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 9: Disturbed


The party went late, and Brekken offered to let them stay in the guest room after most of the citizens of Zus filed out, seeking their beds and various hangover cures. But Dixon knew enough of Jaye’s mindset to insist on taking him home for some privacy.

A few hours shy of dawn, they were finally back in their snug little cabin. The fire in the hearth blazed high.

It had been one hell of a long day. Jaye was clearly exhausted and absolutely wide awake.

“Good thing we’re both off tomorrow,” Dixon commented. “This is gonna catch up, hard.”

“Go to sleep. You’re tired. I can tell.”

“No way. I’m not leaving you to deal with this alone.”

“I’m not dealing. I’m just…” He sighed. Gave up. His face turned slightly away, avoiding eye contact. Instead, he watched the flames twist.

Dixon went over to the bed where Jaye sat cross-legged in only a pair of cotton sleep pants. He imagined the longer, dark curls Jaye used to have, hanging in his eyes, adding to his mystery. But they’d been gone a long time. Jaye kept his hair short now. It was part of the new normal.

“Talk to me about it. Are you afraid to sleep?”

“No. I just don’t. I don’t sleep on my birthday. In Sheridan, I tried.” He shrugged. “Just laid there all night, listening to the guards do their rounds. Listening to Cash snore.” He pushed hair back over his ear that had been cut away and gone for almost a full year. The horror on his face at that little slip made Dixon’s heart ache.

He took Jaye’s hand and held it.

“You know no one’s going to hurt you here, right?”

“Logically? Sure. My world doesn’t always run on logic,” Jaye told him. “I do get it, you know. I know if I hadn’t been sleeping, it still doesn’t mean I would have been able to stop them from doing what they did. It wouldn’t have changed much. But…”

“I know. I wish I’d been there with you, to protect you.”

Jaye looked over at him, his light, smoldering eyes searching. “Me too.”

Dixon caressed the side of Jaye’s face. “You look so tired,” he lamented. “Just sit back with me and get comfortable, okay? If you’re not going to sleep, at least try to rest.”

Jaye relented and let Dixon pull him up to the headboard where he propped pillows for them to lean on. Then he drew Jaye to lay back with his head resting against Dixon’s chest. He smoothed the hair back from Jaye’s temple in a repeated light petting motion. The fire popped and crackled. Outside, the wind blew. After a while, rain began to fall, pattering against the roof.

Dixon became aware of the steady rise and fall of Jaye’s breathing. Craning his neck a little without moving much at all, he saw Jaye’s closed eyes and the utter lack of care or worry on his sweet young face as peaceful sleep carried him out of the reach of bad memories and persistent fear.

For hours, they stayed just like that. Dixon fought off his own urge to sleep and sat guard of his precious love so that nothing could hurt him. Nothing at all.

Chain Link

During the course of that week, Dixon saw the effect the letter continued to have on Jaye. It took a couple of days before he identified it. It was the look of someone who had been through Hell itself, come out on the other side, had a taste of peace and healing, then got news that he’d be paying Hell a visit once again, whether he liked it or not. It was the same look Jaye would have had if he’d been sentenced to more time behind bars.

It didn’t seem to matter that Dixon had no intention of letting Jaye get anywhere near the place again. In Jaye’s mind, it was all the same.

The typical life and fire Jaye had in him since they’d met seemed to have been snuffed out, or at least allowed to die down to a low smolder. Dixon hated how old and tired Jaye seemed over the course of that long week. He’d catch Jaye staring out of windows with a hopeless gravity in his eyes, or drawing something while curled up in a corner somewhere pretending away reality like a desperate man. His appetite shriveled to almost nothing. He went on long walks alone. When he got home from work, he’d sit outside in the car until Dixon came knocking on the window to snap him out of it.

After one of these instances, Dixon asked Jaye as he finally got out of the car, “Why are you giving him this kind of power over you? You can decide to not let him have it, you know. It’s all in your head.”

Jaye gave him a long, weary glance. “There’s a shitload of awful that’s all in my head. Be glad I’m not medicating it away anymore. Or bashing my head against concrete walls.”

It felt like a punch to the chest. “Jaye…”

“I don’t know how to be his and yours at the same time.”

“You are not his!”

Jaye sighed. He gathered his coat tighter around his neck and headed to the cabin.

“Talk to me, damn it.”

Jaye flapped his arms a few steps from the door and turned back around.

“What do you want me to say? He’s got your number! He knows where you are, who you are. The hook is already caught. I can’t pretend it’s not there. I can’t pretend I’m the same guy I was when I got out, because I’m not. Being with you, living here, with my job and my friends and our life… it’s everything I’ve always wanted, but I can’t have it without taking all of that shit with me for the ride. I can’t set it down and walk away.”

“Why not? Why the fuck not?”

“Because it’s who I am!” He jabbed a finger at the inked tear on his face. “I did shit in there, and promised shit in there, and it has consequences! I had that asshole torturing me to death and I needed him to die. I needed someone to kill him for it. And they did. They did that, Dixon, because of me. I’m responsible. And I’m not sad about it, or regretful, but it’s a lot, okay? It’s not just Burt anymore. It’s Burt and Ecker. And I have to pay for that shit. But how? What’s the cost gonna be? How do you pay for a life?”

He looked backed into a corner, like he might bite or lash out if Dixon got too close. But Dixon was responsible for helping to fix this, so he approached Jaye quickly and with determination. He gathered him up in a hug against his chest before he could fight back or pull away. And Jaye let him.

Some of his tension melted away.

His breathing quieted.

“I’m sorry,” Jaye murmured.

“Don’t you dare apologize.” Dixon looked down into Jaye’s eyes. “I know you’re dealing with a lot. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared. You don’t have to be strong. You’re not doing this alone anymore. You don’t have to shut us all out in order to keep us safe. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You’re allowed to feel bad about what happened. You’re not responsible for what Cash or the Disciples do. You don’t have to do what they want you to do. All you have to do is be here with me and take care of yourself and do the best you can. That’s all.”

Jaye took a deep inhale and let it out fast and hard. He came to lay his head on Dixon’s shoulder. His slender arms wound around Dixon’s back. He was shaking a little.

“You’re doing the best you can,” Dixon whispered, caressing the silky tumble of Jaye’s hair.

More tension fled, softening his edges, quieting him down.

“Thank you,” Jaye said urgently.

Dixon kissed him and took him inside.

Chain Link

The call came at mid-morning on a Tuesday, while Dixon was in the office doing paperwork. Most of the time he was out driving high and low across their territory, so it felt like the fates planned for the call to go through.

At the time, Dixon’s thoughts were focused on the forms laid out in front of him, demanding a full account of an incident where a trespassing hunter and a landowner pulled guns on each other in a heated argument. He’d managed to talk them both down, and cited both for some minor offenses, but there were a lot of details to capture.

The phone rang at the desk as he was trying to remember the exact sequence of what had gone down the day before. He answered briskly. “Yeah, Trooper Dixon Rowe here. Zus State Patrol Office. How can I help you?”

“Do you accept the charges for a collect call from the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Oregon?”

Dixon froze, all tidbits about who was holding the shotgun and who had the pistol, and who had been drunk, who had threatened someone’s mother went right out of his head. For an odd moment, he feared a slip-back in time, that it was Jaye on the other end of the line, back in prison like the past year had never happened and he needed Dixon to help him get released.

When he realized it wasn’t Jaye, and who was waiting to talk to him, Dixon almost forgot how to speak. The words short-circuited on the way from his brain to his mouth.

Man up, pussy. This guy is as cold and hard as they come. You give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

“Uh, yes. I’ll accept,” he replied long after the question had been asked.

He can hear you. Man the fuck up, Rowe. If you have ever been capable of intimidating and acting like a man, do it now. Do it for all of those moments with Marcus when you caved like a coward.

The call was connected.

A gruff, growly voice straight out of Dixon’s most vivid imaginings of what Cash might sound like came through.

“This Rowe? Trooper Rowe?”

“Yes,” Dixon replied lamely, his thought process still gumming up. Too abruptly, he asked, “What do you want?”

There was a cold chuckle. “Hit the nail on the head, don’tcha? There’s lots of things I want, Trooper. Gettin’ a letter from you wasn’t one of them, that’s for damn sure.”

The longer he listened to Cash speak, the more connections were made, way back in the more subconscious layers of his awareness. Stories that had once only found life through Jaye’s words and actions now blossomed with new vibrancy. He envisioned the thug who was speaking into his ear being alone with the man he loved. A criminal caged up with a helpless boy. A monster force-fucking that poor boy over and over and over again, with no one to stop it.

You keep thinking about that shit, and you’ll fuck this up for Jaye. Get over yourself, Dixie. This ain’t your problem, is it? This problem belongs to that underage-looking piece of ass you killed me over.

He hated that the voice warning him off sounded like Marcus.

Shaking his head and clearing his throat, he tried to snap out of it.

“Trust me, I never thought I’d be writing you either,” he said, feeling a little surer of himself at last.

“He with you?”

It was briefer than he’d expected, and the true meaning behind the question only registered after a long moment.

“In all the ways that count,” Dixon responded.

Cash breathed out a sound that was half grunt, half laugh. There was no humor in it, but many things besides anger as well, like sadness, exhaustion, and resignation wrapped around an iron will and concrete certainty.

“I wanna talk to him. Johnny.”

“I get that. But I’m the closest you’re gonna get.”

Passing that right over, Cash said, “It’s funny, him being with a guy like you. Been trying to figure it. First thought was he’s playing you for a sucker, giving it up to the law to keep his ass covered. Good strategy, I admit. Some of the guys wouldn’t believe it, but I do. I know that kid better than anyone.”

Dixon bristled at many parts of that.

Before he could figure out how to respond, Cash kept talking.

“But the more I thought about it, and how you sent that fuckin’ letter to me, balls out, the more I realized how fucked over Johnny is. Cause this ain’t about some deal anymore, is it, Trooper Rowe? You owe him, don’t you? Enough that you couldn’t keep him away from me. You had to cave, just a little. But I can’t figure what you owe him for.”

Tell him he’s full of shit. Tell him to climb back in his hole and die.

“Drugs? Sex? Did he break some law for you? Help you skirt a few legal lines?”

“What the fuck do you want?” Dixon cut in, his anger showing.

Cash laughed again. “Damn. No, I hear it now. I do. Good on you, Johnny, wherever this lawman’s got you spread in high style. Got him wrapped around your cock like the clever piece of ass I know you to be. You fucking love that kid, don’t you?”

“Don’t talk about him like that.”

Cash laughed even louder. “God damn. Okay. How about I tell you what I know?”

“About what?”

“You. Johnny.”

“His name is Jaye.”

“Yeah, J for Johnny. Johnny, who had no one. Who got locked up for shitty reasons, and who fought like a wildcat in a sack the whole time he was in here, except for the days when he was too fucked up to function. When he was skin and bones and not a glimmer of sanity in his fucking green eyes. You know who he had then? Not his momma. Not his pops. Not a lawyer or a friend coming to visit. You know what he had?”

“You.”

“That’s right. See, you ain’t so dumb, Trooper. He had me. I’m his goddamned family. You would never have met that kid if not for me, and tell me I’m wrong.”

Dixon sighed, biting down on his back teeth nearly hard enough to crack a crown.

“So, the way I figure it, you owe me too. Can I make another guess? See, I’ve had more than my fair share of thinking time the past few days, and I know a few more things, in addition to how you feel about the kid. I know how he is, biblically and otherwise. I know how he gets when he’s on his meds, when he’s off his meds, when things are great, and when things are shitty. I know that about two hours after he downs a pill, I can ask him any old goddamned thing I want, and I’ll get the ugly truth right back. He might not even remember the conversation after, with being so fucking stoned. I know he comes faster when you hold him down and ride him slow and deep. I know the way that scar on his side looks when it’s been sliced open. I know one hell of a lot of things about that kid. This is how I see it. Again, you tell me if I’m wrong. He’s fucked up over this, isn’t he? Ain’t eating much. Ain’t sleeping well. Runs hot and cold. Grumpy like a bitch on the rag.”

Dixon said nothing.

“You there?”

“Yeah.”

“Are the ghosts fucking with him?”

“No,” Dixon answered, not sure if he should have or not.

“Good. That’s good,” Cash said, some of the cockiness being subtly replaced with a more muted form of triumph, because he knew he had Dixon. Sure he did.

Cash continued, “I saw it happen, you know.”

“What?”

“What he couldn’t get over, or get away from. I’d been getting the story from him on the regular when he was soaring up in the clouds. He just needed a nudge and he’d talk a while about it. So, I knew, but then they went the extra step and showed me. They held me, chained, gagged, beat the piss out of me, and made me watch from the next room. I saw the light go out in his eyes when those fingers went down his throat. I heard the meaty sound of the baton hitting him over and over again. I heard him cry when it went up inside him. He wasn’t a man. He was a fucking kid.”

Dixon stood, began to pace.

“Saw him in shackles, bent over a counter, as a night stick was jabbed up his ass. He was pale as one of his fucking ghosts, muttering his thank you’s like he prayed it wasn’t a knife going up there next.”

Dixon kicked a trashcan across the room.

Debbie poked her head in with a concerned expression. He waved her off.

“He never told me you — ”

“Because he doesn’t know. I swore to myself I was keeping a lid on that shit until a solution was found. So I’m telling you again, Trooper Dixon Rowe. I need to talk to Johnny. I want to see him. I want to see there’s some meat on his bones, and life in his eyes, and that he’s not still in that fucking room night and day, praying thank you to a sadist piece of shit. You’re gonna give that to me, because I gave him to you. You’re fucking welcome.”

The line went dead.

Dixon dropped the phone with shaking hands. It clattered on the ground. His hand went to his mouth and he panted like he’d just run five miles.

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