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 didnâ€™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.
Heâ€™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 didnâ€™t put any
effort into processing her words. Heâ€™d been a bear too long
to want to work that hard. Besides, it didnâ€™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 couldnâ€™t
catch the human prey when it was surrounded in metal. So he
would remain where he was with his teeth bared until she
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
He isolated the worst painâ€”hard points of metalâ€”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 pointsâ€”the bulletsâ€”were out or at least
near the surface.
He didnâ€™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, skinâ€”all human.
All that remained liquid was the blood that flowed inside.
â€śHoly shit,â€ť someone whispered. â€śItâ€™s true.â€ť
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.
Heâ€™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 couldnâ€™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 Bearâ€™s
words, now made intelligible by a human mouth.
â€śSimon?â€ť she whispered, the words half gasp, half squeak of
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.
â€śYou were a bear! I shot a bear!â€ť
â€śHuman.â€ť 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
He focused again on his body, itemizing sensations. His
ribs werenâ€™t broken butâ€”damnâ€”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 Bearâ€™s magic strong inside him.
â€śGet. Knife,â€ť he said, his voice stronger now that he had a
â€śDig. Bullets. Out.â€ť
â€śIâ€¦You were a bear!â€ť 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. â€śJust remember, Iâ€™ve got a gun.â€ť
He didnâ€™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
â€śWhat are you doing?â€ť she asked. Her tone told him she knew
exactly what he was going to do, but couldnâ€™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.
â€śThatâ€™s not sterile!â€ť she cried. He hadnâ€™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. Heâ€™d have no
dexterity to use his right hand. The pectoral muscle would
move the bullet around while he worked, and he didnâ€™t think
he could do this one-handed.
He opened his eyes. â€śYou. Now.â€ť
â€śBullet. Here.â€ť He pointed, and her eyes widened on horror.
â€śHell, no! Jesus, just call a doctor!â€ť Then she grimaced.
â€ś911. Why the hell didnâ€™t I call 911?â€ť
â€śYou. Shot me.â€ť
â€śYou were a bear!â€ť
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 heâ€™d been a bear. Though there were as
many as a million shifters in the United States, their
existence was a closely guarded secret. Heâ€™d probably get
into serious trouble for changing in front of her, but he
had to survive first.
â€śHelp. Me,â€ť 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 wasnâ€™t
getting him anywhere, so he moderated his tone.
â€śIâ€™ll show you. Bullet. Pretty close.â€ť He focused on her
face and tried to smile. â€śIâ€™ll heal.â€ť
â€śLook.â€ť He brushed aside the wound where heâ€™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. â€śLosing time,â€ť he said, pitching his
voice to a low threat. â€śMust do this now.â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t argue. Just do.â€ť
Annoyance washed through her features, but was quickly
smoothed out. Then she hardened her jaw as she glared down
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 couldnâ€™t place her.
â€śI do this for you, you do something for me.â€ť
â€śYou shot me.â€ť
â€śYou attacked me.â€ť
â€śYou were a freaking bear. Now agree or you dig that shit
God, he hated negotiation and time was running out. He was
already losing awareness of exactly where the bullet was in
his body. â€śFine. Dig now.â€ť 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. â€śThis is
There were a lot stupider things, but he didnâ€™t have the
breath to say that. He used his left hand to point to where
the bullet was. â€śCut here. An inch.â€ť
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
Pain sliced through his consciousness as she cut, but he
controlled his breath so that his chest didnâ€™t jerk under
â€śI see it. I think.â€ť
Really? Good for her. She was ten times steadier than he
expected. As if she had some medical training. Or disaster
training. â€śYou. Nurse?â€ť
â€śNo, Iâ€™m not a nurse, you sexist pig.â€ť
Hope spiked. â€śDoc?â€ť
â€śYou wish.â€ť 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.
â€śGot it!â€ť she cried as she pulled it out. â€śItâ€™s done. Iâ€™m
done. You can heal it now.â€ť
He looked at her, his breath still coming in short pants.
â€śNot magic trick. No wandâ€”â€ť
â€śWhatever. Just do it.â€ť
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 didnâ€™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 mindâ€™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. â€śIs it done? Are you all better?â€ť
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.
â€śI know you,â€ť he said.
Her eyes widened for moment, then slowly narrowed the
longer he stayed silent. â€śDonâ€™t stop there. Keep thinking.â€ť
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
â€śWhat day is it?â€ť
â€śHell if Iâ€”â€ť she cut off her words then thumbed on her
phone. â€śThe twenty-second.â€ť And when he didnâ€™t respond, she
added, â€śOf May.â€ť
â€śDamn.â€ť The last time heâ€™d been human it had been mid-July.
â€śWhat? Is something else wrong?â€ť
No way to answer that. There were a thousand things wrong.
Heâ€™d been a bear for ten months. He wasnâ€™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 didnâ€™t concentrate on the
movement. Heâ€™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
Like who she was and what was she doing up here. His cabin
was in the middle of nowhere in Michiganâ€™s Upper Peninsula.
She sure as hell wasnâ€™t a local. To begin with, there
werenâ€™t that many African Americans up here. But she had
found him, sure enough. And that dirty Chevy Malibu in his
driveway said sheâ€™d driven a long way to get here, even
though it did have Michigan plates.
â€śYour name,â€ť he said.
â€śCanâ€™t remember? Iâ€™m hurt.â€ť She didnâ€™t smell hurt. She
smelled like cheap floral perfume over something sweet and
â€śDo you know who I am?â€ť
â€śCorporal Simon Gold of the Corps of Engineers. Discharged
about a year ago.â€ť
That was awful specific for someone he couldnâ€™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 mindâ€™s eye it was always paired with a mischievous
tilt to the head. Her brotherâ€”his closest friendâ€”had always
been searching for fun.
â€śYouâ€™re Vicâ€™s little sister.â€ť What was her name? â€śAlyssa.â€ť
Though he and Victor had been nearly inseparable for the
last few years, theyâ€™d never been stateside together. Not
until last yearâ€¦er, two years ago, when heâ€™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 sheâ€™d never touched a gun much
less been able to stand her ground and put five rounds into
a roaring grizzly bear. â€śYouâ€™ve grown up.â€ť
â€śYou were a bear, so Iâ€™m pretty sure youâ€™re the winner in
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 sheâ€™d picked
up her gun again, heâ€™d do well to keep her heading toward
calm, not terrified.
So he shrugged and was pleased when the motion didnâ€™t hurt
too bad. â€śI can explain.â€ť
â€śReally? Have at it soldier. Give me the details.â€ť
He frowned. â€śUm, what details did you want?â€ť
â€śYou an army experiment?â€ť
â€śBit by a radioactive spider or something?â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s a comic book.â€ť
She arched a brow and he huffed out a breath. â€śI was born
â€śAs a bear?â€ť
â€śHuman. All human normal. My first shift was at sixteen.â€ť
She crinkled her nose. â€śYou make it sound like a shift at a
donut shop. You mean you turned into a bear?â€ť It was half
statement, half question, so he answered it.
â€śYes. Ripped my favorite jeans. Hurt like hell. Wandered
until I was in Gladwin.â€ť
She frowned. â€śWhere?â€ť
â€śMiddle Michigan. State park. Here.â€ť He held up his hand in
the shape of Michigan and pointed an inch below the base of
his index finger.
â€śSo itâ€™s a genetic thing? Your parents can do it, yourâ€”â€ť
Her questions were making his head hurt. He was trying to
do too much too fast. He couldnâ€™t remember how to act. How
to answer. And he was starting to think too much. Which
meantâ€”oddly enoughâ€”that his language ability was about to
deteriorate as he tried to function as a man and not a
bear. â€śNot automatic. Canâ€™t say more.â€ť He pushed to his
feet, his coordination awkward.
Donâ€™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 sheâ€™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. Heâ€™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, heâ€™d planned to be Bear for a week. Why hadnâ€™t he
gone insane? Why hadnâ€™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 heâ€™d
taken ten minutes before. There was a sweetness out in the
woods. A song that he couldnâ€™t hear any more and he wanted
it like a man wanted that perfect feeling he couldnâ€™t quite
remember. And as he stood there staring, the womanâ€™s voice
cut into his thoughts. Her tone was hard and sarcastic, but
not enough to cover her fear.
â€śYouâ€™re not going furry again, are you? I still have rounds
left in my gun.â€ť
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.
â€śYou saw a bear turn into a man. Why arenâ€™t you freaking
A dull flush crept up her cheeks. â€śI adapt quickly.â€ť
â€śNo oneâ€™s that flexible.â€ť She couldnâ€™t know. Shifters were
a really big secret and bear shifters even more so. Sure,
someone was always catching sight of the werewolves, but
thatâ€™s because there were so many damned dogs. Then
understanding hit. Sheâ€™d already been told. Because her
brother hadnâ€™t kept the secret. â€śVictor has a big mouth.â€ť
She shifted awkwardly, but her gaze remained steady. â€śI
didnâ€™t believe him. I thought he was hallucinating untilâ€¦â€ť
She swallowed and gestured to where Simon had been lying on
the ground in a pool of his own grizzly blood. â€śI thought a
bear was attacking me. I didnâ€™t think it was you. I
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. â€śGo home. Go
back to Victor. Tell him Iâ€™m in a shit-ton of trouble
because he talked.â€ť And because Simon hadnâ€™t reported that
Victor knew he was a shifter.
â€śI will,â€ť she said. Her voice taking on an edge of panic as
he made it to the front porch. â€śBut only if you come with
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
wasnâ€™t clear, he added words. â€śNo. Fucking. Way.â€ť
â€śYou have to,â€ť she said as she rushed to follow him up the
steps. â€śHeâ€™s turning into one of you.â€ť 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 heâ€™d just
survived five rounds. Fingers were nothing.
â€śIâ€™m serious. Heâ€™s changing intoâ€¦into a bear or something.
You have to help him.â€ť
â€śIt doesnâ€™t work that way.â€ť
â€śReally?â€ť she pressed. â€śAre you sure?â€ť
â€śBecause this looks like a freaking bear to me.â€ť
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 wasnâ€™t human, but it damn sure
wasnâ€™t fully bear either. It was thick and furry and came
complete with a hairless paw and real claws.
That couldnâ€™t be real. It just couldnâ€™t. Itâ€¦
Again, understanding clicked into place. â€śThatâ€™s make up.â€ť
He shoved open his front door.
â€śItâ€™s true!â€ť she cried as she tried to follow him.
He stopped her, his hand flat and implacable right on herâ€¦
Um, wow. Heâ€™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.
â€śGo home. This wasnâ€™t funny.â€ť
â€śThis is real, and Vicâ€™s dying. Your best friend is dying!â€ť
â€śBullshit.â€ť 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
And this kind of nonsense was exactly why heâ€™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
humansâ€”every single oneâ€”were assholes.