Rack & ruin, p.4
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       Rack & Ruin, p.4
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  throng of agents dancing, drinking, and enjoying themselves.

  “You look tired, man. You feeling okay?”

  Ash seemed to snap himself out of it, and he gave Dex a nod. He ran a hand over his face and sighed. “Yeah, I’m good. Just need some sleep.”

  “Maybe it’s time to wrap up this shindig,” Dex suggested. A look of relief crossed Ash’s face before his signature glower returned.

  “Thank fuck for that.” Ash pushed away from the counter and headed for the crowd undoubtedly to inform them they were to all fuck off.

  “I hate to admit it, but I’m kind of worried about him.” Dex caught his lover’s concerned expression. Looked like Dex wasn’t the only one. “You’re worried about him too.”

  “Not sure yet. Maybe it’s whatever bug he’s getting over. He gets grumpy when he’s sick.”

  Dex arched an eyebrow at Sloane. “I’m sorry. Are you implying that what we experience on non-sick days is him in a good mood?”

  “That is correct,” Sloane replied, completely serious.

  “Fuck me.”

  “It would be my pleasure.”

  Dex’s cock twitched in his pants. “Let’s get everyone the hell out of here.” He went off into the crowd and worked the room, joking and teasing as he ushered them out. When there was only Sloane, Ash, Dex, and Cael left, Dex thanked Ash for the party, receiving a grunt in response.

  “I’ll help you clean up,” Cael said only to have Ash usher them all toward the door.

  “It’s fine. I can manage.”

  Dex was certain Cael’s offer had more to do with hanging out with Ash than actually cleaning.

  “Are you sure?” Cael asked. The others might not have noticed his brother’s disappointment, but it was clear as day to Dex.

  “Positive.” With a brief good-bye, Ash closed the door on them. The three of them stood quietly in front of the closed apartment door. Dex wished he could say Ash’s behavior surprised him, but it didn’t. He turned to Cael.

  “You got a ride?”

  “Yeah, I brought my car. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” Cael headed off before Dex could utter a word. Well, so much for that.

  It was a breezy night, cool but not enough to warrant a jacket. Soon the leaves would be turning. It was hard to believe it was almost a year since his life had been turned upside down and he’d joined the THIRDS. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Climbing into the passenger seat of Sloane’s Impala, Dex felt as if he’d known the guy for years rather than months. He loved that he got to hang out with Sloane at work and out of it. He didn’t know if that would change further down the line, but right now he’d make the most of it.

  “Do you want to stay the night?” he asked Sloane. He knew his partner preferred to stay over at Dex’s house and slept over at least three to four times a week while Dex slept over at Sloane’s maybe once a week. Dex didn’t dare mention that Sloane should have his own key to the house. It wasn’t long ago the word boyfriend had scared the ever living fuck out of Sloane. Dex had to remind himself to take things slow. Not an easy task. Dex was crazy about the guy.

  “You mind staying at mine? I have to do laundry.”

  “Sure.”

  As they headed for Sloane’s apartment across town, Dex held back a smile when he felt Sloane take hold of his hand as he drove. It was hard to gauge how comfortable Sloane was with their relationship, seeing as how they spent a good portion of their time hiding it from their fellow teammates.

  “Did you enjoy your party?”

  Dex nodded. “I did.”

  “You look unsure.”

  It was strange. He was unsure. “Ever since I was a kid, I’d have these huge birthday parties. I didn’t even care who came as long as there were lots of people. I had a blast. I don’t remember a lot of my college parties, so I’m going to assume they were pretty sweet. Thing is, tonight, I don’t think I would have cared if no one showed up as long as you, my brother, and the team were there.”

  “Really?” Sloane sounded surprised.

  “Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. I had an awesome time. But I enjoyed myself most when I was with the team. With you.”

  “Wow.”

  “I know.”

  “Does that mean you know what you’re going to do for your actual birthday party?”

  “I’ve got an idea.” Dex was going to have a chat with Bradley, see if he could arrange to have his party at Bar Dekatria. He didn’t know what it was about the place, but he felt at home there. A huge part of that most likely had to do with the fact Bradley not only put up with his eighties karaoke but encouraged him. The guy had even added new songs just for Dex.

  They spent the rest of the car ride the same way they spent every other car ride together, with Dex attempting to change the station to Retro Radio, Sloane threatening him with grievous bodily harm, and Dex ultimately getting his way. Sloane would pretend he still had some form of control by forbidding Dex to sing along to whatever cheesy eighties song came on, Dex would pout, and within seconds he’d be singing along to “King of Wishful Thinking.”

  “You are most definitely the king of wishful thinking,” Sloane teased.

  “I’m going to take that as a compliment. Did you know in the film Pretty Woman the opera they go to is La Traviata, which is about a prostitute falling in love with a wealthy man?”

  “You’re like a walking, talking version of Trivial Pursuit. The 1980s edition.”

  Dex donned his snootiest voice. “First of all, Pretty Woman was 1990. Second of all, I believe it’s called Trivial Pursuit Totally 80s.”

  Sloane’s eyes widened. “Oh my God. You own it don’t you?”

  “One of the player pieces is a Care Bear,” Dex admitted.

  “Why haven’t I seen it around the house?”

  “Because it’s stored in the basement,” Dex said, turning his gaze outside the window. He really should have kept his mouth shut. Now Sloane would probably ask—

  “What else is down there?”

  Yep. He’d really stuck his size tens in it this time. Talk about opening a can of worms. Not the sugary rainbow-colored sour ones or the gummy ones. Those were good. He could have sworn he’d had a pack of the sour ones in his sweet stash at work only three days ago. It was probably Cael. That gummy-worm-thieving little—

  “Dex?”

  “Huh?” Dex blinked at him. “Oh, sorry. What’s in my basement? Um, stockpiles of toilet paper in case the Zombie Apocalypse ever comes.”

  “What else?”

  Dex could feel his face going red. “Stuff.”

  Sloane gave him a shrewd smile. “Am I going to find neon legwarmers and Richard Simmons workout videos?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” Dex scoffed. “Like I need workout videos.”

  “I’m going to find something worse, aren’t I?”

  “No. Maybe. I don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff down there.” “A lot” was an understatement. Dex’s basement was crammed with boxes, crates, bags, storage bins, and all manner of containers stuffed to the brim with all his old belongings. When he’d started college, he’d bought himself a house with a portion of the life insurance money from his parents’ death. In their will they’d left a note stating they didn’t want him feeling guilty about using the money. They just wanted him to be happy. The house was the second big purchase he’d made. The first being his precious car.

  On moving day, he’d taken all his stuff from his adoptive dad’s house, including a load of boxes from Tony’s basement, and moved them to his new home. 80 percent of it was still in boxes in Dex’s basement. When Lou left, some items had made it out to his living room, but there really wasn’t an appropriate place for his 3-D glasses collection.

  “You’re a hoarder?” Sloane gasped. “You gave me shit for being a closet geek, and you’re a closet hoarder!”

  “I’m not a hoarder. I just like keeping stuff.”

  “Same thing.”

  “Nope.”

  “How’s
it different?”

  “My stuff’s cool. Like my collection of 3-D glasses and Rubik’s Cubes. I have a mint-condition Armatron. You know that was fucking mind-blowing at the time. Cael and I would spend hours—hours, on that thing just trying to pick up a fucking pencil.”

  Sloane was laughing so hard by now, Dex was afraid the guy was going to hurt something.

  “Laugh it up, but when my Star Wars collection pays for a retirement villa off the coast of France, we’ll see who’s laughing then.”

  “What is it with you and the eighties?”

  Dex shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess…. After I lost my parents, I was scared of my own shadow. For a while, I was even too scared to leave the house. When Tony left for work, I was terrified he’d get killed like my dad. I went through six babysitters. Tony was amazing though. He was patient and understanding. Then a few months later he brought home this pink little thing with big gray eyes, and he said, ‘Dex, this is your new baby brother. You need to be a brave boy because he’s gonna need you to take care of him. He’s all alone in this world.’ And I remember looking down at Cael and thinking he wasn’t alone anymore because he had me and Tony, and I was gonna be the bestest big brother ever. Then Cael spit up on me.” He chuckled at the memory. Then he thought about what came after.

  “It was tough for a while. People were giving Tony shit because he adopted me, saying he only did it to get his hands on the insurance money. Bunch of assholes. Then they gave him shit for adopting a Therian, saying all kinds of crap, like he had an agenda or something. Cael and I were little kids. We’d lost our families, and the only one who gave a shit was Tony. They kept coming to his house, checking up on us, like they might catch him out, find us tied up in the basement or beaten.” He balled his fists on his legs, feeling his anger boiling up inside. Back then he’d been too small to understand why it was such a big deal. Why everyone was always on their case. Sloane’s hand on his shoulder snapped him out of it.

  “Hey, it’s okay.”

  “Sorry. It still pisses me off. It all came to a head when some dickbag news reporter showed up at my school trying to talk to me. He started asking me if Tony ever hit me or touched me where he shouldn’t. I ran, and the bastard ran after me. It’s probably no surprise that my penchant for ending up bruised was growing strong even then. I tripped on my laces and fell down the stairs. Luckily I only banged myself up. Though I did lose a tooth.”

  “Your dad must have been pissed.”

  “My dad brought out the fucking army. I shit you not. He had a bunch of buddies who’d fought in Vietnam, and they brought their buddies, and let me tell you, after that day, none of those assholes dared to go near our block, much less one of us. Tony made an announcement on the news. He was fine with assholes messing with him, but if some jack-off tried to come near his kids, he was going to turn their kneecaps inside out. A year later, the chief of Therian Defense personally recruited him to the THIRDS. You’re probably thinking that has fuck all to do with your question, but it has everything to do with it. During all that shit, Tony was the best dad a kid could ask for. Don’t get me wrong, if we were out of line, we’d be in trouble, but Tony never stopped doing everything in his power to give me and Cael the best family he could.

  “We had pizza nights and video games, music, vacations to Disney World, camping, Slip ’N Slide in the backyard. He’d chase down the ice cream truck if we didn’t get outside in time, read us bedtime stories, made snow angels in the winter, and in the summer he’d let us bury him in sand at the beach. I guess, whenever I hear a song from back then or watch some cheesy movie I grew up with, it makes me feel… good. Like the world isn’t such a shitty place.”

  “Like when you were a kid, with Tony and Cael,” Sloane said, nodding his understanding.

  “Yeah. When you ask me how I do it, how I stay so upbeat all the time? That’s how. When the job starts getting to me, I go to my happy place. I know it’s nostalgic bullshit, and I’m a grown man—”

  “Fuck that.”

  Dex arched an eyebrow at his partner. The conviction in Sloane’s voice took him by surprise.

  “You had a great childhood, Dex, with a family that loved you and accepted you. There was, and still is, a whole lot of love in your family. If listening to your music makes you think of those good times, makes you feel good inside, then forget everything else. Who gives a shit what anyone else thinks?”

  “Thanks.” Dex felt his heart flutter, and he squeezed Sloane’s hand.

  “I’m still going to tease you about it,” Sloane said and gave him a wink.

  Dex smiled warmly at his lover. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

  Chapter 3

  “THAT WAS so good.”

  The only way Dex’s shower could have felt even better was if he’d had the company of a certain sexy someone. Except that someone was being all grown-up responsible and doing laundry. Seriously? Who chose laundry over shower sex? Or at the very least a blowjob. Not that they needed a shower for any of that. He’d even lingered a bit hoping Sloane would join him, but no such luck. Dex wrapped a towel around his waist and walked out into Sloane’s empty bedroom. Where were his clothes? He strolled out into the hall and called down the stairs. “Sloane?”

  “Yeah?”

  “You know where my clothes are?”

  “In the dryer. I washed them. They smelled like booze and sex.”

  And that was a bad thing? “Okay. Mind if I borrow a T-shirt and some pants?”

  “No prob. Dresser. Second drawer. The black pants with the white stripes going down the sides have drawstrings. They should fit you. There should be a faded gray THIRDS T-shirt in there somewhere. It’s a bit snug on me, so should fit okay.”

  “Awesome.” Dex went to the dresser, found the pants, and slipped them on. He had to roll them up at the waist so he wouldn’t trip on them. Then he searched for the T-shirt Sloane had mentioned. He found it, held it up in front of him, and let out a snort of disgust. “Snug? It’s a fucking blanket. Bastard.” He put on the T-shirt and was about to shut the drawer when he spotted something fluffy and black. Obviously, his first thought went to sex toy. He’d almost missed it, what with it being all black and camouflaged amidst a load of black clothing. Picking it up, he discovered it wasn’t at all the kind of toy he’d been expecting, and his heart squeezed in his chest when he realized it was a black jaguar.

  Swallowing past a lump in his throat, he walked over to the bed and sat down, the toy cradled in his arms. It was the white bandages wrapped around each paw that broke Dex’s heart. How long had Sloane had this? Dex noticed the white label under the tail with the initials S.B. written childishly in black marker. “Oh, Sloane.” Had this little fella sported his bandages the same time as Sloane?

  “Everything okay?”

  Dex’s head shot up, and his face felt like it might go up in flames. Sloane’s expression was guarded, and his gaze went from Dex to the toy in his hands and back. Crap. Dex quickly held the stuffed toy up. “I wasn’t going through your stuff. I was looking for the T-shirt, and I came across this little guy.”

  Sloane gave him a nod, stepped up to him, and gently took the stuffed toy from him. “I found it in Shultzon’s house when we first thought he was Freedman. It was in his closet. I couldn’t leave it behind.”

  “Was it yours?”

  “Yeah. I’d always wondered what happened to it. It’s from my time at the facility. They heavily sedated me after…. You know.” He held up his wrist. “They were afraid I’d try to pull out the stitches or something. Make a second attempt. When they felt it was safe to let me go back to my room, I found this little guy on my bed. He didn’t have bandages on. I added those.” Sloane took a seat beside Dex, his eyes on the soft toy.

  “I’d just finished putting the bandages on my little friend when Dr. Shultzon came in with this scruffy kid.” Sloane smiled warmly. “I remember thinking the kid was scary and mean looking. Dr. Shultzon told me his name was Ash Keeler.
Shultzon seemed to think we were going to be great friends. Neither of us believed it at first. We sat there for hours glaring at each other.” He laughed, seeming to get lost in some memory. “I remember the way I’d sat on my bed hugging my stuffed toy, glaring at the boy sitting at the end of the bed. It turned into a fierce staring contest until I lost by yawning and then hiccupping. It was hard to pull off a tough-guy routine when every time you hiccupped you sounded like a baby bird. I watched Ash trying hard not to laugh, but in the end he gave in.”

  Dex climbed onto the bed and drew his knees up, studying his partner. “How did you two become friends? Sounds to me like Ash hasn’t changed much since he was a kid.” He still found it hard believing the two were so close.

  A smile tugged at Sloane’s lips. “He hasn’t changed at all. He’s still mean looking and angry, but he’s as fearless now as he was then. Well, I’m sure he did get scared, but he never showed it, especially around me. They moved us into one of the bigger rooms so we could share, and I remember our first night. I woke up screaming, couldn’t stop shaking and crying afterward. Ash didn’t say anything. He climbed into bed with me and hugged me close. I knew then that I wasn’t alone. What’s more, I knew we’d always be there for each other.”

  “I can’t image Ash as the hugging type.”

  Sloane cast his partner a shrewd glance. “He has his moments.”

  An image of Ash hugging Cael popped into Dex’s mind, followed by guilt. He’d promised his brother he’d talk to Sloane about Ash, and two months later, he still hadn’t. Well, now was as good a time as any. “Speaking of Ash. Has he ever… been with a guy?” That didn’t sound awkward. At. All.

  The question caught Sloane by surprise. “Why? You interested?”

  Dex hoped his uninspired expression was answer enough, not that he believed Sloane actually thought Dex harbored some secret feelings for his archnemesis. “I’m asking because I have a friend—”

  “Brother,” Sloane corrected.

  “Man, nothing gets past you.” Damn. His partner was too clever for his own good.

  Sloane stood and propped his little friend on his dresser. “Nope. It’s best you remember that.” He came back and stopped in front of Dex to give him a quick kiss before climbing onto the bed. Dex flopped down beside him and rolled onto his back.

  “Your brother’s got a thing for Ash. Has for years. You should have seen him when I introduced them. Cael went all red in the face, got tongue-tied, and then tripped over his own feet.”

  “Awkward runs in the family,” Dex muttered as he turned onto his stomach and propped himself on his elbows. “Unless you’re Tony. Then ‘awkward’ cowers in the corner. Must be a sibling thing. So has Ash ever been with a dude?”

  Sloane shrugged. “To be honest. I don’t know. I don’t get involved in his love life, or in Ash’s case, sex life. He’s only ever slept with women. That I know of. We’ve been best friends since we were kids, but we’ve always valued our privacy. As long as he stays safe, whatever Ash does with whoever is no one’s business but his.”

  “In other words, you have no idea.”

  “That’s why I said I don’t know. What makes you think he might be into guys?”

  “The way he is with my brother makes me wonder.”

  “He is pretty hands-on with Cael. I admit I was surprised the first time I saw Ash behaving so affectionately toward your brother. From day one, he’s never cursed him out, threatened him, or even told him off. He’s like a different person. I got used to it after a while. Figured it was something the kid brought out in him. But he’s never mentioned any guys. Plus, he’s told me several times he’s not gay.”

  “After you asked?” Dex wiggled over to Sloane and let his head rest against Sloane’s stomach. It’s like he couldn’t be near the guy without obliterating any space between them. Whenever he touched Sloane, his belly filled with butterflies, and his pulse sped up. Either Sloane didn’t notice Dex’s slight flush, or he chose not to bring it up, which was fine with Dex. He didn’t want to make Sloane uncomfortable.

  “I’ve never asked,” Sloane said, absently stroking Dex’s hair. “He’s sort of volunteered the information. Now that I think about it, there was that night at Dekatria. Ash had a little too much to drink, and he was going on about how the fact he liked hanging out with Cael didn’t make him gay. It was weird. Then again, it might have been the alcohol talking.”

  Dex wriggled his brows, making Sloane laugh. “Methinks the scary agent doth protest too much.” He rolled onto his back, and Sloane followed, landing on top of Dex. He gave Dex’s lips a kiss before trailing kisses down his jaw to his neck making Dex’s toes curl. A hum escaped him, which seemed to encourage Sloane.

  “You planning on asking him?” Sloane teased before taking Dex’s earlobe between his teeth.

  “Fuck no. Like he would tell me the truth anyway.” Dex went quiet, and Sloane pulled back to look down at him.

  “You’re worried about Cael.”

  “Yeah. He has a habit of falling for the wrong guys.”

  Sloane’s smile returned, the desire burning in his amber eyes mixed with warmth and affection. “Something else that runs in the family?” He squeezed Dex under his arms, and Dex let out a laugh before trying to push his hand away.

  “Maybe it did,” Dex said, trying to hold back his laughter while pushing at
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