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Dying to Breathe

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Charles Andrew Hansen is the single most obnoxious Beta ninety-eight percent of people have ever had to work with, and that’s a fact. He’s rude, he’s crude, and he’s got Issues-with-a-capital-I out the wazoo. He’s never quite gotten around to forgiving his Alpha father for the death of his Omega mother, and is arrogantly protective of her memory in the way only Alphas and abandoned children can be. He’s proud and self-serving, and the worst part of that is that all of that pride and self-aggrandizement are totally, totally earned, because he’s also really fucking good at what he does.

And what he does is beat the shit out of things. Mostly training dummies, though there’s been a time or two that it’s been a classmate, instead, and some of those have been outside of sanctioned practice times. And the instructor who had had to call Ranger Hansen about his son stepping out of line had not enjoyed that, not one bit. Not because Hansen was angry at him, no, but because being a party to that particularly family argument? Yeah, no, he’d have rather gone a couple of rounds with a Kaiju, bare-fisted.

The psychologist at the Academy swears up, down, sideways, and sometimes even in French that Chuck—because Charles Andrew prefers Chuck, thank you not at all—is, in fact, a touch-starved Omega in serious need of therapy. She bases this opinion on God only knows what, because her records are sealed behind the red tape of Doctor-Patient confidentiality, and all she does is present her findings on the various candidates to the Board.

And, okay. Maybe an Alpha or two has been known to mutter that they’d love to take the Hansen kid down a peg or two, if only he was an Omega, god that that kid would go into heat and learn a little humility, dammit. And some of the Alphas on base—usually the ones working as dorm supervisors, selected for their inherent ability to parent the fuck out of rocks—are taken with the young man, want to keep him under wing, teach him to protect himself some other way.

But the first kind are the ones reported, anonymously, for sexual harassment of students, or who are forced to go to training seminars because word has reached ears on high that some of the staff at the Academy are gender-insensitive. The others are, to the Alpha, pushed away by Hansen himself.

And the years come and the years go and even though Hansen once or twice seems to go into a false heat when one of the older trainees cycles or fights like a territorial bastard with the Alphas or, in one memorable case, lays out half a dozen civilians creeping on one of the J-techs… He never actually presents. He doesn’t go into an independent heat, and his false heats peter out, hormonal sympathy from living in close quarters. He never goes into rut, either, and his physicals report no evidence of a forming knot.

So when he’s fifteen they go ahead and mark him as Beta-Undifferentiated because hell, he’s got three more years before he’ll be old enough that they can figure puberty has tapered off. Maybe they’d leave it blank, but the PPDC paperwork must be completed, and no one foresaw a fifteen year old piloting a Jaeger when the program was dreamed up and the bureaucracy with it.

And then when he’s eighteen and still hasn’t differentiated, they shrug and note him down as a Beta at his next physical.

---

“He’s not a Beta,” Herc groans, head flat on Stacker’s desk. He narrowly misses the beer that’s sitting there.

Drinking on Friday nights when they’re on the same base is a tradition, and one that they’ve kept over the years. Together, they’ve drunk their way through the loss of Angela, of Tamsin, of Luna, of Chuck’s love. They’ve drunk through reports of Chuck fighting his way into trouble, of Mako isolating herself from most of the trainees. They’ve drunk to the loss of family and friends, and to the finding and making of new ones.

The Marshall has the gall to laugh at him. “Not what the paperwork says,” he reminds his friend. “I have it right here, fresh from the Academy. Hansen, Charles Andrew is a Beta, my friend.”

Lifting his head from the polished wood, Herc glares at his friend. “Don’t give a rat’s what the paperwork says,” he says, voice bitter. Reaching forward, he rescues his beer, takes a swig. “I’ve been in his head. Chuck ain’t a Beta. Scott is, remember? Chuck’s brain ain’t right for that.”

Stacker frowns and puts down his own beer. It’s only by sheer force of habit that the cool, sweating bottle lands on a coaster. A good thing, too; should he wake up tomorrow with ruined paperwork or a ruined desk, he’s going to go a little mental. But more important than any desk, than any paperwork, is Herc. “Herc. You can’t judge Chuck by Scott.”

“Not judging him by Scott,” Herc says. “Just his brain.” Because he understands what Stacker’s saying. His brother, Scott… Scott is messed up. Sick. He’s a solid argument against the idea that it’s Alphas who are inherently violent and dangerous. He challenges the idea that predatory behaviours are determined by gender.

It’s not a thing that Herc wishes he could say about his brother. He knows, knows in the way that only someone who has shared a brain can, that it will never be something that anyone can say about his son.

But Stacker shakes his head. “Scott wasn’t right in the brain, Herc. And you know Chuck’s history. He’s as Beta as they get.” A pause. “Physically, at least. Usually, you gotta be an Alpha to be that much of an ass.”

Herc just groans.

Because, yeah. It’s true. Chuck’s an ass.

---

There aren’t any laws that say Omegas can’t fight on the frontlines of the Kaiju war, but as nature and society would have it, there just aren’t any. Not by conscious decision, but by sheer happenstance. There’s not a lot of Omegas in the armed forces, for one, and almost none of them try for pilot at the Academy. The ones who make it are the ones who are unusual, who’ve never fit a gender pattern, the ones who learnt early and young to hide who and what they are, the ones who are a little too good a pretending to be something they’re not. And even there, in the Academy, in the sciences, they’re rare. Alpha parents want to keep their kids safe, so they keep them away from the Blue, away from certain death.

(Herc Hansen would never, never try that. Chuck knows this. Either because he believes that Omegas are as capable as anyone else, or because he just doesn’t pay attention to his kid enough to know what he’s getting up to. Not that it matters, because Chuck’s not an Omega. He’d like to see someone tell him what to do, ha!)

There are a lot of arguments about why Omegas shouldn’t go to war, about why they don’t. Some say that Omegas are too weak, physically. They’re built different from Alphas, you know? Different from Betas. Some say they’re too weak emotionally. That they go out of control during heats and could wreak havoc is another popular argument. Others like to say that Omegas are meant to be nurturers and homemakers, child-bearers and –rearers, not fighters.

Chuck Hansen snorts out loud when he hears these arguments, because they’re all complete and total horseshit. He’s fought Omegas that are just as fierce as any Alpha, and some that are fiercer. And he has yet to meet an Omega who can’t control themselves during heat. Yeah, sure, it might suck, but that’s never stopped Ales from slapping on the strongest scent-diffuser he can and coming to work on Striker on all but the peak day—and he’s come in then, too, when they’ve had to drop. And if Omegas are controlled by hormones, not their brains, then why can’t you say the same about Alphas, who are ready to drop the gloves and fight—or fuck—at the slightest provocation? As for the rest, that’s just bullshit from the fifties, back when people wanted their Omegas pregnant, visibly owned, barefoot so they couldn’t run.

Fuck it. The world would run much better if it was run by Betas.

---

Mako’s hands are soft but forceful. She doesn’t wait for permission, just pins Chuck down where he is and starts combing his hair against the grain. She knows she smells blood; the scent is thick and coppery on her tongue.

“Mori, f’r crying out loud—” Chuck starts, reaching up to swat at her hands, but he subsides when she growls low in her throat. Eyes narrowed, he lowers his hands to his lap and lets her fuss; he knows better than to get between her and her goal when she’s like this. The only thing that could be worse is if…

Almost as if summoned, Herc drifts in, nostrils flared.

Ah, Chuck thinks, mockingly narrating the nature documentary that is his life, the mighty parental Alpha, the scent of its offspring’s injury in nose. Then he swears, because Herc is looking at Mako like he’d like to knock her block off, and his shoulders are mounting like he’s about to loose one hell of a growl.

Quick as a blink, Chuck knocks Mako on her ass himself, planting a bony-as-hell elbow in her gut. He shakes his head to settle his hair—fuck, that did not feel good, shit.

Herc catches his elbow as he sways, and Mako puts a hand on his knee. In the moment, they are torn from the impending Alpha-dominance fight by him. Specifically, by the need to tend to the goose egg on his head that’s still bleeding sluggishly and the probably-concussion lurking underneath it.

“I’m fine,” he slurs at them, and even he can tell that the words aren’t even.

“You need to go to the infirmary,” Mako says, her worry making it smell almost like an order (except that Mako knows better than to order him, because Alpha or no, Chuck will knock her over—)

Herc doesn’t even bother with words, just hauls Chuck to his feet and starts strong-arming him towards the medical center.

---

Aleksis “call me Sascha” Kaidanovsky reminds Chuck of his mother, oddly enough. He looks nothing like Chuck’s mother—he’s big and blonde and burly, and Angela was small and dainty and ginger—but he’s got the same way of talking down to him that doesn’t hurt, that doesn’t shame.

(The sense of humour’s the same, too, Chuck figures out pretty fast. Because “Call me Sascha” is one thing, but “Call me Sascha” when his wife’s given name is Sasha is a whole different thing altogether.)

(So’s the attitude. He forced the PPDC to accept him, forced them to accept that the Russians were right when they said that if you could pilot, you could pilot, fuck gender. Chuck’s mom had a similar mindset.)

He calls him “child” and “son” and sometimes, when they are alone and no one can overhear, even “little one.” He holds Chuck against him the way Angela used to hold him, tucks his head under his bearded jaw, pets through his hair and strokes down the length of his spine.

Chuck lets him.

It feels like it’s been so long since someone has loved him.

---

Herc’s starting to suspect, starting to think that his drunken revelation those years ago wasn’t that far off. Chuck’s not a Beta, he can’t be a Beta, he doesn’t act like smell like think like a Beta.

The problem is, he doesn’t act like an Omega or smell like an Alpha or think like either one.

---

Stacker wonders if Herc knows what to do with a non-gendered child. If any of them do.

If Chuck even is non-gendered.

---

Mako, when asked, says simply, “Chuck’s gender is his own concern.”

---

Newt is the only one around when Chuck goes into false heat.

He’s been spending too much time with Kaidanovsky, Chuck realizes with horror. It’s happened before, when he was younger and lived with and roomed with Omegas. He’d spark into a false heat with his roommates, sometimes, or with the people he spent the most time with.

But it hasn’t happened in years, not since he left the Academy to pilot Striker with his—with Herc.

The flare of boiling heat low in his belly, just beneath his navel, is unmistakable, however. Even with all these years between, Chuck recognizes it. He recognizes the nausea that comes swift on its heels, too, and swallows rapidly to keep his breakfast where it belongs. The muscle aches will start soon, he knows. And god only knows what he smells like to those with the nose to know.

Newt gasps, bringing in the rich scent of an Omega in heat, slightly soured. He knows that overlay scent, because even though he is an only child, he spent enough time with his six Omega cousins to know the smell. “False heat?” he says, looking at the only other person in the room.

Chuck cringes, nods.

Rifling around his desk, Newt digs out a small package and tosses it to the other man. “Pregnancy hormones,” he says by way of explanation. “Well, artificial ones, anyway. It’ll keep you from going into full heat, and shorten the false.”

“I’m not an Omega,” Chuck whines.

He takes the pills anyway.

---

Chuck has never had sex. Herc knows this because he’s intimately familiar with his son’s brain, but even if he wasn’t, the kid’s smell would let him know. He’s Chuck’s father, his Alpha parent. He knows the smell of Chuck-in-utero and Chuck-baby and Chuck-adolescent. And Chuck has never lost that adolescent scent, has never had it overlaid, even slightly, with someone else’s. Not the way he would have if he’d actually had sex.

So when Chuck shows up for the daily workout in the Kwoon smelling like a very pregnant Omega, Herc sneezes.

Chuck scowls.

Herc remembers, suddenly, that Sasha and Aleksis are off for the week, barring an emergency, because he’s in heat and she’s there to take care of him (and it.) And he also recalls, with equal suddenness, the notation in Chuck’s file about the times (three) he’s gone into false heat with an Academy classmate.

Ah.

Wisely, he says nothing.

---

The worst thing about the suppressants, Chuck thinks, is the way they keep him nauseated for the week after.

(Mako says the worst part is that they turn him into a complete bitch, but whatever. What does she know?)

He’s only just finished swallowing back the urge to vomit when the has-been comes to the table, joins them, right there, like he’s been invited.

He hasn’t been.

Chuck’s eyes narrow. No one sits with Mako and Herc but him. Not even the Kaidanovskys. Not even Stacker.

He leaves before he pukes up reconstituted potatoes and beef and jealousy.

---

Herc says he isn’t sure whether to hug Chuck or shake him, but something in his hindbrain is screaming for his attention. The smell of pregnant Omega has faded, but the scent of Omega hasn’t. Add that to the fact that Chuck has been twice as snarly and bratty as usual, and he’s starting to wonder about those suspicions he’s been having.

Throw in the way Becket’s eyes are following Chuck’s retreating back…

Fuck. Herc wonders if it’s too late to bribe a nurse into running a hormone panel on his kid.

---

“Fuck, kid,” Raleigh sighs, doing everything he can to keep himself from burying his nose in the crook of the Australian’s neck. “You need to get better quality suppressants. You’re tripping every Alpha here.”

“Not Omega,” Chuck growls, his eyes dark. He fights against Raleigh’s hands on his wrists, but not very hard. More as confirmation that they are there than any real attempt to break the hold, truth be told.

Raleigh raises an eyebrow, snorts. “Tell that to someone who doesn’t have a nose, kid. I can smell you, even over Mako.”

And just like that, Chuck’s temper breaks free. He snarls, dark and low and cold, and the only thoughts in his brain are Mako, Mako, Mako that bitch how dare she keep him from the Alpha Becket is his that bitch…!

Then a fist is laying him out and someone is snarling that “you’re the bitch here, Hansen,” and he’s striking out and hands are on him and he’s being dragged away.

---

Herc wants to rip Becket’s throat out with his teeth, and he wants to shake Chuck until his two brain cells collide.

In the small infirmary, behind the curtain, he can hear Mako growling the same things out at Chuck. Part of him wants to go in there and shove her away from his boy, his baby, but another, more human part of him knows that won’t stand. And it doesn’t need to; Mako won’t lay a hand on Chuck that isn’t protective and friendly. Hell, she’s a better custodial Alpha to him than Herc’s ever been.

And that’s it, isn’t it? If anyone should have known that Chuck was an Omega, it should have been Herc. He’s the kid’s dad. He should have recognized that something was wrong when Chuck’s scent never quite made the bridge from adolescent to adult, virginity or no. And, hell, if he’d been around, if he’d paid attention, if he’d just been a fucking parent, he would have realized that Chuck’s false heats weren’t as false as advertised.

After all, Angela had told him years before Chuck was born that Omegas can push off their heats, can put a stranglehold on their biology. She’d explained it as a stress response, but had mentioned that one of her coworkers had a foster kid who’d done that after being assaulted as a child.

Christ, has someone been touching Chuck without the kid’s permission? Is that why…? Herc will rip heads off, literally, if that’s the case. No one touches his son without coming through him first, no one.

But you haven’t been protecting him, a dark, angry corner of his mind, one that sounds like Angela in a mood, whispers to him. You’ve been leaving him out there, letting everyone else at him. Hell, if it weren’t for the last name, no one would think he was your son…

Behind the curtain, Chuck’s arguing with the nurse about hormone shots, demanding suppressants to shut off the heat that is finally, finally starting to gather in him. Not an Omega, he’s yelling, never been an Omega, fuck this, need to fight, there’s fucking Kaiju out there, not a fucking Omega bitch—

And the Kaiju alarm is ringing through the base and the nurse must give in or maybe Chuck gives himself the damn injection because he’s tearing through the curtain seconds later.

All Herc can do is follow him.

---

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Raleigh grumps, his head on Mako’s lap.

The close contact doesn’t bother her the way it bothers some other Alphas; Mako’d differentiated already in the military culture, where tight quarters and no personal bubble were a Thing. And so she’d never really developed the sense of standoffishness that Alphas tend to exude with one another, unless they’re family, unless they’re close-raised.

Raleigh’s grateful. He’s missed the cuddles.

Mako sighs in response to his earlier comment. “I know,” she says, her fingers starting to comb through his hair. “Honestly, I think everyone knows that. Except maybe Chuck, and he’s too busy having an existential crisis.”

Raleigh winces. Said crisis is his fault. If he hadn’t thrown scent at the kid… But he’s always been impulsive, leapt into danger without looking. Should stand to reason that he’d let the Alpha go to his head when facing off with Hansen’s snarly little brat.

Just unfortunate that said snarly little brat hadn’t differentiated, was still an adolescent at twenty-one. How did that even happen? Sure, some people matured late, but there were treatments if it was too late coming, weren’t there?

“Everyone just believed him to be a Beta,” Mako says.

Had he been rambling aloud? Probably. “Beta?” he asks. “Didn’t his dad notice?”

Mako shrugs, the movement jostling them both. “Chuck was already at the Academy,” she says, her voice low and quiet. It’s conspicuously absent of censure; she won’t criticize the higher-ranked Alpha. Probably out of respect for her sensei. “And then he was a pilot. I think everyone forgot he was a child, still.”

“Well, technically a child,” Raleigh says. He doubts Chuck Hansen has really been a kid since his mother died, and putting him in a conn-pod would not have helped with that. Not one drop.

Mako hums in response. “Whatever the reason, it happened.”

Raleigh rolls off her lap, turns to face her. “What’ll they do now?” he asks. Because ignoring the younger Hansen’s orientation, pushing it under the table—that’s no longer an option. Raleigh threw scent at him, a mix of frustration and arousal, and the kid—already hormonally unstable from whatever black-market suppressants he’d been knocking back—had been thrown headfirst into differentiation.

And most kids are in high school when it happens, and they take a good month off for that first heat cycle, for the hormones to stabilize once more. And Chuck’s twenty one, not fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, for crying out loud, he’s five years late and this is the first time he’s presented as an Omega and he can’t take a month off because the world is ending and he’s one of the last little toy soldiers standing in line.

“Whatever it takes,” Mako says.

It sounds like a death sentence.

---

Aleksis Kaidanovsky doesn’t bother with permissions or requests or diplomacy. He wades into the mess of people that are debating and arguing and yelling and pulling their hair out over Chuck Hansen’s gender and grabs the younger man by the wrist.

Then he tugs him out of there and back to their usual nook like a battleship towing a dinghy.

---

Sascha is, as ever, quiet and comfortable and still.

Chuck sighs and lets himself melt into the older man’s embrace, burying his head underneath his chin like usual. Sascha smells like his mother, and also like the Shatterdome, and like Sasha-his-wife.

“This is why I’ve always been okay with this, isn’t it,” he muses, his eyes closing without conscious permission. “Because we’re the same.”

The words rumble up from Sascha’s chest. “I expect so, da,” the large man says. “I…” he pauses. “I always thought you knew, though.”

“Knew what? That I was an Omega?”

Sascha nods. “I thought you were, for sure. But Sasha said your papers said Beta, so. I just. I thought you must be hiding it. Suppressing.”

Chuck snorts. “Wish you’d said something. Would have saved a lot of trouble.” He winces, groans. A spike of pain is making itself known, a vicious muscle cramp far worse than any midnight charley horse he’s ever had.

Sascha catches his hand, even as it drifts down to press over the expanse of skin under his navel. “Heating pad,” he advises kindly. “Works better than hand.”

“Hmm? Is this a heat thing?” Chuck demands.

The Russian man wobbles his hand from side to side. “Not all? Is a “will be heat” thing.” He pauses, thinking. “You will be needing the talk.”

It’s not a question.

Chuck groans. “No, no, no. I had the Talk. I had several Talks. I went to the Academy. I had the Talk in every flavor. I know how to have sex. I know to use birth control. I know about suppressants and diffusers!”

But Sascha just laughs gently. “You know that Talk, yes. But you don’t know Omega Talk. How we tell each other. How my father told me. How your mother would have told you.”

Chuck looks up at him, and there is something strangely vulnerable in his eyes.

“Pains are simply the muscles preparing for how they work during heat,” Sascha says, unbearably kind. “They are opening the uterine wall, loosening the sphincters.” As he speaks, he turns on a heating pad and drapes it carefully over Chuck’s lower abdomen. “They start cramping about a week before your heat hits. Supposedly just light cramping, but…”

---

“Hansen!”

Chuck sticks his head out from where he’s been working on Striker. (Hiding out, really, but he’s a grown man who’s had the bombshell of the century dropped on him. He can call it whatever the fuck he wants.) “What do you want, Becket?” he asks, scowling.

Raleigh takes a deep breath, looks up at him. “I wanted to apologise,” he calls. “I screwed up. I screwed up, and it hurt you, and I’m sorry.”

Almost unthinking, Chuck grabs the rope and rappels rapidly down the side of his Jaeger. He lands, lithe on his feet, and stalks over to Raleigh. Grabbing the Alpha’s stupid lumpy sweater by the collar, he yanks him face to face. “Sorry, Becket? You’re sorry? You fuck my life up and you’re sorry?!”

He expects the Alpha to lash out, to fight back. It’s Alpha instinct, after all, and it’s what Chuck himself would do. And anyone with a nose can tell that Becket’s the kind that doesn’t take crap from anyone, and only takes orders by choice.

But Raleigh…Raleigh doesn’t do anything. He lets Chuck shake him, yell at him, chew him a new one. He just looks sad, and apologetic. Like he actually cares. Like he genuinely made a mistake and now genuinely regrets it.

It’s…it’s strange.

Staring at his sad face, Chuck has a visceral memory of being fifteen, of having a poster of this man in his room. He’d fully believed that Raleigh Becket was different from other Alphas, that he was kind and gentle and believed that Betas and Omegas were his equal. But still strong and commanding enough to lead a Jaeger fight…! Chuck remembers not being sure whether he wanted to grow up to be Raleigh Becket or to be his partner.

Having his teenaged fantasies come true, in the most hellishly horrific way possible, is a moment of keenly terrible universal Schadenfreude. And yet, some part of him wants nothing more than to tell Becket that if he’s sorry, he can apologise by getting Chuck through his damn heat when this whole mess is over.

Disgusted at himself and at the whole situation, Chuck shoves the other man and stomps away.

---

“You’re gonna have the heat from hell when these break through,” Vanessa Gottlieb warns him, swabbing Chuck’s arm with alcohol as she readies the injection. “You’re not meant to suppress your first real heat.”

“How do I know I haven’t done that already?” Chuck says, eyes on the series of needles destined for his arm and thigh.

She snorts. “Because no Alpha in their right mind would suppress a primary heat, and no Omega could bear to.”

He slants an eyebrow at her, not so much as wincing as the first needle slides in. “Oh?”

“Oh. It’s going to hurt like all nine hells, kiddo,” she says. “I don’t envy you it at all. If I were you, I’d see about getting sedated for the peak days.”

“Days?” he nearly squeaks. Sure, first heats last the longest, but heats only have one peak day. A couple of days leading up, a couple of days tapering off—but one peak.

“Days,” Vanessa agrees between thinned lips. “You’re five years late, at the least, and you’re suppressing your first real heat. Once I’m done here, I’m lighting a few candles in the chapel for your dumb ass.”

Chuck swallows, and tries to focus more on the fact that Hermann married the female, Beta version of his lab partner than on the fact that Gottlieb’s wife is casually dooming him.

---

“You’re coming on strong,” Raleigh says, watching Chuck suit up in the locker room.

Chuck snarls. “I can do my job.”

“Not saying you can’t,” Raleigh soothes, looking at the other man with clear, calm eyes. “Just saying that it might be rough in there. But I know you can handle it.”

Chuck pauses, looks at him, consciously swallowing back the mix of anger and hunger that’s churning in his belly. “Why would you…” he starts. He stops, the dawning smile on Raleigh’s face battening down anything else.

“Yancy was an Omega,” Raleigh explains softly. “Sometimes, when he’d be on edge… Just knowing that I knew he could do it would help him through. And I know you have no intent of letting your dad know how close you are. So. You can do it, Chuck. You’re a strong bastard.”

He snorts, but buries the words right beneath his breastbone. They sit there, warm, even as Stacker settles into the conn-pod beside him.

---

Herc hovers over Tendo’s shoulder, watching the numbers. Inside Striker, Chuck’s temperature is starting to soar. The connection between him and Stacker is reacting, too, wobbling violently. Over the comms, they can hear him panting, tired little whiny sounds that tear through all of them in LOCCENT.

Nine people, five Betas and four Alphas, and not a one of them can stand to hear what is clearly an Omega in agony. No scent triggers, thank god for small mercies, but the audio is enough.

Herc punches a wall.

Chuck groans, a throaty, pained sound as he struggles to restabilise the Drift. It’s got to be taking everything in him. Concentrating like that—enough not to affect his Drift partner, but still walking on the side of that fine line that keeps him from dragging Stacker down into his brain—is nearly impossible, even at the start of a heat.

“I can’t listen to this,” Herc says abruptly.

He turns on his heel and leaves, the sound of Chuck’s whimper chasing him down the hall.

---

“He’s alive. I swear to you, Mako, Chuck Hansen is still alive.”

Mako says nothing, watches her partner pacing around the room like a caged lion.

“I can feel it, you know? That he’s alive. It’s right here,” Raleigh continues, fisting a hand against his sternum. “Fuck, Mako, I don’t know why or how I know it, but he’s alive. Someone needs to be looking for him.”

“You imprinted him, that’s how you know it,” Vanessa Gottlieb says, snapping the door to the small medical room open. For a tiny, pregnant Beta, she is fierce. Fierce enough to cow any of the Alphas at the Shatterdome. “Mori, don’t even think about getting up. I’m not having you mess up my work. Becket, my boys want you in L5. They think they’ve found a way to use the imprint to trace Hansen.”

---

When they pull Chuck out of the sea, he is so dehydrated it hurts to look at him. Striker can’t pump fluids for him when Striker’s all but dead at the bottom of the ocean, and the escape pods aren’t meant for long term. Still, he stirs and mewls when they reach into the pod to pull him out.

All it takes is the sound, the sound and the scent—

And Raleigh is knocking the rescue team left and right, is reaching into the bobbing pod and pulling Chuck out, getting his hands on the Omega, his Omega.

And Chuck is crying, now, the sound thin and weak like a kitten. His helmet is off and he’s burying his head in the crook of Raleigh’s neck and damp, hot breaths are racing out against sweaty skin.

But Raleigh won’t let anyone near them. He’s gone near-feral on the rush of closed-up pheromones and his body’s own response to Chuck’s desperate attempts to get close, to cloak himself in Raleigh’s scent.

Finally, Newt swears and pushes forward, stripping off his shirt. It sheds the thick scent of Alpha as it goes, leaving only the smell of well-fucked Omega and a familiar expecting Beta clinging to him. He holds his hands out, open. “It’s just me, Raleigh. Just Newt. You can smell me. I’m no threat to either of you. No threat to your claim.”

Raleigh pauses, lets common sense assert itself, ever-so-slightly. “You,” he growls. “You and any others like you. No Alphas. No unclaimed Betas.”

“You got it, boss,” Newt says, calm and unshakeable in a way he never is except in emergencies. “Guys, you heard the Alpha. All Alphas below decks, unclaimed Betas with you. Get on the horn, let Sta—let Hansen know Becket’s demands. Tell ‘em we need a properly-teamed chopper.”

A pair of Omegas, both wearing filter-masks, step up to Raleigh and Chuck. Careful beneath his wary gaze, they work to strip the circuit-suit and armor from Chuck’s body. They work quickly, and try to keep their touches to a bare minimum. Still, the young Omega sighs and moans in Raleigh’s arms, near purring under what must feel like pampering after three days floating in his pod at sea.

Historically, Omegas have tended to one another during heats, in a nonsexual way, at least. It’s the only reason Raleigh doesn’t tear the face off the poor man who reaches to ease an absorbent plug into Chuck’s leaking passage. He does, however, snarl out a dark, fierce warning that has the man skittering back, hands open, empty.

Whether it’s the feel of something entering him, finally, three days into his lonely heat, or the feel of Raleigh’s skin on what must be supersensitive tissues, or the smell of Raleigh, or some mix of all the above, Chuck moans and comes against the other man’s thigh as he slides the plug in.

And then he collapses, a puppet with its strings cut.

“Don’t worry,” the other Omega, standing off to the side, says, her tone soothing. “It’s normal. Ish. We need external pheromones to get off during the heat. It’s probably his first orgasm since Pitfall. I’d be more worried if he didn’t faint.”

True enough, Chuck’s scent has shifted slightly, is warmer and less ill. Not significantly, mind, but enough so that Raleigh can feel his higher brain functions slowly clicking back to life. Careful as if he carries the crown jewels, he lifts Chuck and brings him to the waiting backboard. He takes the warm, wet towel from the helpful Omega woman and cleans slick and sweat from Chuck’s skin, never leaving the Omega without some skin-to-skin contact.

When he goes to hand the cloth back to the woman, though, she shakes her head. “Keep it,” she says, sounding amused beneath her mask. “Choppper? Even with an all-Omega team, it’s gonna smell like every Alpha it’s ever transported, at least to you. You’re gonna need that.”

---

She’s right.

He does need it.

---

Chuck needs medical attention—needs fluids and nutrients and antibiotics and painkillers and probably other things, as well—but he really, really needs an Alpha. The original plan was to sedate him through the worst of the heat, but the original plan didn’t count on him spending three days at sea, so that’s a wash. His body’s rebelling against itself, now, and that needs to be taken care of far more than the broken leg or the strained shoulder or any of the rest of it.

Entering the room, Vanessa wants to gag, because the stink rising off of the young Ranger is positively sick making, even to a Beta. She looks around, sees only Hansen, senior.

“Where’s Becket?”

One of the doctors looks up, dismisses her. “Sedated. He wouldn’t leave us alone.”

And that, that’s enough to cut what tether this pregnancy has left on Vanessa’s temper. “You fucking morons!” she rages, all the mothering instincts in her breaking free at the idea that anyone, a doctor, no less, would so mistreat an Omega. “He’s imprinted on Becket! Christ on a fucking crutch! You—” she points to the doctor who had spoken, a Beta. “Out. You and you and you, out. You, find wherever you stashed Becket. Bring him to the isolation room. You two, find me a portcath kit and the strongest local we’ve got.”

“What are you planning?” Hansen senior rumbles, his arms folded across his broad chest as he leans against the wall, eyes dark and attentive.

“To save your son’s life, sir,” Vanessa shoots back, using the small procedure sink to scrub in as best she can. She’s cleared all of the Alphas out of the room except for Hansen’s father, and that will help with the sensitivity. She hopes.

The two nurses she’d tasked with supply requisition return, followed shortly by the young man who’d been sent to locate Becket. She accepts the supplies offered, silencing them with a lifted finger, before barking out further instructions.

“Hansen, get your son on his stomach. I need clear access to his shoulder. As soon as he’s done that, Carver, I need you preparing a surgical field on the upper left shoulder—away from the scapula; I need muscle for insertion. Jennis, I want Ringer’s lactate hanging and ready to go in here, with another ready to run in isolation. Include the basic nutrient mix for Omegas in heat-crisis in the isolation room—same one Becket’s in, yes—and a broad spectrum abio. Also a low-surgical grade painkiller, either on steady flow or controlled manually. Finally, three bolus antiemetics, capped but ready to go, and an injectable fast-acting anti-implantation.”

“Plan B?” Jennis asks, her hands flying as she types up the orders.

Vanessa shakes her head. “I’ll be dosing him with that after the heat’s faded, so let’s get something that’s not going to interact too badly. Be sure to scent diffuse before entering the room; I don’t know when that sedative will wear off for Becket.”

She turns her attention back to the two Hansens. “Hansen, I’m going to need you to do what you can to hold him still. Keep him calm, if you can.”

The Ranger nods, his fingers already weaving gently through his son’s hair. “What’s going on, Gottlieb?” he demands, voice quiet but still dangerous.

Vanessa sighs. “I’m going to set Chuck up with a port to run medications as safely as possible, and then lock him in an isolation room with Becket to ride out the worst of his heat,” she explains. “Isolation has protocols for that sort of thing; we can make sure that they’re both fine and walk Becket through changing IVs and administering medications as needed. Right now, Chuck needs a non-familial Alpha to get him through the heat. Then I can focus on the rest.”

“Parents are usually able to see their children through their first heat,” Herc murmurs.

“Usually being the optimal word there,” Vanessa returns sharply. “Usually, the Omega child in question is thirteen to fifteen, sixteen on the outside. At twenty one, and three days into his heat without contact, Chuck’s got enough built up that he needs to be fucked, pardon my bluntness.”

Herc goes pale, but accepts her explanation.

---

Chuck wakes up slowly, feeling better than he has in what feels like years. He’s still hot—too hot—and there’s a low place deep inside that still feels hollow and achy. But the muscle aches have faded, and his skin feels like it fits again, and the migraine has gone.

And there’s a warm pressure against his slick hole, ringing it, never entering, just pressing and teasing.

Chuck moans and arches into the touch, begging for more. It feels good to be touched like this; it will feel better, he knows, he knows, to be touched inside.

A chuckle burbles against his back, and the hand stills, draws away.

He whines. That was not what he wanted, dammit.

“I’ve got you, Chuck,” a familiar voice says. “Are you in there?”

“Shut up, Raaaaahhhhhliegh,” he says, arching towards the other man’s heavy warmth. He’s naked. Hell, he realizes a second later, they’re both naked. This is good.

“Good, you know who I am,” Raleigh laughs. “Know where we are? Why we’re here?” He pushes down on Chuck’s shoulders, pins him to the soft mattress so he can’t move.

“Medical, probably in Isolation,” Chuck says, going limp beneath his hands. It’s not the touch he wants, but it feels so good. He can deal with it. Make the best. “And I’m in heat.”

“You imprinted on me,” Raleigh says. He strokes a hand down Chuck’s back, careful not to bump the port with its IV lines and bandages. “And you need someone to see you through this heat. Do you want it to be me? Or do you want me to leave?”

Chuck whines at that, suddenly tensing. He reaches, yanks the American Alpha against him, until they are plastered together. “Stay,” he demands, his voice giving away his fright.

His scent, too, if the way Raleigh sneezes is anything to go by.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Raleigh says, a soothing coo that he echoes physically, gently petting whatever inch of Chuck’s skin he can reach, nuzzling in against his neck and shoulder. “I’m not gonna abandon you. No one’s gonna do that. I just need to know you want me, and not another Alpha.”

Chuck thinks briefly of Mako, of the way she’s looked after him all these years, of the way he trusts her in his space. But trust isn’t everything he needs right now, and the reptilian hindbrain inside is clamoring for him to sink his teeth into Raleigh’s shoulder and let him fuck him into oblivion. Because Raleigh is welcoming and open and dangerous in the kind of way that seems good, right now, the kind of way that says that this will be a very good thing, for them.

“Want you,” Chuck says. His face is pressed against the mattress, but he knows Raleigh can hear him, knows he can smell acceptance and want.

Mostly want.

“Then you’ve got me,” Raleigh says. He sits up. Gently, he urges Chuck upwards, too, until the younger man is kneeling up, back pressed against his chest.

The contact is too much for Chuck. He can feel his mind splintering, and he cries out. He’s not sure what he says, if he says anything. All he knows is that his ass is throbbing, thundering want in time to the rapid race of his heart, self-produced slick sliding down his thighs in thick rivulets. His cock is hard and wanting, pressing needily up against belly, the head a dark, greedy red, revealed by his retracted foreskin.

And Raleigh is purring against his shoulder, promising him wonderful things, and then long, strong fingers are back at his entrance, are no longer teasing but are probing, checking how loose he is, and he is very loose, and very slick, because he doesn’t just want this but he needs this and then the head of Raleigh’s cock is replacing his fingers and the thick shaft is sliding in and

The world goes white.

---

Raleigh kisses the side of Chuck’s throat, one hand holding the Omega man still while the other works to keep his IVs unkinked. It’s kind of a miracle that they made it through the first round, really; Chuck hadn’t really shown any awareness of their presence and Raleigh had basically forgotten them once he’d slid into that tight, slick heat.

But knotting had brought him clarity, thank god, and so he is ready when Chuck slowly stirs from the mental cocoon of orgasm.

“‘S it always like this?” Chuck asks, voice rough but just as limp and pliable as the rest of him. He’s got his eyes closed, his head draped back against Raleigh’s wide shoulder. He plays with the other Ranger’s fingers where they rest on his belly.

“Hmm?” Raleigh asks, a little gone himself. “Is wha—oh, heat?”

“Th’sex,” Chuck says, lazily nodding his reply.

Raleigh can’t help but smile at him. Like this, a puddle of flesh and emotion, Chuck seems human and approachable. Comfortable, even. “No,” he says, and tangles his fingers with Chuck’s. He uses that grasp to gently ease them down, until they are resting on their sides, nestled together, still tied by his knot.

“No?”

“No, usually it’s better,” Raleigh says. “When you’re not so desperate and hurting. You’ll see.”

“Ge’s any better, ‘s gonna kill me,” Chuck laughs, high on pheromones and orgasm and satisfied biological demand. “‘S good.”

Raleigh laughs, too. Curling a hand under Chuck’s jaw, he turns the other Ranger’s face to him, and he kisses him deeply.

“I’m glad,” he whispers against his lips when they finally have to break for air. “Let me make it better, hmm?”

Pleased, Chuck purrs.

---

“Fuck!” Chuck punches out, his fingers fisting in the sheets. His eyes are closed and his teeth are gritted and his dick is being rutted into the cotton and it feels

So

Good.

Above him, over him, behind him, inside him, Raleigh laughs, breathless and wild. His hands are everywhere, are stroking the fluttering muscles in Chuck’s belly, are teasing at his too-tight nipples, and anchoring him in place for another sharp thrust. The one place they aren’t is on his cock and that’s okay, that’s totally okay because Chuck doesn’t need them there he’s doing just fine with Raleigh’s cock, fuck, Raleigh’s cock.

Chuck is normal for a Beta which means he is hung for an Omega but that doesn’t mean shit because Raleigh, Raleigh is hung, period. He fills Chuck completely, fills that hollow place deep inside that has been hurting for days, that has been greedily demanding more, more, more.

And Raleigh gives him more, more, more, even when the words are almost inaudible, completely impossible to understand, from Chuck’s cracked voice and his high moans and the low sighs that force their way out between rounds. Though they have been in this room for four days, there has never been a moment that Raleigh has not had some bit of his bare skin pressed against Chuck’s, usually as much as he can spare.

He brings Chuck into the bathroom with him, fingers him while stealing the chance to piss, tugs him down into the lukewarm water of the shower, strokes him all over with soap and skin and love. He feeds Chuck with his fingers, pressing nibbles of bread and cheese and meat between his lips, kissing up the taste of grapes and apples and pears. He reads to him, recites poetry to him, tells him old fairy tales while they are tied, while Chuck’s body is temporarily pleased with the heavy bind of the knot at the base of Raleigh’s dick.

And that all fills up the hungry space that has been deep inside Chuck for years, not just days, years, the place that has always wanted-needed-desired more.

Raleigh calls him baby and sweetheart and love and Chuck wants to want to punch him, to fight, but instead he mewls and preens beneath the warmth of the other man’s words.

Because Raleigh doesn’t treat him like anything, anyone, but Chuck. He still bites and he holds on tight enough to bruise and only apologises with soft kisses over already-purpled skin. He fucks him hard and fucks him loose and doesn’t act like that means Chuck is ruined or incapable or any less of a pilot than he is.

And Chuck loves it. He loves the soft touches and the hard thrusts and the pet names and the way Raleigh pants out fuck, baby, so fucking tight I’m gonna come, gonna fill you up, shit! and screams through his teeth when he comes.

Chuck doesn’t scream but he does dig his fingernails so hard and deep into the sheets that they scream and tear and he imagines that it’s the scarred skin of Raleigh’s back he’s raking, raking hot red trails that are gonna glow in the half-dark of their shared cave, marks that are going to claim Becket’s taut ass as his and let everyone know just how good a fuck they’ve shared.

The image—Raleigh wearing his clawmarks with pride—swells in Chuck’s mind even as the Alpha’s knot starts the final swell, buried deep in him, right up against the place that makes the whole world stars.

This time, the mattress itself tears.

---

Come Friday morning, Chuck isn’t just able to let go of Raleigh’s skin without crying.

No, he’s ready to do anything to get the man out of the room. Away from him. Far away. The Alpha still smells thick and heavy of Alpha, but the scent of his rut has drifted off in the night, along with Chuck’s own heat. Now, all the combined stench of them in the room does is make Chuck want to hurl.

Lucky for him, Vanessa Gottlieb shows up as soon as her instruments say she can, and she all but boots Becket out the door. She enters the room on a wash of pregnant-Beta, and the usually inoffensive (even welcoming, now that she’s pregnant) scent is instead a ripe, odiferous reek that turns Chuck’s cheeks green.

He’s second-guessing his earlier thought about his luck and Vanessa’s just tutting quietly, thrusting a bin under his face just in time.

For someone who hasn’t eaten more than a good dinner’s worth in the last eight days, cumulative, there’s a lot for Chuck to vomit. Vanessa sprays herself with a scent diffuser and sits down on the (wrecked) bed next to him, stroking his back sympathetically.

“Did Aleksis warn you about that?” she asks, offering him a bottled water when it seems the heaving has stopped.

Chuck swills it around his mouth, shakes his head. He leans to spit, then gives it all up as a bad game when another Alpha’s scent drifts down the hall past his open door and his stomach is suddenly rearranging once more.

Vanessa sighs, stands up. “Ah. Well. Following a rough heat, if you don’t conceive—which you haven’t; I’ve been pouring enough contraceptives into you to drop a bull—you may be hypersensitive to the scent of others not your gender. Usually pregnancy will cancel out the offense, but I’m guessing I’m a no-go, too. Some Omegas are just that sensitive all the time; Hermann still hasn’t forgiven Newton for vomiting on his data.”

That makes Chuck laugh. He can just imagine Herr Doktor Gottlieb’s horror.

“I’d warned the both of them, too,” Vanessa adds, winking at him. She continues her explanation, even as she begins to carefully disconnect him from his remaining two intravenous umbilici. “Even your own Alpha’s smell will do it. Research suggests that it has evolutionary benefits, giving Omegas time to hole up and heal after a particularly rough heat, or in general. Be pampered, if you will. So. My diagnosis for you.”

“Ja, Frau Doktor?” Chuck asks, feeling more playful now than he has in quite some time. He watches her prepare a new IV—just saline, this time.

“I’ll call your father—his smell won’t set you off, as he’s genetically labelled your protector and caregiver—and have him bundle you off to a nice, quiet room. And then you’ll sleep until you feel better, and leave this IV in until you piss your kidneys out. Clear?”

She looks so threatening, holding that needle.

Chuck nods. “Crystal.”

“Good. Now, I can put this in your elbow or back in the port. Do you sleep on your stomach or your back?”

---

It’s boring, being on medical leave. Most of the celebration burst through while he and Raleigh were locked away in the isolation room, and now, there’s just the sad wonder of what are we going to do with our lives—we weren’t supposed to survive—we never thought we’d be here beating through everyone’s minds. Too, the victory wasn’t without some losses; Stacker Pentecost and two-thirds of the Weis are gone, just gone, and now that they can look beyond their immediate and imminent destruction scientists are starting to admit just how much Earth’s been fucked.

It’s quiet.

Newt comes by every once in a while with presents, so long as you consider bags of saline to be presents. He admits that Vanessa taught him to hang them and everything; she doesn’t trust him to remember to sit down and take a break from science.

Max lightens some of the boredom, eager to play another round of fetch, and another, and another. He gives Chuck someone to talk to, too, and that’s a nice addition. Better than the psychologist, anyway. Chuck doesn’t see why she keeps coming by. She’s got to know that it’s not worth her time. He hasn’t talked to her, ever, and he doesn’t intend that to change, now that he’s differentiated. Being well-fucked doesn’t change that much about a person, thank you not at all.

(And yes, he’ll admit. It was a fabulous fuck. A fabulous four days of fucking, even. He still wakes up in the middle of the night, moaning at the memory of being so tightly bound to Raleigh that he didn’t know where one stopped and the other began.)

(He’s incredibly grateful that his fa—that Herc is in the habit of sleeping with earplugs in, anyway.)

Mako is the first non-family Alpha he lets past the door—the first he can stand to smell without bile rising in his throat. And she strides right in and slaps him upside the head, just like always, and then throws herself on him in a bone-crushing hug.

He hugs her back, as best he can, though he’s limited by the cane he’d been holding and the way his shoulder’s been bound and also the fact that she’s crushing the ever-loving life out of him, Jesus wept, Mori…!

She wipes her eyes—it’s hot in here, he imagines her saying, it’s just sweat—and plants her hands on her hips. “You coming out any time soon?”

Before he can stop himself, he shoots back, “mmm, think being carried in reeking of heat pretty much outed me already, Mori.”

Her eyes tighten and then she’s laughing. “You shit,” she mutters between snickers. “I meant exiting your room. Cave-dweller.”

“That was the plan,” Chuck agrees, nodding to his cane.

“Good,” she says. “We’ll do the usual.”

And just like that, they do. Their route is familiar, practiced, almost as steady and reassuring as the time they spend together. They’ve grown up together, they have, and it shows in the way they unconsciously mirror one another. There’d been a time when people had thought that they would end up piloting together, but Mako and Chuck know better.

“I saw Raleigh,” she says, apropos nothing, as they take a turn down at the end of the empty pier.

“Mm?” Chuck responds, trying not to sound interested, fighting back the urge to remind her just who Becket belongs to. She’s not his competition, she’s an Alpha, they’re practically related—and he still wants to hiss at her.

She seems to see it in him, anyway, and her face softens. “I’m not a threat, you big lummox,” she says, a hint of laughter breaking through the words. “And when your hormones settle, you’ll realize that. Hell, if you’d smelled him recently, you’d—”

“Have practiced my barbaric yawp all over his shoes,” Chuck interrupts pleasantly.

Mako allows for the fact that this is true. “Well, within the last twelve or so hours. You ‘printed on him, hard, Hansen.”

Chuck says nothing, just stares out over the quiet ocean.

“He still smells like you,” she continues, familiar with Chuck and his avoidance of things. “And he’s been looking for you—waiting for you to appear, I think. And he’s leaving your marks untreated.”

His hands tighten on the railing of the pier at that last part. Because of his port, because it was his first heat, because the circumstances were fucked to hell and back, because because because, he hadn’t been able to mark up his Alpha the way he wanted to. He’d only been able to claw at Raleigh’s wrists, to bite at his arms. Those weren’t the marks an Alpha kept; they weren’t the marks of a victorious and epic fuck.

“He cares about you, Hansen,” she says, relentless, baring down on him like a mother tiger on the hunt. “He’s waiting for you to find him.”

And, like that, he snaps. “It’s just the hormones, Mori! It’s just the imprint. He’ll be over it in a week, tops.”

His voice echoes out over the lipping waves, and the strength drains from his spine. He closes his eyes, weary.

Mako’s hand is soft and small on his back, and strangely uncomfortable. She removes it when he twitches, but doesn’t let that stop her from speaking. “It’s more than the hormones, Chuck,” she says quietly, and her use of his name suggests that this time, he ought to listen. “Yes, that’s how an imprint starts, but that’s not what keeps it hanging on. Imprints will throw an Omega into heat, will throw us into rut, sure. It’ll connect us to our Omega at the start. But that’s it, Chuck. That’s where it ends.

“I don’t know if they teach this to Betas—I’m thinking they must not—but imprints are fleeting. Hormonal imprints, like the ones that trigger a sympathetic heat or rut, end at the first complete tie. You haven’t been hormonally imprinted on each other since maybe six hours after they found you, Chuck.”

He turns to face her.

Mako’s expression is agonizingly kind. “You…you need to talk to Kaidanovsky, or Dr Geiszler, or, hell, even your father. Someone needs to explain Claiming to you, Chuck.”

---

Aleksis offers to get him drunk.

Chuck declines, thinking of antibiotics and painkillers and the urge to go bury himself under blankets with Max until the whole world goes away.

Aleksis shrugs, takes a swig from the bottle of vodka, hides it away in his nest once more. Then, uncaring of personal space as ever, he reaches forward and yanks the precariously-perched Chuck into his embrace.

Chuck struggles for a moment, and then relaxes, going boneless and limp. At least this hasn’t changed.

“Claiming,” Aleksis says, gathering his thoughts visibly. He starts massaging Chuck’s shoulders absent-mindedly. “Claiming is something hard to explain. But also very easy.”

Chuck just hums beneath his touch, waiting. When Aleksis gets philosophical, it’s usually worth it to wait for the point. And this is the first time in a week someone else’s touch hasn’t made him want to crawl out of his own skin. After the splurge of contact he got during his heat, going cold turkey has been a bit rough.

“Claiming is,” Aleksis starts again. “Claiming is…is when two are so complete, it drives out everything else altogether.”

---

Newt’s explanation, while more scientific, also makes more sense.

“Well, you’re already running hot from the hormonal imprint,” the colourful Omega explains, his hands flying, “and then you throw in the sympathetic reaction that comes from being with an Alpha in rut—at least at our end; for them, it’s being with an Omega in heat—and what it does is it opens several basic neuroreceptors in the brain.”

He bounces up from his seat and starts pacing around his cluttered office. “And then, of course, your whole system’s pumping out everything it can—things to slow your metabolism to a fucking crawl, things that make you more receptive to sexual pheromones, your own pheromones are going off the charts, the Lewis-Perler gland is in overdrive, your uterine-anal muscles are all being simultaneously relaxed—that’s why we’re so loose and easy—and pumped up—which explains the heat and the locking reflex.”

“How is this any different from a hormonal imprint?” Chuck says, interrupting and not caring. If you let Newt get going, he can (and will) keep going until one or both die of old age.

“That’s what I’m getting to,” Newt says. He wags a finger in Chuck’s face. “Now, say you’ve imprinted on this totally hot guy who also happens to be fucking brilliant and droll as hell. Ie, fucking perfect, thank you very much. And since you’ve ‘printed him like a brick to the face, his body’s going crazy, throwing him into rut so he can keep up with you. ‘Cause he’s gonna need aaaaallll the help he can get.

“Then, you finally get him to a bed—or any flat surface; lab tables are nice, s’long as they’re clean—and his brain goes, oh, hey, Omega! And boom, knot, you’re tied, it’s great. And in response, your body says, oh, hey, knot, that feels great, lock! And like I said, you’re tied.”

“And it’s great, yes,” Chuck says.

“That’s what I’m getting to, yes,” Newt tells him. “Because that’s the thing. Once you tie, in that moment, your brain starts cutting back on all the crazy chemical shenanigans. At least for the moment, it’s going back to regular operations. Nine times out of ten, after that first tie, it’s still gonna click over to heat mode, but in that moment, your brain is sorting through all the data it’s taken in all day. And that’s when your olfactory receptors team up with your hormones and this lovely little chemical cocktail neuros like to call the “chemical of loooooooove” when talking to the rest of us, and they take over your brain and say, hey, man, this Alpha’s fucking awesome. He smells sooooo good and he feels great and you know, he totally sets off this neurochemical cascade in my brain every time I see him hear him touch him smell him even just think about him.

“And your brain goes, oh, hey, that’s cool. And boom, signals sent out to the Harbin-Mennick-Myeong area, and then all those neuroreceptors from earlier—the ones that were super-open because of your heat and the ‘print? They are just bathing in these chemicals, and that makes them set off their own little chemical factories, and within five minutes of the Alpha knotting, you’re sweating out a smell that makes his brain run through the same decision tree.”

Chuck frowns, thinking through the deluge of information. “What if…what if he’s not…if he doesn’t…”

Newt eyes him. “If he doesn’t feel the same way? Not a question you need to be concerned with, because trust me, the so-called hypothetical him in this situation definitely feels the same way, buuuuut. If his brain runs through the decision tree and says, mm, no, not really doing it for me, then the Alpha doesn’t produce the corresponding chemicals and the lack of response basically shuts down the process in the Omega brain and you go on to have a mutually satisfying but ultimately unfulfilling cycle together, the end.”

“He’s still echoing my scent,” Chuck admits in what is nearly a whisper.

His quiet seems to calm Newt. The older man sighs, settles his hip against his desk. “Chuck. I can’t tell you what to do, obviously. But I can tell you, both from science and from sharing a Claim with the most loving, wonderful man I’ve ever met, that if you keep trying to avoid him, you’re only going to regret it.”

---

Herc has had enough. Angela had sometimes needed a break from Alpha-scent after the heat, and so he had no problem letting Chuck hole himself up in the room and hide from the world, trying to heal from dehydration-malnutrition-broken ankle-sprained shoulder-a drift with a dying man. But now? Now, Chuck is past that, is willing to go out and visit with Tendo, with Mako, with Newt, with Hermann. The only person he’s avoiding is Raleigh Becket.

And that’s why Herc has had enough. Because Becket’s avoiding Chuck, too, and if he had a tail, it would be tucked between his legs.

Raleigh’s acting like Chuck has rejected him but Herc knows that Chuck hasn’t, that Chuck can’t. Because Chuck’s too taken with him, because Chuck hasn’t seen him, because Chuck has been avoiding him just the same as Raleigh’s been avoiding Chuck.

If he had to guess, Herc thinks, he’d guess that they’ve started to Claim one another. After all, Chuck’s scent has settled into that spicy adult Omega smell, but it’s still Chuck, and Herc still knows it instinctively. But he also can smell something in there that isn’t his son, and he’s willing to say, a hundred to one, that it’s Becket. Because Becket smells like Chuck, now, too.

They haven’t completed the Claim, he’s fair sure of that. For one, see above about the fact that they’re avoiding each other like the two emotionally constipated idiots they are. For two, Becket hasn’t come by to talk to Herc yet, and he knows for damn sure that the other Ranger is old school enough to ask the Alpha parent’s permission to Claim their child. For three, well, three is that he is Chuck’s father and he knows for damn certain that his boy is frightened, even if neither of them says a word.

But if he’s told Chuck once, he’s told him a million times that fear is not a reason not to do what needs to be done.

So he might maybe set up for the two to get stuck waiting in his office for him.

Maybe.

---

“I’m sorry,” they both say, at the same time, the same self-conscious blush lighting their cheeks.

They try again. “Sorry, I—”

Raleigh laughs, not unkindly. “We’re just not meant to apologise, huh?”

“Seems not,” Chuck says, accepting.

Raleigh smiles. It’s quick and thin, nervous. “How…how have you been?” he asks.

Chuck coughs. “Uh, good,” he says. “You know, working on the shoulder, the ankle. Good.” He pauses, looks down at his feet. “You?”

“I’ve been okay,” Raleigh says.

They sit in silence a moment longer.

A long moment longer.

“Fuck it,” Chuck says abruptly.

Raleigh expects him to stand up, expects him to check the door, to see if it’s unlocked. (It wasn’t, the first time.)

He doesn’t expect the other man to seize his chin and tilt his mouth into a hungry, if unpracticed, kiss.

Doesn’t mean he doesn’t respond.

---

Charles Andrew Hansen is the single most frustrating Omega ninety nine point nine percent of the world has ever had to work with.

The other point one percent is Raleigh.