Rise amp fall, p.15
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       Rise & Fall, p.15
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  “Really? Because it sure as hell feels like it. I can’t even begin to list the number of protocols you’ve broken. And worse, you roped our brothers into this? You put your whole team in jeopardy. For what? Ego? What are you trying to prove, Dex?”

  “I’m not trying to prove anything.” Dex rose, the step he stood on making him the same height as Seb. “The guy tried to blow up my team! He had Ash shot and Sloane….” Dex shook his head and did his best to keep his emotions in check before he said or did something he would regret. Just because the guy was Hobbs’s brother didn’t mean they were best buds.

  Seb’s expression softened, and some of his anger seemed to have shifted. “Hey, Sloane used to be my Team Leader too. He’s a great guy and a damn good agent. What happened was fucked-up. I know how you feel.”

  “Then you know why I have to go after Hogan.”

  “It’s not your job! I’m sorry, Dex, but I have to report this.” Seb reached for his phone and Dex caught his wrist, his eyes pleading.

  “You would have done the same.”

  Seb frowned at him and shook his head. “I’d be pissed as hell, but I wouldn’t go against orders, put my team in danger, or risk disciplinary measures.”

  “You did once.”

  Something flashed through Seb’s eyes and he straightened. “That has nothing to do with this.”

  “It has everything to do with this.”

  A puzzled look came onto Seb’s face as he studied Dex when realization dawned on him. “Shit.” He wiped a hand over his face and shook his head before his eyes landed on Dex again. “Shit.”

  “Tell me something. If you had it to do over, knowing what would happen, would you let him die so the boy could live?”

  Seb looked away as he thought about his answer. Finally, he shook his head before meeting Dex’s gaze. “No. I’d take the bullet myself so they could both live.” The conviction in Seb’s voice left no doubt of how serious he was.

  “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to fuck with your case. I couldn’t sit on my ass doing fuck all after what Hogan did to Sloane. I’ll take full responsibility for this. Report me, not the team. They did it for me,” Dex pleaded. He watched with bated breath as Seb mulled it over.

  “I know I’m going to regret this. I’m not going to report you, but you stop investigating immediately.”

  “I can’t.”

  Seb threw his arms up. “Jesus, are you always this fucking difficult?”

  “Only on days ending in ‘y.’” Dex’s attempt at humor fell flat, and he decided the hell with it. He wasn’t too proud to beg. “Please. Let us work with you off the books. If anything happens, none of it will get back to you, and you can disavow all knowledge of us working with you. I’ll take whatever heat comes down. But if we catch Hogan, you can take the credit. I just want to see his ass nailed to the fucking wall.”

  Seb eyed him. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

  “No.”

  “I must be out of my damn mind,” Seb muttered. “Fine, but I want to know everything you know so far, and you don’t make a move without me. Got it?”

  “Deal.” He held his hand out, and Seb shook it. Having Seb on their side certainly evened the odds. “Ash will fill you in. I need to speak with a contact. Anything I find out, I’ll call you. Collins won’t be coming back here. I hope we don’t have to start from scratch.” Dex followed Seb to the van where his brother and Felid teammates were back to their Human form and dressed. The girls had taken care of their postshift trauma, and now they all sat waiting. “Hey, how’d you know where to find us anyway?”

  Seb climbed up and helped Dex in. He looked embarrassed. “Cael tried to sneak off this morning without waking me up, and I was worried, so I followed him.”

  Dex never saw it coming. One minute Ash was sitting on the bench, the next he had Seb pinned against the van’s wall with his forearm against Seb’s throat. Ash’s pupils were dilated and his fangs growing.

  “You son of a bitch! You slept with him?” Ash growled.

  “What the fuck, Keeler?” Seb threw his arms out and shoved Ash away from him. The two Felids advanced on each other when Cael squeezed himself between them.

  “Enough!”

  Ash balled his hands into fists, his pained gaze on Cael. “How could you sleep with him?”

  “I didn’t,” Cael hissed angrily. “You assumed I did. We had dinner last night. I had too much to drink, and Seb kindly took me to his place. We talked, and I crashed on his couch. Is that okay with you, Ash? Or do you assume every guy I hang out with is fucking me?”

  The fight went out of Ash and he deflated. “All right, I get it. I messed up. I’m sorry.”

  Seb opened his mouth, but Dex elbowed him and shook his head. If Seb wanted to keep his stripes, it was best he not get in the middle of an argument between Cael and Ash. He motioned to the bench, and Seb took a seat. Dex slid in next to him, catching Letty and Rosa’s worried expressions as they whispered to each other. Hobbs discreetly pointed to the front of the van and Dex nodded. He and Calvin practically tripped over each other trying to escape to the front seats.

  “You know what, Ash?” Cael closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I’m exhausted. I can’t do this with you right now.” He marched over to the bench and dropped down beside Dex, snuggling in close. He twisted his body slightly so he was facing Dex, his head resting against Dex’s arm, and his eyes closed. The van fell into awkward silence, and Dex saw Seb pull his phone out. A few seconds later, Dex’s phone buzzed. He pulled it out and read Seb’s text.

  Should I be worried?

  Dex texted back. About what?

  Your team.

  It’s fine. We’ll handle it. It was all he was going to say on the matter. After texting Seb, he texted Hobbs, telling him to drop him off first. Dex needed to call Austen and fill him in. They had to approach this from another angle now that Collins was gone.

  Half an hour later, after Cael reassured him for the hundredth time that he was fine and how he didn’t need Dex babying him, Dex was back in Lou’s basement. Damn it. They’d been so close. Austen was doing reconnaissance, and everyone else was waiting to see what Dex would come up with. But the truth was he had nothing. He’d been bent over this table for hours, searching through all his notes and reports. His back was killing him, his head hurt, and a sharp pain went through his side every time he inhaled.

  “Dex!”

  “Hm?” Dex looked up wondering how long Lou had been standing there. “What, Lou?” He opened several map windows on his tablet, all filled with abandoned buildings. Fuck, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. New York City was littered with old buildings waiting to either be torn down, sold, or restored. Hogan, Collins, and the rest of those assholes could be anywhere.

  “I can’t believe you’re still here. Did you go home last night?”

  Dex followed Lou’s gaze to the couch. “I crashed here.”

  “Have you been home at all today?”

  Dex let out a noncommittal grunt. Couldn’t Lou see he was trying to get some work done? Had Collins and the rest of his gang been hiding out in the ballroom all this time? Had Hogan been there? Dex would be mighty pissed if he found out Hogan had been hiding out there and they’d missed him.

  “You need to go home, Dex.”

  Dex waved a hand dismissively. “I will. I just need to figure this one thing out.” Considering where they found Collins today and Austen’s intel on previous Coalition sightings, not to mention the group’s need to stay hidden and their penchant for abandoned buildings—

  Lou grabbed Dex’s arm and jerked him back, surprising the hell out of Dex.

  “Stop it.”

  “What the hell, Lou? It’s fine. Go home.” He checked his watch. Jesus, it was almost ten o’clock already?

  “You’re doing it again.”

  “Doing what?” Didn’t Lou understand how important this was? It wasn’t like the guy didn’t know Dex
. They’d had four years together. Then again, Lou had never been a fan of Dex’s career choices. The job was always at the heart of all their arguments.

  “You’re putting the damn job before everything and everyone else.”

  “Did you come down here to lecture me?” He really didn’t have time for this.

  “Dex, your boyfriend was almost killed. He’s at home, in pain, needing you, and you’re here obsessing over this case.”

  “I’m doing it for him,” Dex argued. “I’ve been working my ass off for Sloane, for my family, my friends. To keep them safe.”

  “Bullshit. You’re doing it for you!”

  “What?” Dex didn’t like where this argument was going. It sounded too much like all the other arguments they’d had about his job. The ones always resulting in Dex sleeping downstairs on the couch and then having to somehow find a way to make it all okay again the next day.

  Lou’s hazel eyes pleaded with him. “When you get obsessed over a case, you’re like a different person. You push your family away, your friends, everyone who cares about you. I know you want to see this through. You want justice. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of what you love.”

  Dex frowned, not liking the way Lou’s words cut through him. “It’s not.” He wasn’t pushing Sloane away. Was he?

  “Oh, really? So, Sloane knows you’re here? He knows what you’re doing?”

  Dex opened his mouth but quickly closed it. What could he say? There was no point in lying. Lou would see right through him. Lou’s stunned expression made him feel all the worse.

  “Wow.” Lou shook his head in disbelief at him.

  “Lou, don’t.” He watched a familiar blazing look come into Lou’s eyes. The one he used to say he inherited from his mother, along with her temper. It was usually followed by a flurry of hand gestures and finger movements.

  “No, you know what? We’re not together anymore, Dex. You don’t get to ‘don’t’ me. You’re going to hear this whether you like it or not.”

  Dex tried to pacify his ex, but there was no point. When Lou was truly fucked off about something, all you could do was weather the storm and hope you made it through without a cow dropping on your head.

  “You’re a good man and a good agent, Dex, but let’s face it. We know what this is really about, what it’s always been about.”

  Dex arched an eyebrow at him. This should be interesting. “Enlighten me.”

  “It’s about your parents.”

  “What the fuck?” Of everything he’d been expecting Lou to throw his way, ego, stubbornness, general fuckery, he’d never expected Lou to bring up his parents.

  “They’re the reason you went into law enforcement. They’re the reason you’re terrified of losing anyone close to you, of letting the bad guys win. The idea there are criminals out there who haven’t been brought to justice eats away at you, and if someone hurts someone you love, you won’t stop until they’re either behind bars or dead, no matter what it costs.”

  “And that’s a bad thing?”

  “You being dead?” Lou’s temper flared. “Of course it is, you jackass!”

  Dex had never seen Lou so worked up. “I didn’t mean the dead part. The rest of it. What good cop doesn’t want the same thing?”

  “Yes, but what are you willing to give up for it, Dex? Your family deserves to have you in their lives. Sloane? You love him. Do you want to give up the chance at a future with him before it’s properly begun? This isn’t just you risking your life while on the job. This is you obsessing and taking unnecessary risks. You can’t save the world. You can’t save your parents.”

  “You know what? I don’t have to stand here and listen to this bullshit.” Dex turned away only to have Lou get in his face again. What the hell had made him think this was a good idea. When Lou got something stuck in his craw, he was relentless.

  “You’re pissed off because you know it’s true. You play tough guy, making jokes to hide the anger you feel in your heart because they were taken from you, the men responsible never found. And this?” Lou motioned around him. “This won’t make the pain go away. It won’t bring your parents back or change what’s happened. Stop living in the past and think about your future. Your parents are gone, Dex, and it’s tragic, but you’re lucky enough to have found a new equally loving family. You have an adoptive father who would give his life for you. A little brother who looks up to you like you’re the greatest hero who ever lived, and a brooding Therian who needs you more than he’s ready to admit. Don’t take them for granted, Dex, or one day you’ll turn around and find them gone, and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

  Dex was too stunned to speak, his heart and ego feeling as bruised as his ribs. Did he really take his dad and brother for granted? He loved them more than anything. There was nothing he wouldn’t give for them. It wasn’t about his parents, it was about justice. It always had been, hadn’t it? A tear rolled down his cheek, and he stood numbly as Lou wiped it away with his thumb.

  “Go home, Dex.”

  Dex nodded, his voice quiet when he spoke. “You’re right. I should go.”

  “SLOANE?”

  Sloane was surprised to hear Lou’s voice on the other end. He’d finished washing up after his takeout dinner when his phone had gone off. Stupidly, he’d thought it was Dex. “Lou? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

  “Yes. I’m worried about Dex.”

  Carefully, he lowered himself onto the couch, his gut twisting at Lou’s words. “What happened?” Was it the reason Dex hadn’t called or texted? Had something happened? Sloane told himself not to panic.

  “I know he’s going to be pissed at me, but I can’t watch him do this to himself. Not again.”

  “Talk to me, Lou.”

  “He’s been working and sleeping from an empty office in the basement of Clove Catering. I swear when he asked me if he could use it, I didn’t know what it was for. He’s barely sleeping, barely eating, comes in at all hours. Living off sandwiches, donuts, and coffee, if that. He’s been crashing on the couch. It’s heartbreaking.”

  “Damn it. I can’t believe he dragged you into this.” So that’s where Dex had been hiding himself. He remembered Dex’s text stating he’d stayed over at Cael’s last night. It wasn’t bad enough he was lying to Sloane, now he was getting everyone else to lie for him.

  “Wait, you know?”

  Sloane let out a sigh. “Yeah.”

  “Why haven’t you told him?”

  “I’m sure he knows.”

  “But you haven’t discussed it?”

  “I’ve been wondering how long he’s going to keep on lying to me. After everything he’s said and done, he comes home, and he lies to me, Lou.” Had Lou and Dex’s relationship fallen apart because they’d not been right for each other? Or had this been the reason? Lou said he couldn’t watch Dex do this to himself again. So it wasn’t the first time. Dex was stubborn, no doubt about it, but he was also reasonable. Was this a side of his partner he hadn’t known existed? Sloane had seen how dogged Dex could be when he was working a case, and he admired his partner’s determination. But what if this was something different altogether?

  “He loves you, Sloane. I don’t know how you feel about him, but I’m guessing you really care about him. Don’t let your pride come between you.”

  “His lying is what’s coming between us,” Sloane replied angrily. Part of his anger stemmed from Dex lying, but it wasn’t what bothered him most. It was Dex putting the job before them, his family, and everything else after how fiercely he’d defended the point following the whole mess with the Therian Youth Center bombing. How the job could be replaced but not someone he loved. And then he turns around and does this?

  “So your solution is to act like everything’s okay? To meet his lie with yet another lie? Dios mío, I want to smack you both upside the head.” Lou let out a frustrated growl, stunning Sloane. Damn, he didn’t even know Lou could get that pissed. Sloane heard the rumble of Dex’s
Challenger coming up the street.

  “I have to go. He’s almost home. Thank you for calling.”

  “Sloane. You two have found something special. Don’t throw it away. I could never get through to him. Maybe you can. For both your sakes.”

  “Thanks, Lou.” Sloane hung up and put away his phone. He sat on the couch and waited. By the time Sloane heard the keys jingling outside the door, he’d worked himself up. Lou was right. Meeting Dex’s lie with another lie would get them nowhere, and it wasn’t how he wanted their relationship to go. This had to stop before it got any more out of hand.

  The door opened, and Sloane waited with his jaw clenched so tight he might break something. Dex appeared in the doorway to the living room, hair needing a cut, scruffy beard growing in, his clothes disheveled, dirty, and he was pretty sure there was some kind of fungus stuck to his jeans. He was also carrying a bouquet of roses in one hand.

  Sloane blinked dumbly. What the hell?

  “Hi.” Dex lingered in the doorway. He rubbed his free hand over his hair before shoving it into his pocket. “I’m sorry I missed dinner. And lunch. And um, breakfast.”

  Sloane’s gaze went to the flowers. “Are those for me?”

  “Yeah. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but….” Dex shrugged, looking embarrassed.

  “It’s not cheesy. It’s sweet. Come here,” Sloane said softly, holding his arms out. God, if this was any indication of how their relationship was going to progress, Sloane was screwed. He’d talk to Dex, straighten this mess out, but right now, his partner was clearly in need of some care. Dex looked like he was ready to collapse.

  His partner put the flowers on the coffee table, kicked off his sneakers, and climbed up on the couch to curl himself up against him, his arms wrapping around Sloane’s waist. Sloane returned the gesture, wrapping his arms around Dex and holding him.

  Dex sucked in a sharp breath and winced. “Shit.”

  “Dex?” Sloane pulled his arms back and looked down at him. “Are you okay?”

  “It’s nothing.”

  “We’ll see.” Sloane reached for the hem of Dex’s T-shirt.

  “Babe—”

  Anger flared through Sloane. “Oh, fuck no.”

  “What?” Dex sat back, his eyes wide.

  “This is the first time you’ve called me that, and you use it to get yourself out of trouble?” To his credit, Dex looked offended.

  “I didn’t say it to get out of trouble. It just came out.” He shrugged, his cheeks going pink. “It felt right.”

  “Fine. Just show me.” Sloane told himself he was an idiot for wanting to smile at the endearment. No one had ever called him anything resembling a pet name. It sounded sweet coming from Dex. Natural. Hell, if he weren’t so pissed off with Dex right now, he would be smiling. When he carefully lifted the hem of Dex’s shirt to reveal blotches of nasty looking purplish-pink bruises, he cursed under his breath. “Jesus, Dex.”

  Sloane’s fierce urge to protect Dex was battling it out with his growing desire to strangle him. With deliberate care, he brushed his fingers down Dex’s ribs, watching his partner wince. The appropriate swear words eluded him, and as much as he wanted to growl and yell, he ended up talking quietly. “You promised me.”

  “I know,” Dex said, looking like he was about to shatter. What the hell had his partner been putting himself through? Sloane didn’t have the heart to be angry at him. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he’d be angry. Properly fucked-off angry.

  “What happened?”

  “Can we not talk about it?”

  “Dex—”

  Dex gave him a small smile. “It looks worse than it is.”

  “Have you taken ibuprofen?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Come on.” He grabbed his crutch and allowed Dex to help him to his feet. They walked around the couch, and Sloane motioned to the kitchen. “Grab the icepack from the freezer.” He waited for Dex to grab the icepack before his partner helped him up the stairs. As soon as they were in the bedroom, Sloane nodded toward the bathroom. “Hot shower. Make it quick.”

  Dex didn’t argue, and while his partner showered, Sloane turned down the bed. He switched on the lamp and turned off the bedroom light, leaving only the warm glow of the lamp. Placing his crutch by the nightstand, he sat on the edge of the bed and waited, wondering how best to approach this situation. They couldn’t continue the way they were, and it had gone on far longer than it should have. Each day with Dex was an adventure, and Sloane loved it, but sometimes he wished the two of them could have a little normalcy like any other couple. Was it too much to ask to have some peace and quiet, without the world going to hell, bombs exploding, bullets flying, or his partner running around looking to punish all the wrongdoers?

  Sloane wasn’t about to simply dismiss Dex’s fixation with this case. There was obviously something under the surface, something driving his partner other than a need for justice. Dex was smart. Too smart to be risking everything he’d worked so damn hard for when there were other agents capable of handling the case.

 
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