The skunk screamed, muzzle stretched into a wide gap and pink tongue curling around the single, terrified syllable.
Hector moaned, let his lashes flutter and peeked just enough to be sure she had no weapon, that he wasn’t about to be beaten or stabbed… again.
He’d chosen the walkway as his best chance of discovery and collapsed artfully across the stones only three steps from the inn door. The skunk broad hadn’t even noticed him until she’d trod right on top of his tail, pinching enough to make him groan and dragging her attention downward. She’d been lost in frantic conversation with herself before that, and Hector had cataloged her words in case they were of use later.
“Mustn’t let my mouth run wild. Have to be sensitive. Poor Millie.”
He recorded the data and let out another agonized groan.
From the tree at the end of the walk, a thundering of steps answered the skunk’s wailing. A door thumped, banged and thumped again. Hector felt a maddeningly faint flutter of warm air. He smelled the heat, the animals approaching, and behind that, the biter aroma of something overcooked.
Sinfully burnt.
“Teresa?” A lilting, feminine voice reached him next. It was both gentle and aggravated, strong as oak and as soft as a touch of satin. “Oh dear.”
Hector shifted as if the effort would be the end of him. He let his eyes flutter long enough to catch the blur of gathered faces. Squirrels mostly. A whole spectrum of huge-eyed, egg-shaped furry heads. A dancing panorama of flicking, bushy tails.
“He’s wounded.” A gruffer voice announced this, one that rumbled with dark suspicion. “There’s blood on the leaves.”
The skunk had ceased screaming. Hector caught the flash of her black and white tail and cringed. More than once, he’d tangled with her kind in a back alley. When it came to skunks, even when you won, you lost.
“Who is he?” When not screaming, the skunk broad’s voice had a purring vibrato to it.
“Trouble,” the first guy said. He’d be tricky, Hector figured. If he managed to get in the front door, this one would be his biggest challenge.
“Well we can’t leave him out here to bleed or freeze.” The first lady, the one who trilled when she spoke declared his salvation. “I suppose we’ll need to bring him in.”
“Is it safe to move him?” Another voice, one that might have been male or female.
“Better than not,” Skunky purred. “No other sensible choice, Dear Millie. Tragic, how everything falls to you.”
“Not everything.” The squirrel woman’s trill vanished.
Hector would have sworn she was irritated, ready to bite the patronizing skunk. He considered doing it for her when the same paw that had crushed his tail shifted, pulling a hank of his silvery pelt with it.
He winced for real this time, curled against the pain and felt the slice from his side in earnest. That’s right, he was wounded. Had he wrapped so much lie around the moment that he’d forgotten he really had a need, that it was his real blood darkening the leaves where he’d set his scene?
“Hello?” The skunk leaned far over him, bringing the faded musk with her, the scent that was merely a warning of what might be should he make a wrong move. She practically yelled in his face, as if her were deaf as well as bloody. “We’re going to move you inside.”
Hector answered her with a grunt and a squint that brought her into sharp focus. Pinched face, scrunched muzzle, and a roundness that said she’d never spent a day hungry in her life. He’d have stolen her purse only a day earlier. It dangled inches from his clenching paw.
For the second time in the last twenty-four hours, shame filled him. It was a new feeling, one that set a prickle beneath his pelt and made him itchy.
“Jacob,” the squirrel he deduced was Millie called out. “Help your brother with him.”
Paws shuffled. The leaves answered with a crackling song. When a warm arm slid beneath his shoulders, Hector realized just how cold he’d gotten, how swiftly the wind and the ground had numbed him. Perhaps, he really was in danger out here, freezing while his conscience experienced a second birth. While the deeds of his past caught up with him, and a new furor to be different seized him by the bones.
But it was something far more solid that held him now. Arms beneath his shoulders. Firm hands around his legs. He felt the press of warm bodies as he was carried, jerking forward and then back as his bearers fought for a rhythm.
These were a different sort of animal, something he had no experience with and therefore couldn’t accurately judge. Even the bitter skunk showed a kind edge as they shuffled forward. She lay a velvety paw against Hector’s shoulder and purred.
“Just a little farther.”
He was out of his league, and even though it had been his idea, Hector panicked. Even though his plan was working exactly as he’d wanted it to, he felt a rising terror, the sense that it was he and not these forest bumpkins who stumbled now. As if he were about to step in a trap, as if the jaws were closing tight around him.
He dared a peek, eyes widening as they passed through the door in the tree. Golden light spilled from the entrance. It made a halo, turned the animals around him into shadows. Before Hector could breathe, before he could give in to the sudden urge to struggle, they’d carried him inside.
Heat fell over him like a pile of blankets. From somewhere above, laughter tittered, echoing and bouncing around the inside of the tree. The aroma he’d only barely sensed outside filled his head, making his thoughts swirl.
Hector blinked, stared up into a ring of smiling faces, and cringed.
“I think.” He mumbled, cleared his throat and tried again. “I think someone has burned dinner.”

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