Rise amp fall, p.6
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       Rise & Fall, p.6
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  The wheels in Dex’s head spun at Mach speed. If he told Seb he’d come up here suspecting someone was staking out Sloane’s apartment or anything having to do with the Coalition, Seb would think Dex was going behind his back. Which he technically sort of was. Then Seb would start keeping tabs on him, and Dex didn’t need the grief. He went through the recent events in his head. Had there been any witnesses during the first shooting? He hadn’t seen any. Not until the jogger came along and everything went to hell. It was a long shot.

  “I’d just put Sloane’s suitcase in my trunk when I realized I’d forgotten to pick up his mail.” Which he now realized he had. Stick to the truth as much as possible. “I was on my way up when I heard a woman screaming. When I ran out here, a cougar Therian was attacking her. I managed to get a shot off. Hit him in the shoulder. He leaped over the handrail and made it to the street. Lost him after that.”

  Seb nodded, his expression giving nothing away of his thoughts. “You mind giving your statement?”

  “No, of course not.” Dex waited as Seb removed his tablet. He repeated everything he’d told Seb, answered questions, keeping his statement as concise as possible. It only took a few minutes, with Seb giving him a smile at the end and telling him it was a good thing he was in the area. As a THIRDS agent, Seb would clearly question every word out of Dex’s mouth. The guy was probably wondering if the attack had truly been random or just a coincidence. Whatever Seb’s thoughts on the matter, he wasn’t sharing them with Dex, and it was probably better that way. They exchanged some pleasantries before Seb told Dex to have a good night and walked off.

  Dex headed back toward Sloane’s apartment, picked up his mail, and made for his car, his mind going over the encounter. The bastard had called him by his name. There was no doubt in his mind he was one of Hogan’s crew. So was the cougar Therian. He’d attacked the jogger so his friend could escape. These assholes had to be stopped. Once he was sitting behind the wheel, he pulled out his smartphone. There was no way in hell he was letting this go. He flipped through his screen until he found the contact he needed.

  A tap and two rings later, he heard a familiar voice answer. “Yes?”

  Dex had made his decision.

  “We need to meet.”

  Chapter 4

  RECOVERY WAS going to be a bitch.

  Sloane looked forward to spending time with Dex, but he had some niggling doubts. He’d never had anyone take care of him. Not since he and Ash were kids back at the research facility. What if they drove each other crazy—more than they already did? Sloane was cranky at the best of times without throwing his current condition into the mix. Not being able to do things for himself would frustrate him after a while. He was certain of it. Part of him worried if they spent too much time together it would expose cracks in their relationship they might not otherwise have noticed.

  Why the hell was he even worrying about this? It wasn’t like they were moving in together. Jesus, he’d almost died, and he was worrying about spending a few weeks at his partner’s house? Besides, he spent more time at Dex’s than he did at his own apartment anyway. It was thoughtful of Dex to ask. His house was bigger and more maneuverable than Sloane’s apartment. Dex also had a sofa bed in the living room. It would save Sloane from having to sleep on his own couch, which didn’t have that option. He’d already read through the home-recovery pack the doctor had given him, and it strictly advised against any active work that might impede his healing. At least for the first couple of weeks. He was limited to how many stairs he could climb, how long he could walk, what housework he could do. Definitely no driving. He let out a heavy sigh. Maybe this would be good for them.

  An image of Dex and his dopey smile came to his mind, and Sloane found himself following suit. His gut clenched when he thought about how close he’d come to losing Dex. He’d tried hard not to think about it. He meant what he’d said about being grateful he’d been the one to go out there. It was bad enough they faced danger on the job, but for some asshole to come at them so close to home? Now Dex was going to be out there without him. Maybe he should contact Maddock. Make sure he assigned Dex a partner they could trust to watch Dex’s back. He didn’t like the idea of leaving his partner’s safety in anyone else’s hands. As soon as he was back to his old self, Sloane was going to put his partner through the training of his life. Idiot. He couldn’t believe Dex had run out there into the middle of God knew what without assessing the situation.

  “Are you decent?” Ash’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts.

  Sloane smiled broadly at his friend. “Hey.” He’d been wondering when Ash would be coming around. It wasn’t because his best friend didn’t care. No one understood better than Sloane how difficult this was. The guilt was written all over Ash’s face.

  “You look like shit,” Ash grumbled, causing Sloane to chuckle.

  “It’s good to see you too, bud.”

  Ash came to linger beside his bed, his hands shoved into his jacket pockets and his gaze everywhere but on Sloane. “I wanted to come sooner, but….” He swallowed hard, and Sloane reached out to take hold of his wrist, getting his attention. Why did Ash insist on beating himself up for situations out of his control? His shoulders slumped, and he let out a resigned sigh. “I’m sorry, Sloane.”

  “Don’t. That asshole could have targeted anyone of us. Come on.” Sloane motioned toward the chair beside the bed. “Talk to me.” After some hesitation, Ash took a seat.

  “But he didn’t target anyone. He targeted me. Son of a bitch tried to kill me twice,” Ash growled.

  “Because you were doing your job. You risked a hell of a lot to infiltrate the Coalition. Their organization crumbled because of you.”

  Ash didn’t look convinced. “Except for Hogan and his band of merry morons, which are still out there.”

  “Which reminds me. I need you to do something for me.” Sloane had been giving it a lot of thought since Dex had left for Sloane’s apartment to pick up his things. In the year they’d been partners, Sloane had learned a lot about Dex. It hadn’t been difficult. Dex wore his heart on his sleeve. Most of the time, he was easy to get a read on. Dex didn’t play mind games, and Sloane appreciated that. He also knew his partner was headstrong, and when he set his mind to something, nothing was going to deter him. Most of all, Dex was fiercely loyal. Sloane had no doubt what was on his partner’s mind.

  “Anything.”

  Sloane braced himself as he answered, “Stay close to Dex.”

  “Anything but that.”

  Sloane couldn’t help his smile. He knew Ash would do it anyway. It reminded him of what he’d done for Dex. “Thank you.”

  “For what?”

  “For keeping him safe for me.” Sloane sat back, his gaze out the huge window across from him overlooking the Manhattan skyline. “When he told me what happened, I was so pissed off at him. All I could think about was what if I’d woken up to find he’d been shot and killed while trying to get to me?” The thought still twisted his insides, and he had to pause and take a deep breath.

  Ash gave his arm a pat, and Sloane turned his head to see the concerned look on his friend’s face. “You okay?”

  Damn it. Maybe it was time for a nap. “Yeah. I think the meds are messing with me,” Sloane muttered. Why was he having so much trouble with this? It had to be the meds making him hypersensitive. These drugs always had some kind of side effect, and being a Therian didn’t make him immune to them, especially when they were so-called Therian-strength. God only knew what that meant.

  “The meds, huh?”

  Was that amusement he heard in Ash’s voice? Sloane scowled at him. “What?”

  Ash sat back with a scoff. “Come on, man. You’re crazy about him.”

  The words caused an unexpected flutter in Sloane’s pulse. His face felt hot. Was it getting hot in here? “I’ll admit I care about him a lot. But I don’t think that’s what you’re insinuating.” He’d always been reserved with his emotions. He wasn’t
an excitable guy, and yes, he cared about others, and in Dex’s case, cared deeply. But he wasn’t drawing little hearts around his and Dex’s initials or using photos of them together as his phone’s wallpaper.

  “Poor choice of words,” Ash admitted. “Do you love him?”

  “Fuck off.”

  “I’m serious. Do you love him?”

  “Ash, a few weeks ago he confessed he loved me and I freaked. I hurt him. Again. Do you really think that would have happened if I loved him? Besides, it’s too soon.” He wasn’t like Dex, who could throw himself wholeheartedly into a relationship. Who knew exactly what he wanted and why. Dex wasn’t afraid to risk his heart if it meant the possibility of a future with someone he loved. Sloane had trouble looking to the future when he was only starting to let go of the past.

  “Look, people talk a lot of shit. Who you’re supposed to love, when, how. Fuck ’em.”

  The conviction in Ash’s words surprised Sloane. He sat quietly watching his friend. There was a fire in his amber eyes Sloane hadn’t seen in a long time. Passionate wasn’t a word he would have ever associated with Ash. Brash, bold, and tough as nails. But passionate?

  “Sometimes you find that one person, and you just know. And even if you don’t love them right away, you know you will. It’s just a matter of time. Because no one you’ve ever known has come close to making you feel the way they do. It keeps you up at night and drives you fucking crazy, but you pray to God the feeling never goes away no matter how much it’s killing you.”

  Sloane stared at him. “Wow.”

  “Shut up,” Ash mumbled, looking embarrassed. Like he hadn’t realized what he’d said until then.

  “I’ve never heard you talk like this.” He thought he knew everything there was to know about his best friend. Apparently he was wrong.

  Ash shrugged. “Yeah, well, almost dying makes you think.”

  “About Cael?” Sloane asked quietly.

  Ash let out a weary sigh, his gaze falling to his hands. “Like I don’t think about him every other day.”

  “What are you going to do about him?”

  “I don’t know. I really thought he’d give me some time, but he’s going out for drinks with Seb this Friday.”

  “And?”

  “Seb’s a good guy. He’s got his own shit to deal with, but at least he’s not one of the fucked-up Pre-First Gens. No psych evals. Never saw the inside of the research facility. The Hobbs brothers never had to worry about that kind of shit, what with Daddy Hobbs being a tiger Therian himself. He did what a father’s supposed to do. He kept his boys safe. Cael would be a lot happier with Seb. Less baggage. Not to mention Seb’s out and proud. I’m not exactly skipping down the yellow brick road.”

  Sloane arched an eyebrow at him. “Okay, now that you’ve gotten that bullshit out of your system, how about the truth?”

  “Sloane….”

  “Nope. Look me in the eye and tell me you really think Cael would be better off with someone else.”

  Ash opened his mouth but Sloane’s scowl seemed to make him think better of it. He scratched the stubble on his jaw. “Truth?”

  “Yes.” He might be discovering new sides to his friend, but he was all too familiar with the old parts, and he knew when Ash was bullshitting him.

  “No. I don’t think Cael would be better off with someone else, because no one could possibly love him as much as I do. I’ve never met anyone like him. When I see him, I don’t know what to do with myself.” Ash got to his feet and started to pace. Something else Sloane wasn’t accustomed to seeing his friend do.

  “He’s fucking gorgeous. I can’t believe I’m saying that about another dude, but fuck me, he’s beautiful. His eyes are amazing. These really pale silvery pools—pools, Sloane! I’m calling his eyes fucking pools. Just seeing him makes me smile. He’s funny, sweet, damn sexy, and I don’t know why the hell he fell in love with me. No clue. I do know when I see him with Seb, I want to seriously punch Seb in the face, and if he wasn’t such a fucking nice guy and Hobbs’s brother, I would have already done it. God, I want to kick his ass! And I don’t give a fuck he’s a tiger Therian. I can totally take him down. It’s driving me fucking crazy.” Ash let out a frustrated growl. He turned to face Sloane. “I know I hurt Cael, but….” He returned to the chair and dropped down into it. “Fuck me sideways. I don’t know what to do with all this emotional shit. It’s fucking exhausting.” He let his head fall back. “Fuck this shit.”

  “Jesus, Ash. Why don’t you talk to Cael?” Damn. Usually he could gauge how upset his friend was over something by the number of times he dropped the “F” bomb.

  “And tell him what? I already told him I needed time, and he turns around and accepts an invitation from Seb?” Ash folded his arms over his chest. He looked miserable. Not that Ash ever looked happy, but he was even more miserable than usual.

  “You told him you couldn’t be with him. What did you expect?”

  “I expected him to… I don’t know. I don’t know what the hell I expected. He said he loved me. Why can’t he give me more time? I don’t want to mess things up with him. All I wanted was some time to figure out what to do about… you know, what happened.”

  “You have to forgive yourself, Ash. What happened with Arlo was fucked up, but it wasn’t your fault.”

  Ash’s jaw muscles clenched. “I could have protected him.”

  “Or you could have been killed along with him. You were a kid, Ash. As tough as you were, you were just a kid.”

  “Arlo had been just a kid. It didn’t stop those motherfuckers from bashing his skull in with a fucking crowbar.” Ash blinked away fresh tears and sat up. “Even if I’d ended up like Arlo, at least I would have gone down fighting. Instead—”

  “Instead you lived to fight another day. You changed my life and became one of the fiercest agents at the THIRDS.” Sloane felt his anger rise at Ash’s quick dismissal of himself. “I’m not saying forget Arlo. I’m saying figure out what you need to do to forgive yourself, accept there are those in your life now who need you and love you. Talk to Cael. Tell him why. Tell him about the nightmares. Tell him about your regrets, your anger, your heartache. If I had been upfront with Dex about the facility and my past, we could have been spared a lot of drama and heartache.”

  Ash frowned and gave a noncommittal shrug. The conversation was over.

  “Back to your nerd boyfriend. What do you need me to do?”

  “If I know Dex, he’s not going to rest until he gets his hands on Hogan. I’m worried he’ll do something reckless.”

  Ash’s eyebrows shot up. “You think he’d go against Sparks’s orders?”

  “Hold up.” Sloane held on to his side as he sat up. “Orders? What orders? What the hell are you talking about?

  “Shit. He didn’t tell you?”

  “Clearly he didn’t.” Sloane didn’t like the sound of this, and his best friend’s hesitation didn’t bode well. “Ash, what’s going on?”

  “We’re off the case. Sparks put us on leave. Seb is lead agent on this now.”

  Sloane was silent for a moment. He didn’t know what he found harder to believe, Sparks pulling his team off the case or Dex conveniently forgetting to mention it. He wanted to think it might have slipped Dex’s mind, but his partner wasn’t nearly as absentminded as he pretended to be. Which meant one thing. “Shit. Dex is going to go after Hogan on his own.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Why else wouldn’t he tell me? I can’t believe he lied to me.” How could Dex look him in the eye, tell him he loved him, and lie to him, especially about something this dangerous?

  “Technically he didn’t lie. More like, withheld information.”

  Sloane gaped at Ash. “Seriously? Not helping.”

  “Sorry.”

  “You have to stick by him. He’ll get himself killed.”

  “What? You don’t think your boy’s got the skills?”

  “Biology, Ash. Hogan is as big as Hobbs exc
ept he’s a killer. He’s meaner, angrier, and doesn’t care who he has to take down to get what he wants. He tried to kill us and almost succeeded. Had it been Dex, Calvin, Rosa, or Letty, they’d be dead now. Hogan won’t stop until he’s gotten revenge on the remaining members of the Westward Creed, and if Dex gets in his way….”

  “Yeah, all right,” Ash groused. “I get it. I’ll keep an eye on him. So does this mean you’re not going to tell him you know?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Is that really how you want things to go?”

  Unbelievable. “Are you giving me relationship advice?” He needed to think about his next move, but he was too exhausted right now.

  Ash appeared to be mulling over Sloane’s words when he shook his head. “Man, we are both so fucked.”

  “Yep.” Despite the situation, Sloane couldn’t help teasing. “You’re in love with Dex’s brother. Do you know what that means?”

  “First of all, adopted brother. They don’t share the same genes. Second of all, what the hell are you talking about?”

  “Those two are attached at the hip. They hang out all the time, borrow each other’s stuff, share a lot of the same quirks, get excited over the same things, are both sugar addicts, and total geeks. You’ll have Dex in your hair. All. The. Time.”

  Ash’s horrified expression had Sloane laughing.

  “You are such a dick, you know that? I hadn’t even thought of it.”

  Sloane couldn’t stop himself from laughing. “Still interested in being part of the family?”

  “Not even Daley can ruin what I feel for Cael.”

  “Wow. Then it must be love,” Sloane teased.

  Ash jumped to his feet and started fiddling with all the equipment around Sloane’s bed. “Where’s the morphine? I need to shut you up.” Despite the low growl, Sloane knew his friend was teasing. Sloane batted his hand away with a laugh.

  “Stop. You’re going to break something, and then Maddock’s gonna lose it. You know how pissed he gets when we break shit.”

  “When your partner breaks shit,” Ash corrected. “Or drops gummy bears in the grenade launcher.”

  Sloane let out a snicker at the memory of Dex’s stunned, wide-eyed expression after the jelly treat had fallen in. Like a kid who realized only too late he’d put too many Mr. Bubbles in the tub. With no time left to do anything about it, he’d had no choice but to fire the weapon. Sloane found himself laughing harder.

  “What’s so funny?” Ash asked, his lip twitching. Sloane knew he was trying so hard not to laugh.

  “When he fired the grenade launcher and the gummy bear flew out and hit the perp in the face?” Sloane was in tears, and even Ash couldn’t keep himself from laughing any longer.

  “Your boyfriend is such a fucking dweebus.”

  After Sloane managed to get a hold of himself, he gave Ash a wicked grin. “Admit it, you kind of like him.”

  “I’m not going to dignify that outrageous remark with a response.”

  “Okay, then.” Sloane motioned toward the insulated lunch bag on the small table. “Empanadas.”

  “Rosa’s?”

  Sloane nodded.

  Ash considered this. “Guava?”

  “Yep. There’s some beef and chicken too.”

  With a sigh, Ash got up and unzipped the bag. “You twisted my arm.”

  As Ash set up a makeshift picnic on the table for the both of them, complete with cups of OJ from the pitcher Sloane had asked the nurse for, Sloane couldn’t think of a time when he’d felt this at ease, which was odd considering the past few days. After all the shit they’d been through, not only did he have his best friend back, things between Sloane and Dex couldn’t be better. Finally they were starting to settle down. At least until he thought about his partner going rogue. What the hell was Dex thinking?

  “Hey.” Ash reached out and put his hand on Sloane’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to him.” He handed Sloane a napkin with an empanada.

  “Thanks.” He hoped Ash knew how grateful he was.

  “Are you sure you’re okay? You look a little….” Ash motioned to his eyes. “Misty.”

  “Fuck off,” Sloane laughed. “It’s the meds.” He was sure of it. It had absolutely nothing to do with the possibility of having a family after a lifetime of being alone. Or having someone who loved him and would stick by him despite all his fucked-up baggage. Dex loved him. Which was why Sloane had to figure this mess out. He had to protect Dex, even if it meant protecting him from himself.

  DEX STOOD under the terrace near Bethesda fountain in Central Park and waited. At exactly quarter to eight—as he’d been instructed—a figure emerged from the shadows with a swagger and a cocky grin. Here we go.

  “Thanks for agreeing to meet with me,” Dex said, holding his hand out to Austen who gave it a casual shake. No one would ever mistake the cheetah Therian for a THIRDS agent. Not with his bad-boy looks, from his cuffed 501 jeans to his pompadour haircut. Austen was slim and sinewy, about Cael’s height, which made
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