"There's no need." Judd caught Ben as he slipped, holding the cub more firmly against him.
"Take my advice," the healer offered, "if the kid works up the guts to apologize, let him. It'll make him feel better."
"Ben." Lara's tone tried for harshness, but it was patent that she was charmed by her tiny charge. "Let's get going."
Ben's response was to growl and bury his head against Judd's chest.
"Do you want to spend the rest of the day in the Pen?"
Judd knew the Pen to be a fenced space inside the nursery bereft of toys. As a punishment, it seemed to work very well. It did this time, too. Ben wriggled and then shifted without warning. Reacting instinctively, Judd threw a Tk shield around the entire shimmer, keeping his hands exactly where they had been before the boy began to change.
Ben's weight hit his hands a split second later and the boy twisted to hold out his arms to the healer. "Do I gotta be clean?"
Taking him, Lara planted a smacking kiss on his cheek. "Yes, you do, my little escape artist." In her embrace, Ben giggled and turned his head for another kiss.
"Lara," Judd said when the healer turned to leave.
She raised an eyebrow.
"What would've happened if I'd moved and disrupted - " He didn't want to say the words in case they had a negative impact on the child.
"Don't worry." Lara stroked one hand over Ben's head as he laid it on her shoulder. "The process isn't that easily messed up. Otherwise the Psy would've taken advantage of the weakness by now." She seemed to have forgotten she was talking to one of the same race. "An extremely big disruption can cause errors in a shift. Most can be corrected - so long as it's not a major part of the brain that's compromised."
"But to shift near someone implies a relationship of trust."
Lara smiled. "I guess Marlee must like her uncle Judd a whole lot."
"Only she likes her dad more," Ben said in a stage whisper.
"Oh, well" - Lara winked - "second's not so bad. 'Bye, Judd."
Judd found himself raising his hand in response to the wave Ben gave him over her shoulder. He was still standing there trying to process the extraordinary encounter when D'Arn passed him.
The soldier stopped, then retraced his steps. "Let me guess - a woman or a pup."
"How did you know?"
"Not much else puts that look on a man's face." He grinned. "Me and a few of the others are going out to play some training war games. Want to come? Release the tension, you know - everyone's thinking about Tim. He was no prize, but he didn't deserve to be murdered. And now this thing with the hyenas."
"Any progress there?" If he'd thought the hyenas had targeted Brenna on purpose, he would've gone hunting himself. However - and though he could find no cogent reason for that suspicion - his instincts said that Timothy's murderer was the real threat. Even revisiting the scene this morning after speaking with Sienna hadn't clarified things. He had the unwelcome sense he was missing something.
"Some. We've got a bead on the bloody scavengers, but they don't need all of us today." D'Arn shook his head in a curiously canine gesture. "Anyway, you in?"
He nodded. Brenna was safe in the den and he had no surveillance work lined up. It might be that a hard physical workout was what he needed to clear up his brain so he could connect the dots he knew were there. "Rules?"
The other man began walking. "Human form. Drew's going to hand out laser badges. A hit with a laser rifle will register from anywhere on your body and list itself as a slight injury, a debilitating one, loss of eyesight - you get the drill." He pushed open a door.
"Teams?" Judd had played similar military games both in psychic and physical terms. An Arrow who wasn't a shadow didn't survive long.
"Two." He pushed through an exit. "Psy and human/changeling."
"Psy?" Judd asked as they made their way out of the White Zone.
"If you're not Psy, you have to hit the target in the back." He scowled. "Against all the rules of normal fighting, but if a Psy sees you coming during the game, you're automatically dead. No second chances."
Judd agreed - because while Psy couldn't manipulate changeling minds without massive effort, they could kill with a single focused blow. "You have human soldiers?" He had his Psy abilities to compensate for the changelings' advantages in terms of speed, sensory input, and physical strength. Humans, by that reckoning, had nothing. "People who have mated in?"
D'Arn shook his head. "Not all. Saul's ex-navy. He mated in. But Kieran was adopted as a child. Sing-Liu you've met."
Judd had never guessed that the small female with the flat eyes of a fellow assassin was human. She moved more like the DarkRiver cats. "Martial arts?"
"Nope. Our little China Doll likes knives." D'Arn had barely gotten the words out when a knife whistled incredibly close to his ear and thunked home in a tree. Instead of going on alert, D'Arn laughed and threw up his hands. "I was kidding, honey."
Sing-Liu materialized from their right. "One of these days," she threatened, striding over, "you're going to push me too far. And then I'll have to make you eat your words."
The SnowDancer male retrieved the knife he'd dodged and held it to his side. "Promise? Will it involve kinky things with rope and knives? Please?"
Judd wondered if D'Arn had a death wish. But then Sing-Liu laughed and kissed the soldier, eyes turning from assassin to pure seductive woman. Unexpected was not the word for it.