He groused inwardly at his fucked up fate. What the heck was up with his life lately? In the old days cities all had patron deities, and a pretty angry and vindictive lot they were if you asked him. Did Chicago have a patron god, even today? And if so, what the fuck had Aiden done to piss him off? Even as he was contemplating this a sudden blast of icy wind ripped around the house and threw itself at his backside so hard he was nearly bowled over, though thanks to the tough, heavy-duty hiking boots he habitually wore he just managed to keep his footing. “Jordan!” he bellowed furiously as he steadied himself, squinting through the curtained window-panes in the door at the well-lit kitchen and the shape of a man standing within. The figure, just barely perceptible through the gauzy curtain, had been moving around before, but was now stilled, a shadow of reticence. Aiden considered banging on the door again, but he didn’t want to pull his hands out of his pockets. He settled for more shouting. “Jordan Mackenzie Coffey, open the farking door!”
The door opened, but only a few inches. Jordan’s handsome face appeared in the gap. His expression was confident and amused, as usual, but there was an uncertain glint in his eye. “Does this situation really call for middle names and medieval curses?” he mock-remonstrated. He was a few inches taller, always seeming big and strong to Aiden, but he didn’t exploit his size to his advantage. He used humor to disarm others and wheedle his way into their defenses. It was how Aiden had fallen for him the first time, all those years ago, and it worked every time he saw him. Fuck if it wasn’t doing him in right now, even as he stood here, cold and angry and a little scared of whatever mess of Jordan’s had snared him by the ankles and pulled him in, too, dragging him back into the company of the man he’d known he could only get past by never laying eyes on him again. Aiden wanted to scream. He wanted to turn back around and get in his trusty old Altima and drive the fuck away and keep driving and never stop. But his booted feet remained firmly rooted to the planks of Jordan’s back deck. He had seen Jordan again, Jordan’s milk-chocolate eyes had lit upon him and snared him, and turning away from that was not something Aiden found coming easily to him at all.
There he was, the cocky bastard, watching him with an arched brow and that lopsided little curve to his full lips. Aiden’s temper flared again. He was in no mood for Jordan’s wry smugness. He contemplated brusquely shoving the door open, courtesy be damned. But as he stared into his ex’s warm, affection-filled eyes, he realized his insiders were fluttering with emotions he had never really cast aside. A surge of unwanted affection washed over him, and his anger and his instinct to violence drowned in it, foundering and vanishing under the merciless deluge.
He tried to keep up a front though, just to salvage his own pride. “Let me in!” he growled, but he winced to hear a note of pleading in his voice, one that had nothing to do with the cold.
For just a second Jordan worried his upper lip with his bottom teeth, a sure sign, Aiden knew, of some kind of inner conflict. Aiden couldn’t blame him. It had been nearly a year and a half since their break-up, and apart from a brief round of texting on Aiden’s birthday as few weeks ago there had been no contact. They might as well have never known each other, never even met. It must have been as painfully disorienting to Jordan as it had for Aiden after two years of delicious inseparability, Aiden knew, and as he stared at his erstwhile lover’s beautiful face, the shaved head he’d loved to caress, the strong shoulders traversed by inch-wide shoulder straps of a chest-hugging navy blue tank top that contrasted interestingly with his rich, caramel skin, Aiden understood with a truly painful squeeze of his heart that he still loved this man who’d angrily cast him aside only eighteen short months ago.
“Please, Joe,” he said, and he felt a lump in his throat at his own use of a nickname Jordan had only ever tolerated from him. “There’s something we have to talk about.”
Jordan looked at him a moment longer, as if weighing something in his head. There was no sound but the yowling wind as Jordan finally nodded, as if in agreement with Aiden’s statement. He nudged the door open, standing back from it by the wall, and Aiden brushed past him into the kitchen. He heard the door close behind him, and though the storm outside could still be heard the warm, cozy kitchen seemed hushed and still.
He’d been as blustery as the storm about getting in, but now that he was through the door Aiden didn’t want to be here. He was standing in the center of the room, his back to Jordan, and he found he wasn’t reading to face his lover just yet. The kitchen was warm and smelled of eggs and bacon and, he recognized, Jordan’s sandalwood soap. Music was playing softly from somewhere. He took a deep breath, almost panicking at the thought of confronting Jordan—it had been easy enough through the door, but now that he was inside was a very different matter. He wanted to laugh at himself. On stage, in clubs and small venues filled with smiling strangers, he bared his soul so easily, exposing memories and emotions with confidence and ease, his old guitar as much a part of him as his hands, his lips, his eyes that reached out to the eager crowd. But now, turning to face the love that had rejected him, no matter the danger he’d been warned of, was almost more than he could bear.
He saw that there was a full pot of coffee in Jordan’s high-end coffee maker, and with some effort he made himself walk across to the counter and take down a mug from the narrow cupboard directly over the machine. Before he could pour a cup, however, he heard Jordan’s rich baritone from behind him saying softly, “Give me your coat.”
Aiden gripped the mug tightly in both hands, annoyed at the way that voice always curled and twisted through his guts, especially when it was quiet and tender like that. Memories came to him unbidden of lush moments where Jordan’s warm voice in his ear had been all it took to arouse him, no matter whether they were naked in bed or fully clothed in line at the Coffee Studio or dancing close in their favorite club, Brick’s, Jordan wrapped around him from behind, his words and breath against Aiden’s ear putting them at one insular remove from the soundscape of deafening house music and the lustscape of hot and horny gay men, and even now, in Jordan’s quiet kitchen, his ex’s calm, simple request was all it took to awaken his sleeping cock and stir the old arousal in his suddenly aching balls. For a fleeting moment he was back there, at Brick’s, feeling the wall of sound and tasting the delicious sensations of Jordan wrapping himself around him, holding him close, his strong arms around him as he whispered about nothing in his ear, and then the feeling passed and he was in Jordan’s snug kitchen, some old Aerosmith song twining softly around them, and Aiden was left in an agony of wanting to be held like that by Jordan, one more time.
He felt Jordan moving closer behind him, and, trying to forestall what he knew would be Jordan’s next move—to reach around Aiden and start taking the coat off for him—Aiden set down the mug with a clatter and started fumbling at the buttons of his heavy pea coat. Releasing each button felt unnervingly like snapping open locks on a heavily secured iron door, one deadbolt after another, until there were no locks left.
Once he’d undone all the buttons he dropped his hands to his sides. At the same time he felt Jordan’s hands on his shoulders, and he shivered. He stood as still as a frightened deer as Jordan gently grasped the collars of Aiden’s coat and slowly pulled it off him before moving away with it to hang it somewhere, leaving Aiden standing by the counter feeling naked and unprotected in just his thin, red hoodie. He wasn’t wearing anything underneath, and he felt his nipples pebble and harden, brushing against the fabric, despite the comfortable warmth inside the house. The knit hat came smoothly off him too then, and it was still unexpected for all that Aiden had known it was coming next. Aiden didn’t obsess about his appearance but he liked to be put together, and being aware of how mussed his shaggy, shoulder-length ash-blond hair probably was made him feel that much more vulnerable. He pulled the carafe out of the coffee maker and poured a mug of dark java for himself with a shaking hand.
“You hungry?” Jordan asked, suddenly close behind him again, and Aiden started, sloshing the coffee he was pouring so that some of it poured onto the counter. He quickly righted the carafe and rattled it into its seat, then looked around for the paper towels to mop up the spilled liquid, his nerves jangling. Jordan, however, somehow already had the dishrag that hung from the drawer handle immediately to Aiden’s right. He reached around Aiden and started carefully mopping up the spill. “Lift the mug up a second,” Jordan murmured in Aiden’s ear, and Aiden did as he was asked, even as his dick filled with blood to rigid hardness so fast he almost felt light-headed. What was wrong with him? The fucker dumped you, he told himself, but a little mundane kitchen talk in your ear and you’re a goddamned goner. Pathetic, he hissed inwardly. But he could not stop the pounding of his heart, or the raging need of his cock, or the swirling desire in his gut. Jordan stayed close behind him as he worked, so close Aiden was basking in his warmth, his skin of his back tingling under his hoodie at the electric nearness of Jordan’s hot, barely covered torso.
After a moment of ragged breaths and unnaturally loud heartbeats, Aiden realized that Jordan had stopped moving, his powerful hand just resting on the counter still gripping the dishrag, next to the mug where Aiden had set it down again. Their hands were inches apart, his pale skin alongside Jordan’s darker tone, and Aiden longed to move his hand just those few inches, to wrap his hand around Jordan’s fist. “Joe,” he begged, though he wasn’t sure what he was begging for. He wanted to be released from this unbearable stimulation, but another part of him did not want that, not at all, not ever. He tried to remind himself of Jordan’s cold dismissal, his sudden, unprovoked announcement that they could not be together. That Jordan … had never loved him. That he thought being with Aiden was the biggest mistake he’d ever made. But the inward protest just wouldn’t take. He knew, in this moment, that it had been a lie, it must have been a lie. He knew it down to his toes, because he could feel Jordan’s love for him though his skin, penetrating him, nurturing him, awakening from uneasy slumber Aiden’s own epic love and undying need for this one man. Even as they stood there, he could feel their souls mixing together again, twisting around and through each other, becoming one.
“I … missed you,” Jordan breathed falteringly in his ear, his voice raw and emotional. Aiden’s heart slammed against his chest, his cheeks hot and his dick surging in his jeans. Aiden felt a strange wetness of his neck, and realized with a wrench of his heart that they must be Jordan’s tears. “I’m sorry, Ade,” Jordan whispered. “I’m so … I’m so sorry.”
Aiden could not resist any longer. It was the simplest possible action, and all his barriers were torn down and lay in ruins. He did the thing he needed to do to let Jordan know it was all okay, or would be all okay. He leaned back, eliminating the sliver of space between them, and as he felt the warm strength of Jordan’s chest against his back Aiden closed his eyes and sighed in relief mixed with resignation. It was permission. More than that, it was forgiveness, though the terrified fringes of his brain vibrated with a need to break free, to deny, to never forgive. It did not matter. He loved Jordan, and that was all there was to it. He owned this about himself, because that was who he was, though with all that had happened eighteen months ago he’d be damned if he said the words again before Jordan did. Jordan’s arms were around him in a rush of palpable want, and a bolt of arousal raced through every cell of Aiden’s body.
Somewhere in the background Mick was singing now, his voice sounding as raw as Aiden felt. Wild horses, he crooned sadly. Wild, wild horses…
Hot, tender lips touched Aiden’s wet neck, and suddenly Aiden couldn’t take it anymore. He twisted round in Jordan’s embrace and opened his eyes long enough to see Jordan’s chocolate brown gaze blazing down at him, dark with desire. He closed them again as he crashed his mouth against Jordan’s. Jordan opened for him immediately as he tightened his embrace, and Aiden did the same, flinging his arms tightly around Jordan’s broad, muscular back as they shoved their groins together, their erections jostling eagerly against each other through too many clothes. Aiden’s mind spun in a cyclone of intoxicating stimulation and giddy reunion with the only man he’d ever wanted.
The kiss and the contact was so hot, so necessary in fact, that it felt like only seconds had elapsed before there was a sudden tingle at the base of his spine and Aiden realized he was on the verge of a huge, unstoppable orgasm. He broke the kiss and opened his eyes to stare up at Jordan with shock, their faces close, mouths barely separated. Jordan seemed inflamed by what he saw in Aiden’s eyes and squeezed them even close together, their rigid, aching dicks mashed against each other as if the denim between them did not exist.
“Do it,” Jordan breathed, before urgently reclaiming Aiden’s mouth in a ferocious kiss, and as they kissed and rutted against each other they both came hard, moaning into each other’s mouths as phenomenal orgasms rocketed through them both. Aiden came over and over, as if he’d never had an orgasm in his life, and his mind swam as he and Jordan collapsed against each other, their arms wrapped tightly around each other’s bodies like a promise, like they would never, ever let go again.
After a while Aiden surfaced from euphoric mindlessness to find that they were still embracing, though they were swaying now, as if dancing to the classic rock playing quietly in the background—Aerosmith now, he realized, though he wasn’t sure he recognized the song. He let himself melt into Jordan. It felt like the best hug ever. His thoughts nagged at him, though. He’d come here for a reason. “Joe,” Aiden started to say reluctantly, but Jordan cut him off.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Jordan said in his ear, his deep voice still gentle and rough at the same time.
Aiden licked his lips. “Okay,” he said, nestling a little more against Jordan’s next, his body. If they both had things to say, he was glad to let Jordan go first. He let his fingers skate along Jordan’s spine through the ribbed tank as they held each other.
“I—um,” Jordan faltered. “I’ve been …” he stopped, then started again, more resolutely. “Somebody did something to me,” he said. “They changed me.” He paused and did not continue right away.
“What do you mean?” Aiden prompted quietly, not moving. His head was against Jordan’s shoulder, and he could faintly feel Jordan’s fast-beating heart. Whatever this was, Jordan was finding it difficult to say, and Aiden knew he had to hear him out.
“They changed my … my body,” Jordan said finally. “They were … they were trying to do bad things to me, to turn me into a monster. But I kinda think they improved me,” he added suddenly, with a hint of bravado. Then, more warmly: “I sure like it. Right now, in this moment, I like it a lot.”
“I don’t understand,” Aiden said. But something told him he did, and was just enjoying this embrace too much to let himself process what he was experiencing as Jordan held him.
Slowly and deliberately, Jordan squeezed Aiden’s ass cheek with one hand, and the other cheek with his other hand. Aiden’s cock twitched and started trying to get hard again, despite having spent itself so thoroughly only moment ago. Then, just as deliberately, Jordan, still holding onto Aiden’s ass, curled and then straightened the hand that was resting against the left side of his upper back, then, finally, the one opposite it.
A shudder coursed through Aiden, because Jordan’s revelation did in fact confirm what he’d been feeling. This embrace was feeding something deep inside Aiden, much to the dismay and chagrin of the frightened corners of his mind that demanded the safety of independence and isolation, especially from the one man who had hurt him more than anyone, the one man he loved unconditionally, the love of his fucking life. This moment was beautiful and deeply needed, and most of that was because Aiden needed Jordan, and Jordan, however much he’d forced himself never to think of Aiden this past year and a half, Jordan needed him just as badly. It was mostly that. But there was more to this embrace than there had ever been, and he’d known it. A stronger, more comforting, more loving embrace than he’d ever known, than there had ever been.
Jordan had felt the shudder, however, and was making to try to pull away. Aiden clasped his own arms even harder around Jordan’s well-muscled bag, gripping him to him as hard as he could. “Don’t,” he demanded, and Jordan stilled. “Don’t let go. Don’t you fucking let go.” Jordan restrengthened his hold around him, and Aiden sighed. He lifted his face so he could look Jordan straight in the eye. He hadn’t expected this. He’d buried all these feelings six feet under, deep as they would go, far from the light, far from conscious thought. And Jordan had too, he was certain. But Aiden was the kind of man who owned what he was and what he felt. “Don’t let go,” he repeated. Not a plea, but an instruction. No, a fucking demand.
Jordan’s sweet, full lips curved in a tender smile. “Never again,” he said, and kissed him. When the broke the kiss they were looking into each other’s eyes again, and Jordan, without breaking the gaze, lifted a hand to brush Auden’s hair off his forehead and around his ear, all the while maintaining a tight, passionate embrace with his other arms, pressing Aiden tight against him. Despite having reached orgasm only moments ago, at the impossible touch Aiden’s dick started to stiffen rapidly against the cold, wet denim, and he felt Jordan’s fat prick responding in kind through the sopping layers of clothing between them.
Jordan’s smile broadened, his eyes twinkling. “You like being held like this?” he said teasingly.
Aiden gave him an answering smile. He was gone. The dams he’d built up eighteen months ago to protect himself, to hold himself sane, were crumbled, destroyed, washed away. There was nothing holding him back now. He didn’t want to appear all mushy, though, so he went for breezy backtalk. “Fuck yeah,” he said, though he said it fondly anyway as it turned out, as if he were declaring his true feelings for Jordan.
“Yeah?” Jordan asked, sounding amused. He ground his hard-on sensuously against Aiden’s, and Aiden’s body sang with titanic, overwhelming arousal.
“Yeah,” Aiden affirmed, already starting to pant a little, his face flushing. They were still gazing into each other’s eyes, and Aiden was drowning in the love and need he saw there. “You can have all the arms you want if it means being held like this.”
Jordan’s eyes glinted. “You want more?” he asked.
Aiden blinked at him. He sounded serious. Their hearts were pounding hard, slamming against their chests, and Aiden could feel them both. “More?” he breathed.
Jordan shifted his eyes to look past him, tilting his head slightly as if inviting someone forward, his smile now crooked again and just a little uncertain. And then… then…
The embrace refolded around him from two directions, a fierce clinch that captured him between two strong bodies. Well-muscled caramel arms squeezed him around his shoulders from both directions, while more arms held them all close together, heated crotches and raging erections pressing against him from both sides. “Something else happened to me,” Jordan said soberly, looking down at him, eyes dark with unstoppable arousal once more.
Another voice spoke against his ear. Jordan’s voice. He knew that voice, just as he knew Jordan’s body. It could not be anyone else but Jordan. “There are two of me now,” the voice said, and Aiden, without meaning to, let out a moan than seemed to come from somewhere deep inside him. “I don’t know why,” the Jordan behind him went on, “but we’re both … me.”
Aiden craned his head around enough to see Jordan, holding him fast from behind, watching him closely with smoldering brown eyes. He turned back, this time letting his eyes trail across the bulging doubled deltoids of Jordan’s amazing shoulders, on their way up to Jordan’s beautiful, entrancing face. He met Jordan’s eyes, the Jordan holding him just as close. He was watching Aiden just as closely. They seemed to be trying to wait for him, but their bodies could not wait. They were rocking together, their dicks aching as they ground against each other’s hips and legs and everything, and Aiden felt himself surging again toward orgasm, harder and more aroused than he had ever been in his life. But this time, cumming in his pants as they mashed themselves together, hot and needy and drunk with passion in the middle of the kitchen floor—this time that was not going to be enough. Not nearly enough.
“Bed,” he commanded, looking Jordan right in his dark, unwavering eyes.
Jordan’s brows drew together fractionally as they held each other’s gaze, but it was the other Jordan who spoke. “Ade—” the Jordan behind him said against his neck. He sounded cautious, as if he didn’t want to push Aiden too far, too soon. Fuck that.
He closed his eyes and held Jordan hard and the two Jordans held him just as tightly. He was trying to communicate, chest to chest to chest, everything that he was feeling, everything that bound them together. He knew now what that unknown text had been about. The first part of it anyway. The part that said Jordan’s betrayals had made him into a teratism, an unholy monster. The part that warned him urgently that only Aiden could save him from the violence and persecution that awaited him—that wasn’t as clear. And the last part, the dark hints and warnings about what would happen to Jordan if he didn’t submit, Aiden didn’t understand, but if some strange force could shift and twist the world so completely from its moorings as to bring about what Aiden was now feeling, wrapped deep in passion and love, the possibilities for further retribution might be far beyond what either of them could imagine.
He wasn’t sure what the strange text portended, but he was glad of it, for this, and for the clarity of this moment. He knew now what had never fully been clear to him before: for all that Jordan was taller and stronger and more outwardly cocky than Aiden, the truth was that Aiden’s own strength of mind and body was of a greater caliber than he had ever had cause to test. Jordan was the one who had not been strong enough all those months ago, because he’d pulled back from Aiden’s strength, not realizing they were strongest together. That, he vowed to himself, was something that would never happen again. Jordan—both Jordans—were his to protect. His and his alone. To protect, and love. And he was Jordan’s, to love and protect as well. They were three now. But they were also one.
He huffed a breath against Jordan’s shoulder, sighing. He brought his lips to Jordan’s neck. Jordan’s skin was hot, and he touched his lips to it, feeling the little kiss all the way to his swollen, roiling balls and his rigid, thrusting cock. The muted wails of Joe Perry’s guitar wound around them like red ribbon.
“I need you,” he said against the neck, and he knew that what he was saying now was the truest thing he’d ever said. “I need you both. Whatever else happens, I need you both.”
At first Jordan had thought it was straightforward graft—money in exchange for power and influence. A string of eight disappearances down on the docks and rumors of worse and more numerous crimes kept linking to powerful people in city and state government, business leaders, people like that. Every interview of these high-levels person of interest played out the same way: a polite pretense of cooperation that amounted to clamming up about anything important to the case. Jordan was lucky, in that there was something about his face that made people want to confide in him, and when he descended from the city’s glass towers to darker and seedier locales he started hearing a lot of strange things. Every witness and low-level informant seemed both afraid and desperate to warn him about whatever was going on—human trafficking, some said; a covert army, someone hissed; others prattled on about beasts and monsters. Then the witnesses and informants started disappearing too, even the ones no one knew about but the police themselves.
Jordan wanted to dig deeper, call together a task force, push this until it broke. But Captain Hester kept shutting him down at every turn, dismissing the hints and whispers that ties these VIPs to the case as insubstantial one day and as attempts to smear good citizens on another. Jordan smelled a rat, but he kept his anxieties to himself and tried to find out more on his own. It was only after he’d slipped an illicit bug into the limo of one the most nervous of his high-ranking persons of interest, a faint-hearted big-church evangelical minister named Walcox whose smarmy brashness behind the pulpit was all a complete act, that he first heard hushed, fearful mention of a shadowy figure called “the Warlock” in the midst of a furtive phone conversation with an unknown party. The generation of that lead was totally worth a night of posing as a valet parking attendant, he’d thought.
But confronting Walcox in his office the next day with a sudden, curious inquiry—”Reverend, who’s the Warlock?”—might have been a mistake. Watching all the blood drain from Walcox’s face confirmed he was on to something, but the reverend’s visible, abject terror also told him he had a tiger by the tail. Either way, he got no further useful information from him—no more words at all, in fact, as the minister immediately called in a pair of Neanderthal-sized “ushers” to see him forcibly out. An hour later he was called on the carpet, Hester shouting at him for exceeding his orders in interviewing Walcox (bullshit) and for willfully violating procedure by placing the bug (fair enough). Jordan was suspended and warned that the B.I.A. was already on the case and he could expect formal charges… unless he resigned outright.
Jordan was uncontrite. To him, Hester’s instant response, minutes after the interview with Walcox, meant only one thing: his captain was in on it. In fact, it turned out that wasn’t even the half of it. A week of rifling through case files and whispered conversations convinced him that Hester wasn’t just in on it, he was right at the heart of it, giving orders and instigating cover-ups and disappearances. Jordan documented everything he could, hoping one day to find the right leverage to end Hester’s corruption, and the Warlock’s growing hold on the city with it.
The clincher, though, came the night he followed Hester to a secret meeting in a closed section of a sprawling, little-visited modern art gallery a few blocks from downtown. Jordan tracked him silently into the gallery and found a perfect hiding space, watching his quarry unseen from a dark corner through a half-inch gap between two wide pedestals. Hester seemed nervous, and when a second figure appeared in the darkness, the bluff, hard-nosed Hester went as white as Walcox had, and he remained uncharacteristically deferential throughout the brief interview. The second figure was tall and gaunt, with a narrow, pale face he couldn’t quite see clearly enough to recognize in the poorly-lit room. Jordan had thought he had positioned himself close enough to overhear their conversation, but all he heard was mumbles and indistinct sounds, as if something was preventing him from hearing. At one point, the second figure turned and seemed to peer straight at his hiding place, and Jordan froze, heart pounding, until the figure turned blithely away.
The meeting ended, and Hester bolted as quickly as he could. Jordan followed the second man, using all his skills to remain absolutely silent and undetected as the figure stalked through the mostly empty gallery and straight across the quiet street to his car, a blood-red Buick land-yacht gleaming under the street lamps. Jordan stiffened where he lurked deep in the shadows by the gallery entrance, watching the car drive away. He knew that car. He’d interviewed the owner as the man had been leaving an alderman’s meeting early in the investigation: he was one of the VIPs rumored to be implicated in the disappearances, and the only one to be completely cleared by alibis and evidence. Jordan had watched him drive away then, too, that time in broad daylight, and with the same brooding unhappiness. He’d had a weird take on the guy then, like his skin might start crawling if he spent too much time with the man… and now he knew why. Calm, unassuming alderman Owen Vasher was the Warlock—the supposedly sorcerous kingpin behind a sprawling clandestine conspiracy the purpose of which Jordan could only guess at.
The texts had started the next day.
Evidently Vasher had spotted him after all, and had either recognized him or put two and two together after hearing Hester’s reports of a certain newly raised and much-too-intrepid detective. “I never end lives,” promised the first text. “Only… alter them. People can become other things… monsters… and still live.” This was followed by a picture of his four-year-old niece, Jessica. It was a candid shot of her playing in her backyard pool, taken from only a few feet away, and Jordan knew with a sinking heart that it hadn’t been taken by his brother, Ryan, or by Ryan’s wife Olivia. More threats followed: Jordan must quit the force and end his investigations, or face the consequences.
Enraged and cornered, Jordan resigned, and Hester made sure he departed in disgrace. That night he sent back a single text, somehow knowing it would be received even though his phone should have had no information on where to send it. “My family and friends are to be left alone,” he typed, practically growling as he did so. “You claim not to kill. I take that to mean you have a code of honor. I may be beaten, but I will not allow you to punish innocents for my actions. I demand you hold me and me alone responsible.” He wanted to say more—that he would end him, that he would bring justice to everyone Vasher had wronged and abused—but there were lives at stake. Vasher and Hester had to believe that he was done digging, but he needed to try to protect his loved ones before he withdrew into the shadows.
A minute passed before the chilling reply: “So be it.”
Jordan listened pensively as green-tank Jordan explained all of this to Aiden—everything he’d kept from his lover as he’d gotten more and more obsessed with the Warlock case. Outside, the storm seemed to be winding down, but the cold, wet winds were still whipping around the house like they wanted to tear it down. After months and months on his own it, the solid presence of his sudden, inexplicable clone was oddly comforting—and dependable, feet-on-the-ground Aiden, too. He and Charlie and the house weren’t facing the tempest alone anymore.
“So that’s why you broke up with me,” Aiden said, as Jordan’s other self related the events of his humiliating resignation from the force. He looked fresh and alert after their bedroom adventure and post-coital showers, and the way his long ash-blond hair combed back, still damp from the shower, made him look kind of fierce. “You thought you were trying to protect me.”
Green Tank grimaced. “I was frayed,” he admitted. “And worried and angry. I had Vasher’s promise that he’d only go after me, and I believed him. But someone going after me might still hurt you. Of course, I was picturing a hail of bullets, not…” He gestured at himself and Jordan, and the two of them shared identical crooked grins.
Aiden smiled too, but it faded quickly. “I remember how upset you were back then,” he said. He fixed both of them with a steely gaze and added, “And I was furious you wouldn’t talk to me about it.”
Green Tank sighed. “I know.” He scraped his fork around his mostly empty plate, then set it down and fell back in his chair. “I’m… sorry,” he said quietly, not quite meeting Aiden’s eyes.
“Me too,” Jordan added. He didn’t look over at Green Tank, but he knew they were feeling the same thing. They were the same, both Jordan, but not. The only difference was the ribbed tanks, and yet—he was already thinking of himself as Blue Tank, a consequence of the lines of thought he’d been considering while Aiden was getting caught up, about what they would have to do next.
Blue Tank, Green Tank—it kind of worked, he thought, distracting himself. Should they try to keep up some kind of identifying designations after all? He kind of felt like there wasn’t really a reason to need to tell them apart… but would that always be true? That was an unsettling thought. Anyway, if they went with Blue and Green he’d have to—er, they’d have to throw away all their non-blue, non-green tanks, which would be a shame. Unless they went with something like Warm Colors Jordan and Cool Colors Jordan. No, then Cool Colors would think he was cooler than his duplicate. Primary and Secondary Colors? Fuck, that was worse. No. Whatever tanks they wore, that would be how they did it, one day at a time. He nodded, sure that made the sense and wondering if he was right to assume his other self would agree.
Aiden considered them both. “So what happened?” he asked. “Why did he attack you anyway, after all this time?” Before either of them could answer, though, he tilted his head and said, “Wait, let me guess. You kept investigating, and then about three weeks ago someone finally cottoned on you were still at it. Am I getting warm?”
“Pretty much. Though there’s a little more to it,” Green Tank said. Then he frowned at Aiden. “Wait—what made you say ‘three weeks ago’?”
Aiden gave them a steady look. “Because,” he said, “that’s when I got my first text.”
They both looked up at him in horror. “No,” Blue Tank said, while at the same time Green Tank said, “Show us.”
Aiden was already pulling out his phone. He fingered the text app open and handed it to Green Tank, presumably because he’d been handling the exposition so far. Blue Tank shifted his chair a few inches to the right and draped both his right arms around his double’s broad, warm-skinned shoulder, and Green Tank tilted the phone a bit toward him while, at the same time, withdrawing his left hands from his lap and wrapping them loosely around Blue Tank’s lower back. The contact was gratifying, and he had to nudge his brain into focusing on the text messages Aiden was showing them. Charlie, responding to the movement, stood up from the corner where he’d been curled up and stalked under the little round table, plunking himself down onto both Jordans’ bare feet.
There seemed to be two messages. One was, indeed, dated just over three weeks back. It said only, “Your friend Jordan risks all.” They both looked up at Aiden, who shrugged. “I just thought it was some weird kind of spam,” he said. “I didn’t think it meant anything until I read the second one. And,” he added, eyes glinting, “can I just say… fuck, seeing two of you, Joe, all close and cuddly like that—that is so incredibly hot.” He raked his eyes over their faces, their bulging, mostly bared, sun-bronzed shoulders, and their long, powerful multiplied arms full of rippling, corded muscle, then back up to their faces; and if his eyes were glinting before, they were positively alight now. “I really need you guys to make out for a little while now,” he urged, his voice just a little huskier than before. He licked his lips. “If you wouldn’t mind.”
Blue Tank felt his skin heat up in reaction to all that, but he kept his face impassive, guessing his double was doing the same, only going so far as to raise an eyebrow at him. “You saw us kiss before,” he said, letting just a hint of sauce slip into his voice. “Back in the bedroom.”
“I know,” Aiden said, eyes positively blazing. “And I really want to see it again. Besides, that was around my cock,” he added. “Not quite the same thing.”
Blue Tank realized his dick was swelling in his soft knockaround jeans, and pretty soon he’d be running out of space down there. Meanwhile, Green Tank was rubbing his thigh against his own, clearly as affected as he was. “Christ, Ade,” Green Tank said, “were you always this horny?”
“Actually I was,” Aiden said pointedly. “You were busy playing crusader detective.”
Blue Tank actually felt his face fall. His dick deflated a bit too, though not all the way. He exchanged a glance with his double for almost the first time since they’d sat down to breakfast, meeting his other self’s warm, chocolate-brown eyes. Like so much else, this was something they shared: responsibility for ignoring a good and true man while pursuing a job that started out feeling like a calling and that had slowly become an obsession. He shifted his bare feet under Charlie’s warm, furry body, and found his double was doing the same. The truth was, neglecting Aiden hadn’t been intentional… but it had made it easier to convince himself that pulling the plug and walking away to protect his lover had been the right thing to do. He felt pained, and incredibly guilty. “Ade, I—” they both said together. Another shared glance, then back to Aiden. “We—”
“I know, Joe. It’s okay,” Aiden said, meeting both their gazes, and in those always unyielding eyes Jordan saw compassion, and understanding, and, most amazing of all, endless love. A gentle smile softened his angled, beautiful face. All the anger he’d stormed in with seemed to have melted away—almost all of it, anyway. “It’s okay,” he repeated, raising an eyebrow to emphasize his point.
Jordan’s heart constricted. He’d always been the bigger one, but Aiden… Aiden was fierce. Fierce, and awesome. “I love you,” he said impulsively, though once again it came out in perfect unison with his double. They both snorted a laugh, then said together, “We love you.”
Aiden’s smile widened. “I know that, too.” He sobered a little and nodded toward the phone with his chin. “Read the second text.”
Dutifully, they looked down at Aiden’s phone, and Green Tank used his other right hand to scroll up. Convenient. The second text was longer, and timestamped the afternoon before. “Your detective’s fate is sealed,” it said. “Spell by spell, twist by twist, a teratism made not born, that all will know what betrayal looks like. Only you can divert what is to come. The horrors that await him no man should endure. The Warlock does not forgive.”
They digested the words thoughtfully. “I assume you looked up ‘teratism’,” Green Tank said, just before Blue Tank would have asked the same thing.
“Monster,” Aiden said blandly. The two Jordans nodded—that’s what they’d guessed. “Specifically,” Aiden went on, “it’s usually applied to a fetal monster, a misdeveloped child. Originally, the product of baleful magic.” He bit his red lower lip. “Not sure why a fetus or child—maybe to signal that this is a beginning.”
“Hmm,” Blue Tank mused. “Like, fucking us up is the start of a new era? More overt, more destructive.”
“Could be,” Aiden said thoughtfully.
“I don’t get it, though,” Green Tank said. “Because—we aren’t monsters. Right? Not they way they mean, hideous and terrifying and nauseatingly wrong.”
“From where I’m sitting, you two are pretty much the opposite of hideous,” Aiden said. His little smirk was kind of hot, like he knew exactly what he wanted to do with them.
The two Jordans snorted. “And then there’s these texts,” Blue Tank went on. To Green Tank he said, “You noticed, right—?”
“—They’re not like ours,” Green Tank agreed. “Both warnings, but the message—”
“Ours are all ‘I will fuck you up’,” Blue Tank jumped in.
“And Ade’s are like, ‘He will fuck him up’.” They both abruptly turned toward Aiden, excited. “There’s someone else,” they said together. “Someone interfering,” Green Tank said, and Blue Tank added, “Someone who hasn’t bought into the whole Warlock agenda.”
Aiden was blinking at them, not hiding that he was impressed. “You guys really are detectives,” he said appreciatively. “Like, made that way.”
Blue Tank and Green Tank gave him matching shit-eating grins. “And now there’s two of us,” Blue Tank said.
“Ugh,” Aiden groused, tightening his scarf around his face and neck. “This wind is chapping my ass. Can’t we go back in and cuddle?”
“Too late, princess,” Blue Tank teased, tossing him a wide, weather-loving grin as the three of them braced themselves against the storm’s crazed buffeting and started fighting their way toward their vehicles. The storm seemed to agree with Aiden and was doing its best to make his warm, cozy kitchen seem like the most welcoming place in the universe, but they had people to see and things to do.
While Green Tank had been explaining things to Aiden, Blue Tank had been trying to think ahead. Stopping the Warlock was their number one priority. Protecting Aiden, getting his life back, exposing Hester, ridding Chicago of the villainous sorcerer’s baleful influence—it all came down to the same thing. The trouble was how to do it. As Aiden and his doppelgänger had worked through the situation, he’d come reluctantly to the conclusion that good police work and dogged determination on his part weren’t going to cut it. They needed to know what they were up against, magic-wise. And that meant they needed an ally who had a foot in both worlds.
He’d come to another conclusion, too. There was no way in hell that he was going to hide in his house and make himself into the monster his nemesis wanted him to think he was. The Warlock could work him over all he liked, but Jordan wasn’t going to do the fucker’s work for him.
Taking a prompt from the “there’s two of us now” comment, Green Tank and Blue Tank, after working out what they needed to try next, took advantage of Jordan’s increased numbers and decided to split up. After all, if a cop finally could be in two places at once, why not take advantage of it? So Green Tank and Aiden would be taking Aiden’s Altima to follow witchy leads, and Blue Tank would follow up on the flatfoot side of things with pretty much the last detective on the force who’d ever be suspected of helping out disgraced corrupt ex-cop Jordan Coffey. It was a long shot, and not without a risk of backfiring badly, but both Jordans recknoed it was a lead that needed pursuing now that things were coming down to the wire.
Charlie trotted happily beside them, untroubled by the wind ruffling his fur. He’d perked up as they’d risen from the table and started getting ready, and had pretty much insisted on joining them rather than remaining in an empty house being rattled by howling winds, knowing what a softie his masters were; so he’d be coming with Blue Tank. Jordan had told Aiden it was to balance things out—”one adorable puppy per team,” he’d said with a bit of glee, earning him a sour look from the long-haired blond and a happy, tongue-wagging pant from the big, dark-muzzled German shepherd.
The three of them hugged when they got to Jordan’s pickup, Green Tank and Aiden both offering him brief, chilly-lipped goodbye kisses before trudging against the wind back to Aiden’s dark Altima, which was parked just behind Jordan’s forest-green F-150. Blue Tank opened the door and Charlie immediately jumped into the cab, and Blue Tank climbed in after him. He was kind of curious to see if driving felt any different with all the extra arms. He and his double were both wearing coats long enough to hide the surplus arms and hands, not that they’d withstand very close inspection; but he’d kept his coat open, and now he made a point of reaching over and scratching Charlie’s head while simultaneously starting the engine, putting the truck in gear and taking the wheel. His stomach fluttered as he smiled. He might be a monster, but he was going to make this thing work his way no matter what. A moment later Aiden and Green Tank pulled out, and Blue Tank followed suit, turning the other way toward the north shore when they got to the first major cross-street out of his neighborhood. He wondered if the little twinge of separation he felt as he watched the car containing his other self getting further and further away in the rear-view mirror was all in his head.
The wind off the lake was strong enough to try pushing even his two-ton pickup around, and Blue Tank kept two hands on the wheel and a third absently scritching around the ears of a very contented Charlie as he headed for his destination a mile or so up the shore. He checked his phone to confirm the directions. There had been a brief discussion about which of them got the phone and the driver’s license, and they’d reluctantly concluded Blue Tank needed both, since Green Tank would be with Aiden—but they’d have to at least get a second phone, and maybe dupes of other stuff, too. At least his backup meant they both could have weapons if need be, though neither of them was carrying on this trip. Someday soon, though, they’d both be going into danger, and on that score, at least, they’d both be prepared.
No way Ade would be present when any of that went down, though.
Twenty minutes of storm-dampened Sunday traffic later, Blue Tank was pulling into the asphalt driveway of a small two-tier house almost hidden away behind a heavy swath of blue fir trees, all of them waving and ruffling in the wind and spreading their heady scent through the whole secluded neighborhood. He pulled his truck around behind the house and got out, Charlie jumping down after him. But after closing up and remote-locking the truck and zipping up his coat (with his extra arms inside), Blue Tank turned his back on the house and headed down to the medium-sized houseboat moored at a small private dock directly behind the house, right on the choppy lake. Blue Tank boarded the boat and moved directly to the door that led down into the boat’s residential space, giving it three hard raps. Charlie sat next to him, a picture of patience and loyalty.
After several long moments the door opened. Warm air rushed out, instantly buffeted away by the cold wind. Despite the storm, the man who greeted him was wearing red-orange board shorts and nothing else, and as always he looked like a model for one of those Instagram channels dedicated to proving that only east Asian men were capable of achieving the ultimate expression of sculpted, perfectly defined male beauty—though unlike most of those Adonises this man had a thin brush of dark hair between his full, defined pecs, a lightly stubbled jaw, and a knowing, experienced look in his shrewd, dark eyes.
The man froze when he saw who his visitor was. “Coffey,” he said cautiously after a moment, taking in without comment the stern expression, the watchful dog, and the bulky dark knee-length coat that seemed to be hiding something.
“Hey, Chen,” Blue Tank said calmly. “How’s things in Internal Affairs?”
Chen stared at him a moment longer, the gears of his mind clearly turning as he did so. “You’d better come in,” he said finally, “before you freeze my nipples off.”
The first interview was very brief.
Green Tank climbed the steps of the narrow, three-story brick townhouse and rapped loudly on the cheery door. On the way over, he’d explained to Aiden how he’d discovered the lead in his most recent round of investigation just after the New Year, when he’d gotten up the nerve to break into a storage space owned by one of the shell corporations that laborious research the previous year had shown to be connected to Hester’s wife. (Even though it was accomplished with a stolen key, swiftly copied and returned, and Jordan had been sure he’d gotten in an out undetected, it must have been this break-in that had alerted the bad guys to the investigations Jordan continued but had been trying to conceal under the cover of the other, totally mundane cases he’d taken as a P.I.)
In the storage space were boxes of documents, and on some of these papers Jordan had noticed various doodles and marginalia that amounted to Hester writing his thoughts out in stream of consciousness fashion, trying to puzzle through various problems threatening his schemes and cover-ups. There was a thick file on him, of course, with unnerving detail about his doings before his resignation and notes like “need him disgraced” and, underlined, “stonewall him”, with “maverick” underneath—Jordan’s first discomforting indication that he’s been maneuvered into giving himself the rope to be hung on. Also included in these files, though, was a very revealing page with the names and addresses of various magic or wicca stores in the city, which Hester had apparently checked out as a matter of routine just to be sure they didn’t pose any possible danger to his sorcerer boss. All the entries were crossed out except the last one, which had only the name “Cougar”, this address, and the words “possible threat”.
Within moments the door opened opened to reveal a short, cheery faced woman with short curly hair, rosy cheeks, and—bizarrely—a Christmas-themed sweater covered in candy canes and reindeer, even though the holidays were already a month behind them. Green Tank barely had time to register this curious attire before the cheery-faced woman took in his appearance and then fixated on his coat, which was doing only a marginal job of hiding the extra set of thick-muscled arms that Green Tank happened to have secreted away within. Her eyes went comically wide, staring first at the coat and then up at him, and then, without a word, she slammed the door shit, right in his face.
Green Tank stared at the door in amazement for a moment, then turned to look down at Aiden. “I think we’re at the right place, don’t you?” he asked, bemused. Aiden, still amusingly swathed in cap and scarf so that not much more than his bright, blue-gray eyes were showing, nodded mutely. Lips curving, Green Tank brought his knuckles up and rapped again, a little harder this time.
This time when the door opened they were greeted by a slinky, thin, goateed man all in black. He gave Green Tank only a glance and ignored Aiden completely, merely pulling back the door and gesturing for them to come in. Still without saying anything he led them through the short foyer and up a curving staircase to a large, formal sitting room well let by light from a wide bay window. They followed, and Green Tank wondered if the slinky walk was an affectation offered only certain kinds of visitors.
As soon as they entered the room, everything around him—the floor, the walls, the very air—seemed to burn with yellow fire. Green Tank felt a sudden rush of sexual awareness, as if his libido had been turned up to eleven and was infusing itself though every inch of his flesh. He felt strong and masculine and attractive, and very, very aroused. His clothes felt confining, and the coat hiding his extra arms was ridiculous and had to go—he clenched his fists to keep them from reaching up and ripping the thing off him, though everything in him longed to be free and bare. But his thoughts of himself fled as he beheld his lover, Aiden, this exquisite man who blazed with animal ferocity, his eyes as they stared up at him nearly incandescent with it. They moved closer to each other, barely aware they had done so, and then suddenly they were kissing passionately.
The kiss broke, they moved back, and everything was changed. The fire was gone like a light had been switched off. The room was calm, bathed only in the cold, blue light of a stormy winter Sunday. Green Tank though the only lingering heat from that sun-blazing moment only a few heartbeats back was in his cheeks, but in Aiden’s steel-gray eyes he saw no regrets.
Remembering where he was, Green Tank turned and saw that their sinuous guide hadn’t followed them in. “Wait here,” he said from the doorway. “The Cougar will be with you in a moment.”