Book: The Mating Habits of Werewolves

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Next: Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Fifteen

Giving

 

I knew Rami was anxious to feel the pups, but I couldn’t quite make myself sit down and let him touch me there. Instead, on his birthday a few weeks later, I gave him an ultrasound recording. Doctor Lynn hadn’t blinked when I had asked for it after refusing to even look at the others, but I hadn’t been able to watch it by myself. I figured I could always look away while he and Naveen watched if I couldn’t handle it.

Rami let out a soft sound of surprise when he took the DVD out of the plain white envelope. “Oh, is this…?” He glanced up at me, and I nodded, trying to keep my apprehension from my face. He smiled and, taking hold of my hand, slowly leaned in and placed a soft kiss on my cheek. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” I replied, rather nonsensically. If it hadn’t been a problem, I would have given it to him weeks earlier.

“Is it okay if I watch it now?” he asked, and painfully hopeful.

I looked up. “Yeah! It’s yours, do… whatever. Just…” I waved him in the direction of the laptop lying on the low table in front of the TV. I wasn’t sure whose it was.

It had been a nice birthday. I had got my uncle Richie, who wasn’t that much of a pillock when both his daughters and his mate weren’t all pregnant simultaneously, to make his famed caramel cheesecake. Then I had made a roast for dinner and we hadn’t bothered with plates for the cake. Rami had seemed to like to join in with the feeding flirting thing Naveen and I had perfected over the last few weeks. Still, this was what he wanted, what he had asked for, again and again. And I still didn’t know how I would feel watching it. I had got used to the sound of their heartbeats by now: they had long ago got too loud for me to ignore, and it had woken me up a few times when one of them got anxious for some unimaginable baby reason. But it was different to see, because it didn’t matter than half of me was a wolf, I was still a man and I believed in what I could see.

The moment he popped the DVD into his computer and the video started playing, I realised it wasn’t so much a gift as torture: the quality of ultrasounds is not great, and with two shapes to distinguish from the background and each other… as far as I could tell it could have been any living creature at all.

But it wasn’t just that, it didn’t feel like them. For a werewolf, any video is but a pale imitation of real vision, even high definition television hasn’t made that huge of a difference for us. Unlike humans, wolves focus on the details and while video makes a pretty convincing whole, it transmits depth and texture as well as it does, say, smell. Not to go into subtler things like temperature. We can recognise people or wolves we have met in pitch darkness, but we might have trouble telling the girl in the photograph is our own mother even if our mother is unlikely to have changed that much in the intervening years. So what could a video tell him about them?

I scrambled to pause it. And Naveen turned to give me an odd look, but Rami just stared at the screen, utterly transfixed even as his mouth twisted down.

“It’s not good, is it?” It was bad enough that I wasn’t even remotely freaked out. It was just too unreal.

Naveen seemed about to complain, but he realised I was asking Rami, whose present it presumably was.

“It’s better than nothing,” Rami said, eyes still on the screen.

“But not much,” I sighed. “Dammit, I thought…”

“It’s fine, Devlin,” Rami assured me, completely honest. “I like it.”

“I know it’s fine,” I said, trying to keep my frustration at bay; it was his present I had ruined. “But I wanted to give you something that would make you worry less about them, and this isn’t it.”

Rami shrugged. “It’s just my wolf being stupid about it. I know they are safe.”

“You can listen,” I said impulsively and that got him to look at me.

“I can listen to them?” he repeated, clearly not quite believing it.

I swallowed and forged ahead. “Yes. I… I don’t want to know, but you can. They aren’t just mine.”

“Are you…”

“I won’t even notice,” I insisted. In truth, there was a distinctive advantage to giving him this: I could stop wondering if he was taking it. I didn’t think he was, or he wouldn’t have been as worried as he was, but I couldn’t stop wondering. “And you will stop freaking out. Win-win as far as I’m concerned.”

“Is it okay if I listen, too?” Naveen asked timidly. “Or do I need to wait for my birthday?”

I was about to hit him with a pillow, but Rami beat me to it. A minute later they were rolling around the carpet trying to suffocate each other with excessively flowery pillows. I didn’t join in like I would have if we had been in wolf form, but it made me smile.

 

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In more violent times, elders would have been first in line to defend their packs, as they were the most talented warriors and strategists, and also the adults the pack could more easily spare without risking its existence. But in the age of televisions, pensions and pack festivals instead of councils of war, the elders had to cede their authority to the next generation when the Alpha’s oldest Alpha child reached maturity at the age of forty. For werewolves, it wasn’t such a mature age, and it had been much older for centuries. My father had only become Alpha at forty-five, and my grandfather at sixty, although in his case it had been because he got fed up with his Dominant brother and split.

If I had become Alpha at twenty-six, that would have made me painfully young. Brennan was actually twenty-one years younger than our father had been.

It wasn’t surprising that he was so awkward about approaching me, suddenly appearing at my side as I ran through the forest and trying to give me chase like we were pups. I couldn’t have responded in any acceptable way to such an overture after everything that had happened, but in wolf form, instincts prevailed and I just ran. He gave chase and I lost myself in getting away, then looping back and jumping onto his side, showing my teeth till he pretended to be dead in a move that we had picked up from a young boy training his dog on TV twenty years earlier. As children, before Alpha and Omega meant anything more to us than ‘dad’ and ‘mum’.

I moved away, panting still, but wary. What does he want? My wolf didn’t feel particularly submissive towards its Dominant, even if it wouldn’t consider questioning the fact that he was, in fact, our Alpha and had to be obeyed. It’s hard to translate animal thoughts, but the general impression I got was that our respective roles were perfectly clear and did not bear thinking about unless they became relevant, which they weren’t during play.

Of course, it was the way I had always felt around my brother, and around all the other Alphas in my family. Most of the time, they were just my family. But when I had been away, I had forgotten they were noisy, nosy and annoying most of the time, and I had been left with the times when they thought it was okay to tell me what to do because I was an Omega.

Most of the time, nobody had to tell an Omega what to do, or cared to: it was assumed any Omega over a certain age knew what was okay and what wasn’t and, at worst, might need a little nudge in the right direction. Like a child might need a reminder to go to bed on time to wake up for school, an Omega would be told a child was crying and needed seeing to or asked to please make sure dinner was on time. They were actually conversations adult humans have with each other all the time, except for how modern women can be the ones doing the telling, at least some of the time.

I retreated slowly, keeping my eyes on Brennan’s tawny wolf. He lifted his head from his pretend dead faint and watched me back, but didn’t get to his feet. I turned and ran in the opposite direction, back towards the house. He didn’t follow.

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I was sure my plan to cuddle them into forgetting all about the sex was working. Then, four months into the pregnancy that seemed like the yardstick of all progress in my life, Rami sat me down and made an offer that made it very clear no amount of tenderness would make up for what I wasn’t capable of giving anymore.

“I will let you fuck me,” he said through gritted teeth, and he meant it, too. He was nervous but his pulse was steady and true.

I stared, not sure if I was touched or furious. “No.”

“But you…”

I huffed, and interrupted before the pendulum swung any further towards anger. “I don’t see how… how humiliating you would make anything better for me, Rami.”

“Humiliating me?”

“Are you trying to tell me it won’t be humiliating for you?“

He shrugged, big shoulders rolling under his shirt and his eyes only landing on mine for a second. “It doesn’t have to be, plenty of men…”

“Yes,” I said, looking straight into his face. “But not you. It’s the one thing you can’t compartmentalise away, and I don’t want to make you feel that way, because I’m not an asshole.”

“So you are saying I am,” he said, looking at me now.

I shook my head. “You didn’t do it to humiliate me, you did it because you had to. Because I asked you to.”

“But I enjoyed it,” he insisted, voice so heavy with guilt I almost wanted to apologise for it myself.

I had to look away. The wooden table under my hands seemed full of interesting twirls and turns all of sudden. “Yes, well, I would enjoy putting my dick in you, too, but I don’t think you enjoyed making me feel…” I swallowed. “Used.”

He let out a little high sound of pain, but I didn’t stop. I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t stupid enough to imagine I could ask for the truth from them and not give anything back. “I haven’t really… I haven’t thought of sex, since.” I shook my head and forced myself to meet his eyes. Windows to the soul or not, we had both grown up in a world where it signalled sincerity. “Look, you did what I asked. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong?” he repeated, as if it was torn from his throat. “Devlin, I made you feel used. How can that not be wrong?”

“I asked you for it!”

“I’m not saying it wasn’t consensual,” Rami said. “Although I don’t think it feels that way to you…”

“Don’t fucking tell me how I feel,” I hissed.

He raised a hand. “Okay, I’m sorry. But that’s not what I’m talking about anyway. I’m saying I caused you pain, and yes, maybe your brother got me in that position. But I should have walked away.” His hand went into his hair, fingers tangling in the shorts strands and tugging. “I should have known it was wrong and walked away, and I didn’t.”

“Walked away?” I asked. “And left me with someone who didn’t even care? Who wouldn’t even try?” Just the thought made me shudder with fear so visceral I realised I was still afraid it would happen, that he would leave me and Brennan would find someone else. At some point, I had started to think of Rami and Naveen as a safe haven. It wasn’t so crazy, really, when someone with the amount of power they had over me did everything they could not to abuse that power. I couldn’t help it – I was grateful.

“That doesn’t mean it…” He shook his head. “It doesn’t mean I’m good, Devlin, just that someone else is worse. And I want to be good. I thought I was. Before. And if I’m not, I need to make up for it…”

“You are!” I insisted, growing desperate. The table was between us, but I leaned closer and took hold of his wrist, as if I could keep him there by that alone. “You are trying so hard. Bending the rules left and right to make it easier on me and…”

“I humiliated you,” Rami said, eyes on my hand holding onto him.

“No… you…”

“I did what I had to be done?” He looked up and met my eyes. “And so what? There are no consequences? Devlin, you are… not scared, but you have closed yourself off.” He hesitated. “You have to plan to be able to touch us.”

“I’m not fucking fragile!” I gritted out, and let go of him in a flash.

“Fragile? You are a fucking person, Devlin. Of course you’re affected by what happened!” He got to his feet, chair scraping, and despite everything my heart fell, but he just seemed to need to pace the kitchen. “I can’t see what it has done to you and just… pretend nothing is wrong. I need to make up for it.”

“I don’t want to do it,” I said again. “Are you going to make me? It seems rather a poor way to make up for…” I cut myself off, but I had probably said too much already.

Rami didn’t seem shocked, though – just resigned. He glanced back at me, sadness personified from the fall of his blond hair to the bend of his knees. “No. I’m offering,” he said quietly. “That’s all. I talked to someone... an Omega, and she said it would be okay to ask.”

“You talked to another Omega about this?” I asked in horror, and sprang to my feet. Feeling too vulnerable to keep looking up at him. I couldn’t bear for anybody else to know. I couldn’t take their pity on top of Rami’s.

“Someone you don’t know, from my pack.”

That calmed me a little, till I realised that if it was an Omega Rami was close to, I would meet them anyway. “Who?”

Rami sighed. “My sister.”

“Which sister, Rami?” I insisted, growing impatient. “You have six.”

He straightened a little, like he maybe hadn’t expected me to know that, like he didn’t drop their names in conversation all the time. “Elena.”

“Elena is an Omega?” I asked before I could think better of it. All the stories I had heard about Elena indicated she had kept Rami and Lucille on a short leash all their childhood, and had got started on her younger siblings even earlier.

Rami nodded. And I sat back down, collapsing on the double couch feeling like I had just been beaten up. I realised I was shaking only when Rami’s worried voice reached my ears. “Devlin? Are you ok? I didn’t mean to make you think you had to do anything... that’s the last thing I meant. I just don’t know what to do.”

I exhaled, then inhaled. “I’m okay. I just can’t do it, and I don’t want you to leave.”

“Leave?” Rami repeated, and in an instant he was kneeling in front of me, hands on either side of my legs on the couch, but not touching. “Who said anything about leaving?” he asked, he sounded anguished. “I am staying. In fact, I’m staying till you kick me out. But it just seems like you might want to, with what I did.”

I didn’t raise my eyes, but I lowered my hands to grip his. “I don’t want you to.”

“You don’t? Or are you just afraid of what might happen after?” he asked me rather sadly. And what I could I fucking say? It was true. I was afraid of what would happen if he left me. I felt like hitting him for saying it out loud, and like crying.

“What do you want from me?” I asked in a whisper. It felt like the only way I could keep any of the emotions roiling inside me from my voice.

“I want you to be happy. I want to make you happy.

“I’m fucking trying!” I snapped. I took my hands away and pushed against his chest till he moved aside and let me stand up and pace the room. I had started pacing when the babies had started to move and wouldn’t let me sleep, and then it turned out it soothed them for some reason. It somehow helped make me feel less trapped, too, even though it shouldn’t have, since one only paces because one doesn’t actually have anywhere to go.

“Have you talked to someone about this?” Rami asked, and when I turned to look at him, he was sitting on the floor with his back against the sofa, looking up at me like I held all the light in the world or something stupid like that. I was just a guy, I couldn’t fix everything that was wrong with his life. I couldn’t even fix what was wrong with mine, apparently. I was just stupid enough to believe I could.

“Talked to…?” I laughed, bitterly. “Who do you want me to talk to, Rami? My friends from uni who don’t know I’m a werewolf and are still pissed at me for breaking Dan’s heart? Or maybe the two kids I saw grow up who are in exactly the same situation as I am and dealing much better? Should I burst their bubble? Tell them what it feels like to me so they start wondering if maybe their pretty cages are just cages? Or maybe my mother, who let me walk right in without a warning, but who is very sorry now and promises to help me look after the kids so I can still do my ‘important work’?” By the end I was screaming at him. What I didn’t notice was that I was also crying – not till Naveen walked into the room and I saw his face fall.

“I’m sorry,” he said immediately, and then turned back and I heard him running down the hallway. It surprised me enough to cut my rant short, and when he returned almost immediately with a fist of bunched up toilet paper, I just lost any will to be angry I had left. He rolled it properly and passed me some, then some more when I extended my hand for it.

I swallowed and looked up at him. Naveen’s face was creased with distress. “Can I…?”

He opened his arms to me, and when I nodded, he put them back down and I stepped forward and put my arms around him instead. That would show Rami. Naveen put his fingers through my jeans’ belt hooks, and opened his legs enough to support my weight when I leaned further in. After a while, he tsked, “I can’t leave you guys alone.”

It wasn’t true, of course. I normally didn’t mind being alone with Rami at all. He kept quiet most of the time, and without Naveen around, he rarely even touched me. Of course, now I understood why he was so careful still, when Naveen had taken my unspoken invitations and started returning my casual gestures. Nothing major, but he would hook a finger on my belt and lean in to kiss my cheek, or ruffle my hair when he passed behind my chair. Or offer to hold me when I was upset. Things that did a lot more for my sense of normalcy, for my ability to believe that one day I would be able to function as I had, than jumping into bed to make someone else feel terrible about sex.

The more I thought about it, the stupider Rami’s idea seemed. But it was also true that I couldn’t imagine doing something like that – that the sole idea turned my stomach. Strangely enough, it didn’t feel like Rami should have felt bad: he had done it because I had asked him, and both times he had offered to slow down and to stop. He had known he and Naveen were the best chance I had in my circumstances and he hadn’t been afraid to help, even though for all that it was sex he really wanted to have physically, it still couldn’t have been ideal to have such a reluctant partner.

“Rami was trying to help, I think,” I told Naveen’s neck.

“I was. I’m just terrible at it,” Rami called out from the other side of the room.

“Well, you are really young,” Naveen shot back, and I immediately realised he was referring to the conversation Rami and I had had about him the first time Naveen had kissed me. “You will learn,” he added, less caustically. I brought him closer, not finding it that hard to have him press against my round belly anymore.

“We will all learn,” I said quietly, a little muffled on Naveen’s shoulder. He stroked my hip.

“I think we are doing pretty okay when it’s the three of us, aren’t we?” he said. “I think we mess up when we try to play solo.”

“You and Rami are doing just fine on your own,” I answered, not a little testily. I didn’t understand how they got on so well. Both so different, and both Alphas, they should have clashed on so many levels; instead, they seemed to barely disagree.

“Oh, Devlin, we argue,” Naveen assured me. “It’s just… easier to do it by ourselves.” He leaned back to look at my face. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“What’s there to mind? You have your own relationships with other people.” But I had to look away. “I just wish it was that easy for me, too.”

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Naveen’s uncle Lani, who was actually his second cousin, was nothing like any Omega I had ever met. Not to say that in my experience all Omegas were meek, sweet creatures, but they tended to be polite in that very English way, no matter what anybody was actually saying. Experts in not hearing what would offend them, and most of them happy to be appeased by their interlocutor’s manner instead of the content of their speech. Clara, for example, was a pretty straightforward person, quiet but strong, but she wasn’t confrontational. If she disagreed with an Alpha she’d twist her mouth till they asked what was wrong, or simply pretend she hadn’t heard them and make a different suggestion. It was the way Omegas were supposed to deal with the world.

Lani was downright acidic: his manner gruff, his expression constantly sceptical and his tone making one wonder if the very concept of politeness had been a hallucination.

“Naveen,” he greeted, opening his office door for us. I had been to London twice before, once during a school trip, once during a conference. So I had no idea where we were, but the building was new, all glass and white paint. The man looking back at me looked to be in his forties by human standards, which meant he was at least sixty years old. It was hard to tell sometimes – werewolf ageing wasn’t any more universal than human aging was and I hadn’t met many werewolves of Indian descent. His eyes turned to me, then travelled down to my middle. “You must be the reason for my cousin’s newfound appreciation for my wisdom.”

“I thought you were his uncle,” I said instead of answering.

“No, second cousin. On his bearer’s side. Lots of Omega males in my pack.”

Bearer. Not mother. How strange, I had never heard that word. In my pack Omega males were their children’s mothers and I had never come across the term in a book either.

“Hi, Lani. I remember why I missed you now,” Naveen said quite shortly and walked in without further ado.

“Same reason anybody ever misses me – because they are in trouble.” He eyed me again. “Given, normally not this kind of trouble.”

I greeted my teeth. I didn’t want to antagonise him, but he was treating me more condescendingly than any Alpha ever had. It was all bluster, of course – Lani didn’t have any real power over me. “I need you to tell me how you managed to have a career with… Naveen’s told me you have children.”

“Seven.” Lani replied, like he knew I wanted to know. It sounds like a lot in human terms but it isn’t, not for an Omega male. If the births had been multiples it could mean as little as two pregnancies.

“Yes. So how did you do it?” I waved my hand around the office, as sleek as the exterior and almost minimalist in its décor.

Lani sighed. “Sit,” he ordered and went and got a bottle of mineral water and a couple glasses. He poured us both a glass while explaining, “I would offer you something stronger but I heard it’s frowned upon this days for expectant mothers.”

I had started to reach for my glass so my flinch at his words was completely obvious.

“Oh, boy, you are going to need a thicker skin than that,” he said.

I took my hand back and got to my feet, chair scrapping against the wood. “Do not presume to tell me how I should feel. I am here merely to ask for your advice on practical matters. If you think that gives you the right to intrude on my personal life, you are sorely mistaken.” By the time I finished, Lani didn’t look intimidated by my sharpened teeth or threatening posture, and even though he was heavier, I was thirty years his junior and I could have pounded him if I had wanted to. But he looked… approving.

“So you do have a spine,” he concluded with a smirk that must have made criminals, whatever type he dealt with, throw damning punches in front of judges and juries.

“Lani!” Naveen reprimanded him.

“I just needed to know if I was going to make your boy here cry, Naveen. Untwist your panties.”

“I will not cry,” I told him. “But I might punch you if you don’t quit fucking around and get on with telling me what you know.”

At that he actually laughed, a deep satisfied chuckle. “The words they are teaching Omegas these days! Do you know my father once gave me a good beating because I said ‘damn’ at the dinner table?” He asked me cheerfully. “Of course, I didn’t know any better: he said it, as did half my family.”

“How young were you?” Naveen asked, his heart in his voice.

“Seven or eight, maybe. People showed their colours earlier in those days,” he said. He hadn’t brought a glass for himself so he took a sip from the water left in the bottle. He looked a little absurd, dressed in his sharp black suit and drinking from the large bottle like some kind of sportsman.

But he probably needed the distraction now, and he had laughed more since he had started pushing me than in the entire previous conversation.

In truth, my heart wasn’t far behind Naveen’s, but I kept my emotions off my face: I had never been beaten, but I had learned the hard way to keep my opinions about Omegas to myself and to keep quiet about my disgust at the way others were treated, lest somebody think I should be treated that way and see how righteous it was. To think of a child as young as that being beaten made my bones ache and something deep in me long for blood, but I knew it wasn’t the worst thing that had been done to Lani in the name of making him who he was already meant to be. I hadn’t been spared the stories about people ‘like me’ who always waited for other people to do the most exciting and brave things. I hadn’t missed on the dirty jokes or the low expectations, the constant questions as to why I needed to go to school so badly if I would soon find a nice Alpha to take care of me.

Suddenly I felt sick and I sat back down, bent over a little and breathed through my nose, forcing myself to take deep breaths.

“Have you lost your stomach already?” Lani asked curiously.

“I have been away,” I explained, now that I thought he deserved it. “I have spent the last six years at university in Scotland.”

“Where in Scotland?” He asked, and he wasn’t making conversation.

“St. Andrews. No shifters.”

“So you did this to yourself,” he said spitefully.

Naveen had enough at that, he got to his feet and announced, “Okay, we are going. I will call you later and…”

I ignored him, slowly sitting up. “Yes, I did,” I told Lani looking right into his eyes. “Just like you would have, given the chance.”

Lani sighed and nodded a little. “Fair enough.”

“So how did you get your chance?”

“I just got the right Alpha,” he finally said, bitterness almost absent. “They always tell you; you will be happy as long as you find the right Alpha, don’t they?” he offered. “What do you know? It’s true.”

I waited for him to renounce the argument, laugh in our faces for having believed him. But he didn’t. He just looked back at me, serious but not angry for once. “So he let you…”

“He insisted it was his right to decide what I could do, then he moved with me to a flat near the university where I could actually study when I got home instead of getting roped into helping with dinner. And when we had children, he got one of my younger sisters to move in with us to help look after them so I could continue going to school.”

“Wow,” Naveen said, and then went on to prove he had completely missed Lani’s misgivings. “I didn’t know Uncle Ben was such a rebel!”

I glared at him. “Lani was a rebel, Naveen, his Alpha was just in love with him.”

Naveen looked stunned by the reprimand. “Well, yes, but he defied…”

“It’s true,” Lani interrupted. “He did do it. It took balls, can’t take that away from him.”

“Or you,” I insisted.

He shrugged. “I got what I wanted, I suppose. And now I get eager puppies coming to ask me how I did it.”

“But I don’t understand…” Naveen intervened. “Other Omegas in our pack work. Why is it such a big deal?”

“Ah, I swear you are blind and deaf, too!” Lani suddenly thundered, hands clawing on top of his fine desktop. “How old are these Omegas that work in our pack?”

Naveen took a wise moment to think through his answer. “Well, yes, they are younger than you but…”

“Who do you think they pointed to when they wanted a little freedom, Naveen?” he asked, and it was the first time he used his name to address him instead of to speak about him.

Naveen seemed to lose a decade in age with that. “Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh indeed’,” Lani said. “After Lita came to live with us, Ben encouraged her to take her A levels.”

“Ben?” Naveen repeated. “I thought you were the rebel.”

“I had enough rebelling for my own life, not much left for anybody else. I was sorry for Lita and the rest of them, too, but it was their lot in life and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“But you did.” I felt it bore repeating. Now that the focus was on him, he seemed to have lost some of his harshness.

“I didn’t mean to. I just meant to get somewhere I could live with myself.”

“That sounds about right,” I agreed. “So how do I get there, oh wise one?” I asked, and I meant it. If he had done what he said… I could take a few lessons from him all right, but I didn’t think he liked the eagerness or could take the compliments. I knew why: he didn’t think he had done enough, but being where he had once been, I knew it was pretty hard to rescue anybody when you yourself were drowning. He had done more than most.

“First, are you bonding?” He glanced at Naveen, including him in a question for the first time. But Naveen was silent, and I knew too well why to let the silence sit.

“How is that relevant?”

“Isn’t it obvious? If your Alpha stands by you, it’d be very hard for a Dominant to make you do anything you don’t want. An Alpha can leave a pack and take his Omega along wherever he likes.”

“Leave…” I repeated. As an Omega, I didn’t have the right, of course, so I had done the next best thing and got permission to distance myself from… from my father, who all my life had been my Alpha. Lani wasn’t suggesting anything that strange, really – just the same old trick but relaying on Naveen and Rami instead. I thought I could trust them, but… “Is that the best solution you can come up with?”

“I’m a human lawyer, boy. I can’t find a loophole in the magic.”

“A magical lawyer would make more money,” I commented resignedly. I have told you before how foolish I am about getting my hopes up, haven’t I? “Fine, let’s say I’m bonding. That’s it. My brother has to accept it when I take a job. What do I do about the pregnancy, though? There’s no way I can hide it.”

“You will need to register a change of sex, of course.”

“I… what are you talking about?”

“Boy, you are pregnant. Forget work, what do you think will happen when you show up to register your kid at the Town Council?” He tsked reprovingly and continued. “They will ask who the mother is.”

I paused and realised that despite knowing I couldn’t give birth at a hospital, I had assumed legal matters would take care of themselves. Naveen squeezed my elbow and, to my shameful relief, intervened, “But changing legal sex is a new thing, isn’t it? How did they do it before that was allowed?”

Lani shrugged. “They registered only the father, of course. After all, that’s who the children were for, anyway.”

“Well, we…”

No,” I snapped, grinding my teeth. I hadn’t wanted children, but like hell were they going to take them away from me.

Naveen’s eyes widened in obvious hurt. “You don’t think I would…”

Before I could rip him a new one, his uncle told him. “Don’t be stupid, boy. He ought to have his legal rights over his children. Same as you. He shouldn’t have to go depending that you are never going to get angry or do something stupid on top of everything else. Like die.”

I looked up at him, noticing he had called Naveen ‘boy’, too. Lani met my eyes straight on, and there was something in them that calmed me down. He was Naveen’s family, but he was on my side. He wanted to help me. And, strangely, I trusted him to. “Is there no other way?”

“There’s applying for intersex status,” he admitted with reluctance. “But faking the tests is complicated and is not any truer.”

“Wouldn’t a doctor need to fake tests for this as well?”

“No, we have our own doctors and with pregnancy hormones it’s pretty easy to conclude femaleness. None of that tricky phenotyping required.”

I leaned forward, taking a deep breath. It seemed like every time I thought things were okay, that they might get better, something like this came at me from out of the blue.

Lani continued, “It will be on the birth certificate, and on a passport, if you got one. But now again, two people in my entire pack have one. It won’t change anything else.”

And it was true, wasn’t it? He believed it, in any case: he had said it steadily and without hesitating. It would just be a piece of paper saying I was female. Just a piece of paper, with a stamp, sure, but nothing would really change. Except… those pieces of paper existed because we gave value to paper, to words. We wrote in them and promised each other we were telling the truth through complicated rituals that were, in the end, no guarantee of anything unless we followed through. But I was following through, in a way that was so self-evident I didn’t even need real proof: I was having a baby – babies – and in the tidy word of legal labels, that was something that got you ‘female’ on a piece of paper.

“Devlin?” Naveen asked me nervously.

I wasn’t female, no matter what anybody did to my body. I wouldn’t stop being a man, but in that moment I finally understood something else: I was going to be a parent. And that meant something very simple: putting someone else before you, their needs above yours. It wasn’t something I had wanted, but it wasn’t something I could take back or refuse to do.

I nodded, not looking at either of them. Maybe it was a choice – to be the type of person I knew myself to be, circumstances be damned.

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Never have I felt more out of the loop than when one morning I walked into the kitchen for breakfast to find Rami sitting with a duffel bag at his feet.

Cold dread turned to nausea, before that very sensation reminded me that Rami might get tired of me, but he would never walk out on his kid.

"I'm just going back... to my pack, for a bit," he offered by way of the explanation my expression must have demanded, but we both knew he had almost said ‘home’.

"Is everything ok?" I said, keeping my voice level with some effort. I wanted to be angry. Here he was, once again making an important decision without even talking to me first. Had he been waiting for me to wake up, or had I just caught him before he left? I couldn’t tell. His coffee cup was still hot enough that vapour rose from it, but I didn’t normally wake up this early.

"Yes, yes,” he assured me, enthusiastically enough that it could have disguised his stuttering pulse, but I knew him too well for that by now. “Just that I have been gone for months and I have never been away from my family for this long before and I thought... it's actually only a two hour drive. Why the hell not? So I'm going."

I stared. All of it was perfectly reasonable, except that Rami wasn't a man to follow his whims. He made fun of me for my need for tidiness, but he would have planned every outing a year in advance if he could have.

"Sure," I agreed, pouring hot water into a teacup. After all the freedom I asked for, I couldn’t very well demand that he inform me of his every move, even if it hurt that he hadn’t. "When do you get back?" I prodded as casually as I could manage.

"Ah...” He took a sip of his drink. “I haven't decided, really. Magdalena has a recital next week she wants me to attend..."

I didn't say anything, but something must have given me away because he put his cup down and rose from his chair so he could come close enough that I had to look up him. "Devlin, I'm coming back. You know that, don't you?"

I took a sip of tea, putting to the test the British notion that tea could cure all ills. "I don't, actually. You are... I mean, I know you wouldn't leave your kid but…"

"I wouldn't leave you,” he interrupted almost angrily. “I made you a promise, didn't I?"

"If something's happened..." I started.

"I need a little time away, that's all."

"Did I do... is this because I said I wouldn't have sex with you?"

He flinched so violently I thought I had hit the nail on the head, and my mind immediately started spinning with the possible solutions. I almost missed it when he said, "No."

"No?" I repeated uncomprehendingly.

"No, it has nothing to do with you," he declared with such finality that I found myself unable to ask another question.

"Is there anything I can do?" I asked after a minute.

Rami gave me a soft, tired smile. "Just take care of yourself while I'm gone."

"I always take care of myself," I snipped back but the tenderness crept into my voice unbidden.

I was going to miss him.

Previous: Chapter Fourteen
Next: Chapter Sixteen