Brendon finds the cywolf behind the dumpster at the back of the college conservatory. He doesn't know how far it's been dragging itself, but there's a silver-flecked blood smear across the rough concrete, disappearing into the dirt. That's what catches Brendon's eye. He's ready to dismiss it as unspecified dumpster muck when he sees the small jerk of movement.
The wolf's hind leg is shaking and twitching, muscle spasm or just pain, even though it's clearly trying to lie as still and quiet as possible. The cybernetic webbing is torn away over its stomach, razer-toothed muzzle clamped tight against lupine whimpers. There's also something wrong with one of its rear legs, and the barcode over its neck has been ripped away, leaving metal and furred skin torn behind it.
The wolf lifts its head, pleading deep in its brown eyes.
"Holy shit," Brendon whispers. He hunkers down, closer to eye level with the monster. "You're not even supposed to exist. The military said they wiped the entire program. No more cywolves in the world."
The wolf whines.
Brendon bites his lip. He reaches out, infinitely careful, to touch the monster's ears, tensed for the moment it snaps and rips his hand clean off. Instead it shudders, a deep ripple through the fur over its neck, and pushes more insistently into Brendon's hand. Then it shudders more deeply and jerks away, yelping with pain as its back arches and stretches. The yelp changes halfway through the stretch, becoming a hoarse human sound of pain, and Brendon falls back onto his heels.
Not a cywolf.
"Not a cywolf," Brendon says, needing to say it out loud. "Not a ... fuck, you're a..." He trails off, because he has nothing.
"Person," the slumped figure whispers. His voice comes out rusty. He's naked, and some shocked and displaced part of Brendon notices that he's fucking hot, even in this tired huddle, but it's still the cybernetic parts that draw the attention. The torn netting wound looks even worse on a smooth masculine chest than it did on the wolf. The guy lifts his head, his eyes meeting Brendon's. He looks exhausted. But there's also something like hope in his gaze.
"Shit," Brendon whispers. He reaches out despite himself, touching the guy's hair as light as he can, just to be entirely sure the guy's real. It makes him lean into Brendon again, but he flinches backward a second later, and Brendon bites his lip. "What happened to you?" he asks.
The guy shakes his head, hunching in smaller on himself. The curve of his back highlights the stark line of his spine, and Brendon can just about count his ribs. He's too thin. He looks almost ragged around the edges, like he's slowly but surely wearing himself out. Brendon swallows around the lump in his throat. He looks around himself, wondering if there's anyone nearby who can help, if this is the kind of thing he should ask people for help with.
Start small, he thinks. He tries to manoeuvre himself around so he can look the guy in the face, meet his gaze and smile, try and be friendly.
"I'm Brendon," he says. "Do you have a name?"
The guy's first attempt to answer comes out rough and too quiet for Brendon to catch. He leans in a little closer, and the guy clears his throat. "It's Jon."
"Okay," Brendon says. He draws in a deep breath, and tries to sound calm and reassuring, and not as frightened as he feels. "Jon, you want to maybe come home with me? It's – I'm a science student, so I'm not totally incapable, and. My house is nicer than the dumpster."
"Science?" Jon looks so tired. Brendon thinks: Food, and then maybe a bath or a shower or a sponge down, at the very least, and then bed. The list is a start.
"Yup." Brendon smiles brightly at him, leaving out the part where he hasn't picked a major yet, doesn't seem to be able to focus on any one thing long enough to be more than talented, to be actually good. Jon just drops his head again, looking resigned and a little lost.
"All right, then," he says.
"Okay." Brendon breathes in. "I'm going to just go and – see if I can find you something to wear, okay? My house is a couple of blocks, and." He makes a meaningless gesture and stands up, resisting the urge to pet Jon's hair again, some last reassuring touch. Instead he sets off at a jog for one of the back entrances to the med college, the next block down. There's a lot of students at this time of day, hurrying all over the place, and it's not hard for Brendon to slip in unnoticed and steal a set of scrubs. There isn't anything with long sleeves that he can find, so after a second's thought he takes off his hoodie and carries it all back to the dumpsters.
Jon hasn't moved from the spot since Brendon left him. He's curled in on himself a little tighter, his hair falling across the asphalt. Brendon wipes his nose on his sleeve, sniffing furiously. There's no need to get all stupid. He just has to keep his head.
"Hey," he says. "Jon, hey."
Jon rolls up to his knees, whip-sharp motion, and for a moment he looks deadly, the weapon that he is. Then he hisses in pain and folds at the waist, pressing a hand over the silver wound there.
Brendon takes a second to get his breath back, then drops to his knees beside Jon.
"Sorry," Jon mutters.
"Hey, no big," Brendon says lightly. "People rear up to attack all the time when they see me. I try not to take it personally."
A smile curls the edges of Jon's mouth, his eyes warm where they flick to Brendon. Brendon, a little dazed, takes a moment to realise what prompted it. Person, Jon said before, and Brendon just included him in that category.
In any case, the smile disappears when Brendon starts to help him into the scrubs. The shirt collar drags over the sluggishly bleeding mess he (and Brendon's sure it was Jon himself who made that particular wound) has made of the back of his neck, and the elastic waist of the pants cuts into the wound on his stomach. Brendon doesn't want to add yet more layers, but the back of his neck is clearly visible, and the silver strips along his inner arms can't help catching the eye. Jon doesn't object to shrugging into the hoodie.
He can't stand on the damaged leg, but when Brendon gets an arm under his shoulder, he proves that he can stumble along.
"Okay," Brendon says, out of breath. "It's..." He thinks about it. "About a thirty minute walk, at the pace we're going to make, and it will probably be best if you pretend to be ... um, drunk. That's the least conspicuous way to stagger around on a college campus. Can you ... are you going to make it?"
Jon shoots him a look, and Brendon's startled to realised that he's amused, even though he's clearly in even more pain after all that than when Brendon first found him. "There was a certain amount of endurance training in my education," is all he says.
Brendon nods, and doesn't know what to think.
"You can't –" Jon says, as they set out. "You can't tell anyone about me." His head is hanging down, his breathing laboured, and he sounds oddly defeated; as though he doesn't expect Brendon to keep his word about this.
"I know," Brendon says quickly. He doesn't, really: he has no idea at all how hunted an escaped military creature which is supposed to have been wiped out – or to never have existed at all – could be. He's not prepared. He doesn't know what he's doing.
Jon smiles again, quick on a pained out-breath. His body is hot and cold, flesh and cybernetics, where it presses against Brendon's side, and his arm is a heavy warm weight over Brendon's shoulder. He stumbles, and his hand clutches Brendon's shoulder. It's a grip like a vice, fingers reinforced with alloys never found in the human body, and he's a monster, Brendon knows he's a monster. He gasps in pain, and Jon immediately loosens his grip. Brendon sways in closer, trying to give him more support. Monsters are people too, he thinks absurdly, like a kids' picture book, and he nearly giggles.
"You're good at this," he huffs out instead, talking at random. "This walking thing." They go up a short flight of steps, Jon's breath tight and controlled against Brendon's neck. "You could totally be a professional walker, dude."
"Maybe I will," Jon says, his voice slurring with pain. "People need surnames as well as first names, right?"
There's a whole sheaf of unsaid information in that, and Brendon's heart feels funny. He clears his throat. "Yeah, totally. Totally classy choice."
They have to skip out of the way quickly to avoid a guy hurtling by on a bicycle, and Jon breathes in sharply. "Sorry," Brendon says. "You okay?"
"Yup," Jon says, but he leans on Brendon a little heavier. Brendon almost stumbles, but he manages to keep them upright and sets his gaze on the corner, pushing forward doggedly. Jon lists to the side suddenly, and when Brendon makes a startled noise, he says, "Sorry, I. My leg's a bit off."
Brendon notices for the first time how badly Jon's limping. It's stupid, he should have realised earlier, but there's been a lot of other stuff to pay attention to. Now, he peers down at Jon's ankle, and swallows hard, because it doesn't look torn or bloody or swollen – it looks dented, the silver strip there bending in.
"Okay," Brendon says. "It's okay, I can fix it."
Jon tilts his head up and looks at Brendon, and when he smiles it is entirely without amusement or gladness.
"Great," he says.
It's slow progress, and by the time they finally reach Brendon's tiny flat it's getting dark. Brendon helps Jon lean against the wall while he fumbles with his keys, taking a few tries to fit the right one into the lock. His hands are shaking. It's the cold.
"Let me just check if my roommate's home," Brendon says. Jon's obscured enough by the dark and the corner he's leaning in, and Brendon goes through the flat as quickly as he can, calling out Spencer's name. It's not that he thinks Spencer will do anything stupid, exactly, but possibly he requires just a little notice before Brendon brings in a monster that technically doesn't exist.
Spencer's not home, though, and Brendon goes and fetches Jon, helps Jon over the doorstep and inside. Jon's head is hanging low.
Brendon's changed his mind: food isn't first, Jon looks like he just needs to lie down forever, and for things to stop hurting. He doesn't look like he can stand up on his own in the shower, so Brendon lowers him to a kitchen chair and runs through to the bathroom, filling a bowl with warm water and grabbing a clean cloth. Then he pulls the first aid kit out of the medicine cabinet. He's pretty sure Spencer keeps it well stocked.
When he gets back to the kitchen Jon's back is bowed, his shaggy fringe hanging over his eyes. Brendon touches his shoulder, and Jon jerks up. Brendon shows him the two white pills in his palm.
Jon shoots a quick glance at Brendon's face, then down, his gaze going dull.
"They're painkillers," Brendon says. "I don't know if – if they're safe for you? I don't know anything about cy– about your biology."
"No, thank you," Jon says. His fists are clenching on his knees.
"Oh," Brendon says. "Okay, I guess that's fair enough." Jon looks like he's in a lot of pain, but Brendon can't blame him for not wanting to risk messing with his body any more. When Brendon puts the two pills down on the table, within Jon's reach if he changes his mind, Jon's gaze flickers sideways as though they're something horrifying.
"But it means cleaning your cuts is going to hurt more," Brendon says quietly.
Jon looks up. "My – oh. Of course. Sterilisation."
Brendon's awful at fixing wounds. His fingers shake as he washes the dried blood and grime from the back of Jon's neck and applies antiseptic cream and a plaster. Jon hisses whenever Brendon's hands get clumsy, but doesn't jerk away.
The wound on his stomach, when Jon, his eyes directed away, helps Brendon pull his borrowed shirt and hoodie up out of the way, isn't quite as bad as it looked earlier. It's big but shallow, and the worst of it seems to be the way the metallic webbing is torn away. Brendon isn't sure if that part is essential to Jon's body or if it's part of his armoury as a living weapon. Either way, he can't do anything about it without more research, so he sponges away the blood and torn silver and binds Jon's stomach around tightly with bandages, keeping the netting in place.
Jon's face is nearly white by the end of this, and he's swaying in his chair, but the injured leg is the worst of all. Brendon nearly passes out when he washes the area and gets his first proper look. The silver there is misshapen and bent inwards, digging cruelly at the sensitive flesh of Jon's calf, and the skin around is bluish and unhealthy, a corrosive build up of something black and flaking hugging the damaged silver strip.
"It's not ... as bad as it looks," Jon mumbles, not looking. "It's supposed to change when I change."
Brendon's supposes this means the silver is supposed to be flexible in some way, but it looks and feels as unyielding as steel when he traces his fingers over it. Jon makes a soft sound in his throat, almost a whine, and Brendon moves his hand quickly. The only thing he can do right now is first aid, so he sponges what he can of the corrosive blackness away and bandages the leg up, burying the hurt under layers of clean white.
When he stands up again, Brendon feels wrung out, his legs unsteady under him. "Can I, is there something you want to eat? I can cook, or, like –"
"It's okay," Jon says. His words slur with tiredness, and he's not looking up. "You don't need to."
"I don't mind," Brendon says anxiously. "But if you just want to sleep..."
Jon blinks once, and does look at him. The corner of his mouth turns up a little bitterly. "Yes," he says. "Thank you."
Brendon helps Jon into his bedroom. He changed the sheets a day or two ago, he's fairly sure, and he's not even positive that Jon would notice if he hadn't. He pulls back the covers and Jon practically falls onto them, shucking off his hoodie and then lying very still, like he's waiting for something.
"Well," Brendon says, feeling vaguely awkward. "Goodnight."
He closes the door behind him. The last thing he sees is Jon's face registering surprise in the dark.
Brendon spends most of the evening looking up everything he can in his textbooks about cybernetic enhancements and their effects on human biology. Most of the information is not good. The immune system will recognise an outside material trying to adapt to the basic organism, one writer informs Brendon cheerily, and immediately reject it, often at the expense of its own cells, leaving the body unable to function, and the nervous systems rundown and exhausted. Brendon's starting to think the guy asleep in his bed is not only monstrous but impossible; it's all too easy to see why the military discontinued the cywolf project, and that was only an animal program.
He doesn't know how Jon is real.
Brendon eases the bedroom door open, half-expecting Jon's military instincts to make him spring out of bed, but the shape on the bed doesn't move. Brendon moves closer and sees that he's transformed back into wolf form, curled around himself on the covers, head tucked beneath his silver-brushed tail in the darkness.
Brendon backs out of the room. He falls asleep on the couch without meaning to sometime before Spencer gets home, head lolling back against the armrest.
He wakes up with a blanket draped over him, which he supposes means Spencer's back. There's a quiet shuffling noise in the kitchen, and Brendon rubs his eyes, wondering if he can talk Spencer into making him breakfast. His neck aches, and he sits up and rolls his shoulders, groaning.
The shuffling in the kitchen stops. Brendon suddenly remembers the other person in the house, and stands up.
Jon has come to the kitchen doorway, leaning heavily against the frame. In the light of morning, and with his eyes a little more alert, it's more obvious than ever how handsome he is, and Brendon swallows, drags his eyes away from Jon's lean chest and shoulders, trying not to focus too much on his mouth. He's pretty sure that's a monumentally stupid idea.
"Hey," he says. "How are you feeling?" Jon still looks pretty beaten up, but Brendon thinks the rest has done him some good. He's moving around on his own, at least.
"Where's your lab?" Jon asks.
Brendon blinks. "I don't have one."
"You're a scientist."
"A student," Brendon corrects. "A science student. I'm not really much of anything."
Jon is staring at him like Brendon's the impossible thing.
"Are you hungry?" Brendon asks. "We can have some breakfast, if you like."
Jon licks his lips. He looks around the cluttered room, eyes lingering on the wide windows letting in the first sunshine of the day. There's a bird singing outside. Jon looks startled, and a little wondering.
"No lab," Jon says.
"Sorry," Brendon says. "I have some fresh bandages, if you need them. You might want to have a shower first."
Jon still doesn't answer.
"I mean," Brendon says, nervous and babbling, "we're going to need to work out a way to get you real medical help without your ... without whoever's looking for you catching on, and there'll probably be a million other things to work out, and I don't even know if you want to stay or if you have some kind of bigger plan, or people to go to, or ... I can help you get where you need to go, if you want? Or you can stay here, I mean." He cuts off, forcing himself to stop talking.
Jon breathes in. Then he smiles. "Breakfast sounds good."
"Oh," Brendon says. He stares at Jon for a moment, at the easy smile belied by his dark eyes, something hurt but hopeful far back in his gaze. Brendon shivers, his heart doing something strange again, and wonders if he's getting himself into more trouble than harbouring a lethal shapechanging cywolf and defying the military and the government.
He clears his throat. "Okay, then." He nods and starts towards the kitchen. Jon slumps back against the wall a little more, letting Brendon pass.
"Staying here sounds good too," Jon adds, so quiet that Brendon almost doesn't catch it. He glances sideways to the careful look Jon's giving him, a light flush on his drawn face. Brendon can't help his smile.