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Instinctual

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Marcus Rushton walked home quickly, even though the day was still bright.  This part of town was quite sketchy, the kind you tried not to be stuck out walking in (or living in, to be honest), so if anyone noticed how he always furtively scurried home, they’d blame it on that. Very few humans would immediately peg him as one of the non-human members of society, but he was able to see passingly well in the dark and smell most kinds of trouble before they got to him. Being a Werewolf occasionally had its perks.

The grocery store he worked at had had quite a spill today – the kind of mess that happened only rarely but was no less hated for its absence.  This time, it had been thanks to a pair of drunkards getting into a fight right in the aisles. Anywhere else, and the event would have been unbelievable, but here, it wasn’t even unprecedented. That was just the kind of place Marcus lived in.  Marcus tried to avoid working around the spill, especially as the massacred food products (already mixed into a morass by the chaos) had thickened the air with their smell. If Marcus had come to work here openly declared as a Werewolf, he would have been excused, his sensitive nose spared, but he hadn’t told anyone, so now he was walking home with his nose clogged by the scents of crushed fruits and even the worsening stench of spilled dairy products. He couldn’t smell a thing besides that, and it made him more nervous.  A small young man by all accounts – just twenty-one and of modest height, built on the light side – he would be a prime target in a neighborhood like this.

But it wasn’t muggers he was afraid of.

Werewolves were an accepted part of society, and at least tolerated where they were not liked. Mostly they lived apart, preferring woodlands and suburbs to human-packed cities, and this helped. The politics within Werewolf society, however, were an altogether more complicated story.  It was an intricate dance of rules, strengths, and genetics, all working together to create the entity known as a Pack that all humans were aware of only superficially. Marcus, although lacking a pack of his own, was fully aware of them. Just like he knew the birthrights of Alphas and Omegas.

Marcus was an Omega, a fairly rare condition that felt like a weakness eating at his core right now. He walked faster, head down, one hand already wrapped around his apartment keys in his pocket. The disadvantage of being Omega was that an Omega had to obey Alphas – everyone did, but for Omegas it was worse, more imperative. Whatever genetic or supernatural quirks that had ingrained authority in the voice of an Alpha over other Werewolves had also sewn a corresponding weakness into Omegas, like a crippling little keyhole that couldn’t be hidden, removed, or defended.  In a pack, however, this was balanced out, because Omegas like Marcus were prized and cherished – beyond their natural obedience, they had the ability to spread calm like an intangible ripple around themselves. No one (not science, at least) could explain the trick, but a pack rarely survived long without an Omega and his or her abilities acting like a buffer between what could otherwise be temperamental, grating personalities in close quarters (combined with sharp teeth).

An Omega without a pack, however, was nothing.

Marcus shivered, hunching his shoulders, recalling his own pack with wistful longing. He hadn’t had a pack in years, so the memory was stale and cold on his tongue.  Time had dulled some of the agony of losing them – his family, for all intents and purposes, certainly his friends – but had done nothing for the pure anxiety that ruled his every waking hour now.  That was because an Omega without a pack was vulnerable. For Werewolves of other ranks (Alphas, Betas, the others with less defined titles), being without a pack was a fairly trivial matter: Alphas on their own invariably built up a pack, and any other Werewolf was just as easily subsumed into whatever pack they came across, barring clashes of temperament. It was natural for a lone wolf to seek out more, like metal shavings to a magnet, or a river to its source. However, since each pack only ever held one Alpha and one Omega, and Omegas did not start their own packs, that meant that Omegas had a very hard time regaining camaraderie once they lost it. This also made them largely useless on their own.

And unprotected. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for certain quirks of Werewolf nature.  While they were perfectly human in most respects, Werewolves suffered from many instincts that were perhaps mostly canine, one of which dictated the persecution of outsiders – of ‘non-pack’ – and a certain violence towards the weak, so long as that weak individual was neither kin nor kith.  I. e., a lone Omega like Marcus who had no pack to serve as family, and virtually no hope of being subsumed into a new pack.

Very few Omegas ever ended up on their own to begin with, being much-loved and protected by their own packs, but Marcus was on his own now, and had learned that the best method of survival was avoidance of his kind entirely. Hunting for a new pack…was dangerous. Deadly even. So he lived a quiet life, just scraping by, and kept his head down and his person well-hidden amidst the thriving human populace – it was a fact of life that Werewolf packs preferred to live on the outskirts of everything, where their canine side could have room while still allowing their human side to benefit from the amenities of society. In the city, there was little room and too many smells, but Marcus was just one Werewolf, after all, so the cramped quarters didn’t bother him too much.  The smells gave him headaches sometimes, like today, but they were bearable. He would have preferred the close press and constant company of his pack – his family – and the fresh scent of open, woodland air, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and a lone Omega was lower than a beggar.

Unfortunately, just because Wolves preferred wilder locals did not mean they stayed there indefinitely.  Marcus had just gotten to his door, fumbling out his keys, when the wind direction changed and the scent hit him with a punch of fear like ammonia, belatedly cutting through the smell of food stains on his clothing. He stiffened violently on reflex, his key scraping out of place and across the doorknob instead of going in. Since losing his pack and truly becoming alone, Marcus had felt as if his senses were raw, if not stronger than before – not only had he lost the buffer of a pack between himself and other Werewolves, but he’d lost some layer of protection between his senses and the world. It caused the sudden scent of an Alpha to scrape along his nerves as it finally managed to reach him past the smell of soap and crushed produce from the store. Marcus swore in his head, but already his lips wouldn’t move as fear swallowed him whole.

An Alpha. He smelt an Alpha, and since he could hear footsteps coming towards him, the Alpha had caught wind of him, too.

“What are you doing out on your own?” The voice was faintly angry and wholly demanding, a trait that came with being an Alpha, it seemed – just like being small and generally unassuming came with being an Omega. It was genetically written into them. Marcus was still madly trying to get his door to unlock, stubbornly not turning around to face the low voice now at his back, but his hands kept shaking.  Peaking out from under his sleeve was a scar from the last time he’d tangled with an Alpha without a pack around him.  It was reflex – ingrained instinct – for the leader of a pack to oppose the presence of an interloper.  Marcus knew from experience that even if an Alpha were normally even-tempered, they’d go after him, his tangled scent triggering some instinct for violence in them. To a species built around the integrity of a group, a lone Omega was an aberration, and therefore not tolerated very long. The worst part was that, without an Alpha and pack of his own, Marcus was still just as vulnerable to orders…if not more so.

‘Please don’t give an order…please don’t give an order…’ he found himself reciting over and over in his head, the one desperate, begging plea filling his mind up so much that he could barely formulate an answer to the other man’s question.  Marcus forced his blue eyes open just enough to stare in fragile determination at his door, answering in as even a tone as possible, not wanting a fight, “I don’t know you, I’m sorry.” He made another attempt at unlocking his door, wanting the safety and escape he’d find on the other side. In counterpoint to that promise of safety was the looming presence behind him, standing at the bottom of the landing – but with only two steps of difference, it didn’t feel like much distance at all.  

Marcus heard gravel grind as the man shifted his weight – probably a lot of weight, because Alphas were practically born muscular, the better to protect their packs.  It was a young voice, but Marcus didn’t dare turn around to make any more assessment than that, fear sliding cold hands up his spine. “You’re an Omega,” the man said, as if this were a revelation – in reality, any Werewolf could peg an Omega if they were close enough. Even the mess from work hadn’t hidden that telltale scent, which Marcus spent every night wishing he could scrub off to keep himself safe. Now, he resisted the urge to crumple against the door and just beg to be left alone.

The silence Marcus was presenting as he continued to fight with the lock on his door finally triggered annoyance, and Marcus physically flinched as he heard the other man take in a breath to growl, “I asked you a question – what are you doing on your own? Where’s your pack? Tell me.” New power flickered in his voice this time.

Marcus had hoped that he’d never have to hear another order again, not without his pack to back him – to muffle the effect. His hands and seemingly all of his muscles froze as the Alpha’s unconsciously applied command wrapped around his will and squeezed, leaving Marcus no choice but to whimper and then grate out truthfully, “I live here on my own.”  He tried to hold the confessions back, but the effect was like nails in his throat until the words were torn unwillingly from him, “I don’t have a pack.”

There was silence for a moment, the usual faint surprise of an Alpha encountering something so odd as an ‘unattached’ Omega. What came next would be an order to turn around, or something like that, to put them facing each other…usually about then, the Alpha’s more merciless instincts took hold, and there would be a fight Marcus couldn’t win.  Marcus forced words out before that could happen, “I’m not bothering anybody, so just leave me alone.”  He could have banged his head against the door for how desperate and tremulous his voice sounded, but it was the best he could do with the threat of being beaten to a pulp hanging over his head.  Werewolves healed faster than a normal human did, but he had enough scars from various fights to prove that the experience hurt and could leave permanent marks if done viciously enough, and he didn’t want to go through that again.  He cursed the genetics that made him so poorly built to be a fighter – a grudging glance back told him that the Alpha was, unsurprisingly, twice his size.  A fit man with broad shoulders and a strong jaw, although younger than most Alphas, probably only as old as Marcus.

“Leave me alone!” Marcus repeated, more sharply as anxiety dug its claws into his skin.  His key finally fit into the lock, although it was a sticky contraption that would take a bit more work to actually turn open. “Look, I know how it is with you Alphas-!” he began to rant with increasing, frustrated anger.

“Woah, woah, slow down!” The Alpha had stepped a half-pace back, hands rising.  It was a cool autumn day, and Marcus was wearing a coat and scarf, but the other Werewolf was getting away comfortably with just a sweater.  “I’m not threatening you or anything – it just seemed really odd to smell a Werewolf around here that isn’t one of mine, especially an Omega.”

“Well, now you know,” snapped Marcus. He knew full-well that he was just using waspishness to hide the fact that he was totally terrified, fear making him sick.  A pack-less Omega was a helpless Omega, and the helpless were prey.  It was a feeling he’d gotten used to.  “And I’d like it if you left.  I’ve got things to do.”

“You smell like you rolled in a buffet,” the Alpha pointed out, gold-brown eyes crinkling slightly as he wrinkled his nose, “I can’t imagine what kind of things you need to do smelling like that, besides maybe a long shower.”

The lock finally gave way and Marcus released an embarrassing sigh of relief as he hurriedly turned the knob.

Too late – Alphas had weapons that worked as quickly as thought.  Or, rather, speech. “Stop!” the Alpha commanded, voice firming up as power infused it, “Turn around, I’m still talking to you.” Marcus couldn’t find it in himself to be surprised, but he still felt a surge of helplessness and hopelessness as control of his muscles was once again wrested from him. He was so close to retreating to the loneliness and quiet safety of his cheap little apartment, but still he felt his hand unlatching from the doorknob and his body turning. Marcus was a fairly slender fellow, but he felt even more so as he moved to face the Alpha, arms at his sides and somehow dwarfed by the other young man despite standing up a few steps higher. Trembling, there was no way to hide how scared he was.  This had happened before a time or two, despite all of Marcus’s precautions to keep as far away from his dangerous kind as he could, and it was impossible to forget the vast disparity between his own powers and those of an Alpha.  There was no comparison, not when one could control the other with mere words, and Marcus’s Omega ability barely worked at all when he was panicked.

The Alpha had looked friendly enough, initially, but was now showing telltale signs of being annoyed. Businesslike but frowning, the Alpha gave in to using his power liberally and demanded, “What’s your name? Answer.”

“Marcus,” the Omega coughed out, “Marcus Rushton.” It was hard – nigh unachievable – to remain even vaguely defiant in the face of something like this. It was a level of powerlessness that humans would never understand.

Surprisingly, instead of continuing with another order (although the strength of the earlier commands didn’t let up, weighing down the air), the other man nodded and then said, “I’m Declan Fen. There’s no need to be so hasty.”

Marcus didn’t care how sensible Declan Fen was trying to be – other experiences had started out exactly the same way. Alphas couldn’t help but become violent when they met up with an anomaly like Marcus, even the friendliest Alphas. They couldn’t fight nature. Marcus began sharply shaking his head as if he could somehow rattle himself free.  “You don’t really want to talk with me,” he tried to reason bluntly with the oblivious Alpha, “Right now you think you do, but it’s just reflexes. Just now you noticed an Omega that didn’t smell right, and soon you’ll want me gone from your territory.” His voice, without his consent, dropped to a horrified little whisper, like misted words falling frozen out of his mouth, “However possible.”  Perhaps he’d never stopped, but Marcus was shaking again, nauseous now with fear.

Declan’s eyes widened a bit and he blinked. “Wait… What? What are you going on about?” His irises in the fading light were a fetching shade of green, offsetting the dirty-golden color of his hair, but even if he looked like an angel, he’d be a demon before long.

“Let me go. Just try and let me go,” Marcus challenged, knowing how this would go, “You won’t be able to do it. I’m a Wolf, but I’m not part of your pack, and at the same time you can’t make me part of your pack, because you already have an Omega.” All packs found an Omega almost immediately, and when Marcus had first moved here, he’d heard that there was a well-established pack some distance away – he’d just hoped they were far enough away to never meet him.  That farcical hope had been shattered now, clearly.  “I’m an aberration that’s not supposed to exist, so you may as well admit it.”

“Well, what if I did want to add you to my pack?” the Alpha tried to argue, even while he took a step forward.

Marcus managed to fight the Alpha’s command enough to edge a frightened step back in return. “I’d say you were a lying sack of meat, because it doesn’t work that way,” he informed the Alpha flatly. There was an itch under his skin to change, if only so he could bare his real teeth, but that was an even worse idea than arguing – if he changed, then so would Declan, and Fen was no doubt a fair sight bigger and more dangerous than Marcus was in Wolf-form.  So he stayed as he was, resigning himself to take damage in his human form if only because he got fewer scars if their fight didn’t initially involve lupine fangs.

Predictably, the cutting remark caused Declan’s eyebrows to lower stormily over his eyes almost immediately, and Marcus almost choked. He didn’t even breathe as the larger man suddenly walked up the stairs to get into his personal space, on the same level.  This was another Alpha tendency, Marcus had learned, right along with not realizing how much their power affected Omegas who didn’t have a pack around them. “So I’m a liar?” Declan snarled in a low tone.

He was going to be hit now, if not hard at first, then very hard eventually – there was just something about his existence that triggered violence in others of his kind, like one shark scenting blood and weakness on another.  Once the blood started flowing, the frenzy only increased. That knowledge was lodged like a block of ice in Marcus’s throat, so cold it burned, and he turned his head away with a little sob of breath as his nose filled with the smell of temper and dominance. It always smelled different, from Alpha to Alpha, but it mixed with Marcus’s own scent of complete, overarching fear to create a scent like nutmeg mixed with a sting of ammonia. All of his tartness and defiance crumpled and he stood with his body shaking and his eyes squeezed shut, feeling exactly as small as he was, and so helpless he could cry. Just that earlier handful of Alpha commands were still enough to prevent him from running away, as effective as chains.

Silence reigned. Marcus only breathed when Declan Fen did, the older man letting out a held breath in a steady rush. “Shit,” he sighed, while Marcus continued to cower, ashamed at his own fear and refusing to make eye-contact, “I don’t even…”  The other man was clearly at a loss for words, but hadn’t moved away, proving that Marcus’s assumptions were not unfounded: Alphas were hardwired not to leave possible threats to their packs unattended.  Finally, the larger man blurted, “I’m not going to hit you!”

The words didn’t reassure Marcus in the slightest, and he flinched very visibly as Declan expressively threw his arms out. Marcus was backed up against his tiny porch’s railing, and he hated Declan for being larger than him – Marcus had learned to hate a lot of Alphas for being larger than him. He didn’t trust Fen as far as he could throw him, and with the size difference, that wasn’t far. “Then leave me alone,” Marcus said back tonelessly, eyes focused past Declan’s elbow as he stood there tautly. 

Declan made a frustrated noise in his throat that sounded more animal than human, but he didn’t move – either away, or closer. The thinnest, most tenuous thread of hope wove itself into Marcus’s mind, and with a surge of brashness, he lifted his hands to try and shove Declan away and bolt for his still-half-open door.

The reaction was instantaneous: Declan burst into motion as well, the hot cinnamon smell of violence exploding from him a split second before one of his hands caught Marcus’s arm and the other came up to catch the Omega flush across the face. It all happened with the kind of speed only non-humans could manage, and if this were any other neighborhood but what it was, people would have been calling the cops.  As it was, both young men fell back, Marcus knowing that no one would prosecute Declan for the blow.  Right now, they were across from each other, each leaning on a railing like resting boxers, Declan looking shocked at himself and Marcus looking back at him bitterly like one who’d been vindicated.  “See?  Instinct. I’m an Omega, and I’m not part of your pack.  And since you’ve obviously already got an Omega in your pack, then I’m a threat to his or her position – to the stability of your family,” Marcus said with a voice that shook despite its stubbornness.  There was blood dripping down his chin, but he was still lucky: the blow had been sloppy and fast, an impulsive reaction.  An Alpha could break a jaw with a better punch. Marcus just continued, his voice a briar-bush of bitterness and jaded terror, “Those were your Wolf instincts telling you that I shouldn’t exist.”

Declan actually looked horrified, staring at what he’d so swiftly done.  Clearly he was a bit new to this Alpha thing. Most eventually realized that Omegas were a dichotomy, bringing out either protective qualities or angry qualities in the Wolves around them for no discernable reason – if Declan Fen had been Marcus’s Alpha, there would have been much more of the former and practically none of the latter.  Since he was not, the balance slid sharply the other way, leaving only unfounded, uncontrollable temper. And Since Marcus didn’t have any Alpha, there was no one of equal strength to stand up for him.

Logically, he couldn’t be mad at the Alpha for the violence: the reaction was as impossible to avoid as a chemical reaction. He could be angry at the Alpha for not leaving, and avoiding the reaction altogether.  Sadly, like an open wound, lone Omegas seemed to attract the very thing that was a danger to them, as if nature itself sought to wipe them out. “I said,” Marcus bit out one last time, “just go away and leave me alone. I have my life, you have yours. Don’t mix them.” It was a shaky request – it didn’t even manage to be a demand.  Omegas were all but incapable of demanding things of an Alpha, a fact that made Marcus grit his teeth with helpless fury. He noticed that his coat-sleeve had gotten rucked up when Declan had grabbed him, showing off a large scar on his wrist and forearm that couldn’t be from anything but a Wolf’s teeth. He swiftly pulled the sleeve back down again, still too scared and vulnerable to even lick at the blood spilling from his split lip.

“That wasn’t…! I mean…  How did I…?” the Alpha was stuttering, still frozen and staring in a rather un-Alpha-like fashion.

Marcus cut him off again, voice brittle, “It’s what all Alphas do.  You can’t help it.” Seeing that this might be his best chance, the Omega then made a dash for the door, reaching it even as Declan twitched – instincts coming alive again.  This time Marcus made it, however, skidding inside and immediately slamming the door shut and bolting it.  He actually heard a fist slam against the other side, and yelped aloud in alarm.

There was a moment of silence and frustrated breath, then a confused sort of canine whine that ended in an angry growl: human empathy warring with Werewolf instinct. Marcus backed up, logically knowing that a door should hold back Fen…but logic didn’t have a very good foothold in his world.

The growl faded, becoming a human voice again as Declan hollered, “Rushton!  Hey, man, I’m sorry – I never meant to…  Rushton! Hey!” It was clear that Marcus wasn’t going to listen to him, so the voice rose; Marcus cowered and pressed his palms against his ears as it wavered close to a command. “I’m serious!  Open up!”

The last sentence was a weak command, an unconscious one, but for a pack-less Omega, it had the power to bite and scrape against him like sandpaper over a bared nerve. Declan stopped talking and probably only realized that he’d done anything at all when there was a torn scream from inside as Marcus fought it.  Marcus stumbled back, still crushing his hands to his ears to block out the sound that had the power to tear free will away from him.

“Sorry, sorry,” Declan tried to soothe him, finally realizing the extent to which this had gone very, very wrong. Marcus could imagine his shocked, handsome face, the setting sun lighting up the blonde tousle of his hair and his wide eyes.  “Are you-?”

“GO. AWAY.”

That final, rasped holler was Marcus’s last hope of solace.  He huddled on the floor in the back of his apartment, cursing whatever trick of biology that turned his scent into a lure and his body into a target for those who naturally hated him the most. Even as he yelled, he could barely feel the stricken flicker of his hope – most of him expected to hear pounding on the door as Declan attempted to tear it off its hinges. The bite on his arm had come from an Alpha that had grown so incensed at him that the man had found a window and broken through it, his rage not leaving him until Marcus had managed to shove him down a flight of stairs.  Marcus had nearly been dead by that point. That was the worst skirmish he’d had, but there was always room for more scars…

But no more sounds came. No more orders that tore his mind in half (a plaything yanked at by himself and the Alpha, destined to be shredded or won over entirely by the latter) as he sat there, no more attempts at bewildered apologies and no more pounding on his door. The Alpha, Declan Fen, had gathered the strength to just leave.

Marcus didn’t uncurl from the floor, but he did sigh in bone-deep relief before finally dipping out a tongue to prod at his swelling lip and the sore teeth that had cut into it. He was shocked and already almost deliriously pleased that the Alpha had managed to ignore his instincts enough to walk away, but already he was thinking, with his heart sinking, of how he’d pack his meager belongings, scrape together his meager savings to pay off the remainder of his bills, and move.  It would be idiocy to hope that Declan would leave him alone for long, no matter how much both of them seemed to want that.

 

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