I'm bathed in water scattered with rose petals for the occasion; precious oils added to "soften my skin" and make it glow, according to Bebe.
Unreceptive to such pampering, especially for the reason I'm enduring it, makes me scowl at the trembling surface of the water as she brushes out my hair. We're in my private bathroom, the air heavy with steam and the scents of the perfumes swirling in the tub I'm steeped in. The room is light with gold fixtures and a walk-in shower; the bathtub is comprised of cool, milky marble.
"You could've told me, instead of letting my piano tutor be the bearer of bad news," i mutter, watching my unhappy reflection. I slap at the water. "And all of this hardly seems necessary for a simple luncheon."
With a monster, besides.
"There's nothing simple about it," Bebe replies, setting the brush aside to take up a jug on the rim of the tub. "Close your eyes and tilt your head back."
I comply, and soon my hair is saturated with more perfumed water. Despite my foul mood, I try to be as compliant as possible for Bebe's sake; suffering through my curls being thoroughly washed and my body scrubbed with a soft cloth; all over, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. I whimper and try to forget myself.
"The Master is particular about cleanliness," she says after all is said and done, helping me as i rise from the tub, a little lightheaded because of the heat. "That's why we bathed you when you first arrived. You can't depend on the facility you came from to handle those sorts of things properly."
"I was clean when I came here," I snap. "You act like I was an animal dropped on your doorstep."
She dries me with a thick towel (harder than she really needs to, I think) before leading me into my room where I'm told to wait to be dressed; once again in front of the full length mirror. I shiver despite the fire on the hearth, glancing away because I really don't enjoy looking at myself this way.
"Nonsense, I'm just saying their ways and standards are different from ours. Common." Briskly, she helps me into my underthings: underwear, stockings, slip; all of it soft and edged with delicate lace.
I hate it, all of it. I miss being able to wear clothes that are simple and functional. These are excessive and I'm not comfortable in them. I tell her so.
She ignores me.
"I took regular baths at the facility and at home," I add, squirming as I'm forced into yet another gown; this one a clover green satin and form-fitting. It dips low in the back and leaves my arms bare; the train long and extending from gathers at the back; sheer and airy. It's threaded with gold and floats when I walk. "I didn't run around wild in the woods or something... we were civilized."
"Focus on the here and now, please," she says, drawing me toward the vanity and making me sit. She attends to my hair, drying it and then forming the curls as they should be; winding them around her fingers. "Your life before is over. You're here, for better or worse, so dwelling on the past is pointless."
A feeling of melancholy makes me look down at my hands. How can I make her understand that all I have left is my past; memories of my brother and father. They're still out there, and I want nothing more than to go to them; be with them again.
"What about you?" I ask softly.
"What about me?" She winds a golden ribbon around my head; wraps it again, so its left to dangle down my back. It holds my hair away from my face.
"Where did you come from? Before you came here?"
She purses her lips and I know I've made a mistake in asking her something so personal. I look down again.
"My parents are dead, and I'm an only child," she says without emotion. "I got this job because I knew someone who already worked here. I started when I was younger and worked my way up... all of the staff answer to me now, for the most part."
"It's better than being on my own," she adds, making up my face now. She pinches my cheeks to make them rosy, dabs gloss on my lips; darkens my eyelashes with mascara. "I never knew where my next meal was coming from, and I didn't have a safe place to sleep. I never want to go back to that."
She nods, appearing satisfied while looking into my face. "You'll do, I think. Even as far as the master's concerned." Suddenly, she smiles and she's soft again; tucks a curl behind my ear. "And I would've told you if I'd known, but the master can be very abrupt. I didn't know you'd be having luncheon with him until the last moment."
"I don't want to go," I say, reaching for her on impulse. The day had been pleasant enough so far, meeting Tricia and hearing her play; knowing there was an outlet available to me that could help me forget my circumstances. That beautiful music; it had held me aloft for a few precious minutes.
And then there had been that brief encounter with Craig Tucker, but that was foolish to think about, wasn't it? He hadn't been cruel in that moment but that didn't necessarily mean he was kind, regardless of how gentle his eyes seemed.
"He asked for you," she says, stepping away. "It's rare that he wants to eat with one omega by themselves. I imagine it's because you're new... he wants to know you better."
"He doesn't really want to know me," I reply, going to the mirror and appraising myself; a stranger in an elegant gown. I want to cry from frustration and find a way to escape; despite the snow and the frigid cold, the fact that I'd no doubt be hunted down and dragged back -
"He wants this." I stare at my reflection; the doll I'm being turned into gazing back; somber and quiet.
The ideal, obedient omega.
I'm delivered to a room that seems to be comprised almost entirely of windows, each of them floor to ceiling; skylights above.
"The sunroom," Bebe tells me, looking around. "On a nice day it's actually very pleasant."
"It figures he'd want to meet here on a day like this," I say. The room is eerily lit by white-gray sunlight that struggles through the many windows; obscured by the still falling snow. I look out into the haze and notice the snow is blowing sideways from the ferocity of the wind. "The storm's getting worse."
Bebe nods. "You may not be able to go out to the garden tomorrow."
This bothers me but I try not to show it. I go to the window and touch the glass, cold under my fingers. "I hope Tricia is safe getting home." I glance over my shoulder to see Bebe looking out at the snow as well. She appears resigned to it. "Does she live far?"
Bebe seems to come back from another place in her thoughts, becomes stoic. She points to a chair, a velvet-covered wing back. "I don't know. That isn't pertinent information for me to have; I'm only concerned about her conduct when she's with you. Sit, the Master will be here soon and he'll want to see you in an attractive position to receive him."
I sit stiffly and arrange myself in the way she instructs. I feel ridiculous.
"Smile," she says, fluffing out the airy back of my gown so it lays just so over the arm of the chair. "Trust me, it's better if you do."
My face feels like it's cracking when I force it into position. I'm sure i look deranged and her expression seems to confirm this.
"Omegas aren't supposed to be this trying," she sighs. "You realize that, don't you?"
"I'm not beholden to the stereotypes attached to my dynamic," I reply, freezing up with fear when Damien walks into the room then, unhurried and graceful; moving the way smoke would waft; exactly as it wants to and at its own pace. We lock eyes and a whine immediately builds in my throat.
He smiles slowly, so beautiful but there's just something about him that sets my teeth on edge. I tense, pressing myself back against the chair as he approaches; dressed in black like always; sleek and refined like a panther. His eyes, those terrible merlot eyes, sweep over me as if to devour me whole.
"Lovely," he murmurs, his scent reaching me before he does, and it's overpowering. My body responds on its own; the whine gathering until I have to swallow it down. He speaks to Bebe without looking at her. "You put him in the gown i requested; I thank you."
"I had it custom made for you, my dear," he adds. "To complement your coloring... it suits you, don't you think?"
I manage to look away, even though it's a colossal effort; his gaze drawing me in like he's an asp. "I want to wear the clothes I wore before, that I was used to. I don't understand all this." I lift the fabric, letting it slip through my fingers like green water. "These are for you, not me."
"Kyle," Bebe says, a warning tone in her voice. I refuse to look at her.
Damien laughs as if my petulance is suddenly charming; it's musical but unnerving, like a song being played in the wrong key. "It's alright, Bebe. You may leave us now."
She bows her head before shooting me a tight-lipped look after I raise my eyes:
Do as you're told, it clearly says.
She takes her leave and I'm left alone with someone who both horrifies and lures me; the dichotomy dizzying and leaving my senses in turmoil. I hug myself, wanting to retreat into my head where he (hopefully) won't try to follow.
He sits adjacent to me, leaning back and crossing one long, lean leg over the other. The light from the lamp flashes off his garnet ring, dazzling me for a moment.
"Please," he says, making a motion with his hand.
I stare, not sure what he's expecting from me. I stay still.
"Stand so I can admire you," he says gently. "It would give me pleasure to see you completely and to make sure your gown is as it should be."
I hug myself tighter, my nails digging into my chilled, bare arms. "You couldn't possibly mean that."
He clasps his hands, fingers interlocked, under his chin. "I do, though. If your garment does not meet with my satisfaction I will have it sent back and corrected. Surely you can understand i only wish to make you happy."
I don't believe that for a moment, of course, and I'm appalled at how easily he can lie; without any sort of hesitation or care.
"Sit down, stand up, go here, do this," i say, my patience unraveling. "I'm not on a stage like I was at the Auction and I refuse to perform for you!"
Silence falls between us, and I hear the snow hitting the windows like glass shards. I'm screaming inside my head, though, because even though I'm putting on a defiant facade I'm deeply, almost unbearably afraid of this man. I will myself not to start shaking.
"Your face is still bruised from the last time you spoke out of turn to me," he says quietly. "Tell me, does it hurt? Can't you still feel it?"
"Is that all you know how to do?" I whisper. "Threaten and beat us? You said you didn't bring me here to be unkind to me but evidently you lied. Everything you say is a lie."
"Untrue," he replies before sighing softly. Out of the corner of my eye I see lower his hand where it comes to lay on the armrest, bringing his ring into stronger focus. Just seeing it makes me sick, the way it had cut into my cheek when he'd slapped me. "I can do much more than that for you. I can make you comfortable, I can pamper you...I can ensconce you in a lifestyle that many would envy."
"In fact," he adds, "I don't think you realize how fortunate you are, given your station. Many omegas are taken care of, yes, but not in the fashion you are; you are like royalty here. You will never go hungry, you will never want for anything; eventually you will bear children and they too will enjoy these gifts."
"I want to go home," I say, my eyes burning. I blink quickly. "I don't care about any of this, money and what it can buy. We were poor and I was still happy... it didn't matter to me. Please."
"Home," he says slowly and my blood is chilled at the way the word curls from his lips. It doesn't sound right, like it's a foreign concept to him. "Now that you mention it, I've taken it upon myself to check in on your family. Not too long ago, actually."
I look up quickly, alarmed. I don't want Damien anywhere near my past, he'd only find a way to twist and taint it. He's still smiling but its changed; become less amorous and more cunning.
"What are you talking about?" I ask.
"Gerald Broflovski, an Alpha who used to practice criminal law until illness left him debilitated," he says, the light playing on his white teeth and making them look decidedly sharp. "Although, everyone who knows him well enough knows the truth, that alcohol stole his aptitude and his practice. Who else? Ah, yes, little Ike Broflovski -"
"No," I say, sitting forward. "He isn't a part of this, he -"
" - a Beta," he continues smoothly, "and quite young; not even a teenager, and without any prospects from what I understand."
"That isn't true! My father made a lot of money when he...he," I falter because what I'm about to say is going to hurt, but I bear it, "when he sold me. I heard the bidding, I know what you paid, and it was more than enough to make sure my brother is well taken care of."
"Dear one," he practically purrs, "there are so many ways of the world that you don't understand, and why should you? You have beauty, you're desired... you don't need anything else. Ah," he says, looking up when Rebecca enters, rolling a large silver cart. She's drawn and subdued.
"Luncheon, sir," she says. "As requested."
"You may begin serving after we're seated." Rising, he offers me his hand.
I'm thrown off by the sudden turn in the conversation, some of the fire in my anger dying because I don't like how smug Damien seems. What does he know about my family? Will he even tell me? Heart aching, I think of Ike and I'm so afraid for him -
So afraid that I acquiesce and accept Damien's hand, hoping that if i bend a little, he'll answer my questions. Flushing with humiliation, I allow him to lead me to the table set up for us, complete with a glowing candelabra. He pulls out my chair.
"I want you by my side," he says, tucking me in when I sit. He touches my shoulder lightly before pulling away to sit as well, and a shiver works its way up my back.
"Close," he smiles, unfurling his napkin and laying it across his lap. He snaps his fingers in Rebecca's direction. "Now, please."
She serves the first course, a small salad with tomatoes and greens i don't recognize. It's dressed lightly with what looks like oil, vinegar and herbs. I poke at it with my fork, not especially hungry given my company.
"Don't be shy," Damien says, swirling the wine in his glass when Rebecca pours it. "It pleases me to see you enjoy yourself, and I chose the menu with you in mind."
I frown, stabbing at a curly bit of lettuce and placing it in my mouth. It's bitter, but I chew dutifully and swallow, taking up my drink afterward and tipping it to my lips. I notice Damien and Rebecca watching me closely as I drink the pink liquid; sweet but with a strange flavor beneath the sugar.
"What is this?" I ask, wrinkling my nose.
"Lemonade," he replies. "Haven't you had it before?"
I set down my glass. "Yes, but this tastes strange." Noticing his eyebrow slowly raising I'm quick to add, "but I like it. It's just different from what I'm used to."
He's assauged but Rebecca frowns, looking away when I try to meet her eyes. My stomach jumps, but I continue to eat, washing down the bitterness with the sweet drink. By the time I've drained my glass I decide that I was imagining things -
"This is delicious," I say, indicating my empty glass. "May I have more?"
"Anything for you, my dear," Damien replies, a light building in his eyes that resembles fire. I'm mesmerized suddenly, more intrigued than afraid.
Rebecca refills my glass and now I can feel my body relaxing; loose-limbed, I lift the drink and sip, licking the strange sweetness from my lips. I touch my mouth to gather the extra drops, sucking them from my fingers without abandon.
The next course is roast beef and scalloped potatoes; artfully arranged and topped with a savory gravy. I breathe deeply of it but Damien's aroma fills my senses instead; wild, yes, but oh, it's so gorgeous -
It makes me think of home, where the forest is hushed and the winds move through the leaves, the brook is cold and the stones on the bottom are slick like ice. The garden i tend with Ike is simple but full, and I can smell my mother's bread baking in the oven -
"I...I feel strange," I hear myself say, looking down at my hands. It's almost like I can see the blood moving in my veins, warm, and I'm so content with it all; this moment, this room, the gown hugging me, and most of all Damien being so close, and his scent is strong. It envelopes me. "Why do I feel this way?"
Damien looks at me like I'm the only thing that's ever mattered to him. His eyes are filled with that fire, almost glowing, and the whine that's been hidden filters from my lips. "What way is that, my Kyle?"
"Like I'm not really awake," I say softly. "I'm seeing my dreams, my family. We lived in the woods and I had a garden."
"Like mine?" he asks. This time he refills my drink himself, lifting the cut glass pitcher with such careless elegance; it shimmers in the light of the candles.
"Oh, no," I reply, giggling behind my hand because it's such a silly thought. Surely he must know that his garden is lovelier than anything I've ever seen. So many roses, even in the heart of winter. "We grew vegetables, mostly. There were roses, but not nearly as many as what you have here."
"My brother and I," I begin, and that sharp pain is back, digging in my heart, and I find myself reaching out to grab Damien's cool, smooth hand. "Please, tell me what you know. Is he okay? Is my father taking care of him?"
"Shh," he soothes, smoothing the curls that have escaped the ribbon in my hair. "Don't upset yourself. Eat, please, and we'll get to that in time."
I drink instead before cutting into my meat, because I crave the sugar on my tongue. I breathe deeply and Damien fills my senses like sunshine breaking through heavy clouds. Warmth floods me low in my stomach, making me press my thighs together when it spreads to the secret place between my legs. I flush hot.
"Tell me about your piano lesson," Damien suggests. "Did you find it engaging?"
This is an easy question to answer because I'd genuinely enjoyed myself with Tricia; her presence, and the sweet, uplifting voice of the instrument she'd played.
"I loved it," i say, touching my neck. My glands feel sensitive under my fingers; aching. "My tutor was so kind, and she plays beautifully, like she was born to do it. I felt comfortable with her."
"She came highly recommended," Damien says, watching me even closer now, like he's waiting for a certain response. "Her playing seems to affect even the most unrefined of us -"
"Oh, yes," he says fondly, "I know how my dynamic can be. Kings of the mountain, in control of all we see and touch... some of us are so terribly plebeian." He sighs, drinking more wine before cutting another piece of meat, the red juice of it seeping across his plate. "It's because we came to power much too quickly. We weren't prepared, and not every alpha is worthy of their dynamic."
"The lesser of our kind capitalized on the misery and weakness of others, but no matter, that isn't for you to worry about," he says, lightly touching my cheek. "My family was already accustomed to power; I'm used to and comfortable with what I've been afforded, dynamic or no."
I yawn, not exactly tired but beginning to drift. My brain is a haze, red at the edges, and the anger I felt before seems miles away, like it never existed in the first place. "Your family?"
"My father is a man of means," he replies simply and with a certain finality that tells me to drop the subject. "But I'm glad that your lesson was to your liking, my dear. I figured that if anyone could prepare you for your debut-"
I wake up slightly, but it's like struggling to break the surface of a lake I'm submerged in. "Debut."
I don't pose it as a question because it's such a strange idea to me; a concept so far removed from who I am that it borders on being laughable.
"Yes," he says without humor. "I am respected among my peers, revered, and when I choose to take a new omega the community watches. They will want to see you, and I expect you to represent this household with honor."
He's soft when he touches my cheek, and I nearly swoon into the contact, for I'm so weary and my head feels like it's full of stars. I nuzzle him instead. "What do I have to do?"
"More to drink, please," Damien murmurs to Rebecca who still looks so ill at ease. She refreshes my glass and I'm compelled to speak to her.
"How is Mark?" I reach for her, deflating at the surge of discontent in her eyes. She backs away, going to retrieve the next course, I can only assume.
"Kyle," Damien says, and while he isn't chastising me exactly, he sounds strern. "You forget yourself. Rebecca is working, my love. She doesn't have time to play."
He speaks to me like I'm a child, and ordinarily i would never accept this, but I'm so still inside, almost like I'm frozen. I breathe in Damien's scent again and tilt my head, baring my neck to him. The light flares stronger in his eyes.
"My omegas are known for being accomplished and dedicated to the crafts i choose for them," he says. "You are worldly without overstepping your bounds. You know your place, and what's more, you cherish it. Your only focus is to please me, and to elevate this household."
"I don't know if I can do that."
"Of course you can, why else would I have chosen you?" he watches as Rebecca clears our plates. "Out of everyone at the Auctions, you were the one I saw... everyone else became nothing compared to you." He nods. "Ms. Tucker will teach you and I have no doubt that you'll surpass even my expectations. You have some time, of course; I'm planning the affair for midwinter."
Through my haze, something blooms in my mind, and some little part tells me to fight, to wake up to what I'm hearing. To truly listen.
"Tucker," i repeat, feeling numb when a dish of some strange yellow substance is placed before me. "That's her full name? Tricia Tucker?"
"It's sherbet, to cleanse your palette," Damien says, gesturing to the dish. "And yes, that's her name. She comes from a worthy enough family, I suppose. If she didn't, she wouldn't have stepped foot in my home. Although," he adds, trailing off, dipping his spoon into the cold confection.
"Yes?" I ask.
"It isn't important," he replies, placing a hand over mine before lifting it. He pulls it to his mouth and presses his lips softly against my knuckles; lingering, and watching me with those strange eyes the whole time.
I almost moan, the heat gathering in my belly, down where I've started aching at strange times - ever since I stopped taking the medications that inhibited my impending puberty. I don't understand any of this, but I know that I feel good, and I want the feeling to keep going... it's different from the way my body has felt pleasure in the past; being hugged by my mother before she passed, feeling the cool waters of the brook during the heat of summer, lying in soft grass beside my brother to look at the stars when we were children.
This feeling threads into what seems to be the core of myself, a place I've been denying, and now that I'm aware of it I'm not sure how to respond. I just feel so dazed, and my mouth is filled with a confusing bitter sweetness.
"I'm not sure what you want from me right now," I admit, leaning my head in my hand. "You're talking about presenting me to a society i don't understand, like I'm an object, and I shouldn't want this, but all I can focus on his pleasing you." I look up and my eyes are wet. "What's happening to me? Why won't you tell me about my family?"
The look he affords me is one of immeasurable tenderness, but once again I can see the satisfaction there, like he's won something that had eluded him before. Still holding my hand, he tugs me close until my face is close to him, and his scent is all I can feel; it becomes the air I breathe, nearly suffocating me.
"If you obey," he says, and his voice is warm against my lips, "I will tell you what's become of your brother. In fact, I'll deliver him from his fate, whatever that may be, but if you don't -"
He breathes deeper, holding me so tightly i cry out. "I will make sure you never see him again, him or your father. They will disappear and you'll never know what happened to them. Do you understand?"
Before I can help myself I sob and I almost collapse in his hold, but he stops me; pulling me close to murmur soft assurances against my hair. His voice is kind now, but it travels to my heart and makes it hurt like it's being squeezed.
"My Kyle, my darling," he says, "this is for your own good, I promise. You're chained to your past but it can't serve you now. I can. Do as I tell you and you'll be safe... you only have to serve me, and by doing so you'll serve yourself. Can't you see that?"
"Now," he adds, letting me go abruptly. He sits back and watches me with eyes full of orange-red fire. He's fiercely and terribly beautiful, like a false idol or a siren; something put on earth to remind man of just how foolish he is; how helpless. "I wish to see you, the way I asked before."
I am cold and empty without him holding me up, and I'm left feeling adrift. Weakly, I look at my hands before gazing at him for instruction.
"Stand and show me yourself," he says softly. "Do as I tell you, and show me that you know how to obey. Don't you want me to be proud of you?"
In that moment, looking into his hellish eyes, I feel gone, lost, but memories surface in me; thoughts of my brother, our corner of the world, and I rise from my place like my body doesn't belong to me anymore. Dimly, I move away and I can feel the airy panels of my gown floating like wings behind me, and I turn to look at Damien, waiting.
"Beautiful," he murmurs. "Your aroma has changed, little one. It's responding to mine, and it's so sweet... sweeter than anything I've ever experienced. Do you realize just how lovely you are?"
"No," I say, because I don't. I truly don't believe I am, but I want to believe that he's telling me the truth, because what else do I have to hold onto right now? My hands are empty.
"You'll see," he smiles, lifting his hand, making the gesture he had before. "I'll make you see. Now, turn for me, let me look at you."
Slowly, I obey, almost feeling hypnotized as I revolve for him; spin the way a ballerina would turn for her audience, spellbound and craving their adoration. My gown flutters around me and the snow falls silently in the panes of glass at my back, and I close my eyes and surrender to Damien's will.
In my mind, I try not to see myself as I am in that moment, and rather as I wished to be, even though my instincts are acutely heightened and my true desires are muted. Once again, I am glad that my mother can't see me this way, and more strangely yet, I'm relieved that Craig Tucker can't either; wherever he happens to be as the world outside is devoured by the unrelenting snow.