Against the grain, p.13
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       Against The Grain, p.13
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  IT WAS hard to believe another year was about to end.

  The team decided to take Bradley up on his offer of ringing in the New Year at Dekatria. The place was packed, but then so were most places on New Year’s Eve. Since they weren’t officially taking any cases, they were assigned to work the day shift, leaving them free in the evening to celebrate. They’d all shared cabs over, knowing they’d be drinking, except maybe for Sloane, who wasn’t taking any chances considering his recent problems with shifting.

  Cael had hoped what happened Christmas Eve was the start of something for him and Ash, but things were still slow going between them, and Ash had yet to bring up anything official. On the one hand, Ash had grown more comfortable showing Cael affection in front of his family and Sloane. Christmas Day had been wonderful, with Ash hanging around the house with him, teasing him, kissing him in front of whoever was around. They’d watched movies, had Christmas dinner, exchanged gifts, laughed, and eaten some more. Whenever Cael sat down, Ash had pulled him close against him and in some cases playfully grabbed him as he walked by and pulled him onto his lap. Dex, Sloane, and Tony had been surprised, but they quickly moved on as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

  They’d arrived at Dekatria a few hours ago. Cael had danced with Rosa and her girlfriend, while Letty busted some serious moves with Dimples the firefighter. Man, they really needed to learn the guy’s name. Ash had been sweet but maintained his distance. This was the first time they’d been out in a social setting since their night together Christmas Eve. They’d been drinking and chatting by one of the pillar tables when they heard it.

  “Oh my God! Ash?”

  “Yeah?” Ash turned in time to catch a blur of glittering, shrieking sequins that launched itself into his arms. Apparently there was a busty brunette underneath all those sequins.

  Cael stood stunned as the woman smeared her bright pink lipstick all over Ash’s mouth. Seeming to get a grasp on the situation, Ash swiftly placed her on her feet and wiped the lipstick from his mouth.

  “Jesus, what the fuck, Hanna?”

  Hanna giggled and slapped his arm playfully. “You used to love it when I jumped on you. Of course, we were both naked at the time. I tried calling you, but you never answered my calls.” She pressed herself up against him and ran a finger down his arm, a pout on her face. “Where have you been? I missed you. We used to have so much fun together.”

  “I’ve been a little busy.” Ash moved her hand off his arm and took a step to the side, looking incredibly uncomfortable. That made two of them. Hanna was either oblivious to Ash’s less than subtle gestures or was purposefully ignoring them. Cael took another sip of his vodka and lemonade.

  “Are you busy tonight?” she purred, drawing circles on his chest with her finger.

  Ash frowned at her. “Yes. I’m here with my team.”

  “What’s the matter? You would have had me up against the bathroom stall by now.”

  Oh come on. Really? Cael cleared his throat, and Hanna blinked at him as if noticing him for the first time, which was likely the case. Did the woman go around sexually accosting all her exes? Why would she assume Ash was willing and able?

  “Well, aren’t you adorable.” She turned her attention back to Ash with a wide smile. “Who’s your little friend?”

  Ash ran a hand over his hair. “Um, this is Agent Cael Maddock. He’s on my team.”

  Wow. Not even friend. He’d been relegated to teammate. Cael managed to summon a smile. “Hi.” He didn’t bother extending a hand, seeing as how Hanna was back to fondling Ash, and Ash was doing absolutely fuck all about it. Despite the music thumping through the place, Cael would guess Ash could hear his teeth grinding, because he once again removed Hanna from his person.

  “Look, Hanna, I’m with someone.”

  Cael’s pulse picked up speed, and the butterflies in his stomach went crazy. His cheeks grew warm, and he bit his bottom lip. Was Ash actually going to say it?

  Hanna gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I’m such an idiot. Of course you have a girlfriend. I shouldn’t have assumed. So who’s the lucky lady?”

  Ash’s gaze dropped to his feet, and he shoved his hands in his pockets. “Um… no one you know.”

  The remark hit Cael harder than a slap in the face. He’d never felt more vulnerable, wounded, and mortified, despite being the only one privy to Ash’s brush-off.

  “Why so secretive?” Hanna prodded. “Come on, tell me all about her.”

  “Hanna—”

  “Go on, Ash,” Cael replied through his teeth. “Tell her all about your girlfriend.” He threw back what was left of his vodka and lemonade before putting his glass down. “Excuse me.” He walked off, ignoring Ash calling him back.

  He should have known. A part of him had expected it, yet having it happen had been more painful than he could have imagined. He hadn’t expected Ash to introduce him as his boyfriend, but to let Hanna assume he was in a relationship with a woman? Screw this. And screw Ash Keeler.

  Cael pushed his way through the crowd until he reached the bar. Bradley’s smile faded when he saw him. “Everything okay?”

  “I need something that’ll get me shit-faced.”

  Bradley looked uncertain, and there was a good chance he might tell Dex, but Cael didn’t care. Why was everyone always babying him? “Is that okay with you?” he growled.

  “Yeah, sorry. I’ll get you that drink.”

  Seconds later, Bradley returned with one of his foggy “Specials,” the kind he was always putting together for Sloane. Cael was on his second when Ash made an appearance.

  “Cael, please. I’m sorry.”

  “Okay.” If that’s what Ash wanted to hear, that’s what he would say.

  Bradley placed another “Special” in front of him, and Cael picked it up, only to have Ash take hold of the glass, his hand over Cael’s. The pain in his heart intensified.

  “It’s fine,” Cael managed to get out. “Do you mind?”

  Ash rubbed his thumb over Cael’s hand. “I know I hurt you.”

  Fuck no. He did not get to do that. Not this time. Cael met Ash’s gaze. “Yes, you did, Ash. And it’s starting to become a really bad habit of yours.”

  Ash flinched. “What else was I supposed to say?”

  A humorless laugh escaped Cael despite the tear that rolled down his cheek. “You’re right. What else could you possibly have said? After all, it’s not like you have someone who’s so crazy in love with you that they’d endure one cruel stab to the heart after another, all in the hopes that one day you might feel the same. That you might think they’re important enough to really fucking try to push through the fear and the pain. I love you.”

  Ash had opened his mouth to reply when some guy got within earshot. The discomfort in Ash’s expression, the way he withdrew, had Cael resigning himself to the fact Ash might never be comfortable in his own skin, much less an out relationship with Cael.

  “Don’t worry, Ash. We both know I’ll keep waiting like a lovesick idiot.” He moved Ash’s hand off his and swallowed down the contents of his glass in two gulps, feeling it burning down his throat. Leaving the glass at the bar, he turned and headed for the dance floor. The countdown would be starting soon. Maybe he should call a cab and get the hell out of here. Tonight had started out amazing, and now it couldn’t get any worse. He should have known. He didn’t know what felt worse, not being with Ash or living off the tiny morsels of affection Ash fed him when he was feeling bold. How long could he carry on like this?

  Forget midnight. He was going home. The last thing he felt like doing now was celebrating. He had turned for the coatroom when he ran into something hard. “Sorry. Excuse me.”

  “Well, look who it is.”

  It wasn’t possible.

  The deep, familiar voice paralyzed Cael, leaving him numb and cold. Please, don’t do this to me. He forced himself to look up, the name slipping past his lips barely a whisper. “Fuller
.”

  “Surprised to see me?” Fuller’s hard amber gaze had the same effect on Cael it always had. It pinned him to the spot, filled him with dread. Fuller didn’t look all that different from the last time Cael had seen him. He was still rugged, though his face was more haggard, and he looked meaner, if that was possible. His dark hair was shaved close to his head, and he was dressed casually. It had been a long time since Cael had been plagued by nightmares of Fuller showing up.

  “What are you doing here?” Cael asked, taking a step away from him.

  Fuller pouted. “Aw, don’t be like that, kitty cat.”

  “Don’t call me that.” He hated that pet name, especially since Fuller had used it derisively, laughing at him, telling him he was nothing but an oversized kitten with spots that should be playing with yarn rather than trying to be part of an organization he had no business being in. “I thought you moved to Nevada?”

  “I did. And now I’m back.”

  “In New York?” Cael prayed it wasn’t true.

  “Obviously. I’m right here in front of you, silly. Come on, Cael. Use that little brain God gave you.”

  Cael glared at him. “What do you want?”

  “A drink. Maybe catch up for old time’s sake.”

  He raised his hand, and Cael flinched. He took a step back, hating himself for it. Fuller’s laugh curdled his blood. He remembered that laugh. Remembered the way Fuller had made him feel so small and insignificant, so worthless.

  “You haven’t forgotten me. I’m touched.”

  Cael felt sick to his stomach. Fuller reached out, and Cael slapped his hand away with a hiss.

  “Don’t touch me.” How dare he! After everything Fuller had put him through, he thought he could just show up and, what? Pick up where they left off?

  “Sorry.” He held his hands up in front of him. “I wanted to talk, that’s all.”

  “I have nothing to say to you.”

  Cael tried to go around, but Fuller blocked his path. His gaze raked over Cael, making him feel naked and exposed.

  “Oh, come on. We had good times, didn’t we? Remember when we used to fool around? When you’d get down on your knees and beg me to let you suck my dick.”

  Cael gaped at him. What the hell? He had to get out of here. His chest felt tight, and the room was starting to close in on him. “I need to go.” Cael shoved through the crowd looking for Dex, but he couldn’t see him. He really wished Dex were here right now. His brother would know what to do. His brother would probably plant one right in Fuller’s face. Cael wished he were anywhere but here right now. There were too many people. Everyone was so much bigger. He was trapped. Surrounded by people and noise, movement, and the shadows were creeping closer.

  “I remember,” Fuller said from somewhere behind him. “I remember how much you liked to beg.”

  Oh God, he couldn’t breathe. Cael stumbled outside into the cold air and almost slipped on the snow-covered sidewalk. He was shaking, his teeth chattering from the cold and the fear threatening to cripple him. He wrapped his arms around himself and walked to the street to call a cab. His lungs burned, and he felt like such a fucking asshole for the tears in his eyes. A steellike grip snatched hold of his arm and jerked him back against a hard body.

  “Where are you going?” Fuller asked smugly. “I’m not done reminiscing. I gotta admit, you look good. Less scrawny than you did when we were together. Might even be a better fuck.”

  “P-p-please.” He was so cold, so tired, and all he wanted was to be away from here.

  “Music to my ears. Beg me some more.”

  Fuller squeezed harder, and Cael cried out. Everything he thought he’d put behind him, that he’d buried deep down came bubbling up. He didn’t want to go back there. He didn’t want to feel helpless and scared. This wasn’t him. He was a different person now, wasn’t he? Why couldn’t he stand up to Fuller?

  “Let go of me!”

  Cael pulled back a fist and swung at Fuller, who moved his face just in time, Cael’s knuckles only grazing his jawline.

  “You little prick.”

  Fuller smacked Cael across the cheek with the back of his hand, splitting his lip. Cael would have gone hurtling into the parked car across from him if Fuller hadn’t been holding on to him so tight.

  “You son of a bitch! Get your fucking hands off him!”

  Fuller stumbled back as Ash shoved him away from Cael. He snarled at Ash, who wrapped Cael up in his embrace.

  “Who the fuck are you?”

  Ash placed himself between Cael and Fuller. “His boyfriend.”

  Fuller looked Ash over and shook his head with a laugh. “Oh shit. Well, how about that. Guess some things never change. Watch out for this one. He’ll ask for it rough, then send you to prison for it.”

  Cael wheezed, and Ash took a step toward Fuller. “Don Fuller?”

  “Ah, so he’s bitched to you about me. Isn’t that sweet.”

  “You piece of shit!” Ash moved fast, throwing a punch that snapped Fuller’s head to one side and knocked him into a parked car. “You’re such a fucking tough guy, how about you hit me.”

  Ash grabbed a fistful of Fuller’s hair and snapped his head down as he brought his knee up, the crack resonating above the noise of the gathering crowd. Fuller hit the icy sidewalk with a litany of curses, the blood from his broken nose turning the snow beneath him red. He pushed himself to his feet and rolled his shoulders, his near black eyes filled with a familiar fury Cael recognized too well.

  Ash motioned for Fuller to advance. “Come on. Hit me. Give me another reason to lay you out.”

  “I’d say he’s not worth it, but I don’t back down from a fight,” Fuller said, spitting out bloodied saliva.

  “He’s worth more than you’ll ever be.”

  “Wow. You have got it bad, my friend.” Fuller shrugged and wiped at his nose. “He’s a good fuck, but not that good.”

  Cael wrapped his arms tighter around himself, his whole body wracked with shivers. The darkness was starting to close in, his vision growing blurry as he wheezed. He couldn’t breathe. He dropped to his knees and tried to get air into his lungs. Oh God, oh God, oh God…. “Ash….”

  “CAEL!” ASH hurriedly removed his coat and threw it around Cael’s shoulders. “Cael, talk to me.” He tamped down his panic as Cael shook in his arms, his lips turning a purplish color and his eyes glazing over. “Tell me what you need. I’m here. You’re safe with me. You’re always safe with me.”

  Cael clutched onto him, squeezing him and gasping for air. “I can’t….”

  “Breathe. Come on.” Ash breathed in deep through his nose and let it out through his mouth, urging Cael to do the same. “That’s it, angel. Breathe. That’s it. Breathe with me. In and out. It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m here. Nothing and no one’s going to touch you. I won’t let them.”

  Cael let out a strangled noise, but he was breathing along with Ash. He craned his neck to see past Ash, looking for Fuller. Glancing over his shoulder, Ash was grateful to find Fuller was gone. Right now, Cael was what mattered. He turned his attention back to Cael and placed a hand to his cheek.

  “Look at me. Sweetheart, look at me.”

  Cael did, tears in his eyes.

  “You’re safe with me. I won’t let anything happen to you. You believe me, right?”

  A whispered “Yes” escaped, and Ash wanted to pull him close, but Cael was still struggling to breathe and compose himself. Instead he rubbed his thumb tenderly over Cael’s cheek. “Tell me what you need from me.”

  “Home,” Cael let out shakily. “I want to go home.”

  “Okay. Let’s go.” He helped Cael to his feet and tentatively moved Cael closer against him, relieved when Cael allowed it. Then he pulled the coat’s hood over Cael’s head to shield him from the cold and the crowd gathered on the sidewalk behind them. Cael snuggled closer.

  “Is he okay?” someone called out.

  “Yeah, thanks,” Ash said, hailing a cab a
s it drew near. He helped Cael inside, gave the driver Cael’s address, and pulled Cael close to him. Pushing back the hood, he kissed the top of Cael’s head. “It’s okay, angel. It’s okay.” Ash’s heart was pounding, and he felt Cael’s trembling down to his soul. What the hell is Fuller doing here? He put that thought aside and concentrated on Cael. Soon they were standing outside Cael’s apartment door. Cael fished his keys out of his jeans pocket and handed them to Ash, who opened the door and led him inside, then closed the door behind them. Without a word, Cael kicked off his shoes and made straight for the living room. He left Ash’s coat on the armchair, climbed up onto the plush gray couch, clutched one of the throw pillows to his chest, and drew his knees up. Minutes went by as Cael stared down at the fluffy pillow before burying his face against it and crying softly. It broke Ash’s heart.

  Leaving his shoes on the mat by the door, Ash walked to the kitchen. He filled the kettle with water and set it to boil before opening a cabinet door and removing Cael’s favorite black mug with the words Talk nerdy to me in white letters stamped across it. He opened the drawer where Cael stored his boxes of teas and plucked out a chamomile one. A few minutes later he was crouched down in front of Cael and holding the cup of tea out to him.

  “Chamomile with a little bit of lemon and honey, just the way you like it.”

  “Thank you.” Cael slowly took the cup from him, his bottom lip quivering. He let out a heart-wrenching sigh. “I’m sorry.”

  “There’s no reason for you to apologize. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

  “I’m such an idiot. Overreacting like that. Making you take me home.”

  “Hey. You had every right to feel the way you did. And you’re not an idiot. You’re the smartest guy I know. If you want to talk about it, I’m all ears. You know I’d never ever think of you as anything less than amazing, because you are.”

  Cael shook his head. “I’m weak and pathetic.”

  Ash hated to hear Cael talk about himself that way, especially since it wasn’t Cael talking but that son of a bitch, Fuller. “You’re strong. I know at times you might not feel it, but you are. Where would our team be without you? Where would I be without you?”

  Cael smiled. “Back at the bar… I thought maybe I heard you say you were my boyfriend.”

  Ash returned Cael’s smile. “You heard right. I’d like to be. If you still want me. I know it won’t be easy, and I still have a long way to go, but maybe you can help me? Help me be as strong and brave as you are.”

  “Yes.” Cael put his tea down on the coffee table next to the couch before he threw himself into Ash’s arms. “Thank you.”

  Ash held him close and ran a hand over Cael’s head. “No. Thank you. For showing me what it’s like to be loved.”

  He held on to Cael and moved to the couch, taking Cael with him so he sat in Ash’s lap, cradled in his arms. Cael snuggled close, and Ash held him, soothing him, offering what comfort he could for as long as Cael needed it. Sometime later, Cael spoke up quietly.

  “How do you know Fuller?”

  “That day your dad came to Dekatria, we were upstairs talking, and he told me.”

  “What?” Cael pulled back, his expression hurt. “When were you going to tell me? I can’t believe this.”

  “Cael—”

  “Did my dad tell you how Fuller used to knock me around? How he’d push me to do things to him and then make me feel like a filthy piece of shit for doing it? For two years I believed every word that came out of his mouth. I lied to my family and defended him. He made me feel like I was worthless, like no one in their right mind would ever love me because I was weak and useless. And maybe I am, because everyone seems to think I can’t do anything for myself. They treat me like a child. My dad, my brother… you. I haven’t seen Fuller in years, and he shows up out of the blue, and I….” Cael wiped a runaway tear from his cheek. “I fall apart. What kind of THIRDS agent does that?”

  “The kind who’s been through a hell of a lot,” Ash said gently. “We might be agents, but that doesn’t mean we’re not vulnerable. You got blindsided by that asshole. I should have told you your dad brought Fuller up, but you need to understand something. Your brother, your dad, and I don’t think of you as a kid. We think of you as someone we love with everything we’ve got, who we can’t stand to see get hurt or worse. And the truth of it is, it’s not just about you.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “We all know what it’s like to lose family, to lose people we care about. The thought of losing you… I can’t. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect you, even if it makes you hate me for it. I love you.”

  Cael’s smile stole Ash’s breath away.

  “You do?”

  Ash nodded. “I do. I love you, Cael. I’ve been fighting it a long time, and I can’t anymore. More importantly, I don’t want to.” He swallowed hard and met Cael’s gaze. “I’ll try harder. I don’t want to hurt you. When I do, it kills me. I’ll deal with my shit, I promise, but in the meantime, I want you to be with
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