"Had you ever thought of having your hormone levels done?" asked David one evening.
He had come to her room, as he often did when their few free hours coincided. It was a week or two after he had finished his rotation in endocrinology; it was typical of David to bring up a question some time after the initial impulse that prompted it had passed.
"I suppose," said Hilary vaguely, looking up from the text that she had been studying. "Had you?"
She had never, in fact, entertained the idea in so many words but she was willing to do so now for the sake of argument. David never brought up a subject without a reason. If he had asked her to sneak into the laboratory after hours in order to run their bloods, a grown-up version of a schoolboy dare, she would probably have done it. Instead he simply lay back on her narrow bed, a hand behind his head.
"It wouldn't tell me anything I didn't already know," he said.
And it was true. David was an alpha, undeniably so, like a good few of their fellow doctors at the Radcliffe. If his ambition, his competitiveness, his desire to get to the top had not told clearly enough, then Hilary would have known—had known, on their very first meeting—by his scent alone. Or by the sudden surge of instinct that she had felt, demanding that she best him and force him to surrender his sword. Because Hilary, of course, was an alpha too.
"Have you heard about the work that Richardson is doing in London?" asked David, after a lapse of some minutes.
"The hormone therapy? Yes, but I didn't think he'd got anywhere. That last paper was very thin."
"He hasn't yet, but it's very promising. Once he gets these women's endocrines under control, he says there's no reason in theory why they shouldn't bear children."
Hilary felt her face flushing uncontrollably. "I've never wanted children," she said, because it was the only thing that she could say, even though she knew it was untrue.
"I know," said David, "but surely you can recognise the value of the work. Not everyone is like you."
"No," she said slowly. "They're not."
"And as for the test, if nothing else, you could find out how far outside normal levels you are. My guess would be ninety-ninth percentile."
Hilary had loved David—had told herself that she loved him, once upon a time—because she had thought that none of this mattered to him. Rationality was his guiding star. If they shared an interest in medicine, a scepticism towards accepted truths, if they enjoyed spending time together... why should two alphas not be lovers? There was no point in marriage—it would be a sterile one, of course—but together they could prove themselves just as happy, just as normal, as any other couple.
Their sexual life, like the rest of their relationship, had proceeded on a basis of emulation. No truce here, only carefully negotiated accommodations, but this merely served to make the experience the keener. Perhaps an outside observer might have said that their relations had a touch of the clinical, but in the right mood they would not have taken this for criticism. They shared the zest of experimentalists in largely uncharted terrain, and had in fact made a careful study of the possibilities, poring over the pages of Krafft-Ebing, Ellis and Hirschfeld.
Unlike Hilary, David had prior experience to draw upon, though it was unclear whether that experience had extended to another alpha; he never, so he said, kissed and told.
She had loved David because he had not seemed threatened by her. She had told herself that he recognised her talents and cared for her not despite, but because of them. Now the truth broke upon her: he had never been threatened because he had never doubted that he, a man, was—by virtue of being an alpha—a talented, superior specimen of his gender, while she, a woman, was abnormal by the same token.
By the early Thirties it was known that there was a biological basis behind the unusual births that had begun in the late nineteenth century. It was further beginning to be suspected that alphas and omegas, male and female, were born in equal proportions: roughly one per cent each of the population.
Hilary had read the textbooks as carefully as David. It was, she had always believed, nothing but residual Victorian thinking which considered the existence of male alphas and female omegas proof of the evolutionary advance of civilisation, while male omegas and female alphas were condemned as unspeakable perversions of modernity. She had thought better of David than that he would believe such a thing.
Two months later, when David accepted a post as assistant registrar in endocrinology at St Barts, she knew that it was over. She had never applied for the post; she had never admitted that fact to him, or the reason to herself.
"Tell me one thing," she said to him, one final despairing night together. "What was it all about, for you?"
"A challenge," said David. "Wasn't it the same for you?"
There was no one like David in the country practice to which she consigned herself.
Her patients must have assumed that she was a New Woman, for how could a female doctor be otherwise? So at least was the tacit belief; viewing Hilary as a purely urban phenomenon, a creature apart, they did not imagine for a moment that such a being could spring from the soil of Gloucestershire. Hilary lived for the most part without being asked to deal with these matters in a medical capacity, only very occasionally encountering a woman who did not understand why she could not conceive or a young man, a member of an almost extinct rural peasantry, who found himself 'in trouble' in a way that he never could have expected.
It was only during her on-call weeks at the local cottage hospital that the question presented itself to Hilary as a living one, and this was simply because the Matron of the hospital happened to be an alpha as well.
She was well up in her sixties, having been born in an era when New Women were hardly acknowledged to exist outside the pages of the sensation novel. Having followed in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale she had achieved what, in that period, could be achieved, and seemed in the intervening decades to have considered herself satisfied with the result: she, after all, had reigned unchallenged in her small hospital until Hilary had turned up.
Instinctively they disliked one another, but Hilary distrusted instinct—David, apparently in all seriousness, had claimed to disbelieve in it entirely—and therefore made it a point of principle to treat the woman as generously as she could manage. According to her own exacting standards she rarely succeeded. The two women dealt with one another using a scrupulous politeness that almost never rose to warmth, each attempting awkwardly to defer to the other in their respective spheres of action.
(So Hilary believed, at least; the Matron might have felt differently.)
And yet Hilary knew without question that the Matron would have given way to a male alpha. It would never have occurred to her not to.
"An unusual patient," said the Matron that morning, having met Hilary in the foyer. "I've put him in one of the private rooms. Head injury. You'll be very interested in this one, I daresay."
Hilary refrained with difficulty from pointing out that she was the only doctor on call and therefore could be expected, professionally, to take an interest in any patient to come through the door. But she suspected already that professional interest was not what the Matron was intimating. Through the half open door at the end of the hall she could smell, faintly but distinctly, the fear sweat of an omega.
He was a young man, very young and very beautiful, though Hilary's response to him had little to do with aesthetic appreciation and everything to do with basic biology. She sat by his bedside, checked his reflexes, made notes, did all that a doctor could be expected to do for a patient under observation for concussion, and at the end of it all discovered that she was holding his hand.
It was hardly surprising. All the nurses in the hospital were in a flutter over him, and they were betas. Hilary felt the instinctive pull of protectiveness on a far more elemental level and was ashamed of herself for having allowed it to master her.
It was not since the days of boarding school 'pashes' that she had met an omega to whom she responded on such a level. Truth be told she had come rather to disdain the idea of male omegas—residual social prejudice, she was sure—having told herself during her time with David that she could find far more common ground with a fellow alpha who understood and shared her ambitions. She had prided herself on not being a slave to biology. Now it occurred to her that biology had previously been given only half the chance.
"Don't leave," he murmured, only half conscious. "Please don't."
"I won't," she assured him, telling herself that she was merely saying what was necessary to keep him calm. She squeezed his hand tighter. "Not ever."
All day she went round the hospital in a daze, still able, despite the copious application of Dettol and carbolic, to smell his scent on her hand.
What does that say for sterile precautions, she wondered idly, then concluded that it could only be her imagination.
Visiting hours were in the afternoon. Coming into the foyer Hilary heard a voice—impeccably well-bred, quiet, correctly and irreproachably feminine—that immediately set her teeth on edge.
"He will have asked to see me. He's rather highly-strung, you see. He would be lost without me."
From the words Hilary realised immediately who the he must be. As for the speaker, she could only be a wife or a mother. She was also—this fact impressed itself upon Hilary without the need for conscious thought—the most dominant alpha that Hilary had ever encountered.
Gathering herself, Hilary stepped into the foyer.
"Yes, of course, Mrs. Fleming, as soon as possible," the Matron was saying, her tone deferential and apologetic. "But perhaps you'll be wanting to talk with Dr. Mansell first?"
Hilary felt the impact of the Matron's submission like a slap across her own face. She never talks to me like that, she thought, feeling her face grow hot with outraged dignity.
Mrs. Fleming inclined her head graciously. "I will. Where is he?"
She was a tastefully dressed woman of intermediate years. Most definitely a mother rather than a wife, although she could not be much more than a decade older than Hilary herself.
"I'm Dr. Mansell," said Hilary. "I'm looking after your son."
She instinctively drew herself up to her full height; she was wearing sensible flats, suitable for a day on one's feet in hospital, and the bare half-inch that they gave her over the interloper hardly seemed sufficient for the purpose.
"And you can't see him just yet," she added. "He mustn't be disturbed."
"I would hardly..."
"Any visitor would. But especially you."
David had once told her that she should not turn everything into a fight for dominance. It had, she felt at the time, been easy for him to say; now she felt even more strongly the injustice of the statement, coming from a man whose dominance was hardly ever questioned.
The two women stared hard at one another. Mrs. Fleming raised her chin, her eyes hard and contemptuous; Hilary thrust her hands, already clenching into fists, sharply into the pockets of her white coat. A nurse started to come through the foyer; she stopped, doubtless sensing the atmosphere, and scurried away again.
During her training Hilary had often witnessed the bloody aftermath of fights between alphas, on more than one occasion assisting in surgery on a badly fractured skull. Omegas were almost always involved, however much the parties concerned might deny it, and for that reason she had never expected to be mixed up in something like this herself. She had certainly not expected to find herself facing down a young man's mother.
He must be un-bonded, thought Hilary in amazement, making the intuitive leap. And she believes that he belongs to her.
It was the singularly most Freudian situation that she had ever encountered outside of the pages of a text book; it was only the exercise of rigorous self-control that kept her from laughing out loud.
A moment later Hilary saw that her own situation was almost equally ridiculous. It was this perspective that allowed her finally to take hold of herself.
"I assure you it's for his own good," she added in a more conciliatory tone. "We're doing all we can for him right now. You'll be able to see him yourself as soon as it's medically advisable."
"Very well," said Mrs. Fleming.
Her manner had a distinct air of noblesse oblige; it suggested that she had not conceded at all, merely decided that Hilary was an opponent not worthy of her notice.
For all that, Hilary could not imagine that Mrs. Fleming would ever forgive her own intransigence. She did not look like a woman with a short memory, or one who laid aside grudges easily.
She won't give him up without a fight, thought Hilary.
Ashamed, she realised that she relished the idea.