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.
The interviews took place in the large visiting parlor downstairs. It was what the room had been set up for, with the relatively luxurious furniture and the views out over the neighborhood from the two large windows. There was a small space walled off in glass that the Protector could watch from – close enough to come running if something unexpected happened with the alpha, but far enough away to give them privacy to talk for the hour or so that the interviews usually took.
He and Molly had settled on a list of 20 names to be interviewed. Molly thought that even that was too many, but John hated the idea of cutting someone from the list if it seemed at all possible that they might be compatible.
John insisted on making tea and putting out biscuits just to be polite, despite Sally laughing aloud when she saw the tray.
"They're supposed to be impressing you, you know," she said, shaking her head. "If you give them something to eat they'll just use it as an excuse to hang about longer, talking your ear off. Trust me – I've been a Protector for ages, and I've seen all the tricks."
"A few extra minutes of chat is hardly a tragedy, is it?" John asked, setting out the sugar. "I mean, they're not actually going to try to get my trousers off just yet, are they? Isn't the whole point that we get to know each other during these interviews, and see if we're at all compatible? It seems like the more talking we do, the better."
"You'll see," she said knowingly. "You'll know in the first minute or two whether or not they're at all worth it. Anyone with half a brain can fake being decent on paper – it's harder in person. When they're sitting their sipping stone cold tea for two hours and eyeing you like a delicious piece of stuff you'll know that I was right, but by then you'll be stuck with them until they decide to leave. Trust me: these first interviews need to be got through as fast as possible. It's the ones after this that matter."
She was right, as it happened.
The first interview was with Lord Cragworth, who had to be twenty years older than he appeared in the picture he had sent with his application. Even before they sat down and he had rather officiously poured John some tea, John had felt uncomfortable under his gaze. Cragworth's eyes were small and beady, and his gaze fixed john like a bug to his chair. It was a very, very long hour.
Brian, sitting on guard on the other side of the glass, shot John more than a few smirks.
They didn't get much better.
The interview questions were standard, worked out by him and Molly ahead of time: questions about the alpha's family, hobbies, work, plans for the future. Those were the easy ones, the introductory ones. Then came contract questions, what sorts of things would the alphas be looking to negotiate in a contract and what either of them was inflexible about: children and heat suppression, mostly.
The thought that he would be carrying and having children was still the sort of thing that made his head spin. It didn't seem real, and he didn't really want to consider it at all, but it was, of course, part of being an omega. And, Molly assured him, he'd probably feel differently over time. What he had to concern himself with was finding an alpha who felt the same way and was willing to wait a bit for John to get used to the idea. Choosing a younger alpha seemed key to that – older alphas wanted or needed to have children right away – it was probably why they were in the market for an omega in the first place. John had floated the idea to Molly of perhaps finding an alpha who wasn't interested in kids at all, but that had been met with Molly's skeptical face. If they weren't interested in kids, they'd not be wanting to bond. It all seemed hopeless.
The very last interview of the week was with Sherlock. When Molly led him in promptly at four her eyes were wide, and when John saw him understood why. Sherlock Holmes was tall – taller than John, not that that was saying much. It wasn't unusual for people, especially men, to be taller than he was, but when John looked at his face he knew immediately that Sherlock was no man. He was still a child; he couldn't be any older than fourteen. His eyes seemed to take in the entire room all at once even as he stepped forward and shook John's hand.
"Are you Sherlock Holmes?" John asked, confused.
"Of course," the boy snapped. "They would never have let me in if I weren't." Immediately, his face smoothed out, and he cleared his throat. "I apologize. What I meant was that they do extensive tests to assure that no one besides the alpha so named in the official invitation by the omega can access the property. Therefore, one should probably assume that I am he. It would save time."
John stared at him. "Er, right," he said finally. "Would you like to take a seat?"
The boy practically threw himself into the chair opposite John, his long, curly dark hair flopping against his skull. His intense gaze was turned onto John, making him draw in a quick breath.
"I only meant that, well…" he trailed off uncertainly. He wasn't sure how to politely ask how old Sherlock was. It was possible, he supposed, that he was older than he looked, and rather sensitive about it all. God knew John always had been about his height. The boy's eyes narrowed and John swallowed quickly and busied himself pouring them both some tea. "Your letter said you had some questions about the interview process…?"
"Yes," the boy nodded. "Thank you for seeing me. It would appear that you are quite busy with interviews."
"Yes, it's been –"
"You've seen at least six potential alphas today, and somewhat more than that every day this week. You're entirely sick of this tea even though you're determined to be kind and give every one of them the same treatment and cup of tea. The weary stoop of your shoulders as you pick up the cup, the slight grimace as you take a sip… it's all there, if anyone wants to see it."
John put his tea cup down with only a slight clatter.
"That answers several of my questions about the entire process from your perspective, and unfortunately rules you out as a subject for many of the rest of them. You're obviously far too interested in creating a warm and inviting atmosphere for the alphas who visit you, despite the fact that it's your opinion that matters, not theirs. Why should you care if they're thirsty or uncomfortable? In fact, that puts them at even more of a disadvantage, which you would think you would want to exploit to extract the best possible bonding contract for yourself. Every book on the subject written by omegas discusses these psychological tricks – are you honestly so ill-prepared that you haven't done even the bare minimum of research?"
John's mouth had flopped open like a fish. He closed it with a snap.
Sherlock took in this reaction with a slight narrowing of his eyes. "You have read the literature, but you've made no move to conform to its suggestions, which means you're not entirely focused on obtaining the best monetary contract terms for yourself." He shrugged, looking about the room with some distaste. "Pity. You're not much use to me, in that case."
"Why would that be a bad thing?" John finally asked, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. "What exactly are you trying to understand?"
Sherlock sniffed. "You're angry with me and trying not to show it. You're being polite to me in the middle of an alpha interview. That is rather new. So far, it has been my understanding that even omegas raised as betas into their late teens are somewhat quick on the uptake of power exchange. Most people like to be in control, and an unbonded omega is the most powerful person on the planet – for a time. The person in that position who chooses not to use it? Extremely rare."
"How would you even know? How many omegas have you even been around, unbonded or otherwise?"
That seemed to put Sherlock off his footing for the first time, and John was rewarded with a genuine smile. "You're the first," he admitted, "but I have researched the subject extremely thoroughly."
"The subject of power plays by unbonded omegas?" John asked dryly, cocking his head. "It's hardly an obscure topic, is it? I think I've seen most of the pornos, and I'm hardly an expert."
Sherlock blinked at that and almost seemed to consider his next words carefully. Almost. "Actually, my focus is more on the lengths both parties will go to secure a favorable contract."
"I don't understand," John said. "Isn't that the whole point of all this? To secure a contract that everyone agrees to?"
"To legally secure a contract. Considering how stringent the laws are, there are many people – and many ways – to try to circumvent those laws. Since omegas already have all the power during negotiations it seems only human nature – especially alpha nature – to try to make things more equal, particularly when such vast sums and future generations are concerned."
"So you're… interested… in looking at ways that alphas are… what? Rigging the system? And you wanted to talk to me in the hopes that I might tell you about it?"
"It doesn't seem very likely, does it? How would I even know?"
"I didn't expect you to tell me of your own volition." Sherlock pulled himself to his full height and smiled a smug smile that John instantly hated. "I am very good at observing and interpreting people's behavior to read the truths they are trying to hide."
"But I'm useless to you."
"Oh, entirely. Someone who is so foolish as to not gain every possible advantage himself would probably not even notice is someone else were doing so."
"So I'm useless because I'm an idiot? That's the point you're trying to make?"
"Hmm. More or less, yes."
John screwed up his mouth and glared. "Right. And – just so I know – how old are you? Thirteen?"
"I don't see how that would be at all relevant," Sherlock responded with a frown.
"You don't see how that would be at all relevant? Alphas have to be of age to even enter negotiations to bond with an omega, and if you're sixteen I'll eat my hat."
"You're not wearing a hat."
"It's an expression. You're not sixteen, though, are you?"
Sherlock glared. "Obviously not. I'm twelve. Which only goes to show how corrupt the system is. According to the current laws regarding omegas, there is no possible way that a twelve year old should be able to get into this flat, into an interview. I'm clearly far too young to be able to bond, and yet with some cash put into the right hands and a sob story to the men at the gate, voilà. Here I am."
"But –" John shook his head. "Sorry, but I don't see at all. Why do all that?"
The hateful smug look was back at full force. "To prove it can be done. My brother finished at Cambridge this year. He's just got a position overseeing parts of the Omega Taskforce's security guidelines. He's disgustingly proud of himself, so of course I couldn't resist taking the opportunity to show him up. Believe me, if Mycroft were your brother, you'd do the same thing."
"Your brother works for the Taskforce? He's not an omega, though, is he?"
Sherlock snorted. "God, no. Our family takes great pride in its alpha image. I don't know what happens if a Holmes is born a beta. Probably driven from the house and excised from the family tree the first day the beta nature asserts itself."
Sherlock looked at him crossly. "Despite whatever lines they're feeding you during these interviews, you should know that that is how all of the prominent families feel about anyone who isn't an alpha. They would never say so out loud – such a thing would be déclassé in the extreme – but there it is."
"It's surprising you would tolerate omegas in your ranks, then," John muttered, not trying to disguise his sarcasm.
Sherlock ignored it. "How else would we keep the family line going?"
"Alphas have been known to reproduce with betas. Most alphas end up with betas, since there aren't enough omegas anyway –"
"Can reproduce with betas, but it's fairly rare for it to happen. Whereas with omegas, it's very easy. The biology behind it is fascinating, of course. I've been thinking when I get to Cambridge I might pursue a combination of a physiology and biomedical sciences degree. Something along the lines of Regina Wentworth's work on the inevitable evolutionary dead end that omegas represent, although possibly less pessimistic. Mostly, I'd like to find out why omega numbers seem to be in decline. The whole subject is intriguing."
"Omega numbers are in decline because there aren't enough of them – of us – to sustain the population," John shrugged. "Everyone knows that."
Sherlock just made a considering noise.
John crossed his arms and glared at him. "What does it matter? It sounds like we're just breeding stock to you, anyway."
"I don't know why you're so offended. You grew up in a beta household. Betas have even less regard for omegas than alphas do. A few months ago you would have thought the same thing. At least alphas consider omegas somewhat useful – to betas they're just disgusting freaks. Exotic sexual fantasies. Not people."
John slammed his teacup down on the table but didn't bother denying it.
"Whereas alphas do truly need omegas to ensure the continued existence of their own genetics," Sherlock went on. "We are stuck with each other, I'm afraid." He gestured to the parlor and to Brian's alert form behind the barrier. "Hence the need for all this. Alphas are far too used to just taking whatever they want. Putting in all these safeguards around something we want is the only way to ensure we don't end up falling all over it like dogs fighting over a bone in the street. And it will only get worse as time goes on and omega numbers decline even further. I'm sure Mycroft is devising all sorts of future precautions as we speak. Too bad even the current ones don't work."
"I can tell you're really heartbroken over it."
"Of course, to have an omega be truly secure you can't just guard against alphas entering the premise," Sherlock mused. His gaze was skipping around the room again. "There is always the possibility that an omega will try to get out."
John snorted. "Get out? And go where? Everyone knows it's not safe for an unbonded omega to be out wandering the streets once they've started having heats. They'd be grabbed by the first alpha who smelled them, whether that alpha was bonded or not."
Sherlock was eying the front windows. "Yes, that is true enough," he agreed thoughtfully.
Sherlock jumped to his feet in a single movement that surprised John with its grace. "It was lovely meeting you, John." He was distracted, excited, barely even looking at John as he strode to the door. "I will definitely be in touch. Good afternoon!"
"'In touch?" John stared after him dumbly. "What do you mean?" He sat looking at the closed door, trying to understand what had just happened for a full minute before he shook his head and went to wash the tea things.
The next morning John's phone trilled with a text as he was getting dressed. He assumed it was Harry, giving even more unsolicited advice about potential bondmates. She'd managed to get some sort of ridiculous guide for omegas from the internet that had helpful hints for negotiating a contract with royalty or major sport figures. John hadn't told her about Sherlock. He wasn't even really sure where to start. After all, it wasn't like Sherlock was a potential bondmate, and that was all Harry wanted to hear about.
The text wasn't from Harry. It was from a withheld number.
Need to gain access to the safehouse this afternoon. Set up an appointment & text me the time. Don't bother making tea. SH
"You've got to be kidding me," John sighed. How did you get this number?
Not important. SH
It is bloody important, actually! That's supposed to be private!
No need to get upset. Just another weakness for Mycroft to try to mop up. SH
Thank you. SH
Not a compliment. Why should I help you try to embarrass your brother?
Because he deserves it. SH
Also, if that's not reason enough, it is certainly possible that I will find a flaw in the system that saves you from being kidnapped by an unscrupulous person who would sell you to the highest bidder. SH Came a second later.
That's hardly likely, is it? The system seems to work well enough.
Think of the public good, John. What if some other omega gets hurt because of a security flaw I could have identified? How would you feel then? SH
John stared at that message for a solid minute. God, you're such a prat.
I've been called worse. SH
John flipped open his calendar for the day, written in Molly's swirly handwriting, I can get you in from 3:30 to 4, but I have another appointment at 4 so whatever it is you're planning will have to be quick.
When Sherlock arrived he was wearing the same clothes he had had on the day before and looked rather disheveled. John eyed the dirt on his cuffs as he sat down across from him on the parlor's stiff and uncomfortable sofa, but didn't know if he could ask without offending him. He poured Sherlock a large milk tea and ignored the eye roll he got in response.
"I thought I said not to bother with tea."
"I ignored you," John said. "Obviously." He half-expected Sherlock to argue, but he wasn't entirely sure Sherlock even heard him.
Sherlock's eyes were roaming the room restlessly, though he kept his body relaxed and turned toward John, his face smiling.
"Did you sleep at all last night?" John asked.
"Not important," Sherlock shrugged. He actually startled when John leaned forward and plucked a leaf from his hair.
"No? Too busy crawling through underbrush?"
"Yes, actually," Sherlock nodded.
John paused. "Do I want to know why?"
"Probably not. It's only tangentially related to your case."
John sipped his tea and studied this strange boy. "I'm a case now?"
"You're the most promising lead in my quest to find weaknesses in the omega system, yes."
"You mean I'm the only omega you can use to test the system with."
"That, too," Sherlock admitted.
"You're really enjoying showing your brother up, aren't you?"
That earned him a quick smile from Sherlock, whose eyes were glued to the spoon he was holding in his hand. Not the spoon itself, John realized, watching Sherlock tilt it slightly, but on the reflection of Brian watching them in the convex underside.
"What are –"
"Shhh," Sherlock hissed. "No, wait. Talk to me. Pretend we're having a conversation."
"We are having a conversation," John pointed out.
Sherlock made an exasperated noise and reached over to grab John's hand, immediately bringing Brian to his feet, though he didn't open the door. Sherlock let his hand go and he paused, waiting.
"Touching is forbidden," Sherlock noted approvingly. "Like prison."
"Alpha-initiated touching is, which your grabby hands definitely are," John corrected. "And it's nothing like prison. Shut up."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Sherlock said, far too amused for John's liking.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what I said. You have guards who watch you all the time; you're not allowed to go outside except for certain times during the day; your house is locked as tight as a drum and alarmed… need I go on?"
"It's different. It's for my protection, and it's only until I'm bonded."
"They make it awful on purpose, you know, to push any reluctant omegas into bonding as quickly as possible." When John shot him a look, he nodded. "It's true. Who do you think makes all the requirements for omegas? Who had the idea for virtual prisons to keep the unbonded omegas locked away in? Alphas. Always alphas. Frankly I can't understand why anyone would want to bond, aside from the need to continue the lineage. I'm glad I'm a younger sibling; I won't have to bother."
"You don't ever want to bond?"
"I thought alphas had the same bonding drive that omegas did."
Sherlock shrugged. "Most do."
"But not you?" John asked. "You're too good for that sort of thing, I'm assuming."
"It's not a matter of being too good, John. I just choose not to let my base desires override my rational choices."
John snorted and Sherlock glared at him. "Sorry," he said, "but you're twelve. Look me up in four or five years and we'll have this conversation again then."
"I'm sure my answer will be exactly the same," Sherlock assured him frostily.
"Oh, I'm sure," John laughed. "Exactly the same."
Sherlock's eyes narrowed and he stood abruptly. "Come over to the window with me, but try to make it look casual."
Sherlock gave him a look, so John rolled his eyes and wandered, as casually as he could, over to the window.
"You're a terrible actor," Sherlock pointed out.
"I never claimed to be anything else," John snapped irritably. He smiled for Brian's benefit.
Sherlock was examining the inside of the pane. "Do you see the house down the street to your left, the one with the red trim?"
"Yes, of course."
"Good. I need you to meet me there at 2am."
John froze. "What?"
"You heard me perfectly well."
"I can't go anywhere at night, Sherlock."
"Won't, then. And can't. I'm not supposed to, and I'm watched all the time by the Protectors, so it's not like I have much of a choice."
"I doubt that."
"What do you mean?" John hissed. "I've seen them, either Sally or Brian is always there when I go to sleep, and when I wake up. All right, not actually in the same room, but they can see me clearly enough."
Sherlock's smile was dangerous. "You're a sound sleeper, aren't you?"
"A bit, but I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"Do you get up much in the night?"
"No. Why, Sherlock?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Your two Protectors are having sex. Fairly regularly, but since it's obviously not while you're awake – even you would notice that – and they're the only two Protectors you have, it would be at night, when you're asleep, leaving you unguarded."
"There's no way you can look at them and know that."
"There's no way you can, perhaps. Look at the way his shirt's buttoned. Do you – "
"Wait. Are you seriously going to explain to me how you know they're sleeping together?"
"You asked for proof."
"I did not! That is not something that I want to know, Sherlock. Not about people I have to see every day, not if they don't want me to know. Brian's married, he talks about his wife all the time –"
"Just because you don't want to hear it doesn't make it any less true. And it is true. If you don't want me to tell you how I know, then accept the fact of it at face value so we can move on."
"Jesus. Fine. But even if you are right and they aren't watching me all night long, there's no way I'm going to go anywhere with you."
"Why not? I haven't given you any reason not to trust me, and you know perfectly well I'm not interested in bonding with you. I just need to prove that it can be done – that the omega can be got out of the 'impregnable omega safehouse.'"
John took a deep breath. "Has it ever occurred to you that you might be taking this sibling rivalry thing a little bit too far? I know I used to fight with Harry constantly, but it was always in private. You're trying to publicly humiliate your brother, and you're going to hit everyone else on the Taskforce. That's not fair."
"It's perfectly fair. If they were doing their jobs than I wouldn't be able to accomplish any of this. They're not. Again, John, other omegas might end up getting hurt. Besides, it's quite possible that it won't even work. You'll be caught before you set foot on the stairs."
"Or you'll be caught before you enter the estate."
Sherlock snorted at that.
"So what would the plan be, then? I sneak out and then back in?"
"That would be enough to prove my point, certainly," Sherlock said easily. "You'll find this window is a good exit point – you can land right in the bush below and not make any noise. The doors would be much more trouble."
"Wait a minute – there is an alarm, you know. The whole house is rigged –"
"I'll take care of the alarm. Just meet me down the street. Red trim, John. Don't forget."
"I can't believe I'm agreeing to this."
"But you are agreeing. Excellent."
"I'm sure I'll regret it," John sighed, but Sherlock had stopped listening to him again.
John was actually surprised, despite everything Sherlock had said, to discover that there was no one watching him when his phone started vibrating in his hand at 1:45 the next morning. Nerves had kept him up most of the night, and he was a little groggy as he slid out of bed and grabbed his shoes.
He slipped out of the bedroom and down the hall in stocking feet, only barking his shin once on the occasional table at the top of the stairs. He honestly couldn't believe it was going to be so easy. Omega safe houses, he always remembered hearing, were supposed to be the most secure places in the world. That was where the whole expression 'safe as an omega in a safe house' came from in the first place. The reality was startling, to say the least.
The window Sherlock had shown him opened easily and silently under his hands, just far enough for him to wedge himself through the gap. Once out, though, there was nothing to hold onto and stop him from falling straight into the bush underneath the window, biting his lip to keep from yelling out as he crashed hard through braches and leaves.
Standing up and brushing himself off as best he could, he limped down the street to the house with the red trim, half afraid Sherlock wouldn't be there to meet him.
He was, though, leaning against the side of the garden shed, still in the same clothes John had seen him in earlier. He was smoking, and offered the pack to John as casually as anything when John came close to him.
"You're dirty," Sherlock commented in lieu of an actual greeting.
"How observant of you," John snapped. "I nearly killed myself falling out that window."
"You should have been more careful."
"Is that all you have to say?"
Sherlock frowned at him. "I don't know why you're acting as if it's my fault."
"Oh, I don't know, possibly because it is? 'Oh, what a great laugh it will be, sneaking out in the night.' I don't know why I listened to you at all."
"I never said it would be a laugh," Sherlock argued. "It was an experiment, and I needed to see –"
"Yes, yes," John sighed. "You needed to see which alpha Holmes had the biggest cock, and I was dumb enough to fall for the 'help other omegas' line. So now I'm dirty and you're one up on your brother. I certainly hope it's worth it."
That made Sherlock smile, something John was learning usually did not bode well for him. "Not yet," he said carefully, "but there is something that could be salvaged from tonight that would make it worth it."
"And what would that be, exactly? Wait. No, I don't want to know. I'd like to say this has been fun, but it really hasn't, Sherlock. I'm going to sneak back in now and go back to bed. Good night."
Even in the moonlight, John could tell Sherlock looked almost vulnerable. John hesitated, cursing himself at the same time. "What?" he asked.
"Well," Sherlock trailed off. "There is something else I was hoping you would help with."
"Of course you had an ulterior motive for dragging me out here." John shook his head at himself for being so naïve. "What is it?"
It was Sherlock's turn to hesitate.
John could feel what was left of his patience eroding. "Sherlock, it's the middle of the night. Spit it out so I can go get some sleep."
"There was a murder a week ago," Sherlock said quickly, "on Holloway Road."
"So, the suspected murderer was an alpha who swears he was with his omega during her heat."
"And, the alpha is lying. Obviously. I just can't prove it without talking to the omega. I need to question her."
"You need to question...? You? Don't they have police for that sort of thing?"
"Yes," Sherlock huffed, "but the police are idiots. They let the alpha off. He's a banker, very connected."
"A City boy? No doubt. All you alphas are anyway. So? Can't you, I dunno, talk to someone? Your brother? If he works for the government, the police might listen to him." John pulled a twig out of his hair and grimaced. "How do you know this banker lying, anyway?"
Sherlock waved his hand. "It's clear enough if you know what to look for. They keep refusing to listen to me, saying I don't know what I'm talking about."
John sighed. "Sherlock, you're twelve. Of course they're refusing to listen to you. I mean, all right, you're intelligent. Even I can see that, and I barely know you. But you're still just..."
"Just a kid."
"I am not. Not in any ways that matter. I am at least as mature as you are, and far more intelligent. Age has nothing to do with it."
"It has everything to do with things, and..." John chose his words carefully, "I'm not sure you're in a position to be judging your own relative maturity. Maybe solving murders should wait until you've finished school, at least."
"I've solved eight murders," Sherlock said coldly. "The Met should be far more grateful for my help. In this case, I know the alpha is lying. I need to get in to talk to the omega, but obviously I, as an alpha, can't do that."
There was a significant pause as John tried to digest all this.
"You want me to talk to the omega?"
John was at a loss for words. "Sherlock. That's not – have you completely – you can't actually expect – I can't."
"Why not? She'll talk to you, and probably even tell you the truth. You're an omega."
"You've got to be joking. Just because we're both omegas doesn't mean anything. It certainly doesn't mean there will be some kind of instant bond between us." But the truth was that John rather did want to talk to another omega. Not about the fact that her alpha was a potential murderer, but about what it was like to be an omega. What it was like to bond. John had never met another omega, and really did want to. It was incredibly tempting. If it had been anyone other than Sherlock suggesting it –
Sherlock must have sensed him weakening. "If the alpha is the murderer and we don't catch him, he might kill again," he said quickly. "Think of the public good you'll be doing, John."
"You need to stop using that," John snapped.
"Only when it stops working. Come on. There's a hole in the fence we can climb through, and we can catch a cab a few blocks from here."
"Wait a minute. I can't just leave. I have to let Sally know I'm –" that he was what? Going into the city with an alpha to do fake police work? There was no way they would allow it.
"What?" Sherlock asked sharply, agreeing. "Don't be stupid."
"Sherlock, I can't go down to central London without letting them know. I'll be gone for hours. They'll probably panic and think I've been kidnapped."
"John, if you tell them now they won't let you go. They'll say it's not safe for an unbonded omega such as yourself to go to central London."
"Because it's not safe."
"We'll only be gone for a couple of hours. We'll be back before they know you've left."
John sighed, torn. "All right," he said reluctantly. "You promise we'll be back in a couple of hours?"
"A few hours. Certainly."
"If we're not, I'll have them call your brother directly and he can yell at you."
"I'm sure he'll love that," Sherlock muttered, rolling his eyes and leading John on a meandering path up the street. "It would be the highlight of his year."
Considering it was nearly three in the morning, it took them a little while to flag down a cab. The cabbie stared at them both skeptically, but let them in with a minimum of fuss. Fares must be fairly desperate, John thought.
Sherlock stared out the window, and John used the opportunity to study Sherlock.
"Doesn't you family worry about you? This is the second night you've been out."
"Forth, actually," Sherlock corrected. "My parents are dead. Mycroft is my guardian, and he's never home."
"Ah." Several things about Sherlock fell into place at once. "Don't you go to school, though?"
"No, I have tutors," Sherlock explained. "I kept getting thrown out of the alpha schools. They were run by morons."
John tried to hide his grin behind his hand, but the look Sherlock shot him told him he shouldn't have bothered. "There isn't anyone who looks after you?"
"I don't need looking after."
John snorted quietly, which Sherlock chose to ignore. "Maybe you can give me some advice on good tutors, then. I'm planning to make tutoring a non-negotiable part of my bonding contract."
"Why bother continuing your education? You know you don't need O-levels to give birth, don't you?"
John felt as if he'd been slapped. "Shut up, Sherlock."
"It's true. Once you bond that's more or less all you'll be good for. Don't kid yourself that you'll ever be allowed to have a proper job. Why are you going to put yourself through the hassle of tutoring?"
John could feel tears pricking the back of his eyes. "Because," he snapped. "Because I'm relatively intelligent, maybe not compared to some people, but I am, and I'd still like to get an education, yes. I've heard there are tutors who even cover University levels. I would like to do that. I'm not ready for children yet, and maybe when I'm bonded I'll want them soon enough. I don't know. It doesn't mean I can't do other things with my life, even if I do."
Sherlock was quiet for a moment. "Not ready for children yet?" he finally asked. "Are you planning to suppress your heats, then?"
"If I can find a bondmate who would sign on for that," John said wistfully. It was notoriously rare. After all, if an omega's two main draws depended on heats, suppressing them more or less made the omega worthless. It was usually a point that even the most omega-struck alphas wouldn't budge on during negotiations. That didn't even go into the fact that most heat suppression techniques were illegal. John sighed. Sherlock was watching him closely.
"It is possible, you know," he said quietly.
"Possible," John agreed, "just not very likely."
They were both quiet the rest of the ride.
John stared at the double set of doors and the five beefy betas sitting around the lobby of the building. "Are they security guards?"
"Of course. They keep out any alphas who aren't on the approved list. It's an omega building, for bonded omegas to live in."
"I thought alphas weren't too interested in bonded omegas. It's just the unbonded ones that need to be protected."
"Yes, that's true, generally, but alphas are also famously territorial. They can't stand the thought of other alphas around their bondmates, so they have buildings that limit access. We really do control your entire life, you know. No matter what you negotiate in that contract of yours."
John was still trying to think of a retort to that when Sherlock gave him a satisfied smile. "Burke's car isn't here."
"He's in France right now. I thought he would be, but he never stays as long as I expect him to."
"You mean you thought the murderer might be here?" John hissed.
"I can only predict that he might be away, I can't arrange it. There was a small possibility that he might be here, but he's not." Sherlock pressed his thumb hard on the buzzer for one of the flats. "Just ask what happened last Monday night."
"Sherlock, it's three in the morning. She's not going to want to talk now."
"She might not want to, but she will anyway. Maybe if she's half-awake her reactions will be more honest and even you can tell if she's lying." He paused, assessing John with a critical eye. "Well, maybe not. But do try anyway."
"What am I supposed to say?"
"I told you. Just ask her what happened last Monday night."
"You're sure she'll tell me?"
"She'll tell you the truth because you're another omega. You're not a threat. Better – you're unbonded, so she won't think you have any alphas around."
"I don't have any alphas around."
"You have me," Sherlock pointed out, pressing the buzzer again.
"I'm not sure you count," John said. "You're not even close to being of age."
"You're very nearly obsessed with that number thing, did you know?"
"Come off it, Sherlock. You know perfectly well –"
"Hello?" A sleepy voice sounded through the intercom.
"Hello!" Sherlock said, sounding far more cheerful than John had ever heard him. "This is Scotland Yard." John's mouth fell open and Sherlock waved an impatient hand at him. "We need to ask you a few questions. Can you buzz my colleague up?"
There was a long pause. "Did you know it's three in the morning?" she asked, finally.
"Actually, we did. Terribly sorry, but you know how it is when you're with the Yard, you never get a moment's rest."
A yawn through the intercom. "I guess he can come up. Wait a minute while I get dressed, though."
"Fine!" Sherlock flashed John a grin and let the button go. "So: ask about Monday night, and what Ryan told her to say to the police. He almost certainly told her to lie."
"No, but I'll text you if I come up with anything."
"It's not going to look very Scotland Yard, is it, me checking my phone?"
"Actually it will. Remember that –"
The buzzer sounded, and Sherlock pulled open the door.
"What were you going to say?"
"Nothing, never mind. Try not to say anything stupid."
He stood aside, watching John enter the lobby through the glass. He thinks I'm going to screw this up, John thought with a sigh.
At the flat, John faced the yawning petite blonde omega and tried to smile winningly as he stood awkwardly in the doorway.
"Hello," he said offering his hand. "I'm John. I need to ask you a few questions."
She blinked at him a few times and laughed, moving aside to let him in. "Where did they dig you up, sweetie? You don't look a day over fifteen." Her eyes narrowed, her brain waking up enough to take in John's entire appearance. "You're not even bonded, are you? What in the world are you doing running around the city in your state? Don't you know how unsafe –"
John cut her off. "I need to ask you a few questions," he repeated, trying to sound stern. If he wasn't careful, she'd be on the phone to the Taskforce in a heartbeat. "I'm the only omega the Met could dig up on short notice," he lied, hoping it sounded even remotely convincing.
She looked him over again and shook her head. "Questions. All right, then. Questions so important they send an unbonded to ask me them at three in the morning? These are questions I'm going to need to hear." She motioned him to sit down in one of the overstuffed armchairs.
"First off, er, can you tell me your name?" John asked, flushing. "It appears to have been omitted from the information I was given." Of course Sherlock wouldn't have considered the omega's name important, John realized. She was only a means to an end for him.
She laughed again, sitting down across from John on the sofa. It reminded John uncomfortably of how he sat with alpha interviewees.
"It's Emma. Emma Starning."
"Hello, Emma. Can you tell me what you were doing Monday night?"
She was looking at him intently. "I wish I could be back in your shoes," she sighed. "Before I was bonded, everything seemed so full of possibility."
John tried again. "Do you – was Ryan Burke here that night?"
"You have to be careful," she told him. "Of course they assign a social care worker to help you get a good contract for yourself, but you listen to me: don't you trust any of them. No matter what the alpha promises, if there's a way to weasel out of it, the alpha will weasel like anything. They don't really care about you, you know. Well, you must know, right?"
"I know," John said softly.
"Right, we all know. That's the tragedy, John. We all know. We sign contracts to protect ourselves, but they can only go so far. You'd better be prepared for a lifetime of heartbreak. That's what being an omega is: heartbreak."
"Was your alpha here Monday night?" John asked quietly.
"Of course he wasn't here that night," she said spitefully. "He's never here unless I'm in heat, and I've been suppressing those for months."
John sat up straighter. "Really?"
"If you're smart at all, you'll do the same once you're bonded," she told him. She opened a drawer in the end table next to her and rummaged around until she found a Chinese menu and a pen. Tearing off the bottom of the menu, she wrote quickly. "Here's the name of a doctor that can help. He's done wonders. It's just one pill every day, and you won't feel even the slightest bit of your heat. It stops the hormones cold. It's illegal, of course. God, do you think alphas would ever allow such a thing to be legal? But it works, I promise."
John took the paper from her numbly. "You really haven't had a heat in months?"
"Six months," she said proudly. "Usually they come on every eight weeks or so until you start having children. I'd rather die than have children with Ryan. He's not a good person," she said darkly.
"I'm sorry," John said. It felt remarkably inadequate.
She shrugged. "It could be worse. It could always be worse."
John left the flat lost in thought. When he got back to the street, Sherlock was hopping from foot to foot, too agitated to stand still. "Well?" he demanded as soon as John had shut the door behind him.
"Well," John said, "she's been suppressing her heats for six months. Her alpha hasn't noticed – or, if he has, he hasn't mentioned it."
"Which means he's had other, more important things on his mind." Sherlock's eyes were practically glittering. "What alpha wouldn't notice that their omega wasn't going into heat? What did she say about Monday?"
"She was asleep and Burke came in late, told her to say he'd been there all night, that she'd had a heat."
"If she's been secretly suppressing her heats –"
"She gave me the doctor's name," John said, pulling the paper out of his pocket with only slight reluctance.
Sherlock peered at the address. "This isn't far at all; we won't even need to take a cab."
"Sherlock, it's the middle of the night," John reminded him. "No doctor – even one who sells pills on the side to omegas – is going to believe our story anyway. Obviously we don't work for the Met."
"Fine," Sherlock sighed. "We'll go and tell Lestrade what we've found out."
"Sergeant Lestrade. He's my contact with the Met."
"You mean actually with the Met, as opposed to the way you're with the Met?"
Sherlock glared, which made John smile.
"He'll probably not want to be woken up at four in the morning –"
"He won't care," Sherlock said with conviction, "because I'm helping him solve his case. He's very driven when it comes to that sort of thing. It's the only thing I can stand about him. Besides, I need to introduce him to you or he'll never believe I got the omega to talk."
"He's not an alpha, is he?"
"God, no. He's incredibly beta. I'm sure you'll get on wonderfully."
It took them a while to find a cab, even in Central London. John got in gratefully and leaned back against the seat. With the adrenaline of the interview wearing off he could feel how tired he was. He wouldn't have minded dropping off for a few minutes, but he knew it was impossible. There was suddenly far too much to think about.
"You've gone quiet," Sherlock said. "What is it?"
"Hang on, are you trying to imply all I do is talk normally?" John asked.
"You talk quite a bit," Sherlock shrugged. "Some people find silence unnerving, so they fill it with whatever useless stuff their mind produces."
"Thanks very much."
"I didn't say it was always unpleasant. The cadence of your voice is quite pleasing. If I were opposed to you talking all the time I would tell you to stop."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"You're obviously thinking of something instead of talking. What is it?"
"If you must know I was thinking of that omega, Emma. She was so miserable. She signed the bonding contract and got everything she wanted from it, and she's still absolutely miserable."
"You don't want to end up that way," Sherlock said calmly.
"Of course I don't!"
"You won't. She chose an alpha based mostly on money. I'm sure there were other things as well, there usually are, but mostly what attracted her to him was his wealth. It doesn't always end that way – lots of omegas are perfectly happy with alphas they don't care about, and who don't care for them as people, either. It's something that certainly works out quite often. She doesn't happen to be one of those people, and she's bonded to him, so what options does she have? None, really."
"He does, though. Bonding really only bonds the omega."
"It's not fair."
Sherlock shrugged. "Does that surprise you? Her situation isn't so bad. She could still meet someone, still fall in love with someone else while bonded to Burke. She wouldn't be able to form a second bond, of course, not without his approval, which he'd never give. She wouldn't be able to have children or be knotted by anyone else. That might be enough for her, though."
"That only matters if she falls in love with a second alpha."
"It is a possibility," Sherlock said archly.
"It wouldn't be enough for me," John said decisively.
"I imagine it would depend on the circumstances. It usually seems to."
A few minutes passed in silence, both of them lost in thought.
"You know," Sherlock said at last, "we should work together on more cases. You have no idea how frustrating it can be when your only witness is an omega you can't talk to. Of course, you'd be even better at talking to alphas. They'd fall all over themselves and admit everything to an unbonded omega."
"And then they'd try to force a bond on me."
"We'd get you a gun," Sherlock said smoothly. "You'd be fine."
"Sherlock, no. It's a horrible idea."
"It's a brilliant idea."
John shook his head. "Besides, I'll be bonded soon, so you'll have to find another unbonded omega to use." He tried to ignore Sherlock's loud sigh.
The outer door on Lestrade's building was broken, so Sherlock led the way up to the third floor and pounded on the door. John cringed next to him, waiting for the neighbours to come out screaming at them to shut up, but no one did. It was possibly because it wasn't the first time Sherlock had done this sort of thing, he realized. He felt a rush of pity for poor Sergeant Lestrade.
The door was wrenched open by a dark haired beta who looked to be in his mid-twenties or so. He had on a loose pair of shorts and was pulling a t-shirt over his head. He glowered when he saw Sherlock. "I thought I told you to leave it alone," he said, his voice gravely with sleep.
"The omega admitted it was all a lie," Sherlock said smugly. "I told you it was. She's been suppressing her heats. I have the name of the doctor she's been going to."
"The omega wouldn't admit anything to you."
"Not to me. To him." Sherlock pointed at John, and Lestrade swung around to look at him for the first time.
"Who's this?" A beat, and then his eyes widened comically. "Is that a – Jesus Christ, Sherlock!" He grabbed John's arm, shoving him ahead of him into the flat. Sherlock followed immediately behind.
John nearly tripped over the end of a sofa in the dark, and Lestrade snapped on the lights.
He pointed to John. "You should not be here. I don't know what he did to get you to help him, but you must know what a terrible idea it is to be wandering about with this one. Mycroft is going to have fits."
"You don't have to tell him," Sherlock said sullenly.
"Of course I have to – look. I appreciate the help with cases. I do. But I need you to start thinking about your own safety, Sherlock, and understand that when you do this sort of reckless stunt it puts both of us in a very bad position. I can't cover for you all the time, you know."
"I don't need anyone to cover for me. I don't know how you can think that I'm not perfectly capable of sorting things out for myself."
Lestrade rubbed a hand tiredly over his face. "I know you think that, but your judgment is horrible. You need someone to tell you when you're over the limit, because you clearly have no idea."
"You do that. Constantly. It's annoying."
"I try, but you don't listen to me. Obviously." Lestrade sighed and looked back at John. "I need you to get back to the safe house, all right? Don't let him talk you into going anywhere else first. Sherlock is one of the cleverest people I've met, but he's an idiot most of the time."
"But you'll talk to the omega's doctor? I have his address here." Sherlock brandished the paper at Lestrade, who took it reluctantly.
"Have you heard anything I've said? Or have you just been thinking about the case for this entire conversation?"
Sherlock scowled at him. "Actually, I've been speculating on your date tonight."
"Obvious. Two used wine glasses on the coffee table, clear up in the kitchen means you've been cooking, and not just standard bachelor fare, either. The recipe books on top of the cabinets are askew – not just one, but many, which means you were looking through them for the perfect meal. You were trying to impress this date. Why? It wasn't the first date with this person, or even the first time this person has been to your flat – you haven't even bothered clearing away the dirty laundry from the floor. They're familiar with your flat and your habits, then. So why were you nervous, why were you trying to impress? You obviously wanted to talk about something important, something to do with your relationship. You weren't planning to propose, no, nothing so major. That you would have picked up the laundry for, tried to show you'd be good around the house later. You've obviously slept together before, no doubt dull beta sex, so nothing to do with that. So what was it?" Sherlock steepled his hands in front of his mouth, lost in thought.
Lestrade's face had been steadily growing more and more red throughout this monologue, until John worried that he might have to call for an ambulance.
John elbowed Sherlock in the side, earning a scowl for his trouble. "What?"
"I think we need to be going," John told him. "Now."
"What? Why? I've almost got this." Sherlock looked from John to Lestrade and back again. "I don't understand."
"I know you don't. But we need to be going anyway," John said firmly. "Thank you for seeing us. Sorry we woke you. I hope your date went well."
At the mention of the word 'date,' Lestrade winced and Sherlock's brow furrowed. John wasn't going to give him another second to invade Lestrade's privacy, though. He took Sherlock by the elbow and pulled him back to the door.
"Do you always have to do that?" he asked when they were safely down the hall.
"Observe what's so blatantly obvious? Yes. It's impossible not to see what's staring me right in the face."
"Do you have to do it out loud all the time? Don't your friends get annoyed when you announce their private business to complete strangers?"
Sherlock was silent as they went down the stairs. "I wouldn't know," he finally said when they were out on the sidewalk. "I haven't got any friends."
"Well, you have me," John told him. "And I'm telling you it's annoying."
"Oh," Sherlock said, looking strangely shy. "I'll keep that in mind."
A cab had pulled over to the curb. "For once we're not going to spend fifteen minutes trying to flag one down," John said happily. "At least something is going right tonight. You'd better come back to the safe house with me, maybe help me explain things. I'm sure they're all in an uproar right about now." He pulled the door open and started to get in.
"John..." Sherlock was frowning at the cab. "I don't think –"
"I think you'll be getting in now, Mr. Holmes," a voice said from their left. A tall blond man stepped from the shadows pointing a gun at them.
At the sight of the gun, John froze completely. "What? Is that real?" he hissed.
"Yes," Sherlock answered immediately.
"Let's not have a scene, gentlemen," the gunman told them. "Just get into the cab."
They got into the cab.
The gunman got in after them and slammed the door shut. Immediately the car raced off.
They drove for a while, the gunman seated across from them. Sherlock stared out the window, and John stared at Sherlock. He slowly reached across the inches separating them and touched the back of Sherlock's hand. Sherlock glanced at him, surprised, and John threaded their fingers together. He squeezed once, and Sherlock squeezed back. It was a small bit of comfort, but it was comfort nonetheless.
The cab turned down a ramp that went into an underground parking garage. A few evenly-spaced lights giving the space just enough illumination to see how cavernous and empty it was. The cab stopped along the far wall, near a bank of lifts.
"Out," the man with the gun said.
John stumbled out, fear beginning to make him clumsy. This is what everyone had been warning him about. An alpha was going to force him to bond. How had he been so stupid as to leave the safe house? Had he actually thought Sherlock was any protection at all?
They crowded into the lift, Sherlock cutting his eyes to him. "John..."
"No talking. We're almost there."
The man with the gun and the driver were both betas. They were obviously bringing him to someone else. John swallowed past his rising panic and tried to think rationally. It was a bit hard with a gun pointed directly at his head.
When the lift stopped they stepped into an open space. The building was still under construction, and the floor was all poured concrete and steel beams. Plastic sheeting hung down to the floor at intervals. There was a scattering of furniture in the middle of the space, and they were waved toward it.
"Sit. It won't be long."
John sat down quickly, his eyes flitting from the gunman to the cab driver and back. Sherlock glared and sat with his arms crossed over his chest. They were both handcuffed to the chairs. Sherlock glared at the gunman with a look of stark contempt. The gunman ignored him, sitting in the third chair where he could keep an eye on both of them.
"So, what?" Sherlock asked. "We sit here until dawn?"
"We wait for Moriarty. He'll be along."
Sherlock frowned. "Who is Moriarty?"
"You'll see. He did say to gag you if you wouldn't shut up."
Sherlock ignored that. "I suppose if I try to run, you shoot me?" he asked, his tone casual, almost bored.
"If you try anything at all," the gunman said, "I'll shoot him." He nodded to John. That seemed to deflate Sherlock entirely.
They sat in silence for a while after that.
Eventually the lift opened again. A bonded omega who only looked a few years older than John stepped out, his suit immaculate. He grinned happily when he saw them. John shot a look at Sherlock, who was sneering.
"So sorry to keep you waiting, boys! I had some other things to wrap up. I don't want you to think I was ignoring you."
"Who are you? What do you want?" John asked.
"Moriarty," Sherlock murmured beside him.
"That I am. I'm glad you're as clever as I've heard. As to what I want: nothing that either of you can give me, unfortunately. But don't worry, Sherlock. I'm sure big brother will swoop in and save the day. That's what I'm counting on, anyway."
"This is about Mycroft," Sherlock breathed. John felt a rush of relief so strong he felt dizzy. "Of course it is. I hate to tell you, but he's really not that far up the ladder. Whatever it is you want, he probably can't provide it."
Moriarty smirked. "You don't generally have hostages arguing what their rescuers can't do. Interesting strategy. As a matter of fact, your brother is perfectly poised for what I need." He pointed his phone at them both and there was a quiet click as he took a picture. He turned his phone to send it with a text. "I'm sure he'll be along soon enough, and we'll have a little chat. Until then, sit tight."
Moriarty disappeared behind one of the plastic sheets, leaving them alone with the gunman once again. Not for long, though. The sound of the lift reverberated across the small space less than an hour later. A tall, elegant alpha got off this time, his hands empty as he glanced around, his gaze finally settling on them.
He nodded once to Sherlock, and John could see the slight resemblance.
Moriarty stepped into the light from the right. "Mr. Holmes! You got my text. Thank you so much for coming, and for coming alone. It's so rare to find an individual who can competently follow ransom demands these days. Sorry the place is a little dirty – it was all I could get on such short notice. I honestly thought I would have to do something to lure your brother and this omega out of the safe house together, but they managed that just fine on their own, so I had to put my plans in motion a little early. Not to worry, though! Everything is looking up today."
"Who are you?" Mycroft demanded. "What do you want with me?"
"Where are my manners? I should introduce myself. The name is Jim Moriarty. I doubt you've heard of me – I'm pretty small time right now. That's all going to change tonight. You see, Mycroft Holmes, you are going to help me break into the big time."
"Am I?" Mycroft asked mildly. "That hardly sounds like me."
"Oh, but it does, I think. I know your weakness."
Mycroft's eyes narrowed slightly. "You think you do, clearly."
Moriarty clapped his hands together. "I guess we'll find out, won't we? Either way, you have to admit, this is going to be fun."
John saw Mycroft glance at Sherlock, and although neither of them made any sign that he could understand, something obviously passed between them, some message sent and received, because he saw some of the tension suddenly leak out of Sherlock's shoulders. Whatever it was, Sherlock didn't look very happy, which John thought was probably a good thing. It scared John a little how much he already trusted Sherlock's intelligence. Surely, surely Sherlock could think of a way out of this, possibly five or six different ways without even breaking a sweat. The problem was that John knew Lestrade had been right: cleverness wasn't everything, and Sherlock's lack of judgment meant that one of them, possibly all of them, would be killed in any of the scenarios Sherlock had concocted.
Mycroft, on the other hand… despite standing in the middle of a room with two gunmen, he didn't seem even remotely perturbed. He had Sherlock's same extreme confidence, but something more, too: a quiet authority that Sherlock didn't have, or at least didn't have yet. It was easy to put his faith in someone like that, even though John knew it might all be a façade.
He was willing to believe in a façade if it might save his life. He only hoped Mycroft could keep Sherlock from doing anything stupid; that such a thing were even possible.
John wasn't the only one who noticed the silent communications going on. Moriarty glanced from one Holmes to the other with an anticipatory half smile that John didn't like at all. "So sorry to break up the party, but I think it's time for the grownups to have a conversation." He nodded at Sherlock. "Take him into the other room. Don't take your eyes off him for a moment. If he moves at all, he knows we'll kill the omega."
John met Sherlock's outraged glare with one that was hopefully more reassuring than he felt. Mycroft wasn't protesting, which John really hoped meant he either trusted Moriarty not to hurt Sherlock, or, more likely, knew that Sherlock was capable of looking after himself. At least, John wanted to believe that was it. Please, Sherlock. Please just cooperate. Let Mycroft handle this. Please, please, please. John heaved a sigh of relief when Sherlock had been led from the room without bloodshed.
Moriarty extended his hand toward Mycroft. John frowned, confused, but Mycroft apparently understood perfectly well. He handed Moriarty his black mobile. It joined Sherlock's in Moriarty's pocket.
"What is it that you want?" Mycroft asked.
Moriarty chuckled. "We are getting right down to business, aren't we? I'm afraid what I want isn't the kind of thing that can be summed up very succinctly, but let's start small. I want your tie."
If Mycroft was at all surprised, he didn't show it. He simply stripped off his tie with swift, efficient movements and held it in his hand.
"Excellent," Moriarty cooed. He nodded at John. "Gag him with it. Do be careful not to block his airway."
John immediately sat straight up in his chair, pulling against the handcuffs holding him in place. "Why? Why do you need to do that?"
"Terribly sorry, Johnny. I know it's not pleasant, but it will save us some trouble down the road. Mr. Holmes and I need to negotiate, and it won't help anything to have your opinion on matters."
Mycroft gave John a cautioning look when John started to protest again. It wasn't so much Mycroft's expression as the very familiar blue eyes that made John stop and take a deep breath instead. That, and the meticulous way that Mycroft was folding the tie helped – a little. He held John's gaze as John opened his mouth, his expression shifting from cautioning to something closer to comforting. John fought the instinct to choke around the intrusion and Mycroft squeezed his shoulder once.
When he faced Moriarty again, his face was blank. "You said you've been planning this for some time."
"Months. I didn't plan on your brother being involved at all, but I suppose I should thank him for making things so easy for me. Imagine, he just fell into my lap. I hardly had to lift a finger. How embarrassing for you, though. Sneaking into the unbonded omega safehouse, right under the noses of the people you're in charge of?" He whistled loudly. "That's gotta sting. Of course, he did have help. He didn't know it, but the money he paid to get on the premises was not even close to enough. It's almost as if he thought no alphas would have attempted that before. Luckily I'd bought those guards off years ago. When they reported that Sherlock Holmes was trying to get access, well, I told them to let him in. I thought it might be interesting to find out what he was up to. Turned out to be pretty interesting indeed, don't you think?"
Mycroft just raised one eyebrow delicately. "Let me guess: if I don't do something you want me to do, you're going to kill Sherlock," he said contemptuously.
Moriarty held up his hands. "Oh, no. I'm not going to do anything to your brother. I have plans for him, but they'll have to wait. I had a much better idea for the time being."
Mycroft cocked his head slightly, his eyes narrowing.
"The coalition government isn't very popular right now. Well, I'm sure you know that. One little scandal will be all it takes to get them knocked out. Or one big scandal. One big scandal that can also ruin your career before it has even started. You could've had a brilliant life in the government, Mycroft. Such a shame that you'll be forced out after just half a year."
"Thatcher called omegas our most precious resource. Did you know that? I'm sure you did. That's why they are protected so fiercely. What would happen to the alphas if there were no more omegas? They would all die out. There might be the occasional one born to betas, but I don't think they would last very long, do you? If there were no more alphas, the betas would take over, and they wouldn't ever risk being ruled by alphas and omegas again. They would slaughter all non-beta children. They wouldn't call it slaughter, of course. Mercy killings, that's how it would be seen. But it would happen. Every alpha knows that. It's your worst fear."
Moriarty laughed out loud. "You are in a hurry, aren't you? And the omegas must be protected at all costs, even from other alphas. They must be allowed to bond where they will want to have the most children – the most alpha children. Omegas forced to bond with alphas not of their choosing hardly ever have many children. It's such a waste. The great modern catastrophe. We have the entire application process in place to guard against such a thing. So what could possibly be a bigger scandal than the head of the Omega Taskforce bonding with an omega outside the process? Forcing himself on an omega without even signing a bonding contract?" He sucked the air between his teeth and shook his head. "As I said: what a terrible end to your promising career. The splatter from that sort of thing would get on everyone. Of course it will get on your superiors. And their superiors. It will fan the flames of beta resentment and distrust. It will topple the government, Mr. Holmes. I'll see to that."
At the words 'forcing himself on an omega' John had gone very still. He swallowed around the gag, his throat working.
"As I haven't bonded with anyone, I fail to see any way in which your threat is particularly effective."
"You haven't bonded yet. I think we both know perfectly well that I can convince you to."
"Considering the repercussions you've mentioned, I sincerely doubt it."
"Listen to that tone. You are every inch the alpha, aren't you? Considering your family's standing, it's somewhat surprising that you're not already bonded. Unless, of course, you have some reason why you don't want to bond. Since you didn't even enter the application process for this omega, I assume you do. Something, or, someone?" He smirked at Mycroft. "Oh, I know all your secrets. I don't think he can give you any children, though, can he? Are you sure you wouldn't like to bond anyway?"
"You know perfectly well I would not."
"You caught me, I did know." He grinned toothily. "A beta, Mycroft – really? For someone in your position? I'd think you'd be able to do better."
Mycroft set his jaw and simply looked at him, waiting.
"But I will admit, your insistence does create problems for me. Guess I'll have to do this the hard way. I was kind of hoping I would. It's more fun, anyway. Let's be very clear here: you're going to bond with him, Mycroft. Or I'll kill him. Well, I won't kill him, obviously. But one of the people over there holding the guns will because I'll tell them to. It's almost the same thing, but not quite."
John felt a rush of terror and began pulling hard against the handcuffs. He knew it wouldn't do any good, but he couldn't seem to make himself stop.
Mycroft's voice was cold as ice. "What do I care if you kill one young omega? There's no real advantage to it. He's not bonded to anyone important that I would have to appease afterward. He doesn't belong to anyone. He could die and no one would even care – not for long, anyway."
Moriarty smiled. "He's not cooperating," he called into the other room. "Come in here and shoot the omega."
"No! You can't!" Sherlock immediately shrieked. His voice was slightly muffled, but the raw edge of panic was obvious. "John is mine. You can't let him hurt him!" There was a brief struggle, and then quiet.
"Oh," Moriarty said softly, "I think he might belong to someone."
For the first time, Mycroft had visibly lost some of his composure. Just a little, but it was enough. "Sherlock?"
"He's fine. I did promise not to hurt him, didn't I? Either way," Moriarty continued," I don't think he will ever forgive you, do you? But at least if this omega lives he might not actively turn against you. How hard will it be to have to explain to your own government that the person undermining everything you do – if not outright trying to hurt you – is you own baby brother? In the end, you'll even let him, won't you? You'll have to. No matter what he does," his voice dropped to a whisper, "we both know you'll never kill him. As cold as you like to pretend to be, that is something you could never do."
He stepped back, grinning at Mycroft again. "So you might as well just bond with the boy. It really is your best option here, as I'm sure you can see. Of course, you could always try to go public afterwards, but I think we both know exactly how that's going to work out. If only you alphas didn't have such a history of taking everything you wanted. Betrayed by your own nature."
He grinned toothily at Mycroft. "Now, I'd give you some more time to think about it, but I am kind of on a schedule here. We both know you're going to choose to bond. It's the better choice, after all, and you are nothing if not rational. We might as well just get on with it already."
After an agonizingly long moment, Mycroft nodded sharply once. "Fine," he breathed.
John felt his stomach drop. He couldn't seem to get any air into his lungs. He struggled against the handcuffs, scrambling in the chair, but neither Moriarty nor Mycroft even glanced in his direction.
"I'm sure I don't have to tell you that should you try to cross me in any way, both you and your brother will regret it for a very long time." Moriarty tossed Mycroft a small key. "Uncuff him. Well, unless you want him like that." He raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure you two will have years and years to explore your kinky sides together."
Mycroft didn't meet John's eyes as he walked around him. There was a click of metal as John's wrists were freed, and he immediately pulled his hand forward and yanked the gag out of his mouth. "I –"
"John." Mycroft's voice was quiet in his ear. He ran a gentle finger along John's wrist. "I am terribly sorry about this."
Taking a deep breath, John nodded. "I know," he said, because it was true. That was the worst part. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and crossed his arms over his chest. "It's all right," he finally said. "I'd rather be bonded than dead, if those are really my only options."
Mycroft nodded absently. "You understand how the bonding process works?"
John struggled to remember what he'd skimmed over in Molly's books. He'd thought he had a long time before it was ever going to be relevant. "I – I think so."
"You're going to go into heat."
John shook his head, confused. "No. I have weeks left before –"
Mycroft cut him off. "As soon as I bite your neck and the hormones and pheromones in my saliva enter your blood stream, they will start to trigger a heat." He spoke clinically. "That will allow me to knot you so we can complete the bond and make it permanent. Your heat won't last as long as a normal heat; a few hours at most. I don't imagine you're on any kind of contraception?"
That possibility certainly hadn't crossed John's mind. The situation, never in his control, felt like it was racing miles ahead of him. "No," he breathed. "God, am I going to get –" he couldn't even say it.
"No," Mycroft said firmly. "Don't worry about that now."
"Right," John said. He was a little overloaded with things to worry about already; adding another to the mix wasn't entirely possible.
Mycroft licked his lips. "You should take off your clothes. Once it starts we'll end up ripping them off anyway."
John immediately cut his eyes to Moriarty, embarrassed.
Slowly, John pulled off his trousers with numb fingers. "Will it hurt?" he asked, even though he was pretty sure he knew the answer.
"Yes," Moriarty answered, his tone gleeful. "Oh yes, John, I'm afraid it will. You aren't primed at all. This is not how it's meant to be done, you know. But you'll get over the pain. Then you will understand why everyone would kill to experience Frenzy."
John yanked his shirt over his head and tried to ignore him. He averted his eyes as Mycroft pulled off his own clothes. He knew it was absurd, but he couldn't seem to help it. Here it was, finally: bonding, and he was acting like a child.
"Have you ever...?" he asked Mycroft quietly.
Mycroft shook his head. He met John's eyes for a long moment, scrutinizing him. "Are you going to be all right?"
"Yeah, I will." John gave him a wobbly smile. "Will you?"
"I will," Mycroft promised.
Mycroft gently pressed John's head to the side and leaned in, smelling his neck before pressing his teeth in. John felt his body jerk slightly at the pain. Mycroft bit harder until he broke the skin, until John whimpered, and then he licked the spot with his tongue. As Mycroft's tongue traced the spot again, John felt his body responding, relaxing against Mycroft completely. The pain receded.
They both gasped softly.
John felt warmth infusing his entire body, starting at his neck and moving out through the rest of his body in waves. Mycroft's hands stroked up and down his sides soothingly. His breath was coming faster, and John understood that he wasn't the only one being affected by this. It was comforting to know that, and with something akin to wonder John realized that he wouldn't be alone again, not properly. From then on, he would always be linked to Mycroft, for better or ill.
He could feel Mycroft's hands trembling and realized that he was holding himself back with a massive amount of self-control. John could feel his own awareness narrowing to only his own body, a feeling he recognized from his heat. Soon nothing else would matter at all to him – he'd forget his own name, practically.
When it happened, it was mostly a relief.
Everything seemed both immediate and far away. He could hear himself begging brokenly, his mouth finding Mycroft's over and over as Mycroft pressed his legs apart; treating him like John was made of glass, which was the last thing he needed. The knot, when it came, seemed so utterly obvious: this is what John had been waiting his whole life for. Just this. Mycroft would give him what he needed, and everything was fine.
John slowly became aware of Mycroft lying mostly over him, his body warm and close. His fingers were tracing gentle patterns on John's back. John burrowed closer, letting out a satisfied sigh when arms tightened around him.
Laughter close by brought him abruptly back to himself, and he froze. Mycroft drew back to look at him.
"I'm all right," John said, before he was even sure if it were true. Reassuring people that he was all right seemed to be all he was capable of at the moment. It was far easier than actually sorting out how he did feel.
Mycroft obviously knew at least some of that; his eyes were searching John's face with an intensity that reminded John so strongly of Sherlock that he had to smile. "Really," he said, and meant it. "It could've been a lot worse."
John picked up his clothes and held them awkwardly to his chest. He had the irrational desire to turn away from Mycroft to get dressed, as if he could possibly have any dignity left to preserve. The man had just – they had – John clutched his clothes tighter. Mycroft seemed to understand; his own face was averted as he hastily dressed himself.
"Are we done here?" he asked Moriarty, standing. His voice had gone cold again.
Moriarty smirked. "We are. I'll be in touch, Mr. Holmes. I'm sure you'll have your hands full for the foreseeable future."
John frowned at that.
"I'm sure I don't have to bother threatening you. As much as I would love to stay for the family reunion, I do have other places to be. Do give Sherlock my best."
Mycroft stood impassive as Moriarty was followed by his men to the back of the building, in the opposite direction from the list they had come up.
"What does he –"
"It doesn't matter," Mycroft sighed. He strode off in the direction that they had taken Sherlock in.
John could hear Sherlock long before he saw him. "Where's John? Is he all right?" There was that same panicky edge to the last words that made John's heart flip over in his chest.
"I'm fine, Sherlock," he called. He could hear Mycroft saying something low and inaudible.
"What's that supposed to mean? John? John!" Sherlock shoved through the plastic sheeting and looked relieved to see John in one piece. "Mycroft said –" he stopped, his eyes narrowing suddenly.
There was a beat of silence before Sherlock ran toward him, stopping a few feet away, his eyes wide and agonized.
"No," Sherlock said in disbelief. "You didn't. You... John."
It took the gentle sound of Mycroft pushing through the plastic to break him from his daze. Sherlock whirled on his brother in one swift motion. "What did you do?" he hissed.
"Sherlock, he had to. Moriarty made him."
Sherlock ignored John. The look he gave Mycroft was so dark that it made John take an involuntary step backwards. "I will never forgive you for this. Never."
"Sherlock, he had no choice!" John insisted.
"Of course he had a choice. Mycroft always has a choice. Now that he's finished at Cambridge he wants an omega to show off with to his new colleagues. He couldn't be bothered to find his own, so he had to steal mine."
"I wasn't yours," John snapped. "I'm not a thing. You can't just decide that you own me because we spent some time together!"
At that it was as if Sherlock's entire face crumpled, his eyes shining and wet before he turned his back to John and stalked away.
John immediately went after him. "I'm sorry," he said. "I really am, but Moriarty said he would kill me if Mycroft didn't, and he meant it." He wanted to reach out and touch Sherlock's stiff back, but he knew Sherlock would never let himself be comforted.
"I shouldn't have let Mycroft take charge. I could've fixed this."
"How?" John asked. "You couldn't have bonded with me."
"There were ways. There were so many ways, and Mycroft –"
"This isn't his fault and it's not yours, either. Moriarty had a plan in place before we ever came to London tonight. I don't know if there was any way I could've avoided being part of it." That reminded him. He looked over at Mycroft. "I need to get back to the safe house. They must be worried sick."
"I've already let them know you're in my care," Mycroft said. "As soon as Lestrade told me he'd seen you with my brother in London I engaged a small army of Taskforce agents to keep you safe. Of course, by then you'd already been picked up by Moriarty's men."
"What are you going to tell them about… all this?" he waved a hand between them.
"Let me handle that."
"But they'll know, won't they? That scandal that you were worried about, won't it still…?"
"Without Moriarty fanning the flames? No. You won't be the first omega that's been bonded under less than ideal circumstances, that's all."
John blanched. "You mean this sort of thing happens a lot?"
"I hardly think it's quite like this," Mycroft sighed. "But alphas do generally take what they want. Especially alphas in positions of authority. Which is why, with the right pressure applied, it would be the perfect explosive scandal. Moriarty certainly knew what he was about. Now that we have bonded, it will be easy to hold it over my head for a long time."
John tried to digest that. "What happens now? Will I go back to the safe house?"
"If you like. It's not entirely appropriate now that you're bonded, but as we didn't have a bonding contract you may still want to work with your social care worker to at least work on a list of terms. It should go without saying that I'll grant any request you make. Either way, it's entirely up to you."
John eyed Sherlock's stiff posture and considered. "Could I go home with you?"
Mycroft didn't try to hide his surprise. "Yes, of course. I'm afraid I will be busy today, trying to get this situation under control –"
"He means cover it up," Sherlock put in, which John considered a good sign.
"That's all right. I need some time to get my head straight about it, anyway," John said honestly. "I'm just – I don't know that I want to be totally alone." He watched Sherlock try to decide how to take that. Eventually, his scowl seemed to lessen. Slightly. It wasn't much, but it was enough. For a start.