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       The smell of my own burnt flesh plagued my senses, even though hours had passed since my coronation. I stared at my reflection in the mirror, the brand on my chest red and raw and starting to puff up around the edges.


       How the hell could those three little letters hurt so fucking bad? Probably because they’d been burned into me one at a time. Forcing me to choose for my boss to continue until it was complete. Each character searing into my skin, marking me forever as a member of the cartel. Proving my loyalty.

       One more lie I had to live. One more nick in the integrity of my shield.

       The things I’d had to do to work my way up the ranks of the cartel from grunt to Knight had pushed against the line of the law. Okay, fine, they’d strayed far over the line. But for the last four years I’d done my dead level best to ensure that no one ever got hurt because of choices I made.

       No one but myself, anyway.

       Once again I stared at that brand, reminding myself that I’d chosen this. All of it. The undercover assignment, the scars, the life of crime that I’d been assured was necessary in the long run to bring the network down.

       I’d chosen this.

       And now I would be marked forever as one of them.

       I inhaled sharply and the smell overwhelmed me, causing me to turn and begin vomiting into the toilet, my stomach heaving as I thew up everything I’d consumed in the last few hours. Beer, stale peanuts, tequila.

       When there was nothing left to purge, I flushed and lowered myself to the floor, resting my burning face against the cool tile.

       God, I was so sick of this.

       My cell started to ring, and I reached up blindly, fumbling my fingers over the counter until I found it and brought it to my ear.

       “Yeah,” I said, my tone hoarse.

       “Matt?” Griffin’s voice was clearly concerned. “Are you alright?”

       “No,” I admitted. “I had no idea how badly this was going to hurt.”

       “Well, they pressed molten hot metal into your skin. What did you think it would feel like?”

       “I don’t know,” I snapped. “Not like this.”

       “How did it go tonight?”

       “It went well, I guess.” I shrugged as I sat up, though he couldn’t see me. “Drinking, branding, swearing in. Everyone seemed pleased.”

       “That’s good.” Griffin’s voice lowered to almost a whisper. “How are you, really?”

       I knew what he meant, but I didn’t actually know how to answer him.

       Griffin James was my handler. He was a federal agent with the FBI and was the only contact I had with the world outside of the cartel.

       He checked in with me every few days to make sure I was still alive, to get any intel I could give him on the key players and, on occasion, to act as my pseudo-therapist when things were really dark for me.

       Tonight, things were really dark. I’d let a national crime syndicate brand their name into my flesh. How was I supposed to be doing?

       “Matt,” he prodded, his tone indicating that he expected an answer.

       “I’m fine,” I lied. “It’s the job. I’m a just a soldier.”

       Which was true. The problem was that I was a soldier for both sides. And playing this game for so long made me question sometimes where my loyalties ultimately lay.

       I had friends in here. But out there, I just had Griffin. A faceless entity that was my only link to a previous life that felt as if it were slipping further and further away every single day.

       “You’re not a just a soldier,” he argued. “You’re an integral part of this investigation and you’re doing a great job.”

       “Yeah,” I spat. “A soldier.” I blew out a sigh into the receiver. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take, Griffin.”

       “You’ll take it all,” he insisted. “Just remember who your real family is. And know that we’re all out here for you. Even if I’m the only one you’re stuck talking to.”

       “I like talking to you,” I said softly. “You keep me human.”

       “And you keep me sane,” he agreed.

       I jumped at the sound of someone pounding on my apartment door.

       “I’ve gotta go,” I said quickly, disconnecting the call as I scrambled to my feet and headed back into the living room. “Who’s there?”

       “It’s Speedball,” a chipper voice called back. “I’m here to play candy stripper.”

       “You shouldn’t be here,” I said as I opened the door and let him inside.

       “I’m an adult and I’ll do as I please,” he insisted, dropping his backpack onto the coffee table and lowering his gaze to my chest. “That looks terrible.”

       “It’s fine,” I lied. “Look, I’ve got to get some sleep.”

       “Well, you’re not going to be able to sleep like that,” he said, gesturing toward the red, raw brand on my right pec. “Come on, let Kenny take care of you.”

       “Whatever.” I walked into the bedroom and kicked off my shoes before dropping onto my back on the mattress.

       Kenny followed me in, his bag in his hand again. He climbed up next to me and pulled it into his lap, popping open different compartments and removing various first aid products from its depths.

       “God, you weren’t kidding,” I said, watching as he methodically opened jars, cut gauze and snipped pieces of tape.

       “Nope,” he agreed, grinning down at me. “You want me to do this naked?”

       “No, thank you,” I said firmly. “You don’t have to do any of this. I can take care of myself.”

       “None of you can take care of yourselves,” he said, rolling his eyes before starting to smooth a cold paste over the burns on my chest.

       I hissed and tried to shrink away, but he held me down with his free hand, possessing far more strength than I would have given him credit for.

       When he was done with the ointment, he placed a square of gauze over it and taped it down. Then he slapped his palm down over the burn.

       “Mother fucker!” I yelled, knocking him away as he giggled. “You’re an asshole.”

       “I know,” he agreed. “But you love me.”

       I did love him. He was too sweet not to love. He was like the little brother of everyone in our district. But while most of the guys showed their love by getting him high as fuck and using him as entertainment, I actually considered him my family, and I tried like hell to protect him.

       “You want a hand job?” he asked, settling against my side and running his fingers lightly down my stomach. “It might help take your mind off the pain.”

       “No,” I said, threading my fingers through his to keep them from straying lower. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m good.”

       “Okay,” he said, pulling away to roll over. I could hear him digging in his bag, then he came back to me and pressed a pill against my lips. “Swallow.”

       I accepted the pill from him, trusting that it would be for the pain, and he hadn’t just roofied me or something.

       “Don’t worry,” he whispered, settling into me again. “The first one’s free.”

       “The Oxy or the hand job?” I asked.

       “Both.” I felt him smile where his face was resting against my shoulder. “You know, you’re the only one that doesn’t use me for something.”

       Sadly, I knew that was true. The poor kid had gotten pulled into the syndicate young. His parents had died in a house fire when he was twelve, and he’d run out of an abusive foster situation straight into the arms of the cartel on the streets of Detroit. They got him hooked on drugs, completely dependent on them, and he would probably be a lifer until he overdosed or got himself killed.

       “I wish you’d let me help you,” I said, my voice already slurring from the pain killer. I’d forgotten that I’d just puked up any semblance of food that had been in my system so there was nothing left to combat or slow the drug from racing into my bloodstream. “Let me get you out.”

       “This is my home,” Kenny whispered. “Now, stop talking before you say something to me that you shouldn’t.”

       His warning triggered something in my head, but I was too sleepy and foggy to figure out what it was. He was right, though. I did need to stop talking. It would be pretty fucking stupid to reveal who I truly was to someone that was so completely entrenched in the cartel.

       I couldn’t trust my life to anyone.

       Remember who your real family is. That’s what Griffin had said to me. And he was right, too. Speedball wasn’t really my family. No one in the cartel was. The law was my family. I needed to keep going so I could make sure that my real family won.

       “Get some sleep, Matt,” Kenny whispered. “I’ll protect you.”

       “Why?” I whispered as sleep tugged hard at my mind.

       “Because you’re my best friend,” he answered softly.

       “You’re my best friend, too.”

       “I know.” Kenny pressed a gentle kiss to my temple. “Sleep.”

       So I did, knowing that Kenny really would protect me. Because he might actually be the only real friend I had.

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