The first time Yixing had ever laid eyes on wolves was in Tianshan Zoo one blustery day in February when he was seven. While he saw the beauty in the other creatures like the Lions and Tigers, he even found excitement in seeing the grazing herbivores that roamed the safari style park, but the wolves were unsettling. It wasn’t until years later that Yixing worked out why he had felt that way about coming face-to-face with one of the wild’s most majestic assets; they appeared to belong in that ever so slightly mountainous terrain that they were enclosed in. A tiger stood out amongst the dull shrubbery and the vibrant oranges of its fur only seemed to worsen that fact, the black stripes doing no favours on the pallid ground. The bear appeared more at home but the forlorn look of longing for the wild made Yixing think of the plushies he had lined across his bed when he was that age. The wolves, however, looked as though they could melt and evaporate into the habitat with no words whispered. They looked smart, calculating and hungry.
Yixing had felt threatened by the way the pack seemed to stare at him through the windows of the hire car his parents had rented for their weekend break, they constantly appeared to be prowling and baying for blood. It drove a stab of discomfort right through Yixing’s young stomach and that inherent wariness stuck with him. Even as he travelled, he constantly looked over his shoulder while walking through British moorland during a year of foreign study, despite knowing that the last wild wolf was killed in the seventeenth century. Something about open, cold and rugged terrain made him fear the furred beasts and that increased tenfold amongst the company of twenty-foot fir trees. Everywhere could be a wolf’s home, Yixing had later been told. Yet, he always felt hunted; as if there were glowing amber eyes on his skin almost every moment he was out in the open.
His fear was a constant pressure in the back of his mind for years to come. Any time he left the safety of the city confines, he felt those piercing and savage eyes lingering on his flesh. It was no wonder that Yixing’s venturing to the North Western areas of China were constantly limited to areas of large populous and he always steered clear of forests; most of the time his fear was unwarranted but it was always better to err on the side of caution in Yixing’s mind. During a road trip made by his friends, Yixing opted to leave to return back to Changsha on his own, driving the long stretch to his home early because his friends were wanting to go hiking through the forests and mountains while they were in the cold North.
He must have only driven a hundred miles before the engine of his car gave out; the thundering splutters shuddered through Yixing’s body but seeing his surroundings, thicket that rose well above his own height, mountains creating a jaw around him and trees lining every plane of sight, he didn’t dare leave his car. Not even in broad daylight, he decided that waiting the day or two for his friends to pass by was the better option than being left on his own to the company of wolves.
However, the third night of shivering and sleeplessness stayed until Yixing was close to collapsing with exhaustion. The darkness stayed, it stuck itself to his eyes for what felt like hours, until he felt the locked car door by his side give way to biting cold. The blisteringly icy wind gnawed at his body and his eyes couldn’t focus on anything as they opened in their hazy, glazed state. He knew he was being lifted, removed from the sanctuary of his vehicle and taken somewhere through the brambled barbs at the side of the road, they caught on his clothing, on his skin until blood bubbled up, but he was too transfixed with the bare warmth that came with the contact of the person holding him close.
He should have heard the nearing howls, the deep barks of feral animalistic excitement and the presence of all seeing eyes. Wolves were near yet his mind told him to get closer to the source of warmth, he had no adrenaline to give him the sense of flight he always had around forests of such depth. Yixing didn’t even flinch when warmly wet noses pressed into his benumbed limbs nor when larger than human tongues moved across his somehow bare flesh to thaw him from his rigidly frozen form. He was placed amongst fur, the roaring heat that flowed through his blood as a consequence let him fall into a slumber filled with the images of wolves tenderly taking care of somebody who had flesh pinked with cold and hair matted from days worth of grease. He was not frightened of the wolves that invaded his sleeping hours, no they only brought comfort and everything else he had been vying for when his car had come to a sudden halt. They were not crying out for blood, they whimpered somberly at the form’s weakness and treated the human as one of their own; a packmate.
Yixing roused from his deep, calming sleep still surrounded by the bodies of numerous different beings, the fur throws that draped over his skin heaved with his breathing and there was no way on earth he wanted to shift out of his spot. There was a boldness to the heat, one that even tasted of warmth and Yixing hadn’t even minded the musky scent that each of the throws seemed to be embedded with. He pressed his face into the one closest to him, only for the throw to release a deep, rumbling whine and Yixing’s disorientated brain locked onto the fact that no human could ever make that sound. He sprung up, his eyes opening to see the canine lifeforms scattered around him, circling him like male Emperor Penguins did in the winter months, and a silent scream left his dehydration cracked lips. He felt the tight flesh split open as his jaw dropped and he ignored that sensation in favour of scrambling to his feet. He did not care if he woke the wolves at that point, he just needed out of that cave-like den. Yixing ran out, leaving behind the animals in favour of the open forest一he didn’t care for his destination, as long as it was no longer with the beasts he had slept between一and he began to run. His bare feet beat down on the cold ground, the echoes off the trees leaving him vulnerable to tracking but he did not care.
“Stop,” a scratchy, human voice cried out behind him.
He skidded to a halt, seeing somebody completely unshielded by clothing running fast behind him. His nakedness should have rung bells in Yixing’s head but he needed any kind of human interaction that he could possibly have to shake the haunting presence of wolves.
“Help me,” Yixing’s words cracked and faded to nothing as his throat dried up, his body quaking in the cold as he, too, was just as bare as the man before him, “Please, help me.”
The man stepped forward, holding his hand out and something within Yixing told him to trust it, to take the hand and let it lead him anywhere it wanted. So he tread the space between them, uncaring of the dulled voice in his head reminding him not to trust the stranger in the forest and he only let that subconscious thought scream out when he recognised the mouth of the cave he had dashed so powerfully from. He could see the large forms of pack wolves looking out at him from the slit between the rocks. Yixing tried to yank his grip from the man’s as he guided him through to where he had slept and was met with both animal and human eyes under the greying dusky light.
He struggled, his muscles squirmed to free themselves but the man holding him was unaffected by such actions; he just took Yixing closer to where a fire had begun to burn and the goldening forms that were roasting above it. He could feel his mouth water at the smell, the little fluid he had left in his body rushed to lubricate his mouth in hopes that his ravenous hunger would be sated by the cooking meat that could fill his stomach. The man urged him to sit with a powerful push to his shoulders and Yixing knew every form, man or beast, were beginning to bore holes into his body. He did not feel the cold in the cave and it reminded him of how comfortably he had slept while wolves flanked him in every direction.
The man holding him let go of his hand. Yixing considered running, of taking flight through from whence he had come but a quick look over his shoulder showed the opening to the cave to be guarded by wolves speckled with grey. He was handed meat on a skewer and hastily took a bite一he knew he should have been more wary but his hunger had made him somehow more trusting, he craved to be cared for when his stomach was empty and his body devoid of nutrients一he could feel the juices of cooked meat flow down to his chin as he devoured the small body of whatever he had been given. Yixing did not care that he was tearing chunks with his teeth, as if he himself were a wolf.
One look at the man who had guided him only showed him an expression of awe. Yixing still didn’t stop his rapacious ripping of animal meat until he felt the meat push at the sides of his stomach lining, he fully halted from his carnivorous actions as he felt full, leaving the small carcass in front of him and the man who had brought him back to his naturally formed prison threw the remnants of the animal to the wolves who were waiting by the cave mouth. Yixing waited as the wolf-man and the other humans in the cave sat opposite him, the three sets of their eyes dug into his irises and he felt stripped of the glaze that guarded his soul. It was intense as the four humans stared unwaveringly at one another, it managed to make him feel like a vague connection was being formed between the them all like an invisible tether.
“What do you want with me?” He asked, his voice shaky but less dry after being licked with the juices from the animal he had been given to feast upon.
“To protect you,” the man who had led him through the forest, sat between the two smaller men, spoke. His features, sharp and handsome, contrasted the deep but soothing vibrations of his words.
“But there are wolves,” Yixing dumbly pointed out, which managed to make the men around him laugh shortly.
“There are always wolves,” a shorter, paler man smiled. “We’re all wolves.”
Yixing’s heart finally began to pump adrenaline through his body but that probing sense of calm in his brain quelled it to a vague fizz in his blood, rather than the explosion it should have been.
“We’re a pack,” the man in the middle explained, as if that was going to settle Yixing’s fears. “We will never bring harm to you, we wish to protect you and give you a home.”
“But I have a home,” was Yixing’s automatic response.
“Forget about it,” the third man spoke softly, his small hand reaching out towards the newcomer with a tentative sway. “We will be your home now.”
“But there are wolves,” Yixing began again, which had the motioning man standing in his naked glory and there was a deep grumble from within him, one which Yixing knew was not a natural humanoid sound. With cracks, stretched snaps and growls, the man in front of him was no longer a man but a wolf.
Yixing barely felt it as his eyes rolled back and his head hit the ground.
There was a vivid sense of Déjà vu and Vuja de when his eyes fluttered open again, though this time there were weighted objects on his stomach, pressing his lungs down to where he had to breathe deeply. He opened his eyes, his gaze settling on three sleeping cubs that were no longer than a forearm; their fluff was dark and ruffled as their paws twitched with dreams of hunting. Yixing could feel the coldness within him drip into a melted puddle within him just watching the tiny beasts in their most vulnerable state.
“They were worried about you getting cold,” Yixing recognised the speaker as the tall man who had brought him back to the wolves. “Night is coming soon.”
Yixing looked around at the cave, surprised by the emptiness of it and he looked expectantly at the wolf-man.
“The prey is returning, they’ve gone hunting,” he clarified, “I am protecting you and the cubs.”
“Are you like…?”
“I can become a wolf, yes,” the man sat down, delicately lifting one of the pups from Yixing and placing it on his own lap. The small animal wriggled for a while, trying to escape from the tall man until he sniffed in his sleep, then he relaxed into the touch of the man. “We’re not werewolves though, we’re shifters.”
Yixing didn’t know the difference, he did not care at that point. His head ached with the information that there were actually people in the world who could turn themselves into animals and that those animals could be wolves. Yixing verged upon a breakdown, his whole body tired and confused by everything he had heard and there was nothing he wanted more than to be able to let himself settle into his own bed at home. He longed to wake up from what he was certain was a dream, to jolt awake from his nightmare and be told that there were no such thing as ‘shifters’.
“I want to go home,” he muttered, his huffed breath waking one of the cubs on his stomach only for it to fall back to sleep again.
“This is your home,” the man was equally as weak in his way of speaking as Yixing was, making his eyes flood with tears and for his heart to feel hollowed out.
“No, it isn’t. I don’t want to be here,” he whimpered, his eyes closing as tears pushed their way out. “I want to go back to Changsha, back to my parents and back to my friends.”
“You cannot,” the man whispered. “You’re to live here with us now.”
Yixing’s body shuddered, all of his emotions leaving him with the saline water that fell easily down his cheeks and he crumpled down on the small creatures that had shifted onto his lap with surprised yips. The human didn’t even have a chance to wipe his own face before there were two small tongues lapping up the wetness there, their ever so soft tongues laved at his skin, tickling it until he let out small chortles between his sobs.
“Please don’t cry,” the man said, the three cubs whining in agreement and the one which had been on the shifter’s lap plodded over to Yixing’s with his head bowed. “They’ve grow attached to you since you came here.”
“It’s only been a day,” Yixing sighed, his hiccuped breath staggering the words.
“You were asleep for almost three days, only waking to feed every so often,” the man informed him, leaving Yixing’s mouth to hang open in shock as he looked up at the other. “You were exhausted and sick, the whole pack were worried.”
Yixing didn’t respond, he didn’t want to, everything was choking him up inside一the sense of attachment the creatures seemed to have with him, the fact he was cared for by wolves and the soft words from the harsh looking man一he felt uncoordinated. His whole world had shifted axis and he knew his friends would have driven past his abandoned car already, he could imagine their worried calls and police reports. There were going to be people searching for him, high and low, until the case was left open and cold or closed with a body found with no means of identification.
“I really can’t go home?” Yixing cringed away from the words as they formed in his mouth.
“No,” the man’s honesty was striking, almost comforting, “You’re considered one of us now.”
“How?” Yixing’s frustration kindled in his fingertips after the momentary reprieve of settling.
“You’re special,” the man shrugged.
“How?” Yixing repeated, firmer and more confidently.
“You’re my mate,” Yixing wasn’t an idiot. He had read his fair share of werewolf fiction, most of them involving a protagonist and a sense of unconditional love; Yixing felt like a cliche trope. “An alpha’s mate cannot leave the pack, not even for a day, once they’re found. Otherwise the balance and dynamic between the wolves is offset with a detrimental impact.”
“I can’t leave,” the words finally filtered into his brain, his tears returning anew with the freshness of devastation filling them. The pups, all the three, began to clean his face and Yixing could feel slight affection for them grow in the depths of his stomach.
“I’m so sorry,” the wolf-man apologised, taking Yixing by surprise. “If we did not need you so much already, I would have taken you back to your home as soon as I could but we all need you. We already love you so much that it hurts the pack to even go hunting without you.”
The wolf-man came closer, shutting out the gap between them and taking Yixing in his arms. The human wished his chest didn’t rage with happiness at the contact, he lied to himself that it was all because he needed some human contact under the weight of the world that had suddenly been pressed on his shoulders. He ignored that pressure in his head that told him that it was the mate thing the shifter had spoken of; he fought that idea with all his might, even though he knew it was futile. Apart of Yixing could already feel the connection he had with his home fading within him, it made everything so much more real.
“I’m Wu Yifan,” the wolf man whispered, “May I know your name?”
“Zhang Yixing,” everything that left his throat was a strangled, weak cry and the wolf-man held him closer.
“I’m sorry. I wish I could change fate for you.”
Yixing wished he could say it was okay, for some reason, as if the stranger was already under skin and filling his husked heart. But it wasn’t.
Nothing was okay.