Chapter 2

The first thing that Marcus realized was that he couldn’t afford to move. That realization hit him like a wrecking ball, crushing his chest in and leaving him silent and breathless.

He could always just skip town, of course, but he already had enough trouble tiptoeing around the Werewolf community – he didn’t need more trouble with the judicial one as well, if he just decided to leave unpaid rent and bills. His next check from work wouldn’t come for another whole week, and even that wasn’t much, considering he had to eat between now and then. If he made sure to pick it up promptly, and didn’t use up too much of the remaining money he had from his last one…

Marcus forced himself to nod, dragging in deep breaths and telling himself that it would be okay. He could do it, he could wait out the week and put all of his focus and savings into leaving at the end of it. He usually lived pretty much from pay-check to pay-check anyway, and his lack of social life contributed to virtually no superfluous spending. So in a week, he could repay whatever he owed here and there, and pack what he could carry before hopping onto a bus to…somewhere. Anywhere. He should have realized that this was inevitable, because Wolves invariably stumbled upon him wherever he went.

Sighing, the slim young man thumped his head against the wall, sitting there despondently with bills, paystubs, receipts, and other monetary papers spread around him like the detritus of his entire life. He’d lived here for nearly three months – three months. Long enough to start tentatively putting down roots, but not quite long enough to get out of the debt he’d accrued from his last hurried leaving. He tested his split lip with his tongue, imagining that he could taste Declan’s fist there. If he breathed in deeply enough, his hyper-acute senses could still smell the Alpha like sharp lemon and angry cinnamon at his door, and he wondered briefly when his raw senses had started getting so sharp that they had developed synesthesia. Next he turned to his side, feeling above the left curve of his hipbone beneath his T-shirt where he had the scar from a set of jaws locking onto him there. That was a wound that had put him in the hospital for days, even with his Werewolf healing ability, and had forced him to move last time before the same Alpha could try again.

Fear rattled through him, making Marcus’s eyes close and his breath quake, because he didn’t think that Declan would stay away for that long, no matter how good his intentions. Three days in the hospital, one day of painful packing, and Marcus had still heard lupine howls echoing behind his train, full of bestial, predatory intent. The sound had challenged him to come back for his own execution, the instincts of the pack’s Alpha so strong that he had shadowed Marcus to the very border of his territory before common-sense finally had reasserted control and he left. Marcus was a drug, the kind that induced hysteria and homicidal feelings, and he cursed nature for making Omegas like this.

It took effort to drag himself from his melancholy, to pick up the controlled mess he’d made, and then to go and catalogue his stuff. He’d acquired a microwave and some other things that he’d have to leave behind, being too big to carry. Sighing and telling himself (lying to himself) that he couldn’t miss them, Marcus pushed his straight brown hair back from his forehead and bent to drag his suitcase out from under his bed.

Better start packing now, if he was going to be gone by the end of the week.

~^~

Marcus was feeling marginally more optimistic by the time he got ready to leave for work the next day. He wasn’t precisely cheery, but he no longer felt quite so much like curling up into a furry lump under his bed for forever. The night before had been spent in his Wolf form, nose tucked under tail, on top of the covers – more ready for trouble that way. When he’d slept untroubled to morning, he’d dared hope that maybe he’d gotten lucky, and Declan had more willpower than he’d thought. Stretching out pink-padded white paws (despite his brown head of hair, Marcus was entirely white once he shifted into his fur) and arching his back, Marcus got up and showered quickly, even humming slightly to himself as he stepped out to check the mail.

He felt like an idiot when the scent hit him a second later, a smack of lupine scent across his too-sensitive nose. Immediately he lost his good mood and jerked to retreat back into the house, marginally comforted by the fact that he was only smelling Beta wolves – plural, true, but not Declan Fen. He was too slow, however, to avoid hearing a female voice pipe up, “Hey – wait! Hold on a sec!” Right about then Marcus realized that his time without a pack was affecting more than just his senses, as his inner wolf immediately rolled over and gave in, as obedient as it had been for the Alpha.

Marcus tried to pull away, and gritted his teeth at the immediate pain he got for his troubles – the command wasn’t even very strong, coming from a Beta, but it had him pinned halfway in, halfway out of the door, and fighting it made him feel like he had fishhooks in him. Heart hammering and frustration curling hot and painful through his gut, the young man froze where he was, one hand clenched on the doorframe and the other behind him, where his door was trying to swing shut on him. ‘You can do this… You can do this… Focus…’ he commanded himself to push past the panic, breathing in again and instantly recognizing three distinct entities (two male and one female, all Betas) before even opening his eyes. In his ears, he heard the gravel slide as they walked towards him, the faint rosemary smell of wariness mixing with a crystalline sliver of curiosity. Only when he was sure that he wasn’t about to scream at the whole situation did Marcus open his eyes, banishing the scent-images that his brain was wildly trying to paint with the lack of visual input. It was a whole different brand of alarm to realize that he might be going insane from being without a pack for so long.

Maybe that was why instincts dictated that lone Omegas be murdered: without the buffer of a pack, all of their internal wiring and senses started to overload.

“What do you want?” he growled, counting heartbeats until the command wore off, although his heartbeat was fittingly rabbit-fast. He shifted and leaned away, testing how far he could pull with his body working against him, and decided that a Beta’s commands were definitely easier to deal with than an Alpha’s – it hurt, but he was able to sidle just a bit further away immediately, although not far enough.

The woman who had spoken, a redhead in her mid-twenties, probably about Marcus’s age, blinked as if surprised by the tone, and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. The two men behind her were not far off in age – one looking more boyish, one slightly older, both of them full of the natural strength that came with being Werewolves. They weren’t Alphas, but they were both broad-shouldered and well muscled, and could probably snap Marcus in half. He shuddered as his brain unhelpfully supplied images. “I said, what do you want? I have to get to work, and I’m not bothering anyone,” he stressed anxiously not making eye-contact, wishing he weren’t so transparently, embarrassingly afraid.

The woman was looking even more surprised, and the more stoic faces behind her looked taken aback. “I never said you were bothering anyone. I…er…we just wanted to say hello. We were going to come and knock, but then you stepped out, so…”

“So, you’ve seen me. You’ve said hello,” Marcus snapped, hoping that her uncertainty continued, so he’d be able to slip free of her, hierarchy be damned, “Now fucking let me go about my day.”

“You’ve got quite a mouth on you,” one of the men behind the redhead commented, his voice built with a roughly grating edge like a cat’s tongue, jerking Marcus’s eyes to him involuntarily. Light-skinned like Marcus but with black hair, the athletic Beta continued with the sort of perfect mildness that came from perfect irritation, “I’ve never seen someone stick around to say hello, and swear- Wait.” The fellow cocked his head and seemed to realize something, and Marcus breathed out a gutted sigh, because he knew what the Beta had comprehended. “You’re following Liz’s command, aren’t you? You’re stuck.”

The beginnings of surprised amusement in the man’s voice had trapped fury boiling up Marcus’s throat, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to shed his human skin and go at them with his teeth. As with yesterday, it would be a dumb – possibly even fatal – idea, against three Betas, but right now it was appealing in the way that all last-ditch resorts were appealing. It was that that gave him the last dregs of will he needed to wrench lose of the command locked onto him, and twist into his house to slam (and lock) the door behind him. It was satisfying that he could actually smell the surprise from behind him, even if he felt as if he’d just torn his body loose from a giant strip of duct-tape. His skin felt raw, but it was nothing compared to the headache of last night, against Declan. “No, I’m not,” he called rudely through the door, before pacing away, trapped all over again. “Damn.” He buried his fingers to the hilt in his head, trying to figure out what to do about the three Betas at his door. He had already smelled Declan on them.

“Open-” one of them started thumping the door and calling.

Marcus immediately bristled and overrode them, bracing himself and covering his ears as he shouted, “No! If you start shouting orders at me, I swear to god that I’ll shoot you through the door!” He didn’t own a gun (the licensing process cost too much), but the threat felt good, and it sure sounded sincere.

“Woah, wait, no!” the girl – Liz – immediately could be heard backtracking on the other side. Marcus felt viciously good about making the Betas squirm. “No shooting!”

“And no commands,” the third Beta, who hadn’t spoken until now, added, “Promise.” There was a pause. “Do they seriously affect you that much?”

Marcus wanted to lie, but he couldn’t think of a way to say it that didn’t sound obviously false, and by the time he mulled it over, it was too late anyway. So he settled on saying nothing at all, instead going to hunt up the aluminum baseball bat he kept in the closet. Silver didn’t affect Werewolves any more than any other metal did, but a good hard swing from a weighty bat was sure to leave a mark. “Look,” he tried to calm his voice down enough so that he didn’t sound wildly suicidal, “It’s better for everyone if you just leave. I don’t know if your Alpha told you, but my being around you-”

“Actually, he sent us,” the first man said, startling Marcus for a second, and not in a good way. In fact, the pit fell out of the bottom of his stomach, as he considered the possibility of a territorial Alpha sending his whole pack out to get Marcus. Suddenly, the baseball bat seemed ethereal in his hands, as useless as a feather. His hands shook hard enough to nearly drop it as he backed up an involuntary step and tried not to panic. Fortunately, the Beta went on, voice calm and none-the-wiser yet for the alarm he was causing, “He said… He said that he spooked you pretty badly yesterday evening, and sent us to check up on you. He even explained the whole lone-Omega thing.”

“Fen may not look it, but he’s actually pretty good at explaining things,” Liz piped up, as if that helped. It didn’t. Marcus didn’t care if Declan Fen philosophized and taught preschool classes in his spare time – all that mattered was that his instincts were hardwired to beat Marcus to a bloody pulp, and he was strong enough to do it.

“Go away,” he repeated, trembling from the utter horribleness of this situation. He looked at the clock as an afterthought, feeling even more wretched as the possibility of being late for work became almost a certainty. Tears threatened at the corners of his eyes, even if he blinked them back stubbornly.

“Look – Marcus,” Liz went on appealingly, and he could hear that she was close against the door now (probably seeing through his lie about owning a gun to shoot her with), “I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot, and Fen is, too. You were going to work, right? Let us walk you.”

It actually took physical effort not to bark out a sincerely manic, cracked laugh. Marcus choked on it instead. Eventually, he got words out that sounded derisive and bitter but not like he was starting to go slowly insane, “Why the fuck would I do that?”

“So that we can have a chance to apologize?” Liz sounded hopeful. “Come on, Marcus, we haven’t even tried to order you around, and whatever you think we’re going to do, we’re not. You can hear if I’m lying.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re telling the truth or not,” Marcus retorted, having gone through his before, in other places and with other Wolves, “It’s not a matter of intent – it’s instinct. You will hate me.”

“But not as much as an Alpha would, right? Declan looked it up, last night, and that’s what he learned. That’s why we’re here instead of him, even though he wanted to apologize.” Liz’s voice was growing more and more sensible and soothing by the minute, and even though it was devoid of any sort of order, Marcus could feel it breaking him down. The Wolf girl truly did sound like she was just trying to be friendly, which confused the hell out of Marcus at the same time that it made something in him ache so fiercely that he thought something was burning up in his chest. The company of other Werewolves…

A tear slid down from either eye, hot and cutting on his face.

“Leave. Me. Alone,” he said brokenly, and dropped his bat on the floor to stagger to his bedroom at the back of the apartment, turning up the radio as loud as it would go and hoping that the neighbors called the cops on him – if only to drive away the Wolves at his door. The radio had been rescued from the trash, and sounded tiny and off-key, making it even worse on Marcus’s sensitive ears. It was agonizing enough that he almost immediately felt like his eardrums were bleeding, but he didn’t turn it down, just huddled on his bed with his hands over his ears, teeth gritted, tears flowing now because of pain, physical as much as emotional. He huddled behind his knees and pretended the noise was swallowing him, deaf to the voices calling out to him.

~^~

“Declan, it smelled like someone being gutted in there.” Liz sounded shell-shocked, and her eyes were huge even now. Kobi and Rob stood behind her, looking equally troubled, their scents labeling them as upset more than their expressions let on. “He turned up the music so he couldn’t hear us, I think, but we weren’t even putting any command into our voices-!”

“It’s all right, Liz,” Declan soothed, hiding how startled and freaked out he was by force of will. It wasn’t easy. He felt a lot as if he’d just watched a favorite pet be hit by a semi-truck right before his eyes, only this wasn’t a favorite pet, it was a lone Omega that he’d only met yesterday, and who inextricably made him want to go rabid. At times like this, he really, really wished he had more experience leading a pack… “I’ll…” He ran a hand over his face. “I’ll think of another way to deal with this.”

“We could try just leaving him alone,” Rob opined. He was the black-haired young man who had gone with Kobi and Liz to check out the situation, and was actually the youngest of the pack at twenty one. Right now, he looked to be in one of his contentious moods that had Declan bracing himself already.

It was Liz who replied, however, turning with her fists on her hips to the dark-haired Beta, “Seriously, Rob? Did you see him? God, did you pick up his scent?! He’s a walking disaster. I’ve never seen an Omega all alone, but right now, the thought of just pretending he doesn’t exist turns my stomach.”

“That could be the hormones talking,” Rob pointed out, although his smile was a bit mean, “You know, the same hormones that have Fen contemplating murder.”

“That’s enough, Rob,” Declan stepped in, the command in his voice not compelling anyone, but settling like a weight in the room. He remembered, with a jolt, the way commands affected Marcus Rushton – he’d already known how commands affected Clarissa, their Omega, but even her reaction was just a shadow to the shackled obedience he’d gotten a glimpse of earlier. “One way or another, I think we have to deal with him,” he went on with a sigh, leaning back against the kitchen table, “He is in our territory, and all of my senses might be wrong, but they say he’s a threat, and I think I’ll go insane if we just ignore him.”

The others – except maybe Rob – looked sympathetic, nodding a bit or making agreeing noises. It was then that Clarissa walked in.

By all accounts, it was a young pack: Declan, Liz, Kobi, and Rob were all under thirty. The voice of elderly wisdom in their pack came from Clarissa Fen, who was Declan’s aunt. She’d never married or given up the family name, and respected her nephew’s leadership of the pack to the letter (a fact that made it easier for Declan to conscience ordering around a family member from time to time). “Is this about the Omega?” she asked without prompting, although also without admitting to any eavesdropping. Like most Wolves, she held onto her youth, and still had a pretty face even as she aged – it was more sharp-edged than it used to be, but her blonde hair only sported a few paler, silver strands, barely visible where she had it all tied back severely. Despite all of these harsh qualities about her, she made everyone relax the second she walked into the room, as if a wave of serenity had unrolled like a red carpet before her.

“Yes,” Declan nodded, wishing that he could unload all of his tension on her, but not feeling that he should. He was still torn to pieces about how he’d acted around Rushton, a stranger, and it was hard to connect that feeling of baseless anger with the immediate sensation of trust he felt around his aunt, Clarissa. Honestly, he was beginning to wonder if every feeling that an Omega caused in him was real. “The one I asked you about earlier.”

Clarissa nodded, pulling out a kitchen chair and sitting, straightening out her skirt a little while everyone else waited patiently. Even Rob, usually quite bellicose, softened. “You’ve read up a bit on pack-less Omegas, yes?” she asked, prim and yet somehow gentle, the words rolling calmingly out of her mouth.

Again, Declan nodded an affirmative.

“And you took what I said to heart?”

“That it’s a tragedy for an Omega to be without a pack, but that it sometimes happens? Yes, I thought about that.”

“I didn’t ask if you thought about it,” Clarissa wove back to her point, reaching out to touch his knee in a maternal way she had with all of them. Her smile was somewhat patronizing, however, and Declan found his eyes narrowing a fraction. “I asked if you took it to heart. Declan, you don’t know why he’s without a pack. For all you know, he attacked one of them. Omegas aren’t all gentle like I am, especially at a younger age.”

“This one definitely wasn’t gentle,” Rob reminded everyone, and it was poignant that even Liz and Kobi pulled uncomfortable faces. They’d already told the part of the story where Rushton had cursed at them and threatened to shoot them. Declan almost couldn’t wrap his head around that…almost. Sure, the smaller man had gotten a bit short with him, but mostly, Marcus had seemed scared. Terrified. Like Liz had described, he’d smelled like someone being eviscerated slowly, although Declan’s indecipherable rage had blocked that out until later, looking back on the memory.

Still, it seemed that the Omega had shown more salt and vinegar with Rob, Liz, and Kobi, which supported Clarissa’s theory about why Rushton was on his own. She patted Declan’s knee again, and he found that as much as he wanted to be annoyed at the parental treatment, the emotions wouldn’t stick. He found himself calming down instead. “Werewolves have good instincts – especially Alphas and Werewolves from strong lines like you and I. Your instincts say that he’s a threat, and I can’t see any reason to argue with that,” Clarissa went on quite sensibly. She shrugged beneath her conservative, lavender-colored blouse.

‘So you just want me to bare my teeth and put an end to him?’ he wanted to ask, but the words were too cruel to leave his mouth, what with the sea of calm mulling the room. The softer emotions felt like they were trying to smother Declan’s discontent but, for once, not quite succeeding. He stood up and moved away from his aunt, looking to Liz and Kobi instead. “I still want you to shadow him. Since we’re new here, we may as well learn about our neighbors anyway…and I owe him.” He looked down guiltily at his hand, the one that had flashed out without him even thinking, cracking so far against the bone of Rushton’s waiting jaw. “I don’t want my attacking him to lead to anything worse,” he rationalized his actions, “and he lives in a really crappy part of town.”

“And what are you going to do?” Rob demanded, arms crossed.

Declan snorted and flashed the other man a biting sort of grin, saying acerbically, “What do you think, Rob? Stay as far away from him as possible. Until I know that he’s a real, tangible threat to our pack, I’m not going to become a killer.”

He was aware of his aunt’s criticizing look and Rob’s unimpressed one, but he focused his attention on Liz and Kobi. Liz seemed eager to do something about the immense pain she’d smelled like acid through the Omega boy’s door, and Kobi always did what Liz did – the two of them could be trusted to act sensibly and without violence.

~^~

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