Against the grain, p.2
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       Against The Grain, p.2
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  “Good fucking riddance.” Ash took a sip of his drink. Though he would have preferred it if the guy had driven off a fucking cliff, he took comfort the guy had been sent to a Therian prison, or the Zoo, as some Therians referred to it. Locked away with the rest of the fucking animals. Maybe it was time to check up on Fuller and makes sure his ass was still in Carson City.

  They sat in silence, each lost in his own thoughts when Maddock broke through the quiet. “Son, do you want to be with him?”

  Ash nodded and tried to swallow past the lump in his throat from having Maddock call him son. Not even his own father had called him that. He’d called him a host of names but never that. Maddock had always been good to him, but did he really want his sergeant to know the truth? Sloane was the only one who knew about his past. What would Maddock think of him? Ash had never been very good with authority, which was ironic considering where he ended up. Respect was something to be earned. Anthony Maddock had gained it from day one. Even when they butted heads, Ash respected Maddock and strived to make him proud.

  “So what’s the problem? Or is it none of my business?”

  “It’s personal,” Ash replied quietly.

  “Does it have to do with why you’re so hung up on the whole gay thing? No one cares about that anymore. And you’re both Therian, so you won’t get the same level of shit Sloane and Dex will get once their relationship is out there.” His frown deepened. “There’s a lot of stupid in this world. I hope those two are ready for it.”

  “They can handle themselves. And I know no one will care that Cael’s a guy. You’re not the first to tell me that, believe me. The problem is I care, because the last time I gave into what I felt for a guy, my brother got killed.”

  Maddock cursed under his breath. “Jesus, Ash. Why the hell didn’t I know you had a brother?”

  “When Shultzon registered me, he made sure to keep certain personal information out of our files. I had a twin brother. Arlo. He was killed during the riots. We were just kids.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that. Can I ask what happened?”

  “I fucked up, and Arlo paid the price. I was supposed to have been there the day he was killed, but I wasn’t. I was with this boy I had a crush on. I sent Arlo home on his own, and he was killed.”

  “I’m sorry for your loss, but how do you know you wouldn’t have been killed along with him if you’d gone home together?”

  Ash grimaced. “Now you sound like Sloane.”

  “I would listen to him. He’s a smart guy. Whatever happened that day, no matter how tragic, isn’t your fault.”

  His parents hadn’t thought so. They’d blamed him for Arlo’s death. He remembered that day clearly. He’d wanted to die. To be with Arlo and away from his parents, who hated him, from all the horrible things his father said to him, from the pain his father inflicted on him. Then Ash had shifted, and his world officially went to hell.

  “Either way, that fucked me up, Sarge. I’ve tried to move on from it, but the thought of what I did, of how I wasn’t there to protect Arlo, it’s been eating away at me year after year after year. When I think of being with Cael, I think about how giving in to what I felt all those years ago brought nothing but pain and heartache. It destroyed my family. When I’m out with the team, with Cael, I tell myself no one knows what I’m really feeling or thinking. They don’t. Yet it feels like they do, like they’re judging me, condemning me. How can I be the man Cael deserves when the thought of holding his hand in public scares the ever-living shit out of me?” How was it he could compartmentalize everything else in his life, but when it came to Cael, everything was a jumbled mess?

  “Have you talked to Cael about this?”

  “No.” Ash frowned down at his fingers on the table. “I told him we’d sit down and talk, and we will. I need to figure things out.”

  “You do that.” Maddock reached out and patted his arm before sliding out of the booth, taking Old Betsy with him. “Talk to each other. Let him help you. If you really care about him the way you say you do, then let him help you. Sometimes, no matter our strength, we need someone we care about to lean on, and that’s okay.” With that, Maddock headed for the stairs, but not before calling out over his shoulder. “Tell Sloane I expect you both over for Christmas dinner as well.”

  Ash turned in his seat. “You want us to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with you?” After everything he’d just told him?

  “Is that a problem?”

  “No. Not at all.”

  “Well, all right, then.”

  Maddock disappeared through the doorway, and Ash sat there for a moment. He couldn’t believe he’d opened up like that to his sergeant. Now that he had, he was glad he’d done it. Besides, Maddock deserved the truth, especially since it concerned Cael. Ash still had no clue what he was going to do, but Maddock was right. He needed to talk to Cael. Soon.

  Ash headed back downstairs. Thankfully the music playing from the sound system wasn’t Dex’s annoying ’80s playlist, but a mix of classic rock and modern music. It was loud enough to enjoy but low enough everyone could talk to each other without having to shout, which Ash hated. It’s why he rarely went to clubs. The music was so damned loud in those places he could barely hear himself think. And despite what most people believed, he did think. Too much at times. He dropped himself into the chair at the table next to Sloane. Dex sat across Sloane’s lap, and the two were so lost in each other, they hadn’t even noticed him. Ash didn’t interrupt. Instead he watched them, envious of the easy way his best friend smiled and laughed with his boyfriend. The love shone through in his eyes, and there was no hesitation when he kissed Dex. No second thought. It was natural. An extension of himself. He was in love with the man in his arms and unafraid of who knew or who saw. Granted, there was only their team in the bar, but had the place been filled to the brim with people, Sloane still wouldn’t have hesitated. His best friend’s only worry regarding his relationship with his partner was the job. Ash couldn’t see himself being so at ease out in the open with Cael.

  Kiss. Ash turned away from Sloane and Dex as the memory of Cael kissing him entered his mind. He’d tried his hardest not to think about it, but it had been one of the most amazing experiences of his life. Cael had tasted sweet and warm. Despite the state they’d both been in, Ash had caught a whiff of Cael’s intoxicating scent. Holding Cael in his arms…. He hadn’t wanted to let go. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it since, either.

  “Hey, big guy. You okay?”

  Ash blinked, his attention moving to Cael, who was watching him worriedly. Damn. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t noticed Cael arrive.

  “Yeah, I’m fine.”

  “I’m so sorry about my dad.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” Ash said with a warm smile. “Really, we just talked.”

  “I can’t believe he totally freaked out like that.” Cael lowered himself onto the seat beside him, his crutch to one side.

  “I can. He’s a good man. You’re very lucky.”

  “I know. But sometimes he can be a little overprotective.”

  Ash smiled and gave Cael’s jaw a playful nudge. “It’s hard not to be when it comes to you.”

  Cael’s cheeks flushed that wonderful pink Ash loved so much. How could anyone hurt someone so warm and kind? The thought of that filth Don Fuller laying a hand on Cael had his blood boiling. He needed to calm down before he gave himself away. At some point he would tell Cael he knew about Fuller, but now was not the time.

  “We’re heading home,” Sloane announced, sucking in a sharp breath as Dex helped him to his feet. “I hate to say it, but I could use a nap.”

  “Showing your old age, huh?” Ash teased.

  “Fuck off,” Sloane said, laughing. “We’re the same age.”

  “Yeah, but I’m younger at heart.”

  Sloane scooped up a cheese cube from the table and threw it at him. “Ass.”

  His best friend still had some recovery to do aft
er nearly losing his life to the explosion outside Dex’s house. The car bomb had been planted in Ash’s car by the same bastard who’d tried to kill him once before. Sloane had insisted Ash not feel guilty about it, but how could he not? The bomb had been in his car. It had been meant for him. What if he’d lost Sloane? A hand came to rest on his arm, and he smiled down at Cael. It’s like the guy could sense when he needed to be pulled out of his thoughts. He gave Cael a wink and turned back to Sloane.

  “Call if you need anything,” Ash said.

  “Thanks.” The two started for the door when Dex narrowed his eyes at him. “Just remember what I said. Alaska.”

  “I’m quaking in my boots,” Ash drawled, turning back to Cael after Sloane and Dex had said their good-byes to everyone and left. Maddock was gone, and everyone else sat at the bar chatting and laughing as Bradley attempted to show Lou how to twirl a bottle in his hand without dropping it.

  Cael prodded Ash’s bicep. “Alaska? What’s in Alaska?”

  “Nothing. Your brother’s being an asshat. As usual.” Dex had threatened to annoy the ever-living fuck out of Ash if he hurt his baby brother, stating he’d drive Ash so crazy he’d end up asking for a transfer to Alaska. Like Ash wasn’t already used to Dex annoying the fuck out him.

  “Oh.” Cael let out a yawn and laid his head against Ash’s shoulder. It was an innocent gesture. One Cael had done countless times. Usually Ash would rest his head against Cael’s in return. Now he felt self-conscious. Like maybe everyone around him would know how he felt. He cleared his throat and gently moved away to stand.

  “I’m gonna head home.”

  Cael stood and took hold of his crutch. “Want to share a cab?”

  “Sure.”

  “Aw, you guys are leaving already?” Letty came skipping over and poked Ash in his side. She was clearly tipsy, though God only knew how many drinks she’d had. The woman could drink a Therian under the table. So could Calvin, for that matter. Pretty impressive considering they were the smaller of their Human teammates. Letty poked him again, and he gave her a playful shove away from him.

  “Yeah, those of us on meds drinking nothing but juice have better places to be.” On the third poke, he threw an arm around her neck and pulled her against him. “Is there a breeze in here? I swear I feel something tickling my side.”

  Letty laughed and punched him in the ribs before pushing him away. “Cabrón. Get lost, then.”

  Rosa came over and kissed Cael’s cheek. “Rest up, gatito. Call me if you need me.”

  “He’ll be fine,” Letty said, watching Ash intently. “Ash will take good care of him.”

  “Speaking of. Are you two dating?” Rosa asked, looking from one to the other.

  Cael opened his mouth, and Ash cut him off. “No.”

  Letty cocked her head to one side but didn’t respond. His partner knew him well. She planned on accosting him later. Rosa was more persistent. “Then what the hell was Maddock going on about when he stormed in here?”

  “It was a misunderstanding. Mind your own business,” he growled, snatching his coat off the back of his chair.

  “Fine. Jesus.” Rosa waved them off and headed back to the bar. Ash said his good-byes to the rest of them, helped Cael into his coat, and then out of the bar. It was a chilly November evening, and Ash called for a cab. Cael was quiet at his side.

  “Sorry about that back there. I don’t want to stick a label on anything before we talk.”

  “I get it.” Cael tried to straighten out the scarf around his neck while still holding on to his crutch. “Don’t worry about it.”

  “Thank you for being so patient with me. I know I don’t deserve it.” Ash turned to face him and gently took hold of the scarf he’d given Cael earlier in the evening. It looked better on him anyway. The silver and dark grays brought out his eyes. Ash had fallen deep into those amazing silvery eyes from day one. “I’m sorry for pushing you away.” He paused, his hand coming to rest against Cael’s neck. His skin was warm and soft.

  “It’s okay, Ash.” Cael leaned into Ash’s touch, a shy smile on his handsome face. “We’ll work it out.”

  “Yeah.” Ash smiled when the cab appeared. He pulled away and opened the back door, then motioned for Cael to get in first, taking hold of his crutch for him. It was awkward with his leg, but Cael managed it, though Ash could have done without seeing Cael’s ass in the air when he opted for crawling across the seat. Lord, give me strength. He passed Cael his crutch and climbed in next to him, doing his best to ignore how Cael put the crutch beside the window so he could sit closer to Ash. As a large Therian, there typically wasn’t a whole lot of room for him in the back of these old New York cabs. His head touched the ceiling, so he had to slump a bit.

  “So, what did you and my dad talk about?” Cael asked after giving the cab driver his address.

  “You. He’s worried about you. About us.” He murmured the last part. Which was stupid. Like the cab driver gave a fuck. “He’s afraid I’ll hurt you, and he’s right to be.”

  “Don’t worry about him. He won’t bug you,” Cael said. “He knows you.”

  Ash wanted to point out that’s exactly why Maddock was worried, but he didn’t. Usually when they shared a cab, Ash would put his arm around Cael, and he hated that things felt different. He’d lived for those moments. The innocent touches that weren’t so innocent. They had become a sweet form of torture for him. Now that the possibility of more loomed on the horizon, he couldn’t shake his discomfort and self-consciousness. Their relationship had changed whether he liked it or not. They couldn’t go back to the way things were, but if they couldn’t move forward, where did it leave them?

  Thankfully, the cab pulled up to Cael’s brownstone, where he occupied the top floor apartment. It was spacious yet cozy, with a playful style befitting its owner. Ash told the cab driver to wait as he helped Cael climb out. He walked Cael to the front steps, careful neither of them slipped on any ice. Cael opened the front door and turned with a shy smile.

  “Do you want to come in? You could stay for dinner. We could hang out.”

  “I would, but I need to sort out some insurance paperwork on my car. I want to get the new one before we’re called back in.” That had to be the most pathetic excuse in the history of excuses.

  “Right. Sorry. Forgot about that.”

  Cael bit his bottom lip and leaned into Ash, who took a step back.

  “I need to go. I’ll call you later.”

  The disappointment on Cael’s face hit Ash hard. Please don’t let this be the start of a disturbing trend. He hated disappointing Cael. He hated hurting him even more. This wasn’t how he wanted things to go at all, but no matter how much he told himself to man up, he backed off like a goddamn coward. Cael simply nodded his understanding.

  “Have a good night, Ash.”

  There was no sweet smile, no hug, only Cael closing the door while Ash remained on the other side staring at the scuffed wood like an idiot. He lifted his fist to knock, then stopped himself. With a shake of his head at his own absurdity, he turned and descended the steps to the sidewalk and the idle cab parked at the curb. The whole way home, he stared numbly at the passing scenery from the backseat. Maddock expected him and Sloane to spend the holidays with him and his family. It sounded less and less like a good idea. Last year they’d all had a great time, but things had been simpler for everyone then. Dex and Sloane hadn’t been dating. He’d had fun with Cael like he always did, with no confusing emotions to muddy up the waters of their friendship.

  Dex and Sloane had finally reached a stable point in their relationship, even if his best friend had thrown him for a loop by stating he was moving in with Dex. Of course, that hadn’t surprised him as much as Sloane’s admission to having marked Dex. Sloane was a Therian, but Ash wondered if his best friend was aware of how serious a commitment he’d just made. Neither of them had much experience with a committed functional relationship until now. Ash was still trying to wrap his head around S
loane in love, much less being all domestic and shit. From what Ash gathered, Sloane actually liked it. He liked getting up before Dex and making them breakfast. They took turns cooking or ordered takeout, took turns washing the dishes and clearing up, even doing laundry. Did his friend enjoy it because it was what normal couples did? Because all their life they’d struggled with finding a little piece of normalcy in the chaos that spawned them? Ash cooked and did chores around the house, but he didn’t think of himself as domestic. He just liked taking care of his shit. Everything clean and in its place. But being told to take out the trash, wash the dishes, or pick up a gallon of milk on his way home? Ash didn’t like the sound of that. At least not until he thought of Cael, and then everything he thought he knew flew out the window.

  I am so fucked.

  Chapter 2

  THE CAB pulled up outside Ash’s apartment building. He paid the driver and headed upstairs. His smartphone vibrated in his pocket and his heart skipped a beat when he saw it was from Cael. Jesus, what was happening to him? Cael texted him all the time, every day. Now he was going to feel like a damn virgin every time Cael texted him?

  “Fuck this shit.” Ash shoved his phone into his pocket and went inside. He closed his apartment door behind him, removed his shoes, and hung his coat up on the rack by the door. It was good to be home, even if a part of him wished he’d taken Cael up on his offer. By now they would have been huddled close together on the couch with Cael rambling on excitedly about the latest gadget. Cael was the only one who could talk tech to Ash without him wanting to shoot something. He padded across the hardwood floors to the kitchen to wash his hands. They were still a little sticky from when he’d spilled the soda at Dekatria. The thought had him clenching his jaw. Damn it, the last thing he needed was to get caught up in his anger at what he’d learned from Maddock.

  Fucking double-edged sword. He was glad he knew about Fuller, but he also hated it at the same time. There was nothing he could do with that information. He couldn’t kick Fuller’s ass. He couldn’t undo what had been done.

  Ash walked to his couch and dropped down onto it, just staring at the ceiling. “Fuck.” Then he remembered Cael’s text and removed his phone from his pocket. He tapped the screen to open it and smiled like a dope. There was an image of two cute little green dinosaurs, one bigger than the other, and they were hugging, a little red heart above their heads.

  Ash tossed his phone onto the couch cushion beside him and let his head fall back. Man, he was so screwed. He’d disappointed Cael. Again. They were supposed to be moving forward, not backward. Whose fault was that? His. As usual. His smartphone rang, and he considered not answering. The ringtone told him it was his partner. With a sigh, he scooped it up, tapped the screen, and held it to his ear.

  “Yeah?”

  “I’m coming over.”

  “Now’s not a good time,” he muttered. The doorbell rang, and he closed his eyes. “You’re outside the door, aren’t you?”

  “I am.”

  He hung up and went to his front door. Just what he didn’t need, a heart-to-heart with his partner. He should have known she’d have something up her sleeve when she’d stayed quiet after Rosa asked if he was dating Cael. Damn it, he really didn’t want to do this. He opened the door and glowered down at her.

  “Can we not do this now?”

  “Nope.” As expected, she ignored his displeasure and slipped past him into the apartment, where she proceeded to chuck off her boots and leave them by the door. With a growl, he closed the door and followed her into the kitchen.

  “Beer or wine?”

  “Beer,” Letty said, hopping up onto one of the chairs at the island counter.

  He grabbed two beers from the fridge along with the bowl of black olives. His partner loved these things as much as he did. Placing the bowl on the counter, he snatched one and popped it in his mouth before he used his shirt to twist the caps off their beers. He slid one across to her and took a long swig as he waited for her to say whatever it was she came here to say.

  “So, you and Cael.”

  “What about me and Cael?”

  “Is there a you and Cael?” She popped a couple of black olives into her mouth and arched an eyebrow at him.

  “I don’t know.”

  “Kind of hard not to know if you’re with someone. How long have you been into dudes?”

  Ash took another swig of his beer before replying. Maybe he needed to break out the hard stuff for this conversation. He could have sworn he had a bottle of vodka left from Dex’s birthday party. “I’m not. Never have been.”

  “Right. Last time I checked, Cael identified as a dude.”

  “It’s complicated.”

  “Of course it is. Because it’s you. You make everything complicated, Ash.”

  “Thanks. That really helps.” Not that she was wrong. After working almost ten years with someone, having their back, always in each other’s hair, you got to know them pretty well.

  “You’ve always been different with him. It’s sweet. So when did things change?”

  “Letty—”

  “No way. You’ve been twisted up inside for months. I’m your partner and your friend. None of this tough suffer-in-silence lion Therian bullshit. Talk to me, Keeler.”

  There was no way around it. She wouldn’t let up until she was satisfied. Unlike Rosa, who fussed over everyone on the team, Letty was more reserved, but she was a great shoulder to lean on and had this pain-in-the-ass way of seeing through him. Next to Sloane, she was also the only one who could get away with pushing his buttons without running the risk of a punch in the face. Maybe he wouldn’t punch Rosa, but he wasn’t against swiping her legs out from under her.

  “Fine. Nothing changed. It’s more like I couldn’t bury what I felt for him anymore. I’d pushed it down for so long. Since we met, basically. I convinced
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