Date within your own kind. That was always Jon's M.O., with its not-so-subtly Freudian roots in the fact that he watched his beta mother thrown to the curb after his alpha mother got too friendly with an omega co-worker, then both "forgot" their hormone suppressants just in time for the co-worker to go into heat. A few years after it happened, he was dozing through a sex ed lecture (one of those spiderweb diagrams of which of the six sexes can be impregnated by which others, the best argument against "intelligent design" Jon had ever seen) when it hit him that Mom would have made the call in between sessions of the frenzied, all-encompassing sex that heat inspired, and that Mama must have known it.
They never talked about it. Not really. Maybe if he'd had a beta dad, or been a girl...but he and Mama were just different enough that he couldn't be the kid while approaching her with this. All he could do was keep his head down, throw everything into what was shaping up to be a moderately successful television career, and refuse to do more than flirt with anyone who was biologically programmed to go fucking crazy (in all senses) every couple of months.
In fact, he ignored everything to do with heat in general, which was probably how he missed the clues that this was not going to be a normal Even Stepvhen. Carell had kept missing lines during rehearsal. There was a strange demand for ice-cold water bottles among the staff, concentrated, Jon should have realized, among the alphas. And as the bit got going, a chunk of the audience was riveted on Colbert more than usual (thank goodness they were taking their hormone suppressants).
"I hate you!" shouted Stephen at the climax of the exchange, flushed red from hairline to collar, his cobalt-blue suit hanging loose on his shoulders.
"I hate you more!" roared Steve, and launched himself out of his chair.
"Whoa!" yelled Jon, pushing his own chair backward as as the other two men collided. "Guys, hey, come on! Can we get some...oh."
They weren't beating each other up. They were making out, hands clawing at each other's bodies like they were trying to get the clothes off but didn't have enough coordination to remember how to do it.
"Even Stepvhen ladies and gentlemen we'll be right back!" cried Jon in record time, and waved frantically at the security people, already in motion. "Can we get a fire hose over here?"
Later, after either some quick sex or a couple of leisurely freezing showers (Jon had a hunch about which, but would not have asked for love or money), the two correspondents stood in his office, back in casual clothes and far more subdued. Carell had the grace to look sheepish. Colbert just looked sulky.
"All right," said Jon, with furious calm, "who wants to tell me what the hell just happened?"
Steve went into lecture mode. "Well, Jon, when an omega wants a baby very much, he or she finds an alpha, and they do a special hug...."
"I know how heat works, Carell! I'm a beta, not an idiot! And yet somehow, most of you manage to keep your baby-making instincts from going off on national television."
"It's only basic cable," muttered Stephen.
"If you want to keep working on basic cable—"
"You can't fire me for my biology! We have equal protection! I know my rights!"
"What I think Stephen is trying to say," cut in Steve, "is that we have been managing this successfully for years now, without it disrupting the work environment. There's no reason that this one miscalculation should tarnish our otherwise perfect record."
A chill ran up the back of Jon's neck. "Wait. How exactly have you been 'managing' this?"
"If I have to work on a day when I'm in heat, Steve...helps," said Colbert stiffly. "He makes sure he's in town at least a week before it starts — which was supposed to be tomorrow, by the way — and when it shows up, we...work around it."
"Yes! Ever since Second City, except for the obvious break when he was still there and I was out here. Why do you think I said you should hire him? It's not like he's talented."
"Your face isn't talented," said Carell without missing a beat.
"And why," said Jon, trying with little success not to imagine how many surfaces in the building the Stepvhens had done it against, "don't you just take suppressants? I know they're not a hundred percent, but they would keep it in check until you got home—"
"Against my religion," said Stephen.
Stephen folded his arms. "Catholics believe that the ability to get pregnant is a gift from God. Heat is just God's way of making really, really sure you take that gift out of the packaging and try it on, instead of trying to sneak it back to the store."
"So you've never...?" Now Jon was just confused. "Wait, aren't contraceptives out too? How do you not have kids yet?"
Steve coughed. "I would be the kind of Catholic who's cool with contraceptives."
They worked it out. In good time, too, judging by the way Steve grabbed Stephen's sleeve and dragged him out of the room the instant Jon gave them the go-ahead.
When rumors leaked out from the taping and the network sent anxious feelers their way, Jon explained that it had been a planned gag, nothing to be concerned about, and that no, they weren't planning on doing anything that realistic in the future. To his relief, Colbert and Carell lived up to expectations: Jon was able to return to blissful unawareness of any office sex that followed the incident, even now that he was looking for it. (Well, not looking for it, but, you know.)
And so the subject lay dormant, until Steve's farewell party.
While a healthy cross-section of the staff cheered each other on at karaoke, Jon (for whom no amount of beer would convince him that he was capable of singing, sorry) sidled into a booth next to Stephen. "You gonna be okay, here?"
"Of course!" said Stephen, looking up from sniffling into his (bright blue, for some reason) margarita. "Perfectly fine! Why wouldn't I be? Steve the traitor is leaving to pursue a great opportunity, and I am very happy for his stupid face."
"Ah. Good. Good to hear."
The mug was slippery; his beer was cold. Stephen had a wide-mouthed glass with sugar on the rim. He kept licking bits off. Jon kept getting distracted by his purple-tinted tongue.
"So," said Jon, just buzzed enough to stop worrying about being professional, "if you, like, went into heat, and you and an alpha woman...." He made a vague two-handed gesture that was probably obscene if you looked at it right. "...but you did it both ways, and both got pregnant...would the babies count as twins?"
Stephen, tongue between his lips, thought it over. "Dunno," he said at last. "Never tried it."
"Well, I didn't think."
"You don't really wanna top, anyway," continued Stephen, leaning his chin on one hand and toying with the stem of his margarita glass. "In heat. You just want...you need...someone in you."
Before Jon could put together the words to express sympathy at this unchecked hormonal hijacking of higher brain function, Stephen added:
"It's amazing. I dunno how people like you do without it."
Jon grimaced. "Betas still have sex, you know...."
Stephen patted his hand. "Of course you do, Jon. And even if it can never be heat sex, I'm sure you find it very meaningful and fulfilling in its own way, and I respect that."
Up behind the karaoke machine, the track changed. Steve had made it up onstage, and the opening chords of Billy Joel's "She's Always Omega" had started playing, to general cheers. Jon would have clapped, but Stephen's hand was still covering his, wistful gaze turned on Steve.
"Hey," said Jon, as the final notes faded. "Stephen. Do we need to talk? I mean, around the office, are you gonna need new, uh, accommodations without your...sexual shabbas goy around?"
Stephen frowned at him, then pulled his beer across the table. "I don't think you should have any more. You're saying things that are not words."
Now that Jon was looking at it more clearly, he started to get a sense for when all the omegas in the office had been in heat. The others mostly timed theirs, of course; the descent into eager, panting compulsion (connection?) was scheduled for personal vacations, if not the show's dark weeks. But when they came back unusually glowing and contented, Jon no longer wondered why they weren't sharing fresh photos of a trip to Bermuda.
It was even more pronounced with Stephen. Why hadn't Jon ever caught on before? He was so high-strung and aggressive the rest of the time that six or eight straight days of mellow smugness might as well have been a huge neon JUST GOT LAID sign.
If he found a new regular partner, he never mentioned it to Jon. (Lofty references to the "hundreds of alphas" he had fighting over him didn't count.)
Jon was fairly sure Sam had taken him at least once, and spent a while quietly outraged on behalf of her beta husband, until an offhand comment from Jason made it obvious that he knew. And approved. And was, for certain incidents if not necessarily this one, in the room at the time. So there was that.
New York State mandated that all omega employees be offered time off for heat. Stephen never took them, though there were a couple of suspiciously last-minute sick days. And then came the Report, giving Stephen his very own set from which to shout and preen and deliver his personal visions of Truth. On the one hand, the new show didn't have much give for sick days. On the other, the host had some ability to push around the dark weeks. And then—
"They're giving me the reins!" crowed Stephen over the phone. He'd called Jon as soon as he got the news. "I can pick when I go on break, and there are only like three people in the world who can veto it!"
"Told you they'd go for it," said Jon, warm with pride. "They don't want the embarrassment any more than you do."
"Oh, it's not like I don't want it," said Stephen's voice in his ear. "If Sumner Redstone decides I need to do shows while I'm in heat, and that ends up with me getting knotted by some swarthy handsome alpha on-set, it won't be my fault. It'll be his responsibility, the result of his power — almost like being taken by two alphas at once — okay, maybe the Crypt Keeper was not the best person to use in this example...."
"You think?" snarked Jon, but he was laughing, relaxing, the winter sun drawing bright clear lines across his desk. "Seriously, Stephen, this is tremendous. You're going to be great."
Stephen was great.
Jon worried anyway, but less. He tried to convince himself not to worry at all. Especially about Stephen's sex life, which was none of Jon's business, really....
Well. Until the point where they were making out in Stephen's office, with an untouched pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza to one side of them and the new portrait prepared for the Report's second anniversary to the other. Then it was at least some of Jon's business.
Stephen's lips were soft, his face was baby-smooth, and his hands pawed leisurely at Jon's T-shirt while Jon's hands clutched the back of his head and locked him into the kiss. It wasn't fair. Since when was he the needy one? Stephen was supposed to be the one with the wild mindless cravings, and yet here he was grinding against Jon with an easy, almost casual sensuality. He took for granted that he was wanted, had no objections to being had, and was too secure to be in any rush.
Jon tore himself away, from Stephen's mouth if not the rest of his body. "This is a bad idea."
"I've had better ones," said Stephen agreeably, trying to steer Jon toward the couch. "But you can't help not having an alpha dick, and as long as you can refrain from saying anything mean about our President while you're inside me, I'm sure it'll work out."
He nuzzled Jon's neck in a way that was meant to be either comforting or distracting. Jon was distracted, all right. "It'll never work," he said desperately. "I mean — it's nothing personal, but I — I only date betas, all right?"
"So we won't date." Stephen rolled his hips in a way that made Jon's brain all but short out. "Even if we tried, it wouldn't last. I've had hundreds of alphas, you know, and some of them can get pret-ty possessive. We can...." For the first time, his certainty faltered. "We can still have sex...right?"
Also not fair: Stephen's puppy-dog eyes. Jon had other arguments, he really did, but when Stephen's lashes fluttered and his bottom lip began to tremble, he gave up on the lot in favor of shoving Stephen down on that couch himself.
"Ricky Gervais couldn't be here tonight...so instead we're going to give this Emmy to our friend Steve Carell."
Steve caught on right away, and came charging down to the raised dinner-plate of a stage, to laughter and applause from all sides. He crashed into Stephen for a hug, then whirled around and embraced Jon; Stephen didn't let that stand for long, throwing himself in between them. When Jon let go, grinning fit to burst, Stephen kept clinging.
Then Steve dipped Stephen into a deep kiss. And while they didn't start grinding right there on stage, Jon realized there were a few over-bright eyes in the closer rows of the audience, a few people within throwing distance staring a little too hard.
Jon didn't spend long at the after-parties. He put in a couple of token appearances, then went back to the hotel early — although not early enough to miss that Colbert and Carell had vanished together.
He was down to his shirtsleeves, and seriously considering busting into the contents of the minibar, when the tinny echo of his ringtone filled the single.
The sans-serif curves of Stephen's name on the screen set off flutters of hope and apprehension in his lungs, all crushed when he answered it to get an earful of creaking springs and panting Stephen. "Jon. Jon. Jonnnnn," he moaned, and before he could string together anything more coherent, trailed off into a series of needy, gasping cries.
"Stephen, I don't want to listen to this," said Jon sharply, and hung up.
Stupid to be hurt. Like he hadn't known this was coming. Look on the bright side: at least it was Stephen's long-time friend and regular partner, not one of the countless random alpha strangers who could have passed him on the street and had their higher brain functions shut down in favor of whoa, he smells good...and it would be even better if he also smelled like sex and me.
"And the nominees are," he muttered, crouching in front of the chilled shelves. "A quirky local brew, the flavored pastel bottles of Bacardi, and an eight-ounce can of Heineken that cost more than a six-pack would at a convenience store. And the award goes to...."
His phone went off again.
"...again, our friend Steve Carell," finished Jon on seeing the caller ID. Against his better judgment, he answered. "Is this important?"
"I dunno!" shot back Steve's voice. At least there was no creaking this time. "Are you actually banging Stephen, or did he make that up?"
"We've had sex," said Jon, as matter-of-factly as he could. "We don't have it while he's in heat, for obvious reasons. Listen, could we maybe have this conversation some other time? I mean, he's still on you, isn't he? ...Don't answer that."
"What?" Steve's nervous laugh was even more unconvincing than Jon's. "No! No, of course not."
"Am too!" put in Stephen's voice, muffled but not far from the receiver.
"IS NOT!" yelled Steve, which apparently settled the debate, or at least got Stephen to let it go. "Sorry about that. He's even less tactful than usual right now. Also easier to please, but that won't last, so why aren't you here? Because as soon as he's capable of feeling upset about things unrelated to babymaking, he's going to be pretty hurt about his boyfriend ignoring him."
Jon nearly choked. Which was impressive, as he hadn't even started drinking yet. "I'm not his boyfriend! Where did you get that idea?"
There was a scuffle on the other end of the line, a hurried conference too low for Jon's ear to pick up. Then Steve's voice snapped back on, bright and clear. "It looks like we may have had some miscommunication! Please, just forget this whole conversation ever happened. Enjoy the rest of your night!"
"Wait, what—" began Jon, then checked the screen. The call had ended.
Jon put the phone down. He changed into a less expensive pair of pants. He fluffed and rearranged his pillows, put the curtains up and then back down, frittered around with the order of the bottles in the minifridge.
A quarter of an hour trickled by.
It was Stephen's number he finally dialed, and Steve who picked up. "Sorry, he's asleep. You want me to tell him to call back when he wakes up?"
"No, that's okay," said Jon, feeling strangely light. "Can you just give me the room number?"