It is a crisply cool, blue-skied afternoon in early December when Nie Mingjue sees his mate with another alpha.
He doesn’t usually come over unannounced. In fact, A-Yao had asked that he call him or text him beforehand, and Mingjue, a bull with no time for surprises, had never even thought of not doing so. Today, though, in the midst of doing A-Yao a favor, he’d simply forgotten; having just started birth leave and hobbled for the time being by a pregnancy less than a month from term, A-Yao hadn’t been able to gather everything he’d wanted to take home from his office. Mingjue had decided to head from his own office by the gym to A-Yao’s little guidance counselor cave, dim and not quite hiding hints of nesting, to pick up a couple of small boxes of papers and trinkets and surprise A-Yao with them on his way home.
If he had his way, Mingjue would get to bring A-Yao his things and then settle in for the rest of the evening instead of having to get back in his truck and make another drive to his own house. But, he reminded himself, at the end of the month, everything would change. The baby-- their baby , he marveled every time--was due on the 30th of the month, and afterward, the three of them would head back to Nie Mingjue’s house, and that was where they would stay. Lan Xichen would join them when his lease ran out in the summer. Between his fathers, his sworn uncle, and whatever spoiling Nie Huaisang insisted he be able to do as his blood uncle, little Nie Shuai would never want for love or attention. Just a few weeks, Mingjue had been thinking.
Then as he makes his way up A-Yao’s street, he stops thinking, and all he can do is put together the sight in A-Yao’s driveway.
A car, some space-age-looking red beast of a thing with dihedral doors-- dihedral doors?! --sits idling in the driveway. Jin Guangyao stands outside of it, fluffy orange tail wagging calmly and blissfully, bending over just enough, and maybe as much as he can with his belly as big as it is, to meet the touch of the driver, who is delicately teasing the underside of his chin with long, clawed, fake nails. Mingjue can make out only so much of the driver, though: suited, long, dark hair with one graying streak, middle-aged but handsome enough to alarm Mingjue. He’s a tiger. As soon as Mingjue steps out of the truck, he can smell him, even over the settling miasma of fuel; he is smoke and wine, and he turns his face just enough for Mingjue to get a look at it before he starts up his futuristic UFO of a vehicle, does whatever he has to do to get the doors rotating shut, and back out and speed off as if he’s on the freeway and not the looping street of a lower-income suburb. He is as smart a man as he is lucky, because Mingjue absolutely would have taken his horns and gouged a line through the steel hull of that thing if he hadn’t stood there frozen and dumb in the middle of the road. God or whoever made him a bull for a reason.
A second more and he wouldn’t have trusted himself not to gore the man himself, because once his brain moves the pieces of his appearance into place, Mingjue knows who he is. He turns wild-eyed toward the little fox omega standing alone in the driveway.
Jin Guangyao is staring at Nie Mingjue. Jin Guangyao backs away, wide-eyed, hands held up in defense, and Nie Mingjue stomps forward with each step Jin Guangyao takes. Jin Guangyao leads Nie Mingjue inside this way, and when the front door is closed, they move no farther.
Mingjue huffs once, hot, loud, and furious from his nose.
He does not ask Jin Guangyao questions; he demands information.
“So you’re fucking the district attorney,” he says.
Jin Guangyao hunches over, ears flattened back, and his tail sinks and tries to hide between his legs. He’s looking anywhere but at Nie Mingjue, pupils shrunken to tiny, constricted dots. Mingjue waits for an answer, and in the meantime, bristles at the trace he picks up in Guangyao’s scent: fear .
And he has the nerve to murmur, “There’s no need to jump to conclusions, Dage.”
Mingjue finds himself thinking, and when he realizes is immediately even more everything , he doesn’t even know what mood, Good, you should be scared . Never, not even when Jin Guangyao told him he was changing his name to match that worm bastard of a father of his, has Nie Mingjue wished fear, or sadness, or hate, or anything of the sort on his mate. But he’s snarling under his own breath, growling at the back of his throat, because Jin Guangyao should know better than this, to say the fucking least.
He clenches his teeth so hard he feels it in his sinuses. “You’re fucking Wen Ruohan.”
Jin Guangyao should know . He shivers. His arms circle around his belly. There’s a moment of hesitation, and for some reason, Mingjue allows it, before Guangyao takes a breath, and says, “I am doing what I have to do.”
The last thing Nie Mingjue has expected is for Jin Guangyao to own up. Now that he has, he almost wishes he hadn’t.
“How the fuck ,” Mingjue snarls, “is cheating on me ‘what you have to do’?”
When he speaks, Jin Guangyao sounds so confident, so righteous, so brave. “He’s been helping me.”
Mingjue’s stomach curdles. “With what? For how long?”
“On and off since I was eighteen,” Guangyao replies, and he finally picks his head up, his ears still flattened. “I was still in high school. I needed money. I wanted my mom out of jail. I wanted to know my dad. He could help me with all of that. How was I supposed to say no? ”
“By saying no!” Mingjue’s voice rises to a roar he’s never directed toward A-Yao. “So, what, you’ve been letting him fuck you since then?”
“Not that long.”
“Bullshit, ‘not that long’.”
A whisper of a growl rumbles in the back of Guangyao’s voice. Until now, it has been all too easy to forget that he, not Nie Mingjue, is the predator. “Why would I be giving you bullshit at this point, Dage? What do I have to lose?”
“Why would you stop giving me bullshit at this point? You’ve been giving me bullshit since before we met.” Mingjue thinks Jin Guangyao’s expression darkens, but, no; his own shadow, looming and massive, has fallen over him completely. “Wen fucking Ruohan. No wonder I’m not allowed to come over unless I tell you first.”
Guangyao bites his lip. Sucks on it. He moves his mouth between his teeth as if it’s the only way to keep himself from saying something is by eating the words first.
Mingjue snorts again. “How long, then.”
“Three years.” Shrug. “On and off, like I said.”
Three years. The math is not lost on Nie Mingjue. His hands start to curl into fists, but when he feels his short nails begin to dig into the balls of his palms he trembles, brings them haltingly upward, and runs his hands through his hair with such tightness and force that he feels each strand prickle in its follicle. When he reaches his horns he tears at the hair surrounding them--not enough to pull it out, but enough to hurt. He scrapes the sole of his boot against the carpet. Everything is red. Nothing is redder than that fucking jewel dotting Jin Guangyao’s forehead. He can’t look at it, but he can’t look down at Guangyao’s swollen stomach, either. Three fucking years. He can’t look at it, but now that he has, he can’t look away from it.
If he looks through Guangyao’s arms clutched like a cordon around himself, into that stomach that for over eight months was theirs , he can see something . A colorless blob. But now he can’t make it any clearer than that.
He asks, “How do I know it’s mine.”
Through all this, Guangyao hasn’t even been wearing slippers, so Mingjue can see the motion of his swollen feet when his weight shifts. He steps forward. “What’s the point of even telling you? You’ve already decided everything you believe.” He reaches behind Mingjue to grab the front doorknob. “How could I have ever thought you’d understand?”
In Nie Mingjue’s vision, there is a throbbing flash that surges through him, a burst of black and red, that blinds him for a moment, and if he weren’t so firmly, heavily, staunchly anchored to the ground, he would lose his balance and keel over. He could roar. He could rip the door from its hinges and snap it in two like a sheet of balsa wood. He could reach out and do something, anything to Jin Guangyao. But he must breathe, and whenever he inhales, he catches the sweet floral scent of the man who is, for now, still his omega, and it curls into his nose, beckoning forth from his mind that chance, whatever it may be, that the baby inside Jin Guangyao still could be his.
He yanks the doorknob from Jin Guangyao. “Fine,” he snaps. “You fucked your way into your dad’s graces. Good for you. You worked so hard to be a Jin, the baby can be one, too.”
The word “predator” spits from his lips, almost of its own accord. For the split second before the door slams, Jin Guangyao’s eyes are not the only ones widened in horror.
Once inside his truck, Nie Mingjue closes the doors and rolls up the windows, blasts some Iron Maiden so loudly he can’t hear himself scream. The boxes of A-Yao’s things stay in the back seat.