It was, Dell had to admit, quite a nice wedding, though it was more for the benefit of the normal humans of the town of Eureka, Montana. Wolf shapeshifters tended to consider themselves bonded when an alpha bit an omega to claim him, leaving a mark to announce to all the world that he was owned. That was as close to marriage as a wolf needed, since they tended to want to mate for life. However, humans needed more than that. Humans liked documentation. They wanted everything wrapped up in a neat little bow and written down for all of posterity.
And, Dell Brightly supposed, many wolf shifters were susceptible to being caught up in that world view. They liked being bonded in the eyes of the world and not just in their own minds. He didn’t understand that. Then again, he didn’t understand a lot of the whole relationship thing. Despite being an alpha wolf, he’d never felt much of a need to settle down with one wolf in particular. Hell, sometimes he didn’t even sleep with wolves. Human men were often just as eager to please and be pleased, and they would do in a pinch when the urge to mate was strong.
Up until several months ago, Dell had thought that his boss held the same worldview as he, that being a bonded man wasn’t as desirable as some said it was. Dell’s boss was the Chief of Police, head of the Eureka Police Department. All the police officers in Eureka were wolf shifters and had been since they settled down here in the frontier days, chased across the Canadian border by people who didn’t want them there. Dell’s boss, Michael Grayson, had been a single-minded protector of the people until a stranger omega had come to town.
The omega, Tim Pure, was a businessman passing through who had just so happened to see a panther shifter snooping around. One thing led to another and the panther had attacked twice, injuring Michael once before being chased away the second time. However, the panther promised to return, and spoke in a plural form as though there were others like him who wanted revenge for some wrong done in the past.
The crime was hidden from the public of Eureka. There had never, ever been a single crime of any sort in the city ever since the wolves established themselves as protectors. Michael had declared it would continue to be that way, and so it was. Life went back to normal but for once significant change. Somewhere along the way, the strong, ever-capable alpha, who had never needed anyone to hold his hand or support him in any way, had fallen in love with the stranger Tim.
Dell hardly recognized his boss anymore. He’d become a different person. Bonding to someone would do that, Dell reflected, as he watched the wedding unfold. He knew it was a sweet occasion and could recognize it as such. He was happy for his boss and happy for the stranger Tim, who was really a nice man and one with which Dell discovered he had a surprising amount in common. It was a happy time. Just that… he felt on the outside of it all.
The mayor of Eureka, who was officiating the wedding instead of the priest, who had refused to, droned on and on in a slow stammer as he read from a script. There were many people gathered out here to watch the union taking place on the front steps of City Hall, all of them more or less patiently watching the event unfold. Many of them had stars in their eyes. The rest looked simply bored. None of them felt as Dell did, and it was that which made him feel alone. Of them all, he was the only one who didn’t quite understand the joy, who couldn’t feel it opening up inside him like a beautiful flower stretching dewy petals toward the sunlight.
Dell was alone.
Suddenly aching for a cigarette even though he wouldn’t have considered himself addicted, he looked around at the wedding decorations to help distract himself. Rather than white and garish, the arch under which Michael and Tim stood was pale blue. The flowers, which Tim had arranged himself, were also in varying shades of blue and purple, though broken apart at strategic intervals with a splash of red. Red and blue ribbons intertwined around the various poles and posts set up to mark the perimeter of the event, surrounding the crowd with delicate color. The chairs were simple folding chairs, mingled with an occasional lawn chair or bench pilfered from voluntary houses. It was a simple affair but perhaps even more beautiful because of that, since the scenery didn’t overshadow the love shining on the faces of the soon-to-be-wed. Their eyes, the bluest things of all, were vivid even from where Dell sat in the third to last row.
Shifting his legs, Dell found himself sliding his fingers into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. His hungry, thirsting fingers brushed against a dented box. The very touch was enough to make him shudder, swallowing hard. His dry throat clicked and the sound was so loud in his head that it was nearly a gunshot. How no one else heard it, he had no idea.
Dell shifted again. This time, an old lady sitting at his side shot him a lethal glare. He read her silent words clearly and easily. Act your age and sit still, the glare said. I’m living vicariously through this perfect moment. Don’t distract me and ruin it.
He ignored her and withdrew his hand from inside his jacket, pulling his nicotine-craving thoughts back to the scene unfolding up on the steps.
“I do,” Michael said. His strong, husky voice ran higher than normal with the emotion of the occasion.
When did we get past the vows? Dell wondered.
As he was busy pondering, the mayor directed a question to Tim. The little omega nodded, his eyes glistening with happy tears. “I do.”
The mayor looked relieved, though not because he suspected Tim might say no; Dell knew the look was because he’d come to the end of his part in the ceremony. “Then, by the powers vested in me, I now pronounce you… uh…”
A hitch in the proceedings, Dell noticed. The typical “man and wife” statement wasn’t applicable here, even though omega wolves who’d had children were technically addressed as mothers.
The mayor recovered his footing. “Man and husband! You may kiss the groom.”
Michael bent his proud head, looking positively dashing in his black suit. In response, Tim tilted up his head and their lips met so sweetly and tenderly that Dell couldn’t keep watching. He looked away and watched the scolding old woman sob into a handkerchief until the moment ended and grand piano music began to play. The happy couple walked down the aisle with their arms around each other, accepting congratulations as they went but not stopping their procession. Stopping to talk was what the reception was for, and where everyone would be expected to head now.
Everyone, including Dell.
He wasn’t looking forward to that, but he was going to need to be there to give the boss his congratulations and well wishes, just like every other member of the force. It would be downright rude not to, and wouldn’t earn him any favors in the future. He’d never needed a favor before, but it didn’t hurt to keep that window of opportunity open.
It was with some relief that he filed out of the row of uncomfortable chairs along with everyone else. Rather than immediately head for the streets and fight through the chaos, however, Dell went around the outside of the ribbon perimeter and took a short walk away so that his cigarette smoke wouldn’t bother anyone. He was a smoker, not an asshole. In his years on the force, he’d come to know the 1,000+ members of Eureka with varying degrees of familiarity. He knew who had stopped smoking themselves, who was trying to stop, who had allergies, and who had asthma. He was in a line of protection, and that meant being more aware of himself than other people so that he didn’t cause accidental harm.
Once he judged himself to be a satisfactory distance away, Dell fetched his cigarettes and brought out a lighter from his other pocket. He lit up and brought the cigarette to his mouth to take a drag. Unlike a lot of smokers, he wasn’t particular about what brand he smoked, simply taking whatever was available to him. This time, it was Camels. The smoke tasted rough and fine in his lungs, soothing his rattled nerves. Even before he had finished his first drag, he felt himself calming considerably. So what if he was on the outside of this happy event? There was always going to be a lone wolf and he was fine with his station in life.
As he smoked, he watched the thick tangle of cars head toward the reception area, which was a hall downtown that was often rented out for celebrations. If a person was willing to pay, it was theirs for the night.
A flicker of motion caught out of the corner of his eye made him turn his attention away from the wedding-goers. He pricked up his wolf ears and strained his senses.
Another flicker of motion. A shape, low to the ground and moving at rapid speed. It looked like a large dog, running for all it was worth before disappearing from sight again. Dell was too far away to hear anything, but the second he spent watching it was enough to tell him it was no ordinary dog. The legs were too long compared to the shape of the body, and its muzzle was too long for its relatively broad head. It was a wolf, if a pretty one. Silver-gray fur and black ears, tail, and legs.
It was not a wolf that Dell knew.
Dropping his cigarette and crushing out the flame under the heel of his dress shoe, Dell headed in the direction of an alleyway between two nearby stores. He paused, hearing and scenting no one else in the vicinity. Assured of his safety, he began to transform.
The transformation was quicker for alphas than it was for omegas, and he dropped down onto all four paws in an instant. He shook out his fur, relishing the way his skin moved loosely on his muscular frame. He himself was no pretty little silver thing, with his coloration being more or less the standard shades of gray, although his back and face markings were darker and nearly black. Appearances never bothered him. Functionality was more important.
Dell slunk through the alleys, keeping low and quiet while heading over to the place where he had first seen the strange omega. Almost immediately, he caught the scent and drew up short. With just a whiff, he could tell it was male, that it had never been mated or marked, and that its last meal was a very long time ago. And on top of all of that, he smelled that it was terrified. It reeked of fear so deep and intense it was nearly horror.
This spells trouble.
With all thoughts of the wedding blown out of his mind by this development, Dell turned in the direction where the scent led and started to track. Unlike a dog, he didn’t need to keep his snout buried in the dirt. Scents came to him with a wave of his nose, with every measured huff of lupine breath. However, he was almost reduced to that lesser state due to the absurdity of this trail. The omega blazed right across streets without a pause, doubled back, and then took the same route again. Here and there, the strange wolf clearly stumbled and ran into walls or corners, as if it didn’t quite know how to control himself. As if he was drunk, although he wouldn’t be able to tell that as long as it was in animal form.
No scent of sickness. It’s like the fool thing has just lost its mind.
The thought was chilling, alarming, and terribly sad all at once. Shapeshifters had two minds; lived two lives. To lose one was to be cut in half, but it certainly happened sometimes when a shifter went too deep and forgot his own humanity. They were little more than dangerous animals at that point, typically hunted down and put out of their misery if they came near an established pack.
If this one was feral, what on earth had spooked it so much that it had abandoned ingrained survival instincts and ran right through a human city without bothering to hide itself at all? No, Dell didn’t think it was feral. It had thoughts, though those thoughts were clearly being pushed away by something else.
As he trailed it to the edge of the city, Dell caught glimpses of it racing. The poor thing looked so haggard and weary, but its legs kept windmilling all the same. It ran and ran, blazing out of the city and continuing off toward the line of mountains in the distance as though there was simply no difference between city, foothills, and mountains.
Dell stopped and watched it go, becoming less silver and more gray as the distance ate away at the details. Then, it was far enough away to become a black speck and then finally nothing at all. He shook his head and turned away from the horizon. Whatever you’re running from, little guy, I hope you can rest soon.
There was nothing else to do but head to the reception. Dell hadn’t driven his car to the wedding and sometimes didn’t even know why he wasted money paying for insurance on something he hardly used. Most of Eureka was well within walking distance, so that seemed to him to be the natural thing to do even though the humans still tended to drive everywhere.
When he got to the reception hall, the parking lot was already packed and there were people and shapeshifters milling around everywhere. The structured events of the reception, such as giving toasts and making speeches, didn’t seem to be happening yet.
Dell pushed his way through the throng and into the decorated interior of the hall. The theme in here matched the theme of the wedding at City Hall, providing a cheerful atmosphere in which the celebrants were enjoying themselves. Some were already sitting at their tables, while most others crowded the floor and the designated dance space.
Casting his gaze around the room, Dell soon located the happy couple. Michael and Tim stood practically surrounded on all sides by people congratulating them. Their arms were entwined and twin smiles on their faces. Tim held their daughter, an infant only a few months old who was already capable of melting hearts by flashing a crooked smile that made her look startlingly similar to Michael. Her blue eyes and sandy brown hair were all Tim’s, though.
Dell approached the group, clearing his throat as he neared. Michael turned in his direction and flashed his fierce, proud smile. “It’s about time you showed up. I started to think you’d finally died of lung cancer.”
Dell smiled in return, forcing it to come. A few people gathered around laughed in response to the teasing, though it was the uncertain sort of laughter given by people who weren’t quite sure if it was okay for them to understand the joke. An unease also edged the laughter. It seemed one police officer was fine, but two was too many. As a result, a few even started to edge away as if they would resolve to return to finish up later.
“Can I talk to you a moment in private, Chief?” Dell said.
Michael glanced over at Tim. “You mind?”
Tim shook his head, but glanced down at the infant in his arms. “Sure, but can you take her for a bit? My arm is getting tired.”
I can’t wait for you two lovebirds to kiss and everything while you hand over the baby.
“I’ll do it,” he volunteered, reaching for the child. He was lucky that he knew the omega well enough and that they got along, or else Tim would never have passed his daughter over. Dell accepted the child and supported her head, just the way he learned to before meeting her for the first time.
Damn, what’s your name? I always forget it.
Still trying to remember the baby’s name, Dell followed Michael over to a relatively quiet length of the hall.
“So, what did you think of the wedding?” Michael beamed, proudly. “You know, Tim did all the flower arranging.”
“It was just as good as I thought it would be,” Dell said, truthfully. He looked down at the baby, who cooed up at him and giggled through a tiny smile. “Hi, sweetie.”
Michael smiled even wider, seeming in danger of his face cracking in half. “I’m so glad that you like your Uncle Dell. Don’t you, Audrey?”
Audrey, that was the kid’s name.
“She’s cute,” Dell said. He was smiling now, too. While he might not want a family himself, he still could appreciate a truly cute kid every now and again. Just, at the end of the day, he was more than glad to hand the kid off again to their real parents.
“Anyway, what was it you wanted to speak to me about?”
Dell looked up at his Chief and opened his mouth to tell about his strange encounter with that omega. Michael looked back at him with happiness glittering in his blue eyes, which seemed brighter than they ever had before. Dell closed his mouth again. No. This wasn’t the time for this, was it? It was one of the happiest days of Michael’s life, no doubt up there with or greater in happiness than the birth of his daughter. After this, the Chief would be going on his honeymoon for a week. The baby would stay with Tim’s relatives, allowing the couple to truly enjoy their trip alone.
However, if he said something about the stranger, Michael would have that cloud hanging over his head the whole entire time. No, more than that, he might even refuse to leave and that would ruin everything. And while no one would blame Dell for being the bearer of the news, Dell would blame himself.
“Who’s going to be in charge when you leave?” That was what he said instead, reaching desperately for another topic so it wouldn’t seem like he was hiding something. After all, he had seen the omega run off into the distance as if he wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. There really was no reason to bring it up now.
Michael’s smile faded slightly. Though it didn’t really leave his face, his eyes were certainly frowning. “That would be Jefferson.”
Jefferson was the deputy, so that was only natural. Of course, there was some contention about who the deputy should actually be. Much of the force believed that it should have been Dell. What they didn’t know was that, when offered the position, Dell turned it down. He hadn’t wanted the responsibility on his shoulders. Now, he sometimes regretted his refusal.
“I see,” Dell said. “Have you told him that?”
“Not yet. I was waiting until I left tomorrow. Meant to stop by the station on the way out. Though I’m sure he’s already figured that out on his own.”
“And you’re sure it’s a good idea?”
Michael tipped his head to one side. That was a habit of his that Dell hadn’t seen before. It must have come about during his relationship. “It’s not as if much can happen in a week. It’s not as if we live in Chicago or anything. There’s no crime in Eureka.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to all of us,” Michael growled. He looked over to the side, toward where Tim was being swarmed with people without his huge husband at his side to fend them off. “Are we done here then? I’d like to get back to Tim.”
“Yes.” Dell nodded. “We’re done here. Here, take your daughter. I think Tim’d be pretty angry if you forgot about her.”
Michael took his daughter and returned to his husband.
Dell watched him go and shook his head slightly. Yes, they were done here. No reason to dig into it any further, although he felt that he might be doing a lot more perimeter patrols in the next few days. Just in case.