The first stop the van made, after a long drive south, was at the Omega Processing Centre in Hammersmith. John sat on the exam table for an hour, awkward and uncomfortable in a paper gown, swinging his legs as he waited for the doctor. He eyed the full-color charts of the omega estrous cycle tacked up on the wall opposite, below the laminated copy of the Omega Declaration Act. He swallowed hard, trying to imagine what it might be like to be pregnant. It wasn't something he'd ever thought he'd have to consider, and he wasn't really sure what he felt about it, other than a profound discomfort about the whole subject. It was still possible, he thought, that it was all wrong. That he hadn't been in heat – he had just been ill. Food poisoning, maybe. After all, it hadn't been at all like the awful stories Geoff had always told, or even the snatches of the Hester's Himalayan Heat or Devin Bonds Brighton porn films he's seen over the years. Surely, then, there had to be some mistake. The doctor would take his blood and send him home, and he'd have one or two awful beatings from his father for all this fuss, but then life would go on as normal. Everything would be fine.
He had almost managed to convince himself of that when a young brunet doctor finally came in, nodding at John as he flipped through a chart with his name on it. "John Watson, is it? I'm Dr. Stamford. We'll just be doing a few preliminary tests here, nothing fancy." He smiled reassuringly. "Nothing to worry about at all, all right?"
John watched him pull on a pair of latex gloves numbly. "You'll be able to tell if I'm really an – an omega?"
Stamford nodded distractedly, picking up a cotton ball. "Yes. By the end of this afternoon we'll know for sure, and we can start you off on the next stage." He caught sight of the stricken sight of John's face and stopped, his smile deflating into a look of concern. "Ah. You shouldn't worry. It's probably a bit of a shock, coming from a beta family as you have, but it will all turn out well." He clapped an encouraging hand on John's shoulder and turned to pull a syringe out of a small cabinet. "Best to know in any event, don't you think?"
That John could agree to, at least, and when he held out his arm he was glad to see that it wasn't shaking at all.
Once he understood how nervous John was, Stamford went out of his way to be kind, explaining each test in detail before he did it. Blood, urine, and a physical examination that included the apologetic Stamford pulling the gown down and checking for any bonding scars on his neck or chest and ended with him pressing a gloved finger lightly against John's sphincter.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, stripping the glove off and tossing it in the trash. "The worst bit is over for now, I promise."
John crossed his arms over his chest, trying to pull the gown over as much of himself as he possibly could. "For now?"
Stamford smiled that reassuring smile again. "We'll see what your lab results say, all right? It used to be, oh, fifteen years ago or so, that would be all that was needed. If we found evidence of certain hormones in your system then boom – you're an omega. Nothing else you could be. That was proof enough. These days, though, there are so many synthetics that can fool our tests that we can't rely just on that. There's too much money in omega contracts that tempt some unscrupulous betas from – well. Unfortunately, it means we'll have to do an ultrasound before we can Declare you officially. It's not going to be painful or very uncomfortable, but it's the sort of test we'd still rather not subject anyone to it until we've got a positive blood test back."
"What happens if I really am an omega?"
"Well, once we confirm it and Declare you, you'll be picked up by the Omega Taskforce – the people who brought you here. They'll take you to some of the council housing set up for unbonded omegas where you'll meet with someone from social care and go from there." He hesitated, then sighed. "I'm afraid you won't be able to go home, John. If you are an omega, there are precautions the government will take in your stead, to make sure you're bonded of your own free will. You've heard of the rules?" He jerked his head at the Omega Declaration Act. "You'll be assigned a few Protectors, who will watch over you until you've drawn up a contract with the alpha you choose to bond with. But don't worry about all that yet – we haven't even got your blood results, so let's not be too hasty." He left John alone while he took the samples down to the lab, and it was only two hours later when he returned that John looked at his face that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The council housing at Becontree Estate that was set aside for unbonded omegas wasn't the institutional gray awfulness that John had been expecting. Around the omega section was a high fence and a gate with guards – armed guards, John saw from his seat at the back of the van. The street was quiet, with no traffic and no evidence of anyone living in the ten or so houses inside the fence at all. John wondered, as he was escorted up the walk, if there were any other newly-Declared omegas like himself. Stamford had told him there were usually three or four omegas Declared a year in the UK, plus perhaps an additional two or three whose bondmate died and were ready to be rebonded. It was up to the omega whether or not to form another bond, but most chose to, for their own protection.
John was left standing in the entryway with the bag Harry had packed for him at his feet, wondering what he was meant to do next. His question was answered when there was a crash above his head.
"You must be John!" called an excited voice from the stairway, and John turned to see a pretty beta with long brown hair and a frankly horrifying jumper practically trip down the stairs. She grinned at him when she reached the bottom, grabbing his outstretched hand between both of hers and shaking vigorously. "Was your ride over okay? Do you want anything to eat? I wasn't sure what you'd want, so we bought a little bit of everything. Oh! You'd probably like a tour first, though, wouldn't you? I can help you get settled in."
John just blinked at her as she took a breath.
"You'll get used to it soon enough," a new voice cut in from the doorway to his left, and he turned to see a tall beta with long curly dark hair clipped back leaning in the doorway, watching him with an amused smile. "Molly's always like this."
Molly blushed, letting go of John's hand and making a face. "Sorry," she said more quietly. "We're just really excited that you're here. I'm Molly Hooper, and I'll be your social care officer until you sign a contract for bonding. This is Sally, she's –"
"I'm one of the Protectors assigned to you," Sally said coolly, gliding into the room and shaking John's hand as well. "Brian and I will make sure no unauthorized alphas have access to you before you're ready to be bonded." She gave John a wry look. "Just in case."
John's eyes widened at that, and Molly immediately jumped back in.
"Not that we're too worried about that! But sometimes, you know, there are alphas who will go to any lengths to get an omega bondmate, and, well," she looked at Sally for help.
"There have been cases of kidnappings," Sally shrugged. "Scarcity value and all."
"That won't happen to you, though! That's why there are two Protectors here. And me – I'll be helping you write your announcement and help you find the right alpha to sign a contract with."
"Your job is to help me find a bondmate?" John asked.
"Actually, I work as your advocate in the process and make sure that your needs are met," Molly corrected cheerfully. "My job is to ensure that you're not coerced in any way into bonding with someone."
"Cases of that, too," Sally muttered under her breath. Molly glared at her.
"It's nice meeting you both," John said politely, looking back and forth between them. "I wouldn't mind a tour, if it's not too much trouble."
As it turned out, the flat was designed far more for security than for comfort or privacy. None of the doors locked, and every wall in the upstairs living quarters was composed of semi-translucent glass squares – so that even when his Protectors were in the next room, they could still monitor him enough to ensure there were no alphas with him. John was horrified at the thought of being watched all the time – Jesus, how was he going to wank? – but it was all part and parcel of his terrifying new existence. He was just beginning to grasp that there hadn't been some mistake, that he actually was an omega. Even so, it was hard to believe that the whole future he had been daydreaming about since he was a child – beta spouse, possibly a hard-won child or two, a small house somewhere in the Midlands… just an ordinary, easy sort of life – had been snatched away and replaced by… by all this.
It was nearly too much to take.
John put his bag down on his bed and pulled out his phone. Harry would be at work, probably, or just headed home to start her homework. He wasn't sure he could hide much from her in a phone call, so he sent text after text describing everything from his new bodyguards to how odd it had been, looking at an ultrasound of his midsection and having Dr. Stamford point out a uterus.
Lying in bed that night he stared up at the ceiling, too exhausted to sleep. He knew that the Protectors were taking the nights in shifts and that there was always someone watching over him, so he was determined not to cry, but even then it was a near thing.
"What happens now?" John asked Molly the next morning over breakfast.
Molly smiled around her eggs. "It depends on you, a bit. I know it's a big shock, realizing you're an omega. You should probably give yourself some time to get used to the idea before you try to start the bonding process. There's no hurry, John."
"But I won't be going back to school, right?"
Molly shook her head. "Omegas are barred from state-run schools. Lots of omegas put tutoring and the passing of O-Levels into their bonding contracts, although some are happy enough not to have to go back."
John pushed beans from one side of his plate to the other. "I think I'd like to be tutored," he said. "Is it really as easy as making sure it gets into my – my contract?"
"It should be. The contracts are negotiated between you and your alpha, remember, so just keep in mind the most important things that need to go in it, and the other things that aren't so important, that you might be willing to give up."
John took a deep breath. "Do I have to negotiate everything? School and where I'd live… all of it?"
Molly nodded. "Pretty much. The government guarantees you certain basic rights, but how you live – those details will be negotiated. You shouldn't worry too much – I'll guide you through the process, and you shouldn't ever forget that you're the one with most of the power in these negotiations."
"Because of the heat Frenzies?"
"Because of the Frenzy, and because omegas are the only real way to guarantee alphas children – specifically, alpha children. Generally, any children alphas have with betas are betas. Not all alphas care about that sort of thing, obviously, but some do, so you can use that to your advantage." She looked at John suddenly. "I mean, if you even want to have children. Sorry, I didn't even ask. I just assumed, being an omega…"
"Omegas always want to have kids?" John vaguely remembered feeling something about children when he had been in the midst of his first heat, but most of it was still a blur.
"Not always, but most of the time. I've only heard of three or four in the past decade that haven't had children. Omegas have increased fertility – you know that part, right? And apparently during heat there is an increased desire for breeding that overrides a lot of other things."
"Which is why omegas are used by alphas for breeding." John didn't hide his bitterness.
"The contracts exist so that it doesn't have to be that way," Molly told him gently. "Although I know it feels like it, with all the emphasis on heats and children that you hear about in the media. But I promise that we'll work to negotiate a decent contract with a good alpha bondmate. Being an omega isn't the same as being a slave or a prisoner. It won't be the same as if you had grown up a beta, but you can still have a good life, John."
"Once the contract is signed, I won't be able to change my mind about anything in it?"
"There are provisions for that, and if you're really worried we can put in an extra section that addresses possibilities for the future. The government assumed legal guardianship of you the second you were Declared, John. It's committed to acting in your best interest. Don't worry too much about it just yet, though, all right? Right now you should just focus on learning as much about what life will be like as an omega as you can. I have a lot of books and pamphlets I can lend you, and you can ask me anything, okay?"
It wasn't okay. That was the thing that John tried to keep from Molly, because she was doing everything she could, but it still wasn't okay. John suspected that it couldn't be okay, that 'okay' was one of those things in his life that would mean something different, lesser, now.
He spent the next four days reading and texting Harry, talking to Molly and trying to plan what he might want in his life five or ten years down the road – how many children, where he wanted to live… it all seemed so impossible for a seventeen-year-old to imagine properly.
Mostly, he just wanted to get the contract bit over with, so he could get on with his life.
Whatever life that was.
John already knew his announcement wasn't going to be nearly as detailed as the others he'd seen. His family's lineage was nothing to speak of, so he mostly left that section blank. His marks in school had always been on the better side of all right, so that part wasn't terrible, and he was good at sport, which didn't hurt either. Molly kept trying to coax him to put in more about what sort of person he wanted for a bondmate, but the truth was the John had no idea. He'd never had much luck in dating – none of him mates had fared much better, except for Mark on occasion, God knew why – and he'd never really given the issue of personality much thought. He had always rather thought he would end up dating the first reasonably attractive and articulate person who showed the slightest interest in dating him, but Molly had thrown up her hands when he had mentioned that.
"John, you're an omega. You can't keep thinking like a beta. There are literally thousands of alphas who would cut out their own eyes to bond with you."
"Not with me," John sighed, tired of this conversation already. "With an omega, any omega. None of them really care what I'm like. They just want to go into Frenzy every time I have a heat."
"Exactly why it's so important for you to decide what you want," Molly lectured patiently. "This is your happiness, and theirs. You're the one who gets to make the decision of who to accept, so you need to really think about it."
John sighed he spun the pencil in his hands and asked the thing that he'd been half thinking about for days. "Do you think there's one perfect bondmate out there for me?"
Molly opened her mouth and closed it several times. John could see her struggling to think of an answer that maintained her professionalism. "I think," she said finally, "that is a very romantic notion – one perfect person for everyone. I think you should be more concerned with finding someone you're as compatible with as you can be, and who wants the same things you do. Some omegas prefer to have a cordial relationship with their bondmates, only seeing each other during heats. Others prefer it to be more like a beta marriage. These are the terms you'll negotiate for your bonding contract, so you need to know exactly what you want. Either way, this person is going to be your bondmate for a very long time, so you need to have some idea of what attracts you, and what sorts of things would make you not be able to consider bonding with a person. Your announcement is only the first step – once the applications start coming in it will be a tidal wave, so we need to be able to weed out as many as we can right from the start."
So John thought about it, or tried to. He always came back to the idea of one of Harry's friends, Clara, who had an infectious laugh and could drink an entire bottle of stout without stopping for breath, and who, when she had spent the night at their house once, had snogged John in the hall on the way back from the loo. That snog had been, he was ashamed to admit, his longest relationship to date. He wasn't sure how to phrase any of those qualifications in the dry, clinical language of the announcement, so in the end he left that section blank too, despite the dark looks it prompted in Molly.
Mostly, he waited. He didn't bother reading the announcement of his available status when it appeared in the newspapers, even though Harry emailed him a link to the article in the Times. Harry, undeterred, had read the comments on the online version out over the phone the next night, laughing at some of the declarations of undying love. There were more of those than John was strictly comfortable with. Even worse, though, were the comments she would start to read and then stop abruptly, clearing her throat and complaining about all the shite-stained idiots who had nothing better to do than troll the comments of proper news articles.
John himself rarely went online. The more he read up on what being an omega entailed the less he liked it, and since there was nothing he could do about it in any event denial seemed like the best option. He had at least eight or nine months until his next heat – no reason to dwell on the topic any more than he had to. Instead, he spent his days digging through applications from interested alphas with Molly, and his evenings watching telly with Brian or Sally, whoever happened to be on shift. He knew things were awful when he started to miss being at school. When even Geoff's company took on a nostalgic glow, John knew he was in trouble. It wasn't like there was anything he could do about it. His only way out of the flat was choosing an alpha and signing a contract.
He supposed that was the whole point.
Applications from alphas tended to follow a pretty specific format, which made it easy enough to sort through them. At the front was a usually long and boring letter of introduction that contained the alpha's ideas of what made a good bonding and then generally devolved into a flurry of bank statements, photos of property and inventory of various possessions, notarized family tree and declarations of lineage, a full psychological evaluation and medical history. John didn't actually care about any of the rest of it, but he read the letters avidly enough. After a while he could tell from the first sentence or two if he would consider someone for bonding, but he always read the entire letter carefully anyway. It just seemed awfully unfair not to.
Even so, it was easy to throw out at least 90% of the applications without a second read. Most of the rest were tossed out on a second reading. As Molly said, only alphas that John really felt he might want to get to know better would be interviewed – otherwise they'd be at it for years.
My Dearest John Watson,
I would like to plead my case as a potential bondmate, and point out that I want nothing more than to help you fulfill your place as a proud omega. I look forward to hearing from you about the interview in the next few months, and hope that we can look into a bright future together, for us and our many children…
Dear John –
I can call you John, can't I? As someone who wishes to be your future bondmate, I desperately hope you'll say yes. In return for choosing me as your bondmate, you will have access to the best companionship in the country…
I was intrigued by your announcement as it appeared in this morning's Times. Did you realize that your announcement is exactly 1465 words shorter than the average omega announcement this decade, and 3411 words shorter than the announcement of Cecil Baldwin, widely considered the most successful omega (in terms of material and family name gains) of the century? Anyone who pays the slightest attention to these things would be forced to reason that more verbose the announcement, the better the results. Therefore, your concise announcement could only lead such an observer to conclude that you are attempting to find an unsuitable and barely legitimate bondmate. I am sure you will have every success with this endeavor.
I would like to meet with you to discuss your announcement and the contract process for an omega in your position. Since I understand this is a busy time for you and that you will rebuff all conversation not toward the tedious business of bonding, I will tell you that I am an alpha and that the Holmes name is far better than any of the others you could possibly be considering at this very moment. (Don't bother with Lord Cragworth, by the way – it's a very long story, but the man isn't able to produce a knot.) (Also, Mme. Ferris has been preying on new omegas since her last two bondmates committed suicide. If you can't do better than her, you might as well toss yourself off a bridge tomorrow and save everyone the hassle of attending the bonding ceremonies.) I can't imagine that I will take up more than an hour of your time with my inquiries.
My phone number is enclosed; you may text me anytime, day or night.
– Sherlock Holmes
John read that letter over three times, trying to decide if it were more likely a joke or not. Either way, he couldn't deny that it was the first letter in hours that had made him smile. Until the applications had started pouring in in earnest, John had never thought he would honestly say that he would get tired of having powerful people kiss his arse, but there you were. The rampant insincerity bothered him far more than he would ever have thought possible. Smiling, he only hesitated for a second before adding the name of Sherlock Holmes to the list of applications granted an interview. Molly would undoubtedly think he'd lost his mind, but that was all right. It would be worth it to satisfy his curiosity.