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Heart in a Headlock

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Heart in a Headlock

Chapter One: Distant Flickering

 

As retirement parties for heads of department went, Finna McPhearson's sending off do was designed by the admin to fly under the radar and underwhelm the attendees. Odd time, badly publicized, frankly embarrassing super-market food, and it was being held in one of the small staff lounges- the one that smelled faintly of overcooked cabbage. Not at all the thing for someone who had been on staff for forty years.

It might have succeeded, Finna departing unnoticed, until the number of people wanting to be a part of wishing Finna farewell swelled so that a slightly larger conference room had to be commandeered, and then the ghost was given up and the big party took over an auditorium.

Vivian Thorpe had not been happy about the gate crashers, the abandoning of her streamers, or the sudden and mysterious arrival of the sushi platters, the ten foot sandwich, the floral fruit arrangements and the enormous cake. Vivian Thorpe was Olaf Thorpe's daughter, and being that Ol' Olaf was the President of Albion University it was not surprising she had wrangled her way into an administrative post. Or been given one because her narcissism overshadowed her intellect to such a degree that the former made the latter difficult to detect. Whichever.

Merlin was fairly certain it had been Olaf's order to make sure the retirement went as quietly as it could. Finna was forever challenging him head first, legal statues in one hand, meticulously document research in the other, and Merlin had never known her to back down, whether in a private or public. Vivian's party planning reflected the quiet hope that Olaf could get rid of Finna with as little fuss as possible. The initial accumulated guests were members of Finna's department and the women from the library, but nearly no one else.

However. Olaf had once again under estimated how liked Finna was. The swells of people pouring in gratified Merlin, and if someone had posted something on Facebook to be sure the day was marked, well, Merlin wasn't telling whom. Instead he watched staff from all across the campus, professors and administrators alike, pour in with hugs, well wishes, and small gifts. There were current students and former students, community liaisons, other members of her field, representatives from the programs Finna gave time to, members of the district, hell, even one of the textbook reps who had enjoyed working with Finna.

Merlin stood in a corner with Gwen Smith (Pediatric Physician and Clinical Professor of Medicine for Mercia College) and Freya Bast (an Assistant Professor in Art for Gawant College ). Though they came from different departments, or a different college in Freya's case, Finna had such a warm, obliging way about her that it was hard not to take her advice and her oatmeal raisin cookies. Freya and Gwen were in positions to take both, since Merlin's office was in Gedref Hall, midway between theirs, and so it had become the meeting ground for the three of them. Finna's office was in the same building, a floor up from Merlin's. Had been. Despite himself, seeing her potted plants, her silly mementos from past students and her pictures leave in boxes over the past week had made Merlin feel rather dismal.

Currently, Finna was talking to Olaf Thorpe's secretary, since the man himself had been unavailable. Around her were people waiting to cycle in to speak to her, the room bustling with activity. The woman of the hour was quite in demand.

Merlin, Gwen and Freya had scored a corner and were watching Vivian apparently recovering from her miff by flirting with Finna's replacement, who had been hired from Gaul University. Cenred Ellis was a slightly slimy looking malpha. He and Vivian were standing very close together by the impromptu snack table now quite laden with donations brought by party goers.

Since Merlin had some misplaced anger at Cenred who had been hired for a job that should have been Professor Alice Abernathy's if not for Olaf's barely constrained prejudices and preferential treatment, he wasn't sure he could have found it in himself to sympathize with Cenred for catching Vivian's attention on principal. That Cenred returned the interest absolved Merlin of any guilt he had about not liking Cenred from the outset.

“I saw her in the bathroom. She's bought some of that hideous 'Enchanted' perfume.” Gwen said in a voice that suggested she despaired of decency. “She was dousing herself in it. Everywhere.”

Merlin recoiled at the thought of that, though it only cut Cenred the tiniest bit of slack. “Everywhere?” he said. “Even...” He made a nebulous southern gesture.

“Everywhere.” Gwen affirmed.

“In the staff bathroom? Vivian was hiking up her skirt to spray that stuff on her junk in the bathroom I frequent in order to go fishing at a retirement party? I know as a psychologist and mature adult I should judge her not, but I think I'm worried about cooties. How long d'you think they linger? 24 hours?”

Freya looked up at Gwen uncertainly. “What perfume?” The soft-spoken Freya often had a tenuous connection to reality outside her canvases and her classes.

Gwen tucked a few corkscrews of dark hair behind an ear. “You've missed the advertisements for it? It's this fancy perfume by Blessed Cosmetics. That beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker does the commercials, with all the blowing curtains.”

“Perfume with omega heat pheromones in it.” Merlin supplied. “Two thousand dollars a bottle. Insulting and degrading. And now apparently swamping the unisexed staff bathroom. I pity any unsuspecting malpha who goes in there and has to pee with an erection.”

Freya frowned at the way Cenred shuffled closer to Vivian with that light in his eyes that alphas could never quite muster for a beta. Even though plenty of alphas and betas made perfectly content couples, Merlin was not here to undermine any pairings people chose to make. However, he would also be foolish if he denied that biology was a vicious mistress, and Cenred was probably being powered more by the pheromones than any honest attraction.

“Isn't that rather like a cat rolling itself in dog urine and calling itself a Shih-tzu?” Freya asked airily, tilting her head.

“If you want to call your chemical secretions urine, I suppose.” Merlin said.

They watched Vivian back up in small increments, an empowered look in her face as Cenred followed her, dragged on by his own biology he was rather failing to keep in check.

“Still,” Gwen said, swirling a carrot stick through a lump of dip. “He's not plugging his nose and dashing the other way. Or even attempting to overcome. There's no hope he's going to be decent.”

“Olaf hired him.” Merlin glumly informed them. Personal hires by Olaf, especially such enthusiastic ones, were never a rousing endorsement for the hiree.

Both the women made faint commiserating noises acknowledging the magnitude of that misfortune and a little bit of relief that they weren't going to have to work under Cenred. Gwen was a single betafem, and Freya an unbonded femega, and to an alpha like Cenred there was no doubt there would be some butt pinching and requests to fetch coffee. So too for Merlin if not for the veil he lived behind.

Merlin had the advantage of over a decade on Culofactozine, which kept his sexugender a particularly secure secret. He knew it was a wild topic of speculation amongst the staff, and his chosen field of Sexuality and Dynamic Studies made him very hard to pin down. Along with his roulette bathroom use. Unisex/Handicapped as often as possible, but those had only come into vogue the last twenty years or so and many buildings didn't have them. Mostly he was left with the choice of A/BM, OM/T or BF/OF/C. He mixed them up, showing neither aversion nor partiality. Nobody was going to out him in the necessity of urination.

That and Human Resource departments were learning by a series of vicious FERPA lawsuits that any breach of confidential information was firmly, incredibly illegal. No matter how many whiny letters Kara from the English department wrote about him being a degenerate. He went, he peed, he left. It wasn't like he'd been peeping over stalls or loitering around the dryers.

Vivian seemed to think that she'd lead Cenred on enough of a merry chase around the snack table. They now stood very close, Vivian looking demurely up through her lashes at him, in full view of all the other attendees. Not that anyone else appeared to be noticing, but seeing as Merlin, Gwen and Freya had been at the party since it started in the small lounge three hours ago, their attention was understandably waning.

The skin between Freya's eyebrows puckered. “He's going to be very disappointed...” Her voice was soft, almost concerned.

“He' picking up the daughter of the uber alpha who hired him at the retirement party of the beta he's replacing. It's safe to say he deserves whatever he gets. He's probably married.”

Gwen added “Probably married and bonded. He looks like the kind of malpha who wants total control over his spouse while doing exactly what he wants. I'll bet he married and bonded his high school sweetheart before ze set foot in the outside world. Now he cheats on zer.” She tossed her carrot back down on her plate, then toddled over to the rubbish bin to discard the entire thing, apparently having lost her appetite.

“I bet he padlocks the fridge so ze doesn't gain weight.” Gwen said when she returned.

“Committing infidelity to a bondmate is the worst of sins.” Freya shook her head. Any sympathy she had for Cenred's assumed disappointment with what he found between Vivian's legs was gone.

“Don't even get me started. I don't believe in sin, but if you're a/o and lucky enough to find a compatible mate how could you betray them? Especially this publicly?” Gwen said.

“He might not be bonded or married...” Freya offered, but even she didn't sound convinced, even if she was trying to think the best of Cenred.

Merlin pointed and said. “He's got a wedding ring. Gwen, you go in and check his neck for a bondbite.”

“I'd have to get within smelling range. No thank you.” Gwen made a disgusted face that soon dissolved into laughter she attempted to smother. “Our place of work is looking distressingly like a TV show.”

“I eagerly await the musical episode.” Merlin said, raising his glass of punch in a salute. “Dibs on the humorous duet. Gwen, you get the power ballad.”

Gwen sighed, shaking her head sadly.“With the way my romantic life is going it would be 'On My Own' from Les Mis.”

“Good. Mine was going to be 'The Internet is for Porn'.” Merlin said.

“I see you more as 'Don't Want to Fall in Love' from Wonderland.”

“I have never even heard of that one. What about Freya?” Merlin said.

“'Where Is Love?' from Oliver?”

“'A Cockeyed Optimist?'”

“No. Wait. Matchmaker. Fiddler on the Roof.”

“And Vivian gets 'I Cain't Say No'.”

They lapsed into quiet for a few moments after a successful summation of their love lives through Broadway song, a look exchanging their mutual understanding that neither would speak of either how ridiculous or borderline nutso it was.

Freya didn't seem to notice.

“Maybe we should move lunch to my building?” Gwen suggested. “I don't like the idea of him skulking about while we're chatting.”

“Too far for Freya.” Merlin said.

“I don't mind coming across campus,” Freya volunteered. “I have my bike.”

“Still, “ Merlin sighed.

They all watched while Cenred leaned in, trying to be subtle about sniffing Vivian. Merlin could see his erection through his slacks. Not just an alpha, but a malpha. No surprise. Olaf didn't like to stint himself in prejudices. Alphas over Beta or Omegas, but Malphas over Femalphas, as if it made that much of a difference. It wasn't like the job called for the use of a malpha penis or even alphas at all, they were teachers for heaven's sake. Why did Olaf think his staff needed to be armed with big thick cock?

Gwen squirmed. “Let's go. I don't want to smell that. Or see it. Or know it.”

“Too late.” Merlin said as they all watched Vivian palm Cenred.

He and Gwen recoiled to muted sounds of disgust. Freya had more sense and had long since averted her eyes from the scene entirely. Gwen and Freya were dispatched to fetch their coats while Merlin sought out Finna. He found her talking to Professor Anhora and waited for a pause in their conversation to touch her sleeve.

“Hold that thought,” Finna said to Anhora and she turned to Merlin. They stepped out of earshot of the other professor.

“Had enough, have you?” she asked, eyes tracing over the mass of people drinking and raiding the food before moving back to Merlin.

“Yeah.” Merlin flashed her a smile, his eyes darting to Gwen and Freya who stood by the door, ready in record time. Finna's eyes had followed the sharp motion, and the two women saw them looking and waved. They'd already exchanged more sentimental goodbyes, and Merlin seriously doubted it would be the last time they saw Finna.

Finna wiggled her fingers back. “I must say, this will turn Olaf in his Italian loafers.” Finna grinned and cast Merlin a glance. “Whoever got word around did a bang up job. Got any idea who that might have been?”

Merlin made an innocent face and raised his palms.

“I thought as much,” Finna said.

Vivian's proudly proclaimed home-made play list flicked to 'Careless Whisper'.

Finna rolled her eyes. “Saints preserve us.”

Merlin muffled a laugh.

“We're still on for Sunday tea, yes?” Finna said.

“If you're still willing.”

“I've had enough of this place, Merlin, not with using my brain and certainly not with you,” She said, and he saw her eyes rest briefly on Cenred before he slipped out the door, presumably after Vivian. “I might have gone five years ago, had you not galloped onto the staff to keep me occupied.”

She turned to him with a bright smile and Merlin was struck by how much he was going to miss her. Cunning Finna with her iron hair and iron will. Sharp as diamond shards and warm as honey. She went a long way to protect her department, to fight for proper education, keeping the materials unbiased and the professors unharried. She'd been a shield, a mentor, a friend, but she'd had enough of the pitting, of the strikes. He couldn't blame her. The swell of conservatism in recent years and the board of trustees bend towards such values had those who studied the mind and the movements of people in their sights. It had been gently suggested to Merlin that his current research in blockers was 'not his business' and 'unnecessary with new birth control legislation pending'. As if the proposed bills currently incensing fecundists and liberals were a foregone conclusion.

“It won't be the same without you.” Merlin said softly.

Finna pulled a smile, but it was forced around the corners. “Come Sunday. We'll talk, lamb. Oh dear...here comes Drea.”

“Oh Professor! You can't go!” Finna caught an armful of sobbing Drea from the library.

Merlin mouthed 'I'll see you Sunday' and Finna smiled, making a shooing gesture behind Drea's back.

Excerpt of confidential data from Blockers: The Study of Invisibility in a Dynamic Driven Culture by Dr. Merlin Emrys.

Subject: Chandler, Catherine

Sexugender./Physiogender: Femega/Female.

Orientation: Heterosexual

Marital Status: Single, Unbonded.

Not that my father would ever admit it...but I think he was expecting an alpha. Someone to carry on his firm for him, the proud tradition. I don't mean he didn't or doesn't love me, he does. He's proud, too, I think. Proud I made it through law school, proud of so many of my accomplishments- less so that I work for the DA's instead of with him, but he understands. He even understands why I've chosen not to get married.

“I originally went on a blocker regimen to help me get through school. Going into heat can mess up your semester, make you miss classes, draw attention. Actually, most omegas in college are on blockers. If they're spending the money to go it means they want to be educated. At least, that was the majority of omegas I knew. Then, after school?...Well. As an attorney it helps to be strong. To appear strong, and to smell like omega is to smell like prey. But in a courtroom, it's best to smell neutral. Even for the alphas. Too many pheromones in one small room and things tend to get unpleasant very quickly. It's why judges are betas, and the splashiest attorneys are always very public alphas who are on blockers. Even without the smell, they have that energy, the juice. But being an alpha doesn't make you the best. Being smart does.

Being an omega in the profession of law is hard. I have to be twice as smart, I have to work longer, and I have to practice to be as cut-throat as they. It's not perfect, people still do and say things, still assume because of what I am I'll yield...but it's a work in progress. Sixty years ago breeders couldn't even get into law school. Now here I am. It's worth fighting for.

The following Sunday Merlin arrived at Finna's 1950's Calypso pink bungalow with his own retirement present.

“A Mr. Lincoln! Well done, Emrys!” Finna said warmly of the rose bush he had born with him to her front door. “I'll get my gear.”

Merlin laughed in agreement, setting down the rose for her to fuss after. When she returned with gardening basket in tow she tossed him a pair of gloves.

“Make yourself useful and come start the hole for me. Just there, yes- don't get yourself all mucky though.”

He'd worn junky clothes with just this suspicion in mind, and so Merlin didn't mind selecting a shovel before stabbing it into the dirt.

“Thank you for the send off, Merlin. It was one to remember.” Finna said as she worked on unpotting the bush.

“So many people love you, you should have rethought going.” Merlin said. The shovel was unfamiliar in his hands, but he took direction well, making a nice round hole and a mound of dirt to the side.

Finna shook her head. “No, no. It was time. I'm done with fighting other people's battles. It was time for a change. Now I want to tend my garden, catch up with my reading and meddle. I'll still guest speak, of course, and act as a consultant. But Albion U is not what it was, Merlin. I can't tell how how wonderful things were when Fisher was still alive.”

She already had. Merlin had listened to many stories of the university's beginnings and enjoyed them all. He was especially fond of the tales of the gryphon races in the sixties, when you had to build some sort of gryphon shaped device equipped for one 'rider' and race the participants. A rider who was, in one memorable case, a white lab rat in a leather aviator cap in a remote controlled gryphon shaped plane. In the sixties and the seventies things had been much more lax, much more non-litigious, and much more fun, it often seemed.

“A little deeper, yes, that's it. We'll make a gardener of you yet. Are you ready to go back to work without me?”

“Honestly? No.” Merlin said. “I know how much you were doing day to day. I'm a little scared to go back, knowing what is waiting. At your party, before it moved to the auditorium I got cornered by one of the board members, asked about my study and my grant. He was trying to hide his disapproval and not doing a very good job.”

“Disapproval for the subject matter?” Finna clarified.

“Yes. Apparently all forms of hormonal suppressants are a sin against God; hiding what you truly are, and inquiring about them is being gauche and nosy. I'm not popular, but I got the grant and I'll be published, so it's not as if they can fire me for having different beliefs. Still.” He shrugged.

They planted the rose bush, Finna doing a number of mysterious things to the soil, then having Merlin work the bush out of the pot. He held it in while she filled the space with dirt until it was freestanding. When all was done, Finna fed it from a watering can and they sat on the porch, sipping iced tea.

“I have some good news for you,” Finna said after a time spent in quiet.

Merlin raised his brows in question.

Finna smiled. “I'd hoped to have confirmation when you got the grant, but it took a bit longer to get her to agree; but I found for you a theta, living on blockers for your study.”

Merlin's mouth dropped open in shock. Excitement zinged through him, banging around his insides like a lightning bug in a jar. He set his glass down before he dropped it. “A theta?”

“Yes. Close your mouth dear.”

Merlin closed his mouth, but still stared at Finna wide-eyed. “How?”

“Well, when you told me you were going to look into this, I let a few colleagues know I was looking for something special, if they knew of anyone on blockers who might like to participate in a fully confidential study. It took some time, but a friend in New York spoke to one of his clients, and she's agreed, providing it is strictly confidential. A living and unaltered theta will put a nice feather in your cap.” Finna said.

“Of course! Oh, Jesus, Finna, thank you!” Merlin could hardly breathe for the opportunity to speak with a theta. While not as rare as Chi or Mu, Thetas only made up about 3.5% of the total population, and the three aberrant genders accounting for 4% total, providing they made it to adulthood. While this was increasing more with modern medicine (and third world countries no longer drowning their genderless Mu children or selling their Chi children for exorbitant prices into effective broodmare slavery.) it was still terribly rare to encounter them.

When Merlin had resumed his seat after dashing on direction from Finna for the business card resting innocuously on the crocheted doily atop the piano, grinning like a loon, Finna added, “Though my motives are not totally benevolent.” she shot Merlin a wink. “I sort of wanted to stick it to those gender narrow prigs on the board.”

“And you're sticking it to them giving me a valuable research subject. I'm afraid I must decry you as very slightly vindictive. Still though. Thetafem or Thetamale?” Merlin looked down at the card. Dr. Sal Aglain. Psychiatrist. Email, telephone and address.

“Thetafem, although that's about all I know. She's very private, but I gather that's more because of dealing with the public, and not because of deep seated personal issues with her sexugender.”

He placed the business card into his wallet. “ Finna, I can't thank you enough. No one would argue how difficult it is being Alpha or Omega, but for the AG's...well, it's an entirely different level of complexity. Maybe I can even pitch some further studies to her.” His mind was already racing with the possibilities.

“You'll have to call Dr. Aglain, won't you?”

Merlin finished finalizing his grades and closed out the school year without much fanfare and prepared to devote himself to research. He'd gotten the grant to conduct his study on suppressants and motivation for their use from a pharmaceutical company, Mortaeus Laboratories. The grant was hard won. It seemed like he'd spent an eternity writing proposal paperwork for it, and then another waiting for the outcome.

He planned to spend all the summer in pursuit of data, moving through many of the country's major cities with two graduate students he had for half of June, and all of July and August.

Freya was off to Italy to an Omega artistic retreat. She'd been subtle about her hints that she'd like Merlin to join her for a time, but the brochures with pictures of people painting, sculpting and getting in touch with their inner omega were an active turn off to him. Merlin was just fine without his inner knot-slut calling the shots, thank you. He couldn't imagine one of the hippie looking instructors being pleased about his years on blockers, either. They'd probably recommend a round of colonics and self flagellation with rolled up copies of Good Housekeeping.

He was also rubbish at art.

Thankfully, the retreat was ridiculously expensive, and he could decline on a financial basis. He suspected Freya's parents were footing the bill for her, which was another detraction. While wealthy, they were extraordinarily religious in the keep-your-breeders-pregnant-and-barefoot way. Anything they approved of was likely not to bode well for Merlin's fecundist egalitarian world view.

Freya's rebellion of leaving the church and being educated was tolerated, if barely, soothed over by her acquiescence to frequent seon. Not that they often went well. Freya, while blithe and sweet, was far from biddable and she was never interested in the strict and old fashioned men who were selected for her, and Merlin continued to wonder why Freya's parents bothered with seons if they were going to keep misrepresenting their daughter to the families of prospective alphas.

And seons, in Merlin's opinion, were little more than attempts to keep money from moving out of the upper class by bonding omegas to other alphas in the same social circle instead of relying on nature, which had a perfectly good handle on things, thank you. There was also the side benefit of controlling every iota of the omega's life. Which he didn't truck with either.

Still, he and Gwen took her to the airport and saw her well off to Europe. There was a stopover in Paris planned, and Gwen had laughingly made Freya promise to bring her back a French betamale in her suitcase. She tried to get one for Merlin too, though he declined, even if he had been fantasizing about French farming towns and the Arc d Triomphe, history, art and culture and kissing someone under the lights of Paris.

What he did do, instead of something impractical as reckless fornicating with strange foreign alphas, was collect interviews and surveys of socially valuable nature. He and his small team, using a collage campus where Merlin had a friend or colleague as a hub from, crossed the US giving interviews, widening Merlin's pool of data. He wished he had more, but getting blocker users to speak, especially ones who went on the drugs precisely for the anonymity they offered, was difficult. Even with the various wavers and other paperwork detailing confidentiality.

 

He'd spoken to Dr. Aglain, and found out that his and the mysterious thetafem's schedules clashed quite spectacularly, and he was forced to set an appointment in late September. It was just as well, though. It gave him time to do some reading on Thetas and prepare a more personalized and expanded set of questions in the hope she would be amenable to offering her insights. He prayed she was. Previous studies on thetas were thin on the ground, he was finding. Indeed, a majority of them related to the aftermath of the outdated, barbaric and misguided notion that a theta's alpha cock should be severed soon after birth, and the theta should be raised to live as an omega. Conventional wisdom at the time rationalized that since thetas lacked all other alpha systems achieving a normal alpha existence would be nigh impossible. Therefore, thetas were pigeon holed into being omegas. Fascinating, if slightly stomach turning reading. Merlin did not look at the pictures. Unsurprisingly, most of the altered thetas suffered a variety of emotional problems, not the least of which was knowing what they weren't while outside forces tried to force them to be just that.

Though awful, it made Merlin's anticipation for conducting his own interview with an unaltered theta all the sharper.

So the summer passed in a haze of interviews, beautiful postcards from Freya and motel rooms. The first two were grand, the latter something of a trial. Being in so many strange beds gave Merlin unsettled dreams. As August came to a close though he had dozens of interviews with which to work with. Merlin retreated home feeling both successful and sated. He'd loved the search. It was like a quest for truth.

Gwen had spent the summer offering her services pro bono at various shelters and centers, and 'lazing around in decadent abandon' as she called it, which for Gwen meant she'd also worked with Habitat for Humanity, did her annual cleaning of her father's home and generally gave time and love wherever it was needed including packing off care packages to her brother Elyan, who volunteered with and was forever being packed off to exotic locales where there were no oreos. It also meant babysitting her neighbors kids, since Gwen's biological clock was going off loud enough for even Merlin to hear.

That no-one had seen what a sterling and remarkable woman Gwen was amazed Merlin on many levels, though on others he understood that she was a intimidating force for good. Asking her out would mean taking time away from her quiet crusade to make the world better. Why would she go eat pasta when she could spend an evening knitting a blanket for someone in need in Africa?

Freya had returned from Italy glowing with some inner serenity Merlin attributed more to her soft nature than any retreat. She had made good her promise, and had brought home the most sinful three pounds of chocolate on the planet, which the trio did a fair job of devouring in a End of Summer party at Gwen's apartment.

Thankfully Freya had left all the Frenchmen in France, and was fat with stories of the great places she'd been. Merlin underscored Europe on his mental bucket list while flipping through the sketchbook she'd taken with her. Freya always took sketchbooks with her when she traveled, preferring drawings to cameras, so he and Gwen moved through pages with rustic Italian hill towns in pastel and the sights of Paris in charcoals, rushed pencil and pen images of people, both earthy and glamorous. They drank and ate, and bitched about the oncoming year.

Their togetherness without the mess of significant others was soothing. Merlin dreaded the day Freya would be bundled off to a gilded cage to breed for a few decades and Gwen would wed another doctor and they'd elope to Doctors Without Borders and he'd be on his own. He knew there was a certain inevitability to it, but still, he savored evenings like these with no calls upon their time except what they themselves mandated.

Excerpt of confidential data from Blockers: The Study of Invisibility in a Dynamic Driven Culture by Dr. Merlin Emrys.

Subject: McCunoval, Esca

Sexugender./Physiogender: Malpha/Male

Orientation: Homosexual

Marital Status: Committed Monogamous Relationship, unbonded.

I told you he was army, yeah? So, he's deployed again, overseas. Here's his picture. He's been on suppressants since he joined at eighteen. Anyway. When he went...I just didn't want even the remotest chance I would make a mistake. He'll be gone another year, two since I've seen him- he got leave last year, we were going to meet in London so I could visit home, but it turned out to be during finals week last year. I couldn't go.

I owe him, in a way. When we met, he pulled me out of a bad scrape, and now we're...it's delicate. We're supposed to be competition, enemies, two malphas together is the height of taboo. Instead we're something else. We barely understand what we are, how to deal with it, how to live with each other, and yet there's also half the world who loathes us for being gay. It takes extra work.

He'd understand, if I got caught in an omega heat. He'd accept and understand because he's been there. But I don't want to give him that to bear on top of everything else. It's just him and me. He needs to know it, believe that he's enough, that he's all I want. He would understand it, if it happened, but I don't want him to have to. So I went on Blockers too. For him. For us.

 

Merlin started winter semester with the promise to himself he wasn't going to be depressed about Finna, he was going to give Cenred a chance and he was going to enrich and inspire young people.

With that in mind, he started with one of his favorite introductions for his first freshman class of the year. After he welcomed the lecture hall full of students for his Sociology of Gender class, ironed out his expectations and gave them all a syllabus, he ran a power point presentation for his Guess My Sexugender game. There were fifteen slides, each with a vid clip of a subject standing for ten seconds, and then taking a seat for a further ten. In pen, the students were make guesses on the sexugender of each subject. They went through all the slides, then Merlin restarted the show, pausing after each one to gather the responses.

He'd updated the slides this summer between everything else he'd done, and added the clip his childhood friend Will had submitted when Merlin had made the requisite stop in his home town to see his mother and Will over the summer. He could hardly cross the continent and not make a stop at his childhood home. Well, not without being guilty for the rest of his life.

Will's vid had him standing, relaxed, thumbs in his belt loop, then sitting with his legs open. Merlin had filmed it for a lark in trying to explain what he taught to Will.

“Now, this one, Subject 8. Hands up for omega. Not many takers. Alpha? Okay, few more of you, so the rest of you think beta? Yes. You-” Merlin pointed to a student with her hand up. “Hello. Why don't you tell us your name and why do you think this man is a beta?”

Her eyes darted around as if someone would save her. “I'm Sarah Conner.” She shrugged. “And...well...he isn't outstanding in any way.”

“Equating beta to being average in physical attractiveness and build?”

Sarah nodded tentatively.

“Interesting. You- yes, with the green coat. You had your hand up for alpha. Why?”

The young man pointed to the vid of Will still cycling through. “Mordred Vlahos. I think he is alpha because of the way he holds himself, the way he moves. His posture is straight, his hands are relaxed. When he sits, he doesn't rearrange his legs, and they're open.”

Merlin nodded. “Mordred. Good eye for body language. So you must also think number 9 is an alpha too?” He tapped a key on his laptop, bringing up the next slide with Subject 9 who was actually Elizabeth Bellamy from the crisis hotline Merlin donated time to. He looked at the green-coated Mordred expectantly as he reviewed his notes.

“Ah- yes sir. Femalpha. She has the same physical confidence. Legs open when she sits.”

Merlin nodded, hopping down the carpeted steps and looking over the sea of faces turned at him. “How many of you selected the same orientation, whatever that may be, for Subjects 8 and 9?”

Most of the hands went up.

“Ah. Good observations on mannerism. However, it might surprise you to learn that subject 8 is an alpha- good job, Mordred- but...Subject 9 is a beta. Hands up who got it correct?”

He surveyed. “What can we conclude from this? Yes, Mordred?”

The dark haired boy rolled his pencil, watching Merlin. “You're trying to show us that independent traits commonly associated with a specific sexugender are not their exclusive purview.”

“Am I?”

“Yes. But the test is flawed.” Mordred was staring at Merlin.

Merlin's brows rose. This was the first time anyone had spoken out against it, and the chutzspah to speak out in conflict with the teacher had focused the energy of the room quite neatly.

“How do you find it flawed?” he said.

“These are visual renditions, and are incomplete data. There is no smell.” Mordred was still rolling his pencil.

“Ah. So everyone you will ever meet or need to make judgments about will be in range of your nose, then? And won't have altered their smell with Blockers. You place olfactory knowledge above that of visual or deductive?”

“No...but if we're going to get it right-”

“But there is no right.”

“But I thought the beta was an alpha. I got it wrong.”

“That depends on your perspective. Remember your Shakespeare; 'What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'. Whether subject 8 is alpha or a beta or an omega, which is it more important to know? His sexugender and the perceived traits therein, or his actual capacities?” Merlin addressed the question to the room.

There was quiet until a red haired girl raised her hand.

“Willow Rosenburg. I think it depends on the situation, which piece of information is more important. In an emergency, being able to tell he's in control and confident might be good...but it's also important to know sexugender in situations were some imperatives of gender can interfere.”

Mordred nodded and said “But, still; it is important to know. If this were real, I'd have been giving a beta the deference and respect due an alpha.”

Merlin resisted raising his brows at Mordred's words and all the implications of a alpharchal upbringing.

He flicked his gaze to Willow. She pursed her lips as if she were pained to point out her following statement. “But those aren't necessarily the values of everyone, the alpha deference.”

“That does not mean they're right.” Mordred shot back at Willow.

Merlin interrupted. “That is an interesting can of worms, but I think it's best saved for future lectures, possibly when we talk about social interaction in a few weeks. Right, moving on to subject 10...”

It didn't matter how far the world had come, and this crop of students did no better than the last crop, averaging at a 60% accuracy. They still thought the tallest, bulkiest man was an alpha, and the fragile woman with nervous hands an omega. And, of course, they always got Subject 17, whose stylish trousers were cut to show off what he was precisely. Still, he'd planted a few seeds, made them question their preset notion that confidence along with most other strength traits were alpha, and all emotional and nervous traits were omega, with betas lost in a non-descript no-man's land.

There were some bright minds, though, and often they splintered into some interesting discussions, often spearheaded by Mordred Vlahos and Willow Rosenburg. Mordred was a mix of eager-to-please and also attempting to unhorse Merlin, his sharp blue eyes following him like lasers as he moved around the room. Willow often countered with more earthy, practical approaches.

Towards the end Merlin saw Cenred lurking in the back of the room, pacing and listening. When the students filed out and Merlin began to dismantle his laptop, he caught Cenred sniffing them as they went by. When the last had filed out Cenred came down the steps, smiling, hands tucked in his pockets.

“Interesting introduction to your course, Professor Emrys. That beta kid was sure at your balls. You might want to pull him aside and talk about trying to bully you.”

Merlin flashed a polite smile. “Gets them thinking. Appearances can be deceiving. If you mean Mordred, he wasn't bullying me.”

“Mmn.” Cenred's eyes were sketching up and down Merlin in a way that made him feel like beetles were scuttling up and down his arms. “Still, a brief talk. He shouldn't be defending the respect due an alpha while trying to emulate the behavior of one.”

Merlin pretended he was wrapping his laptop cord around Cenred's throat instead of the transformer box. “I'm not afraid of him and it's not my job to modulate the behavior of a student outside of a general respect. He's challenging his instructors, some of the young, cocky ones do, especially if they've bought into a blind hierarchical structure contrary to one based on sexugender they've been raised with, as he has.”

“I can see this is a passionate subject for you.” The corners of Cenred's lips curved into a smile.

“Yes.”

“I enjoy working with passionate people. People like you. People with passion you can taste.”

“Uh, thanks.” Merlin clipped his bag shut.

“I know you worked very closer with Professor McPhearson. I hope we can be equally close.”

Not ever. Not even after Merlin took away Cenred's Guide to Sounding Like a Creeper and burned it. “I'm sure we will share the regard most colleagues hold each other in.”

Cenred only carried on looking at him.

“...Do you need anything, Professor Ellis?”

“Yes, actually. I stopped by to let you know you've been appointed to the Study Abroad Committee. You'll find the coinciding email in your inbox. Congratulations.”

Merlin paused packing his things and turned to face Cenred fully. “But I've been serving on the Academic Council for years. I was under the impression we were an effective group.” There hadn't been complaints, that he was sure of.

Cenred gave a shrug. “I'm sorry, it came from above, I'm just letting you know of the decision.”

Merlin tried not to glare as Cenred gave him one last sticky look and departed.

 

“He has no idea how to treat a human being outside of their sexugender.” Merlin grumbled over his wineglass at Gwen's.

Of course once term got underway it became very clear that Cenred was just the ass Merlin had suspected he was. He didn't mentor or assist so much as lurk in the back of classrooms and put the other professor's backs up with vaguely worded insinuations about the content and manner of their lectures. At department meetings Sefa Rundle, a tenured professor and bonded omega, was somehow always asked to get the coffee or run to make copies if print outs ran short. If femalpha Eli James was late, or spoke out of turn it was alright, but if any of the other largely beta staff made the same trespasses they could expect a chastisement. The slant was slight, but present. It was useless to report it. Anything so mild wouldn't be taken seriously, especially in this administration, and Merlin knew from experience that the board would even scoff at a room full of respected scholars, telling them they were over sensitive.

While Cenred was unpleasant, condescending and a dozen other unsavory things, he never crossed that line, never broke the rules. Slippery as a greased piglet.

He'd begun clearly with the notion Merlin was an omega, and so let vaguely insinuating statements drip from his lips (and attempted the coffee stunt, expect Merlin flatly refused whereas Sefa just fetched it to avoid a conflict) until Merlin made a few remarks to haze up the matter of his sexugender. Cenred's retreat came with gobs of suspicion as he transferred to a re-analyzing stage, attempting to draw Merlin out in occasional conversations with embarrassing fumbled attempts to learn Merlin's sexugender.

It just never passed over into being egregious enough to file a complaint. So Cenred toed the line, and Merlin went to Gwen's to vent his spleen.

Gwen's bungalow was worrisomely tidy and perfectly decorated with all the fussy touches of someone who consumed home decor magazines by the gross. When she found the time, Merlin would never know. His apartment was always a mess of take-out cartons, dirty socks and masses of reference material, not to mention the fine sediment of dust. Gwen taught students, built houses, doctored the homeless, tended her father, sent care packages to her abroad brother and reupholstered her own furniture.

Frankly, it was terrifying.

“If you start talking about Betaland again you'll be asked to leave.” Gwen said grumpily.

Merlin huffed out a breath. He didn't dare switch the topic to Gwen's day. The bottle of red wine had been broken out when she told him she'd had to diagnose a seven year old girl with HIV at one of the free clinics today. It explained why she'd invited him over. When Gwen was sad she cooked her upset away. Merlin was old fashioned in that he opened bottles or repressed. Not that he recommended either of those methods professionally.

“Got my first Study Abroad meeting tomorrow.”

“Study Abroad? I thought you were on the Academic Council committee last year?” Gwen frowned into her wine glass.

“I was. And I have been for years. I've been relegated to this new committee by some power on high.” Merlin stabbed his vegetable lasagne viciously, which was a pity since Gwen's home cooking was wonderful. She'd made vegetable lasagne, garlic bread and a pecan pie.

He continued glumly. “It's probably some horrible scheme to get me to send all the promising, open-minded students out of the country where they daren't disturb the status quo.”

Gwen gave him a raised eyebrow which perfectly communicated her doubt. Merlin returned it by making a general 'oh shut up' face, and hacking off a corner of the lasagne with the side of his fork before stuffing it into his mouth.

“It could just be that Cenred wants to lighten your load. With classes and your study. The Academic Council did take a lot of time.” she offered.

Merlin made a snorting noise around his mouthful of food.

“Alright, so, yes, he's probably an incredible ass relegating you to a committee that has no bearing on how student affairs are run and it's all an enormous conspiracy, are you happy?”
“Ecstatic.”

“You don't look it.”

Merlin swallowed and plastered a silly if insincere grin on his face, then downed the remainder of his wine.

Gwen frowned again as she refilled his glass, most of her food untouched. Once she'd set the bottle down she braced her elbow on the table, and her chin in her hand. Then she gave Merlin what he thought of as her Dr. Gwen look, a critical eyeing by a physician of a loved one. “Come to think it, you do look a bit tired. Is Cenred troubling you that much?”

Merlin blew out a sigh and shook his head. “No. Just...not sleeping well.”

Gwen raised her brows slightly, wordlessly encouraging him to carry on.

“I've not discovered some fascinating new sleep disorder, don't get excited. It's just stress, I think. Been having a lot of odd dreams.” Merlin said. “Much like you'll be having tonight.”

Gwen smiled wanly. “Not if I put away the rest of this bottle.”

“I don't really recommend that. I implore you, for the sake of your liver.”

It earned him a faint sound that was the weak and humorless cousin of a laugh.

Merlin asked hesitantly. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Gwen shrugged, wineglass in hand. “It won't matter if I talk about it or not. When I wake up, that poor little thing will still have HIV and I'll still be the one that told her and her mother her life will never be the same. Short. Unfair.”

Merlin reached out to take Gwen's free hand. Her fingers were stiff at first, resisting, but at length she relented and grasped his fingers, staring ahead unseeing.

“Seven years old, Merlin. Seven.” Her voice was soft, pained.

“It's not fair.” Merlin agreed.

“No. It isn't.”

Merlin didn't let Gwen drink the entire bottle because he knew she'd regret it in the morning. He let her have two glasses, and after a while they sojourned to the couch for a cuddle, leaving the bottle behind. He held her and stroked her back while she cried for the little girl and her truncated future, mourned her own role in such unhappiness, and that with all her skills she couldn't make it better. She couldn't fix it.

When she dipped into a tipsy doze, her face smushed into Merlin's shoulder he drew her into her bedroom, helped her with her nightgown, murmured soft things to her while he pulled down the blankets and poured her into bed.

She caught his hand when he turned to leave her. “Stay...Please.”

Merlin lowered to perch on the bedside. “Shh, close your eyes. I'm not going anywhere.” He tucked her dark curls away from her face, stroked her cheek. She watched him for a time, but weariness overcame her, and at last her eyes lulled closed. Eventually there came her dainty little snores. Merlin remained sitting with her until he was sure she was deep asleep. Then he gently extracted his hand and exited, closing her door quietly behind him.

Their meal was mostly untouched. Merlin cleaned up, storing the left overs, then washed the dishes since he didn't want a sobbing Gwen scrubbing hardened tomato sauce in the morning on his conscience. While he scrubbed he thought of Cenred and Albion's board, of a little girl with HIV, and the hundreds of people he'd interviewed this summer who, for all the diverse and specific motivations they gave for going on blocking meds, really just wanted to escape an unfair system.

Which was what preliminary coalitions pointed towards. A distinct trend; people of all sexugenders had reasons to want to blend in. Aside from those with chemical imbalances, widows and widowers, the mentally unfit, and various other extreme cases where blockers were medically mandated, it was not only omegas hiding their sexuality in a search for harassment free lives. Alphas too were seeking anonymity. Anything from avoiding promotion and pressure people assumed they wanted, to numbing their sharp hungry instincts. Even more surprising were the growing numbers of betas wanting to be recognized for their skills and drive and knowing that without a scent they could be mistaken for anything.

The advertising firms were going to be thrown for a loop, seeing as they had yet to catch up with the publicly accepted reality that alphas and omegas used blockers equally. Stereotypical fragile and not terribly dressed omega models were still the faces of Culofactozine and it's variations like Anosmian and Limbria.

Merlin had spoken to alphas, betas and omegas across the US by the close of summer, in dozens of cities, listening to the life tales of these people. Their aspirations, their disappointments, their hopes and their convictions. The little fragments that made up the tapestry of life for all the sexugenders in their country in this age. It was so different from what came before, so elegantly complicated, and yet so elemental at the same time. How to live as an alpha. An omega. A beta. Or, a theta, chi or mu, for that matter.

When he returned to his own apartment he made a cup of tea. He then forced himself to read some of the research material for his study. He quickly discovered his mind chewed the information like sawdust, absorbing nothing, so he abandoned his papers on the dining table that nobody had dined at since he moved in, considering the piles of paper it was cloaked with.

He abandoned his tea soon after, and went to prepare for bed. As he climbed in to the cool and empty bed, his thoughts turned to Gwen. She'd looked tired and lonely, and while Merlin had done what he could, he recognized that what she really wanted was someone to hold her in her sleep, someone to come home to when her day had been hard and long. He'd felt her loneliness very strongly, and some little corner of himself answered the chime. He squashed it. How very unfair it seemed that people who wanted to be part of a team had no capacity to seek out their one, and people like him, who didn't want it, had it.

Not that Gwen didn't date. She did. People liked Gwen, and there was never a shortage of betas and even alphas seeking her affection. But, for all Gwen's loneliness, she didn't want just any man, and none of them were up to the task of her. None of them had been worthy of her, in Merlin's eyes. Nor Gwen's either, it seemed. She was picky about those people she went out with, and rarely did they make it past the third date. She was always a little sad about it, but also determined. She was not going to date a man she couldn't see herself really in love with.

So, she and Merlin were holding onto each other, loving each other fiercely to compensate for what they both felt the lack of.

He did understand though. While Gwen loved her work, he knew she yearned. She wanted to fill that little missing place, and couldn't fathom Merlin's acceptance at it's emptiness. She kept herself busy so she wouldn't notice her loneliness. Merlin refused to notice his loneliness so he could continue keeping busy.

Which was where he was different.

Coming into his sexuality was no more rough and awkward for him than for everyone else, but it did make an impact on Merlin. The passel of children collected in his generation had suddenly found their egalitarian unification against the castes of adults splintering as puberty dawned and half of them identified beta, and the remaining half split between alpha and omega. All of a sudden the world was thrown into a hormone fueled chaos as bodily needs and wants changed radically. If major interior upheaval wasn't enough, the way people looked at him changed too. Suddenly there was no sense in the world, inside or out. People informed by their expectations of your sexugender suddenly took it upon themselves to make judgments. Where there had once been amusement in Merlin's boldness, his sureness, when he identified omega, and his body began a series of embarrassing and moist changes, the confidence he bore was met with disapproval. What had been fitting for a child presumed to be alpha by his pre-orientated demeanor was now to be frowned upon, for no other reason than he wasn't meek, wasn't what people thought an omega should be in his small-town place of birth.

His teen years put every aspect of his life at the mercy of his heat cycles, and he hated it. School, social life, worst of all his heat synced happily up so the week of Comic-Con Merlin was not strolling around a convention hall dressed as Spiderman or the Doctor, but locked in his bedroom at home writhing while imagining Batman fucking him into a week from Tuesday. Theoretically, it should have had its perks. In reality is was irritating. It slowed him down, more than anything else.

Worse, when he spoke about pursuing his education people would smile tolerantly and ask him what his alpha would think of that. If he made statements about his intention not to have children the smile only got more condescending, or people would pat him and say he'd change his mind when he was older.

At eighteen Merlin participated in his first mating run. When the dust had settled and Beltane waned Merlin felt like the lone structure standing after a tornado. Not everyone in the small local gathering had mated, of course. It was a teeny town in the middle of nowhere, but better to try locally first before you paid the money to fly to Spring Run in Montana for the largest gathering in North America.

That year there was a freak cold snap. Merlin remembered quite vividly standing on grass crunchy with frost trying desperately to get warm while the collection of now legals, financially strapped, recently widowed, and repulsively desperate sort of milled around. Few gave the effort of running and enacting the whole call-of-the-moon need to mate. Merlin had been in heat, and therefore wet, uncomfortable, randy and cranky. He didn't like being naked in public, even if 'public' was the other equally nude participants in the run and the town Beltane Organizer and her security agents, all sworn to confidentiality.

He'd watched a middle aged femalpha with a beer gut lurch towards a femega who was in Merlin's history class with a distinctly lecherous grin. The femega scurried away from him looking disgusted. Since her running was no act to entice the femalpha to chase and catch, the femalpha was quickly winded and angry. Some of the other alphas chuckled at the display.

Not one of the alphas smelled the least bit appetizing, which, admittedly, was a bit of disappointment, considering Merlin had spent five years of heats imagining. Of course, reality was sure to fall short, but this short? A crappy bonfire around which most of the naked participants were in close orbit of, femegas huddled together, frightened despite slick thighs that glittered in pale moonlight, alphas standing around, some pointing their pricks at different omegas. Paired off couples were rutting noisily on their knees in the dirt, and uniformed Beltane officers who pretended not to see or hear and somewhere down the hill beyond the tape barricade his mother waiting anxiously. It was distressingly feeble.

Then he'd had a brief freak out that maybe he was gay and he'd somehow suppressed it...only the smell of the other omegas did zilch for him.

In the end, he'd just put his coat and his shoes back on and went home with his mom.

Despite all that, it was actually what happened after the frantic sex and pairing off that Merlin found eerie and disheartening. He'd gotten to be friends with a femega, (Merlin was the only momega for a hundred miles at least) and she became co-conspirator in dreams of college and world travel, hungry for the world beyond their town, eager for an alpha who would take them away from it all. After the mating run she suddenly changed her mind, reporting her desire to stay close to home with unbearably sad eyes. She didn't have to say that her mate wanted her here, not at a college campus. He said it enough all over town for the both of them, and she was already pregnant.

Choices were choices, but perhaps if the overwhelming percentage of those omegas who mated hadn't promptly dropped their dreams and ambitions Merlin wouldn't have felt so sickened by it. Was that what awaited him? Would he too look at the world with sad eyes and try to be content because his bodily needs tied him to some alpha's anatomy?

The world was changing. Forty years after the sexual revolution shouldn't still be seeing omegas crushed under the will of the alpha and satisgaudium. Happily wandering into cages like a bit of the joy hormone addled their brains.

Plenty didn't walk into imprisonment, Merlin knew that now of course. But, at eighteen in a small town where no one rocked the boat, it had felt suffocating.

He went on suppressants the next month. Merlin had wanted freedom. He'd gotten it.

He had no intention of surrendering it. There was no one worth it.

 

While he had no intention of reporting to his new committee like a sullen twelve year old, there was a certain lack of spring in his step when Merlin approached the designated room for the Abroad Committee. He was sure his skills would be put to good use in reviewing applications or running interviews, whichever the committee head selected for him, but he would miss the Academic Council.

When he peeped into the room by way of the little window in the door and saw the committee head Geoffrey Monmouth, followed by a line of other frankly dour staff (including Olaf toady femalpha Lilah Morgan), he had a feeling this was going to be a difficult few hours. He was probably going to need a coffee.

He turned to head to the staff lounge and nearly plowed into another man.

“Whoa there, careful,” Came a silky Irish voice, hands steadying Merlin's shoulders. “Are you by chance on the Study Abroad Committee?”

Merlin nodded, temporarily muted by luxurious hair and a handsome face to go with the brogue. And a rich cinnamon-and-mace alpha scent which the man wore with the same easy grace as he did jeans and leather jacket. He was undeniably appealing, more so when he slipped into a languidly charming grin.

“And here I thought things would be dull.” the man said.

“I'm just...off for coffee before we start.” Merlin cleared his throat, his faculties returning. He offered a hand. “I'm Merlin Emrys, associate professor of Sociology.”

“Gwaine Green, on loan from Cork Institute of Technology.” Gwaine engulfed his hand in a warm and hearty handshake. “Chemistry. I'm not at all sure why I'm nominated for this lark, except perhaps I'm foreign and therefore know something about it. This way for drinks, yeah?”

Merlin nodded and they took off down the hall towards the lounge.

“What's this lot like, then?”

“I don't know, actually. I've been with the Academic Council for three years now, they moved me this term. This switch was a little sudden.” Merlin said.

“Still, I can see why someone from the Psych and Soc department would be an asset. Sniff out the ones who'll go mad from homesickness in the first week, save the expense of sending them.”

Merlin laughed a little. They found scalded coffee in the lounge, and opted for tea instead, but not without Gwaine procuring a flask from a pocket somewhere and dosing both their cups. Merlin would have complained except he was positive he was going to need it. Instead, he teased Gwaine for being an Irish stereotype.

Gwaine only grinned and claimed he liked a good brawl, too.

They carried back their doctored tea to the classroom where Geoffrey welcomed them without sounding glad of having them at all.

Merlin liked Gwaine at once, his easy charm, and is habit of muttering sarcastic comments just under his breath and around the rim of his cup. They were loud enough for Merlin to hear, but no one else, and he had to work hard not to laugh. Instead he pretended to write notes on his legal pad, most of which read STOP IT BEFORE HE SCOLDS US and KNOCK IT OFF, MICK. This did not insult Gwaine, but only made him try harder.

By the end of the meeting Merlin was indeed slated to interview students applying for the study abroad programs along with Gwaine.

When the rest of the committee members had filed out Gwaine let out a sigh.
“That's done then. Well, working together! That calls for a drink, I think. “

“Didn't we just have a drink?”

Gwaine tsked at Merlin as if he were simply minded. “There's a bar on Cedar that the students don't use. Care for a beer?” He used the words 'bar' and 'beer' with an American drawl.

Merlin rather happily found himself being dragged off to the bar, which Gwaine said was substituting for a pub, but was nowhere near as good as. The low student population seemed to be key because Gwaine was a born flirter. He flirted with everyone, as naturally as he breathed, and though most of the power of that lazy grin was focused on Merlin, Gwaine didn't hesitate to spread it around. A breadth of space between he and campus decreased the possibility that a one night stand he took home would pop up in his class the following semester. He was very much a roving malpha content to play the field.

They had drinks, falling into easy conversation. Merlin loved listening to Gwaine's rippling accent, and what he had to say wasn't bad either.

“What made you come to the states?” Merlin asked him as he was finishing his beer.

Gwaine was on his second. He shrugged and said. “My Da was a bit of a gypsy. Always traveling about for the company he worked for. I hated it; for all the money he made he was never home, but he loved it. He loved the travel. Lo and behold when I settled down my feet began to itch.” Gwaine said on a chuckle and polished off his second.

“How long are you here for?”

“Two years.”
“After that?”

Gwaine shrugged.” Wherever the wind takes me.”

When Merlin drove home that night, it was fueled by a happy bubble of contentment. He and Gwaine had made another drinks date, and Merlin was tentatively hopeful he'd made a new friend.

 

 

Excerpt of confidential data from Blockers: The Study of Invisibility in a Dynamic Driven Culture by Dr. Merlin Emrys.

Subject: Polk, Grace

Sexugender./Physiogender: Betafem/Female

Orientation: Heterosexual

Marital Status: Dating. Unbonded.

My orientation is my own damn business, that's why. You want to find a nice shelf to put me on? I don't think so. I don't classify like produce. I'm not an apple or an orange or a damn kumquat. And people have the alphamones to say 'oh, well, you're non-dynamic, you don't have to get involved, what does it matter to you?'. Like betas opted out of the human race or something. Like we don't matter since we're not chasing or exposing tail. And alphas, omegas? They've never been totally brushed aside, like you don't exist, like you're not worth someone's time because you don't announce your preferences with a bullhorn. And, hate to break it to you? Betas are more than half the population, so how come the entirety of culture is oriented around the alpha cock? They did that in neolithic times too, but at least they had the honesty of carving big dicks out of stone and kowtowing in front of them. I'm not here to be sorted, to be relegated based on how I breed- IF I breed. I'm here to be valued for me. My skills, my abilities, my choices.

It was Gwaine who ended up taking Merlin to the airport for his flight to New York City. He'd even offered to come along, to make a weekend out of it, though Merlin firmly reminded him this was for work. Somehow he doubted taking Gwaine along would be conducive to a scholarly frame of mind.

New York was soggy and damp when Merlin's plane landed. It remained mucky all the way to his motel, where he was able to change out of his sodden clothes into a fresh, unwrinkled suit. When he arrived at Dr. Aglain's office Starbucks cup in tow, the secretary behind the desk gave him a dismissive once over, but buzzed him through.

Dr. Aglain was a soft spoken man with cinnamon colored skin. Once the receptionist had announced Merlin he came out to shake hands and also introduce a Mr. Murphy who was a lawyer. This made Merlin raise a brow, but in the end he had no particular problem with the confidential contracts that were presented to him. He read their contents carefully, but found they contained little more than the privacy that was contained in his own waivers which he brought out for them to examine.

It was only after the lawyer had spirited away the signed papers when the door opened.

Merlin almost swallowed his tongue.

Morgana Le Fey.

Morgana Le Fey, gorgeous malpha, high fashion model, entrepreneur and trendsetter had sauntered in. She was all sleek lines, and perfectly coiffed, purple eyeshadow setting off the pale eyes, the sort of perfection Merlin was certainly sure didn't exist outside of four hours of photo-shop. He sat unmoving, watching her as she dropped herself elegantly into a seat and crossed long legs.

“You have a waiver for me?” She asked after there had been a moment's quiet.

“Oh-Yes. Sorry.” Merlin fumbled with his pages, but handed one over. He saw out of the corner of his eye Dr. Aglain hide a bit of a smile behind a hand hovering over his mouth. Merlin felt himself flush a little.

“Professor Emrys, this is Ms. Le Fey.”

“I think we can assume he knows that, Dr. Aglain.” Morgana scrawled her name with a flourish and sliding it back over. She'd never bothered to read it.

“Well now,” Morgana shot Merlin a sharp smile. “A little surprised I see.”

“It does explain the lawyer.” Merlin acknowledged.

“Mmn. I do like my privacy, I'm sure you've heard.”

The only super model to be tried for assault. She'd hurled a Loubiton at a paparazzo hanging upside down from a fourth floor balcony to snap pictures of her on her third floor balcony. She'd nailed him in the head. He'd fallen into some trees, broken bones and brought charges against her. Since he was on the property illegally the affair was settled out of court. Oddly enough, people didn't seem to be too sympathetic towards the paparazzo.

Still, Morgana Le Fey. Publicly regarded as a malpha, since she was the face of several upscale products, including one high fashion malpha lingerie line with an aggressively racy advertising campaign. Actually, come to think of it, Merlin had used some of those pictures in one of his classes; artful Morgana standing or laying down with smokey eye make up staring unabashed at the camera, wearing a variety of colorful and lacy underthings barely constraining rather evidently erect malpha cock, the control top molding and outlining so everything, from the tapered tip to the swell of a knot was known to the viewer. In some pictures she posed with momega model Mamoru Chiba in momega maternity under garments, the complementary line. The images caused quite a stir, with calls of obscenity, more particularly with Morgana than Mamoru. They made good food for discussion for his classes though. The viewpoints on Morgana's groin never failed to stir a wide range of opinions for discussion.

Which made seeing this famous face watching him expectantly all the more disconcerting. More so to learn that Morgana was no malpha, but a theta. Indeed, if he were honest, Merlin would confess it gave him a jolting thrill. He let his fingers give a wiggle and then shifted to his computer bag to remove his laptop.

“Well, I confess, I have heard of you. Rather unavoidable, in some ways. Sorry. You did surprise me. I didn't expect so public a figure.” Merlin flashed her an apologetic smile for having gaped at her.

“You mean you think I should be hiding? More than I already am?” One of Morgana's brows arched.

“Not at all. I wanted to do this study precisely because I do think people have rights to privacy even in the most public arenas.” Merlin assured her. He pulled open the screen and hit a few buttons. “You won't mind making an audio recording...?”

Morgana waved in what appeared to be permission, but she was still eyeing him sharply. “How many years, for you?” she asked. She didn't need to specify; with the two of them their chemical scents mingled into something alien and unidentifiable in the small office.

Merlin opened up his recording program. “A few.”

“A few is two or three. You're at least eight.”

“How do you know that, Ms. Le Fey?”

“Haven't you noticed? The smell of someone on suppressants. After about eight years it goes very slightly sweet- just a little. As if something has begun to rot inside you.” She wasn't blinking, staring at him.

Actually it was a little unnerving.

“That's part of the chemical process. It goes sweet after a certain acclimation.” Merlin said.

Morgana smirked. “Well. It's not as if the drug companies wouldn't mind destroying our insides with one medication in order to sell us new medication for repairing the damage of the old.”

“Jaded.”

“Life in the public eye.” She looked at his coffee, sitting forgotten and untouched. Then she looked at Dr. Aglain. “I think I should be fine here. Would you mind awfully sending your secretary out for a hazelnut macchiato? Soy. No foam.”

“I'm your doctor, not your PA, Morgana.” Dr. Aglain warned, but it seemed to be with a sort of acceptance that knew argument would be fruitless. Morgana smiled at him as he rose and departed the room.

“There now.” she turned the smile back on Merlin. “Now we can be really comfortable.”

“I don't mind Dr. Aglain sitting in, if you prefer.” Merlin said.

“He hears me whine enough already. He'll be glad of the reprieve. You're not what I expected either, Dr. Emrys.” Those pale probing eyes scored up and down him again, and Merlin could well believe he wasn't what she expected of some researcher from a college. People tended to have a very limited view of academics as perennial sixty three year old males in tweed, with grizzled hair, glasses and dotty personalities. And certainly not men half that age in charcoal suits with messy black hair and time lord pocket watches.

Morgana continued. “With those cheekbones you should be in my line of work, draped over alphas in a monochrome photoscape hocking vodka or something. Granted, you look too much the precious lamb to let a drop of alcohol touch your lips.”

Merlin chose to dip his head down non-noncommittally while he saved the audio file. Morgana said nothing for a few moments, but was watching keenly. Merlin could feel it.

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

Merlin hesitated, but it wasn't his office. Morgana took it for permission and in a few minutes she was replete with prop. As Merlin began to pose his questions and she to answer he noticed she would light up cigarettes more to hold and gesture with them than to inhale.

With great honesty and sarcastic wit she wove him a story of a childhood marred by the death of her parents, and an adoption where a tyrannical guardian tried to force her to live as omega, tried to surgically alter her only for her to discover he was her real father all along. How the betrayal nearly destroyed her, and left her lingering hatred for medical doctors. Her eventual escape and freedom was hard won, as was her rise in the public eye. She spoke with with candor, sparing none of the harshness.

At the end of two hours Merlin was certain of three things.

The first was that Morgana knew who she was, and was going to be that person regardless. She just didn't have to come out and tell you. If you were too stupid to see what was before your eyes, that was your problem. She explained that she'd never lied; she'd never said she was a malpha, she'd never signed documents or otherwise made any claims. What people said about her or what they presumed was nothing to do with her. It wasn't her job to correct their mistakes, and if their errors in judgment furthered her career, why would she begin making a big fuss?

The second was that the misconception was not only useful, but Morgana got a kick out of the deception. While he wouldn't have called her unkind (terrifying, possibly) there was some core of private amusement about her grand masquerade. The public was one thing, but scores of make-up personnel, stylists, photographers, talk show hosts, Personal Assistants, marketing people, those she had intensive contact with were never the wiser. She'd even had sex with people who never noticed. It seemed to amuse her and at the same time cause disdain.

It had not done a lot for her faith in people, which lead back into the power trip of tricking them, using them. She herself was sharp as knives. As evidenced when he concluded the interview.

“You're omega.” She announced. He didn't startle, but it was a near thing. Not because of her judgment, many people had said something similar to him, a proclamation of his sexugender as if there was a prize in the offing for getting it right. It was the matter-of-factness to it. Usually there was some quaver of uncertainty mixed in with the smugness. Morgana was certain.

“Oh?” He said, for he had had plenty of time to learn how to respond to such prying, and he knew his words sounded casual and unconcerned.

“Mmn.” She said, drawing on her fourth cigarette and then stubbing it out in the ashtray. “It's not that you're slight. Plenty of men are, regardless, though I'm sure that's why most people guess omega. You maneuvered me out of the dominant handshake position- I have read a great deal on body language, don't look so surprised, I'm sure you have as well- but you didn't take control. An alpha would. They can't help themselves. Unless you're a very special alpha...but I don't think so. When you were asking me questions you were so focused on me you forgot about you.”

Morgana reached for him, taking his left hand from the laptop. For a moment Merlin attempted to resist, but she cast him a look and he let her draw it nearer. He wasn't chastened, but a little curious to see what conclusions Morgana le Fey had drawn. Clearly she'd been analyzing him as much as he had her.

“You show your palms and wrists too often for alpha or beta, an indication of how submissive and nonthreatening you are. I bet it gets you a lot of information, when matched with those cheekbones and pretty blue eyes.”

Her fingers were cool, and her hands moved with the kind of grace you'd be disappointed if a super model didn't possess. She aimed his palm down and spread his fingers, running the tips of hers long the bumps of his knuckles them over the fingernails. Then she flipped his hand over so she could stroke his palm in little whirling motions.

“It could be a ploy, as you said, to use body language to my advantage.” Merlin pointed out.

Morgana made no response. She was looking at his upturned palm now. She held the wrist with one hand. It was a tidy hand, soft skinned, but though the nails were neatly maintained, buffed and polished, there was no lethally sharp manicure. Her fingernails were short, not even gloss on them. That seemed at odds with her aggressively fashionable and expensive shoes, clothes and handbag.

A femsexual, Merlin concluded as he looked at her hands. Morgana was classy, but practical. She liked to look good, have the best, but nothing that involved fussy maintenance.

He was drawn back to her actions when she traced the pink lines on his palm. His Line of Head, Line of Fate, and then, with a sort of shadowy smile of success his Line of Heart.

“Feathers at the beginning... You're very passionate. Curved, so you're also warm, sensitive and reasonable, well balanced emotionally. And very long, which means near co-dependency with your partner, and there will only be one. But, look at that. No ring. No mark where a ring was. Unwed.” Her eyes flicked up, briefly to his neck. “Unbonded. A stubborn, unclaimed mature omega full of devotion to give and... refusal to let it out.”

Morgana's eyes settled back on his. This time they were something akin to apologetic. “You must be very lonely.”

Her fingertips stroked over his hand now, less purpose to the rhythmic motion. It should have felt like flirting, but it wasn't. She was poking into him, prodding, only without questions.

Merlin tugged his hand away calmly. “Thank you for the analysis, Ms. Le Fey.” He considered pointing out he could be in a relationship not yet advanced to commitment, but held his tongue instead. Best not to engage.

Her eyes were bright. Merlin felt she was pleased he didn't rush in to defend or deny.

“Any time, Dr. Emrys. I'm available for counsel at your leisure.”

Merlin thanked Morgana for her time and her honesty. She only smiled in a way Merlin did find slightly unnerving, even though he shouldn't. She left first, long legs in those impressive shoes taking big earth-conquering strides.

She paused before exiting, however, calling to him. “We'll be seeing each other again, Merlin.” and she was gone.
A little off balance with her identification, and her prediction which came in the same, sure tone, Merlin put his laptop away, gathered his papers and then spoke briefly to Dr. Aglain. On his way out the secretary didn't look up from her computer. He said goodbye anyway.

En route to his motel, Merlin told himself that Morgana le Fey, however clever she fancied herself, didn't know him.

The third thing he'd learned about Morgana is that he never, ever wanted to get on her bad side. She'd make a harsh, blunt but vital friend, but she'd make a ruthless and lethal enemy.

 

October came to a close and with it, the general unexplained oddities which came with rush as Sororities and Fraternities settled down with the bizarre and selected their new members.

Cenred still lurked in classrooms under the guise of getting to know the professors. He seemed to like calling meetings for dispersal of inconsequential information, which was more a demonstration of wielding his will over his department when an email would have sufficed.

He also made a habit of making Merlin's TA femega Mary Ann Spier nervous for apparently no other reason than he could.

Merlin was teaching, volunteering and doing guest lectures at other colleges in order to pick up additional surveys for his study.

He was also obliged to keep up with Gwen, who was participating in two AIDS fundraisers; a walk and a Jell-O Wrestling Extravaganza. Merlin didn't mind being dragged into walking, but he outright refused to wrestle in Jell-O come spring... though he did promise to give generously to see Gwen do so. In fact both and he and Freya promised faithfully to be there as moral support. And to film it. For posterity. Then Gwaine decided it sounded like a good cause and signed up to wrestle as well.

Merlin was now looking forward to April with new verve, and the prospect of Gwaine rolling around not terribly dressed in some brightly colored gelatin was not unwelcome. Maybe being a friend, Merlin could bagsie licking some of it off him. Then Merlin realized how unsanitary that was and chastened himself, deciding not to think about Jell-O wrestling any further. Or semi-naked Gwaine in the Jell-O. Or Gwaine in any state of undress at all. Or Jell-O, just to be safe.

Somehow, Gwaine seemed to have joined their confederacy. He began to join him, Freya and Gwen for lunch. The foursome went out to eat, they went to a few Albion games, movies, Gwen dragged them to volunteer for several good causes, Freya took them to galleries. Gwaine flirted with them, but then, Gwaine flirted with everyone. Including Cenred, on one notable occasion. Merlin cherished the repulsed face Cenred made at the very idea of two malphas tussling.

Since Gwaine was sociable, charming and unerringly likeable, Merlin had been convinced that Gwaine would meet him for drinks a few times, and when no identity was forthcoming, lose interest entirely. He'd move on to a flirty co-ed or other appealing staff member, which was what social butterflies like Gwaine did.

With this in mind, Merlin took care not to let his heart flail too wildly. He liked Gwaine, yes, but Gwaine was a rover. He took no efforts to obscure his love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle, and how could he when he had a fair number of conquests in Albion already? Lilah Morgan included. They had to avoid her at staff functions since whatever had gone down, Professor Morgan wanted Professor Green's balls on a highly polished silver platter garnished with caviar.

As for Merlin? Deep down he was tragically monogamous, a happily-ever-after sort. There would only be one, for him, and digging Gwaine out of whatever scrapes Gwaine had stumbled into while never settling down was not his idea of bliss.

However...Merlin couldn't help but ponder how attractive Gwaine was, even though it was hopeless. Gwaine hid a sharp mind behind an affable exterior, but it peeped out when he started speaking of the chemical compositions of the beer he was brewing at home, or any chemistry in general, including his repertoire of chemistry related pick up lines. He had a goofy sense of humor, smiled fast and easy, but also seemed as if once his friendship was won, it was not so easily lost.

Merlin wasn't foolish. He permitted himself to dream about how lovely it could be only sparingly. He imagined dating Gwaine, revealing his orientation. Gwaine had no urge to settle, he wouldn't cage Merlin, wouldn't make demands. He'd shrug, probably, and they'd carry on, an agreeable couple, the commitment negligible, the sex free flowing and enthusiastic.

But Gwaine was not someone to entrust a secret to. Not that he felt that Gwaine would tell everyone Merlin was omega. Eventually, Merlin knew he was going to have to talk to Gwaine about what this was and what it could never be (while not pursuing him, there was the definite impression that if Merlin stumbled Gwaine would be there to catch him), but for the moment he let it be nice. Possibility was the playground of hope.

Merlin's own choice not to seek his alpha was one firmly made. That his nature was onry enough to decline sexual congress with anyone that wasn't his alpha was a kick in the pants, but it wasn’t something Merlin was going to die from. His first early heats were solved with a door lock and a dildo. It wasn't the same, he knew that, but the suppressants took care of his cycle, muting it to a forlorn tickle rather than a furnace blast of want.

He'd tried , of course he'd tried. Blockers or not, a body still got horny, a mind still wanted intimacy. It never worked. No matter how aroused he was, the moment naked skin touched him, the moment he got a breath full of someone else's arousal his body hit the breaks. Lust would become disgust, not for sex in general, but for his partner. This person who was not the one for him, this smell which was not his to claim.

It had been annoying, discovering that for as free thinking and open as Merlin considered himself to be, he couldn't make good on any of it.

Gwaine made him wonder, though. Despite years of failed attempts with alphas and betas alike, some niggling part of him wondered if it could be different this time. It had been two years since his last attempt...which had been just as disastrous as the others. The malpha he'd picked up at a club was not very pleased by Merlin's formerly hard erection wilting into nothing the moment they got naked. It had been excruciating, and Merlin a little bit drunk, thinking all he needed to do was loosen up. He studied the mind. He knew the older you got the more difficult sensual intimacy became. In his more rational moments he knew chastity wasn't such a difficult burden to bear, once you became accustomed to it. It even gave you perspective. It was only when his guard came down and he wanted so badly.

And Gwaine, Merlin reflected, would be a good sport about it. Wouldn't deride Merlin if he hopped on for a ride and Mr. Happy slumped..and so he didn't want to do that to Gwaine, either. No matter the ego on a man, it suffered a blow when a sexual partner couldn't get it up for them. Better to keep him as a friend. Just a friend and not a failed-romantic-liaison-turned-friend friend.

 

 

“Alright. This is a lesson where things are going to get a bit saucy.” There were a few whoops and catcalls from his Evolution of the Pack class which Merlin quelled with his hands. “I know. Now. We are going to be watching some explicit footage and having an intelligent dialogue about the contents. However, if you are made uncomfortable, you may leave and in lieu of the lecture you may turn in a three page paper on the history of scent marking next week. Is that clear? Lovely. Here we go.”

Merlin hit a key on his laptop and the video commenced, having been cued to the correct start point earlier.

A blonde haired betamale was resting in the seiza deference position, head dropped so he was bent, palms flat on the floor, the camera angle catching him head on so his supple beta cock lay between his thighs. His nipples were caught in clamps. When the camera panned the betamale showed signs of having been flogged. Behind him paced a femalpha, wearing an elaborate corset that hoisted her breasts up as it bared them.

“Gonna make you stink of me, would you like that, baby? Smell like mommy? Everywhere you go, people sniffing you, people smelling me alllll over you, knowing you belong to mommy, that she owns you. Won't you like that, baby? All the people knowing who you belong to?” She was murmuring at him, reaching a gloved hand to stroke his hair. The betamale moaned an assent.

“Please, mommy. Make me smell good. Make me smell good.” He pleaded softly.

The femalpha crooned at him. “Don't worry baby, here it comes, you've been such a good boy, taking everything mommy gave you, proving you were worth it. Now hold still, don't move, you hold still and you'll get your reward...” She lifted a leg, stepping over his head so her crotch hovered over the back of his exposed neck. The betamale was breathing swiftly now, excited. The camera zoomed in to catch the femalpha's labia twitching, and then out in time to show the burst of liquid as it poured out of her, rushing down the betamale's spine to the crevice of his bottom, over his shoulders to bathe his chest and thighs. The betamale moaned, and went almost instantaneously erect, panting out his thanks, groveling down to kiss the femalpha's boots when the flow stopped, almost humping the air. The femalpha stroked his hair.

“Ready to show mommy how well you can breed? Mommy only wants virile betas in her pack. That's good, you smell all like mommy now, and look how hard you are, come on baby...Show mommy how well you can fuck-” The camera panned over to the right where a betafem was locked onto a breeding stool, bottom in the air.

Merlin cut off the video to silence. He looked at the class which didn't seem to know how quite to respond. Some were muffling giggles, some were red, and some studiously blank.

“Now, we all know that alphas and omegas find each others scent powerful attractants and aphrodisiacs- This, however, is a betamale, and yet, when he is scent marked he goes from a totally flaccid state to arousal in about five seconds. Can anyone hazard why this is?”

“It's sexy?” One of the students offered tentatively. There was some tittering.

“Yes, it is, but is it arousing enough to get this reaction this quickly?”

Many of the students looked at one and other, but no one hazarded a guess.

Merlin began. “Scent Marking is a very different process from Bondmate scenting, and it's important you understand the distinction. Though scent marking has gone out of practice, it has not left our genes.

“Now. A bondmate scenting takes place instantaneously at the time the bond is made during a mating, though obviously one side of the pair must be either alpha or omega. Betas cannot bond since they do not possesses oxyamornin, the bonding trigger hormone. They can be bonded to, however, though this is rather infrequent.

So. You have, for the sake of example, an femalpha and a momega, both flushed with testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, vassopressin from all the rolling around they're doing, as well as the ever vital alpha produced satisgaudium which the omega in heat craves, and then, boom, orgasm. The body releases oxytocin, and in turn that stimulates the production of oxyamornin into saliva, production of which drives the post orgasmic subject to bond. Alphas have this somewhat easier, as they just pop out their Rectorular Canines and bite down, but omegas can do the same with standard canines, albeit with more work and therefore requiring a more compliant alpha, until saliva commingles with blood. From there, oxyamornin agitates with the dormant andophrengen cells, and a nascent bond takes hold at a cellular level.

“The purpose of Bonding and thus scenting, is to tie the pair together biologically and assure the creation and protection of prospective offspring. Ideally, of course, you have two figures which are mutually bonded to one and other, but the purpose of this discussion is not to argue a/a, o/o, o/a, a/b, o/b or any involving t/c/m bonding combinations or other circumstances with a half-bond. A partner may only be called a Bondmate when each has bonded to the other, otherwise it is known as a Dixotobond, a half bond.

“A bonding can be broken if an even stronger bond is forged but this is why, historically, alphas tended to keep a nice harem of betas over additional omegas to prevent any bond accidents. We will be discussing bonding again later in the semester.”

Merlin had scribbled a few words onto the white board, mostly the complicated names of the hormones at work. Now he left the board and began to circle the class.

“Scentmarking is usually performed by an alpha, despite the fact that alphas, betas and omegas possess the necessary glands. Now, while it might look like urination, the fluid present, the Aquarichor comes from the merrkya, and is actually only 30% urine, 45% akolouthkhri the rest of it comprised of 20% seminal fluid or female ejaculate and 5% a mixture of squalene, acetic acid, lactic acid, ketones, and aldehyde. There is no satisguadium in Aquaichor.

“In the strictest natural sense, one does not scentmark a mate, nor biological family. There is no need. Your mate will bear your bond-smell and your family will already smell like you on behalf of that handy little thing called genetics.

“Who is it an alpha scentmarks, then? Well, members of the malpha's harem, since ze cannot bond with them and a claim still must be made. But now that the malpha has a pack of pregnant betas and omegas, ze is producing offspring more swiftly than ze can feed them. The femalpha led packs, by contrast, tended to form triumverates or femalpha pairs, with one of them being the slightly more dominate partner, the Grand-Femalpha, and the others the demi-Femalphas. However, the trio are very likely to have linked estrus, and so they will all be pregnant and incapacitated, and therefore unable to defend their territory.

“Solution? Betas. Alphas will adopt a number of Betas into their pack to help with foraging, child-rearing, hunting and defense. These betas are scentmarked to identify them as that alpha's pack, but are free to interbreed with unclaimed pack members.

“However, since there is no molecular bonding occurring during scentmarking it means a scentmarking is temporary. It can last up to six months, but then must reapplied. This keeps packs fluid, allows for members to go start their own packs or join others. Only after a consistent scentmarking of a decade or more does a subject absorb sufficient levels of a donor’s akolouthkrhi- that's akolouthkrhi. It is the scenting hormone, from the Greek 'follower'. This means only your most trusted and devoted would eventually take on your smell.

“This system of pack dynamics is what colors our pre-history. All those little cavemen, running around scenting each other while their brains were still developing. It begins to change as humanoids move from nomadic lifestyles to sedentary agrarian ones. And what happens when humans settle down and figure out how to provide their own food?

“Populations explode. No longer are we packs, we become tribes, then settlements, then villages, and that of course comes with entirely new problems for our scentmarking drive. For example. How is the alpha pharaoh of Egypt, master of millions, able to scentmark zer 'pack'? Ze cannot. It is not feasible. Ze'd die of dehydration first.

“Aztec monarchs would add their scent fluid to a vat of cacaua atl, a drink made from cold water, ground cacao beans and spices, pairing the King's smell with the smell of this divine food to anoint those of the highest class, which included priests, warriors and nobility. In the Chinese empire the Emperor scentmarked zer harem, the Grand Tutor and the Excellencies, the Excellencies in turn scentmarked the ministers and on down. However, the Greeks and the Romans eventually abandoned scentmarking altogether as part of the 'beast ideal' they considered themselves above, and therefore it helped feed the image of the Germanic packs as barbarians, as they continued the pack mentality abd scentmarking during the rise of empires.

“This would eventually transmute into feudalism after Rome fell, wherein a monarch would scentmark zer vassals, the vassals their underlings, and so forth down to the serf, whose scentmarker was likely to also be zer tax-collector. As an amusing note, not infrequently in medieval court documents were tax collectors accused of just pissing on people. In fact, if you were a tax collector and you were found guilty of merely pissing on people, you were sentenced to being beaten by those you pissed upon with the freshly clipped testicles of a bull placed in a hemp-woven bag.”

There were a few snorts of laughter, and a couple of slightly disbelieving looks. Merlin smiled at them. “Yes. History is strange.”

He continued. “However, in a larger structure, scentmarking is still impractical. Feudalism managed to extend it's life a few hundred years, but rather than smell, people were becoming more known by name in both western and eastern cultures. You can hardly record 'that malpha who smells like pinecones and yeast' in a legal document. No, it becomes Edith the Baker. Or Cheng the chicken farmer. Here the written word supersedes these ancient instincts and as writing becomes more and more commonplace.

“By the Renaissance marking your subjects was finished as part of the governmental system in the western world. It was even being viewed with great suspicion as it was believed it had contributed to thousands of deaths in the plague, which of course it had. It is here we find our first medical document on scentmarking, written in 1516 by Dr. Edwin Clarke about the proper way to scentmark. Here is a line from it; 'Let thy alpha be of goode strength and hearty continence, clear of ill humors, wind and of faire disposition, for ire doth curdle the pungent scents. What water ze passes prior to the deed should be of pale color, clear and carry no malodorous fumes. Nor should be present boils, sores, warts nor other signs of ailing.' which is the sum total of actual medical information besides for a note about hydrating the alpha after marking. Most of the book regards social propriety around scentmarking and is, I admit, a fascinating read.

“So then, when the government stops scentmarking people as subjects, an odd thing happens. We must never forget that it is a drive, and most drives will, one way or another come to be expressed in some fashion or another. What happens to scentmarking? It begins to rear its head within the bastion it was never needed; within familial constraints. That's right, for the first time the natural familial scent is deemed insufficient, and people begin to scentmark their own children and immediate family. Step-relations and devoted servants or other prized persons had always been included in the pack, but for a stretch of time you have a surge of scentmarking of children, siblings, even bondmates. Blood family they already have scent signatures of, which is rather redundant, don't you think?

“However, there is a notable change. Alphas have generally be the ones to scent their underlings, all through history, but in the 16th century it is no longer a given scentmarking is being done by an alpha. Instead, whoever was household head, be it alpha, beta or omega can now mark subordinates. This marks a shift away from the alpha as primary in domestic life.

“From the Renaissance up until the mid 19th century it was fairly widely practiced, but highly private, this inter family marking. We're given a glimpse at how this was handled from Jane Austen's account in Pride and Prejudice when the housekeeper Mrs. Hill was charged with bringing the sisters a 'ewer for their father's most particular use' the contents of which they anoint themselves with by the use of sponges while Elizabeth tells Jane all about her encounter with Mr. Darcy.

“Since that time the practice has dwindled still further as hierarchical social orders have broken down and nationalism increased, especially in the western world, though there was a brief resurgence during the armed forced in World War Two. Now it lingers on in a number of third world countries, and in Asia, but is used more in upper class castes as more of a social distinction rather than a tribal identifier, which was of course the initial purpose. “

Merlin had paced around the room several times by now, and was pleased to see note taking, but most of all, interested faces following him as he went.

“So. Why don't we do this any more, and yet why does it show up in our pornography with surprising frequency?” Merlin addressed the class and let that question linger. There were no takers, with people scribbling down information from the few slides he'd flicked through the machine.

“First off. Who should we be marked by? Most Americans dispensed with scentmarking entirely by the Revolutionary War as another way to reject English land owning nobility, who were well known to practice it on anyone who worked in their households, on their tenant farms or in any other way might be considered their responsibility. In this country, we prize individuality, hold it above the demands of family. In fact, who would we consider our pack leader, our alpha? You run in many packs, in today's age. Which do you pledge to? For the first time in history we have an omega president, our leaders are no longer distinguished by their sexugender. Should the president scentmark you? Perhaps your family head? Father? Mother? Grandparents? Foster-parents? Should it be the household breadwinner, the pack head, or the oldest member? Perhaps you don't find your pack leader in your family. Perhaps zer is the head of an organization or group you value, such as Albion college's own Olaf Thorpe, perhaps a martial arts sensei, personal coach, a girl-scout troop leader, your boss at work, or a religious leader, even the DM of your D&D group are viable options to turn to for a pack leader.

“Who does still scentmark in the US? A very few families still do. Charles Manson scentmarked his devotees- and so do certain religious groups. Not alphas, of course, for Jesus said 'Let alpha know no other god but ur'. That rather leaves you Beta Eves twisting in the wind, but not so badly as 'The Children of Lilith', the vile seducer Omega, who are empty hearted tempters, according to the good book, and therefore should be scentmarked for the good of the community. You harlots, you. “

That got a titter of laughter.

“So, let's talk about....”

 

All Hallow's Eve found Merlin with an oddly colored cocktail in Gwen's apartment, with almost all the surfaces in the kitchen covered in home-made caramel apples, the ones rolled in nuts or other treats in the living room to prevent any allergen crossing, all wrapped in little plastic pouches and tied with red or black ribbons.

Gwen was well known in her neighborhood and so could get away with her home made goodies, in fact they were avidly looked forward to by kids and parents alike. She did have a bowl of reserve store bought candy for the strangers, which Merlin had rooted out a handful of the mixed mini bars from while he eyed his mystery cocktail. Freya had already drunk half hers, trusting soul.

“What's the black stuff?” Merlin asked Gwen. She was in the bathroom applying makeup. He'd peeked in to greet her as she was working on her nose.

“It's a Bloody Scarey, from Martha Stewart. It's Blavo Black Vodka, you chicken. Prosecco, orange juice, campari, some simple syrup and the black vodka. Try it. It hasn't killed Freya.”

“Yet.” Merlin muttered.

Gwen must have heard. She threw a denuded cardboard toilet paper tube at him.

Merlin sipped his drink and discovered it was not repulsive. He also threw the tube back, but it missed and hit the wall.

“No wonder Coach Owain didn't want you for the faculty baseball team.” Freya commented from the sofa. She was dressed as Frida Kahlo, fake eyebrows drawn in and was curled contentedly with a bowl of popcorn on her lap.

“I'll have you know we never got to my throwing arm. He threatened to put me on the team because I could run, I threatened to tell his wife about he and Vivian.” Merlin shrugged. “Simple.”

The doorbell rang and Gwen left her whiskers half applied to rush a tray to the door. She gave a coo when she opened it, greeting the children by name or pretending not to know who they were behind masks, and generally lathering them with complements while their parents smiled on.

“What are we doing tonight?” He said, once she'd closed the door once more.

“I borrowed some scary movies from Elyan's supply. They're on the tv.” Gwen said as she resumed her catification. Merlin got up to investigate.

“How is he?” Freya asked.

“Apparently quite happy. He's in Cameroon, in Africa. Something with water and sanitation.”

“That's what they do with Engineers in the Peace Corps.” Merlin muttered. He found Rosemary's Baby and Silence of the Lambs on top of the TV and shrugged. Close enough to horror for Gwen. A little Lector was a good thing.

“He likes Africa a lot more than the Pacific Islands. “ Gwen said through the ajar door.

Elyan had been with the Peace Corps for four years after surprising his father Tom and Gwen by quitting his very respectable job and heading out into the great unknown. Gwen would send him care packages and he in return would send Gwen the most fascinating souvenirs and artifacts of his travels.
Finishing his cocktail, Merlin set it down to clap when Gwen came out of the bathroom cat ears in place, long fake black fingernails shaped into ‘claws’ and a mask over her eyes. The doorbell rang again and she sprinted over to send another horde of children off with caramel apples.
When she came back Merlin squinted at her. “Why are you doing that?”

“Doing what?” Gwen replied innocently.

The doorbell rang again.

Merlin reached for the tray of caramel apples. “I'll get this one,”

“No!” Gwen said, then cemented on a wide smile. “I've got it.”

She dispensed with another crew of children.

“That.” said Merlin when she returned.

The lofty innocent look Gwen affected was not terribly convincing.

“Are you expecting someone?” Freya asked.

“No.” Gwen hastened to say.

Merlin raised a brow. “Who?”

“No one!”

The doorbell rang.

Gwen refused to meet their eyes when she went to open it. As she did, she gave a pleased sounding “Terence! Hello! And you must be Eoghan and Lamia.”

Merlin craned his head to peek over Gwen's shoulder. He could see a tall and handsome betamale with a hint of a mustache around his lip. He had two kids with him, one dressed as Optimus Prime and the other like a princess.

The exchange was reasonably short with Gwen inquiring about the kid's costumes, helping them choose caramel apples and Terence praising her for her culinary skill. More telling were Gwen's speech patterns. She would state something and then backtrack, adding and explaining so her intent did not come off more exuberantly than a possible overly-enthusiastic interpretation of her original words. It was classic Gwen attraction. Merlin joined Freya on the couch where they listened shamelessly. Gwen did invite Terrence in to meet her friends, but apparently the kids had a candy schedule to keep and before long they were gone. Merlin heard the door shut. He sipped his drink beside Freya.

Gwen came back into the room very slowly, eyeing them furtively with all the caution a person might use to enter a room with a twitchy tiger on the couch instead of your two friends.

She sat down in the chair.

“So!” she said brightly

“So.” Freya said.

“So...” Merlin echoed.

Quiet.

Gwen fiddled with a few of the candy apples on her tray, rustling the plastic packaging.

Freya sipped her drink.

“So.” Merlin said again. “Terence.”

Gwen abruptly groaned and put her face in her hands. After a moment she pulled them away looking both flushed and embarrassed. “Dr. Helios. He's new at the clinic.”

Freya leaned forward to take an apple. “He seemed nice.”

“I told him about all the apples and he said he would bring his kids by.”

Merlin tilted his head. “He has kids.”

“He's divorced, Merlin. Don't use that tone with me. Besides. I like kids. And he's a great doctor, really. We're lucky to have him at the clinic.”

“Are you going out with him?” Freya asked.

Gwen smiled, small and anticipating. “I hope so. I mean, he hasn't asked. I was going to ask, but then I thought, well, the divorce is new. What if he doesn't want to go out yet? What if he isn't ready? And what if he feels like he can't tell me that, so if I ask he feels obligated to say yes, and then he's dating me because he doesn't want to make us both feel awkward?”

Freya spun her caramel apple around. “You're over-thinking it.”

“What she said.” Merlin pointed to Freya.

“I know, I know, but, well, he should do things on his own time, and I don't want to rush him.” Gwen said. She sighed them, selected an apple and pulled the plastic pouch off. She nibbled at a caramel covered nut. “What about you and Gwaine, Merlin?”

“There is no Merlin and Gwaine.” Merlin said.

Freya muttered something that sounded a little but like 'There should be'. When Merlin squinted at her she took a big bite of her caramel apple and pointed at her mouth as if she couldn't possibly have spoken.

“What she said. “ Gwen said on a smile that turned soft and almost commiserating, as if there was something to commiserate over. “You work too much, Merlin, don't you want to have a little fun?”

“Why is it over investment in work as an alpha is a sign of being a good provider, something to be lauded, but in omega it's a sign I need to be laid?” Merlin said grouchily.

“Merrrrlin,” Gwen lolled on her chair. “You know that isn't what I'm saying.”

“What are you saying then?”

“I'm saying... you haven't had so much as a one night stand since I've met you. You're going to be thirty. I mean...don't you want your partner? You can't tell me you aren't interested. ”

“It is a choice, thank you.” Merlin said firmly. “And I choose not. Interest is irrelevant.”

 

It turned out that Gwen hadn't needed to worry. About two weeks later she did indeed begin to date Dr. Helios, though he was a busy man and their dates were squeezed in between shifts at offices, clinics and the college. Gwen was bubbly with her new relationship, and often would report the amazing exploits of Dr. Helois at length. As neither Merlin nor Freya had met him, excepting Merlin's peep through the doorway at Halloween they listened avidly.

It seemed Dr. Helios was keeping things on the down-low, seeing as he was recently divorced and his children had yet to come to terms with that let alone 'Auntie Gwen'. It didn't seem to bother Gwen overmuch, though she glowed with such luster Merlin wasn't sure how the general public could be ignorant of her relationship.

Merlin was not jealous.

Excerpt of confidential data from Blockers: The Study of Invisibility in a Dynamic Driven Culture by Dr. Merlin Emrys.

Subject: Martin, Siohan

Sexugender./Physiogender: Malpha/Female

Orientation: Heterosexual

Marital Status: Married, unbonded.

The less people know, the more off balance they are. It's all to your advantage, all the guessing, the lack of certainty, their minds focused on figuring your sexugender out, rather than paying close attention to what you say or do . It's a tool, a powerful one. Why would you give it away?

Merlin's visits to Finna remained constant during the year. Iced tea on her porch became hot toddys or coco in her parlor as the weather began its slow and inevitable turn from summer glare to autumn bluster. They had long discussions, argued theory or recent assertions by their various colleagues. After Merlin's New York trip and he began putting together his research, he brought the proofs and drafts over for Finna to edit. Those nights they remained late, deep in conversation. Usually the time would get away from them, and Finna would make souffles or risotto for dinner. She'd name some little known studies or obscure facts to reference in the massive encyclopedia which was her head.

As Merlin's apartment was feeling a bit cold of late, this worked well for him. He was excited to share his work as well, to discuss the ramifications. Of course, there too came the talk of what his next project would be, but he begged off, unable to contemplate a further place until after this study was published. He hoped it would be a nice feather in his cap, and get him funding for bigger projects, but Merlin didn't want to count his chickens before they hatched.

There was also his sleep, which, as the semester wore on, proved to be laden with dreams he couldn't quite remember, many of them rather clearly erotic. In part, Merlin admitted, they were causing him more and more to consider trying to bed Gwaine; his libido appeared to have gone mad. Understandable, since he was reaching his sexual prime, but still. He was living on a diet of uneven sleep and masturbation. Not to fantasies of Gwaine, though. No point in stroking it while imagining someone who was reachable. It would only make him want more, and feel all the more frustrated in not having when he could, if only he could. Something he was not going to explain to Gwen, who was actively shipping them, having given the hideous name Merwaine.

Not wanting to add any more kindling to the Merwaine fire, Merlin had turned instead to his favorite celebrity fantasy with greater frequency, which was far safer. He never needed to worry about having to turn down Arthur Pendragon, because when was he ever going to meet him? Delicious blonde Arthur. Granted he was the son of Senator Uther Pendragon which was a detraction to the package, but Merlin worked around it.

Merlin's opinion of Senator Pendragon was thus; he was a sexist, odious, pandering, smug, backwards, repellant supremest. His political platform was something from a hundred years ago, and he threw in God's name just enough to convince the religious to vote bible, but without the conviction of a man who believed in anything the book had to offer except its capacity to achieve votes. His latest design had been an omega database, requiring omegas to register when they gendered. To help them of course, to care for the weaker members of society and keep them safe.

It was really nothing more than an attempt to ostracize, control and paint omegas as inferior, and not even a well hidden one. Thankfully the idea had tanked due to scads of negative public opinion except for a very small but vocal minority. From there, Uther tried to remove suppressants, birth control and abortion from the hands of breeders totally. To him, Breeder's Lib had been a step in the wrong direction.

Ordinarily, the spawn of a man could only be viewed with hesitant suspicion. However, Arthur, when you paid attention to what he actually said or participated in, clearly did not share his father's beliefs. Oh, he was a gorgeous, if indolent and self involved playboy type alpha, but he was used more by Uther's publicity machine than he participated. He'd spent his early college years posing for a lot of magazines, since he was gorgeous and rich, one of the social trendsetters. For a few years he went back, then, more mature, he took over one of his father's businesses. Now GQ did stories about him in chic suits, and he was photographed going to charity galas instead of hot parties at trendy nightclubs.

As a friend of Olaf's, Merlin did have to put up with Uther's not infrequent presence at Albion U. He campaigned at the college, had been a guest speaker, was given an award of some kind and generally featured in events that would force Merlin to applaud him.

He got a tiny measure of revenge, though.

It gave Merlin obscene amounts of petty pleasure to clap for Uther with the full knowledge that about two hours earlier, he'd been masturbating to pictures of Uther's unattached alpha son Arthur.

He knew it was juvenile and perverse, but then Merlin had never claimed to be sainted.

It worked out quite well, really. Arthur was just Merlin's type, malpha, fit and blond with a bit of dry wit to him, if the interviews were anything to go by. He was also insanely unattainable, which meant Merlin would not to have to suffer the crushing discovery that he couldn't bed Arthur if by some fabulous confluence the option was offered and it was just barely feasible that they might meet, so Merlin's lush fantasy life had free rein.

And it was galloping.

 

The staff Christmas party found Merlin, Gwen and Freya in much the same position as they had been seven months earlier; standing to the side and watching Vivian stalking her prey. The white elephant game had been played, and now people were milling around and chatting, waiting for Olaf to make his Christmas speech so they could leave. Merlin was now the proud owner of a novelty apron with a woman with ridiculously huge boobs in an American flag bikini. Gwen had a mag light, Freya a gift card for Starbucks and Gwaine a candle scented like apple pie which he seemed oddly attached to. Hopefully he would add Merlin's horrendous apron to his haul. He could take it back to Ireland and bemoan the oddity of Americans. Anything so that it didn't darken Merlin's door.

Gwen had nine fingers out as they were trying to figure out how many people from Albion had slept with Vivian. Why this endured as their forced staff function entertainment, Merlin couldn't say.

“We've forgotten the runner. The one that tried for the Olympics,” Merlin added.

Gwen added another finger. “Blech students...I know it isn't illegal or even unethical, not really, but it's still gross.”

“Professor Collin's son.” Merlin added

Gwen closed her hands, starting anew with one finger raised. “That's eleven...you know Merlin, for being as non-judgmental as you claim to be, how is it you know more of her marks than Freya and I?”

“I'm not judging her. She's free to do whatever she wants with anyone she wants with that frequency she likes. She's fascinating, really. I'd do a paper on her but her father would have me sterilized.”

“A paper...” Freya sent a speculating look to the subject of their conversation.“On Vivian?”

“She's a rarity. She doesn't take into account sexuality in the slightest. Out of the- what, eleven?”

Gwen shook her head. “Twelve. I've thought of another. Myror in campus security.”

“Of the twelve, that's....four alphas, three omegas, and five betas. That's in basic line with population distribution. She's not seeking out a specific sexuality, though this is just a closed sample on our campus, not taking her weekends into account.”

“Ew, Merlin! You're keeping track?” Gwen hid the laughter behind her cup of alcohol free wassail. Her eyes were glistening with mirth though, so Merlin wasn't fooled.

“For Science, duh. The point is, most notably promiscuous people tend to go for a type- alphas usually. Her father is obsessed with alpha culture, it would make sense for her to be shopping around for one of those, but she isn't.” Merlin shrugged. “She'd be an interesting study.”

“Merlin. You need a boyfriend. Thirteen! Remember the board member who got divorced?”

“Why can't she just be a whore?” Freya wondered. Gwen had just taken a sip of her drink and almost spat it across the room. Merlin snorted abruptly, but tried to muffle it, so it turned into a coughing fit. When he had his breath he was wheezing out laughter.

“Oh my God, Freya!” Gwen said, mopping her face of dribbles.

Freya shrugged. “My father is very loquacious on the topic of whores, though he really means any breeder who sleeps with anyone outside of wedlock is a whore. He once read a guest sermon at our church about whores.”

“I can't- stop saying that word, you're giving me the worst processing errors!” Merlin wiped his eyes of tears.

“What, whore?”
“Yes!”

“Sorry.”

“It's okay, I just-” Merlin sucked a breath. “It's a bit weird hearing it from your mouth.”

“Actually, speaking of whores,” Gwen said cheerfully and Merlin groaned out another laugh. “Guess who has herself a date to Professor Bishop's famous New Year's Bash? This girl!”

“You slut!” Merlin said happily. “We're finally going to get to meet Dr. Helios?”
Gwen was smiling, swaying back and forth. “Terence has promised to clear his schedule in advance since he missed the Christmas Carnival.”

“Terence Helios. He actually has diplomas that say that? Ow!” He rubbed his arm from whence Gwen had punched him, Freya leaning calmly out of the way.

“Yes. He does. And he's a very good doctor. He's divorced, handsome and doesn't have any visible tattoos.”

“Oo, classy stuff that,” Merlin teased.

“Vivian is trying to grope Gwaine.” Freya said.

That effectively silenced Merlin and Gwen who blurted out a tandem 'what?!' their heads swiveled into the crowd. It wasn't difficult to find Gwaine's lustrous head of hair, and Vivian's bright blonde standing very close indeed. Her hand was lingering near crotch level. Gwaine, with his candle under his arm, was laughing while he scooped spinach dip onto his plate and Vivian eyefucked him unrepentantly.

Merlin stiffened a moment, but forced himself to calm. They'd probably make each other very happy, two ships passing in the night, each on their own courses.

“Oh wow...” Gwen murmured. “Oh Merlin, I'm so sorry,”

Merlin frowned and glanced at her. “What for?”

Gwen jerked her head towards the pair. “Gwaine.”

“What about him?”

“Isn't...I mean...don't you...aren't you...you know?”

“We've been over this, Gwen. We're just friends.”

“Oh. That's it?”

“Did you want more?”

“No, just...I somehow expected...you know, by now...” Gwen trailed off.

Merlin shrugged. “Well, it isn't.”

“But he's been, I mean, not that your company isn't wonderful, Merlin, but he has been rather courteous towards you, don't you think?”

“Now he's being courteous to Vivian.”

“Merlin, I know you can't really be this...this blasé.”

“Maybe we could not talk about this?” Merlin said, reaching up to rub the bridge of his nose.

“We never talk about this.” Gwen said. “Don't you think we should?”

“But...if Merlin doesn't want to...” hazarded Freya, looking between them.

“It's just...you've been working so hard Merlin, and Gwaine and...I just think maybe you need, you know...” Gwen at least tried to be delicate about it.

It wasn't the time or the place, really, and both of them knew it. They had a brief staring contest in which Gwen tried to use her eyes to apologize but still press her concerns and Merlin tried to tell her to leave it alone. Eventually they made some unspoken agreement to drop it.

Apparently feeling the need to break the tension, Freya decided to drop her bombshell. “ I'm going to Spring Gathering...” She murmured in her far off way, rolling her glass between flat palms.

Now Gwen and Merlin's heads swiveled cartoonishly towards her and Merlin set aside worrying about Vivian and Gwaine.

“What?” They said in astonished unison. Again.

Freya shrugged. She drained her glass.

“Freya...are you sure?” Gwen asked carefully.

Freya nodded. “It's time.” She said with some of the mystical surety she possessed in sporadic moments. “I'm tired of the seons. And sleeping alone. I think I want a husband. And to get laid.”

Merlin sighed. He didn't mean to, but it slipped out. He felt Freya's eyes on him at once.

“No one is forcing me, Merlin.” She reminded him in her silky voice.

“I know, I'm sorry.”

“I'm choosing to go.”

“Don't listen to him.” Gwen said firmly. “Having a libido is a perfectly healthy thing, so is wanting a life partner.”

“I never said it wasn't.” Merlin pointed out.

“No, just implied it. Some of us aren't as self contained as you are, Merlin.”

“Please don't fight.” implored Freya. “I hate it when you fight.”

The sound of a microphone being tapped disturbed them. He and Gwen shot each other looks and then turned their attention towards the room's head.

Olaf had gained the podium and after testing the sound system pulled some cards from his jacket pocket. He smiled at them with all the gladness of someone pleased to have all the attention in the room on them, regardless of who those people were. So began another Christmas speech.

As it turned out, Dr. Terence Helios was not to be introduced to everyone. It was a close thing. Merlin had been getting ready for the famous Bishop New Year's party when Gwen called in tears. It seemed Terence's 'divorced' status had been stretching things a bit. Well, a lot. Or, completely. Terence and his wife weren't even separated, as it happened. Gwen found this out when Terence arrived to pick her up for the party and not two minutes later his wife was hammering on Gwen's door in a screaming tirade. Apparently Terence had told her he needed to work, and not being stupid, she hadn't bought it. She'd tailed him all the way to Gwen's and put things together quickly.

What Merlin got from Gwen's crying explanations was that the following scene was far from pretty and he had to tamp down an urge to find Dr. Terence Helios and cut his balls off. With any luck his wife was doing it for him. Not that she was a prize either, as she'd called Gwen a number of choice names despite Gwen not knowing Dr. Helios was still married.

Directly he hung up with Gwen Merlin issued a text to Gwaine excusing himself from the party. He wasn't worried about Gwaine, who could probably find inappropriate fun to be had at a wake.

As quickly as he could Merlin drove to Gwen's where he joined Freya in doing his best to comfort Gwen. She was a mess, still in her party dress, mascara running down her cheeks, and crying about how she would never, ever find love.

They made New Year's resolutions at midnight. Freya resolved she was going to try harder to get shown in a gallery. Gwen swore off men, but she'd consumed almost an entire bottle of champagne and a few shots by that time, so Merlin didn't think she really meant it. He resolved to keep his opinions to himself. Freya and Gwen laughed in such a way he suspected they didn't have a lot of faith he'd be able to do it.

A new term started in January. Merlin was gratified to see a number of returning students to his classes and not only those with a psychology or sociology major, who he was bound to get anyway, but kids who trickled in for various reasons and found his classes informative and interesting.

Gwen appeared to be to be taking her New Year's resolution to heart, although the fuss with Dr. Helois seemed not to have diminished her faith in romance in general. She was aiding Freya in her early planning stages for Spring Run with fervor. This involved a lot of research on the best way to handle the Gathering which was the single largest mating run in North America. Registering early was vital, and both Merlin and Gwen were surprised to learn that Freya had been registered with the Unity Association since October.

He and Gwen never continued their discussion on significant others, which Merlin was grateful for, though every now and then when the topic turned to Spring Run Gwen would shoot him a significant look but held her tongue.

He had enough to worry about. Sloshy spring weather and a car that suddenly went on the fritz in protest. Staring at Gwaine during committee meetings. Putting the finishing touches on his articles, and working out a new pitch for an even larger study. Bad dreams. Avoiding mating talk. Avoiding Cenred. Finna came down with the flu, and for a while Merlin was over there constantly with the unspoken fear it would devolve into pneumonia. Trying not to be home alone a lot because he always just seemed to end up masturbating and it made him feel strange, as if he were seventeen again, and Merlin had no wish to return to those years.

Instead, he kept busy as possible, volunteering for more hours at the crisis hotline, working on more lesson plans than he'd ever need. It was coming time to select new texts for his classes, so for weeks he threw himself into the quandary of just purchasing the new edition for the old text or trying something new.

All in all, winter flew by. Valentine's Day was celebrated with a pot-luck at Finna's for Merlin, Gwen and Freya with a host of screwball romantic comedies which seemed to keep everyone distracted, except for when Gwen burst into tears in the middle of The Philadelphia Story. Finna knew just what to do, however, and had her calmed down rather quickly.

March was marred by a student suicide. A malpha, Gregory Goyle. While not common, student suicides were not unheard of. College was an emotional time, and things could easily spin out of control, especially if the new environment was a fair distance from the student's former support group.

Merlin helped organized the memorial, though he always found candlelight vigils strange. No one had cared much about the kid when he was alive, and now he no longer needed the support it came in a monumental outflow. People who had probably never met him wept for his passing.

For about two weeks the campus was subdued with their mourning, but slowly things got back into motion as winter became spring and the end of the year neared.

It was a beautiful April day, perfectly warm, and the Oak Park amphitheater had been transformed to the 4th Annual Angel Foundation AIDS Jell-o Wrestling Extravaganza! This involved a lot of crepe paper, a bake sale, slightly limp barbeque lunch and a rather large square 'ring' constructed of plywood, blow up rafts, and the ladder from a doughboy built right in front of the little cement amphitheater. It was five dollar to watch, and people filled the rows of bleachers

By coaxing or luck, they had signed up eight women to participate, so they had organized four matches, a semi final and a championship match, the winner of which would end up with a small plastic trophy spray painted red. As Gwen pointed out, it was raising money that mattered, not being the champion dessert frolicker. Then there was going to be a surprise bonus match in between the final and semi-finals so as to give all finalists time to rest, which was not much of a surprise to Merlin since he knew it meant the only two men who'd signed up would wrestle. This included Gwaine.

Because Gwen was a participant, the group staked out space in the bleachers early, and got a good spot front and center. When the wrestling commenced it was to the enthusiastic shouting of the crowd as women flung themselves into the Jell-o, churning up the stripes of color into a rainbow hodgepodge.

It was less bar-room brawl type exploitation, since many of the women were older. Several were medical professionals or otherwise related to the charity, one was even the mother of a frail looking man who got a bad transfusion.

Despite the fact that the topic matter was a bit depressing, energy was high. The crowd was enthusiastic and swelled with people. They ate grilled hot dogs and pop corn and tried not to choke themselves with laughter. The wrestlers often collapsed into giggling.

At last, Gwen had to report to the ring.

“Wish me luck!” she said, grinning.

“Good luck, Doc!” Gwaine gave her a peck on the cheek that made Gwen blush.

“Bring home a championship!” Merlin encouraged.

“It's in the bag,” Gwen grinned and headed over.

 

When she stripped off her T-Shirt to show off the bikini she and Freya had spent hours shopping for (it had to be 'wrestle-proof' so that at no moment would she accidentally flash the spectators) it was to a number of hoots and hollers. Gwen blushed. She'd also bought a mouthguard, wanting to be safe. It matched her bikini.

“Annnnd now, in one corner Doctor Guinevere Smith of the Thomas Clinic!” The announcer/referee was wearing a bow tie in a frankly offensive color between neon yellow and green. He thought he was far more entertaining than he actually was, but thankfully the crappy portable sound system was cutting out at random intervals, so half his commentary was lost during the previous matches.

Gwen climbed into the Jell-O pit over whistles, especially Gwaine's which were the loudest. She made a face as her feet sunk into it, mouth wide in an expression of amused horror.

Gwen's first fight was easily won in under three minutes. This won her a place in the semi-finals. That fight was not simple. After Gwen climbed back into the Jell-o her opponent, Britta Perry, slithered in, a blonde betafem in a black one piece. She didn't get so many hoots, except from one corner of the amphitheater.

“Alright Ladies, let's have a clean fight!” The ref said teasingly. He rang the bell and Gwen and Britta charged.

It was not a clean fight.

It started out decently enough, with the women hesitantly grappling with each other, clearly a little grossed out by the consistency of the gelatin under foot. They were timid, almost, unsure of how gung-ho the other was going to get, gripping each other by the elbows and trying to throw the other off her balance.

This sated the crowd for a little while, with a few calls of 'Come on Gwen!' or “Go Britta!' as they each got bolder and bolder, pushing a little harder. Gwen had a look of furious concentration on her face that flipped to wide eyed surprise when Britta twisted, and sent Gwen tumbling face first into the Jell-O.

Freya winced. “Ewwww..”

“Come On Gwen!” Merlin shouted. “Take her down!”

It was on. Gwen's eyes narrowed and she surged at Britta's legs, wrapping her arms around her knees so Britta sat back with a big squelch. She barely had time to grimace before Gwen climbed on top of her and rubbed a handful of green Jell-O cubes on her face.

“Oh ho ho! Looks like the cats are at play! Meeow!” The ref chimed in.

Britta let out an angry shriek and dove at Gwen, who was struggling to her feet. Gwen's eyes widened comically as she hobbled to get out of the way, but it was to no avail. Britta tackled. They went rolling, a mess of damp Jell-Oy limbs, shrieks and flying hair until they smashed into one of the blow up rafts stuck along the sides. The plastic squeaked as they rubbed up against it, each trying to stand and knocking the other down before she could get her feet under her.

“Well, Merlin. You do take a bloke to the best parties,” Gwaine said, draping an arm over Merlin's shoulders, though he didn't tear his gaze from the ring.

“You do know you go in there next, right?”

“Oh, I've not forgotten,” Gwaine grinned at him, then winked. “Promise you'll cheer the loudest for me, then? Help me get the proper vim to give my challenger a good, slick hiding?”

Merlin felt a little bubble of excitement in his chest. The way Gwaine said slick went right to his knees. “No promises.” he said hoarsely, but it only made Gwaine's smile turn a little filthy.

The crowd gave a shout. Merlin turned and saw Gwen and Britta had ceased trying to stand, and were back to rolling around and wallowing in the Jell-o, struggling to put the other in a headlock. The Jell-o squished loudly under the sounds of their grunts. They were good and coated in rainbow streaks of squished gelatin, which meant they were slipping and sliding over one and other. It was hard to grip, and the inflated walls meant anywhere they braced against they had a good chance of slipping off of. The shout appeared to be for Britta, whose legs were thrown wide open, trying to find purchase, humping the air. She was screaming something unintelligible, and snapped her legs closed, going deep red with embarrassment. She flailed wildly until a casual brush had her catching hold of Gwen's braid. She clutched it and yanked.

Gwen screamed, releasing Britta to reach for her head.

“Foul! Foul!” Merlin cried. “Boooo!”

“You mancing asleep, Ref?” Gwaine bellowed.

“Now ladies,” The ref said, but neither one appeared to be listening.

Gwen leaped at Britta, and they went rolling and squirming, bouncing off the opposite side of the ring, and then working their way back. There were more desperate grunts and bellows as they grappled, hurling each other into the pit with aggression and mighty feminine roars of adrenaline fueled competition. Britta's head was almost stained green from being buried in the green stripe, and Gwen's bikini bottoms bulged in the back where a handful of Jello had been wedged down her crack, making it look like she was walking around having crapped herself.

The fervor of the crowd had raised to a cacophony of cheers the longer it went, going frantic when one would manage to pin the other, shouting the count with the ref. First it was Britta, smashing Gwen against the raft, and then Gwen got Britta into a full nelson, until Britta's frantic rolling dislodged her.

By now they were panting, but neither looked ready to forfeit. After the last near pinning they retreated to opposite corners to catch their breath.

“Wow...” Freya said. “This is intense.”

Gwen pulled out her mouth guard to aide her breathing. Britta took the opportunity and charged. The mouth guard went flying and once again they were a tangle of limbs, Gwen slamming into the Jell-o. She gave a shriek of anger and kicked at Britta. A scoop of Jell-o went flinging out towards the crowd which recoiled, but got spattered anyway. Gwen was stuck spread eagle this time and Britta crowed at her.

Even from this distance Merlin could see Gwen get the look. The terrifying determined look, and if he were Catholic he would have crossed himself for Britta. There was no escape now.

Britta was on her hands and knees above Gwen, climbing up. Swift as Disney litigation Gwen's thighs snapped shut around Britta's neck. This wedged Britta's face more or less into Gwen's crotch. The sudden turn towards more blatant homoerotic groping made the crowd go wild, hooting and shrieking. Britta gave a muffled outraged protesting sound and battered at Gwen, smacking at her wildly as she thrashed to get up, stirring up the jell-o, sending handfuls of it over the sides of the ring. Gwen grabbed the wrists as they passed by and pinned them. Britta bucked, and they wriggled back and worth, rocking a hole into the jell-o so they were slowly sinking.

A hyperactive Asian man from the Britta corner shrieked “Eat that dark pussy Britta, Yeah!”

The crowd counted with the ref in one exuberant voice. One. Two. Three!

There was an explosive cheer. Gwen released Britta who threw herself away, panting. Gwen thrust herself to her feet, raising orange and red smeared arms up in victory to the crowd.

“ For the fourth annual Angel Foundation AIDS Jell-o Wrestling Extravaganza, our championship round will be between Doctor Guinevere Smith and RN Margaret Houlihaaaan!” There was applause. “Buuut, before that...we have a special bonus round!”

Merlin and Freya met Gwen as she climbed out, Merlin with a fresh towel.

“Thank you, Merlin, you're an angel.” She said, grabbing one and mopping her body hastily. “This stuff is disgusting!”

“You did really well.” Freya said. She was wearing latex gloves and was picking chunks of Jell-o out of Gwen's hair. “I think you'll win the championship.”
“Something to tell the grandchildren, that,” Gwaine teased.

Gwen pointed a finger at him. “You, Sir, are in there next.”

“Only the once, thankfully.” Gwaine said on a chuckle, distracted by one of the event organizers gesturing to him.

The announcer stirred his hands getting the crowd to cheer, which they did rather uncertainly until Gwaine winked at Merlin, then hopped onstage to drag his shirt off. Then the screams and catcalls began anew, for Gwaine, and the tall man with the terrifying eyebrows who had also climbed up, another malpha, a Derek Hale.

This match was more violent. The crowd made more pained sounds as the men dove at one and over, sparing each other no mercy, hurling one and other into the smushy jell-o sludge.

Merlin could barely blink for fear of losing vital seconds of watching Gwaine and the other malpha roll around, muscles stretching, expressions furrowed. They slammed each other into the sides of the ring so hard it rattled and the ref nervously asked them to take it easy. They grappled, slipping, but never moving into unsportsmanlike territory.

Gwaine lost, but then, Derek Hale had a good half a foot on him. He stayed in much longer than anyone thought, and the display left Merlin's mouth dry.

Gwaine climbed over the wooden edge of the pit, crumpled squiggles of Jell-o sticking all over his legs and abdomen. Merlin watched a clump of lime green slide down his navel in jerky starts, until it tumbled off him. The moisture from the gelatin made his briefs stick, and oh what he saw made Merlin's formerly desolate mouth practically water.

He dared to lift his gaze to Gwaine's face as he headed towards him and the towel he held. Gwaine was staring at him, eyes hot, a smoky anticipation filling his features as well as adrenaline. He strode, ignoring his pile of clothes Freya had folded and extended to him, and the cheering women, right over to Merlin, going toe to toe with him.

Merlin felt frozen, quivering with desire. All he could do was stare as Gwaine dipped in close, until their noses were almost touching.

“If I'd have known all I had to do to get you in bed was roll around in dessert and lose a fight to another bloke, Merlin, I'd have done it six months ago.” Then Gwaine kissed him, and Merlin's knees buckled a little under the hot slant of mouth covering his.

He heard Gwen squeak in glee.

Then the announcer said something.

When Gwaine let him go, Gwen was heading up for her championship round.

 

They went out for obligatory celebratory drinks, Gwen with her little red trophy, proud as could be. She smelled like cherry jell-o. She was also merciful, and after that one drink, she let Merlin and Gwaine go, a knowing smile on her features.

Merlin shot her a looking hoping to communicate both his thanks and his fervent plea she would never say 'I told you so'.

At the prospect of sex, his body seemed to have lit up like a porn mag doused in kerosene. As they climbed into Gwaine's car and Gwaine slid his hand on Merlin's knee his low grade arousal simmering since Gwaine climbed out of the ring, flared up. Merlin let that unbidden corner of himself open up, let the want he so rarely acknowledged existed blossom and ride through his system. He could barely remember the ride to Gwaine's apartment, only as soon as Gwaine got his front door open, Merlin launched himself at the Irishman, letting all that want fuel him.

He knew it made him almost obscenely eager, though Gwaine's groan from under him showed no signs of revulsion. He was cupping Merlin's bottom, fingers pressing into the muscle, nearly making Merlin go weak at the knees at the prospect of being covered by warm, thrusting male. It was every stereotype he hated, and everything he wanted.

They stumbled through the apartment, dodging mess, fumbling past the couch toward the bedroom. Hands were everywhere, caressing. The base part of Merlin's brain was taking over, but rather than being disgusted some part of him rejoiced. God, he wanted to fuck and be fucked, was giddy with the real and tangible prospect of it.

Except...

He tried to ignore it, at first. As they made it to bed, Gwaine sitting then dragging Merlin on top of him while he kicked off his shoes. Merlin slanted his mouth slanted over Gwaine's, letting Gwaine take what he wanted and returning greedily. He'd been lost in the kisses at first, but now found some distant part of his mind saying that this didn't taste right. Not bad, not unpleasant, but not right. Merlin ignored it. Focused all his thoughts on Gwaine's tongue pressing in and out of his mouth, emulating what he wanted so much. He clutched Gwaine's hips with his knees, grinding on him.

Gwaine's hands looped around, undoing the fastenings to Merlin's trousers, cinching them down with his underwear. He cupped the petite curve of Merlin's aching cock. Merlin pulled his mouth away to moan, head tilting back as Gwaine's hands edged around behind. Found him moist, and there was Merlin's secret, out.

“So nice and wet for me,” Pride curled in Gwaine's tones as he dipped fingers between Merlin's cheeks and touched. He didn't look surprised in the least. His chin tilted up and he smiled up at Merlin.

Merlin wriggled in response, biting his lip against any further all-too-exuberant sounds and the tiny seed of unease. He wanted to be here. He wanted Gwaine!

“Been a long time, hasn't it?”

“Yesss...”

Gwaine was stroking over his hole, and it made it hard to think, but Merlin looked down at the handsome face that wore a confident smirk. Not wanting to tell Gwaine he was a bloody virgin. Calling back the image of Gwaine, fresh from wrestling. Handsome Gwaine.

Merlin cupped Gwaine's cheek, the stubble a wonderful, bristly texture under his palm.

So handsome.

Why wasn't it enough?

Gwaine's fingers penetrated him, slid in and Merlin's thighs tightened, bringing him upwards. God, he wanted! He wanted so badly!
But it didn't matter. When Gwaine leaned in to kiss him again the wrongness of the taste pervaded his mouth as if he'd eaten something sour, and Merlin broke away almost immediately. The smell too, the heady pungent perfume of lust which had been making his head dizzy with lust was now suffocating him with it's alien wrongness. A spurt of sickly fear lanced through him. He couldn't do this. How could he do this? It felt as if his stomach had dropped out, forced down by mounting nausea. Terror made his prick go limp, only he wasn't sure why he was so frightened, frightened and repulsed by Gwaine's body. Gwaine's body which he had been trying not to imagine for so long.

He saw Gwaine's face go concerned, the fingers pulling out of him, leaving him bereft in more ways than one. Merlin sucked razor tipped breaths, trying to compose himself.

“Merlin? What's wrong?”

“I'm sorry-Gwaine...I...I thought- I hoped-I'm sorry--” He coltishly thrust off Gwaine's lap and onto rubbery legs.

“Merlin-”

“So-fucking—sorry--”

Gwaine caught his forearms and pulled him near to look into his face.

“You wanted this.” He said, confused.

Merlin nodded, hating the frustrated tears he could feel crest and smear down his cheeks. “I did. I do. I just-I can't.”

And he grabbed his clothes, held up his trousers with one hand and fled the apartment.

Merlin spent the weekend hiding out at home. He did much the same the next week of school, staying no longer than was needed and not being in all the places Gwaine would anticipate him being in. This didn't stop Gwaine from texting him, and calling. Merlin didn't pick up to the calls, and eventually shot off a text that he wasn't angry with Gwaine, that he'd talk to him later.

It was immature, Merlin knew, avoiding the issue. But he was too embarrassed to bring it up. Too horrified by yet another failed attempt at a sexual liaison. Worse still, he couldn't talk to Gwen or Freya about it, since they'd been there and knew how enthusiastic he'd been.

Which was how Merlin found himself at Finna's the following Friday. It was not hiding out. He helped her in the kitchen making strawberry jam. It was hot and smelled of fruit and sugar, and was comforting in a domestic way.

Finna let him viciously decapitate almost a pound of fruit before prompting him to talk. So Merlin did. He told her about Gwaine, how he'd been trying not to notice, how he knew all the things that could go wrong at a school with such faintly hidden sexism. He told her about the aborted attempt at sex, about fleeing, but couldn't bringing himself to talk of the sudden and inexplicable disgust he sensed. Away from the moment, his surety othat he should not be with Gwaine sounded ridiculous.

Finna listened quietly, stirring all her pots, and then pouring the steaming contents into sanitized jars. She didn't speak until she was done washing the pots.

“Merlin...” Finna removed her glasses and folded them closed as she eased down to sit across from him at the tiny kitchen table. Merlin knew it was a sign she was going to speak baldly, and that he might not like it. She braced the tip of the glasses against her mouth for a moment, looking at him before sliding them into her apron pocket.

“Merlin. I've never questioned the choices you have made for your life. They are, of course, your choices to make, without my judgment. If you will allow me my observations, however...?”

Merlin sighed, then nodded. He made a gesture for her to carry on.

“Your life is admirable, you are a remarkable man with a superior brain. Your path lies with continuing to study and report and change how we regard each other. As you go now, you will always be a mind to be admired. A noteworthy social scientist.”

Merlin squirmed under the praise, but sensed an addendum.

“But, you will never be great. Not as you could be. Should be. You lack the warmth of understanding and experience. Whatever your orientation, Merlin, from the moment you came to work for me I have known you were a virgin. I thought you were perhaps a late bloomer, shy, focused on your studies. Unready. I know you better now, Merlin. You are more than ready. You are over-ripe. One doesn't have to look hard to see your frustrated need and yet at the same time an underscoring of disdain for it, undeniable fear, and, even more pressingly...a fundamental loneliness amongst the lack of understanding. You cannot write or study about sex, Merlin, and never have had it. Nor relationships and never had one.“

Merlin sat stiff and silent. She didn't look sympathetic, and that was a mercy. Her eyes were warm, understanding. Still, Merlin felt cramped and under scrutiny. Cold at her words. Perhaps on some level he'd well known it was a bit hypocritical, but really, Merlin aspired to equal regard. One did not need to have been sexed up to know that people should be equal.

“If I thought that you abstained for lack of desire, I would never say this. It isn't my place. But that isn't it. It's fear, yes, but, there is something else, isn't there? “ Finna said.

“Going to bed with someone wouldn't change how I feel. I don't see how it makes a difference.” Merlin grumbled lamely.

“If it would not change you, then why not? What prevented you from letting Gwaine take you to bed? You know you don't need to bond with him, Merlin. What is it that stops you?”

“I just-” Merlin ground around, trying to find the words to explain.

Finna let him sit in his juices, muttering partial explanations for several minutes. At last he caved. He tried to tell her about the wrongness, the smell, the indescribable press from his gut that it was all wrong until Finna interrupted.

“You experiencing Psyche's Syndrome.”

“Psyche's Syndrome is a theory at best.” Merlin waved a hand dismissively.

“A theory. You are a fully mature unbonded omega who has lived, what, upwards of ten years on blockers?”

“Twelve.” Merlin supplied.

“Twelve years. You've not gone through a proper heat since your adolescence then, I take it? In addition, you have taken no sexual partners because you fine others distasteful, do you not? They are not yours. So you remain celibate, not just unwilling to partner them, but unable.” Finna's eyes were sharp on him, and he just knew she was finding him a fascinating subject in addition to a friend who needed help.

“Celibacy is an admirable and valid life choice.” Merlin muttered, aware he sounded like a sullen teenager, but he felt very exposed.

Finna shook her head. “We chart not just the mind Merlin, but body and mind in harmony. We, more than a physician, tend the unit as a whole. Your body and mind are not in harmony. Your body knows what it yearns for, and if you are experiencing Psyche's Syndrome, no mere stand-in alpha will do. Only your unumverumconjunx.”

It sounded so loud in the kitchen. A word Merlin had tried so hard never to think of.

“Alphas do not possess the unverjunx instinct.” he said. “If I had an alpha ze would long since have selected another suitable partner. There's no reason to seek zer out now, I'd only be disappointed, be forced to quit my job and possibly start a messy divorce case. That would be three lives ruined.”

“Then what are these dreams, Merlin? For months you haven't been sleeping well. I refuse to believe you would be so remiss as to neglect the studies from Yale, Columbia or John Hopkins which are providing evidence of some manner of spiritual bond between specific partner sets. The Unumverumconjunx might come more readily to the omega, but the alpha is not untouched.” Finna said pointedly.

“I've read the studies.” Merlin shot back. “They're mostly inconclusive on the nature of the alpha. Omegas select their mate on the basis of genetic compatibility coded in the scent, as they have more Q cells than alphas it is probably that is what they are sensing, not some psychic unverjunx nonsense. Only 13% of the Alphas in the study identified what might be the Unumverumconjunx, and only then marking it as a faint dissatisfaction in other partners. Full awareness of this sensation only came when when the bonded omega was in estrus, during which all alpha's suffer diminished capacity and are therefore unreliable.”

“That's only the Yale study. The Columbia one was much larger, and estimates a quarter. Your alpha could be in that 25%.”

Merlin rubbed his face, having no response to that. He started as he felt her warm hands grasp his, pull them away from his eyes so his gaze would meet hers.

“You can't go on like this.”

She was right, really. Oh, he could argue and fight with facts, war with data...but if he was honest (and he'd been trying for years not to be) this wasn't going to go away.

“What do I do, Finna?” Merlin said softly.

She watched him for some time. He looked at his hands, at the pale fingers laced together and blotched with strawberry juice. He looked up when her chair creaked and she rose. Finna left the room. He listened and heard the rustle of a drawer.

When she came back she sunk back into her chair and handed him a manilla envelope. He raised his brows to her in question, but she only urged him on with a wave of the packet. Merlin took and opened it. He pulled out the papers, scanning them. Surprised flooded him.

“You..you registered me for Spring Run.” he said, shocked.

Finna nodded. “When Freya decided to go.”

Merlin rifled the papers. There was his name. Paid and registered.

“I...”He wasn't sure where to start. “I... I don't...”

“Merlin. Just go. Experience. Search. No one can make decisions for you. Only you know what you need. I just want you to find it, to seize it or leave it, but to face it and decide. It's time to face all the things you've been ignoring.”

And maybe, Merlin confessed to himself, that was true.