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Pandora

Chapter Text

"Welcome to Pandora. We hope you enjoy your stay. All passengers, please disembark the shuttlecraft and proceed to your left."

Byou followed the automated instructions without really registering the voice, the announcement fading into the background noise. He'd chosen the destination for the luxuries its reputation had promised, but one glance around showed a spaceport like any other, albeit less busy than he had expected. Though Pandora was a new resort, he'd already heard from a few other omegas that it was the place to go, especially for one with darker tastes like he had. He'd gotten a bit bored with the rather prim and proper way things were done in Central, and he'd been craving the wilder things that Pandora apparently offered, albeit in coded ways to get past the censors.

Can't have omegas having too much fun, Byou thought sarcastically, though he knew it was more because alphas needed rules and structure to keep them from getting carried away with omegas in heat. On some level he'd appreciated the security, but the rest of him had been craving the unpredictableness that less strict rules had. He'd gotten by with his connections to meet up with anonymous alphas who were willing to spice things up, but after a while that just wasn't enough to sate his urges. The fact was that submission to those alphas was temporary, and while it was fun for the duration of his heat, he wanted more.

Pandora had promised more, and he'd been intrigued enough to give it a try. While the ordinary spaceport didn't look promising, he still hoped he'd find something worth the expense of the trip all the way to the outer rim of settled space. Intent on weaving his way through the milling passengers, Byou missed seeing a couple officials notice him as he headed for one of the food dispensers near where the luggage was being unloaded. He made his selection and waited a few moments, tapping his foot impatiently.

"Please swipe your ID chip to complete the transaction," the mechanical voice said from the machine's speakers.

Beep.

"Your identification is invalid. Your transaction has been logged and will be reported. Please see the nearest Hub desk to verify your identification," the same voice reported a moment later.

"Fuck you, stupid broken machine." Byou refrained, just barely, from hitting the dispenser that refused to cooperate. He wasn't worried about the machine logging his invalid transaction, but it wouldn't do to loiter. Out on the Rim machines like that weren't connected to the central Hub, but apparently no one thought it necessary to reprogram the audio. Byou glared once more at the machine and then turned away with a sigh, figuring it was just being temperamental due to lack of maintenance since his ID chip should have worked. Or maybe the Rim worlds had a different system, though surely he'd have heard it on the news before he arrived.

"Excuse me, sir, your accommodations are ready. Please follow me."

Byou turned and blinked at the beta official, bemused. "I haven't even checked in yet."

"The passenger log, sir. We here at Pandora pride ourselves in efficiency, and everything has been taken care of for you. Your luggage is already en route to your suite. This way, please." The official gestured with the a fake smile plastered to his face and began to walk away without turning from Byou.

Though Byou was still confused he followed somewhat hesitantly, slightly irritated since he'd planned to just wander around for a while. This sort of service hadn't been in the brochure, but Pandora was said to go all out in pampering omegas and maybe this was part of it. It would have been nice to get a little warning though. Trailing behind the official, Byou glanced around idly and noted the other passengers, all omegas, had been paired off with other officials or had formed small groups and were headed elsewhere together.

The official paused before a sleek black hovercar and passed a data chip to the driver, and a moment later the passenger door slid open. Stepping into the vehicle at the official's motion, Byou settled into the seat gingerly as he noted the spotless interior. The door slid shut and the hovercar pulled away from the curb, and he sat back with a sigh and tried to relax despite a feeling of unease that he attributed to his unfamiliar surroundings. Deciding to figure out just where he was going since the driver was behind an opaque barrier, he tapped the panel on an armrest and swiped his wrist across it.

Access Denied.

Furrowing his brow, Byou frowned. First the food dispenser, and now he couldn't even access the local network? What the hell was going on? Just as he was reaching to press the intercom to ask the driver a headset emerged from the armrest, and he blinked for a moment before putting it on.

"Welcome to Pandora, the prime destination for omegas seeking a relaxing vacation. If this is your first time here, please listen to this short orientation video that will show you the delights we have to offer," a rather bland looking beta official said, a fake smile on his face.

Byou slouched a bit in his seat with a sigh and stared at the video display that had taken the place of the opaque barrier. The last thing he wanted was to sit through a boring vid-ad. However, just as he was about to tune out, the programmed announcement before the orientation caught his attention.

"As you may have noticed, your ID chips work differently here. All your needs will be seen to and there's nothing to worry about, so please don't be alarmed. All omegas are assigned to suites catered to personal tastes, based on the information provided us in the questionnaire that you filled out before purchasing a vacation package. A list of available alphas will be provided for you upon arrival at your suite for you to select from. Should you wish to change anything about your accommodations and services, please see a help desk."

Blinking slowly at the beta on the screen, Byou absorbed the information with a frown. He didn't like that his ID chip was basically non-functioning, but he supposed there must be a reason for it even if it was unusual. Beginning to suspect that more than just ID chips worked differently on Pandora, it occurred to him that the questionnaire had also been in code in certain parts. While he was pretty sure he'd answered those coded questions properly to convey what he wanted, there was a chance he'd missed something. Even so, while Pandora catered to darker tastes in a clandestine manner, it still had to abide by the laws and that meant he had an opt-out clause for anything he didn't like. Thus, even if he'd answered wrong on some of the options, he knew the fine print, which he had made sure to read thoroughly, guaranteed him the right to refuse.

Besides, the omegas he'd talked to about Pandora had all assured him they'd thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and he had to admit that the racy details of their trips were the primary reason he'd arranged his own trip. And so here he was, sitting through a vid-ad in the back of a fancy taxi, hopefully on his way to the best heat of his life, if the claims of the smiling beta on the screen weren't exaggerated. Thankfully, the taxi arrived just as the vid finished and Byou sighed in relief and a little anticipation as he slid out of the hovercar when the driver opened his door.

The sight that greeted Byou when he entered the building the driver ushered him into was one of lavish sensuality, and a closer look at the decor revealed blatantly erotic images. He quirked a faint smile at the irony of a brothel catering to omega customers before he was distracted by a painting depicting two omegas entwined together, both wearing collars with their leashes held by an alpha with a very nice body. His attention was brought back to the present by the sound of someone politely clearing his throat and he blushed faintly as he turned.

"Here's your room number, sir, and should you require anything else, please don't hesitate to call information," the beta said, handing Byou a plastic card with a number on it.

Byou noted that the card had an old-fashioned ID chip in the corner, which meant it functioned as a key to his room instead of having the room programmed to his own ID chip. He wasn't sure how he felt about that, but it was a minor annoyance and he merely gave the beta a dismissive nod before heading for the elevators. Anticipation coiled in his gut as the elevator climbed higher, and when it dinged and opened on his floor he swallowed once as he stepped out and oriented himself by the door numbers.

His room, 926, was a bit of a walk from the elevators, and it gave Byou a chance to take in the decor that made the lobby's artwork seem tame in comparison. Feeling a little dizzy by the time he stood in front of his door, Byou fumbled with the card key with sweaty hands as he tried to get ahold of himself. The cool air of the room helped clear his head when he managed to get the door open on the third try. However, the sight of the large bed through the open double doors of the bedroom had his blood rushing south again. He barely heard the door quietly click shut behind him as he gaped at the bed, his wide eyes taking in the honest-to-god straps and chains attached at intervals along its edges. It was both thrilling and slightly terrifying, and he wondered just how he'd manage to sleep comfortably on it. Not that he'd sleep much during the peak of his heat, but still.

The rest of the furniture had the same theme as the bed, and Byou stared at the cuffs attached to the corners of the dining table, of all places. A quick tour of his suite confirmed that it was indeed matched perfectly to his darker kinks, with each large piece of furniture designed for someone to be restrained onto it, and the walls and ceilings were decorated at intervals with hooks and o-rings. He stood in the middle of the parlor in a bit of awed disbelief as he looked around, a part of his mind protesting that some of the things in the suite looked downright illegal, if not definitely against Central's code of ethics. Which explained why it took knowing the right people and the coded language to even know that Pandora offered such things, he supposed.

In any case, to say that Byou was eager to try some of those dubiously legal delights would be an understatement. He was so distracted by his thoughts about which he wanted to try first and how that the soft ding of an incoming message startled him. Sinking into the plush couch in front of the large video display, he reached out with a hand that shook slightly to press a button on the coffee table console panel, and then sat back as the message began to play on the screen.

"Welcome, omega. If you have a safeword, please speak it at the tone so that it will be recorded into the suite's sensors, and for nonverbal cues, please type in whatever prearranged signals you prefer."

Byou blinked at the beta voice, caught off-guard by how the message got straight to the point, and the fact that the screen showed a generic hologram rather than a person. Clearing his throat, he spoke his safeword at the tone that followed a few seconds later, but blanked for a bit at what to key in for nonverbal signals. Selecting the option to decide later, he felt a flutter of fear-tinged excitement at the thought of being so helpless that he had to rely on body language.

"Here is a list of alphas that match your preferences. Please select at least one to attend your needs during your heat. If none are suitable, please fill out a more detailed questionnaire and we will attempt to find you a better match."

Byou's eyes widened as the screen changed to a detailed profile with a picture gallery of the first alpha. Unsurprisingly, the alpha was just his type in looks, and he spent a few moments going through the pictures and shamelessly leering at the ones where the alpha was wearing nearly nothing and posed sensually. Pausing when he got to the unclothed pictures, his mouth went dry and he stared for a few moments, his body reacting all on its own at the sight of the alpha's large, erect cock. Blinking a bit dizzily, he shook himself and shifted on the couch as he collected his wits and clicked to view the actual profile part. A bit disappointed when nothing really caught his eye on the alpha's profile, he moved on to the next in the list.

The second and third alphas were pretty much the same as the first, very attractive but otherwise unremarkable, and Byou was beginning to wonder whether he'd need to fill out the other questionnaire. Deciding to view the profiles first to speed it up, he skimmed through the next two and skipped the picture galleries. He frowned a bit and sighed when neither appealed to him, then navigated through the menu to see the list of names. Ten alphas total, and he'd already gone through half without feeling more than superficial arousal. Disgruntled, he wondered whether he had higher expectations than Pandora could easily cater to, or whether he'd filled out the compatibility questions wrong.

Byou checked the time and sighed again before getting up, glad that his heat wouldn't begin until the following day, as it gave him time to arrange things before he'd be in no capacity to make rational decisions. He'd arrived a day early on purpose since it had been included with his vacation package, which also had an extra day after his heat finished to recover. The extra days were standard even for regular resorts, though in this case he had a feeling he'd need it for more than just the usual soreness from being thoroughly fucked for five straight days. That is, if he found an alpha he was interested in.

While any of them would do to sate his physical needs, Byou had been hoping that one would stand out as someone who could offer more than just that. Pacing restlessly around the room for a few moments, he peeked in the fridge and snorted softly. Figured that they could easily supply his favorite foods, but the more complicated things were thus far disappointing. He eyed the nutritional supplements that took up an entire shelf, each bottle labeled with a day number and meal time for the alpha to feed him during his heat since he'd be incapable of feeding himself.

Just as Byou was about to reach for a drink the console dinged with another incoming message and he blinked as he glanced to it curiously, head tilted. Closing the fridge and returning to the couch, he accepted the message and frowned at the screen as it changed to the generic hologram again instead of a live video. He noted it was a call from another suite just as a very obviously alpha voice spoke.

"Hey, your profile caught my eye and I wanna meet you," the alpha said, his voice sending shivers down Byou's spine.

"Hey yourself, Mr. No-face. What if I've already chosen another?" Byou retorted, intrigued by the alpha's boldness but skeptical after the disappointment of the other alphas.

"You'll prefer me, so cancel it."

Byou couldn't help but laugh a bit at the alpha's arrogance, but instead of finding it a turn-off he leaned forward with a grin. "Oh, do tell how you know that, when you won't even show your face to me," he drawled, and a glance to the side of the screen showed the green dot that indicated alpha could see him.

"Because I know you want an alpha to make you submit and want it," the alpha said in a matter-of-fact tone, and Byou could swear he was smirking. "And not just that, but one who wants you. You want to be pursued, taken, ravished, and treated like a treasured pet."

Byou froze and blinked slowly at the hologram on the screen, his mind processing the alpha's words a few steps behind his body reacting to said words with an almost primal need. He swallowed after a few moments and shook himself, his expression going from dazed to slightly annoyed. "Don't fuck around with me then, show yourself. The decision is still mine."

The alpha chuckled indulgently and a few moments later the screen changed to a live feed, showing a half-naked man with tanned skin and a body that looked in prime physical shape, the muscles neither too defined nor too scrawny. As for the face, Byou confirmed the arrogant smirk as well as noticing the alpha was very attractive, more so even than the others he'd seen. The alpha was reclining casually on a couch similar to Byou's, and he could tell from the tent in the black track pants that he was quite ready to rut and well-endowed besides. Byou had to admit he was very interested, especially by the alpha's atypical accessories that included several facial piercings and a nipple ring, plus a lot of metal jewelry in his ears and long wavy black hair that reached past his shoulders.

"Like what you see, hmm?" the alpha said, his hand stroking his cock through his pants as he smirked. "I can provide a hands-on demonstration too."

Byou's mouth snapped shut and he sat back with his best attempt at an aloof expression. "My heat doesn't hit until tomorrow, and you're gonna have to offer more than that to get me interested," he said flatly, glad the alpha couldn't smell the lie in the last part of his statement over the vid feed. "Besides, isn't it like, against the rules to proposition me like this anyway?"

The alpha chuckled again, not sounding the least bit discouraged. "It is, technically, but there's a loophole for cases like yours."

"Cases like mine?" Byou raised a skeptical eyebrow and crossed his arms.

"Diva bitches," the alpha said bluntly with a wide grin, and it grew a notch at Byou's indignant snort. "You know what you want but you don't know how or want to have to ask for it, and that's where I come in. I can give you what you want."

"I'm pretty sure it says somewhere in my profile that I don't like arrogant assholes," Byou retorted, his pride stinging a bit at the truth in the alpha's words.

"It does, but I'm sure you've had a chance to see the other alphas here aren't adequate for you."

Still skeptical, Byou arched his eyebrow again at the alpha and shifted to slouch more. "Well, you've seen my profile, so send yours over and I'll think about it."

The alpha made a show of considering the demand and licked his lips, and Byou saw a brief glimpse of a tongue piercing, which made him wonder where else the guy was pierced. "You know, I could just make my claim on you, but even though I suspect you'd like that, I'll indulge you." The alpha leaned forward and pressed a few buttons on his console, his confident smirk unwavering.

While a part of Byou bristled at the alpha's continued arrogance, the rest of him was sending signals that contradicted his disgruntled ego, so he settled for a glower until his console dinged as it received the profile. Pulling it up onto the smaller console screen, he skimmed the text and his gaze halted abruptly as the words registered on the kink section. "Clearly, you didn't need to exaggerate your personality or charm," he drawled to cover his reaction to what he'd read. This alpha, Aki, was looking for a damn mate if he was reading the clues correctly, and at the very least he was a Traditionalist, which both excited and scared Byou. While he was looking for something more than a one-time fling, the mating tradition had died out well over a century ago, and it was a rather permanent relationship.

"Seriously though, I'll give you time to think it over, but I want to meet you face to face before your heat hits so we can talk," Aki said, and his change in tone had Byou looking up in surprise. They stared at each other for a few moments before Byou found himself nodding slowly.

"Okay, I'll think about it," Byou murmured, a bit stunned as he processed everything. When the screen went blank he sat back and blinked in a daze, part of him wondering if this were too good to be true and the rest of him wanting to jump at the chance. A mating was still a bit too permanent for someone he'd just met no matter how interested he was physically and otherwise, but Aki had certainly gotten his attention in all the right ways.

Getting up to pace restlessly for a bit, Byou headed for the fridge and fetched the drink he had wanted before Aki's call, and then returned to the couch and sipped the citrus concoction as he paged through the alpha's detailed profile. What he read intrigued him, and the coded words definitely supported the Traditionalist theory which sparked his curiosity, as that type of alpha was unheard of in the Hub since their beliefs about omegas were quite the opposite of the more equality-minded progressives. It certainly explained the overwhelming arrogance, but yet his gut told him that Aki wouldn't treat him badly. Something about the alpha's change in demeanor after sending his profile was reassuring, and he suspected the arrogance was more for show even if the underlying confidence wasn't an act.

When he realized he was rereading Aki's profile for the fourth time, Byou stopped and took a deep breath to steady himself, feeling nervous and yet excited. He took a few moments to collect his wits before he called Aki back and waited, and when the alpha appeared on the screen again he rubbed his palms on his thighs as his mind blanked for a moment. "I'm willing to talk," he managed to say, his voice reasonably steady.

Aki smiled without his usual smugness and nodded slowly. "Take a shower and I'll be over in about fifteen minutes," he said, and waited for Byou to nod in acknowledgment before leaning forward to end the call.

"Wait!" Byou blurted, and then fumbled for a moment as Aki paused and gave him a curious, patient look. "Are you a Traditionalist? And why a shower?"

Surprise flitted briefly across Aki's face before it was replaced with faint amusement. "The first question requires a complicated explanation, but as for the second, it's because it'll help clear your head and keep your scent from being overly distracting," he said and then gave Byou another serious look. "I won't touch you without your leave."

Byou sucked in a breath and nodded slowly, his belly fluttering with butterflies at the thought of merely meeting the alpha. "Fifteen minutes, see you then," he said, and then ended the call before Aki did, wanting to grab a little control while he still could. Managing not to trip over his own feet as he got up and headed for the bathroom, he rushed through a cold shower and dried off as fast as he could. The doorbell dinged just as he was slipping into some loose pants, and he tugged on a shirt before hurrying to open the door, his palms already sweaty again. The alpha's scent hit him almost at the same moment as his reached Aki's nose and they both stood frozen for a few moments.

Aki recovered first and visibly restrained his reaction, though his gaze remained fixed on Byou with almost unnerving intensity. "Step back and to the right two paces," he said in a calm tone, and when Byou responded obediently he stepped across the threshold and let the door shut behind him. "I think your heat might come a little early," he murmured, and then turned to the left and headed to the kitchen area to fetch something.

Byou watched Aki mutely, almost afraid to approach given how powerful his reaction had been to the alpha's proximity just from answering the door. Suspecting Aki's guess was right about his heat, he blinked and reflexively caught the beverage the alpha tossed at him and glanced at the label. It was a very fragrant drink that helped omegas to think clearly, functioning as a temporary arousal-blocker.

"Okay, first thing's first, go sit in that chair over there and drink that while I sit here," Aki said, pointing to the chair in the corner and establishing a wide safety zone between them. Once they were both sitting, he tilted his head at Byou and took a sniff of the air. "To answer your first question, the simple answer is yes, but a more accurate answer is that the few of us who practice the old ways have made some modern adjustments to the rules. We don't tend to advertise ourselves, for obvious reasons, and we live mostly on the outer Rim."

"Are you looking for a mate, then?" Byou asked bluntly, sipping the drink as he stared at Aki.

Aki was silent for a few moments, considering his words. "That's one of the rules we adjusted, so you need not worry, though your profile caught my eye because you were seeking more than just a fling."

"Did you proposition me because you think I'd be a compatible mate, yes or no?" Byou asked, crossing one arm over his chest as he continued sipping the drink.

Aki sighed and quirked a half smile as he shrugged and then nodded. "Yes, I was hoping you might be interested, but I don't expect you to decide right away, to say the least."

"Yeah, well, a permanent arrangement involving kids is kind of a deal-breaker for me at this time," Byou deadpanned. "Besides, Central's pretty thorough about ensuring omegas can't get knocked up."

Aki arched an eyebrow and gave the air another pointed sniff. "Either Central's developed a new method of contraception that can't be detected by smell, or the alphas you've been with up until now have all been sterile."

Byou froze and stared at Aki for a few moments, absorbing the implications and paling a bit. "You mean to tell me you can smell that I'm fertile even before my heat's hit?"

"Yes, it's something all alphas can smell when an omega's near or in their heat, but most don't know enough anymore to identify that smell for what it is," Aki said slowly, frowning. "Most omegas that come here aren't fertile, but you are, and I'm guessing you're not knowingly taking any other form of contraception. Few of us who are born and raised on the Rim have had the sterilizing procedure, and especially among the Traditionalists it's almost unheard of."

"So you're saying that you would get me pregnant if we..." Byou trailed off at Aki's serious nod and gulped, his interest in the alpha now tinged by risks he'd never considered before. He shook his head slowly as he absorbed the fact that he had somehow slipped through the cracks in Central's usually thorough contraception requirements for every alpha and omega citizen. It was such an accepted fact that everyone was sterilized at the onset of puberty, and he'd never even given it a thought. The procedure wasn't permanent anyway, though it took a lot of effort and expense, not to mention rigorous testing and regulations to get a child license, and most omegas didn't bother, leaving the childbearing and raising to the betas instead.

"Pandora can provide you with temporary contraception, since I'm not about to risk giving you a kid you don't want," Aki said, tilting his head as he gave Byou a considering look. "I'm guessing your heats have been more intense than other omegas?"

Grasping at the one thing he could answer right away, Byou nodded a bit shakily. "Yeah, I mean I did wonder, but I never thought I wasn't sterilized..."

"I can understand if you'd rather choose another alpha for your heat considering the circumstances," Aki said, albeit with reluctance.

"Well, the contraception works, right? So there's no risk of getting a souvenir from you," Byou quipped, and then took a steadying breath before he finished off the drink. "It does change things, but if you're not expecting me to like, move in with you after, I'm fine with it."

"No, there are no strings attached if you accept me for your heat," Aki said seriously. "Though if you're sure you accept me, it's best to take the contraceptive right away." Waiting for Byou's nod, Aki then got up and went over to the suite's comm and keyed in a few commands. Returning to Byou but keeping a distance of a couple paces, he tapped a button on the coffee table console. "Do you accept me as your alpha for the duration of your heat?" he asked, pinning Byou with a serious look.

Though he was still reeling just a bit from everything, Byou took a deep breath and rose to his feet. "I accept you as my alpha for the duration of my heat," he replied, and glanced to the console as it beeped acknowledgment of the verbal contract. Swallowing as he realized he wasn't quite sure just what he'd agreed to, he had to admit that the unknown factor gave it the thrill he'd been craving. Still, he remembered the safeword was his opt-out, but he doubted he'd need to use it. A different console dinged a few moments later, and Byou watched as Aki fetched a packet from a wall panel and handed it to him.

"Now is the time to set any limits you may have," Aki said, once again moving a few paces away.

"Um, no gagging me, and no heavy restraints?" Byou replied, feeling nervous again as he fumbled with the packet. "And uh, avoid drawing blood or bruising, if possible."

"If possible," Aki echoed, a grin twitching at his lips. "Go get yourself ready in the bathroom and come out when you're done, naked," he ordered, his arrogant smirk returning at Byou's startled look. "Or I could strip you if you'd prefer."

"Bathroom, right, going now," Byou murmured with wide eyes as he clutched the packet and retreated to the bathroom, casting a brief look over his shoulder at Aki before shutting the door. Forcing himself to focus on the task at hand, he collected his scattered wits and read the instructions on the packet, but it took a few attempts before he understood what to do with the contraceptive.

It didn't help Byou's concentration at all to realize he was feeling the first signals of heat despite the drink Aki had given him earlier, and he cursed as he reread the instructions carefully. The last thing he wanted was to use it incorrectly and end up with a kid. Taking out the first pill, he double checked and then swallowed it with a sip of water from the sink. That done, he dithered for a bit and stalled, fidgeting with the remaining pills and hoping Aki remembered to administer them on time.

Deciding to meet Aki's challenge halfway, Byou shed his shirt but kept his pants on in a minor act of defiance and then hesitated at the door. Wiping his sweaty palms on his thighs, he took a steadying breath and opened the door... to find Aki waiting for him just two steps away with a thick leather collar in his hands. Swallowing hard as he stared at the collar, he didn't dare raise his gaze and sank to his knees before he fully registered the command to do so. He shivered at Aki's touch as the alpha fastened the collar around his neck, and only then did he lift his head to give him a timidly searching look.

"As of now you are mine, and you will depend on me for everything, and in turn I will care for you," Aki said slowly, caressing Byou's cheek with one hand while the other took a gentle but firm grip on the omega's hair.

Chapter Text

Tipping Byou's head back, Aki stared intently for a moment and licked his lips as if deciding how to proceed. With a tug, he drew Byou to his feet and walked backwards and to the bed. Sitting on it, he tugged Byou onto his lap and smiled at the expectant curiosity on the omega's face. "Should I take the fact you didn't remove your pants as a sign of defiance?" he murmured, his voice a low purr.

Byou swallowed and shivered faintly as goosebumps appeared on his exposed skin. "If you'd like to," he responded, his own voice husky as he gazed at Aki with a cautious challenge in his eyes.

Aki made a soft, amused sound. "Now is a good time to establish my rules and expectations with you," he murmured, his fingertips trailing up Byou's sides and causing the omega to shiver. "First, actual punishment will be a last resort, as I prefer guidance over being punitive. Second--"

"Should you write these down?" Byou interrupted with a cheeky grin. He squeaked as he found himself abruptly pinned to the bed on his back, and he blinked up at Aki as he fought to not giggle at the alpha's amused expression.

"Second, don't interrupt me, you little brat," Aki said playfully. "I will keep you restrained if I have to, and I know exactly how to train you."

"Is that a threat or a promise?" Byou asked softly, his eyes somewhat glassy as Aki's weight pressed down on him.

"Both, you imp. Now let me finish, or I won't allow you to get off at all until tomorrow."

"But--"

Aki cut Byou off with a kiss and rolled his hips against the omega's, his groan mingling with Byou's husky gasp. Pulling back after a few moments, he allowed Byou a respite to collect his wits before he continued. "Third, I will know the difference between you disobeying me deliberately or involuntarily, so don't test me." He flashed a grin at Byou's pout and kissed it.

"Anything else?"

Aki hummed thoughtfully and rolled his hips again, a smirk twitching his lips at Byou's hiss. "I expect you to obey any orders I give you immediately, and I don't make idle threats."

"You're not very strict," Byou murmured, unsure whether to be disappointed or not.

"Not unless I have to be, no," Aki replied, releasing Byou's wrists to shift and settle more comfortably between the omega's spread legs. "Neither of us wants a Master and slave arrangement, and boundaries are important."

Nodding slowly, Byou relaxed. While he was somewhat disappointed without strict rules to test, it was comforting in a way to know that Aki wasn't looking to punish him for behaving naturally. "Not many know the difference between submissive and slave," he murmured, giving Aki a curious look.

"It's what caught my attention on your profile," Aki replied, lightly caressing Byou's sides and belly and watching the omega's face.

"You know, being all touchy like that is getting distracting. How about more with the touching, less with the talking?" Byou grinned cheekily and arched up with a purr at Aki's chuckle.

"I suppose I can indulge you." Aki bent his head to nuzzle Byou's neck, scenting the omega and smirking as he heard the husky moan. Nipping lightly, he trailed his hands down to cup Byou's ass and then hooked his fingers in the waistband of the omega's pants. With a tug and some shifting the pants and underwear slid off to be tossed aside, and Byou's socks followed momentarily.

Rather than let go of Byou's legs, Aki raised one and gave the omega a devious look before he nipped the calf and lightly trailed his tongue from ankle to behind the knee. About halfway through that action he had to use his other hand to push Byou's other leg back down, and he flashed a grin at the omega's whimper. "Let's see how well you follow directions, pet," he said, giving Byou's lower thigh a squeeze. "Hands above your head, grip the headboard, and don't move."

Byou gave Aki an almost mutinous glare for a moment before he obeyed, slipping his fingers through the iron lattice until he got a good grip. He gritted his teeth as he resisted the urge to do what he wanted instead, which was pounce the alpha and get on with the humping, among other things. His heat wasn't yet at the point of mindlessness, but Byou could feel himself slipping away with each teasing touch and caress, not to mention Aki's smell was getting stronger as their bodies reacted to each other.

"Patience will be rewarded, imp," Aki purred with a grin as he resumed his teasing licks on Byou's raised leg.

"Is there a--" Byou paused to gasp softly at a bite to the back of his knee, and shivered before he continued, "difference between 'directions' and 'orders'?" He thought his voice was remarkably steady, considering.

"I thought you wanted less talking," Aki replied with a smirk. "But yes, there's a difference." Nibbling his way down Byou's raised thigh, he shifted position and paused for a moment to release the omega's other leg. His pants were tugged off and kicked away and then he held Byou's legs spread apart. "Stay still," he said, and then pulled off his shirt but immediately grasped Byou's legs again when the omega moved. "That, pet, was an order," he murmured, his words carrying a warning edge as he pressed Byou's legs down.

Whining in the back of his throat, Byou pouted as he shifted his grip on the headboard, his hands sweaty. "But what's the difference?" he asked plaintively, not wanting to make Aki draw out the teasing torture more. His gaze fixed on the large bulge in Aki's tight underwear, frustrated.

Aki noted the glassy look in Byou's eyes and relented, slightly, by loosening his grip. "You'll learn in time," he said and smirked at Byou's frustrated sound with its accompanying pout. "And you'll enjoy the learning as well." Leaning in to kiss away the pout, Aki stretched out over Byou and grinned when the omega arched up. "Do I have to restrain you so soon?" he asked, taking a firm grip on Byou's wrists.

"Ye--nnnnnoooo," Byou responded with a breathy moan, his wits almost completely frazzled by then but retaining just enough sense to know he didn't want to be restrained. Aki's laughter barely registered as he tried in vain not to squirm. "Please?" he tried as his wrists were pinned on the pillow above his head. He didn't mind that, not even when Aki transferred the grip to one hand because the other slipped between his legs and stroked the spot just behind his cock. On some level he knew that Aki knew he couldn't help his reaction, but he still gave the alpha a pleading look as he writhed helplessly.

"Not yet, my pet," Aki murmured, withdrawing his hand and licking his fingers slowly as he smirked.

"Fucking cocktease," Byou muttered unthinkingly, and then widened his eyes with a gasp when Aki suddenly clamped down on his neck above his collar, instinct making him freeze even as he noted the bite wasn't hard and merely a warning. An effective warning. His breaths came shallow and fast even after Aki pulled back, and he blinked at the alpha with a dazed look, his brain not quite grasping what had happened or why his body felt like putty. He whined but didn't dare move when Aki withdrew, though he was relieved to note the alpha didn't look mad.

"Good pet," Aki murmured, his hands caressing Byou's spread thighs in approval as the omega remained still. "I'm making you wait because I want the pill to have a chance to work, and for your heat to set in," he explained, one finger pressing lightly against Byou's parted lips. "You'll be glad for my self-control, pet, and if it's any consolation, you're not the only one suffering."

Byou snorted softly at that and flicked his gaze down to Aki's erection, then glanced up as he quite deliberately licked the alpha's finger suggestively. "I'm ready for you, for your cock, in me right now," he said in an almost growl, a pleading note in his tone. He smirked slightly as he was rewarded with a shudder from Aki, and he watched as the alpha closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Please," he tried again, sucking on Aki's fingertip until the alpha withdrew it with a low growl.

"You wanton slut," Aki growled, his eyes dark and hooded as he visibly reined himself in and licked his lips. "If you can stay still, absolutely still, for the next five minutes--" he paused at Byou's whimper and softened his voice, "then I'll make you come so many times tonight you won't be able to walk."

Byou gripped the headboard lattice tightly as he tried to restrain a full-body shudder. "You. Are. Cruel," he gritted out, hoping that the rules for 'absolutely still' weren't entirely unreasonable.

"And you're an impish, diva bitch, I think we're even," Aki drawled with a wide smirk. "Not disappointed anymore, I hope?" he asked lightly as he slipped off the bed in a graceful move, his gaze unwavering from Byou. He chuckled approvingly at Byou's stony glare, then moved the the clock on the nightstand and angled it so the omega could see its face. "No talking, and no moving from that position, for the next five minutes, starting now," he said, tapping the clock to set the timer.

Vowing his revenge silently, Byou kept his mouth shut as he stared at the seconds counting down, but he couldn't help darting a few glances at Aki to see what the alpha was doing. He got to four minutes and twenty five seconds when Aki moved out of range and he swallowed a whimper, a muscle in his jaw twitching as he gritted his teeth. No closer to understanding why Aki was putting him through this torture, he suspected it must be his form of punishment, and he caught himself thinking corporal punishment was preferable. Infinitely. He began to sweat at three minutes and forty seconds, his muscles tense and straining with the effort to hold still, and the faint sounds Aki made as the alpha moved about offered nothing save for the knowledge that the other hadn't left the suite.

Just as Byou was contemplating moving, Aki's voice called out. "Alphas have excellent hearing, Byou, so don't think I won't hear your every twitch, involuntary or otherwise."

Fuck you, asshole, Byou thought mutinously, but he abandoned the idea of moving even to scratch the maddening itch he had on his left knee. Speaking of maddening, the timer read only two minutes and twenty nine seconds, and he watched the numbers go down steadily if just to have something to focus on instead of his growing arousal. At forty seconds remaining Aki came within sight range again with his hands held behind him, still wearing his underwear and still just as hard. Byou fixed him with a scowl that grew in intensity at the alpha's amused smirk.

"Patience, pet, it'll be worth it even if you hate me right now, and even if this is mild compared to what I'll do with you in the next five days," he said in a husky tone, licking his lips suggestively just to see Byou twitch.

Flicking his gaze between Aki and the clock once again, Byou vowed to attack the alpha the instant the timer hit zero, but his plan was thwarted with seconds to spare. Aki had bent down to drop whatever he was holding out of sight at the fifteen second mark, and then climbed onto the bed. Byou's senses went haywire as the alpha's scent hit him full on, and he made an entirely involuntary mewl as he strained to remain still. Using his last shreds of control, he just barely managed not to move when Aki stretched out over him, his grip white-knuckled on the lattice.

The buzzer sounded and before Byou could even blink Aki thrust in hard, and stars exploded in his vision as he released a strangled yelp as his body jerked and shuddered. Making incoherent sounds as Aki wasted no time in establishing a hard and fast rhythm, he squeezed his eyes shut as his senses tumbled between pleasure and pain, too overwhelmed to even remember he could let go of the lattice. His first orgasm hit within moments and he rode it out as Aki pounded into him, the growing knot at the base of the alpha's cock making each deep thrust even more intense. Vaguely aware of Aki pausing to reposition his legs, he whimpered as he curled beneath the other and moaned as his grip loosened more on the lattice with each hard thrust.

Byou's second orgasm caught him by surprise after one particularly deep thrust, and he tossed his head back with a shout as Aki gripped his hips hard enough to bruise. By the third he was sweating profusely and making incoherent babbling sounds, his arms locked around Aki's shoulders and his legs clenched around the alpha's hips. Somewhere in his mind Byou realized he had never had so many orgasms in succession before from one rutting, but the rest of him was far too dazed to keep count after the third. By the time the knot was too large to allow much movement Byou was utterly limp and panting harshly beneath Aki, his movements entirely involuntary.

Rousing somewhat when Aki finally orgasmed, Byou shivered and mewled as the alpha filled him, and he could swear he felt his womb actually twitch. Rather than the thought sobering him into hoping the contraceptive worked, he envisioned a child that shared his and Aki's features. Knowing it was the heat hormones affecting him as his wits gradually returned, Byou was glad he'd taken the pill beforehand.

"Hmm, only ten," Aki murmured with a slight frown as he sat up and arranged Byou on his lap, his knot still buried in the omega for the next half hour or so.

"Ten wha--oh." Byou blinked and then gave a disbelieving huff that turned into a brief giggle. "You... are insufferable," he muttered with a roll of his eyes, but he was smiling. He'd just barely avoided saying 'unbelievable' since he didn't want to give the alpha's ego too much of a boost.

"So, was it worth the wait, pet?"

Byou scrunched up his face and managed a half-hearted glare. "I suppose it was, but I might need a repeat demonstration," he muttered, the last word hitching when Aki flexed inside him and hit a very sweet spot that made his vision sparkle. "Starting with doing that again," he managed after a moment to catch his breath, blinking dazedly and then grinning when Aki complied.

"With the waiting beforehand?" Aki asked with a teasing grin.

"Nnnoooo, you cockteasing asshole, not that," Byou growled with a glare that could incinerate. "That was cruel and unusual punishment and should be illegal."

Aki full on laughed as he drew Byou's legs snugly around his hips, and Byou spared a thought about how nice the alpha's smile and laugh was. He was only vaguely annoyed at the fact Aki was usually laughing at him or something he'd done or said. And it didn't matter at all that his omega hormones were probably responsible for his answering grin or the thrill that settled in his gut.

"If that was so terrible, then perhaps I should cancel my plans to blindfold you so wouldn't be able to know when or where I'd touch you," Aki murmured in a husky voice as he leaned down to nip at Byou's chest. He grinned at Byou's shiver and continued, punctuating every few words with a lick or nibble, "And I'd tie you up so you couldn't move, and make you orgasm so much that you'd be covered in your come and dripping wet."

Byou groaned and closed his eyes as he licked his lips, Aki's words making his cock twitch despite how spent he was, at least for now. "I bet I can still walk though, so you got more work to do," he finally said once he could form words, though his voice was shaky since Aki hadn't stopped licking and biting and was now concentrating on his sensitized nipples.

"Oh, don't worry, you're not leaving this bed again tonight unless it's to use the bathroom," Aki murmured, breathing on Byou's wet nipples and causing the omega to clench around him.

"Then how--" Byou paused to gasp as Aki bit down harder on one nipple, "will I know you've fulfilled your end of the bargain?"

"Good point. I'll make sure to haul you up and test you before I let you pass out," Aki said with a wide grin before biting down on the other nipple and making Byou almost yelp.

Byou was just about to make some sort of attempt at a coherent reply when a chime sounded and he blinked and glanced over to the bed console. "Feeding time? What--oh," he said, blinking again in bemusement as Aki leaned over and pressed a button on the console. When an automated cart rolled in a few moments later from the other room, he tilted his head and then let out a giggle that became a full laugh at Aki's look of confusion, and he gestured lewdly to where they were still joined. "So is that what you were doing while making me wait? Setting up the snack cart?" he asked, still giggling softly.

"Yes, among other things," Aki replied, his lips twitching into a smile of his own, though he was still clearly mystified about why Byou found it so funny.

"It's just--I can't--this place thinks of everything, eh?" Byou said, trying and largely failing to stop his chuckles.

"Indeed it does," Aki replied blandly as he shifted over and reached for Byou's nutritional supplement and opened it, slipping its straw in. "You're cute, now drink up."

"Cute?!" Byou feigned indignation even as he accepted the drink and sat up to sip it cautiously. "Hey, this stuff is good! Usually tastes like shit."

Reaching behind Byou to arrange the pillows, Aki gave a shrug. "Pandora's a high-class resort, they don't buy the cheap stuff."

"Thank goodness for that. I can barely choke the cheap crap down, even during my peak." Byou relaxed against the pillows and sipped almost daintily from the straw. He smirked slightly as Aki took a damp towel from the cart and began to clean them off, noting that ten orgasms worth of come took a lot of wiping, and also saw that some had inevitably ended up on the sheets. His smirk grew a few notches when he clenched his inner muscles around Aki's cock and succeeded in making the alpha jump slightly in surprise and shoot him a knowing look.

"You minx, feel free to keep that up and we can start round two sooner rather than later," Aki said, poking Byou lightly in the nose with a grin.

Byou's half-hearted attempt to nip Aki's finger failed, but he only pulled a face rather than sit up. "And here I thought you liked distracting me with conversation," he said, pointedly giving Aki's cock another squeeze as he sipped his drink. "What other things?"

Aki's smile was secretive and he offered a shrug. "You'll see, probably tomorrow."

Byou pouted with a snort. "Will I at least get to see whatever you dropped beside the bed? Without making you move with me so I can see it?"

Aki blinked and gave Byou a warning look, though he was clearly trying not to smirk. "You'll find out, later, when I'm ready to show you and not before." He merely grinned at Byou's big pout and shook his head. "As cute as that is, it's not going to work on me, pet."

"Jerk," Byou huffed, pouting for another moment before he took another sip of his drink. "My pouts always work eventually, you'll see."

"I'm sure, but not this time," Aki murmured with an indulgent chuckle and poked Byou's right cheek gently. "Your dimple is more effective if you must know, though that requires the opposite of a pout."

Byou blinked and would have blushed if his blood flow wasn't otherwise occupied elsewhere. "Remind me to reward you sparingly with that, then." He pulled a childish face for good measure. "Jerk."

"Is 'jerk' the best you can do? I think 'cockteasing asshole' has a better ring to it," Aki quipped with an experimental thrust that made Byou drop the nearly empty drink bottle with a groan. Retrieving it and holding it so the omega could finish it, he then set it back on the cart.

"You are many things, including a pain in my ass, literally," Byou retorted as he playfully scrunched up his nose.

"Quite. You might need to add an extra day to recover from me, even," Aki said with a smirk.

Byou rolled his eyes dramatically. "You and your insufferable ego. I almost can't wait until I'm too out of it to care about conversation beyond variants of rutting positions and related subjects," he muttered, even as his lips twitched with restrained amusement.

"Oh, now I'm insulted, might have to make you wait ten minutes next time," Aki retorted with a playful growl as he pinned Byou down.

"Oh, don't you fucking dare--"

"And I'll definitely find better uses for that mouth of yours," Aki added before kissing Byou aggressively. When they parted several long moments later they were both breathless, and Aki was visibly much less coherent as he scented Byou's neck.

Byou, for his part, was even more out of it as he turned his head and offered his neck with a keening whimper, and yet he still jumped slightly as Aki latched on. The bite this time was harder, but still not enough to leave a lasting mark, and Byou fought with conflicting urges as some sense returned to his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he waited for a few seconds and when Aki showed no sign of releasing him, he grimaced and nudged the alpha.

"Aki?" he asked softly. No response. Byou licked his lips and tried again, careful to not clench around the alpha's cock currently swelling inside him again. "Aki, please, let go." He flinched visibly when Aki bit just a fraction harder, and his pulse sped up as his muscles flexed involuntarily. "Really, Aki, let go! Please," he said, wincing as his voice cracked, and he sagged with relief when Aki finally seemed to snap out of it and pull back.

"Shit, fuck, sorry," Aki mumbled, shaking himself and blinking as he realized what he had almost done. He took a few moments to collect his wits and then checked Byou's neck, touching the red teeth marks. "Didn't break the skin, you okay?"

Byou took a shaky breath and slowly nodded before blinking up at Aki, his pupils dilated but his gaze focused. "Other than my insides doing some sort of tango that feels really good, yeah, I'm fine," he quipped, forcing a laugh that faltered at Aki's look of serious concern. "Really though, let's not do that again, okay?"

"Right, maybe I should've opted for a bigger collar," Aki murmured, pressing his forehead against Byou's for a moment as he took another deep breath. "Your smell, it's--"

"I can imagine, you smell really good yourself, but I'd rather we not go down the path of mate-bites any time soon," Byou said, noting his voice was marginally steadier. "I'm not sure I'll be able to remember the safeword if it happens again," he added seriously, swallowing hard.

Aki nodded and seemed to pull himself together. "Yeah, okay, bigger collar." Pushing himself up, he gave Byou a questioning look and at the omega's nod he began to gently and slowly disengage, mindful of the fact his knot was still large enough to cause discomfort. Apologizing at Byou's grimace, he gave the omega a few chaste kisses as he slipped out with a slight tug and then grabbed a towel and slipped it beneath Byou's hips before the bed got soaked.

Clamping the towel between his legs, Byou watched as Aki got up and fetched a larger collar from a shelf on the opposite wall. The view was nice, and he noted absently that Aki had a tattoo on his lower back of what looked to be two butterflies. He recognized the design of the collar Aki selected as a very old-fashioned one once worn by mated omegas, as it completely covered the neck from the collarbones to just above the voicebox. While he disliked it on principle for what it represented, as it was explicitly a traditional symbol of ownership, he couldn't deny its practicality in preventing mate-bites. Sitting up a bit so Aki could remove the original collar and then fasten the new one on, he kept his gaze on the alpha and tried to restrain his impulsive urge to say it wasn't needed.

"I'm sure it's not the most comfortable thing to wear, but..." Aki paused as he fingered the lock on the back of the wide collar, "better than me losing control. And I'm sorry for that again."

"It-it's okay, you were able to stop and you didn't break skin, and I think my insides have stopped that weird dance so you can get back in me, now please," Byou murmured, his words coming out in a bit of a rush partly from nerves and partly from his heat reasserting itself. He couldn't help but notice that Aki had a piercing on his cock, and he stared for a moment in fascination at the relatively small bar that went through the tip on the underside.

Chuckling softly as he set the other collar on the nightstand, Aki climbed onto the bed again and stretched over Byou with more restraint than before. He spent a moment or two arranging Byou's hair and then gazing at the collar with a considering look. "It's missing the symbol," he murmured absently, touching the empty place above where the hollow of Byou's throat was.

"Yes, well, you don't own me so of course there's no symbol there," Byou said, his tone slightly irritated. It was not because his belly did a weird flip-flop of desire at the thought of Aki's symbol on the collar, it was just because he wanted the alpha inside him again and didn't like this delay. Right, sure. "Get on with round two of rutting, any time now, or I'll keep talking until you shut me--mmph."

As kisses were safe, Aki did just that even as he laughed softly and positioned himself. Just to be a tease, he slid in slowly, inch by inch, until Byou pulled him in and he sank in deeper with a low growling groan. "Patience," he murmured with a shuddery chuckle, "is definitely not a virtue you possess."

"You think? How long did it take you to fig--" Byou was effectively cut off once again by Aki's kiss, this time more aggressive and demanding, and he quite happily let the alpha have his way as he relaxed. He only flinched a bit when Aki's knot pushed all the way in, as it felt far too good for momentary pain to deter him. This time Aki went slower, establishing a firm rhythm but not trying to rut Byou into the mattress, partly because his knot didn't allow much in the way of thrusting.

By the time Aki collapsed on Byou, spent, neither of them cared about the sticky mess between them as they caught their breath and nuzzled contentedly. The collar impeded some of that but they made do, and it took Byou several minutes to remember how to form words, let alone complete sentences.

"You know, I hope you didn't lock this thing on because it's really not made for sleeping in," Byou murmured, nudging Aki.

"I didn't, don't worry," Aki said quietly with a faint smile. "Though it really does suit you, especially with your fancy earrings," he added with a playful grin.

"Hmph, don't go getting any ideas in that alpha lizard brain about owning me," Byou retorted, pulling a face.

"I have no interest in owning you, my impish pet, I would just like to see you wear my symbol." Aki's look was all innocence.

"Uh huh, sure, and the difference is what, exactly?" Byou drawled, a smile twitching his lips.

Aki paused as if seriously considering the question, his brow furrowing. "I have no idea, but there is a difference."

Byou made a sound somewhere between a snort and a giggle. "Maybe I'll indulge you, after say, another fifty mind-blowing orgasms, at least, maybe," he offered with a wide grin.

"That can certainly be arranged, oh demanding one." Aki didn't put much effort into pretending exasperation; his amusement was far too clear.

"You forgot impatient and insatiable, though I suppose the last one's a given in my condition."

"I have a hunch that all three apply regardless of your condition."

"Oh, do you, now? Just you wait, revenge is sweet when served at the least expected moment."

"I will keep you tied up, just keep testing me."

"Scared, are you? Good."

Aki didn't even bother with a retort, he just went the quick and dirty route of tickling. Byou's shriek was reward enough, and his squirming effectively distracted them both from getting carried away. In any case, it did allow Aki to pin Byou to the bed and kiss him until they were both dizzy.

"That. Was not. Fair," Byou gasped out, making a passable attempt at a glare as he huffed.

"Dimples aren't fair either, brat," Aki muttered as he shifted to settle more comfortably on top of Byou.

"You and your underhanded, dirty tricks, you jerk."

"Your insults are ever so cutting, imp." Aki gave Byou a kiss on the nose. "I suspected you had an ulterior motive for not letting me gag you."

"Yeah, well, uh, my cognitive functions are rather impaired, and you're hardly helping."

"You sure? You're still managing more than monosyllables, so I'm not being all that unhelpful yet." Aki paused at the face Byou made and tilted his head. "What is it, pet?" he asked gently, releasing one of Byou's wrists to caress the omega's cheek.

Byou hesitated and chewed on his lip for a few moments before giving Aki a coy look. "I kind of hate going all into mindless rutting machine mode and forgetting who I am, even my own name," he said quietly and winced. "Sorry, didn't want to get all serious, but I kind of wish I could hold off on the part where I can't think about anything but fucking."

Aki smiled softly in understanding and gave Byou a gentle, chaste kiss on the lips. "I'll remember who you are for you, and I'll see you through this and be there with you after, okay? I'm not going to just fuck you senseless and leave like all I'm here for is a five-day rut," he said softly and kissed Byou again as the omega blinked back tears. "Even if your mouth drives me nuts, you're a very interesting conversationalist, and I mean that in the best way possible, I swear."

Byou choked out a giggle at that and reached up to hug Aki tightly for a few moments. "Promise?" he mumbled, his face pressed against Aki's chest.

"Promise."

Chapter Text

Patience, he'd said, would be rewarded well.

Byou didn't even know how long ago Aki had said that, but he was beginning to hate that word with a fiery passion. While the promised reward had always been worth it, the frustration was sure to drive him to distraction. He was currently blindfolded and suspended face up about a foot and a half above the bed, his legs spread and his arms and knees raised and cuffed to the lengths of chain holding him up, and his head supported by another strap. The contraption was comfortable due to the padded leather straps beneath his shoulders and hips, but he'd be far more comfortable, and reassured, by the touch of his alpha. The alpha who was currently elsewhere and not here with him.

Damn him.

Byou was beginning to feel a bit neglected. His urge to complain and demand warred with a nagging sense of anxiety that Aki had left him there all alone. He heard faint sounds of movement every now and then from elsewhere in the suite, but he couldn't be sure if it was just his imagination playing tricks on him. And naturally, Aki had once again made his silence a condition of the promised reward for the waiting game. While it had been fun to test out the suspension swing, Byou wouldn't have been quite so enthusiastic about it if he'd known he'd have to wait for anything else to happen.

He hated waiting.

At least this time he didn't have to stay still, but it was nonetheless torturous to feel the slight breeze of moving air over his sensitized skin and be unable to do anything to alleviate his growing arousal. Not like he could move much anyway, and any movement just made the sensations worse as the swing gently rocked with a creak of leather and clinking of the chains. Or maybe it just seemed to get worse because he'd long since lost track of time, and his heat was growing steadily just from anticipation. Which was the point, he supposed.

Byou gritted his teeth and tried to focus on getting payback for the damned waiting, or maybe even figure out some way to bribe a promise out of Aki to quit it with the waiting games. After all, to Byou it counted as punitive punishment, which was something Aki had said he wouldn't do except as a last resort, which this hardly qualified for. Besides, what the hell could the alpha be doing in the meantime? What could possibly be more important than attending to his omega's needs? Needs which were getting close to the point of not giving a damn about being quiet anymore.

Just when Byou was moments away from snapping, he heard soft footsteps approach and he froze, hardly daring to breathe as he turned his head slightly and strained to listen. The touch, when it came, was feather-light across his stomach and yet it startled him, and he jumped a bit and let out his breath loudly in a sound of frustration mixed with need. It took him a few moments to identify the touch as a hand, and he bit back a whine as he took a deep breath, letting Aki's scent overwhelm his senses and provide the reassurance he craved.

"Sorry for taking so long, my pet," Aki murmured, sounding sincere.

"About damn time you paid attention to me," Byou gritted out, unable to help the pout. He growled out another curse at Aki's chuckle and tried to arch into the maddeningly light touches and caresses with only marginal success. "Get in me, you fucking cockteasing asshole."

"It was only fifteen minutes, pet," Aki said softly, placing a chaste kiss to Byou's sweat-slick temple.

"I don't fucking care, just fuck me, rut me, please," Byou whined, squirming ineffectually in the swing.

Aki wasted no time climbing onto the bed, as if realizing that any further teasing would be unnecessarily cruel. Byou nearly wept as he finally felt the alpha's cock ease into him, though his relief was only marginal. He didn't even need to try to move into the thrust, as Aki gripped his hips and pulled him close and then leaned over.

"You're mine, say it," Aki growled, his breath and scent overwhelming Byou's senses.

"I'm yours, all yours, please just fucking rut me," Byou whimpered, his need barely lessened by Aki's cock inside him.

Thankfully, Aki needed no further urging and began a hard rhythm, pulling Byou into each thrust with a grip on the omega's hips that was sure to leave bruises. It took only a few hard thrusts to send Byou over the edge, and he vaguely registered Aki's husky whisper in his ear promising more.

Time seemed to slow after that, and Byou floated in a daze of sensation heightened by his inability to see. He could feel the sweat on his back where the leather straps held him up, the cool air caressing him as the swing moved with every push and pull and thrust. He heard the way their breaths panted out of sync and the needy whines he made that were answered by Aki's sounds of pleasure. The friction of Aki sliding in and out of him in a hard rhythm interspersed with lingering for just a few moments longer deep inside, and then pulling out and making him wait a precious few moments before filling him again.

Byou lost track of time again as his pleasure grew and crested several times, Aki's rhythm remaining deliciously rough throughout. Each time he came it took a little more of the edge off, allowing a fraction more clarity as he absorbed the sensations. By the time Aki had fully knotted they were both out of breath and sweating, and Byou's stomach was slick with his release. He was sore, but wonderfully sated, and he smiled slightly as he savored the marks he was sure to have for the next few days.

"Fourteen, much better," Aki murmured with a satisfied grin, still catching his breath as he nuzzled Byou. He slipped off Byou's blindfold and gave the omega a chaste kiss on the lips.

Byou gave Aki a dazed blink and then made a disbelieving sound of amusement as it clicked. "You keep count. How do you keep count?" he asked, his breaths still short as his heart gradually slowed.

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Aki said with a teasing grin as he unlocked first one wrist cuff and then the other.

"Maybe?" Byou muttered, still trying to regain most of his cognitive functions. He watched as Aki unbuckled the knee straps and then reached up to grip the alpha's shoulders as he was lifted off the swing. Rather than lie back, however, he shifted to snuggle against Aki and grimaced as he touched the stiff collar.

Taking the hint, Aki sat back on his heels and reached to unfasten the collar and then set it aside. "Better?" he asked softly.

Byou nodded and curled around Aki contentedly, resting his head on the alpha's shoulder with a soft sigh.

"So, was the swing worth it?" Aki murmured, nuzzling Byou's hair and breathing in the omega's scent.

Byou made another contented murmur and nodded. "Not the waiting, though, it's cruel."

"Needy little slut, aren't you?" Aki teased, and his arms tightened possessively around Byou. "I'm guessing you mean the fifteen minutes, not waiting to see the swing I'd dropped near the bed earlier."

Byou raised his head and gave Aki a mock sour look. "What a genius you are," he muttered sarcastically, pouting.

Aki chuckled and kissed Byou's pout. "It's not meant to be punitive, but I'll stop if it really bothers you."

"It does bother me, and I'd appreciate a cease and desist on making me wait for you," Byou said, his glower lessening slightly. "What the hell were you doing, anyway?"

"Eating, checking my messages, getting things ready," Aki replied as he stroked his hands up and down Byou's back.

"Oh, so leaving aside that those things shouldn't be as high a priority as me, you somehow lost track of time doing all that?" Byou said with a huff, clearly still irritated.

Aki studied Byou for a moment and reached up to trace his thumb over the omega's pouting lips. "I won't neglect you anymore, okay? You are my most important priority, and I'll prove it to you."

"You had better," Byou muttered, shifting on Aki's lap. "No more fucking waiting games, I mean it."

"I'm sorry, pet," Aki murmured, giving Byou an affectionate kiss on the lips. "How can I make it up to you?"

"You can start by giving me a bath, I guess, and I'll think about more and let you know," Byou said with a passable attempt at a straight face that lasted all of five seconds. He wanted to stay annoyed, but for whatever reason he just couldn't.

"As you wish, my pet," Aki said dryly before giving Byou another kiss. He scooped the omega up and moved off the bed, and with a bit of maneuvering managed to walk to the bathroom a little awkwardly, as his knot hadn't shrunk enough to withdraw yet. Fortunately, the large bathtub was already filled with water and automated, and all Aki needed to do was press a few buttons on the settings panel before climbing in and sitting on the ledge with Byou in his lap.

"So, are you employed here?" Byou asked after a few moments. He settled comfortably draped over the alpha's lap, enjoying the jets and hot water of the luxurious bath.

"Not exactly, no, but I'm a regular customer so to speak, and I sometimes help them out," Aki answered as he stroked his fingers up and down Byou's spine. "Isn't it a bit late to ask that question?"

Byou made a face at Aki's grin. "Better late than never. Your profile was different than the employed alphas, but it's not like I have much experience with omega resorts." He shrugged. "How did you know I wouldn't like the alphas here?"

"From what code you used, I know you were seeking more than the alphas here could give you. Pandora's still bound by the Hub's laws, whereas I'm not, at least technically." At Byou's raised eyebrow he elaborated. "Our Traditionalist settlement is autonomous for all intents and purposes, since Central can't be bothered to exert authority on all the Rim settlements. As long as we're peaceful about it they don't seem to care too much what we do, but they still keep an eye on us."

"I was born and raised in Central, so the Rim settlements are kind of almost fairytales to me," Byou murmured, idly tracing a pattern around Aki's pierced nipple. "I guess Pandora and wherever your settlement is are far enough out on the Rim that the Hub seems the same way to you."

"I've been to the Hub once, when I was young." Aki shrugged and smiled slightly. "As first impressions go, it didn't inspire me to visit again. Too crowded and noisy, and too many ridiculous rules that I didn't understand at the time."

"Yeah, the main cities are definitely crowded." Byou pursed his lips thoughtfully and tilted his head. "I didn't really notice all the rules until around my first heat, and I started getting scrutinized for having 'unnatural urges' before I learned how to keep my mouth shut," he said with a trace of rueful bitterness. "You'd think they'd understand that it's not unnatural at all, but betas just don't get it."

"Hard to understand things you've never experienced," Aki agreed with a faint smile. "I've met a few betas who like kinky sex, but it's not really the same as heat by any stretch."

"Definitely not," Byou said with a snort and shook his head. "It's not just kink when the only thing that really satisfies my heat is submission to an alpha. And if it were just kinky games, omegas wouldn't need alphas. We hardly need betas to meddle and decide for us that we should live the way they do."

"Some day perhaps things will change again, maybe shifting back a little closer to how things were before the betas took over Central and the Hub," Aki mused, gesturing vaguely around and indicating the suite in general. "Pandora's not the only omega resort on the Rim to have a facade to keep the betas from Central happy."

"I'm not sure how anything could change now, what with the dwindling numbers of alphas and omegas in the Hub thanks to beta meddling, but I guess most probably migrate to the Rim." Byou pursed his lips and idly played with his hair.

"Yeah, many do. I know of several settlements on Rim worlds with barely any betas, and Pandora only employs the type who can keep their noses out of our business anyway." Aki smirked and reached up to run his fingers through Byou's hair. "Maybe once your heat's over I can give you a thorough history lesson, since I know Central was making all sorts of shit up the last time I was there, and I bet it's only gotten worse since."

"Yeah, I noticed when I tried finding information," Byou murmured with a slight smile. "The betas really didn't like me snooping."

"I'll bet. With all the censoring they do, it's not so surprising they'd rewrite history too," Aki said, playing idly with a lock of Byou's auburn brown hair. "Do you have anything tying you to Central?"

Byou paused to consider the question and then shrugged. "Not really, no. Nothing I'd miss terribly aside from maybe some friends." He tilted his head and grinned at Aki. "Is your next question gonna be whether I'd like to move out here?"

"Most do once they've gotten a taste of Pandora," Aki replied, a small smile on his lips. "This place naturally attracts the alphas and omegas looking for more than the Hub offers."

"So you're a recruiter then?" Byou asked, unsure if he should feel the twinge of jealousy he had at the thought of Aki convincing other omegas to move.

Aki chuckled softly and shrugged. "In a way, I guess. My job here, even if I'm not employed with Pandora as far as paperwork goes, is to help match omegas with alphas."

Byou raised an eyebrow as he leaned back. "How many do you take for yourself?" he asked, trying not to pout.

"You're the first, actually," Aki answered mildly as he ran his hands up and down Byou's thighs. "Most omegas I've matched just wanted a temporary arrangement."

"You didn't rig my alpha matches or anything, did you?" Byou asked, still slightly suspicious.

Aki restrained a chuckle as he shook his head. "No, I was just browsing the new arrivals and one of the betas here flagged your profile for me."

"So it's a conspiracy, I see," Byou said with mock annoyance, though he settled back down.

"Yes, clearly, just to ensure you're well satisfied," Aki responded with a grin and reached up to embrace Byou, drawing the omega closer. "As I said before, you're a diva."

"As if you're not picky yourself," Byou retorted with a huff. "But surely you get laid or you wouldn't be unofficially employed here."

"Oh? Do all alphas need an ulterior motive to advise omega matches at a beta-run resort?" Aki asked mildly, a smile twitching his lips as he gave Byou a chaste kiss on the lips.

Byou looked at Aki with mock sourness. "Oh, right, alphas don't have heats," he deadpanned. "So really, what's in it for you?"

"I don't know, maybe someone like you?" Aki pretended innocence for all of three seconds at Byou's skeptical yet amused look. "Seriously though, I admit I was waiting and hoping to find an omega who'd want to be my mate, but I don't want to pressure or influence you."

"Well, I hardly came here to find a mate, but the Hub sure does look even more boring now," Byou said as he considered things with a thoughtful look. "Even with my fetish modeling job and all, since it's already a pain in the ass to follow all the ridiculous regulations."

"You won't miss your friends or job too much if you move?" Aki asked as he shifted Byou's hips a bit. "You being a model, let alone a fetish model, sure explains a lot."

"I'm sure it does," Byou said with a snort and shook his head. "It's probably a matter of time before my friends relocate, and my job, such as it is, is one of the few that accommodate omegas with compensated vacation time for heats. Most other jobs that pay a living wage expect us to be on heat suppressants." He pulled a face and shuddered a bit. "And with the way the new laws are requiring heat suppressants and limiting omega employment in other ways, my job might not be around much longer."

Aki hummed in agreement and nodded. "I can't imagine the Hub's beta government allowing omega fetish modeling to last too much longer."

"Yeah, it apparently 'encourages deviance' or some bullshit," Byou murmured, rolling his eyes. "It pays well enough, but it's probably not gonna be legal sooner rather than later. As it is, I have to take risks just to make enough to live on thanks to all the regulations, and especially doing that sort of work under the table is illegal."

"You mean porn work?" Aki asked, careful to not let his flicker of jealousy show, though his hold on Byou tightened a fraction.

"Yeah, some of it," Byou said with a faint smile. "It's rather convenient for my heats to have kinky partners, but none of them wanted to commit to more than heat partners regularly."

"Can't say that their lack of commitment doesn't work in my favor." Aki smirked and nuzzled Byou. "Won't your fans be disappointed if you move?"

"I might be hard up for creds enough to do illegal shit, but I'm not stupid enough to show my face in it," Byou said with a snort. "As for my modeling fans, I'm sure some have connected me to the vids, but I haven't been arrested yet, so..." He shrugged and gestured around the bathroom with a growing smirk. "Speaking of which, sort of, there's things I haven't tried here, and you still have to make good on your promise."

"I suppose I do," Aki responded blandly, though he grinned. "I'll have to look up your photoshoots later, for ideas."

"You've already seen some on my profile," Byou murmured, licking his lips.

"I did wonder why your photos looked so professional," Aki mused with a small smile.

"Yeah, I used the pictures that didn't make the final cut but still came out decently." Byou tilted his head as something occurred to him. "So wait, you grew up in the Traditionalist settlement?"

Aki nodded slowly. "Most of those in my age group in our settlement were born and raised there, including me. Ours was one of the first Rim settlements just for alphas and omegas. Now there are a few betas, but they're kept separate."

"Separate?"

Aki paused before answering, choosing his words carefully. "There's a reason Pandora screens its beta employees thoroughly, and it's tied to why us Traditionalists don't tend to advertise ourselves. Betas can't be trusted, especially if they're from Central."

"Oh, right, because they're always meddling and trying to inconvenience us one way or another," Byou said slowly, a hint of uncertainty in his tone.

"Yes, and the laws that keep them from making any overt moves are eroding, and they're hardly above covert attempts to ensure we're watched, or worse." Aki frowned and shrugged. "It's mostly just dirty politics, but because Pandora is bending the laws if not breaking them in some cases, it's vital to remain on guard."

"You're talking about a conspiracy or something?"

"It didn't occur to you to put two and two together to realize why alpha and omega numbers are dwindling so significantly in the Hub?" Aki asked gently, his gaze steady on Byou. "Outlawing the mating tradition was just the start, and it's been getting worse since. The laws being passed against our very natures aren't simply to deny us our ways of life, since the effects reach further than that. The beta government hasn't tried to stop the Rim settlements or prevent our migration to them, but it's a matter of time until they do."

"But you said your settlement and others are mostly autonomous."

"Right, so far we are, since we haven't done any law-breaking serious enough to prompt retaliation, but that's mostly only because they can't afford the expense of enforcing all their laws way out on the Rim."

"So you keep up with the news from the Hub because it could affect you even so far out?"

"Yeah, never hurts to be aware of what's going on since it could be a problem for us. Besides which, I stay at Pandora a lot so I'm technically within the Hub's jurisdiction here, even if their reach is limited."

Byou pulled a face and rubbed his eyes. "I knew betas were being ridiculous with forcing us to pretend we're like them one way or another, but I guess I didn't really want to grasp the full implications. Do you really think they'd make Rim settlements for alphas and omegas illegal? And how would they even enforce that?"

"Dirty politics don't have to be legal, and there are numerous methods they could use to destabilize and undermine the Rim settlements without any blatant actions." Aki paused again to collect his thoughts. "One way or another, they want us to not exist, and since their subtler methods aren't working fast enough to satisfy the more extreme sentiments, they may very well try other ways."

Byou frowned as he absorbed all the implications. "So you're saying that the beta meddling started way before either of us were born, and that the freedoms the betas helped omegas gain were driven by an ulterior motive to get rid of us?"

"The traditions that were eventually outlawed one by one destroyed more than just social roles, it caused us to lose the family groups that ensured our numbers stayed constant."

Byou snorted and raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Alphas would see it that way. I might not like the way betas force us to deny our natures, but I rather like not being property," he drawled.

"Alphas 'owning' omegas is really more about semantics, and beta propaganda," Aki said slowly. "In a traditional mating bond, and also the way we currently do it, the alpha and omega have equal say in things relating to their family, because the bond is mutual. Betas might like to pretend that the worst was the norm, but omegas were never owned even if political arrangements may have made them seem little more than property to be traded among alphas."

"But omegas are still expected to have children either way."

"Political arrangements tend to be about heirs, yes, but some mate pairs don't have kids, or wait a while," Aki replied with a shrug. "I'd like a kid someday, but I'm not in any rush."

"But you're looking for a mate," Byou said slowly, contemplating whether he was really ready to settle down, let alone with an alpha he just met. He had to admit though that the thought of something more long-term with Aki was appealing.

"Yeah, but as I said, I'm not going to pressure you into a commitment," Aki said, smiling faintly. "I like you, but it's not even been a full day since we met."

"True, so I guess we can wait and see," Byou said with an answering smile. Taking the initiative for once, Byou leaned in and kissed Aki leisurely as his fingers found the alpha's pierced nipple and tugged gently on the ring. Growing bolder when Aki made an encouraging sound, he nipped at the alpha's lips. Byou was about to get more adventurous when the console dinged with an incoming message. He blinked as he noted the urgent mark on the message, that the sender's information was encrypted, and that it wasn't for him. Though he was a bit annoyed with Aki was getting personal messages in his suite, the alpha's concerned look and hesitation made him frown. "What's wrong?"

"Sorry, guess there's no help for it," Aki murmured reluctantly as he reached over to accept the message. The small console screen changed to a live feed and Byou saw the alpha on the other end blink at him with surprise before looking at Aki.

"Sorry if I'm interrupting, but uh..." the alpha said, giving Aki a hesitant look.

"What is it, Kenzo?" Aki asked, encircling Byou in a possessive embrace.

Taking that as a cue, Kenzo spoke, "We just got word that some betas from Central have arrived to do an inspection of Pandora, and they're on their way right now."

Aki's grip tightened on Byou as he cursed, and he glanced at the omega with an unreadable look. "Anything else?"

"Actually, yeah," Kenzo said, fidgeting with something below the viewscreen. "There's a warrant for your omega."

"What?" Byou exclaimed, his blood running cold.

"Likely the reason for the surprise inspection, then," Aki muttered, his possessive hold tightening again.

"What do they--what's it for?" Byou asked, blinking a few times as he tried to process it.

Kenzo hesitated and glanced to Aki before looking at Byou again. "Our source just said you're wanted for suspicion of illegal activities."

Byou shared a look with Aki and swallowed as he bit his lip. Though the timing was odd, he didn't have to guess what the 'illegal activities' were.

"How much time do we have, Kenzo?"

"About half an hour at most. We have transport ready for you and your omega in the usual spot."

Aki cursed again. "Thanks for the heads up, we'll get going," he said, and ended the message after Kenzo nodded curtly.

"What--what's gonna happen now?" Byou asked softly, his eyes wide and slightly dazed. "Are they after you too?"

Aki reached up to cup Byou's face gently between his hands. "Do you trust me, Byou?" he asked quietly.

"I guess I have to, but yes," Byou said slowly as he swallowed hard, a hint of confusion in his expression. "I'd rather go wherever you're going than be arrested."

Aki smiled without humor and nodded. "You'll be safe with us," he said, giving Byou a chaste kiss. Thankfully, his knot had shrunk enough by then that he slipped out of Byou without much discomfort, though he noted the omega's restrained flinch.

"At least I can still walk," Byou quipped with a half-smile as he cleaned off and then got out of the tub. Grabbing a towel, he dried off quickly and ignored the low-level ache of his heat as best he could. Now was not a time for that sort of distraction, and he was glad that Kenzo's message had come when it did rather than later when it would have been much harder to stop. As much as he hated the interruption, his heat wasn't in full swing yet even if his judgment was slightly impaired.

While Byou dried off Aki had grabbed a towel and left the bathroom to gather some things, and he returned shortly fully dressed and with some fresh clothes for the omega, and the smaller collar.

Byou raised his eyebrows at the collar and smirked slightly as he dressed. "Getting possessive, are you?"

Aki blinked and looked slightly sheepish for a moment. "My scent's all over you, but..."

Byou chuckled and bent his head to indicate his acceptance of the collar. "I'll indulge you," he said, privately pleased. Even if the collar lacked Aki's symbol it gave him a feeling of security to wear it, especially if they were going to be leaving Pandora. Once Aki had buckled the collar on he followed the alpha to the bedroom and felt a flicker of regret for not getting to try out more things in the suite as he picked up his small bag. He'd traveled lightly since he had little use for clothes during his heat and Pandora provided the other necessities, and he hadn't had a chance to unpack anything yet.

"We'll leave through the service halls since those shouldn't be guarded, and they don't know we were tipped off," Aki said, moving to an almost invisible door half hidden behind a wall hanging. He punched in a code on the panel and the door slid open soundlessly.

"Feels like I'm in a holovid or something, sneaking around like this," Byou murmured as he followed Aki through the door and into a starkly plain off-white corridor. The hall was wider than he'd expected and the air smelled a bit stale, but it was well lit and Aki seemed to know where he was going. "Do you use these halls often?" he asked, keeping his voice quiet even if they were alone.

"Sometimes," Aki said with a distracted glance over his shoulder at Byou. "This isn't the first inspection I've had to avoid."

"But why?" Byou asked, confused.

Aki glanced back again and quirked a half smile before turning left down another identical corridor. "Let's just say I have good reason to not want them to scan my ID chip."

"Great, thanks for telling me I'm running off with an outlaw now," Byou quipped with a disbelieving chuckle. While he wasn't exactly reassured to know Aki was keeping things from him, he wasn't sure he wanted to know too many details.

"Like I said, Traditionalists don't like to advertise," Aki murmured. He paused for a moment at a four-way intersection and then turned right. A few moments later they reached a sliding door and Aki keyed in another code to open it. Peeking out cautiously and glancing around, he hurried over to a service elevator across the hall and the doors opened as he pressed the button.

Byou was glad the elevator was large as he stepped in after Aki, and he did his best to ignore the alpha's scent as they descended. He wanted to ask more questions, but Aki's proximity was making it difficult to think and he hoped he wouldn't become too distracted until they were safely away from Pandora. By the time the elevator dinged softly and the doors slid open his palms were sweating, and he fidgeted with his bag as he followed Aki out.

Another sliding door with a passcode led them outside, and Byou saw a nondescript hovervan waiting that Aki seemed to recognize. The side door of the van opened as they approached and Byou took his cue from Aki and hurried to scramble in. Almost as soon as he sat down the door slid shut and the van began moving, and Byou bit his lip as he shifted closer to Aki, feeling apprehension settle uncomfortably in his gut.

Aki wrapped an arm around Byou's shoulders and drew the omega close. "Relax, pet, and welcome to being an outlaw," he murmured with a slight smirk.

Chapter Text

Byou tried to relax as they sped away from Pandora, but something nagged at his mind. Something other than the fact he'd likely be in more trouble for running. While the suspicion was worrisome, he was more concerned with not getting caught, especially with an apparent Traditionalist outlaw. And then it hit him.

"The pills!"

"Got them in my pocket, pet," Aki murmured, rubbing Byou's shoulder reassuringly.

Byou sagged with relief and took a few deep breaths, though given Aki's proximity it didn't help to clear his head much. He belatedly noticed the driver was an alpha by his scent, and then that said driver seemed oddly unaffected by the smell of an omega in heat. Though he was curious, he focused instead on trying not to think about his heat, which had the opposite effect. He sighed and shifted restlessly until he found a position to sit in that didn't ache in a distracting way.

"We'll be there soon, don't worry."

Byou nodded and rested his head on Aki's shoulder with a soft sigh. "Where are we going?" he murmured.

"A safehouse we use when we need to lie low," Aki replied, glancing up to share a look with the driver through the rearview mirror. "It's not likely we'll be pursued, but they could track us."

Thinking about the suddenness of it all made Byou's head spin, and while he wasn't sure of the wisdom in trusting Aki with more than his heat, he knew his chances were better with the alpha than with the betas from Central. At the very least the betas would dose him with heat suppressants, and he was fairly sure they had plenty of evidence to convict him of illegal activities. The thought of spending any time in a 'reeducation' colony was unappealing enough without the additional penalty of heat suppression, and he knew the betas would try to extort more names out of him in exchange for a lighter sentence.

"Buckle up and hang on, we have someone on our tail," the driver said, speeding up and maneuvering through the streets.

Byou clutched at Aki's hand and swallowed hard as his pulse raced, the very real possibility of his arrest looming if they were caught. Each sharp turn the van made had him gripping Aki's hand harder until the alpha pried his fingers off and embraced him.

"Just breathe, it'll be fine," Aki murmured, remaining calm through sheer force of will. "Close your eyes if it helps."

Byou nodded slightly and took a deep breath as he closed his eyes and tried to distract himself from his anxiety by breathing in Aki's comforting scent. It seemed to take an eternity but the driver eventually announced they had shaken off the pursuit and he found he could breathe again. Byou opened his eyes when he felt Aki lift his right arm, and he blinked in bemusement as the alpha fastened a wide bracelet on his wrist. "What's this for?"

"It blocks the short range transmitter in your ID chip, just in case they're scanning for you," Aki said, putting on an identical bracelet. At Byou's shocked look he quirked a smile and shrugged. "Yes, it's highly illegal but useful. It'll do until we can leave Pandora, provided they don't dedicate too much effort to finding you."

Byou examined the ornamental bracelet curiously but couldn't see anything odd about it. "Could you reprogram or remove it?" he asked, feeling a chill at the thought of tampering with an ID chip.

"Not unless you want that, and we can arrange it if you'd like that," Aki answered. "The most we can do at the moment is more crude though. Reprogramming requires tech we don't have just lying around, after all, but removing it is easy enough even if it's a bit drastic."

"Is yours reprogrammed?" Byou asked.

"No, but I'm not on the Hub's citizen record, and that takes some explanations I'm not inclined to give them," Aki replied with a slight smile. "In any case, removing the chips don't do much beyond stalling the inevitable and raising more suspicion in the process, which is why we have them even in our Traditionalist settlement."

"Yeah, Central keeps thorough DNA records of every citizen, especially alphas and omegas," Byou said with a frown. "Even changing the info in the ID chip won't do much if they do a more thorough check."

"Right, which is why we ought to leave Pandora as soon as we can get a safe space-faring ship, since it's unlikely they'd spend too much time searching all the Rim settlements for you," Aki said, giving Byou a contemplative look.

"Yeah, I'm only an omega with 'deviant' urges, not a dangerous criminal." Byou quirked a half smile and sighed as he rubbed his eyes. "I came here for my heat and end up on the run with a Traditionalist alpha less than a full day later. I half expect to wake up and realize I fell asleep watching some holovid romance."

"Well, when you put it like that it does sound strange," Aki quipped with a grin. "We can wait out your heat here if you want, and then you can decide to leave with us or not."

Byou thought it over for a few moments, his brow furrowed. "With a warrant out for me it's not like I can go home unless I want to get arrested," he said slowly, biting his lip. "And it seems risky to stay on Pandora even if they're not likely to search too thoroughly."

"It is risky, but we have a network of places here that are off the grid." Aki shrugged slightly and took one of Byou's hands in his. "It's your call. I don't want to just whisk you off and decide what's best for you. Regardless though, I'll keep you as safe as I'm able to."

"Considering the alternative is turning myself in and then being sentenced to a 'reeducation' colony or worse, I think I'll take my chances with you," Byou quipped with a slightly teasing smirk. "Besides, this is the most excitement I've had in my life, though the timing is somewhat inconvenient."

"It's likely they wanted to arrest you before your heat hit, or catch you in some 'deviant' act and thus have an excuse to make trouble for Pandora as well," Aki said, and then smiled slightly as he touched Byou's collar. "It could be that you were incidental though, if they waited to arrest you at Pandora rather than before you left Central."

Byou nodded and glanced to the driver as he shifted in his seat. While talking helped distract him from thinking about his heat, it was becoming increasingly difficult to focus. The presence of the alpha driver was all that was deterring him from making a move, as he wasn't sure if the alpha's indifference would hold if his omega scent got any stronger.

"Shinji's bonded, don't worry," Aki murmured. "It makes him effectively immune to other omegas in heat."

Byou blinked and tilted his head as he took a cautious sniff and picked up on a subtle difference in Shinji's scent that he hadn't noticed before. He wasn't entirely sure if Shinji's scent was muted because Aki's was stronger, but it was similar to the musky scent of Hub alphas, except with an undertone of omega. Whatever the reason, Shinji elicited no reaction of arousal in Byou, but Aki's proximity was another matter that was becoming increasingly distracting.

"To be technical, being bonded just makes an alpha much more inclined and able to resist the temptation of another omega," Shinji said blandly. He glanced up in the rearview mirror and gave Byou a brief smile. "We're almost there."

Byou glanced out the van windows and noted they were on the edge of the resort town that provided the necessities that Pandora used. The entire colony was small by Hub standards, and it was collectively known as Pandora because the main draw was the omega resort, and all the residential areas were for the staff of the resort. The rest of the planet was sparsely populated, and as Byou saw as the van traveled further from the edge of the resort town, the immediate area surrounding the town seemed to be farmland. As agriculture was unheard of in Central beyond hydroponics and the occasional indulgence of a private garden if one was wealthy, Byou's only experience with it was from holovids and old fashioned pictures.

"Is it strange for you to see food growing in the ground?" Aki asked, his tone amused.

"A bit," Byou replied, glancing to Aki. "Let me guess, your settlement relies mainly on stuff you can grow and make yourselves?"

"Yeah, we do get some supplies that originate from the Hub, but we try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Hub citizens on the Rim are more dependent on shipments, so they're more keen on following Hub laws than we need to be," Aki answered, a smug smile playing on his lips.

"You don't look like a farmer to me."

Aki chuckled and spread one hand palm up, the other arm still around Byou's shoulders. "What do you think we use the betas for, hmm?"

It was Byou's turn to chuckle as he pictured betas doing manual labor for alphas and omegas. "Do they even know you're using them for that?"

"A few might have guessed, but the setup is mutually beneficial for all."

Byou grinned and shook his head. He glanced out the window again and watched as the van neared a small cluster of buildings with people doing various chores, and then it turned down a dirt path barely wide enough for the vehicle. A cabin partially hidden behind overgrowth was at the end of the path, and though it looked small it was well maintained.

"We'd put you both up in the main house, but this might be a little more convenient and private," Shinji said as he stopped the van a few paces from the cabin door. "There's plumbing and electricity, just try not to run the bills too high. We'll give you a heads up if anyone comes nosing around."

Aki nodded and reached past Byou to open the van door, then slipped out. "It'll do fine, thanks," he said, clasping Byou's hand and drawing the omega out of the van. He grabbed Byou's bag next and then shut the van door and caught the key Shinji tossed him as he walked toward the cabin. The cabin door proved a bit of a challenge, but a bit of fiddling with the key in the lock and hard shove opened it.

Stepping in after Aki, Byou glanced around the small cabin. The interior was a single room with a double bed on the left, a large plush couch on the right, and small kitchen and dining area along the back wall separated from the front half by a countertop. It was cozy enough, though plain and without decoration or personal touches. The lights were adequate and the bed looked comfortable even though it was half the size of the one in Pandora. Other than the sticky door, the place was without dust or other signs of disuse, and Byou saw that the refrigerator was stocked with fresh food and drinks. He discovered the rear door led to a bathroom the size of a walk-in closet, half of it taken up by a shower just barely big enough for two.

Byou's eyes strayed to the bed for the third time and he caught Aki's knowing smirk, answering it with a lift of his eyebrows and a grin. "I hope there's spare sheets."

"More than that," Aki replied with a wider grin, moving to the foot of the bed and opening the storage chest against the footboard to reveal a small assortment of restraints and other toys. Taking out a plastic sheet, he spread it over the bed, and as an afterthought tucked it over the pillows as well. He then set out some towels on the nightstand and selected a pair of padded cuffs and a riding crop, then gave Byou a pointed look. "You're wearing too much clothing."

"So I am," Byou said mildly with a glance down at himself as he walked from behind the countertop to stand near the couch. "Want to help me with this issue?" he asked with false innocence, though the way he licked his lips negated the pretense.

Aki snorted softly and tossed the riding crop and cuffs on the bed before approaching Byou. "What's your safeword?" he asked, hooking a finger in the ring on Byou's collar and giving it a pointed tug.

Byou bit back a quiet groan as he locked his gaze with Aki, and it took him a moment to focus on the question. "Peaches." He licked his lips again and leaned closer, deliberately stopping just a breath from kissing Aki. "Make me forget it," he murmured and watched as Aki's eyes dilated, the alpha's groan more like a purr. The sound sent shivers through his body to settle in his crotch, and he barely dared to breathe in the few moments it took for him to land on the couch with Aki pinning him down.

With obvious effort, Aki pulled back after a few moments and cupped Byou's face in his hands. "As much as I'd love to ravish you, I'm not going to take advantage of the circumstances or your heat fantasies," he said softly, and leaned in to kiss Byou's slight pout. "There's no opt out clause here, and as tempting as you are, I don't want either of us getting too carried away."

Byou held back a whimper as he gathered his fraying self-control enough to acknowledge the seriousness of Aki's words, though it was increasingly hard to think especially with the alpha's weight pinning him on the couch. "I'm still yours during my heat, and it's not like I have other options after," he said, his voice carrying a hint of wheedling. "I want you, and if I wasn't willing to take the chance, to have a little danger and unexpectedness, I wouldn't have left with you."

Aki brushed his thumbs over Byou's cheeks and considered the omega's words for a few moments. "I'm not about to trap you into a commitment you won't want once your heat passes," he murmured firmly. "But, I'm not going to leave you with nothing, and arrangements can be made once we're both thinking more clearly. I keep my promises."

Byou opened his mouth as if to protest, but after a moment he nodded slowly and seemed to collect himself. "You're wearing too much as well, and the bed's all the way over there," he said dryly and pointed to the bed for extra emphasis.

"How observant you are," Aki retorted with a chuckle, accepting the change of subject. Shifting to sit up, he made quick work of Byou's shirt and discarded it on the floor, then moved back further and tugged off the omega's shoes and pants. He stopped Byou's hands when the omega reached for his shirt and shook his head. "I let you get away with a lot at Pandora, to get a feel for your limits and all the stuff not in your profile, but now it's time for you to submit and cede control," he said slowly, his grip on Byou's wrists firm.

Byou's breath caught briefly and he blinked at Aki in surprise, making no move to free himself. "I submitted plenty before, with your damned waiting games," he said with a slight huff.

"True, you obeyed despite having no guarantee of the reward, and freely that first time, but I know you want more than just teasing," Aki said with a small smirk, amused as Byou realized he'd had the option to disobey but hadn't seriously thought to despite how impatient he'd been. He brought Byou's wrists together and climbed off the couch, then tugged the omega up with him. "Now, here's your first choice: we can proceed almost as we would have in Pandora with a somewhat more mild Dom and sub setup, given the lack of safeguards here, or," he paused and drew Byou closer, one hand gripping both wrists and the other hooking onto Byou's collar again. "Or, you can have an old-fashioned Traditionalist setup, which is similar but different in certain ways, both subtle and not."

Byou couldn't help the moan of need that slipped out at Aki's second choice, his expression caught between surprise and strong desire tinged with slight uncertainty. "The second option," he said after a few heartbeats, the pause more to remember how to speak than because it was difficult to choose.

Aki grinned and took a step back, though he didn't release his hold on Byou. "I figured the second option would appeal to your craving for full submission and not knowing what to expect, though this means you'll have to learn some new rules." He released Byou's wrists and led the omega to the bed by his grip on the collar ring. "You may still choose freely whether to obey me, but there will be consequences enforced if you disobey," he said seriously and watched as Byou hesitated before nodding, the omega's gaze dropping to the riding crop on the bed. "Kneel, and put your hands behind your back, crossed at the wrists."

Byou's hesitation was almost unnoticeable as he dropped to his knees and assumed the proper position without any fumbling. He didn't even need a prompt to keep his legs spread, as the position was familiar and standard. Taking the cue from the slight tug on the collar ring, he flashed a smirk before he licked the underside of Aki's wrist and flicked his gaze up to catch the alpha's reaction, the low growl sending a shiver through him. Leaning forward, he bit down on the waistband of Aki's pants and tugged, glad that the alpha seemed to prefer sweatpants to ones with more fiddly fastenings that were harder to undo with his mouth. Aki did only the bare minimum to help with the removal of his pants, which was not actively hindering but otherwise offering no assistance. Despite that, Byou managed to get them down enough to free the alpha's cock after a few moments, though it was slightly more difficult given that it was almost fully hard.

Before Byou could lick it Aki stopped him with another tug on the collar, and he smirked at the omega's slightly startled glance up. "Ask permission, pet."

Byou considered refusing for a moment, but he licked his lips and focused on Aki's face rather than the distracting cock tantalizingly close to his cheek. "May I suck your cock?" he asked, his tone only slightly impatient.

"How bad do you want it?" Aki asked in a playful tone and grinned at Byou's frustrated glare.

"I want it like it's the best lollipop ever made," Byou drawled, adding an annoyed huff at Aki's amused chuckle.

"You're either out of practice, or your previous Doms were pathetic."

"Or maybe I wanna see what you'll do to me." Byou didn't even bother being coy about the challenge in his words.

"Impatient brat," Aki murmured, though he was still quite amused. "Get on the bed, ass up with your legs spread, and grip the headboard with your wrists together," he ordered, releasing Byou's collar. He picked up the cuffs and riding crop from the bed and watched as Byou obeyed without a pause. Mildly surprised, he took a moment to consider the signals Byou sent with his defiant attitude as he tapped the omega's ass lightly with the crop. "Raise it, no humping the bed for you." He smirked as Byou growled and obeyed, though with some fumbling to balance comfortably. Shedding his clothes, Aki kicked them out of the way and then knelt on the bed. "Do you need to be cuffed, or will you hold still?" he asked, dangling the cuffs near Byou's head.

Byou turned his head to look at Aki and then the cuffs, his gaze flicking between the two for a few heartbeats. "Cuff me," he said, and then added, "please."

Aki nodded once and set the riding crop on the bed before he knelt on the edge and buckled the cuffs onto Byou's wrists, threading the chain through the metal lattice of the headboard. When the omega was secured he picked up the crop and stood, then before Byou could brace himself he delivered the first blow on the omega's ass. The next five followed within seconds, all just strong enough to produce welts without breaking the skin, and none hitting the same spot. He gave an additional four lashes before deciding that any more would be overdoing it. He let the tip of the crop rest on the last welt and paused to assess Byou's response, noting the white-knuckled grip on the headboard, the unsteady panting breaths, and that the omega had barely made a sound throughout.

Giving the omega a few moments to collect himself, Aki then trailed the crop up Byou's spine and then back down, tracing random patterns over ribs. He avoided Byou's ass and continued the random patterns over slightly trembling thighs, and then dipped between which produced an indrawn breath and a shudder. He raised the crop to stroke the length of Byou's cock, noting it was fully hard as the omega made an inarticulate sound of need and bucked his hips. Just when he thought Byou was probably too far gone to speak, the omega surprised him.

"Don't make me wait, please," Byou murmured, turning his head to give Aki a desperate, pleading look.

"You need to learn patience though, my pet," Aki responded gently as he climbed onto the bed behind Byou.

"Teach me after my heat then."

Aki set the crop aside and pursed his lips as he considered what amounted to a demand despite it being phrased as a plea. "Part of submitting to me is giving up control, pet. I won't torture you deliberately, and it's hard for me to resist you."

"So don't then," Byou said, twisting around to give Aki a look of exasperation tinged with need. "I'm here and I want to be rutted, so why are you even wanting to wait?"

Something clicked in Aki's mind and he tilted his head as he gazed at Byou. "You want proof I won't discard you after your heat, that I want you for more than this," he murmured, tracing his fingertips along Byou's back as the omega arched into his touch.

"Well, I was kind of hoping you weren't all talk when you said you wanted to take me, pursue me, and make me feel wanted, yes," Byou snapped, remembering the words Aki had spoken before they'd met face to face despite how difficult it was to think at the moment.

Aki smiled faintly and then nodded as he ran his hands up Byou's sides and leaned forward. "It seems our insecurities were feeding off each other and being misinterpreted," he said softly with a somewhat rueful smile. He placed a kiss between Byou's shoulders before he positioned himself and eased into the omega's slick passage, both of them groaning softly. "I want you so much, my pet, more than I've ever wanted anyone else, and I was holding back to give you a choice because the last thing I want to do is take more than you're ready to give," he murmured, nuzzling Byou's neck as he embraced the omega from behind.

Byou shuddered and made a soft keening noise at Aki's words, and it took him a long moment to respond. "You were right though, and I want you so much it scares me," he whispered, closing his eyes as he let his body relax. "I want to give as much as you want to take."

Something in Byou's tone made Aki pause, and he spent a few moments kissing the back of the omega's neck beneath the collar, and across his shoulders. While a part of him urged caution since Byou's heat was influencing his desires, he was pretty sure that the omega was feeling the same instinctive pull that he felt, and it had little to do with heat. "I keep my promises, pet," he murmured before he began a slow, languid rhythm.

This time, though it was still about Byou's pleasure, Aki didn't aim for drawing out as many orgasms in the omega as he could, and he focused instead on memorizing the way Byou responded to each thrust. The muffled gasps and husky moans, and the way Byou arched up and thrust back were intoxicating. By the time he had fully knotted the plastic sheet beneath them was wet and sticky, and he held Byou up as the omega shuddered with aftershocks.

Aki leaned forward and carefully made sure Byou wasn't going to collapse before he unbuckled the cuffs, and then he drew the omega onto his lap as he sat back on his feet. They remained still for a few minutes while they both recovered, and then Aki grabbed a towel and spread it over the wet spot. He spooned behind Byou and listened to the omega's heartbeat gradually slow to a normal rhythm. Neither spoke for several minutes, and Aki caressed Byou idly as he waited for his knot to shrink.

"You know when you said you could just make your claim on me?" Byou asked softly as he clasped Aki's hand and brought it to his chest, threading their fingers together. At Aki's affirmative sound, he continued, "I wouldn't have minded if you had, not really."

Aki's kiss to Byou's shoulder turned into a nibble. "It scares you, to have no choice, and yet it's what you want?" he asked softly.

Byou nodded slowly. "I can submit, but it's only in small ways, and even though I'm not sure I want more than temporary commitment, it's what's been missing. It's what I know I want, to submit completely, but I'm not sure if I can make that choice myself."

"For what it's worth, no amount of you being a smartass is going to drive me away, which is why I haven't disciplined you for it."

Byou shifted a bit to glance back at Aki and smiled faintly. "Then what were the lashes for?"

"For you, since you expected it and it turns you on," Aki said, trailing their joined hands down to Byou's cock. "I'm not the sort of alpha that hurts an omega for my pleasure. Any lessons I teach you will be for our mutual benefit, or yours at least, and none will be painful. Pain shouldn't be used for discipline like that because it teaches fear instead of trust."

Byou made a soft sound of agreement. "And I'm not the sort of omega that likes pain in itself, but it's comforting to know I can't provoke you to hurting me to teach me a lesson. It's not like I'll be doing much sitting for the next few days anyway, unless we have to leave here."

"You can be as much of a smartass as you want, though all I ask is that you keep it for when no one can overhear."

"So Traditionalist omegas aren't allowed to tease alphas?" Byou quipped, giving Aki an amused glance.

"Light teasing is fine, but I'd rather no one else start calling me a cockteasing asshole," Aki retorted with a playful grin.

"Well, you are! But it's true that no one else but me should call you that."

"Getting possessive of me now? I'm flattered."

Byou huffed and rolled his eyes, though he grinned. "Yes, you're my cockteasing asshole, no one else's."

"And you're my impatient, insatiable imp."

"Damn right I am." Byou snuggled quietly for a few minutes before he spoke again. "So what exactly is the difference between a standard Dom and sub thing and a Traditionalist setup?"

"For starters it's all the time rather than just during heats, which is what you said you want, though it seems you'll need to get used to different rules than what you're used to."

"Such as?"

"As you might have noticed, I allow you to get away with a lot in private. And since I happen to like your smartass mouth not much will change with that, but in public you'll be expected to abide by stricter rules," Aki said, stroking his fingertips up and down Byou's arm. "Leashes are mostly a formality, but most bonded omegas wear their mate's collars."

"So omegas aren't equal," Byou said, his tone mostly curious.

"Omegas are submissive, by choice and nature, and as I said before, they do have equal say in family matters if not more," Aki replied. "In public, omegas defer to their alphas and they're expected to see to domestic matters and leave everything else to the alphas."

"So are most bonded, or are omegas allowed to choose their mates or choose not to have a mate?"

"Some omegas wait, and a few never choose a mate. Unlike in the past, we don't arrange mate-bonds unless the omega wishes it, and omegas are allowed to and encouraged to have jobs. Since we live communally, everyone is expected to work in some way, doing whatever tasks they're good at to benefit everyone else."

Byou considered the information for a few moments. "What else? It doesn't seem all that drastically different, except for being submissive outside the bedroom as well."

"The rest is in private and varies between couples, with some being more strict than others. While I don't expect you to be particularly inclined to submit in public or private, we can figure out an arrangement we're both comfortable with."

Byou shifted position and carefully disengaged from Aki so he could stretch out on his back. "You're being evasive again," he said with a faint smile and lightly poked Aki in the chest. "If you could have your way completely and set whatever rules you want, what would they be? You might be surprised what I'll agree to, smartass commentary aside."

Aki smiled ruefully and shrugged, but he considered the question seriously for a few moments. "Ideally? I don't have any rules, really. I just want a mate that depends on me and trusts me, and someone whom I can depend on in turn to be a companion I want to spend time with, in public and private." He smiled again, gently, and leaned forward to give Byou a chaste kiss on the lips. "Unlike a certain diva, I'm fairly easy to please, and I don't mind my decisions being questioned or allowing my mate to have choices. However, if my mate would prefer I choose for them, I would do so and be honored to be given such complete submission."

"So you're saying your insecurity is that you don't want to make your mate feel trapped with you, as if your impossibly high standards and strict rules are such a huge trial to conform to and obey," Byou drawled with a teasing grin. "And in case you haven't figured it out, my divaness is as much of an act as your overwhelming arrogance was."

Aki chuckled and offered another rueful shrug. "Point taken. But yes, I've learned not to be overbearing or set absolute rules, even if it makes me seem like a pushover Dom."

"So if I said I wouldn't mind you being more assertive, would I have to retrain you or will you be able to manage on your own?" Byou asked, his tone playful though his gaze was serious.

Aki made a face and poked Byou's nose. "I think I've figured out when you'd like me to take control by the timing of your snark at me."

"You're a genius, really," Byou said, his sarcasm clear. "But seriously, if I object to anything you do, I'll be sure to let you know in no uncertain terms. Such as me being rather less than thrilled with your hesitation to be an alpha Dom and take control." He gave Aki a pointed look and raised one eyebrow expectantly.

Aki pursed his lips and reached out to trace patterns on Byou's neck. "Even if you don't draw the line at a mate-bite anymore, I'll wait on that until after your heat at least," he murmured, smiling slightly at Byou's startled blink. "What you impulsively want during your heat can be a little too permanent when it wears off. Besides, mate-bites tend to counteract contraceptives."

"While I can't say I object to a more permanent relationship, I'm definitely not ready to have a kid," Byou said slowly, seriously considering the possibilities as he furrowed his brow. "If a mate-bite makes a bond, what about the couples that don't want kids? The Hub education system doesn't exactly have a good record of telling the truth, let alone telling us anything at all about old traditions."

"Bonds can form without bites, and those tend to be just as strong if not stronger than bite-induced bonds," Aki explained. "While it's true that the mate-bite is still considered to be sealing the deal, so to speak, couples don't do it until or unless they want kids since it all but guarantees conception."

"So a bond formed without a bite is more mutual and about compatibility?"

"Yeah, and it's the preferred method these days since it can't be forced," Aki said, and then paused as he tilted his head and gazed at Byou as if deciding whether to elaborate. "It usually forms over time, but if the couple meet during the omega's heat, it can speed up the process."

Byou blinked and stared at Aki for a few heartbeats as the alpha's expression wavered between uncertainty and cautious hope. "Well, that would definitely explain why I'm drawn to you even though you're acting skittish about being Dom."

Aki made a face and sighed with playful exasperation. "Fine, you want rules, I'll set rules, though I have a hunch you'll just disregard them."

"Which is your cue to whip my ass, or other creative methods. I could make a list for you if you need it."

Aki chuckled and leaned in to steal a kiss. "Rule one, no clothes indoors. Rule two, I expect you to offer your ass or mouth to me whenever I want it."

"Those are both a given during my heat, though. It's not fair if you make rules I can't break."

"I'm not done, imp." Aki poked Byou's nose. "Rule three, ask my permission to eat, sleep, to go to the bathroom, to get out of bed, or anything that you usually take initiative about."

Byou opened his mouth to object, but shut it again after a moment and settled for a slightly sour look as he thought it over. "That is definitely something I'm not going to even remember, let alone put up with."

"I won't hold it against you when you're in full heat, but you can't have it both ways, pet. You want me to take control, you're going to have to give a little in return. Besides, you can consider it training to depend on me."

Byou still looked mutinous but he didn't protest further. "Anything else?"

"Not at the moment, but I'll let you know if I think of anything," Aki said, and pressed a finger to Byou's lips when the omega was about to speak. "I'm curious though, you're still able to carry a conversation and control your impulses, and it can't be just that first pill."

Byou furrowed his brow and frowned. "It's only been, what, still not even a full day?" he asked, and Aki nodded after checking his watch. "Might be the pill along with the fact I actually want to talk with you, but the first day or so of my heat isn't so bad. Usually I just want to get on with the rutting so I don't really care about self-control after, and the previous alphas weren't exactly engaging conversationalists," he said with a shrug and a faint smile.

"It could also be the bond, though I'd have to ask about it," Aki murmured.

"Do you really think that's what this is? I mean, it hasn't been long at all."

"While I probably have less rutting experience than you overall, I can definitely say I've never felt this way before, especially so soon," Aki said slowly, offering a shrug. "That, and my head is also remarkably clear despite how intoxicating your scent is."

"You'd think it'd be the other way around for bonds, but I'm hardly going to complain about being able to think about things other than rutting."

"Maybe it's that way for bite-induced bonds, but since this sort is more mutual it's less about rutting and more about compatibility."

"Maybe, yeah," Byou mused, his expression thoughtful. "I still feel the need to rut, but it's not quite as urgent? The urge is there but it's not overwhelming, unless you make me wait," he said, giving Aki a pointed look before smirking.

"Point made, imp," Aki said dryly, leaning close to nip Byou's lips. "I'd have to go outside to be able to resist you, and I'd much rather stay here with you."

"And you won't be neglecting me anymore, speaking of promises," Byou murmured, pointedly snuggling up against Aki.

Aki chuckled indulgently and nodded. "Of course. I'm not going anywhere without you."

Chapter Text

The fridge was stocked with nutritional supplements, not quite up to the quality of Pandora but close enough. Aki had given Byou a couple and ate a ready-made meal himself. Aki remembered to give Byou the second pill on time, and he made sure the rest were put safely away where they wouldn't be forgotten. The plastic sheet on the bed had been covered in towels at some point, for comfort and ease of cleaning. They'd tried the shower once they'd become sticky enough to need it and found it adequate if a bit cramped, but more than suitable for a quick rut. Byou had somehow managed not to slip and hurt himself, though that was more due to not having enough room to fall.

The nap they'd shared back in Pandora was wearing off and Byou yawned as he snuggled on top of Aki on the bed, the alpha still knotted inside him. His heat had gotten stronger but he still managed some lucidity once the tingle of pleasure ebbed. He could swear there was some sort of almost tangible awareness of the alpha that grew with each rut, and it intrigued him. The feeling was hard to put into words, but it was as if he had developed another sense that was entirely Aki, and it was a bit strange but comforting. He'd been attuned to other alphas before during his heats, but it didn't feel like this and he felt as if a part of himself he hadn't known he was missing had finally slipped into place. Of course, when put like that it sounded completely corny and ridiculous, but Byou didn't care.

"Are you waiting for me to tell you to sleep?" Aki's voice was a soft purr, but it still startled Byou out of his thoughts.

Byou blinked and lifted his head from Aki's chest to give the alpha a puzzled look, and as the question registered a moment later he affected an innocent expression.

Aki grinned and poked Byou's nose lightly. "Don't think I didn't notice how passive you've become, waiting for my orders and directions before doing anything."

"I don't know what you mean," Byou murmured, widening his eyes even though he suspected that might be overdoing it.

"Don't get me wrong, I don't mind it, but you're not going to get out of the third rule so easily," Aki said with a smirk. "I could make it stricter if you tempt me."

Byou dropped his act with a huff and a pout. "If you make it cover all voluntary actions, my ass is going to be too sore to rut."

"Is that a hint to get more creative? I can, and there are plenty of other places on your body I can mark instead."

Byou couldn't help the shiver Aki's words caused, and he licked his lips as he smirked. "You need the discipline training anyway. I'm just trying to help."

"Brat," Aki muttered, though his smile was affectionate.

"Well, I let you collar me right off, but there's still some earning of all that goes with it involved."

"Oh? I see, you might wear my collar but you think you own me, is that it?" Aki murmured playfully as he wrapped his arms around Byou.

"You said mate-bonds are mutual, so it's fitting that I top from the bottom," Byou said, suppressing another smirk. "Besides, if you didn't like it you'd assert your alphaness on me and I'd be helpless to resist."

"As if you wouldn't like that, you imp." Aki snorted, a grin twitching his lips. "I suppose it's a good thing Traditionalist customs have changed enough to allow for unconventional arrangements, though it might be the next big scandal if you try to defend me from anyone."

Byou narrowed his eyes at Aki suspiciously, though he had a twinkle in his eyes. "You're toying with me, aren't you," he muttered, and Aki's attempt at an innocent expression made him snort. "You wouldn't have propositioned me if you really were such a pushover to the point of almost being sub."

"It's not all that rare, actually," Aki said mildly, keeping up the pretense. "Kenzo and I, for example, had a relationship for a couple years before he bonded with his mate."

Byou blinked wide eyes as he absorbed the startling information, his brain taking a few long moments to process it and the implications. He noted absently that he felt no flare of jealousy, but that was mostly due to his distraction about the dynamics of an alpha rutting another alpha. And the mental pictures, which he had to admit were hot.

Aki laughed softly as if guessing what was going through Byou's mind, given the omega's dazed look and speechlessness. "If you're curious, I'm sure he and his mate would be willing to have a foursome."

Byou actually blushed, deep red, as he gave Aki an incredulous look tinged with interest he couldn't hide even if he'd tried. Shaking himself after a few moments, he gave Aki a pout and poked the alpha lightly in the chest. "Okay, fine, so you're a switch, not like that's not obvious by now. But even if I don't mind topping from the bottom, you know what I really want."

Aki became serious and gave Byou a considering look. "We're still bonding, and since I'm not inclined to break promises nor do I want to take off before it solidifies, I suppose you're stuck with me." He reached up quickly to press his fingers over Byou's mouth to forestall the omega's reply. "What I mean is, I do know what you want, and I'm not unable to give it to you, but that I'm waiting for the right moment."

Byou made a soft sound of frustration and pouted before he nipped Aki's fingers and sat up. "So what you're saying is by the time you're ready to take me it'll be moot, if it isn't already because of our developing bond," he said, not bothering to keep the irritation from his tone.

"While it's true the bond gives both of us little choice unless we were to separate now, I'm not hesitating out of cold feet or because I think I'd be trapping you, Byou," Aki said softly, noting the omega's attention sharpen at the use of his name. "And it's not that I'm unwilling to do this for you, because I want it as well."

"Then why wait? Do I need to offer myself on a silver platter with a contract signed in blood?" Byou snapped, exasperated. "I'm tired of this waiting game."

Aki's smile was faint as he stroked Byou's sides soothingly. "You're not as ready as you think to completely surrender, Byou. The fantasy and the reality are rather different, and you're lucky I'm not the sort of alpha that would take advantage of your willingness."

Byou looked mutinous for about a minute, but his expression gradually cleared as he processed what Aki meant. Though the urge and annoyance were clearly still there, he had begun to realize the full implications.

"It might be what you think you want, but had I made my claim on you from the beginning like a typical adolescent alpha with no self-control, you'd be in full bite-induced heat by now and we'd be expecting a kid," Aki elaborated in a flat tone, his expression utterly without humor. "I'm not saying I'm waiting for you to want a kid because I'm still in no rush about that either, but what you're asking for is more than either of us want and you'll have to trust me that I'll know when the right time is, okay?"

Byou took a deep breath and held Aki's gaze for a heartbeat before nodding and then bowing his head. "You're right, even if full submission doesn't need to include a mate-bite, I guess I should first adjust to being mated to a Traditionalist alpha who's a little more of a switch than I'd like," he murmured, his lips twitching into a teasing smirk as he glanced up again.

Aki smiled slightly and offered a rueful shrug. "Even if a bond wasn't developing I'd still want to be with you, and not just because you keep trying to rile me up with your smartass diva attitude."

"Maybe it'll work some day, so I'm going to keep trying," Byou retorted with a grin. "You're lucky I'm not inclined to finding another alpha to challenge you."

Aki blinked slowly and narrowed his eyes. "That's because no other alpha is good enough for you, and you're not that stupid even if you don't know what that sort of challenge means with us." His tone was still light, but his hands gripped Byou's hips in warning.

Byou tilted his head curiously. "So there is a way to get you riled and possessive, pity it's off the table entirely even if there was a suitable alpha within a mile radius."

"Any alpha with half a brain could smell our bond forming and that'd be enough to warn them off, but it's not something to joke about, pet," Aki said slowly, licking his lips as he tried to think of a way to explain. "An omega would only do that out of desperation if they were trying to break their bite-bond, and the result would be a bite-bond to the challenger, if said alpha won, so it's not exactly ideal for the omega unless they get lucky."

"Has that happened?" Byou asked softly, his playfulness turning serious.

Aki hesitated and grimaced for a moment. "Only once relatively recently, due to special circumstances I'm not at liberty to divulge. We did away with bite-bonds unless the omega expressly wishes it, or in situations where it can't be helped."

Byou furrowed his brow as he digested that, and it didn't take him long to come up with a few scenarios that could lead to such a situation. "Your settlement must have been one of the first Rim colonies then," he said, partly to shift the subject away from a possibly uncomfortable topic.

"Yes, we began migrating out to the Rim a little before the beta takeover of the Hub," Aki explained. "Many of the more recent colonies are breakaway settlements from the original colonies, either because it got too crowded or the settlement rules were too strict or not strict enough."

Byou mulled that over for a bit before changing the subject slightly once again. "So hypothetically, if enough Rim colonies were inclined to unite, you could perhaps manage to become fully autonomous from the Hub," Byou mused, smiling a little when Aki gave him a startled blink.

"Yes, we could," Aki said slowly, and gave Byou a thoughtful look. "We're not quite as technologically advanced as the Hub on our own, yet, but we're almost entirely self-sufficient and it's enough for now."

"Okay, so revolution isn't on the horizon any time soon, but you trade with other settlements and for all intents and purposes you can disregard Hub laws at will, provided word doesn't get back to Central."

Aki nodded again and seemed to come to a decision. "I suppose I can tell you since you know a little more now, but I was keeping in touch with the network we have on Pandora when I wasn't rutting with you," Aki said. "We're always keeping tabs on the spaceport and the facilities here to protect our interests, and so we're not caught off-guard by a raid or snooping."

"So you have spies and informants here? Are you sure this isn't some sort of holovid thing?"

Aki laughed softly and shook his head. "Nothing so dramatic, though I guess that depends on how you look at it. We tend to prefer resorts like Pandora for our own needs, and while we're hardly lacking in technology and comforts at home, we like indulging in a luxury vacation when we can."

"And I suppose places like Pandora are good to recruit from too, finding other alphas and omegas who don't like the Hub's strict rules."

"Exactly. Some of us live here at least part time, to coordinate things and help those who want to move to a Rim settlement."

"Like you and the others here?"

"Yeah, though the bonded couples here don't yet have kids, besides Shinji and his mate, and the unbonded aren't looking for a mate to settle down with."

"Except you, and you then dragged me into all this," Byou murmured, smiling to show he didn't mind.

"The adventure of your life is worth it, and you get a mate as a bonus," Aki drawled with a smug smirk.

Byou made a soft sound of amusement and shifted off Aki to stretch out beside the alpha, then stifled another yawn. "If you're inclined to wake me with a rut, I certainly wouldn't mind," he murmured, tracing an idle pattern around Aki's pierced nipple.

Aki raised his eyebrows with interest and ran his fingers through Byou's hair. "Before or after you're at least somewhat awake?"

"Either, though before is preferred," Byou replied, raising his head slightly to meet Aki's gaze as he smiled a bit. "It's an extension of rule two that I'm willing to grant you, even after my heat passes."

Aki blinked and nodded slowly, then leaned in to give Byou a chaste kiss. "As for rule three, you may sleep now, but don't think I won't expect you to follow it later," he said with a grin.

Byou made a playful face at that but nodded before snuggling close and closing his eyes.

 

Byou woke slowly to the feel of something smooth, warm, and thin gliding across his back, and he sleepily nuzzled the pillow beneath his cheek. At first he thought it was a caress of fingertips but it soon became apparent that it was something else entirely. The sensation was pleasant and comfortable so he kept his eyes closed while his brain processed the transition from sleep to wakefulness. It didn't take long before he was conscious enough to register that the smooth gliding caresses across his skin was rope, and that it was being tied precisely around his wrists and ankles with deft hands by the little tugs that seemed to radiate down his limbs with a ripple of sensation. Limbs which were spread and tied, one to each corner of the bed from the feel of it. He sighed out a breath of contented comfort and shifted ever so slightly, and then familiar lips pressed against his cheek in a kiss.

"Stay still, pet, and keep your eyes closed," Aki murmured, his breath a soft caress on Byou's face.

Byou couldn't help a slight pout at the second part of the order, but he obeyed despite how curious and impatient he was. Recalling the last bit of their conversation before he'd fallen asleep, he had half expected to wake with Aki thrusting into him, but he knew enough about the alpha now to know that whatever Aki was doing instead would be better. When Aki's hands trailed down his bare back he released a quiet moan, and his hips lifted up in an entirely involuntary movement that earned him a light smack to his ass.

When Byou felt something soft and wet trace around and over the raised welts on his ass, he stifled a moan and buried his face in the pillow as he shivered. The sweet torture continued from there and spread to other parts of his body, places he didn't even know were quite that sensitive until Aki's tongue discovered them. Within mere minutes Byou was writhing and straining against the ropes, his eyes squeezed shut.

"Listen to me, pet, focus on my voice," Aki commanded softly, his lips suddenly an inch from Byou's ear. Byou barely had enough time to be startled before Aki continued, "I am going to memorize every centimeter of your body, your skin, your insides, and you're going to come for me so many times before I finally knot you."

Byou's response was an inarticulate groan and a full body shudder, the omega's toes curling as he let out a shaky mewl of need.

"I'm going to lick every pore, every single part of you, taste you everywhere," Aki whispered in a husky growl, punctuating his words with the promised licks as he moved down Byou's spine. "Gonna scent you, mark you, make you mine, and make you come hard, again and again, gonna own every bit of you."

The words alone were almost enough to send Byou over the edge, and he bucked reflexively into the towels beneath him. It wasn't enough, not quite, and he made a frustrated sound when Aki jerked his hips up and back and delivered another warning slap to his ass.

"So wet for me already, aren't you, pet?" Aki purred, his fingers teasingly circling Byou's hole but not touching its edges even when the omega attempted to shift into his touch. "You want my cock deep inside you, don't you? You want my knot stretching you, to feel me pounding into you until you come over and over, rutting you until you can't walk or even sit."

Well past the point of a verbal response, Byou released another needy moan and strained against the ropes. Aki was silent for the next few minutes as he fulfilled his promise, licking and nibbling every inch of Byou's exposed skin that he could reach. Occasionally the alpha paused to describe some kink he wanted to do to Byou later, but Byou barely registered the words. Every sensation was amplified, and Byou could swear he felt every individual drop of sweat on his skin as Aki explored his body.

Just when Byou was sure he couldn't take anymore without bursting from need, Aki's fingers shoved into his hole and he gasped sharply as he came with a suddenness that made stars explode behind his eyelids. He was still shuddering with aftershocks as Aki thrust his fingers in and out in a hard rhythm, and it took only moments for a second orgasm to hit, wrenching a strangled moan from Byou.

"The sounds you make are delicious, pet," Aki murmured, his breathing heavier. "Think you can take my whole hand?" He barely waited for Byou's groan before pushing his hand into the omega, moving with the involuntary bucking it caused. His knuckles slipped past the ring of muscle with ease and he released a moan of his own as he felt Byou clamp down hard. Aki remained still until the trembling had subsided almost completely, and then began to move his hand in slow, deep thrusts. He took care to not overdo it even though he knew Byou could take most of his arm, as omegas were built to take the large cocks alphas had and then some. He kept most of his attention on pacing the orgasms he drew from Byou, as he didn't want to overwhelm the omega too soon. When he judged that Byou had reached his limit, he slowly eased his hand out and quickly wiped off.

Letting Byou have a short break to recover, Aki took in the wanton sight of the omega's ass dripping with its clear lubrication, the hole pink and swollen around the edges. It looked thoroughly rutted though it hadn't been, yet. He allowed himself a few strokes of his aching cock and then bit his lip to stifle a groan. It took every last shred of his self-control to keep from burying himself into Byou right then and rutting the omega into the bed.

Byou's eyes fluttered open and his gaze locked with Aki's, the alpha's clear and piercing while his was glassy and hazy with partially sated lust. He licked dry lips and swallowed, unable to look away though the position strained his neck somewhat. They stayed like that, neither moving, for several heartbeats until Aki broke the spell by moving up the bed and reaching for the ropes binding Byou's left wrist to the bedpost. Byou watched as Aki slipped the rope loop off the carabiner attached to the bedpost and then did the same for his other wrist, leaving the coiled ropes wrapped snug around his wrists. The 'don't move' order was implied in Aki's warning glance but unspoken, and Byou remained obediently still as the alpha moved to free his ankles. He was sated enough for the moment to be docile, though he'd long forgotten about the order to keep his eyes shut.

It didn't seem as if Aki minded or remembered that part of the earlier order as the alpha set about repositioning Byou. For his part, Byou allowed Aki to move him around without complaint or fidgeting, and soon enough the omega was flipped onto his back once the towels beneath him were replaced with clean ones. From there Aki attached a spreader bar between Byou's bound ankles and then fastened the rings on either side of the bar to carabiner clasps on chains hanging from the ceiling. Once Aki had confirmed the bar was balanced and steady enough he moved to secure Byou's wrists to the headboard.

Byou whined softly when Aki moved off the bed, but the alpha gave him a look of amusement accompanied by a wink. Aki was back within moments and Byou fixed his gaze on the alpha's hard cock with an expectant intensity as Aki moved between his legs. However, Aki clearly had another plan in mind when instead of positioning himself he lifted Byou's hips and scooted down. Before Byou could even make a sound of curious confusion Aki's tongue was teasing his hole and the omega let out a shuddering mewl. Aki's hands held him steady and made his squirming ineffective, and Byou soon lost all coherency as the alpha explored his hole with teasing licks. It drove him quickly to the edge but not over, and soon enough his sounds became frustrated and then pained as he trembled with need.

"Ever been sucked off, pet?" Aki asked, his breath on the omega's damp skin making Byou whimper and squirm. Aki grinned, knowing he'd get no reply to his question, and moved to take Byou's cock into his mouth. The omega bucked again but Aki's grip was firm, and he patiently and thoroughly explored Byou's cock with lips and tongue. Finally taking mercy on Byou, he took the omega's cock deep into his mouth and seconds later he heard and felt Byou come and swallowed every drop easily. Again letting Byou have time to recover, Aki watched the omega's panting breaths slow for a minute before his tongue licked a trail over Byou's cock and balls and then flicked around and over the perineum. He repeated the pattern with some variations until Byou's cock stirred again, and then he finally shifted position.

Aki set Byou's hips back down and then reached up to unfasten the omega's ankles from the spreader bar, lowering the limbs to rest on his shoulders and then leaning forward. He locked his gaze with Byou's as he slowly eased into the omega's slick passage, both of them groaning with pleasure as Byou's eyes fluttered closed. His knot was already swelling up by the time he had sunk in most of the way, and a firm thrust pushed it fully in. Though he wanted to hold back and draw it out as long as he could, his self-control had already reached its limit and he wasted no time in setting a rough rhythm. He kept his gaze fixed on the omega's face as he leaned in close, only stopping when Byou grimaced with the strain on his legs bent at such an angle. Adjusting the angle helped, and he watched as Byou cried out and came within moments. His own orgasm followed shortly, his knot swelling and locking them together after his last deep thrust, and he shuddered as he spilled into Byou.

Some time later when they'd both calmed down and Aki's knot was gradually shrinking, the alpha released Byou's wrists from the headboard. Byou was quick to wrap his arms around Aki and made a contented sound as the alpha nuzzled him affectionately. A careful readjustment of their limbs allowed them to cuddle more comfortably, and Aki captured Byou's lips in a languid but deep kiss. Settling over Byou, Aki nuzzled and nipped the omega's neck and reined in his urge to bite down, instinct losing the battle to claim what he knew was already his.

Hardly a minute after Aki finally disengaged and snuggled beside Byou, a knock on the door startled them both. Raising himself on his elbows, Aki tilted his head and listened for a moment before calling out for the visitor to enter. As Aki seemed unthreatened by whoever had knocked, Byou made no move to cover himself and the omega soon saw why as the door opened, after some struggle, to reveal another omega. The collar he wore was decorative so it looked like jewelry, but it bore the initials KM in the center.

"What is it, Yume?" Aki asked as he sat up and ran his fingers through his tousled hair.

Yumehito offered them an apologetic smile as he came in and shut the door. "Sorry to interrupt, but Zo wanted me to let you know the betas have been nosing around," he said, blinking a few times and staying pointedly by the door, his gaze averted. "We know they're planning to organize search parties soon for beyond the resort, so it might be necessary to move you two elsewhere sooner rather than later."

"Understood." Aki turned to Byou and began untying the rope knots with quick efficiency. "So the comm lines aren't safe, which is why you came in person," he said, glancing up to Yumehito.

Yumehito nodded and darted a brief glance toward the bed. "Yeah, but there's no rush yet. The betas are still searching the resort and town, and it's big enough to occupy them for a while since they didn't come with more than three squads and some officials."

"Just three squads? Seems odd to bring that few if they were going to raid Pandora," Aki mused, furrowing his brow. "By the way, Yume, this is Byou," Aki said with a slight smirk as he gestured between the two omegas.

"Hi, Byou. And he's your mate, eh? About time," Yumehito said with a grin, and then gave Byou a coy wave.

"Hello, nice to meet you," Byou said and snorted as he gave a half-embarrassed smile and glanced to Aki, then Yumehito. "I'd apologize for our current state, but I don't think I have any dignity to salvage anyway."

"It's fine, newly bonded couples always stink a place up," Yumehito said with another wide grin. "At least my timing wasn't too awkward. Congratulations, by the way."

Aki rolled his eyes and finished freeing Byou from the ropes. "Thanks. So is there anything else we need to know?"

"We looked into the warrant for Byou, and it's marked confidential and encrypted. We didn't think it was really worth it to crack the encryption, but it's odd enough that we're pretty sure they're not going to give up easily," Yumehito said slowly, his face serious as he glanced to the bed.

Byou blinked slowly and shared a concerned look with Aki as he chewed his lower lip. "If they're that determined, it must be because of my association with the underground fetish network. I guess some of them must he involved in more serious things than illicit porn."

"Very likely," Aki murmured and shrugged. "I know there are groups in the Hub working to undermine and destabilize beta control of certain areas, and it's hardly a stretch to assume they've got both legal and illegal ways to fund their goals."

"Well, whatever it is, we're going to do our best to not let them get you, or any of us for that matter," Yumehito said, and gave Aki a questioning look. Receiving a slight nod from the alpha, he continued, "Our agents in Pandora are lying low for now so any info we get will be delayed significantly, which is why we think it's best to move you two further away. We're trying to arrange an off-planet ship now, but it'll be risky and it's best to wait until the squads are spread out and searching beyond the resort before we bring you back to the spaceport."

Byou blinked slowly as he absorbed the new information, and then shifted uncomfortably as he sat up with care. "My heat's getting stronger and I don't know how useful I'll be," he said as he toweled off. "I don't know a damn thing about anything particularly useful to them, but if they're going after me they must have raided the higher levels of the network." He shrugged and scratched his head. "Or maybe they're planning to and for whatever reason think I might know some names they couldn't get from someone else."

"Or it could be more about why you weren't sterilized despite how thorough they usually are about that," Aki said softly, his brow furrowed as he studied Byou.

Both Byou and Yumehito blinked at Aki and then shared a look together.

"Byou's hardly the first omega to join us from the Hub," Aki said and glanced pointedly to Yumehito. "Mao also came to us unsterilized, and at least one alpha wasn't either. It's strange, especially considering none of them had any direct ties to the underground groups, just tangential ones if any."

"Yeah, as far as we can tell none of us are agents, unknowingly or not," Yumehito mused as he slowly walked over to the couch to sit. "Though Mao did wind up bonded relatively fast, and to one of our settlement's leaders no less."

"It's hardly suspicious in itself if we migrate to the Rim to get away from the Hub's restrictive laws, since the betas keep getting more and more ridiculous with their regulations on us," Byou added, licking his lips as he struggled to think. "Seems a stupid plan if they're trying to infiltrate you that way, but then they seem rather ignorant about our natures."

Aki reached over to rub Byou's back and gave the omega an affectionate, chaste kiss. "Go take a shower and get dressed," he said, getting up to rummage in Byou's bag. Pulling out some clothes, he handed them to Byou.

Byou hesitated and pouted a bit, but obeyed with a last reluctant look at Aki and Yumehito before disappearing into the bathroom.

Once the bathroom door shut and the sound of the shower started, Aki pulled on some boxers and got up, then went to open the front door. "Come on in," he said, and stepped aside for Kenzo.

"Fuck's sake, this place reeks," Kenzo muttered as he waved a hand in front of his nose and pulled a face. He grinned as Aki gave him a playful punch on the arm. "Congratulations, finally."

Aki huffed and rolled his eyes as he gave Kenzo a mock sour look. "Thanks. You and Yume stunk up your place when you bonded, so you've got no room to talk."

"Yeah, yeah." Kenzo made a dismissive gesture and then joined Yumehito on the couch. "So what if your mate is a spy?" he asked, getting right to the point in his usual blunt fashion as he slung an arm around Yumehito's shoulders.

Aki hesitated and leveled an irritated look at Kenzo. "If he is he'd have to be a sleeper agent, and we'll check for that as soon as we can, standard procedure."

"I got a hunch his warrant is a cover, but I have no idea what the pretense could be for," Kenzo muttered, and then glanced to Yumehito. "What do you think?"

Yumehito blinked but pursed his lips thoughtfully and then shrugged. "He seems normal to me, as far as I can tell. I did a standard background check and nothing looked odd, though Byou's a pseudonym and not his real name, which isn't unusual in itself given his line of work."

"Yeah, Masahito Kojima is his given name," Kenzo said, then glanced to Aki and raised one eyebrow. "He had one other pseudonym he used for a while, Toge, that he seems to have stopped using a few years ago, and it was primarily for his less clandestine work."

"Are you saying I shouldn't trust my own mate, Zo?" Aki asked calmly, though his shoulders and jaw were set in stubborn lines.

"No, but the timing of all this is a bit strange," Kenzo said with a shrug, unfazed. "He doesn't need to be aware of anything to be used, after all, and you even said that you found it odd how good a match he was for you."

Aki frowned and paced for a moment before heading to the kitchen area. "So he could've been sent for me, but that would mean the betas know I stay at Pandora. Seems a stretch when I'm hardly a leader worth bothering with, much less the only unbonded alpha from the Rim here." He took out a snack from the fridge and then set out a drink for Byou before he ate his food.

"If he is a sleeper agent we can remove the conditioning without affecting him," Yumehito said quietly as he leaned closer to Kenzo. "He doesn't even need to know."

Kenzo made a noncommittal sound and shrugged. "It seems unlikely that he would be, to be honest, but the betas seem to be getting more desperate. He should be thoroughly checked out in any case, as we do for everyone from the Hub."

Both alphas glanced to the bathroom door when the water shut off, and they waited in silence for a few minutes. Yumehito got up at a nudge from Kenzo and looked to Aki, and at the alpha's nod the omega knocked on the bathroom door. Announcing himself, Yumehito slipped into the bathroom when Byou gave permission. A few minutes later Byou and Yumehito emerged, the former fully dressed in plain black casual clothes with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. Yumehito rejoined Kenzo on the couch and curled up next to his mate.

Byou stopped short as he saw Kenzo on the couch and blinked once before nodding a greeting and joined Aki behind the kitchen counter. "You gonna shower too?" he asked, picking up his drink and opening it. He flashed a smirk as Aki gave him a pointed look for taking the drink, and casually took a sip.

"Yeah, and no getting into more trouble while I'm in there, imp," Aki muttered, giving Byou a poke on the nose. He turned and fetched a change of clothes before he retreated to the bathroom.

"So, did I miss anything exciting?" Byou asked as he took a seat at the kitchen counter.

"Nope, though I'm mildly curious why you go by Byou, Masahito," Kenzo said, smiling faintly as Byou almost choked on a sip of his drink.

"Um, well, because I like the name? My parents weren't exactly thrilled I went into fetish modeling, and most of us choose pseudonyms," Byou said slowly as he blinked at Kenzo and shrugged. "My given name isn't really a secret or anything."

"Don't be a jerk, Zo, we don't need to interrogate him," Yumehito said softly and poked his mate in the ribs. "Even Aki uses a fake surname sometimes."

"It's one question, hardly an interrogation," Kenzo protested mildly.

"Were you born in the Hub, Yume?" Byou asked, partly to change the subject.

"Yeah, though I moved to the Rim when I was young and bounced around a few colonies since then," Yumehito said with a faint smile. "I met Zo a couple years ago at another resort, and he courted me for a while until we bonded."

Byou nodded and then finished off his drink before getting up. He moved to the bedroom area and began packing his and Aki's things, then glanced to the bed with a frown.

"Don't worry about cleaning up, someone will take care of it later," Yumehito said with a dismissive wave.

"A spreader bar, creative," Kenzo said with a smirk as he pointed to the bar still suspended on chains.

Yumehito pulled a face and poked his mate again. "I can't take you anywhere," he muttered with an amused smile.

Byou gave Kenzo an utterly impassive look and then turned to the bathroom as the door opened and Aki emerged fully dressed. "My mate is also the fingerfuck fairy, though I suppose you know that already," he drawled, and then grinned wide at Aki's startled look and Yumehito's badly muffled guffaw. "What?" he asked innocently, and then dodged Aki's half-hearted swipe at him with a laugh.

"Making Zo blush is quite a rare skill, Byou, congratulations," Aki said dryly as he smirked at Kenzo who was still blushing faintly, though he'd stopped looking scandalized. "I'd apologize for my mate's rudeness, or make him apologize, but I'm sure you earned that remark somehow, Zo."

Kenzo huffed but didn't bother refuting Aki's statement, and he shrugged with a faintly rueful look. "Do I even wanna know why or how our past fling came up in conversation?" he asked Aki as he glanced at Byou with a slightly amused look.

"Maybe I'll tell you later," Aki replied with a smirk.

"I still want to know those details too, so no leaving me out," Yumehito said, still giggling a bit.

"Well, I can see why you two hit it off so quick," Kenzo muttered as he pulled himself to his feet. He straightened his clothes and then checked his watch. "We should get going, it's a long way to the next place with a private room for you two."

Gathering the last of their things, Aki and Byou soon stepped out of the cabin and climbed into the back of the waiting hovervan. Kenzo took the driver's seat while Yumehito sat in the passenger seat, and once the doors were locked and everyone settled in Kenzo started the engine and steered the van onto a path behind the cabin.

Chapter Text

Byou noticed right away that compared to the other, this hovervan was roomier without seats in the back, and it had tinted windows. Instead of seats, there was a large futon covered in plastic with several towels for pillows, and a few metal boxes were secured to the half-open partition behind the front seats. While he felt slightly awkward about rutting in the van, he knew he wouldn't care in the heat of the moment, in more than one sense. He stifled a yawn and flopped onto the futon face first, finding it surprisingly comfortable despite the plastic covering.

"We can seal up the back when you two feel frisky so you can have some privacy," Yumehito said as he turned in his seat to look at Aki and Byou. "The trip will take about four hours if we make good time and don't have to take any detours around new checkpoints or have any other unforeseen delays."

Aki nodded and moved to join Byou on the futon, stretching out on his back beside his mate with a sigh. "It'd be a lot easier if we had our own comm lines. I don't like not knowing what's going on."

"It seemed best to be overly cautious this time since we don't know what sort of tracking equipment they have, or whether they're monitoring comm frequencies thoroughly," Kenzo said, his attention remaining on the road. "Anyway, there's food in the boxes if you need it, and we can pull over for nature's call."

"Thanks," Byou said, raising his head to give a faint smile to Yumehito since Kenzo was driving. Snuggling close with Aki, he rested his head on his mate's chest and closed his eyes. He wasn't physically tired, mostly due to his heat and the nap he'd had earlier, but mentally he felt drained by all that had happened.

Aki wrapped one arm around Byou and shifted a bit. "I'm keeping count, just so you know," he murmured and grinned when Byou pouted.

"May I rest?" Byou asked dryly, lifting his head to look at his mate.

"Be more specific, pet."

"Be less of a pain in the ass about it and I might not forget so much," Byou retorted, a hint of playfulness beneath his sour tone.

Aki chuckled softly and poked Byou's nose with affection. "Very well, you may rest, but I'm not letting things slide," he said, his lips twitching at Byou's glower and huff.

Byou settled back down with a last grumble and closed his eyes as he slowly relaxed, lulled by Aki's steady heartbeat beneath his ear. He didn't sleep though, mostly because he couldn't stop going over everything that had happened since he'd arrived at Pandora. It unnerved him on some level to be on the run, and he knew it was partly because the instability of not having a safe place to relax was stressful during an omega's heat. The instinct to nest, so to speak, was a normal part of heat since the purpose of heats were to conceive, and so having to move from place to place made him feel off balance.

Some time later Byou's thoughts were disrupted when he felt Aki's fingers brush tentatively over the back of his neck. When the touches turned into a light caress he made a contented sound and moved his head a bit to encourage Aki. Aside from fastening or removing collars, Aki hadn't really touched the back of Byou's neck. The contact was especially intimate for omegas due to the clusters of nerves there, and it gave him a thrill as Aki caressed him. Shifting to sit up a little more, he met Aki's gaze and smiled slightly before he gave a faint nod and bowed his head to rest his forehead on his mate's chest.

It took another moment before Aki's light grip on Byou's neck tightened a fraction in acceptance of the omega's offer, and his mate trembled slightly but didn't go limp. Normally this sort of touching was out of bounds with omegas considering the intense effects it could have on them, but he had a hunch that Byou had been waiting for him to take the initiative. He wanted to ask whether Byou was sure, but he chewed his lip instead and settled for fingering the collar's buckle. He took the cue from Byou's faint nod to unfasten the collar and pulled it off, setting it aside.

They both glanced up at the sound of the partition closing, and Yumehito smiled softly at them with a knowing look. The black plastic partition soon sealed off the back area of the van, giving them visual privacy if not soundproofing.

Byou and Aki shared a look for a few heartbeats before the omega slowly sat up and began to undress, the alpha doing the same a second later. Once they were both naked and their clothes kicked off the futon, Byou stretched out on his back and reached for Aki. "I want it, want to give you this," he murmured, meeting Aki's gaze steadily as the alpha moved to stretch over him.

In answer Aki smiled as he leaned close and caught Byou's lips in a gentle kiss, and his hands trailed up the omega's arms before one slipped behind his mate's neck. Taking it slow, he massaged the base of Byou's neck without pressing too firmly and explored the more sensitive spots. He gradually increased the pressure as he continued kissing Byou, drinking in the breathy sighs his mate made as the omega's body relaxed.

"How do you feel?" Aki asked softly as he pressed light kisses over Byou's cheeks and jaw.

"Wobbly, good, feels kinda intense," Byou murmured, his breath hitching a bit when Aki pressed a particular spot. His arms came up to embrace Aki loosely, his fingers trailing idle patterns on the alpha's back.

Aki changed his grip a bit and placed two fingers on either side of Byou's vertebrae where the collar usually covered and then pressed firmly, which caused Byou to shiver. "And now?"

Byou took a few moments to respond, and when he did his voice was breathy, "It's kinda like when you almost bit me, but my insides aren't doing a dance."

Aki chuckled softly and nuzzled Byou's neck. "It's making your scent stronger." He squeezed the spot just enough to make Byou stiffen and then went back to massaging it.

"I didn't know it could feel so good," Byou mumbled. "I thought it was just about making omegas unable to move."

"I'll teach you all about how good it can be when we're in a more comfortable place," Aki promised with a smile.

"Can't wait," Byou murmured with a lazy smile. He blinked slowly and hesitated before speaking again, his eyes on Aki's face. "You know what I meant, right?"

Aki tilted his head and nodded once. "You'd prefer I catch you off guard?" he asked with a faint smile.

Byou nodded and smirked slightly. "I've never been scruffed, not even for a scene. It's all faked, but don't tell anyone I said that."

Aki chuckled and nodded again before resuming his rubbing on Byou's neck. His other hand caressed Byou's chest and moved lower until it finally closed around the omega's half-hard cock. "Want to give them a show?" he asked in a husky tone, his expression amused.

Byou startled slightly and then blushed as he glanced to the closed partition. "Well, I--"

"Don't tell me you're not an exhibitionist, imp. You can't be shy in your line of work."

"It's not that!" Byou protested, pouting. "Well, maybe a little, but..." he trailed off, chewing his bottom lip.

"But? Trust me, they're quite loud, enough to be heard through thick walls even. It'll serve them right."

Byou laughed and shook his head. "Well, alphas have better hearing. Won't our smell be enough to distract them? Besides, I don't want to cause the van to veer off course, or be responsible for a delay."

"True, a delay won't be good, though I have my doubts that you can hold off for four hours, and I'm not inclined to make you wait anymore," Aki said with a grin, moving his hand from Byou's cock to rest on one of his thighs. "Not to mention you're hardly quiet unless I tell you to be."

"That's because you're a cockteasing asshole," Byou quipped with a cheeky smirk.

In reply Aki gripped the back of Byou's neck and nipped beneath the omega's jaw. "Speaking of, in a way, there's no need to be coy with other mated pairs around. Hub rules are stupid, and intimacy is nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, I could make it an order for you to be noisy," he murmured, squeezing Byou's neck just firmly enough to make the omega twitch involuntarily.

Byou arched up beneath Aki with a soft moan and licked his lips. "If you keep doing that, our enlightening conversation will have to wait," he quipped after a moment.

"Oh? Is that so?" Aki smirked and changed his grip, pressing down on either side of Byou's spine again.

Byou made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a moan as he shuddered. "It's making me want you inside me," he quipped with a grin. "Funny how the 'off' button is also the 'on', eh?"

"Is that a hint, imp?"

"Damn right it is."

"Maybe I'll make you beg for it before I rut you."

"Oh, does that mean I get another demonstration of your fingerfuck fairy skills?"

Aki latched onto a spot just below Byou's jaw and bit lightly, sucking at the skin as his hand gripped Byou's neck harder. "Care to repeat that, pet?" he growled with mock threat as he tried not to laugh and eased his grip.

Byou made an inarticulate whimper as he shuddered again, his muscles feeling even more wobbly. "You and your dirty tricks," he finally murmured, blinking dazedly as he regained control of his limbs.

"You like it."

"Jerk."

Aki grinned unrepentantly and kissed Byou's pouting lips. With a slight shift to reposition their limbs, Aki eased into Byou and held the omega's gaze as he began a languorous rhythm. True to his comment before, Aki drew out sounds from Byou that grew louder and more intense as the omega lost himself in the pleasure. When they were finally spent some time later, Aki snuggled with Byou until his knot shrunk and then made use of the towels to clean them off.

Barely ten minutes later Byou and Aki were startled when the hovervan took a sharp turn, and the partition lowered shortly after the vehicle came to a stop a few moments later. Aki sat up quickly at Kenzo's grim look, and as he nudged Byou to dress he noted that Yumehito looked slightly nervous.

"Checkpoint?" Aki asked.

"Yeah, just got the signal from a truck going by the other way before we were in sight," Kenzo replied, shutting off the van's engine. "There aren't any other roads here, it's a deliberate bottleneck."

Aki cursed and hurriedly pulled on his clothes. "What are our options?" he asked as he fastened Byou's collar around his mate's neck.

"We can go back to the last intersection and take another route, but it's likely there's another new checkpoint there as well," Yumehito said, fidgeting with his seatbelt.

"And that will add about two hours, at least, to the trip," Kenzo said. "Plan B is ditch the van and walk around the checkpoint, and that will take even longer since we can't exactly call ahead for a pickup on the other side."

"The others know we're on our way, but they'll probably be staying put to avoid checkpoints," Yumehito added, biting his lower lip. "This checkpoint is likely staffed by Pandora's beta security, but we can't count on the slim chance one or more of our agents are with them."

"Regardless, it means the betas here are cooperating with the Hub's betas, and we can't risk being seen by them," Kenzo said with a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. "There's a small footpath that cuts through the forest up ahead."

"So, walking it is then," Aki murmured with a sigh, and then picked up their bags. "They'll probably have guards on the path, but not many unless they've called in for more security than usual around here."

"Right, most of them will stay at the checkpoint, but we should be careful anyway," Kenzo said, adjusting the bracelet covering his ID chip. Once everyone else had checked their bracelets they exited the van and Kenzo shut the doors. "There's probably a guard up ahead where the path starts, so we'll cut through the forest until we reach it."

Kenzo led the way with the rest following behind, Yumehito directly behind his mate with Byou behind him, and Aki brought up the rear. The two alphas focused on keeping alert while the omegas tried not to make too much noise as they all plodded through the undergrowth. Fortunately the trees weren't too thick, but it was still slow going as they walked steadily for what seemed like an eternity. Luck was with them and they didn't encounter anyone for a while after reaching the path.

Two figures approached from up ahead at a nonchalant pace, and the one in front lifted a hand in a wave at the four who had stopped when Kenzo halted abruptly. The nearer stranger was very tall and he walked with casual confidence, while the one behind him was a few inches shorter and more wary. Their scents pegged them both as bonded alphas.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Kenzo asked flatly, staring at the taller of the two walking toward them.

"Nice to see you too, Kenzo," the tall alpha replied in a dry tone, his expression mildly amused. He nodded politely to the other three and smirked briefly at Aki.

"Byou, this is Ruka and Niya," Aki said, gesturing to the taller alpha first and then his companion who was still hanging back. "You here to be our escort?" he asked the two alphas.

"Yeah, we got a van waiting," Ruka said, waving a hand vaguely behind him. "We saw the checkpoint a while ago and figured you were coming this way. I'll take your van through the checkpoint and then meet up with you later back at the house."

Kenzo nodded and handed the keys to Ruka. "The van's parked around the bend about a five minute walk from the path."

"Is Hitsugi here too?" Yumehito asked, smiling hopefully.

"Yeah, we arrived yesterday and Hittsu's with Satoshi and the little ones," Ruka said with a brief smile. "Better get going, don't want to keep Sakito waiting." With a last wave Ruka trotted off down the path.

Niya gestured for them to follow and then turned to lead the way. "We have to take the scenic route, but they haven't mobilized much this far out," he said, and then turned to look over his shoulder at Byou before glancing to Aki, an eyebrow raised in silent question.

"Byou's got a warrant out, though we're not exactly sure why the Hub betas are so eager to find him," Aki said with a shrug. "We've got some theories, but at this point they probably know he left Pandora with me, so if nothing else that's why they're after us."

Niya nodded and gave Byou another speculative look before turning away. "This safehouse will be secure enough for you two until we can get an off-planet ship heading to your colony, which might take a few days," he said to Aki.

"Hopefully the Hub betas will have left by then," Aki said, glancing to Byou and then taking his mate's hand in his.

Byou nodded and moved closer to Aki as they walked. "Pretty sure I can bear it until we get there," he murmured, mustering a faint smile.

"I'll make sure it's worth the wait," Aki said with a smirk.

"Oh, thanks so much, I'll be sure not to think about it now," Byou retorted sourly and poked Aki in the side.

Aki grinned unrepentantly and gave Byou a chaste kiss. "You can last another hour or so, I'm sure."

Byou huffed but nodded after a moment. "I'm still a lot more lucid than usual, which is kind of weird."

"It's fairly normal when an omega's bonding to an alpha," Yumehito offered as he glanced back at the two. "Though it probably also depends on whether or not you have a secure place to stay." He motioned to Kenzo and grinned. "But then Zo isn't much of a talker, so it was a bit different for us."

"So you think it's a combination of the stress of moving from place to place and the developing bond?" Byou asked curiously.

Yumehito nodded and then shrugged a bit. "Probably more the former than the latter. Zo and I had a lot more time to bond, and we didn't have any interruptions."

"I guess that makes sense, since I'd be useless if I was out of it in a heat daze by now and I'd just slow you all down," Byou murmured, frowning thoughtfully.

"Your heats from now on will be less intense, once your bond solidifies," Yumehito said with a smile. "It should be stable by the time your heat passes, but it'll probably take at least a couple more heats before you two are comfortable apart from each other for an extended period of time."

Byou nodded and glanced to Aki. "Guess we're stuck with each other," he murmured with a smirk.

Aki smiled faintly and squeezed Byou's hand.

They left the path after about ten minutes of walking, and then plodded through the underbrush for another while before finally emerging from the forest. A van built for off-road travel was waiting a few paces ahead, and an omega waved at them from the open side door. Niya hurried his pace and motioned for the omega to come out, and the omega obeyed immediately.

"Get in shotgun," Niya said to the omega, climbing into the driver's seat. "Saki, this is Byou," he added as an afterthought and gestured at Byou.

Sakito smiled at Byou and nodded a greeting to the others. They all climbed into the van, and as soon as everyone found seats and buckled up Niya drove off.

"Congratulations, both of you," Sakito said, turning around to look at Aki and Byou. "Nice to meet you, Byou."

"Thanks. Nice to meet you too." Byou mustered a smile and darted a quick glance to Niya, but refrained from commenting on the alpha's abruptness. He noticed Sakito's collar was made of a wide strip of thick leather and had the initials 'YB' on a metal plaque above a large ring, but yet Niya was clearly his mate. Unless Sakito had some other arrangement, 'Niya' must be a pseudonym. Byou made a mental note to ask Kenzo later why his pseudonym was an issue if Traditionalist alphas also used them.

"Niya's shy, give him time and he'll be friendly," Aki said with a playful look at the other alpha, who snorted softly without taking his eyes from the road.

The ride was thankfully uneventful if long, and no one seemed inclined to talk. Byou spent the time snuggling with Aki and fidgeting as he tried to keep his mind off rutting and anything remotely related. With Aki in such proximity it was a losing battle, but he somehow managed to endure.

Byou breathed a sigh of relief when they arrived at a small cluster of buildings, and he unbuckled his seatbelt before Niya had even stopped the van. He heard Yumehito chuckle but ignored it as he scrambled from the van the moment the door opened, Aki right behind him with their bags. At any other time he might have paused to look around, but he barely even registered his surroundings as Yumehito led them quickly to a small cabin off to the side and behind a larger building.

"This is the heat cabin, fortunately unoccupied now, so it should have everything you need," Yumehito said, opening the door and stepping aside for Aki and Byou to enter. "If there's anything else you need, let us know through the console comm."

Aki murmured his thanks and nodded to Yumehito before following Byou into the heat cabin. The setup was similar to the other cabin in terms of interior design, but it was roomier and had more equipment on display as well as a few personal touches that made it feel more cozy. The bed itself was already covered in towels, and the twin nightstands on either side held a stack of folded towels of varying sizes.

Though Byou was quite eager to test out the large bed, he paused and frowned when he saw Aki's pensive expression. "What's wrong?" he asked, stepping closer to the alpha.

Aki chewed on one of his lip rings and took a few moments to answer. "Just wondering if you're really sure you want to bond with me, since you kind of got dragged into all this," he murmured, reaching up to play with a lock of auburn brown hair that had escaped Byou's ponytail.

"Since apparently the obvious has escaped your notice, I haven't exactly begged to find other arrangements, despite the opportunities I had to escape the horrible fate of being your mate if I'd wanted to," Byou said flatly and tugged off the hair tie before he poked Aki in the chest. "You can tell me later all about whatever disaster of a failed relationship in your past has made you so skittish, but right now I want your big alpha cock in me and you rutting me into that very nice bed over there. Understood?"

Aki blinked and then chuckled ruefully before leaning in to give Byou a chaste kiss. "As you wish, my mate," he said, and then shed his clothes as he walked to the bed.

In short order Byou's clothes were tossed aside, and Aki had his mate pinned to the bed beneath him. Taking his cues from Byou's insistent squirming, Aki skipped the foreplay and got right down to business. No words were spoken until they both lay spent and recovering, with Byou draped bonelessly on top of Aki.

After some time just laying there listening to Aki's heartbeat, Byou raised his head and looked at the alpha. "While I'm very glad you're so careful and considerate, I'm beginning to think you have some sort of terrible trauma related to bonding," he murmured with a curious look.

Aki looked sheepish for a moment and managed a slight shrug. "It's not exactly traumatic, but it was a lesson I needed at the time," he said slowly. "By some miracle, the omega in question is still a friend, but I'm not sure I deserve his forgiveness."

Byou furrowed his brow and digested the information for a few moments, then hesitantly asked, "Is he the one you kind of mentioned before, the one who was mate-bitten?"

Aki shook his head and grimaced. "No, aside from our close call that one time, I've never done that. It's a very serious transgression for us, one that would get me expelled from the colony at the very least. But I did do something wrong involving boundaries and respecting them, which is why I'm more careful with yours than you'd like me to be," he murmured.

Byou nodded and smiled ever so faintly. "While I'm still getting used to the idea of being mated and bonding, along with everything else, I'd say you're pretty good at the whole establishing trust thing. I might not have any other viable options, but I somehow doubt I'll regret this."

Aki quirked a rueful smile in return. "If you'd met me a few years ago you might think otherwise, but then again maybe not, since you don't seem to mind the idea of a total power exchange, at least in principle."

"True, the thought of it is more appealing than the reality of it full time," Byou said slowly. "We'd have to work out the particulars, though somehow I doubt you'd want me completely powerless."

"Which is why we're well-matched, since you're hardly the type to really want to be without a say in anything," Aki responded with a knowing smirk. "We have the time to figure it out and see what suits us both in private, and we can have trial runs of public behavior rules until we work out what fits."

Byou nodded and shifted position to sit up. "I noticed Niya's behavior was kind of different than Kenzo's is with Yume."

"While Niya can seem kind of rude at first, it's nothing personal. He's just very cautious around outsiders, which you are to him for now, though it's true that he's stricter with Sakito than Zo is with Yume," Aki said slowly.

"Sakito's collar is a lot different, that's for sure." Byou smirked and added teasingly, "I already know you're even less strict than Kenzo is."

Aki made a face and lightly pinched Byou's belly. "Zo and Yume's relationship is fairly average for our settlement, as we're not really strict about public behavior compared to other places."

"Yeah, you mentioned there's a range, so I'm guessing Sakito and Niya's relationship is closer to the other end of the scale."

Aki nodded. "Their settlement neighbors ours, and they have more formal rules of public conduct. By contrast, Ruka and Hitsugi's relationship is unusual there, while it'd be normal in our colony."

"So where does Shinji live?" Byou asked, trying to take all the new information in.

"He and Satoshi live in our colony, though Satoshi is originally from Ruka's," Aki replied, then paused to chew his lower lip for a moment. "Their relationship is somewhat different than our usual, which you'll probably see when you meet Satoshi."

"You said they had kids, right?" Byou asked, and then tilted his head at Aki's nod. "Lemme guess, this is something I'll have to ask Satoshi about if I want to know?"

Aki nodded again. "I don't mean to be evasive, it's just that we don't really gossip about each other's relationships even if the superficial details aren't private. It's for Satoshi to tell you if you ask him."

"Well, I probably will now that I'm all curious due to this mysterious business, though I get the feeling if it weren't something really personal you'd tell me," Byou said. "And contrary to the impression I might give, I'm not the sort to introduce myself and then ask about something that's none of my business."

Aki raised his eyebrows and gave Byou a teasing grin. "Oh? So I guess in your view, calling me the 'fingerfuck fairy' in front of Zo and Yume, then insinuating about my past fling with Zo doesn't count, even if it's technically not quite the same thing?"

Byou grinned unrepentantly. "It's not private business if all parties present know about it."

Aki snorted and his lips twitched into a smirk. "I'm obligated to inform you that while you can tease Zo without repercussion, provided you're not too forward and it's not in public, I will discipline you if you try that with another alpha I'm not so close with," he said with a passable attempt to be stern.

"I might be a smartass, but I'm not rude," Byou said with an affronted look.

"That's quite debatable," Aki retorted blandly, but grinned a second later at Byou's mock glare. "I suppose I ought to be glad I haven't had flings with any other alphas."

Byou pursed his lips and studied Aki for a moment. "You've mentioned you've had two previous relationships, so are there others?"

Aki gave Byou a playfully suspicious look. "None that were serious, if that's what you're getting at. What about you?"

"Nothing serious ever, as you've probably guessed, though I did have an ongoing friends with benefits thing with another omega for a while."

Aki raised his eyebrows in surprise. "And yet you were shocked at two alphas together?"

"Well, I'd heard that some alphas experimented, I just didn't really believe it," Byou said with a slightly rueful shrug. "Even in the Hub, with all the beta attempts to pretend there aren't any differences between us and them, most of us don't really date at all, much less have more serious relationships."

"Not even for fetish stuff?" Aki asked, still somewhat surprised.

"Well, there's a market for omegas with omegas, and I did some of that," Byou said with another shrug. "It did occur to me that there was probably also stuff of alphas with alphas, I just never looked into it. If we hook up outside work stuff, it's usually with betas or alphas."

Aki mulled that over, still looking a bit doubtful. "Does your omega ex-lover have a name?"

Byou grinned and tilted his head at Aki. "Why? Want me to call him up and ask if he'd pay a visit?" he asked with an attempt to seem innocent.

Aki snorted and shook his head. "Just curious."

"His name is Mao, though I'm pretty sure he's not the same one you and Yume mentioned back at the other cabin," Byou said, quirking another grin. "We weren't really dating in the official sense, he and I were just co-workers with a side thing going."

"Probably not, since that Mao has no fetish background that I'm aware of," Aki said. "So your omega ex-lover Mao is the one you did fetish stuff with?"

Byou nodded. "We fooled around on our own time too, but not for heats or anything. And you know I had arrangements with some of my alpha co-workers, but none were for more than heats."

Aki's expression flickered almost imperceptibly at the last part. "Ever been with a beta?"

"No, none have been my type or offered," Byou said with a shrug and a shake of his head. "Completely uninterested, I guess."

"Not all of them are boring and vanilla, but it's true that most aren't worth the bother."

Byou tilted his head curiously. "I take it you know this from personal experience."

Aki smirked and nodded. "I met a beta woman who wanted to see what an alpha was like in bed, and I obliged. Turns out she was kinky." He shrugged and waved a hand. "It was a one-night experiment in my youth."

Byou made a sound of amusement. "Youthful indiscretion, eh? You're not that old."

"Older than you by just over a year, if I remember right."

"Clearly, this means you're ancient," Byou deadpanned, scrunching up his nose.

"Might be much more than a year, given how mature you are," Aki teased with a grin.

"I resent that implication, jerkface."

Aki laughed and playfully poked Byou's nose, evading with practiced ease the omega's attempt to bite his finger. "We'll definitely have lax rules for private time," he murmured, amusement in his gaze as he tugged at Byou's hair gently.

"I knew you liked my smartass mouth."

"Your mouth has other uses, too."

"As does yours," Byou quipped with a suggestive smirk. "You said back in the van that you'd show me more scruffing things."

"So I did," Aki murmured, reaching up to touch Byou's collar, though he didn't move to unbuckle it. "Do you have any objections to having a more official collar with my initials on it?"

Byou opened his mouth to protest the topic switch, but then paused to reconsider as he realized the importance of Aki's question. "No? I mean, it's a little weird for me still, but as long as you don't try to make me wear one of those ridiculously old-fashioned collars, I don't mind."

"What's weird? It's not a symbol of ownership among us, it's more just to display that an omega has a mate."

"The different smell isn't enough?" Byou asked, arching one eyebrow. "If even Yume wears Kenzo's collar, I'm not gonna be fooled into thinking it's not possessive in some way, even if to you it's just semantics."

"Fine, fine, it's a symbol of our possessive natures and for our fragile alpha egos, is that better?" Aki said dryly, his expression amused. "Besides, I know you like the possessive part, so you're just quibbling to be a brat."

"I'm just pointing out the obvious," Byou protested, though he grinned. "Do I get to pick out the collar type?"

"What happened to me getting the final or only say in anything?" Aki huffed with mock affront.

"I guess you'll just have to be more assertive if you want it that way," Byou retorted, his grin widening at Aki's playful scowl. "I'll let you choose a collar, and if I don't like it I'll just pick out another instead."

"How generous of you," Aki muttered, his lips twitching with suppressed amusement.

"Just how wide a variety of collar types do I have to choose from?" Byou asked curiously.

"There are several styles we can choose from," Aki said pointedly, pulling a face. "I'm sure there's some here, and more elsewhere if I ask. I'd have to get an engraving of my initials made, but that wouldn't take long."

Byou arched an eyebrow. "Do all you Traditionalists come prepared to take mates or something?" he asked with a playful smirk.

"No, though engraving initials into a thin piece of metal and attaching it to a collar isn't exactly difficult," Aki replied blandly. "We have metalworking machines here for other uses, and it's easy enough to do. Something fancy like Yume's collar might have to wait though."

Byou looked somewhere between amused and doubtful for a moment before he realized he'd forgotten an important question. "What is your full name, anyway?"

"Akihito Ichiki," Aki replied, suppressing a chuckle. "I know your full name from Zo due to the warrant. Which reminds me, if you can get Niya's real name out of Sakito, it might be some leverage in your favor. Niya trusts Sakito's judgment with others."

Byou nodded with a faint smile. "So I'd get 'AI' on my collar, hm?" he murmured, touching his collar. "I get the feeling that socializing is kinda segregated with you folks," he added after a moment with a tilt of his head.

"Most of the time, yeah. Alphas don't converse with omegas unless it's in a group, especially if either or both aren't bonded, though there are some exceptions," Aki replied. "You'll learn the particulars of those rules in time, but I'm sure Yume and Sakito or any of the other omegas can help explain it."

Byou nodded slowly with a thoughtful look. "What's the deal with making me ask others for information you know, though?"

"Like I said, some things aren't for me to tell, since it's private stuff that you'll find out when you get to know others more," Aki murmured. "I can only share personal stuff that's directly involving myself, like my past relationship with Zo, without being rude or disrespectful. You'll just have to be patient for the rest."

"So you're just teasing me with hints," Byou muttered, pouting a bit.

"I'm teaching you that there are some differences in our social interactions than what you're used to," Aki said, reaching up to touch Byou's cheek lightly. "It's fairly common knowledge among the others here that I had a fling with Zo before he bonded with Yume, but it would still be considered rude to tell someone we don't all know. I told you because you're my mate, and because you'd find out eventually anyway."

"So is it because I'm from the Hub, or because of my line of work that you think I'd just gossip about personal lives to just anyone?" Byou asked with another slight pout.

Aki gave a rueful shrug. "A bit of both, I guess. Given the ways that our social codes about this sort of thing are different, it seemed like a good way to make the distinction."

Byou nodded with a faint frown. "I'll keep that in mind, then." Easing off Aki, he maneuvered somewhat awkwardly to lay beside the alpha on the towels. "I guess I'll probably be in a heat daze soon, unless the Hub betas get too close again."

Aki turned onto his side to face Byou and propped himself up on his elbow. "This place is secure and safe even if they do come poking around. We have ways to camouflage the buildings here from sight and their radar, which is why we chose this safehouse."

Byou blinked and then smiled a bit. "Fancy. Guess I really wasn't paying attention on the way here."

"It's not something you'd have noticed even if you were," Aki murmured, amused. "Having camo tech is very useful, in addition to the fact not even the betas on this resort colony know this particular hideout exists. We go here and to other places off the grid when and if the Hub betas come to Pandora for more than routine stuff."

"I guess you have reasons to be a bit paranoid, eh?"

"Yeah," Aki murmured with a shrug. He sat up and ran his fingers through his wavy black hair. "Ruka took a small risk getting the other van through the checkpoint, but I doubt he'd be stopped."

"What if they scan his ID chip?"

Aki smirked slightly. "He was born in the Hub so he's in their records, but he moved to a Rim colony when he was very young."

"What about Niya and Sakito?"

"Niya's on the Hub records for another reason," Aki said with a smirk. "And Sakito was born in a Rim colony as far as I know."

"So Niya's an actual outlaw, eh? He's got the attitude for it. Is that why he has a pseudonym?"

Aki chuckled and shook his head. "Those of us who use pseudonyms tend to use them more like nicknames, with some exceptions."

"What happens when a bonded alpha has the same initials as another?"

"That actually doesn't happen very often, but the style of the collar is kind of personalized, and obviously the scents too."

Byou nodded and stretched languidly, then sat up. "I can't wait to have solid food again," he murmured as he moved to get off the bed and then stopped, glancing back at Aki. "Does this place have a bigger shower?"

Aki furrowed his brow briefly but nodded. "A bath too, if you want to fill it," he murmured, and then gave Byou an expectant look.

Byou pulled a face and sighed with mock exasperation. "May I go have a bath?"

"And?" Aki asked, his innocent expression slipping into a grin at Byou's scowl.

Byou paused in confusion for a moment and then caught onto what Aki was probably waiting for. "And get out of bed? Are you fucking serious?" he snapped, though there was a hint of a smile on his lips for a moment.

"Yes, and yes, you may," Aki replied. "And of course I'm serious, can't do one without the other, and I was letting it slide too much before anyway."

Byou grabbed a pillow and made to smack Aki with it, but the alpha intercepted and they spent the next few minutes tussling playfully. Eventually, Byou ended up pinned beneath Aki and he scowled up at his mate as he huffed. "You're insufferable," he muttered, though he chuckled after a moment.

"You like it," Aki said and leaned close for a quick kiss before letting Byou up. "Go fill the bath, I'll join you and bring you a drink."

Chapter Text

Anticipation of what was to come had Byou removing his collar moments after he'd shut the bathroom door, and he smirked as he set it pointedly beside the sink in plain view from the door. Though he had a small sliver of doubt about whether Aki would take the hint, he figured the alpha would eventually accept that it was safe to be more assertive. As he was sticky from their last rut, he opted for a quick shower first even if it wouldn't make much difference ultimately. He set the bathtub to fill with hot water before he stepped into the shower, opting to have a look later at the scented bath soaps lined up on a shelf beside the tub.

It was reassuring, even if it was also frustrating, that Aki had become so cautious about rules and boundaries, and Byou could certainly understand why the alpha didn't want to overstep and screw things up. Not that it was possible, as Byou was determined to stick with this despite it being rather more exciting and permanent than he'd expected or thought he'd been ready for. Still, Byou had to admit that he didn't have regrets despite Aki not being quite what he'd promised or what Byou had been seeking. After all, they were still getting to know each other, and while it wasn't ideal, there hadn't been any serious issues.

Byou closed his eyes and cleared his mind as he quickly scrubbed off, wanting to focus on the moment rather than the hundreds of what-ifs the future might hold. All that mattered now was getting through his heat and enjoying every moment of it, and with that as a goal to focus on, he let himself relax as he tilted his face up into the spray of hot water, his back to the bathroom door. His breath hitched a few moments later as he heard the sound of the door open, and he almost shivered as he felt the alpha pause before the door shut again with a click. It took all his self-control not to react as Aki's scent reached him, and the seconds ticked by as he waited, almost holding his breath as he forced himself to keep showering like he hadn't noticed the alpha.

Just before his willpower wavered Byou suddenly found himself pressed against the tiled wall he was facing, and his startled gasp turned into a whimper as Aki gripped the base of his neck hard enough to make his legs buckle for more than one reason. All at once his senses went fuzzy and yet he remained keenly aware of Aki as if nothing else existed anymore beyond the two of them. Need pulsed through him, radiating from the grip on his neck that shifted from massaging to firm, and pooling in his belly and lower as his body reacted. Byou wasn't sure whether the effect was from his heat or the scruffing, but he didn't care.

Byou was only vaguely aware of being moved, caught up in the sensations of his alpha carrying him easily and then he was submerged into the hot bath. Aki released his grip on Byou's neck and the omega began squirming almost immediately as he fumbled to climb onto the alpha's lap, his limbs uncoordinated and shaky. Byou whimpered when his attempts were thwarted, though he only managed a token struggle as Aki deftly turned him around and pinned him face down, his chest pressed against the tub's rim. Bucking up against Aki only managed to earn Byou a growl and a warning nip to his neck, and when the omega tried to use his hands to gain leverage his wrists were grabbed and pulled behind his back. Making a frustrated sound of need, Byou wriggled as much as he was able and heard Aki chuckle just before cold metal clicked around the omega's wrists.

Just lucid enough to wonder where the hell Aki had kept cuffs, Byou's thoughts scattered the next moment as the alpha clamped down hard on his neck. Seeing stars as his body twitched involuntarily before going limp, Byou focused on the sensations as Aki's cock thrust into him in one hard stroke, stretching and filling him. The pace the alpha set was sure to leave him deliciously sore later, and Byou's voice was a bit raw from the sounds he made by the time his wits returned somewhat. Panting as he clenched around Aki's knot, he trembled slightly as the alpha enveloped him in a possessive embrace, nuzzling his neck. Content to bask in the sated afterglow without speaking, they remained close until Aki's knot shrunk enough for the alpha to pull out. Aki then maneuvered them so that he was sitting on a submerged bench in the tub with Byou facing him and straddling his thighs.

Snuggling close, Byou leaned his head on Aki's shoulder and nuzzled the alpha's neck much like Aki had done to him earlier. He was so relaxed and comfortable that it didn't even bother him that his hands were still cuffed behind him. "Y'know, I do like submitting, even in public, despite my smartass comments," he murmured as he nipped Aki's neck lightly.

Aki made a sound between agreement and amused skepticism as he wrapped his arms around the omega. "I know, and it'll be more natural once we're both more familiar and comfortable with each other," he said, kissing Byou's hair absently. "You know I'd have been the dominating alpha you had in mind if it weren't for the circumstances, right? That I'm holding back because heat ruts are one thing and mate-bonds are another."

Byou lifted his head to nod and gave Aki a faint smile. "I'm not gonna be scared off, y'know, but I appreciate the consideration. I trust you because I know you don't want to do anything I don't want or like, in more than one sense, so I don't mind ceding control as much, even if you're right that I'm not ready to give up all control."

"I'd be a bit concerned if you were ready so soon, anyway," Aki said with a faint smirk. "It's not a decision made lightly, and especially not during heat."

"Well, regardless, you don't have to worry so much that you'll screw up with me if you get too pushy, because you should know by now I'm not shy about letting you know if I don't like something," Byou said pointedly as he leaned in to kiss Aki's lips.

"Point made, dear, again," Aki murmured with a grin. "Speaking of which, you owe me a fair bit of penance for disobedience, but I've decided to save it for after your heat. Think of it as an immersive crash course in Traditionalist rules, which will be expected anyway once we get back home."

Byou blinked and narrowed his eyes ever so slightly at Aki's mischievous smirk, playfully suspicious and curious about what the alpha meant. "So making me wait in anticipation is part of the punishment too, eh?"

"Quite, and also to give you something to think about before you decide to earn more punishment points," Aki said, his look plainly stating that he doubted it would be a deterrent.

Byou snorted and then grinned unrepentantly. "If I say 'how bad could it be?' to challenge you, it'll just be more fun anyway," he said with a chuckle.

"Perhaps we can temporarily stay in Ruka's settlement until you learn proper manners," Aki muttered with mock sternness.

"You need to work on your threats if they're gonna be things I'd enjoy instead of want to avoid," Byou quipped with another wide grin.

"Don't be too sure you'd enjoy it, imp," Aki retorted, though he grinned as well a moment later. "I'll find something that's an effective deterrent, eventually."

"Y'know, I do appreciate the fact you favor what I enjoy instead of actual punishment."

Aki smirked. "I suppose I could punish you by making you wait, since you seemed to not like that even if the rewards and benefits are better."

Byou pulled back a bit and gave Aki a mock glare. "That's cruel though."

"You have an unusually interesting perception of what's cruel, brat."

"I thought you promised not to do that, though."

"Only during your heat, when it would indeed be more unfair."

Byou huffed and scowled, but he didn't protest further. "When my heat's over, we'll get on an off-planet ship and head to your settlement?"

"That's the plan, provided nothing goes wrong between now and then," Aki said with a nod. "It's highly unlikely the Hub betas will track us down here, but as we said there's still gonna be some risk when we leave here to return to the spaceport."

"I suppose landing an off-planet ship outside a spaceport isn't a good idea, eh?"

Aki chuckled and nodded. "It would be rather conspicuous, yeah. Our crafts are smaller than the one you came in, but it'd still be noticed if one landed outside Pandora, and then they'd want to know why and come snooping around asking nosy questions. We're on fairly good terms with the Pandora betas, but there are things they're better off not knowing."

"Surely some must know you're Traditionalists, though."

"Probably, but we don't want to make it harder for them to look the other way when we conduct our business here, so we keep a low profile. Their loyalties might not be fully aligned with Hub laws, but they don't want to jeopardize their business interests, and we don't want to put them in the position of choosing to turn us in if we make trouble for them."

Byou nodded and pursed his lips for a moment. "I'm still wondering whether my heat will really set in, even if we're safe here."

"Believe me, I'd also have preferred no interruptions, but in the unlikely event we do have to move again, I'll keep you safe," Aki murmured seriously, meeting Byou's eyes.

"If nothing else, we'll have an exciting tale to tell others about how we met and bonded," Byou quipped with a rueful smile.

"Indeed, ours is more adventurous than usual," Aki said dryly. "I think Zo might be a bit jealous that his was so boring in contrast." He reached over to the side to retrieve the handcuff keys from the tub shelf and released Byou's wrists.

Byou rubbed his wrists and shifted closer on Aki's lap. "Do you know how Sakito and Niya met, or is that another thing I'll have to ask them about?"

"I don't know the details, but I think Niya happened across Sakito during one of his clandestine missions."

"So he's really an outlaw? I thought your settlements were staying out of trouble."

"More like most of us do," Aki quipped with a small smile and a shrug. "Some of us have to ensure the Hub betas are kept too busy to bother looking too closely at our settlements, and we of course have some connections in Central and elsewhere in the Hub that we maintain to keep tabs on things."

"So is Niya involved with whatever has the Hub betas on my case?"

Aki shrugged with a thoughtful look. "Maybe, I don't know for sure. Could be a lot of things, really, but they didn't send enough squads for a full out raid so I doubt it's anything too serious." He shifted Byou off his lap and climbed out of the tub to fetch towels, then gave Byou one and got another for himself. "The Hub was hardly a beacon of free press back when I was last there, it's hardly surprising they'd still suppress news about resistance groups, or downplay things. But surely you've heard about organized gangs with anti-beta sentiments?"

"I didn't really pay much attention to it all, but I've heard rumors and it's made the news sometimes, though it's usually in footnotes to other news stories," Byou said slowly, his brow furrowed as he dried off. "I've heard that there's at least one channel that isn't controlled by Central, but it's not exactly a regular broadcast."

"So you just tried to ignore things while likely working to fund illegal groups." Aki paused in drying off to give Byou a skeptical look.

Byou made a sour face as he ran his fingers through his damp hair. "Working to make a damn living, really. I mean, the betas like treating alphas and omegas like we're freaks who ought to be kept out of sight unless we pretend to be betas, but it's not like there's much we can do about it, if we want to keep our jobs and survive."

"I suppose not all of us can be revolutionaries, not like I'm one to talk since I avoid getting too involved in the stuff Niya does," Aki mused with a rueful smile. He shrugged and finished drying off, then tossed the towel in a corner and handed Byou the promised drink he'd brought in.

Byou chugged half the bottle and licked his lips. "Now that I think about it, Mao might know more about those gangs, since I know he had some rough looking alpha buddies who liked to spend a lot of time talking our ears off about how much they hated betas," Byou said with a smirk. "Last I heard he'd taken an extended vacation to see some relative on the Rim a week or so before I left, so he might have evaded the betas." He shrugged and gestured vaguely as he finished drying off and tossed his towel on top of Aki's. "For all I know he was tipped off, but he and I didn't maintain regular contact after he found a better job in another city a while ago."

Aki nodded and picked up the collar from beside the sink, then approached Byou and buckled it back on the omega's neck. "I'll see if Yume can track down this Mao, if he hasn't been arrested yet, since he might like to join us. He could be useful to us, and in turn we could keep the betas from getting him like we are with you."

Byou snorted and followed Aki out of the bathroom as the alpha led him by the collar. He sat down on the bed after Aki did, and then leaned against the headboard. "You're not jealous?" he asked, raising his eyebrows as he set his drink on the night stand.

"Of an omega?" Aki mimicked Byou's snort and grinned when the omega gave him a mock glare. "No, but if he knows more than you about anti-beta groups, he probably has a warrant out as well, if he hasn't been caught by now."

Byou hummed agreement and then thought of something else. "Will it be a problem that he's not into alphas for ruts?" he asked, giving Aki a curious look.

Aki blinked and tilted his head. "No, not if he stays at a more unconventional settlement. Does he prefer betas or omegas?"

"Just omegas as far as I know. He's rutted alphas for work, when he needed to, but he prefers other omegas," Byou said with a shrug. "I don't know if he's ever looked twice at a beta, but I don't think so."

"It's somewhat unusual among us here, but not unheard of," Aki said with a thoughtful look. "I mean, I wouldn't flaunt that I had a fling with Zo in certain settlements, but no one really cares much."

Byou gave him a skeptical look. "It's a bit different for omegas, but if you say so."

Aki paused and then gave a rueful smile. "From Yume, I know that's code for 'an alpha just said something stupid', right?"

Byou laughed softly and nodded. "Even in the Hub, betas don't really harass alphas nearly the same amount or ways that they do to omegas. And it's more than just because of our heats giving them a stupid excuse."

"I guess I don't really know how it is for omegas here, not being one," Aki conceded. "I only know what they've told me, and I'm sure it's only a fraction of things."

Byou nodded slowly with a faint smile. "Considering the Traditionalist setup, with omegas being submissive to alphas, I don't know if Mao's gonna like it much unless there's a settlement that really doesn't care that he only ruts other omegas."

"Ours is very casual about unconventional preferences, at least with alphas, but you'd have to ask Yume and see what his perspective is for omegas. I do know of another settlement not too far from ours that's mostly unmated omegas, which Mao might be more comfortable with."

"Yeah, he'd probably like that a lot," Byou said with a grin.

"So you two were just friends with benefits, really?" Aki asked curiously, his head tilted.

Byou chuckled and nodded. "Yes, really. I mean, I like him as a friend and we had fun, but he and I both didn't want to date or anything. He was between lovers at the time, and I was interested and available. I'm not really into other omegas like he is, it's more casual for me, y'know?" He shrugged and looked thoughtful. "Like you and Kenzo, you two didn't really want to settle down as a pair, right? But you were attracted to each other for ruts anyway."

Aki nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Zo's the only alpha I've really looked twice at for ruts or intimacy on a regular basis, though I had a one-night stand a while back."

Byou gave Aki a curious and expectant look. "Oh? Do tell."

Aki chuckled and shook his head. "Not much to tell, it was just once and he didn't ask again, perhaps because we were both rather drunk that night."

"How likely is it that I'll ever meet this alpha?" Byou asked with undisguised interest.

Aki laughed and poked Byou's nose. "You might see him around, he's a casual friend and visits our settlement sometimes."

"So I guess he wasn't too embarrassed by your drunken fling."

"No, but it's more of a thing we don't really mention. Zo knows, and a few others, but only really because they saw me leave his room the next morning. I doubt he'd be interested a threesome, if that's what you're wondering."

"Oh, I see how it is." Byou grinned. "What's his name?"

"Miya. He lives near Ruka's settlement."

"Does he have a mate?"

"Not that I know of, but it's been about six months since I last heard he was around, and we didn't get a chance to catch up before I left."

Byou nodded and stretched a bit. "Have you heard of two alphas or two omegas settling down together in any of the Rim settlements?"

Aki blinked and furrowed his brow in thought. "I've heard some vague rumors of it happening, and I guess some probably do without being open about it. It's not forbidden in most settlements, just very unusual. Most of us don't pair off and settle down without a bond, and I don't think that's possible for two of the same type. Maybe Yume would know more, though."

"Seems Yume knows a lot about this sort of thing, eh?"

Aki grinned briefly. "He's into omegas and alphas, and before settling down with Zo he had more omega lovers than alphas. He'll probably tell you all the lurid details if you ask."

"Oh, so that's why you just told me?" Byou asked with a grin. "Did he tell you all about his flings?"

"He's even more of a chatterbox when drunk, let's just say," Aki said with a smirk. "I think he does it because it makes Zo get all possessive, and he likes that."

Byou chuckled softly. "So some alphas do get jealous over mere omegas," he teased, grinning wide as Aki pretended to look annoyed.

"Yume's last fling with an omega was more recent than yours, but now that we're bonding I don't have any reason to get jealous."

"Oh, I see, and yet Kenzo does," Byou said, raising a skeptical eyebrow though his lips twitched with a suppressed grin.

"Not for real, it's just their thing," Aki retorted in mock exasperation and gave Byou a look. "Zo's just the possessive sort, is all. Yume teases him about it, then Zo hauls him off to their room for the night and they don't emerge until the morning."

"Oh, I get it now," Byou said with a wide grin, his eyes glinting with mischievous intent.

"You better not be planning to cause a scene, imp," Aki warned, squinting suspiciously at Byou.

"Of course not," Byou huffed, rolling his eyes. "I'm just saying, if Mao were to join us, I wouldn't mind if you got a bit possessive," he said, blinking innocently.

Aki snorted and shifted onto his side beside Byou. "You don't need to play a game to get me to rut you all night."

"I know, but it's fun," Byou replied, giving Aki his best dimpled grin. "And besides, if you know the rules beforehand you'll catch on without me needing to be obvious."

"How reassuring," Aki murmured dryly. "Since subtle isn't in your vocabulary, I'm a bit worried about what you'd consider obvious."

"Hey! I can do subtle," Byou said with a pout. "It's just that you tend to miss it and I'd rather not take my chances."

"When have you been subtle?" Aki asked, bewildered.

"See? That's what I mean." Byou affected an affronted look, but something must have given him away because a second later Aki tickled him and he yelped and squirmed away with a laugh.

"Lies, you imp," Aki muttered, amusement clear in his expression.

Byou huffed and warily settled back down against the headboard. "I'll have some opportunity, you'll see."

"For what, scandal? I'm sure," Aki murmured dryly.

Byou made a face at Aki. "I keep my word, jerk. I won't embarrass you, though I expect you to give me enough of a heads up so I don't do anything unintentionally improper."

"We don't have to worry about that yet, since none of the alphas here care much, nor is it any of their business if they did," Aki said, running his hands through his hair. "Just follow Yume's cues and don't be a smartass to them or around them and you'll be fine."

"Are there other alphas as strict as Niya here?"

"Maybe, I don't know who's here aside from Ruka and Niya, but Shinji's probably here too by now. This safehouse isn't that big since we can't conceal too many buildings from detection, but it's adequate for about five bonded pairs when we need to lie low."

"So how close are you to the other three?"

Aki gave Byou a playfully suspicious look. "Shinji and I are good friends, and Ruka's friends with everyone, but I don't know Niya all that well since he's a loner aside from his mate. I mean it though, don't make a scene."

"I was just asking, not trying to find loopholes," Byou said with another pout. "I'll be on my best behavior, I swear."

"I should hope so, since good behavior has rewards," Aki murmured, leaning close to give Byou a kiss. "Finish your drink."

Byou pulled a face and sat up before he picked up the drink and obediently finished it. "I'm usually too out of it to notice how damn hungry I get on just liquids," he muttered sourly as he set the empty can on the night stand. "But then everything about this heat has been a bit weird."

Aki took a deep breath and then furrowed his brow slightly. "Your heat scent has been somewhat muted since we got here, but I'm sure it'll get stronger again once you have a chance to settle in."

"I guess I'm still kinda nervous, like I'm expecting to have to move again," Byou said, fidgeting as he frowned. "It's really throwing me off, all this moving around with the betas trailing us."

"Let's hope there's no more excitement, eh?" Aki murmured, nuzzling Byou.

"If there is, I want to shoot a few betas personally, in the face," Byou muttered with a scowl as he snuggled closer to Aki. "At this point I'm not even sure whether I'm horny from heat or from just being around you," he said, then took a few deep breaths as he tried to convince himself everything was fine.

"We have a saying that there's no one as fierce as an omega in heat," Aki said with a grin.

"And beware anyone who gets in our way?" Byou asked with a slight smirk.

"Yeah, something like that." Aki mirrored Byou's smirk.

"I'm a decent shot, you know. I'm not an expert, but I know which end of a gun to point at a target, and I can hit higher than the kneecaps without it being an accident or luck."

"Don't worry, if it comes to shooting anyone, I'll try to make sure you're armed and dangerous," Aki said with another smirk. "But let's hope Niya or someone else will provide the betas with a sufficient distraction in the unlikely event anything else happens."

As if on cue there was a low rumbling that shook the ground and made the room decorations rattle for several seconds, and Byou jumped as he reflexively clutched Aki. "What the hell is--"

"Get to the bunker, now!" a voice blared from the intercom, startling them both. The rumbling subsided moments later.

"You were saying?" Byou snapped, scrambling for his clothes as Aki did the same.

Aki looked just as spooked as Byou, though the alpha quickly regained his composure as he yanked on his pants. "That felt like a ship landing, and close."

"Conspicuous is right! Fuck." Byou nearly tripped as his foot caught in his pants leg, but he managed to keep his balance.

Within moments they were both dressed, if disheveled, and Aki reached for the door handle just as someone knocked frantically. He opened it to reveal Yumehito looking very near panic, with Sakito close behind him holding a large gun and looking remarkably composed in contrast.

"Come on, hurry!" Yumehito said, waving Byou and Aki out and gesturing behind him.

"The ship jammed our short-range radar, Niya's called for backup," Sakito said to Aki, his look grim as they all hurried to the bunker at the edge of the tree line.

"So it's a full raid now, fuck," Aki muttered, gripping Byou's hand tightly.

"Seems like it," Yumehito said, ushering Byou and Aki into the bunker before following, with Sakito right behind him.

"Aren't we even more cornered in here?" asked Byou, all but clinging to Aki as they moved deeper into the bunker through a narrow, barely lit tunnel.

"Hopefully not for long," Sakito replied. "We couldn't use our full radar or we'd have had more warning, but as it is we're pretty sure they know we're here," he explained to Aki as they emerged from the narrow tunnel into a better lit room.

"How? We had the camo up, right?" Aki asked.

"Yes, we did," Niya said, stepping into view from another doorway, one hand holding a small box and the other a smaller version of Sakito's gun. "All they'd need is a tracker on anyone who's arrived here in the past couple hours," he added, fixing Byou with a neutral look as he pointed the box at the omega and pressed a button on it. It beeped an affirmative chime and Niya glanced to Aki with a frown as Byou paled and leaned against his mate.

"Didn't have the equipment," Aki said shortly, then looked to Byou. "It's not your fault, and the bunker is shielded."

"I'm sorry," Byou murmured, still pale and shaking as he let Aki guide him to sit on the floor.

"It's okay, we'll deal with this, it'll be alright," Aki said softly, hugging Byou close.

"We'll need to get that tracker out before we move," Niya said as he handed the box to Sakito and made a curt gesture.

"Yume, get the medkit," Sakito said as he handed Niya his gun and moved toward Byou, then crouched down beside the trembling omega. "Can you stand and face the wall?"

Byou nodded and took a deep breath as Aki helped him to his feet, then turned and braced against the wall. "Is it gonna hurt?"

"A bit, maybe, we only have topical anesthetic in the kit," Sakito said as he moved the box slowly over Byou's body. It beeped again just below Byou's left shoulder. "Good news, it's not near your spine. Take off your shirt, please, and crouch down. Will you let your mate scruff you? It'll help with any pain and keep you still."

"Yeah, okay, fine." Byou nodded shakily and removed his shirt with Aki's help, then crouched as directed and leaned against his mate for support. He flinched as Sakito applied the topical anesthetic but it didn't hurt, and then Aki gripped the back of his neck hard and his body went abruptly limp.

"Sakito knows what he's doing, don't worry," Yumehito said.

"Where's Zo?" Aki asked, noting that Niya had left.

"In the second room with Niya, and the others are in the third near the other end," Yumehito replied, gesturing to the tunnel Niya had used. "We're gonna try to make a run for it in a low flier, and once Sakito's finished they'll fill you in on the plan, such as it is."

"Okay, I'm making the cut," Sakito murmured and then made a deft incision.

Though Byou could feel Sakito prodding around in his shoulder as the seconds ticked by quietly, it was more uncomfortable than painful.

"Got it, it's coming out now," Sakito said, extracting something and setting it down with a clatter of metal. "We'll fix you up properly later when we have better equipment." He closed the incision with quick stitches and then covered it with a bandage. "The anesthetic will wear off soon, unfortunately, but you'll be fine for a bit."

Aki released Byou's neck and the omega took a deep, shaky breath, and after a moment he nodded and slowly stood on wobbly legs with Aki's help. "I'm fine, I think--whoa, not fine, okay," he murmured, taking a step only for his knees to give out as the room spun. "I feel a bit sick," Byou said, swallowing hard as he blinked at Yumehito and then glanced to Sakito. He regretted looking, as Sakito was cleaning off the instruments he'd used, and there was a bloody chip in a metal basin. Turning his head with a grimace, he let Aki walk him out through the other tunnel with Yumehito following behind.

"Easy there, I don't think I can properly carry you in such a narrow tunnel," Aki said, supporting Byou carefully as they walked down the barely lit tunnel. They emerged into another slightly bigger well lit room and Byou wobbled again as Aki helped him to a corner. "You okay?" he asked softly, and Byou managed a nod. Yumehito handed Byou his shirt and Aki helped him get it on, mindful of the bandage.

"Alright, we're hoping to avoid direct confrontation, but depending on how fast they pinpoint our location, we might have no choice," Kenzo said, looking to Niya.

"Until our flier gets here, omegas will stay in the bunker with the kids. Hittsu, Satoshi, and the kids get priority on the flier, and the rest of us get to make sure they get away safely. Aki, you stay with them and your mate," Niya said, then glanced to Sakito as his mate emerged from the tunnel and made an aborted move to pick up his gun. They shared a look and after a moment Niya sighed through his nose and gestured. "Saki, with me," he added, his tone ever so slightly reluctant.

Byou glanced to Yumehito and saw the omega's hopeful look and then Kenzo's curt head shake in response.

"No heroics this time, Yumechun," Kenzo said softly as he moved to stand near his mate. "You can help with the kids until we can get in contact with Ruka."

"Ruka didn't come back?" Aki asked, concerned.

Kenzo shook his head and sighed. "Best guess is he got held up at that checkpoint. We have someone looking into it, but there's not much we can do right now."

Aki nodded and helped Byou to his feet. "C'mon, let's go meet the others," he said, guiding Byou down the other tunnel to the third room.

Chapter Text

Inside the room, in the far corner, were two omegas sitting close together. A few feet away, in a chair, Shinji was holding a sleeping baby. Both of the omegas had a baby on their laps, and a young child leaned against Shinji's chair looking bored. Byou tried not to stare at the omegas, as this was his first time seeing bearer omegas outside of historical pictures, and one of the omegas was startling all on his own, as his face and ears were decorated with more silver jewelry than Aki's. When he and Aki stepped into the room four pairs of eyes turned on them, and Byou swallowed as he mustered a shy smile.

"Uncle Aki, you have a mate!" the child said loudly as she bounded over.

"The babies are sleeping, Kaede," the pierced omega said gently with a wince, giving Shinji an apologetic smile. Fortunately, the baby Shinji held didn't stir and Kaede mumbled an apology.

"This is my mate, Byou," Aki said, giving Kaede an indulgent smile. "Byou, that's Hitsugi, Kaede's bearer, and Satoshi, Shinji's mate."

Byou nodded politely and murmured greetings, then tilted his head curiously at Kaede who was studying him with almost unnerving intensity.

"I'm an alpha, and I'm five, just last week," Kaede said, holding up five fingers and then waited expectantly.

Byou chuckled and murmured, "Congratulations, you're almost an adult."

Kaede grinned and turned to point at the baby Shinji held. "Hikaru is one and he's an omega," she said and then pointed to the baby in Satoshi's lap. "Ren is two months old, she's an alpha like me." Finally, she pointed to the baby Hitsugi held. "And my sib Hinata is one and a half. She's an omega."

Byou nodded and tried to remember the names, sure that he'd get them all confused for a while.

"Come sit with me, Kaede," Hitsugi said softly, patting his leg.

Kaede hesitated, but with a last look at Byou she went and sat beside her bearer. "Mama, why do babies sleep so much?"

Hitsugi chuckled and ruffled Kaede's hair. "They need it more than you ever did," he quipped with a rueful smile.

Byou sank down onto a two-seater couch a few feet from Shinji and took the opportunity to study Satoshi as Aki sat beside him. The other omega had been quiet after giving a murmured greeting, and aside from the initial glance up he seemed focused on the baby he held. Aki had mentioned that Shinji's bond was unusual, but Byou was sure it was more than Satoshi being painfully shy. From what he could see with the omega's head bowed, Satoshi's collar was made of a soft dark gray material that covered most of his neck, and it was clearly more decorative than functional. Shinji's initials were sewn on the front in what looked liked beadwork, and there was no ring for a leash. In contrast, Hitsugi's was definitely functional and made of two rings of metal etched in intricate designs, with a small ring affixed to the front below a plaque presumably bearing Ruka's initials.

Yumehito slipped into the room then and Kaede chose that moment to rush out, dodging past the omega before her bearer could call her back. A bit startled, Yumehito looked down the tunnel and then to Hitsugi, but the other omega just shrugged with a roll of his eyes. "Zo says they don't seem to be closing in on us here yet, so we might have time to slip away if the flier gets here soon," he reported, and then glanced to Hitsugi apologetically. "Still no word from Ruka, but we'll have freer communication in Pandora."

Hitsugi nodded with a faint smile. "If anyone can talk his way out of arrest, it's Ruka," he said dryly. "I'm not all that concerned yet."

"What happens if they get here before the flier?" Byou asked, biting his lip.

"Saki has a few tricks up his sleeve to even the odds," Yumehito said, his smile smug. "He's a demolitions expert, so the perimeter is secure for now and they won't be able to get too close." He settled beside Satoshi and gently patted the baby's head, then waved at Kaede as she returned and plopped down beside Yumehito.

Byou blinked and then nodded slowly, not too shocked that Sakito was permitted to do that sort of thing after seeing the omega with that big gun. Still, it seemed dangerous, but with Kaede in the room again he didn't feel comfortable asking more questions.

"Mama, Byou smells like you did before we left," Kaede said quietly.

Hitsugi looked briefly mortified as he shushed Kaede with a disapproving frown. "Kaede, what did I say about making observations about others?"

Kaede sulked for a moment before replying, "That it's rude. But why?"

"Because, it's a private matter for adults," Hitsugi said patiently, shifting the baby on his lap.

Kaede huffed softly but a look from her bearer made her reconsider arguing. "Mama, I need to go potty."

"I can take you," Yumehito offered.

"No, I can go myself," Kaede said, her lower lip jutting out as she stood. "Can I go, Mama?"

"You know the way?" Hitsugi asked, and at Kaede's nod he also nodded and gestured, then watched as Kaede scampered out of the room again.

"Oh, I see, now she asks, subtle," Yumehito quipped with a grin. "She's growing up fast."

"Don't I know it," Hitsugi muttered as he leaned his head against the wall with a long suffering sigh, though he was smiling faintly.

"So, we're hoping the flier gets here before the Hub betas do, but are we really prepared to escalate?" asked Aki as he rested an arm around Byou's shoulders.

Yumehito hesitated and bit his lip for a moment. "Saki won't blow them up unless it's a matter of buying us another minute to get to the flier," he said, his uncomfortable shrug conveying he wasn't happy with the idea. "Niya's pretty intent on not letting them get any of us, but it's really an absolute last resort."

"Seems they let us get away from Pandora, just to have me lead them right to all of you," Byou said quietly, biting his lip as he glanced around the room and then to Aki. "And now you're having to take big risks because of me being here."

"Worse has happened," Shinji said gently, offering a faint smile and a casual shrug. "None of this is your doing directly. In fact, we were caught with our pants down, figuratively speaking, despite our precautions, so we can only blame ourselves for being so unprepared."

"But you're talking about possibly killing them just to get away," Byou said and then winced a bit as he realized he was overstepping, though Shinji didn't seem to mind.

Aki rubbed Byou's arm gently. "We protect our own, first and foremost. If we're forced to escalate, it'll definitely complicate a lot of things for us in the short term and long term, but a confrontation was inevitable, and we're at a tipping point here with the children to protect," he explained, and then nodded when Byou opened his mouth to speak. "You may speak freely."

Byou hesitated and licked his lips as he chose his words carefully. "What about negotiating?" he asked. "Surely that's an option if blowing them up is a last resort."

Aki smiled slightly and shook his head. "That would just give them an excuse to shoot first, and besides, their terms would be for us to surrender and that's not acceptable."

Byou looked skeptical, but he glanced to the other omegas and furrowed his brow. "Is it really so different out here? I mean, what can they do if you just try to stall peacefully?"

"Because they lack much authority here, they tend to use force more readily," Shinji said, glancing briefly to Satoshi. "We're not willing to take the risk that they'd be reasonable if they know we're vulnerable."

"Up until now we haven't had to cut it so close, but while we know it can have a ripple effect that might start something bigger, as Aki said, it was a matter of time before it came to that, one way or another," Yumehito said slowly. "We can't really afford to negotiate and hope for any leniency."

"But if you make the first move, won't that make their retaliation worse?" Byou asked, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt.

"Yes, and they'll justify it as us provoking them rather than the other way around," Hitsugi said with a sour expression. "They corner us, but it's our fault for defending ourselves." He opened his mouth to add more but Kaede chose that moment to return, and he shut his mouth with a snap as he motioned her over.

"What were you talking about?" Kaede asked as she went to her bearer.

"Grownup stuff," Hitsugi answered, his look warning her not to ask further.

Kaede pouted. "Is Papa back yet?"

"No, but we'll see him soon, hopefully," Hitsugi said, tucking Kaede's hair behind her ears.

Sakito rushed in from the second tunnel and then stepped to the side. "Flier is here, hurry," he said, motioning for emphasis. "They have room for Aki and Byou as well."

Yumehito took Kaede's hand as Shinji helped Satoshi and then Hitsugi up, and Aki and Byou hurried behind them as they headed out. Emerging on the other side of the buildings but still behind them, Byou saw the flier and two unfamiliar alphas just outside it with another in the pilot seat. Kenzo and Niya were conversing with the two, and all carried guns. As they neared Byou saw one of the new alphas was in fact an omega and he blinked, startled despite the precedent Sakito had set. The omega in question had fully tattooed arms and a wiry but muscled frame in addition to being about Aki's height, and he sported a collar that looked more like a length of chain fashioned into a necklace with a decorative lock on it engraved with the initials 'RF'.

The goodbyes were brief, and Yumehito waved as he stepped back with the alphas and Sakito as the others boarded. The armed omega followed them in after holstering his gun, and the hatch door slid shut at the press of a button. The flier itself seemed large on the outside with its wingspan and oval shape, but inside it was cramped with the seats facing the narrow aisle, and there were three baby seats wedged along the back. There wasn't enough room to stand straight, and it was a cozy fit for everyone. Byou ended up slightly squished between Aki and Hitsugi, with Kaede on the other side of her bearer. Across from them, Satoshi settled between Shinji and the new omega after the babies were strapped into their carrier seats. Once everyone else was buckled in the flier rose smoothly into the air, and Byou half wished there were windows so he could see out.

"Byou, this is Hazuki," Aki said, and then glanced to the enclosed pilot area. "Reo's flying?"

Hazuki gave Byou a friendly smile and then nodded at Aki's question. "Yeah, and Miya will catch up with us back in Pandora," he said, and then blinked as Byou stiffened.

"That was Miya?" Byou hissed, giving Aki a surly glare. He'd barely paid attention to the other alpha, as he'd been so distracted by Hazuki.

"Yeah." Aki grinned unrepentantly. "There wasn't time for introductions, but you'll probably meet him properly later."

Hazuki looked at Aki and then Byou and back, and then grinned as he guessed what was going on. "Miya gets around."

Byou crossed his arms and huffed, but he held his tongue.

"Has he found a mate yet?" Aki asked.

"Well, he's courting someone, though I don't know if bonding's been discussed yet," Hazuki replied, smiling slightly as he glanced to Satoshi beside him. "You'll never guess who."

Satoshi blinked and looked mildly curious as he considered. "Who? Not Ryo, surely?"

Hazuki grinned wide and nodded. "Yep, Ryo. Good guess."

"Seriously?" Satoshi's expression shifted from bewildered to amused. "You made an impression, I guess," he said dryly, smirking.

"Apparently," Hazuki replied with an echoing smirk. "I think Ryo will be good for him, keep him on his toes."

"That's putting it mildly," Hitsugi interjected, chuckling. "You'd think Miya would go for a sweet little traditional omega, but then he tried courting you," he said to Hazuki, shaking his head.

"Grownup talk is boring," Kaede announced, kicking her feet restlessly.

The others chuckled and Hitsugi draped one arm around Kaede's shoulders. "We'll be there soon, and maybe Papa will be waiting for us," Hitsugi said.

"I'm sure all this will make sense to me eventually," Byou murmured, interested in the gossip even though he was confused.

"Sorry, you'll meet them all soon enough," Hitsugi said with a smile. "Ryo and Satoshi were childhood friends in our settlement, and Miya's is near ours."

"Oh," Byou murmured, blinking a bit as he sorted the information. "So is Miya's settlement strict like yours?"

"More than ours, in some ways," Hitsugi said, then shrugged. "It's really just for formal things."

"Reo and I live in Miya's settlement," Hazuki said to Byou. "It'll make sense once you see the whole colony. The setup is like Hub cities, but more spread out into separate but connected settlements. We don't really have a central council for the whole colony, just representatives for each settlement, and there's different rules for each."

Byou furrowed his brow and nodded slowly, still a bit confused. "So each colony has settlements, kind of like towns in a city?"

"Yeah, and each livable planet has at least one colony, sometimes more. There's a small beta colony neighboring ours that we trade with," Hazuki explained.

"I'm bored, Mama," Kaede whined, squirming in her seat.

"We'll be there in a few minutes," Hitsugi said.

"Isn't the flier gonna be noticed coming in?" Byou asked.

"We're taking the scenic route around," Hazuki replied, gesturing to the others. "We'll drop them off and then take you near the spaceport. That's the easy part, as we don't have clearance for our ship to leave port so it's kind of stuck there for now."

"When the earliest it can leave?" Aki asked.

Hazuki shrugged. "Tomorrow, probably, since they have the spaceport on indefinite lockdown. Ships can dock and land, but not leave."

"So we gotta sit tight until then?" Byou chewed on his lip.

"Yeah, and in the meantime we'll keep you out of sight as much as possible," Hazuki said. "It's best to keep you near the spaceport in case we can get you out, but it doesn't seem likely for at least another day."

The flier shuddered a bit and then powered down. "We're here," Reo said over the speakers. A moment later, the hatch door slid open.

Kaede was the first to unbuckle, and she wriggled between legs to get to the door. Hitsugi motioned to Hazuki and Hazuki nodded, getting up to follow Kaede as her bearer fetched Hinata. Byou and Aki stepped out next, followed by Hitsugi and then Satoshi and Shinji with the other two babies. Bidding farewell to Byou and Aki, the three with Kaede in tow headed for a small building on the outskirts of Pandora.

"We'll take a van now, less conspicuous," Hazuki said as Reo joined them.

Aki introduced Reo to Byou as they walked toward another building, and Byou surreptitiously studied Reo. The other alpha was about Niya's height, and his serious expression combined with his defined cheekbones made him seem rather intimidating. They soon reached a van tucked between two buildings, and Reo remotely opened the doors as they approached. Hazuki took the front passenger seat and Reo the driver's seat.

It dawned on Byou, right around when he saw the van was similar to the one Shinji had driven, that he felt a distinct lack of impatient need to rut, and he paused as he was about to climb in after his mate. "The pills are back in the heat cabin," he said quietly as he settled beside Aki and buckled up.

Aki turned to look at Byou and blinked as realization hit. "You don't smell in heat anymore," he said slowly as the van doors shut and Reo began to drive.

"Just as well, eh? I mean, it's bad timing to be in heat now," Byou murmured with his head bowed, his hands fisting in his lap for a moment.

"Yeah, but," Aki paused, chewing his lip for a moment before he draped an arm around Byou's shoulders. "Do you feel okay?"

"My stitches are starting to hurt and I feel like I wanna sleep for a whole day," Byou said, glancing to the two in front of them and then to his mate.

Taking the hint, Aki nodded and drew Byou into a careful hug. "It'll be okay, you can sleep soon."

Byou nodded and let his head rest on Aki's shoulder with a sigh. "I thought you said it was mostly unmated alphas and omegas here," he said after a minute.

"Well, it usually is, but the protocol with an omega in heat is not allowing unmated alphas around them," Aki explained. "So that's why Shinji and then Yume and Zo picked us up, and why we went to a safehouse with bonded pairs."

"But why are so many bonded pairs here now?" Byou asked, idly fidgeting with the hem of his shirt.

"Miya, Reo, and I arrived late last night, and others will get here soon to help clear everyone out," Hazuki said, half turning in his seat to look at the other two. "We're gonna try to get the mates with kids off this rock as soon as possible, even if we gotta land a ship in the middle of nowhere rather than the spaceport."

"So you're at the point of saying 'fuck subtlety', eh?" Byou quipped.

"Basically," Hazuki agreed, flashing a grin. "The backup plan is to land the next arriving ship outside Pandora and get as many of us on it as we can, and then head for the nearest colony. They know we're here, but not how many or exactly where we are, and even ten squads aren't enough to canvas this entire planet efficiently."

"We're setting up more secure communications so we can keep them guessing where we are and what we're doing, and so we don't leave any of us stranded," Reo said, keeping his eyes on the road. "A lot depends on what happens between now and when that ship arrives, however."

"So we're gonna keep sneaking around under their noses until we can get off-planet?" asked Byou.

"That's the plan for now, but if it does come to a confrontation we'll try to provoke them into making the first move, provided it doesn't put us at too much risk," Hazuki said. "They're not the only ones who can jam radar and communications, or listen in on them for that matter. At this point we're just gathering to leave as soon as possible, but we'll fight our way out if we have to."

"They can't get to us as easily once we leave this planet," Aki said. "Our ships are faster, and our colonies too numerous for them to check each one. As long as we stay in small groups until one of our ships gets here, we'll be safe enough."

"Will Yume and the others be alright?" Byou asked.

"Probably," Hazuki said with a shrug. "They were gonna leave in the van once we were out of sight. We'll hear from them soon, I'm sure."

"But why do they even care so much about all this?" Byou asked. "I mean, it seems like a lot of trouble for them to go to just to catch any of you."

Hazuki shared a look with Aki and then shrugged. "You saw what Pandora was offering for omegas, and I guess they heard about it. That's the official reason for the surprise visit from the Hub authorities, but Pandora is also one of our main vacation spots, so to speak, and I guess they got tipped off about that too. We don't have off the grid hideouts on every resort, after all."

Byou furrowed his brow as he tried to work it all out. "So the betas at Pandora might have sold you out?"

"That's a definite possibility at this point, and we can't rule out that they knew more about us than we thought they did," Aki said slowly. "Still, as long as we can make a run for it before they catch us, it's not that big of a deal really."

"I'm guessing this isn't the first time the Hub's decided to raid resorts," Byou murmured.

Aki glanced to Hazuki and then shook his head. "No, it's not, but we've usually had more warning first, and until now we've managed to avoid surprise inspections and raids when mates with kids were around."

"But didn't Ruka arrive with Satoshi and Hitsugi after the betas?" Byou frowned and shifted in his seat.

"Yeah, he was probably already nearly here by the time he heard the Hub authorities were here," Hazuki said and shrugged. "Can't be helped sometimes, and communication is too easily intercepted."

Moments later, Reo pulled the van into a parking lot behind an apartment block and parked it at the far end of the lot. Rather than enter the apartment building, they headed for the other side of the parking lot and then through a maze of alleyways before finally stopping at another apartment building. Hazuki pulled out a keycard and opened an emergency exit door and they all filed in after the omega, then climbed up two flights of stairs and went down a hallway to the end. Hazuki stopped at one door and knocked, and within a moment it opened to reveal an omega who promptly pounced onto Hazuki with an excited greeting.

"You didn't tell me you were here! Why didn't you call?" the omega said, and then belatedly noticed the others. "Oh, hi!" he said with a grin that faltered slightly as Reo gave him an inscrutable look. Taking the hint, he detached himself from Hazuki and settled a curious gaze onto Byou, chewing on the spiked ring in his lip.

"There wasn't time, Micchan," Hazuki said with a smirk as he glanced to Reo. "Byou, this is Mizuki."

"Lemme guess, you dropped by to ask a favor or few, eh?" Mizuki said with a wry smirk as he nodded to Byou. "Good thing I don't have plans, what with the Hub betas nosing around. Come on in and tell me all about it," he said, stepping back and waving them into his apartment.

Byou removed his shoes along with the others and glanced around the rather messy apartment curiously, noting two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a living room with a small kitchen. He saw signs of another occupant besides Mizuki, but he smelled only omega scents and he was pretty sure neither were mated. Mizuki motioned to the couch and then hurriedly cleared it off by depositing the discarded clothes onto the coffee table that already had precarious piles of things on it. He then cleared off another two seats in a similar fashion, dumping the stuff into a corner that was also rather full.

"Sorry for the mess, just make yourself comfy," Mizuki said with a slightly sheepish smile. "Now, c'mon, out with it," he said, rounding on Hazuki and crossing his arms.

Hazuki chuckled and took the chair beside Reo's, then launched into a summary of events to get Mizuki up to date on things. "So yeah, if you have room to spare for a night, or know a place we can crash..."

"Well, Tsurugi's at Pandora for his heat but he'll be back in like two days, so Aki and Byou can take his room, and Reo can sleep on the couch," Mizuki said, his grin just a bit too innocent.

"Micchan..." Hazuki started, his expression playfully exasperated as he glanced to Reo. "I can't sleep in your room with you."

"Why not? My heat isn't for another week," Mizuki said, still feigning innocence.

"Great plan, crash at your ex's place," Aki said dryly, flashing a grin at Hazuki. "Still holding a torch for him, eh, Micchan?"

"Eh, it was worth a try," Mizuki said with a casual shrug and a sly grin. "Oh, fine. You two take my room then and I'll have the couch." He rolled his eyes dramatically and then headed for his room. "I swear, once y'all get mated off, you can't have any fun," he muttered before disappearing into his room.

Hazuki shook his head and sighed, though he was smiling. "What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in other ways," he said dryly.

"I heard that," Mizuki retorted as he emerged carrying a few packages. "So, Byou, we can change your hair color, or you can just tuck it in a hat if you'd rather."

"My hair?" Byou blinked and ran his hands through his hair. "I don't think they're that stupid."

"Well, no shit, there's more to a good disguise than just a hair change," Mizuki said with a huff. "Just humor me?"

"Just as long as you don't hit on him as soon as you're alone," Hazuki muttered playfully with a knowing look at Mizuki.

Mizuki feigned offense. "Hey, what do you take me for? I know he's mated!"

Hazuki laughed and arched an eyebrow. "I know that doesn't stop you, slut."

"You don't count though, or rather, you do," Mizuki said with a pout, furrowing his brow for a moment before he waved vaguely. "Eh, whatever. You owe me big for this, Hacchan."

"Won't Tsurugi get jealous?" Aki said mildly, slouching in his seat next to Byou.

"Weren't you paying attention? He's at Pandora. For his heat. Not here, with me," Mizuki said, a slight sulk in his tone and he set down the packages to cross his arms. "I have needs too, y'know."

"Surely there are other omegas who aren't mated," Hazuki murmured, smirking.

"The numbers are dwindling by the day," Mizuki huffed, waving his arms dramatically. "But back to the point. Byou, want to choose a color or a hat?"

"Um, well..." Byou glanced to Aki and then leaned forward to pick up one of the hair dye packages. "Black is inconspicuous enough, but boring."

"I'm all out of pinks and purples," Mizuki quipped with a shrug. "And boring is good for a disguise. C'mon, it'll only take a few minutes so you won't need a chaperone," he said, giving Aki a cheeky grin.

Byou looked to his mate, and at Aki's nod he shrugged and got up to follow Mizuki to the small bathroom. The door had barely shut behind Mizuki when Byou found himself pushed down to sit on the edge of the bathtub.

"So, tell me about how you met Aki," Mizuki said, turning away to prepare the hair dye on the counter. "Oh, and in case it gets confusing, there's another Aki here, but he's an omega and you might not even get to meet him this time. You can take off your shirt, and I won't feel you up or anything."

Byou blinked and shook his head a bit before he summarized how he met Aki in Pandora. His shoulder was really beginning to throb and he grimaced slightly as he pulled off his shirt.

"Hey, what happened?" Mizuki asked as he noticed the bandage.

"Sakito took out a tracker," Byou murmured.

"I have a medkit here, if you need it. Tsurugi's the doctor, but I know how to change a dressing and shit," Mizuki offered. "Ours is stocked with more stuff too."

"Tsurugi's a doctor?"

Mizuki smirked and rolled his eyes as he gestured at the door. "Hacchan can toss an alpha across a room, and you're surprised one of us can be a doctor?"

Byou flushed a bit and shrugged awkwardly. "Sorry, it's just rare even in Central."

"Omegas are the brains, alphas are just an optional accessory," Mizuki quipped as he turned back to the counter. "I'll take a look at your bandage after this, okay?"

"Sure." Byou shifted to present his back to Mizuki. "So how long have you known Hazuki?"

"Long enough to be fucking surprised he shacked up with Reo, but he does have weird kinks," Mizuki drawled with a grin as he turned back and began combing and parting Byou's hair into sections.

"Wait, Reo is his mate?" Byou asked, turning around to look at Mizuki in surprise.

Mizuki blinked and stared at Byou for a second before he laughed. "Wow, your observational skills are amazing, and coming from me, that's saying a lot," he quipped.

"I had other things on my mind," Byou muttered, shrugging defensively as he turned back to face the wall.

"I'm sure, what with that alpha pretty enough to be an omega you came with." Mizuki grinned wide as he began applying the hair dye expertly.

"I take it you're only into omegas?" Byou asked, redirecting the conversation.

Mizuki shrugged and gestured with the comb. "Mostly, but a few alphas have been lucky enough to catch my interest. I tend to like toppy omegas, though."

"I had a friend back in Central, well, ex-lover, who likes omegas and he's really toppy," Byou said, ducking his head when Mizuki directed him to look down. "I'm mostly into alphas, but I like toppy omegas sometimes."

"I figured." Mizuki worked fast and efficiently for a minute. "So, you came here and got all bonded, eh? It's funny, 'cause your Aki was known for being terminally single and party animal not too long ago. Maybe you can help civilize him."

Byou snorted and smirked. "It just kinda happened, but it's been fine so far, other than being chased around by the Hub authorities and having my heat interrupted."

"Well, shit, no wonder you smell funny and look like you haven't slept or eaten in days," Mizuki said, wrinkling his nose in sympathy. "I've only had one heat thrown off, and it sucked so bad I never want it to happen again."

"Yeah, I don't feel great, to say the least," Byou murmured, rubbing his eyes.

"You can sleep it off here, no problem." Finishing up, Mizuki turned back to the sink and washed off the brush and comb. "You can wash that out in like, five minutes. Lemme get the medkit now," he said, crouching down to rummage in the cabinet beneath the sink.

"Why's it surprising that Hazuki bonded with Reo?" Byou asked, betting that Mizuki wouldn't hold back on the gossip.

"Well, really it's more surprising that Reo was into Hacchan, 'cause Reo's like, super weird," Mizuki said, setting the medkit on the counter and poking through it. "Rumor is he's in like, a cult, y'know those weird religions from ancient times, one of the strict ones with lots of stupid rules about alphas and omegas," he said, making a face as he shrugged. "And he's also old as fuck, but whatever. He's actually a decent alpha, all things considered. He treats omegas like we're people, of all things."

Byou chuckled softly and glanced over his shoulder at Mizuki. "Not a fan of Traditionalist ideas about omegas?"

"Gee, was it obvious?" Mizuki said dryly as he turned back to Byou and carefully removed the bandage. "I grew up in one of the strict settlements, and it kinda disillusioned me about alphas. I mean, I like submitting, but an alpha's gotta earn it, y'know? Most of them think they're entitled to it."

"I didn't really care back in Central because spending my heats alone sucks, so I wasn't really all that picky about my alphas, but I came to Pandora to find an alpha who was actually toppy," Byou said, and then pulled a playful face. "And yet somehow I ended up with Aki."

Mizuki laughed and shot a look at the door. "So that rumor's true, eh? That's hilarious." He applied some ointment around the stitches, and then covered it with a medpatch. "There, all set."

"He's a bit of a reluctant top sometimes, but I'm working on it," Byou quipped with a shrug and a smirk.

"Yeah, well, did he tell you about Yuusei yet?" Mizuki asked, tilting his head. "I mean, I probably shouldn't be the one to tell you, and he'll be pissy at me, but fuck the rules."

Byou frowned and turned to face Mizuki. "If that's the omega from the failed relationship he had, he's told me a bit but not details. Why, was it really bad?"

"Nothing like, super awful, no, but they had a messy breakup, and everyone heard about it for ages," Mizuki said and shrugged expansively as he leaned against the sink. "Which is, y'know, rare for us, what with how everyone makes big secrets about private business and all. But anyway, Aki was kind of a big ass back then, always partying and shit and sleeping around with anyone who was interested, and Yuusei kinda had enough of that after a while. I don't blame him, y'know? Their families were big on the match, but Aki was dead set on being the worst mate material ever in some knot-headed attempt to assert himself or whatever, so Yuusei finally dumped him and told him to fuck off. Last I heard they made up, but Yuusei didn't want to try again."

Byou blinked slowly as he processed the information. "Yeah, that kinda fits what he told me, I guess, but apparently he was ready to settle down when he propositioned me, though I dunno why he chose me, really."

"Heh, well, I guess he had to grow up eventually," Mizuki said and then turned to the door with a frown just before someone knocked. "Yeah, what?" he snapped.

"Y'know, Micchan, spilling all our personal shit is kind of rude," Hazuki said through the door.

"He's a newbie, he should know this shit now that he's mated to one of us," Mizuki said unrepentantly. "I haven't even gotten to yours yet, don't worry."

"Whatever, just don't talk his ears off," Hazuki said with a long-suffering sigh. "I'm gonna make food."

"Don't destroy the kitchen, alright? I'll make you deal with my landlord if you do."

Hazuki snorted. "See if I make enough for you, then."

"Hmph, the shit I put up with from you," Mizuki huffed, making a face at the door. He waited and listened for a minute to make sure Hazuki had left before turning back to Byou. "Wanna know anything else while I wash that out for you?" he asked with a grin.

Byou chuckled and eyed the door, suspecting he'd get a scolding from Aki later. "Do you know anything about Miya?" he asked softly as he let Mizuki direct him to kneel over the side of the tub.

"Oh, do I," Mizuki said with a laugh as he retrieved the shower head and turned it on. "Aki's little one night stand is actually not as secret as they would both probably prefer it was, let's just say." Once he deemed the water warm enough, he handed Byou a small black towel for his face and then carefully began to wash out the dye. "As for Miya himself, I'm thinking he's going through a midlife crisis or some shit after he failed to woo Hacchan, as if the fact he went for Hacchan of all omegas wasn't fucking weird enough."

Byou chuckled and made a questioning sound. "There's a good story there, I bet."

"Oh, there totally is, 'cause Miya's like, one of those super hardass knot-head types, yeah? So like, Hacchan wasn't the only one completely fucking shocked by his offer, and like, I know they courted for a while but Hacchan refuses to tell me shit 'cause he's a little bitch like that," Mizuki said, raising his voice a bit for emphasis to be heard over the water.

"Maybe it's because he knows you can't keep a secret," Byou murmured, trying to contain his amusement.

"Hey now, don't pretend you're not taking advantage of my big mouth," Mizuki said with a playful poke to Byou's ribs. "And not in that way, for anyone being nosy," he added loudly. "But anyway, I guess Hacchan changed Miya's outlook on things, cuz now he's chasing the tails of any unconventional omega who bothers to look twice at him, and last I heard he was trying to get with Ryo, who's like, ten years younger than him, hence my theory of midlife crisis."

Byou muffled his laugh in the towel. "Yeah, Hazuki mentioned that to us in the flier, at least the part with Miya courting Ryo."

"Ryo's perpetually twelve, so I don't think it'll work out 'cause he's so not ready to like, settle down and shit, least of all with an alpha like Miya, but it's fucking hilarious to picture the two of them as a bonded pair." Mizuki set the shower head aside and grabbed some shampoo, then lathered Byou's hair. "I mean, Miya can be a goofball at times, but Ryo's kinda outta his league with that, and I think since he hasn't settled down by now, Miya should just give up on trying. Most alphas his age already have kids and shit."

Byou made a noncommittal sound and shifted on his knees as Mizuki rinsed out his hair again. "Miya can't be that old."

"Well, okay, so I exaggerated a bit, but he's still too old for Ryo regardless, even though Reo and Hacchan have a big age gap too. I guess it works sometimes, but I really can't see Ryo settling down anytime soon." Mizuki hummed for a few moments as he made sure to thoroughly wash out the dye. "But then again, Shinji and Satoshi have almost as much of an age gap, though the circumstances are totally different with them."

"Yeah, Aki mentioned that, but not why except to hint that it was unusual and personal," Byou murmured, sitting up as Mizuki wrapped a towel around his head.

"Yep, which is where my big mouth hits its limit, since even I have standards and shit," Mizuki said, gently drying Byou's hair. "Shinji's been really good for Satoshi, though, 'cause he's one of the good alphas that's all about actually following through on being honorable and shit instead of just being all talk."

"Yeah, he seemed really nice," Byou murmured as he set aside the small towel, and then stifled a big yawn. "Thanks, by the way."

"No problem. Let's get you to bed, eh? You can tell your mate all my touches were chaste and everything too, but I hope you don't mind if I keep you between me and him, yeah?" Mizuki said as he helped Byou to his feet and opened the door.

Byou chuckled and then sobered a bit as he saw Aki standing against the opposite wall with his arms crossed and playfully glaring at Mizuki. "Hey, put me to bed and stop glaring at our gracious host," he said cheekily as he stepped forward and embraced his mate.

"Hmph, I knew I shouldn't have let you be alone with the gossip mill himself," Aki muttered, giving Mizuki one last scowl before he let Byou lead him away down the hall.

"Yeah, well, you did, so deal with it and don't take it out on your poor mate, okay? And don't make me have to explain to Tsurugi why his room smells funky, which means if I hear you getting frisky I'll barge in," Mizuki said with his hands on his hips.

"You can't invite yourself to a threesome, Micchan, even you know it doesn't work that way with a bonded pair," Hazuki said, dragging Mizuki in the other direction as Byou hauled Aki away.

"That is not what I meant and you know it, Hacchan," Mizuki huffed, giving Aki and Byou one last look before Hazuki pulled him around the corner.

Chapter Text

Once the door shut Byou tossed his shirt to the floor beside the bed and sprawled face first onto the bed with a loud sigh. "Save the scolding for tomorrow," he mumbled, too tired to even reach up to adjust the towel around his damp hair.

Aki hummed in what sounded like agreement as he climbed into bed and stretched out beside his mate. "It's okay, it's not your fault really," he murmured as he gently unbuckled Byou's collar and set it aside. "Go ahead and sleep, I'll tuck you in," he said as he began to massage Byou's neck gently.

Byou made an inarticulate sound that was half moan and half grunt, shifted a bit, and then promptly relaxed with another heavy sigh. His breathing evened out into sleep within a minute, and Aki covered him with a blanket before giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek. Aki slipped out of bed stealthily and gave Byou one last look before exiting the room to rejoin the others.

"Seriously, Micchan--" Hazuki said, his hands on his hips as he glared at the other omega.

"Oh, save it! It's nothing he wouldn't have found out anyway eventually," Mizuki snapped, his arms crossed defiantly as he leaned against the kitchen counter.

"It's okay, really, I knew he would spill about damn near everything," Aki said softly and shrugged as he flopped down onto the couch. "I am a bit annoyed at you telling him about Yuusei that way, though," he added, giving Mizuki a pointed look.

"Tact and subtlety are not in his vocabulary," Hazuki muttered as he turned away and moved to perch on the arm of Reo's chair.

"Damn you alphas and your hearing," Mizuki mumbled, huffing as he got a bowl and then helped himself to the remainder of the rice in the pot. "What's your excuse, Hacchan? Were you listening with your ear to the door?"

"You're damn loud, Micchan, in case you were somehow unaware," Hazuki retorted, letting Reo pull him onto the alpha's lap.

"I am not in a cult, for the record," Reo murmured, smirking at Mizuki. "And I'm older than Miya."

"Yeah, I know, you're the old man who stole my nice young ex from me and then shacked up with him, which you totally owe me for, by the way," Mizuki said around a mouthful of rice. "But hey, I didn't tell Byou about Tatsurou, surely that counts for something." He then pointed his chopsticks at Aki accusingly. "You should be with your mate right now. He's gonna be cranky as shit what with his heat being thrown off."

"I will in a bit," Aki said, holding his hands up in mock surrender. "He was out like a light, and I was hoping to hear from Zo before I fall asleep."

"Nice priorities you got, waiting up for your ex to call while your mate's sleeping alone," Mizuki snarked, pulling a face as he took another bite of rice.

"You're the last one to preach about priorities, slut," Hazuki said dryly.

Mizuki snorted and rolled his eyes. "Pot, kettle, regarding who gets around more," he retorted, sticking out his tongue at Hazuki.

"Enough," Reo said before Hazuki could respond. "Thank you for your hospitality, Mizuki. I'll take my mate to bed before he says anything else he'll regret," he said as he got up and hooked his fingers around Hazuki's collar firmly, and then gave it a gentle yank for emphasis.

Mizuki nearly choked on a mouthful of rice at both Reo's manhandling of Hazuki and the glare the other omega gave him as he was led away. "Yeah, you best behave, Hacchan, or the whole colony's gonna know you finally got whipped," Mizuki said with a wide grin once he'd finished his mouthful.

"You little shit--" Hazuki started, but whatever else he might have said was cut off by the sound of a door shutting firmly.

Aki snickered softly and shook his head. "That was rather priceless."

"Wasn't it, though? Damn, Reo must be a really good lay, I'm almost curious." Mizuki cackled as he set down his bowl and reached for his comm. "Fuck, I'm gonna have a hard time saving that bit of gossip for some good blackmail."

"Better be careful, or I might let slip to Miya that you're perfect for him," Aki drawled, grinning as Mizuki glared at him.

"I'd crush his little knot-headed heart to pieces, what with the fact he's not at all my type and shit," Mizuki muttered, scrolling through his messages.

"I dunno, I think he's more than toppy enough for you," Aki said with a smirk.

"Well, you'd know, wouldn't you?" Mizuki muttered, not glancing up.

"We took turns, actually," Aki said blandly, and then grinned wide at Mizuki's reaction of shocked disbelief.

"Bull. Shit," Mizuki sputtered, staring at Aki wide-eyed.

"I dare you to ask him." Aki crossed his arms with a smug look.

"I bet you do, 'cause he'd skin me alive," Mizuki retorted, narrowing his eyes at Aki. "I so cannot believe he really let you... you are such a liar!"

"Nope, I swear it's true," Aki said, holding up one hand.

Mizuki snorted, still looking skeptical. "Eh, whatever. Go cuddle with your mate. I promise to let you know if your ex calls, not like I can get much sleep on the couch anyway."

Aki nodded and stifled a yawn as he got up. "Thanks, by the way," he said as he rubbed his eyes and then headed for Tsurugi's room.

"Yeah, yeah, don't mention it," Mizuki said with a dismissive wave as he flopped on the couch in a lazy sprawl.

 

Byou slept soundly until mid morning when he woke to Aki wrapped around him like a four-limbed octopus, and he grunted as he elbowed his mate. "Lemme breathe," he muttered, half annoyed and half amused at Aki's sleepy grumble. A bit more prodding made Aki loosen his hold somewhat, and Byou shifted lazily with a contented sigh.

"You okay?" Aki asked, his breath tickling Byou's ear.

Byou frowned as he assessed how he felt and then shrugged a bit. "I've definitely felt better, but mostly I'm just starving."

"Let's get you some breakfast, then," Aki murmured, heaving himself up with a reluctant grunt and then shifting off the bed to stretch.

Byou murmured a wordless agreement but made no move to get up. He pouted a bit at Aki's knowing grin and stretched languidly, wiggling his toes that peeked out from beneath the blanket. "Bring me something?"

"I don't think Micchan will be happy with you having breakfast in his roommate's bed," Aki said with a chuckle as he tugged the blanket off Byou before the omega could grab it back.

"Fine, jerk," Byou grumbled as he pushed himself upright and then made a show of rubbing his eyes and yawning.

"Your hair looks great, bedhead is apparently a good look on you," Aki teased, snatching the towel up from the pillows.

"Hmph." Byou added a glare to his surly pout and ran his fingers through his messy hair. He then retrieved his shirt and pulled it on before stifling another yawn. "Food first, vanity later," he muttered, finally getting to his feet.

"You sure you're feeling alright?" Aki asked, teasing grin still in place as he reached out to massage Byou's bare neck.

"You're hilarious, really," Byou mumbled, poking Aki in the belly as his mate buckled the collar back on. "Feed me now, or else."

"As you wish, imp," Aki said as he hooked two fingers through the ring on Byou's collar and led the omega out. They'd barely made it three steps into the living room when Mizuki tossed a package at Aki and the alpha caught it reflexively with his free hand.

"Yume sent a message, they're fine, and he says he'll be over later with your stuff," Mizuki reported from his perch on one of the armchairs. "That's for Byou," he added, pointing to the package.

Aki released Byou to open the package, and the omega walked over to the couch and slumped onto it with a sigh. Hazuki came in and handed Byou a bowl of rice and set a glass of water down on the coffee table that was now at least half cleared of stuff.

"Still feel shitty, eh?" Mizuki asked Byou, and the other omega grunted an affirmative. "I got you some meds, but you should eat first."

Byou nodded obediently and took the chopsticks Hazuki handed him, then began to eat after he murmured his thanks. Aki sat beside Byou and set down two patches beside the water glass, then rubbed his mate's back.

"Tsurugi could give you all that technical explanation shit, but in normal human language, just put those two patches on and you'll feel better soon," Mizuki said.

Byou managed a soft laugh and nodded as he continued to eat. From the labels, he saw that one patch was hormonal stuff and the other was for any residual aches and pains.

"Want more?" Hazuki asked when Byou finished a few minutes later.

"No, thanks," Byou murmured, shaking his head. He chugged half the glass of water and then applied the patches to his left upper arm, and once that was done he promptly curled up on the couch and leaned against Aki.

"Can you even cook anything besides rice?" Mizuki asked Hazuki, poking the other omega with his bare foot as Hazuki passed his chair.

"Fuck you, go shopping for groceries if you want something more complicated," Hazuki retorted, grabbing Mizuki's foot playfully.

"Hey, leggo, bitchface," Mizuki said, and then yelped as Hazuki tickled his foot.

"Children, do I have to separate you two?" Reo asked with an amused smirk as he came in from the bathroom toweling his short hair off. He was wearing loose pants and a borrowed bathrobe and slippers.

"He started it," Hazuki and Mizuki said in unison, and then glared at each other.

Reo snorted and shook his head, then tossed his towel at Hazuki's face, and the omega caught it easily. "Go shower," he said in a tone that indicated it wasn't up for debate. Hazuki pouted but moved to obey.

"So whipped," Mizuki muttered under his breath, then flashed a grin as Hazuki turned to lunge for him just as Reo grabbed his mate by the arm.

"Go, now," Reo said flatly and swatted Hazuki's ass, his lips twitching with a suppressed smirk. "Clothes are in there for you." He then turned a disapproving look onto Mizuki, but it only lasted a few moments before turning into an amused half smile.

With a last glare at Mizuki that promised payback, Hazuki entered the bathroom and shut the door.

Meanwhile, Byou and Aki were unsuccessfully trying to muffle their laughter, to which Mizuki gave a triumphant grin.

"Did I miss something last night?" asked Byou, grinning at Mizuki.

"You sure did, which might also be why your mate's being super attentive and shit," Mizuki said with a smirk, ignoring Aki's warning look blithely. "Once he put you to bed he came out here for a bit, and we got to see Reo haul Hacchan off to bed. Literally. It was fucking hilarious."

"Since I do know better, I'm fairly sure you're antagonizing him on purpose," Reo said dryly as he took the seat next to Mizuki.

Mizuki blinked innocently at Reo and then grinned. "Hey, if I can't sleep with him, riling him up is the next best thing. Surely you've figured that out by now. Besides, not my fault it's so easy."

Aki shared a long-suffering look with Reo and ruffled Byou's hair affectionately. "I hope I won't have too many regrets letting Micchan influence my mate," he murmured.

"Hey, you like my smartass mouth," Byou mumbled as he tried to fix his hair.

"Like you're not a big gossip, Aki," Mizuki said, making a face.

"I have more restraint, which says a lot, I suppose," Aki retorted easily.

"Bullshit." Mizuki rolled his eyes and flicked his fingers at Aki. "You just like to be a tease is all."

Byou snickered softly at that and sat up to finish his water. "So, what happens now?"

"We wait to hear from the others," Reo said, crossing his ankles as he leaned back in the armchair. "Our secure communications frequency isn't quite ready yet, but it should be up soon."

"But didn't Yume send a message?" Byou asked, furrowing his brow.

"Yeah, in code," Mizuki replied. "The Hub authorities can't monitor every message, and they ignore shit that looks like boring chitchat between friends. But our code can only cover so many things, so we need an encrypted frequency to pass on relevant shit."

Byou nodded and settled back against Aki. "Kinda feels like we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, since reinforcements arrived."

"They haven't managed to arrest any of us yet, as far as we know," Aki said, loosely embracing his mate. "Keeping you and the others safe is a priority. We've been lucky, at least so far."

"Basically, they got nothing on us in sneaky skills," Mizuki added with a smirk. "Besides which, existing isn't illegal, and it hasn't reached the point of them being able to arrest us just for being alphas and omegas."

"But your roommate's in Pandora for his heat," Byou said with a frown. "Do you think they'll question him?"

"Unlikely, seeing as how he's a Hub citizen, and he's well into his heat daze," Mizuki said with a shrug. "He doesn't know anything useful anyway."

Almost as if on some sort of cue, there was a loud knock on the door and a muffled voice came through. "This is Pandora security, please open the door."

Mizuki glanced up and furrowed his brow as he shooed the others back to the bedrooms, then grabbed a bathrobe from a pile of clothing. The knock came again, more impatiently, and Mizuki took a breath before he messed up his hair haphazardly and approached the door with his shoulders set and chin high.

"Oh. My. God. Hold your fucking panties, for fuck's sake. Do you even know what time it is?" Mizuki snapped as he made a show of fumbling at the lock. "What," he snapped, his tone full of irate venom as he yanked open the door to reveal a young beta man in a security uniform standing there with a datapad in hand.

"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but there's been a report of unauthorized persons--"

"Look, I don't fucking care, okay? I just got to bed a fucking hour ago, I had the worst night ever, and you come wake me up? Fuck you," Mizuki said petulantly as he crossed his arms, glaring at the poor beta who looked startled and a bit flustered.

"I'm really sorry, sir, a-about your night, but--"

"Look, honeycakes, my time is valuable, and the longer you fucking waste it, the pissier I get, got it?" Mizuki growled, leaning close and making the beta take a startled step back. "No one's been in my apartment but me, so go fucking bother someone else." With that, Mizuki stepped back into his apartment and slammed the door, then leaned against it with wide eyes as he held his breath. Through the door the beta made another stammering apology and hurried away, and Mizuki flashed a grin before he covered his mouth with both hands, doubling over as he tried to contain his laughter.

"Holy shit, Micchan," Hazuki hissed as he dashed from the bathroom to embrace the other omega, grinning wide. "That was fucking epic."

"I need to sit down, fuck, oh my god," Mizuki choked out, laughing and shaking as he wobbled over to the couch with Hazuki's help. "I am so glad he was alone. And new. Very fucking new."

"That was amazing," Byou said in awe as he slowly moved to perch on the arm of the couch, his gaze never wavering from Mizuki.

"Yeah, well, those acting classes paid off, didn't they?" Mizuki murmured, taking a few deep breaths as he collected his composure.

"Acting? That was pure you, Micchan," Hazuki said, his grin teasing as he settled on the couch and embraced the other omega from behind.

"Oh shut up, you know you like me in diva bitch mode," Mizuki muttered and then grinned as he settled comfortably against Hazuki with a sigh. "I can't fucking believe that worked, holy fuck."

"Let's hope he doesn't regrow his spine and come back before we can leave," Reo said dryly as he gave Mizuki a look of approval.

"Now I get why you like him, Hacchan," Aki said, grinning wide as he sprawled in a chair. "Bets on how long it takes the poor guy to realize it's almost the afternoon."

"Fuck you," Mizuki muttered as he made a face at Aki. "You owe me so bad, Hacchan. But I take payment in cuddles. Lots of cuddles."

"I can definitely work with that, Micchan," Hazuki said with a grin as he nuzzled Mizuki.

A few minutes later there was another knock on the door, and Yumehito's cheery voice came through the door. "Courier service for two newly bonded mates!"

Mizuki grinned and hurried over to open the door, then took one of the bags Yumehito carried as the other omega stepped inside and toed off his shoes.

"You wouldn't happen to know anything about a harried looking beta guy who looks like he'd just about pissed himself, would you?" Yumehito asked, giving Mizuki a wide, knowing grin.

"Hey now, why's everyone always suspect me?" Mizuki said with fake indignation that lasted all of two seconds before he cackled. "I bitched him out for 'waking' me up, not my fault he can't handle me."

"It was priceless, Yume, you should've seen it," Hazuki said with a grin.

"I'm sure," Yumehito murmured, chuckling as he waved to Byou and the others. "Micchan's bitchface almost rivals Zo's, but his diva attitude is better."

"I dunno if I should be insulted or not," Mizuki muttered, making a face at Yume's back. Mizuki's comm beeped a moment later, and the omega frowned as he fetched it and then read the message, his expression shifting to slight concern. "Hey, Reo, can you turn on the vidscreen?"

Reo hesitated only a moment before he nodded and leaned forward to turn the vidscreen on.

"--the explosion, and three security personnel are still unaccounted for," a beta newscaster said, her expression composed and professional as she stood a few yards from a scene of such chaos that it was impossible to tell just what had happened. "Reporting live, this is Aiko Fukushima. For those of you just tuning in, three arrests have been made and several other suspects are being sought in the bombing. The authorities believe a group of anti-government terrorists is responsible--"

"Fuck! That's bullshit," Mizuki said, looking a bit pale as he sat back on the couch beside Hazuki. "None of us would--"

"Quiet, I want to know who's been arrested," Yumehito said sharply as he perched on an arm of the couch.

"A surprise inspection of the Pandora resort revealed that an illegal prostitution ring had been using it as a cover for its operations, and further investigation has revealed connections to anti-government groups. The authorities have detained several for questioning, and more are being sought. They ask anyone with any information to call in at the number on your vidscreen, and to please be on the lookout for any suspicious activity or persons."

The image of the newscaster was replaced with the pictures and names of the suspects being sought, and Yumehito cursed as they saw familiar faces. "Masaaki Yaguchi, alias Miya, and Kenzo Matsuura are wanted in connection to the bombing, and they are both considered armed and dangerous," the newscaster said. "If seen, the authorities advise extreme caution and to call them immediately."

"Well shit, no wonder Zo wanted me to run this errand," Yumehito said flatly and rubbed his face. "At least they haven't been caught yet."

The screen changed to a set of six pictures, and Byou jumped as he saw his own face among them, along with his mate and familiar faces. "Masahito Kojima, alias Byou, Shinji Ninomiya, Akihito Ichiki, Reo Furuga, Takaaki Takeuchi, alias Hazuki, and Yumehito Kawano are being sought for questioning and for connections to the terrorist group that is allegedly responsible for the bombing. Mr. Kojima is also considered a fugitive, whereabouts and status unknown."

"So I'm harboring fugitives, and I don't even get a mention?" Mizuki muttered, watching as more names were read and pictures shown.

Byou furrowed his brow as he didn't recognize anyone else in the lineups. "You were with them just a short while ago, right?" he asked Yumehito.

"Yeah, it wasn't even fifteen minutes ago. There's no way they could've pulled off the bombing between when I was with them and now," Yumehito said, shaking his head. "That looked like somewhere near the spaceport, where she was standing, and we're on the other side of town."

Finally, the pictures of those arrested were shown. "Satoru Kano, alias Ruka, Yuji Baba, alias Niya, and Takahiro Sakaguchi, alias Sakito, have been arrested. The charges for Mr. Kano, arrested yesterday, are aiding and abetting the transport of fugitives, and Mr. Baba along with Mr. Sakaguchi were caught a few blocks away just minutes after the bomb went off."

"Shit, do you think they really did it?" Mizuki asked, blinking at the vidscreen and then muting it as the news began repeating the same information again.

Reo shook his head once. "No, neither of them are that careless, nor would they escalate without good cause."

"Do you think Miya ordered it?" Aki asked.

"Last I heard we were waiting for our other ship to arrive, so I doubt it," Yumehito said, frowning as he considered what he knew. "As far as I know, Niya and Saki were gonna meet up with Shinji and the others, and Zo, Miya, and I were gonna get in contact with a few others who were setting up our secure communications."

"At least they haven't implicated Satoshi or Hittsu, yet anyway," Hazuki said, making a face. "As it is, we can assume the Pandora betas sold us out."

"And that the Hub authorities definitely won't make it easy for us to get away," Aki added. "I'm not sure if we should even risk meeting up with anyone else with all of Pandora on alert now looking for us."

Mizuki's comm beeped again, and this time the omega grinned with relief as he read the message. "Secure frequency is a go, finally," he said as he fiddled with the vidscreen and poked at a console above it.

Miya's face replaced the newscast, and they could see Kenzo behind him along with a couple others who had their backs to the screen. "The plan as of now is to get everyone into fliers and head for the other continent where our off-planet ship will land," Miya said, all business. "Shinji's already taken Satoshi and Hitsugi and the kids, and we're trying to contact others right now. Anything to report, Reo?"

Reo sat up and shook his head. "Nothing of immediate relevance. How many fliers do we have, and where are they located?"

Miya sent them a map with marked locations that appeared in the lower lefthand corner of the screen. "Stay in groups of no more than six at a time. You should head out as soon as possible, and take Yumehito with you."

"What about me?" Mizuki interjected, frowning. "One of the Pandora security idiots was already nosing around here earlier."

Miya gave Mizuki a slightly irritated glance. "Go with them for now. You'll meet up with two others at the fliers, and then split up however you see fit and head to the landing site."

"Roger that, Captain," Mizuki said, doing a half-assed salute with a cheeky grin.

Miya smirked briefly and gave Reo a look. "Stay out of sight and off the radar, and if you're spotted, split up into pairs and run, don't engage."

"What's the deal with what was on the news?" Mizuki asked.

Miya paused and glanced behind him to Kenzo for a moment, and when the other alpha shrugged and shook his head Miya turned back to the screen. "We're still trying to locate where they're holding the others, and as for the bombing, none of us were involved. It's too much of a coincidence, however, and we're looking into it right now."

Kenzo turned in his chair and then rolled it over to the vidscreen. "Stay safe, Yume, and the rest of you, too," he said. "Be out the door in fifteen minutes or less, beta squads are patrolling the area."

"Stay in touch on your comm, and don't forget to reset your console before you go," Miya said, looking at Mizuki.

"No shit," Mizuki muttered, making a face at Miya. "Anything else, Captain Obvious?"

Miya gave Mizuki a look for a moment and then shook his head slowly. "Good luck, everyone," he said, and then cut the connection.

Mizuki huffed a bit as he got up and fiddled with the console for a few moments, then tossed his comm to Hazuki. "Y'all are gonna have to make do with hats, coats, and sunglasses, which I'd like back eventually," he said as he took Yumehito by the arm and led the other omega into his room.

The two emerged after a few minutes, and Yumehito now sported a wig of long black hair and large sunglasses that looked slightly off on him, but had the effect of drastically altering his appearance. He handed the others a selection of hats and sunglasses in various colors and sizes, and they all put them on.

"A wig, really?" Hazuki asked, tilting his head at Yumehito.

"Was either him or Reo, and as hilarious as that'd be, I really don't think it'd suit him at all," Mizuki quipped as he tossed Reo another pair of sunglasses and a cap with a long front brim, and a large sweatshirt with a mostly faded logo on the front. He then put on his own makeshift disguise and gathered a few things in a bag, then handed out jackets and sweatshirts.

When everyone was all set Reo and Hazuki exited first, the omega covering his gun with a borrowed jacket. Aki and Byou were next about a minute later, and Mizuki and Yumehito followed. As an extra precaution they all exited from different doors and then met up at the back of the building near where they'd first come in, and from there they walked in a loose group as casually as possible. Luck was with them, and the few others out on the street barely paid them a second glance, though there was a tense few moments as a patrol passed by and they hid in an alley until it moved on.

Hazuki periodically checked Mizuki's comm for news as they walked, and they all kept alert as they took a roundabout path to the meetup location. Including detours around patrols and splitting up twice to meet up a few blocks away, the trip took about thirty minutes. As they entered the small garage, Byou saw two short figures partially concealed behind one flier, and as the less stocky one stepped around the flier into view Byou stopped abruptly.

"Mao?" Byou stared and gaped for a moment before he blinked and grinned. "The hell are you doing here?"

Mao blinked, startled, and squinted at Byou, then huffed a laugh as he eyed Aki. "I thought I heard your name on the news," he said, and then gestured to his omega companion who stepped forward. "This is Kyo," he added, lifting his chin a bit as Kyo nodded silently in greeting. They both wore necklaces that weren't technically collars but could function as such, much like Hazuki's, and the pendants on each bore the others' initials.

"Holy shit, is he your toppy ex lover too? Small world moment," Mizuki quipped, cheeky grin in place.

"Micchan!" Yumehito murmured sharply, nudging Mizuki.

Mao chuckled at Mizuki and shrugged a bit ruefully as he glanced to Byou. "Long story. Let's save it for when we get to the ship though."

Kyo shot Mizuki a look, not quite annoyed but not entirely pleased, and then pointed two fingers at Byou and Aki with a hand covered in tattoos. "They go with us," he said flatly, and then turned to climb into the pilot seat of the nearest flier.

Reo nodded and casually nudged Mizuki when the omega looked about to speak, then herded him along with Yume and Hazuki to the other flier.

"Pots and kettles, Micchan?" Hazuki said with a grin.

"Shut up, you," Mizuki muttered, then glanced back as he was climbing into the flier. "See y'all soon, yeah? Good luck."

Mao, Byou and Aki waved goodbye to the others and then climbed into the flier, and soon enough they were all buckled in with Mao in the front beside Kyo. The top hatch closed and Kyo wasted no time powering the small plane up and then turning it in the opposite direction of Reo's. They'd barely gotten six yards away when an alarm light went off and Kyo cursed as he punched a few buttons and increased the flier's speed.

"Close your eyes and duck, and don't look up for about ten seconds," Kyo said flatly, and a moment later there was a large bright flash as the flier rose sharply in the air, the windows tinting automatically to lessen the glare. They kept climbing in a steep ascent for about a minute and then Kyo pressed another button that made the flier shudder slightly as he leveled it out when they hit the clouds.

Chapter Text

"So, you went and got yourself mated, eh?" Mao asked, turning in his seat to look back at Byou with a smirk.

"Apparently," Byou said dryly, giving Kyo a significant look before raising his eyebrows at Mao. "What are you doing here, though? Last I heard you took a vacation to the Rim, but I didn't know you were, well..."

"This involved?" Mao asked, his expression rueful as he shrugged. "It started out as business stuff, but then I met Micchan a few years ago and through him I met others, and it sort of grew from there. When I got tipped off about a raid on my workplace, I booked a one-way trip out here." He paused and gave Aki a curious look. "You don't seem surprised."

"Byou told me about you and the situation," Aki said, shrugging casually. "I didn't expect to meet you this soon, but it's convenient."

"We were trying to figure out what was going on with the warrant for me, and I mentioned that I kinda figured you'd know about anti-beta groups, but I didn't expect you to be here with the Traditionalists," Byou explained. "We thought you might have had a warrant too."

"Yeah, I do, and they were raiding all the fetish clubs and all that before I left," Mao said with a shrug. "Seemed a good time to leave for good."

"I guess I timed my vacation well also," Byou murmured, glancing to Aki with a faint smile.

"As for why I'm with this gang, well..." Mao quirked a half smile and glanced at Kyo. "I met Kyo about a year ago now, and we've been together pretty much since then."

Byou smirked and eyed Mao's necklace, then studied Kyo curiously. The other omega had a very alpha-like presence and appearance, somewhat like Hazuki but more aggressive, and his hair was cropped short like Reo's. All in all, Byou felt slightly intimidated and he resolved to try his best to stay on Kyo's good side, as the other omega's upper arms were about as thick as his neck. As for Mao, he looked about the same other than bleaching his hair blonde, and Byou was fairly sure Mao had at least one new piercing.

"I met Aki in Pandora, and sometime after we were on the run from the betas we realized we were bonding," Byou said, then summarized the rest of the details of their adventure.

Kyo poked a few buttons and adjusted the instruments, then turned to glance back at Byou and Aki. "We'll probably arrive before the ship lands, and it'll take about an hour to get there."

"Do you think we'll be followed?" Byou asked.

"Not right away, no. That flash I dropped jammed their equipment, and hopefully others on the ground will take care of the rest," Kyo answered with a shrug. "Pandora doesn't have satellites they can use to track us, so they depend on shit that can be easily sabotaged with the right equipment."

Byou nodded blankly, as he didn't fully understand the technical aspect of how it all worked but it seemed to make sense.

"And for any ships patrolling the air, we're hidden now," Mao added, gesturing to the cloud cover they were flying in. "The clouds are a nice bonus."

"Camo tech?" asked Byou.

"Sort of, more like the flier itself is built for stealth and deflects radar signals. Visually, we can still be detected, but they'd have to know what to look for and where to look," Mao said.

"Micchan said you all were good at being sneaky," Byou murmured, impressed with the various ways of avoiding detection.

Mao smirked slightly and nodded. "Yeah, though the bombing's gonna complicate shit," he said, glancing at Kyo. "Especially if there's more from whoever did it."

"I told Miya my suspicions, up to him to listen," Kyo replied, shrugging as he checked the flier instruments.

Mao frowned for a few moments and then glanced back to Byou. "We think someone's turned traitor, since the bombing was well timed and the sabotage is similar to Sakito's methods. There are a few other things that point to someone who knows us well at the very least, but the amount of coincidences points to someone with a grudge."

"Any suspects?" Aki asked quietly, only vaguely surprised at the suspicions.

"There could be at least one of us here that we don't know about who's giving the Hub authorities information," Mao said with a shrug. "I doubt you need a list of anyone who'd have motivation to start shit."

"It's a fairly short list anyway," Aki said with a frown. "If it's one of our people, we'll know soon enough one way or another."

"The fact that we've been able to sneak around almost without trouble means it can't be someone with high clearance, and we haven't had any sabotage on our end, yet anyway, so whoever it is must be a minor agent without many connections," Mao said.

"If we focus on who would want to implicate Sakito specifically, the list of suspects is even shorter," Aki mused, furrowing his brow. "I know Ruka wouldn't have spilled anything, but he was picked up much earlier. It doesn't quite add up."

"We don't have enough information at this point to figure out who it might be," Kyo said with a soft sigh. "We're taking as many precautions as we can under the circumstances."

"What if it's someone new?" Byou asked, glancing from Mao to Kyo.

"Like you?" Kyo raised his eyebrows and smirked briefly at Byou, then shook his head. "You've been with your mate from the start, which is why you've been kept in the loop along with Aki. If it's a newbie they'd have to be unmated and they wouldn't be told much of anything yet, and certainly not enough to know how to frame Sakito or tip the authorities off to Ruka."

"Still, there could be more than one, though the bombing and framing of Sakito is the only major thing that definitely points to a traitor," Mao said and shrugged. "Like I said, I think it's a minor agent with a personal grudge, even if the bombing has a wider effect on us all."

"Speculation is pointless," Kyo said shortly. "Until we have more info to go on, we're just talking in circles."

Mao smiled at Kyo for a moment and then shrugged a bit. "Okay, we'll drop it. Got anything else to chat about instead?"

Kyo gave Mao a look that went from mildly irritated to amused. "Why don't you fill them in on the news and gossip?"

Mao snorted softly. "That's what Micchan is for, not me."

Kyo just raised one eyebrow and smirked at Mao, and Mao made a face at him before glancing to Byou.

"So you've been involved with the Traditionalists for a while now?" Byou asked curiously.

Mao nodded. "Yeah, for a few years, but not directly until the past year or so," he said. "I just did some odd jobs and helped keep an eye on the Hub authorities and that sort of thing."

"And ran the gossip vine with Mizuki," Kyo added with a brief grin.

Mao rolled his eyes and huffed. "Fine, yeah, that too, though he was more in the loop than me."

"I'm sure he was," Byou said with a teasing grin, earning him a smirk from Kyo and a scowl from Mao.

"That's not fair, getting double teamed," Mao grumbled, crossing his arms.

Byou snorted at that but settled for a teasing look rather than a verbal response, as he wasn't about to push boundaries with Kyo right there. The conversation eased into small talk and inconsequentials after that as Byou and Mao updated each other on details of various things, and the rest of the hour passed quickly enough. Kyo began the descent slowly and circled around to make sure no Hub ships were in the area, then checked coordinates and headed for the landing site. They landed in a clearing of packed dirt a few minutes later, and Shinji waved from the treeline of a small forest as Kyo parked the flier off to the side of the clearing.

"Reo's flier should be here soon," Mao said as they approached Shinji after climbing out of the flier. "Who else is here?"

"A dozen others besides Hitsugi and Satoshi," Shinji said, gesturing behind him. "More will arrive soon, as we're clearing out everyone we can." He led them into the forest, following a narrow path.

"How many total?" asked Byou, curious.

"Of civilians, about two dozen including kids," Shinji replied. "Less than usual for a resort this size, but more of us would have been arriving here in a week."

"Any news?" Kyo asked.

"There were two other bombings in different areas of Pandora, and both injured several but no deaths as of yet," Shinji reported as they walked in a single file line down the forest path. "Miya and Kenzo are on their way, as it was too risky to remain there. The authorities are locking down the entire resort now and focusing their attention there for the most part, but our ship might be spotted coming in and we could have other problems as well."

Mao muttered a curse and shared a look with Kyo, their expressions mirroring their worry. "So someone really has it in for us, and they picked a great time to start shit," Mao muttered, rubbing his face.

"We've sent messages to the settlements and other resorts in case this becomes more widespread, but for now it seems contained to Pandora," Shinji said as they emerged from the trees and into another clearing beside a rock face. "Chances are good that we'll make it off-planet when the ship arrives, but it'll be difficult to retrieve anyone who's been arrested."

"By difficult you mean not gonna happen," Kyo said flatly.

Shinji hesitated and glanced back at Kyo before nodding slowly. "It's an eventuality, if we get a good opportunity, but it's unlikely given the high security. We have a better chance to spring Ruka, but it's still not a risk we can afford to take at this time."

"How many Hub squads are here now?" asked Aki as they approached the rock face.

Two alphas emerged from a cave entrance that was almost invisible from their angle of approach. "Five at last count, one more arrived a couple hours ago," the shorter of the alphas said.

Byou took an involuntary step behind Aki as he blinked at the alphas, both of which radiated intimidating with their severe expressions and demeanor. It didn't help that the others came to attention at the sight of them, except for Kyo, and that both smelled unmated. The taller one had a very weathered face and his cold gaze sent shivers down Byou's spine, while the shorter had the bearing of confident authority with a dangerous edge.

"Byou, this is Kaoru and Asanao," Aki said, gesturing first to the shorter alpha and then the other.

Byou managed a silent nod and tried not to seem as freaked out as he felt at Asanao's creepy stare.

Kaoru nodded a greeting at Byou and then turned to Asanao. "Go meet Reo's flier," he ordered quietly, and then gestured for the others to follow him into the cave.

Byou edged to the other side of Aki as Asanao passed them, and Mao noticed and smirked at him.

"He's scary looking, but he's actually nice," Mao said quietly. "He's all quiet and broody, but give him a cute and furry animal and he's all smiles."

Byou blinked and snorted in disbelief as he glanced back to the path where Asanao had disappeared. They all filed into the cave tunnel and Byou stuck close to Mao and Aki as faint, unfamiliar scents reached him from the other occupants. As far as he could tell, most of the new scents belonged to unmated alphas and omegas. They soon emerged into a medium sized, well-lit cavern and Byou saw a handful of others he didn't know milling around.

"Kaoru's the scary one, and if he's here it means shit is serious," Mao added in a whisper, though Kaoru was several paces ahead and didn't seem to be paying attention to either of them. "He's a settlement leader."

"Why would he come here when everyone's trying to leave?" asked Byou, darting a glance to Kaoru who was speaking to one of the unfamiliar alphas in hushed tones.

"He arrived here shortly before the raid," Shinji said. "He's been coordinating things since from here, once it became clear that the Hub authorities were getting serious."

"Even settlement leaders need a vacation," Kyo quipped with a smirk in Kaoru's direction, making no effort to lower his voice as he crossed his arms. "Just his luck that the one time he stops working, shit happens. I'm sure he's thrilled."

Kaoru glanced toward Kyo and raised one eyebrow as he cracked a faint smile. "I was here on business, actually," he said, his smile growing a notch.

"Figures," Kyo muttered, rolling his eyes as he turned away and headed down a side passage to the right.

Byou blinked at the exchange and glanced to Aki, though from everyone's non-reaction he supposed it wasn't unusual.

Shinji pointed to a passage off to the left. "The cavern through there is for omegas and kids, and supplies and food are on the right. If you need some privacy, there's smaller caverns through the back passages."

"I'm gonna go find where Kyo wandered off to," Mao said, and with a wave to the others, he headed for the passage Kyo had disappeared into.

"Do you want to rest or get more food?" Aki asked, setting down their bags near a pile of others.

Byou fingered the patches on his arm and shrugged, then nodded. "Food sounds good," he said, following Aki down a different passage.

"It's probably gonna be just field rations, but it's better than nothing," Aki said, leading Byou to the supply pile.

They each took a nutri-bar and returned to the main cavern just in time to see Reo and the others arrive. Asanao wore a resigned expression as Mizuki flirted openly with him, undeterred by his disinterest and lack of response. Byou stopped short and stared, then started to laugh around a mouthful of nutri-bar as Asanao shot Reo an almost pleading look, and Reo merely smirked back. Hazuki and Yumehito, meanwhile, were quietly snickering as they headed for Byou and Aki.

"He's been doing that since we got out of the flier," Hazuki said with a wide grin. "Poor Asanao doesn't know what the fuck to do, it's hilarious. Asanao's too nice to tell him to fuck off, but I think he secretly likes it or he'd find some way of deterring Micchan."

"You should've seen the way Micchan practically tackled Asanao," Yumehito added with a chuckle as he glanced over his shoulder to see Mizuki once more hanging onto Asanao's arm. "I wouldn't have thought Micchan would go for the quiet and broody type, but I gotta admit they make a cute couple."

"Except for the fact Asanao has no idea what to do with an omega, let alone a suddenly toppy one," Hazuki quipped, shaking his head as he grinned.

"That's exactly why it's so cute!" Yumehito said with a mischievous smirk. "He's so out of his depth, and Micchan is being Micchan."

Byou smirked and finished off his nutri-bar. "Figures Micchan goes for the toppy omegas and the opposite in alphas," he said, glancing to Aki with a grin.

"He's never flirted with me, though," Aki said, making a face at Byou.

Hazuki glanced to Reo as his mate went to report to Kaoru and then turned back to the others. "We were tailed for a while on the way here, and Reo thinks the Hub authorities might come sniffing around."

"Shinji said Miya and Zo are on their way here," Aki said, glancing to Yumehito. "There were two more bombings, no fatalities yet but several injured."

Yumehito frowned and nodded slowly. "We heard the news on the comm, yeah. I don't like this at all, it feels as if the Hub is one step ahead of us and just waiting to spring a trap."

"Mao and Kyo think there's a traitor," Byou murmured.

Hazuki and Yumehito shared a look and both nodded. "At least one, yeah," Hazuki said with a frown. "And it definitely does feel like they're waiting for the right moment to strike, given how easy it's been so far, relatively. The question is whether they'll try to corner us before we leave, or after."

"But would the traitor know about this place?" Yumehito asked, tilting his head as he glanced around.

"All they'd need was a tracker on a single flier headed here," Reo said as he joined them. "As far as I know, this was simply a convenient location that Kaoru chose, perhaps because it's just a temporary shelter. Anyone with a detailed map of this planet would know it exists, but it's one of at least a dozen similar places on this continent."

"Haven't they had many opportunities to get us before now?" asked Byou, furrowing his brow.

"Yeah, it doesn't really make sense why they keep letting us slip away, unless they're planning something bigger," Hazuki said, shrugging as he pursed his lips.

"Like getting us all in one place to spring their trap, and only arresting us when we're alone or in pairs," Yumehito added, frowning deeply.

Reo nodded. "That's why Miya had us travel in a group. In any case, the last of us should be arriving soon, and then we'll see if the Hub makes a move. We are prepared to defend ourselves if they show up here before our ship does," he said, gesturing to unmarked supply crates near the food crates.

"The fact that we were followed only until we left Pandora's continent is telling," Hazuki murmured with a look to Reo.

"Yeah, it's looking likely that they'll make their move around when our ship arrives," Reo said with a frown. "We checked the fliers for trackers and neither of ours had any, nor did the others that were checked previously, at least that we could detect."

"I don't suppose we have radar here, do we?" Hazuki asked, nodding a greeting to Shinji as the alpha approached with a datapad in hand.

"Unfortunately, we have only rudimentary equipment here, so we won't get much warning if any at all, but we're in communication with our incoming ship and they're using theirs," Shinji said and shrugged. "It's not ideal, and the delay in transmission is an issue, but it's better than nothing." He poked at his datapad for a moment and then glanced up. "The Hub has three ships and five squads, and combined with Pandora security forces that puts their numbers at about a hundred with about six off-planet ships. Worst case scenario, and the most likely plan of theirs, they take four squads and their ships and wait until we're on ours to corner us before we can make the jump."

"As of the last report, eight of us have been arrested, and it's likely that any trackers will be on one of the fliers on their way," Reo said, nodding to Kaoru as the other alpha joined them. "Our off-planet ship doesn't have weapons as it's a passenger ship designed for speed. Given the bombings, it means they're more likely to engage in a fight than demand our surrender, regardless of whether we're armed."

"In other words, we're basically fucked unless we can make the jump as soon as we leave atmo and before they can fire on us," Hazuki said bluntly, though he glanced sidelong at Kaoru and straightened from his slouch.

Kaoru smiled thinly and nodded. "We're outnumbered at the moment, and our escape hangs on timing and speed, neither of which gives us good odds. However, I sent word to rally any of our other ships in the area shortly after the first bombing was reported, and I just heard back from the last of seven of our weapons-capable ships within range. They're headed our way now and they will engage the Hub ships upon arrival."

Hazuki widened his eyes and blinked slowly. "So we're really gonna fight," he murmured, glancing to Reo.

"We have little choice, and though we were forced into this position, we might as well take as much advantage of it as we can," Kaoru said with a casual shrug. "Our highest priority is still getting the civilians off-planet, and in order to do that safely we will have to take some risks."

"And best of all, they probably won't even know what hit them," Aki said, smiling slightly.

"I like the sound of this far better than being sitting ducks hanging on luck and chance," Yumehito said quietly, though he didn't look entirely pleased.

"Five of our ships will be heading for Pandora to keep them occupied, and two will cover our escape ship," Kaoru said, checking his comm and fiddling with it. "Miya and Kenzo will arrive in about fifteen minutes, along with three other fliers. Our escape ship had to refuel and do some repairs on the jump drive, which has delayed it somewhat, but it should arrive shortly after the others engage the Hub ships."

"Who counts as civilians?" Byou asked softly, unsure whether he should be speaking.

"Unmated omegas and children, for the most part," Kaoru replied, then glanced pointedly to Hazuki and Reo. "And mated pairs, with a few exceptions."

"So, with the reinforcements, will we attempt a rescue?" Shinji asked, handing his datapad to Kaoru when the other motioned for it.

"Yes, as there's few places secure enough for them to hold prisoners in Pandora, and they won't spare any ships to leave just yet, especially when they think they have an advantage over us," Kaoru said, checking a few things on the datapad. "I'll be assembling a team when everyone has arrived, and we'll work out a few plans. Feel free to spread the word," he said, nodding a dismissal before he turned and walked away.

Byou turned to Aki once Kaoru had gone. "So I guess the revolution is happening, eh?" he asked softly, biting his lip.

"Apparently," Aki murmured, his smile a touch strained.

"We're not exactly prepared for anything large-scale, but the bombings have forced us to act," Shinji said, and then glanced to Yumehito. "Would you like to go meet the incoming fliers?"

Yumehito brightened a bit and nodded. "I can take Asanao as an escort, to give him a break from Micchan," he said, glancing around to locate them, though he frowned when he didn't see either of them in the main cavern.

"I'll help you look for them, you might need backup to pry Micchan away," Hazuki said with a grin, and then followed Yumehito to one of the passages.

Reo smirked at the pair and shook his head. "I guess I'll go help Kaoru with the tactical plans," he said, turning and heading for where Kaoru had gone.

"And I'll stop neglecting my mate. It'll be another half hour or so before any of the ships will arrive, so you can do whatever you want until then," Shinji said, then headed for the side cavern where the omegas with children were.

"If other ships were in the area, why couldn't we have left on those?" asked Byou, furrowing his brow.

"Most of our ships with weapons can't do a planet-side landing, especially if we also need to make a quick getaway," Aki answered with a shrug. "I don't know the exact reasons as I'm not a pilot, but the ship that was called for us initially was the only one able to take all of us on board as well as make a landing outside a spaceport. I guess it was fairly far away when the call was sent or it would have arrived sooner, and with the Hub at the spaceport it was too risky to try to make it off in another ship by the time we got back to Pandora."

"What if the traitor is among the incoming arrivals?"

Aki pursed his lips and frowned. "We only suspect there's a traitor, but if there is one we'll find them soon one way or another," he said slowly, then shrugged. "Of our people here that I know of, none of them have a grudge against Sakito, let alone reason to put us all in jeopardy, but I'm not up to date on who else is here."

"I'm kind of still hungry," Byou murmured, and then glanced to where Shinji had gone. "And the social rules are still confusing with all these apparent exceptions," he added, giving Aki a slightly sour look.

"Like what?" Aki asked as they headed for the food crates.

"Like Kyo with Kaoru, and then just generally with omegas and alphas talking to each other," Byou said with a vague gesture.

Aki tilted his head and considered for a moment. "The rules are relaxed since we're not in a settlement, and in this situation especially, we're in close quarters with a mix of others. Besides, even the strictest alphas don't expect all omegas to be submissive and quiet in public," he said, handing Byou a meal package and taking another nutri-bar for himself. "As for Kyo and Kaoru, they've known each other for a long time, and apparently Kaoru doesn't mind Kyo's less than respectful commentary," he added with a slight smile and a shrug. "Kyo's that way with alphas in general, though."

Byou smirked slightly and then made a playful face. "I'm getting the impression that you've exaggerated things just a bit, with all these toppy omega types around, talking back to alphas without consequences," he said as he sat on an empty crate turned on its side, and then opened the meal package.

Aki chuckled and shrugged as he sat next to Byou. "Those of us who aren't quite conventional are more common outside the settlements, that's all."

Byou snorted softly and gave Aki a skeptical look as he ate. "So you say, but I suppose I can behave even if the others don't, at least for now."

"I'd appreciate that," Aki murmured, making a face. "While it's not that big of a deal here, it's best that you don't get into any bad habits."

Byou scrunched up his nose as he gave Aki a playful glare. "Do you know much about the whole bonding thing?"

"Just that a mutual bond forms over time, but your heat being cut short probably won't affect much," Aki said with a shrug, giving Byou a curious look. "Why?"

"Just wondering, not planning to back out or anything," Byou said with a thoughtful look. "I guess you never asked for details?"

"Not really, no," Aki murmured, his shrug a bit more awkward. "I mean, Yuusei and I were supposed to bond, but it never really happened, and I guess that was largely my fault."

"I don't suppose bonding has been studied much, has it?" Byou asked, tilting his head.

"Not that I know of. We're taught the basics when we come of age, but it's mostly just something you sense or not, and it's not really discussed all that much otherwise. Hitsugi might know more, if you'd like to ask him."

Byou shoved the last few bites of food into his mouth and then disposed of the container in a bin. "He's the only one here who's been mated for several years, right?"

"Yeah, though I've known him since before he bonded," Aki said, heading for the omega cavern a step behind Byou.

Entering the cavern ahead of Aki, Byou glanced around curiously and saw that it was two rooms divided by an arched doorway wide enough for three, and the first room was shaped like a long, lopsided oval with another passage at its narrower end. In the far room a few unfamiliar omegas sat in a circle in the center doing menial tasks while two babies crawled around in the middle, and he saw Satoshi and Shinji in the far left corner tending to their new baby. Upon stepping into the second room Byou spotted Hitsugi and he nodded a greeting and went over to sit beside the other omega, then glanced at Aki as his mate sat beside him.

"Now that things aren't chaotic, I suppose you have questions," Hitsugi said to Byou, smiling slightly.

Byou ducked his head and smiled a bit sheepishly. "Yeah, if that's okay," he said, and at Hitsugi's gesture to continue he tilted his head as he considered what to ask. "You and Ruka have been bonded for a while, right?"

"Yeah, about seven years now," Hitsugi said with a nod. "You're wondering about the bonding details?"

Byou nodded and glanced to Aki again. "I can feel a connection, kind of like an extra sense," he murmured, and Aki nodded in agreement.

"It's a gradual thing, I guess, but for example, I know that Ruka is fine if not in the best mood right now," Hitsugi said with a faint smile. "It helps with the worry to know the other is alive and well. At first it was just a sort of an awareness of Ruka, and that gradually deepened to sensing his mood and such. It's not more than sensing emotions and overall health though, even for our elders."

Byou nodded slowly and quirked a smile. "I suppose it's a good thing it doesn't give mates mind-reading abilities."

"That would be awkward, yeah." Hitsugi chuckled and nodded. "A full bond can take several heats to really settle in, but it's different for every pair. Some bond quickly, usually over the course of their first two or three heats, and others take longer, but the emotional and physical sense of your mate develops over time regardless."

"So at least six months or more," Byou mused, pursing his lips as he glanced to Aki.

"I've heard it's also not necessarily permanent or exclusive, but I don't know of anyone with more than one mate or who bonded twice," Hitsugi said slowly, and then grimaced. "That is to say, if our mates die we don't usually bond again, but it's possible in theory."

Byou nodded as he absorbed the information. "That makes sense. Do you know if two omegas or two alphas can bond?"

Hitsugi blinked and furrowed his brow. "Considering it's about compatibility more than having children, I don't see why not," he said with a shrug. "Kyo and Mao are certainly an exclusive pair and have been for a while now, but it's not something one really asks about. They've begun to share a scent though, now that I think about it."

"The Hub doesn't tell us anything about this stuff," Byou murmured, making a face as he shook his head. "We barely get more than the basics of how our bodies work. I knew of some alphas and omegas who settled down together, but I don't know if they bonded."

"And with them controlling the birth rate, the only alphas and omegas born in the Hub are from beta pairs," Aki said, glancing to Byou for confirmation.

"Yeah, my parents are betas, and only one kid in my school has an omega parent, but she was a beta," Byou said with a frown. "You said others from the Hub weren't sterilized either, right?"

"I know of two others," Aki said, then looked at Hitsugi.

"The other Mao, and Manabu," Hitsugi said with a nod. "I know of a handful of other omegas who weren't, and there are probably records somewhere. Ruka wasn't either, but he moved to the Rim before he was old enough for the procedure, and Yume too, probably."

"I remember going to a hospital a few months before I had my first heat, but I don't remember anything beyond a routine examination," Byou murmured, furrowing his brow. "They gave me suppressants and sent me home, and I thought it was done so it didn't occur to me to ask or anything."

Hitsugi shared a look with Aki and then frowned. "I wonder if it would be worth looking into, if just to see how many there are, and whether it's an accidental oversight," he said, looking thoughtful. "Seems a bit too coincidental, considering their real reason for the sterilizing."

"But don't they sterilize betas too?" Byou asked, and then blinked wide eyes as Hitsugi slowly shook his head.

"No, they may say they do, but most betas are merely given temporary contraceptives," Hitsugi said, his expression serious. "The word for it is eugenics, to put it bluntly."

Byou paled and swallowed hard as he looked at Aki. "You really were serious, weren't you?"

Aki nodded and made a vague gesture. "If you only look at parts of the whole picture, all the restrictions and laws seem at least somewhat reasonable with the excuses they give, but added up it's not harmless at all. It's why we began migrating to the Rim as soon as we could, and then quietly settled here and kept our population growing."

"And that's why you have ID chips but aren't on Hub records, right?" Byou asked, widening his eyes as things clicked into place.

"Basically, yes," Aki said with a nod. "We keep our own census of our numbers and don't share it with the Hub, because if they knew how many of us there were, they'd act."

"As it is, they might mobilize against us due to the bombings," Hitsugi murmured with a grimace.

"Oh, speaking of that, Kaoru said he rallied other ships in the area," Aki said, and then paused for a moment as he fixed Hitsugi with a serious look. "He heard back from seven and they will engage the Hub ships upon arrival."

Hitsugi blinked a few times and pressed his lips into a thin line before he nodded slowly. "That's not entirely unexpected, but the timing is terrible. I assume he must have also sent word out in general to mobilize and prepare, but I don't know if we'll be ready, even given how long it'll take the Hub to get a sizable force out to the Rim."

"Probably," Aki agreed and sighed softly. "Whoever is behind the bombings probably intended to force us to act, though I still think they're more on the Hub's side than ours."

"You mean it's probably not the work of some knot-headed radical alpha?" Hitsugi asked mildly, a slight smile on his face. "Yeah, if the intention was just to start secession earlier, it doesn't make sense to do it this way. Only a few colonies are united at this point, though this could be the impetus for more to join our collective."

"I sure hope so, or we're gonna be fucked," Aki muttered, rubbing his eyes.

"At least I know we'll attempt a rescue with the odds more in our favor," Hitsugi said, forcing a tight smile.

Aki nodded but before he could speak Hazuki came in and motioned them to come quickly. "It's started," Hazuki said, his expression somewhat between serious and anticipatory.

Chapter Text

They hurried into the main cavern to see five vidscreens set up in the middle, and the one in the center was currently showing an aerial view of Pandora. Four others were patched into other perspectives, and Byou couldn't help a soft gasp as he saw a handful of large ships appear from jumpspace about ten second apart. Another handful of smaller ships also arrived moments later and maneuvered into position flanking the larger ships, and Byou glanced to Kaoru to see the alpha smirking as a cheer went up among the others gathered.

"We're patched into the live feeds from our fliers and our orbiting scout ships," Hazuki said to Byou, a grin on his lips. "Turns out we got some extra backup after all."

Everyone held their breath as one of the large ships opened communications with Pandora, and Byou grinned along with the others when the ship commander casually 'requested' the Hub's unconditional surrender. The negotiations continued for about fifteen minutes, consisting mostly of exchanged threats and refusals, but finally there were a series of flashes from Pandora's spaceport and shortly after three Hub ships took off.

"They're gonna fight? They must be crazy," Hazuki muttered as he watched the Hub ships head straight for the fleet waiting in high orbit. "With those odds, it'll be over quick."

Three of the smaller ships in the fleet descended to meet the Hub ships, and sure enough, the Hub ships opened fire within moments of entering range. Byou glanced to Kaoru to see the alpha was no longer smirking and instead looking almost pissed off as he chewed on a thumbnail and watched the battle progress. Both sides took several hits and some damage, but the Traditionalist ships seemed to be faring better overall. The battle was over within minutes, and though the Traditionalist ships seemed to be aiming to disable rather than obliterate, one of the Hub ships exploded. The second seemed to hesitate before firing a last volley, and then it too combusted in a muted fireball. The third was successfully disabled a few seconds later, and everyone watched in tense silence until it was verified that only life support was active on it.

"They either martyred themselves or there was sabotage involved," Kaoru said flatly, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the vidscreens. "The second seems to have self-destructed." He turned his attention to his comm and sent off some rapid messages, then paced as he waited for replies.

Meanwhile, the largest ship in the fleet resumed communication with Pandora as the three smaller ones descended through the planet's atmosphere, clearly intending to hover over Pandora itself. This action seemed to anger Kaoru even more, and he gave quiet orders to the nearest alphas who then hurried to fiddle with the vidscreen setup. Miya didn't look happy either as he walked over to confer with Kaoru, and they both looked in unison as the largest vidscreen switched to a direct communication with one of the ships over Pandora.

From the corner of his eye Byou saw Satoshi flinch and turn away at the same moment Shinji tried to shield his mate from view, and the alpha glared at the vidscreen for a second before he escorted Satoshi elsewhere. The vidscreen showed the face of an alpha looking at Miya with an arrogant smirk. A quiet murmur rippled through the watching crowd, everyone's expressions ranging from surprise to anger.

"What the fuck are you doing, Tatsurou?" Miya said flatly, his body tense with anger and his fists clenched at his sides.

"Following orders," Tatsurou replied coolly with a casual shrug. "We'll open fire on Pandora itself only if it's deemed necessary," he added, his smirk returning to emphasize the implication.

"And the rescue of the prisoners? Was that part of your orders?" Kaoru asked, his voice calm but carrying a dangerous edge.

"Not my problem." Tatsurou shrugged again, deliberately casual. "A couple of the other ships will land and take care of it, or so I heard. Depends on how much of a death wish these bitches have," he said, his smirk indicating he was hoping there would be another excuse to engage.

Kaoru's eyes narrowed to slits and he took a slow breath. "Fine," he said tightly, and then ended the connection. Sending off a few more messages, he paced in front of the vidscreens.

"How the fuck did Tatsurou get command of anything?" Hazuki muttered, scowling at the vidscreen that was now showing the aerial view once more.

Byou bit his lip, glanced around to see almost everyone looking angry or worried, and then hesitantly asked, "What's going on that I'm missing?"

Aki hesitated and glanced away for a moment, then looked at Byou and took a deep breath. "Tatsurou was expelled from our colony," he said quietly.

Byou blinked and then paled as realization dawned, and he gave Aki a wide-eyed look. "Oh. Shit."

"Yeah, and if he's in command of even a small ship, that means he's probably done a large amount of ass-kissing to one of the more radical colonies, since none of ours would accept him," Hazuki said as he crossed his arms. "Just fucking figures he was in the area, though this sure explains why our backup was so damn eager to engage the Hub."

Aki turned to Byou with a rueful grimace. "Guess it was radical knot-heads after all, just more than one."

"They're gonna try to use this coming to our aid for leverage with us, regardless if we can prove they were behind the bombings, which I now strongly suspect," Miya said as he joined them. "The good news, sort of, is that only four of the ten ships are from a radical colony, and the others are our allies."

"Who's in command of the fleet?" Byou asked, frowning.

"No one is senior among them, each ship commander makes their own calls, but they coordinate," Miya answered, then gestured vaguely. "Still, Tatsurou is taking orders from someone, likely either on his ship or one of the big ones. He might be wearing wearing commander rank, but someone's pulling his strings."

"As I suspected, there were only life sign readings for half of a full crew on the Hub ships," Kaoru said as he came up behind Miya. "Whether or not it was sabotage or their plan, they're going to spin this in their favor and say we were the aggressors, and these radicals will also manipulate the situation to further their own goals."

"Divide and conquer strategy, if we don't ally with them we're on our own," Miya muttered with a scowl. "Even if their actions jeopardize us all."

Kaoru nodded and sighed through his nose. "I wouldn't put it past the radicals to have agents in the Hub forces to sabotage the ships, but the Hub isn't above sacrificing their own. In any case, two of our ally ships will escort our passenger ship, and it should arrive shortly."

"Why now, though?" Aki wondered aloud, frowning.

"Why not now?" Kaoru countered with a shrug. "We have only two dozen of us here, so all the Hub needed was an excuse to do a surprise inspection, find what they expected to find, and get a few tips to point toward us. The Hub then moves in and sends us scurrying for cover, and these radicals just happen to be in the general area to offer us some help to escape."

"And if they happened to delay our escape ship for long enough, they could cause some extra trouble that gives them an excuse to engage. It all works out so neatly in their favor," Miya added with a sour look. "And there's still at least one of their agents in Pandora itself who carried out the bombings." His comm beeped and he dug it out of his pocket, then read the message. "Speaking of which, here's our list of suspects," he said, handing Kaoru his comm.

Kaoru read what was on the comm, frowned, and then nodded once. "Reo, Hazuki, go find and detain Manabu and Yuuto."

Aki blinked in confusion. "Those two, working together? They hate each other."

"Who the fuck knows if they are, but we'll find out," Hazuki said as he shrugged and followed Reo, heading for another cavern.

Kaoru waited for Hazuki and Reo to be out of sight and then turned and then turned to Miya. "I'd like for you to question Mizuki, as Tsurugi is his roommate. We have to be sure," he said, giving Miya a significant look. "Tsurugi is a person of interest, not a direct suspect, but he might know some things. And send Asanao to detain Akira."

Miya pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded, then turned and left to go find Mizuki.

 

Miya found Asanao first and relayed Kaoru's order to detain Akira, then spent the next few minutes looking for Mizuki in the maze of caverns. He finally located Mizuki chatting with a couple other omegas in a small room and cleared his throat politely. "Sorry to interrupt, but I need to talk with Mizuki," he said, watching Mizuki's reaction carefully.

Mizuki blinked in confusion and gave Miya a curious look before he got up and stretched with a shrug, then followed the alpha to an unoccupied cavern.

Miya sat in the middle on the floor and motioned the omega to do the same. "It's about Tsurugi," he said, getting straight to the point.

Mizuki froze halfway to sitting down and stared at Miya with a look of concern. "Is he okay? Did something happen?" he asked as he arranged himself cross-legged.

"He's fine as far as we know, but we have reason to suspect he knows something about or was indirectly involved in the bombings."

Mizuki paled and widened his eyes. "No fucking way, he was in heat at Pandora before any of that shit started!" he blurted out, and then blinked and shut his mouth. "Wait, you think I'd know something?"

"That's what I'm hoping, yes," Miya said evenly, deciding to take a neutral route and let Mizuki do most of the talking. "You're not a suspect, but you're his roommate."

"Right, well, I haven't known him all that long, just maybe about a year or so," Mizuki said, then took a deep breath as he considered what to say. "I dunno, he seemed normal? Boring even, but then he's a Hub omega and really focused on his job. He did go out at odd times every now and then, but he came back smelling like he'd just gotten laid, so..." He shrugged and gave Miya a slightly rueful smile. "I can tell you more about his kinks in bed than I can about his loyalties, but he didn't seem to have any love for the Hub or betas."

"Can you elaborate on that last part?"

Mizuki pursed his lips for a few moments. "Well, it was just some comments here and there, y'know? Like the betas hassling him and embarrassing him. He's kind of intensely private about the sorts of things he likes with alphas, and the betas can be jerks 'cause they're all weird about male omegas," he said, shrugging and fidgeting for a moment. "Like, they'd tease him and shit, and he'd come home and bitch at me about it and say shit like he was glad he moved to the Rim even if he gets paid less out here. I mean, I kinda felt him out for joining us, but I didn't tell him anything potentially useful yet."

"So is there anything you can recall that might give him reason to," Miya paused to choose his words carefully, "retaliate against the Hub, or us?"

Mizuki huffed and shook his head. "Nah, he's a doctor, he wouldn't hurt anyone even if he hated them," he said, gesturing vaguely. "He just does his job even if his patients are the ones that give him shit. He seemed happy enough most of the time, but like, he doesn't have much of a social life or anything."

"Well, he could still be loyal to the Hub and even unknowingly work against our interests, but if you can't think of a reason he would be for or against the Hub, then we'll use other methods to determine whether he knows anything," Miya said, getting to his feet. "Regardless, his association with you and whether the Hub suspects him might reveal something."

"He'll probably be on call once he recovers from his heat, to treat the injured," Mizuki murmured as he stood. "Are there any other suspects?"

"Manabu and Yuuto were seen together, and Akira and Rui as well, though Rui hasn't arrived yet," Miya replied, leading Mizuki out of the cavern and back to the main one.

"Bucchan and Yuuto? Seriously?" Mizuki said in disbelief. "Yuuto can't stand him, simply on some incomprehensible principle only he understands. My theory is he's just jealous that Bucchan is prettier than him."

Miya smiled slightly and glanced behind him to Mizuki. "They were apparently seen acting suspicious in the area of one of the bombings, and Manabu has Hub connections."

"Suspicious how? Like Yuuto bitching at Bucchan over something stupid like breathing in his vicinity?" Mizuki muttered, frowning.

Miya chuckled and shrugged. "Perhaps, but in any case Hazuki and Reo are detaining them on Kaoru's orders," he said, and then gave Mizuki a quick summary of what else had happened during the confrontation.

They emerged from the tunnel into the main cavern, and Mizuki headed for the food crates. Several others were milling around and talking quietly in small groups. Miya located Kaoru and headed over to make his report, summarizing his conversation with Mizuki and added his confirmation that the omega hadn't been lying or evasive about anything.

Kaoru pursed his lips and then sent a message from his comm. "I've notified them about Rui and Tsurugi. Our allies will be conducting the rescue, at least, so that's one less thing to worry about."

Hearing a commotion, Miya glanced behind him to see Asanao, Reo and Hazuki return with Akira, Manabu, and Yuuto, and the latter looked especially indignant as Reo held Yuuto's arms behind his back. In contrast, Manabu seemed almost resigned as he let Hazuki prod him toward the center of the cavern, and Akira was tense and expressionless. Miya followed Kaoru to meet them and crossed his arms as he watched impassively.

Hazuki cuffed Manabu and then tapped his shoulder and the young alpha bowed his head and knelt. "Manabu was with Akira, and both their comms appear to have been cleared," he said, handing Kaoru the comms.

Asanao gave Akira a nudge and the omega hesitated for a pointed moment before he knelt beside Manabu. He didn't resist as Asanao cuffed his hands behind his back, keeping his head high as he stared stonily at the blank vidscreens.

Reo restrained Yuuto with a pair of cuffs another alpha handed to him, then forced the omega to his knees a few feet from the vidscreen setup. "I found him as he was about to send an encrypted message to Pandora," he said flatly to Kaoru and handed a comm over. "He also tried to resist."

"Miya, Hazuki, take Manabu and question him in private," Kaoru said.

"Why does he get special treatment?" Yuuto asked sharply, leveling a bold glare at Kaoru. "You can't prove shit."

Kaoru raised one eyebrow and gazed at Yuuto impassively. "You're really not helping your case," he said in a calm tone, then waited until Miya and Hazuki had left with Manabu. He motioned for Reo to join him and read the message Yuuto had almost sent, his expression darkening at its incriminating contents. Aside from the message the comm was cleared, and he handed it to Reo along with the other two and gave the two omegas a coldly considering look. "If you confess now, I may grant some leniency," he said slowly, looking first at Yuuto and then at Akira.

"Fuck you," Yuuto spat, and then hissed as Asanao scruffed him just hard enough to make him go limp.

Kaoru gave Asanao a slight nod, and the other alpha released Yuuto with a shove, and then held the omega on the ground with a booted foot on his back, putting just enough weight down to serve as a warning.

Kaoru turned his attention to Akira and tilted his head. "Do you have anything at all to say?" he asked calmly.

"No, sir," Akira said flatly, his gaze unwavering from the vidscreens.

Kaoru sighed softly and shook his head, then glanced up as Mao and Kyo approached from his left side, the former stopping short and staring at Akira with a look that transformed from shock to anger. "Perhaps you'd like to explain yourself to Mao if not me," Kaoru said casually, and he was rewarded with the tiniest flinch from Akira. "But you can wait until we're on the ship, so you'll have a while to really think about your choices first."

Mao blinked at Kaoru and then composed his face into a blank mask as he took a deep breath and flexed his hands at his sides, then turned to Kyo to avoid looking at Akira.

"As for Yuuto, put him in a scruff collar and leave him at the cave entrance," Kaoru ordered, smirking at Yuuto's sound of outrage and ineffectual squirming.

Asanao bent down to haul Yuuto up and cut off the omega's protests with another firm scruffing, then dragged him off toward the cave mouth.

"Manabu is not involved," Akira said softly, flicking his gaze to Kaoru for a second and then returning his stare to the vidscreens.

Kaoru gave Akira a steady look and then nodded slowly. "Duly noted," he said and then turned away. "Kyo, could you watch him while I have a chat with Mao?"

Kyo smirked briefly and nodded, then moved to lean casually against the vidscreens right where Akira was looking.

Kaoru walked to the back of the cavern with Mao and then turned to the omega. "There's no direct evidence against Akira, just circumstantial, and while it's not the usual procedure, it's possible he might be more willing to cooperate with you," he said quietly. "I'd prefer to not have to use harsh methods with him."

Mao nodded and chewed on his lip for a moment. "I appreciate the consideration," he said, and then reluctantly glanced toward Akira with a frown. "The way he's acting, I want to believe he's covering for someone, or he had no choice."

"Yuuto's quite guilty, and it's possible he persuaded Akira to help," Kaoru said with a slight shrug. "If you feel you can handle it without being biased, I will let you speak with him first and see what you can get out of him."

Mao took another deep breath and nodded slowly. "I'll do my best. For what it's worth, I don't think he'd willingly betray us as it goes against his pride and honor."

"That was my thought too," Kaoru said, glancing to Akira and then back to Mao. "I hope there's a proper explanation for his association with Yuuto."

Mao walked back with Kaoru, and he gave Akira an unreadable look for a few moments before he turned to Kyo and motioned to another tunnel, and the two left with a nod to Kaoru.

 

Miya let Hazuki take charge of Manabu and then led them to the small cavern he'd questioned Mizuki in. The young alpha knelt in the center with Hazuki guarding the tunnel, and he positioned himself in front of Manabu. "Care to explain yourself?" he asked.

Manabu hesitated and then took a deep breath before he looked up at Miya. "One of the betas who works security at Pandora is a friend I went to school with," he said, his gaze steady as he met Miya's eyes. "I sent her a couple messages shortly after the raid, but I didn't get anything out of her and I didn't want to act suspicious by pushing it." He hesitated again and then continued, "It might be my fault that Ruka was arrested, because I'd sent him a message trying to contact him after the raid, and it might have been traced."

Miya raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. "We have our own connections in Pandora security, but we cannot trust any of them now that the Hub's taken over. If you really have nothing to hide, why did you clear your comm?"

"I reset it at Akira's suggestion in case we were detained and questioned, and I haven't used it since," Manabu replied.

"Why were you with Akira?" Miya asked, and then raised an eyebrow at Manabu's faint blush and embarrassed expression.

"I uh, well, he's attractive," Manabu murmured reluctantly. "I was just trying to be friendly, but he kind of ignored me most of the time."

"That ice queen is out of your league," Hazuki quipped with a faint smirk. "He's only into omegas."

"Oh," Manabu said, looking faintly disappointed but not surprised.

"Have you heard from Rui?" Miya asked.

"The last time I saw him was about an hour before the first bombing. He did send Akira a message about the inspection though, before anyone else did," Manabu said with a frown. "Akira then told me and we went and stayed at my place since it was closer, and I stayed there until yesterday."

"Do you remember the approximate time Akira got his message?"

Manabu furrowed his brow as he tried to remember. "It was maybe about half an hour before Shinji sent me the alert, I think?"

Miya shifted on his feet and crossed his arms. "And what about Yuuto?"

Manabu pulled a face briefly and shrugged. "We met up with him a few hours after the raid started, and I wanted to stay with them until we heard from someone where to go, but they both ditched me about half an hour before the second bombing. I eventually found a few others to stay with until we were able to get a flier here."

Miya frowned and shared a look with Hazuki. "Anything else you'd like to volunteer that might be relevant?" he asked Manabu.

Manabu frowned as he thought for a few moments. "While I was with Akira and Yuuto they kind of avoided me and talked only to each other, and I did find it a bit odd that Rui sent that message about the raid before anyone else, but he's usually hanging around the spaceport so I thought he just saw them arrive. I really don't know what else to tell, since they kept me out of their loop and Yuuto would've probably hit me if I'd tried to be nosy," he said, grimacing slightly. "I just assumed I wasn't supposed to know whatever they were doing and left them alone, and that if I needed to know anything they'd tell me."

"It works in your favor that you haven't lied, and you don't seem to be keeping anything from us, intentionally," Miya said slowly, and glanced from Manabu to Hazuki and shrugged. "However, your association with Akira and Yuuto is still suspect, and you'll be questioned more thoroughly on the ship."

Manabu nodded slowly and shifted, bowing his head. "I will cooperate fully," he said, and then rose to his feet and followed Miya out, Hazuki trailing behind him.

 

The sight of the ship landing was impressive, and the ground shook with the force of the thrusters when it was still yards from the dirt and grass. Byou watched from the treeline with the others as it descended slowly, the sheer size of the ship up close taking his breath away. The thrusters shut off and a few moments later the hatch opened on the side and a ramp extended down. Everyone picked up their things and formed an orderly line, the three suspects and their guards up front, then they all filed onto the ship one by one.

Byou followed Aki down a few hallways and into a common room, then from there they were assigned a room and given directions to it. Once inside, Byou set down his bag and promptly sprawled face-first onto the bed, then grunted with discomfort. "Is this a mattress or a slab of rock?" he grumbled, propping himself onto one elbow as he poked the offending mattress with the index finger of his other hand.

"Be glad we get a double bed," Aki said with a chuckle as he sat on the bed beside Byou. "We'll be at Miya's colony in about three days if all goes we--" he stopped abruptly when Byou's hand covered his mouth.

"Don't say it, I've had quite enough of shit going wrong to last me the rest of my hopefully long life," Byou said, grimacing. "We finally have time to really be alone together and as much as I like everyone else, I just want some cuddle time." He removed his hand from Aki's mouth and leaned in to give his mate a chaste kiss. "Do you realize we've only known each other for less than a week?" he asked, pulling away and shifting to lie on his back.

Aki blinked and tilted his head. "Feels like longer," he murmured thoughtfully with a slight frown.

"Yeah, it does, and I don't want to hear you ask if I regret any of it," Byou said, giving Aki a pointed look and then grinning at the alpha's sheepish look. "I dislike the interruptions, but I don't regret meeting you, and not just because I'd probably have gotten arrested if I hadn't."

Aki moved to stretch out beside Byou and pressed close. "By the way, I stopped counting some time before our arrival at the cave," he said, then flashed a grin at Byou's incredulous snort.

"I should hope so," Byou muttered, reaching up to poke Aki's nose. "How about we save those rules for alone time? But not all our alone time, or I will mutiny on principle."

"I don't think that's the correct usage--" Aki started, and then laughed as Byou smacked him lightly on the side of his head.

"Don't get pedantic on me, or you can test whether the floor is comfier than this rock bed."

"Already I get threatened with the figurative couch, this doesn't bode well," Aki teased with a grin.

"As if you mind when I indulge your switchiness," Byou retorted with a matching grin.

Aki stole a quick kiss before shifting onto his back. "At the risk of sounding clinical, the fact we're both flexible about topping is good," he murmured.

"As much as I might still want to try something more along the lines of you being really Dom, I'm content to compromise," Byou said, making a playful face. "In any case, I'm sure it won't end in disaster either way."

"I'm lucky you're cutting me some slack in my second attempt at a serious relationship," Aki quipped with a rueful smile.

"Indeed, but I'm learning as I go too, and even without the bonding thing and the suddenness of it all, this is still the best thing that's happened to me," Byou said seriously as he shifted to face Aki. "You seriously underestimate your appeal, insufferable quirks aside."

Aki blinked, his expression caught somewhere between happy and bewildered as Byou took one of his hands and laced their fingers together. "That's not helping me with whether or not I'm gonna screw shit up somehow," he murmured, lightly squeezing Byou's hand in his.

"You're not even trying to, so stop worrying," Byou quipped, moving swiftly to pin Aki beneath him. "You weren't ready then, but maybe we both are now, and I'm more than willing to see how things go and take it one day at a time." He leaned close and smirked impishly. "Besides, I know you like being topped now, but have you ever let an omega top you?"

Aki felt his body react before his brain fully registered Byou's words, and he could only blink wordlessly up at Byou as his mate smirked, and then he somehow managed to shake his head.

"Good, we can share a first then," Byou said as he deliberately rubbed against Aki's hardening cock. The sudden sound of the ship's intercom beeping startled him badly, and before he could register the words of the announcement his mate's arms encircled him in a comforting hug.

"Attention all passengers, prepare for liftoff. Please take a seat and hold on to the nearest handhold until we have cleared atmo. Thank you."

"A bit jumpy, eh?" Aki said softly, nuzzling Byou as the omega slowly calmed down.

"Just a bit." Byou forced a laugh as he closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a few moments. "At least the mood-killer wasn't another--" he stopped when Aki's fingers pressed against his lips, and he smiled slightly before kissing said fingers, which then moved away. "Right, don't say it."

"The cosmos owes you two now, at least, unless we're counting all the interruptions."

Byou gave Aki a bemused blink. "Huh?"

"First Zo interrupted us when you were taking initiative, and then this time," Aki said, a slightly amused smile curving his lips.

Byou huffed a laugh. "We can hole up somewhere secret for a week and redo things, take what we're owed."

"That sounds like an excellent plan." The ship began to rumble, and Aki smirked as he reached up to grab the lower bar of the headboard. "If you'd like, I'm sure we can borrow a pair of cuffs without raising any eyebrows."

Byou snorted and grabbed the same bar. "Figures it'd be part of the design to have the handholds on the bed have other uses," he quipped. "Speaking of, where did you even get those cuffs?"

It took Aki a moment to realize what Byou referred to, and then he grinned. "Drawer on the side of the tub. I got them out and set them aside while you were showering."

"Ah, that figures." Byou shifted a bit to settle more comfortably beside Aki as the ship's vibrations increased. "But back to topping you, do you like anything specific?"

"Uh, well, I wouldn't mind being surprised if you're in the mood," Aki said, shrugging. "I like being marked, and some moderate pain."

"So if I covered your neck in hickeys and bites, and your back in scratches, you'd be fine with that?" Byou asked, his expression interested.

"I'd go shirtless around certain people if you did that," Aki replied, smirking.

Byou laughed. "Who? Kenzo and the others? Miya?"

"Most of them, yeah, not like they haven't seen it on Ruka," Aki said blandly, and then grinned at Byou's shocked blink.

"Seriously? Hitsugi?"

"Yep, though that sort of display is rare now with their kids around."

"I guess I really shouldn't be surprised anymore," Byou murmured, chuckling. He held onto both the bar and Aki as the ship finally lifted off, almost holding his breath as the minutes passed. When the announcement came that they had cleared atmo he relaxed slightly and rested his head on Aki's chest.

"Preparing for jump, in three, two, one..." The ship shuddered once. "Next jump scheduled in six hours."

Byou was just about to speak when the bedside console dinged, and he groaned in frustration as Aki sat up to accept the message. Kaoru's face appeared on the small screen, and Byou was suddenly glad that both he and Aki were still fully clothed.

"Meet us on the bridge in five minutes. We're having a meeting to discuss plans," Kaoru said, and then added, "Alphas only."

Byou bristled a bit at that, but he held his tongue as Aki acknowledged and ended the call. "So now it's stricter?" he asked, sitting up and crossing his arms.

"Kind of, but it's fairly standard for this sort of stuff," Aki said, giving Byou an apologetic look. "If it's any consolation, most of the meetings are boring as hell, and even Hazuki can't get an exception most of the time."

"Hmph, that's ridiculous." Byou ran his hands through his hair and frowned. "What am I supposed to do in the meantime?"

"The others will probably be in the common areas if you want to chat with them, or you can stay in here or wander around," Aki said, getting up from the bed. He picked up one of the two comms on the nightstand and handed it to Byou, then pocketed the other. "Use this to reach me if you need anything, I'll probably appreciate the excuse to leave," he said with a playful grimace. "I'll give you a summary after if you'd like."

"Okay, have fun," Byou murmured, making a face as he got up and followed Aki out, then headed in the opposite direction.

Chapter Text

Byou checked the comm for the ship's map and followed the directions to the nearest common area. When he arrived he saw a few omegas he didn't know talking quietly in the far corner, and rather than interrupt he opted to explore a bit. He passed through a few hallways and reached the family area, according to the comm, and one door at the end opened to reveal Shinji being firmly pushed out of it by a short omega with long black hair in braids.

"Go on, you'll be late! Go to your stupid important meeting, we'll be fine, stop fussing," the omega said, tossing his braids as he grinned.

"I'm going, I'm going," Shinji said, laughing softly as he held up his hands in surrender.

"Ryo, quit harassing my mate," Satoshi called out playfully from within the room.

Byou stopped and grinned as Shinji and Ryo noticed him, and Shinji chuckled as he let Ryo shoo him off.

"Come on in, Micchan was just telling me about you," Ryo said, waving Byou into the room.

"Should I be worried?" Byou asked as he followed Ryo in and greeted Mizuki and Satoshi. The room was a small nursery, and Mizuki held the youngest baby in his lap as he sat on one of the two couches in the corner with Satoshi beside him. The other babies were apparently elsewhere at the moment.

"Hah, I hardly know you yet, just you wait," Mizuki said with a grin.

Byou chuckled as he took a seat on the unoccupied couch in the corner, and Ryo sprawled beside him a moment later, nearest to Mizuki.

Mizuki lifted Ren off his lap and held her out to Ryo. "Here, your turn."

Ryo made an exaggerated face of panic even as he gingerly took Ren. "Last time I held her she started shrieking like a banshee," he muttered, eyeing the baby warily. Ren merely blinked at him, but once Ryo had settled her on his lap she immediately let out a loud wail, and Ryo thrust the baby back at Mizuki. "Shit! Here, you take her."

Mizuki snickered as he took Ren back, and she quieted within moments. "You have a way with babies, Ryo," he teased, handing Ren to Satoshi.

"Hikaru likes me just fine, and Hinata too!" Ryo protested, pouting as he crossed his arms. "Must just be alpha babies."

Satoshi chuckled and shook his head. "So, how are you and Miya?" he asked, grinning at Ryo's startled blink.

Ryo shot Mizuki a playfully annoyed look as he shrugged and fidgeted with one of his braids. "I broke it off with him about a week ago, but it's not really news-worthy."

"So then what did you do for your last heat?" Mizuki asked, furrowing his brow. "He was courting you for a few months, right?"

"Three months," Ryo said, giving Mizuki a mock glare. "And some of us want to give our first ruts to someone special, y'know, not that it's any of your business," he added with a huff. "I didn't wanna string him along, and I'm not ready to let an alpha rut me yet, much less settle down and bond." He pushed his braids over one shoulder and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

Byou blinked at Ryo in surprise, belatedly noticing the subtle difference in the other omega's scent that indicated he was a virgin. "You don't use suppressants?"

Ryo and Mizuki made almost identical faces of disgust and shook their heads. "Nah, it's not good to mess with our natural cycles," Ryo said, shrugging. "We have stuff to lessen the, uh, need, but suppressant use can have long-term effects on our fertility, among other problems, so we use more natural methods. It might not make things entirely comfy, but it's a lot less risk."

Byou nodded slowly, making a face. "I only used suppressants once, and it made me feel like shit so I never touched them again."

"I don't know how you stand going out of your mind for a week every three months," Mizuki said with a grimace. "Why not just get it over with?"

"Yeah, well, it might be an antiquated custom, but it's important to me," Ryo said, shrugging. "Besides, it's not as bad as it would be without the drugs."

"Now that Miya's available again, Micchan, you should make an offer for him," Satoshi teased.

"Like hell," Mizuki said, grimacing as he glared at Satoshi. "After three months of not getting laid he's too desperate for me, besides the fact he's a knot-head."

Ryo rolled his eyes and shook his head, though he smirked a moment later. "You protest so much with him, which means you're playing coy," he said with a knowing smirk.

"I am not!" Mizuki scowled as he crossed his arms and slouched in his seat. "I already have--" he cut himself off and scrunched up his nose. "Bah, never mind."

"Oh, got someone in mind, then?" Ryo asked, grinning wide. "You're smelling a bit ripe, eh, so tell us who the lucky one is this time."

"I bet it's Asanao," Satoshi murmured, then laughed at Mizuki's startled indignation.

"Ew, no! The most we'd do together is cover for the other," Mizuki said, rolling his eyes. "Besides, he's got a lover anyway."

"Cover? For what?" asked Satoshi, his brow furrowed in confusion.

"Wait, a lover? Him?" asked Ryo at almost the same moment.

"You didn't know?" Mizuki blinked and looked just as baffled, then laughed at Ryo's dawning realization and Satoshi's blankly confused face. "What, seriously? He's banging Shuu."

Satoshi started and blinked wide eyes. "But he--oh," he said, blinking a few more times. "I--that would explain a lot."

Mizuki laughed again and ruffled Satoshi's hair playfully. "Yeah, far as I know Asanao's only into other alphas. It's why it's funny to make him squirm around me, but it's all in good fun though."

Ryo snickered and fidgeted with one of his braids. "I'll bet. No wonder Shuu's been acting weird." He paused a beat and glanced to Satoshi with a grin as if sharing an inside joke. "Well, weirder, anyway."

"Things are so different here than in the Hub," Byou said, furrowing his brow.

"Is it true that alphas and omegas really don't bond there?" Ryo asked, turning to Byou.

"Mostly, yeah, I mean I've heard rumors that there are some pairs, but the few alphas and omegas I know stayed single or settled down with betas, and most of the ones I know are single," Byou said, shrugging a bit. "I didn't even really think mate bonds were real until it happened with Aki, since I'd never heard of them outside of old holovid romances and shit."

"That's so backwards," Mizuki muttered, looking bewildered. "Like, mate bonds are just natural and even Tsurugi knows about them and can explain all the chemical and hormonal shit about them, but then he's a doctor."

"Hitsugi said bonds between two alphas or two omegas are possible, though it seems to be rare," Byou said, tilting his head.

Ryo opened his mouth and then hesitated for a moment before speaking. "Well, we'd thought that Aki and Zo were bonded for a while, even if they kept it casual, and they're still close even now that Zo's bonded with Yume."

"Yeah, he kind of told me," Byou said, feeling a not-quite-jealous twinge at the thought. It was less that he regarded Zo as a threat and more that he was envious of their shared history.

"They got together soon after Aki fucked it up with Yuusei, and most of us figured Aki was just like, rebounding from that and being with Zo to piss off his parents, but then they stayed together up until Zo met Yume," Mizuki said, waving his hands vaguely. "I still don't get why he treated Yuusei like that, poor kid was caught up in all that drama just 'cause Aki was being a fuckin' knot-head about it all."

"Isn't Yuusei here?" Satoshi asked, glancing to Ryo. "I thought I saw him on the way in."

"Yeah, he is," Ryo said, grimacing as he looked to Byou. "It's probably not gonna be too awkward, but I don't think anyone's told him Aki's come back with you yet. I mean, they're both over it and all, but well, y'know." He shrugged and forced a smile.

Byou blinked slowly and shifted in his seat. "Aki must have changed a lot. How long ago was Yuusei with him?" he asked, biting his lip.

"About three years ago?" Ryo answered, frowning in thought. "They courted for less than a year, but it was a bit of a mess of drama. Might as well get it over with, if you want. It's a long trip, after all."

Byou shrugged and got to his feet, following Ryo out with Mizuki and Satoshi behind him. They headed toward the common room Byou had passed through earlier, though along the way Satoshi stopped to drop Ren off at a nursery room. When they arrived at the common room there were a half dozen more omegas clustered in pairs or small groups. Ryo pointed to a short omega with shoulder length light brown hair in the far corner. "That's him."

Byou took one look at Yuusei and blinked slowly as he stared at the other omega in surprise. Yuusei looked about twelve, and Byou was honestly not sure the kid had even hit puberty yet. "Aki has some explaining to do."

Mizuki and Ryo looked confused for a moment before they both laughed. "What, wondering if he's a kid?" Mizuki asked with another snicker. "He's not, by like two or three years, even if he's got perpetual babyface syndrome."

"Hey, Yuusei! How old are you now?" Ryo called out, grinning.

Yuusei whirled around and narrowed his eyes at Ryo. "Oi, I'm your age, dumbass," he snapped playfully as he walked over. "For another few months, anyway." He eyed Byou up and down and gave a half smile. "Well, you're his type. Byou, right?"

Byou blinked and nodded, still not quite believing Yuusei was the same age as Ryo, as Ryo had obviously lost his baby fat. "How'd you--"

"You smell like him, and I overheard the gossip. Congrats," Yuusei said, shrugging and giving another half smile.

"Thanks," Byou murmured with a faint smile.

Mizuki spoke up before things could get too awkward, "Yuuchan, what are you doing here, anyway?"

"I ran away from home, obviously," Yuusei deadpanned with a roll of his eyes. "This trip was Papa's idea, in the hope I find a suitable mate elsewhere since it didn't work out with any of the ones she chose."

"So she finally let you see the universe, eh?" Ryo asked with a grin.

"More or less." Yuusei shrugged and then gestured to some unoccupied seats in a corner of the room. Once they were all seated he elaborated. "I'm on the hunt for someone I feel drawn to rather than a match she and mother would prefer."

"How many did you reject?" Mizuki asked with his usual bluntness.

Yuusei chuckled and counted on his fingers. "Seven, and six of them were after only a few dates each. The last I let court me for about six months or so until she met an omega she clicked with right off. I liked her, but there wasn't really a spark, so eh, whatever," Yuusei said with another shrug.

"Ouch," Ryo murmured sympathetically, shaking his head. "I just broke it off with Miya because there wasn't really a spark for us either."

"I'm hardly in any rush anyway, but maybe I'll find someone outside our colony," Yuusei said, then glanced to Byou. "So you bonded quick?"

"Uh, I guess so," Byou murmured, shrugging awkwardly. "It's kind of weird, it's like we click but it's not really strong yet."

"It'll grow in time, as I'm sure you've been told," Satoshi said quietly. "For those of us who have our parents arrange mates the bond can take a while to form, but it usually does eventually. You're lucky you felt the spark so quickly. My bond with Shinji is still developing but it's definitely there," he said, and then hesitated as if he was about to say more but decided not to.

"More families are letting their kids find their own bondmates nowadays," Ryo said as he darted an odd look to Satoshi, then fidgeted with one of his braids. "But it depends on the settlement really."

"I await the day I can bring home a nice omega to my parents," Mizuki said, leaning back in his seat and slouching.

Ryo snorted. "I really can't see you ever settling down, Micchan."

"What, 'cause I like variety? If Mao can find a mate, so can I," Mizuki said, sticking his tongue out at Ryo.

"Speaking of Mao, where is he?" Satoshi asked, glancing around the room.

"I think he's talking with Akira, and Kyo's probably with him," Mizuki answered. "That, or him and Kyo are fucking like rabbits in their room."

Before anyone could elaborate more on that, the scent of an unmated alpha drifted in, and almost every omega in the room turned to look at the doorway near where Byou and the others sat. Byou shifted in his seat to look and saw Hazuki with an alpha behind him who was blushing and noticeably reluctant to step into the room.

"Bucchan!" Mizuki said, scrambling to his feet with a grin and walking over, though he was blocked from getting close by Hazuki.

"I'm just taking him to his quarters, Micchan," Hazuki said, glancing pointedly to the other omegas in the room until they all went back to their conversations. "He's been cleared, but Kaoru doesn't want him wandering around yet," he added quietly.

"Well, I'll keep him company then," Mizuki said, giving Hazuki a look that said he wouldn't budge on that.

Hazuki sighed with a roll of his eyes, then shrugged as he motioned Mizuki and Manabu to follow him. When the three left the alertness in the room dissipated and the conversations resumed their previous volume.

Ryo glanced to Yuusei and gave the other omega a pointed nudge when he saw Yuusei staring at the door Manabu had disappeared through, then smirked. "Can't be Hazuki you were admiring."

Yuusei blushed faintly and scowled at Ryo. "And why not? Maybe I was surprised Micchan likes that alpha."

"Yeah, that pretty alpha," Ryo said with a wider smirk. "I know your type, remember?"

"Shut up, you," Yuusei grumbled, crossing his arms and slouching in his seat.

"Manabu's from the Hub," Satoshi murmured. "He was with Akira, and at least him and Yuuto are suspected of collaborating with the militants."

Yuusei blinked and furrowed his brow, then shrugged as he got to his feet. "Well, I'm gonna go grab some food, see you around," he said with a wave to Byou and the others.

 

Hazuki dropped Manabu off in a small room in the unmated alpha hall, and when Manabu seemed fine with Mizuki staying, he allowed it reluctantly. However, Yumehito arrived a minute later, announcing that he was their chaperone at Hazuki's request, as per the ship's rules. Mizuki grumbled, but he was otherwise undeterred as he eyed Manabu with playful interest.

"You're from the Hub?" Mizuki asked, eyeing Manabu appraisingly. "You don't smell snipped."

"Micchan!" Yumehito protested, mortified as he gave Manabu an apologetic look.

Manabu had a faint blush on his cheeks but otherwise seemed unruffled, though his shrug was awkward. "S'ok, I'm getting used to it being a topic of conversation," he said with a wry twist to his lips.

"As if it's a secret when anyone with a nose can smell it within fifty feet," Mizuki retorted, rolling his eyes as he made a dismissive wave. "Besides, knot-heads love to brag about their virility." He paused in front of Manabu and tilted his head, an impish smirk on his lips. "So, is it true the Hub really passed laws about who can rut whom?"

"Last I heard, yeah," Manabu replied with a blink, caught off guard by the topic shift.

"That's so fucking stupid. How can they even bother to care about something like that?" Mizuki asked rhetorically, sweeping his arms in an exasperated arc. "I thought they didn't give a fuck who you alphas rutted as long as it wasn't an omega."

Manabu shrugged again and fiddled with a bracelet on his wrist. "Well, they decided it wasn't allowed for us to rut beta women either, and then it extended to everyone else too eventually."

"That's such bullshit." Mizuki shook his head and took a seat on the couch across from Manabu. "Do they really distinguish by secondary gender too? Like, they care whether it's two male alphas together and shit?"

Manabu blinked and nodded slowly. "They make a fairly big deal of it, yeah."

"That's just fucking weird," Mizuki said, wrinkling his nose as he shook his head. "I mean, there's no real difference between male or female alphas and omegas beyond superficial stuff anyway, and to care about that is just bizarre."

"It matters for them, though," Yumehito interjected, taking a seat on the other side of the couch Mizuki sat on. "If you look at it from their perspective, they only have male and female and we have what they'd see as four different sexes, except only two matter to us and it's the opposite two of what matters for them."

"True, and they get really fucking mad about male omegas and female alphas," Mizuki added, making another face. "So, you got preferences about male and female?" he asked Manabu, flashing a brief grin at the alpha's blush.

"Uh, not... really?" Manabu said slowly, giving another awkward shrug. He managed a self-deprecating smile. "I've had little luck with anyone. I don't have experience with dating, let alone rutting really."

"Shit, you don't smell like a virgin," Mizuki said, leaning forward and sniffing to make sure. "What'd you do, join one of those weird cults and swear celibacy?"

"For goodness sake, Micchan," Yumehito murmured, covering his face with his hands.

Manabu chuckled, amused at Mizuki's unashamed bluntness. "Are you usually so interested in the sexual experience of alphas you just met?" he countered.

"Hah, I'm just curious about Hub alphas, 'cause from what I hear, y'all are like, really different from the alphas here," Mizuki said with a wave of his hands.

"I've noticed, yeah," Manabu murmured, shifting in his seat. "I don't really know many back in the Hub. When I came here it was the first time I'd ever seen so many in one place."

Yumehito and Mizuki both looked startled at that, and they shared a look. "What, really?" Yumehito asked.

Manabu shrugged awkwardly and stared at his own knees. "I don't know about Central, but the city I'm from, we're mostly kept... separate from the betas, but both my parents are betas and I grew up outside the, uh, areas of the city where other alphas and omegas live."

"The hell does that mean? Like, they keep y'all in walled off areas or some shit?" Mizuki asked, clearly shocked.

Manabu nodded uncomfortably. "I've heard Central's different, but the cities elsewhere started to be really strict about that sort of thing even before I was born, and it's gotten worse since. My parents had a lot of money, though, so I never really, y'know, had to deal with worse than being treated weirdly, I guess."

"Oh." Mizuki blinked a few times and shared another look with Yumehito. "So what happened to make you come to the Rim?"

"Well, I knew Rui casually because he's the son of one of my mother's friends, and he told me about Pandora so I decided to check it out," Manabu said, blushing faintly. "He uh, suggested that I could maybe work there because they were hiring Hub alphas, and I couldn't get a decent job anywhere in the Hub anyway."

Mizuki smirked at that. "I guess there's a market for shy and inexperienced alphas, eh?"

"Is that your type or something?" Manabu asked, arching an eyebrow at Mizuki.

"Hah, you wish," Mizuki retorted playfully. "Yume, you were really young when you left the Hub, right?"

"Yeah, but I barely remember anything because I was like, five years old," Yumehito said, scrunching up his nose. "I'd have to ask my parents for details, but I know they moved to the Rim because shit was getting ridiculous in the Hub." Just then Yumehito's comm chimed softly and he pulled it from his pocket to read the message. "The alphas are taking a meal break and Zo wants to get food with me, so you two will have to chat more later," he said, giving Mizuki a stern look.

"Ugh, fine," Mizuki murmured, then jumped as his own comm vibrated. He looked at it then glanced up to Manabu with a smirk, then nudged Yumehito. "Seems Yuusei likes Bucchan's pretty face, according to Ryo."

"Oh wonderful. Well, once Kaoru allows it I guess we'll see," Yumehito said, giving Manabu a playful look as he got up and ushered Mizuki out the door.

 

Byou got few details from Aki about the meeting, other than that it was confidential topics and quite a bit more serious than Aki had thought it would be. They got about a half hour to eat a meal before Aki was called back, and Byou sighed before heading out to find the other omegas to keep himself occupied. The topic of alphas came up again, and Byou described his general experiences with Hub alphas, though he explained that most were from his fetish modeling and porn work.

"So, are the alphas in your colony really weird or something?" Byou asked, privately wondering whether he'd get a full explanation this time.

Satoshi and Ryo shared a look, then Satoshi sighed and spoke. "To put it mildly, the alphas we grew up with are a lot different than the ones you've met, for the most part," he explained to Byou, grimacing a bit.

"That's being way too tactful," Mizuki muttered, rolling his eyes. "I'd have most of them castrated if I could."

"Shuu's nice though," Satoshi said, nudging Mizuki's foot with his own.

"And he looks like he fell outta the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down," Mizuki retorted, scrunching up his nose as he tucked his legs up against his chest. "But fine, yeah, he's nice, and Ryo's older brother as well, but that's 'cause they're still so young."

"Asanao is hardly gonna win any beauty contests and yet you like him." Ryo snorted and twisted his braids. "He's also two years younger than you even though he looks a lot older."

Mizuki blinked and furrowed his brow, then made a face at Ryo. "Eh, whatever. I'm only three years older than Hacchan. Besides, I don't like Asanao that way, even if he did like omegas at all, so quit it."

Ryo smirked and then glanced to Byou. "Anyway, you know Ruka and Niya, right? They're among the decent alphas from our area, what few there are."

Byou nodded slowly and furrowed his brow as he tried to keep everything straight. "Yeah, but it's still a bit confusing."

"Lotta new people, eh?" Mizuki asked with a smirk. "Welcome to our big fucked up family, I guess. I don't recommend coming to visit our area of the colony unless you're with your mate, though. It's why I live at Pandora, though I guess I'll be relocating now."

"Is it really that bad?" Byou asked, frowning. "I was figuring that Aki had been exaggerating, given all the contradictions among those of you I've met so far."

"The settlement Aki and Shinji live in is a real contrast to Kaoru's and where I grew up. There's a reason some of us from the strict settlements tend to travel, even if we have kids," Satoshi said slowly, chewing on his lip.

"It's hard to explain without showing you," Ryo said, scrunching up his nose for a moment. "Like, we get really sheltered and the alphas tend to be overprotective, at best. I mean, it's not like, really horrible, but it is annoying if you're not really the type for it. In Aki's settlement, for example, we don't need to be escorted everywhere by an alpha, but in ours and Kaoru's it's kind of safer if we are."

Byou blinked slowly as he processed that, then leaned back and crossed his arms. "So by 'strict' you mean ridiculous rules only omegas have to follow."

Mizuki snorted and nodded. "Basically, 'cause the knot-heads can't be bothered to have any manners or decency."

Satoshi rolled his eyes. "That's not entirely true." He glanced to Byou with a faint sigh. "Many of the alphas, Miya and Kaoru included, are more modern, so to speak, but still keep to the old ways more than other settlements." Satoshi's comm chimed and he checked it with a slight frown, then got to his feet. "Hikaru's fussing, I'll be back soon," he said with an apologetic grimace, then hurried out.

"I couldn't help but notice that Kaoru let Kyo get away with a lot," Byou said, smirking.

Mizuki grinned at that. "That's 'cause Kyo's literally knocked Kaoru on his knot-headed ass for being too pushy, more than once, so rather than have his dignity or anything else bruised, he lets shit slide with Kyo, though he doesn't take shit from others. But if you wanna know the usual type of alpha from our colony, Tatsurou really sets the example," he said with a roll of his eyes.

Ryo frowned at Mizuki and then glanced to Byou. "How much do you know about what happened with him?"

"I've heard some hints about it, but not enough to make sense of it yet beyond that he was expelled, and it's getting kind of weird," Byou said, trying not to let his impatient curiosity show. "But I know I'm still new, it's just confusing when there's some gossip that's off limits when most everything else isn't."

Ryo quirked a half smile and gave Mizuki a look from the corner of his eye. "When even Micchan won't spill it, it's generally for good reason," he said, and then after a slight hesitation, he sighed and shrugged. "All I can really say is that Tatsurou was kicked out for crossing a serious line, and it was a big, complicated mess that involved a lot of people. It happened only about a year and a half ago so things are still a bit touchy."

Byou frowned and nodded slowly. "Aki mentioned that, kind of, and I'm slowly putting the pieces together," he said, rubbing one arm idly as he stared at his lap. "We were discussing Traditionalist customs for mates and rules, and he was explaining the differences between the bullshit the Hub says about what it's like and what your customs actually are." Byou glanced up as he remembered something and furrowed his brow. "He also mentioned something about mate-bites."

Ryo and Mizuki both froze for a second, then shared a look, and Ryo glanced to the door to see Satoshi come back in and stop abruptly. Byou widened his eyes and shut his mouth as he watched Satoshi's expression flicker through several emotions to settle on a blank mask.

Satoshi waved away Byou's stammered apology and sighed as he sat down across from the others. "Might as well hear it from me, since everyone will just keep dancing around it otherwise," he said, rubbing his face for a moment as he composed himself. "Short version is, Tatsurou and I were mated for a while, through an arrangement between our families, but we never really clicked together or bonded, and we had, well, difficulties with starting a family, because my fertility is low," he said slowly, then chewed on his lip for a moment before he continued, staring at a spot on the floor. "One thing led to another, and because we both wanted a child, well..." He shrugged, pulling a rueful face as he fidgeted with his hands.

Byou digested that, then hesitantly asked, "But if you wanted a child, isn't that allowed?"

Satoshi grimaced and gestured vaguely. "There was a bit of a, um, miscommunication about how long we'd wait to try that way, and things got worse after that instead of better. Soon after, Miya intervened on my behalf and had me taken somewhere safe, as the whole mess involved three settlements by then and Tatsurou was his friend at the time."

"Miya is Kaoru's second in command of sorts, and Satoshi had moved to their colony when he was mated to Tatsurou," Ryo supplied when Byou looked a bit lost.

Satoshi nodded and glanced up, chewing on his lip. "Basically, the big thing that ended up causing it to all fall apart was that he didn't follow the rules for mate-bites, but it's more complicated than that."

"What he means is that Tatsurou was an impulsive knot-head who arrogantly assumed his status allowed him to do whatever he wanted," Mizuki said bluntly, crossing his arms as he gave Satoshi a look of affectionate exasperation.

Satoshi quirked a faint smile at Mizuki, then looked back to Byou. "Mate-bites are different than natural bonds because it's so much more intense for the omega, and only the omega, and unlike natural bonds it compels obedience and influences our emotions toward our mate. It's why there are rules and procedures to follow to ensure the omega fully consents beforehand and wasn't coerced at all, so the fact he kind of sprung it on me was crossing a serious line," he explained. "The reason he was expelled was mostly because of that, but also because of other more minor incidents that added up. Our settlements might have a reputation for knot-headed alphas, but they still take things seriously when bonded pairs have problems."

"Aki's settlement was involved through Shinji, who was brought in as a mediator and to negotiate an agreement on what should be done," Ryo added. "Our laws dictate that those from a settlement with no direct ties, such as being from either mate's home settlements, act as a neutral party to decide the outcome. Shinji had also never met Satoshi or Tatsurou before then, and he doesn't have any knot-headed tendencies that would lead to him being biased in favor of an alpha."

Satoshi nodded again and looked up at Byou. "Yumehito ended up speaking for me officially, as by our laws I couldn't speak for myself due to the bite-bond. Eventually it was decided that Tatsurou had voided our bond contract with his actions," he said slowly, glancing away again. "It's still difficult for me, but I know it was the right thing to do for Hikaru's sake and mine. Since bite-bonds can't be undone, only replaced with another, I chose Shinji to be my second mate shortly after Hikaru was born, and it was made official once I felt ready." He smiled slightly and shrugged. "I'm happy now, and my bond to Shinji is developing into a natural bond."

Shinji chose that moment to clear his throat softly from the doorway, and he gave Satoshi a shy smile. "My only regret, hopeless romantic that I am, is that I didn't get a chance to properly court you first," he murmured as he approached.

Satoshi blushed and gave Shinji a slightly embarrassed look, though it transformed into a coy smile as Shinji sat beside him.

"You have an older alpha brother who's still unmated, right?" Ryo asked Shinji with a grin.

Shinji chuckled and nodded. "I do, but last I heard he's been living with another alpha for a while now, so you may be out of luck there," he murmured with an apologetic look.

Ryo pouted and sighed dramatically. "Maybe if Micchan and Yuusei don't want him, I'll try for Manabu," he grumbled, only half serious.

"Is the meeting over?" Byou asked, frowning as he checked his comm, but there was no message from Aki.

"Not quite, but I've opted out of the latest plans," Shinji said slowly, draping one arm around Satoshi. "I apologize for being unable to elaborate further, but it's necessary for now until things are finalized."

Mizuki narrowed his eyes. "That sounds like knot-head code for planning shit we won't like at all."

Shinji grimaced with a soft sigh and shook his head. "The latest news was... not promising, but we probably won't have a final decision about anything until we get back to our colony and can get input from the other settlement leaders, as well as get in touch with our other allied colonies."

"Shit, so it's really happening, eh?" Mizuki asked softly, paling a bit as it sunk in.

Shinji made an affirmative sound just before Byou's comm buzzed with a message from Aki. The look of relief on Byou's face prompted Satoshi to gently suggest they spend some time together, and Byou nodded gratefully as he got up and left.

Chapter Text

It was mid-afternoon ship time on the second day, and Byou sat beside Aki on the end of a long table in a communal dining hall for the ship's passengers, the chatter flowing around them as they picked at the remainder of their lunch. Kaoru came into the room trailed by an alpha wearing a captain's uniform and the conversations in the room hushed in anticipation as the captain stood at attention to the right of Kaoru.

Kaoru cleared his throat before speaking. "We have just been informed that the rescue mission to retrieve our people from the Hub was successful, and as of several hours ago they are en route on a small ship headed home," he said, his voice easily carrying through the room. A brief cheer went up but quieted down at a motion from Kaoru. "As for the colony itself, the militants have seized control of it and have taken all Hub citizens into custody, both military and civilian," he paused to let that sink in before continuing. "The bad news is the colony sustained heavy damage and there have been casualties."

There was tense silence for a few moments before an omega asked whether the casualties had been identified, and Kaoru read out a list of names, about two dozen total. There were only a few sounds of grief in the room, and the overall mood was somber as the news sunk in.

"We will continue to attempt to minimize casualties, but effective immediately, all our Rim colonies are on high alert for possible Hub retaliation," Kaoru said with a serious expression. "And now, Captain Terachi will fill you in on ship news." He stepped back and the captain looked over the crowd for a moment before speaking, his voice quieter but no less authoritative.

"Though I'm sure all of you wish to return home as soon as possible, the ship's jump drive has begun having problems again, thus we have diverted course to the nearest colony, Wakoku, for repairs as a precaution," the captain said. "We will arrive within the hour, and fortunately the colony is only four jumps away from yours. We expect repairs to take approximately twelve hours at most, barring any unforeseen complications. As it is my duty to see you home safely, I personally apologize for the delay." Captain Terachi bowed slightly to the crowd and then turned to Kaoru.

"Thank you, Captain Terachi," Kaoru said, stepping forward again to address the crowd. "Your ship comms will have the colony customs in detail, and I expect all of you to obey them if venturing off the ship. As such, omegas are strongly advised to stay with their mates or with an alpha member of the ship's crew if leaving the ship. We will keep you updated with any news until our arrival." Kaoru made a perfunctory bow and then exited the dining hall with the captain trailing a pace behind him.

Byou blinked and turned to Aki with a resigned expression. "Lemme guess, this Wakoku colony is one of those knot-head super traditionalist ones or something, right?"

Aki grimaced and nodded. "It's one of the more, ah, old fashioned ones where they even dress like our long ago ancestors did, but they obviously don't ban technology or anything," he explained. "Last I heard they were kind of militant, but I don't think they're allied with the group that bombed Pandora unless things have changed recently. Our colony is not on the best of terms with them, however."

"Wonderful," Byou muttered, making a face. He pulled out his comm and poked at it until he found the information on Wakoku's customs, and as he read he pulled a few more choice faces which made Aki chuckle. "Fuck's sake, they even have nobility? 'Descended from the genships'? Everyone is--oh, from the ruling class of the genships? What ruling class?"

"Alphas, obviously. Ruling with their big dicks, as usual," Mizuki interjected from across the table, paging through his own comm with a sour expression. "I've been there once, nice tourist spot I guess, what with all their fancy old fashioned shit and customs they claim are preserved from before the Great Migration, but omegas are as much property as their weird houses. If I hadn't been with my family I'd have probably caused a scandal or few by punching out an alpha or something."

"Hey now, Wakoku's where my mate's from, Micchan," Hazuki said playfully, poking Mizuki's arm.

Mizuki stuck his tongue out at Hazuki and glanced around him to Reo. "That explains a lot, as I've said," he quipped with a grin.

"I had good reason to leave," Reo said blandly, a slight smirk on his lips. "My home settlement, Omura, is isolated from the main colony settlements, as we follow somewhat different customs," he explained for Byou's benefit.

"Where are we going to get the clothes we're supposed to wear?" Byou asked, furrowing his brow at the example pictures on his comm. The outfits, even the plain ones for commoners, looked like the stuff he'd seen in very old holovids about their ancestors and seemed to him to be too fancy and formal for everyday wear.

"We'll be provided with guest clothing when we arrive in Yamato, the settlement with the biggest spaceport," Reo said, and then gave Hazuki an amused look. "Want to visit your in-laws?" he asked with a teasing glint in his eyes.

Hazuki elbowed Reo in the ribs and grimaced. "Unless you really want to, for some weird reason, I'd rather not."

"You mean you don't want to sit through being nagged about why you're not preggo yet?" Mizuki asked bluntly, grinning.

"I didn't even know that's what she meant until Reo explained it later, since she was using weird euphemisms," Hazuki said dryly, scrunching up his nose. "She probably thinks I'm some sort of uncultured twit or something."

"It's not a topic she'd discuss openly in crude or blunt terms, but my mother does wish for more grandchildren," Reo said dryly, smirking. "I'll have to send a message when we arrive in Yamato, but with any luck my parents won't come to meet us."

"Maybe send it just before we lift off?" Hazuki suggested with an attempt at an innocent expression. "I don't want to take chances, after all."

Reo chuckled but then shook his head. "It wouldn't be right to snub them, but I suppose I could delay the message for a while."

Aki gave Byou a questioning look. "Do you want to see Yamato?"

"I guess we might as well, if we'll be stuck there for half a day," Byou replied with a shrug, though he made a face. "If it's really bad we don't have to stay long."

"They're really hardass about roles, but it's not like they'll expect us to grovel at the feet of our alphas," Hazuki murmured. "Reo and I had our bonding ceremony in Omura, but we stayed in Yamato and the neighboring settlements for a few days after. It wasn't all that bad, but that's probably because Reo escorted me everywhere. No alpha would dare even look at an omega when escorted by another alpha."

Mizuki tapped his comm and then showed it to Hazuki. "What will you take in bribes to wear this thing?" he asked, grinning wide.

Hazuki took one look at the picture and scowled playfully at Mizuki. "More than you could ever afford," he quipped with a roll of his eyes. "Besides which, it's a prostitute's outfit and I'm mated."

Byou leaned over to see and Mizuki showed him the picture of an omega in ridiculously fancy costume with several layers and a hairstyle so elaborately laden with jewels and combs it looked like it weighed several pounds. "Holy shit, how does anyone wear that much jewelry and still be able to move?" Byou asked, laughing in amazement.

"I know, right? Must take hours just to get all made up in that, though it's really pretty," Mizuki said, admiring the details. "I just wanna see Hacchan all prettied up."

"I'd look utterly ridiculous in that and you know it," Hazuki said, chuckling.

"Your bonding outfit was really nice though," Mizuki said wistfully, then found an example of it for Byou to see. The model for the bonding kimono was dressed much plainer in contrast to the other, but the kimono was tastefully embroidered and layered with different complementary colors, and the hairstyle was hidden beneath a headpiece of veils. "If there's one good thing about Wakoku colony, it's that the omegas get really pretty clothes on formal occasions."

"The formal stuff is really nice, but even the casual wear looks fancy to me," Byou murmured.

"Hah, yeah, the basic shit still takes help to get into, at least for omegas," Mizuki said, showing Byou the complicated instructions to tie on one of the informal outfits. "I like the long dangly sleeves on the unmated omega outfits, but damn do they get in the way when I wanna do anything. You'll wear one of these, and Aki gets stuck in this boring thing," he said, showing a side by side picture of a mated couple in everyday wear. The omega's kimono consisted of light colors on the top half and dark on the bottom, split by a wide embroidered obi in a soft gray, and the alpha's consisted of hakama with a long jacket over it and a belt, all in dark grays and black and entirely unadorned save for hemlines.

"What about collars?" Byou asked, noticing that none of the omega models in the pictures wore them.

"In Yamato, mated status is reflected in the clothing instead," Reo said, "but there are some exceptions, and guest omegas are of course allowed to wear them. The Ibaraki settlement, for example, has both collars and different clothing for mated omegas, and the Edo settlement is a mix depending on the occasion and level of formality. Omura clothing styles are somewhat more modern and collars are more common than these sorts of clothes."

"This would be a good time to get you a proper collar, I guess," Aki murmured, fingering the plain one Byou wore.

Byou smirked slightly and raised his eyebrows. "About time, but I still get to pick it out."

They all got up and helped clear the dishes from their meal now that everyone was finished, and then they all headed elsewhere with Byou following Aki back to their room. Aki sat on the couch and tapped the room's main console until a selection of collars appeared on the screen, and Byou spent a few minutes looking through the choices while snuggled beside him.

"I really underestimated the variety," Byou murmured, making a rueful face as he poked through the dozens of styles. There were several he liked well enough, but none really stood out and he turned to Aki with a mock sour expression. "Okay, fine, you can help out if you want."

"How gracious of you," Aki quipped with a chuckle, and then pointed to a black padded leather collar with multicolored jewels and delicate chains. "What about that one?"

Byou tilted his head as he studied it thoughtfully, then shrugged and nodded. "It's a bit gaudy, but it's pretty."

Aki made the selection and then typed in his initials for the plaque, and the console beeped an acknowledgement. Within about fifteen seconds a panel beneath the console opened and the collar popped out into Aki's hands. Once Byou had removed the plain collar he buckled the new one on and leaned back slightly to admire the look as Byou fussed with his hair.

"This feels weirdly informal, I'm not sure whether I'm missing anything," Byou quipped, eyeing Aki with mock suspicion.

Aki made a rueful grimace and shrugged a bit. "I was thinking you'd prefer to wait for a formal bonding ceremony until we're settled in," he murmured, biting his lip as he looked at Byou uncertainly.

"Well, yeah," Byou murmured, his expression softening as he shifted closer to Aki on the couch. "But don't think I'll want to back out and flee, or I'll tie you to this bed and not let you up until we get home," he said, giving Aki a stern look.

"What if I wouldn't mind that anyway?"

"Finally, you get it," Byou murmured dryly.

 

Soon after landing in Yamato's spaceport Byou and the other omegas were escorted to a building off to the side of the landing pad, and a glance behind him showed the alphas being led to another on the opposite side. Once inside the building Byou saw it was a dressing area of sorts, and he could smell a bathhouse through the open doors on the far side of the large room. The omega escorts were all dressed in the colorful kimono of unmated omegas, and they began helping everyone to dress with cheerful efficiency.

"Welcome to Yamato, I'm Eiri," one Yamato omega said with a low bow to Byou. "Your ship arrived on a special occasion," she explained with a friendly smile as she led Byou behind some screens. "It's the fifteenth birthday of Lord Chisato's heir, and everyone's celebrating."

Rather than the plain and informal kimono of a mated omega that Byou was expecting to get, Eiri selected a fancier one in shades of light purple with delicate silver embroidery, and Byou reached out tentatively to touch the fine silk in surprise. He nodded when Eiri inquired whether the garment was suitable, and she then set to work helping him out of his normal clothes and into the fancy outfit. All in all it didn't take quite as long as Byou expected, and he supposed it was because Eiri did this sort of thing regularly for guests. When he was all dressed Byou felt a bit stifled in the tightly tied garment, its wide belt making him feel stiff and awkward because it kept his posture so rigid.

Next was Byou's hair, and he watched in a mirror as Eiri set to work on it, twisting and tucking it with pins into a deceptively simple style that kept it from his face. After that Eiri applied some makeup in a 'natural' look and pronounced Byou ready to join the others, and as he emerged from the screened area he blinked at the sight of the other omegas all dressed up similarly. Hazuki was wearing an outfit in dark green with lighter green accents, Ryo in brightly colorful prints of flowers with long sleeves and more noticeable makeup, and Satoshi was in shades of pastel blues and silver. Mizuki's outfit made Byou grin, as he had chosen the gaudiest and most eye-catching of the formal outfits and had apparently insisted on more makeup and jewelry than was proper. It wasn't all that close to the picture of the prostitute outfit, but the slightly mortified look of Mizuki's helper indicated it was verging on scandalous.

They emerged from the building to see the alphas waiting and lined up a few paces away, and Byou headed for Aki with a smile that was matched by his mate. As expected, the alpha outfits were in boring dark gray and black without embroidery, though Aki, Reo, and Shinji's thin cloth belts were white. The new alpha seemed barely older than Ryo and he made a face at Mizuki's outfit with a long-suffering sigh, which earned him a sharp poke from Ryo.

"Let him have his fun, Niichan," Ryo said playfully, to which Nii gave another exaggerated grimace and a glare at Ryo.

"If he starts shit here it's on me, Ryo," Nii muttered, pouting.

"Don't worry, I'll be on my best behavior, little alpha," Mizuki said with a wide, mischievous grin.

Nii turned to Shinji with an almost pleading look. "Can we follow you two?"

Shinji chuckled and nodded as Satoshi tucked his arm around his mate's.

"You look beautiful," Aki murmured, offering his arm to Byou.

"At least you can breathe," Byou muttered to cover the thrill of the compliment, though he knew his makeup didn't hide his blush.

"Oh yeah, Byou, this is my brother, Nii," Ryo said, poking Nii again and giggling softly as Nii attempted to retaliate halfheartedly.

Byou and Nii exchanged nods, and then they all turned to exit the spaceport in a group and emerged onto a wide street filled with merchants and commoners milling around. Byou blinked at the contrast of the more modern spaceport and the settlement's buildings, feeling as if he'd just stepped into a historical holovid where nearly everything was old fashioned down to the most trivial detail. He spotted consoles on some buildings and even the commoners held comms, but other than that there was little evidence of modern technology. About a block down the main street, Shinji and Nii headed down a quieter side street with Mizuki, Satoshi, and Ryo, and Reo pointed up the long main street to the large palace at the end of it.

"In a little while there will be a procession coming through here with the leader and his family in it, and they'll loop around the settlement and end back at the palace's main courtyard. The first couple hours are open to all, but once it gets dark the party will be closed to the public and only nobles with invitations will remain at the palace until the next day," Reo explained, adding that as guests it would be polite to attend the party for at least a short time.

Glancing around, Byou studied the people on the street as closely as he could without staring, and he noted a few noble pairs strolling around window shopping. While everyone was dressed in more formal clothing, it was easy to spot the nobles from the commoners by the fabric quality and embroidery on the former's outfits. There were class differences even in Central, of course, but such things in the Hub were more based on where someone lived than how they were dressed. Their own guest outfits, while finely made, were less fancy than the noble garb, and Byou figured the leader and his family must have truly decadent outfits to signify their status.

After walking up the main street for a few blocks they managed to find space to sit beneath a pavilion just in time, as more people began to gather and claim choice spots. Byou felt awkward all over again when Hazuki knelt easily beside Reo, as he ended up fumbling a bit to kneel without his outfit bunching up uncomfortably around his legs. "How do you do that and make it look easy?" he asked Hazuki quietly.

"What, sit?" Hazuki asked, grinning for a moment. "Takes a bit of practice in this getup, but it looks like yours is a bit tight. Want me to loosen it a bit?"

Byou nodded gratefully and turned toward Aki so Hazuki could adjust the wide belt of his outfit, and after several tugs and fiddling Byou could breathe a little easier. "Whew, thanks," he murmured, shifting to face the street again. "Do you think anyone else will be around later?"

"I doubt Kenzo will want to get all dressed up, since he's considered a noble and doesn't like all the fussing and political shit, but Yume might drag him out," Hazuki replied, smirking. "Kyo will bitch about it but if it gets Kaoru to have to take a break he might come out with Mao."

"Oh yeah, they'd still need an alpha escort, right?"

Hazuki nodded and made a face. "Kaoru and Shinya, the ship captain, are the only alphas Kyo would choose as escorts, and Shinya's probably gonna be too busy with formalities and shit to escort them until later tonight."

"I have a hard time picturing Kyo dressed like we are," Byou murmured with a grin as he glanced down at his outfit.

Hazuki laughed. "Actually, Kyo was born in Edo so he wore this sort of clothing a lot before he moved to Kaoru's settlement. He'll probably manage to demand a more alpha-like outfit to wear, given he's technically not a guest. I could have as well, for that matter, but I don't really mind it as much as he does."

"I guess two omegas together is really rare in this colony," Byou said, noting that all the mated pairs he could see were alpha and omega.

"Yeah, though you might see one or two alpha pairs if you look in the right places," Hazuki said, pitching his voice low. "Yamato's leader is a bit of an exception as well, as he has two omega mates and they're a triad, though the latter fact isn't openly discussed."

"What, really? You mean the two omegas are mated to each other too?" Byou asked in surprise, though he kept his voice quiet.

Hazuki nodded with a smirk and then opened his mouth to continue but a nudge from Reo made him sit up straight again. The sound of drums reverberated down the street and everyone hushed their conversations and cleared the street. Less than a minute later the beginning of the procession came into view and the drums grew louder. The first part seemed to be made of acrobats and other performers, some of whom scattered flower petals on the ground, and it seemed there was an even mix of alphas and omegas among them. Following them was an honor guard of alphas in actual armor and carrying swords, in the middle of which was a large platform carried by several muscled alphas. On the platform itself was the leader's family arranged around him on a stepped dais, and sitting about a yard in front of the leader's dais was a young alpha wearing a fancier version of the honor guard armor.

Despite being somewhat prepared by Hazuki's comments, Byou was still startled at the sight of the leader and his family. For starters, there was the fact the two omegas seated on either side of the alpha were quite strikingly atypical compared to the others he'd seen in Yamato, and it was more than the fact they were both taller and stockier than most omegas. The one on the right was even dressed in the formal noble alpha garb aside from the decorative collar around his neck, and no one seemed to think it was strange. The left omega in contrast wore an outfit so gaudy and colorful it reminded Byou of the picture of the prostitute, and it was in a style that showed off quite a bit more skin than seemed proper. His collar matched the strings of jewels in his braided blonde hair, which was piled up on his head in an artfully careless way. As for the alpha, his outfit was also eye-catching in its colors and embroidery despite being in the typical alpha style of nobles.

All in all, Byou got the impression that the omegas were more in charge than the alpha seated between them, as they had airs of command around them while the alpha seemed far more laid back. In fact, the gaudily dressed omega radiated the most commanding aura, and as the platform neared Byou noticed he was pregnant, albeit only just far enough along to begin showing. Three other kids of varying ages were arranged in front of their parents, two omegas and one alpha. As for the secondary genders of the kids, Byou was surprised when he couldn't tell, and upon realizing that he wondered whether he'd made any wrong assumptions about any of the others he'd seen.

Byou waited until the procession had passed and the drumbeats faded, then leaned close to Hazuki. "I'm getting the impression that Yamato really doesn't distinguish secondary genders," he whispered.

Hazuki blinked and gave Byou an odd look. "Well yeah, why would anyone? None of our Rim colonies care at all about that sort of thing, as it makes no difference."

Byou furrowed his brow as he thought that over. "The omega on our side of the street, I'm not even sure about for that matter."

Hazuki gave Byou another bemused look. "Hakuei? I don't know what he would be according to Hub criteria for that, but most of us just pick one or the other, whichever feels more comfortable, really. It took you until now to notice this about us?"

"Well, until now it wasn't something I didn't notice, or rather most of you just seemed to be male, though I was sometimes confused," Byou murmured defensively as he shrugged. "I mean, it's not something that bothers me, I'm just not used to it."

Hazuki tilted his head at Byou, still a bit puzzled. "I guess growing up around betas really skews one's perceptions about that sort of thing," he said dryly with a shake of his head.

"But what about Satoshi and Hitsugi's kids?"

"Coin toss, seriously," Hazuki said with a chuckle. "Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it changes as we grow up. Kaede chose hers once she could speak in full sentences. Occasionally we also change our given names too, but not always."

Byou blinked a few times as he absorbed that, then shrugged. "Seems like a better way to do things, I guess, though it'd be pretty much impossible in the Hub."

"That was just one of the many reasons I disliked the Hub when I visited," Aki said, making a face as he helped Byou to his feet. "Splitting us according to their stupid rules that only seem to matter to them, and they call us backwards."

"Well, I've never heard of a beta male getting pregnant," Byou murmured with another shrug. "I don't think they have the parts for it."

"Which is why it makes no damn sense for that shit to be imposed on us," Hazuki muttered, rolling his eyes. "I think they only do it to be assholes."

"Yeah, with the way they treat omega males and alpha females, it really does seem stupidly arbitrary," Byou said with a thoughtful frown. "I guess I just never really thought about how they even decided which we were."

"You might meet some who don't even choose male or female in our colonies, though oddly enough they're usually Hub-born," Hazuki said as they headed slowly up the street to the palace with most of the crowd. "I mean, we know the Hub is weird about it, but a lot of us can't wrap our heads around it mattering."

"Then why even have secondary genders at all?"

Hazuki chuckled and shrugged. "Why not? Until we made our own colonies out here we were all living among betas, so I suppose we picked it up from them and just decided it didn't matter which one we picked for ourselves."

Byou nodded slowly, though he still looked a bit confused. "So the leader's family, they all chose one or the other?"

"Lord Chisato is male, as are Gisho and Hakuei, and their eldest, Hiyori, is an alpha female. Hakuei is her bearer, and he birthed the omega sitting in front of him as well, while Gisho is the bearer of the other two," Hazuki explained. "I don't know whether the other children chose a secondary gender, and every now and then Hakuei switches on a whim." He paused and glanced around before leaning close to whisper to Byou, "There's a rumor that Hiyori was sired by Gisho which you might hear, but with them being a triad it doesn't seem to matter to Lord Chisato, though no one brings up such rumors around them."

Byou widened his eyes in surprise and blinked several times, trying to wrap his brain around an omega being a sire, let alone that it didn't bother the alpha leader at all. "She did kind of look more like the two omegas than the alpha," he murmured, tilting his head.

"Which is how the rumor started," Hazuki said with a grin. "With her having Gisho's eyes and nose, and Hakuei's other features, folks began to wonder. But what seems to matter more is that Hiyori was firstborn and an alpha, not whether she was sired by Gisho."

"So much for all the unconventional sorts being among those who travel outside the colonies," Byou quipped, giving Aki a mock sour look.

Aki made a face and poked Byou. "Leaders are more often than not exceptions to their own rules rather than examples of them," he retorted with a teasing smirk.

"And that is especially true among the most traditional of leaders," Reo added blandly. "Leading by example is rarest with inherited leadership."

"Is inherited leadership common?" Byou asked.

Reo shook his head. "Unlike the other settlements in Wakoku, Omura's leader is elected by council, and most of the other settlements do the same. The election methods differ by settlement between a council election or open to all or most of the settlement's citizens. Very few settlements have hereditary leaders, and even then the position can be taken by another family through either politics or more, shall we say, direct means."

"Which is why most settlements elect their leaders," Aki added. "Hereditary positions have led to bloodshed in the past, and generally seem to cause more problems than they solve, especially when the designated heirs are unsuited to leadership for one reason or another, or disliked by their people for whatever reasons."

The crowd parted ahead of them and Kaoru joined them with Kyo and Mao in tow, the omegas both dressed in outfits similar to Byou and Hazuki's, and by the scowl on Kyo's face it seemed he was quite a bit less than thrilled about it. Mao's outfit was a mix of light grays and silver, while Kyo's was dark blues and grays. Kaoru, in contrast, wore a noble alpha's garb and even had a sword strapped to his dark gray belt. About a block later Ryo and Mizuki joined them with Nii trailing behind and looking somewhat irritated.

"Niichan," Ryo singsonged, giving Nii an impish look. Mizuki stifled a giggle in his sleeve as he gave Nii a sidelong glance.

A muscle in Nii's jaw twitched and he scowled at Ryo for a moment. "What?" he snapped.

"Could you go get me a fruit drink, please?" Ryo asked sweetly.

Nii rolled his eyes and sighed, then glanced around for the nearest drink vendor. "Fine, brat," he grumbled, wandering off.

"That's gotta be the worst name-pun ever," Hazuki muttered, though he was grinning.

"Not my fault he didn't think his nickname through," Ryo retorted with a wide grin.

"I've kept count, he's done it twelve times just since we stepped off the ship," Mizuki said, giggling.

"No wonder Nii looks like he just ate lemons," Hazuki said with a chuckle.

"I'm his little sibling, it's my job," Ryo said primly, smoothing invisible wrinkles from his long sleeves.

Byou grinned and then glanced around. "Where did Shinji and Satoshi go?"

"Back to the ship to pick up their kids for the party," Ryo answered, gesturing to the palace as they neared its gates. "They'll probably be along soon with Hitsugi and his kids, and maybe Miya later too."

 

A few minutes later they all finally arrived in the large front courtyard of the palace, and Mizuki grabbed Byou's free arm and maneuvered the three of them nearer to the large pavilion where the leader and his family sat. All but one of the children sat still, and Hakuei had the youngest, an alpha toddler, in his lap while he attempted to distract the fussing child with sweets.

"I'd be mad about the hypocrisy on display if those two omegas weren't fucking gorgeous," Mizuki muttered behind the long sleeve of his colorful outfit.

"Nice to know you have standards," Byou quipped with a teasing grin.

"Fuck you, I know you were eyeing them too," Mizuki shot back and then returned to trying not to be too obvious leering at Hakuei.

"Want Mama!" the toddler suddenly shouted, wriggling on Hakuei's lap and reaching for Gisho.

Hakuei set aside the remainder of the sweet roll with an indulgent grin and stood to carry the little alpha over to Gisho, his scandalous outfit trailing on the floor behind him. It seemed to Byou that the material that would have otherwise covered Hakuei's shoulders and neck had been put in the sleeves and train instead.

"Whoa, Hakuei's tall," Mizuki muttered, eyes wide. "Do you think he's really toppy too?" he asked, almost wistful.

"Fuck's sake, Micchan," Hazuki said with amused exasperation as he joined them.

"What? I'm allowed my fantasies," Mizuki retorted, sticking his tongue out at Hazuki and then flouncing off in the direction of the food stands.

Hazuki rolled his eyes and shook his head, then caught sight of a familiar face near the pavilion. "Oh crap, things might get interesting in a bit," he said, pointing to someone with bright red hair tied back into a high ponytail who was suiting up in unadorned and practical armor in a light brown color off to the other side of the pavilion. A dozen or so honor guards materialized then and began ordering the crowd to move back to clear a large area in front of the leader's pavilion.

At some signal Hiyori rose to her feet and stepped off the pavilion's dais, and her formal armor was swiftly changed by servants in a similar style to the redhead's but in her family colors of white and red. As the crowd shifted Byou found himself on the edge of the large circle, and a glance around showed Kaoru and the others a few feet away.

"What's all this about?" Byou asked Aki, watching as Hiyori and the redhead walked to the center of the circle, their heads and faces concealed behind helmets with screens on the front.

"It's a ceremonial duel in which Hiyori displays her martial prowess," Aki explained. "I'm guessing that's her trainer, so it'll involve a fair amount of showing off to entertain everyone."

The two opponents faced each other and bowed formally, and at a word from Chisato they drew their swords and began circling each other. What followed was a series of seemingly choreographed moves of strikes, dodges, and parries that began slow and light but gradually increased in speed and force. Soon enough Hiyori and the trainer were taking turns getting the upper hand for brief moments, and the crowd cheered dutifully each time the alpha heir scored a hit.

It was quite impressive to watch, as both had obvious skill and were also evenly matched as far as Byou could tell, though it still seemed somewhat rehearsed. At some point when he began to smell the sweat from the two, he blinked as he realized the trainer was an omega, and also that the duel had shifted from practiced moves to real. A glance around at the audience showed that the crowd was either too caught up in the fight to notice the trainer was omega, or they knew and it wasn't an issue for some reason, though Kaoru had a bit of a strange expression on his face.

Mere moments later Byou saw Hiyori lunge forward with a decisive yell of victory, only for it to be cut short as the trainer disarmed her with a rather loud strike to her forearm. Hiyori growled to mask a sound of pain, and in the next moment the trainer was sprawled on his back from a body check that earned a few hoots of laughter from the audience. When the trainer stayed down, Hiyori straightened up and removed her helmet as she turned to face Chisato, and at a signal from him she grudgingly helped her trainer to his feet.

"Victory goes to Hiyori, albeit due to a somewhat unconventional winning move," Chisato announced with an indulgent grin, and the audience took its cue to applaud appropriately.

"You were supposed to let me win," Hiyori hissed, perhaps louder than intended as she panted for breath.

"I did, though," her trainer retorted as he removed his helmet and grinned at her.

The two bowed formally to each other and then servants rushed forward to help Hiyori out of her armor, and the trainer headed off to the side of the pavilion again. Byou looked around to locate familiar faces and saw that Kaoru was staring after the trainer with a decidedly weird expression, up until Kyo elbowed him hard in the stomach. Tugging Aki to follow, Byou hurried over to them in time to hear Kyo's comment over the crowd's chatter.

"Go talk to him, don't just stand there gaping like you just popped your first knot a week ago," Kyo said sharply, unfazed by the scowl Kaoru gave him. "If you don't, you'll sulk and mope about it for weeks."

Byou sensed that it would be a bad time to ask what was going on, and so he kept his mouth shut as Kaoru hesitated with indecision. Hazuki and Reo joined them then, and by Hazuki's wary look at Kaoru it seemed he knew exactly what the problem was about. Before Kaoru could make a decision either way, the trainer appeared again walking beside the ship's captain and chatting amicably as they crossed in front of the pavilion, at least up until Shinya noticed Kaoru and stopped suddenly.

Byou shifted uncomfortably as the tension increased another few notches when the trainer glanced over and finally saw Kaoru, and the redheaded omega's expression shifted from shock to a cold mask.

"Was no one going to inform me--" Kaoru started, his tone angry.

"Oh, for fuck's sake, will you two just get a damn room and talk about it?" Kyo snapped, crossing his arms as he glared at Kaoru and then the redhead.

Hakuei chose that moment to breeze in, and if he noticed the tension he pointedly ignored it as he fixed a smile on Kaoru. "Ah, Lord Kaoru, a pleasure to see you for Hiyori's birthday, though I've been informed it was due to an unfortunate problem with the ship you arrived on," he said, a different sort of tension beneath his words as he stood to his full height and all but loomed over the alpha.

Kaoru bowed stiffly to Hakuei. "I was just about to congratulate her myself," he said, his tone neutral.

"Ah yes, you know her trainer, I believe," Hakuei said, something in his smile suggesting he had not in fact been oblivious of what he'd interrupted. Turning to glance over his shoulder at the trainer, he gestured to the palace casually. "Die, dear, see to it that Hiyori's armor gets where it's supposed to be."

"Of course," Daisuke said with a low bow, and without a flicker of a glance to Kaoru he turned and headed elsewhere.

"You will be staying for the party tonight, yes?" Hakuei asked Kaoru, his tone implying it was not a request.

Kaoru hesitated, but to his credit his expression didn't waver. "Of course, I'd be honored."

"Good, good, I'm sure you and Chisato will have much to discuss, what with the," Hakuei paused to flick his fingers dismissively, "trouble and all." He then beckoned imperiously to Shinya, who up until then had been trying to avoid notice, and the alpha mustered a strained smile as he stepped forward. "Shinya, dear, it's been ages since we chatted, do tell me how you've been," he said, looping his arm with the alpha's and leading him away off to the side.

Kaoru's expression stayed stonily blank for a few more moments and then he strode toward the dais and straight for Chisato. Once Hakuei and Kaoru were far enough away, Hazuki let out a slow breath and edged closer to Reo as the tension gradually dissipated.

"Well, that could've been messy as hell," Hazuki muttered, then glanced to Byou and smiled crookedly. "Kyo, want to explain?"

Kyo snorted at that and rolled his eyes. "Short version is Kaoru and Die had a falling out about as dramatic as Aki and Yuusei," he said dryly, giving Aki a pointed smirk.

Aki huffed and made a face. "Oh, c'mon, they were half bonded so it's not the same at all."

"Close enough, though less people know about Kaoru's fuckup," Kyo added, his smirk growing a notch even as Mao nudged him.

"Don't you start," Mao murmured, giving his mate a reproachful look.

"Oh sure, always blame the alphas," Aki grumbled good-naturedly with a shake of his head, then glanced to Byou. "As for Hakuei and Kaoru, the shit between them is just that they just butt heads a lot because Hakuei's a force of nature."

"That's one way to put it," Kyo muttered with another snort. "I'm sure he enjoys getting under Kaoru's skin as much as I do."

"I'm surprised Hakuei wouldn't want in on any discussion or plans about what's going on," Byou said, furrowing his brow.

Hazuki chuckled and glanced toward the dais where Kaoru was going through the formalities of greeting the leader and his children. "Noticed who's really wearing the collars in their triad, eh? Oh, he'll make sure his opinion is known one way or another, as no alpha in their right mind would try to keep him out of it."

"I missed something, didn't I?" Mizuki asked as he walked up to them with Ryo and Nii trailing behind.

"Hakuei just twisted Kaoru's arm into attending the party tonight," Kyo replied with an amused grin. "Sucks to be a noble sometimes, I guess."

"And it turns out Die is Hiyori's kendo trainer too," Hazuki added, giving Mizuki and Ryo a significant look.

"Oh shit," Ryo said, his expression slightly horrified as he looked toward the pavilion.

"Is there any rule the leader and his family don't break?" Mizuki muttered, making a face as he looked around. "It's gonna bite them in the ass some day, I just know it."

Chapter Text

Other than the near-incident with Kaoru and Daisuke, the party was uneventful though hardly boring, and Byou met so many new people his head spun from trying to keep track of the faces and names. There were toasts and a feast, and after that more entertainment involving dances, music, and even a play with elaborate masks and costumes.

Byou wasn't exactly sure what the play was about, as it was in an old dialect and he could only catch maybe one word in ten, and all the actors were hidden beneath their costumes. It seemed quite dramatic and involved some sort of love story, as far as he could tell, between a rich alpha and many omegas vying to be her mate, and eventually the alpha picked the one she loved and it ended happily ever after. As far as stories went it was predictable, but the costumes alone were fascinating.

Somehow Byou and Aki ended up on the pavilion as the crowd began thinning out, and they managed to exchange pleasantries with Chisato and Gisho without committing any social faux pas. By then Miya and the others from the ship had arrived, and Byou grinned as he saw Yumehito teasing Kenzo about something with Mizuki joining in, which made the alpha scowl.

"Ugh, I don't see how I'm supposed to meet any alphas when Niichan keeps cockblocking me," Ryo grumbled as he plopped down in front of Byou with a pout.

"You're not here to flirt, brat," Nii said, his lips twitching in amusement.

"I wasn't! If you can't tell the difference, no wonder you're still unmated," Ryo retorted, crossing his arms and making a face at Nii.

"You'd actually want one of these knot-head types?" Byou grinned at the disgusted face Ryo made.

"Of course not, but it's the principle of the thing," Ryo huffed primly, fidgeting with his long sleeves.

"So what's the story between Kaoru and Die?" Byou asked quietly.

"I didn't even know either of them yet when it happened so I only know secondhand details, but it's kind of sad actually," Ryo murmured with a frown as he leaned closer. "They probably would have bonded fast if their ideological differences, as Kyo put it, didn't get in the way."

Byou furrowed his brow. "You mean Kaoru didn't want him doing kendo or something?" he asked as Mao and Kyo joined them.

"Oh no, not that sort of thing," Ryo said as he shook his head and sat back. "I heard it was more about what our Rim colonies wanted to do about the Hub, and they really disagreed about whether we should secede as soon as we could, and how to do so. I guess that kind of explains why Die's living here in Yamato now, and Kaoru's over in our colony."

"Buncha stupid knot-head politics is what it is," Kyo muttered, sitting down beside Aki with a sigh. "They were both too damn stubborn about it all, and it took until now for any of the secessionists to actually do anything anyway."

"Ah yes, you know nothing at all about being stubborn," Mao teased as he settled beside his mate.

Kyo snorted and gave Mao a sidelong look. "Anyway, they broke it off about four years ago and have been avoiding each other since, like stubborn fools. If they'd just swallow their pride for five minutes--"

Mao poked Kyo gently and chuckled. "Trying to play matchmaker, are you?"

"Die was my friend, and since Kaoru made him leave in such a huff I haven't seen or heard from him until now," Kyo said with a scowl. "Besides, it'd help to remove the stick up Kaoru's ass to settle down with a mate."

"Well, having a mate sure mellowed you out," Mao murmured with a soft smile, and then seemed to remember the others were with them as he blushed.

"Aww, you two are adorable--ack!" Ryo said with a playful giggle as he dodged a half-hearted swipe from Kyo.

Byou grinned and leaned against Aki as he gave Mao a knowing look. "I for one am unsurprised Mao's such a sap," he said teasingly.

Mao made a face at Byou. "Speaking of Die, do you think he'll make an appearance tonight?" he asked just as there was a stir on the other side of the pavilion with a messenger rushing up to Chisato.

"Depends on how long we're staying, I guess," Kyo said, shrugging. "I figure most of us will be expected to mingle with the nobles here at the party for a while."

Nii spoke up, "I overheard Lord Chisato telling the Captain that everyone from the ship would be provided accommodations tonight, so it seems we'll be expected to stay for as long as is deemed polite."

"Which could be any time from when the ship's repaired to a day or two," Kyo added, furrowing his brow as he let out a sigh. "Mother will want me to visit."

"I'd like to see Edo again," Mao murmured. "It's so pretty during this season with its parks full of flowering trees."

"How do you travel between settlements here?" Byou asked. "I haven't seen any vehicles."

Kyo chuckled and shared a look with Mao. "This part of Yamato is kind of for the tourists, I guess, but there are rail lines and modern transport outside of this area. In contrast, most of Edo is like the Old Quarter here, but we use transports and modern stuff also, just not as obviously."

"I still feel like I'm walking through a holovid," Byou murmured, glancing around at the decor.

"I felt that way when I visited Corona," Kyo said, smirking a bit. "I grew up with this sort of stuff, so your normal is like some weird futuristic shit with flying cars to me," he quipped.

"Then Central would be even weirder, by your standards," Mao teased with a chuckle. "The only parts of Corona you saw were the slums, pretty much, and you only saw where the betas live when we were leaving."

"But aren't the other settlements more modern?" Byou asked, confused.

"Yeah, but as I said it's more like Pandora than Central," Aki replied. "Our settlements are large, but still not half as big as Hub cities, and we don't have quite as much infrastructure or tech. We spread out rather than up, so our tallest buildings are only a few stories high unless they're resort hotels for Hub tourists."

"May I have your attention please," Chisato said, rising to his feet and motioning for the guards to ensure everyone was paying attention. "Unfortunately, the party must be cut short as we have received news of a very serious nature. Please return to your homes to await details and further instruction." He motioned to the head guard and muttered a few terse orders when the alpha approached, and soon the honor guard as well as the palace guards were herding everyone out of the courtyard hastily.

As Byou and the others got to their feet, however, Chisato himself approached and waved them back. "You may all stay, as this concerns you," he said, and then turned to Shinya as the ship captain hurried toward him. "Get everyone off your ship and to the palace, and Hiyori, see your siblings and the children of our guests inside with your mother and Gisho," he added, then gestured to Kaoru and Miya and had a hushed conversation with them.

Hakuei, upon learning he had been effectively dismissed inside, gave Chisato a sour look but surprisingly didn't protest as he began herding the children toward the palace. Hitsugi and Satoshi along with two other omegas from the ship followed them with their children, and Byou squeezed Aki's hand tightly as he gave the others a worried look. It took about twenty minutes before everyone had either left or been herded to the pavilion, and though things were a bit confused it was as calm as could be expected under the circumstances.

Chisato smiled apologetically as he took his place standing in front of his throne to address the small crowd on and around the pavilion. "We'd normally have all omegas go inside, but it's best if you hear this all at the same time," he began, then wasted no more time as he got straight to the point. "About half of the ships that were at Pandora are headed here as fast as they can go, as there have been reports of the Hub mobilizing and Wakoku is the nearest Rim colony they can reach." He paused for a moment to let that sink in and then continued. "According to our sensors, the Hub ships are still days away from our colony and as of yet don't seem to be heading our way, but we are preparing to defend ourselves just in case with the help of some of Pandora's forces."

Kaoru stepped up beside Chisato, with Miya a step behind him on his other side. "Due to the Hub's total defeat at Pandora and the losses they sustained, we expect that they won't give up easily and may in fact engage us in our own territories," Kaoru said, glancing to Chisato briefly before he continued. "We'll be staying here for at least a day in order to assess the situation and make plans."

"As there's more than enough room in the palace, and not so much in the town due to the celebrations, you are all welcome to stay here," Chisato added with a smile, then motioned to have the honor guards escort almost everyone inside. Kaoru, Miya and Shinya stayed behind, presumably to keep updated with the latest news.

Byou got up with the others and followed the guards inside the palace, the opulence on display not quite enough to distract him from worrying about the news. "Do you really think the Hub will attack the Rim colonies?" he asked Aki quietly.

"I don't know if they'll really go for an all-out attack, but at this point anything could happen, especially if the militants keep antagonizing them," Aki answered, shrugging with a sigh. "While we can pin the blame on the militants, the Hub doesn't distinguish them from the rest of us, and we've known for some time now that they only needed a convenient excuse to attempt to bring our colonies under more direct control."

"It also depends on which way the winds are blowing back in Central," Mao added. "Last I heard, the political faction claiming the Rim colonies were a threat to Hub authority were still a minority, but I'm sure they've used the militant attacks to leverage more support for military action. And there are others who'd use it as an opportunity to advance their agendas as well. However, since the Hub doesn't have a large standing military, at least compared to our military ships, any direct engagement on their part will be difficult for them to sustain, even if we prioritize defending our border colonies rather than attacking them."

"With any luck, the Hub will be too busy defending itself from militant attacks to bother with any of us further away," Kyo said, his tone ever so slightly hopeful. "The least those radicals could do is keep the Hub too busy to retaliate against the rest of us."

"I never paid much attention to the politics or anything else," Byou murmured a bit sheepishly, realizing how little he knew compared to everyone else. "But then I thought I was just going for a heat vacation, and then all this shit happened."

Mao smirked at Byou. "Still think it was good timing or bad?"

Byou chuckled and leaned into Aki's one-armed embrace. "Could've been a lot worse, I suppose."

They arrived at a large parlor room and saw the leader's family along with the omegas and children from the ship there, and Byou noticed that Hakuei and Gisho had changed into more informal but still high-quality kimono. Refreshments were set out on various low tables and the adults were chatting quietly while the older children played and the babies slept or fussed. Hakuei glanced up and beckoned them over, and once they were seated on the low couches, he focused his attention on Byou.

"You're a new pretty face, where are you from?" Hakuei asked, his frank gaze eyeing Byou with interest and lingering on the new collar.

"I'm from Central originally, but I met Aki in Pandora," Byou said, trying not to fidget.

"Perhaps not so odd a place to find one's mate," Hakuei said and raised one eyebrow as he smirked at Aki.

"Neither of us was expecting it," Aki murmured with a shrug, then lifted one arm to rest over Byou's shoulders casually.

Taking the hint, though not without another amused smirk, Hakuei glanced around the room as if to find another topic when Chisato and the others walked in. "Excuse me," Hakuei murmured as he gracefully rose to his feet and headed for his mate, and Byou saw a flash of chagrin cross Chisato's face before Hakuei reached him.

"You and I have much to discuss, my dear," Hakuei said, taking Chisato by the arm and leading him off to another room. Chisato had the grace to refrain from protest, though he attempted to extricate his arm only for Hakuei to tighten his grip.

Byou noticed that the few who had seen the exchange looked amused, especially Gisho, and he again had the distinct impression that not much escaped Hakuei's interference. "A force of nature, indeed," Byou quipped, poking Aki's side lightly. "Seems a lot of omegas here have their alphas by the balls, so to speak."

"That wasn't quite the impression I was hoping for," Aki said with a rueful chuckle.

"Am I ever going to actually see alphas and omegas behaving in so-called traditional roles?" Byou asked teasingly.

"You will if you visit Edo," Kyo said sourly as he and Mao sat down where Hakuei had been sitting. "The leader there, Atsushi, is known for the 'traditional' alpha values of sowing wild seeds with any omega he can seduce, despite having at least a dozen concubines and a mate, the latter of which has been replaced at least twice before."

Byou blinked at such a frank assessment of an alpha, especially considering it was quite unlike the few other alphas he'd seen, mated or not. "I'm guessing you don't like him?"

Kyo snorted and shrugged. "He's an alpha, what's not to like?" he muttered sarcastically. "He has the authority and the looks to pull it off, though he leaves most of the decision making to his council, which is a good thing for the most part."

"Kyo's still annoyed because Atsushi tried to pick me up when we met him soon after we'd bonded," Mao said, giving Kyo a knowing look. "He's pretty for an alpha, but charm and attractiveness don't make up for the rest of his shit."

"That, and he invited himself to our bonding feast," Kyo muttered sourly. "And he drank most of the good wine too--"

Mao's comm chimed, interrupting Kyo as they both read the message, then shared a look. "They've transferred Yuuto and Akira off the ship," Mao said, glancing up to Aki and Byou. "Apparently the captain's gonna leave them here."

"You should go talk to Akira," Kyo said, nudging Mao.

Mao grimaced, sighed, and then nodded reluctantly.

"Oh my god, why did nobody tell me this place has such hot omegas?" Mizuki asked a bit louder than strictly necessary as he flounced over and stood in front of Kyo. "You, you need to hook me up," he said, gesturing at Kyo and then to a tall omega standing near the far wall of the large room and chatting quietly with Hiyori. The omega in question wore a simple black yukata accented with silver, and his short black hair was styled to cover one eye.

Kyo stifled a chuckle and squinted at the omega Mizuki pointed to. "What makes you think I know him?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

"He knows you, that's why. I overheard him talk about you two," Mizuki said, then turned to Mao with a pleading look. "C'mon, please?"

Kyo crossed his arms and slouched in his seat, smirking at Mizuki. "Why should I help you? You've never had trouble flirting with anyone before."

Mizuki pouted as he gestured vaguely and shifted on his feet. "'Cause this one's hotter than all the rest, ever?"

"Oh, so he's outta your league, then?" Mao teased, grinning.

"Shut up, you." Mizuki stuck his tongue out at Mao, and then glanced across the room again only to curse and sink to the floor in a dramatic heap. "Fucking figures, he's taken," he muttered, sounding sincerely disgruntled.

Over on the other side of the room, the attractive omega was currently in a deep kiss with someone who had long bright red hair, and Byou recognized Daisuke when they broke apart.

Kyo chuckled at Mizuki and nudged the other omega with his foot. "At least you know he likes omegas? And he has good taste, for once," he said, grinning.

"What's his name, anyway?" Mizuki asked, still pouting a bit as he looked up at Kyo.

"Toshiya, and he's not as out of your league as you think," Kyo said with an amused smirk at the dramatically dejected state Mizuki was in. "Dare you to go up and ask them for a threesome."

Mao gave a startled laugh when Mizuki actually blushed and looked almost scandalized. "Not like someone being unavailable ever stopped you from flirting anyway. Go on, being a fool is part of your charm so don't worry so much," he quipped, laughing as he dodged a kick from Mizuki.

"Ugh, rude," Mizuki muttered with an exaggerated huff as he got to his feet. Tossing his hair and composing himself, he squared his shoulders. "Fine, just don't expect any favors from me ever again." And with that, he stalked off toward Toshiya with a determined stride.

"Toshiya with Die? I didn't know Die swung that way," Mao said, staring after Mizuki with an amused look.

Kyo snorted and shrugged. "Me either, honestly, but at least Die found someone. Seems Kaoru's outta luck, depending on how close they are."

"So when an omega flirts around it's fine, but not an alpha, got it," Aki said with a grin.

"Bit different when the alpha tries to pick up my mate at our bonding feast," Kyo retorted, making a face at Aki.

"And Micchan does know boundaries, even if he pretends otherwise," Mao added, chuckling.

"You weren't there when he tried to get with Hazuki, though," Byou murmured, grinning at the memory.

"Oh, that's just playing around," Mao said, rolling his eyes. "He always does that with Hacchan, probably because Reo thinks it's hilarious or something."

Kyo nudged Mao and gestured to Mao's comm. "You wanna go find where they put Akira?" At Mao's reluctant grimace, he crossed his arms. "Stop putting it off. If he's gonna spill to anyone it'll be you, as he's refused to speak with anyone else."

"Okay, fine," Mao grumbled with a sigh as he ran his fingers through his hair. Saying their goodbyes, Mao and Kyo headed off elsewhere.

 

Upon reaching the block of cells where Akira had been placed, Mao paused outside the door and bit his lip as he glanced down at the floor. "What am I supposed to even say?" he asked Kyo quietly. "I thought I knew him, and he betrayed us all."

Kyo shrugged. "People change, I guess. You want me to wait out here?" he asked, leaning one shoulder against the door frame.

Mao shook his head with a frown and then took a few deep breaths, composing himself. "I want answers, one way or another," he muttered flatly as he opened the door and strode in. Akira knelt on the floor in the furthest cell and glanced up as Mao approached, his expression flickering in surprise before it shuttered behind an aloof mask.

"How could you do this, Akira?" Mao said as calmly as he could manage, which wasn't very much. "What the fuck possessed you to team up with Yuuto of all little shitheads? To start a fucking war?"

Kyo was a silent presence leaning against the door, his face expressionless.

Akira's stoic facade cracked as he flinched and stared silently at Mao, the bars separating him from Mao as the short omega paced in front of him. "I won't insult you with excuses, I made my choice knowing the consequences."

"Like hell," Mao snapped, halting and turning to pin Akira with a glare. "You knew people could die, and you want me to believe that you did it anyway?"

Akira met Mao's eyes without flinching. "Yes, because the Hub was planning to find some excuse anyway, or were you somehow unaware of how bad shit has gotten there?" he asked flatly. "Even in Central, the Hub's last bastion of allowing alphas and omegas to mingle with their betters, the betas have been cracking down hard. It's why you left in such a hurry, isn't it?"

Mao clenched his fists and stared at Akira for a few heartbeats before he turned away. "I still don't understand why you would do this."

"Yuuto's a stupid hothead, but he was right about having to do something," Akira said, his gaze almost pleading with Mao to understand. "People have already died, Mao, back in the Hub, but it's been suppressed on all the official news channels. There were riots in the slums in at least three cities, and they started arresting people, among other methods, to keep it from spreading further."

Kyo took out his comm and fiddled with it, and after a few moments he glanced up and nodded to Mao with a grim expression. "With everything else going on I didn't bother to check, but I got some messages about it."

"The real reason for the Hub's raid on Pandora was to shut it down entirely and arrest everyone they could once it was contained, and we think they've sent ships further out to some of our colonies also," Akira murmured, his hands clenching on his knees. "This wasn't just a coincidental raid, Mao, they were prepared and willing to take us all down if they could. We had little choice but to act in our defense, and we were fortunate that they underestimated our resistance networks, and our willingness to attack first with whatever we had."

Mao stared down at the floor for a few moments, then looked up at Kyo. "Any news from Pandora?" he asked softly.

Kyo tapped at his comm and then shook his head slightly. "Nothing new," he answered, then gave Akira a steady look. "What do you know about the backup ships from the militant settlements that just so happened to be in the area?"

"All I know is they were supposed to have arrived sooner. I don't know why there was a delay, as they should have been there when the first bomb went off," Akira answered.

Mao and Kyo shared a look. "Do you know about any future plans?" Mao asked Akira flatly.

Akira hesitated for a few moments, looking conflicted. "I only know vague plans for targeted hits on Hub colonies, but the main focus is on preventing Hub ships from gaining any foothold in the Rim."

"Does that include more bombings on our border colonies?" Kyo asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"It includes liberating our border colonies from Hub control," Akira answered, giving Kyo a flat look. "After their 'surprise' raid on Pandora, do you trust the Hub to leave any of us alone? Why should we put up with raids at all, when the only thing we're doing wrong is living our lives by our own rules?"

"So your solution is to terrorize and kill them," Kyo said blandly, looking unimpressed. "Few of us like putting up with their bullshit, but starting a war is going too far." He held up a hand before Akira could retort. "I don't suppose any of you hotheads were aware of just how many of us are in the Hub now, working through legal channels to negotiate everything from more autonomy to govern ourselves, to ensuring that stricter laws aren't passed."

"Now's not the time for that debate, you two." Mao held up his hands and then frowned at Akira and sighed. "Oddly enough, we're all working toward the same goals, just with different methods. I know it's frustrating how slow our methods are, but we're trying to ensure none of us die in the process. Which is what could very easily happen if Hub ships were to come at us in force, which is why your methods endanger us all."

"But if you help us--"

"No," Kyo snapped. "We wanted a split from the Hub that wouldn't get anyone killed, so we would have peace, and you fucked it all up. In case you forgot, your bombing at Pandora got at least four of us arrested. Was it Yuuto's idea or yours?"

Akira set his jaw and stared Kyo down for a few moments, then dropped his gaze with a resigned sigh. "Yuuto's. And before you ask, Manabu was only with us because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Mao shared a look with Kyo, then turned back to Akira. "We know that," he murmured, and then sighed as he ran his fingers through his hair again. "I can't help you, you know. I was hoping--" he started, and then bit his lip as he gave Akira a disappointed look before continuing, "I was hoping that you'd just, I don't know, got caught up in things by accident or whatever. I don't understand."

Akira stared at Mao for a long moment, his expression blank. "I thought you of all people would, knowing what they did to Kei and the others," he said flatly, unfazed by the shocked and then angry look Mao gave him. "All the omegas we couldn't save, all the ones we had to leave behind, I did it for them."

"Don't you dare bring him into this. There was nothing any of us could do--" Mao started.

"No, you got away, we didn't," Akira snapped, getting up and leaning against the bars and gripping them tightly. "I tried to get them out. You have no idea what they do to us in those camps. I got a firsthand experience, and I made my choices. I have no regrets. Blood for blood, Mao, that's what we swore. And I keep my promises."

Mao stared at Akira, his expression raw as he blinked several times and then abruptly turned away, bowing his head. "How did you get out?" he asked softly, his hands flexing at his sides.

Akira snorted and shook his head as he walked to the small cot in his cell and sat down on it, turning away in dismissal. "You can ask Niya about that. I'm sure whatever he says will be enlightening."

 

Back in their guest room, Kyo poured Mao a glass of strong alcohol and waited until Mao had taken a large gulp. "There's things you haven't told me," he said gently, leading Mao to sit on the bed.

Mao clutched the glass in one hand, the other wiping at his eyes as he leaned into Kyo's embrace. "It was years ago, when we were practically kids, and back when he and I..." he trailed off with a heavy sigh and took another sip, grimacing at the taste. "We were living in a shelter for omegas and I'd just started working the streets like most of us had to. It made better money than any other job we could get but it wasn't exactly legal, and one day Hub security raided the place. I'd been out then or I'd have gotten caught too. As it was, I nearly did get caught when I returned later that morning, and I had to leave that city in a hurry after that."

Kyo rubbed Mao's shoulder and calmly refilled the glass. "The camps?" he prompted softly.

Mao made a face and took another gulp of alcohol. "You've heard of them, I'm sure. The Hub's 're-education' camps where they send all us deviants. Some are actually not far off from what they claim them to be, where they try to brainwash people to conform to their ideas of normal so they can be 'productive members of society' again, and some are a lot worse." He shrugged and rubbed his eyes again. "I knew a couple omegas who'd spent time in some, and the shit they told me was horrifying. The good camps just mess with your head, relentlessly, until you crack and swear to follow the laws to the letter, and the bad ones..." Mao shook his head, looking sick.

"Yeah, I know, I've heard some lurid stories too," Kyo said, frowning. "Niya never mentioned any raids on any camps, and neither have my Hub contacts."

Mao shrugged and held the glass between his knees in both hands, his shoulders slumping. "It was a while ago anyway. I kind of lost touch with Akira after that for a few years, then reconnected some time after I moved to Central. I got a legal job and met Byou at it, then started smuggling stuff from the Hub to the Rim, and sometimes people too later on."

"Who's Kei?"

Mao took another gulp of alcohol, then handed the glass to Kyo. "An omega Akira and I adopted as a sibling of sorts, because he was frail and clients liked to hurt him because he had that kicked puppy look or something. We swore to look out for him, y'know? Blood for blood, any client that hurt him we'd hurt back, and then..." He shrugged, drawing his knees up and hugging them. "I figured he was taken in the raid because I never heard from him again. I guess Akira hasn't either, and I don't really know what happened, and I don't know if I want to. I tried to leave it behind, kind of tried to run away from that part of my past, all my mistakes and failures."

"So you started smuggling omegas out to make up for not getting caught in that raid?" Kyo asked, finishing off the rest of the alcohol and setting the glass aside.

Mao nodded. "Kind of. I tried to pretend shit wasn't so bad, tried to ignore the worst of it, but I guess Akira couldn't. I had no idea he'd gone and joined the militants until now, though. He and I weren't really close anymore, and I was busy trying to make a life for myself." He sighed heavily again and tugged at his hair.

"How much of all this do you want to tell Kaoru?" Kyo asked softly, his expression serious as he nodded once at Mao's surprised look.

"I don't know." Mao looked conflicted for several moments, chewing on his lip. "I'm not so sure that I disagree with Akira's motives at least, even if it fucks shit up for the rest of us," he said slowly, fidgeting with a ring on one of his fingers. "I mean, for all that we tried legal and illegal shit, it didn't do enough, and the Hub keeps getting worse, not better."

"Their methods don't help either, though," Kyo said, frowning thoughtfully. "Too much depends on their continued success at destabilizing the Hub with violence, and for how long? We might have more ships and firepower, maybe, but we can't sustain offense or defense indefinitely. And meanwhile, those stuck in the Hub suffer more because of it."

"There's no right answer, is there?" Mao asked rhetorically, sighing. "As for what to tell Kaoru, we shouldn't leave anything important out. It could be dangerous in lots of ways if we don't share all the information we have. I have a hunch Kaoru knows more about what's going on than he's said anyway, and now that we're in Yamato he might cut a deal with Chisato to do something."

Kyo made a sound of agreement. "I figured as much from what he didn't tell me about that meeting the alphas all had on the ship, and from the way some of them were acting after. Something's definitely up, and I know Hakuei will get it out of either Kaoru or Chisato soon enough, one way or another."

Mao nodded and stifled a yawn. "Want to go visit Edo tomorrow?" he asked as he began undressing.

"Yeah, might as well, mother will be expecting us to drop by," Kyo said, helping Mao with the ties on his kimono.