(Labeled now so y'all can find the first parts if needed)
Zane couldn’t sleep. He rolled over and poked Aidan on the arm. “Hey.”
Aidan snorted as he woke up. He opened one eye and looked at Zane. “Uh.”
“I think we need to go back and see if we can find anything else out about Arturo’s pack. The fact that none of the pack has said anything or tried to send for help really disturbs me. It’s not right. They can’t all hate Marcus, and if they’re being held captive, or being killed, or—“
“Gods, let me wake up.” Aidan sat up and wiped at his mouth. He then rubbed his eyes and huffed. “You aren’t going to sleep, are you? Not even after I fucked you into the mattress.”
“Twice,” Zane added, “And no. I can’t, Aidan. This is…it’s like an itch I can’t scratch. Something is really wrong there and I can’t help but think people are dying even as we’re in this nice hotel room.”
Aidan, smart man that he was, didn’t question Zane’s instinct. “Let’s go then. I’ll text Marcus once we’re almost there, otherwise he’ll have too much time to go ballistic on me.”
Zane almost swayed with relief. He gave Aidan a quick kiss on the cheek then bounded from the bed. “I just keep thinking, they know we were there. Someone knows we got away. They have to expect us to be back with lots of help. If they don’t all flee, then they’ll probably want to kill off anyone who opposes them. Or they’ll have too much time to plan a much worse attack. I should have thought of all of this sooner.”
“Cut yourself some slack,” Aidan said firmly. “And me some, too.”
Zane nodded. “Yeah, I wasn’t criticizing you.”
Aidan came to him and cupped his chin. Zane could lose himself in his mate’s dark gaze in a heartbeat. “No, you’re just blaming yourself, and you need to stop it. We don’t know who took over the pack, and retreat was the best thing we could do after being ambushed. We weren’t prepared and we needed to let Marcus know what was happening.”
Zane opened his mouth to agree even if he wasn’t sure he did, but found himself being kissed so thoroughly he couldn’t think.
Aidan eased back and touched Zane’s lips. “No more blaming yourself. You didn’t kill Arturo and turn on Marcus. Whoever did is who’s to blame.”
Zane knew that logically, but he still felt as if he’d failed Marcus in the first place even though he couldn’t have stopped the coup as he’d not known anything about it. “It’s worrisome that we never heard a hint of gossip about someone in this area having it out for Arturo or Marcus.”
“Yeah, so maybe it wasn’t someone from this area,” Aidan said.
Zane froze in the middle of putting on his pants. “That makes sense. So who do we know of that could have done this?”
“That’s what we’ll work on figuring out.” Aidan patted him on the butt. “Commando, hm?”
“You know I don’t have any underwear left.” Zane tugged up his pants then fastened them. He slid his leather belt on then buckled it before hunting down his socks and boots.
Aidan tossed him a black shirt to match his cargo pants and boots. Zane’s dark hair didn’t need covering, but Aidan’s pale blond locks stood out starkly against the black clothing, and would be easily spotted elsewhere.
To that end, Aidan put on a black skullcap. “Let’s go.”
Zane made sure he had a key card for the room then they left. During the drive, they discussed possible scenarios and people who could be responsible for what was happening. “Honestly, I’d thought the worst of the lot were put in their places, but there’s no telling how many renegade shifters there might be out there.”
“Yeah,” Aidan mused, “It’s not like we can do a census. We don’t even have a clear picture on how many of us there are, just a guesstimate. There are very likely pockets of shifters that follow no one and live in secrecy as much as possible.”
Zane nodded. “Right. If I were going to have to pick a known possible threat, I’d say it would be the Edgars, but I’ve had them under observation. Well, Keegan has had them under observation—“
“At your suggestion,” Aidan said.
Zane shrugged. “Keegan would have done it anyway. I just heard about them first. They were still in Pennsylvania when we left on this assignment, so it can’t be them.”
“Could be some of their relatives or followers. Goes right back to us not knowing for sure who and where all the shifters are.”
Aidan’s point was valid.
“Right, but if there was any unusual behavior by them, I’d think the guards watching them would let Keegan or me know. Then again, the Edgars could be smart enough to play it cool. They aren’t stupid, more the pity. Stupid traitors are so much easier to catch.” Zane rubbed his temples, trying to come up with other possibilities. The Edgars siblings were smart and vocal about their dislike of Marcus and his mate. They believed him to be too soft of an Alpha Anax, and claimed the shifters needed a heavier hand and less freedom, or else they’d be exposed and it’d be Marcus’ fault for not being a true dictator.
They weren’t Marcus’ only detractors. “The Kendricks’ brothers in Kentucky,” Zane muttered. “Then there’s the Yardley Osham in North Carolina, and Valeria De Hoya in Florida, and…” He named off every one of the people, families, and packs on the watch list. None of them felt right, but Zane knew that could be because he didn’t have enough information about them.
“Whoever it is, an individual or a group—and I’m leaning with the latter,” Aidan added, “They’re deadly, and they had no qualms coming after us. I’m going to have to believe they knew who we are, although I suppose it’s possible they didn’t.”
“What it comes down to is, we don’t have a clue who it is,” Aidan surmised as he turned off the highway. “And we’re going in to do some recognizance, not take on anyone.”
Unless they had to. Zane knew it went unsaid, but was true.
Aidan parked at a truck stop. “I think we should shift.”
“We got all dressed up for nothing,” Zane joked.
“Yeah well, I wasn’t awake enough to function,” Aidan retorted with a wink. “There’s no way the engine wouldn’t be heard if we drove to the pack. Add to that, there’s bound to be shifters acting as look-outs, and they might be miles away from the pack itself. They’d hear us coming.”
“Right.” Zane hadn’t thought of that. He’d been too busy feeling like bad shit would happen if they didn’t get there.
He and Aidan got out of the Hummer. Zane dug out a can of powdered charcoal. They’d need it to cover Aidan’s white fur once he shifted. The man did stand out in either of his forms.
“Gotta text Marcus real quick.” Aidan frowned while he typed the message. “Good thing I’m not afraid of his temper.” He hit send and less then two seconds later his phone rang. “Here we go.”
Aidan wandered off into the darker area of the parking lot, leading to the unmowed field beside it. Zane followed him, listening as Aidan and Marcus argued.
Despite that, Aidan remained calm. He simply refused to wait like Marcus was demanding he do.
Zane could hear the Alpha Anax loud and clear. Marcus wasn’t happy with either of them. When Marcus shouted about Zane swearing fealty to him, Zane held his hand out for the phone.
Aidan growled but handed it over.
“Marcus…Marcus!” Zane snapped, unable to wait for him to finish ranting. “I’m sorry for snapping, but you need to listen.”
“And you need to not do this, Zane,” Marcus rumbled angrily. “You and Aidan aren’t prepared to take this on alone.”
“We’re not taking anything on, just observing.” It felt dishonest to say that. The same itch that had been telling him they needed to be here was lending itself to the idea that a confrontation was coming. “Unless we have to.”
“You’ll have to and you damn well know it. You are acting against my direct orders, is that what you meant when you swore to honor me as Alpha Anax?”
Zane’s gut clenched and for a moment, he ground his teeth until his jaw ached. “No,” he got out, “I didn’t and you know it. But you also know you’re throwing your weight around and even as Alpha Anax, you’ve never talked to me or Aidan like this.”
“Because I’m afraid you’ll both be killed!” Marcus bellowed. “Zane, don’t do this,” he plead in a softer tone.
Zane looked at Aidan. “We have to, Marcus. That vow to honor you included protecting you, and whatever’s going on here is deadly.”
“Which is why you need to wait. I told Aidan, the guards I sent should be there in an hour and a half. Keegan and his mate will arrive in the morning. Just, wait.“
“I promise, all we’re intending to do is observe. I can’t ignore this feeling, Marcus. It’s…it’s like something cold and dark, something evil, is trying to turn me inside out.” Zane huffed in exasperation. “I can’t explain it any better than that. My instincts say this is where I have to be, for your sake and maybe ours, too. I’m sorry that’s not what you want, but it’s what has to happen.”
Marcus was silent for a minute during which Zane wondered if the call had been dropped. It was only Nathan’s voice in the background the let him know the line was still open.
Finally Marcus spoke. “Okay, I’m not happy about this. I’m not going to add to your worries by making threats or arguing. Just, be safe, Zane. Take care of yourself, and Aidan. Don’t…don’t let anything happen to either of you. I couldn’t bear it if I lost y’all.”
It was as close to permission was they’d get. “Thank you. We’ll be safe. We’re just going to see if we can find out who’s involved.” Even as he said it, he couldn’t help but feel it’d be more than that. But it wasn’t his intention to anything other than spy on the pack.
Even so, Zane knew that good intentions often led to bad endings. He just wasn’t going to let that be the case for him and Aidan.
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