Prompt: Is there any way we can get a story from Zach's POV? Does he think about Austen? Does he think about Dex and the Cheesy Doodles? I just want to know what he thinks about.
Thank goodness that was over.
As much as Zach enjoyed working protective detail for Unit Beta, babysitting the Therian teenagers of visiting foreign dignitaries was not his favorite. Most were no trouble, but occasionally some of them regarded themselves as celebrities, and their entourage had a habit of treating him like he was their personal butler instead of the highly trained THIRDS agent he was. This time around was the worst yet. The eighteen-year-old leopard Therian and her half a dozen friends were terrifying.
They kept poking his abs, making him hold out his arms to see how many of them could hang off his biceps. One of them even grabbed his butt. Five hours of giggling, of being made to show how strong he was, of being asked completely inappropriate questions about his anatomy, had exhausted him. It was all submitted in his report, and his sergeant was very good at following up on claims of impropriety. The hiring agency would be warned about conduct for future contracts. The THIRDS wouldn’t permit their agents to be harassed, no matter who they were working with.
Zach didn’t want to get the girls in trouble, but his partner had told him it was an important lesson they needed to learn. At least it was over. Now he could enjoy his break and his favorite—
“You,” Zach muttered, his eyes narrowed at the blond Human.
Dex looked up, pale blue eyes wide. “Me.”
Zach didn’t know what to do with agent Dexter J. Daley. He was strange. No. That wasn’t right. Even strange wasn’t strange enough for him. Of all the vending machines at HQ, why did Dex always end up at the same one Zach intended to use? And why was there only ever one darn packet of Cheesy Doodles left? He supposed the answer to that stood in front of him. The guy ate almost as much as Zach did. Besides, the Cheesy Doodles should be his considering this was Unit Beta’s canteen.
Let me guess,” Dex said with a big grin, “these are yours?” He pointed to the lone pack of tasty Cheesy Doodles behind the glass.
“I don’t suppose my telling you I was here first would resolve this?”
Zach arched an eyebrow at him. Not even close.
“I didn’t think so,” Dex sighed. “I’ll tell you what, big guy. I’m beat, so outrunning you today is not in the cards, as fun as that is.”
Dex didn’t really outrun Zach. It was more like he squeezed himself into places Zach didn’t have a chance of fitting into. Like the laundry chute in Sparta. Zach had to give the guy credit, he meant business when it came to Cheesy Doodles. No peril was too great, or equipment locker too small. The man went to great lengths to escape with Zach’s cheese snacks.
“How about we share?”
Zach considered this. Share his Cheesy Doodles with Dex, or be forced to chase the agent all around the building, and in the end lose his snack. Although Dex did say he was too tired to run today.
Dex put his change into the machine and tapped the digital screen. The bag plopped down. Zach readied himself. Dex was going down. Those Cheesy Doodles were Zach’s.
“Man, for a small guy, Austen is one tough little bastard.”
Zach straightened. “Austen Payne?”
“Only Austen I know,” Dex replied with a nod. He grabbed the packet of Cheesy Doodles and motioned over to an empty table. Zach followed, but only because he didn’t want to lose sight of his Cheesy Doodles. Not because he wanted to know about Austen Payne. Zach scrunched up his nose. That was a lie. He wanted to know more about the mysterious cheetah Therian he’d looked after in the abandoned building a few months ago.
Zach sat down across from Dex, his eyes on the packet. It made a lovely sound when it was opened. To his surprise, Dex offered him first dibs. Zach grabbed a couple and waited for Dex to say whatever he was going to say. The guy was very smart, despite playing the fool. Zach had seen him in action plenty of times, out in the field and training in Sparta.
“You asked Sloane about him.”
There was no teasing or malice in Dex’s tone. It was simply a statement. Zach nodded. He ate one of his Cheesy Doodles.
“I asked him how Austen was doing,” Zach admitted.
“Still alive and kicking. And being a pain in everyone’s ass.”
Zach shrugged. That was Dex’s opinion. Zach didn’t think so. “He does what you do.”
“And what’s that?” Dex asked, his head cocked to one side in thought.
“Act like a clown to hide the truth.”
“And what truth might that be?” Dex popped another Cheesy Doodle into his mouth before offering the bag again. “Also, Austen and I are nothing alike. The guy’s like an obnoxious little ninja. You know he breaks into my house to steal my Cheesy Doodles?”
Zach stared at Dex before letting out a quiet laugh.
“That’s right. Your boyfriend’s a thief.”
Zach stopped laughing. He narrowed his eyes. “He’s not my boyfriend. The truth he hides is his true feelings. You make jokes to hide insecurities.”
Dex studied him. “Interesting. However, we’re not talking about me, we’re talking about Austen.”
“I just wanted to know if he was okay.”
“Because you were thinking about him.”
Where was Dex, going with this? Dex peered at him, and Zach was forced to look away. Okay, so he had been thinking about Austen. There was something… sad about him. Zach didn’t know that much about Austen other than what Sloane had told him, but the thought of the spirited cheetah Therian being all alone in the world made Zach sad. He’d never been alone. Heck, he’d grown up with eight brothers and sisters, plus cousins, aunts, and uncles. The Zachary clan was huge.
Zach shrugged. He couldn’t deny he’d been thinking about Austen. Whatever Austen did as an SSA, his job was very dangerous. Zach knew that much. At least he cared about what he did, considering he’d been helping Sloane out when he got hurt. From their short time together, Zach had been able to gleam some insight into Austen. It was obvious that outside of Sloane, Austen wasn’t used to anyone being kind to him without wanting something in return. Zach cleared his throat.
“So, you’ve seen him recently?” Zach wasn’t particularly pleased by the impish smile on Dex’s face, but he ignored it.
“Today, actually. We had a training exercise and he wiped the floor with us.”
Zach’s brows shot up. “Us? Who’s us?”
“The whole team. Hobbs, Ash, Sloane.” Dex shook his head in shame. “That’s what we get for underestimating him. Dude’s got mad skills.”
“Good,” Zach said, pleased.
“Good we got our asses handed to us?”
Zach laughed at Dex’s stunned expression. He shook his head. “No, silly. I’m glad that he can defend himself against bigger Therians.”
“I think he’s been training harder, after what happened with those Coalition jerks. I get the feeling Austen doesn’t like getting caught.” Something in Dex’s eyes made Zach pause. There was more to that declaration.
“Anyway, thanks for the chat,” Dex said as he got up, handing Zach the rest of the packet. “You know, just because you don’t see him, doesn’t mean he’s not around. He likes to keep tabs on people close to him. He just doesn’t like them to know he’s keeping tabs on them. The guy’s about as emotional as an armadillo.” Dex patted Zach’s shoulder and gave him a wink. “Until the next pack of Cheesy Doodles.”
Zach nodded. I look forward to it.
The rest of the day went quickly, and soon he was home. After a hot shower, he came downstairs in his T-shirt, and loose pajama bottoms. His feet were bare as usual. He wasn’t a fan of socks. He fixed himself dinner, talked to his mom on the phone, and promised he’d be there for his dad’s birthday party that weekend. He was too tired to go out, so he stayed in watching TV. During the commercial break, he headed into the kitchen for a bottle of water and his Cheesy Doodles. He opened the cupboard where he stored them, and frowned.
They were gone.
This morning there had been a full bag. He was certain of it.
A slow smile crept onto his face.
He went to the fridge and scribbled a quick grocery list, adding Cheesy Doodles to the bottom.
Better make that two bags.
Copyright © 2014 Charlie Cochet. All Rights Reserved. THIRDS published by Dreamspinner Press.