Against the grain, p.8
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       Against The Grain, p.8
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  live in.

  Cael’s sweet smile came into his thoughts, and Ash found himself smiling. Even when he wasn’t around, Cael managed to save Ash from himself. He finished removing his wraps and shoved them into his duffel bag. He left it on the floor by the punching bag, knowing no one would dare move it. It had his name on it.

  He pulled on his socks and sneakers and headed down the hall, not bothering to do more than wipe the sweat off his face with a towel he’d grabbed on the way out of the boxing bay. He walked into the gym and toward the back where he knew Cael, Rosa, and Letty would be using the exercise bikes.

  On the way there, he spotted Calvin running on the treadmill, no Hobbs in sight. With a frown, Ash made a detour, stopping beside Calvin, who removed his headphones when he saw Ash approaching.

  “Where’s your shadow?” Ash asked, looking around the gym. It wasn’t like Hobbs not to be where Calvin was, and he hadn’t seen much of him since they’d reported back to work.

  Calvin adjusted the speed on his treadmill. “He wasn’t up for it.”

  “Haven’t seen much of him today.”

  “He’s not left the office today.”

  That was strange. It wasn’t like they had a case to work on. They were supposed to be getting back into top form. Ash nodded. “He should really get in a workout. You think he might be up for a sparring session tomorrow?”

  Calvin pressed his lips together. He looked worried, and that was never a good thing. Ash didn’t know what the hell was going on with those two, though he had his suspicions, especially after what Maddock had said about Letty getting the drop on Calvin. Calvin slowed the treadmill until it came to a halt before hopping off. “I’ll tell him. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t show. He’s been feeling a little… tense recently.”

  “Everything okay?”

  “He’ll be fine.” Calvin gave Ash’s shoulder a pat. “Thanks, Ash.”

  He walked off, and Ash didn’t like the vibe he was getting. Whatever had been going on between Calvin and Hobbs had nothing to do with what he’d just witnessed. Something else was worrying Calvin. Maybe Ash would drop by their office after what was sure to be an interesting session with Cael.

  The trio were cycling and chatting to their fellow agents when Ash walked past Letty, giving her ponytail a tug along the way.

  “Oyé, cabrón!”

  She swatted at him, and he jumped out of the way with a chuckle and gave Rosa the finger in greeting. She rolled her eyes at him before carrying on her conversation with Letty.

  “Hey,” Cael said brightly.

  Man, he looked sexy in the charcoal-gray THIRDS T-shirt and black workout pants. Cael used the end of his T-shirt to wipe his face, exposing his torso and the thin dark treasure trail that disappeared beneath the waistband of his pants.

  “Come on.” Ash motioned for Cael to follow him, and his heart swelled when Cael stopped pedaling and got off the bike to join him. He didn’t ask any questions. Ash asked him to follow, and Cael did. Truth be told, Ash would have done the same. Wherever one led, the other would follow. Ash had never had that level of trust with anyone but Sloane. Cael told Rosa he’d come find her later and followed Ash out of the gym. “We’re going to train,” Ash said as they entered the boxing bay.

  “We are?” Cael stopped beside Ash’s bag, which was exactly where he’d left it. The boxing bay wasn’t very busy, which was how he preferred it. Anytime he sparred with someone, agents would gather to watch him kick his opponent’s ass. Ash only kicked someone’s ass when they deserved it. Unfortunately, there was always someone who deserved it. Why? Because they were stupid enough to challenge him.

  In Unit Alpha, there was always someone who wanted to prove how hard they were, and what better way to do that than trying to take down Destructive Delta’s Ash Keeler? Ash had a reputation. He’d lost count of all the names he’d been called. He really didn’t give a fuck. He had a job to do and a way of doing it. Whoever didn’t like it could kiss his ass. He had no time for inflated egos. Most of their fellow agents respected him and his skills, but there were always those asshats who thought Ash was their personal Everest to climb.

  “What kind of training?”

  Cael watched intently as Ash reached into his bag and pulled out a pair of clean hand wraps. He tossed them at Cael, who caught them, his expression puzzled.

  “My kind of training.”

  “Up close and personal? Why?”

  Ash took one roll from Cael and took hold of his hand, smiling at the way Cael’s cheeks flushed ever so slightly. Ash proceeded to wrap Cael’s hand. “Because you need to be prepared.”

  “I am.”

  “You could be prepared better.”

  Cael’s eyes narrowed. “Does this have to do with Hogan?”

  “Yes.” Ash readied himself. He firmly wove the wrap around Cael’s knuckles, under his thumb, around his palm and wrist, making sure there was enough flexibility. Cael’s frown deepened.

  “You don’t think I can take care of myself?”

  “You know that’s not it.” Ash finished up and took hold of the other roll and Cael’s hand again. He lingered slightly, his thumb stroking Cael’s palm. He wasn’t sure his distraction would work. Not when he could see the little wheels in Cael’s head spinning furiously as he put two and two together.

  “Then why do you want to train me all of a sudden? Did Dex put you up to this?”

  With a sigh, Ash went to work wrapping Cael’s hand. “He’s worried about you.” He could have lied, but if their relationship was ever going to get started, he wanted it to be on the right track. No lies, no secrets, no bullshit.

  “I knew it. I can’t believe this. He keeps telling me he’s going to stop treating me like a kid, but it never ends.”

  Cael tugged his hand out of Ash’s grip, the wrapping unraveling. Ash snatched a hold of it before it could hit the floor.

  “Hey, your brother loves you. You can’t be mad at him for wanting you to be safe.”

  “Yes, I can,” Cael huffed, turning to march off, his one hand still wrapped.

  “Come here. Please.” Damn. How was it that Cael looked adorable even when he was pissed off? “Cael. Please.”

  With a frustrated groan, Cael turned and headed back to Ash. “What?”

  Ash lowered his voice so no one else could hear him. There were no Therian agents anywhere near them, but he didn’t want to risk it. “Had Dex not approached me, I would have suggested it myself anyway. When I found out Hogan had you, I wanted to tear all those bastards apart with my bare hands. I couldn’t stand the thought of him hurting you. It’s not because you can’t handle yourself, but things are getting rougher out there. The Order, the Coalition? It’s only the beginning.” He put his hand to Cael’s shoulder, his thumb finding a small patch of skin to stroke. “Please. I need you to do this for me. For my peace of mind. But I also need you to want this for yourself.”

  Cael wrinkled his nose. “Fine.”

  “It’s not going to be easy.” Ash took hold of Cael’s hand again and gave it a small squeeze. Cael knew what he was agreeing to. What he was getting into.

  “I can handle it,” Cael stated firmly.

  “I won’t hold back.” If they were going to do this, they were going to do it right. Ash only had one way of training. All or nothing. His opponent could either hack it or they couldn’t. He never cut corners, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to start with Cael. “Do you trust me?”

  Cael’s expression softened. “You know I do.”

  “Okay.” Ash finished wrapping Cael’s hand. “I promise you, this is going to hurt me as much as it does you.”

  “You’re going to kick my ass to get me ready. I get it. We gonna get started, or we gonna stand around talking about our feelings all day?”

  “Ooh.” Ash held his hands up in front of him. “The claws have come out.”

  Okay. This was good. He could work with this. Cael, much like his big brother, had a bit of a temper. Ash
could use that to his advantage. Unlike a lot of agents, whose anger made them sloppy, Cael and Dex’s anger made them focused and determined. Ash remembered the first time Dex had sparred with Sloane. Little bastard refused to stay down no matter how many times Sloane floored him. The more Sloane had pissed Dex off, the more Dex was determined to kick his ass.

  Ash stepped on the mat and motioned for Cael to follow. “Hit me. And don’t hold back.”

  Cael gave him a deadpan expression. “Darn, and here I was planning on using my knockout punch.”

  “You planning on carrying a stepstool around with you to use it on a dude my size?”

  Cael arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh, I see. It’s going to be like that, is it?”

  Ash grinned. “It’s gonna be like that.” He put a hand to his chest. “Unless that hurts your feelings? I’ve heard more and more criminals are taking sensitivity classes these days.”

  “Okay, then.”

  Cael rounded his shoulders. He did a few stretches, and Ash could have sworn Cael was doing his best to look as seductive as possible while he did it. Once he was done, Cael bounced on his toes to loosen up before he charged Ash and threw a right hook. Ash stepped out of the way with ease. Cael came at him with a series of hooks and jabs that Ash was able to easily deflect. He grabbed Cael’s wrist, twisted his arm behind his back, and kicked at the back of his leg, forcing him down onto one knee. He released Cael and stepped back.

  “I saw that coming from a mile away.”

  “That’s because you’re so freakin’ tall,” Cael complained.

  “No, because you pulled back a fist two feet away from me. By the time you reached me, I knew how you were going to hit me and figured out what my countermove would be.”

  “It was not two feet.”

  Ash took hold of Cael’s waist and pulled him closer. “We’re talking close quarters, so it might as well have been. You’re also swinging with no purpose in mind. When you’re dealing with someone up close and personal, it’s about putting your opponent down. You already know everything you need to know to subdue a perpetrator. You’re not training with me for that. You’re here to take down someone of my size. Most perps won’t be trained the way we are or even the way Hogan was, and sometimes you might not have anything available to use as a weapon. If this is the case, you’ll be using your fists, elbows, and knees to cause the maximum amount of damage.” Ash lifted his elbow and moved it slowly toward Cael’s head.

  “Elbows cause a shit ton of damage. You’ll want to go for your attacker’s most vulnerable areas.” He pointed two fingers to each part of Cael’s body as he listed them. “Eyes, neck, liver, kidney, groin, and knee. And when I say groin, I’m not talking about punching the guy in the balls. It might hurt like a motherfucker, but eventually he’s going to get back up. So not only will he not be out, he will be fucking pissed.”

  Ash moved away from Cael and stood to face him. “You can’t rely on your punches alone. Look at me. Think about what I just told you, and attack me.”

  “What, just come at you?” Cael looked uncertain.

  “Yes. Use whatever you think would take me down.”

  “But what if I hurt you?”

  “You won’t.”

  Cael frowned at him. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

  “This is my proficiency. You’re just learning. So come on.”

  Taking a deep breath, Cael charged. Every punch Cael threw, Ash was able to dodge or smack away. The force behind Cael’s punches was good. His form was good. But he was relying on his strength in a scenario where strength alone wouldn’t cut it. Maybe it would against a wolf Therian but not against a larger Felid Therian. He might get some good hits in, but he wouldn’t take them down.

  Ash thought about Hogan and that asshole Fuller. He needed Cael to be ready. Fuller. That son of a bitch had pretended to have Cael’s best interests at heart, using his supposed love for him to hurt him. The moment the thought entered his mind, Ash pushed it behind a door inside his head and slammed it shut. He wasn’t Fuller. He loved Cael, and he was doing this to protect him. To give him a better chance out there in the wild streets of the urban jungle. Ash grabbed Cael around the waist, hoisted him off his feet, and slammed him down on the mat.

  Cael gasped and wheezed, rolling onto his side before coughing. With a groan, he pushed himself into a sitting position. “Shit.”

  “Get up,” Ash growled.

  Cael glared at him. “I’m coming.”

  “That’s what she said.”

  Cael picked his jaw up off the floor and pushed himself to his feet. “You dick! What the hell?”

  “What’s the matter, baby?” Ash leered, slowly circling Cael. “Hurt your feelings?”

  Cael narrowed his eyes. “What did you just call me?”

  “You heard me.” Ash smiled wickedly as he took a stance. “Let’s go, baby. Come at me fast and hard.”

  He could see Cael’s temper flaring. See the anger flash in his steel-gray eyes. Cael took a stance and slowly circled Ash. Finally he was getting it. Ash could see him assessing, looking Ash over, trying to work out his vulnerabilities, where he might be able to get a good hit in. With a growl, Cael charged. Instead of going for a hook, he went low and turned at the waist to get a jab against Ash’s ribs. Ash blocked with his elbows. He didn’t attack. This was about Cael trying to land a hit.

  Cael moved quickly. When he saw he was unsuccessful, he moved out of the way and approached from a different angle. He side kicked at the back of Ash’s knee, but Ash was already jumping over his leg. If he did the same with an opponent, he might have just hurt the guy. Good.

  With every punch and kick Ash blocked, the more pissed off Cael became. He wanted to land a hit, to show Ash he could do it. The harder Cael tried, the more Ash patronized him. Prodding him, poking his ribs, ruffling his hair as Ash avoided getting hit.

  “Would you quit it!” Cael snapped, charging Ash only to have Ash step to the side and smack his ass. Cael let out a yelp and spun, his steel-gray eyes blazing. “Asshole.”

  “Just let me know when you’re ready to start, sweet pea.”

  “Fuck you!” Cael advanced, jumping as he neared Ash and throwing a punch. Ash ducked out of the way and threw his arms around Cael’s waist. He knocked him onto his back, straddled him, and pinned his wrists above his head. With a smug grin, he forced his weight down, purposefully sitting on Cael’s thighs so he couldn’t move.

  “What’s your move, Chirpy?”

  “Kiss my ass, you bastard!”

  “Ooh, ouch. That hurt.” Ash smiled sweetly. “Emotionally, obviously, not physically. Which really doesn’t help your current situation any. Get angry.”

  “I am angry!”

  “Not angry enough,” Ash growled fiercely. “Get angry, Cael! Some asshole has you on the floor. You’ve been disarmed. He’s going to fucking kill you. What are you going to do? Whatever it is, it better be a fucking step up from what I’ve seen, because if not, you’re as good as dead.”

  Cael pulled at his wrists and writhed, trying to get free.

  “That’s not going to help you survive, Cael.”

  “You want angry? I’ll give you angry!” Cael smacked his head hard against Ash’s, momentarily stunning him. The distraction lasted mere seconds, but long enough for Ash to release one of Cael’s wrists and end up getting punched in the balls.

  “Motherfuck!” Ash let out every swear word he knew as he was shoved off Cael. He held on to his balls and curled up on himself. Cael crouched down beside him.

  “That angry enough for you, Ash?”

  A pleasant voice resounded from the speaker system. “Destructive Delta’s Agent Cael Maddock and Agent Rosa Santiago, report to dispatch.”

  Cael smacked Ash across the cheek hard just for good measure before storming off.

  Fuck! Motherfucking son of a bitch asshole fuck-buckets. Ash pressed his head against the mat, his cheek stinging and his balls feeling like they might crawl u
p inside him. He closed his eyes tight when he sensed someone looming over him.

  “Keeler, you okay?”

  “Fuck. You,” he ground out. He didn’t know who it was, and he didn’t care.

  “Holy shit!” someone else piped up. “Did you see that? Cael just punched Keeler in the fucking nads, bro.”

  Ash opened his eyes and glared up at his fellow Defense agent. “Herrera?”

  “Yeah?”

  Ash used his recuperated powers of speech to threaten the agent hovering over him.

  “Unless you want me to rip off yours, you’ll get the fuck away from me. Now. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you trying to take a piss on my fern during Daley’s party at my apartment.”

  Herrera jumped to it and made like the wind, taking the other half a dozen agents or so who’d gathered with him. Ash pushed himself to a sitting position, and any agents remaining in the boxing bay vacated the premises like someone had announced they were giving away free donuts in the canteen. One lone figure remained, heading toward him.

  “How’s Cael’s training going?” Sloane held a hand out and helped Ash to his feet.

  “Let’s see. He’s pissed, and he punched me in the balls. I think it’s going rather well.” Ash headed for the towel rack and snatched up a towel to wipe the sweat from his face.

  “Good.” Sloane patted Ash on the back, a big dopey grin on his face. “I want you to train Dex.”

  “What the fuck?” Ash threw his towel over his shoulder. He’d prefer letting Cael sock him in the nads again. “Are you shitting me?”

  “It’s important.”

  Sloane’s smile faded, and Ash groaned internally. He hated when his friend got that stupid sad-puppy look on his face.

  “He’s learned a hell of a lot since he joined, but I need you teach him what you’re teaching Cael. I haven’t been cleared to train yet, and you’re the close-quarters expert.”

  “Let me get this straight. You want me to teach your certifiably insane partner my weaknesses. How to take me out.”

  Sloane shrugged. “You’re teaching Cael.”

  Ash took a seat on the bench, and Sloane joined him. This argument was pointless. Sloane had already won. The least Ash could do was attempt to put up a fight.

  “Cael would never use it against me.”

  “Really? He just punched you in the balls, man.”

  “Because I told him to, not because he wanted to.” Maybe he hadn’t exactly told Cael to do that, but he had told Cael to fight him. It had been painful, but it worked.

  “You sure about that?” Sloane teased.

  “Is this you making me feel better about all this, because I hate to tell you, it ain’t working.”

  Sloane laughed and threw an arm around his shoulders. “Come on. Please. I mean, you’ve only just started with Cael, and he managed to get away from you. That’s impressive.”

  He was so going to regret this. “Fine. But you owe me. Big time.”

  “You got it.” Sloane held a hand up in promise.

  “What’s up with your boy, anyway? He’s been really pissy lately. Angry.”

  Sloane let out a sigh. He checked the bay to make sure no one was close enough to hear. A few agents had wandered back in, but they were staying as far away from Ash as possible. No doubt Herrera was off telling anyone who would listen how Ash had gone down.

  “He’s really worried about what’s going on with me. I know he’s pretending everything’s okay, but it’s just to keep me from worrying. It’s got him on edge. And then there’s that whole other mess. You know.”

  Ash nodded. Sloane was referring to what they’d been told by Shultzon. After Sloane had returned from his therapy session, Dex and Ash had sat down with him and told him what they’d learned. Sloane was adamant Austen wasn’t involved, or if he was, he didn’t know what he was involved in. Dex had dropped it quick. Ash guessed he didn’t want to add to Sloane’s concerns, especially not without proof. Sloane said he’d think about it, but since they had nothing to go on other than Shultzon’s suspicions, there wasn’t much—if anything—they could do. Sloane said he’d contacted Austen but as yet hadn’t heard back. None of them had brought it up.

  “It’s been a while since we’ve been on a date, so I’m going to take Dex to Jersey this weekend, watch a movie and get some dinner. Try and get his mind off everything. I think working a case might do him good. He gets restless when he’s not keeping busy.” Sloane stood and gave Ash’s shoulder a squeeze. “Thanks for doing this for me, man. I’m going to submit the request to Sparks. Make it official.”

  “Sure. Could you put one in for Cael? Work your magic to get it approved?”

  “You got it. See you later.”

 
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