Bonus Story for Babysitter Bear: Running Free
This story contains spoilers for Babysitter Bear and the rest of the Bodyguard Shifters series. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it on Amazon for free in KU!
by Zoe Chant
“So who’s going to tell me what the big secret is?” Dan asked, as he navigated the car one-handed over the ruts and twists of the forest road.
It was a gorgeous spring day. Sunlight dappled the narrow dirt road ahead of them as it went up a hill and vanished into a curtain of lacy new leaves. If they met anyone coming the other way on the road, they would have to pull off into the brush at the side, but that was unlikely this far out in the protected forest land behind Autumn Grove. Dan could see from crushed grass and disturbed ground that someone had driven here ahead of them, probably the Rugers or the Keegans, or both. He and Paula had been busy picking up Paula’s kids from their dad’s, and it had taken longer than expected.
“What secret?” Austin asked innocently from the backseat. Lissy was giggling, which wasn’t suspicious at all.
“Kids,” Paula said, but there was a bright sparkle in her eyes. She turned to smile at Dan, and briefly took his breath away at how gorgeous she was. “It’s just a family picnic.”
“Uh-huh,” Dan said, but he was grinning; he couldn’t help it.
Things were just so good right now. Paula had hired more help and cut back her hours at the diner, and she was visibly less stressed and happier. He had moved in with Paula and now commuted to his babysitting job for the Rugers. Paula’s kids divided their time between Dan and Paula’s house, and staying with their dad Terry, who seemed to be stepping up to take on his neglected parental duties in a way that made Dan reluctantly respect the guy. He doubted if he’d ever actually manage to be friends with the ex who broke Paula’s heart, but they had a respectful truce for the kids’ sake. It would be nice to see Terry find a mate someday, Dan thought; he wouldn’t mind seeing Terry get a shot at the same happiness he and Paula enjoyed.
“Oh, turn there!” Austin called from the backseat. “The picnic place is over there.”
Dan slammed on the brakes and then just stared in puzzlement at a solid curtain of brush and foliage along the road.
“That side road,” Paula clarified, pointing.
He still didn’t really see a road, but once he turned in the indicated direction, he found that the car was now on what he would more accurately have referred to as a trail. “Are you sure this doesn’t just dead-end in a swamp?” he asked dubiously.
There was more giggling from the backseat. “No, I swear, it’s a very nice picnic spot with a lovely view,” Paula said.
They were his local guides, after all, so he decided to take their word for it.
Sure enough, after a few minutes of bouncing along on a pair of ruts with branches scraping the sides of the car, he broke out of the woods into a gravel parking area that was much nicer than he would have expected for the rudimentary road that had led to it. He parked beside the Rugers’ Subaru and the Keegans’ truck. When he opened the door, the sweet tang of smoke greeted him.
“Someone’s already fired up the grill!” Paula said. “Kids,” she called as they began to pile out. “Where’s the basket? And the Tupperware? Pass them up here, please?”
“I can take something,” Dan offered. He held out his prosthetic arm, the elbow bent and locked firmly in place. “Load me up.”
“Hey, it’s the Ross-DeWitts!” a voice hollered, and Dan looked around from Lissy solemnly stacking Tupperware containers on the tough plastic of his prosthetic forearm to see Derek Ruger waving at him from the picnic area. “Turn off the grill, Ben, the good food’s here!”
“Excuse you, my grilling honor is at stake!” Ben Keegan called back.
Wings whirred, and a moment later Dan staggered as Skye, Ben and Tessa’s baby dragon shifter, landed on his shoulder and plastered her supple neck across his face. She was still spending most of her time as a dragon, though all he could see of her at the moment was a jewel-bright purple blur.
“Whoa, honey, a little too close there,” he managed as she began enthusiastically licking his ear. He was using his good hand to steady the stack of Tupperware, so he couldn’t remove her. “Uh, Paula—someone—could you—”
Paula rescued him with a long-time parent’s easy skill. Although she was used to dealing with human kids, over the last few months she’d quickly expanded her skill set to wrangle kids who turned into bear cubs, dragons, and (in the case of her own children) griffins. “Come on, Skye honey, want to see what I’ve got in the basket? I bet it smells good, huh?”
Dan set off for the picnic area with his burden and set it down on a picnic table. He turned to survey the clearing with approval. It was an open, grassy area at the top of a hill. As Paula had said, there was a beautiful view of trees and mountains. The only people here were the Keegans and Rugers, shifter families themselves.
“No one ever comes up here,” Derek said, seeing him scanning the location and guessing why. Secrecy was heavily ingrained in shifters, especially when there were several little kids who hadn’t yet learned to keep their shifting a secret yet. “It’s one of those hidden gems that not many people know about, so it’s great for a day out with the kids.”
He nodded toward the three Ruger kids. Mina was a bear cub, as had become her habit lately, rolling around and tussling on the ground with her non-shifting half-brother Sandy. The youngest, Lulu, was napping in her carrier.
“Has she shifted yet?” Dan asked as he opened some of the plastic container tops.
“Lu? No, and she might not, with her mom being human and all.” Derek snugged an arm around his mate Gaby’s waist and gave her a squeeze. “We’ll be fine with it either way. We have a matched set already—oh, hi, Paula! Need a hand with that?”
“Hey there,” Paula said. She had just showed up with the picnic basket over one arm and Skye wrapped around the other like an oversized, jewel-bright purple bracelet. “I’m fine with this,” indicating the basket, “but I sure could use some help with this.” She thrust out her arm.
“I’ve got her.” Ben’s mate Tessa arrived to unwind her daughter from Paula’s arm. “And to think when she was littler, she was so shy,” she added, laughing. “She’d barely even look at strangers—remember that, hon? Now we just about can’t keep her off people. We aren’t going to be able to have any visitors at the cabin until she learns to control her shifts … well, except the bunch of you, of course!”
“I think we’re all here, aren’t we?” Gaby asked, ducking out of Derek’s embrace, which was turning increasingly amorous. “Paula, where are your kids? They won’t want to miss this.”
“Here!” Lissy cried. She dashed up with a Tupperware container of cookies clutched in both hands. Austin followed with more sedate teenage dignity. “Where is it, do you have it, has he seen—mmph!” Her brother had reached her and, reaching around her from behind, clapped his hand over her mouth. “Nnngh!”
Dan smiled and sat at one of the picnic tables. There was clearly some secret he wasn’t in on. There had been a time in his life when he would have felt hurt and left out, but now, surrounded by the warmth and friendship and love of these people, he knew they wouldn’t do that to him. Whatever they were planning appeared to be something for him. He couldn’t imagine what they had in mind; his birthday wasn’t for months. Maybe the kids had made him a little present. If so, he was fully prepared to make the biggest fuss of his life over it.
“It’s in here.” Derek crouched down and started rummaging through the chaotic mess of coolers and boxes that always went along with a group of picnicking families who had several small children between them.
“Close your eyes!” Lissy ordered, at the same time as Sandy cried eagerly, “Close your eyes, Dan!” Mina, still bear-shaped, caught the excitement and gave a small, grunting woof.
Dan obediently closed his eyes. “Do I hold out my hands?”
“No, we’ll put it on the picnic table,” Austin said. There was some scuffling around, and a thump, while he tried to imagine what on Earth they were doing. His sense of smell was slightly stronger than a regular human’s, even when he was a man instead of a bear, but with the sharp smoke from the grill and all the many outdoor and food smells, he couldn’t pick out anything specific and unusual.
Nothing, that is, except the sweet scent of Paula’s perfume as she leaned over his shoulder and pressed a kiss to his cheek. Her arm dangled down over his chest, and he found her hand by feel and squeezed it.
“Open your eyes, love,” she whispered.
There was something lying on the picnic table, among a litter of hastily cleared Tupperware and paper plates.
He knew what it was, because he had dealt with enough of them. It was a prosthetic arm, much bigger and heavier than his own. In fact, it was massive; he’d never seen one that big. It had a vaguely military look, made out of rugged-looking black plastic and metal. The straps dangling over the end of the picnic table were enormous.
“He doesn’t know what it is,” Austin whispered to his sister.
“I do know what it is,” Dan said absently, still staring at it. Why in the world did they get him one so big? He would look ridiculous wearing it, like someone Paula’s size who suddenly acquired one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arms.
Or—was it an arm? Maybe it was a leg. It didn’t have a hand, or even a foot, just a bent paddle, like a prosthetic running leg, and—
The penny dropped, and dropped hard.
“It’s a bear leg!” Lissy exclaimed, unable to hold it in any longer. “You know, so you can run and stuff.”
Dan stared some more, then looked up at the ring of people who surrounded the picnic table, all of them beaming at him. Ben had Skye perched on his shoulder, and kids were clasping their hands or clapping in delight. Derek slapped him affectionately on the good arm, having to lean around Paula to do it.
“How in the hell did you guys do this?” Dan asked.
Lightly he touched the artificial, metal and plastic arm. Or leg, rather. He was almost afraid to touch it. Not that he thought he would break it, or even could break it; it looked nearly indestructible. It was more that it felt as if it might turn out to be a dream that would vanish if he poked too hard at it.
He’d never seen a prosthetic leg for a bear before.
“With great difficulty,” Ben said, beaming. “It was Tessa, mostly.”
“Hey!” Paula’s kids both chorused together, looking put out.
“It was the kids’ idea,” Tessa said, worming up underneath Ben’s arm. “I wasn’t even involved at first. But Derek and Ben did some calling around, and they soon found out that we weren’t going to be able to get what we wanted from a human prosthetic supply house.”
“At least without paying an arm and a leg,” Derek said. Gaby punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Ow. Okay, I deserved that.”
“So Tessa reached out to her veterinary contacts among the animal rescue people she knows,” Paula explained. Tessa ran a cat rescue.
“Yeah, turns out there’s a whole industry for this kind of thing for animals,” Derek said. “I mean, pets mostly, dogs and cats. I don’t know if anyone’s made one for a bear before.
“But the designs are out there,” Tessa picked up the thread, “so then it was just a matter of explaining what we wanted and having them make it for us.”
Dan hadn’t meant to ask, but it just spilled out. “How in the world did you pay for this?”
There was a slightly uncomfortable silence, during which Dan had a horrified fear that they were going to say they had sold something worth a lot more to all of them than a prosthetic leg. Not the diner, please not the diner …
Then Ben said, “Look, Dad’s rich, and so are my half-sister’s mom and her new mate. It’s a little embarrassing and I don’t like asking them for things, but it is what it is, and under the circumstances …”
Paula squeezed Dan around the neck, breaking the awkward moment. “Honey, I think someone wants a hug.”
The kids indeed looked like they were angling for a hug.
Dan realized that he was in some kind of shock. His emotions were a storm inside him, and when he reached out his arm and pulled in Lissy and Austin for a tight hug, he felt it threatening to break loose, especially when he felt their smaller arms hugging him tightly back. Tears stung the corners of his eyes.
A weight landed partly on his shoulder and partly on Austin’s head. It was Skye, who appeared to resent being left out of the hug.
Laughing, Tessa moved in to pull her daughter off the hug pile, and with that, the solemnity broke up into laughing and chattering and people leaning forward to touch the prosthesis and move its springy “foot” back and forth.
“You gonna try it?” Derek asked, resting a hand on Dan’s shoulder.
“I think there might be a mutiny if I don’t.”
He picked it up. Its structure was straightforward. Like the arm prosthesis he wore all the time, it had a harness of straps that would go around his shoulders as a bear and allow him to move it. It was hinged at the elbow, and below that, there was a curving ski-like paddle. He could see how its recoil would push off the ground, allowing him to run with all the speed of a normal leg.
“We’re pretty sure you can put it on as a bear, without needing hands,” Gaby said. “At least we tried to explain that’s what we wanted.”
Tessa laughed. “The key word there is ‘tried.’ It’s a hard concept to get across to your average non-shifter that we want an animal to be able to put its own harness on!”
“We told them it was for a trained circus bear,” Derek said, smirking. “I wanted to go with the cover story that it was a service bear, but for some reason Gaby seemed to think that people wouldn’t believe—mmmph.” Gaby had clapped her hand firmly over her mate’s mouth, having to stand on tiptoe to do so.
“The idea is that you’re supposed to be able to put your head through the straps and get it on like that,” Paula said. “We just couldn’t be sure it would work.”
“We tested it on Derek’s bear,” Ben said, nudging Derek as Gaby playfully let her hand slip down. “He’s bigger than you are, though—no offense—”
Dan snorted. “None taken.” Derek was an absolutely huge grizzly, to match his massive, muscular stature as a human.
“What seems to work best is if you put it on and then shift into it,” Derek said, turning serious for a change. “At least that’s what I found. We might have to tighten the straps a little for you, but once we do that, you ought’a be able to do it yourself, not needing a helper.”
There was another quick sting of tears at the corners of his eyes. They got—they all got—how important that independence was to him, and they’d taken it into account.
Before he could get embarrassingly weepy and emotional, he cleared his throat. “So let’s get this show on the road. You all want to see how fast a bear with a prosthetic leg can run?”
The kids cheered. Dan shrugged out of his arm prosthesis, a process he was so used to that it was as fast and easy as stripping out of his socks. He left it on the picnic table and carried the new one over to the big open space at the center of the picnic clearing.
“Cover your eyes, kids,” Gaby said firmly to the older kids.
There were complaining noises. Dan grinned a little and stripped quickly out of his clothes. Among shifter families, it was normal for families to be naked around each other when they shifted, but the human mates were still getting used to it.
He held up the prosthesis, figuring out which way the straps went, and then hooked it over his neck and shoulder, and inserted his stump into the too-big cup. Then he let the shift flow through him, his bear taking over.
It worked like a charm. His shoulders humped up and expanded to fill the harness, and he felt it tightening around him to a comfortable snugness. As he came down on all fours, he automatically began to move his one forepaw to his center of mass to compensate for the missing leg, as he usually did when he shifted these days. But instead he felt the artificial leg thump to the ground and take his body weight, and shifted his other leg accordingly. It was surprisingly comfortable and felt almost natural.
There was a chorus of cheers from the assembled mates and kids.
“Here, let me check the fit,” Derek said. He went to one knee beside Dan and began tugging on the straps. On his other side, Dan was aware of Austin also giving the straps an expert, tightening tug. It was clear that Austin had been actively involved in the testing, and Dan felt a warm surge of pride in the boy. Austin had taken some time to warm up to him, but things were never going to be easy between a teenage boy and his mom’s new boyfriend. Dan thought that in the long run, the early difficulties had only made them bond harder once they started to get to know each other.
Run? his bear asked plaintively.
Just a minute. Keep your fur on while I get used to this.
Dan had avoided shifting for years after losing his arm, and now that he was getting back into practice, he had developed an awkward three-legged lope to work around the missing leg. He could move pretty fast that way. But he couldn’t really stretch out and run properly.
Now he was getting eager to see if he could.
“Okay, looks good,” Derek said. He stepped back and gestured to Austin to move back too. “Give it a try.”
Dan took a cautious step, then another. It took him a little practice to get the hang of moving with it, but as he took one step after another, he found that it sprang back each time he pushed off. He didn’t really need to move the elbow much.
Short steps lengthened into long steps, and abruptly he was running.
He was dimly aware of clapping and cheers behind him, but it was washed into insignificance by sheer delight. His bear’s joy filled him, merged together with his own. His shoulders flexed, and his powerful muscles stretched in long strides.
It felt glorious.
He circled the clearing and came back around to the cheering, delighted group. Friends, mate, kids … family. Dan pushed his way into the middle so that he could nuzzle them and bump them with his shoulders, a bear’s version of affectionate hugs. Ben laughed and clapped him on the furry back. The kids wrapped their arms around him, and Paula gave his head a tender embrace and kissed him on the side of his muzzle.
“Okay, so who wants to shift and go for a run with Dan?” Derek asked the kids.
There were wild cheers, and a minute later he found himself with two half-grown griffins alongside him—Austin and Lissy, who, as mythic shifters, could shift without losing their clothes. In a thrum of wings, Skye settled on his neck.
Gaby scooped up Mina, who was making a determined chubby-legged bearline for him. “Come on, honey, you’re not quite fast enough yet.”
Sandy whispered something to Gaby, and she laughed. “If you can keep up, sweetheart.”
Sandy clapped his hands together and ran over to Dan and his shifted friends. He was the human son of Gaby and her first husband, so he would never shift, but he was a sunny-natured kid who had adapted easily to being the only human among the shifter kids. “Race you guys!”
“Don’t go all the way to the road!” Paula called after them as they dashed away. “Don’t let anyone see you!”
Through the parking lot and down the narrow trail, they ran together. Dan was startled to find that he could have easily outdistanced the kids if he had wanted to, but instead he reined in his speed a little so that he didn’t outrun them. Later he would have to find out exactly what his newly augmented body was capable of. He thought his bear would be disappointed by not being able to run all out, but instead it seemed surprised that he would think so.
Stay with cubs. Protect cubs. It only makes sense.
So they ran, Dan and the kids, with the two griffins soon pulling out ahead, and Sandy pounding gamely behind, and Skye’s small claws sunk into his pelt. He ran and ran, and he could never remember a time he had been happier.
This story is from a reader-suggested prompt at my VIP Facebook group, supplied by Cheyanne.