An end in the beginning…
Gray ushered the boys from the long black limousine, handing over umbrellas before they exited into the near torrential downpour. Once out, he rose to his full height and opened his own umbrella before trailing behind the three young men through the maze of headstones. Still water seemed to creep in and roll down his back somehow. A shiver raced down his spine along with a droplet of cold water. The scent of open earth, death, and the cold, wet ground filled his nose. On he trudged. Just a few more hours and he could collapse.
Planning the dual funerals, all while moving the boys into the house, had been a mind-numbing exercise in multi-tasking—a skill he’d always assumed he lacked. Together he’d sat with what was left of his family, making the hard decisions he had no desire to make.
Their walk ended, and they turned to face the two black shiny coffins side by side as the rain splatted against their metal exteriors, his mind a swirl of emotion.
Fortunately, there was a small tent over where they’d been asked to sit. Gray closed his umbrella and sat in the lone row left for family. A few others crowded in under the awning and stood behind them, silent as the graves around them.
Gray stared at the caskets, his mind as numb as it had ever been over the last week.
Far back in his mind, he thought he recalled his grandparents’ funerals. It happened so long ago, it was hard for him to be sure if the glimpses in his mind were correct. With a bit more clarity he could see his father and his papa’s funerals, one not long after the other—as so often happens with long-bonded alpha and omega mates.
Memories of people murmuring their condolences as he stood there trying to act strong, barely hearing the empty words that fell from their lips, came to mind. Today, there would be more of those and again, he had to act strong…
When he was anything but.
Especially as he hadn’t planned to bury his own brother and his brother’s mate. Or have to hold on to the pieces left behind.
Gray glanced down the row at Avery, the eldest of the three boys.
At nearly twenty, Avery was more man than boy, especially now. His nephew was already pursuing custody of ten-year-old Auggie and thirteen-year-old Lake, which had left Gray again feeling like the outsider in his own family, but how could he protest? The boy was whip smart, like his papa and father. Avery was responsible. Trustworthy.
Gray was the air-headed artist of the family. The one no one ever saw as responsible. But then, he hadn’t done much to prove otherwise in his lifetime, either.
Yet here he was, feeling more responsible than he’d ever felt in his life. It made his throat tighten. He clawed at the black pants he wore, his knuckles growing white as he dug into his thighs, trying to feel… anything.
Avery can’t raise the boys on his own… Nor would I make him try. I can be responsible.
And I will.
His stare moved back to the caskets.
For him… I’ll do whatever I can.
Gray’s heart thundered in his chest… the panic coming in waves. He heard the preacher begin the service but couldn’t listen to one word. His own mind was too chaotic.
What came next for them?
Four omegas under one roof, with no income, no alpha to protect them…
How in the hell were they going to make it without an alpha?
Gray turned back to those shiny black coffins, his throat so tight he could barely breathe. And in that moment, it hit him like a ton of bricks. Logically, he’d known it, but he’d focused on the necessities. Helping Avery plan the funeral. The logistics of moving the boys. Making sure the day-to-day bullshit of life happened when all he wanted to do was slide under the covers and not come back up for a week or three.
If he focused on those things, then he didn’t have to think about the obvious.
Silver was gone.
His beautiful brother was simply… gone.
The one person he could always turn to and tell anything. His best friend. His confidant. His lifeline to the outside world.
Gray’s vision blurred, eyes stinging, as he stared at those two long boxes, willing his mind to not see Silver and Gilead as he had on those cold metal slabs in the morgue when he’d had to identify the bodies days before. He had seen… yet not seen. His mind wouldn’t allow him to.
Now that the planning was over and the funeral was nearly done…
There was little else he could think of but those bodies, cold and pale and broken. Gray wanted to cry and scream and blame the gods above for stealing the one person he could count on in their world. But he had a reason to stay strong…
Gray’s stare washed over his nephews. All three omegas. All three strong and somehow holding it together as they stood in the rain watching as their father and papa were committed to the earth, their final resting place.
Resting? As if they sleep. If only they would wake up and end this madness.
He hadn’t expected the boys to hold it together so well, but then his brother had always been stronger than he. Silver had imparted that strength to his boys. Gray felt as if he was falling apart inside and here they stood, their chins up, their red-rimmed eyes dry. They made him want to hold it together, more so because he feared he was the weak link in the chain and would bring them all crashing down with him.
Gray turned back to look at the coffins as the reverend spoke eloquently about loss as if those words meant anything to any of them in those moments.
I must be the one asleep. Dreaming. A nightmare that won’t end.
The rain began to lessen as the funeral progressed. The clouds slowly parted. Eventually, Gray could see the reflection of the sky along the surface of the shining metal, the world almost appearing upside down.
But then again… it was.
The ceremony ended, and there was a blur of people… and then the same big, black car to escort them back to the small cottage they all now called home. Later, at the small gathering of mourners in that cottage, Gray watched the people eating the food, drinking the drinks, and offering their condolences to the boys. Apparently, he was invisible—just that unmated omega brother of Silver’s who barely existed.
A part of Gray welcomed that silence of his part in this funeral yet he railed against it, too. Always the outsider, imprisoned in the O Quad most of his life.
“What will you do now?” someone asked Avery when Gray was within earshot, clearing a left behind plate.
Curious, Gray paused, wondering what his nephew would say.
“I’d already been living here with my uncle for the last couple of years. Now Auggie and Lake have come here, too.” There was no explanation needed as to why Avery had been living with Gray. At seventeen, Avery had finally gone into his first heat. He’d immediately been packed up and sent to the Omega Quadrant for his own protection.
Where Gray had lived most of his life in the old family cottage. Unmated and alone… forgotten.
“Well, hopefully you’ll find your alpha soon and he can take care of all three of you,” the beta said, a soft smile on his face.
Gray saw the blank expression overtake Avery. The boy didn’t know what to say to the man. Anger roiled within Gray… all the emotions he’d been stuffing down deep came out in in a flash of anger that surprised even him. He marched up to them both, pinning the beta with a glare—a stranger he’d never even met—and dumped all that anger on the man.
“How dare you?”
The beta frowned before looking around a bit.
“Do you imagine Avery sitting here, mourning his parents and thinking if only my alpha would come save us? We are more than wombs with legs, you know?”
Everyone in attendance turned to look at the three of them, silenced.
The beta looked stunned, searching between Avery and Gray’s faces. “I only meant… that he and his brothers… could have some… security. I meant no disrespect. That is the way of things…”
“It was disrespectful,” Gray said. “Regardless of what you meant.”
“Why? Because you never found your alpha and now we’re stuck here with you?” his nephew, Lake, asked before storming upstairs.
Gray gasped inwardly at the strike of the words, feeling the stares of everyone in the room. Heat filled his face, and he looked down at the floor, wishing a hole would open up and swallow him. Why did I bother opening my mouth?
“We’re not stuck anywhere,” Avery said, his voice loud and clear before turning to his uncle. He lifted a hand to take Gray’s hand. “We’re family… and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here. I’m grateful we have him to lean on in our time of need.”
Gray felt the sting of tears as he held his nephew’s stare, thankful. Thank you, he mouthed.
His nephew smiled softly and squeezed his hand. Avery was so very much like Silver. Kind and considerate—even if he could be singularly focused and obstinate at times. Outwardly, he looked more like Gilead. Powerful and tall, Avery could easily pass for a beta if not for the thick, long braid of dark hair sliding down his back.
Gray smiled, pushing back the tears, before giving Avery a quick hug. Needing to avoid the stares around him, he headed up to check on Lake. He was more than ready for the house to be quiet again… but then, it hadn’t been quiet since the three had come to live with him.
Loud music cranked on just as Gray neared the boy’s door, and he sighed. He knocked but was, of course, ignored. Resting his forehead against the wood, he felt the vibrations of the bass against his face and closed his eyes. Gray stood a few moments trying to decide if he pushed or let the boy go, for now.
The biting comments from the teenager had grown more and more harsh—but then, he’d just lost his parents. How much was Gray supposed to let the boy get away with? He wasn’t a parent and very much doubted he ever would be, so he had no clue how to answer that question or the millions of others that would pop up in the days and months to come. He supposed it all depended on how much longer could he deal with being the boy’s punching bag.
Hearing a noise coming from Auggie’s room, Gray moved away from Lake’s door. He soon found the ten-year-old curled up on his bed, crying. Gray slid in behind him and wrapped his arms about the slight child. Auggie turned and buried his face into Gray’s chest and sobbed. He struggled to hold back his own flow of tears as he felt those tiny sobs wracking them both. Slowly, the crying faded some, and Auggie grew silent.
“You smell like papa,” Auggie whispered quietly.
Gray smiled slightly, but then wondered if that caused the boy more pain than good. “I do?”
“Uh-huh,” Auggie said.
He bit the inside of his cheek, thinking of all the things this boy had now lost. There were so many words tumbling within his mind… sentiments that weren’t true. It’ll be okay… no, it won’t. What in the world did he tell this child?
“I wish I knew the words to say to make you feel better,” Gray whispered, swallowing back a sob of his own.
“It’s okay,” Auggie whispered, his voice sounding raw from his tears. “I don’t feel much like talking. The hugs are better.”
Tears stung Gray’s eyes. “I’m glad they’re better.”
Silence filled in around them. To call it comfortable wasn’t exactly true. They were just there, side by side in that moment of time, both of them aching and raw. Gray wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he realized Auggie slept.
He stared up at the ceiling, his mind unwilling to let him appreciate the quiet he’d longed for. The last conversation he had with his brother replayed in his mind.
“You’ll find someone… eventually,” Silver had said. “I’ve never given up hope. Actually, I was reading a story about a second chance ball they’ve started to hold in Alexandria once a year. Older omegas who never found a mate attend, as well as older alphas. You’d be a perfect fit. Perhaps we could escort you up there and… you know… maybe there’s someone for you.”
“No,” Gray had said. “I’m a lost cause, Silver. I don’t have a mate… and the sooner I accept that, the better.”
Silence had hung on the other side of the line before Silver had spoken. “I know you’re jaded, and I understand why. I know you see the mating of an alpha and an omega as some biological contract, but it’s so much more. Gilead…” Gray had almost been able to see the wistful smile on Silver’s face as he’d talked about his alpha. “Gilead makes me feel safe. Loved. Protected. He values me and my ideas… he’s a true partner. He’s given me three beautiful boys. A family. That’s all I want for you. A legacy of your own with a partner who loves you.”
Gray had known Silver was one of the lucky ones. Many omegas were happy in their relationships, but only a small few had an alpha as perfect as Gilead.
As perfect as Gilead had been.
They’d paid a staggering price for that happiness and perfection… and their boys would continue paying for it. Now, Gray was convinced even more that an alpha was more trouble than it was worth. One way or another, he and Avery would figure a way out of this…
Sadly, he was fairly sure he knew how. Gray slowly slipped from Auggie’s bed before covering the boy with a light blanket and wandering down to check on Avery and their guests.
By the time he came back downstairs, much of the crowd had departed and others were gearing up to leave. He was thankful for it. The shame he felt from Lake’s words still haunted him. Avery stood at the door, shaking hands and murmuring his ‘goodbyes’ and ‘thanks for coming’. Not ready to face anyone, Gray moved to the kitchen and began to clean up the dozens of trays and containers of food that had been sent or brought.
They wouldn’t need to cook for a month, from the looks of things. Not that any of them had much of an appetite anymore.
When Avery stepped into the kitchen, Gray lifted his stare to the boy. “Are they gone?”
Avery nodded silently before moving to the island to help clean up.
“I can do this. Why don’t you go upstairs and get some rest? You look exhausted,” Gray said.
“And you don’t?” Avery asked. He continued his cleaning.
Gray walked over and tried to still Avery’s hands.
“Don’t,” Avery mumbled, pulling his hands away.
“Avery,” he murmured softly.
His nephew kept moving, covering dishes and pulling out used spoons.
The boy paused. “If I stop, I’ll—”
The tears came. They spilled over his handsome cheeks as he gasped. Avery was in pain, and he’d held it in for too long.
Gray stepped closer and grabbed Avery before the boy dropped to his knees. The spoons he’d held clamored on the floor tiles, the sound of them sharp in the quiet of the house. Gray slowly lowered them both down. His back against the island, he held on tight, letting the young man mourn his parents.
Eventually, the sobs faded away.
“What are we going to do?” Avery asked, lifting his tear-stained face to Gray’s.
He wished he had answers for Avery.
He wasn’t sure what would happen to them now—four unmated omegas in a world where they were nothing. They were all confined to the Omega Quadrant now and would have to hope they could make it work.
“We’ll find a way through this,” Gray answered, trying to convince both of them his words were true.
Avery nodded before leaning his head against Gray. He held his nephew close, a gentle hand sweeping up and down the boy’s back.
Suddenly, Avery chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Gray asked.
“Wombs with legs.” He sat up and looked at his uncle.
Gray laughed as well. “Well, that is how most see us. We’re helpless and incapable of managing much else, in their minds. Poor, helpless omegas.” Gray leaned his head back against the island. The fact of the matter was they couldn’t be much else, thanks to the rules of their society. Without an alpha, an omega of child-bearing age was stuck in the Omega Quadrant—where there wasn’t much opportunity. Until Avery was freed by his alpha, there was little he could do.
Avery grew quiet a moment. “I want to be more than that,” he said. “That beta you railed against—that wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone say the same exact sentiment today. Over and over again—I bet you can’t wait to find your alpha. As if I had no other alternative. I was so angry, but I bit my tongue all day. Nearly bit it off a time or two.”
Gray didn’t want to tell Avery there were no chances he’d be much more. Not now, when the boy looked so crestfallen. “I’m sorry I made a scene.”
Avery shook his head. “Don’t be sorry. You said the things I’d been wanting to scream all day.”
Gray smiled at his nephew. “Lake didn’t approve.”
“Lake was being an asshole. Which he’s been since… since the—” Avery paused, apparently unable to say accident. Crash. The terrible, horrible day the world flipped upside down.
“He’s hurting, and he wants everyone else around him to know how much he’s hurt by making them feel like hell,” Gray said, trying to look unaffected. He wasn’t. “I can forgive the outburst. This time.”
“You’re a better man than I.”
“Then perhaps it’s good I seem to be the focus of his angst, hmm?” Avery sighed before rising to his feet. He offered Gray a hand up. “Let’s get this finished.”
They were silent as they completed their clean-up. It took nearly an hour before they’d filled the dishwasher and washed everything. When it was done, Avery headed upstairs after giving Gray another quick hug.
Alone for the first time in what felt like forever, Gray stood there in their clean little kitchen, everything in order.
Everything was in place, just as it always was.
Tears stung his eyes, knowing everything in their world was not in order.
Gray went out to his studio—an old converted garage out in back of the house—seeking solace in the paints and scents of his creative space. Bringing brush to canvas, he wanted to bleed through the oils and put his pain there. Anywhere but inside his chest where he couldn’t breathe from the weight of it.
No matter what he did, his hand wouldn’t listen. Everything went wrong, the colors not right. The depth of the stroke unbecoming. Perspectives skewed. Finally, he threw his brush and palette across the space and screamed in frustration.
And then he dropped onto the battered, paint-splattered stool and cried all the tears he’d held on to, not wanting the boys to see his pain.
Gray was not strong, but he’d tried to be.