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)

How did you get here?

Chapter 16: Burning


When he’d continued to refuse to open the door, Dixon had gotten a screwdriver, removed the handle completely, and got inside anyway. When Jaye hadn’t responded to demands to come sit down, to get up, Dixon had lifted him off of the bathroom floor and carried him to the couch. He’d used a cool washcloth to clean Jaye’s face and gave him a glass of water to sip.

The ghosts were laughing.

Dixon wrapped him in a blanket to try to stop the shaking.

“Jaye, talk to me,” Dixon demanded. “You were doing so good! What is this? What’s wrong?”

Jay grunted, then shook his head, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Faggot.

Piggy.

You fucking worthless trash.

You had this coming.

We’re coming.

At the top of his lungs, he screamed, “Shut up!”

“God no,” Dixon groaned. “Jaye, listen to me,” he said with the cop’s voice, trying to cut through. “Listen. They’re not here. No one else is here.”

“I won’t. I won’t go. I won’t go back. They can’t — ”

“Jaye, no one is making you go back, okay? No one. You’re home. You’re safe. I love you. You’re okay, I swear. No one touches you. No one hurts you. They don’t even get close.”

“They’ll find me. They always find me.”

“Jaye!”

“NO, Dixon! No,” Jaye yelled.“You don’t understand! You don’t know, okay?”

“I’m trying,” Dixon told him tenderly, taking his face in his hands. “I’m doing my best. You went off in your head, started to think about things that are better off forgotten about, right? You don’t need to take it all on. You don’t. You’re doing so much better, but you still need to cut yourself some slack. Okay? Please? You can’t let it all in. You need to let it go. Leave it behind. You need to try.”

Jaye held onto Dixon’s arm. His heartbeat was finally slowing down, but he still wanted to puke. He kept spiraling back there, to that alley, to that cell, to that dark, secret place, to that bathroom stall, to that bloody storage room. Then it all started to overlap, to smother him.

“Fucked and fucked-up. That’s me. That’s Johnny. That’s all I’ll ever be,” he whispered. “They used to tell me that and it’s true. It’s really true.”

Dixon sat beside him on the couch and pulled him onto his lap. Curled up there, huddled in the blanket, Jaye felt Dixon’s arms come around him again.

“You’re not Johnny anymore. You’re not that guy. You’re home. You’re safe. No one is forcing you to go back there. You’re okay, babe, I promise. I have you.”

But it was all as good as done. Jaye knew it was. Cash would buy the tickets. Sesi would find the place. Jaye would have to go to Sheridan and he’d never leave. They’d rat him out about what he’d done to Tio and keep him there. He’d never see Dixon again, because they’d dissect him before he ever got the chance. Maybe they’d take his eyes first, like he took Tio’s. What would they take next? His hands, so he couldn’t fight back? His feet, so he couldn’t run? His cock and balls, to prove he was nothing but their bitch? They’d tear him apart, piss on the remains.

“I can’t,” he muttered. “I can’t do anything right. Can’t even do this right. I’m fucking it up for Tony. It’s my fault. My responsibility. Everything… everything he’s gone through — ”

“Jaye, stop.”

“They should have crushed my hands. Took my eyes.”

“Stop!” Dixon held him tighter. “Just stop. Please.”

“I can’t say no, can I? Couldn’t say no to Cash. To Hax or Dorrance in solitary. To Ecker in the secret place. To the fucking film crew, watching me cry. To Tony.”

“You can say no. You’re allowed to say no. I want you to say no,” Dixon said urgently.

Jaye started to cry.

Dixon hushed to him and kissed the top of his head.

Warmth and exhaustion took him before the pain and fear ran out. He cried himself to sleep. Hours later, he woke in bed, in Dixon’s embrace. Then, he lay there, wakeful, the rest of the night watching the cabin’s door, listening for voices, wanting to run.

Chain Link

When Dixon woke at five a.m. and went to roll over to his other side, he saw Jaye sitting up in bed, staring out into space. That startled him enough to banish the vestiges of sleep.

“You’re awake,” Dixon said drowsily, rubbing his eyes clear. “What’s wrong?”

Jaye shook his head. Dixon realized Jaye had a pad of paper in his lap, his knees drawn up to block Dixon’s line of sight. He reached for the pad and Jaye didn’t move to stop him.

He hadn’t been drawing the cabin, or Dixon, or anything else Dixon might have guessed. It was a view of the inside of a cell. The cinderblock, the combination sink and toilet, the small desk and small window.

“What are you doing, babe?” Dixon pulled himself upright, facing Jaye.

Jaye dropped his gaze and chewed on his lower lip a moment.

“What do you need?” Dixon asked, changing tactics. “Coffee? Massage?”

“A walk?”

“In the dark?”

“Sure.”

“You’re not going to work today.” It wasn’t a question. “But I do have to go, unless you need me to pull some strings.”

“Can I go with you?” Again, he didn’t make eye contact as he said it. Dixon felt him pulling away, almost like they were back in the muddy snow outside the Stop and Shop, and Jaye was just hoping not to be charged with petty theft for taking some potato chips to sate his ravenous hunger, but didn’t believe his luck would spare him that much.

“Of course you can.”

Dixon sat on the edge of the bed and stretched. Jaye stayed where he was. How long had he been like that? How many hours?

After making the coffee and taking a quick shower, Dixon dressed in his warmest clothes. Jaye was already dressed and waiting by the door once Dixon was ready. Thermoses of coffee in hand, they went out for a walk under the moonlit, starry sky.

Before taking his first sip, Dixon called in to Jaye’s office, saying he was too sick to come in that day. When he hung up and tucked away the phone, Jaye shot him a glance.

“Can we just not talk for a while? And just walk? Please?”

Dixon didn’t like the beaten down, broken sound to the pleas, so he capitulated. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s fine.” He did take Jaye’s hand though. “Is this okay?”

They both wore gloves, but it was nice to feel the life in Jaye’s hand as it grasped onto his.

“Mm-hmm.”

There were so many questions, and Dixon knew that was why Jaye didn’t want to speak. He wasn’t ready. It was painfully clear. Still…

Dixon consulted his mental checklist of frightening things Jaye had referenced without thinking during his episode the previous night. He couldn’t even decide what was the creepiest one: the taken eyes, the film crew, the secret place.

Their footsteps crunched on gravel as they followed the road heading west. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and some meteors shot through inky space. Dixon made a wish on one, hoping for something good to come out of all of their pain, somehow. Their breath fogged the air. Now and then, they took a steamy drink from their mugs. Dixon liked the way the coffee heated him up from inside.

What had gone so wrong the night before? Their lovemaking had been mind-blowingly good. After, as they lay together, something had happened. Jaye had slipped off in his head to somewhere bad. Could it have been prevented? Should it have? Had it just been overdue? Dixon knew from experience that some demons needed facing, one way or another. They were patient, but persistent. Maybe all of Jaye’s triumphs and victories just meant it was time for a stumble.

Dixon glanced over at Jaye’s beautiful face as often as he dared. Jaye’s eyes stayed focused on the path ahead, his coat’s hood drawn up to shield him from the wind and most of Dixon’s snooping. He was an enigma, so young and so old at the same time. His body seemed fresh and new, untested by the world, but his spirit had seen too much and been worn down dangerously, over and over again.

They walked for a few miles, then doubled back. Jaye’s pace never slackened but kept Dixon urging himself on, even as his leg muscles began to ache, his lungs chilled from the frigid, early-morning air.

When they got in sight of the cabin, Dixon broke the silence.

“I’ve got to trek up north today, but we can wait until after mid-morning if we want to take the call and make a decision one way or another. If not, we can blow it off and head up earlier.”

“I can’t deal with it today. I need some time,” Jaye told him.

“Do you want me to tell Cash to back off and let you think about it longer? So he doesn’t reach out in other ways?”

Jaw clenched, hands shoved down deep in his pockets, Jaye stopped. He strolled away from Dixon, eyes on the horizon line where the sun was beginning to rise.

“Yeah, I guess you should. Make it official.”

“I can always have Sesi take you out on one of her runs if you don’t want to be there.”

A muscle in Jaye’s jaw twitched at that. “Nah.”

Dixon pulled out his keys and unlocked the vehicle. “Look, I know you think you need to keep things from me. You have your reasons, but I want honesty here, Jaye. I want you to be real with me, like you always have been. I can take it. I can take a lot. Whatever it is isn’t going to make me stop loving you, or love you less.”

“It’s ugly,” Jaye breathed, and Dixon heard the pain in the words, the way things from his past still ate at him, chewing away from the inside, carving holes. “It’s real damn ugly.”

“You think I don’t know ugly? When my ex mouth-raped you while holding a knife to your throat? When I fucking shot and killed him for doing it?”

“It’s not the same. That was noble. You were my hero when you did that. None of this is fucking noble — ”

“What are you really scared of, here?” Dixon demanded. “Just tell me. Is it Cash? Is it going back there? What?”

“They…” Jaye gestured with one gloved hand, but his voice wavered, then broke. He cleared his throat and tried again, his soft, sexy rasp lending an eerie flavor to the words. “They could rat me out, Dix. They could tell someone what I did. Get me charged. Get me…”

“For what?” Dixon asked with exasperation.

Jaye hardened up even more, taking on more of the shell of the ruthless criminal and leaving behind all of the softness of Dixon’s sweet lover. Seeing the transformation sent a shiver up Dixon’s back that had nothing to do with the cold. He took a step toward Jaye, but Jaye took a backward step to maintain their distance.

“For taking his eyes,” Jaye said, staring right at Dixon when he said it. “I took Tio’s eyes.”

Chain Link

It was more quiet, but it was different this time. It wasn’t filled with the rush of morning wind, or birdsong, but only the soft rumble of the Expedition’s engine and the ticking of the turn signal as they rounded into the parking lot. They soon found a spot and the vehicle stopped.

Dixon hadn’t looked at Jaye once the whole drive, and Jaye felt the rejection like another form of creeping madness.

Fucked and fucked-up, eh Johnny? You piggy whore. You fucking come-rag.

The voice sounded like Cash. Just like him.

It had been months since he’d heard the ghosts.

Months.

One of them caressed up his inner thigh and he swatted it away, feeling pure frustration and shame burn its way into his gut.

Dixon grabbed Jaye’s hand — the one that had done the swatting.

“What film crew?”

Jaye shook his head, tried to pull free. A finger slid down his throat, tickling his gag reflex and, squeezing his eyes shut, he wished he could bite it off.

Dixon refused to let him pull away. He didn’t let go.

“Tell me, right now.”

“You should have set me on fire. Burnt me up like that poor fucking bastard whore. Burnt to a crisp in — ”

“Stop it!” Dixon raged, loud enough to make Jaye’s ears ring.

In Jaye’s memory, he heard the door in ad-seg slam shut, locking him inside. He saw all of those men — too many of them — waiting to take him apart. He remembered the panic, the pain, and telling himself to role-play his way through it, even though it felt like the worst kind of betrayal and like there wasn’t a safe place left in the whole world.

“I won’t tell you that, Dix. No way.”

“You think I can’t take it? You think I’m so fucking fragile? You told me earlier you took a man’s eyes out of his head with a goddamned spoon! How is this worse?!”

“Because it is. It’s worse than Tio. Worse than anything. It was the moment I knew there was no coming back from any of it. Ever.” He gave a miserable, hollowed-out laugh. “And I was right.”

“Do you regret it? What you did to Tio?”

“No.” Jaye looked Dixon in the eye. “I’d do it again. They would have kept coming for me. First it was bloody rape and a beating in a bathroom stall. Then it was a shiv in my gut. They would have kept poking new holes in me. I know it. They would have let me heal up again, after, and come again. Slow death. Torture. Just to send a message. Just to spook Cash. Look at what they did to Tony, for fuck’s sake. He’s crippled for life. I had to protect myself. No one else was going to do it.”

“I thought it was Cash’s job to protect you.”

Jaye laughed again, but it turned on him fast, shifting into something closer to a sob.

“It was a deal, Dixon. My body in exchange for some security, but debts needed to be paid. Cash couldn’t fuck me without a dirty guard in his pocket, paid to look the other way. Who do you think payment was?”

Furious, eyes blazing, tensed and charged, like electricity was arcing off of him into the air around them, Dixon seethed, “He gave you to the fucking dirty guard?”

Jaye gave a cold smile. He shook his head.“You’re really not going to let this go, are you?”

“You can’t carry all of this shit anymore alone. Please, just tell me.”

“Okay. Okay, fine. So, Cash was a long-term arrangement, right? Dorrance would have to look the other way for years. So he wanted a favor that would pay off for years too.”

“What favor?”

“Porn.” Jaye looked down at his lap and wished Dixon would let his hand go. He felt dirty. Disgusting. “A gang bang rape scene in administrative segregation. Guards and inmates, all having a go while I was shackled and pinned down. They… they filmed it. Let go. Dixon, let go!” He gave a hard, desperate yank at his hand, but Dixon was determined. His grip was painfully strong. “Let me go!”

“Never. I never will,” Dixon swore, pulling Jaye into a hug. Jaye fought it at first, but then he felt it as the familiar scent of Dixon’s skin got in Jaye’s head, and the feel of him against Jaye’s body lured him as no other intoxicant could. It was home, right there in Dixon’s arms. So Jaye let it wrap around him, breathing like he’d just run five miles to get away from a pack of wolves, nipping at his heels. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’ve got you. No one is ever going to hurt you again. Ever. I swear it. I swear, okay?”

Dixon’s strong hand wrapped behind Jaye’s head, the fingers twining through his hair, sending shivers as the fingertips moved against his scalp. Lips brushed kisses over Jaye’s flushed skin. Where had this love been when Jaye had needed it? Why had it been so damned hard to find?

How did you get here?

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