Rack & ruin, p.12
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       Rack & Ruin, p.12
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  how I feel about him. He’s not himself right now, and I’m asking you to cut him some slack.”

  “Cut him some slack?” Dex shook his head. “Cael, I’m sorry. I know how you feel about him, and believe me, I understand, but the guy’s been treating you like shit, and you’re following him around like some lovesick puppy. How could you take that from him? You’re better than that. You’re better than him.”

  “Screw you, Dex.” Cael jumped to his feet, his fists balled up at his sides. “Your commitment-phobe boyfriend just bailed on you because you let slip that you love him, which by the way, has to be the shittiest declaration of love I’ve ever heard. And you’re going to lecture me on relationships?”

  “Ouch, man.” Wow. That stung.

  “Stay out of it, Dex.” Cael stormed out of the office leaving Dex wondering when the last Jenga piece of the precariously skewed tower that was his life had been plucked. A glowing red reminder popped up on his desk. It was time to head down to Sparta for training. At least something had gone right. It was just what he needed. He felt as if he was going to explode if he didn’t let loose on something. He marched out of the office and headed for the elevator.

  Dex had never been so eager to start his daily training session. Down in Sparta, he changed in the male locker room, swapping his uniform for his black Led Zeppelin T-shirt, loose jogging pants, and sneakers. He grabbed his boxing gloves from his locker and slammed it shut.

  The bays were pretty busy at this time of day, but there was plenty of free boxing equipment in the boxing bays. He chose one of the emptier ones, and as he got ready, all he could think about was Sloane. The moment Dex had seen his face, he’d known. Sloane was going to run. I’m so stupid. He finished wrapping his hands and made straight for the punching bag.

  After some quick stretches and warm ups, he started pummeling the red leather bag, hoping to release some of his frustration, but the more he punched the bag, the angrier he became. He’d told himself not to get so close. His head had known far longer than his heart what would happen, had tried to warn him. But Dex hadn’t listened. He’d been a lovesick idiot, trailing after Sloane, getting on his knees, content to let Sloane bleed him. Maybe a part of Dex enjoyed it. Enjoyed being stripped, his vulnerability exposed. Why else would he continue to put himself through this? Why did he keep waiting? Because he’d promised Sloane he would. And what had Sloane promised in return? Dex remembered the words as if they’d been said yesterday. I can’t make any promises. Sloane had made it clear. Dex had no one to blame for his heartache but himself.

  “Well isn’t that cute.”

  Dex froze. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Someone up there was conspiring against him. Was this a test to see how much he could take before he lost his shit? Any other day, Dex would have walked away. But not today. He turned and faced Ash who was dressed similarly in a T-shirt and loose jogging pants. Letty was beside him looking worried.

  “Come on. You and me,” Dex said through his teeth.

  Ash let out a laugh. “Are you fucking kidding?”

  “Does it look like I’m kidding?”

  “Sloane wouldn’t be happy about that.”

  “Well Sloane’s not fucking here, is he?” Dex snapped. He expected a smart-ass remark, but instead Ash seemed to be thinking it over so he pushed on. “You’ve wanted this since I joined. Now’s your chance. No one here’s going to stop you. You want to beat the shit out of me, now’s your fucking chance.”

  “Okay.”

  Dex nodded and swiped his boxing gloves off the side of the mat. He held them out to Letty. “Help me out here.”

  Letty took one glove from him and helped secure the strap before taking the next one. “Dex, are you sure you want to do this? You know he won’t hold back.”

  “I’m counting on it.”

  Letty cursed under her breath, saying something in Spanish Dex didn’t understand. He tapped his hip where his pocket was, and Letty reached in. She pulled out the small box containing his mouth guard and opened it, looking as if she was going to try again to convince him not to do this, but instead, she held the mouth guard up to him. He leaned over and closed his mouth around the rubbery piece. He could tell she wasn’t happy, but he needed this.

  He hopped on his toes, rolled his shoulders, and waited while Letty helped Ash with his gloves and mouth guard. As soon as Ash was ready, they both stepped onto one of the larger empty blue mats. Looking at Ash, all the anger came flooding back, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop thinking about Sloane.

  You really thought he wouldn’t run? He’ll always run. From you.

  “Come on,” Dex said around his mouthpiece.

  Ash shook his head, but there was no way Dex was letting him back out now.

  “Come on!”

  Ash gave him exactly what he asked for. The first punch landed across Dex’s jaw and sent him reeling. He fell hard against the mat, his face in a world of pain and stars in his eyes. How the hell Dex hadn’t been knocked out by that one hit was beyond him. Fuck. That hurt. Okay, maybe this wasn’t your brightest idea.

  “That all you got, Daley? One hit? That’s pretty fucking pathetic.”

  Bastard. Dex pushed himself to his feet and shook himself off. Would Sloane come back this time? He had to. They worked together. What if that’s all he came back for? You fucked up. The first guy you could see yourself spending your life with, and you fuck it up within months. A new record. Ash grinned at him, and Dex lost it.

  He came at Ash with everything he had, mindful of Ash’s fierce hooks. He maneuvered around him, ducking under hooks and jumping out of the way when Ash swiped at him. Ash threw both arms out to grab him, and Dex dropped down to the mat and rolled. He popped back up and took a swing, catching Ash on his shoulder. Then Dex remembered what Ash’s proficiency was. Close Quarter Combat. The guy had been toying with him. Letting him land blows, waiting for Dex to realize the mistake he’d made.

  Ash got in his space, all sharp elbows, swift punches, and knees. Somewhere between taking the pain and protecting his body, Dex managed to land a blow against the larger Therian’s left ribs, but his retreat was denied. Ash’s gloves came down hard against Dex’s back, and he was on the mat again. This time Dex wasn’t allowed to get up. Ash straddled him and pinned him down with his full weight.

  The first blow hit his shoulder, and Dex let out a sharp cry at the pain. He put his gloves together doing his damnedest to protect his face from Ash’s assault. A blow landed against his abs, and the wind rushed out of Dex. He took a chance at leaving himself open to thrust his glove up, catching Ash in the chin and succeeding in pissing the guy off even more. An uppercut clipped Dex’s jaw, and his head snapped back. He could taste the blood in his mouth and started wheezing. The weight lifted, and Dex rolled onto his side, spitting out his mouth guard and drawing in large gulps of air. His lungs burned, and his body was on fire. But none of it hurt more than his heart. He stayed on his side, his forehead pressed against the mat as he tried to catch his breath.

  “It’s okay, Letty. I got this.” Ash’s tone was almost gentle, and Dex looked up in time to see Letty snap herself out of it. With a nod, she headed off. Dex realized the room was empty except for him and Ash. A hand appeared before Dex’s face and he glared at Ash.

  “Don’t do that.”

  “Do what?” Ash asked, insisting Dex take his hand.

  “Act like a decent person. Like you give a fuck.” Reluctantly Dex accepted Ash’s help and sat up, his arms resting on his knees and what was most certainly the most pathetic expression ever on his face.

  “I do give a fuck. He’ll come back.”

  Dex shook his head, his lips pressed together to keep himself from sounding like the drama queen Ash was always accusing him of being. Why was he even sitting here talking to a guy who might possibly have betrayed them all? As much as he was fine with ticking yet another box on his list of reasons to dislike Ash, something in Dex’s gut fought the idea
of Ash as a traitor, simply based on the guy’s relationship with Sloane. Man, he was such a goddamn mess. “How fucked up is this? I’m pissed, and you’re comforting. If that isn’t a sign the apocalypse is coming, I don’t know what is.”

  “He will come back.” Ash sat beside him, mirroring his pose. Dex wasn’t sure what he found more disturbing, Ash being… not a dick or him taking comfort in Ash’s words. In the end he gave in and went with it. He was too tired not to.

  “I know. That’s not the problem.”

  “It’s the running. I hate to tell you, but… he always runs.”

  “Unless it’s a fight. He’ll run headfirst into that. But if it’s me?” Dex threw a hand toward the open bay doors. Something occurred to him, and he swallowed his pride. If he had to look to Ash for answers, so be it. “Did he run from Gabe?”

  Ash shook his head. “No.”

  “So it is me. What do you know, I can feel shittier.”

  “Think about it for a moment, Dex.”

  “He loved Gabe, but he never ran.” Dex racked his brain for a reason. Why hadn’t Sloane run from Gabe? He’d loved him. Why did the thought of Dex loving Sloane have the guy taking off? Ash answered for him.

  “It didn’t scare him.”

  Dex thought about his relationship with Sloane. He knew he’d been the one to push things forward, but it wasn’t as though he’d forced Sloane into a commitment he didn’t want or wasn’t ready for. Dex had wanted more and took the plunge in telling Sloane as much. If Sloane hadn’t been ready, he wouldn’t have taken that step, and Dex would have found a way to work around it. “What does that mean?”

  Ash shrugged. “Gabe was the first one Sloane had let in, and yeah, he loved Gabe, but he could do it while still holding some of himself back. The facility, his past, his nightmares? Gabe never knew about that shit. Sloane told you what happened to his mom.”

  Dex flinched, his heart squeezing at the memory. “He told you?”

  “That he’d spilled everything to you? Yeah. The only ones who knew were me and Shultzon. He’s not scared of opening up to you, Dex. He’s scared of what you might find if he does. We didn’t exactly grow up around functioning relationships. Hell, our friendship was a result of fear and loneliness.”

  “But we’ve talked about his past. Whatever happened doesn’t change the way I feel about him.”

  “Doesn’t change the way he feels about himself either.” Ash let out a heavy sigh, and Dex had a feeling the guy wasn’t referring to just Sloane. “I’m sure the fact you love him despite all his baggage means a hell of a lot to him, but that shit doesn’t get left behind. Some of it—his mom’s death….” Ash pursed his lips and shook his head. “He might be able to think back on it one day and not feel guilty, but he’ll never forget. What happened to us back in that facility might get more bearable with time, but it fucked us up. It made us what we are. The way we are. Damaged.”

  Dex turned to Ash and met his gaze. “You’re not damaged. You’ve had it rough and were dealt a really shitty hand, but you pushed through it. You took all that anger and pain and you used it for something good. To make a difference.” There was no response from Ash who simply averted his gaze, his eyes on his fingers. “So now what? I keep bracing myself, waiting for the next time he walks out on me?”

  “Don’t give up on him, Dex.”

  “Funny. He said something similar about you.”

  Ash studied him for a moment, before his eyes clouded over. “You told him. I figured you would.”

  “I wasn’t trying to be a dick.” And that was the truth. Even if at first he’d acted like a jerk about it. He hadn’t been intent on turning Ash in simply because it was Ash. Sure, they weren’t exactly friends, but it was because of Cael, Sloane, and the rest of the team that Dex had been so angry. “I couldn’t keep something like that from Sloane. I’m not about to start keeping secrets.” Except the part about you loving him. You kept that one, and look how well that went.

  “So why haven’t you told Sparks?”

  “Because it would crush Sloane. I told him I would give you the benefit of the doubt. For him.”

  “Aren’t you sweet.” Dex opened his mouth, but Ash stopped him. “There isn’t jack-shit to talk about, so don’t bother.”

  “Okay. How about you tell me why you were such a dick to my brother? And don’t bullshit me, man. You can say you don’t care, but I know you do.”

  Ash got to his feet and started for the exit when Dex called out after him. “You really hurt him.” That brought Ash to a stop. Dex waited, holding his breath. Come on, Ash. Give me something.

  “Good,” Ash ground out through his teeth. “I told you. He needs to stay away from me.”

  Not the something he was hoping for.

  Dex got to his feet, feeling sore as hell. “Whatever’s going on, I hope it’s worth it.”

  Ash grumbled something under his breath, and Dex could have sworn he’d heard Ash say “me too.” But it was too late to ask because Ash was gone. Dex sucked in a sharp breath and headed for the showers. Wherever Sloane was, Dex hoped he found the answer he was looking for. Hopefully that answer would lead him back to Dex.

  Chapter 9

  HOW LONG can you keep this up?

  How long could he keep running? It felt as though he’d been running his whole life. Sloane looked down at his wrists and the evidence left behind of his first attempt to escape. He’d grown stronger since then, but he was still running.

  The dangers of his job never bothered him. It was different. He told himself he wanted to make the most of the time he had, and he should, considering the dangers they faced every time they went out in the field. Then Dex would take another step closer, Sloane’s chest would tighten, and he would balk. His guilt was eating at him, but he’d told Dex from the beginning that he couldn’t make promises. And this was why. He’d never expected Dex to become such a big part of his life so quickly, and he sure as hell hadn’t expected Dex to fall in love with him.

  Gabe had loved him, but it had been different with Gabe. Like they were both holding something back. It was the way they’d been built. But Dex…. He smiled at the thought of that dopey grin, those sparkling blue eyes, and that infectious laugh. Something in the air changed, and Sloane couldn’t help his smile.

  “How’d you find me?”

  Ash took a seat on the bench beside him. “It’s what we do. Besides, I know you better than you know yourself.”

  “In that case, maybe you can tell me why I keep doing this?” He looked up at the starless sky, feeling the breeze against his skin, hearing it rustle the leaves of the trees around him. There was nothing but their voices and the sounds of traffic on the other side of the fence a few yards behind him.

  “You’re scared.”

  “That it?”

  “No. You’re scared because for the first time in your life, you found someone who sees you, all of you. He can see the cracks, the missing pieces, the one’s too broken to be salvaged, and despite all that, he still wants to be with you. What did he say to make you bolt? Must have been big.” Ash leaned his arms on his legs so he could look at Sloane.

  “He let it slip that he loves me.”

  “Daley’s in love with you?” Ash stared at him, and Sloane braced himself for a barrage of insults regarding Dex, how Sloane should bail or some unhelpful remark, but they never came. Instead, Ash looked him right in the eye and in his most sincere voice said, “Stop running. You’ve got something good. Don’t fuck it up.”

  Sloane opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

  “He knows all your hang-ups, your demons, all the fucked-up shit you come with, and not only does he stick by you, he fucking bleeds for you, man. I’ve seen it. For fuck’s sake, he got in the ring with me because of you.”

  “What?” Sloane went to get up, but Ash grabbed his arm.

  “Relax. He’s still in one piece. I only beat him up a little.” Sloane arched an eyebrow at him, and Ash winced. “Okay, a lot.
But he’s okay. I went easy on him when I realized it was because of you. Figured you’d left. It was the only thing that could set him off like that. We talked after.”

  “About me?” Sloane didn’t know what to think about Dex challenging Ash to a fight. He must have been so angry and hurt.

  “What else?”

  Sloane clasped his hands between his knees until he couldn’t take it anymore. “What did you tell him?”

  “Not to give up on you.”

  “Thanks.”

  “S’okay.”

  They sat there in companionable silence when an old memory crept up on Sloane, and he started chuckling. “Remember when we were kids, we used to play Indiana Jones, and you’d throw pillows at me, and we’d pretend they were boulders falling from the mountains?”

  Ash laughed, and for the first time in a long time, his best friend’s smile reached his amber eyes. “How could I forget? You were so obsessed with those movies, wanting to be Indiana Jones. It’s all you talked about. Remember when Shultzon got you the hat for Christmas? You were so excited. I thought you were going to hurt something.”

  Sloane couldn’t help his laugh. “That’s right! I forgot about the hat. Who didn’t want to be Indy back then?”

  “Me,” Ash replied with a grin.

  “That’s right. Because you wanted to be….” Sloane trailed off, and he smiled at Ash’s cringe. His friend’s face turned red reminding Sloane of how, once upon a time, his world had revolved around Ash, and Ash’s world had revolved around his. They’d huddled together under the blankets while the storm that was their lives threatened to break them, promising each other they’d never let go.

  “Just say it,” Ash muttered, averting his gaze.

  “The Man in Black, a.k.a. Westley.”

  “So what?” Ash’s lips turned up into a wide smile. “He was cool. Running around swashbuckling, fighting rodents of unusual size. I got to wear a mask and carry around a sword. You had a whip. Did you know you were gay then?”

  “Fuck off,” Sloane laughed, giving him a playful shove. “Dick.” His expression softened when he thought back to those days. “I remember when you got sick from one of the tests and they kept you in the infirmary for observation. When you got back, I said I thought I’d never see you again, and what did you do? You grabbed my Indy hat, popped it on your head, and said….”

  “I’m like bad penny, I always turn up.” Ash smiled warmly. “I remember.”

  “It became a thing after that. When I’d get scared, you’d say it to reassure me. Our secret.”

  They both reminisced about their youth, talking of only the good times. When they’d jumped on their beds wearing capes, pretending they could fly. They’d painted their wardroom to look like a forest with a night sky on the ceiling complete with stars and constellations. Then they’d lie on either his or Ash’s bed and stare up at the star-covered ceiling, their nightlight serving as a campfire as they talked about how one day they would sleep under real stars.

  “I can’t believe we were ever that young,” Ash said, his voice soft.

  “I know.” Sloane tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. “Ash?”

  Ash’s eyes darkened, his expression turning cold. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to.”

  “You’re a lot of things, but a traitor isn’t one of them. I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, but promise me you’ll be careful.” Whatever was happening, Ash wasn’t a traitor. Sloane would bet his life on it.

  “Shouldn’t you be arresting me?”

  Sloane shrugged. “I have no proof.”

  Ash arched an eyebrow at him in surprise. “But you have a witness. And not just any witness, a fellow agent.”

  “No, I don’t.” Sloane looked out ahead of him, aware of Ash studying him. “What happened with Cael?”

  “Fuck, man. What is it with you and Daley? First you’re connected at the hip, now you’re thinking the same? I swear if you start eating gummy bears I’m going to punch your lights out.”

  “Ash.”

  “None of your business, all right?”

  Sloane turned to meet his friend’s gaze. He might be willing to give Ash the benefit of the doubt, but things couldn’t continue the way they were going on his team. Destructive Delta had the highest rate of success of any other team in Unit Alpha, and it reflected in their budget, the leeway they were given, and the trust put in them to get the job done. Sloane couldn’t allow his team’s performance to suffer, and right now Destructive Delta was teetering dangerously close to being exposed. “Since it’s happening on my time and involves my team, it is my business. You know I can’t let Sparks find out what’s going on. If she gets wind, we’ll be under the microscope. I won’t allow Destructive Delta’s reputation to fall to ruin. How could you say all that shit to Cael? You’re crazy about him.”

  “What the fuck are you implying?”

  Ash’s defensive tone wasn’t lost on Sloane. “Come on, man.” Sloane had been happy to ignore it as long as Ash did, but that didn’t stop it from being true.

  “I’m not gay,” Ash insisted.

  “Well you sure as shit aren’t straight, so don’t you fucking dare. That might fly with someone else, but not with me. We’ve been through too much shit together for you to stand there and lie to me, to my face. You can deny it to yourself and everyone else. You can stay in the closet if you feel you need to. Refuse all the labels, date whoever the hell you want, I’m not going to judge you. I never have. But don’t, don’t sit there and tell me you’re fucking straight. You’ve got a
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