So it’s like this:
The world fell apart on a Tuesday. While happy, unassuming people were eating their morning pig in a poke and rushing off to the office, a rather special, rather deadly virus was escaping a military lab somewhere out in Missouri.
Perhaps it could have been contained, if they’d realized it in time.
But the doctor in charge of the specimen was due for his vacation. The other scientists in the lab had no initial reason to think that procedure wasn’t being followed to the letter.
The apocalypse had begun, and no one noticed… for another eight hours, anyway.
It seemed to take scarcely any time at all before the world was in ruin. World leaders fell. Governments toppled. Society as we knew it came to a screeching halt, and what was left were the remnants of those who adjusted and fought to go on.
Gavin grew up poor.
It’s just how it was. His parents died at the height of the plague. His elder brother held on for a few years, shielding him as best he could. He was probably the reason that Gavin survived. But then he, too, succumbed to the harsh scrapyard that had become their life, and Gavin was a young alpha alone.
He was determined to survive, so he scrambled and he scrapped and he scraped for every drop of water, every hard-earned crust of bread. It made him strong and it made him fierce and it made him lonely and he decided, one night when the sun dropped below the horizon and the earth was blanketed in darkness and starlight, that when he was old enough and strong enough he would make something of himself. He would be bold and he would live fully and he would have a mate and a family of his own.
This is not that story.
This story is much darker.
This is the story of the universe where Gavin’s dreams went up in smoke.
Farmer. Builder. Hunter. Shoemaker.
Esteemed professions all. Gavin worked with all of their masters, trying to find his place in the world, a spot he could settle in and be proud of.
He was good at them. He had a way with the grapes on their trellises. He could fix roofs and bring down deer to feed his patrons for weeks at a time. The shoemaker he studied under wanted to keep him on, admiring the small artistic touches Gavin assigned to the leathers they worked. Told Gavin he could be more than good, if he got more practice in him. The man would be happy to name Gavin his heir in place of the boy he lost long ago.
But Gavin couldn’t settle. It wasn’t so much ambition as it was a thirst - a desperate need to know more and more, to be learnèd for its own sake. But ambition came snaking in, anyhow. The world might have changed, but it was still ruled by the wealthy.
If Gavin were wealthy himself, he reasoned, then he’d never have to go hungry again. He wouldn’t have to hope for the best, that an omega might look beyond his threadbare clothes and his blunt manners, in order to see to the heart of him. He’d be accepted just about anywhere he went. He could have a voice, an influence. He could be of service to those who needed it in a way that he was limited from, now.
He knew that the only way he’d reach that ideal was to be educated.
So he studied.
He worked all day with the shoemaker, or with the farmer in his fields. And he studied all the night, sleep taking a backseat to the quest for more information, more polish. He never noticed the omegas who did hunger for him, saw beyond his patched clothes to the heart of the man beneath, the man who always had time for the wee toddling children and the old men and women without families. Never saw that his own striking good looks and hard-working disposition was enough to get him the life he wanted, just as he was.
When the day came that Gavin purchased his first proper suit, he nearly didn’t go through with it. The suit cost as much as he would make in an entire month of work - maybe more - with no options for trade or barter. But when he took a bath and slipped the fabric on, staring at himself in the mirror, he felt a surge of confidence take up habitat in his bones.
It was time. He was ready.
His first two interviews for positions that utilized his hard-earned book learning didn’t bear any fruit. But he rationalized it to himself, remembering his brother’s favorite phrase as they would scavenge for food and glean from the edges of the fields - third time lucky.
So he interviewed for the position of a tutor to an omega son of a local aristocrat. The advertisement made it seem as though his charge would be younger, needing a firm bit of polish before being introduced to the upper crusts of society.
Gavin met with the boy’s father in a wood-paneled study with large windows, in a house that had a maid to answer the door. He must have made some kind of good impression, because after the man finished smoking a cigar, he leaned back in his chair and told Gavin what his salary would be and that he would be required to begin lessons the next day.
Gavin could only agree.
This was it. This was his chance. This was his way out of poverty, his way into being a powerful man in his own right. Maybe he would even find a mate of his own. Maybe he too would eventually own a big house with paneled walls and villagers who admired him for the abundance he brought to their area.
His dreams lasted precisely as long as it took for him to walk out into the fields with his new employer, that he might meet his charge.
This was no young omega who needed a firm hand to keep him in check as he grew up.
This was a full grown man, eager and ready, his scent calling to Gavin like the bouquet of a fresh baked apple pie to a starving man.
Gavin went to purgatory every day for six hours - the amount of time allocated for him to instruct Jay in science and literature, etiquette and history. He learned things, too, like the shape of Jay’s mouth when he frowned at the ‘useless essays’ Jay’s father wanted him to complete, and the way the sunlight burned gold into Jay’s dark hair when Gavin had to track him down in the fields.
For the most part, Jay was a good sport about the tutoring. It was obvious he didn’t want it; he was most at home among the rows of corn and squash, or wading in the creek that cut across the backside of the property. But every time Gavin would come to collect him, he’d give up the hoe or the fishing line or the moment of snugging his fingers into his favorite dog’s scruff, and walk back to the house with Gavin, his gait loose and easy as he peeked up from the sides of his eyes.
It took three weeks for Gavin to break.
“Why don’t you have a mate, then?” Jay asked, the corner of his mouth tilted up like he had a secret he wasn’t keen to share.
Gavin swallowed. “Never did find the right person, I suppose,” he answered.
They walked in silence for a moment longer. Once they crested the hill, they’d be in sight of the house.
Jay stopped abruptly. “Do you believe in the old ways?”
Gavin wasn’t a man used to floundering, but he wasn’t sure how to answer Jay’s question. Not honestly, anyhow. Not without opening a box of worms that was sure to see him thrown out on his ass with no references.
When the silence hung in the air a little too long, Jay shifted his weight and ducked his head. “I do,” he murmured. “My mam does. My father’s not my real father, you know. My mam’s true alpha died when I was a child.”
Christ. Gavin scrubbed his hand across his face. He wasn’t ready for this. It was the very definition of standing between a rock and a hard place. There was even an outcropping a few feet away, and his feet took him there without his consent. The stone was hard against his backside as he sank down to sit.
When Jay joined him, Gavin sighed. “I do,” he said. “Believe in the old ways, I mean.” How could he not, when every moment since he’d met Jay, the sight and scent of the younger man called out to him like a beacon?
“Then you know what I’m about to say,” Jay said gently.
Gavin wanted to be a better man. He’d had a plan for his future, a plan that involved making nice with these people, and investing his wages, and building a name for himself. Settling down with a nice omega. Having a family.
He never dreamed he’d find his omega. The person the gods themselves chose for him. The son of a man with wealth and power, who’d made it abundantly clear that Jay would be seeking a marriage of stature in the city the following spring - if he wasn’t married off to support a business alliance, first.
“Where you are - ” Jay started, but Gavin moved quickly, placing a finger across his omega’s lips before he could finish the start of his chant, the ancient rite to take one’s own fated in marriage.
“You hardly know me,” Gavin said, but it came out weak.
Jay shook his head. “I know you by the scent of your sweat,” he said. “The pine resin and woodsmoke, the earthy loam that leaves me so scent-drunk I can hardly stand it.” Gavin opened his mouth again, but Jay hurried on before he could speak. “I know you by the way you stopped to carry my mam’s baskets for her last week, and how patient you are when I don’t understand the questions you put to me in the schoolroom.” He reached out, his fingertips ghosting along Gavin’s palm, ever mindful that they were not truly alone. “I know you by the calluses in your hands, that you’ve done hard labor - by the muscles in your arms as you tossed and played with the children on Sunday last.”
Jay looked at him boldly, defiantly, a bright flush spreading across his cheeks and over his ears, down his neck and under the cover of his shirt. “I know you as an omega knows their alpha, Gavin. Or at least, I’d like to.”
And what could Gavin do, faced with his own feral omega, Jay’s scent heady in his throat, Gavin’s own skin tingling where Jay brushed against it?
Everyone knows that an alpha surrenders to their own heart.
It was hard to keep a secret in Jay’s household. They felt like Romeo and Juliet, that famous alpha-omega couple whose forbidden love was doomed to failure. They realized it would be easier for Jay to aver any questions that might come if he was found wandering in the night or the early morning; therefore he was the one to creep quietly along the corridors in search of his alpha.
They were quiet. They had to be. Gavin agreed with Jay when Jay told him that his father would never accept them, and that he needed a few more weeks to prepare before they came clean with their deception. They knew they’d have to leave quickly in the aftermath.
Which is why it was a surprise when Jay’s mother pulled Gavin aside one morning, looking carefully up one way and down the other, before pressing a bulging cloth bag into his hands.
“I’m expecting you to do right by my boy,” she said softly. “I just want him to be happy.”
“Mrs. Adams,” he started, but she shook her head.
“My husband is a good man,” she said. “But he doesn’t understand. You take Jay and you leave, you ken? Give him a day or two to make his peace with it, and then you go.”
He opened his mouth again, but the creak of a tread on the staircase had her jerking back, stepping away from him quickly and hurrying down the hall to intercept the maid, come up to do the cleaning.
Gavin lifted the flap of the bag. Dried beans and jerky, some travelers biscuits, a small block of hard cheese. Some jewelry - more than suitable for a good trade. He sucked in a breath, glancing back the way she’d gone, before moving back to his room to secrete the bag amongst his things for safekeeping.
Jay wasn’t ready to go. It was obvious, from the drooping line of his shoulders to the crease that took up roost between his eyebrows. But he drew in a breath anyway, and reached down to fumble his shirt between his fingers where the fabric met his stomach.
“Alright, then,” he said firmly. “I’d like to leave now.”
“Now?” Gavin had intended to give him more time. A day to rest up for the journey and finish saying his goodbyes to his mam and the land he ran wild over, but Jay’s jaw was set.
“Mam wouldn’t have approached you if she weren’t worried,” he said. “That means it’s probably best to go now.”
“You know what this is about,” Gavin mused, and Jay nodded.
“We can stand here talking about it, or I can fill a pack,” he offered.
Gavin leaned down to press a kiss to Jay’s lips. “Go on, then,” he said. But as Jay stole from the room, Gavin resolved to ask again later.
The house was silent as they slipped down the stairs, avoiding the treads that creaked and groaned, and out the back door. Jay’s dog was asleep on the stoop, and he rose to his feet with a whine of greeting, wagging his tail and pressing his head against Jay’s legs.
Gavin’s stomach sank. It was clear the pup would wake the house in his excitement if they didn’t hurry things up. They didn’t have the provisions to care for a dog, but a single look at Jay’s face had Gavin whispering, “Keep him quiet and you can bring him along.”
Jay didn’t bother to hide his grin.
“Hush, Samson,” he murmured, and the dog grew calm, falling into place beside them as they crept through the courtyard and down the road.
They were well away from the town before Gavin spoke, still careful to keep his voice soft and even, the slightest rumble on the balmy night breeze. “What was it that made you want to leave tonight?”
Jay didn’t answer for a long moment, and when he did, his voice was sharp and ugly. “A suitor,” he said. “Father wants me to marry him.”
“You know the man, then,” Gavin realized.
Jay shuddered. “Yes.”
Gavin reached up to secure Jay’s hand in his. They didn’t speak for a long time.
The sun rose red in the morning, it’s crimson shadows dark like blood. Gavin’s feet were sore in his boots; he’d no doubt that Jay’s were the same.
They could stand to walk farther. A few miles more would bring them to a small town where they could have their marriage officiated in a church and trade for transportation; there’d be no separating them once they were legally secure and well away.
They stopped anyway, weary from their trek and lack of sleep. They’d no reason to suspect anyone yet knew of their departure; a few hours nap wasn’t likely to hurt.
They found a sheltered spot beneath a willow tree to hide them from prying eyes. Gavin intended to stay away to keep watch while his beloved slept - but as the long night and day before caught up to him, he too succumbed to the succor of sleep.
The growl of the dog jostled them awake; when they were roused enough from their slumber to understand the danger they were in, there was no retreating from it. They were surrounded.
There was nothing to do for it. Behind him, Jay shivered in fear. Ahead, men circled the tree, the willow vines offering scant protection. Their leader called out, crooning, his voice sickly and dead, his eyes fixed on Gavin’s mate.
“You didn’t think you could run away from me again, did you, little omega?”
The land was silent; all that could be heard was the deep thurl of Samson growling in defense of his master.
“You’ve no business here,” Gavin said, his voice loud enough to carry. “Let my husband and I go in peace.”
“I’ll see you shot for your impudence, whelp,” the strange alpha declared, and then they were out of time, out of choices, out of peace. They pulled Jay one way; tore Gavin the other. Samson’s yelp echoed, Jay’s screams heavy behind it. Their bags were shaken out and emptied onto the ground; the glittering gold of Mrs. Adam’s jewelry the last thing Gavin saw before it all went black.
* * *
Jay woke up alone in bed. The sun shone brightly through the windows. Samson lay bandaged on the bedcovers beside him. His mam gave a sharp gasp of surprise before she began to fuss over him.
“What happened?” Jay winced, and his mam’s face grew dark and weary.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she said, and the fear in the pit of his stomach grew and grew until he could no longer contain it. He bolted from the bed on unsteady feet to be violently ill in the room’s attached bath.
“Where’s Gavin?” he croaked as soon as he could speak.
“I don’t know,” came the honest reply, and those words would echo in his head in the time to come.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
“Mam?” he started, and hated how soft and small his voice came out.
“You’re going to be okay,” she promised, and drew him into her arms, rocking him like he was a child again and not a man standing a head taller than she did. “You’re going to be okay, Jay.”
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
“Your tutor! What were you thinking?!” his father raged, and Jay stood there, dumb and stony-faced, his back straight and tall.
He wasn’t ashamed.
“It doesn’t matter,” his mother’s husband said finally. “Jessup will still take you. Has a bit of an obsession with you, poor bastard.”
“I won’t marry him,” Jay said. “I’m already mated.”
“That ridiculous ancient rite?” The man who had raised him, sheltered him, sneered, his face ugly. “At any rate, not for long.”
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
There was a knock at the locked door. Jay looked to it listlessly; it wasn’t as though anyone needed his permission to enter. That had been made abundantly clear to him. He had been locked inside for weeks, seeing only his mother, the maid Celia, and the doctor. After he heard the shouting the other night between his mother and her husband, she hadn’t been back to see him.
He placed a hand on the light, increasing swell of stomach. He expected Celia again; it was a bit early for his nightly meal but it wasn’t as if his comfort was anyone’s priority.
A key rattled in the lock.
It wasn’t the maid.
“Who are you?” he demanded, but even as the words left his lips, he knew the answer.
Witch. They said she was Jessup’s mistress - a slender, evocative thing with ink-black hair and enough presence to command an army. The look of anxiety on her face appeared unseemly, somehow.
“I can’t be found here,” she said quietly, closing the door behind her with a quiet snick.
“Why are you here?” Jay asked.
“To bring you this,” the witch said, and produced a small vial in her hands, setting it down atop his dresser.
Jay swallowed. “What is that?”
“I think you know.”
Jay said nothing for a long moment. Then - “Do you know what happened to him?”
The witch regarded Jay calmly. “Not for sure,” she said, cautious, but then her tone turned bitter. “I only know that my own beloved came back one night gloating, and that he still has plans for you.” She gestured to his stomach. “After.”
“You have to know I want no part of him,” Jay said, and the witch snorted.
“I know. Believe me. Your soul fairly reeks of the love you have for your husband. It’s… overwhelming.”
“You’re here for another reason,” Jay guessed, and backed away as she strode forward, catching his shoulders in hands of steel.
“I’ve come to warn you,” she said. “And may your souls find peace.”
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
* * *
The witch was a canny sort. She could see for herself the light that shone between the two lovers - perhaps she had seen it before they had, on a dusty summer’s day, when she’d spied the two of them cooling off in the creek.
When Jessup came to her, teeming with rage and a viciousness that scared even her, she knew that she would do his bidding. It was for the good of her own survival that she had laid the curse, that each life lived in each other’s company would be full of toils and trials, that their mistake of loving only each other might haunt them through the many worlds.
But she was not without a heart. And when she brought the curse to bear, she writ in a failsafe: that if they found their way back to one another, again and again, their love might burn apart the bindings of the curse, so that each time they encountered it, the curse would be weaker than before.
In this life, Gavin was lost, no trace of him to be seen, leaving only agony in his wake.
But in the next life, and the life after, and the many worlds as they were writ parallel throughout the universe, there were other Jays - other Gavins.
And the misery of her curse did take them, twisting their circumstances and their hopes and sometimes their very natures - but with each incarnation, the pain eased, and lessened, until all that was left was their very own
Happily ever after.