Peter was halfway through a stack of surveillance requests when Diana appeared at his door, fingers tense and blood up. He could smell it from his desk; neither alphas nor omegas were terribly subtle when something snagged their interest.
"Problem," she said, and jerked her chin back at the bullpen.
Peter eyed her as he stood up, and she eyed him right back. The fact that she'd come to get him instead of handling it – whatever it was – on her own was telling, and he wasn't sure he liked what it was telling him.
An alpha in excitement was always going to ring as a challenger to another alpha in the area. The office was Peter's territory – and Diana was welcome in it, but instinct was instinct, growling in his animal hindbrain. He ignored it as he walked to the door, and Diana cleared off a couple of steps so they were both looking down over the bullpen, neither of them crowding the other.
And oh, there was a problem, alright. A problem centered around the desk closest to the door.
He'd caught Neal staring off into space, a few times; slight tremors in his hands when he either didn't know that someone was watching or couldn't control them either way. But since Peter had picked him up from the prison, he'd been doing his damnedest to keep his game face on, grinning and poking fun at Peter's suit and doing that hat thing he did. Peter hadn't been convinced. But he'd also not known what to do about it, so he'd let it rest.
Now, though, Neal was at his desk with his head bent down, fingers digging into the hair behind his ears, palms pressed over his ears like he was trying to block something out. And if it wasn't clear what was going on from the unrest spreading in little waves through the working agents, it would have been clear from what he could smell, faint but unmistakable, even standing at the top of the stairs.
"This wasn't in his file," Peter growled, but softly.
"His file might need to be amended," Diana said.
Clearly. And yeah, that was going to be a problem. Peter stepped down the stairs, with a few warning looks to the people who glanced his way.
There were a few people in the office who swung alpha when exposed to an omega in heat, and Peter knew this, because he'd read all their files. Pertinent information, when you were dealing with law enforcement officers. The sort of thing that could get you in trouble.
People who didn't operate in a baseline alpha mode were worse, most of the time, than the ones who did. Operate long enough in an alpha mode and you got used to your own reactions; you learned how to keep them in hand. Baseline betas swinging into alpha mode, on the other hand, weren't prepared half the time for the intensity of the experience. That's where you got the image of alphas raging out of control, the alpha mania defense that Peter would have preferred to laugh out of courts. An alpha who couldn't control themselves was hardly worthy of the name.
Then again, he could think that.
He could walk across the bullpen with the tang of a hormonal upswing in his nose, fixed on the consultant who, to anyone just watching, might as well have been in the beginnings of a panic attack. He could think this through in the few steps between his office and the desk.
So far as the file the FBI had on him went, Neal was just one of those people who didn't experience mode swings either way. He existed in a baseline beta mode, like most of the population; and not once, in all the time he'd been pursued by the FBI, not once in all the time he'd spent in prison, had he ever shifted alpha or omega.
Except here he was, apparently going into heat.
Diana wasn't even bothering to follow Peter. She was right at his side as they came up on Neal's desk, and Neal's attention snapped up, his chair rolled back, and his body language was pretty clearly communicating Get the fuck away from me.
Right. Peter probably could have thought that one through a bit more, come to notice it. Getting cornered by two alphas in high blood wasn't what anyone operating in omega mode needed, and especially not when they were, to all appearances, experiencing the swing for the first time.
Tact was always the first thing to go, was the problem.
"We need to get you out of here," Peter said, keeping his voice level. "You're done for the day. Just get home."
Neal cast a desperate look up at him, and for a moment, Peter thought he was going to protest. Then he bared his teeth, looked between Peter and Diana, and said "I can't–"
"You're not going back to a motel," Peter said. "I checked with June," it had seemed like less of a headache than letting the FBI pay for a motel Neal was bound to escape in half a day anyway, "she's fine with lodging you again, it's not like she's changed her locks." Neal had been dragged straight from the prison to the office, but his personal effects had included a key.
Peter kept meaning to examine that. Seemed like an odd thing for Neal to keep, considering he'd been planning on boarding that plane with Kate and never being seen again.
He could practically see the tension coiling through Neal's shoulders. "You want to drive me?" Neal hissed.
–and oh, crap, that was right, wasn't it? Neal definitely couldn't take the subway back; the transit police would probably pull him aside and lock him in a janitorial closet or something until the NYPD showed up to escort him home. And the thought of sticking Neal in the passenger seat of the Taurus struck Peter as a bad idea; you never could predict what would fall out between an alpha and an omega in heat, but pretty much all the options were dramatic, and they hadn't had time to find their footing around each other personally or professionally since the consulate, since Fowler, since the plane. And considering that most of the people higher up in the FBI foodchain already thought Neal's presence in White Collar was a bad idea, this sort of thing could provide way too much ammunition for someone.
This wasn't what they needed. Not with all the crap Neal was already going through; not with the increased scrutiny on both of them. But biology didn't give a hot damn about convenience.
"We'll find someone," Peter said, and turned to scan the office. But who the hell would he want to trust with–
"I can take him," Diana said.
Peter's attention swiveled onto Diana, and he caught the growl at the back of his throat before it had a chance to get out. Diana was looking at him with an expression just a few degrees off barefaced challenge.
"I'll be fine," she said. "Caffrey doesn't do anything for me, anyway. And besides, you think we should be in the same office right now?"
She had a point.
"You're sure," Peter said.
"Not my first rodeo, boss," Diana said, and even if the title was slightly forced, it mollified him. Sticking Neal with another alpha? Not his first choice. But Diana could keep her head. He'd trust her.
Besides, deciding to fight her was a bad idea for everyone involved.
He turned back to the desk. "Neal?"
Neal opened his mouth, looked between them, and swallowed back whatever protest he'd been about to make. He was flushed, and watching them both like he wasn't sure which of them would go for his neck first.
"Right," Peter said, and stepped back. Conceded the ground, much as it stuck in his throat. "Neal," he said. "Go home."
And either the omega swing was already infiltrating that brain of his or he just wanted to cut his losses before the situation got any more intolerable, because Neal ducked his gaze and slid out of his chair and let Diana herd him to the elevators.
and fumbled at the lock until Diana closed her hand over his, getting the key into the keyhole and twisting it open. The contact, skin-on-skin, was siren-loud in her mind.
Neal jerked away as soon as the door swung open, stumbling in through the entryway and leaving Diana to shut the door behind them. "You're upstairs?" she asked.
Neal nodded. He'd already gone flushed, and his breath was coming in ragged.
"Up," Diana suggested.
He attacked the stairs like there was a flood coming.
And at the first landing it looked like the stairs fought back; he brought in a breath, hard, and collapsed right there with a cry.
A second later the smell hit her: the full flush of heat, all the relevant glands opening up at once to signal availability. It made her own heartrate jump, her pupils dilate, fingers curl in, and she could imagine what was happening on his end: emotions turned up to eleven, his senses sharpening, throwing everything from the afternoon light to her own scent in a jumble into his awareness. Diana almost reached for the back of his neck, but caught herself and caught him by the elbow instead.
"Hold your nose. Breathe through your mouth."
She didn't wait for him to comply before planting her feet and hauling him up the stairs.
His suite wasn't locked. Diana pushed the door open and all but tossed Neal onto the bed, then turned to go through his kitchenette, translating the twitchy energy running up and down her nerves into motion. Located plastic bags and a terrycloth and ice, put the ice in a bag, wrapped it up into a long rope. When she turned to walk back to the bed Neal was half-curled into a fetal position on his side, eyes screwed shut, and panting.
"Here," Diana said, shoving the cloth into his hands. They closed around it, almost compulsively. "Keep hold of that. And keep breathing, Caffrey. In and out, every eight heartbeats. Count them."
Neal took a shaky breath, and Diana counted her own heartbeats until he took another one. She let her hands curl and uncurl in the air, pausing for a moment here in the space where she didn't know what to do.
She could feel an arousal, was the thing; it just wasn't sexual. She wasn't sure what it was. Something nestled between protective and possessive, but neither of those things. All she knew was, it'd be damn hard for her to leave the room even if Neal asked her to, and anyone else coming in would damn well show throat before they entered.
"Look," she said, and put enough bite into it that Neal's eyes slit open, probably despite himself. "If this is your first heat, you're going to want someone around to convince you you're not dying." She paused, for a moment. She could smell the hormonal upswing; it was all but coating the back of her throat. "You're not, by the way. I can either get someone to stay with you, or I can stay. Do you want me to get someone?"
Emphasis on the important part; choices narrowed down to a yes or a no. That was probably about what Neal's brain could handle, at the moment.
After a moment, and three or four ragged breaths, Neal managed "No" and screwed his eyes shut again.
An instinctive annoyance shot through Diana at that – he could damn well look at her until she was done with him, it reasoned – but Diana quashed it. It was just one of the many inconvenient tricks of psychology the afternoon had decided to spring on them.
"All right," she said. "Now. You're going to be more comfortable if you lose some of that suit. Shoes, belt, and tie at least. You trust me to take those off for you, yes or no?"
By the full-body recoil, Diana guessed that was a no. And now, of course, Neal was looking at her again, like he needed to see exactly where in the room she was so she wouldn't sneak up on him.
"Your choice." She stood up, putting at least some distance between them. "I'm going to take the couch, if you don't mind."
She turned, and walked to it, then sat down, deliberately. Counted her breaths. Fisted and unfisted her hands.
...and after less than a minute, that was as much as she could do, and she stood, again. Wandered into the kitchen. Almost reached out to open the fridge, poke through it, see if there was anything that would help – not that she knew what she was expecting to help – and stopped herself, because it was just arousal energy, making it hard to sit still. She prowled back toward the couch, and caught Neal fumbling with his tie.
Diana found something to be interested in on the bookshelves. If Neal wanted help, he could ask for it; she wasn't going to push it on him.
But she could still hear him, from the ragged breath to the susurrus of cloth around his neck, and it was lighting up her brain like the lights on a ten-car pileup.
By the time she'd reached puberty, she'd been going to the kind of schools where most of the people who swung omega at them were wealthy enough to be on heat control. By the time she'd graduated, heat control was cheaper, more widely available. Still, she had some experience with omegas who went into heat around her, and she prodded at the edges of this particular reaction with a kind of wary, hungry curiosity.
There'd been omegas she'd been attracted to, yeah. She'd experienced the full brunt of that very different arousal – and had a few memorable weekends to remember for it, even if she'd dropped out of contact with those women. And there had been one – an unexpected omega swing at Quantico; the stress probably did it, and it presented more or less like this did: no one had a clue until the guy went facefirst into heat and got frog-marched off to the infirmary by an instructor – and she hadn't liked that guy in the first place, and had spent the whole time she was nearby him wanting to strongarm him to the ground and make him eat dirt. The urge to press dominance had been nearly insurmountable.
Nearly. She hadn't lost control once in her life, and didn't intend to start.
Protectiveness, though. That was a new one, and one she wouldn't have guessed, herself. If anything, she would have predicted the same urge she'd felt at Quantico – to put Caffrey in his place, watch him jump. Even though she liked Neal considerably more than she'd liked her classmate.
As it was, though, she was left with the somewhat disorienting desire to feel skin under her hands. Preferably the skin just over someone's throat. Preferably as she was wringing the air out of them. Fowler seemed like a good candidate, there.
And here she'd thought she only had a dog in that particular race because Peter did, and Peter was her friend, and she'd march to war for him without a cocktail of hormones singing through her blood.
"I'm just going to step outside," Diana said, keeping her voice hard and level. "Shout if you need anything."
Neal's breathing didn't even change in response. Diana let herself into the hall, and pulled the door closed behind her.
Peter picked up on the first ring, which probably meant he'd been wanting to call her but didn't want to interrupt any necessary triage. "How is he?"
"Freaking out," Diana said, as quietly as she could. Tact, tact, tact. Had to practice these things. "Panicking and fighting it, which is making it worse. Look, I think I should take a couple vacation days while he sweats it out. That going to disrupt anything?"
On the other end, half of Peter was probably calculating the days remaining until Fowler's meet, and the other half was probably wondering how in hell that was a good idea. "You think–"
"I haven't jumped him yet, and I'm not going to," Diana said, crossly. "The worst I've done is offer to take his tie off."
There was a moment, and then a noise of strained amusement from the other end. "I was just going to say, I'm sure we could find someone else to play caretaker."
Diana made a quiet, annoyed noise. "I don't mind," she said, and then considered who she was talking to. "I'd actually prefer being here."
The little impulse coiling in the pit of her stomach that said Mine! Back off!, the twitchy urge to gnash her teeth and go for the throat of anyone coming up here – that was all hormonal, she understood that. Instinctive. Vestigial. But still.
She'd prefer not being asked to leave, thank you.
She could hear Peter's hesitation. God, she'd never think of it without her blood up, but with it up, it was hard not to; she had to wonder if Peter's gut had marked Neal out as territory the way hers had, if this was going to be a fight. But then he said, if stiffly, "If you think that's best," and Diana let out her breath.
They were professionals. They had this in hand. They could deal with this.
"I do," she said. "I'll keep you up to date." Then, after a moment, "Don't stop by, boss. I know you want to."
And yes, she also knew that he wouldn't. Because you couldn't tell what was going to happen between an alpha and an omega until you got them in a room together when their blood was up, and he knew that as well as she did. Sometimes it shook out just how you'd expect it to, and then sometimes it all went spectacularly to hell.
No one needed that between themselves and a coworker, for Christ's sake, but Diana was already here and the damage was pretty much done. Working through that situation between a person and their boss – their handler, in this kind of shaky, provisional arrangement – was the kind of thing that could seriously screw up the professionalism of an office for the next... long time.
"I'm not going to show up," Peter said, but his tone filled in that, yes, he'd been considering whether or not there was a way to show up without it becoming an utter disaster. He sounded annoyed enough that Diana was confident he hadn't found one. "I'll send El by, later, if you think that'd be safe."
Diana clamped down on a surge of NO. "Call first. I can see if he feels like having visitors."
Peter grunted in reply. Then he hesitated, like he knew full well he was supposed to end the conversation gracefully, but sure as hell would like to find a reason not to.
So Diana found one for him. "I should get back in."
Peter made an unhappy noise, and said "Right. Call me if–"
"I'll call you if I need to." If Caffrey goes into cardiac arrest or something. "Bye. Boss."
She hung up. Peter could deal with a little bit of curtness today.
Then, instead of going back in, she pressed her heels down into the floor of the hall. Closed her eyes, rolled her shoulders back. Breathe, breathe. The noises from the suite behind her hadn't gotten sicker or desperate, and she clenched her hand around the hard edges of her phone. One more call to make, if she was going to be responsible about this.
This was the sort of thing you were supposed to talk over with your significant others; it was just that Diana had never been a big fan of talking. She liked being able to take care of a situation and not worry that she was about to stick her foot in something.
She took another breath, brought the phone up, and phoned Christie.
The line rang long enough that Diana started thinking she'd have to leave a message, not that that was too unexpected. Then, snatching the call back from the jaws of voicemail, Christie picked up. "Hey, Di."
"Hey," Diana said, and let another breath out in a whoosh.
There was an appreciative silence from the other end. Then, "Well, it sounds like you're having a day."
Diana searched through her practiced responses and found something like a chuckle, though it came out a bit like a growl. "One of our baseline betas just had an omega swing and went into heat for the first time," she said. "I took him back to his place, but I'm kinda worried he's going to stress himself into a heart attack. Thought I'd stay here while he gets it out of his system."
Christie, thank god for her, just took that in and went with it. "You think it's a traumatic swing?" she asked.
Diana exhaled. "He hasn't exactly given me permission to discuss his medical information with anyone," she said. "But between you and me, I don't see what else it could be." In the past few months Neal had been rolled up into an OPR conspiracy, watched a plane explode right in front of him carrying the woman he was in love with, been thrown back into jail, and just recently yanked back out with an ultimatum over his head. That was enough to twist anyone's psyche into a pretzel.
Or, apparently, an omega swing.
"How's he taking to you?" Christie asked, and Diana shrugged and pressed her back up against the door. There were ups and downs to dating a doctor; one of them happened to be that she was going to get a cross-examination on this, whether she wanted one or not.
"He's not taking to anything well. I think he'd rather I leave him alone, but–"
"He should be under supervision," Christie said. "Fair enough, babe. And how are you taking to him?"
Diana snorted. "I want to smack him upside the head and make sure he's properly hydrated."
And corral him into his suite, and stand at the door and snap at anyone who came up the stairs. There was a chorus of faint mine, mine, mines running through the tension in her shoulders, and an uneasy feeling about that which had been pushed to the edge of her mind. She'd probably be better able to examine that when she didn't have the smell of heat in her nostrils, but getting far enough away to get fresh air felt intensely, viscerally wrong.
"Good instinct," Christie said, with a chuckle on her end. Growl-free. "Right, the basics: make him avoid stimulants, sedatives, depressants – that includes coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. If he's taking any prescriptions you'd better have him call up a nurse line and talk him through it. His appetite could be going all over the place; some people eat everything in the house, some people can't get anything down. At the very least, though, you need to get him drinking fluids. Gatorade, Pedialyte, oral rehydration salts, something like that. If he can get food down, go for calories and complex carbohydrates. Keep him calm, reassure him, and other than that, he'll just have to sweat it out."
"About what I was expecting," Diana said. "I should get back in there."
"Don't let me keep you. Love you, Di."
She'd hardly hung up before she was walking back into the suite.
Neal was curled on his side on the bed, his tie pulled off his neck and half-dangling onto the floor, one shoe toed off and sitting on top of the covers. "I feel sick," he said, and his voice was twisted up into something that was almost a whimper. Diana could infer all the rest of that statement: I don't like this. I don't want this. Make it stop.
Diana walked to the edge of the bed, and crouched down.
She could probably get Neal to an urgent care and get him injected with something, though from what she knew, most heat-blockers worked best when administered between heats and not when they were used to bring a heat to a screaming stop. And besides – that'd involve dragging Neal out in public, which was almost definitely not a thing he wanted.
Still, she could smell the distress rolling off him in waves.
"You going to throw up?" she asked.
"I don't know," Neal said, and she could hear the fear there. Thirty-some years old, used to taking care of himself, he was probably used to his body behaving in a way he understood. Then something like this happened.
Diana looked him up and down, then frowned. Scanned the bed, scanned the floor, found the terrycloth and ice dropped unceremoniously under the bed. She picked it up and shoved it into Neal's hands again, pushed Neal's hands up toward his face. As if on instinct he completed the motion, digging his forehead against the terrycloth and ice. The cold would be intrusive enough that it was something to focus on; the question was, how long could he keep up focus.
"Just... keep breathing," Diana said. Then, impulsively, "Christie says I'm supposed to keep you calm."
Neal made a strangled little laugh, at that.
Diana caught her hand on its way to clap him on the shoulder, and pulled it back. "Keep breathing, Caffrey. These things don't last forever."
Neal muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath.
to see Diana at the kitchen table, hands braced on either side of a magazine, expression annoyed like she'd been staring at the same page for a while and not getting much out of it. He could smell her from across the room, solid and warm and, if not precisely in control, ready to get there in a moment. Now that his endocrine system no longer seemed to be actively trying to kill him, it was almost reassuring.
After a moment, Diana seemed to sense that he was looking at her, and looked over at him. There was something animal and almost predatory in the motion, and Neal tried not to be taken aback.
"I feel better," Neal said.
Diana flipped the magazine closed without marking her place, and gave him a critical look. "Sure you do," she said.
"I'm not–," he protested, then blinked at her. "No, this would be the opposite of malingering."
"Mm," Diana said, still with her skeptic's expression. "How much better?" she asked. "No longer about to crawl out of your skin, or back to normal?"
"A lot more normal than I was feeling," Neal said.
"Calm?" Diana asked. "Chill? Not quite exhausted, but like maybe you could lean back and watch a movie and fall asleep on someone's arm?"
There was something wrong with that – some odd degree of specificity, some carefully-caged implication, but he wasn't getting it. Yeah, it felt like he wanted to lean back and let his brain switch off. What was she getting at? "You suggesting our evening plans?"
"Just wondering," Diana said. "You annoyed with the questions yet?"
Neal... blinked. Off at the edges of his awareness, like a cloud on the horizon that wasn't threatening rain, he was aware of something annoyance-shaped that he should have been feeling as annoyance. But he wasn't.
"How was your highschool sex ed?" Diana asked. "You're going to cycle through excitatory and acquiescent phases until the heat runs its course. And it hasn't yet."
"Excitatory and acquiescent," Neal repeated.
"I'm guessing you can figure out what those mean."
Neal groaned, closed his eyes, and let himself drop back onto the mattress.
People who went into heat were removed from polite society until they were stable again. And practically, though everyone made the appropriate noises about discrimination and many of those people held their private opinions firmly private, omegas whether baseline or mode-shifted tended to be passed over, when it came to positions of importance. In Neal's line of work, especially. He hadn't had much contact with them. The theory was all knocking around in the back of his head, somewhere, which didn't help him when the reality was flooding his body.
Bottom line, though: this wasn't going to go away any time soon.
He groaned again. Tried not to, but was a second too late.
"Don't worry," Diana said. "I told Peter I was taking a couple days off to watch you."
"Oh, god," Neal said, and did his best to melt into the mattress. That was the last thing he needed. Have the whole office see him going into heat, and then really obviously spend the next few days in his room with an alpha.
"Oh, relax," Diana snapped, and Neal jumped despite himself. There was a quick ping of Oh, crap, the alpha is unhappy, fix it fix it fix it running through the back of his brain, and he did his level best to quash that. "Anyone who says anything is going to have to answer to me. And they fear me more than they love gossip."
Which was quite a statement for someone who'd only been back in the office for two months and should have come in at the bottom of the hierarchy, considering she'd left not that long ago just after graduating from probie.
Then again: alpha.
Also: Diana. Neal couldn't imagine her as a beta or omega, but somehow, he felt like even if she had been, she'd be able to take that tone with him. That there was some specific Diana sort of not taking this shit which was as much a part of her as slipping on a mask and feeling out the options was a part of him. Though all his psychological masks seemed misplaced, at the moment, and he kept groping for options and finding a kind of mewling urge toward surrender, instead.
He was... just not going to look too hard about what that said. About him. And with his brain stuck here, acquiescent, it was easier than it should have been not to.
Diana's chair scraped on the floor, and he heard her walk over to him. With her footsteps came the smell of her, moving from obvious to omnipresent in his senses.
Well. People talked about it in terms of smell, but it wasn't, really – an anosmic omega would be just as affected by an alpha, and vice versa. It came in through the nose and got you by the diaphragm, the heart, the gut.
"I was just thinking," he said. "Maybe we could skip the rest of – you know. This." He shrugged one shoulder, tried to pass it off as cool. That was him, always ready with a joke and a diversion. Even if it didn't feel quite... right, here.
"Had enough excitement in your life recently?" Diana asked. She sounded like her, or maybe it was just the scent in his nostrils, the pervasive sense that everything was as it should be. He was calm and an alpha was here, and the rest of the details would take care of themselves.
He made an agreeing noise.
"No fun, is it?" Shades of sympathy, there. A little strained, like she was offering condolences. Something shifted uneasily in him – some little strain of resentment – but it was distant. Buried deep.
Easy to ignore.
"Neal," she said, with more amusement than he really thought was fair. "You do realize I can make you calm down, right?"
The control a properly-motivated alpha could have over an omega had always struck him as an affront to human dignity. Sure, he could lie to a person, get them to believe and behave counter to reality, but he couldn't reach into someone's guts and mess with them on a biological level. He didn't even like drugs, alcohol and caffeine excepted.
But there was a curious lack of alarm to go with that distance sense of offense. He opened his eyes again. "Why are you still here?"
And that, he felt almost immediately, had been the wrong question. Diana's expression changed, moving through confusion on its way to something almost wary. "Sorry?"
Neal pulled back a little, some small hint of wariness in himself responding to hers. "I mean – there have to be other people you could... pass this off on."
Diana's look cycled back around toward confusion, then almost to consternation. Then, with decisiveness, came around to resolve. "I'm here," she said. Her voice had a hint of don't argue to it. "You'd rather I wasn't?"
No. Maybe. Probably not. What he'd rather didn't seem to have a lot of bearing on the situation, and he was having trouble grasping it anyway. But there was something, the core of this, that he kept prodding like a tender bruise, except it was too much tenderness and not quite enough pain. He didn't want Diana to leave, and that might or might not have been an omega's yearning for an alpha around. He wanted to know how solid the ground was. How much he could count on her. How much he could count on anything.
He could grasp, in the abstract, that this pleasant ease he was feeling had a time limit to it. That from here, floating on a cloud of hormones and endorphins, he could ponder – if fuzzily – what this meant, what it could mean. He knew it was all going to get a lot less sanguine.
But he didn't feel it. No threat of foreboding. Just an abstract knowledge that he could turn over like a paperweight, none too concerned about it.
The edge of the bed dipped; she'd sat down in front of him. Close enough that he could smell the musk of an interested alpha, and it was just one more thing in the cacophony of sensory detail roiling through him.
"Neal," she said, and it was all he could do not to surge forward and tackle her to the floor.
He didn't even know what he wanted, was the terrible thing; sex, maybe, that was what everyone thought of when they thought of heat, but Diana was manifestly – down to her posture, down to her scent – not interested in him so far as sex went, and the fear of doing something to anger or repulse her was written deeper into his psyche than lust was. He just wanted, wanted wanted wanted, with nothing available for him to want, and it escaped his throat in a high, keening noise.
Diana growled, but the sound was unhappy, not angry. It still went straight to Neal's solar plexus, making it even harder to breathe.
"You're wound so tight you're going to snap yourself," Diana growled, and leaned over, bringing her face near his. "In the interests of your heart not exploding, I want to try something. Will you let me?"
Let her, yes, at this point he'd let her carve out his lungs with a knife. He's let her rip his heart out with her bare hands, so long as she was close, so long as she didn't leave.
He must have communicated it somehow because Diana made a decisive noise, and her hand closed on the back of his neck, and everything just... drained out of him. A heavy tranquility settled in where the panic had been.
He could breathe.
Diana let out her breath, and Neal sank into the sound. He was still panting for breath, but it felt like he was making up a deficit on air, not falling further and further into one. And his heart was thunderously loud against the backdrop of the compelled calm, but it didn't frighten him as much.
A sliver of his mind knew that he didn't want this to feel good; he didn't want to hand control of his autonomic nervous system over to anyone, because no matter how much he trusted them, he didn't trust anyone that much. But there were too many layers of abstraction there – remembering wanting not to want – for it to really sink in.
This was good. He was safe. He could relax.
He could bask in the steady assurance that everything, from the excitatory-phase heat to the dread of showing up back at the office to the fear that he wouldn't shift beta again, or that he'd shift beta but keep swinging omega; to the mortification at all of this happening; to the complete screaming mess of Fowler, if he let it, and he wanted to let it; to the pace of his heart and the depths of his breaths – everything had been neatly put aside, carefully labeled "somebody else's problem," and handed off to the alpha who had him by the nape.
He didn't have to worry about anything. Didn't have to be strong enough or clever enough or keep it together enough for anything. He'd never felt that certainty before, and it frightened him (vaguely, distantly) how much he wanted to stay like this, feeling just like this. A warmth and buzz like champagne at the core of him, and the rest of him in a boneless curl on the bed.
"All right," Diana said, and shifted her grip just enough that he could feel panic scrabbling at the edges. "That enough? You want me to let up?"
He was trying to convince himself to say yes when his throat made a strangled, plaintive noise without his input. Still, he couldn't bring himself to say no, so he turned to rest his forehead against Diana's thigh.
She shifted, and for half a second fear shot through the enforced calm. Like, maybe he'd crossed a line, maybe he'd – but then Diana made a soft noise, either amused or approving, and tightened her grip again, and ran her other hand back through his hair. And that was it. Most of his higher reasoning abilities guttered and stalled out at good alpha. Best friend.
Then he was just drifting, tranced out in this warm, safe space, close enough to smell Diana's skin, feel the heat radiating up through her clothing. Elevated body heat. Her heart was going almost as fast as his was; he could hear it.
Time didn't much matter, for a while, and then Diana made a satisfied noise, and the pressure on the back of Neal's neck eased off. Slowly, but the ability to think settled back into his brain like a man coming home after a too-hard day, and Neal was still winded like he'd run a marathon, but the marathon was apparently over for now.
Diana stood up, flexing her hand. Keeping that grip for half an hour or more couldn't have been that much fun, and yet she'd done it.
Good alpha, whispered the back of his mind again.
"You okay?" Diana asked.
He swallowed a couple times – his mouth was dry – and said, "I think so."
"You want something to drink?" he asked. He sure as hell did.
Diana shrugged. "Yeah; why don't you make something for both of us?"
"I can do that."
A pot of coffee, he thought; he was bone-tired, but he didn't want to fall asleep. Not in this state, with this company.
"No caffeine, no alcohol," Diana said, and Neal turned away from the coffee without thinking twice about it. No matter that he wanted to sit down and drink a liter of espresso; Diana made it an order, and the urge was gone like it'd never been.
Excitatory and acquiescent. Hell. At least this was a more-pleasant phase of heat, but it was still existentially alarming.
He found a pack of some kind of herbal tea that Mozzie had probably left behind at some point, which he was pretty sure wasn't psychoactive. Smelled like spearmint, in any case, along with bits of what looked like lemongrass and ginger and... something. He had to check that the stove was still connected – it had been disconnected for storage when he'd moved in the first time, and he hadn't left June with the impression that he'd be moving back in, two months ago when he left to chase Kate. But it had never been disconnected, and Jun hadn't so much as cleared out the cabinets when he'd left. Someone – Mozzie, maybe, or housekeepers – had emptied out the fridge of its perishables, but that was it.
He filled the kettle and set it on the stove, and found the mesh spoons to steep the tea in. The smell of the cut herbs was good – cut through his own smell, and the scent Diana had left in the room.
He tried not to think of how much he wanted a shower. His clothes had soaked up a sheen of sweat, and his skin felt like it didn't fit right.
A good alpha made people want to please them.
Even when he'd been operating in beta mode, Neal had been aware of the currents of that compulsion that seemed to flow around Peter like eddies. Peter kept the office running smoothly because he was Peter, but also because no one was entirely immune to that. Except other alphas, Neal had thought – but watching Peter and Diana together it seemed more like they caught each other's waves and ran on them. Managed not to get into snarling fights, which was a leg up on plenty of alphas on its own, but they had a loyalty and a rapport that they fell into like it was the most natural thing in the world.
And the two of them together meant something to the rest of the office. And it meant trouble for him.
When Diana came back in, Neal was sitting at the table with his forehead scaffolded by his hands, and there was a pot of herbal tea on the stove. "Can I ask for something?" he said. He would have preferred leaving the for out of the sentence, but couldn't seem to, no matter how many times he'd rehearsed it in his head.
Diana, fortunately, just found the mugs and poured for both of them. "Shoot."
"When this is over," he said, "can we never mention any of this again?"
He wasn't looking at her, but he could hear her turning, and he could hear the way the silence turned considering.
Then Diana sat down across from him, and a mug of tea plunked itself onto the table just in front of him. His hands dropped down and curled around the ceramic.
"One condition," Diana said. "There are some things we've got to talk about now, or Christie will have my head."
That did not compute, for a moment. "She swings alpha, too?"
"She's Christie," Diana said, a taut fondness in her tone. "She doesn't need to."
Right. Because betas and alphas – hell, omegas and alphas, when a heat wasn't involved – didn't need to jockey for dominance. They might anyway, but that was personality, not biology. Not inescapably.
His brain was whispering to him that anyone demanding anything from Diana was unfathomable, but that was just a mix of hormones ricocheting around his bloodstream. Not some kind of immutable law.
"All right," he said. "Condition accepted."
Diana exhaled, long and low. "You've never shifted before?"
"Never," he said, far too easily. "Beta all my life. Didn't even have any jitter when I was first establishing–"
And there, he clamped his mouth shut, because hell if he was going to discuss going through puberty with Diana.
Unprompted, at least. Because if he admitted it to himself, if Diana asked, it'd be out of his mouth without him thinking about it. If Diana felt like it, she could have anything she wanted out of him. Hey, Neal, tell me all your secrets. Tell me about your father. Tell me about your mother. What was your home life like? What happened to turn you out like this? Hey, why don't you give me a list of all the crimes you've committed in your life?
And he'd tell her. He'd keep talking right up until the excitatory phase came back and kicked language out from between his teeth.
He swallowed, and tightened his grip on the tea. Enough heat was pouring through the mug to make his hand sting, but the pain wasn't unwelcome – it gave him something to focus on.
"You've gotta see a doctor," Diana said. "You're old to be shifting for the first time, Neal; you've gotta get checked out. And if there's any chance it's going to happen again, you need to get on heat control. And it wouldn't be a bad idea to talk with someone about what caused this swing, either."
We don't know what caused it, he wanted to say, but it wasn't like it wasn't obvious. Omega swings weren't atypical responses to trauma.
The fact that his body had held off on this until he was safely out of prison was notable, but then, he'd let a lot of things crash down on him when the prison gates closed behind him. He'd managed to push them all away inside because until he'd gotten out, it hadn't been safe to feel any of them.
Maybe this was his body's way of exacting revenge.
An unhappy noise escaped his throat, and he pushed the tea away and put his head down on the table.
He could sense Diana moving, and a moment later her hand closed on his forearm. Without thinking, he tilted his head to lean against it.
"Hey," she said. "Whatever happens, we'll find a way to manage it. Plenty of people do. But this is the kind of thing that'll compromise your safety if it's not handled right."
And oh, didn't he know that. It'd just take one day, a bad omega swing, an undercover op, a mark who swung alpha when things went bad. He wouldn't need to be in heat to be dangerously unbalanced, especially if he wasn't expecting it.
"You want to tell me what's on your mind?" Diana asked, and it was an offer, not an order.
So he supposed he must have wanted to, because he said "I don't want this to happen again."
That was the worst part: knowing that it might. Knowing that maybe something had knocked so far loose in his brain that he couldn't trust himself any more. Even on heat control, even just swinging omega, with the heightened awareness of everyone nearby, who was beta and who was alpha, and how the alphas were feeling. How alphas looked at him, how to gauge their interest...
With Diana it might not be so bad. Diana, aside from this little adventure they were having, was uncomplicated – they hadn't worked together long enough for her to become complicated.
It was Peter, mostly. Neal already had the distressingly inescapable sense of every time he was about to disappoint the man; he couldn't imagine having an omega's increased social awareness chiming in on that. Every note of doubt, every moment of reluctant suspicion, every hint of regret or rue, delivered factory-direct to his own emotional state. Neal wanted to curl his back and howl, just thinking about it.
How people lived like this – baseline omegas, or people who swung omega frequently – was unfathomable to him.
"Can't always get what you want," Diana remarked. Like this was a situation for humor. he couldn't hold it against her, though; any port of deflection in a storm.
"Peter called me," she said. "He said that Neal wasn't feeling well, and wanted me to check in on the two of you."
Diana gave her a tight-lipped smile. "I think he's doing better now," she said.
June gave her a long, level look, and said "I see."
Which was probably half of it. She could smell, too, and Diana half-wondered if she was the sort to swing alpha as well. From how Peter talked about the woman, Diana wouldn't have been surprised. Then, it wasn't something you could tell by looking at someone, and it wasn't always something you'd expect.
Case in point: the omega in the room behind her.
His head was pounding, his mouth felt like he'd been eating cobwebs and tasted like a bad
Diana didn't smell overpoweringly of alpha. Just like Diana, all confidence and composure, with the soap from his bathroom on her skin.
and buried his face in the pillow. "Goddamnit."
"The Caffrey curses," Diana said, with mock surprise. Neal turned his head enough to shoot her a glare, which she was entirely unfazed by.
"Why are you still here?" Neal asked. He was clearly not in heat any more, if he was feeling this level of uncut annoyance. And yet there she was, lingering over him like a wolf at a kill.
"Evaluating your fitness to come in to work," Diana said. "They do want you back at the office."
If there was one place in the world Neal didn't want to go, it was back to the office. He wondered how long it would take for the entire office staff, save Diana and Peter, to turn over. FBI agents couldn't have that much career longevity, could they?
Then again, it was hard to imagine most of the White Collar office doing anything else with their lives. He groaned. "I'm not going to get out of this, am I?"
"No." Diana straightened up, and there was a familiar edge of amusement to her tone. You do realize I could make you...
Neal decided that no coercion would be necessary, and found the edge of the bed with his feet. Once he was more or less sitting, he
Neal groaned. It was, perhaps, slightly more theatrical than it needed to be. "As much as I appreciate the concern, can we just pretend the last few days never happened?"
"All right, how about I rephrase that," Peter said, and cleared the last of the folders away. "Are you feeling better enough to rob a bank?"
Neal blinked, and Peter could practically see the question going through a few permutations of logic in his brain. "Whatever you think I did, Diana can tell you I didn't do it," he settled on.
Peter grinned. It was always amusing, catching Neal a bit wrong-footed.
...well. Mostly amusing. Sometimes just concerning, but if he was feeling well enough to joke back, that meant... something, maybe, or possibly absolutely nothing. He'd have to check in with Diana to see.
"Well, you and Diana would make one badass team of bank robbers," he said, "but actually, that was an offer. How'd you like to rob a bank, Neal?"
"Is this a test?" Neal hazarded. "...have you finally gone over to the dark side? Because if you have, I could recommend some softer targets for you to get started on–"
"Midtown Mutual received a calling card yesterday," Peter said. "It looks like they've been targeted by a fairly successful bank robber. He sent them a calling card as a heads-up." Peter tossed down an evidence bag; there was a fairly nice business card on it, heavy stock, with Architect embossed in a font Neal didn't recognize. "They want us to test their security, tell them if they have anything they should worry about.