Rack & ruin, p.17
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       Rack & Ruin, p.17
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  “You almost got yourself killed. Why? Because I’m your teammate? Your friend? Because I’m the little brother you never had? What exactly am I to you, Ash? Every time I get my hopes up that you might…. You pull away or do something to make me think I’m wrong.”

  “You’re not wrong.”

  Cael took hold of Ash’s hand. “Then why can’t we—”

  “No.” Ash pulled his hand away, and Dex saw his brother’s heart split in two. Dex would have been royally pissed off at Ash for breaking his brother’s heart like this if it weren’t for the fact the guy looked equally devastated. What Dex couldn’t understand was why? Ash obviously felt something more for Cael than friendship. Dex could see how much he wanted to be with Cael. So why wasn’t he?

  “I’m sorry, Cael. I can’t.”

  “Because you’re not gay? Bi? Whatever you want to call the fact you feel something for me? For fuck’s sake, Ash. You’re lying in a hospital bed after surgery for taking a bullet for me. How can that be harder than telling me the truth? I love you.”

  Ash closed his eyes. “Why did you say that?”

  “Because it’s true. I’ve been in love with you for a while. I kept hoping you would realize it. I just don’t understand. Can’t you at least tell me why?” Cael waited, the room uncomfortably silent. Ash looked up at Cael, the pain evident in his eyes.

  “Cael, I don’t want to lose you. But I’ve got a lot of shit to work out. You deserve to be happy, and right now, I just don’t think I’d make you happy.”

  Cael deflated before them. He nodded quietly and seemed to get lost in thought. Dex knew his brother well. There were two possible outcomes to this, neither of which would be easy on any of them. His brother would either slink off to lick his wounds and spend the next few months sulking, or he would do what Dex expected was happening now when Cael looked up at Ash. His pale gray eyes clouded over, and his jaw clenched. He straightened and held his head high.

  “If that’s what you want. Fine. Thank you for saving my life. I don’t take such an act lightly.”

  “Cael….” Ash pleaded.

  “It’s fine, Ash. Just get better. Our team needs you.”

  There was no point in saying anything else. Dex knew it and it looked like Ash did too. He nodded and watched Cael leave the room, closing the door firmly behind him. More silence followed. After what seemed like forever, Ash spoke up, his voice quiet.

  “He hates me.”

  “He doesn’t hate you. He’s protecting himself. When something really bad happens, he shuts down.” Dex had seen it happen plenty of times. He didn’t envy Ash’s position. Cael was sweet and kind, but when he was truly fucked off, his claws came out. And no one wanted to be at the end of a cheetah Therian’s temper.

  “I never meant for him to end up hurt. I just… I couldn’t help it. Wherever he was, I needed to be there too. I was weak.”

  Dex felt for Ash. He didn’t know the reasons behind his gruff teammate turning Cael away, but he hoped it was worth the personal hell he’d just unleashed.

  “Ash, I’m sorry about all the shit I gave you. What you did was impressive and admirable. I shouldn’t have been such a judgmental prick.” The words didn’t come easy, but Dex wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong. Ash stared at him. He looked like he didn’t know what to make of Dex. Not exactly a surprise considering their less than friendly relationship.

  “Thanks, Daley.” He turned his gaze toward the ceiling. “So what am I in for with your brother?”

  Dex cringed. “I’m not going to lie to you. He will fucking shred you like string cheese if he gets the opportunity. The only thing worse than him miserable is him fucked off and hurt when he doesn’t know why. He’ll hurt you, Ash. He might not mean to deep down, but he’s in serious pain, and the only way he knows how to deal with it is to lash out at whoever caused it.” Dex expected Ash to growl about it or get annoyed. Instead he closed his eyes.

  “Whatever he does, I deserve it.”

  Damn. He never thought he’d feel worse for Ash than his brother. As much as he hated that Ash had broken his brother’s heart, as Dex had feared he would, whatever was going on with Ash had to be just as difficult. Why else would he push away someone he clearly wanted to be with so badly? Dex didn’t know what else he could do other than say, “I’m sorry.”

  Ash turned his face away and nodded. He muttered, “Thanks,” before Dex saw the steady rise and fall of his chest. Ash was asleep, and all Dex could do was sit back and hope Ash knew what he was doing.

  IT WASN’T until the next morning that Sloane managed to get away from work. HQ was buzzing with activity. The remaining members of the Order were being rounded up and brought in by the truckloads. Reyes was behind bars, his sentence reduced for having cooperated with the THIRDS. Preston Merritt was dead, and his groggy teammates were under interrogation, though as of recently refusing to talk about Beck Hogan who was still out there with a small number of operatives. Sloane had been right about the Coalition looking to get revenge. Beck Hogan’s sister and mother had been killed by the Westward Creed during the riots. Themis was in the process of matching up victims from the Westward Creed murders to the Therians in their custody. Sloane needed to speak with Ash to find out if his friend had managed to glean any information on their mole.

  Sloane had found Dex napping along with Ash. He’d stood there for a second watching his partner. His arms were folded over his chest; his hand rested on the Glock in the holster under his arm. Sloane made certain to let the door click when he shut it, and as expected, it roused his partner who quickly sat up. When Dex saw it was him, he relaxed and gave Sloane a smile, followed by a sleepy yawn.

  “Thanks for staying,” Sloane said quietly, taking a seat beside Dex and leaning in for a kiss. It was silly, but he’d missed Dex in the short period they’d been apart.

  “No problem. He’s been asleep for hours. Calvin and Hobbs dropped by earlier to see him.” Dex’s concerned expression wasn’t lost on Sloane, and he took Dex’s hand in his.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “I should go check on Cael. He was upset when he left.”

  “Oh. Okay.” Sloane wasn’t exactly sure what Dex wasn’t telling him, but he was sure it had something to do with Ash. “Go home, get some sleep, and be careful.”

  “I’ll drop by later and bring you guys some lunch.” Dex leaned in and kissed Sloane. It was a soft, slow kiss that left Sloane wanting more. A small moan escaped him, and he heard Ash’s sleepy growl.

  “You two are disgusting.”

  Sloane chuckled and pulled back. He gave Dex a wink. “I’ll see you later.”

  As soon as Dex left the room and closed the door behind him, Sloane stood and went to Ash’s bedside, nudging his friend’s hip. Ash huffed but shimmied over so Sloane could sit beside him.

  “Look at you,” Ash said, a deep frown on his face. “All smiley and glowing like some teen who’s just popped his cherry.”

  “Glad you’re feeling better,” Sloane replied cheerfully.

  “I feel like shit.”

  Sloane recognized that tone, and it had to do with more than physical pain. “What happened?” His friend pressed his lips together, his gaze somewhere across the room. “Hey, it’s me. You know you can tell me anything.”

  Ash seemed to consider that for a moment before he told Sloane everything that had happened with Cael. What surprised Sloane the most was the sheer pain in his friend’s eyes. He thought back to Bar Dekatria and Ash’s rambles about Cael after he’d had one too many. He recalled Ash’s behavior toward Cael over the years. The way his friend had taken a bullet for the young Therian.

  “You’re in love with him?”

  Ash didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to. He closed his eyes and let out a heart-wrenching sigh.

  “Ash, I don’t understand. If you love him, why not be with him? You have to know Dex and I would never tell a soul. We’d find a way to make it work within the team.”

&nbs
p; “I can’t, all right? Not right now,” Ash said. Tears pooled in his eyes. “Every time I think about something happening between me and Cael, I remember him.”

  “Who?”

  “Arlo.” The crushed look on Ash’s face pained Sloane. He was one of the very few who knew about Arlo. It was something that had affected Ash deeply, and he refused to talk about it to anyone. Not even Sloane knew what had happened to Ash’s Therian twin brother, other than the fact he’d been killed during the riots in the late eighties.

  “I don’t understand,” Sloane said quietly.

  “It’s my fault he died, Sloane. If I’d done what my parents asked me to do…. If I’d been more concerned with looking after him than following my dick, he’d still be alive. I abandoned him for some perky-assed twink who made out with me behind the bleachers at school. Arlo and I were supposed to go straight home after school because the streets were too dangerous. It was my job to protect him.” A tear rolled down Ash’s cheek, and he quickly brushed it away.

  “But instead, I sent Arlo home without me because I was more concerned with shoving my tongue inside Davie Miller’s mouth and my hand down his pants. I was just a stupid kid trying to figure himself out. When I got home, the police were there. Arlo never made it home. He got beat to shit on his way home by some Human assholes. When my parents found out what I’d done….” Ash shook his head, his lips trembling as he tried to regain control, but it was far too late. “They said Arlo was dead because of me. Because I was a degenerate piece of filth. Then to make things worse, I shifted for the first time. Right on the same fucking day Arlo died. It was too much for them. They called animal control. I was locked in a dog cage, and I wished so goddamn bad that they’d put me to sleep like a dog. Instead, Shultzon showed up and took me away. The rest you know.”

  “Jesus, Ash.” Sloane was still trying to take everything in when Ash spoke up quietly.

  “You know why I wasn’t scared when they took me away for the tests?”

  Sloane felt his throat thicken, wishing he could take away his friend’s pain. “Why?”

  “Because I believed with every fiber of my being that I deserved to be in pain for what I’d done to Arlo. I told myself what happened with Davie Miller was a one off. That I wasn’t gay. And then I met Cael. My first thought was, ‘I’m fucked.’ because no one I’d ever met made me feel the way he did when he smiled at me. I wanted so hard to keep him at a distance but I couldn’t.”

  “So you’re going to punish yourself for the rest of your life?” Sloane couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I know what happened was tragic, Ash, but you have to forgive yourself and move on. Do you really think Arlo would want you to live like this?”

  “I don’t know what Arlo would want because he’s fucking dead, Sloane! And it’s my fault. He wasn’t just my brother, he was my twin. When he died, so did a part of me. It left a void that will never be filled. For years I felt guilty for having been the one who lived.”

  “So you won’t be with Cael because he makes you happy, and you don’t deserve that?” Sloane felt himself growing angry. If anyone knew how it felt to lose someone he loved, it was him. He couldn’t pretend he understood what it was like to lose a twin, but he understood guilt. He didn’t know if he’d ever not feel guilty over his mother’s death, but to think he didn’t deserve to lead a happy life because of it? Worse, to live a life of punishment? “Ash—”

  “I won’t be with Cael because I’m still fucked-up over what happened with Arlo, and I won’t let that ruin whatever future we could have together. I can deal with all that other shit from the facility, with being the miserable fuck I am, because with Cael…. Nothing will be the same again. But he deserves to be happy, Sloane, and right now, I can’t give him that. I love you like a brother, but I’ll deal with it myself. And keep this to yourself. Cael’s hurt and pissed. Eventually, he’ll calm down. When I’m ready, I’ll talk to him about it. Right now, this is the way it has to be. Now do you want to hear about the Coalition or what?”

  Sloane cursed under his breath. Sometimes he wanted to strangle his friend. He’d never known anyone so goddamn stubborn. “Fine,” he replied through his teeth. He went to his backpack on the couch and pulled out his tablet. A few taps, and he logged into Themis. “Go for it.”

  “The numbers were codes for our initials. Each number represented a letter’s location on the alphabet. So A.K. was one-eleven. The guy we offed was Preston Merritt, Beck Hogan’s best friend and second-in-command. You can bet your ass Hogan’s gonna want blood. Merritt hated me from the start. Whoever our mole is, he or she convinced Hogan to bring me on board. The longer I hung around them, the more I realized the mole was someone we worked closely with. That’s why I volunteered to have Dex’s party at my place. I threw a few lines to see if anyone would bite. I was given locations and times through text using a burner phone. I showed up and did what I was told.”

  Sloane entered all the information into his tablet exactly as Ash told it. “What about our victims from the Order. Can you confirm they’re connected to Reyes and the Westward Creed?”

  “Yes. Hogan set up the Coalition as a way to fight fire with fire. At first all he wanted was to stop the Order, but during one skirmish, he recognized one of the members of the Order. It was Cristo. That’s when the plan changed. I overheard him and Merritt talking. The Westward Creed gang had killed Merritt’s cousin. They decided to use the escalating violence as a way to pick off the gang.”

  There was a knock on the door, and Sloane logged off Themis before telling their guest to enter. It was Levi and Taylor.

  “Hey, Keeler. Looking mighty fine in your hospital duds. You commando under there?” Taylor teased.

  Ash gave a snort. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

  “I would.” Taylor blinked at him. “That’s why I asked.”

  “Dick.” Ash chuckled, and the Team Leaders approached Ash’s bed, chatting to him about what happened and how glad they were he was alive. The whole office was talking about Ash and what he’d done, infiltrating the Coalition, then taking a bullet for his teammate. Taylor teased Ash on his ego and how he was going to be more unbearable than ever. The three of them laughed, and Sloane observed his teammates, glad to see how pleased they were to see Ash.

  “I’m glad you’re okay,” Levi said.

  “Yeah,” Taylor added somberly. “For a minute there, we thought we’d never see you again.”

  Levi waved a hand in dismissal. “Are you kidding? Ash is like a bad penny. He always turns up.”

  Sloane froze, his gaze darting to Ash. His friend was still smiling, his gaze on Levi. “Say, that’s one hell of an expression,” Ash said. “Where’d you hear it?” A dangerous leer quickly replaced his smile. “Wait, that’s right. You heard it from me.”

  “What are you talking about?” Levi frowned, looking puzzled.

  “There are five people who’ve heard me say that. One’s dead, one’s behind bars, one’s Dex, the other’s my best friend. And the fifth is the masked Therian who was there when I said it.”

  Sloane sprang to action, but Levi had already grabbed a stunned Taylor and in a heartbeat had his sidearm to Taylor’s head. “Back off, Sloane,” Levi snarled. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

  “What way was it supposed to be, Levi?” Sloane held his hands up, his tone calm.

  “Don’t fucking use that tone with me. I’m a Team leader. I know all the tricks. The Westward Creed should have been dead long before you figured it all out. That piece of shit Reyes should be dead!”

  “You lost someone close, I understand.” It was the only explanation. The look of pain and anger on Levi’s face was a familiar one.

  “Fuck you. All those assholes got away with murder. Hogan had the right idea. If the law wouldn’t give us justice, we’d just have to take care of it ourselves. I knew you wouldn’t make the connection. When they put Carolyn’s name in the system, they put her under our mom’s maiden name. Unless someon
e dug deeper and cross-referenced her name specifically with mine, no one would know.” Levi took a step away from Sloane, and Taylor slowly lowered his arm. Levi was onto him, wrapping his arm tighter around Taylor’s neck. “Just try it you little shit, and I’ll blow your brains all over the eggshell blue walls.”

  Taylor held his hands up. “Okay. Take it easy, man.”

  “Don’t fucking tell me to take it easy.” Levi continued to back toward the open door with Taylor in his grip. “Do you know what that son of a bitch Reyes did to my sister? He fucking raped her and then passed her off to his friends. After they had their fun, Reyes slit her throat. She was sixteen! Then that piece of shit judge lets him go? Tell me, Sloane. Where’s the justice in that?”

  “Is that why you joined the THIRDS? Because of your sister?”

  “I joined so scum like Reyes would pay for their crimes. So Therians like my sister would get justice. When I found out Reyes was going to head up the Order, I knew this was my chance. He wasn’t going to escape justice this time.”

  “And he hasn’t,” Sloane said, slowly edging toward Levi as he continued to move out of the room and into the hall. There was a shriek from somewhere nearby, but Levi ignored it. His fiery eyes on Sloane.

  “Prison is too good for him. He deserves to be mauled by the very animals he despises. Ground into pet food and fed to the wolves.”

  “So what’s your plan now? Even if you leave this hospital, you won’t be able to get to Reyes.”

  “That’s what you think,” Levi sneered. “If I can work with the Coalition right under your noses, I can get to Reyes. You think I’m the only agent willing to turn for the right reason? You can’t be that naïve, Sloane.”

  “Levi, please, think about what you’re doing.”

  “Shut up! I’m tired of talking!” Levi moved the gun away from Taylor to aim at Sloane when the agent’s body started to convulse, the gun going off in his hand and a shot hitting the wall to Sloane’s left. Both Levi and Taylor fell to the floor, the electric shock of Dex’s TASER going through both agents. His partner’s timing had been impeccable. Not just in showing up when he did, but in calculating the exact moment to stun Levi so no one was in the line of fire.

  Sloane rushed over and waited for the discharge to complete before he grabbed Levi and turned him onto his stomach. He took the Therian zip tie Dex held out to him and secured it over Levi’s wrist. Dex held Taylor as the agent recovered and Sloane called Maddock. Backup arrived shortly after Sloane explained everything to his sergeant and they carried Levi away. The team was stunned, though not as much as Levi’s team would be once they discovered their Team Leader was the mole.

  “He was the mole this whole time,” Dex said, helping Taylor sit on one of the chairs lined up against the wall before turning his attention back to Sloane. “I never would have guessed.”

  “Yeah.” Sloane felt for the guy and he understood. Was he a hypocrite? Sloane had wanted Isaac dead for killing Gabe. How did it make him different from Levi?

  “I take it there’s someone on that list of Therian victims connected to Levi?”

  Sloane nodded. “His sister. It was fucked-up what they did to her.”

  “I’m sure I wouldn’t disagree. But he took part in the murder of two Humans.”

  “Humans who raped and murdered his sister in cold blood,” Sloane replied angrily.

  “So it’s okay for him to go around executing people. Where would it stop?”

  “I wanted Isaac dead.”

  Dex blinked at him. “It’s not the same. You killed him because you had no choice.”

  Sloane met Dex’s gaze. “Didn’t I?” He watched his partner swallow visibly. “How was what I did different than what Levi did?”

  “For one, you didn’t hunt down Isaac for revenge. You killed him because my life and Shultzon’s life were in danger. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it or that Reyes and his band of assholes don’t deserve it either, but you did what you had to do to keep us safe. Levi did what he did purely for revenge without regard for the innocent lives caught in the middle. He didn’t care if his fellow agents were killed either. It wasn’t the only way.”

  Sloane thought about that. He wasn’t sure if he agreed, but he allowed himself to take comfort in his partner’s words. It saddened him to know how far Levi had gone to get justice for his sister because the system had failed him. But then those had been lawless times, especially for Therians. The world was still coming to terms with their kind, and a good portion of the Human race wasn’t happy they were there. First came the violence, then came the laws. For some, it came too late.

  Taylor came to stand beside Dex with a dopey grin. “My prince to the rescue.”

  “Don’t make me regret it,” Dex muttered.

  Taylor’s smile fell as he gazed down the hall where they’d escorted Levi away only moments ago. For the first time since Sloane had known him, Sloane saw past the cocky Team Leader to the vulnerable Therian underneath. Taylor looked as if he was going to be sick.

  “I can’t believe he betrayed us.”

  “I’m sorry,” Dex said, patting Taylor on the arm. There were no jokes, no teasing, no inappropriate comments. Taylor looked completely lost.

  “You spend so much time around your teammates, you think you know them. Then it turns out, you don’t know them at all.” Taylor resumed his seat. “We used to hang out all the time at work. We were friends.”

  Dex closed his eyes, and Sloane knew his partner was summoning the courage to say something. “Hey, Taylor. I’m having my birthday party in a few weeks at Bar Dekatria. You’re welcome to come.”

  Taylor looked up at Dex with wide eyes. “You’re inviting me to your party after everything that happened at the last one?”

  “If you promise to come as a friend and not someone trying to get in my pants.”

  Taylor pursed his lips, then laughed at Dex’s glower. “I’m kidding, man. Of course I’ll come.” He stood and held his hand out to Dex. “And I promise to behave myself. Thank you.”

  Dex gave him a smile, and Taylor headed off. Sloane took the seat Taylor had vacated watching as Dex got up and sprinted down to a gurney two doors down. He came back with a plastic bag and dropped down into the chair beside Sloane. A dopey grin stretched across his face.

  “I brought lunch.”

  Sloane chuckled. Thank goodness for Dex’s obsession with food. “Good timing.” He stood and motioned to Ash’s room. “Come on. Let’s have some lunch.” They walked in with Ash cursing them out for not letting him know sooner that they
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