Soon-to-be-Doctor Beau Jeffries was doing his best not to show it, but he could hardly believe he was walking around the campus of the Rochester Clinic as a possible future resident. The interview for the residency program was actually an entire day of interviews, interspersed with meals and other “casual” events that Beau knew were no less crucial to the impression he was making.
He needed to make an impeccable impression. Beau was the only werewolf being considered for a residency at Rochester.
Even with excellent grades and stellar recommendations, securing a place in a residency program focused on human medicine was going to be an uphill battle.
When he was shown to the waiting area outside the program director’s office, the administrative assistant gave a little smile and he tried to return it with the same intensity. “Dr. Aster will be with you in just a moment.”
“No problem,” Beau said, moving to sit in the chairs she had waved toward. She nodded and retreated to her desk.
Like virtually every human, which was to say every person, he’d met at Rochester, she didn’t seem at all frightened of him or even unduly curious. He’d even noticed werewolves around the place, working as security guards and maybe orderlies. He hadn’t been introduced to any of them, and hadn’t given them away by showing that he’d noticed, but they were there, working with these humans, accepted by them. It was just one more thing—aside from it being the Rochester Clinic—that had him mentally ranking this program as his first choice before he’d even finished his interview.
Beau had been the only werewolf med student at all the other interviews he’d gone on as well. There were a handful of others in his graduating class, but he’d chosen Northwestern because it was one of the few medical schools in the country with openly lycanthropic students. There weren’t many werewolves in medicine, and Beau was the only one he knew of who wanted to treat humans, instead of advancing the brand new fields opening up in lycanthropic research.
There was plenty of good to be done there, of course. Beau was as curious as anyone to know how his own kind really ticked. But werewolves had gotten along for centuries before the Revelation without modern medicine, because werewolves were pretty damn hard to kill. The Supreme Court decision handed down the same year Beau graduated high school, ruling that werewolves were people and killing them was homicide, had done more to improve werewolves’ life expectancy than the entire medical profession ever could.
Humans, on the other hand, could be killed by all sorts of things. Beau was becoming a doctor because he wanted to save people—and that meant being a doctor for the people who needed saving.
He’d dreamed of working at Rochester since long before he got into med school. Rochester was the last resort for a lot of sick humans; the world-renowned clinic specialized in difficult cases. If Beau wanted to prove that a werewolf’s senses, combined with a proper medical education, could save lives through improved diagnosis, this was the place to do it.
So he really, really had to stop grinning like an idiot every time he saw another sign, or piece of stationery, or employee badge with the Rochester Clinic emblem on it. He was here to be considered for a residency, not to ask for a medical institution’s autograph.
He kept his gaze down as he waited, and couldn’t help looking at his own visitor’s badge. It had his picture on it, duplicated from the headshot he’d sent with his application; he had spent a great deal of effort getting his smile right, a warm expression that countered the appearance of a dark-haired, dark-eyed alpha werewolf. He was well over six feet tall with the broad, muscular alpha build that could make humans edge away from him even before they knew what he was, if he didn’t take care to look friendly and non-threatening.
It reminded him to try to look like that, amiable and approachable and not beaming with idiotic delight.
The director herself came to the door of her office, and Beau popped to his feet maybe a little too fast. She and her assistant both showed brief indications of being startled, but nothing more. Beau smiled and smoothed down his shirt. He stepped forward slowly as Dr. Aster’s expression settled into a professional smile.
This interview was his last of the day, and it was only scheduled for about fifteen minutes, not really time for anything in-depth. Beau figured it was just a handshake and a little chat—a formality.
That idea lasted for about two minutes while he exchanged pleasantries with Dr. Aster, and then she said, “Now, I don’t want to ignore the elephant in the room, here. You’re unlike any other med student we’re interviewing.”
Beau nodded, guarding his expression. He’d gotten variously blunt questions about lycanthropy several times in his interviews so far. He had come up with pretty smooth answers to all of them.
“If accepted,” the director went on, “it follows that you would have needs that would be different from any other resident’s, and so we are trying to get a handle on what that would involve. This is our draft policy on werewolves in the residency program here at Rochester. I’d like you to just take a look at it and tell me what you think, or ask me any questions that occur to you right away.”
Beau stared at her for a few seconds before he forced himself to take the papers from her hand. He kept his face schooled to a neutral expression, his hands steady, but he could barely read the words in front of him, all the extra rules they were going to make him follow to make up for being what he was.
A provision near the top leaped out at him.
Werewolf residents will be expected to demonstrate strong and continuing support from other werewolves (with pack of origin, local pack fostering, and/or a mate/spouse).
Beau couldn’t even pretend to look at any other words on the page; his throat was tight and his heart racing as he stared at the paper, which was suddenly a wall coming down between him and everything he’d spent the last decade working toward.
“I…” Beau forced himself to look up, to meet the human’s politely concerned gaze. “I’m not a member of a pack.”
They couldn’t, technically, force him to disclose anything about his pack membership if he didn’t have one, but if they asked him what had happened with the pack he was born to, why he had left, he would have to answer. Lying would damn him, and the truth was something he’d been walking away from for a long time. He didn’t want to have to spill all of that here, but if he had to, if that was the price…
Dr. Aster didn’t press that point, though. “I take it the fact that you didn’t bring a partner to last night’s dinner is not just the two-body problem in scheduling, then?”
Beau shook his head slightly. He hadn’t had time to date since he was sixteen, and before then he’d never gotten past having a crush. Since he left home, every bit of time and effort had been focused on surviving without a pack, putting himself through college and then med school.
The werewolves among the med students sometimes called themselves a pack, but it came nowhere near meeting the legal definition. Given that everyone in it was either still in med school or in a residency, even if they were a legitimate pack they still wouldn’t be any use as a support network, and no one here would believe him if he tried to claim they were.
“There are some local packs in the area that we’ve touched base with,” Dr. Aster said tentatively. “There are at least two who seem open to taking on a temporary or permanent new member, and I gather from what they said when we discussed it that that kind of support really would be crucial. It wouldn’t be safe for you or anyone else for you to try to complete a program as demanding as our residency without some support.”
Here it was, more baldly stated than anywhere else he’d interviewed. We can’t have you going crazy and biting patients. He wondered if there was some provision in the policy for having extra security on hand for his shifts, ready to take him down if he went wild, or if they wouldn’t consider that any of his business.
He thought of the other werewolves he’d noticed around, and realized that they must all be keeping the secret somehow; surely Rochester wouldn’t trust werewolf security guards more than a werewolf medical resident. He couldn’t risk compromising others by showing that he knew; if he came here he could never acknowledge any of them, even if they were set the ironic task of keeping him under control.
Beau plastered on a self-deprecating smile and made himself look up, ignoring the strangling feeling of claustrophobia that came with the idea of returning to such terrible secrecy in the guise of openness. “I understand. It would mean some extra adjustments, but obviously I would do everything I could to abide by the program’s policy if matched here.”
Dr. Aster smiled. Beau didn’t know her remotely well enough to have any special insight into the meaning of her scent or her heartbeat, but she seemed calm, settled. Not angry or afraid, not inflicting this from cruelty, but determined that it was the best course.
Beau made his way through the rest of the interview on autopilot, but he already wanted to be back in Chicago, away from the false promise of this place. There was no way he was going to be putting the Rochester Clinic on his list of possible matches. No matter how neat and tidy they made it sound, he wasn’t going to sign up to have his private life dictated to him by humans.
Six weeks later, Beau had ordered and re-ordered his list of residency programs about a thousand times. The deadline for submitting his prioritized choices was only hours away, and he knew that swapping his seventh and eighth place choices yet again wasn’t really what he was worried about.
He only had nine programs on his list.
He had interviewed at twelve, and the two he’d visited after the Rochester Clinic had both been absolutely clear no’s. Everyone had been polite, but he’d gotten incredibly bad feelings about both places, unable to connect even tentatively with any of the doctors or residents he met. There had been no werewolf security guards, nothing but humans.
Did that matter? Had he just been hypersensitive after Rochester? He didn’t know, but he felt hair standing up on his neck and a growl vibrating at the base of his throat when he thought about putting either of them on his list.
The irony was that he still remembered how happy he’d felt at Rochester, right until the end. Every time he thought about it, he couldn’t remember anything but that sunny, suburban campus. He’d spent nearly eleven years in the city in Chicago and he was ready to be somewhere that wasn’t quite so hard on a wolf’s senses. No residency program was going to be anything like where he’d grown up, but Rochester was one of the smaller cities he’d visited, and it was surrounded by vast sweeps of state and national parks. It was Minnesota.
He could be happy there, if it wasn’t for…
He shook his head. No. He wasn’t going to let his residency program force him into a pack, to make himself subject to some strange alpha’s decisions; it couldn’t possibly turn out any better than it had the first time. And he certainly wasn’t going to be rushed into a mating. He couldn’t, not like this. Not to satisfy humans who would probably never be satisfied that he wasn’t some time bomb of lycanthropic aggression, straight out of some distorted sensational news story about another werewolf killed by a human in so-called self-defense.
But that meant he still only had nine choices on his list. They had been told, time and again, as they applied and interviewed, that if they put down ten or more choices, they had a better than 90 percent chance of being matched.
But those were the statistics for human med students, of course. Dr. Pavlyuchenko, who served as a semi-official adviser for all the werewolf students at Northwestern, had told him flatly that ten was the bare minimum if he hoped to be matched.
The matching between applicants and residency programs was done nationally; every fourth-year med student would find out on the same day whether they had matched and then, a few days later, where they were going. If he didn’t match, he’d have to scramble to find a program that would take him.
If he could find any spot at all, at that point, it would be in werewolf medicine, not human. If he spent two or three years doing a residency in a lycanthropic specialty, he could kiss his chances of ever getting board-certified in a human specialty goodbye.
So he had to match. He had to match one of the twelve programs he’d managed to get an interview with, or it was all for nothing.
It wasn’t like Rochester would take him anyway, probably, given how they clearly felt about werewolves. And if it got down to his tenth choice…
Beau gritted his teeth and typed in Rochester Clinic at the bottom of his list. He hit Submit before he could second-guess himself. He had ten programs on his list. He would be happy at nine of them. He still had his final semester to get through, and he couldn’t waste any more time thinking about where he might match. It was out of his hands now.
“Mr. Lea? You can keep going if you want, but I’m just going to turn off the timer.”
Roland squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his knuckles to his forehead as if he could push back the searing pain of his headache. It also gave him a little cover from the gentle, patient gaze of Susan, his case worker at the North Chicago Omega Refuge.
Susan was an omega, too, and she would certainly be able to tell if he actually let a tear fall, but if he hid his face she wouldn’t acknowledge it out loud. Probably.
He heard her take a few tentative steps closer to his end of the table, and Roland used his other arm to cover the test booklet he’d been staring into without writing down a single answer for… he had no idea how long. Long enough that Susan had given up on him making any kind of progress on the practice test within the time limit.
“Don’t,” Roland managed to say, his throat constricted almost too tightly even for that. “Don’t look. Please.”
Susan stayed where she was, and then he heard her backing away. “I won’t look at your test. But maybe you’d like to go and wash your face, and then we can talk about this. About where you’d like to go from here.”
Roland nodded against his fist, latching on immediately to the escape offered in her suggestion. He grabbed the test booklet as he stood, his shoulders hunched up as he turned away without looking in Susan’s direction. He hurried out of the little meeting room toward the nearest bathroom and locked himself in, then pressed his flaming face to the metal door.
He didn’t know what was shaking his body, making him feel hot and weak all over, even beyond the shame and rage of his latest, most obvious failure. He’d been feeling like this for weeks, even before he’d come to the refuge. It felt a little like heat coming on—that uncomfortable, achy almost-fever, but worse, ugly and painful.
And he certainly wasn’t coming into heat. The suppressants he kept hidden away in his locker protected him from that. He took them faithfully, every day, and guarded the bottle more fiercely than any of his other meager possessions.
He wasn’t going to be helpless like that again, mindless like that. Not ever. No one was going to use him like that ever again.
That was the decision he’d made, when he finally got his shit together enough to realize that, whether or not there was anything better to hope for, he had to get away from Martin. It was the one thing he’d stayed certain of through his struggles to survive before he found the refuge. He wasn’t doing any of that again.
But he had to do something. Without a shitbag alpha boyfriend, let alone a real mate or pack, Roland had to find a way to support himself. If he stayed on the suppressants, his heats wouldn’t get in the way of finding a job. He’d even be able to pass among humans again. He could have a life, or something resembling one. He might be lonely and cold, but he would be his own.
All he had to do was find a job, despite the fact that he’d never finished high school, never held a real job, and…
Roland opened his eyes and pushed back from the door, using both hands to spread out the test booklet against the metal surface. He stared fiercely at the page he’d been on when Susan broke the silence in the study room, but it was no different here, alone. The words blurred into illegible smears as he looked at them, and when he did decipher one he couldn’t place it within a sentence, forgetting it by the time he had wrestled through the next.
He was broken. Sometime in the last eight years, when he wasn’t paying attention—and the moon knew, he had worked hard enough at not paying attention—he had lost the ability to even fucking read. To even think properly. He hadn’t taken a bit of wolfsbane since he came to the refuge, where he had a safe place to sleep and food to eat, but the shivery weakness hadn’t let up, and neither had this.
Roland turned away from the door and staggered to the sink to splash water on his face. He looked at himself in the mirror, trying not to flinch from the sight. His pale green eyes stared back at him, the color looking lurid next to the bloodshot whites of his eyes. He was gaunt, his color sickly pale. He’d shaved off his hair at one of the shelters he’d stayed at before he found the refuge because it had started to fall out in patches; his head sported a few hints of pale stubble among the stretches of naked skin, even paler than his face. The vivid, unhealed silver burns peeked out of the collar of his shirt, and Roland rearranged the out-of-season scarf he wore to cover them, using one end to mop his damp face.
No one was going to hire him looking like this, and he wasn’t good for anything anyway. He couldn’t go back to school, and he was in no condition to do the kinds of heavy labor that a lot of alphas and betas excelled at, with werewolf strength and healing. The refuge was big on all the omegas who lived here having a plan, a goal. Roland had been telling Susan that this was his, to finish the education he’d missed out on when he ran away at sixteen with an older alpha who promised to take good care of him.
If he didn’t have a plan, would they kick him out? Would he have to go back to the human shelters? Back to begging on street corners, sleeping cold and hungry in doorways when human strangers’ pity didn’t keep him fed?
Roland squeezed his eyes shut. “Fuck. Fuck.”
There was a gentle tap on the door. “Mr. Lea?”
Susan. Of course. Susan was kind, and patient, and relentless. She wasn’t going to let him hide in this bathroom forever.
Roland shoved the test booklet into the trash, deep under the damp paper towels and used tissues. He rinsed his hands and dried them, and then opened the door.
“Are you going to kick me out?”
Susan blinked at him. She was at least sixty, though soft living and werewolf genetics made it hard to tell; she never talked about herself, her own life, but Roland had her pegged as a grandmother from some nice suburb, doing Good Works among the fallen omegas at the refuge.
She was still a wolf, though. She still had teeth. She didn’t flinch from him, and if it came time for him to go he had no doubt she’d escort him to the gate and put him out personally.
“No,” she said after a moment. “That’s not what we do here. But I think we need to reconsider your options.”
As if he still had options. But if they weren’t kicking him out, that was something, and he owed it to this place to go through whatever motions were required.
“Okay,” Roland said, making himself let go of the doorframe. “Sure, let’s reconsider.”
Susan led him away from the bathroom, not back to the study room, which must reek of his desperation and despair, but to a quiet little sitting room. She shut the door firmly, but the windows were open, looking out at the refuge’s courtyard. There were a few little green shoots poking out of the ground, the first brave flowers of the spring.
“So,” Susan said. “I’m not going to tell you by any means to give up on finishing high school, but it seems like that may be a longer-term project for you.”
Roland stared down at his hands, clamped around each other until his bony knuckles were bloodless. Susan was always like this, pretending he had a future, that he could do things normal people did, as if his past was really just past.
“I think you need more individual support than the refuge is able to give you,” she went on. “I know you’ve said there’s no pack or family who you want to get in contact with, and I don’t really want to push you toward joining a pack on your own at this point.”
She fell silent there. Roland thought that did sound like they wanted to kick him out, or send him to some even-more-institutional institution, because what the hell did that leave?
He raised his head to look at her, and Susan was holding a pamphlet now. Even he could read the two linked symbols on the cover: alpha and omega.
Roland stared at it for a moment, and then looked up at Susan’s gentle expression. He buried his face in his hands and started to laugh, wildly and a little painfully. “You—what—”
Susan was as unperturbed as ever. “It’s an agency that helps to connect single alphas and omegas, and they work with us sometimes to find suitable mates for omegas here. You haven’t met Eric yet, I don’t think, but he’s one of our volunteers and a former resident—he found his mate through them. They wouldn’t force anything, but they could help you to find a mate who’d support you, in every sense.”
Roland forced himself to stop laughing before it turned into something else. He breathed for a little while, still keeping his face hidden, and then sat back in his chair, mopping his face with the end of his scarf. He tugged it out of place when he was done and dragged down the collar of his shirt, letting Susan really see the silver burns that still marred his neck in ugly, raised red patches, blistered around the edges.
Her eyes widened slightly. “Roland! That’s—”
“They don’t heal,” Roland said, tucking the scarf back in place and looking away. “I’ve been to the clinic, I put the salve on it twice a day, but… they don’t heal. And that’s… that’s not even everything.”
He gritted his teeth, pushing away the memory of the pain in his belly and between his legs, the midwife’s strong hands, his alpha’s sneer. Who’d want you now? You’re only good for one thing.
“Trust me, I’m not mating material. No alpha’s going to want me. Or if they did, what they want me for is…” Roland shook his head and stared out the window again.
“I’ll grant you, it would have to be someone very special,” Susan said. “But there’s every chance the alpha for you could be out there somewhere, Mr. Lea. Registering with the agency doesn’t commit you to anything beyond meeting prospective alphas. If you aren’t comfortable with anyone they introduce you to, you say no and that’s that. But if you think it’s possible that there could be someone you’d say yes to, I really want you to consider it.”
Then he would have a plan, wouldn’t he? Then he could say he was trying. They would let him stay here at the refuge, and he could keep trying to heal. Maybe he could read again if he just had more time to recover, and then he could change his plan.
No one was going to choose him, and he was pretty confident in his ability to spot scumbags who wanted to use him like Martin had, so he could always say no. They’d probably let him say no a few times before they decided he wasn’t trying, and how many alphas would really ask for someone like him?
Roland sighed, letting Susan see him give in. “Okay, yeah. What do I have to do to register?”