Those Betas had made him late for work, but at least he’d made it. They’d left his door about twenty minutes after he’d turned up the music, although he only had known that by checking through the peephole on his door. The blasting music had left his ears ringing and numb-feeling for hours afterwards, even after he’d more or less sprinted to work in the hopes that he still had a job when he got there.
His boss, not surprisingly, was irate, but Marcus took the verbal beating silently, nodding when appropriate and making his posture as submissive as he could get it without physically kneeling on the floor. As an Omega, submissiveness technically came easily to him, but right now he was so out of sorts that he was just grateful that the lecture was one-sided – no hard questions were asked of him, and no responses were required other than, “Sorry, sir” or “No, won’t happen again, sir.” Then, ears still aching and a pounding headache behind his eyes, Marcus turned and left the office to man his post, filling shelves with myriad boxes of breakfast cereal.
“Wow, look who showed up today,” a voice popped into his ear, along with an actual pop – bubble-gum, quickly pulled back in behind red lips.
“Hello, Muriel,” Marcus greeted tiredly. This was the last thing he needed, but he’d reached the point where he didn’t even care anymore – his day had already hit rock-bottom. Muriel could make it worse, but he wouldn’t feel it, as far gone as he already was. He kept moving boxes of marshmallows and cornflakes.
The girl – perfectly human but as pushy as any Alpha Werewolf – smirked at him, rolling the gum behind her even white teeth, as if to let her bare them a little more. “D’you get a tongue-lashing in the boss’s office? Or did he do something else with his tongue to punish you for tardiness?” she asked teasingly, her eyes giving him a suggestive once-over.
Something in Marcus recoiled and shuddered at what she was implying, but he kept his face even. Muriel didn’t actually know that he was gay – she just liked to yank his chain with new and humiliating insinuations every day. “He told me not to be late again,” was all he said, very calm, very level. Very dead-sounding, really, because that was the best he could manage. He had a notion that he wouldn’t even notice if he started crying right now, because sitting next to the ear-rending sound of the radio turned up had rubbed his senses so raw that he felt utterly desensitized. If someone cut him right now, he’d bleed, but he didn’t think he’d feel the broken skin no matter how hard he tried. “I’m trying to work, Muriel.”
“ ’Course you are,” she smiled again, letting her voice get sweet in a way that made Marcus grit his teeth and his mouth turn down reflexively at the edges. Muriel always got under his skin, and he was wishing that today had been her day off. If he weren’t so in need of the money, Marcus might have requested off days when she worked, but instead he was here pretty much every day – good, dependable Marcus, practically a fixture at the store. No social life. No escape from Muriel when she got feisty or clearly wasn’t getting some itch or other scratched.
Fortunately, this time she must have had something else to do – or else the boss’s anger had been hot enough that she could still feel the heat of it pouring off Marcus like a warning to everyone – because she walked off, leaving him in peace.
Somehow, the peace wasn’t that much better. It was just a lonely silence that left him thinking about Alphas and orders, Betas and a pack family, and the growing suspicion that his senses were slowly going haywire, because after awhile, he started smelling wolves again. Feeling drained, foggy, and definitely off his game, it actually took Marcus a moment to realize that it wasn’t just his pessimistic imagination but an actual scent tickling at his nose. He hadn’t heard a thing to indicate that his workspace had been invaded by other Werewolves, so a few moments of utter panic later, he realized that his sense of smell was far more sensitive than he thought – he was smelling two Betas, but they weren’t in the building yet. He could also smell a package of meat that was going bad in the back room, a sweet smell that had to mean they were going to try selling flowers again, and a menagerie of other smells that suddenly were incredibly hard to block out.
Marcus had to pause in what he was doing to simply press his head between his hands, panting shallowly through his mouth and trying to find that balance between his mind and the physical world. Being able to sense things this strongly wasn’t odd by Werewolf standards – but normally, it took focus. Marcus wasn’t even trying lately, and his senses would suddenly crank themselves up to the highest level, and he knew with horrible certainty that it was because he didn’t have a pack around him.
Omegas weren’t meant to live alone.
Managing to turn down his sense of smell again before it made him retch, Marcus quickly finished with the shelves and scurried to the back of the store, making an excuse to work there for awhile. He could still smell the Betas with an acuity that was abnormal, but he decided to use it to his advantage.
For the next four hours he played hide-and-seek with a pair of Betas who were terrifyingly determined to find him, but who were at a distinct sensory disadvantage to the one handshy Omega slipping through their fingers time and again. The supermarket was big enough to become Marcus’s personal labyrinth, in which he felt like a rat being harried from turn to turn, and no real promise of cheese at the end if he made it there in one piece. He was aware that his coworkers were giving him funny looks, but he could just hope that no one reported it to the boss, who was already disgruntled with Marcus enough.
To be fair, Marcus was also working – albeit at random jobs all over the store, often dropping one to suddenly head elsewhere like a spooked hare. He was perfectly aware that he was acting far less like a wolf and far more like a rabbit, but just thinking of the two Betas (the redheaded girl and the brown-haired guy from this morning) made his stomach cramp up with fear, and he told himself not to care. Pride was less important than safety, and when compared to other Werewolves… Marcus was definitely the prey rather than the hunter. He had no illusions about that.
“You’re seriously hiding from those people, aren’t you?”
Marcus had been so focused on the two distinct Beta Wolf smells and sounds that he’d completely missed Muriel walking up to him. Now she had her too-bright red lips pulled back in a knowing smirk from where she leaned against the outside of the building – she was out taking a smoke, and Marcus’s nose recoiled from the thistles-and-honey sensation of the smell. He’d come outside when it was clear that the two Wolves nonchalantly chasing him were getting too close for comfort, and he needed space to think up a new plan, because he couldn’t keep this up all day.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Muriel,” he managed to say calmly, and was just about to grab the door and go back inside when fear stayed his hand again. Betas were inside. His hands shook and refused to touch the knob, and suddenly he was disgusted by his own cowardice. Frustration and self-hatred rolled through him in a red-hot flush of heat, and he couldn’t help the way the corners of his eyes stung or the way his lips turned down sharply at the corners. He wanted to scream. But all he could do was stand there staring helplessly at the door with his brain blanking as he searched for more options. “Why won’t they just leave me alone?” he hissed to himself.
He’d forgotten that Muriel was there. Maybe it was because the scent of her cigarette covered up everything else, so that she disappeared so long as he was focused on his sense of smell. When her hand landed on his shoulder, he physically jumped, spinning and blinking in surprise to find Muriel standing there, one eyebrow raised and her free hand still negligently holding her cigarette. “Poor baby,” she cooed, but actually sounded more soothing than teasing. If Marcus weren’t so worn out from everything – from Liz’s accidental command this morning, from blasting music until he wanted to tear his ears off, from being lectured by his boss and then having his work-space invaded by Werewolves who would kill him at the slightest provocation – he wouldn’t have been more suspicious. Muriel didn’t have a sincerely sympathetic bone in her body.
“I always thought you were boring – pretty, but boring,” she went on, almost conversationally, as Marcus frowned at her, and then at her hand still on his shoulder. He wrinkled his nose as the scent of the cigarette morphed into a physical sensation in his head, synesthesia at its best. It was a dust-brown smell, and it prickled at the edges until he wanted to turn his head away, as if against a cloud of nipping flies. He didn’t realize that he’d closed his eyes and distastefully done just that until suddenly warm hips and breasts were up against his front, and he was being backed up two startled steps into the wall. The alley was silent again but for the quiet thump of his shoulder-blades against the old brick. Muriel was grinning at him, making him realize that they were nearly the same height. “But now it looks like pretty-faced-you has a secret, and damn if that doesn’t make you more tempting.” As her right hand stroked his jawline unexpectedly, it brought her cigarette daringly close to his face, a glint of still-burning red that breathed and inhaled like the lungs of some tiny, coal-hearted demon. It startled Marcus nearly as much as the punch of pungent smoke did, and it was then that he realized that he was far, far too unprepared for all of this. Even as an Omega, he was stronger than any human, but strength was pretty useless when the last thing he wanted was for Muriel to realize that he was even more interesting than she suspected: a Werewolf. Or worse, if she filed charges against him for any of this. That suddenly seemed like a distinct possibility, and suddenly all the stress made it impossible to think-!
He was one-hundred percent sure that there was an easy way out of this, but he was also one-hundred percent sure that he couldn’t think of it, and that helplessness made him passive and compliant when what he really wanted was to shove Muriel across the alley and away from him. A whine curled up his throat that sounded distinctly dog-like, and Muriel laughed as if she found it hilarious, and petted his upper arm while her other hand kept the burning tip of her cigarette near his face like a signal flare of his own failure to act.
Marcus hadn’t been breathing, and realized it suddenly when the low, iron-heavy voice startled him into inhaling. Both Marcus and Muriel looked over to see the large male Beta from that morning striding towards them, his dark brown eyes looking almost black on his squarish but handsome face. Marcus hadn’t smelled him coming because his head was clogged up with the smoke swirling around it, but right now he couldn’t even summon the energy to leap away. He was finished. Today just needed to end. The fact that he couldn’t even handle Muriel meant that he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of dealing with Werewolves, and his headache felt like it was pounding in agreement.
Before Muriel could do more than glare, the Beta went on, “Your break is over. Leave.”
It should have been a relief when Muriel stepped back, no longer pressing flush to him in a way that was too intimate. Instead, Marcus just took in the hard words and felt his heart-rate pick up again. This was it then. He knew that Betas didn’t react with the same irrational, territorial anger that an Alpha did, but it was plausible that they’d want to back up their pack-leader and run him out of town by force. He ignored Muriel entirely in favor of firming up his stance and clenching his jaw, eyes entirely on the male Beta standing a few paces away. The man wasn’t as big as Fen, but he was still broad-shouldered, with eyes as steady as the earth beneath hair that was cut almost too short to notice the slight wave to it.
When Muriel’s fingers snagged his sleeve as if to pull him in after her, the Beta spoke again, “His break is just starting. Now leave.”
Muriel’s eyes widened at the blatantly ordering tone, but she dropped Marcus’s sleeve while simultaneously tossing aside her cigarette. It landed between herself and the Beta, and she let it smolder as she went back inside with a huff and a slamming of doors.
Marcus didn’t move or shift his eyes off the Beta. “So I’m on break, am I?” he asked, very softly, like the kind of soft wind that stole over gravestones. It had an air of finality to it, but at least it didn’t sound quite as terrified as he was, so long as he kept his tone rigidly controlled and too quiet for the quaking to grab hold of it. The lazy smoke from Muriel’s cigarette was still stinging his nose with painful claws.
The Beta had looked, this morning, like he was more the brawny than the brainy type, but his dark-brown eyes suddenly seemed to notice something. He glanced from Marcus’s tight, pained expression to the smelly wisp of smoke that he probably had been ignoring up until now. Marcus couldn’t. The Beta stepped forward the two easy steps necessary to put it out with a twist of his booted heel. It was a gesture so unexpectedly sympathetic and kind that Marcus couldn’t think of anything to do other than blink. The Beta didn’t get any closer, either, instead putting his hands almost nervously in his pockets and belatedly answering, “’Name’s Kobi. And yeah, you’re on break. I think Liz is talking to your boss.”
“Nope, done talking to him,” the redheaded Beta suddenly appeared around the side of the building, too, and Marcus fought the renewed impulse to flee. The woman immediately stopped, still behind Kobi, and raised her hands. “Easy there, Marcus. Seriously, I just asked your boss where you were, and he said this was your lunch-break, so we should look for your somewhere outside of the building.”
Marcus hadn’t actually realized that, amidst all of his dodging and hiding, he’d survived until the noon hour where he got some time to grab food. He was pretty sure that he was too nervous to eat, though, and eyed Liz and Kobi warily. In no way was he surprised when both of them made an abortive movement towards him as soon as he shifted a foot in the direction of the door back inside. In fact, it was all so predictable that he laughed a little, a humorless and broken cough of noise that sounded more bitter than anything else. “Fine then. You’ve got about twenty minutes with the pack-less Omega,” he bit out, crossing his arms and flexing the intuitive ability at his core that would let him shift shapes. He still didn’t like his odds if he added teeth to the occasion, but he knew that he was pretty fast if it came to running on all fours. As rattled as he still was by Muriel’s advances, however, he wasn’t sure if he couldn’t control the shift very well – that meant tearing clothing and an embarrassing return to nudity later. Controlled shape-shifting could include a Wolf’s clothes in the shift, morphing whatever they mentally considered a part of themselves. In optimal conditions, Marcus could change to a wolf and back, and his shirt and pants would go from fabric to fur to fabric again without a hitch. Today wasn’t optimal by a long-shot. “Are you going to lecture me some more about how you’re not going to hurt me, or at we just going to skip all the crap and get to the part where you teach me a lesson,” he finished in a brittle tone, full of harsh anger like rusted knives. “Or whatever you want to call it.”
The redheaded woman just blinked at him, as stunned as if he’d walked right up, stood on her toes, and slapped her. The other one, Kobi – who smelled too much like Liz to be anything but her boyfriend or lover – looked equally startled, but Marcus just watched his hands, tracking them as he slipped them out of his pockets. Marcus had learned a lot of self-defense and a lot of paranoia by necessity over the past four years, and one thing he’d learned was that empty, free hands were dangerous hands.
“God, you still think that that’s what we’re going to do to you?” Liz said suddenly in such a broken voice that Marcus’s distrustful blue eyes snapped up to her. He was startled by the open, hurt shock he saw on her face, and for a moment he felt off-balance.
Kobi recovered first. He put a hand on his girlfriend’s shoulder but talked to Marcus, saying in a steady voice that seemed to come naturally to him, like stability came naturally to the earth. “There’s a coffee-shop just around the corner. Come with us. We’ll buy you coffee. No tricks.”
The tone itself was mollifying, but Marcus suddenly felt the sting of a light command, and it made him physically wince and lose his balance. “Shit!” he swore involuntarily as the command literally dragged one of his feet forward. It had felt, for a second, as if he had a fish-hook stuck between his ribs while Kobi pulled on it. The command hadn’t even been that strong, but it reignited the raw, naked fear that had been filling Marcus for days. He started to lift his hands to cover his ears like a beaten spouse learns to cover his or her head against blows.
“Sorry! Sorry,” Kobi said before he could complete the action of muffling his ears. “That was accidental.” Broad face transforming into something truly apologetic, Kobi continued, “I didn’t mean to do it, I swear. We…Liz and I…any of us…we’re not used to having to watch ourselves this much. What I meant was…would you like to sit with us and have coffee?” He sounded so imploring, and Liz was nodding her red head, too. “Our treat. Public place, so it’s safe, and your coworker won’t be hassling you either.”
The growl in Kobi’s voice as he mentioned Muriel was almost shocking to Marcus, who realized that he hadn’t been defended in awhile. It put him off-balance almost as much as the sudden scent of Liz’s regret and Kobi’s petrichor-scented sincerity.
Marcus looked at his watch. If he didn’t eat now, he’d have to wait until after work, and he was already starving. His lack of options tightened around him like chains, every second taking up the slack, as if the world didn’t already realize that he was immobilized.
He wanted to just close his eyes and pretend that none of this was happening to him…but he’d been hoping that ever since he’d heard the news that his entire pack had been murdered, and he hadn’t gotten his wish yet.
Feeling dead, defeated, hurting, and so, so tired, Marcus let his posture radiate submissiveness and he murmured, “I suppose I don’t have a choice anyway.” He was already walking in the direction Liz and Kobi wanted him to go.
Marcus had a headache that precluded thinking, but the chai he’d ordered at least had a scent that was soothing his nose. The cigarette smell had already started to fade back in the alley, but it felt as if someone had put hot lead in his sinuses, and with the two main threats to him presently sitting across from him, he hardly needed his sense of smell free. So he sat at the outdoor table beneath the tastefully green umbrella and hung his head over his tea, letting the smell and steam invade his head.
Liz and Kobi were looking distinctly uncomfortable sitting across from him. They’d all ordered food, and as promised, it had been Liz who’d footed the bill. That didn’t particularly surprise Marcus, as he had no doubt that these two were good people – but good people and good Werewolves were two different things, and the latter had a way of subverting the former when Marcus was involved. He’d eaten his strawberry scone mechanically while waiting for the other shoe to fall. He flinched when someone walked by on his peripheral vision who looked like Muriel.
“Are you friends with the girl who was bothering you?” Kobi asked suddenly, as if reading his mind. He had eaten half a scone himself, but had left half on his napkin, and Liz was picking at it. None of them seemed to have much of an appetite, though, and to be fair, this part of town didn’t exactly breed good coffee-shops – the scones were mediocre-tasting at best. Marcus had just gotten used to them.
Casting Kobi a cautious look, Marcus thought a moment before replying, “Why do you want to know?”
“Because she looked like she was five seconds away from sexual assault, that’s why,” the Beta went on in that same, mountain-level voice of his. It would have been annoying, if it weren’t so calming – Marcus had to admit that he felt a little bit less threatened when he was faced with such a levelheaded conversationalist. It felt less like Kobi was suddenly going to say, ‘Just kidding!’ and attack him. He was so unused to dealing with members of his own kind that didn’t want to hurt him, that this was a bit surreal, and Marcus honestly wasn’t sure how to deal with it in a non-defensive manner.
“Sexual assault?!” Liz’s sharp voice had both men turning. She hadn’t arrived until after this, Marcus remembered, and felt his face flushing with shame at how he’d handled the altercation with Muriel…or, rather, how he hadn’t handled it at all. Like now, he’d been in a state of mind where all he could think to do was shut down and let things happen to him. Anything else was exhausting, and he didn’t have any extra energy to spare. Ducking his head, he sipped at his chai, letting Kobi deal with this.
“When I found Marcus, there was a woman obviously taking liberties,” Kobi explained with unexpected brevity, apparently a bit intimidated by Liz’s demanding looks his way, “She had him pushed up against the wall.”
The memory, even stated in such a detached fashion, had Marcus shivering. He resisted the urge to rub at the shoulder where Muriel had first put her hand, before proceeding to stroke it with a heavy, possessive touch. Before now, Muriel had always been a bit on the pushy, flirtatious side, enough so that Marcus had always avoided being in enclosed, private locations with her, but this was the first time she’d crossed the line from mildly inappropriate to accosting him. On any other day, he might have been able to deal with it, too, but now…
Marcus felt another bit of his internal support structure buckle, suddenly understanding what it felt like to be a rocky shore – waves beating against it until bits of itself started sliding into the sea. He’d stopped tasting his chai awhile go, and right about then, he couldn’t care less. About anything. “Fuck you,” he growled, startling Kobi and Liz both, but by then he’d crossed his arms on the table and dropped his head onto them. His limbs blocked out the light, and he imagined that it equated to the world.
Except his cup of chai, which was sitting too close to his elbow, and starting to burn a bit. He jittered to one side when he felt fingertips brush his arm, but it was just someone… Who was he kidding? It was one of the Betas sharing a table with him, moving the cup away. Marcus curled his arms around his head tighter and forced himself to ignore the sick feeling of helplessness that was crawling up his throat and stinging the corners of his eyes.
It was the girl, Liz. Marcus was feeling defensive again, but not daring enough to lift his head. “If you give me one single order, I’ll shift and make such a mess of both of you that you’ll regret it for weeks,” he threatened with a fierceness only found in cornered creatures. It was a kind of courage that tasted like acid and burned as it went down. Unfortunately, the threat was also entirely empty, because there was no way Marcus could best these two in a fight. “I don’t care if we’re in public or not.”
“Geez, Marcus, no – I wasn’t going to order you!” Liz did a good job of keeping her voice down, so probably no one was noticing them. Marcus almost wished someone would, because the last place he wanted to be was at a table with two people so dangerous to him. Liz’s softening voice surprised him, “I just wanted to ask you if that girl bothered you often, and if your boss knows. I wanted to help.”
Something twisted in Marcus’s chest, painful and sharp. He’d been surprised again: Kobi was being nice…and Liz was being nice. Despite the fact that he’d had an altercation with their Alpha, and had threatened and insulted them at literally every opportunity. He should have meant nothing to them – less than nothing. Marcus was under no illusions that he was the least bit likable at this moment, because he was doing everything he could to ward them off. Snark and nastiness were literally the only weapons he had, unless he wanted things to get bloody. Which he didn’t. The idea made his mouth dry, and he swallowed, but forced himself to lift his head and act civil.
If Kobi and Liz weren’t there to hurt him, then he should stop being an idiot before he convinced them to hurt him. His headache was muddling his thoughts more than he’d realized.
Looking down and away, posture tense but now erect, Marcus thought very carefully about what he wanted to say. He was aware of both Betas watching him, and finally started with, “Sorry. Sorry, I’m…” Something like the truth sounded like a good bet, so he went on in a voice pitched this time to be non-confrontational, “If you just want to talk, then we can just talk.”
“Like civil people?” asked Kobi.
The words hit Marcus like a barb, but this time, he pushed down his reaction, although he suspected that his shoulders twitched as if in a flinch. Still lookingoff in the direction of the overflowing trashcan on the ground to his right, he made himself nod. Getting angry was the easiest route, but even with his head packed with steel wool (painful and dense-feeling), Marcus thought that he could try and think his way through a peaceful conversation. He hoped. It took effort to effectively sharpen his thoughts, when what he really wanted (needed) was to take some painkillers and curl up in bed. “Yeah, like civil people.”
After that, the conversation was just that: civil. It was awkward and halting at first, but Liz was determined and Kobi was honestly about as unflappable as a guy could get. The former refused to let the talking falter, and the latter went along with her, the two of them managing to almost make the chatter feel natural. In all truthfulness, Marcus appreciated the effort, because as nervous as they made him, it was the only real conversation he’d had in months that hadn’t involved coworkers or customer service. In fact, it felt…
“Marcus?” Liz had been talking to him about what it was like to live in this part of town, and how long he’d lived here, when the man with the dark-brown hair had suddenly frozen in place. The two Betas blinked at him.
Quickly, Marcus recovered himself, barely noticing that in the time he’d been sharing a table and slowly relaxing by increments with the other Wolves, his headache had been receding and his senses had begun to settle to normal levels. He pushed himself to his feet. “Sorry, I’ve got to get back to work,” he murmured, excusing himself and more or less fleeing to his workplace.
The reason he’d left so swiftly was because he’d suddenly realized that this was what talking with pack-mates felt like, and he hadn’t felt like that in four years, and he didn’t want to torture himself with the feeling now. He was painfully happy that Liz and Kobi didn’t follow him this time, although a battered part of him suspected that this wasn’t the last time that they’d see him, or find him, or take him someplace quiet to eat and treat him as if they really did think he was family.