Waking up at 8am was not the one. Tommy wasn’t used to it. The last time he woke up before 10:30 was back in high school. He purposely avoided morning lectures at the university like fire and he was as far from a morning person as you got. And yet at 8am sharp Miss Medrano stood over him, curled in the corner of Chase’s room, arms crossed, saying his name in a monotone, repetitive way, like a Google translator. Or a particularly loud buzzing bee. Tommy groaned and threw his pillow over his already impressive bed head.
‘’Master Tommy,’’ Miss Medrano continued in her emotionless voice, ‘’it is 8am. You must get up and get ready.’’
‘’Fuck off,’’ came Tommy’s muffled voice from under the pillow.
‘’Master Tommy,’’ Miss Medrano said patiently, ‘’it is Monday. Your lessons will start soon and you must be ready for breakfast at 9.’’
‘’I don’t need breakfast,’’ Tommy grumbled and yelped when the flimsy blanket he had stolen from Chase’s bed was ripped from his body. That woke him right up. He stared up at Miss Medrano, who stared right back, unfazed. With her slim build and feminine beauty, he’d completely forgotten she was as much a beast as his bond; and she possessed more strength than Tommy, a human, could ever have, ‘’shit, fine.’’
Miss Medrano nodded, pleased with Tommy’s cooperation, and folded the blanket neatly, placing it on the bed. Tommy stood, yawned and found his glasses, popping them onto his nose. She pointed towards the bathroom, ‘’take a shower, please, master Tommy.’’
Tommy groaned but trailed into the en-suite bathroom. He took his time sitting in the water, steaming up the whole bathroom. When he emerged with just a towel around his waist, Miss Medrano, who hadn’t moved from her spot, didn’t even blink, just pointed at a pile of clothes folded next to the blanket that hadn’t been there before, ‘’new clothes, master Tommy.’’
‘’Oh,’’ Tommy walked over and picked up a packet of boxers, ‘’who bought these?’’
‘’I did,’’ Miss Medrano said, ‘’by the wish of master Chase.’’
‘’Translation,’’ Tommy wiggled the boxers under the towel and Miss Medrano politely looked away, ‘’Chase couldn’t be arsed to even go get me clothes himself.’’
‘’Master Chase is a busy man,’’ Miss Medrano said emotionlessly and Tommy didn’t prompt the subject. He wiggled into new jeans and a black long-sleeve; simple but comfortable.
He nodded at his bodyguard, ‘’thanks. These are nice.’’
Miss Medrano nodded back and led him out of Chase’s bedroom. They walked down the corridor until they reached a small door. Miss Medrano knocked politely and pushed the doors open to let Tommy in, closing the doors once he was inside. Tommy frowned. He was in an almost circular room, with huge French windows framed with white satin curtains. There was a plush white chaise next to a larger couch, arranged with flower-embroided cushions, and an entire wall taken up by long rows of shelves housing make-up and skin care products. There were a couple mirrors and a marble wash basin in the corner. Brín was sprawled on the chaise, flipping without interest through a colourful beauty magazine from a stack on a low table. He had been given new clothes, too – jeans and a white v-neck t-shirt, but he still wore his red, chequered jacket on top, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Alfie and Finn were in the corner, and Alfie was busy smearing Finn’s face with skin lotion while the freckled man giggled.
‘’Oh, hey, Tommy,’’ Alfie said, spotting him. Brín looked up from his magazine to smile at him, ‘’guess what this is?’’ he gestured to the room, fingers smeared with lotion.
‘’I’m dying to know,’’ Tommy said, tucking his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
‘’It’s a boudoir,’’ Finn said the French word perfectly, unsurprisingly.
‘’It’s like a private room for a woman, or was, in history. Apparently we get one,’’ Finn rolled his eyes, ‘’so we can pimp ourselves out for our bonds.’’
Tommy cringed, ‘’that’s kind of gross.’’
‘’Yeah, but the posh lotion they gave us is fun to play with,’’ Alfie said, wiggling his fingers ‘’it’s almost like slime.’’
Tommy snorted and Brín tossed the magazine back on the pile, standing, ‘’you better brush that hair,’’ he said pointedly, stretching and yawning. He clearly wasn’t a morning person either, ‘’or they’ll brush it for you.’’ But neither seemed bothered by that. Brín’s own red hair was in his usual short ponytail at the back of his head. Tommy just ran his hand through his black locks a couple times. He didn’t brush his hair for anyone, and he wasn’t about to do it for some asshole who made him sleep on the floor.
‘’What are we supposed to do until breakfast?’’
Brín shrugged, ‘’the idea is that we’re supposed to take care of our appearance, or some other random bullshit like that. But I suppose we can just chill here before the hell ensues.’’
‘’Damn, I could have slept at least for thirty more minutes,’’ Tommy grumbled, dumping himself on Brín’s vacated chaise.
The four of them were deeply unhappy with the schedule that was about to be put into motion. Finn had to take French. His speaking was passable and he could write some things in it – he’d never needed it much, but suddenly his bond wanted him to be fluent. Brín felt like he was about to go back to high school – math, history, English... he didn’t even want to think about it. But at least the new schedule was a distraction from what would happen when April came to an end, in less than two weeks.
By the time the clock in the boudoir struck 9am, Alfie got bored of the lotion and Finn’s face was as moisturised as humanely possible. When Seònaid arrived to fetch them for breakfast, no one complained. They ate their assortment of brown-bread sandwiches in the kitchen, in tense silence. But they didn’t see their bonds all through the morning. After breakfast Seon escorted the human omegas to a room in the east wing of the second floor of Lirim. As it turned out, it was a classroom of sorts. The four bodyguards, who were to double as tutors, were inside. Irena, Miss Medrano and Bob, the new bodyguard brought down for Alfie, with muscles the size of cushions, were sitting on chairs along the windows, and keeping an eye on their assigned humans. Napoleon was up by the black chalkboard, twirling a meaty finger around the edge of his impressive moustache when the humans came in.
‘’Ah, welcome, welcome,’’ Napoleon’s Italian-thick voice filled the room like the aftershock of a bomb explosion, ‘’sit, sit,’’ he urged and the four humans wearily slid into chairs arranged behind four small desks, on which sat pieces of paper and freshly sharpened pencils. Tommy shuddered. Indeed, high school all over again, ‘’the masters bid you good morning,’’ Napoleon continued, ‘’and will see you at dinner, right before your one-on-one time with them. Now,’’ he wrote ‘HOW TO BE AN OMEGA 101’ on the board in white chalk, and beamed at his small class, ‘’let’s begin.’’
Tommy slid down in his chair as far as he could.
Before Napoleon begun his lecture, he encouraged the boys to take notes, but was unfazed when none picked up their pencils, ‘’there are five primary duties each omega is expected to fulfil, more so for those bonded to ruling or leading families than to those bonded to other classes,’’ Napoleon explained, ‘’since all of you fall into one of the first two categories, it is vital you fulfil these. The first and most important is, of course, bearing children. Beast children are three times less likely to be conceived than human children. The percentage of losing the child within the womb or in the first few years of their life is almost twice as high as that of a human. Thus, children are incredibly important in the beast community. They are cherished and desired, not only by the parents but usually by the pack also. The highest likeability of conception is when the bearer is around twenty one to twenty two years old, and each year after that it decreases. There has been no known beast to have bore a child after thirty. Conception is also higher within same-sex couples than opposite couples, especially since males are more compatible with each other. It is especially important that you have at least one child since it is up to you to continue to lineage of the ruling and leading families you will soon belong to officially.’’
‘’Question,’’ Tommy put his hand up, ‘’how the hell do you want us to bear children? We’re guys.’’
Napoleon nodded, ‘’well, you see, master Tommy, after you are bit and changed into a beast next month, your bodies will go through many changes to accommodate your new beast form. Since you are omegas, you are the only male humans that will develop a temporary womb.’’
Tommy gagged. Brín stared. Alfie paled. Finn mumbled weakly, ‘’did he just say ‘temporary womb’ or am I hallucinating...’’
Seeing their reaction, Napoleon hurried to explain it, ‘’w-well, masters, don’t worry, the womb will be...ah, shall I say, ‘collapsed’ most of the time, and will only expand when conception occurs. S-so really, it’s not that bad-‘’
‘’I’m going to throw up,’’ Tommy declared.
‘’Yeah, I don’t feel well...’’ Alfie agreed.
‘’Let’s move on!’’ Napoleon said quickly, giving the boys a sheepish grin, ‘’so...uh...your second most important duty is to advise. Your bonds will be surrounded by loads of people who will give them excellent advice but you will come to know them the best and so your advice will be the most valuable. In the coming omega classes I will teach you about the politics and makeup of the beast society so you may best fulfil your second duty. Your third duty is to your bond. They are biologically and emotionally made to care for your every need, to protect and take care of you. Likewise, you must be prepared to be there for them, whether they need you physically, emotionally or sexually,’’ all four men cringed at that, ‘’you fourth duty, as the bonds of high-ranking beasts, is to set an example. When in public, you must be on your best behaviour, be mannered and polite, and educated enough not to make fools out of yourselves. Finally, your fifth duty will be to you pack – your family. The people you will live around. Beasts are extremely social creatures. Usually groups of family and friends live in one house, such as here in Lirim. As the omegas of the household, it will be your job to create a welcoming and happy atmosphere for the family.’’
‘’Hi, hello, welcome to the fifties,’’ Finn murmured, rubbing his temples.
Napoleon pretended not to hear, ‘’the importance of these duties rises depending on how high-ranking you are. Middle to low rankers usually have a more perspective view of society and aren’t massive on fulfilling some of these duties, such as the fourth one. Their reproduction if also not imperative as they do not lead a massive family. But your bonds do. Leading families are spread out all across the world and take care of every single beast denomination that comes under theirs. That is massive responsibility as any crime, issue or demands beast make come under the authority and jurisdiction of their leading family. And leading families, in turn, come under the jurisdiction of ruling families, who control the families that, essentially, control all beasts in the world.’’
‘’You will learn about these families in the future lessons but as it stands, there are seven leading families and seven ruling families. One of the leading family is the grizzly family. Master Jordan is the heir of the Branham family, which is the head of the grizzly bears controlling all others. This includes polar bears, which they have warred over for leading family status through history. To appease them, they have married together and the mix of polar and grizzly is now seen in Branham’s branch family, the French Betancourt. There is always a chance of a polar uprising if the Branham family doesn’t continue so it is imperative you produce an heir, master Alfie,’’ Alfie looked a little queasy, so Napoleon didn’t push the matter, ‘’there are a further seven ruling families. Master Chase, Master Eric and Mistress Vicky all belong to the Fredriksen family, which is the ruling family of wild cats in Europe and the Americas.’’
‘’And then there are the three ancient families. Master Alt is the head of the most important one of those three,’’ Napoleon said vaguely, ‘’the Narvaez family is the most important ruling family in the world and you, master Finn, will soon become the second most important man in the beast community, second only to your bond.’’
Now Finn paled. No pressure, or anything.
Napoleon didn’t seem to realise. He beamed at the boys, ‘’now, for a quick history of the beast community...’’
Brín, Tommy and Alfie groaned. Finn remained pale.
After two hours of mind-numbing omega classes, noon came around and the omegas were allowed to have lunch out on the patio. It was a nice, warm day, the sun bright above the valley. The soft wind made the wind-chimes tinkle pleasantly. The boys sat around the fake fire on the patio couches, eating carbonara out of pretty, flower-motif bowls that probably cost as much as Tommy’s and Finn’s school tuition. Sitting out in the fresh air, breathing in the sun and the valley, all four had to admit it was nice. It was easy to forget what they would be getting back into when lunch was over.
Dinner wasn’t nearly as pleasant. After Tommy and Finn’s music lesson in which they had plucked piano strings dejectedly in the music room under Miss Medrano’s keen eye, Alfie’s Chinese lessons and Brín’s gruelling math tutoring, they were brought downstairs to the large table in the lounge. They were sat away from each other, next to their mates. They didn’t speak. A silent protest, of sorts, which made the dinner incredibly awkward and uncomfortable.
And then it was time for the bonding sessions.
Alt was waiting for Finn on the driveway, by the fountain. Finn stopped a good two feet away, eyes down. Spending time with a massive, terrifying beast – the most important one, apparently – terrified the shit out of Finn. He couldn’t believe he had slept in one bed with him and hadn’t freaked out. He had bloody tried to run from him! If Alt was pissed about that, he didn’t show it. For a long while, neither of them said anything. Finally, the beast cleared his throat, ‘’I...don’t know what you like yet. So I thought we could go for a walk.’’
‘’Alright,’’ Finn said quietly.
‘’You...don’t have to be scared,’’ Alt’s voice dropped, too. He seemed...nervous? ‘’I’m really not very scary. I’m just a bit...tall.’’
Finn looked up before he could stop himself, ‘’and you’re the most powerful beast alive.’’
Alt winced. Actually winced. Finn realised why he was usually stone-faced...because when he wasn’t, he was incredibly easy to read, ‘’yes. That, too,’’ he murmured, as if he didn’t want to acknowledge the fact. Finn quickly dropped his eyes and Alt made an unhappy noise at the back of his throat, ‘’don’t do that.’’
‘’Do what?’’ Finn mumbled, staring at the gravel.
‘’Drop your eyes. I...I don’t care about that. We’re...bonds. I want you to be...comfortable. Around me,’’ he sighed, ‘’I’m sorry. I’m awful with words.’’
Finn flicked his violet eyes up hesitantly. The odd of him being at ease around Alt any time soon, with the kidnapping thing and the ‘being the most powerful beast’ thing, but certainly not having to look down all the time would be nice. He nodded. Alt began walking, and Finn had no choice but to follow. They left the grounds and began walking into the valley. The wind was more persistent here, but pleasant, and without Lirim and all that it held in Finn’s line of vision, he felt a little more at peace.
‘’How are you?’’ Alt asked quietly as they walked. He had his arms folded behind his back, like he was escorting Finn to a fancy dinner.
‘’Good,’’ Finn said automatically.
‘’No. Honestly. Tell me,’’ Alt requested. He was looking out at the valley, not at Finn.
Finn sighed, ‘’what do you want me to say? That I’m terrified and really unhappy and I want to go home? That I don’t want to be bonded to you, or to anyone? That I hate that you kidnapped me, hold me under lock and key, expect me to fit your image of a perfect bond and be happy with it?’’ Finn was getting quickly riled up and he knew that if things kept going like this, he’d storm off. One wrong, self-entitled word from Alt and he’d be gone.
But to his surprise, Alt just looked down from where the sun was slowly sinking over the valley, and whispered, ‘’I’m sorry,’’ Finn looked at him sharply, ‘’I should have...done it better. Met you first. Taken you out. Explained it all to you. I...my instincts got the better of me...and I know this is horrible. I know that,’’ Finn was surprised at how self-loathing he sounded. Like he hated what he had done as much as Finn hated it, ‘’I wish...’’ he sighed, long and deep, ‘’if there was a way of starting this again...but...as the head of my family, I’m expected to do things properly. And that’s the way it’s done amongst beasts. I’m sorry, I’m just...’’
He fell silent. Alt wasn’t used to saying that much. He was a man of few words. Finn stared down again, biting his lip. There was one vital thing he needed to ask and now was the perfect opportunity. But he wasn’t sure he was ready to hear the answer, ‘’Baltasar, um...’’
‘’Alt is fine.’’
‘’A-Alt...uh...since I came here, everyone’s been...acting like they were expecting me. Me specifically. They knew my name and stuff. You knew where I lived. What is all that about?’’
Alt shook his head, ‘’this isn’t a conversation we should have now. You’re distraught.’’
Finn stopped, and so did his bond, in the middle of the grassy plains, ‘’no. Tell me,’’ Finn demanded.
Alt didn’t comment on his tone. He was silent for a while, and finally said, ‘’you don’t have contact with your family right?’’
Finn shook his head, trying not to freak out at how much Alt knew about him, ‘’after I left for uni, we stopped talking,’’ his family had been overbearing, they sheltered him like a child...it had been suffocating.
‘’Had you stayed with them, they might have explained this to you,’’ Alt looked out across the valley, ‘’your family is historically famous for producing at least one omega per generation that is...more likely to have children than others. For generations, they had supplied ruling families with...their best chance at furthering the line. But when you were born, and it was pretty obvious you’d present as an omega, and my parents demanded you be engaged to me, your parents broke the tradition. They ran away and settled elsewhere. My mothers were furious, but they let them go. Of course, we always knew where they were. And everyone expected us to bond when you finally presented as an omega. I...I was shown pictures of you. I know it sounds weird. But they told me about you, how you did at school, what you were like. I grew up with the idea of you always around me and...gradually, from when I turned sixteen, I began to...look forward to it. To us. Our life together. And not because you’d be good at bearing children but because...’’ he groaned, ‘’this is probably sounding really weird. But...I felt like I knew you. A little bit. Or, rather, that I wanted to get to know you. And through it all I didn’t really realise that to you, I was a complete stranger. I was looking forward to finally meeting you so much that I managed to mess it all up,’’ his whole posture exuded sadness. Finn wondered since when he had the power to make such a giant of a man look so...small.
He said nothing. There was a lot to process.
He began walking again.
Alt fell into step next to him.
They didn’t say anything else.
Even though Alfie was an accountant, he was better with his hands than his numbers. At home, it was hard to find a job in his field, so mostly he sold toys on etsy. He made the toys himself – teddy bears with button eyes, little bunnies from chequered material, dolls with fake flowers from Poundland sewn into their hair...it calmed him. And now he needed calming more than ever. Even though he was supposed to wait for Jordan to spend some time with him, he’d ran off, found Seònaid and asked her for some sewing materials. Now he was half-way through making a palm-sized teddy bear from a red and blue chequered kitchen cloth, hidden in one of the guest rooms. He had no buttons but he was fully contemplating sneaking back into Jordan’s bedroom and pulling some off one of his shirts when the doors to the guest room opened and Jordan’s head popped through. He gave Alfie a warm smile when he spotted him and came fully into the room, ‘’there you are,’’ he sat on the edge of the guest bed, keeping a comfortable distance away from Alfie, ‘’what you making?’’
‘’Toy,’’ Alfie half-heartedly showed him, ‘’if I personalise it, I’ll get twenty quid on etsy.’’
Jordan bit his tongue. He decided telling Alfie how he’d just envisioned their child curled up with one of his home-made toys would not go through well, so instead he said, ‘’you don’t have to. If you need money, I’ll-‘’
‘’It calms me,’’ Alfie said quickly.
Jordan nodded, ‘’do you want to go out? You can stay here if you want. I won’t bother you. But...’’ his dark blue eyes twinkled, ‘’I figured you’d like what I planned.’’ When Alfie gave him a distrusting look, Jordan grinned, ‘’it involves getting out of here.’’
Hesitantly, Alfie put his toy down. Even if they just went out into the hills, at least he’d be out and about. Who knew how long he’d be stuck in Lirim if he passed up on this opportunity.
Fifteen minutes later Alfie was decked out in Jordan’s super-warm motorbike jacket, a helmet on his head. He was sitting behind Jordan on his bike as Jordan fished out his own helmet, ‘’don’t tell anyone about this, by the way,’’ he said with a grin, ‘’I’m not supposed to take you out until the three months pass. And hold on tight,’’ he fastened the helmet in place and revved the engine. Alfie had no choice but to put his arms around Jordan’s hips, as lightly as possible. Alfie thought it was ironic that Jordan owned a motorcycle, considering it was the thing that took him out in the first place. But then all thoughts went out of Alfie’s head as they shot away from Lirim, on the path that snaked towards the hills and around one of the closer hills. He yelled and squeezed his eyes shut, clinging to Jordan.
Open your eyes, Alfie dictated in his head, memorise which was he’d going. Maybe you’ll spot an exit.
Alfie opened his eyes an inch, then fully. He blinked. Through the helmet, the gold-and-red wash of the sun reflected in a blur against the hills as they sped around the one up front and rumbled on. For a long while, there was nothing but hills of the Beacon. And then, suddenly, Jordan veered to the side. There was a tunnel, the path to it masked by trees. Jordan shot through it. They were leaving the hills behind. Alfie held his breath, not afraid anymore. Because they weren’t going by the exit, but through it. And that tunnel would be his way to freedom.
Eric had a little office attached to his bedroom that Brín hadn’t ventured into yet. In fact, after that first night, he hadn’t been there at all. But on Monday when the lessons kicked in, so did the four hours of bonding time. In Brín’s case, they were cut to two – the other two would be spent on additional math classes. It was humiliating, being the oldest out of the four humans and yet being given basic classes like a little kid. Before he ran away, he had nearly completed high school. He wasn’t a buffoon. Still, he’d rather slag through two additional hours of math with Napoleon than spend them around Eric the Fredrik-Son-of-a-Bitch. Brín wondered if he should give a polite knock on the office doors, to which he had been called after dinner, but before he could, Eric’s calm, tired-sounding voice came, ‘’come in.’’
Brín found Eric sitting at his desk, slumped, tapping away at a laptop. He had spectacles on, illuminated by the light of the screen. An untouched coffee sat next to his elbow. Ash-blond strands of hair had fallen from the knot at the back of his head, and Eric kept tucking them behind his ear impatiently. It took him a good thirty seconds to stop typing and look at Brín, ‘’I’m busy today,’’ he said. He was back to sounding polite but reserved. He was removed from the whole situation. Neither viewed the other as someone they were bonded with for life, ‘’I don’t have time to entertain you.’’
Brín shrugged. He hadn’t expected much.
Eric waved a hand at the corner, ‘’if you want to stay here, sit in the corner and be quiet.’’
Brín leaned on the door frame and crossed his arms over his chest, ‘’and if I don’t want to stay here?’’
‘’Then you’re free to go,’’ Eric said, unfazed, already tapping away at his laptop again. Brín watched him for a couple seconds, before he turned and walked off, ‘’close the doors!’’ Eric called after him, not even peeling his eyes away from the laptop.
Brín didn’t. It was a small satisfaction.
Brín didn’t feel like doing anything in particular but suddenly, without the others for company, Lirim seemed huge and cold and isolated. Loneliness began to creep closer, and that was dangerous. Loneliness meant he couldn’t think straight. It made him do stupid things. It rarely visited him when he was out on the streets, but when it did, there was no way he could deal with it. So he’d just have to keep it away. Brín jogged down the stairs. He had no idea where Napoleon was – probably taking a break, since Brín was supposed to be with Eric. He thought about running, now that no one expected it, but as he passed a window he saw Miss Medrano guarding the drive way. So that was a no-go then.
He found himself in the kitchen soon enough. Seon and the two apprentices – Marie and Jaya – were sitting on the counter, drinking cans of coke. Vicky was leaning against the fridge. Seon grinned at him when he came in, ‘’done already?’’
Brín just shrugged. Seon tossed him a can of coke and he pulled himself up on the counter opposite the girls, ‘’we we just talking about you and your little squad,’’ Jaya said sweetly. For a second, her pupil became vertical, like a cat’s. Seon swatted at her knee, ‘’don’t freak out the master, wein,’’ she turned to Brín, ‘’we was discussing what youse were all doing before,’’ she explained, ‘’master Alfie was a wee little accountant, ey? Master Finn went to art university, master Tommy to a photography one. What about ya, wein?’’
‘’I was a travelling singer,’’ Brín said. There was no point hiding who he was. He’d never been ashamed of it, not with Cam and not after. It had been the thing that kept him going. Just knowing that he didn’t have his guitar made his stomach churn.
Marie clapped her chubby hands, ‘’oh, sing us a song, master Brín.’’
Brín cringed, ‘’just Brín is fine.’’
Vicky grinned, ‘’go on then, Brín.’’
Seon nodded encouragingly, ‘’go on, wein. One of those wee Irish ones. I like those.’’
Brín looked between them. He did love to sing and he hadn’t been doing any of that lately. Maybe this would help with the miserable way he’d been feeling since dinner. He shrugged and gave them a grin, ‘’well I took a stroll on the old long walk, of a day...’’
‘’Ey-a-ey!’’ Seon roared with him.
‘’I met a little girl and we stopped to talk...’’
Tommy was outside on the patio. He wasn’t big on spending time with Chase, and after dinner he’d slipped out. He had been expecting Chase to leave him alone, so he dug out his packet of cigarettes from his old jeans and smoked, staring at the beautiful valley. But Chase didn’t leave him alone, ‘’what are you doing?’’ came Chase’s angry voice right before the cigarette was snatched from Tommy’s lips. Chase crushed it with the heel of his shoe, ‘’you stink of tobacco.’’
‘’What do you care what I smell like?’’ Tommy challenged. He’d only had a few puffs of the cigarette and now it lay, unusable, under Chase’s foot.
‘’It’s disgusting. You’re bonded to a high-ranker, you should show some class, tooth-pick’’
Tommy snorted, ‘’hearing that from you is like getting lectured on church etiquette by an atheist.’’
Tommy gasped as he was suddenly whirled round and pinned against the couch he had been sitting on. Chase had one of his arms pinned to the small of his back in a death-grip. His free hand slid into the back pocket of Tommy’s jeans. Tommy kicked out, ‘’wow, chill out, sparky!’’
‘’Shut up,’’ Chase growled in his ear, pulling out the packet of cigarettes and letting Tommy go. He didn’t mention bonding time, and neither did Tommy, seething mad, watching Chase retreat back into Lirim to do gods know what – with Tommy’s cigarettes.
‘’Asshole,’’ Tommy hissed and stormed off.
He was walking round the ground floor, unsure of what to do with himself, too pissed off to stay in the tranquil environment of the patio, when he heard singing. He backtracked and walked into the kitchen, where Seònaid and Brín were hollering a song at the top of their lungs while the two apprentice maids and Vicky clapped and laughed along,
‘’and I ask you friend, what’s a fella to do,
Cause her hair was black and hey eyes were blue,
So I took her hand and gave her a twirl,
And I lost my heart to Galway girl...’’
Tommy grinned, listening to Brín sing and Seon holler. Brín had a really nice voice. Unsurprising, since usually he talked in a melodic, pretty accent. Tommy wasn’t surprised that Brín could live off his singing – if he passed Brín on the streets, he’d probably toss a fiver into his guitar case. He gladly listened to the rest of the song and clapped with the girls when Brín and Seon sketched a bow, ‘’hey, Tommy,’’ Brín grinned at the newcomer, feeling better now that he had sang.
Tommy walked over and frowned at Vicky, ‘’should a high ranker really be sitting around with the likes of us?’’ he teased. Brín’s singing made him feel better, too, and the atmosphere in the kitchen was much nicer. Seon tossed him a coke with a conspirator wink.
Vicky shrugged and gave Tommy a truthful answer, surprising him, ‘’Lirim gets awfully lonely sometimes. At least the likes of you are good company,’’ she offered Tommy a grin as she said so and the human felt himself warming up to her. Vicky and Seon were probably the only beasts so far whom he could grow to like. Mostly because they didn’t pull possessive-beast bullshit on him or force him to stay inside the mansion.
As Brín pulled Vicky, Marie and Jaya into conversation, Tommy pulled Seon to the side, ‘’so...Chase just stole my cigarettes,’’ he said quietly.
Seon nodded gravely; by the slightly yellow tinge on her fingertips, Tommy had pin-pointed her as a long-time smoker from the beginning, ‘’unfortunate.’’
‘’Maybe...we could make a deal?’’
Seon took a step back, ‘’oh, no, master Tommy, yer a sweet lad, but if master Chase found out...’’
‘’Come on, Seon-‘’
‘’Yer a chancer, master Tommy,’’ Seon shook her head, ‘’I couldn’t risk it.’’
Tommy sighed and made his best pitiful face that always got his professors to extend the deadline for him. He raised hazel eyes to Seon, ‘’come on? Maybe when I become his bond properly, and the trial period is over...I could return the favour?’’ not like he was planning on sticking around long enough to be bit. But he’d survive dealing with the schedule and with Chase only if he could smoke, ‘’anything at all?’’ he prompted.
Seon chewed her lip, ‘’well, it is a big mansion...and we’re a tad bit low on staff...’’
‘’I’ll get you as big a team as you’ll need,’’ Tommy promised, ‘’packet a day?’’ he extended a hand towards her.
‘’Packet a week,’’ she said gravelly, clasping it, ‘’and only as long as ya keep it a secret from the masters.’’
‘’Deal,’’ Tommy shook her hand. A packet a week...could have gone worse.
‘’Right, don’t be a wee clip, then.’’
Tommy grinned, ‘’okay. Whatever that means.’’
‘’Welcome to Brecon,’’ Jordan said brightly, having pulled his helmet off. Alfie, also helmet-less, stared around in awe, at the picturesque bulwark of the Brecon town centre. He was outside. He was amongst civilisation. Maybe he couldn’t run up to a random person and beg for refuge against a beast, but he could definitely marvel at the small but of freedom, ‘’you want to get off, or do you want to sit on the bike all evening?’’ Jordan asked with a grin.
Finally, Alfie slid off the bike, waiting for Jordan to chain it up to a tree. Alfie exhaled. The sudden freedom, as limited as it was, made his knees weak. Jordan came to stand next to him, ‘’I didn’t want to pick your clothes for you, so I thought we could go shopping. Cool?’’
‘’Yeah,’’ Alfie breathed. They started walking down the slightly sloped street, past vintage houses and shops.
For a couple hours, Alfie forgot who he was with or what he would come back to that evening. For a while, he was back to being a fresh-graduate on a shopping spree, except with a much larger budget than normal. He was testing Jordan, seeing how much power he had over him, like Vicky said. He picked out a soft, black turtleneck for eighty quid and Jordan didn’t bat an eye; he simply pulled out his wallet when Alfie found shoe for one hundred and twenty, too.
As the sun set, Alfie found himself sitting on a little bench next to Jordan, outside the white-and-green Westend Fish Bar, splitting a greasy paper cone of fat chips. They were eating with their fingers and it felt so normal, even if they had been stared at all day, what with Jordan, being a beast, ‘’so what do you do?’’ Alfie asked, mouth full of potatoey goodness.
‘’I run a motorcycle chain,’’ Jordan said, fishing around for the crunchy chips, ‘’when my parents retire, I’ll be in charge of the bear-beasts, too.’’
Alfie hummed, ‘’motorcycle chain, huh? Is it worth it?’’ Jordan just looked pointedly at the four bags of shopping at Alfie’s feet with a grin. As much as Alfie wanted to ignore his predicament, the curiosity got the best of him, ‘’what do the other beasts do?’’
‘’Well, Chase goes to university but he’s dropped out for a bit, at least until Tommy completes the phases. To be honest, I don’t think he’ll go back. Education has never been his forte. Alt is obviously in charge of most ruling families, but his moms also run the Mexican cartel.’’
Alfie nearly choked on a chip, ‘’you’re serious?’’
‘’Yeah, it’s pretty badass, actually,’’ Jordan grinned like a kid talking about his favourite superhero comic, ‘’but Alt’s like a bunny. So the cartel will probably just go over to one of his cousins.’’
Alfie swallowed his chip, ‘’that’s...so what does Eric do, then?’’
‘’He has his own law firm and he’s in charge of all the cat-beasts in Europe and the Americas. There’s so many of them that there are two other families that juggle cat-beasts.’’
‘’Is that why he looks so tired all the time?’’
‘’Yeah, he’s a hardcore workaholic. I was kind of hoping Brín would give him the pause in his day that he needs, but...’’ he trailed off with a sad smile, before standing and wiping his hands on his jeans, ‘’want a drink?’’
Jordan jogged into the chip shop, unfazed by Alfie’s unhealthy choice, clearly less old fashioned than the other beasts, and Alfie finished the rest of the chips, tossing the cone into the bin next to the bench. He looked down the street. It was largely empty. He could make a run for it. How long would it take for Jordan to realise he had run? He’d probably be by the motorcycle in seconds, chase Alfie down... he sighed, looking at the picturesque street. The cold butt of a fanta bottle was pressed to his forehead and he looked up, taking it from Jordan’s hand, ‘’what were you looking at?’’ Jordan asked softly, as if he knew what Alfie had been thinking.
Alfie shrugged, ‘’it’s pretty here.’’
‘’Yeah,’’ Jordan stretched, ‘’we should probably get going...’’
‘’Jordan...’’ Alfie played with the unopened fanta bottle in his hands.
‘’Can I go see my family?’’
Jordan faltered. Sighed. Ran a hand through his black hair, ‘’...not yet,’’ he said, and Alfie’s heart fell, ‘’I think, right now, it wouldn’t do you any good. You need to get used to being around beasts first. Otherwise you’ll just get pointlessly attached.’’ Jordan reached out, brushing a gentle thumb over the mark on Alfie’s neck that told the viewer that he was bonded. Alfie didn’t push him away, ‘’tell you what,’’ Jordan said, seeing his bond’s face drop, ‘’after phase one, I’ll take you to see your family, kay? So just wait till the end of the month.’’
Phase one...after Alfie was bit. Jordan would only take Alfie to see his family when there was no going back. Alfie swallowed thickly but looked up at Jordan and forced a smile, at which Jordan’s cheeks coloured slightly, ‘’deal.’’
Like hell it was.
It was a little past eleven when Finn, lying in bed next to Alt, heard Jordan’s motorcycle rumble through the driveway and go quiet, ‘’they’re back,’’ he said softly, staring at the stars through the ceiling-glass, ‘’where do you think they went?’’
‘’I don’t know,’’ Alt said softly, ‘’you should get some sleep. You’re probably tired from all the walking.’’
They’d walked for a straight two hours, Finn so lost in thought about his family and his engagement to Alt since he was a child that he hadn’t even thought about re-starting the conversation, ‘’yeah,’’ Finn said, rolling onto his side and settling into the pillows. The bed was comfortable and sleep would come quick, even with the turmoil in his head.
‘’Please don’t try to run away tonight,’’ Alt said quietly.
Finn didn’t reply. He just closed his eyes. It would probably be the only time Alt would acknowledge what happened the night before.
But he was so tired that there was no chance of him running; he slept straight through the night.