I followed the smell of freshly baked bread and frying bacon to the kitchen. Although the whole pack lived together in the same area, this was the house my father and mother had shared, the one where Brennan and I had grown up. The place I had always called ‘home’ till I had got my own flat back in St. Andrew’s. And the kitchen had changed little, as had my mom, who looked closer to my own age than hers due to the delayed ageing of werewolves. But it wasn’t my dad and brother at the table partaking of a late breakfast. Instead, two men I had never seen before sat across Brennan. Brennan had taken the seat my dad had favoured; not an obvious position like the head of the table, just a spot from where he could watch the field and houses through the window, and have a view of my mother at the counter. For as long as I could remember, he had been as besotted with her as any kid with his first love, and she had brightened under his gaze like he was the sun to her. Nobody had arranged their match, they had simply fallen in love along the perfect lines the pack had outlined for each of them. An unimaginable stroke of good fortune. Unimaginable for me, at least.
The two men had their backs were to the door, but I could tell they both perceived my presence instantly. Unsurprising, as no werewolf would miss another in their midst, and no Alpha would miss an Omega. They got to their feet as if the Queen herself had walked in, turning to me with transparently eager expressions. I didn’t know them but I could tell by their scents that they had been around my pack for longer than a few hours. It was odd, like finding a stranger wearing familiar clothes. My sense of smell told me they were pack, but I didn’t recognize the scent underneath, or their faces. The smaller man was maybe a little taller than me, his skin a dark bronze and his factions speaking of Indian descent. He had the blackest eyes I had ever seen, not just dark, but like no light could ever touch them. His gaze was uncomfortably intense, though his posture was unthreatening, almost too eager. He is really young, I remember thinking.
The other man was the first to extend a hand to me. “Rami,” he declared, and I took his hand before I had consciously decided to. English politeness, maybe. An Alpha’s command, more likely.
I swallowed. “Devlin.” His hand was warm and a little rough from work. He had looked big from across the room, but he dwarfed me from up close, making me look up to meet his steady brown gaze. I only noticed he had been holding my hand for too long when the younger man came up to us and nudged him softly.
“You think I get to shake Devlin’s hand sometime today?” he asked Rami, but his mischievous eyes were on me.
Rami blinked and stepped back, taking his hand with him.
“Naveen,” the other Alpha told me with a disproportionate grin. He is happy to meet me, I thought. He took my hand in his and slid his fingers between mine slowly – more a caress than a greeting, and his smile turned into a smirk when he saw me react to the sensuality of the move.
Instantaneously, Brennan was on his feet as well and walking towards us. “I need to check on Adora, so now that you guys have met…”
Naveen nodded, letting my hand go perhaps a little too hastily under the Dominant Alpha’s gaze. “Of course.”
And then we were alone, with my mother. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my mother. But she’s a quintessential Omega: she loves all the traditions and thinks the restrictions are only for our protection, and she is genuinely grateful to Alphas for keeping us safe. For a long time I was really angry with her about it because as a kid I had believed her when she told me those things, and when I had realised I didn’t have those feelings of submission that were meant to come naturally to me I had felt like a failure and a freak. And then when I had realised that what I felt wasn’t so rare, that Clara did not like to be ordered around either and neither did many other Omegas… I had become angry that she had made me feel so terrible when the reason I felt bad was that I hadn’t chosen to be this way. That because I was this way I didn’t get to choose anything else.
“So, Naveen,” she started cheerily, setting a cup of freshly brewed tea in front of me. “You come from the North London pack, don’t you? I always thought big cities were such a crazy place for werewolves to settle!”
I took a sip without even thinking, immediately comforted at the perfect brew even as I couldn’t quite forgive my mother for the ambush. Could I have not come back? I wondered. I hadn’t even considered it, Brennan had already been my Alpha. The wolf had known his voice even from afar, of course, but before I had step back into the house…
Naveen shrugged, retaking his place at the table. I set my cup down, a heaviness settling over me.
“Well, you learn young to block out sounds and smells,” I heard him explain from my dazed state. “But London has a lot of parks, and a lot of squirrels and foxes, too,” he added with that grin that said, Aren’t I ridiculous? You totally find me charming.
I didn’t, although I’d have probably remained indifferent to squirrels and diverse cute animals in my intense and sudden apathy. But my mum seemed to, at least: she laughed a little at that before turning to Rami.
“What about you, dear? I have completely forgotten where your pack is from.”
“Not far, Yorkshire,” he said, not that anybody with ears needed to be told that’s what the twang in his voice was.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care where they came from or how big their packs were, but I couldn’t help tuning out and just watching them. After all, I was attracted to men and I was being given a choice between these two. And not just that, I wanted to know them. No, I needed to know them: whoever I choose would have immense power over me, and I would never forgive myself if I fucked up the only choice I was being given. It was absurd; I could fix nothing by choosing one of them over the other. No matter how kind he was to me, it was the power he would have that would crush me. But people reduced to making insignificant choices tend to give them bigger significance than actually they have. You can be so desperate for some control over your fate that you end up convincing yourself that if you just go for butter over marmalade on your toast it will guarantee an auspicious day.
I wanted to be happy. I wanted to believe I could be, even under my new restricted circumstances. So I tried to make the right choice. I tried to believe there was one.
Despite how different from each other they were physically and personality wise, it wasn’t a choice I was finding easy. Naveen was closer to my ‘type’ – leaner, strong but not muscled and extroverted in a way I, as a fundamentally quiet person, found captivating. But in a different way it was Rami who fit my ideal more closely: his body was larger than I favoured but he had incredibly well formed lips and eyes, eyelashes that were longer than they appeared and darker than anybody that blonde should have without mascara. And he was quiet, yes, but there was a solidity to every word he did utter, a certainty that was clearly missing from Naveen, even though my mum made sure to ask their ages and he was only a year older.
Both of them were younger than me, of course. I could just imagine Brennan’s answer if I objected on such grounds: what else could I expect when I had spent my ‘youth’ wasting away in a library? Alphas my age had families by now, he would have said.
“Would you like to have dinner tonight?” Rami asked almost casually. He even put some cake into his mouth after saying it and chewed it. After her extensive interrogation, my mum had fled the kitchen having forgotten to pay some bills that were due. Strangely, she had only remembered the date the moment Rami had been coaxed to tell her his birthday was on the 5th of December. Knowing how organized she was about household affairs, I had a hard time believing it, but it wasn’t like I could hide behind her skirt forever. I was an adult and sooner rather than later I would have to deal with one of this men very personally. There wasn’t much I got to decide but I certainly wasn’t going to give up the little choice I did have to someone else. I glanced at Naveen, who smiled at me.
“Sure,” I said, mostly to Rami. I wasn’t sure of anything. For starters it kind of seemed like it was both of them asking me, and wasn’t that odd? “Where should we meet?”
“I have a car,” Rami explained. “We’ll pick you up at seven, if that’s cool?”
I was apparently the only one surprised by the double dinner invitation. Later, when Rami showed up on black Peugeot 208, Naveen jumped out of the co-pilot’s seat and invited me to take his place with a dramatic bow, only belied by his self-deprecating smile.
He then immediately got going about the rib restaurant the pack’s been frequenting. I knew it well. The pack had been going to Benny’s for as long they have lived in Windermere. I think the place wouldn’t have done as well against fancier competition without the custom of the hungriest carnivores in the area. But I didn’t tell Naveen; otherwise I would have had to come up with a new topic of conversation.
Of course this turned out to be a mistake; the moment I walked in the owner’s son spotted me and freaked out a little.
“Devlin?” He almost squeaked and before I knew it I found myself enveloped in Bernardo’s arms. Bernardo, never ever Benny, had been one of the only friends I had had outside school growing up. I never quite knew why we were friends – we had little in common besides an obsession with well-cooked meat (which for us meant barely cooked meat), inherited by tradition and genetics respectively, and a knack for finding seldom used tracks in the wilderness. “I haven’t seen you in, what, two years?”
I nodded, smiling. I couldn’t help it. Bernardo was the happiest guy I knew. “I think so. I think we missed each other last couple times I was down from uni.” Suddenly I became aware of Naveen and Rami again, I gave Bernardo a half smile and pointed my thumb at them. “I’m kinda in the middle of something… but we should definitely catch up sometime.”
Bernardo glanced at them and his eyes widened. “Oh, sure.” He seemed to have trouble keeping his eyes on me, but I didn’t follow his gaze. In my human form I couldn’t tell much of what the Alphas were feeling and I wanted to keep it that way. If I didn’t know what they wanted, I couldn’t be forced to give it to them. He led us to a table by the back window, looking directly onto the lake. I thanked him and asked for a beer. Bernardo turned to Rami, who simply put up two fingers.
“Me, too,” Naveen added, smiling too wide at him.
And then we were alone and the silence was all the heavier for the background noise of happy dinners. I decided to try. “We always come here. And they love us because we order a lot.”
“I wish you had told me.” Naveen had taken the seat across from me, leaving Rami to choose sides. Rami sat next to him. I didn’t know if that was odd, I had only even dated one guy at once, who knew what was the protocol for two? Especially because it isn’t a date, I reminded myself, if it was a date you could walk out of here alone.
I shrugged. “You seemed like you were putting yourself in the mood by talking about it,” I explained, and it wasn’t quite an excuse: he did get awfully excited about things he liked and he was right, it was kind of hard not to be charmed by it.
Rami snorted. “Well, now I am starving.” He glance at Naveen. “Thanks a lot, man,” he told him and turned directly to a returning Bernardo like he had already known he was there.
Here is something you need to know about werewolf senses: they are not magical or mean that you are omniscient. We can perceive more in the spectrum than humans do, but we do not have an ability to filter it effectively that’s any superior to a regular person’s. My ears and Naveen’s had probably picked up Bernardo’s heartbeat, but neither of us had been listening for it and so it hadn’t stood out from any of the other heartbeats that were going around the room, our own included. Rami, for some reason, had been listening. And that was odd – in the 21st century, there weren’t that many reasons for a werewolf to be paying that much attention in a restaurant. Life simply wasn’t dangerous enough to warrant such caution. Maybe he’s just that hungry.
Rami proceeded to order a whole rack before turning to me. “Would you like something else?”
I hesitated. “Chips,” I said and raised my eyes to Bernardo. “The garlic ones?”
He nodded, obviously trying not to let his curiosity show. I couldn’t blame him. Both Rami and I were wearing dress shirts and although Naveen hadn’t gone that far, the collar of his navy blue sport shirt was popped and he smelled like cologne. Nobody could mistake this for a casual outing.
“Cheers, mate,” I told him and took my first sip of beer. It was excellent. Not that it was such good quality, really – it was just that it was the beer I had learned to like beer with.
Bernardo nodded. “No problem. Be right back.”
“I really hate that word,” Rami commented, raising his glass to me before drinking. I shifted on my chair, confused and feeling like I had messed up just by drinking up. It was completely ridiculous, but I felt like I hadn’t followed his lead properly and was now in uncertain territory.
Naveen wasn’t as self-conscious, though, he just went ahead and asked, “What word?”
“Mate,” Rami explained, half sneering.
Naveen gave him an incredulous look. “Is this a Yorkshire thing? Are you guys not English? Coz ‘mate’ is like… I don’t know, basic English.”
“That’s not all it means, though, is it?” Rami replied, frowning.
“Oh, you mean…” Naveen’s eyes wandered to me for a moment. “Well, yeah, that’s something else. But that’s different: that’s my mate.”
Rami was quiet, and I wondered if I was supposed to say something. But I had never thought of the word’s pack meaning. I naturally knew it, but I didn’t like to think about all that mates implied. So I could call my friends that with no remorse or confusion.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Rami admitted, and drank some more.
Naveen winked at him. “That’s ok, mate.”
I laughed and Rami’s lips curved up and for a moment it felt like we were just that, mates out for a meal and a good time.
The familiar food, long missed, calmed something in me. Animals are fundamentally suspicious of new places. Humans are, too, but they like to ignore their better instincts for the thrill of it. Werewolves take after the wolves in that sense, though, and that’s why we all get too attached to each other and to wherever we live. It must have been a tough world out there when homo lupus decided to immigrate: most werewolves I know don’t even much like to go on holiday. The biggest moves of a werewolf’s life tended to be changing packs, and the only reason Alphas left packs at all was to gain power or to go somewhere where they wouldn’t have to mate with their first cousin.
This tendency had kept me apart from my pack except when I myself made the journey back. It was only natural – wolves get antsy out of their territory and there’s always the danger of crossing a line the local pack thinks is more important than not shedding blood. As an Omega I was pretty safe from threatening anybody. I was especially safe in the Scottish highlands, where the packs had either fled or been summarily decimated by the combined might of the Scottish clans in the early Middle Ages.
I didn’t tell them about staying away intentionally, but Naveen kept asking questions about the Scottish extinction, and wolves is one of the few topics you can get me started on and be sure I will not know when to stop.
“Or maybe I’m projecting my research about real wolves onto us. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, do I see myself in them, or am I being objective enough? The scientific protocols of Animal Biology are not designed for people who are also animals, nobody is as worried about bias as when a human population is studied. Everybody just assumes you will be able to tell animals don’t have human motivations, which is just silly even if the researcher doesn’t spend part of his time in four legs. I mean, look at Diane Fossey and the gorillas!”
Rami smiled when I said that. “She looked pretty batty in the movie,” he commented.
I nodded. “Precisely. If you read her writing you can see she lost track of where the line between researcher and research was…”
“But is that so bad?” Naveen asked. He had finished all the meat in his plate and was now going through the chips I had pushed away. I had an appetite on me, like any healthy werewolf, but I had finished my growing and neither Rami nor Naveen had. Bernardo would surely appreciate the tips he’d get with all the refills they were demanding.
“Well, if it’s not objective, it can’t help us make predictions. So it’s pretty much just a nice story. Stories are great, but it’s not what you want to do when you do science.”
He made an agreeing noise, sucking the ketchup off a chip with a distracted air. In contrast to his dark skin, his lips were really red. “I guess it makes sense,” he admitted, and finally ate the damn potato. “So what have you figured out with real objective science?”
“Well, this is obvious but real wolves don’t have Omega males. The hierarchies within the packs are movable.”
“Except for how male wolves are dominant,” Rami pointed out.
“Well, not always. Female wolves dominate packs if there’s no strong males. They will still mate with weaker males but they won’t follow them or kowtow to them.”
“Kowtow… is that how you see it?” Naveen asked with a worried frown.
I raised my eyebrows at him. “Isn’t that how it is?”
“No,” He seemed genuinely upset. “Of course not, it’s an exchange. A fair exchange: protection for procreation.”
“It’s funny how protection includes telling Omegas what to do.” I met his eyes, and my wolf tensed, understanding it as defiance without needing to understand the words. I had to look away before seeing Naveen’s expression.
“Well, you can’t protect someone if they won’t listen to you,” he replied, his voice rising just a fraction, but all the same I found my throat closing up. I pushed my hands against the countertop, trying to keep myself from showing any obvious signs of submissiveness.
“Devlin, are you ok?” Rami asked, soft and measured, undemanding. But because there was no demand, I still felt the pull from Naveen keeping me quiet. “Naveen, tell him to look at us,” Rami ordered in the same tone.
“Devlin, please look at me,” he said, voice still a bit high, but now more controlled. I looked up – I couldn’t have done anything but. His face fell. “I did that, didn’t I? Fuck… I… I want you to talk to me. Say anything.”
“I know that,” I gritted out and took full advantage of the authorization, telling the wolf I was obeying. “But the wolf can’t tell you’re happy to be angry!”
“It’s not the anger,” Rami interrupted, apparently as unaffected by my feelings as by Naveen’s. Not that any person not subjected to the slightest of Naveen’s moods would have thought it worrying that he was getting into a debate. “Naveen’s using his Alpha voice, that’s why it stopped you so suddenly. If he was angry, you could fight back, argue till your voice ran out.” He turned to Naveen. “Has nobody taught you how to separate your feelings from your inner power?”
Naveen looked blankly back, then shook his head. Rami’s frown spoke volumes as to his opinion.
“That’s really dangerous, you could really hurt him if you don’t know he can’t say no.”
“I’m sorry,” Naveen said immediately, he glanced at me pleadingly. “I didn’t know.”
“Yes, well,” said Rami. He sounded annoyed and my wolf was paying attention to him, but I didn’t feel like I had to throw myself at his feet and beg for forgiveness. “We have to fix this.”
After that, dinner wasn’t so bad. Rami took to training Naveen on how to use his Alpha power by means of elbowing him when he did it. And the banana split cake I got for dessert gave me a good rush of sugar and a feeling of wellbeing that I might have known was artificial, but couldn’t deny felt damn good anyway.
Things got awkward again when we got outside and I announced. “Ah, guys, I don’t need a ride. Night’s nice, I’ll walk home.”
Naveen frowned at me. “Are you sure? Do you want us to come with?” He glanced at Rami’s car. “Or I could come…” At this he glanced at Rami, as if to check he wasn’t crossing any lines by proposing to spend time with me alone. Rami gave no sign he had seen the look, which made it easier for me not to be angry. It made sense he was being considerate of everybody involved.
“I’m sure. I have been away for a long time. I miss my forest.”
And at this I gave them both a final smile and turned on my heels to head that way. A few seconds later the car’s alarm was disengaged, then the doors clicked shut. I was alone.
I thought of just walking to the bus station and taking the first bus getting out of Windermere I came across. I had my wallet on me, and some cash (Unsurprisingly they hadn’t let me pay for dinner) and more importantly, a credit card I could clean out at a random cash machine.
I couldn’t do it, though. And I think the worse thing was not that I couldn’t do it but that I couldn’t even tell if I wanted to. Most of the time I could tell the wolf’s instincts to submit to Alphas from my own thoughts but not then: a big part of me wanted to stay, to be part of my family, to spend time with Bernardo and Clara and Kirby and even my mum, annoying as I found her opinions. And I had so little to leave for, too. I couldn’t possibly go back to Scotland and Dan and my thesis and expect to be left alone. Running would have meant to start and never stop. Maybe to Europe, maybe as far as Australia, and to only be free if I kept away from every other shifter for the rest of my days. Maybe the wolf wasn’t letting me run from its pack – maybe I just couldn’t bear the idea of a life in which nobody ever truly understood me. Well, a life where nobody could even get the chance to.
I didn’t want the submission that was my lot as an Omega, but I couldn’t imagine not being a wolf. It was an impossible choice: lose the part of me that was human and wanted something other than to have all choices made for me, or lose the part of me that was wolf and cut myself off from my pack and my land.
In a way, I was glad I couldn’t make it. It hurt, but it was easier to be in a cage. As long as the door was closed, I didn’t have to find out if I was too weak to walk out of it.