Chapter 1: Something in the Air
When the exhaustion hits, Levi chalks it up to a potent mix of fresh heartbreak and no sleep. If he closes his eyes, he still sees Nico walking away on loop, his stride assured and effortless. It’s draining—the constant realization that Nico did not feel what Levi felt…feels—so he has avoided sleep for the last couple weeks to conserve what little energy he has. But it’s really more of a Sophie’s choice: lack of sleep makes shutting his eyes for just a moment incredibly enticing, but a moment is all it takes for the silhouette of Nico’s back to appear against his eyelids, so sleep he staves off, and closing his eyes becomes ever more attractive.
It's an ouroboros threatening to consume Levi alive.
Rounds and surgery give him a booster shot of adrenaline, and he moves through the routine as if dancing hazily to an accustomed rhythm. But, inevitably, the music dies out, and Levi is left alone with himself and the sirens of slumber luring him to a death by memory.
“You okay?” Taryn asks, looking up suspiciously from a set of lab results. Her nose wrinkles as she takes in a deliberate whiff, probing Levi’s scent for signs of ailment. It’s not like heartache has a smell, though, so she must ultimately rely on his answer.
“I’m fine,” he lies. He rubs his eyes vigorously with curled fingers. “Just…tired.”
“Sure,” she dismisses with an arched eyebrow. “Let’s go with that, because I’ve to get these labs to Shepherd and don’t have time to call ‘bullshit.’ Just know you look sweatier than usual, and it’s not attractive. So, if you’re ‘tired,’ go grab a power nap or energy drink before you keel over and embarrass yourself—again.”
She marches off, and Levi mulls over her advice. Taryn’s beta tenor doesn’t have the propellant distinctive to alpha timbres, the commanding undertones that snap lesser wills to attention, but Levi, too fatigued to resist his primal instinct, finds himself inclined to obey. It helps that he has been given the illusion of options.
So, he starts walking too, full intending to locate the good vending machine on the third floor, the one with Five Hour Energy and Red Bull, but when he boards the elevator, it’s not button number “three” he reaches for.
Dr. Carina Deluca is in the middle of a consultation when it hits her nostrils—a sweetly woody fragrance she initially mistakes for ylang-yang. Yet, then the scent smooths into something more piquant, and she nearly trips over her own feet in her rush to excuse herself from the patient’s room. Meredith, who had called for her expertise, is hot on her heels, Parker the intern following close behind.
“Carina, is everything alright?” Meredith questions, tilting in her head in confusion. “Is Ms. Thomas—”
“Do you smell that?” Carina interrupts. Meredith’s eyes dart side to side as if scent is something that can be seen.
“Smell what—” She summons a deep inhale and quiets. “Oh. That…that’s not your perfume?” Slowly, Carina shakes her head, while Parker sniffs at the air vigorously. His pupils dilate, black corroding his blue-grey irises.
“What is that?” he murmurs, his voice slurring into sedation. “It’s nice.” Immediately, Meredith snaps her fingers centimeters from the bridge of his nose.
“Parker!” she hisses, and he blinks back to lucidness.
“What,” he says hoarsely with an acute headshake, “just happened?” Carina, swallowing, looks to Meredith, whose tight, pursed lips mirror her trepidation.
“We need to find Dr. Bailey,” Carina concludes aloud. “Now.”
Meanwhile, one floor down, Nico is preparing to drill into a hip bone. His hands ache for the feel of the tool quaking as it bears down on calcium and phosphate. He wants to lose himself in the motion, so he can forget the persistent unease in his stomach, the ill sensation that he has misplaced something important. He wants to blame it on the jitters that accompanies the prospect of impending job interviews, which he is not immune to despite how coolly he presents, but his better sense knows its related to the chill infecting his bedroom sheets.
Sighing determinedly, he turns to Brody and holds out his palm. His lips part, readying to issue his first order, but the words don’t come. Instead there is the taste of a perfume on his tongue—sweet, tangy, delectable. Familiar.
“Dr. Kim?” Brody inquires, but she might as well as be trying to speak through a wall of water. Retracting his hand, Nico stands and peels off his gloves, the left first, then the right. Brody’s dark oak eyes swell with alarm. “Dr. Kim!”
But Nico, tossing his mask to the floor, is already out the OR door.
Chapter 2: Bone to Pick
Link is not in the habit of maiming people. In fact, ripping limbs apart is the antithesis of his job description, but exceptions need to be made when your fellow up and abandons a patient on the OR table. He gets that Nico has a lot clouding his mind, prestigious job offers rolling in on a near daily basis, his future hinging on a singular choice, not mention his split from Schmitt, still as tender as a weeping wound. Link, of all people, can relate to how torn heartstrings tangle and constrict every body part, including good sense—he nearly lost his mind when Amelia showed up him the door and kept him outside for a week. So, he gets it, he does, and while Nico might act as unflustered as stone in a windstorm, Link has seen his eye lingering on Schmitt’s passing petite frame. Whatever happened to them is still happening, so Link can forgive a little absent-mindedness.
But actual absence? Just dropping everything and leaving an intern—an intern—holding a drill capable of piercing bone?
“Hey,” Amelia chirps as she pulls up along aside him, hands cradling her swollen belly. “Wanna grab lunch? Our baby is demanding fish sticks. Golden, fried, delicious fish sticks.”
“I’d love to,” he grumbles, “but, first, I need to find my fellow and murder him.”
“Okay, I hope you mean metaphorically,” Amelia replies good-naturedly, “because I’m not doing the whole baby-daddy-in-jail thing. It’s too cliché, and my sisters would have a field day that would last the rest of my life. So, no literal killing of fellows please.”
“I make no promises. Nico walked out of surgery. Patient’s sedated and prepped, and he walks out! Says nothing. Offers no explanation. Just up and leaves!”
“Yikes,” she whistles, her lips curving down into an exaggerated grimace. Her face holds the expression, however, as she slows to a stop, only her nose twitching up and down’s like a bunny’s. “Do you smell—”
Suddenly, she stumbles sideways, a nurse having bumped into her shoulder. Link catches and rights her, as the nurse fawns other them frettingly.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” the nurse yelps. She reaches out to touch the offended shoulder. “Are you okay—”
“Back off!” Link snarls, snapping his jaw. The nurse leaps back, throwing up her palms defensively as she slowly retreats to the safety of her fellow nurses.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Amelia objects, pushing Link in the opposite direction. “I get that you’re pissed at Kim, but Jesus Link! It was an accident!”
“Ah…I…,” he mutters. Abruptly, he is aware of the roar of rushing blood in his ears. His sight is sharper and blurrier at the same time, Amelia’s face defined in painstaking detail from the concerned crinkles at the corner of her eyes to the bead of moisture at the crease of her lips, while all that isn’t her are just blocks of colors and vague, rough shapes.
“Link!” Amelia calls. Her voice is a clear, pure chime that resounds against the surrounding din. “Link, are you okay?”
It’s too open out here, a piece of him rumbles. We shouldn’t be out in the open. Not with the baby due so soon. But the part of him still in control—the part of him that he alarmingly senses won’t be in the driver’s seat for much longer—says,
“No…I don’t I think am.” Amelia parts her lips, a thin string of saliva stretching and then breaking as they separate, but before she speaks, there is a muffled shout from the left. Immediately, Link identifies the source, his vision expanding enough to zero in on a male patient, in nothing but a hospital gown, wrestling a respiratory therapist to the floor. At once, he corrals Amelia behind him, and she lets him.
“Yeah,” he hears her shudder. “Something is definitely wrong.”
The light in this part of the hospital is low and oddly warm. Or maybe it’s Levi who is warm. His scrubs feel like one layer too many, and his skin aches to shed them, but he beats back that desire for now. He hasn’t found a suitable place yet. So he walks on, his shadow trailing after him as an elongated, charcoal shade.
“What are we waiting for?” Carina demands, pounding her a modest-sized fist against the conference table. “The more time we delay—”
“—the more time we take to make an informed decision,” Bailey finishes. Lacing her fingers, she leans forward against the table’s edge. “What you are suggesting—”
“—is absolutely necessary!” Carina entreats. “If we don’t act now, this hospital is going to turn into a zoo, no, worse than a zoo! At least in zoo, there are zookeepers. No one will be minding the cages if we let this get out of hand—seventy-five percent of the staff alone are alphas. Minimum.”
“I’m with Carina on this one,” Meredith says. She is balancing one leg on the corner of the table, her arms crossed beneath her breasts. “You didn’t see the look on Parker’s face, Bailey. He was gone.”
“You’re going to need more than the ‘an-intern-looked-weird’ to justify making that call.” Koracick’s mouth quirks in a noncommittal grin as he enters the conference room, followed by a tall, slender woman. With a pitch-black updo and skin only a shade darker than her pearl white pencil skirt, she has a fairy tale face, but her aura is all cold steel regal. Bailey audibly groans.
“Legal?” she barks, scowling unabashed at Koracick. “You summoned Legal?”
“Of course he ‘summoned’ Legal,” the stranger scoffs, lowering herself elegantly into the chair across from Carina. “Generally speaking, it’s considered a good idea to consult your attorney before deciding whether or not to break the law. Because if we do what you want, Dr. Deluca—if we call a Code Luna—and you’re wrong, then there is no defense that can save this hospital from the legal hell that will descend.”
Chapter 3: A Short History Lesson
“I’m not wrong!” Carina insists, almost popping out of her seat like a jack n’ box. Bailey can already feel the headache coming on. “And I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“Her name is Natalie Beckham,” Bailey introduces, her tone as sharp and clipped as a pair of shearing scissors. “She is the head of our legal department.” And a professional pain in the ass. As if hearing this jabbing thought, Beckham grins at Bailey, her teeth polished and gleaming dangerously.
“Good to see you too, Dr. Bailey,” she murmurs.
“Natalie,” Bailey replies reluctantly. Beckham’s frost blue eyes flick back to Carina, and Bailey won’t lie—she much prefers not being on the receiving end of that ice storm.
“And with all due respect, Dr. Deluca,” Beckham says, “Dr. Samuel Lawrence did not think he was wrong either.”
“Who is Dr. Samuel Lawrence, and what does he have to with this here and now?” Carina fumes. “We are wasting time—”
“Dr. Samuel Lawrence,” Beckham continues smoothly, “is the last doctor in this country and its fourteen territories to call a Code Luna. He was an ER doctor at the one of the best hospitals on the East Coast. Two doctors under his supervision, both alphas, got into a fist-a-cuff in the middle of the ER, injuring several patients in the process. Dr. Lawrence believed that two well-educated, male, white alphas could not behave so abominably without some unseen force influencing them. Corrupting them. So he called Code Luna.”
Leaning back into her chair, Beckham drapes her alabaster pale arms over the armrests and crosses her legs.
“Dr. Lawrence was wrong,” she concludes. “He lost his medical license, as did most senior management at that hospital, which, by the way, no longer exists. It was dissolved in order to pay off the dozen lawsuits that one call resulted in. That was 1969, when the Sex Designation Protect Act was still brand new and untried. I don’t think you want to test it in 2020.”
“I’m not some sexist making a call based on prejudice!” Carina balks. “You think I’m suggesting this lightly or without thinking through the consequences?”
“Yes, I do,” Beckham, unhesitant, answers. She drums her fingers, nails long, pointed, and dipped in crimson. Bailey has never glimpsed her once without claws.
“Excuse me!” Carina seethes. This time, she does jump out of her seat and nearly onto the table. “Don’t you dismiss me just I’m not an all almighty alpha like you—”
Beckham throws her head back in a chilling, howling laugh, and Bailey considers rolling herself on out the door, because she recognizes the predatory look that settles on Beckham’s porcelain doll face as her laugh fizzles out. Someone is about to be slaughtered.
“If you want to accuse someone of being flippant, I suggest you get a mirror,” Beckham leers. “I take the same little pink pill every three months that you do, Dr. Deluca.” Blinking, Carina sinks back into her chair, as Beckham’s tiger smile shrinks to a grim, pressed line.
“Save me the O-power spiel,” she goes on. “I know all too well how ridiculous it is that I am expected to chemically leash my body just because alphas don’t care to do the same to theirs, even though they’re the ones who act deranged when their hormones start pumping. Which is evidence that this is still very much an alpha-run world, so while you and I don’t have a problem owning our secondary sex, there are those who would literally rather die than be outed as omegas. That’s exactly what a Code Luna will do. It will expose very private, very confidential information of patients and staff who belong to a long-marginalized segment of society and possibly subject them to more oppression. Have you thought about that, Dr. Deluca?”
Carina does not reply, and for a few moments, cold, icy silence reigns over the conference, only yielding when Beckham decides she has inflicted a sufficient amount of frostbite.
“Beyond that,” she says as she turns to Koracick, who is sitting beside her, “if you make this call, and it turns out there are no grounds, you will open a box that you cannot close. Local, state, and federal, they will all come for you. It will give them all the grounds they need to start digging, and let’s not pretend that there aren’t bodies to find.” She nods purposively at Meredith. “The corpse of that one’s creative book-keeping is still fresh, and its rotting stench hasn’t quite dissipated.”
Meredith, affronted, huffs but holds her tongue. Bailey, though, scowls at Beckham on her behalf. The memory of their last conversation, despite being months ago, hasn’t yet faded—Beckham had not been shy about her displeasure over Bailey rehiring Meredith, and Bailey had been quite clear about where Beckham could put her displeasure.
“And what if Dr. DeLuca’s right?” Bailey inquires. “What if there is an omega in heat, and we don’t do anything to find and protect that omega, or the rest of the people in this hospital?”
“Don’t get it twisted, Dr. Bailey,” Beckham admonishes. “Code Luna is not designed to protect anyone or anything but the hospital. Do you even know how it works?”
“I’m the Chief of Surgery,” Bailey snaps. “Of course, I know how it works. First, we lock wards that contain particularly vulnerable patients, NICU, ICU, maternity, etc. Then, we dismiss what alphas we can while ideally keeping only those who are at least likely to be affected, those already paired and or with children. At the same time, we—we—”
Bailey’s words snag in her throat. She does know how a Code Luna works. She does know what the next step is. But there is a difference between knowing it, reading in it a manual, and saying it aloud.
“Then you open otherwise sealed records,” Beckham finishes for her, “identify omegas, patients and staff, and systemically hunt them down and isolate them until you locate the one in heat. There is no sexy way of putting it: you specifically target them and treat them differently based on their secondary sex. It’s textbook discrimination and a hate crime under the SDPA, permissible only in the context of a Code Luna. So we cannot be wrong about this. We cannot.”
“And I’m telling you, I’m not wrong,” Carina cuts in again. “I know what I smelled, and I know what saw at Dr. Parker’s face—”
“And I’m telling you,” Koracick drawls, “if you need more than a look—”
The conference door swings violently on its hinges as Maggie hurls herself into the room. Breathing heavily, she skims desperately over the room’s occupants until her wide eyes land on Bailey.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” she apologizes rapidly, “but we need you, Dr. Bailey. It’s important.”
“Well, whatever it is, it needs to wait,” Bailey advises. “I’m in the middle of something—”
“Dr. Hunt just stopped a security guard from throttling Dr. Simms,” Maggie half-yells. “Fights are starting to break out all over the hospital. It’s turning into Lord of the Flies out there!”
Carina levels her gaze with Beckham’s.
“Is that good enough?”
Nico is climbing the backstairs when a large, muscled body blocks his path. It looms over him from the next landing, and a sliver of Nico might recognize the slope of the nose. But all that really registers is that this thing is in his way, and that needs to change. In a better state of mind, he might have tried to reason with the stranger or alert them that he is well-versed in taekwondo. But he’s not, so he advances without sound or warning.
Chapter 4: A Waiting Game
In the span of forty-three minutes, Tom’s day has gone from tolerable to a five-alarm dumpster fire. A Code Luna. He has to call a Code goddamn Luna.
“Is Blake okay?” he stalls. Pierce shrugs anxiously.
“I guess?” she supposes uncertainly. “Dr. Hunt broke up the fight pretty quickly, and I didn’t see any blood—”
“You’ll have to tell them not do that,” Beckham sighs resignedly. Since the moment they met, Tom has regarded her as an Arctic fox, beautiful and deceptively delicate but well-built for the tundra.
“Tell them not to do what?” Tom asks, massaging his temples.
“Break up fights,” she replies in a tone that implies it should be obvious. “You can try to prevent fights, but once they start, you can’t intervene. No matter what.” All the eyes in the room zoom to her, flies lured in by a merciless light.
“What do you mean we can’t stop fights?” Bailey exclaims. “Heat-struck alphas are capable of killing people, and you want us to let them?”
“If the killing occurs in the context of a pairing match, then yes. Pairing law is unequivocally clear—you can’t interfere with a pairing match, lest you deprive the omega of the stronger alpha.”
“That’s archaic!” Meredith roars, standing. Beckham’s eyes narrow to icicles.
“It’s federal law, Grey,” she growls. “Break it, and you’ll be in prison for so long your grandchildren will be grown before you ever have a shot at freedom. Archaic? Absolutely. It is older than this country. It’s older than most countries. It’s sacred, almost synonymous with the myth of the ‘fated pair.’ So, don’t get on your high horse, Grey. It’s not a crusade you will win.”
“You heard her, Dr. Grey,” Tom asserts as his fingers fall from his forehead. “No interfering with matches. If you do, I will have you escorted off the property and will personally report you to the authorities.” Slamming her mouth shut, Meredith launches a scathing glower at Beckham, who simply grins like a cat with a belly full of canary.
“So, we’re doing this?” Bailey redirects aggravatedly. Tom takes a deep, grounding breath.
“Yes,” he confirms on the exhale. “We are issuing a Code Luna.” Bailey promptly gets up and leaves, Pierce, slack jaw, staggering out of her way.
“Co—Code Luna?” repeats Pierce. “That’s—that’s what’s happening? There’s an omega in active heat? In this hospital?”
“Yeah,” Meredith mutters, her stare taking one last dig at Beckham. “Come on. We need to help Bailey. We’ll explain everything on the way.” Pivoting on the ball of her foot, Meredith makes her exit, a baffled Pierce and a determined Deluca following close after.
“I still say you shouldn’t have let her step foot back in this hospital,” Beckham sneers once they’re gone. “She’s going to end up costing way more than she’s worth.”
“She’s brilliant, Natalie,” Tom defends. Propping his elbow up on the table, he rests his chin in the cradle of his palm. “A once-in-generation surgeon.”
“Hmm, so I’ve been told on many an occasion.” She drops her head back until the crown of her thick, dark hair grazes leather. “At what point does brilliance stop being a free pass? Where’s the line between genius and stupidity?”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
“It should be, shouldn’t it?” Drumming her nails, she raises her head. “I know your star surgeons are used to playing fast and loose with the rules. I know you are too.” Tom schools his features to stay placid, but he wonders if Beckham can smell the guilt on him. If her blizzard blue eyes can spot the stain of bribery on his fingertips.
“But the game has changed,” she presages. “And its rules? They’re not there to be broken.”
`Above them, on the far wall, the intercom crackles to life, and Bailey’s voice descends.
“Attention staff. Attention—Code Luna. We are now under a Code Luna. I repeat. Code Luna. A Code Luna is now in effect.”
The disembodied pronouncement is audible where Levi has settled, but its words only land and drip off his body in rivulets. But the scent migrating in whips his senses to attention—bergamot as the top note, quickly giving way to cardamom, the cologne’s robust heart. Pine is present too, perhaps the base—or maybe it’s blood. Because the tangy, metallic fragrance is there, faint but palpable, an insidious undercurrent.
Levi parts his legs, the skins of his thighs gently peeling apart as the glue of sweat dissolves. He eyes the light peeking from underneath the door and wets his lips.
He hopes the alpha does not keep him waiting much longer.
HR is Meredith’s least favorite place in Grey Sloan Memorial, mostly because it’s too clean. And too pastel, the industrial carpet a spring green, the wallpaper a bright, pink floral pattern. Maggie shares her sentiment.
“My God, it looks like Easter threw up in here,” she says, frowning.
“Or was decorated by my great-grandmother,” Carina adds, studying a set of glass ducklings figurines standing watch over the receptionist’s desk.
“Well, Janet is at least a century-old,” Jackson murmurs as he comes up from behind. “I’m sure she’s somebody’s great-something.”
“Hold up—shouldn’t you be getting away from here as fast as humanly possible?” Maggie asks warily. “You’re an alpha.”
“I have a kid,” Jackson points out. “And I’ve paired before. So, heat beacon scents don’t really do anything for me. I mean, I smell it, but it’s like being offered a three-course meal after I’ve just been to a buffet. It’s appetizing, but I’m stuffed. Now, Link? Guy’s acting like Shepherd’s personal secret service. He tried to bite me for just saying ‘hi.’”
“What?” Maggie squeaks.
“It’s all good,” Jackson dismisses. “Shepherd stopped him just in time and took him home.” Carina groans and looks anxiously at the back office behind the desk.
“Dr. Bailey needs to hurry,” she grouses.
“It’s going to take a few minutes,” Jackson expounds. “Secondary sex designations are protected under several layers of security. I think there are four or five passwords, and only one or two people know each one. The federal regulations are no joke.”
It’s federal law, Grey. Beckham’s superior drawl sails through Meredith’s mind like a flurry of needles. Meredith hadn’t been aware that it’s possible to come to despise someone so much in the span of ten minutes.
“Do you know Natalie Beckham?” she probes Jackson. He raises a sandy eyebrow.
“Hydra?” Carina echoes.
“That’s what my mom calls her. Apparently, she’s impossible to outmaneuver. Try one legal attack, and she will come up with two to counter you.”
“That’s a hydra alright,” Maggie concedes. She mimes an axe cropping her at the neck. “Remove on head, and two more grow.”
Yes, Meredith reflects, multi-headed serpent monster is an appropriate analogy.
“Why do you ask?” Jackson queries. “Did you meet her?”
“Oh, we certainly got an introduction,” Meredith chuckles dryly. She is tempted to say more—to divulge the sour taste Beckham has gleefully left in her mouth—but then Bailey emerges from the back office. In her hands she tenuously holds a single sheet of paper.
“Well,” she declares, “here it is. This is the list.”
Chapter 5: Hide and Seek
Ruling out patients is easy enough. There is less than thirty, and all are in their rooms, waiting in their beds with indignant trills in their throats. They don’t appreciate the interrogation, regardless of how softly or contritely Maggie poses the questions, yet they weather it as necessary. Perhaps they take comfort in the fact that, eventually, they will be discharged and will return to their normal lives where their doctor and secret can’t follow.
But her coworkers? It is as if every forty-one of them have made a pact to be more difficult to locate than the Holy Grail. Maggie spends nearly half an hour trying to track down Jo, who she at last discovers in a supply closest on two. Keeping her back to Maggie, she fiddles with a packet of gauze.
“Jo,” Maggie says quietly, but Jo holds up a finger to silence her.
“Don’t,” she cautions.
“Don’t talk to me like I’m pathetic.”
“Oh, no, Jo,” Maggie is quick to deny. She rests a hand on a nearby shelf for balance. “I don’t think that at all.” Snorting, Jo rotates sluggishly and leans back against the shelving of bandages. Her scowl is both protest and accusation.
“Of course you do,” she rejects as she folds her hands against the small of her back. “You’re not one of us, so you don’t understand. You never will. Because you’ll never know what is like to be pitied or reviled simply for losing at the genetic lottery. You’ll never know how it feels to have teachers not just expect but require less of you—for you to be less. You’ll never know what is like to have a foster family turn you out of the house because they’re afraid of how you’ll ‘influence’ their bio kids. You’ll never have your first husband sniff you out and weaponize the inferiority complex society has pounded into you since birth. You won’t know what’s it is like to be lifted high by your second husband, to believe him when he promises you’re enough—that you’re his last and most meaningful pairing—and then to be dropped off the edge of a cliff when he leaves you for his ex- alpha lover and their alpha children.”
Maggie shifts her weight. How can she argue with that? As a beta, she really can’t understand what it must be like to be held suspect simply because of the arrangement of her chromosomes. The world is built for her. It also stretches and accommodates fervently for the alpha’s need for domination and control. But omegas? They are made to change. To suppress themselves.
So Maggie does the only she can. She skims over the injury.
“Jo, I’m sorry, but I have to ask—”
“Oh my God, do I look like I’m in heat?” Jo snarks, pushing off the shelf. Throwing up her hands, she does a rough impression of a car sales model. “Does it look like I’m nesting? Getting good and comfy for the victorious alpha?” Pausing, Jo seems to reconsider this choice of phrasing and lets her arms drop back to her sides.
“You know what?” she muses aloud. “Good for them, whoever is in heat. Good for them for reminding everybody who actually has the power. They got this whole hospital running around like headless chickens, making alphas battle for the privilege of pairing. Alphas and even you betas, you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of what might happen if we ever figure out just how much power we have at our disposal.”
Grinning, she chuckles to herself before gazing Maggie.
“In some ways, I wish it was me,” she admits. “It would be nice to be the one calling the shots for once.”
Nico is close. The scent reeling him in—sweetly spicy, spicily floral, florally enticing, enticingly divine—is stronger with each step he takes. Despite being delayed by three other alphas, he feels energized. Enlivened. He can’t afford to flag now when the fourth alpha of the afternoon makes a challenge. He’s too close to the prize to accept failure—not that failure has ever been acceptable.
The other alpha is younger, and he might have the advantage of being fresher. Unlike Nico, he doesn’t sport shallow cuts or blooming bruises on his visible skin, nor does he have scarlet stains or spattering on his sky-blue scrubs. If Nico isn’t his first trial, then his last one wasn’t much of a fight. Maybe he has been lying in wait as Nico picks off the competition, planning to make his move once Nico was exhausted and thus an easier mark. Smart, cunning—Nico can give him that. But that’s all Nico can give him or will.
If the little upstart thinks Nico will bow out or will be bowled over, then Nico is fully prepared to educate him.
“Well, it’s not Jo,” Maggie sighs, “or any of the ten I followed up on.” She has just returned to the hospital front desk, where Bailey has set up a quasi-command center. Jackson is already there, having completed his scavenger hunt for the ten omegas assigned to him a few minutes earlier.
“Same,” he parrots.
Bailey swiftly starts crossing names off her master list, her pen striking like a viper.
“Hopefully,” she says, “Grey and Deluca are having better luck.”
“Depends on what you mean by luck,” Meredith replies as she and Carina approach.
“We found everyone on our lists,” Carina explains without preamble. “Everyone except one.”
“Well?” Bailey cries. “Who is it?” Carina and Meredith share a glance, and Bailey snaps her fingers to pull them back. “Well?”
“Schmitt,” Meredith murmurs. “It’s Levi Schmitt.” Jackson doesn’t hold back a snort.
“That fits. In fact, that makes a lot of sense.”
“Why?” Maggie reproves, oddly defensive. “Because he’s smaller? Because he can be a little clumsy?”
“What? No. I didn’t mean it like that—”
“Well how did you mean it?”
He means it in the sense that Schmitt seems to be a magnet for misfortune. That if an off-the-wall, once-in-an-eon, ice cube-in-hell phenomenon is going to happen to anyone within these four walls, it’s going to be Levi “Glasses” Schmitt. It’s got nothing to do with the fact that Schmitt is an omega.
…Except this happening to Schmitt because he is an omega. Is that why Maggie is so repulsed? Because she thinks Jackson is disparaging omegas and their…unique health needs? He attempts to correct this perception.
“What I mean is—"
“Shut up!” Bailey orders, slamming her clipboard down. “Whatever is happening here, do it later. We have to find Schmitt first. Do we have any idea where he could be?”
“Omegas like to nest somewhere warm and with lots of soft surfaces,” Carina informs. “They also instinctively seek out places that are out of the way for both privacy and protection.”
“So, warm, soft, and remote?” Bailey summarizes. “That literally describes nowhere in this hospital. Warm and soft? Sure. Remote. I can name few places. But the combination of all three? Nope.”
“Maybe an on-call room?” Jackson, extremely grateful for the return to the task at hand, suggests. “On a less populated floor?” Carina shakes her head.
“On-call rooms are saturated with far too many scents. Omegas only build nests were their beacon scent is going to be pure and unfiltered.”
“So, sterile?” Bailey deadpans. “We are looking for warm, soft, remote, and sterile. In other words, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or the—”
“The linen room?”
Helm pops up like a mouse crawling out of a hole in a kitchen pantry.
“Excuse me?” Bailey entreats. Nervously, Helm jabs her pointer finger upward.
“The linen room on seven?” she replies, painting the film of a question on her answer. “Where they keep all the clean sheets? I once had to go there to grab an extra set after a patient threw up all over their bed, and I mean all over. It is like revenge of the corndogs—”
“Helm!” Meredith cuts off sharply, and Helm promptly clamps her mouth shut. “Does Schmitt know about that room?” Helm wrings her hands like she’s trying to squeeze them dry of every drop of anxiety.
“I—I think so? I’m pretty sure we talked about, because I remember telling him how I almost got lost looking for it. It’s like a maze up there. Um, anyway, have any of you seen Simms? Dr. Hunt had stopped him and a security guard from getting into it, but the security guard was just found knocked out in a bathroom, and now Simms is gone—”
She stops suddenly, and Jackson can see the figures adding up in her head, the dots connecting, albeit a beat belatedly.
“It’s Levi?” she realizes, horror spreading across her cheeks like a malignant blush. “Levi’s the reason for the Code Luna? We have to find him! We have to find him before Simms does. He and Simms do not get along at all. Simms—Simms is a jerk, especially to Levi. And Levi will be mortified if…if—we have to find him.”
“Then, we better haul ass,” Bailey says sternly, “because I have feeling Simms has a head start.”
Chapter 6: Out of Your League
“Are we sure?” Taryn blurts out. “Are we sure it’s Levi?” She has been holding it back, the question, though, granted, she has not had the chance to say much up until now. Once pinpointing Levi as the origin of the beacon scent, Bailey had issued orders faster—and more testily—than Gordon Ramsey, sending Dr. Avery to locate and enlist Dr. Koracick to wrangle in Simms.
“For the most part, heat-struck alphas can’t access their executive functioning,” she justified. “The limbic brain is firmly in the driver’s seat. But, since Koracick has been Simms’ mentor for years, his voice just might register.”
Dr. Pierce, meanwhile, was directed to the PIT to update Dr. Hunt, a mission that Taryn had originally thought would be assigned to her as the lowest head on the totem pole. But Dr. Bailey had commanded that she, as the sole person who knows with any certainty how to navigate the seventh floor labyrinth, follow her onto the elevator, while Dr. Grey and Dr. Deluca sped for the stairs, in case that route of travel proved faster and thus a life-saver. So, here she is, in an ascending metal box and staring at back of the Chief of Surgery’s head, regurgitating a probably stupid question.
“Schmitt is the only omega unaccounted for,” Dr. Bailey replies in a cadence that confirms, yes, that was a very idiotic question.
“But is it possible that it’s a visitor?” presses Taryn. “A visitor or a vendor?”
“All visitors and vendors are required to check-in, and as a part of the check-in process, they are legally required to check a little box if they’re an omega in case this very scenario arises. And, as of 2:02 p.m. this afternoon, there were no visitors who had checked that box. So, no, it is not possible.”
“It’s just,” Taryn is compelled to persevere, “Levi just went on the shot last month. He shouldn’t be in heat.”
Bailey’s chin does a quarter-turn toward her shoulder.
“…He’s on the shot? Are you sure?” Taryn nods emphatically.
“I took him to the appointment,” she explains. “It was his first time, so he needed someone to go with him and stay with him for a little while after just to make sure he didn’t have some kind of weird reaction. But he was fine, and he was relieved, because he was afraid if he stayed on the pill he would forget, and something catastrophic would happen. So, he switched to the shot so he would only have to take it twice a year instead four. He was being responsible—he was being proactive—and something catastrophic still happened.”
Dr. Bailey is silent, and silence never sits well with Taryn when she’s nervous. It only reinforces that the air is strange, heavy, off, so she cannot resist the urge to beat it back with a long torrent of words.
“And he was fine this morning. Tired, but fine. Well, ‘tired’ is not the right word. He’s still a little messed up over Kim, and I think he hasn’t been sleeping well, but he’s focusing on work, and he was fine this morning. He was fine.”
Except—was he? I’m fine he had told her. But he was lying, and they both knew Taryn knew he was lying. That, or they were defining “fine” very differently. For Levi, “fine” meant “I showed up, I am here, and that’s got to count for something.”
For Taryn, “fine” meant not appearing as if death swallowed you whole, thought better of it, and spat you back out. Which is exactly how Levi had looked when Taryn last saw him.
So, maybe in fact he had not been fine. And Dr. Bailey, being the wiser and more experienced surgeon, arrives at the same conclusion in a fraction of the time Taryn requires.
“Kim?” she zeroes in on. “Dr. Kim? They broke up? Why? And how long ago?”
“Uh, few weeks ago, a month maybe,” Taryn supplies. Vaguely, she wonders what the timing of the Ken doll dropping her best friend has to do with the current unfolding disaster. “As for why, nothing dramatic happened. I think they had very different views on where the relationship was going. Specifically, Levi wanted it to go somewhere, anywhere, that resembled more of an actual relationship, and Kim did not.”
More specifically, Kim did not want the relationship to go anywhere beyond the bed sheets, but Taryn is not about to go into that much personal detail with her boss’ boss.
Bailey turns her head fully back to the twin silver doors, but she is not quite finished with her fact-finding.
“Were they in love?”
An odd question. A left-field question. A donkey-in-a-tutu-riding-a-unicycle-on-Pike-Pier question. But Taryn answers it.
“Levi was…is. As for Kim, the guy’s made of plastic. If he was in love with Levi, I don’t think it occurred to him that he was. I doubt even he imagined it as a possibility.” And that’s Taryn’s honest assessment. To Levi, Kim was—is—everything. To Kim, Levi was convenient until he wasn’t—isn’t.
It’s an honest, unfiltered assessment. It is also an assessment she is forced to reconsider when the elevator doors slide open with a chiming ding, the number “seven” above them luminating, just in time to give Taryn and Bailey a front row seat to Kim’s foot ramming into Simms’ gut.
If Blake Simms were capable of accessing his executive functioning facilities, he would’ve been capable of articulating that, contrary to popular belief, he does not dislike Levi Schmitt. Rather, it is a bit the opposite. A lot of the opposite. The problem is that, even when he can access his higher brain power, Blake has never been particularly good at articulating attraction, so his infatuations have always translated into a variation on pigtail-pulling. No object of his affection has ever been spared his perverse brand of attention—guy, girl, alpha, beta, omega. It doesn’t matter: he needles them. Hunts down their insecurities and exploits them to the hilt. This method forces the target to acknowledge his existence—to sit up and react—without necessarily exposing Blake to the unappealing outcome of rejection or, immensely worse, invisibility.
And, fortunately, Schmitt has copious vulnerabilities to peruse and use, which seems proportionate to how hard Blake has been crushing on the bespectacled little intern since they first met. For ten glorious seconds, Blake had imagined walking up to a cute guy and flirting like a normal person, fantasizing that the guy would be more charmed than put off by his arrogance and agree to a drink after work. But then, on the eleventh second had hit, and Blake had been made painfully aware of Schmitt’s Renaissance sculpted, attending boyfriend.
So pigtail-pulling it was. But Schmitt is a geek and therefore inoculated against Blake’s mean girl tactics. Blake had been forced to step up the cruelty, not hesitating to expose him as the guilty party behind Grey’s fall from grace and then delighting in the bullying that followed. Anything and everything to stay in Schmitt’s line of sight. But then a car crashed into the hospital hangout, and this proved a temporary measure. Near death experiences have a way of putting everything in sharp perspective, so everyone forgave, forgot, and moved forward. Blake became insignificant to Schmitt, amounting to little more in his world than a non-descript extra.
Then, a miracle. Schmitt and the Adonis-wannabe split. Blake doesn’t know the exact reason but doesn’t care. What matters is figuring out how to re-build the bridge he burned down in a desperate act of self-immolation. He has a chance now, and he doesn’t intend to waste it.
Blake would confess all of this if he were able to activate the gray matter that controls reason and memory. But he is not, and all he is presently cognizant of is that there is a scent so delectable he is determined to find its source and devour it whole. To ravage and claim it as his.
However, there is an equally determined rival in the way. A towering, statuesque specimen of an alpha who knows precisely in his bone marrow and muscle memory what is—who is—at stake.
If he were able to access his frontal lobe and all its many powers, Blake would be able to admit to himself that he doesn’t stand a chance.
But he is not, so he might just die trying to prove otherwise.
Chapter 7: To the Winner
It is thanks to timing that Teddy is following Tom up several flights of stairs, two at a time, to the seventh floor. She had been…comforting—yes, let’s go with comforting—him when Jackson had barreled into Tom’s office and immediately dove into the heart of the matter: Schmitt is the omega devolving alphas to their primitive core, Simms is one of said alphas, and Koracick is needed to prevent a pairing that cannot possibly end well for anyone. Koracick had told her to stay, that she would be safer down here on a level far below a hormone-crazed buck of a human being, but Teddy had told him she is a knight, not some helpless princess, and to get moving or she would leave him in the dust. And that was that.
There is, though, the not insignificant issue of a precise plan.
“What are you going to do?” Teddy asks breathlessly. “Tell him ‘stop’ and hopes he listens?”
“Not much less I can do,” he wheezes back. “Beckham doesn’t want anyone interfering in pairing matches at all under any circumstance.”
“What if turns into a death match?” she balks, using a landing as a springboard to the next set of stairs. “And who is Beckham?”
“Doesn’t matter—no interference. Pairing law is ancient and sacred, yada yada. And Beckham is the head of legal, so she takes any matter that might result in the hospital being blamed for anything very seriously.” “Seriously” is clipped at its end as Tom gobbles down a loud but thin breath.
“Legal? Legal is telling you to let someone die because she would prefer to avoid lawsuit? And you’re actually considering it?”
“They don’t call her the ‘Hydra’ for her soft touch. She’s vicious and prone to ripping heads off.” They reach the seventh floor, and their lungs and legs are beyond grateful. “And she’s never wrong, which is supremely annoying to someone who’s usually the smartest person in the room.”
“Tom, we are doctors,” Teddy hammers. “We don’t let people die if we can help.”
“And how do we help people if this hospital is bankrupt and most of us are in jail?” he says, shedding his usual sarcastic tilt. “Because Beckham assures me that’s where we’re headed if we intervene. I don’t like it either. I really don’t like it. But we are trying to apply civilized rationality to something that isn’t civilized or rational. It is raw and primordial, Teddy. It’s the way world worked when the world was in its simplest, purest form. We surgeons are known for our God complexes, but that? That we can’t mess with without consequence.”
To Teddy, Tom’s argument ultimately boils down to money and superstition. Pairing is not some magical, mystical happening—it’s a chemical, neurological bond meant to ensure procreation and continuation of the species. Bonds are built and broken as it suits the body, their power weakening after each break and becoming little more than a nuisance once the goal of spawning is achieved. Religion and romanticism have enshrined it, however, transforming it into something it most decidedly is not. After all, is she not case in point? She once thought she had found that much celebrated one—first Allison, then Owen—but she has survived the severing of the first and has chipped away at the second. She is chipping away still, her chisel and mallet leading the way into the hallway, low lit and twisty.
Allison was not the one. Nor is Own. And Tom isn’t either. There is no “one,” however many laws society institutes to protect the fallacy, and nobody deserves to die just to maintain the delusion.
“Don’t you shh me—"
“Quiet, Teddy. Please.”
Waving away the fog of indignation, Teddy finally sees what Tom is holding out his arm to protect her from: Blake Simms, bloodied, an ankle and arm twisted at most unnatural angles, crawling toward a frighteningly unscathed Nico Kim. Both of their eyes are black pits, devoid of sense or sensibility and focused on the kill. One will deliver it. The other will be it.
That’s how this will end. If nothing is done, that’s how this will end.
“Blake,” Tom calls steadily. “Blake, stay down.”
Simms keeps crawling, his one good arm trembling to pull his lame collection of limbs closer to his death.
Where Meredith comes from, Teddy couldn’t tell you. All of a sudden, she’s just there, throwing herself over Blake’s body and pinning him to the floor. She glares up fiercely at Tom.
“You can’t tell me I’m breaking up much of a fight!” she hisses over Simms’ infuriated howl. “It’s over.” Snarling, Tom squares his shoulders and puffs out his chest—a reminder that some betas will not take insubordination lying down—but Bailey’s unimpressed sigh nips any further display of dominance in the bud. She stands on the other side of the Meredith-Simms-floor sandwich, Helm fidgeting behind her. His challenger effectively neutralized, Kim is gone.
“No one is going to being suing anyone over this,” Bailey murmurs. “Even if Simms tries, it will have no legs. Schmitt’s been on the shot for a month. Kim is his most recent partner.”
Meredith’s face softens to shock. Tom’s shoulders melt to a stunned slump. Helm’s fingers keep moving like a nibbling mouse.
“Uh,” Helm squeaks, “I’m sorry, but what does that have to do with anything?”
Everything Teddy wants to tell her. To scream at her. Everything.
It’s just that she does not know to put the impossible into words.
Warm, buttery light fills the room as the door at last—at last—opens. Levi stirs from his voluminous nest of cotton and stretches as the alpha crosses the threshold and casts his musk out and down like a net: bergamot, cardamom, pine, and a hint of coppery blood, all crescendoing to a symphonic roar that has Levi arching his back and extending his arms out to beckon. The alpha obeys, strolling and then falling into a plank over Levi’s naked body as if all his toned muscles are one seamless slip of silk, his hips sliding perfectly into the hot place between Levi’s invitingly open legs.
Slipping his hands beneath the alpha’s navy top, Levi growls at the fabric. It’s offensive, being where it shouldn’t be. The matching pants are downright obscene.
“O-ff,” Levi susurrates, his vocal cords cranking out the combination of sounds. “No-w.”
The alpha peels the navy away, and later—much later—Levi will be compelled to fold it into the mounds of his nest. For now, though, caramel vanilla skin is gliding against his pale flesh, strong hands reacquainting themselves with the slight curves of his torso. Lips nuzzle the nape of his neck, ride along a tendon, and then find a nerve to suck on and massage.
Neurons fire fleetingly, and Levi gasps in an ephemeral moment of clarity.
“Levi” is the voracious reply.
Chapter 8: Medical Miracle
Hunger jolts Levi awake. Instantly, he is conscious of how hot his skin is, coated in perspiration, and his fingers flex in search of cool air, only to find a fistful of loose, damp sheets. Blinking furiously, he sharpens his vision, and the lines of a closet’s interior become dark and defined. Once, it may have been well-organized storage for bed linens and towels—once, because it has been systemically dismantled and rearranged into a vaguely circular pile, fabric woven together like the twigs of a bird’s nest—
Nest? …Did he make a…nest? No, he tries to calm himself. No, that’s not possible. You’re on the—
Cotton rustles behind him, and he is immediately conscious of breathing and heat that is not his. Leading tepidly with his ear, he turns his head over his shoulder, just enough to glimpse the curve of sculpted cheekbones he would recognize blindfolded. Mortified, he snaps back forward, pressing his cheek into a purple pillowcase.
No, no, no. What have I done? What have I done?
He wills—begs—his body not to make a single wrong move as he tries to scope out where in the tangle of textiles his scrubs might be. He has to get out. He has to before the alpha wakes up and realizes what Levi’s done. He has to go…go—God, anywhere but here—because he won’t survive what he knows the alpha will say. He’ll be crushed under the blame that will be dumped on him. Impaled on the accusation that will come shooting at him like an assault of arrows. No, no, he has to go.
His panicking eyes snag on a flash of blue, the shade a close enough approximation to his uniform, so he starts to worm his way toward it, fishing with a creeping hand. But a rod of an arm hooks him instead and pulls him back until flesh embraces flesh.
“I-I am so, so sorry,” Levi dry heaves. His heartbeat is revving up to over a hundred rpms. “I don’t know how this h-happened! I am on the shot. I am on the shot, I swear. I wasn’t trying to tr-trap you. I know you got plans. I wasn’t trying to ruin them. I am on the shot, ‘cause I didn’t want this to happen. This wasn’t supposed to happen—ever. I am sorry. I—”
Tenderly, large hands turn him over to his back, and Nico’s face, propped up on the heel of his hand, appears above him. The alpha’s dark chocolate eyes gaze down in an unexpectedly warm smolder.
“Breathe, Levi,” Nico instructs, thumbing at Levi’s collarbone. “Breathe with me.” Stunned, Levi does as he is told, mirroring the rise and fall of Nico’s chest, breathing in through his nose and out pursed lips, until their heartbeats sync.
“I know you’re not trying to ‘trap’ me,” Nico assures once he deems that the proper flow of oxygen has been re-established to Levi’s lungs. His fingers move on from Levi’s chest to his hairline to corral its wildly roaming curls. “…Do you know what it means, going into heat despite being on a suppressant? Do you know what it means for us?”
Levi almost asks, “What us?” But Nico’s intense, caressing stare encourages him to think a little deeper. To shift through memories and facts. To browse through the mental files of childhood fairytales and medical texts. And what he finds sends his heart into overdrive.
“W-what,” he sputters. “B-but… You… …Me?”
“You,” Nico confirms breathily. “Me. You and me, Levi. You and me.”
Koracick’s sour moods never bode well for Owen, and, presently, he looks as if he just downed a whole family pack of Sour Patch Kids. Owen can’t fault the guy—hour six of the Code Luna is wearing on everyone—and his protégé has been left with the limbs of a marionette that Owen is not sure that even Link, Ortho God that he is, can mend back to human.
Still, that doesn’t mean Koracick has any right to reduce Owen to room service.
“Why me?” he demands as Koracick shoves a cart of nutritionally balanced food into him. “I’m the head of trauma. I should be overseeing the PIT right now, considering we are short staff by a good thirty percent, if not more. Send an intern.” He nods his head toward the nearby huddle of blue led by Helm and Brody—salivating hyenas, the lot.
“Look,” Koracick sighs, visibly holding back a redhead-disparaging quip, “just do it. I am your boss, Hunt, and that means you do what I say.”
“For the love of sensible hair colors everywhere, do I really have to spell it out? You are a happily paired alpha with multiple children. Kim will likely not see you as a threat to his mate, but if he does, you, as an alpha, will be better able to defend yourself than a non-alpha. Got it? Good—”
“No, not good—wait. Do you just say ‘mate’? Don’t you mean ‘pair’?”
The corner of Koracick’s lips twitch as he crosses his arms.
“I am a world class neurosurgeon, so I tend to be very precise and accurate in things I do and say. I am also not five, so I know the difference between ‘mate’ and ‘pair,’ so rest assured that I have used the correct terminology.”
Owen grasps the handle of the cart and bears his weight against it.
“But that’s not possible—”
“Schmitt’s on the shot,” Koracick interjects impatiently. “We just got his medical records to verify it. There is only scenario in which an omega on a highly potent suppressant still goes into heat. And that’s if—”
“—there’s a mating bond in place,” Owen finishes, not quite believing his own conclusion.
“I am sorry, what?” Helm pipes in, having tiptoed closer to the attending. “Schmitt—Schmitt’s mated? How can you know that for sure?”
“Suppressants don’t work on mated omegas,” Koracick explains, sighing again. “A mating bond is permanent, and it literally changes the landscape of the omega’s biochemistry. Their body guards it zealously, and heats become how the body does bond maintenance, so to speak. If a mated omega takes a suppressant, it has the opposite effect. Their body just dials up the beacon scent until their mate responds.”
“The bond also changes the mate’s hormonal balance,” Owen adds. “Mated alphas are thought to produce tremendous amounts of testosterone and adrenaline when heat struck in order to ensure they can fight off challengers.”
“So the match was rigged from the start,” Brody deduces. “That’s why Simms looks like a rag doll.” Koracick spears her with a hot poker of a glare, and she ducks behind Helm to lick her wound.
“Now that we’re all on the same page,” Koracick mutters, “do what I, your boss, have told you to do before Kim comes down looking for sustenance for his mate. We already have one doctor in the ICU. I’d rather it not be two.”
And if it ends ups being two, I prefer the second one to be you. Koracick doesn’t say it out aloud, of course, but Owen hears it in the petulant quirk of the man’s eyebrows. Even so, he lets it go, because he knows it’s a battle not worth the expenditure of energy, not when he can just push the damn cart onto the elevator and take it to the seventh floor linen room, braving the sheer, overwhelming stench of sex as he navigates the poorly lit, winding hallway.
Yes, this is faster than a futile back-and-forth, but Owen still resents the humiliation Koracick has craftily thrown into his face. Humiliation that only deepens as Kim opens the linen room door in nothing about a red bed sheet draped casually about his hips. He’s the head of trauma in one of the nation’s pre-eminent hospitals, damn it. He shouldn’t feel so small before a mere fellow, mated alpha or not.
“Uh, food,” Owen announces awkwardly. Kim regards him with suspicious, hooded eyes and takes a deliberate sniff, of him or the food, Owen isn’t sure.
“…Congrats, by the way,” he commends, hoping to cut down the mounting tension. “Mating, that’s, uh, wow. How are you doing? How’s Schmitt?” He attempts to catch a glimpse of the intern over Kim’s shoulder, and Kim, a warning growl gurgling in his throat, instantly moves to block his view. His solider training kicking in, Owen glides back expeditiously, putting the girth of the hallway between them.
“Sorry,” he says, chuckling dryly. “That wasn’t very smart of me. Teddy tells me I was pretty territorial after we first became a pair. I can only imagine how strong that urge to protect is right after mating.”
Kim appraises him again, and his glare suggests that he is not completely convinced of Owen’s apology. But, simultaneously, he seems unwilling to leave the confides of the linen closet to deal with something that has yet to prove an actual threat, so he instead grasps the cart with one hand and pulls it in.
“Oh, thank God, food.” Schmitt’s faint voice sounds exhausted but relieved, and the change in Kim’s demeanor is instant, a lithe, lustrous smile dancing onto his face—the grin of a man who has just achieved everything he has ever hoped for—just before the door swings shut.
Owen should be thankful to witness such a small, tender scene. To see myth made real. But, somehow, he feels uneasy, as if the core of his world has been shaken, its exact makeup in question. It is like believing he has been sitting on a mountain of gold, only to have someone show him what real gold looks like and discover his mountain is merely pyrite.
Chapter 9: Wonders Never Cease
“It doesn’t make sense,” Levi mumbles. Sitting cross-legged, he hugs a pillow close to his chest, a show of modesty that Nico finds both unnecessary and adorable.
“Levi,” Nico replies patiently as he prepares a plate of baked chicken, berries, and steamed veggies. He appreciates the health-conscious selection, but, seriously, something with a little fat wouldn’t have hurt. “Please don’t overthink this—”
“I’m not overthinking anything!” he snaps defensively. “It doesn’t make sense—we don’t make sense. You walked away!” He drops his gaze to his crisscrossed ankles, and his voice quiets. “Until today, I didn’t think we even got close to pairing, because pairs have a harder time walking away from each other than you did from me. You walked away from me, Nico. So, how does it figure that we’re mates, when you’ve already decided that staying wasn’t worth it—that I’m not worth it.”
For a moment, all Nico can do is stand there, a plate of provisions cooling in his hands. He understands where Levi is coming from—what Levi is remembering.
“…You know I have a knack for making the difficult look easy,” he says somberly, smirking spuriously. “But believe me when I say it wasn’t as easy as it looked.” Levi doesn’t lift his head, and Nico knows that he doesn’t believe him.
It is not in Nico’s nature to belabor a point or to look to closely at the obvious. He likes straight forward lines, clear cut shapes, and black-and-white pictures. His apartment is a love letter to modern minimalism, each piece of furniture and décor stylish but possessing a distinct function, and he doesn’t go anywhere without knowing what he’ll do when he gets there. “For the hell it” is not in his vocabulary, and people who wander for the sake of wandering accomplish nothing except wasting irreplaceable time. That is simply how Nico was raised.
But, by the same token, Levi was raised to view the world through a magnifying glass. To examine everything from all sides and angles. To tease out and cherish details, especially the romantic and seemingly useless ones. He’ll go the extra mile for the sake of both the journey and the view at its end. He’ll grant wishes, turning boys into flowers for a night and bestowing one last ball to a loving couple staring down midnight. Levi complicates everything, and it’s infuriating and enthralling and irresistible how he stands to upend every careful plan Nico has ever laid.
And, as a practical man, Nico knows he can’t beat around the bush anymore, not if he wants to hold onto the explosion of sunrise colors that brighten his grey world when Levi looks at him. So, he sets down the plate, sits down before his mate, and digs a little deeper.
“I paired once.” The admission is banal in volume and utterance, but Levi is startled, his head snapping back up like a rubber band. Nico sits across from him, so close their knees almost touch, and his rich brown eyes latch onto Levi’s lighter ones.
“Freshman year of college,” he goes on. “My family was on the other side of the country, so for the first time in my life, I could be exactly who I truly was every minute of every day. I was free to do what I wanted…to love who I wanted. And I did. His name was Aaron.”
Pausing, Nico swallows and rubs his palms against his thighs, but he keeps his eyes on Levi.
“…I was eighteen, so I was still half-under the belief that there was little difference between ‘pair’ and ‘mate.’ I hadn’t felt like that before. I hadn’t been so close to someone that my biochemistry came to depend on them. My hormones changed and fluxed depending on his. We shared a wavelength—our neurons communicated to one another in a language no other body or mind could understand. I could feel sometimes what he felt, physically and emotionally. How was a connection like that not strong enough to last?”
His voice cracks, forcing him to take a shaky inhale.
“But it wasn’t strong enough to last. We were together about three years, and then Aaron started to push for more. He wanted to talk about our future—what it would look like, where would we live, what we would do. He wanted to meet my parents. And my parents…they had their own ideas for my future, and Aaron didn’t fit in them. I wasn’t ready to challenge them on that. Aaron got tired of waiting…of my excuses…and, somewhere along the line, I realized that bond I’d thought couldn’t ever break was breaking. Aaron drifted farther and farther away until he was gone. And that was before he physically left. I lost him before he actually left. And that pain…the pain of breaking…I swore I never go through it again. I wasn’t going to get that close to someone if that was cost.”
Nico’s irises begin to glisten like garnets, and he lets the tears crest and fall as he reaches out and gingerly pries one of Levi’s hands off the pillow in his lap.
“And then I met you. Our eyes met across an OR, and I could already feel it happening—the neurons meeting and weaving. I was terrified of you, and I admit I looked for every conceivable out. When you told me that I was the first man you had ever kissed. When you were slow to tell your mom about me. But, every time, you rose and fought for us, and I told myself it wouldn’t hurt to stay a little longer. We hadn’t paired yet, so what was the harm? Then you started asking for more—which you had every right to do—but all I could see was Aaron happening all over again. Except this time, it would be worse. It would be a million times worse because I didn’t love Aaron half as much as I was falling in love with you.”
“So you finally took an out,” Levi concludes quietly. “You left before I could leave you.” Shamefully, Nico nods and then extends his free hand to remove the pillow from Levi’s lap. Once he does, he takes hold of Levi’s other hand.
“I was a coward,” he confesses. “I hurt us both because I was a coward, and I told myself that the pain would stop—that we hadn’t even paired, so the pain would stop. But it didn’t stop.”
He lets out the strange, heartbreaking cacophony of a laughing sob and smiles.
“Now I know why,” he finishes. “I was trying to break something that can’t break. You aren’t some random pairing that can be replaced. You’re mine. I’m yours. Always. And we won’t break.”
A drizzle of tears is warming Levi’s own cheeks, but he doesn’t pull his hands out of Nico’s to wipe them away.
“Mating,” he says, sniffling, “it’s not a magic wand, despite how all the fairytales end. We’ll still have to work at it, Nico. Things are going to get hard sometimes, because that’s life. And if we’re in this for life, then you have to promise you’re in it for life—the better and the worse.”
“I’m in this,” Nico vows. “I’m in this, better, worse, and everything in between. Because you’re worth staying for, Levi. And I’m sorry—I’m so sorry—I refused to realize that before, but I know now. And I am staying. I’m staying right here.”
Tugging Levi’s hands, Nico guides him forward enough for their lips to meet, and Levi gives in easily, letting Nico’s tongue slip in and massage his own. He leans in closer and closer until he is straddling Nico’s lap, his lower region aching for attention.
“We, uhm,” he breaths out, pulling back just enough to make room for words, “should eat.” Nico grins.
“We will,” he reassures. “Eventually.”
Then, he draws Levi back in.
Chapter 10: All is Fair
“Glasses is mated,” Hannah says. Her tongue examines every syllable, rounding and licking each like a lollipop, and the pink puckering of her lips gives away that she doesn’t care for the taste.
“Green is not a good color on you, Brody,” Helm grunts, as she zips up her jeans. The locker room is quieter than usual, more than half of their cohort having been exiled from the hospital until the Code Luna is lifted.
“I’m not jealous,” Hannah denies, slapping her thighs as she stands up from a bench. “I’m dumbfounded. It’s Glasses. Bumbling, blood-bank, traitor Glasses! He is the most awkward human being that ever walked the face of the earth, and yet he somehow has accomplished the one thing that no real person has ever accomplished.”
“So, he got lucky,” Helm sighs.
“Lucky?” chuckles Hannah disbelievingly. “It’s not like he found a penny in the parking lot or got the last cake pop at Starbucks. Hell, it’s not even like he won the lottery. He’s not lucky. He’s—he’s a freak of nature.” Helm, shrugging on her jacket, glances up.
“I can see you’re having some kind of moment right now,” she warns, “but if you call my friend a freak again, I’m going to have to drop kick you.”
“What has happened to him,” Hannah, non-pulsed, continues, “only happens in folklore and legend.” She starts pacing, bouncing between the rows of lockers like a yoyoing tennis ball. “He’s a walking, talking fairytale.”
“Pretty sure you’re treading a thin line with the last one,” Helm contemplates aloud.
“Glasses has found the person who literally completes him!” Hannah half-shouts. “He never has to date again. Ever. He has the perfect partner for him. He knows definitively that he cannot do any better than the guy he’s with right now—the insanely hot, intelligent alpha he’s with right now. And the rest of us? We’re stumbling round, pairing with that person and this person, hoping we’ll get close enough. That this pair will work—will last. We hope that we don’t outgrow them or that they don’t outgrow us. We hope that something or someone that the bond can’t withstand doesn’t strike out of the blue like a damn meteorite.”
Tipping her head back, she stares up at the ceiling and does her best to give the mental middle finger to whatever higher power might be staring back down.
“We are all stumbling around blind, and Glasses is mated.” God, she hates irony.
“Is this part where I’m supposed to commiserate with you?” Helm asks. She closes her locker door and heaves the strap of her gym bag onto her shoulder. “The part where I join the ‘Woe-is-Me, I’m-So-Lonely’ club? Well, sorry, I’ve been to the meetings, and they suck. So I’m canceling my membership.”
“How are you not infuriated right now?” Hannah demands, hands on her hips.
“Uh, ‘cause I’m a grown-up?” Helm deadpans. “This isn’t about me—or you. Besides, how does Schmitt and Kim being mates deprive me of anything? If they were meant for each other, then neither was meant for me, which is obvious, given that they’re both dudes, and I’m not into that. Anyway, like I said, I’m done with the pity party. I’m choosing to be happy for Schmitt, and, if anything, him mating gives me hope. He’s living proof that it’s not impossible to find the one, just-right-for-you person.”
Helm is biased, Hannah decides silently. She and Schmitt are friends, good friends, so Helm is obligated not to see the absurdity of it all. Of all the people, of all the seven point eight billion people on the globe, why Schmitt? It didn’t necessarily have to be her, but Schmitt? Schmitt? The guy is the runt of the litter, of every litter he has ever belonged to, so how does he come out ahead of everyone else? It’s not like he works harder or is more virtuous or is pluckier. He’s…he’s…he’s Glasses. Unremarkable, forgettable, utterly average Glasses.
And still, he gets the one thing that everyone else can only achieve dreaming in their dreams. How does that compute? How?
Hannah opens her mouth to stop Helm from leaving and to ask her as much, but then Carina Deluca comes tumbling in like ricocheting shrapnel. Her brown eyes scan the room wildly, and when they land on Helm, she lets out a juddering sigh of relief.
“Helm,” she says. “I need you.” Furrowing her brow, Helm pats her bag.
“I was actually on my way—”
“I need you to help me talk to Schmitt,” Dr. Deluca begs anxiously. “I’m an omega, so I can’t get too close to the nest, or Schmitt might feel like I’m encroaching on his territory, but you’re a beta and his friend, so he’ll probably let you approach.”
“Um, as an OB/Gyn,” Helm hesitates, “I am sure you know that heats last at least twenty-four hours, typically to closer to forty-eight, and I really don’t want to walk in on them mid-coitus.”
“It is because we are still early in the heat that I need you now,” Dr. Deluca rushes to clarify. “This a rare opportunity—perhaps the only opportunity—to study a newly mated couple—”
“No.” Dr. Deluca blinks.
“They just mated. They’re entitled to privacy. I mean, it’s probably mortifying enough that they are going through this in full view of the hospital. The only shred of private space they have right now is that stupidly tiny closet, and you want to take that away from them too? No, no way—I’m not going to be a part of that.” Dr. Deluca takes a few, pensive steps into the locker room and laces her fingers together against her abdomen.
“I understand what you’re saying, Helm,” she replies, treading very carefully, “but there is so much we can learn from them—that we can learn only from them. This is a chance to understand the concrete mechanics of mating. It’s game changing. World-changing. It’s—”
“—not about us!” Helm barks. “It’s about Levi and Nico. It’s happening to them! I get that it happened in the workplace, but it’s a private thing that happened between them. And if we start treating them like test subjects, where does it stop? Are you going to do the same thing to their kid? Because Schmitt is definitely getting knocked up by the end of this, and he’ll be stressed out enough without someone hovering over his shoulder, watching his every move. No, no.”
Shaking her head, Helm re-adjusts her bag strap and pushes past Dr. Deluca.
“This about them—just them,” Helm reiterates, pausing at the exit. “So leave them alone.” Then she goes, deserting a devasted Deluca in her wake.
“I’ll do it.” Hannah’s words are quick but pronounced with deliberation. Dr. Deluca considers her in a lingering onceover.
“I didn’t think you and Schmitt were particularly close.”
“We’re not,” Hannah concedes. “Frankly, I don’t think Schmitt has an opinion of me either way. But if you want to do a scientific study on the mating bond, you’ll need someone who can be neutral and objective. Besides, I’m a beta too, and a woman, so Schmitt’s isn’t going to see me any more of a threat than Helm.”
Dr. Deluca nods, a slow bobble of the head that quickly snowballs into a rapid, vehement up-and-down shake.
“Okay,” she agrees. “You can do it, but we have to go now. Dr. Hunt was just up there and tells me that they appeared to be in a rest period. We want to try to talk them before the second wave hits, because once that happens, they aren’t going to be receptive to visitors.”
So, Hannah follows Dr. Deluca out of the locker room. Helm might be content with fleeting hope and the prospective of “maybe me too,” but she is not. If Schmitt ends up feeling uncomfortable, well, that’s what he gets for defying the odds. He doesn’t get to embody the impossible and be entitled to privacy. He doesn’t get to break the unbreakable mold and then expect to be allowed to keep how he did it secret. And if Hannah ends up coming across as callous or selfish, then so be it, but she is going to get answers. After all, she’s not any less deserving of assured happiness than Levi “Glasses” Schmitt.
Beneath Levi’s cheek, Nico’s chest is hot and firm, a delectably damp pillow of sweat, skin, and muscle, and, deep inside, steadily drums his heart, a lullaby luring Levi to sweet slumber. Belly full, Levi is inclined to abide by the beat and slink into sleep. He’ll need the energy once his hormones recharge and come back raging, but he’s a little afraid that if he closes his eyes, this will all turn out to be a vivid fantasy. That he will open them to find himself cold and alone. Yet, the rhythm of Nico’s heart grounds him and promises that it will be there when Levi wakes. So he lets his eyelids flutter shut and inches closer to his dreamscape.
He almost reaches it when there is an urgent knock at the door.
Chapter 11: Startin' Something
Alphas do not sleep deeply. Their DNA hardwires them to be acutely sensitive to disturbances in their domain, so when Levi slips out of his arms, Nico rockets from a dream straight to the waking plane. Clocking the vacancy beside him, he jolts up to a sitting position and immediately takes stock of his bearings. A quick-footed breath launches from his lips at the sight of Levi. Dressed in a haphazardly swathed teal toga, he hasn’t gone far, just to the door, which stands ajar, a thick serpent of light slithering through the opening. Levi, his voice low and fraught, is speaking to someone on the other side, and he is clutching at the door as if he’ll collapse without it.
“Of course, I want to help people,” he murmurs anxiously, “but what you’re asking—” The other person cuts him off, and he starts to rub his chest in a sickeningly familiar way. Nico knows that pattern of lopsided circles, accompanied by lightly glazed hazel eyes, and he knows actual collapse follows if it is permitted to continue. Thus, he is already up on his feet when a foreign hand breaches the threshold, violating their space, and grasps Levi’s wrist.
Nico launches himself across the short divide and snatches at the offending hand, removing it from the skin it has no right to touch. Simultaneously, he pushes Levi back behind him until the omega is securely concealed from view.
“Nico!” Levi says, placing his hands on Nico’s shoulder blades. “It’s okay! I’m okay!” But Nico is not about to be placated, not when a trespass on their territory needs addressing. He squeezes the intruder harder, and its fingers begin to drain of color, numbing white climbing toward the nailbeds.
“D-Dr. Kim,” Brody greets through gritted teeth. “My apo-logies.” Nico looks her up and down, and he spots a cart behind her. It is not laden with his and Levi’s next meal but rather an assortment of test tubes, syringes, and butterfly needles. Flicking his gaze back to Brody, he tightens his grip.
“Why are you here?” he demands. Brody offers up a wincing grin and tests Nico’s hold, attempting to retract her hand. He doesn’t allow her even a millimeter.
“As I was ex-plaining to Dr. Schmitt,” she hisses, “this is may-be our only chance to study the ma-mating bond—”
“Our?” Nico echoes. He sniffs, and sure enough, a second odor is lurking in the air—sweet, a tinge citric. An omega then, he detects, which would explain why they are keeping their distance. Levi would not have reacted so mildly if it had been a fellow omega desecrating the sanctity of his nest.
“Who’s with you?” he grills, squeezing Brody’s hand to provide extra motivation.
“D…Dr. Deluca!” she gasps as she yanks at her hand frenziedly. She elicits her other hand to help and tries to pry Nico’s fist apart, but Nico is stronger.
“Nico!” Levi pleads, tapping on his back furiously. “She’s a surgeon! Her hands are her career!”
“Tell Dr. Deluca,” Nico says leisurely, “that we are not guinea pigs for her to commandeer. Our bond is ours, and she should be grateful that I’m little busy right now, or else I’d report her—and you—for unethical behavior. If you or her or anybody else tries to bully my mate again with ‘for-the-greater-good’ crap, I’ll do more than bruise a few phalanges.”
He finally releases her hand, and she wrenches it back to her chest. She scowls accusingly at him, yet he simply shuts the door.
“Was that really necessary?” Levi sighs as Nico turns around. He gestures at Nico’s stark skin. “For heaven’s sakes, there are Jean Baptiste nudes wearing more clothing than you. She was intimidated enough! You didn’t have to nearly break her hand in half!”
“Yes, I did,” Nico counters, making his way back to the nest. “I am not about to let anyone turn our relationship into a spectacle.”
“That’s not what she was trying to do! She was helping Dr. Deluca, and Dr. Deluca apparently thinks we can help a lot of people. You have to admit that she has a point—how else can someone study the mating body if not through us?”
Exhaling, Nico beckons Levi to return to the heap of fabrics, and Levi, pouting, does. Together they sit down and fold into one another, Levi’s head coming to rest in the crook of Nico’s neck.
“You have a big heart,” Nico murmurs as he threads his fingers through Levi’s soft waves, “and you generally want to help people. It’s one of your best qualities. But there are going to be people who will see it as a weakness and try to take advantage, and I won’t standby and let that happen.”
“I am an omega, not a maiden in distress,” Levi mutters. “I know how to stand up for myself.” Cupping Levi’s chin, Nico gingerly lifts his head so they are eye-to-eye.
“I know you can,” he assures, “but our bond means you don’t have to stand up for yourself alone anymore. And our bond? It’s newborn. I want a chance to explore it for ourselves before the world comes busting down the door demanding a magic recipe that may or may not exist. I just want to be able to enjoy being us for a while. Okay?”
Levi, nodding, smiles begrudgingly.
Jo is in the mood to punch something. Having been released from quarantine—quarantine, like she’s contagious—she is in the PIT helping Dr. Hunt restore order and re-organize chaos. Her beside manner is lacking, her care blunt and to the point, but if Hunt thinks to correct her, her searing glare ensures he reconsiders. She wants this day to be over already so she can go home and forget today happened. Except she doesn’t want to go home either. There, she will only be reminded of the husband who isn’t there waiting for her. And then she’ll start thinking about the happy ending he’s living out with someone else—an alpha someone else—which will make her omega genes sting even more. Which will in turn remind her of today.
So, work, home, it’s all the same level of suck. She wants to run but has nowhere to run to, which leaves her with the same amount of tenderness a caged, feral cat possesses. She would pity the patients who fall under her care if she weren’t all out of pity at the moment.
“Ok,” she huffs, yanking back the bed curtain veiling her next victim, “what’s the probl—Brody?” Glancing up disconcertedly, Brody is sitting on the edge of the bed, her right hand limp in her lap, its fingers rapidly turning a garish shade of plum.
“What the hell happened?” Jo asks, snapping on blue rubber gloves. “Get into a fight with a brick wall?”
“Basically,” Brody gripes. “Except the brick wall was Kim.” Jo’s gloved fingers, centimeters from grasping Brody’s, freeze.
“Kim?” she repeats. “As in Nico Kim?”
“Who else?” Brody sneers. “Pretty sure he would’ve ripped my hand clean off at the wrist if Schmitt hadn’t reminded him that a surgeon kind of needs hands to perform surgery.”
“Did you… go to their nest?” Jo balks incredulously. “Why would you do something so stupid? And rude? Schmitt’s in the middle of heat! They just mated! Kim would’ve been well within his rights to chop you in half. You’re lucky Schmitt’s sweet enough to bother to stop him. Most omegas would’ve let their alpha go to town.” If it were Jo, she would’ve done the maiming herself.
Brody is unmoved, her face the portrait of defiance.
“How else do we get the samples we need if we can’t go near the nest?”
“Samples of what?
“Blood for labs. Dr. Deluca wants a full panel so she can compare it to pairs and see what differences there might be.” Withdrawing her hands completely, Jo tents her fingers and closes her eyes as she takes in a grounding breath.
“Dr. Deluca wants to study the mating bond,” she concludes. She opens her eyes. “And she asked you to go to their nest and get blood draws? From a newly mated couple in the middle of their first heat together?”
“Technically, she asked Helm first,” Brody amends, “but Helm said no—” She stops as Jo peels off her gloves, disposes of them in a nearby trashcan, and marches away, becoming the second attending that day to leave Brody unattended. But, unlike the first, her mind is perfectly clear.
Chapter 12: Warning Signs
Natalie’s predecessor had warned her that being the legal counsel for Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital is like watching two semi-trucks speed toward each other head on in slow motion: you see the crash coming from miles away, you know just how catastrophic the fallout will be, and you can’t do shit to stop it from happening. You could get them to slow down, stop, or change directions, but just when you think disaster has been averted, a third semi comes out of nowhere, plowing into one or both trucks, the wreckage far worse than you ever imagined.
That warning came seven years ago, and since then, Natalie has seen her fair share of pile ups and has gotten very good at traffic control. Twice, she’s even managed to sense that third semi coming before it hit, and today marks the third time. The matter had been settled all too neatly, Grey interfering with a pairing match, explicitly going against Natalie’s very excellent legal advice, only for the crime to be rendered moot by, of all things, a bonafide mating. It should have been smooth sailing for there, but Natalie has seen too much to suffer under such a delusion: there is no such thing as “smooth sailing” at Grey Sloan. So, she had sensed that switch in the air, had heard gravity calling the second shoe down, before Dr. Jo Karev—Wilson, or whatever she is calling herself post-divorce—knocked on her door.
So, very much feeling like she’s been run over by a Mack truck, Natalie lets herself into Koracick’s office and is promptly given a front seat row to a low budget and terribly cliché porno.
“See,” she grumbles as Koracick and the blonde attending scramble for their strewn clothing, “this is why HR is constantly up my ass about our sexual harassment policy. At this point, chastity belts would be more effective than strongly worded legalese.”
“It’s called ‘knocking,’ Beckham,” Koracick snarls. The blonde, shimming a dark navy top over her head, hurries past Natalie and clumsily clatters the door closed behind her. Natalie gestures airily at the office walls.
“And this is called a ‘workplace,’” she rebuffs. “You don’t want to get into a game of semantics with me, Koracick, especially with your pants around your ankles. You’ll lose. Badly.” Koracick reaches for said pants and fumbles with his belt buckle.
“What do you want, Beckham?”
“One week during which a doctor here doesn’t make an amazingly stupid decision. Some of the best medical minds, and yet common sense eludes them with frightening frequency.” Now properly dressed, Koracick makes his way over to his office chair and plops down.
“Who did what where?” he sighs reluctantly.
“It was Deluca and Brody with test tubes in the laundry room.” Koracick frowns.
“Are we playing Clue now?”
“I wish,” Natalie chuckles as she eyes one of the circular back chairs on the other side of Koracick’s desk. She would sit, but after seeing what she’s just seen, she can’t be sure which surface in this office is sanitary. “The nice thing about Clue is that you box up the board, cards, and pieces when you’re done. No mess and no fuss. And I’m afraid there is going to be a lot of mess and fuss heading your way.”
“Enough teasing. What exactly did Dr. Deluca and Dr. Brody do?” Fair enough. Natalie is also growing a little tired from beating around the bush.
“Dr. Deluca recruited Dr. Brody to intrude upon the nest on seven in an attempt to elicit blood samples from the newly mated couple.” Koracick nearly falls out of his seat.
“They—they did what? And how do you know this?”
“Does it matter how I know?” Natalie dismisses. “What matters is that it happened when it most certainly shouldn’t have. Violating the nest of a paired omega is illegal six ways past Sunday. The nest of a mated omega? That’s a federal crime. The kind that the U.S. Attorney throws the book at because it will make their career. I know I would, and I always assume that my opponent is at least as good as I am.”
“…What did you suggest?” he mutters, rubbing his temple. Natalie smirks.
“Does that matter either? I made suggestions before, and they weren’t followed. If not for the grace of God or dumb luck, this hospital would’ve been staring down an unwinnable lawsuit. So often is my very expensive guidance treated like dime a dozen fortune cookies—cute but meaningless. Sometimes, I think I should just make something up on the fly. It would save me a lot of work and lead to the same result.”
“If you’re trying to make a point—”
“I’m trying to rub salt in the wound,” Natalie corrects. “I find pain is a very effective motivator. Because pain, doctor, is all that awaits this hospital, financial and otherwise, if my advice is not heeded.” Koracick’s hand falls from his temple and lands limply on his desk.
“And your advice is?”
“Make an example of Deluca and Brody,” she says. “Make the example that you and Dr. Bailey have refused to make out of Grey. There can be no question that you sanctioned whatever Deluca was hoping to accomplish.”
“You want me to ruin the careers of two very promising surgeons?”
“They did that all by themselves. Gifted is not an excuse for stupid, and what they did was stupid, Tom. They are lost, and trying to protect them is a lost cause.” Silent, Koracick does not look at her, and, exhaling, Natalie straightens her suit jacket.
“Well,” she goes on, “while you contemplate ways to inevitably circumvent my advice, you should also know that I’ve contacted Dr. Kim and Dr. Schmitt’s respective parents.” This time, Koracick does look up , his lips twisting in puzzlement.
“Why did you do that?”
“Because, save for brief periods of clarity, Dr. Schmitt and Dr. Kim are not capable of reason and logic for however long Dr. Schmitt’s heat lasts. Hence, as is our practice and policy, I have notified their next of kin so they can be on call to make decisions about their sons’ medical care if needed. Dr. Kim’s parents will need to take a plane to get here, a small mercy, because I can already tell that Mrs. Schmitt is the neurotic, helicopter type of mother that puts my people skills to the test. At least tell Deluca and her cronies to stay clear of the woman. The situation is already primed for a fire—we don’t need to throw gasoline in the mix.”
“Nico,” Levi gasps, “I think…I think the second waving is coming.” But this declaration is unnecessary. Nico is already cognizant of the sudden spike in strength of Levi’s scent and has started to prep, clearing way their dirty plates and rearranging pillows and linens for maximum cushion. Then, he helps Levi lay down and holds him close as their sense of selves starts to ebb. It won’t be long, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, and then their instincts will be back in the driver’s seat. Nico can only hope that no one tries to pull another stunt like Brody’s. He won’t be responsible for his actions, but that doesn’t mean he wants blood on his hands…and there will be blood if anyone comes at his mate again.
Chapter 13: Mad World
Andrew does not understand why the admin of Grey Sloan is so averse to boldness. Progress—true, significant progress—has never been accomplished by following the rules. Still, they hum, and they haw, balking at audacious innovation. They think with the hospital’s bank account first, the good of medicine a distant second. Thus, he is not surprised when his sister calls to vent about the spanking management has just given her.
“They put me on probation, Andrea,” she fumes. “Probation! Just for asking! How could I not ask, when there may never be another chance to study mating?”
As far as Andrew is concerned, the problem is that Carina asked. Of course, asking would end in a minefield of red tape. Trailblazers do not ask for permission to blaze new trails.
Sneaking into the hospital is simple: he walks through the front door. The chaos serves as excellent camouflage, even with a shadily large black backpack (he’ll have to talk to the chief about the disturbing ease—it could lead to a serious security breach latter). Getting into the medicine storage cabinet is harder. He doesn’t have his employee badge, it having been confiscated when his own probation period began (his illustrious “award” from naming a woman’s unnameable disease), so the cabinet drawer won’t open for him, but there is no need to break out his MacGyver skills, not when there are hapless interns scampering about. He finds two of them soon enough in the locker room, a couple of faceless betas arguing over whose turn it is to do Avery’s scut, and so engrossed are they in this debate that they are completely oblivious to Andrew lifting one of their ID’s from their neglected scrubs.
From there, the only bumps he encounters are the ones that erupt along his forearms in excitement as he sprays on a scent suppressant. Grabbing a gurney, he rides the elevator all the way up to seven without interruption. All signs point to this being pre-ordained. He is meant to be kneeling outside the linen closet door, the stock of a tranquilizer gun balanced on his shoulder. He won’t miss, he is certain, as he pushes the door open just wide enough for the gun’s barrel, and his finger experiences no qualms as it pulls the trigger.
The dart pops out of the barrel, and a howl rockets into the air, a scream too deep and too furious not to belong to an alpha. Success, as anticipated. The next steps unfold in his mind like microwavable meal instructions: tranquilizer Schmitt next, load him onto the gurney, take him down for a CT scan and blood draws, and return him to the nest before Kim shakes off his stupor.
It’s so simple, Andrew chuckles to himself while loading the next dart. Carina gets her data, Schmitt and Kim are minimally inconvenienced, and management will have little to gripe about. Best of all, the mystery of mating won’t be as mysterious anymore. Win all the way around—
The closet door flies ajar, colliding wrathfully against the wall. A white dart with red, feathery tail rolls into his field of vision.
His ego does not even have a second to register the blow before his vision goes completely dark.
Myrna Schmitt understands she comes across as a vexingly fretful woman. She’s been ceaselessly fretful since adolescence, puberty bringing with it the dreadful sense that she is on the verge of losing something important. “Better safe than sorry” is more than her motto—it’s her lifestyle. Check, double-check, analyze every option from every angle, and then do it again. Still, as safe as she strives to be, she has ended up being sorry for many things. Her marriage, for one, brief though it may have been. She had picked her husband not for any strong attachment but rather because he was the safest option: stably employed, of middling looks, and of shared cultural and religious background. It was a stifling arrangement—he was stiflingly boring man—but truthfully, she would’ve persisted through the marriage, too paralyzed to take the risk of divorce. She’s not even sure she would’ve picked a different man if she had a chance to do it all over again.
But, as it was, her husband gave her two gifts the month of their second anniversary: her baby, Levi, and his death. Yet, the feeling of impending loss clung to her, so she did everything she could to insulate her child. To protect him. To protect herself from the loss of him. …And she lost him anyway.
She wants to think she isn’t a homophobe, but isn’t that the thing about prejudice? You don’t know necessarily you’re wearing it until someone turns the mirror and makes you see how ugly it is on you. Part of her was…is…afraid for Levi. He was already dealt the short stick as an omega. And then to be gay on top of it? It’s not the combination she would’ve chosen.
But she will do her best to remember that Levi is braver than her. And, if that fails, there is comfort in fact that Levi is now in the safest, most certain, most loving relationship one could ever achieve.
“Ms. Schmitt, it’s very nice to meet you,” a stout, handsome woman greets. “I am Dr. Bailey, Chief of Surgery, and this is Dr. Koracick.” She gestures to the thin, drained-looking silver fox who accompanies her, and he flashes her vulpine grin.
“Her boss,” he tacks on to his introduction. Sucking in a sharp breath, Dr. Bailey does her best to give Myrna her own smile.
“Please, follow us. We’ll go somewhere more private to talk about your son.”
“Is Levi alright?” Myrna rushes to ask. “Is his m-mate alright?”
“They’re probably the two most ‘alright’ people in this hospital right now,” Dr. Koracick replies teasingly. Dr. Bailey’s disapproval becomes more apparent, and she jabs her colleague with a hot poker of side eye. She then recalibrates, her returning smile soft, and she parts her lips, maybe to echo Dr. Koracick’s assurances, but she freezes before uttering another word. The bemusement melts from Dr. Koracick’s light blue eyes as they fix on something behind Myrna. She spins around and comes face to face with her son.
At least, she thinks it’s her son. It’s his face, but there is a wildness to it, the feral distrust of an injured animal. He is unkemptly dressed, the navy set of scrubs he is wearing too big and too long, but he manages not to trip as he pushes a gurney turn toward them. Myrna nearly retches as her gaze falls upon the gurney’s occupant, a young man who is probably good looking most days, but this evening, his face is an unsightly shade of plum. And the poor boy’s eyes….
Myrna is not sure if there are eyes underneath all that blood.
“He…sh-shot my…al-pha,” Levi growls, his words sketchy and drawn out, like human language is foreign to him. “With..a-a tra…tranquilizer. He dis-sturbed my ne-st. And. Shot. M-my. A-lpha.”
He raises his hands, palms up, and the blood that coats them is a thick, dark crimson. His lower lip wobbles.
“He…shot my alpha,” he whines. Dr. Bailey dares a step forward.
“It’s okay, Levi,” she consoles. “You were defending your mate and nest. You’ve done nothing wrong, okay? You’ve done nothing wrong. You should go back to your nest and watch over Nico until the drug wears off. He’ll worry if you’re not there when he wakes up. We’ll take care of Deluca. You go be with your mate.”
Blinking slowly, Levi nods and starts to shuffle away, but after four steps, he stops and turns to Myrna.
“M-mom?” he says.
“Yes, sweetheart,” she confirms, her vocal cords clenching. “It’s me. I’m right here.”
“D-don’t let…them…st-study us,” he pleads. “D-don’t let them….t-test u-s…” Swallowing, Myrna nods as the pieces begin to snap together.
“I won’t let them touch you,” she promises, her voice stronger. “Or Nico.” Levi leaves then, trundling toward an elevator bank, the pant legs of his scrubs dragging behind him.
As he goes, Myrna casts a reproving glower on the Chief of Surgery and the Chief’s boss.
“What the hell is going on?”
Chapter 14: Shock and Awe
Hi everyone! I'm sorry my chapters are so short; it's easier for me to post every couple of days if I write shorter chapters than longer ones. I'll do my best to keep the wait between chapters as short as possible. Thank you for reading! (04/27/20: Grammar errors have been corrected; sorry about that!)
Carina is halfway home when she gets the call, and she doesn’t remember the drive back to the hospital. One minute, she is in her car cruising, a nurse’s gentle, consoling voice in her ear, and the next, she is standing in Grey Sloan’s waiting room, Owen before her and grim-faced.
“It’s a corneal laceration in the right eye,” he explains, “a perforating wound in the left. Dr. Ridings from ophthalmology has taken him into surgery, but Carina…he almost certainly will experience vision loss. How much and how permanently remains to be seen. It could be significant.”
“Omegas go for the eyes first.” Owen’s gaze shifts side-to-side in bewilderment.
“Omegas go for the eyes first,” she repeats, hiccuping. “Because they tend to be smaller and not as physically strong as alphas or betas, they go for the eyes first, to incapacitate the enemy. People tend to think of us omegas as these delicate little flowers, but make us angry enough, and we’ll put you in the ground. And you’ll never see us coming—we’ll make sure of it. Omegas go for the eyes first and then the throat—how’s Andrea’s throat?”
She might as well still be a student in university given the way she asks the question—chock full of intrigue but academically detached. She has just been told that her brother may be blind for the rest of his life, his career as a surgeon on life support, and she is more interested in the particulars of the attack method that had been employed against him. Even now, she is mentally stacking a mated omega against a paired one, mining for what data gems she can.
Owen kindly indulges her.
“It seems that Schmitt was able to regain a degree of his rational thinking before he got that far,” he answers. “Once Andrew was unconscious, he brought him down to be treated.”
“Interesting,” she ponders almost dreamily. “I don’t think there has ever been a documented case of an omega regaining rationality during a heat wave. Maybe he hadn’t been fully immersed in the second wave yet. How did he look and move? And his speech—what was his speech like?”
“Like a distressed omega whose mate had just been attacked and drugged.” Dr. Koracick barrels toward her, coming so close they nearly collide, but Owen throws an arm out between them and holds him back.
“Back off, Carrot Top,” Dr. Koracick hisses, taking a sidestep and smoothing out wrinkles in the breast of his white coat. “This is above your pay grade.”
“Come on, Tom,” Owen sighs. “Do you really have to do this now? While her brother is in surgery?” His lips and nostrils twist as if sniffing a carton of milk on the verge of spoiling.
“Her brother being in surgery is the least of her problems,” Dr. Koracick barks back. He skewers Carina on his blue-gray eyes. “But while we are on the subject, why did your brother even know about Kim and Schmitt?”
“I told him,” Carina supplies easily. “Such a momentous medical event, how could I not tell him?”
“Two reasons,” Dr. Koracick snaps. He holds up his pointer finger. “One—patient confidentiality. The moment Schmitt went into heat, he became a patient, as did Kim as his mate. Your brother is on probation and currently not allowed to treat any patient of this hospital. He therefore had no right or reason to know Schmitt or Kim’s medical or personal information.”
He lifts his middle finger to form a numerical “V.”
“Two—common sense. Your brother is mentally unstable and has repeatedly demonstrated an unhealthy fixation on complicated, rare cases. Unhealthy for him, this hospital, and—most importantly—our patients. He has gotten extremely lucky with his last couple cases, but, tonight, his luck ran out. Do you realize how calamitous the consequences of his actions could’ve been? Could still be?”
“And he’s paying the price,” Owen interjects. “He may never operate again. You don’t need to ream Carina out.” Koracick titters bitterly.
“It’s not a matter of ‘may.’ Even if by some miracle he makes a full recovery, legal is going to see to it that he won’t even be allowed to dissect a frog ever again. So same goes for you, Carina.” She cocks her head in mild confusion. She should be more devastated, a little voice nags, than she actually feels. Dr. Koracick isn’t spouting off threats in a managerial tantrum. Rather, he’s plainly laying out the punishment that is about to befall her, but she is no more indignant than she was when the sentence of probation was delivered.
Thankfully, Owen has more than enough rage for them both.
“What has she done to justify taking away her license?” he demands, and Dr. Koracick attempts to eviscerate him with a semper.
“You mean besides the aforementioned reasons?” he queries sarcastically. “Okay, how about putting an intern up to disturbing Schmitt’s nest and asking him, an in-heat omega, for blood samples? That right there was enough for legal to demand her head on a spike. I was merciful and gave her exile instead. Then, hours later, her brother breaks in and attempts the same thing, only this time with tranquilizer gun?” Shaking his head, he looks to Carina once more. “Forget your head on a spike—legal won’t rest until you and your brother are hanged, drawn, and quartered, I couldn’t save you even if I wanted to, and I don’t want to.”
Exhaling, he smooths out his coat again.
“You can stay here until your brother gets out of surgery, but don’t you dare step foot outside this waiting room. If you do, security has instructions to escort you off the property.”
Owen fists that white coat Dr. Koracick has been striving to keep straight and yanks him forward and up.
“God damn it, Koracick,” he growls, “a little bit of compassion won’t kill you—” Owen sniffs, his nostrils and lips twisting again. His Carolina blue eyes flick down to clean white and up to darkening pigeon-blue, and his timbre pitches low and threatening.
“Why is Teddy’s scent on your clothes?” he asks slowly. Quiet, Dr. Koracick’s jaw clenches as he swallows, and Owen’s ruddy forehead smooths to stone in devastated understanding. “Why do you smell like my fiancée, Koracick?”
Omegas go for the eyes first—their biological disadvantage in size forces them to be more strategic. But alphas? Well, they don’t care where they hit first just as long as they make contact and make contact hard. In Owen’s case, he lands his first punch square on Dr. Koracick’s nose, the delicate cartilage and bone breaking in a nauseating crunch. Dr. Koracick stumbles out of Owen’s grasp, and his hands fly up to cradle the assaulted muzzle, but he is swiftly knocked off his feet as Owen plows into him. They hit the tile floor and roll, limbs flaying and swinging wildly.
Carina watches it all with passing fascination. It’s a fairly classic scenario—an alpha learning that a shrewd beta has snuck a tryst with the alpha’s pair, the alpha embarrassingly unaware. It’s a story that has played out across species, so, frankly, it’s a little plebeian to witness. Is the memory of this squabble going to be all Carina will have to show for the disaster that is today? All she will have left of her career and her brother’s sight?
The prospect is so ridiculous she can’t help but to laugh. So laugh she does. First a giggle. Then, abruptly, an avalanche of belly quaking guffaws. She laughs and laughs. She keeps laughing even when Catherine Fox appears on the scene, her alpha musk radiating more imposingly than a power plant generator. Owen and Dr. Koracick freeze mid-roll, Owen’s knee pressed into Dr. Koracick’s chest, Dr. Koracick’s fingers pulling violently at Owen’s red-gold locks. But Carina laughs on.
“What’s so funny, Dr. Deluca?” Dr. Fox hums. “Please, enlighten me.”
His alpha is still asleep when Levi returns to the warm security of his nest, despite him having stopped along the way to wash his hands clean. Vaguely, he recalls the way the hot water had stripped the blood from his skin, the red diluting and disappearing in the speeding stream. He is cognizant just enough to feel the needle of guilt, but as he settles down into the sheets, maneuvering Nico’s head into the pillow of his lap, he cannot pinpoint why. His alpha had been hurt, wounded, so Levi had responded as any good mate would have. The foolish alpha who had attempted to make a mockery of this safe place deserved everything he got.
Thus, pushing thoughts of the intruder away, Levi focuses on massaging Nico’s temples. Right now, this is all that matters—his mate here beside him, protected in the shell of his embrace.
Chapter 15: Hangman's Noose
Nico’s body takes almost two hours to break down the mild poison in its veins, and his consciousness unfolds like a rose bloom, petal by petal. Even so, he knows Levi is there watching over him. His presence is a balm in the air, his scent a heady, healing aromatherapy. When Nico’s eyes find the strength to open, Levi’s face is up above them for their viewing pleasure, and he can see with increasing clarity that Levi is unharmed. But Nico does not trust his senses. They have failed him tonight, leaving him deaf and blind and rendering him useless to the one who needs him most when he was needed most.
So once he is certain that his strength has sprouted again in the soil of his muscles, he harvests the crop in a swift swing of the scythe and has Levi on his back, splayed out for inspection. Nico’s fingers are gentle yet urgent in their movement, disrobing Levi of navy scrubs that are too long in the leg and too wide in the chest. They then trapeze the expanse of Levi’s skin, starting at the tips of his toes, crossing the bridge of his ankle, and climbing the incline of his shins. After that comes the firm hills of Levi’s thighs, the valley of his groin, the furred plains of his chest and abdomen, and the isthmus of his neck. Finally, his hands come to rest in the paradise of Levi’s face, unmarred and beautiful.
Despite Nico’s failing, Levi is perfectly perfect.
The next urge that fires and volleys across the synapses of his brain is vengeance. On the other side of the door, somewhere below, there is an alpha due an introduction to graveyard dirt. A line had not just been crossed—it had been assaulted. Ravaged and left for dead. The hot, brooding alpha blood pumping through Nico’s heart could not let it go unpunished.
He hefts himself up onto his elbows and knees but can go no further, not with Levi’s legs locking around his waist. Levi peers up at him pleadingly, his hazel eyes hungry under hooded eyelids, and the urge to destroy is immediately chased out by the urge—the need—to create. So Nico lowers himself back down, and Levi arches up to meet him. Their breathes meet, merge, and rise and fall as one.
Besides, the thing about grudges?
Catherine Fox, to put it plainly, is pissed. She should be halfway to D.C. by now, prepping for a national urology conference and drowning herself in tedious Foundation paperwork to forget, however temporarily, the husband who does not want to be her husband anymore. She is a world-class surgeon and medical mogul, for God’s sake. She has better things to do than break up schoolyard tussles between boys or chastise grown women for sticking their hand into the hornet’s nest and then throwing a tantrum because they got stung.
But here she is, stomping into Natalie Beckham’s office at a quarter past eleven p.m. Natalie, sitting behind a large mahogany desk turned white by a blanket of books and briefs, is pouring out two drinks from a crystal flask of stiff smelling scotch.
“You know I’m more of a Sangiovese woman,” Catherine says as she discards her purse on a cream leather couch before plopping herself down beside it. Natalie grasps a glass with either hand, stands, and sashays around her desk.
“And I prefer my Sauvignon blanc,” she replies as she hands Catherine one of the dark caramel beverages. “But shitty days end with scotch, especially when they turn into shitty nights, followed by even shittier mornings.”
“Is it really that bad?” asks Catherine, sniffing superiorly at the drink in her hand. The amount Natalie elects to curse in her presence is a decent barometer of how troubling a problem is. “Damn” indicates an annoying, inconvenient issue but one that is resolved easily enough. “Crap” is a step up in concern and usually means that a pricey settlement offer is needed. “Shit” though? Shit means litigation. Multiple shits mean litigation that Grey Sloan will be on the wrong side of.
Natalie leans against her desk and kicks back a gulp of biting alcohol.
“There might not be flames,” she sighs as she comes up for air, “but, trust me, this is whole place is on fire.”
“Do you have a way to put it out?” A superfluous question—Natalie always has a spare fire hose at the ready.
“I’ve tried twice already today to put it out. Each time, one of your illustrious doctors took out a flamethrower. At this point, we might be beyond containment.” The Might as well let the motherfucker burn goes unsaid, yet it’s there in the crisp, winter blue of Natalie’s resigned stare.
Catherine takes her first sip, and the scotch scorches her esophagus.
“But you have a plan to try?” she croaks, clearing her throat. Crossing her arms, Natalie exhales again.
“I’ve looked into Kim and Schmitt’s families,” she says. “Schmitt’s is pretty ordinary—single mom and a handful of close relatives. Average jobs. Average people. Schmitt’s mother is very vocal about her displeasure, but she can be placated with enough groveling and a sizable check. The Kims, on the other hand…” Catherine arches an unimpressed eyebrow.
“They’re well off, I presume.” Natalie lowers her eyes back down to Catherine like the drop of a gavel.
“Worse than that,” she corrects. “They’re influential. More specifically, Mrs. Kim is influential.”
“So?” Catherine snorts, and Natalie smirks.
“Well, you tell me—what would you, a woman of influence, do if you learned that multiple people had tried to take advantage of your son right after he had found his mate? If some self-righteous, half-crazed idiot shot him with a tranquilizer? If the people who were supposed to protect him and his mate declined to do what was necessary to accomplish that task repeatedly?”
In lieu of answering, Catherine takes another swig.
“Exactly,” Natalie hums. “So, if you want this hospital to survive to see the day after tomorrow, then you need to take my advice and stick to it. Your surgeons can’t finagle their way around the rules until they get the outcome they want. Not this time.”
“Out with it, Natalie,” Catherine demands tiredly.
“First, fire the Delucas and report them to the medical licensing board. You should probably also report the younger Deluca to the police. What he did wasn’t just unethical—it was criminal.”
“The young man has a mental health disorder,” Catherine pushes back. “That shouldn’t prevent him from being a surgeon.”
“In it of itself, no, it shouldn’t,” Natalie concedes, “but when he fails to properly treat that disorder? Yes, it absolutely should. You don’t see chefs with Hep C preparing food with bloody fingers, do you? Not guilty by reason of insanity is a defense, not an excuse, and people who use the defense don’t receive a get-out-of-jail free-card—we just put them in a different kind of prison.”
“That call won’t go down well with staff,” Catherine mutters into her murky reflection that slushes minutely against the confines of her glass.
“Well, you don’t pay me to make you popular. You pay me to keep this hospital within the lines of the law.” Natalie kills her drink and deposits her empty glass onto her desk. “If you need to, you can blame me. I am used to being cast as the villain—the stiff suit that only cares about cents and dollars.”
“I appreciate the offer, but no one is going to believe that you strong-armed me into anything. In the end, everyone knows the choice is mine and mine alone.” Isn’t that, after all, the reason for the break-down of her marriage? Her choices, the ones that she can’t take back. …The ones she wouldn’t change if she had to do it all over again. Because she wasn’t wrong, just like Natalie isn’t wrong now.
“What else?” she prods sipping at the last of the alcohol that has started to toast her blood and stoke her courage.
“The intern, Brody,” Natalie goes on,“she should get the same treatment as the Delucas in my opinion. But given that she’s an intern and was acting at the direction of someone who should have known better, I’ll understand if you’d rather give her the benefit of probation.”
“She’s a resident, not an idiot,” Catherine amends. “She should’ve known better too. If you’re telling me that I need to clean house, then let’s clean house.”
“I am also telling you that you need to be prepared to pay and pay big. If the Kims are the kind of people that I think they are, whatever settlement is reached, they’ll make sure it hurts. It won’t be about the money. It’ll be—
“—about making a point,” Catherine finishes for her. “It won’t put us under, but we’ll be penny pinching for a good while.” Natalie chuckles and saunters her way over to the couch, where she sits down beside Catherine and melts into a wearied slouch.
“That is the best-case scenario,” she says as she toes off her heels. Each hits the carpet with a muffled thud. “But we are assuming that nothing else disastrous happens between now and when the Code Luna is lifted, and if there is one thing that is true about Grey Sloan, it’s that disaster is always lurking about. And it likes to pop up when it’s least fucking wanted.”
An actual, out loud f-bomb? Well, Catherine dreads as she swallows her final gulp, we have officially reached a whole new level of dire.
Chapter 16: Game, Set, Match
Outside of Andrew’s room stand two police officers. Meredith stares at them from a safe distance—safe for the officers, not her. She is certain she would do something they would regret if she were to get too close. Still, however, their presence is offensive. What threat does Andrew, heavily sedated and quite possibly blind, pose to anyone right now?
“Unbelievable,” Maggie murmurs, shaking her head as she arrives at Meredith’s side. “Just unbelievable.”
“Right?” Meredith huffs. “It’s ridiculous. What do they think he is going to do in that state?” Shifting her weight, Maggie frowns.
“Meredith,” she says as carefully as one might tread over broken glass, “it’s not about what he might do. It’s about what he’s done.” Meredith rounds on her sister with the speed and venom of a snapping whip.
“He’s sick.” Sighing, Maggie holds her ground and glances at Andrew’s room pityingly.
“I know. We all know, Meredith, and that’s part of the problem. We all knew he was sick, and, yet, we let him come back again and again, even though we knew he really wasn’t better. That he was getting worse. Now he has hurt someone, and we all have to answer for it.”
Incredulously, Meredith chuckles.
“Are you serious right now?” she snaps. “If not for him, Richard would probably be dead. Thanks to him, Richard is alive. People are alive thanks to Andrew Deluca, sick or not. He wants to help people, not hurt them. He wants to do good, and, sometimes, doing good and following the rules are two separate things.”
Her eyebrows knitting together, Maggie’s face warps into a portrait of gob smacked. She steps back, not in retreat, but to get a better view of the person before her.
“….You’re smarter than that,” she rebuffs. “You know that history is littered with people who did bad things in the name of doing good. You know that the idiom of ‘the ends justify the means’ is a load of crap. You have to know what Andrew did, what Carina did, wasn’t bucking an unfair system. It was a bad thing. They did a bad thing. He did a bad thing. And we let him. We made excuses and allowances for him because he is our friend and our colleague, and stopping him—actually stopping him—meant admitting to ourselves that his promising mind was not well. You have to know that, Meredith. Tell me you know that.”
Meredith does know that. How could she not after months of witnessing Andrew’s decline? Of watching in paralyzed horror as the line between brilliance and illness blurred and disappeared? The worst part, though? The worst part is knowing that she can’t fix Andrew. She can’t take him into the OR, slice him open, and cut out diseased tissue. She can beg, plead, order, pray, and they all would amount to the same failure. She can’t fix him. It’s grandiose and patronizing and naive to have ever believed she could.
But she had. She had really believed she could.
“He’ll never be a surgeon again,” Meredith finally answers, “not if the Hydra gets her way.”
“Beckham is not the bad guy here!” Maggie, exasperated, cries. “In fact, according to Avery, she just might be the only thing standing between this hospital and complete legal annihilation.” Respiring sharply, she gazes at Andrew’s room, her stare lingering on each officer.
“There is no getting out from under this,” she asserts, “and we have to accept that.”
Meredith joins her sister’s appraisal of Andrew’s makeshift prison. Yet, her eye is not the guards anymore. Rather, it is pinned to the cell’s door.
Conceding defeat is not something that has ever come naturally to her, and today is not the day that changes.
Sara Kim is fully aware of the importance of appearance. Her entire childhood had revolved around it, her parents, first generation immigrants from the outskirts of Seoul, having made their living in a neighborhood nail salon. Growing up, she had hated how plebian and painfully stereotypical her parents’ profession was, but, decades later, she can appreciate the education that the stench of acetone had given her. Appearances can deceive, true, but more often than not what you see is what you get, and something as simple as a nail can tell you plenty about a person.
Take Ms. Myrna Schmitt, her son’s newly minted in-law. Her nails sport evidence of a recent manicure—fresh clear polish, neatly clipped cuticles—but they are otherwise wrecked, their tips chomped and chewed down to the stubs. From this only Sara gathers that Myrna tries to put her best self forward, only to be utterly undone by her nerves. So, Sara instructs her husband, James, to distract the poor woman. He has always had the softer touch, his charm his best asset, and his time is better spent on keeping her calm and out of Sara’s way.
It’s not that her husband is inept—quite the opposite—but there is a reason he has built his career in marketing. His talent has always lied in the razzle dazzle of life, the fluff and the effervescent. He dresses crisply and smartly, a tad understated, with attention to the finer details, like expertly trimmed nails, to inspire trust and confidence. The man could sell you air if he wanted, and he has a spellbinding way of turning the staunchest of enemy into the most loyal defender. But his way of conflict management is passive and time-consuming. He prefers to seduce people into submission, and that’s a long game they don’t have time for today.
Besides, a tactic like that is not going to work on women like Catherine Fox or Natalie Beckham. Like Sara, they file their nails to knife-sharp points. They have had to claw their way to the top and fight to stay there. Again, Sara can relate. Trading and banking is an old boys’ club, and her secondary gender of alpha hadn’t been enough to even get her through the door. She had to scratch, fight, bite twice as hard to prove she belongs in the room. To prove she owns the room.
Sitting across from the two formidable foes, Sara, shouldered on either side by Stanford educated attorneys, can feel a battle royal coming on.
“I did not want my son to be a doctor,” she says, bypassing meaningless pleasantries. “Over a decade in required education, grueling hours, and a pittance in salary when stacked against the time and effort one expends. He could’ve made twice as much in half the time if he had gone into business like I told him to.”
“I’m told him your son is a gifted surgeon,” Fox compliments, “I hear he is being courted for several lucrative positions, including physician to the Mariners.” Sara smirks. With her, flattery will get you nowhere.
“If Nico is going to insist upon this field,” she tuts, “then he ought to aim higher than being at the beck and call of glorified athletes. I certainly expected him to aim higher than here. He could’ve done a fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. They are the best in the nation in orthopedic surgery, but he turned them down. He says it’s because his teacher was the best, and the best was coming here.”
And maybe that’s true, but it’s truer that Nico much prefers to be on the coast opposite from his family. He has been drifting farther and farther away from them since his college days, and all of Sara’s attempts to reel him back in have resulted in the adverse effect. But she has an opening now to show her son that all she’s ever wanted is the best for him.
“But I suppose the universe knew what it was doing,” she muses. “His mate was here, so where else could he end up?”
“The perpetrators have been fired,” Beckham says, drumming her red daggers against the table’s glistening varnish. “And reported to the authorities.” She grins, flashing a mouth full of fangs. Oh, she’s the one to watch—the fellow shark circling in the water.
“But they’re still here, right?” Sara counters casually. “They have proven themselves a threat to my son and his mate—and most likely my grandchild—and they are still here.”
“One, Hannah Brody, has been escorted off the premises,” Fox assures, “but Andrew Deluca was severely injured and required emergency surgery. His sister is his nearest next of kin—”
“You might think that, by telling that, I will feel some kind of sympathy for these…Delucas,” Sara replies, “but I do not. Mr. Deluca is injured because of his actions, and frankly, I am of the mind that Levi should have gone farther, but I get the sense he is the sentimental type.” It seems Sara and Nico have more in common than their intransigence, mother and son having the same taste in men.
“They will be gone as soon as possible,” Beckham promises.
“Well, until ‘as soon as possible’ gets here, Nico and Levi should have protection.”
“Already done. Once we called the police, the wheels of our government started turning. Did you know that the federal Department of Human Services has a whole unit dedicated to matters of mating?”
“They probably don’t advertise it on purpose,” Sara guesses with faux amiability. “If I had known about it a day ago, I would’ve considered it a supreme waste of tax dollars.”
“I think most people would’ve felt similarly, myself included,” Beckham agrees. “But thankfully it exists, and its agents are providing your son and his mate with amble protection.”
“Protection that shouldn’t have been necessary in a hospital,” Sara strikes, “let alone from the hospital’s doctors.”
“We deeply regret that our staff behaved in such a way,” Beckham parries.
“Hence their dismissal,” Fox tacks on, earning an admonishing glance from Beckham as she continues.
“—And we are aware that reparations are needed.”
Oh, this one is indeed a worthy opponent. She knows which battles call for a frontal attack and which require diplomacy and playing dead. This will not be a fight over whether Grey Sloan will pay but over how much they will pay. Whatever number Beckham first offers will be respectable but far below what the hospital can afford. They will duel with their wits over the gap—Sara to close it completely, Beckham to keep it wide as possible. Victory will be decided by fractions, because neither will claim whole triumph. However, Sara has something the ice-eyed Beckham does not.
A personal stake—a son who resents her. A son who has barricaded his life on all sides to keep her out. A son who, if left to his own devices, will replace those barricades with sky-high fortress walls. So Sara can’t miss this chance to slip in undetected. And by the time Nico discovers her intrusion, she will have a hefty peace offering, more than enough for a grand ceremony, a paradise honeymoon, and a comfortable starter home.
Lacing her fingers in front of her, she makes display of her nails, polished an elegant, gleaming gold—gold because Sara never settles for less the best.
Chapter 17: Edge of the World
The moment he wakes, Levi knows he will leave the linen closet more than who he was when he’d first entered. There is no obvious sign he can point to, no major change visible to the naked eye. Sliding his palm across his abdomen, he just knows.
Nico lays his hand over Levi’s.
“I hope they have your eyes,” he whispers against the shell of Levi’s ear. “And your smile.”
“I want them to have your bone structure,” Levi murmurs sleepily. “And your sense of balance. They can’t have my eyesight and my epic incoordination. That’s too cruel.” Nico chuckles and kisses the juncture of Levi’s neck and jaw.
“If they have a heart like yours, then I’ll have no complaints.”
“You’re so cheesy.”
“Yeah, but you love it.” Turning in Nico’s arms, Levi chastely pecks Nico’s chin.
“Yes,” he admits easily. “I do.”
“Careful,” Nico admonishes playfully, “if you keep tempting me, we’ll never make it out of this room.”
“Would that be so bad? The world is out there, and the world has tranquilizer guns.” Sighing, Nico begins to gently draw circles on the skin of Levi’s stomach.
“This closet is safe,” he says, “but there is not a lot of room to move. Or to grow.”
Pouting, Levi scans the closet’s perimeter. For a closet, it is fairly large with a high ceiling to accommodate ample shelf space for rows and rows of bed sheets. But Nico is right—it is limited. Impractical. Still, he is not sure he’s ready to leave it. He is not certain how he will handle the stares and the whispers. The undeserved envy and the overblown admiration. In here, he can just be a man in love. Nothing more and nothing less. Simple.
Why can’t anything ever just be that simple?
Nico must sense this question, because he nuzzles Levi’s cheek supportively.
“Whatever happens,” he promises, “I will be with you every step of the way.”
So they stand and sort through the tangle of cloth and cotton until they find their rumbled scrubs. Levi tries not to wince at how they reek of sex. Even if the entire hospital didn’t already know what they had been up to for the last day and a half, the smell would give it away instantly. Well, Levi tells himself, what’s the point of getting embarrassed? This is just the latest in a long string of cringe-worthy times he’s made a spectacle of himself. At this least time marks a moment of sublime happiness. If a bite of bitterness is the cost of a lifetime of assured sweetness, he’ll swallow it without a second thought.
So, he follows Nico out of the closet, their hands clasped tightly, and standing side by side, they come face to face with an unknown man and woman, both dressed in unflattering suits of gray. A growl reverberating in the base of his throat, Nico takes a protective step in front of Levi.
“Please, Dr. Kim,” the man greets calmly. “We mean no harm.” Slowly, he fishes a wallet out of his inside suit pocket and flips it open, displaying a government-looking badge and matching ID. “I’m Samuel Atkins, and this is my partner, Jeanine Hamilton. We are with the Bonding Bureau.”
“Bonding Bureau?” Levi echoes, peeking around Nico. “There’s such a thing?”
“We are relatively unknown,” Atkins admits easily. “Our purview is very niche.”
“We make sure that couples such as yourselves don’t have your rights violated,” Hamilton adds. “Unfortunately, there are many people who would seek to exploit permanent bonds—as you have already experienced, I’m afraid.”
“So, you’re, what?” Nico inquires skeptically. “The secret service for mated couples?”
“In a sense, I suppose,” Atkins replies, chuckling. “At the end of the day, our job is to protect you.”
“The government has a bureau specifically dedicated to protecting mates? One that no one has ever heard of?”
“I know, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” Hamilton acknowledges. “But I assure you, we are very real and very necessary. The truth is mated couples are more common than people think, but they are rare enough to be considered an endangered species, and, as with any endangered species, there are hunters determined to capture them for their own gratification and gain. But, as I said, you know that already, Dr. Kim.”
Nico looks them up and down, visibly weighing the believability of their story. Daring another step into plain view, Levi gives them a good look himself. Hamilton and Atkins’ gazes are nothing like Brody’s or Andrew Deluca’s, which had slice into him and Nico like dissection scalpels. No, the agents are looking at them only with placid patience devoid of curiosity or relentless thirst.
Hamilton smiles at him.
“Hello, Dr. Schmitt,” she says. “And congratulations—both on mating and expecting.” Levi blinks.
“How did you—”
“The first heat after the mating bond is formed yields a ninety-nine percent conception rate,” Atkins expounds. “Your parents were quite excited to hear that news. They have already started debating names.”
“Our parents are here?” Nico, dismayed, asks as he pulls Levi a little closer.
“Yes, and they are eager to meet your mate, Dr. Kim.” Nico snorts, and Levi pats his bicep.
“Maybe it won’t be that bad,” Levi whispers lowly. Nico gives him a small grin and squeezes his hand.
“Only way to find out,” he whispers back before looking again to Hamilton and Atkins. “All we want right now is to go home.”
“Of course,” Atkins replies. “Please, follow us.”
When Andrew wakes up, he doesn’t realize he is awake at first. Shadow is all he sees, shadow and the imitation of light. He tries opening his eyes only to discover that he can’t, not with several layers of gauze laid over them. He then attempts to lift his hands to rip the bandages away, but they can only go so far, something hard and cold and metal leashing each wrist. So, he has little choice but to lay there in dark.
And in the dark, it comes back to him in flashes and pieces. The creak of a closet door. The potent scent of sex and sweat. The feel of sooth, curved metal beneath his trigger finger. The howl of an injured soul. The whites of a raging pair of hazel-blue eyes.
What had he done? What had he done? To them?
Heaving, he yanks to free his hands, but the bindings won’t break. He yanks again. And again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Ag—
“Andrew, stop! Stop!” Slender fingers clamp down on his forearms and hold him down until he gives up with an aggravated cry.
“Andrew, calm down.”
“Mer…Meredith?” he gasps thickly. “Meredith…what did I do?”
“It’s okay, Andrew,” she tells him. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay I’m going to fix this.”
Chapter 18: Child's Play
Dr. Cormac Hayes is well versed in the antics of teenaged boys. He is the father of two and was one himself, so he knows all too well the stupidity that can strike them—the irrationality and impulsivity that can hijack their brains and go on a joy ride until they crash in spectacular fashion. Furthermore, he is a pediatric surgeon—child development is essential to his craft—so he likes to think that he possesses a high level of tolerance for their behavior. He also likes to think he has seen the outcome of just about every poor decision teenage boys can make: eating things clearly labeled “not meant for consumption,” putting objects in body cavities where they decidedly do not belong, making sharp instruments into projectiles, chasing costly highs. Name it, he’s seen it.
Well, except for a full-on melee between adolescent, high-risk patients that needs the intervention of armed officers—the scene playing out before him right this very moment.
What the bloody hell? He must have smacked his head on something extremely hard. Or he never actually woke up this morning, and he is the clutches of a bizarre dream. Because this can’t be real. This can’t actually be happening.
Except there, doing his very best to elbow the cop restraining him, is Xavier Rivers, a sixteen-year-old with cystic fibrosis so advanced he is nearly at the top of the lung transplant list. And the boy swinging an IV drip stand like a battle axe? That’s seventeen-year-old Tommy Anderson, who’s at Grey Sloan for his third round of chemotherapy for stage three leukemia. Both should be in their beds, resting in preparation for their treatments, not trying to reenact last night’s MMA highlights.
Tommy takes another a swing, and Cormac catches the stand in one hand. It’s not hard to rip it out of Tommy’s grip—the kid barely has the strength of someone half his age.
“What do think you’re doin’?” Cormac demands. “This is a hospital, not a boxing ring! You could hurt someone! You could hurt yourselves!”
“He started it!” Xavier hollers, still trying to wiggle and jab his way out of the officer’s hold. “I was minding my own business, taking a lap around the floor, when he comes at me like Ken fucking Griffey Jr. I was just defending myself!”
“You know what you did, Dipstick!” shouts Tommy. “Stay away from Dakotah, or next time I will beat you until you cough up both your rotten lungs!”
“Hey!” Cormac snaps, and the officer holding Tommy at bay with a firm hand on the kid’s shoulder rolls his eyes.
“Should’ve known this was about a girl,” the officer grumbles. Dakotah is actually a boy, a fragile, beautiful fifteen-year-old beta waiting on a new heart. Cormac has heard whisperings of a love triangle from his nurses and residents, but he admits he hasn’t paid too much attention to them. He has experienced enough of his own ill-fated love and does not need to make entertainment of a teenage romance destined to be short livened one way or another. …One boy or another.
Cormac doesn’t tell the officer all of this or correct the officer’s assumption. It doesn’t matter in the end.
“What the hell are you talking about, ass-wipe?” Xavier snarls. “I didn’t do anything to Dakotah!”
“Don’t lie, shithead!” Tommy growls. “We agreed neither of us would make a move until we all got discharged, but then you go and kiss him behind my back? So much for your fucking word!”
“Oh, that’s it! No one calls me a liar!”
Xavier kicks his heel back and hits the restraining officer square in his sensitive nether regions. Yelping, the policeman lets him go to tend to his assaulted flesh, and Xavier launches for Tommy. Cormac catches him easily, however, and drags him back.
“For Christ’s sake, stop it!” Cormac yells, his patience thoroughly worn. “Tommy, Xavier seems pretty adamant he didn’t break your…pact. Did you actually see him kissing Dakotah?” Tommy glances away furiously, and Cormac has his answer before it is given.
“No,” Tommy spits.
“Damn right!” Xavier sneers as he tries to launch again.
“Be. Still,” Cormac orders, his voice dropping several octaves until it is stone-cold alpha baritone. Xavier obeys immediately and ceases his struggle, but Cormac keeps one eye on him as he resumes addressing Tommy. “Then what made you think that he did?”
“A doctor saw him, and she told me. Not thirty minutes ago, and she saw them locking lips in the Green Room.”
“Thirty minutes ago?” Cormac repeats. “Tommy, I’ve been with Dakotah for the last hour running tests, and I promise we didn’t see hide or hair of Xavier the entire time. Besides, Xavier has terrible pollen allergies—he can’t go anywhere near the Green Room.”
Tommy’s subsequent expression is an excellent impression of a koi fish out of water.
“But…but the doctor—”
“And which doctor was this?” interrupts Cormac. He doesn’t mean to sound so rough, but he’s tired, and, honestly what were these boys thinking? Ah, no, there lies the problem—they weren’t thinking.
“The hot blonde one?” Tommy says, tilting his words into more of a question than an answer.
“You mean the one who usually has her hair in a pony? The MILF?” Xavier clarifies crudely, and Tommy nods.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Tommy affirms. Abashed, he rubs the back of his head and suddenly sags, looking as sickly as Cormac knows him to be. “Sorry, man. I just thought—I mean…why would she lie?”
Why would Meredith lie? Because that’s who they are talking about, no doubt. Why would she, not just a doctor but the head of General Surgery with decades of experience, lie to a very ill child? What could possibly be her aim? The only thing to come of it is discord and mayhem, and doctors are in the business of healing. And it’s not a game, the pact between Xavier and Tommy. It’s a lifeline. It’s the hope that they will make it out of here and have the chance to duke it properly. …That Dakotah too will live and have the wherewithal to choose. It’s not a game.
So why had Meredith made it one?
They have just stepped off the elevator to the main floor when Nico’s proverbial hackles rise. There is a scent scuttling about, sour and on the verge of rancid like a slab of raw steak left out too long. The stench is not foreign—Nico has encountered before—but he can’t quite place it. Yet, his olfactory memory is setting off every internal alarm, so he keeps Levi behind him as he scans the hall.
“Dr. Kim?” Atkins asks mildly. “Is something the matter?”
Part of Nico wants to tell him and Hamilton to take Levi to the couple’s parents and as far away from this odor as possible, but the rest of him balks viciously at the mere thought of separation. So, he wraps his fingers around Levi’s wrist and pulls him impossibly closer.
“Nico, what’s asks wrong?” Levi whispers, laying his free hand on Nico’s elbow. “You—” Nose scrunching, he rears back in revilement and tries to heave Nico back with him. “We need to go. Now.”
It is not clear if he is talking to Nico or the Bonding Bureau agents because his wide hazel-blue eyes are focused ahead on a set of double doors that leads to a service hallway, one used almost exclusively by support staff and should be of no interest to anyone else. Yet, Levi never breaks his petrified stare as he pulls relentlessly on Nico’s arm.
Then, Nico hears it—the mechanic squeak of wheels—distant at first but increasingly louder. And the closer it gets, the strong that putrid smell grows. A growl reverberates deep in Nico’s chest, a quake stirring to life. Levi tugs again.
The doors open, gasping air as they unseal, and the stench rams into Nico and Levi like a sledgehammer. Levi, gagging, sways violently, a fall staved off by Nico’s steadying hand. Atkins and Hamilton snap to attention, their hands flying to holsters strapped to their hips.
“Let…let it go,” Levi pants into Nico’s shoulder. “Please…let it go.”
The stink pitches to a crescendo as a wheelchair rolls into view and then screeches to a cacophonic stop. Her hands gripping the wheelchair’s handles until their knuckles blanch bloodless white, Dr. Grey gawks at them, obviously at a loss for words. But Nico’s eyes are not on her. Rather, his vision is tunneling until all he sees is the wheelchair’s occupant, and while others may see a ghost of a man, blind and decimated, Nico sees something entirely different.
He sees a score to settle.
Chapter 19: What You Sow
If this rescue mission were a rare or complicated or newly innovated surgery, Meredith would have planned it expertly. There would have been weeks, if not months of research, an army of interns and residents wading through articles and trials and literature reviews at her behest. She would have spent every available minute in the lab, perfecting her technique until she could make every cut and every stitch dead in her sleep. She would’ve accounted for every possible complication and created a plan for each, plans she then would’ve practiced over and over. She would have pulled it all off flawlessly.
But this is not surgery, and her plan is slipshod at best, slapped together with tape and desperation. She uses what is immediately available to her, lovestruck and love-torn boys. Admittedly not her finest her moment—she does not enjoy playing with hearts, especially ones so young and fragile. Yet, she needs a distraction, and young love is volatile by its very nature, maybe subconsciously sensitive to its fate of ephemerality. She has no assurances that the dominoes will fall the way she needs them to when she approaches Tommy Anderson, only the knowledge that adolescent alphas’ fluctuating hormones make them prone to rage and poor judgment. Still, she tells the lie and knocks the first domino down.
Luck, chance, God or whatever you want to call it must have be on her side, because the chain of events unfolds exactly how she envisions: a fight breaks out down the hall from Andrew’s room, and in their rush to break it up, the officers miss Meredith’s dexterous fingers lifting handcuff keys from one of their persons. Freeing Andrew’s wrists, she allows herself to believe that success is in reach, a cancerous belief that only grows as she loads Andrew into a wheelchair and slips into a back hallway unnoticed.
They just have to get out of this hospital, she thinks. She just has to get Andrew out of here and then she can worry about what happens next. Get out, she tells herself. Get out, and then you can breathe. Then you can think.
But the cascade of dominoes shifts unexpectedly. A complication. A bleeder. A seizure. A heart arresting.
Nico Kim staring them down like a wolf with its next meal in its sights.
“Dr. Grey!” cries Schmitt. Wilted and panting, he is holding on tightly to Kim’s right arm. “What are you doing?”
“An excellent question,” a woman in a plain black suit notes. She removes her hand from her hip, and Meredith briefly glimpses a holster before the woman’s suit jacket falls neatly back into a place. “What are you doing with Dr. Deluca, Dr. Grey? Last I checked, he was under arrest for several serious felonies and in police custody. So, why is he here in your custody?”
“It’s best that you step away now, doctor,” a man in a matching suit advises. “You don’t want to get in the middle of what is about to happen.”
“Aren’t…aren’t you going to stop him?” Meredith half-shouts.
“No,” the woman-in-black responds easily. “Interfering with a mating is a crime, and the law is quite clear—whatever comeuppance Dr. Kim decides to deliver is well within his right.”
“And if you stand in the way,” her partner adds, “then I’m afraid you too will be deserving of whatever you get.”
“That—that is senseless!” Meredith decries as she rounds the wheelchair, planting herself between Kim and Andrew.
“What made you think sense was ever a part of this equation?” the woman-in-black quips.
“Whose senseless decision put us in this predicament?” Her brown eyes are calm, neither judgmental nor accusatory, but Meredith would prefer that they were, because judgment and accusation she can dismiss and dispute. Fact and observation, however, just are.
“…Then blame me,” Meredith replies. “He wouldn’t be here if not for me. So blame me, not him. Blame—”
Andrew’s voice is lifeless. Resigned. She spins around, and his lips, chapped and cracked, are the only part of him that move.
“Walk away,” he whispers. “Walk away, Meredith.”
Andrew is cognizant that something is wrong with him. He had been flying so high yesterday, so very high, and from his perch he had thought he could see it all—the problem, the solution, the grand design. But today, now, he is low. Low, low, low, and from down here, he, blind as a moonless night, can see the terrible mess he has made. Or, more accurately, he can smell it. Piquant, acrid fury. Sharp, acidic fear. He has made this mess. He has concocted this toxic perfume.
He, therefore, should be the only one to suffer the consequences.
No, never mind—that makes him sound noble, and wanting Meredith to get out of the way has nothing to do with nobility. Yes, it’s his fault. Yes, he is willing to take responsibility for his grievous errors, except…
Except he is not. Not really. He does not want to pay the true price—to face life as it now stands: Altered. Maimed. He cannot be who he was a day ago. That man, that burgeoning surgeon, is gone, and Andrew does not know who has been left in his place. And he does not want to find out.
If that life is over, what is left for Andrew to live?
“Please,” he tells Meredith.
Please get out of the way.
Please let Kim collect his due.
Please let me go.
Please don’t make me stay.
“Andrew,” she gasps, the soft syllables of his name somehow jagged and awkward in her mouth. “No, A—aagrh!”
The next sound Andrew hears is the clack of his own teeth crashing together as a fist slams into his jaw, and the world tips, going sideways as it is reduced to a deafening, apocalyptic ringing.
Nico is moving before Levi can fully register it, pulling free of Levi’s hold and rushing forward. He pushes Dr. Grey out of his path like a storm wind sweeping away a crisp, dead autumn leaf and, in one-two step, plows his fist into Deluca’s face. Under the force, Deluca’s body tilts backward into gravity’s grasp, and the wheelchair goes down with him as he quasi-backflips out of it. The clatter of body and steel colliding with the floor wrecks Levi’s nerves more savagely than glass shattering. And the way Nico is stalking toward Deluca’s limp form makes it clear he is just getting warmed up.
For a moment, the air thickens to molasses, and everyone and everything is moving at a snail’s pace. Hamilton and Atkins stepping back. Dr. Grey steadying herself against a wall. Deluca’s chest rising and falling. Nico winding up another punch.
How Levi manages to fight through the density and the heaviness he cannot say. All he knows is that he does, his limbs propelling him at neck-break speed, and once he reaches Nico, he darts into the alpha’s path and hurdles himself into his chest. He flings out his arms and clings to Nico’s brick hard back. He holds him, and he holds tight.
“Nico,” he whispers breathlessly into his mate’s warm flesh. “Nico, I know you, and this isn’t you. You don’t want to hurt people. You don’t. I remember how it almost destroyed you—being responsible for someone’s death—and I don’t want to see you like that. I don’t want you to suffer. So, Nico, please, come back to you. Come back to me. Come back to us.”
Unsure if he is being heard, Levi holds on. He holds on and tugs hard on that inner cord, the one that is anchored deep inside him and binds him to something greater, that makes him greater than just himself.
He holds. He pulls. He prays he gets through.
The haze fades like night shrinking back into the horizon, and blue rushes in, Levi’s eyes brightening at how Nico’s refocus. Slowly, his fingers uncurl from a fist and settle on the small of Levi’s back. Lowering his nose into Levi’s hair, he takes in a long breath and holds Levi’s scent, sweet and woody, in his lungs for a moment.
“Here I am,” he says on the exhale. “I’m back.” Levi’s eyes start to water as the omega nods and then nuzzles Nico’s scrubs, burying his face in the navy blue to hide the coming tears.
Glancing up, Nico stares at Deluca, who groans a low, broken whine like a felled tree collapsing alone in the woods.
“It’ll be better for everyone,” Nico drawls, “if we never so much as get a whiff of you again.” Then he gathers Levi up, hooking an arm beneath his knees and lifting, and strides away in the opposite direction.
Chapter 20: Paying Your Dues
Of all the times that Nico has imagined introducing Levi into his parents, he had never envisioned his mother’s actual reaction. Laying eyes on Levi cradled in her son’s arms, Sara flies into her military mode, the one she reverts to when she believes the peons need to be marshalled.
“For heaven’s sake, Nico, put him down,” she orders. “You’re probably making him nauseous. James, get Levi some water—bottle and purified, no tap. And find food that can actually pass for nutrition, not that slop they are serving in the cafeteria. Something light, dear, and easy on stomach.”
Blinking, Nico hugs Levi a little closer to his chest. Either he is dreaming, or bodysnatchers are a real thing, and one has taken up residence in his mother’s body. It must be the latter, given how she frowns at his stillness and snaps her fingers.
“Nico, put my son-in-law down. You cannot jostle him about like a sack of potatoes in his condition.”
“Mom, conception just happened,” Nico sighs, suddenly feeling as if he were seventeen and being told off for coming home five minutes after curfew. And like she did when he was seventeen, his mother shoots him a cool glare of disdain, one that leaves no room for patronizing.
“Which one of us carried and birthed a child again?” she drawls. Silence is Nico’s only answer, and his mother clucks her tongue as she deliberately eyes a cushioned chair. Begrudgingly, Nico walks to it and lowers Levi down into its soft, cornflower blue seat. They are in a room that is usually the domain of the counseling and social work staff, and its colors reflect it, cool blues, gentle greens, and warm creams from carpet to ceiling. There is no pressured, clinical air here, only light, refreshing serenity, and Levi takes to it like a fish to water as he visibly relaxes into the plush cotton padding. Myrna, who has been lying in wait in Sara’s shadow, swoops in to look Levi over with worried hands.
“Are you all right, honey?” she asks anxiously, stroking her son’s cheeks. “That other doctor, Deluca, he didn’t hurt you, did he?” Sighing, Levi shakes his head.
“No, Mom,” he assures. “He couldn’t hurt an ant in his condition.”
“Well, he certainly found his way out of bed in his condition,” Sara snips. Unabashed, she glares at Atkins and Hamilton, who have yet to venture a foot from the doorway. “We were told not to worry about him because he was so unwell, and yet he gets into spitting distance of our sons? How did that happen?”
“He had help, ma’am,” Hamilton answers bluntly.
“Well, is this ‘help’ facing consequences? Last I checked, aiding and abetting a criminal is a crime.”
Levi startles, half-leaping out of his seat before his mother catches him by the shoulders and encourages him to sit back down.
“Dr. Grey didn’t mean to hurt anyone!” he cries. Nico presses his lips together and rests a hand on the back of the chair.
“I have already been responsible for Dr. Grey nearly losing her license once!” Levi insists. “I can’t be again. I can’t have people looking at me like that again.”
“Dr. Grey is responsible for Dr. Grey nearly losing her license,” Nico disputes delicately, crouching down onto his haunches. “Whatever happens to her now is her fault, not yours.”
“Nico’s right, sweetheart,” Myrna agrees as she pats Levi’s knee. Her eyes meet Nico’s, and an understanding is reached. Nico is well aware that Myrna has laid the blame for the recent schism from her son at his feet, and he is not entirely certain that she has completely let go of her grievances. But here, Levi between them, they silently vow to work together to protect the one they love above all others.
“Let’s rewind,” Sara says, holding out her hands, fingers spread and gold nails posed to strike. “This doctor, Dr. Grey, was in serious enough trouble for her license to be in question, and she still works here?”
“Technically, she was fired,” Levi amends, swallowing. “She was re-hired after the Medical Board decided not to pull her license. She’s an amazing surgeon, Mrs. Kim. All she wants to do is help people, and that’s what she was doing when I reported what I thought was a mistake to the Chief. I didn’t realize Dr. Grey was trying to make sure a little girl got the treatment she needed—”
“One, dear,” Sara cuts in, though not unkindly, “you’re carrying my grandchild, so I think it is perfectly all right for you to call me ‘Sara.’ Second, I’m sure you’ve heard the saying about what the road to hell is paid with. Dr. Grey may very well have meant well—she might have even done some good—but if the ethics of her actions were so dubious that her colleagues debated whether the risk she posed to the profession of medicine outweighed the value she brought to it, that’s a problem. And a pattern, it seems, if today is anything to go by.”
Methodically, she folds her arms and strums the nails of her right hand against her left forearm. Oh no. Nico knows that gesture. Even as a young boy, he knew that move signaled that his mother was about to make a lot of grown men cry. When he got older, he grasped that the move more specifically meant that someone was about to lose a great deal—a great deal—of money.
“Mom,” Nico sighs, standing. “No. You can’t blame the hospital for what one person did.”
“When the hospital was very much aware of that one person’s poor decision making? Of course I can and will. They’ve acknowledged their culpability already by agreeing to pay for damages. I’m sure they know that sum will have to increase considerably now.”
Nico slaps his forehead and drags his palm down over his face. Five minutes into their first conversation in months, and she’s already steamrolling him.
“No one asked you to do that!” he snaps. Sara blinks incredulously.
“No one had to,” she replies. “This hospital allowed their staff, your coworkers, to take advantage of you and your mate when you were in the one of the most vulnerable states a person can be in. They have to answer for that, Nico. Plus, it is not just you anymore—you have a partner and a child on the way. There will be a proper wedding, a new home, and not mention all the things a baby needs. Levi is still early in his career, and he’ll have a hard enough time being an intern and growing a human being. You are the alpha. It is your duty to provide.”
“I can take care of my family just fine, Mother,” Nico hisses, his tone on the verge of alpha deep. “Every dime we take from the hospital is money that could be going to help someone.”
His mother uncrosses her arms but does not back down.
“You are someone, son,” she says evenly. “You and your mate—you are someone that the hospital should have helped and didn’t. Yes, money does not make up for that failure, but losing it will remind them how costly mistakes like that are.”
She sounds sincere, but the anger and pain that has stewed and simmered within him for decades is about to boil over. Too late, that softening timbre and earnest look in her eye. It all feels a little too late. His fists clench, and his lips part.
“Nico.” Levi’s voice is a breeze that shepherds away the brooding clouds of Nico’s fury. Rising out of the chair, he unfurls one of Nico’s fists and threads their fingers together. “She was worried about you…about us. She just wants to help.” His hazel-blue eyes shift brightly to Sara.
“Thank for looking out for us,” he, smiling, tells her. “But taking care of us isn’t just on Nico. You called me his partner, and you’re right—I am his partner. We’ll take care of our family together.”
Sara stares at him, her face completely bare of confidence or judgment, and it’s a new look for her. She actually resembles more of a human to Nico. Levi has somehow made his mother more human.
Just when Nico thinks he can’t possibly fall deeper for this man beside him, he does.
Grey is not happy to see her, but Natalie is too smug to care. In Bailey’s office, they take up opposite ends of the room, Grey sitting in front of the Chief’s desk like a sulky student waiting on the principal and Natalie leaning against the wall beside the doorway like a pervy voyeur waiting on the show to start.
“Do you really have to be here?” Grey deadpans. “I promise Bailey will chew me up enough for the both of you.”
“I know she will,” Natalie purrs, “and I am going to enjoy every minute of it. And you know why? Because an hour ago, I had this mess cleaned up, as in could-eat-off-the-floor cleaned up. Then you come along, riding your high horse and letting it crap everywhere. Ever cleaned up horse shit, doctor? It’s unpleasant.”
Grey glances away from her and stares ahead at a point on the wall.
“If you are waiting on an apology—”
“Oh please,” Natalie snorts. “I don’t expect you to say ‘sorry’ anymore than I expect you to get fired today, however much you so deserve to be. You’ll squeak by, like you always do, one way or another. But this time? This time, you’ve finally crossed the wrong person.
“Schmitt and Kim will understand what I did was not about them,” Grey maintains. She sits tall, like a noblewoman willingly laying herself upon the altar, and damn if that doesn’t touch all the wrong nerves.
“They might hero-worship you, but their parents sure don’t, and Mrs. Kim didn’t come to control a good chunk of the money flowing in and out of the New York stock exchange because she plays softball. I hope you built your house out of brick, Dr. Grey, because the wolf is about to come a’ blowin’.”
“Money isn’t everything!” Grey cries, spinning around in her chair. Her gaze is wild, burning blue. “And it certainly isn’t what matters in the end. That’s people. People matter most, and I couldn’t just sit back and watch one of the people who matter most to me lose everything.”
“And who do you think matters most to the Kims and Mrs. Schmitt?” Natalie poses. “Does it ever cross your mind, doctor, that, every now and then, you might be wrong or that your brilliant brain doesn’t hold all the answers? I’ve heard surgeons have God complexes, but Jesus, did you really forget that you’re mortal like the rest of us? And if you think that your stunts cost this hospital only money, you’re not only mortal, you’re mortally naïve.”
Grey’s stare only hardens, but she says nothing as the door swings open. Her scowl murderous, Bailey marches in, and Beckham settles into her front row seat.
The definition of insanity, as so often repeated, is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Does that mean, then, that Miranda is certifiably insane? She has been in this position too many times—staring down Meredith Grey from a seat of severe disapproval, the wreckage of Meredith’s latest brazen whim strewn between them. Shouldn’t she know better by now? Why is she even surprised? This is not new. They have been here so many times before.
Too many times before.
“Did you even have a plan?” Miranda asks, her voice suddenly exhausted and bereft of the rage and resentment curdling within. “If you had made out it of here with Deluca, what were you doing to do? Grab the kids and abscond to Canada?”
Meredith has the gall to look indignant.
“Bailey—” Miranda holds up a singular finger.
“Since I phrased that as a question, I can see how you might have misconstrued that as an invitation to speak—it was not. This is not a conversation. ‘Conversation’ implies that I care about what you have to say for yourself. I do not. This? This is me outlining the stupidity of your actions.”
Meredith shifts in her seat and opens her mouth again but clamps it shut when Miranda slaps her with an eviscerating glare.
“Let’s say you did get out of this hospital,” Miranda continues, “you wouldn’t have made it very far. There are cameras all over this hospital. Your great escape attempt was recorded from multiple angles. The police and FBI would have tracked you down before the change of shift. But, for fits and giggles, let’s say that you did manage to get away free and clear. How were you going to help Deluca in his state? You’re not a psychiatrist or a counselor. As a fugitive, you wouldn’t even be able to write a prescription that could be filled anywhere. You would have set him up to fall down in an even deeper spiral with no safety net waiting to catch him.”
“He shouldn’t lose his freedom!” Meredith blurts out. “He’s not in his right mind! He didn’t mean to hurt anyone!” A dry, crackling laugh erupts from Miranda’s throat, and, throwing her head back, she searches the ceiling tiles for any modicum of sense.
“If he is not in his right mind, how can he adequately process the effects of his actions? When people prove themselves a danger to themselves and others, they lose the right to absolute freedom, because that ends where the right to safety begins.”
Miranda sighs as her gaze drops back down to her colleague, once a favored and promising student.
“You enticed two very sick underage patients to fight,” she says with foreboding calmness, “in order to kidnap a third, mentally unstable patient from police custody, thereby putting him right in the crosshairs of the newly mated alpha he had assaulted hours prior. Kim could have killed Deluca. He could’ve literally ripped him limb from limb, and while he would have been well within in his legal right, he almost certainly would have been left with deep emotional scars that Grey Sloan would have had to compensate for.”
“So it really all does come down to the money,” Meredith snorts, shaking her head. Nostrils flaring, Miranda stands and presses her curled fists against her desk until they bear all of her weight.
“I wish this was just about money,” she hisses. “Lost money can be made back. We can tighten our belts and wait it out until our financial fortunes turn. But it wasn’t just millions of dollars we would have used for research and treatment that you set on fire, Dr. Grey. It was also this hospital’s credibility and reputation. And I am not talking about the same kind of PR cherry bomb that was your delightful ‘Hospital Hell’ list. I am talking about a slow, painful death by exsanguination.”
Finally, Meredith’s pompous, porcelain veneer cracks.
“I…I don’t understand.”
“No? Oh, then allow me to explain. After you executed your horribly stupid idea of a grand rescue, the Bonding Bureau is now of the opinion that Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital maybe can’t be trusted to treat the most vulnerable patients. They are considering shutting down the OB and pediatric departments. We currently banned for treating any patients that have a condition remotely related to pairing, mating, or sexual reproduction, and that ban might become permanent, depending on the outcome off the Bureau’s investigation.”
Meredith shrinks into her seat.
“What do you think,” Miranda forges on, “will happen when that information gets out? I’ll tell you—people are going to wonder themselves, ‘If Grey Sloan can’t be trusted to treat babies or pregnant persons or pairs or mates, can they be trusted to treat anyone? If the very famous face of the hospital can’t be trusted, can any of its doctors be trusted?’”
“Bailey, I’m sorry—”
“I don’t want your apologies, Meredith.” Miranda sits down and eases back against her chair. “I’ve heard them before, and yet here are, having a conversation that I’m very tired of having. So, no, I don’t want your sorry’s. I want you to hand in your badge, gather your personal effects, and leave.”
Meredith blinks while, behind her, Beckham perks up like a well-watered wallflower.
“You’re firing me? Again?”
“Officially, you’re suspended without pay until the Bonding Bureau decides if they will allow you within a hundred years of the campus. But they are also requiring us to report you to the licensing board again. And the police want a word with you. I’m just spit-balling, but I think they are little ticked off about the whole absconding with their suspect thing. Oh, and if I were you, I would be taking a good look at my malpractice insurance policy, because Dr. Kim’s mother is a corporate shark, and she smells the bloodbath coming on. So, no, you’re not fired—yet—but I wouldn’t bank on you stepping foot in this hospital again anytime soon.”
Meredith’s face goes placid. If she is angry, saddened, or dumbfounded, Miranda couldn’t tell you, and she doesn’t care.
“That is all, Dr. Grey,” Miranda announces. Without a further comment, Meredith stands and exits, her stride steady and swift. Once she is gone, Beckham grins.
“Well I’ll be damn,” she purrs.
“Don’t,” Miranda warns, swiveling away. “It’s been a long couple of days. We don’t need to top it off with you telling me ‘I told you so.’”
“I wasn’t planning to say that,” Beckham quips as she reaches for the door handle. “Mostly because I thought it was already implied.”
“So, you weren’t okay,” Taryn says to Levi instead of ‘hello.’ “You were super, debilitatingly horny.”
“Nice to see you too,” Levi replies, smiling sheepishly. They are standing in the lobby near the glass sliding doors, through which Levi can see twilight lavender seeping into the sky. They are both in their street clothes, Levi preparing to depart, Taryn arriving for the night shift. Chuckling, she smiles back at him.
“Thanks.” He shuffles his feet and glances away. “Taryn…about Dr. Grey, I didn’t want that to happen, her getting suspended. I asked the BB agents to take it back, but—”
“Schmitt,” Taryn cuts off good-naturedly, “that’s not on you. The first time wasn’t on you either. I know that now. Let Dr. Grey worry about Dr. Grey. You have bigger, better concerns.” She looks pointedly at his stomach, and he can’t help but to press his palm against his abdomen. Can the new life inside him feel him just as Levi can feel them?
“Let us get a couple things straight, though,” Taryn says, switching her hips. “One, he might be your mate, but don’t think I’m suddenly going to start liking Kim again. He’s got a lot to make up for as far as I’m concerned.” Pursing her lips, she glances sideways at Nico, who is attempting to herd his parents out of the door first to ensure they don’t pounce on Bailey and the board again. His mother, however, has the will of cement and has yet to give up an inch. “Two, I’m the kid’s godmother.”
“Like hell you are.” Jo, still in her scrubs, plants herself between Levi and Taryn and crosses her arms. “Schmitt’s my roommate, and I outrank you.”
“You can’t pull rank for godmother status,” Taryn refutes. “Schmitt was my friend before he was yours. And you have only been shacking up for, like, a month, and the only place he’s going to be sleeping now is Kim’s bed.”
“Eww,” Jo groans, wincing. “I don’t need that image in my head. It’s bad enough that all anyone can talk about is them bang—”
“Okay!” Levi interrupts loudly, holding his hands up in surrender. “You can both be god parents. Just, please, wait until after I leave to…gossip.”
“Oooh, if you think you’re getting out of this without earning new nickname,” Jo says, grinning devilishly, “you are sadly mistaken. I just haven’t thought of it.”
“Hot Stuff?” Taryn offers. Jo shakes her head.
“No, too cliché. Superfreak?”
“Nah, it’s too judge-y. Hmm, oh—what about Catnip?” Jo puckers her lips in consideration.
“…I like it. Cute, to the point, clearly references his irresistibility. Catnip it is.”
“What’s this about catnip?”
Nico wraps his arm around Levi’s waist and pulls him in. Levi laughs nervously and pats Nico’s chest.
“Nothing,” he replies quickly. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” Nico confirms. “I had to promise my mom that we’d have dinner together, and I can guarantee you that at that dinner we will be bombarded with a list of acceptable baby names and a portfolio of reasonably priced houses.”
“We will deal with that when we get there,” Levi murmurs. “Right now, I just want to go home.” Nico smiles that smile that makes Levi’s knees go loose and gooey.
“Okay, let’s go home.”
Waving goodbye to Jo and Taryn, he and Nico walk out into the cool evening air, joined hand-in-hand, their new life spread open before them.
Thanks so much for reading everyone! I am kicking around an idea for a sequel that would focus on Levi's pregnancy as well as Meredith and Andrew facing the full brunt of the consequences of their actions, but I am working out the exact plot, so please stayed tuned. Thanks again!