**** WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT AND CHARACTER SPOILERS FROM BOOKS 1 THROUGH 10 ****
It was almost time.
The bags were by the door, and Sloane had triple checked everything, making sure they left nothing behind, especially the electronic devices meant to keep Dex busy on the plane. It was a matter of safety. Cael had made the mistake of selecting the two empty seats in front of Dex and Sloane’s for him and Ash, meaning Dex would be sitting behind Ash. No good could come of that. In the interest of getting everyone to Florida in one piece, Sloane would be sure to keep Dex busy.
The doorbell rang, and Dex whizzed by in a blur of pink and blue. Sloane shook his head in amusement at his husband. No one should be that excited at this time of morning, and normally Dex wasn’t, but the copious amounts of coffee had done its job. Dex threw open the front door greeting Ash and Cael in his cargo Bermuda shorts and blue button-down shirt covered in pink flamingos.
“Are you two ready to penetrate Florida with me? Wait, that came out wrong.”
“I regret this already,” Ash muttered.
“Ignore him,” Cael said, hugging his brother. “He’s been saying that since we booked our flights. A month ago.”
“As of now, we are on vacation, and while on vacation,” Dex put his thumbs to the sides of Ash’s mouth and pushed up to make him smile, “there are no upside-down smiles, mister.”
Ash narrowed his eyes. “You’re one second away from losing those fingers, Justice.”
Dex released him with a huff. “You better get used to smiling, because after the concert we’re going to the happiest place on earth.”
“It can’t be the happiest place on earth. You’ll be there,” Ash deadpanned.
Dex arched an eyebrow at him before turning to face Cael. “Life of the party, your boyfriend.”
“Oh my God, Dex, we’re going Disney World!” Cael bounced on his toes excitedly. “I haven’t been there since we were kids. Remember when Dad took us for your tenth birthday and you ate so much cotton candy you puked rainbows when you got off the Mad Tea Party ride?”
“Of all the things we did that day, that’s what you remember?”
Cael shrugged. “It was pretty epic. I mean it looked like a rainbow was shooting out of your mouth.”
Sloane did his best to contain his laugh at Ash’s pained expression. “Sweetheart, it’s too early for me to be interacting with your brother much less hear about his projectile vomiting.”
“Oh, right. Of course.” Cael stood on his toes and kissed Ash’s cheek. “Thank you for coming with me.”
Ash snorted. “Like I was going to send you to some tropical location without me. Not with the way those swim trunks you packed mold to your ass when they’re wet.”
“TMI, buddy. TMI.” Dex perked up, and Sloane smiled. “The car’s here!”
Ash sighed. “Because that’s what the world needed, Dexter Justice Daley with Therian abilities.” He narrowed his eyes at Sloane. “You and your stupid blood.”
Sloane flipped his best friend off. They could joke about it now, how Sloane’s blood had changed Dex, but that hadn’t always been the case. As they picked up their bags and headed outside, Sloane remembered how painful it had been knowing his blood had altered his husband’s Human DNA, not to mention the horror that came once Dex’s body had accepted Sloane’s mutation. He’d almost driven himself crazy thinking of the what-ifs, but Dex refused to let him go down that path. The uncertainty was troubling. Dex’s new hybrid DNA was unknown territory for them, TIN, and the hundreds of TIN scientists who’d run test after test on Sloane’s mate. They had no idea the extent of the changes within Dex because they were still happening.
“I’m sitting up front,” Ash declared, snapping Sloane out of his thoughts.
Thankfully the ride to the airport was uneventful, as was their wait at the airport. Mostly because Ash grabbed Cael and disappeared until boarding time arrived. Ash loved Dex, defended him, had been there for him when Dex had needed it most. He also wanted to kick Dex’s ass most of the time. Sloane had never seen anything like. Was he surprised? No one knew Dex or Ash like he did, so no.
Boarding time came, and they waited for their section to be called. Dex and Cael were both practically vibrating with excitement. It was really adorable. While the brothers talked a mile a minute about everything they’d do and eat while at Disney World, Sloane turned to Ash.
“So what are you two going to do while we’re at the concert?” Sloane had booked them a room at a hotel near the arena and they’d be meeting Ash and Cael at the park gates the next morning.
“Cael wants to go to some big Therian waterpark. Apparently, you can swim around in your Therian form.”
Sloane blinked at Ash. “And um… are you going to swim in your Therian form?”
“Yeah, why?” Ash peered at him.
“Just curious,” Sloane replied, congratulating himself on maintaining his stoic expression. While Ash was distracted having his e-ticket scanned, Sloane quickly caught up to Cael. “Are you taking pictures at the waterpark?”
Cael studied him. “Of course. Why?”
“I just want to make sure you don’t miss out on any memories.” Sloane smiled brightly. He could feel Dex’s eyes on him.
Once they’d put their bags in the overhead compartment and beneath their seats, Dex took his seat in the middle, and Sloane the aisle seat. Sloane had to give Dex credit. His husband managed to wait until they were in the air before whispering hoarsely at him.
“What are you up to?”
Sloane blinked innocently. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t give me that look. I invented that look. Spill.”
They leaned into each other, their heads together as they murmured conspiratorially. “Ash and Cael are going to a waterpark.”
“A Therian waterpark.”
“A Therian waterpark where you can swim in your Therian form.”
Dex squinted at him. “Is the altitude messing with your oxygen intake?”
Sloane rolled his eyes. “Babe, Ash is going to go swimming in his Therian form. In Florida.” He watched as realization slowly dawned on Dex and his brilliant blue eyes widened. A low, long exaggerated gasp escaped him.
“Holy shit, there’s not going to be enough hair products in the state capable of taming the epic lion mane frizz. He’s going to look like a giant Pomeranian!” A wicked gleam came into his eye and he cackled evilly. “I need photographic evidence of this.” And Sloane didn’t doubt he’d get it. Humidity and Ash’s mane were not going to get along. Mane frizz was real, and the bigger the mane, the bigger the frizz. With lion Therians, their mane reflected the kind of strength, vigor, and ferocity they possessed. The tougher they were, the darker more majestic the mane. Dex wasn’t wrong when he said Ash was a precious princess when it came to his mane.
Thankfully, Ash and Cael spent most of the flight being “disgustingly lovey-dovey” as Dex put it which meant his attention was purposefully focused on Sloane, his eBook reader, his phone, and everything not Ash. They landed in Orlando, and the moment they stepped out of the plane, Ash was off.
“Holy blazing fuckballs! Why is there no air? I’m already sweating, and we haven’t even gotten outside yet. God, I hate Florida.”
“You hate everything,” Dex replied, amused.
“Yeah, but I hate Florida especially with its sweltering heat, stifling humidity, and stupid palm trees. They’re not real trees!”
“Pretty sure they are,” Dex argued.
Ash continued his tirade despite being in the airconditioned baggage claim. Once they’d collected their luggage, they stepped outside, and Ash flicked Dex in the ear.
“Ow! What the hell, man?”
“This is your fault. You couldn’t see your stupid concert somewhere with a breeze?”
“Like you’ve never lived through a New York City summer,” Dex grumbled.
“That’s different. The air doesn’t try to choke me.”
Dex opened his mouth to reply, and Sloane clamped a hand over his mouth. The last thing they needed was someone calling airport security about the crazy blond guy in the flamingo shirt and the homicidal lion Therian. Cael, being experienced in all things Ash had already called them a car, meaning in less than ten minutes, they’d parted ways. Ash and Cael headed for the hotel Dex and Sloane would be returning to the next evening after the park. Dex insisted on driving the rental, insisting it was for the sake of Sloane’s blood pressure. Sloane figured it was just Dex wanting to drive like he always did. Nope.
“This particular stretch of highway is lovingly known as Satan’s dongle.”
Sloane held onto the oh-shit bar, his gaze sliding to Dex. “Known to who?”
“To me,” Dex replied cheerfully. “I-4 is perpetually under construction and at this moment in time has more twists and turns than a racecar track, which by the way, would be safer to drive in.”
Dex had Def Leppard blasting in the car on the drive to Tampa. They had the rest of the morning and afternoon to just relax, so they went to their hotel room, checked in early, and went to the pool. For the first time in a long time, Sloane’s muscles relaxed. The hotel was Therian-friendly, so no one batted an eye when Dex and Sloane held hands, cuddled in the pool, or stole kisses.
Later in the early afternoon, they pulled on some comfy clothes, and took a nap—with several alarms set to wake them up in time for changing and getting some food. It was heavenly, and while Dex dozed, Sloane stayed up a few extra minutes just to relish in the feel of his husband in his arms as they lay on the clean, soft sheet, the only sound in the room belonging to the A/C. Sloane nuzzled Dex’s temple before placing a soft kiss to his citrus-scented hair.
“I love you, baby.”
Dex sighed and snuggled closer.
Their alarms went off at three that afternoon. They showered, changed—Dex in a Journey t-shirt and Sloane in a Def Leppard t-shirt—then headed to a Cuban restaurant where Dex ate his weight in mojo pork. By the time they’d parked in one of the parking lots near the venue, the place was filling up fast. They waited in line so Dex could by his band t-shirt, or t-shirts. As in one of each, including the pink one because it had “a different design than the others”.
They joined the throngs of people, and Sloane couldn’t imagine having to deal with this kind of weather every day. It was one thing when you were on vacation, but having to deal with it when you had to work? Fuck, the the THIRDS guys down here deserved a medal for going out on call in this weather with their full gear.
“It smells like armpits and assholes.”
Dex popped his head up and scanned the crowd. “Ash?”
“Not Ash,” Sloane said with a chuckle.
It seemed like a lifetime went by before they were past the metal detectors and inside the building.
“Babe, I want a burger, fries, and a drink. Looks like we’ll have to refinance the house.”
“That’s concession prices for you. Imagine if Ash were here.”
Dex’s eyes went huge. “These people would not survive.”
They carried their overpriced food to their seats in front of the stage, finishing just as the music started to play. The lights dimmed, and Dex bounced on his seat. His phone buzzed, and whatever it was had him barking out a laugh so loud concertgoers three rows over turned to see what was so funny. Dex was in tears. He showed Sloane his phone, and Sloane burst into laughter. He was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe. It was a picture of Ash in his lion Therian form, and just as Dex predicted, he looked like a giant Pomeranian. A very grumpy, very fluffy, Pomeranian.
As the screen lit up with “Tampa” in the signature Def Leppard font, the packed-to-the-brim arena went crazy and Dex jumped to his feet, arms in the air as his scream joined everyone else’s. The screen rose, revealing the band in front of a wall of flickering TV screens. They kicked things off with Rocket, and Sloane was quickly swept into the fervor, jumping and screaming with his husband, rocking out with the crowd. At one point, Sloane felt a tug on his sleeve, and Dex jumped into his arms, legs wrapped around his waist.
“I love you!” Dex screamed loud enough for Sloane to hear.
“I love you too. Happy birthday!”
They kissed to the sound of guitars and drums. A blast of warmth exploded through Sloane’s chest, his body vibrating, and he realized it was coming from Dex. His mate was so happy, his rumbling purr was feeding his own inner jaguar. They might have been enjoying Dex’s gift, but knowing how happy he’d made Dex was the best gift Sloane could ever receive.
THIRDS Thursdays goes on hiatus the month of a THIRDS release, so we'll be back in October with more THIRDS Thursdays!Copyright © 2018 Charlie Cochet. THIRDS published by Dreamspinner Press.