Against the grain, p.4
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       Against The Grain, p.4
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  Cael swallowed hard and nodded. The backs of his eyes stung. His brother was worried, and he had every right to be after what he’d been put through with Fuller. Years later, and Cael’s guilt still ate away at him. All his life, his big brother had looked out for him, and Cael had pushed Dex away to defend a Therian who’d taken advantage of him in the worst way, who’d made him feel worthless. God, Cael had been such a despicable jerk to Dex. They’d had so many arguments. One in particular stood out among the rest. His hurtful words to his brother echoed in his head. He’d never forget them. You’ll never understand me. You’re Human, and what’s more, you’re not even my real brother.

  “I’m so sorry, Dex.” Cael wrapped his arms around his brother and squeezed him tight. “I’m sorry for the horrible things I said to you. I never meant them. You have to believe me.”

  “Hey, now.” Dex held him close and placed a hand to the back of his head, comforting him like he’d always done. Cael had never regretted anything more in his life than he had in the two years he’d been with Fuller, not only for what he’d endured but for what he’d put his family through. “Of course I believe you. I never doubted you, Chirpy. I knew that wasn’t you talking.”

  “I can still see your face, how badly I hurt you. Yet you never gave up on me.”

  “Never have, never will. It’s all in the past. You don’t have to apologize anymore.” Dex pulled back and smiled at him. “Can I tell you a secret?”

  Cael nodded. “You know you can.”

  “He may be far from perfect, with many, many faults, but I know deep down, Ash will treat you right.”

  Cael couldn’t help his big grin. “You really believe that?”

  “I do.”

  “Thanks, Dex.”

  Cael hugged his brother once more when their dad called out from somewhere upstairs.

  “I don’t hear cooking down there.”

  Dex huffed. “Because we were having a moment, Dad.”

  “Well, finish your moment, get back to cooking, and stay away from the cookies. That means you, Dex.”

  With a chuckle, Cael pulled back when it hit him. An odd yet familiar scent. He sniffed the air, catching a whiff of it among the smell of freshly baked cookies and the turkeys roasting in the ovens. He kept running into that scent but could never quite place it. Following his nose, he realized it was coming from his brother. That was weird. “Dex?”

  “Yeah?” Dex removed a bowl from the cabinet and the ingredients for their dad’s super awesome green bean casserole.

  “There’s something… off about you.”

  Dex pointed to his head. “Too much hair gel? It’s a new brand. Thought I’d try something that wasn’t citrus. Therian agents can smell me coming from a mile away at work. I needed to shake things up.”

  “No. It’s your scent. Your scent. Not your various manscaping products.” He leaned into Dex and sniffed.

  “First of all, I do not manscape. I’m not even hairy. I also happen to use an average amount of men’s products. Second of all, don’t sniff me. That’s just weird.”

  “Sorry, it’s just bugging me. You smell like you but not you. You smell like Sloane too.”

  “Maybe because we’re always around each other?” Dex rubbed his chest sensually and thrust his hips. “And I do mean all up in each other. Ooh yeah.”

  “Ew, perv. No. That’s not what I meant. Stop humping the air!”

  Dex laughed. “What? You don’t like my sweet moves?”

  “Keep your sweet moves away from me and my baked goods.” Cael shoved him again, ignoring his brother’s laughter. “Dork.” What was his brother hiding from him? And why? “This is different. Like you’ve been permanently—” Cael gasped. “Oh my God, Dex! Did Sloane mark you?”

  “Um… I was going to say something, but I’m still trying to figure out how to tell Dad.” Dex hesitated before pulling up his T-shirt’s sleeve, revealing a white bandage around his forearm.

  “You bonded?” Cael couldn’t believe it. His brother had been marked as a Therian mate.

  “You what?”

  Cael and Dex both gave a start. They spun to face their dad, and Dex hid his arm behind his back.

  “Dad, hey. Sloane and I had a bonding moment. You know, heart-to-heart.”

  Their dad’s laser-beam stare bore into them. “Boy, you must think I was born yesterday.”

  Dex shook his head. “No, not at all. I think you were born way back when. What were the dinosaurs like?”

  “You’re looking for a grounding.”

  Cael held back a laugh at Dex’s scandalized expression.

  “You can’t ground me!”

  “Try me.”

  Dex opened his mouth to reply but seemed to think better of it. They both knew their dad would totally find a way to ground him. With a deep frown, Tony reached behind Dex and took hold of his arm, causing Dex to suck in a sharp breath. Therian marks took forever to heal on a Human.

  “Ouch. Damn it, Dad.”

  Tony’s nostrils flared, and Cael took a slight step back. He knew that look. His dad was trying to keep his cool, and there wasn’t a whole lot that made him lose it. Unsurprisingly, Dex was the exception. His brother could send most anyone off the deep end. It was a talent.

  “Do you know how serious this is? Did you ask Sloane to do this?”

  “No.” Dex pulled his arm away. “It was both our decisions, and before you ask, it’s not something either of us has taken lightly.”

  Cael was glad to hear his brother and Sloane hadn’t rushed into it, but Cael shared their dad’s concerns. This sort of thing wasn’t taught in school. It wasn’t even talked about out in the open. It was a parent’s responsibility to have “the talk” with their kids about markings. Preferably a talk not accompanied by a five-hour sex education class with visuals and gay porn. No one needs a play-by-play on how the prostate works from their dad. At least he and Dex could laugh about it now. Back when they’d been fourteen, not so much. Mortifying didn’t begin to cover it. There was more to being a Therian than having the ability to shift into a feral creature.

  Tony leaned against the island counter and ran a hand over his jaw. “You two are going to be the death of me. You thought keeping your relationship secret at work was going to be tough before? Now every damned Therian agent is going to know you’ve been claimed as a Therian mate by an Alpha who will tear their throat out if they come sniffing around you with less than wholesome intentions. Do you know what this does to the dynamics of your partnership with Sloane at the THIRDS? And what the hell are you going to tell Sparks when she gets a whiff of that?”

  “Sloane and I will deal with Sparks when the time comes. Granted, I don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but we’ll work it out. As for our work partnership, why should this change anything?”

  “Son, you took the Therian courses at work. You know how fiercely they feel things in their Therian form. How protective they get of their partners. I went over Therian marking when you were fourteen.”

  “Yeah, well maybe you shouldn’t have used porn as a teaching aid, because a good deal of what you said got lost in the pizza guy’s ass.”

  Cael cringed and took another subtle step away from his brother. He could practically see the steam coming out of his dad’s ears while the gears in Dex’s head spun furiously in an attempt to figure out why this was such a big deal. And it was. Maybe not to most Humans, but it was a hell of a big deal to Therians.

  “I don’t get it, Dad. What Sloane did is meant to keep other Therian’s paws off, not invite them to challenge his claim on me.”

  “In their Therian form, their animal instincts are at their strongest. Correct?”

  “Yeah.”

  “And when you have two Alphas and one mate, what happens?”

  “Hold up. I only have one mate. Sloane.”

  “And when another Therian decides he likes how a Therian’s mark smells on you. When he wants to challenge an Alpha like Sloane or when a Theri
an perp gets a whiff of that and decides to get to Sloane through you? What do you think happens then?”

  “Um….”

  “Therian cage match,” Cael offered quietly. He understood his dad’s concerns, but he also understood his brother’s struggle to comprehend something that was a natural instinct for a Therian. Their Dad had seen it all after being with the THIRDS since the beginning. Cael was a Therian. Dex had never even dated a Therian before Sloane. It wasn’t Dex’s fault. There was still an overwhelming amount of information the world had yet to uncover about Therians. First Gen Therians were only in their late thirties now. Who knew what the hell else might develop.

  “No one’s going to challenge Sloane in his Therian form.” Dex pursed his lips in thought. “Okay, at least not at work,” he conceded.

  “Oh?” Tony folded his arms over his chest. “What about Taylor?”

  Dex mirrored their dad’s pose. Uh-oh. Cael looked from one to the other. He slowly reached behind him and plucked a cookie from the plate, then brought it to his mouth for a nibble. This was going to be good.

  “Taylor knows I’m off-limits.”

  “His Human side does. If he’s in his Therian form and he gets a whiff of that, he’s gonna go all feral, and he might challenge Sloane. Why do you think we have a no fraternizing rule?”

  Ooh, Dad’s puffing up his chest. It’s on now. Cael nibbled some more of his cookie. He really wished he had some milk, but if he got their attention, he’d get dragged into this mess, and he was so not taking sides. When he was little, they’d tried a few times to drag him into taking sides. He’d burst into tears and screamed at the top of his lungs. They stopped trying to get him involved real quick after that.

  “Because of what happened with Seb and Hudson?” Dex asked. “The kid that got killed when Seb broke protocol to save Hudson from getting shot.”

  “That, and Seb marked Hudson.”

  Dex’s jaw dropped, and he put a hand up. “Whoa, hold the phone. You’re telling me Sebastian Hobbs claimed Hudson and marked him?”

  “Yep.”

  “Why didn’t I know this?” Dex frowned and looked at Cael. “Did you know about this?”

  Cael simply nodded and took another nibble. His brother frowned at him and nabbed his cookie.

  “Hey! That’s my cookie, you thief.”

  “For not telling me.” He stuffed the whole thing into his mouth.

  “Mature,” Cael muttered, grabbing himself another cookie. “And I didn’t tell you because it’s not my place to say anything. Seb told me the night of your party. He was a little drunk. I don’t think he meant to. You should have seen his face. That whole mess just crushed him.”

  “Why haven’t I seen it?” Dex asked through a mouthful of cookie.

  “Boy, don’t talk with your mouth full. What’s wrong with you?”

  Cael grinned widely. “How long do you have?”

  Dex’s eyebrows nearly reached his hairline. He jutted a finger at him in mock warning, making Cael laugh. Their dad ignored them both, answering Dex’s initial question.

  “You haven’t seen it because it’s on his back. He never showers in the employee locker rooms. His office has a private bathroom and shower. He’s self-conscious about it.”

  “That’s horrible. Poor guy.” Dex let out a sigh.

  Maybe this wasn’t going to be one of their epic three-hour grudge matches after all. Cael could only put it down to Sloane’s calming influence. Dex would have irritated the hell out of their dad by now and ended up in a headlock.

  “It gets worse,” Tony said, deflating. “That kind of bond isn’t broken easily, Dex. Instinct might have a Therian challenging an Alpha, but if the marked Therian has lost their mate, it changes things. Many Therians don’t want a partner who’s been marked by someone else and abandoned. By ending things with Seb, Hudson’s pretty much condemned himself. Seb can find another mate to claim. Hudson…. He’s tainted.” Tony shook his head sadly.

  “That’s ridiculous,” Dex replied angrily. “Hudson is an awesome guy. Why would Therians reject being in a relationship with him because of a few scars?”

  “Those scars run deep for Therians, Dex. It’s a very delicate and complicated matter. Do you understand my concerns?”

  Dex nodded, but he looked no less determined than he had when they’d started the conversation. “I do, Dad, but we’re not going to let anyone dictate how we should live our lives or how we should conduct our relationship. If some asshole Therian can’t keep a grip on his feral half around me, that’s his problem, not mine. Being Therian is no excuse for that behavior. If things don’t work for me and Sloane, well, that’s something I’ll have to deal with, and I’ll do it the same way I’ve done with everything in my life. I’ll face it head-on.”

  “You’re absolutely right. I guess I’m just not as prepared for this as I thought I was.”

  This was the first time Cael had seen their dad looking so worried. Other than the time Dex had landed in the hospital after he got jumped by Isaac’s goons, over a year ago.

  Tony put his hand to Dex’s cheek. “If things don’t work out, that mark will make it tough for another Therian to get close to you too.”

  Dex nodded, replying quietly, “I know.” He smiled at Tony. “Thanks, Dad. For looking out for me. Whatever comes our way, Sloane and I will get through it together, but it means a lot knowing I have you guys to turn to as well.”

  Tony brought them both in for a hug, and Cael squeezed them in return.

  “When did you boys get so grown up?”

  “I think it was after the pubes grew in,” Dex said.

  Cael closed his eyes with a groan. “You just had to do it.”

  “Yep.” Dex beamed brightly and ruffled Cael’s hair.

  “I may have spoken too soon about the grown-up thing.” Their dad pulled away and headed for the stairs. “I’m going back to putting the laundry away.”

  “Does everyone have their headphones like we discussed?” Dex called out after him.

  “Yes. Thank you for the horrifying reminder of why we’ll need them,” Tony grumbled as he stomped up the stairs.

  “Come on. It’s just sex.”

  Cael groaned at the same time as his dad. His room was right next to Dex’s as well. Perfect. “You couldn’t not have sex for one day?”

  “You two need to get laid. Seriously.”

  “You know what, eat some damn cookies,” Tony called down from upstairs.

  Dex cackled in amusement, snatched another cookie from the plate, and bolted before Cael could whack him in the arm. The doorbell rang, and Cael froze.

  “Oh my God, they’re here!” He grabbed another cookie and started munching away before Dex took it from him.

  “Stop binge eating.”

  Cael swiped his cookie back. “Pot, meet kettle.”

  “Yeah, well, I have to actually work to keep the weight off, unlike you who burns through the calories just by breathing. You and your freaking cheetah Therian metabolism,” Dex grumbled.

  He’d always envied Cael’s ability to eat whatever and however much he wanted without having to worry about his weight. Cheetah Therians had the highest metabolism of all Therians. It meant their bodies demanded a great deal of food, especially when in their Therian form. Postshift was especially important. It also meant cheetah Therians were more prone to health issues if they didn’t look after themselves.

  “Why’re you nervous?” Dex asked, heading for the front door with Cael trailing after him.

  “Because everything’s changed this year. Things are kind of tense with Ash right now. What if he has a terrible time tonight and things get even worse between us? Should I act like nothing’s changed? Should I give him space? Should I try and ease him into the idea of being together? He said we’d talk, but we haven’t. I don’t want to push him.”

  Dex turned and took hold of Cael’s shoulders. “Relax. I’m here, okay? I won’t let things get weird.”

  Cael couldn
’t help himself. “But you said you’ll be here.”

  “Funny. Okay, weirder.”

  “Really? No awkward silences?” He’d never had any with Ash. He really hoped they didn’t start now.

  “When is there ever silence when I’m around?” Dex asked, heading off once again for the front door.

  “Good point.”

  “Don’t worry, Chirpy, it’ll be fine. Who knows. Ash might surprise you.”

  “Please don’t call me that in front of anything with a pulse.”

  “No promises.”

  Dex opened the door, and Cael tried to relax like his big brother had wisely suggested. He felt like an idiot. Dex was right. It’d be fine. He had his family and Sloane to take the pressure off. What would it say about them and their relationship if they couldn’t make it through one meal without things getting uncomfortable? He’d never felt uncomfortable around Ash before, and he hated the thought that the amazing friendship they had might change.

  All right, enough of that. Cael straightened and smiled when Dex stepped aside to let Sloane and Ash in. His brother all but threw himself at Sloane, being mindful of his leg. Cael was sure if Sloane were fully healed, Dex would have climbed him.

  “For fuck’s sake,” Ash growled, raising the large insulated bag over the pair’s heads as he pushed past them. “It’s been like six hours since you’ve seen each other, not six months.”

  Cael was going to say hi when Ash kissed his cheek.

  “Hey, sweetheart.”

  Don’t freak out. It’s just a kiss on the cheek. And a pet name. And oh my God, someone scoop me off the floor. Cael chastised himself for being such a dweeb.

  “Hi,” he managed cheerfully. If this was any indication of how the evening was going to go, Cael was in big trouble.

  Chapter 3

  “HAPPY THANKSGIVING. I made pie. Cherry, pecan, and your favorite, apple and cinnamon.” Ash had spent the whole morning baking. He’d been so damned nervous he’d ended up with enough baked goods to last him well into the new year. He handed the warm insulated three-tiered bag to Cael so he could take off his coat.

  Dex stared at them. “Ash Keeler bakes?”

  Ash removed his hat and scarf and shoved them into his coat pockets. “Shut up, Daley.” There was a reason he didn’t go around announcing his hobby to the world. Just because he didn’t look like Martha Stewart didn’t mean he couldn’t fucking use an oven or follow a recipe.

  “Wow. You bake. Ash bakes. I did not know this.” Dex turned to Sloane. “Did you know he bakes?”

  Sloane hung his and Ash’s coats on the hooks behind the door. “He’s really good too. Like, really good.”

  Dex opened his mouth, then closed it before opening it again. “I got nothing.”

  Cael elbowed Ash playfully. “Dude, you left Dex speechless.”

  “Christmas miracle’s arrived early this year,” Ash muttered.

  Dex let out a sniff and headed into the living room with Sloane in tow. “The only reason I’m not telling you to bite me is because you brought delicious, warm pies.”

  “Apple’s mine,” Cael declared, smacking Dex’s hand away from the bag.

  He took it into the kitchen with everyone following behind. On the way there, Ash noticed the table was all set. Cael mentioned how they were just waiting on their dad to come downstairs so they could start putting the food out. Cael left the bag of pies on the counter, and Ash stepped up beside him, his hand resting on the small of Cael’s back as he spoke.

  “How’s your leg? I noticed you’re not using your crutch.”

  “I’m feeling much better. I should be up for training once we’re back on active duty.”

  “I’m glad. Don’t push yourself too hard, though, okay? If you need a little extra time to rest, no one’s going to hold it against you.”

 
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