how the hell they’d all missed it. If Prophet really had, or if John’s stranglehold was stronger than anyone realized.
Discontent grew in Tom’s gut as that last maybe took hold. Prophet was the strongest man he knew, but everyone had their kryptonite, their breaking point, their weakness. For a while, Tom thought he was Prophet’s, but now he realized that was something he never wanted to be.
Prophet opened his eyes in the darkness, the weight of Tom’s leg grounding him, and even so, Prophet had to simply lie there and fucking breathe so he didn’t trigger himself into any kind of flashback.
When he felt steady enough, he pushed Tom away, murmuring, “Bathroom,” and Tom grunted and moved. Prophet took a piss and grabbed his jeans, leaving Tom in dreamland.
Prophet had places to be. People to yell at. And he knew exactly where to start, he thought as he walked grimly down the steps and began to pick the lock to Cillian’s door, even though he had a copy of the key, just to piss the guy off.
Cillian had his ear to the ground . . . and so did Gary. Gary knew the kinds of things to look for regarding John and what exactly his plans were. But Gary wasn’t here, and the asshole at his disposal slammed his loft door open and glared at Prophet.
“What the hell? You’ve got a key.”
“Figured it would be rude to just let myself in.”
Cillian rolled his eyes and walked back into the apartment. Prophet joined him, closing the door and roaming through the rooms on the current floor.
“I’m alone,” Cillian called. When Prophet came out of his bedroom, Cillian shook his head. “Who were you hoping to find? John?”
Prophet stared at the couch, if it could even be called that anymore. It’d been thrown out of a window in the rain, pushed up stairs and thrown down them, and otherwise defiled—and put together again with pink duck tape. “That looks pathetic,” Prophet informed him.
“I keep it to annoy you. Good to know it works.” Cillian paused, and then sighed, obviously knowing why Prophet was there and admitting, “John’s got more of a stronghold since Sadiq was killed.”
In the ultimate irony, killing Sadiq had actually helped John, a fact that hit Prophet like a physical blow. Cillian had been right to tell him, even though Prophet could see the reluctance to share in his eyes.
Prophet, in turn, threw the first thing in his path against the wall, which was hopefully some priceless sculpture or some shit like that. It went whizzing by Cillian’s head and fuck, he had to work on his aim.
“If you’re going to destroy something, can you make sure it’s in your own apartment?” Cillian asked, seemingly unperturbed. Prophet took a step toward him and Cillian stood his ground.
“Don’t tempt me. Not now,” Prophet warned.
“I’m shaking.” Cillian threw up his arms and frowned.
“Did you know? Did you know John was really here?”
Cillian’s expression went serious. “Prophet, if I knew John Morse was here, flesh and blood? I would’ve killed him with my bare hands.”
Prophet believed that. What worried him now was the skill level John had achieved, and while survival could give a man an edge, John had received some serious training. Maybe even more advances than the CIA could’ve given him. “Could SB-20 be employing John?”
“I’ve thought about it, yes,” Cillian said slowly.
“If they did bring him in and train him? They lost control of him rather quickly. And once that happened, they wouldn’t own up to it for fear of being exposed to the CIA, thus compounding the problem.”
“And the CIA was already in fear of being exposed. John screwed them all over and forced them to keep quiet.”
“And prepared you and your team to take the fall,” Cillian added. “SB-20 wanted him alive—as though they were doing the CIA a great favor, but John’s got to have something on them too.”
“Maybe you could ask your old boss, Trent—oh, wait, you can’t, because you killed him,” Prophet pointed out.
“What are you really asking? Because the man I know wouldn’t dance around this shit.”
“My bedroom window. It’s been opened. Painted over. You’d know that because you’ve got the same alarm access I do.”
“Yes, Prophet, your bedroom window’s been opened many times since you’ve lived here. You’re allowed to open your bedroom window. You do it often.”
“But it chimes.”
“So you didn’t hear the chimes.”
“No. I heard a lot of goddamned things during my flashbacks, but I’d know the chimes. I fucking listen for them, because I’m not completely out of it. I’m always waiting for the chime, so I can know if someone’s coming to really kill me.”
Cillian stared at him. “Say what you mean.”
“You and I are the only ones with access.”
“Really? You haven’t given codes to Tom, Doc, Phil, Mal, King, Ren . . .”
“Right, because they’re all far more likely candidates to let John come in here and fuck with my head.”
“What do you want from me? Go through the codes.”
“You could doctor them.”
“True.” Cillian crossed his arms. “Say it.”
Prophet had been fighting this urge. Couldn’t anymore, not after this. “It was you.”
Cillian raised his chin. A haunted look flashed in his eyes. “You need to trust that I have reasons enough to want John dead, more than anyone. Except maybe you.”
Cillian’s eyes got that haunted look again for a fleeting second. “But why would I let him in? What would I gain?”
“I don’t know, Cillian. Money? Power?”
“Bullshit you don’t know.” God, his brogue was so heavy these days. Must’ve been weird for Mal to finally hear that. He’d freaked the first time he’d heard King’s brogue, and had tried to drown him in the ocean during a BUD/S exercise, and no one noticed because the instructors were all regularly trying to drown them anyway.
“I’ll leave,” Cillian said.
“You don’t trust me to leave. You don’t trust me to stay.”
“Maybe I should do what Mal can’t.”
“Won’t,” Cillian corrected him. “I have no doubt that Mal could, in a heartbeat. But he won’t, for several reasons.”
“What are they?”
“Ask him. This question-and-answer period is done.”
And there was John, ruining another relationship, because whateverthefuck happened between Mal and Cillian had to do with John. He was always in the way.
Because yes, John and the CIA framed their team, but John saw Mal as competing with him for Prophet’s attention, much more so than Ren or King or Hook. Because none of them loved John, but Mal’s hatred was instant and absolute.
He’d protected the team—and John at one point—but he was always suspicious, waiting for John to fuck them over. And while Mal never said anything to Prophet outright, Mal was protective as hell over Prophet.
The reverse was also true.
Now, back in his own apartment, he sank onto the couch, closed his eyes and found himself picturing the night before the Hal mission, the night he and John had the worst fight they’d ever had—and they’d had some bad ones. But before that, he recalled hanging out with Mal, who’d been sitting on the trunk of the Hummer, staring up at the stars, rifle around his neck without the safety engaged. Mal was big on the whole “my finger is the safety” argument.
Mal had never come with a safety.
He was also deeply unhappy with the idea of Prophet and John riding in the front car, since Prophet was point and therefore needed his team protecting him. But the mission specified that provision . . .
“All set?” Mal asked, Boston accent rough and strong. Prophet could listen to Mal tell stories for hours, mainly because of the voice.
But tonight, neither was in the mood for a chat. When Prophet didn’t answer, Mal simply said, “Yeah, me neither.”
Prophet’s discontent had grown all day with a vengeance, one he couldn’t afford to ignore. It was uncomfortable, a nudge he couldn’t shake. He’d avoided Hal but doing so for much longer was putting off the inevitable.
He’d avoided John for longer.
Mal seemed content with Prophet’s inability to face what he had to do, simply lay back on the hood with Prophet and watched the sky. Simple, quiet moments, the kind Prophet would reflect back on and miss desperately.
He wanted to tell Mal his fears, but being point meant brave face and no fear and don’t fuck with your teams’ psyche.
But of course, Mal knew. Prophet never asked him and Mal never said but Prophet knew.
They both knew their beast was marching toward Bethlehem.
Prophet finally got up and walked back toward his tent, looking over his shoulder only once.
Mal was still there, silent, immovable force that he was. In that moment, Prophet realized that Mal would always be there and it gave him the most comfort of anything he’d ever had in his life. He silently promised Mal he’d give the man the same thing.
Hal was in his own tent, now guarded by Ren and King. Prophet was up next on guard duty, but he had to talk with John before that.
John was lying on one of the cots in their tent, eyes closed but not asleep. He didn’t open his eyes, not until Prophet told him, “I think we need to change the route.”
“Why? Because Mal wants to?” John sneered.
Prophet stared at him calmly. John had been fucking with him the entire trip, prodding him, pissed that Prophet was going to Mal more and more. “It’s a gut feeling. You used to trust my gut.”
“‘Used to’ being the key words. What? Do you call Mal every time you need to take a piss to make sure it’s okay?” John continued. “Mal’s not running point and you and I have our mission. It can’t change. We need to make sure we get from point A to point B. If he doesn’t understand that—”
“I understand everything. It’s not Mal who’s questioning it, John. It’s me.”
John was up, on his feet, in Prophet’s face. Prophet slammed against his chest to move him away, and that’s when the fight started in earnest.
Later, Prophet will recall this conversation when Lansing threatens him, accusing him of changing the route in order to sell Hal to the highest bidder and killing John in the process. Now, all he could do was take the brunt of John’s brutal punch—a mean right hook. But he didn’t go down, just wiped his lip with the back of his hand and stared down at the blood on his knuckle.
He spat blood at John’s feet, the too-familiar metallic taste stoking his anger. “I’ll take you off the mission.”
“Yeah, you try that.”
If Prophet followed through, they’d be a man short, and for this mission wrapped in a mission—with implications Mal and the others didn’t know about—that wouldn’t be the way to go. LT would be pissed. Either way, John was going to compromise everything.
“Stop being an asshole,” Prophet told him. “Or I’ll tell LT you were set to sabotage the entire mission.”
“Like he’ll listen to you over me? Hell, his own brother got fucked up on a mission and LT retired him quick.”
As if Prophet needed reminding. Thinking of Dean now, recovering in a hospital bed in some private hospital—the best LT’s money could buy—made him sick to his stomach. Because Dean was now blind, and since Prophet knew that was his fate as well, the coincidence was eerie. Chilling.
Fuck. He should just scrap this entire mission, cite intuition, which had never been wrong, but this was a military op and a CIA one as well, and neither institution wanted to be told what to do. Neither paid him for his decision-making skills, just his ability to follow orders and follow them well.
And it was the nature of those orders—their rigidity—that was why Prophet was starting to bristle. “Not another word,” he told John.
John nodded as if acquiescing, and then he came at Prophet, fast and furious, slamming his body into Prophet’s, knocking them both to the ground. Then his hand was between Prophet’s legs, the other on Prophet’s throat. Prophet didn’t resist, mainly because he didn’t want the others coming in and seeing this—it would ruin what was left of team camaraderie, and the night before one of their most important missions wasn’t the time for that to erode completely. So he let John unzip his BDUs and told himself this wasn’t anything they hadn’t done a hundred times before this.
“I was always there for you. Always,” John told him, his hand pumping Prophet’s dick and no, he didn’t want to come but John knew him intimately. His voice had softened and he bit down lightly on Prophet’s shoulder.
It wasn’t sexual—it was power, pure and simple, and in that moment John had all of it. Prophet was left to wonder if he’d given it away so easily on purpose, or if he’d needed John to think he was compliant.
Should’ve canceled the mission right then and there.
He was numb. “It’s over. Really fucking over.” It was a surreal moment, one he’d never forget thanks to what happened hours later.
“It’s been over for a long time, so fuck you, Prophet. Just get the fuck out of my face,” John spat and started walking away, although for some reason he was still speaking. “Just get up. Come on, Proph, you need to wake up . . .”
“Proph, come on.” It was Tom’s voice, in the middle of his fucked-up flashback. He opened his eyes and saw Tom, not John, and relief washed over him.
Tom watched him carefully, unmoving. Smart man, because Prophet could kill him in a second if he thought he was fighting John, and fuck, Prophet hated these flashbacks, hated that there was no way to fix him.
They were untouchable.
When he and John were young, as young boys did, they’d decided that being important—untouchable—was the way to go through life.
As they got older, they watched men who they’d thought untouchable get touched by so many factors in life that it became unbearable.
Prophet reasoned that maybe you could only be untouchable in certain situations . . . or for certain periods of your life.
But John? He never let go of the idea of being untouchable. The one thing Prophet was sure of? The men who John surrounded himself with knew John was important. Untouchable. And John never believed Prophet would be able to change that.
But Prophet had more faith in himself than John ever had, and even more in the man standing in front of him now. His eyes blurred for a second, maybe more from exhaustion and anger than anything, but these days, the blurring came around more and more often.
So he closed his eyes again, heard the hoarseness in his voice when he told Tom, “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
He felt the weight of Tom sink next to him on the couch. “Yeah, you are okay.” Tom’s arm went around his shoulders and Prophet sank his head against Tom’s chest. “What else can I do?”
Prophet didn’t hesitate. “Bring Remy home.”
Less than twenty-four hours after finding the envelope, Remy came home . . . and Remy’s Crazy Uncle Mal came along with him, and they all pretended everything was normal when they all knew it was far from it. Remy had been with them as soon as they’d gotten back from killing Sadiq. After initially finding the envelope from John, Prophet had made sure that Remy got safely to Doc’s straight from school instead of coming back to them.
Tom had complied with Prophet’s request because they both needed to see Remy, to be around him and reassured while planning their own personal version of hell.
It was late by that point, and Remy settled into his room quickly, like he was imprinting himself back onto the apartment before anyone could stop him. Prophet wanted to tell him not to worry, that he’d already imprinted on them, probably from first meet, but Prophet knew Remy would still worry.
Prophet knew two things in particular were bothering Remy, but the first was the most important. Remy knew what they did for a living, and the travel (read: danger) involved. That kind of family life he could deal with. It was another instability that most worried him. So Prophet went into the bedroom where Remy was drawing, lying on his belly on the bed, legs up and crossed, shirt off, headphones on and music pounding out of them, which meant the iPod was turned up to deafening levels.
Mal would come in and sleep next to him in a bit, but for the moment, Prophet welcomed the quiet time. And when he sat next to Remy on the double bed, Remy pulled off the headphones and turned off the music, but not before Prophet recognized the blare of classic rock—AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”
He wanted to look up at the ceiling to ask if that was a joke or a sign but decided it was a little of both. He looked back at Remy and noted the small tattoo, low on his inner calf, a nautical star, not unlike Tom’s.
Remy jerked his head toward it. “Cool, right?”
“Did Etienne give you that?”
“He was there but no—I did it.”
“You did that?” Prophet leaned in to study it. “It’s really good, Rem.”
Remy beamed. “Tom said we could open up a shop.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that’s the eventual plan.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t tattoo,” Prophet said seriously. “Want to tell me what’s bothering you?”
Remy narrowed his eyes. “How do you do that?”
“It’s a gift. Spill.”
Remy sighed and leaned up on one elbow. Prophet’s eyes shifted momentarily to the scar on Remy’s chest, the one made by the man who’d also killed his father. The scar was pink now, much less angry looking, and still a constant reminder of how close they’d come to losing him. As if Remy knew what he was thinking, his fingers brushed over it as he asked, “Is everything settled? With my mom.”
“It will be, because I’ve got some information.”
“About the drugs?”
“Yes.” Prophet paused, wishing Remy didn’t have to know any of it. “How long have you known about it?”
“A long time,” Remy admitted. “So does that come out in court?”
“The only other thing I can have her do is keep it out and have her sign temporary guardianship until you’re seventeen. That’s probably the easiest option, lets her save face and it doesn’t put either of you through a trial.”
“And then what?”
“What about . . . adoption?”
That surprised Prophet, but not in a bad way. He hadn’t wanted to broach that, not this close to Etienne’s death. “I don’t know if we both can.”
“One of you can though, right?”
“We can do that, Rem, if that’s what you want. I can adopt you after you emancipate.”
He frowned, obviously trying to take it all in. “You can do that after I emancipate? It wouldn’t matter then.”
“It would to me.”
Remy blinked fast. Nodded. “It’s important.”
“Then consider it done.”
“You really don’t have any tattoos?”
“No. Tom draws them, but I don’t think he wants to settle on any one thing.”
“Well, you can’t do names.”
“I know that superstition.” Prophet paused. “What about the initials of kids I adopt?”
“I’m not a kid,” he said seriously. “Besides, are you planning on roaming the countryside looking for fucked-up kids to adopt?”
“No. And you’re not fucked up, Rem. Not even a little bit.”
His soft smile looked a lot like Etienne’s. “But my mom is.”
“Yeah, well . . . sometimes that happens. People can’t always help their addictions. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.”
Remy seemed to take a moment to absorb that before hitting Prophet with, “What about your mom?”
“What’s with all the hard questions tonight?”
Remy shrugged. “Remember this the next time you ask me all the questions.”
“Smart-ass.” Prophet sat back against the headboard and wondered if this kid was some kind of truth serum in the form of a teenage boy. “My mom’s bipolar. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s a mental disorder. It’s not uncommon and a lot of times, it’s really treatable. Her case is tougher than most. She needs medicine to regulate her moods, but a lot of the meds she’s tried don’t always work on her. And, even when they do, she doesn’t always take them because the disorder makes her confused.” Prophet said it that way as a reminder to himself, because she’d been addicted to drugs while he’d been younger. Because she hadn’t been diagnosed, she was always attempting to self-regulate, and twenty-twenty hindsight was a definite bitch. He’d hated her when she was using—and yet he’d always made sure she could get her fix and that she stayed safe. Knowing that she couldn’t have helped herself made him feel guiltier. “When I was younger, she didn’t know about the disorder, so she did a lot of drugs to make herself feel better.”
Remy processed that. “But that’s not why my mom does them.”
“People do drugs for all kinds of reasons, Rem. I’m not an expert on it—I just know why my mom got addicted. I didn’t back then.”
“Where is she now?”
“She lives in a place where they help her remember to take her meds and they keep her safe.”
“Did you make her go there?”
“No. She put herself in there. She didn’t want me to have to worry about her.” Not one hundred percent truth but relatively speaking, it was close enough.
“So she’s fine now?”
Prophet sighed. “Depends on the day, kid.”
“Does that run in your family?”
“My mom says no, but it can be inherited.”
“Because you’re always moody.”
“Bipolar and blind? What the hell are you trying to do to me?” Prophet joked.
Remy laughed, then got serious. “Where’s your dad?”
“Third fucking degree,” Prophet muttered, wondered if Tom was standing by the door gathering all this information. It was what he’d do if the roles were reversed, and hell, it would take care of him ever having to talk about it out loud again. “He died when I was around your age.”
“Was he nice?”
“No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t anything like your dad,” Prophet told him honestly, then realized that, at some point, Mal had entered the room and was sacked out in the corner chair, looking at an iPad. Later, Prophet knew he’d lie on the floor at Remy’s bedside. He’d put a cage around Remy and sleep on top of it if he thought Remy would let him . . . but Mal also knew the importance of not living like you were in prison.
“’S’all right, Rem. I’ve got a lot of chosen family around me.” He glanced up at Mal, whose only indication that he was listening was a small quirk of his mouth, like he was trying to hide a smile. “Why don’t you try to get some shut-eye?”
Remy complied without complaining, but only after he seemed to realize that Prophet would hang until he fell asleep. He put his head down and closed his eyes and after a few restless minutes where he complained that he would never be able to sleep, his breathing went deep and even.
It’d been a long day for all of them.
Ain’t family grand, Mal signed, the sarcasm heavy in his fingers.
This one’s not bad, Prophet signed back so as not to wake Remy and Mal gave a sharp nod.
Nope, not bad at all. But lying this close to a teenager made Prophet feel like he was back in his old bedroom, in his old skin, in a life that seemed so far away that it felt like it belonged to someone else at times . . .
Use the Rubik’s Cube simulator if you don’t have a real puzzle to play with. Set a random scramble and try to figure out the solution!