Saturday, October 14, 2017

Saturday's Series Spotlight: THIRDS by Charlie Cochet Part 2


THIRDS exists to uphold the law for Humans and Therians without prejudice.

During the Vietnam War, biological warfare spread the Melanoe virus, infecting millions worldwide and changing the course of human history forever. The vaccine, Eppione.8, created using strains from animals immune to the virus, activated a dormant mutation within the virus that altered human DNA and gave birth to a new species: Therians.

In an attempt to restore social order, the US government put new regulations and laws into place, along with a Therian branch of government. In 1990, Human and Therian legislators launched the Therian Human Intelligence, Recon, Defense Squadron aka the THIRDS, an elite, military-funded agency comprised of an equal number of Human and Therian agents .

But THIRDS agents are more than a team—they’re a family through thick and thin, and along the way, some find true love. While every day brings dangers and challenges, one thing will never change: standing up for what you believe in and protecting the people you love is never optional .


Against the Grain #5
Summary:
As the fiercest Defense Agent at the THIRDS, Destructive Delta’s Ash Keeler is foul-mouthed and foul-tempered. But his hard-lined approach always yields results, evident by his recent infiltration of the Coalition. Thanks to Ash’s skills and the help of his team, they finally put an end to the murdering extremist group for good, though not before Ash takes a bullet to save teammate Cael Maddock. As a result, Ash’s secrets start to surface, and he can no longer ignore what’s in his heart.

Cael Maddock is no stranger to heartache. As a Recon Agent for Destructive Delta, he has successfully maneuvered through the urban jungle that is New York City, picking up his own scars along the way. Yet nothing he’s ever faced has been more of a challenge than the heart of Ash Keeler, his supposedly straight teammate. Being in love isn’t the only danger he and Ash face as wounds reopen and new secrets emerge, forcing them to question old loyalties.

Catch a Tiger by the Tail #6
Summary:
Calvin Summers and Ethan Hobbs have been best friends since childhood, but somewhere along the line, their friendship evolved into something more. With the Therian Youth Center bombing, Calvin realizes just how short life can be and no longer keeps his feelings for his best friend a secret. Unfortunately, change is difficult for Ethan; most days he does well to deal with his Selective Mutism and Social Anxiety. Calvin’s confession adds a new struggle for Ethan, one he fears might cost him the friendship that’s been his whole world for as long as he can remember.

As partners and Defense Agents at the THIRDS, being on Destructive Delta is tough at the best of times, but between call-outs and life-threatening situations, Calvin and Ethan not only face traversing the challenges of their job, but also working toward a future as more than friends.

THIRDS Beyond the Books Volume 1
Summary:
Join us as we celebrate the THIRDS universe with this collection of flash fiction stories written to prompts submitted by fans. Sometimes we want to know more about our favorite characters. Where they came from, how they became who they are, their families, friendships, and past heartaches. These snippets of moments in time offer an inside look at the lives of our favorite THIRDS characters. Whether it’s first shifts, the forging of unbreakable bonds, or a night full of shenanigans, these stories are sure to enrich your THIRDS reading experience.

๐Ÿ…๐Ÿพ๐Ÿฏ๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ† All royalties earned from THIRDS Beyond the Books are being donated to Big Cat Rescue ๐Ÿ†๐Ÿพ๐Ÿฏ๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ…

THIRDS Beyond the Books Volume 2
Summary:
Flash Fiction Stories in the THIRDS Universe

Return to the THIRDS universe with another collection of flash fiction stories inspired by prompts submitted by fans. Reunite with favorite THIRDS characters to explore even more of their hidden adventures and personal moments, and take the opportunity to learn more about them through this series of stories recounting the humor, heartbreak, friendship, hardship, and love these characters’ experience behind the scenes. Complete your THIRDS experience with these tales of stolen moments.

๐Ÿ…๐Ÿพ๐Ÿฏ๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ† All royalties earned from THIRDS Beyond the Books are being donated to Big Cat Rescue ๐Ÿ†๐Ÿพ๐Ÿฏ๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ…

Against the Grain #5
First off I just want to say how much I absolutely LOVE the whole THIRDS series!  Second, Ash Keeler drives me nuts and Cael Maddox is the epitome of "sweetheart".  Third, I did miss Dex and Sloane not being at the heart of this installment. Finally, as much as I missed Dex and Sloane being front and center, I loved seeing inside the gruff exterior of Ash and it's always a pleasure to see more of Cael.

When I first started Against I thought "what am I going to do without Dex's crazy love of everything 80s and Sloane's closeted nerdiness?" Well, by the time I was a chapter in I realized that not only were Dex and Sloane still there but that there was more to Ash than we were led to believe.  I won't give any more details about the story but I will say that getting to see into the hearts and mind of other members of Destructive Delta was a pleasant surprise and lovely treat.  Learning more of Ash's history doesn't soften his gruffness or increase his tolerance for Dex's antics but it does make me love him nearly as much as I love Dex, Sloane, and Cael.  As for Cael, there really isn't much I can say because he's just as adorable now as he was the first time we met him Hell and High Water.

All in all, Against the Grain is a brilliant addition to the THIRDS universe.  Even though a different couple is the focus of the story it furthers the ongoing journey of Delta and should be read in order. *Rushing off to read #6*

Catch a Tiger by the Tail #6
Once again we get to see inside the heart of a different couple of Destructive Delta, this time around we get to know Calvin Summers and Ethan Hobbs better.  From the very beginning I loved the fact that Ethan was diagnosed with selective mutism and severe anxiety.  Selective mutism is not something we often see in books, I won't lie I was a little afraid it would be difficult to get to know Hobbs as there isn't much dialogue from him because of his mutism but through Ethan, Charlie Cochet reminds us that we can learn more about people and their heart from their actions than the words they speak.

As with Against the Grain we get to learn more of Calvin and Hobbs' story with them being the focus but all the members of Delta and a few THIRDS agents are also here so it needs to be read in order as well.  Catch gives us insight into Calvin and Ethan but it also furthers the journey of all involved.  Sometimes when you think you are getting answers what you really are getting is more questions.  So having said that, I am off to read #7.

THIRDS Beyond the Books Volumes 1 & 2
Volume 1 & 2 Combined Review:
I really don't have much to say about these Beyond the Books volumes other than they are brilliant!  Such a great way to widen the THIRDS universe, with little glimpses within the time frame we're familiar with and moments prior to the series' beginning that give even greater depth to the characters we love.  There's too many to give detail about but I can't write a review for these extras without mentioning my absolute favorite one and that is the one where Tony has the sex talk with Dex, visual aids and all.  Not only do we get to see a young Dex be completely mortified with his father but we get to see the obvious love between father and son despite the topic at hand.

Truth is, I can't imagine being a THIRDS fan and not experiencing these short story collections.  They may not be crucial moments, most could be labeled "deleted scenes", but however you file them away in your mind they only heighten the series by adding layers to the whole THIRDS universe.

RATING:


Against the Grain #5
Chapter One
THERE WAS nowhere to run.

Ash Keeler had faced a hell of a lot in his life. He’d come up against terrorists, extremist groups, dangerous criminals, and lethal feral Therians. He’d been stabbed, taken hostage, had the shit beaten out of him, been shot—twice—but he’d never come face-to-face with the pissed-off dad of a potential romantic partner. And because Lady Luck had a habit of being a real bitch to him, the pissed-off dad before him also happened to be his sergeant.

After their last—unsanctioned—investigation, Bradley offered to open Bar Dekatria exclusively to Destructive Delta for a night of much-needed rest and relaxation. They’d been having a great time, even if some of them couldn’t drink thanks to Therian-strength antibiotics and painkillers. Ash was almost fully healed from his gunshot wound. Sloane still had a few weeks to recuperate, as did Cael, who was on crutches after that bastard Hogan fractured his leg. Luckily Cael was a quick healer, thanks to his cheetah Therian metabolism, so he’d be back to running full speed in no time. Ash couldn’t think about how much worse it could have been after Hogan had taken Cael. It made him want to tear the son of a bitch apart with his bare hands. Good thing he was already dead.

Everything had been going well at Dekatria until Maddock showed up with a baseball bat in his hand. Originally Ash thought the same as Sloane. That somehow their sergeant had found out about the mission. Instead Maddock had come to kick their asses for dating his sons under his nose. The only problem was Ash and Cael weren’t dating. Not that Ash hadn’t secretly thought about it. A lot. It was the logical step for two Therians who happened to be in love.

Ash stood silently beside Sloane in the back end of Dekatria while Maddock glared at them, his nostrils flaring and the old beat-up baseball bat in his hand. How many others had come up against—what had Cael called it? That’s right, Old Betsy. How many potential boyfriends had seen the rough side of Old Betsy? And now here he was, his every instinct telling him to flee. It was hardly the first time they’d seen their sergeant pissed off, but this was a whole other level of pissed.

This was stupid. Ash was a top agent for the THIRDS with twenty years of experience, skilled in entry tactics and close-quarters combat. He could handle one Human officer holding a baseball bat.

“Which one of you heartthrobs wants to go first?” Maddock growled.

Ash didn’t hesitate. “Sloane.”

“Wow.” Sloane shook his head at him in disbelief. “Way to throw me under the bus, buddy.”

Ash gave his best friend an apologetic smile. It was better to let Sloane do the talking. Knowing Ash and his propensity to piss people off, he’d open his mouth and make things a whole lot worse. Sloane was their Team Leader. He had experience in hostage negotiation. Most people liked him, the ones he didn’t scare the hell out of. Meanwhile, the majority of people disliked Ash from the moment they laid eyes on him.

“Sarge, you have every right to be pissed,” Sloane stated gently, his hands held up in front of him in surrender. He motioned to the bat in Maddock’s hand. Their sarge appeared to give it some thought before he lowered the bat, though not completely. “I know I should’ve said something, but I promise you, Dex and I talked long and hard about this, about our relationship and the job. Whatever happens, we’ll work through it. We’re very serious about a future together. I love him, sir, and maybe I don’t deserve him, but I’m going to try my damn hardest to be worthy of him. His happiness is important to me.”

Maddock pursed his lips, and his eyes narrowed. “How long you been practicing that speech, son?”

Sloane shifted awkwardly despite his crutches. “A while now.”

“Your honesty is appreciated, despite your dumbass attempt to keep something like this from me. I know those boys better than they know themselves. As far as your relationship goes, I have no intention of meddling or telling you what to do. I also don’t have to tell you what’s at stake. If Sparks gets wind of this—”

“I’ll figure it out,” Sloane said, his voice grave. “I won’t let her break up the team. Not if she wants to keep me around. I know what I’m worth to her, to the Chief of Therian Defense. If I have to use that, I will.”

“Shit.” Maddock ran a hand over his shaved head. “You really want to go up against them?”

Ash had never seen Sloane looking more determined. He wished he could be as confident about this as his friend.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my team together. My relationship with Dex is my business. What I do outside the job is my business. He’s my partner, and I’m not going anywhere without him.”

Maddock didn’t look pleased, but he gave Sloane a nod. “Okay. Now get lost.” He motioned to the door behind him. “Tell your boyfriend I expect assurances from him. I also expect him to help with Thanksgiving dinner. He wants to eat like a Therian, he can cook. I’ll see you both there.”

“Yes, sir.” Sloane smiled and headed for the door.

Hoping his sergeant might not notice, Ash made to slip past. He should’ve known better. Maddock put a hand to his chest to stop him. Damn. So close.

“I don’t think so, Keeler. You and I are going to have a little chat upstairs where it’s more comfortable and Dex is less likely to listen in. That boy’s like a damn ninja when he wants to eavesdrop, especially when it concerns Cael.” He turned and marched out the door. Reluctantly, Ash followed. Outside, everyone pretended not to notice, but he knew his nosey-ass team was following his every move. He stole a glance in Cael’s direction. His sweet face was filled with worry. Ash gave him a wink, hoping to ease his mind even if it didn’t ease his own.

Ash was sorely tempted to make a break for it, but he’d have to face Maddock at some point. They headed upstairs to the second floor of Dekatria, which Ash had forgotten was there. He and his team spent so much time downstairs around the bar and that godforsaken karaoke machine that he tended to forget Dekatria had two other floors, one of them a roof garden. Maybe he should check it out one evening and invite Cael up for a drink. Lou had rambled on about how gorgeous it was, with its fairy lights and candles. All romantic and shit. Romantic? What the hell was wrong with him?Here he was about to argue the fact he wasn’t dating Cael, and he was getting thoughts about having drinks with the guy up in a romantic roof garden. Get your shit together, Keeler.

He followed Maddock’s lead and slid into one of the booths, taking a seat across from Maddock and Old Betsy, which was tucked on the bench beside him. Both of them sat in silence as Bradley placed coasters and soft drinks on the table without making eye contact. As soon as he was done he darted from the place like it might spontaneously combust. All right, time to man up and grow a pair.

“Sir, whatever you might think, Cael and I aren’t sleeping together. We’re not even together.”

Maddock’s frown deepened. “That’s what worries me.”

Not what he expected. “I’m confused.”

“Cael’s in love with you, and I know you care about him, maybe even love him. Hell, you took a bullet for him. And that’s not the first time you sustained injuries to keep him safe.”

Ash couldn’t bring himself to confirm Maddock’s statement about him loving Cael. He shifted uncomfortably and took a sip of his Coke. What he really needed was some vodka. “How long have you known?”

“I had my suspicions for a while but felt it wasn’t the right time to address it. With Dex, my suspicions were confirmed at the hospital.” Maddock let out a heavy sigh and sat back, his gaze off in the distance at nothing in particular. “When I saw him at Sloane’s bedside, his anguish clear as day as he tried not to fall apart, I knew he’d fallen in love. Broke my damn heart seeing him like that.”

“For what it’s worth,” Ash offered, “those two are crazy about each other. I’ve known Sloane since we were kids. Believe me. He’s in deep. And I’m not just saying that because he’s my best friend. You know Sloane. He might not be perfect, but he’s a good guy.”

“And you?”

God, he wished he were anywhere but here right now. He’d even take sitting in on one of Intel’s long-ass boring-as-fuck presentations with all their mind-numbing algorithms and PowerPoints. They worked under the military branch of the government, and still they couldn’t escape those fucking things. “What about me?” Did his sergeant really want him to answer that? Besides, judging by his expression, Maddock already knew the answer.

“Sloane has his issues, and although he might need some sense knocked into him every once and a while, he finds his way. More importantly, I can see how he’s opened up with Dex. When things get rough, he turns to the man he loves. He’s grown more confident in himself and their relationship. He smiles more. Laughs. I haven’t seen him happy like this in a long time. It’s good. You on the other hand….” Maddock leaned forward, and his hard gaze pinned Ash to the spot. “I know behind that fierce roar of yours is a guy who isn’t as sure of himself as he pretends to be. You’re aggressive and, let’s face it, an asshole.”

And there it was in a nutshell. “Thanks, Sarge,” Ash muttered.

“I’m not done. You might be an asshole, but you’re a good man where it counts and a damn fine agent. I’d be a fool to say your methods haven’t provided results out in the field. There are no easy answers in this line of work, but you always find a way to cut straight through all the bullshit, and I respect that. But we’re not talking about fieldwork here. We’re talking about my son. I know you care about Cael, but you’ve got some angry demons inside of you looking to claw their way to the surface, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s the fact you don’t know who you are. Where does that leave Cael, besides on the road to a broken heart? You think I haven’t noticed how miserable he’s been since your undercover job? Or how he fucked up that training simulation?”

Ash straightened. This was the first he’d heard about this. “When?”

“While you were working undercover to infiltrate the Coalition. Sloane executed a breaching simulation. The usual training session. Cael had been so wrapped up in his own little world, he looked at the wrong screen and gave Calvin the all clear.”

Shit. “Let me guess. It wasn’t clear.”

“Nope. Your partner shot him in the leg. Twice.”

“Wait, Calvin got shot? How? And where the hell was Hobbs?” No Human got the drop on Calvin from that distance, especially with any kind of firearm. The guy was the fastest shooter on their team and a fucking sniper. What the hell was going on? As if reading his thoughts, Maddock spoke up.

“Yeah, Cael wasn’t the only one who fucked up that day. Those two aren’t your problem. I’ll deal with them. The point is Cael’s focus wasn’t on the job, it was on you. Remember this, Keeler. Just because you don’t hear me or see me doesn’t mean I don’t know every little thing going on with my team.” Maddock sat back with a sigh. “Dex and Cael wear their hearts on their sleeves. It makes it easy to know what’s going on in their heads. It also makes it easy for someone to hurt them. I like you, for the most part. What I don’t like is where this is heading.”

“And where’s that?” Ash was curious. He wasn’t exactly a catch. Maddock had every right to be concerned. Ash’s track record for successful relationships left a lot to be desired. With Cael, it was different. Man, was that an understatement. It had been so much simpler when they’d been friends. Being affectionate toward Cael had come easy. Cael had brought out emotions in him he hadn’t known existed. Now Ash was having trouble figuring out which way was up.

“Let me tell you a little story.”

“Sarge, as much as I’m enjoying this little one-on-one, this is between me and Cael.” Ash turned to get up, surprised when Maddock put a hand out to stop him.

“Sit your ass down. You need to hear this.”

Ash didn’t question Maddock. He resumed his seat and listened, not liking the way his sergeant rubbed at the salt-and-pepper stubble on his jaw, as if he were reluctant to say whatever was on his mind. He seemed to come to a decision about it and nodded.

“Aside from the various boyfriends who dumped Cael for reasons ranging from his being smarter than them to things just not working out, there are two who are on my shit list. Those relegated to the Tony Maddock shit list are Therians I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. One, Shane Cruz. Despite Dex’s warning to his brother about falling for a straight guy, Cael fell for him anyway. The reason he’s on the shit list is because he used Cael’s feelings to take advantage of him, getting Cael to do his assignments. That dumbass not only graduated high school with high marks because of Cael, he earned himself a scholarship off Cael’s hard work. Then he packed up, changed his number, and fucked off to California. Broke Cael’s heart.”

Ash didn’t reply. If he did, only unpleasant words would come out. Wherever Shane Cruz was, Ash hoped karma came back to bite him on the ass or punch him in the balls. Ash preferred the latter.

“The second, he’s at the very top of the shit list.”

Maddock’s expression darkened, and Ash braced himself. He really didn’t want to hear this, but like an idiot, he sat there and listened.

“The only reason I didn’t throw his ass in jail or the fucking Hudson River is because Cael wouldn’t let me.”

“Jail?” Jesus, it was worse than he thought. Why hadn’t Cael told him? Cael shared everything with him, despite Ash’s inability to do the same more often than not. “Shouldn’t Cael be the one telling me all this?”

Maddock continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Have you noticed how Cael apologizes for everything? Even when he’s done nothing wrong? When there’s nothing for him to apologize for? Why do you think that is?”

Ash shrugged and sat back. “I figured it’s just part of his nature. He’s a sweet guy.”

“It’s not part of his nature,” Maddock growled, surprising Ash. “It’s what happens when a piece of shit like Don Fuller gets his claws into a guy like Cael. Nearly two years that son of a bitch put my boy through hell. You don’t know what it’s like to have your son come home with a black eye and know his boyfriend was the one responsible.”

“What the fuck?” Ash slammed his fist on the table, the drink glasses jumping and causing the soda to spill. He caught himself, remembering who he was talking to. “Sorry.” Ash swiped a handful of napkins from the dispenser at the end of the booth and promptly cleaned up the spilled liquid. He had to calm down. If he didn’t…. Fuck, he didn’t even want to think about it. Before his thoughts could turn ugly, Maddock continued.

“I never told Cael this, but that night, Dex kept me from doing something stupid.”

Ash pushed the soggy napkins to one side. There was something in Maddock’s eyes, in his tone, that said maybe he wished he’d done whatever it was he’d meant to do that night.

Maddock shook his head, his eyes filled with a pain and silent rage Ash imagined only a parent could feel, knowing their child was in danger.

“You should have heard Cael. Apologizing for that bastard, blaming himself for whatever it was that set Fuller off, promising he could handle it, that it wouldn’t happen again. After Cael cried himself to sleep, I went downstairs, grabbed the crowbar from my toolbox, and I headed out the door with every intention of beating the ever-living shit out of that son of a bitch. I didn’t care that he was a Therian, that I was a THIRDS officer. The entire time, I kept thinking, ‘How fucking dare he lay a hand on my boy?’ I got my keys out of my pocket, ready to get in the car, when Dex stepped in front of me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t let that asshole break up our family. I’ll take care of it.’ Cael couldn’t see what we saw. The only way to get him away from Fuller for good was for Dex to get through to Cael. Cael had to be the one to walk away, to really see Fuller for what he was.” Maddock rubbed his eyes. “Most heartbreaking year of my life. But Dex never gave up.”

Ash couldn’t believe what he’d heard. Maddock was even more protective of Cael than he was of Dex. Cael was the baby of the family, always coddled by his big brother and dad. Dex wouldn’t hesitate in taking someone down if they tried to hurt Cael. Hell, Dex had punched Ash in the face when he’d been undercover and said some harsh words to Cael in an attempt to keep him safe, and Ash was his teammate. Yet somehow that asshole Fuller had managed almost two years with Cael? God only knew what damage he’d caused in that time. Ash didn’t know what to do with this information other than feel rage.

“How could you let it happen?”

Maddock narrowed his eyes at him. “I didn’t let it happen, Keeler. You think if I’d known what was going on, I wouldn’t have addressed it sooner? Cael spent more time with that bastard than he did with his family. At first Dex and I thought it was just young love. It wasn’t. Fuller convinced Cael that he needed to devote all his time to him, because he couldn’t stand to be away from Cael. It was bullshit. Cael was falling hard, and Fuller knew it. He played it just right when we met him, said all the right things to come off as a genuinely decent guy. Something didn’t sit right with me, but I put it down to my never liking any guy looking to be Cael’s boyfriend. I pulled a background check on Fuller, and he was clean. The guy’d just been recruited to the THIRDS, for fuck’s sake.”

Ash could feel his anger threatening to burst free, but he maintained a firm grip. He needed to hear the rest of this, even if it killed him.

“Cael would make excuses every time we called about why he couldn’t come to dinner or hang out with his brother. It hurt Dex, but he respected Cael’s privacy. Of course, you know Dex can’t be ignored for long. He grew more and more suspicious. And when that boy gets something in his head, ain’t nothing gonna stop him. He’d show up at Cael’s school, his job at the campus coffee shop, wherever he could. That’s when we noticed little things. New insecurities Cael never had before. He was apologizing more. Seemed more skittish than usual, more down on himself. He’d always had confidence issues over his Therian form, but after some time with Fuller it was something else altogether.”

“What kind of Therian was Fuller?”

Maddock hesitated before replying. “He was a lion Therian.”

Fucking fantastic. Ash ran a hand over his hair. Because lion Therians didn’t have a bad enough reputation as it was. Of all the Felid Therians, they were the ones who got the most shit, that they were lazy, possessive, chest-beating assholes and bullies who only got off their asses when it was to their benefit. Ash had heard it all. Had been hearing it all his life. Luckily he didn’t really give a shit what people thought, but lion Therians like Fuller didn’t help matters.

“Anyway, after Cael refused to press charges against Fuller, Dex and I kept an eye on the guy. Call it invasion of privacy or whatever the hell you want, but that’s my son, and I wasn’t about to let Fuller hurt him again. That’s when we realized what was really going on. The way Fuller talked to Cael? He made him feel like he was the only guy in the world, made him feel loved and happy. Then he would pull the rug out from under him and crush him. It went on and on. He’d convinced Cael he was the weakest of the Felids. How he was small and useless. How he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. Then one day, Dex and Cael got into an argument. Dex threw his arms up in frustration, and Cael backed up against the wall. We’d been under the impression the black eye had been the first time Fuller had assaulted him. Cael swore left and right that Fuller had regretted it since and it had been the end of it. It was just the beginning.”

Ash jumped to his feet. “What?” His hands balled into fists, and he felt his vision sharpen, his fangs threatening to elongate. He had to get a grip.

“Sit down,” Maddock ordered quietly.

“How could you not know? You’re a fucking THIRDS agent. Dex was fucking HPF.”

A host of emotions flashed through Maddock’s eyes, and Ash backed off. It wasn’t his intention to give his sergeant such a hard time over something that had pained his family so deeply, but Ash was finding it difficult to swallow all this. He couldn’t get past someone hurting Cael and getting away with it. Reluctantly, he forced himself to sit.

“Cael was already training to be a THIRDS agent. He’d graduated top of his class. He’s smart. He grew up in a cop house. Which meant he knew what we’d look for, knew how to conceal the evidence. What to do, what to say. Cael really believed Fuller was helping him be stronger, tougher. We tried to get him away from Fuller, but he was blinded by what he believed Fuller felt for him. The way the guy got into his head, twisted everything Cael thought about himself, about us? It still makes me sick thinking about it.”

Ash was forced to close his eyes. He hung his head in an attempt to gather his thoughts and keep calm. He couldn’t think about Fuller, couldn’t think about Cael bruised and in pain at the hands of someone who was a worthless piece of shit. Compartmentalize. That’s what he had to do, what he’d been doing all his life. There was a reason Maddock was telling him all this. His eyes flew open, and his head shot up.

“You think I’d harm Cael?” He couldn’t help the hurt in his voice. “Because if you’re telling me that after twenty years of knowing me you think I’m capable of laying a hand on Cael to hurt him, then you can have my badge right now.”

“Relax. I know you wouldn’t, and I’m not comparing you to Fuller. Like I said, you’re a good guy, whereas Fuller thought he was. I needed you to know because you’re not the only one battling demons. Cael just has a different way of dealing with them. The last thing he needs is someone adding to that pain. It took years for Cael to undo some of the damage Fuller had caused, and even now he’s still healing. Some wounds may never heal. I’m telling you because even if you sort out all your shit, you need to know it won’t be easy with him. He puts on a brave front a good deal of the time. Like Dex, he’s an expert at evasive tactics. If he doesn’t want you to see or know something, he will do what it takes to keep you out of the loop, and that’s dangerous for everyone. There’s still a lot you don’t know about Cael. Believe me.”

Ash frowned. “I know everything about Cael.” Didn’t he?

“Oh? So you know about the panic attacks?”

“What panic attacks?” Damn. Ash sighed. “No.” In the five years he’d known Cael, not once had he seen Cael experiencing a panic attack. He’d had moments of panic but never suffered a panic attack. Was it possible he had at some point and kept it hidden from Ash? How much had Cael kept secret from him? How much of himself had Cael held back?

“It’s been years since he’s had them, but he used to get them all the time when he was with Fuller. Really bad ones. I thought you should know so you can be prepared.”

“Thanks.” A part of him wished he hadn’t been told any of this. He hated not having been around to protect Cael. But then he could hardly look out for someone he hadn’t met yet. He could protect Cael now, and he had every intention of doing so. Maddock sat pensively.

“What happened to Fuller? Please tell me he’s not still with the THIRDS.” The guy definitely wasn’t Unit Alpha, or Ash would have recognized the name. He’d never heard it before now. The THIRDS wouldn’t keep a guy like Fuller around.

Maddock shook his head. “He didn’t last very long. Failed one of his psych evals due to violent tendencies and unresponsiveness where empathy was required. Ironically, it was during a Therian domestic violence scenario. Must have hit too close to home, and I’m guessing he couldn’t fake his way through it. Especially since by this point, Cael had pressed charges.

“It was after Fuller put Cael in the hospital with a broken arm and a concussion. That wasn’t what got him to press charges, though. It was seeing Dex tackled to the floor by me and four of my agents when Fuller had the fucking nerve to show up at the hospital. If we hadn’t restrained Dex, who the hell knows what he would’ve done to Fuller. My guys got Fuller the hell out, and Cael managed to calm Dex down. Cael realized if he didn’t do something, his big brother would, and the end result would most likely be Dex throwing his career and maybe even his life away, all to protect him from Fuller. Cael wouldn’t let that happen. Fuller was charged with assault and battery. He failed his eval, was let go from the THIRDS, convicted of third-degree assault, and sentenced to a year in a Therian prison. That was years ago. Last I heard he was working construction in Carson City somewhere.”

“Good fucking riddance.” Ash took a sip of his drink. Though he would have preferred it if the guy had driven off a fucking cliff, he took comfort the guy had been sent to a Therian prison, or the Zoo, as some Therians referred to it. Locked away with the rest of the fucking animals. Maybe it was time to check up on Fuller and makes sure his ass was still in Carson City.

They sat in silence, each lost in his own thoughts when Maddock broke through the quiet. “Son, do you want to be with him?”

Ash nodded and tried to swallow past the lump in his throat from having Maddock call him son. Not even his own father had called him that. He’d called him a host of names but never that. Maddock had always been good to him, but did he really want his sergeant to know the truth? Sloane was the only one who knew about his past. What would Maddock think of him? Ash had never been very good with authority, which was ironic considering where he ended up. Respect was something to be earned. Anthony Maddock had gained it from day one. Even when they butted heads, Ash respected Maddock and strived to make him proud.

“So what’s the problem? Or is it none of my business?”

“It’s personal,” Ash replied quietly.

“Does it have to do with why you’re so hung up on the whole gay thing? No one cares about that anymore. And you’re both Therian, so you won’t get the same level of shit Sloane and Dex will get once their relationship is out there.” His frown deepened. “There’s a lot of stupid in this world. I hope those two are ready for it.”

“They can handle themselves. And I know no one will care that Cael’s a guy. You’re not the first to tell me that, believe me. The problem is I care, because the last time I gave into what I felt for a guy, my brother got killed.”

Maddock cursed under his breath. “Jesus, Ash. Why the hell didn’t I know you had a brother?”

“When Shultzon registered me, he made sure to keep certain personal information out of our files. I had a twin brother. Arlo. He was killed during the riots. We were just kids.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Can I ask what happened?”

“I fucked up, and Arlo paid the price. I was supposed to have been there the day he was killed, but I wasn’t. I was with this boy I had a crush on. I sent Arlo home on his own, and he was killed.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, but how do you know you wouldn’t have been killed along with him if you’d gone home together?”

Ash grimaced. “Now you sound like Sloane.”

“I would listen to him. He’s a smart guy. Whatever happened that day, no matter how tragic, isn’t your fault.”

His parents hadn’t thought so. They’d blamed him for Arlo’s death. He remembered that day clearly. He’d wanted to die. To be with Arlo and away from his parents, who hated him, from all the horrible things his father said to him, from the pain his father inflicted on him. Then Ash had shifted, and his world officially went to hell.

“Either way, that fucked me up, Sarge. I’ve tried to move on from it, but the thought of what I did, of how I wasn’t there to protect Arlo, it’s been eating away at me year after year after year. When I think of being with Cael, I think about how giving in to what I felt all those years ago brought nothing but pain and heartache. It destroyed my family. When I’m out with the team, with Cael, I tell myself no one knows what I’m really feeling or thinking. They don’t. Yet it feels like they do, like they’re judging me, condemning me. How can I be the man Cael deserves when the thought of holding his hand in public scares the ever-living shit out of me?” How was it he could compartmentalize everything else in his life, but when it came to Cael, everything was a jumbled mess?

“Have you talked to Cael about this?”

“No.” Ash frowned down at his fingers on the table. “I told him we’d sit down and talk, and we will. I need to figure things out.”

“You do that.” Maddock reached out and patted his arm before sliding out of the booth, taking Old Betsy with him. “Talk to each other. Let him help you. If you really care about him the way you say you do, then let him help you. Sometimes, no matter our strength, we need someone we care about to lean on, and that’s okay.”

Catch a Tiger by the Tail #6
Chapter One
HE WAS being hunted.

The shadows around him swirled and drifted as if he were underwater. If he wasn’t careful he’d drown all right, in his own blood.

Calvin kept a steady grip on his rifle. He breathed in slow through his nose and released it through his mouth, his breath coming up warm against his skin thanks to the face mask shielding him from the bitter cold. Thank God for THIRDS thermal uniforms. He would have frozen his ass off by now without it. Three degrees. What the ever-loving fuck? This was New York City, not Canada. Any day now it would drop below zero; he just knew it. These guys picked the wrong day to fuck up. Felid agents enjoyed a frolic in the snow as much as the next Therian, but not in the middle of the night, and sure as shit not when it was cold enough to freeze their whiskers off. Pissed-off Felids equaled epic hissy fits.

There was a faint cackle in the distance, and he turned with exceptional care, his boots sinking into the blankets of freshly fallen snow. His earpiece came to life, Dex’s quiet voice hushed on the other end.

“Calvin, visuals?”

“Negative,” Calvin replied, continuing onward. It was eerily quiet. As if the city itself was slumbering and hiding from the unrelenting cold. The only sounds around him were the howling wind and the snow compressing underneath his boots. The wind picked up, and the snow fell in earnest. It made finding the gang of hyena Therians in Central Park’s North Woods even harder, especially with their own agents in their Therian forms out there hunting. Maybe his Human teammates were having better luck. He doubted it, considering how quiet his com was. Ethan had caught the scent of one of their suspects several minutes ago and disappeared into the woods. Calvin hadn’t heard from or seen his partner since, meaning Ethan was still stalking. Somewhere in the pitch-black night, Sloane and Ash were doing the same. Cael, the lucky bastard, got to sit in the warmth of their BearCat working surveillance.

A perimeter had been set up down E. Seventy-Ninth Street, cutting through Central Park, up Central Park West, across 110th Street, and down Fifth Avenue. If any of these assholes tried to make a break for the city, they’d be met with a shower of tranqs and Theta Destructive’s Therian agents in their Therian form. It was up to Destructive Delta to make sure they didn’t get that far.

There was another distinct cackle, closer this time. Calvin picked up his pace and spoke into his com. “I heard something. I’m gonna check it out.”

“What’s your position?” Dex asked, his tone void of its usual humor. Sparks had been kicking their asses in training for weeks since the whole mess with Shultzon and the facility went down, but no one was getting it as bad as Dex and Sloane. The two were being groomed. They all knew it. Hell, even Dex and Sloane knew it. They just didn’t know what for. In the meantime, his teammates went along with it. None of them were against strengthening or widening their skill set, especially Dex, who was still trying to figure out what his skill set was. In Calvin’s opinion, Dex was secretly enjoying the grueling regime. Eventually he’d get to the bottom of whatever Sparks was keeping from them. Dex always did.

“I’m coming up behind the Blockhouse.” Calvin slowed as he approached the old military fortification. It had been built in the 1800s to defend against the British. Now it was a deathtrap. Any number of Therians could be hiding in or around its stone walls.

“Watch your back,” Dex said.

“Affirmative.” Calvin crouched down by some dense shrubbery draped in layers of fluffy white and scanned the area. Half a dozen or so feral hyena Therians were hiding somewhere in here, all high as kites. THIRDS agents had been issued a warrant and sent to arrest the gang after receiving a tip-off to their location. Before the team could make the arrest, the gang managed to escape by blowing their meth lab into the next town. Luckily there were no casualties, but the group caused havoc through the city before teams from Unit Alpha cornered them in Central Park. That was over an hour ago.

Spotted hyena Therians were anything but the cowards many Humans pegged them to be. In their feral form they were lethal, skilled at hunting at night, had powerful jaws, moved in packs, and defended themselves fiercely. A low giggle met Calvin’s ear, and a shadow moved behind the Blockhouse. He readied his tranq rifle before moving in.

“THIRDS! Come out slowly!” Calvin held his rifle firm and took aim at the hyena growling at him from the shadows, its glowing eyes following his every move. Slowly it crept forward, the darkness following it as if it were some otherworldly spirit. It laughed, calling to its friends. The hairs on the back of Calvin’s neck stood on end, and he spun just as a hyena Therian lunged at him, knocking him off his feet. His body hit the snow, the Therian’s jaws clamping down on his rifle. Shit! Movement from his left caught his attention, and he swiped his backup tranq gun from his vest to fire at the approaching Therian. The tranq got him in the neck, and he yelped before scurrying off.

Calvin wrestled with the hyena Therian attempting to crunch his rifle like a tasty bone. Saliva dripped onto Calvin’s uniform, and he caught sight of a third hyena Therian circling him, looking for the right angle to pounce. All right, he’d had just about enough of this bullshit. Calvin fired his tranq gun at the Therian chewing on his rifle, and the asshat stumbled off him, the dart sticking out of his neck. He shook his head and laughed that creepy sound of theirs. Multiple sets of glowing eyes and dark shapes popped up in the woods around him. What the hell?

Calvin scrambled to his feet and tapped his com. “Dex, there’s more than six!”

“What?”

“I don’t know where the hell they came from, but I’m looking at seven or eight. Maybe more.”

“Shit. Hang tight. We’re heading your way.”

Calvin fired at the glowing eyes as he backed up slowly. He heard a yelp followed by several cackles, whoops, and laughs. They moved fast as hell. Calvin wasn’t in the habit of missing, but his accuracy depended highly on him being able to actually see his target. Every time he aimed at a set of eyes he assumed was attached to the dark blob surrounding it, it shifted or disappeared. He had to draw them out. Fuck. He hated this part.

Slinging his rifle strap back into place, he broke off into a run in the opposite direction, which was a pain in the ass in the heavy snow, thanks to the weight of his equipment. He moved as fast as he could, the cackles and laughs getting closer as the Therians emerged from the darkness to give chase. There was a small bridge ahead that crossed over the frozen creek. Hauling ass, he headed for the bridge, chancing a swift glance over his shoulder. Please let this work.

A pack of growling hyena Therians were right on his tail, almost close enough to nip at his heels. He pushed himself harder, his brow beaded with sweat and his lungs burning from the frosty air he was gulping down as he raced through the woods. If he stopped, they’d all descend on him like feral beasts, tearing at him until there was nothing left of him but his equipment. They wouldn’t even leave his bones. Fuck that. He wasn’t about to become a meal for these assholes.

“Ethan!” Calvin cried out, knowing his partner would hear him wherever he was. His best friend would never let anything happen to him if he could help it. Ethan would be there to fight for him, to look out for him, and keep him safe. They had each other’s backs, on and off the field. It’s how it had always been. The two of them against the world.

From the corner of his right eye, he caught sight of one of the hyena Therians fast approaching. It launched itself at him, and Calvin fired his rifle, but it didn’t stop the bastard from barreling into him and knocking him over. It clamped its jaws down on Calvin’s shoulder, its teeth sinking through the fabric and hitting his ballistic vest’s integrated shoulder plate, giving Calvin enough time to throw a right hook, catching the bastard on the side of the head. With a yelp it rolled off, only to quickly recover, fangs bared as it snarled at him.

The fierce roar that erupted from somewhere in the woods had a paralyzing effect. The tree branches shook, the snow plopping to the ground. Soon enough the hyena Therians snapped out of it and charged Calvin. He readied himself, grabbing his rifle and taking aim, when Ethan leaped out from the darkness and skidded to a stop in front of Calvin. He roared again, huge sharp fangs bare. The sound was terrifying, bringing everything and everyone to a halt for a slip of a moment. Two of the hyena Therians darted off with yips and whines. Half a dozen or so remained.

“Okay, buddy. Let’s do this.” Calvin got to his feet and cocked his rifle. The Therians scattered, and he took off after them, Ethan at his side. Ethan kept the hyena Therians from disappearing into the woods, roaring and leaping out, driving them out into the open areas of the park. It was exactly what Calvin needed. A nice clear shot.

Calvin anticipated their movements, shooting where he thought they’d be instead of reacting. He plugged one in two places. It dropped into the snow. The remaining gang members did everything they could to stay out of Ethan’s way while still attempting to get close to Calvin. His claws would take them out in one swipe. Snow flew like waves crashing against a shore as Ethan ran, leaped, and swatted his paws. Realizing they didn’t stand a chance against a tiger Therian, they all scattered and took off toward Calvin.

“Where the hell are you guys?” Calvin yelled into his com. Just as he said the words, Ash roared. He emerged from the shrubs, launching himself at two of the hyena Therians. They attacked him, biting at his massive mane and getting nothing but a mouthful of fur. Letty tore through the trees, tranq guns blazing. Sloane was seconds behind with Dex on his tail. Dex aimed his rifle and fired. Another one down. Their Felid teammates corralled the remaining hyena Therians while Dex, Calvin, and Letty approached with rifles at the ready.

“On the ground!” Dex ordered. “Get on the ground now!”

The hyena Therians did as asked, dropping down to their bellies, their ears flattened. Sloane, Ash, and Ethan circled the perps, hissing and growling, their sharp fangs on display as a warning to anyone thinking of doing something stupid. One wrong move, and they’d be kitty chow.

Dex tapped his com. “Sarge, area’s secure. We have the remaining Therians.”

“Copy that,” Maddock replied. “Theta Destructive is backing up their truck.”

“Copy that.” Dex kept his rifle aimed at the perps as he addressed them. “You can either get in the truck on your own or be carried after we tranq you. It’s your choice. Try anything funny, and our Felid agents will be happy to remind you why cooperating is in your best interest.”

The truck arrived, and Theta Destructive’s agents hurried out. They rounded up the unconscious hyena Therians and laid them in the cage. The ones not tranqed begrudgingly trotted up the ramp and into the back of the truck. A couple hesitated in front of the cage, but Ethan’s roar got them moving quick after that. With the remaining perps locked up and secure, the doors closed, and the truck was off.

“Thank God that’s over,” Letty grumbled, giving Ash a scratch behind his ear. He scrunched his nose and shook his head, causing snow to fall from his mane.

Ethan sat beside Calvin and pushed his nose against his leg. With a chuckle, Calvin gave Ethan a nice scratch behind his ear and over his head. Not content with a mere ear scratch, Ethan mewed and bumped his head against Calvin’s leg. “Yeah, all right,” Calvin said with a laugh. He crouched down and scratched Ethan under his chin and the sides of his face, ruffling his thick fur. Ethan shut his eyes in contentment before bumping his head playfully against Calvin’s. He chuffed, then let out a low moan, one Calvin was familiar with. Ethan had been worried. It was evident in the noises he made, and his rubbing his head against Calvin, as if touching him was the only way to reassure himself Calvin was okay. “I’m good, Ethan. Promise.”

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Letty said, heading in the direction of their BearCat. “I’m fucking starving.” Ash hopped and pounced after her. Clearly he was hungry as well. Sloane bounded after Ash, smacking him on the rump with his paw. Ash growled and chased him, the two frolicking in the snow and pouncing, sending each other tumbling.

“You’d think they’d be tired of the snow by now,” Dex said, shaking his head in amusement.

Calvin motioned toward Dex’s arm, the one with Sloane’s mark. “How did it go? Does it work?” Despite being on callouts for a month now, this had been the first really dangerous call. They’d all been worried about Dex being out among a bunch of feral Therians with his lover’s Therian mark on his arm. Before they left, Sparks had called Dex into her office and given him some kind of scent masking sleeve to wear under his uniform. She’d warned him it only lasted a few hours, so he better get whatever he needed done before it wore off. It was clearly TIN issued, because there was nothing out there in the market that could mask a Therian scent like that.

“So far it’s working great. If they smelled anything on me, it was Sloane’s usual scent. Shame it doesn’t have a longer shelf life. Still, I don’t know why there’s nothing out there like this.”

“I’m not surprised, to be honest,” Calvin admitted. “Marking is serious. I mean, not even marriage is permanent. That”—Calvin pointed to Dex’s arm—“is.”

Dex went pensive, and Calvin wondered if Dex and Sloane were aware of the kind of commitment they’d made to each other. The majority of Therians had no idea how deep those scars ran. Humans knew even less.

For the most part, no one at work had challenged Sloane, but then everyone respected him at the THIRDS, whether they personally liked him or not, and none were stupid enough to challenge him. Jaguar Therians weren’t to be messed with. A good number of them were grumpy at the best of times, without being challenged over their lover. Taylor was a little funny around Dex and appeared to be doing his best to avoid him, but that was seen as more of a blessing in disguise than a great concern. With this new contraption on Dex’s arm, things should go back to normal. Well, as normal as was possible for Dex.

Dex turned to Calvin with a wicked smile. Uh-oh. He should have known Dex wouldn’t remain quiet for long.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Probably not,” Calvin replied with a laugh. He doubted anyone thought what Dex did.

Dex held his arms out at his sides and fell onto his back, his body compressing the snow under the weight of his equipment. Calvin laughed as Dex moved his arms up and down and his legs open and closed, declaring cheerfully, “Snow angels!”

It was official. His friend was a nutcase. “How old are you again?”

“Old enough to make some awesome snow angels. Come on.”

Calvin arched an eyebrow at him. “You want me to roll around in the snow wearing eighty pounds of tactical gear?”

“Yes! No one’s watching. We have a few minutes before someone comes looking for us.”

Calvin couldn’t believe he was even considering it. What the hell. Why not? He walked close to Dex, turned, and spread his arms before dropping back into the thick layers of snow. The two of them laughed like a couple of schoolboys as they wiped the snow with their limbs. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this. Actually, he could. It was with Ethan, back when they were a couple of lanky, awkward teens. They’d make snow angels in the empty parking lot near their old apartment building and lie there together laughing, watching the clouds go by. Speaking of his best friend, Ethan pounced into the snow next to Calvin, his tail twitching before he started rolling around in the snow.

“What in the hell are you three doing?”

Shit. Calvin sat up, feeling his cheeks burning. Ethan leaped behind him to hide. Like Maddock wouldn’t be able to spot his huge tiger Therian butt sticking out from behind Calvin. Dex, on the other hand, was unfazed by their sergeant’s scowl. He smiled widely up at Maddock. “Snow angels.”

“Let me rephrase that. Why in the hell are you two making snow angels?”

“Because it’s fun. Remember when you used to do them with me and Cael?” Dex turned his head to Calvin. “We lost my brother in the snow once. I shit you not. Dad had to excavate him.”

Calvin burst out laughing. “What?”

“It’s true,” Maddock grumbled. “The boys jumped into this huge mound of snow in the backyard despite my telling them not to a hundred times. Dex dug his way out the side of it, but Cael got lost. He was so small, wearing this puffy coat onesie.”

“Didn’t help that his onesie was white.” Dex sat up with a chuckle. He shook his head at his dad. “Not the brightest idea.”

Maddock shrugged. “Hey, I told him that, but it’s the one he wanted.”

Dex laughed. “He looked like a marshmallow.”

With a laugh, Calvin got to his feet. He helped Dex up, smiling as Dex and Maddock walked off, reminiscing about the brothers’ childhood shenanigans. Calvin followed, holding onto Ethan’s tail as his partner walked ahead of him. Felids hated having their tails grabbed, but Calvin had been holding onto Ethan’s since childhood. It had been their security blanket back when it was just the two of them.

Inside the BearCat, their team was secured in their seats with Sloane lying serenely at Dex’s feet. Ash sat beside Cael at the surveillance console, his eyes closed and his head on Cael’s lap as Cael went on about some new gadget he’d put together. Letty and Rosa chatted, while Maddock took the wheel. It was far too cold for their Therian teammates to want to shift back to Human form in the truck. Most Felids had little tolerance for the cold. Calvin was strapped in his seat at the end of the bench, and Ethan lay beside him on the floor, his large furry head resting on Calvin’s lap.

Man, he was beat. Another twelve-hour, ten-day rotation coming to an end. He couldn’t wait to get in, have a hot shower, and totally crash. As if sensing his thoughts, Ethan huffed. He rubbed his head against Calvin’s leg, seeking affection. Calvin obliged, absently stroking his head or scratching behind his ears as he listened to his team chatting. At one point Calvin dozed off, woken up only when Ethan nuzzled Calvin’s face. He couldn’t have drifted off long since the truck was still moving.

The near silence around him spoke volumes of how tired everyone was. Even Dex was mostly quiet, murmuring softly at Sloane while nuzzling him. Their Team Leader’s deep chainsaw-like purrs reverberated through the truck. His eyes were closed in contentment, and he didn’t care who heard him purr. The change in Sloane amazed Calvin. A year and a half ago Sloane had been ready and eager to kick Dex’s ass at the drop of a hat. The mere mention of the guy had been enough to draw a feral growl from Sloane.

It had been rough for all of them. Sloane had been miserable and, quite frankly, an asshole. Not that Calvin blamed him. He knew how much Sloane had been hurting. Now Sloane was so at peace, his tail didn’t even twitch. Calvin couldn’t help his smile. His friend was happy again. The team had mourned Gabe’s loss, and like Calvin, they’d begun to mourn the loss of their Team Leader and friend.

Dex lifted his head, and their gazes met. A warm smile came onto his friend’s face, as if he knew what Calvin had been thinking. With a wink, Dex turned his attention back to Sloane, who nudged at his hand until his muzzle was underneath it. Dex chuckled, leaving his hand on Sloane’s muzzle and scratching the top of his head with his free hand.

It had taken Calvin some time to figure Dex out, to see the man behind the big kid persona. Calvin understood why Ethan was able to talk to Dex. The guy was nothing but genuine in everything he did, loyal to a fault, and would go through the very gates of hell itself to protect those he cared about. Yeah, sometimes Dex did stupid things, but he wasn’t stupid. He had his reasons. Like his decision to go after Hogan on his own and keep it from Sloane. Dex’s habit of not following the rules got him into trouble, but everything he did came from a deep-rooted sense of justice, a need to do what was right. He simply needed to learn to have a little more faith in those around him.

Inside HQ, Ethan waited patiently in his Therian form outside the en suite shower of the Therian PSTC room they decided on instead of one of the curtained changing areas. This way Calvin could shower and get rid of his cold, wet clothes. Cael and Rosa brought Calvin, Dex, and Letty their toiletry bags from their lockers along with clean, dry uniforms. Once Calvin had showered and dressed, he administered Postshift Trauma Care.

Like so many other things between them, administering PSTC had changed. Every touch, every look, every breath held a different meaning. It turned into a battle of self-control for Calvin. He made sure Ethan drank a couple of bottles of Gatorade before handing over the power bars. When the dizziness stopped and Ethan was feeling strong enough, he grabbed a towel to slip around his waist, something he’d never done before. Calvin pretended he didn’t notice, and he continued gathering supplies as Ethan stepped into the shower. Afterward, Calvin helped him get dressed.

When he fastened the buttons on Ethan’s uniform shirt for him, he could feel Ethan’s heated gaze on him, his intense green eyes studying Calvin’s every move. Ethan could dress himself by this point, but instead he let Calvin do it. He stood silently before Calvin, his thick biceps, broad shoulders, expansive chest, and tapered waist driving Calvin to distraction. Ethan stood with his legs slightly apart and his hands on his muscular thighs.

Ethan had always been big and strong, but Calvin remembered their teenage years. Even tiger Therians were awkward during that time. Ethan’s limbs had been too long for him to maneuver efficiently. His clothes and his shoes never fit right. It seemed like he grew a couple of inches by the day. Meanwhile Calvin stopped growing when he reached five foot seven. As they got older, Calvin envied the easy way Ethan’s body had filled out, how he built muscle while Calvin had to work out every damn day. Muscle-building came naturally to tiger Therians. They were the biggest of the Felids, the heaviest. When Ethan turned sixteen, he had the body of a guy in his twenties. Eventually Calvin caught up, but he still maintained his boyish looks, making him look younger than Ethan despite being older. Occasionally Calvin would get carded at a bar or club, and Ethan laughed his ass off every time.

Calvin cursed under his breath as he struggled to get a button through one of the wonky holes. Ethan’s larger hand came to rest on Calvin’s, and he brushed his lips over Calvin’s temple to leave a feathery kiss. He took over the task of buttoning up his shirt the rest of the way. Calvin didn’t know what to do with himself when Ethan did things like that, randomly doing something to assure Calvin they were more than friends. Ethan was trying. It showed in his intimate gestures when no one was looking. It wasn’t that Calvin expected Ethan to be all over him, but his best friend was so reserved with his emotions, Calvin often wondered if Ethan wanted him as badly as he wanted Ethan.

Whenever they were alone, all Calvin could think about was kissing Ethan, touching him, feeling him. The need was overwhelming, and he hated how it put him in a pissy mood. He was trying his best to be patient. They’d fooled around since the incident in the surveillance van where they’d gotten each other off after a heated argument, but those moments had been few and far between, and it was always Calvin who initiated it. Why was he doing this to himself? He was too tired for this right now.

“Let’s get some food in you,” Calvin muttered. Ethan nodded, his big dopey grin making Calvin smile. Ethan always found a way to pull Calvin out of his funk.

They headed upstairs to the canteen. While Ethan ate his Therian-sized triple quarter pounder with fries and milkshake, Calvin struggled to stay awake. The end of a ten-day shift was tough enough without Sparks and her damn TIN Associate Training Program. For weeks now Destructive Delta had been pushed to its limits with cardiovascular conditioning, speed drills, strength training, flexibility, and Sparks’s mixed martial arts specialist, who was kicking their asses three times a week at a secure location. The location was so secret it wasn’t even disclosed to their team. Austen drove them there and back in the BearCat, and it was somewhere different each and every time.

Were their regular training schedule and callouts not enough? Between Sparks’s guy and Ash training them in Muay Thai and Close Quarter Combat, they were lucky they got a day off to themselves, and usually those days were spent recovering. Calvin almost passed out on the table but caught himself.

“Man, I think I’m gonna crash in one of the bays. I’m too tired to go home.”

Ethan nodded and finished his milkshake. He made a brushing movement in front of his teeth.

“Yeah, could you grab my stuff from my locker?” Calvin stood with a yawn. Ethan put his thumb up, and Calvin told him he’d leave the door open so Ethan could find him.

Calvin wasn’t the only one too tired to head home. There were a lot more sleeper bay doors closed than usual. From the speed at which Dex and Sloane disappeared, he’d wager a guess they were presently occupying one of those bays, though he doubted there was much sleeping going on. Those two were like a couple of horny teenagers. Calvin found an empty bay toward the end of the hall and walked in, leaving the door slightly ajar. He unfastened his thigh rig and placed it on the desk, followed by his phone and everything else in his pockets. Soon his boots, socks, and shirt were off. He draped his pants over the back of the chair, staying in his black undershirt and blue boxer briefs.

His toiletry bag had a toothbrush and toothpaste, but he just wanted to get that done and over with, so he used one of the newly packaged brushes on offer in one of the bay’s many service cubbyholes on the side wall. He brushed his teeth and rinsed at the small aluminum sink before wiping his mouth on the towel provided. The heating kept the room warm enough to sleep with a blanket and not be uncomfortable. Thank God for the sleeper bays. Home away from home.

Calvin sat on the edge of the bed, wondering what was taking Ethan so long. With a groan, he flopped onto his side and drew his legs up. Screw it. Pajamas were overrated anyway. His head hit the pillow, and next thing he knew he was being pulled back against a hard body. The room was shrouded in darkness, with only the soft glow from the hall coming in through the tiny slit under the closed door. With a soft sigh, Calvin turned in Ethan’s arms and snuggled up close. It wasn’t the first time Ethan had slept in one of the bays with him, or even in the same bed. Hell, they’d been doing it since they were kids. It was the first time Ethan had held him this close, their bare legs intertwined and Ethan’s warm breath against Calvin’s skin before he planted a kiss on Calvin’s brow. Ethan was in his boxers and T-shirt, his warm skin smelling of soap.

“Good night, Cal.”

It is now that you’re here. “Good night.” Calvin shimmied lower so he could rest his head against Ethan’s chest, the soft beating of his best friend’s heart lulling him. Ethan gave him a squeeze, and Calvin put his hand to Ethan’s chest before he drifted off into a peaceful sleep. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Calvin was startled awake by Ethan’s screams. Calvin bolted upright, ready for a fight. Remembering where he was, he swiftly switched on the desk lamp and turned to find Ethan in the midst of a terrible fit. Whatever he was dreaming, it was bad, and Calvin quickly got out of bed. He knew from experience not to touch Ethan when he was having a nightmare like this. The first time Ethan slept at his house and went into a fit, Calvin had tried to wake him, and Ethan almost broke Calvin’s arm. That had been before Ethan had grown into his strength. Trying to subdue him now could prove lethal.

“Ethan, wake up,” Calvin called out gently, but loud enough to try and rouse him. Sweat dripped down the side of Ethan’s face, his expression one of terror and pain. It broke Calvin’s heart. “Please wake up, Ethan.”

Ethan arched his back, a horrific cry tearing from his lips, followed by an anguished, “Sloane!”

As if hearing Ethan’s cry for him, Sloane threw the sleeper bay door open and rushed in. As Team Leader, his handprint would override the security locks on any of the sleeper bay doors, and Calvin couldn’t have been more relieved to see him. Dex flipped on the lights, his gaze moving to the bed.

“What’s going on?”

“He’s having a nightmare. A bad one.” Calvin hated feeling helpless, especially where his best friend was concerned, but he was fully aware of his limitations as a Human. In all the years he’d known Ethan, he’d helped his friend through some tough nightmares, but none had ever come close to this.

“Wake him up.” Dex moved to the bed, and Sloane threw his arms around him, hauling him back just as Ethan screamed. His fangs started to elongate, and Calvin backed up near Sloane.

“He’s going to shift!”

Ash thundered into the room with Cael on his heels. “What the fuck is going on?”

Dex put a hand out in front of Cael, stopping him from getting closer. “It’s Hobbs. He’s having some kind of fit, and it looks like he might shift.”

“Shit. We have to do something.” Ash rushed over to the cubbyholes and started rifling through the Therian medical kit. “We need to sedate him. Where’s the fucking injector?”

“What happened?” Cael asked worriedly.

THIRDS Beyond the Books Volume 1
Prompt: I’d love to see Dex with his parents and Tony when he was younger.
TONY DIDN’T bother knocking on the door. He knew exactly where to find the two mischief makers. He used his key to unlock the wooden gate next to the old house and locked up behind him. In this weather, John and Dex would be playing in the backyard, and considering Tony hadn’t spotted Gina’s Camaro parked out front, it meant the two were probably doing something they shouldn’t. He chuckled at the thought. Like father, like son.

Being as quiet as could be, Tony peeked around the brick wall and bit down on his bottom lip. Dex was peddling furiously around the garden in his Big Wheel while John hopped after him on a pogo ball. If Gina saw him, she’d have his ass. John was the most uncoordinated guy to walk this earth. The last thing he should be on was a bouncing ball. The man could shoot the wings off a fly without batting an eye. Put him in a pair of roller skates and he became an insurance claim waiting to happen.

“Tony!” Dex squealed when he saw him.

He stopped his Big Wheel, and Tony cringed as John stopped bouncing, lost his balance, and fell face-first into the grass. Tony tried hard not to laugh, but he failed. Miserably.

“Bite me, Tony,” John grumbled as he rolled onto his back before spitting out blades of grass. Dex ran over and patted John’s head.

“You okay, Daddy?”

“I’m okay, big man. The grass tastes like your mom’s vegetable casserole, but don’t tell her I said that. Go say hi to Uncle Tony.”

Tony crouched down and opened his arms wide as Dex came running, a toy car clutched in his little hand. He threw himself into Tony’s embrace.

“Hey, kiddo. That was some serious driving you were doing.”

Dex beamed proudly. “I’m gonna be just like Daddy when I grow up.”

Tony arched an eyebrow at John, who narrowed his gaze at him.

“Sounds good. But maybe we’ll try to bring the property damage down a notch.” He laughed after John flipped him off when Dex wasn’t looking. “Your daddy’s personally responsible for sending our sergeant’s blood pressure through the roof.”

John got to his feet and brushed himself off. “You blow up one convenience store—by accident I might add—and everyone gets all bent out of shape about it. The place was condemned. I saved the city money on demolition.”

“No, the place was under renovation. Big difference,” Tony replied, standing up with Dex in his arms.

“Look! Look what Daddy got me for my birthday!”

“Wow, is that the doc’s DeLorean?”

“And look!” Dex patted the silver visor on his head. “Great Scott!”

The kid was just too adorable. Tony placed Dex on his feet, watching as he ran around making car noises. “He’s growing up so quick. Five years old already.” Tony shook his head and followed John to the two lounge chairs. He took a seat beside his best friend. “Poor Gina. When Dex becomes a teenager, she’ll have two teens on her hands.”

John gave Tony’s arm a punch. “Wise guy.”

“So you finally took him to see it?”

“Yeah, I didn’t think he’d like it or understand a lot of what was going on, but he loved it.”

“He’s like you. Of course he was gonna love it.”

“And he remembers all the lines. He’s only seen the movie once. Watch this.” John called out to Dex playing in the grass with his car. “Hey, Doc, we better back up. We don’t have enough road to get up to eighty-eight.”

Dex jumped to his feet. “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need….” He put his visor down. “Roads.”

Tony threw his head back and laughed, John soon joining in while Dex ran circles around them with his DeLorean, quoting lines from the movie. Dex might have his mother’s looks, but underneath all the sweetness was definitely John’s humor.

“Where’s Gina?” Tony noticed how John’s expression became troubled.

“Dropping some paperwork off at the CDC. Things are still crazy over there.”

“I bet.” Tony was right there with John, worrying for Gina. When she’d decided to work for the CDC, they never would have imagined what would happen. As a medical officer with a passion for helping others, she was the first one to volunteer, working exclusively with Therians and Therian health. She’d been getting shit for it from anti-Therian assholes ever since, and that included from some of her own coworkers. “Things are getting rough out there. When the hell is the government going to step in and do something?”

“Soon, I hope.” John turned his gaze to Dex lying on the grass on his stomach playing with his car. “Do you know they’re having Therian drills now at Dex’s school? My son shouldn’t be taught how to run and hide from Therians. This situation can’t be ignored, like it’s all going to go away. These are people. People who our governments infected, and now they need help.” John fidgeted in his seat. He dropped his gaze to his fingers. “I um, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“With everything going on, Gina and I have been thinking about Dex’s future, of where he’d end up if something were to happen to us. There’s no one I trust more with my son than you. You’re my best friend, Tony.”

“Where’s this coming from?” Tony didn’t like hearing his friend talking like that. The Daleys were like family. When Tony had been all but disowned by his mother for becoming HPF shortly after his father’s death, his best friend had been there with him to pick up the pieces. He’d known John and Gina since high school, and they’d been there for each other since.

“You’ve seen how things are out there. It’s like a war zone, and our job is dangerous enough already. I just want to be prepared. Please, I know it’s asking a lot—”

“You don’t even have to ask, John. Where Dex is concerned, you never have to worry. Of course I’d take care of him.”

“Thank you. It means the world to us.”

John smiled at him, but there was something in his gaze. What wasn’t John telling him? Before he could ask, John spoke up.

“The lawyer’s finished up the paperwork. I’ll get a copy over to you tomorrow.”

Why was his friend moving so fast on this? They sat quietly, each lost in his own thoughts. Tony knew John better than anyone. There was something heavy weighing on his best friend’s mind, something more than his last will and testament.

It was true their jobs were getting more dangerous by the day. Fending off bullets and knife-wielding criminals was one thing, but none of them stood a chance against a feral Therian. The HPF wasn’t equipped to handle those situations. How had they reached a point where John was worried about leaving his little boy behind? Still, something nagged at Tony’s gut.

Out in the streets, on the news, the radio, newspapers, wherever he turned it felt like the world was burning down around them. Innocent people were getting mauled to death because the poor infected souls who’d become Therians were helpless to stop what was happening to them. There was nowhere and no one for them to turn to. Gina’s voice brought Tony out of his thoughts. He stood and held his arms out with a smile.

“Hey, girl. How are you?” He hugged her tight, aware of the stiffness in her shoulders. Gina was always so full of enthusiasm, always affectionate and playful. It worried him. “You okay?”

Gina shook her head. “I just heard something upsetting.”

Her voice was quiet and her expression stricken. Tony released her so she could take John’s hand. She sat in her husband’s lap. Before she could speak, Dex came running, his cheeks flushed from playing and his little face filled with joy.

“Mommy!”

It was amazing, a mother’s love for her child. All at once Gina’s face transformed. It glowed radiantly, her smile wide and reaching her sparkling blue eyes as she picked up her precious little boy. She cuddled him close and rained kisses all over his face, making him giggle. He looked just like Gina when he laughed. Then again, Dex shared so many of his mom’s features. They had the same blond hair, same pale blue eyes that shone bright, and a smile that brightened up any room.

“What’s my little superhero been up to?”

“I went to the future!” Dex exclaimed happily as he showed his mother his time machine. “I was all grown up and helping Daddy and Tony put the bad guys away. And you’re a princess! The most prettiest and important princess, and you help all the Therians be free and happy.”

Tears welled in Gina’s eyes, and she hugged Dex close. “That sounds like a wonderful future, baby.” She gave him a kiss and put him down. “Why don’t you listen to the mixtape Daddy made you while you play? Your Walkman is on the dinner table. Come right back, okay?”

“Okay!”

Dex ran off into the house. Whatever was bothering Gina, it was big enough for her not to want Dex to hear it. She waited until Dex was back, his earphones over his small ears. Tony chuckled as Dex hopped and wriggled his butt to his pop music. If there was anything Dex loved more than movies, it was music. Something else he inherited from his parents. As soon as Gina was satisfied Dex couldn’t hear, she turned her attention back to them.

“What is it, sweetheart?” John asked worriedly.

“I was dropping off some documents in the director’s office when I overheard him talking to someone. The government’s opening a research facility to scientifically study Therians, hoping to further advance Therian medicine and help those infected.”

“That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Or am I being naรฏve?” Tony muttered. Things were never that simple. Not where the government was concerned.

“It’s not the helping part I’m worried about. You know these programs are never as innocent as they’re made out to be. For the research they want to conduct, they’d need Therians with stable versions of the mutation. First Generation Therians.” Gina’s big blue eyes filled with distress. “First Gen Therians are just children. The oldest First Gen is nine years old.”

Tony swallowed hard. They were going to experiment on Therian children? “Maybe they’re going to wait. I mean, these things can take years to put together, right?” Tony looked from Gina to John’s somber expression and back.

“They’re starting next year.” Gina turned to her husband. “They already have a list. Honey, some of these parents don’t even know their children are going to shift. The lead doctor on this is just waiting for it to happen. Any calls to Animal Control Services involving Therian children are being put through to his office. One couple brought in their little boy. He’s just four years older than Dex. You should have seen him. He was so scared, wouldn’t let go of his mom, not even during his checkup. I was going to tell them their son was on the verge of shifting, but Dr. Shultzon wouldn’t let me.” Gina shook her head, her blue eyes blazing with anger.

“I demanded he tell me why he was keeping such vital information from the parents. The boy’s Therian form is a jaguar, for God’s sake. He’s lethal, and they don’t even know it. It’s going to terrify him when he changes. Prevention can mean the difference between life and death.”

“What did the doctor say?” Tony asked.

Gina let out a noise of disgust. “That bastard. He said the Brodie boy is going to be the first one they take. The next two on the list are twin boys.” A tear rolled down Gina’s cheek, and she brushed it aside. “God knows what they’re going to do to those children. And I don’t know what I can do to help them.”

“Gina, baby, you have to be careful.” John took hold of her hands and put her fingers to his lips for a kiss. “We’re dealing with serious people. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you because you got too close.”

Tony had to agree with John. “This whole situation is growing volatile. You need to get out. Soon.”

Gina stared at Tony. “I can’t do that. I can’t leave those poor kids to end up God knows where.”

“I think Tony’s right. It’s getting dangerous. We don’t know who these people are or what they’re capable of.”

Gina hesitated. “We can find out.”

Tony jumped to his feet. “Oh no. No.” He knew that look. It mirrored John’s look when he was chasing a lead. The two were stubborn as hell. “Gina, get it out of your head now. Please.” He turned to John for help.

John seemed to think about it. His eyes landed on Dex, and his expression softened. He looked up at Gina. “Baby, we have a son.”

“Sloane Brodie is someone’s son, John.”

Gina got to her feet, and Tony could tell she was trying to rein in her emotions.

“What about the Keeler boys? They’re someone’s sons. What kind of example are we setting for Dex if we just let those bastards ruin those kids’ lives? We don’t know what they’re going to do to them. Science requires sacrifice. How far are they willing to go? We can do something about this. I don’t know what yet, but we can do something.”

She worried her bottom lip, and Tony shook his head.

“Sweet baby Jesus. You already did something.”

Gina looked uncertain, but she confessed anyway. “I made a copy of the list, along with all the top people involved. I hid it in one of Dex’s stuffed toys.”

Tony couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This was insane. And to top it off, his crazy as hell partner looked as if he was about to do something crazier. “John, think about what you’re about to say, because once you say it, there’s no taking it back.”

John nodded. He stood and kissed Gina’s lips before walking over to Dex, who threw himself into his father’s arms. John cradled his little boy, and Dex let out a fierce yawn. He closed his eyes and snuggled close to his daddy. In no time he was fast asleep. John met Tony’s gaze.

“Tonight, after Gina and I get back from the movies, we’re going to talk about how we’re going to help those kids.” He looked up at Tony. “I don’t want you getting involved.”

“You’re out of your damned mind if you think I’m gonna let you two do this alone.” Surely his friend knew him better than that.

John stood with Dex in his arms and gently handed him to Tony, his expression grave.

“He deserves to grow up in a world knowing there are people out there willing to do what it takes to make things right.”

“Whatever you need, you know I’m there.” Tony held Dex against his chest, his little head resting on Tony’s shoulder. His heart broke. Who knew the dangers they might be facing. This was meant to be just another date night where Tony babysat for his best friends. It wasn’t supposed to turn into this. He looked up at them, a lump in his throat. “Be careful out there.”

John and Gina took turns giving Dex’s cheek a kiss before they headed toward the side gate, leaving Tony standing there with Dex fast asleep. As he kissed the top of Dex’s head and watched his dearest friends go, he prayed the three of them found a way to help those poor kids before it was too late. Whatever happened, they’d have to be extra vigilant. There was no telling what lay ahead. On the job, he was fearless. Never hesitated. But this was different. There was so much on the line. Like the future of the innocent life in his arms.

Dex yawned and rubbed his eye. “Where’s Mommy and Daddy?” he asked through another sleepy yawn.

“They’ll be back soon, baby. Come on. Let’s go inside.”

“I want Brave Heart Lion.”

Dex always wanted Brave Heart when his parents went out. He said it helped him be brave. “You got it, kiddo.” Maybe Brave Heart could give him a little courage too. He had a feeling he was going to need it.

THIRDS Beyond the Books Volume 2
PROMPT: FROM the last hot seat series, I would LOVE to see Dex and Ash at that assembly Cael was talking about, you know, with the head smacking, trash talking, all while Sparks or whomever else is trying to give a presentation.
“I’m going to die.”

Dex looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes? Yep, he was going to die.

“You’re not going to die,” Sloane muttered. “Stop fidgeting.”

“It’s a thing, you know. Dying of boredom. It happens.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Despite Sloane’s stern expression, Dex could tell he was amused. At least someone was.

Dex slouched in his seat. Could they have picked more uncomfortable chairs? Why not just bring in a bunch of jagged boulders and have them sit on those? It was probably so their victims couldn’t fall asleep. Bunch of sadists. Sadists in Converse.

“I’m not going to make it. It’s been fifteen minutes, Sloane,” Dex hissed quietly. “Fifteen minutes and I swear I’ve grown a beard! I can’t make it through another hour and forty-five minutes of enhanced algorithms and statistical anomalies. Ben Stein sounds like a freakin’ auctioneer compared to this guy.”

“Would you shut your trap,” Ash growled, leaning over Sloane to jab a menacing finger at Dex. “You’re an embarrassment to this team.”

“Screw you, Simba. Just for that—” Dex reached into one of his tac pants pockets and pulled out a packet of gummy bears. “—you’re not getting any.”

Ash narrowed his eyes. “You can’t eat those in here.” He frowned at Sloane. “Tell him he can’t eat those in here.”

Sloane sighed and turned to Dex, his voice flat. “You can’t eat those in here.”

Dex opened the packet and popped a couple in his mouth. “Mm, gummy goodness.”

Ash arched an eyebrow at Sloane. “You wanna try that one more time, with some fucking feeling?”

“Like he’s going to listen to me. Just go back to pretending you were paying attention.”

Dex laughed through a mouthful of gummy bears. He pointed at Ash. “Ha!”

“You’re disgusting.”

“I’m going to the bathroom before I strangle him.” Ash stood and walked the narrow aisle in front of Sloane. At that moment Cael sat up, and Ash paused. With Ash stopping, Dex felt a stretch come on, so he stretched his muscles, along with his aching legs, just as Ash walked by. Oh shit!

Ash stumbled over his legs, catching himself before he could hit the floor. There were a few chuckles around them, and Dex braced himself. If looks could kill, Dex would have spontaneously combusted.

“It was an accident!”

Ash grabbed a fistful of Dex’s shirt. “Accident, my ass.”

“Sparks is glaring at you.”

Ash swiftly let go, straightening when he caught sight of Lieutenant Sparks standing at the end of the row, her eyes narrowed at him. He pressed his lips together and held a hand up before he continued down the aisle.

“He is going to murder you,” Sloane muttered, leaning casually into Dex.

“It was an accident.” Dex finished off his gummy bears in case he wasn’t alive enough later to eat them. If this damn assembly from Intel didn’t kill him, Ash certainly would. He shoved the empty bag into his pocket when something struck him across the back of the head. Hard.

“Ow! Son of a fuck monkey!”

“Agent Daley!” Sparks snapped, and the whole place went silent, even Agent Nerdy McNerdisson standing at the podium. Crap on a cracker.

“Is there a problem?” Sparks asked, her patented I-will-stab-you-with-my-stiletto expression on her face.

“No, I um, was just surprised by Agent uh, genius guy up there. I mean, predictive policing. It’s all so very… Minority Report.”

“Yes, well, perhaps you can keep your fanboying to yourself for the moment.”

Dex gave her a salute. “Yes, Lieutenant.”

The assembly continued, and once the attention was back on what’s-his-name, Dex turned his head. Ash held a fist to his mouth, and Dex could tell it was so he could keep himself from laughing.

“Leave it, Dex,” Sloane warned.

“How can you say that. Shouldn’t you be defending my honor?” Dex jutted out his bottom lip. “It hurt.”

Sloane shook his head. “Sorry, but this assembly’s already removed my will to live, so you two are on your own.”

With a smug grin, Ash pulled out a packet of Doritos from his pocket.

“Oh, so I’m not allowed to eat, but you are?”

Ash shrugged. “This is a grownup snack for grownups, not a five-year-old’s snack for a man-child like you.”

Dex pulled out another bag of gummy bears from his pocket and opened it up. He grabbed a green one, and gave it a salute. “You’re a brave soldier, but a sacrifice must be made.” He licked one side and flicked it at Ash.

It stuck to his cheek.

The horrified look on Ash’s face had Dex almost peeing his pants. There were muffled snickers and laughs around them. Rosa had tears streaming down her face, and Letty looked like she was about to explode. Dex could just imagine what was going through Ash’s head. He had Dex’s saliva on his face. Sloane covered his mouth with his hand, his shoulders moving from his silent laughter.

Ash closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Sloane, get it off.”

Biting his bottom lip, Sloane reached out and plucked the gummy bear. Dex took it from his fingers and popped it in his mouth.

Ash made a gagging sound. “Oh my God, I think I’m going to be sick.”

With a chuckle, Dex went back to snacking, wondering what the hell Ash was doing, nibbling on the end of one of his Doritos. What the hell is he doing?

“Snack warfare,” Ash declared, chucking the Dorito at him like it was a Chinese star. The thing hit Dex’s hand, and he almost jumped out of his chair. Holy shit! He was actually bleeding! Granted, it was minor, but Ash had actually drawn blood.

“What the hell, man!” Dex licked his sore spot. Mm, cheesy.

“Dex.”

“He stabbed me with a Dorito, Sloane. A Dorito.” How the hell had Ash turned a snack into a weapon?

“Aw, poor, Daley.” Ash leaned over Sloane and made like he was rubbing his eyes. “Boo hoo. You started it.”

“No, you did, telling me to shut up.”

“You tripped me.”

“It was an accident.”

“Bullshit.”

“Bite me,” Dex hissed. Ash reached over Sloane, and Dex readied himself, slapping Ash’s hand away. Sloane smacked both their cheeks.

“Ow.” Dex sat back and rubbed his barely stinging cheek. “You hit me.”

“What the fuck, man?” Ash frowned at Sloane.

“No. You know what? It’s bad enough I have to sit through one of these things, but I am not going to sit here between you two while you go to war with your snacks and act like a couple of school children. If I hear one more peep out of either of you before this damn torture session is over, I swear I will have you on equipment duty for a month.”

Dex and Ash quietly sat back in their seats. Sloane was pissed. Dex ate his gummy bears. His pocket buzzed, and he gingerly reached for his phone. It was a text from Ash containing nothing but an emoji of a hand giving him the finger. Trust Ash to have an emoji for fuck you. Well, looks like this assembly wasn’t going to be a total loss after all.
Author Bio:
M/M romance author by day, artist by night, Charlie Cochet is quick to succumb to the whispers of her wayward muse. From Historical to Fantasy, Contemporary to Science Fiction, no star is out of reach when following her passion. From hardboiled detectives and society gentleman, to angels and elves, there’s bound to be plenty of mischief for her heroes to find themselves in, and plenty of romance, too!


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Against the Grain #5
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Catch a Tiger by the Tail #6
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THIRDS Beyond the Books Volume 1
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DREAMSPINNER  /  GOODREADS TBR

THIRDS Beyond the Books Volume 2

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