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If a bear
Like Ruger hadn't heard all the jokes. Bear, woods, yeah, yeah, yeah.
But he wasn't alone. From where he stood among a small patch of trees, he'd looked down on the unexpected plaids and bagpipes and sporrans and kneesocks, smelled the scents of whisky and wool in the cooling air, and heard a pipe-and-drum band squalling up into full sound over all.
And he'd looked down on this woman.
If a bear finds another bear in the park during a Celtic festival, does anyone notice?
He sure did. And so did she.
She stood outside the whisky-tasting tent with its min-iscule cups of tasting whisky. If any of the humans standing near her had a clue, they would have treated her with more respect. They wouldn't have casually bumped into her on the way to the open tent flapor failed to see the strength in her short houri form, the beauty of nut-brown skin and black hair and smoky eyes.
She smiled faintly at Ruger and lifted her tiny plastic cup of honey-gold liquid in a quiet salute. Ruger lifted his chin in a subtle salute to the lady bear and eased back into the trees of the hillnot quite ready to give up his woods, thin as they might be. If a bear.
Especially a Sentinel shifter bear looking for quiet the night before a field assignment in the continuing fight against the Atrum Core. One trying to pretend that he wasn't quite himself, still recovering from what hadn't killed him, but had maybe killed who he was and had always been.
Never mind the Atrum Core ambush that had put Ruger out of action for months. The bite of Flagstaff's night air, their team gathered in the hotel parking lot where the Atrum Core had been seen, Maks' hand pushing against the hotel door, their tracker's cry of warning
The astonishing flash of stinking, corrupted Core energy blooming from the room to take the team down.
Ruger's bruises had healed long before he'd woken from the induced coma. And theoretically, his singed senses were, in fact, recovered.
Theoretically. He could sit up here on the crest, thin, gritty soil beneath the seat of his jeans, and he could feel the accumulated ills and ails of the festivities below. He just couldn't do anything about them.
A woman on chemotherapy, smiling brightly to a friend. And there, a middle-aged man whose lungs sat heavy in his chest, and on the far side of the festival, amidst children clustered at a game under the mercury lights, was a youngster with sickness lurking in his bones. Ruger couldn't see himeven a Sentinel's night vision had its limitsbut he could feel it well enough.
On a normal night, he could ease the man's breathing, offer the woman energy, and No, the child was what he was. On a normal night
Ruger closed his eyes, absorbing the taste and feel of the ailments and knowingknowinghe could help. Knowing that if he channeled the healing energies that had once come so readily to him, he could
He reached, and found nothing. He reached deeper, and found only a deeper nothing, a profound and echoing inner darkness.
The pain came on with the inexorable nature of a gripping vise, increasing to sharp retribution in an indefinable instant. Ruger grunted with the impact, momentarily stunned by it.
And then he was sitting up on the crest of the hill, startled by the sensation of warmth trickling from his nose and into his mustache.
He pulled a bandanna from his back pocket and wiped away the blood, sitting still in the dusk until he was sure the nosebleed had stopped.
Not so much the healer after all.
Well. He was still warrior. And he was still bear. And Nick Carter, Sentinel Southwest Brevis consul, still counted on that factcounted on it enough that he'd pulled Ruger back into the field.
Not that he or Nick had much choicenot when mere weeks after the hotel ambush, the entirety of Southwest Brevis had been crippled in the aftermath of Core D'oiche. Ruger wasn't the only one who didn't know how much of himself he'd recover but who had things to do in the meantime. He could still offer his knowledgeand, unique among healers, he could damned well watch his own back.
And he needed to prove it. To his teammates, to himself.
Ruger got to his feet, shadowing through the woods quietly enough to startle those at the edges of it when he emerged. There, just down the hill the lady bear still waited. Too much of a coincidence to believe, much too enticing to ignore. A bear in the swirling midst of the Celtic fair, tossing back what remained of her whisky, throat moving with her swallow.
She spotted him immediately and pitched the sample cup into the trash, moving away from the side of the tent to come his wayand scooping two more samples from the table beside the tent as she did. So many of the bear shifters were exceptionally tall, on the burly sideplenty of hair, rugged features. Ruger not as much as some, despite his Kodiak nature when he took his bear. Little black bear, he thought suddenly, and knew it true of herthe comfortable amble in her walk, her black hair glinting in the light, thick bangs cut to frame her face and her skin with enough tone so many would assign to South India what came from the bear. She was sturdy and rounded, her eyes large and dark and her nose just a little bit long, her mouth wide and chin gently notched below. Not plump, but plenty of hips and breast packed into a petite form.
Not a woman who would break easily.
She watched him watching her, making her way through the crowd as if the whisky tent rowdies weren't there at all, and when she got there she said, quite matter-of-factly, "You took too long to come over." Not a shy creature, the bear.
"Just thinking about who you might be," he said, looking down on heraccepting, without thinking, the sample cup she proffered him. It felt too small in his handbut then, so many things did.
Maybe she wouldn't.
He'd definitely been cooped up in brevis medical for too long.
She watched him, her large, dark eyes thoughtful, and he hoped his unbidden thought hadn't shown on his face.
Or maybe, given the speculative light in her eye, he hoped it had.
Then she smiled, just a curve at the corner of that wide mouth. "I'm on loan from Colorado. I knew you were in this area but so far at brevis it's mainly been wolves and big cats." She frowned in thought. "Though I'm pretty sure that one guy was a weasel."
Ruger grinned, scratching his fingers through the beard beside his mouth. Full beard, short enough to be tidy, long enough to obscure the landscape of his lower face. "Pine marten," he told her. "He prefers to be called pine marten."
She shrugged. "He'll have to watch where he puts his hands, then."
Ruger's hand closed around the tiny whisky sampler; his jaw tightened, ever so slightly. Not that she was his to care about, but.
She laughed, as if she'd understood perfectly well. "I took care of it." She nodded out at the milling crowd. "Lay odds he' ll learn better tonight, too."
Ruger cut his gaze out toward the whisky tent, and found the man in question readily enough. Mid-thirties, a wiry guy who probably thought that scruff at his chin counted as a beard, and who had buckled an ostentatiously large sporran over his jeansmost likely to hold the flask now in his hand. He looked bored with the fair, but not the least bit bored with the sight of Ruger's new companion.
"It happens," she told him, sipping the whisky. Her eyes widened appreciatively; Ruger could smell the peaty nature of the liquid from his own sample. She shrugged, still looking at the man who'd noticed her. "You know how it is. They can tell something's different. They're not sure just what but they think they want it." She cocked her head at him. "Or maybe you don't know. You've got that forbidding thing going on." She nodded at the thinning crowd.
He didn't look; he'd already seen them. Ladies' night out, three friends in their late twenties who'd struck the right note of agreeably Celtic and casual, ostensibly admiring the silver rings they'd each purchased. A decade younger than he wasnone of the scars, none of the same realities.
They had no idea of the battle that had so recently raged across this region, or of his part in it.
He took the whisky, letting it sit on the back of his tongue a long moment before it warmed his throat, and when he lifted a shoulder in a shrug, she smiled, understanding.
He was already talking to the one person in this park who interested him.
She said, "I'm still finding my way around here. I hit the Making Tracks bar last nightI thought I'd see more of us there."
"We're spread thin right now," he said. "If we weren't, you wouldn't be in this region at all."
"To be honest," she said, "I was hoping to find you there. Annorah from brevis communications suggested this place when I didn't."
Of course she'd known of him. There weren't so many bear shifters around that it was hard to keep track. And one did keep track, when entering a new brevis. "Wouldn't be here if I'd realized the Celtic fair was here. Those trees normally make for decent privacy."
"Oh?" She raised her brow, her gaze back to his before it drifted across the breadth of his shoulders, lingered on his face went briefly lower.
In an instant, every muscle in his body tightened. She smiled, just a little.
Bears. Not game players. Predators. Knew what they wanted, when they wanted it. "I'm heading out tomorrow," she said, as if she could read his mind. Maybe she couldsome blooded Sentinels didbut he thought not. It wasn't a talent for bears.
Of course, neither was healing. Usually.
He nodded slowly, and agreed, "It's that kind of night."
"I figured I'd be on my own," she said. "But I'd be happy if I wasn't."
He nodded again, this time with something of a smile. There were a number of teams heading out in the morning and any number of Sentinels who didn't want to be alone tonight. "Like I said. It's that kind of night."
She studied him, inhaling deeplyslowly. Taking the measure of his scent and closing her eyes briefly. "Bear," she said, as if to herself, but when she opened her eyes she looked directly at him and smiled. "It's been a long time."
And here he came, moving in from the crowd: Mr. Way-Over-His-Head, mid-thirties, wiry, and chin scruff. Andbonus!plenty of hard alcohol on his breath. "Hey there," he said to her. "Thought you might like to dance to some Wicked Tinkers with us."
She cut a quick glance his way. "No, thank you," she said, as politely as it could be done.
"Hey, if you don't know how, don't worry about it. We can teach you all the moves you need." He mimed a quick Highland step, and it held way too much thrust.
She gave him another glance, more deliberate this time. "I'm not into it, thanks." This time, there was meaning in her glance at Ruger. He read it easily enough, for all that he didn't yet even know her name. I'll deal, it said.
"C'mon, honey," the guy said. "You'll make me look bad in front of the guys. Besides, you'll like it. You just met this guy; I been waiting for the right moment all night."
"You missed it."
"Just a dance or two," he said, getting bolder, a little more recklessmore desperate, with a glance back at his smirking buddies. "That's what you came here for, isn't it?"
Ruger clamped down the rumble in his chest.
I' ll deal. Her look was a warning and a request.
Ruger closed one hand into a fist and stood down.
She spoke quietly but clearly, glancing over to the trio of women-witnesses, at that. "I don't know you. I don't want to talk to you. Please leave me alone now."
Maybe the guy didn't hear her; maybe he didn't care. He took her arm, and not gently.
Oh, the little bear could move. Ruger saw it, but he doubted the guy did. A twist, a shift, the flat of her palm with just the right force in just the right place the guy blinked at her from the floor.
"Oh!" she said, with a certain suspicious clarity and lack of emotion. "I'm so sorry! I was so startled when you grabbed me!" The women smirked.
The guy's friends threw aside their whisky tasters, bristling en massetaking a step forward.
Ruger shifted. That was all it usually tookthe movement. The distinct moment when they realized that he filled more space than they'd expected, that he moved with the easy power of his kind.
In the instant they hesitated, the lady bear spread her hands in a mollifying gesture. "No big deal, fellas. He startled me. Wouldn't want to turn it into something noticeable, right?" She sent a significant glance at the security guard most definitely headed their way, a man in kilt and hose and arms that no doubt stood him in good stead when it came time for the caber toss. "After all, there's still whisky to be tasted."
That did it. They hauled their friend to his feet, brushed him off and dragged him away. One of the women offered a thumbs-up and said, loud enough to be heard over the distance between them, "He's always an asshole at these things."
"Could have been worse," Ruger said, but his eyes were on the lady bear, and the lurking humor in her eye. Not for a moment discomfited; not for a moment concerned. "Someone could have gotten broken."
They laughed and moved on, not quite taking him seriously. The lady bear did, eyeing him for a long moment, a smile in the corners of her dark eyes. "Mariska Banks," she told him, and the humor took on a certain gleam. Invitation.
"Ruger James," he said, and did the little whisky a grave injustice by tossing it back. "But you knew that."
"My place?" she asked.
Sweet cinnamon bear, full of humor and fire and strength. "Anyplace you like," he said, rumbling low.
She didn't respond as she headed toward the parking lot, a ragged asphalt patch crammed full of cars in what had become true dusk. She looked over her shoulder, found him watching her, and smiledand she didn't wait. Not playing games, just a matter-of-fact check yes or no.
Ruger took a deep breath of the night air, found it scented with leftover heat and sage and creosote. It tasted like anticipation. The hair of his nape bristled, a tingle on his skin.
He followed her.
Through the musicians, past the collection of Celtic dog breeds on display, past the sheep and even a few Highland cattle. By the time they reached the parking lot, he'd caught up; by the time they walked to the unlit far end where Ruger had parked, evening had found its way into nightfall.
The guy's friends probably thought they couldn't be seen in the dark, with their semicircle blocking the way to Ruger's short-bed Hemi. Sentinel night vision tinged the men blue, but left them crystal clearalong with the crowbar, the baseball bat and the tire iron.
"We thought about it," one of them said as Ruger and Mariska stopped, backlit by the fair. "And we decided it was a big deal after all."
Ruger exchanged a glance with Mariska. "This time," he said, "we share."
This time, someone got broken.