Monday, March 3, 2014

Protecting his Mate (#22)

Last chapter left everyone hanging as the gas cannister broke through the window. I picked my hubby's brain for a lot of the symptoms and reactions to the gas since, as part of his military training, he's been teargassed a few times. Needless to say, the general consensus is "not pleasant." He did give one advantage to it, though. It did great to clean out his sinuses! I don't think that's enough.


Brian held his shirt over Nulli’s face as he approached the bedroom door. His skin was on fire, like he’d rolled in a bed of angry fire ants or a juicy pile of nettles. Water streamed from eyes sealed shut by the burning pain. He heard the patio door crash open. He heard footsteps in his living room. He heard the metallic click that conjured up images of all kinds of weaponry. But he couldn’t fucking see! He struggled to open his eyes, to overcome the gut-wrenching, searing agony caused by the oily gas. He struggled, and failed.

As if the fire across his skin and the hot pokers in his eyes wasn’t enough, his lungs protested the presence of the noxious fumes. He heaved and coughed with every breath until he felt lightheaded. He wanted to curl into a tiny ball to escape the agony. He wanted to stand under the shower and wash away the effects. He wanted to run. Instead, he blindly reached for his mate.

Nulli grabbed his hand. His palm burned where they touched, but he tightened his grip. He would not be separated from her. She hissed with every wheezing breath, growled with each racking cough. He couldn’t imagine the amount of pain she must be in.

He kicked the door behind them, closing off the sputtering cannister. The gas oozed through the crack, spitting and hissing like an angry cobra. Brian pulled his mate away from the door and felt along the wall for the landing. From below, he heard the sound of combat. The Wardens’ growls muffled most of the humans’ screams. There was a deep, guttural roar followed by a curse. With the gas behind them and the fight below, he hesitated at the top of the stairs.

“Arcady!” Killian’s roar shook the pictures on the wall. The meaty thud of a body hitting sheetrock rattled a potted plant from its stand.

“Second floor. We’ve been gassed.” He felt like he was going to cough out a lung. Or a toenail. His lungs screamed for fresh air. His cat screeched for vengeance.

“On my way!”

Brian felt around for the window facing the staircase. He fumbled for the latches, pushing it open to provide more fresh air to soothe their burning lungs and skin. He scrubbed at his eyes with the curtain, restoring a little of his sight. They still stung like he’d rubbed them with a jalapeno pepper, but he could see. A little. It was blurry, but it was better than nothing. Yanking the curtain from the rod, he wiped at Nulli’s eyes.

“Killian is here, sweetheart. The Wardens are, too.” He folded the cloth and wiped at her flowing eyes. Each round of coughing brought more pain, more hisses and growls, more tears. They also stirred his fury. “If that bitch is out there, then this bullshit ends tonight.”

Heavy boots pounded up the stairs. Brian whirled around, claws and fangs out and ready to defend his mate. An unknown male, dressed all in black, topped the stairs. He carried a flashlight in one hand, a strange pistol in the other. The intruder triggered his mic.

“Found’em, boss. Second floor, top of stairwell. Looks like we interrupted a bit of fun.” Brian growled as the man’s dark eyes swept over them both, lingering with a smirk on the harness Nulli still wore.

“Tranq them both. A mated pair will provide invaluable research as well as a shit-ton of money.” The receiver distorted the female’s voice, but Nulli’s low growl told him everything he needed to know. Andrea Flagston commanded these intruders.

“Roger that.” The soldier clicked off the mic and grinned. “Here kitty kitty kitty.”

Brian roared, swinging at the man with his cast. He kept his body between the gun and his mate. More footsteps on the stairs. He feinted with the cast, then slashed with his claws. The gun fell to the floor as the man released a pained curse. Brian kicked the weapon behind him, towards Nulli.

The intruder swung the butt of the flashlight towards his head. He ducked out of the way of the makeshift club. While the man was off balance, Brian backhanded him with the cast. Bone and cartilage collapsed under the force as the soldier’s nose shattered. The plaster cracked, sending bolts of agony up his broken arm. He focused his pain and anger on the intruder - raining blows upon his chest, slashing at his protective gear with his claws, and herding the man towards the top of the staircase.

“Where’s Nulli?” Killian’s deep voice rumbled from the stairs. The soldier turned and paled at the sight of the large bear shifter. Killian was furrier, broader, and taller in his hybrid form. His claws glinted in the faint light. His fangs pressed against his lips.

“Behind me. Get her out of here, Killian. The fuckers gassed us and her ribs haven’t healed yet.”

“On it.” Gripping the soldier by the back of his neck, the bear shifter tossed him down the stairs and started towards Nulli. He released a growling chuckle. “Damn, Arcady. You are one lucky cat.” Killian unbuckled the harness before scooping Nulli into his arms. His mate’s coughs didn’t cease, and she groaned as Killian adjusted his hold on her. “I’ll take her outside to the garden hose. She needs away from the gas and to have this shit hosed off her if she’s gonna get any kind of relief.”

“Protect her, Killian. Flagston is here. I want that bitch.”

“With my life, Brian.”

Nodding, the bobcat prowled down the stairs, followed by Killian carrying Nulli. They moved towards the shattered patio door while Brian stopped at the base of the stairs. The soldier lay in a tumbled heap across the bottom three steps. When Brian kicked his legs to the side, he was rewarded with an answering groan. If the man still lived, he could provide information. He slapped the man’s face a few times until his eyes fluttered open.

“Where’s Flagston?”

“Fuck you, freak.” Blood bubbled from the soldier’s curled lip. He tried to crawl away, but the fall had broken too much. He clutched at his chest and groaned.

Brian wrapped his uninjured hand around the soldier’s neck, and dragged him across the floor to the wall. He hoisted the man by his throat, holding him against the wall with his toes inches above the floor. His claws dug into the vulnerable skin of the intruder’s neck.

“That wasn’t a request, asswipe.” He emphasized his point by bashing the man’s head against the wall. The guard gurgled and clawed at his hand. “Tell me where Flagston is or I swear I will gut you right here and now and hang you by your entrails.”

He shifted closer to his hybrid form. Whiskers sprouted from his cheeks. His ears shifted, and the fur tufts peeked out from his hair. Fangs pressed against his bottom lip. He let a growl boil up from the pit of his stomach, let it build to a throaty roar. The choking guard paled, then pissed himself.

“What a brave soldier you are.” Brian hissed at the stench of fear and urine. “Where’s Flagston?”

The man opened and closed his mouth like a fish. Brian eased him onto his feet, relieving some of the pressure on the man’s throat. “White panel van, marked as AF Electric. It’s parked two blocks south. Listen, dude. She said you were an escaped experiment. She said you were dangerous!”

“All creatures are dangerous when wounded and cornered. Didn’t you know that?” Brian flexed his claws, dragging them across the soldier’s throat as he turned away.

He walked through the living room to the patio. The door’s frame hung off one hinge, bent and twisted. Its glass littered the floor. Brian stepped around the broken shards, looking and listening for his mate. The backyard showed signs of the battle. Three black-suited soldiers lay against the side of the house, covered in blood. A fourth huddled on the patio, his arms and ankles bound by the belts of his former associates. A naked female stood guard over the captured intruder.

“Sorry about that, Brian.” Dr. Roberts motioned towards an unconscious wolf. “Foster was going for the two with the tear gas but got his ass tranq’d. His yelp is all that alerted us to the attack.”

“Have you seen Nulli? Killian brought her out just a second ago.”

“The bear? Yeah. He took her to the side to hose her down. Best way to get the worst of the gas off her. For being a randy old sod, he kicked some serious ass tonight. And damn, he’s huge!”

“I need to check on her, then I’m going after Flagston.”

“She’s that close? Dammit. I’ll get some of the Wardens together and go with you. She may have more of these mercenaries.”

Brian nodded and moved towards the side of the house. He heard Nulli’s soft growls first. They were lower in pitch and volume than in her human form. When he rounded the corner, his growls joined hers. Killian was very naked and sitting way too close to his mate. The bear shifter looked up, rolled his eyes, and moved from where he was towelling the water from the slender bobcat.

“I’m not fondling your mate, for fuck’s sake. She’s gorgeous and bendy, but she’s yours, Brian. I know that. You know that. And she’d be more than happy to remind me of that should I get grabby.”

Nulli snorted before joining him. Brian knelt and ran his fingers over her fur. “I’m going after her, kitten. I can’t let her get away. Will you please stay with Killian? Doc Roberts and a few of the  Wardens are going with me to make sure I don’t do something permanently stupid.”

She sat on her haunches, tilted her head to the side, and sneezed. He sighed and shook his head with a rueful smile. “That’s what I thought. Please, be careful at least?”

Nulli shook the water from her fur and flashed her canines. He’d have to take that as her word.

“I’m going, too.” Killian stood. “Someone’s got to keep you out of trouble.” He bent over, transitioning smoothly into a huge brown bear. Brian shook his head again and hoped the neighbors didn’t call animal control.

“Very well. She’s up the road in a panel van. Let’s grab the wolves and get that bitch.”

Dr. Roberts shoved a pair of sweatpants at him when he rejoined her at the back. “You can’t shift until that cast comes off, and I forgot to pack my saw. Your neighbors might appreciate the view, but you don’t want to get picked up for public lewdness.”

“Yeah, whatever.” He stepped into the pants and cinched the waist tight. The cloth rubbed at his skin, still coated with a fine layer of tear gas, and caused it to sting. He growled, grabbing one of the mercenaries’ discarded tranquilizer guns. “How many are going?”

“Five, but you’ll only see the one - me. I’ll stay in human form unless my wolf is needed. The other four will shadow you as wolves out of sight of the humans. It’s bad enough you have a menagerie walking with you.” Nulli yawned; Killian farted. Roberts chuckled. “Guess they told me, huh? Lead the way.”

They discussed a plan to take the van, then left the house under the guard of the remaining Wardens. The streets were deserted due to the late hour. A dog barked three houses down. One of the wolf shifters growled, sending the animal running for his doghouse with a yelp. The street lights were out closer to the white van. It sat in front of a vacant home, bathed in shadows. The engine hummed quietly. They heard the faint sounds of voices from within - one female and at least one male.

Nulli stepped off the sidewalk and prowled forward. Her ears twitching with each each new sound. She slinked under the van and got into position. Killian lumbered towards the van down the center of the road. His large size threw all hope of stealth out the window, so they decided to work with it. He trotted up to the van, pissed on a tire, then dug a claw into the thick rubber. Once the air started hissing out, he moved to the front to do the same and knocked the mirror out of alignment in passing.

When the engine chugged to a stop, Nulli emerged from beneath it. Whatever wires or hoses met their end at the sharp edge of her claws had been well-chosen. She reached the yard’s easement and kicked grass and dirt towards the van with her back paws. Brian smothered a grin at her obvious disdain.

With the van out of commission and the mirror disabled, Brian and Roberts moved towards the back. A policeman’s nightstick slid through the back doors’ handles, effectively locking them from the outside. That left only the side doors to watch. Nulli and Roberts watched the driver’s door, while Brian and Killian guarded the passenger side. Brian nodded. Killian ducked under the passenger window, grabbed the sliding side door, and peeled it from the van like a sardine can lid.

The scream of tortured metal grated on the shifters’ sensitive ears. The first mercenary to jump from the van caught a tranquilizer dart to the chest. Brian scowled. He’d been aiming for the bastard’s face. Tossing aside the useless weapon, he shifted towards his hybrid form.

“Andrea Flagston,” he growled as he advanced on the ruined door. His claws scraped down the side of the van with a high-pitched scritching sound. “Stop hiding behind your hired thugs. You wanted to study a shifter? Then get out here, bitch.”

The driver’s door opened. Brian heard the quiet discharge of Robert’s pistol then his mate’s roar. The van rocked when something, or someone, slammed against it with extreme force. He smiled. “Two down. How many more do you have between you and us?”

“PSI Tech knows about you, Arcady!” The female voice held no trace of fear. Either she was that confident or that clueless. Brian figured it was a mix of both. “They’ll come after you again and again until we have you and your mate.”

“Bullshit. PSI Tech is done for, and you know it. The Feds have shut you down. Even if you hadn’t been stupid enough to come after us, you’d be going to prison.”

Brian risked a look inside the van. It was empty other than an array of computers and a single human female. He stepped around the shredded door. When he entered the van, she pointed a tranquilizer pistol at him. He lunged forward and knocked it from her hand with a growl. The crunch of bones when his cast smashed into her fingers made him smile.

“I don’t think so.”

“What do you want?” Her voice shook as she scrambled away from him. His smile grew wider as the scent of her fear filled the van. “A promise that we’ll leave you alone? Fine, you’ve got it.” He shook his head and stalked forward. She pressed against the back doors, triggering the latch. The doors bowed open but stopped due to the nightstick barring them shut. He chuckled softly. “Money? I’ve got a nice stash. Name your price.”

“I don’t want your blood money or your empty promises. You see, I already have what I want. You.” He held up his cast. “You pushed us into traffic. You injured my mate, separated us, scared her, almost killed her. She looks over her shoulder now, because of you. She’s suspicious of new people now. Because of you. Her life has changed in a way I never wanted for her. Because. Of. You.” Heat crept up the back of his neck. Each breath was measured, his steps precise. He enjoyed the role reversal, and he rolled his head in a small circle as he moved closer. “I’m here to make certain you can’t do that again.”

For every time Nulli jumped at a sound, for every instance his mate looked over her shoulder, for every moment they spent apart in the hospital, he’d make the human pay. Flagston had done more damage than she realized. She’d awakened a part of him he didn’t know existed. Something wild. Primal. Dangerous.

“Of course!” Flagston cowered against the doors, cradling her injured hand against her chest. “Whatever you want. I’ll leave town. The state. Hell, I’ll even leave the country if you want!”

Brian shook his head and reached for her. “Not good enough. See, I don’t trust you, so there’s only one way to be certain.” He wrapped his fingers around her neck. She tugged at his wrist as tears sprang to her eyes.

“You’re not a killer, Arcady. I’ve watched you long enough to know that.”

“I wasn’t.” Brian tightened his grip on her neck. His claws pierced the fragile skin. She struggled in his grasp as she realized she couldn’t talk her way out of this. “Until you made me one.”

He watched the life fade from her eyes as his fingers tightened on her throat. Blood poured over his claws to stain the floor. His chest heaved. A cold chill washed over his body. He tossed the body aside with a snarl. She lay in a crumpled heap. Her hair obscured her face. The jagged wounds he’d caused. The blood. It couldn’t cover the smell, though. He backed away, eyes locked on her still body. He strained to hear her heartbeat, but couldn’t over his own as it pounded in his ears. His stomach roiled. He had to get out of there. Scrambling from the van, Brian avoided the Wardens’ questions. He needed air. He needed to clear his nose of the scent of blood dripping out the back doors. He collapsed to his knees on a grassy lawn and lost the contents of his stomach.

A furred head butted against his hand with a purr. He looked up and into the golden eyes of his mate. With a choked cry, he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in the fur on her back. Roberts was talking to someone behind them. The other Wardens stepped from the shadows to surround the van. There were sirens in the distance. He ignored them all, clinging to his mate and inhaling her wonderful scent.

Nulli pawed at his hand. When he loosened his hold, she took a step towards their house. She looked over her shoulder and mewled. He rose to his feet and glanced over his shoulder. Killian and Dr. Roberts were talking with the Wardens. The bear shifter caught his eye and motioned for them to leave. His eyes drifted towards the van before returning to his friend. He nodded his thanks and followed his mate home.

The Wardens had been busy in their absence. The bodies were gone from the patio, along with the surviving mercenary. The patio door was boarded over with a sheet of plywood. Inside had also been cleaned of bodies and blood. They’d swept away the broken glass, scrubbed the walls until only a faint whiff of tear gas remained, and patched the broken bedroom window with plastic sheeting and duct tape.

Nulli nudged him towards the shower, shifting back to human form once the bathroom door closed behind them. He melted into her embrace, wrapping his arms around her waist and grounding himself with her scent.

She inhaled near his neck and hissed out a breath. “Let’s get you in the shower and scrub you down. That gas stings.”

He let her help remove the borrowed sweat pants. His eyes followed her every movement, as if afraid she would suddenly disappear if he looked away. Or run. Or get taken. He felt detached from it all, like he was watching from somewhere outside his body. When she stepped into the shower, he followed. She adjusted the spray just how he liked it, and helped him scrub every inch.

The burning stopped, his vision cleared completely, but he hardly noticed. He went through the motions, but his thoughts were elsewhere. The events of the night played through his memories like a psychotic slideshow he couldn’t escape. He remembered with perfect clarity the sound the glass made as it dropped onto the floor, the hiss of the cannister that emitted the tear gas. He remembered the coughs that shook his mate’s body, her pained hisses, her agonized growls. He remembered the way time seemed to freeze when he stared down the barrel of a gun, then the way it rushed forward on terrified legs.

Nulli’s arms wrapped around him. Her warm body kept him from sinking to the floor as more memories assaulted him. Killian throwing the soldier down the stairs like so much garbage. Brian holding him against the wall. His claws slashing his throat. Andrea’s smug certainty in her ability to get away with it all. Her fear. Her blood. Her death. His shoulders shook. The water washed away the gas, the soap, and the tears. Through it all, Nulli never let go. She rubbed his back, kissed his chest and neck, and held him.

“Are you okay, kitten?” His voice was hoarse and muffled against her neck. He was reluctant to let her go for even a second.

“I’m fine.” She nuzzled into him even more, held him tighter, and exhaled a slow breath. “Are you all right?”

“I don’t know.” He placed a soft kiss to her neck. His hand trembled on her back. “I killed tonight, Nulli. Two humans. I don’t know what to think about that.”

She didn’t flinch, didn’t pull away. She kept right on holding him and never stopped running her fingers up and down his back. “I’m glad you’re still with me, Brian. We can get through the rest together.”

“I didn’t even think. I just wanted them to leave us alone. To stop hunting us and hurting us. When I had the chance, I did it without hesitation.” He pulled her closer, taking deep, gulping breaths to stop the tears that wanted to flow. “God help me, I’d do it again, kitten. I’d do it if it meant they couldn’t hurt you again.”

“Shh.” Nulli tilted her head up and met his gaze. She didn’t speak at first, and when she placed a light kiss on the corner of his mouth, he closed his eyes. “You never know what can happen until you find yourself in the situation. It’s all over now. They can’t hurt us anymore.”

“Can we go to bed? I just want to hold you. We can deal with the rest of the crap tomorrow. Tonight, I need to know you’re okay.”

“Okay. We can do that, but I’m all right, Brian. I promise."

"Thank you, kitten." He pulled back and brushed his lips over hers. As they rinsed away the last of the soap, the doorbell rang. He tensed, a low growl forming in his chest. Stepping from the shower, he wrapped a towel around his waist. His claws and fangs lengthened. Fur formed along his arms and chest. “Stay alert.”

Nulli scrambled to throw on a pair of shorts and a top. “I don’t think PSI Tech would ring the doorbell, Brian.”

“Nothing would surprise me at this point.”

He crept down the stairs, avoiding the one that squeaked. Taking a detour into the kitchen, he grabbed a large carving knife from the block by the stove. He peered through the peephole in the door. His shoulders sagged. He placed the knife on a nearby shelf before unlocking the door.

“Mr. Arcady? I’m Officer Schweitzer. I just need to verify a few details for the reports.”

“Sure. Come on in.” Brian opened the door with his heart thudding in his chest. What did the police need from him? A signed confession? He reached for Nulli’s hand. She twined their fingers together.

Schweitzer sat and pulled out a small notebook. “Just a few questions then I can let you folks get a bit of rest before tackling the rest of the cleanup. You notified the Wardens of Flagston’s involvement with PSI Tech after an automobile accident. Was that the first time you had encountered her?”

“How do you know about the Wardens?” Nulli spoke up, a slight growl to her voice. “You’re human.”

“Yes, ma’am, but my partner’s not. I joined the Wardens right out of the academy to help keep him safe.” The officer pulled a photograph from his wallet. It was a typical beach shot of a happy couple, sleek and tanned, a drink in each hand.

Brian returned the picture, relaxing a bit more. “You look good together. My dad told me there were sympathetic humans who worked with the Wardens. I didn’t know any had joined, though.”

“I’m one of a few test cases.”

“Okay.” Nulli relaxed against his side. “I’d met Flagston a few weeks ago at the gym where I work. Things escalated quickly after that.”

“Yeah, these groups are quick to move once they pick a target. Bunch of vultures.” The officer shook his head and sighed. “Okay, your very large, very inappropriate friend has possession of the PSI Tech computers from the van. He said he could even recover stuff that had been deleted. But damn, he comes on stronger than a drunk hooker.”

Nulli rolled her eyes. “That bear is out of control.”

Brian chuckled. “And you say I have no filter, mate. If his dick is interested, he goes for it. It’s a good thing he’s a big guy, else he’d get his ass kicked on a regular basis. I don’t see how Melody puts up with him.”

“Or survives him.” Nulli snorted, shaking her head.

“No kidding!” The cop glanced over his shoulder like he expected the larger man to burst in and resume his advances. “I thought I was going to have to taser him! I think half the Wardens are ready to bite him.”

His mate’s light laughter lowered his tension. “He’d probably like that.” She shook her head. “I remember the first time I met him. He’s a lot to take in.”

“In more ways than one.” The officer grinned. “Now, last thing, then I’ll go. Other than the Wardens, is there anyone else who is aware of PSI Tech’s involvement in the testing of shifters?”

“My mother, Margaret Arcady.” Brian caressed the back of Nulli’s hand where it rested on his knee. Her skin was so smooth, it soothed him to simply stroke her. “Melody Kleptner, the bear’s mate.”

“The bear is mated and still tries to bang anything that breathes? Poor woman!”

“They have a very open relationship. Don’t try to understand it.” He smiled when Nulli started a low purr. “Oh! There’s also Terry. Terrance Jones. They approached him for a job, and he has been feeding us information when he could. I think that’s it, though. Nulli?”

Nulli nodded. “That’s it. I haven’t talked to anyone else about the Wardens aside from Natalia, but she’s a Warden herself.”

“Good. If you’ll give me some contact info on these folks, I’ll give the names to Dr. Roberts and let her wrap things up from her end.” The officer put away his notebook and stood. “That’s all I needed. Hopefully, things will quiet down now that the Feds have PSI Tech’s assets wrapped up.”

“Wait.” Brian squeezed Nulli’s hand then rose from the sofa. “What about what happened? I mean, the break-in and the, um, bodies?”

“Ah, yes. Damn, I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached.” He pulled a folded paper from his pocket and held it out. “Here’s the preliminary police report. You’ll need to wait a few days to get the official one, but your insurance should start processing your claim with this.”

Brian scanned the document as his thoughts raced. He hadn’t even thought of Nulli’s insurance, just the two deaths he’d caused. He ran his hand through his hair as he passed the paper to his mate. “Let me get this straight. The official report will say that we were having a party and some burglars broke the windows? That’s it?”

“That’s the official word, Mr. Arcady. The bodies will go in the morgue with a John Doe tag on them. They’ll be identified later as victims of a tragic camping accident.”


“These men were the bad guys, sir. Not you. You have a right to defend your home and your mate from intruders. Even had we written it up differently, these men were armed so you still wouldn’t face any charges. It’s only because they were killed with claws that we have to disguise how they died.”

Brian reached for Nulli and pulled her into his arms. He was shaking so badly, he needed her support. “I wasn’t expecting…” He shook his head, burying his nose in his mate’s curls.

“It’s not ‘by the book’ for the human police department, but it’s how I’m going to write it up. Anything else risks exposure.” He opened the door and put his hat on. “Again, thank you for your cooperation. Have a good day.”

The click of the door sent a shudder down his spine. “When I saw the cop at the door, I thought I was going to jail, kitten. I killed two people. Isn’t that usually what happens when you kill someone?”

Nulli held him tighter and breathed deep. "After all the crap that happened tonight, I don't know what to think. These people broke in with gas and guns. What if you didn't fight back? What if we were here alone? I'm glad Natalia and the others were here, but I'm glad you were too. I don't know what would have happened if you weren't." Her voice cracked as she spoke the last words. "You saved our lives. You didn't hesitate. If you had, we'd be at some lab or worse."

“I couldn’t let them touch you. I couldn’t lose you like my mom lost my dad.” He nuzzled aside her hair and kissed her neck. “All I could think about was protecting you. With the gas making it hard to breathe for me, I knew you had to be in agony with your ribs still broken. I was so scared they’d get to you and I would be too slow. When I got my claws on that one human, there was no way I was letting him live. If he lived, he could come back and hurt you. I objected strongly to that idea, as you can see.” He looked up from her hair with a shaky smile.

"It's going to take awhile to shake the feelings we both have about what happened, but I don't want you beating yourself up. They came into our home ready and willing to do whatever it took to take us. You protected us. I think the law would agree. I've never had to end a life before, but if I was going to, keeping you safe would be a good motivator."

He brushed a stray curl from her face, smoothing his fingers over her cheeks. His smile firmed up and he leaned in for a soft kiss. “I know. It’ll be a while, as you said, but even now I can’t think of how I could have acted any other way. You’re mine, kitten. I’m a tad possessive.” He nibbled at her bottom lip. “Now, are you awake enough to start cleaning up or did you want to rest some more?”

A low groan rumbled in her throat as she rolled her eyes. "This is going to take forever."

“Yeah. We’re going to have to scrub the walls upstairs. Even though the Wardens did a decent job, I can still smell that gas.”

"I really wish I could just hire someone, leave, and come back to things being the way they were. Guess that's not possible, huh?"

“I don’t see why not. We could at least get estimates.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “Anything for my kitten. I’m just so damn happy you’re okay, I’d agree to most anything.”

"Well, kind of hard to explain what happened to a cleaning company." Nulli paused and scrunched her nose. "Do we even know how to clean tear gas? I think the windows are covered by homeowners insurance. If the police report is accepted, that is."

“I have no clue how to clean tear gas. I’m sure we could Google it. You can find out everything else in the world, why not that?” He backed up, pulling her along until he bumped into the sofa. Sitting, he pulled her onto his lap and buried his nose in her hair with a soft purr. “We could also ask the doctor if she knows of any shifter companies who contract with the Wardens. They’ve probably run into this sort of thing before.”

Nulli smiled and returned his purr with one of her own. “That sounds like a plan. I’m sure she’ll stop by before she leaves. If there weren’t any new asses to sniff, Killian would already be back.”

Brian chuckled and nipped her neck. “Behave. That bear may have saved our ass tonight, sweetheart. Although…” His purr shifted to a low growl. “He was a bit too close to you when you were naked. And he was naked. I’m not too thrilled with that part. Lecherous bear better keep his damn hands to himself.”

“I don’t think he had a chance to see everything. I shifted and walked out of the dress.” She closed her eyes tight and shook her head. “God, he saw me in the dress. Quick, kiss me or something before I die of embarrassment.”

“Now that is an idea I can support with enthusiasm.” He nibbled his way along her jaw then up to her lips. He sucked her bottom lip into his mouth, lapped at it with his tongue, then scraped it with a fang. Releasing it, he traced her lips with his tongue before delving inside her mouth. God, she tasted like honey and ambrosia and all things wonderful. Purring, he pulled her closer, tangling his hand in her riot of curls. When he finally came up for air, they were both breathing heavily and all thoughts of their ursine friend had fled.

After a few quick breaths, Nulli pinched his ear. “Easy, kitty. You know our guests will be back.”

He groaned, leaning his head back onto the cushion. “Can’t we tell them to go flush their heads? This is much more therapeutic.”

Nulli raised an eyebrow and rolled her eyes. “Do you really think Killian would leave if he thought he might get to watch, or listen in?”

“You have a point. Damned perverted bear. Why are we friends again?”

“That’s a loaded question, kitty.” Not a hint of malice bled into her tone, and given the context, he was grateful for that. “So, you try and calm that cock of yours down, and I’ll try to keep my hips still until they’re all gone. Deal?” She leaned up and flashed her fangs. “And if you’re good, I won’t be later.”

“You are making it very hard to be good, mate.” He grabbed her hips and held them still. “I think it’s my turn to be bad. I had all the fun last time. It’s time to spoil you silly.”

“Really?” Killian’s booming voice echoed in the small room as the door cracked against the wall. “I want to watch! Didn’t see near enough of that sexy, bendy body when she went all furry on me. Damn, Nulli, you couldn’t have taken the dress off first?”

Nulli scooted out from under him and glared at Killian. “You still don’t have any clothes on bear.”

“Nope!” He flexed with a grin, showing off a pair of giant… fangs. “On my way to get them now. I didn’t shift wearing my clothes like someone I know. Carry on. When I get back, I expect a show. I have a few bucks I can throw.” He winked and crossed the room, ducking the cushion Brian threw at him.

“I’m going to kill him.” Brian flexed his claws as he glared at Killian’s broad back. “Shred him into bitty-bits and scatter him in a pig sty.”

“He saved our asses, remember? That’s what you told me.” Nulli shrugged before her own claws appeared. “I wish he would throw money at me. I will not leave bits for the pigs.”

“I heard that!”

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