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An Unexpected Vacation

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“Genital warts.” Finn slapped her hand away when she went for the volume knob. “Untamed pubes. Yellow, rotten teeth gnawing at your neck.”

“Delicious,” Rey said absently, twisting around to look in the back seat. “Where did you put the leftover fries?”

“Abscesses. Bunions. An untamable craving for limburger cheese. His fingers could reek of it. Are you listening to me?”

“No.” All the bags looked the same. She picked one at random and dumped out a small avalanche of Target receipts. “You didn’t tell me you bought an Instant Pot.”

“It was a present for Poe. Our chicken game is now on fire. Ask me about it later. Right now we’re talking about poor life choices. Specifically, the one where you sign up to fuck an alpha you have never met in front of people you barely know for money you don’t need because I told you that we’re happy to loan you whatever you—”

“Really, Finn?” She shook the receipt a bit more violently than necessary. “Axe?”

“I stacked a manufacturer’s coupon with Cartwheel. They practically paid me to take it. Stop changing the subject.”

“The subject has been exhausted. There’s nothing left to say.” She swapped out one receipt for another and tried not to goggle at the total. No wonder Finn had offered to loan her money, if this is what he managed to save. The ratio of product to savings was obscene. “Seriously. Is there an app for this, or—”

Rey.”

She sighed, turning her head to look at the passing scenery. Trees and empty lots were rarer as they neared the city, but the blue sky was unerringly bright. It was a beautiful day. “If you have a question, I’ll answer it. Rattling off adjectives didn’t work last week and it won’t work now.”

“Fine.” He must have pressed a button on the steering wheel; the Bee Gees stopped mid ballad. “Tell me you’re doing this willingly.”

“That’s not a question,” she points out, “but yes.”

“You don’t care that someone, that people will watch you fuck?” He looked two seconds away from puking. “Like multiple, multiple people will be able to describe your vagina. They’ll probably analyze it in a boardroom. Someone will feel proud about a shitty PowerPoint full of annotated pictures. They will use words like ‘arousal fluid’ and consult charts and these things will never not be digitally saved. That doesn’t bother you?”

She couldn’t deny that the imagery was a little unsettling, but she had to laugh at his seriousness. “Are you suggesting my vagina is unworthy of analysis?”

“What!” Finn squawked, the car jerking when his foot slipped from the gas. “Jesus, no. That’s not my point.”

“Then are you implying I should be ashamed of my vagina and its arousal fluid?”

“Oh my god, stop. I never should have said those words. I take it back.”

Rey shifted in her seat to face him. The seat belt dug uncomfortably into her hip. “As touching as I’ll interpret your concern to be, this is the part where I remind you that it’s my business what I do or do not do with my vagina.” And because she felt shame rolling off of Finn in waves, gently added, “I get why you’re worried, okay? It’s weird. Totally not a normal way to spend a vacation.”

Finn recovered enough to ask, “I just…how do you know this is legit?”

She fished out a plump folder from her knapsack, angling it so Finn could glance at the solid two inches of dead tree. Most of them bore her signature. “Check out that seal.” Her finger tapped on the topmost paper. “What kind of evil research company shells out for embossing?”

Please tell me you had someone look over those.”

“Kaydel. And Maz.” She could tell that soothed him; his grip on the steering wheel relaxed into something less lethal. “I have to say, though, it’s a little unsettling how you seem to have zero faith in my ability to make good choices. You think I wouldn’t take this seriously?”

Finn’s groan was pained. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll shut up and support you—”

“Thank you.”

“—as soon as you tell me the point.”

The point was sitting in her bank account. All two thousand dollars of it.

Finn would faint if he knew, but it had been incredibly difficult to stop herself from leaping across the consultation desk to sign the paperwork as soon as it had been offered. Two grand to let someone analyze her heat? An extra five grand if she successfully matched with an alpha? She didn’t care how many pictures they took or what they recorded—it wasn’t like she’d be in the right mind to care. Sure, it would be a little shitty to suffer—the scientists were interested in both heat progression as well as the effectiveness of their new suppressants—but she’d survived dry heats in the past. She could do it again. Especially for what they were willing to pay.

Her dreams were modest: a cushion for her desk chair, buying cereal that came in a bag in a box, maybe one of those self-knotting dildos that she’d read about on the forums. Maybe two of them. She’d like to pay off some of her student loans. There was a fucking awesome TIG welder she’d been eyeing, too—something to replace her hand-me-down’s hand-me-down that only ever fused properly when it felt benevolent.

She could admit this to Finn, and will. What she won’t admit was this: that the chance of fucking an alpha was something she’d probably do for free.

It wasn’t a need. If she wasn’t matched, there would be no weeping or flailing of arms. She’d just have the same unanswered questions. Because surely what she’s heard is an exaggeration. Hyperbole. Fever dreams from omegas too clouded by instinct to be truthful.

It’s like nothing fucking else, she remembered reading. That particular user posted often, usually with links to medical journals full of tables and dot plots that Rey’s gone cross-eyed trying to decipher. I could swing dry heats before my alpha. Wasn’t fun, wasn’t awful. Fucked a few beta guys and felt completely satisfied. Nothing could have convinced me an alpha would be different, but then I met mine. Was like someone dropped me into a typhoon with a pool noodle and told me to survive. It was amazing and terrifying and I could never, ever go back.

All things considered, it was a deeply unsatisfying analogy. Okay, so the sex was overwhelming. That wasn’t news: anyone who’d fucked an alpha never shut up about it. But overwhelming how? No one ever really said. It was always vague and slightly patronizing versions of you’ll just have to see.

And Rey wanted to.

Would it be ideal to find an alpha only to fuck him in front of strangers? The odds said no. But no rule said their first fuck had to be their last. Even if he turned out to be a giant douche, having an alpha in her contact list would mean the end of expensive heat suppressants. Never again would she have to awkwardly pump up a silicone knot, bathing in no one’s sweat but her own and moaning at the ceiling fan. And best of all, she could finally quit scrolling through the damn forums for answers no one seemed inclined to fully divulge. At least until her mystery alpha found a permanent partner.

That, though, was a worry for another day. First she had to show up. And before that, she needed to answer Finn before he exploded.

She turned and opened her mouth.

--

Rey wouldn’t have said the waiting room was homey, but someone had clearly made an effort. There were a few kitschy signs on the walls, all faux-aged wood and artfully distressed chalk paint. An enormous blue IKEA rug was arranged in what the decorator had probably thought was an edgy, daring angle. There was even an immaculately clean fish tank, although in a minor oversight, someone had forgotten to buy the actual fish. The filter kept up a discreet hum.

She’d signed at least a dozen new forms since arriving, all of them reiterations of the same basic theme: You can leave any time you want. Please don’t sue us.

Now she was waiting, and she wasn’t alone. At least thirty other omegas were scattered around the room on various bits of furniture, talking or flipping through a magazine or mindlessly thumbing at their phone. It was heartening to realize that the general vibe was one of happy, nervous anticipation.

The white coats flitted in and out, occasionally apologizing for the wait and almost fanatically encouraging everyone to take advantage of the free snacks and tea.

Rey had already helped herself, marveling at the selection. Traditional flavors were scattered next to such options as tomato mint, spinach chive, and beet cabbage. Savory! the boxes proudly claimed, and Rey struggled to think of a less appealing word to read on a tea box. Steaks were savory. Slipping into freshly laundered sheets was arguably savory. Tea, less so.

It did, however, pique her imagination. Why not dream harder, she wondered. What was stopping anyone from inventing bubble gum tea? Taco tea? Oh god: bacon tea, that would be—

“Disgusting,” someone laughed. “But hilariously so.”

Rey turned to see that a stranger had wandered over to her corner. He was at least two decades older than the oldest omega in the room with hair that still valiantly tried to be brown rather than gray. Rey felt a little guilty for wondering if he’d stumbled into the room by accident: his clothes were better suited to a fishing dock than a science lab—he really was wearing a confusing amount of neoprene. It clashed with what looked like a patched house robe. For all his strange dress, he emanated a powerful mix of confidence and serenity. With a nod of acknowledgment, he strode past Rey to the kettle, humming to himself as it brewed.

Rey tried to be discreet about seeing what he picked. Somehow she was completely unsurprised when he plopped Carrot Curry into a chipped mug.

He eventually wandered back over, a small smile on his face. “I apologize for eavesdropping earlier. My sister tells me it’s one of my foulest habits.”

“I didn’t even realize I was speaking out loud,” Rey admitted, pleased that he chose to sit in the chair rather than join her on the couch. She liked strangers, but she was also territorial about her space. Even when it wasn’t truly her space. “And it’s no bother.”

He only smiled, eyes on his tea. Then he turned his gaze on the room, quietly assessing.

It was a strange, comfortable silence. Rey subtly watched the stranger watching the others, noting the small quirk of his mouth when someone said something funny and loud enough to be heard. When she lost interest in his reactions, she eavesdropped herself.

Most of it was inane chatter, almost incongruously normal considering where they were sitting. Not that she expected anyone to hop on a table and recite an ode to alpha dick, but no one had muttered so much as “pheromone” since she’d arrived. She thought she heard someone mention vajazzling, but when she finally pinpointed the voice, a leggy brunette was excitedly pointing to her bejeweled jacket.

Rey sighed at her hands, disappointed.

The whole situation was eerily similar to a middle school dance. Everyone knew what should be going on—what would happen eventually, if the stars aligned—but by some collective unconscious decision, no one was speaking about it. They stayed by their metaphorical punch bowls instead, gossiping about mortgages and crime rates, steadfastly pretending they didn’t know the difference between a penis and a garden hose.

You, you, and you. She scanned over the heads in her line of vision. You all signed up to fuck and be fucked and so did I. Act like it. I want to feel less crazy.

She checked her watch. It really had been an age since she’d walked in. At least an hour. Was that normal, or was it a sign of things to come?

“A slight delay, yes.” The man in the chair spoke up. “I was told IT decided to push out a software update. Bad timing. But I wouldn’t expect any additional delays.”

So he’d been paying attention to her, as well. With a frown, she wondered if it was unintentional or calculated. “How do you know that?”

“That sister I mentioned is involved with the study. On a more political level, mind. Been working with the researchers on a PR project. They want the data; she wants the stories. Thinks she can single-handedly upset decades of designation bias.” His shrug said he wasn’t assured of her success. “People find it harder to hate what they understand. That’s true enough. Easier for her to find support in Congress when constituents are more agreeable to change.”

He could only be talking about one person. “Your sister is Leia Organa?”

He transferred his mug to his left hand and stuck out his right. She shook it slowly, still processing as he nodded. “I’m Luke.”

Luke Skywalker. Rey never would have guessed that the scruffy man was related to Leia. Like all the designated she knew, Rey had followed Organa’s campaign closely. She was one of the few senators openly and loudly vocal about the need for national reform. Before Leia and her team passed the Fair Hire bill, too many qualified alphas and omegas were consistently denied employment or asked to leave under mysterious circumstances. Paid heat leave—also championed by Leia—was still so shiny new that bigots were still bitching about it in the media. But for every sweaty, fear-mongering beta, there was Senator Organa: ruthlessly knowledgeable, fierce, and compassionate.

Her stomach rolled at a new thought. “Leia is here? And you’re…participating?”

“Just in this capacity.” He gestured at the room. “Waiting with the rest of you, making sure certain promises are kept.”

Rey debated asking what those promises were, although she suspected he’d politely decline or pivot. Instead she considered what she knew of the next step: any minute now, they’d all take turns passing around whatever it was that the alphas had scented. “Aren’t you worried you’ll trigger your heat?”

Luke waved away her concern, suddenly more interested in new movement by the door. “Those days are behind me. And even if they weren’t, temptations can be mastered.”

Rey had to swallow a half-scoff, half-laugh. A temptation? Two for one tequila shots were tempting. Heats, on the other hand, were not something you could wave away like an after dinner mint; they were something you survived, not indulged. The only option was whether or not you enjoyed it.

“Ah.” Luke pointed to the open doorway. A badged woman looked like she was summoning up enough courage to address the room. “That’s my cue. And yours, I believe.” He stood up, downing the rest of his tea in one gulp, and began a slow wander toward the other end of the room.

Sure enough, the woman finally managed to squeak out: “If I could have your attention, please?” The room hushed in a matter of seconds, and the speaker seemed mildly alarmed by her power. She cleared her throat. “I, well—we, all us—sincerely apologize for the wait. Did you enjoy the savory tea?” she asked earnestly, gesturing to the kettle. No one but Luke nodded. “Er…by law, I am required to verbally repeat section 355c of your contract before we begin, so if you’ll just bear with me for two more minutes, we’ll get you out of this broom. Room. Please stop me if you have any questions. And help yourself to a mug.”

No one did.

--

It was an oddly informal process. Another innocuous juxtaposition to the coming events.

As far as Rey could tell, there was no rhyme or reason as to what the alphas scented. Everything was bagged and rolled in on carts by researchers who did their best to maintain professionalism in the face of Mickey Mouse briefs and yellow-stained undershirts. There was an awkward moment when it was obvious that they hadn’t considered the best way to let the omegas smell—should they open the bag and hand it over like they were sharing Sour Patch Kids in a movie theater? Was wafting required?

Thankfully, the first omega took care of the problem. He reached his hand in the bag without preamble, pulled out a small hand towel, and took a delicate sniff before tossing it back onto the cart. “Next,” he said.

One researcher blinked as the other started frantically taking notes. “That...was it? You know that quickly?”

“Smelled like my grandma’s bathroom.” He shrugged. “Not exactly appealing.”

“Enlightening!” the note-taker said, fully sincere.

A routine was soon established, and Rey couldn’t stop comparing the bag passing and smelling and re-passing to that strange present game that Finn made her play last Christmas. Instead of new socks and Amazon gift cards, the real present would be waiting in their bank accounts.

Five thousand, she couldn’t stop thinking. Five thousand, five thousand.

Rey was starting to wonder if any of the bagged material had been scented at all when an audible yelp came from the other side of the room. Rey watched—half-fascinated, half-embarrassed—as a freckled omega tried to smother herself in what looked like a mesh tank top.

“Is she trying to swallow it?” someone asked incredulously. Which...surely not, but the longer Rey looked the less confident she felt. There really was an inordinate amount of spit involved. The front of the omega’s shirt was wet with it, her face only visible when she jerked the fabric around to find a new (and apparently delicious) spot to inhale.

It only got more interesting: two efficient volunteers quickly arrived to herd her away, both of them blushing furiously and ma’am, please no-ing when she tried to unbutton her shorts. Someone quickly produced a towel for discretion.

And then she was gone: out through the same door they entered, loudly babbling a familiar mix of pleading and promises.

Can we go to my alpha? Is that where we’re going? I’ll be so good. Will you tell him I’m good? Please?

The room got quieter, after that--everyone suddenly concerned with just how severe their own reaction might be. Rey saw at least two people tightening their belts. She rolled her eyes. As if their heat brain would be too stupid to figure out how to get naked. They were only stalling the inevitable.

Slowly, the bags began to recirculate. Rey mused as she sat.

She’d never seen a triggered heat before. Everyone had cycles, regardless of who or what they smelled, but there was a special evolutionary quirk that overrode scheduling and predictability. It was rare, these days. Too many people on suppressants and blockers. Stories were easy enough to find, but there were such wild differences between them that it was hard to know what to expect. Alphas weren’t mystical unicorns--it was easy enough to find them if you knew where to look and what to ask--but while one blocker-free omega recounted smelling an alpha and stripping in the street, another would swear they had enough presence of mind to calmly talk their way through dinner and change their sheets.

She wondered which she’d be.

Minutes came and went. Two more omegas were triggered, neither of them as extreme as the first. One of them couldn’t stop sneezing and other simply looked high: the only reason anyone knew he’d had a reaction was because he’d toppled over when a researcher removed the sock in his hand. Both of them left the room without fanfare.

There was a short break when it was decided that the first set of bags had triggered all possible heats. The tone in the room had lightened again; everyone stretched and chatted while they waited for the next round.

Rey was wondering if she was brave enough to try the tea when the couch sagged. Someone had joined her.

“Hi,” a woman said, offering up a quick smile. “Do you mind if I sit here?”

Yes, Rey automatically thought, but she made herself shake her head. She’d never make new friends if she kept insisting on solitude. It helped knowing that they wouldn’t be here much longer. “Feel free.”

“Thanks. I’m just feeling nervous.”

Rey’s eyes went to the woman’s bouncing leg. The heel of her boot made a thunk-thunk-thunk as it drummed against the floor. It seemed cruel to point it out, so she settled on, “Not your average afternoon, for sure. But we’ll be okay.”

The woman didn’t look convinced. She tried to nod in agreement, but couldn’t hide a grimace.

Wondering if it was the right move, Rey pointed out, “You don’t have to do it. No one will care if you back out. With how cautious they’ve been about consent, I bet they’d practically carry you to your car.”

“Oh no,” she was quick to say, drawing her bouncing leg up onto the couch. Her fingers instantly started strumming on her knee. “I definitely want to do it. It’s just this waiting. I’m Rose, by the way.”

“Rey,” Rey said. She chewed on her lip as the silence seemed to swell between them. Hoping for the immediate return of the wheeled carts and researchers yielded no relief. They were still in a lull, nothing distracting enough to excuse not talking to Rose. Fuck. She’d never been good at this.

“Are you--” she started, awkward, inwardly cursing when Rose looked at her in obvious relief. Now she was committed. “Is there something in particular you’re worried about?”

“A thousand things, all of them ridiculous.” Rose blurted, like the words had been stuffed in her mouth. All of them rushed out in a flood of nervous panic. “I just wanted the money, you know? And I thought what the hell, it’s only sex. Why should I be embarrassed about it? My heats are intense. It’s not like I’ll care. Or really know.” She squirmed in her seat. “But now that we’re here, it feels so, uh. Clinical? Meeting up with an alpha, making a fool of myself in my own bed--that’s one thing. Here, though, I heard they’re planning all kinds of...tests.”

“Well,” Rey said slowly, “that is sort of the point.”

“I know,” Rose softly wailed. She hid her face in her hands, her words muffled. “It totally is. I just need to stop thinking of the logistics. All I can picture is how ridiculous I’ll look. Like, pelvic exams? In the middle of a heat? What are they going to do--pull me off of him mid-lick?” Yes, Rey thought. Probably. “And I heard they’ll make us wait. I get so aggressive when I’m forced to wait. What if I ruin the study by punching a white coat and hopping on the alpha’s dick before they’re ready?”

That shocked a laugh out of Rey. She tried to stifle it as quickly as she could, worried Rose would feel offended. But it seemed to have the opposite effect: Rose looked calmer, her fears dampened by the levity.

But just in case: “I’m sure they’re prepared for everything,” she said, trying to sound soothing. “Even aggressive dick hopping.”

Rose scrunched up her nose in a silent snort. “I hope so. Because it might happen.” Her eyes filled with gratefulness. “Thank you. There really is no point in wondering about what could happen. I should...I should think of it as a good thing, right? A new experience? Maybe I’ll meet someone really nice.” She seemed to lose herself in peaceful imagining. Rey watched, and could pinpoint the exact second that a new thought came to mind. “Do you think there’s any truth to the compatibility thing?”

Rey frowned. Hadn’t Rose been in the room earlier? “Of course.”

“No, not like scent compatible.Relationship compatible.”

“It’s...not likely,” Rey forced herself to say.

It was another hotly debated issue: long-term relationships between alphas and omegas who claimed their partner smelled like nothing else, like something out of a dream. An omega in heat would always smell amazing to any unmated alpha, but certain couples seemed to gravitate toward one another in a way science couldn’t explain. Most said it was chemistry. A few offered up hokey explanations tied to fate.

Rey almost snorted. Soulmates, some people called it. Its acute awareness lost to the non-designated but existing as one of the few perks to anyone forced to suffer through the rage of ruts or the mindlessness of heats.

Maybe it was pessimistic to call bullshit, but Rey had seen enough of the world to highly, highly doubt in the existence of something so fantastical. People fell in love with people because they admired them or they made them feel safe. Or...maybe for something as simple as kindness. Or as awful as a bank account. Rey really wasn’t sure. She knew she could point to people in love. Him, because of his smile. Her, because of the way she says his name. Him--look, it’s the way his eyes go soft every time he enters a room. She couldn’t truthfully say she’d felt it firsthand. Didn’t expect to, honestly. Not because she was unworthy of it. It just seemed like the odds were in no one’s favor.

What a depressing train of thought.

“Do you believe?” she asked Rose, curious.

“Not sure.” Her shoulder slowly rose and fell. “Some days, I do.” She let her head fall back against the couch, rubbing her cheek once on the fabric. Quieter, she said, “It’s weird to think that could happen to one of us. Here.”

Rey hoped for an immediate distraction. It would have been the perfect time for the researchers to reemerge, loudly bustling in with their carts and enthusiastic note-taking. Instead the room stayed as it had been: seats full of men and women, some talking, some not, all of them with their own reason for staying. She wondered if any of those reasons were love.

Strange. But possible.

Then she remembered the way Rose said pelvic exam and changed her mind.

Chapter Text

Rose was still on the couch at the start of the second round. Once Rey had mentioned Finn and his couponing to change the subject, Rose had practically vibrated herself off the cushions in excitement (He bought a turkey for 2 cents a pound? Butterball or Jennie-O? What’s he using? Ibotta? My sister and I like the catalinas.) and they’d been talking ever since.

Rose was transformed with cheerfulness. Leg bouncing was soon replaced with fervent hand gestures; if she wasn’t talking, she was smiling or nodding along encouragingly as Rey fumbled her way through a new story about Finn. There was something about sitting next to her that soothed Rey’s usual awkwardness with strangers.

“To dick hopping and the lack of fear thereof,” Rose proclaimed, when she finally held a bag. She waited for Rey to hold up her own in a faux-cheer, pointedly ignoring the pained face of the man pushing the cart.

This round proved to be more successful: three matches were almost immediately made--every omega walking out under their own power, albeit with dazed eyes and shuffling feet. Some reminded Rey of the first match with their soft pleading and questions, but it wasn’t as strange to see. Why should anyone be ashamed of reality?

Rey was currently trying to decide if the wristband she held smelled more like an ashtray or wet dog when she realized Rose was poking her arm.

“Rey,” she stage-whispered. “What do I do?”

Wet dog, definitely. It was like the time Maz recruited her to chase away the squirrels in her attic.

“Rey.”

“You smell it,” Rey said absently, turning the wristband over in her hand to study. How could something so small smell so rank? What was the protocol, exactly, for scenting something? Did the alpha have to be aroused? Working out? Was Rey smelling someone’s dick sweat, or were they just sitting next to a--

Rey.” Rose gently used her hand to turn Rey’s face and when she raised her gaze from the wristband it was immediately, immediately obvious what was going on. Oh. Rose’s cheeks were already pink. “You need to tell me what to do.”

Rey quickly glanced down at the grungy flip-flip clutched in Rose’s hand. Distantly, she recalled that she’d smelled it first. It had unquestionably reeked of sour milk. She was dying to ask Rose what it smelled like to her, but judging from the mild, inarticulate noises Rose was trying to suppress, she doubted she’d hear something other than a variant of perfect, it smells really, really perfect.

Rey spared a second to look for the nearest researcher. The closest had her back turned, shoulder-to-shoulder with a colleague busy questioning an omega who was frantically fanning his face.

“Jesus, this is a popular round,” she muttered.

“You are not helping me,” Rose gritted out. Her cheeks were quickly bypassing pink in favor of a fever-bright red. “This is…” She let go of Rey so she could get two hands on the flip-flop, breathing in a shuddering breath. “This is a lot.”

Rey couldn’t tell if Rose wanted congratulations or condolences. Should she hug her? A high-five was definitely off the table. “Do you want me to call someone over?” she asked, quietly enough that no one could hear.

“What if he hates me?” Rose looked up, eyes brimming with panic. “What if I don’t do it right?”

Ah. This was maddeningly familiar. “You can’t do it wrong.” She hoped she sounded reassuring. It had never worked for her, but maybe it was worth it to point out, “You done this before. You’ll be perfect.”

Judging from the way Rose’s eyes rounded with new fear, it was the wrong thing to say. Fuck.

“Alpha will know.” Rose suddenly abandoned her whispering. In the background, a researcher cut himself off mid-sentence. Rey could hear the rattling of the cart coming closer. “He’ll know I didn’t wait for him. I should have. I couldn’t help it. Are you going to tell him?” She blindly grabbed at the sleeve of the doctor who’d just arrived. Her upturned face was now glistening with sweat. “Will you promise not to tell?”

Rey sat back as a white coat blocked her sight of Rose with a soft please excuse me. She stared at the floor as Rose continued to fret louder and louder, deaf to the repeated reassurances of the doctor. It was awful, hearing Rose like this. Not just because Rose would have been horrified to know everyone bore witness to her pleading, but because it reminded Rey of the absolute inanity that omegas tended to spout when they dove into a heat. It was different for everyone: some fretted about past partners, some prayed for progeny, some couldn’t stop proselytizing about the quality of their slick. Any form it took was a form that was out of their control. In the moment, nothing seemed more natural. From the outside looking in, it was equal parts enraging and terrifying.

Knowing that Rose was about to have the best sex of her life made it a little easier to bear.

As Rose stood to be guided out the door, a new doctor replaced her on the couch to ask if Rey could help with a few questions.

How long did it take her to shift pronouns? Your best guess is fine.

When did you first notice a difference in behavior? We’re interested in the power of touch versus smell.

Ms. Tico seemed very nervous. Could you share her concerns?

Rey offered up answers that felt too vague to be useful, but the doctor profusely shook her hand in thanks.

“Is there a difference?” Rey couldn’t help but ask, once the doctor stood to leave. “Between this round and last? This time seems so much more...fruitful.” What a cringey word.

The doctor paused. “Technically, I’m not sure I’m supposed to say. But you’ll either react or you won’t, so what’s the harm.” He leaned a little closer. The omega who’d been eavesdropping in Luke’s old chair pouted. “Same alphas. Different method of scenting. The results have been fabulously informative.”

“I can only imagine,” Rey heard herself say.

--

Less than an hour later, it was over. She was leaving. Nothing had happened.

In what they probably considered a consolation prize, all remaining omegas were paired up with a researcher for an exit interview and building tour combo. Rey was paired with a young doctor named Jessica. She was good people--just as animated as the researchers who’d taken notes in the room, but far less fanatical. Someone who could enjoy a beer and cheer for a game without breaking into an analysis of the sport.

They mostly walked down hallways. There was plenty to see: a huge courtyard with a koi-filled pond; labs straight out of a movie with delicate-looking glass vials and safety glasses; two libraries--one for recreational reading and one that housed academic research; rooms lined with computers and whiteboards; and a massive kitchen.

“Most of us have apartments nearby,” Jessica said. “But most of us don’t know when to leave.”

“I’m surprised there isn’t a dormitory.”

“Watch them get around to it. There’s not a free couch here after midnight, as it is.”

The interview was as informal as promised. Jessica reiterated what Rey already knew: that not starting her heat had no connection to her self-worth. It was silly that it was said at all, but Resistance had clearly done enough research to know that rejection--even perceived rejection--was hard for omegas to swallow.

They were just circling back when a loud noise filled the hall.

"Fucking shit." Jessica glared at her phone, immediately looking like she could strangle something small and helpless. "This is--I can't believe him. I told him this would happen, but he had to fucking go and--" She suddenly remembered that Rey was still standing next to her. "I'm so sorry. This is an emergency bred of pure idiocy and I have to--it really can't wait, but it'll only take a second. A minute." She cringed. "No more than ten minutes."

"It's not a big deal. Just tell me where to go." How hard could it be to find the exit?

"That's the thing.” Jessica furiously typed as she spoke. Her eyes were apologetic, but her thumbs promised murder. “I can't let you walk around unescorted. Not that I don't trust you, but it's protocol."

"Afraid I'm going to go around smashing tumblers, or something?"

"I honestly wouldn't care if you did. We could use the redecorating. It's more about the higher-ups and the absolute ass-chewing I'd get if I broke the rules."

Rey looked up and down the hallway. No one was around. "So should I just stand here, or...?"

"I'd try to find you someone, but absolutely everyone is involved in this project. You have to be somewhere secure. Somewhere with a lock."

"A lock?" This interview was far more interesting than she'd expected. "Seriously?"

"God, I know. It's ridiculous. But seriously." Her phone lit up with an incoming call. The caller ID was a picture of a cartoon devil riding a unicorn. She growled as she dismissed it, pulling up her messaging app instead. "Fuck this. I'm so sorry, but let's just...here. Go in here. I think I can get us in. He tries to be all mysterious, but it can't be that hard to guess." She entered in a code into the nearest panel. It beeped green, and a door was automatically pushed ajar. "Yes! Awesome. Perfect. Just wait in here and I'll be back as soon as I can. I'll see if they can't compensate you extra for the inconvenience."

"That's not necessary," Rey made herself say, scooting forward into a huge office. "I'll just snoop."

Jessica’s eyes flashed to the name plate on the door. Rey hadn't bothered to check, but almost wished she had when Jessica flinched. "Uh. I wouldn't? Invasively snoop, at least. Not that the bastard doesn't deserve it, but he'd probably know and then you'd get a very awful phone call and then I'd be forced to work with him as a punishment and I'm not up for it, Rey. But you do you." Then she turned and power-walked out of the room. "God, what a fucking day."

And then Rey was alone. Locked in an office.

At least she'd have a good story to tell Finn when he picked her up. Nothing interesting to report from the actual study but saved from predictability during her exit interview.

Despite what she said, she didn't really intend on snooping. At least not in a way that screamed an abuse of privacy. She didn't see why Jessica was so worried about it: this office was the least snoopable office in the world. It was practically devoid of character--no photos, no framed and spotless degrees on the wall, not so much as a knick-knack on the glass desk that revealed an iota of the owner's personality.

She took stock. There was a chair. Rey wasn't an expert, but it looked expensive and huge. She wondered if the owner filled it, or if he bought it to hide the fact that his feet didn’t touch the ground. One of the facility’s ubiquitous white coats was folded and draped along the back of the leather. She debated teasing out the tag to know the size, but decided she’d probably fail to redrape it just so and if he was as prickly as Jessica hinted, she didn’t want to give him the ammo. There was a lot of fabric. That’s all she could tell.

There was a stapler. A smudge-free computer with the generic screensaver. No balled up notes. A clean trashcan. A few more pens than strictly necessary, all of them fountain.

She’d never tried one before. There was a blank notepad ripe for doodling, and that sealed it: Rey rounded the desk and sank into what was definitely an expensive chair.

“Damn,” she breathed, rubbing her hands on the armrests, impressed by the thick, buttery leather. How much did something like this even cost? Surely it wasn’t standard.

She felt powerful sitting in it, and briefly indulged herself in the fantasy that this was her office, that her job was impressive enough to merit a coded door. Wiggling, settling deeper into the leather only made her feel more dreamily confident. She’d buy a plant for the corner, something huge and green. Poe had been obsessed with quilting, last year. She’d hang one of his gifts on the empty wall. Even if she didn’t use it, she’d buy one of those Post-it dispensers she always petted in Target. She’d keep the fountain pens. Those were nice.

The pens. Right. That’s why she’d sat down.

Time felt sluggish as she reached for one, uncapping it with the kind of overly intentional care she usually associated with drunkenness.

Pens weren’t handsome, but she was tempted to call it that all the same. It was far too large for her hand, but she liked the weight of it. Its presence. The first drag of the tip across the paper was intoxicatingly smooth. So she did it again. And again.

I get it, she thought. I totally get it.

What did he write with this? It felt more suited to signing treatises and penning the next great American novel than sitting in an office cupholder. Did he use it a lot? There were others--did he have a favorite? How did it look in his hands?

She was cold, she realized. She hadn’t noticed an air vent when she walked in, but then again, she hadn’t been looking.

Previous worries forgotten, she tugged down his coat, unselfconsciously sticking her arms through the sleeves and pulling it on so it covered her front. Her back was warm, anyway. She arranged the mass of fabric as best she could, frowning when it didn’t cover her legs. She kicked off her shoes and pulled them up onto the chair, hugging them to her chest.

This. This was better.

She sighed happily. Why hadn’t she come in here sooner? This was where she was meant to be--not some crowded room with disgusting tea and cardboard snacks. It was safe here. So warm. Suddenly it was hard to remember why she’d signed up for the study at all--why did she spend hours smelling socks and tatty boxers when her alpha’s coat was here all along? It didn’t smell like anything at all--at least nothing she could pinpoint--but each breath of it soothed her, teasing out and suffocating any fear she’d ever had about feeling wanted or loved. The more she inhaled, the calmer she felt. The more at peace.

Your alpha cares for you. He will provide. You are not alone.

The edge of the sleeve she’d brought up to her nose tickled her lips. Her tongue darted out, tasting.

She immediately groaned. Why did everyone mock that omega earlier? This was a perfect idea. If it felt so good just to smell, tasting had to be better. The idea of having her alpha’s presence both on her and in her was almost overwhelming. Maybe if she just bit it. He wouldn’t mind, if that’s what she needed. Just a bite.

Chemistry couldn’t explain what she tasted when her saliva soaked the fabric. Him. She was tasting him and it was mixing with her and if it was this good with his coat, she could barely imagine how good it would taste to suck down his dick. She already knew what she’d do. She’d take her tongue like this--no, more like that, and she’d--

“Rey? The lights are all off. What are you—” Brightness flooded the room. “Oh fuck.”

It was hard to speak around the button in her in mouth, but Rey tried. “Hi,” she said.

When Jessica did nothing but stare, Rey happily re-centered her attention. If one button tasted this good, two could only be better. As she mouthed her way down the fabric, she smiled up at Jessica, who was cursing and fumbling with her phone. “S’good,” she offered, and then--yes. Delicious. Just as she’d thought.

“Hi, Amilyn?” Jessica’s voice was muffled; she’d turned to lean her forehead against the wall. “You won’t believe what I found in Solo’s office.”

Rey closed her eyes in bliss.

--

She was curled up on something soft. The room was full of unknown voices, but she paid them little mind.

“Rey. Rey. Be careful, okay? No one wants you to choke. Try to leave the buttons alone.”

That didn’t sound right. “Mm.” She made a noise because it felt warranted, but it didn’t stop the beta from leaning over and tugging at the coat. She felt a growl rumble in the base of her throat.

“Hey, none of that,” someone chided gently. Louder, they spoke to someone across the room. “How much longer before it’s ready?”

“Four minutes.” A pause, then, “Who drew the short straw, by the way?”

A new voice. “Pava.”

At least three people whistled. “Damn. How do you think he’s going to take it?”

“Which part? I don’t even know where she’s going to begin.”

“Admitting she used his office as a holding cell seems like a good start.”

“Seems secondary, if you ask me. God. Look at her levels.” The sound of a nail tapping against something hard, like glass. “She should be mindless.”

“She’s two seconds away from gagging on his coat. How is that not mindless?”

“Don’t be dramatic. She’s just sucking on it. And you weren’t there, earlier. This is nothing. No pleading, no crying. Her hands aren’t in her pants. She’s practically content.”

“Not for long, if this--” another tap on the glass, “--keeps rising.”

“I don’t understand what’s keeping it in check.”

“His scent. Watch.”

Something tickled her feet and Rey spit out the coat, laughing. As soon as it was gone, she wanted it back. She had the sudden urge to arch her spine because there was a pressure, a new heat that started in her throat and crept down, curling around her nipples until they peaked and throbbed. Relentless. Maddening. She whined, the tickling no longer enough to distract her from the ache of her uterus. Heat, part of her shouted. Your heat, you’re in heat. She was confused, unsettled, her hands reaching for--

“Jesus. Hand it back.”

--him.

The coat felt heavy in her hands, its fabric cooled in her mouth’s absence. She set about fixing it. Industriously.

“See?”

A momentary silence.

“Did anyone know Solo was an alpha, or was I the only one in the dark?”

“Don’t look at me. He’s worked here six years and it took me three to ask him his name. What makes you think he’d offer up something so personal as designation? Although I could have guessed. He’s practically textbook.”

“Stop thinking in stereotypes,” someone sighed tiredly. “That’s half the reason we’re here.”

“I’m just saying! Aggressive. Broody. Prone to fits of rage when someone steals the really good filter tips. Tell me how much glassware he demolished last year in pounds and I’ll tell you you’re guessing too low.”

“So he’s a dick. That’s the opposite of breaking news.” The voice turned contemplative. “Makes you wonder how he’ll take the news, though.”

“How would anyone take the news that they have to fuck on camera? Poorly. That’s your answer.”

“You act like we didn’t spend three months interviewing two hundred people who volunteered to do that exact thing.”

“Two hundred motivated, willing people who had weeks to process. No one asked them in the middle of their workday.”

“Still. It’s not like it’s porn. The senior researchers are the only ones with visual access, and I’d bet you all the money I don’t have that none of them have had sex since 1998.”

“How incredibly ageist of you.”

“Look me in the eyes and tell me Dr. Tarkin has touched his dick this century.”

A soft knocking prevented any further debate.

“Shit, get the door. It’s Pava. And swab her arm. It’s ready.”

The door whooshed open followed by a quick click. For a second, no one was brave enough to speak.

Finally, the voice closest to Rey said, “That bad, huh?”

The newcomer--Jessica, Rey dimly realized--heaved a heavy sigh that ended in a moan. “I don’t want to talk about it. What matters is he knows. In the meantime, his mother is waiting outside. She’s asked to speak with Rey. Give her the injection and let’s go.”

--

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I won’t keep you long. I understand we’re speaking under strange circumstances.”

That was an understatement. Rey waved away Leia’s concern, too preoccupied with wonder that while she was most definitely in heat, she felt...sane. Wetter than a normal day, maybe. She wouldn’t confirm it while she was sitting two feet in front of a congresswoman, but she would bet her breasts were tender. There was a soft, gentle pulsing between her legs that she knew would normally be an unignorable torment. But less than a minute after they’d injected her with the experimental suppressant, she no longer felt like it was her life mandate to use Solo’s lab coat as a chew toy.

Solo.

All she knew was what Jessica had managed to hurriedly whisper in her ear as they walked down the hall to the conference room: that someone named Ben Solo had triggered her heat, that they were unsure if he’d be willing to participate in the study, and that his mother was Leia Organa--who was not only on-site, but had requested to talk.

She realized Leia was patiently waiting for a real answer. “Strange,” Rey admitted, “Definitely strange. But it’s still an honor to meet you.”

Don’t think about fucking her son. Don’t think about fucking her son.

Leia only smiled at that. “I only wanted to meet in order to explain the…” She seemed to struggle with the phrasing. “Extenuating circumstances. Regarding Ben.”

“Oh?” Rey tried to keep any awkwardness out of her voice, but this was worse than the time when she figured out her gynecologist was her ex’s sister. She wanted to crawl under the table.

“First, since this special circumstance falls outside the boundaries of your original consent forms, we wanted your permission before we shared your scent.”

Even with her heat dulled, Rey remembered how she’d felt sitting in his chair wrapped up in his coat. Nothing in her experience as an omega had been similar. It seemed wasteful not to see where it led, although admitting as much to Leia was tricky and uncomfortable. She opened her mouth, but there was no delicate way of saying, Sure thing. Send it on down. To be honest, I was kind of looking forward to gagging on your son’s knot.

“I don’t mind,” she settled on, weakly.

At her words, someone Rey hadn’t previously noticed exited the room. He was carrying a clear bag that she recognized from that morning—in it, a ripped section of Solo’s coat. It still looked wet.

Rey winced.

“You recall that the original study was interested in both heat suppression as well as progression.” Leia waited for Rey to confirm. “You’ve already received the injection. How do you feel?”

God, this was going to sound lame, but, “Suppressed.”

“I’m sure the researchers will be happy to hear that.” Strange, though, that Rey couldn’t tell if Leia was happy to hear it. It was hard to tell how much of Leia’s stoicism was her natural nature and how much was the result of talking about her son’s sex life. Maybe she was just trying to stay professional. “Now, as far as progression goes, you’re aware that the study was designed to test the effectiveness of suppressants for both omegas and alphas?”

“Yes.”

“If my son agrees, I wanted you to be aware that this would be his first rut.” Before Rey could wonder if she’d heard correctly, Leia continued. “For better or worse, my husband and I agreed to put Ben on blockers from a very early age. As soon as he presented. Our family has a...complicated history with alphas. We wanted to spare him from repeating his grandfather’s legacy.”

A regrettable legacy, from the look on Leia’s face. Still, “Why are you telling me this?”

"Ben throws himself into emotions rather than regulating them. Just like his grandfather. He’s always felt more than most, and if you’re planning on...well." Leia coughed gently. “I just wanted you to make an informed decision.”

Rey nodded, even though she didn’t quite understand Leia’s concern.

"Ultimately, it’s not my choice. It’s his. And yours, of course. First ruts are tempestuous with even the most level-headed alphas. I couldn't tell you what to expect with my son."

Rey wished it was appropriate to share how she'd felt in his office, how his scent promised safety and comfort and not violence. Even so removed from her heat, she longed for the feeling.

She struggled with her answer, wishing she had more time to process. So much had happened in such a short period of time: she’d gone from walking with Jessica and wondering if Finn would swing by CVS to talking to an alpha’s powerful mother in a board room, delicately dancing around the possibility that Rey would spend the afternoon fucking her son.

As far as Leia’s warning...Alphas weren’t nearly as hostile as the media framed, but Rey’d never met a single one she would describe as a paragon of patience and restraint. It was just the way they were built: relicts of a different era where brute force and aggression were the hallmarks of survival. What kind of person was he, that his own mother would feel it necessary to intercede on Rey’s behalf?

Awkwardly, Rey settled on, "Thank you?"

Having said her piece, Leia deftly guided the conversation to less charged, more neutral territory. Rey participated as best she could, but it was difficult to pretend that they weren’t waiting for a knock on the door. They spent most of their time talking about Leia’s involvement in the study--her tie-in project, its goals, the work her team had done so far.

Had they given him the coat, Rey wondered. Was he railing, defiant? Did she smell terrible or did he smell anything at all? She couldn’t repress the image of him throwing the scrap of fabric on the floor, wiping his hands on his pants and scowling.

Disgusting, he might say. Abhorrent.

And then: the sound of steps. The shake of a handle. Rey held her breath.

"Ma'am?" A scientist stood at the door. "He says he'll do it."

--

"Instantaneous," the scientist was saying. "Absolutely an instantaneous effect. As soon as your scent was in the room, he was spiking off the charts." He turned to Rey, his eyes fever-bright with fervor. "I'm told his mother already informed you about the new parameters?"

"Mostly," Rey managed. He was walking rather quickly. She was fit, but she was also full of nervous anticipation. "First rut. Everyone’s interested in observing the stages."

"Exactly. It really feels like--this way, please--a once in a lifetime opportunity. Partly why he agreed, I’m sure. He understands what this means for our research. Er." He grimaced. "That might sound a bit heartless, but it truly is an unexpected boon. Invaluable.”

“So I’ve been told.”

He paused at her tone, perhaps realizing that she was tired of being congratulated and thanked. “Right. Well, the goal is to keep things as natural as possible. They spoke to you?”

They had.

While she would remain on the suppressant, Solo would not. It was her job to guide him, as best she could, through his first rut while keeping him as verbal as possible. The researchers would interrupt as necessary to gather any quantitative data they needed, but Solo’s descriptions were equally invaluable. Hers, too.

Presently, her guide stopped outside a door old enough to require a key. Once opened, Rey found herself on the observational side of a one-way mirrored wall. There were tables scattered throughout—chairs and laptops all haphazardly placed, like they'd been sneezed into the room.

A gaggle of scientists and doctors, all of them older and more polished than the ones who'd volunteered in the first stage, were marching around the free space with purpose. Some conferred amongst themselves while most seemed to be absorbed in their laptops, scrolling and typing and muttering grumpily. Several of them walked up to introduce themselves, shaking her hand and generally reassuring her with their detachment. They were here to observe and record, interested in what they could analyze, nothing more.

“We appreciate your flexibility and willingness to participate despite the change in plans,” one of them said, and Rey almost laughed. They approached her like she was embarking on a slapdash mission to the moon—a brave and self-sacrificing soldier instead of a broke graduate hungry for a knot.

Which, surprisingly, she was. Even though the suppressant was wildly effective, she still felt...needful. Needed. In the brief moments when she hadn’t been the direct focus of someone’s attention, she could feel a strange tugging from an unnamable place outside of her body, an insistence that begged her to go elsewhere and soothe an ache that wasn’t entirely her own. It was him, she guessed, but couldn’t begin to explain how it was possible.

The other room was strikingly plain. Walking up to the glass, she could see a bed devoid of a comforter but not sheets. Two chairs that looked like they’d been pulled from the nearest office. A folding table with an ice-filled bucket, the caps of water bottles peeking out like stubborn flowers from frozen ground. It was hard to tell, but Rey thought she spied a board game box and a small stack of books next to a stack of spare pillows.

She frowned. Was this what they thought people did during heats? Read each other poetry and played Uno? Hadn’t they read...literally anything?

But you’re not having a typical heat, a voice reasoned. If they don’t know what to expect, neither do you.

Fair enough.

Not seeing Solo, she looked for someone to give her direction. Her hands were starting to sweat.

Eventually she was led to a medical bench tucked in the corner, her heartbeat rising as a doctor gently attached a monitor to her wrist. It was a simple black band, almost stylish. Vitals were checked. Her medical file—the one she’d been forced to fill out as part of her application—was checked and rechecked. Heart conditions? No. History of designation within the family? Not sure. Her wrist and neck glands were swabbed before the privacy curtains were snapped shut and she was asked to take off her shorts.

Rey raised an eyebrow. “Are we really pretending that that’s,” she nodded at the screen, “necessary?”

“We really are,” the doctor said briskly, grabbing her gloves. “Now hop up.”

Rey did, unexpectedly embarrassed to realize she was wetter than expected. She had the strong and sudden urge to ask for a paper towel, even opened her mouth, but then the doctor was there, rolling her stool in between Rey’s legs, pausing for the briefest of moments before setting something back on the cart, unused.

The lubricant.

Rey would not cover her face with her hands.

“Have you had a chance to check your discharge?”

Jesus. “Not...recently.”

“Not since you received the injection?”

“Well, once.” Before Jessica walked her down the hall to meet Leia. “It looked…” Why was this so hard to talk about? She was talking to a doctor. Doctors saw things like hemorrhoids and boils and then they touched things like hemorrhoids and boils and then they ate their lunches without crying. “Normal.”

The doctor hummed thoughtfully, reaching back for the speculum. “And the volume? More or less than normal for…” she pulled back her sleeve to check her watch, “roughly two hours into your heat?”

“Less.” Much less.

“Have you seen your alpha yet?”

My alpha? Odd, to hear that from a beta. “No.”

“Once you do, it’s something we’d like to continue to monitor.” Had she already inserted the speculum? Rey couldn’t tell. Probably wouldn’t be able to notice. “We’ll pull you back in from time to time. Barring the unforeseen.”

Such as…? Instead of fixating, Rey looked at the ceiling and tried very, very hard not to pay attention to the squelching noises her body was happily supplying for the lab. Every prod, every new tool--all of it came into easy contact with what sounded like enough slick to fill an ocean. Twelve oceans, probably. She almost broke when a gloved hand pressed down on her abdomen, encouraging out a fresh dribble that she could hear hit the papered table.

This isn’t shameful she told herself, teeth gritted. You knew this was going to happen. Dis—no, slick is normal and it is totally not shameful, just loud, just really fucking loud, holy shit.

A shadow approached the curtain. Rey fully expected them to pull back the divider and say something like Could you keep her vagina down? We’re trying to focus, but they didn’t, only hovering outside and playing along with the charade of privacy. “Dr. Holdo?”

The examination didn’t pause. “Yes?”

“He’s here. Dr. Ackbar’s with him.”

Rey tensed on the table.

“Not in my lab, I hope,” the doctor—Holdo—said mildly. “I thought my directives were clear.”

“No, ma’am. I was referring to the observation room.”

“Good. Run through the checklist again.” Rey felt Holdo’s fingers leave, then heard the click of a pen. “We’ll be out shortly.”

When the shadow didn’t leave, Holdo stopped writing. “Is there something else?”

“He’s...agitated, ma’am.”

Rey studied Holdo’s face to gauge the seriousness of that statement. She looked unperturbed. “Tell me a time when you’ve seen that boy at peace,” she said, dismissive, but Rey noticed she hadn’t resumed writing. When it was clear the shadow wasn’t assuaged, she sighed and set down her pen completely. “Agitated how? Be brief. Now is not the time.”

“He’s asking for her.”

Another drop of slick audibly hit the paper. Rey cringed.

Holdo was running out of patience. “Which is completely expected, given the circumstances, but he’ll have to wait. Now if that’s al—”

“He’s asking for her with, uh.” The shadow’s feet shuffled. “Colorful language.”

Rey could see Holdo count out five measured breaths. “Then use. The chair.” Her voice was clipped. “You’re dismissed.”

Rey watched the shoes dart away.

Ten lifetimes came and went but then it was over, Holdo pulling away, snapping off the gloves and tossing them into the trash. “Your clothes are where you left them. Take your time and come out when you’re ready.” Just before her hand reached for the curtain, she paused, turning back to whisper, “I left a towel by the sink. Use it if you’d like, but feel no obligation.” Her eyes were kind. “It’s nice to meet you, Rey. I’m sorry for not saying that before.”

And then she was gone, slipping out quietly only to be immediately accosted by no less than three new pairs of feet.

Rey did use the towel, then she held up her underwear, inspecting. Fuck. How had she not noticed? Not thinking she’d actually be in a state to care, she’d worn her plainest, oldest pair. The middle was soaked through to transparency. She didn’t want the old wetness up against her skin, so she frantically smashed together a makeshift pad out of the paper towels she found under the sink. Then she shimmied them on, followed by her shorts.

Before she could let herself think, she deftly opened the curtain.

Holdo joined her, a solid presence by her side, and started talking. Rey recognized her tone as the same one she used when she tried to cajole Finn’s cat into his cage. Honeyed words of distraction.

But Rey couldn’t listen. Her eyes were on the glass and what was visible beyond it.

There was a man sitting on a chair.

Chapter Text

It took her two tries to open the door, her palm slippery on the metal.

Her mind refused to retreat from the memory of him: the lines of his body, how small the chair had seemed, the way his hair had flopped into his eyes as he leaned forward, shoulders strained. If these details were stones, she’d polished them to a glittering shine in the small eternity of her walk to the door.

Stupidly, she wondered if it’d be the same, seeing him firsthand. One-way glass had no magical powers of distortion, but there was an unmistakable difference between guessing Ben was strong enough to fuck her up against the wall versus feeling the bulge of his muscles as he actually did it.

Not that wall-fucking was a guarantee. Maybe he didn’t like it. Maybe he’d had a traumatizing wall-fucking experience and swore it off years ago the same way he boycotted trans fats. Because surely. No one who loved cookies and pie managed to maintain a physique like that. She’d seen his shirt sleeves; those seams had been crying for mercy.

Get a hold of yourself.

The door was open. She’d—she looked down to confirm—yes, she’d turned the knob. There was a gap of brighter light around the frame. All she had to do was push and walk through.

She was frozen.

Holdo’s last words came back to her.

“Talk, if you don’t know where to start. Have a conversation. Remember that if you feel overwhelmed, he likely feels the same. This is his first time, too. Do yourselves both a favor and start small.”

Talking. Conversation. She could do that. She’d just ask him about...shit, what was an appropriate topic? Something inoffensive, like sailboats? No. Too polarizing. Maybe he’d never been to the ocean. Maybe he didn’t know the difference between a mainsail and a jib. American football was better. Anyone could have an opinion about football. Except for Rey, actually, who went to Super Bowl parties purely for the nachos.

There was a very obvious topic of conversation, but she hesitated. He was sitting on a chair ten feet away, prepping to survive his first rut, but that didn’t necessarily greenlight questions about his dick.

Rey? Holdo’s voice was clear over an intercom. Is something wrong?

“Nope!” she squeaked, and stepped through—three giant strides forward that brought her directly in Ben’s line of sight.

Instantly, there were too many things to process.

His body. He made an immediate, aborted lurch forward. The outline of muscles were clear through his shirt, the tendons in his throat visible as he bared his teeth.

His smell. Overwhelming, even through her suppressant. She instinctively knew she would be on her knees without it. It was everything she remembered about his coat—a promise of comfort and peace—but layered with new threads of an insistent, powerful demand. He needed, and her body wanted to fulfill.

A connection. Whatever awareness of him had been buzzing at the edge of her subconscious bloomed to life. Earlier, it had been elusive. Unobtrusive enough to ignore. She’d dismissed it out of practicality because no forum thread, no chart, no doctor on site or anywhere else had ever mentioned such a thing. It wasn’t a hijacking of her mind, nothing that robbed her of autonomy. It was more like she’d been reading alone in a room with two chairs and in between one turn of the page and the next, someone had filled the other seat with a book of their own.

His eyes. They were a shade of brown she couldn’t name and shifted from light to dark with too many emotions clamoring for attention. She saw panic, at the edges. Embarrassed excitement. Fury. The most obvious was profound relief. If she was reading him correctly, their connection was flooded with it.

“Where did they keep you?” His voice sounded violently loud in the quiet of the room. “They wouldn’t tell me where you were, not even the floor. They had no right. No fucking right.” Another attempt at movement. The chair groaned and Rey wondered if it was close to breaking. “I need to—you weren’t alone. Who was with you?”

When Rey couldn’t find the right words fast enough, he growled, deep and threatening. “Was it Hux? Did he touch you?” Darkness flooded his eyes; his lip curled back in a snarl. “I’ll fucking kill him. Make him bleed. I told them that’s what I’d do, I said I’d start by ripping off his excuse for a dick but they still didn’t—shit, I scared you. I didn’t mean it. Shit. I wouldn’t actually…” He groaned painfully, tipping his head back until he could bang it once on the wood of the chair. “Of course I would fuck this up.”

Rey stared, still reeling, as he gave his head another hard thunk. He’ll bleed, she thought, if he does that again.

“It’s okay,” she started forward, forcing herself to sound reassuring, “I’ve heard ruts make it hard to—would you stop?

He’d hit his head again. Unthinking, she marched until she loomed over him, her hands automatically reaching to feel for a lump on his scalp. “What were you thinking?” she said, harsher than she intended. “You’re pissed, I get it, and I know nothing about the way you feel is making this easy, but I didn’t sign up for blunt force trauma to the head. Lean forward.”

For half a second, he looked like he didn’t understand—as if she’d spoken using words he’d read but never had the opportunity to say.

Then he leaned forward. Slowly, but unquestioning.

She did feel a small knot, but her fingers came back unbloodied. Shamelessly, she pretended to continue her inspection because yes, actually, she had felt a lick of fear arc down her spine when he’d threatened to dismember (de-dick?) a colleague. If she had to guess, Rey-sans-suppressants would have loved it, would have cheerfully finger painted abstract art with the blood of an eliminated threat, so joyful with proof of her alpha’s strength and desire.

Instead it was…alarming. Not at all something she’d want to see. Even though he’d quieted, Rey had to swallow a small seed of fear that whispered she might be in over her head.

Two minutes! her panicked heart throbbed. You’ve been in the room for two minutes. What will he be like in two hours?

So she didn’t stop. Long past the point of necessity, she let her fingers learn the weight of his hair, carding through the dark strands as she lightly brushed his scalp. Ben didn’t seem to mind. He sat peacefully, only offering up small sounds too quiet to interpret. It was strangely meditative, quietly stripping the room of his anger and panic and soothing her nerves at the same time.

The calmer she felt, the easier it was to hear the nudging whisper of her instinct.

This was good, it told her. Right. If he’d scared her, he was still the same alpha whose scent had brought her comfort in his office. He was here and he was unharmed and it would be better now that they were together. He wouldn’t do that again, not if it hurt her to watch, he didn’t like the taste of her fear, he could be good, would be good, he so desperately craved her trust.

She blinked, pulled out of…whatever that was. When had she closed her eyes?

She looked down.

Ben was staring at her. He looked like a different man, no longer tethered to his anger.

It was almost laughably hard to pull her hands away and resettle them at her sides. She wanted to keep touching him, her fears wholly dismissed. even had to swallow a wild thought about sitting in his lap. She didn’t move away, though. That felt pointless.

Her skin prickled when he started to really look at her. It was his turn, apparently, for reassurance. She let him, not feeling as awkward as she probably should as he studied everything he could see: her cheekbones, her whorl of her ears, then sliding down to her throat, the exposed skin of her chest, her elbows, her hands. She had the distinct impression that he would have bodily turned her this way and that in the name of thoroughness, but he was surprisingly still.

She felt warmer, lulled by the pleasure of his attention.

“I need a favor,” he said, hesitantly.

In a normal heat, she would have wept for the opportunity. It was glorious to have a choice, even though her answer was the same. “Yes?”

“Could you scratch my jaw?” She must have looked confused because he rushed to say, “It’s not a sex thing. It just...itches.”

Rey stared at him, puzzled. The power trip felt abrupt, almost at odds with the tender way he’d looked at her. “You want me to scratch your jaw for you?”

“Yeah.”

“Do your hands not work?”

“They work fine.” He was no longer looking at her face. “Please?”

He didn’t sound like he was trying to seize control. He just sounded like a person with an itch. She could even tell he wasn’t lying: he was tonguing his cheek like mad, trying to attack the problem from the inside out.

Slowly, waiting for the other shoe to drop, Rey brought her hands to his face. Helpless not to, she cupped his jaw once before switching out her palms for her nails, lighting scratching. He let out an instant moan of relief, angling his head into her hands like a cat begging for affection.

Before she could get swept up in another round of petting, she stopped. “Am I allowed to ask what that was all about?”

His eyes, closed under her ministrations, opened again. They emanated badly concealed shame and frustration. “I can’t be trusted,” he mumbled.

“You can’t be trusted to scratch your own jaw?”

He didn’t answer, lips suddenly firm.

She stepped back, surveying. He instantly looked ill-at-ease, huffing out a breath and visibly biting down the demand she knew he wanted to make.

Come back.

She ignored his discomfort, her mind split between Holdo’s last-minute instructions and an examination of the room. There was no easy, glaring answer for his behavior—no pool of finger blood accidentally mistaken for a rug, no knuckles hiding in the ice bucket. Every time she checked (and she couldn’t stop checking), he was still in possession of wrists attached to palms attached to fingers that fidgeted on the armrests. He could move them but he hadn’t and it was strange.

Was she warned about this? If it wasn’t a play for power, was it—had they used something on him? Not an injection. They wanted clean data. The scientist reported that he’d been agitated, which Rey could confirm, and Holdo had said...something about the chair.

Rey slowly circled him, looking.

If he didn’t like it when she’d stepped back, he especially didn’t like it when she moved out of sight. She was tapping at one of the spindles when he coughed. “Could you, uh.” His head swiveled from side to side, searching. “I’m getting...it really bothers me that I can’t tell where you are.”

Rey was still occupied. “Focus on my scent,” she suggested. “I’m right here.”

He groaned softly, frustrated. “I’m trying, but—fuck, this is embarrassing. I know where you are. I can hear you. There’s just this voice telling me it’s not right.”

“Your instinct,” Rey supplied, cocking her head because something was strange. It blended in well with the thickness and color of the wood, but there was a strap of some kind, and it looked like—

“Are you tied to this chair?” she asked, incredulous. He didn’t need to answer: she had already found the proof. She marched around to face him. “Did they tie you to this chair?”

At the sight of her, he slouched. Lines of tension disappeared. “I gave them permission.” He said it like he wanted to reassure her that it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Why?” And it still didn’t explain…

She pushed back the over-long sleeves from his wrists. She was staring at metal. Thin silver, almost like the sensor on her own wrist but decidedly not because it was chained to the arm of the chair. “What the shit? Take these off.”

He blinked slowly, still looking mildly drunk from relief. “I like this,” he said, like he could hardly believe it was true. “Seeing you.”

She barely heard him. Seeing the bands on him felt wrong and she wouldn’t be satisfied until they were gone. “Where’s the key?”

“They put them on me for a reason. And would you relax? I’m starting to feel—”

She cut him off. “Those reasons no longer apply. You’re not going to hurt me and there’s no one else here.”

Abstractly, Rey realized she was angrier than reason dictated. If cuffs were put on, logic said they could be taken off. They’d probably even left the key nearby. And who could blame them for thinking it necessary, if Ben was spouting the same threats he had when she first walked in. Alphas in rut were dangerous and Ben was unpredictable and they’d promised her safety but fuck if seeing them now didn’t make her skin crawl.

It was unacceptable. “They need to come off.”

“Calm down,” Ben gritted, the words smelling faintly of an order. And then, gentler but still strained, “Please. You’re getting pissed and it’s making me pissed because I can’t fix it. They’re never going to let me out if I can’t keep my shit together.”

Because she knew he wasn’t lying, Rey made an effort to lower her voice. Still, it was impossible to fully mask her irritation; her words continued to spill out recklessly. She glared at the glass, accusing. “And what, exactly, do they think is going to happen later? That you’ll lay me down on a bed of petals and...fuck, I don’t know. Croon Sinatra? Do you know how much duct tape is on my bedframe?”

Shut up, her instincts warned.

“Heats are unimaginable, and the best way to survive is to let someone fuck you out of your mind. Ruts have to be the same. Shit breaks. There are weird stains. The sheets are never worth keeping.”

Shut. Up.

“And that was when I fucked betas, so I almost can’t imagine what—”

Her instincts screamed.

Too late, she realized she’d made a critical mistake. She turned back to look at Ben, grimacing.

Apoplectic was a good word.

He was panting, face red and fists balled tight enough to turn his knuckles white. His eyes were closed again, squeezed shut and leaking, and she didn’t need to see them to know they broadcasted murder of the goriest, entrail-laden kind. The bond between them was an inferno of mindless rage.

She didn’t have to guess what set him off. It was the flip side of the same senseless worry Rose had had: that Rey had been with someone else, that it hadn’t been him, that it would always be him and the explicit need he had to prove it, to pin her down and claim her until she screamed the truth he already knew: that she was his and no one else’s.

She shuddered, closing her mind to the thoughts he projected.

He was muttering things now, and hearing even the half the words had her swiveling back to check the glass. She had no idea how sensitive the microphones were, but she doubted the scientists would ever agree to release him if he carried on much longer.

Her omega was starting to panic. It registered like fists beating against a wall, dulled by distance but unmistakably clear. Go to him, it bleated. End it. Fix it.

How? Rey wanted to scream, despairing. And then it was obvious.

Quickly, she went to the chair.

The seat was wholly unhelpful when she tried to straddle his lap. There wasn’t enough room for her knees. Even when she gave up trying to rest them on the wood and attempted to balance on his thighs, they kept knocking into the armrests.

“Fuck,” she grumbled, and settled on sitting sideways, both of her legs thrown over his left arm and her ass balancing on the bulkiest part of his thighs. His sweatpants were too loose on him: she wobbled like a seasick drunk until she leaned into his chest, one hand coming up to the back of his head to pull his nose toward her neck.

For a second, she wasn’t sure if it would work. Maybe it was foolish to assume her scent had calmed him earlier. She was only thinking of his coat and that already distant moment in his office when she’d felt safe.

Work, she pleaded, angling for as much body contact as possible. Breathe, you idiot.

It wasn’t instantaneous. Two minutes in and his muscles were still flexing, corded like iron rope as they tried to free him from the chair. He huffed against her neck in big, bellowing exhalations that she told herself to ignore. If he really was feeding off of her emotions, it was better to focus on staying calm.

It did work, though. Eventually his mindless, frenetic breathing became more intentional—less like he was actively drowning and more like he’d seen the promise of shore. Instead of his half-hearted attempts to pull away (if he’d really been trying, she knew, she wouldn’t have been able to stop him) he arched his neck to get closer. Shallow breaths became deeper ones, the tenseness in his body disappearing as he snuffled around her gland. Even though he no longer needed the encouragement, her hands lingered, picking up the same stroking motion she’d used earlier: a slow rub that got him softly purring, fingers through his hair.

Satisfaction glowed like an ember in her chest. There was a strange pride in knowing she held this power, that she could quell an alpha’s rage with her nearness and touch. Part of her longed to do it away from watching eyes. Her instincts cried for want of a dark room, somewhere with blankets soaked with the heat of their bodies. Somewhere safe to hold him.

She rolled her lip into her mouth. This—her feelings, her thoughts, all of it—was dangerous.

An unwelcome voice agreed, piping up about biology and chemicals and hormones and the copious amount of embarrassing things she’d caught herself wishing for during heat sex in the past, all of them uttered in complete sincerity.

She’d begged to be bitten. She’d sworn she’d never fuck someone else. Once, the first morning free of her heat, a beta blushingly told her that she’d begged him to make her his bride.

Rey was under no illusion that she’d manage to walk out of the room without saying something embarrassing, suppressant or no. Even now, his scent curled past her rational thinking—not yet demanding (she still had no urge to beg) but firmly present. She could tell by the way she hoped he’d lick her neck, in how she tried to encourage it by thumbing at his jaw, her own mouth partly open in the unspoken hope that she could taste him in the air.

Whatever she was feeling now—and whatever she would feel, as it would undoubtedly get worse—had to be tempered. This was temporary. Their connection was real but founded in evolution. It was dangerous to think anything else.

He still hadn’t spoken, although he’d definitely reclaimed a large measure of his control. His muscles had stopped twitching. The silence almost felt too gentle to break, but the longer they sat, the harder it became to bite her tongue.

“So,” she blurted, uncomfortably aware that her voice was now the loudest thing in the room, “the way I see it, we’ve got some options. Moving forward. Feel free to share your opinion, but maybe we should take a step back and…pretend we’re not an hour away from doing unspeakable things on the sheets.”

“No unspeakable acts allowed on the floor.” His voice was hoarse, and he still hadn’t moved his head. “Noted.”

“I’m only thinking of your knees,” she tried to keep her voice lighthearted, only once she’d said it she did start thinking of what he could do on his knees and had to cough to refocus. “Or my knees. Knees in general.”

“Do I look that old?”

“You’re never too young to care about joint health.” She bit her lip, knowing she didn’t need to say what she was about to say but was doomed to say it regardless. “I feel like I need to retract a statement I never actually made. Just because I’m pro-bed doesn’t mean I’m anti-floor. We can fuck on the floor.” God, her mouth. “Or against the wall. I thought about the wall, earlier.”

“Did you.” At least he sounded amused.

She spoke quickly in the hopes that her tongue could outpace her shame. “I did, but this is not the direction I intended for our conversation to go. I was thinking less of a sexual itinerary and more of a cliché dialogue about our childhoods.”

“Is this a not-so-circumspect way of admitting you’ve got reservations?”

She paused, thrown off course. “I realize this is going to sound patronizing, but I want to congratulate you on your word choice. I have exactly zero experience with alphas in rut but I feel like you just accomplished something impressive. On the whole, I admit I was expecting fewer syllables and more mindless grunting.”

“I did get a gold star in spelling, once.”

“Honestly, that’s less impressive. Anyone can spell with technology. Knowing the word in the first place, that’s what counts.” If he was capable of being so articulate, surely he was capable of hearing the tease in her voice. “And no, to answer your question. No reservations. Just trying to…humanize this, I guess. While we can.” Speaking of which, “How are you feeling?”

He shifted underneath her, assessing. “Can’t say I recommend it.”

She winced. “As bad as before?”

“No, that was—” He paused. Searching for the right word, she guessed. He shook his head when he gave up, his hair tickling her skin. “No way to describe it. I’ve never been that pissed. Didn’t feel like there could be an end to it until you, uh. Sat down.”

Until then, it hadn’t occurred to her that Ben might have felt just as awkward about her Sit n’ Sniff strategy. It had worked, though, and if Rey hadn’t been devoting an impressive amount of energy to actively ignoring the size and location of his hard-on, she could almost convince herself they were having a normal conversation.

“Happy to help,” she said, trying hard not to sound the same way she did when she loaned someone a pencil. “Anyway, you game for some pre-boning bonding?”

“I’m…not sure you could have phrased that in a worse way.”

Secretly, she agreed. Outwardly, she ignored him. “Any preference? We could talk about our jobs.”

“Fuck no.”

“Ah. Right.” Technically, they were at his job. “Hobbies?”

“No.”

“Favorite show?”

“I don’t own a TV.”

“Well, that’s telling. What about gaming? Do you have an opinion on Assassin’s Creed?”

He ignored that option altogether, suddenly and suspiciously interested in finding a new patch of skin on her neck. She wondered how much he really needed it, if he had stabilized enough to back off or if it was the only reason he was so remarkably coherent. Regardless, they needed to hurry. Her scent was nothing more than a stopgap. If she’d learned anything so far, it was that any mood of his was temporary.

“I guess that leaves childhood. Although,” she paused, second-guessing, “now that I say that, I’m not sure where to begin. Kind of a broad topic.”

He gave a resigned sort of sigh, then muttered, “Tell me what you did most often.”

“Easy. I lied.”

He froze, then pulled in a deep breath. “You don’t smell like a liar.”

“That’s because I’m not lying about the fact that I was a liar.”

“Touché.” And then, like he couldn’t help it: “So why did you?”

She hummed in consideration. “An unhealthy mix of boredom and necessity, I think. I had an asshole caretaker who gave zero shits where I went but made a show of giving me permission.” Even now, even here, it was too easy to remember the dread of knocking on his office door, how she’d always held her breath when she twisted the knob. “He had too much fun telling me no if I said I wanted to visit a friend, so I’d lie.”

“So instead of visiting a friend you would…?”

“Answer an ad to repair someone’s Stargate. Once I think I weeded someone’s Gillyweed patch.”

“How Slytherin of you.”

He’d read Harry Potter? She tucked that nugget away, pleased with the knowledge but smart enough to know he wouldn’t appreciate being quizzed on his favorite book. At least not now.

“The only downside was knowing he’d expect a cut of whatever I earned,” she said instead. “So I made money collecting scrap. Cans, mostly. Anything I could pick up as I walked to Finn’s.”

“Who’s Finn?”

She paused, trying to decide if she’d heard a hint of jealousy. Alphas didn’t share. “A friend,” she answered dismissively, then quickly shifted the conversation. “So I was a liar. What were you up to?”

"Probably growling at my roommate. Breaking something meant to stay whole."

Before she could debate the wisdom of it, she said, "Your co-workers made it seem like that’s still a trend.”

At that, he finally lifted his head. The chains by his wrists softly rattled and shit, his eyes. This close, they burned hot with rut. Without moving, he was suddenly and inexplicably larger.

She swallowed, letting her hand drop back into her lap.

"You heard them?” he asked, jaw working. “They act like it’s fucking easy to handle that glassware. My hands are…” He looked down at them and Rey’s gaze followed. Huge was the only fair word. He could probably fit the whole of her thigh in her palm. “They break shit, too. But it’s also,” he said grudgingly, “fair to say I’ve never been good with words.”

Interesting. “Any idea why?”

“I tend not to use them."

“Ah.” From what little she’d seen, that didn’t necessarily ring true. “So while I was busying saving the world one recycled can at a time, you were practicing being a man of action.”

“Better to take action than hide behind pretty sentiment.” As soon as he said it, he clearly remembered where they were and who could hear. He lowered his voice, but still sounded bitter. “No one says what they mean. It’s all political—what people say, when they say it, who they say it to. Filters on top of lies on top of manipulation. Action is more honest.”

“Are you trying to convince me that breaking beakers is a solid form of communication?” Rey raised her eyebrow. “Because those words sound like the kind of thing a man who can’t admit he’s klutzy would say.”

Bless him, he actually looked affronted. “I’m not a klutz.”

“How did you put it, exactly? ‘Lies on top of manipulation’?” She shook her head sadly, letting her mouth turn down in faux-disappointment. “I’m afraid I can’t believe what you say. You’ll have to prove it.”

His eyes glittered, twin points of nascent playfulness. “How?”

“Action, of course. As soon as we get these,” she tapped at his wrists, “off, I expect you to dump me on the bed without dropping me on the floor.”

He liked that idea, if she could trust the dimple on his right cheek. “Fair.” Suddenly he was very interested in her collarbones. He didn’t meet her eyes when he spoke, his voice low, “You know I don’t care who you’ve slept with, right? I can be an asshole about a lot of things, but I truly don’t give a shit about that.”

She gave his jaw a soft pat. “If we start apologizing for what your rut or my heat make us say or do, we’ll never stop. But thank you.”

“But you’re okay?”

This alpha. “I am,” she couldn’t help but knock her forehead against his, reassuring. “And now I think we should talk about our game plan.”

“And by ‘game plan,’ you mean…?” His eyes shifted to the bed.

“That, too. Sure. But I meant more about the next five minutes, when someone comes in to unlock the chair. I assume they didn’t leave the key in here.” From the rueful look on his face, she was right. “So correct me if I’m wrong, but you won’t be pleased about it.”

He already looked nauseated. “No.”

“Right.” She took a moment to consider, almost pleased by the presence of a problem. It was something to focus on beside what she knew was a growing wet spot on her shorts. Just because she wasn’t currently bouncing on his dick didn’t mean her omega wasn’t thrilled by all the contact. “Let’s make it easier on everyone, then. Do you care more that they send in a beta or a woman?”

“I’ll smell them, either way. And I won’t…” He cut himself off, grimacing. “A beta. Whoever uses the rankest body wash. Something artificial.”

She nodded. She knew he was more concerned about how he’d react to their presence in general, but smells didn’t help. “And where do you want me to be?”

“By the bed. No—here. Fuck.” At least he was gentle as he tipped his head back on the chair. “My instincts are…it’s fucking confusing.” She watched as he concentrated, sorting through what he wanted and what was actually best. “Everything in me screams that you should be as far away from anyone else as possible. Protected. But I can’t protect you like this and I don’t trust myself to stay calm if I lose your scent.”

“Here, then. I’ll distract you.” She’d think of something.

“Are you—” He seemed to fight a quick and bloody battle with himself. “You sure this is what you want?”

She was shocked his instincts even let him ask. “Ben, we’ll be here for…” she paused, realizing she didn’t have an exact answer. Heats lasted for days. The original paperwork had accounted for that, but she didn’t know what they planned to do for Ben, at what point they’d introduce his suppressant or if they even would. She settled on, “A long time. You need to touch me.”

“I hate that I’m pointing this out, but I am touching you.”

“We’ll both be ten times as miserable. No.” And there was no earthly way it was why he was actually hesitating, but…“Unless it’s not what you want. If you’d rather not touch me, I understand.”

He looked like she’d asked him to chop off a finger. “You,” he growled, “have no fucking idea how much I want to touch you. Since you’ve walked in, the shit I’ve…” He closed his eyes, tone shifting to mild despair. “I’m going to lose control. The second they’re off, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Heat pooled between her legs. She tried to ignore it. “Do you plan on hurting me? Intentionally?”

“No,” he spat, disgust in every part of his face. “Fuck, no.” Then his face softened. “But you’re small. And I’m…” The rest of that sentence went without saying. He was enormous. Easily the biggest person she’d seen since she’d walked through the facility’s doors. And it wasn’t just his bulk, which was hard to ignore, but his presence. Even if he were a skinny thing, she had no doubt that he’d still broadcast power.

This one could take care of you. Her omega was louder than before. He would keep you safe.

“We were built for this,” she reminded him, trying to sound confident. “Whatever you’ll want to do, I’ll want to take. That’s the way it works. Do you trust me?”

There was a lot to see in his eyes. Fear waved a bold hand. Unsurety had its place too, and still a mild embarrassment. Lust simmered on the edges of everything, calling to her heat, making promises about broken bed frames and love bites and overwhelming amounts of pleasure. Wildness and anger and dominance, all harbingers of rut. But trust, too. Whether it was her scent that bought her his faith or not, she knew she had it.

“Yes.”

She brought her hand up to his cheek, pleased when he leaned into it.

Chapter Text

Why did she think this would be easy?

“Breathe,” she coached, trying hard not to dislodge Ben’s head as she turned to gauge the doctor’s progress. “Almost done.”

The doctor looked up, his expression clear. Are you crazy? Silently, he jabbed a gloved thumb at the cart beside him. There were at least twelve unfilled specimen containers, an assortment of swabs, and enough phlebotomy supplies to bleed an entire nation dry. Her eyes caught on the needles, wondering how exactly she could communicate that is the definition of a bad fucking idea without alerting Ben.

She wanted to groan in wild misery. This was so close to falling apart.

It had all started with the doctor, who—although he was clearly older than Ben and sported peppery hair—was still firmly in his prime. Calling him bulky was the wrong word, but it was vividly obvious that he spent time at the gym. He was tall, too, and walked into the room with a swaggering confidence that screamed alpha.

Ben’s eyes had almost bugged out of his head, when he’d saw him.

That guy? Rey wanted to scream. Beta or not, he was so obviously a terrible choice.

Hearing him whistle as he strolled in, Rey started to understand why everyone had been so trippingly happy about analyzing Ben: they clearly knew nothing about alphas.

It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d smelled like week-old trash; the doctor looked like a threat, and that was all that Ben cared about. Whatever calm he’d possessed instantly vaporized. As soon as the cart rattled into the room, Ben clammed up, his eyes gone flinty and dark. A predator wrapping himself in silence to analyze his prey.

Rey immediately readjusted her expectations.

They’d agreed she’d stay on his lap, but the goal had been to maintain as normal of a conversation between the three of them as long as possible. The doctor tried to stay on script, approaching the two of them with an innocuous comment about the weather (apparently it had started to rain) and a smile that only Rey managed to return.

“Supposed to last for days,” he said brightly. “Hope you remembered your umbrella.”

When all Ben did was hone in on the doctor’s neck, Rey thumped him once on the shoulder. His gaze snapped to hers and she mouthed, “Say something.”

“Yes,” he managed.

Rey covered her eyes. Of course he hadn’t been listening.

At least he seemed to realize how quickly things were turning pear-shaped. With visible effort, he shifted his stony gaze to the door. Good. Maybe he’d fantasize about chomping on the knob and not a neck.

“How are you feeling?” the doctor asked him, snapping on his gloves.

Ben had twitched with the sound. “Unpleasant.”

Rey started a light massage on his neck. He rolled it in gratitude, but remained tense.

“Unpleasant, huh? In what way?”

“In an ‘I don’t like you’ way,” Ben said, voice flat.

To his credit, the doctor didn’t stop working. “You’ve never liked me, Ben,” he said cheerfully. “Try harder.”

Haltingly, Ben did. He mostly spoke in terms that Rey couldn’t follow, referencing statistics and studies and symptoms she assumed the doctor found helpful. He was nodding along, in any case. All Rey needed to know what was she felt and saw: the way Ben’s legs had stiffened, the growls he was swallowing anytime he was swabbed or poked, the budding sweat on his forehead, the way his sentences got shorter and shorter and increasingly hostile the longer he talked.

The doctor was switching his attention between the two of them, asking Ben questions while swabbing Rey’s neck, listening to Ben’s heart as Rey floundered to describe the state of her—

“My what?” she asked, when he repeated the question.

“Your uterus,” he said, like the terminology was her problem. “Is it aching? Enlarged?”

“You want me to tell you if my uterus is enlarged?”

He made a few taps on his tablet. “You’ve already reported tenderness. Biologically, we know it’s expanding, but we’re curious what you can feel through the suppressant.”

“I—?” Humoring him, she tried to turn her attention inward. Everything south of her ears was lightly throbbing, which wasn’t helpful. “It’s sort of impossible to tell.”

He cocked his head, unbelieving, then a wave of enlightenment crossed his features. “I see. So, your uterus is…” He made a vaguely womb-like shape with his hands and brought it to his own body.

“I know where my uterus is,” she snapped, indignant.

Ben, who had been counting out some complicated breathing pattern, stopped.

“Then I guess I don’t understand the confusion?”

“You don’t understand why I’m unable to describe the exact state of an internal organ?”

At least he looked abashed. “I understand it’s difficult. Maybe an internal exam would make things easier on both of us. I’ll be right back. Let me grab my—”

“No.”

Both Rey and the doctor turned to look at Ben. His voice had been a cracked whip in the quiet room, louder than anything he’d said so far. It was intractable.

“Alright,” the doctor conceded, failing to completely cover up a new wariness. “An external exam, then.”

That seemed like a fair compromise. Rey obediently wiggled until there was enough room for a gloved hand to sneak between her and Ben’s stomach. Hopefully he’d be quick.

He’d only reached out halfway before Ben snarled. “Fuck. Off.”

The hand was frozen. Rey could tell the doctor was weighing some unknowable odds. “How much do you mean that, Ben?”

“I mean that if I see you touch her, I’ll rip your fucking head off.”

Rey rolled her eyes, even as she swallowed panic. In a bid for levity, she snapped, “What is with you and ripping? First a dick, now a head. Leave everyone’s appendages intact.” And because he looked thrown by the order, forehead scrunched and his need for murder apparently allayed, she kept talking. “At the very least, use a different verb and show off those spelling bee skills you were so proud of. Twisting. Flaying. Gorging. The options are almost endless.”

“If I have a vote,” the doctor spoke up, “I believe I’ll abstain from all verbs of a violent nature.”

Rey nodded. “Understandable.”

Heartened by the fact that Ben still looked too confused to commit imminent bodily harm, the doctor once again stepped forward. “This won’t take but a second.”

Rey watched Ben closely. She fervently wished she could help, somehow loan him the strength he needed not to care because no, this wasn’t going to happen, it couldn’t, not when every passing second confirmed that he was powerless against the strength of his alpha. Nothing worked: he’d look away only to immediately look back; suck in a breath through his teeth only to push it out as a groan. He looked in pain, battered like something left out in a storm.

The doctor seemed oblivious, his hands hovering as he tried to figure out the best approach. He’d only just touched her when Ben’s whole body jerked.

“I can’t,” he spat, explosive. “I can’t fucking do it, don’t touch her.”

The hand slowly retreated, then paused. “Is it stupid to ask if it would make a difference if you closed your eyes?”

Rey goggled at the doctor. Was this why they’d chosen him? Because he had no sense of self-preservation? He had an unreasonable amount of faith in the cuffs keeping Ben tethered to the chair.

Ben’s face was reddening, the vein in his temple pronounced.

“Right,” the doctor said. “Just checking.”

Rey resettled against Ben’s chest. He automatically buried his head in her neck.

No one moved as Ben trembled. “Fuck,” he eventually gasped, his voice muffled against her skin. “Fuck, this is really fucking hard. Just—hurry.”

By unspoken agreement, she and the doctor communicated in as few words as possible. If they could get away with not speaking, they would. If he needed to touch her, he did it sneakily, avoiding places Ben could easily detect.

And that was how things had gone every endless, torturous minute since the failed check.

Nothing good would come from this taking much longer. Ben’s patience was almost at an end. He was visibly struggling—had graduated from smelling to licking to now latching onto her neck in a desperate bid for sanity. Soon she’d be encouraging him to attack her shoulders. Even the skin on her throat was already achingly tender; his spit was steadily trailing down, had long ago darkened the fabric of her shirt.

It was far too easy to envision what would happen next. The doctor would move too quickly or snap on a new pair of gloves or most idiotically, grab a fucking needle and Ben would be startled and somehow hulk out of the chair, roaring for blood. Specifics got murky after that, but every scenario always ended with her hopping on Ben’s back and clobbering him with her shoe as he gnawed on the doctor’s bones.

Stop that.

She wished she had a clock. Anything to renew her faith in the passage of time.

She calmed incrementally when she felt the doctor tug on her shirt, one of their silent signals that he was switching to her.

Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.

The tug came again, and Rey swallowed an annoyed huff to actually turn her head.

The doctor was waving a needle. He pointed to her arm with his other hand, wiggling his fingers in a bring-that-closer gesture.

She started to, then paused, considering.

She was still on Ben’s lap, although she’d opted for a new position. She’d fed her feet under the armrests until she was straddling him, flush up against his chest. Her hips had started to ache from the spread—Ben was fucking wide—but it was a small price if it kept him calm.

What would not keep Ben calm was seeing a needle in her arm.

Looking at the doctor, she raised a finger. One moment. She needed to take a gamble and risk breaking Ben’s concentration. She had a feeling that if she didn’t specifically warn him not to look, he’d look at the absolute worst moment.

As a test, she moved her neck. His mouth followed with a faint hum of disapproval. Still with her.

“Ben. Can you look at me?” When he only continued to suck, she cradled his jaw, tugging him a little in encouragement. “I want to look at you. Please.”

With a wet plop of release, he obeyed.

She tried to not gasp. He looked…frayed. Like someone had found whatever fuses belonged to his sanity and was busy toggling them on and off and on again.

This needed to stop. There was science and there was torture, and she couldn’t bring herself to ask him if he minded suffering just a little bit longer. He’d suffered enough.

She looked over at the doctor. “We’re done.” When he started to make the same gesture he had before, she tried to communicate what she’d seen in Ben’s eyes. “We needed to be done ten minutes ago. Take the cuffs off and leave.”

Whatever he saw in Rey’s face was enough to make him return the needle to the cart. He tapped a few new keystrokes on his tablet—communicating with the higher-ups, she assumed—before nodding, removing his gloves and reaching into his pocket for a small brass key.

“We got a game plan for this?” he whispered, eyeing Ben, who was eyeing him back.

Rey bit her lip. “Ben?”

He didn’t answer, but he did start working his tongue like he was already tasting the phantom blood of the doctor.

She tried to guide him back to her bruised skin, but he wasn’t having it. His neck was stone, unmovable, and he seemed equally unaffected by the smaller glands in her wrist. Guiding her fingers through his hair didn’t work, either. Not a massage, not even a bold lick to the side of his neck. He only stared, a soft but growing growl working its way past his lips. A warning.

Get out.

Even a beta could understand the message. Boldly, the doctor refused to back away. “Rey?” he asked. “The longer I stand here, the more pissed off he’s going to get.”

“I know,” she said, letting her anxiety surface for a single, frightening moment before shoving it back down. “I know, just—leave the key on the floor.”

He shook his head. “Not supposed to do that.”

Why?” It was the easiest solution.

“We leave the key and he could lock you up. And there’s no way we’re getting back in here without someone getting hurt, if that’s the case.”

“Oh, for fuck’s—he’s not going to hurt me.”

“I didn’t mean you. Look at him. The second those cuffs are off, he’s going to maul me. Or anyone else who comes in.”

She wanted to massage her temples, but didn’t risk letting go of Ben.

“Fine,” she said. “Let me…” There was one thing she hadn’t tried yet. “Have your cart ready by the door. If this works, unlock him when he’s distracted and leave.”

Orders given, she waited until the doctor did as she said, the squeak of the wheels echoing as he moved it into position. He coughed when he was ready.

She looked at Ben, suddenly and embarrassingly overwhelmed.

It had been easy enough to forget why they were really here with the distraction of keeping him calm. Adding in decidedly unsexy swabs and tissue samples on top of worrying about whether or not he’d make good on any of his disembowelment threats was enough to keep her mind off of where she was sitting and what she was doing. Even his neck fixation was dismissible; his sucks had been desperate, but not in any passionate way. She’d felt more like a security blanket than anything else.

Remembering that they were being watched didn’t help. She hadn’t thought it would matter, but that was before she realized she’d be in her right mind. Now, ready to kiss him, she couldn’t help thinking that no matter how removed the scientists claimed to be, at least one of them would pass judgement on her technique.

”Too much tongue,” one might say to another. ”Is she trying to kiss him or slurp up the last bit of ramen?”

“Looks like my dog when I give him peanut butter. And don’t give me that face, Janet, I bought it from the vet. You just have to make sure—”

She swallowed. There was a faint rattling that told her the doctor was messing with his cart. Putting something away, or bored with the show?

It wasn’t like she dreaded kissing Ben. As soon as she’d seen his lips up close, she’d imagined what it’d be like. Despite all his aggression, she had a hard time believing he was the type to be forceful. At least not with his tongue. More like—

The doctor coughed again.

Fine. Fine, fine. Not a problem. She’d just…start. She’d kiss him.

His torso was ungodly long, but she arched up as best she could and captured his lips.

It was awful.

As soon as she started, Rey realized she’d never kissed anyone who wasn’t actively trying to kiss her back. She had exactly zero experience kissing someone who not only didn’t appear interested but who was, if anything, making an effort to avoid contact at any cost. She guessed it had something to do with the way her face blocked his line of sight.

Time didn’t seem to help. She powered on despite the part of her subconscious that curled up and wept from awkwardness. He kept moving, was part of the problem. And instead of the plush, forgiving lips she’d imagined, she found herself almost chastely kissing stone. He was too tense—far more interested in emanating growly alpha vibes in the direction of the door than in her clumsy attempts to lick into his mouth.

Unwillingly, Rey remembered her teenage make out panic. Heather had bragged about kissing Alejandro in the library and Rey was going to the dance with Sam who had definitely kissed Fatima and in absolute desperation, Rey had practiced kissing her pillow. She’d watched Cruel Intentions at least five times in preparation, but all she really managed to do was feel foolish when she got it too slobbery to sleep on.

This was like that—an idea born of a noble goal but seemingly fruitless. All she was doing was wetting his lips.

She was about to give up when she remembered she was sitting on his dick.

She’d forgotten about it, honestly. It’d been hard from the moment she’d first walked in, an absolutely unmistakable bulge in his sweatpants, but she’d done her best to politely ignore it. They weren’t there yet, was what she figured. Ben had obviously felt the same way—hadn’t once rocked against her ass, accidental or otherwise. Hadn’t even mentioned it, even though it had to be a torment.

Time to change her tactics.

Before she could second-guess herself, she scooted, angling until—there. Now all she had to do was use her leverage on his shoulders to pick herself up so she could grind just…

Ben immediately chuffed out a shocked breath, finally, finally looking away from the door and down into her eyes. He almost looked startled. Puzzled, like he’d half-forgotten there was an omega in his lap at all.

She didn’t give him time to process before she did it again. Up, and then a rolling down that dragged her ass along the whole length of his cock. Up again. Down again. In a moment of inspiration, she rested a hand on his pec, thumb grazing the material of his shirt until she found the nub of his nipple. Then she rolled that too, not bothering to kiss him because it was almost better to see the blooming transformation on his face, the way blind hate was crowded out by lust.

Then he was rocking his hips up, meeting her ass halfway, building up a friction that teased out new slickness from her cunt. It was probably through her shorts by now and it didn’t matter, not at all, not even if it soaked his pants because that only made it better, made it fucking good because it meant she was ready, that it would be so easy to pull down his waistband and let him slide home. She’d feel so full, almost whimpered in want for it, but now he was lifting her up, his hands on her ass so he could kiss her.

How, how had she thought this could be anything other than the easiest thing in the world? There was no struggle to it, nothing to second-guess. Every pull of his tongue made her hungry for more—more of his deep groans, more of the desperate, hungry way he looked at her when they broke contact because his hands kept leaving her ass to clutch at her back.

“Ben,” she broke off, gasping. “Ben, your hands.”

He either didn’t hear her or didn’t care.

“Wait. Wait, wait, wait. We should…” Vaguely, she remembered that there was a plan. They were supposed to be…there was an order to this, right? Something she was supposed to do. But she couldn’t think. “Ben, we should—”

“We shouldn’t,” he snarled.

He was right. They shouldn’t. There was no reason to stop when it felt this good.

They kissed and kissed and Rey would never get enough of it, couldn’t care that they were being loud, that there was streaks of wetness on Ben’s chin. Fuck yes, it was sloppy and fuck anyone who cared. It was real and she reveled in it, right up to the moment she fell out of the chair.

“Shit!” Right on her elbow. Fuck, that stung. She twisted her arm uselessly, unable to see. “Am I bleeding?”

Ben’s hands had returned to the armrests. He was clawing at the wood. “Come back,” he gritted, impatience blending with real pain. “I’m not—come back.”

Why was he still in the chair? She blinked at him long enough to realize that his brain had never caught up with reality. He still thought he was cuffed. The bigger strap around his torso was gone, too. He was free and had no idea.

“Ben,” she said again, swallowing because she was out of breath. “Look at your hands.”

Irritated, he only spared them a passing glace. Enough to humor her.

“Again,” she said.

He checked his right, then his left, then his right again, a small, confused wrinkle forming above his nose—something’s different, she could practically hear him think—and then he was out of the chair, on her and pinning her to floor.

The intensity she’d lost since falling immediately roared back to life. His hands were everywhere, eager and frantic. It was as if he couldn’t decide where he liked them best—on her jaw, her tits, her own hands—all the while marveling, his mouth open, like each knuckle and new patch of skin was something he dreamed he’d never touch. He was rough but not incautious, and Rey did her best to touch him in return, learning what he liked.

There was so much of him. She felt overwhelmed in the best possible way, frantically cataloguing the feel of new muscles, the possessive sound he made when she gripped his hips.

They were writhing and she loved it, she really did, but she wasn’t so far gone to realize her elbow didn’t like being repeatedly knocked into the unforgiving floor. She didn’t know if he’d be the type of alpha to like it, but she wanted to try and yes, he willingly went to his back when she pushed at his shoulder, panting up at her with red lips as she peeked down to check if—

Shit. She’d made a mess of his pants.

She quickly brought a hand down to check herself and learned there was officially not a point in wearing these shorts. She didn’t even have to dip inside her underwear, just wiped up the slick from the crease of her thighs. His eyes followed her greedily, his hands kneading impatiently at her hips, moaning when he saw the shine on her fingers.

Before she could process, he was sitting up, chasing her fingers with his mouth, whining like a child denied a treat when she didn’t give him what he wanted. She held them out of reach out of shock more than anything else, had never slept with a guy who liked getting his tongue anywhere close to her cunt when it was already dripping, and—

“Oh,” she sighed, when he sucked.

She’d stopped moving as she enjoyed the feeling. He rolled his hips up hard to remind her to keep going, still sucking, his tongue chasing every drop. He seemed ignited by her taste; there was a new energy that burned bright through their bond, a restlessness that screamed for satiation.

This, his body screamed. This is what I want.

The new intensity was terrifying, something Rey suddenly wasn’t sure she was meant to handle outside of a heat. She just needed to think, she needed one second to think. Just one.

She rolled off of him, stumbling as she got to her feet.

He grabbed her ankle.

She squeaked once, shook him off, and made for the bed. She wasn’t trying to escape, wasn’t actually scared, she just—one second, only one, to process and maybe catch her breath, calm the trembling in her legs because how was she going to handle this? How did she think she could?

Looking back at him, she knew she didn’t have a choice.

Still on the floor, he looked darkly pleased, rolling forward onto his hands and knees far too gracefully for a man his size. “Yes.” His voice was a ruin. “I think I’d like it if you ran.”

Oh shit warred with I think I’d like it if you chased me.

The problem was obvious: there was nowhere to run to. She’d be caught in an instant. With arms his size all he had to do was stand in the middle of the room and she’d do the work for him. Easy prey. Her only hope was the bed.

Not daring to take her eyes off of him, she moved to the other side, the mattress between them.

His eyes tracked her. She watched with a pounding heart as he pulled off his shirt, carelessly tossing it to the floor.

Damn.

Rey gripped one of the bedposts, faintly wondering how many abs it was possible for one human being to possess. She'd already felt them, but there was a world of difference in actually seeing them. Spit pooled on either side of her tongue and licking? Had she asked him his stance on licking? Her neck still felt raw from his earlier attentions, but would he mind if she industriously returned the favor? Her lips tried to form the shape of his name. Lost. She was already lost.

Ben watched her. Grinned. And then he stood up.

Chapter Text

Normal Rey felt her heart beat harder. Omega Rey crowed with delight.

Maybe talking would stall him. “This is your first time, Ben,” she reminded him, babbling. “Er—your first rut. I’m sure you’ve had sex before.”

He walked closer. “Yes.”

“Excellent. Wonderful.” He was probably tall enough to lunge across the bed. She took another step back, shivering when he noticed and grinned wickedly. “Well, do you think maybe we should talk? About it? Before we, uh. Before it happens?”

“No.”

“Oh,” she said, her voice a little too high. “No, you’re probably right. We were doing okay. On the floor. I wasn’t sure if you maybe had questions.” She didn’t know how he managed to look intimidating with a hard-on peeking out the top of his messy sweatpants, but he did. “Or one, even. One question.”

“You tasted good, omega.”

Her brain short-circuited. She couldn’t help it: “I did?”

He nodded, now matching her pace as she circled around the mattress. “I want more.”

She barked one nervous laugh. He’d said it so bluntly. “Right. Well I’m not saying you can’t have more, I only needed a moment to—”

To what, her omega wept. This isn’t complicated. Let him catch us and fuck us and say thank you, alpha, when he gives us his knot. This is what we wanted.

It was. Aside from the money, it was the whole reason she’d signed up.

But her brain kept working. Too many thoughts battled for her attention. The harder she tried to bat them away and focus on Ben, the harder they worked to drag her down. It was like trying to navigate a constantly changing landscape: putting on boots only to step onto shifting sand, unbuttoning a coat only to shiver from a new chill in the wind. It wasn’t that she wasn’t prepared to fuck him—she was dripping and she already missed the feel of his hands—it was having a mind that was no longer foggy enough to ignore where they were and what was going on.

The scientists. Were they ready to end it, seeing Ben stalk around the bed? Pleased by their readouts or appalled? Were she and Ben following a hypothesized plan, or had they fallen so far off script that they were writing a new play altogether?

The study. Where had her calm apathy gone? She couldn’t reconcile the Rey that shrugged off Finn’s concerns with who she was in this moment—someone who suddenly wished she’d met Ben somewhere, anywhere else. A Rey who dreaded the interruption of more tests and the cold, clinical approach to something that deserved to be wild and reckless and unstudied.

Ben. Was she doing right by him? Memories of her first heat attacked her conscience: the miserable days leading up to it; the shame of her boyfriend’s rejection when she asked him to help; the panic that she’d have to suffer alone; the awkward way the app-found beta shuffled around his bedroom when she’d sobbed uncontrollably, besieged by an instinct that ruthlessly wanted and wanted and wanted. She’d always known she was an omega, but she had been wholly unprepared for this merciless new voice that robbed her of agency, stripping her down to an animalistic need so consuming that she feared it could never be sated. It was terrifying.

How different was a first rut? Her knowledge was laughably incomplete. She knew it drove alphas to fuck, made them yearn to claim and conquer. It made them even more aggressive, encouraged possessiveness—all of it working toward the ultimate goal: knotting an omega and flooding a womb with enough come to practically guarantee a pregnancy.

But was his instinct as merciless? Did he understand what was happening, or was he as lost as she had been, reeling from the onslaught? Was he afraid, or was he happy to be his body’s servant?

And finally: It was the stupidest, worst time to remember it, but she’d never read anything that mentioned a bond. Anytime she tried to convince herself she’d made it up, it surged back to remind her of its existence. Alphas that smelled good? Wildly common. Textbook. Alphas whose thoughts mingled with their omega? Unheard of.

She’d feel more alarmed if it didn’t feel so natural. Did he feel it, too? It wasn’t the right time to ask, but she felt compelled.

“Do y—Ben? Are you okay?”

What the hell had happened? He hadn’t done what she’d expected and pressed the advantage of her distraction. He was still on the opposite side of the mattress. Only instead of a gaze that promised an imminent orgasm, his eyes were clouded with confused hesitation.

“Ben?” she pressed.

“I don’t…” Confidence bled from him in a torrent. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

She waited, but he didn’t go on. She watched in confusion as his posture shifted—from straight-backed and smug to hunched shoulders. Was he trying to make himself smaller? If there was a boulder, he looked like he’d want to hide behind it.

“You’re alright,” she said slowly. She didn’t know that for sure, but it was What One Said.

He nodded like he was trying to convince himself of the same thing. “Yeah, I—” His hand went to his heart, rubbing. “I just had this feeling, like I was doing something wrong. You had this look on your face—I hated it. Made me feel miserable.”

“My face made you feel miserable?”

“No, I—” He looked like a man aching for language that didn’t exist. “Not your face. How you looked. Like you were sad.” His expression told her he found the word lacking. There was a soft, frustrated growl, reminding Rey that he was still in the firm grip of his rut. “There was this haze, my alpha was—” He shook his head, struggling to hold on to his renewed coherency. “I knew what I was doing and now I…don’t.”

Understanding started to dawn. “Were you worried about me?”

He didn’t answer right away, searching his feelings. Then he nodded.

“Was it just because I looked upset, or did you, uh.” For some reason, she didn’t feel like explicitly advertising the bond. It didn’t deserve to be picked apart by the scientists. Not yet. “Did you sense it?” She pointed to where he was still rubbing his chest.

He thought again. Nodded. Yes.

Her heart flooded. I’m not the only one. He feels it, too.

She didn’t know if his end of the bond worked the same. There had already been moments where she’d felt his thoughts bleed into her own; had she broadcasted her worries the same way?

“How do you feel now?” she asked.

“Better,” he decided. Unselfconsciously, he rubbed himself through his pants. “I ache, though.”

No matter how she felt about his rut—how prepared or unprepared they were, how many memories it stirred up from her past—it wasn’t fair to ignore it. They were too far gone for that. It had to be a havoc on his system, always swinging back and forth from wordless instinct to reason. She wasn’t exactly sure what was normal and what wasn’t, but she had a strong feeling that her drug-bought awareness was seriously disrupting his alpha’s plans.

Fuck now. Analyze later.

She tucked her concerns away, wondering the best way to get back on track. Maybe it would only take a gentle reminder.

“Before we stopped, you were chasing me.”

“I was,” he said slowly, as though he were digging up the memory from mud. His forehead scrunched. “Was that it? You didn’t like being prey?”

“No, I enjoyed that,” she said truthfully.

“But you stopped running.” The edges of his words were slightly slurred. “Why would you do that if you liked it?”

“I was thinking and got carried away. It happens.”

“Thinking about me?”

She hesitated, only because he seemed to be stuck in the grips of a very complicated equation. Alphas in rut were designed to fuck, not make rational decisions. She didn’t want to make it worse. “Yes,” she admitted hesitantly. “About you.”

He chewed on that, still absentmindedly rubbing himself. “You were running until you thought about me. And then you stopped. That’s—” God, this was painful to watch. “Bad.”

“Ben,” she sighed. “No, it’s not.”

“My omega doesn’t want me.” He said it the same way someone might announce the end of the world. He looked down mournfully at his dick. “I can’t fuck her if she doesn’t want me.”

This was too much. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to hold him or whack him over the head with a pillow. “Your omega is standing right here, and she’s saying—I’m saying that I want you. Can’t you smell me?” she asked desperately. “You said you felt better.”

He didn’t even try. “No,” he said, and shit, was that panic? “I knew I’d do it wrong. I knew I’d scare her—”

“You didn’t scare me!”

“—fuck it up, like they said. I don’t know what I did wrong, but she didn’t like it. I could tell.”

He was starting to spiral. Sensitive to her unease, he’d stopped his pursuit, and now he was determined to be the only alpha in the world to choose negative self-talk over sex.

She cut him off before he could keep going. “What if I could prove I liked it?” Her thighs were dry now, but she dipped a finger under her waistband. Her heat was still going strong; it only took a single swipe to gather up enough wetness that a drop fell to the floor when she freed her hand. She held it aloft.

He stopped talking, immediately transfixed.

“What does that smell like?” she prodded.

“Heat,” he breathed, like the word was sacred. “Omega.”

She nodded. “Your omega is in heat. Shouldn’t you help her?”

Shockingly, he continued to look agonizingly conflicted. Stubborn, dear alpha.

She left her side of the mattress, taking his abandoned lurch toward her as a positive sign. He still desperately wanted her; apparently she just had to convince him the opposite was true.

Her snatched her as soon as she was in arm’s reach, patting and petting her like she’d just walked through a minefield and he needed to be reassured she’d suffered no harm. He mumbled to himself words she could barely hear, but she caught safe and here and omega.

She allowed it to go on, happy to feel his hands but goggling at his control. His dick twitched against her stomach, but his touch was barely sexual. Intense, yes—he alternated between clutching her to him and pushing her away for a new examination—but he barely grazed her breasts, never dipped below her waist. It was maddening, especially because she knew they’d been five minutes from fucking when he’d followed her to the bed.

This poor man.

Rey quickly snuck a hand down, re-slicked her fingers, and pressed them past his lips.

He froze, tongue unmoving. His eyes flew to hers.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” In a distant corner of her subconscious, her omega was babbling in disbelief. What is happening, what is happening, what is happening? “You’re going to start by licking my fingers clean. I want to know what you can do with your tongue. Do you understand?”

His pupils dilated.

She realized she wanted a real answer. She pulled out her hand before he had a chance to start working. He tried to chase her fingers, but she stopped him with a hand to his chest. “I need to hear you say you understand.”

He tried to chase again. Again she pushed him back.

“No,” she said, almost high on the power of the word.

He made a low alpha sound, but didn’t move. “I want it.”

“This?” she wiggled her fingers. Cooling now, they felt sticky and obscene. “What’s on my fingers, Ben?”

“You,” he answered readily. “Your slick.”

“And you want it in your mouth?”

Yes.

“Do you remember what you’re supposed to do?” If Rey had to guess, she’d say her omega had collapsed in a dead faint. She didn’t care. This was…whatever this was was intoxicating. And it was working, best of all: even as he obeyed, ceding control, he seemed steadier. More confident.

“Clean them. Use my tongue.” With a wicked smile she was thrilled to see, he added, “I’ll do a good job.”

She swallowed spit. “I know you will.”

Not daring to wait any longer—she wasn’t sure what she had done or what she was doing, only that she liked it—she fed him her slick.

He made good on his promise almost instantly, taking deep pulls, curling his tongue around her knuckles, sometimes choking himself when he tried to take too much. Every drag triggered a deeper echo in her core that weakened her knees. Like it had earlier on the floor, her taste visibly affected him. He looked drunk on it, soon abandoning good manners and gripping her hand himself, directing it in and out of his mouth as he licked up the seam of her fingers, gently biting the tips. He was loud about it: sometimes humming in pleasure, sometimes making a show of sucking up his own spit where he’d let it pool.

“More,” he demanded, and she obliged.

If he was drunk, she’d followed him to same bar. She watched him suck away her taste in a daze, too weak not to imagine the same licks and sucks and sounds on her cunt.

Her skin was almost numb from his attention when she realized he’d stopped.

Almost stopped. He was still clutching her hand, passing it back and forth between both of his own, squeezing and releasing like his body contained too much energy to be wholly still. He seemed to be waiting for her attention.

“Yes?” she asked, more air than words.

He let out a short, frustrated whine. When she only blinked at him, still dazed, he slowly, meaningfully, and with some measure of exasperation brought her hand in firm contact with his chest. He held her gaze as he dragged it down—her fingers splayed on skin gone damp with sweat—past the defined tautness of his abs that clenched at the contact, curving to feel the vee of his obliques, and ending on his twitching, solid cock.

Oh.

He pressed her hand harder, encouraging her to take over, to feel the shape of him through the cotton. She explored greedily, tracing the outline of the head, dragging her knuckles down and up and down until she took a firm grip at the root, squeezing gently as she tested for a knot.

It was there—an already impressive swell at the base, a slight give to his skin that promised her he’d still fit, that he wouldn’t waste a true knot on anything less than her body. She clenched on nothing; it was too easy to explicitly imagine it filling her, pushing inside until there was room for nothing else, ruthlessly expanding until he was locked inside.

“Is this for me?” she breathed. It was a pointless question, but she liked the way he moaned his assent. New desire was a buzz in her ears. “I want to see it. Get on the bed.”

Before she could feel shocked that she’d demanded anything in the first place, he’d given her a quick nip to her neck and did as she ordered, instantly mussing the sheets.

This can’t be normal, she thought dazedly, marveling at the way the size of the mattress instantly seemed inadequate with him on it. He’d bent his knees and spread them a healthy distance apart, his hand underneath his pants, the bedframe rattling slightly as he worked his cock in languid, focused strokes. His eyes were on her as he waited—if not patiently, then obediently—for her to join him.

Definitely not normal. She’d never slept with an alpha, but she’d talked to them. Worked with them, even. Not one of them had an easy time accepting orders. The fact that Ben had acquiesced meant…something she didn’t understand.

She’d worry about it later.

Rey pulled off her shirt and bra as she walked to the bed. She only knew that she wanted to feel him, that her body would settle for nothing less than her skin touching his.

The mattress dipped under her knee. This close, she almost lost sight of her goal. There were too many places she wanted to touch and the smell—it bypassed whatever drugs still lingered in her system, screaming alpha and sex loud enough to make her pause, gasping.

A hand gripped her forearm. “Rey.” Her name was an order. “Come here.”

Somehow, she shook her head. Whatever this was, whatever control she had, it would die the minute she gave it up. “No, I—” She struggled to focus. “I wanted to see…”

Here.”

She shook off his hand and scooted further down the bed, ignoring his attempt to grab her again.

Settling between his legs, her hands tugged at his waistband. “Off,” she said.

Good man that he was, he tried to do what she wanted. He got as far as pulling out the hand that he’d been using to grip his knot but couldn’t bring himself to stop stroking. The second he tried, his brow furrowed and he shook his head, immediately picking up where he left off, unwilling to deny himself the pleasure.

“I’ll help,” she cajoled, but he only looked her in the eye and stroked faster, his mouth parting in a quick flash of teeth. A grin, she realized, and a devious one.

She wasn’t shocked that the word insubordinate came to mind; she was shocked that she nearly said it out loud.

Omegas didn’t chastise. Not during heat. They begged and spread their legs and wept in gratitude for the most miniscule hint of affection. There was nothing to chastise in the first place—everything felt good, every whim of their partner a pleasure to obey. Even with a beta. It was almost beyond comprehension, to imagine scolding an alpha.

But here they were. And she wanted to. It was odder still to suspect that he’d somehow enjoy it.

A bit of clarity rushed back to her brain, unfreezing her tongue. She still had control. Still liked having control. She wanted him madly, but she thought she could hold on long enough to enjoy being bossy.

With a grin of her own, she crawled to a better position. “Stop,” she said, smacking his still moving hand and growling at his laugh when he didn’t.

Make me, danced in his eyes, and she was secretly pleased.

“Fine,” she said lightly, and seized his knot.

He sucked in an immediate breath, one hand now braced on the bed as he crunched up and towards her, involuntary. He still stroked, but at a snail’s pace, too much of his mind now focused on the way she held him through the cotton.

“Selfish of you,” she commented, her thumbs lightly rubbing in circles, “not letting me see.” He made an inarticulate sound of pleasure. “Wouldn’t it feel better without this?” She paused so she could reach up and snap the band of the elastic. “Wouldn’t you like to feel my hand?”

She would have laughed at how quickly he scrambled to ruck his pants down, but she was too excited to finally, finally see his cock.

It was predictably massive, proudly erect and slick with sweat. The head was shiny, steadily leaking. The skin of his knot was puffy and darker in color, an angry-looking flush that made her wonder if it was tender. Beneath it, his balls were already drawn tight.

He hadn’t managed to get his pants completely off; they’d barely made it to mid-thigh, robbed of complete divestment by Rey, who refused to move because why would she, when it all worked so well in her favor? Let his legs be trapped, she thought wildly. Let him enjoy pleasure at her mercy.

Let him enjoy pleasure at your what?, screamed her omega.

Surprisingly, his hand hadn’t returned. It had curled up in the sheets like its twin, twitching every time Rey jostled the mattress. Either he was too curious about what Rey planned to do and had simply forgotten to put them back, or he trusted her to pick up where he left off.

Rey went to her belly, shimmying forward between his legs until she knew he could feel her breath on his skin. Propped up on her elbows, she inspected his knot.

Calling it mesmerizing felt wrong—it was flesh and blood, not a crystal ball or a sky of stars—but she loved the way Ben threw his head back when she licked it with the flat of her tongue.

Fuck.”

“Does it hurt, when I do that?” She knew it didn’t. She took a knuckle to the spit she’d left behind, smearing it tenderly. When he didn’t manage a quick answer, she tried to look concerned. “I won’t touch it, then.”

“No,” he wheezed. “You should.”

“You’re sure?”

If he knew she was playing a game, he was too overwhelmed to care. “Yes,” he gasped, helpfully tilting his hips. And like it killed him to say it: “Please.”

“Hmm.” She pretended to consider, lightly grazing her fingertips over his skin. A muscle in his thigh twitched every time she stopped. “Has it ever been like this before?”

“No, it—oh god.”

She’d surprised him with another lick. “You don’t knot, when you come?” Dimly, she realized part of her actually was quite curious. “Does this normally happen?”

He was squirming now. “Just a little.” His eyes squeezed shut. Not like this.”

“So you’ve never been this big?”

“No,” he gritted, and she knew she needed to hurry. He’d sounded more angry than frustrated, that time.

“What does it feel like, when I touch it?” She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so mouthy during sex. Her omega wailed that she’d asked fewer questions in all her years of schooling than she had in the last five minutes. With the few brain cells she could spare, she couldn’t justify it. She’d shooed the doctor away because Ben had seemed in pain and here she was, another tormentor. A more welcome one, judging by the look in Ben’s eyes, but still undeniably mean.

It had something to do with the exhilaration of being able to talk. That, and the giddy surprise that came from talking to an alpha in rut and watching him actually listen. She felt powerful. She felt equal and even better, like Ben didn’t mind.

When she didn’t hear an answer, Rey worried that the question had demanded too much focused thought. Apologetically, she returned her mouth to his knot, licking and sucking and futilely attempting to fit as much of it in her mouth as she could.

His hands shot to her hair, fisting it in a firm grip. “Fucking shit, it—” His head thrashed on the pillow. “It feels like I’m about to—fuck, Rey. I think I’m…I’m gonna come.”

She sucked harder, encouraging, moaning her approval into his knot. It was getting harder to control his movements; the pants helped less than she’d thought, irrelevant when it was his hips that ceaselessly shifted, grinding down into the bed, twisting from side to side, both chasing her mouth and fleeing from it.

He groaned something incoherent, the pitch of his noises rising, and Rey decided she wanted him to finish in her mouth. She wanted to taste him, feel the heat of her alpha’s come sitting on her tongue, enjoy it sliding down her throat. She wanted to look in his eyes as she swallowed.

She resettled. The head of his cock was soaked. Even the slightest graze of her thumb on his knot had it weeping, pushing out precome that she eyed with pity. You poor thing.

Dimly, she heard an almost-panicked wail when she started to suck.

He cursed, a chant of I can’t, I can’t, oh fuck, I can’t that made Rey wonder if she’d join him in release. She was so close, had shifted until she straddled one of his legs, mindlessly rubbing and grinding and why where her shorts still on? They were the most pointless things in the world, a frustrating barrier between her and what she wanted. She’d burn them the minute she could. Tear them. Drop them in acid. Something.

Her skin was infused with warmth, her omega pleased with their alpha’s vocal approval. She was too eager to hear him to bother with any kind of finesse. Taking him into her throat was a challenge she couldn’t meet, but she was helpless not to try, swallowing as much as she could, just-this-side of gagging, luxuriating in the drag of her lips against his heat.

He had to be close. Had been close for so long, and he knew it was okay, didn’t he? To let go? He was shaking and groaning and Rey’s omega purred and purred and purred, so pleased to—

Rey.” Something about the tone of his voice made her stop.

When she looked up, Ben’s face was ruddy, sweat-soaked with lips gone fat from biting. He was panting.

“Fuck. Look at you.” Sitting up, he reached out a hand, gathering up a thick trail of spit tracking its way down Rey’s chin. His eyes followed his own thumb as he swiped it across her lips. Hungry. “Did you like that? Sucking down my cock?”

“Yes,” she said. Her tongue felt too thick for her mouth.

“Liked playing with my knot?”

She nodded, that time. Of course she did.

“I almost lost my mind.” As if to prove it, he brought up a hand to cover his eyes, growling miserable frustration into his palm. “Fuck.”

Frozen in confusion, Rey looked down at the dick still in her hand. Why did he stop her? He’d lost his mind but panted out clear sentences? Suddenly her omega was a pacing, caged panic in her brain, its voice surprisingly and uncomfortably clear: Alpha didn’t like it. You didn’t do a good job. He stopped you to spare your feelings. Leave the bed. Leave the room. He deserves a good omega, one that pleases him. You couldn’t even make him come. Unworthy. You’re unworthy, ask him for forgiveness, beg, promise you’ll do better, just—”

“Rey, no.” The whole bed became a rocking sea as Ben pulled back his legs, sitting up and reaching for her. He kissed the hand she’d been using to hold him, then her cheeks, her forehead, her mouth. “I can feel you panicking. No.”

It was harder than she liked to pull herself out of that headspace. “I think,” she slurred, “the drugs are wearing off.”

“You have time yet,” he reassured her, still kissing. “I think I just fucked up again.”

Her forehead scrunched. “How?”

“I stopped you,” he said, almost bashful. “And I really, really didn’t fucking want to, but my alpha is…” He swallowed, and she could tell he had to force himself to look her in the eyes. “I don’t think I can come until we fuck. My instincts are being…insistent.”

She blinked at him. Her omega was almost instantly satiated—alpha only wants to wait, we are worthy, we are good—quieted like a dog with a hearty bone. It was easier to think, but all she could manage was, “Oh.” Because there was still one thing she didn’t understand. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but how are you talking?”

He seemed transfixed by her neck, tracing the edges of her bruises with his thumb. Pride flared bright in his eyes. “Begging for a compliment?”

“No, I—uh.” How had she forgotten that she was shirtless? His chest was broad and heat-soaked; she unconsciously shifted closer, the urge to grind returning. She wanted to bite him. His skin was right there and that rich, alpha smell was back, saturating the air. She stared at the gland on the crease of his shoulder. It was dark red and wanting.

“Rey?”

“I forgot my question.” Maybe she wasn’t as in control as she’d thought.

It was strange, she thought. She was simultaneously more aroused than she’d ever been—her whole body an ache, every inch ceaselessly crying for attention—and yet it suddenly seemed so important to explore his chest, to step outside of immediate want and bask in having an alpha, her alpha so close, someone who was just as eager to touch her as she was to touch him, whose lips felt worshipful wherever they landed. She was so thankful and awed and she didn’t know how much of it was her heat and how much of it was just Rey but they were kissing again—slow strokes of his tongue that got her moaning, his taste feeding a growing hunger.

Ben broke away. “Will you let me take care of you?” He lifted her as he sat up, slowly turning and lowering her until her back hit the mattress, his bulk blocking her sight of the ceiling. “I want to.”

“Please,” she managed.

He gave a deep growl of approval. “Did you enjoy that? Earlier?” He kissed her tenderly and now she hated it, hated it because it suddenly wasn’t enough. “Tormenting your alpha?”

“I did,” she gasped. Fucking hell, he was strong. No matter how hard she twisted her hips, he easily caught her, pressing her down. Soon she was struggling just to enjoy knowing she couldn’t escape. “I— liked that you let me.”

Another pleased sound. “Do you want me to touch you?”

You are touching me, she was close to saying, but he had started up a slow rub on the seam of her shorts, light enough to make her gut clench. That wasn’t what he meant. “Yes.” She pressed into his hand and whined when he took it away. “Yes, I—”

“Do you want me to fuck you?”

She did. She wanted it, couldn’t believe they’d waited as long as they actually had. “Yes.

A familiar wildness was creeping back into his smile. She only caught a glimpse before he seized her arms, pressing them flat against the mattress. “These stay here.”

And then he was leaving her, nudging up her legs and settling between them, mouthing at her through her shorts, the seam digging in cruelly, a good but insufficient pressure. The way it rubbed her clit was just this side of painful, but Ben was a distraction, nipping at the fabric, his hands curled around her thighs, holding her open, the pressure of his fingers sharp enough to keep her grounded.

“God,” he pulled away to growl. He nosed at the fabric. “You’re soaked through.”

She was. She had been. There was no point in saying it out loud.

He plucked at the hem. “I bet you’re ready for this to come off.”

She nodded frantically. Yes.

“I don’t know if I should,” he grinned up at her, and Rey cursed her earlier teasing. The cadence of his voice was a deliberate mockery of hers and why, why did she get the only alpha in recorded history capable of stringing a sentence together during rut?

It wasn’t until his hands were there, fumbling at her button that she remembered what she’d put in her underwear.

She wouldn’t mention it. He wouldn’t see. He was half-crazed too, no matter that he could talk, that he was murmuring things that made her want to scream—I bet you’re so soft. Are you going to be good for me? Hold yourself open, let me make you come? You’ve been so good, omega—he wouldn’t say anything, it was irrelevant but oh god, her hips were lifted, and he was pulling down the fabric, and she was finally, finally fucking free of them. That was the sound of the fabric hitting the floor.

Her luck had held. When she felt brave enough to open her eyes, Ben was staring at her, his mouth open, forehead creased as he studied, his hands going under her knees to spread her wider, teeth snapping at the air in warning when she tried to move her hands.

“God, you need it.” His thumbs parted her lips, a look of pity on his face. “How long has it been this bad, omega?”

Years. Eons. Five eternities. She didn’t bother to answer.

“Tell me where you want me to touch you.”

“Don’t be cruel,” she gritted, her hands squeezing into fists. All she wanted to do was move them. He was too far away to touch, but her nipples were hard, sharp points that howled for attention.

An alpha looked back at her. “Tell me.”

Instead of being cowed into submission, she reveled in the high of saying, “You know where I want it.” She angled her hips down, desperate for relief he refused to provide, knowing that her slick had already wetted the sheets.

If he was upset that she didn’t back down, he didn’t show it. “Here?” It was a gentle pinch on her thigh, but she still rocked away with a gasp. “Or here?” He circled her entrance with a thumb, shocking her when he swiftly pushed it in. And he was a terrible, low-rate actor when he pretended to be confused, asking, “Am I missing something?”

She couldn’t keep still, only just managed to keep her palms flat on the bed in the barest adherence to his order. Her elbows bent, her torso jacked up and twisted, and she clenched on his thumb, keening. “Fucking hell, just please—”

It was bizarre to have this much control, even as she begged. Bizarre to watch her alpha tease, bizarre to love it instead of crying for her torment to end. But if she loved it, she hated it too, didn’t know if she wanted to whimper or scream when he went to his belly and only breathed on her clit, offering up tiny, useless licks on the hood that only served to madden her more. His hands were strong and unyielding, pinning her down, and all the wriggling in the world didn’t help. He liked it when she struggled, kept whispering yes, that’s good, so good until she hissed and grabbed his hair, pulling him forward and finding the strength to keep him there, rolling her hips against his mouth.

She came the moment he sucked.

It was lighting. Electric. A relief so profound she wanted to weep and had, probably, because her face was wet when she gripped at her cheeks. And then she couldn’t stop: she clawed at her own hair, her tits, even her fucking ears in an attempt to escape the stimulation of his tongue. She did it for proof. There had to be a feeling other than this because this was not something meant to be endured. The pinch of her nails was just promise enough to keep her sane.

He was immediately and wholly forgiven for the teasing. Once she’d ridden through the height of it—once she realized her throat was sore from a shout she hadn’t heard and once Ben had shown mercy by abandoning her clit for wide, cleaning licks—she felt content.

Not sated, she was surprised to realize. Her heat was still too firmly active for that, but she felt level-headed enough to feel mildly afraid for the future because that had been Ben’s mouth and his thumb and—yes, she clenched to confirm she wasn’t imagining things— it was big enough to feel but would pale in comparison to a knot.

Ben’s voice reached her ears.

“Such a good fucking girl, coming on my tongue.” He sounded just as breathless as she was, and she gasped when she could see his eyes. They’d gone near-black. His cheeks were pink, his hair mussed from where she’d grabbed it. “I’m gonna fuck you now,” he said, and it sounded like a warning. “You promise to come that hard on my knot?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, surging up until he was braced on his hands and pushing in and in and in and thrusting before Rey could form a thought.

She scrambled to prepare for what she couldn’t have known. There was no room to think—it was inescapable, this feeling, the way his cock stretched her and filled her up almost unbearably full, stealing her breath and demanding nothing less than everything her body could give. She could only hold on, clutching at him as he snarled and cursed, nipping at her neck as they writhed together, every push something blissful and brand new.

Suppressants had been around for years; blockers, too. But if this very odd, left-field day had taught Rey nothing else, it was that instincts could never be underestimated. No drug could completely kill what she felt in her soul, that part of her that thrashed and shook with need.

And, strangely, she was glad of it. There was power in this amount of passion. For the first time, she pitied betas. They couldn’t do this—would never know the feel of a knot, couldn’t ever make an alpha this wild with need. Not like Rey.

Ben was gone— wherever it was that his rut demanded he go, he’d been taken without mercy. This Ben wouldn’t talk. Couldn’t. There were no more words, but he communicated in every other way: going to one elbow so he could cradle her neck, thumbing at her nipples, nodding frantically with leaking, closed eyes when Rey clenched on his cock, gasping when she rubbed her nose against his gland.

All the while the bed shook. Their noises filled the room, every slap of wet skin, every groan and shout.

She could tell when he was close. If his hands had never been idle, they almost buzzed with movement now, all of it focused on his own body. He made fists. He mouthed the fat of his thumb. He pinched anything he could grab. She recognized his attempt at the same strategy she’d tried earlier—trying to overwhelm his senses with familiar sensations as something unknown and terrifying approached. His first knot.

Seeing his face unfroze her tongue. “You’re okay,” she managed to say.

He looked at her, wild.

Her own orgasm was waiting, threatening to end everything she knew but she wouldn’t let herself walk off the edge. Not until she had his knot. And he needed her. He hadn’t looked away, so she said it again, reaching up to touch his cheek. “You’re okay.”

He was too far away to answer, his eyes glazed, but she could feel it now: a pressure where there hadn’t been a pressure before, a swelling that forced Ben’s thrusts to slow. It had to be her imagination, but she could swear each pulse matched the beat of her heart.

And at the peak of it, when she could no longer move, when the bulge of his knot was bigger than anything she’d ever taken, when she almost wept from the pressure and from the joy of feeling, Rey clutched Ben as he came. She held him as he shuddered and was held in return and in the dimmest, most remote corner of her mind, just as she tumbled into oblivion, she remembered the forums and thought,

I see what you fucking mean.

Chapter Text

Rey refused to let this be the most awkward moment of her life.

It wasn’t him, she decided, or them in general. It didn’t feel awkward to be knotted; it felt blissful and right in a way that foretold the immediate destruction of her dildos when she got home. Nothing artificial, no matter how expensive or ambitious, could possibly compete with the real thing. The heat of Ben’s knot, the girth and the pressure—these things could be replicated, but she’d tried those replicas and had never once felt as satisfied as she did right now.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t strange. When the haze of her orgasm had faded, she felt Ben come for minutes—shuddering and gasping with every helpless thrust of his hips, his nose buried in her gland like it was the only thing rooting him to reality. It was odd to feel herself so flooded with come. There was a heavy fullness in her womb when she shifted, a sweet soreness from expansion. She blushed to think of how much she actually held, not sure if she’d have the strength to look between her thighs when his knot finally slipped free.

Odder than that was the experience of enjoying the lingering satiation that came from a good fuck without the mind fog she usually associated with heat sex. As she’d never been with an alpha, no number of orgasms had ever truly soothed her heat. Coming helped, certainly, but her omega wasn’t fooled and quickly cried for more. It was hard to tell with the suppressant (and Ben was right: she had had more time, still felt in control as long as she stayed calm), but she was almost positive that her omega was purring in relief.

It also wasn’t awkward to feel Ben’s weight—it was soothing, actually, and she reveled in the opportunity she had to trace the contours of his back. He’d collapsed on her when he’d finally finished coming, too exhausted to remember that he dwarfed her in size. He’d moved in small ways since—shifting his head to lazily suckle at her gland, bringing up his elbows to reclaim some of his weight—but their position had remained largely unchanged.

She should probably feel more embarrassed than she actually did about being naked in bed with a man she’d met only hours before. Rationally, there was more than enough fodder for self-consciousness: she was mostly covered by Ben, but there was nothing modest about how far apart her legs were stretched. Or how she’d snuck a hand down to feel the taut skin at her entrance. And he had yet to move his face, but Ben had murmured drunken praise for some minutes—such a pretty cunt, you did so well, letting me fill you up, taking it all, I knew you could—all of it filthier than anything she’d heard before.

Whether he’d fucked away her sense of propriety or whether she’d had less of it than she expected in the first place, she truly didn’t mind. It felt ridiculous to pretend otherwise. They’d done what they’d done and their instincts would have accepted nothing less.

She bit her lip. Except she had control of her instinct, if only weakly. Her omega was pleased but if she were honest, so was she—her, Rey, a woman with her own mind. Being with Ben had been good in a way that she was almost afraid to analyze, like silver tarnished by touch.

It was easier to focus on other things. Like how the world felt oddly, starkly new.

The sheets had been rucked off the mattress. Someone had over-starched them; they felt stiff against Rey’s feet, almost powdery. She wondered whose job it was to prep the rooms—if there had once been a fraught meeting over the merits of cotton versus rayon, how many times someone had written as per my last e-mail in the days leading up to the study.

The air was cool against her exposed skin. Either the scientists had adjusted the thermostat or she’d been too hot before to notice. The room was also smaller than she’d realized. Hadn’t it taken an age for the doctor to push his cart to the door? The memory seemed so far away.

What was awkward, she finally decided, was not knowing what happened next.

Holding him, being held, this moment was safe, but what happened when the scientists—who had maintained diligent radio silence since Ben’s cuffs had been removed—returned? What happened when they shook her hand and escorted her to the door with a check? Where was Ben, in all of that?

Fuck. Blood left her cheeks. What if he tried to shake her fucking hand?

“I earnestly appreciated the opportunity to copulate with you,” he’d intone, and if he had a hat, he’d tip it. “It was a sincere pleasure to knot in your vaginal canal. May I offer you a complementary mint?”

She screwed up her face. No. No, he’d—well, the odds were good it would be painful, but he wouldn’t spit on the memory of what they’d shared by being purposefully dismissive. Cold, maybe. If they had to part ways with an audience, she wasn’t sure Ben could manage the same kind of warmth he’d shown her during the study proper. At the same time, she couldn’t picture what they’d say in private.

Best to leave it to the future. The present was much more appealing.

Ben was back. Or at least his alpha had subsided enough to restore higher brain function. He’d taken even more of his weight and Rey could feel—through the bond or normal intuition, she wasn’t sure—his lazy contentment swirl with a dawning embarrassment.

He lifted his head, catching her gaze with his own. There was a crease on his cheek from the pillow. A slight puffiness around his eyes gave him the look of a man torn from a restful slumber.

Crazily, Rey’s first instinct was to smile and think, Hi. I missed you.

Somehow, she knew his smile—more timid than hers but just as honest—said it back.

I missed you too.

She opened her mouth, unsure what would spring out of it, but the words didn’t come. And she was glad for it, because it was nicer just to do this—to look at him and smile and crow with silent triumph when he couldn’t find proof of his fear in her eyes. He relaxed again, reassured.

Then his gaze dipped to her throat and he bodily winced. “Jesus, that looks—” he had to pause to clear his throat, “Does that hurt?” The way he asked confirmed that he was already ninety percent convinced that it did indeed hurt, that he was to blame, and that if they weren’t currently knotted, he’d offer to fetch a switch for his punishment.

Because she had a feeling he wouldn’t believe her if she answered too quickly, she dipped her neck to her shoulder, rolling it as best she could. It felt like a single almighty bruise, albeit a numb one. She wasn’t sure how to explain that the ache was pleasing. Glands were meant to be attacked during sex, and hers were more than happy with his attention.

She decided on, “You barely nibbled.”

“But it’s purple,” he said helplessly.

“I can arrange for you to join the club, if you’re jealous.” She tried not to sound too eager. No need to oversell; he seemed like a skittish customer. “I promise not to be quick about it.”

Yes. Good. Distract him.

She was somewhat successful: he looked less stricken, although he still brought a hand to her skin, mapping out the damage with the pad of his thumb. “You couldn’t be this cruel,” he said softly.

“That is patently untrue. I almost chewed off Gretchen Nob’s ankle in kindergarten.”

He frowned. “Please tell me Gretchen Nob was not the name of your teacher.”

“That would be more compelling than the truth, which is that Gretchen tried to steal my Dunkaroos and it pissed me off.”

Full-on smiles didn’t seem to be part of Ben’s regular rotation of facial expressions, but Rey was starting to recognize when something pleased him. His eyes slightly crinkled and there was a telltale twitch at the corner of his mouth. Then it dimmed, replaced with mild apprehension. She cocked her head, trying to guess what he was about to say.

“So what I’m hearing,” he said slowly, fumbling his way through the words, “is that if I took you out to dinner, I wouldn’t be allowed to eat off your plate?”

Don’t freeze, she coached herself. Do something with your face so he knows you’re interested. Pretend to think about it, no—leave your hands alone. Too showy. Buy time with a contemplative sigh so you can process that he would hypothetically take you out to dinner. Because that was a dinner offer. He just referred to a time and place beyond this room and it was not your imagination and now it’s been too long, say something, answer his question, go.

“Not if you like your ankles.”

That seemed to strike the right tone. He seemed relieved, resettling his body over hers in a way that reminded Rey that they were still very, very naked and his skin was very, very soft. “Seems like an odd place to seek revenge.”

“Throat ripping is too cliché,” she dismissed. “Ankles, on the other hand, give me the element of surprise.”

He nodded like that was a fair point. “What if your target is wearing boots?”

“Then I chew through them with my demonically sharp teeth.”

“That’s a lot of work for one bite of your entrée.”

“I never said I couldn’t be persuaded to share,” she pointed out. “I’m easily tempted by quid pro quo food sharing scenarios. For future reference,” she added, only a little awkwardly.

Was this flirting? Hypothetically, he’d invite her to dinner and hypothetically, she’d be willing to part with a portion of her plate, but now that she thought about it, friends went to dinner. Finn had invited her over for an Instant Pot recipe right before she’d left the car, and only last week she’d met up with Poe during his lunch break for street tacos. Five of them. Granted, she’d never been knotted to Finn or Poe. That was certainly a departure from the norm.

A welcome one, she thought. Instead of feeling panicked about being tethered, Ben’s knot made her feel safe. She liked the way he held her, the way he kept finding reasons to touch her as they’d talked—light, fleeting glances of his fingers on her skin. And she’d been equally helpless not to touch him back, although she’d given up on his hair. It kept falling to obscure his eyes.

“Well,” he said, pulling her out of her thoughts, “for future reference, it’s unlikely that I’ll share my vegetables. But,” he leaned forward, his lips tickling her ear, and Rey wondered if he was or was not purposefully rocking his hips, “dessert is always on the table.”

A knot was not something one ignored, but something about his voice reminded her body that she liked it.

“Do you even order dessert?” She was curious to know if she could make him shiver just by whispering in his ear. “I feel like your body would stage a revolt in the presence of sugar.”

“Moderation, is—uh.” Success. “You just have to be aware.”

“Name the last dessert you’ve eaten.” If he managed to convince her he’d eaten one unhealthy thing in the last decade, she’d sign away her life’s savings.

There was the barest hint of a pause before he said, “Pie.”

“What kind?”

Faster, this time. “Apple.”

“From where?”

“Is this an interrogation?”

“No,” she said, and the rocking was definitely on purpose. He tried to hide it against her shoulder, but he grinned every time she rocked back. “I’m just aggressively curious.”

“I don’t know where it was from,” he finally answered, his voice little more than a vibration. “A store. Some store.”

“That answer,” she had to pause to focus, “sounds like the answer of a liar.”

“Believe what you want.” He said it like he didn’t care either way, like the whole discussion was a country long since conquered. His movements were no longer subtle; the bed started up an indignant squeak. “I think I need to come again.”

Rey really did have something else to say, some protest using the words orgasm and deflection and not as clever as you think but he cut her off with a kiss.

--

“Has this been what you expected?” she blurted. When she remembered how much longer they could potentially be in the room, she added, “So far, I mean.”

They were on their sides. Spooning. After he’d come again, Ben’s knot had felt inexplicably bigger in a way that suggested he’d restarted the clock. She had no real idea how long they’d already been knotted, only that Ben had admitted his back was complaining and did she think she could…rotate?

The answer was yes, although the feeling of it had them both cursing—Ben gritting his teeth and her hoping with crossed fingers that her body could resist the temptation of coming because she had only just and her clit felt too swollen to touch.

She couldn’t interpret his sigh. “Not even close.”

“Good or bad?” Rey wasn’t sure what she’d do if he confessed to being traumatized. How did one go about apologizing for impromptu rut sex? As far as she knew, Hallmark didn’t make a card. Maybe she’d bake him a sugar-free cake. The only trouble would be knowing what to write on the top. Some sort of a pun on knot, obviously, but—

“You pick at your nails when you’re worrying. Stop.”

A hand covered her own. There was a scar she hadn’t noticed on his thumb. For some reason, the sight of it made her sad. “I don’t think it’s a senseless worry,” she admitted, voice low. “You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me.”

“Maybe not,” he allowed, “but you shouldn’t think I blame you.”

That was good to know. Still, “You must have thought about your first time. How it would go, who it would be with. I took that from you.”

“Before today, I never wasted time thinking about it. What was the point? I’ve been on blockers for as long as I can remember.” He paused. She could feel his frown against her hair. “Am still on blockers, actually. I’m surprised Ackbar hasn’t broken down the door for a blood sample.”

“I wonder what they’d see.”

He grunted. “Whatever they expect to see. That team is good at twisting data to suit their needs.”

The reminder of the scientists was an unwelcome one. “Well, whatever they see, it has to be odd. Not bad odd,” she rushed to say, “but different. I was surprised and I’m the only one on either side of the glass who’s ever had a heat before. By the way,” she lightly jabbed an elbow backward, “how does it feel to be a rule-breaker?”

“I’m not exactly sure which rules I’m breaking.” Another frown. “Have broken. Will break. Any and all tenses.”

Rey really wished she could look him in the eye because honestly. “You can’t be that ignorant.” From the sound Ben made, she gathered no one had cared to call him that in recent memory. Even jokingly. “You’ve watched heat porn, same as everybody else.”

“Why would I torture myself by watching something I would never have?”

“Are you trying to…” She didn’t even know the right word. “Shield me, or something? Protect my delicate feminine sensibility? We just had sex. You can admit you watch porn.”

“I’ve watched…porn.” He said it like he had to force the word past his teeth. “Just not heat porn.”

“Oh?” His halting awkwardness was endearing. “So if I pulled up your browser history, what kind of porn would I see?”

He shifted behind her. “It feels in poor taste to talk about that while we’re knotted.”

“That kinky, huh?”

If she had to guess, she would say he was blushing. His voice remained remarkably dry. “To be honest, I don’t really know. Never swapped porn links over brunch.”

“Is that so? Well, I’d highly recommend it. Found some of my top bookmarks over a mimosa and a good omelet.” She waited until he realized she was joking. His muscles relaxed, and she laughed when he nipped at her shoulder. “Seriously, though. No heat sex?”

Saying it, she recalled the first time she’d brought herself to click a link. A friend had sent it—a beta, actually—when Rey admitted to wondering how her heat compared to everyone else’s. Easy enough to find out, he’d said, and Rey was almost embarrassed that she hadn’t thought to look on her own.

Said video (“Heat slut begs for alpha dick”) was almost immediately dismissed, not least because Rey could tell it was fake. There were careful, clever pans away from any angle that would show the alpha’s dick too closely. Whatever glimpses of it the camera accidentally captured were proof that he wasn’t actually an alpha: there hadn’t even been a half-assed effort to fake a knot. Not so much as an inch of prosthetic. And if that wasn’t enough, Rey caught the not-omega’s eyes flicking to the nightstand clock in between her mewling. Not that Rey could blame her: from the look of it, the alpha was convinced that tit-slapping was the only path to ecstasy.

She’d almost abandoned the site, but her eye had caught on a suggested video. Heat: Day One, it said, and she wasn’t sure if it was the startlingly rare sight of capital letters or the almost tasteful still underneath (a woman kissing a man’s palm) that convinced her, but she clicked.

It had started off with sensual, heavy petting, both man and woman naked and sprawled on a bed that didn’t seem like it was part of a set. It looked like a bedroom, their bedroom, and Rey recognized the signs of heat: a pile of blankets kicked to the floor from nesting, bottles of water on the nightstand, food cooked and waiting on the dresser. The omega’s whines were low and constant, the alpha’s words unheard but clearly reassuring, his hands never stopping in their attempts to soothe. He cradled her face, he kissed her jaw, and Rey watched and watched and watched.

That video had ended with the omega’s first begging shout. Please, she’d cried, and that was that. There was a part two and three and four and Rey saw it all, her own clit begging for attention but ignored because this—this was what it was like. The wildness. The mess. These were two people gone feral with need.

And if she’d started the video with eyes for the omega, she’d quickly shifted focus to the alpha. It wasn’t the way he looked—he was broad and tall like the rest of them, unremarkable—but the way he spoke. His single-mindedness, the directives his omega so happily obeyed.

At the time, Rey had been enraptured. This was insight no forum thread could provide. She catalogued everything, comparing it to what she’d read and what she’d dreamed.

It was different, thinking of it now. She doubted that nameless omega could repeat anything her alpha had said. Maybe that was why they’d filmed it. Heat was a thief in so many ways: robbing omegas of their agency, without a doubt, but also of the details that Rey knew she’d sorely miss. It was oddly humbling to realize she could recall exactly how Ben’s hips felt between her thighs, the words he’d said, the way he’d moved her and how they’d moved together.

“Are you thinking about heat porn?” a voice rumbled.

There was no need to lie. “Yeah.”

“I thought so. You kept…clenching. My alpha was confused whether or not to feel offended.”

Rey felt torn between a grimace and a laugh. Probably not best form to admit she was porn-reminiscing while she was technically still having sex. He didn’t sound upset, though. Only honest. “I kind of wish you’d seen the same one. Would make talking about the rule-breaking easier.”

“I’m open to enlightenment.” His hand smoothed down her side. A pet. She told herself it was dangerous to luxuriate in it, but did so anyway.

Where to start? “You listened to me, for one. Talked. Let me put you on your back. Waited to come. All unusual.”

“Alphas don’t listen to their omegas?” He sounded like the very idea was offensive to his soul.

“No, they do.” At least she assumed most of them did. If there were shitty people, there were shitty alphas and Rey had no doubt some of them were cruel in bed. “They give their partners what they need. That’s your programming, right? It’s—more that omegas aren’t usually in the mindset to ask questions in the first place.”

“Ah.”

“Which is one of the reasons I’m not so sorry for interrupting your work day,” she teased, although once she spoke she realized how much she actually meant it. “I didn’t sign up for the study expecting to remember my heat.”

“You don’t normally?”

Had no one forced him to sit through a single designation class? Had he never picked up a pamphlet? She didn’t want to shame him, so she just shook her head. “Not much of it. You know if you get what you need and how quickly, but it’s all blurred. At least for me,” she added, because there was no way to be sure. She’d never taken a poll of the planet.

He was silent for a moment. “I’m trying to think of an inoffensive way to ask if you spent your last heat with an alpha. It’s none of my business," he said quickly, "it’s just—you mentioned what it’s normally like and my alpha is, ah. Struggling.”

It felt wrong to like knowing that.

“I’ve never been with an alpha,” she admitted, not expecting the way Ben immediately started to purr. She laughed because he tried to cough it away. “It’s been betas and one-click purchase dildos since day one.”

“Thus the heat porn.” His chest was still rumbling. It felt good against her back, calming anxiety she hadn’t realized she carried.

“And forums, yes.”

He made a sound like that was familiar. “There was a whole team focused on online platforms. I heard them talking about it.”

“That’s interesting. Did they create fake accounts?”

“I tried not to pay attention. And I know I’m the one who brought it up, but can we please not talk about my coworkers? Because I’m trying really, really hard not to imagine what it will feel like to walk into the lab on Monday.”

Unhelpfully, she pointed out, “It’s Tuesday.”

“If you think I can walk back into work the day after I knotted on camera, you know me not at all.”

“Well, can we even the odds?”

He traced a question mark on her hip. “In what way?”

“You’ve worked here for years, right? You can’t tell me you haven’t picked up some salacious gossip.”

He was silent. Rey took the opportunity to reach back, slapping whatever piece of him that her hand could reach.

“Here,” she said, bringing her awareness between her legs to confirm that yes, his knot was now small enough to do what she wanted. “Let’s move again. Me on the bottom. I’m cold.”

Rey still had to hold her breath as they did it, but it was worth it to see his face again. Even with their bond, she felt like it was harder to interpret his feelings without seeing his eyes.

“You can’t tell me that you know nothing about no one,” she pressed.

He looked a little like Rey used to feel when a teacher called her up to work a math problem on the board when she hadn’t done the homework.

“Here,” she said graciously. “I’ll start. When I was sixteen I worked at a car wash. One of our jobs was detailing and I always worked with this guy named Garrett. Garrett was a menace. The most helpful thing he ever did was stay out of everyone’s way. Left unchecked, he had a thing for licking the steering wheels. Like almost compulsively.” She frowned at the memory of a blue Honda Civic. “Also, I once caught him peeing on a fender.”

“You just made that up.”

“Your disbelief is irrelevant,” she said sadly. “Garrett exists. Did that help?”

“No. Now I’m just trying to remember the last time I cleaned my car.”

“One more, then. Now pay attention. We’re looking for juicy, embarrassing facts. Not career-enders, just a basic reassertion of dominance. They’ve seen your dick; you prove you’ve seen their receipts. Ready?” She drudged up an old memory from college. “Part of my work study program meant that I worked in the library on campus. Quietest place I’ve ever worked. Best place for gossip.”

He cut her off. “I’m guessing you caught five people fucking near the periodicals in the first week.”

“You know,” she admitted, “I feel strangely cheated. Movie logic dictates that I should have seen as least one naked ass by National Geographic before the end of day two.”

“Not even a make out?” He sounded firmly disbelieving.

She shook her head sadly. “Far fewer people are turned on by the Library of Congress Classification system than I anticipated.”

“I refuse to believe no one fucked in your library.”

“Too many windows, I think. The head librarian always complained about it.”

“About the windows or the lack of fucking?”

She laughed and could tell it pleased him. “The light. He fretted about the books more than his own children. Who were gorgeous, by the way. His wife was a professor and brought them by from time to time. That’s lame gossip, though. They never did anything more scandalous than drip ketchup on the floor. Their father howled about it, but he still ate his burger in the office.”

“Universities are rife with hypocrites.”

“He was a good guy,” she lightly defended. “Brought everyone donuts on their birthday. Of course we had to eat them outside. No one ever complained, though. But: gossip. Let me tell you some lest we get sidetracked from our ultimate goal.” She liked the way he looked at her, expectant. There were flecks of gold in the brown of his eyes. It left her feeling warm. “You couldn’t run away from gossip there. It found you like some kind of eerie, tome-drunk bloodhound. Like, there was this one professor who always waited for her colleague to post her syllabus. Some upper-level English class, I’m not sure which. But she’d come in and check all the books out before the students could get to them. Just to spite the teacher. Isn’t that wild?”

“Not really.”

Her jaw dropped. “Are you serious? That’s a dick move.”

“I’m not saying it’s not a dick move. I’m saying that’s an uninteresting piece of gossip.”

“I made no promises about fascinating gossip,” she protested, mildly offended. “Just good dirt.”

He scoffed. “That’s not good dirt, either. That’s barely worth a glance from the misconduct board.”

“Did you turn into a gossip connoisseur in the last five minutes?” she wondered aloud. “You acted like you didn’t even know the word and now you’re offering unsolicited critique. Let’s hear yours, then.”

His former wariness returned. “I’m not sure…” he started.

“If there was ever a free pass for gossip, this qualifies,” she reminded him, in case his morals were hollering too loudly. And when he still seemed resolutely silent, she asked, “Are you hesitating because you’re really, really unobservant, or are you trying to protect someone’s virtue?”

“Neither, I’m just—” He huffed out a frustrated breath. “I guess I can’t think of anything particularly interesting. Also, I never bother remembering names.”

She’d focus on the first part of his confession even though she suspected the latter was the truer reason why he was stalling. “It doesn’t need to be interesting. These people saw your balls, Ben. They’ll be analyzing our sweat for weeks. There will be conferences. Memos. You’ll accidentally be cc’d on an e-mail with twelve attachments of your left asscheek.” He was cracking, she could tell. Just a little more pain and he’d break. It was for his own good. “Someone has probably already used the zoom in feature on their laptop. Enlarging the enlarged, so to speak.”

“Jesus, okay. Stop. You’re relentless.”

She kissed the corner of his mouth.

“Give me a minute. I’m trying to think of who’s in there.” He brought up a hand to cover his eyes, his thumb on one side of his temple and his fingers on the other. It wasn’t long until he made a disgusted sound. “Harry. Harold? He figured out how to hack into the vending machine and steals at least six bags of Sun Chips each week.”

“Petty theft. Not bad. Keep going.”

“Olivia puts used knives back in the kitchen drawers unwashed.”

“Gross.”

“If he hasn’t retired yet, Marshall’s in that room. He still doesn’t know how to calibrate the scale in 202. Has to look it up every time. The last time I caught him, I hid the fucking manual.”

“As you should.”

“Marquis makes his interns read his dissertation. I’ve been told he expects compliments in the form of handwritten letters.” The words were coming easier now. Whatever internal dam he’d fortified had finally collapsed. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure that whoever has the office next to Amilyn has a fake degree. He told me the wrong ratio of acetone and saline last Tuesday. Five to fucking one, he said.” There was real outrage in his voice. “But honestly, he has nothing on…the short transfer from Connecticut. She googled at least ten words during our last seminar.”

Rey pretended to gasp. “The audacity.”

“Probably can’t even spell morphological. I could train a better geneticist in a week.”

Yikes. “This is me gently pointing out that that verged on hurtful.”

“Isn’t that the point of gossip?”

Guilt waved a sullen hand in Rey’s mind. “Well, I mean. It’s a common byproduct. But I feel like our intentions verge on noble in this particular situation.” All the same, it was probably wiser to move on. “Do you feel better?”

“Mildly, I suppose.”

Rey winced. “Yeah, I’m not sure there’s an easy way to escape the mortification of knowing your co-workers have seen you naked. If it brings you any comfort, I probably broke a microphone when I came. I expect a bill in the mail. Someone’s probably licking the stamp right now.” She was teasing, but he seemed to take it seriously.

Turning, he frowned at the glass. “They wouldn’t do something so uncouth.”

She made a show of patting the bed, tossing up the edge of a pillow.

His brow furrowed. “What are you doing?”

“Checking for your SAT cards.”

“This, coming from the woman that used ‘salacious’ earlier.”

She waved that fact away. “So I know one big word.”

“I think I know the real reason it bothers you.” He tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “You’re jealous.”

“Psh,” she dismissed. “I’m not jealous of what I could do with one thumb and a Wi-Fi connection. Anyone can use a thesaurus.”

“Jealous,” he stated, like it was written in blood.

“Oh, please. ‘Serendipitous’ is just ‘lucky’ in a top hat.”

He tilted his head. “So you’re saying it’s pretentious.”

“Not at all. Top hats are cool. I’m just pointing out that they’re the same basic thing. One just happens to be fancier than the other.”

“Is there something wrong with being fancy?”

She bopped him on the nose. “Nothing wrong, just…unusual. Like walking into a store and seeing someone sniff the kiwis in a ball gown.”

“If that was a roundabout way of admitting you smell kiwis in the grocery store, I think I need to insist you leave this bed.”

She schooled her face into a frown. “How else are you supposed to buy them?” When he actually started to look alarmed, she tugged at one of his ears, laughing when he snapped at her retreating fingers. “I’m kidding. But my original point is the same. I’m not jealous.”

“You misunderstood me. I’m not saying you’re jealous that I know the words.” He trailed a hand down her leg, hiking it back up and over his hip. He did it slowly, directing her with the ghost of his fingertips, lightly touching until she did as he wanted. Then he grunted softly, satisfied. “You’re jealous of their power. You're jealous because they make you melt.”

She was two seconds away from pointing out that she wasn’t a tub of sherbet, but when it had felt so nice to tuck up one leg, the other dutifully followed. The position rocked his knot forward and she squeezed hard enough to make Ben’s eyes flutter shut.

“Big words don’t make me melt,” she protested, pleased that it took him a moment to recover.

“Oh?” His lips brushed her ear. “Watch,” he said, gently nudging her cheek until it rested on the pillow.

The tickle of his breath distracted her from asking how she was supposed to watch when she only had a good view of the wall. She shivered and let her mouth fall open because shivering meant tightening and tightening meant more pressure exactly where she wanted it. There was a drawing tightness in her body that she recognized. Her hips wanted to rock.

It was too soon to come again, so she tried to distract herself with flippancy. “Well?”

“Tremulous.” He kept his voice low.

“Very impressive,” she breathed. “Do you still have the number of your teacher? I can ask if she has another gold star.”

“Indelicate.”

“Are four syllables supposed to impress me?”

“Equanimity.”

She wriggled, more heat rushing south when she remembered she couldn’t escape. This was it. She had no choice but to feel. Valiantly, she gasped, “If I’m melting, it’s because I’m in a very compromising position. It has nothing to do with your vocabulary.”

“Then why are you getting so wet?”

“If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been wet the entire time. And okay, okay—” Her hands scrambled to clutch his shoulders as he started up a gentle rocking. It was all he could do and it was more than enough. “That’s cheating.”

“What’s cheating?”

Moving.”

“Don’t you mean ambulation?”

A definitely new, definitely noticeable amount of slick eased his rocking into shallow thrusting. “I do not,” she gasped. “That is not what I mean.”

He made a noise of disbelief. “I’ll stop as soon as you admit you’re lying.”

“That’s the worst incentive I’ve—uhn. Ever heard. Fuck, that’s good. Could you just move your…?” His hand had accidentally caught a section of her hair. “Thanks.”

“Too much?” he asked, serious.

She shook her head.

Words—fancy ones or otherwise—died away.

Her orgasm built gradually. This wasn’t the inescapable tidal wave of earlier, not anything that made her wonder if she would survive it, but something more delicate. Something easy and wonderfully lazy that reminded her of early summer mornings, those Polaroid moments when she could almost convince herself the sun would never rise higher in the sky.

She basked, realizing all over again that she could bask and how strangely lucky she was to be where she was. And with who she was with.

--

“Three things you’re bad at. Go.”

With careful, halting adjustments, they’d gone to their sides again. Ben had made her smile by hesitating before he snaked an arm around her waist. As if they hadn’t just rocked their way to another orgasm. As if they weren’t still knotted. She chalked it up to the lingering fight between him and his alpha.

At least he didn’t hesitate with an answer. “Fishing, blackjack, and analogies.”

Interesting. “Making them or understanding them?”

He leaned over to give her a look she could only just make out. “I have a Ph.D.”

“So?” she said, not unkindly. “One of my friends is a lawyer. Last week she drove through the car wash with her windows down. My other friend reads Proust for fun but types up his grocery list in comic sans. Unironically.”

“Fair enough,” he allows. “Now I feel like a dick. But making them, to answer your question. I assume you’re an expert?”

“Nah, but it’s fun to try. Name something to…analogize?” She paused, waiting for his unspoken confirmation that that was, indeed, a word. He nodded into her hair. She patted his hand in thanks. “Give me an action. We’ll see how I do.”

“Prepping your taxes.”

“Easy. Like coming back from a run desperate for water and finding out that your county’s issued a boil order. You’re not in a state of true suffering, the whole thing’s temporary, but it’s still shitty and inconvenient.”

“That’s…yes.” There was a pregnant pause before he asked, “Walking down the hallway to the lab. Before you met me.”

“Well,” she said slowly, aware she was answering an unspoken question. “I’ve never been, but I imagine it was like stepping into a maze. One of those ones you’d find at a fair, something you’d do as a kid when your hands were still sticky from cotton candy. Like stepping into the unknown but knowing you’ll safely see the other side. Excited and nervous but ready.”

Even after everything, she was still nervous. The talking and banter had been as much for her as for him—it was an escape from thinking.

They were nearing the end, now. Neither of them had tried, but Rey was unhappily confident that Ben could pull out if he made a small effort. Rey felt trapped, fruitlessly scooping up falling sand in an hourglass finally tilted upright. Any moment now, it would happen. It would end. The scientists would call their names or the handle on the door would jiggle and then she’d have to know if this connection was real enough to survive reality.

“I bet I can already name three things you’re bad at,” Ben said loftily.

“Oh?”

“First of all, you’re definitely a terrible cook.”

Had someone made a note of that in a file? Had Ben seen her file? “How could you know that?” she asked, awed.

“The way you talk about food. Like wrapping a burrito is an unknowable act of god.”

“Wow. That's...humbling. What about two and three?”

“Decorating. Just because something’s sitting on the side of the road and can be taken, doesn’t mean it should. Also, you mentioned that you have to push aside a door bead curtain to get into your kitchen.”

“It’s stylish!”

“Door bead curtains died a noble death twenty years ago. Let them enjoy the afterlife. Plus, you live in an apartment, not a dorm.”

She frowned. “This is a far more hurtful exercise than I anticipated. Do I even want to hear number three?”

“I think it’s necessary. You know what you’re really, really bad at?”

As he moved to hold her tighter, his knot shifted, sliding out with a noise Rey refused to name. She gasped at the feeling of an alpha’s worth of come leaving her body. Fuck the sheets—this would ruin the mattress. One of her hands flew to her belly; she could feel her uterus contracting, working hard to keep as much come as it could. Would they test that, now that they were apart? Her omega fretted at the potential loss.

“You,” Ben’s voice was firm, “are really bad at shielding your thoughts.” He rolled her onto her back, lifting himself up on one arm to look down, a mountain that commanded attention. His eyes were full of exasperation and determination and a blooming, fierce fondness. “It’s going to be okay," he said, quieter than before.

And she wanted to believe him.

Chapter Text

When feigning ignorance of the knocking failed to make it stop, Ben finally swiveled on his chair to glare at the glass and the person standing beyond it.

Said person looked rather pale. Still, Pava managed to sound firm when she said, “Don’t you dare turn around. We need to talk.”

He stared at her just long enough to make his returning swivel a pointed statement.

Louder, this time. “Solo, I’m serious.”

“So am I,” he said, picking up his pen again. Whoever analyzed this microarray had done the shittiest of shit jobs of interpreting the data. His assistants had sworn some sort of death pact, refusing to tell him who specifically had asked for a second opinion. It was a waste of his time. There were million other things he needed to do for his own projects, but the longer the file had sat on his desk the easier it was to smell the way it reeked of inanity.

He frowned at the paper. Whose work was this? He’d have an easier time guessing if anyone else bothered to run an interesting study and therefore, a study he would actually discuss and remember. As it was, most of his colleagues insisted on—

His pen was thrown across the room. Something shattered.

“What the hell?

Pava looked down at him. He’d seen less demonic eyes on lithographs of Satan. The only thing that ruined the illusion was the way her arms faintly trembled.

“You,” she said, poking him once on the shoulder, “are going to listen to me. I’ve done a bad thing.”

He suppressed the urge to stand. His alpha was not overfond of Pava’s presence—not the way she spoke, not the way she touched him, and most certainly not the way he had to look up to meet her gaze. “If you’re about to admit this research is yours, then yes, I agree.”

“No, it’s—” She dragged a hand down her face, sighing a sigh that ended with a moan. “Just listen.”

And he did. He listened.

And then he wordlessly left the room.

--

“They asked me to speak with you.”

“Of course they did,” Ben tried not to spit out the words, but it was hard to rein in his petulance when he’d known this would happen. The call had likely been made the second he’d told Ackbar to dose the omega with a suppressant and send her on her way.

His mother’s size was irrelevant. It didn’t matter that he towered over her; Leia had long ago mastered the art of domination through discourse. He’d always resented her ease with words. He especially resented knowing she’d been sent to use them.

Leia nodded, approaching him but stopping at the nearest chair. She stood behind it, resting her hands on the backrest and pretending to inspect her rings. “Can I hear your objections?”

He goggled. “Are you serious?”

She only looked at him. Waiting.

“You are seriously asking me why I told them no?” When she still didn’t speak, a lick of true anger bubbled up. He hated when she did this: made him feel like he was setting up his own trap and running headfirst into its snare. It turned his voice cold. “I drove into work today to do my job, not fuck on camera.”

“Don’t sully the goals of this project with that language,” she said mildly. He wanted to argue, maybe point out that he was the one who’d been asked to willingly prance around with his ballsack on display and that maybe the trauma of even visualizing that scenario entitled him to a bit of cursing, but she too quickly added, “I won’t lie to you and say I would handle it any better. I’m not sure anyone here truly understands the sacrifice of any omega or alpha involved in the study. That they could.”

He narrowed his eyes. Those didn’t sound like the words of someone eager to convince him he’d made a mistake. He didn’t feel like openly agreeing with her, but managed, “There’s a reason why I haven’t freely shared my designation.”

People had guessed. Of course they had. He tempered his instincts as best he could, but he didn’t work with anyone too stupid to notice that he commanded unsolicited attention. It didn’t matter how deeply he hunched his shoulders or how rarely he spoke; even the betas responded to his moods. Meetings were mysteriously cut short when he disagreed, ran long when he was feeling patient. Only the most self-assured colleagues could manage to talk to him without dropping their eyes in unregistered submission.

It was exhausting, being an alpha. By all accounts, he was supposed to love it. Things were supposed to be easier. You were supposed to get what you wanted. But Ben never knew what he wanted other than peace, and that was something he’d given up trying to find.

“Do you think I can’t sympathize?” Leia asked. “As if half my battle in Congress isn’t convincing witless incumbents that I find support because of my brain and not because I’m an alpha.”

Ben remembered attending a campaign dinner, how one particularly vile man had accused Leia of gathering votes through “alpha magic” and how satisfyingly distraught he’d looked after Han dumped a full bowl of macaroni salad on his head.

“If you sympathize, then why are you in this room?”

He recognized the way she drew in breath. It was the same one she took before she stepped onto a stage with a microphone. “Am I correct in assuming that you never went off the blockers?”

On pain of death, Ben would not admit how many hours he’d spent wondering what his life would look like if he had. “Never.”

“Am I also correct in assuming that your dosage suppresses your scent?”

He was beginning to think he could see the shape of her strategy. “Yes,” he said slowly. Suspiciously. “What did they tell you, exactly?” How much did she know?

“That there was a girl. That you triggered her heat.” Slower and with more meaning: “That she could trigger your rut.”

“Impossible,” he said, but his heart was beating harder. The same way it had started to beat when Pava had admitted an omega was enthusiastically sucking on the coat he’d left in his office. The same way it beat when he’d marched to the nearest toilet and thrown up his lunch. Because what she said couldn’t happen. It was impossible. He was on the strongest blockers the market had to offer and he’d never had a rut and he’d lived his whole, solitary life never expecting that to change.

Especially not at work on a fucking Tuesday afternoon.

“It should have been impossible for her to smell you at all,” Leia pressed. “I’m not sure it’s wise to dismiss the likelihood that her scent will manage to affect you, too.”

He ground his teeth. “It wouldn’t happen.”

“Would it be so bad if it did?” She raised a defensive palm. “Forget the study. Forget where we are and what they want. Nothing should happen but it might. Think about what that means. No, Ben—no protests. Not for a moment. Just think.”

He wanted to scream that he already had.

On no earthly, biological plane of rational thinking did it make sense for Ben to trigger anyone’s heat. He was an alpha, yes, but a blocked one and he’d never so much as made an omega sneeze.

He knew his parents had made a controversial choice, starting him on blockers so early. He’d resented it as a teenager, railing on and on about his right to their family’s legacy. Okay, his grandfather had been a bit of a nut job—so what? He’d been powerful, wealthy and respected with a beautiful omega wife and maybe he’d done some illegal, haunting things but his children had turned out just fine. Uncle Luke was almost cult-like in his devotion to meditation, but he could downright ignore his heats. By all accounts, Leia was just as fiery and passionate as her father but she weathered her life with easy grace. No drugs involved.

So why did Ben have to take them?

His life would be better, blocker-free. He was gangly and too tall and his ears were bigger than anyone else’s in class. Alpha hormones would help with that. He stuttered his way through every presentation. Alpha confidence would help with that. No one but his parents pretended to be interested when he chattered about isotopes and Dalton’s law. Alpha authority would help with that. Ruts sounded equal parts terrifying and terrible, but couldn’t he be on something else, a different drug that blocked just that?

No was the only answer he ever heard.

“It doesn’t work like that, honey. Han—my earrings? Did you move them?”

A belated shout from downstairs. From the garage, Ben could tell. “What?”

They were late for another rally. Ben had been ready for hours, sullenly tying and retying his tie as he practiced his new speech. Maybe this time she’d listen.

“But it’s stupid,” he whined. “You’re not on anything and neither is Uncle Luke. Neither is any other alpha at school.”

“I highly doubt that’s true,” Leia said, distracted as she twisted in front of the mirror. “Is there a run in the back of these? By my calf? It feels like there’s—”

“No. Did you even listen to me? I’m the only one who—”

The bedroom door opened with a bang. “Here you go.”

Leia turned to Han, then blinked as he dropped a shiny set of key rings in her palm. “What the hell is this? And what are you wearing? We were supposed to leave ten minutes ago!”

“Mom.”

“You always say that and it’s always fine. I just need a quick sh—hey. Watch the goods. Those things are sharp.”

“The earrings, Han. Jesus. Did you put them anywhere? I was asking—never mind. I’ll wear the black. I saw them just…”

Mom.”

Leia’s hands hovered over her dressing table, a haphazard riot of receipts and bits of jewelry and half-used lipstick, the caps mismatched. She heaved a sigh and spun around to face him, her voice tight. “Baby, I hear you. I know you hate your blocker, but everything you mentioned? Those problems won’t be magically solved by your alpha.”

“But—”

“It’s not a cure-all,” she continued firmly. “It’s a magnifier, Ben, and it’s not the only thing you are. Stop trying to let it define you and you’ll live a happier life.”

He hadn’t believed her, which is why he decided to stop taking them.

Just for a week, he’d decided. Just long enough to prove that it would make his life better. That he could handle his designation instead of what his parents seemed to fear—that he would be consumed, somehow. Lost to instinct.

Except that he never made it past lunch on the first day. His parents had been forced to pick him up from the office and Ben’s hands had still been bloody from the fight and he’d sobbed and confessed and begged and begged for his blockers because his alpha was there and so loud, how could anyone stand it, the things that it wanted and the way it made him feel, so angry and lost and miserable and he’d never do it again, he promised.

And he hadn’t. He grew into his body, as Leia predicted, and irrespective of his blockers, people listened. He was an alpha and his instincts were alive. He smelled weakness. He admired strength. People feared his temper and kept their distance and it was enough.

But he’d never forgotten that day. His stupid act of rebellion. If that was what he experienced on a normal day as a teenager, what the fuck would he be like as a grown man in rut? Would he be able to resist his instincts? Would he even want to? And just how black of a soul did he truly possess if he was willing to test out the truth on an innocent omega?

To answer his mother’s question: yes, chances were it really would be so bad.

And yet.

The part of him that wasn’t a scientist, the smallest, most remote part of his heart that had always held on to hope, whispered that this inexplicable thing was special. What were the odds? Years of blockers—unscented by no one, affected by no one—until today.

He didn’t know much about omegas. Knew even less about omegas triggered by an alpha’s scent. But his instinct yearned for one to call his own. Yearned to be needed, to give and protect. Even if he wasn’t sure how. Or if he could.

But whoever it was that had found his coat deserved someone better. Someone with experience. An alpha strong enough to walk around without his blockers, who didn’t shake at the idea of letting himself free.

Because he was. He was shaking.

“Ben,” his mother said softly, and if she mentioned the way he looked, he’d leave, he’d be gone. “It can’t possibly be easy, to weigh this choice.”

He was silent, willing away the tremors in his hands. He flexed them. So much weaker than he wanted, he stared at the table and said, “Even if I—even if it worked, I wouldn’t…” He couldn’t say the last part without shutting his eyes. His voice was low and despairing. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”

“Your alpha knows.” She sounded closer. Had probably made her way to his side, though he refused to check.

“I don’t trust my alpha.”

“You should try,” she said, and it didn’t sound like a chastisement. “Even if it scares you. If she really does trigger your rut, the last thing your alpha will accept is idleness. Let your instinct guide you.”

“And what if my instinct’s been corrupted?” All those years of blockers? What exactly would his alpha do when he unshackled its chains?

“Your instinct has never been corrupt, Ben. Just powerful.”

He was silent at that.

“And as terrible as it may seem to do this…here, it—maybe it’s a strange blessing.”

It was her first stumble. Ben had always hated delicate dances around the truth. Just say it, he wanted to spit. Tell me I’d be fucking a stranger in front of the people responsible for giving me a raise. In front of Drew, who still wears Lee jeans, and Merida, who always stares too long at my mouth.

Instead, he gritted, “How’s that?”

“I know that part of you worries. About what might happen. If you couldn’t trust yourself to do it on your own terms, perhaps you can find comfort in knowing you’d be surrounded by people with the power to help you.”

“Stop me, you mean,” he said bitterly.

“If necessary,” Leia grudgingly allowed, “but am I so wrong? Would it ease your mind?”

He almost said no, nothing could, nothing could possibly ease the shame of not only fucking up an omega’s heat but publicly establishing that he was a clueless rut-virgin just as brutish and horrible as they already suspected.

Except if he could push past the shame, he stubbornly realized that this might be it. The only way he’d ever know what it was to knot. To taste an omega. To be with an omega and call someone his own, if only for a few hours. For the first time, the idea of people watching him—watching them—had the smallest level of…not appeal, but necessity.

His mother sat down. He could hear the buzz of her phone rattling against the table. She let it ring.

He finally looked at her, dragging his eyes up to see that she was already watching him. “I’m…easily confident that this was the strangest conversation of my life.”

“One for the books,” she agreed.

Her phone stopped ringing only for the screen to flash. And flash again. “Are you going to answer those?”

She waved them away. “I already know what they want. I asked to speak with the omega before she agreed to share her scent. I assume that time has come.”

But you’re waiting to see what I say. Little point in wasting a trip if her son refused to participate.

Even after everything, he couldn’t make himself say yes outright. But his mother had done her job: he also struggled to say no. “I need time,” he blurted, suddenly aware that his heart had never stopped racing. “Talk to her, if you’d like. Warn her. About me. And if she—if she still wants to, after that, then…send someone down. Then I’ll give my answer.”

Whether she was short on time or just didn’t want to give him more time to argue, Leia nodded, picked up her phone, and left.

--

What the fuck had he done.

Leia’s shoes had barely left the threshold of the door before he was out of his chair, pacing and sweating and trying very hard to convince himself that his alpha’s presence was just as manageable as before, that it hadn't started to stretch in its cage and pay attention.

It wasn't that his blockers silenced it completely—he couldn't kill what he was, and despite his own fears and past mistakes, he didn't actually want to—but it had been a long time since he faced the potential of sharing so much headspace. It was daunting, and he desperately hoped he could blame some of his nerves on an overactive imagination.

It was hard, though, when his alpha seemed so pleased.

An Omega has scented us? The voice of his instinct was the sound of distant thunder under a still-blue sky. Where is she kept? When can we go?

Ben's hands were jittery things, uselessly smoothing his shirt in one breath and plucking at his pocket linings in the next. What was he thinking? He'd practically assured his mother he'd do it, even as he begged for more time. She'd probably smelled his defeat. A defeat that anyone else would claim as victory.

And then the sound of approaching footsteps reached his ears and he was solid again, all traces of nervous weakness tucked away because he was allowed to fall apart in private, but he’d be damned if he shattered his reputation so soon.

It was Ackbar. Ben stayed standing as he listened and there was a roaring in his ears when he processed the grinning man’s hasty news.

She'd accepted. She'd sent back his coat. It was waiting in the other room. Had he made up his mind?

Walk, said his alpha, and so he did.

He followed Ackbar into someone's (he had no idea whose) office, their desk converted into a laughable approximation of a doctor's examination table. Slightly hysterically, he noticed that instead of paper, they'd grabbed ancient sheets he remembered from childhood. Clifford’s dog tongue panted up at him as he took a seat. Colleagues he mostly didn't recognize constantly scurried in and out of the room with needed supplies.

His hands were already numb, but Ackbar was speaking again and he forced himself to pay attention.

“…have a choice, naturally, who you’d prefer to be in the room. I volunteered to complete your physical, although I am equally willing to fetch a different doctor of your choosing. Dr. Sella or Dr. Wexley are available and already notified, if—”

“No need.” Ben heard himself speak and was strangely proud of his gruffness. At least he didn't sound as terrible as he already felt. Jesus. Already. He hadn't even smelled her yet, didn't even know if anything would happen, this was crazy, why was he rucking up his sleeve, where had Ackbar been hiding a needle and what the fuck was that intern attaching to his wrist?

“One of our new toys.” Ackbar nodded at what looked like a fine, metallic bracelet. He switched out a full tube for the next. “Designed to transmit data relevant to the study. Heart rate, pheromone fluctuation, oxygen levels and the like.”

Ben watched his blood sit in a tray as he submitted to the rest of Ackbar’s tests. It was all less strange and embarrassing than he expected; by some twist of fate, Ackbar actually had been his doctor. Years ago, now.

The older man was gentle, almost slow after he listened to Ben’s heart. Having worked with alphas before, he must have known it was risky to make any open overture of comfort, but Ben suspected he was trying to buy his patient more time to adjust.

Not that it mattered. All the time in the world wouldn't make it easier to shuck off his pants and pretend like he had no problem with Ackbar’s gloved fingers probing the base of his dick.

“Tender?”

Humiliation. This was what humiliation felt like. “No.”

“Could you share the approximate date of your last knot?”

Ben rolled his jaw. If he could avoid saying what he knew he needed to say, he would. “There’s not a chart on file that you could pull, or anything?”

Ackbar had moved on, studying the digital readout of the instrument he'd pressed to the gland next to Ben’s dick. He was frowning at what he saw. “Why would your place of employment have a copy of your medical records?”

Of course it wouldn't be that easy. “Could you call?” he asked, not desperately. “I can authorize a release.”

Ackbar kept his hands where they were, but he looked up, suspicion clouding his face. Ben could tell that the doctor was carding through what he personally remembered from Ben’s past, tossing and discarding possible theories.

Oh, fuck it. “I’ve never had a knot,” Ben said, trying to appease his alpha’s shame by holding Ackbar’s gaze as he spoke. “Been on blockers.”

Ackbar’s hands fell to his lap. His sat back hard on his commandeered desk chair, but his voice was professionally neutral when he asked, “Could you share the type and the dosage?”

Which was how the news broke, which was how Ben went from potentially fucking an omega in heat to potentially fucking an omega during her suppressed heat. A mousy-looking scientist broke the news to him like she expected Ben to go ballistic, but all he felt was a sweeping tide of relief. There was no way of knowing how effective the suppressant would be, but he was soothed to know it was likely that at least one of them would be in their right mind.

What did not soothe him was the almost palpable surge of interest from everyone in the room.

They’d already been delighted to have an additional couple in the study, but they were practically swooning to know that they could witness an alpha’s first rut.

And then the baselines were complete, all recorded. Too much information about his vitals blinked on a screen somewhere and he was asked to change into a set of long-sleeved, full-leg sweatpants. He didn’t quite see the point of it, but Ackbar insisted he change in private. Someone had belatedly found a privacy screen.

When he was finished, Ben bodily moved the divider, setting it down hard enough to snap one of the legs.

His alpha was fully active now, pacing and annoyed. Been too long. Too much time. She’s waiting.

You don’t know that, Ben wanted to snap, but he was on edge too—frustrated to see how many people lined the corners of the room when he looked up.

Before he could glare the more fearful ones out of the room, Ackbar stepped away from his spot on the wall. “Ready?”

No, his heart screamed. No, no, no.

“Is it here?” Ben snapped instead.

Ackbar shook his head, and the tentative way he moved made Ben’s temper flare. “Almost, but we thought we might try something. Would you have a seat?”

Ben ground his teeth together, unmoving.

“Would…it help if I sat first?”

And strangely, it did. It was still hard to unlock his knees, but Ben managed to obey, sinking into the shorter chair. Frustratingly, Ackbar scooted his to block Ben’s immediate line of sight.

“All I’d like to do is have a conversation while we wait,” Ackbar said, and if Ben didn’t visibly see the doctor’s empty hand, he would have assumed he held a cup of tea. Or a scone.

Ben shifted uneasily, realized he shifted uneasily, and straightened his spine to cover it up. “Hasn’t this been dragged out long enough?”

“Frustration is more than an appropriate response. I imagine this was not how you expected to spend your afternoon.”

Ben refused to comment on such a blatantly stupid observation.

At least Ackbar realized it, smoothly bypassing the awkwardness with a friendly nod. “I remember when you used to visit my old office.” His smile looked a bit rueful. “Only kid I ever knew who refused to take a sucker after a shot. Even then, you hated looking weak.”

Ben didn’t know what to say to that either.

“I was happy to see your name when I joined the company. Good to see a familiar face.”

“We work in different departments,” Ben pointed out distractedly. His stomach was rolling and hot. Had he eaten anything today? He usually worked through lunch, but—

“Do you live nearby?”

And his chest, too. Like it housed a growing flame. Unbidden, he lifted his hand, rubbing his sternum with the heel of his palm. Instead of soothing him in any way, it only created more friction. More heat. It was slowly creeping around his ribcage like it sought the bones of his spine.

“Ben?”

“I—” He looked down at Ackbar’s hand on his shoulder. When had he done that? “Close. Near the…park.”

“Good. That’s good, Ben.” While Ben struggled to think of why admitting you lived by a park was worthy of praise, Ackbar turned his head and said, “Armitage? Go ahead and open it.”

Open wh—?

Holy fucking shit.

He was out of the chair. On the floor. His knees were twin points of pain, his hands stinging with impact and he couldn’t breathe, there was a deafening roar in his ears, deep like thunder and the cracking of the earth, primordial beyond his understanding, howling with need.

Hands reaching for him. Voices.

“Stop! Leave him alone, let him—”

“But look at—”

His hands were scrabbling at the floor, seeking purchase, seeking something.

“Just breathe, Ben. That’s all you have to do. Take a breath. Open your lungs.”

He wanted to scream that he didn’t know how, that there was only this—the way he burned and shook and his alpha was louder than it had ever been, inescapable, pummeling his mind, bellowing and triumphant and encouraging him to—

Like a man freed from death, he sucked in air. And it was over.

Omega.

Her! His alpha crowed, joyous. Her, it’s her!

And it was. It was only her.

She was more than a smell. She was sunlight that cooled and ice that didn’t burn, something his soul recognized and clutched for fear of losing. There was a new opening in his mind, the searing pain of his panic replaced with the presence of something utterly right, something precious that he was designed to protect and longed to cherish, that entered his being less like an invasion and more like a long-sought savior, someone who promised peace and a tender hand to soothe away any hurt.

Complete. He pitied who he was, before this. Only a creature. Blind and alone.

“—leveling out, now.”

“I’ll just—” Footsteps. “Ben? Can you hear me?”

He could. That didn’t mean he wanted to answer. It was better here in his mind, where her presence was only growing sharper—still dreamlike but undeniably real. Like he could sense her, able to feel not the words of her thoughts but the shape of them. She was calling for something.

“You’re in rut, Ben. It’s started.” Ackbar again? “Can we help you stand? We need to get you to the room.”

Why would he want to do that? He should be here. Alone so he could focus on deciphering what it was that called him. What she needed.

“We need to get you to the omega.” A pause, like the speaker was deciding whether or not to roll a handful of dice. “She’s in heat.”

Ben’s eyes snapped open.

--

He didn’t have the best recollection of his first moments in the observation room. By that point, the world had long since dissolved into red, so many hands on him or near him feeling like wolves closing in for a kill. He’d borne it, clinging to the only thing that made any sense:

You will not hurt your omega.

Ben had been the first to raise concerns about his reaction. Already overwhelmed, he’d had to gasp the words, but everyone in the crowded room had nodded when he said he was too big, too unpredictable, too new at this to be trusted around an innocent omega—especially this omega. The one whose scent had brought him to his knees.

Ackbar had repeated the words back to him as they tightened the straps. You want to protect her, he’d whispered, calm even as Ben started to snarl. This is for her. You’re doing a good thing, Ben. We’re proud of you.

Somehow, Ben listened.

He could feel her so much more clearly now. She was near. Every begging shout to bring her closer was ignored and his alpha raged—raged at being trapped, at being denied what he so desperately needed because she needed and her torment was his.

And then the door opened.

And then his heart stopped.

--

He couldn’t stop touching her.

She talked and he answered, soaking up every detail he could. Not only of what she said, but how she felt—the shape of her body, the way she felt pressed against his. So right in so short a time.

The sex had been explosive, but he would happily trade it all away for this: Rey.

He was sure she felt it too. That didn’t mean it was easy to ask her to dinner—with his rut dampened, his old nerves resurfaced and doubled (Would she say yes, could whatever they had here exist outside of the room, did he even own a suit?) but there had ultimately been no sense in worrying.

He’d never been more sure of anything in his life.

--

Ben cursed himself for not having had the foresight to drag a sheet back onto the bed for privacy; not less than a minute after his knot slipped free, Amilyn’s voice had echoed across the intercom, informing both he and Rey that they intended to proceed with individual examinations. Did that seem feasible?

No, he’d wanted to shout, if for no other reason than he hated what he saw in Rey’s eyes. She so clearly ached to believe his earlier reassurance, but clutched his hand too tightly for him to believe she was actually at peace.

“You know you have a choice,” he found himself saying, when she eyed the door with trepidation. “You read the forms. You’re under no obligation to do what they want.”

Each knot had cooled the fire of his alpha until his instinct had gone near-dormant. It was still there, a simmering power that promised to return, but it had achieved its focused goal. Its omega was well-fucked and full; she’d carry his come for hours, her heat pacified in the meantime. He could smell no urgent need on her skin. She was warm and unthirsty and fed.

When Rey shook her head—“Probably healthy to stretch my legs, right?”—he was almost disappointed. Not because he feared the loss of her feelings in the presence of Amilyn’s team, but because he would have relished the opportunity to fight to see her wishes fulfilled. That instinct didn’t need an alpha to scream loudly.

Helpless not to, he’d kissed her once more and braced himself. No matter how quiet his alpha had gone, he was confident his instincts would surge the moment she left.

Still on the bed, they’d waited in companionable silence until Rey was called first.

As soon as she disappeared through the door, he expelled so much energy in calming his alpha that he’d almost missed the chance to pre-emptively wipe himself up with the edge of a sheet. Saying he was a mess felt close to blasphemy—there was nothing his alpha wanted more than to proudly wear evidence of his omega’s pleasure and his own—but he grudgingly admitted his examiner might appreciate the gesture.

No one had come to fetch him. Like Rey, he waited for the buzz of the lock and opened the door himself. Two steps out and he had to pause, one hand on the wall, while his instincts caught up to what his brain already knew: an omega had been here. His omega. Her scent still lingered, though it led in the opposite direction. It was tempting enough that he wanted to bite at the air.

He forced himself to move on, only glancing back once.

--

“Absolutely not.”

Ben had suffered through far too many indignities today to deserve the one that stood before him now.

“You,” drawled Hux, “are arguably not the most disappointed person in this room.”

He’d found the examination room with only minor difficulty, searching his hazy memories for a number that looked familiar. In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d forgotten: as soon as he was close, an unknown scientist opened the door for him, ushering him inside, where he’d waited.

“Where’s Ackbar?”

Mercy of all mercies, Hux didn’t reach for a pair of gloves. He made a show of walking near them, of course. Even went so far as to pick up a needless tissue if only because it was close and Ben was watching. He laughed delightedly when Ben started to growl.

“Listen to you,” he said. “Good to know some things haven’t changed.”

“Why are you even here?”

“I hardly recognized you earlier.” When Ben froze, fury and mortification turning his limbs stiff, Hux made a dismissive gesture. “You picked your team and I wasn’t on it. You can stop fretting that I watched. But,” he grinned, “you’d be surprised how quickly someone can type up a transcript. Who knew you had a personality hiding under all that hair?”

A transcript? He wondered how much damage a hacker’s fees could do to his bank account. He was almost positive he could survive on plain chicken and stolen water bottles if it meant that his and Rey’s words were erased from recorded memory.

Unsurprisingly, Hux was still rattling on. “The irascible Ben Solo. Softened.”

Consciously or unconsciously, Ben noticed that Hux had avoided mentioning Rey’s name. Probably because he was wise enough to know Ben would de-ball him for the dishonor.

“You don’t do much that I admire. But you’ve never been one to make false promises.”

Ben tilted his head.

“Did it make you feel strong,” Hux continued, “to offer her that comfort? After all, how could you possibly promise anything in good faith? It’s obvious that you’re smitten, but even an idiot could rattle off facts about post-sex oxytocin and endorphins. And that’s on top of whatever lies your alpha’s told you.”

“Did you truly come here just to monologue? This whole thing,” Ben calmly swung a finger between the two of them, “reeks of two-bit villainy. You’re better than that.”

“I came here because I’m not a villain,” Hux said, more vehement than Ben expected. “You should hear them, Solo. There’s already a pool for your engagement date.”

His cheeks went hot. “What?”

“Grown men and women, throwing professionalism to the wind. Making fools of themselves.”

Jesus. Ben didn’t even…he didn’t know what to do with that information.

Hux walked closer, stopping just outside Ben’s reach. A smart man. “I came because I don’t want you to join their ranks. I came to remind you of the obvious in the hopes that you won’t fall apart two weeks from now when she doesn’t return your phone call. The last thing this company needs is Ben Solo, love sick and stupid, rampaging through the halls because he was too drunk on sex to realize that a knot doesn’t equal affection.”

Ben stared at him, processing. He thought about Rey. He thought about the bond, reaching for it even now. He thought about the hours he’d spent in that room and the way he’d felt walking out of it. And then he said, “Could you point me in the direction of the slide?”

“The—what?”

“Or the swing set? Maybe a patch of that loose gravel that always gets stuck in your socks?”

Hux’s face hardened. “We’re not on a playground.”

“Exactly, which is why I’m so confused. I thought you were a scientist, not a schoolchild.”

“You think it’s childish to point out that you’re in danger of making a mistake?”

“No.” Ben shook his head. “I think it’s childish for you to lecture me about something you don’t understand. Now,” he leaned forward, growling between his teeth, “get out.”

The door gave a satisfying slam.

Chapter Text

The room was much as she’d left it.

Dr. Holdo had greeted her at the door, immediately impressing Rey by not looking or sounding one bit different than she had when they’d first met. If the older woman was uncomfortable shaking hands with someone who probably smelled like the aftermath of a humped pillow, she didn’t show it.

“This way,” she said, opening an arm.

One scientist not-so-discretely tucked one piece of paper under another as Rey followed. Helplessly, she wondered if he’d been doodling and if so, what as well as why. Aimless spirals next to childlike flowers or something more topical, like tits? Had he been bored? Did he tune out midway through Ben’s first thrust with a yawn only to be nudged by a co-worker? Sorry, George, he might have said. They just don’t pay me enough to care about Solo’s ballsack.

Better boredom than acute interest, she supposed. More than likely she was wrong on every account and it was a readout with dots and dashes and lines surrounded by too many numbers.

She still tried to look. He caught her with a frown, glaring as he took a sip of coffee.

Once Dr. Holdo flicked the curtain shut, the routine was the same as it had been before. Rey was efficiently poked and prodded and even though she didn’t want to guess if anything looked different, she did. She guessed.

And then she asked.

“Everything okay?” An open-ended question, but Rey didn’t think she needed to clarify. Is there a dick-sized bruise on my cervix, ma’am? Holdo didn’t seem like the type to deliberately misinterpret anything, even for the sake of a joke.

“You stole my question,” Holdo said mildly. “But we’ll start with something more specific. Do you feel what I’m doing?”

Rey lifted her head off of the table. Oh. She’d assumed Holdo was writing, not…investigating. “No.” And because Holdo’s lips tightened in concern, quickly added, “I mean yes, now that you mention it. Now that I’m paying attention.” She didn’t mention that she really had to pay attention, but how troubling could it be to lose sensation (temporarily, she was sure) in a place that had recently survived the equivalent of a ten round boxing match?

Holdo looked like she wanted to argue, but leaned over to check an opened file instead. Rey wondered what she was looking for until she asked, “Would you admit it’s fair to say you’re usually much more sensitive?” Her eyes caught Rey’s. “During your heats?”

Yes, probably, but she’d never really thought about it. Heats had always been so hazy. Betas of the boyfriend and app-found variety were less of a common occurrence than a locked door and her own hands, but she was a mess no matter who was in the room. Thinking was hard. Talking was a joke.

Once, disastrously, she’d tried to call for pizza when she was freshly plugged with her silicone knot. There hadn’t been any food in the kitchen because she hadn’t shopped because it was Saturday and the ice cream BOGO sale was starting on Sunday and she was weak for Haagen-Dazs and surely she had one more day before her heat. She’d dialed and survived being put on hold only to ask the employee if she was an alpha, would she make the delivery, could she please tell Rey that she was a good, good girl?

They’d hung up simultaneously. Since then, Rey made it a point to leave her cell outside the bedroom.

But that wasn’t the question. Was she sensitive?

“I…” she started, flailing for an answer that was both honest and not damning. “I mean this respectfully, but that question is kind of like asking an airline pilot if the treads on her landing gear are up to code. She assumes so, but it’s not really her, uh. Biggest concern?”

Rey could see—easily see—Holdo restrain herself from sighing.

“I take that to mean you’re not sure?” she asked, rolling the stool forward.

Rey let her head thunk back on the table because she couldn’t say this as she looked the doctor in the eyes. “If I had to guess, it has something to do with Ben’s…” Fuck, what was she supposed to call it? There was a name. A safe, medically appropriate word. It was sitting on the tip of her come. Tongue. Shit. Was ejaculation a verb or a noun? “…semen?”

Someone outside the curtain stopped typing on their laptop.

Naturally, Holdo didn’t so much as pause. She was back between Rey’s legs, and okay, yes, that was absolutely, one hundred percent her cervix. Her legs jolted once in the stirrups.

“Apologies.”

At least she sounded sincere. Rey rolled her head just in time to see Holdo drop what looked like a massive Q-Tip into a bag. She squinted to see better and wished she hadn’t when she realized it was drenched in thick, white fluid.

She sighed into the crook of her arm.

“I want to thank you, again, for your patience.” Rey lifted her arm enough to peek. Holdo caught her with a closed smile, then gestured that Rey was free to sit up. “By all reports, you’re handling these questions far better than the rest of the omegas in this building today.”

“Well I’m cheating, aren’t I?” When Holdo tilted her head, Rey clarified, “I thought I was the only one on the omega suppressant.” Although as soon as she said it, she realized no one had ever confirmed that as fact. She’d only assumed.

“You were the first one,” Holdo allowed, “but we’ve long since passed the initial testing stage.”

Rey could only blink. “Oh.”

Strangely—so strangely—she struggled with knowing she wasn’t the only one.

And then she felt stupid. That had been the deal all along, hadn’t it? The whole purpose of the study was to determine the effectiveness of the lab’s new heat suppressants. Rey had a distant, uninteresting memory of her interview: while she’d been busy fantasizing about buying name brand cereal, the scientist had said that there was no guarantee she’d be testing a suppressant at all. Some omegas would serve as a control and allow the researchers to study natural heat progression; others would take the suppressant at a reduced dosage; the last group would receive the full dosage.

At least she thought that’s what he said. Curious, she asked Holdo as she eased her legs closed.

“That’s correct.”

Another question, even though its answer felt irrelevant. “Did I receive the full or reduced dosage?”

“Half. Technically...” Holdo tossed her gloves in the trash on her way to her laptop. She used an external mouse; it clicked as she studied the screen. “Less than half.”

Rey goggled, feeling torn between giving herself a congratulatory high five and wondering why she wanted to give herself a high five in the first place. Less than half and she’d felt sane. There’d been moments, of course. Lots of them. But what did the full dosage omegas do? Yawn and play Uno as their alphas begged for a blowjob?

“Not quite,” said Holdo, when Rey asked as much. “Only a handful of omegas responded as well as you did to the suppressant. Although none of them had an easy time submitting to this exam once we separated them from their alphas.”

Rey wouldn’t say it had been easy to leave Ben in the room. She also wouldn’t say her omega was pleased with how long she’d been gone, but something in her squirmed to know that apparently she was better off than most. Because why?

She’d figured it was his come. After all, the more of it that dripped on the table, the more disquieted she felt. The more eager she was to return.

And it could still be that. But it might also have something to do with the way Ben didn’t feel far, even if he was farther than she’d like. She could almost convince herself that she was imagining it, except that when she ever-so-slightly tugged, there was an ever-so-slight reply.

Here?

Here.

“…which is why I wanted to get your opinion.”

Shit. “I…” Rey debated the likelihood that Holdo was asking about the next color she should dye her hair. Pink, for the record, but no. She wouldn’t be that lucky. She winced, admitting, “I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.”

“I was saying that in light of your reaction—or lack of one, as the case seems to be—I no longer feel comfortable keeping you on the suppressant.”

Rey drew her eyebrows together. “Because I’m not begging for Ben?” She wasn’t angry. Just confused. “Because it’s working?”

“As I mentioned, none of the other omegas shared a comparable response during their exam.” Her eyes drifted back to the computer screen. “My concern is not that it’s working, but that it’s working too well.”

“You’re concerned that the drug you designed to suppress heats has managed to suppress my heat?” Rey asked flatly.

“Yes,” Holdo said, with a touch of reproach. “The benefits of successfully creating a heat suppressant do not supersede your health.” Hesitating like she second-guessed if it would be welcome, she slowly walked to the table, waiting for Rey’s nod before she lifted herself onto the papered cushion. “No one here is too blinded by our experiment to risk your safety. We did what we set out to do. We created a drug, we tested it, and we saw positive results. Very positive results.” She sighed lightly. “But you should feel something, Rey.”

“Were you not…?” Of course she’d been watching. That was stupid to ask. “I do.”

“I don’t mean here,” Holdo tapped over her own heart, then her temple, “I mean physically.”

“Are you sure that’s not normal?” Rey tried.

“It might be. It’s possible. I have no vast experience with omegas, but in light of what’s been reported throughout the building, I’m not willing to risk it.”

Despite Holdo’s assurance, Rey wondered if everyone else in the room was in agreement. Surely the scientist who’d hidden his paper of doodles was pissed. Maybe he’d been looking forward to the second round; maybe he’d already sharpened his next pencil in preparation.

Rey tried to sort through her feelings, but she felt stuck in a loop of disbelief. “Okay, so—” The bond tugged, questioning. Concern clouded a corner of her mind. “So I guess I’m…wondering what happens next.”

“I want to put that choice into your hands. With your permission, I’ll administer the neutralizer momentarily.” She pointed to a small red bin that Rey hadn’t previously noticed. “After that, you have options. Based on your records, we can assume your heat will continue for an additional forty-eight hours. If you’d prefer to end your time with us, we can arrange transportation.”

Rey spoke to her hands, picking at a hangnail. “That doesn’t sound like the option you’d prefer.”

A slight hesitation. “My preference is largely irrelevant. I do believe it’s best to flush out the suppressant, but that is where my medical authority ends.”

“And if I’d prefer to stay?” Rey turned to look at the other woman. It was odd to see her at rest, unmoving. She offered no reaction to Rey’s question, perhaps knowing that Rey wasn’t truly finished. “If you’re worried about the effects of the drug, surely you have to be concerned about the effect of ending it.”

“We’re confident you should experience nothing abnormal. The only unknown is how long it would take you to slide back into your body’s natural heat. Nevertheless,” she said slowly, “it could be a wise precaution, to stay. We’ll monitor you throughout. Do our best to make you comfortable.”

Something about the way she’d said you sounded suspicious. “When you say ‘make me comfortable,’ what do you mean?”

Holdo stared at her like that should be obvious. “New sheets. A change of clothes. Food, if you’d wish it. A fresh, sterilized room.” There was only the smallest of pauses before she added, “We have a limited selection of intimate products.”

Intimate products?

Rey slashed a hand through the air. “Hold on. Hold on, hold on. Did you just offer to buy me a dildo?”

Holdo stiffened, though Rey couldn’t tell if it was with indignancy or discomfort. “Nothing would need to be bought. They’re already on site.”

Part of Rey wanted to fixate on exactly whose job it was to order sex toys and if at any stage of the buying process they’d been called into a superior’s room for an awkward discussion. “John, it says here that you ordered eight pig tail butt plugs. Do you care to explain yourself?” “Well, sir, some of the omegas might like bacon, sir.”

But she was far too caught up in the more worrying implication. She didn’t want to believe it was true, so she cautiously asked, “Are you assuming alphas get tired of using their dicks during rut? Because I have a feeling Ben will be more than mildly offended if you handed me a catalogue of fake knots when he’s perfectly capable of making one on his own.”

Holdo looked like Rey had just casually proposed to throw herself into a bathtub of pasta. “Ben?” she repeated, as if she’d never heard the name. “I just assumed that you wouldn’t—”

“That I wouldn’t need him?”

“That you wouldn’t want him.”

Rey felt her lips part.

“But if that’s not how you feel,” Holdo spoke slowly, like she was convinced at any moment Rey would confess a change of heart, “I’ll make a call—”

Stupidly, Rey felt like it was the best time to say, “He invited me to dinner.”

Holdo very much looked like she wanted to say something, possibly a blend of wasn’t that hypothetical? and oxytocin takes no prisoners but kept her mouth firmly shut.

Rey knew she should speak. Even as she stood up to fish her phone out of her pocket, Holdo continued to study her—not worriedly, which Rey wasn’t sure she could stomach, but curiously. Like Rey had signed up for a beginner baking class and nailed a soufflé on her first try. Like she’d easily done something difficult.

What was so difficult about liking Ben?

Objectively, she could find a few flaws in her question. He barely knew his coworkers’ names. He’d neatly dodged questions about his family, though she’d chalked that up to being knotted. He’d mentioned breaking things in anger and they’d had a low, sleepy conversation about his dislike of people in general. He was definitely a workaholic, not mentioning much about friends or hobbies or achievements unrelated to his field. And Rey wasn’t a therapist, but a deaf pigeon would find the way he tip-toed around his alpha discomforting. He talked about blockers like they were more precious than air.

But he could keep up with her jokes. He’d exposed a hidden sense of humor. He challenged her. He’d had a crisis when she worried and fretted about the bruises on her neck. He held her like she was something infinitely precious and listened with a level of focus that left her feeling warm. He was intelligent and honest and everything about the way he talked with her, the way he looked at her, and the way he touched her confirmed he thought of her as more than an omega. She wasn’t a tool to sate his rut; she’d felt like a person. Someone he wanted to fight alongside.

There was also the bond. Still unexplored but not something she feared. It sang with rightness and she didn’t know what it meant but she trusted it.

It was inexplicable and possibly stupid and yes, they’d known each other for less than a day but that’s what dinners were for, right? Semi-awkward small talk over a phone? Holding sweaty hands in the park?

She knew how it had to look on Holdo’s end but the thought of finishing this heat without him was unacceptable. Her omega panicked at the very thought.

But she didn’t need to worry because when she finally pulled herself out of her head, Holdo hadn’t moved and was still speaking with calm authority on her phone. Rey could tell the instant someone bothered to ask Ben his thoughts: there was an audible flood of rageful words so loud that Holdo pulled the speaker from her ear, rubbing at her temple until his voice died away.

The new plan was set: Rey would finish her heat with Ben. He would remain off his suppressants and help ease Rey off of hers. Both of them could leave at any time, though they were encouraged to stay.

Holdo swung back the privacy curtain. Rey followed her, rubbing her arm where it still stung from the shot.

Everyone stared as she walked. Rey told herself it would be rude to laugh at the scientists’ collective expressions of concern. One of them almost teared up as she passed, reaching out an arm as if to say we appreciate the shape of your sacrifice. Like Rey was headed out into a warzone armed with a onesie instead of Kevlar.

Was she happy about losing the clarity of her suppressant? Not really. But if she were being honest, it was what she’d expected all along. At least she’d met Ben when she wasn’t a puddle of want on the floor.

“Remember,” Holdo said, standing aside so Rey could enter the hallway alone, “if you want to leave, you just need to tell us. Or Ben, if we can’t hear. Be explicit about your needs so we can fulfill them.”

Rey only nodded. This had to be the fifth time Holdo said it.

“We left new sheets near the bed. Change them if you’d like or ignore them if your omega prefers the old ones.”

Rey nodded again. Is this what mothers did before their daughters went off for college?

“Ben will be just a little longer. There’s a tray of fresh fruit on the table, some tea—” Rey snorted at that, “—and pillows to replace the ones Ben ripped.”

So that’s why there’d been so many feathers on the floor. “Thank you,” Rey said, meaning it, but edging away at the same time.

“I hope you can forgive me,” Holdo said, in the awkward way of people who were not often in a place to ask forgiveness. “We’ve already asked so much of you, and—”

“It’s fine.” Rey cut her off, somehow knowing if she didn’t that Holdo would keep finding things to say. “Tell Olivia I saw her sandwich, yeah? Say she’s not fooling anyone by hiding that butter knife in her napkin. Let today be a day of change and help her find the dish soap.”

While Holdo’s brow was still mid-furrow, Rey scurried away.

--

“Do you often cheat so blatantly?”

“I told you. I’m not looking at your cards.”

“I’d be more inclined to believe you if I hadn’t just witnessed—with my own eyes—you stack three draw fours in a row. Are there even that many in the whole deck? It reeks of bullshit, Ben.”

“That has nothing to do with me cheating and everything to do with me wanting to win.”

“I just drew twelve cards.”

“That very much sounded like a whine.”

“I am whining! I’m whining because you’re cheating at Uno!”

“No, you’re whining because you’re a sore loser. Now play that red six.”

Rey twisted in Ben’s lap so he could witness the full terror of her glare. She noticed that he had no qualms about flipping his cards over and hiding them against the ground. All two of them. “If you’re not cheating, how did you know I have a red six?”

Either he was immune to glaring or she wasn’t as good at it as she thought. He stared down placidly, then he shrugged an unaffected shrug. “I guessed. To be honest, the odds are good that you’d have any card. You’re holding half the deck.”

She narrowed her eyes. “This is amusing to you.”

“Yes,” he admitted.

“You find your own cruelty amusing.”

You’re the one who wanted to play this game.”

“Well, now I regret it.” The twist was starting to hurt her spine, so she jerked herself back around to face forward, glumly taking stock of her admittedly massive stack of cards. How did she still not have a single green? “I hate this game.”

One of Ben’s gigantic hands settled on her stomach. He petted the fabric of her shirt, smoothing down the wrinkles from her movement. He left it there when he finished, a warm, aggravatingly soothing pressure on what was starting to become an unignorable ache.

“If you do play that red six, I promise I can end this game somewhat painlessly.”

“I no longer believe your words,” is what she said, but she fingered the card in question anyway. At this point, was it more or less honorable to admit defeat? He probably had a reverse. Another red. She used to be better at strategy, but—

“Oh, not that card. I beg you.”

“You can stop pretending like your opinion matters now, thanks.” She’d be more truly annoyed if he hadn’t spoken the words into her shoulder, his hair spilling over onto the front as he nuzzled.

His hand started up a light massage where it rested, eagerly dipping lower when she unconsciously tilted her hips. He plucked at the drawstring of her sweatpants, petulant. “Why is this still on?”

She tried to ignore him, studying her options. “If you recall, my shorts were ruined.”

“I know they were ruined,” he rumbled, pleased and proud. “I can smell them from here.”

Helplessly, Rey glanced over to the bed to confirm that yes, her shorts were still on the floor. Now that he mentioned it, she could smell them too. They reeked of sex. Her heat flared as she remembered what they’d done to make her shorts so messy: the way he’d ordered her to keep her arms still, the thrill she had as she fought to obey, how she could feel the pressure of his lips through the fabric and the sound of his moan when he’d licked.

Fuck Rey, I felt that.”

She’d forgotten that he hadn’t moved his hand. Her uterus had contracted at the memories, releasing another small flood into the cotton.

“Can I feel?” He’d abandoned his cards—face-down, she scoffed distantly—so he could wrap his arms around her more fully: one up high, pressing her firmly back against his chest; one lower, pawing at the scrunched top of her pants. “I can smell what just happened, please let me—”

Wordlessly, she nodded, still in enough control of her mind that she was almost embarrassed when his hand swiftly snuck under the waistband to cup her sex. His fingers were instantly soaked.

“God,” he breathed. “I almost can’t—” The words trailed off into an appreciative groan. “There’s so much of it.”

She almost wanted to laugh at the amount of awe in his voice (did he think it was hard to get wet during heat?), but she was suddenly breathless too—opening her legs wider and biting her lip as she understood what he hadn’t actually managed to say: that she was almost too slick to be touched. The pressure was there and perfect, but there was no friction. She could feel him part her lips—knew he was pumping two fingers in and out, the sloppy sound audible to her ears—but any brush on her clit was useless.

Not that she’d need it, if he kept talking.

“Do you know how much I want to taste you? Do you know how much I’ve thought about it? Couldn’t get it out of my head. Like nothing else.”

“You were—ah. Greedy for it.” She couldn’t believe she was still speaking. It was a distraction. Her eyes closed, letting the tension coil tighter and tighter without a fight, her omega alive but strangely quiet, purring with pleasure.

“Can I take care of you, Rey?” The hand he hadn’t stuffed down her pants hunted for a breast, squeezing gently without rhythm when he found one. He was too distracted with her slick—teasing out more, catching it with the side of his finger, rubbing it into the meat of her thighs, letting it trail down neglected only to scoop it up and press it back in—to do anything else. “Will you let me?”

The strangest alpha in the world was all she could think before she moaned her assent, arching against the solid bulk of his chest, biting her lip when he flicked gently at her clit, almost enough, each time carrying her higher and closer until she was rubbing against his wrist because his fingers were gone, curling inside and pressing and she was coming—sweet and quiet.

The world was soft.

She tried to bask, clinging to the pleasant feeling of her aftershocks, but Ben’s hand got stuck on the drawstring cord, tugging up the band as he shook his wrist, and it snapped loudly against her hips once freed.

“Fuck!” It startled her more than anything else, but Ben was already cringing.

“Shit, I’m sorry.” He tried to pat away the non-existent pain, but only managed to wipe off his fingers on her shirt bottom. “Did that hurt?”

“You’re going to give those poor scientists an aneurysm if you keep apologizing.” He’d leaned forward to inspect her stomach, probably worried that he’d slapped it pink. The position made her hunch forward too, so she spoke in a wheeze.

He sounded distracted. “Why’s that?”

“Because you’re still in rut.”

“So?”

“So you’re supposed to be mindlessly grunting or humping the air or something. Howling at the moon, I don’t know.”

“I’m not a werewolf.” Apparently satisfied that he hadn’t maimed her beyond forgiveness, he sat back, encouraging her to lean as she had before.

“No, you’re an alpha. You should have one thing on your mind.”

“Who says that I don’t?” He guided her right hand down and between them, reminding her of the hard-on she’d never actually forgotten. Unlike Rey, his pants had been off almost as soon as he reentered the room. “And you’re one to talk,” he added, once she’d squeezed him and returned her hand to her lap. “I thought you said they took you off of the suppressant? Aren’t you supposed to be the one rolling on the floor?”

“This floor is disgusting,” she dodged.

“I don’t doubt it, but you’re dodging.”

Damn.

She knew it was stupid, but part of her hoped that if they never got around to talking about it, her heat would be delayed indefinitely. It was safer to play Uno than to even begin the list of rules they were breaking. She didn’t mind being a pioneer, but it was more unsettling than she’d imagined to explore uncharted territory. She knew what heats were like—had survived them for years, with and without partners—and they weren’t like this.

How much of it was the lingering drug? How much of it was Ben? Did any of it have to do with taking his knot or was that as irrelevant as sitting under the watchful gaze of the scientists?

She didn’t know.

Her heat was coming, that much was true. All the aches and urges that the suppressant had suffocated were rising again, albeit slower than she’d thought. Her stomach had been cramping steadily for the last thirty minutes, her limbs heavier and harder to move.

Ben had been wild-eyed when he’d slammed open the door, but he’d calmed once he muttered something about needing to hold her, plopping her in his lap the next second. He was a recognizable alpha in many ways—eyes tracking her when she’d gotten up to grab the deck of cards, his scent spiking each time she dribbled fresh wetness. He’d even given her little orders, all of them infused with that underlying alpha authority. They felt innocent, though, and mostly connected to sex—move up, hitch your leg over, give me more of that little sound, the one you make when I touch you right—in a way that almost anyone could master. He’d given her two orgasms since they’d been back, both as they’d sat on the floor.

They’d felt so lovely. They’d felt like not enough.

“Are you fighting it?” he asked, and she knew he meant her heat.

She wanted to be truthful, which meant she had to think. “Maybe? Which should be impossible, but there’s no…they didn’t give me a timeframe for the suppressant. How long it’s supposed to take before it’s gone.”

“Do you wish you were still on it?”

She reached back to thunk him on his head. “I heard that.”

“What?”

“That insecurity. Knock it off.” His hand left her stomach to rest on her leg and she took a second to marvel at its size, then absentmindedly tapped at his nails while she spoke. “I guess I’m just in mourning. For the clarity. It was nice to be something other than a mindless, sweaty ball of hysterical want. I liked talking to you. Asking for things.”

He shifted behind her, adjusting his dick. “You usually don’t?”

“Oh, I ask. Just not…consciously. You’ll see, I guess.”

He was quiet for a moment. “You know I was really fucking terrified before I met you? I told them to dose you and send you on your way. I wanted no part of it.” She didn’t know that. Would have figured she’d never know, except that he was still speaking. “Because what business did I have, pretending. I’d never had a rut. The first and only time I’d ever been off blockers was a disaster. I didn’t trust my alpha. Was…embarrassed, I think, to come in here and make a fool of myself. Worse than that would be if I hurt you. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to control my instincts.”

She patted his hand. “We made it through just fine. I even learned some new vocabulary.”

“Well, if we made it through that, we can make it through this.”

Her heart ached a little, hearing that. She didn’t know how to tell him it made all the difference in the world knowing that he’d be the one to see her fall apart.

“And who knows. It might be different than you expect. I broke your heat porn rules, didn’t I?”

“You’re still breaking rules,” she pointed out.

“Okay.” He seemed satisfied to hear that. “And I guess I’m still on my blockers, but I’m definitely, definitely in rut.”

“I see your point, but I guess…” There was one way to find out. As long as he told the truth. “Do I smell the same?”

No pause. “You’ve never not smelled amazing.”

She barked a laugh. “That wasn’t a trick question. I was just wondering if half the reason you acted the way you did before was because it was hard to get a handle on my scent. Or, I don’t know. That you were able to talk and stop and think was because I was able to do the same.”

His free hand played with the discard deck. “I don’t think we’ll have a real answer until it happens again.”

“You couldn’t smell my heat?” she pressed.

“Of course I could. But it’s…I don’t even know how to explain it. Overwhelmed is a fucking inadequate word. Sometimes I could think and sometimes I felt like I was a cough away from dying. You always smelled like you were in heat, though. That hasn’t changed. Neither has the way my alpha feels.” He swallowed. “About you.”

Rey could feel his heart give a harder thump against her spine.

Dangerous, part of her still warned. It was dangerous to say these words out loud because then they’d never leave her mind. She’d never be able to separate them from this moment and all its details—her safe in his warm lap, his uncovered legs, the funny sound that happened whenever he shifted his bare skin on the sticky floor. They were powerful words. They made her consider what the scientists believed, what Finn would say (and do and throw and…), what Ben’s mother would think because who would believe words like that were spoken in truth?

Her. She believed it.

And it was more mild torture to say it, but she had to know: “Your alpha feels that way, huh?”

“No,” he whispered. “I feel that way, too.”

She grabbed his hand, her throat suddenly thick. “Good,” she tried to say lightly, but couldn’t. It came out too strangled, something between a sigh and a sob. And then she laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“I sounded like a toad, just now.”

“I’ve never heard a toad make that sound.” It was just as hard for him to pretend to be unaffected. He sounded like a man trying to pull himself back onto a boat when the heat of the sand still called him. “That was half bullfrog, if anything.”

“Good lord. Are you telling me that in addition to being a master Uno cheater, you’re also an expert on amphibians?”

“Amphibian noises, yes.”

She was tired of not being able to see his face. She missed seeing the flicker of a smile when he lied.

Heaving herself forward and up, she groaned her way off his lap and onto the floor. She absently realized she’d never been so close to his naked feet. She scooted until she sat as a mirror, then propped hers up against his, heel to heel, and shook her head in amazement.

“Is the reason you’re so in tune with frogs and such because you feel at home in the water? These—” She wriggled her toes against his arch, “have to act like helpful paddles.”

“I prefer the term ‘flippers,’ but sure. Felt my calling at an early age.”

She hummed in thought. “Do we need to keep count of the number of lies you’ve told in the last thirty seconds, or do you prefer to let your sins fester?”

“What’s more traditional?”

“Festering,” she said, and there was her omega. It liked the way Ben’s hands kept twitching. Like he was fighting a battle not to grab her and put her back where she’d been. There was a disapproving tightness to his lips.

“Why can’t you sit—” He cut himself off with a cough, clearing his throat. “What about your sins?”

“You’re going to need to be more specific. Do I have them? By which methods did I acquire them? Do I repent?”

After a quick glance at his dick—don’t let him catch you looking, he loves it when you look and so do you and you want this to last, don’t you? don’t look—she was surprised to realize that his Uno cards sat undisturbed next to his hip. She still had hers, of course, and playing a game had been a decent distraction from her heat, so why shouldn’t they continue? And since they were on the subject of sinning, why shouldn’t she cheat? He’d done it. Surely. All she’d need was a little peek of his cards. He’d probably forgotten all about the game.

A strategy formed in her mind. It was a shitty one, but it was all she had.

She took off her shirt.

Ben stared, his cheeks flushing impossibly pink. “Uh.”

She went to her hands and knees. “I can name a few, if you’d like.” His eyes were glued to her nipples. Good. “Once, I broke my best friend’s Etsy vase and blamed it on his cat. I felt so guilty that I took them out to a surprise dinner, but they ended up having a gift card and paid for my salad, instead. So I crocheted them a set of coasters. Only I can’t crochet and they were bad, Ben, like really, really bad and when I handed them the gift bag I panicked and said I’d bought them from a blind grandmother.”

His eyes darkened when she started to crawl. He still managed to listen, though. “That is…oddly specific. Also sinful.”

“I know, right?” She made sure to crawl next to him and not over his legs. The next time she brought her left arm forward, she let it land on top of his cards. “I volunteered more that month than I had all year. Meals on Wheels told me I needed to find a hobby.”

“Oh?” She could have said anything; he was too distracted to pay attention to her words. Like he was powerless to resist, he reached over to cup the swell of her ass.

She arched into his palm, slightly wriggling in the hopes that she could keep his attention away from her hands just long enough to thumb up the edge of a card.

It was working: he made a pleased sound when he squeezed, eyes unwavering, and this was it—her chance to even the odds. All she needed to do was lower her head and hope that she didn’t look too much like a fish as she swayed her hips. And this was it—she was going to do it, he was enraptured and one last glance confirmed that he’d licked his bottom lip and so she dropped her head, angling just slightly away so she could—

Shit!”

Had he just—?

Rey jerked her head around to see Ben. He was shaking his head sadly.

“You couldn’t just talk about sinning, huh? You had to put it into practice.” He rubbed an asscheek through her pants in a contemplative way. Like he was deciding the next best angle to strike. “Or were you just so hungry for punishment that you had to tip the scales?”

Rey didn’t know what to say first. You spanked me was far too obvious. I liked it felt too much like losing. She could fire back something irreverent in the hopes that he’d do it again, but for once he looked like a man firmly in control. A predator waiting for the next move of his prey.

Action. She needed to take action.

In a burst of movement, she lunged for the cards that she’d inadvertently pushed away, shrieking happily when Ben caught her by her hips and dragged her back, her pants a slippery barrier between her knees and the floor. She half-heartedly tried to scrabble away, but all she could think about was that she had to look like a crab, that she’d traded in her toad noises for a banshee’s wail and that only made her louder, breathless when Ben pulled her on top of him, his knees up to lock her in place.

She panted against his shoulder, still flooded with adrenaline.

“Well, that was a thing,” Ben commented.

Even as strangely calm as her omega had been, there was a part of Rey that felt soothed by the sudden influx of his scent. She breathed him in and tried to slow her racing heart. “I really hate to lose,” was all she could offer.

“I can tell.” When she tried to resettle, he held her firmly in place. She twisted her head enough to bury her nose in the curve of his neck. He seemed to like it when she gave his gland a casual lick. It was swelling, puffier under her lips. “You know how we were talking earlier?”

Rey couldn’t see his face, but reached up to feel his jaw. It was tight with nerves.

She gave him another lick. So strangely, wonderfully satisfying. “We talked about a lot of things,” she pointed out.

“When you asked me how you smelled.”

She vaguely recalled. “Sure.”

But that must not have been the answer he was looking for because he tried to sigh. Only she’d added in a bit of a bite and he groaned softly, instead. “We were talking about…I think you were worried that I didn’t actually like you. That something had changed since we left the room.”

“It hasn’t.” She didn’t doubt it now.

“Not for me,” he said, semi-strangled. “That feels really fucking—”

“But you’re wondering about me.” She voiced his concern since he didn’t seem capable. “If my feelings have changed?”

“Yes,” he said quietly.

She squirmed enough that he got the message and loosened his grip. Then she raised herself up enough so he could see her face when she said, “Let me put it this way: when you take me out to dinner—” his eyes lit up at that, “I promise you’ll leave with your ankles intact. That’s not an honor I bestow to many.” And he was almost, almost smiling so she said, “You get my meaning?”

He pulled her down for a kiss.

Chapter Text

Ben had never felt so inept in all his life.

“Rey,” he tried again. “Would you—the blanket is fine right there. You don’t need to move it.”

She didn’t answer him, still dutifully folding and unfolding and refolding the blankets in an unknowable pattern. Nesting, Ben supposed, but her movements lacked the homey warmth he’d always associated with the word. Instead she seemed mildly panicked, muttering and softly cursing when she stood to assess her work.

What the fuck was he supposed to do?

His alpha was wholly unhelpful. He’d been hard for what felt like hours—had never stopped flexing his hands for want of Rey—but it wasn’t like before. Instinct came and went like an unwelcome houseguest: strolling out the door only to swing back around with more baggage. For every part of him that itched to help her, to capture her body and disappear under the covers, another, older part of him wanted to stand back and indulgently watch.

Let her build her nest, his alpha kept saying. Let her find her peace.

Which made no sense. Scuttling around the room, occasionally hissing at the lights like an off-brand vampire, Rey looked as far from peace as it was possible to travel. And weren’t things supposed to get even worse? Wasn’t she supposed to howl and scratch at his skin and weep for his knot?

She smelled ready, which made everything even more confusing. Between the number of times she’d already come and whatever her heat naturally produced, the wet spot on her pants had nearly reached her knee. She kept touching herself, too—pausing mid-fuss to cup her sex through the cotton and whining when she inevitably pulled away.

It was maddening. Maddening to watch. Maddening to smell. Maddening to process.

He hadn’t been lying before: no existing word could adequately describe how he’d felt the first time they’d fucked. Or how he’d felt leading up to it. His alpha had been equal parts confident and lost, roaring at him to mount her, fuck her, claim her one second and backing away bewildered the next. The urge to dominate never died, but it was tied so strongly to her pleasure that the smallest whiff of Rey’s hesitation threw his instincts into a tailspin. It didn’t matter if she hesitated out of curiosity or concern; Ben was swamped with self-doubt each time.

Without the interference of the drug, he’d figured things would be different. More textbook. She'd crawl through the doorframe already panting and dripping and hot and then she'd reach for him and his alpha would know exactly how best to fuck her through the mattress. There would be the sweet, sweet bliss of knotting followed by what he was starting to think was his favorite thing of all: listening to her voice.

It wasn’t very alpha of him, he knew. He wasn’t sure he’d ever openly confess that truth, even to Rey. But it was a secret thrill to think that it might be part of his new normal.

She’d said it, hadn’t she? That she felt the same? Ruts and heats were temporary, but at some point he was going to be an adult and he was going to ask for her number and if the ankle-bite-free dinner actually happened then other dinners might happen too and then he would only ever be a phone call away from hearing her say hello.

Which was probably pathetic to admit. His coworkers already had to think he’d body-swapped with a stranger. He hardly recognized himself, so there was a very good chance that anyone watching had turned and muttered some variation of what the fuck is going on?

After Hux had slithered away, he’d sat through another awkward physical from Ackbar. To stop himself from strangling the older man (the base of his dick was fucking sensitive), he imagined the shape of the hours to come. He would behave like an alpha. She would behave like an omega. They would fuck in a haze and he would try his hardest not to flip off anyone with too much seniority as he filled out the paperwork for a long overdue vacation.

Except he hadn't had the patience to stroll into the room. Except she'd already been on the bed, smiling and calm, and it was him who clung to her body, frantically sucking in her scent because he'd been so terrified, so sure the scientists had lied and taken her away like they planned.

He hadn't wanted to let her go, but she was insistent that they do something. First it was a game. He'd held her through most of it, coaxing out a few orgasms when her scent surged strong.

Then they’d made out on the floor, Ben’s back to the window and Rey pulled close to his chest in the best approximation of privacy he could create. How old am I? he thought, as his lips slid over hers, because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d bothered with kissing. If he found someone willing to fuck him, they fucked. Anything else felt needless.

That lasted until a new wave of need outpaced Rey’s contentment. She’d abruptly pulled away, his hands too drugged with pleasure to catch her, and she’d been steadily stripping the room of all soft things since.

He couldn’t stop pacing, throwing out useless bits of commentary that Rey ignored.

Can I help?

You’ve already tried to fold that. Try the blue one, instead.

That’s memory foam. It’s going to keep doing that until you leave it alone.

Once the scientists had realized what was going on, someone had been tasked with flinging in extra comforters, pillows, and sheets. They hadn’t bothered to knock, just opened up the door wide enough to do the tossing and leave.

The whole process was over in less than a minute, but Ben still resented the way the stale beta scent lingered in his nose. Rey hadn’t liked it much better; she picked up her new treasures from the floor with a frown, then did her best to rub every square inch of fabric against her neck and wrists. If something smelled particularly offensive, she sought him out, gesturing that he should do the same. He learned to be quick about it: too slow and she’d snatch it back and try to lick away the stink instead.

She’d kept it up until the room smelled right. Like them.

Ben didn’t understand how his alpha could be so calm. He felt like he was supposed to do something and that that something was obvious to anyone except him.

A real alpha would know, he thought bitterly. If he’d only done this before, he wouldn’t have to stand and watch as Rey’s scent spiked with anxiety. He could help her.

When a careful stack of pillows tumbled to the floor, Rey’s eyes filled with frustrated tears.

He lurched forward, feeling helpless. “Have you already tried leaning them against the wall?” And of course she didn’t answer, but he couldn’t stop, desperate to unlock whatever it was that chained her to misery. “I wish you wouldn’t worry. It’s beautiful like it is.”

Slowly, she lifted up her head. A section of her hair trailed sideways across her forehead, plastered by sweat. “It is?”

He was almost too startled to speak, but quickly nodded. “Yes. It’s…” His eyes drifted to the veritable sea of cotton she’d pushed into the corner. If there was some higher meaning to the arrangement, he couldn’t divine it. “It’s perfect.”

“Really?” She said it like he’d promised her the cure to a painful, blood-curdling death.

He took a tentative sniff of the air. She smelled calmer, her scent flooding with warm waves of relief. Could it really be that easy?

“I love it,” he tried, and her mouth fell open as she shivered. Gaining confidence, he kneeled down onto the edge of a blanket. Her eyes tracked his hand as he traced the outline of an embroidered rose. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen.”

“I did a good job?”

It was odd to hear her say the words, but he recognized the voice of her instinct. An omega stared back at him through Rey’s eyes, hungry for praise. He found himself eager to give it.

“You did.” The words felt less awkward in his mouth than he expected. And when she looked at him like that—like he’d baked her a dozen gourmet cupcakes and delivered them on a plate made from winning lottery tickets, like she was liable to combust from thankful joy—his alpha preened. He wanted more of that look. Needed it. Without thinking, he said, “Your alpha approves.”

She visibly slumped from relief. “Thank you, Alpha.”

A searing blast of pleasure made him tighten his fists. Alpha. Had she called him that before? Something inside him gripped the chains of his self-control and rattled the metal.

“Call—call me that again.” He almost didn’t recognize his voice.

“Alpha,” she said instantly, and it was ridiculous how quickly his self-control started to crumble when she leaned back and spread her legs. “My Alpha.”

God, her fucking scent. He’d never lost the taste of it—not since she first walked into the room and scolded him for hitting his head on the chair. Even muted by the suppressant, its sweetness had lodged deep in Ben’s brain. It was darker, now. Headier like it’d been dipped in earthy wine. The sourness of her panic slowly dissipated in the air, replaced with something more familiar to his nose: confidence.

One of her hands drifted down, sneaking under her waistband and moving and his mouth almost fell open in disbelief because how was that allowed?

His alpha, previously content to sit back and watch the proceedings like a crowned king, wanted to snarl. Not fair. Not fair that she could touch herself unseen, that her slick be wasted on her fingers when it could sit on his tongue, instead. At the very least he deserved to look.

But she continued on, bafflingly unbothered as he stared.

It wasn’t long before she shifted. Her heat demanded friction and fullness and Ben’s tongue was thick as she crooked her wrist, the fabric stretching, and stuffed herself with the length of her fingers. He still couldn’t see, but there was an unmistakable, rhythmic slap to her movement—slick and lewd and hardly muffled at all and that was enough. That was absolutely enough.

“Stop.”

She obeyed, instantly biting her lip to cut off a whine.

He tried to stalk closer, forgot he was on his knees, and nearly fell face-first onto the blankets. Rey didn’t seem to notice, watching him with bright eyes. “Show me your fingers.”

Trembling, she did.

“Fuck.” They were coated, shiny wet.

Taste them, his alpha ordered, but before he could slip them past his lips Rey reached out, tracing the swell of the gland in his neck.

He froze, rooted in place.

With absolute fixation, like doing it correctly was the only thing standing between survival and the end of the world, Rey lovingly rubbed her slick into his skin.

Ben had never held much stock in tradition. Too many people clung too tightly to history, trudging through the same rutted roads instead of breaking new ground. He had no use for trite, sentimental longing of days gone by—not when the future was worthier of attention.

Except the feel of Rey’s hands spoke of good, ancient ritual. She traced the cut of his jaw and the bridge of his nose, always and forever circling back to the swollen skin on his neck. The trail of each fingertip burned blessedly cool and Ben felt like the echo of a long-forgotten song started to beat inside the confines of his heart. It was an unnamable and familiar all at once: something that set his alpha to purr, pleased and honored and claimed.

When she was finished, Rey sat back on her haunches with a self-satisfied smile.

Ben took a moment longer to process. His skin still buzzed with the aftermath of her attention and it wasn’t that he’d lost focus—he still longed to put Rey on her back, nip at her throat and bite a pattern of his own—but a new sense of responsibility flooded his mind.

“Are you hungry?” he blurted.

She tilted her head. “Hungry?”

He wanted to ask exactly how much of Rey’s consciousness her omega had claimed, but decided it felt too close to being rude. “Can I get you anything to eat?”

“Oh.” One of her hands pressed against her stomach. Assessing or comforting, he couldn’t tell. “No, I think I’m okay.”

It was a struggle for his alpha to believe she was telling the truth. He had half a mind to bang on the glass for…he wasn’t exactly sure. The odds were low that Amilyn had prepped a fruit tray. Maybe there was still some of that soup he’d spotted in the fridge—although no, hadn’t he seen Hux spooning some into a mug that morning? A bagel, perhaps. He could not abide the sight of cream cheese, but he’d ask on Rey’s behalf. She’d probably like something sweet. He could feed it to her himself. He wouldn’t mind.

“I’ll get something just in case,” he said, and stood for no reason at all because it didn’t matter how long they’d been in the room: someone was listening. They could hear him just fine from the floor. But his body cried for action and action meant moving. They might even bring it faster if he could look sufficiently threatening through the glass.

He tripped, then looked down to see Rey’s hand around his ankle.

“I wasn’t lying, you know.” She almost sounded like herself, smiling up at him like that. Her eyes still blazed a frenetic energy that prevented her from looking at peace, but she no longer seemed like she’d shank a stranger to steal the softness of their coat.

“I think I should still—”

“I’m fine, Ben,” she said, a little more firmly. Then she winced. “Fuck. My omega really hates that I stopped you.”

Well, that answered one question. His interest was enough to root his feet a bit more firmly to the ground. “Are you feeling—?” He couldn’t make himself say better. She shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of nesting; it wasn’t a disease to be cured. Tentatively, he settled on, “How do you feel?”

She immediately opened her mouth, then cut herself off with a hollow laugh. “You know, I almost said ‘like shit,’ but that’s not…that feels like a half-truth. Confused, mostly. And ridiculously horny.”

Ben’s dick twitched, an unneeded reminder that he felt the same. He deserved some sort of award for ignoring it to ask, “Confused?”

“Yeah. Like this—” she gestured between the two of them, “This talking? This is not normally a thing.”

He nodded, no longer surprised. The only constant in this whole godforsaken study had been their tendency to ignore what should be constant.

She went on. “I thought that was it, once I started…” She paused to look at the pile she’d amassed, her face wavering somewhere between shock and pride. “It was like it usually is, just this unkillable need to obey my instincts. But then you said you liked it and that just—it was like I remembered how to breathe.” Almost to prove to herself that she could, she let her lungs fully expand, expelling the breath with a whoosh. “But I’m not—I don’t think it’ll last. Having my mind. Every second it gets harder.”

Strangely, he could tell. The longer they talked, the easier it was to smell her heat clawing its way back into the room. She kept shifting, too—her hips unconsciously aching to rock. He could also tell she was loath to abandon her sanity. Though she didn’t seem to fear it.

It reminded him of his own rut. The way he felt before and even the way he felt now: like he was tethered to two different ropes held by two different desires, both of them blindly pulling him in an unguessable pattern. If he felt sane in one moment, he was almost guaranteed to lose his mind the next. There were mitigating factors, of course, and he had his theories, but now was not the time to dwell.

Even now, her breathing had become more noticeable. She closed her eyes, swaying a little.

He watched her, torn. “Can I do anything?”

She started to shake her head, but it must have made her dizzy: both of her hands flew up to encircle her head. She made a noise that might have been no.

He turned to the glass. “Bring more water. And fruit.” Didn’t she say she loved pineapples, at one point? “Pineapples. And soup. Not the shit I saw in the fridge. Make sure it’s fresh.”

In a truly wise course of action, no one bothered to point out that there was still a decent stock of water bottles floating in a bucket he’d dragged nearby. Or that they’d already delivered a small mountain of cherries. They’d sat untouched, though, which made Ben assume Rey wasn’t interested. If there was a chance she’d actually eat something else, he’d take it.

He wanted to wait for the delivery, but his alpha’s demands were all but lifting his feet.

Hold her. Keep her safe.

Until his bare skin hit the blanket she’d used to cover the ground, Ben had completely forgotten his nakedness. It was laughably easy to hoist Rey into his lap again. Especially when she gave no protest.

She was heat—all heat—when she leaned back against his chest. He stopped himself from hissing, but was too compelled not to tug at her shirt. “Off,” he ordered. “This has been on long enough.” And because she so easily acquiesced, crossing her arms before lifting up the hem and flinging down the damp cotton, he seized the opportunity to tap at her bottoms, too. “If you want help getting this off, lean forward.”

She did and without too much struggle, they managed to get her unclothed.

Much better, his alpha decided, and Ben didn’t disagree.

With his dick tucked up against her ass and the honest pleasure of feeling her skin against his, Ben was almost content. His rut felt…suspended, somehow. The desire to fuck hadn’t died, but this was what she needed and so this was what he would give. At least until he smelled otherwise.

Rey started up a light purr when he massaged away the stress in her shoulders. There was a level of tension he’d never fully manage to remove—not while she was in heat—but he could tell she appreciated his efforts.

When he finished with her shoulders, he let his hands greedily explore. Already the shape of her body felt familiar. The freckles on her shoulders. The scar on her right bicep, like one hand reaching for the grip of another. He traced the soft swell of her hips until he was sure she’d be bored of it, but she only hummed in approval. And he’d never get over her breasts, how they fit so perfectly in his palms, or the beauty of places he could only see: her ankles, her flexing toes, the strong muscles of her calves.

The fruit, soup, and water were delivered in record time, Rey offering up a startled laugh when Ben suddenly gripped her tightly, snarling once as the door clicked shut.

“I can feel you glaring at the food.” Rey patted his forearm, minutes later. “It doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’re not going to scare the tray into growing legs and walking over here.”

He grumbled. “You never know. I’ve been told I’m naturally intimidating.”

“Not exactly a juicy piece of gossip.”

“You’re saying it’s stale?”

“As far as news goes, sure. A one-eyed walrus could manage to suss out that you’re intimidating.”

“Did you watch Planet Earth before your friend dropped you off?”

She angled her head up in a failed attempt to look into his eyes. “No. Why?”

“I’ve just noticed a theme. First frog sounds and now walruses moonlighting as investigative journalists.”

“Two instances of anything hardly qualifies as a theme.”

He was ready to argue, but let it go when she shivered. A quick hand to her forehead told him what his nose already knew: her heat was steadily progressing. And she still hadn’t eaten.

It would be stupid to carry her to the door, even though that’s exactly what his instincts insisted he do. The amount of effort it took to guide Rey off his lap and onto the softness of a blanket was ridiculous, but he let his frustration spur him into the quickest food-fetching trip of his life.

She protested when he tried to recreate their last position, but he insisted. “You eat when you’re horizontal, you’ll choke.”

“Don’t need food,” she muttered, but it was a protest born of stubbornness and not truth.

He tried to cajole. “One bite.” And when she still hesitated: “Rey. Please.”

With an almighty sigh, she heaved herself up.

One bite became two which became five which became seven. She didn’t eat quickly, which surprised him given how she’d talked about food before, but the pineapple steadily disappeared from the plate. The more she ate, the more his alpha’s concern diminished.

Feeding her by hand felt like overstepping, no matter how much his fingers twitched to do it. There was an awkward moment when, eager to do something, he pre-spooned some of the soup but dropped it on her stomach instead.

“Fuck, I’m sorry.” Had he burned her? She hadn’t even jerked, but that didn’t mean—

“You can, you know.” Her voice sounded deeper. Less her own. She guided his wrist back to tray of food, squeezing until he guessed what she wanted and picked up a new piece of fruit. “My nose still works. Your alpha smells desperate and my omega wants it anyway. You won’t hurt my pride. Maybe I’ll feel like a queen.”

Before she could change her mind, he slipped a raspberry into her mouth.

He expected it to feel satisfying, and it was: her quiet groan of appreciation settled his nerves, easing his self-consciousness about feeding a grown woman. It felt right to watch the ripple of her throat as she swallowed, rewarding to know he was keeping her fed.

It was also fuel for his rut. By the fourth raspberry, Rey wasn’t content to let his fingers retreat. Her teeth bit his finger instead of the fruit, one of her hands coming up to clutch at his wrist again, keeping it in place as she sucked at his skin.

He remembered the way she’d sucked his cock.

He’d loved how unashamed she was to be loud. How much spit dripped down to his balls. His alpha had refused to let him come, demanding that he save the first time for her body, and it had been a beautiful agony every time she’d touched his knot. It was simultaneously a feeling he never wanted to end and something he wasn’t sure he could endure.

Again, his alpha decided. We want to feel that again.

By the sounds Rey was making, it wouldn’t be long. The sucking was only a stopgap. Whatever pleasure she’d gotten from his taste was quickly not enough: soon she was reaching for her clit, rolling it between her fingers, only to whine and pull away like the touch was only a torture. Her thighs were already slick.

He wasn’t going to last long, either. He was shocked at his alpha’s willingness to stand back as he clumsily navigated, but now it was truly impatient. His eyes kept traveling to the gland in her neck, his mouth watering.

Knowing it would be one of the last sensible things he’d say, he croaked, “Feeling queenly, yet?”

She moaned something that was probably assent. She was trying to fit a fourth finger into her cunt.

He could feel his sanity unraveling. He closed his eyes so he couldn’t see but he could still smell and his mind burned with it. He needed to touch her, replace her fingers with his own and why hadn’t he already done that? Why wasn’t he in her and rutting, why weren’t they kissing and what kind of a brute was he, that he’d let her suffer for so long?

“Rey?” he prompted, desperate to hold on. “How—is it bad?”

“S’not so bad,” she slurred, and Ben wondered if she sounded the same just before she fell asleep. “Want you to fuck me.”

It was the stupidest, stupidest question, but he needed to ask it anyway: “You’re ready?” His mouth was already descending to her shoulder, her scent too alluring to resist. “You have to answer me, Rey. I have to hear it. Just tell me and I’ll—”

Yes,” she cried, already turning, reaching.

And that was it, he was gone, his alpha roared like a beast uncaged and there was only Rey, her heat surging bright, and the way she reached for him, clawing at his back as he pushed inside, her slick the best thing he’d ever felt, and he wouldn’t last a minute. Not a second. He was going to come and she’d take every inch of his knot and it would destroy him before it put him back together and he’d never wanted anything, anything more.

--

It was everything and nothing like before.

Rey talked less, for one. If she managed to speak, it was to beg.

Will you bite me, Alpha?

Can you tell me I’m good?

All I need is your knot. The mark of your teeth.

Please, Alpha.

She begged for his knot and then she came on it, shuddering and crying long enough that Ben’s alpha was almost at a loss, not sure if his hands needed to pet her in comfort or as wildly as she seemed to enjoy. He stared too long at the meat of her arms, always sure they were on the verge of blooming with bruises. He hadn’t made up his mind what he’d do if he actually saw them. The ones on her neck still plucked at his guilt.

She’d slept after the first knot, only awake long enough to murmur sweet praise as he kissed her skin.

There was no way to describe the feeling of his knot. Of coming while knotted. The first time had overwhelmed him to the point of fear—such new pressure and so much of it, stretching his skin until he was sure it would break. Rey had helped him then with soft reassurances in his ear and held him when he thought he’d never be free of the pleasure.

It was a different kind of orgasm, relentless and exacting. Once it eased, he could only marvel at the feeling of coming—actually coming—for so long, sure that Rey’s stomach would swell as he filled her. If there was that much come in her, then there was that much come in him to begin with and it really couldn’t be possible but it was. His balls ached fiercely.

This time he had a better idea of what to expect: he knew he’d be calmer if she held him, so he guided her arms around his shoulders in the last moments, whispering praise she howled to hear.

So perfect, omega. So good. Taking my knot. I couldn’t love it more. Such a good girl.

As she slept, he let his alpha trace a pattern of its own onto the flushed heat of her cheeks.

When his knot lost the bulk of its swell, he pulled out and rearranged himself until he could watch any trace of his come that attempted to escape. She came again when he started to lick, his fingers inside and pumping, only stopping when the grip on his hair turned painful.

Like before, his alpha ordered him to fuck; unlike before, the power of his instinct felt diminished.

He was still at its mercy. Part of him thought he’d burn the world if someone tried to stop him from fucking Rey, but her heat was richer than before. She needed more than before. He saw glimpses of the Rey he’d first met and there had been brief, surprising moments where she’d managed to tell him what she needed, but there were no coy attempts at distraction. No stalling. Without her words, he found himself devoting more time to listening. His alpha wouldn’t blindly rut if it meant he’d miss his omega’s demands, so his instincts quieted. Not gone, but barking orders in a hush instead of a shout.

He had no idea of the time. Was it part of rut, to stay awake and watch over the omega? He didn’t feel tired, though he did—after checking to be sure Rey had really fallen back asleep—sneak out of their nest to swallow the rest of the soup. The water was already near.

With nothing pressing to do until she woke up, he tried to think of how he’d ask for her number.

“Hi, we had sex for an extended period of time. Long-term sex partners feel like the kind of partners that should have each other’s numbers. I have a good memory. You can just say yours out loud.”

“Here’s my phone.”

“I’m two bribes and a threat away from knowing the passcode to our file vault. Files vaults usually contain the phone numbers of our participants. If you could spare me the trouble of speaking to the people who are now capable of describing the shape of my dick, I’d be much obliged.”

He cringed at that last one. What woman wouldn’t be turned on by the looming threat of stolen personal data? Surely all he had to do was ask like a normal human being. Only he’d forgotten the usual protocol.

“Ben?”

He’d been staring at the ceiling, Rey’s body tucked close. Now he leaned up on his elbow. “Yeah?”

“Take me home,” she whispered, and her eyes were too wet.

Alarm bells started to ring in his heart. What was she—was she about to cry? Stupidly, he said the only thing he could think of: “You’re not done with your heat.”

“I don’t care. Take me home.” And he must have looked torn because she grabbed his face, her fingers sharp points against his jaw. “You promised you’d take care of me.” He had. He’d meant it. “And I want to go home.”

Wildly, he looked around the room like the silent walls would provide a solution. Home? He couldn’t blame her; he was sick of everything to do with the study himself. But leaving now? The faces behind the glass would have a better idea of how much longer she actually had, but was that allowed? Walking out in the middle of a heat? Who would watch her?

“I want you with me,” she pleaded, as if she could hear him. “I want you to come with me and I want to go home.”

“Rey, I—”

But this was not a moment of full clarity. He couldn’t keep track of who was speaking to him—Rey or her omega. They took turns flashing behind her eyes.

He tried to reason with her. He tried distracting her with his tongue, sucking at a nipple, the jut of her collarbone. He thought she might need his cock again and slid in to start a slow rocking, but even as she gasped and rocked back, her begging was still the same.

Home, she cried, and her tears made him want to weep.

Home, home, home.

He held her, shushing and letting her clutch, and then he devised a plan.

Chapter Text

This place was familiar.

Rey didn’t dare open her eyes. For a brief moment, she contemplated taking a peek, but peeking was practically a commitment to looking and looking only ever proceeded moving and moving was not on the agenda. She was comfortable where she was, wrapped up in both the literal comfort of blankets and the knowledge that she could rest as long as she liked. Sluggishly, her brain reminded her that she was on vacation.

All the same, her nose confirmed she was somewhere she’d been before. The scent of her clothes was near. Her favorite room spray (the one she only knew by the sight of the bottle and not by name) had been used at some point. It lingered on the edge of everything, even—she buried her nose into the softness to confirm—on the sheets.

Her mind was too foggy to know exactly what the hell she’d been doing before she fell asleep, but she would bet big, big money she’d left a dildo on the floor. Her cunt ached.

Had she made plans with Finn today? He was never one to wait. If she heard the click of a door, she’d have approximately five seconds to roll out of bed to kick the toy away from his impatient eyes. She swore she’d never subject him to a repeat of last Christmas: she’d fallen asleep overly late after pre-emptively unwrapping her present to herself (it was a fancy thing she’d been drooling over for literal months with an intensity setting so high she’d flung it at her closet door the first time it touched her clit), completely forgetting Finn’s promise to pick her up early, and don’t you fucking forget.

His scream and subsequent moaning about buying bleach, real poison, something that will burn away my eyesight forever, Jesus, Rey, how could you? was almost enough to one-click purchase a lock for her door.

Reliving the memory partially convinced her that she was in her actual room. Something in her brain was adamant that couldn’t possibly be true, but she was still too muddled by sleep to remember why. If she wasn’t in her room, so be it. She didn’t feel unsafe.

As cozy as she felt, dozing was somehow beyond her reach. Her subconscious demanded answers.

So she was safe and somewhere familiar but if she wasn’t home, where exactly had she spent the night? She ruled out Finn’s (she’d feel the warm fluff of a cat on her belly, if that were the case), which was pretty much her only option. Poe had sold his place ages ago. Maz always kept a room clean for visitors but Rey couldn’t imagine a scenario that explained why she’d choose to fuck herself raw in anyone’s home but her own.

A one-night stand? That was more worrying, although Rey usually employed a good vetting system. She’d avoided skeevy situations for years. If the itch was bad enough for a Tinder date, Finn knew to be on high alert. He’d be blowing up her phone if she hadn’t checked in, and she hadn’t heard a peep.

She really should wake up. Mysteries like where did I fall asleep? and who and/or what gave my cervix such a vigorous hello? were not mysteries to be taken lightly. She needed coffee and if she needed coffee, she needed to leave her nest.

She frowned. That last thought felt like a piece of a puzzle. Except she couldn’t imagine how coffee could be such a linchpin to her whereabouts. Did she fuck a barista?

What had previously been a mild glow behind her eyelids was growing stronger. Wherever she was, she’d forgotten to close the blinds. The exposed bit of her face felt like it was well on its way to an unexpected tan.

She frowned again. Why was that worrying?

Okay, fine. She’d do it. She’d get out of bed. The mystery would be instantly solved and she’d vow to spend the rest of her morning doing something productive. Cleaning, probably. She’d avoided cooking anything in the oven for weeks now, too lazy to scrape off the burned bits at the bottom that tended to smoke. Only she couldn’t recall if she’d actually picked up baking soda. Or vinegar. Or was it lemon? Google would rescue her incompetence.

Her nose itched. Reaching up to scratch, something bonked against her chin. A bracelet.

She never wore bracelets.

Her eyes flew open.

She was in her room. She gave herself a vicious pinch and no, that was her unfolded pile of clean laundry. That was her old welding helmet, the one she was too sentimental to throw away. The sheets smelled like her sheets because they were her sheets and there was the room spray on her nightstand.

Sitting up, her heart beating hard, she realized she’d kicked off at least half a dozen blankets onto the floor. A nest. She’d been nesting. She’d been nesting because she’d been in heat and she’d been in heat because she’d been locked into a strange office and smelled a white coat and that’s when she’d gotten the bracelet because they’d wanted to watch as she fucked—

Ben.

She twisted so hard in the bed that the remaining sheet fluttered to the floor. Had he been here? Was there an imprint of his body on the mattress, or would she smell nothing at all when she checked? Or—

Something crashed in the kitchen followed quickly by the thump of approaching footsteps.

Rey had enough time to think a vague thought about throwing a dildo at the intruder’s head before Ben barreled through the door, screeching to such a sudden halt that Rey half expected to see rising smoke from the carpet. His hair was rumpled and he looked exhausted but as he wildly scanned the room, Rey’s eyes fell to his clenched fists and decided he still had enough energy to attempt murder.

At the sight of him, her worry instantly evaporated. Her heart, however, was still stuck in a rapid tempo.

His must have been doing the same: one hand flew up to grab at his chest, rumpling the edges of—

“What are you wearing?

Eyes still wide from panic, Ben looked down at his apron. It was laughably small on him, but in a minor act of mercy, Rey didn’t own any aprons with cutesy sayings. Her aprons (all two of them) were sewed up Frankenstein-style from leftover bibs she’d scavenged from work—faded blends of blue and gray and wholly unassuming. He stared for a full thirty seconds before he found his voice. “I found it in the kitchen.”

She settled on the first thought slow enough to catch. “You’ve been in my kitchen?”

He looked a little insulted. “Not the whole time.” His gaze fell to the blankets on the floor. “Just after you fell asleep.”

“Oh.” Like she’d wanted to do before, Rey leaned down and took a sniff of the opposite side of the bed. And then she wasn’t sure how she’d missed it: his scent was there, strong enough that her nose twitched. Eager to blend with her own.

She looked up to see him watching, his eyes soft. For all that he’d rushed to arrive, he apparently didn’t have much to say. His chest rose and fell, recovering. Adjusting to the scent in the room.

“How long have we been here?” she asked, trying not to care that Ben’s left foot was two inches away from one of her thongs.

Ben flicked his wrist up and frowned when he realized he wasn’t wearing a watch. One of his shoulders lifted and fell. “Not sure, exactly. Two days? We could ask Finn.”

She almost fell off the bed. “Finn is here?”

“Yes,” Ben muttered, and it was like a storm cloud passed across his face. “It was the only way they’d—shit.”

He was gone.

Rey blinked at the space he had left. And then she crumpled back onto the mattress, hyper-fixating on the gray smudge that had mysteriously appeared on her ceiling after her last heat. She could never decide if it looked more like a cloud or an ink stain. Finn said it looked like a butt plug, but that was only because he was overly vocal about his sex life.

So, Ben was in her apartment.

Ben had been in her apartment. For more than a day. Ben was still in her apartment, probably attending to whatever it was he’d tried to cook in the oven. What swearing managed to reach her ears was impressive. He really did have a wonderful vocabulary. She wasn’t sure she’d ever heard someone utter ‘execrable’ and ‘shit-magnet’ in the same breath before. And on the off-chance she actually had and didn’t notice, she doubted anyone else could manage to make both sound so wickedly crass. She wasn’t sure what kind of pay he made as a scientist, but he could make bank as a tutor. No SAT book could compare. The kids would be petrified into perfect scores. Who would forget to study their flash cards if they knew an alpha was the one giving a quiz?

If Ben lost too many customers due to excessive growling, he could switch it up and moonlight as one of those people that yelled motivational threats at the gym. That had to be a thing. If it wasn’t, it should be.

But the odds were good that he enjoyed a cushy bank account. Rey had no idea what kind of car he drove or where he lived, but poor people didn’t buy chairs with buttery leather for offices they hardly ever used. Ben struck Rey as the kind of person who never bought frivolously—he probably shopped once a year and only then in dire need—but also as the kind of person who didn’t bother to look at the total.

Of course she could be wrong. She certainly hadn’t pegged him as much of a cook, but that was definitely the smell of smoke. And possibly burnt egg.

Suddenly, imitating a beached starfish held zero appeal. She needed to see if Ben Solo was cooking her breakfast.

Standing up, she realized she was naked and therefore had been naked when she’d spoken to Ben. She waited to see if that mattered to her sense of propriety, but she only heard her stomach howl for food.

Grabbing a baggy t-shirt and jump-hopping into the most reachable pair of leggings, Rey prayed Ben hadn’t scorched the toast.

--

Her trip to the kitchen was only minorly delayed.

Halfway down the incredibly short hallway, she decided it would be a poor form of repayment to show up at the table smelling like she’d swam through a swamp’s worth of come and sweat. Rey-in-heat would have bottled the scent; Rey-of-the-moment almost gagged.

From the continued sound of slammed cabinets and rattling cutlery, Ben wouldn’t notice if she took a quick shower.

Pivoting, Rey changed course and shuffle walked into her bathroom. She made a very undignified noise as soon as she spotted herself in the mirror.

“Holy shit.”

She stared, mouth open.

Hickeys were supposed to fade, were they not? She remembered Ben’s desperate sucking when he’d been tied to the chair, but he’d looked so mortified at the sight, post-fuck. As if he’d rather chop off a finger and fry it like a sausage than know he’d been the one to bruise her skin. She’d done her best to convince him she didn’t mind, that she liked it, but didn’t remember him attacking her neck again. At least not vigorously.

She lifted a finger to map the territory of her bruises but let it drop because there wasn’t a point. Her neck was a bruise—a mottled mess of dark purples fading into edges of green and yellow that spanned from just under her ear to the curve of her shoulder. No surprise that her glands were the deepest color of them all: they looked positively mauled.

Moving closer to the mirror revealed all sorts of new discoveries.

There were no bags under her eyes. Her cheeks lacked the usual fever-flush of unmet desire. She was used to feeling mildly ill post-heat, but her lips were plump from Ben’s attention, not cracked from dehydration.

He’d used his teeth more than once. Little bite marks peppered her body in places she did and didn’t expect to see. Near her glands, of course, but also her forearm. The web of skin between her thumb and index finger. The thickest part of her hips, her inner thighs, and her breasts but also next to her kneecap. The top of her foot.

She minded not at all, but still found herself wondering if—given no restrictions—Ben would have happily devoured her whole.

--

A mild knock interrupted her shower.

“Rey?”

She’d had to use two rounds of shampoo. He caught her just as she was reaching for the conditioner. “Thought you’d appreciate it if I didn’t smell so funky,” she called, raising her voice over the drone of the shower. “Shouldn’t be much longer.”

“Are you okay?” The door handle squeaked as it turned, then abruptly stopped. “Sorry, I—”

Hands in her hair, Rey tried to figure out why he’d bother to apologize. “Are you worried I’d care if you came in?”

Slight sputtering. “Well, yeah.”

“I don’t mind,” she said, and immediately realized she’d intended to spare him from bruise-linked trauma. If she had been arrested by the sight of her neck, there was a solid chance he’d faint. Although he must have noticed the damage earlier: if they’d been in bed for two days, there was no way he could have missed it. She tugged the shower curtain closed just in case.

When he still didn’t enter, she tried, “Hard to hear you through the door.”

There was a slight pause before the knob turned.

The sudden influx of cooler air made Rey shiver, but he quickly shut the door behind him. The lock didn’t click. With the curtain blocking her view, Ben was a massive, grayed-out blob. A grayed-out blob that started shifting on his feet.

Until he asked, “Is that Jeff Goldblum?”

She hesitated, trying to remember why she would have left that bobblehead in the bathroom. Then, “Oh, shit.” He couldn’t see her smile, but she did it anyway. “Yeah, it is. I always forget about the shower curtain. Are you jealous?”

“I am a feeling. I’m not sure if it’s fair to call it jealousy.”

“Awestruck?” she offered. “Are you struck by awe? Has awe struck you?”

“How did I not notice this before?” he wondered aloud instead of answering. He almost sounded concerned. “I’ve used this bathroom at least ten times.”

The soap slipped out of her hands, startling him when it banged against the tub. Miraculously, she didn’t laugh. Just swooped it up and finished lathering her legs.

“Maybe you weren’t ready to see it,” she suggested.

“Like I was unworthy?”

“Sure. Like a Thor’s hammer situation. Only the worthy can gaze upon Mr. Goldblum’s mighty visage.” And because he’d sounded like he knocked on the door with a question, she asked, “Everything okay? Did you burn down my kitchen?”

“Your oven is terrible,” he grumbled, “but no. Just came because I couldn’t find you in the bedroom.” He was fiddling with something by her sink, body still angled like he might need to make a quick escape. Like he still wasn’t quite sure if he was welcome amongst the steam and the smell of her soap. “Breakfast is—well, I made you breakfast.”

The warm glow simmering in her heart kicked up a notch. “Am I allowed to inquire about the type of breakfast?”

“You are allowed to inquire. You’re not allowed to actually know.”

“Rude.”

“Judging from how much you’re enjoying this shower, I need some sort of leverage to convince you to leave it.”

“If you’re implying I’ve been in here a long time, I can only assume you shower too quickly to actually enjoy them. Showers are one of the world’s most glorious experiences.” A newly-born idea waved its hand in her brain. The odds of his agreement were unknown, but, “I’m willing to offer a one on one session, if you have your doubts.”

“I’m not sure I could afford your fee,” he said warily, but he edged closer all the same.

“Lucky for you, I only accept meals as payment.”

Two of his fingers peeked around the edge of the plastic. “How much does one breakfast get me?”

“Come in and find out.”

Like she always did, Rey sent a silent apology to Jeff when the curtain moved and his face was scrunched.

Ben was naked. Given that he’d only been sporting an apron earlier, it made sense. It was still a startlingly pleasant surprise.

So she hadn’t imagined his height. Or the shape of his muscles. Or the size of his cock, though it was flaccid. Her cunt gave a sympathetic throb when she noticed the ring of bruised skin where his knot had grown. In the places his cropped hair didn’t cover, his skin looked chafed. She wondered if she was supposed to apologize for the scratches on his chest and the teeth-marks-turned-bruises near his glands but she felt oddly proud. He’d earned those. And she’d been the one to give them.

He was staring at her the same way. Glad and a little prideful. His eyes did look softer when they caught on her neck, but she gripped his bicep and tugged before he could self-flagellate.

The tub felt laughably small when he joined her, stepping in with a gesture that said she should stay under the spray. She did, but she turned until the water hit her back instead of her breasts.

“Now,” she said, authoritative, “the first rule of delightful showering is that the water needs to be as hot as you can stand.”

“I know how to take a shower.” He poked a place between her ribs, smiling slightly when she made a sharp noise of surprise.

She batted his hand away. “Clearly not, if you don’t understand how I could summon the will to stay in one for more than five minutes. Now pay attention.”

Secretly, Rey was worried Ben would never get his money’s worth. Tandem showering was not like solitary showering and Rey had conveniently forgotten how hard she’d had to pretend to like sharing in the past. Someone was always a water hog. Someone was inevitably cold as they waited for water and then there was the danger of slipping, inevitable arguments about shampoo, and awkward jokes about water pressure.

It was quieter than she’d expected. Quiet enough that she realized he must have left music playing in the kitchen. Soft, lazy notes drifted in through the growing crack in the door, encouraging her to speak with her hands instead of her mouth.

Sex was absolutely out of the question, but there was a tenderness to their movements she loved all the same. Good, easy moments like the way he hummed when she washed his hair and how he cupped her elbow when she pivoted for the sugar scrub. She could feel the presence of his body even when she closed her eyes.

They did talk. Not about the study and most definitely not about how he’d gotten her home. But he was really, unsurprisingly good at pronouncing all the words on the back of her shampoo bottle. And sharing his opinion about phenoxyethanol, behentrimonium chloride, and retinyl palmitate (“No” and “Absolutely not” and “We’re throwing this away,” respectively).

She liked that his eyes crinkled when she confessed she’d never used a bath bomb. She liked how he watched her hands. She especially liked how it felt like they’d done this a hundred, thousand times before. How she could picture them doing it a hundred, thousand times again.

--

Rey stopped in the doorframe of her kitchen, one hand holding a clump of beaded curtain to the wall.

“Where was I hiding all of this?” she asked, awed.

She didn’t mean just the food. There were actual placemats sitting on her tidied table. She had a vague memory of Finn stuffing something mesh and blue into one of her junk drawers a few months back, but she’d never bothered to investigate. Half the time, she ate on her couch. Which…she twisted her neck back around to check, had also been straightened—her blankets and pillows picked up off the floor and arranged in someone’s best guess.

So, placemats. But she could also swear that her pots looked different. Three of them were still sitting on the stove, all of their usual scorched bits missing. He obviously hadn’t had time to clean everything: her stirring spoons and spatulas were still haphazardly poking out of an old chipped canister; mail only moved from the eighteen places she usually dropped it to a new mountain on top of the fridge. The faint smell of smoke still lingered.

She took another step. Ben followed, newly clothed, and went to the stove so he could lift up a lid.

The table was a wonder unto itself. There was no salvaging or sprucing up her plates, but that hardly mattered when they were piled high with pancakes and—she squinted—little square bits of French toast. She could hardly believe she knew the word ‘ramekin,’ but that was definitely what he’d found and filled with various types of fruit. Blueberries and blackberries and some sort of melon and an absolutely absurd amount of pineapple were scattered around like tiny little islands of color on the tablecloth, holy fuck.

“How long did this take?” She slowly walked forward, marveling and only barely suppressing the urge to check if he’d dusted the cabinet tops. He probably had. “It looks amazing.”

“You started sleeping more, toward the end,” was all he offered.

“Did you ever bother to join me?” she said absently, too busy staring at her table. A camera. She felt like she needed a camera. Or better yet: a set of oil paints and a brush and the talent to wield them. Was that compote?

“Sometimes. More in the beginning. But my alpha couldn’t…I don’t know. It was hard to keep still.”

That felt like something she’d once read on a forum. If omegas needed to build a nest, alphas had the urge to protect it. Apparently Ben’s alpha believed she needed protection from clutter.

“As soon as we finish eating, you should rest,” she said, sinking down onto a chair. Her hand reached for five different things before flopping back into her lap. She didn’t know where to start. “Just looking at all this is exhausting. Did Finn go grocery shopping?”

Ben bristled at the mention of Finn. “No. I used Shipt.”

The next best thing, she supposed. Rey would bet anything that if she opened her fridge, she’d find it fully stocked. “How much do I owe you?”

He made a face. “You’re not paying me.”

Even imagining the total on the bill was stress-inducing. He’d probably ordered from the bougiest grocery store in town. But she made herself say, “Why not? Are you planning on taking all of this home?”

“Why would—? No. It’s yours.”

“It’s not mine if I didn’t pay for it.”

A hint of a growl. “It’s yours if I give it to you.”

“Not if I don’t accept gifts.”

A definite growl. “Pretend it’s your birthday.”

“That’s ridiculous. I was born in winter.”

“Then pretend to be a normal human being and say thank you before you eat your cold pancakes,” he said, stalking toward the oven. He opened it just wide enough to peek inside, then stayed there, working his jaw. Quieter, he said, “That sounded kind of cruel. Sorry. I only—wanted to do something nice.”

“I never said I didn’t appreciate it,” Rey pointed out, watching him. “I was being truthful when I said it looked amazing. I have every confidence my taste buds will never be the same. I just…” she looked back at the food. “You know I had a fight with Finn about money on the drive to the lab?”

“He mentioned that.”

Stunned, Rey tried to process that not only was Finn lurking somewhere in the apartment (in her only spare bedroom, she had to imagine) but that he and Ben had had a conversation. Eventually, she was going to ask how Finn got involved in their post-lab adventure. But judging how Ben tensed up at the very mention of his name, she needed to pick a better moment.

“Right,” she said slowly, “Well, then he probably told you I don’t do well with gifts.”

Ben grabbed two forks from the drying rack before he headed to the table. She grabbed the one he offered. “He did. I think it’s bullshit.”

She blinked. “Meaning you thought he lied?”

“No, I believe him. Syrup?” He held out the dispenser.

“Thank you. Wait—so you’re saying I’m bullshit?”

“You’re not bullshit. The whole ‘I won’t accept gifts’ thing is bullshit. It’s childish.”

Childish?”

He calmly cut into his pancakes. “Yes. And prideful.”

Her mouth opened slightly. No words managed to escape.

“I think it was probably born out of necessity. A coping mechanism, or something. I’m not a therapist. But I remember you telling me about your childhood and your caretaker. He seemed like an unreliable, unstable shit stain. What you had you had to earn. What was given came with strings. I’m sure it was easier to do everything on your own.”

“Well, yeah. But—”

“Not taking anything for free has served you well. Lets you be in control. Avoids the crisis of being in someone’s debt. Because what will you do if they leave before you’re even? What if they want something you can’t give in return? But this—” he gestured to the food, “is not something you need to repay. This is something you need to accept.”

Was she supposed to feel angry? She only felt thoughtful. Finally, she said, “I was not anticipating this level of introspection before noon.”

“Served with a side of mango juice, no less. Could you pass the butter?”

Wordlessly, she did. “I suppose it’s fair to say I have some issues.”

“I’m pretty sure having issues was a requirement in my family. Mom, Dad, Grandfather, everybody. If I started listing mine, I’d never stop.”

“Were you ever explicitly told you needed to fix one over breakfast?”

He smeared the butter with a knife. “Every morning.”

--

They eventually reached a compromise: Rey would pay for half the bill (grudgingly, Ben handed over his phone so she could see the total) and Ben would show up for as many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners as she could make with her stocked kitchen. No matter who was paying, it still felt like his food. He should reap the benefits.

“We’re still having our real dinner, though. Right?” he asked around a mouthful of egg.

She hadn’t forgotten. The fact that it was still on his mind made her smile. “Definitely, although I need to finish hemming my dress. Well. Poe needs to finish teaching me how to hem. And then I need to undo my YouTube-taught hemming and then I will hem it for real. And then we can go to dinner. Because I really want to wear this dress.”

“I can’t wait to see it,” he said, sincere, and Rey was struck anew at the utterly unpredictable route her life had taken.

She’d walked into the lab with crossed fingers. She’d walked out of the lab with Ben.

What they were, she didn’t quite know. But she liked it. Wanted it. Felt assured he liked and wanted it, too. That was enough. For now, they’d enjoy their breakfast.

She watched as he fetched more pancakes from the warming tray, awed as he piled four more on his empty plate. Every ramekin in reaching distance of his fork had long since been stripped of fruit.

Rey was impressed. She was dying to know Ben’s workout routine. Because she’d taken a moment to predict whether or not he’d tuck into the same breakfast he’d prepped for her and she’d been wrong. No egg whites in sight. She could normally outpace any man at any meal, but so far Ben was keeping up. In her ego’s defense, he’d probably gone longer without eating.

“So,” she said, deciding it was time, “we’re in my apartment.”

He looked up, head slightly cocked. “Yes?”

“How did we get in my apartment? In my last clear memory, I was building a nest in the lab.” That wasn’t strictly true: the longer she was awake, the more she remembered from their time in her actual bedroom. Just glimpses, but pleasurable ones. She assumed more would follow.

“You’re going to laugh at me.”

“Maybe,” she allowed, “but I’d still like to know the truth.”

He sat back in his chair, one hand playing with a napkin. He wore a small, rueful smile. “Once they neutralized the suppressant, you started your natural heat. And it was—we should talk about it. We have to talk about it, actually, since we both signed contracts that state the lab is entitled to that data. But anyway,” he waved a dismissive hand, “you weren’t completely out of it. You talked. I—”

“Cheated at Uno?”

“Demonstrated superior sportsmanship. I’m glad you remember.”

“I demand a rematch.”

“Actual cheaters don’t deserve rematches.”

“Technically,” she raised a finger in the air, “I only intended to cheat. You spanked me before I saw your cards.”

His eyes went a little darker at that. “I remember.”

So did her ass. It took deliberate focus not to shift on the hardness of the chair. “Therefore I never cheated. Therefore I deserve a rematch.”

“We can renegotiate at a later date,” he said, looking far too pleased by the prospect. “My point was that after we fucked, you begged me to take you home.”

Rey couldn’t recall the exact moment or the words, but she vaguely remembered a wave of need that had nothing to do with sex. She remembered having a problem and trusting Ben to fix it. “So,” she started, “you were obviously successful. What did you tell them?”

“Right.” Hesitation crept back into his eyes. “Well, I had this whole plan. No amount of bribery will ever make me reveal the details of said plan, but it involved breaking glass, blackmailing Amilyn, and sneaking you off the property via the fire escape.”

Rey grimaced. “Is this the quality of planning I’m to expect in the future?”

He brightened at the implication of the last word, but still looked partly confused. “Excuse me?”

“Like, if we planned a vacation to Australia, would your contribution amount to ‘I think we should swim to save on airfare’?”

He tilted his head. “I thought you said you never learned how to swim?”

“That’s not the point.”

“True, and no. It…wasn’t one of my best moments. In my defense,” his fork clinked against an empty ramekin, which made him frown, “my head wasn’t exactly on straight.”

“I’ll give you that. But why did you make a plan in the first place? From the moment I walked in, all I ever heard were reassurances that I could leave whenever I wanted.”

Realizing the food was well and truly gone, Ben looked a little mournful. “Until Pava knocked on my door, I was not at all involved in the project. I had no clue what contract you’d signed. I barely paid attention to my own.”

“So I assume someone filled you in.”

“They did,” he nodded, finally setting down his fork. “Amilyn came through the intercom, said if you wanted to go, you could go. Easy as that.” He sighed. “The only problem was convincing them to let me come with you.”

Rey felt her brow furrow. “I thought that’s what I wanted?”

“That’s what you said you wanted, but they weren’t about to let you go home with the same guy who once threw an intern’s Galaxy into a coffeepot.”

It didn’t matter, but: “A full coffeepot?”

“Yeah. Decaf. It was the most insulting place I could find at the time. It was either that or his face.”

When she found herself back on the lab’s property, Rey was determined to hear as many Ben stories as she could possibly collect. She sent a silent prayer to the god of earplugs that Finn hadn’t overheard his coffeepot confession. He’d be alarmed. Not that she personally approved either, but not a single brain cell worried he’d ever do the same to her.

She told him as much. “Regardless of whether or not you’re an asshole, you wouldn’t hurt me.”

“Of course not, but they were a little terrified of the lawsuit if I did.”

“But they’d be willing to let me suffer through the rest of my heat without my alpha?” It felt somewhat strange to say that in her kitchen, but it rang with truth. She saw Ben’s eyes flash with pleasure. “Like I understand not wanting to send a stranger home with someone who’s not in their right mind, but…” She trailed off. It didn’t matter. “So I assume that’s how Finn got involved?”

She could tell Ben was already planning how best to stack the dishes on their journey to the sink. “Yeah. I asked if they could call your emergency contact and see if they’d be willing to play babysitter. Someone got Finn on the phone.”

Rey felt a warm burst of affection for her best friend. “So he said yes, and—”

“He said no, actually.”

“You’re serious.”

“I believe his exact words were: ‘Absolutely fucking not.’”

That did seem in character. “But you changed his mind.”

You changed his mind. I have no idea how. You made a lot of allusions and threats I couldn’t rightly follow. I have a feeling you cashed in at least three lifetimes’ worth of favors.”

She’d probably agreed to start couponing. And to fix Poe’s rusted-out motorbike. She’d been successfully avoiding that project for years. “I wish I could remember what I promised,” she said faintly.

“I think Finn made a list.”

She sighed and hoped he hadn’t used small font. “At least tell me I behaved myself in the car.”

Ben suddenly found a nick on his mug extremely interesting.

Her cheeks started to heat. “No.”

“You…weren’t a fan of my pants.”

“Not a fan of your pants,” she repeated numbly, almost unwilling to ask but needing to know: “And did I express my displeasure vocally or physically?”

“I tried to stop you—”

Vocally or physically, Ben?”

“—but you snarled when I covered my lap with the blanket, so—”

“Oh my god.”

“So Finn turned up the radio, broke a few speed limits, and there’s no sense in worrying about what’s already buried in the past.” He ended his suspiciously quick speech by standing up and gathering as many plates as he possibly could.

Rey let her head fall into her hands. She stared at the new stains on the tablecloth as the pipes groaned and the sounds of washing began.

“At least,” she finally managed to say, “tell me we didn’t leave a stain.”

The clattering of plates paused. “No stains were left on the car,” he mumbled, and he was the worst actor in the entire world. She heard the emphasis he was trying to hide.

“But there were stains inside the car?”

Silence.

Rey let her head fall to the table.

--

Finn did eventually make an appearance. Once she’d properly processed her shame and vowed to reupholster Finn’s entire backseat, Rey joined Ben in dish washing. He rattled off the recipes he’d used for breakfast until she mentioned the time and he jerked and left the room, muttering something about a promised wake-up call.

The actual reunion was filled with far less drama than she anticipated: Finn marched into the kitchen, his backpack pre-slung over his shoulder, and escorted Rey by the elbow to the closest Ben-free space.

“I have many words to say to you.”

“Hello to you, too.” Rey turned for a quick peek back into the kitchen. Ben was opening random drawers and frowning. Probably seeking an organization system that didn’t exist. If she left him alone for more than five minutes, he’d undoubtedly have every pot and pan on the floor, prepping for a more logical use of space.

She turned back to Finn. “Look, saying thank you doesn’t even begin to cover your sacrifice.”

He’d been studying her in her distraction. “I assume Ben already mentioned the list?” When she nodded, he pulled out his phone. “I’ll e-mail it to you. Open it when you’re ready, but don’t wait too long. I promised Poe he’d get to go to Sturgis this year and that bike of his is a piece.”

She knew it. “Right.”

“You look good despite all the,” he gestured at her neck, a distinct look of ick pulling his lips tight, “things, and while I am extremely eager to know what the hell happened in that lab, I am equally eager to leave your apartment. You have poor sound-proofing. Like, poorer than poor. There are not enough earplugs in all the galaxy. Not in two, Rey.”

She winced, but tried to put on a brave face. “Karmic justice for that brief stint when Poe moved in?”

Finn poked her shoulder twice in quick succession. “We already apologized for that. You’re the one who bought him that Visa gift card.”

“I didn’t tell him to buy a vibrator.”

“No, but you need to accept partial blame for constantly forgetting what you were sanitizing in the dishwasher.”

“That was one time.”

“Incorrect, but not worth the argument. Listen,” he leaned a little closer, and Rey checked to confirm that yes, Ben had given up trying to stay busy and was actively eavesdropping. “I wouldn’t leave if I had any big concerns. You know that, right? No matter what you put me through in my car.” He made a face. “Or in the stairwell. Or in the hallway before Ben could shuffle you into your bedroom. You guys obviously have a thing and I do not pretend to understand that thing, but he survived my grilling and his mother is as charismatic off screen as she is on it.”

She only barely remembered to match his whisper. “Leia called you?”

“We spoke at the lab. She said I should trust him. Which was hard for me to swallow, but I got to see the way he treated you. That’s more than I usually get for your heat hookups.”

He hadn’t said that last part quietly enough. Something dropped and clanged in the kitchen, followed by Ben’s swift swearing.

Finn tapped the side of her cheek to redirect her attention. “So I’m gonna go. My phone’s on, Poe’s on standby, and I added the lab’s emergency line into your contacts. His mother’s number was already there.”

Jesus. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the well-rounded show of concern, but who exactly did they think was standing in her kitchen? She saw the Ben who’d cooked her breakfast. The guy who’d hesitated before interrupting her shower. Cthulhu sightings deserved direct lines to senators, not alphas that cringed at his omega’s bruising.

But Finn wouldn’t see it that way, so she just said, “Gotcha.”

The rest of their goodbyes felt more normal: Finn reminded her about Maz’s get-together on Thursday night, Rey told him he needed a haircut, then there was hugging followed by the click of her front door. His footsteps echoed in the stairwell.

She should pop back into the kitchen before Ben—

“Ah!”

He was already there.

“Did he say if he was coming back?”

She had to give a quick laugh at Ben’s sudden nearness. He seemed calmer, now that was Finn was gone, but she didn’t miss the way he was already finding excuses to touch her—all conveniently in the same places Finn had. Re-scenting her to his satisfaction.

She didn’t protest, mostly because her nose was still adjusting to a post-heat world. This tended to happen: until she completely stabilized, she’d often seek the comfort of her partner’s smell. Being an alpha, Ben’s scent was already prone to be powerful; the fact that she liked him only made it all the sweeter. There was something right about the way they smelled together, so she’d accept his display and only worry if it became an actual problem.

“Gone,” she finally confirmed. “But if that was a subtle ‘can we have louder sex now’ question, the answer is a sad no.”

“Nah,” he said. “I can barely walk as it is. Just wondering if I could put the TV back. He borrowed it so he could—yeah.”

Noise cancellation, Rey assumed. She knew her living room felt off.

When Ben disappeared down the hallway, the siren song of her couch was too tempting to resist. She felt far better than she usually did post-heat, but she was also delightfully full, comfortable, clean, mildly scent-drunk, and brimming with an absence of ambition. The sun could see her face another day.

--

“I can feel my IQ dropping.”

“No one is making you watch this with me.”

You are making me watch this with you. I know this because you pushed me onto the couch and said, ‘You’re watching this with me.’”

“That’s because I knew you’d secretly enjoy it.”

“Why would I enjoy a show about over-privileged teens fighting for social prestige in Brooklyn?”

“Manhattan, Ben. Pay attention.”

“Regardless.”

“Don’t pretend like you didn’t have an opinion about Blair’s dance.”

“Since when is an eyeroll an opinion?”

“Eyerolling is a reaction to having an opinion. Therefore you had an opinion. You think she’s making a mistake.”

“Of course she’s making a mistake. The only reason she went to that stupid club was because she wanted to piss off Nate. Who gives zero shits about anyone that isn’t Serena, by the way. But that wasn’t why I rolled my eyes. It’s the music. I feel like I’m trapped in 2007.”

Just to test her theory, Rey said, “If you hate it that much, I’ll turn it off.”

When she tried to scoot forward, Ben’s hand immediately pressed her back against his chest. There was the rumble of a soft no, then as if he was worried she’d make a second attempt, his other arm crossed over her stomach.

She smiled. As she thought.

Her couch was an admitted eyesore. She’d pieced it together from three different sectionals, so she was always and forever losing things between the wide gaps where they didn’t sit flush. Her favorite piece was the most tattered and the biggest: a faux-chaise long enough for her to stretch out straight and pretend she was on a mattress. It even worked for Ben as long as he propped himself up. As soon as she’d found the remote, he’d dragged her between his legs. The rise and fall of his chest made a surprisingly comfy backrest.

They were only on episode seven, but between the show runtime and their brand of bickering as the credits rolled, the sun had long since dimmed. The time was rapidly approaching where Rey would need to broach the so, I know we fucked for days and I know I smell like you and you cooked me the best breakfast I’ve ever had but I’m not in heat anymore and would you like to stay the night, I’d like you to stay the night, would that be too weird? conversation.

So she did what she was becoming good at: stalling. All she had to do was pick a topic. So far, she hadn’t managed to throw anything at Ben that he wasn’t ready to catch.

“You know how all your colleagues saw you naked?”

“I hope you’re happy. I’d gone exactly five minutes without remembering. Another two and I’d have beaten my record.”

She patted his leg sympathetically. “Before I took my shower, I was brainstorming job options.”

“As mortified as I am, I’m not planning on quitting.”

“No, I don’t think you should. I’m just saying. Options. Like supplemental income.”

The air conditioner kicked on. He grabbed the edge of the blanket and tucked it up a bit higher. “Let me guess: you want me to cook.”

If she’d known he thought making compote was as difficult as boiling water, she would have thought of that herself. “No, although that’s not a terrible idea. Could be an avenue worth exploring. I can see you having a moderately successful YouTube channel. Your brand could be a sexier Gordon Ramsey. But I was thinking more like tutoring.”

He scoffed. “I can tell you right now that I don’t have the patience.”

“Right, but that’s what would make you successful. If they know you’re an alpha, they’ll do all the hard work themselves. Study in fear of your wrath.”

“I’ll pass.”

She shared the rest of her morning musings as well as a few things that came to her on the spot. Most of them were immediately dismissed on some variation of I cannot stress how little I like people, Rey, but he actually snorted when she suggested he look into porn.

“I’m just saying!” she laughed, “It would be an easy transition.”

“You’re hilarious.”

“But you already have experience.”

“Right now, only the lab has video of my dick in action. That’s one video too many.”

It was all a fantasy for the sake of talking, but she was warming up to the idea. “Well what about starting your own site? There has to be a market for alphas yelling orders. People get off on that.”

Some people get off on that,” Ben corrected, “and they can continue to get off without my help.”

“Not the smallest part of you is interested?”

“The only thing I’m interested in is sitting in my lap.” To punctuate, Ben smelled the curve of her neck. His soft, barely-there sigh of pleasure was enough to make Rey’s toes clench. “You still smell so good.”

So did he. She kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. She’d expected things to change without the pressure of the lab and her heat and his rut and they had but not in any way that made her doubt that this thing with Ben was worth exploring.

She kept thinking about her conversation with Rose. At the time, she’d spoken the truth: she held no grand stock in fate. Even now, just thinking the word ‘soulmate’ felt hokey and absurd. The more she thought about it, the more decided she felt: she didn’t want some invisible, mysterious hand involved in her relationship. She’d rather know she had a choice, that Ben actively chose her for her and not because the stars or the universe or some ethereal being with a cup of dice willed it.

All the same, it was…odd. That acute sense of him had faded with the end of her heat, but it was still something she could reach for with effort. She couldn’t read his mind and felt fairly confident he couldn’t read hers. It wasn’t an open doorway. It reminded her more of a window—one with curtains she could pull aside for a view of the distant landscape. Or something she could shut and ignore at will.

More research was clearly needed. There had to be something she could find that would tell her more; they couldn’t be the only ones. But if they were, she didn’t think she’d mind.

“So, I have a question.”

From the sound of it, it wasn’t a question Ben felt eager to ask. “Yes?”

“While I really don’t think anyone expects me back at the lab, I didn’t actually get around to filling out that paperwork for my vacation.” One of his hands plucked at the patch on her blanket, though his voice sounded steady. “I tried doing it online, but I need signatures and my total accrued time and I can’t do that remotely. I have to go back in. Tomorrow. And—”

So soon? She felt foolish when her heart sank because honestly, what was so distressing about a truth she already knew? He couldn’t stay here forever. She wouldn’t even want him to.

For all that she enjoyed his company, she knew she’d eventually need time to herself. She wanted to go on a run. She needed to woman up and check the calendar to see how many days she had left before she was expected at work. There were library books that needed returning, two of them unfinished. Maz wanted a ride to the junkyard. Before she’d ever set foot in the lab, she’d sworn she’d use the time off to tackle her messy closet. All of that on top of her own general need for solitude, which she hoarded and guarded jealously.

“—which is why I need your number.”

Rey twisted to blink at Ben’s face. He looked proud, like he’d managed to accomplish something he’d believed impossible. “Have you been talking this whole time?”

“Seriously?” His fingers flew to the most infuriatingly ticklish patch of skin she had: right on her ribs. He’d found it in record time and kept up an absolute barrage as she howled for mercy. “I practiced that speech like eight times. Eight times, Rey. I had drafts and you didn’t even hear it?”

She flung herself out of his lap and sprawled next to him, instead. Panting. “I was thinking about libraries and junkyards.” But mainly you, she didn’t add. “I was rude. I am ten kinds of apologetic. I promise to sit still and listen as you repeat it. Eye contact and everything.”

He pretended to sniff. “It’s too late. I can’t repeat perfection.”

“Sure you can. Hand me your phone while you get into the right headspace.” She made grabby hands in the general direction of his pocket. “I can’t believe you don’t have my number. We did this a little backward, didn’t we?”

One of his hands slapped his own forehead, dragging down his face as he groaned. “Forget the speech. I just—you already answered my question. Request.” He handed over his phone. “My want has been fulfilled.”

“Strange way of putting it,” she commented, handing it back so he could unlock the screen. “I did hear the beginning, though. You were trying to say that you needed to leave?”

He stilled, but his lips moved faintly. Probably rewinding the whole speech in his head. “Oh. Yeah, I have to pop into work tomorrow. I’m debating the odds of making it to HR without a single conversation. No one usually comes in the west entrance, so that’s the plan.”

“I have a hat you could borrow,” Rey offered. She’d entered her number and felt not at all surprised when his home screen had nothing but default apps. She frowned. “You have given yourself zero opportunities to show off your vocabulary via a word game. I’m downloading one. We’re going to play and you’re not going to hold back and eventually, I am going to win.”

He watched her with silent amusement. “I’ll wait with baited breath. Which reminds me: do you care if I borrow your mouth wash? Believe it or not, I didn’t remember to grab a toothbrush.”

Rey’s head snapped up. “You’re staying?”

He looked a little thrown. “Well, I was. I mean I assumed. You didn’t hear that part, either?”

She grimaced. “Not as such.”

“Well now I feel awkward, but yeah.” He sucked in a breath, looking determined to say what he needed to say as quickly as he possibly could. “I said I live right by work and you decidedly do not and I really didn’t want to drive there and back tonight. So I proposed leaving in the morning. But…Finn said your doorbell doesn’t work. Which means I needed your number so I could call to get back in. If you want me back in,” he added cautiously, like he suddenly realized she could no. “I figured you’d want some time alone, but I thought we could do lunch. Before you spend the rest of your vacation the way you originally planned.”

She smiled at him. “I like it when plans change, actually.”

“It’s worked out well for us so far,” he admitted, his eyes dropping to her lips. “So is that a yes?”

She grabbed the back of his neck, pulling him down for a kiss.

It wasn’t the kind of kiss that demanded more; the feel of his lips against hers was the show, not the preview. When she relaxed back against the cushions, he followed, crawling on top until she was delightfully pinned. Her thighs parted, legs coming up to cradle his hips between them. On another, different day, it would be easy to rock up, maybe start a rhythm, but Ben was still soft and she was still tender and that wasn’t the point at all.

He kissed her slowly. Thoroughly. Without the distraction of her heat, Rey could tell he wasn’t as practiced as she’d originally thought. Sometimes he’d bite her bottom lip just a little too hard; sometimes his tongue was overzealous, licking and moving too quickly for her to catch. He’d remember only to forget his size—she’d occasionally have to tap at his elbows to remind him to take more weight. But it didn’t matter. It was good.

She catalogued all the things she couldn’t before: he huffed when she did something he didn’t like, nipping if she redirected his attention away from where he wanted to give it. He purred deep when she ran her hands through his hair, his chest like a rumbling engine. He always twisted his neck away when she tried to touch his ears.

His smell was still more of a feeling than anything she could point to in a book. It was milder now, but as comforting as she’d tasted on his coat. Like the sheets on her bed, it blended with her own into something she’d never smelled before. Something she couldn’t describe but would protect.

They kissed until her lips were numb and the world felt right. Until she finally pulled away and Ben settled for tenderly licking the wreckage of her neck gland.

Eventually Netflix took them back to Manhattan. Ben groaned and whined and declared Nate loved his cheekbones more than he loved any girl, which was probably true.

How he was awake, Rey could not possibly fathom. He was the absolute image of complete (if content) exhaustion: the bags under his eyes dangerously dark, his limbs slow to move, his thoughts more and more disjointed.

Her bedroom was dark when they stumbled into it, Ben declaring he could help change the sheets but only managing to rest against the doorframe as Rey hurried to finish before he could drop to the floor. He was asleep the second his head hit the pillow. And before Rey joined him, she took in the straight line of his nose, the ear that poked out from his hair, the drool that was already pooling and she decided she had never, ever been so thankful for lab coats.

--

He was gone when she woke, but it wasn’t a shock. His work plan was contingent on scooting in and out before the parking lot filled. More likely than not, he’d rolled out of bed before sunrise.

She stretched, luxuriating in the freedom of an empty mattress.

Ben must have been in the kitchen again: the music he’d played last night was back, louder than before because it wasn’t coming from his phone. She had a faint memory of him adding his Spotify account to her TV.

Rey had never been someone who lived her life with a soundtrack, but she wouldn’t mind adding Ben’s morning music into her routine. It already reminded her of pancakes.

A soft buzzing rattled on her nightstand. Her phone.

“Fuck.” She lunged for it, swiping a second too late for Ben’s call.

As soon as he answered, she could tell he was outside. The whoosh of wind distorted his words. “Morning. Did I wake you? I thought I put it on vibrate.”

“I was awake. What’s up?”

It was a short and simple conversation. Could she check to see if he’d used up all the flour? He couldn’t remember. He had an idea for integrating pancakes into lunch and would she mind if they pushed back the time? His mother needed him to stop by her satellite office for paperwork that was more likely an excuse to talk than actual paperwork, but he felt obligated all the same. He had more questions about the study, anyway.

Hanging up, her phone reverted to her home screen and oh my god, her e-mails. The red notification number—she rubbed her eyes to be sure—couldn’t possibly be that high. She wasn’t that popular. She purposefully never subscribed to anything but those cat memes.

With trepidation, she tapped to open up her inbox.

At least twenty e-mails from the lab. A few Thank you for your participation in our study! Please take our five minute poll messages all clearly meant for omegas who hadn’t been matched. These were quickly followed up by Your amended contract and Schedule your post-study interview in one click! There were two from Dr. Holdo—one from her lab e-mail and one from what Rey guessed was her personal—as well as one from Leia Organa.

She’d…click on those later.

There was a notice from her landlord. Construction would be taking place in the unit above hers for the next three days; patience and understanding were appreciated.

Finn’s e-mail was closer to the top. He’d gone to the trouble of making his list a PDF, which didn’t bode well.

Her boss asked if she wanted to come back early. No, she wrote back, and deleted it.

She was ready to exit out altogether when she saw one last thing that caught her eye.

Jedi Banking: Your New Statement is Available.

Odd. She’d signed up for once-a-month updates. Barring unknown deposits, her brain supplied, and then she almost dropped her phone in her haste to click because she’d almost completely forgotten about payment. And yes, there it was, confirmation of a new deposit for—

She shrieked.