Tin Man (A Bliss Story)
Petty thief Ashoka “Ace” King knows better than to get in the way of Tophet’s Anti-Terrorist Unit. Rightfully feared in Tophet’s crime-ridden underbelly, a face-to-face encounter with an ATU is almost certainly a death sentence. But Ace has never been one to follow the rules.
Soren Lau might be an ATU rookie, but he’s not naive enough to believe everything his superiors tell him. Then again, he’s not stupid enough to disobey them, either. If he doesn’t shoot and kill as ordered, he might be next on their list.
But when Soren meets Ace, a moment’s hesitation is all it takes to put both their lives on the line. They don’t know each other, they don’t trust each other, and there’s no way in hell they can both walk away from this alive. But with suspicion and mortal danger mounting against both of them—and the forbidden attraction blazing between them—there’s nothing they can do but try.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Ace had been running on empty for days by the time he squeezed through the gap in the fence at the Diamond Mine. Despite its name, the large building was actually an old paint factory, but it had been called the Diamond Mine for as long as Ace had been around this part of Tophet. Two of the four walls sagged inward, the roof—if it could be called that—was mostly holes, and on bright nights the moonlight illuminated the millions of shards of broken glass on the packed-dirt floor. Some of them were still sharp and jagged. Others had been worn to smoothness over the years, like pebbles under water.
Ace shoved his hands into the pockets of his hoodie and hunched over as he entered. He glanced from side to side. The late-afternoon shadows were long, obscuring the activity around the makeshift stalls set up over the rubble of glass.
The Diamond Mine wasn’t the best place to fence stolen goods in the district, but it suited Ace. He knew most of the people who frequented the place, and unlike some of the other places that all too often attracted the authorities, it was small enough for the police to overlook.
Ace headed for Chen’s corner. Chen was a big guy, dark-skinned with a shaved head and tattoos, but he had a wobbly smile that ruined any hope of looking imposing. Ace liked the guy. And not just because Chen had kept him alive during his first hard winter on the streets. What really mattered was that he always gave Ace decent prices. He’d been Ace’s fence for more years than he cared to think about, almost as long as he’d been making his living off crime.
Ten years since he’d had a home.
Back then, his father had been a factory worker. At least up until he got involved in protests for better working conditions and a living wage. But instead of gaining either of those things, he’d lost his job, and because of his subsequent conviction for affray, the interim government’s “No handouts for crims” bill left Ace’s family trying to survive on just his mother’s paltry wage. No welfare, no food stamps. Nothing.
Nothing but hopelessness and hunger and guilt.
After weeks of fruitless job searching—having a known agitator for a father couldn’t have helped—Ace had done what he’d thought was the right thing and left one night out the fire escape window. His most noble decision was probably also his stupidest, but his parents had other kids to feed and Ace had been old enough to look after himself.
He still thought of them sometimes. That first winter on the streets, he’d even gone back to the apartment. Someone else had been living there already. He liked to think his family had moved on to somewhere better, but how was that even possible? There was no way up from the bottom in Tophet.
Ace closed his fist around the rings in his pocket. Only silver, but they should be worth a few dollars. He’d taken them from the top drawer of a bureau in an apartment in East Central. The place hadn’t been any richer looking than some of the abandoned buildings Ace slept in, but fuck it. He was hungry.
“Ace.” Chen nodded in greeting. He tugged his sleeve over his hand and rubbed the end of his nose. A nervous habit. “Haven’t seen you around in a while, kid.”
“I’ve been around.” He jangled the rings together in his pocket, grinning for effect, but Chen’s wobbly smile failed to appear.
“I thought the law might have put you down.”
Unease bit at Ace’s gut. “C’mon, that’s bullshit.”
Chen frowned. “You haven’t heard, then.”
“What?” Ariana was another fence who had a reputation for treating people fairly. Ace had met her once or twice.
Chen pulled his sleeve back and jabbed a finger to the bridge of his nose. “Right between the eyes when she was walking down the street. Colin saw the guys. Said they were ATU.”
The Anti-Terrorism Unit. Tophet’s toy paramilitary army, more like. Since when the hell could a small-time fence like Ariana be classed as a terrorist? She was no Jovan Day. The fucking government was always rewriting the rules, though. Maybe Ace had just been stupid not to believe the rumors when he’d first heard them: that the government was sending death squads into Tophet’s worst districts to clean out the human vermin.
“Fuck.” Ace shook his head.
Chen nodded grimly.
They probably could’ve mustered up at least a little bit more grief or fear, considering, but what was the use? Even if the death squads were real—and with Ariana dead for no damn reason, he had to admit the rumor was suddenly sounding a lot less like one of the scary stories Chen’s kids told one another—it wasn’t like the wretched of Tophet could fight back, escape, change their fates in any way. If Ace had to choose between expending his energy on death squads or the persistent, gnawing ache of hunger, he’d choose hunger every time.
And in Tophet, they were all hungry. All the time. Ace had no idea how anyone managed to think or worry about anything but food.
Which was probably why the ATU and the government were able to get away with all the shit they did. As long as the low-class folk were eating just enough to survive, as long as the violence was happening to somebody else, they’d never think to upset the status quo or demand better.
The government media tried to pretend every crim in the city was a potential sympathizer, a bloodthirsty terrorist in waiting, but Jovan Day and his ilk were outliers. The rest of Tophet had more pressing shit to deal with than trying to change their miserable lives, by terrorist violence or otherwise.
Or so Ace had thought.
Some, it seemed, still held out hope for better. In the apartment where he’d stolen the rings, Ace had seen a pamphlet on the dresser. It was dirty and ripped, like maybe the resident had picked it up in the street, and on the front, under an old shoe print, Ace had made out the words, Emigrate to Beulah. He’d opened the pamphlet. It was cleaner on the inside, and he could make out pictures of smiling people in front of a house, then in a park, then on a train so shiny and clean that Ace had known instantly it couldn’t fucking exist. He’d heard people talk about Beulah before. Everyone there had jobs, and free health care, and education, and enough to eat, and nobody was a criminal.
A fucking fantasy, if you asked Ace. He’d thought about stealing the pamphlet to read and roll his eyes at later, but he wasn’t that much of an asshole. Not quite. Bad enough to steal people’s valuables, without helping himself to their dreams, as well. Even if their dreams were stupid. There was no way to make Tophet better, no way out, and the entire world was just as fucked up as it was here anyway.
No way out except the one Ariana had gone.
“Time to go,” Chen said, shoving his stuff into his old knapsack as he packed up.
No time for mourning. To an outsider it may have seemed cold, but Chen, like everyone else here, had more pressing shit to deal with.
So did Ace. “Wait!” He showed Chen the rings.
Chen sighed. “Five dollars.”
“Five?” They were worth at least ten. Each.
“Five, because you’re not the only one doing it tough, and you can come by and have dinner with the mob.” He looked Ace up and down. “And a shower, and a place to crash for the night.”
“Thanks, Chen.” He handed the rings over, stomach growling in anticipation.
Chen’s mob, last time Ace had seen it, was made up of about a dozen kids. They begged and stole to make ends meet, but that was the worst of it. Chen kept them clean and drug-free, and gave them a roof over their heads. In all the time Ace had known him, he had never quite figured out Chen’s motivation.
He didn’t quite trust that it was pure charity, because he didn’t believe anyone was that good, but it didn’t matter. The kids got a better deal off Chen than they would anywhere else. Ace was proof of that. Thanks to Chen, he’d reached his eighteenth birthday without starving, freezing to death, or having to sell his ass to strangers to keep the wolf from the door. And even after he’d aged out of the mob, gone his own way again to make room for more little mouths, it had been Chen’s guidance, cash, and the occasional meal that had gotten him here, to the ripe old age of twenty-five.
They left the Diamond Mine shoulder to shoulder. Dusk was falling now, and the temperature was dropping. Winter was coming. It was close enough to feel the angry bite in the air. Ace needed a better jacket before winter. Maybe some decent boots too, if he was lucky enough to find any.
Chen stopped and pulled his pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. Offered one to Ace.
Ace took it and leaned toward Chen’s cupped hands as he fumbled with the lighter. He rarely smoked. He didn’t really like the taste of it, but it was warm.
“Gonna be a cold one,” Chen said in a low voice.
Ace nodded as they approached the fence. Chen pushed the squealing chain wire back and squeezed through out onto the street, Ace right behind him.
“This new kid,” Chen said when they’d walked a few blocks, “Mara. Real smart kid. She makes the best corn bread. Shit, I don’t know where she learned that, but she pats it right out on the bricks and cooks it up fresh. You try Mara’s corn bread and you won’t want to leave.”
“Shut up.” Ace took a drag on his cigarette. “I’m already fucking starving. Stop teasing me.”
Chen snorted and grinned.
They turned down a narrow alley that ran between two warehouses. They were almost to Chen’s hideout now. A stray dog picked across the empty street in front of them and stopped suddenly, lifting its thin snout. It froze, trembling.
Ace’s blood ran cold as he heard the sound behind him. An empty can rattling across the cracked asphalt.
The dog bolted as Ace and Chen both turned.
The guy behind them was big, or at least he seemed that way. He was wearing so much fucking body armor and hardware that he seemed monstrous. Ace couldn’t see the guy’s face, only his own terrified reflection in his dark goggles.
“Proof of employment and proof of address.” The guy’s voice was muffled by his gear, distorted until it was strangely inhuman. Ace had heard that the ATU put computer chips in the brains of their officers to make them harder, faster, stronger. To make them better soldiers. For once he didn’t think it was all bullshit government propaganda. There was no inflection in this guy’s voice. It was cold. Robotic.
Chen dropped his knapsack.
“Proof of employment and proof of address,” he said again. The guy’s gloved thumb flicked at something on the side of his gun. The safety? Fuck. He was really going to shoot them in the street for being unemployed and homeless?
Beulah’s wide, sunny streets shaded with trees flashed in Ace’s brain. The fantasy didn’t seem so fucking stupid now that he was a second away from death. Maybe heaven would look like that.
Hell would probably just be this moment, forever.
“It’s in the bag,” Ace said, struggling to keep his voice steady, hoping against hope that the ATU asshole didn’t guess his ulterior motives. He had no doubt he was going to die here, none at all, but maybe he’d get a chance to earn that sunlit afterlife if he actually managed to do something decent with his last few moments on the planet. He thought of Chen’s kids and how much they needed him. “Can I get it? It’s in the bag.”
Their executioner nodded once, shortly and sharply.
Ace stooped down to pick up Chen’s knapsack, never taking his eyes off the masked man in front of him. He curled his fingers around the strap, wondering how the fuck to make use of the bag—the only weapon he had—without making any sudden moves that would get him killed.
“Yes.” Chen’s voice was reed thin with panic. He patted his threadbare jacket up and down. “I have my papers, too. Yes, I have them.”
The ATU guy turned his attention to Chen.
There! His opening. Ace swung the bag at the guy’s helmeted head as hard as he could. Whatever Chen was carrying didn’t even make a dent in that helmet, but it was enough to send the guy stumbling back a few steps. Enough to make him drop his weapon.
Ace lunged for the guy, pushing him back farther.
“Run!” he shouted to Chen. “Fucking run!”
Ace didn’t blame him. He had mouths to feed, people depending on him. It wasn’t cowardice. They were both doing their parts to keep Chen’s mob alive. Too bad Ace’s part was going to cost him his life.
He had the upper hand for a few seconds, but then he was stumbling back, losing ground. The guy’s gloved fist punched him hard on the side of the head, and he fought to stay upright.
“Fuck you,” he snarled at his own reflection in the guy’s goggles. “You piece of government shit! Pig! Fascist!” All the words he could think of to keep the guy’s attention on him.
He punched Ace again, and sent him sprawling onto the ground. Then the guy turned and reached for his gun.
Ace stared down at the end of the alley. Chen had run straight home, the idiot. If the guy followed him in that direction . . . What if one of the smaller kids couldn’t stay quiet? None of them had jobs, either, or addresses. That would be enough to charge them with vagrancy. Although, with the ATU involved, no way would this end in charges.
He thought of Ariana, shot dead in the street.
Stuffing down the bone-deep urge to live, he staggered to his feet. “Hey!”
The guy picked up his gun and turned back to face Ace.
“Hey, fuck you!” And then, before the guy could react—maybe he’d hit him harder than he’d thought—Ace led him away from Chen’s squat. “Hey, you want me? You gotta catch me first, fucker!”
The guy smacked his free hand to his helmet, then raised his weapon.
Ace ran, his heart pounding. God. He was going to die. Any second now and he’d feel a bullet ripping through him. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe it’d just be lights-out. He hoped it would be, hoped it wouldn’t hurt, that he wouldn’t even feel it.
But the guy didn’t shoot. Instead, Ace heard his boots thumping down the alley behind him. He didn’t question his luck at that moment—maybe the gun had jammed after it fell or something—he just tried to put some distance between himself and the guy.
If he had any advantage at all, it was that he knew this neighborhood. He knew it well enough to dive into the thin gap between buildings and pull himself up the rusting fire escape ladder that he knew hung off the side. He’d slept in the old cannery before. Nobody else did because the place was open to the weather, thanks to a collapsed roof, and crawling with rats as big as cats. But at the time he’d had a sprained ankle, and sharing accommodation with rats was better than risking a confrontation over territory with no way to run if things went bad.
The ladder shook as the ATU guy jumped onto the bottom rung.
Hopefully all that heavy body armor would slow him down.
Ace squeezed through the small window at the top of the fire escape. He didn’t wait for his eyes to adjust before moving on. He knew his way around. He was about thirty feet off the ground now, on a narrow catwalk that passed over the remains of the production line machinery below, long stripped of anything useful. It was just jagged metal shapes, the rats’ playground. He crossed over it quickly, avoiding the holes in the walkway. He only needed to get to the other side, and then he could get down to ground level again and hopefully back to the streets. Behind the cannery was a maze of twisting little alleyways to lose the ATU guy in.
The ATU guy who, for some reason, still hadn’t shot him.
The guy scrabbled loudly through the cannery window, and then the catwalk shook, rusted metal squealing, as the guy began to cross.
Ace reached the ladder on the other side. He pulled his sleeves down over his hands and gripped the edges. This was going to hurt. He pressed the soles of his feet on the sides of the ladder, held on as tightly as he could, and began to slide down.
Metal twisted and screamed as it collapsed, and Ace squeezed his eyes shut and waited to die. At least it wasn’t with an ATU bullet to the head.
His boots hit the ground, sending a shock wave through his body. He was still standing upright somehow, still holding the sides of the ladder. And the ladder was intact. So that noise . . .
He stared up at the catwalk.
It was a broken, twisted wreck, and the ATU guy was hanging from it by one arm.
As Ace watched, he dropped his weapon to free his other hand. It landed thirty feet below with a dull clatter and was swallowed up somewhere in the sharp, rusted remains of the machinery. The guy swung his now-free arm, looking for another handhold on the catwalk and not finding one. He hung there, suspended in open space, the black shape of a man silhouetted against the night sky.
Ace glanced at the exit. Wasn’t this what he’d wanted? A chance to survive this?
But the guy hadn’t shot him. He’d had a clear shot, and he hadn’t taken it. Malfunction? Or choice? Fuck fuck fuck. Why the hell was Ace even asking himself that when he should have been running?
He put his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder.
And couldn’t fucking believe it when he started to climb.
He didn’t rush, didn’t call out to the guy. That way, if he fell in the meantime, fate would’ve decided how this should end. It wouldn’t be Ace’s failure, just the luck of the draw. But somehow, when Ace made it to the top of the ladder, the guy was still there, still holding on.
In the moonlight, he could see that the guy’s left hand, the one wrapped around the railing, was shaking with the effort of holding his weight. All that gear. The guy lifted his head as Ace approached. Ace saw his reflection in his goggles again.
The guy didn’t say anything. Didn’t beg, didn’t threaten, just waited.
That, more than anything, was what decided it.
Ace got down on his hands and knees and crawled as close to the edge as he dared. Wishing he could see the guy’s face, maybe get some sort of hint as to whether he was going to be grateful for the save or stab Ace in the back, he drew a deep breath, braced himself, and held out his hand.
Soren Lau couldn’t hear anything over the pounding of his heartbeat and the roar of blood in his head. Even his radio—already reduced to the occasional burst of static inside his helmet since he was hit in the head with the knapsack—was drowned out by the loud storm of sheer panic crashing in his skull.
He would fall.
He would die.
He was already losing his grip.
But then the crim he’d been chasing was back, and he was holding out his hand.
Soren swung his right arm up, his heart beating even faster. When the man caught his hand, his glove slipped slightly, but then strong fingers wrapped around his, and suddenly he was being pulled up. He didn’t let go of the railing, not yet, because he was sure the man—this crim—would drop him. Push him. Something.
Nothing in his training or his scant experience with the ATU had prepared him for anything like this. Nothing had prepared him for a lowly, moralless crim sacrificing himself so altruistically—“Run! Fucking run!” He still hadn’t recovered from the shock. He’d dropped his firearm—twice!—and now the man who’d assaulted him, a crim he was supposed to have executed, was saving him? It made no sense at all.
Soren had been in the ATU for three months now, but it had mostly involved walking around the streets near the interim government buildings, checking IDs and bags. Then the special task force had been set up. Soren had been on two patrols this quarter as part of the task force. Nothing had happened the first night. The second night, Soren had asked a man for proof of residence and employment, but he hadn’t had any. And the voice from Command had echoed inside Soren’s helmet and given the execution order.
Tonight, he’d received the same.
But he’d hesitated.
It was all Ruby’s fault. When he’d returned to Command after his first kill, he’d found her smoking a cigarette outside the locker room. He didn’t know how to take Ruby. She was a head taller than him, almost twice as broad, and she chewed gum and called him “rookie” even though Jax was newer to the team than he was. It was Soren’s baby face.
Ruby had offered him a cigarette. “First blood, huh?”
He’d nodded and waved the cigarettes away. “Guess he was a big target, right?”
“The kill. I didn’t recognize him, but Command must have.” Command monitored their feeds and provided them with constant instructions. Turn here. Walk there. Stop that man. Terminate him. “I wonder which one he was.”
“Which terrorist,” Soren had elaborated, unease edging into his voice at just the thought of having to clarify what should have been obvious. Should have been.
“Aw, rookie.” Ruby had shaken her head, curled her mouth into a salty bitter smile, and jammed her cigarette between her lips again. “You’re too cute.”
She hadn’t said anything else, and Soren had wondered if she was fucking with him on purpose, if she somehow knew that ball of unease in his gut was twisting and churning away, growing bigger and bigger every second. And then he’d wondered if maybe it was everyone else fucking with him instead: the ATU, the interim government, the whole damn universe.
So tonight he’d hesitated, and the guy had run.
But now he was back, pulling Soren from the brink.
And then what?
It didn’t take long for his relief at not falling to his death to morph into a fresher, more insidious fear. Just because the crim had saved his life didn’t mean he was suddenly going to start cooperating.
Shit. Maybe he was only saving Soren’s life so he could make use of it. Ransom him, maybe. Torture him for information—not that Soren had even a word to tell, but that was hardly an assurance against torture.
What if crims really were the bloodthirsty animals the higher-ups said they were? What if this one tortured Soren for fun or kept him as a pet or cannibalized him? Every horror story he’d ever heard came back to him in a heartbeat.
Metal scraped against his body armor as the guy pulled him up, and Soren’s pulse raced with adrenaline as his mind scrambled to sort out a plan. He’d dropped his firearm, but he had capsicum spray and a baton in his belt, and a knife in his boot. None of those options were exactly lethal—the knife, maybe, though he had only ever used it to stab the sandbags in the training room—but they were his only options.
His empty thigh holster snagged and caught on the metal. Over the roar of the blood in his skull and his own rising panic, Soren heard the guy grunting. “Fuck. Come on, fuck.”
And something in the way he said it, or something about the strained look on his face and the sweat pouring off his temples, made Soren’s dick twitch.
Just fear. Fear and adrenaline and his body’s automatic fucked-up response to stimuli. Maybe, knowing he was probably going to die soon, his dick wanted one last hurrah. Looking at the guy under the filth and those dark curls, Soren could hardly blame it for trying.
“Come on.” The crim lurched backward, pulling Soren with him, and suddenly their hands were unclasped and Soren was shuddering on the catwalk like a fish out of water, the guy sprawled beside him.
Baton, spray, knife.
Soren stared at the guy, terrified to make the first move but knowing he couldn’t let the crim get the drop on him again.
The guy stared back, dark eyes wide. He was older than Soren. Maybe in his midtwenties or a few years older. He had an angular face, ruddy and flushed under the brown of his skin. Dark eyes, dark hair—a sweaty hank of it fell across one eye as Soren watched—and a stubbled jaw. His lips moved as he panted, sucking breath into his lungs.
He didn’t know which to reach for: his baton, his spray, or his knife. Only one was likely to deliver Command’s ordered killing blow, and Soren knew that was what he should choose, knew it . . .
But what if the crim had a weapon too? What if he was quicker? In training this was all so simple, but the worst that could happen there were some bruises and a roomful of laughter if the trainer put Soren on his ass. He’d never been truly afraid. Now . . . God, now he was fucking crippled with indecision, and with the endless possibilities as to exactly how this could go wrong.
His radio blasted in his helmet again—a burst of static, no distinguishable words—and Soren flinched. The sudden move startled the crim, who twisted away, and that was just what Soren needed: an action to react to. He reached out and gripped the guy’s boot, yanking on it, hugging it tight as the guy kicked.
“Get off! Get the fuck off!”
The metal catwalk groaned and creaked in protest.
The guy kicked out again, but Soren held tight. Then the guy curled forward, pulling himself into a seated position, one fist flying at the side of Soren’s helmet. Soren clenched his jaw and rode the blow out. It dislodged his goggles, pushing them painfully against the bridge of his nose. The short, sharp pain only made him grip the crim’s leg harder.
Lean, ropy muscle moved under his fingertips, and his fucked-up mind went straight to the last time he held a guy’s leg like this: in a bathroom at a club. In a stall. The place had been a dive. The sort of place that didn’t check ID, and where fucking in the bathrooms, while still illegal, was the least of the place’s worries if the law showed up. Soren was nineteen, but he looked younger. He didn’t care if the other guy thought he was a kid, just wanted to get some action. And no way in hell was he going to jeopardize his career, and his freedom, someplace where he had to give a name.
He’d been conscripted to the ATU straight out of school, but knew he was more than lucky. Jobs were so scarce, and the cost of living so high, that he’d been terrified he wouldn’t find work. When the letter from the ATU came it had felt like winning the lottery. His parents weren’t happy, of course, because who wanted their son to face off with crims and terrorists? But job security was such a rare commodity that, right up until this encounter, Soren had been able to think of the danger in the most abstract terms. In the meantime, he had his own secure apartment in a decent district, with reinforced doors, a regular paycheck, and a pension plan.
For most, being gay came with the penalty of being labeled an “amoral element,” which came with a sentence of reeducation and hard labor. For an ATU man, it amounted to treason against the state.
Soren had heard enough rhetoric spewed by politicians and the media and people in the street to know from a very early age that this thing inside him, this thing at the secret core of him, had to stay hidden. Sometimes it felt like something from an old horror movie, like a man turning into a wolf in the light of the full moon. And when he couldn’t control it, that was when he went to some dive club where nobody asked questions, and sank to his knees on a filthy bathroom floor.
Always to his knees, because with a pretty face like Soren’s, and without the imposing ATU armor to hide behind, nobody wanted him any other way. Maybe Soren didn’t want it any other way, either. Who knew, because when it got desperate enough that he was seeking it out, he didn’t much care about the specifics, just opened his mouth like some twisted version of a faithful worshipper awaiting holy communion. And then, with the sordid transaction over, he was transformed into himself again, into a man in control of his own body and soul, the memory of clutching a pair of strong thighs as a stranger thrust down his throat enough to sustain him for another few weeks.
Here, now, grappling with this man, his body began to shake, and he couldn’t tell if the rush of adrenaline was from fear or from the association his touch-starved brain made with the men he’d sucked off in the past—sweaty, rough, and full of contempt—or from some strange place where the two meant the same thing.
The crim punched him in the head again, and this time the blow jarred more than the last. Soren’s eyes stung with sudden tears. He shook his head to clear his vision and grappled with the man, keeping one arm clamped around the guy’s thigh while reaching for his belt with his spare hand.
The guy let out a shout. No words, just a sound of pure outrage. He bucked in Soren’s grip, then grabbed for his goggles. Hooked his fingers around them, one rough nail scouring Soren’s temple, and pulled.
Soren tried to twist his head free.
“Fucker!” the guy grunted, his fingers jabbing into Soren’s eyes.
Pain shot through him, and he howled. In that second, he loosened his grip on the guy’s leg, and then he was on his back, the guy straddling him. His knees dug into Soren’s ribs, and he just kept fucking punching.
“You fucker. Fucker.”
Soren’s eyes were streaming. His goggles were snapped back onto his face now but not flush. Their ridges dug into his nose and cheek, lopsided. The guy’s hands were at his throat, wrenching the strap of his helmet undone, and then it was off, and Soren’s head was bouncing against the metal of the catwalk with each blow. He moaned as his helmet rolled over the edge of the walkway and to the floor, thirty feet below.
He hadn’t been able to hear Command, but maybe they’d still been able to see what was happening. Maybe they’d seen he was in trouble, and maybe they were sending backup. Maybe that’s what they were trying to tell him with each blast of static. Yet even if they had been, those unintelligible sounds had been his last real contact with Command. Now he was really alone.
Through his tears, Soren could see the crim’s face twisting with anger. God. He was going to die here, like this.
The crim gripped Soren’s balaclava, lifted his head, slammed it back down again.
The pain was so sharp that everything went white. The world shifted and shimmered, grayed at the edges, the darkness bleeding in.
And then it was gone.
Ace leaned back, panting.
Fuck fuck fuck.
The ATU guy was out. Still breathing, but unconscious. Not a moment too soon, either. Ace hadn’t been sure he could keep fighting for much longer. Now, with the buzz of adrenaline fading, his hands started to shake and his body started to feel every ache.
Ace shifted off the guy. He should have just shoved him over the edge and let gravity deal with him. Except he was suddenly seized with the urge to look the guy in the face. To give Ace something to gloat about later, maybe, or just to see what he looked like, this man who’d tried so hard to kill him.
He pushed the guy’s goggles up and off, and then tugged the balaclava back.
The ATU guy was a kid.
He had a fucking baby face. And not just a baby face, but a pretty baby face. He seemed a little unfinished, a little soft around the edges. Cheekbones he hadn’t grown into yet. Ears he definitely hadn’t. A soft, full mouth. Dark brows. Long lashes that lay against his cheeks. There was a tiny mole on his right cheek, and Ace couldn’t resist touching it. The boy’s lashes flickered, and he moaned.
This was the guy who wanted to kill him? This guy? He’d looked so terrifying in his helmet, with his firearm. This face didn’t match that. The universe had to be playing a joke when some monster from an ATU death squad looked as sweet as a fucking choirboy.
But he’s not. He was a killer, a crucial cog in the machinery of Tophet’s oppressive regime. The boot that stamped them down and ground them out like bugs. That was what Ace told himself as he clutched the guy by his heavily padded shoulders.
He looked at the boy again, letting his gaze skim from the guy’s face down to his heaving torso. Underneath all that armor, was his body as unassuming and delicate as his face? For just a second, fantasies of revenge flitted in Ace’s mind. The things he could do to a guy like this. A pretty, delicate guy. Except, fuck that. Ace would never go there. Although why he gave a shit when this asshole deserved everything coming to him, he didn’t know.
Either way, he wasn’t just a pretty boy. He could fight, as well. Ace had been lucky to maintain the advantage the last time. He didn’t need to go testing his luck again.
He dragged the guy toward the ladder. Maybe he could tie him up or something, and leave him for someone else to worry about. Or maybe—another dark fantasy—he could actually turn a profit here. There were enough cartels in the district that would love a bargaining chip like this one, or even just the sport he’d provide. Ace wondered what the guy was worth.
And then you’ll be exactly the kind of scumbag crim they all say you are.
Hard to claim the moral high ground when suddenly all he could picture was a future with money in his pocket and a meal in his belly. And then he thought of Chen, of how living in the gutter didn’t have to turn a man into an animal. He was still better than this ATU asshole, even if the guy would never know it.
And hell. That face. The kid had the face of an angel. It seemed like the sort of face that would haunt him, if he let it. If he did anything to deserve to be haunted.
The catwalk groaned and swayed, and for a second Ace was sure he could hear the rivets popping out of the wall. He needed to get back to the ground, fast. And he probably needed to get this ATU guy down too. There was no use pretending he was cold-blooded enough to leave him to die when the walkway collapsed. Not when he’d climbed all the way back up here to save him.
A part of him wished he were that uncaring. A part of him was certain he’d regret this later. He’d always been a slow learner, his father had said, but he’d said it proudly. Like the time Ace had stood up to the bigger kids picking on the girl who couldn’t walk properly and had gotten the shit kicked out of him for it, then went and did the same thing the next week. Yeah, always a slow learner.
Ace stared down at the guy. Still unmoving but still breathing. Good. But he was carrying so much gear. How much of the guy’s weight was actually his? Getting down the ladder was going to be interesting.
“Okay,” he said, crouching over him. He lifted a shaking hand to the guy’s utility belt. “Shit. Okay.”
He half expected the guy’s eyes to snap open or to feel a sudden iron grip around his wrist, but the guy only frowned a little and sighed as Ace unclipped the heavy belt. He dropped it over the edge of the walkway with relief. He didn’t know what some of this stuff was, but he was damn sure he didn’t need the guy waking up and reaching for it.
Body armor next. The vest thing was heavy. He unfastened the straps and lifted it over the guy’s head. It took both hands to move it. Felt like it had metal plates or something reinforcing the fabric. Underneath, the guy was wearing a form-hugging black shirt. He raised an eyebrow. Not as delicate as Ace had thought. Still narrow, still slight, but toned. He’d have to be if he carried around this much weight and could still run and fight, Ace supposed. He stared at the thin band of exposed flesh around the guy’s abdomen, where he’d hauled the shirt up in the process of getting the vest off. Soft, flawless skin lay over hard muscle. Not a kid at all.
“Okay,” he said. “Here’s where it gets interesting. You ever heard the story about the frog and the scorpion?”
The guy was still out.
Ace told it to him anyway, or at least what he remembered of it.
“There’s this scorpion,” he said, kneeling over the guy and grabbing his arms. Ace hauled him upright and leaned his weight over one shoulder. He wondered if he could actually lift him. “And he needs to cross the river to get home to his children.”
He didn’t remember if the thing about the children was right or not. Maybe he was thinking of the ladybug, whose house was on fire and whose children had gone. His mom had told him a lot of stories when he was a kid, and he regretted the way they were all mixed up in his head now. He’d tried telling some of them to Chen’s mob, but he could never remember the endings. Except . . . happily. Most of them ended happily. Not the frog and the scorpion, though.
“Anyway . . .” He hefted the guy up into what almost passed as a fireman’s carry and clamped his left arm around the guy’s legs. Gripped the ladder tightly with his right hand and said a silent prayer. “The scorpion asks the frog to carry it across the river. The frog says no, because she’s afraid the scorpion will sting her. The scorpion promises he won’t, because, if he did, he’d drown, as well. So the frog agrees and off they go.”
The ladder squealed as he stepped onto it.
Oh fuck fuck fuck.
The guy groaned.
Ace climbed down a rung. His arms were already killing him. “So, about halfway across the river, the frog feels the scorpion sting her. And she asks him why, because now they’re both going to die. And the scorpion says, ‘It’s in my nature.’ Then they both die.” He grunted as he took another step toward the ground. “It’s not much of a story, I know, but since I’m the frog in it, I really, really fucking hope you’re not the scorpion.”
He didn’t know if the guy was awake or not. He was afraid he was. He thought he’d felt him tense. Thought that the sound of his breathing had changed into something more ragged, spiked with awareness.
He didn’t look down. Just kept moving slowly, trying his best to ignore the wrenching pain in his shoulders and arms. “So just let me get us down, okay? Just let me get us down.”
It felt like an eternity before his boots hit the concrete floor. Civilizations could have risen and fallen in the time it took to get there, and he was so relieved to be able to lower the ATU guy onto the floor. Maybe it was his relief that flooded his fear but whatever it was, for a moment he was distracted, and a moment was all it took.
He was on his knees, easing the guy off him, when the guy brought his right leg up sharply. Ace, expecting to be kneed somewhere, recoiled. Too late. The guy had the collar of Ace’s shirt twisted in his left hand and a knife in his right.
He pressed the blade up against Ace’s throat. His eyes were the color of dark amber. “All right, we’re down. Now comes the sting.”
Henry and Belleau don’t skimp on the storytelling.
The action is fast paced and the romance is intense. . . . This is a solid, action-packed romance for lovers of free will.
Wow! I absolutely love this book! I was sucked in from the beginning, and by the end I was blown away. . . . I recommend Tin Man to anyone who loves dark futuristic fantasy, government conspiracy themes, or enemies to lovers.
[G]ood, dark and gritty with lots of moral ambiguity. . . . I was captivated by the story.
[A] gritty, suspenseful read. . . [Henry and Belleau] are too good at what they do!