Chapter 4

Declan was feeling something akin to relief as he sat and talked with Liz and Kobi, and Liz and Kobi (mostly Liz, because Kobi was the taciturn type) talked about Marcus Rushton. They’d been seeing the lone Omega on a regular basis now, usually over his lunch-break, although apparently he’d accepted their company while walking to work in the morning, too. Kobi was a damnably early riser, and while Liz most certainly wasn’t, the two of them seemed happy to get up early just to troop over to Rushton’s rundown little place and then go with him to work from there. Of course, Liz was usually too sleepy to recall most of the morning conversations, but on those occasions, Kobi made up for his girlfriend’s quiescence a bit. Declan himself was an early bird, and had long-since gotten used to the friendly, easy way that Kobi talked over a cup of coffee in the morning – he always used words conservatively, but in the hush of the starting day, he talked a bit more. It was as if fate had granted him more words in the morning or something.

“Hey, Kobi actually got him to laugh!” Liz piped up suddenly, as the three lounged in the living room gossiping about Rushton.

Kobi’s face didn’t move, but his voice sounded just a bit rueful as he nudged Liz with a foot. “I think that you got him to laugh. At my expense.”

Sitting on the other side of the couch from Kobi, Liz gave him back his foot-nudge – with interest, but also with a mischievous smile. “I was just telling a story! It’s not my fault that you featured in it.” Her grin turned wicked. “Hilariously.”

“Rushton actually smiled?” Declan was still caught on that. After their first disastrous encounter, he’d managed to successfully avoid the Omega, although the effort of it some days left him fidgety and growly. He’d started to get used to the butter-sugar scent of him on Liz and Kobi, but only just, and the extra, bitter edge to the smell always made his hackles rise up. By now, he was sure that he could tell Rushton apart from a whole sea of Werewolves, just by scent.

Warming to her subject, Liz turned to her Alpha and said a bit wryly, “Yeah – who knew he could, right? It was just this tiny smile, one of those crooked smiles that just move one side of your mouth.” She mimicked, just half of her even teeth flashing faintly on one side, the caricature making Kobi and Declan both snort. Liz added with obvious amusement, “And his nose does this thing where it gets a wrinkle, right in the center. It’s like he’s still on the fence about the whole showing-positive-emotions thing.”

As his girlfriend chuckled, Kobi added with a shrug, “It was only there for a second. Then he went back to just sitting and watching us.”

“We’re still trying to figure out what he likes to talk about,” Liz added.

Declan had to admit, he secretly enjoyed how eagerly Liz and Kobi had accepted their impromptu mission to shadow Rushton around. As Betas, they seemed largely unaffected by whatever kept setting Declan off, so long as he didn’t let any of his own instinctive temper show to them. Being told about Rushton without actually having to stand there next to him was…a relief. It allowed Declan to assess the situation without any distractions besides the faded scent of Rushton already mixing with the coconut-citrus smell of Liz, and the loam-and-fudge smell that he’d come to associate long ago with Kobi.

From what he’d heard, Rushton was more interesting than he’d expected – although what exactly he’d been expecting, Declan wasn’t entirely sure. Clarissa had been quite clear on her dislike for Rushton, supporting Declan’s defensive instincts, and the only personal memory Declan had of the younger man was biased to say the least, and unpleasant. Liz and Kobi, though, were now regularly coming home with stories about Rushton-this, Rushton-that, and it felt like Declan was getting to know him from a distance. He was amused by the puffed-kitten behavior the Omega exhibited (‘puffed-kitten’ being Liz’s choice of words, although it was sometimes said with unease), and intrigued by the careful way he seemed to live his life.

There was still one question, however.

Clarissa stepped into the room, asking it as if reading his mind, “So, has he told you yet why he is without a pack?”

Both Liz and Kobi lost their playful looks and began to frown. “No,” Liz was the one to admit slowly, grudgingly, sitting back, “We started to ask once, but he cut us off pretty quickly.”

“It was obvious he didn’t want to talk about it,” Kobi added, sensibly.

As ever, Rob was never far away, and called from the kitchen, “And you didn’t press him because you were afraid that he’d threaten to shoot you again?”

“Rob, that’s enough,” Declan called, infusing just enough command into his voice that it shivered in the air – a light, verbal shove towards obedience. He had to tamp down on his own instincts rising up, bubbling like a subsonic growl in his throat at the mention of the threat. Rushton hadn’t done anything since then to threaten Declan’s pack, so logically, it was okay to calm down. Logically. Instinctively, Declan felt himself yearning to remove the threat again, as if Rushton were some insidious entity gnawing away already at the defenses of his family.

Usually, Clarissa was helpful at tense moments like this, but at the moment, she didn’t appear to be using the innate soothing ability of her kind. She was watching the whole exchange with sharp eyes. “You really should ask him. There’s a very high likelihood that you won’t like the answer.”

Declan stayed pointedly silent, not wanting his own inexplicable animosity to color the atmosphere, so it was Liz who quirked a bewildered brow and demanded “What do you mean?”

“I mean that good packs value their Omegas, and good Omegas will do anything – anything,” she stressed, her eyes intense, “not to lose their packs. So if you connect the dots between Rushton’s rash temper, his unwillingness to talk, the fact that he doesn’t even seem to have any family backing him up…” Clarissa shook her head, and fixed Declan with a knowledgeable look while he kept his expression blank. “My bet is that he did something unforgiveable and was kicked out of his pack. If that happens, even family won’t touch a Wolf.”

That caused a general hubbub of sound in return – loudest from Liz, who looked disturbed and almost angry by this – but now Clarissa chose to use her abilities as an Omega, and Declan felt a calming wave shift through the air like a subtle shift in pressure. He felt tension leave his shoulders, felt his heartbeat slow, and soon the room was quiet again. Clarissa went on in a tone that said this should be obvious, “Omegas almost always must leave their family pack before the age of twenty, but that doesn’t mean they cut ties with their family! But have any of us heard of seen any signs of Rushton’s family? No.”

Since Liz and Kobi were the resident authorities on all things Rushton at the moment, Declan looked over at them, but they were pensive and quiet. They had no argument against this. Apparently, they hadn’t even noticed evidence of Rushton calling or thinking about his parents or possible siblings.

Clarissa shook her head in a pitying motion. “If an Omega somehow loses their pack, it’s the family’s job to try and find them a new one as soon as possible.”

Coming out of the kitchen to lean against the wall, Rob picked up Clarissa’s line of thinking very quickly, “So your question is: why isn’t this kid’s family involved?”

There was silence following that. Clarissa didn’t even deign to nod, because she knew that Rob had just summed up her point for her. Even with that faint layer of calm still in the air – a gentle, ethereal hand pressing down on his shoulders – Declan felt himself growing restless. Why, indeed…?

“Maybe he hasn’t been without a pack very long,” Liz spoke up, arguing, “His family might have just started helping him out, but hasn’t made any headway yet.”

Clarissa shook her head. “Oh no, that Omega boy has been on his own a good long time. You said that strong smells seemed to hurt him?” When both Liz and Kobi nodded cautiously, Clarissa’s matronly face turned seemingly regretful. “Then I’m afraid, dear, that that is a sign of an Omega who’s been abandoned for quite some time. You see, Omegas like myself start to… How shall I put it?” She tapped her fingertips against her lower lip, crossing one leg over the other as she perched on her seat. “We break down. Technically, any Wolf on his or her own starts to get unstable, but it happens faster for Omegas. We’re weaker that way.”

Remembering what he’d heard about Rushton’s flash-fire temper, and his idiotic willingness to stand up even to three Betas on his doorstep, Declan had a hard time believing that Rushton was weak. Then again, if Declan also recalled the slim, cowering young man that had been stopped by an Alpha’s voice alone, and who had shaken and pleaded, that cast a different light on things. Ultimately, Declan didn’t know what to think, and the only authority on Omegas was his aunt, who seemed to dislike Rushton almost as much as Declan inordinately did.

“The biggest sign of this is the way a Wolf’s senses start getting turned on more and more strongly, with no way to turn them back down again,” continued Clarissa, “If this Rushton fellow is so obviously affected by scents, then he’s honestly too far gone to even fix.”

Liz, unexpectedly, bristled. Even Clarissa’s soothing aura was ineffectual to quell the sudden spice of anger that tinted the air from the redheaded woman.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded in a very soft voice.

“I mean,” went on Clarissa, with a lamenting sigh, standing up to show that she was just about done talking about this, “that even if you were to miraculously find this boy a pack out of the goodness of your heart, it wouldn’t do any good. He’s a stripped wire – a naked nerve ending – right now. His senses are so clearly out of whack that it’s no doubt permanent. I doubt it will kill him, but it probably won’t help his temperament or general sanity.”

Even Kobi looked startled, and Liz looked downright horrified. Declan felt a hard jolt of sadness at the sight of her, and sympathetic pain blossomed in his chest as he saw her face contort – regardless of Declan’s reflexes towards Rushton, Liz had clearly become friends with him. She’d become attached to the feisty little Wolf, and Clarissa’s news had hit Liz like a knife to the chest. Without thinking (sometimes his instincts were quite useful things, when Rushton wasn’t part of the equation), Declan got up and moved to the couch, sitting on the other side of Liz from Kobi. He slung an arm across her shoulders and squeezed her to his side, watching as Liz’s boyfriend mimicked the gesture on her other side. Kobi seemed a bit in shock, too, and not-so-subtly let his hand press against the back of Declan’s ribcage as both men bracketed Liz with their arms circling her. Alphas were designed to protect their packs, but a large part of that included offering a shield against intangible threats, like those that clawed at emotions. Liz leaned back into both the Beta at her right and the Alpha at her left, and Kobi’s hand pressed warm and slightly desperate against Declan’s shirt.

“I’m sorry,” Clarissa said, brown eyes softening a bit even as she extended her aura in a slow ripple – a mother wolf’s tongue soothing a wound, “That wasn’t good news, but it’s the truth. Even if I didn’t strongly suspect that Rushton is trouble, there’s really nothing to be done for him.”

Because he hated to see Liz and Kobi hurting, Declan extended his senses, searching for a lie in Clarissa’s words. It didn’t sit well with him that one of his pack-members would lie to him, but it happened, from time to time. Not all Wolves could sense lies, because there was more to it than mere scent and listening to heartbeats – lies were not that simple. When one formally became part of a pack, however, the connection they gained also allowed their Alpha to pick up on falsehoods. It was a sort of sixth-sense that was hard to describe. Now, Declan prodded with that innate skill, but ended up sighing as he found nothing. One way or another, Clarissa believed what she was saying, so even if it was false, Declan had no way of knowing or proving it.

“I’d cut ties before anyone gets more attached,” Clarissa suggested, her words directed at Declan, as if this were solely under his jurisdiction. She added more enigmatically, “Considering this boy’s threatening personality, I’d listen to your instincts, Declan.” And with that, she turned and left the room, moving past Rob, who had his expression shuttered and his arms crossed over his chest like a bulwark.

Even Rob seemed to be thinking deeply on all of this, and wasn’t liking any of it. “So what’s the plan, boss?” he finally asked, flicking dark-green eyes Declan’s way.

Aware of Liz and Kobi turning to him, too, Declan resisted the urge to shift uneasily. He had mixed emotions about all of this, and the more Clarissa had talked (and the more reasons she’d given for why Rushton was a potential threat to the stability of his pack) the more he felt something vicious and predatory crawl through his veins. A brief growl bubbled in his throat before he cut it off. Despite the threatening noise, he tamped down on his impulsive reaction and once again strove for temperance, “I’ll think about it.”

“Do you still want us to keep an eye on him?” Kobi asked, over Liz’s head. The brown-haired man looked like his usual calm self again, but his fingertips were still touching the side of Declan’s chest where no one could see, like he was drawing stability out of his Alpha now that Clarissa’s calm had left the room.

“If you want to,” Declan nodded, and felt Liz relax where she was still tucked against him. He wanted to growl at her for getting so transparently attached to the enemy, but until he had solid facts to prove that Rushton was an enemy, he’d keep that to himself. Declan still felt bad for hitting the Omega without any reason other than a surge of unexpected temper. “See if you can get him to talk about his family, or why he’s on his own. I want to know more than ever now.”

“You just want to keep talking to him?” Rob asked, clearly bewildered. His posture tensed in a faintly more confrontational fashion. “Didn’t you hear a word Clarissa said? For all we know, he could be a psychopath, kicked out of his pack for threatening people with a shotgun like he did us!”

“I know that, Rob,” Declan tried to contain his temper even as it bubbled like a physical heat up his throat. He got up from the couch, every movement showing the muscles in his frame, the power in his movements. Both Rob and Kobi were big, athletic guys, but Declan was still slightly broader across the shoulders, and he carried himself somehow differently…there was something more about him. Betas were tough like granite, but Alphas were strong like mountains, a kind of immovable might that could either shelter those beneath them, or crush them. Rob shifted uneasily, finally ducking his black-haired head after a moment, watching his feet.

“I already told you that I’m not going to hunt down and hurt someone who hasn’t done anything to me,” Declan finished, “So all that leaves for us to do is keep an eye on Rushton.” With that, Declan left the room as well, to grab his laptop. Maybe there was a chance that Clarissa was wrong about Rushton being ‘un-fixable,’ and it would just take some internet searching to find factual data. The urge to set Liz and Kobi at ease gnawed away at Declan’s chest and gave him a distraction from the more territorial instincts jabbering away in his skull.

He could sense Rob’s frustration and anger behind him, but didn’t turn to catch his eye.

~^~

It had been a long time since Marcus had thought this, but life was starting to give him a bit of sunshine for once.

He’d been careful, suppressing any knee-jerk reactions of snark and replacing them with the best manners he could manage. The two Betas, Liz and Kobi, were impossible to avoid, so he did his best to stay on their good side. This mostly meant keeping his eyes down and his posture as submissive and possible, and scrupulously going over his words before he said them. He only slipped occasionally, hackling and feeling sharp words snap out of his mouth – but, in his defense, those times were always in conjunction with one of the Betas accidentally pushing him around with a command. After almost a week, he was getting good at hiding it when that happened, although he apparently still froze and hissed in a sharp breath whenever a stray command caught him like a fist around his spinal cord. Liz and Kobi always apologized. It was nice. Despite his assurances that they’d come to hate him before long, that hadn’t happened, and Marcus was grateful. Even the crummy little coffee-shop next to his work-place had started to gain a positive connotation after regular breaks there with Liz and Kobi sitting across from him.

At first, he’d called them purely ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘the Betas’ in his head, recognizing the strict line that he didn’t want to cross – because these two were not his pack, not his family. They were undoubtedly interested in being friendly to him, but with Werewolves, connections outside of the pack were lukewarm things compared to the warm link to a fellow pack-member. Marcus would forever be on the outside, communicating with the two Betas through cold glass. But their company was nice, and rare, and he liked the faint feeling of company and inclusiveness that always wrapped around him like the lightest of blankets. It pushed the harshness of the world away, and made him want to wrap it around himself tighter. At some point, he’d started thinking of them by their first names, and watching them instead of his chai as they conversed.

What finally made him decide to drop his plan to flee the city was the fact that Declan Fen hadn’t made a single appearance.

Muriel had ceased to bother him after the altercation with Kobi in the alleyway, although she’d shot him snotty glances from a distance all day today. Still, it was with something resembling a spring in his step that Marcus made his way to the coffee-shop during his lunch-break. He could already smell Liz and Kobi, but that didn’t mean anything – if the wind turned, he’d be smelling the garbage dump a mile away. His other senses were likewise getting keen to the point of ridiculousness, although it flickered on and off like a bad bulb. Just in case, Marcus had taken to carrying earplugs with him, although the best answer he’d found so far for his unpredictable sense of smell was a good cup of tea under his nose. Sitting at their usual table, he did just that, ordering ahead of time because he knew that the two Betas were coming.

He felt…relaxed. If it wasn’t contentment, it was damn close, and he wanted to grab the feeling in his fists and never let go.

Holding onto happiness was like holding onto a bird, however: grip too tight, and you’ll kill it. That saying would be echoing in Marcus’s head before the day was out.

Marcus was filling his nose with steam and cinnamon and the warm, curling smell of honeyed vanilla when Liz and Kobi approached his table with familiar strides. An unexpected urge to smile twitched the corner of his mouth as he looked up at them, but the rare expression died as he saw their faces. Instinctively, Marcus went on alert, hands tensing around his mug until his palms were pressed flush to the container. Heat seeped through the thin cup.

Both Liz and Kobi were clearly worried, the look all over their faces with no real effort being put into hiding it. Marcus didn’t like the way they were looking at him, with intense but cautious glances that resembled their first encounters more than the tentative camaraderie that had been forming. Reflexively, Marcus made a grab for the innate calming ability that came with being an Omega, but it slipped through his fingers like a skittish eel. He was too unsettled himself to soothe anyone else, and that realization left him feeling cold and vulnerable.

“What?” he wanted to demand, but bit the inside of his cheek instead. Silence and caution, he reminded himself, were the better parts of valor. So instead of greeting them or even giving his customary nod, he sat in utter stillness and quiet, eyes moving from Beta to Beta.

Both members of Fen’s pack sat down in their customary seats, doing a bit better job of acting normal, but still not really managing to hide it. Liz looked a bit guiltily at the way Marcus was clutching his drink and sitting stiffly, but offered with weak friendliness, “Hey, Marcus! Work was good, I take it?”

‘You don’t even care right now,’ he judged in his head, and clenched his jaw for a second. He suddenly hated formalities, lying like a thin veneer over what (in his experience) was often an ugly truth. After all, both Kobi and Liz knew that Marcus had a crummy job, so it was never truly ‘good.’ “What is it?” he finally couldn’t help himself from asking, but at least his tone was adequately level to hide his mounting wariness.

The Betas exchanged looks, but thankfully decided not to skirt the point anymore. “We have some questions for you, Marcus,” Kobi finally took up the narrative, looking apologetic, of all things. It made Marcus tense more. By now, he could feel the heat of his chai starting to brand the insides of his hands, but he couldn’t let it go.

“What kinds of questions?”

“Marcus…” Liz looked down, then back up at him, determined to meet the Omega eye-to-eye when speaking. “We… Can we ask you about your pack? And why you’re on your own now? I know we asked before, and you said you didn’t want to talk about it-”

“Because I don’t,” Marcus interrupted, feeling more and more cornered by the second, even though he was in the open air with witnesses all around him.

“I know, I know, but we’ve got to ask. Declan wants to know about your pack,” Liz finished gently and reached forward a hand as if to touch his knuckles.

The compassionate gesture combined with Declan’s name broke the last brittle threads of Marcus’s calm, and he stood up sharply. If his chair hadn’t been bolted to the concrete to prevent thievery, he would have tipped it over, but instead he spilled his tea all over the tabletop. Kobi had fast reflexes, and caught Liz’s hand to pull it back out of the way, but Marcus felt scalding droplets land over the back of his hands and left wrist. He hissed at the pain, and felt people staring at him. ‘Keep it together, keep it together…’ he repeated frantically in his head, fisting his hurting hands and holding back the whine that wanted to crawl up his throat. He wasn’t sure what was triggering the pained whimper: the agony of the hot liquid, or the agony of knowing that he’d just ruined whatever had been between himself and Declan’s two Betas.

Declan’s Betas. Declan’s pack. Not Marcus’s. None of this belonged to him – not the companionship, not the conversations over coffee and tea, not the way Kobi and Liz smiled at him as if he were a friend. Something rent itself in half behind Marcus’s sternum.

“Marcus…!” Liz’s eyes were huge, pale-green in the sunlight, like twin peridot. Her hands were unharmed, but had curled up against her breast once Kobi had let go.

The Omega cut her off, struggling not to make the situation worse even as he began to feel a ringing in his ears – a sign that that sense was beginning to go haywire again. ‘Not now…!’ “No. No, I’m not talking about that.” He had to get out of here: not only had he discovered his habit of getting waspish when under threat, but he was pretty sure that he was about to have a bad episode. ‘Episodes’ were what he was starting to call the occasions when one of his five senses decided to crank itself up to top sensitivity, as if this were some sort of mental disorder.

“I’ve got to get back to work,” he dismissed himself quickly, embarrassed that he was almost sprinting to leave the coffee-shop while everyone on the patio stared at him like a freak. Five minutes later he was in the back room in the middle of the most boring inventory in history, earplugs jammed in his ears until the time came when he didn’t feel like destroying his eardrums with an icepick.

He ended up stopping before long, and just leaned his body disconsolately against the shelves. Everything was going wrong, if not all around him then inside of him. Once again, he began doing sums in his head, calculating how much he’d make on his next paycheck – due tomorrow, unless his boss conveniently pushed it back a day – and thinking about what he’d have left over after paying off his bills and his rent and escaping out of town. That was still an option, after all, and possibly the safest one after his abrupt dismissal of the two Betas just now.

The fact that he’d switched back to calling them by their titles registered like a punch to the gut, but it also got Marcus to go back to work, if only for the distraction.

~^~

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