The night is cool and clear, quiet even, as the nocturnal creatures spur into motion. Braeden jogs stealthily along her sector of the border. It's been a month since she was on duty, having been temporarily transferred to train some new scouts that were just recruited. Being back in the solitude of her post is a relief and she's smiling at the quiet hum of the forest around her. She can feel the steady thrum of her heart beating in time with her steps; the familiar motions are comforting.
A large crack sounds through the brush, too loud to be made by any of the woodland creatures that frequent this area. Braeden pauses mid-stride as she lets her other senses take over, listening for additional movement and sniffing the air.
She can't pick up on anything out of the ordinary, senses nothing out of place, and wonders if maybe she'd imagined the sound. She's about to move onwards when she hears another crack, this one coming from the opposite direction, where the border lies. Turning around, her brow wrinkles in confusion as she creeps closer, still not registering any foreign scents.
It isn't until she walks a little further that Braeden sees the shadowy outlines of something in the trees a few hundred yards away.
"Show yourself!" she calls out.
Normally she'd add a warning about trespassing on Hale territory, but she doesn't catch the scent of anything threatening. Not to mention, their borders are lined with any number of spells and even a precautionary ring of mountain ash to keep out unwanted creatures of supernatural orientation. No werewolves venture this deep into the northern woods without an escort, but she’s come across lost pups from time to time. It wouldn’t do to completely scare off a young one if they’ve gone astray.
The shadows gain definition and features as the stranger moves forward, stepping into the waning moonlight that filters through the canopy of trees. Braeden is already approaching amicably when she fumbles to a quick stop, her eyes darting around as she registers more shapes in the darkness. Suddenly, she realizes that she can’t smell anything, supernatural or otherwise, yet that is clearly not what her eyes see before her. Surrounding her now are at least thirty werewolves that she can still neither sense nor smell, despite seeing them with her very eyes.
Braeden’s gaze flits back to the first man, who is decidedly not a lost pup, taking in the growing smirk on his face and the distinctive cane he carries with him. Now that he is out of the shadows, Braeden can see the characteristic traits of an alpha, even though he is the only one not shifted. He has the height and bulk indicative of his rank, his brown hair is cropped short, and his presence alone calls for her wolf to submit to him. Only an alpha from one’s own pack can leave wounds that scar, and the frighteningly large number of scars marring this alpha’s skin indicate a leadership that is hard won.
Braeden can hardly get her legs to obey her as she scrambles backwards, tripping helplessly over tree roots and animal burrows when her body is suddenly seized up in some sort of enchantment. It’s frightening, having her senses blocked and her limbs not responding. She can’t even shift, her wolf instincts cut off almost entirely. Braeden manages to let out a loud howl of distress before she falls down completely, her body frozen on the forest floor. Even so, she can faintly hear as her warning howl is picked up and passed along down the border by other scouts in the area.
"The pack knows you’re here," she says, her voice shaking. “They’ll know it was you.”
The man steps forward, pressing the sharp end of his cane viciously against her throat as his eyes burn a sickly red. The smirk on his face borders on crazy as he drags the point slowly down her sternum; if Braeden's limbs weren't already frozen in place she thinks that look alone would stop her in her tracks.
Braeden doesn't hear anything beyond the sickening crunch as his cane is thrust violently through her chest. Her vision goes black.
"My lady, I request a private audience!"
Laura Hale bursts into the main chamber of the California Pack Court, ignoring proper decorum in favor of efficiency. She rushes past various members of the pack council who are seated at the long table taking up most of the room. The battered t-shirt and shorts she is wearing from training must look disgraceful in front of these people, dressed in their fine clothes and jewels, but she pays that no heed. There was a time when she feared the council and its many members, when she thought that they were the law, but that was back when she was still a pup. Now, as second-in-command of the Hale Pack and liaison to all Californian packs below theirs, she rules over the alphas of the council.
“It is a matter of great urgency,” she says in a lower voice when she reaches the head of the table.
Seated there is Talia Hale, her mother and head alpha to both the Hale Pack and the many packs of California. Looking at her mother is almost like looking into a mirror, for they share the same black hair and keen brown eyes, Talia’s features merely softened with age. Belatedly, Laura bows to her alpha and then to the rest of the council.
“Very well,” Talia says after a beat of silence, pushing her chair back to stand. She turns to address the alphas seated before her. “Please excuse us. We will reconvene once this matter has been settled.”
There is rustling and muttered conversations as the members of the council gather their various papers and belongings before filing out of the room. Laura takes the spare moments to compose herself, though her heartbeat is still slightly erratic in her distress. One council member remains, walking towards them from the other end of the table, but Laura disregards him as she turns to her mother.
“The Alpha Pack have crossed our northern borders,” Laura says quickly, the words rushing out once Talia’s attention is focused on her. “They were intercepted by a scout late last night, and updates from our patrols indicate they are headed towards the capital.”
“That’s impossible,” the man suddenly interrupts. “No werewolf can cross over mountain ash. If the seal had been broken our enchantments would have warned us.”
“Do you doubt my word, Uncle Peter?” Laura asks harshly. “Clearly a werewolf can and has. An entire pack of them.” Peter stops whatever he was about to say, his mouth pressed into a thin line. “We do not yet know how they broke the other enchantments—a recruited coven of witches most likely—but the mountain ash was still firmly intact after their arrival.”
Laura turns back to Talia, who has been watching the exchange in silence. “Deucalion is leading them.”
The atmosphere had been apprehensive before, but the tension in the room increases tenfold with that declaration. Even Talia, who has remained rather stoic up to now, sits back down in her chair, face strained and pale.
“We must get you out of range and set up defenses around the other head alphas immediately,” Laura advises.
Talia is already shaking her head in disagreement. “No. I know Deucalion. He won’t settle for just me. He’ll want to tear down the ranks of our packs just to prove a point.”
“But mother, our alphas are strong—”
“No. This is not up for discussion, Laura. Peter?”
Peter steps forward, a smirk on his face as he stands at Talia’s side. “My lady?”
“Notify the council. Apprise them of the situation at hand.” She pauses and looks up at him. “All of them are still in contact with their district packs?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Good. Accompany each of them and deliver notices throughout every district. Call up as many alphas as possible. If their packs cannot function safely without them, enlist only the firstborn. Inform them that their betas must be ready to muster at a moment’s notice.”
Laura presses her lips closed to keep from arguing. Hale alphas have taken down many enemies in their time, and this seems no different. But she knows there is a lot of history that is being left unsaid. Deucalion is an alpha whispered about in the dark, someone nobody dares to speak of in public. Anytime his name comes up in the council, Talia dismisses the topic without discussion. The feud between Talia and Deucalion has existed since before Laura was even born, yet anyone who actually knows the truth of such matters has been forbidden to speak of it.
But still, there are rumors. Some say Talia and Deucalion were bonded as closely as two alphas could be, until she left to mate with another. Others say Deucalion tried to force her to submit the Hale pack to him once she became head alpha. There are also those who think Deucalion just went rogue and targeted Talia because of her control over every pack along the west coast. Whatever the case may be, the truth is buried beneath a swirl of hearsay, and Laura’s never gotten a straight answer from her mother whenever she’s brought it up.
Laura sees her mother glance over at her, and she tries to look obeisant.
“Laura, you know nothing of what Deucalion is capable of,” Talia says gently. “We must make use of every werewolf, elite or not, and fight as one. It is our only hope.”
Stiles heaves in a deep breath, his mumbling fading away into a snore. He exhales, the papers blowing away from him where his face is smashed into the carpet. Sleep has transformed his bed into a warzone of mussed sheets and blankets, and Stiles has gravitated to his usual position of perpendicular slumber, half of his body hanging over one side of the bed while the rest lies haphazardly across the mattress. The bedroom is silent apart from his quiet respirations, sunlight filtering softly through the sheer curtains hanging over his window. A particularly loud snore jerks him into wakefulness and Stiles struggles to orient himself, but gravity is faster, pulling his flailing body hard onto the carpeted floor.
“Arghh!” Stiles cries, jerking upright amidst a circle of papers and notes as he untangles his legs from the blankets they’re twisted in. He looks blearily around his room, taking in the bright sunlight and the bustling he can hear faintly from outside. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Stiles glances over to his bedside clock.
“Oh, shit! Mom’s gonna kill me!”
Stiles is up and running, all drowsiness forgotten in lieu of rushing around. He grabs a shirt from the floor and sniffs it before shrugging it on, then scrambles around for a pair of jeans that aren’t too wrinkled. After running a cursory hand through his hair, he dashes over to the large tank sitting on top of his dresser and peers inside.
“Wish me luck, Batman!” Stiles runs his hand along the smooth, warm scales of his boa constrictor a few times, then closes and secures the lid of the tank. “Today’s the big day!”
It takes him ten minutes to gather some leftovers and drive out to the security station. It’s a large brick building near the center of town, and Stiles knows almost everyone who works there. Most of the guards are retired alphas who used to fight in some capacity or another, but have moved on to simple patrol duties. The rest are pack betas who work as contractors and deal with the paperwork side of things. Alpha John Stilinski is in charge of the entire facility. Stiles doesn’t bother to stay and chat with some of the beta employees like he normally would. Instead, he beelines straight for his dad’s office, bursting inside without so much as a cursory knock.
“Brought your lunch, Dad! You better not be eating fast food again,” Stiles says, as John scrambles to shove a bag that smells suspiciously of grease and fried chicken underneath his desk. Stiles holds up a large container that looks like it’s filled with green mush. “Remember, Deaton said no saturated fats!”
“Son, you should already be with your mother,” John says, frowning.
“Your heart is weak enough as it is,” Stiles continues, “you don’t need to be eating that crap.”
Stiles sets to work opening the container and dishing out a large portion. He sets it on the desk, ignoring the disgusted look John sends him, unwilling to cave on this matter. Stiles was too young to remember the attack that resulted in his father’s condition, but the consequences sit before him nonetheless. One tiny sliver of silver shrapnel lies eternally embedded in his father’s heart, and he knows his father feels a constant throb of pain from it as a daily reminder. When John doesn’t stick to a strict diet and modified exercise regimen, the toll on his weakened heart is immense. So they sit in a stalemate, Stiles staring pointedly at the food until John sighs in resignation.
“You need to go. As the Stilinski omega, we’re counting on you—”
“To be mated to an alpha of repute,” Stiles interrupts. “I know, dad! I won’t let you down, I promise!”
Stiles stays until he sees John force a bite of the mystery food into his mouth, before saying goodbye and rushing back out in the same manner he entered, choosing not to call John out on the lingering scent of french fries.
“Claudia, where is he? The mating ceremony waits for no omega.”
Claudia Stilinski stands at the door of the clothing shop, wringing her hands as she peers down both ends of the street. She glances back at Beta Lela Mahealani, the local seamstress, and shrugs helplessly.
“You know Stiles,” she says. In a lower voice she mutters, “I should have asked the emissaries for guidance.”
Lela mentions something about her sewing kit and disappears into the back room, leaving Claudia on her own. Suddenly, Stiles comes racing up the street in his Jeep, barreling to a stop and parking halfway up on the curb, barely taking the time to turn off the engine before leaping out. He runs over to his mother, all flailing limbs and rambling apologies.
“I’m here!” he cries, leaning over with his hands braced on his knees to catch his breath.
“Where have you been?” Claudia whispers, her voice full of worry. “I thought Beta Mahealani was going to bite my head off.”
“Mom, I’m sorry, I had to drop off some food for—”
“None of your excuses!” she says in a raised voice, trying to sound reprimanding when Lela reenters the room. Stiles shoots her a knowing look, smirking. “Let’s get you cleaned up," Claudia continues. "You can’t go into a mating ceremony scented like that.”
“Like what?” Stiles asks, sniffing his shoulder cautiously.
Claudia pushes him into the back where a washroom is set up behind a hanging curtain. “Like your father.”
“You should never smell too strongly of any alpha during your mating ceremony, or you risk being left unclaimed," Lela quotes sternly.
Stiles scoffs as he strips behind the curtain. "How can they expect me not to smell like an alpha I've lived with my entire life?"
Lela wrenches the curtain back before Stiles can fully cover his bare skin with a towel. He yelps, jumping back and trying to cover himself.
"That is precisely why omega cleanser exists," Lela says haughtily. "It masks those scents until your mate can scent you properly. Didn't you read any of the handbooks for today?"
"Well, nevermind that now," Claudia interrupts, tying the towel properly around Stiles’ hips. "It's too late to fix that. We do, however, need to get you fitted, or you’ll be going to the ceremony with nothing proper to wear.”
The next hour is spent in a flurry of needles and fabric, quick hemmings and adjustments being made until Stiles stands in a suit that is almost uncomfortable in its tailored perfection. He’s used to his normal clothes, which are almost always a size too big. It’s strange having fabric rub so closely on his sensitive skin.
Claudia and Lela stand to the side, nodding happily to themselves.
“That will have to do,” Lela says. She gestures for him to undress. “Now get that off and wash up quickly. There isn’t much time.”
Stiles scrambles out of his clothes once more, this time making some kind of effort not to wrinkle them or drag them across the floor. He picks up the aforementioned bottle of cleanser from a side table, opening it. A terrible smell is released once the cap is off, and Stiles gags. Even to his limited omega senses, the cleanser smells repulsive.
“Are you sure this is safe?” he calls out, dabbing a small amount onto his skin with a grimace. There’s no response from the women, but his skin doesn’t spontaneously combust so he figures it can’t be too harmful. Besides, after a few minutes the smell seems to dissipate and Stiles thinks maybe the cleanser is doing its job after all. It doesn’t take too long after that for him to finish washing up and get dressed again, but he already feels strange. The familiar scents of home and pack that he is used to being surrounded by are gone, replaced by a generic scent and crisp new fabric. It’s unsettling, like having one’s comfort blanket taken away without any warning whatsoever, and Stiles feels bare without the scent of his pack.
He emerges cautiously from behind the curtain, hoping not to get attacked by the women again, but they aren’t there. He finds them out in the front of the store chatting quietly. They both look up when he enters the room, and his mother smiles sweetly.
“Sweetheart, you look perfect.”
Stiles blushes awkwardly, not used to showing such affection in front of those who aren’t a part of his immediate pack. His mother approaches before he can think of what to say, running her hands across his shoulders to smooth the fabric, and picking off imaginary pieces of fuzz. He leans into her touch, but she pulls away almost as fast, as though realizing that scent marking him all over again would defeat the purpose of the cleanser. She then pulls something out of her pocket, pinning it to the lapel of his jacket. When Stiles looks down, he sees it is one of his father’s badges.
“Your father wanted you to wear this today, in honor of your pack,” Claudia says, smiling. “He’s very proud of you, you know.”
Stiles is blushing again, and he thinks if his face heats up any more he might burst into flames.
“Mom,” he complains, even though he’s secretly pleased by all of the praise.
“Yes, yes, I know.” She pats his cheek. “I have something for you as well.”
Stiles looks at the small thing his mother has handed him. It’s brown and wrinkled, covered with a thin layer of fur, and small enough to look dwarfed by his palm. “What is it?”
Claudia purses her lips for a moment before answering. “I...don’t exactly know. Some sort of Greenberg charm. It was given to me by the Stilinski omega before me, and now it is yours, to grant you luck.”
“How’s a wrinkled old thing like this supposed to grant me luck?” Stiles holds it out warily to inspect. “Does it even work?”
“Don’t question the magic,” Claudia instructs as she guides him towards the front door, hands braced warmly on his shoulders. She’s clearly trying to stay serious, but her lips are twitching into a smile anyway. “Witch enchantments don’t make sense most of the time anyway.”
“Omega Stilinski!” a harsh voice cries out.
Stiles takes a moment to say goodbye to Danielle, Heather, and Bennett, some other omegas he knows from the district who he was waiting with, and heads towards the caller. The room they’ve all gathered in is quite large, and the opulence of the mansion itself is mirrored in the lavish decorations of the room. The mansion is set on the eastern edge of Beacon Hills, where the more upscale alphas and their families live. Stiles can pick out a few of those packs’ omegas in the room, but for the most part it’s a healthy mix. Surrounding him are omegas from many of the surrounding districts as well, all here in the hopes of being mated today. The omegas are many different shapes and sizes, but while they might not have the same wealth, they all have the familiarity of their rank in common.
“Over here!” Stiles calls, waving his arm and stumbling through a particularly stingy group of omegas to reach the front of the room.
The alpha standing before him raises his brows, appraising Stiles with disdain. The alpha mutters snidely as he marks something down on the clipboard he’s carrying, his movements swift and harsh. “Follow me.”
Rude, Stiles thinks as he trails behind the alpha. He’s led down a few halls before they come to another room that still manages to look as grandiose as the rest of the mansion, despite the relatively bare walls. The room itself isn’t very large; it doesn’t have the vaulted ceilings that the great room did, and the long line of alphas along one wall serve to make the room seem even smaller. There’s also a table set up on one side of the room, but Stiles’ eyes are focused on the werewolves.
The alpha who lead him there gestures towards one alpha standing apart from the others, also holding a clipboard. Stiles recognizes him instantly as Alpha Adrian Harris, head of the Harris pack. The man is a legend, having paired up more mates across the country in the past twenty years than any other matchmaker. His ceremonies are revered, and for him to travel this far west to offer his services is quite rare.
Still, Stiles can’t help but feel nervous as he approaches the matchmaker, eyes lowered respectfully to the ground. He knows many of his fellow omegas are bursting with excitement at this chance to be mated, but it sounds more like a death sentence to him. His family has been lenient with him, Stiles is well aware of that, so perhaps the feeling of dread at being mated to another alpha can be partially attributed to the freedom he knows he’ll lose. But Stiles also can’t help but wonder what else there is to life beyond deferring to an alpha he’ll be forever mated to. It seems like all he’s done is live in a bubble not of his own making. Stiles is scared to give up what little freedom he has to a life of compliance and passivity.
He’s drawn from his introspection by Alpha Harris, who has started circling him.
“Too skinny,” Harris says. “Not good for bearing pups.”
Stiles frowns. He knows he’s not the sturdiest omega around, but he likes his body. Unlike the wide hips and extra weight most omegas have, Stiles has a leaner, toned frame. His skin is pale and smooth, his hair grown out. Stiles enjoys being slim—unlike the alphas lined up, who are bulky and hairy, with close-cropped hair and tanned skin covered in callouses. He may have yet to master the grace and elegance of an omega, but Stiles knows he at least looks the part.
“Hmm.” Harris scrawls down a few more notes before tucking the clipboard beneath his arm. “This way.”
Stiles is led over to where the alphas are lined up on one wall, looking like a barricade of werewolves. Most of them are at least six inches taller than him, and they have enough muscles combined to make Stiles feel dwarfed by comparison.
“Proceed down the line,” Harris instructs. “Slowly.”
Awkwardly, Stiles walks before the alphas. He feels like maybe he should be showing off or something to make himself look good, but between all of the eyes on him and the overwhelming scents of so many alphas, it’s all he can do to make his legs work properly. The wolf inside of him is urging him constantly to yield to the alphas before him; Stiles hates how easily his body is willing to offer itself to a complete stranger.
The alphas are blatantly scenting him as he walks past and it’s making him very uncomfortable, especially without the smells of his own pack to clearly show who he belongs to. Harris makes him walk back and forth in front of the alphas three times before telling him he can stop. Stiles deflates and heaves a sigh of relief. Nobody told him this ceremony would be so nerve-wracking. It’s bad enough that so much is riding on this without having to present his body to a bunch of alphas.
Harris walks down to where a table is set up with various items set upon it. “To please your alpha, you must maintain the duties of their pack with dignity and refinement. Your primary objective should always be to honor and respect your alpha. Your actions are a reflection of your mate.”
Stiles is asked to complete a number of tasks, from domestic chores to following basic commands, and he can already tell his fumbling is being noted meticulously by Alpha Harris. It’s daunting to have to perform in front of so many alphas at once, but he does his best, trying not to look too clumsy. He comes to the end of the table with no more left to do and stands there awkwardly for a good minute before addressing the alpha.
“Um, Alpha Harris…”
“Silence!” Harris commands. “You do not speak unless spoken to. Now, recite the omega code.”
Stiles freezes for a moment, struggling to remember how it starts. Harris’ scrutiny isn’t helping and Stiles can feel his heartbeat speed up as his anxiety grows.
“O-omegas must abide by the decrees of their alphas,” Stiles begins hesitantly. “An omega supports and obeys his mate at any cost to himself. Providing an heir is the honor and duty of every omega. An omega heir is of utmost necessity and must be regarded above all else. It is an omega’s role to submit to their mate...”
Stiles knows there’s more to it, but he can’t think of what comes next. He suddenly wishes he’d studied it more before, rather than putting it off. It’s not like avoiding his code would keep him out of the mating ceremonies or make the laws any less applicable to him. Picking at the hem of his sleeve, Stiles fidgets mindlessly, trying to recall the rest of the code.
“And...um,” Stiles falters.
“Well?” Harris looks more impatient by the second.
“Look,” Stiles says, frustrated, “If you’d just give me a second—”
“How dare you command an alpha!” Harris roars in outrage. His eyes glow red, and the sudden push of energy causes Stiles to stumble backwards into the table. He knocks over a basin of liquid, the solution splashing all over his clothes and Alpha Harris as well. When Stiles goes to try and mop it off of Harris with a clean cloth, he is knocked away by a strong hand.
“Do not approach me without permission!” Harris is practically vibrating with anger and Stiles can’t help but cower on the floor where he’s fallen, clutching his cheek. The pain dissipates almost immediately, but the memory of it does not. He can feel the omega inside of him urging him to submit to the alpha’s command, despite Stiles’ mind rebelling against it entirely. Harris may be an alpha, and he may rank above Stiles, but he isn’t pack, and the idea of submitting to a mate is hard enough for Stiles to wrap his mind around, let alone every other alpha that comes along in his life.
Belatedly, Stiles wonders if maybe this is why his parents have aimed to keep him so secluded from others for most of his life. Not because he’s the precious Stilinski Omega, needing to be kept safe for their bloodline to continue for another generation. No, they must have known how much Stiles would rebel against societal conventions, against the pack norms that have sought to oppress and shame him since the day he was born an omega.
Omegas may be prized, but they are in no way respected.
“You are a disgrace to both your pack and your kind,” Harris hisses viciously. “You are not worthy to be mated to an alpha. Any descendants of yours will be tainted by the dishonor of their parentage.”
Stiles has to bite his tongue to keep from lashing out. So many words bubble up in his throat, his loathing for the alpha in front of him growing by the second. For months, the town has been buzzing with gossip about the famed Alpha Harris and his enchanting ways. But as Stiles forces himself to keep his eyes lowered, he can’t help but feel utter disgust for the werewolf standing over him. There is nothing enchanting about his domineering manner. Stiles has lived with his father (also a head alpha) his entire life and never once has he felt like the scum that Harris is so vividly describing him to be.
“Get out of my sight,” Harris scoffs.
That is one command Stiles is more than willing to obey.