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A cool breeze blew around me, and I wrapped the shawl around my chest and braced for another gust. The sun shone; the sound of water dripping off the trees, and birds singing played a symphony all around.

The earth was drenched from the storm, and the scent of fresh rain filled the air as I inhaled deeply.

Taking a step outside, I scanned the surroundings but didn’t see the bears or any sign that they were close. I listened and waited, and when all I heard was the sound of the forest waking up for a new day, I walked away from the cottage.

I didn’t realize where I was going until I was deep in the woods, and the farther away I went from the cottage, the more unsettling and wrong it all felt.

I stopped, closed my eyes, and inhaled, and I turned my head back. I wanted to be with the bears. I wanted to have them touching me, holding me… just looking at me.

And so I started walking back. I stopped, turned around again, and then told myself I had to get back to my cottage, to my animals, and to all my things. I had to figure this out without the desire and heat the bear brothers conjured in me.

I’d walked for a while, when suddenly the birds above stopped singing and flew away, squawking as if something startled them.

I stilled, looking above and watching the mass of black birds disappear before this hard silence settled all around me. The back of my neck tingled, the hairs on my arms stood on end.

I knew I wasn’t alone.

Closing my eyes and breathing out, I realized at that moment the bears were close, that they watched me—probably had been this entire time—and it made me feel a soul-settling pleasure deep in my bones.

“You’re here,” I whispered more to myself than to them. The sound of twigs cracking was close, and a second later, I felt their heat surround me.

“You think we’d let you venture off without protecting you?” Bear’s voice was right behind me, his warm breath stirring my hair.

“You think we don’t know where you are at all times?” Ursid prompted and ran his snout over the side of my neck.

I still had my eyes closed as goose bumps covered my limbs.

“We knew you’d want to go. We hoped it would be sooner rather than later.”

I opened my eyes when Bruin spoke and tipped my head back to look at him.

“Why?” I whispered.

He leaned in and moved his tongue over my lips, kissing me in the way his kind could.

“Because the sooner you realize you’re ours and that your place is with us, the sooner we can truly start our lives together, sweet Goldie.” Bruin held out his paw, and I immediately slipped my hand into his offering.

A large fur was draped over my shoulders, warming me instantly.

We said nothing as I was led forward, my hand in Bruin’s paw the entire time, Bear to my other side, and Ursid behind me.

They kept me sheltered, always protecting me.

We walked for so long that I was about to ask where we were going, when I suddenly recognized my surroundings.

They were taking me home… or to the home I thought was where I wanted to belong.

“W-Wait,” I said, and pulled myself to a stop. They came to stand in front of me, their eyes always glowing golden as they watched me. “What’s going on?” I didn’t know why I felt this panic settle within me at the thought they’d led me back here.

Did they not want me?

“Our sweet girl,” Ursid growled and came closer, cupping my cheeks in his oversized paws. “You were coming here for a reason.”

I couldn’t catch my breath as we stopped at the clearing, the same one I’d seen them in so long ago when they led me here and watched me from afar.

I could hear the animals making noises up ahead and smelled the freshness of the storm still lingering in the air. When I opened my eyes, I stared at the only place I’d known for so long. It was all so familiar, yet right now, it felt… strange.

I saw Lorna step out of the cottage, her shawl slung over her shoulders, her satchel in her hand as if she’d been waiting for me to arrive so she could leave.

She eyed the bears, and shockingly, there was no fear or surprise from her, then she settled her gaze on me. And when she gave me the tiniest smile and a nod, I exhaled a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding in.

“You finally realized what you were missing,” she murmured, turning to cluck at the chickens. Then she started humming as she walked away, presumably to her cottage.

The bears crowded around me, each one placing a paw on me as if they needed the contact as much as I did.

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