Sergei needed a hot shower, a rare steak, and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. It had been a long week, and there wasn’t much time for quality catnaps out in the wild.
It would be a while before any of that would happen, though. So, he indulged in a back-cracking stretch as he watched the agents he’d been training stagger off the bus.
All in all, they’d been an impressive lot, but the Furry United Coalition only hired the best shifters to be agents. All of them dedicated to protecting their own from all sorts of threats, especially the human variety. He should know, he’d been one of them, once.
The FUC agents on this trip had all been top-notch, with one notable exception. He was the last to limp off the bus. He wobbled on long, unsteady legs, thin shoulders slumped, head hanging down in dejected defeat.
“Chin up, Flavio, at least you didn’t die,” Sergei called out.
The man groaned. “Now I know why all those other birds fly south for the winter. Snow sucks.”
Flavio was a member of ASS – Avian Soaring Security. They were the bird shifter’s version of FUC, and they had to be run by feather-brained fools. Why else would they recruit their smaller, more delicate shifters to work as field agents? Prey animals had skills and abilities that could be used by FUC, ASS, and other agencies, sure. But what could a pigeon do in a fight against a wolf or a bear? Other than make serving suggestions like ‘ I’d taste best with a bit of lemon and a hint of tarragon,’ and ‘please, kill me quickly.’
Surviving in the wild wasn’t just a physical challenge, it was a mental one, and Flavio simply didn’t have what it took. Still, he wasn’t entirely to blame for his poor performance. The bird knew his limits, even if his superiors hadn’t. Why else would they send a fucking flamingo for survival training to the Canadian Rocky Mountains in late winter?
The group headed for the academy’s main building, no doubt to find hot food and a warm bed.
Sergei stood still and watched them go. As much as he wanted to join them, he had an image to uphold. He was Sergei Molotov – tiger shifter, retired FUC agent, survivalist trainer, and the star of the hit television show, Survive This! He wasn’t affected by weather, natural disasters, or anything else Mother Nature threw at him.
He lingered outside until he was alone. Well, almost alone. Despite the growing darkness and sleet, he caught a flash of movement on the obstacle course.
He hadn’t shifted to his tiger form in days. He was more than a little tempted to go furry and give chase, especially once he took a better look and realized the runner was a very shapely female. Long legs, nice ass, and the perfect amount of curves to put a bounce into more than her step. Yummy. He was a predator, after all—chasing down tasty morsels was in his DNA.
He drew in a deep breath, trying to pick out her scent. He could usually tell a lot about someone that way. Shifter type, diet, arousal level—all sorts of interesting information. Not today, though. The rain and cold ran interference. All he could be sure of was that she was healthy and female, and his eyes had told him that much already.
She had to be either a cadet or an instructor. Not that it mattered much. FUCNA, the Furry United Coalition Newbie Academy, might have rules about fraternizing between cadets and instructors, but he was a freelancer, and the sessions he ran didn’t have grades.
The lone runner flew through the first few obstacles, but she hesitated as she approached the wall she’d have to scale. That pause killed her momentum, and she didn’t even come close to succeeding.
She didn’t give up, though. As he watched, she swung around and took another run at the wall. She failed the second attempt, too, and the third, and the fourth. She had heart, he’d give her that much. What she didn’t have was a training partner. The wall was at maximum height. There was no way she’d be able to get over it without someone to give her a boost.
She crouched down to retie her shoes, and he jogged over, one hand up to shield his face from the stinging sleet. “Training partner wussed out because of the weather, huh?”
“I don’t have a training partner. I need to figure out a way to do this—.” She looked up, and her lovely face went wide-eyed with shock. “Holy hell, you’re Sergei Molotov!”
Bast be praised, she was a fan. “I am. Nice to meet you, instructor…?”
She blushed. “Me? Oh, no. I don’t teach here. I’m Tabitha Willows, I work in the library. I’m just out, uh…” she gave the wall a vague wave of her hand.
“Testing your limits, Ms. Willows?” He asked.
“Yes, exactly. And please call me Tabi. Everyone does. I have to confess, I’m a bit of a fan. I was in your lecture last week about edible plants of the tundra. Oh, and your talk on cold weather survival tactics, and um… the one about basic shelter design.”
How the hell had he missed this little beauty if she’d been to all his lectures? Some hunter he was. He held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure, Tabi. Call me Sergei. And what do you mean, you don’t have a partner?”
Her blush deepened. “Well, all the instructors work out with each other, and the cadets have regular training, of course. I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
She glowered at the wall. “And I can, apart from this stupid thing.”
“That’s because you’re not thinking outside the box.” It was one of his trademark phrases.
“Oh!” She straightened a little and gifted him with a dazzling smile. “You’re right!”
His ego and his cock both doubled in size in a matter of seconds. Icy streams. Frozen lakes. Sleeping in snowbanks… He ran through every cold memory he could recall until he got his errant ego and self-activating body parts under control.
“What do you need to get to the top of that wall?” he asked when he could think again.
“To grow six or seven inches?” she replied.
He had to discard the first three suggestions that popped into his mind when she mentioned seven inches. He’d clearly gone too long without getting laid. He cleared his throat. “I think you’re the perfect height just the way you are, so how about another idea?”
She cocked her head in thought, exposing the side of her throat. Immediately, his brain was filled with visions of nibbling on her neck, her ear, and… Whoa. He went through his entire repertoire of cold memories again, this time accompanied by music from the movie, Frozen. Let it go…
By the time he was done, Tabi had jogged off to one side of the course and vaulted the chain-link fence that bordered the training area. Beyond it was an expanse of relatively pristine forest the shifters used to stretch their legs in their other forms, safely hidden from human eyes.
“Planning on shifting and tackling the wall that way?” he asked. Not that he thought she would. FUC encouraged staff and cadets alike to use discretion and only shift when it was essential. If the good people of this town knew what the academy was really for, they’d be at the gates with pitchforks and torches faster than you could say catnip cocktails.
Of course, that was one of the main reasons FUC existed: to keep the humans clueless about their not-so-human neighbours. Everyone in the area thought this was a training ground for animal rescuers. It was a fantastic cover, though he was still stunned they’d managed to get city hall to sign off on calling it the Animal Rescue Special House of Learning. That meant that the lettering over the gate proudly declared this place to be ARSHOL. There had to be bribes involved.
“Shifting? Here? Manes and tails, no. I need to do this without cheating. So, I’m doing what you said and looking outside the box. Aha! Got it.” She pounced onto something hidden in the undergrowth with all the grace of a tiger cub attacking its own tail. One minute she was there and the next she was gone, though he could hear her well enough. “Ack! Mud!” There was a pause and then a yelp. “And thorns!”
He bit back a chuckle and went over to help. “You alright?”
She was sprawled on the ground, half-covered in dirt, muck, and dead leaves, but she had a rueful smile on her face as she looked up at him. “Me? I’m just peachy. What girl doesn’t want a free mud bath?”
“I thought the point of those was to put it on your skin, not your clothes?” He crouched at her side and started working on detangling her from the patch of blackberry vines she’d fallen into. This close, he noticed her hair was dyed several shades of deep blue and purple. He wouldn’t have pegged her as the type, but maybe the sweet little librarian had a wild streak. He caught her scent, too, and what he registered confused him. She almost smelled like an equine shifter, but everything he sensed told him she was a predator, not prey. What was she?
“I’ve got it on my skin, too. And in places not discussed in polite company.”
Fuck. At this rate, he’d be humming the entire soundtrack of that blasted movie on a loop to keep his mind out of the gutter. “Believe me when I tell you that I am not even close to polite company.”
She freed her legs from the last of the brambles and laughed. “I know. I’ve seen your show, remember? There are entire sections that are nothing but bleeps. You must have given the censors conniptions.”
“One of the many reasons the show isn’t live.” He got to his feet and offered her a hand up.
“The other being, you couldn’t risk having to shift on camera?” Her fingers closed around his, and a flash of heat passed between them. He had to resist the urge to tug her into his arms.
“That’s a big reason, yeah. It hasn’t happened often, but if it does, we destroy everything, then and there. Memory cards, recording equipment, all of it.”
“I wondered. I didn’t even realize you were a shifter until they announced you were going to lecture here.” Tabi started to brush herself off, then stopped with a disconsolate sigh. “I’m a mess.”
“You are. But since I just spent the better part of a week in the bush myself, I figure this means we match.” He’d managed a brutally cold but necessary dip in a partially frozen river this morning before they broke camp and encouraged everyone else to do the same. The thought of a bus full of unwashed shifter funk had been enough to get most of them into the water for at least a few seconds.
She turned her attention to the mountains that rose into the sky. “I haven’t made it up there yet. I bet it’s beautiful.”
“It is. It’s also still winter. Snow on the ground, ice in the rivers. Ask the agents I just brought back how cold it was.”
“Cold doesn’t bother me,” she shrugged.
“Then why haven’t you gone hiking?”
She sighed. “That’s a long story.”
“Then you can tell it to me over dinner.” He didn’t wait for her to answer. He hefted the log she’d been struggling with out of the muck, slung it over his shoulder, and started back to the obstacle course. “I like your solution to the wall, by the way. This should do the trick nicely.”
“Thanks.” She passed him at a graceful lope and vaulted the fence with ease.
He was tempted to drop his burden and chase after her. He really did love the chase, especially when the prey was pretty enough to eat. She stopped on the other side of the fence and turned for him to catch up so she could help him with the log. She carried it the rest of the way herself, a silent reminder she wanted to do this on her own. He stood back as she set up her makeshift platform, aware she hadn’t agreed to dinner with him, yet. He wasn’t going anywhere until she’d said yes. He was a patient hunter, and this was one morsel he didn’t plan on letting slip away.
What to read more? Tiger and the Unicorn releases July 14th.