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Run The Gauntlet

By Natasha Lopez

Horror / Romance

Chapter 1

Dean rests his forehead against the cold railing. The unpleasant burn of icy metal wakes something inside his muddled brain. It helps him to focus.

Focus, Dean, Focus

He can hear his father growl, feel John’s fingers digging into the muscle of his arms, too hard, too deep. Shoving the sense memory away, Dean squares his shoulders, gets his ass in gear, and scans his fellow passengers with a suspicious eye.

Gazes skitter away. A woman in a warm coat suddenly finds renewed interest in her notebook. A couple of beaky nosed betas check their phones, their watches, the sky. Pups onboard are slower to avert their eyes, still trying to pick up his confusing scent with their immature noses.

They are looking at his bare collarless neck, his bruised cheek, the absence of an alpha of any description.

Dean’s been passing as a beta for years, as a necessity. No way in any universe was any authority going to let a lone teenage omega be responsible for an alpha pup. Maybe if Sam had been his own and they’d had somewhere stable to live… Dean mentally shrugs, dispelling his old rambles and fantasies. Anyway Dad always came back. Dean hadn’t been a deserted omega, until now…

He bites down on his lip, hard and piercing where he’d cut through it when he’d been dumped out of the retro motel in Hazleton, holding back a yelp, or maybe a protest that would have only made things worse, made Dean even more of a disobedient son.

“No defensive wounds.” The terse commentary on his condition comes from his right.

Dean turns on the heel of one boot. It’s a cop, which is just peachy. The guy is alpha, tall but older, graying hairs bush over his ears. Probably put out to pasture on this godforsaken island, Dean supposes.

Dark eyes are roving over his clean unbroken knuckles to the marks of his Dad’s fingers poking out from beneath his hitched up jacket sleeve.

“Where is your family, boy?”

Dean gulps. He clears his throat. It’s a simple question and he doesn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. He could be here for a while, especially when the real answer is that his family have deserted him, no longer useful enough to keep around. He ducks his eyes and aims for respectful.

“My Alpha-Dad has a friend who owns a cabin on the north shore of Gauntlet. I’m early. Going to clean it up and get it ready for his arrival.”

The cop harrumphs, a guttural almost purring noise at the back of his throat, lifts his cap to scratch at his receding hairline. With a nod the older alpha adds, "Sheriff Bryson. That’s my boy, Don, over there. You come tell me if you get any hassle.” He leans forward while Dean takes in the sight of a huge tree-trunk-limbed alpha leaning, with surly arms crossed, against the back railing. “We don’t got no pharmacy on the isle. You looking for scent maskers and crap, won’t find them out here.”

Dean focuses on the button of the guy’s lapel. “No sir. Not me.”

In a rude move, but one not unexpected from a member of the law, Sherriff Bryson leans closer and scents Dean’s neck. “You been ill then, son?”

The question is asked softly, almost with a modicum of concern mixed into professional curiosity regarding the outsider.

Dean shakes his head, wishes the cop would just leave him alone. The sea is calm but the roll of the ferry is making Dean queasy. There can’t be much longer until they arrive.

“I…” The words form a hard ball pressing on his larynx. “Not sick. I was on ‘em. Not now. Guess still not totally outta my system.”

It’s the bare truth. Dean hadn’t seen the point once Sam had bailed. He’d let the script lapse and had bought clean scented hair and body shampoo. Travelling with Dad, he had thought he could be himself. That mistake got corrected quick smart.

Another huff comes from the alpha, but at least he is turning away. “We do got a medic. Semi-retired beta outta Tampa, came North to kick his heels.” There is a single laugh, as if this is well worn local humor. “Lives next to the firehouse, if y’know, you’re not ill again.”

He doesn’t believe Dean. The omega’s jaw slackens, surprised that the truth wasn’t perceived as such. Maybe he’s been lying for so long that people can’t tell anymore. His skin crawls, uncomfortable with this new insight into his poor character.

You lie to yourself, Dean. Open your eyes. Dad doesn’t rely on you, doesn’t need you, doesn’t respect you when you act like his little obedient toy solider. You can claim it’s all for the family. But Dean we are the most dysfunctional mess of a family and I’m done. You hear, I’m done with it. I’m getting out and you should too.

Sam was wrong. Full of alpha steam and brio, he has no conception of how Dean used every thread and sinew of his being to sew their family of three together, keeping his alphas fed, comforted, and happy. Sam has no clue of what it had cost Dean to put aside his dreams, wishes, wants, and desires to give every ounce to raising his brother into a clever, capable, independent-minded, handsome and massive alpha. Dean holds no regrets. Sam might have dumped his sorry ass once Stanford had called, but Sam’s achievements fill Dean with pride. He just wishes they hadn’t fallen out after Dad’s raging temper fueled lecture about Sam’s responsibilities to his family, to his omega brother. Dean had tried to play peacemaker, standing between two blazing eyed alphas, but this time it hadn’t worked. This time Sam’s eyes told of betrayal that Dean had not taken his brother’s side. Dad’s backhanded slap after Sam split told of disgust that Dean hadn’t used his influence to convince Sam to stay.

A tinny announcement tells him they will dock in five minutes and would everyone alighting for Gauntlet please wait until the barriers are open to disembark. His duffel is at his feet. A weariness settles over Dean. It sticks his feet to the yellowed wood deck. If he stayed onboard would anyone notice? He could travel back and forth across the water, from one Cranberry Island to the next, surviving on packets of salted nuts and weak coffee, until finally there might be a storm and he’d slide overboard down into the deep dark waters never to be seen again.

His elbow is jostled by a family with two beta parents and a house worth of luggage. Dean blinks, gets his ass in gear and marches down to the small fishing community on the southwest shore. The place looks depopulated and like a postcard of an Icelandic village or Svalbard or some Arctic island that Dean must have seen on someone’s notice board somewhere. The widely spread houses are clad in colored wood with high vaulted roofs. Cutesy signs advertise which ones are in fact stores, offices, and the only guesthouse rather than private homes. Dean looks for the sign indicating the way to the cliff walk. He’s been told, correction instructed, by his father that Caleb’s family’s fishing cabin is a two mile hike. As he passes two single storey bar and eateries on the edge of the village, Dean wonders where they get the custom to survive. Maybe in the summer this place teams with rough and ready tourists like Caleb’s lot and retreat to nature rusticator freaks. In the off season he bets those businesses teeter on the brink of foreclosure until the fishing boats are in and money flows. If Dean wasn’t so locked in his own head, he’d appreciate the ocean views more. He figures he’ll have plenty of time for sightseeing.

Cresting the rocky top of the cliff path, Dean decides that he’d give his right kidney to have the Impala and a road to drive her on. As he hefts his bag to his opposite shoulder, he figures he’d throw in his left pinkie finger to have his beta-bud Caleb here too. Still if Caleb could have come, then Dean wouldn’t be here, exiled to the edge of the known universe to investigate what he estimates to be a non-case. True, once a year a young male omega is reported missing, only to turn up 48 hours later give or take, unharmed and unable to remember a thing. It hadn’t been known to happen every year, but turns out some omegas had turned up without anything been reported. Sherriff Bryson and his predecessors made nothing of the cases they had been alerted to. No harm, no foul. Caleb had heard stories, but had thought it was a folk-tale until a cousin had told him that had happened to her friend, who had wandered off and woken up with 52 hours vanished from his memory.

Dean doesn’t mind being bait. He knows John has dangled him and Sam in the face of everything from lurking spooks to the striga.

Dean’s chest tightens. His own thoughts have trapped him, led him to the memory that must not be revisited. Dean squeezes his knuckle into his right eye and plants his boots into the dirt. He is moving on. Of course, John hasn’t said that Dean is bait in a trap, but the omega wasn’t being mendacious when he’d told the cop that his Alpha-Dad would follow. Dean is early, a couple weeks before the traditional vanishing. It gives him time to insinuate himself into the community, draw out their stories, and decide if there is a monster to be ganked. Maybe, if all the chips fall the right way, Dean will end the sonvabitch before John even considers joining him to take over the hunt.

The north shore is desolate, rocky with little vegetation and sloping to the Atlantic. Here the sea is choppier and the wind brisker. The path forks. Dean takes the thinner less well maintained route towards a cluster of five shoreline cabins settled into the landscape as it slants to a U-shaped cove. Caleb’s is the middle one. All of them look like they’ve been closed up since Labor Day. He pulls the medieval style heavy door key and the smaller padlock key from the deep pocket of his leather coat. He doesn’t see the point of a padlock in this bleak place, but he supposes if you’re a burglar picking a cabin, you might choose the ones without additional locks. The place is clean, just a fine settling of dust. Caleb’s filled him in on the water pump, the generator, the linen closet, vacuum bagged linens, and the pantry of tinned and dehydrated foods. Important too is the two-man boat with outboard engine in the boathouse next to the slip down to the sea. Dean will use it to round the isle for supplies and gas for the generator. The mainland is too far to consider a flit to civilization in the small boat, but it’s a comfort to know he doesn’t have to hike over the cliffs every time he wants to leave the house.

Once the generator is humming and the water pump going, Dean takes stock. There is an old TV which is deeper than it is wide. Dean grins, hoping they can pick up Dr Sexy out here. He bends from the waist to depress the button. Nothing freaking happens. He examines the blown innards of the casing. Muttering softly spoken but bitterly phrased curses about outdoors types who aren’t slaves to the gogglebox, Dean figures any dreams of couch potato-hood on this trip have been consigned to the trash can.

By the time Dean has nested to his minimum prerequisite, there is a fire being pulled high and bright up the flue. There is soup on the stovetop and his duffel is completely unpacked. He’s dressed the main bedroom in fresh linens, even hung the gingham curtains. He figures he’ll leave the cubby bunk-bed pup-like room until Dad insists he vacate the big room. The sofa-bed is lumpy and old, but there is a thread-pulled patchwork quilt in the closet. Dean spreads it over the ancient sofa, which he heaves closer to the fire to watch the flames dance.

It is only when Dean has curled into the corner of the sofa, digging his toes, some of which poke through his socks, into the soft quilt, slurping thick rich soup from a warmed pottery bowl that he thinks finally about checking in with John. No point calling Sam, no matter how much he craves to know if Sam is alright. He’d tried it. He called daily at first, but as Sam settled in, the calls got briefer, more rushed as Sam had a class or an activity to get to, then there was voicemail, the night when all Dean could hear was the sound of a party, the unreturned beseeching. Dean has some vestige of dignity and he isn’t dumb. Sam knows Dean’s number. Finally with a bitter ache in the pit of his stomach Dean left a message with Sam’s arrogant roomy. Sam could call Dean anytime he wanted but his omega brother wouldn’t annoy him any longer.

There is no hard liquor in the cabin. No beer either. So Dean can’t get rat-assed to forget everything that is such a cluster fuck in his worthless life. Instead he dials John, or at least he tries to dial John. There is no signal in the main room, the bedrooms, the tiny shower-room or the boathouse. Dean drags his feet up to the crest of the hill in hopes that being that much higher and closer to the village might work a technological miracle. He stands straight and fills his lungs with night air under the starry sky. He expects the tang of salt and ozone to hit the back of his throat. What takes him aback is the faintest whiff of baked warm spices, old comfortable leather and the smell of freshly turned earth after rain. It makes him pause in his hectic quest. He lifts his nose, trying without success to trace the alluring scent. The night is too dark, but he knows he is the only soul on the pathway. If some sweet smelling alpha came by, there is no sign of him or her now. He pinches the bridge of his nose to help him refocus, raises the darned cell phone as high as he can. Nothing, not a single bar of reception. With defeat comes the realization that he is shivering in his sweatpants. He grips his stupid useless device with a punishing grip and shouts outrage at the satellites in the sky for being pricks.

No one can say he didn’t try. He’ll have to find a landline at the dock tomorrow, or else face the wrath of an enraged John dragged out to sea on a wild goose chase. As he shuts the door against the dark evening and retakes his spot on the sofa, warming his feet on an iron firedog, Dean permits himself a wry laugh. Maybe those omegas weren’t missing. Maybe there is a patch of wacky mushrooms on the island, or they were the types who couldn’t hold their liquor. By tomorrow Dean’ll have been incommunicado for 24 hours and if he did have the capability to drink himself into a stupor, then he’d be found unharmed with a blackout gap in his memory. The thought that there might not be a monster on the isle doesn’t make Dean bitter at being sent to chase a red herring. Instead he figures he can stay the few weeks, chill out, maybe if he can stop the negative spiral in his brain and crank up some energy, he’ll figure out what he wants to do with his excuse for a life.

He is twenty three years of age. Times might be modern. Omegas are no longer locked in their homes. Hell, in the big metropolises they commonly forego collars, increasingly opting for an exchange of rings like beta matings. However the biological need to mate, the drive to nest, hasn’t gone from humanity. Most omegas find their alpha mates before entering their twenties, unless they are the smart exceptions who pursue academic achievements or have something wrong with them.

Dean rubs his own bicep. The only thing wrong with him when he was sixteen and up, was that he had another mouth to feed at home and the nomadic life of a hunter’s son. No way back at sixteen would he ever have left Sam behind, and what alpha wanted an eleven year old alpha pup in the mating package. Sam was the pivot of Dean’s life, to be protected, watched over, cared for... He couldn’t form attachments. That wasn’t to say that he hadn’t had to dodge the advances of amorous alphas and the threats of predatory ones. There’d been a couple of maybes. Dean quirks his lip at the memories of kinky alpha Rhonda and bendy beta Lisa.

He lets his mind wander to the only other time he’d been without suppressants and scent maskers since John’d first sourced sups for him. That had been after his heat at fourteen years of age had delayed a hunt for a rawhead in Galveston. Two years later in Sonny’s Omega Boys Home, a kindly alpha-mentor, Robin the cute beta dude who waited tables at the local diner, and experiencing what it was like to be at home in his own skin. Despite all the flailed raw feelings of desertion going on in Dean’s noggin, his body is on board with being omega and proud. Mornings without been woken by internal jackhammers of headache side-effects, no tremors or aches in his muscles, and improved senses of smell and taste, are awesome.

Dean doesn’t make it to his newly dressed bed that night. He wakes to sunlight through grimy windowpanes and the embers' faint glow. The morning is spent showering and jacking off with his own slick as lube which is all kinds of awesome when there is no father or little runt to chew you out for stinking up the motel bathroom. Dean checks out the low line of cabinets on the west wall of the main room. He’d laid out his guns, knives and hunter’s essentials on the surface the evening before. Inside the largest cabinet are salt, iron filings, rosaries to make holy water, a shotgun, ammo and a couple of silver knives. They go to prove the cabin belongs to the side of Caleb’s family who know things do go bump in the night. Opening the final cabinet under the defunct TV, Dean fist pumps. There is hidden treasure in the form of an old beat box. He opens the flap. Batteries haven’t corroded. Dean has a few of his cassettes with him. To the blaring rhythm of Pink Floyd, Dean cleans the windows, every one of them, even in the room he’s not using. He chops a portion of the large stack of logs into smaller pieces. He wrestles with the outboard engine until he gets out the tool box and gives it the Dean Winchester once over. Bemoaning the lack of carbs, Dean eats beans in tomato sauce from the can for his lunch. The need for bread and noodles entices Dean to push the boat down the slip into the water. His jeans are sodden to the knee when he flings himself into the craft. He sees the funny side of being easily identified as a landlubber, and takes the boat around the short peninsula with a light heart and a sunny smile. From his vantage point the community clustered around the dock looks quaint and an unlikely location for an omega-stealing monster. He spies the phone booth by the fish-filleting building. That wipes any lingering grin from his face. Dean scrubs his hand over his mouth and chin, steels his reserve and once the boat is secured to a ring, he climbs the iron rungs of the ladder to the boardwalk with grim determination.

John wants fucking co-ordinates.

Dean rolls his eyes so far that it hurts, and obliges, telling John that he is exactly where he is supposed to be.

“Report.”

An enquiry about his well being would be nice, but Dean’s too well seasoned to expect one. He might drop the handset in shock if it happened.

“Nothing to report, Sir.”

“Dean?” John’s voice is spread thin, patience a rare commodity. “Arrival? Signs? Reason for no contact?”

“I arrived.” Dean is trying his best not to sound churlish, “I got to the cabin. I slept. There’s no signal here.”

“Watch your cheek. Your hunt. Dean, you are old enough to do this. Do it. Go talk to people.”

Amid the reprimand, there is a sign that John is giving him the hunt, trusting him with it.

“Check in again tomorrow. Call me when you need me there, for the hunt or as alpha.”

Dean deflates. There is it. No matter what, he’s still the son who turned out to be a disappointing omega. His father cares. Dean knows this. He clings to it.

“How’s your hunt going, Dad?” Dean cradles the phone between his chin and his shoulder, rubs his hands together. Maybe they sell gloves in one of the stores.

“Chupacabra's a wily shit.” John pauses. “I’m ten hours out at full speed. You got it, Dean? No heroics. I need ten hours warning.”

Dean nods, knows John can’t see him. Omegas aren’t heroes. They are victims, bait, princesses in towers. Dean is a burden, one that could drag John away from Pennsylvania and ending a monster that is actually killing people.

“Yes. Sir,” Dean says before the pause is too long.

He is dismissed, stumbles from the booth, disorientated by the switching emotions of the call. He is mid humiliating face plant into the packed dirt ground, when vice-like alpha hands come out of nowhere, catching him bodily, pulling him with such force that his breath is shortened and his feet are airborne.


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