What's that, Lassie?

 The bird crooned and Max laughed, because it seemed as if it were replying. Craziness. But then it cooed again, and bit his hat and flattered off. He felt an odd sort of directive in the display, like a dog owner beckoned to an empty food bowl by their barking pet.
 "Am I really talking to a bird?" He had to wonder aloud now. "That sounds right. I haven’t exactly tried and… I mean, stranger things." It all sort of made sense: of course he had some innate ability to communicate with other animals. In every storybook, the animals were always able to talk to each other. It just made sense.
  He would later have to test this ability on the alley cat behind the office, but until then he rushed after the pigeon through the pine forest.

 If he could’ve, Brook would have laughed upon hearing the ranger’s voiced astonishment. Immediately, he thought of telling Aurelia about the interaction. She’d find it funny too, right? Or would she rather he keep to himself? Keep safe?

 Ah, but it wasn’t like he was taking much of a risk. He was in a forest, not a coffee shop. And with, of all people, a park ranger - somebody as arguably enthused about the avian species as Aurelia. Chasing after a wound cougar probably wasn’t the most risk-free of behavior, but he could fly. The ultimate defense—

 A flash of red below.

 Careening down to a low-hanging branch, Brook called out for his newfound companion.

 It wasn’t the cougar, but he supposed it’d be something of interest: the fresh carcass of a raccoon, neck broken and ravaged at its belly.

 He can’t say that he’s ever chased a bird down on foot, but it was harder than he’d imagined. There was no time to question the absurdity of it, he only had enough focus to track the pigeon and make sure his step.
 He kept up at a pace that started him up. The burn in his muscles ignited him like a waiting furnace, and he was almost completely lost to the visceral sensation by the time they’d stopped.
 The distinct smell of death in the air was accompanied by urine of a big, predatory cat. The best was gone, and the carcass cold as his spinal cord. Where? Max slipped the rifle from his shoulder and pulled back the bolt. The open chamber gaped while he felt along the stock for the leather pouch containing small, fletched darts.
 Adrenaline adding excitement and vibrato to his hushed exclamation, "Goddamn!" He was really up here, with a potentially dangerous predator somewhere nearby, guided here by a pigeon. The suggestion of danger was a familiar and yearned-for friend, and made his lips prick with helpless delight.

 As soon as the ranger came sprinting into the clearing, Brook launched from his temporary perch. He flew low to the ground, flapping around his newfound companion in a wide, possessive circle. The raccoon’s devastated remains were beginning to smell, and the metallic odor of its spilled blood and exposed bone thickened the air, overpowering the fresh forest scent with spoiling decay. At the center of it all, the ranger went about preparing his rifle—

 Rifle? To put the cat out of its misery? Shrieking in panic, Brook dove all too close to the ranger, close enough to exam the leather pouch as containing darts (sedative, surely) rather than bullets. And it was his cry that spurred the thick brush to the left of them into shaking. Slightly, slightly.

 A shift in weight. A spooked breath.

 And there amid the brambles and bark—

 Yellow eyes. Watching. Waiting.

 He’d been attacked by a bird as a kid. The creature had perched on his garage door, and swooped in and bobbed around him aggressively for a few seconds. At the time it had been alarming, even if it didn’t hurt him—as a grown man, it was no less startling.
  "Dangit." Max glared at the flash of feathers whirling around, too fast and too close to get a bead on. He lifted his arms, still holding the rifle, and ducked his head to protect himself as he backed up. Not cool, bird bro.
  Just as he was about to lose himself entirely in the distraction, his wolf’s nape flared in a crown of raised fur. He could feel the eyes on him before he could see them properly, but there they were, shining green and white in the fading light.
  His breath caught and he forgot the bird. He stared to get a sense of shape of the creature beyond in the bush. The foliage between them was sparse, making the shot possible but challenging. He’s made harder ones, and with higher risk.
  He shouldered the rifle slowly, found his shot, and was quick to squeeze the trigger. The dart shot out in a sharp burst of air, and the cat yowled with fury and fright when it was pierced. Now to hope it runs. They usually did, but this cat presumably had an arrow through its shoulder, and who was to say how cornered it felt just then?

 Fear getting the best of his beastly little heart. Brook lifted into the thick canopy overhead. If white knuckles could be conveyed through the gentle, pink leathery hook of his talons, piercing into the bark, his twig-like legs would've gleamed as brightly as bone.

 While the forest's legion of similarly-winged creatures erupted in flurries of wingbeats and screeches, Brook remained still. Remained silent and paralyzed into stone. Craning his feathered head forward, he attempted to catch sight of the wounded creature. Simultaneously, with his beady orange eyes gleaming, he tried desperately to continue monitoring the ranger.

 The rifle still nesting on his shoulder, his two-legged companion waited. But a big cat's fury feared no man, and before the sedative (if it'd even pierced beyond its thick hide) had kicked in, came the cacophonous clamor of dry leaves and sticks under furious feet.

 Another yowl, then another. Lower, longer, fiercer.

 And the cat sprung like a cobra from the bushes — with speckled sunlight catching on its raised claws.

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