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Author: Fandom: One Direction/Union J
Story Title: "Genesis"
Summary: So to the Alpha Man came God’s hand, and in His protection the Alpha Man fell into a deep sleep. The Lord God cradled him as He took one of the Alpha Man’s rib bones and closed its place with the dust of stars and the salt of the sea. He fashioned from the Alpha Man’s rib bone a second in His image, hollow but for love for God and love for the Alpha Man, and that was the omega man. When his eyes opened for the first time the Lord God blew dust from the Earth into his sight and blinded him but to love for God and love for the Alpha Man and He did tether them with dust and salt as sat in the Alpha Man’s wound.

George doesn’t believe in all that catechism anymore, but in the grand scheme of things, and in Clevedon, it doesn’t matter much.

This is a really plotty, meta, metaphorical, semi-dystopian-but-following-X-Factor-timeline-and-with-a-happy-ending, crackships-ahoy Alpha/beta/omega fic. Alpha!Harry/omega!George.

Main Character/Relationship: Harry Styles/George Shelley
Other mentioned pairings: Josh/JJ, Jaymi/Olly; short scenes of George/Parisa, George/Caroline; mentions of Harry/Louis, Harry/Caroline, Zayn/Perrie, Louis/others, Rylan/James, Nick Grimshaw/others. Typical for me, a lot of side pairings and past!pairings and vaguely-mentioned-sometimes pairings.
Rating: NC-17/M
Overall Warnings: Explicit sexual content (slash and het); use of sex toys; graphic sexual dialogue. Knotting. Some mpreg kink/dialogue. A lot of come. Just, like, a lot of it. Ham-fisted metaphors.
Chapter Warnings: Sexual content (het [penetrative PiV, pegging]); use of sex toys; graphic sexual dialogue.
Chapter/Story Wordcount: 10,800/100,000
Disclaimer: I don't own anything. No claim of knowledge or veracity is made towards anyone in the story and no aspersions or claims of character are to be inferred. We have no connection nor permissions from One Direction, X-Factor, Crown Management, RCA, Sony, ITV, or AlphaDog Management, OR SyCo Inc., Columbia Records, or any other affiliated parties. No libel intended. Also, I'm aware that this is a crackship, call off your hounds.
Notes: I hope that you enjoy this? Harry comes into the story in the next chapter, don't worry. :) But still please read this one so things make sense next week! I'm planning to update every Wednesday around midnight-ISH. This is my ~real solo-written fic since MYEYNL, and I'm nervous about it, but I'm a thousand percent grateful to colazitron, alifeofourown, and eroticabot@tumblr for reading this over for me and letting me bounce headcanon off of them, and to unapologetic_thirst and unevenfootsteps for prompting/requesting this AU in the first place! :-*


Genesis II.ii.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth: the Earth first, then stars, and last the sun, tied to the Earth and made to serve it.

The Earth grew out of jagged stone and soil, but no shrub yet appeared nor any plant sprung up, and God sent rains to the Earth to bear fruit in the seeds and grow. The oceans bore salt and the streams ran from glen to valley, yet still no seedlings blossomed and none but God could see the Earth’s beauty. He created the stars from grains of sea-salt and set them in the sky to watch over Earth and praise the good of God’s work there, but still, no thing had yet to grow.

From the fire of the stars, God created the sun, and He tied it to the Earth with dust and salt. And the sun loved the Earth as it loved God, and loved none others; and from the sun, the Earth grew green and from the green God forged life, Alpha Man from leaves and sap, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and He was made in God’s own image.

Fortified by the sun and the love of God, the Alpha Man made from his salt a multitude and set them in the gardens and the forests to watch over him and praise the good of God’s work in His form. The multitudes grew by multitude and multitude and they farmed the Earth, graced by Lord God with all kinds of trees to grow out of the ground and all kinds of animals to swim in the oceans and streams. Soon the multitudes numbered as the stars, and God in His image the Alpha was praised well.

Yet still, the Alpha Man often to the sun and asked of God how to best praise Him. The multitudes loved God and praised Him but worked to distraction, tending the Earth and tilling its fields. God in His wisdom and kindness would be praised with a full heart as the Alpha Man could praise Him so long as there might be a dozen with the full glory of Him shining on them in His image.

So to the Alpha Man came God’s hand, and in His protection the Alpha Man fell into a deep sleep. The Lord God cradled him as He took one of the Alpha Man’s rib bones and closed its place with the dust of stars and the salt of the sea. He fashioned from the Alpha Man’s rib bone a second in His image, hollow but for love for God and love for the Alpha Man, and that was the omega man. When his eyes opened for the first time the Lord God blew dust from the Earth into his sight and blinded him but to love for God and love for the Alpha Man and He did tether them with dust and salt as sat in the Alpha Man’s wound.

That is why a omega leaves his father and mother and is united to his Alpha, and they become one flesh.

* * *

George doesn’t believe in all that catechism anymore, but in the grand scheme of things, and in Clevedon, it doesn’t matter much. Things might be different if he lived in Bristol – definitely different in Brighton, and at least he doesn’t live in America, judging by what he’s seen on the news and the internet – but as it stands, he lives in Clevedon and although basing hiring on bodily orientation’s been banned since before George was born, he still somehow can’t get a better job here than a barista. Serving. Servile.


And it’s so stupid, really, because Alphas don’t live in Clevedon. They don’t have to live in Clevedon, they can get jobs anywhere and into whatever schools they want and no one who didn’t have to would stay in Clevedon. Fucking everyone is a crotchety beta OAP with terrible teeth and an unintelligible Brizzley accent.


He blinks awake with a shattered jolt. After nestling into his forearms for a fifteen-minute lunchtime nap, the fluorescents in the break room are entirely too bright. George groans, rubbing his eyes, and kicks the leg of his hard plastic chair as he trudges over to his little locker for his apron.

His watch beeps insistently at him as he pulls the apron over his head and smooths his hair, and George pops his Wednesday pill out of its plastic compartment without even looking (he knows Poliwrath is on Wednesday, because Wednesdays are terrible and Poliwrath is not). George has been able to swallow his suppressors dry since he was thirteen, even though the pills are the size of hornets.


Tony, George’s current boss, is big in a way that only betas are. He’s a nice guy, though, and he doesn’t let people push George around so long as he’s looking. It’s an admirable trait, as far as George is concerned, and it’s not like it’s something Tony makes a big deal about because that would be sort of pushing George around, but it’s a solid, reliable kind of hum of protection around George’s dull days. It’s a paycheck as good as anyone else’s, too, although George has been here longer than Charley and really, he should have been made shift supervisor. It won’t happen; he’d have to stay late nights to lock up and count out the safe alone, and as much as people pretend like it’s safe for everyone these days, everyone knows it isn’t. He’s the de facto supervisor, anyway. Does most of the training. And it’s not like it’s George’s dream job, so he doesn’t care that much.

“Sorry, sorry,” he yawns, then pats his hair down and slides to the registers. “Fell asleep.”

“Y’alright?” Tony’s eyebrows are furrowed.

“Yeah, I was just up late,” George assures him. “Noodling with my guitar. Got a new one for an early birthday gift. For luck.”

Tony gives George a smile at that, but nods meaningfully to the line of labeled paper cups awaiting drinks as they switch places. George prefers it behind the machines, making cappuccinos and flat whites, to making change and light conversation. He’s good at both, he just likes the way coffee smells. Even after all this time.

“You’re still going for it, then?” Tony sounds concerned. He even pats George’s shoulder paternally. “S’brave.”

“It’s not brave,” George says. “It’s just a thing. I’ve as much chance as anyone, don’t I?”

The whole revolutionary concept behind the X Factor, when it began nine years ago, was that it would allow ‘anyone’ the chance to get a record deal: teens, mums, granddads, boy bands, girl groups, pub singers, omegas. That was the big publicity push – even omegas could audition, where they couldn’t have on Pop Idol or Popstars or any of the rest. Britain’s Got Talent still doesn’t allow it. Anyone can have the X-factor, as the adverts said.

Very few omegas made it to boot camp. Even fewer made it past there, but there had been some to get as far as judges’ houses, and George had watched them all with as keen an eye as the rest of the viewing public, looking for tells, looking for anything that made them lesser than their Alpha or beta competitors. In reality, there probably wasn’t anything amiss, but on telly, perception is everything. A missed note is omega unreliability; a complaint is omega overemotional hormones. A wink is desperation; no wink is fearfulness. And of course, it’s an uphill battle anyway, because unlike Alphas, omegas just aren’t seen as born to be stars, born charismatic, born talented.

But even though only a handful had made it onto the live shows proper, and usually parts of ill-fated groups, a kernel of George wants to believe that somewhere, the producers of the show believe their own tagline.

Anyone can have the x-factor.

And he does. George thinks he does, anyway. At least more than most of the people he’s seen audition; those awful twins who fought onstage that year, or the opera singers warbling their way through outdated Take That. He doesn’t fancy himself an Ed Sheeran, or anything – but Ed’s only a beta and he’s done well for himself, hasn’t he.

George knows that he has something else going for him, too, if it strikes the right people’s fancy. He has omega looks, now that he’s grown out of his awkward-goose hormonal teenage Ugly omega Duckling Phase. (His mum’s told him a hundred times if she’s told him once that people shouldn’t call it that, and that he was never ugly, but George can’t help parroting it. It’s both catchy and a bit true.)

But he’s finally lost all of the padding borne of his omega hormones taking over, and his bones have grown long and elegant and small. If you’d told George two years ago, looking in the mirror, that he would really grow out into the thin bird-hollow limbs of the omegas he saw in the wings waiting for their Alphas to leave stages and podiums and rallies and theatres, he wouldn’t have believed it. But the proof is there in the way every patron who passes through his line at Costa looks at him: omegas are Other, almost as much as Alphas, and in Clevedon, nearly as rare. First there’s the attraction, the intrigue, the leer, the shy smile, the flirtation, the bite of the lip, the downward flick of the eyes. And then there’s the realization:

George is no Alpha.

His bones don’t carry that weight. His scent doesn’t have that warmth, the supposed dark caramel smell of an Alpha. (George doesn’t know. He doesn’t know any more than he’s read in his schoolbooks and on the internet, and neither of those is scratch ‘n’ sniff.) George isn’t sure what he smells like – the books always gloss over that, except to warn about the power of an omega in Heat. The missing piece of an Alpha, his schoolbooks had said, and they are insensible until they claim it back.

George senses the eyes on him before he even finishes tamping his espresso. When he looks up, the beta across the bar is staring at him, ruddy nose sniffing in a way he must think is covert when it’s anything but. George smiles pleasantly, pulling the steam wand for a flat white, but when the smile doesn’t stop the sniffing, he has to clear his throat. He doesn’t mind the stares anymore – not now that they’re because he is, objectively, beautiful, rather than a pudge kid with swollen cheeks and a perpetually runny nose – but he’d like to pretend at work, at least, that he’s as commonplace as anyone else. As human as anyone else, anyone beta, anyway. Anyone in Clevedon.

The man doesn’t even startle when he stops staring at George’s lips. His gray eyes just flick up to meet George’s and he shrugs a shoulder. “Can’t blame me. You got somebody at home to take care of that?”

Can’t blame him indeed.

“Your flat white,” George says, ignoring everything else and handing over the drink.

“What time you get off?” the man presses. He smirks. “I mean that both ways.”

“Hey, now,” Tony barks over George’s head. “We have a line.” He gives George a meaningful look. “Back to work.”

George nods, shoulders curling down at the tone like he has a tail that can tuck under after chastisement, and demurs his eyes down to hide behind the chrome of his machine.

So he’s already scenting.


There are only two hours left in his shift. That’s plenty of time to finish things up here and get home. If it’s not, Tony will let him go early, but George would rather not – he really needs the paycheck. He’s saving up for a flat in Bristol proper. His mum thinks it’s not safe, but Dad thinks that it’s a good enough idea. It might be easier for George that way, anyhow, not having to deal with a house full of people all the time. And in Bristol, he could find someone, if he wanted. That’s the subtext of the conversations.

(George doesn’t want. What he wants is not to have to get the flat in Bristol because he’ll be on the X Factor and get a flat in London rent-free for a year with its bill footed by Syco or Sony. But he’s realistic, and knows there will only be a few of those and thirty-thousand-odd applicants for the spots.)

It would be easier to live alone, is all. If he doesn’t get London, anyway. His whole family are betas. It’s different for them. And they love him, he knows that. But god, it’d be easier to deal with a Heat when he doesn’t have to listen to ten pairs of feet storming up and down the halls for a week. He knows – he’s trying to know, trying to learn and unlearn and find out more about what people who didn’t go to parochial school in Clevedon think – that it’s not shameful, the Heat. (But it’s still embarrassing, isn’t it, scenting everywhere and wetting the sheets and blacking out the curtains. It’s just so obvious.)

Ten Costa Lights later, the bell on the door is drowned out by Parisa’s yodeling entrance. “Alright, Tony, got a caramel shortbread for me?”

“Always,” Tony says, and he gives George the nod. George scoots over to the pastry case and liberates a shortbread square into a paper sack before heading into the back room to hang up his apron and collect his belongings. He double-checks the whiteboard on the wall to make sure that it’s clearly labeled that he will be gone for longer than usual.

He pauses before leaving and takes a marker to write George S’s audition :) on its date next week, just so nobody gets the wrong idea.

His audition.

His audition is next week.

George exhales slowly and blinks past the dull, twitching pain starting behind his eyes and focuses on that. His audition is next week.

Parisa gives him a smile when he comes around the counter again to clock out and shake hands with Tony, as ever, before he leaves.

“Ready?” She asks, and then, with a mostly-disguised sniff, “Y’alright?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” George promises her.

Tony slaps George’s shoulder. “Good luck, mate. Make us proud.”

George giggles. “Yeah, I will. I’ll wear a Costa badge.”

With a ruffle of his hair and a go, you, George hops over the counter and Parisa catches him with an arm around his waist.

Her fingertips slip beneath the edge of George’s t-shirt and rest on the skin of his waist. “Long day?”

George shrugs. “It was alright.”

“No dickheads for a change?”

“Nah, of course there were dickheads,” George snorts. “It’s real life, isn’t it? There’ll always be dickheads. I can’t do anything about that.”

“Yeah, but you said they’re worse when you’re – and no offense, but I could smell you as soon as I walked in the shop.”

“You don’t have to come by and help me out.” George shrugs. (It doesn’t honestly make much difference whether Parisa is there or not. She’s only a beta.) “I have toys.”

“I know; I bought them,” Parisa laughs. “I don’t mind it. I didn’t say it was a bad smell, I’m just saying, maybe next time, I pick you up a few hours earlier.”

“Hopefully,” George says, sliding into the passenger seat of her car, “There won’t be a next time. Hopefully, by the next time, I’ll be a popstar.”

Parisa gives George a brilliant grin, white teeth and lips tinted with the just-right shade of gloss and eyebrows arched just-so. Parisa could pass for an Alpha, at least through a television screen. “Hopefully we both will, then.” She trails her fingertips in tickling circles over the warm skin of George’s side and he giggles, ducking his head as the goosebumps rise. His Heat never starts until the sun’s set, but as they get closer, his skin is more and more sensitive. The light scratching of Parisa’s acrylic fingernails is going to drive him mad even before they get back to his dad’s house.

The sky is a bright, soft orange overhead and the late June air hangs heavy and wet with the mossy smell of the ocean, as it had for weeks, the need to rain swelling the sky and certain to crack in the next hours. The sea out in the distance at the pier sounds angry. Its waves dig into the pebbled shoreline like fingers, stealing rocks and shells and abandoned toy spades into its charcoal-gray belly. A gull swoops at George and Parisa as they walk at a clip down the road, and while Parisa shoos it away and covers her hair, George throws it a bit of biscuit that’s turned up in his pocket.

A gust blows the gull and biscuit away and a long lock of Parisa’s hair into George’s face, and he shivers as he takes in the warm cocoa scent of her skin and sweat and perfume. Betas don’t smell like much, really – they don’t go into Heat and they don’t respond to it – but George likes her scent for her, same as he likes the rest of her, and they’ve been doing this so long that his cells all know what to expect from that dark chocolate scent.


“Hey.” Parisa scratches at George’s hipbone. “Y’alright?”

“Yeah, I’m still good,” George assures her. “Still some time. And you have to make sure I eat first this time. And have water in my room.”

“I remember,” Parisa says. “I’ll keep you properly fed and watered. And look! I’m taking you for a walk!”

George scowls.

His dad’s house is a riot of light and noise as soon as George opens the front door. A fleet of kids steam past at full speed, all screaming, in pursuit of – something, and only one of them, little Archie, stops to hug George about the knees and holler hiyahiyahiyabaskettidinnerbye-ya! before running knees-up down the corridor after the others.

George can’t help laughing at that even though the indoor lights are already beginning to hurt his eyes and the noise of the laughter and shouting and Spenny wailing and the television droning is buzzing into his skin like mosquitoes. He toes off his shoes and looks up at Parisa. “Basketti dinner?”

She grins back. “Sounds good. I do always like the Shelley specialty, Tesco’s tinned spag bol.”

“Erm, excuse you, it’s a Sainsbury’s Ready-Meal,” George snorts. Normally it’s something he does, actually, love, but the aroma of it is all wrong tonight; not what he wants, anyway. It’s pressing, the garlic and the browning red meat muscle of it. He can smell the blood off the ground round that used to be a cow, and it’s only copper and waste.

“Hey,” Parisa murmurs. She brushes George’s fringe out of his face. “You have to eat. I know that look.”

“I don’t want it,” George mumbles. His hands cup her waist and he hauls her up close where he’s starting to thicken as the sky outside fades into dusk blue. “’S’not what I need. You know what I need.”

“You have to eat first,” Parisa sighs. “You literally just told me to make sure you eat. And I want you to do it before your eyes go this time; last time you got crumbs all in the bed and we got that rash.”

George buries his face in the curve of her neck, making a pathetic noise, but he knows that she’s right. He’s gone through Heat without any food before, and his ribs and the knobbles of his spine show even more than usual after.

Parisa rubs his back. “Come on. Let’s get you fed.”

George whines, but he lets Parisa drag him by the hand through the house to the kitchen, where his dad is piling spaghetti into a serving dish.

“How was work?” he asks, not looking up. He doesn’t even blink when a great crash reverberates through the walls from the living room and he yells, “Leo! Louisa! Stop whatever you’re doing to Annabelle!”

He does turn, though, when Parisa gets on tiptoe to kiss his cheek hello and reach over his shoulder into a cabinet for glasses to help set the table. George just slumps into his seat and covers his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Was alright.”

His father finally turns at that and rests a hand on the back of George’s bowed head after stowing the pasta on the table. “Are you alright, George?” His voice hushes, and he sounds a bit awkward as he asks, “Do you need your tablets?”

George’s cheeks flush pinker as he nods. It shouldn’t be embarrassing; all omegas take them going into their Heat. But his dad’s a beta, and he doesn’t really get it. So George has never felt really comfortable putting them on the shopping list. He does, because otherwise it means scenting all over the chairs and the sofa, and that’s even more embarrassing – he remembers from being twelve, the first time it happened, because no one in his family knew exactly how it would be. He’d stained the white cushions and ruined his jeans.

His dad had left a copy of that schmaltzy omegas-coming-of-age book by Judy Blume on his bed the week after George’s Heat had passed, and that was almost worse.

There are fingers scratching briefly through George’s hair, and then the sound of a glass hitting the table near his elbow. “Buck up, George. There’s still time for dinner before the sun’s set.”

George grumbles a little, but sits up and blinks in the lamplight. He swallows the pink tablets dry before draining the glass of water. He should make a note, later – next week – to keep a few in his regular daily pill case with his suppressors. Better than needing to make everything awkward by asking for them. Better than worrying about his pants at work, just in case. Buck up. Fuck off, more like.

George stays in his chair because he doesn’t quite want to stand up. Dad yells that dinner is ready, and Parisa goes off to carry Spenny under one arm and Archie under the other over to the table. Dinner is a whirling haze of sharp odors and bright colored light. It tastes like cardboard in George’s mouth, the need to eat paling in comparison to the inconvenient and all-consuming need to breed.

(He couldn’t anyway, even if he had an Alpha. That’s what the suppressors are for. There are adverts on late-night television for suppressors that take the Heat away for nearly a full year, but they always have side effects like cancer or increased risk of suicide or fountains of blood spewing from the eyes or spontaneous death. Almost worth it, but not quite.)

His family all conspicuously don’t mention that George’s plate is a pile of bare noodles and that his pupils are already growing wide. Usually his siblings crawl all over him and steal his food and insist that George is the one who cuts up their meat or that George is the one to refill their glasses. But they know what it means when his eyes are black. They don’t ask. Annabelle and Louisa fawn over Parisa and her false eyelashes instead. Leo cuts up carrots for Archie, and Archie lets him. Harriet takes over the dish-passing duties. They very carefully do not mention the sheen of sweat around George’s hairline. They dance around asking George why the meatballs, pink at the centers and usually his favorite food, seem to turn his face green almost as much as the dank allium bitterness coming off the garlic bread. George, in his turn, pretends not to notice the smallest of his siblings’ noses twitching and turning up at the scent of him.

By the time the rain starts, the sky is dark purple and George is shivering. “I have to – I can’t, I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay, George,” his Dad says. He looks sad, the way he always does when George starts to fall apart. “I put a case of bottled waters in your room. The curtains are taped.”

“Thanks,” George mutters, and he pushes back from the table. “Sorry, guys. Just – sorry.”

“It’s okay, George,” a little voice assures him. “Feel more better soon.”

George nods and feels his way for the wall. Parisa’s hand settles on the small of his back and the cool of it makes him shudder; she leads him down the corridor. George can smell her, every inch, even stronger than the blood-and-starch sticking to their clothing.

George shudders, curling his fingers into fists. “Fuck.”

“Shh-shh.” There’s a familiar creak as his bedroom door opens. “Just one more minute.”

George whimpers and presses his hand hard over the wet spot at the front of his pants. “Need -- something.” As soon as the locks on the door click, George pushes Parisa up against the wall and sets his mouth against her neck, hands sliding up under her dress. “No pants?”

“I’ve learnt better,” Parisa says drily, but there’s a smile in her voice and she reaches down with steady hands to undo the buttons of George’s fly.

As soon as his jeans have fallen down around his knees, he’s in her, balancing all of her weight between the creaking wood of the door and the aching bones of his hips. George grunts and growls and is frustrated.

omegas can take betas, but they aren’t meant to. It’s not what they’re built for, and it’s not what George needs, it doesn’t do anything to diminish the creeping hot itch pinpricking its way through all of his nerves. A beta and omega together is just fucking. That isn’t what the Heat wants.

George bites Parisa’s shoulder as the first orgasm washes through him. It isn’t enough, but at least it’s almost pleasurable. He’s still hard after and can’t stop moving, pleading under his breath.

“Hey,” Parisa murmurs, sounding breathless. “Take it easy. Get your clothes off and get on the bed. You’re burning up.”

George frowns, squeezing at the base of his dick as he lets Parisa down. A sad echo of come dribbles out of the tip and he whimpers.

Parisa pauses from where she’s pulling her dress over her head and peers out at George from beneath its skirt. “If you just found an Alpha, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.”

George paws at his shirt, trying to get it off one-handed. “Can’t find one here.”

“Use a service,” Parisa says, taking pity on him and pulling his shirt over his head. “One of the ones with those adverts, with the Bonded pairs and the free trial.”

“No,” George whines, flopping back on the bed and squirming, legs spread and dick bobbing against his stomach. “I’d end up with a murderer or something; jesus, stop talking and just – just – god, I need it, I’m dying.”

“You’re okay,” Parisa argues gently. She crawls up the bed enough to get one hand on George while she rummages around in his bedside table with the other. “Why’s it all just – are these Legos? Why are there only Legos in here now?”

“Had to move things around,” George mumbles. “Nosy family is nosy. Under – shit, under the mattress, just -- fuck me already.”

Parisa rolls her eyes, but kisses George’s hip before she slides down to stick an arm between his mattress and bedframe. “It won’t help. You need an Alpha, George, or you’ll be getting too old to find a good one.”

“I don’t want one!” George snaps. “And it helps. You help. You do.”

It’s not quite a lie, but verges on it. It doesn’t help with his Heat to have Parisa there, and he feels badly that she tries to take on some of what he’s going through, without fail, every month for nearly three years now – thirty-odd Heats – but there’s only so much that a beta can do for an omega in Heat, and since George is on suppressors, she can’t really do that, even. But it does help that he doesn’t have to be alone. He rolls onto his side enough to press his face into the gap beneath Parisa’s support arm, breathing her in deep even though she smells wrong. It’s still enough to coax the second orgasm out of him, spattering over his hipbone. “Just want you with me.”

Parisa gives George a sad, small smile and her arm emerges victorious from under the mattress, immense plug in hand. It’s wide and black and other than the curve, it’s the same all the way from nose to tail. Parisa had bought it for George’s eighteenth and he was still getting used to it – not the size but the shape, the wrongness of its straightness when he’s made for an Alpha’s knot. It’s still better than nothing, and both cost and status keep either him or Parisa from buying a better one anyway.


George groans in relief through clenched teeth and props himself up on his hands and knees, head bowed to keep his face pressed into the pillows. It feels like his blood is too hot for his veins, bubbling and sizzling through the capillaries until he’s feverish and faint, blood all rushed away from his brain so that he’s dizzy and simple and single-headed with his need to be bred, to do whatever he can to cool the Heat.

There’s one hand braced over the back of his hipbone as the head of the broad toy nudges into him. He’s wet, scenting enough that he can feel ghosts of it on the tops of his thighs, but he curls his hands around the sides of his headboard all the same just to have something to hold. It doesn’t hurt yet but it’s uncomfortable, and his bones are buzzing inside his skin with the warning that this isn’t right—

this isn’t an Alpha—

he’s missing a piece—

he is a missing piece—
this isn’t the whole.

Parisa’s long hair tickles over George’s back as she bends down to kiss his tailbone. “You alright?”

George nods, still gritting his teeth. He’s full, at any rate, and that’s the best he’ll get. He’s still swimming in all the wrong scents, dark cherry and bitter wood and mahogany polish and the dust from beneath his mattress and the stale paper of his books faded from the light that poured in through his window whenever he wasn’t in Heat, when he could see light and not go blind. Parisa’s skin is too cold, but she’s there. And he trusts her.

So he is. “Alright.”

Parisa’s fingers creep around George’s sides, rubbing lightly just to calm him. “Do you want to get on your back?”

George’s heart speeds up in his chest but he nods shortly and lets Parisa guide him over flat on the mattress again so she can sit astride him. Before she sinks down, she blows a loose lock of hair out of her eyes and asks, “How many have you so far?”

“Three.” George swallows, closing his eyes. “Doesn’t work like that. Not a quota.”

Four hours later, Parisa pushes at George’s shoulder over her and he whines despondently, flopping onto his side onto wet sheets. He nudges his face into Parisa’s ribs, murmuring and needy, still hard and aching and already starting to go red. His hair is so damp around his face that it’s stuck to his skin in curling tendrils, and his huge black eyes are insensible with frustration and want and need need needneedneed.

Parisa winces as she sits up and runs her fingers over George’s forehead, pushing away wet slicks of hair, before arranging a pillow under his head in place of her ribs. “I’m sorry, George, I’m – I have to go home and sleep and shower forever and take so much paracetamol. I’m sorry; I just can’t take any more.”

George sobs into the pillow and pushes up onto his all-fours again, arching his back to present because he’s scenting around the black plug. His muscles are inflamed like they’ve been pulled like taffy and the stripe of white light edging beneath his door from the corridor is burning his watery eyes and he needs to come he needs to be fucked hardhardharder he needs he needs he needs.

“I’m sorry, I really can’t,” Parisa murmurs. “I don’t know how you – ” She cuts herself off and shakes her head. “I’ll be back tomorrow night when it’s dark to check on you, okay?”

George bites the inside of his cheek and nods; he rubs down, rolling against the mattress, and whimpers high in his throat at the hot-wet-sticky-grit of the fabric against his bruised cock. “Uh-huh.”

There’s a soft pressure on the back of his head as Parisa kisses George’s hair. “You’re alright. I’ll put water on your bedside table before I leave. Hang in there.” She kisses his hair again. “Love you, Georgie.”

George doesn’t answer, but he can hear her fumbling around in the pitch-dark of his room to get back into her dress and find her shoes to leave. Her joints crack softly as she moves, and somewhere in a distant part of his brain deep down enough that he can still think about anything real – anything that matters, George thinks with a vengeance – George commiserates. There’s a clink as she sets a glass of water down on his nightstand, and then George is burying his face in the pillow with a pained little wail as his room floods with light. The door clicks, and then he’s alone.

He keeps his face down in the pillow that only smells of himself and rubs against the mattress until he comes, and comes, and comes.

When Parisa comes by the next night, just like she promised, George’s face is smudged with tear tracks and his muscles are all shaking. He’s still hard. He’s still scenting. There are four days left.

“Drink your water,” she murmurs. “And here – did you sleep? I bought, I thought maybe a sleeping pill? Just try one in case there’s like, a reaction.”

There isn’t. Not even the intended. He stays awake, on fire, waiting. Parisa comes by every night until finally George is able to sleep, the hot-fever ache seeping out of his skin all at once like a storm breaking, leaving George battered and sore and with a pounding headache behind his eyes. It’s just after one in the morning when the Heat dissipates and George shivers, damp and naked on a mattress stripped of its sheets.

“Hey,” Parisa whispers. She rests her palm against his cheek. “You back in the room?”

George nods. He swallows limply and coils his arm over her waist. “Sleep.”

“Yeah, sleep,” Parisa agrees. “D’you need a shower first? Food? Anything?”

“Can’t move,” George mutters. “Jussleep. Love you.”

Lips flutter at the side of George’s eye, a tiny, fond, relieved kiss that he’s back to himself. “Sleep, and tomorrow, rehearse! And drive to Cardiff!”

A rush entirely unrelated to the pheromones of Heat or utter exhaustion ripples through George and he’s suddenly wide awake again: this is the real missing piece of him, he thinks. Cardiff, or rather what’s waiting there. His audition. Music. A place for him in the life he wants, the way he wants things, and fuck everyone if they think he needs to be an Alpha to be able to make something of himself.

A long bath for his sore muscles, a shower to get off the remnants of come floating in the bath water, breakfast, his guitar. That’s all he needs. He may be exhausted and dehydrated and starving and so sore he can hardly bear the thought of moving, but he can handle it.


This is it.

George gives his mum a nod and lets Harriet give him one more good hug around the neck. Even from the wings, he can feel the soft sun of the stage lights and there are cameras on him already at every angle and out there, on that stage, there’s a microphone just for him. And forty thousand others, but the next five minutes are his. And his alone. This is his time.

Between the acts, the judges banter and the cameras reset and the tracks are queued and the audience rustles. It’s a mess of Alpha and beta and omega scents and food from the carts outside and the doughy sort of plastic powder smell of makeup and hairspray everywhere. George doesn’t need it, at least more than a lick of the mousse he’d put in at home in the morning after he’d soaked in the tub for two hours and taken three hot showers between egg sandwiches and cups upon cups of coffee. He’s going out there and people will either love him or hate him as he is.

Waiting in the queue outside had been overwhelming: hot sun and Welsh brogue and the crush of the crowd. People singing and dancing every second, beggars for the camera. And the mix of people, like George had never seen – young and old and light and dark and beta and omega and Alpha. So many Alphas, and George’s first whiff of that scent he’d been taught in words his whole life but knows, now, can’t be put into language. It is a dark caramel, but it isn’t. It’s like embers still on fire, the scent of molten glass, the potentiality of life pushing up through forest floors, the most decadent dessert, all at once. It’s everywhere, pushing in on George and his family and Parisa with hers on every angle.

There are fully grown Alphas attached to their omegas, and George knows he’s staring. Some of them look like spouses. Some of them look like entourages. Some are slaves. There are unBonded Alphas who look back at him, too, and they’re all tall and steady and move smooth as jungle cats. George clutches his guitar close. And there are little Alphas, too, which George had barely even considered past not wanting to have any, tiny beautiful kids with rosy cheeks and bossy voices, clinging to their parents’ legs. They stare at George, too, with their grubby little-kid fingers in their mouths, and George can only hope that all of his bathing was enough to get his Heat scent off him.

He’s already noticed eyes all day. He heard a lot of murmured looks like Harrys, too, but he doesn’t, really. Harry Styles was young and softer when he was on the show, but he still had that Alpha look to him. And his hair’s curly, for fuck’s sake.

This isn’t Harry Styles’ audition. He had his, two years ago. His life’s his own. This audition, and this life, are George’s.

He squeezes Harriet’s fingers and he lets Dermot O’Leary ruffle his hair and then he’s on his way, stepping out onto the stage with his guitar at his side like a sword.

There’s a pale hush that falls over the Motorpoint crowd. All eyes are on George as he walks at a clip across the stage. He can feel them by the thousands prickling against his skin. Appraising him. But that’s what he’s here for; he’s here to be looked at and judged and he knows, he’s done his research, how to make those eyes admire.

He gives the crowd a little, bashful sideways glance through his fringe and bites his lower lip.

The murmurs start. George grins, lip plump and pink, and lets his nose wrinkle just enough.

There’s a catcalling whoop out in the crowd, and after a split second, the cheers and applause begin, urging him up to the microphone. He has them. He has this. He knows it.

George keeps grinning, and it’s real now, swelling through his chest like sails catching wind on one of the dark boats off Clevedon Pier. He can do this. He knows, because he’s doing it right now, and the stage lights shine rose tint and blue silk and hot over his head, and behind him he can hear the almost-inaudible buzz of the massive X Factor logo lights shining. There are black cameras swooping like armored insects to get the best angles on his cheekbones and the curved flop of his hair and the long-fingered omeguesque of his bones. He’s really here. This is real.

He adjusts the microphone stand to his height and takes the mic in hand with an easy, slow-like-syrup seductive grin. He wants the audience to want him. He needs them to want him, to keep him on their screens until the Christmas #1 charts. And he can do that. He can make people want him when he’s sleepy and covered in sour milk and coffee.

But then there’s a gull-wing of nervousness in his stomach as the judges’ table comes into sharp focus when the lights change.

George has had his introduction to Alphas today. But he can’t imagine anyone, anyone, being more intimidating than the four sitting in front of him right now. It makes him want to kneel straight away.

But he won’t.

“What’s your name?” asks Tulisa Contostavlos. The Female Boss indeed. George can imagine going down for her. And staying there.

But he just gives her his second-best smile through the nerves. “George Shelley.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m eighteen,” he says, and the crowd starts to murmur again, conversing amongst themselves.

Tulisa lets herself look a little charmed, and George’s face relaxes into his best smile, easy, slow. (He wouldn’t mind getting Bonded to Tulisa. He has eyes after all.) “And what are you doing with yourself at the moment?”

There are a hundred thousand things he could say.

I’m making a point.

I’m proving myself.

I’m waiting for a uni to have space in the right dorms to take me.

I’m getting out of Clevedon.

I’m getting my fair shot.

“I work in a coffee shop,” George says. His eyebrows lift. He smirks just enough that his cheekbones could cut glass. He blinks boyishly. And his weight shifts from one foot to the other, a tiny suggestion, a subliminal message that he’s there to be snatched up. That he’s ready, for the audition, for this life, for whatever they want to throw at him.

Tulisa takes his bait and sits back in her chair, the line of her shoulders opened up to push her chest out as she dips her chin and smolders right back. “And what are you going to sing for us today?”

She crosses her leg under the table.

“Toxic, by Britney Spears?” George says. This time the grin on his face isn’t part of a calculation. He’s just fucking excited, and he’s in with a very good chance, and it’s a good song and he’s good at it. He knows this song from back to front. Even missing a final week’s rehearsing can’t hurt him. He’s charmed Tulisa, he has her vote; he’s sure of it. And he’ll get the crowd’s, too, and the other three judges.

He’s got this.

He has this.

It’s easy to almost forget the crowd once he has his guitar in his arms. That’s the only lovely set of curves he really wants to cuddle today. He keeps time stamping his feet against the stage and he tries to smile between verses. He already knows that his fingers look good on the strings.

But his heart is in his throat as soon as he strums the final chord, because looking good can’t be enough. He thinks he sounded good, but he’s biased. And even if he did – he might not have It. Might not have the x-factor, might be easily ignored. He doesn’t know how to make a whole room hang on his every word just by breathing and being. But he thinks he can at least get the four people who matter.

“I think you have a great look and a good vocal, and it’s a yes from me.”

“It’s a yes from me.”

“I could eat you with a spoon, honey,” says Nicole Scherzinger, and George flushes down to his toes. “Yes!”

He looks at Tulisa Contostavlos and lets his eyes go soft, obliging, looking for all the world like he’s ready to take orders from The Female Boss. Tulisa leans back in her chair and gives him a half-smirk back as she points, overtly, up and down the length of George’s body. “It’s a massive yes from me.”

He’s done it.

He’s done it.

Realization and relief crush through George as much as the sugar-sweet smell of all of the Alphas in the room does and he has to hide his eyes behind his hand as he grins, a bright laugh welling up in his chest. He’s passed the first hurdle, and that’s more than he knew anyone – even Parisa, even Tony, even his mum -- really thought he would. He waves to Tulisa in a daze as he walks off the stage and right into his mum’s arms. He’s piled on by a crowd of cheering small kids, Archie and Annabelle shinnying up his legs like he’s a tree, and it’s probably, probably, the happiest George has ever been.

He knew it would be.

“Quite a celebration!” George turns and there’s Dermot O’Leary, the smell of sugar softened by soap and talcum lifting off his skin. “George, would it be a safe guess that you’re excited?”

Other than the judges, George has never had an Alpha speak to him before. Certainly not this close, not close enough that he can feel the strange attraction-repulsion of Dermot’s Alpha-ness but also his Bond, something calling to George that this is what he needs but warning with teeth that it’s someone he can’t have. And then Dermot’s hand is on George’s shoulder, and they’re smiling at each other and George can feel the magnetic heat of it right through his shirt. Sugar, cotton, soap, thyme. Alpha. Alpha and kindness.

George opens his mouth to answer –

And just giggles.


George feels like he’s floating for the next three weeks. Bootcamp will edge right up against his next Heat, but he’ll be rooming with another omega. The producers had rung after a week and told him that there was one more who had made it as far as bootcamp, and to assure that George was taking suppressors and had all of his proper certifications and health checks. They’d asked, too, if he had an Alpha who would need lodging.

“No,” George had said, and the word came with a sort of toe-curling pride. “I’m doing this myself.”

Parisa and her sister, and the other two girls in their band, have made bootcamp, too, and Charley and Betsy, so they all pile together into a traincar bound for Manchester. George already feels the start of a slowness in his bones, that soft-chewing tenderness around his joints that means the hormones for a Heat are starting to build. But Daniella pulls a bottle of coconut rum—of all fucking things—out of her bag, and Parisa produces a cache of shotglasses, and the countryside is streaming past the windows in a haze of green and George feels like fucking Harry Potter and he’s never, never, never been happier.

(When he was fat and fourteen and spent all of his time online, he’d written a treatise about why he always thought Harry was an omega, too. Tossing back a shot and holding Parisa in his lap and resting a hand on his guitar at his side on a train bound for somewhere magic, he still agrees.)

George dulls a bit when they get to the hotel and it turns out that there really are only two omegas who have made it this far, but even so, they get their own empty floor to share just for ITV’s liability. No one looks at George like he’s caused a fuss, but he feels it anyway, the lingering guilt of homework deliveries every month and changing in the coaches’ lavatories for P.E. because there was no locker room for omegas at St. Bernard’s. Going into Bristol to take his A-levels at the same time as resits because he’d missed them the first go around.

But Caroline Flack smiles at George when he gets his room key, and Dermot O’Leary pretends to remember him when he shares George’s lift. Cameras follow George everywhere and he knows that it’s favoritism, the X Factor revamping after some bad press about bias, that he’s made it. The token omega, pretty and flirty and unBonded.

But when his door opens onto the hotel’s penthouse suite because it was the only free room, George doesn’t even care. He has a goddamn Jacuzzi to soak his achy muscles in; they can give him all the special treatment they want.

He’s in the bath, singing to the echoes of the ceiling, when his roommate arrives. George stops singing straight away and almost ducks under the water in shock because the other omega isn’t alone: there’s an Alpha smell with him, a sticky smell like candy apples and hay bales, like a carnival. They speak softly in the front room of the suite while George waits in the bath, his heart beating out of his chest, unsure whether to stay where he is because he’s left his clothes in the other room or to announce his presence –

The bed creaks. And again. Sun-dried grass and oats and honey and then something smaller, lighter, bitter like cold grapefruit. A laughing, shoulder-stifled groan.

The other omega is getting a knot.

Right there in the other room.

There’s an icy hot lurch in George’s stomach and he draws his knees up to his chest, hugging them close, until long after the front door of the suite has opened and shut again and the water in his tub has gone cold.

On the very last day of bootcamp, he’s sent home. He knows the camera is trained on his face as he nods and swallows and resolutely does not cry. Parisa and her band are sent home, too, and Charley and Betsy left on day one, and the train ride five hours long back to Clevedon does not, at all, feel magical. George hurts. Every inch of him. Deeper than the exhausting, puffy ache of his Heat coming on is the sharp, needling, pointed knowledge that he failed. That he really wasn’t enough.

And he thinks, he knows, maybe, now, that it’s because he’s alone.

He cuddles up with his guitar on the far side of the train’s seat, and rests his face on the vibrating windowpane as he’s dragged right back to his life.

This Heat is worse than the last. George can smell phantom hints of burning sugar and hay and soap and violets and dancing flames every hour of it. He presses his face into the shoulders of the shirts he wore all through bootcamp, greedily sucking up the half-imagined lingering ghosts of every Alpha whose arm he brushed or who touched his shoulder or waist as they passed by him. He doesn’t let Parisa into his room this time, either, because after hearing what it’s meant to be, he can’t let her run herself ragged for him anymore. It just isn’t fair.

When George emerges, blinking, from his room, he gets a days-old message via a note tacked to his door from Dad—

ITV offering you a spot in group if you want. Ring 09020505101. Congrats, George Porge. X

George doesn’t even hesitate. He’s missed almost a week of time that he could have been rehearsing, so they make all of the necessary calls and he’s on a bus headed to London before he’s even eaten anything. He buys a load of crap sandwiches from the cart and texts Parisa and clings to his guitar. When he gets into London, it’s nightfall and he’s met at the depot not by the boys who will become his band, but their manager.

He’s a short, stocky, blustery beta, the sort who reeks of musky Alpha cologne and desperation. His head is shaved to hide that he’s balding prematurely, and he has more fake tan than even that one bloke, Rylan, at bootcamp who was an absolute giant he was so tall (and tan, and loud). He has a scrub of a red beard and giant black-framed glasses that George can tell have no lenses, and he’s dressed like he thinks he’s still sixteen. Or Justin Bieber, whichever you thought first.

“Blair,” he introduces himself, and he shakes George’s hand too hard like he’s compensating. “Glad you could make it. Did they tell you anything about the group?”

George shakes his head. “I was – well, it’s been a sort of fast day.”

Blair smiles at him, and George is honestly surprised. “I get that. My band -- your band—has another omega, too. I guess that’s the sell, two omegas and two Alphas in a band together. What do you think of Union J for the name?”

The other omega, his roommate, who George avoided as much as he could out of pure embarrassment for days the week before, is in his band. And, George remembers, his roommate’s Alpha had been in the same group. He blushes beet red and hopes Blair doesn’t notice as he gets into the back of a car and they set off to a pub.

“Figured we’d feed you,” Blair says, “Get some drinks, introduce ourselves, see if we’re gelling. Tomorrow we’ll test out your voice and pick out a few audition songs from the list they sent. You play guitar?”

George is grateful that Blair is the most oblivious person on the planet, apparently, because it means he can answer things in one-word bites as he mentally prepares for… something he doesn’t even understand. If the other omega and his Alpha are in the band, is – is the other Alpha meant to be for George? He doesn’t, he doesn’t, he doesn’t even remember who the third person in that group was, and he doesn’t want an Alpha, and he’s so, so tired and so, so hungry and drinking tonight sounds like, simultaneously, the best and worst idea he’s ever had.

He brings his guitar into the pub with him because he doesn’t quite trust that it won’t be stolen from Blair’s car where he’s left it double-parked. The other boys are waiting in a big red leather booth, drinks in front of them and a half-finished basket of chips on the table.

“Hello, roomie!” calls the omega, waving. His Alpha’s arm is draped over his shoulders. “I’ve forgot your name, sorry. Jeremy?”

“George,” says George. “Are you Jeremy?”

“Josh,” says the omega, apparently Josh. “We’re minus a Jeremy. This is JJ.” He nudges his Alpha in the ribs.



A sugar that smells of sweet shops, coconut ice or sherbet pips, an orangey-pink sort of scent. It doesn’t fit with his face, George thinks as JJ waves amiably, mouth full of chips. He’s older. Angular. He has tattoos on his arm because he’s allowed to get them, and George is indignantly jealous even though he knows, really, that he’d look stupid with tattoos. The principle of not being allowed to get them makes him want one out of spite. A huge FUCK YOU across his face, maybe.

“I’m Jaymi,” says the other Alpha, and he moves over on the bench to make room for George to sit.

George softens right away for Jaymi, warm and docile and wanting to impress. Cigarette smoke cloaks over Jaymi’s crème brûlée vanilla and burning molasses smell, and George is dizzy with it. He likes the tattoos that litter Jaymi’s arms and hands and the back of his neck behind his ear. Blade shapes. He likes Jaymi’s brown eyes and he likes that he laughs at George’s bad jokes and he likes how it feels when Jaymi’s arm brushes his every time either of them reaches for the food at the center of the table, chips and shotglasses and beer bottles and ketchup and brown sauce. He likes his knee knocking against Jaymi’s beneath the table. He likes how solid Jaymi is, beside him.

He likes, and hates, that he can smell Jaymi’s Bond on him as clearly as he can see Josh- and JJ’s across the table. It makes Jaymi seem safe, his belonging to someone else.

“D’you not have a Bond?” Jaymi asks outright after a while, when George giggles, blushing, at the touch of Jaymi’s thigh against his own.

“No,” George says. “Never wanted one.”

“I’ve had mine almost three years,” Jaymi says. “We’re getting married, too. Properly. His name’s Olly. Did your parents not arrange you anyone?”

George pushes away the rest of his toasted cheese. “They’re betas. I’ve never met an Alpha before bootcamp.”

“Oh, my god,” says Jaymi. Josh and JJ, across the table, actually put down their glasses at that. “That’s kind of incredible. You could choose anyone you wanted, you know. With your face.”

“Can’t you?” asks George. His throat feels a little tight. “Being an Alpha. You get to choose, really.”

Jaymi laughs. “My dad had arranged someone for me when I was nearly twenty and still hadn’t Bonded with anyone. And I was so pissed off about it the night before I was meant to meet my mate that I went out to a club and found the first really fit omega I could and made an offer, and he was like, yeah otherwise I’m going to get stuck with a real dickhead loser, our age and can’t find anyone, and we Bonded right in the club toilets.”

“Class,” Josh interjects. “Pure class, while I was out near the bar still fending off some beta three times my size.”

“Sorry, love,” Jaymi says, and doesn’t sound sorry at all. “Anyway, the moral is, obviously, that was Olly, and so was the person my dad’d arranged. So we would’ve ended together anyway. But you, like – they aren’t worried that you’re so old?”

“I’m not that old,” George says, bristling. “I’ve just barely turned nineteen. And I told you, I don’t want an Alpha. I have nine brothers and sisters, so I’ve had my fill of changing nappies and that, thanks.”

Across the table, Josh looks pensive and ruminating at that, like he’s doing calculations in his head looking for a sum that he can’t tell anyone yet. Although, George thinks, that might just be what Josh’s face looks like. He has a good jaw for brooding. He thinks he’s right, though, when JJ leans over and nudges Josh’s cheek with the end of his nose.

They’re funny-looking, George thinks. Not as people; they’re good-looking as people, really, but they’re a funny-looking Pair. Josh is bigger than JJ. George didn’t even know that it could work out like that, but Josh is taller and broader, too, in the shoulders and the breadth of his arms. JJ may have more muscles, though; George didn’t really look. Not his to look at.

“Did you grow up together?” George asks, and means were you arranged.

JJ and Josh look at each other and start to laugh, and looking at them, Jaymi rolls his eyes and does, too.

“No,” Josh says. “We met at uni.”

“He says it like I went to uni,” JJ says. His arm slides around Josh’s ribs and rests there, fingertips light on Josh’s side, and George knows he’s staring. “I just showed up to the parties.”

“Which is how we met,” Josh says. “Woke up naked and hung over in the same bed, didn’t we? And that was that done.”

“Or so we thought.” JJ smiles at the memory. He squeezes Josh lightly. “So we woke up and had a good heave and thought, well, shit then, I guess we’re Paired. Ought to know each other for the next time, yeah?”

“So for about three weeks, we were inseparable.”

“They were, and a bit literally,” Jaymi says drolly. “It was really annoying.”

But then the next Heat after that, you know, we went off to take care of Joshy and – ”

“We Bonded then,” Josh finishes. “Thought we’d been, all along, but I guess we hadn’t. Jayj was so drunk that first time he couldn’t even knot.”

“Shut up!” JJ pushes Josh sideways and he falls off the bench. “Wanker.” Josh’s hand wraps around JJ’s ankle and he yanks --

Heart stopping, George watches and reaches out to grab JJ before he topples onto the floor, too, because Josh is stupid if he thinks he can push an Alpha around like that, even his own. But all that happens is that JJ falls, and he lands on the grimy floor beside Josh, roaring in laughter. He clambers atop Josh and they tussle, grinning and gnashing their teeth at each other in play, turning each other over to pin the other to the floor until JJ has Josh flat. JJ’s teeth glint white as he holds Josh’s wrists to the floor, and George might chew through his own lip. Josh doesn’t look scared – doesn’t smell scared – but –

JJ bounces once over Josh’s hips, and Josh looks to George like the cat that got the cream. “Champion jockey.”

They’re mocking him, somehow. They must be. It doesn’t – it really doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t work that way; it wouldn’t, there’s no reason for it. The idea of it makes something under George’s veins bubble, steam under popcorn skins crackling under the pressure of something wrong. He doesn’t believe in all that catechism anymore, but it seeps through his pores all the same and leaves the burnt taste of misunderstanding in a film across his tongue, because George doesn’t like to be mocked for what he is, and he thought that, for once, someone else would feel the same.

Jaymi frowns at them down on the floor. “Get up, idiots. You’re making George feel weird. I can tell from here.”

Josh’s hands linger on JJ’s hips even as they get up and apologize blithely to George before sliding back into the booth.

“Sorry,” he says to George across the table. “Didn’t realize you’d be so conservative.”

“I’m not,” George protests, but it feels hollow in his chest. He isn’t conservative – he votes Labour, anyway, and spends a lot of his time trying to follow the arguments for omega rights – but he feels provincial (which he supposes he is), dumb, like he’s missing some piece of the puzzle. “I’m not conservative. I just, I told you, I’d never met an Alpha until last week, really, it’s just new.” He presses his lips together and sets his jaw. It’s not as impressive as it’d be if Josh did it. “So is the chance to get to the Lives on X Factor, and if it’s all the same, that’s kind of all I care about.”

JJ keeps his hold on Josh, but gives George an encouraging smile for that. “Yeah, that’s good. Keep us focused. Jaymi tries, but eventually you learn to tune out his nagging.”

“I don’t nag!” Jaymi exclaims. “I remind you carefully and consistently because you are a cabbage, and you – ” he points to Josh, “Think it’s charming that your boyfriend is a cabbage.”

George has to snort a giggle at that, because yeah, he can already tell that Jaymi probably nags.

“We should sing Bieber,” Josh says. “Since we know the harmonies on it and it wouldn’t be difficult to fit a new voice in on the verses. And I’m a really crap rapper. Even worse than Bieber.”

“Oh, I’m good,” George says, a little shy. “I did Earthquake at bootcamp.”

“I know,” says Josh. “We shared a room, remember? I was curious. I stayed to watch you.”

George tucks his head down a bit and fishes a chip out of the puddle of ketchup on his plate. “What did you think, then?”

“I thought you sounded like a white British rapper from Bristol. And you looked like a pretty omega Harry Styles,” Josh says broadly. “But I thought you’d fit really well in a boy band.”

George looks up at that, at Josh across the table still staring with mathematics in his eyes, and JJ smiling with half his heart on Josh and half his mind on the conversation. And Jaymi, next to him, gently radiating a warmth that George wants to crawl inside to wrap up in and keep, vanilla and tobacco and vodka cranberry. Jaymi intentionally knocks his knee against George’s beneath the table, and JJ gives George an absurd double thumbs-up, and George has to laugh, flicking the ketchuppy chip at Josh.

“Yeah, alright,” he says. “I guess I’d fit in well with a boy band. But I don’t look like fucking Harry Styles.”

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