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and suddenly, flames everywhere

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Every morning the same big

and little words all spelling out desire, all spelling out

                                             You will be alone always and then you will die.

 

-

 

It smells like burning paper. Just: paper, and fire, and then ash.

 

Dad, and Andy, and Katie, and everyone, they always said, you’re fucking dramatic, Robert. He supposes he is.

 

He watches the letter burn, and then he steps on the ashes. It is very satisfying to grind his heel into the black smear, and watch it dissipate.

 

-

 

Pete is a good guy. Nice. He’s an alpha but a pleasant alpha, mellow and calm. The kind of alpha who is not especially dynamic, and can date other alphas.

He doesn’t treat Robert like he’s less than because he’s an omega, and that’s rarer than you’d think. Especially when Robert is dressed nicely. You'd be surprised how many alphas take that as an invitation.

Pete’s not like that, is the point.

Pete doesn’t want to ruin everything; Pete doesn’t want to ruin anything. He is trying to do the right thing. Not that there is really a right thing when you have a letter from a sex offender in prison, addressed to his victim. But Pete is trying.

 

Robert is trying to do the right thing, too.

Robert’s not that used to trying to do the right thing. Usually, he just picks the thing that is most expedient. But Aaron cares about shit like that, about getting things right, and Robert cares about Aaron.

Robert cares about getting this right.

 

-

 

Of course Robert reads the letter. He needs to know what he’s working with.

He’s supposed to look after Aaron, isn’t he? You can’t do that if you don’t have all the information.

 

-

 

“God help you two, if you ever have a daughter,” says Adam, barreling into the portacabin. He’s laughing, a stupid smile stretched wide across his stupid face.

Robert doesn’t especially trust Adam, and he doesn’t especially want to think about having a kid right now, let alone a daughter.

But Adam says it like it’s an obvious thing, that Robert and Aaron might, that they would want - that Aaron would want it, that Robert wouldn’t fuck it up - and that’s -

That’s not exactly obvious, is it? That's not the thing most people think about, too busy tripping over all their history. But not Adam, who knows Aaron best, and is married to Vic, who knows the most about Robert of anyone, really, who isn't Aaron himself.

 

Robert says, “Aaron’s had a letter.”

He wants to rip it to shreds with his hands, with his teeth. He doesn’t want it anywhere near Aaron.

But he is aware that he has not always made the wisest decisions when it comes to Aaron. Aaron makes him like this, more alpha than he’s supposed to be. Like what he wants is to protect.

That's Aaron, isn't it? He trusts Robert so, so much, and Robert can't - won't - let him down.

 

“Okay, you’re gonna have to hand it over,” Adam says, immediately, without hesitation. His collar, which is Vic’s collar, gleams around his throat.

He is so sure. So firm.

He talks about it like there are no alternatives, like there’s nothing else that Robert could do.

 

Adam Barton is the world’s most useless omega. Robert doesn’t hate him (anymore), but that doesn’t make him any more useful than he usually is. Robert has lived with him for more than half a year now and he knows many things about Adam, most of which point to: give all omegas a bad name. Adam is submissive and thoughtless and likes to have his alpha make decisions for him and he laughs all the time when he says stupid shit and everyone forgives him, because it’s just Adam, you know.

(For a moment Adam had a baby and Robert was still out of his mind with hormones so he had been jealous. Thankfully that is over now. For both of them.)

 

He isn’t wrong, though.

 

-

 

Chrissie and Andy are kissing in the middle of the pub. Her hair is very shiny.

“I thought PDAs weren’t your thing,” Robert says, startled. He is already feeling unsettled, off his game.

“No, that was just for you,” she says.

She has this way of looking at you. Like you’re so small, like you’re worthless.

He used to like it because she would use it on everyone else, not him; that way he knew he was special, that he was doing a good job. That he was worth keeping.

Andy doesn’t say anything. He just sips his pint. Just lets Chrissie fight his battles.

Their battles now, Robert supposes.

 

-

 

Aaron is very stressed: about Gordon’s sentencing, about Liv. Everything is crashing down on him.

Robert knows how to support him. That’s not hard; he’s used to it. He knows how to listen, and he knows how to say the right things.

He knows how to be useful. That’s what Aaron needs right now, isn’t it? Someone who can just handle things.

 

-

 

The thing is, Aaron didn’t tell him not to burn the letter.  Robert is very, very used to reading between the lines. There are many ways in which he is a terrible omega but not in this way.

 

Okay.

Maybe in this way.

 

But he watched Aaron almost die in there, didn’t he? Doesn’t he get a say?

Aaron wanted to be done. He wanted to be free.

Robert would do anything - anything - to give him that.

 

Seeing Gordon at the sentencing, seeing the way it makes both Aaron and Liv get shaky, stressed, miserable - the way Aaron’s scent goes sour - Robert isn’t going to say anything, all right. He did what he had to do.

 

-

 

Aaron gets a new last name. Liv and Robert call a truce to sit in the corner and roll their eyes at the Dingles en masse.

“Cain's off-lead,” Robert observes, watching him frolic round with a fucking welly full of beer while Moira just laughs.

Liv blinks. “You really pay attention to that stuff,” she says. “How other people do their thing.”

“You’re the one always telling me I'm rubbish,” he says, defensive.

“Yeah, but you're my brother’s boyfriend. I’m supposed to care.” She shrugs. “Tell me what they're supposed to look like, then.”

Robert's a little drunk, and petty enough that he's feeling left out. He eats a handful of nuts. “Did you wag your alpha classes as well? Should have guessed.”

Liv rolls her eyes. “Save the concerned parent act for someone who cares. Alpha classes are dumb anyway.”

Robert supposes that’s fair. Dad made Andy and Robert go to every class, and look how they turned out. “I’m just saying,” he says. “In a proper alpha/omega relationship, the alpha is in control, about everything. It makes both parties feel safe and respected.” He looks down into his pint, and then over at Aaron, attempting to hold a boot full of ale and then drink from it. “Holding a leash is a marker of mutual commitment; the alpha resolves to protect the omega, and the omega to support the alpha in all ways, in all things.” He read it in a textbook in school. It was a pretty boring class. “Cain needs a lead. Moira’s pretty good, but, you know.”

You need a leash,” Liv says, and then she giggles into her orange juice. “That's what everyone's always telling Gabby.”

“Gabby does need a leash,” Robert says. That is absolutely what Dad would have said about Gabby Thomas, and he is inclined to agree.

She raises an eyebrow. “Say that to her face.”

“They’re not so bad,” Robert says. “You always know where you stand.” He looks over at Cain, at the way Moira's hand is on the curve of his cheek and he is staring into her eyes, caught. “Can't really go wrong, there.”

 

-

 

Of course Adam spills it. Aaron has never been a competent alpha ever in his entire goddamn life except for one omega, and that one omega is, of course, Adam fucking Barton.

(Sometimes, Robert watches the way they drift around each other - the way Aaron reaches for Adam and Adam defers, instinctive, without thought; the way Aaron looks after Adam and Adam expects it - and is so jealous it physically hurts.

Then he tries harder. Then he does his best to be better.

Aaron is almost never an instinctive alpha around Robert, but that is - that’s something he can fix.)

Robert would go after Adam - he’s done it before, because there’s a hierarchy amongst omegas and Robert likes to be on top of it, and that does not involve Adam Barton going over Robert’s head with Robert’s own alpha - but he doesn’t have time.

 

-

 

Aaron is furious. Disproportionately furious, but that’s how alphas are. They get so stressed when they think they aren’t in control.

This is why Robert didn’t tell him. He just wanted to protect Aaron from this. He’s been through enough. He didn’t need to have to make this decision; and why should he, when he has Robert right here?

 

“Where is it?” Aaron smells like fire, like a new-struck match.

Robert swallows. “I don't have it anymore.”

 

Aaron stalks off and then he turns back, jaw set, firm and furious. “I don't care if this is you acting out because you want a firmer hand, Robert.”

“What? It's not, I swear.”

“You just can’t handle it,” Aaron says, grimly, through gritted teeth. “I’m not enough of an alpha for you, is that it? Not bossy enough, not in charge enough? So you have to be the alpha, you have to be in control? But you don’t know how to do that, do you, so you just - you just lie.”

“That’s not it,” Robert protests.

“That’s exactly it,” Aaron snaps. “I have fucking tried with you, Robert, do you get that?”

“I don’t think that,” Robert says.

“This isn’t about you,” Aaron says. “Can you just take that? Can you just-” He shakes his head, so fast it’s like he’s trying to give himself whiplash, like he’s trying to stop himself thinking. “You can’t handle that there are things in my life that aren’t about you, is that it? What is this weird omega bullshit, Robert, because I thought we had sorted this.”

“I was trying to help,” Robert says.

 

Aaron snorts and walks away. This time for real.

 

-

 

Now Gordon is dead. One last fuck you. One last thing to ruin.

 

Robert tries to put his hand on Aaron's back and Aaron twitches away.

Cain shoots Robert this look - it's an omega look, which is fucking bizarre because never once has Cain acknowledged what they both are, not even when they are on the same side. It's an omega look and it says look after him but in a sympathetic sort of way; like, I'm sorry you need to be here for your alpha now. There are connotations.

Some of the omega shit is hard to explain.

Cain bolts, anyway. A proponent of the Shared Omega Experience Cain is not.

 

Robert tries to help. He makes his voice soft. He says everything he can say, but he still goes wrong. He just wishes that he knew what he was supposed to do. How he could fix everything. How he could make Aaron be all right.

 

“Why do you not care what this means to me?”

“I do care. I care more than-”

“Just go, Robert, please.”

Robert is an omega. He does as he is told. He pauses, at the door. “I'm sorry,” he says, staring at the slope of Aaron's shoulders, at the hurt in Aaron's mouth. He wishes he had more to say. He wishes that Aaron could hear it.

 

-

 

Robert didn’t want to tell Aaron what the letter said. But he doesn’t want Aaron to eat himself up about it, either, and Aaron looks - furious, miserable, all of it tangled up, and if there’s anything Robert can do to fix it he will, so he does. Robert really doesn't get it, though. So Gordon was suicidal. Who gives a fuck?

 

Predictably, Aaron does not take it well.

“What I’d have done, and why, is my business,” he says. “Or it should have been, yet you made it yours.”

Robert’s chest hurts. They are supposed to be one person; they are supposed to be a team. “I did it for you!”

“Stay away from me, Robert,” says Aaron, with so much certainty, like Robert means nothing, like Robert is poisonous, and Robert -

Robert snaps. Like a rubber band.

He just feels it go and then he’s breathless, yelling, because all he has done is try, all he has wanted is to be useful, is to help.

The last time Robert felt like this in the scrapyard, it was a relief to be shot.

Just can't keep your mouth shut, says Andy, age fifteen, furious, while Robert gestures with his hands, helpless with frustration, and hates everything he has ever been.

“I try my best and I’m always in the wrong! Why don’t you write me a rulebook!”

 

But Aaron is walking away.

Robert hates watching people leave him. It makes him want to grow claws, and dig them in, and not let go. Never let go.

How is he supposed to help if Aaron won’t let him?

 

-

 

Robert isn’t a killer. He just - he isn’t, okay? He’s never been a killer. Not even when he killed someone.

Tell that to a Dingle, though, eh?

 

Liv is exactly the kind of messy alpha who would jump to conclusions, instead of waiting for proof of suicide. Exactly the kind.

Baby alphas are like that, you know? All hormones, no sense. You can’t blame them because it’s just biology, but that doesn’t mean you go and listen to them. You don’t let them stay in charge of anything.

 

Aaron’s not supposed to be like that. Aaron’s supposed to be better. Aaron’s supposed to understand him and see him and get that even when Robert does things that are maybe not the most obviously correct thing he did them because he loves Aaron.

Aaron is supposed to know him. He is supposed to know that Robert would not kill Gordon. That Robert would not kill anyone. Aaron is supposed to see the person Robert can be, even when Robert himself cannot.

Robert is not yet allowed to think that Aaron is supposed to love him, but - Aaron is. Because Robert does. Robert loves him so much he cannot breathe. Robert loves him so much he forgets who he is.

Robert loves Aaron so much that he ripped apart his own life for Aaron, gave up everything that he was.

 

“Don’t be sorry,” Robert says. “Just don't think I'm that guy, all right, because I'm not.”

Aaron hesitates.

Both of them feel it.

 

But Aaron is so tired and he steps forward and hugs Robert, and Robert will take it, Robert will always take it. Robert will take anything, will take everything that Aaron wants to give him. Robert wraps his arms around Aaron and holds on.

 

-

 

Robert tells Aaron; I've robbed you of your last chance to see him. It stings, admitting it, letting the truth of the ways in which Robert has fucked up into his heart, into his own understanding of the world. But Aaron is here and Aaron still wants him, and Robert has only ever wanted to do what would make Aaron feel better, what would make Aaron feel as little hurt as possible. Sometimes he thinks, if he could wrap Aaron up and keep him safe from the rest of the world, he would.

Aaron would be mad for a bit but it would be worth it, to have him safe.

Aaron takes Robert's advice as the peace offering that it is. Robert’s heart calms down, just a little. Aaron is still here. Aaron is still listening.

 

-

 

“When you lied to me about the miscarriage,” Aaron says. “Were you trying to protect me?”

Robert winces. “That's not who I am anymore,” he says.

“So that's a no,” Aaron says.

“I was trying to protect me,” Robert admits. “But I was also trying to protect you.”

“Convenient,” Aaron says. He sighs. “Not having a go.”

“You say that a lot when you're having a go,” Robert says. “Have you noticed?”

Aaron laughs, tiny and tight. He lets his shoulder lean into Robert's and it feels - not good, but better.

“I didn't know how to handle the - that. There wasn't a right thing to do, Aaron. If there was I would have done it.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“I would now,” Robert says. His heart hurts. He means it. He is sure he means it.

 

-

 

Normally Robert sleeps stretched out across Aaron, wrapped around him. It’s not an omega thing but it’s comfortable for both of them, because Aaron likes to be held and Robert likes to do the holding. Robert likes to make sure Aaron isn’t going anywhere and Aaron likes that Robert wants him enough to hold on, and maybe that’s not that healthy but it’s functional, isn’t it? And they’ve got more to think about than that.

Robert just likes the feeling of Aaron’s heart, beating. He likes to feel it against his fingers, against his skin. He likes to know.

 

Aaron sucks him off and it feels like an apology, which, as it turns out, Robert feels gross about but will take, and then he lets Robert return the favour.

But when Robert tries to put his arm over Aaron’s chest, and put his face into the curve of Aaron’s throat, Aaron shivers.

“Sorry,” Robert says, pulling back.

Both of them wince.

“It’s okay,” Aaron says. But he shifts over, very slightly, so there is space between them.

Robert wants to push but he doesn’t. He just closes his eyes and listens to Aaron breathe.

 

-

 

One last fuck you: half a million pounds, left to Aaron and Liv.

If Robert could set that man on fire, he would.

 

Well, he can’t. And he probably shouldn’t make jokes like that, knowing the Dingles.

(But he would.)

 

-

 

Charity says, “It is our business, actually.” The thing about Charity is that she assumes that they live in the same universe, because they are both omegas who have kept their heads, and the thing about that, frustratingly, is that she is not wrong.

This is what conversation is supposed to be like between omegas. Not like it is with Adam, who goes running to sell you out to the nearest alpha. Fucking Adam.

Charity understands the principle of the situation, which is that you act for the greatest good - well, the greatest advantage to you and yours - with the least ruffling of feathers. And she’s right, all of them know it; Aaron needs to take this fucking money. He deserves it.

“I’ll talk him round,” Robert says, finally. “However I have to. I'm not letting him walk away from his share.” He is running through it in his head: he’ll have to be careful. Aaron won’t want to be pushed on this, but he’ll have to be.

Thankfully, that’s Robert’s specialty. Robert knows exactly what to say to make Aaron open up his mind a little. Let himself be gently guided.

Aaron's not quite a normal alpha, but that's all right, because Robert isn't quite a normal omega.

 

That’s when the door smashes open, and, well.

“Even now, you're still trying to control me.”

Aaron smells like ash. He smells furious: furious, with an undercurrent of confused, hurt, terrified. Robert wants to fix it, Robert wants to wrap his arms around Aaron and change his scent until he smells better, until he smells okay.

Charity disappears immediately. In another person he would call it flight but not in Charity Dingle. Charity is an omega and omegas do not do face to face confrontations with other people’s alphas, no matter how smart you are, no matter how little you care for traditional behaviour. It just isn’t done.

Robert doesn’t know what to do. Robert always knows what to do but he doesn’t, right now, he’s trying, he’s flipping into crisis mode, but he doesn’t-

Aaron is saying, “all your lying and manipulating, it's killing us,” and Robert’s heart is hammering and he says, “Aaron, I’m sorry,” because he’s an omega and this is what he’s supposed to do, isn’t it, he’s supposed to make things better that’s why Aaron has him, that’s why Aaron chose him -

 

“Get out of my house and get out of my life,” Aaron says, and Robert-

Robert is an omega, isn’t he?

Do what you’re told.

 

Do what you’re told, for once.

 

-

 

Adam and Vic are on the sofa. Adam has his head in Vic’s lap and she’s stroking his hair. Both of them jerk their heads up when Robert slams through the door.

“Rob,” Vic says. “Did something happen?”

Adam blinks three times, and narrows his eyes. Adam is an omega, even if he and Robert are opposite ends of the spectrum.

“Aaron,” Adam says.

Robert closes his eyes. “He might need you,” he says, and then opens them. “Or - want you, whatever.”

Adam growls low, under his breath, and looks at Vic.

“Okay,” she says. “Go, if you like.”

“Cheers,” he says, getting to his feet, waiting for her to kiss his cheek before he leaves.

 

“Is it weird for you,” Robert says, tightly, “knowing that you share an omega with Aaron?”

“I don’t share an omega with Aaron,” Vic says, calmly. “Sit down, Robert.” She pats the sofa cushion next to her.

It’s not really optional.

Robert sits.

“What happened?” She puts her hand on his knee with easy authority and he doesn’t want it to be reassuring, but it is.

“He told me to get out,” Robert says. His stomach hurts, a phantom pain low in his abdomen that feels sick, like failure. “Out of his house and out of his life.”

“Oh,” Vic says, and then she’s wrapped her arms around him and she’s pulling him in, close. Her scent overwhelms him, soothing. “Oh, Robert.”

“I only wanted to help,” Robert says. His voice sounds very small. “I never would have hurt him.”

Vic swallows. She is careful, gentle. “But you did, Rob. Didn't you?”

“I tried,” Robert says. He is shaking, he thinks. “I didn’t-”

She sighs. “I know,” she says, holding him close. “I know.”

 

-

 

Aaron texts him to come round. Robert supposes he deserves it, because he didn’t knock in the morning, because he just barrelled in and wanted it. He had hoped, he thought, that Aaron would just have changed his mind. Alphas did that sometimes. 

At least Chas thinks he’s a good omega. She doesn’t especially think he is a good person, but she thinks he is a good omega, and that is something.

At least someone appreciates that Robert knows how to take initiative.

Liv is going to take the money.

And the way Aaron says, you were right - fuck, it’s satisfying. He wonders if it feels this good when you're an alpha and you're used to hearing it.

 

“What would make you change your mind about taking back what's yours?” Robert is careful. Pushing, just enough. There is a right thing to say and he can find it. He has to find it.

Aaron’s eyes are black. His shoulders are firm. “Nothing,” he says. It's sharp and dismissive and - alpha, in a way that Aaron never used to be. “You were right about Liv. Don't make you right about me.”

 

There is a mark on Aaron’s collarbone, hidden under his jumper. If he would let Robert reach out and touch him -

Robert hates wanting things.

Robert has never wanted anything he could have.

 

-

 

The letter burns very quickly. It takes almost no time at all before it is ash.