"Be that as it may, I'm not letting you near her until you get yourself under control." Judd's voice was cold, implacable, dangerous.
"Shut up!" Brenna yelled. "All of you!"
Her brothers looked at her, startled. The cats stayed on the edges of the room, probably not looking to interfere unless blood threatened to be spilled.
Judd glanced over his shoulder. "Don't." Pure male command.
"Don't you give her orders, Psy!" Drew again.
She'd had it. Pushing past Judd to stand in front of her middle sibling, she thumped a fist into his chest. "Do you know what he's warning me not to do? Accuse you or Riley of attacking him."
Her brother froze. "What?"
"Judd came in wolf-mauled," Nate drawled. "His chest's a mess and believe me, you don't want to see his arm."
"You think we did that?" The hurt on Riley's face was so raw it rocked her.
But she wasn't backing off. "You've threatened him over and over. And I smelled the scent of family."
Judd put a hand on her shoulder. "Enough, Brenna."
This time, she listened, unable to look at the pain on her brothers' faces. Turning, she buried her head against Judd's chest, forgetting about his injuries until the scent of torn flesh hit her. "I'm so - "
"Shh." Judd put his uninjured arm around her. The gesture had come about without conscious thought and now he found he couldn't let go, dissonance or not.
Meeting her brothers' gazes, he began to speak. "I initially had the same suspicions as Brenna, but I was wrong." He'd figured that out sometime in the early hours - it was what he'd wanted to discuss with her. "If you two were going to challenge me, you'd do it in broad daylight, not set up a sneak ambush."
Brenna went very quiet against him, one hand curled up gently against his chest.
Pain, such sweet pain to have her so close. Would she stay once she discovered the whole truth about him? The dark heart of him asked a harsher question - would he let her go? "Brenna knows that, too," he said, focusing on the here and now. "She's confused only because she smelled your scent at the scene. It shocked her. Which is probably what was intended."
Andrew shoved a hand through his hair. "Damn it, Bren. I didn't touch him. I can't believe you suspected me for a second."
Brenna turned her head but remained tucked under Judd's arm. "You haven't been acting like yourselves lately, either of you."
Riley swore, low and hard. "We almost lost you to a Psy murderer! I think the fact that we don't want you to shack up with one of that psychopathic race is understandable."
"Careful." A soft but lethal order from Lucas.
"Sascha is different," Riley said without turning. "He's not."
"I never thought you were a bigot." Brenna's words fell into a pool of heavy silence.
Judd found himself holding her tighter. He didn't need or want anyone to fight for him. That Brenna did, caused sensations inside of him he couldn't afford to embrace - especially given his injuries and the energy it took to fight the dissonance. But he had stopped doing what he should a long time ago.
Andrew met his eyes. "I didn't attack you. You'd be dead if I'd come after you."
Judd had had enough. "The sole reason I'm injured is because I was trying not to kill my attacker. If I hadn't held back, he'd have been dead before he touched me." He let them see the claws he'd kept hidden in an effort to assist his family's integration into SnowDancer.
But some wolves, he realized, would respect only unadorned strength. So long as Andrew and Riley thought him easy prey, they'd never allow him near their sister. He understood why - Brenna's man had to be able to protect her. It had nothing to do with Brenna's own abilities and everything to do with their need to keep her safe.
"Psy can't get into our minds," Andrew spit out.
Judd looked at the SnowDancer. "It's true that we can't manipulate you without major effort, but a blast of pure power at close range would destroy all of your higher brain functions, if it didn't turn your brains to liquid outright." He knew that from the darkest of personal experiences, one of the many nightmare images that haunted his sleep.
Of course, a Tk-Cell had other, quicker ways of killing. But he hadn't known that as a child and the changelings didn't need to know it now to grasp his point. "So if you ever do come after me, I suggest you follow your own rules of Psy/changeling combat and shoot me in the back." A split second's warning was all he needed to kill.
"Hell," Andrew said, his voice holding a new note of awareness. "We all get taught that during training, but when you just fought physically with the men who challenged you instead of doing something psychic, I figured it was Psy propaganda." He shrugged. "Does Hawke understand what you can do?"
"What?" Brenna demanded. "You're going to ask him to kick Judd out now?"
"That's not what I meant," her brother growled. "Stop being a brat."
"Don't talk to her that way." Judd had made his choice, found his loyalty.
Riley folded his arms. "There's one thing I don't get." His calm tone was so at odds with the tension-heavy air that everyone went quiet. The lieutenant raised an eyebrow. "But before we get to that, Bren, sweetie - you do realize Judd and Drew are exactly alike?"
Andrew stared at his brother. "What the f**k are you talking about?"
Judd was thinking the same thing. But Brenna laughed. Breaking his hold, she ran to hug Riley. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't have anything to do with the attack."