Against the grain, p.6
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       Against The Grain, p.6
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  “Me too. Meet back here for some TV?” Cael asked hopefully.

  “You got it.”

  Ash used the guest bathroom downstairs, in the basement outside Maddock’s office. He changed into his pajama bottoms and T-shirt and sat on the couch with the Therian-sized fleece blanket pulled around him. He waited to see which pajamas Cael would be wearing. He had almost as many pajama bottoms as he had socks, and they were all quirky, ranging from bacon pattern to Angry Birds. He’d seen plenty of them while crashing at Cael’s after a night of boozing at Dekatria.

  The house was completely silent for the first time since Ash had arrived. It was nice. He watched TV until he heard Cael’s socked footsteps drawing near. Cael leaped over the back of the couch and landed gracefully beside him. This time around, he was wearing his Captain America pajama bottoms and T-shirt. Ash took hold of the blanket and opened his arms.

  “Come on. It’s warm in here.”

  Cael smiled and cuddled close, his legs pulled up on the couch. Ash brought his arm around Cael with the blanket, holding him against him and covering them both up. It wasn’t as though they hadn’t sat together watching TV before, though this was the first time they sat so cozy together. It felt right.

  “I like your pajamas,” Ash said, giving him a squeeze.

  “Thanks. I always pictured you more as a boxers and T-shirt kind of guy for PJs.”

  “Nope. Actually, I don’t wear anything to bed.”

  Cael pulled back and stared at him. “You sleep naked?”

  Ash nodded. “I thought you knew that.”

  “Why would I know that? Anytime I’ve crashed at yours or you’ve crashed at mine, you’re always awake before I am and dressed.”

  “Oh.” Ash shrugged. “I sleep naked.” It wasn’t really the sort of thing he went around advertising. Who the hell cared how he slept? Except for Cael. He seemed particularly interested, which was fine with Ash.

  “So you go commando, and you sleep naked.”

  “I don’t like underwear. It’s too constricting. And sleeping naked is more comfortable.”

  Cael turned to face the TV. Ash waited for him to say something, but he just sat there, staring at the TV, but not really watching it.

  “You okay?” Ash asked. Had he said something wrong? Was it weird? He was hardly the first guy to go commando or sleep naked. He liked how the sheets felt against his bare skin, and he hated feeling hot. He especially hated collars or tight things around his neck.

  “Sorry, I’m rebooting my brain because you just short-circuited it with that information.”

  Ash chuckled. “I have?”

  “Well, yeah. I mean, I know how you look in your PJs, and then I find out you don’t wear anything at all to bed, and that’s just…. You, sir, are a meanie.”

  “How am I a meanie?” Ash asked, amused by Cael’s pout.

  “Because now you’ve put these images in my head, and I can’t get them out, and they’re going to drive me crazy.”

  Ash chuckled and tried to pull him close, but Cael was having none of it.

  “Aw, come on. Don’t be mad. You’re the one who brought it up. What’s the big deal?”

  Cael got up and turned to face him, his hands on his hips. “What’s the big deal? I’ll show you what the big deal is, Ash Keeler.”

  Ash cocked his head to one side, wondering what Cael was going on about. He opened his mouth to ask when Cael stepped up to him, shoved his knees apart, and stepped between them. Ash’s eyes widened, and his pulse shot up. He wanted to ask Cael what he was doing, but nothing came out. His brain ceased to function. Cael removed his T-shirt and threw it onto the couch. A strangled noise was all that escaped Ash as he sat there, mesmerized by Cael’s smooth, sinewy torso. He was so distracted, he hadn’t realized what Cael was doing until Cael had straddled him. Oh sweet Jesus.

  Cael took hold of Ash’s hands and placed them on his ass before thrusting down against him, his hard erection pressed up against Ash’s now-stiff dick.

  “This is the big deal,” Cael said in a husky tone. “You have no idea how bad I want to touch you, taste you, feel you. Do you know how long I’ve dreamed of being with you? Years, Ash. For years I’ve tortured myself with thoughts of you kissing me, taking me to bed, making love to me, fucking me.”

  Cael thrust his hips down against him, and Ash groaned. Oh God, this wasn’t good. It felt good. Fuck, it felt so damn good.

  “I’d close my eyes and picture myself running my hands over you.” Cael slid his hands up Ash’s chest. “If you knew all the things I dreamed of doing with you….” He pressed himself against Ash, his arms wrapped around Ash’s neck.

  Ash’s fingers dug into Cael’s plump asscheeks. Oh fuck. There was nothing but thin cotton between them, and Ash could feel Cael’s hard cock against his own, the sweet pressure. A rolling wave of desire thundered through him, and he wanted nothing more than to throw Cael down onto the couch, to taste and feel every inch of his beautiful body, to bury himself in between these gorgeous cheeks. Cael’s lips touched Ash’s neck, drawing a gasp from him. The most delicious shiver went up his spine, and he slipped his hands up Cael’s body, feeling the contours of his back, the curve of his spine, his firm muscles and soft skin.

  Just do it. Give in. You want him. He’s yours. He’s offering himself to you, so take him.

  “I can’t.” Ash took hold of Cael’s shoulders and gently pushed him away. “I’m so sorry, Cael, but this is…. I can’t do this right now.”

  Cael nodded, and Ash could see him trying his hardest to put on a brave front.

  “Guess it’s going to have to remain a dream a little longer. Excuse me.” He pulled away from Ash and got up. He picked his T-shirt up off the couch, swiftly tugged it on, and made for the stairs.

  “Cael, wait.”

  “Good night, Ash. Sleep tight.” Cael hurried toward the stairs, and Ash couldn’t stand to see him go, especially not upset like this, so he followed him.

  “Stay. I’m begging you.”

  Cael stopped in his tracks, remaining there silently for several seconds. Straightening, he took a deep breath and released it slowly. He turned around, his heartache and disappointment hitting Ash hard. It was all there on his sweet boyish face for the world to see.

  “I’m sorry I broke my promise. I said no pressure, and then I push you like that. I’m really sorry. I am. It was too much too soon. It’s probably best if we sleep in separate rooms tonight. I hope you won’t be angry with me in the morning.”

  “Never. And don’t apologize. It’s me. It’s all me.”

  Cael shook his head. “That’s very sweet, but it’s not. I’d like it if we could pretend this never happened and just move on.”

  “Cael—”

  “Please, Ash. I’m feeling a little humiliated right now, so please, don’t make it worse.”

  Ash swallowed hard and nodded. “It’s forgotten.”

  “Thank you. Good night.” Cael turned and disappeared upstairs.

  It took several seconds before Ash could get himself to move from where he stood. He walked back to the couch and sat down. Damn it. Everything had been going so well. All he’d wanted was to watch some TV with Cael and maybe fall asleep together, something they’d done countless times over the years. God, he was such an asshole. Cael had put himself out there, taken a chance, and he’d made the guy feel like shit for it. The worst part was that he’d wanted it. He’d wanted Cael so bad it hurt. And then his fucking brain had to mess things up by panicking. They were safe. This was Cael’s childhood home. The only people here were family. It wasn’t like they were going to have sex. At least he was pretty sure Cael had no intention of having sex on his dad’s couch, but even with that in mind, Ash couldn’t bring himself to give in.

  With a sigh, he turned off the TV and lay down, then pulled the covers up to his chin. There was nothing that could be done about it now. He’d promised Cael he’d forget about it, and he would. Thank fuck this night was over. He c
losed his eyes when he thought he heard a faint cry. Instinctively, his thoughts went to Cael, and he sat up, listening. He heard another cry, this one a little louder. He got up and went to the stairs. Halfway up, he heard it clear as day.

  “Oh fuck. Fuck. Please, Sloane.”

  You have got to be fucking kidding me! Ash hurried down the stairs. He reached the bottom and stepped on his pajama pant leg, nearly tripping and colliding with the floor. He managed to regain his balance and stomped over to the couch, where he got under the covers. With a grunt, he rolled over, taking his pillow with him in the hopes of drowning out the sex noises coming from upstairs. Just icing on the fucking cake. The last thing he needed was to hear his best friend and that menace fucking. He should have known this night could get worse. It was clearly a punishment for what had happened with Cael. He shut his eyes tight, but he could still fucking hear them. How fucking loud could one guy be? Very, apparently.

  “Goddamn it!” Did those two have no shame? How did Maddock not get up and kick Dex’s ass? Could he not hear them? He had to hear them. Why didn’t Cael tell his brother to shut the fuck up? After gathering the blankets and pillow, Ash headed for the basement. Fuck it. He’d sleep downstairs in Maddock’s office. Earlier, when he’d changed, he’d seen a couch down there.

  He grabbed the cushions off the couch in Maddock’s office, which was too small for him to sleep on, and he chucked them on the carpeted floor. He was so going to kick Dex’s ass tomorrow. He readied his makeshift bed and lay down. He’d slept on worse. With a grumble, he closed his eyes and prayed Christmas wouldn’t be such a fucking disaster.

  Chapter 4

  THANKSGIVING HAD come and gone, leaving Ash with mixed feelings about spending Christmas with Cael. He’d had a great time until his spectacular fuckup at the end of the night. Maddock, Dex, and Sloane knew about them, so why hadn’t he been able to relax? If he couldn’t get himself to feel comfortable with Cael in front of family, how the hell would he be able to do so out in the open? This wasn’t how he wanted things to go with them. He’d barely slept that night, thinking about how he’d hurt Cael, about how he was letting the most wonderful thing to ever happen to him slip through his fingers, all because he couldn’t get his head out of his ass.

  The next morning at breakfast, while Ash had been more miserable than ever, Cael had been his usual sweet, chipper self. Ash saw through the façade. Cael was hurting. Ash’s rejection had stung. Even so, Cael had served Ash breakfast and brought him coffee just the way he liked it. He’d smiled warmly and even hugged Ash when he and Sloane said their good-byes.

  Now Ash stood outside Shultzon’s house with Dex, and he was in a foul mood. If it wasn’t for Sloane, he wouldn’t even be here. He was glad his best friend had received some kind of closure from having chatted with Shultzon, but Ash had no desire to see the doctor. Not after he’d spent most of his life trying to forget what he’d suffered at the hands of this man, at least until Isaac Pearce had brought it all crashing back by kidnapping Dex and taking him to the research facility. Again Ash had compartmentalized and closed the doors for good on memories and information that were of no use to him. His THIRDS-appointed therapist said it wasn’t healthy. Fuck that. It kept him functioning.

  Silence snapped him out of his trance. Dex had been quiet the entire ride over. It was freaky. Lord knew the guy never shut up, which was why when he did, it felt wrong. Was Ash actually getting used to having Dex around? Thankfully the door opened, stopping any more ludicrous thoughts from entering his mind. Ash had called the doctor while Sloane was at his therapy appointment for his leg, and they’d been in luck. The guy was home and invited them over for a chat.

  “Ash, how wonderful to see you.” He held his hand out, and Ash reluctantly shook it. With a bright smile, Shultzon turned to Dex. “Agent Daley, what an absolute pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you.”

  Dex shook the man’s hand, his jaw clenched so tight Ash was afraid he might break something. “Thank you.”

  “Please, come in.”

  Shultzon motioned for them to enter, and Dex did. Ash followed. The doctor led them into a neat and elegant living room and showed them over to a large couch.

  “Can I get you both some coffee?”

  Before Ash could answer, Dex answered for them. “No, thank you. This won’t take long.”

  Daley sporting an attitude and refusing coffee? That was weird. Dex was usually all smiles and charm, even when dealing with someone he didn’t trust, especially when dealing with someone he didn’t trust. He knew how to get under their skin, gather intel without them knowing what he was doing. Ash was always able to spot the intensity behind the pale blue eyes, despite the smile. It wasn’t the same smile Dex had for Sloane, his family, or even his friends. Ash had seen it enough to know the difference. Dex was a complicated man with many faces. He was an expert at playing oblivious and a master of evasive tactics. Ash was starting to see through the class clown façade hiding a potentially dangerous man.

  Shultzon took a seat in the armchair across from them. “Is Sloane all right?”

  “Why wouldn’t he be?” Ash asked, wondering how much Shultzon knew about what had happened the last few months. Sloane had told him how Shultzon was still connected to the THIRDS, working for them in the Therian youth centers. Was he still helping them recruit? He’d told Sloane he liked to know what was going on around him, but how much was he involved?

  “Well, you’re both here without him. His lover and best friend.”

  “He had an appointment,” Dex replied somberly.

  “Right. For his leg. How is he?”

  Ash studied the doctor. “How’d you know it was for his leg?”

  “Like I told Sloane, I like to keep myself informed.” Shultzon turned his attention to Dex. “You look uncomfortable, Dex. May I call you Dex?”

  Ash felt Dex shift beside him.

  “I’m going to be honest with you, Dr. Shultzon.”

  Shit. What the hell was Dex going to say? Ash had been so wrapped up in his and Sloane’s past with Shultzon that he hadn’t given any thought to how Dex might react around the guy.

  “Please do.”

  “You might reconsider when you hear what I have to say.”

  Ash clasped his hands together and remained silent. He could have told Dex now was not the time, but if Dex wanted to get something off his chest, who the hell was he to deny the guy that? A part of him was curious. The other half told him Shultzon deserved whatever Dex gave him.

  “The only reason I’m not punching you in the face right now is out of respect for Sloane. You tortured him. You experimented on him. I don’t care what your reasons were. They were children. Kids who’d already been put through emotional hell by parents who, instead of protecting them, had them taken away and locked up like animals. And then you come in, their hero. You rescue them, feed them, clothe them, give them toys, but at an unspeakable price. You put them through a physically and mentally excruciating experience they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives if they live through it.”

  Shultzon didn’t look fazed in the least. “How much did Sloane tell you?”

  “Enough to know eighteen years later that what you did to him still haunts him.”

  “I understand,” Shultzon replied, his tone remorseful.

  “Do you?” Dex asked angrily. “Do you understand what it feels like to be woken up by your lover’s screams in the middle of the night? To see him distraught and lost in a world of pain and anguish, fighting a force out of your reach? Do you understand what it’s like to watch the man you love begging for the pain to stop but knowing there’s nothing you can do because it’s in his mind? No, Doctor. You don’t understand, and if it were up to me you’d be rotting away in a jail cell somewhere. Lucky for you, it’s not up to me. From this point on, Ash will do the talking, because nothing that comes out of my mouth while we’re in the same room will be pleasant.”

  Holy. Fuck.


  Ash forced himself to stop gaping at Dex and quickly snapped himself out of it. Okay, they came here for a reason. He turned to Shultzon. “Doctor, we’re here because we’re worried about Sloane. He’s lost control of his feral side twice.”

  Shultzon’s hand flew to his mouth, a look of genuine concern on his face. “Oh dear God. How did it happen?”

  Ash explained about the first time Sloane had lost control after getting into a fight with Dex, and then the second time when Sloane had been in the middle of being intimate with his lover. He explained how Sloane’s memory was fuzzy in some places while completely blank in others.

  Shultzon looked thoughtful. “It seems to me the problem started after his injury.”

  Ash agreed. “We can’t figure out what could have caused it. Could it be the combination of Therian medication and his emotions? He’s been on meds since then.” Although he’d pretty much ruled this out, he wanted to know if Shultzon agreed. There could be something he knew about the meds that maybe Ash wasn’t aware of.

  “It’s possible. Therian medicine is still in its youth. There’s no telling what effect it can have in the long run. However, if it was the medication, we would have had vast breakouts of Therians experiencing similar incidents. Though it does make me wonder….” Shultzon pursed his lips and shook his head. “Never mind.”

  “What is it?”

  Shultzon appeared reluctant to continue. He shook his head as if talking himself out of it, but in the end he gave in. “When Sloane came to visit, he asked me about the First Gen Research Facility and whether that was truly the end of it. I’m afraid to say, I didn’t believe so then, and even less so now.”

  Dex straightened beside Ash but remained silent. This wasn’t what Ash had been hoping to hear.

  “Are you saying what’s happening to Sloane might have something to do with the First Gen Research Facility?”

  “Not the facility, but perhaps whatever the THIRDS was working on inside of it. I know I shouldn’t be discussing this, and I ask that it not leave this room, but now that I know about Sloane, I’m concerned for him and his safety. I believe the THIRDS, or at least someone with quite some influence, is still experimenting with the scopolamine drug Pearce used on Dex, attempting to perfect it to control Therians.”

  Ash frowned. “That’s a very serious accusation, Doctor. Do you have evidence to back up this claim?” If the doctor truly believed this, he had to be getting his information from somewhere. An unsanctioned drug? And one powerful enough to control a Therian? Shit. They’d all had their suspicions regarding the facility and whatever had been going on, but Ash had hoped they’d heard the last of it after the facility had been decommissioned the second time. He’d almost believed it, and then during their mission to track down Hogan, Austen had shown up with a powdered concoction containing scopolamine, confirming it was all far from over.

  “I’ve been trying to gather intel, but it’s very slow going. Mostly it’s where I’ve managed to glean snippets of conversations held in the shadows. I have to be cautious. Not everyone can be trusted.” Shultzon spoke his next words quietly. “I believe someone is using specialist agents to get the work done without the THIRDS’ knowledge.”

  “So you’re saying whoever’s working on this drug is doing so off the books?” Ash didn’t like the sound of that. If what Shultzon was saying was true—and that was a big fucking if—then it would have to be someone with a high level of security clearance. Those officers were the only ones who could assign cases or tasks to specialist agents. Though it made sense. Specialist agents didn’t function in the same capacity as THIRDS agents, since they technically didn’t exist.

  Shultzon nodded. “I had been hoping to speak with Sloane about it, but then there was that unfortunate incident, and he was injured.” He opened his mouth to continue but seemed to think better of it. “I’ve said too much already. This is a very dangerous situation, and I have no intention of putting you or any of your agents in any danger. Until I have something solid to present you or the Branch of Therian Defense, I shouldn’t say any more.”

  “The Branch of Therian Defense?” Ash and Dex exchanged troubled glances. If this shit went that far up, then it was big.

  “I’m afraid—if my suspicions are true—this could have a dire impact on the THIRDS, especially if the involved parties are discovered by someone outside the THIRDS organization. I fear they may be putting their trust into the wrong hands, and I can’t allow the lives of good agents to be placed in jeopardy. I will say this.” Shultzon looked from Ash to Dex and back, his voice grave. “Someone may not be who they say they are. Be mindful of the orders you’re given.” Shultzon stood and motioned to the door. “I’m sorry, but I think it’s best any future communication between us be arranged elsewhere.”

  Ash had more questions now than when he came in, but it was clear Shultzon had finished talking. He escorted them to the door, promised to call if he received any significant information, and once again told them to be cautious. Ash and Dex remained quiet until they were inside Dex’s car. They sat quietly for a moment before Dex erupted.

  “This is fucked-up. Do you really think someone inside the THIRDS is still working on that drug? Sorry, that’s a stupid question. Of course they are. Shultzon said they were perfecting it. Perfecting what? That shit did its job on me just fine.”

  “He said they were perfecting it to control Therians. Maybe what you were given doesn’t have the same effect on a Therian.”

  While in their Human form Therians might appear Human, but inside there were vast differences, which was why Therians had their own medicines. Hell, there were some Therian over-the-counter drugs that Humans needed prescriptions for because they would fuck them up if they weren’t careful.

  Dex let out a frustrated groan. “None of that explains what’s happening to Sloane. He wasn’t exposed to the drug. And that was months before the explosion. It doesn’t explain what’s happening to him now. Shultzon’s right about the meds, though. If they were causing the problems with shifting, there would be mass breakouts of Therians losing control. They’re Therian antibiotics. That shit’s prescribed to God knows how many Therians. We’d have definitely heard something.”

  “So we’re back to square one, not knowing anything about Sloane, except now there’s the possibility something fucked is going on.” Ash shook his head and motioned for Dex to drive. “Looks like we’re going to start the New Year with a fucking bang.”

 
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