Ulysses was drunk and having a damn good time. There was nothing like letting loose after a long week, having fun with friends. Sure, it was only Friday, and he had to go to work tomorrow because the repair shop was only closed one day a week and that was Tuesday. He still deserved to have fun, especially considering what was going on with his pack.
Hell, it was a wonder that he wasn’t constantly drinking. The inclination was there, part of his DNA or something. His old man had been an alcoholic and a loser in general, skipping out on Ulysses and his mother when Ulysses had only been ten years old.
That inclination was the exact reason he limited himself, held back from doing this too much. He didn’t want to turn out like that old bastard.
And yet, here in the bar, with bass thrumming to the beat of his racing heart, shadows reducing the crowd to anonymous silhouettes, he could understand why his degenerate father spoke so fondly of getting hammered. It was like conversational lube, easing the process of something that might otherwise have been disagreeable. He could be someone else for a short time and not have to worry about who might remember, because no one would have anything other than fuzzy memories come morning.
Lifting his bottle to his lips, Ulysses drank deeply. He could no longer taste much of anything, and he was way too far gone to feel the booze hit his system, flooding his stomach with warmth. He drank anyway, then set the bottle back down much harder than he meant to. The glass cracked along the bottom, a spiderweb of breakage climbing several inches upward.
“Holy shit!” Brody said at his side, then coughed out a short series of barking laughs. “Don’t know your own strength, Lee?”
Ulysses grinned, wiping his mouth. If he had a best friend, he supposed it would be Brody. They worked the same shifts most of the time, dicking around together before and after. He was all right, for a human.
“I know it real good,” he said, still grinning. “Trust me. Don’t want to mess with me. I’ll put you in the fucking hospital. Won’t even break a sweat.”
“Them’s fighting words,” someone else at the table chimed in. Clark, the head mechanic at the shop. Clark only had to look at something for five minutes before he had it all figured out from top to bottom. There was nothing he couldn’t fix, given the time and resources. “You think you’re stronger than the strongest guy here?”
Ulysses crossed his arms over his chest. “Just try me,” he retorted.
Brody held up his hands, pretending to look scared before bursting out laughing. “Hell, no! Not me. I’ve seen you bend steel with your bare hands. I’m not crossing you.”
The others at the table had broken off their own conversations and were now tuned in to what Ulysses and his friends were saying. Most of them were guys he knew from work, and then there were a few others who had gravitated over, working their way into the group naturally and easily. A few women had inserted themselves into the gathering as well, sitting on laps, flirting, and flashing their tits to the men of their choosing.
Ulysses had a woman at his shoulder, caressing his skin with her manicured hands. She was leaning in close, the softness of her body pressed flush against him.
He had no interest in her whatever, hadn’t even asked her name. She clung like a tick anyway, clearly anticipating a reward for her affections.
Tony spoke up now, his voice husky from the shot he’d just tossed back. “Fuck it. Brody might be scared of you, but I ain’t. You’re such a pansy, Lee.”
Had anyone else said that to him, at any other time, Ulysses would have kicked their ass on the spot. Didn’t matter who, where, or when. They’d be on the ground in an instant, begging for a mercy he wouldn’t give. After being knocked around by his old man a time or two, he had decided he wouldn’t take shit from anyone, not for anything.
But, he was feeling good tonight. Good booze, good friends. So, he just planted his elbow on the table and held his hand open in the air. “Fucking try me, Tony.”
A spark of hesitation entered Tony’s gaze. He was the tool guy, the errand boy. He was the jack of all trades, master of none, who did what he was told. Only when he was drunk did this feisty side come out.
It seemed like Tony wasn’t quite drunk enough to completely forget his usual complacency, though he quickly and visibly pushed it away. His mouth set into a grim line. Sitting up in his chair, Tony planted his elbow on the table and clasped hands with Ulysses.
Without hesitation, Ulysses pushed, slamming the back of Tony’s hand down on the tabletop.
Yelping, Tony snatched his hand back and clutched it to his chest as if it was a fussy infant in need of soothing. “Fuck! I wasn’t ready. That’s not fair.”
“You should always be ready,” Ulysses growled. He preened inwardly, sitting up a little straighter and puffing out his chest. “Serves you right.”
“Geez, Lee.” Tony stood up, shaking his head. He couldn’t seem to decide on a single facial expression, his muscles twitching and jumping. “You’re too intense, man. Too intense. No fun at all.”
Tony headed off in the direction of the bar, still shaking his head.
Ulysses looked around, wanting to see if anyone would agree with this sentiment. Much to his surprise and displeasure, no one was paying that much attention to him now the fun was over for them. Conversations had resumed, for the most part. A few uneasy smiles came his way, and that was not the kind of attention he wanted.
Frowning, puzzled and offended, Ulysses took another drink from his bottle. At least, he tried. What little liquid remained within in the first place had seeped out onto the tabletop through the cracks in the glass, leaving a puddle a few inches in diameter. All he got were a few droplets that must have been clinging to the inside walls, and they were stale and insubstantial.
About time for another, then.
As he stood and headed off for the counter, the incident with Tony was already fading from his mind. So what if the little punk got his knuckles bashed? Whatever. He should have been ready, should have had some fight to back up his words. If he got hurt, it was only his fault and no one else’s.
That was a mindset Ulysses harbored for much of his life, carefully cultivating his conviction like a farmer tending his garden. If a person got themselves into a situation, they had best get themselves out of it or else face the consequences.
And if they did face the consequences, good. Maybe they’d learn for next time.
He might not agree with everything currently going on with his pack, but he did feel as if the culprits for all the disarray were doing their time to make up for it.
Ulysses was an alpha wolf, one of millions of shapeshifters eking out an existence in a world of humans. He was a member of a wolf pack called Shadow Claws, which also happened to be a biker gang. Their leader was Destiny North, and he had a mate named Markus. Their son was a pup named Axel; he might have been around a year old or something right now, but Ulysses was damned if he could remember the exact details. Not his kid, not his problem.
So, from the outside, it was a normal pack arrangement. Bikers and wolves, who ran together under a single label that more or less united them.
But that wasn’t all.
There was another pack in the city, a competing biker gang called Lethal Freedom. They had been enemies for the longest time until recent events brought the two groups together.
Now, they were one.
Destiny was from Shadow Claws. Markus was from Lethal Freedom, the younger brother of the former pack leader—who had abandoned his wolves when things got tough. Their joining had brought about what was supposed to be a new era of peace, and what was in actuality an age of uneasy companionship. Everyone got along, but only barely.
Tensions weren’t as high as they had been at the start, though. Routines had been established. The members of both packs were intermingling, forming friendships and relationships. It no longer mattered quite as much that the communal hub for the packs was in the west end of the city, rather than in the middle. No one cared anymore that the patrols weren’t staggered properly, since there were fewer members of Lethal Freedom. Those were all things of the past, vague annoyances with no lasting impact. They could be ignored.
But the one thing no one could ignore was the uneasy sense that, for all the strides they had made towards becoming one, the packs were still two. The members thought of themselves as being separate, still holding on to their former labels. Shadow Claws. Lethal Freedom. One or the other, never both.
It was incredibly tiring to be a wolf in the midst of all that, holding no stake in any of it but being affected all the same. Ulysses could feel the pervasive worries of his packmates, feel their discordant thoughts meddling with his own mood through the connection they all shared. Every pack possessed what could almost be called a hive mind, a conjoined consciousness that was less about thought and more about feeling. Echoes of emotion, vague impressions of images and intent, always filled the air, forming an aura of which every member was aware. It was like a nose, always present, always visible, but only really there when focused upon.
Ulysses did not really care one way or another what was happening with his pack. He liked some of his packmates, tolerated others, and felt mostly indifferent towards the majority. He would help them if he was called upon to do so, as he had done in the past, but that was due mostly to loyalty and obligation—and self-service. What he gave, he could call upon for his own use when he needed it.
As far as an actual need to further and better his pack’s situation for the benefit of everyone…Well, he had none.
Sometimes he considered being a lone wolf. Like right now, standing in line, waiting for his turn to get his next drink. His mind wandered, chasing possibilities. He could get out of this city, get away from the beach-goers and tourists. He could roam the countryside all on his own, no one to boss him around or tell him what to do. There would be no more annoying people to deal with.
The line moved, and Ulysses moved with it automatically, not really paying much attention to anything but his own thoughts. He looked idly around the bar, seeing everything, noticing very little. The lights were low, the atmosphere moody and deep despite the rapid beat of the music. A few bodies gyrated on the dance floor, making the most of it, garnering no real attention or adoration.
The rest of the patrons were sitting, at the counter, at the tables and booths, talking, gambling, laughing. The combined din was loud, though not the loudest it had ever been. Some football game was on the huge television screens, one placed along each wall, causing a few cries every now and again as the more invested watchers expressed their opinions about a play. However, this wasn’t a very major game. The stakes were very low. And this was not a sports bar, so there were no real die-hard fans in the audience tonight.
There never were.
That was why Ulysses liked this place so much. It had a little bit of everything, like it couldn’t make up its mind about what it was trying to be. There was something to please everyone.
The lined moved again, and Ulysses stepped forward again, getting right up behind the person in front of him in the hopes that they would move even more. He was feeling eager to get back to his friends, especially since he saw Tony was back at the table. There was no telling what he might be missing out on.
Or what they might be saying.
What if they’re talking about me?
Ulysses felt his chest tighten, a growl forming deep in his lungs. They wouldn’t fucking dare talk about him behind his back. Would they? They knew better than that, especially since they all worked together. Word of what was said would get back to him sooner or later.
Still, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled with brewing anger.
The door to the bar opened, distracting him for a moment. He turned to look at who was coming inside, although he wasn’t sure why he should care. The door had been opened for the past several hours, and he had never looked until this very moment. Something compelled him to do it this time, some sense he couldn’t put his finger on.
A small number of people, perhaps five or six, filtered into the bar. The crowd inside was already massive, so all-consuming, that the current patrons were pressed up right against the walls. The newcomers disappeared into the throng almost instantly, giving no real time to catch a glimpse of their features.
Nevertheless, Ulysses was struck by the odd sensation that he knew one of those people. Some glimpsed feature struck him as familiar: the set of a pair of shoulders perhaps, or the particular formation of a jawline.
He scanned the sea of people, his gaze jumping from head to head, person to person, but he didn’t see the familiar form again. There were so many conflicting scents and sounds here that he couldn’t have searched using those methods.
Oh, well. Wasn’t anyone anyway. They would have come to see me if they saw me. Said hello or something.
Holding on to this excuse, trying to pretend that he wasn’t bothered at all by the glimpse of someone he felt he should have known, Ulysses took another step forward in the line.
He hadn’t been paying attention. The line hadn’t moved at all, because someone at the front was placing an especially large order for a group on the other side of the dance floor.
Realizing this at only the last instant, he tried to stop himself and found that it was too late, he had already collided with the person in front of him, sending them sprawling forward against the person in front of them. A chain reaction occurred, as startlingly quick as a line of falling dominoes. Several humans hit the floor, while several others staggered and just barely managed to stay upright.
It would have been funny, how easy everyone was to push over when they were drunk and unsuspecting. As it was, Ulysses couldn’t stop a grin from forming on his lips. Maybe Brody was right, and he didn’t know his own strength. Or, hell, he forgot that he was a powerful wolf in the presence of measly little humans. He was the predator, and they were the prey.
Dozens of eyes swept in his direction, piercing through the gloom to burn against his skin. Everyone was staring at the klutz who had mowed into a line of innocent bystanders, judging him, feeling amusement and pity.
The roles suddenly felt reversed as the weight of all those different stares bore down upon him. He was pinned, chased into a corner like a stupid rabbit.
“Oops,” he said, not knowing what else to say. The hairs on his neck prickled again, this time from unease rather than anger. He didn’t like that. He would rather be angry.
Someone tapped on his shoulder from behind.
Ulysses turned, already about to reassure this concerned do-gooder that he was fine and there was no reason to worry about him. That could be the only reason someone was trying to get his attention.
Much to his confusion, there was no one standing behind him. If anyone had gotten in line behind him, they had since moved off to the side to make room for something else.
He had only an instant to feel confused, because a fist came flying out of nowhere, filling his vision like a falling star, crashing into his face, sending him to the floor. There was a sensation of twisting, a moment of nothingness, followed by a dull thud that was felt more than heard.
As soon as he contacted the floor, pain exploded across his cheekbone and his jaw, as if his nerves had been waiting for everything else to come to a standstill before they could do their thing. He had no idea if he cried out or not, the pain too severe to allow him to be aware of anything else.
A hard fist clenched around his shoulder, hoisting him up. He was aware of the fierce, bruising pressure of each individual finger. Scrabbling for purchase, he managed to get his feet underneath him and then just stood there, swaying, not sure if he was the one rocking or if it was the world underneath his feet doing so. Lifting one hand, he went to hold his jaw and missed somehow, grasping at empty air.
Blinking rapidly, Ulysses tried to peer through the combined haze of pain and darkness.
Someone very tall and broad stood in front of him, their features shadowed and indeterminable. Ulysses felt abruptly small and weak and that made him angry, the heat of rage chasing away much of the pain. He didn’t like to be reminded that he was slim for an alpha wolf, that he was shorter than the average dominant male. He didn’t want to be shown that he was less, when he tried so damn hard to be more.
Blinking again, he managed to clear away the last of the fog in his brain and got a good look at his assailant. The guy looked like a mishmash of lumberjack and hipster, seemingly entirely composed of scraggly facial hair and a baggy flannel shirt. The shirt had useless pockets on the front, one of which held what appeared to be a vape pen.
“What the fuck do you want, hippie-boy?” Ulysses snarled. He wanted to bear his fangs for that extra bit of added intimidation and restrained himself from doing so, knowing even the slightest display of shifting would be unwise in the presence of so many humans.
The other man lifted his fist and cracked his knuckles, then shook out his hand. He made it seem as if punching another man in the boniest part of his body was no big deal, as insignificant as pummeling a pillow. “You knocked into my girl, man. That isn’t cool. You’re so drunk you can’t walk, you should probably go.”
Around the hipster’s broad shoulders, Ulysses could see his friends and co-workers. None of them seemed to have noticed yet what was going on, didn’t seem to miss his presence at all.
Awareness of a brewing fight was stirring through the bar, the nearest observers passing this news along to the others. Soon enough, word would reach Tony and Brody and all the rest. They would see him being intimidated by this dumb tree-hugger, and he would become a laughingstock in their eyes.
That wasn’t what he wanted. He would do anything to prevent that.
Squaring his shoulders, Ulysses also cracked his knuckles. He puffed out his chest, showing off the fact that his stature had little to do with how muscular he was. The fibers in his shirt stretched, tore slightly. “Back off,” he said.
The hipster didn’t take the warning. He swung his fist around from the side, his entire body following through with the blow.
Ulysses stepped easily out of the way and ran into the hipster’s second fist, which jabbed in from straight ahead. The punch collided with the front of his face. He felt his nose flatten in a ponderous, sickening sort of way, like a building collapsing in on itself. His lips were hammered against his teeth, punctured; the taste of blood filled his mouth as he staggered back, lifting both hands to clutch at his face.
The same trick again. The same fucking trick.
Before he even finished putting his foot down on the ground, Ulysses grabbed at his fury and yanked it up to the forefront of his mind. His heart started pounding, the beat of his most vital organ thrumming in his ears, pulsing in his veins. Surging forward, he reached out with both hands to grab the hipster, to force him to the ground, to rip him to pieces.
Then, there was another person in front of him, blocking his attack, shoving him back.
Ulysses staggered for the second time in as many seconds, panting, shaking with anger. His drunken state no longer felt so good and free. Instead, his stomach roiled like he was about to be sick. He felt dizzy, off-balance, no longer in control.
“That’s enough,” the other person said. Their voice was very deep, very masculine. Judging from his dark clothing, this man who had interfered in the fight was most likely a bouncer. The bouncer turned to pierce the hipster through with a fierce glare, making him shrink back, like a wilting flower in the face of harsh sunlight. “Back off or you can count on never being allowed back in here.”
Ulysses thought it was extremely unfair that he and the bouncer had both said “back off” but only one of them had been listened to. He snorted, crossing his arms. The sound brought the bouncer’s interest in his direction, not that this was necessarily a good thing. The bouncer looked faintly disgusted and most certainly displeased.
“As for you, you’re out.”
“Out?” Ulysses repeated, incredulous. He forgot for a moment to be angry, forgot to be anything in the face of this ridiculous statement. “What do you mean, I’m out?”
The bouncer glanced around, glowering at the watching crowd. “Show’s over,” he snapped. “Go back to what you were doing.”
Very, very slowly, the other bar patrons started to mind their own business once more. The lull in conversation resumed. The din escalated. The line reformed, albeit at a canted angle to avoid coming anywhere near Ulysses.
Looking satisfied at this progress, the bouncer lowered his voice. He was clearly making an effort to be nice, although that was the last thing Ulysses wanted right about now. “Here.”
Ulysses looked at the handkerchief being offered to him, then back up at the bouncer. His mouth had already stopped bleeding and his nose had only let out a tiny trickle as a result of its abuse. He didn’t need the scrap of cloth. He didn’t need that kindness.
After a moment, the bouncer tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket. “Look, kid,” he said, “you’re drunk. You’re aggressive. Go home. Need me to call you a cab?”
“I didn’t start this!” Ulysses snapped, causing others to look back in his direction again. Brody was definitely watching by now, and he had no intentions of looking like a fool in front of his best friend. “You can’t kick me out. I dare you to try.”
The bouncer sighed. He looked to be in his mid-30’s, with glasses a few years out of style and sensible hair. His black shirt was tucked into his pants, which was such a “dad” look that Ulysses was suddenly certain this guy was married, with at least two kids.
“Look,” the bouncer said, repeating himself. “I have a sixth-degree black belt in taekwondo. I can handle you on my own and drag you out of here by your ear in front of all your friends. Or, I can call the cops and get you stuck in the drunk tank for the night. Or, you can just walk out of here and go home. I can call you a cab, buddy. What do you say?”
Ulysses hesitated. Maybe without even knowing he had done so, this random bouncer had struck all the right notes within him to make him feel extremely unconfident. He didn’t want to have a spectacle made of himself. He didn’t want to look like a fool.
Best to just go, then.
“Fine,” he grunted, looking away. He kept his shoulders squared, fighting against the disappointment that his fun night had been cut short. He didn’t want this herk to see the effect his words had. “It’s boring here, anyway. I’ll just go.”
The bouncer nodded, not smiling, not letting his guard down for an instant. “Good idea, buddy. What do you say I call you that cab?”
“No,” Ulysses said. He pressed his lips together firmly, mentally standing his ground. “I have to go tell my friends that I’m getting out of here. And then I’ll go.”
He started to head off towards his table, only to be stopped by a firm hand that planted itself against his chest. Once again, he was able to feel five individual fingers all digging into his flesh. The sensation almost made him lash out, though he held off on that as best as he could and managed to reduce the severity of the reaction to a flinch.
The bouncer looked at him with a grim, inexplicable sort of expression that he didn’t immediately understand. “You are in no condition to drive home.”
“I’ll walk. I live nearby.”
He was lying. He didn’t live nearby, not near enough that walking home would be a feasible option.
The bouncer looked at him, and Ulysses knew the man was going to see through the lie, was going to drag him to a seat in the corner while a cab was called to pick him up.
“Fine. Just don’t be stupid. And don’t come back here again if you’re going to cause more trouble.”
And just like that, Ulysses was standing alone in the middle of the bar. He was surrounded by a shifting, swelling, clashing sea of people, but he was all alone.
His chest ached strangely.
Shoving away the sensation, he worked his way through the crowd to get to his table. One of the random women was sitting in his spot, having effectively replaced him.
No one seemed to notice or care. Brody was laughing at someone’s stupid joke, and Tony was tangled up in the arms of a woman with a skirt so short her bare ass was on display for everyone to see. And Steve, Lorenzo, Filip, and all the others were having a grand old time without him.
Ulysses stopped a foot away from the table and announced, “I’m going home, guys.”
A few pairs of eyes darted idly in his direction and then away again, as if he was a ghost that might or might not even exist.
“Stupid security guard is kicking me out.”
Still no response.
“I guess I’ll be leaving, then.”
The woman sitting in his chair spared him a glance which seemed halfway interested, as if she was considering asking if he needed someone to keep him company. Then, even she went back to ignoring him.
Stung by this rejection, by his friend’s complete inability to care about what he was doing, Ulysses took a step away from the table. Then, another. Two more steps back and faceless silhouettes swarmed into the space between himself and his so-called friends, blocking them from view.
The spell broken, he turned away and hurried over to the door. He yanked it open, emerging out into the cool Pensacola night. The Florida sky was cloudy and yet somehow deep, seeming to drag his gaze ever upward when he stopped to look.
The smell of brine filled his senses, carried to him from the ocean nearby on the chilled breeze. This was what one might call winter in Florida, a cooling of heat and lessening of humidity which categorized a drop in tourism. No one wanted to hop in the ocean when the waves were as cold as ice, and Pensacola’s beaches were its main attraction.
That wasn’t to say the city wasn’t busy. Far from it. The bustle only seemed a little different this time of year, calmer and less frenzied. The tourists were older, less like college students and more like middle-class families wanting to capitalize on the calm atmosphere and smaller crowds. Everything slowed down.
Ulysses felt his heartbeat slowing down in response. The breeze was a soothing touch to his brow, a cold pack for his feverish anger. He just stood there along the side of the building, ignoring the muffled din from inside, and let himself wind down. The sick feeling faded from his stomach, leaving hunger in its wake. Even his pain started to lessen already, his nerves numbed from the cold.
I’m perfectly fine to ride home.
Hell, maybe he’d stop by a store on the way home and grab some beer to continue his night of relaxation in peace. This hitch in the plan couldn’t prevent him from enjoying himself.
Feeling at least a little bit better, like his plan to continue drinking at home was a score against the bouncer, Ulysses went over to where he had parked his motorcycle.
He owned a chopper, which had once been Harley-Davidson cruiser. It was now a one-of-a-kind custom ride, and he had done most of the work himself during his spare time at the shop. He was in love with motorcycles in general, far more than most bikers were. It wasn’t the allure of speed and danger, the illusion of badassery, which spoke to him; rather, he loved the designs, the way everything worked together. He enjoyed working with his hands, getting up close and personal to the most minute of details before backing away to admire what he had done.
His dream was to someday build his own chopper from scratch, but for now he settled with continuing to modify this one.
Every feature of his chopper was accentuated to the extreme, the bike reduced down to its frame and then basically stretched. The frame was lengthened itself and so were his handlebars and fender.
Of course, the stripping of the chopper had necessitated a decrease in engine power, but his baby could still move like nobody’s business.
Ulysses mounted his bike, wavered dizzily, and righted himself. He drove out of the parking lot and onto the street.
After that, he remembered very little.