Hawk couldn’t decide which would drive him crazy first—the shadows or the light.
The shadows, that was the easy answer. The sectors had been dark for a month now, driven back to the earliest days after the Flares. Back home in Six, things wouldn’t be so bad. The farms had always survived off wind and solar energy, and as powerful as Eden was, they couldn’t still the air or blot out the sun. But sectors like Four relied on whatever electricity they could borrow, beg, or steal from Eden’s grid. Blackouts had always been an infrequent annoyance.
Now they were a constant reality—and Sector Four was unraveling under the strain.
That was why Hawk was out for his fourth night in a row, patrolling the market square with Jasper. He could feel people watching them from behind closed doors and windows, from hidden alleys and sheltering walls. Watching and waiting. Calculating their chances of getting away with whatever trouble they’d been planning to start. Out of fear, or desperation, or just to relieve the unrelenting tension.
But all those stares couldn’t raise the hair on the back of his neck like glancing over his shoulder toward the city.
The darkness was awful, but the light posed the real danger. Hell, it was going to make them all crazy. Eden’s damn glowing walls, sparking with all the power they’d stolen from the sectors. Precious electricity twisted into a weapon and a warning and brazen, bragging psychological warfare.
During the day, you could almost ignore it. But when the sun dipped below the western hills, all anyone could see was Eden’s walls, lighting up the night in a silent reminder that everything had changed.
“Nothing.” Jas growled, a low noise in the back of his throat. “I hate the waiting.”
I hate the waiting. Words that summed up life in the sectors now, on every fucking level. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“The intel is good.” Jasper pulled a cigarette from his pocket, but he didn’t light it. “Two shops and someone’s house have been hit on this block in the last week.”
The intel might be good, but crime wasn’t simple anymore. Some people were stealing out of greed and need, but more and more had been starting shit just to start it. The wave of petty crime had dropped after the O’Kanes bumped up fight night to twice a week—an approved outlet for violence with a chance to make some money was math even an idiot could do—but the feeling was back, seething from the shadows, growing day by day.
If something didn’t happen soon, every damn night would have to be fight night.
Jas rubbed the spot between his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Let’s take a walk.”
Hawk nodded in agreement and fell into step next to Jas as he turned toward the city. Even this far away, an ache was already forming behind his eyes. He knew how many blocks they could walk before the ache blossomed into pain, and how many more before nausea joined the party.
No one could live this close to the wall anymore. Some of the shopkeepers who’d kept homes above their shops had been driven back after the first two weeks. A few stubbornly stayed—pale and drawn and increasingly sick from the constant exposure.
Hawk couldn’t understand how. When they cleared the last row of buildings, he could feel the damn thing in his bones, thrumming, itching, humming. It took all his self-control not to turn the fuck around and run for it.
But he couldn’t. Not until he and Jas had completed their most grisly task of the night.
The open space closest to the curving walls was strewn with abandoned carts and trash no one had bothered to pick up. No shadows lurked here—just eerie, unnatural illumination that made Hawk’s eyeballs itch and washed everything out into silver and blue.
Especially the dark form standing at the wall, his hands wrapped around a line of wire.
“Fuck,” Jasper muttered. “Motherfucker.”
Suicide-by-Eden. The newest threat facing the sectors, and the most hopeless.
Jas was already pushing through the carts, looking for something they could use to knock the body loose. They’d pry this poor bastard off the wall the way they’d done the ones before, but they couldn’t hide what was happening. The whispers would spread, and tomorrow would be a little worse than today.
People were giving up. Old-timers who’d lived through the first terrible years after the Flares, who couldn’t face doing it again. Their children, who’d grown up with the horror stories, with nightmares that only intensified in the telling.
The worst were the kids. Teenagers, really—adults by the rules that guided the sectors but still fucking children in the way that mattered. Too young to understand mortality and too fucking scared to fight, because they’d already spent all of their short lives fighting. If they had to drag another kid off the wall—
Jas came back with a board, and Hawk reached for it. “I’ll do it.”
The man hesitated only for a moment before handing over the plank of wood. “Careful, man.”
Hawk didn’t relish getting closer, but Jas couldn’t afford to take the risk at all. Too much rested on his shoulders—and Hawk sure as fuck wasn’t going back to the compound to face Noelle after letting her boyfriend fry himself. “I got it.”
He approached carefully, setting each foot down firmly to eliminate any chance of tripping. By the time he was within swinging distance, his teeth were vibrating. The low buzz filled his ears, and maybe that was a blessing.
There was nothing pretty about trying to knock a corpse off the wires that had electrocuted him.
The first swing didn’t budge the man. And it was a man—or had been. His clothes were as singed as his skin, burned black by the heat generated by the high current coursing through him. The sickly scent of roasted flesh filled Hawk’s nostrils, and he held his breath as he swung again. Harder.
This time, the blow managed to dislodge the dead man’s grip on the wires, and he tumbled to the cracked pavement in a heap.
Jasper closed his eyes with a low, pained noise, then dropped to a crouch beside the prone body. “Burial detail?” he asked hoarsely. “Who’s on it tonight?”
“Flash and the new kid. Tank.” Hawk joined him. “Do you recognize him?”
“No.” Jas looked up. “Seems like that would make it easier, doesn’t it?”
Nothing could make this easy. This moment—the horror of it, the fucking useless waste of it—it would always hurt. And it should.
But at least they didn’t have to go back to the compound and break the news to the dead guy’s friends. Not like last week, when they’d trudged home to face Tatiana. The woman they’d peeled off the wall that night had brought Tatiana lunch from her food cart every day for damn near five years.
Hawk might still end the evening drunk, but he wouldn’t be covered in someone else’s tears this time. Practically a banner fucking night—his most morbid thought yet. “I hope it never gets easy. I don’t want to think about what that would mean.”
“Truth.” Jas turned his head away from the wisps of smoke rising from the corpse and rose. “I worry about the effect this has on people.”
Hawk had spent enough time with Jas now to read between the lines. The man would never betray a weakness in the king and queen of Sector Four, but shit. You’d have to be a monster not to feel it, and while Dallas and Lex’s reputations could be plenty monstrous, Hawk knew they were both very, very human.
And, friend or not, Jas had to break this news to them every damn time.
There was nothing Hawk could say to make it better. No way to fix it. All he could do was toss the board aside and grab a ragged tarp from one of the carts to toss over the body. “I’ll find Tank and Flash. Get it taken care of.”
“No, I’ll handle it.” Jas punched him lightly on the shoulder. “You’ve been working hard. Have some fun tonight.”
Hawk huffed. “Fucking hypocrite.”
“Hey, it’s my load to bear, not yours.”
Easy words, but they were the reason Hawk had come to this sector. The reason he’d joined the O’Kanes, and the reason he had come to embrace them. For Jas, they weren’t just words. He meant them. The O’Kanes didn’t just believe in the pleasure that came with power. They believed in the responsibility, too.
For that, Hawk would follow them into hell. Maybe literally.
He squeezed Jas’s shoulder. “You sure? I got nowhere to be.” No one waiting for him, either.
“Hell, yeah.” Jasper jerked his head in the direction of the O’Kane compound. “Go. Crack open a bottle. We’re all gonna need it tonight.”
Hawk should have protested again, but an order was an order, and his churning gut and aching head were motivation enough. Dignity kept him out of a flat run, but he still made it through the market in record time, not slowing down until he reached the first row of tall apartment buildings and their reassuring shadows.
The darkness definitely wasn’t the enemy.
Neither was the silence. Noises teased at the edge of his senses—a slammed door, the scuffle of footsteps. Voices carried on the wind, too far away to reach him as more than a whisper. Hawk kept his hand close to his gun and pretended he wasn’t half-hoping someone would see a guy on his own as a tempting target.
It was two more nights until he’d have a chance at climbing into the cage. Two more nights of twisted up tension and anger and frustration with no damn outlet, because the only outlet he wanted—
No. No, he wouldn’t think of her like this, not while he smelled of death and dreamt of violence. He needed to purge the darkness first.
He needed a fucking drink.
That was what he told himself, anyway, when he swung right and headed for the entrance to the Broken Circle instead of the back gate that led to the living quarters.
Zan was guarding the door. He took one look at Hawk and cursed viciously. “Another one?”
So much for his poker face. “Yeah. Jas didn’t recognize him, but…”
Zan’s scowl deepened, then disappeared behind his hands as he scrubbed them over his face. “You headed inside?”
“I need a drink. Has it been crazy?”
“Different kind than usual.” Zan’s glower returned, full force. “Not real busy, but we’re having to keep four on the floor so the little shits’ll stay in line.”
Maybe he’d get his fight after all. Hawk slapped Zan on the shoulder. “I’ll keep an eye on things.”
“Swing by the kitchen,” Zan advised as he pushed open the door.
The music washed over Hawk as he stepped inside, the throbbing of the bass vibrating in his bones in different way than the electric pain of the wall. It dragged his gaze to the stage even though he’d promised himself he wouldn’t look—
He didn’t know if he was disappointed or relieved to see Trix up there, midway through her most popular act. Leather and steel and naked challenge—her movements were the O’Kane reputation distilled into a dance as potent as their whiskey.
The crowd was going wild. Cheering and hollering, leaning forward in anticipation that built with every teasing twist of her body. Hawk hesitated—not watching her, but the room itself. Bouncers bracketed the stage, a burly reminder not to get any ideas about appreciating the show up-close and personal.
Trix would be fine. If Hawk had had any doubts, he would have stayed. Not just because he owed it to Finn to look after his woman, but out of fondness for Trix herself.
Most of the time, he coped with the O’Kane women by treating them the way he would his sisters. With Trix, that came easy. She’d been to his home, had met his family. She was bound to Hawk’s oldest friend among the O’Kanes, the first one he’d called brother and meant it.
Affection would have prompted him to stay if she needed protection. And affection was the reason he booked it to the kitchen. This night was fucked up enough without watching a sister take her clothes off.
The kitchen was bright compared to the front room, light gleaming off steel counters and appliances. Somewhere beneath their feet, the finest collection of generators in the sectors were humming away, providing an oasis from the silent darkness of the rest of the sectors. Hawk suspected they could cancel the shows altogether and people would still show up, as much for the light and the sound as the liquor.
But the kitchen was quieter, the cheers and music muffled. Rachel sat on a stool at one high counter, a sharp knife in one hand and half a lemon in the other. “Hawk.” She gestured to him. “Have a seat.”
“Hey, Rachel.” He slid onto the stool next to her and eyed the lemon. She was only a few months pregnant, barely even showing yet, but the baby was definitely making its presence felt. “Queasy again?”
“Mmm.” She dropped another slice of lemon into the glass of water in front of her and lifted it. “This is the only thing that helps right now.”
No wonder Zan had sent him to the kitchen. Growing up on the farms in Six meant spending your life surrounded by women in various stages of pregnancy. But in a sector like Four, pregnant women were mysterious, dangerous creatures who suffered from inexplicable symptoms that sent the men—and women—around them into a panic.
Hawk honestly didn’t know how Amira had gotten through it without stabbing them all.
He edged the cutting board away from Rachel and picked up the knife. “You use ginger in your beer, don’t you?”
“In some of them. Why?”
“You should try that.” He gestured to the glass with the knife. “You can brew it into a tea. It helped my stepmothers and sisters.”
Rachel smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. “Thanks, Hawk.”
Poor girl. Hawk kissed the top of her head. “I’ll show Cruz how to make it when he gets back in.”
“I think he’d like that.” She lifted her head. “Bad night?”
“Not the worst. Not the best, either.” He offered her a crooked smile. “We hiding any of the good stuff back here?”
She reached under the cabinet nearest her and pulled out a bottle half-full of rich, amber liquor. “Not the best,” she said, turning his words around on him. “But not the worst, either.”
“Perfect.” He grabbed a glass and let her pour out a triple, then raised it to her in silent salute. She clinked her glass of water against his, and they both took a sip. “Shit, not the best is still better than we had on the farm.”
“One of the perks of being an O’Kane.”
There were many, and only one of them had factored into Hawk’s determination to join. He’d been on a mission, with Dallas O’Kane square in his sights. Dallas hadn’t even been the general of a newly formed rebellion back then, just a sector leader with a barbaric reputation that clashed with his history of being calculated, clever, and dangerous as fuck.
Hawk had recognized power. It took intelligence and forethought to cultivate an image that made the O’Kanes’ enemies consistently underestimate them, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The drinking and fucking and partying were perks, but they were also part of the act—painting themselves as sinners fighting just hard enough to indulge their lusts in luxury.
Rachel was watching him. “Everyone thinks this is what it’s about—all the booze you can drink, and all the hell you can raise. That, or the sex. But there’s something to be said for comfort, you know? For not having to be alone with your thoughts after a hard day.”
He swirled the liquor around his glass and tried to find the words. That was what she wanted—for him to unburden himself, to fall into the easy rhythm of chatter and sharing that seemed to come naturally to everyone else.
He could talk about ginger tea. About his sisters’ new farm, or cars, or the business of keeping the sector running. Facts and knowledge, clean and simple. Small talk. But Rachel wanted more.
What else was he supposed to do? Tell a pregnant woman about the corpse he’d just pried off the walls, walls that surrounded a city that might attack them at any second? Tell her about the smell of it, so stark and pungent that even the lemon and whiskey couldn’t overcome it?
Tell her about the fear in their guts every time they faced another suicide, wondering if this time they’d turn the body over and find what was left of a familiar face?
He snorted and took another sip. “Some thoughts are too damn bleak to share.”
“And some are too bleak to keep to yourself.” The lights overhead flickered, and her fingers tightened on her glass. “We’re in a stressful spot here, Hawk. It’s bad enough even if you do let yourself deal with it. But if you lock it away…”
“I know.” He rubbed the edge of his glass. “It’s dark out there, Rachel. And we all thought we were good at that, living in the dark. But this isn’t the same.”
She brushed his hand, a light touch that lasted for only a moment. “Just remember that you don’t have to be alone, okay?”
“I’m not alone.” The truth wrapped around a lie, because there were so many ways to be lonely, and Rachel could say it wasn’t about booze and sex, but it wasn’t that simple. Not when you were an O’Kane.
Rachel sighed. “You don’t do subtle, do you, Hawk?”
No, he really didn’t. Especially not the way these O’Kane women did, issuing invitations and propositions with their smiles and their soft touches—not that he thought Rachel was coming on to him. But there’d been another poured drink, another soft touch—
Don’t think about her. Not now.
Because telling yourself not to think about someone worked really damn well. Hawk finished his drink, reached for the bottle, and tried to prove Rachel wrong. “Jeni’s not dancing tonight?”
Surprise and a little rueful amusement flashed in Rachel’s eyes. “She’s upstairs, working on something new.”
Hawk turned the knowledge over as he splashed more liquor into his glass. Jeni, upstairs. Alone, maybe, working on a new dance. Sweat glistening on her skin, her breath coming short and fast, her body loose and supple.
Practice meant Jeni. Not the wigs and costumes and makeup that turned her into any of a dozen characters she used to work the stage or the bar, but the woman he glimpsed in quiet moments.
Beautiful. Fearless. Sad.
He could go upstairs. Bring the bottle with him, smile at her. He knew shit-all about romance and women, but he knew know how good fucking could be. Fast and hot enough to burn through all the tension tying him up, better than a thousand fight nights.
And then it would be over. Jeni would leave, because that was how the O’Kanes worked. Friendly. Casual. Easy.
Until someone else smiled at Jeni at the next party, and Hawk was overwhelmed by the unacceptable urge to punch their damn teeth in.
O’Kanes definitely didn’t do jealousy.
Rachel was still watching him, her rueful amusement melting into a smile. So he headed her off. “Don’t get any ideas. I got a couple dozen sisters, Rachel. I know that look.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she denied. “I was just saying that a little company never hurts. And,” she added, talking over his half-hearted protest, “that it doesn’t have to be about sex. There are hundreds of ways to reach out to someone, and that’s just truth.”
“I know,” he grumbled. And because he did have a couple dozen sisters, he knew he had to do one thing—change the damn subject. “That’s why I’m in here, drinking with you.”
Her smile turned into a grin, and she lifted her glass of water again. “To friends.”
“To friends,” he echoed, knocking their glasses together. Tonight, he would avoid Jeni and track down Cruz instead. Every discomfort Rachel suffered put the poor bastard on high alert, and Hawk could sympathize with his feeling of helplessness.
Brewing ginger tea might not seem like the best use of an elite soldier’s time, but feeling like he’d helped would soothe Cruz, which would soothe Rachel and Ace. Not a bad exchange for a little cup of tea.
And maybe with Ace in a good mood, Hawk could ask him a few questions. Casual. Easy. Just two O’Kanes, making small talk about life and fucking and all the ways they intersected in Sector Four.
If he could just figure out the right damn questions, someone might give him the answers that ended with Jeni in his bed for more than one night.
* * *