Pattern Recognition

After cleaning the blood off his knives, Wynn returned to headquarters in Lower Helm for debriefing. The familiar shuffle of pavement under his feet felt like returning to a childhood home, as he dodged the winking halos of street lamps and stuck to the shadows of Hyral’s endless night.

It was hardly his first kill, but it was his first assignment under his new employer that didn’t leave him standing in a corner like an empty coat rack. The target had been one of his employer’s smaller rivals, who’d been warned about crossing certain boundaries in Lower Helm. Unfortunately the target not considered the fatal consequences of ignoring a direct threat from Aldus Yaskyr, the self-appointed king of the city’s underground and Wynn’s new boss.

As Wynn scaled the black spire that housed Aldus’s office, the street lamps of Lower Helm softened below. He slipped through the one window he could find with his eyes closed, irritated but unsurprised to find it unlocked.

Aldus sat behind a desk built to match his imposing size, thumbing through paperwork with a half-finished drink in one hand. The hard contours of his face eased when he looked up, laying down the paper he’d been reading along with his drink.

“Back already?” he said in his rich, ferocious voice that always put Wynn on guard. “With good news, I take it?”

Wynn stopped short of the large desk and nodded. “It’s done.”

“Excellent work,” Aldus said, smooth as the liquor in his glass, as he reached into the desk for a pack of cigarettes. He nodded across the room to his private bar. “You should help yourself to a drink.”

Wynn followed Aldus’s gaze, feigning polite consideration of the offer. “M’fine, sir.”

Aldus hummed and lit a cigarette, the pack near miniature in his hand. He was built like a sturdy tanker, his hands hefty and worn like ship rope, legs as thick as wooden beams, shoulders as broad as a bow. He possessed a withering, chiseled face, aged by stress rather than time, framed by a wild lion’s mane that matched his auburn fur. And even if his body did not command a room simply by existing, his voice turned heads much bigger than his own.

“I assumed it would take longer with that level of security,” Aldus finally said.

“No one saw me,” Wynn replied quickly. “I was in and out.”

Aldus’s wide grin split his face, but Wynn had worked for him just long enough to interpret the danger in his eyes as he asked, “Do you think I’m calling your performance into question?”

Wynn shook his head, not trusting his words to provide an appropriate answer. The job had left him wound up from lack of practice, eager to sweat out the rest of his nerves in the empty gym on the bottom floor of the building.

Aldus tapped ash from his cigarette and asked, “How about a reward?”

“My salary is more than suitable, sir.”

“Consider it a tip, then.” Aldus waved his hand impatiently. “Something to ease your evening of physical exertion.”

“I hardly exerted myself,” Wynn said coolly.

The silence that followed led him to believe he’d overstepped; if Wynn learned anything from shadowing Aldus’s business meetings, it was that the half-manticore did not care for feisty responses to his questions.

After a moment of pinning Wynn with his dense, smoldering gaze, Aldus took a long drag from his cigarette, smoke coiling lazily around his clawed fingers before he crushed it out in the ashtray.

“I think I know what you need, little knife.”

Aldus stood and circled the desk, his approach sending static tingles up the back of Wynn’s neck. He fought his body’s instinct to shy away, lowering his eyes now that Aldus was no longer in his immediate line of sight.

“Look at me.”

Wynn turned his head, his hands hanging limply at his sides.

Aldus surveyed him with the same look as the night they’d first met, his eyes full of suffocating approval that Wynn still didn’t know what to do with.

“Do you think choosing you was a mistake?” Aldus asked softly.

He didn’t wait for Wynn’s answer before he raised a hand. Wynn braced for those stout fingers to circle his neck and squeeze, but Aldus only pinched the tiny zipper at his throat. Metal teeth hissed as Aldus unzipped his bodysuit, cool air spilling through the parted material to lap at Wynn’s collarbones. The zipper paused at his waist, the tight fabric split down his torso as it clung to his shoulders.

“I asked you a question, little knife.”

Wynn’s voice came out raspy. “No, sir.”

Aldus hummed, releasing the zipper to trace up the stark, black edge of Wynn’s bodysuit where it framed his lavender skin. He hooked his thumb under the suit’s fabric when he reached the line of Wynn’s shoulders.

“Do you know me to make many mistakes?”

Wynn clamped his mouth shut as he met Aldus’s eyes again, swallowed by the reflection of his iridescent horns in both beady pupils. “No,” is what he finally whispered, shaking his head for good measure.

His answer was met with a pleased curl of Aldus’s mouth. He dragged his thumb along Wynn’s shoulder, pulling the bodysuit with it, then repeated the same for the other side, leaving Wynn’s chest fully exposed with his arms still sealed in the suit.

Aldus dropped his hand to Wynn’s side, nudging him toward the desk, and Wynn pressed his hips against the wooden edge until they hurt, hyper-aware that his back was presented to a man he knew to be dangerous.

He held his breath as if waiting for a strike, but Aldus didn’t move.

“Shall I keep going?”

Wynn nodded as a ragged breath escaped him.

“Say it.”

Wynn notched his fingers around the desk’s edge, shoulder blades stretching his skin as he locked his arms and ducked his head.

“Please,” he ground out. “Touch me,” he said, his voice leveling out into a whisper. “Sir.”

Warmth bloomed across Wynn’s skin as Aldus cupped his waist, his touch gentle despite the resting strength in his muscles. Wynn had fucked plenty of targets to get close when a contract demanded it, but this level of tenderness, with no upper hand to be gained, was unfamiliar; dangerous.

“So tense,” Aldus murmured reverently as he drew his hands up Wynn’s stomach. “I would have offered this sooner if I’d known.”

Wynn exhaled through his nose. “Is this another benefit of serving the king of Hyral?”

Such questions should have drawn Aldus’s ire—Wynn had seen it happen plenty of times in the very room they occupied—but Aldus only chuckled, his fingers skirting over Wynn’s ribs before stopping beneath his chest.

“May I?”

Wynn held back a shrug. “You’re already touching me.”

“And I prefer you find it enjoyable.”

Wynn shut his eyes, his senses honing to the smooth, furred fingers notched in the bars of his ribcage. He was used to a sharpened world full of knives and claws and needles—not strong, patient hands and a syrupy voice in his ear. He gulped, delicate and wary, as if he held his own blade to his throat.

“Anywhere,” he whispered, his throat tight. “You can touch me anywhere.”

Aldus’s heavy palms swallowed his tits, and Wynn arched without thinking, his back pressing against a padded chest as thick fingers circled his nipples.

“You’re accustomed to being stretched thin, aren’t you?” Aldus asked in Wynn’s ear, lazily cupping and squeezing his tits as Wynn tilted his head back.

“Comes with the job.”

“There’s no need for that here,” Aldus said simply. “You’re safe.”

Wynn huffed. “That’d be the last thing I hear before my throat’s cut.”

“I don’t harm what I value.” Aldus’s hands skimmed down Wynn’s torso to rest on his hips, still encased in his bodysuit. “And you are most valued, my knife. Whether or not you choose to believe it.”

In Wynn’s experience, value was only applied on the surface—direction, objectives, and contract verbiage all meant exactly what they said. His former guild never considered anyone in terms of individual value or worth, only compliance and results.

“They did a number on you, didn’t they?” Aldus murmured, his tone still too saccharine as his thumb and index finger converged at Wynn’s zipper, tugging it quick in a false start. “Your perfect record isn’t what caught my attention. I hired you because you’re thorough—”

He eased the zipper down Wynn’s lower belly, his other hand pressed firm against his ribcage.


Wynn felt each metal tooth unlock as the opening dipped between his legs.

“—effective.” Aldus released the zipper, his breath puffing across Wynn’s neck so light it itched. “Because one day, you’re going to fuck up.”

Wynn inhaled sharply. “That’s reassuring.”

“It’s statistics.” Aldus’s nose brushed Wynn’s ear. “And when it happens, I’ll let you lick your wounds and crawl back when you’re ready. That’s more than the guild ever promised you.”

Wynn emptied his lungs, dragging a crumb of sound through his lips as teeth nipped his lobe.

“You have to trust me if this arrangement is going to work,” Aldus continued, drawing languid lines across the exposed skin of Wynn’s pelvis.

“I trust you,” Wynn said, but even he heard how weak it sounded once it was out.

“I think you want to,” Aldus said. “But we’re not quite there yet, are we?”

Wynn flinched as something needle-thin poked his leg, trailing a line of inquisitive taps up his side until Aldus’s beaded tail slithered up his stomach. The stinger poked the center of his chest, then drew a pale line in his skin, like the light scratch of a fingernail. The next line cut deeper, leaving a darker trail without piercing skin.

Any second the stinger could plunge into his flesh and pump his blood with venom, but instead of instilling fear, that little twinge of pain sparked Wynn’s nerves like a hundred lit wicks, sending tiny shockwaves of heat between his legs.

“Liked that, did you?”

Ignoring the smugness in Aldus’s voice, Wynn freed one hand from the side of the desk to grip the tail beneath the stinger. He traced the mottled chitin, brushing the pads of his thumbs along the fine bristles of hair. He dropped the tail when Aldus shivered behind him, turning his head enough to bring Aldus’s face into his periphery. “You felt that?”

“As much as you feel this.”

Aldus lifted his hand to one of Wynn’s horns and thumbed the base, causing Wynn to gasp before he snatched hold of the desk again.


Aldus dropped his hand, his fingers returning to the opening of Wynn’s bodysuit. “Now that we’ve divulged vulnerable secrets, may I continue?”

Wynn clenched at the proximity of warm fingers to his cock, shivering as they teased between fabric and skin. “Yeah—yes—yes, sir.”

Aldus’s fingers plunged inside the open crotch of the suit, firmly cupping Wynn’s cock before descending lower. His hum rattled through Wynn’s back like a full-body purr as he stroked the slick line of Wynn’s cunt.

“So wet already,” Aldus said, his tone teetering on the edge of pride. “Are you certain financial compensation is all you require, little knife?”

In lieu of an answer, Wynn tilted his hips and pushed against the desk, rutting against the wide heel of Aldus’s palm. His legs widened as Aldus worked his thigh between them, lifting Wynn’s toes from the floor and stealing his leverage, leaving him to grind helplessly against whatever pressure Aldus allowed him.

“That’s it,” Aldus rumbled, rubbing Wynn’s cock in time with the rock of his hips. “Take what you need.”

It was as if a forgotten switch had been flipped in a corner of Wynn’s mind. He rode Aldus’s fingers until his choked breaths turned into desperate sobs, not so much losing himself as finally giving in. Aldus’s tail belted his waist, holding him upright as fingers tugged and teased his nipples.

Despite his looming climax, suspicion nipped at the back of Wynn’s mind—surely this wasn’t as simple as Aldus made it seem; that when this was over, Wynn would more indebted than when he initially slipped through Aldus’s window that night.

A frustrated groan escaped him, followed by frantic puffs of breath through his nose.

“I—I can’t,” he whined.

The room around him tipped sideways as Aldus gingerly bent him over the desk, with no word or concern for the contents strewn across the surface. Wynn managed to nudge the ashtray aside before his chest flattened against a stack of papers. Aldus’s tail recoiled from Wynn’s waist before winding around his leg, as his body suit was wrenched down his thighs.

Aldus’s warmth returned to Wynn’s shoulders and back as fingers once again slotted around his cock. “Better?”

“Sir,” Wynn replied with a nod, propped on his elbows enough to keep his head pointed at the wall behind Aldus’s chair.

Aldus shifted, absently teasing Wynn’s cock as he wrapped his other fingers around one of Wynn’s horns.

“And now?”

Electrified heat zipped through Wynn’s body, made his legs tremble and his lower lip quiver. “Fuck,” he muttered, Aldus’s grip commanding him to remain still. “Good, sir.”

Aldus hummed in response, thumbing the base of Wynn’s horn as he worked his fingers between Wynn’s legs with renewed vigor. The change in position sent Wynn reeling, pushing up on his toes to present more of himself for Aldus’s ease. Slick sounds filled his ears, his eyes half-lidded as Aldus stroked him. Each circle pressed into his horn made him whimper, made everything almost too much before it wasn’t enough again.

“You don’t need permission,” Aldus said gently, as if reminding Wynn of a forgotten task.

“Fuck,” Wynn ground out, followed by a low moan as he dropped his head between his bent arms. His body was rocking without full awareness, instinctively seeking more friction, more pressure, even though Aldus had proved he knew how to handle him.

The final straw was Aldus’s fingers curling around Wynn’s horn and squeezing, tilting his head back until his eyes pointed at the ceiling. Pinned like a preserved moth, Wynn was left to shiver and quake and sob as Aldus stroked him through his climax. He moaned vacantly when a finger dipped inside his cunt, as if Aldus just wanted to feel him tremble and clench until his orgasm shook itself out. He heard Aldus’s deep hum of approval as his horn was released, leaving a fluttery static behind.

“Perhaps these sessions should be a permanent fixture in your schedule.”

Wynn’s breath left him in a laugh. Shortly after, he began collecting himself, carefully easing off the desk so as not to disturb more of Aldus’s belongings than he already had. He eyed the abandoned pack of cigarettes as he tugged his suit up his hips and slipped his arms through the tight sleeves.

“Have one if you’d like,” Aldus said, now standing at the bar across the room.

Wynn closed up his zipper as he watched Aldus pour something dark and syrupy into one of two glasses.

“Will you take a drink?” Aldus asked.

“Fine, sir.”

By the time Wynn lit a cigarette and moved the ashtray to his side of the desk, Aldus returned with two drinks in hand. Wynn leaned against the edge of the desk as he sipped and smoked, while Aldus returned to his chair. Sweat slow-cooled beneath Wynn’s suit as he assessed his body’s state—limbs loose, shoulders relaxed, head pleasantly fuzzy. He heard paper rustling behind him, smiling to himself over the fact that Aldus had effortlessly returned to work at the same desk he’d just been bent over.

He finished his cigarette, then his drink, then circled the desk to plant himself in Aldus’s space.

Aldus lowered the document in his hand. “Something else you needed?”

Wynn leaned one palm against the desk, placing the other on the back of Aldus’s chair. “I could return the favor, you know,” he said, his eyes drifting down to Aldus’s lap.

When his gaze returned to Aldus’s face, Wynn was surprised to find a frown waiting for him.

“Could you?” Aldus asked flatly.

“If—if you wanted,” Wynn added. “I can leave, or…”

“Or what?” Aldus said, dangerous and quiet as a hidden blade.

Wynn knew better—knew he was treading a thin line and needed to cut his losses—yet he moved his hand from the desk to Aldus’s thigh anyway. He groped aimlessly, eyes snared by Aldus’s fierce expression, until he palmed Aldus’s cock through his pants.

“I could take care of you.”

Aldus closed his fingers around the back of Wynn’s palm, halting his progress. “There’s no need for that, little knife,” he murmured, his expression softening. He rolled his fingers along the back of Wynn’s palm before he carefully moved his hand away. “This was meant for you.”

But Wynn couldn’t just leave it at that—not with equal reciprocation hardwired into him like his skills with a blade.

“And what if I wanted to?” he urged.

For a few lengthy beats, Aldus seemed to consider it, his furry brows narrowing. Then he lay a hand on Wynn’s shoulder, his thumb long enough to trace the length of a collarbone through his bodysuit. “I don’t place my employees in situations they can’t handle,” he said. “Especially you.”

Invisible flames licked Wynn’s face as he leaned closer, his veins surging with adrenaline.

“I cut a guy’s throat open for you,” he said. “Watched him choke while he bled out on the ground. But you don’t think I can handle that?” He gestured to Aldus’s lap.

Aldus’s smile floated below his dark eyes. He heaved a deep breath, gave a shallow nod, and said, “Do you need an official order to retire for the night, or can you escort yourself?”

At the sudden chilly tone, Wynn’s adrenaline seeped out of him, leaving him intimately aware of how childish he was being. His former guild wouldn’t have tolerated a second of his behavior, and Aldus was being more than lenient given what had just transpired.

He stood up straight as a sentry and folded his arms over his chest. “I’ll be on my way,” he said.

But Aldus hadn’t released him from his attention, still watching Wynn as if he were waiting to catch a bird before it took flight.

“You have nothing to prove to me,” he said, finally turning back to his paperwork. “Remember that.”

Rules, patterns, numbers—Wynn knew he excelled at remembering things; belief had always been the equation he couldn’t figure out how to solve. As he scaled down the building and headed back to his flat, he wondered what Aldus would say to him when he inevitably failed. He tried to envision Aldus looking disappointed or furious or sending him back to the guild, but the image wouldn’t materialize.

Instead he played back his mind’s recording of Aldus’s deep, rumbling voice. Felt his skin itch at the memory of being touched, being handled; how heat had pricked the back of his neck like a needle every time Aldus praised him.

By the time Wynn ascended a hundred stairs and slipped into his dark, empty flat, he had mustered a smile.