Draven’s nape itched with that feeling he got when he was being watched. He and Titus were being watched— Draven’s cousins were discretely following them on land, and some were in the ocean, close to the shore. Riveen had mentioned some friends of the family— friends who were aviary shifters—keeping an eye on them from the air and trees, or wherever the birds might be.
“Lots of birds there,” Titus whispered, nodding towards the large garbage bin by the ruins of Draven’s house. Crows and seagulls were plentiful, as well as a couple of tricolor herons and great egrets.
Draven couldn’t tell right off the bat which ones were just birds. He’d have to be closer to them to discern that, and now wasn’t the time.
“The cleanup crew is going to be here in a few minutes,” Riveen said as he jogged over to join them.
There’d been a long discussion about whether or not Riveen should be with Draven and Titus, but the consensus was that, had there been any kind of emergency, Riveen would have been at his brother’s side. For him to be elsewhere would have been suspicious.
“How many people did we hire?” Draven asked as he took Titus’s hand in his.
Riveen stopped a couple of feet away and swiped at his forehead. “The company I called is sending a group of ten people, a backhoe, and some other equipment. I don’t remember what-all, but hopefully with them and us working on it, we’ll get most of this cleaned up in the next few days.”
“I hate that you lost your home.” Titus moved closer until they were standing shoulder to shoulder.
Draven knew Titus meant it, even though they’d outlined a rough plan for conversational topics in case they were overheard by the enemy—whomever that was. “Thank you, sweetheart. Everything is gone, but together, we’ll rebuild, and we’ll make a home that you and I both design. It’ll be our home.” And it would. Draven wanted that, wanted Titus, forever.
After searching his eyes for a moment, Titus smiled. “I want a cat. Two cats.”
“That wasn’t—” Draven pressed his lips together.
Riveen snickered. “Good job, Titus. Y’all should have at least two cats, and a couple of dogs. Oh, hedgehogs are—”
“Riveen,” Draven grumbled.
“What?” Riveen tried for an innocent look but failed. “Two cats for each of you. Have you seen those Savannah cats? They’re huge! That’s what you need, Drave, a man’s cat. Big. Tough. Half-feral. No one will doubt your masculinity when you’re walking it out in public.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Draven asked. “No one walks a cat!”
Riveen shook his head. “Damn. You’re gonna be a shitty cat owner. People walk their cats. Look it up online.”
“Relating the size and breed of a cat to someone’s masculinity is just not right,” Titus said. “And I think Draven would like a ragdoll or two.”
“A what? Why would I want any kind of doll?” Draven wondered if someone had spiked Titus’s coffee.
“Ragdoll is a breed of cat,” Titus explained. “You’d love them. Some people do walk their cats. I had a neighbor down the block from my house, he used to walk his goat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and his chicken Mondays and Tuesdays. I have pictures on my laptop I can show you sometime.”
Draven was trying to figure out what to say to that offer when he saw a van pull into his driveway. “I think the cleaning crew is here.”
“Look at every one of them,” Riveen muttered. “You too, Titus. See if any of them give you the creeps, or looks like you know who.”
“That’s the plan.” Draven headed for the group getting out of the van.
Titus tugged his hand free.
Draven looked at him.
“We’ll be there in a minute.” Titus tipped his chin towards the van.
“Y’all are plotting to get cats, aren’t you?” Draven asked.
Titus grinned. “Maybe.”
In truth, they were giving him a chance to check the people out first. If Andres—or his doppelganger—were there, and he saw Draven alone-ish, perhaps he’d give himself away.
“Hi,” he called out as he neared the cleanup crew. “I’m Draven. Who’s Zach?”
“Me.” A tall, older man with grey hair stepped forward and held out his hand. “Zach Morris. I’m sorry for your loss of property.”
“Thank you.” Draven shook Zach’s hand. “I’m just glad no one was hurt. “
Zach nodded. “Yeah, things can be replaced, unlike people, and even pets. You’ve got the right attitude.” He turned and gestured to his crew. “We’ll work our asses off to make this as easy for you as possible.”
“Y’all been at this a long time?” Draven asked, hoping Zach would mention any newcomers.
“Over a decade now. Got a great group working for me, and I know they’ll do right by you.” Zach pointed at a huge truck hauling a backhoe on a trailer. “That’s gonna help a lot right there, and there’s another two bins on the way. If we don’t need ‘em, that’s okay. You’re only charged for what we have to use.”
“Sounds good.” Draven didn’t get a weird feeling from Zach or anyone nearby. He wasn’t sure that meant anything. “I have my brother and boyfriend here, and some of my family will arrive in a bit to help if we need them.”
Zach hadn’t so much as batted an eye at the boyfriend comment. “I’ll tell ya, it’s best to keep people away while we work. You, your guy and your brother, that’s fine, and you can have your family here, I’m not telling you you can’t, but we’ll have to keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t get in the way or endanger themselves.”
“So they’d be a distraction,” Draven said. “Hm. Well, if they show up with food and drinks, we’ll keep them away from the working area.”
Zach nodded. “That’ll do.”
Titus and Riveen walked over, and Draven introduced them to Zach, then the work began.
Draven kept close to Titus and they tried to check out every person there. None of them were Andres, and after an hour, Draven began to think Zach and his crew were just regular people.
Working on cleaning up the debris, then clearing it out, was hard work. Riveen, Titus, and Draven didn’t slack off. Though Zach wanted them to stay away from the remains of the structure itself, there was still plenty of hauling and lifting to do.
When they broke for lunch, catered by Draven’s family, Draven was ready for a break. He had soot in places no one ever should have it. Titus and Riveen were grungy, too.
“I swear I’ll never not smell this.” Titus held up a burned piece of wood, then tossed it aside.
“Same,” Riveen mumbled. “My back is starting to hurt like a motherfucker.”
“You can sit back and watch,” Draven said.
Riveen shook his head. “Nope. Things seem calm here. Everyone is nice.”
Translation: no weird vibes from anyone.
“Yeah,” Draven agreed.
Titus nodded. “Very professional and friendly folks. I’m going to wash my hands then use the portable toilet. Well, use that then wash my hands. Or wash them both time—whatever. I’ve got to hit the head.”
“We’ll be here.” Draven watched Titus jog over to the water hose and wash his hands, then enter the blue portable.
“He’s only twenty feet away,” Riveen pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter. Been closer to bad people and things,” Draven replied. He took a bite of the sub sandwich he’d gotten off the food table that had been set up.
“Yeah, that’s true.”
And even though Draven hadn’t looked away for more than thirty seconds—forty, tops, as he’d taken a bite and a drink—when Titus didn’t come out of the portable in three minutes, he began to worry.
“He’s probably doing, you know,” Riveen said, looking at the toilet. “You’ve been watching.”
“Except for when I grabbed my sandwich and picked up my drink.” Draven set the can down. He wiped his hands on his shorts.
“Seconds.” Riveen set his food down as well. “Just seconds. He’s in there.”
Draven stood up and Riveen was right behind him, striding to the porta potty. Draven knew he was probably being paranoid—until he saw the door was open an inch or so.
“Titus,” he rasped as he reached the door and pulled it open— and found it empty.