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Second Nature

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Whoever said high school was the best time of a person’s life was either delusional, extraterrestrial, or part of a masochistic propaganda stunt, because high school completely and utterly kicks Rhett’s ass.

It’s not for any of the typical reasons. He gets straight A’s, is pretty successful at dating, and never has more than a pimple or two at a time. He’s awesome at basketball and still growing, which makes him stand out even more both on the court and in general because everyone thinks he’ll end up being a literal giant someday.

That’s the thing, though. It’s borderline impossible for Rhett to not stand out. Literally, metaphorically, the whole shebang. It’s tough to be a shrinking violet when you’re fourteen and six-four.

Normally, Rhett thinks he does an okay job of owning it. It’s not like he can do anything about being so tall. But sometimes he kind of envies his classmates who are the size you’d expect your average freshman guy to be. Especially when his alpha hormones start kicking in. Rhett’s never wanted to hide more urgently in his life.

He knew he was an alpha about halfway through eighth grade--his parents picked up on the scent change, his pediatrician checked his hormone levels, everything panned out pretty much as expected--but the secondary traits really went into overdrive when he hit high school. Until then, Rhett was under the impression that alphas only had trouble controlling themselves when they were close to an omega. Which, in his case, is a non-issue since there hasn’t been an omega in Buies Creek for a good twenty-five years.

But Rhett’s alpha impulses are pretty freewheeling. Everyone smells incredible--betas and other alphas, regardless of gender. Now he has to deal with pheromone overload constantly. Not to mention his so-called best friend, who has zero self-consciousness about saying these things, leaning over all the time to ask, "Dude, is that a fold in your pants or did you get your knot?" Rhett might have mastered the art of discreetly pulling his bookbag into his lap, but nothing escapes Link’s observation.

Link is fascinated by alpha biology, which Rhett grudgingly figures is understandable seeing as there’s basically zero chance of Link turning out to be an alpha himself. Rhett's relatives are a pretty even mix of alphas and betas, while Link’s skew more towards betas and he's never been close enough to his alpha dad to have many of his alpha-related questions answered.

Then something weird happens.

They’re sprawled in the den at Rhett’s place, surrounded by Super Nintendo consoles and crumpled Hi-C juice boxes because Link likes to show off how fast he can suck them dry. Rhett’s busy navigating Luigi through Iggy’s Castle for the thirty thousandth time and not really paying attention to anything but the tinny soundtrack and traversing the lava fields when he realizes Link’s been talking to him. “It’s like, you’re getting six inches taller and gaining twenty pounds of muscle every week and I’m like...a dorky little elf following you around.”

“I thought elves were tall and graceful,” Rhett says, without looking away from the screen. Luigi narrowly escapes being crushed by a boulder.

He can practically feel the force of Link’s sigh. “Elves in, like, Lord of the Rings are, yeah. But I’m talking more like Christmas elves. I don’t wanna be a Christmas elf forever, brother; sooner or later you’ve gotta quit growing and lemme catch up some.”

Rhett snorts. “C’mon, everybody loves them some Christmas.”

He already knows what’s going to come out of Link’s mouth next and courteously doesn’t say the words along with him.

“Hey, so do I smell any different to you?”

“Yeah, you smell like Fritos and fruit punch.” Rhett dispatches Iggy with a final barrage of fireballs and turns enough to grin at the exasperated look on Link’s face. The apple cheeks and the pout really do make him look like an elf that escaped straight off a Rice Krispies box and isn’t too happy about it.

But it’s kind of a lie, which makes Rhett’s chest feel all rigid with agitation because he doesn’t lie to Link. He doesn’t. It’s just that Link’s usual scent really is kind of off these days. But that could be the new potpourri his mom stashed around the house, or maybe Link switched deodorants or something. And it wouldn’t be fair for Rhett to tell him, yeah, he does smell a little different and then get his hopes up when it could be another freaking year before Link blossoms into a flower of betahood or whatever. It definitely wouldn’t be fair for Rhett to pounce on Link, pin him to the floor, and bury his nose against his skin the way his stupid alpha hormones are begging him to do.

And if he’s totally honest with himself, this isn’t exactly brand-new either. They were watching Terminator 2 at Link’s place a couple weekends ago and Rhett got this overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around Link and see how tight he could squeeze him before he started squealing. It's not hard to incorporate that kind of move into their interactions, they do a fair amount of play fighting and practicing wrestling moves on each other, but that time the impulse hit him so hard and fast it was like getting struck by lightning. At the time, Rhett had just thought it was kind of strange and tried to focus on Arnold kicking ass.

So, since he’s had to put up with Link asking him every day for the last three months if he’d mind smelling him with extra gusto, Rhett tries to dispatch that issue too, lack of fireballs notwithstanding. “Or maybe…wait a minute.” He takes a huge, ostentatious inhale while Link watches him, eyes wide and eager. “Yeah, man, I knew it. That’s not Fritos, that’s just your feet.”

He’s laughing when Link throws a double fistful of Hi-C boxes at him.

 


 

In fifth grade, Maggie Weber was the first girl in Link’s class to get her period and everyone knew it. She broke down crying at her desk when Mrs. Chambers wouldn’t give her a bathroom pass and within an hour the whole class knew why, including Link, who only had the haziest idea of what periods entailed besides blood and terror.

Maggie weathered the ignominy of that day with aplomb, gained a wary sort of respect from the fifth grade population, and was never denied a bathroom pass again. She moved away the summer before seventh grade because her dad got a job in Georgia. Link hasn’t thought about her in ages, but it’s the image of Maggie Weber sobbing in her seat that crystallizes in his memory the day he has a near-death experience in science class.

He’s not ten anymore and he’s not an idiot, he knows what periods are and why they happen. And there’s still blood and terror involved, but in general it’s something girls learn to expect. He just can’t for the life of him think of a male equivalent that explains why his--Link cringes just trying to get his mind around the words--why his butt is wet.

It makes him squirm in his seat and want to die just thinking it, but there’s literally no other way he can think of phrasing it. There’s definitely some kind of leakage happening and, somehow or other, he’s gonna die. Maybe he ate something funny and he’s about to have explosive diarrhea, maybe his organs spontaneously liquefied from sheer pubescent agony, maybe he should just grab a Bunsen burner off the back table and light himself on fire so he doesn’t have to deal with the aftereffects of whatever the hell is wrong with him. Thank God Rhett’s in a separate class because Link definitely doesn’t want to die knowing his best friend was there to witness his last undignified moments on earth.

He’s stone cold silent for the rest of the class because he’s channeling all his mental and physical energy into just not moving, not embarrassing himself, and not attracting attention. It probably has the opposite effect, since the most out of character thing that Link could possibly do is clam up for a whole half hour, but this doesn’t occur to him until much later. All he knows is that he’s going to die, his butt is betraying him, and Holly Frank keeps giving him concerned looks which obviously means she knows.

Fortunately, no one gives him a second glance when he lags behind, pretending to rummage through his backpack for something. He waits for the perfect moment, when the room is all cleared out but the next class hasn’t started filing in, before he bolts for the nearest bathroom like his life depends on it. Which it seriously might.

After a silent pep talk and a few splashes of cold water, Link examines himself in the bathroom mirror and decides he probably just ate something funny. He doesn’t feel sick, just weird, so maybe it really is some kind of stomach issue. His mom is always warning him about living on nothing but cereal and PB&Js without the J, so it's probably just catching up to him. He resolves to eat a salad for dinner when he gets home, makes a mental note to stash some extra underwear in his locker for the next few days, and sends up a silent but urgent series of prayers that this won’t happen again. He doubts God wants to hear about the state of his butt so it’s really in both their best interests for him to rain down a little mercy.

He books it back through the halls and makes it to history class half a second before the late bell. Mr. Oliver gives him a raised eyebrow, but spares him a reprimand. Link sinks into his seat and returns Rhett's low five from across the aisle when Mr. Oliver turns towards the board to start writing. Out of breath from his run, Link pretends not to notice Rhett glancing at him, trying to catch his eye. He doesn't exactly have an explanation right now anyway.

 


 

 

By the end of the week, his body hasn’t done anything particularly mortifying and Link is starting to think he might actually be okay.

The next thing he knows, his homeroom teacher is gently informing him that she made an appointment for him with the school counselor and Link is so flummoxed he doesn’t know what to say.

“Am I in trouble?” he squeaks.

Mrs. Doherty shakes her head. “Not at all. Mrs. Pugh just has a few questions for you. I already wrote you a pass for it. Take all the time you need.”

This doesn’t assuage Link’s anxiety very much, but having a hall pass literally dangled in front of him is enough to make him stop asking questions. Almost. “It’s okay for me to miss class?”

He can’t quite decipher the look Mrs. Doherty gives him. Her brows tilt upward and her eyes go all soft-looking, like Link is a kitten she just found by the side of the road. “If this becomes a habit, we’ll  work something out.”

Which isn’t exactly a yes, but it’s close enough. Mrs. Doherty still has that weird look on her face, so Link just mumbles his thanks and totters into the hall.

Ten minutes later, he’s wishing he’d flushed the freaking hall pass down the toilet and never set foot in the counselor’s office.

It’s not that he dislikes Mrs. Pugh. She’s plump and grandmotherly looking, with massive glasses and short crisp-curled hair, and even though they’ve only spoken a few times she remembers not to call him Charles. She has him settle into one of the cracked vinyl chairs across from her desk and they exchange the standard awkward pleasantries that go hand in hand with being sent to the counselor for some undisclosed reason. Then Mrs. Pugh starts steering things into choppier waters. “Link, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to discuss any changes you might have noticed happening to you lately.”

Link just blinks like an idiot. “Um, I haven’t really noticed anything.”

“Let me be a little more specific. Have there been any changes happening to your body that you’ve observed recently?”

“That’s...kind of a personal subject,” Link hedges, wondering how the heck he still hasn’t died. Is this something every freshman gets, a personal one-on-one chat with Mrs. Pugh about metamorphosing into a man? How did this ever get past the school board?

A faint frown tugs at the edges of Mrs. Pugh’s practically nonexistent lips. “I understand that. Why don’t you tell me a little more about your genetic history?”

“What,” Link says blankly, his voice cracking.

“What I mean is,” Mrs. Pugh says, with just the hint of exasperation, “are any of your relatives omegas?”

And that’s when everything finally falls into place, so suddenly it’s like a steel trap clanging shut inside Link’s skull. The world dissolves into ether aside from that one word and it’s all Link can do to claw air into his lungs.

“Link?” Mrs. Pugh prompts.

“I think I have a disease,” Link blurts out. That's how unlikely being an omega is to him; it seems more plausible that he's only got six months to live.

“I’m fairly sure you don’t.” He thinks Mrs. Pugh is trying to be reassuring, but it’s hard to tell.

Link can’t even look at her. He stares fixedly at the framed diplomas and certificates lined up on the wall behind her desk and croaks, “Why am I really here?”

"Oh, a few of your teachers sought me out," Mrs. Pugh says airily, like this is no big deal instead of the worst moment of Link’s life.

And of course Link has to ask, he can’t not ask, it’s in his nature to press for details and that’s probably going to kill him someday if his body doesn’t do it first. “A few? Who?”

He thinks he blacks out for a minute as she informs him, as clinically and calmly as can be, that it was...pretty much all his teachers. His teachers have been discussing his weird smell and who knows what else, and what if they could tell he was leaking, oh God, Link might as well just drop out of school and go live in a cave.

By the time Mrs. Pugh asks if he’s noticed any discharge down there, Link is steadily dissolving into nothingness. He has to be positively puce with humiliation and there’s a crick in his neck from straining it to read every last framed certificate on the wall to make sure she's qualified to be asking him these potentially fatal things.

She tries to be nice about it, and that almost makes it worse. “I know this is uncomfortable, Link. It’s a lot to take in all at once. I’m just trying to confirm a few things with you, and as a counselor I can’t legally diagnose you with anything. What I can do is recommend you see your family doctor and learn some more about what might be happening to you.”

“But you think that’s what it is?” Link hates how close to tears he sounds. “You can’t, like, say it, but you’re pretty sure I’m…?”

Mrs. Pugh has the same soft look in her eyes as Mrs. Doherty when she nods.

Then the next thing Link knows, he's standing outside the guidance office with a fistful of pamphlets and wondering how the hell he's supposed to tell his mom, to tell Rhett, that he's an omega.

It might be easier to just tell them he's got six months to live.

He knows that it's supposed to be a good thing, omegas are rare and special, but Link has spent his life up to this point trying to blend in as much as possible. He couldn’t even open his mouth when Mrs. Pugh asked him if he had any questions. His body just turned into one big ball of anxiety and all he could do was fervently shake his head even though he wanted, still wants, to demand how in the world he’s meant to go through life like this, especially since there's no one he knows who can show him the ropes here. What happens when he starts having heat cycles? Is everyone gonna be able to smell the pheromones spilling off him in waves? Can he just quit school and change his name? Even if he did know another omega, he doesn't think he could handle having a mentor tell him about these things. He'd die of embarrassment a thousand times a day.

He wanders into class feeling like an avalanche just fell on him and somehow manages to successfully hand over his pass and take his seat without falling over. He must look pretty shell-shocked, because less than a minute later Rhett passes him a note asking what's wrong.

Link doesn't even know how to answer it. Knowing his luck, the second he wrote down just learned I'm an omega and passed it back, the teacher would intercept the note and make him read it out loud. And then he'd probably cry.

Instead, he just sits there and stares at his hands and ignores Rhett until the bell rings.

 


 

 

Link is a wreck, which means Rhett is also a wreck from not knowing why.

The instant class is over, he pulls Link into the faculty bathroom near the gym, the one no faculty members ever actually use anyway. It’s only meant to accommodate one person and it smells like cheap vanilla air freshener, but it’s got plenty of privacy and that’s what matters most.  

“Hey,” Rhett says gently, because Link still won’t look at him, still hasn’t said a word, and still seems like he’s on the verge of disintegrating on the spot. “What’s going on, brother?”

Link just shakes his hair over his face even more, gripping the dingy lip of the sink so hard Rhett expects to hear either bone or porcelain cracking.  “They…they...” he starts, so haltingly it makes Rhett’s chest twist up in sympathy. “Oh man, everybody knows, they--everybody can tell and I--”

“Tell what?” Rhett bursts out, unable to contain himself.

Link drags in a breath that sounds like sandpaper. Under his bangs, his eyes are screwed shut. “Mrs. Pugh, she--she just told me I'm an omega."

And just like that, Rhett’s world fissures apart.  

He’s known Link most of his life, knows him like the lines on his own palms and the growing pains arcing through his spine, knows him so well sometimes he can hear what Link’s about to say before he even says it. But he never could have anticipated this.

He stares down at Link, torn between altruistic best friend compassion and pure selfish celebration, because there's a part of him that's really, really happy Link is an omega and he can’t quite articulate why. At the very least, it helps explains some of the weirder urges he's had lately.

“Holy shit, man,” he mutters, trying to bring a hand to scratch his head, only to be painfully reminded they’re in a space the size of a phone booth. “You, uh, wanna…?” He jerks his head fractionally and spreads his hands, palms out, willing Link to get the message.

Link looks for a second like he’s considering just darting out the door and hiding.

Then his chin dips, a yeah slides out of his mouth in a grateful sigh, and just like that he’s got his face buried in Rhett’s chest.

Rhett’s arms come up automatically, wrapping around him with all the hug mojo he’s been secretly hoarding for the past few months. Rhett thinks if he could just keep hugging Link forever, maybe he could make being an omega seem a little less terrible for him.

"I dunno how to be this, man," Link wails into Rhett's shirt, voice splintering in a way that normally Rhett would make fun of.

Rhett just squeezes him even harder, until Link squawks in protest and shakes himself free. "It's okay, we'll figure it out. Just...c’mon, it means you're special, right? Nothing wrong with that."

Link, apropos of nothing, giggles. "Did you know Mrs. Pugh is a certified 4-H volunteer?"

“Dude, what.”

“She’s got way too many diplomas on the wall, I knew they couldn’t all be for real stuff.”

“So obviously you had to scrutinize every single one. Because that makes sense.”

“What, like I was supposed to look her in the eye while she asked questions about my friggin’ butt?” Link makes a face. “Man, I’m never gonna be cool. You should just, like, let me live in this bathroom and enjoy the rest of your life without me.”

“I’m a fucking giant, man, you think I don’t feel awkward sometimes? There’s no way for me to blend in.”

Link snorts. “At least your ass isn't leaking.”

Thankfully, the tardy bell muffles the sound of Rhett choking on air.