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i walk through the valley of death

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Mingyu goes first. Joshua watches from the bars of his cage as one of his closest – only – friends is led away in unnecessary chains. The handlers are rougher with him than they are with any of the other omegas, yanking and shoving him along where they guide Jihoon and Minghao with patronizing coos and uncomfortably gentle hands on the smalls of their backs. Yet Minghao is the one that nearly broke one of the newer handlers’ arms and Jihoon is infamous for returning any and all kind words with venom. The exact opposite of what alphas want – that’s what the handlers say whenever one of the other omegas act out.

 Mingyu is, by nature, a ‘perfect’ omega, someone that the handlers usually parade around as proof that they’re selling quality stock. He’s soft, gentle, loves children and is the only one who has managed to befriend the dogs that patrol the warehouse at night. Joshua doesn’t think he’s ever heard Mingyu raise his voice in all the years he’s known him. Still, the handlers only see an omega taller than most alphas that needs to know his place, they’ll probably auction him off to the meanest alpha they can find so their regime of abuse continues.

It’s so stupid and backwards it makes Joshua sick. But what isn’t stupid and backwards about his situation? He’s a human being, every single omega in the warehouse is a human being, and they’re stuck in cage and auctioned off like property because of what’s between their legs and the sweet, powdery scent on their skin. It’s because of what’s between his legs that Mingyu is going to be sold to an alpha to be treated however the alpha sees fit.

The handlers always told him that they’d make sure his new alpha keeps him in line; Joshua can hear them telling Mingyu that he’ll need to be very, very good because they’re going to find an alpha that won’t tolerate his misbehavior. Joshua wants to scream. Mingyu is just clumsy, never allowed to get used to his long limbs because they didn’t want such a large omega wandering about and now he doesn’t know how to maneuver. Mingyu nearly trips over one of the chains, stumbling into one of the handlers that backhands him across the face as though Mingyu did it on purpose.

“You think that’s bad, omega,” the handler is in Mingyu’s face and the omega’s scent turns sour with fear, “just wait until your alpha gets ahold of you. You’ll learn how to be good then.”

There’s a quiet snap and then the handler screams. The idiot didn’t pay attention to where he was and hit Mingyu when he was within Minghao’s reach. Joshua remembers when Minghao taking revenge against the handlers used to make him sick to his stomach, before Mingyu came back one day with his torso layered with more bruises than any of them could count. Now, the handler was asking to have his fingers broken in Joshua’s opinion; he deserves that and more.

Mingyu scrambles back, cowering against Mark’s cage as the other omega tries to soothe him. “Fuckin’ new guy,” the other handler mutters as he coaxes Mingyu away from Mark. He’s been around for a lot longer than the other handler, one of the few that understand the danger lying behind Minghao’s deceptively sweet face. “Go get your fingers taken care of and don’t hit the fuckin’ omegas again, not in the face and especially not when that one can see you.” Joshua can’t see it, but he knows Minghao is smiling in his cage.

The other handler leaves, cursing and cradling his broken hand. Joshua doesn’t feel an ounce of pity for him, but he feels an immeasurable sadness watching Mingyu disappear out the big door leading to the auction room. Omegas never come back once they go through those doors. Joshua will likely never see Mingyu again, both of them lost in a world dominated by alphas.  Joshua hasn’t prayed in years, faith a shriveled up thing sitting in his chest beside the person he used to be, but he prays right now. He prays as hard as he can that whoever buys Mingyu sees the omega and understands. And maybe he prays that after today, when he and Jihoon and Minghao and Mingyu are sold like cattle, they’ll all see each other again someday.

“Amen,” he whispers to no one but himself and God.

“Thought you didn’t pray anymore,” Jihoon stares at him curiously from his cage across the aisle. His tone is mocking but there’s warmth in his eyes and a rueful smile on his face. He’s been in the warehouse, this godawful system, longer than any of them, and he asserts that it’s turned his heart cold as ice, but Joshua watches his eyes dart to Mingyu’s old cage and fill with grief and something that neither of them acknowledge. “What’d ya pray for?”

“For Mingyu. And for all of us too.”

Jihoon looks up at the ceiling and chews on his bottom lip. If Joshua looks closely, he thinks he can see something shiny make its way down Jihoon’s cheeks, but he doesn’t want to look closely. The cages leave them always on display, open for observation at all times; Joshua wants to give Jihoon all the privacy he can as he grieves. “Whatever Joshua said,” Jihoon breathes out after a moment, “All of that – please... Amen, amen, amen.”

“Bidding’s already over for Mingyu,” the omegas closest to the door shout. It always goes quiet in the warehouse after an omega is taken away for bidding, partly out of respect and partly so that Zitao can hear what goes on in the auction room. The warehouse stays quiet now as the omegas whisper to their neighbors. Bidding never goes that fast, not unless things go poorly.

Joshua’s stomach drops and Minghao starts kicking at his cage door again, something he hasn’t done since the first birthday he spent in the warehouse. Bidding never goes that fast unless no one bids at all. Omegas that go through the doors to the auction house never come back, never. If no one bids, then the omega… Jihoon screams at the top of his lungs and Joshua feels like joining him.

Mingyu will be dead before the year is up, used and used until he’s gone in a brothel where no one will even deign him the kindness of burying his body. Some omegas make it out, run away to the few, few places that treat them like humans, but Mingyu won’t. Mingyu’s probably crying now, locked up and about to be branded as a whore. Joshua sees red. He wants to tear every handler apart until there’s nothing left for the police to salvage. Wants to throw the alphas who sentence them to die in the cages and see how they like it. Joshua doesn’t even realize he’s throwing himself into the bars of his cage until his head slams into the metal and he’s forced to stop.

“Listen,” someone whispers. The warehouse has gone quiet again, save for Minghao’s sobs and the soft clang as he kicks weakly against the door of his cage. For all that Joshua cared for Mingyu, Minghao was his best friend. Joshua can’t even begin to imagine the pain rattling around the other omega’s chest.

Crackles from the rarely used loudspeaker. Joshua can’t actually remember the last time it was used. It’s connected to the room where newly purchased omegas are branded to show that they’re owned. Joshua remembers the first time he heard another omega receive a brand. The scream made him so nauseous he actually threw up. No one’s ever figured out when or why it gets turned on, but the sound of it gives Joshua something he hasn’t felt in a long, long time. It’s a strange, foreign sensation, but Joshua thinks it’s hope.

“Jeon Wonwoo, paying for omega Mingyu.”

Joshua feels all the air rush out of him in a sob of relief. Mingyu’s not going to a brothel. It doesn’t mean he’s going to a good home, but he’s not going to a fucking brothel.

“That’s a lot of money to be paying for an omega like him. You sure you don’t want a refund so you can get a good one?”

“I don’t believe I asked for your opinion. If you don’t want the money I’d be more than happy to take Mingyu home for free.”

“Oh – uh, no no no. So sorry, Mr. Jeon. You’re right, it’s not my place to question you.  I’ll take the check and here are Mingyu’s papers. Just sign the red lines and initial the green ones. You can also specify what you’d like the brand to be. Some alphas just want their name, others want their phone number as well in case the omega gets lost-”

“No brand. We’ll be picking up a collar on the way home. Start thinking of your favorite color, Mingyu.”

“Mr. Jeon, we highly recommend that he is branded. Many omegas are fine with just a collar, but he is one of the few that need to be branded to know their place. Just look at the size of him!”

“Excuse me? I fail to see how his height correlates with his personality. And I don’t enjoy repeating myself, but I will just this once: I don’t believe I asked for your opinion. The only opinions that matter are mine and my omega’s and I have already made my stance clear. Mingyu, do you want the collar or the brand?”

“Oh my God,” Jihoon looks up to the ceiling like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.” Joshua feels that hope fill his entire chest. Mingyu is safe. He’s safer than any omega Joshua’s ever met. This alpha, deep-voiced and scary as he is, understands.

Joshua sends a thankful prayer, thanks every angel he can remember and even some he’s pretty sure he made up. One of them must’ve been listening when he prayed for Mingyu and so he thanks that one the most.

“Not the brand. Please not the brand. I-I’ll be good without it.”

“As I said before, no brand. Don’t try to argue with me about my omega again, understand? Is there anything else you need from me? No? Good. Now, Mingyu, what’s your favorite color?”

“Red. I-I like red.”

“Perfect… Where did you get that bruise on your cheek? Did someone hit you?”

The loudspeaker cuts off abruptly, but not before Joshua and every other omega in the warehouse hears how gentle Mingyu’s alpha is. Joshua’s heard alphas be domineering and rough when they posture and fight for their spot as top alpha, heard them sickly sweet as they try to make the omegas do what they want with false niceties and care, but he’s never heard that kind of genuine softness before. Mingyu’s alpha actually cared about what the omega wanted, took Mingyu’s word above another alpha’s.

“Joshua,” Minghao calls from further down the aisle, “Mingyu’s gonna be okay, isn’t he? That alpha’s gonna take good care of him, right?” His voice shakes, but there’s excitement in his tone, a bouncing rhythmic thing that makes the entire room buzz.

Jihoon answers for him, eyes alive in a way they haven’t been in so, so long, “Fuck, he’s gonna be okay. I didn’t know alphas could sound like they actually cared about anyone or anything. Your angels were listening for once, huh, ‘shua?”

Maybe, just maybe they are. The handlers come back in talking low under their breaths as they make their way to Minghao’s cage. There’s a new one to replace the one that hit Mingyu, another one that’s been since before Joshua showed up. They only bring out the best when it comes to Minghao. The back alleys of Haicheng left something feral and nasty deep, deep within his deceptively slight build; he nearly killed the handler that tried to strangle Jihoon for spitting in his face.

They’d all known he’d be up for bid tonight but it doesn’t make watching the handlers wrestle him out of his cage any easier. Joshua can’t watch, turns his face away and decides to give his timidly blooming faith another chance. He’s not even praying for anything in particular, just prays and prays and prays as the handlers drag Minghao out of the warehouse. Angry, caustic Mandarin bounces off the walls just before the door to the auction rooms slams shut.

“Amen.” Joshua startles to hear Jihoon’s voice right along with his own. The other omega must’ve watched Minghao get dragged out the whole way, made sure that the Chinese boy knew he wouldn’t be forgotten. The most Jihoon can do in return for saving his life.

“Maybe they’ll get lucky,” Joshua says, “Minghao and Mingyu, maybe their alphas will be friends.” The most anyone can hope for when it comes to the warehouse. That’s all Joshua can really hope for, that he’ll be walking down the street one day, branded and collared like an animal, and he’ll see Mingyu across the road with the alpha that’s going to treat him so so well and know that there’s some sort of good left in the world.

They sit in silence for what feels like ages, waiting for someone to call out that the bidding for Minghao is over. Jihoon takes a deep breath, lets it out. His gaze flits around until it finally lands on Joshua. “When I go,” Joshua feels like someone else is in Jihoon’s body, using his mouth, voice soft and small, “will you… Will you say a prayer for me too?” Joshua nods. He was going to anyway.

“Bidding’s done for Minghao!”

The loudspeaker doesn’t come on for Minghao. Joshua and Jihoon sit in relative silence waiting for the crackle and buzz but time marches on. It isn’t until the handlers come back in that the pair accepts that they’ll never know what happened to him. Still, they know someone bought him, and that will have to be enough. It’s not, but it has to be.

The order for today was supposed to be Mingyu, Minghao, Jihoon, Joshua. Least to most ideal they said, working their way up. Except the handlers stop in front of Joshua’s cage while Jihoon watches on in horror. Jihoon isn’t made to be alone. He’s quiet and closed off but he’s not meant to be the last one left.

“Change of plans,” one of the handlers says as he steps back to give Joshua room to come out, “Bosses decided they wanted you to go first.” They don’t chain him like they did Mingyu and Minghao, he’s never given them a reason to. It would be so easy though, to grab the nearest handler and shove them headfirst into the bars of the cage. Joshua is good, obedient. It makes them lax and sloppy and the handler wouldn’t have time to react before he was knocked unconscious. But Joshua doesn’t.

They’ll blame Jihoon for encouraging rebellious behavior and take him away, bring him back with bruises and another ghost to haunt his dreams. They’ve done it before. Mingyu fell out of his cage once and gave a handler a concussion. The other handlers took Minghao away and brought him back two days later with a concussion so bad it took him another day to remember who Mingyu was.

So Joshua goes where the handlers direct him. He spares one glance back at Jihoon. The other omega is watching him, remembering him, and Joshua does the same. To remember and be remembered as a person, a right no one bothered to give them and so they took it back by force. Jihoon smiles, a soft, scared thing, and mouths a word. Amen. If he actually prayed or is just giving Joshua what comfort he has to offer, neither of them know. It makes Joshua’s feet feel a little less like cinder blocks though.

Six years Joshua’s been in the warehouse. He remembers being thirteen, small, scared, and so confused as to why his father had thrown a glass at the wall when he woke up smelling soft and sweet one morning, why his parents didn’t fight when the men in the black van grabbed him off the front lawn. Jihoon, twelve and well into his first year at the warehouse, taken early because a blood test for allergies had shown omega hormones already thrumming through his system, had come up to him the first day they were allowed outside. Joshua had been praying for his mother and father to come get him and Jihoon called him stupid, said that God didn’t exist and if he did he didn’t give a fuck about omegas. Then he sat down and kept anyone else from bothering Joshua’s prayers because they all need something to believe in.

He’s the closest friend Joshua will ever have. Joshua takes those memories, slowly coaching Minghao through English and Korean, watching Mingyu lose wrestling match after wrestling match to Jihoon, and locks them up tight next to the hope still fluttering in his chest for when he needs them.

Six years in the warehouse and that chapter of his life is closed in the time it takes for a door to swing closed. Joshua keeps walking down the terrifyingly well-lit hallway, eyes burning and unused to bright lights. Everything had been grey, brown, and black in the warehouse, he didn’t think the handlers were capable of withstanding such bright colors.

“This is your stop, kid.” Joshua comes to a halt in front of a big wooden door, cracked open to let the noise inside bounce around the hallway and back to the warehouse. His name comes through, his full name. Joshua Hong. He hasn’t heard his last name in six years; he almost didn’t recognize it. “Keep your eyes to the floor and don’t say a word.” One of the handlers pulls the door open and Joshua flinches back at the nauseating wave of alpha-scent.

How long has it been since he actually smelled an alpha? The handlers all douse themselves in suppressant, blank slates as far as scents and pheromones are concerned. His father and mother were alphas, but he can barely remember their voices, much less their scents. He’s so dizzy, nose burning and head swimming as he tries to process it all.

The handlers don’t care, just shove him forward with hands on his back. He stumbles, feet failing to cooperate, and nearly falls flat on his face. It’s a small miracle that he doesn’t crash headfirst into the podium at the front of the room. He feels like a newborn deer from the nature shows his mother used to watch with him, weak-legged and so shaky it wouldn’t take much more than strong breeze to knock him over. The handlers say the alphas like it when omegas are weak and vulnerable.

Joshua thinks any alpha who likes that should be taken out back and shot like a rabid dog. There’s nothing attractive about the terror festering in his stomach.

Joshua straightens up the second he gets his balance back and regrets it almost immediately. He’d been told to keep his head down, eyes to the floor, but it had sounded like more of the same endless stream about being a good, docile omega. Now he realizes it was for his own benefit. The handlers look at the omegas in the warehouse like a job – get in, get out, nothing to see here – but the alphas Joshua’s forced to stand in front of stare at him like a thing. There’s nothing but predation and cruelty in their eyes and Joshua wants to vomit. He might, if the mouth-breather up front doesn’t stop raking his eyes up and down Joshua’s body.

Almost all are men and almost all are sitting as far apart from each other as they can. There’s one woman in the front, the rarest of all the designations, but she has a look on her face that makes Joshua think she didn’t really understand what ‘omega auctions’ meant. She probably grew up sheltered, sickly from the moment she was born until puberty ended as her body adapted to its alpha genes. Joshua remembers learning that most of the few female alphas that are born die before they turn sixteen, the strain of repurposing and growing so many bodily structures too much for their bodies to handle.

If male omegas were like that too, maybe people would come to see them as people and not a mistake the species just can’t seem to erase. The lone female omega in the room, sitting primly in her alpha’s lap like a prize, watches him with disdain. She is the standard of normal human, a woman that can give birth, and she looks down him just like every other fucking person in the room. Joshua isn’t chained like Mingyu or Minghao were, he could rush down from this stupid little stage, drag her back to the warehouse, and show her the hell he went through for being born with a Y chromosome instead of an X.

But he doesn’t. This is not a life he would wish on anyone, even those who put will put him through it.

The auctioneer starts babbling about how good Joshua is, how obedient and docile. If he snarled and bared his teeth like the roaring in his head said to, would they still think that he’s the perfect omega? If he was just a few centimeters taller, would they start talking about how he’s a hard omega to handle?

No one pays attention to him unless it’s to take in the softness of his face or try to get a look at his ass. The auctioneer has too much to say about how the handlers hail him as an ideal omega to actually look at what they’re buying. Except for two. Two alphas are sitting off to the side of the room, sitting side-by-side when most of the others have at least a chair between them. Joshua watches them converse quietly. They’re in love, aren’t they? They have to be. The bigger alpha nods at something the alpha with long hair says and kisses his cheek. Something awful twists in Joshua’s gut and he forces his eyes down and away. It’s better not to look, better not to see something he’ll never have.

Bidding starts and Joshua doesn’t pay any attention. Hands are raised, the bid goes higher, and Joshua feels like an object.

“Sold!” Bidding stops.

The room is utterly silent for a moment after the auctioneer declares him bought and sold until two chairs scratch across the shiny white floor at once. Joshua looks up from where he’d trained his eyes to the floor. It’s like what he remembers of watching a television show. He’s not seeing the two alphas stand up together and walk towards him through his own eyes. He can’t be. Alphas don’t smile gentle and kind like in real life, just in the shows he watched as a child.

He looks away and wishes he hadn’t. Mouth-breather looks like he wants to eat him, anger furrowing his brow even as he pants at the gentle curves of Joshua’s body. The female alpha won’t look at him – he appreciates the semblance of privacy she tries to give him, but there’s none to be had when the female omega is giggling into her hand. Joshua always assumed he could handle this part, the heavy burden of knowledge that he’s been bought, but it’s so much worse than he ever imagined. This is what true humiliation feels like, isn’t it? Being stared at while everyone in the room knows he’s become what amounts to a very expensive pet. If he closes his eyes, maybe he won’t feel their eyes on him anymore.

The alpha with long hair reaches him first and stands so close Joshua can’t see the rest of the room, can’t see the other alphas staring after the pair with envy, staring at Joshua with horribly undisguised want. “Walk with me, out the door to the right. Seungcheol is right behind us. No one will stare at you anymore,” a hand on his back urges him forward but doesn’t push. The alpha at his side goes as slow as Joshua’s legs want to move. The walk feels like an eternity but can’t last more than a minute or two.

Jihoon’s name comes out of the auctioneer’s mouth and Joshua’s stomach drops. Jihoon is going to shut down, hide so far into himself that he’s never going to come out if he has to go through that. Then the door shuts behind him and that world is muted and dull. They keep walking, a hallway that leads to another door. He can smell Minghao and Mingyu in the air, full of anger and fear.

The next door thuds shut and Joshua can’t hear anything from before. Soundproof.

The bigger alpha – Seungcheol – brushes passed him once the door shuts, a gentle pat on the shoulder the only acknowledgement he gives Joshua at all. The other alpha just keeps guiding him forward like he doesn’t trust Joshua to move on his own. He’s right too, the hand between Joshua’s shoulder blades is the only thing giving him the motivation to walk. Joshua wants to go back to his cage because at least there he’s surrounded by people that see him as a human. His head is still spinning from the sudden influx of alpha smell. He feels vulnerable, like a mouse caught between the paws of a malevolent cat. It’s too out in the open here, nowhere small and safe for him to hide.

“Choi Seungcheol and Yoon Jeonghan, paying for omega Joshua.”

This where the omegas go. Mingyu and Minghao were standing here just minutes ago. Mingyu’s almost too sweet smell lingers on the wall; he learned long ago that he can make himself so much smaller if he curls up against the nearest wall. The handlers wouldn’t hit as hard when the omega made himself seem smaller. There’s no heavy, thick spice that tells him Minghao was here, but he had to have come through.

The handler behind the desk is the same one that brought Mingyu back with bruises and Minghao with the concussion. Joshua can still see his hands wrapped around Jihoon’s neck. Anger burns like acid in his mouth as Joshua imagines finding Mingyu’s alpha and letting him know exactly who is the cause for the scar on Mingyu’s belly.

“So, what do you two want on the brand? We can do one name on each collar bone, both names on one and phone numbers on the other,” the handler says it to Seungcheol and Jeonghan, but he’s staring right at Joshua when speaks. He’s the reason Joshua always listened. He couldn’t punish an omega that never misbehaved. Except Joshua’s going to be branded like cattle and this handler’s already eyeing his chest like he’s imagining what it’s going to be like. Joshua tries to back away but Jeonghan has him almost sandwiched between him and Seungcheol.

This is going to hurt. Joshua’s going to scream.

Seungcheol takes his wrist in hand, thumb rubbing circles on the bone, “That branding shit’s barbaric. We’re just getting a collar and that’s it. Joshua’s a fuckin’ human, not a piece of property.” The handler bares his teeth when Seungcheol looks away to talk more softly into Joshua’s ear, “You don’t have any reason to believe me, but you’re safe with us. Nothing’s gonna happen that you don’t want.”

“I really must insist that you have your omega branded. It’s our standard practice to make sure it is always returned to you in case of you lose it or it runs away.” Fake smile. Joshua knows fake smiles. This is a mean fake smile, the kind that the handlers always used when Jihoon told them to fuck off. When they can’t do anything but wish they could. This handler’s is convincing until it spreads to show just too many teeth.

“Are you questioning how we treat our omega?” Jeonghan’s mean fake smile is better. Better and much, much worse. The handler’s smile is a threat, Jeonghan’s is a promise. “The paperwork, if you don’t mind?” Their smiles straddle the line of baring teeth. The handler’s gaze flits to Joshua, a weak link, someone to bully into submission, but there isn’t time for much more than a flinch before the eye contact is broken. Seungcheol steps in front, blocks Joshua’s view. “I would suggest you not do that again,” Jeonghan’s voice drops to something just above a snarl, “Give me the paperwork before I am forced to contact your superiors.”

The superiors. Joshua knows of them in passing. They like order, for everyone to play the part they’re assigned. Handlers challenging the other alphas is not their part. When Chanyeol left, his alpha decided not to have him branded. The handler-in-charge disagreed, argued, and Chanyeol’s alpha told the superiors. Joshua never saw the handler-in-charge again. People crave attention, it’s how they’re wired, but no one craves the attention of the superiors.

Paperwork changes hands. The paperwork that makes Joshua something to be bought and sold. He hates it, wants to watch it – the whole fucking warehouse – go up in smoke, but he prefers it in Jeonghan’s hands. He’ll take the devils he doesn’t know over the demon behind the desk.

“C’mon,” a hand on his shoulder, Seungcheol smiling at him friendly and soft, “I’m sure you’d like to get out of here, huh?” The alpha motions towards the door marked with E-X-I-T. They’re going outside. Joshua nearly trips over his own feet in his haste, some awful desperate noise coming from the back of his throat. This is the real outside, without the walls taller than any one person can scale and handlers at every exit.

The door opens, forced open by Joshua throwing his entire – insubstantial – weight at it. He hasn’t been outside in months, handlers too worried about his first heat lingering on some vague horizon to risk letting any foreign substance trigger it before they can sell him. His eyes burn from the sunlight. God, it feels good.

Chapter Text

Blue. The house is dark blue. Every other house they’ve passed so far has been a white monstrosity the size of the warehouse. The house Seungcheol pulls into is blue and it looks like a real house, a house someone actually lives in. The house is dark blue and it matches the collar clasped around his neck; Joshua understands the look his alphas had shared back at the store now. They’d let him pick the collar, find one that didn’t chafe or itch. He wishes they hadn’t now. He feels like he’s taking part in his own destruction.

Seungcheol pulls the car into the garage like it’s a delicate carriage and not a metal machine built to hit over sixty kilometers an hour, eyes flickering between the windshield and the view he has of Joshua in the rearview mirror. Gratefulness grows right up next to hope in Joshua’s chest and promptly hides underneath the dizziness and nausea so he can’t snuff it out at the roots. Jeonghan had caught Joshua curling into himself in the backseat, fighting wave after wave of nausea, once they hit the highway and Seungcheol took the next exit, driving slow the rest of the way home. It was still too fast, too much motion for Joshua’s body to handle at once, but it didn’t have bile rising up his throat like the highway.

No one says anything when the car finally stops. No one’s said anything since the store, since the collar – blue and comfortable and sitting so low on his throat it’s almost a necklace. Joshua hates it. He’s not a fucking dog, despite how the saleswomen had cooed over him like he was a teacup poodle, and every minute shift of the fabric against his skin adds to the mass of sensations he can’t process. Too loud, too bright, too open, too many people. Joshua remembers being young and watching one of his neighbors bring home a new omega, how the boy had shivered and shook, eyes wide but unseeing as he was dragged inside.

Overstimulation, his mother had said, years locked in a cage left them helpless to all the sights and sounds of the outside world. She said it made the omegas ‘disconnect’, put them outside their bodies so that the alphas could get them settled in easier. It’s just another tactic to break omegas in, but Joshua had been too young to know that.

Still, he doesn’t ‘disconnect’. The collar keeps him grounded, a just-there pressure against his throat that reminds him he’s still got a body. He’s still a person. The world blurs in front of his eyes.

His car door opens. When did Seungcheol and Jeonghan get out of the car? “Joshua, do you need any help?” Joshua turns his head and there’s Seungcheol. “You’ve been out here for ten minutes. It’s okay if you need space, but it’s like below forty out and the garage doesn’t have any insulation.” Seungcheol gives an uncertain smile, voice pitching up at the end like it’s a joke. Joshua doesn’t get it.

Forty degrees. That’s cold. It explains why Joshua can’t seem to stop shivering.

Seungcheol’s smile drops into a frown and he reaches for Joshua, “I promise I’ll put you down as soon as I can, but your lips are turning blue. You need to be inside.”

Joshua’s muscles are spasming too hard for him to even attempt to fight Seungcheol when he worms his arms underneath the omega’s back and knees. He probably wouldn’t have been able to walk on his own anyway, not with how his legs are contracting and releasing so hard it’s almost painful.

“Fuck, they starved you. I don’t think you have any fat on you at all,” Seungcheol lifts him and he’s acutely aware of all the places his bones are jutting out and digging into the alpha’s arms. “We’re gonna have to get you a better coat, better meals too.” Joshua just shivers and lets his face press harder into Seungcheol’s shoulder. He’s so cold and Seungcheol is so warm, so, so warm. Fingers so warm Joshua can feel them through his clothes. Not that that means much, he’s been wearing this same outfit for so long that it’s threadbare and useless against the cold.

“Can you hold on to me? I have to open the door and I don’t want to drop you,” Seungcheol asks. “Just wrap your arms around my neck- okay that’s not going to work.” Joshua’s hands are shaking and his arms refuse to do much more than spasm. Not that he wants to hold on in the first place.

His brain feels like it’s split into two warring halves. He’s been starved of affection, of touch, for years and the warmth radiating off Seungcheol’s body is awakening a need to be held that Joshua’s never had to battle with before. It feels so good to be touched and soothed like this, the alpha’s fingertips rubbing circles into his skin. Joshua feels claustrophobic and boxed in like this, surrounded by Seungcheol’s smell and presence. He doesn’t trust these alphas, doesn’t trust anyone but the omegas at the warehouse. He wants to be put down. He wants Seungcheol to hold him closer.

Seungcheol keeps Joshua pressed to his chest with one arm, muscles shifting under Joshua’s cheek as the alpha opens the door to the inside of the house. A gust of warm air rushes out and his entire body shivers.

“Joshua, kick off your shoes for me? Jeonghan’s kinda anal about tracking dirt through the house.” Joshua startles. His name sounds weird coming from Seungcheol. He sounds nervous, like he’s not sure if he’s allowed to say it. Feels good to be called by his name and not omega, though. He manages to kick off his sandals after a few seconds of working through the lingering shiver. It’s winter and all the warehouse gave him were sandals, his toes are a little blue.

They’re in the house now and Joshua starts to shift in Seungcheol’s arms. He’s warming up and his body is starting to listen when he tells it to move and he wants to walk on his own. Seungcheol lets him move but keeps him secure as the alpha kicks off his own shoes. “I’ll put you down in just a second, I promise,” he says, “It’s just that the floor’s kinda cold and your feet are kind of freaking me out.” Seungcheol toes on his own slippers and shuffles further into the house, past the washer and dryer and big, pretty windows.

Joshua makes a soft noise when they pass what smells like the kitchen. He’s so hungry and the food smells so good. He got his meal yesterday, but it’s been hours past when he was supposed to eat and his body doesn’t have anything it can use to stave off the hunger. “C-can I… I’m-I’m hungry. I just, please,” he sounds plaintive, like a child, but hunger makes him stupid.

“I didn’t even think,” Seungcheol freezes in place and stares down at him with big, doe eyes, “Fuck fuck fuck, I should’ve known. You must be starving. Shit, I’m sorry, Joshua.”

“I’ve already got some of the soup your mother brought over heating up in the microwave,” Jeonghan comes from further down the hall, hair tied up in a ponytail and a smirk on his lips. “Cheol,” he asks, eyebrow climbing, “Why are you carrying him?”

“He was cold and shivering and I didn’t think his legs would hold him.”

Joshua is used to this, being talked about like he’s not here. It feels oddly comfortable. He knows how to handle this. People do not talk to him, they talk at him and he knows what to do then. There has been nothing in his life to prepare him for the way Seungcheol meets his eyes and asks how he’s doing, what he needs. He doesn’t know what to do when an alpha acts like they care.

“...Joshua? Are you alright?” Jeonghan is so close now. When did he get that close? He raises his hand and Joshua flinches when it comes near his face. Jeonghan has soft hands. His skin feels soft against Joshua’s forehead, at least. “No temperature. But you’re right, Cheollie, he is freezing. Is it alright if Seungcheol carries you to the kitchen? I’ve got food ready.”

Joshua says nothing and waits for Seungcheol to move. Food sounds good and warm food sounds even better. The handlers used to ask question like that. Is it alright if we hit Mingyu? Do you like being in the cage? Joshua would rather Jeonghan and Seungcheol be honest about their demands and orders but they are his alphas; it would be suicidal to challenge them. Jeonghan is still staring at him and his eyebrows are starting to pull together as he frowns. What did Joshua do wrong? He’s been quiet and pliant as expected.

“Do you speak Korean?” Joshua nods. “Did you understand what I asked?” Joshua nods again. The frown smooths out and Joshua relaxes as much as his muscles will allow. “Is it alright if Seungcheol carries you to the kitchen? You can walk if you want but the kitchen floor is tile and it’s freezing in the winter.”

They want an answer. Joshua panics. This is where omegas make mistakes. This when they get hurt. Will Seungcheol drop him if he says he wants to be put down? Joshua’s not ready to catch himself and even if he was, his leg muscles are worthless. Can they smell his fear now?

“How about this?” Seungcheol taps the side of his knee to get his attention. He’s smiling when Joshua looks up; Seungcheol smiles a lot. “I carry you to the kitchen and get you all settled and you walk on your own from there?” Joshua can handle that. No decision on his part, Seungcheol makes it up all on his own and all Joshua has to do is follow. He nods.

Jeonghan makes a noise like a growl and Joshua’s entire body seizes. He’s heard sounds like that before. Mingyu’s not here, he knows Mingyu isn’t here, but he waits for the sound of a fist on skin and Mingyu’s whimpered apologies for being too big, for taking up too much space.

God, he misses Mingyu so much. He misses Mingyu and Minghao and Jihoon. He knows Minghao and Mingyu went to homes but Joshua will never know what happened to Jihoon. Jihoon is so prone to anger when he’s scared, what if he lashed out in the auction room and none of the alpha’s decided he was worth it? What if one like the handlers did? Joshua’s only friends in the world are gone and he doesn’t know where they went. His face feels wet.

“Shit,” Jeonghan swears and Seungcheol gasps from above him. “I’m sorry, I won’t do that again. Please stop crying. I’m so sorry, Joshua.” Someone sounds like they’re choking, gasping for air around sobs. That’s him, isn’t it?

Joshua closes his eyes and sees Mingyu, smile bright even with the bruise high on his cheek bone. Opens them and sees Jeonghan; his lips are forming words Joshua can’t hear, blood rushing too loud in his ears. He closes his eyes again and sees Minghao sprawled on his back in the sun. Open. Seungcheol with big, worried, doe eyes. Closed. Those few seconds of Jihoon staring back at him from the cage, mouthing Amen.

He wants to pray. He wants to scream. Mostly, he wants to breathe.

“Breathe for me, Joshua, come on,” Seungcheol whispers from somewhere high above him. Joshua opens his eyes and sees nothing but fabric. It’s soft under his hands. It’s probably just as soft under his face but his tears have soaked it through. The pain has started to fade and he feels like he’s back together again. Held together with scotch tape and the will not to cry again, but together all the same. “Yeah, that’s perfect. Just keep breathing, you’re okay.” He’s not, he won’t ever be, but that’s not for Seungcheol to know. Where did Jeonghan go?

“Water,” Joshua croaks, “please.” Seungcheol’s presence disappears and there’s a thud and a yelp. He pushes himself upright and his eyes burn from the light of the fireplace. Joshua has vague memories off sitting with his mother in the winter, couch moved so that it’s right in front of the fire. This couch is more comfortable.

Seungcheol has heavy footsteps. Joshua can hear him thumping around the house. He turns when the footsteps get closer and sees a living room nicer than anything he’s ever had. Not anymore though. This is his now too, even if he feels like a guest that’s overstayed their welcome. Joshua sniffles. He should have asked for tissues.

Seungcheol appears around the corner with a box of tissues and a water bottle tucked under his arm. The alpha doesn’t join him on the couch like he expected, kneeling on the ground in front of him instead. Seungcheol presses the water bottle into Joshua’s hands and grabs a tissue to start cleaning up the remaining tears. “Sorry, so sorry,” Seungcheol mumbles when Joshua flinches.

Jeonghan has no qualms about sitting next to Joshua on the couch. Joshua finds he doesn’t mind when the alpha slides a bowl of soup into his lap. His stomach roars at the smell of food. “Have as much as you want, there’s always more food,” Jeonghan slides his long fingers into Joshua’s hair and combs through the tangles. “Let him blow his own nose, Seungcheol. He’s upset, not helpless.” More quietly, Jeonghan says, “I’m sorry I scared you, Joshua.”

Joshua doesn’t have the energy nor the will to tell Jeonghan that he isn’t the reason his hands are shaking so badly. Still, Jeonghan takes the water bottle when the tremors don’t let up and Joshua can’t open it on his own. Joshua downs the entire water bottle in one go once it’s handed back to him, chugging it like he’s dying of thirst. Seungcheol runs off with the used tissues and comes back with another water bottle, already opened.

Joshua doesn’t have the energy to be suspicious of the way Jeonghan and Seungcheol smile when he only drinks half of it and starts to eat. It’s good. Literally the best thing he’s eaten in years. He chokes it down as fast as he can until Seungcheol scoots up onto the couch next to him and places his hand over Joshua’s. “You’ll make yourself sick if you eat that fast. The food’s not going anywhere, I promise.” Seungcheol likes to make promises. Joshua wants to know if he’ll keep them. He slows down his eating anyway.

He’s almost finished when Jeonghan starts to shift next to him. They’ve been sitting in utter silence the entire time like Seungcheol and Jeonghan are waiting for him to finish. It makes his stomach twist in ways that are anything but pleasant. “Would you like to explore the house? Pick out your room?” Joshua nods. “I’d like to hear you say it. You can say yes or no to anything we ask you, Joshua.”

Seungcheol probably told him that Joshua asked for water earlier, and food before that. It’s so much harder to fake compliance when he has to verbally agree to everything. Not that he doesn’t not want to go explore the house. Picking out his own room sounds good, makes actual excitement bounce around his chest and wakes hope and faith back up. “Yes, I want to pick out my room.”

Jeonghan smiles. It’s much better than the too-many-teeth one from the warehouse. “Thank you. Do you want either of us to come with you? Or both?”

Joshua deflates. He wants, needs, space. He can’t tell them to leave; that’s asking to be slapped across the face. Alphas choose when they come and go, omegas adjust accordingly or face the consequences. He was the omega the handlers demonstrated that lesson on.

Jeonghan’s soft hands nudge at his elbow and force him to shove those thoughts away. “Let me be perfectly clear,” Jeonghan says, holding Joshua’s gaze no matter how hard he tries to break contact, “do not say that you want either of us to come with you unless you actually want it. This is for your comfort. And it is okay if you only want one of us to walk with you. You will not get in trouble no matter what you pick.”

“We promise!” Seungcheol laughs a little. Is he aware of how often he promises things? Jeonghan’s eyes turn fond and he reaches across Joshua to shove at the other alpha.

It’s stupid. It’s what got Minghao and Jihoon in so much trouble – and maybe that’s why he does it, to feel a little closer to them – but Joshua decides to test his alphas. They make promises that sounds too good to be true and take care of him like a precious thing. But all that glitters is not gold. Joshua wants honesty. “I want to be alone.”

He waits for a hit that never comes, eyes squeezed shut. When he opens them, Jeonghan and Seungcheol are watching him with half-sad smiles. “Sounds good, Joshua,” Seungcheol gently pats his knee, “Call if you need one of us for anything. My office is upstairs and Jeonghan’s studio is next to the kitchen if you want to check those out or change your mind about company.” The alphas stand in unison and Jeonghan pets his hand through Joshua’s hair one more time before they both walk away and leave him alone.

 “One more thing.” Joshua startles so hard he nearly knocks the bowl of soup out of his lap when something drops over his shoulders. A blanket. The softest blanket he’s ever felt. It’s scentless and Joshua rubs his face into the nearest patch of fabric he can as he marks it almost on instinct. Something that he can mark as his own. “Feel free to use any of the blankets in the house,” Jeonghan says from behind him, “We just thought you’d like some things that are yours.”

The floors are just as cold as Seungcheol and Jeonghan said. Joshua hisses at the shock when his feet touch the burning cold of the hall floor. He tries to walk on the ends of his blanket and shuffle to where he thinks the kitchen is but every move pulls the blanket off his shoulders. He’ll take cold feet over losing the warmth he’s trapped inside his blanket.

The kitchen is all black and white counters and appliances, too clean and pretty for Joshua’s hands. He keeps his head down, walks to the sink, and tries to ignore the shame that sits like lead in his stomach. Joshua is dirty, covered in grime and years of pain. He leaves behind oily fingerprints when he turns on the faucet.

“Don’t worry about it. We’re running the dishwasher later,” Jeonghan calls. Right. Seungcheol said his studio was next to the kitchen. Joshua fumbles the bowl into the sink with slippery fingers. He didn’t know how to work the sink or where the sponges and soap were anyway. At least the water on his hands when he turns the faucet off wipes away the fingerprints he left before. He wipes his hands on his ratty shirt and tugs his blanket tighter around himself.

He walks to the door to the garage first. It’s just a stretch of hallway and an alcove for laundry but Joshua walks it up and down. There are new slippers next to his sandals, his name written on a sticky note in big letters and stuck to one. He slips them on and walks back towards the living room a little faster without the cold of the floor seeping into his feet. Gratefulness peeks out from where it’d taken shelter and Joshua lets it roam around inside.

Joshua finds Jeonghan’s studio between the living room and the kitchen. The door had been closed when he walked by the first time. He stops in the hallway outside and takes in the parts of the room he can see. Equipment he doesn’t know the name of, big, painfully bright lights, and a camera hanging around Jeonghan’s neck. Jeonghan looks up when Joshua takes a step a closer to see the pictures on his computer screen. He smiles, then smiles wider when his gaze drops to the blanket, but makes no move to get up or invite Joshua inside. There’s an empty chair pulled up next to him, turned to face the door, it’s invitation enough.

“Thank you. For the slippers,” Joshua clarifies and sticks his foot out when Jeonghan tilts his head in confusion. Jeonghan has a nice smile and it gets nicer when it’s directed at him.

“Of course, I’m glad they fit. Your feet are smaller than mine and Cheol’s.” A lot of him is smaller than Jeonghan and Seungcheol.

Joshua walks away when Jeonghan looks back at the papers on his desk. They’re his papers, his picture from when he was thirteen attached to the front paper with a paperclip. He doesn’t want to know what’s in there. He’s more than his measurements and history of obedience. He can’t read very well anymore either; he wouldn’t be able to understand much of what’s written about him in the first place.

Past the living room is a staircase and the front door. It’s one of the pretty ones with the glass designs that make the outside world all swirly and distorted. The house across the street waves and bends like a snake when he rocks on his heels. The sunset makes the gray look even more strange in the kaleidoscopic glass.

Jeonghan coughs from the other room and Joshua turns away from the door and darts up the staircase as fast as he can. Embarrassment colors his cheeks pink and he pretends that he wasn’t utterly fascinated with a door.

Seungcheol’s office is at the top of the staircase. Did he see? No, he’s facing the windows and he’s too focused on the phone pressed to his ear to have noticed. “It was awful! One second he’s fine and the next he’s sobbing and nothing we did could calm him down. Well, maybe? Jeonghan growled at me cause I broke one of the rules you told us to follow and he got rea– Oh, fuck off, you didn’t see his face, he didn’t want to make the whole decision by himself! I know, Seungkwan, I proposed a compromise and asked if he liked it.”

Is Seungcheol talking about him?

“You can yell at me later, alright? Just let me actually get to what I called you for. Joshua called for people when he was crying, Mingyu and Minghao and Jihoon. I know two of them are other omegas and I’m like ninety-nine percent sure the last one is too. I was thinking that maybe it would make him feel more comfortable if we got them all together. Give him some kind of normalcy or whatever.” Someone screams on the other end of the phone and Joshua and Seungcheol jump in unison. The alpha holds the phone away from his ear and yells back, “Got it! Will do! I appreciate that you finally recognize my genius!”

Seungcheol knows where Mingyu and Minghao are? He’s going to bring them to Joshua? Or take Joshua to them? Joshua can’t swallow past the lump in his throat. Gratefulness and hope grow like weeds. He’ll be so good if Seungcheol and Jeonghan let him see Mingyu and Minghao. He’ll do anything they ask. It’s more than he had ever hoped for. Seeing them on the street is one thing, a pipe dream every omega in the warehouse entertains. But this is nothing short of a miracle. Whatever angel is watching over him, he thanks it over and over and over.

Joshua doesn’t move before Seungcheol ends the call and turns around. Alphas aren’t supposed to scream like that. Or stumble and trip over their chairs like that. Joshua promised he’d be good. He wants to see Mingyu and Minghao – and Jihoon, fuck please Jihoon too– so badly. But he laughs. Seungcheol fell over and screamed like a little girl and Joshua can’t stop laughing.

Seungcheol rushes to his feet and Joshua tries, he tries so hard to hide his smile because he can’t have his friends dangled on a string in front of him to only be ripped away. Laughing at an alpha, the omega that used to live across the street got hit for less. “Oh my fucking God,” Seungcheol whispers. Joshua keeps laughing. He wants to cry. He’s so fucking stupid; he’s never going to get see Mingyu and Minghao again and it’s all his fault.

“I made him laugh! Hannie, he’s smiling! Joshua’s smiling! All I had to do was trip over a chair and scream! No, no, keep laughing. I can fall over again, just give me a second.” Seungcheol throws himself over his chair again and Joshua just can’t stop laughing. He has to get away before he gets in trouble. He’s heard of it before, alphas goading their omegas into breaking a rule or misbehaving.

He sprints to one of the open doors and throws himself into the room, still laughing. Seungcheol calls for him to come back but he can’t. He’s going to get in trouble and lose Minghao and Mingyu. God, he just disobeyed a direct order. He presses his back to the door and lets the weight in his gut pull him to the ground. Doesn’t matter if Seungcheol was mad that he laughed or not; Seungcheol told him to come back and he ran. He’s in so much trouble.

Seungcheol carried him so easily. How hard will he hit? Will he go easy because it’s Joshua’s first punishment? Some alphas do, but some like to stop disobedience before it becomes a problem. Hopefully he’ll take off the wedding ring first, or Joshua’s going to be sliced to pieces.

Joshua shoves his head between his knees and tries to breath like Chanyeol taught him. Count to four, inhale. Count to four, exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Soft knocks on the door, “Joshua? You okay in there?” Joshua keeps breathing. It’s all he can do. “I’m sorry if I scared you. Or made you upset or something. I thought it was good to see you smile. You have a really nice smile. Did you know that? You probably do, it’s your face,” Seungcheol rambles. There’s dead air between each sentence like he’s waiting for Joshua to speak. Joshua can’t speak. He needs to know how mad Seungcheol is. The door handle jiggles and Joshua’s heart beats rabbit quick in his chest; he feels like prey.

“Joshua,” Seungcheol sighs, “I’m not mad, I promise. I like it when you laugh. Do it as much as you want. Just – just let me know you’re okay.”

He’s not mad. Seungcheol’s not mad. Joshua might still get to see Minghao and Mingyu. “‘m not in trouble?”

There’s a thump outside the door, like Seungcheol dropped down to the floor. “No, no, of course not. You’re not in trouble at all. You’re in the exact opposite of trouble, anti-trouble. Oh – hey, honey, yeah he’s okay. Just got scared, I think. You’re right… we’ll be downstairs if you need us, okay, Joshua? Just call.” Slow, reluctant footsteps back down the hall. And then Joshua is utterly alone, separated from everyone else by a staircase and a door.

At least he’s not in trouble. Joshua’s head thunks back against the door; he feels all loose-limbed without the tension in his bones. Seungcheol doesn’t get mad easy, does he? Joshua won’t test how far his patience goes. If he’s good, he’ll never have to worry about it anyway.

The world is calm, quiet, good. Or maybe it’s just his head. He’s not in trouble, he’s been good. It makes him feel like he’s floating somewhere outside his body. The handlers said that’s how omegas are supposed to feel when they’re good. How much of it is real and how much of it they put in his head, he’ll never know. Joshua opens his eyes and the bright light burns, pulls him back down to his body.

Windows. God, these windows. Or window, it’s just one big half-circle window. He can see the sky from here, sunset pink and unending. It can show him everything, can’t it? Joshua crawls over to the window, pushes himself to his feet, and stares.

He can see everything. He’s never been able to see this much, not since before he turned thirteen. He can see the house across the street. It looks prettier now that it’s not warped and twisty from the front door. Joshua likes his blue house but the gray is pretty too. He can see beyond the house across the street to the other cul-de-sac. He can see the snow on the ground, the snowmen in his front yard. Will Seungcheol and Jeonghan let him make snowmen if he’s good? He used to be really good at it, made the best snowmen in the world, or that’s what his mom said.

The sky grows darker and darker. The moon peeks up at him from the horizon. Joshua waves. He doesn’t know why, but he waves. It’s been a long, long time since he saw the moon. He can’t see the stars behind the clouds. He’ll see them tomorrow night instead. He has ‘tomorrow’s now, has ‘later’s and ‘next time’s. He doesn’t know if they’ll be good, but he has them.

“Joshua?” The door creaks open and Joshua tries so hard not to startle.  He turns and sees Jeonghan in the doorway. The alpha smiles, “Thought you might still be in here. You like this room?”

Joshua nods. He wants this window all to himself. “I like the window.”

Jeonghan walks into the room one step at a time. He looks up at Joshua after each footfall. Why? Is that how they’re supposed to walk in the house? Joshua is pretty sure they didn’t walk like that earlier. Jeonghan stands on the other end of the window, too far away for Joshua to touch or for him to touch Joshua. “Just wait until you see Seungcheol’s office at work. He’s got wall-to-wall windows. You can see almost the entire city.” An entire city? God, an entire city? Jeonghan smiles at him, close-lipped and soft, “We’ll take you there when it’s not so fucking cold outside. There’s an outdoor market not too far from Seungcheol’s company that you might like.”

That sounds good. That sounds really good.

“I came up to tell you it’s time for dinner. You don’t have to eat if you’re not hungry, but I warmed up more soup for you.” Jeonghan watches him with his head cocked to the side. Joshua thinks he looks like a jungle cat.

“I…uh…I’m hungry again,” Joshua tucks his blanket tighter around his shoulders and mumbles into the fabric.

Jeonghan takes a few steps closer and pets Joshua’s hair, scratches at the curve of his skull. “Go make yourself comfortable in the living room. I’ll grab your food out of the microwave.”

Joshua eats by himself on the couch closest to the fireplace. Jeonghan and Seungcheol watch him from the other couch and pretend that they’re watching the television. Why? The movie is more entertaining the he’ll ever be. The superhero in the metal suit, Iron Man, is a superhero and an omega. He spills soup on himself once, too focused on the omega kicking ass to watch his spoon. Jeonghan’s there with a napkin to clean him up before he can panic and apologize.

“Okay,” Seungcheol says after they all finish eating, “that movie was about a lot of superheroes. This one is just about Iron Man, I think you’re gonna love it.” A movie all about an omega superhero? Joshua wants to watch it until his eyes give out.

He does. He doesn’t mean to, but he does. Joshua tries to stay awake, but there’s nothing left for his body to run on. His eyelids slip shut when Iron Man sends in Pepper, another omega, to hack into his own company and they won’t open up again.

His sleep is easy and gentle for the first time in years. Voices cut in and out of his dreams, pops of color and sound.

“He looks so young when he sleeps, Hannie.”

“He is young.”

“His room’s all set up. When do you think he’ll feel up to going out and picking out stuff for a desk or a dresser?”

“He’ll feel up to it when he feels up to it, baby. Let’s let him get used to us first, hm? Can you carry him? He’s more used to your scent than mine.”

He’s being lifted, carried. He was so comfortable, why is he being moved? He whines and warm hands caress his cheeks. He feels like he’s falling down, down, down to soft, soft ground. So tired, so tired. The sounds melt away.

Joshua wakes up in the window room. It’s his room now though, isn’t it? Cotton fills his head from the inside out. He sits up and his jaw pops on a yawn. Is it still early? Can he go back to sleep? The window says no, bright light streaming in and filling the whole room. White light. Joshua sees snow out the window. Snow makes light even brighter, so maybe he can go back to sleep for a little while.

Knocking on his door. “Can I come in, Joshua?” Jeonghan. Did he and Seungcheol carry Joshua up to his room last night? This bed wasn’t here before. Did they carry this in too?

“Y-yeah.”

Jeonghan steps in, already dressed. Must be too late to go back to sleep. He walks to the window, breathes on it and writes his name in the fog. “Did you sleep well,” he asks. Joshua nods. He slept better than he ever has. “I’m glad. You’ve been asleep for almost twelve hours; you deserve some rest.” Joshua rubs sleep out of his eyes and keeps looking out the window. A smile curls across Jeonghan’s face. Jeonghan and Seungcheol smile a lot. It’s nice. Joshua likes being smiled at.

Jeonghan turns back to the window. “Did you know that we actually live across the street from one of our best friends. Wonwoo’s outside now, actually. I think they’re playing outside for a bit,” Jeonghan says and taps on the window pane.

“Wonwoo?” Joshua’s heard that name. He knows that name. Hope grows wings like a hummingbird in his chest. Jeonghan nods and there’s something in his smile. Shaky legs, shaky hands, shaky hope. Joshua steps out of bed and shuffles to the window. Please let him be right. Please let him be wrong. He doesn’t know if he can take either one.

And oh God, oh God, oh God, “Mingyu.

Chapter Text

“Did someone hit you?” Wonwoo grabs his chin and turns his head to the side to look at the bruise blooming across his cheek. Mingyu knew it would bruise. He’s gotten really good at telling what will leave marks and what won’t. He used to try and guess how many bruises he thinks the he’ll get when the handlers take him away for ‘lessons’. It helps distract from the pain. He guessed the exact number last time, actually felt a little proud when he woke up the next morning and counted them all. He may be big and useless, but at least he can do that.

“It was self-defense,” the handler behind the desk explains – lies. “He attacked a handler while they were bringing him out to be auctioned off.” Liar. Mingyu tripped; it wasn’t his fault. He never meant to fall on the handler, he’s just clumsy sometimes. He doesn’t say that though. The handler behind the desk has done much, much worse to him for much, much less. The scar on his stomach tingles in reminder.

His alpha lets go of his chin and brushes at the bruise, fingers flashing at the corner of his vision. Mingyu flinches so hard he nearly knocks himself backwards. He didn’t mean to, he just doesn’t like hands near his face. Or near his body. Or anywhere he can’t see them. Wonwoo drops his hands to his sides and turns back to the handler, “Lie to me again. I dare you.” The handler says nothing, but rage is building behind his eyes and his gaze shifts to Mingyu.

He’s going to beat him with the belt again. Mingyu hates the belt the most, the welts won’t go away for days. But the handler can’t. He can’t hurt him anymore. Wonwoo takes a half-step forward, puts himself between Mingyu and the desk. Mingyu has been bought and paid for, he’s Wonwoo’s property now. No one is allowed to hurt him without Wonwoo’s permission.

It’s kinda nice. Mingyu won’t have to look around every corner for danger anymore; he knows where all his pain is coming from. He only has to make Wonwoo happy enough not to hit him, not anyone else.

His head feels thick and syrupy. It happens sometimes. Joshua said it’s because his brain can’t take lots of stress and change and emotions at once. Not overstimulation, just being overwhelmed. Maybe he’s right; Mingyu doesn’t know, he’s not a doctor. Wonwoo might know.

“I’m telling the truth, Mr. Jeon, he’s aggressive. We’ve tried to work it out of him but-”

“You beat him into submission, you mean?” Wonwoo closes his eyes and takes a deep, deep breath. Mingyu sees the tension in his shoulders and silently shuffles backwards until he hits the wall, and then curls in on himself until he feels smaller, safer, a less noticeable target. That’s not a good kinid of tense, like how Joshua gets when Mingyu manages to put together a sentence in English, all excited and nervous. That’s the tension that explodes and leads to bruises and waking up two days later with headaches so bad he throws up. “Give me the papers, now. I’d rather not have to balance an open abuse case while getting my omega settled in and I’m sure your superiors don’t want a visit from the Omega Trade Committee.”

Omega Trade Committee. Mingyu’s never heard of that before. Mingyu’s never seen paper change hands so fast before either, not even when his dad took him to work at the bank. Wonwoo holds it up, flips through the pages and scans the words with more speed than Mingyu can comprehend. Wonwoo is the same size as most of the handlers but they all back away and lower their eyes when he comes by. Probably because he’s smart. Mingyu can see it in his eyes; his alpha is smarter than any of the handlers and he knows it.

No other alpha had tried to bid on him after Wonwoo stood up and called out a number Mingyu still can’t fully understand. They might have been too scared of Wonwoo. The handlers are scared of him. Mingyu is scared of him, but Mingyu is scared of everyone. He flinches when Wonwoo holds the papers out to him and then presses them into one hand.

Wonwoo frown when he flinches. He’ll have to stop doing that. Frowning means he’s being bad and being bad means getting hit. “Hold onto these,” Wonwoo says, “Tell me if anything’s missing in there.”

Mingyu nods. He doesn’t know what to look for, what could even be missing in the papers, but he does know that agreeing is the easiest way to keep an alpha’s hands at their side and not flying towards his face. The handlers call him stupid for being clumsy and too big, but he’s not. He’s so much smarter than they give him credit for. He’s the best reader in the whole warehouse because he wrote in the dust and dirt at the bottom of his cage and made sure he knew every letter by heart. He learned how to survive faster than Jihoon. He’s the one who taught Joshua how to swallow down anger and pretend to be compliant.

Wonwoo stares sat him for few tense seconds. And he’s even smarter, isn’t he? Mingyu can see it. He knows more than he pretends to. It’s like looking in a mirror.

“Come,” Wonwoo turns and starts toward the door on the far side of the room. The handler at the desk snarls at being dismissed and Mingyu’s never been so happy to see an exit sign before. Wonwoo pulls it open and it’s the first time he’s seen sunlight in months. He’d wrapped himself up in a little of the shell after the first time he got smacked across the mouth for being too tall; it starts to crack at the first rays.

He feels a little less like The Tall Omega, scared and sniveling and pathetic, and a little more like Mingyu. Joshua said Mingyu is funny and kind. Jihoon said Mingyu is smart. Minghao said Mingyu is good, nothing else, just good. It feels good to feel like Mingyu.

Wonwoo stops him the moment the door closes behind them. “Turn your face to the side for me?” Mingyu does, because it’s what he’s been told to do, and then there’s a flash and he turns back to see Wonwoo staring at his phone screen. “Perfect. Thank you, Mingyu. Do you have any other bruises or cuts? Any scars from the warehouse or the handlers?”

The white line of scar tissue running down his stomach itches and he nods. He was right when he decided Wonwoo was smart. Mingyu doesn’t remember much of life before the warehouse, but he remembers his parents telling him that Seokmin from across the street couldn’t come over to play anymore because someone finally took photos of all his ouchies and told the policed how his parents liked to hit him. Abuse.

“Is it alright if I take pictures when we get home? I want to send the evidence to Kyungsoo as soon as possible so he can open a case against them.” Mingyu stares at Wonwoo, careful to keep his gaze somewhere around the alpha’s chin. Wonwoo sucks in a sharp breath and blows it out through his nose. “No one is allowed to hit you again, understand? You’re not stupid, Mingyu, you know there are people who aren’t going to respect the collar around your neck when it comes to ‘discipline,” Wonwoo’s voice goes acidic for a moment, “so this is explicit permission to stop anyone who tries to hit you again. It’s your legal right as of Do versus Im last year.” 

It doesn’t seem right for someone to want to take care of him like this. Why is Wonwoo so obsessed with the abuse? It’s going to happen again and again and again. Still, maybe he can use this the first time Wonwoo goes to discipline him. Wonwoo said to stop ‘anyone’, he can play dumb and say he thought his alpha was included in that too. Mingyu nods.

Wonwoo smiles, a soft thing with just one side of his mouth. Mingyu allows himself to mirror it. Things look a little less hopeless than when he was walking up to be auctioned off, certain he was being sentenced to a whorehouse or an alpha that was somehow worse than the handlers. Life’s still not good. He’s an omega, life will never be good. But it’s not as bleak as it was before.

He follows Wonwoo to the car and slides into the passenger seat, eyes never leaving the warehouse. It’s so much smaller than he thought it was. Is Minghao coming out soon? Will he be okay? Life looks a little better for him, but what will happen to the others? Mingyu shoves that thought way down deep. He can’t cry now, not until he’s safe and can mourn. He saves it all for a time when he can actually let himself feel something other than fear and watches the warehouse disappear in the distance.

Chapter Text

Joshua nearly trips over his own feet as he runs. The blanket is somewhere in the hallway. Maybe, he doesn’t remember when he dropped it. Jeonghan keeps calling for him to come back, to wait for just a second, “-it’s cold outside! Just let me grab you a jacket or something. Joshua!” He’s going to get in so much trouble for this. This is direct disobedience. But it’s so worth it because Mingyu is right there. He’ll get to see Mingyu again. Even if it’s just for a few seconds before Jeonghan catches him and punishes for him being bad, it’ll be worth every bruise.

The banister is the only thing that stops him from going headfirst down the stairs. He nearly falls down anyway because his legs are too shaky from disuse to handle the clumsy sprint down the steps.

“Oh fuck – shit, Joshua,” Jeonghan catches his arm and keeps from tumbling down. Joshua knows he probably wouldn’t have survived the fall but it doesn’t stop him from tugging at at Jeonghan’s hold. “I know, I know, Joshua. I’m not gonna stop you from seeing Mingyu, but you have to get dressed. Remember how cold you were yesterday?” But Jeonghan doesn’t understand. He needs to see Mingyu. He has to. Mingyu’s all he has now and Jeonghan won’t let him go.

He keeps pulling and trying to throw himself down another step. It doesn’t work though. Jeonghan’s stronger than he is, than he can ever hope to be. Joshua knows he should stop. Jeonghan is being lenient with him and hasn’t hit him yet, but if he will if he doesn’t stop disobeying. But Mingyu just across the street and he might be gone if Joshua doesn’t go outside right now. Mingyu will be gone and he’ll be all alone again. He’ll be all alone again.

“Please don’t cry, sweetheart.” Is he crying? He is, whimpering and hiccupping and crying enough tears to fill an ocean. When did he start crying? Joshua’s chest heaves but his lungs won’t fill up. Jeonghan keeps trying to pull him close, bring him back down from orbit. “Mingyu will still be there after you put clothes on, Joshua, okay? He’s not going anywhere. Take some deep breaths for me? For Mingyu? There we go, perfect, just like that. See, it’s okay,” Jeonghan coos and uses the hand not keeping him in place to rub at the hot tears on his face.

The air in his lung helps. He can think a little more, not a lot, but a little more than before. His head feels funny, like coming back up to the surface of a pool with water in his ears. “M-Mingyu, please. I’ll be good, I’ll do anything – just Mingyu, please.”

Joshua doesn’t like to make eye contact. Even with Jihoon his eyes stayed at the apples of his cheeks. But Jeonghan uses the hand on his cheek to tilt his face up and look him in the eye. The alpha looks so sad. Why is he sad? Joshua’s the one who’s going to lose Mingyu.

Oh god, he’s going to lose Mingyu. His heartbeat races in his ears. And then Jeonghan cups his face in the long-fingered hand and rubs his thumb back and forth across Joshua’s cheekbone. “Joshua… You don’t – it’s not.” Jeonghan sighs. “Go ahead, I’ll be right behind you.”

The hand on his arm loosens and Joshua takes the stairs as fast as his legs will carry him. Jeonghan didn’t hit him. Jeonghan let him go and didn’t get mad and now he gets to see Mingyu.

Mingyu Mingyu Mingyu Mingyu Mingyu Mingyu.

Joshua runs into the front door at the bottom of the steps, too-fast feet slipping on the floor when he hits the ground. His shoulder pulses with pain but it’s nothing he hasn’t felt before. It’s almost ignorable compared to what he’s felt before. His arm works when he grabs the doorknob and throws the door open. So, not broken. It’s okay, it’s not broken.

It’s colder outside today than yesterday. The snow on the porch is so cold it burns his bare feet. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters because Mingyu is across the street on the gray house’s porch and he’s staring right back.

“Mingyu,” he yells, over and over and over as he runs. Joshua’s throat burns from the shouting, burns even worse when he breathes in cold, cold air. Doesn’t matter. He’s running to Mingyu and Mingyu’s running to him and Mingyu is so close. He’s real and alive and here.

They crash into each other in the middle of the street. Mingyu’s so tall. How’d he forget how tall Mingyu was in a day? Not that he got to see Mingyu outside of his cage much. Joshua holds Mingyu in tight and breathes. Sweet, like the sugar his aunt used to burn and say was caramel. It doesn’t burn his nose as bad as it used to. Mingyu’s not as scared. Mingyu’s never as scared when they’re all together.

“Amen,” Joshua whispers into Mingyu’s coat, “amenamenamenamen. I missed you so much.”

“You’re just across the street. You’re not gone. I didn’t lose you.” Over and over like a mantra. Joshua lets Mingyu squeeze him tight until he can’t breathe and then even tighter still. They didn’t lose each other.

Maybe. Maybe if Joshua can find Mingyu, he can find Jihoon and Minghao too. Maybe he won’t have to lose any of them.

“Joshua, you’re shaking,” Mingyu mumbles into his hair. He rubs his face into it, marking him with his scent just as Joshua buries his face into Mingyu’s chest. “Why are you still in the clothes from the warehouse? It’s really cold and those clothes aren’t warm.”

“He didn’t want to get changed before he saw you.” Mingyu stiffens and his scent turns sour. Jeonghan. “I’m not here to take him away, Mingyu, I just have clothes for him. Like you said, it’s cold and he’s wearing scraps for clothing. Joshua, can you step back for a moment so I can put Cheol’s coat on you?”

He doesn’t want to. God, he doesn’t want to let Mingyu go. Anyone can force them apart if they’re not holding onto each other. But Jeonghan didn’t hit him for disobeying earlier, gave him a blanket that he could have for his own. Joshua gives Jeonghan a tendril of trust and lets his arms drop from Mingyu’s sides. He takes two steps back out of Mingyu’s arms and nearly bumps into Jeonghan’s chest. The alpha’s hair tickles his ears when Jeonghan leans forward and drops the coat around his shoulders.

The fabric smells like Seungcheol, sweet and heavy. Joshua ignores that he smells like an owned omega now and shoves his arms into the sleeves. He is an owned omega, why wouldn’t he smell like one? Mingyu smells like one too, but the alpha’s scent makes Joshua want to sneeze. He lets Jeonghan help him button the coat all the way up and takes in quiet huffs of air through his nose to clean out Mingyu’s alpha’s smell. Too strong for his nose.

Jeonghan’s fingers are so warm where they brush against his skin. How is he so warm? Joshua feels like every part of his body wrapped up in Seungcheol’s coat is going to turn black and fall off. But Jeonghan hasn’t even started shivering yet. The alpha steps away and stands in the cold like it’s nothing and hasn’t started shivering at all.

Mingyu has though. Mingyu’s shivering too under his warm clothing. So Joshua forces his still-bare feet back through the snow, back to Mingyu, and curls himself into his best friend’s side. Body heat. If you don’t share it, you die.

He remembers learning that lesson less than a month after Mingyu came to the warehouse. Locked outside in the winter because someone complained about being stuck in their cage. They’d all curled up together to stay alive until the handlers let them back inside. Him and Jihoon and Minghao and Mingyu and Chanyeol. Because Chanyeol was still there then. He was big and warm and he liked them enough to huddle with them and share body heat. He stayed in the front, against the wind, and Joshua thought it was because he was the oldest and he was trying to protect the younger omegas from the cold.

Then Chanyeol had made them look straight ahead when they walked in, told them he’d tell the handlers they’d been bad if they tried to look back. Chanyeol had been at the front of their huddle, watching the other omegas try to stay warm. There were three empty cages when they went back inside. Joshua never knew their names, but he knows that all the handlers that had been working that day were never seen again. He dreams about it sometimes, freezing to death. Just a frozen body in the snow, forgotten and unloved and unwanted.

“-warm enough, Joshua? I have your slippers too.” Joshua blinks and he’s not in the warehouse. Not in the warehouse? Where is he? Jeonghan has his slippers and is holding them out with the same concerned face from the night before. He lives with Jeonghan and Seungcheol now, across the street from Mingyu. He has a room and a bed and a blanket and shoes. Jeonghan and Seungcheol wouldn’t let him die out in the snow, they paid for him.

“You gotta put shoes on, ‘shua, or your feet’ll freeze and your toes’ll fall off,” Mingyu whispers, “I saw it on the TV last night. Some stupid alphas decided to see how long they could stay outside in the cold and then their toes fell off.” But his feet are already kind of numb. They’re probably blue like yesterday, but he doesn’t want to look down and see.

“Seungcheol and I watched that last night too, after Joshua fell asleep. There’s nothing like watching stupid people hurt themselves, hm?”

Mingyu’s scent goes sour. So sour so fast that it makes Joshua sneeze. He called some alphas stupid in front of another alpha, Joshua would be scared too. But Jeonghan just bends down and slips the shoes onto Joshua’s feet. “There was this old show that was like an obstacle course and the entire thing was alphas falling off of things and getting hurt. I think Wonwoo would be able to find it if you asked him.”

 A door slams shut and Joshua looks up and there’s a man in a black suit coming toward them, staring at his phone like he’s being paid for it. Wonwoo. Mingyu’s alpha. Joshua had forgotten about him. He sounded nice over the loudspeaker. “Mingyu, we’ll be stopping by my office on the way to lunch. I have to make sure that Kyungsoo doesn’t need any other evidence before going to Minseok in the DA’s office.” Wonwoo sounds the same in person. Mingyu tenses up, but it’s not as bad as it was with the handlers, with Jeonghan. Mingyu’s not as scared.

Amen.

He stops when he sees Jeonghan straightening back up to his full height. “Jeonghan? Why are you in my front yard,” Wonwoo asks, “And who is this?”

“His name is Joshua. Cheol told you about him on the phone last night.”

Wonwoo nods and scrutinizes Joshua from head to toe. It’s like he’s a bug under a microscope, like Wonwoo is looking for something. He doesn’t like being looked at like that, but it’s better than being looked at like a thing to be bought and owned and torn apart. “You and Mingyu were friends back in the – Mingyu calls it the warehouse. Is that what you call it?” Joshua nods. “So you were friends in the warehouse?” He nods again. Wonwoo’s eyebrows start to pull together. What did he do wrong? He answered the questions and Wonwoo didn’t say he had to use words.

Jeonghan does something with his hands in the corner of Joshua’s vision; he can’t see what it is, too busy watching Wonwoo’s hands. If he can see if coming at him, he might be able to lean into it, take the edge off the hit.

“I’m happy that you have each other,” is all Wonwoo says. And then, “I wish I would’ve known that Jeonghan had planned to have reunite you today so that I could’ve planned for it though. Mingyu and I actually have to leave for lunch right about now.” Joshua clings to Mingyu’s coat and he feels Mingyu’s hands gripping tight to his own. It’s too soon, they just got see each other. Mingyu can’t go, he might not come back.

“Wonu, come on. If the lunch is really that important then they can come back to Cheol and I’s place till you get back.” Gratitude grows like a weed. Jeonghan didn’t hit him. Jeonghan is arguing with another alpha for him. Jeonghan let him see Mingyu again.

“We’re going to lunch with my parents.” Jeonghan swears and Joshua watches him out of the corner of his eye. Can’t stop watching Wonwoo, too new, too dangerous. “One of their neighbors were at the store when Mingyu and I bought his collar. She told my mother and now we have to go to lunch so they can meet him.”

Fingers start easing his grip off Mingyu’s coat. He looks up and Mingyu’s eyes are shuttered, blank and empty and dead as he pulls his own hands away. Jeonghan whispers in his ear, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have done this if I’d known they had plans.” No, Mingyu can’t leave. He can’t leave, not again. Joshua can’t lose him again. “You’ll see him again. He’s right across the street. They’ll be back in a few hours. Mingyu’s welcome over any time. It’s okay, Joshua, it’s not goodbye.”

He watches Mingyu. “I can come over and see Joshua? Whenever?” Mingyu doesn’t hope. Joshua knows that. He’s warm-hearted and loving but he doesn’t hope. But he sounds like he is now. If he can hope, Joshua can too. Jeonghan pulls him in close, tucks him against his side and pets at his hair to try and soothe him. His head feels light; god, he’s so dizzy. He’d been breathing too fast again, hadn’t he? Hyperventilating. Jihoon learned that word when he was seven and had to go to the doctor because he was too scared of other people to go outside.

"Yes, of course. As long as we’re home, you’re welcome to come by.”

Mingyu lets out a breath and his whole body shudders. Fear. Joshua’s never been as good as reading people as Mingyu, but he knows fear. “After… after lunch? Can I?” Mingyu always takes the risk, takes the hit. Because he’s big and broken and he wants Joshua to stay okay.

Wonwoo nods, meets Mingyu’s eyes and doesn’t look away, “Yes. You can go over to Joshua’s house whenever you want. You don’t have to ask me.”

Joshua likes that. It’s clear, no gray to mess up in, just a yes that goes on and on and on. And he said Joshua’s house. Joshua has a blanket and a pair of slippers to his name, if that. He lives in the house, but it’s not his, not really.

“See?” Jeonghan’s voice is too close to his ear. He can feel the warmth of his breath and it makes his skin prickle. “Mingyu will be coming over as soon as they’re back from lunch. It’s not goodbye forever.”

They watch Mingyu and Wonwoo drive off from their front porch. Joshua aches for another hug but Jeonghan keeps him tucked into his side, too far away to run to the car and say goodbye one last time.

“Wonwoo’s parents are some of the worst of the worst. Awful fucking people,” Jeonghan says and turns to pull Joshua into a loose hug, “they’ll be back in two hours, less if Wonwoo can come up with some excuse to get them out of there.”

Joshua blinks back tears and leans into Jeonghan’s chest. His chest feels empty, scooped out and hollow. Mingyu was here and now he’s gone and he feels so hollow.

“You wanna head inside? You’re shivering again.” Joshua nods and Jeonghan doesn’t make him say it, just guides him back through the front door and helps him shrug off his coat. “Are you hungry? Seungcheol made French toast for breakfast this morning and we saved some in the oven for you.”

“No.” He’s hungry. But the idea of food makes him feel queasy. There’s too much weight in his tummy, heavy like lead. It happens sometimes. He gets too sad, too worn down, and then he can’t eat. It’s why he’s so small, skinnier than the others. The handlers would bring him the daily meal and he’d let it rot. He just couldn’t make himself eat.

Jeonghan pauses. He’d already been walking to the kitchen. The alpha’s brow furrows and his gaze travels down Joshua’s body. Joshua looks down at himself. The bones in his wrist, the way his clothes hang off his frame because he’s just too small. “Are you sure? You haven’t eaten since last night.” Joshua shrugs. “You’ll feel better if you eat.” Another shrug. He won’t feel better. He won’t.

He won’t feel better until the weight in his stomach goes away. However long that takes.

“Can I get clean? I-I feel gross,” Joshua asks and drops his gaze. He asked – begged – for food yesterday, to see Mingyu this morning. He feels pathetic asking now though. Maybe because he is gross. He’s disgusting, greasy and covered in dirt and dust. Jeonghan kept petting his hair too. How? Joshua hasn’t washed his hair in months. God, he’s so fucking dirty. He’s so embarrassed.

“Yeah, come on, you can use our bathroom.” Jeonghan takes his hand and leads him up the stairs. Joshua lets himself be dragged. His brain fuzzes out. He misses Mingyu. He has no safety here. It’s all brand new, the house, his alphas, his entire life. Mingyu is the only real thing in his life and he’s not here anymore. He could leave his body behind if it wasn’t for the collar around his neck.

The collar reminds him that he exists, that Jeonghan and Seungcheol exist. Even if he doesn’t want any of them to.

Soft carpet under his feet. Light and cool and fluffy. “This is Seungcheol and I’s room. Feel free to come in whenever you want. We don’t have any clothes specifically for you yet, so go digging through the closet and drawers when you need new clothes. I’ll grab some of Seungcheol’s winter pajamas for you. He whines about being cold but overheats when he sleeps so a lot of it goes unworn. It should be pretty scent-neutral I think.” Drawers opening and closing.

Cold, cold tile. Bright white and it burns his eyes a little. It makes him come back to himself. He groans and rubs at his eyes. The world is still fuzzy but it’s not as far away as it seemed. Is it raining now? It was sunny when they were outside. And they were outside just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have started raining so soon, could it? Joshua looks up and squints against the bright light of the bathroom. Jeonghan smiles when he looks up and waves.

“I got the shower going for you.”

Cold water. Cold cold cold. So cold. No one escapes, doesn’t matter how good. He can’t do it again, it’s too cold. He’s not tied down this time, they can’t catch him if he runs. He can get away. Get away get away get away. He won’t be cold this time.

Joshua!”

He slams the door to his room shut. He’s safe in here, they can’t get him. This is his room, they can’t chain him down. No hose this time. His blanket, they can’t see him under his blanket. Joshua curls up on the mattress, buried under his blanket. He can’t stop shaking. It hurts to shake this hard but he just can’t stop. The handlers are coming for him, they’re going to handcuff him to the pipe in the backroom and spray him with the hose. And the hose is so cold. He doesn’t get clean, just so so cold.

“Joshua?” Oh god. They’re here, they found him. Not the hose again, god, please. “What’s wrong? Talk to me, please. I don’t know what’s wrong. I can’t fix it if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“Not the hose again,” Joshua whimpers, “please not the hose.” Hands come under the blanket and lift it away from his face. He curls into himself even tighter. Warm hands brushing his hair back. He sniffs in through his nose.

“God,” Jeonghan whispers, “what did they do to you?” It’s Jeonghan. He’s okay. Jeonghan was running the shower for him. Jeonghan doesn’t have a hose. Jeonghan doesn’t like it when he’s cold, he wouldn’t use cold water. “Can you talk to me, sweetheart?”

"The hose. They would always use the hose. It was cold, it was everywhere. You can’t get away from the hose.”

 Anger, he can smell the anger rolling of Jeonghan in waves. But he keeps scratching at Joshua’s scalp so soft, rubs his cheek bone with his thumb. “The hose is gone. You never have to worry about the hose again, I promise. It will never happen again.” Time moves so slow. Joshua relaxes. Jeonghan’s hands feel good running through his hair, feel safe. “So no shower,” Jeonghan says, “but how does a warm bath sound? You can pick the temperature and make sure it’s not too cold.”

“Yeah,” Joshua whispers, “baths are good.”

Jeonghan still has such a nice smile. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

He hasn’t taken a bubble bath since he was a kid. A little kid with parents that still loved him. Jeonghan is sitting outside the tub, watching him and looking over his clothes from the warehouse to see if they’re worth salvaging. It reminds him of when his mom and dad used to check in and make sure he hadn’t drowned. They haven’t spoken since leaving Joshua’s room. It’s okay; silence is comfortable, familiar.

The water is so warm. Perfectly warm. He could sleep here if left long enough. He will if he doesn’t move. Joshua ducks under the water for a moment and comes back up a little more awake. Not a lot, but he’s not having to fight his eyes open anymore.

“Do you care about these clothes? Like at all?” Jeonghan holds the shirt and pants up and he can see through it in some places. Joshua’s had those pants since he turned sixteen and stopped growing. Omega hormones hit earlier than alpha hormones, it’s how they found Mingyu back when he hit his growth spurt at thirteen with all the female omegas in his class. He’s had the shirt even longer. They were white when he first got them. Now they’re gray and brown and dirty.

When he looks at them, he feels the cold metal of his cage against his back. Dirty, he feels dirty when he looks at them. “No. I don’t like them.”

“Then I’ll throw them away. Or burn them, maybe, then they’ll keep you warm for once,” Jeonghan tosses them to the side and tips his head back against the cabinets under the sink, “You don’t need anything to remind you of what it was like back there anyway. Thing of the past, that’s all it is now.”

“Yeah… yeah.” And it is, isn’t it? The warehouse is gone now. He’s never going back there and neither is Mingyu or Minghao or Jihoon. The handlers can’t hurt him anymore, they don’t even know where he lives. “Burn ‘em,” he whispers. He wants those clothes gone. They’re all that connect him to the warehouse now, to the hose and the handlers and watching his friends come back with more and more bruises. He wants that outfit burnt to ash.

Jeonghan has a good laugh. It just sounds happy. The handlers used to sound so mean when they laughed. But Jeonghan laughs and it sounds good. Joshua pulls his knees up to his chest and lets the laugh bounce around in his head. “We can start up the fireplace later tonight, alright? I’ll have Cheol pick up stuff for s’mores on the way home. We can make like a little party out of it. Sound good?” Joshua nods. Jeonghan doesn’t push him to say yes and the world fades back out to water and warmth.

He drifts, vision doubling and fuzzing as the bubbles pop one-by-one. He should get clean. He asked to get a bath because he’s dirty, but being in the water feels good. The longer he takes to get clean the longer he gets to spend in the water. What if Jeonghan’s patience runs out though? Joshua blinks the world back into focus and glances to his alpha. But Jeonghan hasn’t moved. He looks asleep except for the way he taps his fingers on his thigh in a rhythm.

"Take as long as you want,” Jeonghan murmurs as he cracks an eye open. Watching Joshua watching him. “And use the red bottle of shampoo for your hair. The green was a gag gift from Soonyoung and it smells fucking nasty and the black is Cheol’s. You’d usually be able to use it but it’s almost out and he gets whiny if he has to use mine. I gotta remind him to pick more shampoo, it’s like being married to a grown child sometimes. The body wash is free game though.” His eye slips shut again and Joshua’s left with his own thoughts.

He feels almost normal. Jeonghan sounds like he’s talking to another person. Another person that is smart enough to take care of themselves. He feels good. Not good, but better than bad.

Joshua grabs the green bottle just to see what it smells like – Jeonghan said not to use it, didn’t say that he couldn’t sniff it – and chokes. Soonyoung is a bad friend if he thinks that this is a good gift. Joshua smelled rotten eggs once, when his mother forgot exactly how many Easter eggs she had hidden and a few got left out for weeks and weeks and weeks. His memory of it is hazy, but this shampoo smells like rotten, rotten, rotten eggs.

Jeonghan laughs again, “Oh… oh no, Joshua. Why did you smell it? It’s so awful! Like rotten eggs, right?” He might throw up. Why do they keep this in their house? Why didn’t they throw it away? “Give it here, I’m gonna throw it away. Oh my god, I didn’t think you’d smell it.” Joshua’s still choking when Jeonghan takes the bottle from him. It’s not even close to the worst thing he’s ever smelled – nothing will ever smell as awful as fifty dirty, miserable omegas locked in warehouse – but it still makes him gag. “Is it as bad as I remember?” Jeonghan stares at the bottle for a moment.

Joshua can’t watch; he can’t look away.

Jeonghan flips open the lid, takes in a big breath, and gags. “Holy fuckin’ shit that’s bad. Why didn’t we throw that away when we got it? That might be the worst thing I’ve ever smelled in my entire life.” He shouldn’t laugh. Laughing at an alpha is wrong, bad. Grounds to get smacked across the mouth. But Jeonghan is bent in half and hacking like he might die and he can’t close the shampoo bottle because every time he tries he brings it back to his face and gags again and it’s funny.

“I’ll just – I’ll just throw the whole fucking trash can out oh my god,” Jeonghan yells as he drops the still open bottle in the the little trashcan near the toilet and shoves the whole thing into a cabinet under the sink. He turns and Joshua knows he should stop laughing. Seungcheol didn’t hit him last night but that doesn’t mean Jeonghan won’t. And Jeonghan’s not big like Seungcheol but he’s bony and bony knuckles hurt. Hurt worse than meaty fists.

But he keeps laughing because Jeonghan is dramatic and a little dumb. He keeps giggling even as he tries to swallow it back down and Jeonghan turns around to look at him. There’s nowhere to run this time. He got away last night, put a door between him and Seungcheol. He’s stuck in the tub now, vulnerable and trapped and so so stupid because he can’t stop laughing. Déjà vu, when it feels like something has happened before.

“Seungcheol was right. You have a beautiful smile.” Joshua freezes, laugh tapering off because Jeonghan’s coming closer and kneeling at the side of the bathtub again. Hands coming at his face. Oh god, he’s being hit. He knew it he knew he knew he knew it. He shouldn’t have laughed this is all his fault.

Jeonghan thumbs at the corner of his mouth. His eyes are soft, he’s smiling. There’s no pain anywhere. Jeonghan didn’t hit him. Jeonghan touched his face when he was being bad and didn’t hit him. “You really like watching people do stupid stuff, huh? We should go to the clinic so you can meet BooSeokSoon; stupid is what they do.” One heartbeat, two heartbeats, three heartbeats. Jeonghan pulls his hand away. “You hungry, Joshua?”

And, “Yeah,” he is. His stomach feels empty. He hasn’t had French toast in years. Joshua not sure he remembers what it tastes like.

“I’ll go reheat it then,” Jeonghan says and pets at his wet hair, “just call if you need help with anything or if you decide you don’t like Cheol’s pajamas.”

And Jeonghan leaves him alone in the bathroom. Jeonghan’s not going to watch him clean himself, not going to watch him dry off and put on his clothes. When he gets out of the bathroom, no one is going to look at his body but him. He gets to keep his body all to himself. He doesn’t have to give it away. Joshua lets himself smile and splash at the bubbles still floating on his water.

The red shampoo bottle smells kind of like Jeonghan when he opens it up. He doesn’t mind as much as he thought he would.

Chapter Text

Seungcheol’s pajamas are too big on him. The bottoms of the pants pool at his feet and his hands are lost somewhere in the sleeves. He feels small and vulnerable and weak. He feels warm too, warm and soft and clean. Joshua is so clean now, hair smelling like soap and dripping water down the back of his neck. Small, vulnerable, weak. Warm, soft, clean. All the feelings buzz around and make his head spin. It’s too many feelings to have at once. They stay in his chest anyway.

Water drips down from his bangs and runs down the curve of his nose. The drop hits the floor and leaves a little puddle on the floor. If he looks hard enough, maybe he’ll figure out what to do with all the feelings. But he doesn’t look. He wipes at the water with the bottom of Seungcheol’s pajama pants and shuffles to the kitchen.

Jeonghan looks up when he stops in the entryway. He smiles and the corners of Joshua’s mouth twitch back. “All clean,” Jeonghan asks and his face smooths out into satisfaction when Joshua mumbles yes without being asked. His voice comes a little easier than it did yesterday. “Are Seungcheol’s pajamas comfy enough? I know they’re a little big but they’re pretty warm.”

Joshua can say that he wants other pajamas. Jeonghan’s not as big as Seungcheol, his clothes wouldn’t make him feel as small. His hands curl up inside the sleeves and they look a little like kitten paws. He looks like a cute, soft, gentle thing in these, doesn’t he? He should say he wants other pajamas. Joshua is not a kitten or a doll; he shouldn’t have to dress like one. But the sleeves are so soft under his fingers, softer than his new blanket. If he keeps the pajamas he could hide in his room and find out what something that soft would feel like on his face. And he’s so warm, comfortable and not shivering and there’s something about being warm that makes him feel kind of safe.

“I wanna keep them,” Joshua stares down at his feet and curls his toes in the pools of fabric – easier to talk when he can’t see Jeonghan watching him. “They’re – I like them.”

“Then they’re yours. Seungcheol will be happy they found a good home anyway.” Jeonghan watches him. Jeonghan likes to watch him. Joshua stares at Jeonghan’s laptop and tries not to feel the alpha’s eyes on him. It doesn’t work. He feels them all the time. He relaxes when he feels them drop away. “I’ve got a few websites pulled up if you want to pick out some clothes. We didn’t plan for you like we should’ve and I don’t think you want to keep wearing our clothes. You’re welcome to, of course. You can wear whatever you want of ours. Seemed like you’d want some clothes of your own though.”

There’s a plate of food at the seat next to Jeonghan, next to the laptop. It smells so good. His stomach growls so loud Jeonghan can probably hear it. Embarrassing. “‘m sorry,” he mumbles, “didn’t mean for it to be loud.” He keeps his head down and shuffles forward. Jeonghan’s eyes are on him again. He doesn’t like being watched, makes him feel less like a person. His stomach growls again when he sits and the food is so close, smell of sugar and cinnamon and other things Joshua forgot over the years filling his nose and making him so aware of the emptiness in his tummy.

Jeonghan leans close as he spins the laptop to face him. The hand in his hair is expected. He doesn’t flinch this time. Jeonghan pets and pets. Joshua should feel like a dog, right? People pet dogs, pet cats and other helpless little creatures. He feels special. Not precious like a doll, just special. The fingers smoothing his wet hair out of his eyes make him feel kind of important.

“You can’t help it if you’re hungry,” Jeonghan says, “My only concern is making sure that your stomach gets the food it’s asking for.”

Joshua starts shoveling the French Toast into his mouth. Jeonghan said he could eat and heated up the food. This is his food and he’s so hungry. The first bite tastes so good and he wants to savor it. Seungcheol might not make it again – Joshua can’t cook, he can’t make it for himself. His alphas could decide they don’t like French Toast and then he’ll never have it. But he gets the first bite of food in his mouth and he remembers hours of staring at the door of the warehouse with an empty stomach. They ate, they ate every day, but it was never enough to chase the emptiness away.

He remembers the hunger and he can’t stop shoveling food into his mouth. He barely breathes between bites. Jeonghan grabs his hands and forces them down, holds his wrists in one hand and turns his face with the other. He’s gasping for air. Jeonghan doesn’t understand; he’s never been able to eat right when the hunger hits. He has to eat because it won’t happen again.

“You have to slow down.” Jeonghan doesn’t let him go. He holds on and holds on. And doesn’t he know that Joshua’s hungry? It was his idea. It’s not fair. Not even the handlers gave him food and then took it away. “Joshua, I will not let you go until you calm down. Look – Look at me, Joshua. I need you to listen to me.” He just wants to eat. Joshua has never struggled against a hold before; that’s what gets omegas hit, fighting against an alpha’s hold.

God, he struggles. He struggles as hard as he can. Even if Jeonghan hits him, he’ll have to let go a few seconds. It might be enough for one more bite.

Joshua!” Joshua blinks and the fight slips away. He meets Jeonghan’s eyes – why is Jeonghan so scared? “Are you listening to me now?” He nods. “Good, good. You were eating too fast and you started to choke. That is why I grabbed you.” Joshua’s throat burns when he swallows. No one told him that omegas did that before. The omega down the street nearly died because he ate too much too soon. His mom called it refeeding because she was a nurse and she saw it all the time in the ER. He knew about refeeding, he didn’t know that he could just disappear like that though.

He remembers eating so fast he couldn’t breathe, but it feels like it wasn’t him. Feels like it was someone else all ruined and terrified and starving that made him choke, that fought Jeonghan. He fought Jeonghan. God, he fought Jeonghan. “I-I don’t… I don’t understand. ‘m sorry. Please don’t hit me,” he feels so small. He needs to make himself smaller.

Jeonghan takes a deep, deep breath and lets his wrists go. He takes both of his hands off Joshua. Joshua misses the comfort. Jeonghan pets him when he’s happy and that’s how he knows he won’t get hit. “Seungkwan said that these things happen at first. It’s not uncommon for victims of starvation to lose control around food.” Seungkwan, the person on Seungcheol’s phone last night. How does he know so much about people like Joshua? “You don’t have to stop eating or anything, just take it slow. The food isn’t going anywhere.”

He nods and leans forward to take another bite. Will Jeonghan stop him? He’s being careful, so careful. He takes tiny bites and Jeonghan doesn’t reach for him again. And so he eats and eats and eats, eats only a little over half of the food on the plate but his stomach feels like it’s going to burst. He wants to take a nap now and wait for the uncomfortable fullness in his stomach to go away. But it feels kind of nice too, a reminder that he doesn’t have to be hungry anymore. He puts the fork down. “I can’t eat anymore. I’m sorry.”

Jeonghan looks up from the laptop. When did he tie his hair back? He looks nice with his hair up. He looks nice with his hair down too. Jeonghan has pretty hair. “Don’t apologize. If you’re full, you’re full. Besides, it means you’ve got a snack all ready for you if you get hungry before dinner.” Jeonghan smiles at him and ruffles his hair. Jeonghan likes his hair, likes it a lot. Maybe it’s why he has long hair, because he likes hair? Joshua likes it when Jeonghan smiles. “Wait, did you even like the French toast? I never even asked-”

“I did!” They both blink. That was loud. “It tasted good, I liked it.”

“Good. We weren’t sure what you like to eat. You probably don’t remember either though, huh?” He’s not wrong. All the foods Joshua used to love were drowned out by hunger and despair so thick it feels like he’ll never crawl out of it. Maybe he’ll remember, maybe he won’t. Jeonghan and Seungcheol have good food though.

Nothing feels real anymore. He doesn’t remember much from before the warehouse, just flashes and pieces of things that don’t really matter anymore. And the only thing that he does not want to keep is what stays burned into mind. His mother’s voice, his father’s face, what his old house looked, all of it disappeared over the years. Being dragged off the lawn, screaming for his dad, that never goes away. Not that any of that matters anymore either.

That life, that Joshua, is gone now. His life is Seungcheol and Jeonghan and Mingyu across the street. It is his room and his blanket and the couch that only smells like him – and warm baths, warm, warm baths. It could be worse, it could be much much worse.

Scratching sounds. He looks up to Jeonghan scooting closer as he pushes the half-finished plate away. The laptop lights up to rows and rows of clothes. “I pulled up some stores that Seungcheol and I get our clothes from for you to look through,” Jeonghan says as he throws his arm over the back of Joshua’s chair. It settles warm and heavy over his shoulders. “I didn’t wanna throw too much at you at once so I just started with shirts.”

Rows and rows of shirts. So many shirts he can’t think straight. There are too many. He doesn’t know what he likes to wear anymore. The shirt and shorts from the warehouse is all he’s worn for years. He doesn’t know anything else. It’s so much easier to just let Jeonghan and Seungcheol pick things out for him.

He’ll just wear their clothes. They like it when he smells like them and it means he doesn’t have to choose. It’ll just be easier that way. It’s always been easier to just give in.

“Joshua?” The arm around his shoulders tightens. “Do you see anything you like?” He shakes his head. “What do you like?” He shrugs. He doesn’t have the words to say what’s wrong. Even if he did, he wouldn’t. He prays that Jeonghan lets it go. The alpha tips his chin up to look him in the eye instead. Jeonghan’s eyes are intense. He could feel Jeonghan watching him before, now it feels like the alpha is seeing inside him.

“How old were you when you went into the center?”

Shame, cold and miserable, washes over him. It’s not his fault that he was born this way; it’s not his fault that his parents let the warehouse take him. But it feels like it is. The feeling of being dragged across the grass and thrown headfirst into the van is the worst memory he has, worse than being locked out in the snow or the hose. He froze that day, he didn’t fight until it was too late. If he had done more to save himself, maybe he wouldn’t be here.

“Thirteen,” he whispers, staring at Jeonghan’s nose so he won’t have to see the alpha’s reaction, “I was thirteen.”

“Good fucking God. Are you kidding me? I knew – I knew it happened, but I’ve never…” Jeonghan pulls him into his chest. “I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine how scared you were. You’re braver than me though. I don’t think I would’ve survived – me or Cheol. You’re pretty fucking strong, Joshua.”

No one has ever called him strong before. The hiccup comes before he can stop it. Alphas are the strong ones. But Joshua survived the warehouse when Jeonghan says he wouldn’t if it had been him. It feels good, it feels really really good. He survived, broken and bruised, but he survived. He is pretty strong, isn’t he?

“Do you want to wait to pick out clothes for a little while? You can wear whatever you want out of our closets until you decide what you like.”

“Yeah,” Joshua mumbles into Jeonghan’s shoulder, “that sounds good.” Jeonghan loosens his hold and lets Joshua lean back out of his arms. His hair left a wet spot on Jeonghan’s shirt but the alpha doesn’t even seem to notice. He just turns and shuts the laptop.

“Wanna go watch a movie while we wait for Mingyu? There are three Iron Man movies and you fell asleep during the first one.” He nearly gives himself a concussion nodding so hard. “Go get settled on your couch.”

“My couch?”

Jeonghan gives him a sneaky kind of smile. “Did you notice that the couch only smells like you? I bombed it with Febreze before we went to the auction to get our scents out. That’s for you, Joshua.” The couch is his? That is his couch?  “You have such a pretty smile.” Heat rises in his cheeks but the smile stays put. It stays even when he tries to force it away. "I put your blanket in the living room too if you want it. The movie from last night should still be all set up for you, just turn on the TV and press the red button on the skinny remote. Got it?"

It's simple, he can remember that. Jeonghan waves for him to go when he nods. He should've put socks on, the floors are so cold even with Seungcheol's pajama pants covering his feet. Red button on the skinny remote. Red button skinny remote. He just has to keep repeating it. Red button skinny remote. Red button skinny remote.

His blanket is on the couch - his couch. A corner smells a little like Jeonghan but it melts away when he rubs his face over it. He takes the chance to rub his pajama sleeve against his face; Jeonghan isn't watching him, no one will know. It's just as soft as he thought, maybe a little softer. So many soft things. So many things that don't hurt when they touch him.

"Red button skinny remote," Joshua whispers and pulls the blanket tighter around him. Grab the skinny remote, easy. Find the red button, easier. There's only one red button and it bigger than all the others. He presses it and looks up to see his movie. He forgot to turn on the TV. He doesn't know how to turn on the TV. The television they used to have when he was little had all the button on the front and his mom colored the power button green so he could turn it on all by himself. There's no green button on this TV. His ears color red with shame, "Jeonghan!"

"What," Jeonghan calls back, "No, no, not you. Just give me a moment." Is he on the phone? With Seungkwan? "What do you need, sweetheart?"

"I don't know how to turn on the TV... I'm sorry!" Jeonghan appears around the corner with his phone pressed to his ear. "I got the remote," Joshua murmurs, "but the TV is different than the ones I remember."

Jeonghan's lips are soft on his forehead as the alpha brushes by him to reach around the side of the TV. He's smiling until Joshua finishes speaking. "Six years is like a century in the tech world Fuck - six years. I really can't believe that's even legal." But he can believe that buying another person is? "The power button is the bottom one on the side closest to your couch." The television comes to life with the movie already pulled up. Joshua hands the remote to Jeonghan and curls up on his couch.

The remote lands back in his lap. "I'm actually on the phone with a client that needs their photos a little sooner than expected so I was gonna finish up their order. Are you okay to sit in here by yourself?"

Space, quiet, no one watching him. "Yeah. I'll be fine."

"I'll be in if I get done early, Joshua. Sorry to leave you all alone!" This is not a bad alone. This an alone that feels okay. Maybe because he's not all alone. Jeonghan is still somewhere, he won't disappear. Not that Jeonghan is the comfort. It's just nice to not be completely alone. Jeonghan uncovers the phone. "I'm back. No, no, there's no problem. I just needed to help my-my omega with something. So by Friday, you said? I can make that work, but I do charge an extra fee for moving the deadline up."

The movie starts to play and drowns out anything else Jeonghan says. It drowns out all Joshua's thoughts too. It's all bright colors and loud sounds and the idea that someone like him could be a hero. "DUM-E, not a very nice name for a robot friend." And Iron Man - Tony Stark - is so funny, and not funny stupid like other omegas are in the movies, but smart funny. He makes jokes and doesn't let anyone tell him what to do.

Joshua doesn't mean to fall asleep. But the blanket is warm and his pajamas are soft and the couch is comfy. It just happens. His eyes start to slide shut and they fight him every time he tries to open them again. Nothing works to keep him awake. Crying makes him so tired.

"Go back to sleep." Joshua's falling. He's falling! "I'm just helping you lie down. Don't worry." Jeonghan's there when he opens his eyes, hair falling around his face. "No, no, no, go back to sleep. You fell asleep sitting up, I was just getting you comfortable." His slip closed again and the world is quiet and warm. “There you go, just go to back to sleep.”

Nothing is quiet when he wakes up again. "Joshua! Joshua!" Mingyu. Mingyu is shaking him awake. "C'mon, wake up!" It’s all too fuzzy. He should be excited, he knows he should be excited, but everything is heavy and hazy with sleep.

"Wha-"

“Up! Up,” he whisper-yells, “Your alpha said we could go to your room but you gotta get up!”

Too much shaking, too much momentum when he tries to roll himself up. He rolls off the couch with a yelp. Even with the rug, the floor hurts. No fat to pad the landing. Mingyu swears and tries to tug him back up but Jeonghan’s there. Jeonghan’s there in seconds and hauling him back to his feet. The world spins and he’s still tired. It’s so easy to just let himself tip into Jeonghan, give up his own weight for a few seconds.

“Are you alright,” Jeonghan murmurs and poke at his back until the dull pain over his shoulder blades sharpens. He was okay before the alpha did that. Dull pain is normal, it happened all the time before, it’s the sharp pain that hurts the worst. But the pain over his shoulder dulls back down and he nods. He’ll be just fine as long as Jeonghan doesn’t start looking for bruises again. Bruises come easy; he’s too skinny, too bony, too weak, it doesn’t take much to bruise him.

He’s more awake every second. One hard blink, two, and then Mingyu. Mingyu is here in his house and Joshua can reach out and touch him. And he does. He tips into Mingyu as soon as Jeonghan lets him go. Jeonghan said he was coming, Jeonghan promised he was coming, but it didn’t feel like the truth until now. “Gyu!”

Mingyu hasn’t smiled in so long. Not since the handlers told them they were going to be auctioned off. And now he hugs and smiles and holds tight. He hugs him so tight that he lifts him off his feet. “Lunch was h-hard,” he whispers, “really hard. I missed you.” Joshua’s shirt feels a little wet. Happy-sad, that’s what Mingyu called when smiled and cried at the same time. He has something to smile about and something to cry about and he gets all confused about what he wants to do so he does both.

“Missed you too. I wanna go upstairs.”

“Yeah… yeah, me too.” Mingyu puts him back on the ground and he grabs him by the wrist and starts pulling him out of the room. He’s going to show Mingyu his room and his bed. And he’s going to tell Mingyu how the warehouse is always right there, right where he can’t see it, and how it won’t let him go. No one else can understand, no one but Mingyu.

A flash goes off. They freeze. Joshua turns and Jeonghan’s there with a camera, a pretty camera, expensive and new and fancy. He forgot Jeonghan was there. “Didn’t mean to startle you. Just wanted to get a picture of you two together. You don’t have any of those, do you?” No, he doesn’t. Jeonghan takes photos for a job, he must take good ones.

If Seungcheol finds Minghao, would he take a picture of Joshua, Minghao, and Mingyu all together if Joshua was good? If they – wasps, angry, vicious wasps fill his stomach just thinking about it – if they find Jihoon, maybe he could get one of all four of them.

Jeonghan mumbles to himself and walks back to his office, talking about filters and lighting and smiles. He reaches out and tugs Joshua into a hug as he goes, kissing his temple. “Just call if you two need anything.”

“‘Kay.”

Jeonghan’s slippers make shuffling noises down the hallway until they disappear. His office door creaks closed and then Joshua and Mingyu are alone. They’ve never been alone before. It’s always been Joshua, Jihoon, Minghao, Mingyu together. They’ve always been watched and forced apart if they got too close. But he can hug Mingyu now – for as long as he wants. They can talk about anything now, no one listening to punish them for saying the wrong thing.

“Upstairs,” Joshua tugs on Mingyu’s arm again. The taller omega grunts. “My room is upstairs, Mingyu.” But Mingyu doesn’t move.

He keeps watching where Jeonghan was, eyebrows pulled together. Joshua understands. His alphas are strange. Not bad strange, like the alphas that demand to inspect omegas before they buy them. Just strange. Jeonghan likes to touch, likes to pet his hair or kiss his face or just keep him close. He doesn’t know anything about Seungcheol – he coddled him last night, wiped his face and carried him like a doll. For alphas so intimidating, they do as much as they can to be anything but. It doesn’t work, Joshua’s not going to relax and make a mistake and risk them using their size against him, but they try.

“Jeonghan takes pictures,” he says, “it’s his job. I think he was practicing. Come on, Mingyu!” He finally gets Mingyu to move and then he has to struggle to keep his feet under him because Mingyu starts running to the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. He’ll have to sprint to keep up. His legs aren’t long enough to match that speed. He’s out of breath by the time he reaches the top and Mingyu isn’t any better.

They look at each other and laugh. They laugh the rest of their breath away. It’s just fun – funny – to be with Mingyu like this. Safe. As free as they will ever be. No fences or cages to keep them in. They can go anywhere if Jeonghan says it’s okay.

“This one’s mine.” He’s so out of breath he has to sit down and scoot to his door. Mingyu laughs harder and harder until he falls too. “Look! L-look at the window!”

Mingyu stops laughing when he sees the window. Like Joshua thought he would. He’s proud of his window. “You can see my house. ‘shua, you can see right into the living room. If I had looked up last night, I could’ve seen you.” Oh no. Mingyu starts to slump in on himself. “I never even looked across the street. I should’ve. I would’ve seen you and last night wouldn’t have hurt so bad.”

Hurt? Mingyu got hurt? The only bruise on his face is from the handler, but it’s easy to hide wounds under clothes. Joshua knows that very well. “Hurt? Did he hurt you? I-I can-”

“No, it was a heart hurt.” Ah, he knows heart hurts. Those are the things that don’t leave or heal. Jihoon broke his wrist at the warehouse, it healed fine. Jihoon’s parents left him at the doctor’s office when they found out he was an omega; that never healed. It went straight to his heart and there’s no doctor that can fix it. No doctor that would even try either. “And you couldn’t stop Wonwoo if you wanted to.”

Mingyu’s not wrong. But it’s nice to think that he could protect his friend if he had to.

 "Is Wonwoo nice?" Mingyu kicks the door shut and crawls up onto the bed. Joshua gets tugged up there too, giggling and nearly forgetting what he asked in the first place. But Mingyu didn't forget. His smile droops after Joshua's done bouncing on the mattress. Is Wonwoo not nice then? Jeonghan seems to like him, but Jeonghan isn't his property like Mingyu is. And Jeonghan's an alpha, he wouldn't understand.

"I dunno. Kinda?" Mingyu sucks in a deep breath and starts to chew on his lip. "He's quiet and smart. It's been a day, Joshua, I dunno. He's not - he hasn't hit me." And that's good. That's really really good. Mingyu always gets hit. Wonwoo is okay if he doesn’t hit Mingyu. "He says he won't."

"Do you believe him?" Stupid question. Believing alphas is dangerous. It’s how the warehouse got Chanyeol. His mom left him at the doctor’s and he ran and ran and ran. Lived alone on the street for a year. Alpha found him and said that he knew about a restaurant that would hire him as a cleaner. The restaurant was the warehouse and Chanyeol was already handcuffed by the time he realized the alpha lied.

"Would you?" Hopeless, defeated. But no, he doesn't believe anything from an alpha without proof anymore. He’s got the people he can trust. He had them. Now all he’s got is Mingyu. That’s okay though, he can trust Mingyu.

He wants to tell Mingyu about the flashbacks, about the warehouse in his head. What if Mingyu wants to forget it all? Mingyu's good at that, shoving things to where they can't hurt him anymore and pretending they don't exist. If he can't tell Mingyu, he can't tell anyone.

So he doesn't tell Mingyu. Mingyu has his own problems, more than Joshua can even imagine. It's not right for him to dump his own on top. He'll survive. He survived the warehouse in real life, he'll survive the one in his mind too.

Mingyu doesn't look at him. He is staring at the ceiling and playing with the hem of his shirt. Wonwoo's shirt, probably. Good, he'd know that Joshua's hiding something and pull it out of him. He's good that, really good. Secrets aren't secrets with Mingyu. "What about you? How is Jeonghan?"

"And Seungcheol."

Mingyu's jaw drops. "Two?" He nods. He has two alphas, two egos to balance, two sets of rules to follow.

Two people that carry him to bed when he falls asleep on the couch. Two closets to borrow from.

"They're a couple... married? I dunno. They haven't hit me either. But Jeonghan likes to play with my hair and pet me a lot." Not as bad as it sounds. Personal space doesn't really exist for him. If he's going to be touched, at least it's with soft hands. "I don't know much about Seungcheol," Joshua says and plays with the sleeves of his alpha's pajama shirt, "I think he's at work now. But he said he's gonna try and find Minghao and Jihoon. I heard him on the phone."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

Mingyu pushes himself up onto his elbows. Contentment settles in his chest thinking about finding Minghao and Jihoon one day. He prayed that he'd see them one day. He prayed that he'd see Mingyu too, that Mingyu would have a good alpha, and that's come true so far. So maybe it'll all happen. Maybe. He prays again, really hard. "Amen."

"You still pray," Mingyu asks.

"It worked for you. I prayed that I'd see you again and now you're across the street." Mingyu's mouth ticks up in a little smile. He squeezes his eyes shut and Joshua can almost feel him praying.

"Amen."

They both laugh, dry and hollow, and then the room goes quiet again. What do they say now? He can't think of anything to say. He could talk to Mingyu about anything before but his mind is blank. There's too much he wants to say, not enough he can make come out of his mouth.

"Why was lunch hard?"

"Wonwoo is... he's been nice so far. But his parents - his dad is the alpha the handlers talked about." Oh God, please no. "He kept talking about how big I am. He asked if Wonwoo was looking for a challenge. Then Wonwoo told me to order before him because he didn't know what he wanted yet and his dad reached across the table and slapped me across the mouth for speaking out of turn." He didn’t see it before. He doesn't know how he didn't see it before, but there's a cut underneath the bruise on Mingyu's cheek. The other omega flinches when he goes to touch it. Right, he doesn't like hands in his face. “Was gonna happen sometime. Wonwoo made us leave after though and he had like a little wipe to clean out the cut. That stung. I got McDonald’s for lunch… I forgot that I really really liked McDonald’s.”

Mingyu yawns, "Sorry, I'm tired. Wonwoo wanted me to sleep in his bed last night. I don’t have my own room like you." And Mingyu couldn't sleep. Joshua knows. He probably didn't sleep at all, less than what he did in the warehouse. Have to be safe to sleep and there’s nothing safe about sleeping next to an alpha. Joshua could sleep a little more, just a little more.

It's so easy to cuddle with Mingyu. They're missing half of the pile, but having Mingyu's sweet scent in his nose is better than nothing. So tired. So sleepy. So comfortable. Rest comes easy.

Seungcheol's scent fills his nose. He forces himself awake just to feel his blanket settling on top of him and Mingyu. "Dinner'll be ready by the time you two wake up. He's free to stay too, if he wants. I'm trying out a new recipe tonight." Words bubble and distort in his mouth. He tries to say thank you but he doesn't know what comes out. Seungcheol just laughs. "Are you happy now that he’s here?” Joshua nods. He can do that, he can nod. “Kickass,” Seungcheol says, “are those my pajamas?”

He nods again. “Jeonghan said I could have ‘em,” he mumbles. Seungcheol needs to know that it wasn’t his idea. If he gets in trouble it wasn’t his fault.

“Bout time someone wore them. They look better on you than they ever did on me. Okay, I’m gonna go and you’re gonna get some rest because you’ve been through hell and back and you two deserve all the sleep you want.”

Jeonghan pokes his head in the door, “Cheol, stop fucking bothering them! They’re sleeping!”

“Don’t yell at me, Hannie, I’m sensitive!”

“Yell? I haven’t even started yelling. Let Joshua and Mingyu rest before I kick your ass.” Joshua giggles. Just a little. And Jeonghan’s face softens. “Good nap, Joshua?” He nods. His alphas are strange.

His bedroom door clicks closed and Mingyu shifts. “They’re very… weird. It’s kinda nice.” And it is. His alphas are weird but they aren’t the alphas the handlers used to talk about. He is owned, but there could be worse owners. There could be much, much worse owners.

Chapter Text

He hides. He hides in the dark where he can’t be touched. He hides in the dark where it’s safe. Time passes in endless night. There is light outside. He misses the light, he misses being outside the dark. He doesn’t belong here. He belongs with his friends. But he has no choice so he stays in the dark.

How many days has it been? The light outside has come and gone four times? Five? He thought he would stop being so scared after the first few days, but the terror is still there. He’s just as scared as he was when he first crawled under the bed. That’s right, he’s under a bed. He’s under a bed that is supposed to be his bed but he can’t sleep up there. It would feel so good to sleep in a bed. Joshua is probably in a bed now. Good. Joshua deserves a bed.

He can’t sleep in his bed because it’s not safe. The alpha is just big enough to not get him under the bed. He’d be helpless if he came out.

The alpha leaves food for him. Sandwiches and apples and some vegetables. He crawls to the edge of the darkness when he hears the front door close and eats them. When the front door closes is when he sprints to the bathroom. A minute or less, that’s what he gives himself.  The food is good, better than anything he can remember eating. So he eats it all and licks the plate clean and scuttles back to safety when he’s done.

I have more food for you if you come out,” the alpha said. The alpha said that he has lots of food for him to eat if he comes out. Food sounds good, better than good. But if he comes out then he’s not safe. It’s safe under the bed.

The door opens and he huddles as far away from where the alpha can reach him. A face appears and blocks out the light. “I’m back from work,” the alpha says, “I’m happy that you ate all the food I left for you. I know you keep the water cup with you, so can you roll it out here for me to get you more?” Water. Yes, he’s so thirsty. He sends it rolling towards the face. “Thank you! I’ll be right back with more water… unless you’d like to come out and I can get you milk or tea or juice? I don’t have soda or coffee because I can’t handle the sugar or caffeine, but I have lots of other stuff for you.”

He says nothing. He will not come out. It’s not safe. The alpha sighs and disappears. And he’s all alone again. He was never meant to be alone, the last one left. It wasn’t supposed to be him. He can’t be alone again. He has been alone all day and it stings to be alone again.

If he called, the alpha would come back and keep him company for as long as he wants. But if he calls, the alpha will lift the mattress and pull him out from under the bed and not let him near the beds again. He wouldn’t be alone anymore though.

The face comes back. The water cup is placed near it. He crawls forward to grab it because he only gets water when the alpha remembers to check on the water cup. The alpha said he’d be in control of the water if he came out. He wouldn’t have to be thirsty. He crawls forward to grab the cup. It’s close to the alpha, too close. He didn’t notice the alpha started moving it closer. Why didn’t he notice?

The alpha grabs his wrist, speaking softly as he screams, “Please just let me help you. You can’t stay under the bed. Shh, I’m not pulling you out, see?” His arm stays where it is. It’s a loose hold, he can break it. He will. “Jihoon,” the alpha rubs circles into his bony wrist, “I’m telling you this now. In two days, you’ll have been under the bed for a week. If you don’t come out on your own by then, I’m coming to get you out. Please don’t make me, please come out on your own.”

The alpha lets him go. He huffs and disappears again and Jihoon starts to cry.

Jihoon hides in the dark where it’s safe. He’s safe. He’s safe. For two more days. Jihoon hides in the dark and gulps down water and cries.

Chapter Text

Mingyu goes home after dinner. They eat together in the living room, whispering so they don’t disturb Jeonghan and Seungcheol in the kitchen. “You’ll come back?”

“Uh-huh.”

He watches Mingyu walk across the street. He expects panic, dread and tears and Jeonghan grabbing him so he doesn’t run out of the house again. Calm. He’s calm instead. Mingyu will come back tomorrow. He’ll be back. Jeonghan holds the back of his shirt anyway.

He goes to bed early, loaded with more blankets that Seungcheol dug out of a closet. It takes a long time to fall asleep – too many naps. Jeonghan checks on him twice, Seungcheol three times. Feels safe. They’re checking on him and making sure he’s okay. He’s not lonely. And then he falls asleep and doesn’t know if they come to check on him again.

The next three days pass the same. Get a bath. Pick new clothes to wear – always pajamas. Eat breakfast and watch Jeonghan work on his laptop. Seungcheol brings him a little thing called a tablet on the first day without Mingyu – Tuesday. He doesn’t know how to use it. It’s nice and pretty, but he doesn’t know how to use it. Take a nap on the couch. Everything is the same. Routine, stable, safe. Same is good, same is easy.

Except for Mingyu. Mingyu goes to work with Wonwoo in the morning. He comes over as soon as he gets home. As soon as he gets home. Joshua watched one day. Mingyu got out the car and ran across the street and Joshua felt better about Mingyu going away.

But no Mingyu means that he’s alone when he wakes up on the couch. Jeonghan works in the afternoon. Office door is always open. He wanders the first day. Up and down the stairs, around the hallways. Lonely, the house is lonely by himself. But he wanders until Mingyu comes.

The second day gets too lonely. “Jeonghan?” Jeonghan looks up and his hair is tied back again. It looks pretty tied back. “Can I sit in here?”

The chair next to Jeonghan’s is still there. Jeonghan pats it. “Of course, come sit.” Joshua does. They don’t talk. He watches Jeonghan do more work and learns how to use his tablet. On Thursday, Jeonghan does his picture things to the picture of him and Mingyu and prints out a copy for Joshua to keep. He finds an old frame and drags a nightstand out from a guest room to put it on in Joshua’s room.

Jeonghan didn’t need to. Joshua sleeps with it. He borrows an EXPO from Seungcheol and writes Jihoon and Minghao on the glass. It’s like they’re there, in the photo. It’s like they’re here with him. The marker runs. Tears are good at wiping away EXPO and he hates it. Permanent marker next time, something that won’t wipe off. He holds the picture tighter and sleeps.

"Wake up." Shaken, he's being shaken. "C'mon, Joshua, it's time to wake up." He whines. Too early. Jeonghan never wakes him up in the morning. He tugs the blanket over his head. Laughter. "Oh no. We're gonna miss breakfast if you don't wake up." The mattress shifts. They left, good. He can go back to sleep now.

The blanket is tugged back down and bright light burns. "'s too bright!" He cracks an eye open and shuts it just as fast. Even brighter with his eyes open. But Seungcheol is the one waking him up. Makes sense, Jeonghan doesn't like to wake him up. He says that it's good for Joshua to rest and heal. Where did Jeonghan go? The alpha stopped Seungcheol from waking him up when he left for work in the morning the rest of the week.

Seungcheol taps his forehead. "I saw your eyes open. I know you're awake. Open your eyes," the alpha sings in his ear. He turns on his side away from the light instead. "Look at that pout, so precious."

"Too bright," he murmurs, squeezing his eyes shut. It's too bright. It doesn't help him wake up. Just hurts.

"If I close the curtains, will you open your eyes?" Joshua nods. He doesn't want to wake up at all, but he can't just say no. Getting hit would hurt more than the sunlight. "Alright, sounds good." The mattress shifts again and the light dims. He blinks his eyes open. Doesn't hurt as bad anymore. "Mornings are pretty hard for you, huh?"

"Yeah."

"How does Jeonghan manage to wake you up every morning," Seungcheol laughs. Doesn't seem very funny to Joshua.

"He doesn't. I sleep until I wake up." Bad. He sounded angry. Can't be angry at his alpha, even when he does something wrong.

Seungcheol sits down on the edge of the mattress and fidgets. "Oh. I - uh. I didn't know that." Seungcheol rubs at his legs under the blanket. Joshua says nothing. He has nothing to say. "Didn't start the weekend off too well. I can go, if you want. It's only like eight so you've got a long time to sleep still if you're tired."

He can't go back to sleep now. He's too awake and all the dreams are gone. "No." He sits up and yawns until his jaw cracks. Seungcheol grabs his face, too fast for him to move away. They know he doesn't like it when they do that. Why would Seungcheol grab him like that? Because he can. Because he's an alpha and Joshua can't stop him.

But he lets go when Joshua whimpers and squeezes his eyes shut. "Sorry, so sorry. That was my bad. Still learning how to respect boundaries. Just - what the hell is on your face? It looks marker or something." The ink must have run more after he fell asleep. Or maybe he just rubbed his face against the glass.

He grabs the EXPO off the nightstand and hands it to Seungcheol. He forgot to give it back last night. His bad. "Did you use it to draw on yourself," Seungcheol laughs and ruffles his hair. Joshua shakes his head. "Then how did it get on your face?"

He doesn't want to show him the picture. That picture is his. It's got him and Mingyu and it's important. Neither alpha said he couldn't draw on it. And writing Jihoon and Minghao's names helped. It was hope he could touch and see outside of his mind. They are his friends to remember. It's his hope to keep to himself.

"You can tell me," Seungcheol grabs his hand and holds it. His hands are warm and kinda sweaty and so much bigger than Joshua's. Seungcheol rubs circles on his knuckles. "You don't have to be afraid that you're gonna get in trouble or anything"

"I... I just don't want to talk about it. Is that okay?" He braces for the pain. Eyes shut so he can't see the fist coming.

It never comes. He opens his eyes and Seungcheol is staring at him, just staring. Seungcheol leans in and kisses his forehead. “Yeah, that's okay. I'll be here - me and Jeonghan both - we'll be here when you want to talk about it though. Or Mingyu. You can tell Mingyu anything. You probably don't need me to tell you that though. Here, how about we just go downstairs and eat breakfast before I make an idiot out of myself again?"

Joshua smiles. Just a little, but he smiles and he nods. And Seungcheol smiles back. “Cool. Awesome. Fantastic. So… let’s go?”

He should get a bath first. It’s what he does every morning. Bath then breakfast. But Seungcheol keeps touching him, patting his knee through the blanket, holding his hand. The alpha might follow him to the bathroom and watch him take a bath. He doesn’t like being watched. Jeonghan always leaves him to bathe by himself. Bathroom door always open in case something goes wrong, but still private. The routine is safe, breaking it makes him uncomfortable. It’s more uncomfortable when someone watches him in the bathtub though.

So he climbs out of bed and tugs his blanket over his shoulders and shuffles to the door. Seungcheol doesn’t follow. Was he supposed to let Seungcheol go first? He turns and Seungcheol is staring at the bed with a frown. Is it because his bed is messy? Jeonghan said he didn’t have to make it if he didn’t want to. He can go do it really fast if Seungcheol wants him to. He can be good.

Seungcheol looks away and forces on a smile. Fake. They’ve never given him fake smiles before. He doesn’t like them. His alphas don’t need fake smiles, they have good normal smiles. Their smiles are happy smiles and they tell the truth and don’t feel dangerous like the fake smiles. “Breakfast,” Joshua asks. Seungcheol nods but the smile stays fake. Like one of the dolls his mom would buy for Cousin Jennie. What did he do wrong? “I’m sorry.” Head down, get away before he can get in trouble.

“For what?” Seungcheol’s got his wrist and now he’s going to get in trouble. What did he do? There are no rules yet, he doesn’t know what little things he should and shouldn’t do. They’re supposed to give him rules; he can’t follow rules that aren’t there. So he shrugs. He doesn’t know what he did wrong and it’s not his fault but he’s still going to be punished. “There’s nothing to apologize for, Joshua, at least not on your end. You’re perfectly fine.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Not his business. All questions about Seungcheol have to go away; Chanyeol told them to look straight ahead, curiosity kills the cat. Seungcheol watches him. He doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like being watched. He’s theirs though, they can look at him if they want to. Seungcheol sighs and drops his wrist. He looks up, a reflex. Seungcheol is frowning. Not even a fake smile anymore, he’s frowning. How did he fuck up so early in the morning? He didn’t do anything to make Seungcheol upset!

But he must’ve. People don’t frown for no reason. Except the handlers, maybe, but Jihoon said that they weren’t people. No one who hurts other people is a person.

Seungcheol doesn’t frown a lot. He did at the warehouse and when they got home, but he smiles all the time. He smiles when Jeonghan smiles, when he takes his shoes off at the front door, he smiles when he sees Joshua curled up on the couch. Sometimes he smiles when he sees Mingyu too. Seungcheol frowning is not normal, not routine, and that is bad. Joshua did something wrong.

He can apologize again. He can apologize a lot. He’s really good saying I’m sorry over and over and over.

“Do not tell me you came in here and woke him up.” Someone’s behind him. Someone snuck up on him. And they’re mad. Shit shit shit. What did he do? He jumps and dives for the bed. He’ll be safe if he can get underneath where he’s hard to reach. Most alphas are too big to get under his bed, it’s too low to the ground. He and Mingyu can get underneath, but Jeonghan couldn’t when he came looking for them. And if Jeonghan can’t get under, no other alpha can. Probably.

Seungcheol catches him before he can make it under. He’s up in the air, feet kicking to touch the ground. Seungcheol is too tall, too strong, he won’t get down unless Seungcheol puts him down. "Woah woah woah," the alpha yells. Why are they yelling? What did he do wrong? He didn't do anything wrong. He was good! Jeonghan said he's been good all week!

"'m sorry," he shrieks, "'m sorry! 'm sorry! I didn't mean to!" He squirms and kicks in Seungcheol's arms. He needs to get to somewhere safe. But people are in his room - his safe space. He has to get under the bed where they can't reach him. Seungcheol just holds him tighter and then he can't move. Oh god, he can't move. He's trapped. There's no escape.

No way out. He can't escape this time. It won't hurt as bad if he just takes the hits. Mingyu told him that. Said it hurts more if he's all tensed up. So he goes limp and squeezes his eyes shut and waits. It's not fair. None of it is fair. He didn't break a rule; he didn't do anything wrong. He doesn't deserve this it's not fair.

The handlers used to hit Jihoon until he broke and cried. Joshua stops fighting the tears. Maybe they'll hit him less since he's already crying. They already won. His throat aches when he sobs because he's been so good and he's been trying so hard and it doesn't even matter because he's still in trouble.

"Oh shit. Fuck! Okay, okay, what did Seokmin tell me to do when this happens?”

He crumbles when his feet touch the ground and curls into himself. He can protect a lot like this, his belly and his head and his chest. "Hey, Joshua? Can you tell me where you are right now?" Soft is wrapped around his shoulders. It smells like him. He ducks his head farther to hide his face in it. "Where are you right now?"

"Warehouse," he whispers, "bad room." It's where they took most of the omegas when they were punished. Jihoon didn't go there because they wanted him to be the example. Mingyu always went there because there were no cameras there and the handlers knew they weren't supposed to hit him like they did. Joshua went in the bad room five times. He doesn't remember it. That's what he told Jihoon and Mingyu and Minghao, that he didn't remember what happened. He does. He remembers pain and crying and begging for it to stop and the handlers laughing because he was so pathetic.

"Do you know who I am?" Voices all blur now. The handlers change shifts, new ones come and old ones leave. He only knows a few handlers because they're the ones that don't care about leaving scars. Voices don't mean anything to him. He doesn't know this voice. He can't see either. His eyes are open and they sting because they're dry but he can't see anything.

But he knows the smell. It's the black shampoo bottle, the one he doesn’t use because he doesn’t know if it’s empty or not. "Seungcheol."

Seungcheol hums happily, "That's right. And do I live at the warehouse?" Joshua shakes his head. "Right again, good job! So where do I live?"

"Your house."

"Do I ever go to - to the bad room in the warehouse?" No? Alphas don't get punished like that. At least, he's never seen it. He shakes his head. "So you're here with me and I do not go to the bad room in the warehouse, where are we then?"

"I-I... I don't - I, um." It's too much. Too many thoughts, too much that Seungcheol wants him to remember. He's trying to remember, he's trying so hard to be good. He cries harder, head throbbing because he keeps hitting himself because it's too much.

His wrists are pulled down and Seungcheol keeps shushing him. "Don't hit yourself," he whispers, "don't hurt yourself, please." Seungcheol pushes his hands toward his neck until the collar rubs against his fingers.

It's his collar. He picked it out. He takes it off for baths and Jeonghan wrote on it in Sharpie so they know how tight it needs to be. "This means you're done with the warehouse, you're free," Jeonghan makes him curl his fists around it and hold on. The collar means he doesn't go back to the warehouse. He's owned, he lives with his alphas in their house. "I'm sorry I asked you so many questions. It was too much, huh? You don't have to think hard right now, just remember that this is your collar. The warehouse is, by law, not allowed to touch you when you have this collar."

The warehouse can't touch him. No one can make him go back to the bad room. Good. Okay. It's okay.

"I am not at the warehouse?" He blinks until his eyes stop hurting and Seungcheol comes into focus. "I'm not at the warehouse." Seungcheol shakes his head and smiles, letting go of his wrists and petting his hair.

"No, you're not," Seungcheol says, "You're home and you're okay. No one is going to hurt you and you're not in trouble. Do you want to sit here for a little while or we can move to your bed if you wa-"

"Bath." He shouldn't have interrupted Seungcheol but he's too tired to get scared again. Seungcheol says he's not in trouble. "I want to take a bath."

“Okay. We can do that, no problem.”

He gets a bath. His head is all empty, floaty and somewhere else. He needs help getting into the tub because his legs don’t feel like they’re on his body anymore. Feel numb and weird and not his legs. His hands are his though. He can use them. He does use them. When did he get into the bathtub? Jeonghan probably helped him – the alpha is leaning up against the cabinets and watching him.

He picks up the cup to rinse out the shampoo, fills it up with water – why does he need the cup? He dumps the water back out. He needs to rinse out the shampoo. He fills the cup with water and dumps it back out. Jeonghan takes the cup from him and tilts his head back. “I’m gonna help you, sweetheart. Don’t worry, it’s just me – just Jeonghan.” Just Jeonghan getting out all the shampoo. The ceiling is white and now white is all he sees.

“I don’t want to leave him like this.”

When did he get to the kitchen? He doesn’t remember getting out of the bathtub. Or getting dressed. Or coming downstairs. But he’s at the kitchen table and there’s food in front of him.

His head is wrong and heavy, bad-nap heavy. It happened at the warehouse, mostly to Jihoon. Jihoon used to take long, long naps and wake up and forget that he was in warehouse. Things don't make sense after naps like that. It doesn't make sense that he was in the bathtub and now he's in the kitchen.

"Jeonghan?" His throat hurts, clicks because it's too dry. And then Jeonghan is there and giving him a glass of milk. "Thank you." He gulps it down. Some spills down the sides of his mouth because he's not careful but Jeonghan just shushes him when he tries to apologize.

"Don't worry about it," the alpha says, "no reason to cry over spilled milk." That was a bad joke. "Are you... back?" Back? He didn't go anywhere. But Joshua nods because even if he did go away, he's here now. And Jeonghan smiles so it was the right answer. "Go ahead and eat if you're hungry. You don't have to talk about what happened if you don't want to."

He remembers being back – thinking he was back in the warehouse. He doesn't want to talk about it or the bad room. He doesn't want to talk at all. And so he eats. Jeonghan sits down next to him with his own food and then Seungcheol sits next to Jeonghan and they all eat breakfast together. In silence.

He likes it. Joshua hasn't eaten at a table with other people like this in a long, long time. He likes that they don't have to talk either, they can be quiet and not make him talk.

Mingyu says that the people that work with Wonwoo feel like they have to talk to him all the time or else they're being rude. Mingyu doesn't like to talk to other people, Mingyu likes to talk to Joshua and sometimes Wonwoo. Joshua likes to talk to Mingyu and sometimes Jeonghan and Seungcheol a little bit.

"So I've gotta run and meet with a client," Jeonghan says when they're all done and Seungcheol is washing the dishes. "I tried to clear out my schedule for a little while to be home until you were more settled but this woman is a fucking nightmare and needs me to meet with her today to make sure I remember her infinite list of things she needs me to do."

"Is this the pigeon lady? The woman looks like fucking pigeon and you know it, Hannie. I bet she goes around harassing old people at the park for bread crumbs," Seungcheol flaps his arms and caws like a bird. Joshua laughs, just a little bit, and Seungcheol scurries over to the table and pretends to peck Jeonghan.

Jeonghan swats at him, pushing his face away. Joshua laughs a little more. He doesn't see Jeonghan and Seungcheol together a lot. Mingyu comes over when Seungcheol gets home and he always goes upstairs when Mingyu comes over. He never sees them until late at night, after Mingyu goes back home and Joshua sits on his couch and they sit on theirs and someone picks a movie.

He kinda wants to see them together more. They're in love, real love. The good kind of love that he saw in TV shows and wanted before the blood test.

Seungcheol looks at him like a precious thing when Jeonghan finally pushes the alpha away. And then Jeonghan turns to him and his mouth twists into a smile as he ruffles his hair, like normal. He watches his hands instead of his alphas and his face relaxes.

Oh. He was smiling. "You can come with me, if you want. I can't guarantee that it'll be even slightly fucking tolerable, but I’m going to the grocery store after and maybe you can pick up food that you like. You might remember that chip flavor you liked if you saw them all."

He shakes his head. It’s too much outside. The car makes him so dizzy because to moves to fast and his stomach rolls just thinking about riding in it. And the smells - Seungcheol changes out of his work clothes as soon as he comes home because all the smells make Joshua dizzy. What’ll happen if he goes with lots of other people? Bad things, probably.

"I thought so but I wanted to give you the choice," Jeonghan kisses his forehead and stands up, catching the keys Seungcheol throws him. "Then I'm going to leave now and hopefully get this meeting out of the way. I'll call when I'm at the store, see if you two can remember anything we need that's not on the list."

Seungcheol pulls Jeonghan in for a kiss as he walks out of the kitchen and they're just so happy. They smile against each other mouths – and there's so much love. "Love you," Seungcheol tucks some of Jeonghan's hair back behind his ear, "drive safe and let me know when you get there."

"Will do. Love you too." And then Jeonghan drops his voice low. It comes back up, "See you in a bit, Joshua!"

He waves goodbye and Jeonghan smiles really big.

The door to the garage slams shut and then it's just him and Seungcheol. He doesn't know Seungcheol. Maybe he should've gone with Jeonghan. The alpha is so nervous that it turns his scent sour and burns his nose. It makes him nervous too, so nervous that the tips of his fingers ache. Why is the alpha nervous? He's in charge, he gets to make the rules.

"Do you wanna watch TV or something? Hannie says that you guys watch movies after breakfast sometimes?" He nods. "Cool. I, uh, guess lets go," Seungcheol shuffles away and his scent gets more sour. He follows after him anyway, pulling his blanket closer - when did it get there? He sniffs. Jeonghan. Make sense, Jeonghan always make sure his blanket is close.

Seungcheol picks an action movie, something with a guy who is superhero but not really a superhero. "The equalizer, I think. Cause he like...equalizes? I dunno."

The alpha kills a bunch of other alphas because they put his omega friend in the hospital. A female omega, of course. The only male omegas he's seen as real characters, not just pets for the bad guys, have been Iron Man and Spiderman. Real superheroes, famous superheroes, but that's it. Jeonghan told him that there a few movies with a male omega as the lead but they’re all sad.

"He makes things equal," he says after a long, long time. Seungcheol jumps and stares at him like he's never heard him speak before. He has, not a lot, but he's talked in front of Seungcheol before. "The people he helps, they can't protect themselves. He protects them and makes it all equal."

"Never thought of it that way. Huh. You're a smart cookie." He presses his face into his knees. It feels hot and his mouth is all twitchy. "How did I never figure – How did I not get that? It makes so much sense." Seungcheol flops back onto the couch. "Did you just, like, figure it out?"

He nods. It wasn't hard, he's seen it before. The alpha on the screen is like Chanyeol, helping the people that can't help themselves. Joshua acted out all the time when he was first at the warehouse. He was so upset and scared and angry and he would just yell at handlers, make noise in his cage at night, throw the food they gave him back. He was so small then too. So small the handlers could pick him up and throw him across the yard if they wanted. But they couldn't pick up Chanyeol. He told the handlers that it was his fault, all of the yelling and fighting. The handlers back then were still a little scared of Chanyeol because he was so tall and had lived on the streets and survived. He could actually fight off the handlers if he wanted.

And he did. He fought them off once, the first time they tried to take Joshua to the bad room. He was too young, the superiors didn't want the young ones going to the bad room, but they tried to take him anyway. Chanyeol punched the handler that grabbed him and went to the bad room instead.

He thinks the name Equalizer is kinda dumb, but he knows those kind of people.

The movie ends and Jeonghan's not back. He calls Seungcheol and says that the pigeon lady took forever to tell him what she wanted. And that she brought her omega daughter to try and set them up on a date. Laughing in people's face is bad but Jeonghan says he did. He laughed in her face and to tell her that he already had a husband and an omega when she said that she didn't mind her daughter having two alphas.

"Joshua figured out why that Denzel Washington movie is called The Equalizer."

"Really? Why?"

"Cause he gives power back to people who don't have it. Right, Joshua?" Joshua nods. "He can't see you over the phone."

"Oh... Yeah, that's why."

"That makes so much sense. Why didn't we figure that out?"

"I have no idea, but good thing Joshua is smart." His face is hot again.

"Like we didn't already know he's smart. Listen, I gotta go. I just passed a cop and you know the no cellphones policy. I'll call you when I finish getting everything on the list."

"Mmkay," Seungcheol croons into the phone, "love you. Don't get arrested!"

"There go my plans to spend the day at the police station. Thanks for ruining my day... Love you too. Bye, Joshua!"

Seungcheol puts on another movie. Jurassic Park, one that Joshua remembers from before the warehouse. Excitement sparks in his chest as the first dinosaurs come on screen. He used to love this movie. Mom and him would watch it every weekend. Friday nights were his father's nights to go out with his friends and his mother's nights to spend with him.

He knows some of the dialogue by heart. The theme song was the first song he learned on piano, on guitar. He hums along. "Da-da-da-dum-dum. Da-da-da-dum-dum. Da-da-daa-da-da-daa."

"You know this movie," Seungcheol asks.

He nods. He loves this movie. It was the only scary-ish movie he ever got to watch. He used to tell Minghao about it and draw little stick figure dinosaurs in the dirt outside or in the grime on his cage floor. "Used to watch it a lot. I liked the dinosaurs."

"Yeah? Wanted to be a paleontologist when you grew up? Learn all about dinosaurs?"

"No, I wanted to be a dinosaur." Seungcheol laughs, choking on his own spit. His mom did that too when he told her. At five, it was the perfect job. Seemed like it in the warehouse too.

When he was younger, he used to imagine waking up as an Utahraptor and breaking out of the warehouse and going to live on an island where no one could ever find him. Maybe he'd change into Pterosaur then and live life in the sky, free free free. Mingyu would be a Diplodocus, big and sweet and happy to just live his life and not be bothered. Jihoon would be a Hadrocodium, small and a pack animal – probably, the book he had back home didn't say much about Hadrocodium, but it looked like a rodent and those live together. Minghao would be a Deinonychus, vicious and fast but another pack animal, taking care of his own. And Chanyeol would be the Brachiosaurus watching over them all.

It was his favorite daydream. The one that got him through the worst nights.

"Well." He startles. Forgot where he was. Seungcheol points to the Gallimimus running onscreen, "There's a museum all about dinosaurs near my office if you'd ever like to go. It's credited as one of the best around."

"Really?" He never got to go to one of the dinosaur museums. His parents said they never had the time. They were supposed to go a little after his thirteenth birthday. After a routine checkup at the doctor's. "Th-that – I. I'd like that... Yeah."

Seungcheol sits up and his eyes shine. "We can talk to Hannie about it when he gets home. I'm sure he'd love to go! They probably have a fuck ton of dinosaur books on Amazon too. We can check it out after the movie." The alpha leans over the coffee table and reaches to hug him. He stops and pats his shoulder instead.

Seungcheol settles back in his couch and stares ahead at the TV. And maybe he feels a little more settled too. Here, in this house, with his alphas.

"Thank you."

He looks away from the velociraptor creeping around the lab. It's been a while since they talk, a few scenes. Seungcheol had no more dinosaurs to ask him to name and so they just went silent. He doesn't mind. The quiet feels nice. "What for," he asks.

Seungcheol just smiles, "For talking to me. I, uh, know you don't like to talk – or you don't seem like you like to talk. I appreciate you talking to me." And what does he say to that? There’s nothing he can say, so he doesn’t. He just nods and watches the movie. The dinosaurs.

Seungcheol would be a Quetzalcoatlus and Jeonghan would be an Archaeopteryx. He just knows it.

When the Jurassic Park song comes again, Seungcheol sings it with him.

Chapter Text

"How did you even manage to fit under there?" Because Mingyu is good at being small. He knows how to make himself not so big and fit where he shouldn't. Used to do it all the time when his mom and dad argued. He'd squeeze behind the bookshelf in the living room and stay there until his dad went to run off his anger and his mom locked herself in her office to talk on the phone about how awful his dad was. Sometimes he wouldn't come out for the rest of the day.

He's not going to come out now. Wonwoo hasn't hit him all week but he'll hit him if he comes out now. Because Mingyu ran and hid under the bed when Wonwoo said they were going to the doctor. “Mingyu, please come out. We’re gonna be late.” That’s okay. They can be late; they can not go at all. That would be okay too.

Wonwoo tries to wiggle under the bed too. He tried before but he’s too big. He’s smaller than Mingyu but he doesn’t know how to be small. How to fold up and hide. Not like Mingyu. He’s the best at being small, he even taught Jihoon.

“Mingyu, I’ve read your file,” so he knows. Wonwoo knows. “This isn’t going to be like the other doctors before.” His dad was a doctor, his dad was the one that gave him all his shots and made sure he got the red suckers after if he was good. His dad was the one that did the blood test and dropped him off at the warehouse.

“I don’t like doctors,” he whispers, “Please, don’t make me go.” Wonwoo sighs. He made him mad, didn’t he? It was coming. He never got hit the whole week, not once. He knew it was coming. But he’ll survive. If he only gets hit sometimes, he’ll survive. Wonwoo doesn’t look mad though. Mingyu’s seen him mad at work, mad at his employees when they don’t listen or are late. Wonwoo takes deep, deep breaths and walks away when he gets mad. The alpha’s jaw clenches and his eyes get dark.

But Wonwoo’s face is soft now. He’s frowning but it’s not a mad frown. Wonwoo’s just – he’s sad. Mingyu’s sad too. He wants Joshua and Jihoon and he really really really really wants Minghao. He wants his best friend so bad.

“Mingyu,” Wonwoo stops and tries to wiggle under the bed again. He can’t. Too big. The alpha sits up instead and Mingyu watches where his hands are on the carpet. “We’re going to the doctor today. I am responsible for your health and well-being, and Kyungsoo pointed out that there’s a good chance you have lasting damage from the abuse.” He’s fine. He’s not sick. He doesn’t need to go to the doctor.

He fights the fear. Fear of being bad. Fear of not doing as he’s told. Wonwoo hasn’t hit him all week. It’s a game, isn’t it? A game to see how long Mingyu can go without messing up. But Wonwoo says all the time that he’ll never hit him. The other people at Wonwoo’s work say how nice the alpha is, how he’s even-tempered and takes abuse cases on for free because he hates violence. What is he supposed to think? Do? Mingyu doesn’t want to be bad. He hasn’t been hit all week and it’s been so nice. He only has one purple bruise now, the rest are yellow. He doesn’t want any more purple bruises.

“A-are you crying? Mingyu, please come out and talk to me. Junhui is an excellent doctor and he’s agreed to come in during his vacation time because he’s the only doctor I’d trust to make sure you’re okay. And think about it, the sooner we go the doctor, the sooner we can come home and you can see Joshua.” He wants to see Joshua. “I can call Jun now. You can talk to him and feel a bit more comfortable. You’re not – there are no consequences, you’re not in trouble and you’re not being bad. Just come out.”

And so he crawls out. Wonwoo gives the tissues they keep on the nightstand and smiles at him. But his hands shake when he gets scared and Wonwoo has to take the tissues and help wipe the tears. “Thank you for coming out. You did so well, I’m proud of you,” Wonwoo hums and slowly dabs the tears off his cheeks. Free hand always right where Mingyu can see it. “It’s alright. There’s no tricks, no game. This is just me trying to take you to the doctor. We go to the doctor and then we come home. We can go across the street and you’ll have the rest of the day to spend with Joshua.”

“C-can you-” he stops. He can’t make himself ask. He pushed his luck too far already.

“Can I call Junhui?” He nods. “I offered, of course I can. Take a few deep breaths, Mingyu.” He sighs. “I’m going to have to bump the appointment with Seungkwan up to next week – not a doctor! Not a doctor, Mingyu, just someone who you can talk to.” Wonwoo pulls his phone out of his pocket. Slowly. Wonwoo’s hands always move slowly.

Wonu, I would really love to talk but I’m a bit busy. No, it’s not the center. I’ve already told you I’m not going to send you back. You’re safe here – don’t snarl at me, please.” It’s like the alpha on the phone has a wild animal. There’s just snarling and growling over and over and over.

“Jun, I need to call in a favor. Mingyu is terrified of doctors and we think it might help if he can talk to you for a little bit before his appointment.” Wonwoo holds the phone up between them. “You can say hello if you want.” But there’s no chance.

Mingyu? Mingyu? Kim Mingyu! It’s – I – Mingyu!” Mandarin. He only knows that’s what the babbling is called because of one person.

And all he says is, “Oh.”

They’re put across from each other because their names are kinda the same. That’s what the handlers say. Mingyu doesn’t know what the other omega’s name is. Better than an empty cage. Or worse, maybe, because it means someone else is stuck in the warehouse. Mingyu goes to sleep one night across from an empty cage and wakes up to the new boy. The new boy who doesn’t talk. He just kicks at the door of his cage.

“You’ll hurt your feet, kid,” Chanyeol says. The boy just snarls and keeps kicking.

He doesn’t stop. He kicks and kicks until the handlers come to take them to the hose. They take Mingyu first. They always take him first. He hates the hose, hates the cold and water and not being able to move. But the handlers said they’ll take Joshua first if he fights and Joshua comes back different if he goes to the hose first. He’s okay after a day or two but he’s just wrong until then. Chanyeol offered to go first for Mingyu and Joshua, but the handlers laughed and called him a fucking bitch.

So Mingyu goes first. The boy is still kicking. “What did you do, omega? You rile him up?” He shakes his head. He didn’t do anything. Everyone knows it, the handlers know it. But that doesn’t matter. “If you don’t quit fuckin’ kicking I’m gonna beat one of you. Either you for kicking or this one for doing whatever the fuck he did to make you start kicking.” The boy snarls again and shouts something in a different language. He doesn’t understand. He probably doesn’t even know why he’s here or what anyone’s saying. He doesn’t know.

“It was my fault.” Mingyu can take the hit. He understands why it’s happening. “I made him mad.”

“That’s what I thought. Don’t fuckin lie to me next time.” The handler drags him to the bad room and he goes away. Somewhere deep down inside his head where they can’t find him.

He comes back and everything hurts. The handler throws him back in his cage and he curls up. It feels better if he curls up. The other boy isn’t kicking anymore. He’s just staring. “You okay now?” The boy says nothing but he doesn’t snarl or kick. So it’s something. Mingyu just wants to sleep.

“I told him what’s going on,” Mark says, “Where we are and what happened to you.” Good. He understands now. Maybe he won’t kick anymore and be good. He’s small-ish, the handlers are kinder to the small ones. He probably won’t get in trouble anymore, he just has to be good.

“Thank you.” Did the boy just speak? It’s rough and the sounds are kinda wrong, but it’s definitely words. The boy is still staring at him. “Thank you.” Mingyu nods. Too tired to speak. The boy pats his chest, “Minghao.”

Chapter Text

“My name is Junhui,” the alpha says, “But you can call me Jun. Is there anything you like to be called other than Minghao?” Mingyu used to call him HaoHao when they were younger. But that was Mingyu, not Junhui. He stares at out the window and says nothing. “Minghao? You understand Korean, right?” Of course he understands Korean. He’s not an idiot. Joshua and Jihoon and Mingyu taught him.

Doesn't mean he'll tell Junhui that.

“Or Chinese? You probably speak Chinese.” He twitches. He hasn’t heard Chinese in a long, long time. Mark speaks a little, but he doesn’t like to. Says it reminds him too much of home. Minghao understands. Hearing Chinese reminds him of sleeping on benches and making temporary homes in abandoned buildings. It reminds him of freedom.

He wants Junhui to stop speaking in Chinese now. That’s Minghao’s, he doesn’t get to use it.

“If you don’t want to talk to me, I need you to let me know.” A touch on his arm. Minghao snarls. He snaps. Shoves Junhui’s hand away. Not Junhui’s to touch. He watches Junhui now, growling low in his throat. He wants Junhui to try to touch him. He would win if the alpha did. Probably. He is fast but Junhui is also very fast and he might not win. But Junhui doesn’t. Junhui just starts the car. “You don’t like being touched. Good to know.”

Minghao curls against the car door. Last time he was in a car was when they caught him and drove him to the warehouse. His stomach didn't like it then and he doesn't like it now. The car goes too fast, makes him too dizzy. Deep breaths. He can't puke now. He'd look weak if he does, like he can’t protect himself. He can though. He knows how to protect himself and he’s strong. Even if his ribs poke through, he’s strong. Strong enough to break the handler's hand today.

Why did Junhui even buy him? The handlers kept talking about how Minghao attacks them, how it would be a real challenge to break him. There were other alphas that wanted him because the handlers said he's tough, defiant, everything that omegas aren't supposed to be. And those alphas were bigger than him by a lot.

He expected a big alpha. There was one that was really big, over-muscled and kinda gross because that's just not how people are supposed to look. Those kinds of people have something to prove; having an omega and keeping them obedient is worth more to them. Chanyeol told him that the day before he got taken away. "Be good when they auction you off. It's bullshit, I know, but those alphas want someone to break, not someone already obedient. And they'll hurt you, Minghao, an alpha with something to prove will break your legs and beat you until you thank them for it to make sure they're the one in control."

He tried to be good. He's not an idiot. He promised himself he wouldn't snarl or bare his teeth and then he'd go home with an alpha he could protect himself against. He promised himself no one would ever hit him again once he got out – there wouldn't be any more bruises, any more pain. Minghao was going to protect himself like Dad taught him. If it meant going home with an alpha that couldn't hurt him, he'd play along and be good.

But then the handler hit Mingyu and he had to show them what happens when they hurt Mingyu. Mingyu is good, the kind of good that needs to be kept safe. The kind of good that takes the hits and the blame for things they didn't do. For someone they just met. That kind of person isn't meant to be hurt. Minghao got angry, really angry, and it didn't matter what happened anymore because he was angry.

He broke the handler's hand. He broke his hand and screamed at them in Chinese. One of the handlers had to hold him still on the little stage they had for the auction by his hair because he kept trying to run. The big alpha looked at him like a spoiled kid with a new toy, something to use and break until he got bored of him. Minghao didn't care. Chanyeol's warning didn't matter. He would fight the alpha and win because he had to. Anger makes him stupid. He expected a big alpha from the start.

Junhui walked up and asked the handler to let go of his hair instead. Still bigger than Minghao by a little, but not so big. Not too big to fight. Hands came down to help him up and he growled. The big alpha would've tried to hit him. Junhui smiled and asked him to stand up on his own and follow him.

“Do you want me to slow down,” Junhui asks.

Deep breaths. In and out. He won't throw up if he keeps breathing. "Minghao, I need you to answer me." He snarls instead. Junhui slams on the breaks. And that didn’t feel good. Fucking rude alpha. He squeezes his eyes shut and swallows. He has to keep swallowing because he's too dizzy and everything in his belly's rolling hard.

Junhui is staring at him, pretty face hard and angry. So what? What does he even have to be angry about? The person he bought doesn't want to talk to him. So fucking what? Minghao owes him nothing. And that’s what he’ll get. “Is there anyone at the center you’ll talk to? I can turn around an-”

No. The alpha doesn’t look so tough when Minghao’s got him trapped against the car door. “I’m not goin’ back to the fuckin’ warehouse!” He won’t. He won’t he won’t he won’t. He’ll die before he goes back there. The world spins around and he’s breathing too fast. He’s too dizzy and Junhui starts tilting. Junhui has to know though. He has to know that Minghao’s not going back; he will never go back, no matter what.

He starts falling backwards. “There you go, nice and easy." Junhui's pushing him back by his wrists. He must've caught his hands when he lunged. How did Junhui catch him? "You're hyperventilating, Minghao, so you've gotta start taking slow, deep breaths. We don't have to go back to the center." He's not – he can't go back.

They brought one omega back after the auction, weeks later. Everyone else was asleep but he had a headache and Chanyeol stayed up with him because he used to be scared of the dark. They brought one omega back, probably all drugged up so they wouldn't scream and wake up the other omegas. He didn't see it happen - Chanyeol always told him to close his eyes if the handlers came by at night and he always, always listened to Chanyeol - but they left the omega on the ground in front of his cage. The handlers went away, came back, and then there was a loud pop.

He never told the others what happened. Chanyeol asked him not to.

He doesn't want to die. Life is unfair and miserable and Minghao's going to spend the rest of his as a piece of property, but he doesn't want to die. Not like that, on a dirty floor, drugged out of his mind.

"I'm not goin' back."

Junhui nods. "Not going back. You gonna be okay if I start the car again? To my apartment! We're gonna save the collar for another day and get you settled in at home. Sound good? And not something you'll attack me for?"

It's not worth it to snarl. He's still dizzy and Junhui still has a hold on his wrists. He's faster than he is strong – surprise is all he's got against an alpha. Especially now. He's not as tiny as Jihoon, not as thin as Joshua, but he's still small. One meal a day does that to people. Trying to fight Junhui now would be stupid.

He has to wait until he's got surprise on his side.

So he nods. Junhui smiles a little and lets go of his wrists, leaving him alone to buckle up again. Minghao's belly twists when the car starts moving again. But then his windows rolling down – and the wind feels good on his face.

"Thought the air might help a little." He ignores the alpha and leans his face into the wind.

Chapter Text

Mingyu doesn’t come. Joshua waits for him in the living room, and then the front door, and then the porch. But Mingyu never comes. Mingyu comes for dinner every night, but Jeonghan calls him to dinner and Mingyu isn’t there. Jeonghan promised that he could see Mingyu every day if he wanted. And he wants, but Mingyu doesn’t come.

“Do you want me to call Wonwoo,” Jeonghan asks. He nods. His heart hurts. Why did Mingyu leave him? He’s all Joshua has. Jeonghan sits down next to him in front of the front door – inside the house because Seungcheol said it’s too cold outside for him to wait on the porch. “I’ll put it on speaker. Don’t cry, Joshua, Mingyu is probably stuck at work with Wonwoo and wants to see you too.” But Jeonghan doesn’t know that. Mingyu’s been not right all week, not like Mingyu. He might not want to see Joshua anymore. And then he’ll be all alone again.

The phone rings and rings. “You’ve reached Jeon Wonwoo. I’m not available at the moment; leave a message.” Jeonghan doesn’t leave a message.

It’s quiet. The quiet doesn’t feel like nice quiet. This is bad quiet, your-son-is-an-omega quiet. Mingyu-is-gone quiet. “Did I do something wrong? I think I did something wrong.”

“What could you have possibly done wrong?” He shrugs. Something. If he knew, maybe he could fix it. “You don’t know because you didn’t do anything wrong. I know that you like – need routines, but sometimes routines are broken and it isn’t because anyone did anything wrong. Wonwoo just might have had plans and he didn’t think about the routine.” Jeonghan smooths his hair back from his face and kisses his forehead. He leans into the touch. Feels good, feels like comfort. Not as good as Mingyu walking through the front door, but good.

Thuds down the stairs. Seungcheol. Seungcheol likes to talk on the phone in his office. Or it seems like that, at least. His phone rang during dinner and he ran up the stairs and Jeonghan just rolled his eyes like it was normal. Joshua’s dad used to do that, but Mom would get so mad. It was the only time they fought. Seungcheol and Jeonghan don’t fight though.

“I’m so sorry about the phone call, Hannie. I thought I had my phone turned off.” And maybe that’s why they don’t fight. His dad never said sorry. Seungcheol joins them on the floor and kisses Jeonghan’s cheek. Joshua keeps his head low like the handlers used to tell the omegas at the warehouse to do. “Really, really sorry. I’ll go back to putting it in the penalty box tomorrow.”

“You’re forgiven but apologize to Joshua. You interrupted his dinner too. And thank you about the penalty box.”

He doesn’t like it when they apologize to him. It feels wrong – it’s a trap, if he accepts the apology, that an alpha was wrong, he’ll get in trouble. But Seungcheol says that he’s sorry and pats him on the back and then it’s over. He doesn’t have to accept it, it’s just there. “It was Soonyoung, by the way,” Seungcheol says, “He has some interesting news we should talk to him about – oh, and I got a text from Wonwoo. Mingyu had a doctor’s appointment and then something came up. They won’t be home till tomorrow but he’s gonna come over to see you as soon as he can.”

“Really?” Mingyu’s not mad? His chest feels weird and floaty and his heart goes faster.

Seungcheol nods. “Mhm, I’ll read you the text. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t call, it’s just very chaotic at the moment. Mingyu misses Joshua and is very excited to see him when we come home tomorrow.’ See? Things just came up.”

Things came up. Mingyu didn’t choose not to see him. Mingyu misses him too. Good. That’s good. That’s really good. He smiles. “He’s gonna come back tomorrow.”

They get up off the floor. Seungcheol says that they usually play board games on Friday nights and asks if he wants to play. He doesn’t. If he won and they lost they might get mad at him. He used to be really good at board games, better than his dad. He could win. Maybe. But he doesn’t want to. Jeonghan goes into his office and brings out all their board games. He wants to ask if he can keep mancala out, he used to really like that game. But he doesn’t.

“You wanna be the banker, sweetheart,” Jeonghan asks. He can be the banker. He wouldn’t be a player or someone to get mad at. That would be okay. He nods and Jeonghan pushes the half of the box with all the money and cards inside over. “Do you know how to play? We mostly follow the rule book with a few pretty simple house rules. But we don’t use those unless we’re drunk.”

Seungcheol taps his arm on Jeonghan’s first turn. He’s smiling and happy but he glares when he looks at Jeonghan. “Watch him, Joshua. He’s never lost and I think it’s because he cheats. You might be the only one smart enough to catch him.” Oh no. No no no. Joshua will not. He’s not supposed to be a player or doing anything mean. He just wants to be the bank and give the money and the cards and the houses out. That’s it, no more. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. It was just a joke,” Seungcheol talks like he’s trying to calm down a horse or something.

And Joshua smells himself. Fear. He smells like fear, sharp and sour.

“I don’t cheat, Cheol, I’m just good at this game. And stop bothering him. Here’s two hundred dollars, can I have Reading Railroad, please,” Jeonghan brushes his hair out of his eyes again. Hands near his face don’t bother him as bad. Not Jeonghan’s hands at least. “Thank you very much. Wanna take my phone and put on some of your music? My phone’s already hooked up to the speakers so all you’d have to do is turn on one of your playlists.”

He shrugs. That’s okay with Jeonghan, Jeonghan sat with him and let him make the playlists on that app on his phone. Let him play song after song because he didn’t remember which ones he liked or if he’d heard them before. Jeonghan lets him sit at the computer with headphones on when he has to take calls for work – Joshua still doesn’t understand how things on the phone and things on the computer can be the same like that. The app is on his tablet too, but he doesn’t know how to sign in and he doesn’t want Jeonghan to get angry if he asks.

But his songs are okay with Jeonghan. Not with Seungcheol. He doesn’t know if Seungcheol would like them or if he wants to play his own music. And he doesn’t want to make Seungcheol mad at all.

“That’s fine,” Jeonghan says. It’s not fine though, is it? Jeonghan only says things are fine when they’re not really fine but they’re not not fine enough for him to do something about it. Like how he wasn’t hungry for breakfast yesterday. Jeonghan said it was fine but he didn’t smell okay until lunchtime. “Just let me know if you change your mind, alright?” He nods. He can do that.

Seungcheol takes his turn. He laughs like getting to move eight spaces is really good but Vermont Avenue is useless. Joshua doesn’t say that though. “Vermont Avenue please and thank you, Joshua.” The game goes like that for a few turns. Jeonghan buys a property and Seungcheol buys a property and it’s easy. Even when they pass GO the first time and start paying rent, it’s easy. The alphas just give each other the money.

And then Seungcheol lands on Jeonghan’s Electric Company and rolls a nine. They’ve been around the board a few times and Seungcheol is already almost broke. He’s a really, really bad Monopoly player. Joshua could beat him, probably, definitely. Not that he’d try. He knows better, he wouldn’t – it would be really, really bad to ask one of his alphas to play a game knowing that he’ll win. But he would win, and knowing that is kind of enough.

 He doesn’t mean to fall asleep. He’s trying to be a good banker, keeping all the money and houses in nice, neat piles. Jeonghan and Seungcheol spend most of the time focusing on each other. They talk like he’s not there. That should be good. It’s what he expected, what he thought would happen when realized he would have two alphas. They would pay more attention to each other and he’d be background, just something for them to have when they get bored.

It doesn’t feel good at all.

It’s supposed to. He heard it in the warehouse, about how it would be best to have an alpha that had better things to do than look after their omega because an alpha can’t hit what they’re not paying attention to. Except an alpha that’s not paying attention won’t check on him or ask if he’s starting to get tired because they know he can’t stay up late, won’t pet his hair or pat his shoulder.

He shouldn’t need it. That’s bad. That’s dangerous. If Jeonghan and Seungcheol turn out to be pretending to be this kind and he gets comfortable with the praise and softness – it’d be very, very bad. They could hit him for being needy, for not being grateful about what they already give him. He’s grateful. He’s grateful that they haven’t hit him all week, but he wants to be acknowledged. Wants to be noticed and remembered and paid attention to.

But he tries to forget that he wants that. He doesn’t get to want things anymore. He hasn’t since the day they abducted him from his lawn. So he pushes the thoughts away and tries to keep his mind empty. His head lolls down, down, down and it’s so hard to stay awake because he doesn’t stay up late at night and it’s already past his bedtime.

“Josh- And he’s asleep. Alright, let’s start packing up the game.”

“I’m counting this as you forfeiting and me winning.”

“So the game is more important than him? That’s what I thought, Cheol, don’t get all pouty at me because you lost. Just help me pick up the pieces so we can get him to bed.” Hands in his hair, petting at him so nicely. “Can you pick him up? Or do you want me to?”

“I got him. You get the lights.”

He’s being moved around and it’s not comfortable. It wasn’t comfortable before either because his neck hurt but he doesn’t like moving. He whines. “It’s okay, Joshua, I’ve got you. Go back to sleep.” Sounds good to him. He's so tired; he's not supposed to stay up this late. Jeonghan said it would take a while for him to not be so tired anymore. A week isn't a while. A week is a week. Sleep sounds good, he's warm and it smells nice here.

So he does as he's told, and sleeps.


 

"Wake up." He whines, rolls over and away from the hand in his hair. It's too early. He's supposed to wake up on his own. Jeonghan said he could wake up his own, got mad at Seungcheol for waking him up yesterday. So why is someone waking up him up again? That's not fair, not how things are supposed to go. Laughter above him. Fingers combing through his hair again, but it's nice and comfortable so it's okay.

It's so nice. He's so warm and comfortable and happy. His dreams were happy too. Maybe. He doesn't remember a lot of them but the flashes of colors were good colors so that probably meant they were happy dreams.

They might be better now that someone's here. Doesn't know who but they don't smell bad.

He could just – "Don't go back to sleep, sweetheart. You don't have to get up or open your eyes yet, but you can't fall asleep." His eyes open anyway. Jeonghan's there, watching him with a little smile. Why? Jeonghan never wakes him up.

"Tired," he whispers, "wanna sleep." Sleep makes it easy to talk. Harder to speak because his mouth doesn't want to work right, but easier to talk. "'s early, Jeonghan." Jeonghan nods. Of course he knows it's early, Jeonghan is already awake. He was up even earlier. But Jeonghan likes to get up that early, he said so a few days ago. He likes to get up a little early because then he has the whole day to do whatever he wants.

Waking up early meant nothing in the warehouse. Time didn't exist that much. There were windows, but they were small and they only helped tell if it was day or night. He's still trying to get used to real clocks and time passing. Seungcheol says that might be why he sleeps so much, jet lag or something. Joshua doesn't know. He's just tired and it's too early to think a lot.

Staying awake is hard. Jeonghan told him not to fall asleep again but he's so sleepy and everything is just perfect for falling asleep. He was up late last night too, that should mean he gets to sleep more.

But Jeonghan said no. And what Jeonghan says goes. "If your eyes are feeling heavy, you can close them. You don't actually have to be up for a half hour but I wanted to make sure you had an easy, slow wake up today."

"Oh."

"Yeah." He shuts his eyes again. Jeonghan said it's okay. It's all quiet, just their breathing and the heater Seungcheol put in the corner yesterday afternoon because Joshua gets too cold even with the blankets. He doesn't fall asleep again, but he feels fuzzy.

“Joshua?” Grumbling. He didn’t fall asleep – he didn’t, he knows how to be good. He didn’t fall asleep, but it was close and his mouth still doesn’t want to listen to him. Jeonghan just laughs though. He doesn’t get mad, not like the handlers said he would. The handlers would hit the cage with a stick if they just mumbled and didn’t actually talk, said their alphas expected them to talk.

Jeonghan and Seungcheol don’t. Jeonghan likes it better when he talks, but he doesn’t get angry if he doesn’t. And Seungcheol said that it’s okay if he just wants to not talk sometimes. That he understands it’s easier to just watch and listen.

There were a lot of things they handlers got wrong, weren’t there? But he doesn’t like to think about that because it makes his head kind of hurt.

“We’re gonna have to go in the car today. All of us.” Jeonghan’s face is weird, mouth kind of half smiling but it’s not comfortable and it looks wrong. Looks kind of like he’s sorry but not sorry at the same time. Him being sorry would be kind of nice; Joshua hates being in the car. He hasn’t been in since they drove to Jeonghan and Seungcheol’s house from the warehouse but he still hates it. He almost puked last time and he doesn’t like puking. “I sort of figured that’s how you were going to look when I told you that. But I promise that I wouldn’t make you come with us in the car unless it’s really important – this is, well, pretty damn important. For you and for Soonyoung.”

“Soonyoung?” The man who gave Jeonghan and Seungcheol the gross shampoo? An alpha, probably. He doesn’t want to go to any other alpha. He likes this house, and these alphas aren’t bad. And he’s been good, that should mean he doesn’t have to go to another alpha. Jeonghan and Seungcheol wouldn’t give him away, would they?

“Yeah, Soonyoung,” Jeonghan says, “do you remember me talking about him on Monday?” He nods. Jeonghan’s smiles get a little less uncomfortable. “He’s a really good friend and he’s got a problem. He’s had Seungkwan and Seokmin, another of our friends, really sweet guy – he’s had them come over to try and help him but those were apparently disasters. Seungcheol and I think you might be able to help. You have a choice though, Joshua, if we get there and you decide you can’t or don’t want to help then we’ll come back home. You won’t get in trouble, understand? Whatever you decide to do is okay.”

It doesn’t sound like they’re going to give him away. So that’s – it’s okay, maybe. Going over to Soonyoung’s house might be okay if they don’t leave him there, if he can come back to Seungcheol and Jeonghan’s house. Not getting in trouble sounds good too. He likes not getting in trouble. But fear is still a tight, heavy pit in his stomach. He doesn’t want to leave the house; it smells like him here and he doesn’t want to go somewhere that doesn’t smell like him.

And he doesn’t know what they want his help for. He can’t do much. Can’t cook, can’t really clean. Can’t hardly do anything on his own. He can read better now. Jeonghan helped him get books on his tablet and other things that are supposed to help him get used to letters and written words again, so he can read a lot better than he could before. But Seokmin and Seungkwan can probably read better because they’re alphas and they got to go to school after seventh grade. He’s useless.

They’re going to see that he can’t help and be mad. But they asked him to go. He shakes all over when they get into the car, but his alphas asked him to go.


 

The car ride is very, very bad. He lies down in the backseat and Seungcheol sits next to him and rubs his back. They keep a bag for him to throw up in if he needs to. He wants to. He wants to puke so his stomach will stop feeling so awful and his head’ll stop spinning. But his stomach won’t let him.

Jeonghan offers to stop the car a bunch so maybe he’ll have some time for his tummy to calm down, but he just wants it to be over. The more they stop, the longer they have to be in the car and he doesn’t want to be in the car anymore.

“You’re doing really, really good,” Seungcheol whispers, “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you’re doing really good and we’re proud of you.”

“Just got five more minutes, sweetheart.” Five more minutes. He can do five more minutes. Maybe. Probably. He hopes so. Jeonghan drives slow and tells him when he sees a speedbump. That helps. Makes it easier to ride out the bump and not puke. Seungcheol says it’s okay to throw up and he knows it’s okay to throw up, but that doesn’t mean his tummy will let him.

After the car ride is easy. He just has to get out of the car. Seungcheol still helps him and lets him leans against him until he feels all better and that’s nice. Jeonghan checks on him a bunch, making sure he’s not too sick or mad because Jeonghan forgot to tell him about a sharp turn. He’s not mad. Why would he be mad? Getting mad at his alpha is stupid. Because what is even supposed to do if he gets mad at his alpha?

Soonyoung lives in a very, very tall apartment. “He’s on the eighth floor, so we’re gonna take the elevator up. Have you been in an elevator before,” Jeonghan asks. He’s being herded inside by Seungcheol, to the shiny metal doors of an elevator. He’s been in an elevator before, when he was little. But he was so scared that they always just took the stairs after that. Still, he nods. He has been in one before, and that’s what Jeonghan asked. Not if he likes elevators.

It’s quiet as they ride up. No one talks. Not about the elevator clunking. Not about Joshua’s scent turning so sour it makes his own nose burn. His hand is held all the way up though. Seungcheol holds his hand with both of his own. It makes it a little better.

The doors open up and – there’s really ugly wallpaper and carpet. Like really, really ugly. Jeonghan cringes, shaking his head. He must think so too. He’s a photographer, it’s his job to take pretty pictures of pretty things, of course he hates the hallway. Puke green carpet and old, old wallpaper from before any of them were born is not pretty.

But they walk in anyway. He follows them to the door and breathes through his mouth. Things don’t smell as bad if he breathes through his mouth.

“So, there’s actually something we need to tell you about this,” Jeonghan says as they stop in front of door eight-thirteen. Seungcheol knocks and someone yells from inside that it’s open. Seungcheol’s smile is kind of uncomfortable, kind of hopeful. “This is kind of a surprise for you. We thought it would be easier to keep it as a surprise instead of telling you, you know?” He doesn’t actually understand. He doesn’t understand lots of things still, but he usually understands what people say to him. This time he doesn’t. “Just – just trust us?”

Do they know what they’re asking of him when they ask him to trust them? Probably not, but it’s a lot, a whole fucking lot.

Seungcheol looks sad when he doesn’t answer. It makes him feel a little bad. The carpet doesn’t make him feel bad, even if it is ugly. So he stares at that instead and feels all the prickly, uncomfortable nervous feelings rumble around in his belly. The car ride was so awful he forgot to be afraid of coming over to Soonyoung’s. That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Kind of funny but not funny at the same time.

There’s a sigh and then the door is opening. Joshua looks up from the carpet and stares inside. It looks like a normal apartment. He thinks so. He’s never seen an actual apartment but this looks livable. Better than his cage and not bad but not as good as his – Seungcheol and Jeonghan’s living room. He blinks and forgets to breathe in through his mouth, sniffing at the air. And then again and again.

Mint. Flashes of staring up at the walls outside the warehouse, praying to God. Staring at the cage across the little walkway. Being cold, being too hot, talking about what would happen if they ever escaped. Being told to try and go somewhere else when it’s time for the hose, being asked to eat a little more because they know they’re only going to get one meal and he didn’t eat yesterday either. Looking back. Amen.

“You- I… Jihoon,” Joshua whispers. His feet move without him saying so. He goes right up to another door. He knows Seungcheol and Jeonghan are following him, he hears their footsteps after his own. There’s another alpha. He smells like what Joshua thinks cotton candy smells like – Chanyeol was the only one who really remembered in the warehouse. He followed a circus for a little while when he lived on the streets and he said the bearded lady would give him cotton candy sometimes. Sugary sweet and kind of airy, a weird smell for an alpha.

But that doesn’t matter. Because Jihoon smells like mint and it’s bad now, how he smelled when the handlers took Joshua first. It probably never stopped. Jihoon’s probably smelled like this since he left the warehouse. He’s on the other side of this door.

He reaches for the door. It’s not his apartment, not his door to open. He’s being bad. He reaches for it anyway. Jihoon is on the other side of the door. His hands are shaking so hard. He can’t make them stop. He can’t grab the doorknob like this. His hands won’t hold it. Seungcheol takes his hands and holds them so they don’t shake so hard. “It’s okay. It’s okay. We’ll get the door for you, it’s okay.”

“I wanna see you take a few deep breaths for me, alright,” Jeonghan grabs the doorknob. He’s going to open the door. Joshua lurches forward but Seungcheol holds him still. “Deep breaths, Joshua. I’ll open the door when I see you breathing. You gotta calm down.”

“Did you not tell him that Jihoon was here?” That’s Soonyoung. Must be. Soonyoung smells like cotton candy and bought Jihoon, and Seungcheol and Jeonghan said Soonyoung was their friend like Wonwoo is. Did they know the whole time? Did they know Jihoon was here even before today? He was the last one; no one knew what happened to him and Joshua and Mingyu were so worried. Why didn’t they tell him?

Jihoon.” His voice cracks.

“I know. You’re not going to calm down till you see him. God, why wouldn’t you guys tell him and give him some time to prepare? Jeonghan, just open the door.”

“Thought it’d be a good surprise.”

The door opens and Seungcheol lets him go. He runs.

Soonyoung sighs. Smells like unhappy alpha. “No surprises for them,” he says. Joshua only hears him a little. Too focused on finding Jihoon. “Their fight-or-flight reactions are so fucked from the years of abuse that they’re all on hairpin triggers. Just a tip for next time.”

No one in the room. No one in the closet either, the smell isn’t coming from over there. It’s the bed. But there’s no one on the bed, no lumps under the blankets. Underneath. That’s where he would go. If he was scared, he would hide under there too. And the smell is scared, sour mint that burns his nose.

It’s dark under the bed. A little hard to fit because it’s low to the ground. But he can fit. Just has to wiggle a little. He’s still trying to wiggle his lower body under when someone grabs his wrists and pulls hard. The slide across the carpet burns his cheek. But Jihoon is staring at him and holding tight to his hands like he’ll disappear if he lets go.

It’s hard to think of things to say. Jihoon’s never been a talker, not like Mingyu or Minghao. When he gets angry he has a lot to say, but Jihoon and Joshua liked the quiet. They liked just being together and not having to talk sometimes. So they just hug. The hug feels so good, safe. The door clicks closed and it’s just them.

Jihoon smells better now too. He smells a little gross, like he hasn’t gotten a bath in a long time, but the mint isn’t so sour now. Jihoon’s clothes are all gross too, thin and covered in dirt and dust. They’re the clothes from the warehouse. Why didn’t Jihoon get a bath?  He wants to ask. But he doesn’t. Jihoon will tell him when he’s ready, he knows he will. Jihoon likes to take his time but he always tells them. Joshua’s shirt is getting wet under Jihoon’s face. Oh. Jihoon doesn’t cry. He screams and gets angry, but he doesn’t cry.

“How many days,” Jihoon asks after a long time. “How many days since the warehouse?”

He blinks, counts. Today is Saturday. The first morning he woke up in Jeonghan and Seungcheol’s house was Monday. So they were bought on Sunday. Maybe. Jeonghan showed him the calendar in the kitchen but days don’t really mean much to him anymore. “Five or six, I think? Seungcheol said tomorrow would be a full week since they bought me. So six? How long have you been under the bed?”

Jihoon laughs but it doesn’t sound right. Doesn’t sound like how Jihoon should laugh. He doesn’t like it. “Six days. The alpha said he was gonna have to come get me out from under the bed on the sixth day. He had two other people try to talk me out. He said that he didn’t wanna have to pull me out or anything – I think I went away, Joshua. I don’t remember a lot. Six days should’ve felt like a long time but I don’t think it felt like a long time.”

It comes out fast, before he even thinks about it. Things always just come out with Jihoon. “I keep going back to the warehouse in my head. Didn’t wanna tell Mingyu because he’s having a hard time too but I’m scared.”

“Mingyu? You saw him? Is he okay? How many bruises? Is he eating? You know alphas don’t realize he needs a lot of food because he’s tall.”

He smiles. “He lives across the street from me. I saw him almost every day but yesterday and today. He comes over and we nap on my bed.” Feels good to feel Jihoon relax. Doesn’t feel good when he starts crying again, but it feels good to tell him Mingyu’s okay. “He eats a lot now, I think. He eats dinner with us and Seungcheol sneaks him more food when he’s too scared to ask for seconds. I dunno what he eats with Wonwoo though.”

“Wonwoo?”

“Alpha.”

Jihoon nods. “Seungcheol? That’s the alpha that bought you?”

“And Jeonghan.” Jihoon’s eyes get big and the mint turns sour again. “Not so bad. Having two alphas. It’s – it’s not like you’re thinking – just different than what I thought it would be, I guess. In an okay way. Just different.” Jihoon doesn’t like it, it’s all over his face. But Joshua can’t change it. He wouldn’t, not if it meant staying at the warehouse or going to different alphas. He knows his alphas, at least a little. Knows enough that he can be good and not get in trouble.

He would change everything if it meant never going to the warehouse at all though. He doesn’t feel bad about that either; it’s not wrong, he won’t believe it’s wrong.

Quiet again. Just them and the heater. The carpet is hard on his back. Jihoon says he’s been under here six days and he doesn’t understand. He couldn’t do it. It’s too uncomfortable. Feels like the cage at the warehouse again and he wouldn’t go back to that, not when he has his bed. Jihoon’s always been stronger than him though, more determined. Determined enough to spend six days under a bed all by himself.

The door creaks open and footsteps make little shuffling noises across the carpet until Soonyoung is lying down on the carpet next to the bed, right where Joshua can see him and Jihoon can’t. “Joshua, Jihoon, I wanted to know if you guys were ready to come out yet. You don’t have to leave the room or leave each other, you just have to come out.”

Jihoon shakes his head fast but Joshua doesn’t know. If Jihoon goes, he’ll go. It’s a new apartment and that’s kind of scary, but Jeonghan and Seungcheol promised they’d go home if he wanted to go home – Seungcheol makes lots of promises, but he’s kept them so far. A week is more than he’d expected. And Jihoon is here. If Jihoon goes with him it won’t be that scary.

But all Soonyoung sees is Jihoon saying No with his whole body. The alpha sighs and frowns like he knew it was coming but he still doesn’t like it. Why would he ask a question if he already knew the answer? Especially if he knew the answer wouldn’t be one he liked. That’s just stupid. But it’d be even stupider to call an alpha stupid. “Jihoon, this is the last chance I can give you before I have to come get you out. You’re not eating like you should, you’re not getting enough water.”

It’s weird watching it all happen. He never sees Mingyu and Wonwoo talk to each other, never really got to see an alpha talk to their omega. Jeonghan and Seungcheol talk differently to him. Not so frustrated and worried. They sound worried a lot, mostly when he decides he doesn’t want to move from the couch and just wants to stare at the carpet because the movie they picked is too loud, too much. But they haven’t sounded like this before.

Soonyoung waits and Jihoon doesn’t talk. If Jihoon hasn’t talked at all since before Joshua got here, he wouldn’t be surprised. Jihoon gets quiet when he gets upset and then he’ll get loud. And very, very mean. Never happened to the omegas, but it happened a lot to the handlers. They called him a timebomb. He isn’t, he’s just trying to say he wants to be left alone. He won’t get loud unless they make him. But Soonyoung doesn’t know that.

Joshua holds Jihoon a little tighter. Jihoon won’t explode at him, won’t get in trouble if he stays close and quiet. Soonyoung sighs again – the alpha makes a face like he’s guessing how far he’d have to reach to pull Jihoon out. Soonyoung doesn’t know Jihoon like he does. No one knows Jihoon like he does, they don’t understand why he’s mad and blame him when it’s their fault for pushing him. He could probably get to the other side of the bed before Soonyoung could grab Jihoon if he rolled really fast. Jihoon took the blame once, when Joshua threw his food tray at the back of a handler’s head after they took Chanyeol away. Jihoon threw him his food tray and pretended like he was the one who threw it at the handler.

He can get in trouble one time for Jihoon. Jihoon got in so much trouble after the food tray; he doesn’t want to get in trouble but he can do it for Jihoon. Maybe his alphas would understand that he had to and let it go. Probably not, but makes him feel a little less like he’s going to throw up. He pulls Jihoon a little closer.

Then Soonyoung calls for Jeonghan. “I’m going to need you to come get Joshua. It’s not gonna work. Thanks for trying though.”

Jeonghan takes Soonyoung’s place, “Did you hear Soonyoung?” He nods. Jeonghan makes that same weird half-smile from this morning when he talked about the car. “I’m sorry, but it’s time to let Jihoon go. Just for now, you’ll get to see him again as soon as Soonyoung says it’s okay. If you need it, me or Cheol can help pull you out.”

“Don’t leave me,” Jihoon whispers, “please don’t leave me.”

It gets hard to breathe, chest pulling tight. What will happen if he lets Jihoon go? Jeonghan says he’ll see him again, but when? And it might not be the same Jihoon. His babysitter when he was very, very little talked about seeing her older brother on the street right after he got bought and then again a month later and that he was so different. What if Soonyoung makes Jihoon change too? Jihoon doesn’t need to change; he’s perfect now. Soonyoung said he’s going to get Jihoon out from under the bed. How? What will happen if he lets Jihoon go?

What will happen if he doesn’t? Can’t be worse. He goes away when things get bad. He can go away then too. If he gets in trouble, he can go away and forget and just remember that he didn’t leave Jihoon.

He hides his face in Jihoon’s hair and holds him close. Air sticks in his throat and his stomach rolls; his own scent turns acidic in his nose. But Jihoon asked him not to go. The world starts to dull.

He spares one glance back at Jihoon. The other omega is watching him, remembering him, and Joshua does the same. To remember and be remembered as a person, a right no one bothered to give them and so they took it back by force. Jihoon smiles, a soft, scared thing, and mouths a word.

Amen.

He won’t leave Jihoon again. The floor of the warehouse passes under his eyes, grey, dirty concrete. If they want him to go, they’ll have to make him. Jihoon was never supposed to be the last one left. They were never supposed to leave him.

“No. I’m not going.”

Chapter Text

Minghao's not there. He's not at the doctor's like Wonwoo said he would be. He told Mingyu Minghao would be here. He promised. Alphas’ promises don't mean anything. Mingyu knew it. And he still believed Wonwoo when he promised. Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. He got so excited.

He should've known better. Stupid Mingyu, stupid stupid stupid.

Wonwoo doesn't let go of his hand when he tries to pull away. He needs to hide. The doctor's office is too open. Too many people. Not enough places to hide. But Wonwoo won't let him. Wonwoo said no more hiding when they got in the car. He said Mingyu can't hide for the rest of the day because it's not safe to hide in the doctor's office.

He knew that already though. Wonwoo didn't have to tell him. He knows how dangerous doctor's offices are. Hid dad used to take him all the time and showed him how he dangerous the needles could be if he touched them. How he should only take medicine around an adult who knew what to do.

His dad drew his blood at the doctor's office and came back with a paper he wouldn't let Mingyu look at and herded him to the car. He doesn't know if his mom knew what his dad was doing. He doesn't know if she would've cared.

His dad always said needles were dangerous because they could put stuff in his body. Turned out they were a lot more dangerous when they were taking blood out. No vaccine ever told him he was an omega.

So he knows how dangerous doctor's offices can be. Jihoon and Chanyeol do too. Joshua doesn't talk about what happened to him at the doctor's office because nothing did. Joshua says he got grabbed off his front yard. Minghao didn't go to a doctor until the cops found him living in an abandoned house in the winter - Minghao hates doctors.

"I'll ask the receptionist where Jun and Minghao are, alright," Wonwoo says and guides him over to a chair. It's soft when he sits down, comfortable. The chairs at his dad's office were never this soft. "Just wait here. Pick up a magazine if you want, but do not go with a nurse if they call your name. You tell them that you're waiting for me and that I have told you explicitly not to go without me. Understand?" He nods. "Good."

Wonwoo smiles at him and it's soft and shaky. Most of Wonwoo's smiles are, like he's not sure if it's okay to smile at him. It is okay. He can't tell Wonwoo no. He wouldn't even if he could. It's nice to be smiled at sometimes.

And then Wonwoo's gone, walking away to go to find some desk with people. And he doesn't take Mingyu. That's okay. He doesn't like new people. He doesn't like lots of space. Wonwoo knows that.

The alpha asked one night after he got off the phone with the same person he calls every night to talk in his office with the door locked. But Wonwoo asked if lots of space made him nervous and if he'd like his own room where he can be by himself. Wonwoo said he could be honest – Wonwoo wanted him to be honest. So he said yes and tried to duck his head behind his shoulder because it hurts less to get hit on the shoulder than the head.

But Wonwoo just said it was good that he told the truth and thanked him. And then Wonwoo gave him a little office next to his own at the firm – he doesn't know why it's called a firm. It's a place where lots of lawyers and other people who are not quite lawyers work. Kyungsoo tried to explain it once, but he didn't understand. Doesn't really matter though, does it? Not his business what his alpha wants to call the building where he works.

Mingyu likes his office. He reads a lot in there. The other people in the firm bring him books. There's one other male omega there and sometimes his alpha will let him sit with Mingyu for a little while during lunch time if there's an important meeting. Jongdae is nice. Minseok, the alpha, is okay.

And that's a lot. For an alpha to be okay, that takes a lot.

The office sounds good now. Joshua's room sounds better, because it smells like Joshua and also because Joshua lives in Joshua's room and he really misses Joshua. But the office would be okay too. Because it's quiet and small and safe.

The nurse calls his name. He didn't want the nurse to call his name. Wonwoo said not to go with the nurse but this nurse is an alpha and almost Mingyu's size. He'll get in trouble if he disobeys Wonwoo; he'll be in trouble if he disobeys the nurse.

Where is Wonwoo? Wonwoo said he'd be quick, didn't he? Wonwoo tries to be fast when he leaves Mingyu alone because it's not safe to leave an omega like him alone for long. Even with the collar, people think he's bad and that he's going to disobey. He isn't and he won't. But they don't believe that. They believe what they want to believe and they want to believe he's bad. So Wonwoo needs to come back because Wonwoo knows he's not trying to be bad. Wonwoo hasn't hit him yet and tells him it's okay to say no to people because Wonwoo will say that he told him to say no.

"Kim Mingyu, is that you?" The nurse smiles at him. He needs to be smaller. He needs to be harder to see. He hunches in, tucks his face into his knees and pretends he's small. "Mingyu? Are you ready to come back for your examination now?"

He shakes his head. "Wonwoo said to wait," he whispers, "Wonwoo said no. You're gonna get me hit. I don't wanna be hit anymore."

"Does Wonwoo hit you?" Mingyu shakes his head so hard. Wonwoo hasn't yet. He doesn't want people thinking Wonwoo does because then Wonwoo might get upset and start hitting and he doesn't want that. Not at all.

"Hoseok, it's alright." That's a new voice. "I'll take it from here. Can you go tell both Dr. Kims that I’ll be calling for them in a little bit?" The nurse nods. But he's still frowning, not happy that Mingyu wasn't listening. But it wasn't his fault. Wonwoo told him not to go. He doesn't know how to make the nurse understand that. He doesn't know if the nurse would even care because he's an alpha and alphas don't care why an omega isn't listening, just that they aren't.

A new face shows up right where he can see. Pretty face. Kind face. Mingyu sniffs. Alpha. Not so pretty or kind, huh? But the alpha's smiling just a little and he sits in the chair next to him. "Mingyu, right? I'm Wonwoo's friend. Dr. Wen? We talked on the phone earlier?"

"Junhui?"

Junhui smiles wider and nods. "Yeah! Feel free to call me Jun, if you want."

Junhui is here? Minghao is supposed to be with Junhui. So where is Minghao? That's why he came. That's why he got in the car and came to the doctor's even when he didn't want to. Because Minghao was going to be here. But he's not here right next to Junhui so where is he?

Mingyu sits up, pulls himself out of the little ball and looks around. Minghao has to be here. He has to. If he's not - Mingyu doesn't know. Minghao just has to be here. His chest turns tight and it's hard to breathe. Minghao Minghao Minghao Minghao. "Where is Minghao? Y-you said. You’re his alpha. He...he was supposed to be with you."

Stupid. Shouldn't talk like that to an alpha. Joshua told him yesterday that things are better than they thought they'd be but they still have to be good. Have to be careful to not make the alphas mad. And now he got scared and messed up and he doesn't want to get hit anymore.

But Junhui doesn't hit him. Junhui just points over to the door and Minghao's there.

Minghao is right there.

It's too much. His head spins and it's too much; he's so full of feelings and emotions and things he wants to do that he doesn't know if he can do because Wonwoo told him to wait here. And Minghao's just standing at the door. Did Junhui tell him to stay there? Minghao wouldn't listen if he did. Mingyu knows he wouldn't. Minghao doesn't listen to alphas.

Unless Junhui said he'd hurt Mingyu if Minghao didn't listen. Did Junhui do that? Maybe. Alphas don't make sense. They lie. They act nice and they act like they won't hurt you and then they do. So Junhui could've.

"Mingyu," Minghao whispers. And it's not loud enough to hear but he can read it on Minghao's lips. They used to do that in the warehouse. Silent talking so they handlers didn't know what they were saying. They're good at it. Good enough that they can do it from this far away. "Mingyu."

Everything is shaking. His hands, Minghao's hands. His legs shake when he stands up. Wonwoo told him to wait. But Minghao's right there.

He'll say it was his fault in case Junhui told Minghao not to go to Mingyu yet. It'll be his fault so Minghao won't get in trouble. Minghao gets himself in trouble so easily, it'll be okay if Mingyu takes the blame now. Right? He'll take it this time.

Wonwoo is there then. Walking into the waiting room from around the corner with a frown. He's mad that Mingyu moved. He should've waited. But Minghao is right there.

Someone clearing their throat. Junhui. Junhui stands up and gestures to the door the nurse went through. Minghao is still all the way across the room. It's too far away. But how is he supposed to get closer when Wonwoo's here and the alpha can see that Mingyu disobeyed?

"Would you two be alright with waiting in one of the examination rooms together? Give you some privacy? Wonwoo and I need to make sure Mingyu's files are all in order so you two could just - uh - I guess have some time together without any alpha influence? Sound good?" Junhui's already opening the door though. Not really asking.

Still, it'd be good to have Minghao close where he knows no one can hurt him. So he nods. "'s okay."

First door on the left. Junhui and Wonwoo leave them there and close the door behind them. Quiet. So, so quiet. He doesn't know what to say. He's so tired – seeing Minghao reminds him of safety and family and he can finally relax and he's so tired. He wants a hug. But Minghao doesn't move to hug him.

"Minghao?"

Minghao's lower lips starts wobble. He takes a deep breath and starts to cry. Mingyu meets him halfway for the hug. The ground is soft where they fall. It's so hard to breathe, tears clogging up his throat and nose and it's all he can feel. All he can feel is crying. Happy or sad, he doesn't know. But it feels good to cry. Really cry and not just the little tears that came out all the time this week because he couldn't let go and really cry.

He doesn't feel like he's not Mingyu anymore.

He doesn't have to be so scared. He hasn't been scared since he heard Minghao's voice, not really. Minghao won't let anyone hurt him now that he's so close. It's what they do. He'll keep Minghao safe and Minghao will keep him safe and they'll be safe. They'll be safe.

"I-I thought you were gonna die," Minghao whispers. His voice is harsh and rough – he can't talk well when he's upset. It all gets caught up in his throat. That's what he said. "When they took you. I thought you were going to...to – you know. And that you were gonna die and I couldn't save you. And then we heard you get bought and at first I was happy but then I realized I was never gonna see you again.

"I always knew, just didn't hit me until the handlers came to get me. I realized I was never gonna see you again. I didn't know what to do. But then you - the phone. I don't think I've ever been so happy in my whole life."

It's just laughter and tears and hugging Minghao close and being squeezed in return. He feels complete again, like there was a part of him that went missing and now it's back and he feels more like who he was before. Joshua mentioned he wasn't like Mingyu yesterday. Would he think he's like Mingyu now?

Maybe. Hopefully.

He doesn't remember feeling hope before.

Minghao keeps talking when he doesn't say anything. And that's okay. He's happy to just curl next to him on the floor and not have to talk. "I think Junhui and your alpha are friends too. Junhui said in the car that he didn't know about you and me or else he would've taken me to come see you before. Says he has a friend who says there are studies that show omegas do better when they get to see their friends." Doesn't everyone do better with friends? Omegas are people too, they need what other people need.

"You should come," Mingyu sniffles, "Wonwoo has a TV with a bunch of channels. There weren't that many before the warehouse. I don't remember that many. And you can see Joshua's room, maybe. His alphas probably wouldn't mind as long as you don't lock the door."

"Joshua?"

Minghao sits up and drags Mingyu with him and they're both smiling. Because there's Joshua too. There's three of them all together. Junhui is friends with Wonwoo and Wonwoo is friends with Joshua's alphas and he thinks that maybe they would let them all get together. Jihoon is still gone and it hurts but having Joshua and Minghao is so much more than he thought he'd ever get. Just getting one of them is more than he thought he'd ever get.

"Yeah, Joshua. He’s – we’re neighbors now. Saw him every day since the auction."

“Oh,” Minghao blinks. “That – that’s good, right? He’s okay?”

As okay as any of them, probably. He’s not really sure. Joshua doesn’t talk to him about those things. He probably wanted to, but Joshua’s too careful, too scared to put weight on other people. Chanyeol said it’s because he thinks other people do too much for him, thinks that he needs to handle things on his own. And Mingyu feels – felt? Feels? Fragile. Like he’d just crack and shatter under any pressure.

But Joshua will too. He wakes up whenever they nap sometimes and he’ll cry. He’ll cry really hard and talk nonsense about cages and cold and wanting to go home. Sometimes he’d talk about Jihoon too. It woke Mingyu up and then he’d have to hold Joshua and try to get him to sleep because hearing Joshua cry made him cry too.

They’re all fragile. Doesn’t mean they can’t share the weight. They all knew that. Chanyeol taught them that when Minghao still didn’t speak much at all and Joshua still prayed after the handlers turned the light. Taught them to share pain so it didn’t eat them up inside.

Chanyeol used to make him sit down and talk when he got scared. Used to make he sure he knew that his pain would wear him down to nothing if he kept it all to himself. You’re not meant to suffer like this, Mingyu. Don’t brush the pain off and pretend to look on the bright side. You don’t have to play your game with us.

“Wonwoo doesn’t hit me, but I’m scared he will. I’m scared Joshua isn’t out of the warehouse. Like in his mind, I think he’s still stuck there. And I’m scared because I know Jihoon is out there and I hate myself because I don’t think about him like I should. We promised we’d do that, right? We promised we’d remember each other a-and I don’t think I’m doing that like I should.” The weight in his chest lifts up, up, and away.

Tell us what’s wrong. We can’t fix it, but at least you’re not fighting it alone.

Why didn’t he remember it before?

Minghao pulls them up off the floor and moves them over to the bed-table thing. Examination table. His dad called it that. But Minghao calls it a bed-table thing and he likes that better. Bed-table things can’t hurt, can’t judge like an examination table can. All a bed-table thing can do is be a bed-table thing. Like how Mingyu can only be Mingyu. He likes being Mingyu.

The paper on the table goes all crinkly under them. It’s silly. Minghao’s face is sillier because the only doctor he’s ever been to was the one at the warehouse and that doctor didn’t have crinkly paper like this. He laughs and Minghao laughs too. It feels normal. It feels like Minghao and Mingyu instead of just two omegas together. Because they’re more than just two omegas.

“I’m scared too.” Minghao doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t have too. Mingyu understands. He always understands. Minghao’s a part of him and he’s a part of Mingyu. He always understands. He’s scared and Minghao’s scared. Doesn’t matter what he’s scared about, doesn’t matter if Mingyu knows what he’s scared about. They’re both scared and – that’s enough. They’re not alone anymore.

He rests his head on Minghao’s shoulder. Too tall to do that, it hurts his neck, but he does it anyway. Because he feels more like Mingyu than ever and Mingyu wants to rest his head on Minghao’s shoulder.

Mingyu wants to do it, so he does. He doesn’t think he’s ever gotten to do something because he wanted to do it before.

Chapter Text

"Joshua?" It's Jeonghan this time. He's standing in the doorway with the same plate of food Seungcheol had two hours ago. Probably cold now, or maybe microwaved. "You hungry?" He shakes his head. Jeonghan sighs. "You haven't eaten since breakfast, sweetheart, please eat something."

The moon stares at him through the window. He blinks back and doesn't understand. There's a relationship there, between what Jeonghan is saying and the moon, but he doesn't understand.

"Not hungry," he says. "Just not hungry."

Footsteps across the carpet. The mattress behind him dips and there's a warm hand on his shoulder. Joshua flinches and squeezes his eyes shut. Maybe Jeonghan will go away if he thinks he's asleep.

"Please, just a few bites. You don't have to eat a lot, but just a few bites." Joshua doesn't want to eat just a few bites. Doesn't want to eat at all. He frowns. His stomach is empty, but so is the rest of him. He's all empty and just a few bites won't fill him up. Nothing will. He's hollow and nothing can fix that. But Jeonghan and Seungcheol keep trying. They keep asking what he needs, what they can do. Have been asking since they pulled him out from under the bed and put him back in the car.

He threw up a lot in the car. He remembers that. Sick inside and out. Scared too, so scared.

He said no, he told his alphas no. He disobeyed. He was bad. And so he lost Jihoon. Joshua knows he was going to lose Jihoon no matter what. Seungcheol and Jeonghan were going to make him go home anyway, but that doesn't feel real. It's not real to him; he could've stayed with Jihoon if he'd been good. He knows it. In his bones.

"How much do you remember from this morning?" He shakes his head. Doesn't want to talk right now. But Jeonghan asks again and pets his hair. Feels good. Always feels nice when his alpha pets his hair like he's cared about. "Just after you told Cheol and I no, what do you remember?"

"Nothing." Jeonghan sighs. It's the truth though. He said no and then there's nothing there. No memories, nothing. Nothing until the car. He knows they pulled him out from under the bed. They had to. He didn't want to go.

"That's what I thought. Jihoon made the decision to come out on his own. We didn't force him."

Liar. Jihoon didn't want to come out. He wouldn't come out on his own. Jeonghan's a liar. Joshua doesn't say that though. He's been bad enough today to last him for days, weeks, months, years. He stares at the wall and pretends Jeonghan didn't say anything instead. He doesn't have to listen to lies. His alphas can lie all they want but he can just pretend he didn't hear them. They can't make him believe lies.

The mattress shifts again and then Jeonghan is in front of him. Hands cup his face and keep him from looking anywhere but his alpha. "You stopped breathing. When you were under the bed, you had another panic attack and stopped breathing. Jihoon pushed you out from under the bed and followed you out. We didn't pull you or Jihoon out."

A thumb swipes under one of his eyes, then the other. He breathes in, breathes out. A trace of a memory, blinding panic, overwhelming fear. Because he said no to his alphas and knew he was being bad. They're probably still mad. "I'm sorry I was bad."

Jeonghan frowns. Why? Joshua said he was sorry. It was supposed to make things better. "You're not in trouble, sweetheart. You're not bad. I don't know how to make you understand that." He doesn't know either. He wants to understand why Seungcheol and Jeonghan think it's okay for him to disobey. Can't though, it doesn't make sense. "Please don't cry," Jeonghan says, "You've cried so much today already. You and Jihoon both."

"What happened to Jihoon?" That's his voice, all cracked and twisted. He doesn't remember crying. There are tears anyway.

"He's okay. Soonyoung is with him. Soonyoung is an alpha and I know - I know that you have every reason to not trust alphas, but Soonyoung is trained to help omegas that come from centers. He went to school for years to learn how to help people like you and Jihoon. He won't hurt Jihoon, you know? He'll give him as much space as he needs."

"Like the space under the bed?" Eyes squeezed tight, he knows better than to talk back like that to an alpha. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Letting all the bottled-up anger get the better of him. Jeonghan's going to hit him. Joshua knew better than to take that tone.

But Jeonghan laughs. A sad laugh. A laugh though. "Jihoon wasn't eating or drinking enough while he was under the bed. If you were making yourself sick, Seungcheol and I would do anything we had to to help you, including upsetting you. Jihoon will still have his own room, still be able to shut the door and take all the space he needs. He'll just be somewhere that Soonyoung can get to and make sure he eats like he should."

It's quiet for a long time. Jeonghan takes his hands away and lets Joshua curl in on himself. Hide his face and keep the tears locked away where no one else can see them. He doesn't want anyone else to see them. Crying is awful, it hurts and sometimes the tears won't stop even when his alphas ask them to.

Like now. Not big tears, just little tears that keep coming and coming and coming.

He doesn't know why they keep coming. Or maybe he does, but he doesn't want to know, so he keeps the reason locked away in a box way deep down where it can't hurt him.

The food gets put next to him again. Just chicken nuggets. Seungcheol said they wanted it to be food he could eat with his hands, eat on his own time. Just as long as he eats something.

Don't have to talk, Joshua, just eat, please.

Joshua reaches out and takes a bite after a long, long time. Jeonghan smiles. He blinks and just eats. Seungcheol's shuffling around in the doorway. Smell is too strong for him to not be there. Joshua watches. Jeonghan looks up and away and then nods.

"Oh thank god. You're a miracle worker, Hannie." Jeonghan laughs and it's happy this time. A real laugh. "Mind if I sit with you guys, Joshua? Just wanna make sure you're doing okay."

Joshua starts to nod. His alphas can do whatever they want. He doesn't get to tell them what to do. But Jeonghan puts a hand on his shoulder and just looks at him. Why? What's the look for? He doesn't like that look. Makes him nervous, like he's doing something wrong. Like he's being bad when he's not. He's not being bad. He was already bad today, he doesn't want to be bad anymore.

"Tell him no if you don't want him here. Tell me no if you want me to go away. Don't say you're okay with things you're not okay with," Jeonghan says. The world goes all still and quiet and Joshua swallows. It feels like there's something stuck in his throat that won't let the food in his mouth go down. "Do you want us here with you?"

He shrugs. Don't make him say no. He already disobeyed today. Joshua doesn't want to have to say no again. He doesn't want to be bad. Even if they tell him to say no, it's still being bad. He's going against his alphas and don't they understand that that's bad?

Jeonghan sighs. And so he's bad again anyway. Even when he's trying to be good. The door starts to shut and Seungcheol says goodbye and - "Come sit, Cheol. He'll think he's in trouble if you leave. You're not in trouble, sweetheart. Do you understand that? You are not in trouble at all. You're not being bad."

"Okay."

Seungcheol comes and sits next to Jeonghan on the floor. Jeonghan leans into him and looks so comfortable. Joshua wants to be that comfortable. He wants someone to love him like Seungcheol and Jeonghan love each other. It'll never happen, but he wants it.

He just eats. His alphas watch him eat, talk to each other so quietly that he can't hear them. So he just eats and thinks about nothing. About everything. About Jihoon and Mingyu and a little about Minghao.

Not a lot about Minghao. He doesn't know where Minghao is, if he's okay. There's only his imagination for Minghao, and the imagination comes up with scary things he doesn't like.

"I'm so proud of you," Seungcheol says. He smiles, head on Jeonghan's shoulder. "When you told us that you weren't coming out because you wanted to stay with Jihoon, I was so proud. You told us what you wanted, even though it was the exact opposite of what we wanted. I know it was really hard for you, and I'm proud."

Joshua smiles.

The world is slowly coming back. Slowly, slowly, slowly. He's starting to come back too. Slowly, slowly, slowly.

"You feeling a little better?"

"Uh-huh...think so."

"It's not too late to have Mingyu and Wonwoo over. If you want."

He forgot about Mingyu. How? Because he lost too much time between the morning and night. It's night now. Jeonghan and Seungcheol were upset because he hadn't eaten since breakfast and it's nighttime. It makes sense. Did Mingyu ask to come over? Did Jeonghan and Seungcheol tell him that Joshua didn't want to see him? No. They wouldn't. He doesn't know how he knows - but his alphas wouldn't say that.

"I wanna see Mingyu."

Jeonghan smiles and stands up. Seungcheol too, but he leaves fast. Footsteps on the stairs. Probably going to go pick out a movie. Maybe the new Jurassic World movie. Joshua mentioned he wanted to see it and Seungcheol said he'd rent it off somewhere for them to watch. He hopes its the Jurassic World movie.

He learned about the dinosaurs in this movie because Seungcheol calls him smart, calls him good when he can answer questions about the dinosaurs.

"I'll go call Wonwoo." Jeonghan pets Joshua's hair. "I'm proud of you too. For telling us what you wanted today, but also just in general. You've been through so much pain, and you still have so much love to give - Jihoon, Mingyu, Minghao, you would do anything for them, even if that anything is something you're terrified of. I'm just - I'm so proud of you."


 

The alphas go from the kitchen to the living room and back again. Joshua and Mingyu stay on the couch and watch. Seungcheol told them to stay. The alphas would take care of everything. Except they keep yelling at each other about forgetting the popcorn in the microwave. Three bags are all burnt because Wonwoo wasn’t watching them. Mingyu sighs and shrugs. The blanket gets pulled up higher around them.

“Wonwoo can’t cook,” he says. “It’s why he’s okay with me coming over every night, because he can’t cook anything worth eating.” Joshua laughs. Just a little bit. It’s silly, an adult not being able to cook – Wonwoo’s an adult. He should know how to cook. Joshua can cook a little. Jeonghan doesn’t like him using the stove unless he’s being watched, but he can make macaroni out of the box.

Jeonghan says that’s cooking. Says it’s good.

“Goddamit, Wonwoo! That’s the fourth bag! Go see if Joshua and Mingyu want ice cream. You can’t burn anything then!” It’s Jeonghan. His voice gets higher when he’s mad. Mostly mad at Seungcheol, but Wonwoo too now. Never at Joshua though.

Wonwoo’s head appears out from behind the wall. His ears are red. Embarrassed. Because Jeonghan yelled at him. Joshua smiles and leans into Mingyu. Jeonghan never yells at him. Seungcheol either. He thinks that might mean something, but he doesn’t know what. He doesn’t really want to think about it too hard now anyway. Not when he’s tired. Not when it’s movie and Mingyu time.

Wonwoo whistles. Mingyu is looking at him with eyebrows up. Why? Did he miss something? “You want any ice cream, Joshua?” He nods. “What kind?”

Talking to Wonwoo is hard. He’s not like Seungcheol and Jeonghan, he isn’t safe – no alphas are safe, but his alphas are more safe than other alphas. He knows them. They kind of know him. He doesn’t know Wonwoo; Wonwoo doesn’t know him. Easier to not say anything. He doesn’t want to talk to Wonwoo.

“Joshua’s got his own carton of ice cream,” Seungcheol calls.

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Seungcheol is there, sliding across the hallway in his socks. Jeonghan tells him not to do that all the time. Says Seungcheol is going to crack his head open. But he doesn’t stop. Joshua likes it, so he keeps doing it. That’s what Seungcheol said. It makes Joshua smile and that’s why he does it. Joshua smiles. Seungcheol smiles back. “You still feeling okay?”

As okay as he can feel. Jihoon is still there. Not here, where he should be, but in Joshua’s mind where no one can get to him. That hurts. Like someone looped rope around each individual rib and is pulling, pulling, pulling. But Jeonghan promised they’d go see him as soon as Soonyoung said it was okay, that Jihoon can come over whenever he wants. As soon as Soonyoung says it’s okay. And Joshua doesn’t understand that. He does, just a little – alphas control everything. Seungcheol and Jeonghan control where he lives, what clothes he wears, what food he eats. They control if he sees Mingyu, if he leaves the house. It makes sense that Soonyoug controls everything of Jihoon’s.

But they make it sound like Soonyoung is a doctor. Like it’s a fact that Jihoon’s not ready to come over, that Joshua’s not ready to see Jihoon, and not like it’s an alpha saying it’s a fact. He’s been reading and finding out things aren’t like the warehouse said they were, his alphas have started asking about what the warehouse told him and explaining that the warehouse lied.

The handlers said omegas were too fragile, that they broke so easily because they were male omegas. The bruises, the pain, it wouldn’t happen to alphas, to female omegas. Male omegas are born broken, it’s why they break so easily. Jeonghan showed him things on the internet that showed omegas from the warehouses aren’t fed right, aren’t given any nutrition, and that’s why Chanyeol’s arm broke so easily when the handler grabbed him.

Are you sure the handler grabbed him nicely? What seems more likely, that the handler wrenched Chanyeol’s arm back or that omegas are born defective?

Alphas don’t always tell the truth. Not everything they say is a fact. Doctors know better, and Soonyoung isn’t a doctor. Joshua doesn’t think he is, at least.

Still, he nods. He’s doing as okay as can be doing, and that has to be enough.

“What happened?” Mingyu is still staring. He seems better. More like Mingyu. Like how he was before Chanyeol got auctioned off. A lot more like Mingyu. What happened to him? He was all wrong yesterday, but now he’s like Mingyu and that doesn’t make sense. It’s a good kind of not making sense. But still doesn’t make sense. “I couldn’t come over because your alphas said you needed space. And they’re all worried about you and stuff.”

He waits. Not sure if he wants to tell Mingyu about it. Mingyu should get to know about Jihoon. Jihoon is – he’s family. Pack. It’s not fair to hide Jihoon. But he doesn’t want to talk about what happened. Doesn’t remember most of it anyway. It’s all flashes of fear and knowing that he’s being bad and that he’s going to be punished. Jihoon crying and going further and further away. Throwing up in the car and lying in bed for hours and hours, time all gone because Joshua wasn’t really there. Mingyu has too much already, he’s too fragile. He doesn’t need Joshua’s weight too.

But Mingyu asked. And he doesn’t lie. Not to Mingyu or Jihoon or Minghao. That’s not what they’re supposed to do. Chanyeol told them it was okay to lie to handlers and other alphas to keep themselves safe, but never to each other. All they have is each other, they can’t lie.

“I saw Jihoon today. Jeonghan and Seungcheol took me to their friend’s house because Soonyoung bought Jihoon and Jihoon wouldn’t come out from under the bed. They wanted me to help get him out, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Jihoon didn’t wanna come out and I didn’t wanna make him. I-I just wanted to stay with him. Jeonghan said that I had to come out because they were gonna have to pull Jihoon out and I – I said no.”

Mingyu’s jaw drops down. His eyes go wide. “Joshua,” he whispers.

He just shrugs. He doesn’t want to say anything else. Mingyu doesn’t push him either. He doesn’t lie, but – he gets to keep things for himself sometimes. They all get to keep some things for themselves. Except Mingyu doesn’t usually keep things to himself, not when he really, really wants to say them.

“I saw Minghao. His alpha is Wonwoo’s best friend and – and he’s okay. We went to the doctor’s together and we got to spend the whole day together. He asked about you. He wants to see you.”

His throat’s all closed up. “Really?” Mingyu nods. His face feels wet, but he doesn’t care. He lives across the street from Mingyu. Mingyu’s alpha knows Minghao’s alpha. Seungcheol and Jeonghan know Soonyoung. Mingyu, Minghao, Joshua, Jihoon. They’re still together, still connected.

The picture on his nightstand, it could have all four of them. Soon, maybe, whenever their alphas let them all get together.

“Maybe you’ll see him when you go to the doctor. Wonwoo said that you’d probably go to the same doctor. There’s another doctor I gotta go see named Soonyoung. But I don’t gotta go till next week.” He buries his face and cries. Cries and cries and cries.

He’d prayed to see them once on the street. Maybe get to talk to them if he was really, really lucky. Mingyu keeps talking about how Junhui said that he thought Minghao would do better if he got to see Mingyu and Joshua often, asked if Mingyu thought that Joshua would be okay with Minghao spending the night sometime. If all three of them would want to take over Junhui’s apartment for a day and have time where they didn’t have to be scared. “Junhui said it was Soonyoung’s idea. Is it four now? Would Jihoon come too?”

And God, all four of them together. No alphas, just them together where it’s safe. Where there’s food and real beds.

Amen.

A hand grabs his and they stay together. He leans into Mingyu and Mingyu leans into him. They stay together. When the alphas come in and sit on the other couch, they stay together. When the movie starts, when Seungcheol asks him about the dinosaurs, when Wonwoo falls asleep halfway through the movie – Joshua and Mingyu hold onto each other.

All four of them stayed together. They’re apart, but they’re not far. They’re still together. It’ll just take time.


 

Jeonghan comes in after bedtime. Joshua’s not asleep yet. He sees Jeonghan tiptoe in and kneel at the edge of the bed. His alpha has a phone pressed to his ear and he’s smiling. “Hey, you awake enough for a phone call?” He nods. “Good. I know it’s late, I had hoped to have this ready for you earlier, but I got sidetracked talking to Seungkwan.

“Oh, and I heard you and Mingyu talking earlier. We can go see Minghao tomorrow if you want. You have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday if you decide you need some space before you see him, so it’s not like you’ll never see him. And… We’ve been talking, me, Cheol, Wonwoo, and Jun, and we want to make sure all of you know that seeing each other isn’t a privilege or something. If you want Mingyu or Minghao to stay with us for a day or two, or if you want to go stay with them, just ask. Understand, Joshua? You’re important to us, we want to make you happy. And the happiest I’ve ever seen you is when you’re with Mingyu or Jihoon.”

Joshua nods. There’s no words he can say. He sniffles and Jeonghan gives a sad smile, leans in close and lips press against his forehead.

“Alright, Soonyoung picked up. Here you go,” Jeonghan says and gives him the phone. He presses it close to his ear. It’s just crackling over the speaker, no voice. He looks up at Jeonghan but his alpha just smiles and wishes him a goodnight. Says he already plugged the phone charger in. All Joshua has to do is plug the phone in if the battery gets low. “If it dies, just plug the phone in and wait for it to turn back on. Then go to recent calls and hit Soonyoung’s name. Night, sweetheart. I know this isn’t much, but it’s what we can do for right now.”

Jeonghan pushes Joshua’s hair back off his forehead. He stands up and walks away, feet making little sounds on the carpet as he goes. “Night, Jeonghan.” Jeonghan smiles again.

And then it’s just him in the dark. Just the moon to see by. Jeonghan closes the door almost all the way, just enough space left for hallway light. Just enough space so they can hear him if he gets upset.

And then Soonyoung on the phone, “I’m gonna put the phone down and move away. Just say hello or something so he knows it’s you.” More rustling, crackling, Soonyoung saying that he’s moving away very, very loudly.

“Jihoon? Jihoonie? Are you there?”

Loud crackling, too loud. He moves the phone away until the crackling stops and it’s quiet. His heart is beating so fast, ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump.

Joshua?

He curls up, keeps the phone held so so tight. Keeps it close so it – Jihoon can’t disappear. “Hi.”

Minghao tomorrow, Mingyu everyday. He doesn’t know when he’ll see Jihoon again, but he has this. And it’s somehow enough. They’re all still together. That’s enough.