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Eyes Half Closed

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Nathaniel’s legs are weak from lack of use. Running, a once familiar and comforting experience, causes him so much pain that he just wants to curl up and never move. But fear is a powerful motivator, so he runs.

He doesn’t know where he is. In minor detail, sure. He’s on 18th Street, running past dark alleys and closed-down businesses. On a larger scale, Neil is lost. He knows he’s on the east coast – probably. He knows he’s in a decent-sized town or a small city, because the buildings aren’t tall enough for a metropolis. He knows he’s downtown, because the businesses are close together instead of spread apart. He’s spent enough time in various cities to know the type of place he’s in, even if it’s been a long time since he’s been anywhere near the outside world. But he doesn’t recognize the streets, the buildings, from any place he’s ever been. He doesn’t know if he’s moving north or east or what. The sensation of not knowing his location in the world is an ice water chill seeping into his bones.

He skirts a group of people clustered on a street corner who look far too easily excitable. Dangerous. Neil needs help, a place to hide, but he’s not going to find it with drug addicts and sex workers.

Every car that drives by makes Nathaniel jump and look quickly over his shoulder. He’s skittish, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He knows that his escape wasn’t entirely luck on his part. He knows it wasn’t an accident. Maybe it was Riko that let him go, bored for the moment and looking for a way to entertain himself; what could be more fun than hunting down his favorite toy and punishing Nathaniel for escaping once he was inevitably caught?

More than likely, though, it was Jean. The Omega had always had a soft spot for Nathaniel, had always been sympathetic where others had been callus and cruel. Jean always patched Nathaniel up after a session with Riko, after cold knives had warmed against his skin and bled him for Riko’s pleasure. After the Alpha had clawed Nathaniel’s back to scraps and ribbons, leaving him aching and crying and hoping for a swift death.

Nathaniel doesn’t even want to think of the punishment Jean would face for this. He just knows that getting caught again won’t help the Omega any, and would make his sacrifice for nothing – if, Nathaniel reminds himself, it was indeed Jean who let him go. So he runs faster, pushing his rubber legs and his hyperventilating lungs past the breaking point and further. His bare feet slap painfully against the sidewalk, and there’s a distant fear that he’ll step on something damaging and be unable to keep going. But there’s nothing he can do to prevent that in a city barely illuminated with amber streetlights.

Deep bass music rattles Nathaniel’s ribcage as a car rounds the corner ahead of him, and he ducks quickly down a side street to get out of sight. The city is set up in the usual American grid system, so Nathaniel is unsurprised when he emerges onto another main road. It’s more of the same – scattered alleys and dark shop windows that will inevitably transition into locked front doors.

There’s a gas station at the far end of this street, lights in the overhead canopy illuminating the pumps for the security cameras. Nathaniel avoids it and goes the opposite direction. He’s not sure why – he doesn’t have anything against gas stations – but there’s something about the bright lights and the empty pumps and parking lot that makes him weary.

He’s not sure how long he tries to put distance between himself and the transport van. Long enough that he has to stop running, too weak to continue. He keeps walking, though, terrified of standing still even for a moment. But he’s exhausted and hurting and hungry, and despair rapidly takes up residence in his chest. He’s just starting to toy with the idea of giving up on fleeing and instead trying to find a place to curl up and sleep when he rounds a corner and finds himself staring at a lit-up nightclub.

Nathaniel comes to a quick stop, his heart racing away against his ribs. The club is open, and it’s going to be warm, so that’s a plus. It should be anonymous, too, so maybe he’ll get lucky and be able to slip into a storage room or something – sleep in the bathroom, anything, really, just to get out of sight and off the road. There’s a bouncer at the door but there’s no line of waiting customers. Nathaniel can only image what he looks like, knows it’s ragged and gross at the very least, but he needs to give it a shot. He’ll lie his ass off or look for a back way in if he has to. Right now the nightclub is the only spark of hope he’s had all night.

The last thing his legs want to do is start running again, but he breaks into a sprint anyway. He’s desperate, and he hopes he looks it.

“Whoa, kid, hold up.” The bouncer steps in front of the door, blocking Nathaniel’s entrance point.

Nathaniel skids to a halt, cement grating against his feet, rubbing the soles raw. He wonders if he’s leaving bloody footprints, and he hopes to hell that he isn’t. That would make tracking him down a lot easier. “Please,” Nathaniel gasps. Every pull of breath into his lungs is like shards of glass against his delicate insides. There’s a white-hot stab of pain in his side, a knotted muscle from running and breathing too deep too quickly. “Please, I… Christ.” Now that he’s stopped moving, it’s harder to catch his breath, and every small pain screams to be paid attention to. He crumples to his knees without meaning to, but once he’s down he’s not sure if he’s going to be able to get back up.

“Are you alright? Shit, kid, what the fuck?” The bouncer steps forward and Nathaniel cringes away.

“Please don’t touch me,” he says, and oh, god, he hasn’t heard that tiny voice out of himself in a while. He wants to claw his ears off to get rid of the humiliating echo of it, but he says it again anyway when he doesn’t think the bouncer hears him. “Please don’t touch me.”

“Okay, okay, I’m not going to touch you. Can you… fuck.” There’s a pause and a slight static sound before the bouncer speaks again. “Yo, Wymack, there’s a situation at the door. Can you come out here?”

Nathaniel furrows his brow in confusion. Who the fuck is Wymack? His weary mind goes round and round in circles trying to figure out what’s going on.

After a few moments, the static comes back and a voice replies, “Be there in a second.”

Belatedly, Nathaniel registers the use of walkie-talkies, or some other sort of comm. system. Not high-grade like his father’s if they’re so static-y, but not everyone is paid tens of millions each year.

“Hey….” The bouncer hovers and bends over Nathaniel, who catches a whiff of Beta scent identifiers. Nathaniel cowers, ducking down and wrapping his hands around the back of his head. He doesn’t mean to whimper, but he does. The huge Beta is quick to back away. Thankfully, a few seconds later, the door opens.

“Boyd, what’s going on? I brought Minyard in case…” the voice trails off into a string of muttered swearing. Nathaniel looks up and regrets it immediately. The Alpha who just exited the club – the man who must be the Wymack that was called over the comm. – is middle-aged and the same height as Nathaniel’s father. Nathaniel freezes, his breath halting in his chest. He sees that this man’s hair is black, not red, and that his forearms are covered in black tribal flame tattoos, but the physical evidence that this is not his father doesn’t help Nathaniel get rid of his fear.

“Am I necessary, or can I go back to work?” A far shorter man – probably shorter than Nathaniel – steps out onto the street. Nathaniel feels in his bones the power of this Alpha, the inherent dominance, and he ducks his head. God, and it kills him to do it, to back down, to submit, but he’s in no position to start a fight when he’s looking for sanctuary here. “Oh? What’s this?”

The short blond man steps forward, and Nathaniel repeats his plead of, “Don’t touch me.” He thinks he might break if he’s touched right now.

The Alpha scoffs. “A dirty street rat like you? No thanks.” He kneels in front of Nathaniel a couple of feet away and waves his hand where Nathaniel can see. “Look at me.”

Nathaniel waits for the command to sink into him, to make him want to obey, but there’s no force behind the Alpha’s words. Surprise brings Nathaniel’s head up more than a desire to listen. But once he looks, it’s hard to look away. There is absolutely no emotion on the blond man’s face. Even his hazel eyes are flat. After years being hunted by an enraged father, and further years after that being subjected to a psycho, the apathy exuding from this Alpha is more soothing than Nathaniel can comprehend.

“Why the fuck are you like this?” There’s no gesture to accompany the words, not even a sweep of eyes, but it’s obvious the man is referring to his appearance.

“Um,” Nathaniel coughs, trying to clear his throat. He can feel his thirst scrape down his throat like a physical wound. “Escaped,” he says. “Long story. I just need… a place to sleep. I can be gone by morning, I just… can’t keep running right now.”

“Escaped from whom?”

Nathaniel shakes his head.

“You can’t demand shelter and not tell us who we’re supposed to keep away from you.”

There’s logic behind that, and Nathaniel knows it. “There were two men, two Alphas,” he says, deciding to describe the immediate threats. Nathaniel doesn’t plan on staying long enough for Riko to become a problem for them. “One of them has a… a pair of freckles under his right eye. Otherwise they’re just... normal people. Brown hair. The one with the freckles has brown eyes, the other green. About six feet tall, the pair of them.”

“They’re kidnappers,” the blond man corrects.

Nathaniel says nothing. The Alpha is wrong, but Nathaniel doesn’t want to deny the claim and go down the road of needing to clarify. The only thing these people need to know is that Nathaniel needs a place to crash that’s at least relatively safe.

The door opens, admitting a fourth club worker – another Alpha. “Andrew, what the fuck, let’s go, you’re slacking – oh. Fuck.”

No. Nathaniel knows that voice. He looks up, past the blond Alpha, and his eyes fix on the face of Kevin Day. If he’s here… maybe Nathaniel’s escape wasn’t circumstantial chance. Maybe it really was Riko behind this. What are the fucking odds that Nathaniel would end up here otherwise?

“Oh? This is an interesting development.” The blond Alpha rotates on the balls of his feet and looks up to face Kevin. “Care to explain?”

Kevin stares at Nathaniel, mouth slightly open. If Nathaniel thought he could move, he would be running away. The blond Alpha taps Kevin’s knee, and Kevin blinks and clears his throat. “Get him inside. I’ll tell you when he’s…. Not out here.” Kevin’s eyes haven’t left Nathaniel’s for the entire exchange. “Is he… is he here?”

“Not as far as I know,” Nathaniel says. Beneath him, his folded legs shake with minor tremors. He thinks that walking might be a problem tomorrow, even more than it is tonight.

After a moment of tense silence, the middle-aged man with the tattoos barks, “Alright, let’s go. Get inside.”

As much as he hates it, to the very core of his stupid Omega being, Nathaniel jerks at the command and makes to get to his feet, but his legs refuse to even get him to the point of being upright. He falls back to the sidewalk with a crack of his knees against concrete and a soft cry of pain falling from his lips.

“Now look what you’ve done, Wymack,” the blond Alpha says, a hint of sarcasm in an otherwise emotionless tone. The man shuffles closer to Nathaniel, who quickly glances up to track the movement. Losing the position of an Alpha has only ever gotten Nathaniel pain and regret. “I’m not going to touch you,” the man says, ignoring Kevin’s urgent “Andrew” over his shoulder. “But the way I see it,” he – Andrew, apparently – says, “you can either get your ass on your feet and walk, or you can crawl. Or you can accept some damn help so that we can get you off the street.”

Nathaniel shudders. He can’t make his legs move enough to get to his feet, and even if he could get that far, he doubts that walking would be feasible. Crawling is out of the question. He’s crawled too many times, been degraded too many times. If he has a way out of that, he’s going to take it. “Help me,” he says, searching Andrew’s face for an acceptance of his plea.

“Will you let me?” is all Andrew says. He doesn’t move, doesn’t so much as blink. There’s nothing in his posture that says he’s going to make a grab for Nathaniel, that he’s going to take advantage of a desperate relinquishing of consent.

By all means, Nathaniel should be terrified of Andrew. He’s an Alpha, and a strong one at that – not just physically, either. His presence is commanding, and it’s obvious that he’s accustomed to getting his way. But his gaze is reassuring, not in emotion, but in the complete and total absence of it. There’s no sign that Andrew is going to take advantage of the fact that Nathaniel is an unmarked and unbonded Omega, that he’s weak and easily taken advantage of. Andrew just stares and waits for an answer.

“Yes,” Nathaniel concedes, lowering his gaze for a moment before raising it again to keep an eye on Andrew’s movements.

Andrew stands and holds out his hand. “Take it, then. I’m not going to do all of the work.”

Despite himself, Nathaniel snorts. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for being lazy.” But he takes Andrew’s hand and does as much as he can to tell his legs to work, to get himself on his feet. Andrew, regardless of what he said, does the vast majority of the work. He tucks Nathaniel in against his side, one of Nathaniel’s arms pulled around Andrew’s shoulders.

Nathaniel shudders, shakes, and hates the contact, but it’s nothing like Riko, nothing like what Nathaniel has grown to expect. Andrew is warm and solid against Nathaniel’s side, shoulders broad under the drape of Nathaniel’s arm. The curl of Andrew’s hand around Nathaniel’s waist is steadying, not possessive; his fingers are pressed together instead of spread wide, and his fingertips don’t dig into Nathaniel’s flesh.

“Alright,” Wymack says slowly. “I’m not going to ask. Take him to the break room.” With that, he turns around and opens the door, entering the dark club ahead of them all.

Andrew takes a moment to adjust his grip. “If you trip me up, I will drop you and leave you where you fall.” Before Nathaniel can think up a clever retort that won’t get him dropped right then and there, Andrew starts walking, and it takes all of Nathaniel’s concentration to move his legs. Kevin holds the door, and Nathaniel doesn’t meet his searching gaze as he passes him and goes into the club.

It’s dark, and there’s music playing low, but there are hardly any patrons milling about. Nathaniel wonders if the club is really unpopular, or if the city is just too small to warrant a nightclub like this. The bar is full, but the two female bartenders are cleaning and talking to each other, occasionally providing refills, instead of working at keeping up with a high demand. There are a handful of people on the dancefloor, but definitely not enough to warrant Kevin thinking that Andrew was slacking off on whatever job it is that he holds here.

That’s not really Nathaniel’s business, though.

Andrew all but carries Nathaniel through the club to a back room, partitioned off from the club by a door marked “employees only.” The music from the DJ cuts off as soon as the door is closed behind them, and Nathaniel finds himself in a warmly-lit rectangular room with an entertainment center, two sofas, and two armchairs. There’s a full-sized refrigerator and a microwave against one wall, along with a flimsy shelf stocked with chips and other snacks. Wymack is standing just to the side of the entertainment center with his arms folded across his chest. Nathaniel instinctively looks away, dull aches from scars long-healed driving him to avoid confrontation with older men.

A low sound rumbles in Andrew’s chest, reverberating against Nathaniel’s ribcage. Nathaniel isn’t sure if it’s a growl or something meant to be reassuring, but it doesn’t really matter because he doesn’t know how to respond to such a noise anyway.

“Don’t start that shit with me, Minyard,” Wymack says, and even from this far away, the strength behind that glare is cowing.

But Andrew just stares back and sets Nathaniel on the nearest of the sofas. “Maybe you should tone down being an imposing asshole,” Andrew suggests. He doesn’t sound like he cares at all, not even a little, but there’s something in Andrew’s stance that cues Nathaniel in on the fact that he enjoys the older man’s exasperation.

A nervous shuffle in Nathaniel’s peripheral draws his attention to Kevin, who is still standing just inside the door, as if afraid to come any closer.

“Kevin?”

“Wymack, I…” Kevin swallows, his hollow stare fixed on Nathaniel. “He’s not supposed to be here.”

Andrew snorts. “Three minutes ago it was ‘get him inside.’ Now it’s ‘make him go away.’”

“That’s not what I said,” Kevin snaps, and that haughty look that is oh so familiar to Nathaniel settles in on Kevin’s features. “Nathaniel –”

“Neil.” Nathaniel isn’t sure why he’s so quick to say that, to substitute his little-known nickname in place of his birth name, but all he knows is that he doesn’t want any ties to Riko, not while he’s here. Even if he leaves in the morning, for one night, he wants to be someone other than Nathaniel. He’s going to be Neil for as long as he can hold onto it.

Kevin’s eyes harden, but he nods. “Neil is… he’s property. Moriyama property. Like Jean.”

“A breeder?”

Neil full-body flinches at the use of the word, said like it’s so much filth, by Wymack.

“Your tact is astounding, Wymack,” Andrew drawls, dropping down into the armchair closest to Neil.

Wymack curls his lip while Kevin starts talking again, trying to redirect everyone’s attention. “Sort of,” he says. “He was… well… Riko isn’t allowed to take a mate, you know that, since he’s a second son. But that doesn’t mean….” Watching Kevin fumble for words is almost as painful as… actually, it’s not even close. But listening to Kevin try to speak while still being oh, so careful to not insult the Moriyamas is going to give Neil a headache before it makes anything better.

“I’m Riko’s,” Neil says, pulling Kevin’s gaze before anyone else’s. “The bastard. My father promised me to him, because an Omega can’t take over the family business, but ‘such good bloodlines would be a pity to waste.’ My father sold me like a broodmare and left me to rot with Riko.” Neil shakes his head bitterly. The pain of his most recent encounter with Riko, the knives in his skin, the sharp nails in his hips, still stutter through him with every motion, even though they were inflicted more than two days ago.

“So why aren’t you…” Wymack waves his hand, trying to indicate something. But Neil doesn’t catch on to what he means.

Andrew’s body goes stiff, and he very, very slowly gets to his feet. Neil blinks, instantly familiar with the aggressive posture. He’s just not so used to seeing it from behind. Andrew’s shoulders look even broader from the back, and his muscles move stiffly under the tight black material of his shirt. It’s interesting to Neil how so much power can be packed so tightly into such a small person. Andrew would make a formidable opponent, and Neil is glad that he’s not the one facing down that rage.

Wymack blinks and, to Neil’s absolute shock, tips his head to the side in a way that is, at least in some way, a conceding of power. “I’m going to go get Abby. Kevin, get back to work.” The older man unfolds his arms and leaves the room, his hand catching Kevin’s shoulder and dragging him along. The door closes quietly behind them, leaving Neil alone in an unfamiliar room with a pissed off Alpha.

But as soon as the other two are gone, Andrew relaxes. He stares at the door for a moment, as if making sure that it stays closed, and then he turns his attention back to Neil. Silence stretches between them, and Andrew’s gaze turns assessing. Neil feels like he’s being inspected for something, and he shifts in discomfort and immediately regrets it as his body protests with aches and cries of pain.

“How did you get away?” Andrew asks, lowering himself to Neil’s level so that he doesn’t have the height advantage.

Neil finds something reassuring in the gesture of equality, something that makes him feel… more. Riko never did that, was always above Neil, in a position of power. He hums softly, wondering how much information he’s willing to give up, especially right now. He’s exhausted and hurting. He’s starving, and his throat is dry. He’s uncomfortable in such an expansive room that smells like people he doesn’t know – all Alphas and Betas. He furrows his brow and shakes his head minutely. “I don’t know. They… hm, Riko has moved me before. There’s a transport van that he uses that’s equipped with cuffs and chains and stuff. My uncle has tried to get to me before, so Riko moved me around. This time… I don’t know. The cuffs weren’t fastened correctly. We stopped for gas and I made a run for it.”

Andrew’s eyes drop to Neil’s feet, and Neil obligingly lifts his right foot off the ground. Neil’s leg shakes dangerously at the exertion. Nothing in Andrew’s expression changes, despite the intent and thorough way Andrew examines the no doubt mess of Neil’s sole. Andrew gives a slow blink and then looks back up at Neil’s face. “Put your foot down before you lose all motor control in your leg.”

When his foot falls back to the floor, Neil refuses to acknowledge the relief that washes through him. He’s used to being the weakest person in the room, physically at least, but in unfamiliar territory, he just wishes that he had even a normal level of strength. Something that would let him run if he had to.

“No one’s going to hurt you here,” Andrew says. It takes Neil too long to realize that he’s probably giving off pheromones that are cluing Andrew in to his emotions. Neil cringes and turns his head away, but Andrew is insistent and moves to sit on the sofa next to him. “Look at me. You’re dangerous to keep here, but I’m not going to let you run off in the morning and be dragged back to being raped by Riko. So I’m going to keep you here, and I’m going to protect you, but I want something in return.”

Neil eyes Andrew, feeling heavy from his exhaustion, processing everything slowly. “What can I possibly give you that’s of equal value to facing off against Riko?”

“Oh, I’m already in a deal with Kevin, protecting him from Riko. So adding one scrawny Omega into that little package isn’t going to be any trouble at all. But you have more knowledge about what Riko is like, what he’s capable of. I need insider’s information, and Kevin’s memory is clouded by his fear.”

“The fact that he was raised as family probably doesn’t help either,” Neil mutters.

A light catches in Andrew’s eyes. “That’s interesting. And exactly the kind of information I’m looking for. You and I are going to have a conversation.” The door opens, and a woman steps in. She smiles politely at the two of them, shifting her hold on what looks to Neil like a medical bag. “As soon as Abby’s done with you,” Andrew amends, though he doesn’t move from his spot on the sofa.

Chapter Text

Neil wakes up on his side. He blinks quickly, trying to focus his vision in the dim light. It’s never safe to not have his bearings. For a moment, everything about Neil is abstract and distant. He knows where he is – or, more importantly, he knows where he is not. His body is largely numb, and part of him feels like he’s floating, like he’s looking down at himself curled up on a soft beige sofa in a room three times the size of his quarters at Riko’s home. He blinks again and he’s more centered, back in his body at the very least. The sofa he’s sleeping on smells odd and busy – busy in the sense that there are a lot of different smells on it. The variety of personal identifiers is overwhelming.

Movement to Neil’s right, which, in his current position, appears to be above him, draws his attention and plants him more firmly back in his physical being. Tilting his head takes a lot of effort, as if his head is heavier, or the air has suddenly become thicker. There’s a man sitting against the wall on the far side of the room. Neil feels his heart skip in anxiety, but the fear is quickly gone. He doesn’t think that it was a conscious decision to calm down.

“You have a high tolerance if you’re awake already.”

The voice is soothing, slightly raspy, and Neil closes his eyes to the vaguely familiar tenor. “Andrew,” he says.

“Neil,” comes the reply, and with that name trickles in memories of why Neil is here, why he feels like this. He remembers Riko’s face the last time he saw the Alpha. He remembers the transport van and the loose cuffs and the distracted Alphas that he was so easily able to slip away from. He remembers running, and with that comes the recollection and reemergence of pain – in his legs, his lungs, his feet. That pain is just a dull throb now, though, after Abby saw to him.

Abby, as it turns out, is a nurse – an Omega. She had an unhurried gate and a soothing look to her face. Neil very distinctly remembers wondering if there was a supplement that Abby took to make her scent so calming, or if she was just naturally that way. It had been so long since Neil had been anywhere near another Omega that, when Abby got close to him, his first instinct was to lean away. That need was quickly overlapped, however, when her warm brown eyes narrowed and she set her hand gently on Neil’s arm. Neil leaned into her touch and his eyes fell closed. For a moment, he imagined and wished that Abby’s touch was actually his mothers, but that delusion slipped away with the withdrawal of Abby’s fingers.

After that, Neil remembers Andrew stepping out and Abby taking off Neil’s clothes to get at his wounds. He remembers the sharp burn of the disinfectant against his feet and the dull ache against wounds already two days old.

“She gave me painkillers,” Neil says, opening his eyes to watch Andrew across the room. The Alpha is close enough to the entertainment center to be illuminated by the occasional flashing lights from the wifi router, and it sends odd shadows into relief under his brows and his cheekbones.

Andrew hums in ascent and shifts positions, uncrossing his legs and drawing his knees up to drape his arms over them. “You were already passed the fuck out by the time I got back in here.”

Coming from anyone else, that sentence would have set Neil on edge. Especially if Riko had said it. But, from Andrew, it’s just a statement, and the flat tone that it’s said in makes Neil feel positive that nothing happened upon Andrew’s return to the room. “Hm, well, I suppose it’s a good thing I woke up early then. Wouldn’t want to miss out on that conversation you wanted.”

“Do you always rely on sarcasm as a defense mechanism?”

“Only when I can’t physically fight back. So, well… hm, I guess that’s most of the time.” Neil wiggles his arm under his head and pushes himself up by his elbow until he’s sitting. The slow blink of his eyes is the only outward sign of his pain and dizziness. He’s glad that the room is dark, but without any windows or clocks that he can see, he can’t help but wonder what time it is.

Silence is more than welcome to Neil’s ears, but he can’t deny that it also makes him a bit nervous to be in a room with such a powerful Alpha, one who is hardly even breathing, let alone speaking. He curls his fingers into fists, knowing that his body is betraying him, sending off scent signals to alert Andrew to exactly what he’s feeling. It’s annoying. He misses the years when he was on the run with his mother, when he took suppressants and was, for all intents and purposes, a Beta.

“I think the first thing I want you to explain to me,” Andrew says, drawing Neil’s focus, “is this whole thing that you have going on with Riko.”

What had started as a welcome distraction, an easy thing to focus on, turns instantly into a topic that makes Neil curl his lip in distaste. “I don’t have a ‘thing’ going on with Riko,” he hisses, enough venom in his words to get his point across.

Andrew’s only reaction is a slow blink.

Neil takes a deep breath, and then another. Andrew’s scent is light in the room, not overwhelming, simply mixed together with the other unidentifiable scents. Neil can’t distinguish any emotion from the Alpha, and he uses that emptiness to distill his own anger and annoyance so that he can focus and speak. He promised that he would tell Andrew about Riko, so he will. But he wants to be careful about what information he gives out about himself.

“I only know what was explained to me, which probably isn’t the whole story,” Neil begins. He pauses for a moment afterwards, moving over on the sofa so that he can lean against the armrest, using it to prop himself up for extra support. “Do you understand the way the Moriyama family works?” Andrew lifts one shoulder in a partial shrug. Neil takes that for what it’s worth and plows forward. “There are two branches, right?” He holds up his hands to demonstrate. “The main family, which is Kengo and Ichirou, and the branch family, which is Tetsuji and Riko. The main family consists of first-borns, and the branch family is second-borns. As far as I know, the Moriyama family, not including their mates, are all Alphas.”

“They kill their Omega offspring?”

“Probably,” Neil says, dismissive, not wanting to dwell on that. “Anyway, the Moriyama family is small in the States, and they’re trying to spread out. Usually, only first-borns are allowed to mate and have kids, but because Kengo is trying to take over as much as possible in a short amount of time, he’s allowing Riko to also have children. Although they won’t be counted as heirs, they would still be Moriyamas, and would add to the power of their pack.” Neil pauses for a brief moment, allowing himself to catch his breath. He can feel his dehydration in the back of his throat, but he refuses to let himself glance over his shoulder towards the refrigerator.

Andrew, for his part, remains silent and doesn’t push for more information in his posture, either, as if he’s willing to patiently wait for Neil to speak on his own time.

Neil purses his lips, blocking off thoughts of Andrew so that he can move forward with his narrative. “But Kengo told Riko that he isn’t allowed to take a mate. I don’t know why. I personally have never heard of or seen anything but negatives come from being mated, but that was the stipulation. If Riko were to take a mate, if he were to bond with an Omega, it would mean his life.

“I suppose this is where I come in, and where we loop back to your real question.” Every word scrapes on the way out, but Neil swallows and ignores his dry throat. “My father works for the main Moriyama family. He’s… hm… ‘hitman’ is probably not the right word. He,” Neil hums, tilting his head as he thinks through his words, trying to find the right ones. A corner of his mouth lifts up into a ghost of his father’s smile when he refocuses on Andrew and says, “He makes their problems go away.” Neil gets to his feet, turning his back on Andrew and walking to the refrigerator. He uses his thirst as an excuse to claw the smile off of his face. Once he has a bottle of water in his hands, he walks back to the sofa and resumes the same position against the armrest. Andrew hasn’t moved an inch. “If I had been born an Alpha, I would have been raised to take over my father’s position, but I would have been loyal to Ichirou, not Kengo.”

Andrew tilts his head, and Neil can almost see the thoughts moving behind his eyes, but the Alpha still says nothing.

So Neil plows forward. “As an Omega, my fate should have been to die. However, Tetsuji found out about me, and he basically offered my father payment for a guarantee that I would become Riko’s ma–, uhm, Omega.”

Not knowing what else to say, Neil sips from his water bottle and tries to will the conversation to drop. He knows that it won’t, but he’s often been told that he’s stubborn enough to bend reality to his will. Sometimes he can’t help but attempt to do just that.

“Is Riko allowed more than one Omega?” Andrew asks.

“No,” Neil shakes his head. “It’s just me.”

“Then what is Jean for?”

Neil winces at the mention of the other Omega, his only friend in a world that had otherwise been completely bleak. “Jean belongs to the pack. He’s… complicated. Technically, Jean isn’t like….” Neil buries his fingers in his hair and pulls on it, giving himself something to do and trying to orient himself at the same time. “Technically, I was considered a Moriyama, I suppose. Formally, I was just going to carry Riko’s…” Neil shudders and skirts that subject. “But technically, I was ‘part of the family.’ Jean, like all of the Betas and Alphas that work for the Moriyamas, like the five other Omegas that share his job, is just part of the pack. He’s property, more or less. His job is just to provide more pack members.”

“And your job is to provide more Moriyamas.”

It’s not framed as a question, so Neil just stares at Andrew and figures that’s answer enough.

Apparently, it is, because Andrew closes his eyes and tips his head back against the wall, as if in acceptance of the finished conversation. Neil’s thoughts catch and hold on Andrew’s bared neck, staring at it openly. It’s not that he’s… that’s not true, actually. He’s never seen an Alpha expose their neck, not like this, not to him. Andrew does it uncaringly, and Neil isn’t sure if it’s a sign of trust or if it’s a sort of haughty cockiness that stems from the knowledge that Andrew could kick anyone’s ass if they tried to go after him right now.

Neil shakes his head, unfamiliar with the fascination he has for Andrew, and says something to distract himself. “Why are you here?”

Andrew doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, barely even breathes. Neil takes the silence as either a sign that Andrew has fallen asleep, or that Andrew is done talking for now. After taking another drink, Neil sets the bottle of water aside and resumes the prone position he woke up in. He bends his arm under his head, but, despite the soft comfort of the sofa, Neil can’t close his eyes. He can’t stop staring at Andrew.

“Do you want me to leave?” Andrew asks, tipping his head back up to return Neil’s gaze.

The painkillers aren’t yet out of Neil’s system, but he’s less dizzy than when he woke up; his body feels less heavy. But he’s still exhausted, still somewhere unfamiliar. “Yes,” he says, because Andrew is an Alpha, and Neil knows that he’ll never be able to fall asleep with an Alpha in the room.

As soon as the word is out of Neil’s mouth, Andrew is on his feet. Neil watches closely as Andrew walks to the door, giving Neil and the sofa a wide berth. The door opens silently and closes with a soft click, and then Neil is left alone in the dark.


 

Andrew needs the filtered burn of a cigarette when he leaves the break room where “Neil” is crashing. It’s not that Andrew knows him by any other name, but Kevin had called him Nathaniel right away, though he had been compliant in calling him Neil upon request. Andrew breathes out a plume of smoke into the lightening street. It’s about four in the morning, and the club closed two hours ago. Neil has been here for a little over three hours.

He makes a mental note to tell Abby that she needs to up the dose of painkillers for Neil; his small size is apparently deceptive. Andrew drags hard on his cigarette and stares around at the street. He makes another mental note to find out how Neil got his tolerance up so high. Maybe he’ll ask Neil directly, maybe he won’t. The Omega seems willing enough so far to hand over information, but Andrew wonders exactly how far that willingness will stretch. Their deal was for information about Riko, and while Neil seems damn near eager to spill the tea on that bastard, information about himself – as a person separate from the mess he’s in with the Moriyamas – appears to be something Neil is hesitant to give up.

Andrew glares at nothing in particular and flicks his cigarette butt away. He hates liars, especially liars with blue doe eyes and riots of curls that might just be red once they’re clean and in the right light.

The back door of the club creaks like a bitch when Andrew shoulders his way inside, and he slides and clicks all five locks into place before he hangs up his lightweight jacket and makes his way through the rear of the club. Andrew knows this place like the back of his hand. It’s the only real home he’s ever had.

Technically, he lives upstairs, on the third floor, with the rest of his misfit family. He shares a room with all of them, since they basically have the entire floor to themselves, minus the area furthest from the stairs, which is used for storage. The second floor is designed for living space, but by the time Andrew stumbled upon the door of the Den, all the other rooms had been occupied. Wymack and Abby share, and Matt and Dan share. Allison and Renee have their own money and their own apartment a couple blocks away.

Andrew isn’t jealous, not at all.

On his return trip to the break room, Andrew ducks into the kitchen and pilfers a bottle of alcohol and some food. He knows better than to take the alcohol from behind the bar – that’s for the club, and right now the business is the only thing keeping Wymack’s pack from going under. Since this is the only safe home that he’s had in a very long time, Andrew is not about to be the reason the Den’s doors wind up closing. He snatches a stool from around the makeshift dining table that Abby insisted on – it’s just a card table with a table cloth and some short bar stools for seats – and returns to the break room.

The door is closed, but Andrew opens it and ducks his head inside anyway. When he left the third floor, everyone had been asleep. But that doesn’t mean Andrew trusts the other Alphas – especially Nicky, the curious bastard – to stay that way with Andrew absent. Yet it is still only Neil is in the break room, and he’s already fast asleep. Andrew closes the door and prepares himself for long hours of doing nothing. He sits down on the stool, leans back against the wall, and brings the bottle of whiskey to his lips.

He’s not being protective of Neil, not beyond the deal he made. He’s not; he barely knows the guy. He doesn’t know the guy. All he knows about Neil is that he doesn’t want to be called Nathaniel and that he may have a more fucked-up life than Andrew. That doesn’t mean that Andrew is protective of him. Neil just has a lot of information that Andrew is going to need if he has plans to take down Riko, should the opportunity arise. Neil is valuable to Andrew, a wealth of information. Beyond that, the Omega means nothing.

And if Andrew is being protective, he’s going to blame pheromones and the “natural order” of Alphas protecting Omegas.

Not that he believes in that bullshit.

So it’s a good thing that Andrew doesn’t feel even a little protective of Neil.

“Fuck,” he whispers, taking a deep pull of whiskey. He swallows, holds some of the burning liquid in his mouth, and then swallows again. Maybe he can drown himself in the alcohol. That would be easier than trying to figure out what the fuck is going on.

The hours pass slowly. Andrew checks his phone periodically, skimming social media and reading up on the news – nothing about Neil, though he wonders if Riko would ever resort to national news when so many people seem to work for his father – but mostly he just drinks and munches and stares at the wall. He’s unsurprised when Nicky is the first person to find him in the morning, quickly followed by Kevin, who, judging from his kaleidoscopic expressions, isn’t sure what he’s feeling. Aaron is nowhere to be seen, but that’s not exactly anything new.

Andrew watches, face blank, as Nicky’s pace slows from an excited fast-walk to a tentative – if not hesitant – approach. “Is he awake yet?” Nicky asks, eyes moving past Andrew and then back again. It’s not the question that Andrew was expecting, but maybe Nicky has more of a survival instinct than Andrew frequently gives him credit for.

“I don’t know. He hasn’t come out yet.”

Kevin’s expression finally settles on determination, eyebrows drawing together in a strong, firm line, his mouth pinching together in an unpleasant pucker. “It’s time for him to wake up.” He starts forward, puffing himself up in a way that’s supposed to look superior but fails miserably.

“Kevin,” Nicky says quickly, glancing at Andrew and putting out his arm as if to block Kevin’s movements. Kevin brushes Nicky’s hand aside.

As soon as Kevin is close enough, Andrew gets to his feet and shoves the taller Alpha back. Kevin stumbles, unsteady and top-heavy on his long legs. “What the fuck, Andrew?” he snarls, setting his hand against the smooth white wall behind him. Andrew sees the gesture, the bent elbow and the tensed muscles, for what it is. He braces himself, feet spread shoulder-width apart. If Kevin wants a fight, Andrew is always too eager for split knuckles and the pleasant thrum of power that comes with winning.

“You’re not going in there,” Andrew says. In his peripheral, he sees Nicky take a step back, and then turn around and half-run down the hall and out of sight. Andrew ignores him and keeps his focus on Kevin.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Kevin says, flinging his arm out in front of him. “I’m not trying to hurt him, Andrew. But he needs to wake up.”

“No.”

“Andrew, for fuck’s sake. He needs to wake up so that he can fucking leave. I don’t need Riko tracking him to here and finding me, too.” Andrew tilts his head to the side, putting a pin in that thought for later, but he can’t let himself get distracted right now. When Kevin pushes away from the wall and makes to charge past Andrew into the break room, Andrew drops his shoulder into Kevin’s stomach and pushes him back.

The slam of Kevin’s back into the opposite wall shouldn’t be as satisfying as it is. He doesn’t get to soak in that pleasure for long, though, because he’s interrupted by a click from behind him and a soft voice asking, “What’s going on? What time is it?” For a moment, Andrew doesn’t move. He remains with his shoulder buried in Kevin’s stomach, his nails digging into the coward’s shoulder. Then Neil says, “Andrew?” and Andrew steps backwards.

He doesn’t like that he keeps backtracking away from Kevin until he’s close enough to Neil to feel his body heat, but he does it anyway. He doesn’t like anything about this situation. He just attacked Kevin, possibly bending the rules of a year-old promise, in order to keep a far newer one. He didn’t get any sleep last night in order to make sure that Neil got the break room to himself for as long as he needed it. He can’t decide if there’s something wrong with him, something wrong with Neil, or if he just doesn’t know how to react to being so near an unbonded Omega. He really hopes he’s not so helplessly out of control of his body for the problem to be the latter.

As if to prove that Andrew is still himself, Neil touches his shoulder, and Andrew jerks away from the tentative fingers. “Don’t touch me,” he says.

“Okay,” Neil replies, as if it’s that easy.

Chapter Text

Wymack paces, tense, along the length of the kitchen with a huge cup of coffee held tight in his fist, and Andrew just stares. Everyone is here – not the whole pack, they wouldn’t be able to fit that many people in the kitchen, but everyone who lives in the club is present. Kevin is talking too loudly off to the side, voice directed at Wymack because Andrew long ago learned to not listen to Kevin when he gets like this. The words just go in one ear and out the other.

It’s only a “family meeting” because Kevin won’t shut up about Neil and the danger he poses to them all – though it’s not difficult to hear the subtext. Kevin is only concerned about the potential danger Neil poses to him. It was supposed to just be breakfast. Abby, Dan, and Matt are cooking. Aaron cooks for a living, so he never has to take a turn making breakfast, the bastard. Andrew finds that obscenely unfair, especially when he’s the one that’s expected to cook instead. Andrew lifts his own coffee to his lips and turns his attention away from Wymack. He hasn’t been paying attention to the conversation anyway; he doesn’t have to. Kevin wants Neil gone, but Wymack would never abandon someone who needs help. So they’re stuck at an impasse. Kevin won’t shut up until the food is served, and even then, Andrew might have to bloody the coward’s mouth to make him drop the subject for good.

But the argument has everyone tense. Usually, breakfast is a noisy occasion with music and laughter and shouting at each other across the room. Today, everyone’s heads are down. Neil’s face is buried in his hands like he can’t bear being the center of so much attention.

Abby says Neil’s name, but he doesn’t look up so she ventures closer. Andrew watches closely. He’s never had a reason to not trust Abby, but he doesn’t trust anyone with Neil right now. He doesn’t know why, though, and it infuriates him. Why is he so fucking taken with the scrawny little Omega? Why does he care about a fucking liar? But he does. He’s exhausted, and maybe that exhaustion is making him delirious, because he can admit that he would fight anyone in the world if they tried to fuck with Neil.

“Hey,” Abby says, sitting down beside Neil and tentatively touching his shoulder. Neil jumps so high that it’s a shock his knees don’t hit the underside of the table. As it is, he almost falls off of his stool. Andrew tenses, waiting for the fall, but he relaxes when Neil catches himself and settles down, when Neil blinks at Abby and registers where he is. “Sorry,” Abby apologizes, mouth twisting in a sympathetic way. “I just wanted to ask what you wanted to eat? We’re just not sure if you’re allergic to anything or if you don’t, for instance, like meat or something.”

Neil just stares. It doesn’t take long for Abby to shift under Neil’s unblinking gaze, her hands twisting together. It only takes a few moments for Neil’s expression to shift, but it feels like an awkward lifetime. “I don’t care,” he says, confusion dripping from his tongue. Neil scrubs it away with his hands, his fingertips pressing into his eyes. “I don’t care,” he says again.

“Okay,” Abby says, obviously ready to go back to cooking but hesitant to leave Neil like that. “It’s alright, Neil. There’s no expectations here for you, not right now.”

Neil shudders, and Andrew has had enough. He reaches over with the whole length of his body and grabs the leg of Neil’s stool. He pulls, and the stool scrapes abrasively against the ground. Neil starts again, hands dropping so that he can stare open-mouthed at Andrew. Kevin’s rambling falls utterly silent, and the only sound for a long moment is the screaming of the stool against the laminate.

“Andrew…” Neil obviously understands what’s happening just as much as Andrew does, which is absolutely not at all. But until Neil tells Andrew not to, he’s just going to do whatever the fuck it is that his body is telling him to do.

Andrew doesn’t look at Neil, doesn’t have to. He can feel Neil beside him, the whole spindly length of him, the quiver in his lungs when he breathes. Andrew stares at Abby and says, unthreatening but firm, “Leave him alone.” The room remains silent for a long time after Abby ducks her head and gets to her feet.

Wymack, unsurprisingly, is the first person to jump to Abby’s defense. “Jesus Christ, Andrew, she was just trying to help.”

Somehow, Andrew remains calm when he replies, “She needs to learn body language or how to better open up her airways because it was very obvious that Neil didn’t want her help.”

“And what makes you think he wants yours?” Dan challenges from the kitchen. An Alpha looking to inherit the pack from Wymack, Dan is always quick to back up the older Alpha, always quick to defend dear Abby, matriarch and mate to the leader.

Andrew is, as always, unimpressed. “Oh, I’m sorry, did everyone schedule their mental lapses for today? He’s not subtle, like, at all.”

Neil flushes a stupid, pretty pink color, but he says nothing.

“All the more reason to get him the fuck out of here,” Kevin says, his bullheadedness getting him into dangerous waters, as usual. “He’ll distract the patrons and give off the wrong sort of attention. He’ll bring Riko to our doorstep in less than a week.”

“Kevin Day,” Andrew says, twisting around to stare at the other Alpha with a smile, “if you feel like living past this moment you will sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up. Our deal still stands. If Riko is stupid enough to walk through the doors of this club, I will kill him, and I will have every right to.”

Kevin’s eyes go wide. Neil makes a small choked noise but otherwise, but otherwise the room is silent. After a few more seconds of Andrew staring at him, Kevin makes his way to his stool and sits down.

“Well, mark this as a day in history,” Matt mutters, breaking the spell. Wymack takes his post close to Abby, Dan reaches over to flip on the radio, and pretty soon, it becomes a normal day. Except for the skinny Omega sitting next to him who won’t stop fucking shaking.

-

Neil stays utterly silent as three of the new people – Dan, Matt, and Nicky – carry the conversation. Kevin doesn’t say another word, not after Andrew’s threat, and although the peace is nice, Neil can’t help but think that Kevin is right. As much as Neil wants to stay here, he knows he shouldn’t. The only thing keeping him right now is his deal with Andrew. But when does that run out? Neil has a lot of information about the Moriyama family, but he feels like it’s not enough to keep him here long. If the deal was protection for information, Neil wouldn’t be surprised if Andrew made him leave as soon as that information became nonexistent. Neil wouldn’t be surprised at that outcome, but he thinks that it would be easy to like it here.

Breakfast finishes and Andrew is quick to snag Neil’s attention with a snap of his fingers and a sideways nod of his head. Confused, but having nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, Neil gets to his feet and follows Andrew from the room. Neil’s feet absolutely ache, a forefront to the rest of his butchered body, but he doesn’t complain as he follows Andrew up first one flight of stairs and then another. He’s slightly winded at the top, but he shakes his head when Andrew looks at him with raised eyebrows.

The room they’re in looks more like an attic than a bedroom, save for the bunkbeds lined up against the wall on either side of the only window in the room. There’s a dresser and rather large wardrobe across from the beds, but otherwise…. “Why are we in the attic?”

Andrew doesn’t respond, instead walking over to the wardrobe. He rifles around through the hanging clothes for a moment before pulling down a black sweater and tossing it to Neil. Neil catches it, barely, and stares down at it once it’s in his hands. “What…?”

“You’re shivering. Put it on.” He says it like it’s easy, like this isn’t the first piece of real clothing that he’s ever been given, like the soft black fabric doesn’t smell like Andrew – it smells good. Neil buries his face in it and then pulls it on before he can think about what he’s done. Andrew’s right, of course. Neil has been shivering. But he’s so used to minor inconveniences now that he didn’t even notice it. “What?” Andrew demands. Neil realizes he’s been staring.

“N-nothing, I…” He doesn’t want to say that, so he turns away and says the first thing that comes to mind. “He marked me. Riko.” Given that he had just been thinking about scent and the implications of wearing an Alpha’s clothing, he supposes it wasn’t much of a leap for his mind to make. It will also make the evasion more believable to Andrew.

The press of silence is a physical one. Neil lifts his eyes after a moment to find Andrew staring at his neck. “Why would he do that?” There’s a cant to Andrew’s tone that makes something inside of Neil quake.

It’s too easy for Neil to quip, “Oh, I don’t know. Just for fun, I guess. Got bored one day and decided, ‘you know what would make the day more interesting? Branding the Omega I’m supposed to be bree-‘”

Andrew closes the distance between them in three strides, and his claps his hand over Neil’s mouth before he can finish his sentence. “Shut up.”

Neil doesn’t breathe for a solid handful of seconds, and then Andrew’s warmth seeps into him from the lack of distance between them, and he sighs into Andrew’s palm. Andrew’s gaze sharpens, and Neil’s pulse quickens. He’s not afraid, not of Andrew or the limited distance between them, but his pulse is still out of control and he doesn’t know why. Andrew makes a noise, throaty and rumbling, and Neil melts; his knees shake, his lips part, and he murmurs Andrew’s name into his cupped hand, lips dragging over the Alpha’s skin.

And then Andrew is gone. One second they’re within inches of each other, connected by Andrew’s palm and elegant pianist’s fingers, and the next Neil is struggling to stay on his own two feet as the space in front of him is suddenly featuring a significant lack of Andrew and an abundance of empty air.

Confused by the… by everything that he’s feeling, Neil gives himself a moment to readjust. Andrew’s scent, clinging to the sweater and filtering into Neil’s being, does nothing to help clear his head.

Walking down the stairs is no easier than walking up them. Abby had bandaged his feet, but no one had shoes in his size, and honestly Neil is pretty sure that shoes would just make them hurt worse, anyway. At the bottom of the stairs, Neil hesitates. He knows his way around – the rear of the club isn’t very big – but he doesn’t know where he should go. There’s still sounds of communication coming from the kitchen, so Neil turns the other way and heads back to the break room.

“Hey, Neil!”

Neil stops walking and turns around, recognizing the man approaching him but unable to place a name off the top of his head. “You’re the Beta.”

The man’s smile falls a bit, but it’s quick to pick up again. “Yeah, I’m Matt,” he says, starting to hold out his hand but quickly letting it fall back to his side. “So, uh, I’m sure you’re tired but… I don’t know. I thought I’d see if you needed anything? Something to drink? Some company?”

Neil shrugs. “I’m fine.”

Matt sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “Look, Andrew just took off from the club. He left Kevin here, which, like, almost never happens. Ever. Honestly I’ve never seen two people as inseparable as them.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Neil asks, cutting off Matt’s digression from the original topic. He doesn’t want to hear about how close Andrew and Kevin are. He doesn’t want to hear about Kevin at all.

“I just…. You should stay away from Andrew, okay? He’s… there’s something wrong with him. Mentally. Really, Neil, he’s not safe. Allison calls him a monster and there’s good reason for that.”

Neil looks past Matt, down the hall. He doesn’t know who Allison is, but one of the newly introduced Alphas – Dan, Neil thinks – is peeking her head out of the kitchen door. “Thanks for the advice,” he says, and then turns away.

“Wait, Neil,” Matt grabs Neil’s arm, not hard, but hard enough to stop his forward motion and turn him around.

Neil jerks out of his grip and puts distance between them. “Don’t touch me.” He doesn’t think that’s such a hard rule to follow. It’s not as bad because Matt is a Beta, but if the people here start getting handsy, Neil is gone. He’ll disappear just as fast as Andrew did, with or without Andrew’s deal.

“Sorry, sorry.” Matt holds up his hands and backs off a couple of steps. “Sorry, I forgot, I just…” His following sigh is weary. “Can I show you around? Give you the tour?”

“Kitchen,” Neil says, pointing with his finger. “And a rear exit beyond that. Upstairs leads to the bedrooms. Bathroom, storage, breakroom, and beyond that a stock room and the club. I got it, thanks.”

“Neil, please, I don’t want you to have a bad impression of us all just because you have a bad impression of Andrew.”

At that, Neil pauses. Something in him stiffens, reacts. “What makes you think I have a bad impression of Andrew?” There’s nothing defensive in his tone – just flat curiosity – but there must be in his scent because Matt’s eyes widen and he takes another step back.

“Uh, well, aside from the fact that he’s terrifying? And dangerous? And everyone else whose met him gets a bad impression of him?”

Neil flicks his eyes to Dan, who approaches from behind Matt and rests a hand on his hip. “Look, Neil,” she smiles, “there’s something wrong with Andrew. His scent markers are weird and he’s strong and knows it. The first night he came to the club, he almost killed a man. Instead of calling the cops, Wymack talked Andrew down and then hired him, which is not a call any of the rest of us would have made, but we trust Wymack.” She sighs, leaning against Matt’s side; Matt relaxes into her. “But that doesn’t mean I trust Andrew. I don’t. And you shouldn’t either.”

Neil waits to see if she’ll go on and say anything else longwinded. When she doesn’t, Neil appraises her. “Dan, was it?” She nods, and Neil hums. “Mind your own business. You don’t know shit about bad people. I’ve had enough experience to know that whatever Andrew’s problems are, they’re not with me, and so long as that remains the case, I’m not going to start judging him for shit he hasn’t done. Now, I’m tired and done with your bullshit, so goodbye.”

He leaves them standing there, slack-jawed and staring, as he retreats to the break room.

Once he’s alone, he crumples.

His knees give out and he has to catch himself on the arm of the sofa. His body aches and cries and screams. All he wants to do is curl up and disappear. He doesn’t even have the strength to pull himself onto the sofa, so he lays down next to it, facing the room, and folds in on himself as small as he can. He shouldn’t fall asleep, but he does.

When he wakes up, Andrew has returned, back in his position by the entertainment system. Neil isn’t sure what to think of that. There’s a female Alpha sitting next to him, a pleasant smile on her face, warmth in her brown eyes. Neil doesn’t trust her. The mask that she’s wearing is too like an Omega for the powerful person she seems to be. He thinks, maybe, she might just be Andrew’s closest rival for strength.

“When did you get back?” Neil asks, pushing himself up and scrubbing his eyes. Sleeping on the floor didn’t do him any favors. Now, on top of everything else, his joints hurt.

Instead of answering, Andrew hums and says, “I never asked you to defend me.”

Neil sighs. He can’t say that he was expecting a thank you, but… well, he doesn’t really have room for buts. “If you don’t want me to win your battles for you, maybe you should stick around and fight them yourself.” With a heavy groan, Neil pulls himself onto the sofa. The tiny cry that he gives from the relief of sinking onto sofa cushions is unintentional but no less honest.

“I don’t think you could fight anyone’s battles, let alone mine,” Andrew says. There’s a bit of iron in his tone, a small amount of disapproval. Neil doesn’t care.

The Alpha sitting next to Andrew laughs. “You’re just saying that because you’re bitter that I won.”

Andrew scowls but says nothing. Neil isn’t following the conversation, and he looks between the two of them, hoping that one of them will elaborate.

Instead, the woman hums thoughtfully and stares at Neil. “You’re right,” she says, obviously to Andrew, perhaps picking up a conversation that they had earlier, “there is something there. Not sure what it is, though. He’s a little… hard to read.”

Now Neil is really confused. “What did I miss?”

Andrew ignores him. “Don’t give me that shit. He’s a bloody open book.”

“To you, maybe,” Renee says, partially agreeing. “In the same way Allison is to me, perhaps.” Her tone is mischievous.

Andrew’s mouth snaps shut and his expression turns stony. “Don’t joke about that.”

“Who said I was joking?”

Neil has had enough being in the dark. “Hey,” he snaps sitting up and narrowing his eyes at the two of them. Andrew’s sweater falls off of one of his shoulders, dragging the loose shirt underneath down with it, and Andrew follows the motion with his eyes. Neil swallows, twice. “If you’re going to be talking about me, I want to know what the topic is.”

The look Andrew gives him when he tears his eyes from Neil’s collarbone could level entire cities. Neil blinks and meets his gaze. He likes the warmth of the hazel, far better than Riko’s impersonal black. Andrew opens his mouth, lets out a breath, and then says, “Renee here seems to think we’re ‘soul mates.’” Andrew doesn’t make air quotes with his fingers, but they’re implied in the dripping sarcasm of his tone.

“It’s a possibility,” Renee amends, but she doesn’t look convinced that she’s wrong.

“Sorry, what?” It’s obvious that he should be having a bigger reaction to this, given Andrew’s heavy stare and the way he brings out a pack of cigarettes and lights one, only to take a single drag and put it out on the carpet. But Neil doesn’t understand. “That’s not how mating works.”

Renee makes a noncommittal noise and lifts a single shoulder in a shrug. “Sometimes it is. My mate is another Alpha. We haven’t bonded obviously, but sometimes the system fails. I like to think of us as soul mates. Two people that are just… meant to be together.” She smiles like it’s no consequence.

Neil pulls the sweatshirt up higher onto his shoulder again. He’s cold, and the sweatshirt, admittedly, smells nice. “I’m still not following. What does this mean?”

Andrew sighs and heaves himself to his feet. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Wait, Andrew…” Neil doesn’t know why he says it, but his body thrums when Andrew regards him. Neil scrubs a hand down his face. He doesn’t actually have anything to say to the Alpha, he just… alright, he’ll admit it. He doesn’t want Andrew to leave. And it’s so stupid and confusing because Andrew is a damn Alpha, and Neil… his experiences with Alphas… god, they’ve been terrible. He doesn’t know what the fuck information Renee is spewing, but he knows that he doesn’t want Andrew to leave again. “Stay?”

“I’ll leave,” Renee says, rising smoothly to her feet. “Allison’s going to want help setting up the bar, anyway.”

If she was wanting a farewell, she doesn’t get one. Andrew keeps his eyes on Neil until Renee leaves. And then he walks up to Neil and crouches down in front of him. “What?”

Neil doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. Andrew stayed, and that was… no matter how much Neil wanted it, that was the last thing he had expected from Andrew. “Why did you leave, earlier?” He needs to know if he did something wrong.

Andrew looks away, and while the silence stretches, Neil thinks that maybe Andrew isn’t going to answer. “I needed to get my control back.”

Somehow, Neil understands. “Okay,” he says. This close, it would be easy to lean into Andrew, who always puts off so much heat. It’s a wonder he’s not sweating in his heavy clothes. Instead, remembering Andrew’s reaction to being touched that morning, Neil lays back down. Being vertical is just so damn taxing. “It’s easier when you’re around,” he says.

“You’ve been here for less than twenty-four hours. You’re not an excellent judge of anything that goes on here.”

Neil hums, and even to his ears it sounds like a verbal shrug. “You’re a barrier. They’re all loud and annoying. You’re… calm.”

“And you speak without thinking. Shut up and go to sleep.”

At that moment, nothing that Renee had said mattered to Neil. The only thing that matters is that Andrew sat down with his back to Neil, and Neil falls asleep without a thought in his mind.

Chapter Text

Neil realizes that it’s going to take him a while to get used to having so much attention focused on him all at once. He may never become accustomed to it. All of those eyes, their heavy gazes sitting on his shoulders, weigh him down. He misses being alone for most of the day. Trapped in a cell, sure, with guards stationed at the door and heavy bars on the sole window, but at least… at least he could breathe. He was never so tempted to shrink in on himself when he was alone for so long. Now he just wants to disappear.

“Neil, we’re just trying to –”

“I said no.” Neil shakes his head to enforce his decision, but he doesn’t dare look up. It’s only his second day here, his second breakfast with this pack – Wymack’s pack. He’s the youngest Omega, and Matt is the only Beta, and with Renee and Allison in the room, those odds are staggering. Neil is weak and small and biologically ranked lower, and no one would be stepping out of social boundaries if they felt like attacking him. It would be so much easier to give in, to go along with what they wanted, but… Neil can’t do that.

Kevin scoffs, and Neil zeroes in on the movement of his unsteady pacing. “Stop being difficult. You can’t keep sleeping in the break room. Wymack is offering you a bed and a room and a pack. You can’t just turn that down.”

Neil grits his teeth. “I’m not being difficult. I’m just… not comfortable sleeping with Alphas in the same room.”

Renee’s words are much gentler than Kevin’s. “No one here is going to hurt you, Neil.”

This time, Neil looks up. He meets Renee’s brown eyes directly when he says, “I don’t know that. Past experience makes me not believe you.” Beside him, Andrew stiffens. Some fierce light catches in Renee’s eyes.

“We’re not like that,” she says.

“Again, I don’t know that.”

“Neil,” this from Wymack, “we don’t have any other room to put you up in. It’s with a bunch of Alphas or nothing.”

Neil lifts his chin defiantly, and then drops his gaze when he remembers who he’s looking at. These people aren’t Riko, he knows that. He’s pretty sure that sleeping in the attic with Andrew and the three men that Andrew seems to be in charge of wouldn’t be a huge deal, that Andrew would… keep an eye on him, maybe a closer eye on them, but…. “The couch is fine.”

Abby shifts on her perch near Wymack. “It can’t be comfortable. Nor is it good for healing.”

It’s no trouble at all meeting Abby’s gaze. She’s a pushover – a nice person who doesn’t seem to understand pain or corruption on a personal level. Maybe she’s seen it, maybe she hasn’t. But Neil knows from looking at her that she’s never experienced it. “I’ve managed to spend my life healing from worse in a far less comfortable space.” Many of the people around him cringe. “Besides, taking the stairs every day is going to do nothing good for my feet.”

“Then stay upstairs,” Kevin says. Neil turns his attention to him, to the Alpha who got away from Riko, the man who tasted pain and fled. Neil wonders at the extent that fear dictates Kevin’s life. “Keep your scent off the main floor for a while, heal up. One of us can bring you food, maybe Abby since she’ll have to be checking up on your injuries anyway. You’ll be fine up there, you can heal, and we’ll all run damage control if Riko or one of his lackeys shows up.”

It sounds all fine and dandy, and even Neil can hear the logic in it. The others all look at each other, expressions full of mild surprise at what might be a decent idea. But Neil’s jaw clamps tight. “So you want me to just trade one prison for another? A cage is still a cage, no matter how pretty.”

“It’s not a prison; stop being so dramatic.”

Andrew’s growl rips through the room. Everything stops. Nicky freezes with a bite of bacon between his teeth. Up to this point, Andrew has said nothing, maybe hearing them out, maybe letting Neil deal with it, maybe not caring. To rupture that silence with such a powerful noise… Neil’s attention turns to Andrew and roots there. Andrew keeps his eyes on Kevin. “Are we going to have another problem, Kevin?” Andrew asks, voice edged with that growl. Neil’s hair stands on end and his muscles tighten; his body tells him to run, but he stays rooted. So long as that anger isn’t focused on him, Neil is fine.

There’s a long pause before Kevin says, slowly, “No.”

“Good.” Andrew turns to Neil, arching an eyebrow. “Do you not trust me?”

Neil blanches at the question, rocking back a little and blinking rapidly as if to clear his vision. “What?”

“Trust, Neil. A foreign concept to you, maybe, but I assume you know how it’s defined.” No emotion, just a flat stare and blank features. Any hint of his anger is long gone behind this mask of indifference.

Neil swallows, lowers his eyes. He’s not sure what to say, doesn’t want to say anything with such a large audience.

“Look at me.” It sounds like a command, like it should have a show of power behind it, but there’s nothing. A request, maybe, but Neil feels like that’s too generous for someone like Andrew. A statement, a preference. Neil looks up and meets those amber eyes. “There is space in our room for another bed. You don’t want to sleep with any of those four,” a gesture to Matt, Dan, Wymack, and Abby, “because they’re rather loud.”

“Always doing the straight-person nasty,” Nicky chimes with a soft laugh.

Dan slaps his arm but says nothing.

Andrew continues as if he was never interrupted. “Kevin, although his suggestion is based entirely out of fear, has a valid point. Just stay upstairs. Rest. Don’t do anything stupid. And don’t make me regret my deal with you.”

Neil knows he’s lost this fight. He’s been called out, but he can’t help himself when he says, “It still feels like a cage.”

“It is.”

“Andrew!” Wymack snaps, leaning forward and bracing his hands on the table. Neil full-body flinches away from the motion, but Andrew reaching out and grabs Neil’s chin, keeping their eyes focused on each other.

“It is a cage,” Andrew says again, staring Neil down as he says it. “But the door is open. The only thing that will keep you in is yourself, and right now, that’s the smart thing for you to do.”

Neil shifts under the weight of Andrew’s stare – Andrew’s and everyone else’s. No pressure or anything. “Fine,” Neil says, resigned. It may be his choice to go along with them, but he feels like he was just forced to sign his own death warrant.

“Good,” Wymack clears his throat. “Good. Matt and Kevin will move a mattress up there after breakfast, and you just…” Wymack cuts himself off and turns to Abby, following a separate train of thought. “Where can we get some clothes for him? If I have to look at this one outfit for one more day, I’m going to cry. Hey, kid, what si–”

But Neil is already on his feet and walking out of the room. It’s too much, too soon. They’re trying to make this his home, and he still has half a mind to leave them once his feet are healed enough.

They’re trying to make this his home, and he doesn’t even understand the concept of home anymore. If he ever did.

Once he’s out of the kitchen, Neil realizes he doesn’t have anywhere to go. He doesn’t have any shoes, so he can’t go outside. The club itself really isn’t all that big. Andrew is right – it is a cage. At least he was straight-forward about it, unlike the rest of them, trying to dress it all up with pretty words and fancy promises.

If you’re good to me, I’ll be good to you. It’s a simple tradeoff, a transaction.

Except Riko had lied. Neil had tried so, so hard in the beginning to be good. He had done what Riko had asked, what all of them had asked. And Riko… right away he hadn’t been that bad, really. Awful, scheming, violent, yes, but when compared to the Riko of later years, in the beginning he had been almost gentle. But when the years had gone by and Neil hadn’t gone into heat, when he turned eleven, and then twelve, fourteen, sixteen, and nothing, Riko lost it. He thought…

“Neil.”

He turns to find Andrew in the hallway, staring blankly, hands in his pockets and his back against the kitchen door.

Choking on the words in his throat, Neil says the last thing that had been on his mind. “He thought he could fuck me into a heat.”

A shutter slams and locks behind Andrew’s eyes. Neil watches his muscles strain, watches him lean forward and then rock back, hard, as if physically restraining himself. Andrew says, “Riko,” because it doesn’t need to be a question. Neil nods because it doesn’t require an answer.

Andrew turns around and starts to walk away. “I need a cigarette,” he says over his shoulder.

Neil takes it as an invitation and follows.


 

The first drag of the cigarette is the most acidic, but Andrew inhales it with greed. Cigarettes are always more soothing after a meal, after a shock of revelation from the man standing next to him. Neil folds his arms around himself and stares at the brick of the building next door, the clear blue sky above them.

“I’m not used to eating breakfast after noon.”

Andrew says nothing. What is he supposed to say? Better get used to it? No, a rabbit like Neil would take that and run. Best to let the comment die in the air between them like the filler it is. Andrew knows Neil is nervous. If he couldn’t smell it on him, it’s easy enough to tell in the way he fidgets his hands, the way he keeps glancing up and down the wide alley like any movement at all might be Riko ready to lay hands on him again.

“I’m not going to keep promising you that we’re not like the Moriyamas,” Andrew says around an exhale of smoke. “You don’t trust me, or any of us, so promises obviously aren’t going to do you any good.”

“Trust isn’t cheap,” Neil says, fidgeting more, tugging at his fingers before holding out his hand towards Andrew. It takes Andrew a moment to realize that Neil’s after his cigarette, and then he snorts and tosses the pack and then the lighter at the kid. Neil catches them both, reflexes quick and sure despite how malnourished he is. “You haven’t given me a reason to trust you.”

Andrew hums. It’s been a while since he’s played this game. “I haven’t given you a reason not to trust me.”

A pause settles between them as Neil tries to light his cigarette, and it stretches while he keeps trying. Andrew watches him, waits to see if he’ll figure out the trick to the lighter before Andrew’s own cigarette burns to nothing but filter. Three more clicks and Neil has it lit, drags in on his cigarette and inhales like it’s the only clean air left in the world. Andrew doesn’t miss the irony, and he doesn’t miss the peaceful look on Neil’s face, even as he coughs up his exhale.

“You left me yesterday.”

It’s tempting to argue that Andrew is his own person, can do what he wants, but he knows that Neil spoke to Matt and Dan yesterday – or, rather, was trapped by them. He knows what was said. “I told you. I was getting my control back. That alone should be reason enough to trust me.”

“I don’t understand that,” Neil says, gesturing with his cigarette in hand, trailing blue smoke. Andrew watches it curl away. “Control of what? All you did was –”

“No,” Andrew cuts Neil off before he can say something stupid. “No, if you’re about to say that what I did wasn’t ‘that bad’ or some other bullshit, then you need to reevaluate your principles. I…” Andrew loses his words in a growl, and he stares down the alley in the opposite direction of Neil.

The only sound that fills the silence is Neil inhaling, exhaling, and flicking ash from his cigarette. Neil finds a way to get some words back on his tongue, though it doesn’t surprise Andrew at all that he manages. “I’m sorry for… acting out. For walking away. I’ve never been offered a home before. I don’t know how to make one.”

Andrew puts his cigarette to his lips and drags on it, long and slow. He releases most of the smoke before inhaling it, only getting the last little bite into his lungs. He turns back to Neil and is immediately caught in the way the sun catches Neil’s curls and sets them on fire. “I’m going to tell you something, and in turn, I want you to do something for me.”

Neil faces Andrew immediately, propping his shoulder against the wall and taking another pull from his cigarette. The smoke makes his eyes fuzzy, a haze that Andrew despises for obstructing his view. “I don’t understand….” Andrew stops, drops his cigarette, and crosses his arms. “I’ve never been attracted to an Omega before,” Andrew says. He hates admitting things about himself, but Neil’s trust… it would be worth it. “I’ve protected my family because it felt right, because I made deals and brokered promises like… like I was dealing drugs. But you? You show up on our doorstep and the first words out of your mouth are ‘don’t touch me.’ I should have walked away. But I didn’t.

“Now, I don’t know what the fuck to think about Renee’s declaration of soul mates or whatever the fuck, but I do know that the first chance I get, I will rip out Riko’s throat and feed it to him. And that has nothing to do with my deal with Kevin.”

Neil is quiet for a moment, absorbing, maybe, as he stares at the cigarette he’s holding between two long, shaking fingers. “What do you want from me?” he asks, realizing that it’s his turn to pay up.

“Stop apologizing,” Andrew says. Neil’s eyes shoot up and lock with Andrew’s. “You are a human being; you’re not a toy, you’re not a possession, and you’re no less than anyone else just because biology decided to shit on you. Stop apologizing for doing things. ‘Sorry’ never helped anyone. But don’t hide shit from me. If there’s something on your mind, say it. I want to know everything. Don’t keep me in the dark.”

“Why?”

Andrew shrugs. “Bodyguards are supposed to know all of the dirty secrets.”

And there it is. Neil smiles, tentatively at first, but then brighter and brighter until it looks like he might laugh. It stays in place for the duration of Neil’s next drag, and Andrew soaks it in until it’s gone. “Seriously though.”

“How am I supposed to trust you if you lie to me?”

Neil blinks once, twice, stupidly – as if the concept is foreign to him.

Andrew stares him down. “Trust is a two-way street, dumbass. I don’t see any point in protecting you if I can’t trust you.”

“But you’re protecting me now.” It’s a statement, but Neil’s voice hesitantly curls up at the end like a question.

“Because of the deal we made. Information for Riko in exchange for my protection from him. How long do you think that’s going to last? Time for a new deal, Neil.” Really, Andrew had planned on extending his half of the bargain for as long as it took to take Riko down. He had known when he made the deal that Neil’s information wouldn’t be limitless, but if he had a chance, now, to get Neil to say what’s on his mind, to give him small steps towards autonomy… Andrew would take it.

Neil cocks his head, studying Andrew. “But I haven’t given you everything on him yet.”

“Are you telling me you won’t? Pretty little victim like you doesn’t want revenge?”

“I don’t like that word,” Neil snaps, his teeth clicking together like he would enjoy nothing more than to sink them into Andrew’s jugular.

Andrew blinks at the outburst. “What, victim?”

“Pretty.” It sounds like Neil has to force it through his teeth. He tosses his cigarette and folds his arms around his waist, holding himself in. His weight shifts, and Andrew glances down at his bandaged feet; Neil hasn’t bitched about them yet, so Andrew thinks they can stay out for a moment longer.

“Are you going to take it or not?”

Neil sighs and looks back up at the sky, the puffy clouds rolling along that just might accumulate to a storm later. When Neil again looks to Andrew, he has the face of a man with nothing to lose. “Yeah, alright.”

A pleasant feeling rolls around in Andrew’s chest, and a soft rumble escapes his throat. Neil blushes a stupid shade of pink, one that makes Andrew want to push him back against the wall and kiss him until they’re both desperate for air. Instead, Andrew turns around and goes back inside, holding the door for Neil so that the idiot gets the hint and follows him.

“Do you think the bed’s up there yet?”

“No,” Andrew says, ducking his head into the kitchen and proceeding inside when he doesn’t spot anyone. Neil follows, though hesitantly. “Sit,” Andrew says, pointing at the counter. He doesn’t look to see if Neil complies, simply expects him to. Judging from the muttered curses and the smack of something solid against a cabinet, Andrew suspects that Neil managed to haul himself up.

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.” Andrew digs out the bread and some meat and cheese from the refrigerator. After a glance at Neil, he brings out the butter and some tomatoes and lettuce as well.

Neil sighs. “Why are you making food?”

“Because you didn’t eat.”

Neil grumbles something unintelligible and then says, loud enough for Andrew to hear, “Just because you can eat enough for two people or more doesn’t mean that everyone has to.”

“You didn’t even eat enough for a small child, so shut up,” Andrew says, dutifully and easily moving through the process of making a hefty sandwich. He cleans up his mess before he gives the sandwich to Neil, and then he leans against the counter near him to make sure he eats.

“This is unnecessary,” Neil says, two bites into the sandwich. “I’m not hungry.”

“Funny,” Andrew says, lifting an eyebrow, “I don’t remember asking.”

Neil frowns and narrows his eyes, muttering under his breath before taking another bite.

“Sorry, what was that? I couldn’t quite hear you.”

If Andrew was a lesser man, a lesser Alpha, he would cow at the responding snarl Neil sends his way, but as it is, Andrew stands firm. Neil snaps his teeth again, and Andrew is just thinking about how much that probably damages his teeth when Neil says, “I called you an asshole, asshole.”

“Oh, how creative,” Andrew snorts and takes a step closer. “I am absolutely quivering in my boots.” He holds out both of his hands, completely steady. Andrew looks pointedly down at the sandwich. “I can’t protect a dead body, Neil. You didn’t eat supper, so you’re going to eat this.”

Neil opens his mouth, maybe to argue, but Andrew claps his hand over lips to seal them shut. His body reacts instantly, moving closer to Neil, between his knees. Neil’s breath his hot on his palm, hot and rapid. Those blue eyes are being swallowed by darkness, pupils inflating and eating up the irises like twin black holes. “Neil.” Even to himself, Andrew’s voice sounds raw. He licks his lips, staring at his hand like he can’t believe that’s the only thing stopping him from kissing Neil.

As if in response, Neil leans forward, pressing into Andrew’s hand. Andrew wonders what could make a frightened little rabbit like Neil lean into the danger, blazing infernos behind his eyes. He definitely wants to find out, wants to know what Neil tastes like, what his lips feel like pressed against his own.

But it’s only been two days. Two fucking days. Andrew is not going to be that person; he’s not going to put Neil in that situation. They’re trying to build trust, damn it, and Andrew’s about to ruin it.

So he puts his hand on Neil’s shoulder, to push his body back so that he doesn’t fall when Andrew backs away. Neil doesn’t let him get that far, grabbing Andrew’s wrist and holding him. His lips move against Andrew’s palm, leaving curls of hot breath in their wake, and Andrew shivers, his eyes closing. What is he doing?

“Neil,” Andrew says, again, trying to be more forceful. “Neil, what…?”

His hand falls from Neil’s mouth when Neil pushes it away, and that’s the last mistake, because now, when he opens his eyes, Andrew can see Neil’s lips, can hear Neil saying his name, and all that’s left for him to do is lean in.

Andrew kisses Neil like it’s the only thing that matters, like he needs to enjoy it, now, because it may very well be the last time it ever happens. He kisses Neil, and Neil hums softly into his mouth, relaxes into his touch and starts purring, and instead of stepping away, Andrew moves closer. Neil makes room for him, parting his legs further and then hooking his knees at Andrew’s sides. The contact is difficult, but at least it’s not Neil’s hands – those are firmly gripping the ledge of the counter, nowhere near Andrew’s body.

Chest hurting, Andrew pulls back. Neil whimpers, eyes fluttering open and finding Andrew as if through a haze. “Why did you stop?”

The question hits Andrew like a physical blow, because Neil sounds so hurt that Andrew had pulled away. Andrew sees Neil’s kiss-swollen lips and touches his own, as if making sure that it’s real, that it actually happened. What the fuck is wrong with him? Even if… even if Neil wanted it – and he did, that much is obvious to Andrew – it was still too soon, still a break in Andrew’s control.

“Because…” Andrew clears his throat, forces himself to hold Neil’s searching gaze. “Because I don’t know how real this is, and I’m not about to let some kid with Stockholm’s Syndrome get under my skin.”

Neil frowns, but with his red, wet lips, it just looks like a pout. “I don’t have Stockholm’s Syndrome.” His eyes glint. “And it looks like I already got under your skin.”

Andrew narrows his eyes, and he knows, right then and there, that he’s bitten off more than he can chew when it comes to Neil. But he knows that in the same way he understands it’s too late to go back now.

Chapter Text

Neil sits on his new bed in the attic, his feet resting on Abby’s thighs as she wraps them in clean bandages. Andrew isn’t in the room, which Neil is… kind of happy about. It’s not that he… fuck, he doesn’t know. The kiss was good, the kiss was great. And Neil wants more, but that’s what scares him. Two days – not even, really – and, what, he’s moved past all of the abuse he’s suffered his entire life? He found one Alpha, found Andrew, and now all of that’s gone? That’s not quite the case, but even so.

It’s terrifying.

“Something on your mind?” Abby asks, her voice as soft as always, eyes still on the easy way the bandage unravels around his foot.

“I’m just… confused,” Neil says, gesturing limply. Neil feels… oddly relaxed around her, a feeling that he finds both disturbing and highly welcome.

Abby hums, gently poking at the sole of Neil’s foot before taking up the roll of new bandages to wrap it. Apparently he hasn’t healed up at all, which isn’t surprising to Neil. He’s always healed slow. “What about?”

Neil hesitates, taking his bottom lip between his teeth. Given Matt’s and Dan’s thoughts on Andrew, he’s not sure how much he wants to be telling Abby, who would no doubt relay the information to Wymack. If Andrew gets in trouble for something Neil initiated…. God, he shouldn’t care. But he does. He does care. Andrew didn’t do anything wrong. It was – fuck, it was the best thing that’s ever happened to Neil.

Still chewing on his bottom lip, Neil says, “Renee mentioned something about soul mates yesterday. Do you believe in them?”

Abby briefly pauses her wrapping to look up at Neil. “Is this about Andrew?”

Shit. Well, he tried at least. “Yeah, I guess,” he sighs. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s stupid.”

“You trust him,” she says, taping the bandage and then patting Neil’s calf to let him know she’s done.

Neil takes his feet back and lays on the bed, staring up at the ceiling with his hands folded over his stomach. Abby stays in her chair. “I do,” Neil says, the words slow to come but no less honest. “I trust him. I just don’t know why.”

Abby hums again, a soothing sound that Neil relaxes into. His mother was never this soft. That doesn’t mean it’s not a nice change. “Well, I don’t know about soul mates, though that definitely sounds like something Renee would believe in, but… Andrew is different around you. And – please don’t take this the wrong way – Andrew isn’t a good guy. I’ve known him for a year, Neil, and I’ve never seen him like this.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know how to describe it,” she says, holding her hands in front of her and looking down at her palms. “Gentle is too strong of a word, but… content, maybe. He wants to be around you, Neil. David had to all but drag him into the club to help set up.”

Neil turns his head to show Abby his frown. “David?”

Just a hint of humor shows in Abby’s soft smile. “Wymack.”

“Ah.” Neil doesn’t know what to think of this information. “I thought Andrew kept to his group? Doesn’t he like… isn’t he in charge of them?”

“In a way,” Abby hedges, maybe not wanting to give away the power dynamics of the pack to a relative outsider. “But yes, Andrew is usually with them all the time. Kevin, especially. But since you’ve shown up….”

“I know,” Neil says, returning his stare to the ceiling. Andrew has attacked Kevin once and confronted him twice in the last two days. And he hasn’t seen Andrew interact really at all with the other two – Aaron and Nicky. That solidifies for Neil that Andrew wants this, that Andrew wants him, so he can’t help but wonder why Andrew is so determined to not just take him. They’re ‘not like that here,’ he knows, god, he knows, but… Andrew still has every right to take what he wants, so why hasn’t he?

A frustrated groan slips through his lips, and he closes his eyes and rubs them with his heels. “Thank you, Abby, but I think I’m even more confused now.”

Abby laughs, light and airy and remarkably unreal. “Such is life, Neil. I’ll come back up in a few hours to check on you.” She pats his calf again and then stands and excuses herself.

What is he supposed to do now? Lie here and think about his life?

Nah.

Neil sits up, and he stares at the two bunk beds across the room. He’s as far away from them as possible, his bed situated where the storage had been. He doesn’t know where the boxes were moved, doesn’t dare ask. Matt told him that he would get his own small dresser tomorrow or maybe the day after for all of the news clothes they’re going to get him. Neil still doesn’t know how to feel about that. Clothes – possessions – mean permanence.

The door creeks open, and Neil flicks his gaze over to find Andrew standing there, looking like an asshole in his bouncer getup. “You’ll hurt yourself thinking so hard.”

Neil sticks out his tongue. “You’re supposed to be working.”

“Do you want me to leave?” Andrew is dead serious. Must not be in the mood for jokes.

“No,” Neil says, instant and quiet. “Stay.” He waits for Andrew to step further into the room, but he just hangs around the door like a shadow, like death. “Do you need permission to come into your own room?”

Andrew’s eyes turn ice cold, but Neil holds his gaze until Andrew sighs like a man burdened and walks further into the room. “Listen, Neil, about earlier –”

“Stop talking,” Neil says, annoyance rising in him hot and fast and uncontrollable. “I don’t want to hear that it was a mistake. It wasn’t, and you know it. I don’t understand it any more than you do. I’ve half a mind to believe Renee and just say fuck it to trying to figure it out. But I… I don’t care about labels, Andrew, I don’t. I care about the fact that I’ve only known you for however-the-fuck long and I’m really fucking attracted to you. I….” Neil cuts himself off with a frustrated growl and pushes his hands through his hair.

“Are you done?” Andrew asks, stopping outside of arm’s reach.

Neil snarls. “No,” he says, and then, “yes.”

“Good. Your turn to shut up. I shouldn’t have kissed you. No,” Andrew holds up a hand, cutting off the words that were about to leave Neil’s mouth, “I told you to shut up.” Neil shivers at the power rippling through Andrew, backing up the command. He shuts his mouth and waits. “I shouldn’t have kissed you. There is no debating that. I’m not like them and I won’t let you turn me into them.” Neil frowns in confusion, but he says nothing. Andrew steps forward, and Neil could touch him if he wanted to, but he keeps his hands at his sides. “I’m not just going to take you, Neil.”

Neil opens his mouth, but he shuts it again when he remembers that he hasn’t been granted permission to speak yet. So he watches Andrew instead, his eyes moving over Andrew’s features, his broad shoulders and muscled arms on full display under the black t-shirt. He stares and he finds himself thinking that yes, maybe, this could work. He finds himself wanting, wanting Andrew, and that’s a dangerous road to be walking down, but it might be worth it.

“Say something,” Andrew says, and Neil sags like a support has just been kicked out from under him.

“Kiss me,” he says, breathlessly. Andrew growls a warning, but Neil straightens his back and stares Andrew down. “You’re not going to take, fine. I’ll give myself to you. You’ve already got my back. I may as well go all in, yeah? Kiss me.”

Andrew is in his space before the command is fully out of his mouth. Neil can see the restraint in his eyes, glances down and notes the way Andrew’s hands are clenched at his sides. “You’re a bad idea,” Andrew says, and kisses Neil before he can come up with a retort, before he can say that Andrew is just as dangerous for him.

Neil melts into the kiss, humming softly as pleasure licks through him. And when Andrew parts Neil’s lips with his tongue, Neil purrs. He can feel himself trembling, clutching the mattress to stay steady, to keep from swaying. Riko never kissed, that’s not what this is. It’s not a memory, it’s not fear, but Andrew’s hands cup Neil’s jaw to steady him anyway. Neil focuses on breathing, on swiping his tongue against Andrew’s and savoring the way he tastes. Andrew is not gentle, but Neil doesn’t want him to be. He doesn’t know what the fuck he would do with gentle. But this ferocity is something he knows, something he feels mirrored in his own bones.

The door bangs open and Neil jumps, breaking the kiss as his eyes pop open. His lips tingle, and when he passes his tongue over them, they feel swollen. A growl tears its way through Andrew’s throat, and he turns around, obviously intent on doing some damage to whomever just walked into the room, but Neil selfishly catches Andrew’s collar to keep him close.

He stares hard at the line of Andrew’s jaw and thinks about kissing it.

“What, Nicky?” Andrew snaps, his voice low enough to still be a growl.

Nicky stares at them, slack-jawed and wide-eyed.

“Nicky!”

The Alpha startles and physically shakes himself, blinking his eyes to refocus on Andrew. “Wymack wants a meeting before we open. He sent me to find you.”

The growl drops from Andrew’s voice, but he doesn’t relax at all when he replies, “Well, you found me. Now leave.”

“But Andrew –”

“I’ll be there.”

Showing a handful of self-preservation, Nicky leaves. He’s not a challenger at all.

“For an Alpha,” Neil says, voicing his thoughts to the open air, “he doesn’t have a lot of power.”

Andrew’s whole body slowly rotates back to Neil, his eyes sharp enough that Neil swallows. All he can do is look back.

“Yes or no?” Andrew asks, and he sounds wrecked.

“Yes,” Neil says, though he has no idea what he’s just agreed to.

Andrew kisses Neil again, hard and fast, doing what he said he wouldn’t and taking. Neil doesn’t think it counts, though, because he gives himself willingly, parting his lips and his knees to bring Andrew closer. They kiss for minutes that may as well be hours, and then Andrew’s lips skim down to Neil’s neck. With the cold air the only pressure on Neil’s lips, he mewls, a noise he hopes is encouraging – a noise that breaks off into a shuddering gasp when Andrew picks a spot high on Neil’s neck and bites down.

It’s not enough to break the skin, not even close, but with the suction of his lips, it’s enough to leave a bruise. Neil shudders and arches into Andrew, finding pleasure in the possessive rumble in Andrew’s chest as he presses his tongue against the bruise and sucks harder. Breath catching in his throat, Neil’s nails dig into the mattress, scrunching up the sheet between his hands.

And then, as suddenly as the teeth were there, they leave. Andrew’s noise turns soothing as he laves his tongue over the mark, and Neil slumps. When the shock of it wears off, he purrs, leaning into Andrew’s touch. “W-why…?” Neil can’t form the full thought.

“Nicky’s going to tell them all, anyway,” Andrew says, voice full of something that might be regret as his lips bush up the column of Neil’s throat before he pulls away. “I need to leave.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

Something passes behind Andrew’s eyes, but it’s there and gone before Neil knows what it is. “Put your wish in one hand, Neil, and spit in the other. I’ll give you time to figure out which one is more real.” With that, he pulls away, but not before dragging his thumb across Neil’s bottom lip.

Andrew leaves the door open behind him, but once more Neil is left alone.

-

The club bangs around Andrew like a cage. From his perch in the corner, he can see everything – from Kevin gracefully handling an altercation across the dance floor to Allison pushing her way through the swinging door into the kitchen, revealing a quick flash of Nicky loading up a tray of food. Andrew sees another argument break out at the bar, but he doesn’t move, leaving it for Kevin to handle.

It’s not Andrew’s job to deal with it; he’s only here as a last resort. It’s not like Andrew minds, though, since it gives him a reason to do nothing all night. And usually he’s fine with that, perfectly content pilfering drinks from the bar and keeping a distant but watchful eye on Kevin and the others.

Not tonight.

With nothing to keep him occupied, Andrew has until two in the morning to think about the blue-eyed menace sitting upstairs in his room, probably bored to tears.

Andrew’s body is thrumming with residual energy from their latest kiss. He hates himself for it, wishes that he could take back the last forty-eight hours and start fresh with the Omega, but everything about Neil just feels so right. He shouldn’t have kissed him either time, but Neil… god, he asked. He gave himself to Andrew. Now Andrew just has to try his damnedest to treat that like the gift it is. He won’t let himself fuck it up. He won’t.

He passes his tongue over his teeth and remembers what it felt like to sink them into Neil’s neck, to feel his pulse beneath his tongue. Everyone is going to see, everyone is going to know. Andrew marked Neil.

Fuck.

Andrew marked Neil. A day after Neil confessed in a trembling and terrified tone that Riko had marked him.

Rage boils in the pit of his gut – rage at himself. Just like that, he’s already fucked things up with Neil, who can’t possibly know how…. Andrew grinds his teeth. With only Riko for comparison, Neil likely doesn’t realize how far Andrew has stepped over the line. He needs to know. Now.

Andrew drops down from his sequestered bar stool and makes a bee-line for the break room door – only for Wymack to come out and grab him by the upper arm.

“Just got a call from Matt. We’re needed at the entrance,” Wymack says, not breaking in his gate even to accommodate Andrew pulling from his grip. He hesitates a moment, staring at the door, but it was an impulsively stupid idea anyway. He turns and catches up to Wymack before they’ve even hit the dance floor, which they skirt around with only a bit of trouble. Drunk people are stupid and clumsy, and they’re Andrew’s least favorite thing about working here. But it means that he has a pack and a place to stay, so he deals with it.

There’s a tight crowd clustered around the inside of the entrance, and Andrew takes the lead and shoves his way through ahead of Wymack, who has always been far too concerned with niceties. He snarls at one Alpha who gets a little testy and pushes him four steps back. Andrew is gone before the man can retaliate, and he reaches the door seconds before Wymack.

Matt is standing in his usual place, arms crossed and legs braced apart as if ready to move into a fighting stance at the drop of a hat. Three Alphas are facing down Matt – two males and a female – and consequently are facing the door and Andrew, and Andrew can see what the problem is immediately. They’re all from Riko’s – Tetsuji’s – pack. It’s the clothing that gives it away, the black suits with red accents standing out in a sea of otherwise casual club clothes.

He catches them at the end of a sentence. “… him back, or we’ll be forced to take him.”

Andrew passes Matt and takes up a fighting stance instantly, hands hanging limp at his sides ready to curl into fists. “Sorry, there seems to be a misunderstanding here,” he says, cocking his head to the side and eyeing the three of them. “There is no one and nothing here that belongs to you.”

The two male Alphas exchange a glance. The female takes a step forward. “Of course not. He belongs to Riko. We’re here to collect him and return him.” Smart of Riko, Andrew thinks, to send along someone good at negotiating. Smart, but useless. Andrew isn’t giving ground.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about. We didn’t take anything,” Matt says, making himself useful by playing dumb.

At this, one of the males grins and looks straight at Andrew. “Don’t lie. I can smell him on you. And I know exactly what he smells like.”

Andrew lunges, only to be caught and stopped hard by hands gripping his arms. He sees red, wants to rip that Alpha’s throat out and stand over him while he chokes on his own blood. He knows, now, that it wasn’t just Riko, that Neil is more like Andrew than Andrew would ever wish on anyone.

He’s going to kill them all.

“Look,” Wymack says, taking over like the pack leader he is, “Neil is here, yes, but we didn’t take him. Neil came to us, and as long as he wants he has a safe place to stay. Here. If Riko comes onto our territory, he’ll start a war. Tell him that. Neil will stay here for however long Neil wants.”

The woman glances between Andrew and Wymack, her gaze calculating and cold. “He’s branded as Riko’s, and with only your pack to verify your story, Riko has every right to reclaim what’s his. You have twenty-four hours to return him, or he will be taken. Choose wisely.” She turns and, with a brush of her fingers against their arms, the males follow.

Andrew stares after them until they’re nothing but shadow, and then he rips out of the hands on him and races back inside. He’s through the club and the breakroom in a handful of heartbeats, and he takes the stairs two at a time.

Neil is lying in bed when Andrew enters the room, but he sits up as soon as Andrew closes the door behind him.

“What –?”

“Where is it?” Andrew demands, storming across the room to stand in front of Neil. It takes every last ounce of self-control to not rip off Neil’s clothing to find it himself.

The owlish look to Neil’s eyes stops Andrew’s heart dead and immediately sends it raging again. “Where is what?”

“Your brand, Neil.” Andrew doesn’t mean to snap, but he does.

Neil’s hand lifts to the bruise that Andrew placed on his neck, already a brilliant shade of red. Something cool settles in Andrew’s core when he realizes that that’s the mark that matters to Neil, that he thought of that one first. But then Neil’s nostrils flare and he cringes, ducking his head. “Oh,” he murmurs, “they were here.”

He stands up slowly, placing his weight in increments on his damaged feet. Twenty-four hours isn’t enough to heal him up. It’s not enough time to do anything. Neil’s fingers are slow but sure as he lifts the hem of his shirt and pushes down the waistband of his borrowed sweatpants. And there on his hip, a mess of raised scar tissue forms the outline of a raven.

Andrew doesn’t know what he was expecting, but he knows it wasn’t this. Neil’s complacency mixed with the painful-looking scar…. Andrew feels like murdering everyone who ever so much as looked at Neil wrong, but he also feels like wrapping his arms around the Omega and comforting him in a cocoon of blankets. He’s not sure which mental image scares him more.

“He used a knife,” Neil says, blinking slowly as he stares down at the brand. “There was a hot brand available, of course, which is what everyone else gets, but Riko wanted it to be intimate.” Andrew wants to do something to stop Neil from talking, anything to get him to shut up, but he’s rooted. “So he cut it into me, night after night, retracing barely-healed skin until I passed out from the pain. He couldn’t… I wasn’t… fuck.” Neil sways, drops his shirt and catches himself on the edge of the bed with both hands.

Andrew doesn’t know the first thing about being with an Omega, with another person at all, on basically any level, but he knows what it is to be level with someone. One slice of flesh for another.

He takes off his shirt before he can decide on something else to give. Neil’s eyes go where Andrew hoped they would – directly to the crescent scars peppering the muscle of his shoulder. “He didn’t think I was an Alpha,” Andrew says, detached because he needs to be. “Thought that biting me might make me present faster, might force a bond to seal.” Neil looks like he wants to step forward, but he doesn’t. Andrew can’t take his eyes away from Neil, afraid that if he does, he’ll fall apart. “He was the last.”

“How many…” Neil clears his throat, licks his lips. “How many before?”

“Four.”

Neil nods distractedly. “Three,” he says, an answer to his own question. He looks away, at a spot past Andrew, gaze not focused on anything. Andrew takes the moment of privacy to put his shirt back on, and it settles on him like armor.

“I won’t let them take you back. Neil,” he says when the Omega continues to gaze at nothing. Andrew waits for those big blue eyes to return to Andrew, to sharpen with focus, before he repeats, “I won’t let them take you.”

“You can’t stop them,” Neil says. “I belong to him.”

“No,” the word is a growled denial that places Andrew inches away from Neil, who squares his shoulders and stares him down. “You belong to no one.” Oh, he desperately wants to say that Neil belongs to him, that Neil is his and his alone, but he won’t be like them. He won’t, no matter how much Neil seems intent on pushing Andrew past his better judgement.

Neil blinks slowly, sucking his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment before letting out a heavy breath. “Not even to you?”

Andrew’s eyes find the bruise on Neil’s neck, and he can feel more than hear the breath that catches in Neil’s chest when he says, “Not yet.”

Chapter Text

When Andrew finds Neil in the morning, he’s sitting on the sofa in the break room, one foot loosely crossed over the opposite thigh. Between his thin fingers, a roll of white bandages unravels like a the unsteady legs of a newborn foal.

The room reeks of Neil’s scent.

“What are you doing?” There’s nothing in Andrew’s voice that betrays the anxiety he felt upon waking up and finding Neil missing, out of the bed he promised to stay in, the comfortable cage meant to help the dumbass heal. There’s no emotion in Andrew’s voice at all, nothing that will give away how he bolted out of bed and all but ran down the stairs, trying to catch a hint of Neil’s scent, trying to tell if someone had stolen Neil away from under his nose or if Neil had simply run off with his problems tucked neatly under his arm.

Neil frowns down at the bandages, past them at the bare sole of his foot. Andrew can smell his twisted emotions, but has a hard time picking them apart. “I want to be on my feet when they come,” Neil says, the words like a bar of iron he’s attempting to dislodge from his teeth. “I want to be able to fight back if I have to.”

He looks up at Andrew, who stares back loosely, his hands shoved in his pockets so that he doesn’t reach possessively for Neil at the thought of him being taken away. He doesn’t want to be that person, doesn’t want to be like all of those other Alphas.

“I’m not running,” Neil continues, “if that’s what you’re asking. I told you I would stay. Unless you lied about protecting me.” It’s a harsh barb, looking to get a rise out of Andrew most likely, aching for a place to focus his attention. Neil raises his chin defiantly, jaw clenching. He’s got a fucking temper on him, that’s for sure. Especially now that he’s getting some proper food in him and some rest.

Andrew steps slowly out of the doorway. He measures each step he takes into Neil’s space, not wanting to rush forward but needing to be there now, to be so close to Neil that he can feel his body heat and hear his pulse and bury his nose in his neck. He stops himself before that can happen. “I don’t lie,” he says, deathly quiet and not entirely apathetic. For a moment, Andrew stays where he is, standing and with the height advantage, staring steadily down at Neil, whose head is cocked way back like a fist.

Before that fist can be thrown, Andrew forces all of the tension from his body and drops to his knees in front of Neil, a deviant man before an altar.

He holds out his hand, eyes shifting to the bandages so that Neil knows what he wants. After huffing out a breath that might be affronted or might be relieved, Neil allows Andrew to take over wrapping his feet. It’s intimate, and the human part of Andrew draws away from the moment, from the implications, but the Alpha part of his brain is pleased in a way it hasn’t been before. This is him taking care of Neil, actually taking care of him. That animalistic side of Andrew both perks up and settles down with Neil so close, an injured part of him cradled gently between his hands, and it’s dizzying.

And then Neil relaxes, slumping against the armrest, a weary sigh on his lips. Andrew glances up to see Neil’s hand extended, flingers splayed, and it’s a question more than a gesture. Andrew shrugs, and long skinny fingers slide through his hair. His chest rattles with a noise that vibrates up his throat, the closest sound to a purr Alphas can make. It fucks with Andrew’s head, how calm he is around Neil, how much better he is now that he knows Neil is safe and, more importantly, still here.

“I’m sorry,” Neil says, and Andrew realizes for the first time all morning that maybe his scent is giving things away and maybe Neil isn’t so oblivious about them. He’s never had this be a problem. It’s inconvenient that his body would choose to be so forthcoming now that Neil’s sticking his nose in places he shouldn’t, keeping those blue eyes heavy on places that are dangerous, places like Andrew.

Andrew snips off the bandage and tapes the end down, careful with Neil’s injuries but not gentle with him. Neil isn’t a delicate china cup – he’s exposed rebar.

He’s aware that he still hasn’t said anything as he lowers Neil’s foot to the ground and raises himself up fully on his knees. Neil is a little taller than him, but he’s slouched and heavy-limbed, more world-weary than tired. His eyes are wide, drowning Andrew in the ice of his irises. There are no words that Andrew can conjure for this situation, nothing that would right wrongs or make Neil understand – fuck, Andrew doesn’t even understand. But he presses two fingers into the bruise on Neil’s neck, and he hopes to fuck that all of the jumbled things he wants to say can be heard right there over Neil’s pulse.

Neil immediately leans into the touch and starts purring, and the trust and contentment in Neil’s eyes is a fucking bullet lodged in Andrew’s ribs. He’s on the sofa in a moment, one knee between Neil’s thighs, and he pulls Neil’s mouth to his own. Instead of seizing up or turning lax, Neil becomes a fever, pulling Andrew to him with hungry hands grasping his shirt, his hair, his shoulders. Andrew doesn’t care about the touches because he can feel Neil beneath him, can smell him everywhere around him. He wants more, wants –

Andrew pulls away enough to break the kiss, enough to get Neil’s hands to drop to his lap, enough for them to breathe. Neil’s tongue darts out to wet full lips, and Andrew hates that he doesn’t look away.

“Why’d you stop?” Neil asks, and for the second time Andrew’s self-control has gotten him this question, and those big blue eyes that have seen more pain than Andrew just won’t stop looking up at him with trust he hasn’t earned.

He can’t explain to Neil that he stopped because he wanted to keep going, that one of them should have control and if it’s not going to be Neil then it has to be Andrew. He can’t tell Neil that wanting this isn’t going to end well for either of them, because everything that Andrew wants gets taken from him. He should tell Neil all of that, and objectively he would like to, but his throat won’t move. So he looks away.

Neil jerks forward as soon as Andrew’s focus is elsewhere, fingers latching at Andrew’s shirt and lips skimming Andrew’s neck. Andrew’s muscles lock in place as a shiver slips up either side of his spine. He can feel Neil’s smirk against the column of his neck, a precursor to a long lick up to his scent glands and the nuzzle Neil leaves there. “You like that,” he whispers, not accusing, not baiting him, not anything. His hands turn soft in Andrew’s shirt, soothing things that find Andrew’s chest and then his shoulders and then his chin.

Andrew looks at Neil, and Neil looks back. “Why do you want this – want me?” Andrew asks.

Neil tilts his head, fingertips still on Andrew’s chin, and takes his time thinking up an answer. Andrew watches, transfixed, as emotions shift and swirl around Neil’s pupils, never leaving the confines of his irises. The only physical sign of Neil’s roiling thoughts is a slight bite to his lower lip.

Andrew waits patiently, holding himself above Neil to keep weight off the omega’s legs, to keep Neil from feeling trapped. But Neil never makes a move to pull away.

“You’re too familiar with my pain to take advantage of it,” Neil finally says. “You stop when you want more, you don’t stop me from sleeping in a room full of other Alphas, you help me when I say I want to defend myself instead of berating me for not worrying about healing.” Neil smiles, and his fingers slip over the bruise on his neck again. “And you want me, too.”

“I want you to shut up,” Andrew says, control flaking.

“Make me.”

Andrew shakes his head and pushes away, rising to unsteady legs. “It’s my turn to make breakfast,” he says, extending his hand to Neil. He’s not going to kiss him again, not here, not now. But he doesn’t want to push Neil away, either. “Abby will be less likely to yell at you if you’re with me.”

Neil snorts. “I don’t think Abby’s yelled at anyone in her life,” he says, almost laughing, and takes Andrew’s hand. His motions are confident, almost cocky, until he’s on his feet, and then he hisses and sways, easing weight off of his right side.

“What?” Andrew steadies Neil, and for a moment he’s sure that it’s just Neil’s feet giving him pain, but then a spike of blood pushes through the heady fog of Neil’s scent. Andrew realizes that it’s been a ploy the whole time, a distraction. His grip on Neil tightens as fear and shock split him in quarters. “What the fuck did you do?”

The uncomfortable rush of emotions is met only by a gasp of a laugh from Neil. “I took away his power,” he says, and he uses a trembling hand to lift the corner of his sweater.

There’s a bloody bandage spread over Neil’s hip, a single square of blank canvas already ruined by red. Andrew rips it off, needs to see.

He bites down so hard it hurts, jaw clenching tight enough that he thinks he could shatter his teeth. He presses the bandage back on because he can’t stand to look at the bloody rectangle of flesh anymore. The skin is gone. Riko’s brand is gone.

Andrew doesn’t voice his inability to grasp what he saw, doesn’t make a sound at the blood that starts pooling through the bandage around the press of his fingers. He doesn’t even want to think about how much it must have hurt, for Neil to carve off a piece of his own flesh.

Probably not nearly as painful as it had been to have the raven cut there in the first place.

“He’s not taking you,” is what Andrew says, and Neil flashes a grin full of wolf’s teeth.


 

Neil can count on one hand the times he’s been in a club. He doesn’t particularly like it. The music is loud, Renee working her equipment to keep the customers dancing and happy, bodies bumping on the dance floor, dropping sweat all over the place and smearing it on each other. The pheromones in the air are ridiculous, making Neil gag when he first stepped through the door with Andrew at his side. This is a Friday night, according to Nicky. Neil had shown up on a Tuesday, when it was quiet with just the regulars at the bar and the music spinning on its own.

Dan and Allison are working the bar, flipping drinks for tips but still keeping up with the demand.

Neil watches Kevin prowl the floor, eyes sharp for anyone misbehaving.

“Relax,” Andrew says in his ear, using the arm he has hooked around Neil’s waist to tug him back. They’re perched away from everyone else, in a spot good for surveying the whole of the club. It’s the best place to be for when Riko shows up.

“Fuck off,” he snaps, and then winces instinctively with the realization that he just raised his voice at an Alpha. But all Andrew does is tug at Neil’s hair, and Neil lets out a breath. “Sorry, I’m… on edge.”

Andrew’s fingers push through Neil’s hair in a massaging motion, a distracting motion. “He’s not taking you.” His words are so final that Neil can’t help but relax, even if he’s not sure he believes Andrew. “Neil,” Andrew says, leaning in so that his lips brush the newest bruise on Neil’s neck, “he’s not taking you from me.”

Those words – possessive, a promise – make Neil shiver and pull a tight sound from his throat. He doesn’t understand the burning want he feels for Andrew, has never felt that for anyone before, but he’s going to trust his instincts the way his mother taught him to.

He’s going to trust Andrew.

----

Riko shows up at one in the morning, when the club is at its fullest, when there are witnesses to watch him take Neil back, to see what a “powerful” Alpha he is.

Neil stands his ground with Andrew at his back and stares Riko down.

“Oh, look at that,” Riko directs over his shoulder to the two police officers standing there. “He even led the way. He must be so eager to get home.”

Around them, the club bangs on, the customers distracted by the music, drinks, and greasy food. The only people facing down Riko are Neil, Andrew, Kevin, and Wymack.

Neil snarls. “Fuck yourself.” His hands curl into fists, body reacting to his anxiety with the urge to fight. He wants to bury his nails in Riko’s eyes and rip them out of his fucking head. He’s not afraid of Riko, just of what Riko could do to Andrew or anyone in Wymack’s pack if given the chance.

“Now, Nathaniel,” Riko says, so sweet, so business-like. “My pack members already had a discussion with this pack Alpha,” he says, nodding to Wymack. “You belong to me and you know it. You’re mine.”

“So dramatic,” Andrew says with a flat tone and a sarcastic click of his tongue. Neil feels heat and then Andrew presses up against his back, and Neil uses him for support, to keep some weight off of his injured feet, to stop some of the shaking in his skinny legs. “He’s not yours, Riko. There’s no paperwork, no brand. There’s just a desperate deal between Neil’s father and yours.”

Riko laughs. “You’re always trying to get in my way, Minyard.” Neil wonders for a moment how many times the two Alphas have met, but doesn’t have time for that now. “But you’re wrong. Neil is branded, and he’s mine.

Neil cocks his head, watching Riko slowly lose his composure. It’s evident that he was expecting a quick fight or no fight at all. There are even police here to make the transaction smoother. And if Neil hadn’t carved Riko’s foul mark from his body this morning, he would have been in Riko’s hands already.

“And where is that brand, Riko?” Andrew asks, and it’s one Alpha taunting another, an undercurrent of challenge in Andrew’s tone.

Riko lunges forward, arm out to grab Neil, but Andrew winds his arms around Neil’s waist and moves him effortlessly out of the way. And while it’s irritating to be manhandled like a doll, it’s amusing for Neil to see the blatant shock on Riko’s face when his hand comes up empty.

“His right hip,” Riko spits when the police move in closer.

Andrew lifts Neil’s shirt in the same breath that Neil tugs at the waistband of his sweatpants. The missing chunk of flesh is an open, gaping wound that Abby isn’t happy about at all, but it keeps this reveal shorter, lessens the time Neil has to have more skin exposed than he wants. Neil thinks that a potential infection is worth that.

When a few seconds stretches into ten and then twenty, Andrew drops Neil’s shirt and wraps both arms around Neil again, fingers spread possessively. “You see, Riko,” he says, and his lips move to Neil’s neck, which Neil gladly bares for him, “Neil isn’t yours. He’s mine.”

The base, animalistic, omega part of Neil whines at that, hand coming up to thread through Andrew’s hair and keep him close.

“Alright, enough is enough,” Wymack barks, and only now that Neil is focused on Andrew, surrounded by him and his scent and his arms, does the order not send Neil immediately skittering away from this little gathering. “That’s the end of this then, yeah? Not even the handsome amount of money I’m sure you’re paying these cops can convince them to grab Neil and run, so get the fuck out of my club. You have thirty seconds before this turns into a war.”

Riko turns his attention, very slowly, towards Wymack. His eyes flash, and for the first time all night, Neil is terrified. “This is already war, David.” He casts one last glare at Neil before turning on his heel and storming out of the club.

“Well,” Wymack says, rubbing the back of his head, “that went a lot better than I thought it would.”

“He just declared war on you!” Neil says, way too loud despite the bass turning his bones to jelly. “How can you think that’s –”

Andrew’s palm presses – briefly but firmly – to Neil’s mouth, just long enough to get him to stop talking. “You’re still here. Wymack gained a pack member with insight on our enemy. And Riko didn’t get what he wanted. That’s a win.” Neil opens his mouth to argue, but shuts it again when Andrew bites his ear. “Would you rather go home with Riko?”

“No.”

“Good. Then come on. Abby will rip you a new one if you stay on your feet any longer.” Andrew steps away from Neil only to come around to his side to help him walk. It feels so much like the day Neil arrived that it throws him into déjà vu.

“You’re still working, Minyard,” Wymack calls after them. “Get him upstairs and then come right back down.”

Andrew says nothing, though Neil grins as he’s led away.

Neil forces himself up every single step, leaning on Andrew and the railing and ignoring the blood running down his thigh. It hurts, but it’s… liberating. This is pain he caused himself, a type of suffering at his own hands. It just makes the relief of sinking into bed all the more worth it.

“You’re not actually leaving, are you?” Neil asks when Andrew steps away. But Andrew only goes to the dresser and returns with a clean pair of sweatpants and a wad of bandages. Neil frowns when Andrew still says nothing, when he tugs Neil’s sweatpants off, cleans him up, and redresses him without a word.

“Hey.” Neil cups Andrew’s cheek, trying to pull his attention.

Andrew’s jaw clenches under Neil’s palm. “You wanted me to bite you.” It’s not a question. Neil isn’t sure what gave it away, but Andrew knows.

“Yes,” he says. “But also no. It feels good, with you. Everything feels good. I always want more, but I’m always glad when you don’t give it to me. I’m… yours. Tentatively. I feel so good when it’s obvious how much you want me, and I want you to keep wanting me. I want you. But I’m not ready for a lot of things yet. I know that, objectively. It’s a huge fucking relief that you know when and how to stop.”

Andrew finally meets his gaze, and Neil smiles. His thumb smooths the edge of Andrew’s cheekbone.

“I’m going to keep stopping,” Andrew says, “until you tell me to keep going. Until we’re both ready to keep going. But I’m going to kiss you until you tell me not to.”

“Kiss me,” Neil demands, and Andrew does.