Eight years ago
The Portland high school only felt like it made sense when Rex had Gemma at his side. He had so much to say, so much to share, but he’d never really fit in. The only person he felt he could talk to was Gemma.
Meaning, it was going to be excruciating when Rex finally told her that he was leaving town after graduation.
The bell rang, signaling the end of third period, and Rex rushed out of trig and in the direction of Gemma’s AP English class over in Hanson Wing. The crush of students around him was hell on his wolf shifter senses, but he’d managed public school for this long—he could handle it for another two months.
As soon as Gemma’s head of dark hair came into view, Rex’s heartbeat picked up. It was a privilege to see her, a guilty pleasure, a—there was no other word for it—joy. Gemma made him joyful.
“Gems!” he called.
She looked up, and her serious brown eyes met his. Her smile made his heart feel full and empty at the same time. He was going to say goodbye to her? On purpose? Every fiber of his being fought the idea.
Do what’s best for her, not what you think is best for you, his parents had said. Make the smart choice.
The ten-minute break after third period was when all the students rushed the vending machines, hoping for sugar or carbs to get themselves through until lunch.
Gemma nudged his shoulder in greeting as they walked to the nearest machine. He breathed in her faint, natural scent that was something like strawberries. It was overlaid with the rose-scented shampoo she used. Somehow she made the combination work. Or maybe he just liked it because it was her.
“How was English?” he asked her.
“More Shakespeare. Stupid idiot Hamlet, messing with Ophelia like that. If he’d just talked to her…” She trailed off and got a concerned look on her face, the perfect arches of her eyebrows wrinkling. “Mrs. Fife’s going to post our grades at the end of the day.”
Rex touched her shoulder before quickly moving his hand away. “I bet you get an A. Fife loves you.”
“I’ll take that bet,” Gemma said. “Winner gets control of your stereo on the way home.”
He laughed. “Guess you’ll be listening to Led Zeppelin, then.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Nah, you’ll be enjoying Feist. And singing along.”
They reached the front of the line and Gemma reached into her pocket. “Oh no. I had a dollar, but I must have dropped it.”
Rex looked around, but couldn’t see anything in the crush of people.
“It could be anywhere,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. Give me a few of your Fritos, okay?”
He fed his own dollar into the vending machine, but instead of selecting his usual bag of chips, he got a Milky Way instead—Gemma’s favorite. He passed it to her.
“Wait, no,’” she said, laughing. “Totally sweet of you, Rex, but I know how hungry you get. There is no way I’m taking your food.”
It was more important that she was happy and felt good. He wanted her to be comfortable—it was in his instincts.
“I had a huge breakfast,” he said. It was a slight lie—yes, he’d had a huge breakfast, but it was the same giant breakfast he had every day to try to keep up with his rapid shifter metabolism. But Gemma didn’t need to know any of the details. She just needed to be happy and comfortable.
“Fine,” she said. “But I’m buying your snack tomorrow.”
“If you insist.” He nudged her shoulder, and she nudged him back as they escaped the press of students.
They didn’t have any other friends. Just the two of them, in their own little world, ignoring the rumors that they were a couple—they weren’t. Despite wanting her so bad he thought he’d break his dick with all that jerking off, he hadn’t touched her. Ever since his first shift into a wolf, he’d known that Gemma was special to him. But he came from a life of violence. He’d heard tales of pack wars, pride wars, clan wars, all between groups of shifters who couldn’t agree on how to share territory. And there were deaths, so many deaths, all adding up from those wars.
Too much fighting. No way he’d bring a beautiful, fragile human into the mix.
So he contented himself with friendship, keeping her close, taking care of her as much as he could.
As they walked, he saw Spencer Grey. Worse, he saw Spencer Grey see Gemma. Spencer’s gaze lingered on her curves, and he sauntered over to him and Gemma.
Shit, Spencer had never actually gotten up the nerves to approach them when they were together, although Rex had seen through a classroom window one time that Spencer and Gemma were partners on a project. He knew she talked to other students. So did he…but only when he had to.
Spencer swaggered instead of walked. He stopped in front of Gemma, forcing her and Rex to stop, too.
“Hey, Gemma,” Spencer said. His letterman’s jacket was slung over his shoulder like he was some kind of preppie in an L. L. Bean catalog.
Rex resisted the urge to sneer.
“Hey, Spence,” Gemma said.
Rex noticed that her eyes didn’t light up for Spencer like they had for Rex. The thought soothed the beast within him.
“You got any plans for prom?” Spencer asked.
Gemma looked at Rex, and her expression said everything—she wanted Rex to ask her.
It was too close to taking a step into couplehood, something Rex couldn’t risk. Now, as Spencer looked at Gemma and Gemma looked at Rex, Rex realized that he should have made some kind of alternate plan with Gemma for prom night. Like going to the planetarium in Portland, or doing…anything. Anything else. Of course, though, he’d just assumed that they’d hang out in her treehouse or in his basement, listening to music and playing board games or just watching movies together.
Because he hadn’t thought things through, now she didn’t have plans. This was Rex’s own fucking fault.
“None,” she finally said, turning back to Spencer. It wasn’t Rex’s imagination that her voice sounded disappointed.
“I was wondering if you’d go with me, then,” Spencer said, adjusting a fold on his jacket.
Like he was trying to make the moment picture-perfect. Barf.
Gemma looked back at Rex again.
Rex looked back, hoping his face was a mask of indifference. Maybe this was better. Maybe she should go. Last night, his parents had told him about another pride war in southern Oregon where an entire family was wiped out. Violence was in the nature of shapeshifters.
Gemma should take advantage of this chance to do a normal human thing and live a normal human life.
And that way, when Rex left in June, Gemma would be okay. She’d be well on her way to her normal human life, and Rex could leave the territory with an easier conscience.
When Rex didn’t say anything, Gemma turned back to Spencer again. “Sure,” she said. “That sounds like it’d be fun.”
“Great,” Spencer said. He linked arms with Gemma and pulled her ahead of Rex. “We have tons of details to discuss.”
Gemma turned around once to look at Rex as she walked away with Spencer. Rex gave her a little wave and a smile, but inside, inside he knew this was the beginning of the end, and it broke his fucking heart.
Every time the Rose King took a punch to the face, he saw Gemma in his mind. Her dark hair, held back in two french braids, her brown eyes, so dark they were almost black. Her mouth, open in laughter, and her full lower lip. She was eighteen in this vision, with her braces gone, and that quirky smile she wore right before breaking into laughter.
Now, in this cage, he took another punch. Saw her face again. Saw her eyes shift from joy at a won bet, to disappointment in his current choices.
He hadn’t seen her in eight years, yet she lived in his brain like a beautiful specter.
The dark-haired guy across from him, the Punisher, was hopped up on something. Meth or roids, probably meth. But he was a new user, not wasting away yet. His rose-cheeked face was still rounded out in health, his gaze focused, and no sores; he didn’t have the look of an addict.
Rex, or the Rose King, as everyone in the audience called him, ducked another hit. Swung his leg out to sweep the Punisher to the floor.
He wanted to quit. He wanted to go back to northern Oregon, find his girl, stay with her. Instead he was here, making a living from beating the shit out of people.
The crowd started chanting, “Rose King, Rose King,” and pounding their feet. It raised his heartbeat, made him want to shift to wolf, to howl along with them. He wouldn’t, though. Rex’s parents had often told him they hadn’t seen such good control in any other shifter. He could hold back the glow of his eyes, hold back his shift. He could even slow down his healing so that when he showed up at the gym to train tomorrow, the trainer and other fighters wouldn’t be suspicious. He had to at least look a little beat up.
The Punisher was doing his best to live up to his cliched name. Rex was doing his best to end the fight fairly, not drawing on too much of his shifter strength.
The Punisher had already jumped back up to rush Rex. Rex sidestepped but took a hit to the kidney. Trying hard to breathe through the pain, he refused to fall. If he fell, the Punisher would think he could end it, and things would get out of hand.
“Punish-ER, Punish-ER!” the crowd chanted. Fickle. Or maybe that was one side. He could hear a few voices continue to call out for the Rose King.
“Kill him! What you waiting for?”
“Take him down!”
So much violence. Rex would never understand it. He’d found a job that kept his wolf happy, one that prevented him from going absolutely fuckin’ insane with missing Gemma. A job that tenuously linked him to eastern Idaho to prevent him from going back to her.
But these people in the audience, what were they hiding from? What were they trying to escape? They must all have some reason for the bloodlust. Some reason for chanting, begging for more.
The Punisher turned for another rush, and this time Rex was waiting. He kept the same stance as before, not vulnerable, but not quite ready either, and the Punisher fell for the ruse. Green eyes narrowing, over-protruding brows lowered, the Punisher charged like a bull.
Rex swept his foot out again, but this time he followed the Punisher down to the ground and got him in the chest with his elbow. Followed it with a right hook that caused spittle to escape the Punisher’s mouth guard and spatter across the mat.
The Punisher’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he closed his lids.
“It’s a knock-out!” the ref called, raising one of Rex’s arms in the air. “The Rose King wins again!”
The people beyond the cage went wild. It was hard for Rex to see individual faces, but those he could see were shining with bloodlust and the crazed violent happiness of the win. Lots of the people here were gambling on this fight. It wasn’t a big one, but some days he thought people would probably gamble on which whether they passed more black cars or white ones on the way to work. He and Gemma used to make stupid bets like that. More than half the time, she won, and he had to do silly shit like carry her books around school for her, or buy her next smoothie when they went to the Smoothie Shack. Nothing serious, but they’d been making bets since they were seven years old and he’d tried to bet that she couldn’t beat him up the tree in her back yard.
She’d schooled him then, and she’d continued to surprise him all through high school.
Hell, he missed her.
The ref let go of his arm, and Rex exited the cage, slapping hands with the next dumbass who’d go in and fight. The matches didn’t stop, usually, until well after two in the morning, sometimes three. Lots of people wanted to fight. Lots of people wanted to see fights. Money changed hands. The audience went home and woke up with hangovers, and then the next fight night, they’d be here again. Sometimes there were multiple fights a week, and sometimes there were “specials” nights, where one guy would fight back to back with others. Rex had always said no. If he got that injured, he wouldn’t be able to hide his shifter healing.
He went through to the locker room, which was blessedly empty. He showered, changed into some street clothes, and left through the back. His trainer, Jim, always wanted Rex to stay and watch the other fights to take notes on the weaknesses and strategies of the other fighters. Rex couldn’t handle staying in the warehouse for another second, though. His wolf demanded freedom.
Nobody was around as he stepped out the back, rushed to the nearby woods, and stripped out of his clothes. He used his senses one more time to be sure he was truly alone, then he melted into the darkness and let the wolf take him.
Gemma leaned back in her desk chair and sneaked a glance down each side of the hallway. The hallway on either side of her cubicle was clear. Scooting forward, she typed Rex Johannsen into the search engine on her computer and waited.
Eight years. Once a day for eight years she’d been searching for his name. She even searched for his old hobbies, looking for chess clubs or rock bands. Maybe someday she’d find him at some kind of convention for classic rock lovers, she didn’t know. She had to keep trying, though.
Rex Johannsen brought forth the exact same results it always showed. White pages results for guys who were definitely not her Rex. She knew, because she’d hunted them all down. On a whim, she added guitar to the search because she remembered him mentioning once that he wouldn’t mind learning to play.
Nothing relevant popped up, and she sighed.
“Gemma, get over here,” her boss, Karin, called from the office. “I’ve got something I want you to see.”
Jumping guiltily in her seat, Gemma quickly closed the browser. She was supposed to be looking over press releases for local events in their city of Mountain Home. “Be right there!”
Gemma hurried the few steps over to Karin’s office. As an intern, she was at the beck and call of pretty much everyone in the news office, but Karin was the editor-in-chief and nobody argued with her.
Karin twirled a strand of red hair around one of her fingers while she stared at her computer monitor.
“What’s up?” Gemma asked.
“Someone just sent me footage of this fight near Idaho Falls. Check it out.”
As soon as Gemma crowded closer, Karin clicked on a link, and a video screen popped up on the computer. Gemma watched, her hand to her mouth in horror, as two shirtless men proceeded to kick and punch the shit out of each other.
“Um, why do you want me to see this?” Gemma asked.
Karin eyed her. “You said you wanted to investigate those rumors. Right?”
“Um, right,” Gemma squeaked. It was more that Karin had said someone should investigate the rumors about a secret fight club, and Gemma had nodded noncommittally. Karin, of course, had chosen to interpret Gemma’s response as endorsement and interest.
“Then look down here, right about…now.” Karin jabbed the screen with her finger. “Do you see that?”
Gemma leaned in closer. A guy at the bottom of the screen had a t-shirt with a logo on it. HELENE’S TOWING, it read. Gemma grinned. “You think the fights are in Helene?”
“I do. It’s the first solid lead we’ve had. Helene is close enough to Idaho Falls that people from the city could get there easily. But it’s far enough away that people wouldn’t stumble across the club accidentally. It’d be an ideal place for an underground fighting ring.”
“Cool,” Gemma said. “I mean, good work, obviously. You found yourself a clue!”
“I found you a clue,” Karin said, raising an eyebrow. “I want you to go out there and check it out.”
Inside, Gemma cringed. She wasn’t the best person to do this. She hated boxing, fighting, MMA, and whatever the hell else was out there. Watching blood and sweat and spit fly around in a cage, as well as hearing the sick thuds as flesh connected with flesh—nope. Not her style. Then again, she was the newest intern here, and she needed to keep this job until she figured out how to use her PhD in literature.
This was better than teaching a room full of students, right?
The footage of the fight was still going, but Gemma tried not to pay attention to it. Then a loud voice came over the computer speakers. “Hey! What the fuck are you doing? Are you filming this, fucker?”
She peeked through her eyelashes, and the view of the fight went shaky, then black.
“I guess it should go without saying,” Karin said, “don’t get caught as a reporter.”
Gemma smiled and nodded. “Yes, of course. I’ll head out, um…”
“Now, would be good,” Karin said helpfully.
“Right. Yes. Now.”
“I’ve already reserved your room in Helene.”
“How thoughtful of you,” Gemma said. Inside she was thinking, how controlling of you. But this was Gemma’s job. She’d do it.
“Stick to shadows when you get there,” Karin said. “Don’t do the usual, up front, yes I’m a reporter wouldn’t you like to be in the newspaper spiel, okay?”
“What? I’m never that obvious.”
Karin laughed. “Right. Just be careful, okay? Check in often and let us know each time you go out to talk to people.”
“Of course.” Gemma grabbed her things and left, thinking about what she’d need to pack. How long would she be staying? That was a dumb question. She could hear Karin say, a little less than patiently, You’ll stay as long as it takes to get the story. Their paper was fueled by investigative pieces like this.
It was a sign of trust that she was sending Gemma out, right? Gemma, the untried novice.
Or maybe—no, it couldn’t be—Gemma, the expendable intern?
She almost turned around to march back in and demand a partner to come with her, but she didn’t want to look like a chicken. She’d instead give frequent updates. And she’d write the hell out of this story.
Once in her sad little apartment, Gemma packed a few clothes, gathered her toiletry bag and laptop, and headed out to her car. Less than an hour ago, she’d been searching for her old best friend. She couldn’t go a day without wondering what he was up to. He’d probably make her some dumb bet about how much gas it would take to get her to Helene. She’d bet eight gallons, he’d bet nine. And it would be stupid, like it always was.
Thanks for reading! <3