Oversight (The Community, #2)

Oversight by Santino Hassell
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-507-4
eBook release: 
Jun 26, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-508-1
Print release: 
Jun 26, 2017
Word count: 
64,700
Page count: 
245
Cover by: 

This title is #2 of the The Community series.

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Spoiler Alert! The following blurb contains spoilers for Insight, book one of The Community.

Holden Payne has it all . . . or so he thinks. As heir to the founder of the Community—an organization that finds, protects, and manages psychics—he’s rich, powerful, and treated like royalty. But after a series of disappearances and murders rock the Community, he’s branded the fall guy for the scandal and saddled with a babysitter.

Sixtus Rossi is a broad-shouldered, tattooed lumbersexual with a man bun and a steely gaze. He’s also an invulnerable—supposedly impervious to both psychic abilities and Holden’s charms. It’s a claim Holden takes as a challenge. Especially if sleeping with Six may help him learn whether the Community had more to do with the disappearances than they claimed.

As Holden uncovers the truth, he also finds himself getting in deep with the man sent to watch him. His plan to seduce Six for information leads to a connection so intense that some of Six’s shields come crashing down. And with that comes a frightening realization: Holden has to either stand by the Community that has given him everything, or abandon his old life to protect the people he loves.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

There was something about having a six-foot-six bouncer kneeling between his thighs that left an indelible impression on Holden.

In his youth, the big guys had always refused to suck him off. They’d also refused to bend over for him. It would have been fine had the refusals not been tinged with the undeniable odor of disdain for men who enjoyed such acts. Even as a teenager, Holden had not been there for anyone’s toxicity or self-loathing fuckery. He was there for sex, not therapy. If he wanted therapy, he’d go to the Community Watch and overshare with Community counselors about his sexual frustrations like so many other people did.

Instead, he’d gravitated to twinks and—back when the term was an accepted part of the gay lexicon—flamers. Men who didn’t feel obligated to perform society’s version of masculinity. And it’d been fine at first, but he was attracted to many, so why limit himself to a few?

A decade later, all that had changed. The world hadn’t run out of toxic self-loathing men, but sexual hang-ups seemed to fall away as people got older, and the millennials seemed to be born without them. Holden’s thirties had definitely been more fun than his twenties. People were more willing to go out of their comfort zones, and that he was definitely here for. Especially if it came in the form of six-foot-six Vikings.

Not only was the allegedly straight giant more talented than expected with his tongue, but he’d had no hesitations about gracing his boss with some oral attention before Evolution opened for the evening. Holden hadn’t needed to soothe overactive hetero nerves with his psychic abilities—Stefen’s eagerness had been one hundred percent genuine. Now here he was, proving to the world—or just to Holden—that more men than the general public liked to believe were willing to get on their knees for the right queer.

“Faster,” he said, stroking the shiny red hair falling around his thighs. “Take it all the way down.”

A muffled sound answered the suggestion.

Holden was glad Stefen couldn’t talk. He was a new employee at Evolution, and he hadn’t proven to be the brightest bulb in the box they’d been hurriedly trying to fill for the past few months. All it had taken was another big scandal, this one bigger than the others, to clear the Community’s only LGBT club of its staff. People were starting to think it was cursed. Or targeted.

In a way, they were right.

When the disappearances had begun, Holden hadn’t found a connection between the psys who’d wound up vanishing from his nightclub, but no matter what the rumor mill had claimed about his lack of action . . . he’d tried. Then Theo’s apparent suicide had turned his concern into outright terror. In all of their interactions, he’d never sensed the younger man had been a threat to himself. Just Evolution’s reputation. Holden’s reputation. And by default, his father’s and the Community’s.

The events leading up to Theo’s death had been a storm looming just beyond Evolution’s location on Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, a menacing darkness that had sent unease slithering along Holden’s body, but the murder of Theo’s boyfriend, Jericho, had sealed it for Holden. There was no denying that something wasn’t right with the club after a crowd of club goers had swarmed the Dreadnought’s bass player in a sudden homicidal fury. It had to be connected to Theo and the disappearances Theo had been investigating. Yet Holden had never imagined the mastermind behind it all was the woman his own father had sent to watch over him. To make sure he wasn’t screwing up. What were the odds?

What were the odds.

Coincidences didn’t feel good. They didn’t look good or smell good. Especially not when he was surrounded by people with extrasensory abilities—people who should have seen her coming. But they hadn’t. His own father hadn’t.

Holden closed his eyes and tilted his head back. He massaged Stefen’s scalp and focused on the wet heat surrounding his dick. It should have been enough to keep his thoughts from wandering down dark paths with unknown end points, but it wasn’t. His constant worrying and wondering had kept him awake most nights for the past several months because he had no idea what to expect. As powerful as his gift of empathy was, it did nothing to clue Holden in about what other unfortunate incidents would occur in the future and give the coup de grâce to both Evolution and his position in the Community.

Stefen abruptly pulled off his dick, leaving it glistening with spit. “Are you gonna come?”

“Not even close.”

Stefen cocked his head, maybe offended, maybe puzzled, and went back to work. He was so earnest about it, despite the claim that he’d never touched a dick besides his own. That endeared him to Holden. Stefen wasn’t worth a damn as a bouncer—too nice, too understanding, too reluctant to turn anyone away—but he was certainly eager to please. Even if he wasn’t very good at this either.

Holden petted the bouncer’s long red hair and marveled at his ability to be bored by a blowjob. If the recent trauma began to affect his sex life as well as his stress level, it would be time to buckle down and commit himself to seeing a counselor. Not a Community counselor. Those were all located at the Community’s headquarters downtown and required members to sign a contract that all their sessions be recorded. The underground psychic community did not believe in HIPAA. They were more invested in ensuring no one was distraught enough to expose the existence of the organization, and psychics in general, to the public.

If there was one thing all members of the Community agreed on, it was that being outed would be disastrous. If outsiders knew about them, they would be harmed. Holden had grown up on that us-against-them verbiage, but there was little evidence that it wasn’t true. It was very easy to see how the rest of the world would view them as either tools or threats, and react accordingly.

It took several more minutes for Stefen to find a rhythm. Just as Holden’s breathing picked up and he felt the tug of his arousal coiling for release, the office door swung inward. Stefen threw himself backward, his teeth skimming Holden’s dick. Holden hissed and covered himself, holding onto his expletives only because his father was now looming in front of him.

Richard Payne took one look at them and turned away. “Get him out of here.”

“Jesus.” Holden tucked himself into his pants and jerked his head at Stefen. “Go.”

“Yeah. I’m going.” Stefen staggered to his feet. He wiped his mouth but only managed to look even sloppier and more freshly used. “Sorry, boss.”

Holden rubbed his forehead and closed his eyes. “Just . . . leave.”

Stefen scuffled out without saying anything to Richard. Either he didn’t recognize one of the Community’s founders, or he was too embarrassed to care. However, judging from his parting question of whether they wanted the door open or closed, it was entirely possible he was simply an imbecile. Holden fought a smile and opened his eyes.

“That was unfortunate timing.”

“Is that what you’re calling it?” Richard skimmed his eyes over him, judgment and disdain etched into the ice of his features. They looked very alike, from the tawny hair to the hazel eyes and lean build, but that was where the similarities ended. While Richard never cracked a smile, Holden tried his best to find dark humor in the serious. His father tended to overanalyze and look for weaknesses and problems even in the best of situations, whereas Holden often took things at face value because he’d rather believe things were going well. And last, but definitely not forgotten, was the fact that although they were both empaths, Holden’s gift was notably stronger. Nothing like being one-upped by your own son to trigger resentment instead of pride.

Psychics were fucked up.

“What would you like me to call it?” he wondered. “Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit Mother’s talent for precognition, so I had no idea you would be barging into my office.”

“And yet you have a wall of cameras right in front of you,” Richard said dryly.

“Touché.”

Holden glanced at the cameras in question. The main level of Evolution was empty of all but staff, and the VIP level was cast in the gloom of darker lights. In the past, he’d enjoyed seeing it void of patrons. He’d liked to see the place he’d created in all of its glory before it was desecrated by drunken psys who would inevitably end up puking or fucking at various locations throughout the space. But, now, he wasn’t as entranced by the stillness. It gave a spectral vibe that reminded him of another night not too long ago when the empty club had nearly been the setting for yet another murder. His own.

Swallowing the knot in his throat, he crossed his arms over his charcoal suit jacket. “To what do I owe this pleasure, Father?”

Richard flicked hair out of his face as he spoke in his usual unaffected tone. “I found a replacement for Chase.”

The knot formed again, bigger this time, and Holden had trouble speaking around it. He also had a hard time ignoring the icicles forming along his spine and the dread in his gut. Holden hadn’t seen his half brother since the night of Jericho’s murder, except for his appearances in one of Holden’s eerily vivid dreams—images of Chase strapped down on a metal slab, or strung up in a device constructed of tight straps, as a man with a thin black band tattooed around his bright-green eyes leaned over him.

“Chase isn’t replaceable.”

Richard mirrored Holden’s pose and said nothing.

“Unless you’ve located another multitalented psy who was psychically and physically intimidating enough to safeguard the club? I’m a little skeptical about that possibility since Chase was practically superhuman.”

Richard’s jaw clenched, and something passed over his face that Holden had never seen before. Hurt? Frustration? Whatever it had been, it was gone in an instant. “Apparently not, since he allowed himself to be controlled and nearly killed by a void.”

Holden narrowed his eyes. “Beck wasn’t a void. She absorbed powers and took them as her own. She was as close to a psychic vampire as a real person can get, even though you and the other leaders have always said that was a myth.”

“Regardless, your brother didn’t sense her hidden ability despite being nearly superhuman.”

“Neither did you,” Holden said sharply. “And you put her here.”

The silence that fell between them was sharp enough to slice holes in Holden’s self-control. There was so much he wanted to say to his father about that situation. Pointing out that no one in the Community had identified Beck for what she was until Theo and Nate Black had come along was only one of them.

If it weren’t for the Black twins, it was entirely possible Beck would have continued using Evolution as her honeypot to cannibalize powerful psychics. But Holden couldn’t say those things because he’d sworn his silence to Nate, and he couldn’t let his father know that, at the back of his mind, he put a big chunk of the blame on him. For not vetting better, for not trying harder to get past someone’s mental shields before putting them in a position of authority, and for blaming Chase.

But making those accusations, and asking those questions, would cast him in the kind of light Theo had been in before his death. A shit stirrer, a blasphemer, someone who didn’t trust the Community and who was likely a troublemaker. But the big difference was Theo hadn’t been a member, and Holden had been born into all this.

So he smiled and nodded.

“Tell me about the new guy.” Holden couldn’t resist a dig. “Was your vetting process more thorough than it was with Beck, or did you leave out mistresses this time?”

Richard had no tells, so it was impossible to know whether he was close to leaving in disgust or backhanding Holden before going on a rant about what could happen if people found him disloyal, before sending him off to be realigned at the Farm. Either was possible, and both had happened before.

“His name is Six.”

Holden wrinkled his nose. “‘Six’?”

“It’s short for Sixtus. Sixtus Rossi. I would think you’d remember him, considering how you behaved at his hearing.”

Rolling the name around in his head summoned an image of a thin, olive-skinned teenager with fierce eyes so dark they’d looked black. It was a face Holden hadn’t seen, or thought about, for years. He only remembered it because his encounter with Six had hung over his head like a pall for many years. Or more accurately, him witnessing how the Community had treated Six had hung over him.

It’d been the first time he’d feared the founders. And when he’d first learned that breaking Community rules could have serious consequences.

Over a decade ago, the biggest scandal to rock the Community had been a break-in at Community Watch—the organization run by the Comm that supported young and displaced psychics with no family of their own.

Six, a formerly homeless youth who’d been taken in by CW to be aligned and rehabilitated to become a Comm member, had raided and robbed the place. Holden had only known about it as a teenager because his father had taken him to the tribunal that had followed—where they’d discussed Six’s consequences. Before that, Holden hadn’t known tribunals existed for rule breakers. Or that they were public for anyone in the Comm to come and bear witness to a troublemaker receiving their sentence.

Even as the punk kid Holden had been at the time, it had shaken him. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he’d known that there were real laws in the world. Real police and judicial systems. And the deepest part of his brain—the part he’d receive consequences for even having since it was the part full of doubts and dangerous questions—whispered that the tribunal seemed illegal. Thankfully, it had only been his father who had seemed to sense Holden’s thoughts, and Richard had sent him warning stares between debates.

Besides Six’s consequences—going to the Farm to be realigned for an unknown period of time—the founders had argued over whether it was worth it to take in people with no connections or “value” to the Community. Most members weren’t like Holden, born into connections and money. Most were disenfranchised, had no family, or had been institutionalized for claiming to have psychic powers. These people were the most vulnerable, and required the most effort by the Community to realign and rehabilitate them, but they always turned out to be the most loyal.

Except for Six.

Six had been present at the board meeting, sitting in a chair removed from everyone, and they’d talked about him as if he couldn’t hear them.

As loyal as Holden had always been to the Comm, it was the first time he’d realized how cutthroat they could be. How they played judge and jury with the lives of Community members regardless of their age. He’d vowed to never get on their bad sides. And he’d ached for the thin teenager with the burning dark eyes who’d sat staring at everyone fiercely. Defiantly.

That defiance had been almost intoxicating, because Holden had never seen anyone look at his father that way before. He’d wondered how anyone could be so brave, and had gazed at the mysterious, dark-eyed boy as Six was dragged out. They’d only made eye contact for a brief moment after Holden had whispered to his father and asked whether Six would be okay, and whether they could help.

So weird how that memory was still perfectly etched into Holden’s mind.

“The kid who robbed CW?” Holden asked skeptically. “The reason why they started sending more ‘challenging’ intakes to the Farm before they advanced further?”

“Yes.” Richard seemed pleased that Holden’s memory was sound. “After the years he spent working at the Farm, he became an invaluable member of the Community.”

“Color me skeptical and yet still intrigued.”

“He’s an invulnerable,” Richard said. “He has a natural mental shield that prevents him from being susceptible to psychic abilities. Due to that, he’s excellent at positions requiring security.”

“I thought that was a myth,” Holden said, frowning. “Then again I’d also thought psy vampires were a myth, so never mind.”

Richard pursed his lips, staring flatly, and only went on after determining Holden was done speaking. “Invulnerables are not a myth. They’re rare, but if found, they make excellent guards. We can’t trust every psy who shows up on the CW’s doorstep, and it’s a huge security risk if we let the wrong one in and told them our secrets only to have them be turned against us. An invulnerable security force would safeguard the place against mental and physical attacks, and Six piloted that program. He’ll be an asset to you and this nightclub since you insist on keeping it open.”

Holden raised a skeptical eyebrow. He could see how having an impenetrable brain guarding the place would be great against a psychic attack, but . . . it just meant they had no idea what their invulnerable guards were thinking. Or whether they were really loyal.

“Why wouldn’t I keep it open?” he asked. “Queer psychics need safe places too.” Richard just looked at him flatly, and Holden rolled his eyes. “Aren’t you worried he’s untrustworthy?”

“No. That was nearly fifteen years ago, and he’s moved past it. During his detention and realignment, we realized that due to Six being an invulnerable, it’s difficult for him to empathize with others. He doesn’t feel things the way the average person does, and he doesn’t always make decisions based on an understanding of how other people will react.”

“So he robbed the organization that took him off the street because he didn’t consider how they’d feel about it? Huh. Sounds like a sociopath to me. Seems like your invulnerable-guard plan may have a flaw.”

“He’s not a sociopath,” Richard said sharply, giving Holden pause. He’d never seen his father be defensive over another person before. Not even him or Chase. “He has a capacity to feel and understand other people, he just processes things differently because of his internal shield.”

“Uh-huh.”

A mental shield so strong it prevented Six from possessing even a normal human’s basic level of empathy. Holden wondered how it worked. Was it possible to turn it off and on? Didn’t sound like it. A talent like that frankly sounded like torture and a permanent roadblock to making lasting interpersonal relationships, although . . . apparently Richard had formed an attachment to Six.

“What was he doing before coming here to guard the gay club?” Holden asked. “I’m sure it’s his dream job.”

“He was head of security at the Farm.”

The guy was going from being head of security at a major Community facility to . . . head of security at an LGBT nightclub. A wave of irritation washed over Holden’s grim amusement.

“Tell me something, Father. Is your new guy a replacement for Chase, in terms of safeguarding the club, or is he also a replacement for Beck . . . which means he’s monitoring me?”

The answer came in the form of pursed lips and the distant pump of bass as the DJ finally set up inside the club. The dubstep drops of a pop song’s remix were annoying enough on their own, but somehow the soundtrack was embarrassing with his father standing there. Richard was probably wondering why he’d financed a queer club for psychics that had proved far more trouble than it was worth.

“I think you know the answer to that, Holden.”

Holden’s nostrils flared. “Why? Beck caused the disappearances, she killed Theo, and she killed Jericho. She tried to kill me and Chase.”

“You failed to identify the threat, thereby putting others at risk.”

“The threat that you put here.” Holden jutted a finger at his father. “With all due respect, Father, I think you’re either beginning to suffer from dementia, or you’re in complete denial about what happened in this club. It was your puppet who harmed our community, and instead of apologizing for putting me and my people in harm’s way, you ship my brother off to who the hell knows where, and you give me another babysitter—a fucking sociopath shield thing.”

“Holden.” Two syllables had never resembled a thunderclap as much as Holden’s name when his father said it. “Your two biggest flaws are your lack of self-control and your mouth. Learn to control one and you may have less trouble with the other. Until then, I suggest you not presume you’re entitled to an explanation. If you trusted the Community, you wouldn’t be demanding one.”

“I do trust the Community. But after what happ—”

“What happened didn’t just happen to you,” Richard said, finally showing the first bits of emotion. His steely-eyed facade cracked, and he moved closer to Holden. “It happened to the entire Community. Seeds of distrust have been sown because you weren’t able to handle the situation with Beck discreetly. Police should not have been called to the scene of Jericho’s death, and after Beck was taken down, you should have only called me and me alone. If you were anyone else, you’d be gone, Holden. Do you understand that?”

Holden did understand, but he could do nothing but stare. Repeating his father’s accusations verbally would have had no effect, but they ran through his mind.

He was at fault for not helping to cover up the crimes? For not hiding that a high-ranking Community member had committed them. He had failed the Community by bringing in outsiders? Maybe they thought he was more at fault than Beck in that regard.

And if they truly believed that, who knew what they thought of Chase, whose purpose had been to identify, evaluate, and eliminate threats from Evolution. Was he at a tribunal somewhere like Six had been so long ago? Had board members determined what his fate would be for failing them, while he sat in a corner with no ability to participate in his fate? Did any of them matter as individuals or did they only matter if they remained dedicated members of the Community?

“I see,” was all he managed.

Richard watched him for a moment before nodding. “Six will be starting immediately.”

“How immediately?”

Richard indicated one of the monitors. Holden followed the direction of his father’s finger and zeroed in on the camera in the VIP section. He caught only a glimpse of a tall man with ridiculously broad shoulders and huge biceps covered in tattoos before the figure was out of range.

“Now.”

 

Chapter Two

The man who walked into the office did not remotely resemble the teen boy who’d just strolled through his memories. Adult Sixtus was slightly taller than Holden and corded with about thirty more pounds of muscle. His biceps were nearly bursting from his sleeves, and his pecs were clearly visible beneath the too-small black polo he wore, making the typically conservative style look like the prequel to a stripping routine in Magic Mike. He also wore khaki pants so tight his thighs looked like they were being strangled. He’d paired the two articles of clothing with scuffed motorcycle boots with steel toes.

Holden didn’t make an attempt to hide his slow ogle, and dragged his eyes from boots to crotch to clavicle before taking in Six’s face. His fathomless black eyes were the only familiar feature in that olive-skinned face. He had a full beard and mustache, thick black hair tied up in a bun, and wide lips that Holden wanted to suck on. Why did his sociopathic handler have to be a disgustingly sexy lumberjack hipster?

“Huh,” Holden said. “He’s filled out.”

Richard went back to pursing his lips, but Sixtus didn’t even blink. He didn’t scan Holden or react to the intense eye-fuck he’d just received. There seemed to be nothing behind those dark eyes. The effect was more disturbing when Holden, by default, reached out with his gift to get an impression. He’d expected a hint of impatience or irritation even if it was muted by the mental shield that was apparently always in place, but he felt nothing.

Theo Black had had a powerful mental shield, and Holden had been able to bypass it more often than not. Not with Six, though. All Holden received was a faint shock, as if he’d tried to touch Six’s mind and had been hit with a burst of static electricity.

Invulnerable indeed. This was going to be unnerving.

Holden’s irritation reared up again.

“Do you speak?” he asked. “Or are you just going to stand there and stare at me like a robot?”

Six looked at Richard. “Did you tell him?”

“I told him everything,” Richard said. “He’s not used to people not fawning all over him, so it may take him some getting used to.”

Heat flooded Holden’s face. His hands balled.

“Fine.” Six moved past Holden, shoulders brushing, and surveyed the wall of cameras. “This is outdated. There shouldn’t be more than one or two terminals that you can use to monitor every camera. Why didn’t you install one?”

It took a minute for Holden to realize Six was talking to him.

“Excuse me?”

“Why haven’t you updated your security system?”

“What— Wait. Excuse the hell out of me, but you don’t even greet your new employer before going into a criticism of his setup?”

Six finally turned, one of his thick dark brows arched. “‘Employer’? The Community is my employer. You own this nightclub, and that’s fine, but I don’t work for you.”

Holden looked from Six to his father, trying to figure out why he was surprised by this turn of events when it was exactly what he’d just deduced moments ago. Six wasn’t stepping into Chase’s shoes—he was taking over for both Chase and Beck.

“If you have a problem with my security system, I suggest you write up your critique and your suggestions for me to peruse at a later time. I’m not having this conversation here, now, or in front of him,” Holden said, flicking his fingers at his father. “And if you’re here as security, I’d also suggest you get down to the floor and observe my failure of a bouncer. Maybe you can step in for him since you’re an expert. Model what it means to be a good doorman and hope he can copy your technique.”

Six stared at him for a long moment, gaze not flickering and expression not shifting from the blank mask, before he inclined his head. “Fine. I’ll shadow him until he seems less like an incompetent piece of shit.”

Holden’s jaw dropped as Six once again brushed past him and strode out the door. He stared through the darkened doorway for several seconds before pointing at his father.

“You’ve lost your mind.”

“It will be fine, Holden.”

“No. No, it won’t. He is insolent—”

“Insolent?” Richard barked out a laugh. “I just told you he doesn’t perceive emotions the way we do. He never learned to temper his speech and body language to make other people comfortable. He’s better than he used to be.”

“Well, that’s very special.” Holden couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “I love a good heartwarming story about the wayward psy babies you’ve taken in. But unfortunately for you, this one isn’t going to work out. I won’t have some jackass from the Bronx talking down to me in my own club. Especially in front of my other employees. It creates a confusing chain of command and—”

“Holden,” his father snapped. “It’s a nightclub, not the government of a small country. If you can’t handle this, it’s no wonder you couldn’t handle the situation with Beck.”

Holden’s mouth shut with an audible click.

Richard’s eyes narrowed. “If your concern is that you won’t be able to control or seduce him, you should be worried. It won’t work. It’s part of the reason I chose him.” Richard turned his back on Holden and walked to the door. “I was wrong about what I said before. Your biggest weaknesses are your mouth, your lack of self-control, and your dick. You need one employee who won’t fall for your bullshit, and then maybe you can rise to your full potential and be the leader I know you can be.”

A thousand disrespectful responses flew to mind, but Holden knew when he could push, and every retort crossed a number of boundaries. Boundaries that would take him beyond the point of being Richard Payne’s sassy gay son to being . . . something else. The type of Community member who showed insubordination to upper-tier members, and who would benefit from a trip to the Farm for “realignment.” It’d happened to Holden a lot in his younger years, but for Richard Payne’s son to go there as an adult would be an embarrassment for them both. An unforgivable one.

* * * * * * *

The club filled quickly on Friday nights, and this one was no exception. They were packed by eleven o’clock with a healthy line snaking down the length of the building and toward Ninth Avenue. Once they reached capacity, it was time for the doorman to start cherry-picking people from the line. They went by regular customers and members of the Comm.

Stefen had always been a complete failure at this aspect of the job. He hated telling people no, even if it meant hearing a rant from Holden when the Comm folk wound up filling message boards with negative reviews because it took so long to get in. To Holden’s royal annoyance, Six was excellent at the job. He handpicked Evo regulars as if he could sense they belonged to the Community. It was impossible, but his precision was uncanny. Through the outdated monitor system, Holden had spent a couple of hours watching his new handler in action. He stood straight, shoulders thrown back and intimidating even in his preppy polo and khaki pants, and he looked at everyone in line as if they meant nothing to him. As if they were nothing until they got into the club.

Truth be told, it wasn’t that serious. Evolution had an air of exclusivity because they prioritized Comm members, but it’d gained traction with voids as well. The harder it was to get in, the more people showed up, and the more its reputation of being an extremely elite queer club spread. Stefen had briefly put a dent in the rumors of impenetrability, but it seemed like Six would be fixing that in no time. Likely because he, too, was impenetrable.

And what would it be like to penetrate someone like Six? A stoic man with a mental shield that prevented him from experiencing the world like everyone else. Had he ever walked into a funeral service and wept due to the stench of grief in the room? Laid a comforting hand on the shoulder of a friend in need? Understood that I’m fine usually meant the speaker was anything but? Had he ever felt the heat of someone else’s lust, or did he need a direct I want to fuck you to get a clue? Most people didn’t experience those things on the same level as an empath like Holden, but Six apparently even lacked the ability to pick up on cues that voids could feel.

Holden forced himself to stop staring at Six and leave his office.

The bass from the music assaulted him as soon as he was in the hallway. A throb started in his temple and spread. He brought down his mental shield firmly, not wanting to absorb any extra vibes and make the pain worse.

Holden respected Richard Payne for founding the Community, but interacting with him was nerve-racking. Holden usually spent the entire conversation waiting to be told what was wrong with him or how he’d most recently failed or let the Community down, while his stomach twisted and churned. The thing was, their relationship wasn’t out of the ordinary for the Community. As a whole, it valued ties to the organization more than biological family.

Holden’s mother had been different. If it wasn’t for Jessica Payne, he wouldn’t have known relationships with one’s parents could be anything other than tense and distant. Unfortunately, she’d long since gone to live on the Farm away from Richard, and Holden rarely saw her.

The VIP section was mostly void of customers, except for a couple already kissing in one of the alcoves. Holden made it to the spiral staircase leading to the lower floor without incident, but someone grabbed his upper arm as soon as he descended.

Even so many months after the night of Jericho’s murder, Holden’s heart caught in his throat. He froze, eyes widening and pulse racing, and was overcome with an instinct to yank away and run. But he didn’t. He took a deep breath, stared straight ahead, and reminded himself that Beck was gone, and Nate and Trent were in hiding. The night of the attack would never be repeated. There was no longer any danger here.

Evolution was safe.

“Holden?”

Holden cleared his throat, blinked away the lingering fear, and turned to face Elijah. Pasting on a smile, he tried to project calmness and authority. Waste of effort. Elijah had clearly been through better times and was unlikely to be worrying about Holden’s state of mind.

The Dreadnought drummer had always been petite, but he was now perilously thin. His brown skin was pale and circles lined his eyes. Instead of his usual ensemble of short shorts, boots or Chuck Taylors, and a cut-up T-shirt, he was swimming in a hooded sweatshirt and loose jeans.

“Elijah. I haven’t seen you in months.”

Elijah ran a hand through his hair, gaze sweeping left and right before focusing on Holden again. In the past, he’d have leaped into Holden’s arms or pulled him into a grope-y hug, but now he fidgeted with his sleeves and shifted from foot to foot. “Do you think we can go somewhere to talk?”

“I’ve been holed up in my office for too long as it is. Can it wait until I do my rounds?”

Elijah bit his lower lip.

“You’re welcome to do them with me.”

“Okay.”

The relief in Elijah’s face was concerning. Had he thought Holden would turn him away after all that had happened?

Frowning, Holden pulled the slighter man into a brief hug before leading him on a stroll of the club’s perimeter. The dance floor was already packed, the lounges full of people sharing bottles and laughing, and the new bartenders were handling the influx of customers with ease. The best thing in the world Holden had done was to invest in bartenders who’d actually studied mixology, instead of people who’d just worked behind a bar in college. Wait times were shorter and the tendency for bartenders to over-pour was nearly eliminated.

“The place looks different,” Elijah said quietly. “Did you tear down the stage?”

“Yes. After what happened . . .” Holden glanced at the space where the stage had once been. He’d had it removed and expanded the dance floor. “I guess I couldn’t bear having other bands come in. It was a constant memory of what had happened, and it frankly felt disrespectful.”

“I wouldn’t have felt that way. Neither would Taína or Lia.”

“I know, but after losing two out of five members of the band . . . it was just . . .” The confidence he’d been trying to project was steadily dissipating. “It was too hard.”

They paused at the edge of the dance floor, and Holden made a conscious effort to take the measure of the crowd who’d shown up tonight. There were very few unfamiliar faces. Six was somehow doing an amazing job of prioritizing Comm members. As Holden eyeballed a couple whose dancing was starting to border on public sex rather than raunchy grinding, Elijah snagged his hand.

“Thanks for not being weird to me.”

“Why would I be weird to you?”

“Because I went AWOL. The guy at the door almost refused to let me in. I had to name-drop you.”

Holden stopped grilling the couple to stare at Elijah. “Pardon?”

“He like . . . interrogated me about where I’ve been. I dunno. It was weird as fuck.”

A bolt of anger lit through Holden. He tightened his hand around Elijah’s, abandoned his rounds, and walked quickly in the direction of the patio. With the music only a soft hum on the other side of the door, and the gate lined with small white Christmas lights, it was almost cozy. A good escape from the bustle of the club, and one of the few places besides his office that he could go to think when he was overwhelmed by memories, or the evening, or life in general. Which happened far too much lately.

“The doorman is new. Started tonight and instated by my father.” Holden said that part through gritted teeth, swallowing bitterness at having to admit it to someone who’d once looked up to him. “He’s worked security for the Comm for years. I don’t know why he’d be grilling you about your whereabouts.”

Elijah curled up in one of the metal chairs, pulling his knees up beneath his chin. “If he’s a Community puppet, I get it. They’ve been trying to drag me to CW for counseling, but I’m really . . . not about that right now.”

“Understandable. Nothing remains confidential.” Holden sat on the edge of the chair opposite Elijah but leaned forward so he could keep his voice low. “Why’ve they been trying to pull you in?”

“I don’t know. But they’ve basically been stalking me. I was staying with Taína in Brooklyn, but Comm spooks kept knocking on the door and trying to give me an escort to the CW. She was getting freaked out, and I was too, after one of them mentioned realignment, which basically means going to the Farm to be talked at forever about why the Community is this amazing godsend for a poor bummy psy like me . . . blah.”

Holden slowly nodded and ran his eyes over Elijah. He was different. Everything from the way he held himself to his tone of voice was a far cry from the enthusiastic boy who’d volunteered at the CW and given testimonials about how the Community had saved him.

“I don’t remember you being this cynical,” Holden said.

“I didn’t use to be this cynical. I used to think the Comm was a godsend that would keep me and my people safe.” Elijah laughed dryly. “What a joke that turned out to be. They sent a predator to infiltrate an LGBT space because they didn’t care enough to vet her and make sure she wasn’t a threat. All they cared about was someone making sure Evolution wasn’t making too many waves. When it comes down to it, everyone is just out for themselves.”