“You gonna play, or just sit there staring at your cards all day?”
Zane Rakoff glared at the man across the table. It didn’t matter that Beau Chance was his best friend or that they had grown up together. Beau liked to fuck with him, and he was doing it at that very moment. He was stalling on purpose.
“There you go, rushing into shit again. Last time I checked, there wasn’t a time limit on playing a hand in poker,” Beau said calmly.
Zane growled the sound rumbling from the middle of his chest. “Yes, there is. It’s called the small amount of time you have before I reach across the table and break your nose.”
“Can’t we all get along?” Zane’s friend Renley commented while keeping his eyes firmly on his own cards.
“Not when fuckwad over here is wasting time just to piss me off.”
“That, my friend, is the last thing I want to do. You need to calm down and realize this is just a game. You always get riled up when we haven’t had a call in a while. Which, may I remind you, is a good thing,” Beau remarked and threw a card down on the table. “One.”
“Amen to that,” Renley said, throwing down two of his cards.
“Don’t tell me what I need to do. I’m sick of waiting around here getting fat off of stale donuts and shit coffee.”
“Don’t tell me you’re wishing for a wildfire?” Renley asked.
Zane wasn’t, of course. Being a Hot Shot firefighter in Wyoming meant that fire season sucked, and it often meant unending hours of sweat, tears, and destruction. But it was their job to battle back what nature, or some asshole with a cigarette, started.
He knew that he shouldn’t jump on his friends. These guys were more like his brothers, they were the only family he had, and he didn’t want to alienate them. Luckily, they were used to putting up with his shit on a daily basis.
“You know what, this is pissing me off. I’m gonna go punch the bag. I’m out,” he announced, throwing his cards down and standing up.
“You do that, buddy. Growl, hiss, spit, whatever, just don’t hit anyone that’s alive. You don’t want the Lieutenant to suspend you. You know he’s got it out for you.”
Zane did know that. His Lieutenant answered to Bruin, the new Citlali and Fire Chief, and he was of the mind that their transfer to his unit was unnecessary. He had his crew and he liked it the way it operated. Taking on three new recruits messed up what he had been sure was a perfect team. But the Fire Board had their reasons and Lieutenant Slade was going to have to suck it up.
Zane wasn’t sure if it was because of him and his need to buck authority or the fact they were misfits that didn’t fit back into a bearen group when they came of age. Most went back to where their fathers and grandfathers lived, assuming a loose sort of family dynamic. Zane didn’t want to go home and Beau and Ren also had their reasons for not returning home. They were transients and just wanted to do the jobs that called to them like so many others. They were firefighters and whether it was car accidents, burning buildings, or burning forests, they did their jobs well. There was no reason their Lieutenant should give a flying fuck about why they were transferred. They all did what their superiors told them to do.
But the Lieutenant didn’t suck it up. He took it out on Zane and the guys. Some would have called it honest hazing for new recruits, but they were firefighters with years of experience between them. They did their jobs, and they did them damn well. Treating them like newbies was unnecessary.
Zane didn’t mind scrubbing trucks and sorting gear. He liked knowing that when they needed to save someone that he had been the last one to make sure that everything was in working order.
Walking down the long hallway, he looked over to the parking bays that held the department’s trucks. Some were standard fire trucks and others pumpers that could hold thousands of gallons of water. There were also trucks that resembled military vehicles that could cross the rough terrain that was their battlegrounds during a wildfire.
Passing the kitchen, Zane could hear voices coming from inside. He continued past the offices and bunk rooms until he came to the open doorway of the gym. It was a room that always made his nose twitch. He scented the sweat of too many men and too much testosterone. It was the smell of old leather and body odor. To anyone else it would make them turn around and search out fresher air.
He didn’t, it made the dominant side of him rear up and want to make his sweat the only scent in the room. He wanted other males to come in and know that he had been there and was someone they didn’t want to mess with.
He knew it wasn’t rational, but Zane had never been a laid back type of guy. Growing up, he was always picking fights and getting into scrapes. Not that fighting with humans gave him the full release he needed. Zane had to hold back with them. Being big and tall, along with the strength his animal gave him - it made him lethal if he needed to be. Beau and Ren could handle him in a tussle. Even if they did break something, a quick shift would heal their injuries.
He was already wearing his blue work pants and a t-shirt that would allow him to hit the bag around. Slipping on a pair of sparring gloves, he set out to teach the hanging bag a lesson.
After expending some energy, Zane cleaned up and clocked out. He was staying at the base like Beau and Ren and their facility was out of the way, but closer to the action if it ever arose. Sleeping there made more sense than trying to find housing that could be up to forty-five minutes away. When time was of the essence, minutes could mean lives lost.
He couldn’t imagine being away from his friends. They’d been sleeping in the same room since he was seven years old. Beau was four and Ren was five when they were sent to the camps. Zane had been the head boy so to speak by the time they got there. He took the younger boys under his wing and they had never left. The time before he was sent to the camp and even some after his arrival were faded memories. Out of stress, or fear, he wasn’t sure which, but Zane remembered the day they showed up as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.
Lying in one of the oversized single beds he put his arm behind his head. Zane pulled a quarter out of his pocket and rolled it over and in between his knuckles. The coin in his hand went soft and clung to his finger, wrapping around it. Zane focused on it and the coin hardened back to its original shape. The ability to alter and manipulate metal was something he’d discovered one night when a group of older boys were threatening to pound him for talking back to one of them. They had come for him after the call for lights out and were close to landing the first blow when Zane felt his rage build at an uncontrollable rate and the next thing he knew, the bunk bed that he was hiding beside crumpled and collapsed on the boys in a groaning screech of metal.
The boys didn’t bother him much after that. He was also lucky that Beau and Ren weren’t afraid of him after the display of rage. They loved Zane’s new-found skill and thought of all the ways they could use it to their advantage.
Their bond was more than just comrades in flames. They were bearen without mates. Bearen without mothers, sisters, or grandmothers.
Twenty-five years before, the demon Khain had struck a mortal blow against all shiften, killing nearly every female they had. In one disastrous stroke, Khain had removed all of the love, laughter, and peace of an entire race and the heart of every shiften all over the world broke at the same time.
Everyone hurt, the young and the old alike. Some found solace in their family groups, banding together and finding a place to continue their lives.
Zane had been sent to a war camp where he met Beau and Renley, and after all the pain that he had been through, they were the only family he knew and loved. His father had not been able to handle his own loss and continue to raise his child. Zane barely spoke to him anymore. As he and his friends aged out of the camps, they chose a slightly different path than most of their brethren.
With only a few exceptions, bearen were almost always firefighters. It was in their nature to protect and save humans. It was what they did. There would have been a place for him and his friends in any fire station in the country.
But they wanted something different. Whether it was their fatalistic attitude about not having mates or never having the opportunity for mates that goaded their decision they never asked. They would be firefighters, like the rest of their bearen kind, but they wanted more so they trained to be Hot Shots. Jumping out of airplanes and fighting wildfires was an outlet for a lot of the rage and grief that came from losing their opportunity to find mates of their own.
After years of being alone, news had reached them that the first One True Mate had been found. And then another, and another. Mates, women, and partners were coming forward. The prophecy told by a wolven Citlali twenty-five years before had been noted but not believed. An angel that had been fighting Khain had come down and fathered half angel, half human children that had grown to become One True Mates to the shiften. They finally had a chance at a future, a chance to fight Khain and rebuild their lives.
Nobody wanted to believe it. It didn’t matter that decades had passed. All those that had lost their mates had no hope of finding new ones. But shiften like Zane had gone from no chance at a mate to at least a hope for one.
Hope was something that was new to all of them. Hope that there might be love, comfort, and that softness and community only a woman can bring. It was tempting, that hope, something that he could almost taste on his tongue. A mate.
Most shiften that feared being moonstruck would vent their emotions and pent-up energy on willing partners. It was just sex and there was a small release. But it could never fill that aching part of them that longed for their mates.
Zane took part when he had to, but it never settled the animal side of him. He loved to run as his bear, tear up a hillside, and tussle with his brothers. It was a physical release that did nothing for the pain he felt.
There was only one thing that ever settled the anger he felt inside at being alone and without a woman. It was something he hadn’t even shared with his friends. Something he couldn’t share with anyone.
Ren and Beau entered the room and both flopped dramatically down on their beds.
“We need to go out, do something. Run,” he suggested.
“Listen grumpy bear, just because you have an itch doesn’t mean the rest of us do,” Renly said.
“Well then, let’s wrestle,” Zane offered. It wasn’t something his friends were likely to take him up on, but it was worth a try.
“Hah, and get our asses chewed out again. Chief didn’t believe us that it was all in good fun when we ended up bloody and bruised last time,” Beau reminded him.
Their Chief didn’t think boxing right before fire season was a smart idea. When they heard that the first True Mates were pregnant it made their animals rear up. They wanted mates, they wanted to vent their anger at not having them. Worse, they didn’t know if they would ever have them. That was until they heard that a bearen in Serenity, Illinois had found his mate. A bearen with a mate. It was something they couldn’t even have imagined.
Bruin was their new Chief, chief of all the bearen fire divisions. His mate was also said to have the ability to return their renquas to them. Their mark from their creator that bound them to her.
Zane felt the emptiness of his missing mark. There was a faint memory of having one. He could see flashes in the faint memories of seeing it in a mirror as a child. His mind couldn’t recall the exact shape; it was like it was purposely fuzzy and lost. His father wouldn’t tell him what it was the few times he’d asked him as a child. When he hit his early teenage years, he’d stopped reaching out to his father, and they had drifted apart quickly. He didn’t even speak to his father now.
“Fine, what else do you want to do?” Zane asked.
“Sit around and wait for Bruin and his mate to get to us?” Beau offered.
“I think that might take a while. How many bearen are there in the world? How long will it take to get around to everyone?” This was something that Zane had been thinking about a lot lately. Knowing there was a way to get back their connection with Rhen, the goddess that had created all shiften, was like a chance to go home. For a shiften, the mark on their upper shoulders set them apart as Rhen’s creations. A reminder of the piece of herself she had given to them.
“Think we can go to them? Find out where they are heading next? I know that this One True Mate is the only one to give our renqua back, but the waiting is almost as bad as not having one,” Ren asked, looking to his friends. They all wanted the same thing.