Gavan hadn’t changed much since Spike had last seen him. Same lank ponytail, same granite-like face, same attitude. Gavan’s family was mostly mountain lion, and his washed-out eyes held the look of a solitary hunter.
Ellison started setting up a game at the empty table farthest from Gavan, signaling he wouldn’t intrude on Gavan’s territory. Territory fights could extend even to corners of bar back rooms.
“What are you doing here, Spike?” Gavan asked. “Morrissey send you?”
Ellison bent to break the cluster of balls, and Spike shrugged. Scents changed with lies, and Gavan would smell a false denial.
“Doesn’t matter,” Gavan said, then he chuckled. “I’m entitled to my own opinions. How you been, Spike?”
Spike shrugged again, burying deep any thoughts of his new cub, but he knew Gavan would scent Jordan on him too. “Can’t complain.”
“I saw you fight last night,” Gavan said. “You’re good. You wanted to kill that bear.”
“Not could be. You did. I saw it in your eyes. You backed off because you had to. The kill would have felt good, yeah?”
“Yep.” No question. Of course Spike had wanted the kill. He was Shifter.
But Spike wasn’t as stupid as people assumed. Most Shifters and humans looked at Spike and thought, boneheaded fighter. Spike let them. Easier to keep them off guard while he figured out exactly what they were up to and what to do about it.
He’d have been stupid as hell to try to go for the kill with Cormac last night. The bear had been holding back his true strength, and Spike had known it.
Bears were stronger than all Shifters—they’d learned to temper their strength in order to live in Shiftertowns with other Shifters. They had to, or they’d crush every hand they shook.
Even in the ring, in a fight to show off skill, Cormac hadn’t wanted to accidentally kill Spike. Spike had won through strategy and opportunity, not strength.
If Spike had gone for the kill, today his grandmother would be lighting candles and planning a ceremony to send him to the Goddess. Spike wouldn’t have met Myka, who wouldn’t have taken him to Jordan.
Thank the Goddess the bear had held back.
Gavan looked at the two Lupines. “Beat it,” he said. “I want to catch up on old times with my friend.”
The Lupines looked annoyed, but Gavan out-dominated them, so they laid down their cues and strode off to the bar for more beer, pretending it was their idea.
“Let’s set ’em up, Spike. And talk.”
Ellison didn’t consider himself part of Gavan’s command. He bent over the far table and took a shot, landing two solid balls in two different holes. He set up another shot as though happy to play a solo game. Gavan said nothing, which meant he didn’t care whether Ellison heard what he had to say. Interesting.
Spike shoved balls into the plastic triangle, lining it up to the top of the table, while Gavan put away the Lupine’s cues. Spike lifted a cue from the rack, hefted it a few times, put it back, chose another.
“Your break,” Gavan said.
Spike leaned down, set his cue, and punched the cue ball hard. Balls spun wildly across the table, a striped one falling into the far corner pocket.
Gavan watched while Spike sank three more balls. Polite of the Feline to not talk while Spike concentrated on his shots.
Spike enjoyed playing pool more than he enjoyed fighting. Fighting released tension in him, a coiled snake that had to be appeased as often as possible. Sex could ease that tension a little, but fighting, even with the Collar-shock hangover, let out his pent-up aggression so he could get on with life.
Pool, on the other hand, let him think, plan, test his skill. There was something about figuring out how to make a tricky bank shot at misaligned balls, something about the spark of triumph when hearing the correct ball thunk into the correct pocket.
This game didn’t depend on strength; it depended on planning and finesse, which the jaguar wildcat inside Spike found satisfying.
He’d love to play pool with Myka, came the unexpected thought. She had the look of challenge that said she’d be interesting to play against. And if she didn’t know the game well, Spike could always teach her.
He’d lean over her to show her how to hold the cue, his lips brushing her ear while he explained what to do . . .
The memory of her scent filled his brain, as did the feeling of her fingers in his pocket when she’d pushed in the scrap of paper with her number on it.
Spike mis-stroked, catching the cue ball wrong, and the cue ball zipped right past the ball he was trying to hit.
“Distraction,” Gavan said, grunting a laugh. “Is a bitch.”
Spike straightened, upending his cue in silence. Gavan took his shot, sending a solid red ball caroming off two banks and into a pocket.
“Distraction is killing us all,” Gavan said as he lined up his next shot. “It’s taking away our instincts, depleting us.” He let fly his next shot, the balls banging together with a sound like a gunshot, a solid ball fleeing to the safety of a pocket.
Too much strength. Pool was a game of subtlety.
“I thought we were having more cubs in Shiftertowns,” Spike said. He thought about Jordan, and his heart soared.
“Oh, yeah, I’m not denying that, health-wise, Shifters are doing a lot better. In the wild, I lost a mate when she brought in my cub, who died too, and I never want to live through that again. But wearing the Collars, giving in to human rules—it’s not what Shifters do. Humans can’t kill our instincts, no matter how much they try. But they don’t need to. We’re killing those instincts ourselves.”