Tooth and claw

Kelby Campgrounds 
It was cold, but sunny. Cris, bundled in a familiar black hoodie with a black beanie tucked over her hair, was exerting enough to stay warm anyway.

Getting outside before it got too miserably cold felt important. The snow would start really coming down any day now, and then her time in the sunshine would sharply vanish. So now, trusty backpack on her back, she was strolling through the crisp afternoon weather.

She had very little experience climbing beyond the stupid antics of her childhood. But as she neared a large tree leaning against a rock formation, Cris felt an itch to clamber up.

Leaving her backpack at the base of the trunk, she looked up the trunk with a discerning squint, then started on the rock, clawing her way up about six feet before managing to make a stupid leap toward a lower branch of the tree.

Ending up a little short, one hand grasped at the branch, but her fingers weren't long enough to wrap around the fucking thing. So instead she simply continued to fall, ending up in some kind of very heroic three point landing.

Which was actually a pretty damn terrible way to land, and she fell back onto her butt with a grunt. Scowling, she looked to the palm of her right hand, now slightly bloodied from the clumsy grab. It felt like there was a splinter right in the fucking center after a few flexes, so shamelessly, she sucked at the skin, accidentally smearing part of her face with hand blood in the process.

She could wipe that on her sleeve in a second.

He’d been out for hours trying to find a littering culprit. Such intrusions on the sanctity of his mind were commonplace and hard to source, as human beings had vastly different territorial habits than the wildlife that composed the forest. They were just visitors here, but often acted more like marauding bandits than humble guests, and were gone before they could be tracked down.

Once again Luke had arrived too late to prevent such misfortunes, but he was there in the aftermath. The ranger started down the path back to his truck when a disturbance in the wood caught his attention. The remaining birds of the season took flight and the boughs of nearby trees shuddered in unison with each other and out of synch with the breeze.

Intrigued, Luke stopped along his course to look off to the side and note several yards down the slope was a young woman sitting on the ground with her hand pressed to her mouth. The way she was sprawled was eye-catchingly odd, and had him staring when she pulled her palm away to reveal a smear of blood.

Even more concerned now, his eyes trailed up and down the scene, trying to piece it together. Perhaps it took him too long to guess what was obvious, but at last he blurted, “Oh my god, did you fall?” Luke blundered ahead toward her, now a little more sure that’s what happened and caught between feeling worry and amusement.

One of those emotions won out over the other judging by the smile on his face that he couldn’t quite tamp down. That wasn’t the most professional approach, but his ranch jacket covered his uniform shirt and badge just enough to pass him as a regular civilian at first glance.

So dedicated to trying to slurp some sliver of tree out of her palm, she didn't hear the guy approach until it was entirely too late. Fixing him with a squinted stare, she pulled her hand away, smearing her face across one sleeve and leaving a smudge of blood at the far side of one cheek.

"Nah, just woke up from a nap," she grouched, though there was maybe some hint of a smile in her eyes.

He wasn't real tall for a man, which Cris appreciated. Anyone who didn't tower over her automatically got a few points in her book. Palms to the dirt (including the bloodied one, infections be damned), Cris pushed herself to her feet, finding one knee a hint achy. Almost like she was getting too old to fall out of fucking trees.

"Don't need rescuing."

Cris stared him down, a test, but hadn't decided to hate him or anything yet.

Her stance was stable enough to confirm he did not have reason to concern too much. The worst injury she’d accrued had been to her pride, he reasoned, because if anything was broken he’d imagined her fussing over it, ego or no. Breaking a tailbone wasn’t something you just walked off, not at least without a little huffing and groaning first.

She was all right, so he stopped feeling back about his smile and let it burst into full bloom over his face. “Oh my god, did you think you were a squirrel or something?” His eyes trailed up the tree, trying to imagine the path she’d taken and looking for some motivation as to why she would. The first several feet of the tree looked like a challenging climb, and he could only wonder what had compelled her.

His eyes were alight when they returned to her, and he shrugged his own pack off of one shoulder. “Okay but, I got a Gerber and a bottle of Jack to help out with that.” He offered and tilted his attention to her bloodied hand to suggest his meaning. As further indication, he plucked the aforementioned multitool off the outside pocket of his pack and flipped it open to expose the tips of pliers. The alcohol presumably was buried deeper in the pack.

The guy broke right into a fucking smile. She didn't have an excuse for her climbing other than that she was an adult and could do whatever she wanted. Cris scowled a bit, though as she continued, her expression changed to one of confusion.

A... Gerber? Like the baby food? Was he saying she was a baby or something? Cris was baffled, trying to find offense and succeeding some in the idea of being offered alcohol by some strange guy in the woods. But as he plucked out the multitool and pliers, she realized what was going on.

"You go around offering strangers booze and pliers?" she asked, skeptical still as she shamelessly wiped her bloodied palm on her pantleg to start.

She kept her defensive distance, and he kept his easy stability. He watched her intently from a far, his face churning from confusion to amusement over the course of her accusation. He wasn’t sure how best to respond judging by his hesitation, but Luke eventually lifted his arms in an exaggerated shrug, “I guess I do today, yeah.” The situation seemed to call for it.

He collapsed the Gerber tool in his gloved hand and returned it to his side. “I’d even offer to take a look at it, with your consent or whatever.” Because God forbid he walk up there and offer to help.

Cris, in her infinite jadedness, was wary of the guy. But she also had a splinter stuck in her fucking palm, the skin around throbbing with her heart like it might have any chance of pushing the sliver out with the sheer force of her blood pressure.

She turned away from him for a moment, taking a few steps toward her backpack and bending forward to grasp it from the grass. There were... things in there that felt important for this kind of interaction.

"You better have my fucking consent," she said, back to him, but eventually turned and approached again as she slung the bag over her shoulder, then offered out the palm of her hand.

"You a doctor?"

He frowned at her back until she turned around and the next series of words registered. Although delayed, he smiled again all the same, like she’d made some joke he’d been too slow to catch in time. "Nah." He wasn’t, but he also appeared confident enough that he needed no further explanation.

His competence in this arena, he thought, was self-evident. Her palm was offered out and he held up a finger for her to wait while he ducked his attention into his own bag, then smartly fished out a checkered sheathe of fabric and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. He wiped the end of the pliers, ran it under a carefully-tipped stream of alcohol before polishing it once more with a clean swathe of cloth.

Apparently ready, Luke lifted his attention back at her and beam, "Do I have your permission to touch your hand?"

Cris didn't appreciate the gesture to wait. She looked over her own hand, to scraped little flaps of skin, to lingering grit and the fleck of wood tucked into the skin at the very center of it all. She thumbed at it, scraping a nail against the sliver, but her efforts fail to pull the splinter free.

She spent the rest of the time watching the guy work, wondering what the fuck he'd been doing out here. Just waiting on someone to hurt themselves so he'd have something to do.

He asked for permission more officially, and she paused for just a moment, looking him over. At least he couldn't be a vampire, out in the day. She sensed no power from him, but her eyes would shift from brown to blue as she checked one last time.

A shifter touching some open wound, however tiny, would be a problem.

"Yeah," she agreed somewhat quietly, holding her hand out for him.

Yeah. He’d been making fun of her, but the solemnity he discerned in her reply took him aback. Luke blinked after her face, lingering his attention there as if she might start speaking again, before lowering his eyes to her hand up close for the first time. His lips pulled back in a sympathetic grimace, but before he get accused of pity he flashed a smile.

"Yep. That’s a splinter." A mighty one, too. She was right to regard it as an issue enough to accept help for, and he found himself respecting her—she was as tough as she was dumb, it seemed, and he felt degrees of kinship eek in between them.

Delicately he turned her hand over with his grip on her pinkie as he assessed the damage thoroughly. He did not rush to yank it out, but first tried to guess the best plan for attack.

He moved his thumb against her palm, far to the outside edge of her hand and well away from the damage, and moved his eyes up to watch her face, "That hurt?"

Cris found herself unexpectedly, deeply uncomfortable with just a stranger holding her fucking pinkie finger, and there was some humiliation in that. She kept that much to herself, of course, eyes moving down to the speckles of blood pooling on her palm.

He stated the obvious and she wrinkled her face in response, some scowl she had down real well by now. But she kept her eyes on her hand, telling herself that if he pulled anything funny, she had about eleven different stupid weapons in her backpack.

"I'm not that delicate," she groused. "Just worry about the splintered part."

"Just tryna do a good job," he grumbled in resentment. Luke bit the inside of his cheeks and forced down the next defensive line that threatened to bubble up his throat. Once the embarrassment eased, he returned to his task, though did not yield to her advice and continued to be gentle with his hold on her.

He lined the plier mouth up to the bloodied chunk of wood barely sticking out from the meat of her hand, and without pushing against her flesh with the metal, gripped the splinter tightly with the pliers. Then he did nothing else, only spoke to warn her, "All right: on three. One,"

With one motion he pulled firmly on the penetrating splinter, and held it up clasped in the pliers to inspect with a low whistle to tell her he was impressed.

It was good to see him get irritable. Cris didn't trust anyone, much less a perfectly chipper stranger in the woods with pliers in his bag. Probably to pull out teeth so they couldn't be used for dental records.

She almost laughed over that, but he was using them instead to pull what felt like a small tree from her skin. It did its best to cling, tiny jagged edges dragging on the way out. Cris grimaced, fighting the natural urge to whip her hand away.

But after a second, it was over, and she was free of his grasp and tools to lap once at the small welling of blood on her palm like an animal.

"That felt fucking gross," she said, but in a marveling sort of way.

Now would be the part where she thanked him, but instead she looked him over again.

"What's your name?"

 She took it like a champ. Luke beamed at her, apparently over his reservations already. The wiped the Gerber tool on his vest and collapsed it down to store in his pocket.

 Still in perform form, she interrogated him rather than lingering on her predicament; he smiled broader. "Luke."

 He didn’t return the request, but instead lifted the whiskey bottle from the ground that he’d stowed temporarily, and shook it gently between them to draw it to her attention. "You got any first aide supplies with saline? Cos it’ll be a bitch to rinse out with this."

 He had saline in his pack of course, but the rule of thumb in the field was that it was stupid to use one’s own medical supplies to patch up the other dude, assuming they had them.

The guy was all smiles. She found it a little disarming, if in part because she felt his approval. Cris wasn't a little bitch ready to throw a fit over a splinter.

Luke did not ask her name in return, so she didn't offer it, always happy to know more information. If she was going to give anything back, she had other info more useful than her name if he wasn't requesting it.

"Was just gunna go home and rinse it off with water," she said with a shrug, resisting the urge to wipe her hand on her pants again. Cris didn't carry saline or whatever with her.

Just a fire gun and a bunch of maybe knives.

 Of course she didn’t have basic equipment for a hike, without so much as a pathetic excuse as to why not. He sucked in a breath which exhaled in a drawn search for patience within himself. "Now just hold on," he grumbled. His level of exasperation did not reflect his occupation, as if he saw that his presence here wa a distraction rather than his actual job.

 Again his pack was sought out, but this time he pulled out a rolled cloth first aid kit. It was one kit of many, this one filled with items he might not take if he thought he’d need to survive, so while the saline bottle with the narrow nozzle tip was superfluous, he stowed it for occasions like this.

 "We’re not done," he chastised while shaking the bottle. "We’ll get you all wrapped up and clean. That way you can’t sue me when your dumb ass gets it infected."

There was a line, and he bulldozed over it. Her demeanor changed sharply, and she offered him a very practiced scowl.

"If you're going to be an asshole about it, I'd rather take my chances," she grunted, watching him make his show of shaking the bottle. Cris had little reason for her to stand here getting demeaned by some guy who had just been grinning at her a few minutes ago.

"Good luck with whatever you were doing around here, dude."

She pulled the strap of her backpack onto her other shoulder, beginning to turn to head back the way she'd came.

 As abruptly as she’d come into his life she meant to take her leave. Luke wasn’t even sure where his misstep had come, and not because he’d misinterpreted her. It was just another landmine he’d stepped on that he hadn’t expected, and not in the aftermath was meant to discern how to rearrange the pieces back together—after deciding if it was even worthwhile.

 He gave it a shot, "Huh? What?" Luke glanced over his shoulder, as if something behind him had caused her to turn tail and head out. "You ain’t even gonna give me your name?"

Nooow he cared about her name. Fucking men. It did help his case a little, but sticking around now was too much a step on her pride.

Turning to face him, but backing away with obvious intent to leave, she shrugged.

"You never asked for it!" she said, the smile on her face maybe best described as "shit eating."

 Just like that, he suddenly didn’t want her to go. It was because she was a mystery, a little jaded, and a little too-good for him, apparently. She smirked at him as if to say no hard feelings but still left his hide standing there with a dumbfounded expression.
 It wasn’t until she was well and gone from earshot that he mumbled, "God damn."

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