I PUSHED FORWARD, leaning toward the front of my shortboard as the wave began to crest. There’s a moment right before you catch a wave when time seems to slow down, adrenaline fires as you paddle to find the rhythm you need; too fast and you wipe out, too slow and you miss it, but time it right and you balance on the edge of eternity. That’s when everything goes quiet for me, and a single heartbeat stretches to infinity. I lived for that space in between—right before the world rights itself and the ocean rockets you forward. For me, this is where the rush lived; it was addictive. There was nothing like it in the world, and it was as close to flying as I would ever come.

          Salt water kissed my face as my board dipped, and I pushed up in a clean movement that was second nature. I landed smoothly, the ocean around me, my own personal deep blue cheer squad. I adjusted my front foot so that it inched forward, covering half the white tip, while the rest of my weight went into my heel and back leg. The shortboard was new; I’d blown my old one on the reef last month at a surf camp. For the past four weeks, I’d used Owen’s spare.

          He had four. He didn’t need four, mind you, he just had four. His were good, but it wasn’t the same as having your own.

          I sliced along the barrel, the wind in my face as intoxicating as the peaking crescent wall roaring behind me. I’d grown up surfing; most of us locals did. It was a common joke that we all learned to surf before we could crawl, and like all surfers, the beach was as familiar to me as my own skin. It was a second home, one that always made me feel better, no matter what was going on in my life.

          Today was no different, the heat had been a scorcher, and I’d damn near burned my ass on the metal bench eating lunch at school. There was only one solution for cooling down in an Australian summer—the beach and a good surf sesh.

          I continued to race along the small wave, losing myself in the moment. Past and future expectations faded away as if the water had the power to dissolve them. The wave wasn’t huge, decent enough to give me good ride, but this was the true magic of surfing; nothing else mattered up here. Only the now—only the ride and the connection with the surf.

          Water flicked up into my face. Instinctively, I closed my eyes, wiping it away as I shifted the weight on my back foot to angle the board down and keep the ride going. Only, this board was marginally different my last one, and my weight was off by few centimeters. Instead of slicing downward in a clean line, the board flipped out from under me, sending me crashing into the water below.

          The cold caught me, salt water stealing across my tongue, more familiar than even my earliest memory before I surfaced, spitting the water as I cleared my face.

          I lay there, floating up into the late afternoon sun.

          Well, that was unexpected.

          The wipe out was one of the reasons Owen and I were in the in the small cove up from our regular spot. The waves weren’t as big here, which was a good thing when it came time to test out a new board. Non-surfers think a board is a board. It’s not. It’s like a car or a bike; you get used to your own—the size, the shape, the way it handles. This new board was faster than my last, quicker to turn as I’d just found out. I’d need a few sessions to lock down the differences before using it became second nature.

          Tomorrow was Saturday and that meant no school, homework or chores. The guys and I planned to hit the beach early at our usual spot, which was north of the main beach of our town, Brookshore. Our small town was one of many that littered the east coast State of New South Wales, Australia. The town and surrounding ones were actually grouped up into a district called the Central Coast, just an hour north of Sydney. Our beaches, like the others in the Central Coast were a huge tourist attraction, not as big as some of the more popular beaches down in Sydney, like Bondi, but in summer the main beach was packed. We locals all moved either north or south if we wanted to surf without dealing with them. The guys and I preferred north. It was a little harder to get to, but it was quieter. Today, I wanted even more space while I tested the board, so Owen and I had trekked the extra few kilometers up past our spot, to the cove. It was Friday afternoon and we had a few hours to kill before a school beach party tonight, so, why not?

          “Yo, Kel, you okay?” Owen’s voice came from behind me.

          “Yeah,” I muttered, turning in the water and pulling the board back to me by the curly cord attached to my leg. I hooked an arm over it and hoisted myself up to sit adjacent to him. The same green-brown eyes as my own stared back at me. It wasn’t just the eyes we shared, but the same light brown hair, the only difference that his was long enough to tie back. Mine could half go up, but strays fell around my face, leaving it looking more messy than usual. Instead, I just left it out and let the salt water hold it in place. Side-by-side, you could tell we were related—not brothers, but there was a definite sharing of the gene pool that spoke of family. Owen in fact, had a twin brother, Noah, which I think made it even more obvious I wasn’t related in that way. I had more freckles, and my shoulders were slightly wider than the twins, but otherwise we were all the same size, which was handy in a pinch if one of us was out of clean clothes. Owen wasn’t just my cousin though, he was also my best friend.

          It was only us out here in the surf, which was surprising. I expected Dale, the last of our group, to join us. Noah was the only one of us who didn’t surf, but Dale hardly missed a chance to get out on water. Rather than join us though, he had gone straight home after school, telling us he had to run an errand. It was weird, he’d acted jittery all day. I should have pushed to found out why, I was the leader of the group after all, but at the same time, we were all entitled to a little privacy. Besides, if it was important, it’s not like we wouldn’t find out. Because of who we were—what we were—my friends and I got the backwash of each other’s feelings. Don’t get me wrong, it could be awesome, but having a shared emotional connection that was borderline telepathic had its downside too. Our parents had taught us how to manage what we called the “pack-bond”. Mostly, that consisted of learning how to shield our feelings from each other and to lock the bond down so we could maintain some form of privacy. But when it’s two am and your subconscious is in control and dreams are running rampant, there’s no shielding. I was just thankful we only shared feelings and not actual memories. For four teenage boys, no matter how close we all were, there were some things I did not need the guys seeing and vice versa.

          “So, other than the wipe out, how does she go?” Owen grinned, motioning to the new board.

          I smiled back, flicking my hair back out my eyes. “Yeah, good. Good choice.”

          He winked, all too happy with himself happy since he’d recommended the board. No one would ever accuse Owen of being modest. It helped that he worked in the surf shop on the main boulevard of Brookshore. Not only did he get an awesome discount but also first choice of new arrivals.

          He glanced behind him, seeing a new set of waves coming in. Lying down, he started to paddle. “Thought you’d like it,” he said. Then he was off, chasing his own wave.

          I did like it. My last board was blue with black veins running through it; it had looked epic. When Owen put this one aside for me, I wasn’t so sure. Burnt orange with a white tip weren’t really colors I go for, but the more I handled it, the more it was growing on me.

          I watched as he rode his own green and white shortboard along the coast. The wave was smaller than mine, and he had to pump the water to get the extra kick. Unlike me, he didn’t wipe out and fall off. Instead, he turned in the water, killing the ride and faced the open water again before dropping back onto the board and paddling back.

          “So, how’re things with Amarice?” he asked as he pulled up beside me. His eyes held an unmistakable glint when spoke about Amarice, and for good reason. She was hot, like, really hot.

          Normally I had no issue talking about my girlfriend—well, “girlfriend” was generous. I should have said “girl I was expected to marry”, but it didn’t have the same ring to it. Plus, it made me sound weird, even if it was the truth. Today, talking about Am was the furthest thing from my mind. She had been the source of a huge argument between me and my other best friend, Lucy, yesterday. Lucy had apologized, but I still hadn’t let it go completely.

          It didn’t help that while Lucy was like us—meaning; not exactly human—she was also from a different bloodline, and therein lay the problem. Each of our bloodlines had different cultural expectations. Lucy’s family along with the twins, Dale and mine were part of a race that was collectively known as the Marduk, but that didn’t mean were we all the same. In fact, there were six bloodlines to our species. I came from the Enki bloodline; the raptors. Lucy and her family were part of the Enlil bloodline; they came from the pterodactyls. To other Marduk, it might seem unusual that our two bloodlines were close; friends even, but given it was a small town, it was more common that you would think. In larger cities like Sydney or Melbourne, the bloodlines co-existed and worked together to keep our existence a secret from the humans we lived amongst, but that didn’t make them friends. Thankfully our two bloodlines were group people, even if my own had a stricter hierarchy to it than Lucy’s more laid back one.

          Owen caught the look that flashed across my face as I remember the argument from yesterday. He sighed, cursing. “Let me guess, Lucy?”

          I would have laughed if I found it funny in the slightest. Instead, all I could do was nod. “Yup. Lucy.”

          “What’s she said now?”

          I didn’t have to respond, I just gave him a look, one that said he already knew. That kind of knowledge had nothing to do with our bond, but a life time of growing up together. When I thought about it, it was interesting family dynamic, our dads were cousins, too, and our mothers were twins. They were all part of their own pack, leaving the guys and me to form our own. It wasn’t something that happened consciously, but rather, of its own accord when Enki-Marduk were young. That’s how it had been with us. Owen, Noah and I were five when we formed our pack-bond. Dale joined after, when his family had moved to town three years later. We were seven at the time and he was six. We had all had all bonded straight away. I was close to Noah and Dale, but I hardly ever needed to explain myself to Owen; he always just knew.

          It was the same with him and Noah, except even stronger. They had our pack-bond, the twin bond, and a lifetime of living together. I was surprised they bothered speaking at all and didn’t just telegraph their thoughts to each other.

          Noah, like a lot of twins, was the polar opposite of his brother; quieter, self-contained, and thought before he spoke. Owen on the other hand, had never kept a single thought to himself in his entire life. There was no filter between his brain and that large mouth. Not that he couldn’t be sly about it, but most of the time he was pretty direct. Right now, he chose the usual direct route because he knew that even though Lucy and I almost never fought, something about Amarice rubbed the other girl the wrong way. Lucy had been very vocal in her attempts to get me to admit I wasn’t really happy with the arrangement I was in, despite my clear stance that I actually was. Arranged marriages in this day and age seem out of place, right? Not for my bloodline, some traditions held up, especially Enki-Marduk, or at least where they concerned me.

          “She’s determined to try to find something wrong, isn’t she?” he asked.

          “You better believe it. She just can’t seem to believe that I’m happy with Amarice.”

          Owen snorted. “Has she seen Amarice?”

          That got a chuckle. I skimmed my hands across the water as I looked down into the blue beneath us. “In Lucy’s defense, I don’t think Amarice is really her type.”

          Owen grinned along with me. “You know, anyone else but Lucy, and that’d be kinda—”

          “Yeah, but no!” I said, cutting him off. I couldn’t think of Luce like that. She might turn a lot of heads in town, but she was like a sister to us. She was our age, and had grown up alongside us. Hell, she even surfed with us. You did not look at your sister like that.

          Owen scooped some up water and washed his face. “Yeah, true, true.”

          I couldn’t really blame Lucy, after all, she wasn’t expected to lock in a mate right away, not like me. None of the guys had to either. I was going to take over from Dad at some point. He was the lawyer for our kind in this region, and I would follow in his footsteps. He and Mum were the alphas of their pack, just as I was, too. It wasn’t a hereditary thing, but it did tend to happen that way. I was an alpha of my pack, but someday I would be the alpha of the region, and that meant I needed a mate. So, “an arrangement” was formed between my parents and Amarice’s.

          Amarice was from a good Marduk family of the same Enki bloodline. Her family and their packs lived a town over. She was the perfect match, and it would expand our territory. Our parents had organized it when we were ten and I’d had five years to come to terms with the notion of an arranged coupling. If I was honest, at first, I didn’t really get the concept. Then as I got older, it annoyed me, but I’d kept quiet. Then, when I met Amarice, well, Owen was right—I had eyes. Not that it was just that. She was smart, too. Yeah, she had a temper and could be a bit of a handful at times, but who couldn’t? She had Dale eating out of the palm of her hand, and anyone who could keep him in line was worth it.

          So, at some point between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, we would get married. That was it; nothing I could do would change that. From fifteen, our parents had insisted we start hanging out to form a bond. Bonds were a big thing in our bloodline.

          A sudden need to check my phone pulsed through me, only it wasn’t my thought, it was Noah’s.

          Speaking of bonds.

          Owen nodded, feeling it, too. Being a twin, Owen would have felt even more than what I just had.

          So much for my beach time. We paddled fast back to the shore. A small wave came along, helping us glide the rest of the way. By the time we had made it to the shore, the feeling had changed from a need, and intensified to knots in my stomach. I was conscious that the discomfort wasn’t just my feelings either. Noah wasn’t comfortable, and his unease washed over us in a faint wave that pulsed through my body, making me pick up my board and jog to where our stuff was, eager to find out what was wrong. My clothes, phone, and keys were underneath my towel.

          Owen was right behind me. I grabbed my phone and saw two texts. One from Amarice, the other from Noah.

          I read his first. So, I ran into Amarice. She saw me walking through town and got her folks to drop her off with me. She wants me to take her to meet you guys at the beach party. Umm, where are you guys, can you come meet us?

          Noah had sent the text in a group thread to all of us. I looked up at Owen, who nodded, without me having to voice it.

          Noah was feeling uncomfortable with Amarice.

          I didn’t like that. I knew her dominance could be a bit much for the guys at times, but it was also needed too, given she would join the pack at some point and link up to us. She was an alpha in her own right so they had to respect her. But I expected her to earn the guys respect, not demand it.

          Given Noah’s uncomfortable feelings, I had to wonder if she was in a bad mood?

          I opened up Amarice’s text next. Hey Kel, I just ran into No in town. My folks have dropped me off with him and they’re are heading to grab a bite to eat with yours. We are heading to the beach, come meet us there!

          I couldn’t be sure of the context of the message, but it felt different to Noah’s.

          What the hell could have happened?

          Owen had already pulled his white tee on, the bottom soaking up the water from his board shorts. He reached for his shoes as I felt wave of worry, echo from him to me, down the bond. Noah was the gentlest of all of us, and I knew Owen would stress until he was there to make sure his brother was ok.

          Noah had known we were out surfing. That was why he sent the feeling through the bond.

          In situations like this, an empathic bond came in handy.

          I quickly typed back the same response to each of them: We’re coming. We will meet you at the boulevard entrance to the main beach.

          With that, I pulled on my own black tee, and scooped up the rest. It would be quicker to jog down the beach and I could run better barefoot.

          Owen was already waiting.

          I gave him a nod. “Let’s go find out what the hell is going on,” I said.

          His eyes had lost the easiness in them from earlier. Instead, stoic seriousness now replaced the usual joking attitude that plastered his face. He didn’t know what was going on either, but his face said it all; he was going to find out.

          With that, we started running down the beach, making our way back towards the main beach, where hundreds of school kids would be starting to fill the sand and two Marduk teenagers were waiting for us.

          So much for my easy Friday night.