Rise amp fall, p.4
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       Rise & Fall, p.4
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  glance. “I’m not losing my mind, am I? You spoke to me.”

  Hobbs nodded, a shy smile coming onto his face. He shrugged his shoulders. “We’re friends. I like you.”

  Dex stared at him. His mouth hung open, and he quickly closed it. The last thing he wanted was to make Hobbs feel even more self-conscious. Instead, he returned Hobbs’s smile. “You’re right. We are friends. And I like you too, big guy. Thanks for stepping in. Security probably would have come to cart my ass away at any moment.”

  Hobbs frowned and shook his head. “I wouldn’t have let them.”

  “Thanks.” It was amazing how simply sitting next to Hobbs made him feel more at ease. Considering how much silence usually surrounded the guy, Dex was surprised he never felt the need to fill it. Hobbs gave off a strange peaceful vibe. In no time, Dex felt his pulse steady and his anger subside. He looked around the now empty locker room. “Where’s your best bud?” The two were usually inseparable. Calvin never went anywhere without his pal. Man, it was like everyone he knew was having relationship drama. Except for his dad, come to think of it. He couldn’t even remember the last time Tony went out on a date. He wasn’t one to meddle in his dad’s love life, or lack thereof, but he wanted to see Tony happy. If anyone deserved it, it was his dad. Hobbs let out a heavy sigh, drawing Dex’s attention.

  “He went home.”

  “What’s going on with you two?” Dex made sure the locker room was empty before bringing it up. “Come on. It’s just you and me in here.” He’d been concerned about his teammates since they met. From the beginning they’d seemed off their game; even Rosa had made a comment to Dex in regards to it. Months later, and they were still tiptoeing around each other.

  Hobbs gave him a shrug. “Nothing.”

  “Don’t give me that. I was there in your hospital room, remember? Playing tonsil hockey with your best bud isn’t nothing. Pining and pouting and looking absolutely miserable isn’t nothing.”

  Hobbs removed his arm from around Dex to clasp his hands together, his green eyes filled with worry. For such a big scary Therian, Hobbs was terribly sweet at times. These two really needed to get their shit together. “I’m scared.”

  “Of what?”

  A long-suffering sigh escaped Hobbs, and Dex felt for him. “Losing him.”

  “Have you guys ever fought before? Like really fought?”

  Hobbs let out a scoff. “Yeah.”

  “And he’s still here isn’t he?”

  Hobbs nodded. He seemed to be thinking hard on something. “But he’s my best friend. He’s always been my best friend. What if being together messes that up?”

  “You can be lovers and best friends,” Dex hoped his voice hadn’t sounded as sappy as he thought it had.

  “Like you and Sloane?”

  Dex almost fell off the bench. “What?” Oh shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. What? How? Way to play it cool, Daley.

  Hobbs rolled his eyes before poking Dex in the ribs. “We’re not stupid.”

  “We? Who else knows?” And why hadn’t he heard anything about it? He was always in everyone’s hair, especially his teammates’. He could rattle off what Rosa had for breakfast, or the new outfit Letty had bought for her date with Dimples the Firefighter, or the last comic book movie Calvin had fanboyed over. What the hell?

  Hobbs nodded. “Cal, Rosa, and Letty.”

  “Shiiiit.” And here he thought they were being super-awesome secret agents at hiding their relationship. God, this day just went from shitty to all out fucktastic. What if Sparks knew, and that was why she’d pulled them from the case? What if she was using it as an excuse to break their team apart? What if she’d been typing up his transfer when he’d walked into her office? “Oh God, I think I’m gonna be sick.” He doubled over, and Hobbs gently patted his back.

  “No one else knows,” Hobbs assured him.

  “How do you know? If you guys figured it out, what’s to stop anyone else from doing the same? We’re surrounded by government agents. They’re not stupid either, Hobbs. For all we know, they might have fucking cameras installed in their eyeballs or something.”

  “They don’t know Sloane or you like we do. Besides, everyone’s too busy with their own secrets. Nina’s sleeping with Rafe.”

  Dex’s jaw nearly became unhinged. “Holy donut holes, Batman! You can’t drop shit like that on my lap!” Holy shit. “Your brother’s sleeping with Nina? No offense, but your brother’s a dick. Dare I say it? I think he’s a bigger dick than Ash.”

  Hobbs grimaced. “You’re not wrong.”

  “What the hell does Nina see in him?”

  Hobbs shrugged. “He can be nice sometimes. He’s nice with her.”

  “Does Hudson know? Shit, does Seb know?” Rafe never missed an opportunity to condemn Seb for getting kicked off of Destructive Delta. And Hudson’s reaction to Rafe’s name alone, back when he’d come to visit Cael at the hospital after the Youth Center bombing, spoke volumes of the tension between the three of them. And now Hudson’s partner was sleeping with the enemy. The guy definitely had a talent for rubbing people the wrong way.

  Hobbs shook his head. “Nina feels bad, but she really likes Rafe. It happened during a case.”

  “How long has this been going on?” Dex had to give the pair credit. He chatted to Nina all the time and never once did he get even the tiniest hint she was involved with someone. Nina was friendly and playful. She teased her fellow agents and laughed with them. And Rafe… well, luckily Dex had little interaction with Rafe, but never in a million years would he have guessed the guy was sleeping with Nina. The guy was like he’d said. A dick.

  “Four months.”

  “Fuck me. And Hudson really has no clue?”

  Hobbs shook his head. “They’re careful. Nina doesn’t want to hurt Hudson.”

  This whole situation didn’t bode well. Since Nina and Rafe were on different squads, there was no risk of one of them being transferred. The risk was to Nina and Hudson’s personal and professional relationship, which still complicated matters. How long could she keep it a secret? At least Dex didn’t have to worry about how his teammates felt about him and Sloane. They all cared about each other. They were a family. A somewhat incestuous family it would seem. And sure, they bitched, fought, and drove each other bonkers, but in the end, they looked out for one another.

  Their loyalty touched Dex. None of them had brought it up or so much as dropped a clue they knew. They carried on as if nothing had changed. He wondered what other surprises the day had in store for him.

  “When did you guys figure it out? About us, I mean.”

  Hobbs thought about it. “The first karaoke night. When you were on stage singing.” He dropped his gaze to his fingers, his cheeks flushed. “The way Sloane looked at you. And his smile. He has this special smile just for you. Like you’re the only one who matters.”

  “Really? Sloane looks at me like that?” Dex didn’t know how to feel, other than stupidly, ridiculously happy. Like doing cartwheels and punching the air like one of those ridiculous training montages in the movies. He loved the way Sloane looked at him and smiled, but he’d assumed it was his partner’s warmth shining through. Oh, he saw the affection, but he never thought it was a look Sloane had just for him.

  “Yeah. Like you’re the most amazing thing he’s ever seen.”

  Dex gave Hobbs a playful nudge. “You mean like how Cal looks at you?” The blush on Hobbs’s cheeks deepened, and Dex found himself chuckling. “Yeah, just what I thought. You’ve thought about it a lot, haven’t you? Of being more than friends.”

  “Every day.”

  “Man, what is it with you Felid Therians? You can face down an army of feral Therians and not bat an eyelash, but a cute boy tells you he likes you, and you’re running for the hills like someone set your tails on fire.”

  “I’m not running,” Hobbs mumbled.

  “Wow. So convincing.” He hated seeing the big guy so torn. Standing, he gave Hobbs a hearty pat on the back
. “Come on. Let’s chat over a bagel and coffee.” Maybe he couldn’t meddle in his brother’s relationship, but he could certainly meddle in his other teammates’.

  As they walked through Unit Alpha toward the elevator, Dex considered Calvin and Hobbs’s situation. The problem was most certainly on Hobbs’s end. Calvin had put himself out there plenty of times. He’d made the first move at the hospital by kissing Hobbs. In usual Felid fashion, Hobbs reacted like a deer caught in headlights each and every time. Though he had returned Calvin’s kiss, so there was clearly something strong at work under all the fear and hesitation. Like most large Felids Dex knew, Hobbs was kind of crap at communicating his feelings, which wasn’t exactly a surprise considering the guy barely spoke. But he’d never had a problem talking to Calvin, who was the only one capable of confronting Hobbs, purposefully pissing him off, and pushing his buttons. Their deep friendship spoke volumes, so it was understandable the guy would be hesitant.

  Stepping into the elevator, Dex gave Hobbs a reassuring pat on the arm. “Don’t worry, big guy. We’ll figure this out.” He only wished he could say the same about his own situation.

  BECK HOGAN was royally pissed off.

  He sat on a dusty, beat-up armchair in the middle of a dimly lit, shitty, derelict schoolhouse listening to what remained of his organization spouting off a bunch of useless intel and piss-poor excuses.

  “It’s like they have nine lives or something,” one of them muttered.

  Hogan stood, marched over, snatched a fistful of the guy’s shirt, and lifted him off his feet with a snarl. “Are you fucking kidding me? They don’t have nine lives, you stupid shit! They have one life. One life you can’t seem to put an end to.” He shoved the guy away from him and paced in front of the dozen Therians lounging on the dusty floorboards. The more he thought about it, the more pissed off he got. They’d had the bastard right in front of them.

  “Yeah, but it’s not our fault Keeler survived,” someone else added. “The guy was bleeding all over the fucking place.”

  “Yeah,” another member piped up. “And how the hell were we supposed to know Brodie would be the one to go out to Keeler’s car?”

  “I can’t believe Brodie survived,” someone else muttered, the others murmuring their agreement.

  “Christ.” Hogan rounded on them. “Do you all realize what fucking amateurs we look like? First, we let Reyes slip through our fucking fingers, then those THIRDS bastards. Three times!”

  Drew Collins—the only one who seemed to have any brains—came to stand beside him. At least he had someone at his side he could count on. It was disgusting and humiliating how his once fierce group of freedom fighters had been reduced to a few reliable Therians and a bunch of brainless thugs. Damn it. He’d told Merritt not to take their best Therians to the exchange with the THIRDS, but Merritt had been confident. Now his friend was dead, the best of his crew were behind bars, and he was left with the rabble.

  “Hey, you have to keep in mind Brodie and Keeler have been doing this shit for years. Plus they’re Alpha Therians. Felid Therians.”

  “And traitors to their species,” Hogan spat out. “Working with those Human pieces of shit.” Hogan shook his head. How could their own brethren turn on them? Working with Humans to cage their own kind in the back of a truck? It was unforgiveable. Humans were beneath them. Therians were the next step in evolution. Genetic mistake my ass. It explained why Humans were so damn scared of Therians. Why they forced them to get marked like cattle and passed laws to keep them from shifting when they pleased. It was in their nature to be free. To let loose the wild beasts inside them. Humans were weak, and they knew it. One calculated swipe of his claw, and a Human wouldn’t stand a chance.

  Hogan resumed his seat. If it weren’t for the THIRDS, no one could stop Therians from taking their rightful place as the dominant species. As much as he hated to admit it, the THIRDS were winning. Not only did they have military-grade weaponry, but agents like Brodie and Keeler posed the biggest problems. From what he remembered, there was a tiger Therian on the team as well. Fucking great.

  “So what are we going to do?” someone asked.

  “We’ve crippled Destructive Delta,” Collins said, coming to take a seat on Hogan’s armrest. “Without their two strongest members, they’re left with the tiger Therian and three Human agents.”

  “Four,” someone piped up. “The female partnered with the twink cheetah Therian.”

  Hogan sat up. “What did you say?”

  “The uh, the cheetah Therian. The one Keeler insisted wasn’t his boyfriend.”

  Hogan’s smile grew wide. “The one he took a bullet for.” Hogan looked up at Collins, feeling his resolve strengthening. “Merritt said something about the kid having a brother. Wasn’t he the guy Stone knocked out and brought back to the base? Keeler refused to let Merritt even go near him. What was the guy’s name?”

  “Hold on a sec.” Collins reached into his pocket and drew out a small tablet. A few taps later, and he had his information. “Dexter J. Daley. Brodie’s Human partner.”

  “So we have two Alpha members of the team recuperating from injuries and vulnerable, both tied to these brothers.” Hogan sat quietly thinking while everyone observed in silence. Attacking Keeler and Brodie head-on would be stupid. Vulnerable didn’t mean accessible. The THIRDS were expecting Hogan and his crew to make a move. They were watching the streets and most likely their recovering agents. Keeler would be on alert after the second attempt on his life.

  Collins interrupted the silence with his concerns. “With Keeler and Brodie out of commission, we’re likely to be facing a new team and I imagine backup. There’s no way the THIRDS would send four Human agents after us. The cheetah Therian wouldn’t last. Besides, he’s Recon. What are you thinking?”

  Hogan drummed his fingers on the chair’s armrest as he thought. “Have some of the guys keep an eye on the brothers. I want two guys on Brodie and another two on Keeler. Don’t approach them, watch them. I need time to come up with a plan. I want everyone else looking for those Westward Creed assholes. And remember, I want them brought to me alive. I’ll deal with them personally.”

  Collins gave him a nod and rounded everyone up, issuing orders and leaving Hogan in blissful silence. They had to find those Westward Creed bastards first, and if any THIRDS agents got in their way, they’d deal with them. Then he’d come up with a way to make that son of a bitch Keeler pay. The guy had pretended to care for their cause only to betray them. His act had been good. They’d all fallen for it. Having an agent like Keeler on their side would have taken them to a whole new level. Now look where they were. Keeler had gotten Merritt killed, their men imprisoned, and then the prick had the audacity not to fucking die when he was supposed to.

  Hogan wasn’t stupid. Even if they managed to find those Westward Creed assholes and make them pay, they wouldn’t make it out of this city alive. There was no way in hell he was going to prison. He’d made peace with his decision. What the hell did he have left to lose anyway? The Humans had taken everything from him. But if he was going down, he was going to take some of those THIRDS bastards with him. He’d do more than make Keeler bleed. He was going to destroy him. And he had an idea how he could do it.

  Chapter 3

  SLOANE HAD been moved into a private room with simple but modern décor. It had a great panoramic view of the East River and Manhattan skyline from its two huge floor-to-ceiling windows. The room was mostly white with a few wood accents. A dark gray armchair sat in front of the window at the far end, a matching sleeper sofa was positioned in front of the second window, and between them sat a small, round, white table with two gray chairs. The room had free Wi-Fi and a flat-screen TV, a private bathroom with shower, and meal service. They were nice digs, but Dex was glad it wasn’t a long-term setup.

  His partner still looked banged up, but at least the color had returned to his cheeks. The cuts and scrapes were healing, as were the bruises. Dex closed the door behind him and
left his shoes on the mat to one side before walking over to Sloane’s bed. He placed the insulated lunch bag on the small bedside table.

  “Hey, sexy-pants. What have you been up to today?”

  Sloane turned his attention away from the TV and smiled at him. It was amazing how one little smile could disarm him. “Watching Indiana Jones and eating chocolate pudding.”

  “The high life, huh?”

  Sloane chuckled. His gaze landed on the lunch bag. “Are those what I think they are?”

  “Yep. Rosa made you your favorite empanadas.” Dex tried not to laugh at the way his partner’s eyes lit up. Like a little kid who’d been told he could order whatever he wanted from the ice cream parlor. Dex hardly blamed the guy. Rosa was an amazing cook, and she loved to feed their team. Between Rosa’s Puerto Rican food, Letty’s Cuban food, and Lou’s Dominican food, it was amazing their team fit in the BearCat.

  “Meat?”

  “Yep, plus a couple of guavas, some chicken, and beef with sweet plantains.”

  “Oh God, those are so good.”

  It was amusing how even the most steadfast of health nuts had their vices. Dex leaned over to give Sloane’s lips a kiss. “How are you feeling?” Sloane had no idea how much his smile affected Dex. Hobbs had been right. Dex never saw Sloane give that smile to anyone else.

  “Better, now that you’re here.”

  Dex was caught off guard by the affectionate admission. “Aw, painkillers be making you sappy,” he teased. “I like it.” He kissed Sloane again, loving the taste of him.

  “Mm, I like that,” Sloane murmured against Dex’s lips.

  “Yeah?”

  “Yeah. Come ’ere.” Sloane carefully shifted over and patted the bed. Good thing it was Therian-sized. Dex was happy to oblige. He removed his leather jacket and draped it across the side table, followed by the off-duty holster attached to his belt securing his Glock, and his badge clipped beside it. He didn’t want to unintentionally hurt Sloane. Soon as he was done, he climbed up with care and huddled close to Sloane, resting his hand on his partner’s chest. Sloane’s larger hand promptly covered Dex’s, making him smile. It also made him think of how close he’d come to losing this.

  “God, Sloane, when I saw you lying there… I thought—” Dex closed his eyes. He’d known there were risks, but he hadn’t expected his resolve to be put to the test so early on in their relationship. He felt Sloane’s hand on his cheek, and Dex leaned into the warmth, not quite ready to open his eyes yet. He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. Man, he was such a goner.

  “Listen to me. I’m glad it was me.”

  Dex shifted so he could look up at Sloane, and the intensity he saw in his partner’s eyes amazed him. “How can you say that? Look at you. You were almost killed.”

  “If it had been you, Dex, you would have been killed. The only reason I survived is because I’m a Therian. An explosion of that magnitude would have killed any Human who’d been as close to it as I was.”

  “So because you’re a Therian, you should automatically be the one to risk your life every time? I had the keys. I was the one who was supposed to have gone out there.”

  “And for whatever reason, I decided to go instead, and I’m thankful for it.” Sloane was serious. There was also something else in his eyes. Something Dex wanted to know more about but knew now was not the time. Seeming to sense this, Sloane cleared his throat and averted his gaze. “How’s Ash taking it?”

  “Man….” Dex sighed. Where did he even start?

  Sloane groaned. “What did he do now?”

  “You know, when I think I’ve got him figured out, he does something that completely screws with my head.”

  “Dex.”

  Sloane was going to be so pissed at him. Maybe. Dex gave his sweetest smile, but it only earned him a frown. Yep, definitely gonna get pissed. Might as well get it over with.

  “He most likely saved my life,” Dex said quietly, watching Sloane’s eyebrows draw together.

  “I don’t understand. What happened?”

  Deep breath. “When I heard the explosion, all I could think about was you. I ran outside, not thinking the threat might still be out there. We were shot at.”

  Sloane let his head fall back onto the pillow. “Jesus, Dex. You could have gotten yourself killed! After all the training we’ve done? After everything we’ve talked about, you run right into the line of fire without any regard for your safety whatsoever?” He turned his head to glare at Dex. “You’re lucky I’m too damn grateful you’re here to beat the shit out of you. Also, I can’t right now.”

  “I know. I fucked up. I’m sorry.”

  Sloane narrowed his eyes. “You best put that lip away because pouting is not getting you out of this one.”

  “I wasn’t pouting,” Dex mumbled.

  “Yes you were. I know when you’re pouting even when you don’t. Now, tell me everything.” Sloane gave him a squeeze, which Dex guessed meant he’d been forgiven, though Sloane wasn’t likely to forget it. Jaguar Therians never forget. Dex was pretty sure it would conveniently cross his partner’s mind during a training session, and Dex would get his ass kicked for it.

  “Ash knocked me to the ground. He tore his stitches to keep me safe from the shooters. I kept trying to get away from him to get to you, but he wouldn’t let me.”

  “What about the shooters?”

  “Ash said they were in a black van and long gone before emergency services arrived.”

 
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