Fire & Rescue Shifters Save the Cat

 

A Fire & Rescue Shifters prequel story

by Zoe Chant

Daifydd Drake had hoped that his very first call-out as a fully-qualified firefighter would be just a little bit heroic.

After all, even if he was the new guy, he was a dragon. Fireproof, powerful, able to walk through the worst inferno as though it was nothing more than a summer’s breeze. Surely a shifter of his talents would be reserved for the toughest, most dangerous emergencies.

“A cat,” he repeated, hoping that he’d somehow misunderstood. “Stuck up a tree.”

“Indeed.” Fire Commander Ash glanced down at the slip of paper on his orderly desk. “According to the dispatcher’s report, at a private retirement community just outside the city. She has been stranded for several hours, and her meows are becoming increasingly distressed. The fire service’s aid has been requested in getting her down.”

Dai searched that poker-straight face for any sign that he was being pranked, and drew a blank. Then again, he had yet to see Fire Commander Ash ever show anything resembling an actual expression.

“Er,” he said. “Do we…actually do that sort of thing?”

Ash minutely adjusted the position of the paper, aligning it parallel with the edge of the desk. “When there are no other emergencies ongoing.”

“But there could be an emergency at any moment, right?” Dai said hopefully. “Shouldn’t we keep Alpha Team here at the station in case there’s an actual, well, fire? One of the other firefighters could go instead.”

Ash’s light brown eyes met his. They were clear and calm, and Dai had a sudden intense desire to crawl under his chair and die.

“Are you perhaps implying that our human colleagues are somehow less essential than us?” Fire Commander Ash’s level, neutral tone never changed. “Because we are shifters and they are not?”

Somewhere in Dai’s soul, his dragon whimpered and rolled over to show its throat. “No, sir.”

“Good.” Ash looked down, and Dai started breathing again. “And as a matter of fact, this particular incident requires a shifter.”

#

The first sign that this was not a typical retirement community was the kangaroo.

Dai landed on the lawn a little way off, folding his wings. The kangaroo carried on peacefully grazing, not so much as glancing at him. Then again, even most shifters couldn’t see dragons.

Dai cast a glance around. From the air, this had seemed to be the closest the retirement community had to a central location—a dozen or so small, cozy cottages clustered together in the enclosed, landscaped gardens.

Down here, they all looked like residential dwellings. He couldn’t see any signs indicating a main office. Nobody seemed to be around.

He looked back at the kangaroo.

Well, this is a retirement community exclusively for shifters…

Dai could make himself seen in this form if he concentrated, but people generally reacted badly to giant red dragons appearing out of nowhere. He shifted into human form instead. Thankfully, as a mythic shifter, his clothes came with him when he transformed. He tugged down his firefighter jacket and ran a hand through his windswept hair.

“Excuse me?” He cleared his throat. “Uh…”

Ma’am? Sir? He was not going to try to peer under the kangaroo’s tail to check.

“Hello?” he tried instead. “Are you a resident here?”

The kangaroo twitched an ear. It sat up on its hindlegs. At well over six feet, Dai was considerably taller than the marsupial, but somehow it still managed to look down its nose at him.

“I’m firefighter Daifydd Drake.” Having only qualified last week, it still gave Dai a warm glow in his chest to be able to introduce himself with those words. “East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.”

The kangaroo chewed in a slow, steady motion. It did not look impressed.

Dai fixed his face in an expression of polite respect. It was his very first call-out as a full crew member, after all. He was going to be professional about it.

“I’m here about the emergency call,” he said, since that sounded a lot better than I’ve come to get a cat out of a tree. “Could you perhaps point me in the direction of the main office?”

The kangaroo gazed regally at the horizon. Dai peered hopefully in that direction, and saw nothing but hedges.

“Er…” He turned back to the kangaroo. “I’m sorry, but would you mind shifting?”

From the look the kangaroo gave him, it minded very much.

Dai tried a winning smile. “I don’t want to interrupt your, uh, lunch, but I’m kind of on the clock here. This would be a lot easier if you’d take human form for a minute.”

“Young man,” said an amused female voice behind him. “Why are you talking to Hopper?”

Dai nearly jumped out of his skin. Whirling round, he found a small, white-haired woman standing a little way off with her head cocked to one side. She wore gardening gloves and a distinctly knowing smirk.

“I, uh…” Dai glanced at the kangaroo. “It’s…not a shifter?”

“Of course not. It’s Talullah’s pet.” The woman added, as though this would explain everything, “She was in movies, you see.”

Dai did not see.

“I’m Lyla Marshal, the head custodian of Green Acres Retirement Village,” the woman continued. She looked him up and down, and raised an eyebrow. “Now, are you actually a firefighter, or have the ladies managed to sneak in another stripper?”

Another stripper?

“Yes. I mean, no!” He could feel his ears burning. “Uh, that is, I’m a real firefighter. Definitely. Yes. Dai Drake, ma’am. East Sussex Fire and Rescue. I’m here about the, uh, cat?”

Lyla gave him a reproving look. “That’s Ms. Cat to you, young man. Just because she’s forgotten how to turn human doesn’t make her any less of a person.”

“Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t mean any disrespect.”

Lyla hmphed. She subjected him to a long, lingering assessment that made his face heat even further. “You seem a little under equipped, Dai.”

Was he being pranked? Dai was very definitely starting to feel that someone must be surreptitiously filming this.

Lyra gave him a pitying look. “Young man, if you go any redder, we’ll be able to plant you on the corner and use you as a stop sign. I meant, under equipped for rescuing Ms. Cat. I was expecting them to at least send someone with a ladder. From past experience, I also highly recommend a long-handled net and full body armor.”

Dai drew himself up to his full height, gathering the shredded remains of his dignity as best he could. “I’m a dragon, ma’am. I think I can get a cat out of a tree.”

#

“Let me make sure I fully understand this,” Chase said, grinning from ear-to-ear. “You—a full grown male red dragon in the prime of life—couldn’t handle one frail, elderly, confused cat shifter.”

“Shut up,” Dai muttered, glaring at him through his fixed, professional expression. “We’re in public.”

Chase cast a glance at their audience. By now, they’d attracted quite a crowd. This was clearly the most entertainment Green Acres had seen in years. One group of ladies had set out deckchairs, and settled in with expressions of avid interest.

Chase gave the onlookers a cheery wave, and turned back to Dai, still grinning. “Never fear, o dragon in distress. You’re no longer alone in this terrible ordeal. We have come to rescue you. We’re a team, after all. A band of brothers.”

Dai had a very brotherly urge to punch Chase’s smirking face.

Still, they were a team. The two of them had gone through training together, and joined the squad at the same time. And Dai did genuinely like the exuberant pegasus shifter…especially since most of the time, Chase made him look like the reliable, responsible one.

He sighed. “Just remember how much I’ve covered for you during training, when you’re making your report.”

Chase gave him a wounded look. “Are you suggesting that I should fail to relate every last detail back to our glorious and illustrious Commander? I am shocked. Truly shocked.”

“All right, stop ribbing the poor man,” Griff said tolerantly, appearing from round the fire truck. “Don’t fret, Dai. Even the most routine call-out sometimes goes sideways. You did the right thing, calling for backup.”

Griff’s warm, understanding tone just made Dai feel worse. No matter the emergency, Griff was always warm and understanding. He only had a few years’ seniority on Dai and Chase, but he had a natural aura of leadership.

Dai would have assumed that was due to Griff’s alpha lion…if that had been possible.

The first time they’d met, Griff had explained—in a simple, matter-of-fact way—that he was unable to shift. It had been clear that he didn’t want any pity. Griff’s disability had only increased Dai’s respect for the Scotsman. He desperately wanted to impress him.

Which did not, unfortunately, seem likely in the near future.

Griff flashed him a sidelong look that suggested he knew only too well what thoughts were going through Dai’s head. He gave Dai a kind of consolatory thump on the shoulder—the gesture somewhere between a friendly shove and a reassuring pat—before turning back to the truck.

“Come on, lads,” he said, starting to undo the clips holding the ladder to the side. “Let’s get to work. The poor old lass must be frightened, stuck all the way up there.”

“You haven’t met her yet,” Dai muttered. “That is not a meek little old lady.”

He’d thought it would be so simple. Shift, reach up, carefully grab cat in his talons, return her to the ground, modestly wave off effusive thanks.

Ms. Cat, it turned out, violently objected to being picked up by a dragon. No matter how carefully.

Should have set fire to the tree, his dragon muttered. Still could.

Dai tightened his control over his sulking beast. Red dragons had a reputation for being impulsive and prone to feral, destructive behavior. It wasn’t entirely undeserved.

He helped Griff and Chase unhook the ladder and carry it over to the huge oak. The cat shifter had retreated to the very topmost branches. Dai couldn’t spot her at all, but Griff just gave the foliage a single swift, casual glance before pointing upward.

“There she is,” Griff said, with calm certainty. “Let’s get this ladder into position.”

“Oh my.” A lady—who had to be ninety if she was a day—wolf-whistled. “That’s some mighty big equipment you’ve got there, boys. Need some help handling it?”

Dai could feel his ears heating again, but Griff smiled. Without a word, he tipped his helmet at the giggling onlookers, then got back to work.

Between the three of them, they wrestled the ladder into position. Dai braced the base as Griff started to extend the ladder.

Someone cackled. “Ooooh. It gets longer.”

“Don’t rush, boys,” another woman called. “Take your time. Set a nice steady rhythm.”

They were literally eating popcorn. Where had that come from?

Chase stepped away from the ladder, turning to the hecklers. Dai thought that he was going to try to move them on, but the pegasus shifter gazed over their heads as though he hadn’t even noticed the audience. With an exaggerated, theatrical gesture, he wiped an arm across his forehead.

“Hard work,” he announced, apparently to no one. “Especially on a hot day.”

Dai opened his mouth to point out that it was October, but Chase was already undoing his jacket. An appreciative ooooooh rippled through the crowd.

“What are you doing?” Dai hissed.

“Public relations,” Chase muttered back out of the side of his mouth.

Letting the jacket fall to the ground, Chase ran a thumb under his uniform suspenders. He flexed, turning from side to side as though working a knot out of his back. Several ladies actually applauded.

Dai shot an appalled glance at Griff. The squad leader just grinned and shrugged.

“All right, Magic Mike, get back over here before they start trying to shove money down your trousers,” Griff said, golden eyes crinkling with amusement. “Since you’re so good with the ladies, you can go up the ladder.”

“No problem.” With a last wink at his audience, Chase swaggered back over. He smirked at Dai as he set his hands on the rungs. “Watch and learn. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

#

Dai did not say, I told you so.

“You don’t have to say it,” Chase muttered, dabbing antiseptic on his wounds. “I can hear you thinking all the way from here.”

Dai hadn’t been aware that he’d been broadcasting his guilty satisfaction. Chase, as a pegasus, was a mythical shifter like himself. They were able to contact each other telepathically, though usually it didn’t happen by accident. He struggled to get a grip on himself.

“Sorry,” he said, meaning it. “I shouldn’t smirk. We are a team, after all. And there’s still a vulnerable shifter stuck up a tree.”

“There is nothing vulnerable about that lady.” Chase winced as he swabbed at the deep parallel scratches on his cheek. “She almost had my eyes out. Are we sure she’s a cat shifter? And not, for example, actually some kind of miniature, demonic wolverine?”

Griff came down the ladder, joining them again. He at least didn’t look like he’d lost a fight with a lawnmower, but he was also noticeably lacking a cat.

“No good,” he said, shaking his head. “I tried to coax her over, but she just glared and went higher.”

“Can’t you use your alpha voice thing?” Dai asked. “Order her over?”

“I don’t want to distress her.” Griff rubbed the back of his neck. “Being compelled to do something isn’t a pleasant experience.”

“You will treat Ms. Cat with courtesy and respect, young man.” Lyla folded her arms. “We have a zero tolerance policy for alpha-holes here. Start waving your big swinging dominance around, and I’ll throw you out. And write a strong complaint to your superior.”

“I don’t use my alpha power except in dire emergency, Ms. Marshal. We’re not at that point yet.” Griff’s mouth quirked. “And to be honest, I don’t think it would even work. By now my lion is pretty convinced that I’m subordinate to her.

“Is there someone from her family that we could call to come and help calm her down?” Dai asked Lyla. “I think she’s so wary because we’re strangers. Maybe if she saw us with someone she trusts, she’d be more willing to approach us.”

Lyla’s lips tightened. “Unfortunately, no. We don’t even know if Ms. Cat has any family. She was found wandering the streets. It was only sheer luck that she was taken to an animal shelter where there’s a shifter volunteer. He recognized that she wasn’t just a stray cat, and brought her to us.”

“Poor lass,” Griff said. “And she’s never taken human form?”

“Not in all the time she’s been with us. About six months now. That’s why we call her Ms. Cat. We don’t even know her real name. Other cat shifters  have tried to talk to her, but all she could communicate was that her mate had ‘gone away’ and she needed to find him. She’s very confused and distressed by his absence.”

“No luck tracking her mate down?” Dai asked.

“No.” Lyla sighed. “And we’ve circulated Ms. Cat’s description through every shifter community in England. If her mate was still alive, he surely would have found her by now. We think he must have passed away, and the shock left poor Ms. Cat stuck in animal form. Losing a mate is a traumatic thing to happen to any shifter.”

“Yes,” Chase said, in an odd, tight voice that Dai had never heard him use before. He stared up into the tree, all traces of his usual smile gone. “It is.”

“Anyway, most of the time we’ve been able to keep her reasonably calm,” Lyla continued. “We assure her every day that we’re still looking for her mate—which is true, since if we could uncover his identity we’d find out hers as well—and usually she seems happy enough that we’re doing all that we can. But sometimes she seems to get it into her head that she should go look for him herself, and then, well…” She waved a hand at the lurking Ms. Cat. “This happens.”

“No wonder she won’t let anyone come near her.” Griff rubbed his chin. “She thinks we’re trying to stop her from finding her mate. There must be some way we can persuade her to come down.”

Shake her out, Dai’s dragon suggested, helpfully.

Dai rubbed his forehead, feeling the start of a headache coming on. “Whenever we go up the ladder, she retreats higher. Maybe…maybe if you flew up there, Chase, she might go the other way, back toward the trunk, where we could catch her?”

“I am a winged horse,” Chase said, enunciating each syllable with exaggerated precision. “What exactly do you expect me to do? Hover up there like a hummingbird? I can’t perch daintily on a branch, you know.”

“No,” Griff said slowly. “But we know someone who can.”

#

“We just called in the most powerful shifter in Europe,” Dai muttered to Chase, “to fetch a cat out of a tree.”

Chase shrugged. “Well, he doesn’t seem to mind.”

Fire Commander Ash did indeed seemed unfazed. Then again, Dai had seen Ash respond to a five-crew apartment block inferno with equal equanimity. Sometimes he wondered if Ash even had emotions.

He was currently listening with grave attention as Lyla and Griff explained the situation. If he thought the request beneath him, not the faintest sign of it showed on his face.

To Dai’s relief, Ash’s arrival had somewhat subdued the watching crowd of cheerfully lewd senior ladies. The Fire Commander was not the sort of man to attract wolf-whistles.

At least, Dai hadn’t thought he was.

Someone heaved a wistful sigh. “Now that’s a man.”

From the general murmurs of agreement, this was an unanimous opinion.

Dai squinted at Ash, trying to see what the women apparently saw. Middle-aged, sandy hair streaked with gray, deep lines around his eyes—Ash wasn’t bad-looking, he supposed, but he was hardly eye-candy.

Yet ever since Ash had arrived, none of the women had so much as glanced at the rest of the crew. They were all watching Ash with a hushed, almost reverential air. It was a far cry from their earlier ‘hen party after five bars’ attitude.

With a final solemn nod, Ash stepped back from Lyla. Fiery wings unfurled from his back, wrapping him in eye-searing light. In an instant, the man was gone.

Dai had been braced for it, yet he still flinched. That incandescent form cast no heat—Ash was always exquisitely in control of his shift form—yet Dai’s instincts screamed to drop and cover his head. As a red dragon, he was immune to all natural fire…but not the all-consuming power of the Phoenix.

The great bird soared upward, seeming unburdened by gravity. Ms. Cat hissed and scrabbled away as the Phoenix landed on a branch nearby.

The Phoenix folded its wings, feathers dimming to orange-red embers. Wisps of smoke rose where its golden talons clasped the wood.

Dai had expected Ash to advance on Ms. Cat, shooing her back toward the trunk, where Griff waited with the ladder…but the Phoenix just sat there, quiet and still.

Ms. Cat hissed again…but the sound was less angry, more hesitant. The Phoenix didn’t react. It didn’t even look at her. Its light rippled on the leaves, warm and gentle.

The cat crept forward, one paw at a time, ears slowly rising. She sidled up to Ash, her movements becoming looser, more relaxed.

Ash opened one wing. With a little mrrr, the cat nestled against the Phoenix’s side, paws tucking in. Her eyes half-lidded in contentment. Even at this distance, Dai could hear her purring.

Light flared, and Ash was a man again, Ms. Cat curled in his lap. She blinked, once, then shut her eyes again. She didn’t object as Ash carefully lifted her, cradling her in his arms. He waved Griff back, and carried her down the ladder himself.

“She is unharmed,” Ash said, holding Ms. Cat out for Lyla to take. “But tired by her ordeal, I think.”

Lyla stared from the cat to Ash, her expression confounded. “How did you do that?”

“I am the Phoenix. There is nothing I cannot burn.” Ash lifted one shoulder in the smallest of shrugs. “There was a great fog of confusion clouding her mind. Now there is not.”

Dai exchanged a glance with Chase. From the pegasus shifter’s expression, Chase didn’t understand this any better than he did. Lyla was looking equally baffled.

Griff, on the other hand, seemed to understand whatever it was Ash had done. “So she can shift now, if she chooses?”

“My fire can purify, but not restore.” Ash gazed down at the purring Ms. Cat, his eyes unreadable. “I cannot heal her mind. There are absences there beyond my power to change.”

Lyla nodded, sadness softening her face. “Her broken mate-bond.”

Ash looked up sharply. “Broken? Her mate bond is not broken.”

Lyla’s eyes widened. “But…we assumed her mate had passed away. Are you certain?”

“Very certain.” Ash’s voice dropped, roughening. “I know the feel of a dead mate bond. I assure you, this lady’s mate is very much alive.”

Chase pursed his lips thoughtfully. The pegasus shifter reached out, putting a hand on Ms. Cat’s small, striped head. She flicked her ears, but didn’t draw away.

Chase drew in a sharp breath. Delight spread across his face, his black eyes lighting up.

“He is alive,” he confirmed. His grin widened in triumph. “And I can find him.”

#

“This is the place,” Chase announced, stopping in front of a set of thick iron gates.

Dai peered through the wrought-iron bars. The building beyond was squat and drab, a brutal slab of cheap gray concrete. Narrow, dingy windows stared blindly out at the high enclosing walls. There wasn’t a sprig of greenery anywhere. The overall effect was of a prison block…despite the sign proclaiming Sunset Grove Retirement Home.

Dai repressed an uneasy shiver. “Not exactly welcoming, is it?”

“Between this and Green Acres, I know where I’d prefer to spend my senior years,” Griff agreed.

“Well, my pegasus is certain that the man we’re looking for is up in that room.” Chase gestured at one of the upper windows. “Now what?”

“Now what indeed.” Griff frowned at a rusty intercom bolted next to the gate. “We’re going to sound like raving idiots if we knock and ask if they’ve got a man here who’s lost his cat, when we don’t even know his name.”

“Dai could smash down the wall and grab the guy,” Chase suggested, with what Dai felt was far too much enthusiasm.

Dai glared at him. “Would you be serious for once?”

His friend gave him a wounded look totally at odds with the mischief sparkling in his dark eyes. “Just trying to make you feel useful.”

“I don’t think we need to leap straight to breaking, entering, and kidnapping, thank you,” Griff said dryly. “Let’s start with the police. I know some shifters on the local force. If we call them and explain the situation, I’m sure they’ll be able to find some excuse to go in there and talk to the man.”

Ash was already on his phone, speaking in a soft, low voice. He finished the call and put the device back in the holster at his belt.

“I have summoned assistance,” Ash said. “He should be here shortly.”

“Police?” Dai asked.

Ash shook his head. “Someone who I suspect will be of more use in this situation. Brief him when he arrives, and wait for my return.”

“Where are you going, Commander?” Dai asked as Ash turned away.

Ash didn’t glance back. “To scout ahead.”

“But-“ Dai started.

Too late. Ash disappeared in a swirl of fire. The Phoenix soared up from where he had been standing, arcing over the iron gates. It swooped once around the building, trailing flame, and then landed on the front steps. Shifting back to human form, Ash pushed open the door, and walked in—without even the slightest attempt at stealth.

“Uh…” Dai looked from the closing door to his colleagues. “Won’t he be spotted?”

Griff chuckled. “Not if he doesn’t want to be. Don’t look so worried, Dai. Ash has his ways. I’ve seen him walk through an entire crowd of curious mundanes without anyone so much as glancing at him.”

“But…how?”

Griff shrugged. “No idea. Never had the nerve to ask. Private kind of man, our Commander.”

“Do you know who he called?” Chase asked.

“Nope.” Griff jerked his chin in the direction of the street. ”But I think we’re all about to find out.”

A man was heading in their direction, stalking along as if the entire neighborhood had personally insulted his mother. From his bright silver hair, Dai assumed the man was elderly—until he drew closer, revealing unlined, startlingly handsome features.

The man stopped a little way off, his perfect brow knotting in a frown. His icy blue gaze swept over them.

Somewhere in Dai’s chest, his dragon stirred, rousing. To Dai’s surprise, his animal didn’t growl or bare fangs in challenge, as it usually did when sensing the presence of another powerful shifter. It just stared at the man with intense focus, as though he was a bright, glittering jewel in another dragon’s hoard. Something rare and precious…and not to be touched.

The man’s eyes narrowed a little, as though his own animal had sensed the dragon’s curious attention. He treated Dai to a lingering, suspicious stare before scanning the rest of the group. He sniffed.

“Typical,” the man said, in a cut-glass English accent that screamed generations of noble ancestors. “The man insists I sprint here as a matter of utmost urgency, and then buggers off himself. Where’s the Phoenix?”

“Off being mysterious,” Griff said, lips quirking. He held out a hand. “Griff MacCormick. And you are?”

“Hugh. Hugh Argent.” The man made no move to take Griff’s hand. “I’m a…medic.”

“A…medic?” Chase repeated, with exactly the same momentary hesitation. “Not sure I’d want to be treated by someone who seems a little unsure about his qualifications.”

Hugh glared at him. “If you want to wait for someone with a full license rather than someone who was merely top of his class for six years running of medical school before electing to leave for personal reasons, then I will cheerfully let you bleed to death.”

Chase cast an exaggerated look down at his own body. “I’m not bleeding.”

Hugh folded his arms. “Yet.”

Dai stepped forward, elbowing Chase aside before he could do any more damage. “The joker here is Chase. I’m Dai.” He hesitated, then added, “I’m a red dragon.”

“How nice for you,” Hugh replied. He didn’t offer his own animal in return. “And what exactly am I doing here? I can’t help but note that there seems to be a distinct lack of trauma victims present.”

Griff spread his hands. “Sorry. The Commander didn’t tell us why he called you. But I assume it was for a good reason. He said we should wait here until he returns.”

Hugh huffed, looking even more disgruntled. “As if I don’t have better things to do than hang around street corners with a group of firefighters.”

Nonetheless, he stayed.

They stood there in uncomfortable silence, waiting. Dai couldn’t help sneaking glances at Hugh. He was just about bursting with curiosity about the man’s animal, but he held his tongue. It was beyond rude to ask a shifter directly about their nature.

Chase caught his eye, and lifted an eyebrow. The pegasus shifter’s mental voice spoke inside Dai’s head. *Care to place a bet? Prickly, defensive, surly…I’m thinking hedgehog.*

Dai snorted, and hastily covered it with a fake sneeze as Hugh glanced at him. *We really shouldn’t be speculating about this. Especially not behind his back.*

*Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit curious.* Chase gave him a kind of telepathic poke. *I saw the way you were staring. Either you’re considerably more flexible in sexual orientation than you admit, or your dragon thinks there’s something odd about him. So does my pegasus, in fact.*

Dai noticed Hugh’s ice blue eyes flick from himself to Chase. Could he tell that they were  silently communicating? Normally only another mythic shifter would be sensitive to their telepathy…

His chain of thought was cut short by Ash returning. The Phoenix shifted back to human form, straightening his uniform shirt.

“Mr. Argent.” Ash dipped his chin, acknowledging the mysterious medic. “My thanks for your prompt arrival. I believe this situation will require your unique talents.”

Without waiting for a response, Ash pressed the intercom button. A harsh buzz vibrated from the small speaker, followed by a bored-sounding voice saying, “Yes?”

“This is Commander Ash of East Sussex Fire & Rescue,” Ash said calmly. “I am here to see Mr. Jones.”

#

“Mr. Jones?” the carer repeated, in tones of some incredulity. “You want to talk to Mr. Jones?”

“Yes.” Ash stood with his hands folded behind his back, looking perfectly composed. “On a matter of great urgency.”

The woman’s eyes flicked over them all, growing even rounder as she took in their uniforms. “Um…you do know his condition, right? The poor man suffered a massive stroke. He can only form a few words, and even those aren’t coherent.”

“Nonetheless, we need to see him.” Ash tilted his head, indicating the corridor beyond. “If you would be so kind…?”

“I think you’ve got the wrong person.” The woman shrugged, and started to lead the way. “But it’s your own time you’re wasting. And it’ll be nice for Mr. Jones to have some visitors at last.”

“No one’s come to see him?” Griff asked as they all tramped up the stairs. “No family? Friends?”

“People who end up here don’t have family or friends.” The woman knocked on a door. “Mr. Jones? Visitors to see you.”

She pushed open the door without waiting for a response, revealing a small, plain room. An elderly man lay in a narrow bed, propped up by pillows. The left side of his face hung slack, the corner of his mouth drooping in a perpetual frown.

“Minnie,” the man said, the name so badly slurred that it was barely understandable. He seemed to try to sit up, his left arm pushing at the mattress in a futile effort to move his half-paralyzed body. “Minnie?”

“No, Mr. Jones,” the woman said, in the weary tones of someone who’d had this conversation far too many times today already. “Not Minnie. Some firefighters.”

The man’s left eye was half-lidded, but his right flicked over them all. Dai was struck by the sharp, bright intelligence in that gaze…and the desperation.

“Mr. Jones.” Ash addressed the elderly man, all calm courtesy. “I am Fire Commander Ash of East Sussex Fire and Rescue. These are my associates Dai, Griff, Chase, and Hugh. We are here to talk to you about your cat.”

The carer stared at Ash. “That’s what this is about? His cat?

“Minnie,” the man repeated, even more urgently. He made a clumsy, sweeping gesture at a couple of framed pictures propped up on a small table next to his bed. “Minnie.

Ash picked up one of the pictures. Peering over the Fire Commander’s shoulder, Dai saw that it was a portrait of the elderly man—still lined and white-haired, but smiling, vigorous. A familiar tabby cat perched on his shoulder, rubbing her cheek against his with clear affection.

Ash turned the picture around, showing it to the man in the bed. “This is Minnie, sir?”

The man’s good eye widened. Apart from a spasming tremor in his left hand, he went very still.

“No, that’s Minnie.” The carer pointed at the other picture, which showed a handsome, smiling woman with grey hair and mischievous green eyes. “His wife.”

One of Ash’s eyebrows lifted. “And where is Mrs. Jones?”

“No one knows. She wasn’t at home when Mr. Jones collapsed, and nobody’s been able to contact her. Apparently she’s something of a free spirit. Gallivants off around the globe for months and months at a time.” The carer sniffed in clear disapproval. “Leaving poor Mr. Jones behind all on his own. And she hasn’t even called him, in all this time. I mean, she can’t know he had a stroke, but surely any caring wife would phone her husband at least once in six months.”

“How do you know all this?” Chase asked. He gestured at Mr. Jones. “If he can’t communicate.”

“His neighbor told us. He’s the one who found Mr. Jones after the stroke, and called the ambulance.”

Griff frowned. “Yet this neighbor didn’t know have any clue where Mrs. Jones might have gone?”

The carer shook her head. “He’s just a neighbor, not a friend. Mr. Jones lived very privately, in a little cottage out in the countryside. It was lucky his neighbor found him. It’s a nice story, actually. Mr. Jones’ cat ran to the house next door and meowed until the neighbor followed her home. It’s funny how animals know these things sometimes, isn’t it?”

“Minnie,” whispered Mr. Jones.

“Yes,” Ash said. He set the picture back down, carefully. “It is. May I ask what became of the cat?”

“Well, it got taken to the local shelter, of course. He can’t look after an animal in his condition, even if we allowed pets here.” The carer patted Mr. Jones’s hand, adopting a louder, slower voice, as though talking to a child. “I’m sure she’s with a very nice family now, Mr. Jones. Enjoying a big sunny garden and lots of attention.”

“Well, she’s not wrong,” Chase muttered. Dai kicked him.

Ash shot the two of them a brief, warning look before turning back to the carer. “Ms. Grant, we need to speak with Mr. Jones in private, please.”

The carer frowned. “I don’t think—”

“It’s fine,” Griff interrupted. He smiled at the woman, warm and trustworthy, but his golden eyes glinted. His voice dropped to a deep, powerful rumble. “You don’t mind.”

A glazed expression crossed the carer’s face. “That’s…fine?”

Leave us here.Griff took hold of her shoulders, turning her around. “You need to get back to work.”

The woman nodded, her jaw slack. “I need to get back to work.”

“These are not the droids you’re looking for,” Chase said under his breath. Dai kicked him again.

“That’s right. Off you go.” Griff steered the unresisting woman out the door. He closed it behind her, turning back to Ash. “The alpha command won’t hold long. We’ve probably only got about five minutes before she realizes she shouldn’t have left us alone and comes back to kick us out. And this time she’ll be on her guard. I won’t be able to influence her again so easily.”

Ash nodded in acknowledgement. “Then we must work quickly. Hugh?”

The white-haired man elbowed his way to the front of the group. Dai plastered himself against a wall, doing his best to give Hugh space in the tiny room.

“My name’s Hugh Argent. I’m a medic.” Hugh crouched next to the bed. He lifted a hand, not quite touching the old man. “I’m going to try to help you. Is that all right?”

Mr. Jones twitched, his mouth working as though trying to find words. He managed a convulsive nod.

Hugh seemed to brace himself. He touched the old man’s lined forehead.

Mr. Jones didn’t react, but a spasm ran down Hugh’s arm. He sucked in a sharp breath, the line of his shoulders tightening.

“Are you okay?” Dai asked.

“Fine,” Hugh snapped, though his jaw was tight with pain. “Shut up and let me work.”

Whatever he did wasn’t visible…but Mr. Jones suddenly gasped. His drooping eyelid flew open. He sat up with a great, convulsive jerk, knocking Hugh back.

Dai lunged to catch the medic. From Hugh’s outraged glare, he might as well have taken a swing at him.

“Sorry.” Dai let go, holding up his hands in apology. “Just trying to help.”

Hugh sniffed, straightening his shirt cuffs with the air of a startled cat licking its fur. “Next time, don’t. I can take care of myself.”

“And other people, apparently.” Chase stared over the medic’s shoulder, his expression astonished. “How-?”

“Now is not the time for questions,” Ash interrupted in firm tones. He was next to Mr. Jones, one hand on the elderly man’s shoulder as he tried to get out of bed. “Mr. Jones, please calm yourself. There is no need for alarm.”

Mr. Jones shoved Ash’s hand aside. “Minnie!”

He swung his legs over the side of the bed, pushing himself to his feet. He swayed, but his eyes blazed with fierce determination. He looked around at them all, proud and dignified even in bare feet and a stained nightshirt.

“Take me to Minnie,” Mr. Jones said, voice firm. “Take me to my wife.”

#

Dai grinned, watching Minnie leap into her mate’s arms. “Now that’s what I call a happy ending.”

Mr. Jones hugged the cat, cradling her in his thin arms. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you alone, I wanted to come, but I couldn’t make anyone understand…oh, Minnie, my Minnie!”

The cat purred. Her outline stretched, shimmering…and then there was a woman in Mr. Jones arms.

A very naked woman.

Dai cleared his throat, hurrying forward. Shifters were generally casual about nudity, but it was far too cold for an old lady to be standing around without a stitch of clothing.

“Uh, ma’am?” He tugged off his jacket, settling it around her shoulders. “This will keep the wind off until we can get you inside.”

Minnie only had eyes for her mate. She was still purring, a hoarse, throaty rumble in her human throat.

“Minnie says thank you,” Mr. Jones said. “She has Alzheimer’s. She often forgets how to talk out loud. Or even how to turn human.”

“That’s why your neighbor just thought your wife was away on a trip, right?” Chase asked. “You had to have an excuse for why she wasn’t around a lot.”

“I didn’t know what else to do.” Mr. Jones’s arms tightened around his mate as though he would never let go again. “All Minnie’s shifter friends that I knew had already passed away. She couldn’t remember enough to tell me how to contact anyone else who might have been able to help. And even if I’d had a way to get in touch…Minnie didn’t want me to tell anyone. She thought other shifters might insist on locking her up somewhere far away from ordinary humans, since she can’t control her shifting. We were both afraid someone would take her away from me.”

“That will not happen.” Ash turned to Lyla. “Mr. Jones is still frail after his stroke, and will require support and care. I understand that this facility is intended for shifters only, but—”

“Shifters and their mates,” Lyla interrupted. The practical woman’s eyes were suspiciously bright. “Of course they can both stay here. We have a special charity fund for cases like this, where senior shifters have fallen on hard times. They’ll never be separated again.”

“Thank you,” said Minnie suddenly. Her voice was hoarse, rasping. Joy shone in her eyes. “Thank you.”

Something flickered across Ash’s face. It was so fast that Dai wasn’t sure whether he’d just imagined it…but he could have sworn it was a smile.

“You are very welcome.” The Commander reverted to his usual crisp, businesslike tones. “Ms. Marshal, I have some paperwork that requires your signature. Then we can leave you in peace.”

“I’d like a last word with the happy couple,” Griff interjected. “Pass on some contact details, a shifter I know who works in the legal profession. Michael can help get Mr. Jones’s will set up, to stop any mistake like this happening again.”

“An excellent idea.” Ash looked at Lyla, who nodded assent. “If you would come with me, Ms. Marshal? The relevant forms are in our vehicle.”

Dai hung back with Chase and Hugh as the others headed off. The pegasus shifter gave him a wicked grin. “Some first day on the job, huh?”

“Fires are going to seem positively dull after this,” Dai said ruefully. “Still, this is exactly why I joined the service.”

Hugh gave him a skeptical look. “To reunite star-crossed lovers?”

Dai smiled. “To help people.”

“So, are you going to join our happy team?” Chase asked Hugh.

Hugh scowled at Chase. “That was a private conversation.”

Chase shrugged, looking unrepentant. “No such thing as a private conversation inside a crowded fire truck. So, are you?”

Hugh folded his arms. “I said I’d think about it.”

Dai had also overheard Ash murmuring to Hugh on the drive back to the retirement home. He would never have commented on it, though.

“You really should. We could do with someone with your talents.” Chase cocked his head to one side, regarding Hugh with bright-eyed curiosity. “What are you, anyway?”

“Raised to have good manners,” Hugh snapped. “Unlike some people, apparently.”

“Come on, don’t be shy,” Chase wheedled. “I mean, I’ve known shifters who could heal, but not like you. Give us a hint. Bird, mammal, or reptile? Four legs? Wings? Fins? Bigger than a breadbox?”

Dai elbowed Chase. “Drop it,” he muttered.

“But-” Chase started.

Dai elbowed him again, harder. “If he wanted us to know his animal, he’d tell us. Take a hint, Chase. Or I’ll tell the Commander the truth about that ‘mysterious leak’ in the station kitchen last week.”

Chase pouted, but desisted. “Fine, fine. I have to go work on our public relations now anyway. We’ll talk about this later. Over drinks! The Full Moon, eight o’clock tonight, okay? See you there!”

Without waiting for a response, he headed towards a group of senior ladies. Dai winced, recognizing them as the ones who’d been wolf-whistling the squad earlier. They seemed very happy to see Chase again.

“Sorry about him,” Dai said, turning back to Hugh. “He means well. He’s just very…very Chase.”

“So I gathered,” Hugh replied dryly. He eyed Dai for a second, with an odd expression—not quite friendly, but a good deal less guarded than before. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

Hugh shoved his hands into his pockets. “For not asking.”

“I know better than to annoy someone who might be in a position to save my life someday,” Dai said with a wry smile. “I hope you do join the team. I think you’d fit in.”

“I’ll think about it,” Hugh said again…and this time, it sounded like he actually meant it.

Griff and Ash rejoined them after a few minutes. The Fire Commander was as expressionless as always, but there was a broad, warm grin on Griff’s face.

“Time to depart, gentlemen.” Ash beckoned to Chase, calling him back over too. “Our work here is complete.”

Dai glanced back at Mr. Jones and Minnie. The mated couple were looking into each other’s eyes, communicating in the wordless way of two people who had become one over many, many years. They seemed to glow, backlit by the setting sun.

Dai sighed. Chase glanced at him, head cocking.

“What’s wrong?” his friend asked. “Aren’t you glad for them?”

“Of course I am,” Dai replied. “It’s just…I wish I had that.”

One of Griff’s eyebrows quirked. “First day on the job, and you’re dreaming about retirement already?”

“No.” Dai gestured at the couple. “I mean that. My true mate.”

Silence met his statement. Looking round, Dai saw the same expression on every face…a perfect mirror to the yearning, wistful feeling in his own chest.

“Yes,” Ash said at last, softly. “We all do.”

***

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