"I'm not going."
Maz takes a deep sigh behind her desk: a clock with little cats on it ticking over to the hour. She's kind and gentle and sweet and old, so old, and with a mindset that matches a time long before - when the world had a landscape far different from the one that stretches before you.
She understands, of course. Mentored you through undergraduate - knows the score. Knows from your papers how much this feels like your hand being forced.
Understanding won't get you grant funding, though.
Doesn't put bread on the table.
"I can't make you, you know. We both know that'd be a lost cause." She thumbs the paper handle on her teabag, warm steam fogging her thick glasses. "But the opportunity is invaluable. To present your findings at this specific conference--"
Maz sips her tea. "In Jackson."
You don't even know where to start.
"Do you know," you lick your lips, irate "what they do to aberrants in Jackson, Maz? Did you even read my dissertation, or did you just palm it off to the ethics committee?"
Anger bubbles. Seethes beneath your skin, prickling on your gland - red hot, fizzing in the air. It's not her, not really: it's the world. It's the game you play and the pieces you line up: it's the way you find a thousand inescapable runs of luck in being born here. Here, in this state, and not somewhere else. Not in the far flung reaches of the law; not in the clutches of a backwards government.
The inescapable run of luck that you're not an aberrant designation born in Jackson, Mississippi.
"Female Alphas are in no danger from the Mississippi State Department. You know that."
You grit your teeth. "Not my point. And you know it isn't."
Maz's eyes crinkle as she drums her fingers against the side of her mug.
"You have an opportunity to influence state policy. We're already sending half of the law faculty, some from medicine. Consider the good it could do - the good your work could do, across designations and state lines. It's a chance to see it put into public focus."
That's enough. This is enough.
You sweep up your files and book bag in your arms; teeth grinding and heart pounding as you grunt an acknowledgement. Outside, the sun dries off wet tiles, shiny from the rain - littering the campus with the scent of dull brickwork. Betas twine their fingers with Omegas on the way to economics class: an Alpha laughs as he ties his shoelace on the lawn.
You throw the door open, stepping into the sunlight.
The hotel lobby is pristine.
Sharply edged, all grey-and-green couches at weird angles and glass coffee tables. Looks like a kid took a leaf from The Sims 3 and decided to start shoving in sets from "Deco Interior", what with the globe lights that hang ridiculously low. It's all very Not What You Expected while also being Exactly What You Feared You'd One Day See, and there's no escaping that dawning realisation as your suitcase rattles over marble.
The band around your wrist clinks - silver plated and stupidly overdone, a bold "A" with "♀" printed next to it like some sort of ridiculous bangle. There's a red LED at the back somewhere that seems to blink in some sophisticated manner: and Lord Above, You Are Going To Rip This Fucking Thing Off So Hard--
"Good evening, maam. Do you have a reservation?"
Her petite little fingernails tap on the keyboard, and look: no band. Nothing.
Must be nice.
"Oh, yes. Sorry. I've got my pass right--"
Your band clinks as you try to rumage through your coat pocket, and despite herself, the woman behind the counter gives this flashed smile of sympathy. It's fleeting - but you're sure you didn't imagine it. Right?
Surely not everyone here can look at you with the same scorn the guy at airport security did when he snapped that band on your wrist?
You hand her the slip: she takes it and types away. When she's done with whatever administrational work is required, she palms you a crappy looking keycard with the letters "302" on the front. Lime green and grey - always lime green and grey. Maybe Jackson has a penchant for Ikea.
Probably not, actually.
"Door's up on the lifts to the right. Breakfast starts at 8am, and room service ends at midnight. Alcohol is only permitted between 4pm and 10pm, and must remain in the restaurant area for..." and she actually pauses like this isn't something she expects to say, like the words bite at her lips as she tries to make the right shape, make the-- "...individuals on your floor, ma'am. We hope that's not too inconvenient."
So no minibar, then. What's even the point in this trip if there's no minibar? Are they at least comping the coffee? Does Hux get a minibar, for having a degree in being buttered toast levels of normal?
This trip already sucks, and the panel doesn't even start until tomorrow.
Swiping your key (with slightly more aggression than intended) you make it through the lift doors.
And the weirdest thought hits you: there's no scent in here at all. Nothing. Like the whole thing has been sprayed down with bleach: right from the airport to the lobby, from the plane to the elevator. It's like walking through a town with only disinfectant as company - only stale air and grey carpets.
Your room is bland as the rest of it: green sheets, grey carpet, single window. Painting of a flower that looks like a child did it...
Hey! Free coffee!
You dump your suitcase at the end of the bed, examining the mug and the little brown packets. It's instant, and it's old, and it's...
Decaf. It's fucking decaf.
So what, Alphas don't even get caffeine in this state? Where's the UN?! Isn't this a violation of human rights?
You rifle through the packets with annoyance that makes your mouth prickle - this bubble of legitimate hysteria that coils in your throat, threatening to spill over. Interior decorating and coffee aren't the point, are they? That's not the reason you feel this...this sense of submersion. Because Jesus, this isn't the world. Except it is - it's real for these people. So many states now scramble to repeal protective statutes for Alphas and Omegas - it had been getting better. It had been, and it was...it was fine.
It's fine - until it isn't.
Your phone buzzes aggressively - one vibrate, then two. Light flashing as you huff a breath and plonk down onto the crisp sheets; eyeing off the texts in your inbox.
Ben (Uni): Hey
Ben (Uni): Here yet?
Oh...he's here? You...You hadn't expected that, somehow. It snaps into your mind that Maz told you legal was attending, and crap - of course. Of course he'd be here.
Wait - can he be here? Is that allowed? There aren't...aren't any...
There's a reason Omegas aren't invited here. And so it sets you to wondering all sorts of things.
Wondering whether he's safe.
You hesitate on the buttons, one hand itching your gland with an antsy movement.
You: Just got here
You: Super weird flight
Ben texts back pretty much instantly.
Ben (Uni): Yeah
Ben (Uni): Wouldn't even give me a Coke on the plane
Ben (Uni): We're at an Italian place two blocks away from the hotel
Your heart picks up, somehow. Sheepishly, you bite your nails: blood rushing to your face as you fumble to grab your deoderant from your purse.
And he doesn't respond instantly - doesn't respond and it's...it's darker, harder to see through a fog that claws at you. 'We' can mean anything: 'We' can mean the whole of the US Navy, can mean 'Me And The Receptionist From The Lobby'.
It can mean 'Me And A Gorgeous Blonde Alpha', and that's the one that makes your stomach curl.
Ben (Uni): Poe
Ben (Uni): Hux
Ben (Uni): Phasma from Pharm
Ben (Uni): Some guys from Arizona
Ben (Uni): Don't know who else
Oh thank God. Thank God for stupid Poe fucking Dameron and all the boring drones that tend to gravitate to him.
You try to be relaxed. Try to maintain this aura of not giving a toss as you spray on some deodorant, fishing out your mirror and touching up your lipstick. You'll pretend not to know what he's getting at - see if that prompts him.
You want it to prompt him.
Ben (Uni): Sorry, not being clear
Ben (Uni): Come join?
And then there's a brief pause.
Ben (Uni): Would be really nice to see you
Oh. Your heart skips a little: flutters under the weight of that admission in a way you're not used to. Ben Solo, making your heart skip and your gland itch. Now there's something you would never have seen coming, those weeks ago. It's a little dangerous here: a little more scandalous.
You can't deny that makes it even more delicious.
You: Give me 15
You: I'll meet you there
Ben (Uni): :)
He's so fucking handsome.
It's Hell, and it's Heaven, and it's everything in between: every stupid thing your teenage self would've craved in the long nights alone. In the space between ruts - what if you'd had Ben Solo, just for a moment? Just to press your lips to, when it all became too much?
He's wearing this soft navy sweater - a lighter blue collar pokes out from underneath, just a bit disheveled on its way up his neck. His hair is glossier, thicker, darker than you've ever seen it: his cheeks flushed as he swigs from a green beer bottle. The bracelet on his wrist jingles, clinks against the glass as his plush lips find the top.
The bracelet flashes red. "A" is plain on the front.
Oh my God.
He's still fronting as an Alpha. His paperwork's uncorrected.
He must be using short-term blockers or suppressants or something, something to keep up appearances. How? How is he doing this? It's so, so much work.
Your heart aches for him.
You clutch your purse as you shuffle to the table - the warm ambiance of the restaurant putting you at ease somewhat. Scents mingle: finally, finally. Alpha scents - familiar ones. This place smells of fresh baked breads and deep spices, spices that would usually have you gritting on edge.
Now there's relief. Comfort in the irritation. Even Poe Dameron - whose scent makes your whole jaw prickle with anger - is a welcome sight as you slide into the rickety chair opposite Ben. He eyes you with a flush of relief; something akin to a nervous smile that you return for a brief moment.
Care is important here. Caution, too, is something to be savoured. At best, you and Ben being too familiar will be office gossip when you get home. At worst? Two "Alphas" showing intimate familiarity might provoke something from the locals. Could draw attention to Ben he doesn't need.
These lies are tenuous. Dangerous.
"Hey there hot stuff."
You grab a paper menu and immediately put it up as a barrier as Poe slides in next to you: drumming his fingers on the wooden table and flicking at the corner of your page. He's like a kid - persistently harmless, but persistently a pain in the ass. Needs to have his existence acknowledged by the nearest woman every three seconds, or he might just disappear.
"Don't you have someone else to bother for a few minutes? I just got here and I'm trying to avoid making any bloody pulps out of men for my own health."
Poe whistles, flicking your menu some more.
"I like a girl with attitude," he wiggles his brows.
Ben grits his teeth.
"She said no, Dameron." He picks at the label of his bottle, tearing off a piece of sticky paper. "Don't be a fucking creep."
Poe whistles in provocation, and Jesus. If he so much as puts a finger on Ben you might just flip this table right over: take the drinks and the complimentary bread and stuff them in places they ought not to go. You try to distract yourself by scanning through the pasta dishes; it works in part, but your mouth is prickling with aggression that flares in your scent. You smell next to nothing from Ben; occasional slivers of cinnamon, something tart and deep.
Short-term blockers. A lot of them.
"What's with you all of a sudden?" Poe raises his brows, nostrils flaring. "Going soft?"
"Poe," you lick your lips. "Why don't you just f--"
"--Can I take your order?"
Every. Person. Snaps. Around.
The scent is ridiculous. Obvious. Unsuppressed. Thick and strong and sugary-sweet, and enough to make you feel slightly insane. Every Alpha at the table goes deathly still, and you are no exception.
He's young - tall and broad, sharply handsome. Golden-blonde hair and thin lips; white shirt dipping at the collar a little to reveal what looks like an intricate tattoo, drawn from puckered skin.
But it isn't. It isn't.
It's a branding mark; burned into the skin of his gland in a way that looks as though it'd be endlessly painful. The bracelet on his wrist is silver, just like yours: but the symbol matches up with the puckering on his neck. The LED blinks blue, and nobody is in any doubt of who and what this man is.
Male Omega. Local.
He smells like fucking heaven - smells like nothing else. It's madness, how quiet everyone suddenly goes. Even the Betas, who have no concept of what's occuring, are so absorbed in this rare curiosity that they gape, too.
Most of them have probably never seen one - not a real one. A real Omega man: standing here, brand as clear as day. In your city there's nothing this barbaric, nothing so cruel and detestable: and that makes it even harder to look away. You want to: you want to stop feeling like you'll drool, like you're hyper-aware of every way this stranger's chest falters.
He looks at you, too: at the bracelet on your wrist. An unsupressed male Omega, meeting a female Alpha without blockers.
The room could snap in half.
"Carbonara," Poe says breathily.
The table each rattle off orders until the waiter reaches you and Ben: frozen, infinitely, in a moment. You don't even remember the menu; you're not quite sure where you are, not sure why your head is swimming like this.
"I'll..." Oh boy, your mouth is dry. Dry as the desert: tongue aching. "...Margarita. I'll have a margarita. A medium. Please."
And then your eyes dart to Ben, and oh god, you wish they hadn't.
He won't look up - he's so still. Still and blank and hollow, like time is moving through him. Around him. He's sheet white, freckles contrasting his skin as he shivers. It's awful: it's awful.
The waiter swallows nervously, clicking his pen as his scent darts through the air.
Ben doesn't respond. Doesn't hear anything.
Tentatively, you reach over the table. It's dangerous and stupid and fuck, fucks sake. But even though his scent is masked, his distress is the boldest thing in the room. It's stark and unavoidable: the sharpness of his hollow form.
You squeeze his thumb - and Ben Solo, who is stronger than anyone you've ever met, flinches. Physically, genuinely flinches.
Ben's face is pale as death as he swallows; staring at the salt and pepper shakers through glassy eyes. When he glances up: it's this distant, cold thing. The light of a star, far off in the dark.
The waiter hastily scribbles something, eyes down. It's so clear Ben wants this to be over, wants this whole interaction to end and this whole--
"And...what size did you--"
"--Medium," you half-growl, all tense in your throat. Your gland prickles, whole body angled to Ben. "He wants a medium."
And right at that moment, Ben's phone goes off. This annoying beep, consistently screeching in your ear as you eye off the waiter defensively. Or is it...is it something else? Your head swims, dazed as the beeping grows louder. Someone says your name - the waiter's head snaps up, golden hair drifting in the ceiling fan.
His eyes go wide.
"I'm...I'm so sorry," he shakes his head, stepping back. He almost knocks into another table; stumbling gracelessly away from you. "I didn't mean...Please, I'm sorry."
It's all so strange - and stranger still is the constant, cold beeping. You hazard a glare at the source, only to find it isn't a phone at all.
Your band beeps, LED blinking rapidly.
Everyone at the table bristles. Ben's chest heaves just out of the corner of your view as you knock the bracelet against the table with an unceremonious clunk: cursing under your breath. Patrons at the restaurant begin to notice: begin to shuffle around. It's increasingly more anxiety inducing, and every whir makes Ben clench his fists even tighter.
And of course, idiot Poe Dameron takes this moment to bring his wrist right up to your face.
Hissing like a pissed off cat, the smell of Alpha spice runs right through your bones: flooding your blood with this venomous sense of cold, unyielding anger. God damn it! What's his fucking problem?! Angrily, you try to throw his stupid, obnoxious wrist back in his lap.
The beeping stops.
"What the Hell, Dameron?!" you spit, gritting your teeth. "What don't you get?! Leave me alone!"
Poe snorts; his stupid cheekbones turning up in a half-smile, brow cocking.
"So you've never been to Jackson before. That figures." Poe runs a quick hand through his hair. "Bit of advice, sweetheart: don't start getting a rut over every guy with an Omega dick you see. It's unbecoming."
"I wasn't. And you're becoming a real asshole."
Ben's full lips twitch, just a little. Brief, even though his knuckles are still tight on the table. Crescents still digging into the woodwork. Body tight as a bowstring.
Poe just snorts in response, but hey: at least Ben smiled. Even if it's fleeting.
Sleep doesn't come, that night in a sterile room.
You try to get an early night - try to tuck yourself into the scratchy sheets, long before sleep would usually find you. The events of the day have left you harrowed; worn down. You knew they would. Knew this conference was a total mistake - right from the get go. Why? Why did you let Maz, of all people, talk you into this?
The room is draftier than meets the eye: cold, without reprieve from the dropping temperatures outside. Something about the sterile walls is just...choking you, somehow. This sense that you're isolated, far from home. Unsafe and alone and shivering in your skin - band on your wrist glinting in the dim light. The silence is deafening.
Closing your eyes does nothing to slow the images.
The golden haired Omega - he stares at you through glassy eyes. Scent a mix of heady want and subtle distress: brand on his gland that must have burned through nerves and tissue. Can he ever be mated, now, with the skin broken in such a way? Is he forced to a life of loneliness and servitude, because of his designation?
His face shifts - and you see Ben.
Ben, Ben, Ben. Ben with glassy eyes. Ben with tight lips and hollow smiles and clenched teeth. Ben, with perfect hair and a band on his wrist, blinking blue light on his skin.
Ben with puckered skin and a brand at his throat.
Your eyes flash open.
He left the restaurant in a hurry - said little of anything to anyone, on the way back. Shuffled wordlessly, head down, in front of the group as though he was being waited on. His step was urgent and distant and very, very careful: and you knew then, what he was thinking. What he was seeing, all through the streets on a cool summer evening.
You all brushed by a young girl - eighteen, you hope - in plain clothes, eyes distant. Stomach swollen, brown hair plaited as a Beta man held her hand. Her wristband glinted silver, blue lights twinkling as she stepped in time with him. Thin brand, stamped like a tattoo. Not quite a burn, but a disfigurement nonetheless.
She passed Ben first - and he barely looked up.
Barely--but he did.
And God, God, God - even Poe Dameron, who has a witticism for every stupid thing, was silent as the grave.
So you slipped into hotel rooms, sober and quiet. Showered, without words forthcoming.
Now you're here, and it's like the band is not just snapped on your wrist: but all across your throat.
And so you get up - get up, in tatty pajamas and loose hair, stumbling to the door as you pocket your phone. Get up and fumble at the handle, pulling out into a sterile, brightly-lit corridor. Without any thought for the wellbeing of either of you, your feet lead you to the place you're so desperate to reach. Lead you an inconspicuous door in the middle of a corridor in the middle of a strange city: waiting on the precipice of something.
Your gland aches in time with your heart when you knock on the door. Quiet, so quiet - almost as though every part of you leans towards resisting, somehow. Leans towards turning from this place and going back to your cold, lonely room.
But maybe every part just isn't quite enough.
The handle turns cautiously - a slither of warm light from the room as a dark brown eye meets yours.
"Hey." Your voice wavers, bare feet itching on the carpet.
Ben pushes the door open just a little further: bare chest exposed to the harsh light. Oh God, he's so fucking beautiful - freckles and muscles and sharp edges, thick and strong like nothing else. He runs a hand through his hair nervously before responding, curls of dark hair licking at the wood of the door, the corners of his ears.
"Hey," he says quietly.
"You're still up."
He nods, sucking his cheek. "You too."
Awkward. This conversation is so, so awkward.
"Listen, Ben...are you okay?"
It bunches in your throat--thick, choked from a place of effort. You can see the red rims around his eyes: purple bruises on his eyelids from rubbing at them. A hollowness that punches the air around him; knowing full well the answer is there on his lips. Unsaid - unseen.
When he nods: it whispers uncertainty.
Your gland prickles; discomfort on your tongue.
"Because," you quietly add, gritting the words out. "...I'm not."
Ben leans his head against the doorframe; pyjama pants loose on his hips as he chews his lip in thought. It's red: he's been working at it, no doubt, the way he does when nerves get the better of him. A curl of hair falls over his eyes as you rub your folded arms, generating a little warmth.
The door opens wide; Ben steps away.
"Come in," he says, dark eyes heavy with something cautious.
Relief floods through your veins - heady as you pad through into his room, taking in the space. It's a carbon copy of yours; save for the neatly organised clothes on the dresser and the laptop on the desk. A frayed copy of The Shining is pressed up against the worn lampshade, along with a pillbox and a water bottle.
And the smell of it - just...your skin flickers with goosebumps at the taste, all richness and lovely warmth: all Ben. Cinnamon and chai and long winter nights, snow kissing at your skin. Your brain flares with the sensation: Omega. Familiar, compatible, Ben.
He locks the door behind you, and yeah. You can see why. If anyone steps into this room; his cover's shot. The scent of him is obvious in the sheets, drenching into the carpet.
It's the most lovely thing you've ever smelled.
Strong, bare arms wind around your waist from behind, muscles tensing as Ben brings you into him - band on his wrist warm against the thin fabric of your top. His nose finds itself in the crook of your neck, as it always does in these moments in between: dark hair cascading to your shoulder as he nuzzles into you. God, it feels so good: he smells so good, feels so warm around you, so safe...
"Ben," you whisper, tracing patterns across the veins of his arms. They web and dart like lightning between the constellations on his skin, goosebumps sprouting as you touch him anywhere you can. When he noses across your hairline, you turn in his arms - turn until your chest is flush to his.
Your hand cups his jaw, and fuck. Fuck.
The lump in your throat is heavy; lead and iron and pain, right the way down.
"I'm sorry," you whisper, teary-eyed. "I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry, Ben. I'm so sorry."
The air tastes of distress and anxiety. Tastes of pain: bitter and sharp, and your biology ticks away from it. You want to take him somewhere safe, somewhere warm. Somewhere they'll never get him, never hurt him.
You'll raze this whole city to keep him safe.
You hardly know him. But you'll do it.
You cup along his jaw, and he...his fingers twine around yours there, pressing you closer to his cheekbone. Plush, red lips find the curve of your palm, nibbling kisses all across the surface. His eyelids flutter shut at these ministrations, and the world is so quiet. You exist in this moment: a sacred place, between the worlds you have created.
He always meets you right between.
"You're here. I'm here with you." Ben trembles, jaw tight. "What else is there?"
You shake your head. "I kept seeing him, and all I could think of--"
"--In another life."
The bracelet on his wrist rides down his forearm; you give it a flick with your free hand, watching the pulsing red light.
"Those brands...it's just horrifying. To hear it is one thing, but this..." you don't know what to say. Don't know how to collect yourself. "I see it. I mean, I've seen it since I found out, but...it's so clear to me now. Why you've done this, all this time." You press your forehead to his, taking in the scent of him. The feel of him around you; the feel of him swirling in your lungs. "I can't take this feeling. Two more days of this. Of you being--" unsafe.
"They won't touch you. They'll never touch you." Your words are venom: Alpha, dark and thorough. There is no room for anything more; no space to argue, to calm you down.
Ben licks his lips, face inches from yours.
"Stay with me," he huskily says. "Stay tonight. Forget them all. Forget the world." He kisses slowly at your cheek, and oh. Your core lights up as you feel a hardness on your stomach, pressing through his baggy pants. "Stay. Please. Just...stay."
His eyes are hungry in the low light; pain and want in equal measure, swirling in the night.
The room tastes of caramel: sugar and fire.
"Okay," you whisper.