“Home is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.”
- N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
They'd been lucky.
When it came right down to it, that's all it had been: Luck.
Lucky that Roy had taken such an interest in her.
Lucky that she was human and not as susceptible as their kind to the rose's effects.
Lucky that Gilles had been willing to sacrifice his status and betray the Alpha he'd once adored by siding with them and throwing that bunch into disarray.
Which was, altogether, entirely too many moving parts and happy accidents for his taste.
Things had been so much simpler before she'd arrived.
Not better, of course. Things had been awful before, but... awful was often simpler if only in that it spared them this unending tumble of unexpected perils.
Dario sighed, collapsing back into the chair at their bedside and digging fingers in against the ache in his temple.
The stress of worrying about her was going to absolutely ruin his complexion.
Still... even if it did make him old and wrinkled well before his time, tragic as that would be, he didn't regret caring for her or making her their Alpha.
Their human Alpha.
Well, their mostly human Alpha.
It was difficult to believe she was one of those sorts, after all, and clearly she must have some connection to them for Roy's bite to have such an impact on her.
There had been something about her right from the first moment they'd met that made him feel... safe, accepted in a way he hadn't felt outside his Home in so very long. It was the warm, comfort that only a true Alpha could inspire and he simply refused to believe he was imagining that feeling. And even if he were.... he certainly wasn't willing to lose her regardless.
Of course, making sure she stayed safe and in good health was going to be even more of a challenge now that they'd attracted the council's notice and no doubt earned their eternal enmity by basically stealing the Student Council's Vice President away and claiming him as their own.
He frowned as Gilles shifted in his sleep, his freshly bandaged fingers curling in the sheets, tail twitching as he whimpered through whatever terrors haunted his restless slumber.
Everything was just so complicated.
What they really needed was a few more friends and a few less enemies.
Not that that was likely to happen anytime soon at the rate they were going.
It certainly wasn't that he didn't want the boy around.
He was pretty and Nina quite liked him and, of course, he could sympathize with his plight. Could understand how simple it might be to lose oneself while struggling to hold onto the last vestiges of home amidst the pain of their new lives. But that certainly didn't mean he approved of the lengths to which he had obviously gone. After all, while that boy's assistance had saved her several times, it had also landed their girl in hot water just as frequently.
Something had to be done.
When that boy woke up he was going to give him a very firm talking to.
It was perfectly possible that he was acting with only the purest of intentions towards their sweet Nina, but that certainly didn't mean he didn't need to bear at least some of the responsibility for it and if he was going to be a member of their Home, they needed to be able to trust he wasn't just going to roll over and show Miss President his throat the second she came sniffing about looking to take him back again.
And she would, he had no doubt about that.
She might not value him or treat him well- if his injuries were anything to go by- but no Alpha could afford to take such an obvious challenge to their authority lightly.
They would have to present a united front if they hoped to have any chance of weathering the storm.
After all, a Home divided was sure to fail at the critical moment and they were all far too fabulous to go the way of the dodo just because Mister Vice President didn't have his head on straight and proper.
He sighed and turned his attention back to the scarf he'd been working on to keep his hands busy. It was turning out quite well, especially considering how unfocused he'd been.
Now whether Gilles would deserve the beautiful fruits of his talented labor was another matter entirely.
Poe had almost lost her again.
He hadn't been there when she needed support... again.
He wanted to be stronger, to be able to be... better, but....
Poe gnawed at his bottom lip, frowning down at his sketchpad, the shapes he'd managed to smear across it were still transitive, blotchy half-formed images he couldn't seem to bring into focus. Usually painting soothed him, the act of creation a balm to the aches and pains of body and mind, but today....
He chanced another glance at her, but she was much the same as the last time he'd dared to look. Lying so still in her bed, her long hair spread out around her like something out of a storybook.
Dario said they were lucky. That it would have been much worse, much more dangerous, if she weren't human.
And it was probably even true, but Poe didn't feel very lucky.
The student council boy lay beside her, shadows like bruises beneath the weight of his fluttering eyelashes. He could in black and shades of gray and it would look like the rain sounded, sad and a little like loss.
He'd heard from Dario that Nina had insisted Roy bring him back with them, that she had stood up to Roy and refused to leave him behind even when escape had seemed impossible even without the deadweight of an injured, barely conscious third holding them back.
Poe liked that about her.
That she would not leave any of hers behind no matter the odds.
It was good.
She was good.
She was his Alpha.
She was the very best Alpha and Poe was proud that she was his even if she scared him a little.
It was hard not to be scared.
The idea of having something to lose again was terrifying.
He set his paper and paints aside with a sigh, pulling his knees up inside her big, warm, beautiful coat and tucking his arms around them to hold them close.
He'd been on his own for so long, but even when he'd been alone... he'd never forgotten the feel of family, of home, even though he'd never expected to feel any of those things again.
It was why he'd been so devoted to painting.
Capturing those images again and again were the only way he was certain to remember and his memory was all that remained for him of those times when he had been... loved and wanted and safe.
And while Poe could paint those times, could paint his memories across canvas so that they could be seen, touched, they weren't real and never would be again.
But what he felt now... was good.
Not perfect, not the same, but good nonetheless.
He was happy here.
Nina made Poe feel... not safe, not yet, maybe never, because the world around them was a dangerous place and she wanted to save everyone.
Poe wanted to believe she could, believe that Nina would find a way to make them safe, to give them a home where no one would hurt them anymore, but this world was full of poisonous roses and deadly thorns.
He knew that better than most.
The student council boy made a noise in his sleep like a sob and turned to huddle nearer her, to bury his face against her hair with a whimper.
Poe wanted to feel bad for him
He had no home, not really, not anymore if what Dario and the others said was true.
Though maybe Nina was his Alpha now too, maybe he was already part of their home, Poe didn't know, no one had said.
But whatever else he was, Poe knew he was important to Nina, helped Nina, tried to protect Nina, but... he had put her in danger too.
But Poe didn't think she would hold that against him anymore than she'd held it against him when he'd done the same.
Nina was... kind.
But you couldn't be good and kind and safe... not in a place like this.
Not in a world like theirs.
His fingers trembled and he tucked them into the sleeves of his borrowed coat.
He wasn't going to get any work done like this.
His head was everywhere at once, too scattered to focus on any one thing.
He wanted to do something for her, but it was difficult to think of what he could do on his own.
She might be thirsty when she woke.
He padded into the bathroom on silent feet and filled an empty glass from the tap before taking it carefully back into the room to place on the little table beside her bed.
Her voice was soft, barely a mumble, but it seemed loud all the same and he startled badly, jostling the glass he was carrying so hard that the water sloshed over the side to splatter across the floor and his bare toes.
He hadn't meant to wake her. She should be resting and he was disturbing her and....
"You're wearing my coat?" His heart was thundering in his throat and he's not sure if it's wrong, if he shouldn't have, if it was a mistake.
A smile broke across her face, sweet and sleepy and kind, and it sent most of his anxiety scurrying away, "Oh, were you worried about me?"
Poe nodded slowly, hesitantly and she holds out her arms to him.
He stares at them in silence, unsure what he's meant to do.
"Would you mind...uh..." she trailed off, biting her lower lip and looking uncertain as if she wasn't sure whether she should say or ask or....
"Anything," he replied quickly, softly, feeling anxious again and strange and so unlike himself that he's not quite sure what to do.
He's used to being alone. He's been alone for so long, but he....
"Poe wants to help," he replied firmly, because he did even if it didn't come naturally to him.
She smiled, looking as relieved as he felt, "I just... Roy slept next to me when we were... do you want to sleep with me, er," she glanced back over her shoulder, her cheeks a little bit red as Gilles snuffled against her hair. "Us?"
His breath caught in throat.
He almost dropped the water glass in his rush to throw himself into her bed, to slide beneath the blanket with her before she could change her mind and the moment her arms closed around him, almost painfully tight, he whimpered, the feeling of relief at being touched and held again almost a physical thing, like a second skin has sloughed away leaving him light as air in the aftermath.
He'd been scared.
When she hadn't come back, he'd been scared she wouldn't.
Scared and worried and useless, unable to help.
She was his....
She made a soft noise, like a sob, and her arms wound so tightly around him it almost hurt, but it was... nice. Horrible, because she's sad and tired and angry, but nice because she's with him.and she's warm, safe if only for the moment, and home. His eye burned and he blinked away tears as he buried his face against her, nuzzling her chest and breathing in the scent of her perfume and the faint, inescapable scent of humanity beneath. She buried her wet face in his hair, nose nudging against his ears as if she was trying to memorize the scent of him too.
It was difficult sometimes to remember she wasn't one of them, even with his face pressed against her skin.
Her tail curled around him, soft and bushy and warm and he was quick to return the gesture, anxiety rising within him like an incoming tide. He'd never learned to be strong. He wanted to try, but he was still... he trembled, unsettled by her soft, shaky breathing. An Alpha's weakness wasn't something he was meant to see. It was a private thing, a thing for only the closest confidants and lovers, but she didn't know that, she wouldn't know that. She didn't understand their rules, their customs, any of those things that come so naturally to all of them were utterly foreign to her.
She really wasn't like them at all.
But that was okay.
Poe hasn't longed for an Alpha in a long time. He didn't need another person to look down at him like he was less than nothing. He doesn't want an Alpha who would never show weakness before him because of his status. He doesn't want any of that.
She's what he wanted, she's the Alpha who chose him and fought for him and loved him when no one else would and everything else was just... noise.
They were... family.
So, even if it felt weird, wrong, to be the one she showed her weakness to, he wouldn't turn away.
If she needed someone to be strong so she could be a little weak after everything that happened, Poe could at least try to be what she needed.
Whatever that was.
She'd done so much for him, it was the least he could do in return.
He lay in her arms, quivering and ill-at-ease as she sighed against his hair and slowly eased back into a restless slumber.
Outside, the rain fell steadily, making the world seem small and quiet beyond the soft rush and occasional grumble of the storm.
Nina mumbled something and hugged him a little closer and the smell of exhaustion and the fear was so thick on her skin it felt as if he were drowning in it, but he still couldn't bring himself to pull away.
Eventually he slept, but his dreams were restless and full of shadows and roses and blood.
"Goodness, don't you three look cozy," Dario murmured, minutes or hours later, his big hand stroking along Poe's back, bringing him back to himself from the uneasy doze he'd fallen into. "I applaud the effort, sweetie, I do, but you really shouldn't bite off more than you can chew. You're gonna end up with frown lines like caverns. Next time just call us if you need a hand, hm?"
"Okay," he murmured, his voice muffled against Nina's chest, his face warm.
He was silently grateful when Dario sighed, resigned, "Oh, fine, budge over, honey. I'm sure we can manage a pile of four in this little bed if we really try."
It's easier with Dario there, mumbling halfhearted complaints about making dainty, beautiful flowers do all the heavy lifting as he shoved all three of them over with relative ease and slipped in the bed beside Poe, snuggling in against his back and settling an arm over them all.
Lying between Nina and Dario was... better, less overwhelming, and far more comfortable as he turned within the circle of her arms and buried his face against the front of Dario's soft, soft coat and let the last of anxiety melt away beneath the scent of make up powder and the freshly laundered smell that always seemed to cling to Dario no matter how long it had been since he'd last washed.
Dario was warm.
Warm like Nina was warm, like Poe himself was warm as he lay between them.
Sometimes it's still difficult to remember that he's not alone.
It's still too new, too strange a concept, to imagine himself as part of a family again.
Even one as small and weak and struggling as their own.
Outside the storm rages on, but their bed is crowded and warm and it smells like home should smell and even if it's only for a little while, everything seems right in the world.
And, for the moment, that's enough.
"I'm sure things will be busy again soon enough," Dario murmured, nuzzling the top of his head. "Let's take a page from our princess and get some beauty sleep while we can."