Against the grain, p.3
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       Against The Grain, p.3
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  myself that I was lucky to have him as a friend. It got harder each year. Then all this shit happened with the Order and the Coalition. When Hogan took him….” The moment the words left his mouth, he regretted it. Shit. It was the first time the incident had been brought up. He took a gulp of his beer, feeling her intense gaze on him. She had this unsettling way of being able to get information out of him just by looking at him. There was no one who could outstare Letty.

  “What did happen with Collins? How’d he take your gun?”

  Ash had never minced words with his partner. He wasn’t going to start now. “I let him take it.”

  “Jesus, Ash.” Letty closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t— Fuck it. Tell me.”

  Ash shrugged. “He was going to shoot Dex. I had to take him out.”

  “No. You wanted to take him out. Fuck.” Letty jumped off the chair and started pacing. “Do you realize what would happen if Sparks found out?” She spun toward him, her brown eyes blazing. “Damn it, Ash. What were you thinking?”

  “That I was doing what I had to do.”

  “No.” Letty jutted a finger at him. “You lost control.”

  Ash put his beer on the counter and confronted her. “Those sons of bitches tried to kill me and Sloane. They almost succeeded. You really think Hogan was going to let Cael walk out of there alive? What about Dex? That asshole Hogan was going to take down as many of us as he could. You think I don’t know about your little outburst in Dex’s office after Sparks pulled the team?”

  “Yeah, I got pissed and wanted to punch something. You snapped Collins’s neck!”

  “Collins knew what he was doing. He pulled a gun on an agent with the intent of killing him while surrounded by armed agents. Neither he nor Hogan had any intention of being taken in alive.”

  Letty folded her arms over her chest. She knew he was right. He could see it in her eyes. Of all his Human teammates, Letty had the most explosive temper. She was sweet and kind, but when something pissed her off, she was a blazing inferno that felt no remorse for the fuckwit who’d earned her wrath. Ash had always admired her and her mettle. She was living proof that big things came in small, explosive packages. Right now her anger stemmed from Ash doing something that could potentially end his career.

  “It doesn’t change what you did.”

  Arguing with Letty would get them nowhere. He’d learned that a long time ago. So he approached from a different angle. “Let me ask you something. Have you ever loved someone so much you would die for them? Without hesitation or a second thought?”

  “I—” She sighed and deflated. It didn’t last long. “And what about the next time Cael’s life is threatened? You can’t just go around snapping perps’ necks, Ash.”

  Like he wasn’t aware. Ash ran a hand over his hair and motioned to the couch. They took their beers and sat down. Letty sat facing him, pulled her feet up, and leaned against the backrest, waiting for his reply.

  “I don’t know. I haven’t given much thought to what happened. I kind of have a lot on my plate right now. Maddock’s worried I’ll hurt Cael.”

  Letty scoffed. “I love the sarge, but he’s not always right, despite believing otherwise.”

  Ash smiled. “Listen to you, defending my honor and shit.”

  “Fuck off. Seriously. The way you treat Cael? Shit. I wish a guy would put me on a pedestal the way you do with him. You’ve taken a bullet for him.”

  “Yeah, and I’ve broken his heart time and time again. I’ve been too much of a coward to step up, to be what he needs me to be.”

  “Ash Keeler is not a coward. I should know. You’ve had my back for years. A lot of the other guys in Defense would have given me shit for being a woman. Not you. From the beginning, you supported me. You never tried to prove yourself better than me or more skilled. You stood up to anyone who had shit to say about me.”

  Ash frowned. “That’s because you’re fucking scary.”

  “Shut up.” Letty laughed, then sobered up. “Ash, you’ve had a string of one-night stands and casual hookups. This is the first time you’ve been in love. Why are you holding back? Why is Cael being a guy such a problem?”

  “I don’t want it to be a problem, Letty. You think I don’t want to throw myself into this? Into being with him and say fuck everyone? When I’m with him, all I want to do is touch him. When I’m not with him, all I do is think about him. I fucking dream of him. I want him so bad it’s killing me, but whenever I’m faced with him, my brain panics and pulls away. It’s a vicious cycle.” He sighed and put his beer down on the coaster on his coffee table.

  “So what are you going to do?”

  “Find a way to sort my shit out. See a therapist, I don’t know. But I have to do something. We can’t keep going like this. He deserves better.”

  “So do you,” she said gently.

  “You really think that, don’t you?”

  “You bet that grumpy ass I do.”

  “Thanks.”

  Not one to get too mushy, she swiftly moved on to something else. “I gotta go. I’m meeting Rosa and Lou for Christmas shopping at the mall. Want to come?”

  Ash arched an eyebrow at her. “I hope you’re kidding.”

  Letty jumped off the couch with a very indelicate snort. “Duh, but it was worth it to see the look on your face.”

  “Sadist.”

  She let out an evil cackle on the way to the kitchen, where she dropped her empty beer bottle into the recycling bin before heading for the front door. She tugged her boots on and threw him a kiss. “Be good. Love you.”

  “Get lost,” he grumbled, holding back a smile. “And make sure Rosa doesn’t get me any more fucking candles. There ain’t enough candles in the world to make me get in touch with my gentler side, so she can fuck off.”

  “You know she does it to piss you off. What do you do with them?”

  Ash shrugged. “I usually give them to Cael. He likes that sort of thing.”

  “And the ones you don’t give to Cael?” she asked with a knowing smile.

  “Why are you interrogating me?”

  She laughed and waved good-bye, the door closing behind her. It was still pretty early. Maybe he’d take a nap and later order some takeout. He really didn’t feel like cooking. His smartphone rang, and he straightened. Shit, it was Dex. There was only one reason Dex would be calling him. Something had happened with either Sloane or Cael. He quickly answered.

  “Dex?”

  “Ash, it happened again.” Dex’s voice was shaky, and he sounded out of breath.

  The hairs on the back of Ash’s neck stood on end. “What happened?”

  “Sloane…. He lost control again.”

  “Are you safe?”

  “Yes.”

  “Okay, I’m on my way.” Ash hung up and dashed to the front door, where he pulled on his boots and grabbed his coat off the rack. Shit. This couldn’t be good. He locked up quickly and called for a cab to hurry the hell over. The company he used knew who he was. They’d send someone over in no time. As he took the stairs, he wondered what the hell was going on with his best friend. This had never happened before, and now it had happened twice. There was no reason it should be happening at all.

  The only Therians susceptible to losing control of their shifting were adolescents, but the government had taken care of that a long time ago, developing a drug to help the hormone imbalance, which they provided free to parents of young Therians. The first time Sloane lost control had been after having an argument with Dex. No argument, no matter how big, should’ve caused Sloane’s loss of control. Something was going on. When he got to the street, his cab was already waiting. He climbed in the back and gave the driver Dex’s address, telling him it was an emergency.

  Was it because Sloane was on Therian medication? Sloane was hardly the first Therian to be on meds. If there was a problem, it would have been all over the news, with mass breakouts of shifting. In less than ten minutes he was at Dex’s
front door, using his key to let himself in.

  “Dex! Dex, where are you!”

  “Upstairs. It’s okay.”

  Ash took the stairs two at a time and ran into the bedroom, stopping when he saw Dex sitting in the middle of the large bed with Sloane passed out, his head on Dex’s lap. Both were wrapped in white blankets from the waist down. Dex’s eyes were red, and Ash could tell he was trying hard to keep it together. Dex gently stroked Sloane’s hair, his lips pressed into a thin line. Beside Dex on the bed was a Therian jet injector.

  “He’s tranqed?”

  Dex nodded. He picked up the jet injector and stared down at it. “I tranqed him. I put this thing against his neck, and I shot him.”

  Tears welled in his eyes, and Ash’s heart went out to him. Tranquilizing feral Therian perpetrators was one thing. They’d trained for it, learned to detach themselves from the disturbing reality of taking citizens down like animals. But to have to tranquilize your Therian lover? Ash wished he was better at comforting, or at least coming up with comforting words. Instead he gently took the injector from Dex’s hands. He placed it inside the nightstand’s open drawer.

  “You had no choice.” Ash took a seat on the edge of the bed close to Dex, mindful of Sloane curled around Dex, as if he’d been trying to protect his partner before passing out. Ash reached out to Dex and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, look at me.”

  Dex blinked a few times, as if snapping himself out of it, and raised his head, his eyes searching Ash’s. Most likely for reassurance Ash couldn’t provide.

  “You know he’d never forgive himself if he hurt you.”

  “I know. It’s why he insisted I keep the injector in my nightstand. After what happened last time, he was afraid of what he might do.”

  “Tell me what happened.”

  “We were having sex, and everything was fine. Suddenly he screamed. Like, a feral scream. It scared the hell out of me. Right away, I knew he was about to shift. So I made a dive for the nightstand, pulled out the injector, and….” Dex blinked away his tears. “You should have seen his face, Ash. He knew what was happening and couldn’t do anything about it. I’d never seen him look so scared. And there was nothing I could do to help him. I’ve never felt so helpless, sitting here, watching him suffer, hearing his screams as he tried to fight himself, the terror on his face.”

  Dex covered his face with his hands, and Ash pulled him into his embrace.

  “It’s okay. You did really good, Dex. You saved the both of you.”

  With a sniff, Dex pulled back. “Why is this happening? We thought the first time was a one-off. The stress, the meds, something. But now….”

  “I know.” The first time it happened, Ash had no idea what was going on. He’d arrived at Dex’s house and shifted downstairs in the living room to the sound of Sloane’s feral roar. He’d rushed upstairs, where his best friend attacked him. It had looked, smelled, and sounded like Sloane, but behind his amber eyes was only his best friend’s feral half. Sloane was gone. It had scared the shit out of Ash. And then Sloane pushed him down the stairs.

  “We need to figure something out,” Dex insisted. “What if this happens while we’re on duty or out in the field?”

  “They’ll suspend him and put him through enough evals to keep him off duty for months. We can’t let Sparks or any of the higher-ups find out about this.” Ash considered his next words very carefully. “I think maybe we should consider talking to Dr. Shultzon.”

  “Do you trust the guy?”

  Ash frowned. “I don’t trust anyone outside of my team.”

  It was the truth. He trusted those he worked with to an extent. Not because he believed they were shady or anything, but because he’d never been the trusting sort. Trust left you vulnerable. Ash had taught himself a long time ago to survive. His teammates, his friends, those lucky enough to be called family had earned his trust. He’d never admit it, but he counted Dex among his family. Sort of like the annoying brother-in-law. You’re happy he’s making your bro happy, but damn, sometimes you just wanted to punch him in his stupid smiley face. Who the hell smiled that much, anyway? A crazy person, that’s who.

  Dex worried his bottom lip, looking almost embarrassed. “Will you come with me?”

  “Sure.” Ash couldn’t help the surprise in his tone. Dex never asked him for anything. It went to show how worried the guy was. There was also little Dex wouldn’t do for Sloane. Ash was coming to see that. “I’ll put in a call. See if we can stop by sometime after Thanksgiving. I get the feeling Sparks is gonna call us back in any time now. Sloane’s only got a couple of weeks of recovery left. I’m pretty good to go. Your bro will be back to his bouncy self in no time, and there’s no longer an Order or Coalition to threaten us. Happy holidays to us.”

  Dex chuckled. “Guess we should enjoy it while it lasts, huh?”

  “Yeah.” Ash’s gaze went to Dex’s bandaged arm. “Didn’t realize things were that serious between you two.”

  Dex followed Ash’s gaze to his arm before moving on to Sloane. “Surprised the hell out of me too. I think that last mission was rough on everyone. Put things into perspective for all of us. One minute I was thinking he might never feel the same way I did, next thing I know he’s telling me he loves me and that we should move in together.” He brushed Sloane’s hair away from his face and stroked his cheek. “It’s scary, isn’t it?”

  “What’s that?”

  “How one person can become your whole world. One day you’re going about your business, and next thing you know, you’re handing someone all your trust, your love, your heart, everything you are. You’re just handing it over and hoping for the best.”

  “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” Ash said quietly. It’s what he and Sloane had always done. They’d embraced it. Now things were different for the both of them. Ash never would have seen this coming, at least not for himself. Sloane had always wanted someone to love him for who he was. Despite of what he was. Ash remembered his best friend confessing as much. One night back when they were kids in the facility, they lay on the floor staring up at their ceiling, painted like a starry night, and Sloane had opened up for the first time since they’d met. Ash had assured Sloane he’d find someone great one day, and Sloane had replied Ash would as well. Ash had nodded, but inside, he’d told himself no one would ever love him. He didn’t deserve to be loved. After years of telling himself that, he started to believe it. Then he’d met Cael.

  “Thanks, Ash. For everything.”

  “No problem.” He got up and motioned to Sloane. “Will you be okay with him?”

  “Yeah. He’ll be out for a while. I’ll get some dinner ready for him for when he wakes up. Even if he didn’t complete the shift, he’ll probably be hungry from the attempt and the tranquilizer.”

  “Okay. If you need me, just call. I’ll check up on you guys tomorrow.” He headed for the door, doing his best to occupy his mind with something other than the shitty day this had been, when Dex called out to him.

  “Hey, Ash.”

  Ash turned, studying Dex and the wide smile on his face. He braced himself.

  “You hugged me.”

  Ash held back a smile. “Don’t let it go to your head. It was a momentary lapse of judgment.”

  Dex’s grin got wider. “You hugged me, and I was naked.”

  “Thanks for the disturbing reminder. Next time I see you two, you better have some pants on.”

  “No promises.” Dex beamed.

  Ash shook his head, grumbling to himself as he left. He went downstairs, unable to help his smile. Looked like Sloane had found that someone he’d been hoping for since he was a kid. Maybe he hadn’t exactly hoped for a Cheesy Doodle crunching nut, but Sloane seemed content with the guy’s peculiarities. Sloane was happy. It was all Ash needed to know. Now if he could only sort out his own love life, or whatever it was he had with Cael.

  Outside, he decided to take a walk in the brisk late-night air before calling a cab
. In a few days it was Thanksgiving, and Maddock expected him and Sloane to spend the night, which was fine with Ash.

  CAEL WAS nervous.

  He was torn between trying to make everything absolutely perfect and pretending it was no big deal. And it wasn’t, really. Ash had come over for Thanksgiving last year. Except last year they hadn’t kissed or admitted to being in love with each other. Well, Cael had admitted it. Ash hadn’t said the words yet, but Cael knew. He didn’t need to hear the words. Or so he kept telling himself.

  “So… Ash Keeler.”

  Cael stopped whipping the sugar frosting. He should have known this was coming. Frankly, he was surprised it hadn’t come sooner, considering his brother’s impatience. “Dex.”

  “I know.” Dex held his hands up before wrinkling his nose. “But Ash Keeler?”

  Cael put the bowl on the black-marble counter and planted his hands on his hips. Were they really going to do this today of all days? They had a hundred things to do and prep before dinner. One of their dad’s Therian-sized ovens was currently cooking a couple of forty-pound turkeys, casseroles, potatoes, and veggies, while in the second Therian-sized oven, Cael was baking cakes, cookies, fresh bread, and whatever Dex roped him into cooking next.

  “What’s wrong with Ash?” Cael demanded.

  Dex smirked. “How long do you have?”

  “Funny.” Cael swatted Dex’s hand away from the cookie tray he’d removed from the oven a minute ago. “No.”

  “Come on, bro. Just one. Pleeeease?”

  Dex batted his lashes, and Cael shoved him out of the way so he could open the cabinet door for the box containing the food coloring. All the frosting and icing had to be handmade. Cael detested the premade supermarket stuff, and Dex hated marzipan. Everything always tasted yummier when it was made from scratch. He also enjoyed the process of making it. It was very therapeutic for him.

  “I’m not Sloane. Batting those baby blues has no effect on me. You didn’t answer my question. What’s wrong with Ash?” He swatted at Dex’s hand again. “I said no. Don’t make me tell on you, because you know I will.”

  “Tattletale.” Dex leaned against the counter and shrugged. “I don’t know. I always pictured you settling down with someone less… Ash.”

  “First of all, no one said anything about settling down. Probably because no one says that anymore. What is this, Regency England? And why’s this such a huge shock to everyone anyway?”

  “Sloane’s known Ash since they were kids. They grew up together, trained together, became the first members of Destructive Delta together. And according to Sloane, Ash has never expressed any attraction or romantic interest in another guy. He’s had a long string of girlfriends. Granted, none of them lasted very long, but they were always women. I’m not judging him. If one day he wakes up and he sees this amazing boy and he falls in love, good for him. My issue isn’t with his falling for another dude. My issue is why is it a problem for him?”

  “He’s got stuff to work out,” Cael muttered, moving the M&M’s chocolate chip cookies onto a plate painted with a turkey and acorns. If his brother went for the cookies one more time, he was going to beat him with his spatula.

  “No kidding.”

  Removing his oven glove, Cael turned to his brother, pleading. “I need you and Dad to support me on this. I love him, Dex. It can work between us. I know it can. He just needs some time to figure all this out. We’re going to sit and talk about it. I don’t want to push him. If we have to take things at his pace, then so be it. At least I know he wants to be with me.”

  “Hey, you know Dad and I will be here for you no matter what. I just worry, that’s all.”

  “I can handle it.”

  Dex bit his bottom lip and averted his gaze.

  What was this now? Cael folded his arms over his chest. “You don’t think I can handle Ash?”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  Cael narrowed his eyes at his brother. “No, you were thinking it.”

  “He’s got an attitude. I just don’t want you to regret getting involved with him.”

  “Attitude. I know for you that translates to anger issues.” There was something his brother wanted to say but was afraid to. “What is it?” Cael studied his brother and read between the lines. With Dex, you always had to read between the lines. Attitude. Anger issues. Regret getting involved. It dawned on Cael, and a lump formed in his throat. “This is about Fuller, isn’t it?” An old wound he thought had long ago healed ached. He hadn’t thought about Fuller in so long. Which was exactly how he preferred it.

  “You can’t deny the similarities,” Dex said gently.

  “Ash is nothing like Fuller! How can you even think that?” Cael was furious. How could Dex believe that of Ash, after everything they’d all been through together? Ash had proven himself time and time again. What was it going to take for his brother to understand? “Look me in the eye and tell me you think Ash is like Fuller.”

  Dex went pensive, and Cael waited.

  “You’re right. I’m being unreasonable and a jerk. I’m sorry. Ash might have issues, but he’s a good guy. I genuinely believe that. I know he’d never hurt you like that. If anything, he’s risked his life to protect you. I don’t mean to give him a hard time. I just hate how he’s keeping you hanging.” Dex put his hand to Cael’s cheek. “I’m sorry for being so insensitive.”

 
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