I looked in my mirrors frequently as I drove through the dark night, the lights of the airport guiding me off the freeway. No one would possibly know to follow me as I made my way outside the city to the airport, but I still felt anxious. Dr. Pannar had taken me in, and I considered Natham a friend even if I was a bit leery of his mate. Yet I didn't tell either of them where I was going either.
My brother deserved the benefit of the doubt I hadn’t been given. A lifetime of being my other half meant that even though we'd been apart for a few years other than short visits here and there, I trusted him. I trusted him to know what was right and wrong and to never fall on the wrong side of that line. The law might or might not agree with that, but I wouldn't just hand him over without talking to him first.
"Little brother! Where are you at?"
I had my cell phone tucked to my ear with my shoulder as I paid for my parking. It had started to ring just as I finished and began walking into the busy airport. I grimaced at Isiah's greeting. "Cute. I’m just getting in from the parking garage, where are you?"
"We're just getting past the security area. Meet us down in baggage claim?"
I veered right of the escalators instead of heading upstairs. "Okay. See you in a few minutes."
I located their baggage carousel and stood around waiting. My mind instantly sank into the memory of the meeting in Velaku's office. The dingy warehouse, the Carthera next to my brother, and the dead man at their feet. What had Isiah gotten caught up in? What was he doing?
The arm wrapping around my shoulder startled me. "Hey little brother! Miss me?"
"Damn it Isiah, why do you always have to do that?" I growled.
He laughed and pulled me into his arms for a hug. I squeezed him back, pulling in his scent. A growl came from behind me, making me pull out of Isiah's arms and turn slowly.
I knew that sound.
I blinked and froze in shock.
"You're a tiger."
The Carthera in front of me was different from what I expected from Velaku and Natham's story. Natham was a lynx, but he'd been adopted. I'd just assumed that the brother had been the natural son of the bastard that adopted Natham.
I couldn't be more wrong.
Isiah moved around me and stood beside the tiger. My brother and I weren't especially small men, but the Carthera dwarfed us. He was thick but not fat; and the parts of his body I could see were corded with muscle. He should look weird with the almost orange cast to his skin but the black stripes I could see peeking from his shirt like a tattoo and striping his arms kept him from looking like an at home tanning disaster.
Even more intimidating was the leashed potential I could sense in him. Without my really noticing it, my tongue flicked out and then back in my mouth. The tiger wasn't nearly as relaxed as he looked. There was a bitter taste in my mouth, and it increased the anxiety I had been feeling since I got Isiah's call.
"Ellis, I want you to meet Ahsran. He's my mate."
"It's nice to meet you finally." Ahsran held out his hand for me to shake.
I was lost for words. I stood there staring, my gaze going from Isiah to Ahsran. Ahsran's hand slowly lowered back to his side. I looked at my brother, but I couldn't see any sign of any change in him until he frowned and opened his mouth again.
"You have fangs.” I bit my lip nervously and took a step back, locking my gaze on Ahsran and watching him. They weren’t retractable fangs like Davis had but four short thick sharp ones that bracketed his front teeth. They altered the shape of his face a little, making it wider than a human's. My brother mated a Carthera too? It wasn’t unheard of, but very unusual for Carthera to have human mates. Both of us mating? What did that mean?
Isiah cleared his throat, pulling my eyes from Ahsran. He was frowning. "I thought you'd be more accepting, little brother," he said sadly, "after all, you work with Carthera." He’d grabbed Ahsran’s hand, their fingers laced together firmly.
That so wasn't the problem, but how was I going to explain that to him? I looked at the people standing around us and shook my head. This was not the place.
"I'm sorry," I said in a quiet voice, "it's not that. We need to talk but not here."
Isiah frowned, but his head jerked in a nod.
"I'll go get my car while you guys get your luggage. I'll meet you outside the doors down to the left, okay?"
Ahsran was already turning and watching the bags that were beginning to make their first round as they were unloaded from the plane.
"Fine," Isiah said. His tone was short and clipped. I knew he was unhappy with me.
"I promise I'll explain, okay? Just. . .trust me."
It was ironic really I was asking my brother for trust and had to wonder if I would get it when I was risking so much for him. He didn't know that, though, and I'd made a horrible first impression on his mate.
I popped the trunk, and then waited while they got in the car. Ahsran got in the backseat, and Isiah slid in with him. I'd expected him to take the front seat like always, and the change jarred me. I bit my lip, but said nothing as I pulled away from the curb. We'd entered the city before anything was said.
"Where are we going? This isn't the way to your apartment."
"I moved into an apartment over by Matthew's place," I said.
Isiah leaned forward and glanced at the street sign as we passed under another light. "This isn't the way to Matthew's apartment either." His arms crossed. "Damn it, Ellis, what in the hell is going on? Where are you taking us?"
I sighed, resisting the urge to rub the bridge of my nose while I drove. I was shaking so bad I needed both hands on the wheel to make sure I didn't swerve. "I don't really want to talk about this while I'm driving."
"If you don't tell me where we're going I'm going to make you pull over right now Ellis. I'm not joking." The flat, cold tone of his voice was one he’d never used with me before, one I didn't really think my brother could ever make actually. I heard it on the video, but never myself.
It was the voice of a killer.
I knew the voice didn’t mean he was evil, but it still sent chills up my spine to hear it from Isiah. I'd heard it in many of the Carthera I knew: my mate, Natham, Velaku had all used it at one time or another. Maybe I didn’t know Isiah as well as I thought I did. Maybe Velaku was right.
I looked in the rear view mirror to see Isiah's mate, Ahsran, staring at me with narrowed eyes.
"Velaku wants to talk to you," I admitted.
The snarl that came from Ahsran drowned out the cussing Isiah was doing. I couldn't help but jerk at the sound and my shoulders tightened and came up, trying to protect my neck from the angry tiger in the back seat. The car swerved, and I gasped.
Isiah jerked sideways in his seat and reached back to put a hand on his mate. I could practically feel it as the tiger glared at me, but I avoided looking at him in the mirrors. I glanced at Isiah, and he was glaring at me, his fangs exposed. I flinched.
"What the hell Ellis!" Isiah said angrily. There was a lot of hurt in his tone, as if I were the one betraying him. "How could you do this to me?"
I hit the brakes and swerved to the sidewalk. I turned toward Isiah so fast my seatbelt caught. I ripped it off and faced my brother with all the rage that had been building in me ever since Dav cut off our bond.
"Do this to you? To you? Do have any god damn idea what the FUCK I've been through the past few days? The things I saw and heard about you?" I was hissing at Isiah and he was staring at me, his eyes huge.
"My mate tried to kill me. My mate! Because of something you did." I emphasized you, thrusting one finger in Isiah's face.
"You have a mate too?" he asked quietly.
I hissed at him. "That is so far beyond the point right now, but no, I don't. He. . .broke it off. The whole trying to kill me thing sort of clued me in to that," I said sarcastically.
I sneered at him. "I would have said watching you let someone be killed right in front of you was impossible, but I saw that with my own eyes too. Pretty sure that word doesn't mean much anymore."
A smart man wouldn't be having this conversation in a small car with a trained killer and a large, angry cat Carthera, but I'd had it. It was all too much. The stress and strain of the last week caught up to me, and I was beyond any sense of self-preservation.
"The last few days have been hell Isiah. I don't know what to do anymore."
"You can't take us to Velaku and Natham." Ahsran looked at Isiah and then back at me. "If you try I will harm you." His voice was a deep snarl.
"Ahsran," Isiah said in a sharp voice.
"No. You are my mate; I will not let your brother take us to them before everything is ready. It would ruin everything."
They fell to arguing, and I could just feel the headache waiting to hit. I made a sound of frustration in my throat. "Look, can we just put this on hold. I'm feeling a headache starting, and this whole damn issue is moot anyway. What I said was that Velaku and Natham want to see you, not that I was taking you to them.
"I'm taking you to a hotel that's not anywhere close to Velaku’s eyrie or my apartment. It's not safe at either place."
"How can we trust that you are really going to do that?" Ahsran looked skeptical, his arms crossed over his chest.
"It's not like you have much of a choice, now do you? Besides, if I was really going to turn my brother and his mate in, don't you think they would have met you at the airport with a cadre of Falcons to take you out?"
Ahsran sank back into his seat. "There is that fact."
Isiah sent him a look. "But why can't we go back to your place?" he asked me.
"I'm pretty sure Davis has it watched. It'd be a disaster if Benny or Jerret saw you. They were both at the meeting with Velaku on Sunday." My hands clenched the wheel.
"Who is Davis? Your mate?"
"I told you, he's not my mate. He was, but he broke our bond. Look, I don't want to talk about that. You're just going to have to trust that I am not turning you in."
"You wouldn't do that." Isiah sounded so sure of that.
Because, for just a little while, I had considered doing just that. Even after I met them at the airport. I didn't though, so now I had to figure out what was really going on and what I was going to do. I took a deep breath before putting the car back in gear and pulling back on to the road.
"It's been a long day already. Let's just talk when we get to the hotel."
The rest of the ride was spent in silence, but I was no closer to figuring things out when I pulled into the hotel I'd reserved on the phone from my apartment. I wanted to be prepared no matter what I decided.
"Stay here while I check in."
I handed over my credit card, wincing at the idea of next month's bill. I waited for the clerk to print out the receipt, glancing out the window. Isiah and Ahsran were facing each other and I could see Ahsran gesturing wildly. At least he couldn't convince Isiah to drive off and leave me here, considering I'd grabbed the keys before I got out.
"Hey," the clerk said, pulling my attention back to him.
"Oh, sorry." I used the cheap pen on the counter to sign the check in form and then collected the keys the man slid over to me.
"Check out time is noon."
"Okay, thanks." The little bell on the door tinkled when I opened it, and I winced at the sound as it hurt my ears. I wasn't in full blown migraine mode, but I could feel it impending.
Isiah jerked around with his fists up when I opened his door. I took a quick step back.
"Sorry," he said, lowering his fists, but he didn’t look sorry in the least.
I shook my head. "My fault. We're just over here in room eight."
I popped the trunk and grabbed the bag I'd packed after work, and then waited for Isiah and Ahsran to grab theirs. I led the way to the hotel room, uneasy with my brother at my back for the first time ever. The hotel room was fairly average, decorated in shades of brown and gray with two queen beds, a table and chairs set, and mini kitchen area.
I set my bag down and sat down on the bed. A long shift and the stress of Isiah's early visit on top of everything else meant I was exhausted. I kicked off my shoes and slid up to the headboard, piling both pillows behind my back.
This was going to be a long conversation.
Ahsran put his suitcase down by Isiah’s in front of the closet. He looked between me and Isiah. "I'm going to take a shower."
I watched as he leaned over and capture Isiah's lips with a little growl. Their bodies swayed and they leaned into each, arms wrapping around and hands stroking. I shut my eyes, feeling a wave of pain that had nothing to do with the headache I felt threatening to erupt into a migraine. I'd had that, but just for a brief time. The reminder made the pain that filled my soul throb and spread throughout my body. It was like a weakness that filled my limbs and made my body feel heavier.
The click of the door shutting made me open my eyes. Isiah was sitting on the edge of the other bed, watching me.
"I've never heard of a Carthera that could break a bond with their mate," he said.
"Me either," my fists clenched in my lap, "but Davis did it. I haven't felt the slightest hint of our bond since it happened. I’ve still got the mating mark on my back though and I think I’m getting his ability to sense scents with my mouth. It’s. . .weird."
“You have a mating mark on your back?”
I nodded. “A scale pattern just like Davis had. You know, we’re not so identical anymore. I’ve got my mark and I saw you have fangs like Ahsran’s.”
“I guess we aren’t. I have stripes on my body like he does too. It’s been strange, being so close to someone else. It’s almost like the bond we’ve always shared.”
“Yeah, I think so too. I never thought we’d change like this. Humans mating Carthera, it’s just weird. The emotions I felt from Davis, what I know his life before me, and the whole culture. It’s been so overwhelming, and it’s only been a week since we met.”
I saw Isiah hesitate before he spoke, "You said you saw me let someone get killed. When did you see that?"
"On Sunday. Davis has been investigating the attacks on the clans for Velaku. Things like his mate bond to Natham, the plague that hit the Jaguar clan, the attacks and murders in the southern area of the territory Velaku's father claimed. Davis has a second in command, so to speak, called Benny. After the attack on the warehouse the smugglers were using to hold the contaminated statues, he's been relying on him to keep the investigation going while Davis works with Velaku and Natham."
"Big guy oozing muscles with a shaved head, dangerous eyes, and earring?" Isiah’s description had been superficial but spot on.
"Yeah, that's him. Describes his little brother Jerret too, just not quite as big or oozing and he kept his hair cut short, but not completely bald.
"Anyway, they've been tracking the smugglers that got away. The video I saw was taken at a warehouse. You and a Carthera helped a delivery guy unload his truck and then you just stood there and let the man get slaughtered. Like it was nothing." My nails dug into the skin of my palms. The memory of that video and what Isiah did still bothered me a lot. I couldn't even look at Isiah when I said it.
"It's not what you think."
My head whipped around, and I glared at him. "Then tell me what it was! They said that wasn't the only video you were in, though I don't know what was on the other ones. They have pictures of you with Ahsran! Do you know what he did to Velaku? Do you?" My voice rose until I cut it off, not wanting to alarm any neighbors who might complain.
"Yes, I do," Isiah said calmly, "probably a lot better than you do."
The blank look on his face, the lack of emotion in his answer set me off. What had the military turned him into; a cold blooded killer that could shut off his emotions? What happened to the Isiah I knew? I seethed in anger.
"Then tell me!" I said explosively, jumping off the bed. My anger and frustration were so intense that I couldn't sit still anymore. I paced at the end of the beds in front of the TV. "They thought it was me on those tapes! My own mate tried to strangle me until Dr. Pannar realized that it was you."
I glared at him. "Turns out that scar you gave me when we were kids came in handy for more than just our parents and teachers being able to tell us apart. If not for that, and the fact that you're left handed they might have let Davis kill me."
Isiah ran a hand through his hair. The last time I saw him it had been a lot shorter but now his light brown hair was almost exactly the same length as mine. His lean face and brown eyes were still almost identical to what I saw every day in the mirror. How could someone who looked just like me, who shared my DNA, be so different on the inside?
"That man isn't dead. He's my partner, and the Carthera that attacked him just pretended to kill him. They're both working with me to investigate the same men that Velaku is. This is a lot bigger than a small patch of territory in the U.S. no matter how prominent Keserem and his father made it when they finally managed to integrate the clans with the humans. Velaku is a target, but just as a first step."
I'd stopped pacing, and sat down heavily on the edge of the bed facing Isiah. Our knees were only inches apart.
"I don't understand." I was so tired of everything going on, all the secrets and drama.
"This is all top secret information I'm sharing here, Ellis. You can't tell anyone."
I sighed. More secrets. But I knew if I wanted to get to the bottom of everything and clear Isiah's name I had to agree. "Fine. I promise I won't say anything unless you tell me I can."
"There is a small group of Carthera that are working with the government to try and stop these terrorists. They are headed up by a supremacist Carthera group that has been on the US government's watch list for years. They have always seemed minor players, but there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than we ever knew.
"That is, until Ahsran defected after he saw the torture their father inflicted on Natham. He tried to get Natham free, but he couldn't do it. By then he was working with my superiors to gather as much intelligence as possible about the attempted takeover of Keserem's territory."
That was easy for someone to say. I had no idea if what Ahsran told my brother was true or not. From Natham’s reaction to seeing his picture, I didn’t think he’d believe him at all.
"Is that how you met?" I asked him.
Isiah smiled. "Yeah. It's been the bright spot in an otherwise totally fucked up assignment. I wasn't on the case, my security clearance wasn't near high enough, but we bumped into each other as he came in to report one day. He latched onto my arm and refused to let me out of his sight. Shocked the hell out of my boss when he claimed he was my mate.
"Scared the shit out of me, to tell you the truth. Plus the higher ups were really unhappy. Then my boss hit on the idea of sending me in as his mate. Before I knew it I had a whole new background and I was set down in the middle of a huge undercover operation involving more alphabet government agencies than I knew existed."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "This is going to be impossible to explain if I can't tell anyone, Isiah. Velaku knows you were coming in at the end of the week."
The bathroom door opened. "Why the hell did you tell him that?" Ahsran bared his fangs. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, his wet hair was a dark brown color and I stared at the dark stripes that wrapped around his torso. He had an actual eight pack, muscles stacked on muscles in his chest and arms as he crossed them and glared down at me.
"I didn't know anything beyond what I saw on that tape! I'd already told Dr. Pannar about Isiah's visit when he first called me three weeks ago. Do you think whoever they still have watching those people aren't reporting your movements? Both of yours?"
"He's right, Ahsran. I had no idea they'd found the new base, and I didn't catch anyone watching us. You know how difficult that must be for them to get surveillance." His fingers tapped on his thigh as he looked worriedly over at Ahsran.
"That doesn't change the fact that we don't have a lot of time before they expect us to be flying in. It doesn't give us much leeway to come up with a new plan." Ahsran dropped his towel by their suitcases, bending over and giving me an eyeful of his thick thighs and round ass as he grabbed clean clothes. I flushed in embarrassment and looked away quickly.
Isiah snickered. "Hey babe, put some clothes on. You're embarrassing my brother."
I felt my blush spread as my face heated up. I kicked Isiah, and he grunted. I kept my eyes down until Ahsran was dressed.
"Sorry." Ahsran sat down on the bed by Isiah, putting his hand on his leg, his claws going in and out as he stroked him. Isiah smiled and leaned into him. I looked up, taking in the sight of them so close together. My tongue flicked out, and I could almost taste how happy my twin was, like a flavor in the air.
"Carthera clans tend to be pretty casual about nudity," Ahsran explained. I knew that from my work with my patients, but it was different when it was my brother's mate.
"Not like men in the military are any better either. I was shocked the first week or two at basic at all the naked men changing around me before I got used to it." Isiah laughed at the memory.
"Look, I'm sorry I let myself believe that you could ever be involved in killings but--"
"That video had to be damning," Isiah interrupted.
I nodded once. "Not to mention I was in shock over how Davis was treating me. He shut down our bond and tried to kill me. I was already injured when Benny attacked me the night before and I had a head wound. None of that excuses it but. . ."
Isiah stood up and leaned over me, pulling me into his arms. "If you need it, I forgive you. You're my brother. You have been through a lot while I've been gone. I know life hasn't been easy for you, Ellis. I'm sorry that I couldn't be here, but I just feel like I need to be where I'm at and doing what I do."
I took a deep breath and squeezed Isiah back before he sat back down. I waved away his apology though. "Don't be sorry for doing what you think is right. I do understand that feeling, even if I can't understand what you do."
"Well what I am doing right now is trying to save the Carthera in the country that don't hate humans and want to subjugate our entire race. It's dangerous, but look what it got me too." Isiah looked up at Ahsran with sappy look on his face which of course led into an embrace.
The pain was back. I kept it to myself. "I'm happy for you, I really am.”
Ahsran pulled back and yawned. "Sorry. We haven't had much sleep the last few days."
"No, no. It's been a long day for me too. We should get some rest."
"There was something you said earlier that I wanted to ask you about actually." Ahsran’s shoulders were tensing back up.
I looked up at him in surprise, taking in his defensive posture. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. "Um, okay. Go ahead."
"You said that your apartment was being watched?"
I grimaced. "Yes. Davis has been trying to get in touch with me. I've seen him watching me at work, and I glimpsed Benny at least twice driving by my apartment late at night. I left him a nasty message with his bartender telling him to leave me alone though."
"This Davis," he paused, "he's your mate?"
"Is he by any chance Davis Retic, also known as 'The Snake'?"
He looked annoyed when I shrugged. I sighed and nodded.
"So, you have a Snake Carthera mate with a deadly reputation that even scared the crap out of my father and you're telling me that you told him to leave you alone and expect him to listen to you? You don't think that if your car stays gone overnight, he's not likely to try and track you down?"
"He's not like that with me, at least he wasn't.” I could hear the bitterness creeping back into my voice. I thought I was different to Davis, that we had a real connection and trust building. He’d shown me a very different side of himself, one I knew that others must have never seen from his reputation. The jumble of memories I’d gotten when we bonded had shown me so much of him, but there was a lot I didn’t know. I never would now.
"We can't really risk it. What if someone sees your car here? This isn't a big city."
I ran my hand through my hair.
"You're right. I'm going to have to go home." I didn't really feel up to it, but I wasn't willing to give away Isiah's and Ahsran's presence. Not just because I didn’t want to go home and deal with the messages and attempts Davis wouldn't stop as he tried to get me back. My hand went to the bridge of my nose, pinching as I tried to ease the pressure I could feel building along with my stress level.
I knew my brother wasn't a killer now, but the situation was still precarious. We couldn't afford to make any mistakes. Not until we had a way to prove it.
"Can you drive, or is your head hurting too much?"
I shook my head. "No, I can drive."
Isiah hugged me really hard before I left and even Ahsran held out his hand for me to shake. I put my bag in the backseat and got behind the wheel. I took a deep breath and then turned the key in the ignition. I couldn't stand the silence in the car so I turned on the radio, letting the sad country music soothe my woe is me attitude.
I almost put the car in reverse when I pulled up in front of my apartment and saw Davis actually standing in front of my door. The pounding in my head was suddenly back as my stress level spiked.
Did he know?
Was this chapter what you thought? Did I surprise anyone?