Chris liked his life. It was quiet and for the first time in his life, he actually knew what it was like to be alone. It wasn’t a bad feeling at all. If he got lonely, he could call or text Allison. He checked up with her a few times a week where she lived in Boston, going to college. But for the most part, he was able to enjoy his house and being with only himself.
So he didn’t want a mascule. He had never really wanted one, but Allison wouldn’t leave him alone about it. It started before she even left, kept going through emails and phone calls, then finally she went on to straight blackmail.
At the end of November, she threatened not to come home for Christmas if he didn’t go with her to the center for mascule.
“Allison, we’ve talked about this,” Chris said into the phone.
“But you’re there by yourself,” Allison said.
“I know. I like it that way.”
“I just worry about you.”
“You don’t have to. I’m happy.”
“You have to get lonely. I understand not wanting to date, that’s your business, but I really can’t handle you being there alone.”
“Allison,” he said tiredly, rubbing his forehead where the ache was already starting.
“I’m not saying you have to take one home. Just come with me and we can look into it. I’ll set up the appointment, send in the paperwork, everything.”
Chris rocked back in his desk chair for a few moments before finally exhaling heavily. “Okay.”
“I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
“I’m sorry. I just think it would be good for you,” Allison said.
She had the decency to sound guilty. The same way she always had when she had conned him into getting what she wanted. He had to wonder if the pay outs were worth her own self-criminalization.
“Yeah, okay. What time am I picking you up from the airport?” he asked.
They ironed out the details of her flight. He bit harder on the pen cap in his mouth when she brought up her boyfriend that was coming back with her.
“Be nice. Scott is a nice guy.”
“I’m always nice to him,” Chris said.
They spoke for a few more minutes before she said she had a class to get to.
“And Allison,” he said, before she hung up. “I said I’d go look. That’s all I have to do. Then you drop this, understand?”
When they hung up, Chris sat back and drummed his fingers on his desk. The quiet house stood around him and he took it in while he could. There was no way Allison was letting him leave the center without a mascule. Even if she didn’t say a word, he didn’t know if he could disappoint her like that.
So he took in the silence of his sanctuary for the precious time he had.
Three weeks later
The mascule center of Beacon Hills was twenty miles outside of town on the far edge of the Hale Preserve in the middle of secluded, thick green acreage. The drive there was beautiful, all hills and red woods mixed with pine. It was even better, because it was the first time he and Allison were alone since she got into town two days before. Scott had gone home to see his mom finally, so he had Allison to himself for the next four days.
“Did you read the pages I sent you?” Allison asked.
“I scanned them,” Chris said.
“It was just about their breeding program. It’s really small and selective. All of them get a lot of attention,” Allison said.
“They didn’t used to have a breeding program.”
“It’s newer. I didn’t know if you’d want a rescue.”
“Yeah I do. Cleaning your diapers was enough.”
“They have a few older ones too. Do you want one your age?” Allison asked, flipping through printed out pages in her hands.
“I don’t care.”
His tone was flatter than he meant. When he glanced at Allison, she was frowning, not pouting. He hadn’t seen her pout since she was a toddler, but still the expression that she was just trying to help and he had been an ass. He squeezed her hand on the console.
“I really don’t care,” he said again, but softened it with a smile. “Open to any age as long as it can crap and wipe by itself.”
She smiled back. It was his smile, the one that didn’t show teeth. Warmth flooded his chest. He might not get lonely often, but he had missed her so much. He squeezed her hand again then let it go as he turned into the driveway of the mascule center headed by a stone sign surrounded by landscaping that he hadn’t been to in over twenty years.
The center was a long building far off the road at the end of a circle drive. It still looked more like a retreated for the rich with more money than sense, than a mascule center. There were handfuls of mascule outside on the manicured green grass. An older group was sitting on the ground, gesturing towards each other. They didn’t look so much different than Chris and his friends, but if he went closer, he knew he would only hear the low grunts and titters that made up their language.
He parked the Tahoe to the side and stepped out on the gravel drive before rolling his shoulders and getting into the right headspace to be around so many mascule. Like walking into a pack of dogs, if they thought they could take you down they might try. When they walked up the steps, he put his hand on Allison’s shoulders. Contact was important. Let them know what was protected by you so they didn’t think it could be kept by them.
Inside the large glass front doors was a desk with a few women wearing scrubs sitting behind.
“Can I help you?” one of the receptionist asked, with an industry smile.
“We have an appointment for Argent,” Chris said.
The woman typed on the thin computer then took a folder from the desk and stood, smiling again.
“If you would come with me,” she said.
Chris and Allison followed her through the large lower level. It was open enough to see the far wall completely made of windows, overlooking a line of pine trees over an acre away. They went up a flight of rustic stairs with the smell of sap still lingering on them.
“This is a beautiful place,” Allison said.
The receptionist smiled. “The Hales like to take good care of our charges while we have them.”
The stairway landed on a hallway that they passed down with open doors on either side. The base tones of non-words drifted out as they passed mascule lounging in their bunks. It looked like there were two sets of bunk beds in each large room, made with hotel quality blankets.
“And this is the director’s office,” the receptionist said when they had nearly reached the end. She tapped her pale knuckles on the door before pushing it open.
“Mrs. Hale, the Argents are here.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
Mary gestured for them to go inside, then she closed the door behind them. Talia Hale came around the desk and held out her arms, smiling.
“Chris, it’s so good to see you again,” she said.
Chris hugged her back. “It is. How are you? The family?”
“Good. The family is good. This keeps us busy,” she said, then she smiled and looked at Allison. “You must be Allison. I haven’t seen you in years.”
Allison smiled. “I love your reserve.”
“Thank you,” Talia said. “Please, sit.”
Talia sat back behind her desk as Allison and Chris sat across from her. She looked through the folder the receptionist had brought, a small frown in her slightly lined face.
“You have a wonderful application. I can’t see where the board will have any problems approving you,” she said.
“Good,” Chris said.
“Allison, do you still live at home?” Talia asked.
“No. I’m just visiting for Christmas.”
Talia nodded without looking up from the papers. “Chris, you aren’t remarried?”
“No. It’s only me in the house.”
“Do you have a preference on gender or age?”
“I’d get along best with a male.”
“No age preference?”
“No younger than twenty and I don’t want any older than me.”
“Okay,” Talia said. “So many people want to take care of the babies to try and acclimate them early and the older ones are just left here.”
“I think I could handle an older one.”
“I’m sure you could,” she said. “If our first match doesn’t fit, you know you can bring them back.”
He also knew how much shit the Hales talked about people who brought back the mascule that had been adopted. Being with Peter for those few years had been very enlightening for understanding that the public façade was bullshit.
Talia leaned back and pulled a few papers from a stack on the corner of her desk. “Now the fun part,” she said and passed a packet across the desk. “He is an older male, thirty-five. Dominate personality. Intelligent, vocal.”
Chris looked at the mascule in the picture. He handed it back. “Do you have any younger?”
“We have a set of twins, but they’re eighteen.”
Chris shook his head. “One is going to be more than enough. A submissive personality would be better too.”
Talia nodded and he could see her mind working as she went through more packets. Her dark hair hung in her face and she pushed it back absently as papers shuffled. They went through a few more that Chris put on a maybe list. Then they walked out of the office and went to meet them. The twenty-seven year old from a pack in Canada growled at him. His eyes flashed blue and Chris took him from his list.
“I don’t want one with a history of violence. I don’t want to sleep with one eye open,” Chris said. God knew he already did that enough.
“Of course,” Talia said.
She had him meet the twins when they passed through a rec room. They were playing some kind of video game, making clicking noises in the backs of their throats. They reminded him of dogs raised together. They wouldn’t move farther than a foot from each other. He couldn’t recognize why he didn’t like them, but he knew he didn’t.
One made his list. A sweet-faced twenty-five year old with green-brown eyes. When Chris held out his hand, the mascule shook it, although it seemed strange to him. His pupils thinned slightly and his nostrils flared, then he smiled with a quiet noise in the back of his throat. Chris felt himself smile.
“Jordan’s a favorite of Derek’s,” Talia said, smiling kindly at Jordan and running her fingers through the top of his dark blonde hair.
Jordan’s eyes snapped to her when she brought up her son. He made noise in his chest like a bark. His facial expression changed and it was so easy to read exactly what he was saying.
“He’ll be back next week, honey,” Talia said, running her fingers through Jordan’s hair.
Jordan smiled, showing his thick pointed canines.
“Dad, there’s Cora. I’m going to go say hi,” Allison said, looking across the room. “I’ll catch up.”
Chris watched her go before he could call a warning to stay aware of her surroundings. Then he had to take in that he might be being paranoid. There were ten mascule in this room and they were being peaceful, chattering to each other or watching a TV in the corner.
They left Jordan after he went back to his group and went back up the stairs.
“Is he up for placement?” Chris asked.
Talia nodded. “He’s a sweetheart too. Derek studies mascule in the field. When he’s home he keeps Jordan with him, but he can be gone for a month at a time and he doesn’t think it’s fair to not give him more stability than that.”
“Does he stay here when Derek is gone?”
“When I’m here. At night he goes home with me,” she said. “I have one more I want you to meet though. We just got him last month.”
“What’s his story?”
“He and his father were placed as a pair with a woman. She changed her mind after the father had settled in and brought the son back.”
“Was he close with his father?”
“Very. He isn’t taking the separation well.”
“Why was he brought back?”
“The woman said he was hyperactive, but we haven’t seen any of that yet.”
Talia paused in front of a closed door and knocked on it quietly. “Stiles? I have someone I want you to meet, honey.” She waited a moment, then opened the door.
Unlike the other rooms, it had two full-sized beds, and no window. A dark-haired kid was sitting on one of the beds. He pushed his hand back through his hair, matting it down then pushing it up. A low chitter started and Chris could feel his anxiety like it made the air thicker.
“Stiles, this is Mr. Argent. He really wanted to meet you,” she said, going towards the bed and sitting on the edge.
Chris stayed at the foot while the boy kept looking from Talia to him, like he might bolt if he came any closer.
“Can he say hi?” Talia asked.
Stiles looked at Chris for a moment before nodding and looking away. Chris went closer until he was standing near the head of the bed. It had been so long since he interacted with mascule. He didn’t know what to do, so he held out his hand like he had to Jordan.
“It’s good to meet you.”
The boy looked at his hand before he took it and held onto it. Then he leaned forward and sniffed, his breath warm on the back of his fingers. Chris almost jumped when Stiles hardly touched one of his knuckles with his tongue. He spent two summers around them his junior and senior year of high school, but it still surprised him. Talia smiled and stood up.
“I’m going to give you two a few minutes. Chris, I’ll be in my office,” she said.
Talia stood and left the door open, allowing in the dull light from the hall. Chris shifted before sitting on the edge of the bed. The boy’s knees were drawn up to his chest. Even in the poor lighting, Chris could see his eyes were red and watery.
He didn’t know what to say or do. The kid could understand him. Most of the mascule that lived around humans understood them, but it wasn’t like he could reply more than a handful of words at best. He couldn’t say nothing, though. The poor kid was sitting in his room all alone when mascule didn’t like to be alone. They hated it. When he and Peter, Talia’s brother, were together, he had hear of one or two that went into severely depressive states from being touch starved and neglected. In the paper there were stories off it a few times a year, a mascule tied in a backyard like a dog and becoming despondent to the point of starving themselves to death. The kid wasn’t anywhere close to that, but the circles beneath his eyes was enough to see he wasn’t happy and hadn’t been for some time.
“How are you?” Chris asked.
Stiles sniffed and looked off to the corner. He gave a weak noise though, so Chris knew he wasn’t being ignored. The pain in the mascule’s brown eyes was so clear. He looked so much like Allison when she was upset it felt like his heart was bruised.
“You miss your dad. I know. It’s okay,” Chris said.
Stiles made a higher noise. Saying his heart was broken couldn’t have conveyed the hurt any clearer.
Chris bit the inside of his cheek, rubbing his tongue over the bumps. They were tactile. That’s why peopled owned them, better than having a dog because it liked to cuddle as much as humans.
“Would you come here?” Chris asked before he could think too much.
He held out his arm and Stiles looked at him guarded for a moment then he scooted forward quickly and his arms were around Chris’s middle. Chris hugged him, trying not to tense when Stiles pushed his face against his neck. Hearing his shaky breath was enough to ease the tension.
“It’ll be okay,” Chris said automatically, rubbing the boy’s back, doing what he hoped someone would do for Allison if he was upset and he wasn’t there. “You’re okay.”
The kid tightened his arms around him, digging his fingers into his shirt. He was making a noise that was so quiet he could hardly hear it. It sounded lost and small.
He held Stiles a little tighter when the kid’s breath got shakier. They were physical, but he didn’t expect the affects to happen so quickly or for Stiles to hold on so tightly. Minutes passed before he felt him heavier against his side. When he looked down, he saw tears on the boy’s cheeks, but his eyes were closed.
Then it was that easy.
He knew he was fucked, because he actually thought of just sitting there until the kid woke up.
Instead he gently laid the kid back on the pillow. His dark eyes opened as Chris pulled the blanket over him. He made a quiet miserable noise. Chris touched his hair. When he volunteered for his college application, this was his job, consoling, interacting. That’s what all the handlers were expected to do. It shocked him slightly how easy it was to slide into that role.
“I know this is hard,” Chris said quietly, continuing to pass his fingers through the dark hair when Stiles’s eyelids became heavier. “Does this feel good?” Chris asked. The kid nodded slightly. “Good.”
He continued to do it until Stiles’s eyes dropped closed again and his breathing deepened again. Then he stood up and left the room, pulling the door quietly closed behind him. He went down the hall to Talia’s office and found her on her computer with Allison talking to her.
“What do I have to do to get his placement?” he asked.
Allison and Talia smiled at him like he was the second coming. He didn’t feel that way, his heart was heavy. After he filled out the paperwork, he went back down the hallway by himself, and into Stiles’s room. It was dark now as he leaned down by Stiles’s bedside table.
“Watch your eyes,” Chris said.
He flicked on the lamp and Stiles squinted his eyes against the light. Chris kneeled down and touched the back of his hand.
“Would you want to come live with me?” Chris asked quietly. “It isn’t as big or nice as here, but you would have your own room.”
Stiles made another noise, another high quiet one. He made a gesture with his hands then finally walked his fingers across the sheets, two sets. Then took one away and made another noise. It took Chris a few moments to understand what he was saying.
He shook his head. “I won’t bring you back. Not unless you wanted me to. You’ll be good for me?”
“Would you like to come live with me?” Chris asked again.
Stiles nodded slightly, the lamp light creating gray dips beneath his eyes. His mouth opened then closed before he licked his dry lips.
“Yes,” Stiles said.
His voice was slightly rough from disuse, but it still made Chris’s chest lighter to hear it for the first time.
“Good,” Chris said, giving what he hoped was a warm smile.
Stiles gave a tiny one back that just lifted the scattering of moles on his cheek.