Blood & Thunder, page 6part #2 of THIRDS Series
Sloane’s painful groans and growls as his mass shifted made Dex wince. No matter how many times he heard it, it still got to him. The experience of shifting wasn’t something Dex envied. According to his brother, it was like someone was rearranging your body from the inside out, stretching muscle and skin, popping bones, shifting organs, fur piercing skin, and then you got to do it all over again when you shifted back, with the added bonus of experiencing aftereffects equivalent to those caused by a mild epileptic seizure. Therian scientists were attempting to find a solution to that, but as of yet, had nothing. Even if they could come up with medication that would reduce the aftereffects, it would undoubtedly be accompanied by other side effects, and who the hell wanted that?
Each rookie, whether Human or Therian, was paired up with a more experienced partner, and as this training session concerned the bond between Therian and Human agents, the attendees were a mixture of Defense, Intel, and Recon agents. Dex received a nudge against his leg, and he smiled down at his partner. Sloane was as huge in his Therian form as he was in his Human form. It had taken a few weeks, but Dex could easily spot his partner among any other black jaguar Therians. Scores of little things that made it obvious to him. Those molten amber eyes, a glossy coat that was nearly pitch black with the faintest hint of rosettes coming through, all that bulk, hard muscle, the way he moved, his expressions, the way he looked at Dex as if he could hear his thoughts. There was also something in Dex’s gut that told him it was his partner.
Dex stood, arms folded over his chest, trying not to chuckle at his partner doing his Felid thing, circling Dex, rubbing against his legs, the loud chainsaw-like purrs vibrating against Dex. Sloane had to rub his scent all over Dex, and Dex knew better than to interrupt or try to stop him. Well, he did now.
The first time Dex had made the mistake of moving away, not knowing what the hell Sloane was doing, Sloane had knocked him over, scared the ever living crap out of him, stood on his back, and then proceeded to make it worse by rolling all over Dex, apparently his punishment for attempting to walk away. Cael rubbed his scent over Dex while in his Therian form all the time and had been doing so since they were kids. But it was a different kind of bond. When Cael left his scent on Dex, it was so other Therians knew Dex was family, part of Cael’s cheetah coalition. When Sloane left his scent on Dex, he had no idea what kind of message that was sending out.
The facility had several expansive outdoor areas surrounded by prison-style concrete walls with electrified barbed wire running along the top to keep any daredevil news folk from attempting to get an eyeful. The Human zealots loved any opportunity to show Therians as nothing but ferocious, mindless beasts, and the last thing the THIRDS needed was media footage of their Therian agents in their feral form tearing through dummies. As soon as Sloane finished rubbing against Dex, he nudged the back of Dex’s legs. Every time he did that, Dex could practically hear Sloane’s words in his head. Get your ass moving, Rookie.
As instructed, Dex headed out into Field “A.” Tidy rows of mats had been placed on the grass for the Human agents to sit, their Therian partners sitting or lying on the grass beside them. Dex snagged himself a mat somewhere near the middle, not too close to the instructor, but not too far. He gave the surrounding agents a cheerful smile as he sat cross-legged, Sloane flopping down beside him looking bored already, but then again most Felid Therian agents looked bored when in their feral form. Must be a cat thing.
There were whispers and murmurs around him, and Dex noticed some of the agents were staring at him while others pretended they weren’t.
Discreetly, Dex looked down at himself. Was his fly open? Nope. He leaned into Sloane, talking quietly at him. “Any idea what’s going on?”
Sloane pushed his muzzle against Dex’s arm over his Unit Alpha, Destructive Delta patch. Looking around, Dex noticed most of the other patches were of teams he hadn’t heard of, mostly in Units Beta and Omega. “Oh, are we the only ones from Unit Alpha?” He received a fierce yawn in response. “I’m gonna take that as a yes.” The attention made sense, then. From what he’d learned, Unit Alpha was the most popular unit at the THIRDS. It was also the most dangerous and the most difficult to get into.
The only way a position became available in Unit Alpha was if an agent retired, died, or messed up so bad they got transferred. And then the competition to fill that position was fierce. Dex had no doubt most of the rookies here had heard enough stories and rumors to give them that starry-eyed look. They had no idea what being an agent for Unit Alpha truly meant. Sloane could attest to that firsthand.
The instructor, a Therian dressed in khaki slacks, a white shirt, and brown cardigan, stepped up to the front. He looked more like some philosophy teacher than a THIRDS agent. He tapped his earpiece, the tiny microphone pressed against his cheek making certain everyone could hear.
“Welcome new recruits to the Therian Behavioral Science session 1.03. I’m Dr. Eldridge and I’ll be your instructor. What makes the THIRDS such a unique and successful agency is its diverse nature. Here at the THIRDS we promote and embrace all cultures, religions, sexualities, genders, nationalities, and species, so that we may come together to achieve a common goal—justice for all. As you’re already fully aware, for every Human agent in our organization, there is a Therian agent.”
He walked as he talked, his sharp Therian gaze taking in all the recruits. The marks on his neck showed he was a cougar Therian. With a broad smile, he laced his fingers together. “Without the bond between Human and Therian, our organization could not thrive, which is why it’s imperative every new recruit is paired with the right agent. However, assigning you a compatible partner is merely the beginning. Today we’re going to discuss and demonstrate how to recognize certain Therian behaviors so that you might form the crucial bond needed for a successful partnership. I’m pleased that we have one of our more experienced new recruits with us here today.”
Dex looked around. Sweet, so he wasn’t the oldest new recruit. That should take some of the attention off him.
“Agent Daley, what can you tell us about what you’ve learned since being partnered with a jaguar Therian?”
Craaap. So much for that.
“Pardon me, before we get started, for those of you who may not know—though I’m certain you’ve heard of him, Agent Daley’s partner is Agent Sloane Brodie, an agent with over twenty years field experience and the THIRDS youngest recruit to date, having joined the THIRDS at age sixteen. He’s the Team Leader of Unit Alpha’s first Defense team, Destructive Delta. Agent Daley, please continue. And if you wouldn’t mind standing.”
Well, the guy asked for it. Dex stood and addressed the wide-eyed recruits. “All right, listen up. This is serious stuff. Lesson number one: If your 240-pound Felid partner with a jaw strong enough to pierce your skull with his fangs in one bite wants to rub up against your leg, you take it and you like it.
“Lesson number two: Don’t piss off your Felid partner and then think you’re safe by jumping in Sparta’s Olympic-sized swimming pool. Jaguar Therians love swimming, and they’re better at it than you. No good can come of it, and you’ll end up losing your swim trunks in the process and have to walk to the locker room naked, covering your boy bits, and nearly giving the janitorial staff a heart attack. Your fellow agents will take pictures of you, and by the time your shift is over, your ass has gone viral, and it’s seen more action than you ever will.
“Lesson number three: Jaguar Therians are patient, crafty, and you will never see them coming. They’re masters of skulking and pouncing. Just because you think you’ve gotten away with something doesn’t mean you have. Your partner will wait months if he has to for the perfect moment to strike. He will get his revenge. So you thought attaching a cheesy 1980s Dionne Warwick song to one of his case files and disabling the audio function on his desk so he couldn’t stop the hellish harmonica would be funny? Think again. Because five months later, while you’re in the middle of field training, surrounded by scores of Fe
Everyone broke into laughter, and Dex shook his head, putting a hand up. “Laugh all you want, but I’m telling you, if you have a Felid partner, you are screwed. You thought your neighbor’s cat was the devil incarnate? Guess what? He ain’t got nothin’ on your partner. And remember, just because your partner can’t maim or kill you, doesn’t mean he won’t make you suffer. Oh and your Felid partner will not be scared off by the rustling of a plastic bag. All it will do is piss him off. Shiny things, laser pointers, and a giant box may occasionally distract him. They love boxes.”
Dr. Eldridge picked his jaw up off the floor. “Um, thank you, Agent Daley, for that… informative briefing. You may resume your seat.”
“Thanks.” Dex sat down, and Sloane settled in beside him. He sniffed at Dex before a sandpaper tongue licked the side of his face. “Stop it.” Dex gave Sloane a small shove which was about as effective as asking Ash not to be a dickbag. Sloane continued, licking Dex, his paw thrown over Dex’s arm in case he had any thoughts of moving away. “Dude, seriously, that’s gross.”
“Is there a problem, Agent Daley?”
Dex held a hand up. “Yeah. How do I get my partner to stop licking me?”
The instructor let out a long-suffering sigh, sounding like every teacher Dex had ever had. “He’s not licking you, he’s grooming you.”
Tomato, tomahto. “Great. How do I get my partner to stop grooming me?”
“Agent Daley, you have a Felid Therian sibling correct?”
Dex nodded. “That is correct.”
“So I assume you understand when a Felid grooms you, he or she feels comfortable around you. You are accepted as part of his or her social circle. It’s a gesture of assurance and one not easily attained.”
“Yeah, I know that, and it’s awesome, really, but it’s also weird. He’s my partner. Plus it’s kind of difficult working a case out in the field when your partner decides to bathe you with his tongue. And believe me when I say this, it’s not as pleasant as it sounds.” If Sloane were in his Human form, Dex would have had a different opinion, but while his partner was in his Therian form, it was… like he said, weird.
His instructor looked pleased by that, and Dex stifled a groan. “Ah, now if you are in the presence of someone unfamiliar, and your partner grooms you, it means he’s claiming you.”
Dex gaped at him. He could feel his face getting hot. “He’s what now?”
“It’s quite common, Agent Daley. Everyone please turn to observe Agent Daley and Agent Sloane.”
This day was getting better and better. Where was a giant box when you needed one?
“When you and your partner have bonded, you’ll know by your partner’s behavior when he or she is in his or her Therian form. Although Humanity is present neurologically, it’s also when a Therian is at his or her most feral. As you can see, Agent Brodie and Agent Daley have a bond, one of the many goals you must achieve in order to have a healthy, functioning partnership.
“There’s trust there, enough for Agent Brodie to be at ease in his Therian form around Agent Daley. When Agent Brodie grooms his partner out in the field, he’s letting others know his partner is off limits, under his protection. There is unfortunately, a strong instinct of possession, and you may encounter instances in which you’ll need to reassure your partner there isn’t a threat to his or her claim on you. Of course this will only last while your partner is in their Therian form. Now it’s time for a demonstration. Agent Daley, Agent Brodie, would you please come up here?”
Dex waved a hand in dismissal. “You know what, it’s cool. He can groom all he wants.”
“Right.” Dex got to his feet and headed toward the front of the class with Sloane casually padding after him. Dex stood, facing the rows and rows of rookie agents, all eyes on them.
“It is exceptionally important for you to know when your partner is playing and when he or she is irate. Agent Daley, please demonstrate.”
Dex arched an eyebrow at the instructor. “Which one?”
“You want me to piss him off?” What kind of class was this?
“In a matter of speaking. Yes.”
“Great.” Okay. How could he piss off his partner without losing a limb? What he needed to do was annoy Sloane, really annoy him. Shouldn’t be too difficult. Dex had annoying down to an art. He thrust a finger in Sloane’s face, knowing how much his Felid partner hated that. Then he started singing. Nothing annoyed his partner like Hall and Oates.
Sloane let out a fierce roar, and Dex started dancing around him, his voice going high-pitched for certain lyrics while he snapped his fingers. Sloane pawed at him, and Dex spun on his heels, avoiding getting smacked. His partner hissed, baring his fangs before he took off after Dex.
“Shit!” Dex bolted, weaving through the rows of agents who were either laughing or watching him in disbelief while their instructor narrated as if this was nothing more than some nature video. Dex could see the title now. National Geographic presents Predatory Partners.
“Understand your partner’s behavior. Why is he or she behaving in such a fashion?”
“Because I pissed him off?” Dex called out over his shoulder, dashing back toward the instructor.
“Very good. Thank you, Agent Daley. You may now soothe your partner.”
Clearly, Dr. Eldridge didn’t personally know Sloane Brodie. Dex put his hands up, walking backward slowly as he spoke to his partner.
“Hey, buddy. Just following orders, you know? You heard him. I wasn’t the one who wanted to piss you off.” Dex crouched down and held a hand out. Please don’t bite me. Please don’t bite me. Sloane blinked before jumping up on his two back paws, his front paws pushing against Dex’s shoulders and knocking him onto his back. Sloane pinned him, and Dex braced himself. When Sloane started licking his face, Dex shut his eyes tight. “Okay, I get it. Payback. Take notes people.” Dex pointed at his partner. “This is what I meant about payback.”
“Agent Brodie, if you’ll resume your place beside your partner. Agent Daley, you may return to your mat.”
Sloane did as asked, and Dex wiped at his face with his sleeve before returning to his spot. He was never more grateful not to have ended up partnered with Ash than he was at this moment.
“Once you have assessed your partner and deduced he or she is irate, you will want to give your partner space. If you feel it’s safe to approach, you will do so with caution. Deal with what’s causing the issue. For example, Agent Fuller, please approach Agent Daley. Slowly.”
The moment Agent Fuller got to his feet, Sloane’s ears twitched. “Um, I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Dex said, watching Agent Fuller creep toward Dex, as if Sloane hadn’t noticed. The Human rookie was clearly unaccustomed to dealing with Felids. “My partner’s a little on the grumpy side and poking the sleeping jaguar with a pointy stick might not end so well.”
Agent Fuller paused, his panicked gaze going to their instructor.
“It’s all right, Agent Fuller. Proceed.”
Doing as instructed, Agent Fuller resumed his prowl, while Sloane resumed his grooming of Dex, his heavy tail thumping against the floor. Uh-oh.
“As you can see by Agent Brodie’s movements, he’s fully aware of Agent Fuller. His tail is telling Agent Fuller to be cautious, Agent Daley is his, and he will not take kindly to any aggression toward his partner.”
Dex held up a finger. “Can I just—”
“Please stand, Agent Daley.”
“Agent Fuller, please advance.”
Dex didn’t bother taking a stance or preparing for a blow that would never land. His fellow rookies looked at him as if he was crazy, but soon they’d understand. Poor Agent Fuller. The guy pulled back a fist and the moment he took a step, Sloane’s roar echoed across the field. Ears flattened, fangs bare, Sloane leapt toward Agent Fuller who screamed like a preteen at a Bieber concert and made tracks across the field, Sloane on his heels looking mighty pissed.
“Thank you, Agent Brodie,” the instructor called out.
Agent Brodie wiped his ass with their instructor’s polite orders and chased Agent Fuller down the length of the grassy pitch. Dex glanced around. “So which of you is a medic?”