Catch a Tiger by the Tail Excerpt
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.
“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!”
“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.
Ethan’s screams filled the room as his nails grew in and his mass began to shift, his muscles pulling and his body changing. They didn’t have much time. If Ethan shifted while he was asleep, who the hell knew what he’d do?
Calvin couldn’t understand. “He’s had plenty of nightmares before, but he’s never shifted through any of them. Whatever he’s dreaming about, it’s scaring the shit out of him. All I know is that he screamed Sloane’s name before he started shifting.”
Ash spun on his heels. “He what?”
“He was having a fit. Then he screamed Sloane’s name.”
“The facility. He’s dreaming about the goddamn facility.”
Sloane ignored the warnings and climbed onto the bed with Ethan. He wrestled him down, pinning him to the bed. Ethan hissed and tried to claw at him, but Sloane kept his arms down, though with Ethan being stronger Sloane wouldn’t be able to hold him down for long. At least it seemed to have stopped Ethan from shifting into his Therian form.
“Ash, help me out here.”
Ash ran over and helped Sloane keep Ethan pinned, the two struggling against Ethan’s determination to free himself at any cost.
“Hobbs, listen to me. It’s Sloane. I’m fine. I’m okay. Wake up, buddy. You’re dreaming. We’re not there anymore. Open your eyes. Listen to my voice. It’s okay.”
“Sloane!” Ethan cried, his eyes flying open. He gasped for air, his body trembling beneath Sloane and Ash’s hold. Slowly, Ash backed off.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Sloane assured him gently. He ran a hand over Ethan’s head and smiled. “It’s okay. Just a bad dream. You’re okay.”
Ethan’s eyes watered, and he threw his arms around Sloane, hugging him tight. Calvin’s pulse steadied, and he gingerly sat at the edge of the bed. At the feel of him, Ethan released Sloane and turned onto his side. He curled up around Calvin, his arm going around Calvin’s stomach and pulling him in close against him with a shuddered sigh.
“It’s okay. No one’s upset with you,” Calvin promised.
Ethan squeezed his arms around Calvin’s middle, and Calvin ran his fingers through Ethan’s hair, comforting him. He knew what his friend was thinking. It always followed a nightmare, or any of the countless things that would make Ethan feel self-conscious. Except, with Ethan’s anxiety, his embarrassment was always triple what anyone else’s would be. Sloane climbed off the bed, his hand going to Calvin’s shoulder and his expression sympathetic.
“Don’t sweat it, big guy,” Dex said, his tone gentle. “That’s what we’re here for. If you need anything else just let us know.”
“Thanks, guys. I appreciate it.”
Calvin was lucky to have a family like Destructive Delta. It was difficult for people to understand Ethan’s anxieties, much less have the patience it required on a daily basis. For Ethan it was a way of life, a constant struggle not to get overwhelmed by his fears. No one on his team ever hesitated when it came to Ethan. Sloane gave Calvin’s shoulder a pat and leaned in, his voice quiet in Calvin’s ear.
“He needs to talk about what happened.”
Calvin nodded. He thanked everyone again and waited for them to leave, grateful when Dex turned off the lights, leaving only the soft glow of the desk lamp. When the door closed and the room was silent, Calvin lay down facing Ethan. It had been a month since Shultzon’s goons had taken Ethan, Ash, and Sloane. Ethan refused to talk about what had happened. It was starting to take its toll.
“Ethan, please talk to me. Tell me about the facility.”
Ethan was quiet. His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling steadily. He could have been asleep, but he wasn’t. Over the years Calvin had gotten to know every little hitch in his partner’s breath and what it meant. He could read Ethan Hobbs like an open book. From Ethan’s breathing alone, Calvin could tell if Ethan was asleep, upset, pissed off, or even having a wet dream. Right now Ethan was thinking. Like most of Ethan’s fears, his hesitation to tell Calvin meant this was about Ethan judging himself. That’s how Ethan’s anxieties ate away at him. His perception of how others saw him was skewed, and as much as Ethan was aware of it, he couldn’t stop it.
Calvin waited, giving Ethan time to put his thoughts into words, and then he waited for Ethan to take those words and find the voice to speak them. The latter was always the most difficult for his friend.
“When we were taken by Shultzon’s men…,” Ethan began softly, his voice barely above a whisper. “I woke up in a cage.”
Calvin gritted his teeth. He remained quiet, not wanting to interrupt Ethan. What he wanted to do was punch something. That son of a bitch, Shultzon. Wherever TIN had him, Calvin hoped the asshole was rotting away inside his own cage.
“They were supposed to have taken Seb, but Fuller made a mistake. He didn’t know there was more than one Hobbs. Shultzon was angry. He said I was… useless, because my disabilities were psychological and not physical like Seb’s. He called me….” Ethan’s eyes grew glassy, his pupils dilated. “He said I was broken. And then Ash was in a cage next to me trying to get out, and Sloane was strapped down to this horrible chair. They were going to inject the drug into him. I couldn’t help him.”
Ethan shut his eyes tight, and Calvin pulled him close. With a sniff, Ethan wrapped his arms around Calvin and buried his face against Calvin’s T-shirt.
“I dreamed I was back there, and they killed Sloane because I couldn’t help him. Because I was too scared. Broken.”
“Fuck Shultzon. That asshole was out of his fucking mind, Ethan. He wanted to turn Therians into mindless super soldiers. He messed with your head, and he did the same to Sloane and Ash.”
“And yet Ash got out.”
Ethan pulled back enough to look into Calvin’s eyes, the anguish gripping at Calvin’s heart and squeezing.
“Ash got himself out of his cage, and Sloane got out of the chair. I couldn’t get out. Could barely move. I’m stronger, and I couldn’t do anything.” Ethan shook his head, his lips pressed together as he tried to keep his emotions in check. “I was trained for those situations. If Ash hadn’t talked me off the ledge….”
Calvin put his hand to Ethan’s cheek. “Shultzon messed with you. He fucked up your meds.”
“And what does that say about me, huh?” Ethan asked, agitated. “I’m so fucked-up I can’t function without them anymore. I can’t…. Without the meds I’m nothing. I can’t do my job. I can’t have fucking dinner with my family. Thanksgiving was a disaster. You got into a fight because of me. Again. My whole life I’ve had someone fighting my battles for me because I’ve been too weak to do it myself.”
“We talked about Thanksgiving. That wasn’t your fault.” Calvin’s heart broke, but he did what he always did. He remained strong for Ethan, doing his best to soothe Ethan’s fears. Calvin wiped the wetness from Ethan’s reddened cheeks. “As for the rest, I will always fight for you. Not because you can’t fight for yourself, but because you’re my best friend. If some asshole has the balls to mess with you, he has to get through me first. I know you’re bigger than me, and stronger, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to lean on me, Ethan. That’s what people do when they care about someone. Your fight becomes mine.”
“I’m going to be on meds for the rest of my life. What if they stop working?”
“Then we’ll find something else to help you.”
Ethan sat up and shook his head. “I hate that I have no control of my own head. That I have to rely on stupid little pills. Everyone thinks I’m a fucking spaz.”
“Hey, no one thinks that.” Calvin sat up with a frown. “Are you telling me our friends, who woke up at four in the fucking morning after a twelve-hour shift and ran in here to make sure you were okay, that they think that?”
Ethan shook his head, and Calvin took hold of his hand.
“No, they don’t. Look at your brother. How many prescriptions does Seb have? He can’t function without those pills either, and he’s the reason you wanted to become a THIRDS agent. You remember what he told you when you said you wanted to become an agent like him but couldn’t because of your mutism?”
“He said my disabilities didn’t define me. I define me.”
“That’s right.” Calvin placed Ethan’s hand to his lips for a kiss. “You define you, Ethan. Not your meds, not your mutism, not anyone else. You.”
Ethan went quiet. He dropped his gaze to his hand in Calvin’s before looking up at him, his expression softening. “I got out for you, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“In the cage, I couldn’t move. I was so scared. Ash told me to do it for you. He said you didn’t think I was broken.”
Ethan searched his gaze, and Calvin made sure Ethan found what he was looking for.
“And he was right,” Calvin replied with all the conviction he possessed. Twenty-four years they’d been inseparable, yet Ethan still needed to be reminded that Calvin was at his side because he wanted to be, needed to be, as much for himself as for Ethan. Calvin took Ethan’s face in his hands. “You’re not broken, Ethan. You’re amazing, and that will never change.” He stroked Ethan’s cheek with his thumb and smiled. “Thank you for getting yourself out of there. I couldn’t stop worrying about you.”
“It scares me sometimes,” Ethan said quietly.
“How much I need you.” Ethan pulled Calvin with him as he lay down. He snuggled up close and pressed his lips to Calvin’s.
Calvin closed his eyes and parted his lips, allowing Ethan to slip his tongue in and deepen the kiss. He didn’t question it or overthink it, just went with it. Whatever Ethan needed, Calvin would give.
Ethan’s lips were soft, his mouth warm and tasting faintly of mint. Calvin loved how Ethan tasted, how he smelled, how he felt underneath his touch. He loved the way Ethan’s strong hands caressed his skin.
This was uncharted territory for both of them, and despite knowing everything about each other, Calvin was eager to explore more of this side of Ethan. They’d seen each other naked more times than he could count. They argued and fought but always worked things out. When Ethan pulled back, Calvin missed his breath on him, the feel of his lips, but he smiled at his best friend and cuddled up to him. As long as they were together, they’d make it through anything. Them against the world.