Bear grumbled, the sound low and deep in his belly. The birds squawked and flew straight up, a squirrel took off through the trees, and best of all, a rabbit leaped high and ran, drawing him away from her babies tucked beneath a nearby tree. He didn’t follow. It amused him to watch the forest animals scatter at his smallest sound.
He made another sound, this time a chuff of contentment. He rolled onto his back and scratched his back leg against the tree. He had an itch there. And another slightly higher up between his thighs. There was a female nearby. One who was coming into his territory unaware that he waited for her. He’d been tracking her for a while now and it pleased him that he would soon have his go at her. She was not fertile yet, but his nose told him it might be soon.
He was puzzling, in his dull bear wear, about the best way to catch her when a dangerous sound disturbed the morning air. The growl of an engine. It was the call of the worst predator of all: man. He straightened onto all fours, grumbling at the inconvenience. He could not allow such a creature into his territory. Not when a female was coming. So he shook out his shoulders, hips, and rump, then went off in search of the danger.
He moved with confidence over this land because it was his. He knew the rocks, the smells, and the sounds. He knew, too, that when the engine sound abruptly stopped, the danger increased. It meant that a human was out of his machine and hunting on foot.
Bear prowled closer, moving toward the structure he called his own. He sniffed the air and caught the scent of a human woman. It might have been pleasant if not for the acrid stink of her engine. She was making a great deal of noise, pounding on the building and calling out. He didn’t put any effort into processing her words. He’d been a bear too long to want to work that hard. Besides, it didn’t matter what she said. This was his place and he would not allow anyone else inside his dominion.
So when she pounded her fist against the structure again, he growled, low and threatening.
She spun around and he smelled terror in her scent. She gasped and moved sideways across his vision. Not at him, but not retreating either. She made sounds too, ones that were tight with alarm.
He decided to frighten her away.
He took a deep breath and released a roar. Secretly, he was pleased with the full, loud sound. It echoed in the trees and startled birds in the distance. And when he was done, he watched for her to run away with her engine. He would not give chase. He knew from experience that he couldn’t catch the human prey when it was surrounded in metal. So he would remain where he was with his teeth bared until she left.
Except she did not run. She stood her ground next to his structure. Tall and proud as if she were anything but tiny compared to him.
Why would she not leave?
He needed to frighten her again. This time he matched her stance. She needed to see how small she was compared to him. He reared up on his back legs and showed his teeth. He spread his arms and let his claws flash in the sun. He was much larger than her. She should run.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Something hit him. Powerful somethings. Three times, hard in the chest. He stumbled backwards, his bear mind sluggish. Pain hit next, blinding him with fury. He roared again as he struggled to regain his footing.
His leg buckled and he went down on his face. The ground slapped his mouth closed but he was already rolling. Or trying to roll. Something was wrong with his breath. The pain whited out his thoughts though he tried to scramble to his feet. He had to attack the human predator. He must defend his territory. And yet his breath was wrong. The smell of blood cluttered his senses. His feelings gave no clue beyond pain and fury.
My time, his other self said. Quickly.
There were other words, other thoughts, but the mind spoke too quickly and Bear was unused to hearing it. He felt pain. He felt anger. And he felt those things being tucked away as the mind began to assert itself.
It came on like a trickle of icy water that quickly became a deluge. It dampened the feelings, then turned everything liquid. His emotions, his body, even his sounds became wet and fluid. Thoughts were still too complicated to follow, but the mind knew enough, had practiced enough, to act without forethought.
He isolated the worst pain—hard points of metal—and shoved them from his body made liquid. It was hard work to push them away. His body was too thin in this in-between place, the energy too insubstantial against something so hard. But he worked at it, holding off the freezing of muscle and bone, until the points—the bullets—were out or at least near the surface.
He didn’t have enough time. Three bullets fell away, but two others were trapped in his human body when his cells locked into place. Bone, organs, muscle, skin—all human. All that remained liquid was the blood that flowed inside.
“Holy shit,” someone whispered. “It’s true.”
He opened his eyes. No, they were already open. He focused them now, sorting vision into colors, shapes, and meaning. A woman stood above him, a gun trembling in her hand but aimed unerringly at his heart. Her eyes were wide, and her breath stuttered in and out with terror.
Someone wheezed, a sound filled with wet pain. Oh damn. He’d made that sound. His rational mind was coming on-line now. It was processing information with increasing speed, and all the conclusions were bad.
He was lying on the ground after being shot five times.
His body still burned, overwhelmed from the sudden shift. It was all painful, so he could not tell what hurt most. He knew there were two more bullets inside him somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where. And an outsider stared at him, terrified and still dangerous.
He had to communicate with her. He had to deliver the message that was uppermost in his brain. They were Bear’s words, now made intelligible by a human mouth.
“Simon?” she whispered, the words half gasp, half squeak of terror.
Had he said the words wrong? Was her brain injured? He tried again, putting more force behind the message though it hurt his chest to do it.
“You were a bear! I shot a bear!”
“Human.” He tried to push up, but the pain kept him from moving far. Instead, he rolled over onto his back, his breath seizing tight as bolts of agony shot through his ribs.
He focused again on his body, itemizing sensations. His ribs weren’t broken but—damn—they ached. The bullets. Trapped in the muscles between ribs. Still sensitive from the shift, he could feel them as hard points inside his body. As his human mind took more control, those sensations would dull. He needed to remove the bullets now while he still had Bear’s magic strong inside him.
“Get. Knife,” he said, his voice stronger now that he had a plan.
“Dig. Bullets. Out.”
“I…You were a bear!” she said.
She fumbled to obey, rooting into a purse that he now noticed was slung crossbody on her muscular frame. She pulled out a decent sized Swiss army knife and popped open a blade. “Just remember, I’ve got a gun.”
He didn’t respond except to snarl as she extended the blade to him. He had to fully stretch out his arm to get it, and the movement made him hiss with pain. But a part of him admired that she was smart enough to keep back.
He palmed the blade, adjusted it, then reached down to feel where the bullets lodged between ribs. This was going to hurt.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Her tone told him she knew exactly what he was going to do, but couldn’t believe it.
Neither could he. But the window was fading on his keen physical awareness. He had to cut the bullets out now. So he did, starting with the one pressed on the inside of his left floater rib. He sliced down precisely, releasing his breath in a slow hiss of pain.
“That’s not sterile!” she cried. He hadn’t the focus to comment. The good news was that shifters on a whole had really good immune systems.
It sucked to dig around with his fingers to get the bullet. He managed it, though it stole his breath and made him weak with pain. He dropped the bullet and his whole arm to the ground with a grunt of disgust.
He narrowed his focus, but the bullet was higher on his chest, just on the inside of his right nipple. He’d have no dexterity to use his right hand. The pectoral muscle would move the bullet around while he worked, and he didn’t think he could do this one-handed.
He opened his eyes. “You. Now.”
“Bullet. Here.” He pointed, and her eyes widened on horror.
“Hell, no! Jesus, just call a doctor!” Then she grimaced. “911. Why the hell didn’t I call 911?”
“You. Shot me.”
“You were a bear!”
He looked at her, not even bothering to hide his fury. And he knew his silence challenged her because they both knew no one would believe he’d been a bear. Though there were as many as a million shifters in the United States, their existence was a closely guarded secret. He’d probably get into serious trouble for changing in front of her, but he had to survive first.
“Help. Me,” he said, panting the words because of the pain.
She stared at him slack-jawed, her cell phone clutched in her fingers. His rational mind told him that anger wasn’t getting him anywhere, so he moderated his tone.
“I’ll show you. Bullet. Pretty close.” He focused on her face and tried to smile. “I’ll heal.”
“Look.” He brushed aside the wound where he’d carved out the other bullet. The skin had already knit closed. A light tug would split it open again, but this close to a shift, he healed really fast. “Losing time,” he said, pitching his voice to a low threat. “Must do this now.”
“Don’t argue. Just do.”
Annoyance washed through her features, but was quickly smoothed out. Then she hardened her jaw as she glared down at him.
Oh hell. He knew that look. He knew her face, too, but damned if he could remember how. She was so damned familiar, but he couldn’t place her.
“I do this for you, you do something for me.”
“You shot me.”
“You attacked me.”
“You were a freaking bear. Now agree or you dig that shit out yourself.”
God, he hated negotiation and time was running out. He was already losing awareness of exactly where the bullet was in his body. “Fine. Dig now.” Easy to agree when he had no intention of remembering this promise.
She grimaced and dropped down to her knees beside him. Then she tossed aside her purse and wiped her palms on faded blue jeans before taking the knife from his hand. “This is not smart.”
There were a lot stupider things, but he didn’t have the breath to say that. He used his left hand to point to where the bullet was. “Cut here. An inch.”
She set one palm on his chest, surprisingly cool though there were beads of sweat on her forehead. Or maybe that was because his temperature was still running hot from his shift.
Pain sliced through his consciousness as she cut, but he controlled his breath so that his chest didn’t jerk under her.
“I see it. I think.”
Really? Good for her. She was ten times steadier than he expected. As if she had some medical training. Or disaster training. “You. Nurse?”
“No, I’m not a nurse, you sexist pig.”
Hope spiked. “Doc?”
“You wish.” She dug her fingers in and it took all his attention to not react to the pain. He needed to keep his chest still while she worked, but God, he wanted to scream.
“Got it!” she cried as she pulled it out. “It’s done. I’m done. You can heal it now.”
He looked at her, his breath still coming in short pants. “Not magic trick. No wand—”
“Whatever. Just do it.”
He exhaled and his eyes drifted closed. Let her think he was doing some meditation bullshit. His body would heal as all bodies did. One cell at a time in its own time, which, admittedly, was really fast right now. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he could center himself fully inside his human body. He could mentally run through a list of his organs as if tapping each one. Heart, lungs, liver, kidneys. He rolled through the whole litany until he hit his skin. In his mind’s eye, it sealed together in a seamless line exactly as it should and the blood vessels beneath worked just as they ought. All perfect human normal.
A few minutes later he heard her move restlessly beside him. “Is it done? Are you all better?”
His eyes opened and shot her a look. Now that the pain was fading, he was better able to think. What he thought about now was her face and body. Caramel skin on a muscular frame. Her dark brown hair was pulled tightly back into a thick bun, and there was a broadness to her nose that should have looked odd, but beneath those large chocolate eyes, she looked absolutely perfect. That is if he ignored the hard jut of her sharp chin.
“I know you,” he said.
Her eyes widened for moment, then slowly narrowed the longer he stayed silent. “Don’t stop there. Keep thinking.”
He was, but there was a lot to process. Sure he was absorbing her physical details, but he was also just realizing that it was cool outside and the air smelled of spring. That the birds were back to twittering and their song was about hatching and feeding young barely out of the shell.
“What day is it?”
“Hell if I—” she cut off her words then thumbed on her phone. “The twenty-second.” And when he didn’t respond, she added, “Of May.”
“Damn.” The last time he’d been human it had been mid-July.
“What? Is something else wrong?”
No way to answer that. There were a thousand things wrong. He’d been a bear for ten months. He wasn’t sure he remembered how to be human. And yet even as those thoughts rolled through his mind, he managed to push himself upright until he sat facing her. He didn’t concentrate on the movement. He’d learned young to just let his body work as it willed. The more he thought about it, the more awkward he got. And besides, his brain was busy parsing other things.
Like who she was and what was she doing up here. His cabin was in the middle of nowhere in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She sure as hell wasn’t a local. To begin with, there weren’t that many African Americans up here. But she had found him, sure enough. And that dirty Chevy Malibu in his driveway said she’d driven a long way to get here, even though it did have Michigan plates.
“Your name,” he said.
“Can’t remember? I’m hurt.” She didn’t smell hurt. She smelled like cheap floral perfume over something sweet and nutty.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Corporal Simon Gold of the Corps of Engineers. Discharged about a year ago.”
That was awful specific for someone he couldn’t quite remember. But he knew how to do this. He could look at the individual pieces of her body and connect them with a memory. He could, though it took so much focus. In the end, it was her stubborn chin that triggered his memory, though in his mind’s eye it was always paired with a mischievous tilt to the head. Her brother—his closest friend—had always been searching for fun.
“You’re Vic’s little sister.” What was her name? “Alyssa.”
Though he and Victor had been nearly inseparable for the last few years, they’d never been stateside together. Not until last year…er, two years ago, when he’d spent a wonderful couple weeks seeing the bars of Detroit while Alyssa had alternately harassed or hung out with them. He remembered her as being skinny, sassy, and a ton more fun than his tight-jawed, muscular woman before him. And back then, he was pretty sure she’d never touched a gun much less been able to stand her ground and put five rounds into a roaring grizzly bear. “You’ve grown up.”
“You were a bear, so I’m pretty sure you’re the winner in surprising changes.”
He looked at her calmly, analyzing her features and stance. Her eyes were steady as they met his gaze, but her hands were twitchy and her nostrils kept flaring as her breath came in and out in a short, tight tempo. Not quite panicked, but certainly not comfortable. Since she’d picked up her gun again, he’d do well to keep her heading toward calm, not terrified.
So he shrugged and was pleased when the motion didn’t hurt too bad. “I can explain.”
“Really? Have at it soldier. Give me the details.”
He frowned. “Um, what details did you want?”
“You an army experiment?”
“Bit by a radioactive spider or something?”
“That’s a comic book.”
She arched a brow and he huffed out a breath. “I was born this way.”
“As a bear?”
“Human. All human normal. My first shift was at sixteen.”
She crinkled her nose. “You make it sound like a shift at a donut shop. You mean you turned into a bear?” It was half statement, half question, so he answered it.
“Yes. Ripped my favorite jeans. Hurt like hell. Wandered until I was in Gladwin.”
She frowned. “Where?”
“Middle Michigan. State park. Here.” He held up his hand in the shape of Michigan and pointed an inch below the base of his index finger.
“So it’s a genetic thing? Your parents can do it, your—”
Her questions were making his head hurt. He was trying to do too much too fast. He couldn’t remember how to act. How to answer. And he was starting to think too much. Which meant—oddly enough—that his language ability was about to deteriorate as he tried to function as a man and not a bear. “Not automatic. Can’t say more.” He pushed to his feet, his coordination awkward.
Don’t think about it. Just do it.
He balanced on his feet while she scrambled backwards. And though he tried to appear casual, he kept a close eye on where she put that gun. Fortunately, it went back into her purse/satchel after she’d thumbed on the safety. Jesus, she was just now putting on the safety?
He started walking to his front door. His gait was slow and jerky, but eventually it smoothed out. He needed to keep moving to remember how to be a man. He’d never gone bear for so long before, and a sliver of alarm skated down his spine at the realization. Ten months as a bear? Back in July, he’d planned to be Bear for a week. Why hadn’t he gone insane? Why hadn’t someone hunted him down as a feral?
He looked at the woods behind his cabin. Out there was the female he had been tracking. The memory held equal parts temptation and horror. What had he been doing?
And yet as he looked at the woods, his steps faltered. The longing to shift back to grizzly hit him square in the chest, less painful but no less potent than the slugs he’d taken ten minutes before. There was a sweetness out in the woods. A song that he couldn’t hear any more and he wanted it like a man wanted that perfect feeling he couldn’t quite remember. And as he stood there staring, the woman’s voice cut into his thoughts. Her tone was hard and sarcastic, but not enough to cover her fear.
“You’re not going furry again, are you? I still have rounds left in my gun.”
He turned slowly, his eyes narrowing as he again picked out the details of her face and body. Minute details, the more specific the better because it forced him to process information like a man. Her brows were drawn down in a frown. Her shoulders were tight with fear, but determination glinted in her narrowed eyes and the set of her feet. She was equally prepared for fight or flight, and one of her hands rested inside her purse, no doubt on the butt of her gun.
“You saw a bear turn into a man. Why aren’t you freaking out?”
A dull flush crept up her cheeks. “I adapt quickly.”
“No one’s that flexible.” She couldn’t know. Shifters were a really big secret and bear shifters even more so. Sure, someone was always catching sight of the werewolves, but that’s because there were so many damned dogs. Then understanding hit. She’d already been told. Because her brother hadn’t kept the secret. “Victor has a big mouth.”
She shifted awkwardly, but her gaze remained steady. “I didn’t believe him. I thought he was hallucinating until…” She swallowed and gestured to where Simon had been lying on the ground in a pool of his own grizzly blood. “I thought a bear was attacking me. I didn’t think it was you. I didn’t…”
No one believed until they saw. And some not even then. He growled, a very animal sound. And when the noise felt too good inside him, he abruptly shifted to words. “Go home. Go back to Victor. Tell him I’m in a shit-ton of trouble because he talked.” And because Simon hadn’t reported that Victor knew he was a shifter.
“I will,” she said. Her voice taking on an edge of panic as he made it to the front porch. “But only if you come with me.”
He tried to think of an appropriate human expression. He found it a moment later when he turned to look straight at her and then rolled his eyes. Then in case the message wasn’t clear, he added words. “No. Fucking. Way.”
“You have to,” she said as she rushed to follow him up the steps. “He’s turning into one of you.” Her voice shook as she said it, but the words rang with conviction.
He ignored it as he unscrewed the case around the porch light and pulled out the key that was taped inside. A moment later he was unlocking the door, but she gripped his elbow. Her fingers were tight hard points, but he’d just survived five rounds. Fingers were nothing.
“I’m serious. He’s changing into…into a bear or something. You have to help him.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Really?” she pressed. “Are you sure?”
“Because this looks like a freaking bear to me.”
She pushed her cell phone into his face. It took him a second to focus on the screen, but he managed to pick out the details of his once best friend. Vic was crouched against a wall, his eyes wild and clearly terrified. And was his nose longer? The eyebrows were bushier, and no scissors had ever trimmed that beard. Vic was staring in horror at his left arm. It wasn’t human, but it damn sure wasn’t fully bear either. It was thick and furry and came complete with a hairless paw and real claws.
That couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t. It…
Again, understanding clicked into place. “That’s make up.” He shoved open his front door.
“It’s true!” she cried as she tried to follow him.
He stopped her, his hand flat and implacable right on her… Um, wow. He’d forgotten what human breasts felt like. His palm was higher up on her chest, but he felt the curve of both her breasts and was startled by how distracting they were. And that pissed him off even more.
“Go home. This wasn’t funny.”
“This is real, and Vic’s dying. Your best friend is dying!”
“Bullshit.” He shoved her hard, right in the center of her chest. She stumbled backwards. Not far enough to land on her ass, but enough that he could slam the door right in her face.
And this kind of nonsense was exactly why he’d been a bear for the last ten months. No one screwed with bears. No one banged on their doors or forced them to think. And because humans—every single one—were assholes.