As the saying went, he didn’t hear the shot that hit him. Everything fell silent in the seconds before the bullet tore through his shoulder; blowing him backwards, away from the man whose life he was trying to save. Breath knocked out of him as his body hit the hot concrete, an already bloody hand grew slicker when it grabbed at the spreading stain soaking his uniform.
I’ve been hit.
The instant his disbelief evaporated, the world roared into sound around him again; everything so loud: the rapid-fire of machine-guns, distant explosions, the screams and shouts of men.
Please God, let me live!
His last thought before the desert sun turned black was that even if he’d been able to speak his prayer out loud, in the midst of such a racket he doubted any deity could have heard it.
John sat bolt upright in bed, shoulder clasped in his hand. Sides heaving, lungs starved for air, he pulled in huge gulps of it. The moment he realized where he was, that it was just another nightmare; he threw himself back against the mattress. Heart pounding, he laid there pressing himself as flat as he could, hoping desperately that none of the patrolling night staff had heard him. If they knew he he’d had another nightmare, that he was destabilized, he’d lose his walk again tomorrow.
Tears filled his eyes. Struggling to keep his face from crumpling, John silently swore, shamed by how much he’d been reduced since being invalided.
Buck up, Watson. You're being ridiculous. Crying over something so simple as the possibility of missing out on a walk.
Even as he thought this, however, John knew his internal chiding was far from the truth. The tears were for the terror the dream stirred, the men who’d fought and died alongside him. He pressed the heels of his palms into eyes that stung still from the horrors he’d seen, the visions that continued to haunt him. He drew in a deep breath. Fight though he did, John knew tonight he was losing the battle. Silent sobs jarred sharply loose the pains held in his aching body, even as they further-cinched the band constricting his heart. It had been growing ever tighter with the loss of what little freedoms he'd had.
John cursed himself once again for begging to live when the shot hit him.
And then he cursed whatever sharp-eared god had answered.
Nightmare attack having gone mercifully un-noted, John got his walk. The air was crisp, the smell of exhaust and people and well, pretty much everything, exhilarating after the stale, antiseptic air of the center. With the swirl of the city around him, John felt like a boy again.
Or, maybe not quite.
His blue eyes flickered up to the broad shoulders stalking ahead of him before tracing down the connecting tether between them. He’d been lucky to grow up in the country where, despite his beta step-father’s harshness, he had rarely been leashed as a pup.
While he didn’t dare bring his fingers up to pull against the choking weight, John shrugged against the heavy collar, still unaccustomed to the feeling. The collar was designed to focus pressure on the front of the neck, meant to stimulate the submission created by a conquered throat under the maw of a stronger alpha. The only sense John got from it, however, was that his breathing was constricted, which did nothing to alleviate his persistent sense of panic.
Military alphas were never collared on their bases or out in the field. This was one of the reasons he had opted into the service. Another was, outside breeding centers and hard labor, there weren’t a lot of other professional venues open for alphas. And the army was one of the few places to allow an alpha with his rare medical training to practice.
Hobbling far faster than his leg was comfortable with, John tried to keep pace with his handler. Not yet entirely used to moving with a cane, a miss-step stuttered his stride drawing a sharp tug from the beta walking three steps in front of him. Even though the collar was padded in the back, alpha-sensitive, the jerk sent an angry jolt down his spine. John fought to school his features, simultaneously caught between wanting to gasp out or snarl. Both reactions were thankfully cut off, however, when his handler, Tobias, suddenly stopped. It came so unexpectedly John almost stumbled into him.
“Christ, I have to shit. I need a toilet.”
Tobias’ conversational skills were generally lacking, not that this really had an impact on John. He knew the man wasn’t actually speaking to him anyways. He rarely did, unless it was to bark out a command. Seeing the squat, brick of a public restroom in the park’s distance, Tobias gave John’s lead another abrupt pull and headed off that direction.
As they drew closer Tobias stopped again, this time alongside a bench. He tied John’s leash off to one of its iron arms.
“You stay here like a good boy, Watson.”
Despite the fact Tobias was a beta, he had a good four inches on John. He drew himself up in a stereotypical posture of alpha aggression. “I’ve read your file… All about that fake leg of yours. You try and fucking run on me and you know what’ll happen!”
“Yes, sir.” John kept his voice deferential, eyes averted. It was hard not to growl, but if growing up with his beta/omega family hadn't already well prepped him in how to answer other dynamics, he’d had plenty of practice with curbing his instincts in the service.
With a curt nod of approval at his answer, Tobias hurried off towards the bathroom. John stared down at his loosely tied leash. It wouldn’t be at all difficult to get loose. He wished fervently, and not for the first time, his leg really was “fake” as everyone claimed. It had woken him with severe pain that morning and at present throbbed terribly. Given this, John knew running was out of the question.
But then, even if he did run, it wasn’t like he had anywhere to go. Besides, even if he could get out of the locked collar, they’d chipped him when he joined the military. And while the chip was dormant now it could easily be reactivated. If he was caught, which he surely would be, crippled as he was... Without a sponsor, PTSD diagnosed, just back from a battleground… It would be far too easy for the courts to declare him feral.
Even knowing all this, John hated himself for how quickly he dismissed the idea. Rather than indulge in further self-loathing, however, he decided it would serve him better to focus his energies on being thankful. And he was, extremely grateful he hadn’t been forced to follow Tobias into the toilets, subjected to having to listen to the man shit. So, he told himself, it shouldn’t matter he’d been tied to the bench like a disobedient hound; it was still a blessing to have a few minutes to himself out in the world. Determined to take advantage of it, John lifted his head and glanced around the park.
A sweet, milky scent caught his attention.
Down one of the walkways he spied a young, omega woman pushing twin toddlers in a stroller. Not that he’d really ever wanted any of his own, but the kids were cute and John couldn’t help but smile. His smile vanished when his gaze lifted and he saw the mother’s face. She’d seen him looking at her children and had also seen his leash. It had only taken a second for her to recognize him as an unattended alpha. Her expression couldn’t have spoken more clearly than if she’d actually shouted at him.
John dropped his eyes, his head dipped just slightly.
Right… Never make eye contact. Don’t smile…
Despite shifting his posture to be as non-threatening as possible, in his peripheral vision John watched the woman push her stroller up onto the grass and swerve a good ten feet from the path to avoid passing right beside him. The action made something in his chest twist painfully and his collar suddenly seemed about three times tighter. Wanting to distract himself from this sensation before he got himself into a good panic, he shifted his gaze street-side, where a beta was overseeing a small crew of alpha laborers repairing a section of road.
A couple teenage beta girls dressed in school uniforms stopped on the pavement to make catcalls at the alpha workmen. Their light voices twisted vulgar, shouting about hard muscles and harder knots. John watched the men’s postures stiffen as they continued to work, trying to ignore the girls. It was common knowledge that the collars such laborers wore were designed to shock upon speaking as a means of protecting the public from uncouth alpha utterances.
After humoring the girls for a minute, the beta forewoman finally scolded and shooed the giggling teens off. John felt a surge of relief seeing them moving the opposite direction, away from him. As he was, he’d be an easy target. His current collar didn’t presently sport a muting feature and he didn’t relish the notion of being goaded into doing something that would merit this addition either.
Girls gone, the roadcrew seemed to double their efforts, no doubt using the work to burn off whatever emotions their hecklers had stirred up in them. Despite what had just happened, John quietly envied them. He missed the burn of taxed muscles, days filled with long, rushed, active hours that left him exhausted.
God, he felt useless.
His mind flitted to the gun hidden inside a cutout of one of his thick medical texts. He’d been so lucky no one ever bothered him about his books-- unless it was to doubt he had enough brains to really read them.
It would only take one well-placed shot.
He remembered the last time he’d dared to pull the gun out: the feel of the cool metal cylinder pressed into the tender skin under his jaw.
“John? John Watson?”
It took a moment for John to register the hail, a few seconds longer to shake himself out of his morbid reverie. Pulled back into the present, he saw a man approaching. He scented the air without being obvious, eyes assessing as the other drew nearer.
Chubby, beta, rumpled, professional.
John allowed himself to relax, just slightly.
“Ah, that is you!” The man’s face broke into a pleased grin. It barely faltered when the beta realized John still hadn’t placed him. “Stamford. Mike Stamford. We were at Bart’s together.”
John’s eyes widened, not just because Mike had changed quite a bit, but because he extended his hand, offering it to shake, despite him being visibly leashed.
But then, John’s memory supplied, Mike always was a good one. Too liberal for some's taste.
“Yes. Sorry. Yes, Mike.” Outside ranks, it had been so long since John had spoken with or been spoken to so personably by someone who wasn’t another alpha it took him a minute to regain his equilibrium. “Hello. Hi.”
“Yeah, I know. I got fat!” Mike said this with a self-deprecating grin, obviously pleased now to be recognized.
It was the kind of comment that only a beta or an omega would make. Often seen as misplaced vanity, acknowledging such a shift in oneself wasn't something an alpha would ever willingly do. Such an admission would immediately lower one, making him/her openly vulnerable. Still, John had enough social savvy to attempt the proper non-alphic reply.
“No. Course not.”
Ignoring how unconvincing his response sounded, Mike waved the comment off with the flutter of a hand. “I heard you were abroad somewhere, getting shot at. What happened?”
“He got shot."
Both Mike and John started at the sound of Tobias’ voice. Their cheeks heated simultaneously too, although for different reasons. Tobias studied John and then his gaze flickered over to Mike, expression disapproving.
“This your alpha, Mate?” Mike’s voice was curious but far less abashed than he looked.
Tobias snorted in disgust. “As if… Not likely I’d let his genes into the family pool. No, Watson here’s being kept at the Central Center until they figure out what to do with ‘im. I’m just his keeper at the moment, thank god!”
“Is he coming up for sponsorship then?” Mike shot an apologetic look at John, obviously uncomfortable to be talking about him as though he wasn’t standing right there.
John offered a tight grin of thanks back, though this was observed and earned him a new frown from his handler.
Contemporary alpha “sponsorship” was essentially a modern slave system and took all sorts of forms. An alpha could find him or herself taken in by an omega wanting a reliable heat mate, or a seeder. Sometimes, if an alpha was fortunate, such an arrangement might eventually turn into a true bonding. With a bond came greater freedoms if not outright emancipation, since mated alphas were generally held by society as relatively stable.
Recognized legal bonding happened less and less these days, however. Instead, it had become the fashion in the last few decades for working omegas who wanted a family too, not to bond but to still keep an alpha around to fertilize them and then raise the children after they were born. Even if they weren’t naturally the most “maternal,” alpha protectiveness had proven to make many alphas acceptable caretakers.
Beta/beta fertility rates had drastically dropped over the last decades as well. In vitro treatments didn’t work with omegas and had become increasingly ineffective with beta females too, so now mixed omega/beta couples, beta/beta couples, and evermore socially accepted omega/omega couples often privately adopted an alpha to have a handy stud around. Though generally the alpha was suppressed until his/her seed was needed.
Outside these times, domestic alphas were used to keep yards or for home security purposes. But if not kept in the home, in the city, alphas were most often rented out to different labor companies, their wages going to their sponsors. The companies generally managed teams of alphas in menial or physical jobs. Not many alphas held “white collar” positions; since it was common knowledge their dynamic needed a good amount of exercise and hard work to stay tame. Plus, it was still widely held that alphas' hormonally limited abilities to multitask or sit still, left them ill-suited for the complexities of corporate structures, social networking, and the office work environment.
“Up for sponsorship? He’s been available for three months now and not even a nibble, from what I’ve heard.” Tobias ground the words like salt into all John’s invisible woundings.
“Isn’t that right, Watson?”
Before John had to suffer the humiliation of answering, Mike cut in, “Really?”
“Would you mind if I spent some time with John, then? It’s just, my wife and I have been thinking about getting an alpha, and well, I know him already.”
Tobias eyed Stamford suspiciously. John was suddenly hopeful, knowing how much the man hated it when it was his turn and he had to spend his shift “exercising” the state’s alpha wards.
“We can do it so that it all looks on the on the up and up.” Mike offered this when he saw Tobias hesitate. “I’ll register for responsibility even. Just let me have him for a few hours and I’ll meet you back here. Return him just as good as I got. What do you say?”
These words and the thought he could spend the morning on his own without having to drag around a crippled alpha was made to appeal even more when Mike pulled out his ID card and added a twenty pound note. That sealed the deal. Tobias pulled out his phone from the center. A few taps and all the proper paperwork was called up. A swipe of Mike’s ID and he’d just been given a three-hour “interview” window as a possible sponsor.
Ten minutes later found John still blinking in disbelief as he sat on the bench he'd previously been tied to, Tobias-free, a Stamford purchased coffee warming his hands. Taking a sip, he was grateful for the scalding brew on his tongue. It kept him from thinking too much about the leash now tucked into his jacket (done only after Mike’s encouragement) and what it might be like to be essentially owned by his former-classmate.
“Are you still at Bart’s, then?” John didn’t know where to start, but the silence had become uncomfortable
“Teaching now." Mike nodded. "Bright young things, like we used to be. God, I hate them!”
He laughed then and John couldn’t help but join in, chuckling softly, suddenly warmed at being included in Mike’s definition of “brightness.” Maybe he'd be allowed to work in Stamford's lab. It was a nice thought.
The laughter faded and Mike's expression became serious. “So what about you? Didn’t opt for one of those plush breeding farms out in the country? You’re at the Central London Center instead, trying to get picked up?”
As a boy, John had snuck into a few of those “plush farms” that peppered the hillsides of his youth, wanting to know what possible future awaited him. Though there had been numerous reforms on alpha treatment since then, the memories of what he’d seen still haunted him.
“I may end up on one still yet…” John shifted his cup from one hand to the other, clenching his left fist tight to still its sudden tremble. “I thought that the fact I came with a bit of a pension might make me attractive for a private contract, even if I’m not immediately hireable for some kind of heavy work. But…"
If his age, smaller stature, and physical injuries didn't already put people off, his education and military experience tended to.
“Anyway, if nothing comes through, I have another month until I’m relocated and…”
Before he could finish his sentence, Mike broke in. “Ah, and until then you couldn’t bear to be anywhere else but the city. That’s not the John Watson I know.”
Irritation flared in John’s chest at being interrupted. He tried to hold off on his alpha instinct to get snappy, but his mouth moved on its own accord: a lot had changed since Bart's.
“Yeah, but I’m not the John Watson ...”
This time he was almost grateful when Mike jumped in, glad he didn’t get far in what would have been a bad line of discussion. Unfortunately, Mike’s new line wasn’t choice either.
“Couldn’t Harry help?”
Damn, Stamford had a great memory. John instantly regretted that he’d ever opened up to Mike about his family at all. But then, he’d been young and most likely tipsy on illicit alcohol.
No. I hadn’t asked her. I wouldn’t.
His mind flashed back to the package he’d received from his sister (no visit), his second week at the center. It contained only a secondhand smart phone. Hers. With a post-it note attached, written in an alcoholic scrawl, telling him that she had recently terminated her omega/omega bond with Clara and instructing him to call her once he got his “situation resolved.”
“Yeah, like that’s gonna happen!”
A beta couple walking past eyed him and John cringed at himself for his outburst. Such a display of temper wasn’t going to help his cause at all. He turned his gaze cautiously back to Mike, wondering why he was asking about Harry if he had any real interest in taking him on.
Mike read his searching expression in an instant and offered an uncomfortable shrug.
“Me and my wife aren’t really looking for an alpha. We’ve been blessed… Two kids on our own.”
John looked away, realizing now just how much he’d been hoping that Mike might actually sponsor him, and how dangerous such hope was.
“Happy for you. That’s great.”
A dark wave of envy surged through him at Mike for his pleasant beta life: job, mate, children. John suddenly wanted to break something, but he held the feeling back until something cracked inside him instead. Then he reminded himself that Mike had never been anything but kind to him and that, at least, this ruse was going to give him a few stolen hours outside the center.
Perhaps sensing his disappointment, Mike was immediately apologetic.“Yeah, Mate. I hate to say it, but I actually only mentioned the sponsorship thing because you looked like you could use a break."
“I did… I do… I mean, thank you.” John didn’t want to sulk: that might make Mike want to return him sooner than he had too. He forced a grin he didn’t feel at all. “And I’m quite happy to be rid of that arse that was ‘tending’ to me. Even if just for a bit."
Mike’s face became pensive at this. Realizing what he’d just said about his beta keeper to another beta, John quickly brought his coffee cup to his mouth before he said anything else stupid.
What his old classmate finally offered in response, however, was nothing John expected.
“You know, John… Even though I don’t need an alpha, I did have a conversation earlier today with someone else who said he was going to ‘have to’ sponsor one. The guy's an omega chap I know. Hangs around Bart’s quite a lot. Funny, he was complaining about having to secure an alpha as a way of getting rid of a ‘tending arse’ as well.”
John’s brows rose as Mike rose up from the bench beside him. Once he was upright, Mike tossed his head in the direction of the school.
“Couldn’t hurt anything, so why don’t we go see if he’s still there?”