With a plan in place, I was feeling a little better about things, till I got out of the shower that night and saw something odd in the mirror. Odd enough that I went back to look. I regretted it. I wasn’t stupid; I had known it would show but still it hit me so hard, just seeing my belly look a little rounder. I raised my hand and almost touched it, then snapped out of it and didn’t. I refused to freak out. I turned around, dried up, hung my towel, and just went and put my pyjamas on before brushing my teeth, toothpaste stains be damned.
Since I was sleeping alone every night, there was nobody to ask about my change in routine and since the most you need to keep a house cool in Windermere most days is a couple of fans, it wasn’t like either Rami or Naveen were taking their shirts off, either. Except then it was August and some wind from Africa fucked us over and it was suddenly 35 degrees and fucking unbearable. It was even worse for me because I had got used to Scotland’s colder climate even with all the summer visiting, and because it turned out babies don’t like the heat. Still, I dealt, I took a lot of cold showers and sat in front of the fan while still wet. I couldn’t get a cold, anyway. There was a swimming pool at one of the other houses big enough to accommodate a good portion of the current pack, but Naveen backed down easily when I said I didn’t want to go with him. When he wasn’t with us, he had taken to hanging out with Lucien and Tonio, who had decided to stay even after my cousin Bet had rejected him. Even though my cousin Kenneth was dating Tonio’s own sister and wouldn’t have wanted to leave her, I don’t think Brennan would have objected if Tonio had wanted to go back. After all, a pack always has an excess of Alphas. But, according to Naveen, Tonio was happy to be out from under his mother’s expectant gaze and just be able to enjoy being a twentysomething with a crappy job and a lot of time to watch terrible TV and hang out with his friends.
Unfortunately, Naveen was getting to know me quite well and he deduced it was the amount of people who were putting me off. At any other time, he would have been right. I love my pack, just not necessarily love spending an afternoon with forty of its members, a lot of them under ten and with a tendency to use their amazing lung capacity without any consideration for my amazing hearing.
Two days later I walked into the kitchen early in the morning, having given up on sleep after even all the closed shades and the fan at full blast had failed me, and discovered Naveen making a picnic basket.
“What’s up?” I asked, stopping in my tracks, because he was moving between the fridge and the basket a little too fast for me to want to get on his path.
“We are having a picnic by the lake!” he announced. “I found this great spot, nobody around,” he added, flashing me a smile.
And it sounded so nice, too. I remembered the lake from countless childhood summers, the relief of sinking into the blissfully cold water and how your body would stay cool even when you got out to lay on the grass. The Lake District hadn’t been the most popular vacationing spot in England for centuries for nothing. Then I remembered I couldn’t actually go.
“Have fun,” I told Naveen curtly, and went to get some crackers so my stomach would stop growling. I hadn’t been this hungry since my last growth spurt and I didn’t like having to deal with that on top of the heat.
“What do you mean?” Naveen asked. “You are coming!”
If he had said it like an Alpha, I might have been able to get angry at him for it, and then I could have got out of it easily. But he said it like a disappointed child. I hesitated. “I have some work to finish.”
“Devlin, I’m not blind or stupid. I can tell you have been feeling the heat even more than us. Why can’t you let me do something nice for you? It doesn’t mean you owe me anything, you know, I just want you to feel better. It’s not like it’s a sacrifice to go down to the lake and…”
“Stop,” I asked, unable to bear it anymore. “I’m not doing that badly, I’m okay with showers and I need to work.”
“But you haven’t been working!” Naveen insisted. “Yesterday you lay down in front of the patio doors with a wet towel over your face for, like, two hours.”
“Excuse me if I’m tired. I happen to be pregnant,” I snapped, and it was the completely wrong thing to say. Naveen’s eyes slid down and I realised too late that the t-shirt I had been worn to sleep was sweaty enough to cling. I turned around, pretending to be finished with the conversation but Naveen used his stupid speed and caught me by the arm.
“Don’t go,” he begged me in a small voice. It wasn’t like I could, unless I yanked my arm back. Part of me wanted to, but part of me thought the wolf wouldn’t let me anyway and I would just feel worse if I tried and failed.
I huffed, feeling defeated by the heat and my body and his devotion. “Yes, I feel rotten. Can you please not remind me?”
“Devlin, are you… do you not want me to see that you are…?” He audibly swallowed, then whispered, “Showing?”
Since he wasn’t looking at my face, I let myself close my eyes. And Rami chose that exact moment to walk in.
“Is everything okay?” he asked, an edge to his voice that made me nervous.
I expected Naveen to tell him about it, but he just explained, “I was trying to convince Devlin to go to the lake. I made a picnic basket.”
“Oh, is that what you went shopping for?” Rami asked, eyes flickering between my face and, I guessed, Naveen’s.
Naveen let go of me. “Yeah. But he doesn’t want to…”
Rami seemed surprised. “Are you trying to work through this temperature as well? Didn’t you tell us you were one article ahead?”
“That was before the world started to melt,” I said, avoiding his gaze and tugging my shirt away from my skin. It was true I had been on a roll before, to such an extent that I had saved some articles that weren’t that time sensitive so that it would look like I had a normal work schedule.
“Well,” he said, and took a step closer, putting a hand on my shoulder and smiling down at me a bit dopily. “I would really like to spend the day with you.”
I stared, not sure if I wanted to run or...
“It would help you clear you head, too!” Naveen chipped in. “And it’s nature, I’m sure there’s something scientific you can do out there.”
He hadn’t said anything to Rami, I thought, and turned and met his eyes in warning before I said, “Okay, I’ll come.”
Naveen gave me a wide grin and promptly turned back to his preparations. I took the crackers and made a run for it, wanting to find a large enough shirt before it became an issue again.
I was still rummaging through my closet when there was a knock. “What?” I called out.
“Can I come in? I got you some juice.” It was Naveen, of course, he probably thought he had offended me and wanted to fix things.
“Come in,” I called out, resigned to listening to his apology.
He opened the door and closed it behind himself. He did have a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, but after he put it down on a free corner of my dresser, I saw what he had actually come to give me. “I stole it from my brother so it’s quite big,” he offered, keeping his eyes on my face. “And it’s dark so even if you get it wet…”
I felt my eyes tear a little. “Thanks, Naveen.” He huffed, and I saw his face was twisted with frustration and what could only be pain. “What is it?”
“I know it isn’t fair but I know now you won’t even let me hug you and…” He snapped his mouth shut. “Forget it,” he decided, and turned to the door.
“Stop,” I ordered and he did, shoulders tense. I paused for a long second, waiting for the wolf to make me cringe, but I felt nothing. The wolf was there, focused on his Alpha, but he wasn’t trying to take over. I wondered if Naveen’s wolf was – if that’s what this was about. “Do you need to touch me or do you want to?”
He turned to me with those huge eyes of his all wild, fists clenched by his side. “How am I supposed to know the difference?!”
“Well… if is it different than before…” I glanced down without actually looking at my middle.
“Yes, but what’s that got to do with want or need? I would want to touch you more. I am meant to touch you more because…”
“Because you don’t do this with someone you don’t want to touch, Devlin! It’s not rocket science!” he snapped, sounding really annoyed. I felt for the wolf again, it still didn’t seem to find Naveen’s raised voice upsetting. Of course, I did. We hadn’t gone into it under false pretences, but I could hear the hurt in his voice. I could see him working to keep himself in check. I had been in love before, I knew what it was like to question whether your feelings were returned. How much worse did it have to be to know they weren’t?
“Rami will hear you,” I told him as gently as I could and he took a deep shaky breath, then another.
He nodded at me, almost formally. “I won’t say anything to him.”
“I know you won’t.”
“Even if you don’t come to the lake, I won’t,” he added, sounding sad. And I realised it could come off as quite insulting if he thought I was trying to bribe him into staying silent.
And it was exactly what I had been doing, in a way, except rewarding him for keeping my secrets wasn’t bribing, was it?
“It’s not like that…” I explained, “It’s just that I got tired of arguing. And it is unbearably hot.”
Naveen gave me an earnest look, but his mouth dipped into a soft smile. “Okay, because you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Ever.”
I nodded, not actually agreeing with the words but with the sentiment behind them. “I will get changed.”
The moment we got to the lake, Naveen dragged Rami in with him, giving me a meaningful look behind his back. I followed, sinking in a swoop of glorious, freezing cold joy. Getting in wasn’t the problem, of course, with the way the water distorts things getting noticed while in the water wasn’t a concern. It was getting out that worried me. And not just for Rami – Naveen had glimpsed something, but that didn’t mean I was okay with him seeing, properly and starkly and in the light of day. He seemed to know that much, though, because he chose the moment I started swimming towards the shore to tackle Rami. Rami naturally dunked him back, and in their water fight neither had time to look my way as I quickly walked out of the lake, shirt strategically held away from my body as I twisted it to get some water out. Neither of them were wearing shirts, but it wasn’t so odd that I was. This way I wouldn’t burn. That was my excuse if Rami asked. But Rami didn’t ask. It wasn’t like Rami to go around interrogating anyone about what they had decided to wear or not.
Thanks to Naveen’s labours, the picnic turned out strangely spicy. Hardboiled eggs weren’t meant to be eaten with salt (although he magnanimously didn’t object) but pepper, and every sandwich seemed to contain chilli, even the plain ham and egg ones. It wasn’t exactly good, but it paid off because Rami and I managed to make Naveen blush with our teasing. After a bit he started to look really miffed and I remembered our conversation this morning. I was sitting across from him on the blanket and I couldn’t think of a single way to touch him subtly. But I had to show him, somehow, because it wasn’t Naveen I was angry at. I couldn’t have lived with them if I had felt threatened all the time. I didn’t know if his need was an Alpha thing or a Naveen thing, or maybe just something his family had told him he needed to the point where he believed it enough to make it real. But I believed in the distress it was causing him, and I believed in saying thank you when someone was kind.
“Jokes aside, it was lovely,” I told him. “I feel like my brain isn’t mush for the first time in days.” Then I asked, “Do you want to come here?” because it turned out I couldn’t make myself move closer. Naveen’s eyes widened but he didn’t hesitate; he crawled across the blanket till he was close and waited for instructions. I opened my arms. “Sit with your back to me.”
He nodded, but did it slowly and carefully, like he didn’t quite trust the offer. I put my arms around his middle and he tilted his head back against my shoulder, and just melted into me with a little sigh of satisfaction. I instinctively tightened my hold and looked up right into Rami’s startled eyes. He stared for a moment longer before raising his eyebrows in question. I didn’t know what the question was, but watching the barely concealed longing on his face and with Naveen’s weight on me, I knew the answer. I lifted a hand off Naveen’s side, causing him to whine low in his throat and rub his cheek against my collarbone, and extended it in invitation.
Rami hesitated, without knowing about our conversation it must have looked like quite a sudden change to him, but then he just did it, came close enough to give Naveen’s thigh a squeeze. “I don’t think you can hold us both,” he told me rather shyly.
I thought about how to phrase it. I didn’t know if I wanted to explain that it was him holding me that was the issue, that I was afraid it would be too much like him holding me down. “You could sit down next to me,” I offered. He nodded, then carefully manoeuvred to press himself close to my side and Naveen’s. Rami glanced down at him but spoke to me. “He said something to you,” he said, not quite an accusation.
“He promised he would,” I rebuked. Naveen didn’t even twitch in my arms, seemingly content to let me deal with Rami.
“Talking to you and telling you every thought that crosses my mind isn’t the same thing,” Rami explained, sounding annoyed even as he cautiously leaned closer. He put his hand on my lower back and I tensed. He took it back. “Like whatever is going through your mind now, you don’t have to tell me.”
“Try again,” I told him instead, and pressed Naveen closer, as if he was a security blanket. He didn’t complain, making a sleepy sound and trying to burrow deeper into my arms. Rami returned his hand to my back and waited. I closed my eyes but no unwanted images came; he had a hand on me, yes, but he wasn’t restraining me at all or moving me. “Okay, put your arm around me.” It was nothing like being held bent over, uncomfortable and painfully turned on.
“Touch his hair,” Naveen suggested from practically my lap. He seemed so loose-limbed that he kept sliding lower. “I miss Devlin’s hair, it’s so soft…” He didn’t seem to find anything strange about asking Rami to do it, as if somehow he would gain satisfaction from it. “And he always does that shudder thing when you touch his hair and I want…” He trailed off, sounding sleepy and content. Rami slid his hand up, soft on top of the still wet t-shirt, till he got to the nape of my neck and he could bury his fingers in the longest hair I had ever had. A shiver ran up my spine. Naveen was right, I loved the touch.
And then Rami asked, “Can I touch them?” and I flinched so hard I would have rolled away altogether if Naveen hadn’t been cradled between my legs.
“Devlin!” Rami said rather testily. “Why do you think I’m asking if I’ll just do it anyway?”
I pushed at Naveen’s shoulders to get out from under him, and he huffed and moved, complaining to Rami. “Look what you have done now. I was having the best spooning session of my life.”
I got to my feet, making sure to pull the shirt away from my body first. The first thing I saw when I looked up again was Rami tilting his head and closing his eyes. He was listening, I realised. To me.
“What the fuck?” I screamed, shrill enough to hurt a werewolf paying that much attention. “Didn’t you just say you wouldn’t do it without asking?!”
Rami rubbed his ears, looking up at me in confusion. “I didn’t touch you…”
“Oh, of course, so it’s alright to listen to my insides. After all, I belong to you, don’t I?”
“What? No! I belong to you!” he said this angrily, like he resented the power I had over him.
“That’s insane, Rami! You don’t fucking belong to me! You belong to you and I belong to myself and Naveen to himself and I can do all the other pronouns too if you want! People aren’t possessions, that’s it.”
“Belonging is not about possession, it’s about love,” Naveen said softly from where he was still sitting on the sand.
I shook my head. “Not the way Alphas and Omegas do it. Not when it means you have power over someone beyond… beyond them wanting to make you happy.”
“But it’s okay if you have power because… they love you?” Naveen asked with a frown.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s okay,” I hesitated, knowing there was nothing theoretical about this. “But they can walk away from you if you are not acting like you love them back so it’s not the same as belonging.”
“Because it isn’t forever,” Naveen said.
“Yes!” I agreed. “Because you can choose it! Every fucking day you can wake up and decide if you wanna put up with the dirty dishes and the late bills and the bad moods. And if one day you don’t, then you can walk. You don’t have to stay and be unhappy.”
“Plenty of people stay anyway,” Rami muttered.
“Well, yes, but that is also their choice,” I huffed. “Do you guys think I’m not attracted to you? Or that I wouldn’t have agreed to a date if we had met at university, or a bar or something?”
Naveen got to his knees and tugged gently at my calf. I hesitated, then found a fallen log and took a seat a good five meters away from them both. It wasn’t like they’d have trouble hearing me.
“We are giving you the choice now,” Naveen told me, eyes fixed on mine through the distance with such intensity that it felt like no distance could have protected me. “We will always give you all the choices there are, and if there aren’t enough, we will find ways for there to be.”
“So you would let me walk away?” I asked and their postures stiffened. I shook my head, realising I had asked the question wrong. “Not… not them. Me.”
Naveen didn’t hesitate, even though his eyes were bright. “Yes.”
Rami shook his head. “I wouldn’t let you. I can’t let you do shit. And ‘letting’ you would be useless, anyway. I would open the door for you if I could, Devlin. If I could give you what you truly want… if I could, I would free you.”
I had to look away at that, feeling my own eyes grow wet. I was more than close enough for them to be able to see me cry. It wasn’t the first time they had told me they loved me, or the first time anybody had indulged in romantic confession towards me. But this time it was different: it meant more. Rami wasn’t simply in love with me; he knew me, too. And he loved the person he knew, not just romantically or sexually, but at a level that meant he wanted to put me before his own needs. And Naveen… the way he had just pushed through his pain and given it to me, by all appearances so distressed by the idea that it was as if his agreement meant that I actually would leave.
I just didn’t know if I could live up to that. It was as unfair an advantage as they had over me, and I worried I was too hurt and too scared to ever return their feelings.
I didn’t know how to fall in love. With Jiang I hadn’t, and with Dan I had. They had become my lovers and somewhere along the way, Jiang had ended up my mate and Dan my boyfriend. But neither they nor I had started our respective relationships with any expectations except trying it out and being a decent person to the other while we did it. It had been a choice every day.
Except that I had never chosen to fall for Dan. It was something that had happened to me, just life handing out its cards without asking for any input. Just like it had been when I had gone from being a child to being less of a person, someone destined to follow and have his decisions made for him. That was the worst thing, I think: they were just accidents. There wasn’t a grand plan in which I was meant to become an Omega and be trapped forever by the workings of my reproductive system. And there hadn’t been a grand plan for love, either – that prison I had chosen again and again, that pain I had relished because it meant the joy was real, too. It could have gone a different way, but it hadn’t.
And here I was again, fate dropping something on my hands I couldn’t handle: two men who loved me and wanted to protect me, even as they desired me in ways I didn’t want to accept. Even if their love was a direct denial of that desire. Asking them to deny it was selfish of me and not returning their love seemed like a terrible cruelty, but I couldn’t argue with my heart any more than I could argue with the universe. I didn’t have a choice. I met Rami’s eyes, then Naveen’s, and I understood something else, something I hadn’t admitted till now even though they had been trying to tell me: they didn’t either, they couldn’t stop feeling what they did.
There was one difference: they could have walked away, or they could have simply taken what they wanted from me. And that was the choice they were making, the only possible choice they could make, it seemed, and be true to themselves. If I hadn’t loved them a little for their kindness, I would have had to love them for being brave enough to let me see their weakness for me. I knew enough about powerlessness that my breath couldn’t help but catch at someone willingly handing me the key to their happiness. And they had done, time and time again: never knowing if I would honour it, never knowing if I would be careful.
I couldn’t respond to Rami’s promise. Instead, I offered, “I don’t mean to keep them from you, Rami. I just… I feel… invaded. I would hand them over to you this instant, if I could!”
“I’m sorry you feel like that,” Rami said, face closing up. “I just want to… I want to be close to them.”
“I… I understand that,” I said. “I just…”
“You let me listen before,” he pointed out gently.
I stared at him, feeling like my throat was closing up. I glanced at Naveen for help, and he seemed surprised. But then he started to speak slowly, eyes firmly on me. “It’s different now because Devlin…” he paused, giving me time to signal for him to stop. I waved my hand for him to continue instead and allowed myself to look away. “He is showing,” Naveen finished very quietly, almost as if he didn’t want me to have to hear it out loud.
Rami gasped. “You are?”
I slumped forward, elbows on my knees, hands on my hair so I could stare at the ground. “I noticed a few days ago.”
“And you have been freaking out over it ever since,” Rami deduced.
I shrugged. What was there to say? That I hadn’t looked myself in the mirror for a week for fear of finding another sign of it? That I could barely get dressed because I didn’t like my hands anywhere near my midsection?
“I told you I would do everything in my power to help you,” Rami said when I was silent. “Is there something?”
I knew it wasn’t going to happen, but I idly wondered if it was even physically possible for me to have an abortion. Would it work like a caesarean birth? And would any werewolf doctor in the world perform the procedure? I had never heard of it, although there was no particular reason I could think of that would keep female Omegas from going to a human doctor so if anything. It was me and my fellow male Omegas who wouldn’t have the choice. Werewolf pups were resilient compared to human babies but they would still… I shuddered and clutched at my own belly. I couldn’t help it. I knew they weren’t even fully formed humanoids yet but I didn’t want them to suffer. I didn’t want them to die.
“Can I come sit next to you?” Naveen asked me, getting to his knees in preparation.
“Come,” I said. And Naveen came and sat on the ground, leaning back on the tree trunk and leaning his head against my arm till I pulled it from under him and tangled my hand in his hair, letting him rest it on against my hip instead. Once he was settled I looked at Rami. He was watching us warily from the same spot in which we had been sitting earlier. I tilted my head to my other side in invitation, and he walked up to me slowly and then looked at the trunk and the ground as if unsure of where he could sit. I patted the trunk next to me, and he took a seat, his height making him wobble a little before I put an arm around his back to keep him steady.
“Thanks,” he said quietly.
“You are welcome,” I replied, and tugged him closer till I could lean my head on his shoulder. He curled closer around me, sighing a little, and I didn’t feel trapped by his weight against me. Just warm.
After that, I made an effort to be more affectionate. Mostly, I started holding their hands while we watched TV, but I also took a page out of Naveen’s book and offered to feed them.
The first time I extended a spoon towards Naveen for him to try a sauce while his hands were busy, he froze for so long I almost couldn’t keep back my laughter.
“It’s good,” he proclaimed, almost before he had had time to swallow, much less taste.
I played along. “Enough salt?”
“Mmmm…. I don’t know, give me more.”
So I did, carefully pushing the spoon against his lips till he leaned forward and, more slowly this time, sucked the food off it. He kept his eyes firmly on mine as he visibly pressed his tongue against his palate. “Well,” he decided, eyes lightening up, “it’s not chocolate, but it’s really good. It doesn’t need more salt.”
It made no sense to speak of chocolate when I was making carbonara, except of course it did. To him and me. I wasn’t going to go back to his bed and we both knew it, so it didn’t hurt to flirt. It felt like both a reminder that I was safe and a rekindling of our physical connection to acknowledge that attraction was an undercurrent present in all our interactions.
Before leaving the kitchen, Naveen leaned in and placed a chaste kiss on my cheek. I could still feel it there, like a brand, by the time I served them dinner.