The night air wafted in through the partially open windows in the bears' bedroom. Like most bears, Rusty and Moose kept the windows open in all but the most inclement weather, enjoying temperatures cooler than most humans did. Their were metabolisms ran at a higher temperature than their former human ones had, even when in human form. Moose turned from his back to his side and cuddled Rusty close to his furry front, his hard-on nestling into Rusty’s butt-crack as he snored gently. Rusty smiled in his sleep.
It was about two months after their weekend in the National Forest, and the weather had cycled from summer into fall and winter wouldn’t be too far behind. The nights were starting to get cold, and the days were no longer as warm as they had been. Brian was still taking Zach's place, ostensibly on a temporary basis, but Rusty and (probably more importantly) Rebekah had it firmly in mind that the job was Brian's for as long as he wished to stay. He exhibited a knack for being able to work in and around the others without ever getting in the way... a skill that was uncannily like Rebekah's own. When Zach returned, he would have his hours back, and that would give Rusty more time away from the day to day running of the cafe. Brian's work also meant that Rusty could sleep in more mornings than before, something he (and Moose) thoroughly enjoyed. The previous night, when Moose had started to set the alarm for the next morning, Rusty had stopped him, saying, “Hey! It's not a school day tomorrow, remember? I don't have to get up!”
“Oh, I'll bet you can get it up!” Moose had growled as he pushed the clock back on the nightstand and reached for his furry lover. The evening had passed in a happy blur of bearsex and love until, finally tired out, the two had fallen asleep, sprawled across their huge bed amidst the tangled sheets and pillows.
- - - - - - - -
The old bear lifted his head and sniffed the breeze again; fire. It was definitely fire, but not just wood burning. Other things... human things. The stench of plastic was particularly strong to his nose, though others might have missed it. The old bear had been sleeping peacefully, dreaming of long afternoon rambles in the late summer and of bushes filled with delectable berries, when the first thin wisps of foreign odors had reached his sensitive nose. Equipped with one of the most acute senses of smell of any land mammal, he had rapidly surfaced into full alertness. At first he had been unconcerned, because of the direction and distance of the smells. But the complex mixture of odors in the smoke contained something that shouldn't be there, something oily and wrong. Gasoline. An old curiosity, long buried in the old grizz, surfaced. He decided he would investigate a bit. He heaved his bulk up and began moving through his territory towards the fire.
- - - - - - - -
“Norman.” Rusty nudged his mate with his elbow. Norman grunted and quickly returned to snoring. Rusty nudged harder. “Norman!”
“Whaaaa?” Moose snorted half awake. “It's only been a couple of hours. Jack off if you need to, but I need to sleep.” He burrowed down deeper into the nest of pillows.
“Get UP, Norman! I smell smoke.” Moose snored. Rusty's sharpened were sense of smell told him the suspect odor wasn't coming from their building, but from somewhere further away.
Grumbling, Rusty got up and walked quickly to the open window and stuck his head out. The street below was deserted, and there were no traffic sounds at all in the black night. But, as he had thought, there was a definite taint of smoke on air, probably too faint yet for human noses. He scanned the view and saw what looked like a faint glow off to his right, but some distance off. He padded back to the bed and shook Moose's shoulder. No response. He leaned over and took his bear's right nipple in his mouth and bit, not too hard, knowing this was an unfailing way to bring Moose to full attention.
“The fuck?!” Moose was almost instantly awake and alert. “I said I needed to sleep, you horny little fuck! Why did...”
“Norman. Smoke. Fire.” He dragged his lover out of the bed and pushed him towards the window. By now, Moose also smelled the smoke. He stuck his head out the window as Rusty had done a few minutes previously. Rusty put both paws on Moose's head and moved it to the right. “There. See?”
“Shit... where is that? Is that by the park? It's too close to be the forest.” Moose pulled his head inside. They looked at each other for a moment only before they got the same thought at the same time. “The shelter!” they both said at the same time.
“Call the fire department. Don't mess with 911; it's quicker to call the firehouse. It's on speed dial,” Rusty said to Moose. He was pulling clothes on as Moose spoke with whoever was on duty at the fire station. He pulled clothes for Moose while Moose gave details on what they had seen. “I'll get the car out, meet you downstairs.”
Rusty tumbled down the stairs and grabbed the large first aid kit from off the wall in the kitchen. Moose followed moments later. By the time they had reached the SUV, there were sirens sounding in the distance as the first of the Wolverton fire engines pulled out of the station. The smell of smoke was stronger now, the light wind blowing it in their direction. They pulled out onto the street and raced towards the center of town. They rounded the old town square with its war memorial statue and park benches and tore down Jefferson, the street that led towards the shelter on the outskirts of town.
As they neared the site, they could see flames leaping higher into the sky, and the acrid stench of burning building caught in their noses and throats. The first of the fire engines had already reached the scene and had hooked up hoses and were aiming thick streams of water onto the fire. Ruth Henderson, the co-director of the shelter was surrounded by a few other staff and some of the shelter's clients. She was gesturing frantically towards the building and shouting at one of the firemen. Brian wasn't among them.
Rusty and Moose hurried up to another fireman. “Can we help? We're looking for one of our employees who was volunteering here tonight. We don't see him. His name's Brian,” Moose said.
“Sorry, I'm really busy now... ask the captain over there.” the harassed fire fighter said, gesturing hurriedly in the direction of the clump of employees and shelter clients. Rusty and Moose moved quickly in the direction the captain had indicated.
“Excuse me...” Moose had started, tapping a young woman on the shoulder. “WHAT?” she snapped, turning so fast she nearly hit Moose with the clipboard she was carrying. “Can't you see I'm trying to get a count here... Oh, I'm sorry Mr. Masterson!” She looked embarrassed and harried at the same time as recognition flickered across her smudged face. She was a regular at the Brown Bear and recognized both Rusty and Moose as the 'nice gay couple who had rehabbed that old building down on 12th’.
“We're looking for Brian. I know it's not his usual night but he was filling in...”
“Anyone seen Brian?” the young woman called out. No one spoke up, but several shook their heads.
Finally, one soot-covered man in a ratty duffel coat said, “I seen him earlier. He was getting blankets from the store room, I think.
The young woman turned back to Moose and Rusty. “I thought I saw him out here a few minutes ago. I know he was taking Beverly's place tonight in the kitchen. Are you sure he not out here?” She peered anxiously at Moose.
Rusty thought 'How would we know if he's out here, we just GOT here,' but he bit his tongue and stayed silent. Things were obviously a mess and it would just be quicker to search on their own. “Come on Norman; let her get on with it.” He turned, “We'll look for Brian,” he said to the woman.
Moose nodded and they moved off. An elderly man, bent nearly double with a wracking cough, pulled on Moose's sleeve. “I seen your guy...” The next words were broken off with a spasm of coughing, a combination of smoke and bronchitis. Between coughs, the old man got out that he had seen Brian behind the counter in the supper line, and later heading back towards the storerooms.
“Did you see him come out? Did he get out? Did you see him with anyone else?” Rusty's rapid-fire questions seemed only to provoke another coughing fit in the old man.
Moose reached over and straightened the man upright as much as was possible and quietly asked him, “Where are the storerooms? What direction are they?” The man gestured towards the larger building that lay behind the smaller buildings in front that were now fully engulfed in flames. He suddenly sat down as if all strength had left his body.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Rusty shouted as Moose began to run towards the buildings.
Moose checked and turned back toward Rusty. “You stay here, look for Brian. He probably got out but I'm going to go around and check out the storerooms before the fire gets that building, too. I'll be careful. Look for Brian!” Moose turned back and before Rusty could say any more, ran off towards the fire.
For all his beefy bulk, Moose could move fast when he needed to, and he rapidly dodged fire hoses and clumps of homeless clients huddled with blankets and dazed looks. Firemen shouted at him and one moved to stop him. He rounded the corner of the rightmost building that served as a dormitory and that was now becoming fully engulfed, it's roof caving in with a roar and a shower of sparks. The cave-in diverted the fireman's attention momentarily and Moose disappeared into the smoke.
As soon as he felt he was safely out of sight, Moose stepped out of his shoes and changed to half form, stretching the sweater and sweats skin-tight across his bulky frame. The swirling smoke and ash stung his eyes and assaulted his greatly enhanced sense of smell. Through the murk he could see flames leaping higher against the sides of the building he was about to enter. 'Nothing for it,' he thought. He pushed against the door closest to him after first feeling the surface. It was warm but not hot, and he proceeded into the darkened interior. He groped for a light switch, just in case there was still power to the building, but he was not rewarded with any increase in illumination. Grunting, he felt his way down the hall as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He could see flames through windows to his left, and an ominous glow at the end of the hallway.
In half form, he had never been able to speak clearly, although he could generally make himself understood. He wondered if that was a talent that came with practice, or maybe just age. 'Focus, dammit!' he thought. “Brian! Are you in here, Brian? Can you hear me?” he bellowed. 'Even if Brian can't understand everything I'm saying, he should hear his name, close enough.' Moose thought. “Brian!” There was no response.
If anything, the smoke got thicker as he progressed down the hall. He bumped hard into something in the smoke-filled hallway. Reaching down, he felt metal and glass, not a body, and moved on. “Brian!” Still nothing. Again, he bumped into an object in the dark, this time softer. Bending down, he could tell by feel and scent that this was human. Not waiting to investigate further, he scooped up the bundle and backtracked down the hallway and out into the spark-filled night.
Laying the bundle down on the walkway, he could see that it was not Brian, but definitely one of the shelter's clients. Dressed in mismatched clothes and a very dirty jacket, he also wore a scruffy, tobacco-stained grey beard. The man was obviously alive, mumbling and still breathing, eyes tightly closed. Moose moved back swiftly out of the homeless man's vision and headed back into the building. He was loping now, fearful that the fire would cut off access to other parts of the building. The heat was noticeably more intense. He crashed into the metallic cart again, and cut the bottom of his left hind foot pad on broken glass. Ignoring the brief pain, he pushed on. “BRIAN!” Nothing.
Moose was about to round a corner when, with a crash and a roar and a blast of heat and sparks, the ceiling collapsed almost in front of him, embers stinging his back. “Fuck!” he growled as he jumped back. 'Fire's in the attic now. NOT good,' he thought. He put out his paw and felt the wall next to him flex slightly. He suddenly remembered that Brian had mentioned that some of the larger spaces had been subdivided onto to smaller areas with studs and wallboard, to give more privacy in sleeping arrangements. He wondered if the same had been done here. He pushed again, harder. His paw went through the plaster-filled wallboard. 'Yes!' he thought as he pushed his way through the partition. 'I should be able to get over to the other hall this way.' “Brian!” Sill nothing. 'Oh, WHY don't you answer?' The thought drummed in Moose's head.
Moose shoved his way through the next partition, thankful for his were-enhanced strength. Unaware of exactly where he was, he simply reached out until he felt a wall and then crashed through it. He recoiled almost instantly when he encountered a wall of flame. “DAMMIT!” The flames parted for a moment, and he could see that, instead of the expected hallway, there was a larger open space directly in front of him. In that space was huddled a figure, dressed in what looked like a white food worker's jacket and jeans, along with bright orange sneakers.
The flames closed over the opening again. Moose turned his head away and took as deep a breath as he could, coughing from the soot and smoke swirling around him. Gasping again, filling his bear lungs as much as he could, he turned back, gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. He charged through the wall of flame, feeling the heat sear the fur and fabric along his arms and back and head. In a moment, he was through the fire and in the open space. His scorched skin hurt, but not too badly. He knelt and rolled the crouched figure over. It was Brian. He was still breathing.
Moose looked around and again felt the walls. Again they flexed slightly. 'Good, more partitions… thank God for small favors!' Eying the flames he knew he could not carry Brian out the way he came. He punched through the partition and saw on the other side the hallway he had been seeking, smoke-filled but at the moment blessedly free of fire. He stuck his singed body out and looked in both directions. To his right, he thought he could make out a window, or perhaps a door with a window in it, a short distance off. He quickly returned to Brian and began to lift him. Brian's eyes flickered open briefly. He struggled at the sight of the large bearish looking figure that was, apparently, getting ready to kill and perhaps eat him.
“Hold still, Brian, dammit, it's OK. Hang on.” Moose growled, doing his best to make himself understood as he lifted the still struggling figure. With a low moan, Brian passed out. 'Fireman's carry, fireman's carry... how the hell do I do a fireman's carry? Oh, fuck it,' Moose thought, finally slinging Brian over his shoulder, like a sack of potatoes, gripping him tight, stumbled out through the hole in the wall he had just made. Turning to the right, he made his way towards the dim square of light he could barely see. Reaching it, he could tell it was a door. He tried the knob with his almost-human hand, but it would not turn. He tried again with greater force and twisted the knob completely off the door. Still it would not open. He turned and carefully eased Brian off his shoulder and set him down, leaning him against the wall. Brian stirred and briefly opened his eyes. Moose couldn't tell if he focused his eyes on the bearman standing over him or not. Brian's eyes fluttered closed and his head sagged.
Moose looked quickly down the hall and saw the fire advancing rapidly. He hunkered down, his muscles remembering the positions they took when Moose had been a linebacker many years ago. He bunched his shoulders and took a deep breath, coughed, and then launched himself towards the door. The frame and door shuddered under the impact. Moose almost lost his footing as he reeled back from the impact. The door held. He set again, and again launched himself at the door. There was a splintering sound and a crack, but the door almost miraculously still held. 'One more time,' Moose thought to himself; again the set, and again the launch. This time the door broke free with a loud crack. The sudden back draft caused the fire to roar louder and a blast of hot flame reached out towards Brian's supine body. Moose quickly picked up the unconscious young man and, carrying him in front to use his own body as a shield from the searing heat of the inferno behind him, plunged out into the smoke-filled outside air.
Behind him, the entire roof and attic area of the building collapsed in on itself with a roar and a fountain of living embers and sparks. Flames shot high into the sky. Heavy tracers of water being shot from the fire truck in front of the building moved over and played more on the rear side of the building, arcing over the burning walls. Moose lay Brian on the ground, and carefully sniffed him. He was still breathing -- raggedly, but breathing. Moose reversed his change, returning to full human form. He slipped his shoes back on. His sweater was ruined and his sweat pants in tatters, but it couldn't be helped. He quickly picked up the unconscious shelter tenant he had lain down earlier, then reached down and picked up Brian, easing his body across his shoulders and staggered out in front of the building, in full sight of the firemen, a couple of reporters, the homeless shelter's staff and clients, and Rusty.
Rusty cried out and ran to Moose, grabbing a blanket on the run. He reached his lover and helped get the other man out of Moose's arms and on the ground. Brian began to stir, and then joined Moose in a prolonged coughing fit brought on by too much smoke and not enough air.
Once more, Moose lay Brian on the ground, panting and coughing. A paramedic rushed to them, quickly assessed the situation and started to work on Brian. Another medic ran over and began to administer oxygen to the homeless man on the ground next to Brian. Rusty draped the blanket across Moose's wet shoulders. “Norman! Are you all right? Norman! Talk to me!” Rusty was frantic, and between coughing fits, Moose did his best to reassure his mate that he was fine. Rusty alternated between stroking Moose's back and face and looking anxiously at Brian. Finally, the burly paramedic stood up and faced the two bearmen.
“That was a very brave thing you did there, sir. Foolish, but damn....so...” He nodded at the collapsing, burning building behind them. “They'd be dead now, burned to a crisp, if it hadn't been for you.”
Moose interrupted. “Nah, I found them outside the back door, on the ground, I just picked them up and brought him out here, that's all.”
“Still, if you hadn't done that, they might have...” The paramedic let the thought hang. “Anyway, this one seems OK, but there are burns on his back that need dressing, and he should have oxygen for a while, given all the smoke he must have inhaled. I think we'll take the young guy in too, just to be on the safe side. You know him?”
“He works for me,” Rusty responded, “we'll be responsible for the medical. Can one of us go with him?”
“Sorry, no room, I got another guy in there already. You're welcome to follow me if you want. Your guy looks OK,” he said gesturing towards Moose, “but he should be checked out, too.”
“I'm fine, really.” Moose made a kind of shooing motion with his soot-grimed hands. The paramedic nodded and helped Brian up and walked with him to the waiting ambulance. In short order, he was pulling out, siren blaring and lights flashing. Rusty and Moose piled into their car and followed. On the way there, Rusty drove but constantly asked Moose if he was OK.
Finally, Moose snapped, “I'm FINE, OK? Give it a rest.”
Rusty was stung and more than a little hurt by Moose's outburst. His old pattern of behavior surfaced briefly and he pouted. Soon, though, he quietly asked, “What's wrong, love?”
Moose seemed lost in thought. “Lover, what's bothering you?” Rusty divided his attention between the road and ambulance ahead of him and his mate beside him.
“I think he may have seen me. Brian, I mean, not the other one. As a bear.”
“As a bear? I thought you said that you just picked him up off the ground outside...” Rusty stopped as the implication of what Moose has just said sunk in.
“That was for everyone else’s ears, but I didn't, really. I changed and went inside.” Rusty looked at Moose but said nothing. “Well, I figured I'd have to lift things or something. I found the first one in the hall and took him out. I went back in to look for Brian and found him in one of the storerooms. I had to break through walls to get to him and get out before the whole place caved in. We just made it. He was unconscious when I got to him, but he surfaced a couple of times before we got out and I had a chance to change back. I think he may have seen me.” Moose looked worried.
“We'll sort it out later, love. Right now, let's hope Brian is OK.” Rusty turned the SUV into the hospital drive and parked as the ambulance drove to the Emergency entrance. They both hurried to ambulance. The beefy paramedic they had spoken to earlier told them to wait a moment. Once he was through getting the gurney-bound victim out and into the hands of the hospital crew, he came back. “Go through that door and tell them at the desk who you're here for. They'll take care of you.”
“Thanks.” Moose said, with Rusty already heading towards the door.
“No, man... thank you! You saved two lives there tonight; and carrying both of them out at once... damn! I lift pretty heavy and I’m not sure I could have done that.” The paramedic reached out and shook Moose's hand firmly, and he got back in the ambulance as the radio crackled. He keyed the mic. “On my way.” he said as he closed the door and started the engine. Moose followed Rusty into the ER.
- - - - - - - -
The old bear had moved with surprising swiftness through the forest. Fire in the woods was never a good thing, and although he could tell that this fire was still largely one that involved human buildings, the potential for it spreading was reason for concern. It had been a dry two years in the northwest. He sensed that the fire was just over the next ridge.
He was getting near to human habitat, something that he did not care much for. Over recent decades he had found himself less and less involved with human concerns. He much preferred full ursine form, and only on the rarest of occasions changed to human form and ventured to mix with those he had once shared an existence.
His curiosity was piqued. In one of his former identities, he had been employed as an insurance investigator, and the combined scents of fire and gasoline nearly always spelled criminal activity. Not always, but often enough. The grizz had no intention of shifting into human form unless it became truly necessary, but he was more curious about this particular event than he had been about any human occurrence in many years. Perhaps it was because of his recent meeting with the young weres who had come to live in this area. As he moved up the slope of the ridge, he thought of the pair and that it might be pleasant to meet up with them again. His balls still itched now and again; and even at his great age, he enjoyed a good fuck as much as the next bear.
He reached the top of the ridge, his eyes stinging now from the smoke. Looking down, he saw a set of buildings on the outskirts of the town fully engulfed in fire, with fire trucks arranged in front, doing their best to keep the fire from spreading to the nearby trees. He saw something else, too... a dark figure, pacing in the shadows of the trees, intently watching.
- - - - - - - -
“Yeah, it's done; just like you wanted.” Keith paced as he spoke into the phone nervously. “Of course I did, you think I'm stupid or something? No. Gasoline. Like I told you, just like you said. No, there won't be nothin' left, well, nothin' usable. What? Yeah, I guess some got out. Huh? How should I know? ... I didn't take a head count! Oh, who cares anyway... it's just old homeless guys, who's even gonna notice?” Keith sat carefully on the splintered tree stump, suddenly tired as the adrenalin rush of the earlier hours wore off. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it wouldn't be you getting in trouble anyway, now, would it? Yeah? Well, you just get the rest of my money in my account. No, you listen... I said LISTEN!” Keith stood up. “I want that money deposited by tomorrow night, you hear? Don't give me that shit, man, I put myself on the line for your little land scheme. Yeah, so you say. Just get that money in the bank, or... What? Don't threaten me, Valmer, or someone may hear a lot about that little plan of yours. You might not like.... Valmer? Don't fucking hang up on me! Valmer? Shit! ... Fuck!” Keith threw the burner phone against the nearest tree in a rage. “Of all the motherfucking...” His eyes grew wide as the huge bear reared up from behind the bushes next to the tree. He stood very still, breathing hard. The bear moved and the moon glinted softly on long, sharp, curved claws. “Oh, shit! ...” he said quietly.
The old grizz had heard enough. Though he was far more the bear and much less the human he once had been these days, he still had some vestige of humanity left deep within. What the human in front of him had done repulsed him. The casual snuffing out of innocent life for profit made a rare, hot anger rise in him like lava. He flexed his forepaw and extended the wicked claws there and deliberately, almost in slow motion, swung his paw out and across, eviscerating the man with one stroke. Hot blood sprayed out, spattering the trees and soaking the front of the bear. The human stood for several moments, a gurgle in his throat and a look of utter astonishment on his face. He looked down and watched with dull comprehension as lengths of his intestines, gray and shiny, looped and tangled as they sagged out of the bloody ribbons of flesh that had been his abdomen. His mouth opened as he tried to force sound out but only a dribble of dark blood passed his lips.
As the light faded from his eyes, Keith toppled over, his head impacting the edge of the splintered stump that had been a seat for him just a few minutes before. One particularly jagged splinter of wood, sharp and resinous, penetrated his left eye, and punctured through the rear of the eye socket, piercing deep into his brain. Impaled and eviscerated, he died.
The great bear shook his paw free of bits of tangled guts and padded off into the trees, shaking his great head. He’d go wash in the nearby stream. He wasn’t going to lick the blood off; he didn’t want any of that despicable creature’s blood or flesh on him or in him. 'Leave him for the buzzards, coyotes and insects to consume', the bear thought.