It had only been five months, but when I saw Brennan that day I knew he wasn’t the same brother I had known my whole life. He didn’t look any different than he had last Christmas, but there was a Dominant’s power to him now that he was head of the pack. My wolf knew it so abruptly and absolutely that I found myself slowing down, like the world as I knew it was getting redrawn in front of my eyes. It was like that really messed up image of the young maid who turns into an old lady with a hooked nose. There was my little brother in front me, but there was also my Alpha, my pack’s Dominant; the man who held my fate in his hands.
He didn’t hesitate, scooping me up in his arms and crushing me close. He buried his face in my neck, breathing me in, and murmured, “I miss his smell.” Then let me go and, like his voice had released me from a spell, I could see my brother again through the haze. The boy I had grown up with, played with, fought with. He had been bossy, sure, but he had been funny as well and protective as all hell. He loved me and he was the only one that got how much I missed my dad at that moment. In that room where his smell was fading, an absence so physical it felt like I might fall into the void if I stumbled, Brennan was there, holding me steady. I got over my ridiculous shyness and pulled him into another hug.
And then my mum was there. I felt her before she even spoke, “Devlin,” she murmured and it was like her heart was breaking in her voice. Or maybe it was mine. I let go of Brennan and enveloped her in my arms. She wasn’t a small woman and she was a wolf besides, so she gripped me back hard enough to hurt and I just thought, Good. Nobody had hugged me hard enough for months; I returned the embrace equally hard, unafraid of hurting her with the strength of my emotions.
Brennan came closer and put his arms around us both with some difficulty. But it didn’t need to be easy to be right. These were my people and suddenly I didn’t know how I had spent long so far away from them, from my dad.
Maybe they were right and wolves weren’t meant to live away from their packs. Of course, wolves weren’t meant to die in their fifties, either. It didn’t matter how strong you were, or how beloved, not even how powerful; nobody was really safe.
I woke the next morning feeling like I had travelled back in time. My room smelled just like it always had. Except for how my scent had faded from the clothes and the bedding, I could have been seventeen and waking up with the sun to go for a run before school, or twelve and so ravenously hungry that I had woken in the middle of the night again to go for some of the leftovers my mother always left for me. But if I had been, my dad would have been downstairs or in his room; not in a box somewhere in town. I washed my face but I didn’t bother with clothes, too desperate to be on the move, as if I could outrun the turmoil of my own mind. As if my father’s absence could be filled with activity.
My mother, unchanged through the years, still as blonde and rosy as she had been on her wedding day, seemed to feel the same way. She was busy cooking breakfast with her impressive methodical multitasking, so as to have everything just piping hot simultaneously. Her smile was a poor imitation of true joy, but I didn’t doubt she was pleased to see me enter her kitchen looking more zombie than werewolf, just like I had most mornings of my life.
She set a plate in front of me without speaking, and I sat there, eating and waiting for my father to walk in and ask for a cup of strong tea, till I realised I had put my fork down at some point and my eggs were cold and my bacon had solidified into a lump of fat covered leather. My plate was still half full but when I checked to see if my mother would get annoyed that I had wasted food, she just shook her head at me. “It’s fine, Devlin. I haven’t had much of an appetite myself. Just make sure you eat more later, you need your strength.”
I wished she could have been mad, or even bothered enough to give me a speech about those less fortunate than us needing the food I wasn’t eating. Then I would have known everything would be okay, that normal or something of the sort was still possible.
By dinnertime, the world was starting to look less like a scenario for my memories to play out and more like a place I actually inhabited. Of course, shock wearing off feels like suddenly noticing one of your limbs is missing. You understand the fact, but that does nothing to dull the pain or distract from the phantom ache that is the last clinging hold of what’s gone. There seemed to be reminders of my father everywhere: both his existence and his lack thereof; from random books left lying about in various rooms to an ashtray he had got from a Welsh pack when I was a kid and treasured ever since.
When the pain starts setting in, the body pushes you to curl up, to protect yourself from further attack. But there was nothing I could protect myself from it, so the next logical step was finding somewhere safe to heal. I wanted, more than anything in the world besides a miracle (and why the hell not? I ask you. Wasn’t I a real life werewolf?), to hole up in my childhood room. I thought I could survive the day if I got to call my boyfriend and talk about anything other than what was happening around me. I was ready to listen to him go on about cricket if it got me out of my head, or, alternatively, put me to sleep.
But death isn’t like other types of pain, and I couldn’t miss dinner with the family on my first night. It wasn’t an unreasonable expectation, I suppose, we had all lost my father but we had also lost our Dominant and the pack was feeling uneasy over it. It was up to Brennan now to show that he could take care of us now, and this was the first time he would gather the whole pack together since becoming Dominant a fortnight earlier.
“This is a hard time for all of us,” my brother started, voice quieter than I had ever heard it and everybody in the room went quiet at once. “Some loss is expected, it’s only part of life that the old should die and even as it is a terrible loss, we understand... we know nature intended it that way.” He trailed off. Anybody who knew him must have been able to tell he had prepared the speech, and just as I thought it, Brennan exhaled and stumbled. “I mean, it isn’t a surprise and that helps... a little... but my dad...” He swallowed thickly. “This isn’t supposed to happen, we are stronger than most people in the planet, we are meant... for more... we heal. I never thought I would be here,” he confessed, looking around at us like he was lost and had unexpectedly found himself in our midst. “I thought I would have more time... but life is always a surprise, isn’t it?” He added, picking up his speech again. “And when you receive a blow, you have two choices: you can stay on the ground and whimper, or you can get up and push through and become stronger for it.
“We,” he emphasised, looking around and meeting eyes across the room, “are going to become stronger. Just like my dad would have wanted, just like we are meant to.” I saw my cousin Ian lean close and clapped him on the shoulder, saying something too low for me to distinguish across the crowded room of cheering people. I was glad Brennan wasn’t alone.
“For that purpose,” his voice easily overwhelmed the last of the excited whispers. “I have purchased the Davidson farm. We are expanding!” There was some cheering, not surprisingly: you take a bunch of territorial people and put them together, territory becomes a goal per excellence. Every eye in the room was on him, even the children’s. He smiled winningly at Adora, and his wife returned the smile with all the candour of a young girl in love. He had met her at the Winter Shifter Summit and brought her back with him, aglow and so enamoured it was sickening to watch.
“We are expecting a child!” Brennan said into the silence, grinning like a madman. I smiled reflexively, his happiness spreading through the pack sense like a wave, so intense it was almost a physical sensation. The congratulations seemed to go on for hours, although it was probably minutes, and I was about to get up from where I had snatched a place between Kirby and Clara, two of the other Omegas I had grown up with, when my brother raised a hand to quieten everybody again.
“The next generation of the Hilliard pack will be twice the size of ours,” he continued in his booming voice, “and that’s why I have decided that every fertile Omega in the pack will bear a child this year.”
Kirby dropped her napkin, and Clara’s fists clenched right on the table where she had been tapping her fingers. The other Omegas were all around the table, sitting comfortably with friends and family, but suddenly I knew where every single one of them was because all of us had stopped, our thoughts grinding to a sudden halt in perfect sync. With all the pack in the same room, the pack sense was so strong as to almost constitute telepathy. I felt their shock adding to my own, like a mounting wave growing bigger with the push of the wave that follows it. Even Jason and Evangeline, both pregnant already, seemed shocked by the news.
Dominant Alphas nudged Omegas to reproduce when they thought they were ready and so the pack’s children would be in the same age range and grow up together. It made the pack stronger to have members who were close to each other. But none of us had ever heard of a mass breeding like this, and an announcement at dinner no less! And then I realised something else: it wasn’t all Omegas who were in shock, just the younger ones. The older generation – my mother, my aunts and uncles – were all conspicuously calm at the news.
They had known. My mother had known, and she had let me come back for it without even a warning. I tried to meet her eyes where she still sat at the other end of the table, the place of honour for the Dominant’s mate. She must have felt the weight of my gaze, but she didn’t look up. Not at me and not anybody else. She was looking down at her food, methodically cutting the meat in her plate in small, even pieces that would cool down too fast for her to eat. The concern for starving people was over, and what did that say about how badly we ourselves were doing?
I hadn’t paid any attention to the Alphas before, but it was hard to miss their joyous excitement. Now that I actually cared to look, it wasn’t hard to see that some of my cousins were missing from the celebration, and Alphas I didn’t know where there instead.
“Where’s Kenneth?” I asked Clara in a furious whisper.
She exhaled slowly. “He went to the Blackson pack down in Liverpool. They sent Tonio in exchange.” She licked her lips. “New blood. There’s been a lot of socializing with other packs the last year and a half. Now it makes sense.”
“Oh, God,” Kirby murmured, leaning in. “He’s been planning this.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment, and missed whatever they were whispering over my head. I couldn’t stop thinking of my flat in St. Andrew’s, of my boyfriend Dan, of my thesis, of my friends. Of my goddamn life… it was all gone. It was all there but it wasn’t mine anymore. Just like that, Brennan had taken it all away.
“…too many Alphas,” Clara was saying when I zoned back in.
She looked pityingly at me. “There’s too many Alphas. And he can’t get more Omegas…”
She was right. Omegas only left their birth pack to follow an Alpha – either a closer relative or a partner they had met and been courted by while still members of their own pack. An Omega couldn’t walk out of their pack any more than a child could, and would be, as far as Alphas were concerned, just as vulnerable.
“Maybe he’ll let us choose,” Kirby suggested, sounding like she found the thought comforting. Like she thought that if we could only decide which of the men in the room got to fuck and breed us, then it wouldn’t be so bad.
I cornered Brennan as soon as the room started emptying and Clara and Kirby followed me to his study. They were both wary but confident that I could speak freely with our Dominant.
“What the fuck is this?” I spat the moment the door closed.
He turned to me, looking genuinely surprised. “I just told you.”
“You just told us?!” I repeated. “Like that? In front of everybody? Like we are just animals to be fucking bred?”
He frowned at me, like I was being ridiculous, like I was being hysterical just like Omegas were said to be. “You are not animals, not any more than I am. You are Omegas.”
“We are people, Brennan!” I shouted. “We deserve to be fucking asked.”
“Oh,” he nodded. “But I am going to ask you. You can choose.”
“We can choose?” Kirby squeaked from behind me. I turned on her, almost as angry at her as at my brother. But she seemed perfectly happy to ignore me in favour of the Alpha who held her fate in his hands. Surprising, isn’t it?
“Yes,” Brennan nodded enthusiastically, like he was finally being understood properly. I could tell he thought he was being kind too, but I was too furious to care about his delusions of magnanimity. “I have done some research for you, but within reason it’s your decision who you mate with.”
Kirby relaxed at the concession, but I was about to snap that I didn’t care to choose who got to use me as a fucking incubator when Clara volunteered, “I don’t think I’m ready.” She said it quietly but not timidly.
Brennan nodded at her and put a hand on her arm, even though he had to sidestep me to get close enough. “I know how you’re feeling, when Adora told me…” He smiled nervously. “Well, I was not feeling ready, believe me, Clar. But that’s life for you, it turns out we are a lot stronger than we think.”
He wasn’t explicitly saying it but the message was clear: we were not getting out of it. I wasn’t going to take it laying down, though.
“I don’t want to do it,” I said, enunciating clearly.
Brennan turned to me in surprise, and the edge of anger in his expression sent my wolf cowering. I locked my muscles to keep myself from backing away. “I have made plans for the pack, Dev, I can’t change them just because of you.”
“I have made plans for my life, Bren,” I said, using a diminutive like the Alphas always did to us. But Brennan didn’t care, he was an Alpha and he was my Dominant. He didn’t need posturing. He had me by the balls and he knew it.
He sighed. “You are going to have to adjust,” he told me gently. “We will all do our best to help you.” And then he turned his back on us, so secure in his invincibility that I wanted to rip his spine out. I couldn’t have, of course, my wolf wouldn’t have attacked its Alpha any more than it would have allowed me to jump off a cliff. Brennan shuffled for some papers, to put us in our place, I thought, but it turned out he was actually looking for something. When he found it, he turned back to face us.
He handed a piece of paper to each of us – it was some sort of diagram, and I couldn’t help but look. I was used to diagrams, I loved diagrams. Not this one, though. Clara’s breath hitched a second before it hit me what they were: family lines and breeding characteristics. He had made a study of each of us and each of the Alphas he thought would be suitable to breed us and rated them according to the dominant and recessive characteristics he wanted in the next generation of the pack.
“I’m willing to let you choose between the top 3,” he explained, then hesitated and snatched the paper I was loosely holding in my hand. “No, top 2 for you. It’s too much of a difference.” He tried to give me the paper back, but I backed away, swallowing hard and breathing shallowly. I needed to get out of there. “Devlin…” he startled but I was gone before he could add anything else. He had said more than enough for me to know I didn’t want to hear it.
Transforming was the only thing I could think to do not to go crazy right then. I dropped my clothes behind the porch and shifted faster than I could ever remember doing before or since. I would be a terrible parent, I thought. As a human I would have cried, but wolves don’t really cry and, as the animal mind took over, I felt better. Wolves don’t really care about the future either. All that mattered to the wolf was that we were in pack territory again, we were home and there was no danger anywhere in the vicinity, not even if we decided to run for days. I liked that, too, the human part of me, so we took off. Faster and faster, soon I was panting but I didn’t care and neither did the wolf, it understood my need to get away even if it didn’t understand what I was running from.
Brennan had to come and get me himself. It had been at least a day, but perhaps more. I didn’t care. When you are a wolf for long enough, time becomes immaterial. Pretty much everything but food, water and mating does, and as long as I stayed away from other wolves, only the first two mattered. But when Brennan howled, my feet moved without conscious thought on my part. I just went because my Alpha was calling. He waited till I had shown him my belly to catch me by the neck and drag me into the house. He shifted first and I followed instinctively. We were both naked and I was covered in loose bits of grass and smudged with mud.
“Have you had enough of an angsty fit?” He asked, sounding annoyed.
I tried to speak, but found myself coughing instead. Hair; it always got in my mouth when I shifted back. My brother knelt and rubbed my back. Then stayed there next to me. He wasn’t that much larger than me, physically speaking, but it didn’t matter, I felt dwarfed. His hand on me was like a steel buckle I could never shake. I couldn’t even think to shake it. He started carding his fingers through my hair and I tilted my head back. I didn’t mean to – I was just unable not to.
“You are a man grown, Dev, you can’t let your emotions get the better of you.”
I swallowed in lieu of nodding, and he rubbed my ear in what he must have thought a consoling manner and got to his feet.
“Go up to your room and get cleaned up. It’s time you met Rami and Naveen.”
And that was the first time I heard their names. Not the way one hears new names and nods, mostly assuming one will forget them till reminded a couple of times or until the person does something exceptionally good or bad. Their names were an announcement. One of those names, I knew, I would never forget. I would never be allowed to forget.