The cell door creaked and groaned as it opened. Andrew glanced up, squinting slightly in the suddenly bright light, unable to quite make out the large figure stepping through. He could smell it though – alpha. Andrew tensed and sat up just slightly.
The strange alpha came to a halt several feet from Andrew. He was older, maybe early 40’s, mostly unimpressive save for the tribal tattoos snaking around his forearms.
“Are you enjoying the accommodations here?” the stranger asked with a hint of sarcasm.
Andrew lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I've seen worse. The company leaves something to be desired. Current company is not excluded.”
“Huh. They said you were a smart-ass.”
Andrew bared his teeth in imitation of a smile.
“So,” the stranger continued, “my name is David Wymack. I’m Pack Alpha of the Palmetto Foxes and I’m here to offer you a place in my pack.”
Andrew stared. “What.”
David crossed his arms casually. “You heard me. And don’t bullshit me that you don’t know who we are. I’m well aware of our fame.”
“I think infamy is the word you’re looking for,” Andrew said after a few moments. “A pack full of rejects. Dirty-blooded shifters who can’t fit into society otherwise. Am I remembering correctly?”
Andrew was mildly impressed the only reaction he got for that was a raised eyebrow. Then, “don’t think too hard on it, kid. There’s a reason I’m here talking to you.”
Ouch. But truth. Andrew imitated David’s stance and crossed his arms.
“Okay then, Alpha, woo me. Oh wait, it doesn’t matter. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m in a jail cell… so, nice meeting you. Don’t forget to shut the door on your way out.” Done with the conversation, Andrew twisted around to prop his feet on the bed, leaned his head back against the wall, and shut his eyes. A part of him buzzed with tension on turning his back on an alpha – another part of him told that part to fuck right off.
“Are you about done posturing?” David ground out, a note of exasperation in his deep voice. “I know about the deal they offered you. Court-ordered medication – make you into a proper little submissive omega, or full acceptance into a pack. They don't offer that to most foster kids, to my knowledge.”
“I’m sure they meant for Rock Creek to take you on. You’ve been living with one of their families for years now, right? The Spears? Or they could bid you out. One of those fancy East Coast packs would probably take in a wayward omega like you for the right price. In fact, I hear Evermore is actively recruiting.”
Andrew didn’t change position. He did open his eyes and assess the threat, wondering the likelihood of punching David across the mouth before the guards barreled in. David met his gaze straight-on.
“I’m here,” he continued, “like I said, to offer you a place in my sad pack of degenerates. Because we sure as hell seem like your best option right about now.”
Silence settled tensely between them for nearly a minute.
“So what, you’re here to offer up yourself as my alpha? Tell me, should I go ahead and take the medication to make things easier for you? Or do you like it when they fight back?” Andrew snorted. “No fucking thanks.”
David rolled his eyes and huffed out a breath. “I am most definitely not offering that, you little shit. You’d come in as a member, same rights as anyone else, not someone’s mate. Definitely not my mate.”
It made no sense. Packs didn’t just take in members, especially not omegas, without some ulterior motive. Andrew preferred to deal with known motives. Much easier to stab your target when you know what it is.
“Thanks anyway, Alpha. I think I’ll take my chances in a cell.” Andrew gave him a mocking, two-fingered salute.
“Look, Andrew,” David said, “I don’t think you understand what it’s like in a place like this. What it’s like for an omega.”
Andrew regarded him with a flat stare. “Don’t I?”
A brief, dark expression crossed David’s face. “Then give yourself a fighting chance and come with me. I promise; no harm will come to you there.”
“Oh Alpha – David – can I call you David? You really shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.” Despite his blank face, Andrew felt an uncomfortable stirring in his gut. It had been a long time since another option, an alternative, had come along. Maybe this odd pack was a way out.
“Okay, I’m bored now,” Andrew said, closing his eyes again. “Have a nice drive home.”
David sighed loudly. “Think it over. I’ll drop by in the morning.”
“It’s a free country,” Andrew responded.
“Asshole,” David muttered as he pounded on the door. A few seconds later, he left, and the door clanked shut, locking Andrew in.
“Alone at last…” he whispered. Always alone. But maybe…
Two weeks later
Palmetto wasn’t nearly as degenerate as its reputation. Apparently, they had some money, as the houses appeared neat and well-groomed, spread about in a horse-shoe pattern that swept from one end of the valley to another. In the center were several communal buildings – a supermarket, medical clinic, post office, school – a few more Andrew didn’t catch as they drove by. He did notice a decent-sized park with a playground, tennis, and basketball courts. Past the main ring of houses a thick forest and eventually mountains cushioned the pack’s territory from outside interference and unwanted visitors. The only way in – in theory – was through the official, controlled route. Andrew was almost impressed.
“If you were a 17th century warlord, you’d definitely win for best defensive position,” Andrew said.
David snorted and kept driving.
“Or not,” Andrew continued, drumming his fingers on the dashboard as he watched the scenery pass. “I mean, that’s a lot of territory to defend. What is someone wants to take a stroll over the mountains and walk right in?”
“What is this? Fucking Lord of the Rings? If the time comes we need to defend against hobbits and a wizard, I’ll let you know.”
Andrew hummed in agreement and went back to watching the scenery.
Taking care of all the legalities and paperwork had been a massive headache. Probably more so for David than Andrew, he silently admitted. Andrew’s lawyers had been less than thrilled about the whole situation, pushing hard at several occasions to make Andrew change his mind. They’d sunk so low as to bring in Cass, who’d tearfully pleaded for Andrew to stay in Rock Creek and ride out the medication sentence with them. We’ll look after you, she’d said. Richard and I will make it as easy as possible. And Drake will be home soon too. You know how much he cares about you.
It hurt, telling her no. Despite everything, or maybe because of everything, he felt her loss like a knife in the gut.
They pulled into David’s house after nearly three hours of driving. They’d flown of course, from California. The drive afterward had greatly improved Andrew’s mood and greatly soured David’s. It felt strange, being confined to a car with a (mostly) strange alpha, but Andrew’s instincts rarely failed him. Nothing about David screamed danger, or even caution, for that matter. Still, Andrew suspected he was more formidable than he came across. Pack Alphas rarely held their positions by being pushovers. And yet… he felt… if not exactly safe, then at least not on edge. He could get used to that feeling.
“Abby’s already here,” David informed him as he killed the engine. He nodded at a red sedan on the street. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you wash up first, but you might as well get the exam over with after that. I’ll figure out something for dinner. You like Chinese?”
So much for not being on edge. Andrew eyed the front door warily. Fucking exams. He understood the reason – communicable diseases among shifters were swift and deadly. Some packs had even been known to send in infected shifters to harm an enemy pack. David couldn’t risk integrating Andrew with the rest of the pack without a clean bill of health. Andrew understood. That didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Hi Andrew,” a woman – a beta – around the same age as David greeted them, opening the door. “It’s really nice to meet you. I’ve got the guest room ready for you upstairs – “
“Where’s the paper-covered table, doc? I’m ready now.”
Abby exchanged a brief glance with David. “I’m actually a nurse, just so we’re clear. I set up my equipment in the office. But if you want to rest or take a shower first – “
“Nope,” Andrew said. He wondered down the hall. It wasn’t a big house, so the office was clearly the cluttered room with a desk, an ancient desktop computer, and a smattering of medical equipment taking up space on a side-table. He settled on the edge of the desk and folded his arms. Abby followed him in after a moment – probably questioning her Alpha’s sanity.
“I’m going to shut the door for your privacy, alright?” At Andrew’s nod, she did so. “I don’t need to do a full physical, but if you’re comfortable removing your shirt so I can listen to your heart and check your lungs, that would be best.”
Andrew’s heart clanked against his ribs at her words. He did his best to keep his face bored and detached as he quickly pulled off his shirt and settled back on the desk.
He saw the moment Abby’s eyes saw it. You see, male omegas have a peculiar anatomy. Somewhere between the dichotomy of ‘male’ and ‘female’, they appeared physically male, while maintaining the ability to carry and deliver babies. Delivery was where the true divergence happened. It involved the painful, complicated process of the body simply forming the most convenient, efficient method of extracting a child from a womb. In the end, it looked not entirely different from a c-section scar. Andrew had such a scar stretched low across his abdomen.
“David didn’t mention you have a child,” Abby said tentatively, forcing her eyes away from the scar. “Did – “
“I don’t,” Andrew said shortly. “I don’t have any children.”
“Okay,” Abby replied. “I apologize for misunderstanding. But you have been pregnant before?”
“How many pregnancies have you had?”
Andrew fixed his gaze on the wall behind Abby’s head and fought down the anger simmering beneath his skin.
“Three,” he said in a clipped tone.
Abby’s next question was tentative. “And how many live births?”
“Zero. Two miscarriages, one termination.”
“Okay.” Abby regarded him quietly for a moment, looking like she wanted to say more, ultimately deciding against it. “Thank you for being so honest. Just one more question and we’ll move on. How old were you when these pregnancies occurred?”
Ah, that question.
“13, 14, and 17.”
Andrew slid his gaze back to Abby, ready to see the shock and revulsion on her face. The judgement. Only he saw something else instead – pain. And anger.
“I’m sorry that happened to you, Andrew,” Abby said softly. “And thank you for trusting me with that information. Nothing you say goes beyond this room, I hope you know that.”
“Except to your Alpha,” Andrew said, after a moment.
“Nope,” Abby shook her head. “Not even to my Alpha.”
Andrew chewed on that for a moment, still unsure around this strangely unstructured pack. Finally, he shrugged and nodded toward the tray of syringes and needles.
“Where exactly are we sticking those?”
The rest of the exam was relatively quick and painless. Abby chose not to comment on the scars lining Andrew’s forearms, though he could see the furrow in her brow as she drew blood.
David stayed for dinner, chatting amicably with Abby while Andrew silently observed and pushed food around his plate. The attraction between them was obvious, though unusual. Abby was definitely a beta. As the Pack Alpha, surely David had an omega mate, or would at some point. Andrew didn’t get the point of their useless flirting, but it didn’t bother him, so he said nothing.
Two days later his tests came back clean and Abby moved him into a studio apartment near the city center. Lots of younger shifters lived in these apartments – Abby explained to him – most similar to Andrew in that they’d come from outside Palmetto. Some found their way here on their own, others David actively scouted and recruited. Andrew scoffed at that. He was also secretly okay with it.
The apartment came furnished. A full-sized bed, couch, coffee table, and small kitchen table with two chairs made the space snug and oddly cozy. Andrew had never had his own apartment before. It felt surreal after Abby left and he slid the lock and deadbolt into place. He immediately pushed the bed into the corner, so he had two walls at his back, double-checked the locks, and slept the best he had in years.
“You’ll have to get a job,” David told him that first night at Abby’s. “The Pack takes care of everyone – no one ever has to worry about having a place to live or food to eat, but we also don’t just sit around with our thumbs up our asses. Everyone is expected to contribute.”
“Sounds like socialism,” Andrew responded after a few moments of silence. David scowled.
It was because of that conversation that Andrew found himself serving meals at the local shelter. His fellow server, a beta female with pixie-cut bleach-blond hair dipped in hot pink named Renee, smiled warmly and greeted each person who came through their line. Andrew didn’t greet anyone. He also didn’t scowl at them, so he considered that a win.
Adding to the Pack’s already odd policies, they allowed non-pack shifters to stay in a temporary shelter if they came to Palmetto for sanctuary. Some ultimately joined the pack and stayed, while many others simply moved on when they felt ready.
After nearly a month in Palmetto, Andrew felt as close to comfortable as he was likely to get. No one bothered him. Work was easy. He slipped easily into a routine. Wake up, think about exercising, work, go home, make dinner, read or watch boring documentaries on tv, sleep. Rinse, repeat.
Renee continued to intrigue Andrew. Despite her sweetly quiet persona, something about her reminded Andrew of himself. Something said “don’t fuck with me”, and Andrew appreciated that.
Six months passed in the blink of an eye. Despite his best efforts, Andrew learned the names of most of his fellow apartment residents. There were Dan and Matt, an alpha couple who seemed entirely too cheery and friendly; Seth, an asshole of an alpha who smoked enough pot to choke a horse and didn’t know when to shut his mouth; Allison, a prissy beta whose fake blond hair and high heels screamed too-much money - she also clearly had something going on with Seth; and of course, Renee.
That night the shelter seemed unusually quiet as Andrew and Renee served their evening meal and cleaned up afterward. A large family – three kids under age 10 and two mouthy teenagers, had finally moved into a permanent home on the other side of town. The remaining residents consisted of three women, a hulking dark-haired beta with his arm in a sling, and a young omega girl whose face stayed blanketed behind her bright green hair whenever anyone walked by. Robin was her name, she was only 16, and she’d arrived here alone.
Andrew kept an eye on Robin. He didn’t miss her jumpiness or the flinch when the beta said something to her as he walked by. He narrowed his eyes slightly and watched until the man disappeared from view. Robin remained in her chair, skinny knees pulled to her chest while she stared at the tv and finished her dessert.
“Everything alright?” Renee asked pleasantly. She’d noticed Andrew’s attention.
Andrew shrugged. “Far as I know.”
Renee gave a small smile. “Okay. That’s good.”
They finished clean-up and were heading out when Renee realized she’d left her cell phone in the kitchen.
“Shoot,” she murmured. “You can go ahead, if you want. I don’t mind walking alone.”
Andrew just gave her a flat look and leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed. Since about three weeks into Andrew working there, they’d walked home together after all their shifts. No point in breaking routine now when it was only a minor delay.
Renee smiled at him again then disappeared back inside.
The wind picked up after a few minutes. Andrew shivered and blew warmth into his hands. He hated cold weather, and this dreary almost-spring bullshit needed to let up. He considered standing inside, in the heated hallway, when a sudden noise drew his attention.
Andrew froze, listening. He heard it again. Voices. One was low and agitated. The other was crying.
He moved without hesitation, quietly creeping closer to the voices. One had dropped off while the crying increased in volume. And then a meaty thunk, as a fist connected with flesh. Andrew rounded the corner of the alleyway in time to see Robin pushed to her knees on the wet pavement.
Andrew darted forward and slammed both hands into the dark-haired beta’s chest, forcing him back a few steps. The man snarled and swung at Andrew, who, used to being a target of such things, ducked easily. He kicked the man’s left knee, punched the arm held to his chest by a sling, then delivered the hardest kick he could to the man’s groin. The man howled in pain and outrage, hunching over.
Andrew spared a glance for Robin who had curled herself against the side of the building, sobbing.
And then the beta gave up all finesse as he threw himself bodily at Andrew. The beta had a good eight inches and probably sixty pounds on him. Andrew grunted as he hit the ground and the air punched out of his lungs.
“Stupid little omega bitch,” the man growled, drawing back his fist for a punch. Andrew tasted blood as his head snapped to the side.
“What the fuck is your problem?” he continued. “That’s my property over there. Who the fuck do you think you are?!”
“I think the question is who the fuck do you think you are?” said a quiet, deadly voice.
The beta stilled as Renee pressed her knife against the meat of his neck.
“Hands up,” she instructed calmly. “and please get off of Andrew.”
Andrew rolled to his feet, spitting a mouthful of blood. He watched in interest as Renee pressed the knife hard enough to draw a thin line of blood. The man whimpered.
“I’ve got him,” Renee said, speaking to Andrew. “If you want to take Robin inside. And you’d better call David and let him know what’s going on.”
He nodded once, eyeing the beta in disgust before kneeling down in front of Robin. She was staring at him with wide, haunted eyes.
“Let’s go,” Andrew said. “This asshole isn’t worth any more of your time.”
Robin swallowed, eyes flickering back and forth between the three of them. “They’ll come for me again,” she finally said.
Andrew shook his head. “I won’t let them. Neither will Renee.”
“Promise?” she whispered.
She exhaled shakily. “Okay...”
David and several others arrived in less than fifteen minutes. True to her word, Renee kept the large beta in check, and – much to Andrew’s chagrin – alive until others arrived to haul him off.
In the meantime, Andrew sat on the dining room floor with Robin, both silently eating their way through a pint of ice cream and watching a late night game show. If either of them saw the other’s hands shaking, they didn’t say anything.
A mousy-looking therapist by the name of Betsy knocked on the entryway and stepped inside, drawing her gaze over both Andrew and Robin before settling on Andrew.
“Mind if I join you two?” she asked.
“Long as you don’t talk,” Andrew answered after a moment.
Betsy simply smiled and nodded. “I can deal with that.”
And so she did, sitting cross-legged on the floor after puttering in the kitchen for a few minutes, returning with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
Andrew looked up again awhile later as David walked in, looking tired and pissed off. He nodded toward the door and, after a moment, Andrew got up and followed him outside.
They settled side by side against the railing. David fished out a cigarette, lit it, then lit a second one to hand to Andrew.
“That was good work tonight, helping out that girl,” David finally said after half his cigarette had turned to ash. “I got the run-down from Renee, but I’d like to hear what happened from you.”
Andrew told him.
“Jesus Christ,” David cursed, shaking his head. “I screened that asshole myself. His story checked out.”
“Can’t win ‘em all.” Andrew flicked his ash on the ground.
David grumbled under his breath. “Well, anyway. Thank you. We’re moving Robin to Abby’s for the time being. If she decides to stay, we’ll figure something permanent out.”
They were both silent for another few minutes before David spoke again.
“You alright? That’s gonna be a helluva bruise come morning.”
Andrew shrugged lightly. “Could be worse.”
“Yeah,” David sighed. “I suppose it could. Look, I’m just saying… you’re doing good here. Keeping your head down and all that shit. But if you need anything, if you need to… talk… to anyone, you just have to ask. Alright?”
Andrew glanced at him sideways. “Are you offering to let me cry on your shoulder?”
David huffed. “Shut it, kid.”
Andrew and Renee walked home together after all. Neither of them spoke, both too caught up in their heads, dealing with their respective ghosts. Even so, when Renee stopped at her apartment, she offered a tiny smile.
“Good night, Andrew. See you tomorrow.”
As Andrew lay on his own bed, surrounded by his own things and his own space, he realized that, just maybe, he didn’t mind being here after all.