He woke up and his head felt light even before he lifted it from the pillow; he ran a hand over his short-cropped hair and thought, Ethan. My name is Ethan. I'm a male omega and my name is Ethan and everyone knows.
Opening his eyes to see Alpha Jeffries'—Beau and Rory's—guest room, Ethan thought that the World of Outsiders was hardly frightening at all. If the space where he slept was strangely sharp-edged and closed-off and weirdly soft, it was also warm and dry and comfortable and private. His door had a lock on it—one that could be broken by an alpha or even a sufficiently determined omega, Ethan had no doubt, but that was still a lot more than a winter tent flap or a vaguely defined corner of the camp in summer. Rory had even promised him that whatever he did in his own room, everyone else would pretend they hadn't heard.
They expected him to do the same, although the few times he'd heard Beau and Rory having sex hadn't seemed like anything to remark on anyway. Beau did seem awfully kind, though, and Rory seemed happy. And Rory hadn't told Ethan that he wasn't allowed to listen, just that it was polite to pretend he didn't.
It wasn't so much different from everything Ethan had never dared to say in his life in the Mactire's pack, from his name to his gender to what he really thought of just about anything.
Ethan sat up sharply, pushing that thought away and focusing on his life here, now. He could hear Casey and Adam's hearts beating in the room next door, and Beau and Rory downstairs; these were the people who mattered now, in his new life, where he was he and Ethan and where people kept telling him he could do as he liked.
He didn't quite know what to make of that yet, but it sounded better than everything else he'd been told for his entire life.
There were other omegas here. Omegas like him, omegas who were omega and he at the same time, and had alpha mates who were perfectly pleased with them just the way they were.
And there were more omegas than that, on the Niemi pack lands, but the Niemi pack was a lot of people, all of them strangers—more strangers than Ethan had ever seen in his life. There were more than usual, even, because the holidays were coming up and lots of people who had pack connections but didn't live on the pack lands full time were cramming into every available space for the next two weeks.
Casey and Rory had thought it would be easier for Ethan to stay here, at Beau and Rory's house. This whole big house, with two levels above ground and one below, was for just two people normally—just five, now, with Ethan in one guest room and Casey and Adam sharing another.
Casey and Adam were only staying for the holidays, which the Niemis considered to stretch from the Winter Solstice to the First Winter Moon, with Christmas and New Year's—entirely human holidays—also celebrated in between. After Winter Moon, Casey and Adam would go away again, to Maryland and then maybe to a lot of other places. It was what they had been doing before Casey came to visit the Mactire's pack, before Declan—
No. Ethan wasn't thinking about Declan, or about the pack. He had left; he lived here now, with these werewolves who lived willingly and happily among humans.
The point was that in two weeks, when the holidays were all over, Beau and Rory's house would be even emptier than it was now, and there would be no one for a hundred miles around who had ever even heard Ethan's other name, or seen him in those other clothes, with his other hair. Casey and Adam both called him Ethan and he without fail, but they still connected to his old life. When they left, Ethan would be truly on his own, and truly able to make a fresh start.
It probably ought to sound frightening—maybe it would, to someone with different standards for what was frightening—but Ethan couldn't wait.
He just had to get through the holidays first, which seemed like a massive ordeal of crowding and wastefulness. The Mactire's pack had honored the solstice night with a night-long hunt, with everyone shifted who could shift, even little children. Even omegas. All were encouraged to take part in the kill; alphas would bring wounded game to the females and children so they could have their own part in the hunt. There had been enough meat for everyone to partake; it was perhaps the one night of the year when everyone went to sleep with a full belly.
Ethan gathered that the Niemi pack's solstice celebrations were... somewhat different. They would have to be, since there couldn't be much game in a place so close to humans—certainly not enough for such a massive pack—and having his belly full happened daily now. Also, Rory and Casey had insisted he needed special clothes to wear, which suggested that Ethan was expected to stay human-shaped for the festivities.
His new clothes were waiting for him now, set out on the dresser in this bedroom. The deep red of the shirt was still a shock; it was only two weeks since the first time Ethan could ever remember wearing any color that wasn't black or gray. He had put on Casey's borrowed jeans (blue!) and a borrowed shirt (green! plaid!) and left nearly all his old clothes behind. But in the brightly-colored human world he'd found himself wearing the gray sweater he'd knit himself as many days in a row as Rory would let him.
Rory had already insisted on washing it twice since Ethan came to stay. Everything was so clean here, every scent so muted, that Ethan felt as if he could never quite get a grip on anything; it meant that every scent he could catch seemed like a shout or a slap in the face, impossible to ignore. And there were so many things to look at, so many people, so much...
Ethan looked longingly at the bed, considering crawling back in and hiding under the covers, with only his own scent to contend with. No one would scold him; he had been allowed to sleep as much as he wanted since he came here, even in the middle of the day. Rory just smiled and said he knew the feeling. Ethan hadn't dared to ask him what that meant just yet; he'd glimpsed the scars on Rory's neck.
Ethan took a deep breath, still debating his options, but he caught the scent of breakfast—bacon, one of the delights of the World of Outsiders—and that decided him. Food first. He could always come and hide later.
He left his new clothes on the dresser for now; he was wearing his pajama pants (gray) and a shirt (dark blue, but not quite black or gray) and that made him decent enough even among alphas.
The door to Adam and Casey's room was still shut, though Ethan could hear them moving, talking quietly in the way that might be a prelude to sex. He hurried a little faster down the stairs, then came to a sharp halt a few steps from the bottom as Beau stepped out in front of him at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in his blue scrubs with a parka and boots.
Beau held up his hands, making an apologetic face, and said, "I'm out of your hair for the day. See you at the pack lands tonight."
Ethan's hands had clasped automatically near his waist. He forced them to drop to his sides as he held Beau's gaze and said, "See you."
Not, Yes, alpha.
Beau smiled a little and then headed out the front door.
Ethan flipped the lock shut after him, because Rory always liked the doors to be locked. Ethan agreed; he sure didn't want any strange humans strolling on in from the other side of walls so hard to hear or see through.
Rory himself was in the kitchen, singing along softly with the music he had playing. Christmas music, Ethan guessed; Ethan had heard a lot of Christmas music since coming here, and it had that sound. Rory liked Christmas—a human holiday, but Rory actually had a human father and brother. He had lived among humans who didn't know he was a werewolf when he was young. There was an entire Christmas tree in the front room, partially blocking the big window and covered in lights and little dangling ornaments in a million colors.
Ethan averted his eyes from it as he followed the sound of Rory's voice and the smell of bacon.
"Hey, Eth," Rory said with a smile as Ethan came into the room. He was sitting at the kitchen table, but waved Ethan toward the serving dishes on the counter. "Help yourself, I'll put the rest in the oven to keep warm in a minute."
Adam and Casey were not such early risers as the rest of them; that was easy to know without ever overhearing anything that happened in their room in the mornings.
There were pancakes as well as the bacon, and a jar of peanut butter with a clean knife balanced on top, even though Ethan was the only one who ate his pancakes with peanut butter on them. Rory had suggested it, as one of a dizzying array of options, the first time Ethan had pancakes here. Ethan had found he liked it enough not to worry about the rest of the possibilities; he hadn't eaten pancakes any other way since.
He kept waiting for Rory to tell him to stop, or insist that he try something else, or for the peanut butter to run out, but it kept being there, every time, just like the hot breakfast he didn't have to cook or serve to anyone else before he got to eat himself.
Ethan came over to the table when he'd loaded up his plate and sat near Rory—not in the seat where Beau had sat before he left, of course, but on Rory's other side. Rory smiled at him and reached over to touch his arm, just a quick brush of fingers. Not really scenting, just making contact. Ethan smiled back and reciprocated, brushing his fingers over Rory's as they drew back, then focused on his meal.
Once he'd gotten his first few bites down, he remembered that he could sit here as long as he liked, and no one would demand anything or take his food or announce that they needed to get a move on. Ethan sat back a little and looked at Rory again.
Rory was still smiling, and still sitting at his ease, not eating or doing anything else. "Are you ready for this today, do you think?" Rory asked. "It's gonna be a lot of people, but everyone is excited to meet you—they've always wondered about Casey's blood relatives, and you're the first one they'll get to meet."
Ethan bit his lip but nodded. He wasn't sure what he'd do with the attention of so many people on him, but they were his pack now, and he was new. It stood to reason that they would all be curious about him, and he would have to get through whatever ordeals of initiation the pack required sooner or later.
"If it's too much," Rory said, "you can always go and take a break at the Midwives' House. That won't be right in the middle of things, everyone will be up near the Big House. And if we get there and it seems like too much right away, that's okay. All right?"
Rory's concern seemed... specific. Possibly there really was some sort of ordeal ahead, more than just being scrutinized by the whole pack at once.
Ethan stuck his chin up and reminded himself that he'd chosen this. He wanted to belong here, so he was just going to have to figure out how to belong here. "I can do it."
Rory just smiled. "Well, eat up, then. You're going to want plenty of fuel to get you through."
They arrived at the Niemi pack lands about three hours before sunset. The moon, a waxing crescent, would rise about two hours after that; Ethan had already survived his first empty moon away from his pack.
They came bearing all sorts of containers of food—sweets, mostly, Ethan thought, some made that morning and some stockpiled over the last several days. Ethan helped carry the containers from the car to a sort of entry gate that had been set up—not at the edge of the pack lands, but on the road leading to the Alpha's seat of power, the Big House, at the point where the house came into sight.
Doors stood open as people moved in and out of the Big House and the ordinary-sized houses nearest to it. Two large tents, sharp-edged square things as big as houses themselves, had been set up in the open space between the Big House and the other buildings. Enormous fires had been laid in several places, logs arranged in various shapes higher than Ethan's head; obviously the night to come would not be as dark or as cold as a solstice was by nature.
"Here, hon," a half-familiar voice said. It was Beau and Rory's near neighbor, Jen, who lived down the street with her mate and children. She was holding out her hands to take the containers Ethan held. "I'll put these with the rest of the desserts, you go on and vote."
She tilted her head toward a table where several people clustered around, writing on slips of paper and depositing them in a large wooden box with a slot in the lid and a lock holding it shut.
"Vote?" Ethan looked around for help, and Casey stepped up to his side. Ethan got the feeling that Casey had intentionally not told him about this part; he handed off the food to Jen and focused on his packmate.
"Voting, for, uh," Casey steered Ethan to the table. "For Solstice Alpha. It's part of the party—we choose someone to be our alpha, instead of our real alpha, for the night. Just take a slip and a pen and write down a name. It can be anyone."
Ethan narrowed his eyes. "Who is it usually? Who..."
"Oh, kids a lot of the time," Casey said, not meeting Ethan's eyes. "Or an elder, especially if they were never chosen as a kid..."
Ethan grabbed a pen and one of the neat little rectangular slips of paper, as long as his longest finger and twice as wide. After a moment's thought, he wrote down Rory's name. He didn't know the names of many children in the pack, and he wouldn't like to choose one of Jen's children over another. He folded his slip in half and dropped it into the box, stepping back to watch as Rory, Casey, and Adam cast their own votes.
He tried to imagine such a thing happening back in the Mactire's pack, and couldn't. Even in play, even for a celebration, the Mactire would never have allowed such a thing as the pack choosing another leader, or submitting himself to a child, or an omega.
Maybe it wasn't supposed to be an omega, though. Casey hadn't said that. Maybe when he said child and elder he meant alpha, of course, because who else could be an alpha? Well, if he'd been wrong to put down Rory's name, hopefully it wouldn't matter much.
But there was something Casey hadn't told him about this voting business—something no one had told him—and Ethan couldn't help feeling on edge, waiting to find out what it was he didn't know.
Rory and Casey herded him in through the gate to where the celebration was taking shape, while Adam stayed behind talking to one of the midwives. Ethan was introduced to an endless parade of people, but Rory and Casey kept moving toward the Big House, and before long they had reached the steps up to its wide porch.
Alpha Niemi was standing there, on the ground in front of the lowest step, greeting people as they came and exchanging hugs and cheek kisses and scent-marks. He smiled when he caught sight of them—at Casey, first, but he looked to Rory and then Ethan as well, still smiling.
"Happy Solstice," Casey said, stepping up and hugging the Alpha. The Alpha's eyes went wide for a second and then closed, his arms curling lightly around Casey, obviously being careful not to hold on too tight.
"Happy Solstice, Case," he murmured back—and then Casey stepped away, and the Alpha drew a hand quickly across his eyes. "That's quite a..."
Casey grinned. "Don't worry, you're just getting socks for Christmas. And, hey, I also brought you an Ethan! This is Ethan."
Ethan hadn't met the Alpha yet, though he'd been living on the edges of the Niemi pack for days now. He was a big man—bigger than the Mactire—tall and broad-shouldered and well-fed the way everyone around here seemed to be. There was some gray in his hair, a few lines on his face, but he radiated strength and steadiness.
Ethan hesitated, wondering if he was supposed to hug the Alpha like Casey had, or be scented, or...
The Alpha held out a hand, and Ethan, after a second of baffled hesitation, closed his own hand around it and shook like humans did.
"Good to meet you," the Alpha said, nearly as warmly as he'd spoken to Casey. "I hear you're going to be unseating me—"
Casey and Rory both made sharp flailing gestures and then stopped when the Alpha's attention swung to them, and Ethan felt himself go cold as understanding fell into place. That was what they hadn't told him.
"Casey," the Alpha released Ethan's hand to put his hands on his hips, his voice sounding suddenly actually stern. "Did you come up with this whole plan and not tell Ethan about it?"
Casey smiled, wide-eyed and unafraid despite the Alpha's tone, and turned to Ethan. "You can say no! But, uh, I... may have... campaigned. A bit. With everyone. To get them to vote for you for Solstice Alpha. It's your first Solstice, you should get a turn!"
There was something else under Casey's words, something in the way he met Ethan's eyes.
Casey had known him before he could claim his name—before he could even accept the idea of it. Casey had known the Mactire, and, however briefly, what it meant to live under his power. And even if it was only a game for children, Casey had argued for Ethan to be made Alpha for the Solstice, because he wanted Ethan to get a turn at it.
Ethan grabbed Casey's hand and squeezed it hard as he turned to the Alpha again, putting his chin up. "You heard right," Ethan said firmly. "I will unseat you."
The Alpha studied Ethan for a few seconds, then smiled again, shaking his head. "You two sure you're not brothers? That family resemblance comes through loud and clear."
Ethan abruptly dropped Casey's hand. He was not, even a little bit, Casey's brother. Declan was Casey's brother, and Ethan... was not Declan's brother. At all.
"Third cousins at most," Casey said cheerfully. "Adam's got the DNA tests to prove it if you want to check."
They were in the Big House, nibbling from the various trays of food laid out for that purpose, when one of the older midwives appeared. She raised her eyebrows at Casey first, and he made a flourishing gesture at Ethan.
"Ethan," the midwife said, focusing on him. "You've been chosen to represent the pack as our Solstice Alpha. Will you accept this charge?"
"Come along, then," the midwife said. "It's time for the challenge."
Ethan's brain flooded with memories: the sickly-sweet smell of wolfsbane and the hot smell of blood in the snow, and Declan standing up over the Mactire's body to declare, The Mactire is dead and I am the Mactire. For a moment he was there again, his hair a weight on his head and his skirts hanging all the way down to the snow, filled with terror and exaltation all at once.
There was an arm around him suddenly, warm bodies crowding him from either side, Rory hissing, "Dammit, Casey, what—" as Casey murmured, "Nope, nope, just for fun, just a game, shit, shit, I'm an idiot, Eth, I'm sorry, it's just a game."
Ethan shook his head. He knew that, he knew, he just—just had to stop remembering. He turned his head and pressed his face against Rory's shoulder, breathing in the sweet-spicy smell of the cookies he'd been baking, the pleasantly different undernote to his scent that meant werewolf but not one you've known all your life.
"Right," Ethan said. He picked his head up, shaking it before he took a step away from Rory and Casey. "Right, I—what—what is the challenge? What do I have to..."
The midwife was standing by the door. She just gave him an enigmatic smile and said, "It's a surprise, dear. For both of you. That way it's fair."
Her tone was ironic, and between that and the fact that this was a role often played by a child, it would have to be something Ethan could do. Or at least something they would expect Ethan to be able to do; he didn't suppose they'd ask him questions about television shows or human things, but what if they expected him to know things about Christmas? What if he was supposed to be good at reading or writing like he'd grown up in a house with books everywhere, not just occasionally recording something in the Mactire's pack book?
Well, there was no help for it. If he was going to be humiliated in front of the whole pack, he could survive that. He might make a mess of the party, but he wouldn't be driven out for his incompetence.
He was... almost positive that he wouldn't.
He stepped out through the front door and froze again. He'd been tuning out the sounds of the pack outside, keeping his focus close to avoid drowning in his senses, but there were dozens, hundreds, of werewolves all gathered in front of the Big House. Some were under the shelter of the big tents, which had two sides rolled up so people could see... Ethan.
A hand gave him a little push from behind, and Ethan looked around for the midwife. He found her standing near the porch rail with Alpha, just a little to one side from the front door. The midwife gestured for Ethan to take his place at her left hand, while the Alpha stood at her right.
The midwife raised one hand and snapped her fingers, and a wave of responding snaps rolled over the crowd, leaving silence in its wake as people stopped even any low-voiced talk and focused on Ethan and the Alpha.
"It is time for the Solstice Challenge," the midwife said. "Ethan Mactire has been chosen to represent the pack in challenging our Alpha. Have either of you anything to say before we begin?"
"I'm going to win this year," the Alpha promptly said, in a blustering tone so clearly false that even Ethan knew it for a joke, and hardly flinched at all from the wave of laughter from the pack. "I've learned the name of every dinosaur since last year!"
The laughing grew louder, and a little girl standing only a few yards from the porch rail, wearing some sort of sparkling thing on her head, jumped up and down, forming her hands into playful claws as she shouted, "Utahraptor, Utahraptor!"
The Alpha growled in pretended menace while Ethan tried to remember exactly what dinosaurs were. But that wouldn't be the challenge this year; it would be something else, something—
"Hush," said the midwife, casting a quick glance in Ethan's direction, as if asking whether he wanted to answer the Alpha's boast.
Ethan, preferring to keep his mouth shut so as not to let his teeth chatter or invite the possibility of being sick all over his own feet, shook his head very slightly. Hopefully it looked dignified.
"Very well," the midwife said, as the pack quieted again, in eager anticipation. "Then we may commence this year's challenge. Auntie Mark, Auntie Helen—" two more midwives stepped up, one female and gray haired, the other younger and male.
They were both holding balls of yarn with knitting needles stuck through them: one bright white, one a deep black.
"Whoever has knitted a longer swatch by the time the sun sets shall be our Solstice Alpha," the midwife declared.
Ethan's hands actually shook a bit as he took the black ball of yarn and needles, fumbling as he pulled the needles out and searched for an end. The Alpha was grumbling pointedly, and actually dropped his needles in a clatter that sounded like thunder and made Ethan jump.
But Ethan didn't drop his needles and didn't drop the yarn. After a moment's struggle he had everything in place like he normally held it to work standing up, the ball of yarn tucked under one arm while he drew a starting length over his first finger and began to cast on.
The midwife hadn't said how wide the swatch had to be, so Ethan aimed for a hand's width. That was good for seeing how the yarn would knit up when working with an unfamiliar batch, and it could always be stitched together with another width, or undone if it was no use at all.
Everything seemed to fall away as Ethan fell into the familiar rhythm of making something, even his mind going quiet. This could be any day, any ball of yarn—though this particular yarn was soft as clouds, lovely to touch. He wanted to make the knitting last, because the finished product would surely belong to someone else, and he could savor the feeling of it as long as he was still working on it.
A wave of laughter jerked him out of the trance of work, and Ethan looked up to see the Alpha standing across from him, bent nearly double as he tried to see what Ethan's hands were doing. For a moment Ethan's fingers faltered, a hot sick feeling rising as he realized that he was standing in front of everyone, excelling at something women did, while the Alpha confirmed his maleness by not even trying to compete.
Then Ethan realized that the Alpha had actually managed to cast on a row of twelve uneven stitches; as Ethan watched he turned his attention to the needles again, gamely attempting to start the next row. Ethan watched as he managed to knit a stitch, albeit messily, and went on to the next.
"Go, go!" someone shouted, and the pack took up the chant. "Ethan! Don't let him win!"
Ethan looked down—he'd already knitted four tidy rows, twenty stitches each, all perfectly even. He held up his work for the pack to see, which made the yarn fall from under his arm. He caught it automatically on his toe and bounced it up, catching it in the crook of his shoulder and tilting his head to hold the yarn in place with his cheek.
The crowd roared—for him.
Ethan lowered his hands enough to see over them, while keeping up his knitting. This time when he stole a glance over the Alpha was grinning—though also still trying to knit. As Ethan watched, he dropped a stitch, then frowned down at his needles, trying to force the tip through the next cast-on stitch, which he'd drawn too tight around the needle.
"Ease it off a bit," Ethan suggested automatically; it was so much like watching one of the little ones try to learn.
The pack went silent again, and the Alpha looked over at him with raised eyebrows. "You... know this is a competition, right?"
Ethan raised his eyebrows right back, glancing pointedly at the growing length of his work. "I wouldn't want to win just because you have no idea what you're doing. Here, like this," Ethan said, pushing a stitch nearly to the tip of his needle before he put the other through it, demonstrating the extra room it made.
The Alpha said, "Hm," but did as Ethan had demonstrated, easing the stitch down so that he could knit it. Of course then he tried to go too quickly and made a thorough mess, and Ethan just shook his head and returned to his knitting.
The crowd laughed and applauded, and Ethan grinned but didn't look up again. The yarn became harder and harder to see, but he hardly needed to see to work; the feel of the yarn and needles in his hands told him all he needed to know. The ball of yarn was getting small by the time a roar went up from the crowd, and Ethan looked up and realized that the sun was down.
"Well, let's see!" The midwife shouted, catching Ethan's hand and drawing him to hold up his work, and dragging the Alpha's hand up on her other side.
Ethan's neat square swatch dangled more than a hand's width below the needles. The Alpha had produced three rows that were alternately gaping holes and tight as knots, barely a ruffle dangling from the needle.
"Ethan!" the pack shouted. "Ethan! Ethan!"
Ethan stared out at them, and listened to them roaring his name—his new name, the one he'd held as a secret, impossible wish for so long. The one that had only felt more distant and forbidden with every bit of woman's work he'd had to do, and now it was his prize for a half hour's knitting.
He smiled, and told himself he wasn't at all tempted to cry.
There was a blur of ceremony after that: Ethan put on a towering red hat decorated with tiny lights like fireflies stuck all over it, to mark him as Solstice Alpha and make him visible to everyone. Then he selected his 'pack council' by reading names off a list someone handed to him.
Rory's name was first on the list; Ethan had spelled it wrong on the ballot, but he supposed that didn't matter at this point. Next was Sigrid Bryson, an omega—a female omega, because omega by itself didn't mean that here—who had apparently just recently come to live in the Midwives' House, to make up for Casey's absence. She smiled cautiously at Ethan as she took her place at his flank, pulling on the smaller red hat that marked her as a member of his council.
After Rory and Sigrid, the next name was Amy Vaughn, a girl hovering on the cusp of young womanhood, and Ethan tried not to be obvious about wondering what the strangeness in her scent was. They were halfway through the rest of the names—children, all around five or six years old, who cheered and danced and bounced as they took their places—when Ethan finally realized what was different about Amy. She was human. But she seemed comfortable among the pack, and as happy as any to be chosen, and no one else seemed to think it was strange that she was there with the rest.
All of them, werewolves and human, boys and girls, omegas and alphas and otherwise, seemed fearless at the center of all this attention. All of them beamed at Ethan as they accepted their red hats, and none seemed to resent him for taking the place that was probably meant to be theirs.
When all the children were gathered with Ethan and Rory and Sigrid on the porch, there was a bit of whispering and nudging, and then one of the little boys came over and tugged at the hem of Ethan's shirt. Ethan crouched down beside him, because it was easier than tipping his head down to look without his ridiculous hat falling off.
"Alpha," the boy said, just loud enough to be clear that this was also a performance, and without pausing for Ethan to really notice how strange it was to be addressed that way. "This night isn't only solstice night. This night is also the seventh night of Hanukkah."
Hanukkah was probably not a kind of dinosaur. It was a period of time; a celebration of some sort, presumably. Ethan said, raising his voice a little and hoping that being coached by a child was what he was supposed to be doing at this point, "How do we celebrate the seventh night of Hanukkah?"
The boy beamed, so that seemed to have been the right answer. "We light candles and say the blessings! May I light the Big House menorah?"
"Yes," Ethan said immediately, because he had no idea how to go about it himself and this small child clearly did. He grabbed Ethan's hand and led him back inside, and the rest of the Solstice night pack council came along—as did the real Alpha, and a number of other people. A dozen or so clustered around the branched candlestick set in the front window, with the little boy in his red hat standing on a stool to reach.
The ones gathered by the window chanted a prayer whose words Ethan didn't understand at all—and he heard, distantly, through the open doors, other small groups saying the same words at the same time, perhaps at some of the houses nearby. Through the window, he saw other lights spark at the same time the candles were lit in the window of the Big House.
Most of the pack, including Rory and Sigrid, simply stood quietly, saying nothing while the unfamiliar words were chanted, so perhaps it wasn't too strange that Ethan didn't understand.
The little ritual was over in moments, and the boy who had lit the candles hugged his parents and then hurried back to take his place in the pack council.
"And now," Rory murmured from his place at Ethan's left shoulder. "We light the fires." He handed Ethan a tall red candle, perfect and new and smelling pleasantly of beeswax. Rory lit the candle for him and nudged Ethan toward the fireplace in the front room of the Big House, where, he saw, a fire had been laid already.
Ethan knelt at the hearth, lighting the tinder from his candle, and everyone in the room cheered when the fire caught.
When Ethan stood, everyone had arranged themselves to make a clear path to the front door, and when he stepped out onto the porch he saw that everyone standing out in front of the house had made a path as well. Ethan walked down among them, letting himself be guided by the sheer mass of people around him to the nearest of the bonfires.
There were more cheers as he lit each bonfire, and then visited the nearest houses—three of which had menorahs in their windows—to light their fires as well. His fingers were flecked with red wax where it had dripped and splashed, but he wanted to keep going, lighting fire after fire all night. At least he understood this part of his duties.
But when he emerged from the last of the houses in the row facing the Big House, there was no path for him made of waiting people. Instead, Adam was standing there, holding a lantern with a place to fit a candle inside, and a steaming bowl with water and a cloth already soaking.
Ethan followed the silent instruction, putting the candle into the lantern and then washing the splattered wax from his hands. As he scrubbed at his knuckles, Ethan looked around for his council. The children were fidgeting, obviously impatient to get to whatever step came next—even Sigrid was looking around for something—but Ethan had no idea what that was.
Luckily, Rory was still standing at his shoulder.
"Now that the fires are lit, and we're safe from the dark," Rory explained, as Ethan took back the lantern from Adam, who immediately and without a word walked off with the basin and the dirtied cloth. Rory grabbed his hand as soon as it was free, tugging him back toward the Big House and the tents. "Now we open the dancing."
This turned out to be what one of the tents was for. Boards had been laid down under the canopy to make a mostly even and snowless surface for dancing. That would probably make it easier, not worrying about putting a foot in the wrong spot, although...
They had music here, proper music that played from little boxes, not just Dougal leading the singing while Thomas pounded out a bat on whatever was handy and the dancing stopped every so often so Sorcha could get into a shouting match with Dougal about what the right words were to this or that song.
Ethan felt a sudden swell of homesickness for a pack he'd fled the first chance he got, and an even stronger sense of just how badly out of place he was here, among all these strangers.
"I don't know how," Ethan said, freezing in place, well short of the tent. "I—I—" He wouldn't say, I can't, he wouldn't, not over this of all things, but—
"Well, you've got your pack council to advise you," Rory said, smiling and giving his hand a squeeze. "We can make the first dance ring-around-the-rosie with the kids. Last year Sophia was Solstice Alpha—"
"Utahraptor?" Ethan put in, remembering the little girl shouting up at the Alpha.
"Utahraptor," Rory agreed with a roll of his eyes. "Apparently she opened the dancing by spinning in circles while jumping up and down until she launched herself into the musicians. You could hear the crack of skulls for half a mile, apparently, and Torin still blames her every time he has a headache."
Ethan was startled into a laugh, even as he raised his hand to his own cheek. "Lucky Sophia. I hit a tree."
Rory raised his eyebrows. "You—"
"Spinning around like that, when I was a child. Knocked out two of my teeth. I was half-stunned; I screamed more when my mother pushed the teeth back in than when I hit the tree." Ethan clamped his mouth shut before he could say more, and before he could remember too much the feeling of his mother's hands, his uncle's—
"Well," Rory said, smiling again, if smaller now. "That sounds like you absolutely do know how to do the traditional opening dance, doesn't it?"
"Is it traditional if it's only happened once before?" Ethan asked. He assumed he could probably skip the head injury.
"Well, if you do it this year because Sophia did it last year, then someone will insist on it next year and after that it will definitely be a tradition. You can shape Solstice parties for decades to come just by going and twirling around on the dance floor."
Ethan laughed a little at that vision and nodded, giving in as he tugged at Rory's hand, moving toward the tent again. "All right. But this year, I think the Solstice Alpha and his entire pack council should open the dancing together."
"Oh," Rory said, looking around at the kids following them, some of them already starting to hop up and down with excitement. "Sure, with all of us dancing we could probably take out the entire tent."
Ethan looked down at the lantern he was still holding, the tall red candle burning inside. "Do I, uh... have to be holding this all the time?"
Adam stepped out from the edge of the tent, holding some kind of pole—a stand with a hook for the lantern. Ethan hung it up, and Adam set the stand just outside the tent, then bowed slightly to Ethan and walked away again. Ethan stared after him. "Is he...?"
"You're the Solstice Alpha," Rory said cheerfully. "All the other alphas are yours to command tonight."
Ethan looked over at Rory, then around the tent they were about to enter. At least some of the musicians were alphas, and alphas stood around the perimeter of the tent, hands behind their backs, waiting for something. "Command...?"
"That's part of the game tonight, the party," Rory explained. "Alphas kind of have to do whatever they're told, or asked to do. Within reason, obviously!" Rory added quickly, misreading whatever he saw on Ethan's face. "It's just a game. But if you tell one of them to get you something to drink, or something to eat, or to carry you on his back from one place to another, they will."
"They..." Ethan looked around again; sure enough, he saw alphas carrying children on their backs, or women in their arms. Alpha Niemi seemed to be feeding a baby from a bottle while another child hung off his back. But there was no air of resentment around any of the alphas, no anger at being seen to follow orders instead of giving them. Everything was upside down, and it was just... a game.
"Come on," Rory said, tugging on Ethan's hand. "Let's dance, and then someone can get you a drink, and maybe it won't seem so weird."
"Right," Ethan agreed fervently, and he and Rory led the children of the pack council—with Sigrid and Amy walking behind, helping to herd all the little ones—onto the dance floor. He looked around again at the attentive, waiting alphas, and said, "Your job, all of you—" Ethan felt them all lean in slightly, listening, and had to clear his throat before he could go on. "Is to prevent mishaps. Uh, as best you can," he added, because even if it was only a game, there was probably some forfeit to be paid for disobedience. He didn't want to start off by giving an order which couldn't be obeyed.
The alphas were all smiling—they must all have been able to hear what Rory had suggested for an opening dance—and Ethan looked toward the musicians and nodded, hoping he didn't have to name a song.
One of them nodded back, and music started up, bright and quick. Ethan looked over at Rory, still holding on to his hand, and Rory grinned, starting to bounce a little in place. Ethan looked down at the kids and tilted his head toward the center of the tent. "Come on!"
He dropped Rory's hand and made himself move, turning and hopping, and the kids flooded past him, shrieking and scattering around the floor to start spinning and bouncing. It was easy to catch the spirit of it, then, and Ethan was laughing helplessly as he spun and jumped.
Hands pushed him gently back toward the center whenever he strayed to an edge—the alphas were doing their best to do their duty, he thought, and then he let himself stop thinking and laughed, dizzy and already feeling half-drunk with the bright lights and the music and all the heartbeats around him seeming to race in time with his, a rhythm they all shared as they danced and danced and danced.
The rest of the night was a blur, nearly as dizzy. There was dancing and drinking and eating, and Ethan discovered that if he just shouted a request into the air, someone would obey it without Ethan having to single out any given alpha to demand anything of.
He wondered, for a second, if Declan would have hurried to bring him things if he'd been here. He wondered if the pack had found a good place to spend the solstice, with plenty of game to hunt and eat.
He wondered who Declan was driving prey to tonight, whose kills he would share.
"Drink!" Ethan shouted, trying to banish that thought, and someone pressed a warm mug into his hand, smelling sour-sweet and just what he needed.
Toward morning, when the crescent moon was sinking toward the west, Ethan found Rory again. He had Beau trailing after him, and they both smelled like Rory had given Beau some mutually-pleasing instructions. Ethan had noticed that sort of thing happening in several semi-private spots through the night—less and less carefully private as more and more of the children accumulated in the sleeping heaps in the tent not set aside for dancing. Ethan did his best to politely ignore it.
Rory was looking particularly smug, though, and Ethan couldn't help snickering at the sight of them.
Beau, for some reason, flushed red. Rory laughed uproariously and threw an arm around Ethan. "Your turn soon enough," he promised. "We'll find you someone... almost as nice as Beau. Nicer than Adam, anyway, that won't be hard."
"Hey!" Casey's outraged shout emerged from a tent a hundred yards away, and then Casey himself emerged, riding on Adam's back.
Adam, for his part, looked like he had no objection at all to what Rory said, and Ethan thought that if Adam was the least nice alpha the Niemis had to offer, he wasn't going to know what to do with any of them.
Besides, none of them were—
Ethan shook his head. "Not tonight, though. I'm the Alpha tonight."
Casey raised a mug to that and smacked a kiss against Adam's cheek, and Rory nodded quickly, leaning into Ethan. "You are! We won't rush you, promise. Take your time. Oh—hey, speaking of—is the candle...?"
They made their way over to the corner of the dancing tent where the red candle still burned in its lantern, down to a short stub now. Red wax was dripping out of the lantern, joining an irregular lump on the ground where it had melted through the scant snow cover.
"Oooh," Rory said. "The night's almost over. Where's Sigrid? We should assemble the pack council."
He said it in a definite way; something was going to happen when the night ended. It occurred to Ethan that the real Alpha had to take back his position somehow, but he had spent a whole night absorbing the idea that this really could be just a party, just a game. Sophia hadn't come to any harm she hadn't caused herself when she was Solstice Alpha, and Ethan and his pack council would be just as safe.
Ethan looked around. The revelry had mostly quieted, but he could see some alphas in the vicinity. He reached up to make sure he'd put his hat back on after the last time he lost it, and then said, loud and clearly enough that they would understand it was their Solstice Alpha asking, "Someone find Sigrid for me, please! And wake the children who are on the pack council, if they're not too tired to get up."
There was a flurry of movement as alphas moved to obey or just got out of the way. The first sign Ethan saw of anyone doing what he asked was two figures emerging from the front door of the Big House—Sigrid, rubbing her eyes sleepily, and Casey's alpha foster-sister, Callie, guiding Sigrid with an arm around her back.
"Huh," Ethan said, and Rory followed his gaze and said, "Huh."
Callie looked directly at them then, frowning a little, and neither of them said any more. Sigrid, when she reached them, smiled sheepishly and said, "Sorry, guys, I really thought I'd make it through the night, but Cal and I got to talking, and..."
Neither of them smelled like talking was a euphemism for anything, but Sigrid leaned toward her, and Callie looked regretful when she stepped away and said, "I, ah, have to go find my dad. Back soon, though!"
Callie loped off into the darkness away from the fires, and then the kids, red hats in various states of crookedness, were wandering out of the tent to cluster around them.
Ethan looked for the one who had told him about Hanukkah; clearly that child was well-informed on the intricacies of solstice celebration. "Now what?"
"Down by the gate," the little boy said around a yawn, pointing. Sure enough, people were assembling again, and they had left a clear path down to where Ethan had come in. The tables were still there, and a ribbon had been strung between them, forming a sort of ceremonial barrier.
"Right," Ethan said, and set off, chin up and Solstice Alpha hat held high, with his pack council following.
They'd barely reached their side of the border when movement became visible coming up the road toward them. The kids started to bounce in excitement, alternately making excited noises and hushing each other. Ethan looked to Rory and Sigrid, who both looked amused but didn't tell him anything.
The figures approaching soon resolved into the Alpha, pulling some kind of big cart, with Callie and some of the senior midwives and a few other elders—the real pack council, Ethan thought—walking alongside, carrying bags.
"Solstice Alpha," Alpha Niemi called out. "I have come to beg you to let me take back my place in the pack."
Ah. Ethan saw the shape of it now, and after a long, dizzy night it hardly seemed stranger than the rest of this. "And you've brought gifts to persuade me? And to persuade my council?"
Alpha Niemi stopped just on the other side of the ribbon, grinning. "As it happens, I have."
He turned back toward the cart and hoisted up a big cloth bag that was half the size of Ethan himself and handed it across. "That one's for you, and here's one for Rory..."
Rory's bag wasn't as big as the one Ethan accepted, but he peered inside just as eagerly.
Ethan glimpsed first a tangle of white against darkness, and then realized it was the Alpha's attempt at knitting, and the ball of yarn he'd been working with, needles pushed neatly through the middle. Then he realized his own knitting was there too, and the whole bag was filled with balls of the same cloud-soft yarn, black and gray and a deep dark blue. All the colors that would be most comfortable for him to wear; he could make himself two or three sweaters with this, or a blanket big enough to cover the enormous bed in Beau and Rory's guest room, or enough socks to wear a new pair every day from one full moon to the next.
He felt selfish at the thought, guilty that he had even considered keeping all these riches for himself, but when he looked up and around the first thing he saw was Rory holding up hanks of fine thread in dozens of rich colors. "Oh, goodness, I can do all kinds of things with this! I've been collecting patterns—"
And thread like that couldn't be good for anything but decoration. He'd seen the little stitches Rory put in his and Beau's clothes—and in the new ones Ethan was accumulating, too. They didn't seem to be for anything, or not anything practical. And Beau and Rory both had whole drawers and closets full of clothes, different things for work and home and sleep.
Ethan could keep this gift just for himself. That was what it was for, after all—to tempt him. He looked toward the Alpha, and found he was holding out another package, something square and flat. There was a bright red ribbon tied around it, and when Ethan tugged it free he realized that the object was a hardcover notebook, like the one Casey had brought with him when he came to the Mactire's pack. This one was black, with silver-white letters as pale as moonlight pressed into the cover.
Solstice Alpha 2017
"How..." Ethan said, running his fingers over the neat, perfect letters.
"Casey," the Alpha said, a smile in his voice. "He came up with a whole plan. Look inside."
Ethan opened the book, and a sweet smell of something sticky and barely dried rose up out of it. He stared down at the opening pages of the book, trying to understand what he was looking at.
On the left-hand side of the page there was a column of little rectangular slips of paper freshly glued to the page, and each slip had his name written on it: Ethan Mactire. And next to each slip, written directly on the page, was a name in the same handwriting. The first one was Nat Niemi, Alpha.
Ethan looked up at the Alpha, who was still watching him, smiling softly. All around them the kids were digging into their gifts, yelling excitedly; Rory was opening another package, and Sigrid was smiling shyly at Callie over the bag in front of her. No one was paying attention to Ethan—no one except the Niemi pack's Alpha, waiting quietly to see what Ethan thought of this gift.
He looked down again. The second slip said Ethan Mactire, and beside it was Callie's name. Then Granny Tyne, then the other midwives.
They were ballot slips, he realized, from the voting. Some showed creases where they had been folded. He turned the page and found different versions of his name: Ethan Mactire and Ethan (Niemi?) and Ethan (Casey's cousin) and Ethan (the new one). And beside each slip, the name of the pack member who had written his name on it. Who had voted for him. Some were written in neat, graceful script, and some in quick untidy scrawls or bold capitals. There were the shaky hands of children, some spelling his name ETHN or EETHEN or ETAN, with backward E's and N's. He saw the one labeled Sophia Niemi, and the names of most of his pack council. Amy Vaughn. Sigrid Bryson. Rory and Beau, and Casey and Adam. All of them had voted for him.
All of them believed in him—not just that he would be an adequate Solstice Alpha, but that he belonged here. That Ethan really was his name, outside the secret stories he'd been telling himself since he was too young to wonder why. He had the concrete evidence right here, the pack's names signed to it, his name written out in hundreds of different hands, a dozen variations.
Not one had written his old name; not one thought he should be punished for daring to be what he was. No one even disbelieved him. And it wasn't just something for him to remember, an upside-down night that might not mean anything after the sun rose. They had made it something he could keep and look at whenever he started to doubt himself.
Ethan pressed the book to his chest and looked up at the Alpha again.
He smiled softly and gestured behind him. "There's more, if you want to bargain."
Ethan swallowed and shook his head. "This is—you—you should be Alpha."
The Alpha smiled and glanced around, and Ethan remembered to look around at his pack council. "Council? What do you think? Should the old Alpha come back?"
There was a cheer that sounded positive to Ethan. The children jumped and waved their prizes in the air, while Rory and Sigrid and Amy let out happy shouts.
Ethan turned to face the Alpha again, taking his tall red hat off with a flourish and offering it back. The Alpha took it from him with a little bow, then thrust it into the air over his head and let out a howl of triumph that the whole pack echoed, and Ethan found himself joining in as Rory and Sigrid flung their arms around him—because it was his triumph too, getting through the party and bringing it to the right conclusion.
No one had to be defeated tonight. The whole pack had defeated the dark night and completed their ritual, and Ethan was a part of it, accepted inside just as he was. Let the winter come, as dark and cold as ever. Ethan wouldn't have to face it alone.