When Nova headed inside the warehouse, the atmosphere was different. She had expected it, but she didn't think it would be so soon. She had thought they would know about Screw's disappearance after twenty-four hours, but then, she remembered everyone in the gang checked in with Vicious to make sure he knew of their whereabouts. She had completely forgotten about that, and it was making her so nervous when she felt the change in the air and the group discussion. She had noticed three cars missing on her way in. Vicious could have dispatched some of his boys to find him.
Her mind paused at the thought, and she wondered if Keenan had not left any clue behind or anything that would trail back to where he was. She wanted to check in and make sure he didn't fuck up anything, but she was afraid of contacting him. After all, they had agreed to only contact each other if it was a matter neither one of them could handle alone. Nova trusted Keenan not to mess up, but she didn't trust herself not to mess up in front of Vicious.
She ran into Mario first. He gripped her arm and drew her into a spare room before he lets her go. Her heart instantly sped up and skipped a beat as she took in the sight of him. The hardness of his eyes at once felt like a punch to the stomach. He seemed endlessly agitated and not calm.
"Uh, you won't leave the warehouse until I come back, alright?" That was all he said, keeping his hard gaze pinned on her nervous one. She didn't understand what he meant.
"Why?" Nova asked, fishing for more than that. "I have somewhere to be in an hour. As long as you don't take more than that, then I think I can be here when you come back."
"No." He shook his head. "Someone's gotta stay here and keep an eye out on Vicious."
Her heart jumped, hammering in her chest. "Why, what's wrong with him?"
"I think something happened to Screw."
There it was. What she had expected and what she was afraid of. Nova tried to keep her voice steady. "How do you know?" she ended up whispering without knowing.
"He hasn't checked in," Mario explained, frown lines appearing on his forehead. Even though he tried to appear unfazed, he looked worried and agitated. Then he glared down at her. "And this stays between you and me, alright? Apart from me, Vicious, and a few guys, no one else knows. We don't want to create a panic yet."
She found herself nodding to him. Mario pressed his knuckles. "He texted me before he went awol and said he might have found Vipers' nest. He's been on their trail for some time now, but no one knew that except the two of us, not even Vicious, which was why he's pissed."
"Oh," was the only response that came from her lips. She couldn't believe this. She couldn't believe they had done this without telling Vicious because if they had, Vicious would have told her, and she would have alerted Keenan, telling him to get out of town for a few days. Then Screw wouldn't have been kidnapped. Vicious wouldn't have been pissed, and her identity wouldn't be in danger.
"What are you going to do about that?" she bit out in anger without meaning to. She was pissed. It could have been avoided if they hadn't wanted to play detective. "I mean, do you have any idea where he could be?" Curiously, she stared at him, hoping he would give her something. If she knew their plans, she could take control.
But Mario didn't look like he wanted to share more than that. "Just keep an eye on Vicious, Nova," he dismissed. "Make sure he doesn't do stupid things because he's usually destructive when he feels the walls are closing on him. If he goes out there, he's going to do some damage. Keep him here. You can do that, can you?"
"I can't exactly tie him up, Mario."
"You can tie him up with something else."
She glared at him. "If you're thinking of tying him down with sex, I can't do that too."
His brows went high. His face was devoid of emotions. "Are you saying your performance is that bad? Can't have sex for more than three hours?"
"Fuck off." Nova swept past him, almost running straight into his shoulder. She opened the door and stepped out of the room into the hallway. Mario followed after her, but their paths were different. He didn't follow her to get an assurance because he knew she would be there with Vicious. She shouldn't be. She should be out there, tailing him. Trying to know what he was up to and if he was close to getting to Keenan, but she was doing the opposite.
She was going to Vicious.
Another time, she would scream at herself. Another time, she would dig and know the reason why she chose to go to Vicious instead of following Mario.
Nova found him where she knew he would be. When she opened the door to his office, Mario wasn't exaggerating when he said Vicious would be a mess. He still had control, but it was barely there. When she stepped inside, he looked up for a second and saw her, but it didn't make him stop what he was doing.
"I can't talk right now," he said in an urgent whisper. He went to the drawer and flung it open.
"What are you doing?" She closed the door behind her but didn't take another step.
"I have to be out there," he explained. "Mario has a few shorthands, but they won't be enough to scour around. I need to help out, or I think I know the person who might help. Mario won't get him to help. It has to be me that talks to him." He fumbled with a box before he got it open. He removed his gun and cocked it.
Adrenaline pounded in her veins. Now she has started moving. "Vic, slow down." She reached out to touch him, but all she touched was air because he was already moving again to another drawer. Another gun he pulled out.
"He has to know where he is."
"Who? Who are you talking about?"
"Some FBI guy," he said, stopping by his desk to press his palm against it, casting his eyes downwards to take in a few breaths. "Could be your friend's partner. All I know is he's been tailing us, but Screw gave him a good reason to tail him instead. You know, get him off our backs and keep his eyes on Screw?" He glanced at her.
Nova's panic made her deaf and blind. Something to keep the FBI agent off their backs? Screw was looking for Vipers' hideout, something Vicious didn't know. So, Screw was using that opportunity to get the FBI agent onto her and Keenan? And Vicious had no clue on that.
She turned slightly, her gaze darting to nothing. If an FBI agent was tailing Screw, then it meant he knew where he was. It meant he had to know that Screw had been kidnapped. And it meant..... Her breath caught. Keenan was in danger. Nova twisted around, feeling dizziness striking her.
"Nova." Vicious was speaking but she couldn't hear him over her fear or shock.
She needed to call Keenan. She needed to tell him to evacuate.
"Hey, hey." She jumped when his hands startled her by grabbing her shoulders to keep her steady. Through hazy eyes, she saw concern written on his face. He cupped her cheeks with both hands. "What's wrong?"
"N..n..nothing." She fisted a handful of hair at her nape. "I'm just overwhelmed, that's why...and.." She stammered, licking her lower lip as she tried to calm herself down. "And I'm worried about Screw."
And Keenan. I can't lose him. I can't lose another person close to me.
Vicious wrapped his arms around her neck and tugged her into his chest. Nova's head was spinning. She couldn't even feel the hug or the kiss he had dropped on her head. When he pulled back and read the fear in her eyes that he thought was meant for Screw, he hugged her again, this time tightly.
"You can't," she told him after some time, after she had regained some bearings and remembered where she was and whose watchful eyes were on her. Vicious may have feelings for her now, but there was no doubt he would pull a bullet in her if he knew who she truly was. If he knew she was Batman and she had his right-hand man. "You can't leave," she added.
Vicious was not on the same page. He was already parting from her, but she held onto him. All she felt was release. Release from the fear. Release from the anxiety. She took the time to look him in the eye.
"You can't go out there, you can't," she told him. Now it was her time to comfort. "Mario will take care of it. Screw is his friend too, you know. He's just as good as you, so stay here with me, please."
His eyes darkened even more. An alarm started going off in the back of her mind, wondering if he had noticed something on her face. Wondering if he could see the lies and the truth in them.
"And do what?"
"Be with me?" Nova suggested lamely.
"Sounds fun, but no." Vicious pushed her away, putting some distance between them. "If I stay here with you, I'm going to be a dick and you can't control how you will react to me. Let's not ruin this, Nova. I need to leave."
She stepped in his way, blocking him. "Mario asked me to keep you here, and any other day, I will ignore what he says but not today. He's right. You can't leave, and if he thinks that's for the best, then it is. I know you're worried and you have every right to be, but you let Mario handle it first, then you can control what happens next."
"Are you sure that's the reason why you don't want me to leave?"
The room was suddenly so hot, and she started panting. She couldn't catch her breath. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. She felt the room starting to blur at the edges of her vision.
She was going to pass out. She felt it coming. "What do you mean?" Her throat wasn't working. Her feet were like cement, holding her in place.
He chuckled, releasing her hand, only to cup the side of her face. Nova felt him leaning closer and closer until his breath coated her cheeks, her eyes, her lips. His forehead softly touched hers, and he rested there. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you last night."
It's okay. You wouldn't have found me at home anyway.
But instead, Nova replied with, "It's okay, I understand."
"No, you shouldn't understand. I nearly got you killed and I left you to deal with it alone. I'm sorry, muneca. How are you holding up?"
"Better." She nodded. "Yeah, I'm good. You forget it isn't my first rodeo." She ended with a laugh.
With his forehead resting on hers, Vicious guided her backward until she touched the wall. She felt the space between their chests, but he closed the distance as soon as she was pressed against the wall.
"It's not funny," he replied, his thumb rubbing back and forth over her cheek.
"You have lost your sense of humor, Vic."
"No, I just don't find putting your life in danger to be funny." He moved his mouth, so he was whispering right into her ear, his lips grazing her ear. "You should leave."
Nova leaned into him more, shaking her head slightly. "No, I have to stay here and keep an eye on you. Mario will drag me to my grave if I let you out of here."
"If he doesn't drag you to your grave, then I'm going to end up doing that." His hand left her lips and curved around the back of her neck. "I can't keep putting you at risk. Last night was a close call, and that wasn't the first time either. I didn't care before but that has changed. Now I can't lose you, Nova. I didn't know what it would be like to have someone who would mean so much, but you're that person for me, and I have to do everything I can to make sure you stay breathing."
Her hand curled into a fist, resting on his chest. Vicious was saying what he felt and he was pushing her away. He was trying to push her away from danger when he had no idea that she was the danger. That the danger he was trying to save her from, she was the cause of it. She was the cause of what had happened last night, and if he pushed her away because of it, it would be defeat. She would have defeated herself.
Nova considered his request and didn't like it. She didn't want to leave and she didn't want to be pushed away, especially by him. A small voice whispered in the back of my mind... please. Please, what? Please stay and be with him or please stay and avenge your brother? Stay for your brother or stay for your feelings. Which one of them was real? Which one of them was pushing her to stay by his side? The more she allowed herself to feel, the more danger she was to herself and Keenan. With Vicious came the threat of being exposed.
Even though every fiber of her wanted to walk out and leave him, alert Keenan on what was happening, but somewhere in her was an inkling of strength that was pulling her away from doing the right thing. Making her stay here. Be with Vicious. Prioritize his well being more than securing her identity. Her plans.
"I'm here and I'm staying because I want to, Vic," she whispered, cupping his face as he was holding hers. "I don't care how dangerous it will get. Just like how you want to protect me and keep me safe, I want to do the same for you. Do you think my mind will rest if I don't know what's happening to you all the time? Please, don't push this. Don't push us away."
"We can protect each other if we're together."
It took a beat before he sighed, raking his fingers through his hair. "We can revisit this conversation when it's the right time, but keep in mind that you won't be joining me in anything. If you want to stick around close to me, we can do that."
"What?" Nova asked breathlessly, her eyes narrowing as they rested on him. "So, you're saying you're shutting me out? Keeping me on the sidelines?"
Vicious' lips pressed in a flat line and he acknowledged, with a clipped head nod. "It's for the best. You're not cut out for this world."
"Yet I survived," she said. "Every single time," she pointed out. A headache was pressing against her temples. Nova grabbed him by the collar, clenching her fists around it. "I want to go on jobs with you. I want to earn the crown I was promised."
"If it's a crown you want, I can get—"
"No," she rushed out heatedly. "All those times you gave me the crown, I earned them. You got them because I did something you were proud of." She released him. "I don't want a crown I haven't earned. It would lose its meaning."
Vicious' eyes narrowed to slits. His face wore an unreadable mask, but Nova caught the dark heat stirring in his eyes. A shiver wound down her spine. "You want the danger." It was a loud statement.
"You said you weren't sidelining me anymore. As someone who runs an illegal business, shouldn't you have learned to keep your word?"
"It's different when I promise them something. It's much different when I make a promise and it endangers your life."
"What about your life? Do you think I don't value it?" Every word spewed from her lips could be called a lie, but as she said them, she hid behind that lie and veiled the truth.
"Nova." He dragged in a frustrated breath. Vicious tilted her chin upward and she recoiled. He gripped her harder, holding her in place. "You underestimate how much I fucking want you alive and breathing. I'm not having your death over my head. I won't be able to cope with that." He let her face go and stepped away from her, trying to leave. He walked calmly toward the door, opened it, and paused to glance in her direction.
"You won't have access to the warehouse anymore or anyone here again. It's for your own good."
She spun around, her angry words at the tip of her tongue. "That's it? You cut me off from you and everyone else? I thought you respected me enough to let me make my own choices."
But he didn't say anything, just opted to walk out without another glance in her direction. He closed the door behind him gently, and Nova wondered why she suddenly felt hollow.
Once he left, she crouched down and put her head between her thighs, trying to breathe in and out without feeling a prick in her heart. Vicious had walked away and she was trying to absorb the knowledge. Was that a breakup? It felt like a breakup. She panicked, thinking long and hard about what she was going to do. It was nauseating.
Without him, she would never be able to get revenge for her brother.
What was it she was afraid to face? What was it?
Say it! Face it!
Someone touched her hair. Nova abruptly lifted her head to find Vicious seated on the ground in front of her, his hands in her hair, touching. She sat with a questioning expression on her face while he looked into her eyes steadily.
"Why are you back?"
"The first thing you should know," he said softly to her face. "I felt like shit when I walked out."
"Then why did you?"
"Cause I make dumb mistakes, that's why. The only thing I seemed to have done right was having you and I can't even keep you." The half-grin he gave her was meant to look appealing, but it looked sad. "With what happened last night and Screw missing, it made me wonder if you would be next. If something would happen to you and I wouldn't be there to protect you."
"It won't be."
"How do you know? The more you stick around with me, the more you're open to danger. Hell, I have more enemies than you know, and as soon as they know I have a weakness, they will use you against me and it would be my fault that you are hurt. I dragged you into my life."
"No, you didn't. My brother did," Nova replied fiercely, which was the truth. He might have thought it was Grant and his debt, but it was actually her real brother Grayson, who was lying on the hospital bed. It was her decision to enter Vicious' life, not his. "I think we should blame him. Yeah, we can totally blame him." Now, she smiled. "If you want, you can make your enemies so scared of you they won't even consider harming me."
He laughed, his hands relaxing. "Like what? 'Cause if you put it like that, I'm thinking something that will cause a blow." He shrugged his shoulders. "I tend to love sending out loud messages. Ask around, I poke at where it will hurt the most."
Nova's brows lifted as she blinked, touching his arm. "Yeah, why don't we try something else? Your ways are—" She cleared her throat. "not what we need at the moment. Have you not seen movies and how they do it? When I watched it with Keenan trying to get ideas—"
Oh my god.
Her heart slammed in her chest. It started to pound as she felt the blood draining from her face.
Vicious cocked his head to the side in curiosity. "Who is Keenan?" he asked. "You've never mentioned him."
A distinct laugh of nervousness left her mouth and she grabbed onto his arm. "Keenan is my brother's best friend that we grew up with. He moved away a few years ago. I haven't seen or talked to him in years, so don't go and be getting jealous, okay?"
He started chuckling with her. "I'm not jealous, you know why?" He caressed the side of her face. "Because I know you've got eyes on no one but me." He grinned.
Nova slipped on a smile, despite her chest tightening with pain. Her face almost cracked and she found herself wanting to cry for no reason. Of course, there were reasons. Vicious was in love with her. She could see and feel it, but what about her? Who should she remain loyal to? Her brother or the man who hurt her brother? Her family or her love? The one who raised her or the one who would kill for her?
What was this pain she was feeling inside? This open, deep-rooted pain wanted to burst her chest open. Sometimes, she looked at Vicious and she hated that he hurt her brother because sometimes, she forgets what she was there for, and she would find herself falling because it was so easy to. It was so easy falling in love with Vicious because he made it so easy. He builds this wall around you that makes you feel like there was no one else in his world except you, and when you're not used to this feeling, you couldn't help but breathe into it.
That was who he was.
Vicious doesn't only make you feel love, he makes love something that flows and floats towards you with ease and with a blink of an eye. He makes breathing easier when he is around.
Vicious and Nova were lying on a pile of pillows on the roof when someone barged out of the door and frantically told him of Mario's return. With speed, Vicious was up and already out of the door before Nova could stop him. She didn't follow him immediately. She was scared to follow him and find out what Mario had found out.
Would he know who took Screw? Did he find his location?
She bit her nails with these thoughts, petrified to go back inside and face her fate. What would she tell him? She knew Keenan would never expose her if he was found out, but she also knew she wouldn't sit back and let him be killed because she knew Vicious would kill him the moment he got his hands on him. Keenan would claim to be Batman and that would be all Vicious needed. He had the motive to want to destroy and Vicious would not second guess. He would put a bullet through his skull.
But what about Screw? He saw her face. How would she begin to explain it?
Nova eased her way out through the door and walked down the stairs. Twenty minutes on the roof after Vicious abrupt exit was enough to make herself calm down. She had to face them, sooner or later. She couldn't continue to overthink.
She found Vicious lying on the couch, his legs crossed and his arm over his face, shielding his eyes. His fists and jaw were clenched tightly. Nova almost hesitated by the door before she urged herself to go to him. She didn't want to see him like this. Suffering. She hated it, and she shouldn't hate it. She should be drowning in happiness at his suffering, but it didn't quite feel like a win or anything to celebrate about. If anything, it made her chest ache.
"Vicious," she called softly, reaching the couch. Nova climbed on top of him and stretched her leg the way he did, then grabbed his arm and pulled it away from his eyes. He was staring at the ceiling hard as if he wanted to put holes in them.
She wrapped her arms around his body and rested her head on his chest, feeling the beats of his heart. It was fast, so incredibly fast. Her eyes shut closed and she swallowed in a breath before releasing it out.
"What's wrong? What did Mario find?"
An arm came down on her back, rubbing her back and forth smoothly as if the caress was more for him than it was for her. Vicious threw one leg over hers and mirrored the sigh she released when he stayed quiet.
"Someone took him."
She froze. Her entire body felt like being sucked away into a sea of ice. She didn't say anything, didn't have the nerve to respond. Eventually, she knew he had to find out that Screw had been kidnapped, but she hadn't expected it to be this fast.
"Do you know who?" she finally asked, her eyes fluttering open to stare at the wall in front of her.
"If I do, they're going to wish they hadn't fucked with me."
Her breathing stilled. A buzzing started between her ears, growing louder.
"They do something to my boy, they're going to wish they were dead. They will know the reason why people call me Vicious."
Nova squeezed her eyes shut as a headache pulsated against her temples. She was trying so hard not to shake or fall off his body to the ground. She squeezed her body and tried to calm her racing heart.
She was frightened. The threat was real and his tone implied he was going to do more damage than anyone would anticipate. Nova felt a sudden dizziness, but she still pushed up a little and lifted her head to stare at him. Vicious wasn't looking back at her. He was still staring at the ceiling, pissed off. He was like a bull ready to charge and do some damage.
"Do you have any suspects in mind?"
He dragged in a ragged breath before pulling her upwards to level their gazes. His worn-out eyes were pinned to hers now. "We still have no idea who it could be," he replied. "Mario was able to trace his car, but it was not cleaned out. There was some cash in there, which made it even more suspicious because whoever took him wasn't a thief. They were more interested in Screw rather than the cash in the car." He exhaled again before he continued, "Mario was able to check the footage from the security cameras that were around that area. The bastards didn't care to find blind spots. They pulled him out of the car and pushed him into a van. It's like they wanted to be taped."
Or maybe they were in a rush and didn't remember the security cameras, Nova thought.
"So, you found nothing to lead you to the person who kidnapped Screw?" She tried not to sound happy when she asked.
"Yeah, nothing yet. But it doesn't mean something won't come up again. I will find them and bring Screw back unharmed."
"How do you know they didn't already hurt him?"
"Because people like that love the attention and the power they're getting from being dicks. If they had killed Screw, they would have let it spread through the gangs and they would boast about it. They haven't killed him yet because he's important to them alive."
Nothing will happen to Screw. You won't ever find the truth about me until it's too late. Her insides were blaring this message to herself that she believed in. She had to believe in it.
As if sensing some change inside her, Vicious held her tighter.
"What kind of van was it? Maybe the police can help?"
His shoulders shook with laughter. "The police? Really? Do you forget who you're talking to, muneca?" Vicious shook his head. "Forget the damn police. If this leaked to the other gangs that someone had kidnapped my right hand, what do you think would happen to their fear?"
"Would it be so bad if they stopped fearing you?" she asked in a whisper.
His hand rubbed circles over her temple, easing the headache pounding in her head. "Yes," he answered instantly. "When they stop fearing you, that's when they start to hurt the people around you."
Nova clung to him with deep fear and rested her head on his chest again. "You would protect your boys, I know you would. You have their loyalty and no one expects you not to do anything to protect your kingdom. I want to help protect what is yours."
His voice reverberated through her as her ear was pressed to his chest while he said, "You're already helping, Nova. You being here helps a lot more than you think. Only you can calm me the fuck down and change my mind. Earlier today, I didn't know what I would have done if you hadn't convinced me to stay. You have a very important job that most people fail at."
Despite the butterflies in her stomach, Nova pulled back. "I have the most important job, you think so?"
Vicious rubbed her arm and smiled. He was amused. "You do."
She grinned. "So, what is Mario going to do about the red van? Do you know someone who could run the plates for you?"
Instantly, his face changed. A frown took over the smile that had been there and Vicious stared deep into her eyes, studying her. "Red van?" he repeated. "How do you know the van was red?"
His eyes were still on her so she smiled through her fear and panic, swallowing over the knot in her throat. "Because you told me," she lied, shaking her head. "Honestly, you've become so forgettable. You even forgot to feed me today."
Vicious's eyes widened. "Oh, shit!" He rose with her, her legs wrapped around his waist and her arms around his neck. He laid her back on the couch and hovered over her, kissing her forehead. "I'm sorry that I forgot to feed you." He caressed her head and pulled her to him, holding tight. "What do you want to eat?"
"What can you cook for me?" she asked after she pulled away to stare at him.
The corner of his mouth lifted. "You want me to cook?"
She nodded her head.
"Uh, whatever you feel like eating."
He paused, and then the other corner lifted, too. "How hungry are you?" He rested his hand on her stomach before rubbing it slightly. "Do you need it in less than ten minutes or an hour?"
"Whatever feels right to you." Nova smiled, holding his gaze steady.
Vicious tapped under her chin. "Alright, I'll be right back." He leaned down and kissed her stomach, then brought his face to kiss both her cheeks, then planted a rough kiss on her lips before drawing away.
Nova watched him leave the room and waited a minute before she pulled out her phone and texted Keenan.
You were right. I'm slipping. Help me.