Rise & Fall Excerpt
“YOU’RE GOING to get us fucking killed!”
Dex ignored Ash and hit the gas, speeding after the ambulance heading up route 9A toward NY Presbyterian Hospital, its wailing siren and flashing lights an unyielding reminder of what he stood to lose. The ambulance had left before them, but Dex was in his Challenger with its own THIRDS-installed lights flickering and sending out a warning to everyone around him to get the hell out of his way.
When Ash had finally released Dex from his iron grip, Dex had stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, amidst the smoke and burning car parts unable to believe what had happened. He’d been at a loss, watching the chaos unfold as emergency teams and THIRDS agents flooded the scene. Orders had been shouted, the area evacuated, blue-and-black THIRDS tape marking off his personal disaster zone. And then a bright orange beacon parked near the end of the block gave him clarity.
Dex maneuvered through four lanes of traffic, changing gears and working the pedals. No one knew how to drive his baby like he did, and nothing on God’s green earth was going to make him lose that ambulance. Not with Sloane in the back of it fighting for his life.
No matter how hard Dex tried, his head kept replaying the scene like a goddamn looped video: Dex bolting for the front door, not caring what might be on the other side—getting to Sloane had been all that mattered. He has to be okay. Please God, let him be okay. Clouds of thick black smoke. The sidewalk in front of his house looking like a war zone, littered with debris and pieces of twisted car parts. The trees on fire. Dex tackled to the ground, the breath stolen from his lungs. Ash on him keeping him safe. Bullets flying. Sloane under a piece of mangled door. Screeching sirens and uniformed bodies rushing in. Blood everywhere. Sloane unmoving. A jagged piece of metal sticking out of his side. Blood, so much blood.
It should have been me.
“Fuck! Mother fucking asshole son of a bitch!” Dex slammed his hand against the steering wheel before swerving around some bastard going the speed limit. He was losing his shit. It was fast approaching much like the yellow—soon to be red—light ahead of him, yet he was helpless to stop it. The Challenger flew past the red, missing an oncoming taxi by inches.
“Enough!” Ash snapped at him. “You’re gonna get us fucking killed! Keep your shit together and get us to the fucking hospital in one goddamn piece, or I swear to Christ I will fucking knock your ass out and drive us there myself.”
Dex wanted to tell Ash where he could stick his threats, but he didn’t. He heard Ash suck in a sharp breath, and Dex eased his foot off the accelerator just enough to keep the ambulance’s flashing lights in sight a few cars ahead. Ash held on to the passenger door with one hand, his other pressed against his side to ease the pain along with the slow trickle of blood seeping through his torn stitches. Stitches he’d torn saving Dex.
“Sorry,” Dex said through his teeth. They were almost at the hospital, which meant more traffic. “Sorry for being an asshole and for what I’m about to do. Hold on.” He hit the gas pedal again, and the engine thundered as he raced forward. After a couple of close calls, they got to the hospital before the ambulance. He skidded into valet parking, put the Challenger in park, jumped out, and tossed the keys to the valet guy. Ignoring his teammate’s bitching, Dex called out over his shoulder for Ash to take care of it. The ambulance arrived seconds later, and Dex ran up to it, watching with his heart in his throat as the backdoors swung open and the EMTs rushed out. The gurney swiftly emerged with Sloane strapped down on his uninjured side, an oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth, and the jagged metal piece jutting out from the right side of his torso. Removing it without surgery was clearly out of the question.
Dex followed the EMTs as they rushed Sloane through the huge open glass doorway into the hospital, shouting out codes and medical jargon Dex couldn’t make out. One of the EMTs said something about the THIRDS, and a Therian nurse behind the desk snatched up a phone and rambled something off. Within seconds, a handful of Therian doctors and nurses came running, joining the EMTs as they stole Sloane away into a wide, brightly lit corridor. Dex attempted to follow only to have his path blocked by two male Therian nurses.
“He’s my partner,” Dex pleaded, trying to get around them.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t go in there.”
“The hell I can’t. He’s my partner!” Dex grabbed one of the nurses when a pair of beefy arms wrapped around Dex’s waist, lifting him off his feet and away. “Fuck off, Ash! Get off!” He couldn’t leave Sloane in there all alone. Sloane hated hospitals as it was. What if he woke up and freaked out? What if he didn’t know where he was? What if something happened and Dex wasn’t there? He couldn’t lose Sloane now. It wasn’t Sloane’s time. They hadn’t had enough time!
“You’re not the only one who needs him.”
Dex stilled. It wasn’t so much Ash’s words, but the subtle desperation behind them. Ash put him down, and Dex turned, the look on Ash’s dirt-smudged face taking the fight out of Dex. He’d never seen the gruff agent looking so helpless, and despite clearly having his own fears, Ash met his gaze.
“He’s all the family I’ve got. Just let them do their job. It’s the best we can do for him.”
Dex swallowed hard and nodded. He had to get a hold of himself. It was only when Ash winced that Dex remembered the guy was slowly bleeding out. “Shit, Ash. Come on. We need to get you fixed up.”
“I’m fine,” Ash muttered, wiping the sweat from his beaded brow.
“Yeah, you look fine.” Dex refused to give in to his teammate’s stubbornness. He called over a nurse who took one look at Ash and ran off to get assistance. Ash continued to argue when Dex spotted his dad marching their way. Tony stopped beside them, his gaze dropping to Ash’s hand against his bleeding side before he barked out an order.
“Keeler, get your ass in there and get those stitches seen to.”
Ash looked like he wanted to argue but knew better. With a resigned sigh, he headed for the anxious looking nurses. As soon as Ash disappeared, Tony put a hand to Dex’s shoulder, concern in his deep brown eyes. It was too much for Dex right now.
“Hey. I’m going to take a walk. Call me if anything happens.”
Thankfully, his dad knew him well and gave him a nod. He removed his hand from Dex’s shoulder and let him go. Right now, Tony had to be his sergeant. Anything else would break Dex’s tremulous hold on his emotions. He walked off to gather his strength. He was going to need it.
IT’S NOT fair.
How many others had thought the same as they paced these halls? It wasn’t fair. But then life rarely was. Dex had learned as much from a young age. Some naïve part of him had believed he’d never find himself in this position again. First his parents, now…. He quickly shook the morbid thought away. God, he was such an idiot. His job was as high risk as it was before he ended up falling for his Team Leader.
For the first time in his life, he was a hot mess over a guy. Then again, Sloane Brodie wasn’t just any guy. He was rolling thunder and a sweet summer breeze. Passionate, complex, and intense. Mysterious and brooding. He made Dex laugh, beg, and want to scream. With one look he could crush Dex’s heart, with one whisper have him on his knees. It was terrifying and exhilarating. Dex thought he’d been in love before, when he was in high school, then college. Now he knew the difference. Their relationship was hard work, had been from the day they’d met, but every moment with Sloane was worth it. Dex had never met anyone so resolute in tearing through the obstacles the world threw his way than Sloane Brodie. There were moments of hesitation where he faltered in his steps, but he reached deep inside and found the courage to keep going. And no matter how damaged or dirty he ended up, he came out the other side more determined than ever.
Outside it was a warm September day. The temperature was in the midseventies, and the sky was sunny. The street buzzed with its usual activity while the city continued to pulsate with life. Tony, Cael, and the rest of the team sat in the waiting area, had been for hours while Sloane was in surgery. Dex couldn’t get himself to sit still long enough to wait with them, not with the way his blood pressure skyrocketed every time someone in a white lab coat or teal blue scrubs walked out. Plus the TV kept running news reports of the explosion, posting images and video footage of Sloane out in the field. The imposing and larger-than-life images of his lover, the depths of those amber eyes, mesmerized Dex. No one knew what was behind them like Dex did.
THIRDS Team Leader in critical condition after car bomb explosion…. THIRDS agent Sloane Brodie rushed to hospital after Coalition attack on THIRDS teammate goes awry…. THIRDS issues Threat Level Red alert after one agent is shot and a Team Leader is critically injured by Coalition leader Beck Hogan.
The headlines went on and on and on, dredging up anything connected to Sloane. They posted images of Gabe, ran old news footage of his death, of the funeral, before they moved on to Sloane’s new partner. Once again Dex found his image plastered all over the news, footage of him leaving the courthouse after sending his HPF partner away. It didn’t end there. The whole team was dragged into it, most of the footage from before Dex had been recruited.
There was Ash tackling some Therian perp to the ground during a case and restraining him, looking fierce and menacing. Rosa rushing to give medical aid to a wounded citizen. Letty shooting the lock off a warehouse door before the team rushed in. Calvin running toward his partner after setting an explosive device that Hobbs then set off. When Cael’s face came on the screen, Dex couldn’t take it anymore. He’d wanted to punch something so bad, he’d been forced to leave the waiting area.
For hours he walked up and down the halls, around the hospital grounds, and drank enough coffee from the Garden Café, the staff was on a first-name basis with him. He tried to keep himself busy so he wouldn’t drive himself out of his mind with worst-case scenarios. He’d wandered around the Greenberg Pavilion and its wings. Then the Baker, Payson, and Whitney Pavilions before making his way back to Greenberg.
These days, hospitals were trying to look less clinical with art on the walls, bright colors, comfy couches, restaurants, and hotel suites. That was fine with him, but it wouldn’t ease his nerves or alter the sick feeling in his stomach. It wouldn’t stop him from seeing Sloane unconscious under the battered car door, or the jagged piece of metal sticking out of him. The images had his stomach reeling, and the reality of what had happened, what could still happen, had Dex running to the nearest trashcan. Once he was done losing what little was in his stomach, he wiped his mouth, grateful for the café attendant who ran over to offer him help and some antibacterial wipes. He cleaned himself off and allowed them to lead him to a chair where he sat down and thanked them. The young man brought him a bottle of water and made sure he was okay before going back to his duties. Dex had no idea how long he’d sat there trying to hold on to his composure.
Dex’s family and teammates took turns scouring the hospital for him to make sure he was okay. It was usually a quick assessment. No one was ready to utter a word. As if any kind of conversation might influence the outcome. Dex had been staring out the glass doors of the hospital entrance when Cael rushed over. Dex braced himself.
“Dex, the nurse said the doctor’s going to come out and speak with us.”
“Did they say anything about Sloane?” He hurried after his brother to the waiting area.
Cael shook his head. “Nothing.”
When Dex joined the rest of his team inside the tastefully decorated lounge of soothing gray hues, they acknowledged him before returning to their previous fretting. They looked lost. Like they were waiting for Sloane to come out and tell them everything was okay. Dex knew the feeling. The team spent so much time together on the job—and off it—it was hard not falling into their roles no matter the situation, and Sloane’s role was of leader. They’d follow him to hell and back. Dex understood how this might be doubly hard for the team what with having lost Gabe. He could imagine what was running through their minds. It was probably somewhere along the same line as his thoughts. Would they be attending another funeral? Dex buried that thought down deep. He couldn’t go there. While he waited for the doctor to come out, Dex stood to one side and observed his teammates.
Letty and Rosa were huddled together speaking quietly, their arms linked, while Calvin gave Hobbs a reassuring pat on the shoulder, both glassy-eyed and tense. Dex hadn’t seen Hobbs whisper to Calvin once since the two had arrived at the hospital, and Dex feared Hobbs was retreating into himself again like he had after Gabe’s death. Ash was sitting in one of the two-seaters, red-eyed and groggy. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Dex felt for the guy.
The nurses had taken care of Ash’s stitches hours ago, and despite whatever they’d given him making him drowsy, Ash refused to close his eyes, even for a moment. Dex had a whole new level of respect for him. The longer he knew the guy, the more layers he discovered. Ash might be a certified prick, but Dex was growing to appreciate the rough agent’s underlying qualities. Dex understood Sloane’s loyalty now.
Ash bitched and groaned about almost everything. He was tactless and unapproachable, but if you needed someone to go to war for you, Ash Keeler would bring down his wrath like some vengeful Greek god and make it rain blood and pain on whoever made the stupid mistake of crossing him. Despite all that, somewhere deep inside, Ash Keeler still had a heart, because Dex saw evidence of it breaking every time Ash’s gaze landed on Cael. Why the guy was so damned determined to be without someone he would die for was beyond Dex.
A Therian doctor who Dex recognized as one of several who’d come out when the EMTs had arrived with Sloane, came barging through the door and into the waiting area, straight to Tony. Dex had learned months ago from his own stay at the hospital after some of Pearce’s hired goons ambushed him that the THIRDS had their own appointed medical staff here at the hospital, so he wasn’t too surprised to find the doctor royally pissed off. Dealing with the government had that effect on people. Whatever the hell had happened, the doctor was furious. When he spoke, his tone was harsh and clipped.
“Sergeant Maddock, a word please.”
Clearly dealing with the THIRDS didn’t mandate the same patience required for civilians. The doctor pulled Tony off to one side, and although their voices were quiet, it was clear by the doctor’s dilated pupils and his hand movements something wasn’t right.
“Screw this.” Dex marched over and butted in. “What the hell’s going on?”
The doctor eyed him with a frown. “Who are you?”
“I’m Agent Daley, Agent Brodie’s partner. If something is going on with him, I have the right to know about it.”
“Well, Agent Daley, I hope you care about your partner more than your organization does.”
The words hit Dex like a punch to the gut, and he did his best not to panic. “What happened?”
“The THIRDS withheld vital information regarding agent Brodie’s medical history, and it nearly cost him his life.”
“What?” A series of emotions swept through Dex, everything from shock, to anger, to confusion. The doctor must have picked up on it because he expanded his reply.
“Your partner suffers from malignant hyperthermia, a potentially fatal muscular disorder triggered by general anesthetics. As the anesthesiologist was given no information regarding Agent Brodie’s susceptibility to this crisis, he was administered anesthetics along with a paralyzing agent, causing him to suffer an episode. We immediately began emergency procedures, stabilizing his vitals before he could go into cardiac arrest. These complications could have been prevented had the THIRDS been forthcoming.”
“Is it possible they didn’t know?” Dex asked, hoping their organization hadn’t purposefully withheld such important information. Something told him he already knew the answer.
“It’s possible Agent Brodie was unaware of his susceptibility, but malignant hyperthermia is inherited, and the THIRDS refused to release background and medical information on Agent Brodie’s family, merely stating there were no concerns.”
“Those sons of bitches.” Dex’s jaw muscles clenched along with his fists. There was no doubt in his mind Sloane’s condition stemmed from his time at the research facility. It would explain why those bastards up in Washington were more concerned with keeping their secret safe than saving one of their agents. It had nothing to do with Sloane’s parents. The Therian Defense Department withheld information from Sloane’s First Gen records in order to prevent the risk of exposure to the First Gen Recruitment Program. After all, what was one agent in the grand scheme of things? Tony placed a hand to Dex’s shoulder in an attempt to calm him.
“Take it easy, son. Now’s not the time.”
His dad was right. He’d lose his shit over this later. Dex returned his attention to the doctor whose anger appeared to have subsided. “So what now?”
“He’s out of surgery and will remain in ICU under close observation for the next thirty-six hours. Until Agent Brodie regains consciousness, we won’t know what—if any—damage may have been caused by the episode. Once I have additional information, I’ll determine the next course of action. Hopefully it will simply mean moving him to a general private room before he’s well enough to discharge.”
“Can I see him?” Dex asked. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe the doctor, but Jesus, they’d almost lost him. Not that Sloane still wasn’t in danger. “Stable” was a word doctors and law-enforcement officers used for the media. It meant a patient’s vitals were unchanged. All Dex could do was pray Sloane pulled through this without further complications.
“While he’s in ICU, outside visits are restricted to spouses or partners only. We need to minimize the amount of outside contact to prevent any infection.”
“But, he’s my partner. I swear I’ll stay in the room.” The last few hours had been excruciating. How the hell was he supposed to get himself through another thirty-six hours without at least having seen Sloane?
The doctor shook his head. “I’m afraid even the THIRDS need to respect the rules. I’m sorry, Agent Daley.”
Tony’s hand came to rest against Dex’s lower back, the Tony Maddock signal for don’t kick up a fuss. But if there was ever a time for Dex to stick to his guns, this was it. He had to see Sloane. “Can I speak to you privately, Doctor?”
The doctor walked to one side, and Dex accompanied him, his voice low when he spoke. “When I said I was his partner, I didn’t just mean work partner.”
“Oh.” With a puzzled frown, the doctor removed a tablet from his pocket and scrolled through his information. “I have him listed as ‘single’ with his emergency contact a Mr. Ash Keeler.”
It was risky, but Dex had to chance it. “Yeah, um, it’s kind of against the rules. Now I don’t want to get transferred from my team. I love my team. But I love him even more. Please. You have to let me stay with him.” Dex met the Therian doctor’s gaze. The tattoo on his neck marked him as a wolf Therian, and despite his flustered state, Dex got a good vibe off the doc. He couldn’t be much older than Sloane, and he had a kind face with sharp golden eyes.
“If he wakes up or something happens and I’m not there with him….” Dex couldn’t bring himself to finish his sentence. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You know what brought him here. You said it yourself, you almost lost him. In our line of work, every moment we have is precious. Please, don’t deny me this time with him.”
The doctor looked like he was going to politely refuse once again, but instead he let out a resigned sigh. “All right. I’ll make the necessary arrangements, but it’s important you try and remain in the room. You’ll have to wash up first. I’ll inform the medical team.”
Relief flooded through Dex, and he wanted to throw his arms around the doctor and squeeze, but he restrained himself. “Thank you so much. You don’t know how much this means to me. Thank you.”
The doctor smiled at him and motioned over to the rest of the team. “Why don’t you let them know, and I’ll escort you inside.”
“I’ll be right back.” Dex sprinted over to his dad. “Hey, um—”
Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “Let me guess. You convinced him to let you stay.”
“Any chance I can have some time off?”
“Sure. I’ll take care of it. I’ll have Cael bring you your overnight bag and leave it with one of the appointed nurses.”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll call the second anything changes. Let the team know, will you?” He hugged his dad.
Ash was watching him, and Dex held a thumb up. He’d send Ash a text message later. Ash gave him a nod in understanding, and Dex was off. He joined the doctor and accompanied him down a long corridor through a door that led to a medium-sized shower room. There were four closed-off stalls in a blue-tiled area with a wall of lockers to the left and around the corner to the right he could make out bathroom stalls and sinks. The doctor walked to one of the lockers and pressed his thumb to the small keypad. Inside, toiletry items and stacks of sealed plastic packaging containing gray scrubs filled it. He looked Dex over, shuffled through the packs, and handed Dex a Human size medium, followed by a small toiletry bag.
“We keep supplies for special visitors. There are clean towels on the racks next to the showers.” He removed an empty plastic bag from the locker and handed it to Dex. “Place your clothes in here. I’ll get one of the housekeeping staff to get them cleaned. You can leave your shoes outside the room. The less we expose your partner to outside elements the better. At least until he’s out of danger. I’ll return for you in fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you.” Dex took his supplies and headed for a stall. With everything going on, his clothes and appearance had been the least of his worries. Obviously he couldn’t see Sloane covered in dirt and grime. The doctor would return soon, and Dex didn’t want to keep him waiting, so he showered quickly, concentrating on washing off evidence of the explosion. He did his best not to let his thoughts drift off to Sloane and the state he might be in.
As soon as Dex was clean, he dried himself off, changed into the new scrubs and socks, pulled on his sneakers, and shoved his dirty clothes into the plastic bag marked for the housekeeping department. As the doctor had promised, he was there exactly fifteen minutes later. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing,” Dex said, handing the doctor his clothes.
“To be honest, your organization isn’t the easiest to deal with.” The doctor headed out and Dex followed. Sounded like this wasn’t the first time the guy had issues with the THIRDS.
“Yeah, I’m starting to see that,” Dex muttered. He still couldn’t believe they’d deny vital information that would impact one of their agent’s lives. For all the good the THIRDS did, it was still part of the government, and Dex wasn’t so naïve as to have blind faith in any one institution. He’d seen too much in his career, both at the HPF and now at the THIRDS. The THIRDS was a step in the right direction toward uniting Therians and Humans, but it wasn’t without its flaws.
“I take it you haven’t been with the THIRDS long?” The doctor stopped by one of the nurses’ stations and handed Dex’s clothes over as he spoke quietly to a young curly haired Therian. She gave the doctor a nod and was off. They were immediately moving again.
Dex shook his head. “A year this month. I was homicide for the HPF.”
“Wait.” The doctor frowned thoughtfully. “Daley. I’ve seen you on the news. You testified against your Human partner.”
“My claim to fame,” Dex replied dryly.
“I apologize. I didn’t mean anything by it. I thought I recognized you. Considering the options, I’d rather deal with the THIRDS than the HPF. No offense.”
“None taken.” He hadn’t exactly left on friendly terms. Still, he’d had a good run there. He wasn’t about to throw away ten years of good work over a bunch of bureaucratic douchebags. “They’re not all bad, but unfortunately the assholes are usually the ones who speak the loudest.”
The doctor chuckled. “Preaching to the choir, Agent Daley.”
They walked down the ICU and stopped outside one of the rooms where Dex used the hand-sanitizer dispenser on the wall despite having scrubbed himself from head to toe. The glass sliding door was closed, and the white curtain with a blue and pink pattern was drawn, preventing him from seeing inside. He toed off his shoes and nudged them to the side so no one would trip over them before he reached for the large button that would open the door. He hesitated. Whatever he expected, it would undoubtedly appear worse. Dex reminded himself about everything his partner had been through in his life, no matter how bad, he’d persevered and he’d do it again. He held on to that. The doctor placed his hand on his shoulder, his gaze sympathetic.
“Your partner’s a fighter, but he’s going to need your strength.”
Dex nodded, his lips pressed together to keep himself from giving in to the turmoil bubbling up inside him. With a small smile, the doctor gave his shoulder one last squeeze before walking off, leaving him on his own.
Well, he couldn’t stand out here all day. Bracing himself, he pressed the button and waited for the door to slide open before he parted the curtain and slipped inside. There was a male nurse with his back to Dex as he checked Sloane’s vitals.
“Excuse me,” the young Therian said before turning and slipping past him.
Dex thought maybe he recognized the nurse, but it was out of his mind the moment his eyes landed on Sloane.
“Jesus.” He wiped a hand over his face in an attempt to compose himself. It was growing more difficult with each breath he took. Stepping up to Sloane’s bed, Dex stood, attempting to take it all in. He’d known what to expect, but seeing Sloane laying there in such a state…. It was a sucker punch to his heart. The left side of his handsome face was swollen and covered in bruises. The purplish blotches continued down his neck and disappeared under the hospital gown, the blue of which was a stark contrast against his tan skin, skin that was scratched to hell. There were IVs and tubes sticking out all over, while the hum of machines and beeping monitors resounded through the otherwise silent room. Dex had seen worse during his career, but on the job, he found ways to cope. When it was someone he loved fighting for his life, how the hell was he supposed to cope with that?
He dragged a cushioned armchair over to Sloane’s bedside and took a seat, refusing to lose his composure. Sloane needed him to be strong. When his partner regained consciousness, who knew what the doctor would find? Dex could only hope for the best. He couldn’t afford to think about anything else.
“Hey, Beautiful.” Dex wanted to touch him but was hesitant to. He’d never seen Sloane like this, and he was finding it difficult figuring out what to do. The bed had been adjusted for Sloane’s comfort and raised at a low angle, making it possible for Dex to see the terrible shape he was in. How could a Therian so tough look so fragile?
Many Humans feared and despised Therians, felt threatened by them and their abilities, believed them to be unsusceptible to Human flaws. Therians might be resilient, but they were hardly immune to pain, illness, or death. They weren’t perfect, and yes, there were Therians who felt they were superior to Humans, but in Dex’s opinion that only went to prove that although the mutation in their DNA made them physically different, on the inside, they were as fallible as Humans.
Dex lifted Sloane’s hand to his lips for a kiss and shut his eyes tight against the tears threatening to burst free. Hold it together, Rookie. He smiled despite the situation. The word had become a term of endearment when spoken by Sloane. What he wouldn’t give to hear that low, gravelly voice or see those soulful amber eyes. He tried not to give too much thought to their future, considering his tendency to move too quickly, but at times silly notions would slip into his head. Like them living together, spending the rest of their lives together. Being a family.
“You have to be okay. I need you to be okay. Hell, I just need you. You promised me an afternoon in bed, remember?” A tear rolled down his cheek, and he swiftly wiped it away. It’s okay. Breathe. Just this morning he’d stood in Sloane’s arms, smiling up at those sparkling eyes. They’d teased each other and laughed before Dex all but melted against Sloane like he always did when Sloane kissed him. He’d been stupidly happy. Everything had started to feel normal again after the last few months. And now…. He put Sloane’s hand to his lips again and kept it there, his eyes shut tight as another tear escaped. It would be okay. The doctor had said so himself. Sloane was a fighter.
“I need you to be okay, Sloane. Please. I don’t know if you can hear me. You probably can’t, but I’ll say it anyway. I love you. I love you, and you can’t leave me.”
A tap at the window scared the hell out of him, and he gingerly returned Sloane’s hand back to the bed. Damn it, he’d forgotten to close the curtain when he’d come in, and now his father stood outside looking pretty pissed. Shit. He hadn’t expected his dad to come back so soon. Cursing himself for being so careless, he grabbed a gown from one of the hooks on the wall and slipped into it, followed by a plastic cap. Sloane’s vitals were at normal levels, and Dex didn’t want to be the cause of his lover getting an infection. Once he was done, he left the room, closed the door behind him, and faced his father. When he spoke, he tried to sound casual.
“Hey. Everything okay?”
Tony pursed his lips, his stern gaze on Dex. Oh God. He knows. Of course he knows.What the hell had made Dex think he could keep his relationship a secret from his dad? He’d never been able to keep anything secret from him. He could count on one hand the number of things he’d gotten away with in his childhood without his father finding out about it at some point. Tony was a sergeant at the THIRDS, for Christ’s sake. If his dad didn’t know something, he was either being purposefully oblivious or not interested enough to poke around. Dex’s best course of action was to remain calm, silent, and still. After an excruciating moment, Tony’s expression softened.
“Yeah. Everything’s fine. How are you holding up?”
Dex nodded, feeling the sting behind his eyes. Was his dad covering for him? He had to be. It wouldn’t be the first time Tony had put his boys before everything else, including the job. Hell, it’s what had gotten him recruited to the THIRDS after adopting Cael. The thought of what his dad might be doing for him, plus Sloane lying in the room behind him, had Dex blinking several times in an attempt to keep it together. It wasn’t like his dad hadn’t seen him cry before, but Dex was afraid if he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
The soft-spoken word broke Dex. He stepped into his father’s open arms and let the tears fall. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried like this. How long had everything been building up? The last few months had pushed him hard, but he’d put his game face on and did what he had to do to keep on keeping on. He’d always been good at keeping his chin up, finding a reason to smile even if inside he was screaming. Since joining the THIRDS, he’d been kidnapped, beaten up, shot, almost blown up, and now this. If it hadn’t been for Sloane taking those keys from him, it would have been Dex caught in the explosion.
“It should have been me….”
Tony pulled back and took hold of Dex’s face. “Stop it. I know Sloane. He would have done everything in his power to keep you safe. Forget about what should or could have been, and think about how you’re going to be there for your partner when he wakes up. He’s going to need you to look after him, and we both know, with everything Sloane has been through in his life, he deserves someone good looking after him, even if he’s too pigheaded to admit it. Okay?”
“Yeah.” Dex sniffed and took the tissue his dad handed him. He blew his nose before chucking it in the bin next to the door. His ears were hot, his throat sore, his eyes stung, and his head hurt. He was forced to breathe through his mouth because his nose was stuffed. God, he was such a mess. He turned and stepped up to the window to observe Sloane. Tony came to stand beside him, put an arm around his shoulders, and pulled him in close.
“He’ll be okay, but like I said, he’ll need his partner. That’s why I came here. With Hogan and his crew still out there, Sloane is in a vulnerable position. I think it would be a good idea for you two to stick together. Maybe have him stay at your place while he recovers. I don’t like the idea of him in his apartment alone. There are too many entry points in and around the building. Place is a tactical nightmare. Your street’s been cleared, and Hogan’s not dumb enough to strike the same place twice. Plus we’ll have someone on protective detail close by just in case.”
“You really think it’s necessary?” Would Hogan really try to come back and finish the job? The bomb hadn’t been intended for Sloane. If anything, Ash was the one who needed to watch his back.
“We’re not taking any chances.” Tony pulled Dex close and gave the top of his head a kiss. “Be good. I’ve got a shitload of reports to file and a meeting with Sparks. Call if you need anything. Cael’s at your house grabbing your overnight bag. He’ll be dropping it off in the next hour or so.”
“Thanks, Dad. I really appreciate it.”
“Any time, Son.” Tony gave him one last squeeze before walking off and Dex stood there for a moment watching him go. He wondered if his dad would broach the subject of Dex’s relationship with Sloane once everything had settled. The rules against fraternizing with members of your own team were clear, though from what he’d heard, few agents actually adhered to it. They were just good at keeping quiet about their extracurricular activities. Dex doubted he and Sloane were the only ones using the sleeping bays to do more than sleep. With how much time agents spent in the field and on the job, relationships were bound to happen. It was when those relationships interfered with the job that the no fraternizing rule wiped the floor with them.
Dex used the sanitizer dispenser again before going in. This time, he remembered to close the curtain. He returned the cap and gown to their hooks before resuming his previous post beside Sloane’s bed. As he made himself comfortable, he thought about how he’d run after Sloane when the explosion went off. He’d been reckless and stupid. If his dad had been there, Dex would have been in deep shit. With a heavy sigh, he sat back and ran a hand through his damp hair. He’d had this conversation with Sloane. How they couldn’t allow their personal relationship to interfere with their job. What if his relationship with Sloane impaired his judgment? Could he be trusted to make the right call when the bullets were flying? He closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts. Maybe he was still a rookie, but he was hardly inexperienced. He could do this. Who the hell wouldn’t be caught off guard by an explosion outside their house midmorning? Exhaustion soon claimed him, and he fell asleep.
When he woke up, it took him a moment to remember where he was. He sat up and found someone had draped a blanket over him. He’d have to remember to thank the nurses. Feeling groggy, he pulled the blanket up to his chin and tried to get cozy, his gaze instinctively landing on Sloane to check on him.
Sloane’s eyes were open.
“Sloane?” Dex tamped down his urge to jump from his chair and instead gingerly stood, not wanting to startle his partner. Tenderly, he brushed his fingers down Sloane’s cheek—the side not covered in bruises and nasty scrapes. “Hey, handsome.”
Sloane blinked slowly, his lids heavy and his eyes dazed. He seemed to be staring at nothing in particular. His brows drew together, and Dex waited with baited breath. At one point Sloane closed his eyes, and Dex thought he was out again, but a couple of heartbeats later and Sloane was looking right at him. His lips parted, and a barely there “hi” made it out. It was the most amazing greeting in the history of greetings. Dex’s reply was nearly as quiet.
“Thirsty,” Sloane rasped.
Dex quickly poured some water into one of the little plastic cups beside the pitcher on the side table along with a small straw. He placed the straw to Sloane’s lips with care and Sloane sipped. A few swallows later, and Sloane gave him a small nod. Dex returned the cup to the side table before gently running a hand over Sloane’s head, making sure to be careful. Who knew how much bruising there was.
“How do you feel?”
“Like shit,” Sloane murmured. He looked like he was trying to fight through the haziness. He’d most likely be falling back asleep any moment. Dex pulled his chair up close and leaned in to put his hand to Sloane’s cheek.
“You’ll be okay,” Dex said, smiling when Sloane turned his head so he could nuzzle Dex’s hand. He closed his eyes and let out a soft sigh.
Dex felt a lump in his throat. “I’m not going anywhere,” he promised.
Sloane hummed before nodding again. “Good. Need you.” His features softened as he drifted off, but not before he said one more word. “Always.”
Dex thought back to the night of the Coalition trade when Ash had been shot.
“You okay?” Dex asked Sloane, knowing this couldn’t be easy for him.
“No, but I’ll manage. Right now, I think you should take Cael home to your place. He’s going to need you. He’ll want to go to the hospital once the shock wears off.”
“What about you?”
Sloane gave him a small smile. “I always need you.”
Dex leaned over to kiss Sloane’s brow. “Always.”
Twice now Sloane had told Dex he always needed him, and both times the admission had knocked Dex for a loop. Not that he didn’t believe Sloane, but both instances had been under strenuous circumstances—the possibility of his best friend bleeding to death and now his semiconscious state. Sloane cared about him a lot, Dex was certain, but Sloane was reserved when it came to expressing how he felt about their relationship. Dex was always the more vocal one, the one putting his heart in Sloane’s hands and wishing for the best. He understood the whys, but it didn’t make it any easier, and the deeper Dex fell, the more he wished he knew. Would Sloane ever be able to love him? Or had that part of him died with Gabe?
Jesus, what the hell was wrong with him? He needed to cut this shit out. Maybe it was time for another nap. Drawing the blanket over himself once more, Dex dozed in and out of dreamless sleep, checking on Sloane constantly before allowing himself to drift off again. Sometime the next morning, someone running their fingers through his hair roused him awake. Opening his eyes, he turned his head to find Sloane smiling warmly at him. It was the most amazing smile he’d ever woken up to.
Dex smiled widely before letting out a fierce yawn. “Morning.” He sat up, and the blanket someone had wrapped around his shoulders slipped down. “I really need to thank the nurse. He or she keeps tucking me in.”
“He,” Sloane said before motioning to the end of the bed. “He also brought you your clothes and an overnight bag Cael dropped off a few hours ago. He apologized for not bringing it in sooner, but you were asleep, and he thought you needed the rest. You were out for the count.”
“That was nice of him.” With another yawn, Dex stood and stretched his aching muscles when the door opened and the doctor came in.
“Good morning, Agent Daley.”
Dex gave him a nod and watched the doctor stop beside Sloane.
“Hello, Agent Brodie. I’m Dr. Ward, I’m glad to see you’re awake. Your nurse should have been in to check your sutures and change the dressing.”
“He has. Thank you.”
“Good. Did he discuss the incident with you?”
Sloane’s amber eyes clouded over as he replied with a solemn, “Yes.”
Did that include the THIRDS withholding information? Dex would have to ask his partner. He wondered how Sloane would feel about it. Sloane had been with the THIRDS for over twenty years. He loved his job, but he wasn’t blind to their darker side. Hell, he’d been an unwilling participant in it for years. The THIRDS used youth centers to recruit. They were willing to sacrifice an agent to keep their questionable past a secret. And recently their team had discovered someone had been working out of the supposedly decommissioned research facility creating a control drug using scopolamine. Neither he nor Sloane were convinced it was the end of it. The doctor seemed to sense Sloane’s change in mood but didn’t pursue the matter. Instead he continued with the purpose of his visit.
“Your vitals are good. I’m going to do a few standard checks. You’ll feel some pain and discomfort during your recovery, but we’ll provide medication.”
Dex sat on the edge of his seat as the doctor did some preliminary tests, checking Sloane’s breathing, showing him how to support his wound if he had to cough or move. So far everything seemed normal. A little slow, but the doctor said it was to be expected.
“We’re going to do a few circulatory tests.” The doctor carefully removed the blanket from Sloane’s legs and feet. “Point your toes.”
Sloane winced but slowly did as he was asked.
“Good. Now make circles with your feet. First the left, then the right. Good. Now slowly, I want you to raise your knees one at a time, pulling your toes toward you.”
With his jaw clenched, Sloane gingerly bent his left knee and slid his foot toward him before lowering it again.
“Good. Now your right.”
A startled look came onto Sloane’s face. “There’s something wrong with my leg.”
Before Dex could give it another thought, he was at Sloane’s side, gripping his hand. He could hear the tremor in Sloane’s voice and knew his partner was trying to tamp down his panic. Sloane met the doctor’s gaze as he discreetly tucked Dex’s hand against his side, but the doctor was sharp. And he already knew about them. He gave Sloane a warm smile that reached his golden eyes.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Brodie. While you’re under my care, your relationship will remain confidential.”
It seemed to take a moment for Sloane to grasp what the doctor was saying. Once he did, he visibly relaxed. He still looked uncertain, but he focused on what was most important.
The doctor came around to the other side of the bed and gently touched Sloane’s right knee. “Tell me about your leg. What do you feel?”
“I’m having trouble bending it. I can’t lift it either.” Sloane squeezed Dex’s hand, and Dex returned the gesture. They both waited and watched as the doctor applied small amounts of pressure to different areas of Sloane’s leg.
“Can you feel this?” Dr. Ward asked.
“How about now?”
Sloane nodded. “I can feel it fine. I’m just having trouble moving it. Like it’s too heavy.”
“During your episode, we were able to treat you before your muscles could suffer severe rigidity. There was no nerve damage, but it appears the reaction you experienced has caused muscle weakness in your leg. The fact you’ve retained some movement is good, but we’ll need to increase your mobility to prevent further weakness.”
“Is it permanent?” Sloane asked hesitantly.
“With muscle rehabilitation, you’re likely to regain strength in your leg within a few weeks, but it could take up to two to three months, depending on recovery and how well your body responds to the therapy. As a Therian in your shape, I would say a month. We’ll put you on a mobility plan. I’m approving your transfer to a private recovery room this afternoon. Therian nursing staff will be in to help you up and out of bed. It’s also important that while you’re resting in bed, you move positions, taking care with your injured side, of course. Once I think it’s safe for you to be discharged, I’ll give you an information packet for your recovery at home. With the medication you’ll be given, and due to your injuries, I highly recommend you refrain from shifting into your Therian form for at least three weeks. I know it’s tempting since we heal quicker in our Therian forms, but there’s a chance it may do more harm than good, so I’d rather not risk it.”
“Thank you, Doctor. When do you think I’ll be okay to go home?”
“I’d like to keep you another thirty-six hours to be on the safe side.” Dr. Ward gave Sloane a gentle pat on the shoulder before heading for the door. He paused and turned to smile warmly at them. “Your partner’s not left your side for a moment. You’re a lucky Therian, Agent Brodie.”
Sloane turned his smile on Dex, and it took his breath away. “Yeah, I am.”
With a nod, the doctor left the room. Dex took a seat. His partner’s expression turned pensive, and Dex gave his hand a squeeze.
“I’m sorry I told the doctor about us. It was the only way I could stay with you.”
Sloane’s smile reassured him he hadn’t messed up. “I’m glad you’re here. Remind me to change my emergency contact form.”
“Okay.” Dex couldn’t keep his dopey smile off his face. At least until Sloane’s smile faded.
“What if my leg doesn’t regain its strength? Sparks can’t have a defense agent who can’t work out in the field. I’ll be transferred to God knows where and put behind a desk. I’m not qualified to work Intel. Algorithms drive your brother crazy, and he loves that shit. Recon still requires a hell of a lot of fieldwork. What’s left?” His eyes went wide. “Oh God, what if they try to stick me in Public Relations or Human Resources? I’ll have to talk to the public. The media. I can’t talk to the media. Just looking at them makes me want to shoot something.”
“Easy there.” Dex brushed his lips over Sloane’s knuckles, watching him relax. “Whatever happens, we’ll work through it together. And we both know no one in their right mind would stick you in either of those departments. You’re a defense agent. One of the best. It’ll be okay.”
“You’re right,” Sloane said, letting out a shaky breath. “Besides, I’ve been through worse.”
“Why don’t you get some rest?”
Sloane was reluctant at first but soon settled back against his pillow. “What would I do without you?”
“Lead a quiet, peaceful existence?” Dex teased.
Sloane frowned. “Sounds boring as hell.”
A few months ago, Sloane’s answer would have been different. Dex tried not to get too sappy over his partner’s reply. “Can I get that in writing and notarized?”
Sloane chuckled before letting out a yawn. “Shut up.” He closed his eyes, a smile on his face as he drifted off to sleep, his hand still holding tightly on to Dex’s. Whether it was the near-death experience, the meds, or something more, Dex wasn’t going to question it, simply enjoy it. He kissed Sloane and settled back into his chair, grateful his partner was on the mend. It could have turned out so much worse. Tomorrow Dex would have to report back to work, but until then, he’d spend the rest of the day offering his partner whatever he needed. Whatever came their way, Dex would face it with Sloane.