Explaining everything to Kobi and Liz was awkward, but by this point, Declan was actually becoming rather used to having strange and painful talks with Marcus about startling and bizarre things and then bringing his Betas into the loop. At least neither Liz nor Kobi seemed frustrated yet with how they were always the last to know. The only thing Declan left out of the rendition as he explained Marcus’s inexplicably omnipresent empathic link was his last confession: “I do like you.”
Then again, he expected that Kobi and Liz had already figured that out.
Upon the finishing of the short story, Liz looked sympathetically to Marcus, suggesting, “Maybe this is just because you haven’t been part of a pack in so long. It’s been years since you had to deal with a telepathic link, right?”
Marcus had alternated between pacing and sitting on the end of the bed, and had finally settled tiredly on the latter a few minutes ago. Hands clasped beneath his chin as if his head needed the support, Marcus nodded even as Declan felt the smoldering pile of disbelieving emotions belying the answer - Marcus didn’t really think that that was the reason. “I’ll keep trying to get the hang of it,” he offered nonetheless, subdued, “I’m sure it will turn off eventually.”
“You have gotten it to dim a bit since that first burst,” Declan hoped to cheer him up with signs of progress, and was at least rewarded by a smile and a surge of relieved and positive feelings. However, there was something lurking beneath them that prompted the Alpha to frown and press, “There’s more, isn’t there?”
Either Marcus’s difficult, jarring day had knocked any sort of fight out of him, or he’d finally started to realize that hiding information didn’t do him or anyone else any good. Because of this, instead of saying, ‘It’s nothing,’ the Omega just sighed and looked suddenly much more tired than before. “The harder I try to turn it off, the more my head hurts. I didn’t want to tell you…” He dropped his head, giving the distinct impression that if he’d been in his wolf form, his ears would have slicked back against his flattered ruff.
No one was entirely sure how to respond for a moment, until Kobi offered, “I’ll go find some Aspirin,” and that seemed to be a safe course of action. Marcus was used to functioning on his own, and Declan could feel how embarrassed he was to be showing his metaphorical soft underbelly, but at the same time, at least the smaller boy was making a sincere effort to act like a part of a pack - something that included depending on others from time to time. While Kobi walked out and Liz leaned against the wall with a little sigh, Declan sat down on the bed next to Marcus and did his best to feel positive and okay with all of this, even though there was at least a part of him that sparked and fizzled with worry and discomfort. He was a fairly new pack-Alpha, true, but he’d never heard of even seasoned Alphas dealing with conundrums like this in their extensive reigns. Part of Declan wanted to ask, ‘Why me?’ but the truth was, he really did like Marcus, and the same things that were making him troublesomely unique didn’t detract from the many things that also made him interesting, endearing, and likable in Declan’s eyes. He tried to press that sense of acceptance down the link, knowing that all of his emotions would inevitably flow along with it, and it must have worked, because Marcus’s shoulders became less tense and his thoughts less of a briar-patch of self-recrimination. Worry still coated everything, though.
The silence lasted until Kobi came back, glass of water and Aspirin in hand, and wearing a purposefully bland expression as if this was just another normal day. Marcus, at least, seemed grateful for the facade, looking up at the male Beta to murmur a thank you, but also blushing because today’s earlier, unclothed escapade was apparently not forgotten. Liz giggled and it broke the tension and the quiet.
“So what do we do now?” the young woman asked the all-important question. “Not about Marcus’s telepathic problems, but about the police.”
All eyes immediately turned to Declan, and he resisted the urge to look back into the set of blue ones directly to his right. Still, he reached a hand out to Marcus’s shoulder, squeezing it firmly even as he stated, “Well, first we’re going to have an official authenticate the pack-bond that Marcus has now. In most cases, it’s a formality, I know-”
“But with Marcus it’s life-or-death,” Liz stated the obvious, laying it out bluntly because there was no sense in beating around the bush. Her eyes flicked apologetically to Marcus, who tried to give her a reassuring smile that quickly faded. He leaned almost unconsciously into Declan’s hand.
Declan nodded, then took a breath to speak the next part of his plan… which he knew would please Marcus less. Some of Declan’s foreboding thoughts must have slipped through into Marcus’s head, because coming back down the omnipresent link was a wave of unease, and in his peripheral vision, the Alpha saw Marcus cast him a troubled, uneasy look. Declan spoke anyway without hesitation, “After that happens, we’ll have to go to the police ourselves.”
“What?!” If Declan’s hand hadn’t still been on Marcus’s shoulder, the Omega would have jumped right off the bed like a startled rabbit. The emotions flooding down the link were like a muddy whiplash of shock, fear, and even confused betrayal creating the most painful sting.
Keeping his grip and finally facing Marcus’s wide eyes as well as his roaring emotions, Declan said firmly and as logically as he could, “It’s inevitable Marcus - for you to be officially recognized as bonded to this pack, your name has to go on record, and I’m pretty sure that the reason Officer Stanford found you here in the first place was because your name came up where he had ears to hear it.” The most likely culprit was the apartment that Marcus had lived in… until Rob had trashed it. Everything in the pack had gotten so hectic that no one had cleaned up the mess or tied off those particular loose ends, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise that the local police had picked up on the name ‘Marcus Rushton’ - and word had traveled further afield, to Marcus’s birth-pack, which still apparently kept an ear cocked for ‘Milo Marcus Rushton.’ “The sooner you’re officially documented as part of my pack, the safer you’ll be.”
“And the sooner I’ll be in jail,” Marcus said in a voice that shook in with equal parts with terror and fury. His jaw clenched tight enough that the muscles could be seen straining along his cheeks, his lips compressing into a fine, bloodless line.
It was hard to meet those eyes when they were so angry with him, but Declan did it anyway, and didn’t let go of either his grip or his gaze. “The only choices we have now, Marcus, are whether we face this storm on our terms – or on their terms. That wolf from your birth-pack will be back before long, and if he comes back before we get officials to verify your link with me, with the pack, then we’re already going to be at a disadvantage.”
Kobi with his unfailing stoicism stepped in to strengthen Declan’s point, “People have contested pack-bonds in court before, denying that some Werewolves are in certain packs for political reasons. It doesn’t happen often, but it does, and I bet whoever really killed your pack would want to do anything to make sure Declan can’t stand up and verify before a court of law that your statement is true.” Kobi’s eyes were calm but entreating, hoping that Marcus would accept the sincerity of his words. “If we go right now, the people against you will be caught wrong-footed.”
“And if we go now,” Declan took up the narrative again, “there’s a courthouse in a city just over an hour away that employs a Werewolf official - she’s part of a neighboring pack, and would be able to document the fact that you can telepathically hear me as well as literally smell me still on the bite.” Taking a risk with Marcus’s shaky, anxious temperament, Declan moved the hand he still had on Marcus’s shoulder, sliding it closer to the smaller man’s neck until he could just brush the edges of the vividly bruising mark with the pad of his thumb. Marcus shivered, but fortunately, some of the hurt anger and suffocating fear stopped radiating from him even as he let out a little breath and briefly closed his eyes.
“So that’s the only option then,” Marcus summed up tonelessly, looking again like he’d fought too hard for too long and simply didn’t want to anymore. It was heartbreaking to feel the accompanying feeling of resignation, but Declan comforted himself with the fact that at least Marcus was accepting something good: their help.
“That’s the best option,” was Liz’s gentle correction. She added, however, “But we’d really like it if you agreed to it.”
Fear made one more attempt to poison the entirety Marcus’s empathic signature, an emotion that was like a dark radiance - an eye-burning blackness - to Declan’s mind’s-eye. Marcus sucked in a breath and ducked his head, and for a moment it looked like he’d lose this fight with himself and be overwhelmed. Voice tight with the effort to control it, a canine whine twined through the words to show just how wildly afraid he was, Marcus whispered, “I’m going back to jail.”
“No, Marcus. Shh..” Declan immediately gathered him close, one hand on his shoulder becoming two around his shoulders, an impulsive response he couldn’t stop if he tried. Marcus immediately buried his face against Declan’s collarbones, hiding within the circle of his powerful arms. “Look, Marcus, whatever comes, we’re with you. So there’s no ‘I’ or ‘you’ anymore, all right? And I mean that in the best way.” Liz and Kobi had drifted close, and Declan felt Marcus’s little gasp - and felt his shock and wonder - as each Beta laid a hand on him gently, full of support and a pack’s natural instinct to make a member feel protected. “So if you end up behind bars - at least one of us will, too. We won’t abandon you anymore than Kobi could abandon Liz.” The two Betas smiled, and Liz used the hand not brushing Marcus’s arm to wrap around her boyfriend’s waist. He leaned lovingly into her in response. Declan scrubbed a hand over the back of Marcus’s hair, secretly thrilled at the feeling of it under his fingers, then realizing with a blushing rush that his emotions weren’t exactly secret even as he felt a little rush of exhaled breath against his throat again - this time accompanied by a whole different slew of emotions. Changing the subject before he got too tangled up in those new feelings, Declan asked, “So, are you with us, Marcus?”
“Yeah,” he admitted grudgingly, but slumped in Declan’s grip, “Yeah, I’m with you. Just tell me the plan.”
Everyone sat back, regaining some small amount of personal space but also maintaining the closeness that spoke of camaraderie - if Marcus had reached out, he’d have been able to touch each of his three pack-members at any time while Declan spoke with growing assurance and determination, “I don’t know how easily officer Stanford will get a warrant to come looking for you, considering he’s outside his usual jurisdiction looking for you. The fact that he came here without one to begin with tells me that he either is having a hard time getting along with the local police, or wanted to handle this wolf-to-wolf first - either way, he knows that we’re ready for him now, and will probably expect us to outmaneuver him in some way. So he’ll be on the lookout for us suddenly leaving.”
Liz raised an eyebrow and noted shrewdly, “You’ve thought a lot about this.”
“I haven’t even gotten started yet,” Declan grinned, and finally felt Marcus getting caught up in the plan. The Alpha returned to his topic, “I don’t want to split up the pack - we’re already small, and I’d rather not be divided and conquered right now.” Everyone’s expressions and postures showed instant agreement. “But I also don’t want all of us to obviously make a run for the next town. So Liz-” He looked to her, and her green eyes grew instantly alert. “-I’m going to have you drive into town. I don’t care on what pretext, but groceries might be a good idea. After all, you’re going to be picking up four hungry Werewolves instead of returning home.”
The redheaded woman caught on quickly, a slow smile spreading across her lips. “So do you want me to flaunt my time in town, maybe even wave at Stanford if I see him? Before I pretend to go back home, of course.”
Declan chuckled. “If Officer Stanford is watching for members of our pack, I definitely want him to be distracted by you. The rest of us are going to try and slip out under the radar while you do that.”
“And how do you propose we do that?” Kobi asked, but his head was cocked with interest as well.
“On foot. Or, rather, on paw. Three wolves through the forest are pretty hard to track, and by the time we hit civilization again, Liz will be there with the car to pick us up.”
Marcus was nervous. Understandably so, considering his personal rule about being in his wolf form out-of-doors.
“We’ll never leave the trees, Marcus, and all of this land-” Declan gestured to the forest that stretched away from the house seemingly forever, “-belongs to us. Or, rather, to Liz. She doesn’t come from money the way I do, but she brought a decent inheritance with her to this pack, and graciously used it to buy us this land to run on.”
“You come from money?” Marcus had to ask, as much out of curiosity as because he wanted to distract himself.
Declan nodded. He glanced over to where Kobi had just finished giving Liz one last hug before seeing her off in her car. Hopefully this small ruse would be enough. “My mother is from one of the Old Lines - her maiden named is Greywood, and even though she married a Fen, I’m still more than allowed to hark back to the old family name. The Fens aren’t slouches either, in the shipping business. New money versus old,” Declan explained with an easy shrug, politely ignoring the way Marcus’s eyes had widened just a bit at the name ‘Greywood.’ Most of the Old Lines hailed from further north, but apparently their more distant descendants could live right in Marcus’s backyard.
At that point, Kobi had trotted over to them and Liz’s car was disappearing down the winding road and towards civilization. She had a few supplies packed in the trunk already, out of sight of nosy police-officers. “Are we ready to go?” the Beta asked, sensible and to-the-point as always.
Declan looked at Marcus, and after a long moment, Marcus nodded, and then showed his willingness to go along with the plan by transforming first. He did it slowly, his bones twisting almost agonizingly beneath his skin and snapping with little pops before his muscles pulled them into a new shape. As his body bent in half, falling onto all fours, clothing was replaced by fur, a coat of white spreading over everything from a lengthening muscle to a newly-grown tail. Kobi and Declan were still human and bipedal when Marcus had finished his transformation, standing shyly on four paws with his tail tucked uncertainly.
It was very hard to feel nervous, however, with the open empathic link between himself and his new Alpha. Beneath his fur, Marcus was blushing even before Declan said in a low, reverent, and utterly unabashed tone, “I should say this more often, Marcus, but you’re gorgeous this way.”
‘You… you can’t… People don’t just say things like that!’ Marcus said, startled and frankly scandalized, only remembering a beat too late that he was part of a pack now - and most definitely connected mind-to-mind. Declan heard it all clear as a bell, as evidenced by the way his face split into a cheeky grin and he promptly started laughing. Kobi merely shook his head, looking skyward as if for heavenly assistance.
“I’m going to transform before I’m asked to weigh in on a conversation that isn’t any of my business,” the staid Beta informed his two companions, and then followed Marcus’s example. Declan was kind enough to stop laughing before Kobi was finished changing, and instead stood and comfortably watched, so clearly proud of his pack that no emotional eavesdropping was necessary to know it. Kobi shook out his thick ruff of fur, settling into his new skin, and dropped his front half down in a sloped stretch until his catlike claws extended to scratch at the earth. ‘Ready to go?’ This time, Kobi’s voice drifted to both packmates mentally, and Marcus actually jumped to hear it for the first time. It was rather adorable and endearing, the way his white ears pricked forward and his eyes went from wide and surprised to indelibly curious. Kobi noticed, even if he wasn’t getting the emotional commentary like Declan was, and canted his great head in question. With Declan watching like a patient parent and Kobi standing idle, Marcus stepped forward as if they’d never been properly introduced, until he was close enough to stretch his neck forward - his nose just barely touched the fur off Kobi’s shoulders.
‘I can hear you,’ Marcus said in a marveling tone. Everyone was reminded that this was something Marcus had been missing for four years (disregarding his sporadic communications with Declan). Suddenly his unwillingness to don his wolf form could be understood from another, more painful angle: not only was he recognizable like this, but he was also without a voice. A Werewolf without a pack could communicate with no one, cry out for help to no one, so long as they were lupine. It implied a rather unsettling level of vulnerability, and could even be seen as crippling. But Marcus wasn’t mute anymore, and he was so shocked and amazed by it Declan found his heart moving painfully in his chest. To avoid the way his eyes were suddenly prickling in response to Marcus’s emotional revelation, Declan finally transformed, too. With a wolf now on either side of him - both bigger, both darker, but also both familiar - Marcus relaxed a bit, foregoing his usual habit of keeping his ears tucked low against his head.
‘Declan.’ The name came across as clearly as a bell, as crystalline as the blue color of Marcus’s watching eyes.
Declan’s jaws parted in a wild, canine smile. ‘Yes?’
Shyness tumbled together with happiness as Marcus danced lightly on his paws, replying, ‘Nothing’ before edging forward with all the lightness of a fox to push his snout against Declan’s shoulder as he had Kobi’s. He did it more firmly, though, and Declan was struck by how formal it felt - like some kind of gestural language he didn’t understand. Marcus’s fur was actually mussed up on the right side of his neck where Declan had bitten him, and it took a physical effort not to lean over and touch his nose to Marcus’ fur in return - if only to smell himself mixed in with Marcus’s smoke-and-vanilla scent. ‘Are we ready to go? I’m… I’m still not sure this is a good idea, but you’re the Alpha.’ Marcus telepathically spoke the last part of the sentence with a bubble of pure giddiness, no doubt having expected to never address someone like that again.
Over Marcus’s shoulders, Declan could see his Beta standing at ease, tongue actually lolling as he watched all of this but kept his council silent. His lupine expression spoke of knowing amusement, however, and he merely nodded in response to Marcus’s question (transmitted, apparently, on a broad bandwidth that they both picked up). Declan stood a little prouder, giving his tail a brisk wag before facing the forest ahead and replying, ‘That I am. Come on!’
With that, they were off like shots, powerful muscles and sleek bodies streaking through the underbrush. In that moment, Declan wouldn’t have turned off Marcus’s emphatic link for all the world: the pure euphoria he felt at Marcus’s first real run in the outdoors in years was like taking a shot of something wonderfully addictive right into his veins. It was a blast of pure sunshine. Declan would have howled in delight if they weren’t presently trying to be covert, and as it was, he couldn’t help but swerve over, closer to Marcus, brushing against him as if he could gain more of that happiness through physical touch as their pelts just brushed.
What had been planned as a steady, ground eating lope through the woods to their designated meeting place became an ecstatic sprint, filled with a feedback loop of happiness that spilled over so that to only Declan and Marcus enjoyed it, but Kobi was soon caught up in it as well. That was the gift, after all, of a good Omega.
As a consequence of their wild racing, they reached the road long before Liz was expected. Declan and Kobi were panting heavily and Marcus was even worse, being unused to so much exercise - despite how well he’d been eating at the house, he was also still recovering from years of living paycheck-to-paycheck and missing meals accordingly. Declan wordlessly nudged Marcus over to a thicket of leafy brush in the ditch, knowing that Kobi would watch the road for Liz, all of them staying out of sight. Here, the forest encroached upon the road, leaning over it heavily on one side while everything beyond the stretch of tarmac was farmland and then suburbia.
Marcus dropped down willingly into a little pile of white fur, the empathic bond quieter now - either because of some success on Marcus’s part in turning it off, or simply because exhaustion had simplified the Omega’s mind to a quiet hum of banked contentment and the kind of acceptance that came with desiring rest above all else. He seemed to trust that Declan would worry about any potential dangers. Flanks heaving, Marcus stretched out for a second, and then curled up again as if it went against his nature to take up space and leave his belly unguarded. Saddened by this but determined not to let that thought fog up Marcus’s own blissful mindset, Declan glanced at Kobi - closer to the edge of the threes, eyes on the road, one ear cocked back to Declan and Marcus - and then padded up to Marcus. One white ear twitched as the Alpha breathed into it, and blue eyes half-opened just as Declan began nosing at him. Marcus’s paws in particular were given attention, and a blurry, not-quite-verbal question shivered down the link.
‘You haven’t gone running in ages,’ Declan explained, ‘Your pads are bound to have gone soft.’ He continued to inspect them, eventually using it as a pretext to sit and then lie down, invading the white-wolf’s space when he wasn’t rebuffed. Marcus even obliged to show all four feet with a little flicker of embarrassed shyness, a movement that required him to roll over and stop defending the soft, pale fur of his belly. The show of trust was tentative, and Marcus’s tiredness was being pushed back a bit for the sake of watchfulness, but Declan was determined to show himself worthy of that trust - so he carefully brushed his long, black muzzle against each raised paw (letting retracted claws get very close to his eyes, but also finding nothing worse than a few abrasions on Marcus’s tender pads), and then sat looking down at Marcus with intense but gentle eyes.
Marcus’s eyes flicked to Kobi’s position - he hadn’t moved, and may as well have been ignoring them. Excitement fluttered alongside hesitance in Marcus’s mind, as he stayed on his back with his paws folding against his body. His panting had slowed until his breath was merely quickened, and now perhaps that was due to something other than running. ‘So…’ he hazarded the start of a conversation, ‘About before, when you said you liked me… Can I ask, how you like me?’ The grass rustled as Marcus’s tail risked a quick back-and-forth sway, the first attempt at a playful gesture that Declan had actually seen - at least directed towards himself rather than his easygoing Betas. It made Declan’s heart thump.
Slowly, still keeping his tawny-gold eyes on Marcus’s expectant blue ones, Declan lowered his head. Marcus made a little whuff of surprise, kicking and wriggling a little, but soon he had a big, black-furred head resting against his chest between his forelegs. Perhaps out of surprise or habit, Marcus started shifting right then, and not for the first time Declan was startled by some of Marcus’s little oddities - in this case, his unhesitant habit of transforming while in contact with someone else. Perhaps Declan’s pack was accepting of nudity in a way Marcus wasn’t used to, but Declan had never met a wolf who didn’t avoid direct contact when changing. One’s body was already in such a state of flux that outside influence always felt strange and scary, yet for some reason, Marcus did it without any signs of discomfort.
After a few seconds of Declan feeling Marcus transforming under him, Declan had his long snout on a human chest, blue human eyes trying to figure him out, and human hands on either side of his head as if to hold him still for inspection. Taking advantage of the momentary silence as Marcus just stared at him in frowning bemusement, Declan threw a paw over Marcus’s midsection for good measure, pressing him firmly down into the grass. ‘I think I like you in an awful lot of ways,’ he replied cheekily, even as he let the depth of his growing emotions spill free, belying his joking words and playful actions.
Marcus’s blue eyes became bright, then tears escaped them in two quicksilver lines down his cheeks, and Declan released a contented rumble as the lean arms around his head tightened in a desperate, never-let-you-go kind of hug.
All the while, Kobi kept his back politely turned, but his tail wagged gently against the grass and leaves.