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The Alpha-Ωmega Werewolf Slave in Space Fic

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Chapter 1 - An Unexpected Invitation

’What is this, then?’ Sean asks his friend and host Yanchov—I hate it, call me Kas—Karsellen.

This is an actual envelope, substantial on his palm, Alpha Astin inscribed upon it in a script that gleams heavily with gold. It was of necessity hand-delivered—a further affectation of the ostentatiously wealthy.

‘Without you open it, I cannot be entirely certain…’ It’s not just the humor in Kas’ voice gives the lie to that. When almost all communication is electronic, precious resources such as these are expended on nothing save the most exclusive of invitations. Sean snorts his disbelief and rolls a hand in the universal get-on-with-it gesture.

‘I would hazard a guess, however, that Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian—entrepreneur extraordinaire,’ Kas’ expression says the description is not one he personally agrees with, ‘has a treasure of which he wishes to dispose to best advantage.’

A deft slide of paperknife reveals the accuracy of his guess. ‘And this should involve me because…?’

‘Nico is not one to let an opportunity slip, when he clearly knows one of the wealthiest men in this quadrant, if not the entire galaxy, is currently my guest. He is merely attempting to match a valuable artifact to an accommodating quantity of credits—purely in a spirit of intergalactic cooperation, of course, and with no reference whatever to his own greater profit!’’ Kas ends on his customary, implausibly copper-red eye roll.

Sean frowns. ‘Why would he assume I have any interest in this ‘excellent specimen’ of whatever?’

‘Well, you have been known to buy the odd priceless antique—original works of art from Old Earth, first editions of rare tomes from every sentient planet in the known galaxies. Even that old machine from the early days of flight must have cost you a pack of credits—though why you would bother with that when you own a skimmer to make most men weep with envy, me included…’

‘It’s the playboy lifestyle,’ Sean counters with a grin. ‘What can I say—I have appearances to maintain!’ They both know quite well which of them is the playboy these days, and it’s not Sean. He’s just very particular about what he drives.

Interplanetary missions are a big part of Sean’s position on Alpha Prime’s council. E-wav is fine in its way but it is not the best way to build trust among allies. There is still nothing to beat meeting face to face for real—it’s Sean’s greatest asset and Alpha Prime employs it to the full. He’s been away over a standard year this time and can hardly wait to get home.

His visits here to Space Central are as few and as brief as he can make them. Truth to tell, he loathes the artificiality of such floating worlds. Planetside is where Sean belongs, where he can easily find the wind in his fur and soil beneath his paws. Where his kind have always lived—and flourished, since constitutional equality became a reality.

When Earth’s first faltering steps into space encountered so many varying life forms—with equal or sometimes superior intelligence—the World State was forced to accept at last that all citizens should be permitted to be exactly who they were born to be. All Genders, All Genomes, No Prejudice.

It makes a fine slogan, still in use all these centuries later. It’s a pity it means little or nothing on the many worlds where slavery has always been the accepted way of things and where it thrives to this day. In too many places—like Space Central, thanks to the credits and affiliations of the consortium that developed this nexus between worlds into the commercial hub it is today—it is still not illegal either to buy or to own legitimately purchased slaves. Abolition is a slow and tortuous business, as Sean knows only too well.

His forebears settled those green worlds that had no truck with the ownership of others, and would welcome their kind. Worlds whose rare natural resources were sufficient for interplanetary commerce to be profitable, and few enough for them to be wisely husbanded, not exploited. Generations along, his home planet of Calia still has far more land unexplored than settled; more than enough to support her gradually expanding populations of—on the whole—urban Normal and rural Were for millennia to come.

Still, his team and the ship’s crew are quite keen on extending the stopover. Given the time they’ve been away already, a day or three more can’t make much difference. Space Central is not only the final scheduled stop on the Lunar Express’ route as pickup point for high tech materiel unavailable on Calia. It also houses Mercantile Essentials, the galaxy’s supreme shopping experience, the shopaholic’s fantasy come true—the semi-obligatory, Could you just bring me…? of friends and relatives everywhere.

Over and above which, the Pleasure Dome offers every imaginable avenue of entertainment to those who have sufficient credits to their name. A being who cannot discover a gratifying release from tension amid the Dome’s many restaurants, clubs, bars, holo studios and many less specifically titled but wholly accommodating venues is a truly troubled life form.

Kas, however, lives here. He and Sean have been friends for years, since they were suitemates at Cal-C Tech. Sean couldn’t really refuse a well-meaning invitation to spend a few days ‘relaxing’ with him. Their notions of relaxation sometimes differ quite radically, but that has never gotten in the way of an easy friendship.

‘May I?’ Kas asks, whisking the invitation from Sean’s hands with a grin. ‘Ah, yes—this you should attend, Sean, if only to watch her dance one last time! It is an experience no-one should deny himself—the last dance is always pretty special!’ His eyebrows waggle suggestively. ‘C’mon, Sean—just for me?’ he wheedles.

‘You know, Kas, you can be a real sleazebag when you—what? Watch…her? It’s a slave he’s selling? You know my opinion of slavery!’

‘This is no ordinary, oppressed sort of slave, Sean, it’s one of Nico’s Élite!’ Kas seems shocked that Sean doesn’t appreciate the difference. ‘They’re his Pets—raised in the absolute lap of luxury. They’re pampered and cosseted and trained to the highest level—also, to fulfill their eventual owner’s every need...’ Kas’ smirk fades suddenly into a frown as if he’s calculating something.

Sean remains unimpressed. ‘It’s still slavery, Kas, no matter how gilded the cage.’

But Kas’ mind is still busy elsewhere. ‘Wait,’ he says, 'wait! You know, it’s maybe not her at all. This is—it has to be—the most desirable of the Élite, come of age at last! Nico never offers them for sale before then,’ he explains, as if that makes the whole thing any better. ‘He likes to keep on the right side of the law here on station, of course, so it’s all quite legal. Though quite how he can be sure some of them actually are sixteen, I don’t know! And this one…’ He kisses his fingers into the air and sighs extravagantly over the charms the slave in question presumably possesses.

Sean shakes his head. ‘I can appreciate virtuosity without wishing to own it,’ he says, which is a little unfair since he knows Kas owns no slaves. Sean wouldn’t have stayed with him if he did. He is more accepting of the status quo than Sean could ever be, but then, many of the most influential people here on station have entire staffs of them. Refusing to associate with them simply isn’t practicable

‘You must have seen him dance at the Seven Moons? No, maybe not—you wouldn’t be sitting there looking quite so disapproving if you had!’

He has accompanied Kas to the venue in question—The Seven Moons of Sycorial, a rather exclusive club owned by Niconet Perçuile—on a number of previous occasions. The two of them have passed several quite pleasurable hours there in the company of some of the contract hostesses—at least, Sean has always assumed they were contracted. He has witnessed the nightly cabaret, though Nico’s Pets dance only rarely, it seems—all part of their untouchable mystique, Kas explains now, with this one the most beguiling of them all.

‘I really don’t have any interest in boys,’ Sean says mildly, ‘and I didn’t think you had, either. What is so special about him anyway?’

Kas’ positively human forehead creases in thought. ‘He’s beautiful, he dances divinely, he’s—d’you know, I couldn’t even tell you what it is. He has all the perfections of mind and body Nico’s Élite must possess, of course, but it’s more than that. He’s…’ Kas sighs again, shrugs, and gives up trying to put it into elegant words.

‘What I do know is that a good many men—and others—would forget they never do boys, just for a chance at him!’

Sean offers him an eyebrow. ‘You too?’ he asks, quite startled by the admission.

Kas actually flushes—which, given the natural color of his skin, says a lot here. His reputation as an interplanetary playboy is well-founded, after all—attested to by all the most attractive females in the Dome’s many houses of pleasure, and not a few outside of them.

‘The invitation is not issued to me,’ he points out. ‘Nico knows quite well I could scarcely afford to buy a lock of the boy’s hair, given the asking price for this one!’

‘Asking price?’ Sean queries. ‘I thought it was an auction?’

‘Oh, it is—for one of the Élite, however, bidding starts at a million credits! At a guess, I should say Nico is expecting well upward of two and maybe approaching closer to four million for this particular Pet. Although,’ he adds, his tone somewhat puzzled, ‘there have always been rumors that in the end he would give in and keep this one for himself.’

Sean snorts his disbelief. No trader could possibly pass up that many credits on a single sale, no matter how beautiful or talented the slave. ‘Well, I’ll not be buying,’ he says, ‘but I might be interested in seeing the boy who is worth so much and whose siren influence even you cannot resist!’ He tosses the card aside, never even noticing its subsequent disappearance.

He is therefore a little surprised when it reappears on the appointed evening, and Kas ushers him out to the luxury aircar—their destination, The Seven Moons of Sycorial.

The gold-scripted envelope with its most exclusive of invitations nestles safely now in his friend’s inner pocket. Be prepared has been the motto of House Karsellen for more years than Sean has lived, says its youngest scion. It has never failed him yet.

Sean settles back in the aircar’s luxurious leather seating and accepts a glass of finest tokaj. He knows quite well that, however Kas’ financial resources may fail to impress Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian into inviting him to participate in this particular, ultra high credit auction, he is far from being a pauper. Maybe if the bidding had begun at half a million credits—or if the slave on offer had been female—Sean might have believed his friend’s self-deprecating regrets.

But, as far as Sean himself is concerned, he repeats, ‘Not interested in slaves—or boys, remember?’

‘Maybe not, but Perçuile obviously doesn’t know that. And even if you don’t intend to bid, Sean, this will assure us a good view of events—’ he registers the raised brow, ‘—alright, it will afford me a very good view. Then afterward we may still enjoy one last evening of fun before you leave for home. I reserved a couple of rooms following the auction, should you find one of the hostesses to your taste. Or Elijah, of course…’ he adds, with a sly grin.

‘Elijah?’ Sean doesn’t remember the name coming up before, but it immediately snags his attention for some reason.

‘He’s the Pet being auctioned tonight, didn’t I say?’

‘It wasn’t on the invitation,’ Sean points out before realizing that it wouldn’t be, would it? Perçuile is selling a commodity—one of his Élite—not a person. He can’t think why that would disturb him quite as much as it does.

‘Of course not, but that’s who he is. Quite famous here on Central of course—and even beyond, thanks to Nico’s many media connections. I suppose as a slave he can be given any name his new owner wants, of course. It’d be a shame, though—it suits him, somehow.’

Sean offers the brow again and Kas changes the focus of his ramble.

‘Or his new mistress, I suppose, though she couldn’t be entirely sure, chemical assistance aside, that he’d be of any use to her. Unless, of course, she requires a Pet for purely platonic purposes—and that, let me tell you, would be a criminal waste of a great many of the skills he’s been trained in!’

Half intrigued and half shocked, for all his usual worldliness, Kas goes into great detail about the astoundingly comprehensive sexual training received by Perçuile’s Élite.

He’s on a roll here, but Sean is no longer listening. ‘Really?’ he murmurs at intervals or, ‘That’s just weird!’ with other remarks of quasi-interest scattered in and amongst. His diplomatic skills have long since enabled him to seem politely engaged, even in conversations that have little or no appeal for him whatever.

If this Elijah had been beautiful-paragon-virgin-yada-yada and also female, he might have been a little tempted here. Even then, he’d think twice before buying a slave for some inflated sum, only to set her free. If he had a thought about experiencing her ‘virtuosity’, it would be far later and at a more appropriate time—but only if she were so inclined. It is scarcely sound economics, whatever the asking price, though he’s been guilty of a similar—if far cheaper—extravagance once or twice before. And, whatever her perfections, no human can ever truly become his mate.

As it is, the ‘Pet’ is male, and Sean has never found himself tempted by any boy, anywhere. Especially not one on offer, either here at the Seven Moons or at any similar establishment he has visited in off-duty hours from his diplomatic duties.

He sighs at the thought of yet another evening spent appeasing his libido while wishing for the deep connection it seems less and less likely he will ever find. He has almost given up hope…although, not quite yet.

This—yet another visit to yet another venue where pleasure may be found—brings uncomfortable truths inexorably to the surface. As Son and Heir, he can accept that his father may well be coming to the end of his patience with Sean’s determination to find his omega. He still clings to the conviction that his mythical true-mate is out there somewhere, though no-one else believes it any longer. Not so many years after most alphas his age are well-settled already with mate and cubs of their own.

Visiting every pack on every planet where his political acumen is required, Sean has attended more pack gatherings than enough—too often not so much Meet and Greet as Greet and Mate affairs. He has thus encountered every available omega out there. Agreeable girls with all the beauty and serenity expected of their status, but none of them has ever raised the slightest echo of Mate! in him or his wolf.

Soon enough, Alpha Prime Astin will order the First Son and Heir to the Were Packs of Calia to mate and produce the much-desired Second Heir in direct line. At that point, Sean will have no other choice than to seek out a suitable beta, and obey. Not unless he wants to fight—and kill—his sire and become Pack Alpha far sooner than he has ever envisioned or desired.

It’s either that or abdicate his position, and Sean knows the Calia Pack’s high political standing will go to shit if the current Second Heir Mackenzie is left in charge.

Not being First might sting his pride. It would hurt far more, however, to watch his brother struggle with the political schmoozing Sean handles almost instinctively. Mac’s forte is with figures, not so much with social interaction beyond the immediate Pack.

And really, even Sean is beginning to accept it may be time to abandon the dream he’s held onto since he first realized how very special an omega-mating could be. It’s there in his father’s adoration of Anira and the happiness he finally found with her, after the years of solitude that followed the death of Sean’s own mother at Mackie’s birth. Anira’s calm and loving personality had quickly won the grieving pup’s affection, and Sean has wanted an omega of his own ever since.

He’s waited for her so long, it’s starting to look very much as though his omega true-mate—if she was ever actually born—may have died as pup or cub. He would surely have met her otherwise, with the number of Meet and Greets he’s suffered through.

More than that, he is growing weary of a lifestyle that has him flitting from planet to planet, with no-one at his side—or even waiting for him back home, cubs and all. He is starting to feel the need for a mate of any kind—just one who will be there for him alone.

He knows, without any egotism, that there are plenty of betas in the packs at home on Calia who would be delighted to accept him as mate, First Son or not. He isn’t bad looking and—he hopes—has a reputation as a fair alpha who will treat his beta—and one day Beta Prime to all the Packs of Calia—well.

Sean sighs. He would never seek a mate at an auction, of course—let alone the kind they’re here to witness tonight—but perhaps it may be time to pay more attention to the betas vying for his notice back home.

Chapter Text

Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian, self-styled entrepreneur extraordinaire, never intended to become anything quite so vulgar as a slave-trader—nor, in fact, does he regard himself as such.

Principally, in this particular branch of his many business interests, he considers himself a Purveyor of Exotic Entertainments. His Seven Moons of Sycorial is famed far and wide as the most opulent of venues—a veritable pleasure palace in itself. Every legal quirk of bodily need may be satisfied there, in surroundings that befit beings raised to an exacting standard of comfort. Its membership is strictly limited to those with generously disposable credits—the cover charge alone being sufficient to bar entry to the hoi polloi.

That it is also occasionally the setting for the auctioning of one of the Rama-Nettorian Élite is merely another of the many accommodations offered to such affluent patrons. Somehow, it has leaked out that these exceptional slaves are referred to by their owner as his Pets—a widespread adoption of the diminutive retains their status while reducing formality. Nico’s Pets are justly famous well beyond the Pleasure Dome of Space Central, and indeed far out into the galaxy.

And here, tonight, they will witness the final performance—in public, at least—of that one of the Élite who is indeed the epitome all that Nico invests in them.

Exquisitely calligraphed invitations have been issued to those few whom Nico considers both able and willing to handsomely repay his long-term investment. Not all have replied in the affirmative—notably and most regrettably the visiting Alpha Son and Heir of Planet Calia, whose credit reserves are reputed to extend far deeper than most.

Strong advocacy of abolition on his people’s behalf might be thought reason enough to exclude him. Nico, however, has a yet stronger belief in the frailty of men.

Policies may be one thing—desires are quite another. Many such persons frequent the Seven Moons and are well able to set aside any suspicion that a number of the house girls are not the contract workers some many take them for but, in fact, owned by Nico—body and soul, as the archaic phrase would have it. He takes no little pride in seeing them so readily deceived.

Moreover, even the most abolitionist of men—like Alpha Astin whom he knows to have unwittingly enjoyed the company of at least one of the house girls in the past, unaware of her slave status—even he might be tempted by the example Nico has on offer tonight. And Elijah’s rare performances here are known to have challenged more than one seemingly fixed sexual orientation. There will be no lack of buyers should Astin fail, but Nico remains hopeful of seeing each one of his invitees present, as his premises begin to fill with both participants and observers.

A flurry of movement precedes the arrival of Its Excellency the High Potentate of Naphram—adjudged to be among the wealthiest of the allies, as well as one quite fascinated by human anatomy. It settles its own extensive figure into the multi-form-friendly seating of one of the private booths and entirely eschews the privacy screens. If it is successful tonight, it intends its triumph shall be witnessed.

Nico—whose effusive welcome is nicely judged and never even remotely approaches the servile—prefers not to contemplate what else may lie hidden beneath these richly made robes, skillfully tailored to encompass multiple limbs. His pleasure workers are trained to cope with as many bodily variations as Nico can find staff to teach, but he does draw the line at surgical intervention to accommodate multiple—

Returning to greet further invited guests, he shakes his head with some confidence. If that were what the Naphramian sought, it could quite easily find it elsewhere. Merely by attending this auction, it registers a deep interest in acquiring one of Nico’s superlatively human slaves.

As have several other, more reticent beings. Even before the doors of the Seven Moon of Sycorial opened to the membership tonight, a number of these have arrived by prior arrangement. Ensconced already behind the privacy shields in the booths reserved for invitees, they prefer not to reveal their bodily configurations at all widely and are, in fact, more usually accommodated in the private rooms. Among the allies there remain a number of life forms rather sensitive concerning their differences, when so many of the patrons here are principally, if not wholly, human.

Nico is confident that the entertainment offered them in the interim tonight will be quite acceptable. His staff is trained, by one means or another, to accept if not actually to welcome all… alignments. He even finances the automatic implantation of a language chip, alongside the requisite tracker—though admittedly reception for the telepathic races is not always reliable in the economy version thereof.

Despite his desire for Elijah to achieve the highest bid ever made for one of his Élite—for any slave, anywhere—he cannot help hoping none of these more reclusive patrons will succeed tonight, however affluent it may be. Much as he may intend to be open-minded about corporeal variations, some of them give even him the shudders.

‘Your Highness—welcome indeed!’ It is a relief to step forward and greet Jalto Rian Kaiterion, Crown Prince of one of the minor but fabulously wealthy metals-rich kingdoms of the planet Siraia. The Prince is a handsome man, dark-skinned, his white teeth flashing between trim moustache and neat goatee. He is tall, of course. Nico, at only five point eight standard measures, feels quite dwarfed by him. Perhaps such a size difference will make Elijah feel protected? His Pet is, of course, well-trained to accommodate other variations in size.

More and yet more patrons arrive, both the invited and a far wider audience of the rampantly curious. Scantily clad staff of both sexes are kept busy supplying their wants and needs. Nico considers it a little early for some of the latter, but what a patron can pay for he, she or it shall have. It may, he concedes—though only ever inside his head—be a trifle vulgar to anticipate such things, but it seems tonight’s bar receipts alone may go far toward the full recovery of a somewhat depleted exchequer.

That triple-damned idiot Kamre has brought Rama-Nettorian Enterprises just a little too close to the edge—he shudders inwardly—of serious retrenchment. Given that this auction should rightly outmatch all previous records here, Nico is secure in his conviction that tomorrow all shall be more than well once again. It remains a matter for regret that his security should be bought at such a disagreeable cost.

However, here is one invitee he knew would not disappoint.

‘My Lady!’ Nico bows low as he kisses the hand of the least attractive woman to be found among humans in these days of enlightened attitudes toward bodily adjustment.

‘Humpf!’ She snorts at him and snatches her hand away. ‘So, you do actually intend to part with Elijah tonight? You know, I have long believed that you would give in and claim him for yourself!’

The Lady Vita Sampar dela Synovë-Nettorian is a distant relative. She has lived long, and despite her family riches and the availability of surgical techniques that could have given her the face and form of one of Nico’s Pets, did she but wish it, she remained her own self and refused ever to marry. Vita has her own pets—an entire stable of them, to Nico’s knowledge—and clearly hopes to add Elijah to their number here tonight.

She is attended by a quartet of her acquisitions—still young, still pretty boys who no longer occupy her bed and serve instead in more practical ways. Those who active retain her favor, are never seen in public. Jealousy is a trait carried strongly in the Nettorian family genes.

‘Alas, no!’ says Nico. ‘I confess myself tempted—one would have to be made of stone, not to be. In this instance however business must, alas, remain business!’

He does not reveal that he would still infinitely prefer to give in to temptation here tonight. He has long debated the wisdom of allowing his own desires to overcome his good sense. But for one seriously costly error on the part of Sodaly Kamre, he suspects this auction might well conclude with a ‘highly anonymous bid via Instalink’ from who knew where in the immediate galaxy.

Such bids will still be submitted, of course—not all buyers are able to attend in person. The final, successful one cannot now be his, however, thanks to that complete blockhead, Kamre—his business manager no longer, nor anyone else’s, ever. He is steeling himself to part with a treasure he has long known he wanted for his own.

‘Well, at least now I know I have some chance of success tonight!’ The Lady Vita taps the nearest of her boys with a short suede flogger and obediently he leads her to the booth Nico designates. The other three hurry away to obtain refreshment, company, and whatever else their mistress may require.

Nico sighs. It will be such a waste if she succeeds, for Elijah should never be merely one among many. For himself, he must put sound practice before pleasure tonight, step back from the contest and allow the best man, woman or being to win—before even such perfect pleasure as he knows Elijah is trained to be. At present, the regrettable state of his finances truly requires the credits this sale will bring, from whom or whatever they may come.

Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian may be the modern scion of a House whose proud roots stretch far back into the history of Old Earth, but he is foremost a shrewd man of business. A true entrepreneur, he was aware from the outset of his career that understanding a market and providing what it requires is merely a part of the task. This is as true for sex as much as—perhaps even more than—any other field of endeavor.

There are hundreds of slave traders throughout the Federation, not a few of them here at Space Central. They all sell pretty slaves to warm a bed—or indeed to provide any specified service whatever—for the purchasing master, mistress, or indeterminate life form. To be the best in his field—as he must always be—Nico would become more than a mere trader in warm bodies. He is aware that—in Man, at least, and seemingly in most of the alien species he encounters in his business dealings—the most influential sex organ is actually the brain. He will therefore pander to this mental ideal, to sex as far more than the act itself.

Sex as a dream of perfection, achievable only with the most perfect of courtesans—a far less contentious term than pleasure slave among those who require such commodities yet inhabit regions where the concept is held to be demeaning if not factually illegal.

Nico understands that fantasy may be so much more satisfying than reality—how much more enticing is the withheld than the freely available.

He understands to the full the lure of illusion.

To that end he has devised the legend of the Élite Virgin Slave—beautiful and talented beyond the norm, displayed but rarely for all to see. Infinitely desirable yet wholly untouchable until he or she comes to maturity at last.

The age of consent is flexible to the point of complete invisibility among many slave-owners. Its enforcement at sixteen standard years in regard to the Rama-Nettorian Élite adds further piquancy to their status; also an element of the random, which Nico appreciates. Even if he must himself assign an arbitrary natal day at purchase, it becomes the fixed limit of that slave’s tenure. The subsequent sixteenth is the one on which he or she is offered to Nico’s most discerning—and credit-laden—clientele.

He employs emissaries who roam the slaver worlds seeking out the young and human, the beautiful and, most especially, the virgin. For such a one to be as yet untouched in this regrettably degenerate age, he or she must be quite young when acquired. No matter—Nico fully understands the generous rewards of long patience. Not for him the snatch and sell of so many vendors. His wares are groomed through many years toward that end.

Within the highly secured Rama-Nettorian complex, these child slaves—Nico’s Pets, who will grow to be his Élite—are raised in comparative affluence. They are trained to excellence, learning grace in all things. Instruction is not limited to the performance arts, important though these may be in a courtesan—a well-furnished intellect also has its value. They receive a thorough grounding in literature, science and math, as well as interplanetary politics. Once puberty is attained, the focus shifts to more sensual disciplines. To all that these exquisites may be called upon to be or to do for whomever shall one day own them.

Inevitable, the onset of puberty may bring more troublesome traits to the fore—like a tiresome resistance to the entire program. Any number of chemical solutions to the problem are available, of course: Receptan, Passivar, Quiescen, Docillan, Susceptaze… The in-house medic expertly diagnoses whichever of these—singly or in combination—will bring the resistant back into total compliance.

A useful side effect of this intervention—from Nico’s point of view, that is—is the complete suppression of such tiresome things as testosterone in the males. This delay to maturity in his Pets is most welcome. He is loath to order surgery for the purpose—too sympathetic to be sufficiently ruthless, his clients tell him. Should a Pet’s new owner wish subsequently to further… physically adjust his, her or its purchase, that is no longer Nico’s concern.

His Élite learn first to please humans, naturally enough. However, the flesh-covered limbs borne in pairs of their own species are hardly standard throughout the diversity of space. From other worlds come beings that are instead equipped with tentacles or scales, wings or other, yet more exotic structures. And among these varied life forms are those that find the human form pleasing, in one way or another. Rama-Nettorian Élites are therefore taught to discover, to accommodate and to manipulate to the full the pleasure points of multiple life forms.

Not all of those who enter any program can be expected to complete it. Regular and rigid assessment ensures that many are quietly withdrawn when they fail, in one respect or another, to achieve the required standard. Nonetheless, they remain valuable commodities, to be more quietly disposed of at regular auctions elsewhere. It is remarkable how painlessly, in such cases, Nico is able to set aside his aversion to mere slave-trading.

There is a cachet of sorts even in having narrowly failed to achieve Élite status, which is reflected in their market value. Some few are retained within the Seven Moons itself, of course—it is not in Nico’s nature to deny its patrons such diversely marketable skills.

Élite standard is attained only by the very few, as it should be. Excellence implies—nay, demands—rarity. Bringing to auction more than one within a single Standard Year would entirely negate Nico’s primary objective.

The value of a perfectly trained and highly skilled courtesan can scarcely be measured in mere credits. When skill, elegance and beauty are allied to virginity, the only limits set are the imagination, the lust and the financial liquidity of the most determined bidder present on the night.

And here tonight, Elijah, epitome of all that the Rama-Nettorian Élite represent, will be claimed by the highest bidder.


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Chapter Text

Elijah shivers, and not from cold. His eyes are closed now for these final, vital preparations.

He has seen today happen for all the Élite who have gone before him. He has helped in the pampering too—it’s the way those left behind give what may be the last loving touch she will ever know, to one they shall never see again. It is usually she—very few boys ever make it to the highest level a Pet can achieve.

Afterward, he was conveyed here to the Pleasure Dome of Space Central and—apart from the clothes he wore for the short trip—the memory of their hugs and kisses and heartfelt wishes for his future is all he brings with him. That part of his life is ended.

Now, he owns nothing—is nothing—but what his new owner may command.

Not every parting gift from his fellow slaves is intended as comfort. During final rehearsal, a quite unprecedented glitch in the lighting occurs and causes a short break. They aren’t released, though—they’re told to Hold position, this won’t take long! All but one of the acolytes still kneel in supplication at the feet of their ‘god’. Caselja, directly in front of him, looks up now and snickers.

House-dancer and ‘hostess’ at the Seven Moons of Sycorial, Caselja failed to make the grade among the Élite of Elijah’s peer group. When the performance begins, the lights rise and the temple scene is revealed, her face will radiate the acolyte’s awe and adoration. Now, it radiates nothing but envy and spite.

Her voice is pitched to carry to his ears alone, and her message is very different from the warmth of those earlier wishes.

‘Make the most of tonight, Elijah dear. I hear some very interesting life forms have been invited to participate in your auction. The kind that don’t show their faces here—if they even have one. For your new master, you will dance to a very different tune…’

Elijah does not reply. He cannot deny the truth of it and nor can he really blame Caselja for her outburst. Slave gossip says she has personal experience of the faceless ones she threatens him with. There is still the possibility—one Elijah’s mind clings to almost desperately—that his new master may be human. That he need never suffer such attentions. Caselja can have no such hope.

He will not think on that, only on what he must do here tonight, for the very last time. Afterward…

A technician in blue coveralls appears then, with a perfunctory apology and the all clear. The lighting behaves as it should and rehearsal continues to its end, but Caselja’s words follow Elijah.

They crowd into the dressing room with him, echoing through his shower and the light meal he cannot eat. Through stretch and bend they beset him, through the endless minutes of attention he does not want, yet cannot refuse.

While face-paint is applied with a delicate hand—to enhance and not conceal. While his hair is lightly woven with threads of finest cythlin, whose sprinkling of tiny gems will glint like stars amid the space-dark of his curls.

While he is finally dressed and posed in the space beneath the stage that is wine cellar, storage and stage-trap in one. The dais there will raise him above center stage, where his final performance will finally begin.

He draws a deep breath and wishes Caselja had kept her spite to herself. A couple of dressers fuss with last minute adjustments to his costume as he tries to block the truth of her words from his mind.

His audience awaits him up above. He has never actually seen them for the glare of lights all shining down on him. He has heard them, and that is enough. He knows there will be many people—beings—up there, all eager to witness what may be the last time he may ever dance for an audience of more than one. Some of them even more intent on possessing him, body and soul.

And, his dance once done, that prerogative will be granted to—sold to—one of them.

What he looks like is irrelevant to him but he stands obediently for his attendants—slaves like himself, of course—to complete their task. He does not want them punished should any fault be found with the way he is presented, tonight of all nights. There are three of them now, as if he needs an additional reminder of exactly how much rests on his perfection here—of exactly how much Master Nico is expecting in return for the years of training and education Elijah has received.

As ever, his entire ensemble is filmy—all but transparent, in fact. Tonight, however, is the one time his very last item of clothing must be shed, his body entirely revealed to the horde of watchers out there—the final titillation to prompt yet more credits from a vacillating buyer.

As soon as his dance is done he must simply stand, until the bidding is complete—motionless and naked but for a lacing of jeweled cythlin and the priceless collar he wears. Their cost, should his new master wish to retain this web of brilliance over skin and hair, will doubtless be added to the bill of sale.

Then, that master—or perhaps his staff—will descend on him with a shrouding cloak—unless, Elijah thinks with a sudden flare of panic, the first he’s allowed himself—unless he’s the sharing kind…

No—his breathing steadies—not here, not like that, though maybe later. Given rumors of the astounding number of credits shortly to be transferred to the account of Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian, sharing is unlikely as yet. A well-pleased victor will surely require more time and greater comfort for the first enjoyment of the highly expensive prize than can be found here. His purchase is far more likely to be covered and carried off to who knows which corner of the galaxy? Certainly not Elijah.

He tries not to think beyond the sale but, right here on the brink of it, Caselja’s taunting words make that impossible. They are no more than truth after all. His entire life has been nothing more than preparation for this—a thorough training to please a good many of the complex life forms to be found throughout the galaxy. Tonight, there is an even chance that one of the more bizarre—

He tries to clamp down on the thought, but his shiver escapes into a momentary—and quickly suppressed—shudder.

There is no choice for him here. He will please or he will suffer. A man—a being—who has paid the several millions Master Nico is anticipating in exchange for his Pet, will not be gentle if denied his full credits’ worth. Elijah already knows his new master is more likely to be male of whichever species than female—the clientele at the Seven Moons apparently tends toward the male.

Someone adjusts the cythlin—more becomingly, he assumes—at his left wrist and directs the other two to check the release fastenings on his filmy pants, and the placement of his jeweled ankle chains. He realizes it is Deira, from the Rama-Nettorian facility that has been his home for as long as he can remember.

Deira has always been the one he turns to when training gets to be too much, when he has been punished, when one of his peers has failed to meet the required standard and is gone forever. He has no memory of home or family—as far as he knows he was born into slavery—and Deira is the one true comfort in his life. When Elijah needs a hug she is there for him—the nearest thing to a mother he has ever known. The son of a slave calls no man father.

He wonders how she comes to be here at the Seven Moons at all. Not that he isn’t pleased to see her one last time, he really is. He had thought their final hug at the facility the last he would ever see of her. He knows he will miss her far more than any of the others who have disappeared from his short life.

But dressers are Pleasure Dome slaves, never domestic slaves… He would frown were it not for the delicate film of makeup—and only now does he notice that Myrin is nowhere in sight.

The huge eunuch has been his personal guard since the first time he was brought here to dance. It is unusual for Elijah to take a single step without Myrin a mere pace behind him. His absence is disquieting. He wasn’t outside the dressing room to ‘escort’ him down onto the dais, either. Elijah has been too wrapped up in his own fears to realize until now.

He angles his head, careful not to disturb his costuming by so much as a hair. ‘Deira? How is it that you are here?’ he asks quietly.

‘I received permission from Rumek to accompany you for your final appearance,’ she says aloud, and with a nod dismisses the other two dressers. Then she leans close as if to re-arrange the gems in his hair, and whispers, ‘Tonight, I leave all this behind and take my freedom. My ma—a friend is helping. He has arranged places on a ship bound for my home planet. Will you come with us, Elijah?’

Go with them? But what—? How can they possibly—? Surely they—? What if—?

The risk they are taking…

Elijah swallows hard. He wants—he wants so much—to set his fears aside and say yes. But even if their daring could bring him to freedom too, how would he cope with what is out there?

He has known nothing beyond the walls and cushioned comfort of the Élite quarters since he was very young and occasional excursions were still permitted. When transported into and out of the Pleasure Dome to perform at the Seven Moons, he is sealed safe inside a shielded aircar and sees nothing of the bustling commerce of Space Central.

All he knows of a real world comes courtesy of Deira’s bedtime stories of a place called Calia, where there is sun and wind and laughter. Her tales have been whispered soothingly to many a small boy or girl weeping in a place still new and strange to them. He has seen holo-vids of countless strange and wonderful places—in preparation for whatever world his master may inhabit, of course. None of them has ever convinced him as the soul-longing in Deira’s voice convinces him.

Even so, he cannot truly imagine how life is lived outside of space-grade metal sheeting, plastiboard and recycled air. Where a real sun shines, where wind and weather are part of a life that Space Central’s closed-in parks, with their containerized gardens, try to emulate and never can. He has no idea how he might make his way in such a place, with only the skills of a high-class courtesan and a determination never to use them unless he has no other choice.

He does know, perfectly well, what penalties are enacted on an absconding slave. They are long and painful and worse than anything he could imagine.

Except that, right now, he can think of things infinitely worse even than that. Because pretty soon—after this auction—chances are good that some of them will happen to him for real.

It’s all so much closer now than in the weirdest of his lessons, his submission to one—Or more? Please, not more!—of the many strange life forms whose pleasure centers he knows too well.

His trainers in all their differing forms were slaves, of course—most, if not all of them, neutered. The few that were not had their sexual urges chemically suppressed, just as those of every other worker within the training complex are suppressed. They were never a danger to him and some of them are even quite nice…people. They understood he was as troubled by their differences on meeting them as they were when first they encountered a human.

The training has been nothing if not comprehensive.

The touch of feelers, he learned, is apparently as much about sniff as feel. He must therefore pay close attention to the scents that arouse and avoid those that disgust a new owner who may possess such sensitive receptors.

Beings whose multiple limbs come equipped with suckers can be very passionate lovers, he was informed. He has experienced the many variations of touch they can provide. Feathers have their own pitfalls—delights too, so he was taught, though he still isn’t entirely convinced of the last part.

A fully-clawed master or mistress, he was assured, is least likely. Too many have…shelled out for human slaves they have unintentionally destroyed at first touch. The blue semi-cephalopod actually chuckled—or at least, that was what Elijah took the sound to be—as it communicated this far from comforting tidbit.

He has touched and been touched, and of necessity became familiar with plasti-spin replicas of the many beings for which no live example has yet been obtained.

And not only the limbs of all these possible purchasers. He has explored, mouthed and—where appropriate—received lifelike siliplas replicas or actual examples of the varying sex organs too, together with tuition in how best to arouse and eventually bring the owner to whatever form of climax it enjoys.

For a part of the most recent solar year his suppressants were withdrawn, and he was taught to service females who possessed suitable orifices—plasti-spin orifices for the most part, of course. The sensation came as quite the surprise, in a part of him he had never suspected could feel more than relief at an empty bladder. He sorely missed it once he was suppressed once more—pun fully intended in his mind.

The drugs had not kicked all the way back in, however, when he began sessions on how to receive from a future master—while still, of course, retaining a technical virginity. The dual wonders he experienced then—as reduced as they must have been—gave him hope that there might even be occasional pleasure for him as well as for that master.

Quite illicitly, though very diligently, he practiced on himself until the urges were fully suppressed once more and his life returned to its usual level of insipid normality.

But where now is the distance he was assured of—the easy floating that should ease away the tension still thrumming through him despite his body’s pliancy? All the older Pets know about the final something they shall be given on the day of their sale, secret though it is meant to be. It can’t have worked on him or he would not now feel such panic, here.

So, yes, he is eager for escape—but is the uncertainty of freedom worth the risk of punishment?

Slavery, with its comforts and constraints, is all he has known—if not yet to its fullest extent, given the uses to which his body may be put by his new master. Freedom, on the other hand is a truly alien concept—a precarious state at best…

Deira’s voice rises a little—too far for safety, really—and Elijah catches the note of clear distress. ‘Please, Elijah! I cannot follow you to wherever your new master takes you, and I will not leave you behind unless you actually want to go with him or…or it.’ Her last words are almost inaudible.

‘No,’ he whispers back.

Deira looks ready to weep. She brings something from a pocket, holds out the tiny vial of bright green liquid. ‘You—you had better drink this, then. It’s not too late. It will help you not be afraid when—’

‘No!’ Elijah repeats, more strongly. He pushes the vial back at her and Deira’s relief then is unmistakable. ‘I mean, no, I don’t want a new master—I don’t want any master at all! I would much rather come with you. How, though? Myrin will—’

‘Myrin will not trouble us,’ she interrupts, smoothing a hand almost imperceptibly along the side of her loose slave robe to reveal the shape of a stunner, also tucked into the pocket there. ‘There was no other way. I can only hope being unconscious will absolve him of blame.’

Elijah’s eyebrows shoot almost to his hairline though he does not comment aloud. The penalty for any but a trusted guard-slave bearing weapons is a hideous death. And Myrin will be very lucky to escape punishment so lightly for letting himself be disarmed, however it happened.

‘Now,’ Deira tells him, ‘when an auction ends the dais returns to stage level. Normally, it remains there—which is when the new owner claims his purchase. Tonight, leveling out will disable the circuits that control lighting throughout the club, and the dais itself will keep on descending. It operates on a completely different system—antiquated hydraulics rather than the power circuits—so you needn’t fear coming down with a thump. .Just watch out you don’t off fall in the dark!’

She gives him a reassuring smile he is too stunned to return. He connects what she is telling him with the earlier ‘power glitch’ and realizes exactly how much planning must have gone into this attempt. He wonders what she would have done if he had refused his rescue in truth—and remembers the vial she offered him. The choice had been his own—the one real choice he has ever been allowed to make about his body.

‘Okay,’ he says, his throat so dry the word would come out a hoarse whisper whether he needed one or not.

‘I’ll be waiting here with pants and a cloak for you—you can scarcely leave here in nothing but your skin!’ she says, still close enough for words a mere breath above silence. ‘We shall have to move fast, Elijah. We need all the advantage we can get before they discover the failure is not Dome-wide, and maybe connect it to the auction and to you. The audience upstairs is huge so there should be a great deal of panic and confusion. That will work for us and against them—more delay before someone figures out a reason for the blackout. No-one need even suspect you’re gone until they get the lights back on. With luck we’ll be halfway to the spaceport by then—there’s a fast aircar waiting for us out back!’

Elijah is almost beyond surprise, now. He only nods as if approving her placement of his jewelry, then points to his other hand as if something there needs adjusting. There are too many shadows down here to risk assuming they are completely alone, even now.

‘You know what this means if you are caught?’ He asks the question against her hair as she fiddles with the chain. ‘This is far more than your own escape, or even carrying a weapon. If we are caught, you will be indicted for helping—for stealing—me. I will be punished but may be allowed to live, having cost my new Master much. You will pay the full penalty, Deira.’

‘I know it and I accept the risk. I wish to go home at last, and to bring you with me. It is time and past time.’ There is utter determination in her face as she backs away from him.

He answers her with another nod, his mind made up, jaw set. This will be the best he has ever danced because, he vows inside himself, it will be the last time ever that he dances at another’s command.

Deira is gone. Above him the trap begins to open and Elijah hears the chanting that is his cue. As the dais begins to rise he takes the deep breaths needed to face one last performance.

Afterward, he will go wherever Deira wishes, and somehow he will help make a new life for both of them.

 

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Chapter Text

Thanks to the line for disembarking at the aircar access point, Sean and Karsellen are cutting it rather fine by the time they eventually enter the doors of the Seven Moons of Sycorial. The auction is almost ready to begin.

The place has long since achieved overcrowding and is well on its way to overflowing. Staff and private slaves are all desperately seeking ways through the crush to fulfill patrons’ and owners’ orders. Seating has clearly been augmented for the occasion but places to perch remain at a premium.

For latecomers it appears to be standing room only—too far away from the raised central stage by now to guarantee a decent sight of this Pet’s final performance in the flesh. The huge screens around the perimeter, however, constantly strobe seconds-long shots of a boy who is presumably Elijah, in mid-dance. They promise that no-one, wherever they may sit or stand, need miss a single, vid-relayed move when the real thing begins.

The effect of all that unnatural flickering on Sean’s wolf is as unhappy as ever. The noise level itself is almost unbearable—anticipation too vocal and music too raucous for sensitive hearing.

Sean is more than ready to back out and go home, but Kas forges forward, either not noticing his distress or ignoring it in his eagerness to get wherever he’s headed. Sean sighs and follows, eyes firmly fixed on his friend’s back, though almost every other patron’s attention seems divided already between screen and the as-yet shielded, central stage.

Kas then produces the invitation he astutely retained when Sean had scarcely spared it a second thought. Sean can only be grateful. Its presentation not only assures them seats, when so many others must stand. It guarantees them some of the best in the house—those set apart for the invited bidders. It also brings Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian hurrying to meet them in person, all sycophantic smiles and covetous good wishes for Sean’s success in the auction. If he is irritated by their late arrival and a delay to the proceedings, he conceals it well enough.

As much as Sean dislikes this plump and oily, soft-skinned individual, he makes the effort to be pleasant. It is clear that even a last minute arrival is welcome from one who may yet spiral the profit Perçuile is expecting to unprecedented heights. Sean can almost see him racking up the credits in his mind.

He does not, of course, mention that he is here solely to view the boy who has such a surprising effect on his friend’s sexuality, or that he has no intention whatever of actually taking part.

As their host guides them through the press, Sean’s nose wrinkles. Too many bodies, too many scents. His inner wolf sneezes—and isn’t that a weird sensation.

Sean encounters a good many life forms in his work, and as many different bodily odors. He has learned to cope in formal situations.

In a close-packed crowd the size of this one, however—all out to impress, intentionally smothering natural odors with personalized, chemixed perfumes and colognes—he knows it will soon be too much for both man and wolf. The sharp reek of bekte smoke hangs more visibly in the air too, wispy tendrils that wreathe enclosed spaces wherever men of a certain caliber gather.

His sinuses ache already. He won’t disappoint Kas by leaving right away, but as soon as the auction itself is over, Sean is out of here.

He is most grateful to arrive at what is clearly one of—if not the—most favored of the semi-enclosed bidding booths. It is even spacious enough to keep both sound and smells at bay, if not by much.

Nico snaps imperious fingers to bring pretty servers with wine and highly decorative canapés. He indicates the financial console, his satisfaction obvious when it dutifully registers Sean’s retinal scan and blips up an extremely healthy disposable credit score.

Sean’s own brows rise. He hadn’t realized that last sale of stock had produced quite such a profit. Mac is truly a wonder.

‘You may enter a bid at any time during the performance,’ Nico informs him, ‘in multiples of 50,000 credits only, if you please. Bids are transmitted to each of the consoles here and also to a number of external bidders via InstaLink. As you perceive,’ he waves a hand around the generous circle of booths, spaced equidistantly about the stage, ‘interest in my Pet of Pets is quite high!’

A number of the booths have their privacy screens engaged, but Sean recognizes several of the occupants who have chosen to remain visible. He inclines his head politely, quite surprised to see one or two of the faces there. However, unless Calia is somehow involved, neither the personal stance on slavery nor the sexual preferences of his political counterparts from other worlds are really any of his concern.

With a wry grin he realizes they are probably making much the same assessment of him—and perhaps they too are accompanied by friends to whose voyeuristic needs they have agreed to pander. Not even in return for the courtesy of such privileged seating, however, will Sean consider putting in a bid.

He refuses to support this particular branch of the slave trade in any way—either openly or concealed amid the relative safety of early bidding, given the staggering sum Perçuile is apparently expecting to receive this night. Sean dislikes the very idea of a person being sold. And, no matter the accompanying luxury, the thought that that person has been trained practically from infancy to fulfill a predominantly sexual role is abhorrent to him. Attainment of full age may make the transaction legal here on Space Central, but it makes it no better.

‘I anticipate that the bidding will be sufficiently brisk to continue throughout the performance—possibly,’ Nico emphasizes, with the closest thing to a leer Sean has seen on the face of this semi-respectable entrepreneur, ‘given quite the last minute boost, when the dance ends and Elijah will stand entirely revealed.’

The leer becomes tinged with something else—regret for the loss of a major attraction here, perhaps—and Sean wonders again what makes this unfortunate youth so special. Still, a couple of million credits should ease Nico’s distress quite handily.

‘Bidding ceases as soon as it is clear no higher bid will be forthcoming. The requisite sum will at that point be deducted from the account of the successful bidder and the deed of ownership instantly transferred. If you are he, this green button will light up. When you push it, the dais will lower and you may claim your purchase in whatever manner you choose. I wish you the very best of good fortune,’ Nico concludes, and with a bow he hurries off, presumably to get matters underway at last.

Kas has settled himself into the plasti-clad memory foam seating with a glass of what Sean is sure will be no ordinary house wine. No sooner has Kas’ gaze lighted on a certain attractive hostess than he drags her into his lap. Clearly she has entertained him before, for she begins at once to place choice delicacies all across her mostly naked torso—the tassels and that tiny triangle of scarlet satin don’t really count—for Kas to scoop into his mouth.

Sean grins at his friend, who waves another server their way. This one is a statuesque red-head who wears slightly more in the way of decorative accessories. Very slightly more. She is poised to entertain Sean in similar fashion if that is his wish, but he shakes his head.

‘Maybe later,’ he says, seeing her pout. ‘I need to concentrate on the bidding for now.’ It is no more than a face-saver for her—he has no intention of picking up on it. He has little doubt she will be ensconced in some other lap in no time, with identically carnal intent.

He frowns now. For no reason he can fathom, there is not a single female in the place he finds attractive here tonight, hostess or guest. They all seem—he shrugs, puzzled by his disinterest—too much and yet somehow not enough. He has visited the Seven Moons before with Kas, more than once, and has never yet failed to find company to satisfy his level of need—but tonight?

Tonight, for some reason, he feels more on edge than aroused and has no idea why.

Perhaps when expectations are fulfilled, when the crowd thins and moves on to other, less congested venues—when this damned auction is over and done with—the air will clear and he’ll be able to breathe again. Maybe then a few drinks and a holo replay of the oh-so-special Elijah’s dancing will get his wolf peeking out enough for some satisfaction with one of the pretty hostesses, and he’ll not have to abandon his friend after all. Not, he thinks casting a wry glance across the booth, that Kas would probably notice if he did.

Sean is quickly proved wrong about that for, as the house lights begin to dim and the noise level dies to nothing, all attention—even Kas’—moves to the stage. The action—the auction—is about to begin.

Disappointingly, it is Niconet Perçuile who appears, spotlit upon a separate podium. The audience makes it clear, in a few groans and the odd good-natured hiss, that no-one is here to see anything Nico may have to show them.

‘My fellow beings,’ he says, ‘may I first of all thank you for attending this night of nights at the Seven Moons of Sycorial, for one last, consummate performance by the most renowned—and justifiably so—among all the Élite hitherto presented for your entertainment. Regular devotees—myself included—shall henceforth feel ourselves deprived…’

He obviously has more to say—much more, but the groans are louder and more widespread now, and the hissing not so good-natured. Sean and Kas exchange grins as Nico petulantly concedes defeat and concludes with, ‘Well then—here, one final time, House Rama-Nettorian presents for your delectation the most exquisite of my Élite, my Pet of Pets…Elijah!’ He steps down, the house lights fade completely and the murmurs of the crowd are hushed.

Near darkness reigns throughout the club. The distant bar is still lit, of course, and occasional exit symbols show at the perimeter in a sharp and sinister green. Each face of an octagonal counter, set high above the stage, shines an optimistic row of large red zeros. Given that the successful bidder may insist his identity remain secret, Niconet Perçuile is determined everyone shall at least know how highly this one of his Élite is valued. Within each booth the console glows a smaller and less baleful green—well-dimmed not to distract, yet ready and eager to instantly register an ever-increasing total of bids.

Kas shoves the blonde—Tasia, he named her at some point—out of his lap now so he can focus entirely on the stage. She pouts, much as the red-head had done, but curls resignedly in a corner of the booth. Pallid green light reveals the same thing happening in other booths, and at the tables Sean can barely glimpse beyond them. He shakes his head in bemusement. Nico’s patrons do seem to have something of a fixation with this particular dancer.

The privacy screen thins to nothing and for several moments, there is only silence as the darkness across the stage melts slowly into light. Sean expects music, but what fades in as gradually as the blue-tinged lighting is a distant chant—weird cadences selected to exert exactly this spine-tingling effect on the audience.

He notices in surprise that bidding has already begun. Both his console and the suspended octagon show figures flickering fast toward two million credits—and the damned boy hasn’t even put in an appearance, yet. So far, Sean awards top marks for presentation. He begins to wonder if this Elijah’s fascination isn’t as much about clever technical support as it is about his person or his level of accomplishment.

The light increases almost imperceptibly to reveal a circle of white-robed suppliants, spaced like the points of a snowflake, heads bowed low in worship over the blood-red surface of the stage. The chant swells louder, a frisson still spidering its way down Sean’s back.

The six rise to their knees, swaying in elegant unison, arms stretched beseechingly toward the center, where the blue light is now wholly directed —where their ’god’ will presumably appear. It’s an interestingly sensual take on classical themes from the age of religion, Sean thinks.

As the acolytes sway gradually to rest, a dais rises in their midst, bringing a slender figure slowly—oh, so slowly—into view.

Still as marble he stands, arms twined gracefully above his head. The raised section revolves, displaying him to best effect, but the body here betrays as yet not a single shift of skin. Movement now—even too deep a breath—will set these most elegant of adornments a-twinkle far too soon.

Fine links of cythlin wind lightly around slender arms, from the slope of shoulder to a chased band around each middle finger. Others swing loose from the nipple rings he wears, slithering smoothly around back to cross in front once more. A delicate web of costly metal cast here over skin of incomparable perfection—each strand ultimately depending from the priceless collar that encircles a column of white throat, with further links glinting spider-fine atop dark hair.

At intervals the shimmering bonds bear faceted jewels—precious stones only for cythlin, most rare and prized of metals. So delicate, so exquisite, so beautiful is this tracery of chains that the symbolism—their very purpose—may be lost to the image here presented.

Blue warms to amber now, a glow that subtly gilds this statue with the rising sheen of life. The unhurried turn of dais is rich in suggestion, setting shadow free to flicker and flow beneath filmy layers. It hints far more than it reveals of the perfect dip of spine that surges to a tightly answering swell below. Of a body lithe on the cusp of manhood—a lure not for the lover of men alone, but also those who worship the perfections of youth.

But Sean is stunned beyond any thought of beauty, lure or even gender. Every part of him and of his wolf is silently howling.

MateMineClaimOmegaClaimMateMINE…

His first glimpse was enough to know, but the very scent of Mate comes drifting, rippling, tumbling from the raised dais where Elijah stands motionless, displayed. It makes nothing of the chemical stinks that have fouled Sean’s sinuses. He is wreathed around now with the savor of fresh green grass, rain-damp soil on a warm summer breeze, and maybe the spoor of a toothsome meal. In a word, the savor of home.

Mate—Elijah—begins to move. Hands only at first, fingers slim and elegant, winding a sinuous flow above his head. Jewels that had gathered light before now fling it high and wide. It is not Sean’s wolf alone that wants to howl triumph, need and claiming—to this crowd, to the world, to an entire galaxy.

Sean, however, holds his elation in check, knowing he must act at once. Mate is for no-one else, must be seen naked by wolf and Sean alone. Only a lifetime of iron control keeps his fingers from morphing into claws as he scrabbles for the number pad. He even manages the requisite number of zeros.

High above Elijah’s head the octagonal counter flickers bright, its total flicking ever higher. The entire room vents a single gasp when they finally come to rest.

A long pause. Sean holds his breath, not daring yet to look back at Elijah. His heart beats fast as he waits and watches for the counter bid he is almost certain will not come. The large green button flashes at last, vivid and insistent in the semi-dark. His single bid has stopped the auction cold.

He smacks his hand down hard—intently, possessively—and the dais sinks downward bringing Elijah—in shock, it seems, for he holds position still—to him, for them. Wolf surges up within him—Mine!—but Sean is still in control here, if it hangs by no more than a hair’s breadth.

Nico rises up before him then, looking more than a little annoyed. It seems to Sean an unlikely expression on the face of one who has just acquired five million credits, free and clear.

‘Alpha, could you not wait a little lon—?’

He gets no further—and not because Sean has set his wolf free on this sycophantic excuse for a human, that would keep him from his mate.

Nico’s protest is lost amid the clamor that erupts when every form of lighting in the place suddenly dies. Consoles, bar lights, exit symbols—all cut out in the exact same instant, leaving the crowd in a darkness thicker and more profound than any even Sean has known.

This hot and noisy, smelly, total absence of light is entirely bereft of the blessings of a night spent hunting beneath the stars. A tide of bodies heaves and breaks around him as panic sets in, loud and angry—civilized beings losing all control now to the still-innate primal fear of a predator waiting out there in the dark.

It seems far longer than it really is before someone remembers the small glow a comm. band can provide. Myriad points of light swing wildly across the impenetrable black, illuminating little and seeming only to increase the spread of panic.

Sean shuts his eyes lest anyone catch the sudden gleam of gold therein. He is struggling for a different control. Elijah, his omega mate—denied sight or hearing, taste or touch, still Sean knows Elijah is leaving. And he dares do nothing to prevent it until he is sure of full mastery over a wolf whose mate is being torn from him. Until he can be sure this blackout will not trigger a massacre he never intends.

He can only stand and listen as desperation howls inside his head.

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Chapter Text

Despite his surprise when the dais starts to lower already—how can the auction be over when he has scarcely even begun to dance?—Elijah is too well-trained to alter position as yet.

Besides, there’s something… different. He can’t tell exactly what—it’s as if something inside of him has begun to resonate to an unknown yet somehow familiar cue.

Dazzled by the number of lights all shining directly at him, he cannot see what is happening out there, though what he hears is far from reassuring. A sudden outburst of shock and complaint has risen to complete uproar—voices yelling displeasure, disappointment, even anger. He recognizes Master Nico’s attempt to quell the gathering uproar with a sort of genteel shriek that fails quite comprehensively..

As the dais approaches floor level, though, he is quick to abandon his pose. He is clearly not going to be dancing here, and he may even need to try and defend himself, should some of those angry people—

But right then, exactly as Deira promised, there is instantaneous, absolute darkness throughout the Seven Moons. Disoriented, Elijah drops quickly to his knees before he can fall from this moving platform into the equal dark awaiting him below.

The descent feels to last much longer than usual, the noise thankfully fading as he leaves the stage way above him. Even so, a single voice seems to rise above all others—one word only, drawn out high and sad, almost a howl. Elijah doesn’t really take in what it says, only that it somehow sharpens the resonance already quivering beneath his skin.

He almost calls out in response but the dais comes to a gentle stop and all else gives way to momentary panic in case Deira isn’t there.

The blackout is broken then by a faint glow at the corner of his eye. It’s a handlight, set down somewhere close, dimmed almost to nothing with a cover of some kind.

‘So soon?’ Deira asks, sounding just as surprised as Elijah. She doesn’t dwell on it, though. Her eyes are already adjusted to the lack of light here, for she rips his filmy costume from him with a sure hand. The touch fastenings rasp a quick release, sounding far too loud in the eerie gloom—almost a threat in themselves.

She holds out loose pants for him to step into and pushes a pair of short boots into his hands. He would be unlikely to get far before being spotted, with bare feet displaying their generous tracery of jeweled cythlin. The same is true of the net still glinting in his hair. His chains are all interconnected and not easily removed, but Elijah snatches off the net, barely noticing the hurt when the pins drag stray strands in its wake. He drops it contemptuously to the floor and pulls on the boots.

Deira whisks a cloak around his shoulders then takes him by the hand. ‘This way!’ she hisses, scooping up the handlight and tugging him toward the back of the cellar.

A large stack of crates hides an exit he has never seen before, with another and more practical hydraulic lift. This is the way the transit ’bots deliver the Seven Moons’ supplies of high-priced ethanol, he realizes.

They rise up into the bright, dead light of a high service tunnel, wide and empty as yet of all but the promised aircar—hovering silently, its doors already retracted. As they scramble inside, a line of emergency exits bangs open behind them. Bodies swarm out in an uncontrolled mass—blinking and stumbling in the sudden, comparative brightness. Every one of them is shrieking or bellowing in panic, as if some unknown entity were snapping at their heels from the darkness they are so frantic to escape.

For an instant a different panic takes Elijah. Then the aircar doors hiss rapidly into place and cut off all sound. Lift and take off happen so fast he may have left his stomach behind. It is the Seven Moons that vanishes behind them, however—quickly lost amid the twists and turns of concealed but necessary service access.

His lifts a hand to his mouth, only to stop as he remembers at last that he is still decked out in the precious-jeweled cythlin chains. ‘I can’t keep these,’ he says. ‘They aren’t mine to take!’

Someone up front gives a short laugh. ‘Son, you aren’t yours to take, either,’ he points out. The voice is deep, even rough—not a timbre Elijah is used to and so not all that reassuring either, but if Deira trusts this man that’s good enough for him.

‘You were that slimy slug Perçuile’s until just minutes ago. Right now you ‘belong’ to some other-worlder you’ve never met and never will, while I have any say it in. Don’t you fret,’ the voice adds scathingly, though it is clearly not directed at Elijah, ‘Perçuile’ll make sure he’s paid for your ‘accessories’, too!’

Elijah is off-balance enough to snort at the truth of that. His master—former master now, he supposes, whatever may befall him when they get wherever they are going—is most insistent always on receiving his proper dues. Whoever officially owns Elijah now, they will not easily escape a claim by Niconet Perçuile for the full value of this entire, ridiculous regalia.

‘Maybe not this one, though,’ the man says. He halts the vehicle momentarily in mid-air and turns to Elijah. ‘Give me your left hand.’

He doesn’t switch on the interior lighting, but guides Elijah’s proffered hand into the blue glare from another service entrance. All Elijah sees of him are broad, capable hands and face, all eerily washed blue. Both hair and eyes seem dark, but the blue hides nothing of a bright, reassuring smile.

He turns Elijah’s forearm to bare its underside between the links of cythlin, and runs a small device over the skin there. To Elijah, it feels as if something pinches him, then a green light flashes and the device beeps. It leaves a tiny drop of blood and an incipient bruise as it’s lifted away.

‘This one you shall leave behind—for ever! Now you, Deira.’

The device quickly removes the minute tracking chip from beneath her skin too, then the door next to Elijah briefly lifts. The man flicks a switch on his device, which spits both chips down to the anonymous pathway below.

‘They’re disabled anyway, but if they’re found they can’t tell what they don’t know!’

‘Wait!’ says Deira. ‘What about the collar?’

‘What about it?’

‘It may be all fancy with the jewels and drapes and whatnot, but it’s still a slave collar,’ she reminds him impatiently. ‘They are mostly decorative now slaves are individually chipped, but given its value, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t have a tracker of its own. It’s locked fast around Elijah’s neck, though, and only Ma—’ Elijah hears the word she swallows, even if the man doesn’t, ‘—only Nico Perçuile can remove it.’

Elijah has worn this collar to dance at the Seven Moons more than once before tonight, with variations in the number and placement of his chains. Almost the worst part was its removal, lowering himself to lie over plumply parted knees—his eyes shut tight, resolutely ignoring fingers that wander more freely than a simple unlocking should require.

‘Good point.’ There’s a pause while the man considers. He blows out a noisy breath. ‘This little gizmo can get through the metal to disable it, but it will take longer. That part of the collar will get pretty hot and we may need to try in more than one place.’ He looks challengingly at Elijah.

Elijah ducks his head into the pool of blue light, baring the back of his neck. ‘Try the lock first,’ he says. ‘It seems the likeliest place.’

Deira stifles a faint noise of protest—they all know it must be done, and fast.

The device hums this time, where it rests on the ornate clasp. Coren says that proves it’s working on the chip and Elijah doesn’t try to hide his relief. The collar has warmed already to the heat of his body, of course, but now it heats far further at his neck.

To begin with, it’s merely uncomfortable. Then the hum turns into a whine, and discomfort becomes tenderness becomes outright hurt. Elijah grits his teeth and takes deep breaths. Deira gives him her hands to squeeze against the pain until the light flashes at last and the beep sounds.

‘Can’t extract it, but it’s dead to all purposes now,’ the man says, relief evident in his voice.’ He sets the device aside, the door hisses shut again and they’re speeding on their way.

Deira rips along the hem of her slave robe. ‘Let me see,’ she says, and Elijah bends his head toward her.

‘There’s a mark but no blistering. Pass the med—’ she hasn’t finished the request before there’s a pack thrust into her hand. ‘Thanks,’ she says briefly, and smears something blessedly cool over Elijah’s neck. The searing burn abates at once. She applies a dressing, then eases torn-off fabric between metal and pad. ‘This will keep it from pressing down while we—’ She checks whatever she was going to say, ending with, ‘Until we can get the whole thing off. I doubt you’ll need more.’

Elijah scarcely notices her hesitation. With that last trackable proof of his slavery now neutralized—a thing he hadn’t even known was possible—the sudden awareness of what he has done sweeps over him. He has defied not only the power and wealth of House Rama-Nettorian, but also that of some other, possibly even wealthier and more powerful entity.

The realization leaves him shaking. Reaction, he supposes—adrenaline withdrawal now he is, however temporarily, safe in the shielded anonymity of an aircar.

‘Don’t worry,’ Deira says. ‘There will be so much confusion in the dark, it ought to be a while before anyone thinks to check below, or in the dressing rooms. They can’t know for certain that you’re gone—not until they find Myrin, and he should still be unconscious in a service closet as yet. With luck, we shall be well away before then.’

She lays a calming hand on his shoulder. When he doesn’t shake her off, she pulls him into a hug. He feels like a child again, but her touch steadies him and his jitters settle into the hum beneath his skin that he noticed before. Even that seems to be fading, the farther they get from the Seven Moons of Sycorial.

He sits up at last, tugging the cloak to cover his cythlin bonds. They slither and chime all across his skin and he wants them off—wants to be done with them and all they stand for. Removal, though, will take more time and tools, and better light than they have here. Even when he’s freed from the collar, the chains need removing quite carefully or they tangle tight and take ages to sort out.

That isn’t normally his problem of course, but this time it will be—or will it? He is well aware how valuable this regalia is. Maybe that’s part of this escape plan—to sell it off and use the money to start their new life? There is still so much he doesn’t yet know.

He is perfectly clear on how much he owes to these two, however—and he hasn’t even acknowledged it.

‘Thank you so much,’ he says belatedly, ‘both of you.’

‘You didn’t think we’d leave without you, did you?’ the man asks, quite jovial now, and Elijah frowns.

‘Why not?’ he asks, not pausing to think how ungrateful it might sound.

Why not?’ the man repeats, as if shocked. ‘Deira, did you not tell him?’

‘No. For some reason, I thought he had enough to worry about already,’ she says tartly, but with the fond note Elijah recognizes as part of every scold she’s ever given him. ‘Elijah, my dear, this is Coren. He is…’ she pauses, her voice suddenly unsure, ‘…he was once my mate.’

‘Was, is, and always will be!’ Coren insists. He turns in his seat—presumably, Elijah hopes, after making sure the auto-nav will keep the aircar on the correct heading—and pulls Deira forward into a kiss.

Elijah can’t help watching as one kiss becomes the many tiny kisses Coren scatters over Deira’s face and hands. Other than on vid-screen, he has never seen affection freely given this way, between a man and a woman. The occasional passing flash of brightly colored LED outside lights them as effectively as any vid—but this is real and it’s fascinating.

He watches for a minute or more before he remembers that staring is impolite. He has been strictly trained never, ever to stare at a person—at a being—unless invited to do so. Ordered to do so.

He turns toward the console instead, though he doesn’t really see it. It occurs to him that mate is not a word for a life partner—so clearly what these two must once have been and are again—that he recalls ever to have heard before.

Definitely not inside the Rama-Nettorian complex or at the Seven Moons, but not on vid-screen, either. Not even in the ever-rolling daily shows that portray contract marriage as the most sought-after romantic condition, with soul-bonding the ultimate, unobtainable fantasy. The older Pets would spend a fair bit of the time allocated to more intellectual pursuits quite illicitly watching such vids. It was purely wishful thinking, of course, and they had all known it quite well.

To Elijah’s knowledge Deira has never breathed a word of having either mate or partner of any kind out in the free world, and he has known her for as long as—well, as long as he can remember anything or anyone.

Though, perhaps he has heard the word before, just the once. Maybe not heard, as such—more like…felt it, somehow.

A flash of recollection makes him shudder. The dais where he stood to dance—his island of light and semi-safety, doused in an instant to a shuffling, breathing, hostile darkness. A sudden howl that echoed through him—the trigger, he is almost sure, for the chaos as the auction came to its unintended close.

Not that it matters any longer, any of it. Elijah shakes off the memory as unimportant now and he smiles—eyes fixed firmly aside—for the obvious happiness of the couple beside him.

In a little while there’s a beep from the driving console, and a message flashes up. Elijah politely refrains from reading it, though he easily could, before the man—no, Coren—tears himself from Deira and turns to deal with it.

Elijah sees the tears on her cheeks. He doesn’t have anything like a handkerchief with him so he swipes them away with a gentle thumb. Her smile now is wonderful to see.

‘Somehow, they know you’re missing already, though there’s no sign of hue and cry beyond the Seven Moons itself, as yet,’ Coren reports, his voice a little grave. ‘Don’t fret, Deira—we’re almost to the spacedock, anyway. They’ll not stop us now!’

‘What about papers—passes?’ Deira worries.

‘Never fear, Jono has that covered. He’s meeting us in back of the aircar rental place. You two are going aboard in a packing crate. It’ll be a bit cozy but safe enough, and we have breathers for you. And, once the Alpha knows I’ve got you back, he’ll make all right with the authorities.’

‘He doesn’t know? Coren—how could you!’

Coren swipes a thumb down his nose. It’s a habit when he’s embarrassed that Elijah soon comes to recognize. ‘Thought it better to keep him out of anything a bit illegal until after we made it happen, you know?’

Deira shakes her head fondly. ‘True enough—but you should still have told him.’

‘Well, and so I shall when he comes back aboard tomorrow.’

‘Um…what about me?’ Elijah asks tentatively. ‘Will he—this Alpha,’ it’s another unfamiliar word, ‘he won’t feel he has to send me back once he knows about the auction, will he?’

He really hopes not. The thought of freedom may be terrifying in its way, yet it is calling to him now as never before. And can the unknown be any worse than the possibilities of the life he has left behind? Whatever else, though, he must be sure Deira will not suffer because she has helped him.

What? No way would he ever do such a thing, no matter how many millions some fool may have paid Perçuile to get his hands on you!’ Coren sounds insulted, almost angry.

Elijah visibly flinches. He can’t help it. Brought up in a place where every male but one was either chemically neutered or at the least sexually suppressed, and well-separated from those for whose lusts he has occasionally danced, he has no experience of testosterone close up and unconfined.

He may have been trained to service every sexual need, no matter the physical form, but he has never met face to face with anyone as fully male as Coren. He positively radiates strength—and suppressed anger, here. Master Nico is almost feminine by comparison.

‘Coren!’ Deira says reproachfully.

Coren turns in his seat to look back at him. ‘Hey, hey,’ he says more gently. ‘We have you back safe and no-one will ever take you away again.’

Elijah is as much confused as reassured by that, but there is no time yet for explanations. The aircar comes to a halt and the three disembark, Deira fussing the cloak tight around Elijah’s neck and arms as soon as he emerges. They cannot risk anyone noticing he still wears a not-so-small fortune in jewelry.

He is so surprised when the man who waits there takes Deira by the shoulders, he misses the exchange of names. This has to be Coren’s friend, though, for both are smiling. When she responds by brushing a cheek against his, and they touch foreheads before drawing back, Elijah realizes this is the formal greeting.

He is nothing if not well-trained in formalities.

When the man—Alpha Jono Esclar of the Shining Lake Pack, which is presumably the accepted societal grouping—addresses him, Elijah presents himself to be held and responds with the cheek and forehead touches as if he has done this all his life. His name must be given without affiliation, of course—however much that gives Jono pause—for Elijah has none he would ever wish to remember.

He steps back, looking to Deira for approval. Warmth spreads through him as she beams at him with pride, but there is no time for more. Jono is handing breathers to him and Deira now, and Coren demonstrates how to control the airflow. There is a large, garishly purple plasti-crate hovering beside them on a float pallet.

The next little while is taken up with getting as comfortable as they can. With the smell and taste of canned air, and the weird effect of light through barely translucent purple walls and lid. With staying still and silent, despite the stop-go movement of their hiding place. More worryingly and for far longer, with loud, multi-voiced exchanges outside in the docking bay. These are concerned with technical matters Elijah has barely even heard of before: cargoes, toleration parameters, lading limits and schedules—also, why the frag it’s not breaktime yet.

He realizes he and Deira are little more than cargo themselves, for the time being. As light becomes dark becomes light, over and again, he finds himself dozing against Deira’s shoulder. He wakes some time later, cramped and aching, with her arm wrapped around him. Their crate finally bumps to a halt in darkness and doesn’t start off again. When he flips his breather off to ask if they’ve arrived, Deira taps his hand and signals for quiet and for him to put it back on again.

There’s a period of silence then that seems to stretch forever. Elijah seriously begins to wonder if their air will run out, before a further series of judders to their crate ends in sudden, purple-tinged light once more.

He hears movement outside and their crate is briefly jostled again, but Coren’s voice calls, ‘It’s only me!’ Then the snappers that sealed it hiss and flip open, and the lid rises.

They are in what must be a ship’s cargo hold—a huge area stacked high and tight on every side with crates like theirs, though thankfully they aren’t all purple. Elijah blinks and gets stiffly to his feet. Coren takes their breathers, helps Deira out and scoops her into his arms. He holds onto her now as if terrified someone may snatch her away, even here, where Elijah had thought they must be safe. He clambers of out the crate and waits quietly beside them.

Deira’s face is hidden in Coren’s shoulder and her words are muffled. What Elijah hears over and again is, ‘You came for me! You came for me—for us, this time! You came!’

‘I would have crossed more than one galaxy for you!’ Coren sets her on her feet at last, tucks her under his arm and turns to face Elijah, whose cloak has fallen open. ‘So, here is the cub, at last,’ he says. He eyes the cythlin and adds sourly, ‘He’s trussed up like a bloody chicken!’

Deira snorts into his chest. ‘Slave,’ she reminds him, her tone bitter. ‘One whose submission in those pretty chains was intended to arouse every person—every thing,’ she spits fiercely, ‘in that accursed place.’

‘Aye, he has the looks, even without all the folderols,’ Coren agrees, ‘but we’ll have them off him soon enough!’

Elijah can tell Coren is not one of those who find his ‘looks’ arousing, with or without the chains—which is a great relief.

‘Are you not going to introduce us, then?’ Coren asks now—strangely, Elijah thinks, for they already know each other’s name.

Oh, wait—perhaps for all those who are not slaves, more than one name is permitted? He knows Ma—Nico Perçuile has several formal names, though Elijah has always thought that was because he is so rich. Will he be allowed another name too, now he is free?

Then things become even stranger when Deira takes both his hands and lays them with hers between Coren’s. When she speaks there is a definite tremble in her voice. Elijah doesn't understand why, but he thinks she may be going to cry.

‘Elijah, I am Beta Deira Wood and you are my trueborn son. I present you now to your sire, Alpha Coren Wood of the Shining Lake Pack.’

 

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Chapter Text

Even before light and order are restored, Sean already knows his long-desired omega mate has gone beyond reach. There is no point hurling himself down into the sub-stage space that swallowed Elijah as his wolf would have him do, for Elijah is no longer there.

He sinks back into the decadent clutch of the booth’s multi-form-friendly seating and drops his head in his hands. He has tamed his wolf’s urge to tear apart any and everyone between himself and Elijah—though it may still be touch and go where Nico of the fancy name is concerned.

Sean could follow Elijah’s scent trail across mountains or through deserts, if need be—his omega scent trail, he rejoices, however undeveloped as yet—but there is none to follow here. To him, if no-one else at first, the loss of light was simply a smokescreen to enable Elijah’s abduction, and the aircar necessary to a swift exit has left no scent in its wake.

The Seven Moons of Sycorial is empty of patrons, now. Almost silent and deserted like this, the place is tawdry and unpleasant. It doesn’t even smell much better—though again, his ever-growing antipathy toward its owner may color Sean’s opinion, here.

Even the float chairs have departed, privacy screens concealing their literally inhuman occupants. A single, unintentional glimpse of one of them during the transfer, and Sean’s anger against Niconet Perçuile is whetted once more. How could someone consign a person—let alone a beautiful, untouched boy—into the hands of one of those things? If they even have hands.

Sean has hitherto considered himself to be one of the least species-ist of people, but tonight has proved in more ways than one that he maybe doesn’t know himself quite as well as he thought. Not only has he bought a slave—true-mate or not—it seems he may in the past, however unknowingly, have taken advantage of others.

From the fact that some of the hostesses have departed while others remain, he has realized at last that the latter are not employees but slaves. They scuttle to and fro—obeying barked orders, righting wreckage and clearing the evening’s detritus as unobtrusively as they can. Their primary function now suspended, and despite the still provocative attire, they have reverted to performing menial tasks beneath a master’s eye. Sean recognizes at least one and is ashamed.

Kas approaches, offering a snifter of fine brandy—a precious distillation in these days of chemically formulated ethanol. ‘I can hardly believe it, you know—you weren’t even going to come here tonight, much less actually bid!’ he says. ‘Here, drown your sorrows!’

He, of course, is thinking of the credits involved or the loss of a boy he is himself somewhat bewitched by, not the truth of Sean’s emotional state. When Sean shakes his head, Kas downs it himself without the least reverence for its aged rarity.

‘Normally I would never do such a thing but Elijah is…different.’

‘I told you that from the start but you didn’t believe me!’ Kas waggles his eyebrows suggestively and Sean manages to refrain from slapping him upside the head. Kas reads it in his face—they are friends after all. ‘I—I guess I’ll check what the media is saying, and get your legal guys onto it,’ he says, hastily taking a seat a tactful distance from Sean and clicking on his comm. band.

Sean cannot explain how different, not here. Kas knows he is Were, of course, and Sean trusts him with the knowledge, but there is no way he can afford even a whisper of the fact that Elijah is, too. And definitely not his status as omega—that is private and for Sean alone to know. If a hint of it leaked out here, the search for a valuable slave—with the promise of a reward from his new owner—might well turn into a hunt for one whose rarity is legend, his value exponentially increased.

‘Well?’ he demands of Niconet Perçuile, hovering and wringing his hands—at a discreet distance, given that Sean is bereft here of both credits and his legally acquired ‘purchase’.

‘Alpha, you will, I am sure, recall the nature of the auction—in the event of there being no further bid, both credits and ownership were instantly transferred…’

As if Sean needs the reminder. The total clearance of the Seven Moons—on what should have been the most lucrative night of its entire year at the bar alone—may seem a generous gesture on the part of its owner. In fact, it is visual confirmation of the limit to any debt he may owe. However lost, Elijah is now and will remain Sean’s property, Sean’s loss.

‘How could I possibly forget?’ he jibes. ‘I do, however, have considerable concerns about the nature of your,’ the pause is deliberate, ‘security in the aftermath.’

‘Elijah was provided with his own personal bodyguard,’ Nico says stiffly, though lacking some conviction now the man in question has been discovered bundled away in a closet and dead to the world.

‘Yes? And exactly how much use was he, again? For all I know he was involved in the theft!’

A polite cough at Sean’s elbow reminds him a bona fide investigation is underway at last. ‘Regrettably, sir,’ says its owner, ‘we have this moment received a report from the tracking agency that the slave chip in your acquisition—’ he swallows, clearly mistaking Sean’s reaction to hearing Elijah referred to like that for anger at the loss of so valuable a purchase, ‘—was disabled even before the circuits here came back online.’ Despite the protection of his uniform, the man takes a cautious step back.

The abduction once reported to the Dome’s Security Center, a pair of officers arrived quite quickly, though that was the best that could be said of them. Sean suspects the two would have more luck if Kas’ aircar had gone missing. They were clearly at a loss where to begin with such a high profile case. If it were left to them, he doubted he would ever get Elijah back.

He ‘suggested’ they search stage-trap and cellar for clues to Elijah’s disappearance. As soon as they scrambled nervously from his presence, Sean contacted the Chief Executive of Space Central Security Services. Sometimes, it is a good thing to possess—and in this case shamelessly exploit—both high status and extensive credit reserves.

The only ‘clue’ the pair discovered was the inert body of that personal guard—a man of more than two standard measures being difficult to miss, even by such inept functionaries. They were quickly side-lined, far outranked by the arrival of a man whose collar tabs should indicate greater zeal and capability.

Gathering in a single glance that Sean’s patience was already wearing extremely thin—a hint of unleashed alpha dominance possibly convincing him of the fact—this officer set out at once to prove his efficiency. If nothing else, the pledge of more men, extended search areas, intensive checks on all vehicles exiting the Dome—extending through every quadrant and to the Spaceport itself—held greater promise of results.

‘As for Guard Myrin,’ Collar-tabs continues now, ‘he is still dazed, mumbling about an attack out of nowhere. Data files show him to be an employee licensed out by the SCSS, his record exemplary—though his financials will of course be kept under observation for the foreseeable future. However, from the failure of all internal lighting circuits and the precipitous flight of the waiting aircar—noted by witnesses fleeing into the service tunnel—it is clear that at least one insider must have been involved.’

‘But-but—’ stutters Niconet Perçuile, ‘my staff are perfectly trustworthy—even the slaves.’

‘I don’t think we need worry about the slaves, sir.’ Collar-tabs’ superior smile says he endorses the widely held theory that enslaving a person simultaneously robs him or her of the ability to think. ‘The old one who apparently disappeared at the same time was probably promised her freedom if she kept your slave,’ he bows politely to Sean, ‘quiet during the abduction. I confidently expect her body to be spaced within hours.’

Sean accepts that sad likelihood, though he disagrees completely, if tacitly, with the dismissive attitude toward slaves in general. Slavery being outlawed on Calia, Cal City boasts a small but active population of immigrated Normals who have escaped their not-always-hypothetical chains. He has met and admired a number of them, in careers that demand far more of them than subservience.

However, it seems to him that the instigator of the abduction is probably a rival bidder against his—or its—own failure here tonight. One who would have Elijah, by whatever means—maybe even one who knows what he truly is. Sean’s wolf stirs once more, hackles rising at the thought.

‘Then perhaps,’ says Sean, glowering at Niconet Perçuile, ‘you would be so good as to supply the officer with a list of names of all those invited to the auction to bid on my slave?’ Again, it hurts that Elijah must be referred to with such indifference, but maintaining the focus on the loss of property—and such a valuable one at that—should keep it off Elijah as a person…or as Were.

Cui bono,’ agrees Collar-tabs with an approving glance at Sean, ‘my thoughts exactly, Alpha! If you would, Messire?’ He switches his gaze to Niconet Perçuile, his tone implying the polite request was not to be refused. ‘The abduction may well have been motivated by a desire to possess the slave himself, of course, but we cannot rule out the possibility of a ransom demand for his return.’

Nico seems to wilt under the increasing complexity. ‘He could, you know,’ he says haltingly, ‘just have taken advantage of the blackout and—and slipped out on his own…’

‘A sixteen year old slave who has lived all his life in a securely guarded environment, and you believe he would have the initiative to just slip out on his own?’ Collar-tabs’ tone almost drips with derision now, but he is not forced to close his eyes, as Sean must, to conceal the tide of blood-red anger rising there at the object of their mutual scorn.

‘He—he cannot get far before he starts attracting notice,’ Nico offers placatingly. ‘His final dose of Reversant will have been administered today at the appropriate time before his performance, to ensure he’d be completely ready for—’ a single flash of red encourages him to reconsider his choice of words, ‘—as soon as required.’

‘And exactly why would that attract notice?’ Sean demands through teeth clenched against his wolf’s sudden lunge for control.

‘Well…’ Perçuile’s hesitation tells Sean he’ll like this next part even less, ‘coming off of sexual suppressants tends to promote a…umm…a sharpening of the natural bodily urges. Also, he will have been given a little extra something to make him truly…umm…receptive.’

The look Sean gives then sends him from stuttering like a chidden child to gabbling a desperate scramble for approval of the intent, if not the means. Clearly, the anger in Sean’s eyes is even more noticeable now—and perhaps his teeth may have elongated a touch in the struggle for mastery over his wolf.

‘The two together should—should have him offering himself to anyone around him within the next half hour,’ Nico confesses.

Sean’s wolf growls its fury. From the fear in Perçuile’s face and hasty backward shuffle, so does Sean—aloud. Collar-tabs prudently withdraws, feigning exigent messages on his comm. band. Sean takes a steadying breath, knowing there may be worse to come, for Nico is almost whimpering now, his face having lost all color.

‘It helps things along,’ he excuses, ‘for Pets bought by someone—something—they are not ready for, no matter how much training they have had.’ Retreating farther with each word, he keeps his eyes fixed on Sean. He may enjoy a sophisticated lifestyle at Space Central but long-buried instinct still won't let him turn his back on a predator.

Disgust alone grants Sean the control not to attack him for that admission. Disgust with this man, with the entire slave business—but with himself not the least. Exotic entertainment in a free market may be one thing, this is quite another. He is forced to acknowledge that the Seven Moons cannot be the only pleasure house he has visited that makes a discreet use of slaves, only the most pretentiously self-serving. He vows never to set foot in one again.

But in this instance, he realizes, Perçuile is quite wrong. Elijah cannot have taken either the Reversant or the ‘little something’ for which his wolf is almost ready to rip the slaver limb from limb.

Sean would have smelled it. Had there been even the slightest hint of arousal in his scent, Sean would have known. He’d have smelled it long before Elijah finally made his appearance on that damned dais. He would have recognized the proximity of mate in heat the moment he walked through the doors of the Seven Moons of Sycorial, stinking crowds or no.

Whoever is responsible for Elijah’s abduction, the danger to a successful escape in the drugs’ combined effect was allowed for. A placebo must have been administered instead. Despite Niconet Perçuile’s denial, at least one complicit insider becomes ever more obvious, though Sean cannot, of course, reveal his reasons for knowing this. The question now is whether the one who arranged and financed the abduction is a mere third party in the affair or a rival for Sean.

His inner wolf howls its rage, ready to challenge and destroy any such rival, just as soon as found. Sean closes his eyes and concentrates on calming himself enough that the sound doesn’t make it out. That his wolf’s snapping fury doesn’t force him into a shift. It would not be…appreciated here, to say the least. He leaves his seat and makes for the elevator.

Even Kas, absently swirling another drink while checking his comm. band once more, makes no attempt to follow him. He has witnessed alpha fury on Calia and knows the best remedy is solitude if violence is to be avoided.

The dressing room is deserted of course, the new yet wonderfully familiar scent lingering still. Sean sits before the mirror where Elijah must have sat so little time ago, and fists his fingers in the simple clothes his mate left behind. He bargains with the wolf inside—he will find Elijah, their omega, for them, but he can only do so in human form. His wolf snarls at him, then gives voice to long-suppressed need in an anguished whimper.

I know, Sean tells it, but we do have hope, at last. After waiting so long we know he lives, and I shall find him again for us—I promise!

He has been looking in the wrong direction all this time, he realizes. His omega is not female but a rare—almost unique—male. A world is fortunate if a single Pack finds one in each century—two would be a blessing indeed—and the occurrence is the same through every world Sean knows of that has Pack.

It doesn’t faze him as he’d have thought it might, that his mate is male. It doesn’t seem to worry his wolf at all—why would it? And Elijah? Sad to say, with all his years of ‘training’, Elijah must know all too well the mechanics of sex with another man.

He frowns. What of Elijah’s wolf? Now the club is quiet again and the air clean enough to let him think straight, Sean doesn’t remember any call from Elijah’s wolf.

Elijah’s wolf?

Sean knows he must have wolf inside—his own has claimed it for them. The question is, does Elijah know it?

Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian clearly does not know or he would have used the fact to inflate Elijah’s value in a very private auction. An open attempt to sell an acknowledged Were must have brought every Pack in the galaxy to retrieve him—and not with credits, either.

The previous owner’s name and date of sale are logged in the proof of purchase Sean received in the moment his bid was accepted, though not the place of Elijah’s original procurement. And neither vendor nor buyer had ever known—seemingly never even suspected—what he is.

No, had either truly understood what a rarity he had on his hands, a far more exclusive auction would have been held, knowledge of it disseminated only on those deviant channels all Packs monitor against just such contingency. Even then, Elijah might have been whisked away far beyond the knowledge of any Pack.

And how in all the worlds had anyone gained possession of a Were pup of such tender age? He must have been bred way out of system, for no Pack Sean has ever met or heard of has reported a pup gone missing. For such a pup every Were planet in this galaxy, regardless of species, would have been on the hunt. No—wait. Elijah’s mother must also have been taken, for Sean can think of no other way his childhood shifts can have been hidden. He can only think that even after they were parted, her proscription on shifting must have been too deeply imprinted on her little one’s mind for him to reveal himself that way.

Had she then died, or is there another—a grieving Were dam—out there somewhere, still? But how? The Packs must surely have known—though no system is infallible.

His fury redoubles. At the slave trade in its entirety, let alone the sickening traffic in rare species for the titillation to be found there. Niconet Perçuile had best offer no further provocation tonight or he will regret it—if not for long. The mere sight of him might do it if he comes down here now.

Sean’s wolf rises ever closer to the surface. His teeth really have elongated, his fingernails grown long and sharp. He rests his head among the pots and vials from which Elijah must so recently have been prepared. Only the scent rising from the abandoned clothes enables his human half to breathe steadily and struggle back to full control.

Calmer at last Sean leaves the dressing room, needing to divert his mind from futile revenge to more tangible matters. He needs to see how and where Elijah was taken from him.

The cellar is silent now and fully lit, bright color drawing the eye to the dais on which Elijah was to have danced. It is operated by hydraulics—dated but still, according to the expert Collar-tabs brought in, computer-controlled. A covert subroutine had apparently linked it to the lighting circuitry to ensure the lights would fail the moment the dais hit stage level. The house manager having finally recalled a ‘glitch’ in the lighting at the dress rehearsal, Collar-tabs’ attention has turned toward the technician who supposedly corrected it.

Elijah’s scent is fresher here. He not only danced in this circle of blood-red, he sat or knelt in it. To steady himself as the dais lowered, Sean guessed. He must have been terrified, carried down and away into utter darkness, with no idea what awaited—

No, he was not.

Sean tests the air more carefully and still finds no trace—not a hint of fear, of distress or even the sweet sickness of drugs. Elijah did not descend unwillingly, to be snatched by whoever took him. He knew what would happen and steadied himself in preparation for what was to come.

Could this have actually been an escape, and not an abduction at all?

If so, Sean can easily forgive Elijah for running from the unknown—from the possible horrors of a post-auction future. He must believe it slavery still, even at the hands of another Were. But Sean will not accept such summary rejection of his wolf’s call unless Elijah does it face to face—unless he rejects both of them. And for that, he must and shall be found.

Only then, with a shiver—and a plaintive groan from his wolf—does he remember that Elijah’s wolf did not choose his. Is he—are they—not acceptable?

Back home on Calia, and on every other world whose Pack Sean has visited, omega cubs recognize their mates before ever they go into their first heat—usually at a Gathering of her home Pack that brings in all the outlying families. Every eligible alpha comes forward, hoping to hear her wolf call to his.

If it doesn’t happen then, her parents bring her to a Gathering of each Pack on that world until the call is offered and returned. The fortunate one leaves his own Pack, coming to live with hers until her heat occurs and they are mated in truth. Once the mating bond is set—which can take several days to a week—she returns with him to his Pack, to live in the new home his proud parents will have prepared for them. Sean assumes all of this would apply equally to the rare male omega.

Relief sweeps over him then as he recalls that the suppressants used so freely throughout Elijah’s ‘training’ control more than sexual desire. They may also be taken to inhibit the wolf within.

It is not pleasant but, on the occasions that Pack duty takes him out of system, Sean’s wolf sometimes responds to a different moon—at times and in places he cannot allow it to run free. When the draw is strong and self-control not quite enough, he has made use of such suppressants.

Given those, and that he has not been raised to know his wolf, Elijah can never have felt the lure of the moon. He cannot even know he is Were, much less that he is omega. Neither he nor his wolf could have known to send out any call, let alone to answer one given.

Sean’s surge of sudden joy—that there is hope for them yet—is tempered by the knowledge that Elijah may still refuse to be their mate. But at least now they have that hope to set against the absence of any hint of a trace of a clue to where he may have gone, whether abducted or escaped.

When Sean returns above, both Niconet Perçuile and Collar-tabs are wary in the extreme. The latter reports that surveillance vid in and around the Seven Moons was also disabled when the lights went out.

Sean is unsurprised, though he would really like to know how that was even possible, given the many fail-safes designed into security systems these days. Collar-tabs agrees, clearly frustrated that the suspect lighting tech seems never to have existed on Space Central at all—which, again, ought not to be possible. Sean has to suppress a sneaking admiration for such expertise.

His own conclusion—that this may be escape, not abduction—he keeps to himself for the present. It can make little difference to the search.

He and Kas leave them to it and return to the latter’s quarters on one of the higher, residential levels of Space Central. As soon as they walk in, Kas accesses his deskomm interface. The investigative team appears to have made no further progress. Pre-occupied as he is, Sean still finds a wry smile for the seductive feminine drawl Kas chose for his AI. He even calls her Honey, which seems highly appropriate for such a sweet and clinging tone.

Sean can’t even think of sleep and Kas seems to think he needs company. He orders up a good vintage, and commands access to the news channel on vid-wall.

He has proved his worth as a friend yet again tonight. While Sean attended to Collar-tabs, Niconet Perçuile and his wolf’s sorrow and anger in equal measure, Kas set the Pack’s law firm in action.

Despite the late hour they have been busy. Even before Collar-tabs arrived at the Seven Moons, the breaking headline across all channels—Slave Vanishes from 5m Credit Auction—was replaced by Mystery Blackout Empties Nightspot, which remained the focus of all reports from then on. Lawsuits can be expensive and the Pack’s legists are the best. Furthermore, no news editor anywhere will tangle for long with a being—no matter how anonymous—that clearly thinks nothing of five million credits for a single slave.

‘Those who were present are still squawking about it,’ Kas says, checking his comm. band yet again, ‘but mostly about the blackout. Absolute darkness scared a lot of people tonight. They’re all about the Me, Me! of being there, though—Elijah barely gets a mention beyond pics of him dancing.’

Sean sighs and accepts a glass of wine from the ’bot-server. They sit watching the empty news roll on and on until Kas eventually admits defeat and goes off to bed. Sean kills the sound and sits before the silent vid, seeing nothing and nursing a half-empty glass until his internal clock tells him the day cycle has begun.

Honey’s sexy tones summon him to the deskomm for a Spyke call. Collar-tabs’ holo looks rather less calm and collected than earlier, and he is clearly relieved to have something to report for his night’s work. His two minions bob excitedly in the background.

For one wonderful moment Sean thinks they have actually found Elijah, but it’s no such matter. The news means far less to him than it will to Niconet Perçuile.

Bare minutes ago, it seems, a package was discovered in the vacant office of the head of the SCSS. It contained the entire, fabulously valuable regalia Elijah wore to dance in last night. No-one has the least idea how it came to be there, and yet again surveillance footage is useless.

A capped and coveralled figure carrying a toolbox may indeed be seen entering the building, both height and breadth suggesting male. Beyond the doors—either coming or going—further coverage fails, every single camera unaccountably malfunctioning. Also, he must have entered all the correct internal pass codes where required, for no alarm tripped to refuse him either entry or exit.

Collar-tabs confesses his astonishment at such daring—and at the unprecedented forfeiture of goods. He suggests weakly that it may be a pledge of good faith before the ransom demand arrives. Or, possibly, since cui bono in this case points to Niconet Perçuile alone, it may indicate his involvement. The words attempt to project competence, but the onscreen face simply screams bafflement.

Having no interest in jeweled trappings, only in the person who had worn them, Sean merely thanks him for the information. He accepts a reassurance that the investigation is ongoing as a matter of the highest priority—and resolutely controls his temptation to sign off with a caustic comment on security measures within the SCSS itself.

Still at the deskomm, he realizes it is time he let his own team know the state of play. His imminent departure aboard the Lunar Express will not happen now. He directs Honey to contact the ship and Nylee springs to life before him.

Alpha Nylee Caynard is his primary assistant and permanent Pack liaison with Gress, who owns the hired fast courier. Sean uses the mostly human-crewed ship as an interplanetary shuttle, he spends so much time traveling on Pack business.

He can tell by Nylee’s expression that she’s seeing a man who hasn’t slept—and not in any fun way. However, after the formal acknowledgement, she is clearly bursting with news of her own. ‘Hey, Alpha, guess what?’

Sean is on edge, wanting to get this over and—what? Scour each office and club, every VIP suite, family apartment and contractor’s quarters, each mall and concourse of Space Central, pursuing the hunt Elijah himself? That would be exhausting as well as singularly pointless, though maybe he can think up a few new leads to follow.

Still, he can definitely use some good news right now. ‘What’s that?’

‘Coren got his beta back at last—he’s bringing her with us, home to their Pack!’ Sean watches her expression melt at the romance of Coren reclaiming his mate after so many years apart.

Sean remembers the furor when their ship was attacked by space pirates and ransacked—many passengers left for dead, others taken captive, with Deira the only Were among them. The most vigorous inquiries came up empty and it was eventually assumed she’d been recognized for what she was and very privately sold. The tender-hearted prayed she may have died of injuries received in the attack. Coren came back to Calia alone, to slowly recover in the care of his Pack. He left again as soon as he was able, vowing never again to return unless he brought her with him.

‘That’s great!’ says Sean. A pleased smile takes no effort now, for he truly means it. He cannot imagine what it has been like for Coren through so many years, self-exiled from the Pack and with his bond still alive—a constant reminder that his mate was out there somewhere, exploited if not actually enslaved.

Mere hours have passed since he lost Elijah, and Sean is about ready to crawl out of his skin.

‘Isn’t it just?’ Nylee’s bright smile dims only a little when she adds, ‘She has a cub with her, but Coren seems to be fine with that.’

Sadly, that was only to be expected. Deira has been away a long time, with neither protection nor choice. For just one second he wonders… but no—Elijah is full Were. His omega scent says there cannot be a speck of human in him. As for Deira’s half breed cub, however many problems he or she may face at home on Calia, he knows no Were mother could ever leave such a one behind. The marvel is that she brings only a single cub with her.

He ponders asking if she has heard rumors of another enslaved Were, though it’s possible such contact may endanger whatever fragile peace the small family has found. Coren is unlikely to have discovered her here on station anyway, or he’d surely have retrieved her long ago. He probably freed her way out of system and detoured via Space Central when he discovered the Lunar Express was due to stopover. It has to be the safest way to bring her home to Calia.

But Elijah has lived here in the Rama-Nettorian facility for most of his young life without so much as a rumor finding its way back to Calia. He has no idea what he is and his accomplices—if it was an escape—probably don’t either, though they must like him a great deal to risk so much…

A different explanation springs to mind, now. Sean’s heart sinks even as his wolf’s growl becomes a whine.

It’s all Nylee’s fault for putting romance into his head—but might this be more elopement than escape? Could someone have met and fallen in love with Elijah? A frequent patron at the Seven Moons, perhaps—was that even possible? Maybe one of the hostesses—an employee, of course, not another slave without resources to free herself, let alone a would-be lover.

Looked at that way, even the return of the regalia might make more sense—a contemptuous rejection of all that Niconet Perçuile stands for?

Sean can’t yet let himself think that Elijah may return that love.

He realizes Nylee is waiting on his response, a frown on her face. ‘Do they need help with paperwork or whatever?’

‘I’m not sure. Coren thought you’d be here for all that.’

She’s waiting for him to say he’ll be right along, but he can’t do it. For one thing, the insistent onscreen flash of Spyke Message has to be Collar-tabs again. As much as he hopes Elijah is found, Sean knows it’s too soon for that—and he has this whole new direction in which to point the investigation, now.

Between sudden discovery and swifter loss, his wolf is more agitated than ever before. Add in this new possibility—that Elijah is loved and may love in return—and Sean is a complete mess, mind and body both. He knows it, but Nylee is still waiting.

‘They’re all okay—on board already, no problems?’ he asks.

She nods. ‘I haven’t seen them, but Coren says so. He took them to the guest quarters before reporting in—to rest, he said, but it was more like he’s hiding them. I think he’s worried they may have been tracked—he could be right, at that.’ She flicks a switch and begins to sound a little on edge, herself. ‘There’s a definite increase in security personnel out there, Alpha.’

Sean could smack himself upside the head—Collar-tabs is more efficient than he suspected. He—or at least the search for Elijah—is the reason for the increase, though Sean is not about to explain that to Nylee. The sooner the Lunar Express takes off, the safer Coren and his mate will feel. ‘Crew and Pack have all reported in?’

Nylee grins. ‘Some of them look a bit the worse for wear, but they’re all present if not entirely correct! Jenor looks w—’ her hesitation is brief though Sean is pretty sure she was about to say worse than you do, and then thought better of it. She picks up again with, ‘Well, let’s say he is with us in body, and leave it at that! The last of the stores are loaded—we’re just waiting on you now, Alpha.’

‘I’m not coming, this trip,’ he says. ‘Look, tell them how pleased I am but you should leave right now, without me. Bring Coren, Deira and her cub home safe, and repercussions can be faced some other time. Cut this for the captain, please.’

He watches her hand flick to record. Alpha persona to the fore, he speaks formally to screen. ‘Captain Gresson, as Son and Heir to the Alpha Prime of Calia, I hereby authorize you to depart asap, together with all personnel at present on board. Please ensure that Alpha Coren may personally report his success to Alpha Prime as soon as the Lunar Express is within planet call. I have further Were business here at Space Central and shall await your return. Thank you.’

Sean likes Gress. This official order will put the blame squarely where it belongs, on Sean, if there is any comeback. The reference to Were business will inform Alpha Prime that his failure to return is no mere whim. Once he knows one of them has been enslaved, he will back Sean’s decision every last centimeter of the way—no matter what Pack on which world Elijah may originally have come from.

As yet, Sean has too little information to reveal more, especially not where transmissions may be intercepted—and he would never risk revealing Elijah’s omega status en clair.

He needs Collar-tabs to chase down the new lead—to trace Elijah’s original owner, too. The one that sold a beautiful baby to be groomed into a pleasure slave. He has to know how a defenseless child came into such callous hands, and whether his dam is alive somewhere and maybe enslaved still.

He needs above all for Elijah to be found. If he has truly found a lover to bring him out of slavery, he has both right and need to refuse the claim Sean’s wolf made. But only if he hears it face to face will Sean ever accept their rejection.

And right now, what Space Central Control Tower doesn’t know about the Lunar Express’s passenger manifest won’t worry it at all.

If the Authorities are going to expend resources searching for lost slaves, one of the exotic Élite valued at five million credits should be far more deserving of their attention than an older woman with her cub in tow—he’ll make sure of that.

If it helps Deira and her little one escape notice, Sean is quite ready to divert attention Elijah’s way.

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Chapter Text

Deira wakes late with the scent of mate directly beneath her nose, warm and loving as she lies in his arms again at last. An almost imperceptible vibration tells her the ship is underway, Space Central and its threat to their son left far behind them.

She has little more than a hazy memory of their arrival on board last night. There seemed to be miles of empty corridor between cargo hold and guest quarters. Coren was determined to have them safely hidden away in a cabin until the Alpha arrived to sanction their presence—not that there was ever any question that he would.

It was safer for the time being, Coren had insisted, for as few people as possible to know they were aboard, while the ship was still docked and Spaceport being searched. No sooner had the ’bots floated a purple crate marked Fragile toward the Lunar Express’s last feeder-shuttle than an influx of officials began double-checking the papers of everyone around. The object of the search was not specified but, as he pointed out, the crate ruse definitely proved its worth.

As soon as they were tucked away in Coren’s allotted quarters, he had gotten to work on freeing Elijah from the collar and chains. Cythlin is a soft metal. A single cautious laser cut plus the strength of Coren’s hands, and the collar was off.

‘We can’t keep them,’ Elijah insisted then, repeating what he’d said in the aircar. ‘I won’t keep anything that reminds me of—of any of it.’

He had always been a little too willful for a slave. Deira could think it fondly here. Back there under Rama-Nettorian control, the implications had simply frightened her. If it weren’t for his remarkable ability to soothe ruffled sensibilities, Elijah’s stubbornness would have gotten him in severe trouble more than once.

‘What would you have us do with them, then?’ she asked, gently disentangling the chains that wound him body to feet while Coren held the weight of the collar. The very last time he would ever need dressers, she vowed.

‘I’d like to throw them in his face, but I guess that’s never going to happen.’

‘Maybe not,’ Coren said, his mouth twitching up at the corners, ‘but a metaphorical slap in the face might be doable. I still have friends on Space Central.’

‘Do it!’ said Elijah, stifling a yawn and shuffling toward the in-cabin facilities.

I would rather hack off Nico Perçuile’s own ‘family jewels’ with a rusty razor and feed them back to him, however symbolic returning that—that tawdry bric-a-brac might be!’ Deira’s whisper was fiercely vindictive.

‘I would have my wolf rip them off and devour them himself, my love, but we both know how impossible that is,’ said Coren, calm as ever but with eyes flashing redly. ‘But, I do know someone who might be prepared to deliver them directly into the offices of the SCSS —maybe even right onto the boss man’s desk. Will that suffice? It might even help distract the pursuit.’

‘Someone who has paid that much for a slave is never going to give up searching!’ she hissed, venom giving way to anxiety.

‘There is no way anyone can connect us with the Lunar Express, love, and we shall be underway as soon as the Alpha comes aboard,’ he reassured her, gathering the heap of priceless ‘bric-a-brac’ from the floor.

‘But, your friend…won’t it be dangerous for him?’

‘There’s this little gadget I invented…you needn’t worry about Flisk. Anyway, he’s sneaky—he’ll enjoy it!’

Elijah shuffled out again, collapsed onto one of the bunks and was asleep before Coren was out the door. He had managed to doze during their endlessly purple transfer, though Deira was too far on edge then, despite the long and stressful day. Once safe in this cabin, however, her mate’s few belongings already filling the air with his scent, she could relax at last.

Now, waking to a new day—a new life—Coren’s arms holding her close even within the confines of the bunk, she feels safe for the first time in too many years. His soft morning smile makes nothing of the tight fit. Elijah is already stirring across the room, however, so there must be a limit even to their kisses—at least until they can be allocated another cabin—one with a double bunk—and leave this one to him. Coren had wanted them all together for the first night, until he could be sure they were safe away.

‘Space Central is a mere speck out there in the darkness now,’ he says as they eat a ’bot-delivered breakfast that’s actually far closer to lunch. ‘And it’s time I introduce you to the captain—he knows you’re here, of course, though you didn’t exactly request permission to come aboard!’

‘Is that a requirement?’ asks Elijah.

‘For ship’s personnel, it’s one of the first rules of a well-regulated vessel—and, of course, it is a courtesy.’

Elijah nods, accepting yet one more formality among the many he has learned already.

‘What about the Alpha?’ Deira asks. ‘Shouldn’t we be presented to him, first?’

Coren purses his lips, an expression she remembers from so long ago that means he feels both let down and annoyed by something—or someone. ‘He didn’t come aboard,’ he says. ‘He sent us his best wishes, so Nylee said, but he has further business on Space Central.’

Deira cannot yet rid herself of the feeling that it is not her place to criticize the Alpha—not in front of Elijah, anyway—so she doesn’t, but she too feels betrayed by the Alpha’s casual dismissal of her mate’s incredible feat in freeing not one but two enslaved Weres.

Another maze of corridors brings the reunited family to the largest of the lounges on the Lunar Express. There are more people present—human and Pack—than Deira expected, and she has to stop herself from shrinking against Coren’s side. He feels her nervousness and keeps an arm around her until the formal greeting.

‘Captain Gresson, I thank you for accepting us aboard. May I present my mate, Deira?’

The captain says formally, ‘In the Alpha’s absence, I welcome you both, Alpha Coren and Beta Deira,’ and extends his hand to her.

She is taken aback and looks aside to Coren for permission to respond—as if she were still a lowly slave whose every move, every word spoken in public requires sanction from her owner. She is immediately furious with herself, but Coren only lifts his brows and grins at her. She offers her own hand to the captain in return then, remembering its significance among those who are both free and purely Normal.

The handshake is brief but firm—Captain Gresson is quite comfortable mixing with the Were in their human forms. In her absence, he tells Deira with a smile, his ship has practically become the Calia Pack’s own private interplanetary transport.

‘I must offer the Alpha’s regrets,’ he says, ‘but he knows and approves that you are aboard and homeward bound with us. Something important came up to detain him at Space Central.’

Deira wonders again what could be more important than this, but she can’t really care. Elijah is free now and that is what matters, however dismissive the Alpha may be of the achievement.

Her fellow betas and their alphas are next to greet her, of course, crowding happily around with all the words and touches customary among Pack. Deira’s wolf is slow to respond, though, still under the influence of those damned suppressants.

Captain Gresson turns to Elijah now. He is standing a little apart still, observing everything and saying nothing. It was a good thing they had gotten him out of his revealing finery and into a decent shipsuit, thinks Deira—ever aware of him despite the flurry of greetings—even if it is a bit big on him.

She doesn’t know any of these Normals and doesn’t remember most of the Were, either. She doesn’t trust any of them with her son. Not yet. Even among her own kind, she can’t be sure this meeting mightn’t have gone a whole other way if Elijah were still decked out for that damnable auction.

A quick mental shake and she remembers to stop thinking like a slave. Ordinary, civilized people do not sexually assault others, no matter how alluring they may find them.

Here and now, he could be anyone’s son. One to be proud of, moreover, with a mind and a will of his own—not the kept whore of someone or something with few morals and less decency.

She reminds herself all that is in the past now, but her own hesitation on meeting the captain makes her wonder. She listens as he welcomes her son.

‘When Jono advised me of an alpha wishing to return to Calia, bringing with him a very special ‘shipment’, he says, ‘I did not expect to assist in such a joyful reunion, nor to meet an entirely new member of the Pack. Welcome, indeed, Cub Elijah!’

Her son is readier to take the offered hand than she. Naturally he is. He has been quite thoroughly inculcated with a wide range of appropriate introductory behavior—no matter how inappropriate the intercourse it was intended should then follow. In addition to his stubborn nature, Elijah retains the confidence instilled in him as an Élite among slaves—though even that is a far cry from the self-assurance of a free Were.

Deira surrendered hers, years ago. She had expected it would be easier to reclaim than it is. She only hopes that both of them will eventually recover all that they have been deprived of for so long.

‘You may rest assured that we are now safely beyond all danger of recall, should missing slaves ever provide cause for such a rare procedure!’ the Captain assures them, believing it a jest. Neither he nor Elijah is aware, as yet, of the price paid to Nico Perçuile last night.

Deira knows. Five million credits in order for someone to possess her son—entirely and for his lifetime, should the buyer so wish and however long or short he may wish that life to be. The Captain cannot possibly comprehend, therefore, that one who has so many credits to expend on a single slave may well consider his idea of a ‘rare procedure’ not only possible, but also completely necessary. Still, she feels a little easier, nonetheless. They are already on their way home, after all.

She noticed Elijah’s puzzled frown at being addressed as Cub, of course. As strange as everything else has been for him since their escape—the formal Were greeting with Jono, for example—he didn’t question it at the time. That is a conversation she is not looking forward to.

Elijah’s life will be so different now from everything he has known before—and the biggest difference of all will be finding out what he really is. Coren would have had her spill the whole thing right along with the formal introduction, but Deira is pretty sure that finding he actually has parents at all is a big enough shock for Elijah to absorb at any one time.

She finds a quiet moment to ask Nylee to keep the others from mentioning they are Were—at least as yet. Not until she has figured out the best way to explain it to him. She knows it has to come from her.

Maybe it won’t be such a huge stretch, when Deira remembers some of the life forms that taught such damnably specialized skills to her son. Things she wishes he’d never even had to know about, much less practise. Still, he has enough to cope with for a while.

The first days aboard the Lunar Express are disconcerting enough for her, let alone for Elijah. She has vague memories of what to expect, but even for her it’s a huge change. The sociable atmosphere aboard a well-run if otherwise frankly casual interplanetary shuttle couldn’t be any less like the tightly guarded—practically fortified—Rama-Nettorian complex, where overt friendliness was rare except among the youngest children.

She understands why Elijah is a little overwhelmed when the crew—and especially the handful of Pack aboard—all want to congratulate him on his return to the family he never even knew he had. They want to make him welcome here, to share with him the sorts of songs and games and innocent skills he hasn’t had the opportunity to learn through his growing years. He can accept their overtures of friendship for short periods of time, but soon seeks out the solitude of his own cabin.

He’s warier of Deira’s touch than he used to be too, but perhaps that began earlier, as part of his growing up. Maybe she is only noticing it because she feels a need to hug him to pieces now, for all the love it hasn’t been safe to show him through their years of captivity. She doesn’t, but it’s close.

Or maybe he is already resenting those years—hating her for leaving him there for all that time when they knew where he was. All that terrible, wasted time of being forced to learn things no cub should ever even know exist. Maybe hating Coren too, which is worse because that would be so unfair, as long and as hard as Coren has worked—first to find them and then to discover ways and means to set them free.

If he is, he’ll not be the only one. After the first celebrations, even those onboard who are Pack have started to frown and look thoughtful, then disapproving, as details begin to be whispered. Deira knows it can only get worse once they’re home. Soon enough someone will openly demand, ‘Why didn’t you do something sooner? And why did you never seek Alpha Prime’s help?’

No-one, either here or there, can possibly understand. No-one who has not been a slave can understand how precarious life may be when you can be whisked out of existence—or at least out of all sight or knowledge—on the mere breath of a pending enquiry.

It’s not that the packs of Calia lack a hierarchy to govern their lives—certainly not. It begins with the Alpha Prime, continues through his fellow alphas and on through omegas and betas, right down to cubs and even the smallest pups. Every Were has a standing within the Pack, and Pack Law stands for everyone, whatever their age or status. Its very structure allows them autonomy in their private lives.

So, how can those who are secure—smug is what she really thinks, outsider that she feels. She stifles it as uncharitable, but how can they, so secure in themselves and at peace with their inner wolf—how can they ever understand what it means to be nothing and no-one?

To have no real control over what you may do or say, where you may or may not go, what you eat and what you wear. To whom you shall give over your body and to whom you may never, ever refuse it. At whose whim you may live or die.

Total dependence on the caprice of your owner—that is what it means to be a slave.

It is a hard lesson to learn, and sharply taught—all the harder for one brought up to freedom within the protection of Pack. Deira learned more quickly than most, for already she was learning for two.

She ought never to have stood in danger of being enslaved at all—it was an accident of time and place. Most unusually, Deira’s sister, in the Alpha Prime’s service, had met and mated a wolf from the Prime Pack of a different world entirely. Deira and Coren attended the wedding amid much joy, but for Deira the crown of their visit was the discovery, as they left for home, that she was pregnant at last.

When the mixed odors and recycled air of the passenger shuttle kept Coren from immediately recognizing the slight change in her scent, she smiled to herself and said nothing. It would be more fun for Coren to realize for himself as the scent thickened along with her body.

After all, there was no danger to early pregnancy in a return trip of only two months. Except—

Piracy is a term borrowed from the sailing ships of old Earth many centuries ago, but it remains a profitable proposition for the bold. Neither commercial transport vessels nor passenger shuttles carry much by way of weaponry, and no ship’s crew in space will risk serious hull damage from a faster, overtly aggressive and clearly weaponized craft.

Resistance was a brave gesture, though a gesture all the same. Coren was among the first to fall, and quickly left for dead. Deira—grief-stricken yet clinging to the hope inside her, never daring for one single moment to reveal her inner form—was taken and sold into slavery on the nearest planet.

Of no particular beauty, she was acquired for purely household duties. Her price was only slightly inflated—the adjustment balancing the benefits of a scan-proven two-for-one against time lost to birth and any complication that might arise. The mistress was well aware that Deira’s pregnancy could not be a product of her spouse’s wandering eye—his penchant was for adolescent virgins anyway, preferably if not always female—and so allowed her not only to keep and wean the child but also to name him.

Too beautiful already for their owner not to profit from, Elijah was barely walking before he was torn from her and sold to House Rama-Nettorian. Deira climbed out of despair on a hope that came courtesy of the clandestine sub-ether network that flourished galaxy wide among the oppressed.

Despite all that masters may wish to believe, slave does not equal stupid. Hacking into supposedly secure systems is a form of piracy as old as electronic communication itself. Instalink may well be as safe as its AI could make it. What one AI can devise, however, another will find a way to subvert to other purposes.

Most of the enslaved will never see either home or family again, though whispers passed on the verbal slave-vine may indeed find their way home via Instalink and back again, in time. Ransom is sometimes possible for those whose families have the means, and even escapes may occasionally be arranged.

The cabin around Deira dissolves into her cubicle back there in the slave quarters, the night Tuye, one of the older slaves, summoned her in great secrecy to receive a call over that clandestine network. It was not long after Elijah was taken from her and she was still lost in that daze of despair.

‘Deira? Deira, are you there?’

Coren? Is that really you?’ She had almost choked on the joy of hearing him again when she believed him dead. ‘But how—’

‘I survived—how does not matter, love. And you too—you are well? You—they have not… hurt you?’

She knew what he was really asking. ‘No, nothing of that. Oh, Coren—I love you so, so much!’

‘And I, you! I have found you at last, love, and I shall bring you home as soon as I can. I have missed you—you cannot know how much!’

‘But, Coren—I—we—they took him! They took our son from me!’ she wailed through renewed tears.

Our son? We have a son? But—’ Coren was suddenly silent.

Deira guessed what he must be thinking and began to babble. ‘He is your son, truly he is! The master here does not… I never told you back then—I was waiting for you to scent the change in me. He is nearly three—he has your nose, and your chin, and the way you look when something does not suit! I would not lie to you, love, never for this—and they have taken him from me!’ Her voice rose, cracking open.

Tuye, on guard outside the room, had poked her head around the door with a vehement ‘Shh! ’ adding, ‘Remember, time is short—only another few minutes.’

‘I know it, love,’ Coren reassured her. ‘I’m so—a son! I have a son! What is his name—did you choose it? I hope he has your eyes—does he?’ Anxiety overtook delighted question then, and he asked in a whisper, ‘Is he safe—do they suspect?’

‘I named him Elijah, for your sire—his eyes are blue, exactly like his. I have managed to keep him safe since his first—’ she swallowed the word shift. ‘But he will need more protection from discovery as he grows, Coren, you know he will!’

There was a pause as he accepted the implications. ‘I found you, and we shall find Elijah. Never fear, we shall bring him home together, no matter how long it takes!’ His words were balm to her grief.

Tuye’s head appeared again, mouthing Hurry!

‘I cannot stay longer—I love you!’

‘Be strong for me!’ he said, before the connection was abruptly cut out.

He came for her as he promised—as she knew he would—freeing and bringing her safe to Space Central.

Their reunion was both joyful and filled with sorrow, for that same slave-vine revealed the fortuitous need for a nursery drudge in the one place Deira knew she must be. The one place from which escape may be well-nigh impossible. They could not be sure Elijah would stay safe without her, she said, and insisted through her tears on being sold back into slavery. Coren could only agree, solemnly promising never to rest until he had freed them both.

The transaction was more easily accomplished than she had dared to hope—getting into the Rama-Nettorian training facility being infinitely easier than getting out could ever be.

Her longed-for reunion with Elijah was, again, both joyous and heart-breaking. Her son knew her for a source of comfort—in the interim, however, he had forgotten Mama. It was safer so, and as much as she ached to claim him as her own, she must never do it. A single word whispered out of place could have parted them—this time forever.

She quickly learned to make herself indispensable to Ralene so that, when the head housekeeper slave grew too old to work and was retired—disposed of, Deira suspected, which was not a thought to be safely spoken aloud—she slipped quite easily into her place. It saved Rumek, custodian of the facility, all the inconvenience of training a new slave to perform those same duties.

In time, Deira gained some autonomy in the day-to-day running of the Rama-Nettorian Élite slave quarters. She could not change a single part of what the child slaves must learn there, forced too fast into a world only adults should ever know, and even then only by choice. What she could give them were those small parts of a normal childhood that were hers to give. Hugs and kisses, stories, little treats, and love—especially the last, and most especially to Elijah.

They did not expect it to be so difficult nor to take so long, the escape Coren continually planned for. But as Elijah grew in beauty, accomplishment and value, his progress was monitored more intently than any other of the Pets. The complex was so tightly secured—each ‘trainee’ represented a substantial investment of credits, after all—there simply was no weak spot to exploit.

Needless to say, on the rare occasions he was taken to the Seven Moons of Sycorial to dance, Elijah was supplied with his own personal bodyguard. Somewhere in the transfer, they had hoped, there might at least be one final chance.

As his sixteenth birthday drew ever closer—the actual day, and not a fiction of Nico Perçuile’s devising, as for so many of the Élite—Deira began to despair of ever freeing him. Only Coren’s reassurances via the slave vine—as infrequent as they must be—allowed her to believe it might indeed be possible.

Attaining the expertise that would enable him to infiltrate Tech Services had taken time. Longer still for him to form a plausible connection within the Seven Moons of Sycorial and then to fathom the ways an escape might be made—not safely, perhaps, but with the least possible danger.

The final flight off Space Central itself had always been a problem. It seemed to Deira an actual gift from the old gods when the date set for the auctioning of her son—their one last chance to free him before he was lost to them forever—coincided with a stopover by the Lunar Express on its most recent mission.

Even now, safe aboard the shuttle and more than halfway home, she wakes again and again in the night, unable to believe it has actually happened—that they are finally free. It takes all of Coren’s bodily warmth and comfort then, to make it real for her.

And there are things now that she must make real for Elijah—he has to understand who and what he is before they reach Calia.

The day she has put off for long enough arrives all too soon, when Elijah comes to find her in the cabin she and Coren share. She can tell he’s worried about yet another revelation—simply from the fact that he is asking here and not where anyone else might hear.

‘Deira, what is Pack? The uniformed personnel aboard are Captain Gresson’s crew, of course, but the others call themselves Pack. You and Coren are from the Shining Lake Pack, I know, but that says more about you than where you live, doesn’t it?’

She tugs Elijah down to sit by her on the bunk, takes a deep breath and begins with the hierarchy of Pack. With alpha, beta and omega, the first two of which he’s heard already and believes to be simply titles of respect—as Nico Perçuile was always Master or, to those who are free, Messire. She leaves out everything to do with Elijah’s own status or with mating—there’s time enough for that, and with luck he won’t need to know any of it for a while.

For the rest, despite being almost seventeen years out of date she knows little if anything will have changed. Packs everywhere cling to tradition, holding onto symbols that have flourished for centuries. She explains that individual Pack structure is reflected in both planet- and galaxy-wide organization of their kind.

This is the easy part and she can see it’s as much a story to Elijah as the tales she told him years ago, of the world she left behind. As much as the memories she shares now, of the home and community that waits for them now on Calia. He believes her, of course he does. He has been well-trained both to believe and to retain what he is taught. Yes, this may be a different social structure than others he has learned about, but not too radically so.

The truly radical part is…harder to tell—and much more difficult for Elijah to believe.

What? No! You’re not serious?’

‘I would not make jokes about our heritage, Elijah,’ she says quietly.

Werewolves? I know they are presumed still to exist, of course,’ not for nothing has Elijah received a wide-ranging education beyond his sexual training, ‘and yes, I see the correlation between the hierarchy you described and the lupine, but still…’ he shakes his head. ‘You can’t be—I mean, I’ve never seen you all…furry!’

It’s a fair point, Deira knows. She will explain about suppression later—she’ll have to, for more reasons than one.

Now is definitely not the time to shock Elijah further by taking off her clothes and proving her point. Even Pack-raised cubs, she remembers with a smile, can be a little squirmy at seeing their mothers naked and ready to shift. It was their age, and they got over it in time. And anyway, she’s not sure she’s physically capable again, as yet.

No, Coren must be the one to show him this—the first thing he will ever truly have shared with his son.

He’s grinning when he arrives in answer to a quick comm. call. ‘So, she’s let you in on it, at last! Doesn’t look to me as if he believes you, though,’ he tells her with a laugh, making short work of shirt, pants, underwear and shipshoes.

He has been able to wolf out in secret over the years, and still has full control over his shift. There’s a second or two of nakedness before his wolf stands proud in all the glory Deira remembers so well. His coat shines with health despite such constant hiding, and Deira longs to slide her fingers through the deep, silky strands.

Her own wolf is whining inside, not yet sufficiently free but desperately wanting to join his, to romp and roll with him, fur to fur—to feel his weight on her back and bare her neck for him to renew the mating bite…

She needs a deep breath for entirely different reasons now, and turns to her son. He is understandably awed but—thank the skies—not the least bit afraid of the huge beast that now fills almost all the cabin’s remaining floor space.

‘Can I—I mean, may I touch?’

Deira notes with approval that he is not asking her but Coren’s wolf directly. He has met too many variant life forms not to greet a new one with respect.

Wolf tongue lolls out and even Elijah can tell Coren is laughing at him, for he laughs too. He stretches out his hand and strokes the furry muzzle shoved against him. Then, to Deira’s astonishment and relief, he flings his arms around the alpha wolf’s neck and buries his face in its fur.

Well, that went a lot better than she thought it might. She really should have had more faith in her son.

Her son!

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Chapter Text

‘How is it different, living here?’ some of the older pups want to know.

For just one moment Elijah closes his eyes and imagines these noisy, boisterous individuals being forced into the tightly regimented environment he and the other Pets lived in, back then. Back then is his tactful way of referring to when I was a slave on Space Central, every time someone asks about his previous life—though never as directly as the pups.

The mere thought of it makes him shudder, and he scrambles for memories to share that won’t scare them—or him.

‘Well, the place I lived was nothing like a Were home.’

Ten little heads nod knowingly. As young as they are, they have all seen holo-vid of life on other worlds. Even here on Calia, the Normals tend to prefer the cities, where the living spaces are mostly stacked up high, to the earthbound dens of the Were. What the pups really want to know is what it was like for him—most of which he could never reveal, and especially not to them.

He points to the glare of sunlight spilling into the playroom, made even brighter by reflection from the snow outside. ‘For a start, we didn’t have windows at all. On Space Central, only really rich people have homes with glasteel thick enough to stand the pressure.’

Nico Perçuile probably had them by the handful, where he actually lived, he thinks. He is still resentful—angry, even—possibly even more so with each and every quite ordinary thing he meets here for the first time, that would have been his to know already, if not for his slavery. He discovered very young, however, that uncontrolled rage was the surest way to punishment that hurt, and learned to calm his own anger even before he knew he could mollify others’.

Niconet Perçuile cannot take the whole of the blame for Elijah being born a slave, of course—he’s just the only one Elijah ever personally met to lay it on.

These pups don’t need to know any of that, though.

He takes the necessary deep breath and adds aloud, ‘Not that there was really all that much to see out there, anyway. I did get to look from one of the visitor viewing platforms, once—’ he can’t remember when or why, he must have been really young and not so close confined, ‘—and, really, you get a much better idea of space from vids. It was kind of neat to see the ships lining up to access Spaceport, and others zooming away to who knew where. But except for that, it was pretty much the same darkness and stars you see on vid, only all around and as far as you could see.

‘So, Space Central is layers and layers of circles on top of each other.’ He takes the nearest few hands and stacks each one atop other to show them layers.

‘Like cake!’ yells Gren, always the noisiest of the pups.

'A bit like cake, but with spaces between,’ Elijah agrees. ‘And these layers are all different—most are for living in, of course, but some are filled with offices for security and the tech that makes everything work. Ordinary people get around by autowalk and grav tubes, but in some places aircars are allowed. You need a lot of credits to hire one and you have to be really rich to own one like some people do.’ Another mark against dear Master Nico.

He sees he’s losing them with all this ‘grown up stuff’, and moves on quickly to an area he knows they’ll appreciate. ‘The shopping quadrant,’ he tells them, ‘is the best there is—and definitely the biggest. If something is for sale anywhere in the galaxy, you can be sure to get it there!’

They’re all ears again when he mentions shopping. Even at their age they know shopping most often means new things to play with.

‘Gero the Space Ranger?’

‘The Crileck stories?’

‘Mendi and Suloh?’

The chorus of voices wants to know if each pup’s favorite game or toy or holo-vid is for sale there. When Elijah answers yes to all of them, they are suitably impressed. He never had the chance to visit the famed facility for himself, of course, but he’s seen plenty of the vidcast ads and not-so-subtle flashing banners, so he’s pretty sure he’s not deceiving them.

‘You can’t just decide to go play out on Space Central,’ he tells them, ‘like you can here, even in the snow. There’s no weather, no sunshine, and no ‘out’ to play in, either. You open your door where you live, and it’s nothing but hallways and walkways and more hallways—a bit like the ones you all have at home, only with lots more doors.’

‘But, where did you go play?’ Several shocked voices want to know.

The honest answer would be I never did, but the pups don’t need to know that.

‘Don’t worry, there are play areas on most of the concourses,’ Elijah says quite cheerfully, and it’s not even a lie. ‘The hallways get higher and wider once you leave the housing levels—you just follow one until you find a place to play. By then the ceilings are high enough that the aircars sneak by over your head. The walls are all made of plascrete—and they have to make it in different colors for different levels, so people can work out where they are and not get lost!’

‘Where did your wolf run, then, if you were shut inside all the time like that?’

Half the younger pups take Gren’s question as an invitation to wolf out, squirming and tumbling over each other. Some of them stay that way, nipping and squealing until Meilin looks over from where she’s tending to the very youngest, and tells them to calm down or go use up some of that energy in the fenced front yard. They’re never allowed to go far in such weather without an older cub or an adult close by, in case.

A few of them can’t resist rushing out into the freezing air they won’t feel, unless and until their control fails. Elijah grins as a line of waggly little butts vanishes through the door flap. The rest settle back into human form and listen to his answer.

‘I didn’t know I had a wolf, back then,’ he confesses. He stops short of telling them he still doesn’t have one—not one he can let out, that is. They’re puzzled enough as it is, unable to understand not knowing your wolf is right there inside you. Elijah does finally know his wolf is in there somewhere—just not how to set him free.

‘He wouldn’t have liked it, anyway,’ he reassures them. ‘There was no grass for his paws, and no hills or fields or woods to run in, either. Space Central has places called Parks, where you can see plants from more worlds than you can imagine. They have to grow in pots or great deep troughs, though. There are pathways between, but they’re all covered in plastigrass. It’s hard and spiky, not like real grass that tickles between your toes.’ He picks up the nearest furry pup and reminds them of toe-tickling, just to hear them giggle.

Even the plants weren’t free! he thinks, watching joy on the faces of these wholly free pups. He feels absurdly sorry for the permanently pampered plant species that live out their lives, however long or short, shut up in huge, environmentally controlled spaces, forever denied unfiltered sunlight, unrecycled air or pure rainwater. They didn’t have actual soil for their roots to spread through, either—teeming with the sort of creepy-crawlies Elijah has met for the first time here—only an almost weightless exfoliated silicate base.

Of course, Elijah had never gotten to see the Parks for real, either. He simply knows they existed for free citizens to use.

‘Were you surprised when you came to Calia and outside was here waiting for you?’ Gren’s litter-mate Jeila wants to know.

Elijah laughs aloud. ‘I was, and it was—oh—unbelievable!’ he says. He simply has no words to tell of his wonder at the feel and the smell—even the taste—of that first breath of real air.

When they left Calia’s central space terminal Coren drove the hired skimmer with its canopy retracted for a while along the way to let Elijah breathe fresh air at last. He stuck his head way out then, to let it blow through his hair, breathing it deep until his eyes watered and his nose started to run, which was totally worth it.

He couldn’t help it—he let out a whoop of joy so loud the ant-people down there on the ground must have heard it. He froze when a reflex memory of the penalty for inappropriate noise came crashing down on him. Before he could slide into a contrite heap of scared, Deira laid a hand on his arm and he saw she was grinning at him.

Coren rolled his free hand in a do-that-again gesture, so Elijah took a great breath and did. He shrieked and whooped and yelled over and over until his throat was hoarse and he collapsed, exhausted, into his seat. It was only then he realized Deira was shivering—the air at this height was pretty chilly and he simply hadn’t noticed. She might be shivering, but she was still smiling as if she might never stop.

‘And if you think it smells great right now,’ Coren told him as the canopy closed over them, ‘you wait till your wolf is all the way back—you won’t know which way to scent first!’

Elijah was just about coming to terms with grass and trees, hills and little rivers down below them—for real!—when he caught the flash of sunlight from wide windows on a structure set low in the hillside they were headed for.

Were homes—dens, a word he found archaic on first hearing, if appropriate—are excavated into the sides of hills, he discovered then. Were communities are mostly formed where hillsides are available, which is as good a reason as any when he thinks about it. There has to be some degree of terraforming, of course, to keep pace with population growth, but the more he has seen of it the more he realizes how sensitively it is done.

‘Deira already told me y—our homes are mostly underground,’ Elijah tells the entranced pups, ‘but I still didn’t know what to expect, not really.’

The Alpha Prime residence is one of the largest and most impressive, of course, with several porticoed doors, and tall windows sweeping generously round the foot of the hill. It isn’t simply a family den, Deira explained as the skimmer came to rest in front of one pair of wide open and welcoming doors. It has offices as well as multiple guest and meeting rooms, though the Pack’s official headquarters is back in Cal City, which is mostly Normals.

Whatever the reasoning, the Alliance of Federated Planets decreed long ago that Calia’s Alpha Prime would hold jurisdiction over the outlands, the Normals’ Justice systems within the cities. Where anyone chose to live was simply a matter of preference—genetic for the Were, custom and technology-driven for Normals.

Elijah recognizes the atavistic link to the dens wild wolves lived in, way back before they were hunted almost to extinction and ended up as protected species in biomass domes on their planets of origin. The instinct to seek safety underground still seems prevalent in the Were psyche, though living areas have wide windows to content the human halves. Sleeping rooms delve deep, nurseries deepest of all, but every one has the exact same level of life support to be found in the living quarters of any space station.

He was surprised—and also warmed—to realize that being underground affects him, too. It brings an immediate sense of home and safety he never felt within the tightly secured complex of pre-formed units he lived in on Space Central.

Bringing a sudden burst of cold air with them, the pups that went out in the snow come racing back in now, all but two still in wolf form. Meilin bustles up with towels for all, and especially the naked, shivering twins. Elijah cuts short his telling to help get them dry.

‘Stay still—you’re spraying over everyone!’ Meilin scolds the shaking, shimmying pups, but she’s half-laughing as she rubs Luna’s thin pale arms back to pinkish warmth.

Hari shrugs off Elijah’s help—he’s more independent than his litter-sister and can do this himself, thank you—so Elijah chases wriggling, yipping little wolf pups, until the spread paws he is drying turn suddenly into small human feet that squirm away from the tickling.

It happens so quick and easy for them, like it’s nothing special—which, he knows now, it isn’t for any of these people among whom he now belongs. He is the only one who has a problem, though it’s not one to worry about here, mobbed as he is by quite dry bodies in one shape or another—most of them dressed again—that now want to play. Meilin claps her hands for calm and says it’s time for milk and cookies and a nap.

Elijah doesn’t have to help with the pre-schoolers. Just because Omega Meilin runs the Pack’s kindergarten doesn’t mean it’s his vocation too.

He is free to choose what he does with himself now, from attending college with his peers—which? No, thanks very much—to beginning an internship in any career that attracts him. Some choices, of course, would mean leaving home and that’s definitely a move too many for him right now.

There’s no rush. He still has a lot to learn about his Were heritage anyway—the history and culture he didn’t even know he’d inherited, Were-specific laws and customs—all the stuff his slavery denied him. And his mom already said she wants him home for as long as he’ll stay.

He has always enjoyed being with little ones. Back then, as soon as he was old enough, he would help Deira comfort the new arrivals. Many of them were in shock—some in tears, some silent and withdrawn—most taken from homes and families they missed. Accepting a whole new life takes time—more so if you were born free and are suddenly enslaved, but Elijah did what he could to help them.

He doesn’t remember his own arrival or who comforted him—Deira wasn’t there yet. She came some time after—came on purpose to be with him. He knows that now, and is humbled that she and Coren would take such risks and endure so many years apart, just for him.

He doesn’t have to be here with the pups, he wants to be. Maybe he is this thing called omega, that only happens among the Were and gives him a special affinity with little ones, but it is still Elijah making that choice.

His education—supposedly so comprehensive in differing life forms—failed completely when it came to information about the Were. He learned in passing of their presumed existence and that was all. Possibly-mythical beings were not among those to whose practices the Élite were trained to cater, for fabled creatures were unlikely ever to render Niconet Perçuile a profit.

Elijah has since discovered the absolute truth of that. Slavery is illegal on Calia and the planet has become something of a haven for the emancipated of many worlds.

He knew nothing of them or their…abilities until Deira explained Were society to him, and even then she didn’t actually mention she thought he might present as Omega. He found that out the day he met Alpha Prime and his omega mate.

They welcomed Coren and Deira home with the usual formal greeting, if very warmly. Then Omega Anira took a single look at Elijah and exchanged a glance with her mate that seemed to have a significance Elijah couldn’t grasp. But there was nothing either formal or unfriendly about the hug she suddenly dragged him into—the sort he thought only family members shared.

That was when he learned he is sort of family to her, since it turns out omegas have something very close to a familial bond, and one omega can always recognize another. The Alpha extended only the formal greeting—equally warmly—nodding briefly to Anira as his smile became wider and almost expectant, somehow.

It was only while Coren was busy detailing all the steps involved in their escape to Alpha Prime—Elijah’s sure he caught a change of tone for a moment or two there when the Lunar Express’ absent Alpha was mentioned: aggrieved on one side, defensive on the other—that Deira admitted she had suspected for some time that he was omega. She wasn’t certain about it back then, she said—the suspicion alone was one more reason for wanting him out of there.

Elijah can see that, though maybe the calming effect these omega Weres apparently possess—that may have saved him more than one punishment in the past, he realizes now—might at least have helped keep him safe if he’d ended up the property of some weird life form from one of the outer worlds? Which he doesn’t want to even think about, ever again.

He and Deira were taken off to meet Anira’s children then—he didn’t know they were also pups, at the time. It was somehow more startling than seeing Coren shift, to have a small boy and girl suddenly transform into a couple of fast-scrambling puppies while he was playing tig with them.

It didn’t bother him that Anira and Deira were discussing him—or maybe they were simply comparing offspring in a motherly way? He wouldn’t know—he hadn’t had one all that long. He’d swear Anira’s gaze turned speculative, but Deira frowned and shook her head before Anira could say what was on her mind.

It was a nice visit, though they didn’t stay too long. Deira was in a hurry to get home to Shining Lake, to the den Coren assured her had been waiting for her all this time—friends and relatives having all pitched in to ready it as soon as news arrived of their imminent return.

So now, Elijah knows he has these magical vibes that make him the universal, walking Were equivalent of a dose of Passivar or Docillan—particularly for alphas who, it seems, tend to aggression when stressed.

Oh, and for all that Anira was so reassuring about all the other omegas on Calia whom he would meet sooner or later, and whose support he could count on if need be? Turns out he’s still pretty much alone in it, since being male and omega too is not the way things are usually done.

Wonderful.

He has met a lot of people—of Were—since they came home to Shining Lake. The place is alive with relatives he never expected to have. His first few days home, he met a jumble of new faces—among them one or two with eyes like his own, some with noses the exact same shape as Coren’s or with Deira’s smattering of freckles. Even now he is only starting to remember all their names. It was worst at the Gathering, held a couple of nights later in honor of the family’s return.

The Pack greeting still makes him a little uneasy when it must be given to every adult member of the Pack, the first time you meet them. He sees the point of each part—higher status proves control over lower, forehead touch indicates peaceful intention, side-face brush provides opportunity to breathe close and identify scent.

Already Elijah is beginning to pick out status by scent even before it’s spoken. He still wonders how two alphas, meeting for the first time, resolve who dominates whom. He guesses they probably give off some pheromone or whatever before they even get that close. Or maybe they fight it out. It’s not something that need ever concern him, anyway.

It may be a tad more intimate than most other formal greetings he was taught, but it is more civilized than sniffing each other’s butt. And yeah, they probably save that one for when they’re all wolfed out. He sincerely hopes—if and when he ever actually manages to shift—he won’t need to meet anyone new like that.

Or does he have to meet the entire Pack all over again in his newly wolfed-out form?

He cringes internally and wishes there could be some end in sight to all this embarrassment. It feels so much more personal now than the weird stuff he was trained in as a Pet. That was lessons and—at the time—not really real.

This, though—this his life.

Eating and dancing aside, for Elijah the Gathering felt like one huge bow-your-head-and-sniff-fest. To give them credit, everyone seemed quite overjoyed to see Coren and Deira back home at last, and perfectly accepting of their acknowledged cub.

Everybody except that one alpha who proved quite conclusively that Elijah’s wolf is in there inside him, rousing it like never before—and not in any good way. Elijah felt internal hackles rise before ever the man laid hands to his shoulders.

The greeting he received then was perfunctory at best, but the alpha—Ferdek Haslar, so Elijah learned—had more to say at the feast held afterward around the fire. He swaggered over to where Elijah sat with his parents, both of them encouraging him to try their own favorites from the many unfamiliar foods on offer. Ferdek looked Elijah up and down and up again.

‘So,’ he sneered, ‘this is it.’

‘My son is not an it,’ Coren said—equably enough, though he rose to his feet to face Ferdek and even Elijah could tell his wolf’s hackles too were on end.

‘I beg pardon,’ Ferdek said, his tone still every bit as snide, ‘I should have said, so this is the mongrel bastard you would fob off on the Pack as a cub of your own? From what I’ve heard it can’t even shift!’

Elijah heard the sharp breath Deira drew then. He had wondered how many others there doubted Coren was really his true sire, given her long absence and the undeniable fact that she was a slave without the right to say no. The fact that he had yet to wolf out didn’t help, either.

‘If ever you breathe that lie again, Ferdek Haslar, I’ll take you to pieces—and then,’ again, Coren’s voice was quiet, almost agreeable, but Elijah could feel truth in every syllable, ‘then, I shall let my wolf have you.’

‘And mine shall finish whatever Coren’s cannot stomach!’ Alpha Sylis Rayt’s growl was low but truly fearsome. He had come up silently behind Ferdek, dropping him to his knees without a single physical touch.

It was the first time Elijah felt the anger of a Pack Alpha surge outward to affect every one of his Weres. It is not a pleasant feeling. All the pups and many of the cubs present needed the comfort of a parent. Elijah swayed a little under the onslaught though he managed to keep his feet.

A gradual quiet had already fallen around the fire, but in the wake of that warning only a distressed whimper here and there could be heard over the sharp crackle of flame. Elijah could almost see the wolf tail wrapped tight between Ferdek’s legs as he slunk away into the darkness.

‘Alpha Prime knows the truth of Elijah’s birth. If any would question Coren or Deira’s word—or mine—let them take it up with him! I say again,’ Sylis’s voice softened and was merely a man’s once more, ‘welcome to the Shining Lake Pack, Elijah son of Coren and Deira!’

Elijah raised his head in pride and gratitude yet again, for the almost unheard of rescue his parents had planned and waited for through so many years.

The feast and the bonfire were awesome—yet more things to add to his ever-expanding list of Things I’ve Never Seen-Done-Eaten-Drunk-Heard-Believed Before. There’s so much on the list already, but fire is well up in his top ten—and not simply the fact of seeing real flames up close.

All that power and danger and beauty unconfined simply leave Elijah speechless. Though the heat of the bonfire was incredible, he was most in awe of the fierceness of the blaze, flames roaring away into the air, sparks flying incredibly higher before they disappeared. Fire calls to him in some way he can’t quite define.

Dancing for the fun of it also took him totally by surprise. No performer, no audience, but everyone on their feet as and when they felt like it, all skipping and twirling to the music as best they could. The steps seemed almost optional and he didn’t lack for partners to guide him along.

True, these were mostly kindly older women—the unfamiliar aunties, or friends of Deira—all wanting him to feel as if he belonged when clearly he didn’t as yet, but still he enjoyed what was perilously close to a romp.

The best thing was that nobody cared how you danced, at all. No discipline, no punishment for being a shade less than perfect. If someone went astray in the steps, they only laughed and picked on up from there.

Of course, the end of the evening left him embarrassed yet again when the three returnees were invited to shift first for the celebratory hunt in wolf form. Deira and Coren had warned him about it so Elijah was ready enough—he simply couldn’t. Nothing new, though he’d hoped, with all that shifting going on around him…

Parents of offspring too young to hunt took their little ones off home then. Elijah reversed the trend by sending his reluctant parents off to hunt. Meilin lingered by the fire with him until they returned. Her Alpha was away in Cal City, about some business with the Normals, she said, and she wouldn’t enjoy the chase as much without him.

Not all her omega vibe could entirely protect Elijah from the pitying looks though, any more than she—or anyone—could explain why he still couldn’t wolf out. Even Alpha Sylis’s command didn’t work, though it should have. All it did was make Elijah feel as if his insides were fighting his outside—which hurt in both places.

At least he wasn’t left alone there by the dying embers of the fire, as fur sprouted all around them and flowed away through the surrounding trees in a river of deadly hunters.

It’s not as if he hasn’t made the effort to shift, or doesn’t want to—he can’t. The way Deira or anyone else tells it, it’s merely a matter of thinking about it. Turns out it isn’t. Well, it might be for cubs his age who’ve been doing it since before their human side could crawl. For the Incomer Cub—it’s what his peers call him, he’s heard them—it simply doesn’t work that way.

At first he thought it was because suppressants still lingered in his system. He has been suppressed, one way and another, since his very first shift so Deira says. Apparently if shifting will land her pup in danger, a Were dam can do some weird mind-inhibitor thing. Elijah has no idea how she managed to keep it in place for so long, hiding his Were half for years until the Rama-Nettorian training dictated chemical suppression.

He can only be thankful she did. He really doesn’t like to think what an owner with a curious mind—let alone one with a sadistic streak—might have done to him then. There’s a reason Were slaves are rare. Most would fight to the death rather than submit—as Coren almost did, as Deira might have done, if not for the life already growing inside her.

Elijah suspects sexual slavery would have been the very least of his worries if Niconet Perçuile had known he might claim a double value for the prize on his hands. There will always be someone or something around whose credit total outruns their ethics.

And now—just when he’s beginning to feel he has met ’most everything from good to bad and can take the rest in stride—he is blindsided yet again by what surely has to be the worst of all.

Lissy is visiting on an afternoon when he and Deira are both at home. She is his mother’s friend, not his, but Elijah can’t escape to his room yet without seeming rude. Deira goes to bring coffee and Elijah tries to make small talk with their guest. He’s a little embarrassed when she goes into detail about the discomforts of her very obvious pregnancy. Then she says…

She says…

He knows it has to be true by the way Deira rushes in saying, ‘Lissy, I don’t think—’ just too late to shut her up, but he still can’t really believe what Lissy said to him. It has to be a joke or something, right?

‘When I—excuse me, what?

‘When you carry pups of your own, Elijah,’ Lissy says again, cradling her swollen belly. ‘Here, feel.’ And before he can say no or Deira can intervene, she takes his hand and lays it on the mound her tunic does nothing to hide.

He’s not sure why he doesn’t pull away, but he doesn’t. When he feels the tiny kick, he’s speechless, but Lissy is clearly quite used to that reaction and only smiles proudly. ‘That’s a foot, of course, and this—’ she moves his hand to cup at the other side, ‘—this is a head. I’m not sure they’re both the same pup, though!’ Lissy has three in there—a triple blessing, she says.

Elijah is frozen in place, silently freaked out at the thought of producing a single one. Him…having pups. A pup, even. He can’t even begin to imagine how.

He’s male, he knows he is. He has all the parts to prove it, and he can’t have any extras or House Rama-Nettorian would certainly have profited from them by now.

This is worse than anything back then. And at least, back then, They—the mysterious non-human entities whose eventual credits dictated much of what the Élite were taught to be and to do—They were the only freaks.

Here on Calia—the part where he lives, anyway—everyone’s a freak and he, it seems, is the freakiest of them all.

Deira tactfully draws Lissy away to the kitchen and leaves him to have his mini breakdown in private. advanced web statistics

Chapter Text

‘Benris tells me you have information to disclose…’ Niconet Perçuile pauses with raised brows for the slave to remind him of her name.

He would not normally grant an audience to one of the ‘hostesses’ here at the Seven Moons of Sycorial, but his house manager notified him that this one claims some knowledge of where his missing slaves may have vanished to—information she will divulge only to the Master in person. It could be extracted from her quickly enough by other means, but if this will save time he will indulge her, if only the once.

Certainly the authorities here on Space Central have made no headway in finding Elijah, nor even the remains of the older one. Given the extent of electronic surveillance these days, it seems almost incredible that anyone—let alone a couple of fugitive slaves—could disappear quite so thoroughly. This pair, however, appears to have entirely departed every level of the Station.

All his usual sources—whether self-seeking slave or venal retainer—have come up empty. Nowhere has he found the slightest indication of involvement in an abduction by any of the other invitees to his auction.

The focus of the official investigation moved swiftly to the person and whereabouts of the man from Tech Central who hacked his way so thoroughly into the Seven Moons’ electronic circuits and, it appears, mastermindcd the entire affair before handily ceasing to exist. Not so much as a tax record survives by which to identify or trace him, according to Nico’s own informant at the SCSS, though fellow techs have worked alongside him for a number of years without the slightest suspicion.

In light of such long-term penetration the matter is now considered more an emancipation rather than an actual abduction. Opinion remains divided as to which was the primary target, the woman or the Pet. Some actually believe her to have been the man’s spouse and Elijah taken merely to blur the trail. Niconet Perçuile can scarcely believe such asexual idiots exist.

Since it is not, strictly speaking, his loss, Nico can almost find it in him to admire so comprehensive an achievement. He regrets not having such masterly talent at work on his own tax affairs—though on second thought, perhaps it is as well.

And now, even Alpha Astin seems to have given up hope of retrieving his expensive—and disappointingly elusive—purchase. The social media report that his extended visit with playboy Yanchov Karsellen has come to an end with the return of the interplanetary shuttle he uses exclusively.

Leaving further investigation and possible pursuit to the security services is not a smart move. Subordinates are the same everywhere—take your eye off them and they slack off to a barely acceptable minimum.

Nico has no intention whatever of allowing the matter to rest in such unreliably invested hands. He has decided therefore that, five million credits or not, finders shall in this instance most definitely be keepers. What the Alpha doesn’t know will not trouble him, when he is all the way out on his backwater planet—and Nico will take great care to ensure that he does not know.

Hence his reason for deigning to notice…

‘Caselja, Master Nico,’ supplies the slave. Her voice is pitched low and she smiles. He assumes it is meant to be seductive. Really, it comes as no surprise that this one failed to make the grade as one of his Élite. A reliably selective custodian saves him a great deal of inconvenience, one way and another.

‘And exactly what is this information you alone seem to possess, Caselja?’

‘Elijah and I were great friends,’ she says earnestly. ‘It was a shock to both of us when…when I was moved here and he was not. We always hoped…’ she lets her voice trail off on a wistful note. Nico recognizes a plea for special treatment in return for whatever it is she believes she knows.

Sugar first, the lash later. His mother’s advice for obtaining proper service from one’s slaves has always worked well for him.

‘Some adjustment to your duties may well be possible,’ he suggests. Benris mentioned that this one is more than usually nervous of those clients who arrive in shielded float chairs and prefer the private rooms. ‘Fewer of our somewhat outré clients, perhaps?’

What flashes across her face is mingled hope and disappointment, concluding in the suspicion of a pout. She clearly expected better.

Her presumption annoys him. ‘Come, girl, I don’t have all day! Either you have something to tell or you can leave and prepare for tonight’s clients. I believe room seven has been reserved…’

She is suddenly in a hurry to reveal what she knows. Nico is unsurprised—the Aldeporan entity with a semi-permanent claim to room seven gives him the shivers, too. It is more than his business is worth to admit that aloud, however, considering the number of credits it so freely expends on the varied provision here at the Seven Moons.

‘Master, the old one who left with Elijah—her name was Deira. She was the custodian’s chief assistant and the one who looked after us most outside of lessons.’

Nico nods impatiently. The missing slave’s status he knew already, if not the name. Rumek had apologized profusely, as indeed he should, for permitting the woman to follow Elijah here that night. His wish to avert the Master’s anger at her error in under-dosing Elijah was the sole reason he ordered a ’bot transfer for her, he explained—all the while complaining bitterly that he must now buy and train a replacement.

Had the man not been in Rama-Nettorian service for so many years—and so extremely efficient in general—Nico might have had him whipped for his inattention. Though quite how Rumek could have known any better than himself that she would abscond, let alone taking with her his Pet of Pets…

‘Yes?’

‘When we were small, Master, she would tell us stories of the world she grew up on. It sounded a most beautiful place to live, and I could tell she was longing to go back there.’ She looks up, hoping for approval, but such maudlin memories are scarcely valuable information here.

‘Well, and what of it?’

‘I don’t think it was an abduction, Master. I think she ran away—and that’s where she’s gone, I’m sure of it!’

Would the girl never get to the point? Another way in which to fail as a Pet—were speaking ever actually a Master’s requirement. Irritation barely held in check, he demands, ‘And that world would be…?’

‘Calia, Master Nico. It was called Calia. She told us about it when we were small, but even then I knew how much she loved it. She’s gone back home and taken Elijah with her—I know it! She was always nicer to him than the rest of us and that’s why she took him along. Well, he wouldn’t have anywhere else to go, would he? He was born a slave!’

Nico has no difficulty hearing resentment in the voice that is now several shades too sharp—one more reason she could never have achieved the pinnacle of a true Élite, setting aside the dullness of her wits. He sincerely doubts her claim of great friendship is at all valid, and who could blame anyone for preferring Elijah over this spiteful shrew?

Still, her obvious desire to cause trouble for Elijah and the domestic makes it more likely than not that her recollection will be accurate.

‘Calia,’ he says thoughtfully. He knows little to nothing of the planet of that name, save for a hazy notion that it may lie at the very fringes of this galaxy. He’d have thought an escaping slave would make for the closest and most well-populated planet in order to get thoroughly and calculatedly lost. He or she would need good reason for such a distant choice.

‘Her name again?’ When the slave Caselja repeats it, he dismisses her with a vague promise of speaking to Benris on her behalf—it is possible he may need her further cooperation. He turns to the deskomm and taps impatiently on the glasteel surface. The interface rises at once.

What should have been the search of a few seconds only proves far more time-consuming than that. Certainly he can find details of size, terrain, population distribution, exports, and all the tedious information required by any student fulfilling a class assignment.

Other than that, Calia looks to be something of a backwater planet, home to an extremely self-sufficient, closed-in society. Space tourism, while not actively discouraged, is not exactly invited, either. Its advertised attractions—when such advertisement can be found at all—read as positively mundane in light of the wonders to be seen on other, more openly welcoming worlds.

He wonders how it was that so reclusive a planet should lose one of its inhabitants to the slave trade. It seems unlikely, somehow. His curiosity is piqued.

His search for additional in-depth particulars proves no match for Calia’s reticence, which annoys and intrigues him further. In the end he is driven to contact a professional and actually pay for the privilege of knowing—which merely convinces him that Calia has at least something to hide.

It is a matter of record, if deeply concealed from all but the most dedicated inquirer, that colonization of uninhabited, unimportant worlds—which basically meant those possessing little or nothing by way of profitably exploitable resources to attract the big conglomerates—was granted to populations that preferred a less technological lifestyle.

This euphemism, the investigator reports, refers to nomadic races and sub-cultures from many of the known worlds. Also, though possibly mythically, to the Were of whatever persuasion, whose animal forms were surmised to require more natural terrain than thoroughly urbanized Normals.

Nico instantly embraces unsubstantiated possibility as fact—and with rising glee. Calia, he decides, is clearly home to shape-changers of some kind—perhaps even a positive plethora of them, after so many centuries of breeding.

This could be…interesting. It is also a trifle disconcerting. Was that slave, whatever her name had been, a shape-changer, and he had not known it?

‘Domestic records for the Élite quarters,’ he demands. He rapidly scans the lists that scroll upward—date and origin of purchase, price, age given/assumed, health status, assigned status. He finds nothing out of the ordinary.

His presumed Calian was acquired through the usual agency Rumek employs when staff is required at the training complex—as the most recent entry attests. No planet of origin is recorded for this Deira—apparently she was traded in here on Space Central, which means nothing whatever. The turnover in house-slaves is brisk and eternal. The number of credits paid seems a little on the low side, if anything. There is certainly no indication that the woman was anything other than a basic servant.

To say that slaves with the ability to change shape are rare is a bit like saying space is pretty big. Nico’s basely mercenary informant eventually discovers that—as with any desirable commodity—there are specialists who, given time and copious funding, undertake to supply any and every physical conformation an owner may desire, natural or induced.

Shape-changers—no matter which species of Were is required—merely entail significantly more credits, and a considerably longer wait between order and supply.

Nico has never wished to embrace any such aspect of his profession. He considers sex involving livestock to be distasteful on the whole, if not outright sordid. However, it irks him greatly to think he may have allowed a natural treasure—in the monetary sense—to slip through his hands unknowing. Possibly two, given Elijah’s seeming importance to the woman.

Oh, wait—isn’t Calia the planet Alpha Astin’s family is rumored to practically rule? Was he somehow involved in—no, of course not!

Five oh-so-welcome millions of credits would scarcely have come to rest—however regrettably brief that stay may have been for far too many of them—in Nico’s private account, had the Alpha suspected he might reclaim Elijah legally and perhaps even for free.

Niconet Perçuile’s mouth curves in a smile that is far from pleasant.

He finds the situation quite delicious. Alpha Astin clearly had not the least idea that he was paying such a satisfactorily generous amount for what was probably his by droit de seigneur, or however these things arranged themselves on the outer reaches of the galaxy. Providing, of course, that Elijah is indeed Calian.

Having reviewed every entry in his record from purchase to sale, he knows Elijah was born into slavery. There is naturally no indication of the birth mother’s origins—scarcely a consideration in the acquisition of a pretty child slave to be groomed into excellence.

But the female in question is certainly of a feasible age to be that mother, and why else would she risk so much more in a bid for her own freedom? Caselja’s report of special favor, for all its malicious intent, was perhaps not so wide of the mark. It seems to Nico that a mother might not be able to help herself—might risk everything to free a child born in slavery. More so than ever, if that child’s inner creature might one day reveal itself.

Had she, in fact, inveigled her way into Rama-Nettorian service, simply in order to free the two of them one day? In spite of himself—and given a still-festering annoyance at having his elegantly arranged auction so thoroughly disrupted—Nico is slightly impressed by the notion.

Feedback he has received since the night of the auction provided food for serious thought. At least two of the participants complained they were allowed insufficient time to reassess their financial reserves. That they would, so they averred, undoubtedly have returned with further bids, given such opportunity.

Further than the five million credits he already received? Nico begins to reconsider the entire concept of finders as keepers…

He rubs his hands together now. If Elijah was worth such a satisfactory sum, merely as one of his Élite, to what unimaginable heights might his value not rise should he prove also to be a shape-changer?

Nico has not before thought to wonder what the title of Alpha may indicate—these small-worlders concoct such grandiose appellations for themselves. A quick query now reveals that the word itself may refer to a dominant being of any genetic description from wherever in the universe. But—and quite notably—it was adopted millennia ago on Old Earth by several species of Were and most particularly among wolves.

Is that what Alpha Astin and his fellow Calians are, Nico wonders—werewolves?

He has never thought of him before as anything other than a very occasional if extremely wealthy patron. One possessed of positively pedestrian tastes, considering the varied delights his Seven Moons can offer those of a more adventurous disposition. He is not exactly a hulking beast, either—little taller than Nico himself, though he does have a presence Nico has always assumed comes of his acknowledged status on his home planet.

He begins to wonder if there isn’t rather more to it than that. When, with a shudder, he recalls his compulsion to answer the Alpha, no matter how reluctantly—also, flashing red eyes, a too sharp smile and that surely unintentional growl—he is certain of it.

Whichever way, Nico will be rather more circumspect should the Alpha ever visit his club again. Just in case, and even if he hasn’t managed to reacquire Elijah.

Reacquisition sounds good to Nico, now—very good, Were or no. His interest in Elijah has always gone beyond that of owner and slave. He has fantasized more over that boy than any other of his Élite trainees through the years. Possibly because most boys fail before they’re old enough to interest him. Mostly because he’s beautiful and he is Elijah.

Nico wonders then what additional attractions a Were heritage might bring. More comprehensive information may be available on sites that require quite hefty membership fees, in addition to his informant’s ever-escalating demands. Such sites cater to sexual deviations so diverse and so utterly bizarre that he begins seriously to consider whether his Élites’ curriculum ought not to be expanded.

He discovers the absolute rarity of Were slaves. That females appeal to entirely different…tastes than males. He has personally never had the slightest interest in bestiality of that nature.

However, an alpha’s cock is apparently equipped with a mating knot that is more… interactive than the finest of dildoes. This was scarcely a consideration during the hours spent watching and…appreciating Elijah’s training vids—all the time wondering if the financial loss might be worth it to keep Elijah for his own. Now, though…

Blow-jobs aside—a mouth is a mouth whatever the gender or status of the body to which it is attached—Nico rarely indulges in a slave, and his days of kneeling for one are long past. For that, he has friends with benefits.

But, for Elijah… Nico’s cock swells rapidly as he calls up a holo of Elijah dancing—clothed, it is true, if not by much, and Nico is by now adept at mentally dismissing all such impedimenta. Facility surveillance vid has given him intimate knowledge of every inch of his boy.

He has no problem now allowing him an alpha attitude—provided, of course, that he still knows his Master. Elijah’s reputation for carrying an Élite’s assurance a little too far into obstinacy, after all, was one of the things Nico first noticed in him. A soupçon of dominance, along with a burgeoning knot, bewitching blue eyes and all that beautifully lithe and creamy skin, and Elijah would fulfill every sexual fantasy Nico has ever had.

He finds it disconcertingly easy to stroke himself to full hardness at the thought of that wonderfully adolescent cock ramming into him. Its knot fully developed now, wide and eager, forcing its way inside him—pain and pleasure combined, pounding deliciously over his…over…ohh!

When imagination gives way to reality at last—even as Nico is still heaving for breath and reaching for wipes—he begins to worry that no physical difference is recorded in Elijah’s medical details or, indeed, visible on Elijah himself. According to his research, the boy ought to have popped his knot—another example of the small-worlders’ quaint terminology—at least a year or two ago.

Perhaps, disappointingly, Elijah is of the second Were gender—a beta, and will carry no knot at all? But, since his record also lacks any mention of periodic shifting—and any such momentous change would most certainly have been noted—it may be that the suppressants that work so conveniently in his favor in other respects have inhibited both wolf form and knot-popping. Nico remains hopeful.

A sedative of some kind would be required, of course, to counteract the danger of submitting to an animal that could literally tear him to pieces. He makes a mental note to have his physician research the correct balance between tamed and sexually effective.

Imagination, having no truck with such restrictive details, now supplies him with the exquisite glide of fur along the length of his thighs…over the skin of his naked back…flowing down his sides in a flurry of silken caresses…slipping into the crack of his ass…

Sheer anticipation coaxes his spent cock into a valiant if not entirely successful attempt at revival.

The frisson that shivers so deliciously down his spine confirms that bestiality is not quite so far from his nature as he has previously supposed.

He begins to feel quite cheated, not to have known and… and explored, if not fully experienced, what he once owned. Well, such a thing must never happen again, if ever he is fortunate enough to acquire another. There has to be a test of some kind to show if a slave’s genetic inheritance includes the merest iota of Were DNA.

A quick vid-call to the in-house medic reveals that he has not yet disposed of blood samples taken from Elijah. Instead of berating him for retaining out of date inventory items, Nico breathes a private sigh of relief and orders every damned analysis known to the medical profession of any world today, to prove one way or another if Elijah is indeed a shape-changer.

If it is true—and if he can bring himself to part with Elijah a second time—it does address a rather large snag in his re-sale as one of the virginal Élite. Given his freedom, it is all too likely that Elijah’s technically intact cherry will have been well and truly popped by the time Nico gets him back.

Although, if the other slave actually is his mother—well, Nico can hope, can’t he? His own Maman had attempted to restrain his sexual activities, even after he came of legal age. She could have no way of knowing she was already quite a number of years too late.

The interaction he plans with his reclaimed property may not actually involve any cherry popping whatever. Quite the reverse, in fact, if his physician is as proficient in the requisite chemical curtailment as his exorbitant fees would imply.

And should his most stimulating expectations prove sadly unfounded, his almost intact Pet of Pets, now with the added attraction of his Were versatility, should still be worth one hell of a lot more in a specialist market than any plain old virgin, Élite or not.

Not that plain is a word anyone in his senses would use within klicks of Elijah, but the premise still applies.

The next step, clearly, is to discover whether he did in fact escape to Calia. As noted, it is not precisely a welcoming planet. It doesn’t promote itself with the open-door, space-tourists-welcome-here image of so many non-industrialized planets, that’s for sure. It is, however, perfectly possible—given patience and the appropriate douceurs—to obtain the requisite visas and so forth in order to visit.

Nico is not fond of travel, himself, and anyway, his name and face would be known there, by the two slaves themselves and by Alpha Astin, if no-one else. He will need an on-world proxy who can accurately assess the situation—including whether or not Elijah has sufficient Were in him to alter his form at a master’s bidding.

Such details are easily surmountable. He wants Elijah back whether he is a shape-changer or no. And even in these degenerate days, when possession may no longer be nine points of the law, it remains at least eight and a half—for those at a sufficiently remote location from an importunate claimant.

Niconet Perçuile takes it for granted now, that Elijah is there on Calia—ultimately if not readily accessible—and shall indeed be reacquired for his use.

Whatever that use may eventually prove to be.

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Chapter Text

‘You could have just told me!’

Elijah is in the worst temper Deira has seen in him since he was a toddler.

Lissy has left. Once Deira explained what it was she said to upset Elijah so much, she wanted to apologize of course. It wouldn’t have helped at all, so Deira thanked her, asked her promise of silence on the matter, and helped her out the door as quickly and as sympathetically as she could.

‘Didn’t I—don’t I—have the right to know?’

Her son is storming from room to room now, unable to vent his rage any other way. He’s so mad she half-expects him to start throwing things the way he did in his Terrible Twos, so long ago. She can smile at the memories, but she still feels the cold clutch of knowing what must come next for the little pup that would so soon be taken from her.

He has a point, of course, but so does she.

Almost as soon as she found him again, in the Rama-Nettorian facility, she half-suspected—and at the time wholly dreaded—that her beloved son might present as omega once free of suppression, either chemical or maternal.

When Anira confirmed her suspicion, Deira’s first thought had been, Thank the skies we got him out!

She knows that if he had refused her invitation to escape that night she would not have been able to accept it. Sixteen or no, she’d have ignored his uninformed choice and taken the desperate risk of bringing Coren down to scoop Elijah up and physically haul him out of the Seven Moons’ cellar. Now, she is even more grateful she didn’t have to.

Her second was that freedom itself would bring more changes than enough—a new world and a new family, the Pack and the wolf inside him. He didn’t need this particular quirk of his reproductive system heaped on top of all that. It would keep awhile, she’d hoped.

Far better, Omega Prime agreed, not to burden him with that when he had so many other new things to cope with, first. Which is still true, of course, even now—there’s simply no avoiding it any longer.

‘How could you keep something so—so—’ He can’t find the words, which only makes him madder. ‘How could you keep that from me?’

He stomps off on another circuit of the den, and Deira crosses to the sunny kitchen. He’ll come to terms with it in his own time, but there’s one thing she can do to help, if only a little.

Every omega he meets will know what he is—as Meilen and Chaila know already—and all of them will keep the secret for him. But Deira has been counting on no-one else having such extreme sensitivity. She can only assume Lissy’s advanced pregnancy has heightened her awareness.

Other Weres tend to be puzzled by the fact that Elijah’s scent declares no obvious status yet—male omegas being rare enough that even the suspicion has crossed no-one’s mind as yet. They put his neutral scent down to the years of suppression, and assume he is destined to present as beta, and a low status one at that.

That he might be alpha never occurs to anyone, though there’s rather more reason for that, she supposes, hands busy with the small comfort she’s preparing. She may be partial but even she can admit Elijah doesn’t exactly exude male dominance. She has never cared what he may turn out to be in the end—has only ever wanted him to be happy.

What they don’t know is that he has not been under any form of suppression, chemical or maternal—which she was never sure actually worked on an older cub, but had never dared let up—since the day they left Space Central. If his status had been going to declare, it must have happened by now. Deira is pretty sure he’ll remain unclassified by most people until he meets his mate.

He bursts into the kitchen behind her. ‘You should have told me!’ he insists, less angry than sorrowful now.

‘And that would have helped how, exactly? Do you feel better or worse for knowing?’ It’s a purely rhetorical question when the answer is plain to see in his face. ‘Sit—I made hot chocolate.’

She gives him a gentle push toward at the table. Filling a plate with cookies, she laces his mug with marshmallows, then takes the chair across from him.’

He’s silent for a while, rage all burned out—or internalized. Deira waits and eventually he says—almost wails, ‘I don’t understand!’

‘What don’t you understand? Why I didn’t tell you? Or why it is possible for you to bear pups?’

‘Either. Both!’

‘You already know why I didn’t tell you—I knew it would throw you into a panic like this, and I wanted you to feel more at home here before you had to face that, too. As to exactly why you can produce pups when you’re obviously male—well, that’s not something I can explain except by saying you are a male omega, and that is one of their abilities.’

Elijah stares at her. ‘That’s it? Just one of my abilities?’

‘Modern science can’t explain the why, Elijah—any more than they can explain how an average sized human can morph into a wolf that’s twice as heavy —so don’t expect me to! You can look up the how of being omega later—right now, drink up and have a cookie.’ She pushes the plate under his nose and he takes one, nibbling automatically. ‘This is the way it has been for as many generations as there have been Were. You might as well ask why the Were exist. I don’t know that, either,’ she adds with a grin.

Elijah takes a few deep breaths along with his choc-chips and then says, ‘Okay, explain it all to me as if—‘ he falters, then goes on, ‘—as if the Were were yet another species whose very specific mating habits I had to learn back then. Everything you haven’t yet told me that I need to know—just, without the practical demonstrations…’

That last might have been a joke, but it isn’t. Deira remembers too many times he and the other Pets emerged from lessons pale and withdrawn—some in need of hugs, some a space of quiet on their own, and others a cup of something warm and a sugary treat.

Deira takes a deep breath of her own and begins with how an omega mating works—though the omega in question is usually a girl, of course. She begins with the Gatherings no unmated alpha would miss, for the chance to hear the wolf inside an omega cub call to his own. Omega mates are known to be twice blessed—full empathy apparently adds an extra dimension to an alpha/omega mating that no other pairing can ever achieve.

‘Which, I have to tell you, must make it pretty special!’

She doesn’t try to hide a smug smile. She knows quite well that Elijah has his wolf hearing now. He has to have heard the pleasure she and Coren share, making up for so many years of lost time.

It makes her quite giddy sometimes, how happy she is to be here with her mate once more, and with their son safe at last. She knows it can’t be that easy for Elijah, though.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, of course, even for her. So many things have changed through the years—even people she used to know well are quite different now. There are matings and litters to discuss and savor, and a few sad deaths to mourn, with friends she’s gradually remaking from years ago—and one or two who might have been so once, but are no longer. Time—and maybe resentment that she and Coren didn’t ask Alpha Prime’s help in freeing Elijah much sooner—has come between.

Pups and cubs Deira knew from birth are away at college or mated with litters of their own. Seniors she remembered as hale are visibly ageing now, or gone already despite the enhanced lifespan their Were heritage grants them. Her own parents were gone before ever she was enslaved—a small thing to be grateful for at the time, that they need never feel her loss.

New homes have been excavated, others extended, one swallowed up by a mudslide despite the plasticized internal walls—it was fortunately empty at the time. Gardens have developed and matured, and trees she remembers as skinny saplings have grown far taller than she. There has been so much change even while so much remains the same.

It is different for Elijah. She has her mate, their home and a host of memories from the days before to support her. For Elijah, she is the only remnant of his old life and even she is no longer who he believed her to be.

He is no longer who he believed himself to be, and this new revelation has to be the strangest of all.

Everything here—no matter how pleasant or desirable—is unfamiliar to him. Holo-vid of a real world cannot begin to compare with actually living on one. Old sensations, long forgotten, can still catch Deira unawares, and she was born to this. To freedom and choice, to a live world of climate and countryside; of grass and trees and the many things that live and grow and are beautiful here, as opposed to all things plasti-formed, metallic and inert. To a home of her own instead of a cubicle in the quarters designated for domestic slaves.

Admittedly, the surroundings in which Elijah was trained were far more luxurious than their home. The Élite were raised to serve among the extremely wealthy, after all, and Rama-Nettorian pride would have no-one say they were less than perfect in any situation whatever. But Deira’s son has gained here all the things she wanted for him that he could never have dreamed of for himself.

What he has lost cannot be worth a moment’s regret—at least, she hopes Elijah may think so.

They arrived home in the fall of Calia’s year, which has always been Deira’s favorite season. Others may regret the inexorable descent toward the dark and cold of winter, but she loves it for its harvest bounty and its last blaze of color—summer’s leaves dyed and dying in a swirl of orange, yellow and red. She had thought their brightness kept safe in her memory while she was away, but the colors, the smell—they’re all so much more now she is home again.

She tried to share them with her son, back at the facility, but her telling could never compare with seeing them fly to the wind’s buffeting. With Elijah raking them into great colorful piles and—a pack of pups helping—diving in to kick them all over the place, again and again until finally the rain made them too wet and they were netted, to compost for next year.

Calia may possess identical technology to that on Space Central, but here they do not live by the processed proteins and vegetable matter that are the norm there.

Here, fall means an actual harvest to be gathered in, in which technology can only go so far, and extra hands are always welcome. And although Elijah knew objectively that fruits grow on trees and bushes, he can never have expected to wander outside and actually pick some. He has been trained in the etiquette appropriate to whatever exotic food may be set before him, of course, but such drills cannot compare with the experience of eating what was growing or swimming only minutes or hours before.

Now, the year has begun to warm again and Elijah takes long walks to watch the unfolding of his first ever spring. The sun is strengthening and Deira is fondly strict about allowing him to simply soak up its rays, no matter how fascinated he may be by the gradual bloom of color on his skin. She insists on sun-screen for both of them. Sunburn may be pretty much unknown among the Were, but she’s taking no chances, not after so many years under artificial light.

So many differences, so much change. And this—the omega mating ritual and how it may apply to her son—the most literally life-changing of all.

It is one of those things they prefer to do the old way—like living underground in dens, like referring to children as pups and cubs even in their human form. She smiles—that was one of the many minor things that puzzled Elijah when they came home.

‘It might be more logical and up-to-date to use Spyke,’ she explains, ‘but it wouldn’t be personal enough. I’m not sure anyone’s ever tested to see if the call could be remotely offered and returned that way, comm. to comm. Gatherings outdoors by a bonfire are traditional for all important occasions, like the one for our welcome. Long ago, when the Packs lived in hiding on Earth, a fire like that—merely daring to have a fire outdoors at all—was the symbol of a thriving Pack with its own territory, kept safe by its Alpha and his Seconds.

‘Every Pack still has at least one real den, you know, dug into a hillside somewhere close by. Not transformed into a house as we have them, but a proper, dirt-walled den—well, maybe the walls are plasticized for safety. Pups like to play house there, and a really romantic Alpha will take his mate there when they’re both wolf!’ Deira lets the twinkle in her eyes tell Elijah that she and Coren have already revisited the one at Shining Lake.

He smiles shyly back. For all those damned lessons on pleasing a future owner, she knows he finds real people with loving relationships hard to understand and harder still to talk about.

‘We accept all the benefits of technology, but we also value tradition. Take Lissy, for example,’ she says, ignoring his flinch. ‘When she comes to birth her pups, she will have the best of medical attention—in the hospital if it looks like she might have a problem, at home with the Pack doctor on call if not.

‘In the old days, though, she’d have relied on the skill and support of an omega. Preferably the omega of her own Pack, of course, but one could always be borrowed at need. Of course, Lissy will still ask for an omega at her side—in fact, I think she may ask for you,’ Deira tells him, figuring it better he’s warned before Lissy actually asks.

‘Me?’ Elijah is about as thrown as she knew he would be. He immediately starts to panic. ‘Why me? I don’t—Meilin would be—I can’t—Deira!’ Her name is a wail for help.

She quiets him with a hand on his—the only person at Shining Lake who can do that for him, apart from Meilin. ‘Because you’re omega, and you already know the comfort that can bring her. But also because she believes you are lucky and she wants that luck present when her pups are born.’

Lucky? My only luck was you and Coren never giving up on me!’

‘No, we could have failed any step of the way.’ She does not add that she still wakes in the night sometimes, shivering from the truth of that. ‘We were lucky beyond hope, and I think that was simply because of you. It was a huge risk whichever way you looked at it. We might have asked Alpha Prime to intervene once you were found, but a slave whose ownership is disputed can be made to disappear quite conveniently before an investigation can even begin—especially a child. I have seen it happen.’

She shakes off the memory of a small blonde girl who vanished from her nursery bed between night and morning. Only whispers of her destination were left behind, and they could still make Deira weep.

‘But, Coren had faith—in me, in himself and in you. Turns out he was right, and I am so, so thankful that you’re here, Elijah!’

He reaches across the table to comfort her, his calming warmth flowing from his hands to hers, settling remembered fear and sorrow both. Her tears now are mostly tears of joy, though the guilt remains for not snatching him back the minute they knew where he was. It simply had not been possible.

She had not known for certain, then, that he would become a treasure to the Pack. ‘I half-suspected you might be omega, you know,’ she reveals.

‘Well, I’m not exactly the macho type,’ he grins as he admits it, ‘but I could more easily have been beta. Oh, I know—it was because I liked being with your little ones, even then.’

‘Partly that, and partly… you remember Mikken, the only other boy who made it past puberty as a Pet?’

Elijah nods, puzzled. ‘Yes, but I was only about nine on his last day with us, so I didn’t know him that well.’

‘All the while he was off the suppressants for his ‘induction in servicing—’ Deira breaks off with a shudder.

She had hated every last iota of the sexual training back then. Now, seeing it with the unclouded mind of a free Were, she is horrified that she could have allowed such things to happen to any of them, even knowing that resistance would have brought nothing but pain. Pain and the end forever of any contact with her son.

‘I had to keep a close eye on Mikken, then. It was timed so none of the girls could return his interest, of course, but it wasn’t for any lack of trying on his part, poor boy. I sometimes wonder how he…’ she trails off. What’s past is over and done, no matter any regrets, and wishing will not change a thing.

She eyes Elijah sidelong and smiles. ‘But you, when you were off them, you had no interest in the girls—you just kept disappearing into your room!’

For all his extensive education in such things, he blushes. She is his mom, after all. ‘And I thought I was being so subtle about it!’

‘I was just thankful you got some pleasure of your own from it at the time!’

She knows better than to mention here that wolf senses work both ways. That she now has more aural proof than she really needs of her son’s increasingly keen ability to bring himself pleasure. It’s good to know he has claimed his own freedom in that direction.

‘And then, there was Santila…’ she continues teasingly.

Elijah groans. ‘I wanted to be nice to her that last day—we all did—but she was all over me when we settled to watch her choice of holo!’

Deira remembers the farewell pampering the whole group gave to Santila, and the fact that she had barely needed that last little something Deira was duty-bound to administer before she left for the Seven Moons of Sycorial that final time. The something that would ensure both interest and compliance when Santila must fulfill her new owner’s expectations.

The girl spent the whole time brushing up against Elijah, reaching across him for the dish of her favorite dried selin fruits and ‘accidentally’ trailing nipples already erect beneath her house tunic over his bare arms. Playing with his fingers, insisting they take turn about with a single glass of kushli juice—she couldn’t have been more obvious, poor thing. At the time, Elijah was still a little young to truly understand what she needed of him, and thanks to early-dose suppressors, he couldn’t have given it if he had.

Deira rescued both of them when she hauled Elijah away to comfort one of the smaller Pets who was sick.

‘I remember being really relieved when you sent me to sit with Joley and read to him!’

Poor thing, indeed. Deira didn’t like to think of the state Santila must have been in by the time the little something took its full effect. She heard later on the slave-vine that she was bought by an old and fat but very rich merchant with business interests on one of the outlying industrialized asteroids. It seemed a wicked waste of a charming and beautiful girl, but slaves could not ever be choosers and perhaps he might cherish her abundant charms the more, for being way out there.

‘If you didn’t respond to her at all, as beautiful as she was and in that condition, Elijah, you definitely weren’t going to want a female mate!’

‘I could still have been beta,’ he points out.

‘Possibly,’ she concedes, ‘but you always had a strong will beneath the enforced compliance—far stronger than most betas, given the chance.’ She doesn’t tell him that was one more thing to make her dread losing him to an unknown buyer. One who would deplore his innate willfulness and try to beat it out of him—or worse.

‘You will need a strong alpha to match you—maybe even a Pack leader,’ she suggests with a teasing smile. She keeps to herself the nebulous hope formed after Anira confided to her that Alpha Prime’s Son and Heir has always believed there is an omega out there somewhere, just for him.

Complacency turns to shock when Elijah’s fury suddenly revives and he snaps back at her, ‘Like that’s not just another kind of slavery?’

He slams his hands down on the table top, shoving his chair back so hard as he gets to his feet that all four legs screech across the floor.

‘Maybe no money changes hands here, but it’s my life and I still get no say in it!’

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Chapter Text

Elijah has barely stomped from kitchen to living room before his rage rushes out of him like air from a laser-breached hull. Avoidance won’t change what he is, and he knows there’s more to this omega stuff—more to him—than he’s heard as yet.

He should not have snapped at his mom that way and he knows it. It’s not her fault he is what he is. Well, biologically speaking he supposes it must be, though he can’t exactly blame her for that, nor Coren either. It’s not like they had any more control over the genes they inherited than he does. They’re as surprised as anybody that their only pup turned out to be one of these omegas.

Throwing himself down on the couch, he sprawls over it exactly the way he knows Mehinteh or any of the Deportment & Etiquette staff would have marked him down for. It’s defiance, even if they’re not here to see it.

He shouldn’t have snapped at her but he feels so angry a lot of the time, and she is the only one he can really vent to. She has a better chance than anyone of understanding why he feels the way he does. Only, he’s not exactly sure about it, either.

What’s simmering away inside is him fighting himself, of course—fighting who and what he is. Most of the time he can bury it deep, but at times like this—when he’s blindsided yet again—it just comes spilling out.

People will keep trying to ‘help’ him. He knows they mean well, but ‘helping’ always ends up more like persuading him to wolf out and be normal, like everyone else in the Pack. It’s a close run thing but he never actually shouts out the childish retorts he’s yelling in his mind.

Things like, ‘You try being a slave for your first sixteen years and see how normal you feel!’

It’s part of the reason cubs his age are so wary of The Incomer. One or two of them did try to be sociable at first. It’s weird knowing they’d have been classmates, maybe even friends, if he’d grown up here on Calia. Trouble is, he keeps silently comparing the lives they’ve always enjoyed with what he had to live with until these last few months—he can’t help it. And neither he nor they can cross the gulf of experience between them.

So, whenever he talked with them, it came out sharp and spiky more often than not. Since then, they’ve backed off. Mostly. He’s sorry, but.

His mom and dad—he still can’t call them that to their faces. Not yet, anyway. It feels too weird to have an actual mom and dad after so long being as much an orphan as any other child slave. In his mind, though, that is who they are now.

Anyhow, they never try that Pull-yourself-together-and-be-a-real-Were stuff on him. Mom is politely cool to anyone that does it when she’s around, and Dad tells them outright to leave him the hells alone and he’ll wolf out if and when he’s ready and not before. His dad’s a strong alpha. Elijah wishes he could be like him.

He wishes he had his dad’s confidence in him, too. And as little as he wants to be claimed, being alone all his life sounds a bleak place to end up. Even more so when he has this strong and loving example in front of him 24/7, knowing what each of them has suffered—for him—to be with each other again at last.

He tries to take all it in stride—he does. When anyone asks… ‘Just fine, thank you,’ he says, and waits politely for the so-unhelpful, unasked for advice.

It has become his stock answer when anyone—everyone—asks how he’s doing, how he’s fitting in, how he’s finding this, that or the other. It’s quick, it’s glib, it gets at least some of them off his back right away—and it’s also completely untrue. He is so far from fine, it’s like fine is a different planet out there in some other galaxy.

Deira comes to sit by him—half-turned so she can look at him. Watching, not judging, and thankfully not hurt by what Elijah can’t keep bottled up inside any longer.

He turns to her, trying to explain—to excuse… ‘I’m sorry—it’s just…’ There has to be a right way to say this.

‘Every day there’s something new—and some of it is really great, like being here with you and Coren in a home that’s for us alone to share—even if it is underground!’ He manages a wan smile so she’ll understand it’s not a complaint, only his ongoing surprise.

‘And there’s Outside…’ He knows she’ll hear the capital, understands that he finds Outside totally amazing.

Everything out there—not only crops and gardens, but trees that are too massive and too ancient ever to be contained, and wildflowers growing if and where they want to and not because they’re put. Hills and valleys that mostly exist because they are, and not because they were designed to look that way in some enclosed Park. Wide sweeps of real grassland that roll out toward the sky, where sun and rain and snow arrive by the season and not to some regularly scheduled program—which is all wonderful.

‘But then there’s all the stuff that goes with being Were—’ his voice hasn’t cracked in a while, but it does now, ‘—and all these new rules, and Pack status and—and then suddenly there’s mating and claiming—’ he still can’t bring himself to admit the pup thing aloud, ‘—and it’s—it’s all too much at once!’

‘I know, baby, I know.’ Deira hasn’t ‘baby-ed’ him in a long time, but he needs it now and she knows it. She takes his hands between both of hers.

‘Believe it or not, it gets a bit much for me too, sometimes, and I was born here. There are so many things I’ve forgotten—not Coren or our home of course, but ways of doing, even saying things. It was a strange life back there, and you and I lived it for too long. Of course it will take time to forget all that and fit in here instead. You will, though, when you’re—’

Elijah tenses. He pulls his hands away and glares at her. If she’s going to end that sentence with mated and have pups of your own, he really will scream. And maybe throw something.

‘When you’re ready,’ she emphasizes. ‘I know what you fear most, Elijah, and I understand, better than anyone here. But on Calia, you cannot be forced into a mating you don’t want—or any mating at all, if you really don’t want one.

‘We are part wolf, Elijah, and animals do not rape. It is men who do that. Only a very rare and twisted wolf would take another that truly refused him, and only an abnormal alpha would try to force a mating. I’m not saying it can never happen, only that such a one would be given over to the Pack to face justice—and he would not survive it. Rape is one of our most stringent proscriptions.’

’I still have to mix with all these alphas, though, don’t I—for the calming thing? How do I know they won’t…?’

‘They won’t. Anyway, that’s not something you need worry about for now—most will still go to Meilin, even when they finally find out what you are. What you could provide for a troubled Alpha now is not a patch on what it will be. You’ll not be full omega until you go into your first heat—’ She stops dead as he chokes on this new revelation.

He drags in a sharp breath, lets it out very slowly. He should have seen it coming, of course. If this stupid body of his can produce pups, it stands to reason it will go into heat like any other fertile… person.

‘Heat. Right. Tell me about that, why don’t you?’ He concentrates on keeping calm as Deira explains yet one more of the things he’s going to have to learn to take in stride because of what he is.

‘For beta wolves it happens only twice in the year. With omegas it depends on the individual but will probably be more often,’ she says. ‘For either it can last up to a week. If possible, and especially in the early years of a mating, a pair will isolate themselves completely for however long they need. It can be…oh, overwhelming to the point that nothing else exists for either of you!’

His face has to tell her he’s not exactly sharing her obvious appreciation of a state of mind and body he can’t even begin to imagine—not after what he’s been trained in, these past few years.

‘Truly it is—and I should know!’ She gives him such a knowing grin that for all his extensive education in such matters, he feels the warmth rising in his cheeks. ‘You didn’t think the timing of your visit to Broken Hill with Meilin was accidental, did you? Coren and I didn’t want you to have to pretend you were deaf day and night for as long as that!’

He is squirming a bit when she goes on, ‘Older cubs are usually given the choice to stay or go—most of them visit with friends. If the pair has pups or younger cubs, they’re fostered out for as long as it takes. Remember Bektie brought her two over to Meilin’s to visit, a month or so ago? She knew she was coming into heat, and wanted to be sure Hal and Reina would be cared for while she and Kel were preoccupied.’

Elijah’s newly sensitive nose had recognized the sweeter edge to Bektie’s beta scent, lingering on her pups. He hadn’t exactly realized what it meant and didn’t think to ask at the time, what with the two of them tackling his ankles while Meilin prepared a room for them.

He hadn’t noticed Deira’s scent change at all, but that visit to their nearest neighboring Pack wasn’t long after they came home so maybe he wouldn’t have. He did suspect his parents were wanting a little time on their own after their long parting—he simply hadn’t realized any added impetus.

The days he spent away from home passed quickly enough anyway that he didn’t think to look for ulterior motives. It seemed reason enough that Broken Hill was home to the local college, and that Meilin would take him to meet another omega, only a little older than himself, who attended there.

Meeting Chaila made him feel just a bit less like a one-off, though he could have done without her enormous alpha looming outside the door while they chatted. Quite what kind of threat he thought Elijah could be to his mate, Elijah didn’t know, even if his omega-ness was still a secret from all but his peers. He had permission to visit a few of the live courses she was taking and was pleased—and a little smug—to discover he was well ahead of his age group in all of them.

He met with some of the staff to consider his options should he decide on further courses. They seemed surprised at the range and depth of his studies to date—his academic studies, of course. No need to mention the more… physical aspects of his education.

Several of the professors tried to persuade him toward their areas of expertise, but the mere thought of something like cultural relations sounds dry as dust when he still has a whole new world to explore, literally as well as figuratively

And now, it seems, a whole new part of himself, too.

‘Overwhelming need, change in scent,’ he summarizes wearily now, resolutely not touching the pups-and-cubs thing. ‘Right. But there’s more to it than that, I can tell. Details, please.’

Deira takes his hands again, looking at them rather than Elijah’s face. ‘This would come much better from Meilin, you know,’ she says.

‘The narcotic effect, I know. But I don’t want to hear it from her through a haze of whatever,’ Elijah says. ‘I want you to tell me, now.’

Deira sighs. ‘I cannot tell it as she could, only the facts everyone knows, because it isn’t the same for me, as a beta. Our heats are way less driven, perhaps because there are many more of us and it’s not so imperative for us to produce pups. You’re not only unusual in that you’re a male omega, honey. You’re also the product of an alpha to beta mating, which probably makes you unique. Most omegas are born of an omega mother. Add to that the fact that it’s never been safe for you to shift—and that, even now, you either can’t or won’t—and you’re a pretty complex package!’

Elijah frowns. He has recently begun to realize for himself that some of the can’t is maybe as much about won’t. Even Plectra, the more dominant of Calia’s two moons, hasn’t managed to drag his wolf out of him at the full—which is supposed to be pretty much impossible. Like so much else about him that bucks the norm.

He didn’t think anyone else had picked up on it yet, though. He suspects he still has a lot to learn about the concept of mom.

‘If you had been born and raised on Calia, your wolf would most likely have called its mate already. If he was from another Pack, he would have come here to live with us until your first heat and mating. Afterward, you would go live with his Pack and become their omega. But, since your wolf doesn’t look like calling any time soon, things are a whole lot different with you, right from the start!’ She shakes her head fondly.

‘Biologically speaking, though, like any omega you’ll start giving off pheromones even before your heat begins, and they will affect every alpha in the Pack. For a claimed omega this is not a problem because her alpha’s scent will already have merged with hers so it diffuses into a more general need. It’s regarded as a blessing by the adult members of the Pack, since mated pairs—and a lot of single wolves, too—benefit from her heightened arousal each night while the heat lasts!’

She smiles reminiscently at that, but Elijah knows there’s more to come, and he doubts it will be worth even the hint of a smile.

‘But you aren’t mated, Elijah, and you carry no alpha’s scent. It’s all too likely—Meilin would know better than I—but at a guess, when you come into heat I suspect our home will be besieged by every unmated male for many klicks around, each one hoping your wolf will find his acceptable. It may even be strong enough that some mated alphas will respond, though I sincerely hope not. I’d hate it if you were a reason for discord between any mated pair, no matter how unintentionally.’

Elijah snatches his hands away, a cold weight suddenly settling inside him.. Yet one more way for his biology to fuck him over. ‘And the rest?’ he manages to ask, because even now that’s clearly not all.

‘You won’t have to worry about lubrication—’

‘Well, that’ll be a relief!’ he snarks bitterly. ‘What? The alphas of Calia all have self-slicking cocks?’

It’s the most explicit he’s ever been around his mom, but rising temper doesn’t really allow for much delicacy. He knows that except for his struggle to accept all this, she would tell him not to be so crude.

‘No, Elijah, you will produce your own. So much that you won't be able to hide it. You won't be able to leave the house for that alone. You’ll also—’ he can tell now that his mom is searching for a way to express something he’ll find even more outrageous, in a way he can accept, ‘—you will be completely desperate to be taken. To the extent that you would lie down for any and every male your wolf doesn’t actively reject, until your heat is over.’

Speechless now, he pulls his legs up, feet flat on the couch, arms wrapped tight around himself. That is just wrong on so many levels.

He was never so blindly romantic that he believed he would find the kind of soul-mating the fantasy holo-vids promote. He knows quite well he has spent the last couple of years training to perform in someone’s bed, and that someone most likely male, of whatever species. He had only hoped for a master who would appreciate his skills and not be actively unkind.

Still, he is accustomed to thinking of himself as special. He was, after all, one of the Élite—a rich man’s possession, for his use and perhaps a favored friend or two. What Deira is describing here makes him no better than the least of slaves, mere holes to be filled and as quickly discarded by any male in need.

A dreadful thought strikes him. Carefully looking nowhere but at his own knees, voice tight and expressionless, he demands, ‘Is that what ‘succoring alphas’ really means? All I’ll ever be here is a filthy whore—any Were’s for a fuck?’

The prospect actually hurts far less than believing he’s been lied to ever since he left Nico’s. At least there the pimping was honest. But his Mom and Dad wouldn’t really—they wouldn’t

What? No! No, Elijah, don’t even think such a thing! We rescued you from that kind of life—why would we bring you here to become that? How can you believe we would do that to you?’

She’s truly hurt now, and it is Elijah’s fault. He slides over, taking her hands between his and soothing her distress.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry—I didn’t really believe it. It’s just—’

‘It’s just that your life has become so topsy turvy almost anything is possible?’ The thing he loves most about his mom is that she always seems to understand him.

He waits until her hands relax at last in his, and says quietly, ‘Other than you doing your mom thing on me again, I don’t see any way out.’

‘You’re too old for that to work now, honey. I was hoping your Alpha would be your way out,’ she admits. ‘During heat, an omega is—you, Elijah, will be driven by your hormones to be physically taken and it won’t matter by whom, as long as he satisfies the need for a while. Meilin says it’s theoretically possible to fight the compulsion if you have the will to do it, though she has never met an omega who did or even wanted to. But the Were mate for life, Elijah—once we accept a mate, only the very strongest compulsion—’

‘Like an unclaimed omega in raging heat, you mean?’ interrupts Elijah.

Deira sighs agreement. ‘Yes, that. Only a compulsion as irresistible as that, within close scenting range, would lure an alpha from his lifemate.’

‘And serving as the town whore for a week wouldn’t put a crimp in that mates-are-exclusive-forever thing for me?’ he snarks.

However little he wants it forced on him by his biology, having a mate of his own sounds way better than ending up as…that other. Ironic, that, since the requirements of a single master are what he’s spent almost his entire life preparing to meet. Until he’d be cast off for a new and younger purchase, of course—which was not included among the many aspects he was taught to survive.

Never being set aside sounds infinitely better—but supposing he couldn’t stand the alpha he was doomed to spend a lifetime with?

‘Sex and mating are two very different things—you know that!’ She looks at his doubtful face and says, ‘You really don’t—do you, honey?’

He gives a tiny shake of his head. How would he know? His trainers used the words sex and mating quite interchangeably for the act in which he’s been trained to excel.

‘You could go out right now and have sex with any unmated Were who caught your fancy, or a Normal if you’d prefer. I really hope you won’t till you’re more settled in yourself, but it’s your choice.’

He’s thrown a little off track by the second alternative. ‘A Normal? I thought they stayed in their cities?’

‘It’s a preference, not a rule. There are one or two here at Shining Lake—they all work at the admin center and commute in each day, as far as I know—but Broken Hill has quite a few, mostly connected to the college. As a species, we don’t seem to have quite the flair for technology that Normals have—Coren aside, of course.’

She clearly dislikes admitting such a failing among the Were, and is relieved that her mate is such a conspicuous exception. It seems quite logical to Elijah, though, that part-wolves would be less attuned to the inanimate than full humans. He’s just glad his dad bucked that trend so completely.

‘Anyhow, whomever you choose to have sex with, it won’t affect your ability to take a mate if and when you’re ready. Among the Were, mating is far more than simply sex, even if that’s the way the bond is sealed—and the bond is like nothing else, ever. It’s recognition, acceptance, home—it’s love, it’s everything, Elijah. The bond is what gave Coren the strength to fight for so long to bring me home, and you with me.’ Her eyes fill with tears at the reminder of all the years they spent apart.

‘I won’t lie to you—if you truly don’t want a mate at all, it will make your life here… difficult, to say the least. But if that is what you decide is best for you, I promise to help you all I can.’

He tries to rise and begin his pacing again, but Deira won’t let him. She is stronger than she looks, holding him in place by his wrists as she says, ‘Look at me, Elijah. I—we, Coren and I—we’ll keep you safe whatever it ta—’

His sudden shove backward cuts off her attempt at reassurance.

‘What? What is it?’ She sounds almost frightened—his horror at this new and terrible thought must show on his face.

‘Not Coren!’ he chokes out. ‘Tell me I won’t—?’ He can’t even say it.

‘What? Oh, no—no, Elijah! Coren is your true sire. Incest isn’t proscribed among the Were, simply because it does not exist. The closer the genetic connection—parent to child, sibling to sibling, or other close kin—the stronger the immunity.’

’But, I haven’t lived with Coren very long—are you sure it’s not a scent and proximity thing, too? Deira, I can’t do that—to you or to him. I won’t. I’ll go away—make myself a den somewhere. Hide far away where no one can ever find me! Maybe I’ll stay there for good, and that’ll solve the whole problem!’

‘No need for that—I know you won’t and so does he. Look, if I thought—if Meilin or Omega Prime believed there was the slightest risk—we would make certain you and Coren were kept well apart. But we aren’t worried and nor is Coren. He says it won’t happen and that even if it does, the change in your scent will be so subtle at first that he’ll have plenty of warning to be elsewhere. It won’t be necessary, though,’ she says with conviction.

Elijah wishes he had her certainty. ‘How will I know? When it starts, what will it feel like?’

‘You are an exception to so much that we think of as normal, it may not be at all the same!’ she says. There’s love in her voice but also a suggestion that he’s not the only one to find his biological quirks piling up a lot more than he likes.

‘For me—and remember I am beta, so it’s nowhere near as intense for me—it begins with a need to touch Coren more than usual, to feel his skin against mine. It’s like a buzz or maybe a sort of tingle that runs all through me.’

For no reason he can think of, Elijah thinks he knows what she means. He’s sure he has felt like that—just once and only for a moment or two—but Deira is still explaining and he forgets again as he’s drawn into her deeper experience of heat.

‘It gets stronger and more…I don’t know—rushed is the best word I can think of. It’s like the whole of you is drawn to something you can’t resist and never would. If you’re smart, by that stage you have privacy and a bed somewhere close—unless you decide to mate as wolves, of course! All I can think of then is Coren and mating—and believe me, Elijah, when your mate takes all that want and gives you everything you could ever need in return, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world!’

For a moment or two Elijah see the truth—and the wonder of it—in her face, but then the bright glow fades.

‘When… when Coren couldn’t be there, it was different. It didn’t exactly hurt—more that all the anticipation and eagerness turned to a sharp ache way inside that simply wouldn’t go away.’ Her voice is almost a whisper when she adds, ‘Even when the heat was over, it never quite went away.’

Elijah turns his hands to squeeze over hers. ‘You stayed with me all that time, and you had that to deal with, too? I’m so sorry, Mom!’ The name slips out without him even needing to think about it.

‘Don’t ever be sorry for that, Elijah. I’m not. And, it wasn’t so bad—the suppressors dampened some of it.’

‘Suppressors!’ Elijah leaps to his feet, almost shouting as relief washes over and through him. ‘You can still get them here, can’t you? I’ll take on the suppressors again—I don’t care if they have side effects or whatever. Anything’s better than—’’

Deira’s face denies him that fix even before he can complete the thought, and he knows already his biology is to blame yet again.

‘That’s another of the things Meilin was going to tell you, honey. You’ve been on those hells-begotten things far too long already. A Were should have at least one natural heat before ever taking them—we do use them, even here, but it’s far from ideal. They’re usually only taken to facilitate interaction with Normals, and off-planet. Meilin thinks you could have a severe allergic reaction—which is rare because were-healing can fix almost anything. But when it does happen, it’s usually fatal.’

Elijah thumps back down on the couch again, hard. Whichever way he turns, he just can’t catch a break with this omega thing.

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Chapter Text

When the Lunar Express arrives at Spaceport to collect him, Sean is well aware it is less a gentle reminder from his father—Time you came home, son!—than a command from the Alpha Prime of all Calia—Return, Sean—stat!

He acquiesces, of course. Not because he has given up hope—he is still desperate to find Elijah. He simply cannot see what more he can do, and lingering here to pressurize the SCSS is currently getting him nowhere.

From the beginning he chivvied Collar-tabs and his staff every step of the way through the investigations at the Seven Moons, across the Pleasure Dome itself and at Spaceport, too. He practically forced them—again exploiting his status and connections—to probe into the recent activities, financial affairs and current whereabouts of the other auction participants. All to no avail—Collar-tabs’ most rigorous procedures came up empty.

Further investigation of the elusive technician proved equally fruitless. No connection could be found between him and any of the names on Collar-tabs’ list. Which—Sean reminded himself—was not necessarily proof of anything whatever, given the ease with which the tech had erased his very existence from Space Central’s comprehensive memory banks.

Nor is there any record of Elijah’s birth planet. His original owner clearly bribed the go-between to omit all data other than the necessary details of purchase and price paid. This is almost standard practice on those planets where slavery is not actually legal, and such go-betweens are notoriously evasive when it comes to the tracing of their acquisitions.

He cannot even hope to free the Were dam he assumes is still out there somewhere, though he resolves to meet with Coren. Apologies duly presented, Sean intends to quiz him on exactly how he tracked down one lone beta amid a plethora of possible planets—and how he managed her rescue. He also proposes to find out how the half-breed cub is coping in Were society. It cannot be easy for him or her to be dropped into a close-knit community like Shining Lake.

With no new leads and Collar-tabs annexed to other, more urgent cases, there is nothing more Sean can do on Space Central. His departure is unlikely to affect the hunt for Elijah, no matter how reluctant he may be to leave the only place he ever saw his true-mate—though hopefully not the last.

A homeward trip is usually a cheerful thing. Mission completed and paperwork filed, there are long leisure hours filled with tall tales and games of skill or chance. There are occasional raucous evenings of song amid a crew who possess quite reasonable voices, despite the small complement of Pack whose wolves tend to thwart their human counterparts’ attempts at singing.

This trip is different. For the most part Sean sequesters himself in his quarters, ostensibly working on strategies for further co-operation among far-flung Packs. He does that too, but he spends an almost equal amount of time staring blankly at the huge wall screen, at Elijah’s beautiful face, lost entirely to the dance.

Perçuile provided entire vid chips in the point of sale documentation, but Sean cannot bear to watch such sensuous movement when his skin is already crawling with need. All he truly has left of Elijah is his scent and even that is fading from the discarded shirt and pants Sean commandeered from his dressing room back at the Seven Moons of Sycorial.

The last traces of their mate may be fading even to Sean’s heightened sense of smell, but its effect on his wolf is still powerful. Alone and with the doorlock fully engaged, he strips to let his other half free—free to curl and twist and squirm in and on the fabric. Scent-rolling in his mate’s absence, Sean knows it quite well—staking his claim here as if he can somehow mark Elijah as theirs, wherever he may be and whomever he may be with. Given a normal Pack claiming, their alpha and omega scents would already have melded to the base note of a mated pair. As it is…

When his wolf’s cock slips free of its sheath to rut in earnest, Sean rapidly shifts back to his human form before the overriding need to fuck—even into cloth—can supplant every other thought in his head. Scent-rolling is one thing. Messing up his last precious relics of Elijah is quite another.

He buries his nose in the pants, wildly fisting himself—his own need and his wolf’s a sharp and mutual yearning that can never be fully satisfied no matter how many times he comes, carefully not marking what cannot be washed.

Perçuile has also provided a further and entirely different chip, this one guaranteed to completely abort Sean’s desire if he lets himself remember what it contains.

A self-congratulatory spiel sets out the meticulous preparation involved in producing the Rama-Nettorian Élite. It dictates so many aspects of their eventual ‘profession’, Sean wonders if they were ever allowed time simply to be themselves. An itemized analysis of the ‘programs’ Elijah followed shows his grades from a lifetime of training—all of them in the High to Excellent range. Sean has accessed this chip only once.

The Élite are trained to provide intellectual stimulation to their owners as well as physical. Elijah’s mastery of currently relevant political systems is apparently without equal for one of his age. This is Sean’s own area of expertise. He hopes Elijah, when found, may not have had enjoyment of such discussion ‘trained’ right out of him.

His purely cerebral education proves to have been quite exemplary, his grades more than acceptable and easily equating to college level on Calia. Of the performance arts he excels in music, dance, and the ceremonial etiquette of a comprehensive range of intergalactic cultures. Beyond such commendable pursuits, however…

Sean’s stomach lurched, interested perusal becoming rapid skim, then cursory glance. He had to give up in disgust when Elijah’s Skills in Regard to the Sexual Requirements of Multi-Form Beings were evaluated in complete and nauseating detail.

Kas’ semi-serious, can-you-believe-this revelations on their way to the Seven Moons that night, had floated in one ear and out the other, and Sean had believed very little of what he caught. This chip is evidence that Kas barely knew the half of it.

Recalling Kas’ curiously atypical obsession with Elijah, Sean can’t help but think Best keep an eye on him when we go visit! before deciding Kas must come to Calia instead. If—when—he gets Elijah back, he prefers that Elijah shall never again set foot within a few hundred light years of Nico with the fancy name.

He resents that the oily bastard will go on making vast profits out of grooming and selling people. And setting aside his major contribution of five million credits, how many times over the years has Sean contributed to the success of the Seven Moons of Sycorial—visiting the damned place with Kas, when all the while Elijah was locked away in the Rama-Nettorian facility? He can’t help feeling angry with fate for not bringing them together sooner—much sooner, for Elijah’s sake.

Inevitably, Sean frets that other avenues of enquiry may have been missed, pummeling his brain to think what else might have been explored. He knows Elijah did not escape alone—surely more could have been made of the female domestic from the Rama-Nettorian facility that disappeared with him?

Collar-tabs had early dubbed her a mere pawn in the affair, fully expecting her to be spaced within days if not hours. However, no such remains had been found by the retrieval ’bots that patrol local space to preserve the sensibilities of Space Central’s sybaritic, window-owning minority. Sean has never even had a name for her, but he hopes her fate has been far kinder than that.

He finds himself both irritated and impressed by the rapid return of that priceless jeweled collar and its accompanying cythlin chains, despite the fact that it highlights Niconet Perçuile’s ill-gotten gains. Their appearance on the open market might have provided a solid lead. That audacious, almost scornful rejection was a shrewd move on the part of the one who also anonymized the aircar that whisked the escapees away.

Nonetheless, Sean prefers to think of it as a mark of scrupulous honesty on Elijah’s part. Either that or a symbolic shaking of very expensive dust from his shoes—a gesture that scorned to steal, even from the man who stole his entire childhood from him.

Perhaps it was all of those things, but it still left no trail to follow.

Two disabled tracking chips were found within the service corridors of the Pleasure Dome. There was even security vid of the aircar that paused to spit them out—all identifying marks removed, of course.

Further sightings must be all conjecture, due to the mysterious malfunction of seemingly random—though on examination quite significant—surveillance devices between the Pleasure Dome and the probable point of embarkation. With many such failures also scattered throughout Spaceport itself, it proved impossible to firmly attach suspicion to any one area or departing ship.

And as plentiful and as motivated as Collar-tabs’ agents there had been, no couple or trio of questionable provenance figured on any ship’s passenger manifest.

Sean can only hope Elijah is safe, wherever he may be. Preferably still virgin, too, but that is more a hope for Elijah’s safety. Sean will accept whatever he is offered, if he may have him as his mate one day.

The fact that Elijah knew of the attempt in advance is no guarantee that he truly wished to go with their rescuer. In his mind, perhaps, any actual person may be better than some of the beings his ‘lessons’ prepared him to encounter. At least the exceptionally skilled tech—if he was indeed the driver of the aircar, a shape glimpsed briefly on security coverage of the airway where the chips were found—was humanoid in shape.

As much as Elijah has been trained in the many and varied ways of seduction, he has had sexual submission instilled into him even more rigorously. Sean is all too aware that resistance in a slave is 'strongly discouraged' until that slave finally yields in mind and body both. He has more evidence than enough that Elijah has been trained to submit sexually from the day he was old enough to prepare for it.

The second slave, the domestic, must have been involved in the plot, as the one in charge of the Reversant and also of the ‘little something’ Sean knows Elijah did not take before his performance. She is unlikely to offer protection if their rescuer/abductor decides to claim his reward from Elijah against his will.

Sean knows too that he is thinking worst case scenarios to keep his mind from the possibility that Elijah did indeed choose to accompany the one who rescued them—for all the romantic reasons Nylee would approve. Collar-tabs had taken Sean’s ‘new direction’ and found no trace of any such liaison in or around the Seven Moons, however, so Sean has his hopes pinned on Elijah’s heart and mind remaining free, whatever his body may do.

Even if he made that choice, no Normal can truly fulfill Elijah’s needs. When he goes into heat—as he will, and soon enough too, given his age and the final withdrawal of his suppressants—any non-Were must be bewildered and defeated by its intensity. Nor could such a one ever hope to satisfy the omega’s burning desire for an alpha knot, leaving Elijah’s wolf to howl disconsolately for its acknowledged mate. Then, he may indeed be found offering himself in the streets—a honeyfall for all who pass by.

And if he shifts into Were form—among Normals or not—what then? He will more than likely end up once again in the power of some unscrupulous individual with a keen eye to the profit he undoubtedly represents.

Yet another thing to worry about, when Elijah could be anywhere in the galaxy by now, and with anyone at all.

Sean shifts in his seat, unable ever to rest completely these days. Part of him hopes Elijah may feel this same clawing need beneath his skin, the rest knows the suppressants will take care of that too, for the time being. Whether he will feel it when they are completely out of his system, Sean has no idea.

He should not wish it on Elijah, this persistent thrumming, tingling, burning—he cannot find words strong enough to fully encompass his physical longing, let alone the constant, bereft whimper of the wolf inside. He can’t help it, though. He wants Elijah to feel it, maybe only a bit and for a little while. He needs to believe the longing for a true-mate is not his alone—that Elijah may be missing him, even if he doesn’t know who, or even why.

They say it’s a glorious feeling when it is all anticipation of the mating that will take you places neither of you has ever known before. Perhaps it is—Sean would not know.

But when it lingers under your skin the whole frakking time and nothing short of the strongest suppressant drug will ease it even a bit, it is little short of torture. A continuous, uncompromising hurt Sean knows will be with him lifelong, if he fails to find Elijah.

Not for nothing is he Alpha Son and Heir, however. By the time he is finally back on Calian soil and facing his sire, he has learned to subdue his searing need. The pain is no less piercing but he is able now to set it aside when there are matters to which he really must attend.

‘So, Sean, you return home at last.’

The Alpha sits behind his desk and his tone is not encouraging. Sean vividly remembers how it feels to be a cub caught out in some misdemeanor.

‘Yes, sir.’ The way to respond to an obvious statement is with another, though not a trace of Sean’s rueful acknowledgement of the fact makes it onto his face. He knows there is no room for humor in what he has to confess here.

‘And?’ The single brow goes up. It’s an inherited trait, Anira has always insisted proudly. Not only do he and Mac have it, but the eldest of her cubs is showing signs of twitch there, too.

Sean knows what an effective tool it can be. He does not appreciate having it turned back on him as his father continues, ‘I assume there was some vital reason for you to remain at Space Central. I was under the impression that R&R was to be taken while supplies were obtained and refueling completed, and that you would then return forthwith to report in person on the progress of negotiations with the Aubretii Packs.’

He attempts to excuse his lapse, feeling even more like an errant cub. ‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry about that, but Gress must have forwarded my report, already filed in full.’

‘Admirably so, as always, but I prefer to discuss your impressions in person and at their freshest, as you well know. Also, it would have been polite to welcome Coren and his mate aboard and back into the Pack—though I approve, of course, of the speed with which you dispatched the Lunar Express beyond any danger of recall. What I should like to know is why you were not on it.’

‘I know, sir, and I am truly sorry for all of that. But—’ Sean cannot keep it to himself any longer, ‘—but, Dad, I found my omega!’

For this singular piece of news the Alpha elevates both brows, then flicks an ostentatious glance over Sean’s shoulder. ‘An omega who, it seems, adds invisibility to her undoubted attractions!’ He is laughing, though, coming forward to hug his son. ‘Congratulations, at long last! Well, where is she? Not in pup already? Anira will be ecstatic!’

He takes in Sean’s very much less than ecstatic expression, then. ‘What? What has happened to her?’

‘It’s not—it’s not that simple. He isn’t a her—and I’ve lost him!’

There is a resounding pause—which feels to Sean a lot like blame—before the Alpha strides toward the drinks dispenser.

‘A male omega, Sean—and you have lost him? How can you possibly have lost someone so precious?’ He keys for two stiff measures and hands one to Sean. ‘Drink up—you look as if you need it. Sit down and tell me all.’

‘He was a slave. I bought him but he managed to escape before I even got to speak with him,’ he says baldly, flinging himself onto the wide couch.

Alpha Prime comes to a momentary standstill before taking his usual chair. ‘An omega slave?’

Those three short words hold all Sean’s own reaction to such enslavement. Revulsion at the mere thought. Hatred for those who would take anyone, let alone such a treasure, from home and Pack, and seek to control him. Distress for what the omega must have suffered. There’s more too, but Sean can’t quite put his finger on it yet.

‘My wolf knew him at once, though he was suppressed enough that the slave dealer could not have known he is Were—it would have been a very different auction if he had.’

‘This is—most unusual, Sean. Your wolf recognized and claimed his mate, even suppressed as he was? Scarcely a traditional beginning to an omega mating, though I quite see the impetus. Go on.’

Sean describes Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian and his Élite, his deplorable system of raising child slaves to be perfect courtesans, and the grand auction held each time one of them purportedly comes of age at sixteen.

Much as Sean expects the fury in his father’s face at the sordid details of Perçuile’s business practices, there seems a tad less of the worry for a missing omega than Sean would think is called for.

‘Five million credits? You certainly know how to value your mate, Sean! But you did rightly, mate or no, for one who is Were and omega too.’

Sean is both relieved and a little miffed. He had expected more of the raised brow at the amount and less of the calm acceptance. There is even a half smile, however quickly it smoothes away. Yes, it is good to know his omega exists at last, but his disappearance is surely little short of a tragedy, for the wider Pack as well as for Sean himself.

But the Alpha is all business again now. ‘And you left matters in the hands of the authorities back there?’

Sean’s nod is dispirited. His return to Calia is in itself tacit recognition of the fact that Elijah has escaped him to some other world, where slim is probably the most tactful word for the odds on finding him. ‘For all the good it does. I don’t know where else to look, Dad!’ His voice breaks on the admission, but he can’t be ashamed of it.

His father’s response surprises him. ‘Well, for the moment, there is little that can be done, though I may have an idea or two, come the morning. For now, son, you need to relax—you’re wound tighter than an infinity momentum coil! Tonight, let us just enjoy having you home again.’

He sounds almost jovial, and Sean is both puzzled and rather disappointed. Yes, he has been away a good bit longer than usual but still, for his dad to be this cheerful? It must be the discovery that his seemingly unmateable son has actually managed to find a mate at last, even if he has—temporarily, Sean hopes—mislaid him.

‘Come on—come see Anira and the pups. Mac and Mira will be over later with theirs. You’ll be amazed how much they have grown. They seem to put on a paw’s breadth between one visit and the next!’

It is good to be home, though seeing his father and litter brother with their mates only serves to rub in the fact that Sean ought to have had a mate of his own to bring home and introduce to the family. Elijah might even have been in pup himself by now, what with the withdrawal of his suppressants possibly bringing him into an early heat for his Alpha, and all that leisure time aboard the Lunar Express for things other than card games and singing.

It might be a bit previous of him to be thinking this way—considering they barely know each other—but Sean really wants a family of his own and soon. He can only hope Elijah will, too. He watches the two sets of parents and tries not to feel envious.

The early part of the evening is the best, when he gets to play with the small pack of pups—Mac and Mira’s three and his parents’ twins. Danel, Sean’s half-brother and Anira’s eldest, is away at college of course, but Salya and Garren, the two middle cubs are here. They are more reserved, trying to be all grown up until they see Uncle Sean disappear beneath a pile of pups. First Garren and then his sister pile on board and the scrum becomes a free-for-all of flailing arms and legs with at least one long plumy tail waving, and several stubby short ones on plump little butts, wiggling in triple time.

Later, when the pups are asleep, tucked away in the nursery with Alpha and Omega Prime on watch, the rest of the family shift. Neither of Calia’s moons is at the full but few of her wolves need their pull for what is innate.

Despite missing his mate, Sean’s wolf is elated to be set free again at last, prancing and whirling to greet each of the Packmates who have heard he’s home, tumbling and rolling with the strength of their welcome. Bounding beside them, then racing against them and eventually revisiting all the places he loves most on their home range.

He hasn’t run on paws in far too long—the loose and easy lope that covers more ground in less time than ever his human form could manage. Other packs on other worlds are quite generous with territory in which visitors may run and hunt. He accepts what is offered, of course, but Sean is not a follower and accompanying his host across that pack’s domain is not his wolf’s idea of freedom.

Running wild with his mate by his side would be the ideal for both of them, but that seems less and less likely now.

So he outruns all others in the end, even Mac. Toward dawn he pads more slowly, picking his way carefully over loose and broken shale to the top of Stark Point. From here, the Pack’s territory stretches for klicks in every direction—virgin forest, hospitable hillsides and seemingly endless plains. He sits there alone, howling his distress and need to the indifferent skies.

Next morning he presents himself before his father once again, hoping to hear some exceptionally clever plan for discovering Elijah’s whereabouts, summarily retrieving him and possibly punishing Niconet Perçuile to boot. He is both disappointed and a little annoyed—though he tries not to show it—when the Alpha gets straight down to Pack business.

‘Some of the contacts you made could well be of interest to Alpha Sylis at Shining Lake—you should go see him today. It’s a while since you visited any of the outer Packs, and it would be more courteous than a holo-call.’ This is the Alpha Prime, not Sean’s father, speaking.

‘And while you are there, you really should drop by Deira and Coren’s place—ask how she and her cub are settling in to pack life, and so on. Deira has been gone so long, it must feel strange to her—even more so for a cub who has known no other home than a space station.’

Despite the smile, Sean can tell this is less an option than an order, but he would not refuse if he could. He still carries more than a little guilt for leaving Coren and Deira to Nylee and Gress’s care for their home-coming. As Son and Heir it had been his duty to welcome them, though he hopes Deira at least may consider the finding of a mate reason enough for forgiveness.

Sean’s skimmer is a much faster, sleeker vehicle than most people can afford, but he doesn’t exactly have a family of his own yet to expend his credits on. He’s also a bit of a nut about what he flies, if truth be told, though that may have to change in the future—he hopes.

The glossy black ALV cost far too much, really, but he loves its sleek lines, its sharp maneuverability and the speed that can far exceed his wolf’s—or that of any other skimmer, come to that. It makes nothing of the many klicks between the Calia Prime Residence and Shining Lake. The morning is all bright sun and blue sky, and Sean is feeling better than he has in all the months he’s been away, save for the rasp of need beneath his skin.

He swoops down from the north, low over the water, retracting the canopy to breathe the sweet fresh air and at once his wolf jolts from semi-somnolence to full alert inside him.

Even Sean’s human ears feel to prick forward as his nose picks up tendrils of a scent he has met for real only once—that he would recognize anywhere. At its heart is the meld he will always know as Elijah, but changed and purified now. Gone are the top notes of stale air and synthetic foods—their sourness all but unnoticeable back then. In their place Calia has set her clean, fresh smell, claiming Elijah for her own as Space Central never could.

It makes no sense that it should be here, somewhere down by Shining Lake, but it is, it truly is—a unique blend that grows stronger with every moment.

To the west of the small community rather than within it, a figure is walking the shore, alone.

His wolf instantly lets fly with the internal equivalent of a furious tail-wagging. His whine is totally different now—all expectation and delight. The roiling need somehow calms and sharpens both at once, and hope blossoms to certainty as the skimmer draws ever nearer and Sean realizes exactly who this is—who it has to be, for no-one else will ever have this wondrous effect on him.

This is Deira’s cub, and her cub is his Elijah.

A flash of annoyance, at being made a fool of, gives way to wry amusement as he realizes no-one on Calia—except his father, since yesterday—could have any idea he even knew Elijah existed, much less that Sean was the one who bought him that night. Alpha Prime had maneuvered Sean into coming out to the lake today precisely so he could find Elijah for himself.

Relief—that Elijah is here and free—becomes shame when he compares the time and care and planning Coren must have put into so complex and daring a rescue. All he did was turn up and flash his retinas to confirm his credit score.

There’s a lingering shame, too, in having actually bought a person, though he would do it again in a hot minute, no matter which Were needed his help. He had known nothing of a planned rescue—he must have words with Coren about that at some point, for not trusting him enough—and had truly believed there was no other way.

He would have bid to keep any Were from slavery that night, but he could never have sat quiet to watch Elijah displayed for all to see. All he knew right then was the call of his mate. He answered it the best way he could, but still it was not he who brought Elijah home to Calia.

Yet, here he is, at last.

Hope unfurls into anticipation and all the tantalizing allure of a promise.

Sean grins. It’s so much better this way, he decides. After all the time he wasted on Space Central, one extra night of missing his mate on Calia was neither here nor there—not when Elijah is home and safe despite all.

Elijah’s fellow escapee was Deira, of course, and the faceless driver no rival but Coren—which Sean would have known if only he had returned to the Lunar Express as he should have, to see the reunited family on their way. He could have spared himself months of physical and emotional anguish, so in a perverse sort of way it really serves him right.

The skimmer touches down a little way in front of Elijah. Sean finds himself, for one ridiculous moment, half-expecting the collar and chains and floaty stage costume Elijah was wearing the last time he saw him—the only time he has seen him for real. But that was Nico Perçuile’s idea of a wet dream for the slave-owning wealthy of whatever species.

This is Sean’s, though. This young man wearing shirt and pants, with boots instead of bare feet, sleeves rolled up and no jewelry in sight. He looks older, more mature somehow, than in the holos Sean has of him. More secure in himself, perhaps, and less conditioned by who and what he was trained to be.

The hair is brutally short now, shining curls all sacrificed—at Elijah’s insistence, no doubt. He can’t imagine any mother wanting her son practically scalped like that when he has such beautiful—

Sean remembers the implications of Elijah’s slavery and abandons the thought.

It suits him, anyway, though this is a sharper, more sculptural beauty. Sean is more than happy to abandon fantasies of his fingers threading glossy dark curls in favor of others that promise Elijah’s skull curving warm into the palm of his hand. Soft and firm at once, with only the hint of hair to set him alight with its subdued riffle across sensitive skin.

He slides out of the ALV as confidently as he can, grateful he doesn’t actually fall flat on his ass as Elijah comes closer. Sean has to stop himself echoing his wolf’s internal reaction—front legs on the ground, ass and tail waving frantic circles in the air. The excited yip, he thinks, came from both of them. He hastily turns his into a cough.

And, really? Elijah could paint his head scarlet and stick cotton balls over it for all Sean would care, as long as he’s here, but he is as beautiful as ever this way. Without any distraction from a fall of silky hair, the curve of his jaw is perfectly seen, the straight and elegant nose, the smooth downward slope of his neck—and the eyes seem wider and even more blue, if that were at all possible.

Sean doesn’t even try to deceive himself that—wolf call aside—he doesn’t have it bad already for the mate he has not even met properly as yet.

Elijah may take some convincing, however. Right now, he is clearly not feeling the mateminenowmateclaim that everything in Sean is practically vibrating with.

Brows that were so finely plucked in his other life are growing in. They’re stitched together here in a thunderous frown, while a shiver visibly runs through him.

‘Who are you,’ he demands indignantly, ‘and does that fancy black ride of yours have a force field or something that’s making me feel all weird like this?’advanced web statistics

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‘Who are you, and does that fancy black ride of yours have some kind of force field making me feel all weird like this?’

Spots of high color suddenly burn on Elijah’s cheeks. He freezes, realizing what he just said—what he has just done. He doesn’t even know where it came from, but he has been incredibly rude to almost the worst person he could have chosen. Pure reaction rather than any choice, of course, but the result’s the same, and nothing good is likely to come of it.

Elijah had not slept well, kept awake by something teasing at the very edges of his mind—too persistent to ignore and too nebulous to identify. He was already cranky when Coren mentioned at breakfast that the Almighty Son and Heir would be visiting today. He really didn’t see why he should stick around for it.

After all, this was the guy who couldn’t even be bothered to interrupt his vacation amid the fleshpots of Space Central for a measly hour or two, to come congratulate Deira on her escape. Or maybe Deira and Coren both, on their success in reclaiming their son and depriving Nico Perçuile—or rather, that son’s new ‘owner’—of the now very ex-slave. This visit is too little, too late.

Elijah ignored the first low swoosh of an approaching skimmer. A curved approach over the water was quite usual, swinging in to head straight for Shining Lake’s admin block or the office of Alpha Sylis Rayt. It took him a minute or two to connect the weird feeling rapidly overtaking him with the sound of that particular skimmer getting ever closer. By the time it landed almost in front of him, his suspicion was more than justified.

He was abruptly on edge, not knowing what he should do next, only that he needed to do something—fight or flight or…or something. The fine hairs rose on his arms and the back of his neck, threads of electricity flickering from one to the next until his very skin seemed afire with it. He has the oddest sense of vibration inside him, too. He has felt this before, he thinks—a snapshot of memory flashes briefly through his mind but is gone before he can grasp it.

He would never have committed such a breach of protocol if it were not for that peculiar sensation, really he wouldn’t.

For one terrible moment he is back there again—young and cold and frightened inside, trying frantically to remember what the punishment is for verbal insolence.

The vibration sharpens, snatching him back to the present as the Alpha comes closer. He doesn’t look angry, though—he looks…Elijah can’t quite define how he looks.

Partly as smug as the proverbial cat that got the little bird, bright feathers escaping its mouth—except maybe he shouldn’t be comparing a wolf to a cat? Partly he looks about how Elijah feels right now—all shimmery inside and out, sharp and alive and needy all at once, like something’s going to explode if he—if…he…

Oh no…of all the Seven Hells of Sycorial!

Elijah knows what this is—what it has to be. His wolf—that has a mind of its own and won’t listen to him at all when he tries to communicate with it, however the hell that’s supposed to work, and that definitely won’t shift for him—that wolf is well and truly awake at last.

It is awake and reacting to the wolf inside a man Elijah has never even seen before.

This is not the raised-hackles feeling he got when he bowed his head for Ferdek’s greeting, though. This is more a kind of unfurling inside, like rousing after a long sleep, yawning and stretching—a full-body shake and then a rigid stance, ears pricked forward, snout raised, maybe whining a little in Elijah’s head as it…

…as it sends out its Seven Hells mating call.

Frakkit.

Oh, yes—his wolf is finally and fully awake at last. For all it has been dormant for so long, it is practically dancing in circles now. Somehow, as ridiculous as it sounds, Elijah feels as if its fur is brushing the inside of his skin—a flickering pulse that’s almost electric. Deira never mentioned that his wolf could make him feel like this.

Far from calling him on his lack of manners, the Alpha is staring as if Elijah is going to disappear or something. He has the most beautiful eyes—a shimmer of gold through green, Elijah thinks before he can help it. Before he can squelch the thought and his wolf’s exuberant appreciation along with it.

Alpha Sean comes closer still. Elijah doubts this is a good idea, but he knows he must stand for the formal greeting and allow himself to be held in return. The hands on his shoulders, he realizes, are trembling almost as much as his own.

‘Alpha Sean, Son and Heir of Calia Prime Pack.’ It comes out hoarse and low. When Elijah gives his own affiliations—though not his actual status—he hears that same rasp echo through his words.

It is a good thing there is no-one else about, because the energy crackling between them as their foreheads meet would likely be visible for klicks around—higher and even brighter when the Alpha’s cheek brushes firm against his own. Elijah cannot say for sure, what with his own eyes being tight shut, but there is a tangible something in the air around them—between—them here.

It’s happening inside him, too—the jubilant shatter of a thousand sparks, lighting him up like never before.

This man he has only just officially met has set his internal wolf rolling and frisking like a pup in need of attention. Except, he can feel even now that the kind of attention his wolf is begging for is a long way from anything appropriate for a pup.

‘Omega Elijah…’ The Alpha’s tone is almost reverent, but Elijah is too hung up on the title to notice it much.

This is the only the second time anyone other than his mom or another omega has recognized it in him. Lissy’s advanced pregnancy somehow ramped up her sensitivity so she knows what he is, but other Weres are not supposed to realize till he comes into heat. Deira and Meilin both told him so—promised him so. He’s a special case, because of being suppressed for so long, they think—the same way he is unable to shift at will like any other cub his age.

Alpha Prime knows too, of course—he has some kind of hyper-perception that Meilin says manifests only in the Alpha Prime. Calia’s Packs are his to rule because of that and other stuff she didn’t tell him about. Evidently his Son and Heir has it all, too.

‘No!’ he says forcibly, and is not sure if the answering whine is his wolf, Alpha Sean’s, or the man himself. Or possibly all three at once—just, not Elijah.

Oh, no—not Elijah. He won’t.

Without another thought he turns and runs, heading into the trees, hoping they will hinder any attempt the Alpha might make to follow him in the skimmer, if not on four paws.

Running free—as in, not on strictly calibrated equipment—is yet another thing Elijah never did before he came to Calia. He has grown to love it—the freedom to speed or slow, to stray from the path or simply stop whenever he decides and not because his allotted time is up. Turns out, he can be quite fast over the ground when he wants to.

More than the speed, though, he likes the way running takes him out of himself. The way it helps him let go everything for a while to the pounding rhythm of his feet—the fresh air of his beautiful home planet flooding his lungs, and the warmth and brightness of a real sun surrounding him.

For much the same reason he clings to the calming rhythm of the dance exercises he still performs each day. He tried leaving them behind with every other reminder of his slavery, but without them he soon became restless, in mind and body both. They have become a part of him, but more than that, practicing and perfecting their excellence is for him alone, now.

He hears no sound of pursuit and hopes Alpha Sean—having spent the last few months in space travel—will be as out of shape as he was when they first landed. Then he groans aloud, remembering that fit as he may be, there is no way he can hope to outpace a wolf on his own two feet, if Sean wolfs out to chase him.

Running away won’t solve a thing, he chides himself, but a guy can hope, can’t he?

He keeps on going anyway, ignoring his wolf’s complaint and the part of him that feels like he is being ripped in two. Ignoring that he is the one doing the ripping.

By the time he is forced to stop at last, breathless and panting, he knows for sure that he’s not being followed. Even over the pounding of his heart, wolf senses tell him no-one is coming after him. The fact that he still feels just as torn is also a pretty big clue. He wants to go back and he really doesn’t—both at once.

His wolf is so thoroughly awake—aroused? Elijah stomps on the fleeting thought—that he’s pretty sure if he lets himself think about it right now, he’ll be able to shift at last. And he is very sure he knows where that would land him too, given his wolf’s enthusiasm here.

He refuses to do it, actually tells his wolf no, and it isn’t pleased with him at all. Yet another novel kind of weirdness—arguing with something intangible inside you. He has studied enough variant physiology to know it can’t really be there, and yet it is because he can feel it—also, exactly how not pleased with him it is, right now.

Abruptly the trees fall back and he finds himself in a small clearing. Through the center runs a wide stream that burbles its way between stones that let him cross dry-shod. He sags against the nearest tree then, sliding down to sit in the leaf litter at its base— knees drawn up, arms folded around them.

The tree is old, its bark gnarled and fissured at his back. Its canopy is sparse as yet, new leaves slow in coming through and still little more than coppery-green nubs. Something in him already recognizes that fresh green-brown mix—but he is not going to think about that.

Setting aside color blends and their unwelcome implications, Elijah notices the lengthening shadows. He realizes he must have been running for a while—the sun is way past midday already. He hasn’t the least idea where he is amid all this natural forest. He has seen local maps and knows the trees on this side of Shining Lake go on for klick after klick after klick.

Logically, though, if he just follows the water downstream toward the lake, he can head home along the shore.

It is a bit late to be thinking logically, he considers now. The time for logic was back there, when he stood facing the man whose wolf has gotten his newly-wakened wolf so…yes, so damnably aroused.

He should have offered his No politely but firmly—thus proving he has had good manners instilled into him, despite earlier evidence to the contrary. He should have thanked the Alpha for his wolf’s interest and then… and then he should simply have continued his stroll back home for lunch. Yes, that is exactly what he should have done.

So, why didn’t he?

Elijah has no idea. He only knows he had to get out of there—out of the Alpha’s presence—before his wolf pushed him into doing something irretrievable.

Though he has this sinking feeling it may be a bit late for that too, and the irretrievable may have happened already without even consulting him.

Fact is, he doesn’t have to accept the Alpha as a mate, no matter what his wolf may be actively begging for. Well, he doesn’t if his mom’s take on the situation is accurate. He wonders for a second if what she told him was even true, and then wants to hit himself upside the head for doubting her after all she’s done for him, all she gave up over so many years.

She could simply have come home with Coren—Elijah knows it. He’s heard from other Pets, of mothers who neither abandoned their child nor had it torn from their arms, but actively sold him or her. Deira could have been like them. She could have cried a bit for the pup that was taken from her, dried her tears, and promptly set about getting pregnant with a replacement. She didn’t, and Elijah is so proud of his mom for all she did instead—proud and grateful and so happy to be here.

Sure, the whole Were/Omega/possibility of…of small-and-furry-things-to-come package was a bit of a shock, but it’s not something he can’t work around, one piece at a time.

He’s dealing with the fact of being Were, along with being here. His wolf is finally awake, and he has his first shift to look forward to—or not. He has accepted it will happen sooner or later, though he can’t say it figures high on his wants list.

A second sooner or later experience is a bit harder to take. Coming into heat… Maybe it won’t be as bad as Deira said? Maybe it won’t happen at all?

He knows he’s kidding himself, there. His basic biology isn’t exactly going to change to suit his preference—it proved that to him already.

It is changing, though—has been since he came home. Since his wolf senses kicked in. Smell and hearing, taste and eyesight had been quickly obvious and about the same level as any other Were in human form, as far as he can tell.

Touch though…

The Were in general seem more tactile than would be acceptable on Space Central, where personal space was entered only by request—or on command, of course. He doesn’t think about it much until his skin starts to…not exactly itch, as such. Nothing like the heat sensation Deira described, but it definitely feels different now.

The feeling eases off right away if one of the pups snuggles up against any part of him, skin to skin or not. With the younger cubs, it feels better at once if one of them grabs his hand as they walk. Most older cubs simply ignore The Incomer anyway, and he can live with that.

He reckons the touch thing is just one more weird part of his biology. He doesn’t fight it. He even finds himself seeking it out, until in the end he has to admit to himself—and to no-one else, not even his mom—that he craves casual touch. He never did before.

Soon, he can classify it in ways that have nothing to do with his own skin-hunger. His mom’s is love, warmth and comfort. His dad’s is love too, but along with it comes strength and confidence. Elijah is so proud of them both and grateful for all they have suffered for him, and that’s in there somewhere, too. He could reach out to them in the dark and know either from one fingertip to skin.

From Meilin’s touch he gets something of his mom’s and more, with calm, acceptance, peace woven throughout. He knows that’s what he’ll be able to offer to others in the Pack once he is fully omega.

He is fine with beta touch already—his own Pack’s betas, at least. He knows them well enough now to easily accept the friendly pats and hugs that an omega unwittingly attracts.

As much as he can, he keeps a distance from the alphas. Deira says they won’t identify him until after his first heat, but he is already working with Meilin on projecting the omega thing by voice—never by touch, after the first necessary introduction.

He is still nervous around men to some degree. He knows it is testosterone that makes him edgy—they’re all so damned male. Which is inevitable really, given his years of ‘training’, but this Zen thing he has also reacts to it. He needs that awareness, Meilen says, to turn it back on itself and give them the calm they need from his omega gift.

Sean’s effect on him, though… Sean’s was another thing altogether—awareness to the nth degree. The normal hold-and-brush greeting of an alpha elevated to heights that arouse and excite him the way nothing ever has. From the safety of solitude he can admit that, wolf apart, his reaction to the dreaded testosterone just came dangerously close to a breathless Yes, please!

An anomaly, he tells himself, shoving it as far to the back of his mind as he can.

His gift—the ‘omega effect’, says his research in the encrypted, Were-only memory banks—has been known and envied by Normals for centuries, since the Were and their singular genetic makeup were first revealed. Serious attempts were made to synthesize and modify it for their own use—which failed, given its inaccessible nature. Eventually such efforts were abandoned, lost to the plethora of more attainable goals for research.

Anyway, his gift won’t be all that strong until after his first heat—which he is relying on Deira to help him with, whenever that particular joy of his biology decides to make itself known.

It’s beyond weird that he will go through much the same physical process as his mom—and for the same basic reason—but seemingly it is unavoidable. He knows he can trust her to make it as easy on him as she can.

She and Meilin will be there for him when the omega responsibilities kick in, too. So, it’ll be a little weird to become a sort of walking alpha-pacifier? It’s still a whole lot less weird than some of the other things he would have ended up having to be and to do if Nico Perçuile’s auction had ended the way it was supposed to. Face it—whatever else may yet be thrown at him, Calia is infinitely the better place to be.

He can even deal with his wolf getting angry with him over taking—or in this case not taking—a mate.

His thought processes still skim resolutely away from the small-and-furry part, though.

He doesn’t need more stress on top of all else, especially not from this bossy alter-ego suddenly awake inside him, that seems to think it can give away his new-found freedom to a man and wolf they’ve barely even spoken with.

As tangled up in his head as Elijah is, it’s actually a surprise when the first of the outlying dens come into view above the lakeshore. His home is clearly visible a little way beyond, though the fancy black skimmer is nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t need its presence to tell him Sean is still visiting. He can feel it. The roil beneath his skin gets more intense with every step he takes toward the door.

The wolf inside quivers with anticipation now, yipping little puppy barks in his head, interspersed with the kind of growls and come-get-me whines no pup should ever make.

The over and under skin hi-jinks are all back in force, though the ripped apart feeling is now a taffy-pull in reverse.

This? Is not good.

Elijah knows now would be a good time to summon up the calm, polite and logical refusal he decided on, earlier.

It’s just… somehow, given the keen edge to what is flooding inexorably through him right now, he can’t quite see it working this time, either.

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When Elijah runs, Sean’s instinct—his wolf’s instinct—is to shift and give chase. He suppresses it.

His human half knows all too well that whatever made Elijah flee from him, chasing him is unlikely to fix it. He has no idea what it may take, but for now he has the Alpha’s commission to fulfill. After that he’ll be free to speak with Coren and Deira and perhaps learn the truth of all. Maybe they will know why Elijah fled from him.

Amid all his imaginings of their reunion, Sean has never thought it would go like this—except, for Elijah it was not a reunion at all but their first meeting. He probably needs time to get to know Sean, no matter how well their wolves agree.

That would be fine by Sean, but the look on Elijah’s face and that vehement ‘No!’—they were more than a plea for time. They signaled panic, plain and simple.

For all the months he has been free, does Elijah still not understand claiming—the claim their wolves have made on each other? Does he not have the same need that Sean feels, roiling beneath his skin?

Or has the power exchange inherent in a lifetime of training as a pleasure slave skewed his expectations so badly that he cannot accept the Were concept of loving mates?

Puzzled and hurt, a confused whine constant in the back of his head, Sean returns to his skimmer and continues to the Shining Lake admin center, where he goes through the motions of a meeting with Alpha Sylis Rayt. It is mostly a formal waste of time, of course, since his father sent him here more to find Elijah than to relay his personal take on an off-world mission that was over and done with months ago.

Sean does his best to concentrate even with his wolf practically pacing its way out of him.

He—they—really want to announce to Sylis their hopes for a mate from within his Pack—an omega mate, moreover, and male at that. He doubts Sylis knows what a rarity Shining Lake has in its midst. Wouldn’t he have proclaimed the fact with pride?

Given Elijah’s reaction to his mere presence, however, Sean decides it is not that good of an idea to announce anything as yet, and manages to curb his wolf’s eagerness.

When he catches the glint of amusement in Sylis’s eye, Sean decides he already knows full well the real reason for this visit and is silently enjoying the ruse. He and Alpha Prime were at college together after all, so the disclosure would probably not come as such a surprise to him. Sylis doesn’t mention specifically Elijah, beyond including him in his thanks to Sean for enabling a swift escape from Space Central for the fugitive family, so Sean holds his tongue.

Unable to refuse Beta Kushi’s offer of hospitality once the business part of his visit is concluded, it is mid afternoon before he can take a polite leave. By the time he can make his way through the small settlement on foot with an amiable nod to those he passes, he is so wound with anticipation that in truth he barely registers their existence.

He is confused. His wolf is even more emphatic that Elijah is his mate now than at the auction, and it is clear that Elijah’s wolf is unsuppressed at last and equally eager to return his call. Why, then, did Elijah run?

Or, more tellingly, why would he run the wrong way? Sean cannot remember ever to have heard—in story or vague legend among any of the Were he has visited—of anyone who fled from a mate when their wolves had called and answered.

But then, he has never actually heard of a Were who was enslaved throughout his formative years and then freed, either. Could years of suppression—maternal first and then chemical—somehow have damaged the connection between Were and wolf?

It is a tribute to Beta Deira’s love and strength that she could keep him safe, knowing what must happen to her—and worse, to her child—had the despicable Nico Perçuile ever discovered what Elijah truly is. But even a natural inhibitor might have deleterious effects over the long term. The eventual addition of Passivar, Docillan, or whatever else the Élites’ regime dictated, can only have added to that. He knows Elijah must have been checked out by competent Were healers since he came home, but still he wonders.

The door to Deira and Coren’s den stands open to the day. Sean pauses for a few deep breaths before speaking his request for admittance to the screen.

Deira comes out to formally welcome him into her home, bringing him into the great room, offering a seat and his choice of refreshment. Sean accepts coffee. He neither needs nor wants it, only the respite of time taken to provide it—which is the excuse of cowardice, he realizes. He gets up and follows her into the sunny kitchen.

‘I have come to apologize in person for my failure to greet you back on Space Central—which I do, most humbly,’ he says at once. She waves him to a seat at the table and sets a mug before him.

‘I am sure you had more pressing business to attend to that night, Alpha.’ Deira’s words are polite but the delivery is clipped and a good deal less than cordial. It is as close as a beta may come to criticism of the Alpha Son and Heir.

It riles Sean who, at the time, had—mostly—been trying to keep her son from a fate no Were should ever be subjected to.

‘What I was doing, Beta Deira, was organizing the search for your son,’ he says, a little clipped in return, remembering his sharp desperation that night.

‘That must have been far more—You were what? I’m sorry, Alpha, I don’t—’

Sean interrupts her, losing the attitude, because what he has to tell isn’t exactly how he wants Elijah’s mother to think of him.

‘No, I’m the one who should be sorry and believe me, I am. The truth is…the truth is, it was I who—who bought Elijah at that damned auction,’ he says, watching her expression change but hurrying on with his confession nonetheless, wanting her to understand the whole.

‘I was invited to participate solely because Perçuile heard I was visiting Space Central and judged me sufficiently wealthy to warrant the ‘courtesy’.’

Sean’s grimace at such motivation is not enough to keep Deira from thinking…well, exactly what her face so clearly says she is thinking right now.

He lifts his hands in the universal no harm gesture, and hastens to explain. ‘I promise you, Deira, I had no intention whatever of bidding. I only went along because Kas—the friend I was with—wanted…he really wanted to be there, since it was to be such a big occasion…’

There is honesty, and there is informing a mother that his friend was present that night simply in order to lust after her son. Sean knows where to draw the line between.

It is not Kas’ dubious motivation in question here, anyway, and Sean is well aware of that.

‘Even before the dais brought him fully into view, I knew Elijah was Were—and omega. For that alone I could not allow him to be sold, so I ended the auction as fast as I could—the only way I could. I bid high enough to deter any counter-bid. That accursed slaver couldn’t believe his luck, which is the only regret I have—except that I then had to spend the rest of the night in search of Elijah, not knowing into whose hands he may have fallen. I could not have known you and Alpha Coren were the ones who freed him so handily. If I had—believe me, I’d have been back on the Lunar Express asap!’

He sees shame for misdoubting him overtake the disapproval in her face, and rushes on before she can express her gratitude for his attempt—or maybe an apology for having canceled out such an expensive gesture?

‘Why didn’t Coren contact me beforehand? I would have helped—I’d have done any and everything in my power. But you have to know that, although I would have done the same for any Were, what happened that night was more selfish than that, Deira,’ he pauses for a breath before the final admission. ‘I…my wolf called to Elijah’s the moment I saw him.’

Deira stares at him now, eyes and mouth wide open in surprise. ‘But, Alpha, he isn’t—he doesn’t—are you sure?’

Sure? My wolf has been in a frenzy of loss ever since, and I already feel Elijah well settled beneath my skin, so yes, I am very sure. I know it wasn’t the usual way. His wolf should have called and mine answered, but it didn’t happen like that. I don’t know why and I really don’t care because, whichever way, it happened. I assumed—hoped—it was maybe because his wolf was totally suppressed. It was, wasn’t it? If Perçuile had even the slightest inkling of what Elijah is, there would have been barely the whisper of an extremely private auction before Elijah disappeared without trace and forever.’

Sean realizes he could perhaps have phrased that better when Deira goes so pale he thinks she might faint—not something that often happens among the Were. To his relief, she only slides into a seat at the table. When she gathers herself enough to speak, her voice is not much above a whisper.

‘He was—he had to be—suppressed, from his very first shift as a tiny pup. No-one else saw him that day, and I have never been more thankful for anything in my life—except maybe that we did finally manage to free him in the end. I would never have enforced such a thing on him by choice,’ she says, her expression begging forgiveness for what she did to her son, ‘but I had to keep them from knowing. It was necessary—whatever his ‘training’ required later—to keep him safe from that, at least. It was bad enough he was born a slave. They couldn’t know what else he is and—and—’ She breaks off, unable to complete the thought aloud.

Deira is clearly even more haunted by might-have-beens than Sean. Maybe she always will be—by the horrors Elijah was subjected to and by her deep-seated guilt. Sean has only skimmed the details of Elijah’s mandated ‘curriculum’. He cannot imagine how much it must have hurt to watch her son face the parts that were pure perversion, and yet be completely unable to oppose it for fear of losing him forever.

‘You could do no other, and I thank you for it,’ he tells her, meaning every word. The alternative was too terrible even to think on for long.

Deira takes a deep breath. ‘Physically, he suffered no lasting effects, so the healers say. Freedom and the support of our Omega, Meilin, have done much to heal his mind,’ she says. ‘We have him back, and that is what matters now.’

Sean nods. ‘You and Coren can be very proud of your achievement,’ he pauses for effect, ‘and also for freeing him that night!’ He knows the quip was worth it when the tension in her relaxes. She manages a small smile at his compliments, even losing a fraction of the guilt from her face.

‘Tell me, how did you manage it? Elijah was always intended to make Perçuile a fortune at auction—he must have been well guarded.’

‘He was. Myrin was his own personal protector, the few times Elijah ever set foot outside the facility. I do hope Myrin…’ she adds quietly, almost to herself, and doesn’t finish the thought. ‘I caught him off guard and used his own stunner on him,’ she explains.

Sean recalls Perçuile’s fury when he screamed that the guard should be flogged within an inch of his life, then sent as part of a work tender shipping out to one of the asteroid mining conglomerates. He doubts it actually happened, but Deira doesn’t need to know, either way.

He hears the outer door close behind someone. It has to be Coren, home from his work at the college. He already knows it can’t be Elijah—his wolf would have reacted long before this, had Elijah been so close. But surely he is a long time in returning?

Coren eyes him with much the same polite disdain as Deira did at first. She preempts any greeting, however, let alone what Coren might have to say on the subject of Sean’s past dereliction of duty.

‘Coren—Elijah’s wolf called to the Alpha’s!’

Sean can almost see the turnaround in Coren’s thinking—surprise, relief and approval quickly followed by a glance round and a puzzled frown.

‘Here, today—now? Where is he, then?’

Exactly what Sean would like to know.

‘He…he ran away from me,’ Sean confesses. ‘That was a while ago, by the lake shore—I thought he would be home by now, and we could…’ he shrugs—the helpless what do I do, here kind, ‘we could at least talk about why.’

‘He’s probably visiting with Meilin—they’re very close,’ Deira says, barely hiding a frown at Elijah’s continued absence. ‘I’ll just go check.’

Sean makes a clean breast to Coren of his part in the auction, all the while half-listening to Deira at the deskomm in the adjacent office. He knows Meilin has not seen Elijah at all today even before Deira returns to say so, but he doesn’t understand why both voices would sound so worried. Elijah will have to come home sooner or later, won’t he?

In the meantime, Sean encourages the rescuers to describe how they managed to get Elijah away so quickly and without trace. He still thinks they should have called on the Pack for aid—but then, he has never lived under the pernicious shadow of slavery, never borne their crushing fear of discovery and the loss of all they held most dear.

He is impressed to learn that Coren is the tech whose skills baffled and eluded the experts back on Space Central, and understands Deira’s clear pride in him. If the Shining Lake Pack cannot fully utilize a Were of such talent, Sean knows Alpha Prime will quickly find a niche for him.

Then it is his turn, and he tells again how his wolf knew Elijah from first glimpse, from first scent, even—before Sean ever got to see the whole of him, tricked out as Perçuile’s idea of a dancing wet dream. He doesn’t phrase the last bit quite that way, though he can tell Coren knows exactly what he means.

Coren swipes a thumb down his nose, his brows furrowed. ‘But Elijah’s wolf couldn’t have sent out any call,’ he says. ‘He can’t wolf out even now!’

‘Well, it definitely did today. I have no idea what or how, but something happened between them at the auction—between us. I knew he was Were and my mate even before the damned dais brought him all the way into view.

‘The only thing I am certain of is that my wolf responded to Elijah’s back then, and when I met him by the lake shore today, his wolf was more than happy about it, and mine was totally ecstatic. The only one who doesn’t seem to be, is Elijah himself.’

He knows he sounds a bit pathetic, but he is not Alpha Son and Heir now. He is simply a Were whose wolf believes it has found its true mate after years of empty hope, only for that wolf’s human half to run from him as if in fear.

Deira sighs. ‘There’s something you need to know, Alpha—’

Sean stops her with a raised finger. ‘Sean,’ he contradicts. ‘Your son’s wolf calls to mine—by every Were law and custom, we are family now!’

His new in-laws exchange a look before Coren says, almost apologetically, ‘It may not be so easy, Sean.’

As if Sean hasn’t understood that much already. What he doesn’t understand is why.

‘I told you Elijah hasn’t shifted since that first time as a pup,’ says Deira. ‘He has tried, now we’re safe home—or he says he has. Maybe he believes it, but he is holding back, I’m sure of it. He wants to almost as much as he doesn’t, I think—which makes for a very confused state of mind and wolf, and gets them absolutely nowhere. It’s…he…’ she pauses, looking at Sean as if wondering whether she can trust him with her son’s secrets, before deciding she can. ‘Elijah is scared of giving up control.’

Sean cocks his head, puzzled. ‘So, he thinks—what? That he’ll not be able to shift back again?’

‘Maybe a little of that too, but mostly…’ Deira sighs. ‘I can’t expect you to understand what it is like to be given real choice in your life, Sean, when always before you either obeyed orders—at once and in everything—or you were punished for it. Oh yes, even Elijah was punished, as much as that bastard Perçuile was torn between wanting his profit and wanting my son! The trainers were simply instructed to…to leave no marks.

She stops, revulsion for the man and his entire regime practically radiating off her. ‘I’ll get more coffee,’ she says, and bustles away—hiding her face, Sean can tell, until she can rein back all she’s trying so hard not to show.

‘Here on Calia,’ Coren takes up the explanation, ‘Elijah loves everything his liberty has given him but above all, he cherishes the freedom to make his own decisions. He can choose to go to college or not, an apprenticeship or not. Choose a mating, or…not.’

‘You’re saying he is refusing to accept his wolf’s choice—simply because he can? He won’t shift in case his wolf’s need takes precedence over his refusal—because he’s scared his wolf will seduce him into mating with me and mine?’ Sean is trying to stay calm but he is baffled and hurt. His wolf’s impatient response to such a quixotic rejection doesn’t make it any easier.

But he has lived and breathed Elijah all the way home from Space Central, and Elijah has barely even met him. He can understand that Elijah may need time to get to know him, but it stings that Elijah may intend to refuse him that chance.

‘I think so,’ Deira says, quite brisk again as she returns to set down a mug before each of them. ‘‘Nothing to do with you personally, or your wolf either—just Elijah’s need for control. You have seen what conditions are like on Space Central even for those who are not enslaved. Think about it, Sean—about how many things he’s found with us that he could never know back there. So much that’s new all around him, and on top of that, discovering he is someone else entirely. ’

Sean has not really though of it that way, and maybe he should—but Deira is not finished.

‘Can you imagine the shock of believing you’re a Normal and suddenly finding that you’re not, you’re Were—part of an ethnic group you didn’t even know existed? Not only that, you’re also a male omega, with the status and responsibilities that brings, and—oh, yes, you’re more than likely going to give birth to pups one day.’

It is so not appropriate here and now, but the mere thought of Elijah’s belly growing high and round with their pups makes Sean’s cock twitch in his pants.

Deira’s nose twitches, too. While she doesn’t comment, it’s enough to quell Sean’s quick burst of possessive lust. Coren just grins.

It’s not exactly reassuring to hear all this, but at least Sean can begin to understand why Elijah ran from him. It has nothing to do with Elijah being actively repulsed by him, which is a great relief.

Right after the auction, when Elijah first fled, Sean vowed he would only accept a rejection given face to face. Elijah has done that—but if the ecstatic behavior of Sean’s wolf is anything to go by, wolf and human definitely don’t agree about this mating. Elijah’s wolf, it is clear, is completely onboard with it.

Elijah’s problem, then, is not with Sean as a person. It’s about choice and the fact that he is not allowed to decide for himself. That his wolf nature is trying to override his human half.

Fine. Sean will simply make sure somehow that, if and when Elijah decides to make that choice, Sean is the one he chooses.

‘If his wolf is so sure, Elijah will come around, Sean,’ Deira tells him softly. ‘But right now he needs time to accept who he is and make his own decisions based on that.’

Coren nods agreement. ‘Might be as well not to let him know you were the one that bought him, though.’

‘But I would have done the same for any Were in that situation, and more so for an omega,’ says Sean.

‘You know that and so do I. It does you great credit, but I doubt it will carry any weight with Elijah right now! Best keep it under your fur for a while, okay?’

‘Maybe you could come visit us—often, though not too often. That way you can really get to know each other, and he’ll gradually get used to the idea,’ Deira offers.

Sean has already included that in his rapidly forming plan for a courtship so subtle Elijah will succumb before he even knows it. But, supposing…

‘And if he comes into heat and still doesn’t want to mate? What then?’ Sean asks.

‘Then, we have a problem,’ says Coren, ‘since it’s as much for his or her own safety that an omega normally finds a mate before that ever happens.’

Sean barely hears the cautionary words. He rises to his feet. ‘No,’ he says, ‘now, we have a problem. He is almost here—and so is his heat!’

The roil beneath his skin sharpened to an outright burn even before Elijah’s footsteps drew close. The familiar scent has changed again—now it has a deeper note—more intense and even more alluring, though Sean can tell Elijah is nowhere near full heat as yet.

Coren follows him to the entrance hall, his nose twitching with a different purpose this time. ‘If you say so—I’m not getting it yet. There’s still time to protect him if—’

The door bangs shut behind Elijah, who glares at Sean before flattening his back against the wall beside it. Sean sees in his face that he knows exactly what is happening to him.

Deira begins, ‘Elijah, honey—’

‘You have to leave, and leave now!’ Sean breaks in, wincing when he realizes he has just done exactly what Elijah wouldn’t want from him. He has refused Elijah any choice in this—giving orders as if he already has the right to safeguard a reciprocated mate.

But Elijah only stands there, stricken. When he does speak, the betrayed note in his voice cuts Sean to the quick. Chances are his presence alone brought the heat on now, before Elijah has had time to accept all the changes around him, let alone those within himself.

‘No—I can’t—it’s too soon—too much!’ He lets himself slide down to sit on the floor, arms clutched tight around his knees, his breathing fast and choppy.

Sean’s wolf howls mournfully inside, and it is all Sean can do not to rush over, drag Elijah up into his arms and hold him tight. Only for comfort, as yet, but he knows his touch will ripen Elijah’s scent even faster toward a full-blown heat.

Once that happens, their wolves won’t be content with mere comforting. They’ll do their damndest to start something whether Elijah wants it or not. Sean is pretty sure already that if that happens, Elijah may never forgive either man or wolf.

‘Go pack a few things for the three of you,’ he says, and this time it really is an order, though directed at Deira. To Coren he says, ‘My skimmer is down by admin—bring it. It’s faster than anything you have here.‘ He tosses over the swipe card.

‘Take Elijah right away from Shining Lake, to Cal City. I have a friend there, Dr. Lyall Gethin—PhD, not medical,’ he adds when Deira frowns at the thought of anyone but a Were healer laying hands on her son. ‘He’s a Normal, and the part of the city where he lives is pretty much all Normals. Elijah should be safe there. Is it okay if I use your comm?’

Coren instructs it to accept all Sean’s entries, and then he’s off out the door, fast. Sean ruthlessly suppresses both his own mounting desire and his wolf’s growing glee, flicking his fingers rapidly across the interface. He sends the coordinates of Ly’s apartment building to the skimmer’s auto-nav system, then urgently messages Ly with details of his unexpectedly imminent guests.

‘I’ll speak with him properly as soon as you’re on your way. There’ll be time then to explain exactly why I’m commandeering his home,’ he tells Deira when she rushes back into the entryway carrying several untidily stuffed bags. ‘Don’t worry about anything you’ve forgotten—I’ll have it sent on.’

She has other worries right now. ‘But, Sean—he’s a Normal. He won’t understand why…’ She doesn’t have to say it.

Sean shakes his head. ‘Ly is expert in the field of intergalactic politics—that’s how we met. I’ve known him a long time, and he knows more about the Were than most Normals. He may not fully understand but he won’t pry. He’s a good guy and besides, he owes me a favor. He’ll do this for me—for Elijah.’

Elijah responds to Sean’s use of his name, his eyes turning up to meet Sean’s, their blue clouded with a mix of fear and longing. The hands clasped around his knees show white at the knuckles. Sean isn’t sure if their tight hold is to keep him out or Elijah in.

His scent is heavier already—sweeter, and ever more tantalizing. It’s a siren call and Sean is having real trouble forcing both self and wolf to ignore it.

What Elijah needs least, right now, is for Sean’s wolf to stake its claim—no matter how insistent it becomes, no matter how much it hurts Sean to ignore their need. He swallows and turns away, forcing his mind back to practicalities. He hears the purr of his skimmer settling right outside the door and breathes a sigh of relief.

‘Don’t worry about turning Ly out of his home, either,’ he says as Coren comes back in and hefts the bags from Deira’s hands. ‘The Pack has guest apartments in that part of the city—he can use one of them for whatever time Elijah needs. Not quite as luxurious maybe, but I’m sure he’ll manage—or he can come stay with me. His is the penthouse suite so you’ll be quite cut off up there. Take the emergency stairs down from the roof, not the elevator, so Elijah leaves no scent to be taken to ground level.’

Coren gives him a look and Sean shuts up—he knows quite as well as Sean how to protect an unmated Were in heat. And what to do if some stray alpha somehow picks up the pheromones Elijah really will be indiscriminately broadcasting soon enough.

Sean still has to exert every iota of control he possesses to stifle his wolf’s desperate need to stay with his chosen, acknowledged mate. Allowing another alpha to take Elijah away in his own skimmer feels so wrong. Coren may be Elijah’s sire but Sean is his mate, whatever Elijah may believe. He should be the one protecting him.

He just can’t be sure he would protect Elijah from himself.

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Chapter Text

For all that his dad scents as alpha, Elijah is thankfully not feeling any pull at all in his direction. The fact that Alpha Sean came to Shining Lake in this very skimmer, however, is all too obvious—and really not helping.

Elijah still has to ask, though. He has to be sure. ‘Coren, you’re truly not…?’

Coren shakes his head. ‘I can scent you’re turning fully omega at last, but it’s not winding me up. I’m sorry, son—you’re just not that pretty!’

The fact that Coren can joke about it dispels Elijah’s anxiety in that direction, which is a huge relief. Unfortunately, it also leaves his mind clear to obsess over the problem he’s left with.

He’s coming into heat. Already he knows why it’s called that. The skimmer’s air conditioning is working full blast and he’s about ready to throw off shirt, pants, underwear—the lot. It’s only because his mom and dad are right here with him that he doesn’t do it. As yet anyway.

If the skin-crawling-right-off-of-my-bones feeling gets any keener, all bets are off.

To make things worse—as if they needed the help—the farther away he gets from home—from Sean, he knows it—the more that feeling melds with the earlier sensation of being ripped in two.

Also, the minute he stepped inside this skimmer, he knew Coren should never have taken Sean up on the offer to use his fancy ride, faster or not. Tendrils of alpha scent immediately wreathed themselves around Elijah, making him stumble and fall into the seat.

Trust a frakking alpha to have real leather upholstery that absorbs pheromones instead of shedding them like a nice fake synthahide!

That richly evocative aroma is one of the accouterments of wealth Elijah is trained to recognize and accept—Niconet Perçuile’s staff is nothing if not thorough. After this excruciating trip, though, Elijah doubts he will ever be able to wear so much as a leather belt again without getting all hot and bothered over it. Hopefully not this hot, though.

Maybe that’s the idea, he thinks. Maybe Alpha Sean keeps this skimmer as a lure for likely betas. So he can take them somewhere nice and private, hoping the scent-mix of fabulously expensive leather and alpha pheromones will have their wolves go tail over for him just as soon as he sets the skimmer down somewhere nicely isolated and turns those beautiful spring-flecked eyes on them. The thought makes Elijah’s wolf writhe and whine inside him.

Deira turns in her seat. ‘You holding up, honey?’ she asks, clearly worried, and Elijah realizes it wasn’t only his wolf that whimpered.

He nods, no energy left for speech now they are speeding fast away from Shining Lake. He is channeling every iota into resisting the urge to beg—yell at —Coren to turn back.

Because, whatever one half of him may believe he does or doesn’t want, the other is in no doubt at all. Its litany of need pounds repeatedly in his head: gobackneedmateturnroundneedmategobackneedSean!

He can’t not hear, but he can refuse to heed the demand.

Maybe it’ll be better if he can just get cooler? He hauls his shirt over his head, ignores the snick of flying buttons. The flow of air across his skin is wonderful—Coren has set the vents to blow cold, and he and Deira have their jackets closed up tight.

It feels wonderful…for maybe five minutes. Then the heat-up-till-you-explode feeling is back again in full force. He stretches flat across the entire seat—again, the leather feels cool enough at first but warms up all too soon.

Splayed out like this, though, he can tell—and no, it’s not reassuring at all, why would it be?—that Alpha Sean doesn’t actually bring all those betas back here to have his way with them. The scent that is slowly driving Elijah wild is Sean’s alone, rising from the drive seat, brought out more and more by the warmth of Coren’s body.

Thanks so much, high end vent system!

It infiltrates Elijah’s olfactory organs like some heat-seeking missile. He knows there’s a joke in there somewhere, but right about now he notices things start to get more than a little damp.

Not to say wet—and he hasn’t wet his pants since the last time he was terrified into it, a couple years ago. This isn’t the same unpleasant kind of wet anyway. It’s squelchier—more lube-like, logically enough—and surprisingly fragrant.

All the better to lure you with…

Or to attract the alpha wolf he really doesn’t want.

He squirms in his pants, skin sliding all too easily against the fabric, breath quickening when that minimal friction only highlights what he needs and exactly where he needs it. He can almost see strings of brightly colored laser lights, spectacularly flashing the way to his ass.

He actually manages a smirk when it occurs to him exactly how much this skimmer will reek of needy wet omega when the Alpha has it back.

And how will your beta conquests like that, Alpha Sean, back seat or not?

Elijah wiggles his ass deliberately now, swiping a shiny trail all across the dark, expensive leather seating.

It completely backfires on him, only sharpening his need for something inside. He ends up grinding his hips desperately downward. He is pathetically seeking an angle that will let him feel it like a broad finger—any of Sean’s fingers would be plenty broad enough, he noticed that—pressing up into the seam of his pants, not this too-flat, inanimate hide.

He can’t believe how much he wants what he’s only recently begun to enjoy for himself—the careful exploration with fingers that is for him alone these days.

No. What he can’t believe is wanting it from Sean, but there’s no way he can deny this inexorable craving.

Between literal heat, mounting lust and a desperate yearning to turn back to where he knows Sean will be, things around him start to get really fuzzy. Sounds coming from the front seat mean his Mom and Dad are talking, probably about him, their voices low. Elijah can’t concentrate enough to tell what they’re saying. He does hear Coren laugh at some point. It’s not an unkind sound—more wryly sympathetic, so that’s okay.

His stomach drops as the skimmer swoops downward at last, and the canopy blessedly retracts above him. Cool night air washes over the scalding mess that has suddenly become his skin. He lifts his head enough to see lights patterned over tall shapes, around and below them in the dark. The air feels different too—heavier somehow. Even with alpha pheromones all around and overwhelming, it hints at innumerable Normals living at close quarters.

A Normal meets them on touchdown—Doctor Gethin, Elijah somehow remembers.

He hears a deep, reassuring voice and is relieved to sense nothing from him but concern. When they exit the scent-bedeviled skimmer he hangs back a little, needing a minute alone to center himself. The heat still rolls over and through him in waves, but the effect is slightly less out here. It’s a relief in more ways than one.

He holds his nose as he leans back in to grab his ruined shirt—it doesn’t help, of course. He can taste Sean’s scent now. Even if the buttons are gone, it’s still more polite to cover himself and the shirt may even hide the wet patch on his pants. It’s bad enough their host is to be evicted by Elijah’s need. He doesn’t need to come face to butt—as it were—with his weird biology, too.

His parents introduce themselves with grateful thanks, immediately querying how safe Elijah really will be here—Deira needing details of domestic arrangements, Coren wanting specs of the security system.

‘You are most welcome, all of you!’ the doctor says, and addresses Deira’s concerns first, through the short descent—via the emergency stairs, at Coren’s insistence.

‘Now, automatic replenishment procedures are in place for the usual requirements, of course, and any additional deliveries can be ordered—I’ve entered the identifying codes for you. ’Bot-lift only, directly into the food prep area—so there’s no possibility of intruders that way.’

A code-locked door opens onto a hallway with similarly coded elevator access, and brings them to the apartment door.

‘The skimmer pad is used by other residents, of course, but none of them are Were and it’s highly unlikely one would happen to wander up there by accident. Access to my apartment is through this one entrance only,’ he says, tapping keys to bring them into a spacious room. It has huge windows and a balcony that overlooks the whole of Cal City.

‘A couple of colleagues and maybe a girlfriend or two have the existing codes,’ he tells Coren, ‘so I suggest you reprogram everything as soon as I leave—just be sure to message me the changes when you return home! Sean says you have all the necessary know-how so once we get you printed into the AI you’ll be fine. To all intents and purposes,’ he concludes with a broad grin, ‘you’ll be as isolated and as safe as anyone can be in the middle of a huge city.’

Elijah has trailed behind through all of this, letting the whole spiel wash over him. He’s unlikely to be the one in charge of all these precautions if the heat gets as bad as his mom said. Escape into entirely neutral air has helped and he is able now to face his host for a tardy introduction.

Dr. Gethin is every bit as tall as Elijah suspected. He wears a neat mustache and trim beard and looks rather reserved—almost prim—until he smiles. That smile entirely changes his face and definitely admits the possibility of mischief. It is positively genial now, considering he is about to be ousted from his home by guests he has never even laid eyes on before tonight.

‘I’m Ly, and I am very pleased to meet you, Omega Elijah,’ he says and extends his hand to be shaken. His smile is open, the very opposite of unwilling, his gaze speculative rather than intrusive and on the whole he seems okay for a Normal.

Elijah remembers the form of greeting but skin has barely met skin before he’s pulling hastily back. The touch actually hurts, as if acid or something similar just spilled across his palm. He peers at his hand but there is not much to see—maybe a little extra pinkness, but nothing to really show how keenly his skin reacted to Ly’s.

‘I’m sorry, Doctor, I ought to have warned you. Elijah shouldn’t be—’ Deira begins.

He stops her with a shake of his head. ‘Ly, please,’ he says, ‘and it was my fault. My sincere apologies, Elijah. Sean gave me the gist of why you need to be in Cal City and not at home, and I should have known better than to touch. It is simply ingrained in Normals to greet someone that way. I hope it wasn’t too unpleasant?’

Elijah is still distracted by how a formal skin-to-skin contact can feel so very wrong. It can’t be because Ly is a Calian Normal—he’s met a few of them by now and none has ever affected him this way before. Or any way at all, come to that.

‘Just one of those things,’ he mumbles when he realizes they are all looking at him. ‘Please, don’t worry about it. And thank you for allowing us to stay here,’ he remembers to add. See—he does have manners.

Ly offers them the grand tour—and the apartment is grand. Elijah has been trained to recognize the best and it’s all here. They may be marooned at the top of a Normals’ dwelling tower for however long this thing lasts, but at least they’ll be marooned in extreme comfort. Sean’s friend is definitely not a poor man—and nothing, after all, says safety quite like wealth and plenty of it.

And, the price tag won’t be on Elijah’s head this time.

Then he remembers Sean’s claim on him and thinks maybe it is.

Another wave of heat rolls over him. The corrosive effect that started when Ly touched his hand is spreading all through him now, merging with the itch-burn-crawl already writhing under his skin. Somehow, it’s making worse what he was really hoping had peaked already. So much for that. If he weren’t so sure it would sound stupid he’d think it was a reaction to touching anyone who isn’t Sean.

The whole heat thing might have eased a bit once he left the Sean-saturated air of the skimmer, but it is gathering again now, more fiercely than before. Yes, the apartment is warm but it is not this warm.

He is panting openly and the slick is leaking from him worse than ever. And he really doesn’t need to be blushing on top of everything else that’s happening with his skin. A cooling shower—or maybe a very cold one—has to be his best option right now, though he is not sure he dare move.

Dizzily he registers the touch of gentle hands guiding him—his mom’s, he thinks, since they don’t add to the burn—then door, room, shower—and that’s about his limit.

Next he knows, he’s naked and under the spray, his face heating for an entirely different reason when he realizes it was Mom who stripped and shoved him in here. He’s as erect as he has ever been and truly can’t help being now.

The sudden cool flow all around him—or maybe the water plus his escape from the hyper-awareness of Sean’s scent, he really can’t care which—eases the searing need to a level of torment that’s almost bearable.

Things get a bit better when he wraps a hand around his cock, though he’s hardly gotten started jerking off before he’s coming. His high from the endorphins doesn’t last long—his breathing barely slows before he’s hard and desperate again.

The wetness he felt before? That was nothing to the constant trickle he feels here, and none of it the result of the multi-directional wall spray. Showers that use real water, not the sonic cleansers of Space Central, were yet one more of the wonders Elijah found on Calia, but it’s not even a blip on his screen right now.

He is more focused on the fact that he feels empty. He knows what he needs and it has nothing in common with the various plasti-spin surrogates he’s been ‘tutored’ with before. He wants warm and full and live, and he’s starting to think maybe fingers will no longer make the cut.

It is Elijah’s way to research what he doesn’t understand. After he stopped trying to deny Deira’s quick exposition of his omega-ness, he set to work on Instalink to discover the rest. There wasn’t that much more. As a universe-wide information provider, Instalink comes up a tad short on the subject of the Were.

It’s almost as if there is some kind of curb on the dissemination of anything beyond the bare fact of their existence, history and physiology. He suspects there is more available to those who can truly work the webs—and have plenty credits to spare—but he did find enough that he can fill the gaps.

He may not have known he is Were for very long, but he still hugely resents the analogy with dogs when it comes to an alpha’s sexual equipment. Still, canine breeding sites were a lot more forthcoming on the specifics of exactly what his body needs right now.

His ‘education’ at the Rama-Nettorian training facility prepared him to receive far stranger male organs. He can hardly believe, now he’s gotten distance from that tuition, some of the weird sexual configurations that were an accepted part of his so-called program of study. Knowledge of the alpha knot, however, slips easily into his psyche as if he’s been waiting all his young life to know it.

Right now, the two words cock and knot are pinballing wildly inside his head, and their effect is overwhelming.

No matter how hard he works himself—leaning helplessly against the luxurious skin-warm plas-tiling, one hand squeezing, thumb circling just right, fingers of the other probing as far inside as he can reach, scarcely any time to breathe between one orgasm and the next—no matter how hard or how often he comes, he’s still a needy, burning, knot-hungry mess.

He is desperate here to be shoved down to his hands and knees and stuffed to bursting, tied to an alpha’s cock and knot.

An alpha? It’s not an alpha he wants, no matter how his mom had said the desperation would take him.

It’s his alpha he wants. His alpha the wolf inside is howling for.

He wants Sean spread warm and heavy over his back, skin slip-sliding across his own as the water pours down over them, cock slip-sliding into him on the slick his ass is leaking like a frakking faucet.

He needs Sean—his mate—rutting into him here, hard and fast, taking him, filling him up, replacing this clawing emptiness with exactly what he wants most. What he’s owed…

His mind stutters denial even as his body demands that Sean fill him up with pups.

A voiceless, gasped out ‘No…’ surrenders all too quickly to mental images of tiny, wriggling bodies—his pups—with Sean smiling down on them in love and wonder. Their pups—fuzzy little bundles of fur to hug and kiss and love…

That feeble ‘No…’ wouldn’t stand a chance if Sean was here with him right now

C’monSeanfuckmefillmewantyourcockneedyourknottakemefillmebreedme… His own voice, begging—and no less lewd or wanton for being all inside his head.

That’s not him and a part of him still knows it. It’s only the heat making him think this way.

He would never be so blatant—but he’s lucky Sean is not here to put that small part to the test.

Elijah can’t deny the need that sends him to his knees in truth. A hand flung out to steady him meets with an item not normally found in a stranger’s guestroom shower. Still in its plas-wrap, it’s exactly what he needs right now if he can’t have—doesn’t want—an actual mating.

Lube is included in the package. If he’d a thought to spare, Elijah might make a note to thank the good Doctor for his consideration. A Normal simply cannot know how little he needs it. He has more than enough of his own—practically gushing now he won’t have to rely on fingers alone.

To say what he has trained for since puberty, his experience of actual sexual pleasure is pretty limited—almost all of it since the suppressors finally wore off. It’s another of the freedoms he is truly grateful for.

His wolf hearing started coming in pretty soon after they came home so it wasn’t as if he ever listened on purpose. Still, it’s maybe a bit disturbing to know it was his Mom and Dad enthusiastically—and repeatedly—celebrating the renewal of their bond that set him off exploring his body for fun. He would thank them, but…then again, maybe not.

Once he’d gotten well started, he has never again needed any kind of external incentive.

He should have realized—and given thanks—that on Calia, knotting toys are probably as common as the ordinary kind. Maybe not only for the Were to play with, either.

The remote is ring-mounted, of course—no-one wants to drop it at a crucial moment—thumb-operated and very basic: pulse on/off, in/deflate, and scroll-variable vibration speed. What more could a lust-crazed omega require—except maybe his alpha…

It’s big, the bulge at its base already well defined but not so wide it’s daunting—not yet. Face it, he’s seen worse—much worse. The anatomical weirdnesses from his past never affected him like this, though.

Never ever made him want like this.

Simply from looking at the thing, his ass is not the only place he’s drooling. Handling it once out the package is…is…

He can’t think what it is. Literally can’t think, for the feel of it in his hands, the siliplas as near flesh-warm and flesh-heavy as technology can bring it. All Elijah knows right now is what he needs and where he needs it.

Leaning forward he props himself on one hand, spreads his thighs, ass tilting open and eager. With the other he gives the toy a quick, twirling slide through the flow of slick even a shower can’t dispel, and guides it easily into place.

He pushes the tip against him, into him—moans and shivers, spreading wider, tilting higher, desperate for more already.

At home, with lube and fingers, he learned to take his time—teasing himself slowly open, savoring each moment, reveling in each sliver of sensation.

Now, he’s already come too often—with no relief from this aching, keening emptiness—to brook delay. The liquid fire inside still roils and surges, taunting him with visions of Sean—Sean with him here and now, broad and strong and going all fierce and alpha on him. Sean behind him for Elijah to offer up his neck, his ass and everything he is, if only Sean will take him, knot him, mate him.

He needs the whole of that toy. Right now and all at once.

He bites his lip and shoves—and opens like he can’t believe, stretching wide and wider, already working it so fast and deep the knot’s there already, driving at his pliant rim, coasting home on a tide of slick.

Elijah cries out against his own insistent push-pull—no, too big, can’t, angle’s wrong, hurt, it hurts

…it hurts so good, the auto-swell of it constant and implacable, pulsing rhythmically as he works the small remote—sliding to and fro over the spot inside he’d barely even met before freedom gave it back to him. Where pain and pleasure meet and mix and crest to drag him, howling Sean’s name, toward the edge and over.

He falls so long and so hard, he needs both hands just to crawl out the shower stall when it’s over.

His Mom has left a huge towel out for him. He pulls it from the rail and flops down on it, right there on the bathroom floor. Which jolts the knot back into play, of course, careening over that one spot with no help at all from Elijah. Unpredictable, more like a real knot moving of itself—Sean’s knot, that would give him all this and more. That he knows now is the only one that can ever fully satisfy him.

He shudders at the over-stimulation and stretches, panting for breath. Even his cock is only half hard—for now, anyway. At last he feels…filled and drained both at once. Wrung out, but good. No, more than good—quite wonderful.

Except.

He’s alone here, laid out quite pathetically on the floor, no warm body pressed up tight against his, sharing the delights of skin on skin. No tender kisses like those he’s seen Coren and Deira trade back and forth—in rather less private moments, of course. Kisses that he knows would make this moment perfect.

No shared time to wait out while his Alpha’s knot pulses for real, filling him over and again, while broad hands work to bring Elijah pleasure even beyond what sparks blindingly inside.

Time to know each other a little, too—though Sean probably knows his life story already. Elijah needs more of his mate that the fact that he is Alpha Son and Heir to all the Packs of Calia. Elijah’s mom approves of him, which has to be a big plus, but even that tells him nothing of the kind of man Sean is—the kind of man whose wolf Elijah’s own demands as its equal.

He sighs and presses the deflate control, reaching around to ease the toy carefully out of him. Maybe it is a shame he has none of the shared contentment of a mating—but, on the bright side, no incipient pups either.

His whimper at the loss and the resultant gush of slick are only logical. His cock reacts, makes the effort even. It is too soon yet—won’t be all that long, though, before he needs the toy again. Often, if what his mom said holds true.

But, what was even he even thinking, there? It’s one hellish powerful instinct, heat, if it can make him believe, even for even a minute, that he could …

…that he ever would

Elijah yawns, eyelids heavy, doesn’t even have the energy to lift his head when he hears the door crack open. A thin sheet floats across his body and a bottle of water appears in front of his nose.

Dehydration, right. His mom heard the shower shut itself off and came to baby him, even through this.

The door shuts quietly behind her and he’s out like a black hole took him.

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Chapter Text

In the days surrounding the departure of Astin’s interplanetary shuttle, Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian has been remarkably busy.

He has made contact with a highly reputable Investigative Services Bureau on the planet Calia, which confirmed, via their forwarded likenesses, that his estranged cousin and her son—their given names only, because Cousin Deira has espoused since he saw her last—have indeed landed there. Apparently, they arrived courtesy of Alpha Astin’s own interplanetary shuttle, which Nico finds not merely ironic but also highly amusing.

He has even—at considerably increased cost—received copies of all records applicable to the pair. Notably bare of detail in the case of his ‘nephew’, they yet provide convincing data as to place of domicile.

Credit access, flight and residence reservations, plus the necessary visas—in false names, naturally—are all arranged for the pre-selected envoys who shall travel to Calia on Nico’s behalf. It goes without saying that neither will refuse the mission.

Assembling identity records to suit the coming purpose was quite straightforward. Credit-heavy, but straightforward. Admittedly, Nico does wonder at times if the mounting expense will be worth the anticipated outcome. Such concerns are easily outnumbered by extensive periods spent reveling in the fantasy that has rapidly displaced all others.

That most tempting of marble-smooth adolescent bodies, barely concealed within a variety of filmy stage costumes, has long figured prominently among the delectable images Nico employs to fuel his most private time.

Now, even that comes a remote second to the anticipated glories of Elijah’s fur-covered self.

A lithe and agile tongue laps ever more sublimely at Nico’s cock, the silky, luxuriant fur slides more insistently, more sensuously over his skin each time imagination overtakes him. The weight of the boy-wolf at his back is more arousing, the force of that imagined knot more effective than any dildo he has ever tried. He cannot wait.

Though it is true that the team he has working on the Passivar/Docillan variant has yet to complete its work. They will—they had better. Nico wants this, and he is accustomed always to get what he wants.

He has selected the safest possible destination on which to receive his retrieved property—any consideration of Elijah’s recently transferred ownership being conveniently expunged from his mind, as temporary as it proved to be.

Finders shall in this case most definitely be keepers from the very moment he regains possession.

He almost begins to regret having contacted some of the more affronted auction participants—those who consider themselves duped by Astin’s sudden buyout bid and who are therefore keen for a second opportunity to stake their claim. He was merely putting out feelers at the time—and quite diverted by the aptness of his metaphor in one particular case.

After all, an entrepreneur who fails to keep his finger on the pulse of the market is a bankrupt in the making.

It remains to be seen whether he will actually bring himself to allow libido—a suddenly and quite deliciously elevated libido—to beat out sound financial sense. He has briefly wondered if he has at last fallen for his own seductive sales pitch—the lure of illusion over the somewhat messy reality of sex. It is possible, of course, but in this case the reality seems likely to surpass his every fantasy.

However, that is a decision that may be left to another day. There will be time and proof enough either way, once Elijah is safely under his control once more. When science has completed its task and the mere click of Nico’s fingers shall command a truly animal lust. When all that delicious fur is his at last—sliding warm and sleek between his fingers, wrapping sensuously around his cock, maybe, and definitely caressing his ass when he gives it up to his boy-wolf.

Should reality somehow fail him in this, then the value of the Were—as commodity alone and virgin or no—will undoubtedly outweigh that of even the most exemplary of his Élite.

All that is left to do now is to brief his chosen agents on what is expected of them and what is offered them in return.

‘Well now, Myrin,’ he intones in a voice that annoys him by being slightly over-hearty even to his own ears. ‘I don’t expect you expected ever to work for me again!’

Myrin looks back at him impassively. ‘No, Master Nico,’ is all he says.

‘All things considered, the escape was scarcely your fault,’ Nico tells him, conveniently forgetting his own furious tirade that night.

He laid the blame on Myrin for everything from the actual loss of Elijah to the damage caused to the Seven Moons’ furnishings as stumbling patrons escaped the dark—also, for the considerable dent in forecast bar profits. He had needed an outlet, and taking it out on the authorities would have been unwise. Alpha Astin had looked far too close to the edge himself to risk directing any hint of censure his way. Myrin was both nearest and safest at the time.

A fleeting look of surprise flits across the broad-cheeked face now. It vanishes in seconds, and Myrin makes no comment.

Nico is fully aware of the resistance that oozes from the man’s every pore. It always has, though Myrin is strong enough to control it. He keeps it tight behind his teeth, and his demeanor has always remained a shade or two on the right side of defiance.

‘You could scarcely anticipate being stunned from behind by a mere female house slave,’ Nico continues. However intent he may be on obtaining Myrin’s whole-hearted cooperation, he simply can’t keep the hint of derision from his voice. Myrin’s spine stiffens a little but his face remains void of expression.

‘Be that as it may,’ Nico adds, with a dismissive wave of one hand, ‘I have been contemplating whether to allow you the chance to…redeem yourself.’ He notes Myrin’s instant alertness at his pause before the word redeem.

It carries more than one shade of meaning, of course. A man may redeem his error—or he might redeem himself from the constraints of a self-imposed contract.

Myrin is already hoping for the latter, which is all to the good as far as Nico is concerned.

It is most fortuitous, he realizes, that he reconsidered his decision to have Myrin flogged within an inch of his life, and shipped out to a mining asteroid or wherever. Not that it was strictly speaking his to make, of course, though as an aggrieved client he could strongly recommend.

For Myrin is not technically his slave as such, in that Nico does not actually own him. He is a highly-trained contract worker, indentured to Space Central Security Services for however many years it will take to pay his—and, even more persuasively, his family’s—debts. They get to keep their citizen status, their accommodation, such as it is, and their work permits for just as long as Myrin behaves himself and serves out his time appropriately—and no longer.

Thus, Myrin’s presence as a personal bodyguard in Nico’s service was chartered from SCSS. His complicity in Elijah’s escape—however involuntary—set a serious mark on his record and added a further two standard years to his contract. SCSS has always preferred methods other than physical chastisement, when such extension is markedly more beneficial to that organization’s profit margins.

‘Principally,’ says Nico, ‘you shall redeem your reputation by returning the slave Elijah into my possession. What you do with the other one, should you discover the two together still, I leave to you. After her dastardly attack upon you, you may perhaps find more than words to exchange.’

He observes the reflexive clench of fists at the reminder and smirks inwardly at the irritation visibly leaking onto Myrin’s face.

‘Just be sure no investigation ensues that may hinder the complete success of your mission.’ The tone intimates or else. Nico sees no need to spell out the threat, and continues, ‘Of necessity, the primary agent in the affair must be one of my own slaves. You will work together and the reward for each of you shall be the same—freedom. The slave is to receive her manumission—you, your contract paid in full.’

At that, the anticipated suspicion crosses Myrin’s face. Smoothly Nico adds, ‘All requisite documents will be auto-signed, verified and lodged with the cyber-notarian of your choice.’

Myrin’s voice is hoarse when he speaks at last. ‘Thank you, Master Nico. How exactly may I earn such a gift?’

‘You shall oversee the operation—part bodyguard, part facilitator in those situations where a slave cannot be expected to cope. My Pet now resides on the planet Calia, which I believe to be his birth mother’s place of origin—she being the domestic who disabled you so handily that night.’ Nico can’t resist an open jibe this time, though Myrin doesn’t even seem to hear it.

‘Now, you will know the slave Caselja—currently a dancer here at the Seven Moons, having failed as one of my Élite. She claims to be a great friend of Elijah’s which I highly doubt. However, he is unlikely to reject her if she confronts him with a pitiful plea for asylum as an escapee herself, or whatever ruse her devious mind and deceitful tongue may devise to gain access to and ultimately take possession of Elijah. Leave all that to Caselja. She will undoubtedly employ both attributes to the full.’

He does not trouble to disguise his contempt for the failed Pet—a spiteful, self-centered airhead incapable of independent thought, whose admittedly striking beauty barely compensates for her shortcomings.

‘Your part, Myrin, is to support her while keeping her on task. You shall have control over most of the credits and all IDs, visas, reservations and so on. Your presence will also serve to discourage any person attracted to her charms, such as they are. Between you, you are to do whatever…’ the pause is significant, ‘may prove necessary to bring Elijah to me.’

Myrin bows his head in understanding.

‘However, should you discover that Caselja has any notion of claiming her freedom without reference to my generous offer, I expect you to eliminate her without delay and complete the mission alone. Do I make myself clear?’

His hold over the man and his family is more than sufficient to ensure Myrin’s return, with or without Elijah—in which latter case the asteroid belt will undoubtedly gain another worker. For Caselja though, freedom may be freedom, wherever she can find it. Inclusion of this minor clause among Myrin’s obligations is merely a sensible precaution—not to say a form of pre-emptive revenge, should the girl try to cheat her Master so.

‘Perfectly clear, Master Nico.’ The impassive look is back but Nico knows he will do whatever may be necessary.

‘Quite how you accomplish the main objective, I really do not care, provided that Elijah is returned to me, undamaged and without pursuit of any kind. Your exit from Calia is arranged to include wormhole travel—traditionally and significantly less easy to track—to a highly unlikely destination!’ he adds lightly, when Myrin’s expression for once registers both doubt and concern.

‘At that point—when Elijah actually stands before me, well and whole, and not until then—I shall deem your contract fulfilled, and honor my part in it.’

‘I understand,’ says Myrin, not a trace left of the resistance Nico has always sensed. ‘Thank you, Master Nico.’ There is more to those words now than the mechanical gratitude of a menial.

Nico smiles as he dismisses him, with instructions to return next morning for the itinerary, documentary access and specialized weaponry—yet one more significant cost—and to complete the arrangements for his eventual release from SCSS service.

Sugar first…

Maman really did know best.

~~~~\~~~/~~~~

Caselja can scarcely believe her luck.

After a lot of ‘Yes, Master Nico’, ‘No, Master Nico’, ‘Of course, Master Nico’, and especially, ‘Oh, thank you, Master Nico’, the bastard offered her this ‘mission’ in exchange for her freedom. And then demanded a blowjob.

It was worth every frakking minute she spent pleasuring him.

Not only has she escaped the hellhole that was The Seven Moons of Sycorial, she is actually here. On. Another. Planet!

This first experience of freedom is wonderful, even if it can be only an illusion as yet. Annoyingly, she may go nowhere without Myrin at her side, but she expected that. If she were Master Nico, she wouldn’t trust her either.

If she is honest, she actually needed the bodyguard alongside, the first few times she ventured out into the city. So many people, such busy—what do they call them?—streets, with sidewalks and ground cars to beware of. It is huge and bustling and confusing—and she loves every last sight and sound of it.

There are real shops here, with all the things she’s seen in the vidcasts for Mercantile Essentials, and they have assistants and everything. Sure, a lot of them are ’bots, but still. She even has an allowance of credits to her name and the ID she carries now does not identify her as slave. No-one can question her right to enter and buy such small things as take her fancy that she can afford. They help maintain her role as wide-eyed space tourist.

Above all, Calia seems not to be home to resident freaks of the kind she has too often been obliged to service, back at the Seven Moons.

She likes it here—such a pity she can’t stay. Once she has stolen their precious Elijah, she won’t exactly be welcomed back. She has thought more than once about simply dumping Myrin and disappearing into the depths of Cal City. She is pretty sure with her looks and undoubted talents—all those years being ‘trained’ at the facility ought to be good for something—she could find herself a job in no time. Maybe even a man of her own.

No, that is for later, and elsewhere. She needs the funds Master Nico has promised her if she wants a life in which she is no longer at a client’s beck and call, only to be cast off as soon as she begins to lose her looks.

Their mission is coming on well, she considers. As tourists, she and Myrin have done all the things such people are expected to do, including conducted tours of some of the boringly local 'landmark destinations' and visits to boondock places like the one where, they have discovered, Elijah now lives.

Interestingly, she isn’t the only one who finds his perfections hard to take. In a bar at Shining Lake, no less, she struck up a conversation with some guy whose stare wouldn’t have been out of place at the Seven Moons. Pity Myrin was sticking to her like a freak to its privacy shield—though maybe not. The bar guy had an intense, almost predatory feel to him, which could be fun sometimes though not always. She has a well-honed instinct for these things and he felt like one who might take things just that bit too far.

Anyway, she’ll say it herself, it was pretty slick the way she turned the conversation from visiting new places to returning after long absences.

Intense Guy—just gave his name as Ferdek—caught on right away to who she was really asking about. And dropped the unwelcome news that Elijah is pretty much incommunicado right now, though he refused to explain the reason. He’s not at Shining Lake, either, though that’s more of a help than a problem. Cal City will work much better for what they need, being far closer to Spaceport for one thing.

‘And you know where he is in the city?’

‘It’s a closely guarded secret. I could find out for you, but the thing is, he won’t exactly be easy to get at.’

‘Why is that?’

‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘But you can find him?’

‘If you make it worth my while.’ The smile was even more predatory.

‘We can do that.’ Master Nico said not to grudge payment for information or assistance, but Caselja still made a note to tell Myrin to keep a close eye on this Ferdek. She has a feeling he could prove dangerous somehow.

‘I shall need a tracking chip. Magnetic.’

‘Why?’

‘If I told you that, you wouldn’t need me, and I want in on this.’

The deal was struck and Ferdek has since gotten the information they need from the tracker Myrin provided. Caselja is pretty sure Ferdek is using them for his own undisclosed ends, just as surely as they are using him. She doubts he ever believed her tale of wanting to meet up with a much-missed friend, but no matter. That conversation can come later—after they finally lay hands on Elijah.

Today is the day. Has to be in the afternoon— for some reason he’ll be less guarded then, Ferdek says.

That suits them fine—Myrin has a shuttle waiting at Calia’s Spaceport that will connect with an orbiting ship that belongs to one of Master Nico’s business associates or something. They aren’t taking Elijah back to Space Central, of course. There is a wormhole jump involved at some point, to some place Elijah won’t easily be found.

The rest of their job is to keep Elijah from being conspicuous on the journey, and to deliver him healthy and in one piece. Then, they shall be freed—with fully disposable credits to their names.

Caselja can hardly wait.

The tranq is ready in its snug little case, also the weird old-time blast-gun-thing with its shiny little projectiles, that Master Nico made her promise to bring along when they take Elijah. For some reason, if one is needed this will work better on Calians than more modern weapons, though it comes with the most stringent proscription against using it on Elijah himself.

Whatever. It makes Caselja feel deliciously dangerous. As a slave on Space Central she could be executed simply for holding a weapon—loaded or not, old-time or not. Here in Cal City, however, it is apparently quite legal, though maybe not so much the old time part. There is some discrepancy between what her permit allows and the exact type she bears but again, whatever. It’s not like anyone has ever asked to see it.

The thing may be old but it has full auto heat-seek and should be easy enough if she needs to fire it. Myrin has another, plus more modern kinds she has only ever glimpsed on holo-vid. He keeps them well concealed and they are not her problem.

So, this is it.

They collect Ferdek from a pre-arranged rendezvous and he rapidly programs the hired skimmer’s auto-nav. It brings them quickly to the landing pad of one of the city’s highest and most prosperous-looking apartment blocks.

As soon as the canopy rises, Caselja notices Ferdek start to get twitchy and more intense than ever. It’s not really a problem, since the plan is for her and Myrin to go get Elijah, anyway. Ferdek needn’t worry so much—he’ll get his credits transferred soon enough. Just as soon as they’re safe at Spaceport, that is, and not one minute sooner.

Elijah currently lives in the penthouse apartment, says Ferdek. Belongs to a friend of a friend, who’s not around right now—in fact his mother will be the only one with him. Caselja isn’t sure if Deira will be a help or a hindrance—depends how Elijah receives their visit and exactly which of the many heart-rending tales she has prepared will seem to work best. She’s not worried. She will cope, whichever way.

Myrin produces the tiny decoding device that will let them into the elevator and—a matter of moments later—out again. The doors swish open onto a well-appointed hallway.

And the one—lips unnaturally red, eyes a little wild and yet unfocused—who sways so unsteadily there.

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Chapter Text

Except that the Normals’ buildings go up instead of around—and also the whole floating-in-space thing—the housing arrangements in Cal City remind Elijah very much of the stacked units that make up Space Central. They’re about as accessible from the outside, too.

Ly Gethin’s place is quite luxurious—every bit as luxurious as the scene-simulation training sector of the Rama-Nettorian facility. But Elijah is already way on edge and this place, plus its nighttime view out the window—the myriad brilliant lights against pitch dark—gives him flashbacks to a time he really wants to forget. He has been shut away in this new kind of captivity for over a week, and it’s starting to feel almost as if he’s back there.

He needs to be Outside. Windows simply aren’t enough when the only forest they look out on in any given direction is a forest of tall structures as hard and inert as this one, with the Normals’ version of parks barely visible between. There are some very attractive buildings in that 'forest', it’s true, but Elijah needs real trees and sunlight and freedom.

His only choice, however, is to wait it out here, where he is safe, so they tell him—his mom and dad, echoing that damned Alpha whose fault Elijah is sure this is.

He really was fine, really—well, mostly fine—before Alpha Sean came and woke his wolf. Which, he’s pretty sure, set off the whole damned omega heat thing inside of him.

It ebbs and flows—literally—getting more intense each time. He has short periods of relative sanity—when he knows what he does and doesn’t want—between the insane times when it’s all he can do to keep from begging his Dad to go bring Sean here Right now!

According to his mom he is still not desperate enough for the frakking thing to have peaked. All his fault, apparently because when he can think straight, he won’t admit his almost—still almost—overwhelming need.

And it goes without saying that the sane times get fewer and shorter, the longer it lasts.

The first few days here proved to Coren’s satisfaction that the apartment is truly secure and he has returned, however reluctantly, to work. He is out all day, comes back most nights—it’s not that long of a skimmer ride, even without that fancy black ALV. His contract with the college was for more than constant holo interaction with students, after all. He has practical classes to teach and office hours to keep and as Deira pointed out, a little wistfully, he isn’t actually needed here all day. Ly Gethin had not misled them when he promised safety in isolation.

There is very little for Deira to do in this fully automated apartment and when Elijah is otherwise occupied, he knows she spends her days at the comm. console, accessing Calia’s recent history. A lot of things happened here while she was away and she still has a fair bit of catching up to do. When Elijah is to be up and about, she shares Pack news and history with him.

Today, though, she is strangely quiet as they sit together watching skimmers thread unseen pathways between the many towering blocks out beyond their window. He knows she is missing home, again. Because of him—again.

She has started to look a little peaky, shut away in here with him. They daren’t even risk opening the wide glasteel doors to the balcony in case some Alpha scents him. It isn’t likely in this area of Cal City and from so high up but it is theoretically possible, and Coren will have them take no chances.

Deira is every bit as homesick as Elijah but without the long intervals of thoroughly distracting heat to take her mind off it. He thinks he heard her being ill in her bathroom this morning but he’s not sure—he was fully occupied at the time. Or full and occupied…whichever.

‘I don’t think you realize what it means for Sean to do this for you,’ she says at last. It is not what Elijah was expecting.

‘It’s his friend doing most of it,’ he retorts, not wanting to admit any gratitude toward the one now dominating his every other waking thought.

‘You think so?’ She shakes her head. ‘Sean really wants you as his mate and yet he let you go without a second’s hesitation. He sent you away because he knew you didn’t want to want him. And as much as you’re going through, resisting your heat, Sean is not getting away scot-free.’

Elijah refuses to put the question, unwilling to seem interested enough to ask, relieved when she tells him anyway.

‘He is almost as eaten up with want as you are, you know—without the actual heat to make any of it fun. But, it does have to be Sean for you, doesn’t it?’ Deira is quiet for a moment before she admits, ‘I was wrong to believe you might be desperate enough not to care who, as long as someone answered your need.’

Elijah knows what she is going to say. As much as he shakes his head in denial, he knows she won’t buy it. She has wolf hearing, after all, and as fancy as this apartment is, it’s not actually soundproof. He hasn’t yet managed one single time to keep from calling Sean’s name when he brings himself off with the knotting toy.

‘If you want him so much, why won’t you—’

‘No!’ Elijah says, with all the conviction of one of his respite spells.

Deira sighs. ‘He could make you want to mate with him, you know.’

‘What? B-but you said—you promised!’

‘What I said was true—he cannot force you to be his mate, Elijah. No-one can. But he can make you want him. Or, which is the same thing in the end, he can make your wolf want his so much you can think of nothing and no-one else but being mated by Sean.’

Elijah knows he’s already there, a lot of the time. He swallows the tightness in his throat. ‘How—how would he do that?’

‘He knows where you are—all he has to do is be here. Let his wolf out to howl his longing up there on the skimmer pad both day and night. Never mind the space-quality glasteel windows—you’d feel as much as hear it, believe me. Right down to your soul.

‘He could mark every single thing that comes up in the ’bot-lift with his wolf’s pheromones—he has the pull to arrange it, even here among Normals. It wouldn’t take long before they drowned out every other scent and every single thought in your head. Before he would be all you wanted, all that existed for you.’

Her matter-of-fact statement robs Elijah of breath. He knows his dismay is clear on his face when she adds, ‘You need not worry—he won’t do it.’

That doesn’t calm him much so she brings tea, watching in silence as he takes it.

‘He can but he won’t?’ he demands almost petulantly at last. ‘What does that mean?’

‘It means that Sean is Alpha Son and Heir to the entire Calia Pack—he has a position to maintain and a destiny to fulfill. He will not come here and grovel like a lovesick cub, no matter that his wolf has already claimed yours as his mate. If you continue to refuse him he will do what any Were with pride, a strong will and a destiny before him must do.’

Elijah looks the question at her. Not that he really cares what Sean may do instead.

However much his wolf may grumble at the thought.

‘He will avoid Shining Lake for the rest of his days, subdue his wolf and find himself a suitable beta to breed with. Although she won’t be his mate, she will have everything he has left to offer: a home, his wealth—and the status of Pack Beta for the whole of Calia, in the fullness of time. All that in exchange for a single litter of pups, if that is all she wishes to grant him, so he may in turn have his heir. She need never mate him again once the succession is safe—though with a Were of Sean’s personal charm, I highly doubt that will be the case. He may even find a friend in her, to balance what he has lost…’

The rising whine inside Elijah becomes an outright howl of denial.

At least, he thinks it’s all in his head, until Deira grins at him and says, ‘You should be glad Sean wasn’t close enough for his wolf to hear what yours thinks of that—or for him to hear the sound you made then. He’d be a fixture outside that door till you forced it open and dragged him in!’

‘It doesn’t mean—’ he stops. He’s not really sure what it means for him.

But he can admit—if only in his head—that it is not only his wolf that hates the thought of Sean mating with that random beta. Some pretty, power-hungry air-head, no doubt, born into the Pack and so understanding more about its rules and hierarchies than Elijah ever will. Simply to get himself an heir—which is so frakking Olde Worlde it’s really not funny.

And nor is the heat, rising again within him—the increased jitter under his skin that says he’s due another session with that knotting toy anytime now.

Deira hasn’t noticed yet. She is staring down into her cup. ‘The minute you came through the door at home and saw Sean,’ she says gently, ‘I knew his wolf isn’t the only one that believes itself mated. It’s not your wolves that don’t want this, and it is definitely not Sean. He would have given anything for you to accept him that day. It’s you, Elijah, fighting him. I understand why, and I accept much of the blame must be mine—’

‘No!’ Elijah’s protest overrides his impending need. ‘How can you say that? Being made a slave was not your fault!’

‘It is true, though, that so many things have happened to you that never would have—never should have—if not for that. For me. If you had been born here and free, your wolf would have called to Sean’s years ago, and you would have been glad of it—happy and settled together by now.’ She sighs. ‘Whereas the reality is a whole heap of credits and even more resentment between you—’

Her eyes widen in alarm and she silences herself with a hand clapped suddenly to her mouth.

‘Credits? What credits?’ Elijah is honestly puzzled. Does she mean the cost of their staying here, the use of Sean’s skimmer—what? ‘Tell me!’

She stares at him for a moment in silence and diverts her gaze to the view over Cal City. Then she takes a breath and begins.

‘The night of the auction, Sean was there at the Seven Moons—with a friend, he says, not to bid, and I believe him. Even before he saw you up there on that damned dais, he already knew what you were—and in that instant, his wolf called to yours. Sean has known himself truly mated ever since. So, he stopped the auction the only way he could. He—Elijah, Sean is the one who bought you.’

Elijah’s mouth falls open. Whatever he was expecting, this isn’t it.

‘He had no idea you were my son or that we were planning to free you, or anything. I know Coren should have told him beforehand, but he insisted it wasn’t safe. We were both terrified that if the secret got out somehow, we might never see you again. So Sean truly believed he was all that stood between you and a lifetime of slavery. He doesn’t regret what he did and he never will, even if you can never want him in return.’

Too stunned for comment, Elijah listens as Deira rushes on.

‘He needed to free you, Elijah. He couldn’t have left any Were to be taken away by—by whichever vile creature possessed the most expendable credits that night. Maybe for another Were, he might have entered the bidding and simply made sure that he won. For you—for his wolf’s chosen mate—he had to end the auction fast and bring you out from under all those lust-filled eyes. And I can only thank him for that.’

Elijah still can’t find a word to say. He is beginning to realize he has not imagined, once or twice, faint echoes of what had to be that claiming call.

‘He isn’t asking for anything in return which, technically, I suppose he could—the credits, anyway.’ She gives a sharp little laugh without a trace of humor in it. ‘Not that we could ever repay him, and he knows it. Five million credits are more than most Weres earn in a lifetime.’

Sean bid five million credits for him? Elijah is dumbfounded now. No wonder the auction stopped cold before it really got started.

It might be the thought that Sean was so determined to bring him out of slavery. It might be the proof of how very highly Sean values him. Whatever the cause, the effect on Elijah is the very opposite of stopped or cold right now. He’s burning up again and he’s not sure if a part of it is indignation or simply a case of the warm fuzzies, ramped up to the nth degree.

He makes for the shower as fast as he can move.

Deira has the last word as the door slides shut between them. ‘Don’t forget, Elijah—if you are Sean’s then Sean is yours. Exclusive and forever!’

And doesn’t that get his wolf all fired up and happy?

It is different this time. Not the sear of want beneath his skin—that’s every bit as sharp. Not the driving need to come, either—over and again, with the knot firm and deep, its pulse almost exactly what he needs.

It’s different because this time there isn’t a No in sight. This time he’s not fighting at all, not even the probability of Sean filling him with pups.

This time he’s admitting it isn’t just Sean’s knot he craves. It’s Sean’s weight, sweat-damp and heavy on his back, Sean’s breath hot at his ear, Sean’s mouth trailing soft, wet kisses across his neck, and then—

Wolf teeth sharp and bloody in the claiming bite as he welcomes Sean’s mark and discovers what it is to be truly mated at last.

No, it isn’t just Sean’s knot he’s craving here. It’s everything that goes with it.

#

The compulsion eases off again, of course, and with his genetic makeup no longer forcing him to accept things his mind really isn’t ready for, he is not giving in that easily. When Meilin visits, he’s still plenty ready for an argument against.

She seems determined that his and Sean’s is a tale of romance, like in the old legends. Elijah refuses to see it that way.

‘What? You think it’s romantic that someone I’ve never met can cough up a load of credits and Snap! I’m his to do whatever he wants with?’ he snarks. ‘I should think myself real lucky, bare my neck and go tail over for him? My mom and dad spent years working to get me free, and you want to drop me right into slavery of another kind? The credits are already paid over, so I get no say in the matter?’

As much as his wolf denies it, he still does feel that, in a way. He is truly scared of losing the freedom he has gained.

‘I didn’t mean that, Elijah, you know I didn’t!’

‘What then, because I’m not seeing it!’

‘The credits are not the point here, even if Sean bid more credits than anyone has ever offered for any slave, anywhere!’

‘Oh, really?’ Elijah retorts snidely, denying to himself that the fuzzies have started up again, hotter than ever, and it’s taking all his concentration to ignore them. ‘Then what is?’’

‘His wolf recognized you as the mate he has wanted for so long, Elijah. The credits are irrelevant—they don’t come into it at all. He knew then and he knows now that he is not the one with the final say in your mating. He can want and woo and…and pine as much as he likes,’ she quirks a smile at the thought of Sean ever pining, though her eyes are sad for him.

‘If you and your wolf refuse and go on refusing, there’s not a thing he can do about it. Of course, you do know—’ she stops abruptly and Elijah can’t help but wonder why.

Whatever—he is not going to ask. It seems like single every time he asks about something specific to being Were, the answer is yet another way he’s fucked over by his biology. There’s nothing says he has to ask—she can keep this particular whammy to herself. It’ll probably hit him soon enough anyway.

Meilin looks at him and sighs. ‘No, you probably don’t know at all. No-one can force you to mate with him, not even Alpha Prime. If you refuse him, however, Sean can never have a mate. Well, not unless you die before him, which is pretty unlikely.’

‘How come? Deira says he can—’ Elijah’s shrug is a marvel of well-feigned indifference, ‘—go out and get himself some random beta…’

‘A Were true-mating is for life—I thought she told you that? Sean and his wolf have claimed you as their mate. He can’t ever have another. Oh, he can take a beta into his home and breed with her, name her Pack Beta when he becomes Alpha Prime in his turn, but she will never be his mate in truth. And the emptiness inside him—where your wolf should complete his? That will be there for the rest of his very long life.’

Elijah can’t think of a thing to say to that except, ‘Oh.’

Not just his biology this time but Sean’s, too.

That must be what Deira was getting at with her parting shot. He won't let himself feel the least bit sorry for Sean here, though. He is well into his fit of pique now, and it’s strangely gratifying.

‘There’s also the small detail of—what was it? Oh, yes—having a frakking knot stuffed up my ass whether I want it or not!’

He’s being more than a little disingenuous here and he knows it. When he faces Meilin, though, ready to refute her condemnation, she’s smiling and her eyes are sparkling. She shakes her head and the smile only widens.

‘Elijah,’ she says, and there's more than the hint of a laugh in her voice now, ‘you may think a fake knot feels pretty good—almost enough, even. But if you knew what it’s like to take your alpha’s knot within the mating bond, you’d be down on your hands and knees in front of Sean right now, whether I was here watching or not!’

Her laughter follows him as he stumbles from the room.

#

The days pass in a desperate crescendo of want and need and exhausted yearning. The heat that roils beneath his skin had no beginning and will never have an end. Nothing is real any longer but the time he spends with his knotting toy. His second knotting toy, to his embarrassment when the first died. Internal muscles also strengthen with exercise—who knew?

Such considerations are long past, and Elijah almost out of his mind with need. He has reached the inevitable point where there is no respite—none at all. He can’t get Sean out of his head or the want out of the rest of him. Can’t wank him out, can’t work him out on the slicked-up slide of that fake knot, no matter how often or how hard he takes it.

He needs his mate and he needs out of here. However unsteady he may be on his feet, for this he has the strength and the will.

He may not be thinking too clearly right now but there are still things he knows, deep inside. Maybe not where Sean lives exactly, but even a Normal should be able to bring Elijah to the Alpha Residence. And if he is not home, Anira will find Sean for him. She is omega—she will understand.

He has no credits but he’s pretty sure Sean will pay the skimmer hire—a mere pittance after all, set against that five million.

If Alpha Sean won’t come claim his mate, Omega Elijah will go stake his own claim.

He can’t remember why leaving is a bad idea.

He does know his mom will stop him if she can.

He can’t think why he’d need his mom for this.

He won’t need her—or anyone—once he finds Sean, only a bed. Or any flat surface—maybe the sexy leather seating in that skimmer. A wall, even. Just Sean—with him, on him, in him. Anywhere and anyhow.

Deira is not at the console—he thinks maybe she’s in the bathroom again. Good—she won’t notice the code beeps, won’t hear the door’s politely closing hiss behind him.

There’s a hum in his mind and then there isn’t. The elevator has stopped. Not Sean—Elijah would have known already. Sean is indelibly fixed in his wolf-nose by that gloriously alpha-scented skimmer. This is a way out, though—he remembers Ly saying so.

The doors slide open and he knows these people. He doesn’t remember who they are, exactly, though he knows them and they clearly know him.

‘Sean?’ he slurs hopefully.

The girl laughs. ‘He won’t be easy to get at, the guy said!’ She frowns then and glances over toward the man. ‘Myrin—is it me or is he out of it already?’

The voice is familiar but the words flow one into another, not pausing on the way to make connections inside Elijah’s head.

‘’Best make sure.’

The sting at his neck starts unease of a different kind beneath his skin. He can feel it slowly spreading, as the acid burn starts up again on the surface. It’s much worse this time, until the girl wraps him in something that buffers his skin against her touch—then it’s not so bad. He tries to tell them he doesn’t need carrying, he wants to leave, but the man—Myrin—doesn’t listen and Elijah ends up staring downward past Myrin’s ass.

The hum starts up again, drags him in an upward whoosh that leaves his stomach behind, giving it back when the doors slide apart on a view of high-rise Calia. A skimmer waits on the pad and maybe they are bringing him to Sean, after all.

Then his mind clears—abruptly and not pleasantly. Elijah is instantly cooler, almost cold, despite the cloak.

There is an alpha here, but it is not Sean.

The hackles are fully raised on Elijah’s internal wolf and he surprises himself with an actual growl. The alpha is Ferdek Haslar, and to Elijah’s wolf-nose he scents of many foul, disgusting things, all overlaid with lust. It’s more than enough to make Elijah retch.

Myrin hastily sets him down and Ferdek pounces before Elijah has chance to steady himself. Ferdek grabs him by the neck and shoves him over onto hands and knees, dropping onto his back and rutting against him. Even through the layers of synthatex between, his touch is a searing burn that has nothing to do with being in heat.

Elijah struggles beneath him but the strength seems to have drained right out of him. And the alpha is in a lust-fueled mating frenzy here, inflamed by the scent of an omega’s heat. He is way too strong for Elijah to resist.

‘Hey! There’s nothing in the deal that says you get to fuck him!’

Ferdek growls too, now—a warning, dark and savage in his chest. He doesn’t even pause, flipping aside the enveloping cloak to snatch at Elijah’s pants.

Elijah feels his wolf now like never before. It wants out, wants to fight even though it knows it could never win—but he is not inhibiting it this time. For whatever reason, he really can’t wolf out.

He is freed so suddenly he sprawls out on the skimmer pad. Whatever the surface is, it’s hard and gritty and hurts to land on, but at least his wolf is distracted. He rolls dizzily, half-sitting, but can’t find the energy to stand. He daren’t draw attention to himself, anyway.

Myrin must have dragged Ferdek off him, for they are fighting in earnest here. Ferdek for the omega he intends to fuck—Myrin to protect Elijah, though he’s not sure why he would. He is large and strong, however. SSC trained—to fight and, in the last resort, to kill.

Elijah has never before scented the acrid stink of half-crazed alpha in killing mode, but he recognizes it here. If Ferdek shifts now, Myrin is a dead man.

He doesn’t as yet, though the red of his eyes yells Danger! in itself. He goes at Myrin with fists and feet until he seems to realize Myrin is giving every bit as good as he gets. He draws back then and they circle each other warily. Ferdek is impatient for the prize, where Myrin is merely protecting what he must. Haste makes for careless fighting—even Elijah knows that.

Ferdek comes in too fast and Myrin lands a blow to his abdomen that does more than wind him, then twists somehow to throw Ferdek over one outthrust thigh to land heavily on the sharp surface of the pad. The effort sends Myrin momentarily to his knees.

He stares then, in surprise and even fear, as Ferdek’s face lengthens, morphing toward his wolf muzzle, teeth long and vicious. Outspread fingers harden to wolf claws, eager to tear the belly from their prey.

Myrin is up again in seconds, scrabbling for the weapon at his hip. He is human slow, however, and Elijah knows Ferdek’s wolf will be on him even before he can take aim to defend himself. The fight is all but over.

A sound cracks out from behind Elijah—sudden, loud and shocking. Ferdek’s wolf-fast rising collapses even faster, face and claws retracting to their human form as he splays out on the ground.

Elijah turns to see Caselja—he somehow remembers her name through the gathering haze within his mind—holding a weapon in her hand. It is one of the way outdated kind that employs actual projectiles to kill. He can think of no other reason for her to possess such a thing, except specifically for use against the Were.

This is one area of their lore that Coren has made sure to instill in his son. The Were can heal from damage that would incapacitate or kill a Normal outright. Stunners work for bare minutes on them. A direct hit from a neuro-strike weapon is survivable with care, and even laser wounds will heal in time provided no vital organ is destroyed.

But silver… Silver is and always has been the weapon of choice against the Were. It is a cheap, almost throwaway metal these days in light of other ores that are stronger yet equally malleable, and readily mined on any one of hundreds of asteroids. They have infinitely more uses, whether alone or in alloy. One thing alone, they cannot do. Only the purity of silver will hold Were-healing at bay long enough to bring death.

Caselja’s weapon is loaded with silver. There is a bitterness to Ferdek’s scent now that Elijah instinctively knows has nothing to do with the slow but steady knitting of flesh, the reconnection of small and ruined capillaries, the twining together of torn arteries. To the Were, silver brings a dark and tardy, creeping death.

‘Cass, what in all the Hells—?’

‘We don’t have time for this, Myrin. Grab him—we have to go, now!’

Elijah knows she doesn’t mean Ferdek and it is obvious they won’t be bringing him to Sean, but he can’t seem to summon any resistance.

Myrin hauls him to his feet, intending to hustle him toward the skimmer. When Elijah’s legs give way beneath him, Myrin throws him over his shoulder again, breathing heavily now.

Elijah’s head swims and his vision rapidly blurs. At least, he thinks vaguely, the heat eased up. Maybe it’s over?

He collapses on the seat where he’s dropped. The last coherent thing he sees before the darkness claims him is Ferdek’s body stretched out on the pad, silver-tainted blood oozing fitfully from his chest.

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Chapter Text

This, thinks Sean, has to be the most ridiculous plan ever. Not to mention totally demeaning. He knows, though, that he would risk far more than humiliation if it will bring Elijah back to him.

It’s all Ly’s harebrained idea, of course.

Doctor Lyall Gethin PhD—whose very name and academic embellishments lead people to expect a dry stick of a man, head always in a book and probably still a wearer of those eye glasses that were so necessary before the advent of laser surgery—seems to flout expectation on purpose. The neat mustache and trim beard may indeed look overly precise to some. Ly prefers to think of them as suave and rather distinguished in these days of widespread permanent depilation.

In reality, he is tall, athletically built and something of a joker, very active in all the more physical sports though especially skilled in half-grav gymnastics—as many of his ex-girlfriends would attest. He remains unmarried but somehow achieves the feat of staying friends with a good many of those exes.

He is also excessively fond of the kind of holo-game that enables one to play the hero’s role—always facing impossible odds yet succeeding in the end. Sean is pretty sure he thinks the retrieval of Elijah will go down exactly like one of those games. He only hopes Ly may be right about the outcome. Personally, he doesn’t care how, as long as it happens.

Although, Ly was quite correct when he insisted Sean could scarcely storm Seduxion in his own person. Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian is no-one’s fool—if indeed he is behind the abduction as they are convinced he must be. Whatever he has in mind for Elijah this time, he will undoubtedly be on his guard against anything or anyone that may interfere with those intentions. Even a rumor of Sean’s presence on Seidux might be enough to send Perçuile skittering elsewhere in the galaxy, and perhaps less traceably so, thus prolonging the danger to Elijah.

So, Ly pointed out earnestly, subterfuge is not merely necessary for the operation—it is crucial to its success.

And given that Sean has his own disguise built in, as it were, they would be beyond foolish not to make use of it in the search for Elijah.

It still took some persuasion on Ly’s part but in the end Sean had to agree it is probably the best if not the only way. He is not proud of it. Alpha Prime may have sanctioned the expedition—sending his son off on this pursuit with his blessing and with the Lunar Express entirely at his disposal, all relevant data to hand and the requisite visas expedited—but Sean hasn’t actually shared with him the form in which he intends to pursue that aim.

He thinks his dad will be fine with it. If not, he learned as a cub that forgiveness is a whole lot easier to obtain than permission. He has to hope that still holds true.

He will not readily forget the call to Alpha Prime’s office, and what he learned there.

‘Son, you need to sit down, stay calm and listen to me. Elijah vanished from your friend’s apartment earlier this afternoon, and according to the alphas employed at Spaceport Admin he was taken onboard a shuttle and was off-planet almost before Deira realized he was missing.’

Sean and his wolf went a little crazy, then. It took every bit of his father’s absolute Alpha dominance over a member of his Pack to keep them seated and sane enough to hear out what he had to tell.

‘A Normal attendant remembers helping with the departure of a man carrying a well-wrapped boy who seemed to be asleep, and a woman who was all easy words and rueful smiles. Her brother, she said, suffered motion sickness so badly, they had to dose him to the eyeballs just to get him off the ground—But he did so want to visit your beautiful planet.’ Alpha Prime voiced the blatant lie with more anger and distaste than Sean had ever heard from him.

‘What—? Who—? But how could they—?’ Sean’s simmering fury came between him and rational thought.

‘The biodata as they exited apparently matched an entry record—foul-ups can occur and corruption is always possible. It is being investigated, but there’s more…’

Deira’s frenzied search found only Ferdek Haslar, barely alive on the skimmer pad of the apartment block, his single wound still sluggishly bleeding. The flow of dark and fetid blood told at once of silver in the body destroying his Were-given ability to heal. Of the available Pack healers, only one had ever dealt with a silver-inflicted injury. The projectile had been extracted, of course, but her report to Alpha Prime was not hopeful.

Since Ferdek has not regained consciousness, there is no way of knowing what part he played in Elijah’s abduction. His presence at the scene was evidence enough of his involvement. Given the antipathy he has shown toward Elijah it was unlikely to be in any good way.

Worse, though, is the knowledge that whoever has taken Elijah almost certainly understands now that he too is Were—and the worst of what that understanding entails. Ferdek’s wound is proof beyond doubt that they came to Calia armed with the means to damage Elijah beyond repair should he not acquiesce to demands made upon him.

Sean doesn’t really remember the next little while, between his own frantic rage and the crushing weight of his father’s control seeking to steady him amid grief and the loss that burns beneath his skin. Elijah, whom he desires beyond any pre-destined mating and for himself alone; whom he has not even had the chance to persuade into accepting Sean as his mate. Whose loss may well be permanent this time, with no escape plan already underway, and no auction where Sean may outbid all others to ensure Elijah’s freedom.

By the time they landed at Spaceport the control was purely his own. Alpha Prime’s was then exerted to restrain the alphas employed there—still furious at their brief and abruptly terminated exposure to the pheromones of an omega that still reeked of a diminishing heat. Once calmed, they eagerly supplied every iota of information pertaining to the shuttle whose departure had triggered their wrath.

It apparently rendezvoused with a ship out of Space Central, whose current trajectory could indicate any number of final destinations. Remaining in trackable space, however, would practically be asking to be caught, so a wormhole jump was probably a given.

It needs none of the expertise Coren honed and exploited at Tech Central to discover Niconet Perçuile’s current location. Contrary to all custom, Space Central’s leading hedonist is currently absent from his home. To Coren and to Sean—in full command of himself again, given a trail to follow—the absence is suspicious in itself, since Perçuile is the likeliest instigator of an abduction. Even if he is not actually involved, he is still the only one who can put names to the other wealthy invitees to his auction.

These are obviously next on Sean’s list of suspects. A few of them he had recognized that night—their whereabouts and recent business transactions were investigated at the time and revealed no betraying anomalies, though Coren re-checks, just in case. The rest are masked by Nico’s affinity for ostentatious gestures. Hand-delivered, gold-inscribed invitations in actual envelopes leave no electronic footprint. Sean hopes to learn their identities from Nico by force of personality alone. If that doesn’t work, Coren is itching to bankrupt the slaver anyway.

Perçuile is a known hedonist. If he really has the gall to snatch back Elijah, he needs a refuge that will assure him anonymity and total privacy. The only convenient wormhole likely to satisfy both requirements leads to the planet Seidux.

A simple Instalink search reveals Perçuile’s presence there—a long-promised and well-deserved vacation, confirm the sycophantic social media.

Seidux, when first discovered, proved to be a fairly inconsequential planet as far as exploitable resources were concerned. It possessed neither metals nor minerals in any quantity, and too little oil or natural gas—or anything, really—to interest the big syndicates. The little planet’s only use—given its breathable air—seemed to be for colonization, but even that brought no more than a slow trickle of immigrants, as far out of the main space lanes as it lay.

Its sweeping prairies, azure oceans, majestic peaks and equable climate remained essentially unappreciated until the vision of a single man—not to mention the recently opened, semi-adjacent wormhole—realized its potential as a luxurious resort for the affluent of the universe. Or that quadrant of it, anyhow.

Emrys Llywelyn ap Iorwerth claimed descent from a far-sighted leader. Whether true or not, he certainly recognized an exploitable opportunity when he met one. Considerable wealth and exceptional charisma—plus a certain amount of underhand dealing—combined to enable the transformation of by far the greater part of Seidux. Today, it is possibly the most exclusive and most coveted vacation venue for the rich and famous of any world as yet within reach. It is undoubtedly the most expensive.

Where previous resort complexes were constrained by the limits of acreage—some, admittedly, extending to that of occasional small countries—Seduxion (Emrys never could resist a pun) comprises an entire continent, and the major one, at that.

For those who prefer to be seen in their exclusive seclusion, the aptly named Focus provides in Seiduxion’s absolute midst a positive plethora of hotels in the grand and spacious manner.

These are served by pools so cunningly designed they look natural to the planet. Also, by marinas that border some of Seidux’s largest, deepest and most beautiful lakes—many incorporating wave generation as required.

Exploration of the many stupendous peaks and glorious caverns may be undertaken by the more adventurous—well-insured and entirely at their own risk—with anti-grav facilities provided for those who prefer their thrills with fewer attendant dangers.

In not a few of the guests, a desire for risk may be satisfied in far less perilous fashion. Of these, some prefer the interior comforts to be enjoyed within one of the many casinos. For others, a variety of racetracks is available, where some of the known worlds’ fastest beasts or their speediest ground vehicles may be pitted against each other, where credits may be staked in an environment with more robust scents upon the air. Whatever the venture, the house is sure to win in the end, of course—a truism which is never even hinted at before loyal patrons thereof.

There are theatres and opera houses that showcase the skills of the most talented performance artistes from across the galaxy. Restaurants in all shapes, sizes and themes cater to the widest imaginable variation in taste, and the mercantile opportunities put the rest of the universe to shame in the provision of luxury items.

Amid all these diversions there exist also discreet salons, clinics and various emporia solely devoted to the enhancement of face and form, in whole or in part. Returning from vacation a new man, woman or being need no longer remain a mere metaphorical conceit, when that respite is spent at Seduxion.

However, for those who truly seek their privacy, the resort offers accommodations from which one’s fellow guests are not even remotely visible.

The chosen setting for such seclusion may resemble a palace, a castle, a mansion, a château, a schloss, an archetypal country cottage (complete with servants’ quarters, of course) or almost any other habitation a vacationer may envisage. Whether it be on or underwater, beneath the ground or high in the air, behind a waterfall or in the midst of a snowfield, Seduxion is able and willing to provide—at a price.

From the grand sweep of a Siraian gletishe, to the narrow glasteel elevations of a Meruvi tower—and even including the vastly anonymous and totally windowless sqot favored by the excusably paranoid Meqelor—the choice is seemingly infinite.

The one constant at Seduxion, whether in isolation or in company, is luxurious living in surroundings tailored to a stipulated level of opulence. The enterprise exists to pander to—and to profit from—the whims of an eclectic clientele whose sole common denominator is wealth, with or without the urge to flaunt it.

That it is also of great benefit to those with much to conceal may be regrettable, but the current owner—grandson Emrys Llywelyn ap Gruffydd III—is first and foremost a businessman.

He steadfastly maintains that his business definitely does not include what his guests may or may not get up to within their isolated abode of choice. (Terms and conditions contained within the positively minute onscreen print naturally emphasize Seiduxion’s absolute immunity from all responsibility, should external authorities deem investigation a legal necessity.)

His business does, of course, extend to the provision of staff proven to take almost anything in stride. Even they, however, are not entirely infallible.

‘Doctor Gethin,’ trills Arek Markis, Resort Comptroller, as the Spaceport shuttle comes to rest at the heart of the resort and its doors slide apart. ‘Welcome, welcome!’

A personal greeting is offered to all arriving guests here at the very center of operations—quite obviously named the Focal Point. The courtesy is a politic move. More than a few of those guests, after all, are numbered among the most influential—as well as the wealthiest—beings in this entire quadrant of space.

Mr. Markis therefore is more than a little taken aback when the first to emerge is not the well-heeled if possibly somewhat prim academic he is anticipating, but an almost excessively large and exceptionally fearsome-looking canine.

The man, though clearly terrified, manages to hold his ground—in appreciation of which Sean abruptly sits, tongue lolling, playing his part to the hilt.

Unfortunately, Arek Markis still isn’t getting the innocuous vibe Sean is attempting to exude.

Delayed by the valet’s less than attentive extraction of his baggage, Ly is a little slower in leaving the ground-shuttle and coming to stand beside his canine companion. Markis cautiously aims a repeat of the greeting toward him, all the while trying to keep an eye on the huge animal.

Ly’s expression is both surprised and slightly aggrieved. ‘You don’t care for my little pet? He’s really quite harmless—aren’t you, Ash, you shaggy old thing, you!’ He puts out a hand to ruffle Sean’s wolf ears.

To name Sean’s wolf little in any respect is ironic indeed. Most Weres in shifted form are larger than their historic counterparts—in Sean the increase is even more notable. Part of his bulk is simply coat, of course—long and thick and glossy—but he is taller at the shoulder and longer from nose to tail than most of his peers. Sean may not be a large man but his wolf certainly merits that description.

And if this weren’t so necessary to get Elijah back, Sean would happily throttle Ly right here and now—he is enjoying his part in this too much. Instead, he drops below the reach of any demeaning pat, resting his head on his paws and yawning wide enough to display every one of his fine strong teeth.

Arek Markis is somehow far from reassured by Ly’s comforting words.

‘Can you be certain that—I mean, I’m sure he is fine with you and with those whom he knows, Doctor Gethin, but we do have our other guests to consider. Some—indeed, many of them—can never have seen so da—so impressive a beast,’ he hastily amends, ‘except maybe through a hunting ’scope.’ That last, infelicitous comment slips out sotto voce, the man almost visibly biting his tongue on a thought never intended to be spoken aloud.

In the face of Ly’s clear displeasure, he hurries on, ‘Of course, if we have your word that he is completely tame—’ he gulps quite audibly as Sean lifts a lip in his direction, ‘—that is, I should say, quite accustomed to the company of strangers…?’ He leaves the not-quite question hanging in the air.

‘I can assure you that some of the highest ranking people in the known worlds have made Ash’s acquaintance and lived to tell the tale,’ Ly says solemnly—and quite truthfully—hand over heart.

Sean allows his tongue to loll, in laughing recognition of the paradox. He withdraws it abruptly in horror when Ly adds, ‘Sit, Ash, sit up now! Good boy. Now, shake a paw!’

Sean really will throttle him—preferably in wolf form—if this goes on.

‘Of course,’ Ly offers soothingly, ‘he’ll be out at the ranch most of the time—that’s why I engaged so large a spread, to give Ash room to run. Today’s programmable track-and-limit chips are entirely reliable, you know.’ That last reassurance is quite accurate in itself—no-one here need know it shall not in any respect apply to Sean.

‘I do not intend ever to bring him with me to Focus, if that’s what you’re worried about. In fact, I doubt anyone else will cross paths with him at all.’

Arek Markis is scarcely listening to this optimistic assessment. His hand trembles violently for the entire second it meets Sean’s obediently extended paw. However, he seems to take heart from the fact that he is able to reclaim it whole and unbloodied. The backward pace is only a tad excessive as he steps back also into his role as confident controller of all he surveys.

‘If we could complete the formalities then, Doctor Gethin?’

He signals to a subordinate to bring forward the retinal scanner and presents the small device only a little nervously before Ly’s face, with only the swiftest of nervous glances toward ‘Ash’.

Fiscal details being satisfactorily confirmed, Markis’ voice now entirely loses its quaver, resuming its normal, confident delivery as he details the comforts and conveniences Ly and his pet shall find awaiting them in the unstaffed-by-request and more than usually isolated home-from-home Ly has reserved.

The ground-to-air shuttle has departed, its place taken by a personal skimmer. The valet is directed to place certain hand luggage inside, while the remaining selection of cases is loaded onto a waiting ’bot float, programmed for rather slower delivery. The sheer amount of baggage might possibly be thought over-generous for a single man seeking solitude, were such wonderings at all encouraged here.

Arek Markis issues a heartfelt farewell, the valet accepts his gratuity, and Ash is bidden to take his seat in the rear of the sleek skimmer. Without further ado Ly tests its speed from a standing start.

‘It’s to be hoped there’s an auto-nav on this!’ Sean grumbles from his sudden ungainly sprawl over the back seat. ‘Zero to 160 klicks per hour in 0.86 of a second equals a horizontal acceleration of 5.3 g,’ he informs Ly, ‘in addition to which we’re climbing!’

‘And you know this statistic, how?’ Ly asks, gazing out at the vast entertainment complex now passing beneath them. He has already warned Sean that, possessing no integral disguise to enable on-the-ground reconnaissance, as it were, he fully intends to sample the delights to be found there. And maybe ask a few questions. With a pretty girl at his side, naturally.

It is his vacation, after all.

‘I like to know these things when I’m driving!’ Sean grins and casts about for the hand baggage which hopefully contains a pair of pants at the least.

Of course there is auto-nav, and of course they arrive precisely where they mean to—amid the rolling acres of a huge ranch. These acres do actually support cattle—and even the very occasional cowboy, though the latter take care to be seen-and-gone shapes on the horizon, merely adding to the general ambiance. When all is said and done, something has to eat all that grass, and even mostly wild grazers need tending from time to time, before their inevitable demise in service to Seduxion’s much-vaunted provision of genuine retro food—yet one more of the resort’s exclusive luxuries.

From the outside the home-from-home in question resembles a typical ranch-house—a long and weathered building that looks to belong where it sits. Inside, it is a different matter. The furnishings are neither elaborate nor excessive—simply designed to be at home anywhere ease and luxury combined are the order of the day. Colors are welcoming without being too warm for the ambient temperature. Materials are mostly natural—even local, apparently—and comfort is foremost. Wide windows open in every direction on an unchanging vista of open prairie that stretches wide toward far distant hills.

Sean’s paws itch beneath his skin. Not yet, though. This hunt requires the cover of darkness. His wolf is not a native species and must therefore not be seen as he searches, sector by sector—the entire resort, if that is what it takes. And, most assuredly, Niconet Perçuile must not see him coming.

He will log in to Geospace before nightfall. On Seidux, the universal mapping program is, by design, less intrusive than elsewhere. It allows overview but no 3D or ground level detail. Which is fine—Sean only needs to know the lay of the land he hunts. The reserved second skimmer awaits his use. At Seduxion, no-one would dream of enquiring why one man and his dog would require such a thing.

Once unpacked—his own clothes and also those Deira packed for Elijah, when retrieved—he splays out over the sectional form-friendly seating that frames one quarter of the great room. It is decadently restful beneath him. He’s going to be spending a lot of time in fur during the next however-long-it-takes. He stretches his human muscles while he can, at the same time aiming for a nap.

Already he is disappointed. He knew it was totally unrealistic but he couldn’t help hoping—almost expecting—that the minute he stepped from the courtesy shuttle, his wolf senses would catch Elijah’s scent, right from the start.

In reality, there was not so much as a trace to be found on the breeze. It is understandable, of course. The in-flight weather info revealed showers prevalent over the past few days—climate being about the only thing over which even the power and wealth of Seduxion cannot buy complete control, except within its many dedicated domes.

Understandable but highly disappointing. It means he might actually have to cover the entire damned continent on foot—or paws—to find him. It isn’t as if Sean would ever begrudge the effort, not at all. He just worries for Elijah.

In either form Sean’s skin is still crawling with need—and he isn’t the one possibly still in heat. He thinks it may be a tad worse since they landed, but can admit that may just be wishful thinking. It is difficult to gauge intensity in something so all-encompassing. He can only hope it truly means his mate is here on Seidux, too.

It has to be much worse for Elijah, of course. He was drugged so he could be almost literally smuggled off Calia. With luck, whatever they gave him may keep him from feeling the worst of the heat, if he is still caught within it.

What if it doesn’t, though?

What if Elijah is still burning up? Leaking slick, clearly well-prepped and desperate to be taken, yet screaming in pain at the lightest touch. Skin to skin contact with a Normal becomes agony once heat has been kindled by a compatible Were. Instalink or no, the intimate details of Were mating are even more rigorously suppressed than knowledge of the Were in general.

Perçuile can therefore have no idea why Elijah may now be a mass of contradictory reactions—seemingly begging for it but too distressed for Perçuile, sybarite and hedonist that he is, to take advantage of his condition. Sean has never forgotten Kas’ suspicion that Perçuile’s interest in this one of his Élite might be as much personal obsession as financial.

In a slave whose sole purpose is that of living sextoy, however, Elijah’s pain, to say nothing of his continuous lubrication, might be considered quite the asset. Sean knows a number of lifeforms—some of them actually human—for whom it would be. His growl echoes a rolling thunder from the wolf inside.

He recalls a conversation from the night Elijah disappeared, and Perçuile’s casually pragmatic recital of the drugs employed to ensure compliance among his Élite. His wolf’s reaction has him wondering if he won’t tear the man to pieces the minute they find him.

However, that is not the thought making his mouth water right now. The aroma of grilled meat is rapidly spreading indoors from where Ly has the gas-grill going already. He arranged for most meals to be automated on demand, with manual mode available at need.

And what better way for Sean’s predatory alter ego to begin his hunt than with a bellyful of the real, red meat—cooked, it is true, but he does have Ly’s sensibilities to consider—that Seduxion promises to its discerning customers?

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Chapter Text

Tired…so tired. Vibration all around, soft-warm beneath him.

Voices, fuzzy, coming his way ‘…keep him hydrated…’ then here ‘…get this down him…’ Familiar, but still fuzzy.

His head is yanked up—wrong angle. He coughs. Cool liquid dribbles out the side of his mouth and down his neck.

‘Careful, Myrin—you’ll choke him!’ A softer voice—female. A hand mops up the spill, slips in back of him. Raises him to drink.

He is really thirsty—drains the cup. Wants more, can only mumble.

Tries to open his eyes. Too much. Soft-warm at his back again and he is gone.

#

Has he been awake before? He thinks so but this time his eyes obey him and he squints against the brightness.

He is alone. Anonymous gray-white walls. Narrow corridor of a room, bunk above him, cleansing facilities in the corner. Faint vibration under and around him—cabin on the Lunar Express? No, he knows that’s not right.

He tries to move—wanting to prop himself on one elbow. He can’t. Tries lifting a hand—it wavers and falls again.

Why bother anyway when he is so very tired? His eyes fall shut.

#

No more floating in and out of consciousness. This time, Elijah knows he’s awake.

This time, he doesn’t try to move, doesn’t even open his eyes. He doesn’t want to. The hackles rise on the wolf inside.

He recognizes the two voices that have been there all along, through his limited periods of awareness.

He recognizes a third now, and he really does not want to.

He knows this is a different place entirely. The ship has brought him somewhere that definitely is not Space Central. He may be shut up here in a windowless box but the air that flows in through the vents is not endlessly recirculated. It’s clean, pure air from a real planet. This is a house, maybe even a home.

He can smell Outside, though not his Outside. This is not Calia. They left Calia behind some time ago—how long, he doesn’t know. Too much drifting.

No.’

Not a shout, but sharp and firm enough to make Elijah pay attention to what is being said, and by whom.

‘But, Master Nico, you promised! ’ Caselja, he knew already.

‘We did indeed have your word, Master.’ Myrin echoes the thought if not the petulance.

‘I believe the wording of the agreement specifies that you two shall be freed when Elijah stands, well and whole, before me. I have yet to see him capable of anything other than lying there in that disgustingly smelly, sticky heap.’ Nico Perçuile’s voice is cold, distaste and disappointment equally clear. ‘To say nothing of the fact that is impossible to touch him without somehow causing both pain and positively unsightly marks.’

The door hisses to behind them and Elijah hears no more, which is probably for the best. He is left to his thoughts in an empty quiet shot through with scents and sounds that only emphasize the fix he’s in.

He is beyond thankful to be the sticky heap that still leaks slick, if it disgusts Ma—No! He will never call him that again, not even in the privacy of his mind—if it disgusts Nico Perçuile del Rama-frakking-Nettorian that much.

The defining, overpowering symptom of his heat is gone. He’s not sure quite how or why. The waves of lust that crashed into him from Ferdek somehow stopped his own desperate need in its tracks. Elijah cannot care exactly how, but it makes sense that his freaky body—which has clearly decided it is to be Sean or no-one—would cease giving off Come fuck me! demands with only the wrong alpha around.

That he is still leaking slick, though, is pretty icky, even managed with a vaguely remembered series of pads and butt plugs. It also makes rather less sense. Although, since Nico finds the smell unpleasant, perhaps that is why? Elijah is well aware that it has radically changed. The viscosity has increased and its sweetness is gone, degraded to a tainted note reminiscent of rancid fruit. A sort of signal in reverse now—deterrent rather than incentive? If that is the reason, Elijah’s not about to complain.

As Nico said, skin to skin contact still burns and the marks last for hours. It no longer hurts enough to make him scream—dramatic whimpers are enough to convince them it’s still more painful than it actually is, now.

The replacement chip in his arm does hurt, now the wolf within him is finally aware. He can feel it as he never did the one he had before. It irritates enough that he’s certain there must be a small amount of silver in it. Not much and pretty deep inside, but an irritant just the same. He suspects that may be what is preventing the rapid healing his Were heritage should deliver. This is more the speed a Normal would heal, he supposes, which can only be a good thing.

It seems likely that the sight of a dying Were would also have helped put an end to the desperation of his heat. One thing Elijah is fairly certain of is that Ferdek Haslar must be dead by now. When he recalls Deira’s brief account of the punishment for rape among the Were, he thinks it may even be for the best, although being torn apart by his fellow alpha wolves would be quicker and perhaps even less painful in the end. Without swift medical intervention, Coren said, a silver-induced death is long, slow agony every inch of the way.

Not that Ferdek actually raped him, though Elijah knows quite well that he would have if Myrin and then Caselja had not intervened. He hopes he would have put up more of a fight himself, if she or Myrin had not already hit him with the drug that eventually took him out. His wolf had pushed so hard to shift and defend them, but it really was can’t and not won’t, right then.

Even fully aware and wolf to wolf, though, Elijah doubts he could have held Ferdek off for long. He has no idea if he will be able to walk on four legs yet, let alone fight. He has never fought anyone in earnest in his life. Maybe his wolf instinctively knows how, but Elijah does not.

And isn’t it ironic that—in a roundabout way—he has Nico Perçuile to thank for keeping him from rape? Did Caselja even know the kind of death she was bringing to Ferdek? Probably not—with any other weapon the shot would not have proved fatal at all. Nico is unlikely to have explained the kind of wound it would inflict. Elijah cannot truly blame her for the action she took to save Myrin’s life—and maybe her own too, as out of control as the alpha had been.

He remembers other things now. In this place, he thinks—the memories carried on a breath of cool air—and so probably not that long ago.

He remembers shivering lying naked while someone examined him. Someone Elijah really hopes was a physician, to say how invasive those fingers had been. Checking to see if he’s still as technically intact as when he left the facility on Space Central, of course. Always one of Ma—Nico’s hang-ups with his Pets.

Except Elijah is neither his nor a Pet any longer. And, while all the ‘training’ he received somehow never seemed to count, given the amount of his recent action with a couple of knotting toys, only very speciously is he any kind of virgin still.

Although, it was the examination of Elijah’s cock that took longest. He remembers that very well, and wishes he did not. Also the inordinate amount of time spent trying to get him hard. The burn did make him scream then, even through increasing layers of med-grade synthex. It was days before he could pee without pain.

Nico Perçuile definitely did not sound happy with the result—or lack of it. He must be pretty sure now that Elijah is Were—else why the silver?—and Elijah can only think they were looking for some indication of a knot. They think he’s alpha! He grins at the thought. Good luck with that!

Sooner or later, though, Nico is going to demand answers in regard to the knot he doesn’t have. Elijah wonders just how long he can stall a confession that he’s not alpha and will never have a knot at all. Then of course, the question of what he is will arise.

Admitting to omega would be stupid if Nico actually understands what that entails—safer to claim he’s beta. They have no easy way of disproving that, or at least, he hopes not. The only way he can think of is to bring him face to face with another Were—unlikely, but very bad news for Elijah if it happens. He assumes his wolf’s awakening—and even more, his heat—must have triggered internal physiological changes to his human form. At least wherever they are now, there doesn’t seem to be any of the sophisticated equipment required to demonstrate it one way or the other.

It seems certain, however, that a future heat will proclaim his fertile status far and wide. He refuses to think what a furor that would—will—spark. No need yet to think that far ahead—maybe another year, by what Deira said. He somehow manages to deceive himself that she never mentioned the possibility of far shorter intervals, too.

He wonders instead, whether Nico specifically wants him to have a knot and can think of one very good reason why he might. Always before, Nico’s wandering fingers had made clear the direction of a desire held in check only by an eye to the generous profit he anticipated when the virginal Elijah was sold.

It seems the trend of that lust may have changed somewhat…

Elijah’s grin is quite delicious now. Niconet Perçuile of the so-proud House Rama-Nettorian, is actually hoping his ex-Pet has a knot. He wants a Were knot up his ass!

Elijah wishes he had someone to share the thought with. Caselja or Myrin would never do—they are too far under his control to dare enjoy even a smile at the expense of their master.

He might share it with his mom one day, perhaps, though she hates Nico so thoroughly and implacably she would probably not see the humor at all.

The one person he can think of that would truly appreciate it is Sean. He has obviously met Nico, but Elijah knows instinctively that Sean doesn't—can’t possibly—like him. Well, he auctioned off Sean’s mate, for a start. Makes no difference it was Sean who bought him, he is never going to like Nico.

So, he above all people should enjoy the irony of Nico Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian—consummate purveyor of fantasy sex—being desperate to take the knot that mate doesn’t even possess!

Elijah snorts quietly to himself, thinking that if he gets out of this, he’ll make Nico the gift of an upmarket knotting toy.

He sobers at once, optimism fading as he wonders if he ever shall get out of this. He wonders even more exactly where this may be.

For now, all he can do is pretend he’s still recovering from whatever drugs they used to bring him here with least resistance. The kind of sex Nico wants of him requires extremely active participation, after all, and the longer he remains dazed and disoriented, the longer it will be before Nico orders the physician to treat him for erectile dysfunction. Long enough, with luck, for Elijah to come up with a feasible plan of escape.

This place has to be hidden away somewhere already in case of pursuit. No, because there will be pursuit, though quite how his dad and Sean can possibly find him, Elijah has no idea. Coren’s tech skills are pretty fantastic, but it’s a very big universe. They can cross a lot of places off the list—anywhere that does not meet Nico’s fastidious standards, for a start. That’s all it can be, though—a start.

Finding him could take a long, long time. There is no-one already working away in the background here to free him, this time. Elijah cannot afford to sit and wait. He has to make his own way out—or at least, he has to try.

He quickly learned that there were other slaves around, though he has yet to recognize anyone but Caselja and Myrin. The others must be house slaves with no connection to the Rama-Nettorian training facility, brought along for their master’s comfort and convenience. What else are slaves for, after all? he thinks bitterly.

For bathing the slick-smeared, he quickly discovered, when they cannot do it for themselves. Or when they will not, of course. He lets his knees buckle under him when they try to get him to walk to the bathing room. They merely carry him then, bundled in so many towels he could be a mummy from ancient Earth. He draws the line at allowing them to attend to the plug in his ass any longer—the one that means his bed linens do not need to be changed twice daily.

These are all older, long-service slaves and he knows better than to trust a single one of them. He feels guilty for taking advantage of them this way but he has to get out of here if he can. If he remains passive, registers pain when touched and is known to be continuously leaking slick—even if there is nothing he can actually do about that—it may keep Nico Perçuile at bay long enough for Elijah to work on the plan of escape that somehow hasn’t gotten very far as yet.

Nico comes to inspect him at regular intervals now—maybe every day, though each one slides unnoticed into the next when you’re bed-bound and allowed nothing whatever with which to divert your mind. He loathes the humiliation of having his ass checked to see if the slick has abated—and definitely does not mention the fact that it flows faster and smells worse for Nico’s presence.

Elijah slurs his speech though every visit and deliberately misunderstands whatever he is asked. He never calls him Master. He never calls him anything at all.

Elijah never questioned his slavery before he gained his freedom—it simply was. Now, the very thought of going back to that state is mental torture, like pure silver for the mind. But he has been planet-side for more than a week or two, he thinks—three or four maybe, he can’t be sure given all the drifting in and out—and has not yet found even the whisper of a way out. There seems not to be a window in the entire place, and he has found only the one exit—which is, of course, code-locked.

His ultra-feeble act is so successful that he is not guarded at all. The last several nights he has slipped silently from his room, daring a little further each time, to explore this house with its single storey, several wings, and every luxury even Nico Perçuile could require—except in this one major respect.

It has no windows.

None at all, not in any of the rooms Elijah has found empty overnight, and there are many of these. Reception rooms and domestic areas of course, but also well-equipped facilities for exercise, a respectably-sized pool in the basement, and even an office of sorts. The AI is obviously though regrettably access-coded and there is actually a small shelf full of real books, though in a language Elijah cannot even recognize, despite his wide-ranging education.

In all of these, as in the passageways between, tiny wall fixtures glow eerily out of the dark here and there, poor compensation for the lack of moon or starlight flowing in gently from outside. The bright-as-day laser diodes are switched off, of course, as soon as Nico retires for the night. Elijah suspects power to be a chargeable extra, here.

On Space Central the absence of windows never bothered him because that was all he had ever known. But after the wide sweeps of glass in every Were den on Calia—and even wider sweeps of countryside for real—he misses them a lot. Especially when he is believed to be too weak to do anything but lie here, day after day. At least with a window he would have something to look at while his brain runs ever faster aboard its own personal exerciser.

Apart from the lack of anything at all stimulating to look at, without windows he has no idea what he will find outside if he does ever manage to escape the house. He is unlikely to get very far if he doesn’t know what lies beyond these eyeless walls. There could be all sorts of dangers he cannot even begin to anticipate.

Maybe Nico Perçuile chose this blank box with that in mind. Or perhaps it was simply to keep anyone outside from seeing in, though Elijah has never heard voices that might indicate passersby. He doubts Nico took into account how much the lack would frustrate his captive, but it works just the same.

Elijah knows from the freshness of the air that he is not in a city. In the quiet of night he catches the scent and rustle of leaves through the vent over his bed, so maybe there are places he can hide, out there—but what then? How is he ever going to get back to Calia if he has absolutely no idea what part of which planet he’s on?

What chance in all the Seven Hells does he have of getting out of this place, anyway? No windows, one exit, slaves old enough to actually be attached to their master, and a security guard-turned-abductor who is trained in combat and probably, from what Elijah has witnessed, in killing too. Plus Caselja, who has never really liked him and may have agreed to kidnap him as much from spite as anything.

Is he being unfair? Exactly how would Nico Perçuile have ensured compliance by Myrin and Caselja once they were safely on Calia and beyond his personal control?

He’ll think about that another time. Right now, he has a bigger problem—as in, what Nico Perçuile will do when he finally loses patience with the stench and mess of Elijah’s condition. When he forces Elijah to confess that he may be Were but he will never have a knot. Nico is quite likely to go ahead and hold another auction then, among an even more carefully selected group of the galaxy’s wealthiest deviants, and dispose of this rarity of a Were slave to the highest bidder.

Elijah has a sudden, unwanted memory of a lesson on lubricators and their use throughout the galaxy. Stupidly, it had not occurred to him until now that he is currently in a highly convenient state of permanent lubrication, however viscous or pungent. A less fastidious being than Nico—one possessed, perhaps, of nasal receptors that actively prefer its rancid note—may see this as an asset. Some may ever prefer it—in fact Nico will probably provide samples in advance to ensure they do.

Huh. The way Elijah’s luck is running, he’ll dry up at exactly the absolute worst moment, and then, Ow!

The burn when he’s touched, and the rash of prints it leaves across his skin? There is at least one way Nico can spin that to his advantage.

And unless Elijah really wants a master whose pleasure is bound up in his slave’s pain, he had better ease up on any audible reaction. He can’t do much about an involuntary flinch but he can control himself if he sees the touch coming. Not the marks, though—there’s nothing he can do about those.

He gives himself a quick, mental smack upside the head for thinking so negatively this early in his captivity. Elijah sighs and drops back against his admittedly very comfortable pillows, wishing he was back on Calia…with Sean.

And not only to share the delectable irony of Nico’s craving to be knotted. His own need may be lessened, with the heat over and done, but Elijah still physically aches for his mate. For the warmth and heft of a real cock inside him, the pleasure-pain of being stretched wide—by a living, pulsing knot next time, the long aftermath of their tying crowned by the mate-kisses he really wants to share with Sean.

His day—and night—dreams of their reunion may be wonderfully positive, but he can never hold onto them for very long before reality forces its way back in. Again.

If escape is to be possible, he has to make his bid from here—while he’s still on a planet primarily peopled by humans. He knows it must be, because Nico Perçuile would never have come here if it were not. He may hide it well in his business dealings, but Elijah has spent enough time around him to know he’s species-ist through and through. And Nico has never had the threat of sex with some unknown alien hanging over him.

The reality now is that even if Elijah can find some means of escape, he has no idea what may be out there—right outside that one door, let alone beyond it. This house could be anywhere—anywhere there are trees, he amends. As much as he has come to like trees, he would still be lost in a forest, somewhere on an unknown planet.

There has to be a skimmer handy, though—he can’t see Nico Perçuile ever walking anywhere if he can ride instead. How difficult can it be to pilot a skimmer—they have auto-nav, don’t they? But how do you program an auto-nav when you can only guess at a destination it might recognize? Maybe they have push button selection?

Spaceport? There has to be one and it must be worth a try—but what then? Say he arrives at this planet’s spaceport, in a stolen skimmer that is all too easy to trace, with no credits, no allies, no anything.

It is possible, of course, that he may find someone who will believe his story and help him get a message to Alpha Prime on Calia—going right to the top would work best, he reckons, for who knows where Sean may be now? Perhaps even someone who will shelter him until a reply can be received.

Possible, but highly unlikely—and only if he is not immediately arrested for theft.

Theft of both the skimmer and of his re-chipped self. No handy gadget here like the one Coren used to remove his original chip. He takes a deep breath and refuses to let himself think about their escape that night—about the entire world he has gained and lost since then. He will need either knife or laser to get this one out, and he is still not entirely sure he has the courage to dig around under his own skin. The authorities will be on the lookout for a barely scabbed-over wound, anyway. Just how fast does Were healing work?

Too, Nico will expect him to head to the Spaceport. Personnel there will have been informed of his escape just as soon as it is known. ‘Proof of ownership’ will certainly be produced, Elijah knows, despite the fact it is now a total lie. If he belongs to anyone, he belongs to Sean. He swallows down that thought—that hope.

No-one in authority will take the word of an escaped slave over that of his supposed master. He’ll be hauled back here and guarded day and night from then on, no matter what Niconet Perçuile has in mind for him after that. Who knows then how long he can hold out before he admits defeat and lets himself slip back into the old, unquestioning obedience?

Either that or other slave-traders will have scouts hanging around the Spaceport on the off-chance of snatching up pretty boys like him, and he will fall into possibly even worse hands.

Elijah lies awake for a very long time, imagining more and more ways an escape attempt could go wrong—each ending less propitiously than the last. When he falls into sleep at last he is exhausted by his own negativity.

He’s too deeply asleep then to register an upsurge in the ever-present simmer beneath his skin. It makes him twitch a little, but nothing more.

And he truly does not hear the far off cry of a hunting wolf.

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Chapter Text

Ly sets the auto-nav, the skimmer rises from the ground, and he is immediately faced by the light array dubbed the Eye of Seidux, which illuminates that entire section of sky. It is almost equally visible from the nearest moon or several of the adjacent planets. He has no idea how many billions of candela the beam emits. He does know its blatant expense of power earns it the Federation designation of Navigational Identifier for the whole of Seidux.

It also serves as a beacon to lure guests from their remote accommodations back to Focus, where their every whim may be attended to—at a price.

As the skimmer draws nearer, that one column of pure light puts to shame the myriad, often gaudy multi-colored OLED displays that illuminate the many spaces, pools, buildings and other, more whimsical structures that make up the vast residential and entertainment complex.

The auto-nav brings Ly to the central hub of Focus—its Focal Point, of course. The name, once again, comes courtesy of Emrys I’s affinity for word play.

From that one huge and grandiose edifice, brisk auto-walks fan out to every sector of the complex. Ly’s aerial view reveals a lighted spiderweb of ground access, each thread twinned with stationary paths for float chairs and occasionally even a strolling pedestrian. For the impatient or those requiring an aerial tour, all-but-invisible glasteel tracks hurry a fleet of air-pods silently to and fro.

Lighting opportunities and slavery aside, even the Pleasure Dome of Space Central cannot begin to compete with Focus, either in physical extent or in the range and splendor of activities on offer. The clientele here is also considerably more affluent, though in many instances no less vulgar.

Where better for Ly to begin his campaign on Sean’s behalf to discover if Nico Perçuile really does have Elijah hidden away somewhere here?

He steps out of the skimmer and thumbprints the ID device proffered by the evening shift’s ’bot valet. On the threshold of the Focal Point’s magnificent foyer he is instantly confronted by a timorous man who knows where his duty lies.

‘Good evening, Doctor Gethin.’

If the greeting sounds at all perfunctory, it is simply because the accompanying attention is directed rather behind and to either side of the named guest.

Arek Markis, Comptroller, has clearly had time to contemplate the damage one huge, freely rampaging canine might inflict upon the reputation of the resort he manages so capably. His face is a study in trepidation, resolutely overwritten by an awareness of his own exalted position here. There is also a careful nod to the necessity of handling a wealthy client with discretion.

The skimmer’s ID must have been flagged direct to Markis’ own comm for immediate attention on approach, or he’d not be waiting like this. Ly wonders if the warning was of the Flee for your life, the Beast is coming! variety, but concedes to his imagination that it was probably more along the lines of Step up, trouble on the way!

‘Good evening,’ he returns. As tempting as it is to tease the poor guy, it will not help his task here to be seen as mean-spirited—these things get around. ‘As promised, Ash remains safely back home on the range!’ he announces with a wave of his hand and a sunny smile.

Relief tinges Markis’ answering smile with more than the customary civility. He quite happily bows Ly toward the many and varied delights the complex can offer to a single man in search of entertainment, company, a fine meal or all three at once.

Ly makes for the seemingly endless bar that entirely lines one wall of the Focal Point. It is staffed by both human and ’bot tenders, each equally efficient. His drink arrives almost before he has finished ordering it. The blue Seduxive Slide—the head bartender is a man after Emrys I’s own heart—apparently comprises pure spirit blended with a tart-sweet indigenous fruit, plus a dash of wholly natural sparkling water from a spring that conveniently happens to rise within the sprawling compass of Seiduxion.

Stifling a wicked grin into his cocktail, Ly contemplates Markis’ reaction were he given the news that ‘Ash’ is in fact a werewolf.

He remains quite tickled by the name he decided on for his ‘pet’. It is short, it’s as commanding as it needs to be for so huge a beast, without being as obvious as Max or Rocky or Spike. Also he may have mentioned how totally apt it is, and enjoys the fact that Sean hasn’t yet made the connection.

Well, his friend does have plenty of excuse. When he finally meets the true-mate he has waited so many years for that he thought must be dead, he has to buy him from a slave-trader—Perçuile may try to conceal the fact under some fancy euphemism but to Ly’s mind that’s all he is.

Mate then rejects him, goes into heat and, although sequestered in what ought to have been a very safe refuge—Ly’s own guilt over this may be as unnecessary as Sean says, but he feels it nonetheless—and is promptly abducted. The slaver has reclaimed him, presumably to be sold off for a second time though—of course and unfortunately—not to the same buyer. The next is likely to be found among a collection of prospective clients to whom Ly himself would not sell a second-hand skimmer, let alone a person.

Put it that way and it is no wonder Sean is focused on more important matters than a temporary name, be it never so apropos. However hard he may try to hide it, he is desperately worried. Perhaps, as a mere mortal, Ly cannot fully comprehend the depth of a Were true-mating, but he does know how long Sean has waited and hoped for his mate and how devastated he will be if their mission here fails and Elijah disappears forever.

Sean is quite clearly head-over-heels for Elijah already—which is strange in itself because Ly has never known him to even look at guys before.

He sighs and wonders if maybe he is fishing in the wrong pool too, and that’s what is taking him so long to find his One. He knows he’s not, though. He likes women—just, too many of them to make a choice, his mom says.

For all his playboy reputation in certain circles, Ly truly is in search of someone with whom to share his life. He is simply very difficult to please. His mother is a physicist and her partner was the first woman—the first human—ever to set foot on Sigma IV. He loves them both dearly, but they set a very high bar for anyone to follow. He is as ready to appreciate a pretty face and a toned body as the next man, but that is not all he needs in a life partner.

He sighs again, orders a second blue Slide and swivels his grav-stool to observe his fellow guests with an assessing eye. He is well aware his unattached status will have been noted at many of the tables set about the huge room. From experience, not vanity, he awaits the first overtures. At least this time, he thinks with a wry internal grin, he won’t be the only one with an ulterior motive, here.

The Focal Point lives up to its name. It is the first port of call for anybeing who wishes to make his, her or its presence—and level of availability—known.

Seduxion is not merely a dedicated provider of the ideal holiday haven—totally devoted to fulfillment of the client’s every whim. It is also a resort that fully embraces its name, being an acknowledged meeting place for the affluent and —however temporarily—unattached of all genders and quite a wide selection of physical and genetic variants. They naturally look to Seduxion as a most opportune hunting ground for alliances of whatever kind, being particularly favored by families with copious offspring of whom they wish to dispose advantageously.

One whole sector of the resort is called Hymenaeus—Emrys III can also be a bit pretentious, following an education that included the truly ancient Earth classics. This manifests also in the number of statues modeled on classical antiquity—often coyly draped—that may be glimpsed throughout the complex.

Within Hymenaeus the staff take great pride in the validation of any and all unions, whether formed here or not. From wholly secular contracts to espousals sealed after the fashion of whatever archaic religion best befits the bride(s)’ and/or groom(s)’ taste(s)/beliefs, appropriate arrangements can and shall be made.

The very setting for the event may be chosen from among a staggering variety of venues, each capable of representing—singly or in combination—the most desirable aspects of the participants’ planet or planets of origin, or wherever else whim may alight. Provision here is nothing if not flexible.

In addition, the widest imaginable range of attire and décor is available to gladden the heart of the betrothed pair, triad or grouping. No matter how rarified—not to say outré—the foods, fashions, favors, wines or entertainments required, the mere flash of an affluent retina will ensure a most memorable occasion in the exact style preferred by each bridal party.

Hymenaeus is one of the most popular and—given the transitory nature of so many alliances in the present age—one of the most revisited areas of the resort.

As much as Ly would like to find a partner, he can’t ever see himself succumbing to the lures offered within the official sector here. A plain unvarnished promise ceremony, with all three of his parents present and Sean—hopefully by then reunited with his true-mate—to stand at his side, is all he will need. Of course, that partner will doubtless have her own requirements…

He only hopes he has sound sense enough not to fall in love with one who will feel the need to imitate a meringue on their joining day.

Already he feels the constant prickle of his shoulders—akin, he suspects, to that of marked prey. He is invited to forsake his lonely grav-stool and join first one group, then another and another. The excuse is always one of welcome and the provision of helpful guidance to a newcomer. Thereafter, however, the invitations are issued thick and fast—to luncheons and dinner parties, to theatre outings, to race meeting or regatta.

Each inviting group or family to which he is introduced contains one or more unattached person in search of, if not a permanent partner, then at least someone with whom to while away the time pleasantly during their stay here.

As a wealthy and personable bachelor, Ly has navigated such tricky shoals before, and in a variety of settings. The ones to beware of, he knows already, are not necessarily the charmingly unattached themselves. It is often, if not always, the matriarchal chaperone of whom he must be most wary. If he is insufficiently alert, there may be less of choice and more in the nature of steely coercion toward an over-hasty match.

Ly is well aware that Sean is relying more than ever here on his tried and trusted—and hitherto effective—self-preservation techniques to keep him single and on task. At least until they have Elijah safe once more.

The trick is to be sure to announce to all such guardians at the outset his absolute unavailability for anything beyond a mild flirtation. Where possible with young ladies of this ilk, Ly makes a point of limiting his contact to an exchange of pleasantries, and occasional offers of a dance, a walk, or a game of whatever.

If such encounters—eventually and in private—stray well beyond either mildness or mere flirtation, that remains a matter for negotiation between Ly and his prospective partner at the appropriate time.

Focus, of course, maintains its own escort service for those patrons who arrive unaccompanied. The escorts are drawn from several genotypes, all sexes and legal ages, possess the many talents required for such a position, and are severely vetted before employment. Their official duties encompass companionship only. More intimate activities may, however, be undertaken in their own time and by their choice. It is inevitable that from some of these business arrangements, real relationships may form—whereupon the facilities at Hymenaeus are quite naturally called into use.

This is the pool Ly actually intends to fish—principally in search of information on Sean’s behalf—other activities as and when they arise, as it were. The dashing redheads, dazzling blondes and sultry brunettes on staff, whether or not actually engaged with a guest, tend to have extremely sharp eyes and ears. As a group they are as well-informed as it is possible to be on the subject of arrivals at Focus.

Within days of his own arrival, Ly’s easy charm—another legacy from his moms, genetic from one, learned from the other—has worked its usual magic.

One of the dashing redheads—Ly has a penchant for hair that is brightly coppered, or dark auburn, a glossy chestnut or bright strawberry blond… face it, Ly just has a thing for red hair, whatever its particular shade—one of these young ladies is especially forthcoming.

She also happens to have remarkably creamy skin and a dusting of the most delectable freckles Ly has ever seen—particularly so, given their most generous secondary location. Admittedly, such discoveries are incidental to his ongoing task but, as he reminded Sean earlier, this is his vacation after all.

Suffice it to say that the gloriously titian-haired Berina has no problem revealing the presence at Seduxion of Dr Gethin’s colleague Messire Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian. Not his exact whereabouts, of course. Such a breach of the rules, if even rumored, is a surefire way to lose her a much-coveted position here, with its many delicious fringe benefits.

Her sympathy for the recuperating nephew is perfectly genuine, however.

‘Poor boy—his illness left him so weak he can’t even walk yet! Of course, no-0ne actually saw him at all, he was so swathed in duvetex and carried directly to the skimmer. Naturally, there were people waiting to meet him and the two that accompanied him.’

Her eyes open very wide now, and not, this time, from sympathy. ‘It was very kindly done, and I do hope he is better soon, but those attendants were all slaves, Ly. Your friend brought slaves to wait on him—people that he owns, Ly! Did you know that?’

Berina is quite appalled by the thought, and it takes all of Ly’s charm, his firm reassurance that Perçuile is far more business acquaintance than friend, and not a few consolatory kisses, to bring her back to the point.

‘So, Cirwen was on retscan duty with Mr. Markis that day. Your friend was saying he hopes the fresh air of a real planet would do his nephew good. Apparently they live on Space Central. I’ve only ever redirected there, but I didn’t like it much—always indoors, breathing that cold, smelly, recirculated air, you know!’

Elegant fingers trace the neat division between well-trimmed beard and the smoothness of cheek beyond as she ingenuously asks, ‘You don’t live all cooped up like that, do you? You’re from Calia, and I’ve heard it’s almost as open and beautiful as Seidux there—the sort of place I’d just adore to visit!’

She gazes up at him through generous lashes, but his only response is to kiss the stroking fingers. Her sigh is almost silent as she changes tack. ‘With a real sun, it’s no wonder you don’t have the pasty look of so many off-world guests. You’re more tan and all…rugged. I really, really like it…’

Ly knows exactly where this conversation is headed and expertly deflects her into more physical—and less precarious—areas of endeavor even as he files away the facts she has supplied. Elijah is here on Seidux, and was probably drugged into compliance for the journey—which will definitely not further endear Nico Perçuile to Sean. As soon as he is able, he flashes details to the comm of Sean’s skimmer.

On a later occasion, Ly entertains Qira—a delightfully dimpled strawberry blonde with a friend who works in the bookings section. Over the course of several extremely satisfactory evenings, she is able to confirm for him that several of the friends he is hoping to meet here will indeed arrive within the next two standard months.

The 'friends' are in truth named from a list Sean compiled of those participants whom he recognized at the previous auction. It seems clear that Perçuile intends to hold a second and far more exclusive one, with Elijah’s Were heritage the added incentive.

Ly continues his efforts to extract information in the most pleasant of ways. The proscription on revealing the whereabouts of the most private guests, however, is so inflexibly fixed in every employee’s mind that he has begun to suspect actual conditioning.

However tricky his intelligence gathering may prove at times, he appreciates how infinitely more difficult Sean’s task is. Ly gets to combine the intricacies of covert investigation with highly enjoyable companionship amid the plethora of amenities Focus has to offer.

Sean, however, is out there in the wild, covering who knows how many klicks each night on his own four paws, fear of what failure will mean for Elijah tormenting him every step of the way, and with little to show for his efforts as yet unless negative results can be counted. Ly definitely has the better of the arrangement in this respect.

During the third week of his stay—hair damp, kitbag thrown over one shoulder—Ly is returning from an energetic stint in the grav gym. As usual, he ignores the autowalk and strides purposefully along one of the stationary pathways principally, if sparsely, occupied by float chairs.

He rounds a corner and comes upon a fringe of those peskily ubiquitous birds—wekas, he remembers. Knee-high and with a sharp-looking beak atop long neck and oval body, they have plumage of a boringly mottled brown. Some—possibly the males, he conjectures hazily, his brief period of ornithological obsession having vanished with childhood—bear ridiculously floppy topknots which, he has to admit, make them look harmless enough.

Of course, Focus would never allow them to remain if they posed any threat whatever—lawsuits being as expensive as they are. To the contrary, they seem to have been adopted as something of a mascot at the resort, appealing in particular to younger guests, who regard their flightless ubiquity as cute and feed them quite extravagantly.

Here, they are quietly squawking among themselves, their heads—tufted or not—all pointing one way, all eyes on an old lady whose float chair is at a standstill. She is arguing with a younger woman—a relative or paid companion, he assumes.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, child! I have summoned help already. Someone will come along soon and see to it—they’d better,’ she concludes emphatically.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Nan—I can fix it!’ She is scarcely a child—indeed, her assured retort says she is quite grown and very independent, if loving, of this granddam.

Ly guesses she may be as much as five and twenty years old. Her face is half hidden by a shining fall of nut-brown hair, but her voice is low and pleasant with a lilt he can’t quite place. She is tall and lissome as she lowers gracefully to one knee by the side of the faulty chair. There is a tool of some kind in her hand already.

He steps forward, ever the knight in shining armor. ‘May I be of assistance,’ he asks.

‘No, thank you,’ the younger woman says quite brusquely, at the same moment as the old lady says, ‘Damn thing won’t move—just stopped dead on me!’

‘Hm. Could it be the coupling between the momentum generator and the aerofoil?’ he suggests. It’s little more than a random guess, based on the little he knows about hover technology, but even if he is correct, there’s not a thing he can do about it. As much as he might like to swoop in hero-like and fix it with a deft tweak of whatever, he is a political scientist not a techie. He does know his limits.

‘If I can get underneath it, I can fix it,’ insists the figure now laid out on the pathway. The encircling squawks grow slightly louder. Ly resists the urge to disagree.

The old lady sighs and admits defeat. ‘Perhaps, young man, you would be so kind as to support me while Rhansi does the necessary? She may never forgive me if maintenance arrives before she has it going again!’

‘It will be my pleasure,’ Ly says gallantly, dropping his kit to the ground. He carefully lifts the old lady into his arms. She may look old and frail but she still has quite a heft to her. The girl could not have held her thus while a tech mended the chair, that’s for sure.

‘My, this is intimate, between two strangers,’ the old lady cackles. When Ly looks down at her, however, the amusement he sees on her face is wholesome fun and not the sly flirt he was dreading.

‘A situation that is soon remedied,’ he says. ‘Doctor Lyall Gethin, at your service.’

‘Serini dela Cerenesci Mantui, and my granddaughter Rhansiana Joreni Daletter,’ she announces proudly—as well she might. The Mantui dynasty has been notable in the politics of the known worlds for many centuries, and intergalactic politics is Ly’s own field.

Neither a handshake nor an attempt at a bow being practical right now, the two content themselves with a cordial nod. The third is busy tipping the float chair to its back—the birds shifting readily to accommodate it—but she looks up and says briefly, ‘Rhansi. Pleased to meet you, Doctor Gethin.’ She offers only a distant smile as she examines the chair’s innards.

Lady Serini tuts, then demands, ‘And of what are you a doctor, Doctor Gethin?’

He wonders if the spark in her eye means she is one of the many hypochondriac dowagers who frequent the resort for the high standard of medical care available here.

‘Alas, I fear you will believe me a sycophant, but I truly am a political scientist. I therefore claim every excuse for my comprehensive knowledge of your family’s entire history!’ He accompanies the admission with a broad grin.

Her face lights up and she proves at once that, if not a prominent politician herself, she certainly has a sound grasp of the value of her ancestors’ input into almost every treaty, alliance or charter of rights negotiated throughout The Federation for several hundred of years past. Their animated discussion is punctuated by a murmur of clucks and rustles as the weka birds attempt to observe and comment on conversation and activity alike.

They are interrupted at last when Rhansi emerges—fingers oily, a dark smudge on her cheek and her face set in a frown. ‘That should do it,’ she says as she rights the chair, but there is dissatisfaction in her voice. ‘Really, these things need far more frequent servicing!’

However, when she flicks the command pad, it glides smoothly forward. The birds all squawk and flap their stubby wings—almost as if in congratulation, Ly thinks whimsically. She halts it with another flick, the frown melting into a smug smile. ‘There you are, Nan—I told you I could fix it!’

There’s such a contrast between Rhansi’s assured efficiency and the short and affectionate, inherently childlike name she uses, that it tugs at something in Ly for a moment.

It is quickly lost to Lady Serini’s grumbling retort. ‘As much as I hate to admit it, you’re a scientist, young lady, not a common mechanic—though neither is a proper task for you!’ She sniffs and the girl openly rolls her eyes. Ly can tell already that this is an ongoing bone of contention between the two on which they are content to disagree.

Which millennium were you born in, again?’ Rhansi is laughing now—an open, carefree laugh. It holds none of the bitter mockery the words might have carried, only honest amusement. Ly finds it so much more attractive than the guarded titters that seem to be the fashion among the other female guests he has met here.

‘Mind your manners, missy, or I shall—I shall—’ the Lady Serini gropes for a sufficient threat, but her affected glare dissipates into answering laughter. This time, Ly feels able to join in without fear of offending either of them.

Ly realizes he is still holding Lady Serini at the same moment she taps his hand impatiently.

‘Put me down,’ she demands. ‘I’m no damsel in distress—though I might have been at her age!’

Ly politely ignores the dark frown Rhansi sends their way and sets the Lady Serini back in her chair. She settles her opulent but out-dated clothing around her. Ly has a keen eye for what the female form chooses to adorn itself with. He is quite aware that shawls and scarves and ankle-length gowns haven’t been fashionable in decades.

Rhansi, on the other hand, wears a snug body-shell—stylish enough in cut and color, but with a variety of strategically placed pockets, into one of which she now slips the useful tool, extracting a slightly grubby cloth from another to wipe her hands, and then replacing it. Such practicalities severely distort the immaculate lines, of course, and the designer of such a clearly exclusive garment would probably weep to see them actually bulge with useful articles. As he bends to retrieve his kit, however, Ly thinks it becomes Rhansi quite admirably.

‘Thank you so much for your aid, sir,’ she says, now. ‘Come along, Nan, we should not delay Doctor Gethin any longer.’

‘Hold your horses, young lady,’ her grandmother retorts. ‘He’s going our way, too—I’m sure he won’t mind the company. I used to ride a lot, you know, when I was young and spry in the saddle,’ she adds reminiscently, setting the chair into motion again. ‘Rhansi still does on occasion. I don’t suppose that you…?’

‘As a matter of fact it’s quite a favorite, though I don’t get as much time for it as I once did,’ says Ly, tempering his stride to the chair’s speed. ‘I understand that the countryside around the complex possesses quite incomparable charms. Perhaps while I am on vacation here…?’

He leaves the question delicately incomplete. To suggest outright, at a first meeting, that he might take Rhansiana Joreni Daletter out riding—with some possibility of a picnic involved—would be crass. If the acquaintanceship develops as he finds himself hoping it will, it may then become acceptable. He is keenly looking forward to it already.

Lady Serini chuckles as if divining—maybe even approving—his reasons. ‘I have heard so, too. Of course, a skimmer ride is always possible,’ she wrinkles her nose, her dislike for such vehicles evident, ‘but nothing can compare with the creak of leather, the beat of hooves beneath you and the wind in your hair as you go…’

When she falls quiet, neither Ly nor Rhansi interrupts a reverie that lasts until the float chair comes to a halt beside a pair of wrought iron gates. They are opened at once by a brisk-looking woman—obviously the competent companion whose duties Ly had at first mistakenly ascribed to Rhansi. Beyond them lies the walled courtyard of one of the groundfloor villas Focus sets aside specifically for older and less mobile—if no less wealthy—guests.

‘Here we are—thank you, Megri,’ says Lady Serini, before turning back to Ly and extending a regal hand to be kissed. ‘A man of such varied interests must make a singularly pleasant dining companion. You shall be our guest here this evening, Doctor Gethin. A gesture of thanks, if you will.’

Ly dutifully kisses, insisting it was a mere nothing but accepting the invitation nonetheless.

As Megri fusses around her employer, Ly finds himself alone with Rhansi for the first time. She is flushed and a little dusty, and one cheek is distinctly oil-smeared, but he really needs to pay her a compliment of some kind.

She forestalls any effort he might make. ‘I thank you again for your aid, Doctor,’ she says rather stiffly and turns to follow her grandmother.

The gates close behind them and Ly leaves reluctantly, wondering what he may have done to offend. Then, from beyond the courtyard wall, he distinctly hears Rhansi’s voice.

‘You promised, Nan! You promised we weren’t coming here so you could play matchmaker. I don’t want a partnership, a contract or—and especially not—a wedding. I have a career, Nan!’

‘You might have a career and a man as well,’ Lady Serini counters. ‘Especially one who is good-looking, well-mannered and quite obviously able to provide for you!’

‘I don’t need anyone to provide for me!’

‘My daughter and that feckless husband of hers may have seen fit to set up a trust fund for you before vanishing to the far side of the galaxy, but that does not mean you can rely on it forever!’

‘A career, remember? I’ll never be short of credits!’

‘That’s all very well, Rhansi, but I very much doubt an entire warehouse of mended machines—or even a positive plethora of credits—will be much fun to cuddle up to at night as you grow older!’

A last sound of exasperation—having, to Ly’s mind, a great deal in common with the hiss of an irritated kitten—drifts over the wall.

Ly is far from unaware of Lady Serini’s motive in issuing her invitation. He has survived several such encounters with predatory matriarchs since his arrival. He knows from experience by now that Hymenaeus has to be one of the most lucrative sectors, business-wise, on the whole of Seidux.

This time, however, he finds himself far more amused than defensive. He is certainly looking forward to a meal shared with this fascinating old lady and her independent granddaughter.

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Chapter Text

The next time Elijah opens his eyes, Caselja is sitting by his bed. He has vague memories of her doing this before, on the journey from Calia to wherever they are now. He can only assume boredom brought her to sit by him and share her tales of Cal City. He was in no real condition at the time to appreciate all she told him, much less to make any kind of comment—but he listened, and he heard the longing in her voice.

She spoke in near-whispers as if even then she felt captivity closing in around her once more. What he remembers is the longing in her face when she told how, in the mercantile outlets of the city, her ID did not mark her as slave wherever she went. How much she enjoyed being able to explore the malls when her only restriction was Myrin’s patience. And even better, how she had reveled in the delicious freedom of going into a bar—accompanied by Myrin, as ever, but still—and not being the ‘entertainment’.

It may not be all Elijah wants from his freedom but it is what Caselja wants of hers. That, and security—he’s right there with her on that one.

Perhaps, if he offers her that—as he really believes he can, if only as Sean’s proxy—she may be persuaded to help him escape.

‘Why are you here, Caselja?’

She gazes steadily back at him. ‘I came to see how you’re doing. Your freedom is the price of mine, and I want out of here.’

Elijah frowns. ‘How come you’re not free already, then? I am definitely a prisoner here. Do you have to wait until I’m hauled back to Space Central before Nico grants it to you?’

‘The agreement is that you must stand before Master Nico,’ she emphasizes the title they all are supposed to use. ‘Stand, Elijah, well and whole—which, you may have noticed, is not happening. You have yet to stand on your own two feet. For some reason your skin sprouts ugly red marks the minute anyone even touches it. You are supposed to be the epitome of the pleasure slave. Not that there aren’t plenty around—human or not—that get off on causing pain. All those pretty little marks—’ the way she says it tells Elijah she has experienced this all too often for herself, ‘—and the sounds you can’t help making—they’re just an extra turn on for that kind.’ Her smile is as bitter as her words.

Now the heat has abated, being touched actually hurts Elijah less and less—he just doesn’t see any advantage in letting Nico know it. The marks still appear but they’re not something he can control.

‘Master Nico isn’t pleased—and he really doesn’t like all this messy,’ Caselja waves a hand, nose wrinkling up, ‘leaking. It’s not normal, he says, so you can’t be healthy. You aren’t well, you certainly aren’t upright, so I’m not free—that’s how this works. And let me tell you, if I never have to stick a plug in your ass again it will be too soon!’

One of the icky things about leaking slick—when you’re semi-conscious and thus not spending ninety per cent of your time in a shower—is that it has to be dealt with some other way. Thankfully, since the time he was completely out of it, Elijah has tended to that aspect for himself. Recently he has allowed himself to be seen dragging his own way to the sanitary facilities—careful always to stagger and grab for support, sometimes falling and having to continue partly on his knees. It makes going for a pee demeaning, but he needs every deception he can find.

He has too much else on his mind to be embarrassed by Caselja’s reminder that she was the one who saw to all his needs aboard ship. Better her than Myrin, who has clearly never heard the word gentle in his life

‘What’s that about, anyway? How come you went from being Master’s Perfect Pet to Disgusting Smelly Heap so fast? You know he has changed his mind about keeping you for himself, don’t you?’

‘What does he intend to do with me, then?’

‘Well, apparently not everyone is as turned off by your leaky ass as he is. Not if they’ve never had to deal with it and it’s touted as an asset, anyway.’ She giggles at the pun. ‘He’s furious about your hair being so short, too—he almost didn’t believe who you were when we brought you in! Don’t you know they like to wrap it round their fingers—or whatever—to control you?’ Caselja’s voice is sharper now and she winces—this is obviously a near memory

‘Anyhow, all this—getting hold of you, bringing you here, the place itself—has cost a fortune, so he’s arranging another auction pretty soon. The medic is working on some way of making sure your new master can lay,’ she pauses significantly, ‘hands on you.’

Elijah’s heart seems to stop. Even if his body didn’t truly need Sean now, he knows he can never accept the life he was trained for, as some wealthy creature’s decorative fucktoy, obedient to its every whim. Not now he knows what it is like to live free on Calia, with his mom and dad in the life the Were enjoy there. Where he was allowed to do and to be whatever he decided for himself. Where even rejecting a mate he had not knowingly chosen was his own decision. What he’d had there was absolutely amazing.

He knows that now, and he wants it—the life that should have been his, but for a bunch of space pirates before he was even born. He will not let himself be sold again. When he was snatched from Cal City, his heat had defeated him even before the drugs took hold. Next time he won’t give up without a fight—and he will go under, if there is no other way. He will not go back to a life he never knew he loathed until he was given the one he loves so much, in exchange.

‘Caselja, if you will help me get out of here, I shall never forget it. I’ll come back for you, bring you to safety with me—I promise.’

With a single glance around she reminds him of their current situation. ‘Oh yes? And how will you do that, Elijah?’

‘He—they will come for me. I—’

‘He? They? Got yourself a protector already, have you—one who means to share you around? Sell you around, maybe, the way our kind usually are? That Ferdek guy was pretty keen on reaming your ass—he not in on the sharing?’

Ferdek Haslar. Elijah had forgotten him again. He’s still not sure whether to hope he survived or not, after what Deira said about the fate of rapists, but it isn’t something he can worry about now.

‘What? No! My m—that wasn’t—he’s not—’ Caselja wouldn’t understand a Were mating any more than Elijah did when it was first explained to him. She would, however, understand a financial motive.

‘Listen, Caselja, Sean—the man who bought me at the auction. He paid a lot for me and he doesn’t like to be cheated. He will come and claim me, I know he will. He’ll reward you.’

Caselja obviously knows exactly how much he was worth to Sean—those millions must have been the talk of the Seven Moons, if not the entire Pleasure Dome. She seems quite impressed for a moment, but then she looks totally skeptical again.

‘No, that’s not right—you were living with Deira, not some guy with more credits than sense. Did you run away from him, too?’ She frowns. ‘Ferdek said you were in hiding up there—what was that about? Did Mister I’m-Made-of-Credits take one sniff at that leaky ass of yours and change his mind?’ She laughs aloud. ‘Oh, that’s rich, it really is! He pays out a fortune and doesn’t like what he gets!’

One minute she is taunting him, her voice cold and cutting, then her face changes and for a moment she simply looks…lost.

‘At least it was a real guy that bought you, not one of the weird things you’ve only ever had to learn about,’ she says bitterly. ‘Never met any but the tame ones for real, have you, Elijah? They don’t have weirdoes like that on Calia—it was one reason I liked it so much. You don’t know how lucky you are if plasti-spin is the closest you’ve ever gotten. You can have no idea what it’s like to actually service one…’ she shudders, ‘…or else.’

This is the most honest Elijah has ever seen Caselja. He knows now how freaked he would be—will be, if Nico Perçuile gets his way—if he ended…ends up as a slave to a thing like that.

No, he will not—should worse come to the very worst, he will make sure of it—though he knows that for a choice Caselja will never make.

He cannot really like her, not knowing how unkind she can be to those younger than herself—though how much of that was Caselja lashing out in her own frustration and hurt, he can only guess. He does want to help her, almost as much as he wants to get out of here himself. He doubts they could ever be friends. He remembers her temper too well—all the snide remarks and petty cruelties—and, whatever the reason, he saw what she did to Ferdek.

But Elijah can imagine her fate all too readily, as her looks fade and her desperation grows. He can never abandon her to this life if there is any way he can free her, too.

Her sudden openness reawakens the omega empathy he hadn’t even realized was gone. With it comes his need for simple touch. He reaches for her hand, surprised when all he feels is warm skin and acute unhappiness—none of the keen resentment he’d assumed he would feel. There’s a trace of the old dislike but it is less than a shadow in face of the small but growing hope in what he offers.

‘Listen, Caselja—Sean is a truly honorable man. If you help me get out of here, he’ll buy you too, and you’ll be free of all that,’ he promises vicariously. He doubts Sean will balk at Caselja’s price if she helps his mate escape. Not considering what he gave for a single slave already.

‘We’ll bring you back to Calia—help you find a place of your own and a job too,’ he promises, realizing Caselja will need more to live on than a cancelled chip and a genuine ID that proves her a free citizen at last.

She pulls her hand from his and narrows her eyes at him. ‘We? Quite the cozy couple already, are we? Doesn’t look that way from where I’m sitting.’

‘What? No, he—I—you wouldn’t understand!’ he says, frustrated at trying to explain his Were mating when he is not yet sure himself how everything will work out with Sean.

I wouldn’t understand? I understand more than you ever will, Elijah, with your home and your family and your honorable man! Me, I don’t have any of that. Given my luck, your honorable man would probably just sell me on again. Come to that, how do you know he won’t sell you on again? He can’t be all that interested if you still register as virgin!’

She would know that—Caselja was always first with all the gossip, back at the Rama-Nettorian facility.

Elijah almost says, My fault, not his, but Caselja really wouldn’t understand it if he did. ‘There’s a ritual, he was waiting for that,’ he lies. Well, there’s maybe a hint of truth in there somewhere. ‘But he would never do that to you, Caselja—he really is a good man. I trust him, and you can, too.’

Back when they were shut away in Ly’s apartment, it was a while before Elijah realized that quite a bit of Deira’s research was less to do with Calia-while-she-was-away than with the career of Calia Prime’s Son and Heir.

At first, he thought Sean’s name came up so frequently between them simply because of his status as diplomat and ambassador to other world Packs. Then he noticed how much of her ‘news’ was concerned with Sean the man, and his reputation among Calia’s Packs—particularly with the betas there. A man of principle, devoted to his family and especially good with pups—both his brother’s two, and their own half-siblings. Elijah began to suspect Deira of hankering after grand-pups of her own. Or maybe…

It suddenly clicks, now his head is clear again. He was his mom’s firstborn, and he is still her only pup. She is not old by any measure and Were longevity probably brings a longer window of fertility too—and he has heard more evidence than enough of opportunity…

He did hear her being ill that last morning at Ly’s—morning sickness.

He can’t help the smile, even here. He is going to be a big brother!

The next thought that occurs to him is that his mom’s pups will grow up with his and Sean’s, like cousins. He knows Were families tend to be long and extensive, just hadn’t yet connected it to himself and his family—or Sean’s, with siblings and their offspring too, he remembers now.

He realizes two things then.

First—he has accepted that Sean is going knock him up sooner or later.

Second—if Nico Perçuile gets his way, he’ll likely never get the chance to have those pups. And he wants them.

Refusing his heritage is one thing, if that is his choice. Being denied it—again—is quite another. With a wry mental eye-roll at his own about-face, he vows not to let that bastard cheat him out of his right to be Sean’s omega.

He looks at Caselja. She is still watching him through narrowed eyes, probably wondering what he has to smile about, here. He’s not about to share.

But he has been lucky in so many ways she has not. He cannot blame her at all for setting her own freedom above his. He knows for himself how truly glorious is the taste of freedom—and how much it hurts to have it suddenly snatched away. She has been hurt too much already. Elijah vows silently to free her if at all possible, even if she can’t or won’t help him here.

He takes her hand once more, concentrating on giving her what peace he can. ‘Maybe you believe Nico Perçuile, Caselja, but I do not. Think about it—he has been paid for me once already. More credits than most people ever see in an entire lifetime, yet he’s quite happy to steal me back and sell me again for even more, if he can. Is that the action of an honorable man? He has broken faith in a legally binding agreement—do you really think he will keep his word to a mere slave?’

Caselja doesn’t answer but the tightness in her face eases and her eyes open very wide. Elijah knows she is remembering the many false promises Nico has made in the past—to his slaves and staff, whenever it proves expedient. To clients only if they have not the means to hold him to account.

‘I have never lied to you, and I never will. If I get out of here I shall find a way to free you too—you have my word on that. If I am sold again, your freedom rests solely on Nico’s word, if you believe you can trust it. The choice is yours.’

‘Even if I wanted to help, Elijah,’ she says slowly, ‘I truly can’t. This place has no windows and only one door—we are as much shut in here as ever we were back on Space Central. There is no guard kept because there doesn’t need to be. That one door is code-locked and as far as I know Master Nico is the only one who knows the code.’

‘What about Myrin?’

‘Not likely, but if he knew he wouldn’t tell. His reward for bringing you back is Master Nico’s notarized agreement to buy out his contract from the SCSS and make it over to him. I’m more expendable, of course—I just have the bare promise. While we were on Calia, you know, I was almost sure Myrin had orders to—’ she breaks off, unwilling to speak the words aloud, but Elijah understands what she means. He believes it, too.

‘It isn’t only his freedom at stake, you see—it’s his family’s security too. He cares far more for them than for the freedom of a single slave.’ The cutting edge is back in her voice, but it is no longer aimed at Elijah and he can ignore it.

Elijah ignores it. ‘There must be some other way in or out,’ he says.

‘There isn’t, I tell you. There are no windows anywhere, no second door. It’s such a pretty planet too, from what I saw of it from the skimmer. I can’t imagine who in all the Hells would want to actually live here, in a house as blind as this one—and I dread to think what would happen to us if there was a fire and Master Nico wasn’t around. Whichever way, you cannot simply walk out of here, Elijah!’

He has to, whatever she may believe. ‘What about supplies? How do they get in? Fresh food comes in, I know it does—even if Nico is the only one who gets to eat it.’ She doesn’t call him this time on his use of the name alone, which Elijah takes for a good sign.
‘Of course, but the pass-through is also coded.’

‘The staff must have the code.’

‘Yes, but they’re all Master Nico’s own —a bunch of house-slaves who’ve been his for years. It’s quite an easy life, if you must be a slave.’ Her tone is bitter once again.

Elijah bites his tongue on the question of Nico’s entertainment here. Obviously, since Caselja has the requisite skills, she must provide until such time as Elijah is deemed fit for use.

‘Forget them, Elijah—they won’t risk their comfortable lives for you.’

‘And nothing else comes in or out?’

‘Nothing—well,’ she temporizes, ‘there’s a garbage chute—it goes straight into the recycler though. Other than that, only the laundry, which is ’bot collected and delivered every other day.’

‘How?’ Elijah demands, his pulse quickening.

‘A small hatch opens to the outside. It’s too narrow for a person to fit through so there’s just a flap with a latch on this side. Dirty laundry falls into a bin on the other. There’s a shelf by the flap for the ’bot to stack fresh linens on. The bin lid may have a lock on the outside, I suppose, but I’m not part of the domestic staff so I wouldn’t know. Speaking of laundry—how do you do that, anyway—the smelly hyper-lubing?’

‘I don’t do anything, it just…happens.’

‘It didn’t used to, back ho—back on Space Central.’

‘It’s a recent thing,’ Elijah says shortly.

‘So, are you really what they say you are?’

‘It depends what they say,’ he hedges.

‘A werewolf?’

‘Is that what Nico thinks?’

‘Yes—are you?’

Elijah knows this is the turning point. As matters stand, Nico wants to believe Elijah is Were but has no proof. If Elijah confirms it and Caselja reports that one part of their conversation alone, he has no hope of getting out of here. He will never again be allowed even the slightest chance of escape.

But, if he doesn’t trust Caselja, why should she trust him to arrange for her freedom once she has been left behind?

‘Yes,’ he says baldly.

‘Really?’ She is instantly intrigued. ‘Show me!’

Elijah silently despairs of her sense of self-preservation. He’d have expected even Caselja to know better than to invite a possibly ferocious wolf into the same small room with her. But then, what she knows about wolves is probably limited to the fact that Nico actively wants his ex-Pet to turn into one.

It’s moot anyway. ‘I can’t,’ he admits. ‘I don’t know how. Truly—I never have and I wouldn’t know how even if Nico tried to beat me into it.’

Actually, he has a fair idea that his wolf would come right out of its own accord in that case. He suspects it’s an encounter Nico Perçuile would not survive, but he’s not going to mention that right now.

Caselja pouts. ‘Why should I believe it, then?’

‘Because I have never lied to you before,’ he says quietly, taking her hands between his, ‘and because I am trusting you with this truth.’ Through the touch, he soothes her fear of being implicated in his escape, and wills her to believe him.

Slowly she nods her acceptance. ‘I can’t help you, though, Elijah—I really don’t have the codes. I’m sorry. I won’t tell on you, though, I promise. If you do manage to get away you won’t forget about me, will you?’ She sounds wholly lost, now.
‘You already have my promise—and thank you for wanting to help,’ he says, the clasp of his hands around hers telling him that she means it. He knows now that if he does finally escape slavery he will never forgive himself if he doesn’t find some way to set her free, too.

‘Where is the laundry chute?’ he asks then. ‘I need to see it.’

‘If you like, but it’s way too narrow to squeeze through so don’t get your hopes up,’ she advises. ‘And even if you could get out that way, the skimmers are both coded, so if you were thinking of stealing one, forget it. You’d have to literally run for it, and no-one can outrun a skimmer.’

Elijah fleetingly recalls another time when he thought he might have to do exactly that. ‘Just tell me where it is.’

Caselja shrugs. ‘Left out of this room, it’s at the end of the corridor. These are the staff quarters and that’s an outside wall. I don’t see how knowing it will do you any good though, if you’re too weak to get out of bed.’

Elijah doesn’t speak, but he lets his mouth curve into the smallest of grins. Caselja’s eyes open wide and she looks half-shocked and half-delighted to be in on Elijah’s subterfuge.

After that, his defiance and her own growing disillusionment with Nico’s promises of freedom somehow bring her totally over to his side. In excited whispers, she tells him a little of what to expect if he can escape the house. Turns out he’s right about the many trees out there, but the spaceport is klicks away and she can’t even point him in the right direction because they shuttled to a place like an outdoor Space Central—lots of shops, hotels and such—before they came here, wherever here may be.

Over the next couple of days she scrounges up a shipsuit to fit him and footwear he might even be able to run in. A package of dried fruits and a water bottle, too. Elijah begins to have real hope.

That night he wakes suddenly, jolted from sleep by… something. He is not sure what. For one sickening moment he wonders if Nico Perçuile has decided all cats are grey in the dark and an excess of lube may even be a good thing in one respect, at least. With nasal filters, maybe?

He holds his breath but nothing breaks the absolute stillness of his room. It’s too dark for that, anyway—Nico would want to see more than this blackout. He is still thankfully alone.

Elijah has no way of knowing what time it is, though that’s always true. He does know it is still deep night—the house is completely silent around him—and it is or has been raining outside. There’s a fresher quality to the air venting into his room. If he concentrates he can actually hear the light skitter of raindrops on foliage.

He likes to imagine this place in the center of a forest—in full leaf too, from the sound of it. He wishes he could be out there, standing naked, arms out-stretched, letting himself be washed clean of everything that has been—and may yet be—done to him. It would be cool and gentle, and it might even ease the simmer beneath his skin that seems to be rising again. He really hopes it isn’t winding up toward another heat.

Suddenly, there’s more than the soft swish of rain over leaves threading the empty darkness—there’s a call in it, too.

This is what woke him. It’s far away and very faint. Without his wolf hearing he would not have caught it, and to anyone else it might just be some indigenous animal howling at the night.

It isn’t. It’s Sean’s wolf. Elijah knows it.

He has heard that sound before, louder and much closer—the sound, and the pain of loss it carries. He heard it that night at the Seven Moons of Sycorial, as Deira hurried him away. Back then he had no way of knowing what it was, what it meant. Now, he hears it for what it is—Sean’s wolf, bereft of the mate he has claimed for his own.

It comes again, between the whispers of foliage, that long and far off sliver of sound. Elijah knows he must be downwind, else he’d not have heard the call. Sean cannot scent him from there—even a wolf nose has no chance so far upwind of his prey. There can be no ground trail for him to follow, either.

But Sean is out there. He is searching, and Elijah knows neither man nor wolf will give up until they find their mate.

He remembers his meeting with Sean by Shining Lake, and how his own wolf reacted before the skimmer even landed. When he snapped at Sean, thinking something about the skimmer was affecting him. He knows now it had nothing to do with the skimmer.

It was the call of mate to mate. It’s what is happening inside him right now—this sudden quickening in the constant, low-level seethe beneath his skin.

Does it work in reverse, too? As Sean’s wolf comes closer, will he know, from that same burn, that Elijah is locked away in this place?

He has his answer in the joy that rises in his wolf. It knows Sean’s wolf is coming for them, and once again it wants out. It wants to howl a greeting to its true mate but Elijah really cannot allow that. No call could carry so far upwind.

All it would do is wake the whole place and prove to Nico Perçuile that his captive is truly Were and maybe also alert him to the fact that Elijah has been followed here. That he is being sought by one of his own kind. Who knows what Nico may do then—knowing as he does that silver can be fatal to them?

It’s obvious why Sean would search for him in wolf form—but does Elijah need to be found in wolf form?

Mentally kicking himself, he knows damned well he could have made more effort to shift before this if he’d wanted to—he had plenty of opportunity back on Calia. As it is, he’s not even sure he could walk on four paws if he had them, let alone run fast enough to escape. Would his wolf have that much better chance when chased by a skimmer?

He’s not really thinking about it in any active way but suddenly it’s as if the whole world shifts around him. As if Elijah does nothing, but in one powerful ripple everything else changes—or at least the way he experiences it.

He ought to be barely able to see a thing, but he sees quite well.

By daylight he can see the vent on the wall high above his bed, of course. At night, he only knows it’s there at all by the faint movement of air passing through. Now it’s even higher above him, its faint stripes a filtered echo of some security light outside, he suspects. When he looks lower down, black solidity separates his room’s scant furnishings from the fluid near-dark between.

He not only hears the patter of rain on leaves, he can smell the sharp green scent beneath—soil too, and grass too. Also an occasional, less familiar scent that has a sort of warmth to it. He knows there is a small nocturnal animal out there foraging for food.

Disconcertingly, his mouth begins to water. He licks his lips and is startled by the length of his tongue and the bristle of fur it meets along his muzzle.

The wolf inside has finally made it out and is intent on calling its mate. It scrabbles its way awkwardly out of the sleep pants he was wearing—somehow discarding a butt plug within them, Elijah is relieved to note—and sits up, raising its muzzle to give voice.

He realizes exactly how much he has inhibited his wolf all this time, but his long practice in refusing to let it out comes in very handy now. Stopping it from calling its mate is—well, it’s not easy but it is possible. It also feels like he’s choking himself.

No—we can’t, he orders. I know they are out there and we need them but that is not the way!

He has never actually tried to reason with it before, only forced it to remain dormant. But it is vital it should heed him now. He needs it to understand he is not refusing to acknowledge he has a wolf any longer, only trying to keep them safe.

They are both quivering with the need to call out, to bring their mate here. It is far too dangerous, though.

Somewhere in this place there are at least two weapons that fire silver, and possibly more. Elijah saw and smelled what silver did to Ferdek. The memory deflates his wolf’s eagerness to summon their mate. No more than Elijah will it ever allow that to happen to Sean. He would rather submit to slavery under Niconet Perçuile again than that—not that he ever shall.

His wolf form tries to stand, wobbling unsteadily on the mattress. Elijah drops him to his belly, squirming forward to ease his forelegs to the floor. His claws skitter and scrabble for purchase on the shiny surface and the rest of his body slithers downward with a soft flump!

Standing isn’t as easy as it ought to be with four legs to balance on instead of two. Elijah thinks back to the first time he tried VR gaming and how he had to learn to control his virtual body before he actually got pretty good at it. The memory clicks something inside of him, and suddenly he and his wolf don’t feel so separate any more.

Now he’s back in charge of the legs, things go better. He retracts the claws as far as he can and pads to and fro, moving more easily with every step. The room is too small to try for a run without smashing his nose into a wall after a very few paces. He wants that desperately now. Outside is calling him—and so is Sean.

He wriggles inside his new skin—and realizes then how much longer and narrower this shape is—especially at the shoulder. The laundry hatch may not be wide enough to squeeze through in his own shape, but his wolf’s is a different matter.

He wonders briefly if his door will even open for him in this form, but it hisses aside as politely as ever. He trots carefully to the end of the corridor and noses at the latch. A deft flick and he’s looking through into the pitch dark, external bin. It’s bigger than he expected, but this place has multiple bedrooms so the laundry deliveries may sometimes fill it.

Freedom beckons insistently but as eager as he is, he knows he only has one shot at this. He cannot leave completely unprepared for whatever may be out there. He returns to his room, thinks about it, and here he is again—human, naked and quivering with anticipation.

A quick trip to fill the bottle with water, then he brings out the clothing, shoes and fruit from their hiding place under his bed. The problem now is how to carry them in wolf form.

Elijah grins. Nico, in his not-so-secret anticipation, brought collars in several —thinking to control the wolf he rightly assumes is concealed within his former Pet. The wolf inside is just sorry Nico will never get to make the attempt.

He creeps silently through the red-lit darkness one last time to claim them. One is jeweled and reminds him unpleasantly of the cythlin regalia. It glitters even in the dim light—irrelevant to the use Elijah has for these now. He chooses two plain ones of different widths and materials.

On the way back he diverts through the food prep area to collect a small laser cutter. There is no point in leaving this place with a chip still in him.

Back in his room he cautiously brings up the light until he can see well enough for what must be done, then folds the thicker of the collars and takes it between his teeth. Clicking on the lowest setting, he aims the laser at the slowly healing scar and takes a deep breath.

He has no idea why his muffled scream doesn’t wake the entire house, but all remains quiet around him. Dropping the cutter he steels himself to pinch out the tiny chip. There’s more blood as well as more pain than when it went in, of course, but he can’t stop now. Swallowing a whimper, he binds the wound with a torn-off strip of sheet and adds the cutter to his meager store of supplies.

Rolling these in the top half of the shipsuit, he uses the collars to bind all securely together. With the legs of the suit still dangling, he carries the bundle along the passage to the laundry chute. It drops into the bin with a dull thud and he realizes it will remain there as evidence if he doesn’t make it out this way. The discarded, bloodied chip would be an even bigger tell-tale, of course. He disposes of it in the sanitary facilities. No need to reveal his trackerless state—they’ll find out soon enough when they try to find him with it.

Resolutely pushing aside such negative thoughts he shifts into wolf form. He is amazed by how simple it is now, after all this time convincing himself he couldn’t. Slithering his front half through the hatch is just as easy as he’d hoped.

There is an unpleasant moment with his back half, though. When gravity takes over and he starts to slide rapidly downward, certain delicate parts of his wolf anatomy catch quite painfully on the hatch’s lower edge. Elijah twists sideways to free himself, but can’t help the shrill whine that escapes him. It echoes eerily inside the bin.

Thankfully he manages to twist and land on all four feet, ignoring the lingering discomfort in favor of triumph. He is hopeful his whine has gone unnoticed—at least no-one has come running as yet.

Technically, he has escaped the house.

However, he’s cramped up here inside a bin so dark even wolf sight is no help. Shifting back to human doesn’t give him much more room and he wishes he’d had the forethought to pick the bundle up in his wolf teeth first. He maneuvers it out from under him somehow and rests it on the back of his neck. The suit’s legs dangle forward over his shoulders. By touch alone he crosses them over his chest, tucks them under his arms, and ties them as tightly as he can behind his back. It isn’t ideal, but with luck the pack will stay on.

Now for the last hurdle. Using the bundle as padding he sets neck and shoulders against the underside of the bin lid and shoves.

And shoves.

At full stretch he can only lift it high enough for a sliver of starlight to show for a second or two before he has to let go. An impossibly heavy lid—unless you’re a ’bot—is clearly a cheaper alternative form of security to a coded lock.

He is not going to be defeated now. Not when that sliver of pale light brought with it miscellany of enticing scents that all speak to him of freedom.

Elijah shifts into wolf form once more, sets his forepaws high on the front of the bin and again shoves upward with shoulders that stand higher now.

Were strength turns out to be no lie. The lid rises easily—plenty high enough now for him to wriggle himself up and out. He ignores how compressed he feels and thrusts hard with his back legs, remembering to twist at the vital moment this time.

Forepaws to the ground, he is almost all the way out before he remembers he has a tail. His body completes the slide-through just fine, though once that hefty lid slowly descends from hips to tail, it feels far heavier along its length. He grits his teeth and whips the rest out fast, like tearing off a bandage. It hurts but he can ignore it in the elation of actually being outside.

A muffled whomp! makes the bin resonate, but he really has escaped now.

Given his now longer and narrower shape, his bundle sags around him a bit—it could do with being tighter. There’s not much he can do about it right now, with only paws to work with and an overwhelming need to get away from here, fast. It won’t fall off and that’s the main thing.

He can put up with anything for being free.

And Sean is somewhere on this benighted planet, searching for him. All Elijah has to do now is get far enough away from this place and call to him. He stands at a loss for which way to go because Sean’s wolf isn’t calling now and he can’t even tell which way is to windward because there isn’t one blowing. Everywhere is quiet and still now the rain has stopped..

He blinks in the rising light—the escape has taken far longer than he thought. When he circles the house it does indeed prove to be an entirely windowless box. He was right that it is set among trees that stretch away into the fading darkness. The one door lies dead center front with a pair of skimmers to either side awaiting use.

And now he catches the sound of agitated voices from beyond that door. House-slaves shouting at each other as if uncertain what to do, and not sure they dare wake their master for orders. Given the noise level, Nico will be awake soon enough whether he wants to or not.

Either an early-riser heard his whine of distress and went to investigate, looking in on Elijah to see if he made the sound. Being so sick, he might be in real pain—a kindly thought, if so, but one Elijah could do without, here and now.

Or, more likely, that whomp! reverberated further than he’d thought. Whichever, he’d best get going—now!

Letting his wolf nose decide which direction, he sets off as fast as his new paws will carry him. Once he is confident at a walk, he breaks into a brisk trot. Soon enough he instinctively launches into the easy wolf lope that covers the ground so much faster than a pair of human legs could ever hope to. As he goes, a myriad hints of scent infiltrate his all-too sensitive nose—too many and from far too many directions at once. He sneezes and runs on.

He weaves in and out the trees, wishing it could be Sean again, chasing him in his fancy skimmer. He knows being caught this time won’t end anywhere near as enjoyably as it would have that day at Shining Lake.

Beneath the lightening sky he runs and runs, out of the wood and across a wide plain. He runs until his paws hurt and his lungs feel like they are close to bursting. A bit more practice would have been a good idea before attempting this marathon, but fugitives can’t be choosers.

Every time he pauses for breath, he looks behind him. As soon as the light is full he sees the tiny shape emerging from among the trees. It is a good distance behind but getting closer and quite distinctly heading his way. With no chip under his skin to betray him, they probably have heat sensor tracking of some kind.

Elijah forges onward through a grove of trees and scattered bushes, racing out the other side only to come up at last against a sheer rock face. It stretches up and out on either side—on and on in every direction, seemingly without end.

He halts, wolf tongue lolling in a desperate attempt to find enough oxygen to think straight. His brain seems stuck on a loop of frantic epithets.

With the skimmer closing in so fast there is nowhere he can go. His one chance at escape has failed.

He is trapped here—caught between rock and a truly hard place.

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Chapter Text

‘It is scarcely my fault that, of the two of us, I alone possess the magnetic charm and impeccable good looks required to accomplish the more delicate aspects of this mission!’

Ly dips his head in what Sean knows for totally false modesty. His grin, too, tries for self-deprecating and misses by several klicks.

‘You, on the other hand, merely have the wolf nose to do the sniffing out. So, quite naturally I get to appreciate the fine wines, the exquisite cuisine and some remarkably fair ladies in the course of my investigations at Focus, while you get sore paws and remarkably sharp thorns in remarkably uncomfortable places!’

He snorts back another laugh, waiting for his hands stop to shaking from suppressed mirth before he applies the extraction device again.

Sean winces—not because it hurts but because suction irritates the wolf inside.

The terrain of Seidux isn’t all that different from that of other planets he has had the chance to range in wolf form. It does, however, have a number of indigenous plants he has not met before. One of which is short on height and long on deeply infiltrating thorns.

Stupidly he hadn’t limped far enough away from where he picked up just such a thorn before he shifted to remove it from a back paw with human fingers. While sitting down. And, of course, quite naked.

A cluster of these thorns is a literal pain in his ass. Not as incapacitating in the short term as a single thorn driven deep into the paw you need for running, but irksome nonetheless.

They are still nowhere near as annoying as the doubled-up laughter—for far longer than is surely necessary?—from the friend who eventually deigns to extract them from exactly where Sean himself can’t reach.

His jaw tightens and it has nothing to do with the weird sensation as Ly removes the last and deepest of the thorns. He resents this delay as he resents anything that stands in the way of bringing Elijah home to Calia. He promised Coren and Deira he would do it, and so he will.

They wanted to retrieve their son themselves—again—of course they did, but Sean and Ly have by far the better chance of achieving it from Seidux. And more than that, ‘This time, the right is mine,’ Sean told them firmly.

No matter what Elijah may wish to believe, their wolves already know themselves to be true-mates. Sean’s need to find Elijah is a sharp fear that cuts far more deeply than the ongoing twist of desire beneath his skin. A very real fear of what may happen to a naïf Were with a raging need to be taken—if his heat persists—and the twin gifts of self-lubrication and self-healing, in the hands of one of Niconet Perçuile’s wealthy, conscience-less clients.

‘All done,’ says Ly, serious once more. ‘I used the cautery setting—a couple were in pretty deep and almost as inflamed as if it was my ass, not yours.’

Were-healing should take care of all such minor injuries, but Sean has been eating too little and pushing himself too hard for it to catch up. He has worn the skin of his pads down to raw, bleeding flesh over and again. Even on Were paws, tender new skin needs a little time to harden up. Raw spirit, when applied, hurts more than it helps, now.

It would make sense to rest up and let himself fully heal, but he can’t seem to do that. He only sleeps by setting the skimmer to auto-nav itself out to the next sector marked for search.

Healing is never a problem when Sean is home on Calia for any length of time and in and out of wolf form. When he travels, with few opportunities to let his wolf run free, his pads get soft and need toughening again for the terrain he meets. They need easing into it as much as his human lungs need to clear and stretch after months of breathing recirculated air.

Between the last, fairly long mission and his extended stay on Space Central—plus the quick turnaround to follow Elijah here to Seidux—he has had little time for either. That one good run the night he finally arrived home pushed both lungs and paws quite hard. It felt good at the time but this—running every klick the skimmer is not permitted to cover—is bringing him far closer to his limit.

He knows he should get more sleep but skimmers of this class aren’t exactly designed for sleeping in. Even when he returns here to the cozy bed awaiting him here at the ranch—and despite Ly’s unaccustomed mother-henning—he simply can’t settle to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time.

Instead, he lies awake before the widescreen in his room, watching his mate. No longer Nico’s semi-pornographic record of Elijah, Pet and performer, but something far better. He has the real Elijah captured here.

Anira sent him off on this hunt with a reassuring hug and the v-log of an event held recently out at Shining Lake. It was a Gathering in celebration of the return of the two wanderers and the gift of their son, preserved as part of the Lake pack’s archive.

Sean has watched it for hours on end, both here and alone in his quarters aboard the Lunar Express. He even shared it once with Ly, wanting his friend to know more of his mate than the jittery, hormone-driven mess Elijah must have been by the time he arrived at Ly’s penthouse apartment. Meeting someone wound tight in the throes of his first heat could never be ideal.

The v-log isn’t all about Elijah and his parents, of course. It is primarily a record of festivity at Shining Lake, and whoever was responsible for it took care to include as many of the residents as possible. Inevitably, though, the focus is on the returnees since the whole thing was held in their honor.

Sean is grateful—and at the same time more than a bit irritated—that whoever was behind the camera was far more interested in Elijah than in Coren or Deira. On them, as on all the others there that night, the camera glances over their faces, recording their smiles, the dancing, their enjoyment, yes.

But on Elijah it lingers, seemingly on a mission to catch his every expression—maybe because they are so many and all so different. The wonder there, when he arrives and sees the great fire, is a wonder in itself. His momentary recoil at sight of so many people gathered together—to anyone else it might look like shyness, but Sean is almost certain it is a clear flashback to the audiences he was forced to entertain.

He senses more than sees Elijah’s discomfort during the greeting ceremony, though Sean is not sure why—he was certainly graceful enough throughout. His reactions vary as Deira and Coren urge him to choose from the potluck spread of probably unfamiliar foods. Full appreciation of those he likes, an attempt to be polite about those he clearly—to Sean, at least—can barely even swallow.

His initial unwillingness to dance when he’s invited to, and the sheer relief on his face when he sees everyone up and joining in—no perfection, no staging, just moving for the fun of it. No audience either, handcam aside, only those who are sitting this one out. It has to come as a huge difference from everything he has known before.

Sean watches the contretemps with Ferdek Haslar intently—his belligerence, Coren’s quiet fury in defense of his son, Alpha Sylis Rayt’s anger. Here then is a clue to Haslar’s involvement in the abduction.

On the whole however, the Shining Lake Pack is most welcoming. Cubs his own age seem to give Elijah a pretty wide berth, which is not unexpected. It makes Sean a little sad for him, though his wolf is more than pleased by it.

The vid is a good thing to have—to see Elijah home at last, in the life that should always have been his. Sean feels he knows him a little better now, though it spikes the need beneath his skin—and his fear of what failure here will mean for Elijah—to almost unbearable levels.

He begins to wonder about Ly and what he needs, too. He may have stated quite brashly that he intends to while away his time here with all the prettiest girls he can find—without, of course, losing sight of his part in the ongoing search.

However, Sean knows quite well that his friend is as much in need of someone to share his life as Sean himself. For a good guy who attracts girlfriends at the drop of his academic cap and somehow manages to let them down so gracefully they actually remain friends, Ly is having a lot of trouble finding his One.

He has been remarkably quiet of late about his conquests at Focus, now Sean comes to think about it. Early on in their stay, there had been a very occasional overnight guest. He remembers one in particular, for all the wrong reasons.

‘Nice to see you again,’ Sean told Ly the next time they met. ‘Sorry I didn’t hang around when I was home before—you had company and our ears couldn’t take the pitch!’ He had stayed only long enough for a quick shower and to restock the skimmer, and gotten out of there fast.

Ly gave him an understanding nod. ‘I started to feel the same way myself before the evening was over. Appreciation of my skills is one thing—at that level, it’s quite another! There are dulcet tones and there is Shireel’s voice, and never the twain shall meet.’

He’d sighed heavily. ‘She has a temper, too—it’s the hair, of course. Anyway, you needn’t stay away on her account—she’ll not be coming again. I guess she and I just aren’t as compatible as I hoped.’ He frowned. ‘Believe it or not, she shares a villa in the complex with her family. Which is presumably why she was so keen to accompany me here rather than going up to her room. It would have to be soundproofed for her to entertain a suitor there, and I'm not sure you can arrange that on short notice, even here at Seduxion!’

Sean had heard the trace of sadness then, beneath his attempt at a careless comment. On his more recent visits, however, Ly has looked considerably more content. Can he have found her at last—that special person he’s been looking for, practically since Sean has known him? Sean can understand Ly keeping quiet about her if he has—for several reasons, not least because Sean has yet to find Elijah, but also because he may not quite believe it himself, yet. Sean can only hope it is so and silently wish him luck.

Of course, Sean has waited many years to find his own mate, and now it has finally happened, Elijah doesn’t want a mate at all. Even the compatibility inherent in a true-mating can’t guarantee a happy-ever-after, it seems. Ly doesn’t even have the dubious benefit of a Were mating bond to help matters along.

But for this minor irritation of thorns, Sean had not reckoned on checking in at all, today—a couple of times he has ranged for days on end without returning. He takes along food tabs of course, though half the time he forgets to eat them, and anyway his wolf prefers the game they occasionally flush out. It is mostly edible enough—except for that one of the gawky, flightless birds seemingly present almost everywhere. It was suspiciously easy to bring down and completely inedible. It tasted exactly like rotten fish—clearly a survival ploy. His wolf won’t make that mistake again.

He realized early on in his quest that he was being watched, if not quite all the time. He can feel when there are laser eyes on him and when there aren’t, for instance, and this is not the constant, implacable stare of an aerial tracker. It’s just…he knows if he’s being watched, when he is on the ground and wolf.

It can’t be human surveillance. Setting aside that no human could keep up with his wolf’s pace, it happens way out in the wilds where he suspects few if any people have ever ventured. The scents there are all quite natural, too.

Planet to planet the inanimate parts—earth, rock, water, plantlife—vary in appearance, of course they do. But there is a definite commonality of scent—as if one underlying theme threads throughout the universe. The surface details may vary quite a bit but the basic structures and some of the lower forms of life remain the same, though higher ones often differ quite notably.

There isn’t much he can’t at least associate with a scent from Calia—as evidenced by the fish-stink birds.

It was already too late when he finally read in the Hunter Orientation notes that eating wekas is definitely not recommended, or he would have kept his wolf from trying one that first time, whatever his drive for self-caught prey.

They really are an abundant species—adaptable too. He literally comes across them everywhere. The terrain may change but, no matter how high the altitude or how low—how sandy, boggy, rocky, grass-covered or any other type of landscape whatever—he finds weka birds there, making the best of it.

Their long-necked, beaky heads with beady little eyes are always around—some with fluffy topknots, some without. They peek from the interior of bushes, they rise periscope-like from clumps of long grass, they peer inquisitively from atop boulders. In fact they seem to ogle him from any vantage point whatever, and often quite blatantly from none at all.

Growling at them has no effect. Maybe the predators of Seidux all share a Once tasted, twice shy policy, and the fact that Sean isn’t hunting them proves he won’t. They still watch, though. It’s a bit like having incurably nosy neighbors, planet-wide.

It is probably their ridiculous but undeniable cuteness that diverts his suspicion. It takes him longer than it should to realize it’s their eyes he can feel on him wherever he goes. There seems something more dedicated to it than the casual curiosity of the usual birdbrain, too—though birds elsewhere give his kind a wide berth from the start, of course.

Nothing ever comes of their surveillance—how could it?—so he lets it slide as a cause for concern.

Seidux is home to a variety of prey animals aside from those vile-tasting birds. The small, 6-legged runners make a far more palatable meal when he gets too hungry to keep ignoring his hunter’s instincts. They look a bit like rabbits—setting aside the extra legs that mean they scurry instead of hop—and taste like them, too. Even they have a nasty bite, though, if your kill is less than clean. Sean hadn’t realized he’d gotten so far out of practice. Luckily that was an early catch, while his healing was fully functioning.

Then there are smooth-skinned semi-aquatic creatures that have swim-fins but also stubby legs that let them walk on land. They have a wide, flat tail—the tastiest part—and remind Sean of beavers back on Calia.

Seidux’s predators don’t seem to care much for his wolf scent. He occasionally hears them hunt and make their kills, but he rarely catches more than a fleeting glimpse.

The weirdest he has seen is a creature he thinks might be related to the lizards they have at home, except that it’s striped lengthwise, white on black, and runs on two legs. It also stands three standard measures high—way taller than the very biggest lizards Calia can boast—with another two of sinuous tail snaking out behind. The forelegs end in needle-sharp claws, and the cruelly curved beak looks capable of massive damage to anything small and unarmored.

From above the eyes sprouts a double fringe of quills that run all the way back to its hips, sprawling out into a saddle across its shoulders. Sean wonders how it can possibly mate without serious injury to one party or the other, but maybe he has only met the male of the species.

It is not as aggressive as it looks, however—not when faced with a fellow predator. One low, warning growl sends it scuttling for cover.

The largest hunter—one even he made a point of avoiding, the only time he caught sight of it lumbering through a section of forest—is a carnivorous bear-like creature. In shifted form, Sean may be an exceptionally large wolf but he felt a mere pup by comparison. It stands almost twelve measures tall with teeth and claws more fearsome than anything a Were can boast.

Fortunately, it seems only to inhabit the higher and least accessible mountain areas so he is unlikely to meet with another. A quick check on Geospace revealed there are no vacation homes or hunting facilities within several thousand klicks in any direction. It seems even Seduxion honors the Federation policy of preserving indigenous wildlife from indiscriminate hunters on two legs. Sometimes on more than two, of course, and occasionally none at all, the clientele here being genetically and eclectically inclusive.

Or perhaps it’s the danger to those hunters that persuades Seduxion into giving its territory a wide berth. Sean wouldn’t know—he has far more pressing matters to worry about.

That first night, he used GeoSpace’s overview of Seduxion’s continental terrain to divide it into logical sections for survey. It would be a mammoth task to systematically quarter each and every one, but if that is what he must do to find Elijah, then so be it.

Geospace indicates quite emphatically the sectors where skimmers are forbidden to all but occupying guests—the places Sean’s paws alone can carry him. Skimmer intrusion without the allotted code activates photonic proscription of a quite unpleasant kind—an extremely unpleasant kind, if you happen to be wolf, inside. The resort takes its promise of privacy very seriously.

With skimmers the most usual form of transport—a variety of others being available on request and at extra cost, of course—there is no physical trail for Sean to follow. He must actually approach each of the many isolated dwellings scattered across Seduxion, as close as he can get. Scenting the air around each one is the only way to tell if Elijah is or has been there.

A better detector is the jitter beneath Sean’s skin. He knows now that he didn’t imagine the slight increase when he arrived. Elijah is here, and even if he is locked away in some double-skinned safe-room—an unlikely provision, but possible given the notoriety of some of the resort’s clientele—Sean will feel his presence when he draws near.

It has barely changed since that first day, however. For all the klicks he has covered, he can’t be searching the right area yet, which is something of a worry.

Ly’s investigations prove that not only does Nico Perçuile intend to hold a second and far more exclusive auction with Elijah’s heritage—unspecified, it seems, but guaranteed to be fabulously rare and exotic—an added incentive. A select few of the would-be buyers from the previous one have already been invited. Sean has not yet reached the stage of panicking about it, but he is getting there.

This has to be the ideal place to hold it, of course. No-one at Seduxion would ever question the motives of an assembly of like-minded guests, no matter what the nature of their common interest may be.

The timeframe for finding and retrieving Sean’s true-mate is rapidly contracting. The invitees will begin to arrive in little more than a standard month, now. No, he isn’t panicking, but he has begun to wonder if there might be some more productive way of searching. He can’t think of one, however, and other than stalking a likely participant and gate-crashing the auction when it occurs—which is likely to prove tricky if not impossible—he can only keep on going as he is.

In any other jurisdiction, arriving with his own proof of purchase—Sean has kept it, distasteful as it may be, to restore it to the only one who should ever truly own such a thing—would see Elijah returned to him. However, given the absolute secrecy surrounding this auction, the acquisitive intent of Niconet Perçuile’s invitees and the arrogant conviction among the amoral rich that what they want they shall have, Sean doubts he would leave the place alive.

So, yet another sunrise sees him pursuing his self-assigned search. The difference today is that he has somehow acquired company of a most unwelcome kind.

He crests a high ridge and is dismayed by the slope of razor-edged scree that opens below him. With a skimmer stalking close behind him, he has no choice but to descend and hope to reach the distant treeline before they catch up. Only in thick cover can he make ground again.

His paws are almost in ribbons before he feels the welcome shade close over him. Whoever is in that skimmer has been behind him since their trail crossed his, just as the light grew strong enough for the occupants to catch a sight of him. Sean is beginning to tire—he has been on his feet almost continuously since the previous morning. He was making his way back to the skimmer for a doze when they spotted him.

It is clear by now that they are after him specifically—using thermo-seek equipment, to judge by the relentlessness of the pursuit. This is not one of the hunting sectors, however, and wolves are not among the permitted species depicted in the Hunter Orientation notes. They cannot be, in fact, because there are none indigenous to Seidux.

Do these people not care what prey they chase or—Sean’s breath catches—or are they intentionally hunting wolf? One wolf in particular…?

Elijah’s wolf?

Has Elijah actually managed to wolf out at last, and somehow escaped Perçuile in his shifted form? Is the skimmer really hunting Elijah?

His own danger means nothing to Sean when he knows just how little awareness Elijah can have of his inner wolf. How has he even managed to escape at all, much less elude a hunt, when he has no experience hitherto of his four paws?

If there is only the one skimmer, however, and Sean can keep it on his trail and not Elijah’s, he should be safe enough from discovery for now. Beyond that and alone, true safety is unlikely as yet. This sector is much too far from the ranch for serendipity to bring Elijah there, and a documented slave—no matter how false that documentation—will always be returned to a claiming ‘master’.

About that, Sean can do nothing for the moment. This hunter will not readily give up his prey, even if the intent is anesthesia rather than death. At home on Calia he could quite easily shake such pursuit but here on unfamiliar terrain, evading thermo-seek will not be so simple. He knows of no handy range of caves—nor even a single one. The only secure cover he can think of is his own skimmer, still klicks away.

He can make it there. He can do this for Elijah. He will find it and shift, and with Elijah free and not too far away, the roil within his blood will bring him to his mate at last. All else can wait. Sean’s pulse quickens to the sudden surge of need beneath his skin. He sets off again, though it is no longer the smooth lope of a fit and healthy wolf.

The finger of woodland comes to an abrupt end on another ridge. Sean is out in the open again, the sun shining brightly on him and the ground falling away beneath his feet. The slope is steep but at least not razor-sharp scree this time, for which he is more than thankful.

He is about to plunge downward when he is brought up short.

Hey, you!

Sean tenses, muzzle testing the air for any trace of human scent, but there is none. He cannot make out where the call came from. The skimmer is nowhere near close enough yet—and anyway, he doubts whoever is in there is wanting to chat with him.

There’s a guy called Elijah out looking for you!

Sean instantly forgets suspicion, caution—everything but the fact that Elijah knows he’s here, is maybe coming to meet him, and whoever this is, knows it.

He pauses at the very edge. There is no-one in sight, only a couple of those damned ubiquitous birds peeking out from the last of the trees.

Where is he? Is he safe? Show yourself! he demands, ears swiveling in search of someone to talk to. Exactly who is unimportant, and how they know totally irrelevant, if the person can help him find Elijah.

In the moment, it does not occur to him that he is still in wolf form and ought not to be able to speak at all. Never mind, he amends, can you get a message to him for me? Tell him to find a place to hide and I’ll be with him as soon as I can!

A sudden loud crack reminds him just how close that skimmer has gotten.

Stopping at all was a bad mistake. Letting himself show against the skyline was quite simply stupid, he realizes, as his right foreleg is swept from under him with the force of a blow. Thrown completely off balance, he plunges headlong from the ridge.

He plummets downward, bouncing and rolling. His head slams painfully into something very solid before he lands heavily at last.

In an instant all is darkness.

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Chapter Text

Panting heavily, Elijah casts a despairing glance over his shoulder.

The skimmer has not found him yet, but it cannot be long before it does. The trees may shield him from view for a little while, but all that does is delay the inevitable. Wall or no wall, no wolf can ultimately outrun something as fast as that.

It will be here soon enough, still somewhere amid that last small copse right now, probably flying low to the ground to concentrate the sensor beam. An occasional metallic flash through the leaves tells him the search is disciplined, sweeping to and fro in case their quarry has found refuge in a hollow beneath roots.

Any moment now the searchers will be satisfied he is not hiding there and the skimmer will fly out this way. They will need no sensor then for he will be in full view. And Myrin at least must know it is a wolf he is pursuing, not merely Nico’s human slave.

Elijah stares up at the wall of rock that rises way above his head—seems like it reaches halfway to the sky. It may well be climbable, but how would he know? He has never climbed anything in his life. And he would have to shift even to make the attempt so he’d be naked—no time to get into the shipsuit. They would spot him in an instant, pale skin far too obvious against the sheer red rock.

As desperate as he is not to be caught, he has to accept that his bid for escape has failed.

Suddenly there is movement off to his left. A fuzzy brown something seems to erupt right out of the rock face. Behind it Elijah sees the low, dark space it came from.

The words In and Quick are just his desperation talking.

It is a chance, though. Without a second thought he slithers out of the loose shipsuit bundle. Shoving it before him with his muzzle, he worms his way down the short passage. It is almost as tight a fit as the laundry hatch—thankfully without that last painful edge—but it opens into a pleasantly roomy cave.

Light seeps in from a waterworn fissure high above and a quick glance around reveals a surprising glint of color to one side—a spray of feathers, he notes, and almost iridescent. There is also a fairly neat accumulation of fuzzy plant stalks, in the farthest corner from the entrance—a nest or sleeping place, he guesses.

The light is sufficient to make it clear there is only the one way in or out. His belated second thought finally arrives to point out that he is now completely trapped in here, his only advantage that they can’t come in and get him. Death by starvation may actually be his sole alternative to slavery.

But did whoever is in the skimmer—Myrin, of course, but maybe others, too—did they actually catch sight of him as he scrambled in? Or, and more likely, will the heat sensors betray him anyway? Though, they would have to be angled directly inward and down to do that, wouldn’t they?

He cannot just sit here quietly and wait to find out, whichever way. It’s a risk, but he needs to know what is happening out there. He turns around and belly-crawls toward the entrance, pausing far enough back that he can see but hopefully not be seen.

Most of what he sees is the back of the something whose sudden appearance showed him the cave’s small entrance. It is clearly a bird of sorts—long-necked and somehow quite appealing. Much too drab to have shed the feathers he saw back there, however. It has plopped itself down right in front of the entrance and is clearly outlined before him against a thin, early morning sky.

Watery blue gives way suddenly to the sharp metallic shine of a skimmer as it slides slowly past the opening. It is huge and menacing in itself, from Elijah’s now much lower vantage point. He draws back, flattening head and ears onto his paws. He even holds his breath as it seems to hover for several moments, right in his line of sight.

He spares a thought for the poor bird out there, worried they may take a shot at it in frustration at losing their true quarry. Fortunately the skimmer simply glides almost silently along the wall of rock until even the tailfins go by. He still can’t relax, though. He has to creep farther forward, to peek from behind the sheltering bird and watch the skimmer repeat its meticulous sweep search. Eventually it soars away toward the rising sun and Elijah can breathe again at last.

Myrin must assume he has been following a false trail—after all, what bird would sit in place quite so tranquilly if a wolf just passed this way? And whatever heat the sensors picked up here would not be Elijah’s—he was shielded by both rock and bird.

Whatever its reason—if birds can actually reason—this one sat there in full view, practically offering itself as an alternate target. Can it really be that stupid, or is it just astoundingly oblivious to its own danger? Elijah is truly grateful, whichever way.

He slithers back down into the cave. He is sure now that this has to be the best and safest place to wait out the hunt. There is room and light enough, and more—he hurries toward the sound and smell of water trickling slowly down the back wall and laps gratefully from the shallow pool formed at its base.

He is beyond thirsty—more like parched, after all that running. A bottle of water in your pack is as much use as nothing when you daren’t stop and shift to regain fingers that can open and lift it so you can drink. So much for his careful forethought.

Turning, tongue swiping away the water droplets from his muzzle, his attention is caught by a rock shelf above the pool. It holds what seems to be a collection of sorts—the iridescent feathers he saw before, long and curved and very beautiful, ranged behind a row of variously shaped and colored pebbles. A chunk of what looks like amber catches the light—it has an insect embedded in it, he notices—in front of an assortment of enormous fir cones.

It seems odd to find such an artistically arranged collection here, but it can wait. It feels more important to shift back to his more usual self again, right now. He thinks and finds the roof plenty high enough to stand upright on two legs instead of four. The place on his arm—or foreleg—where he took the chip out doesn’t even hurt any more, despite all the running. The makeshift dressing fell off along the way but the would has closed to a thin pink line already—were-healing in action, he realizes.

He unties his bundle and shakes out the shipsuit. Standing here in nothing but his skin, he ought to be cold and isn’t. Either his blood runs hotter now he has finally embraced his inner wolf, or his wolf’s fur somehow warms him on the outside, too. He’ll still feel better with clothes on, though.

Hopping on one leg, he shoves the other wildly into the shipsuit. When he topples over he simply lies there on the floor and giggles—even whoops a few times in relief at his narrow escape. The adrenaline is making him giddy and he really could care less.

He has freed his wolf and run with it at last.

He has escaped Nico Perçuile’s clutches—again, even!

And, best of all, Sean has come for him. Sean’s wolf is out there somewhere, looking for him.

In either form, Sean has to be a whole lot better than Elijah at navigation of any kind. If he stays hidden here—maybe going out now and then, and wolf-calling if the coast is clear—Sean will surely find him. Elijah is only assuming that he’ll be able to howl in his wolf form, of course, but at least Sean will have a definite scent trail to follow now.

Quite how he can possibly know Elijah ended up on this unknown planet remains a mystery, but somehow he does. He has come who knows how far, just to find Elijah, and with luck they’ll be on their way home again soon…

His wolf is as distracted as he is by thoughts of their reunion—thoughts that dismiss all such feeble substitutes as siliplas toys from his mind in favor of the real knot Sean has for him. Elijah is well aware of the danger he is in, but it still takes that bit longer than it should to complete his wriggle into the shipsuit.

He is press-closing the front when someone speaks, far too close for comfort.

Hi. So, that was a bit of a narrow squeak! I listened out, though, and they’re a way off now. You okay?

There is nothing threatening in the voice but Elijah’s nerves are suddenly way beyond the edge. With a wild start he spins around on the spot, almost landing on his ass again—wishing he had some way of defending himself here.

Realizing the thing to do would be to shift so his wolf has a chance of fighting their way out if this is some kind of trap.

Wondering if it’s far too late already.

But, there is no-one else here. There is no-one in this admittedly quite roomy cave to have spoken at all, much less to ask if he is okay.

Movement at knee level takes his gaze down to a lanky-looking bird—and exactly why it should want to trap itself in a cave with the predator he just was, Elijah can’t imagine. It is definitely looking up at him right now, head cocked inquiringly to one side, though it seems not at all surprised that what came in as a wolf is now a human being, in a shipsuit, no less. And ought it not to be more panicked than merely interested by either of those quite predatory species?

He notes that the bird has longish legs to go with the long neck, and a plump oval body between. It is mostly covered in the mottled brown feathers he noticed before, and crowned with a casually tufted topknot.

It has to be the one that deflected the pursuit, though he only caught a quick glimpse at the time, being more worried about the danger behind him than individually identifying the local fauna. This cave may well be its home, though he can’t be certain because, really—birds, accessorizing their homes?

He looks around more carefully, and there is still nothing and no-one in here but him and the bird. Elijah wonders if he’s started hearing things—stress and all that. He would want someone to worry if he’s okay, after all. So, he obviously imagined someone asking it, hoping to make himself feel better about being alone out here in the middle of nowhere.

Hey, you! I asked if you’re all right.

The bird is still peering up at him. Elijah would even go so far as to say it is waiting for an answer. But…birds don’t talk—at least, not like that. Or maybe, on this planet, they do.

Then he realizes the voice is not actually out there in the cave. It’s in here.

Inside his head.

Quite a pleasant voice, it has to be said. Maybe a tad high-pitched but clearly male.

And inside his head.

‘Ye—’ he tries, but it comes out as a squeak. He clears his throat and addresses the bird. It is only polite, after all, if it truly did just save him from recapture.

‘Yes, thank you. Was that—did you just draw them off of me?’

Uh-huh. Glad to be of help, the voice—the bird?—says.

The long and scaly legs fold in some logic-defying fashion as it settles on the ground in front of Elijah, stubby wings fluffing out over the small cave’s rocky floor. He’s pretty sure they are nowhere near big enough to support it in flight.

Elijah sits too—politeness again—but he s still way taller than the bird. It seems quite at its ease, however, when Elijah is at a total loss, here.

‘Um,’ he tries. He knows his general education was exemplary, yet he has never before heard of flightless telepathic avians. If that is what this is, and he isn’t actually having a minor breakdown he can blame on stress.

Thinking about it, however, before the revelation of his parents’ history and heritage, Elijah fully believed the Were to be little more than a vague legend from the past. So what he does or doesn’t know about is no real guarantee of anything.

‘Well, thank you again for your help,’ he begins, ‘I truly appreciated it, right then. I’m Elijah, by the way, and—and I’m a werewolf.’

He is not willing to risk giving either his affiliations or his status—he has only just met this bird, after all. On further acquaintance, it might turn out not to be quite as altruistic as it seems. But he does feel he ought to explain the shift. It’s not something he has ever put into words before, but he decides it is better to get it out there right away in case the bird doesn’t know his kind exist, either.

‘And you’re talking inside my head,’ he adds, with the idea that putting all the strange out there at once seems to be the way to go.

Naturally, says the bird, quite unconcerned. My other voice doesn’t quite have the range! He squawks a few times by way of example. Elijah can only agree with his candid assessment.

I’m Redler, I’m a weka bird and I thought you might be—a werewolf, that is. Otherwise, I’d never have heard you panicking about whoever is after you, and you wouldn’t hear me at all. Pleased to meet you, he says with a genial nod that sets his topknot swaying.

‘Sorry about that,’ Elijah says. He knows he wasn’t panicking out loud so he has no idea what this…what Redler may have picked up—also telepathically, he assumes. He vaguely remembers mentally screaming some of the choicer epithets he acquired back at Shining Lake, thanks to the return of his wolf hearing. Apologizing for that seems like a good idea, especially to something…someone that helped him so much.

No problem, Redler says cheerfully.

‘Weren’t you worried for your own safety, out there? I mean, don’t your kind usually end up getting shot and eaten?’

It may be a tactless sort of question but Elijah doesn’t think he has ever seen anything quite as courageous as a comparatively tiny bird deliberately facing up to the huge skimmer on the hunt for Nico’s escaped ex-slave. It might just as well have hunted him, too.

Redler chuckles inside his head. Well, first of all, they weren’t out looking for me. And second—no, not so much any more. You want to be glad you didn’t decide to chow down on someone like me while you were wolf—we taste pretty bad! And we’re no fun to hunt, either. Also, we have the cute on our side…

Elijah hears the distaste in his voice now.

It puts off all but the stupidest hunters. We’re actually included in the Hunter Orientation Notes, he adds almost proudly.

‘The abundant species Wekis pisciputridissima, he singsongs in Elijah’s head, is not considered worthy prey, being incapable of flight and too dim to run away—and just how wrong can they be about that?

That last is an aside in his normal voice before the chant continues.

Although such an easy mark, it is not recommended to waste ammunition in search of an addition to the menu. As the specific implies, the taste is analogous to that of rotten fish.’

The words flow so glibly they’re obviously a quote, verbatim. Weka-birds are not only telepathic, it seems they can read, too.

‘O-orient-tation notes?’ Elijah stutters. He was doing pretty well with the strange up to now, but this is a tad bit too much somehow. The thing is, he doesn’t actually remember when he hit his head hard enough to hallucinate so much weirdness all at once.

Sure, Redler says easily. Issued to intending hunters by Focus, you know? There’s a warning against succumbing to our wiles in the general Welcome Package too. That’s on account of all the lazy buggers that hang around there begging for food like common birds. I mean, I know we’re omnivores, but really—there are limits!

Elijah now sees direct proof of the metaphor of ruffled feathers.

He is also torn here, between wondering if he should lie down for a while until reality kicks back in, or ask more questions while the asking’s good. He doesn’t feel like he has a concussion, and at least he has company out here, even if it is all quite literally in his head.

He goes with the asking, randomly selecting one of the many things he needs to know. ‘Focus?’

Sprawling center of operations here on Seidux? Redler’s face quirks into what Elijah assumes is the avian equivalent of a frown, clearly seeing the next question already there on Elijah’s face. The planet, you know—the one we’re on right now? His tone has more than a hint of the patronizing about it.

‘I am not here by choice and I wasn’t exactly conscious when I arrived, so you must forgive my ignorance,’ Elijah says with dignity.

Oh. Okay, I guess maybe you wouldn’t know in that case, Redler generously concedes. Right, listen up and I’ll give you the lowdown, point by point. The planet is called Seidux and most of it is home to a resort complex known throughout the galaxy as Seduxion—a veritable vacation paradise.

The sarcasm comes through loud and clear.

Focus occupies the center of the complex and is more or less an entire city of hotels, villas and emporia dedicated to supplying every need or whim of the rich and feckless—I mean famous. The Focal Point, he pauses and Elijah notes that birds—or weka birds, at least—are not only capable of sarcasm, they have a good line in eye-rolling too—is the admin center and starting point, whatever your pleasure. There you go—Seidux in a nutshell!

Elijah is taken aback by the speed of Redler’s précis, let alone its implications, and quite sure he won’t remember the half of it.

Anyway, the weka goes on, to return to more interesting matters—it’s in our legends that we were granted the boon of unpleasant taste so we would still continue as a species despite being an easy mark, you see. I guess we got the cute as a two-for-one.

‘You have legends?’

Of course we have legends—who doesn’t have legends? What do you think we are, dumb-clucks? He suddenly sounds quite offended.

‘No, of course not! I’m sorry—I didn’t mean—so what does that legend say, then?’ Elijah asks quickly.

We were cursed, says Redler, half proud, half regretful.

‘You were cursed?’

Well, yeah. You don’t think we chose to look like this, do you?

Elijah feels it prudent to regard that question as entirely rhetorical. ‘And you—I mean, your kind as a whole—you’ve been this way for how long?’

Oh, a while, Redler says vaguely. A long while, actually. Maybe a few millennia—we don’t exactly run to calendars in this form, you know! The tone has a snappish edge, now.

‘So,’ Elijah has a feeling Redler won’t like this question either, but it’s not like there’s anyone else to ask and he does want to know, ‘so how come you haven’t—you know—’ he circles one hand in the air, ‘—evolved? I mean, you’re smart enough to have language, and you’ve obviously kept the intelligence you had when you were…whatever you were.’

We’re a tad short-handed for that, Redler snippily retorts, flapping his wings in case Elijah doesn’t get the point.

You lot—in human form, that is—Elijah knows that’s a dig at him but he only grins—you have the thumb thing going for you. That’s when you started to get ahead of the rest of us. And opposable frakking feathers really don’t cut it!

‘I can see that would be a handicap,’ Elijah agrees. Then he realizes what he just said and is seized by an almost irresistible desire to laugh. He claps a hand to his mouth so as not to offend Redler again, but suddenly the bird is clucking aloud, neck jerking from side to side, topknot dancing, his wings flapping like crazy.

Eventually the clucks fade out of the air and into Elijah’s head, becoming chuckles that validate Elijah’s own laughter. Redler sounds quite breathless by the time they both calm down again. Ah, he says, I needed that!

‘Why were you cursed—if you don’t mind me asking?’

Overweening pride, says Redler, casually. You should have seen us when we were—well, no maybe you shouldn’t. You probably wouldn’t have liked us anyway. We don’t look much like you.

‘I know of quite a few different species from other worlds,’ Elijah admits, though he is definitely not about to explain how, where and especially not why he gained that knowledge.

Nah, you wouldn’t have seen us back then, Redler says.

It’s an intriguing statement, but it also sounds pretty much like don’t-go-there territory in Elijah’s head. There’s a lot else he wants to find out here, though, so he is quite willing to let that one slide.

Redler redirects the conversation for him. This was our planet before your kind invaded, you know.

‘I’m sorry about that,’ Elijah says. It’s not like he—or any of the Were, as far as he knows—had anything to do with the invasion, but he still feels a tad guilty. It’s the feathers that do it, he decides. However much he may despise the descriptor, Redler really does look cute. He is probably pretty harmless too—unless he has a poisonous proboscis or something Elijah doesn’t know about yet.

To be honest, we were cursed long before any of your lot arrived. All our original places were long gone, too—these latterday ground nests make decent enough beds but they impress no-one, you know? He jerks his head negligently toward the pile of fuzzy that Elijah noticed before. So, I guess it did look pretty much uninhabited and quite claimable.

‘Your…places?’

Sure—houses, towns, stores, schools, libraries—the usual. Even roads, back then. Our tech hadn’t reached the flying car stage. In fact, he confides, we’d barely gotten started with the internal combustion engine!

Elijah looks at the angular flightless bird beside him. He tries to connect it with this matter-of-fact mention of towns and houses, schools and libraries—or with engines of any kind. He can almost feel his brain shying away from the whole idea—especially the thought of something powerful enough to curse an entire nation.

But, he is conversing with—and all the while hearing in his head—this same flightless bird, who sounds not much different from anyone else he has ever spoken with. Perhaps a bit informal but definitely not at all archaic. He is not sure how to put his next question.

‘Did you always—I mean, how come—’ he tries, breaks off for a cautious rethink and tries again. ‘The way you talk, it’s like you mix with a lot of humans. Do you? Is that why you sound so—’ he wants to say normal but doesn’t want to upset Redler again. He waves a hand and lets him fill in the blank.

Well, some of us do—a lot of others think it’s beneath us, though. Me, I like to stay abreast of things. There’s a guy works at Focus who thinks I’m his personal pet, would you believe? Elijah might have expected disdain at that, but what he hears is a complaisant fondness.

‘He’s mainly how I keep up to date with what’s going on. I wouldn’t have hitched a ride all the way back out here, but for—’ He breaks off then, head weaving from side to side. Elijah senses another don’t-go area. There are so many things he is dying to ask but he owes too much to Redler already to risk upsetting him with personal questions.

Anyway, Redler resumes, enough about me. I’m thinking it’s no coincidence that Seidux—which doesn’t even have the original kind—is playing host to two werewolves right now? The other one has been out there for a while now, searching for something—so I’m guessing the something is you?

‘I knew it! I knew he was here!’ Elijah wants to shout for joy for having his inner conviction validated by someone who wasn’t just wishfully thinking. He manages to corral his elation into questions. ‘You’ve seen him? You’ve met Sean? I thought he was klicks away—is he here already?’

Seen him? Met him? Of course I haven’t met him! We already covered the flightless part—and do these feet look like they’re built for fast ground coverage?

Redler extends a leg somehow from beneath the ruff of feathers and Elijah has to agree that although the foot is perfectly serviceable, it is clearly not cut out for long distance running.

And no, he’s not actually here yet, Redler finishes.

‘Then how…?’

Redler sighs. Elijah is not sure it’s meant to sound condescending, but it does.

You don’t really think we were granted telepathy on the off chance that, every millennium or so, we might possibly have a couple of visiting werewolves to chat with, do you?

Oh yes, condescension totally intended, there.

‘So you have a sort of hive mind?’ asks Elijah, who has learned of such things. There are apparently several planets on the outer fringes that have yet to come to terms with the civilizing influence of The Federation.

Redler may be a bird but Elijah can already tell when he’s scowling.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says hastily. ‘It wasn’t an insult, truly it wasn’t! I only meant that you can all communicate with each other without all the technology we humans use.’

The way Redler cocks his head then, Elijah can tell exactly what he’s thinking without any need for the words to form in his head.

He grins. ‘Alright—the humans, then.’ He has still not quite come to terms with the fact that he is not as fully human as he used to think he was.

‘So, you can talk over distance too, and some of your—do you still call yourselves people?’ It’s safer to ask than assume here, when he has even more reason to keep Redler on his side. When the weka nods, he goes on, ‘Some of your people, somewhere far away from here—they have seen Sean, and that’s how you know?’ Which was what the weka had meant by listening out earlier, he realizes now.

If he’s the other werewolf, yes. He tried to eat Kerl, he adds meditatively, but I don’t hold it against him. Yes, he should have read the Hunter Orientation Notes, but I suppose if he only came here to hunt for you, he wouldn’t bother. His wolf half probably got hungry and instinct kicked in—that’s nature for you! Redler shrugs, which looks odd without real shoulders to do it with.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ Elijah says, and really means it.

Nah, it happens, and at least it was quick. Kerl was a douche, anyway—always so convinced his crest was more impressive than anybody else’s!

Elijah senses something of a personal grievance there, but lets it go. He has more immediate concerns, right now. ‘Could I ask a favor—well, another favor, I suppose, since you already saved me once.’

The shrug this time is self-deprecating, which looks even odder on a bird—but then, Elijah is beginning to realize his notions of odd are in serious need of realignment.

Go ahead, says Redler. In for a credit and all that!

‘Can—would you get a message to him for me, please? Tell him where I am? I daren’t call out to him myself, not yet anyway—it would be a dead giveaway.’

Oh, already done that, says Redler, and smug simply isn't in it—which on a bird…well, yes.

Sean says to sit tight and he’ll be here asap.

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Wekis pisciputridissima

Chapter Text

Bruised and battered, in more pain than he can ever remember, Sean comes back to himself only slowly. He lies quiet for several moments before he even recalls being hunted.

The throb in his left temple explains the rivulet of blood he can feel trickling behind his left ear. The reason for it slowly returns—the skimmer chase, a sudden crack, the long fall. He wonders how long he’s been out, and how fast that skimmer will find him if he doesn’t make the effort to move, or at least to hide himself away somewhere.

Despite pain and dizziness he tries to get to his paws—and instantly knows the worst when agony tears through him from a shattered foreleg.

There is a sudden flurry of squawks, a great deal of wing-flapping and the fishy reek of many weka birds together. It’s all much closer than he’d like. The very last thing he needs right now is a complete flock of wekas, gathering like ghouls to comment on his misfortune.

Curl up, Sean—you must curl up now! The voice is unexpected but close and urgent.

He knows there is something odd going on, apart from all the flapping and squawking. How can anyone out here possibly know his name, unless…no, that is not Elijah’s voice. Nor is it the same one he heard up on the ridge—and he still can’t tell where it’s coming from, which for a wolf is truly disconcerting.

It hurts to move at all, but for some reason he tries to obey the command. He cannot summon the will to open his eyes at the same time, but curling around his pain does seem to help, if only a little.

He is unsure, at first, if the tendrils of a heavy sickness creeping through him are all in his mind. As he curls around his injury, however, he breathes an insidious scent threading the clean, coppery tang of blood. The agony of shattered bone is almost nothing to the sudden realization that he has been shot with silver.

Argent poisoning is almost always fatal within the first few days. When it is not, the recovery time is prolonged and painful enough to make the victim wish for death—or so Sean has heard. Fedek Haslar certainly proved the truth of the first, and he was the only other person Sean ever met who would know for sure, either way.

There is water nearby—he can smell it, fresh and cool and woodsy. He is desperate for a drink to take the sharp metallic taste from his mouth, but he has moved once and that’s as much as he can manage for now. He can still think, though.

Someone was hunting Elijah’s wolf with silver—Sean knows it.

Most Normals have never even seen a wolf at all so it comes as no surprise that one might shoot Sean’s in mistake for Elijah’s. That has to be the only good thing about the whole situation here—it should give Elijah time to take himself well out of their way and maybe find a cave or some other safe place to hide.

What Sean can’t understand is why Niconet Perçuile would risk such a lethal weapon being used in Elijah’s recapture. Perhaps the intention was to guard against a rescue attempt by other Weres, and the weapon fired in error at a forbidden target?

Sorry about this—it’s the only way. The same voice breaks in on Sean’s train of thought. You have to stay still and silent now, or they’ll find you.

Immediately he feels a series of heavy flumps and a ragged procession of sharp somethings starts to poke at him, all along his upper side. The smell of weka is suddenly far stronger and he realizes several of them have actually dared to perch on him. There is even a small one—a hatchling, he assumes, and is thankful—roosting on his head, its feathers fluffed about his ears. He grateful, too, that feathers and not claws cover the bloody wound there.

He flicks his eyes open to find that an entire flock seems to have gathered in front of him, too. He is going to get up, shake them off and maybe bite one or two for their presumption—just as soon as he finds the energy…

The swoosh of a landing skimmer comes nearer and abruptly cuts out, very close to where Sean is lying beneath his generous weka-bird garnish. He freezes as the canopy whines open.

‘He has to be here somewhere! I know I hit him and he definitely dropped off that ridge—where else could he be?’ asks a new voice—older and deeper but also far more nervous than the one Sean just heard.

‘You were only here as a second set of eyes—you shouldn’t have shot at him at all. And especially not with that weapon. If he’s dead, your life won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. Master Nico needs him well and whole—and so do I!’ This voice has both anger and command to it, but clearly its owner is also in thrall to Niconet Perçuile.

‘If you didn’t want it used, why’d you bring it?’ Sean can smell the slave’s fear beneath his truculent retort. ‘What’s it do that’s so special, anyway?’

‘I don’t know. Master Nico said it was for use against anyone who tried to rescue him, and only them. Never on Elijah. I have only seen it used it once. That guy thought he could take Elijah from me. He went down like a tonne of quarks and didn’t look like he’d ever get up again.’

Ferdek, Sean realizes, and still can’t quite be sorry he was stopped. Rescue was the very farthest thing from Ferdek’s mind right then, given the state Elijah must have been in at the time. A laser shot to the brain would have been kinder, though.

Footsteps approach, and Sean hears the splash of water almost at his side. The wekas on and around him are rustling and flapping, squawking quietly as if in commentary. It dawns on him that they are deliberately misdirecting attention away from him.

‘That’s better,’ the slave says, but it’s merely an attempt at bravado. He sounds no less anxious.

‘A clean face won’t save you if you’ve killed Master Nico’s Precious!’ The other is cruelly amused now.

The slave gulps quite audibly. ‘Well, he isn’t here, is he? Even birds as stupid as these wouldn’t hang around with a great beast like that among them. Perching up on a bunch of boulders wouldn’t save them if it decided it was hungry. He can’t have come this way!’

The only response is a surly Humph!

Sean slits his eyes open. Through a fence of feathered weka necks he sees a small, skinny man in plain tunic and pants, still peering anxiously in all directions as if they’ve carelessly overlooked Sean somehow. Which, of course, they have, but… He manages a wolfish grin.

The other man is taller and much more strongly built. He has to be some kind of private guard, from the holsters strapped around his muscular body. He looks vaguely familiar, and when the slave speaks again Sean realizes why.

‘Maybe I didn’t hit him, Myrin? I never used a weapon before so how could I hit him first try? Maybe he jumped down and went on running before the birds even knew he was here?’ There is hope in the hurried babble.

‘You couldn’t have picked a better time to get so damned lucky?’ Myrin snarls. ‘And right now, those damned birds are messing up the sensor. Scat!’ he yells irritably.

Sean’s attendant wekas grumble and fidget, and there is much rustling of feathers. They don’t move away, though.

‘Pah!’ Myrin spits out, but does not indiscriminately fire on them, as Sean feared he might. ‘If Master Nico weren’t such a miserly credit squ—’ He bites down on the rest of his criticism.

Sean can only be glad Perçuile did economize and order a basic skimmer instead of the dedicated hunting type with its greater speed and the latest, pin-point accurate Thermo-seek technology. And, to be fair, even Sean wasn’t expecting Elijah’s escape and the subsequent need to track him down.

‘I don’t see any blood trail either, so maybe you did miss him. We should move on—he must’ve gone that way,’ Myrin finishes, gesturing with one arm. He’s not really satisfied, Sean can tell, but lingering here, where there’s no sign of wolf, let alone Elijah, isn’t a choice.

He too would like to know how a wound this severe can leave no trail, then realizes the wekas probably have that in hand—or beneath butt—too. It’s a lucky thing Myrin is a bodyguard, accustomed only to the sterile confines of Space Central. A native tracker would find Sean in a trice, bloodstains or no, and nor would one ever confuse the tracks of two different wolves.

Once the sound of the skimmer has faded into the distance, there is more squawking and flapping—and even what sounds to Sean’s pain-wracked mind like the blurred hum of many conversations—as the weka-birds hop down off him and begin to move away. He lifts his head but can see no-one but wekas. One or two of those already on the ground are fastidiously cleaning Sean’s blood from their tail feathers.

Sorry again for the liberty, the first voice says, but you have to admit that it worked!

It did, and I thank you most sincerely for the camouflage—for everything!

Sean looks around. What he sees—wekas apart—is a small dell sheltered by yet more of the tall, straight trees. It is carpeted in a silvery moss and fringed with feathery plumes that are clearly Seidux’s equivalent of ferns, except for the color.

The pool he smelled before does indeed lie amid a cluster of boulders. That was the point of him curling up, he realizes—to pass for one of them while providing a vantage point for the coverlet of ever-inquisitive wekas. Painfully dragging his foreleg, he crawls forward a few steps and laps gratefully. The water is colder than he expected. It soothes the dryness of his throat and tongue but he knows better than to take too much at once.

How bad are you hurt? asks the person Sean knows cannot be here or Myrin and the slave would have seen him.

He frowns, wondering if hearing voices is a side-effect of the silver poisoning, yet can’t he help responding. Where are you? he demands.

Then he realizes two things. One, he has no actual voice in wolf form, so he isn’t speaking aloud. Two, the owner of that same nebulous voice just organized the whole deception. Quite deliberately, he and a bunch of willing wekas saved him from being hauled off to a meeting with Nico Perçuile in Elijah’s place.

There is no way he hallucinated that, silver or no.

Who are you—and more to the point, how come you’re in my head? Turning to look is an effort he could do without, but he needs to know. A weka stands right beside him, eyeing him beadily.

It nods and the voice inside says, Yes, it’s me, Sean, standing right here. Or—if you’re picky, you know—it is I!

Sean blinks. What—who—how do you know my name? It’s the easiest question to cope with among the many.

Elijah told Redler. I’m Scret, by the way. Pleased to meet you.

Elijah! This bird knows Elijah—maybe even knows where is! But before Sean can ask, Scret bobs his head at the injured leg.

You wouldn’t get far on that so I’ve told them you’ve been shot and can’t travel. Redler’s bringing him to you. Well, to be more accurate, Elijah’s bringing Redler!

There’s humor in his voice but he doesn’t explain and Sean lets it go. He hurts too much to make the effort. As long as Elijah is coming to him it doesn’t matter how, if this Redler, whoever he is, will keep him safe. These wekas protected him—Sean can only hope they’ll do the same for Elijah. He’s still not sure he believes what just happened. Who knew weka-birds could be as intelligent—or as wolf-friendly—as that? No, if Elijah is truly coming to him, it must have happened.

For the first time he looks down at his shattered foreleg and it’s a bloody mess, to put it mildly. Right from shoulder to paw, shards of bone are clearly visible amid shreds of fur and flesh. There is none of the peculiar warmth that comes from a steady healing, either. No sense of the damage quietly knitting itself back together from the inside.

Sean is all too aware of every sharp and splintered fragment, every scrap of ripped and tattered tissue between. He can only be grateful that the bullet went straight through—on a long diagonal, by the looks of it. The residue of silver it left behind is malignant enough.

His wolf’s automatic reaction is to lick it clean but Sean resists, knowing it will only make matters worse.

Stick it in the water, Scret advises. Can’t hurt, might help.

Sean takes another drink first, longer this time. Wincing at the pain, he manages to thrust his leg forward and watches the water well over it, clouding widely in tendrils of red and black.

Yuk! comments Scret. It’s a good thing the rest of us aren’t needing to drink about now!

Sorry about that, Sean mumbles. You were right, though—it does feel better.

More numb than better, if truth be told, but Sean will take what relief he can get, here. He drags it out again and lays his muzzle on the moss between his paws, letting himself drift on memories of Elijah.

Set between the high ridge and the trees, the dell is completely shaded from the sun, so it’s hard to tell how long he lies there, alone but for the wekas. It seems a while, though, before their chorus starts up again. The loud discord of squawks and clucks jerks him right out of his haze of pain and remembrance.

He notices the change in himself at once. Yes, he can still feel the silver sneaking its way into him, unhindered by his own Were-healing. But even that is secondary to the sudden sharpening of awareness beneath his skin. As bad as he feels, the knowledge that his mate is near transcends even the silver-sickness.

The chorus rises to a crescendo, along with his own internal response. Sean opens his eyes to see a squad of long-necked, beaky heads—some with, some without the fluffy topknot—abruptly swivel as one, like ranks of well-drilled soldiers to a single barked command.

A ripple disturbs the surrounding and the weka regiment scatters as a wolf hurtles into the dell and comes to a dead stop. A single weka squawks loudly and tumbles from his back—Redler, Sean assumes. There’s a blue-gray bundle involved somewhere too. A quick wriggle, the bundle bounces to the ground and he is looking at Elijah’s wolf at last.

He is more lightly built than Sean’s, which comes as no surprise—most are. Both shorter and sleeker, he’s black and steel grey where Sean is tawny gold and brown, but the eyes are the same wide, incredible blue of Elijah’s.

You came for me! Even Elijah’s mind-voice is breathless from running.

I think it’s more that
you came for me, Sean weakly returns.

He has only moments to look his fill. Then the wolf is gone and Elijah stands before him.

Elijah’s nostrils flare and his expression—which Sean is in no condition to read right then—changes to obvious fear and distress. ‘Silver!’ he says, dropping to his knees next to Sean. ‘I can smell it!’

Sean has been hoping Elijah won’t recognize it, but if he was there when Ferdek was shot, it’s inevitable. Maybe he doesn’t know how dangerous it is…

No such luck. Elijah immediately follows that with, ‘We have to get you to a medic, fast!’

Were, Sean reminds him. Medic, not such a good idea.

‘Okay, not a problem. There has to be one at this Focus place Redler told me about. I just need to…’ Elijah’s certainty fades with his realization, ‘…get you there somehow. Maybe Redler can send a message—’ He stops abruptly as if he’s listening. ‘No, he can’t. They can only talk to us because we’re Were.’ A smile flashes across his face at that but is as quickly gone.

You’re not listening to me, Elijah. Apart from not wanting to reveal I’m Were, there is nothing a human medic could do for argent poisoning in a Were, anyway.

Scret faces Sean now. It’s not that he isn’t listening, Sean. Elijah cannot hear your wolf.

He still hears you, though? Great—tell him no medic, I’ll be fine. Scret can’t know that’s a lie.

Elijah knows. He divides his glare equally between Sean and Scret, folds his arms across his chest, and thrusts out his chin.

‘I may not have known I’m Were for very long, Alpha Sean,’ he says, ‘but I do know that silver is the only thing that can kill us even from a non-fatal wound! And you can’t talk to me now I’m actually me again? That’s—that is so unfair!’

He looks quite ridiculous, kneeling there stark naked and as obstreperous as they come.

He looks so beautiful Sean can almost forget he is slowly dying.

Elijah returns to the problem at hand. ‘I can suck it out!’ he says fiercely—the result of watching too many nature vids about the perils of newly discovered worlds, Sean suspects.

He has dreamed of Elijah’s mouth on him, but not now, never for this.

No! Scret, tell him no way! If he does that, the silver will take him, too.

Elijah dips his head, defiance hardening in his eyes, but Sean drags his shattered leg out of reach. The pain is exquisite and he can’t suppress a whine. Rather than cause him further hurt, Elijah accepts Scret’s warning and slowly draws back.

‘But how else—?’ His hands open in a gesture of helplessness and his face fills with anguish. He still believes there should be something he can do.

Sean knows better. Only a Were healer could help him, if at all—and to his knowledge there isn’t one within light years of this planet. Even if the Lunar Express were not currently out of reach, her complement of medical staff—as well-equipped as their infirmary may be to deal with shipboard emergencies—would be unable to treat him for this. He looks wearily up at Elijah.

Scret, please tell him the only thing I need is for him to stay safe. Tell him I promised Deira and Coren that I would…that he would come back to them. He doesn’t need to know any more than that. He watches Elijah’s anguish turn to despair and thinks maybe Scret could have relayed his message more tactfully.

Listen, can you or Redler help him find my skimmer? The auto-pilot has Return to Base programmed in, in case of need. It will take him to where I was staying. My friend Ly is there—Elijah knows him. Ly will get him home to Calia.

There is so much more he wants to say but it could never be the same through a weka interpreter, and Elijah probably wouldn’t want to hear it anyway. The boost of his presence is fading now, between the pain and the threads of silver working their way inexorably into him.

His eyes fall closed and he lets himself drift on the scent of mate. Though heavily tinged with grief, for Sean it is still the greatest comfort he could have. It holds none of the heat and arousal from the last time he smelled it, of course. There is only caring within it—fondness even, he hopes—if it can never be the love he dreamed of for so long.

No matter—it’s still the best scent in the entire universe…

Get the pack on and shift! A shout—not Scret, maybe Redler?—breaks into his half-conscious thought. Sean barely manages to lift his lids to look at him in dismay—he knows already he’ll never shift again—but the bird is not addressing him.

Elijah is wolf almost before the voice fades from Sean’s head. He probably wasn’t meant to hear, so Sean lets it go and watches Elijah instead.

Somehow the blue-gray bundle lies across his shoulders once more, straps caught beneath his forelegs. Elijah flops down onto his belly and a weka—Sean suspects Redler, but his sight is getting fuzzy—scrambles up to seize the fabric tightly with his claws. They’re gone before Sean can even think to say goodbye.

That was how Elijah found him, he realizes. Redler directed—rode him here, as if he were one of the picturesque cowboys back at the ranch, and Elijah his horse. They made a strange little tableau—quirky, Sean thinks vaguely—just like his unconventional omega. He is so glad he got to see Elijah one more time before the end.

And perhaps it is better this way. Elijah need no longer fight for his freedom from a mating he can never want. The bond remains unconsummated, so with luck—and Sean out of his life forever—the burn beneath his skin will soon fade. For the future, any alpha will be proud to mate him, if only ever for the duration of a single heat. Sean can be glad of that for Elijah, however much the thought brings hurt of a different kind.

The rest of the wekas turn their attention back from the swaying ferns that show which way Elijah went, and onto Sean. There is more of the rustle and squawk but Sean’s lids fall closed again.

Thank you all, he says. He is filled with gratitude toward the clever, generous birds, no matter their smell, and regrets his attempt to eat one for a better reason, now. I’m sorry… he begins but can’t think how to say the rest. Words—thoughts—are suddenly hard to come by.

The tug of Mate, leaving! is nowhere near as strong as it once was. Nothing is. Redler has taken Elijah away into safety so he need not witness the end. Ly will take care of him, bring him safe home to Calia, and that is all that matters…

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Chapter Text

Get the pack on and shift!

Redler’s shout cuts through Elijah’s frozen panic.

C’mon, Elijah! He doesn’t look too good—we may not have a lot of time.

The prospect of actually doing something for Sean has him stripping off, rolling his belongings back together and wriggling into the leg-straps in a flash. He’s shifted and ready to go before he can even think to ask what in all the worlds they can hope to do in the absence of a medic.

He doesn’t say goodbye, though Sean probably caught his unhappy whine on leaving. Goodbye would be too final and Sean will—must—be here when he gets back.

That way! Redler’s beak darts out to the side and Elijah takes off almost before he has settled on his perch. Like riding a branch through a tempest! he grumbles.

Elijah pays his passenger no mind—he heard variations on that complaint the whole way here. Where are we going? he demands. Is there a healer nearby? Someone who can help Sean?

Leeches, Redler says succinctly.

Leeches? Elijah is baffled.

That swamp we skirted on the way? Think yourself lucky we didn’t have to cross it—it’s full of ’em!

Oh. There’s a sudden check in Elijah’s ground-covering lope and Redler sways dangerously, wings flapping frantically for balance.

His complaint reaches Elijah in two ways. He suspects it may be just as well that the loud squawks drown out the actual words in his head. From their vehemence they might even be some variant of the curse that brought Redler and his people to their feathered state. Fortunately Redler doesn’t seem to wield the same kind of power that whoever did the cursing possessed.

You think that’ll work? Elijah demands, running again in response to a sharp peck on the ear.

Not like we have a lot of choice here. Besides, I could do with a snack.

Elijah’s human half shudders inside. He may or may not be okay with the idea of his wolf—and by extension, himself—eating self-caught prey. His involuntary reaction to the multiple spoor trails he has crossed today makes him think that he will, when it comes down to it. The thought of eating live and wriggling leeches, however…just no.

How wide is the top of your water bottle? Redler wants to know—irrelevantly, Elijah thinks. Surely he can take a drink along with his 'snack'?

There’s a definite, long-suffering sigh in his head, then Redler adds, If we have to cut the top off to get them in, it’ll make carrying them back a bitch!

The entire plan is clear now. Elijah doesn’t let his smile at the use of we show in his voice when he answers, Wide enough, I hope.

It’s the actual picking them up and getting them in there that worries him more.

He stops at the edge of the swamp—still safe, he hopes, on dryish land—and peers down into the water, tongue lolling. Instead of leeches he sees a long flash of pink against grey and black, and catches his breath in surprise at the furry face staring back at him. So, this is what he looks like as wolf. He can tell how much smaller he must be next to Sean’s huge wolf, and really hopes Sean likes slighter wolves with darker fur.

More squawks and muttered imprecations for wasting time—though the pause could not have lasted more than a second or two—and Elijah hurriedly shifts, shakes the water bottle from his bundle and unscrews the top. He’s just about to down the lot in one go when Redler arrives with a beakful of rubbery-looking things that move. In his relief that collection turns out to be the weka’s part, Elijah postpones his much needed drink, emptying the bottle to fill it instead with swampy-looking water that reeks of rotting vegetation.

Redler drops the leeches in and goes back for more. Elijah has to look away this time as the weka swallows some on his own account. The bulges that visibly writhe and wriggle down every inch of that long slender neck are not all that easy to ignore.

They don’t seem to hinder Redler from gathering more, however, for he soon announces Done!

The water bottle—its top securely tight against smelly, stagnant water and squirmy contents alike—is shoved inside the makeshift pack, and Elijah sets off again with Redler aboard. All this running on an unfamiliar set of feet is beginning to catch up with Elijah but they are still back the dell is as fast as he could have hoped, sore paws or no. Not soon enough though, by the look of Sean’s wolf.

His eyes are closed, his breathing shallow, and he is lying—Elijah tries not to think collapsed—stretched out on his side now by the pool.

However bad he feels, he is aware enough to know Elijah has returned—lids flicker open over sad and clouded eyes, and he huffs very slightly.

Shouldn’t be here, he slurs in Elijah’s mind, but Elijah can feel Sean is glad he came back, all the same.

His own wolf whines in his head as Elijah shifts to human. He tips several of the leeches out onto the moss, being very careful to keep them well away from his own still naked body. Redler lays them carefully on the ugly wound. Sean’s blood has mostly clotted now, leaving the poison only one way to go—inward.

Elijah absolutely does not believe in any of the old gods he learned about, but he sends up promises now in case there may be one who will listen. More practically, he has a twig ready to poke the leeches into place. It’s not necessary, though—they latch on as if they know exactly where they are needed.

Once leg and shoulder are coated in as many as they can hold, he does his own collapsing at Sean’s side. The adrenaline rush has has gone and there is nothing left to do but watch and wait—and hope. The post-rush shivers set in and he realizes at last that he is not only cold but thirsty. He drags the shipsuit on, then looks toward the pool.

He has been on the go all day—much of it spent running—and could really do with a drink. Back at the swamp he didn’t dare do more than wet his mouth for fear of finding a slithery black thing hanging off the end of his tongue. Last he saw, though, the water here was colored with tendrils of Sean’s blood—and the black of his argent poisoning. He licks his lips but still doesn’t drink.

Redler is still busy with his leeching and it’s the other weka, Scret, that says, I told Sean someone would be wanting a drink real soon!

When Elijah looks down Scret is standing beside him.

Not to worry, the weka adds, it’s clear over that way. He darts his beak toward the slow trickle that feeds the pool. It seeps slowly down the slope Sean must have tumbled from, Elijah realizes as he rushes over to suck up water in great gulps, eyes closed for the cool, wet relief of it.

He almost misses what the other weka is saying.

Hi again, Elijah—I’m Scret, in case you didn’t gather, he says. So, you’re the one they were after, huh?

‘I guess so,’ Elijah says, but before the guilt can really hit him, the weka distracts him, vehemently shaking the ridiculous topknot and almost shouting in his head.

Stupid humans—can’t tell one wolf from another! he complains. It’s always the same. They look at you—his voice pitches suddenly higher—‘Oh, see the cute little birdies! Aren’t they simply darling? The voice drops again. They look but they don’t ever make the effort to observe! To hear them talk, you’d think every single weka looks like every other!

It occurs to Elijah then that he has no trouble telling Scret from Redler. In fact, no bird in the whole flock looks quite the same to him as any other. It must be a Were thing—who knew?

‘Thank you for looking out for him, Scret,’ he says. ‘Redler told me about the mock-boulder ploy as we came. I’d never have thought of that—you people are so smart!’

Scret preens—metaphors again, Elijah realizes with a grin.

Don’t mention it. I’d say 'any time' but… you know! Scret shrugs the exact same way Redler does, but it still strikes Elijah as odd.

‘Well, thanks again,’ he says, eager to get back to Sean’s side.

He doesn’t look any better, but at least he doesn’t look any worse. It is kind of freaky to see the leeches already swelling with Sean’s blood—and hopefully the silver too—but if they are doing what he hopes, Elijah can live with that—as long as Sean does too.

The need for haste over for the moment, he notices the dried and matted blood from a wound almost hidden in the fur at one side of Sean’s head. He uses the almost forgotten laser to slice half a sleeve from his shipsuit and takes it to the trickle of clear water to wet it thoroughly. It’s a clean cut and would probably have closed already if Sean were in full possession of his Were healing.

Once the blood is wiped away he settles beside Sean and pulls the great wolf head into his lap, stroking gently. The fur on Sean’s muzzle is fine and smooth but grows thicker and more bristly as Elijah’s hand drifts up beyond the darker line that might mark eyebrows, if wolves even have such things. He doesn’t really know. He takes one soft and silky ear in hand—the farthest from his wound—and strokes it over and over, the rhythm soothing his anxiety if it does nothing for the barely conscious Sean.

It’s so soothing, he starts to nod off. It occurs to him, as he jerks suddenly back to wakefulness, that he was up all night and has spent most of today on his poor paws. If he is not careful he’ll collapse into sleep all over Sean—maybe hurt him even more. He sets Sean’s head down on the moss and curls up back to back with him instead. He is so tired, he doesn’t even notice Sean’s breath is coming more easily now.

When he wakes from his doze, Sean is looking at him. He obviously feels somewhat better. Still in wolf form, he has rolled to lie on his stomach and his head is up, both paws out front. Couchant, Elijah remembers from lessons in the archaic heraldry still favored by the privileged people he was trained to please.

‘How are you feeling?’ he asks tentatively.

Sean’s muzzle wrinkles up and his tail thumps once on the moss.

It still seems wrong that the telepathy should work interspecies only now, but Elijah gets the meaning well enough. ‘Better, not great,’ he translates, and gets another tail-thump for his guess.

The leg is still pretty much a fractured mess of flesh, fur and bone. Sean has stretched out on the moss, and the fact that every part of it is thickly fringed with blood-bloated leeches does not improve the look.

‘Do we need a new set of leeches?’ Elijah asks. ‘Is there still silver inside you?’

The bottle is empty but for a few inches of cloudy water. Elijah hopes the wekas have not polluted this pool with the leeches that did their job already. He gets his answer when one drops off and is instantly snapped up by a member of the eager weka audience Elijah only now notices.

All but a couple have all their attention firmly fixed on Sean’s wound and its distended danglers. One of the two is Redler who, Elijah knows quite well, ate his fill and then some, back at the swamp. The other looks female somehow—maybe it’s the lack of topknot though Elijah doesn’t want to assume—and her expression reminds him of someone faced with their most un-favorite food.

Even birds, it seems, don’t all find the same things a treat—weka-birds, at least. Remembering the slimy, worm-like just-dead objects he’d been assured were a delicacy, back at the welcome feast on Calia, Elijah can sympathize. He only hopes silver-laced blood-suckers don’t affect wekas the way they do the Were. Thinking about it, though, if they did, Redler and more than a few of the others would have keeled over well before now.

Sean’s answers his questions is a so-so sort of head waggle.

‘Better safe than sorry?’ he guesses.

Sean gives an emphatic nod, just as Redler says, He thinks so. Also a lot of mushy grateful stuff you don’t really need to hear.

Elijah suspects he’d love to hear it, but Redler won’t budge on that. ‘Okay, we bring more suckers,’ he says. ‘Then what?’

I take you to Sean’s skimmer, which he says is never locked in case he needs access in wolf form—like now. You bring it here, we load him up and head back to his base, wherever that is, then apply the second batch of leeches. He wants you safely away from here in case they come looking out this way again.

This time when Elijah strips off to shift, he can feel Sean’s eyes on him. The ever-present burn beneath his skin jolts back to full effect. He turns away and kneels to wrap his bundle again so his wolf can carry it—effectively hiding his reaction. It’s only now that he realizes how much his response to his mate quieted while Sean was so sick.

He is still pretty sick, but maybe blood loss will be the worst of it now, once Were healing gets to work on that leg. More leeches won’t help with that— in fact it may be toss-up whether they or the silver will kill him quicker.

The thought totally extinguishes his badly timed flare of desire.

Collection goes as smoothly as the first time. Redler’s friends and/or relatives direct them straight from the swamp to the skimmer, which is actually not as far as Elijah had feared. Maybe Sean ran a wide circle around it while he was either hunting for Elijah or being hunted himself—anyway, it’s a shorter distance than the one they covered earlier, for which Elijah is most thankful.

When he catches sight of the skimmer, he freezes—it is identical to the one that chased him. Then he sees how well this one is tucked away in thick cover and relaxes. He tests the door release in wolf form, in case, but there is no-one in there waiting to attack. It’s warm and empty, and smells comfortingly of Sean.

The first hitch comes once he has shifted and dressed. He is not entirely sure how to operate a skimmer, much less how to navigate back to Sean. It may not be advanced nuclear technology, but everyone needs an instructor the first time, right?

With this, Redler can’t be of any help. It’s not as if he has never traveled in one, of course—which doesn’t surprise Elijah in the least. He is convinced the weka has his Focus friend completely wrapped around his…smallest wing feather. What does surprise him is that Redler doesn’t know how to actually fly the thing.

Look, it’s not like I ever expected to have to, you know! I leave it to those with—

‘Opposable thumbs, I know!’ Elijah finishes for him.

How come you can’t? You must have had a lot more opportunity than I have!

Learning to fly a skimmer was one of the many things on Elijah’s to do list before he learned his status, went into heat, was abducted off planet, and all the rest of it. Explanations would be pointless right now. ‘It’s complicated,’ he says.

Still, he has been in other skimmers—this one can’t be all that different. The controls are offset but they look quite familiar. He closes his eyes and tries to picture which ones Coren pushed, flicked and pressed.

He does the same and the skimmer comes alive with a sudden quiver beneath him. It judders slowly upward through its cover of bushes.

Well, that’s a good start! Redler says, and Elijah grins, knowing he only said it to encourage him.

‘Now there’s just the minor problem of navigation,’ he realizes with a groan. ‘I have no idea how to program this thing to find Sean from here!’

Don’t be such a defeatist, Redler scolds. You can make it move, yes?

‘Yes. Well, I think so.’ Elijah demonstrates, pushing the yoke to take the flyer forward and with not too much wobble at all. It may be slow, but at least they are moving.

Hang on then, says Redler and is silent in Elijah’s head for a few moments. Right—now, bring it just above the level of the treetops.

Elijah obliges. After a few minutes of hovering, Redler darts his beak leftward. That way!

Eyes tracking the movement, Elijah sees a widely dotted line wherever the ground is clear of tall growth. It seems a bit weird, maybe, but no more so than a lot of things in his life these days. He directs the skimmer to follow it, slow but sure. Not until he’s confident enough he won’t crash them does he take a closer look at their literal guideline. It is made up entirely of rows of weka-birds.

‘Your people are a marvel!’ he tells Redler earnestly.

It’s nothing, he says, trying to sound offhand, but Elijah can hear how pleased he is by the heartfelt compliment.

Anyway Redler adds, it can get pretty boring being a bird out here in the wild. It feels good to be part of things that really matter, like your escape and helping Sean.

It’s far more than that and Elijah knows it. You didn’t just help Sean—you saved his life, and I can never thank you all sufficiently for that.

We’re actually enjoying the excitement for once, so you’re welcome!

Inevitably there are gaps in the line where there is forest cover. The wekas get around that as best they can, forming arrow heads to point the right direction. Elijah gains confidence and speed in proportion, and before too long he has the skimmer hovering above the clearing where Sean lies.

Landing, however, is not quite as straightforward as he might have hoped.

Elijah is still neither driver nor pilot, and the dell is not exactly a wide open landing pad. There are tree branches poking into it every which way, not to mention how close and how steeply that rock slope rises to one side.

As if that were not enough, Elijah knows he has to set the skimmer down as close as possible to where Sean is lying. Were strength or no, he is unlikely to be able to carry a wolf that is so much bigger than he is—not without possibly damaging that leg worse than it already is. Sean has to make it inside on his own…three paws.

On the other hand, Elijah is terrified of landing it on top of him, proximity sensors be damned.

He tries, he really does—again and again. By the time they finally land, his ears are ringing from the multiple hooted warnings. He can only hope it’s louder in here than it is out there. Otherwise, his mate may have seriously impaired hearing for the next day or two.

When Elijah jumps out to go to Sean, he is dismayed at first to see his muzzle down on the moss with the uninjured forepaw on top. When he lifts it, however, his tongue lolls out and the thump of his tail is the nearest thing to a slow handclap Elijah has ever heard.

He says 'Well done', Redler informs Elijah, tone as dry as it has ever been. He then completely ruins the effect with a sudden outburst of clucks, squawks and wing-flapping. He is not the only one. It seems wekas have a hive sense of humor, too.

Elijah takes an elaborate bow. It’s either that or expire from embarrassment, and Sean needs him alive right now.

Sean may be feeling up to a tease but it hurts Elijah to watch his dragging crawl into the skimmer. He doesn’t even try for a seat, just flops down on the floor in back.

Redler flaps up to ride shotgun again as Elijah thanks Scret and the remaining wekas.

He has the hang of taking off, now—those branches were just unlucky, and the weka chorus was all goodbye squawks, not jeering at all…

Auto-nav is top left, Redler says, return destination already programmed in—just hit the button. And Sean wants you to comm. his friend so he’s there to meet us. That’s that one, he says and waggles a helpful wingtip.

I do know that, Elijah retorts crossly. He is exhausted, both mentally and physically, and struggling to keep a hold on a panic that seems to be getting closer, no matter how much better Sean may have gotten. Still, he is out of line to snap at the weka who has done so much for him and his mate. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t—

Forget it, says Redler. It’s been a long day for all of us—I could use some shut-eye myself.

By the time the skimmer sets itself gently down by the waiting figure of Ly Gethin, all three of its occupants are asleep.

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Chapter Text

After riding—and picnicking—with Rhansi in the extensive and gloriously landscaped grounds that encircle Focus, Ly returns to the ranch only to shower and change in time for their dinner date that evening.

He is surprised to hear the message received chime as he walks in the door. ‘Read,’ he directs, expecting to hear from Rhansi, or perhaps even Sean—as unlikely as that may be, this time of day. It is neither.

‘Doctor Gethin, this is Elijah. Sean is badly hurt. Auto-pilot will get us to you but we have to bring him home to Calia, fast.’

The voice is as terse as the message, Elijah’s tight control over his distress clear in every syllable.

From that moment until the skimmer lands beside him, Ly’s imagination runs the entire gamut of dire possibility.

Sean revealed to him as dead already when the skimmer’s canopy rises…

Sean suffering long and lingering agony through the entire homeward journey…

A tragic moment as he expires minutes before Alpha Prime and his Omega arrive too late to say farewell to their eldest son…

The heartbreaking realization by Elijah that his unacknowledged true-mate has gone beyond recall…

Elijah’s discovery of his own desperate need to follow Sean into death…

Ly has never before realized quite what an inventively romantic pessimist he can be, considering that Alpha Prime is light years away and in total ignorance of his son’s situation, let alone his peril. Also, Elijah said hurt, not dying—and Sean does have were-healing on his side.

Maybe Ly’s hopefully impending engagement is somehow to blame—for the romance, at least.

It’s more than likely that some new injury, on top of the hit Sean’s healing ability has taken recently, has slowed it so much Elijah doesn’t believe it is working. He’s probably just over-anxious—new mates and all.

Ly is reassured, when the skimmer canopy actually rises and Sean stretches as he wakes, aware enough to huff a greeting.

It is admittedly a little disturbing to see him still in wolf form. There’s no attempt to leap from the skimmer, either, as Ash would normally do.

Then Ly sees Sean’s foreleg… and yes, that would be why.

‘Hello again, Doctor Gethin. Thank you so much for coming with Sean to find me.’ Elijah stands beside him, offering his hand.

This Elijah is no longer the tightly repressed bundle of Were mating hormones Ly met on Calia. He is quiet and sad and Ly can see he is desperately worried for Sean. With an injury like that, there’s no such thing as over anxiety.

Objectively and as a straight man, he recognizes that Elijah is still beautiful. Possibly even more so without the hectic sexual allure he exuded back on Calia. An enhanced glow to his skin and eyes, his lips inflamed and his slightest movement sinuous and unconsciously seductive—he was even graceful in his pain, when Ly mistakenly shook his hand at a time when he should never be touched but by an alpha. It was all too obvious then, even to a Normal.

Now, he is a young man who fears he is losing someone precious to him. His marble pallor comes of worry and fear. The redness of his lips is the result of anxious biting, and the brilliance of his eyes, tears all unshed, is only enhanced by the lilac shadows beneath. His grace is dignity, now—his pride in holding himself together while doing all he can for his injured mate.

‘It’s good to see you again at last, Elijah,’ Ly replies, extending his own hand. ‘I’m just sorry my place couldn’t keep you safe. And as a friend, there was no way I could let Sean go looking for you on his own!’ He nods toward the wreck of Sean’s foreleg. ‘That doesn’t look so good—how’s he doing in himself?

Oddly, there is a pause before Elijah answers. He is looking, Ly notices, not at Sean but at the weka bird that exited the skimmer with them, hopping down as freely as Sean could not.

‘The pain isn’t so bad now, but he thinks the sooner we get a fresh batch of leeches on him the better.’

‘What the hell ripped him up like that—and shouldn’t he at least have started healing already?’ Ly is the anxious one now.

‘He’s not healing because he was shot with silver.’

Not anxious enough, then—and Ly’s most pessimistic imaginings may not have gone so far astray. Given a silver-borne injury of such proportions, Sean is lucky to be alive at all and is probably still in quite some danger. Even dedicated Were-healers have rarely been able to cure argent poisoning. Then Ly realizes what else Elijah just said.

‘Leeches?’ The idea grosses him out. He knows his history as well as the next man but the days of medical leeching are long past. ‘Surely we don’t need to go that far? I can have a proper medic on standby to meet us at the shuttle, if you think it would help.’

Ly wants to offer more. Much more. X-rays, trauma surgeons, titanium pins—whatever it takes, in fact—but he restrains himself, knowing that to a Were they might do more harm than good.

‘No human could fix argent poisoning without a total transfusion that would reveal he is Were.’ Elijah says. ‘Sean doesn’t want that. It’s a bad idea anyway, given that Normal blood would compromise his ability to heal if it didn’t kill him outright. Med Bay on the Lunar Express carries a supply of Were blood—he’ll last till then, he says.’ From the worry on his face, Elijah himself is not entirely convinced of this. ‘And the only reason he is still alive and conscious right now is because the first lot of leeches sucked most of the silver out of him.’

‘But—but I don’t have—I mean, there aren’t any—’

Elijah smiles faintly. ‘We brought our own,’ he says, holding up a drinks container. Ly is rather relieved it’s not transparent.

It is painful to watch Sean almost fall from the skimmer, but Elijah waves away Ly’s incipient offer of help. Ly nods. He should know his friend better than that.

If Sean can, he will—and slowly, slowly, he does so, staggering three-legged into the ranch-house. Ly takes comfort in the fact that he gets there under his own steam. It’s more than he could have hoped for, earlier.

Sean doesn’t even try to make it to a bed, however, collapsing on the nearest rug in the great room. Oddly, the bird follows him and Elijah makes no move to stop it. Ly knows how inquisitive wekas are, but really, there are limits. Why does Elijah even allow it?

‘Did you bring that along for Sean to eat?’ he asks in an undertone. ‘Because I have to tell you they apparently taste so bad, there’s a warning in the official Welcome notes against shooting them for the table.’

Elijah stares as if he can’t believe what Ly just said. ‘We aren’t going to eat him. That’s Redler—he’s my friend!’

‘He’s what?’

‘My friend—and Sean’s, too. You have no idea how much we owe him and his people! Also, he’s sentient and understands every word you say, so try not to be so f—so damned tactless!’

As a political scientist, Ly has always been more aware than most of the variation in life forms throughout the galaxy, and has prided himself on his ready acceptance of differing anatomical configurations. Redler may still look just like a bird, but Ly still gets the sinking feeling that follows a huge social gaffe.

‘I beg your pardon most sincerely, Redler. Ignorance is my only excuse.’

Redler eyes him fixedly for a moment or two, then inclines his head almost regally.

Ly feels properly chastised until Elijah grins and Redler squawks and flaps his wings. ‘He’s teasing you,’ Elijah explains. ‘Wekas are pretty much inured to what humans think of them.’

Redler looks to Ly exactly like every other weka he has ever seen hanging around Focus. Does Elijah mean they all understand everything they hear? He recalls a few of the choicer epithets he has heard thrown at them—among other, more tangible missiles, not all of them edible—and cringes for his species.

Actually, he has cast one or two of those same epithets himself. He shrugs. It is too late for regret and he has other things to worry about, right now. However, he makes a mental note to be more circumspect around weka birds in future, as he turns back to Sean.

Even with what he knows about were-healing generally—and the strain Sean has put on his, recently—Ly can’t tell if it may have made any progress here or not. The dragging confusion of splintered bone and mangled flesh that used to be Sean’s foreleg looks to him like one hell of a mess, so he doubts it. It is sluggishly bleeding and he’s not sure that can be a good thing. How does Elijah know the leeches won’t suck him dry of blood as well as silver?

‘A medic can at least give him saline before we leave, though—fluid replacement has to be important even in the Were, right?’ he suggests. ‘Maybe something for the pain, too?’

‘I guess,’ Elijah answers distractedly, then adds, ‘Redler says Sean says yes, but this is more important for now. Could you bring a bowl, please? I need to tip these out.’ He unscrews the top of the water bottle. ‘Towels too—and maybe a plas-sheet?’

Towels Ly can do. Plas-sheets are beyond him. They might have come as standard if he had brought infants along on his vacation, but as it is… He lays down a thick pad of toweling beside Sean and stands back to watch. He knows better than to touch when Elijah is so focused on his mate.

Sean’s wolf doesn’t whine when Elijah repositions his leg, drawing it out straight, though his tongue lolls out and his breath comes much faster. He lies very still, eyes closed, as if the the stress of moving it, no matter how necessary—on top of his determined effort to bring himself into the house—has taken all his available strength.

Ly shudders when the leeches flop out into the shallow bowl and start to ooze through their brackish water. He supplies food tongs for handling them—the thought of actually touching them makes his own flesh creep.

He is more than surprised, then, when the weka picks them up in his beak one by one, laying them carefully along the edges of torn flesh.

‘Redler is the only one who can speak with Sean right now,’ Elijah says, watching him work.

‘Really?’ Ly questions. He hasn’t noticed any sound from the bird since those teasing squawks. He has been assuming Elijah has some mystical Were connection with his mate.

‘It’s complicated,’ Elijah says. ‘Redler is telepathic—with werewolves, at least, not run-of-the-mill humans.’ He grins faintly. ‘Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to sound demeaning or anything!’

Ly only grins back and indicates Sean. ‘Well, you are pretty special,’ he says.

Elijah nods gratefully. ‘So, Sean and I can both hear and speak with Redler whichever form we’re in, but I can’t hear Sean when he’s wolf and I’m not.’

This time, Ly knows the pause means he’s listening to the weka—to Redler. He wonders if they all have names and has to assume that they do.

Elijah’s face lights up for a moment, then falls again. ‘Sean says—he says cross-form ’pathing is a connection between true-mates. I guess…never mind.’

‘I expect you need to—that is, maybe it’ll happen after—’ Ly doesn’t really know Elijah well enough yet say outright, My guess is you need to fuck before that kicks in—it being a mates thing and all.

He could tell that to Sean, no problem—to Elijah, not so much. ‘It’s probably just a matter of time,’ he finishes, bracingly.

‘Could I have something to eat, please?’ says Elijah.

He obviously wants to change the subject and Ly doesn’t blame him. He wouldn’t want a Normal trampling all over his lovelife, either, if he were one of the Were. It’s a tad deflating to realize that ‘Normal’ puts him in the same category as Niconet Perçuile, but at least Ly has nothing whatever to do with slavery.

‘All I’ve had today was a few dried fruits Redler and I shared. Oh—I bet Sean hasn’t eaten, either!’ Elijah springs to his feet and begins pacing—pitched head first into a probably long-delayed panic by his oversight.

‘Meat—he needs meat to heal properly! Gods, I should have thought, already! Do you have meat? Real meat, I mean, not the vat stuff? Maybe I should go out and catch something for him? I don’t know what there is out there that’s good to eat, though—what if I accidentally make it worse? What if I bring something that will make him ill on top of the silver? And I’ve never hunted anything in my life—I don’t even know how! It’ll probably take me hours and by then it might be too late and it’ll be all my fault—again—if he…if…’

He comes to a gasping halt beneath the weight of fear and crushing guilt.

Ly rushes to reassure him. ‘It isn’t a problem, Elijah—really it’s not! Seiduxion prides itself on real food. We have meat—old-fashioned steaks, even. I’ll just go defrost and grill—’

‘No, no cooking—the bloodier the better!’

Ly nods and goes off to set some in the defroster.

He has already arranged their departure for this evening, when most of Focus’s patrons will be too wrapped up in their own pleasures to observe anyone leaving. Called urgently away, he informed housekeeping at the Focal Point, and the ‘bot has already collected their luggage and taken it for loading onto a shuttle. The Lunar Express is on standby in orbit.

Now, they just need for Sean to be well enough to make the journey.

Ly sets about thawing steak to a suitably bloody consistency, all the while fretting at a worry of his own.

In recent weeks he has lunched several times with Lady Serini and her granddaughter. He has played grav-ball against Rhansi, gone sailing with her, accompanied her on horseback to more than one picnic in some of the most beautiful places on the entire planet. They have laughed and dined and danced and star-gazed together. He has yet, however, to kiss her.

However much he may want to, Rhansi is not one of his conquests, to be wined and dined and, if agreeable, bedded. She is far more than that to Ly. He is convinced now that she is the one he has been waiting for all his adult life.

He is less sure that she has been waiting for him—or for anyone. He has known from the start how attached she is to her work. He discovered through Instalink, with a certain vicarious pride, that she is well-known in her field already. Not that he would have the least objection to a partner with a career of her own.

He still hopes she wasn’t too disappointed when she lost him at one point in her explanation of her latest project. He kept up as well as the son of a physicist might be expected to, but she did leave him behind, well before the end. When he confessed as much, she didn’t seem to hold it against him, and they do have much else to discuss, after all. They are never at a loss for words—or companionable silences, either.

Once he sees Sean slowly eating from the plate of raw steak set beside a replenished dish of water, Elijah calms and allows Ly to serve him at the table—cooked food that Ly himself can also enjoy.

He enquires about provision for Redler but Elijah says there is no need. Ly doesn’t understand—until the first of Sean’s attendant leeches finishes its task and tumbles off. He is most careful to look the other way thereafter as it and presumably the rest are gobbled up by the weka.

While they eat, Elijah furnishes Ly with a brief rundown of his captivity and escape, the skimmer pursuit, Sean’s shooting and the enormous debt both of them owe to a huge section of Seidux’s weka population for their continuing freedom.

The thought of what Niconet Perçuile might have done, had he gotten his hands on what he would undoubtedly—given Elijah’s lack of any knot—regard as a breeding pair, sends shivers down Ly’s spine.

He does not mention it to Elijah. Some speculations are best left unspoken.

At last, with Elijah back on watch beside Sean, Ly approaches the comm. He asks to be put through to Lady Serini’s suite, but the face that appears on screen is Rhansi’s. She is looking particularly…like herself. He sighs—not wanting to spoil that look, knowing he must.

‘Good afternoon,’ he says.

‘Did you want Nan, or me?’ she asks with a smile. The days of Ly requesting her company through her granddam first are some time past, but Rhansi likes to tease.

‘You, Rhansi,’ he says, and something in his tone must tell her this is a more serious conversation than usual, for her smile fades.

‘Is our dinner date off, then?’ she asks. He hopes that is his own disappointment reflected on her face.

‘I’m sorry Rhansi—I won’t be here. I’m leaving Seidux, tonight.’ He almost gabbles it in his need to get past the leaving to his promise of return.

Tonight?’ He sees far more than disappointment and he knows he has botched it already.

‘Just like that?’ she asks, her voice small. He can almost see pride gather around her against the hurt. She doesn’t wait for his reply and her tone becomes brittle, her expression now a balance of cool civility with barely concealed chagrin. ‘Oh. Well, I thank you for your company these past weeks, Doctor Gethin, and I wish you—’

‘No!’ Ly almost shouts. ‘This is not a polite brush-off, Rhansi! Listen to me—please! I would give much to stay here with you, but a friend has a—a medical emergency, and needs all the help I can give, which means bringing him to his home planet as fast as possible. I don’t want to go, Rhansi—I have to.’

‘Oh,’ she says again, but this time it’s a little less bleak—a little more hopeful. ‘I see, now. Of course you must go. I’m sorry, Ly, I didn’t mean to—’

‘To give me the polite brush-off?’ he teases, hoping they both want the same thing here.

‘I was hurt,’ she admits. ‘I thought perhaps you had—’

‘Found someone else? Rhansi,’ he says, and he is deadly serious now, ‘I don’t think I could find anyone else, now I have met you. This is so not the way I would wish to tell you, but I think—no, I know—that I love you!’ he confesses in a rush.

He can see she’s blushing now. He knows he is. For all the girlfriends Ly has had in the past, he has never actually said those words to anyone before. When he hears a muffled sound from someone out of sight behind her, he knows Lady Serini is crowing in satisfaction.

‘And it took a medical emergency for you to finally admit it? It’s a good thing I love you too, Ly!’

At her gentle tease, Sean’s problem fades from Ly’s mind for a moment as joy and relief flood through him.

‘Your friend—is there anything I can do to help?’

‘No, but I thank you for the offer, and so will my friend when he finally gets to meet you. I’ll tell you about it later, when I come back. I’d rather not explain on an open channel.’

‘Ly, what’s going on—I mean, are you safe?’

‘Perfectly safe, and I promise this isn’t something you need worry about. I’m probably being over-cautious, but…’ He looks directly into her eyes, and gives a tiny shake of his head.

She is quick to take the hint and the rest of their conversation is mostly promises of as swift a return as he can contrive, rather than further reassurance or even declarations of love. Going by the soft smile on her face the whole time—Rhansi trusts him enough not to mind too much. Ly receives Lady Serini’s pledge that they will both be there still when he returns, so he doesn’t, either. Much.

He cannot promise exactly when, but he is coming back for her. And should she subsequently choose—on a most significant occasion—to resemble a meringue, Ly knows he won’t mind in the slightest.

When he returns to the great room, Sean is still laid out on his side, eyes closed. Elijah has both hands buried in his long fur as if for comfort, but he still looks worried. ‘Oughtn’t the were-healing have kicked in by now?’ he asks—as if Ly might know better than he. ‘I can’t really see it.’

The leeches have all disappeared. On the rug at Sean’s side Redler has transformed himself from a feathery ball with a long handle, set on gawky legs, into a wholly round ball of feathers. Presumably he is asleep, and there will be no input from Sean until both are awake again.

‘Yes, well—he wasn’t exactly healing properly before,’ Ly says. ‘Take a look at his paws—too much running on far too little food or sleep, these past few weeks, for his healing to catch up. He was focused on you, Elijah, not himself!’

When Elijah visibly flinches at the mostly unintended accusation, Ly relents. ‘Sorry, it’s just—his one thought was to get you safely back to Calia, especially once we knew about the new auction coming up.’

Elijah’s look turns from worried to haunted, and Ly guesses he knew about that, too. Sean’s wolf rolls upright on the rug. They both turn and look down as he yawns himself awake.

What was that ancient saying about watched pots? Elijah has been hovering over him constantly from the start, whereas Ly has not seen the injury in a little while.

He is almost sure the wounded limb actually does look different now. Is it his imagination, or are the torn edges ever so slightly less well-defined? And the white of bone just a bit less obvious against the red-brown rust of dried and bloody fur? He is wondering whether they ought to have tried to clean it up and how that might be managed without causing Sean more pain, when Elijah suddenly beams.

‘His leg is starting to feel warm!’

‘He told you that? You can hear him now? How is that good, anyway? Heat means inflammation, doesn’t it—and even I know that’s anything but good!’

A head pops out of the ball of feathers, fixes Ly with a beady stare and disappears again.

‘Redler woke up too—he’s a tad grumpy as yet,’ explains Elijah. ‘He told me. And, no—not in the Were. Maybe because it’s usually so quick, healing starts with a sort of warmth. Like—like all the molecules and whatever are banging about inside, fixing themselves to the ones next door.’

The feathers unravel into clucks and wing-flapping. Sean’s wolf-tongue lolls and his tail beats a quick tattoo on the floor.

Elijah actually giggles. ‘They’re making fun of my medical know-how!’

It’s really not that funny, but Ly finds himself laughing, too. Relief, he supposes, and a release of tension they can all use. At least one major obstacle to a swift departure has been overcome.

His comm. band buzzes, its screen alight with text. ‘Message from Spaceport. The shuttle needs to depart within the hour to coordinate with the Lunar Express’s next orbital trajectory,’ he reports. ‘I left out clothes for you, Elijah—they’re next door. Come on, Ash, back to the skimmer!’

‘Ash?’ Elijah’s brow creases. ‘Why Ash? He’s gold and brown, not grey.’

Ly grins. ‘Alpha Son and Heir, what else?’

‘Duh!’ Elijah laughs as he disappears toward the bedroom but Sean curls a lip at his friend, mock-menacing.

He rises onto three paws, moving slowly but more easily than when he arrived. He is still weak and his leg is no more pleasant to look at. A dressing would probably do more harm than good with splinters of bone still visible in places. Even to a lay person’s eyes, though, they do seem to be withdrawing beneath Sean’s slowly re-forming skin.

Ly can believe at last that the were-healing is truly underway. He has a strong suspicion that for Sean, Elijah’s touch—fingers anxiously combing through that furry coat—has made the biggest difference, but he’s not about to say so aloud, in case.

When Elijah joins them—and Redler—in the skimmer, he looks very different. The wig Ly didn’t mention is dirty blond and riotously curly. It makes Elijah look like human-Sean’s mischievous kid brother. If someone is checking departures on Perçuile’s behalf, they won’t for one minute recognize the exotic slave that escaped his clutches.

It’ll be cutting it fine, but there should be time to fix up Ly’s 'accidentally injured pet' with a saline drip before they go aboard. No-one will query the addition to his party of one impish-looking cherub. The papers for his return are, after all, completely in order—Alpha Prime and Coren have seen to that between them.

#

There is one minor hitch as they reach the embarkation point, but it has nothing to do with Elijah’s status.

‘I’m afraid the exportation of livestock is forbidden, Doctor Gethin,’ announces the official. He indicates the two weka birds Elijah is holding, strung together limply by their feet.

No-one would have dreamed of asking this of Redler—the whole undignified ploy is entirely his own idea. He has decided he would very much like to visit Calia, bringing along 'a friend for company'. Ly caught Elijah’s eye at that and they exchanged mostly hidden grins, each quietly convinced the lack of any crest meant the second weka is female. When, via Elijah, Redler introduces her as Letti, their suspicion is confirmed. They don’t comment aloud—who can blame him, after all, when wekas are not indigenous to Calia?

Right now, the way the pair dangles, feet first, from Elijah’s hand—eyes fixed, mouths agape, tongues lolling—is positively…deathlike.

Quite disturbing, in fact. It more than makes up for any absence of blood.

‘Of course it is,’ Ly readily agrees. ‘But these are not actually livestock any longer, are they—more of a snack along the way. Seidux has given Ash a taste for these birds, you see, for all their apparent flavor of rotten fish.’ He wrinkles his nose, then fixes the official with a pleading gaze. ‘He is so sick right now, he really needs something to tempt his appetite.’

If he is surprised by the piteous whine coming from the float pallet where Sean lies stretched out on his side—drip-stand attached, one foreleg lightly covered, its undamaged twin ostentatiously bandaged for the occasion—Ly doesn’t show it. The official, greatly daring, reaches a hand to pet the huge wolf head. Ash gives him a dabbed lick.

‘He likes you!’ says Ly, as if highly impressed. ‘You must be quite the special person—he doesn’t take to many!’

The official beams, bestows another quick, almost proprietary pat, and waves the entire party on board without further ado.


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Chapter Text

Chapter 27 - Mixed Messages

Sean doesn’t really notice at first. It’s not as if Elijah is actually avoiding him.

He visits daily while Sean is in the Lunar Express’s Med bay undergoing treatment—brief visits, it is true. Visitors are not encouraged to linger when the medics are understandably worried to have the life of the Alpha Son and Heir in their hands, given that the cause is argent poisoning.

The leeches have removed more of the silver than either he or they believed possible, however, and between the onboard dialysis machine and the Were blood available for replacement, Sean is soon pronounced out of danger and moved to his own quarters—by float pallet again, embarrassingly enough, for his shattered foreleg is slow to heal. There is still enough residual damage that his innate healing ability has too much to do in too many different areas, to work quickly.

He is no sooner installed than Elijah is at his door bursting with the news he has only just heard.

As soon as they had even the hope of a wormhole connection, Captain Gresson wangled a fine line through to Calia. Reception is pretty patchy, stretched as thin as it must be, but it’s enough for Elijah to have seen and spoken with his parents, reassuring them that he really is on his way home.

The call can barely have ended before he is bouncing into Sean’s quarters.

‘I guess it’s okay to tell you this—I mean, it’s a secret for now, but it’s not like you can go blabbing it around!’ Elijah babbles, joy clear in his face. ‘I sort of knew already, but it was still a surprise when I talked to her—when I saw her. My mom is—it’s a bit early to be telling people yet, but she’s showing already! Not much, but I could see it! Twins, she said—I’ll be big brother for two little pups!’

Sean is also delighted—for him and for Deira, who can raise her new litter with none of the nightmare fear of discovery or the loss she knew with her firstborn. He hears Elijah’s elation in having family and a place to belong at last, and rejoices with him—tail thumping, tongue darting out to lick Elijah’s hand where it rests beside him on his bunk.

He resolutely pushes aside his own deep need for Elijah to belong most with him—only with Sean and, one day, their pups.

When Elijah looks down at the wet place on his hand Sean’s heart sinks, but Elijah doesn’t pull away and wipe it off in disgust. Before Sean can even make a start on cursing himself out for almost slavering at the newly learned taste of Elijah’s skin, Elijah reaches out impulsively and buries head and hands in the furred ruff at Sean’s neck.

‘I’m so happy for them!’ he says into the hug. There’s a moment of stillness and silence, then a deep indrawn breath—which is maybe why he emerges spluttering on a mouthful of Sean’s thick coat. Still, when he sits up again, there’s a smile on his face and he doesn’t look as if he regrets the hug at all. Sean is pretty sure he’s not thinking about anything other than his pleasure in the pups to come.

‘She looks so beautiful, you know? And Coren—well, he’s pretty much the wolf with two tails. I doubt he could look any smugger if he tried! It was probably inevitable, you know, with how thoroughly they celebrated their reunion…’ His smile turns mischievous. ‘My wolf hearing came in pretty soon after we came home!’ Elijah waggles his eyebrows and Sean huffs a laugh.

Wolf form is scarcely ideal for sharing delight, though Sean does his best to show Elijah how glad he is for him—without constantly slobbering all over him.

It’s the worst form in the world to be stuck in when there are things he really needs to say to the true-mate who doesn’t want him in return. The mate who, he finally realizes, is resolutely remaining human when—no, because—he knows Sean has no chance of shifting back just yet.

For all that he will share a secret as important to him as his mom’s pregnancy, Elijah clearly has no intention of actually discussing their own situation with Sean.

For the first time ever in his life, Sean feels trapped by his wolf.

Space journeys, long or short, have never been a problem for him. As a Were he has always been in the best of health, and if the sensations of a wormhole jump are heightened by his internal alter ego—not exactly pleasantly—they don’t last all that long and are more than endurable for the months, even years, saved on full-distance travel.

So, he’s quite familiar with the insides-sucked-out-by-a-tornado, bones-and-skin-play-catch-up-later feeling.

As he discovers now, it becomes a lot more than merely unpleasant when some of those bones are in pieces, the skin and fur around them lately torn and still quite raw. The jump itself may be quickly over but its after-effects linger for some time. Worse, they affect his entire body, not his injured leg alone. Every last nerve feels on edge by association with the one next to it.

It reminds him of Elijah’s ingenuous attempt to describe were-healing for Ly’s benefit, and his outright giggle when he was teased for it. For some reason, the memory makes the pain a tad easier to bear.

The jump leaves Sean even less able to shift. Afterward, he can barely make the three-legged stagger to his in-cabin facilities, and only pride keeps him from sleeping on the floor—difficult as it is to scrabble onto his bunk, even with a boost from the stool Elijah found from somewhere. He would be a fool to try anyway, since healing is fastest and cleanest in wolf form. He knows that quite well, but he grows impatient as the days go by. There are things he needs to say to Elijah, things he does not want to say through Redler.

He almost wishes the Lunar Express had brought the usual complement of Weres when they left for Seidux. He had made the decision, but only some of his reason was the need for secrecy over the panoply that accompanies an official diplomatic mission.

Partly it was because he had no idea if Elijah would still be in heat when they found him. Most of his team already have mates of their own, but even a mated alpha might be unable to resist the overwhelming attraction of an unclaimed omega in heat, given the inescapable proximity aboard a spaceship. Sean was not going to take the risk of hurting one of his wolves—or its mate—for what wouldn’t really be its fault.

Mostly, though, it was sheer jealousy. The fear that—in heat or not—Elijah might actually prefer another alpha to him.

Sean may have accepted that he can’t have Elijah—not yet at least, and maybe never. It is probably highly significant that the burn beneath his skin has settled to a low, comforting hum these days—resignation to the inevitable, he suspects. But he’ll be damned if he’ll bring him home for some other alpha to win his affections, if nothing more, along the way. Right out from under Sean’s all-too sensitive nose, and in such close quarters, too.

Early in the voyage he was very tempted to shift and let pain and consequences go hang—but Gress and his damned officious caring put paid to that. His idiot friend used the connection to Calia and his authority during Sean’s incapacity to inform Alpha Prime, on Sean’s own console, of his son’s silver-borne injury. Sean is amazed to feel his father’s fiat from such a distance and know he must obey. He is not to shift until it will do him no further harm.

As the days go by he begins toying with the idea of asking Redler to ask Elijah to shift. Problem is, the weka is not actually around all that much these days.

He is apparently much taken up with the companion he brought along. Her name is Letti, Sean remembers from her shy greeting when they met, but he has not heard her voice in his head since then. She doesn’t come to his cabin, of course, so perhaps he wouldn’t. He has no idea what the distance limitations may be on avian-werewolf telepathy—does anyone? From his first, inverted glimpse of her in the transfer to the ship, she’s about as brown, feathery and nondescript as Redler. If not for the name and the absence of a crest, Sean might never have guessed she was female.

The two wekas naturally spend most of their time together, though at first no-one is quite sure if they are mates to the degree that Hymenaeus would bless. Maybe Letti is simply a friend—one with a keen line in playing dead. Redler isn’t telling, and even Elijah isn’t entirely certain to begin with. The crew mostly have credits riding on the outcome one way or the other.

It is not long, however, before the matter is settled quite conclusively.

Even short-haul ships these days have a bi-oxy compartment stocked with Kindrel plants. Requiring no heat, little water and less food, only sufficient light and an almost weightless exfoliated silicate base to support them, Kindrels are the sole high-value export of a backwater planet on the edge of nowhere. A singularly forward-looking council was quick to slap a universal patent on propagation of the plants, just as soon as they realized what a treasure they possessed.

A sufficient array of Kindrel plants will power a low cost, energy-light, ship-wide ventilation system that constantly replaces saturated air with fresh. The days of long-haul crews almost expiring from well nigh unbreathable air are long gone. These days the bi-oxy compartment is known as the Kincomp. Kitted out with comfortable lounging benches, it functions as a second rec room for those who prefer peace and quiet and the scent of outdoors while they read or relax.

Turns out, Kincomps also form the ideal mating ground for space-traveling, in-season weka-birds. Who knew?

Except that the entire crew of the Lunar Express is suddenly far more aware of it than they’d really like to be, whether they won or lost credits in the couple-or-not stakes. Knowing from Elijah that wekas are fully sentient makes staying in the same room as a constantly active mating pair feel far too much like voyeurism—to say nothing of the noise. And the feathers. The two have the Kincomp mostly to themselves these days.

With Sean tucked away in his cabin—needing to heal but also more than a little embarrassed to be stuck in his wolf form for the duration—how come he knows so much about this, right down to the very last detail? Because Elijah tells him, of course.

He may be resolutely human these days, but he is far from ignoring Sean altogether. In fact, he seems to have a sixth sense—or maybe that’s a mate sense—for when Sean is alone and wishing for company—which, it turns out, is quite a lot of the time. Elijah practically makes it his job to grant that wish—but then, there’s not a lot else for him to do aboard ship so that’s probably why.

Gress and several other crew members whom Sean knows quite well—and Ly of course—all make a point of coming by each day to say hello. They ask how he is, comment on the improvement to his leg, and relay the current scuttlebutt—how much they won or lost on the whole weka affair, for example, and who stands where in the how many eventual eggs and when stakes. But beyond that and the standard day-to-day stuff he would normally want to know—details of incoming messages, proximity of other space-going vessels, maybe an update to the ETA and so on—it gets awkward.

A totally one-sided conversation is never easy even when both parties are human. Talking with a wolf makes most people feel like idiots, no matter how long they have known him, so these visits tend to be pretty short. The Medic of the Day has it easy—he or she sticks to business with just a few pleasantries thrown in.

Ly’s are the longest, of course. He has a lot to say these days—quite a bit of it repetition, and almost all of it concerning Rhansi Daletter and her perfections. Also, her very slight imperfections which it seems are equally adorable, judging by the look on Ly’s face as he recounts them. Aside from his visits with Sean, Ly apparently spends most of his time—and orbital and other distance constraints mean one conversation can occupy quite a lot of time—chatting with Rhansi via an increasingly attenuated Spyke Intralink.

Sean wouldn’t complain if he could. He listens and is happy for his friend. At least one of them has what he has always needed.

When Elijah comes by, though, he stays. First he does a careful check on how well the injury is healing—which it is, of course, only ridiculously—almost human—slow, but he likes to see for himself.

Only once, early in the journey, did Elijah seem reluctant to come see him—sidling in and sitting in the desk chair across the room instead of perching comfortably on the bunk alongside Sean as usual.

Reluctance, Sean thought, when it came to the full telling, to relive his abduction and captivity—but, with head down and the odd understandable shudder, he told that part seamlessly and well. It was the laundry-hatch ruse of his escape that made him hesitant. He took a deep breath and addressed Sean directly.

‘Yes, Caselja helped kidnap me and she shot Ferdek with silver, but without her help I could never have escaped that place,’ he said. ‘We trained together until she failed Nico’s standards and was sent to the Seven Moons as a “hostess” instead, which—well, you can imagine… She didn’t like me back then, but it was Caselja who showed me the laundry-hatch, and Caselja who provided the clothes and the water bottle. I owe her my freedom, Sean.’

Elijah’s voice blended doubt and resolution, and Sean tipped his great wolf head to one side encouragingly.

‘I promised her—I know I was way out of line pledging your credits for you, but I promised her that—that if I escaped and found my way to you, that—’ his voice caught, then he said in a rush, ‘that you would buy her freedom too… Please, Sean—I owe her!’

Sean had never needed to shift as much as he did then, to tell Elijah he would do as much and more, even for Caselja—anything, for his mate—but he was still weak enough for shifting to be a very bad idea, whatever the need. Instead, enthusiastic tail-wagging and a quick lick to Elijah’s hand were his promise of action just as soon as he was able to access credits again.

The hug he received in return was worth more to Sean than all the credits he possessed.

After that, Elijah is free with his visits. Like everyone else, he relates events aboard the Lunar Express—he just gives them a spin only someone unfamiliar with the workings of a spaceship could do. What Sean has already heard from Gress and others somehow sounds a lot funnier from a lay point of view.

It’s the one real advantage to being a wolf right now—he can’t laugh out loud, or be forced to stifle a snigger that may hurt Elijah’s feelings. His appreciation is all internal, and none the worse for it.

After Elijah has put his own slant on the day’s scuttlebutt and told whatever else is on his mind—their own situation excepted—he usually offers to read to Sean, and does so for hours on end, some days. He’s pretty good at voices and sound effects—far more engaging than the auto-read he could open for Sean if he really wanted to avoid the chore. Judging by the life he breathes into it, though, he seems to enjoy escapist literature just as much as Sean.

For their readings he joins Sean on his bunk, feet curled under him and one hand always reaching out sooner or later to bury his fingers in the thick coat at Sean’s neck. They curve and flex there more like a contented cat than a wolf, and Sean would swear they speed up the warmth of his healing. Yes, Elijah’s touch stimulates warmth elsewhere too but Sean is not yet strong enough for the need to demand attention.

Even better, Elijah’s readings and Sean’s wolf form allow him to stare at the mate he may never truly have, without Elijah looking back and seeing how much that hurts.

Elijah’s hair has grown since that day by the lakeshore—the sculpted shape blurred and lost now to this swirl of loose dark curls. Sean can let go his earlier fantasy of curving one palm over warm skin, the rasping hint of hair an incitement in itself. His imagination returns him quite happily to thoughts of fingers threading those silken strands, their soft-warm fall across his wrists as he coaxes Elijah into a kiss.

He enjoys his freedom to stare so much, he can ignore how much of a hermit he has let himself become. Yes, once his wolf was able to limp around his cabin, he might as easily have limped further each day until he was spending time in one of the rec rooms, maybe even the Mess—though the Were never eat among Normals in wolf form. Chatting with the wolf might even have become less awkward then, though he doubts it.

Truth is, he stays tucked away in his cabin because the only person he actually wants chatting with him is Elijah. Sean wants him to himself this way for as long as ever he can have him.

As the voyage goes on, Elijah keeps him up to date on the mystifying way unattended pillows throughout the ship gradually begin to lose their fine, faux-feather stuffing. Given previous reports of the mating habits of their onboard wekas, Sean is not really surprised when Elijah bursts in with news that is explanation and confirmation all in one.

‘Guess what? Redler won’t let anyone in the Kincomp at all, now. And since we’ve seen neither beak nor feather of Letti in days, I’m pretty sure she’s nesting! I already asked for their feeding station to be moved in there. Redler obviously feels a need to do the whole sole provider thing, but with some foods it just isn’t practical to bring them from the Mess by beak!’

For an instant, Sean catches a look on Elijah’s face that doesn’t quite seem connected to the wekas, but then it has gone and he’s back to worried consideration of possible problems ahead.

‘What do we do if her eggs haven’t hatched by the time we reach Calia? Do you think they’ll let us move them planetside? I mean, I know we can physically make them, but I really don’t want them upset, when you think how much Redler has done for us!’

Sean waggles his head in a slow side to side that Elijah rightly interprets as wait and see.

‘Yeah, I suppose we have to. Maybe I could get him to listen to me again, find out how long it’ll take?’

Sean’s raised wolf-brows prompt the necessary explanation.

‘Didn’t I say? Oh, sorry! Redler hasn’t actually spoken with me in days except for a Hi! in passing. I think he’s too excited about having chicks to call his own!’

Again, a shadow seems momentarily to cross his face and is gone again before Sean can even wonder what it may mean.

‘Maybe he’ll come around to talking again once the eggs are laid—if they’re not already! You’re right about wait and see, of course, but if we’re back at Calia before they hatch, how bad do you think it will be for them to be moved? We can’t really hang around in orbit till they hatch!’

Elijah is pacing now, as if it will help him think of a way to reconcile the needs of Letti’s eggs with the Lunar Express’s scheduling.

‘Do you think they’d mind transferring by crate, the—the way Deira and I came on board that first time?’ Sean notes the hesitation. Elijah clearly doesn’t want to remember his escape too clearly. Or maybe more the fact that Sean bought him that night, for an obscene number of credits?

He rushes on. ‘Only for a short time, of course, so we can get them safely planetside. I could sabotage a few more pillows and make it quite cozy in there and it wouldn’t be for long. Although, if Redler and Letti don’t mind too much, maybe they could stay in there and travel all the way home with me…’

Details of the wekas’ visit had not actually been finalized before Redler seemingly cut off contact, but the pause now is about as pregnant as Letti and Deira put together. For the first time Sean sees Elijah truly eager to get out of here.

‘I—I think I’ll just go and see if he’ll—if there’s—I’ll—later!’ He stutters for an excuse and then he’s gone.

Of course.

If they had met in the usual way, like any other young alpha-omega couple—if Elijah had wanted him, too—Sean would have been a part of Elijah’s family already and would automatically go home with them.

Sean would then have lived with them until Elijah came into heat and they were mated in truth. Once the mating bond was set—which might take from several days to what Sean knows would be a glorious week—Elijah would have returned with him to Alpha Prime’s Pack, to live in the new home prepared for them by his proud parents.

For Sean, of course, it would more likely be a wing in the Alpha Prime Residence, unless his mate specifically requested a home of his own. Sean rather hoped he would—if Elijah had wanted a mateship at all, of course.

But theirs is not the usual alpha-omega mating. Elijah’s wolf did not make the claim, Sean’s did. At the time, Elijah didn’t even know he had a wolf inside. When he came into heat he rejected Sean. He never chose him, doesn’t want Sean as his mate, and he definitely would not want Sean returning to Shining Lake with him.

Sean can feel denial rising through his fur already, but his human half has vowed to accept this. This is why he needs to actually speak with Elijah. He wants to tell him he understands, and isn’t asking for more than to be a friend if Elijah will allow it. That Elijah doesn’t have anything to be grateful for, if that’s all that keeps him hanging around Sean’s sickbed.

Maybe, though, it’s some twisted sense of obligation, but for Luna’s sake—he rescued Sean in the end, not the other way round. It is pretty embarrassing to have to admit that, even to himself. Maybe Elijah will give him points for trying?

Even inside his head, that makes him sound kind of pathetic. He realizes then what a total coward he has been, hiding behind his father’s command.

In any other situation he would have trusted his own judgment and shifted weeks—well, no, maybe not—but days ago, at least.

Right. So he’s going to shift if he can, and then he is going to talk with Elijah at last. He lies awake, waiting for the wall-chrono to tick its way deep into the night.

Luna knows how long that piece of obsolete tech had been stashed in Stores before it was dug out especially for him. In wolf form he can’t operate a comm. band, the deskomm or any of the usual ways to know what point in the day cycle he’s at. Not knowing was driving him crazy.

Nudging his nose repeatedly at Elijah’s comm. band and making his best wolf-puppy eyes at him clearly worked, because a guy from Services installed the chrono the very next day. It took longer than it should. Were or not, injured or not, and looking as harmless as ever Sean could, the techie just wasn’t comfortable turning his back on a honking great wolf.

But Elijah’s awareness of Sean’s needs proves he has the empathy thing down pat, even if he doesn’t want any of the other advantages of a mating. And Sean is going to shift and talk with him—right now. The shifting, at least.

He slithers carefully off the bed—fast move, fast hurt was the first lesson he learned about his injury. He can even put his leg to the floor now, if gingerly. The transition back to two is what worries him—rightly, as it turns out, though not from pain. Alpha Prime’s ban would not have permitted him to shift if it were to exacerbate the injury at all.

No, the problem now is his balance as a human. Holding onto his bunk for support, Sean goes to stand up—and wobbles, almost falling. He feels a complete idiot, but he has been either four-legged or prone for far too long for this not to be an issue. Still using his hands he lurches for the chair in front of his deskomm. Maybe a few sets of seated stretch-and-bends will take care of the trembling in his knees.

For the first time he views the ragged, dark pink blotches of healing skin on his no-sun-in-far-too-long paleness. He flexes his fingers, makes a fist, and feels everything stretch and pull inside. His bones have realigned and he is almost healed—only a little soreness left. He suspects he will carry the scars forever, though they may fade over the years. The fur on his wolf’s foreleg may never grow back properly, though—the effect of Silver on the Were.

Soon he is standing confidently—even striding, as far as the cabin will allow. And he is positively ecstatic during that first shower, both literally and figuratively.

He wasn’t exactly celibate for the year and more he spent away from Calia. In several of the packs he visited, there were unattached beta wolves who offered sex without strings, and he has enjoyed human company in more than one exclusive club. It has been a while for either, though.

Now, he has been mostly wolf for months—with Elijah’s hands buried deep in his fur for hours on end, some days—and the closest he’s ever gotten to bringing himself off in that form was in this same cabin, back when he believed discarded clothes were all he might ever have of his missing mate.

Human again, it’s the first thing he needs, along with the shower itself. He’s been around Elijah too much for too long not to need it.

He lets the hot water run over his body, closing his eyes, tipping his head so the water spills through his hair and down his back. It’s way past time for a cut—he feels it on his neck, but it is not his hair he’s thinking of now, it’s Elijah’s.

Re-grown curls that drift shiny-dark in the wavering stream—each strand uncoiling lazily into wordless inscriptions of black over creamy skin.

He has only to close his eyes and Elijah is here with him, his body sliding wet and firm against Sean’s. He is everything Sean ever imagined and nothing he has ever seen, vids or no.

Droplets cling to his lashes, tiny rainbows flickering above clear blue before he blinks them away, laughing. When he tilts his face for a kiss, his head rests trustfully between Sean’s wide palms and his mouth does not demand. It invites, ensnares and surrenders all at once, and Sean loses himself to the skill of it. Scent is taste and taste is scent, and Sean’s wolf-nose is infinitely practiced in knowing the warm essence of pure Elijah.

Too soon they must come up for air, and Sean nips at his neck instead. Elijah shivers beneath his touch, all alive and wanting under slippery-sleek skin.

His hands slide and stroke, caressing here, skimming, flicking there, through gel that froths into bubbles—far more becoming to the perfection of his skin than the bare concealment of skimpy fabric and a lacing of jeweled cythlin chains, with Sean his only audience, here.

Perçuile’s cursed data chips already proved how proficient Elijah must be at pleasing any future owner—his own pleasure last and least, if ever. Sean will give him that, here—give his body back to him in truth, to know what pleasure can be.

He slithers to his knees before Elijah, bringing him to full hardness with a trail of sly kisses, hands spread wide to map the smooth planes of Elijah’s back, and claim the taut swell of his ass.

Elijah gazes down at him—not the deliberately sensuous part-lashed stare of some enigmatic character he is dancing. Not the seductive smile of the courtesan he is trained to be. Not even the resigned obedience Sean knows was ingrained into him in ways that leave no marks.

Only honest surprise shows here—surprise that Sean would think to do this for him, as Sean takes him in. There is nothing dutiful or compliant in his response—nor any skill involved on Sean’s part, only a need to give the way he knows he himself enjoys.

A wolf whines low in his throat as Sean sucks and teases, as his fingers stroke and thrust, as everything coils tight and so very ready for release. Too much, too soon a blissful agony sweeps through them, through him.

The water supply is not endless aboard ship, however, even in VIP quarters. A sudden burst of cold is his warning of mere seconds to rinse and get out before the automatic shut off. Elijah vanishes into the steam, and Sean shivers, fingers falling from his mouth, from his cock—the intensity of orgasm subsiding too fast for comfort.

He pushes wearily to his feet and waits, wrung out, for the efficient blast of air-dry. The few steps to his bunk seem like miles, and when he falls, he falls as ever into dreams of his beautiful mate.

Of course, he never does actually speak with Elijah while they’re still aboard ship.

This when Sean knows at last what an absolute and utter coward he is—too much of one to risk the closeness they have right now in exchange for cold truth. If he doesn’t shift to human while Elijah is around, he can’t speak with him—can’t assure him that it’s ‘all fine’. If he cannot physically speak, he doesn’t have to actually form the words that will set Elijah free.

True to his promise, however, he has contacted Alpha Prime—who still insists on the full physical, the minute Sean returns home—with a view to freeing Caselja as soon as possible.

Elijah has spent more time with Sean in his wolf form than he could have hoped for if he had been human for the journey—like someone keeping a sick friend company.

The fantasy in the shower is only a part of what Sean needs of him. And while he can claim both companionship and his imagined prelude to what might possibly be, he will not give it up. He cannot deliberately shatter his dream with words spoken too soon between them.

When Elijah reappears after his stuttered escape, he has a tale to tell—one of the Lunar Express crew doing something quite unheard of that Sean barely hears anyway. It seems they are both equally intent on denying the whole awkward moment ever happened.

After that, and as much as Sean may try to pretend otherwise, he can almost see the tension grow between them with every visit. He feels it hover just out of reach, as if it has taken on a life of its own. Death’s head at the feast, he thinks glumly, each time he is alone again.

He directs thought and regained energy to more physical matters. Before the Lunar Express even makes orbit around Calia, his shift has become a regular thing and Sean has regained lost muscle tone through covert but dedicated exercise.

Ly is the only one to know of it, and only then because he erupts into Sean’s quarters, late into the night—thankfully not while Sean is busy in the shower. Too excited to knock, when Rhansi has agreed—over the very thinnest of thin lines—to wed him as soon as may be. And not at Hymenaeus, he adds, his relief quite evident. He is too excited even to notice his friend’s human form until he has babbled out his news, his happiness, and his need for Sean to stand up with him when the day arrives.

When finally his jubilation calms, it occurs to him how long it has been since he last saw Sean on two legs, and the beaming smile envelops him too. ‘Oh, hey—this is great! I knew you were better but not that you could—’ that particular hand wiggle has always meant shift, to Ly, ‘—already. You’re looking good, Sean—and Elijah never breathed a word of it! Why all the secrecy?’

Sean strides to the door and palms the lock he is usually so careful to engage.

‘Elijah doesn’t know,’ he says heavily. His voice feels dry and scratchy for not being used in a while. ‘Grab me some pants, would you—I hate to see you blush!’ He points toward the closet, catching Ly’s quick glance—not at his crotch, of course, but at the blotched scarring on his arm.

‘Ouch, that still looks pretty nasty! And Elijah doesn’t even know? How come?’

‘I just—I haven’t told him yet. And you’re not to, either!’ Sean can feel his own prevarication here. He knows he will have to ’fess up, and Ly is the only person he can actually talk to about this. He shimmies quickly into the pants. He hasn’t bothered with clothes during his private exercise time, and they’re looser than he remembers.

‘I thought you two were—’ a rather different hand wiggle, ‘you know—mated now? All set to do all kinds of naughty but delicious things together now you’re healed?’

Sean shakes his head. ‘Elijah doesn’t want a mate—or at least, not one who bought him from a slaver.’

Ly frowns at him. ‘What else were you supposed to do—let the auction take its course? Leave him to who or whatever offered most credits? You weren’t to know Deira and Coren had it in hand already.’

‘I couldn’t have done that—not to any Were being sold off that way!’ Sean can’t quite restrain his indignation that Ly could even think such a thing of him.

‘Of course you couldn’t,’ soothes Ly, ‘and if Elijah knows you at all, he knows that already, so what did he expect?’

Sean sighs. ‘It’s more than that. It’s the whole turning into someone—something—he’d never even heard of before, let alone ever wanted to be.’

‘Not that I can really understand how that must feel, but it seems to me he has a lot more to be thankful for than to kick against. He has parents now—a home, a secure place within Were culture—’

‘None of which I had any part in,’ Sean points out.

‘And if it weren’t for you, he’d be right back where he started from. Another auction coming up, courtesy of Niconet Perçuile, and one he really wouldn’t escape this time!’

‘If it weren’t for us, Ly. You had as much to do with getting him out of Niconet Perçuile’s hands this time as I did. Not to mention that Elijah did most of the work himself—with a helping wing or two from the wekas.’

‘So you admit you—okay, we all in our different ways—helped give that freedom back to him? He could at least be grateful to you! Me, I’m fine, need no thanks—I got my Rhansi out of it. Redler got Letti, her eggs and his trip to Calia.’

‘I don’t want his damned gratitude,’ Sean retorts. ‘I want his l—’ He bites off the last word but Ly picks up on it, presumably because he’s deep in the throes of the same emotion himself, right now.

‘I thought that wasn’t so much a Were thing until the mating bond was already fixed?’

Sean looks at him sourly. As if he needed reminding of that. For a Normal, Ly Gethin knows altogether too much about the mating practices of the Were. Compatibility first, love second was an odd way to go about it but it had worked for millennia so who was Sean to question it?

Except, he was.

As far as Elijah was concerned it seemed Sean may be granted the first but never gifted with the second.

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Chapter Text

Chapter 28 - Play & Prey

His mom and dad are waiting at Spaceport, of course. Deira is all tears and Elijah is pretty sure he sees Coren blink a couple of times before he is grabbed into a huge hug and his own eyes blur. Hugs with his mom have to be a lot more careful—there’s this high, round lump between them that wasn’t there before.

Elijah thinks she looks tired and guides her quickly to a seat. Deira only laughs and says she has never been so happy. ‘And maybe now these pups will give up waiting on their big brother and come out to meet him—they’re a week late already!’

Something inside him tells Elijah that Alpha Prime and Omega Anira are here too, his power and her absolute empathy so different—so much stronger, he realizes—than any other Were he has met. Yet another way Elijah’s Were traits are strengthening that he already recognizes them firstly as the Were-leaders of Calia, then as Sean’s parents. A taller Were and a pretty blonde are introduced as Sean’s brother and his mate.

Pretty soon it’s all hugs and garbled explanations between the two families, with Ly Gethin fully included in the outpouring of love and relief and gratitude. There is so much to be thankful for and to celebrate, amid kidnap, argent poisoning and a proudly revealed cyber engagement. Only Sean is not yet present.

The small matter of a pair of indignant weka birds—fortunately contained, along with a well-cushioned basket of eggs, in a palatially appointed plasti-crate during transit—requires both explanation and intervention by Alpha Prime before the Normal customs officer will agree to entry without quarantine.

Letti is once more devoted to her maternal duties—Elijah can hear her even now, crooning to the little ones in their shells. Redler, however, has already made an impression on Alpha Prime. After all, without Redler’s quick thinking and his people’s aid, Sean would undoubtedly have died on Seidux.

Elijah has not before realized that, even sitting, one tends to tilt one’s head to one side when conversing with the weka, but he sees the proof of it here.

He was expecting Sean to leave the Lunar Express as he entered it—in wolf form, if no longer in need of the float pallet. It is a long time since he saw him as a man—months ago at Shining Lake, it was, and the first time Elijah’s skin came alive with the recognition of Mate.

He knows at once when Sean finally steps out of the shuttle, though it is not until he turns to look that his body betrays him.

Honorable, dependable, human Sean, with his sun-flecked green-brown eyes and generous heart.

The rush of slick is the real thing again, totally unexpected but sweet and alluring even to his nose. Not much—nowhere near another heat, thank the stars. More a Come-get-me! to the only mate Elijah will ever need—even if he doesn’t seem to need Elijah.

It’s a good thing there are so many people bustling about Spaceport—despite the fact that a good many of them are Were, their senses telling them exactly what just happened here and, oh yes, he is in fact an unclaimed omega in urgent need of his mate.

It is still a good thing, because otherwise he is not entirely sure he could keep his wolf from going tail over right here and now—and he has more pride than that, he hopes.

He meets Sean’s eyes, beguiled once more by the shimmer of gold over green. He is not sure what he reads there either, but he couldn’t stop a second release of slick if he tried.

His cheeks are burning anyway—he should have better control of himself than that, surely. He turns and bolts for the nearest restroom to clean up as best he may.

Once Sean is out of sight the embarrassing need is somewhat less. Elijah is both annoyed and hurt that he didn’t know Sean is capable of shifting to human again. He is not wearing a sling and doesn’t seem to be favoring his right arm at all, though that is not necessarily indicative of anything when he has parents to reassure. Maybe, Elijah tells himself, Sean saved the effort for this special occasion, so his mom and dad wouldn’t worry because he was still in wolf form.

He could still have told me!

Elijah has every intention of taking him to task—for that if nothing else—just as soon as all the fuss over their return calms down. And he gets back full control of his wayward body once more.

When he emerges again—drier if not entirely scent-free—he ignores the looks, whether surprised or knowing, as everyone begins piling into a family-sized skimmer. He is not entirely surprised to lose sight of Sean, then. Only when the taffy-pull starts up inside does he realize that Sean is not coming along.

They have barely been separated by more than a few dozen yards since his essay in leech-craft, and he is so not ready to feel that again. It hurts and is at odds with the joy and overwhelming love he feels to be back here, back with his family again. He is grateful for the warm press of Anira’s fingers against his own that helps numb the sharp edge of his loss, but she cannot entirely remove it. No-one but Sean could do that for him.

With Alpha Prime and Anira aboard, it is obvious where they are headed, and soon enough the porticoed doors and tall, wide windows come in sight. Deira and Coren have apparently been staying at the Residence all the while Elijah was missing, so it seems reasonable enough to come here first.

There is a pretty nice Welcome Home! waiting for him, too. Elijah suspects he has his Mom to thank for the fact that it is not the full Pack event he has been dreading. He’s not ready, even for his own kind, on any scale just yet—especially in light of his status having just practically screamed itself to every Were within scenting distance of Spaceport. But the Astins all seem as pleased as if Elijah were their own son-brother-uncle returning from captivity and the celebration dinner is all pups and cubs and close family.

Pretty nice, except the one person Elijah really wants to see isn’t here at all.

It is maybe understandable Sean would not be around after the first fervent greetings. An Alpha Prime mandated heath check awaited him on arrival, after all. It is therefore only logical, once Elijah’s mind clears enough for him to think about it, that he would be whisked off by med-skimmer to the Were healing facility. It lies on the outskirts of Cal City, so obviously Ly would go along too.

After that, however, Elijah is expecting Sean to return to his family home. Perhaps not that evening, though that does not stop him looking up every time a door opens, at every chime of a comm. band, every excited shout that might be a greeting from one of the pups.

Not the next morning either, when Elijah explores the Residence, peeping through open doors, Weres he meets along the way eyeing him with smiles that are little short of knowing. You don’t, he wants to yell. You have no idea!

Not even the next night when a formal reception is held for some dignitary from Cal City—unavoidable, Anira explains, for having been postponed once already. Elijah eyes each new arrival in hopes, but…

The two friends, it seems, have remained in the city, presumably in the apartment where Elijah spent so many days immured—safe from one kind of danger only to drop himself literally into the hands of another, and far worse.

From hurt, Elijah imagines Sean walking in there, and doesn’t even try to stifle the vindictive hope that Ly’s cleaning service is less than totally efficient. That some residual scent of omega-in-raging-heat still lingers—in that fancy skimmer too, obviously. It will serve Sean right for not even bothering to come say goodbye.

If indeed Elijah were going anywhere. Which he isn’t, thanks to his Mom.

Once Deira’s first delight at having him back on Calia settles, Elijah is not in the least fooled by what she is trying to do. And exactly why the two of them linger at the Residence while Coren returns daily to work at Shining Lake.

Her airy explanation—‘I’ll feel so much safer having you and Anira by me when I finally have these pups!’—cuts no ice with him. He feels nothing but warm content from the pups inside her, and the resident medic—also an omega—checks them daily and sees no cause for alarm.

It is true that his mom and Anira have forged a firm friendship these past weeks, but Elijah is pretty sure he knows what it’s based on—and that his mom has Alpha Prime onside, too. No-one has said a word to that effect but Elijah is not omega for nothing. He knows.

His mom believes he is still holding out as much against a mating of any kind as against Sean. There’s just no way he is going to contradict her on that. He won’t humiliate himself by admitting outright that Sean no longer wants him as his mate. Though how she—or any of them—can fail to notice he is the one avoiding Elijah for all he’s worth right now, Elijah really doesn’t know.

Three days since they arrived back on Calia. Three days during which Letti’s eggs all safely hatched and Elijah fell in love with five tiny balls of bright yellow down that are surprisingly quick on their feet already. Their voices—external or not—are all Peep peep! as yet. Constant but with very limited range. Proud daddy Redler says they won’t actually speak for a while, no matter how well they scurry about and find their own food.

Not that they have far to look for that. Every pup in the complex is eager to provide, whether suitably or not—and more than a few of the cubs and adult Weres, too. Elijah watches Redler discourage begging by his offspring, and remembers his disdain for all the scrounging wekas back on Seidux. More and more, he marshals his little family away from such well-meaning blandishments to find a natural diet. The palatial plasticrate, given weka-friendly access, has become their home, now pleasantly situated in a sheltered spot at the edge of the Residence’s extensive lawns where manicured shrubbery gives place to the truly wild.

Both movement and yellow down surprised Elijah at first—he has assumed until now that feral birds all hatch blind and naked. Instalink informs him that wekas, among many other avians, are precocial, which would also explain why Letti’s eggs seemed to take such a long time to hatch. It informs him also of the wide variation in habitat of wekas on their native planet of Seidux and of their omnivorous nature—with added comments from visitors as to their inquisitive nature and their darling cuteness.

Nowhere is there even a whisper of either sentience or telepathy, and the planet itself is described as uninhabited until its discovery and development by humans. Pretty much like Instalink’s ‘omniscience’ on the subject of the Were, then, he realizes. At least his researches—and the fluffballs themselves—help distract him from his loss.

Bringing a pair of flightless avians and their fluffy—and even more vulnerable—offspring to the very centre of all things Were on Calia might have made for a very short-lived visit, but the fiat has gone forth.

The brief, skin-rippling mental connection swept through Elijah for the first time ever, but no-one had to tell him what it meant. Alpha Prime has the power of prohibition over every one of his wolves, wherever on the planet they may be. Not one of them will lay tooth or claw on the species Wekis pisciputridissima, now or ever. Not when the life of the Alpha Son and Heir is owed to its patriarch.

Leaning on a windowsill Elijah stares moodily across at the wing where he knows Sean’s apartments lie. That is one area he has not explored. Even here in the main block, tendrils of scent from his absent alpha tease at his nose. There, it would hurt too much.

Three days, and he has seen neither hide nor hair—or maybe that’s neither skin nor fur—of Sean since landing at Spaceport.

And is he really in that much of a hurry for Sean to come right out and say it?

It’s fine, Elijah, you don’t need to worry—I decided a beta would be a lot less hassle in the long run.

He can almost hear Sean saying it, and something inside him burns. Not the ever-present awareness beneath his skin. Ever since Sean was hurt—no, since Elijah knew he would survive—the itch-burn-crawl quieted to a simmer that kicks up a notch now and then. That had happened aboard the Lunar Express every time Sean was in some of kind of need—when he wanted company or there was something he couldn’t do for himself in wolf form.

Just the kind of stuff one friend would do for another—right?

He remembers what Scret relayed to him from Sean.

He says he promised somebody or other that you’ll make it back even if he doesn’t. Seems a tad casual to me, but what do I know?

Sean is an honorable Were. His promise could only have been made to Elijah’s mom and dad—probably out of guilt because it was his idea to send Elijah somewhere it turned out Perçuile’s minions could get at him all too easily. His only reason to come for Elijah was a promise made and kept.

Okay, so maybe it burns that Sean doesn’t want him as a mate any longer. Elijah can learn to live with that. When the taffy-pull of need stretches to a permanently empty space inside that only Sean can fill, he’ll cope. He will.

What began the moment he realized Sean wasn’t coming home hasn’t gotten any better since. Anira’s omega effect notwithstanding, the need had sharpened with every klick that stretched between the Residence and Cal City. Over three endless days it has stabilized to an internal keen of loss that he can bear if he must.

If Sean has decided he would rather have a beta with the right attitude and upbringing than a screwed-up omega who barely knows what it is to be Were, then Elijah can live with that. He is almost sure he can.

Thanks to Niconet Perçuile and his highly motivating staff, Elijah is a swift and thorough learner. He will simply fill the void inside by studying to become the best omega a guy could ever be—giving peace to others if he can never find it for himself. He’ll concentrate on that. It’s the only way he can even pretend to repay the credits Sean gave for him. For Caselja too, he hopes, though that is another reason he really needs to speak with Sean—to confirm his own promise and maybe work out together how her freedom may be won.

He’ll go home with his mom and dad pretty soon, of course, so the Shining Lake Pack will benefit from his gifts, not Calia Prime’s. They have Anira, anyway—they don’t need Elijah too. Thinking about it, though, Shining Lake also has its own omega already, in Meilin. Well then, Elijah will…he’ll learn all he needs from Meilin and then…and then go find another Pack that does need his omega mojo.

And maybe—no, definitely—buy a stronger, more interactive knotting toy for his next heat. Perhaps a couple, in case.

On his third night here Elijah resolves to set aside one aching need to satisfy another. Tonight, he will no longer resist the pull of the moons—he’ll let his wolf run free for the first time ever on Calia.

Plectra, the nearer and larger of the two, is at the quarter. Cansin is smaller, always less bright but almost full just now. Between the two, the night feels almost sinister—a mesh of interlacing shadows even before Elijah reaches the trees that ring the close-mown grass.

He knows it’s more than a little ridiculous to be sneaking off on his own like this to do something everyone else thinks of as quite an ordinary everyday thing. Every day—they are just as happy to wolf out during daylight hours, given a private area like this. So why does he feel he has to hide this way?

He doesn’t want to share it, is the truth. Doesn’t want the matter-of-fact stripping down and flowing away en masse he saw at Shining Lake.

Freeing his wolf is something he fought against for so long, he still can’t be casual about it. For something he has only ever done under pressure, he needs to be alone the first time it happens by choice and not of necessity. Elijah has never run with anyone else either, and for now he wants to keep it that way. Before his abduction he had begun to enjoy running in his human form—alone then too, of course.

At the Rama-Nettorian facility, Pets learned more than the content of their scheduled training program. Part of a select group, they yet learned to be alone.

Always, new and usually younger slaves were brought in to replace older ones summarily removed. Sooner or later—and the sooner the better—the survivors realized the folly of getting attached to one another. As they grew older they came to truly understand the meaning of continuous assessment and its role in the lives of the ever-changing, ever more youthful population of Élites. Proximity made them a group, but rivalry for that ultimately exclusive status kept them apart. Elijah is not sure he will ever be able to truly feel a part of anything again.

Deira had arrived and stayed, and from that time on she was Elijah’s one constant—his Pack, of course, though he couldn’t know it at the time. Extending that nucleus into a family was easier than he would have thought, with her love and Coren’s drawing him in and holding him fast.

He hasn’t met with many of his omega peers to date but when he does, he doubts it’ll be much easier with them than any other Were. All that empathy from both sides should make it so, and yet it can’t, not quite. Even there he is the exception. One with them and yet not.

And, barring the ease with which all pups seem to accept him, with everyone else at home he still feels to be hovering on the outside, peering in. Ostensibly a member of the wider Shining Lake Pack—often invited but never quite belonging. Perhaps in a year or two it may happen.

Beyond that there is the entire Calia Pack, of course. Omega he may be, but there is no way he can feel a part of that as yet—if ever, given the usual way things are done.

That is not all, of course. He is also meant to be one half of a very exclusive pairing. One that is far from whole and looking more and more like it never shall be.

Whatever. Tonight he will run alone again and this time he’ll do it in wolf form, because he wants to.

Not because he’s being hunted or because Sean’s life is at stake, but because he wants to—just for the fun of it.

He undresses by one of the benches that fringe the lawns—conveniently placed to hold the clothes of anyone who decides to shift out here. Tomorrow night or the one after, this area will likely be alive with other Weres as Cansin draws their wolves to the fore.

Bathed in her light, Elijah lifts his head and feels her full effect for the first time ever, acknowledging and giving it free rein over him. It is hard to believe this has ever been difficult for him—he barely even has to think it, before the change flows over and through him. Is it simply Cansin’s pull or is it this easy because he is here at the heart of everything Were on Calia?

He shakes from head to tail, a full-body shimmy that ripples the night-dark coat around him. There is time now to stretch and simply feel his new body. Nowhere he has to be, nothing he has to do.

Something catches his attention at the corner of his eye. He hasn’t heard anyone sneaking up behind him, but he is wary, twisting fast to bring them in view. Too late, they’ve gone—no, there again. He spins around but whoever moves ahead of him, whisking out of view. When he speeds up, they do too—which is really, really annoying.

Only when he gets his feet in a tangle and almost falls over does he realize his wolf has been chasing its tail.

He sits down with a thump and looks around, desperate for no-one to be there, watching him make such a fool of himself. He should have known, the number of pups he’s seen—and suppressed his laughter at—making that selfsame mistake. He just never particularly noticed his tail before, because before he had more life-threatening matters on his mind than his own wolf form.

He swivels his ears, catching lots of tiny night-in-the-forest noises, but nothing big enough to be a watching wolf, or even a human. With no-one around to see, he gets up, tries a wag or two and then a whole body wriggle—simply for the fun of it and for the freedom of the night.

At a run, he plunges into the tangled wilderness that surrounds the mansion’s tamer setting. His paws scuff up dirt and leaves beneath them, coat undulating against his sides in the speed of his passing. He weaves his way between trees, darts around bushes, and leaps effortlessly over fallen logs. This is better than running as a human. And infinitely better than running for his life—or for Sean’s.

He pauses in a clearing where he can see the sky. A couple of the small night-fliers swoop temptingly low over his head. He knows they don’t actually suck your blood and it is not even remotely likely that something that small would have the teeth to get through the thick ruffle of his coat—except on his ears, maybe?

His wolf bounces up to snap at them anyway—a playful warning far more than a threat. He chuffs a laugh. They are way above his head but he leaps and snaps again and again as they dive low after whatever they are hunting. He hasn’t a hope of catching them but he could care less. It’s fun and he wants to, so he does.

Before he even thinks about it, his wolf head goes from snapping skyward to howling—such a cliché, howling at the moons!—but what the heck, he is a wolf, right now. He hears a couple of answering howls, but far enough in the distance that he doesn’t have to worry about strangers turning up to share his solitary game.

Eventually the sweet smell of water lures him to a stream. It’s clear and fresh and cool on his tongue. Maybe the taste distracts him, for he is still bending to lap thirstily when a wolf comes bounding toward him out of the darkness—almost before he hears the soft thud of paws on hard earth or realizes the sudden upsurge in the need that simmers constantly beneath his skin.

The wolf is Sean’s, of course. Elijah knows the great tawny beast well, though he looks strangely unfamiliar now, between black shadow and twice-filtered moonlight. He comes at Elijah too fast for him to protect himself if Sean’s intent is to force a mating here.

Then he remembers what Deira said.

He cannot force you to be his mate. No-one can. But he can make you want him… All he has to do is be here.

And here he is.

But Sean has made it pretty clear he doesn’t want Elijah as his mate, now. As an omega who could calm him through the pain of his injury, yes. Perhaps even as the friend Elijah had believed himself to be, given all the chats they had aboard the Lunar Express. Well, chats Elijah had, that Sean’s wolf was more or less forced to listen to. Maybe he overdid all the conversation and just confirmed Sean’s decision that he can definitely do without a chatterbox for a mate?

He is still annoyed that Sean would stay in wolf form even after he could have shifted. Annoyed and even a bit humiliated. The only reason he can think of is that Sean was avoiding making that confession—

It’s fine, Elijah, you don’t need to worry—I decided a beta would be a lot less hassle in the long run.

—just as hard as ever Elijah has avoided having to hear it, if for different reasons.

None of that matters to his wolf, who will go tail over in an instant, if that is what Sean’s wolf wants of it here. But, as much as human Elijah desperately wants Sean still, he does not want casual, one time sex in wolf form.

It must be all or nothing from Sean, even if nothing is all he may have.

Elijah freezes as the great tawny shape comes hurtling toward him. Whatever he is expecting, it’s not the wet lick and huff of hot air at his ear as Sean whisks by, leaping the stream before whirling to face him. Moonlight catches on sharp white teeth as Sean huffs back at him. Then he yips aloud, dancing from paw to paw before dashing off among the trees.

When Elijah only sits to watch, Sean returns part way. He stops, eyes sparking clear green mischief, and mock-pounces back at him—forelegs straight out on the ground, haunches in the air, tail furiously wagging. He yips some more, and Elijah gets the message without any need for words inside his head.

Come play with me!

This is for their wolves alone—no hidden agenda—and is to be a game of some kind. When Sean sets off again, Elijah gives chase. He’s pretty sure Sean could still run an awful lot faster than this, but the pace he sets is one Elijah can keep up with. Elijah doesn’t mind. He has gotten quite nimble on all fours by now—and this is fun.

He might worry the first time it happens. Sean stops abruptly, and even digging his claws deep into the leaf litter Elijah can’t help but cannon into him. They go sprawling together, legs and paws all tangled. Sean yowls and nips lightly at one ear the way Elijah has seen the pups do in play.

It doesn’t hurt but Elijah tenses—and just as fast as that, it’s over. One quick roll and Sean is back on his feet, shaking the bits of leaf and twig and dry cones from his coat. Another teasing yip, and he’s off and running once more.

By the third time, Elijah manages to scramble to his feet a tad quicker than Sean. He doesn’t even think before he yips in his turn, bounding away and inviting Sean to chase him. Doesn’t give a single thought to the fact that this may be a bad idea, given what he is and that Sean is seriously Alpha. He simply runs until they collide once more and go rolling over and over each other again.

Sean is the one who freezes then, for a single moment. Only long enough for Elijah to catch his breath and find his feet, it seems. He gives Elijah’s muzzle a swift lick and speeds away.

This is a lot more fun than running alone—who knew?

They pause to drink now and then—panting loudly, side by side but not touching. Sean turns to look at him, and the way his tongue lolls out the side of his mouth, Elijah is pretty sure he’s laughing.

A while into the night, their wild romp starts some small foraging beastie. Before it can flee to its burrow, Sean’s wolf is on it. One quick snap and it is no more than a lax bundle, drooping limp and furry from strong jaws. He brings it to Elijah, dropping it in front of him and stepping back to lie facing him. Again, the message is clear without any need for words.

For a second or two Elijah’s human brain is disconcerted, but then he remembers the warm smell—prey smell—that made his mouth water once before. He doesn’t think twice but lets his wolf tear into it, the blood hot and fresh—sharp and coppery on his tongue. He eats the whole of it, his wolf having no conscience about sharing. It may be Sean’s wolf’s kill but it is Elijah’s gift.

He licks appreciatively around his muzzle and they set off again. Elijah has not run far this time, however, before he realizes he is running alone. So used to the noise they make between them—the quick thud of paws eating up the ground, twigs cracking, low branches shoved aside to whip back into place in a shiver of leaves—it takes a moment or two to notice it is all his noise, now. He stops dead, and there is a sudden quiet beyond the background sounds of forest-at-night. Loudest of all is his own fast breathing.

He stands listening, one paw raised. Before he can begin to panic—he has not the faintest idea where he is or how to get back—he hears a sound that is somehow a cross between a whine and a growl. He holds his breath, ears swiveling, tracking its course. It quiets, then comes again from a slightly different direction. Elijah would swear there’s a chuffed laugh in it this time.

So, Sean is challenging him to find, not follow him, now. This is a skill Elijah hasn’t tested yet. He sets his nose to the ground and sniffs. Too hard—he sneezes out the fragmented debris he breathed in and swipes a paw over the bigger bits still sticking to its dampness.

It hangs in the air anyway, Sean’s own particular scent—no need to search out a ground trail. Mate is there, and so much else that human Elijah has come to need. Wolf Elijah needs only mate, and he can do this.

But this is still a game—a challenge. Something their wolves can share without the complication of a mating. Elijah breathes and simply allows wolf senses to lead him forward. It is easier when he’s not trying, he realizes. And it is not scent alone he’s following—the constant awareness beneath his skin is just as sure a guide.

His wolf is truly in hunting mode—prowling rather than running, a pace that allows for stealth. Also, the possibility of surprise if his prey were not another wolf with senses equally keen. Elijah doubts he could ever creep up on Sean. In wolf form or human, Sean is a predator to the bone. His alpha instincts are strong enough that Elijah cannot miss them in either form, far over and beyond the tug of mate.

He startles himself then—or his wolf does. It proves beyond doubt that Sean is not the only predator loose in these woods tonight, and nor was Elijah’s supper the only prey. Another of its kind—possibly frozen in place when Sean’s wolf passed by, intent only on their game—moves now to seek the safety of its burrow.

Elijah has no time to think—his wolf is on it in an instant. Jaws wide around its neck, an instinctive snap and shake, and Elijah’s mouth is full of warm fur, lax and heavy.

Sean appears as if from nowhere—how could he have gotten so close without Elijah knowing? He sits now, tail thumping the ground in admiration of Elijah’s kill. He could ’path his approval but he does not speak. Nor does Elijah.

What Elijah does is take his freshly caught prey—the only prey he has ever caught—and lay it on the ground in front of Sean.

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Chapter Text

Sean is nothing short of stunned. Tonight was not for words at all, but for play. This, though—this needs explanation.

Why have you given me your kill? he demands.

Elijah‘s wolf has set his prize down quite deliberately before Sean, backed away a pace and now lies facing him. He cocks his head to one side, not understanding why Sean’s wolf doesn’t just pounce and eat it.

It is a fine catch—no smaller than the one Sean’s wolf started and, he is all but certain, the first kill Elijah has ever made. There’s a tad bit of surprise in the pride that’s written all over him.

Such a gift, from any other Were Sean had wanted for his mate, would be everything he could wish for and more.

But Elijah is not any other Were, and he may not know that the gift of prey lies at the heart of their courtship rituals. It would be both wrong and foolish of Sean to take his understanding for granted. Too much else lies unspoken between them already.

Sean’s wolf is quivering around him now, the simmer beneath his skin flaring to an outright burn. Man and wolf both yearn to accept this gift—but only if Elijah means it as Sean meant his. It seems unlikely.

Pride takes second place to irritation in the annoyed chuff and impatient question in return. You gave one to me, didn’t you?

So, this is simply payback—a part of their game and nothing more? The knowledge is bitter but if that is all it means to Elijah, Sean cannot accept. No matter how much he may want to, no matter that Elijah may be hurt by his refusal.

Elijah’s wolf resents the waiting now. He edges forward to nose at his kill, spreading it wide—showing it off as if worried Sean might not think it worth his notice.

At least if Sean explains his hesitation, Elijah may understand.

Among the Were, Elijah, the gift of prey occurs only between mates.

Sean intended this night for play alone. Deira suggested, way back at Shining Lake, that he should visit often so Elijah might get to know him. He realized then, as he had not before, how many of the simplest things Elijah has missed out on for his first sixteen years. If Elijah still will not speak with him, this seems the next best idea—bringing her suggestion into wolf form at last and teaching Elijah wordlessly the pleasure to be found in running free.

And, if that also happens to have its part in the courtship ritual among wolves…well, he can hope Elijah may not find out before it has its full effect. His own gift of prey, though, was not planned—not yet, anyway. It was simply inevitable once his wolf made the kill.

But—but, you gave me one, and you don’t want me as your mate. You decided a beta would be less trouble!

Sean is baffled. His wolf sits back on its haunches, with a sigh that sounds as exasperated as Sean feels.

When did I ever say that?

To his certain knowledge they have exchanged barely more than a dozen words since he was shot—none of them concerning mates of any kind. For all their companionable ‘chats’, Elijah just spent weeks aboard the Lunar Express, resolutely incommunicado as far as Sean was concerned.

You never came right out and said it, but I knew. Even when you could have, you didn’t. You never even told me you could shift back–I had to find that out when we landed!

Well, yes, maybe Sean had avoided talking to him by not shifting once he was able to take human form again, but that wasn’t the point here. Elijah could have shifted any time he wanted to, couldn’t he? And anyway, that little scene at Spaceport—when Elijah refused his body’s need and bolted from Sean’s sight—made it quite plain exactly who was set on defying his wolf in order to reject Sean and his.

Sean always knew he would have to shift before leaving the shuttle. Wolf form would have Anira still imagining the worst—his father too, if less openly. Elijah was probably too keyed up to consider the matter at all during transfer and descent, so it was easy enough for Sean to have his wolf hang back and let Elijah hog the view screens.

He would have given much to share Elijah’s joy, though, when the welcoming party came in sight at last. Elijah’s face really did light up on seeing his parents again after their second enforced separation. He was simply entranced by how hugely pregnant Deira is, and had eyes for no-one else right then. While he was busy drinking in the sight of her, Sean ducked aside to shift and put on the clothes he had Ly bring for him.

Even amid all the greetings, exclamations, hugs and kisses, he knew the very moment Elijah caught sight of him in his human form—as did every other Were present.

The sudden, involuntary release of slick was unmistakable.

So too was the stricken look when Elijah met his eyes—triggering a second release—before he rushed off to find the nearest restroom. By the time he emerged—cleaned up, if unlikely to be entirely free of the delicious scent of mate—an exchange of glances among the parents had already advised Sean that his absence might be appreciated. He left with Ly, for the mandatory check up he knew he no longer needed.

He had planned to stay with Ly at the penthouse for a couple of days, to give Elijah time with his parents and to get used to being back on Calia. Maybe even to stretch his wolf legs, now that shifting at will—as Sean well remembers—comes easily to him.

His mate is as beautiful in the fur as out of it—which brings back the memory of stark naked, obstreperous Elijah with worry in his eyes and resolution in the set of his chin.

It was an image he did not need when the elevator brought them up from street level and Ly unlocked his door, shoving it wide for Sean to follow him. The residual aroma of omega-in-heat rolled out thick and sweet from the closed up apartment to smack directly into Sean’s reawakened libido.

‘Huh—smells a bit stuffy in here. Housekeeping should’ve—’

Ly’s voice was cut off suddenly as Sean hurtled downward in the elevator in a bid to get as far away as possible from the heat-lure of the mate that doesn’t want him. Ly joined him on the sidewalk moments later and when Sean could breathe easily again, they agreed instead to make for the Pack apartment Ly used during Elijah’s stay at the penthouse.

Sean needed time for the lingering effects of that powerful scent to leave his wolf nose and only tonight has he felt ready to meet Elijah again.

But now—

You’re the one who runs from me! he points out.

I am not! As soon as I came in heat, you couldn’t get me out of there fast enough!

And if that isn’t beyond everything.

Elijah, do you have any idea how much it took for me not to mate you that day, right there in front of your parents? Are you trying to tell me you wanted me to? ’Cos I have to tell you, it didn’t look a whole lot like it from where I was standing!

Elijah’s wolf has the grace to flatten its ears and look abashed at that. Well, no—not then. I didn’t know…

Sean is momentarily distracted by a richer scent threading the air. Given their games, they were probably moving too fast for him to notice before. It’s here now for sure, alongside the cool and earthy aromas of growth and decay of the forest around them. Omega slick to ease a mating, warm and full of promise, snags insistently at Sean’s wolf’s senses—perhaps even with a bare hint of more.

He has to drag his wolf’s attention back to Elijah’s words. Didn’t know? he prompts.

I didn’t know how much I would need you, then. Deira told me I would accept any Were once I came in heat, but it wasn’t true. You were all I could think of, Elijah confesses in a rush.

Sean wishes to all the Hells he had known that, remembering how he practically jerked himself into carpal tunnel the whole time Elijah was immured at Ly’s place.

The reason Myrin and Caselja captured me so easily that day was that I hadn’t a thought in my head but how to get to you. I came out of Ly’s apartment on purpose to find you and—and to make you mate with me!

Elijah may close his wolf eyes as if embarrassed by the admission, but he can’t pretend away the burst of slick—its scent thicker and sweeter this time—that assails Sean’s nose.

He still needs Elijah to confirm it, though. So this—his wolf nudges the rapidly cooling prey at his feet—this truly is a mating gift from your wolf to mine?

He scarcely waits for the determined nod before tearing into the rabbit. Long-denied frustration bleeds into every rip of flesh, each crunch of bone. Eyes fixed on the giver rather than the gift, he growls his pleasure as he eats it to the very last scrap, fur and feet and all.

Every mouthful shoves Sean further back inside his wolf. When he rises to his feet, long tongue swiping every last morsel from his chops, Alpha Wolf is in full control.

He steps forward to lick his mate’s muzzle, swiping scent to either side of Mate’s face. Mate stands to return the affection, licking and nuzzling. Alpha drops his head across Mate’s neck, holding him still as Alpha scrubs his great head to and fro until the air is heavy with their mingled scents.

Alpha continues the mating ritual, smearing and accepting scent liberally along sides and back—a marking so thorough and complete no wolf will ever again mistake either of them for anything other than one half of a true claiming.

Mate stands firm now—only his tail moving in a slow flourish of acceptance. He holds it far aside, more than willing to be taken, as Alpha sniffs eagerly beneath.

Alpha licks and licks at the wetness glistening on the fur of Mate’s thighs, chasing it upward to its source as Mate shivers and whines for more, legs straddling wider. The taste-smell of slick is thicker and richer here, rousing him almost to frenzy. A low growl rumbles through Alpha’s chest as his agile tongue plunges inside, relishing such proof of a truly receptive omega—his omega. He shoves forward so hard, nose and tongue both seeking more, that Mate’s back end entirely leaves the ground.

He huffs, legs flailing in the air, but only plants his paws more firmly when Alpha lets him down. Pushing backwards he whines his need, and Alpha can wait no longer. He covers Mate’s back in a single leap, thrusting wildly, frantic in search of his goal.

His sudden weight takes Mate by surprise. He staggers and must reset his legs to bear his Alpha’s powerful lunge.

Balked, Alpha shuffles after him, hindquarters only on the ground now. More determined thrusts, more ungainly waddling and frustration rising ever higher—until heat and smooth wetness envelop his seeking cock at last.

He stills, stretching his jaws wide around Mate’s neck, teeth sinking deep where the coat is thickest. The mating bite must be hard enough to break skin, for Mate will bear it lifelong and in both his forms.

Mate yowls loud and long, but he yowls in triumph, not in anger or in pain.

Alpha knows well the taste of blood flowing coppery-warm into his mouth as he bites down into his prey. He made his first small kill when little more than a pup, with others uncounted since. This is different. This blood spurts across his tongue in a tide of home and love and mine, driving his need ever faster.

Without finesse Alpha wolf pistons rapidly in and out, eagerly chasing the moment Mate will take his knot at last. The moment they are tied together completely and irrevers—

SEAN—STOP, NOW!

No! Noooo!

Only one voice in all the worlds could halt his wolf at the brink and haul human Sean to the fore again.

With his mate beneath him—more than willing and even demanding of all he has to give—the very last thing Sean needs right now is the Alpha Prime, loud and dominant in his head.

But the familiar thrum of Alpha power sweeps over and through him—the absolute inability to do or not do except at the Alpha Prime’s behest.

Not to fully claim his mate, in this case.

His wolf cannot move, not even for the final thrust of knot deep into his mate—to pulse and expand there, binding their wolves to each other, tonight and forever. Sean whines his distress but no amount of begging, cajolery or willpower could ever release him from this hold.

Seaaaaan! Elijah’s wolf too stands immobile now—body no longer able to push backwards for what libido still demands.

No, no, NO! You cannot do this to me, to us.

But Alpha Prime can—and has.

Sean, please! Still tangled fast within his own wolf’s thwarted lust, Elijah is no state to recognize what just happened here.

I must, son.

No!

Yes. I am sorry and if there were any other way, I would not for the world interfere in your mating. At least his dad has the decency to sound as if he means it.

Why, then? Mental voice or no, Sean spits the question back at him.

Deira’s labor has begun and she desperately wants Elijah here with her when the pups are born. Her need for him—as son and omega both—is urgent. She cannot wait out the time a first knotting will take!

Can’t Anira—? Sean cuts short his own more human whine. However badly frustrated he may be, he knows even the Omega Prime could never replace Deira’s son for her at such a time.

Anira is with her, of course, but she cannot be enough. Come home. Now.

Alpha Prime does not raise his mind voice as he releases his hold on them. They are free to move once more but the command may not be disobeyed, as much as Sean’s wolf may wish to.

Elijah’s wolf breathes out his own shattered whine and steps forward to escape the paws that slacken around him. Sean’s has no choice but to slide gracelessly from his back.

Sean, I want to—so much—but we can’t. I’m sorry, but Anira says my mom is having the pups at last. I have to be there for her!

Panting hard, Sean shakes himself. His wolf is still more than half caught up in the need to knot his mate.

You know the way? Elijah dances from paw to paw, clearly anxious in case he is not the only one who is lost.

As much insulted as frustrated now, Sean snaps, I have run in these woods since I was a pup—of course I know the way! He can only be thankful that it is easier as wolf than as human to run with blue balls and a hard-on that won’t give up.

He brings them unerringly to the Residence by the quickest route. Elijah is at his shoulder all the way—anticipation and concern both lending speed to tired paws.

Alpha Prime awaits them on the steps, even his human nose twitching as their approach, though he makes no comment. They shift in unison—Elijah not hesitating though his clothes are still outside, on a bench next to Sean’s.

‘How is she?’ he demands as The Alpha ushers them in and leads the way along a passage that plunges deep into the hillside. Sean knows it for a measure of how worried he is that Elijah doesn’t seem to notice he is naked in front of two Alpha males—one of whom bears full evidence of a hastily suspended mating.

‘Anira is with her and the medic on call. All seems to be proceeding normally,’ Alpha Prime reassures him. ‘Coren is on his way—he should be here any minute. There’s a shower through that door, and clothing for you.’

For a single moment Elijah looks as if worry for his mom will override commonsense, his face falling as he realizes he cannot go to her like this, naked and still half-aroused, with slick and Sean’s precome shining on his thighs.

The smell of their incomplete mating is heavy in the confined space, the coppery scent of blood mingled within it, the blood itself shining wet and trickling sluggishly from the mating bite at the crook of Elijah’s neck. For this, were-healing cannot kick in until the mating tie is completed, in whichever form.

Even with his dad standing right there, Sean’s cock jolts upward at the sight.

Elijah may be part-wolf but he hisses like an angry kitten at the enforced delay, rushes into the bathroom and slams the door. Water begins to splash almost at once, a muffled yelp proving he did not wait for it to run warm. Sean knows he is going to need an equally cold shower himself, as soon as Elijah has finished his.

‘I truly regret having to do such a thing to you and your mate,’ says Alpha Prime. ‘Elijah might hear Anira’s summons, but neither of them could halt your wolf at such a time. Only I could do that—and I promise never to do such a thing to you again except in the direst of need!’

‘I should think not!’ Sean huffs his annoyance. No matter his concern for Deira, he is not yet inclined to forgive his dad for what he did—and as genuine as that regret may be, Sean is almost sure there is a hint of amusement there too.

The bathroom door bangs open. ‘Where?’ demands a damp, clothed form from under the towel draped over his head. When Alpha Prime indicates another door, Elijah dashes over to it, knocks perfunctorily and barges in.

A birthing den is small enough to let the mother wolf feel safe, big enough to allow for companionship, and medical assistance should she need it. Before the door can close against him, Sean catches a glimpse of Deira. In wolf form, panting hard, she lies on her side in a nest of blankets. Elijah drops the towel and falls to his knees beside her, across from Anira.

A less primitive room is provided nearby for those who wait. ‘It may be a while yet,’ says Alpha Prime, nose wrinkling now as it had not when Elijah was present. ‘Come join me in a drink when you’re clean!’

Sean’s shower takes only a little longer than Elijah’s. Desire still thrums through him but he resolutely lets frigid water deal with it. It is Elijah he needs now, not one more meaningless release by his own hand. He steps out and dries off a little more thoroughly than Elijah bothered to, pulling on the pants and shirt that await him.

He opens the door to see a dark brown blur streak past, skidding to a halt in a skirl of claws and a loud whine outside the birthing room door—Coren has arrived at last. It opens to admit him then closes again, cutting off Deira’s yowl of greeting, relief and pain combined.

As much as Sean wants pups with Elijah, he is not looking forward to sitting with his mate while he is in such pain.

He crosses the passage to rejoin his father, who sees his frown and says, ‘It is hard, but worth it in the end.’ Very quietly, he adds, ‘Almost always…’

Sean still remembers the years after Mac was born—sole survivor of a birth that took littermates and dam too—when their father was all too solemn. The years before Anira’s wolf called to his and healed the grieving widower with a second mating, as only an omega could ever do. Only rarely does that look ever return to the Alpha Prime’s face, but it is there now.

‘I didn’t know even you were quite that powerful,’ says Sean, needing to turn his dad’s mind from a birthing where tragedy overlaid and almost stifled the small joy still to be had. ‘At a distance and at such a time!’

‘It is not something I need my wolves to know. I have exercised it only rarely, and always in exceptional circumstances. It will develop in you when I am gone.’ He cocks his head and smiles at Sean’s dismayed expression.

And that right there is yet another reason Sean can wait as long as he must to take over the job.

‘Anyway,’ Alpha Prime says more cheerfully, hovering by the drinks dispenser, mobile brow raised. ‘I hope it will never again be necessary. The only reason I can think of for such urgency would be some problem with your own pups, left in our charge—and even then you would not be on the verge of knotting your mate for the first time, to seal your mating forever.’

‘If I ever manage to get him in pup at all,’ Sean grumbles, but the thought of Elijah swelling with their pups soothes him more than any words—and prompts his choice of coffee. Were-health or no, the very last thing he needs tonight is the depressant effect of ethanol.

‘You will,’ his dad assures him. ‘Anira is already looking forward to more grandpups!’

‘And you are not?’ Sean raises the agile brow he inherited and is at once taken with the idea that his son—sons, even?—may one day ask the same of him in just that way. His dad just grins.

It seems to take a long time, considering Deira has only two pups to birth, but it is not something Sean has ever thought about much, so how would he know? Now, though, this nerve-racking wait is a small taste of what he has to look forward to, sometime in the future. He begins to pace, knowing how devastated the little family would be if anything goes wrong, and dreading the possibility.

The Alpha tries to engage him in Pack news, but Sean can’t really concentrate when all his attention is fixed on the sound-shielded birthing room only a couple of doors away. He remains distracted until his dad mentions the alert now subtly disseminated throughout all the packs, prides, herds, whatever—all the Weres—they know of on planets near and far: the solemn warning of a possible upsurge of interest in Were-kind among slave traders, in the wake of the foiled auction on Seidux.

‘My packs here on Calia are at far more risk than any others, of course, since Niconet Perçuile knows this is Elijah’s home planet,’ he concludes with a sigh.

‘I doubt he’ll tell too many other people, though,’ said Sean. ‘He’d be worried they might make more profit from it than he would! But if I have my way, no other Were shall ever suffer as Deira and Elijah have.’

‘I hope you’re right, but even so, we have taken measures to ensure no-one can ever again be smuggled off-planet. All departures from Spaceport are now individually checked by Were staff.’

‘Good—but what about unsanctioned landings?’

‘All orbiting ships are closely monitored and any ship hoping to scoop up likely looking bodies—in case there might be a Were or two among them—will find themselves badly mistaken.’ Alpha Prime’s grin is almost feral. ‘All they will get for their trouble is a severely uncompromising reception committee, confiscation of their shuttle and all personnel therein, plus some pretty extensive jail time. Apropos of which…’

He passes Sean a hand calligraphed copy of an official-looking document adorned with multiple dangling seals.

Petition from the Supreme Court of Calia to the Ruling Council of Space Central, granted in the matter of the extradition of Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian, citizen of Space Central, accused of the abduction of Calian citizen Elijah Wood, by means of coercion to one Caselja, a slave owned by said Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian; also to one Myrin Festet, indentured servant of Space Central Security Services, contracted at that time to said Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian.

Furthermore, the indictment of Niconet Perçuile del Rama-Nettorian as sole instigator of and provider of funding for same abduction, with a view to returning said free Calian citizen to slavery, the latter having been knowingly and feloniously seized…

Maybe this should completely reassure Sean but somehow it does not. He remembers all too well Kas’ suspicion that Perçuile’s interest in this one of his Élite might be as much personal obsession as financial—and Perçuile knows Elijah will eventually return to Calia.

‘The original—somewhat expedited I admit,’ Alpha Prime smirks as he hands Sean his refilled coffee mug—they both know how long legal challenges can be extended unless subtle pressure is applied by the right people in the right places, ‘was ratified in the High Court of Space Central, and Niconet Perçuile served with the arrest warrant as he attempted to exit the shuttle on his return to Space Central. He, his servant and his slave are even now in transit to Calia and the trial will commence as soon as they have landed.’

‘But the girl—I promised Elijah—’

‘Despite some chicanery in the matter of dates—organized by Perçuile’s somewhat notorious attorney, and readily detected and thwarted by Coren Wood—the two in question were proven at the time to be in the ownership or the employ of Perçuile, and definitely under his compulsion. He is therefore entirely responsible for actions undertaken at his behest. Provided only that Elijah is prepared to take the stand before his abductor, both servitors shall walk free, in time.’

‘Of course he will!’ Sean’s mug clatters to the coffee table, indignant as he is on Elijah’s behalf at the suggestion that he might not.

‘I have not the least doubt of it,’ Alpha Prime soothes, ‘I merely mention the legal requirement. After that, you and Elijah must decide what further action may be necessary. The woman, at least, knows what he is, for apparently he told her himself—it would be wise to settle her here so we may keep an eye on her. The man—according to one of the Were marshals aboard ship with the prisoners—does not truly believe.’

Sean frowns. ‘How can he not? He chased Elijah for miles, and he watched as another slave shot me—and Elijah told you about Haslar’s partial shift before he was shot, didn’t he!’

‘It seems he has convinced himself that he imagined that in the heat of the fight. The wolves he was ordered to chase in the skimmer, he believes to be an indigenous species to Seidux that Perçuile fixated on when he lost Elijah again—Perçuile being obsessed with Elijah to the point of fantasy.’

‘Which he is,’ grumbles Sean.

‘He’ll have far more to worry about than what slaves he used to own, by the time Calia’s justice system has done with him,’ Alpha Prime promises, and the thought cheers Sean considerably.

The door bursts open at last and Sean lets go of all such matters, joy and relief sparked within him by the huge smile on Elijah’s face.

‘Deira is fine and I have a baby brother and a sister! Anira said it took such a long time because the boy cub’s head was so big, but he looks fine to me—just wet and squirmy.’ He doesn’t even hesitate but throws his arms around Sean and kisses him.

Elijah’s mouth is warm and yielding and beginning to be a serious threat to Sean’s control before Elijah draws back at last and turns to Alpha Prime.

‘Coren requests that, in the absence of Shining Lake’s own Alpha, you accept his pups into the greater Calia packs,’ he says. He is respectful enough but the look on his face says he is still not happy with Alpha Prime for the timing of his interruption to their mating.

Alpha Prime acknowledges the fact in a nod. ‘My apologies to you, Elijah—and welcome to the family nonetheless!’ He rises to his feet and heads for the door. ‘I shall go meet the new members of the Pack and leave you two to…pick up where you…left off.’ There’s the trace of a laugh in his voice and his nose is twitching.

Sean also registers the upsurge in Elijah’s scent—soap and water gone, slick flowing once more, sweet and thick and full of promise.

His dad raises the brow. ‘My sincere apologies once again,’ he says, ‘and my felicitations to both of you!’

He pulls the door shut behind him, though Sean has no intention of ‘picking up’ here, anyway. He grabs Elijah’s hand but holds him off from the kiss he’s angling for.

‘Hang on,’ he says. ‘There’s a bed and all the privacy we could want in my apartments here—and if I know Anira at all, it’s ready and waiting for us. Probably with flowers, champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries on the side. Big occasion, you know,’ he adds, embarrassed to admit what is no more than the truth, ‘what with the Son and Heir thing. She has probably been looking forward to this for years!’

Real strawberries? We were only ever allowed to taste the real thing but once—too expensive to waste on practice. The kitchens would carve shapes from something squishy, cheap and tasteless, and coat them in synchoc.’

‘You’ll see…’ The thought of feeding Elijah chocolate-dipped strawberries has Sean’s cock twitching in his borrowed pants. He has a feeling this is a reaction he will have to learn to control around his mate. He can’t give in to it now, either—not if they are to make it all the way from here to there without ending up knotted on the cold floor of a possibly well-frequented corridor.

‘Wait, Sean, please.’

Sean turns, still holding Elijah’s hand to semi-haul him out the door. Intending to rag on Elijah for not being able to wait five minutes longer, he realizes Elijah’s face is more solemn than lustful—at once a big disappointment and a small relief. Elijah has something more serious on his mind than teasing or verbal foreplay.

‘Sean, how come no-one—? I mean, when Mom had me, was she—she couldn’t have been wolf, could she?’

‘No, or we would never have known what happened to either of you.’ Sean feels the pain of that admission all over again. ‘The Were have the choice of form in which to give birth, Elijah. By refusing to shift no matter what moon called to her when her wolf time came, Deira made sure she had a human child. She was determined you would not be discovered—either of you, but mostly her newborn pup.’

He draws a breath, as he always does when letting his mind encompass what Deira has done for this cub of hers that he loves so much. Her strength, her determination and her patience through all those years are more impressive than the greatest feat any Alpha could ever hope to accomplish. Sean is quite certain his mate has inherited all of that and more—and will pass it on to their pups, too.

Before that, though, must come the mating. Sean knows he has to take this slowly. It is always possible that when the time comes—and in his human form—Elijah may still have second thoughts.

His wolf, like Sean’s, has wanted their mating from the start, but Elijah has not. Maybe out there in the forest with his wolf in charge, it overrode Elijah’s will. Now he has exchanged fur for skin and once his joy over the newborns passes, he may remember his reluctance and therefore change his mind—about a full mating if not about sex.

Maybe he still believes, deep inside, that mating will rob him of his twice and hard won freedom.

Fuck that. Sean will convince him he really does want him as his mate. Without boasting, he knows he’s an accomplished lover. Enough betas—and not a few humans—have assured him of that. So what if they were all female? He knows how to arouse a female body to shivering, aching need—and for the rest, he knows what he likes. That should be enough to start.

This is his mate—his beautiful, intelligent, indomitable true-mate. His need for Elijah goes far beyond the physical. Their compatibility is genetic—all Sean needs is a little practice. No, make that lots and lots of practice. He wants perfect for them.

In truth, Elijah has probably had too much practice in pleasing the male of many species, but he was trained only to service, never to love.

Sean will show him the difference. advanced web statistics

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