Maybe he didn’t think this all the way through.
His thought process had been for the two of them to blow off some steam. Maybe he wanted to take some time and relax after the intensity of the afternoon, a deep breath before they dove into the recon work necessary to tease out more leads.
And he was, well, on vacation such as it was, he mused as he took off his shirt and stepped out the front door. The gathering shadows of evening collected in the screened porch area were a sharp and definitive punctuation mark on the chill in the air. The cold was a statement here, and even though he planned to shift momentarily, the faint breeze that caressed his bare skin was like icy razors.
He smiled over his shoulder at the woman hovering just inside the doorway, still ensconced in the warmth of the house and her clothes. Liminal space, Cherry looked warm and soft in her baggy sweater with her hands in the pocket of her skinny jeans. Comfortable. She looks like home, a voice deep inside him whispered. She was the embodiment of his efforts to straddle his two worlds, his duty and his desires. The threshold of his life, and the harbinger of so much change.
The reddish and blonde highlights in her curls caught the light as she tossed her head back on a deep sigh that seemed to roll through her from the ground up. “A night run.”
“Yeah, get a little fresh air. Relax for a bit. Then we’ll come back and tackle everything we need to. But just let off some of the leftover…” He gestured vaguely.
“What happened to your shoulder?”
The laser focus of her gaze was almost a tactile sensation. He followed it down to his newest adornment, a stellate scar just below his collarbone. “Occupational hazard.”
Her irritated growl drifted out the doorway to him as she bared her teeth. “You good to fly?”
It was all he could do not to beam at her grudging show of concern. “Come on,” he held out a hand to her, “show me a good time.”
He felt her dark eyes drift over every inch of his exposed skin, the gooseflesh erupting on his flesh having absolutely nothing to do with the chill in the air. He wouldn’t push if she dug in her heels, but he really did want to do this with her. Having their animals out and free was a very different dynamic than just their human bodies.
She was dangerous in so many ways, to his person, his heart, his soul. It was easy to forget himself around her, forget the distance and time and their respective boundaries. Still, he’d await her reply, up or down, didn’t matter, and go from there.
Blowing out a deep breath, she nodded, and he had a blink before her sweater was over her head and draped over a chair on the porch. It was a race then, the abandoning of clothes on the porch then off to play in the great outdoors. The forest called to both of them, and they each dropped into their varying animals quickly to take advantage of the night.
Wings outstretched, Vasily took to the trees in a silent rush of wind. This was his favorite part, the sky, the freedom, all of it. As an owl, he could see so sharply, hear so well it was like having another life. In his daily existence, his attention to detail and his ability to see and hear more than most of his colleagues came in very handy, but this…was light years beyond anything he could accomplish in his human form.
His shoulder protested, but only a little. He healed a lot faster in this form, his body naturally acclimating to the feathers of his eagle-owl and behaving accordingly. This was kind of the last step for him to consider himself “well,” at least well enough that he could comfortably return to work. He was also glad he’d decided to test his mettle out here instead of where his friends could see him in case he failed. The last thing he wanted was to fail, even temporarily, in front of those who counted on him the most.
Below him, he could see and hear Cherry tearing it up through the underbrush. She was a demon that stalked the night, her wolverine a thing of beauty and a goddess to be feared as she scampered beneath his flight path. Though they were apart, doing this together gave him a closeness to her that made his mating bond with her sing.
The smell of cold, the sweet odors of pines, and maybe, eventually, coming spring, plus the varying animals bedding down for the night, all of it filtered through his senses as the winds glided silently over and around his wings. Deceptively light footfalls below him, quick and nimble, were the hallmark of his wolverine, keeping pace with him.
From under the canopy of trees below him, a sound wafted up that set all his predator urges on high alert. A cry, a bellow, outrage, injury, whatever it was, it was going down for the count, and his instincts honed in with a desire to take a look. Heart in his throat, he looked for Cherry’s shadow but didn’t see any sign of her. Coming to alight on a tree limb some seventy feet in the air, he was well hidden from any prying eyes below as he watched three men, two in red caps and mossy oak camo, and one man in a canvas coverall corner and take pot shots at a wounded caribou.
There were several things wrong with this picture, not the least of which was that caribou hunting season was a ways off—he’d looked when he was researching the area for Cherry—and these guys weren’t trying to actually kill the animal, but tormenting it by firing at it to make it scream.
Fuck that, he thought as he leapt from the branch. He was an avenging angel, death on silent, celeritous wings. A five-foot-tall owl with an eight-foot wingspan, he’d brought many a man closer to his faith with rapier claws and a speed that rendered him almost invisible to the human eye. Especially at night.
Unprotected flesh gave way quickly with a slash of his talons as he passed. The cartilage of an ear clung to one toe until he scraped it on a tree before another strafing run. From the corner of his eye, he watched as a brown, furry buzzsaw came snarling out of the darkness, and there were even more screams. The complimenting scents of terror, piss, and blood were gratifying.
They took several more passes, ripping clothes and rending flesh, chunks of tissue bitten out and tossed aside, rifle reports echoing through the forests with shells flying blindly and easy to dodge. The terror of their attack quickly drove the men away from the downed animal and back to their ATV to flee, and Vasi took a few more runs at them just to make sure they stayed gone.
When he returned to the caribou, she was struggling to her feet, watching Cherry warily. She smelled…odd, off. Of sickness and death and something strangely chemical. This was no ordinary caribou, but a woman, a shifter woman, who had been pursued, hunted through the forest by these assholes for sport. The very idea of it enraged him.
Though she was much larger than he was, she cowered away when he landed in a swirl of dust and dead pine needles. His desire to reassure her outshone his modesty, and he dropped his feathers in front of her. He knew Cherry would keep her form in case the men regrouped and returned.
“Are you all right?” he asked, keeping his voice soft, delicate because he didn’t want to spook the woman further. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
She watched him closely as she got her legs under her, becoming more confident the longer their staring contest went on. He didn’t know why she hadn’t shifted back yet to talk to him, so he tried again.
“I work for the King. I’m with the Guard. I can help you.”
But all his words seemed to do was to rile her up, eyes widening as she backed away from him. Her breath fogged the air and that was the first time since he’d stepped out he’d really noticed the cold. He reached for her again, but she bolted, taking off into the night, leaving behind the smell of sheer terror tinged in blood.
Vasily had no idea what was going on, or why she had been out there being chased by those men in her animal form, but coincidences did not exist in his world. Now, he was terrified as to what could have happened if Cherry hadn’t escaped.