Arctic Restitution (Arctic Absolution #3)
by

As he approaches his twenty-second birthday, the three-year anniversary of the brutal attack in an alley that nearly cost him his life in a few different ways, Jaye Larson thinks he’s left behind the ghosts from his years spent incarcerated, but when he’s delivered a mysterious letter with terrifying implications, old monsters rear their ugly heads. His normal new life in remote Zus, Alaska, with his lover, Dixon Rowe, the heart of a found-family that supports Jaye in ways he’s never before dreamed possible, is threatened by old deals and ties he begins to fear may never be broken. While old alliances strive to draw Jaye backward, Dixon and the rest of their family are called to step up to keep him steady. When the letter turns out to be just the first clue in a chain leading both Jaye and Dixon back inside the walls of the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Oregon, all of them are left facing carefully-held secrets and terrible new truths that refuse to be ignored. (M/M)

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Chapter 2: Warning Signs


Dixon’s big, black Expedition rolled up to home, right behind Jaye’s gray sedan. Shifting into park, he tumbled the details of Sesi’s missing person’s case over in his head again. Twenty-four-year-old female. No relatives unaccounted for. Gone for a week. No sign of stolen cash to fund a bus ticket. Not much, if anything, missing from the residence. Maybe she had a go bag? They should check the interviews again to look for signs of long-term planning for an escape. She was Iñupiaq, or Alaskan Inuit, like his co-worker and best friend, Sesi Ahnah. There was a history and tradition of youth running away without a word to friends or relatives, but something didn’t sit well with him this time. The bloody rag in the bottom of the closet and the missing keys to an old shed pointed in other directions.

He had to shake it off. Snap out of it. He never liked to bring work home if he could help it. It wasn’t Jaye’s job to solve Dixon’s cases for him, and Dixon didn’t think he should have to suffer a distant, inattentive boyfriend when their new schedules had them passing in the night so often lately.

He took the key out of the ignition and grabbed his bag with the clean change of clothes he hadn’t had time to change into. In the rearview mirror, he caught sight of his golden-red hair and teal-blue eyes — a dash or two of pure color in a desaturated world.

Hand on the handle, he glanced up at the cabin.

Dark.

Weird.

No smoke trailed from the chimney. No lights burned inside.

But the car was there.

“Fuck.”

A chill raced up his spine, which for once had nothing to do with the weather.

Something was wrong.

He left his things, jumped down from the vehicle and walked to the sedan.

A hand placed on the front hood told him the engine was cold. The car had been there a while.

He scanned the area, looking for signs of a scuffle or trouble. Possibilities swirled through his head. Some made sense — like maybe his sister, Brekken, or her husband, Grant, had picked Jaye up in their truck for some reason. Others weren’t even logically possible — his ex, Marcus, rising from the dead to enact more revenge or complete the murder he’d once attempted, bringing Jaye to his knees for some rape and a sliced throat.

“Get it together, you dumb shit,” Dixon muttered to himself. It was always so hard to be reasonable when it came to Jaye, who had been in trouble since the moment they first met, and continued to terrify Dixon just because he loved Jaye so much.

No debris by the car. Nothing under the car either, when he bent to check. He started to pivot and run to the cabin when he saw it.

The trail led off into the field across from the cabin.

One set of footprints.

Taking a deep breath of pure relief, Dixon tried to calm down. His racing heart slowed to a more normal pace.

“You owe me one, kid,” he groaned, running a hand over his face and feeling the cold sweat that had already started to form on his brow.

Glancing all around, seeing nothing but the twinkling stars up in the inky dome stretched in all directions above him, Dixon headed to Jaye’s trail and began to follow.

The walk invigorated him, and might have even been pleasant if not for the length it took to find any additional sign of Jaye’s whereabouts.

When he saw a small, dark form seated on the ice, Dixon yelled, “You scared the shit out of me!”

“Just keeping you on your toes, Trooper Rowe,” Jaye’s gravelly purr of a voice replied.

Quickening his pace, it still took a few more minutes for Dixon to make it to Jaye’s side. When he got close enough to see Jaye’s shivering, Dixon’s confusion got a dash of anger and fear to give it more depth and flavor.

“What the hell are you doing out here? Let me see your fingers. Have you lost any feeling in your toes? We need to get you into the cabin and — ”

“Hey,” Jaye interrupted, his light-green eyes staring up at Dixon from where he sat cross-legged. “I’m fine. I needed some air. You know how that goes.”

“Why do you need air?” Dixon worried.

“To breathe,” Jaye replied.

With a tense chuckle, he rolled his neck to work out some stiffness and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Did something happen at work?”

Jaye got to his feet, stretched his legs. Chocolate-brown tendrils fell in a tumble over his pale forehead. His hands shoved down deep into his pockets. There was a look on his face that Dixon didn’t like, didn’t know how to interpret.

“Come on.” Jaye grabbed Dixon’s hand, tugging him back towards the way he’d come. Somewhere nearby, a wolf howled. A gust of icy wind tossed Dixon’s hair and nipped at his ears.

Jaye’s fingers were icy, too. Dixon stared at him as they walked, wanting to figure it out but unable to ignore the persistent voice of pessimism that warned him to be afraid. Marcus had honed that instinct in Dixon for a long time. It was a hard one to un-learn.

“Please talk to me,” Dixon asked more softly, dropping his walls a little, with effort.

“Let’s get warm. Time just got away from me.”

Backtracking Jaye’s initial snaky trail, now marred with Dixon’s following footsteps, they trampled the way even more, crushing crisp snow and drawing up mud. Slowly, the cabin drew closer. Jaye stayed quiet, avoiding eye contact and seeming far, far away. Dixon tried to rub some life back into Jaye’s fingers.

Jaye finally looked over at Dixon, wearing an unreadable expression. Whatever he saw in Dixon’s face pulled him closer. He looped his arm through Dixon’s, their sides brushing as they walked. The dark ink of his tear seemed stark in the glow of the moon on snow, Jaye’s fair skin too blue in the dim light for Dixon’s liking.

“I know you know this, but don’t take chances with the weather out here, okay? I want you warm. Safe. Not in the middle of an empty field getting frostbite.”

He could still feel shivering radiating from deep down in Jaye’s slim body.

“I know. I promise I’m okay.”

Jaye dug his keys out first, with Dixon too worried to beat him to it. They finally arrived at the cabin’s door, and Jaye got it open. While he closed and locked it behind them as well, Dixon rushed for a blanket, drawing it around Jaye’s shoulders, ignoring the slight eye-roll Jaye gave him for it.

“Sit down. I’ll start the fire,” Dixon instructed.

Jaye went to the couch. Dixon crouched by the fireplace and stacked some kindling.

Once he’d gotten the fire going, and heat began to fill the small space, Dixon let himself begin to unload his gear and duty belt.

“You know,” Jaye said, pushing the blanket off and pulling out of his coat, too. “Sharing body heat is the best way to warm up. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that or not.”

He pulled his sweater over his head, then his undershirt too. His hands went to his fly, parting it.

“That sounds like a distraction tactic,” Dixon said, prepared to put a halt to any advances meant to stall conversation. “I really think we should…”

Jaye stared at him, dead in the eyes. He came right up to Dixon, letting him get a good look, then bowed his head to rest on Dixon’s shoulder, pushing Dixon’s shirt open, sliding a chilly hand up under the fabric of his undershirt to touch him, skin on skin.

“…talk about this,” Dixon finished lamely. He sighed and kissed Jaye’s dark curling hair, embracing him. The shivers were awful. Hugging Jaye didn’t make them stop.

He let Jaye help him get the other shirt off too. Right away, Jaye pressed himself up against Dixon’s chest. He kept his wind-chilled face turned away, his body posture speaking clearly that he was looking to get lost in other ways.

“Let’s get you closer to the fire,” Dixon suggested.

“Just lay with me? Please?” Jaye asked, his voice sounding like it came from far away.

Dixon cupped the side of Jaye’s face, tilting it up so he could see it. “What is this?” he questioned as Jaye frowned, nuzzling Dixon’s palm.

Jaye pressed him back, walking him to the edge of the bed. Dixon spared a second to unbuckle his pants and shed them. Jaye was naked by the time he was done.

They crawled under the covers.

It was too dark to see Jaye’s face well, but he felt upset. It came off of him like steam.

Jaye pulled the covers up over them, breathing against Dixon’s neck, pressing down on top of him as if to absorb all of his heat and energy. Dixon tried to rub the cold away from Jaye’s form, but the trembling continued. Even his breaths were softly chattering.

Dixon whispered, “If this is about your birthday, remember I promised you don’t need to worry about it, okay? I have it all taken care of and I’m not going to forget, I — ”

“It’s not,” Jaye protested, but he sounded distraught. His lips dragged over Dixon’s jaw. His arms wound around behind Dixon’s back. Dixon wrapped his legs around behind Jaye’s body and just held on, caressing through the silky curls of his hair.

“I love you. I love you so much,” Dixon told him. “Whatever this is, we’ll fix it, okay? We’ll do it together.”

A harder shiver had Jaye quaking in Dixon’s arms. Dixon tried to absorb it. To drain away the pain and whatever had disturbed the fearless man he cherished so deeply.

“I’m scared,” Jaye confessed, barely loud enough to hear.

“Whatever this is, I’ll protect you. You’re safe. I swear you are. No one hurts you.”

Jaye sighed. Dixon hooked a hand around Jaye’s jaw, brought it up within kissing range. He felt the quiver of his lips, the chill on his breath. Jaye reached out for something on the nightstand. Dixon realized what it was when he felt two fingers enter him as they kissed.

“Please, can I?”

“Yeah.” Dixon moaned when Jaye pulled out and lined up. With gentle pushes that had goosebumps racing out over his skin from head to toe, Jaye claimed him a little at a time. He rocked against him until fully sheathed, then let out a deeper exhale, dragging soft kisses over Dixon’s temple.

“Better,” Jaye sighed, starting to move and build a rhythm.

“Mmm. Good.” Dixon groaned, moving counter to Jaye’s gentle thrusts into him. When Jaye’s hand found Dixon’s cock, toying with it as he rode him, Dixon used his legs to draw Jaye in tighter and panted with the rush of stimulation. As Jaye found his gland, dragging against it on each thrust, Dixon didn’t try to bite back the desperate sounds coming from him. The more he gave over to it, the steadier Jaye felt against him, moving more deliberately, with need, vigor, and control.

“So much better,” Jaye moaned, then gave it to him harder.

“Fuck,” Dixon whined, shooting over Jaye’s fingers.

Hooking his arms under Dixon’s legs to pull him open wider, Jaye shifted their position slightly and began giving it to him deeper, with even more force. Dixon palmed the back of Jaye’s head and drew him in for a rough, dirty kiss that lasted until Jaye moaned, quaking with orgasm.

“Love you, Dix,” Jaye vowed in a breathless whisper by his left ear.

“I know you do.”

Dixon had told Jaye to stay in bed where it was warm as he washed up before going to make dinner. Lying there, under the covers, the fire crackling away, Jaye stared at his coat draped over the arm of the couch. The letter was inside it.

His hand crept down the edge of the mattress, to the seam where he used to tuck away a hunting knife.

Piggy.

His fingers dug into the seam, his eyes squeezed shut. A chill raced down his back and the stark fear of ghostly touching felt strong enough to conjure it. He tried to think of something else. Anything else. A bear tracking prey in the woods. The flow of electrons through a closed circuit like water through a pipe. Service entry cables connecting remote homes to an ordered grid, returning the isolated back to the community. The carefree way Brekken laughed. The sight of Grant sitting on the porch, shotgun in hand, ready and determined to safeguard their family.

The night was soundless, making it feel like their cabin existed alone in the universe — a satellite orbiting through inky space. The only thing Jaye heard was the tapping of water in the shower, a few feet away.

Instinct told him to shred the letter and burn it. He could pretend it never came. Dixon would never have to know. It wouldn’t get a chance to destroy the good they’d built. Future could stay far away from past.

But one particular ghost spoke up, and it was screaming. He heard the fight as it was wrestled to the ground, bound with chains. It called for him with the most primal desperation. Jaye knew if he burned the letter, that ghost would never let him go. It would be screaming at the back of his mind forever. There would be no peace.

It felt like a choice between them — past and future. Maybe he wasn’t meant to have both. Maybe he didn’t deserve that much happiness.

He wanted to choose Dixon, but… the screaming.

He jammed his palms against his ears and breathed more deeply, burrowing into the soft, warm covers in a sparsely populated corner of remote Alaska. No matter how far he ran, the ghosts always found him.

The water stopped. A minute later, creaking footsteps crossed to the bed, which shifted under the weight of someone sitting beside where he lay. A gentle hand moved over his side through the blankets, the touch filled with so much terrifying love.

“I’m always here for you. You know that,” Dixon reminded him.

“I know. I fucking know.”

“Whoever put you back in this place, J-bird, is in one hell of a lot of trouble with me. Is it someone in town giving you a hard time? Was it a trigger? Was it — ”

“It’s a letter. It’s a-a fucking piece of paper, okay. Fuck. I shouldn’t have…” He sat up, pushed the blankets back. Dixon took his hand and Jaye said, “Look, just forget it, all right? Please forget it?”

Dixon’s blue eyes were the sweetest thing Jaye had ever known. The most decadent indulgence he’d experienced. They looked on with so much patience and understanding, it pulled at all of the frayed ends of Jaye’s psyche. “Why?”

“Dixon, I need you to hear me, all right?”

“I am. I’m listening. I always listen to you.”

Jaye felt tears of pure helplessness gathering and hated it. He blinked and shook his head, staring into the fire instead.

“Jaye, please,” Dixon begged.

“It’s a… a fucking hook, okay? A snare. Don’t touch it.”

“I don’t understand you, babe. Can you explain it from the beginning?”

Jaye blew out a breath, pushed a hand through his short hair, expecting to feel long, twisting curls.

“The beginning. What the hell would the beginning be?” He laughed, but it sounded crazy, so he stopped. He cleared his throat, sniffled, then looked up at Dixon through the dark hair fallen into his eyes. Tripping a little over his words, he said, “Okay. There was once a very scared, very sick boy named Johnny, who was all alone in a cage with many monsters, and the worst monster of all was named Ecker. He liked to capture the boy and had fingers like tentacles which he used to violate and torture the boy over and over again, until the boy’s mind broke, and he resolved to stop eating in a pathetic attempt at slow suicide. Some of the other monsters tried to bite and scratch at Ecker, but he was too big, too powerful. Nothing hurt him. When the other monsters tried to fight Ecker, it only made him madder at the boy. So when Ecker captured the boy again and took him to secret places to be hurt and raped, the boy didn’t tell anyone about it. Anyone. He just let it keep happening because he knew that soon, he would be let out of the cage, and that’s all that mattered.”

Dixon’s mouth was a tight, straight line, his eyes wide and glassy, his posture tensed. His hand gripped Jaye’s with brutal strength.

“Where’s this fucking letter?”

“In my coat pocket.”

“The hook in the letter. It’s Ecker’s?”

Jaye drew the blankets back over himself.

“I’ll fucking kill him,” Dixon promised in a soft, deadly whisper.

“Too late,” Jaye sighed.

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