She woke up feeling more tired than she did when she first went to sleep. Baekhyun forced herself to sit, elbows creaking and back popping, twisted and slumped. The red lights of her digital clock blinked at her, past five at night. The reedy wail of her eight o’clock alarm hadn’t woken her. Last night had been hard, and her legs still felt tender and swollen, new skin sensitive against the Egyptian cotton. The empty spaces in her bed were cool to the touch.
Baekhyun ran a hand through her hair, collapsing backward onto her pillow. Her bones ached. Twenty one going on fifty one, she thought bitterly. Maybe she had broken something last night, a hairline fracture to add to her collection . There had been a territory incursion as her pack were running up against the ridge that marked the end of their territory and the start of big pack’s. While fighting, one of the foreign wolves had slammed Baekhyun into a tree trunk with their body, but she’d snapped their neck not long after with a good shake of her head and the explosion of blood and spinal fluid in her lupine mouth. She wasn’t the Splinter pack’s alpha for nothing.
Thunder cracked outside, rumbling low against the sound of rain slapping against the windows. The hall light clicked on automatically. Water popped and rustled against the hedges near her window, pooling on her windowsills and running down the white weatherboard. Her leg itched where the other pack’s alpha had bitten it. Yixing had closed it for her, but it was still sensitive.
She kicked aside the covers, shivering against the chill on her bare legs. Baekhyun tugged her navy camisole down and snapped her underwear back into place with one finger. Bouncing on her heels, Baekhyun pulled on the hoodie that she had draped over the back of her desk chair, kicking the door open as she rubbed at her eyes.
Baekhyun worked her jaw, padding into the kitchen and drinking straight from the tap. She groaned and stretched her back. There was something niggling at the back of her mind, pricking at her gums where her canines wanted to push out, at the base of her spine and the backs of her knees, where bones wanted to change shape and realign. The house was dim and unlit save for the one light in the hallway, but it was light enough for her wolf eyes to see. Her ears detected the faint and regular movement of the skeleton clock on her mantel piece, amplified in the quiet darkness. She sniffed, rubbing her nose.
Under her own scent, the traces of her pack, and the rain - a new scent, and a faint scratching against her side door.
Intruder. Loner. Foreign - threat , she belatedly thought. But how could she think that? Baekhyun threw back the door bolt and unlocked her door. The wolf outside smelt of blood, mud and leaf litter. They collapsed against her legs, cold and wet; Baekhyun could feel that the wolf in them was weak, as if it had been run to the point of collapse. Insensate, they grasped at her bare legs with a weakening grip. Through the mess, she saw the red cord tied around their neck. She wondered why that was the first thing she saw, with the boy’s- he was only a boy, barely out of his teens, maybe not even- pretty mouth and strong jawline.
It was pack law. A red cord was the final measure, when demotion, public humiliation and exile were no longer viable - a ceremonial mark that the wolf was no longer a predator, but the prey and enemy of all wolves, to be hunted down.
Something in her rebelled. Something felt wrong - not about the boy but the circumstances. The left side of his face was swollen and blackened with bruises, and long ragged scratches were visible through the mangled scraps that served as his clothing. The bones of the arm clinging to her legs were dangerously prominent. The red cord was looped tight as a noose; it shone under the dirt and grime, like an alarm beacon.
Baekhyun held the cold screen of her phone to her cheek as she waited for her beta to pick up. She paced, dialing for Chanyeol when Yixing didn’t pick up, clamping the phone to her ear with her shoulder and dragging the abandoned wolf inside. Her instinct had never kicked in so strongly as it was now, overriding her better judgement and fuelling - possibly - what was the biggest risk of her life.
“Fucked up shit, Baek, it’s not even six yet,” Chanyeol croaked when he finally picked up. Baekhyun sucked her teeth and decided that there was no hiding it.
“I got a wolf dumped on my doorstep, red-corded, don’t talk to me about fucked up shit,” she hissed through her teeth.
A beat of silence from the other end. “You’re fucking with me.”
“I’m not joking. Get the rest of the pack, find Yixing, get your asses here.”
She could nearly hear Chanyeol scrubbing a hand through his hair over the phone. Chanyeol growled and Baekhyun’s grip on the boy-wolf’s collar tightened.
“I’ll be over in ten.” He ended the call.
Baekhyun kicked the door shut and slid down the wall, cradling her head. A pounding ache was beginning to build behind her eyes, reason battering against the instinct that had overcome her in the moment. That red cord - and bringing the boy into her home, her protection - what was she thinking?
She had dragged him in, bathed him, and cleaned and bandaged the particularly vicious lacerationss on his shoulder before Yixing could do it properly later. She’d dressed him, laid him down and kept watch, staring into the rain, watching for the others, thinking about the red cord, worrying at the inside of her mouth.
Her pack came later than Chanyeol had led her to expect, with the boy-wolf in the other room. Yixing leaned against the door, hands in his pockets; Chanyeol helped himself to a packet of ramen and put her two handled pot on the stove. Sehun leaned forward on a pulled-out chair to brace her elbows on her knees. Her clasped hands fell between her knees, but her foot twitched, belying the relaxed posture.
“Cull him,” Sehun muttered, peering through her peroxide bangs.
“Cull him,” Chanyeol repeated incredulously. “Are you out of your mind, Sehun Oh?”
“It’s pack rules,” she retorted. “He’s red-corded, you cull him. Been that way since the howlers started howling. You told me so, Baek.”
Chanyeol made a face, crossing his arms and leaning against the benchtop. “You spit in the face of rules, Seh, what’s up with you now?”
Baekhyun rubbed her temple, feeling a tension headache building up behind her eyes. Sehun bared her canines at Chanyeol, shook her hair out of her eyes and crossed her arms with a huff.
“You can’t just-”
“Kris won’t like this,” Yixing warned. “You’d need a hell of a good reason to sway him.” The alpha of the lead pack in their little town in the forest had a notoriously mercurial temper. He ruled over Sleeper, its wolves, and the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest that surrounded the town with a firm hand; the Sleeper pack were the strong enough that their territory hadn’t been disputed since they’d marked their lands. Only Baekhyun’s Splinter pack had any status compared to the Sleeper pack, but even they deferred.
“We’d better start brainstorming, then,” Baekhyun said. Yixing’s mouth creased in at the corner.
“It’s not that simple,” he said. Sehun’s eyes flicked between them. Chanyeol emptied the ramen packet of dried noodle crumbs and stirred the pot. Baekhyun turned, strode away and snatched up the soiled clothes in a pile on her bathroom floor, and returned. She tossed them onto the table.
“His things when he came here,” Baekhyun said. “What do you make of it?”
Yixing sauntered over and dropped into a crouch, pulling the pile of rags apart. Sehun pushed her sleeves back and picked up the pants, shaking mud clods out onto the polished wood.
Sehun closed her eyes and inhaled. “Blood, dirt, mixed like he skinned his knees. Fell while he was running, got back up and didn’t have time to clean it off.”
“Forest, wet leaf litter,” Yixing added. “He made his own way here, through the forest on the other side of the property across the street. And there’s his personal scent-”
Sehun suddenly recoiled, the back of her hand pressed against her mouth. She sprung to her feet and staggered out of the room, sliding on Baekhyun’s hardwood floors in her haste. Baekhyun followed her to the boy wolf’s room, where she nosed at his hair and the skin behind his ear, under his jaw and along his throat.
“Sehun,” she said quietly, starting. Sehun whipped around to turn a gaze raw with turmoil on Baekhyun.
She blinked her eyes closed and swallowed with difficulty, getting to her feet and leaving the room. Baekhyun closed the door behind her as the boy stirred.
“Can’t you smell it? It’s- it’s all over him,” she mumbled, looking like she’d hurl. Baekhyun shook her head.
Yixing and Chanyeol looked at them both. Sehun’s hands shook visibly, and Baekhyun guided her to the kitchen table.
“That cold, clammy bitter smell,” she whispered, nudging the wolf’s soiled clothes away from her. “Cum, someone else’s. Running down the insides of his pant legs.”
Baekhyun hissed through her teeth. Chanyeol dropped his chopsticks with a clatter. Yixing took another deep sniff, and growled.
“I think it might be an alpha,” he said slowly, “but they’re sick. There’s just something wrong with them. I can’t pin what pack they’re from. It’s been too long. The scent isn’t fresh anymore.”
“I don’t understand , Baek,” Chanyeol said, furrowing his brow. “Why didn’t you kill him on sight? And even if you didn’t, why did you go to all the trouble of patching him up?”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’ve been kicking myself and asking myself the same question and I can’t, can’t figure out why.”
Yixing stopped fiddling with his phone. “I’ll break it to Kris.”
Baekhyun winced. It wasn’t in good judgement for her to let him, but she knew that Yixing and Kris ran too deep and personal for her to mess with - no matter how messy it would get in the end. She sat beside Sehun and pulled the omega to her side with one arm. The younger girl rested her cheek on Baekhyun’s shoulder, her blonde hair pricking at Baekhyun’s neck.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said, pressing a kiss to the top of Sehun’s head. “We’ll figure it out.”
He came into wakefulness to the press of cool, smooth sheets around him. He blinked his bleary eyes open. Things came rushing back, an ungovernable torrent of fragmented memories. The beating, the injury to his left collarbone and shoulder, the hunt.
His eyes flicked open and Jongin took a huge gulp of air, choking and coughing violently as it went down the wrong way. Strong, fine hands pressed down on his shoulders and he twisted wildly.
“Easy, easy.” Jongin’s throat was painfully dry. His whole body shook as he tried to claw free. The hands pressed down harder on his injured shoulder and involuntary tears sprung to his eyes. Jongin breathed in hard through his nose, and his frightful hacking became a sob. Alpha , oh God .
“Easy,” the voice repeated, nearly obscured by the resonant alpha timbre. Jongin bit his lip, falling silent. He sniffed, taking in more of the overpowering scent. Under notes of linen and musk were different smells, the alpha marked by bitter chocolate, pine forests and rain. Not that alpha, not his alpha.
“Lie still.” It was an order. The alpha moved one hand to the side and picked something up off the side table, and Jongin panicked when cold metal touched his neck. He thrashed until the alpha dropped the metal thing and grabbed his wrist.
“Stop it, stop it damn you,” they hissed, pinning him awkwardly with one arm over his head. He panted sharply, tears welling faster. They left him to die- it was tied around his neck, dead man walking in a noose. The alpha muttered a curse as he shuddered feebly, turning his head away.
“Fuck, I’m going to release your hands, just- don’t go crazy or something, I know I pressed on your shoulder,” the alpha muttered. “Nod if you understand. I’m going to let go and you won’t lash out, you won’t run.”
Jongin nodded, prone and helpless. The alpha sighed, and sat at the edge of the bed, pulling the sheet taut over his lower body. Jongin blinked through the liquid caught in his eyelashes. The alpha blurred in the fading light, and sharpened, solidified. She was a fine-boned woman, almost to the point of appearing raw. A practical ponytail drew her hair off the backs of scarred shoulders. Her body relaxed into a boneless curl, one elegant hand stretched out to prop herself up on the bed. She regarded him carefully, gaze flicking out to the window.
She reached for him and he flinched, but her fingers sifted through his matted fringe and pushed it away from his face.
“Did they drop you outside or did you make your own way here?” she asked, pleating the bedsheet between her fingers. Jongin opened his mouth to say something, but the only thing that came out was a cracked whimper. The alpha pursed her lips. “Don’t move. I’ll get you some water, painkillers, and then you sleep. We’ll talk when you wake up again.”
Jongin slept as the drugs overtook his system, feeling numb and heavy.
He woke as warm, early afternoon light seeped in from beneath the shutters. Jongin’s shoulder still throbbed. His throat was painfully dry, so he rolled to his good side and sat with his stiff arm. The glass on the bedside table was empty. He gripped the edge of the hardwood table and forced himself to his feet, staggering toward the door before the spinning of his head caught up to him and he crashed into the doorway.
The same finely cut hands that held him down now held him up, sliding under his arm and giving him a place to rest his weight. Jongin’s throat seized up at the thought of the alpha being so close to him, close enough to reach out and grab him by the neck and let their claws tear through.
“Easy,” she said, husky and melodic. “Easy.”
The alpha dragged him to the small, bright kitchen, depositing him at the table and returning to the fry-up on the stove. She poked the eggs and bacon out of the pan and onto the plate, setting it down loudly in front of him with a tall glass of water. Jongin grabbed the glass of water and downed it nearly without breathing, panting with relief from the burning in his throat. He attacked the food, shovelling it down without tasting it for longer than a second. The alpha hummed, turning back to the stove and greasing the pan with more butter, before throwing in a steak and some mushrooms. Jongin licked the last of the dribbly egg-yolk off his plate, and the alpha snatched it away from him. He reached after her with a whimper; she returned the plate with the rare meat and a knife and fork.
“Eat,” she said. “Just, with cutlery. And slower, please don’t choke.”
His stomach grumbled, and he needed no further invitation. Baekhyun cracked another egg into the pan for herself, taking the kettle off the stove as it began to howl. She made her coffee, black with two sugars. The picture the boy-wolf made at the table was at once an endearing and saddening one. He was drawn and thin, but not as runty as she would have expected for someone that had faced prolonged - maybe lifelong - abuse. Maybe he had hunted small game on his own? Either way, he ate as if he were a convict at his last meal.
“Of course you’d do two days’ eating in one sitting,” she said. The boy’s eyes flicked up to hers, before he looked down again with sudden horror, pushing the plate away. His hand flew to his neck, feeling for the red cord.
“Don’t,” Baekhyun said. “You don’t need to worry about that anymore.”
“No,” she warned. He scooted sideways off his chair and lunged toward her, pressing his forehead to her knee in a venerating gesture. Baekhyun swallowed.
“Don’t, don’t do that,” she croaked. “Please. Get up right now.”
He obeyed, moving back to his seat with a look of fear and awe in his eyes. She motioned at his half-finished plate, nodding. He carefully resumed eating.
Baekhyun turned to the fridge and pulled out the carton of milk. With the rest of the hot water, she made hot chocolate from powder and dumped in half a glass of milk to add richness. Baekhyun set it front of the boy with a firm tap, unnerved.
“It’s hot,” she said. “Don’t burn yourself.”
He shoved the last morsel of meat into his mouth. His eyes fluttered shut as he drained the cup, slumping backward in his chair. Baekhyun smiled thinly, crossing her arms and watching him across the table. The boy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. She raised both brows.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that-” He was a little breathless and hesitant, and she tilted her head as a sign to go on. “It’s that, I haven’t eaten like this for a long time.”
“They tried to break you and when they couldn’t,” she mused, staring into space, as her thoughts spun themselves aloud. The boy flinched, shrinking away. “I’m sorry, I was thinking aloud, I didn’t think. What’s your name?”
“Jongin.” His voice was small.
“Jongin,” Baekhyun repeated. “I’m Baekhyun.”
The side door slammed open.
“Baek, I swear to God I’m going to punch Mr Prentiss in the dick if he bothers me again, the fucking shitstain! He gave me detention for refusing to stand during pledge, never mind that it’s my fucking constitutional right -” Sehun dumped her scuffed school bag onto the floor, snatching the milk carton and lifting it to her lips. Baekhyun looked at her pointedly and Jongin flinched.
“Why are you making fried breakfast? It’s two in the afternoon, and you didn’t tell me you were going to- Oh.”
“You do realise that this isn’t your house, right,” Baekhyun said. Sehun narrowed her eyes at Jongin, grabbing Baekhyun’s wrist and towing her into the corridor.
“What the hell, Baek? I thought you were going to deal with him!” she hissed.
“I did,” Baekhyun replied calmly. “You told me yourself, you told me what you smelt on him. They hurt him badly and red-corded him so they could hide what they'd done to him themselves, Sehun, and you think I’ll cull him?”
Sehun growled. “This is insanity.”
“It’s none of your business, Sehun,” Baekhyun said. “Why are you out of school anyway?”
“Of course it’s my business,” the younger girl muttered. “It’s pack, Baekhyun, I can’t just let some loner bring trouble right to us.”
“You speak as if you’re the only one that cares about this pack,” Baekhyun snapped. “He’s ours now, and that’s it. If you want to fight me about it then you can cool off in the backwoods until the next full moon.”
Sehun crossed her arms and looked at her resentfully. She hated pulling rank, but the omega would fight her forever if she wasn’t tough now.
“What about Kris?”
“What about him?”
“Never mind,” Sehun spat. “I’m going home.”
She slammed the door on the way out. Baekhyun sighed and locked the door behind her, turning to Jongin. The boy stared at the table, hand resting loosely curled on the light wood. Baekhyun regarded him for a long minute. He must have heard everything. Sehun - she always said exactly what she meant.
“Don’t mind Sehun,” Baekhyun said, finally. “She’s never had good experiences with loners. Or any wolves, really. Just us.”
Jongin didn’t respond. Clearly, neither had he.
Baekhyun showed Jongin to the bathroom and shoved a towel and some of Chanyeol’s clothes at him.
“Shampoo and conditioner are in the corner, feel free to use the salux cloth if your skin can handle it,” she said. “I only have body wash, so you’re going to have to deal with smelling a bit girly for a couple days.”
Jongin nodded at her and bundled his things over the towel rack. Baekhyun shut the door and let the boy be. She leaned against the wall for a moment, suddenly bone tired. She bowed her head, listening to the sound of the shower sputtering and Jongin yelping as the water struck him. Sehun was angry with her. Jongin was something else, though; it seemed too much like a loner coming home than one joining a pack for the first time.
She rooted in her closet for more of Chanyeol’s clothes. The things he left at her place smelled like Baekhyun, but not enough to mark Jongin as hers. She shed her hoodie and leggings, donning Chanyeol’s overlarge shirt, hoodie and sweatpants. Baekhyun would have to keep wearing them until her scent wore into them and they would protect Jongin.
Jongin emerged from the bathroom wreathed in steam. He was pink with cleanliness, and drowsy. Baekhyun looked up from her dog-eared Bradbury novel, unfolding her legs and getting up. The boy rubbed at his hair with a towel, resting against the wall with closed eyes.
It was still early, but Baekhyun was exhausted and so was Jongin.
“Come, let’s take a nap,” she said, beckoning him to her room. Jongin rubbed his eye and shook his head.
“It’s okay, I can take the couch,” he mumbled.
“The bed is plenty big enough,” Baekhyun retorted. She winced a little, before pushing on. “And I haven’t washed the sheets in weeks so they’re saturated with my scent. I do need to mark you, kiddo.”
Jongin sucked his lower lip into his mouth. Baekhyun sighed.
“I won't push you but I need to mark you,” she said quietly. “If no-one knows you're mine, then you're free game.”
The boy looked away, shoulders curving in and away from her.
Baekhyun shrugged and padded into the bedroom. Later, Jongin crawled into the end of her bed, curling around her feet, and she sighed.
“Come here,” she muttered. He did. When Baekhyun awoke in the dark, he was curled up against her back, pressing his cheek into her spine. Jongin's hand curled over her hip, warm and heavy. For some time she had woken up feeling cold, but that was her own inability to retain body heat. Having another wolf in her bed, curling around her, reminded her of the times when she'd marked Yixing and Chanyeol. Baekhyun closed her eyes and pressed her cheek into the pillow. Yixing had had his mind elsewhere, and Chanyeol just liked the sex, but she appreciated the trust. She'd marked Sehun like she was marking Jongin, until the omega practically lived with Baekhyun. They weren’t so different - both orphans of fate, with nowhere to go.
She turned over, dragging the comforter over her shoulder. Jongin sighed and snuggled more tightly, as if his subconscious registered that all was safe and well. A sudden and surprising urge struck Baekhyun to run her fingers through his hair and pet him like a small child. Before she could stop herself she cupped the back of his head. Jongin tipped his head back into her touch. His brow furrowed, and he turned over onto his back. Baekhyun's hand trailed to cup his jaw, and Jongin flinched. His eyes fluttered open, and he looked up at her sleepily. Baekhyun smoothed his hair away from his forehead, and Jongin went back to sleep. Baekhyun closed her eyes.
a/n: Hey I literally have nothing to say about this right now except that I'm a really mean author and that this has been crossposted on AFF.
Chapter 2: the ragged edge of the seasons
Yixing paused midstep, ears pricking. The loam was rich and soft between his claws. Wind breathed through his pelt, cool and rain-damp, and he scented a trace of wolf in the air. One of the Sleeper pack was nearly always on territory, and they’d pick up on him soon if he was lucky. A howl raised from the forest to his north, and he answered with his own cry. He could recognise Minseok’s voice, clear and high and lingering. He met her at the halfway clearing, shifting behind a tree and pulling on the pants tied around his waist. Minseok shuffled behind the tree at the other side, doing the same thing for courtesy’s sake.
He slid around the tree as Minseok emerged, pulling up the strap on her sleeveless overalls.
“Yixing?” she asked incredulously, carding through her reddish-gold hair. She winced and picked out a sharp twig from a tangle in the ends.
“Where’s Kris?” he asked, shoving his hands in his pockets. Minseok shrugged.
“Not sure, probably at one of his company parties or something. Do you want to come back up to the house?”
They picked their way up the slope up to the house. Yixing meandered through the underbrush, following Minseok even though he clearly remembered the house and its whereabouts. Minseok glanced back at him.
“Tao graduated from high school,” she said.
“Himself wouldn’t have minded if you came that day, pack or not,” Minseok said softly. “He misses his ge.”
Minseok let them both in through the kitchen, and poured Yixing a glass of water before tramping upstairs to fetch better clothes. She returned in a t-shirt and shorts and chucked a shirt, Jongdae’s by the smell of it, at Yixing’s head.
“Out with it,” she said, leaning forward and clasping her hands on the table. “You wouldn’t come out here for nothing. You’re just lucky it was me that found you first. Jongdae would’ve given you a piece of his mind.”
“And by a piece of his mind you mean a taste of his claws,” Yixing said, very dryly.
Minseok rolled her eyes. “You’re lucky he’s out of town. What else?”
Yixing toyed with the handle of his mug. “You wanted me to tell you what I’m here for.”
Minseok shrugged. “I know when to keep my mouth shut about things. You may not be pack but I wouldn’t sell you out.”
He sighed. “I know, Min, I trust you. I just– wish that the others wouldn’t be so sore about it.”
Her eyes flashed. “Well, they have every right to be. You were the one doing the leaving, as I remember it.”
“Please, let’s not fight, Minseok.” Yixing said, rubbing his temple. He collected the breath to continue. “Baekhyun found a wolf on her doorstep-”
“So? Kris knows Baekhyun can deal with loners on her own, there’s no need to bother him about it.”
“That’s not it,” he said. His voice was hushed, and a fingertip absently traced a whorl in the grain of the hardwood table. “He was badly beaten up- extensive facial bruising, dislocated shoulder, cuts and scratches all over. He came through the backwoods, Minseok.”
“And?” Her frown was puzzled and Yixing swallowed. The words weighed bitterly on his tongue.
“There was someone else’s cum running down the insides of his pant legs, and for a wolf in that condition…” He let himself trail off.
“So you’re saying…” Minseok’s hand reached across the table to rest over his.
“They red-corded him.”
Yixing met her eyes for a second. Minseok recoiled, snatching back her hand as if he had burnt her.
“Yixing, please tell me you culled him.” Minseok’s voice and face were both very bland. “Please tell me you’re just reporting unusual circumstances.”
Yixing remained silent. Minseok grimaced.
“Look, you’d better have a pretty good explanation to give to duizhang. I know where you’re coming from. I don’t know what you did to help him, and I probably would’ve done the same, but he was red-corded. Was, or, is, please tell me it’s was.”
Minseok stood abruptly and left him at the table. “Fuck, I’m just going to call Kris. You do the explaining.”
The house was very quiet, the sort of quiet that spoke of space and isolation. He could hear Minseok digging around for the phone in the other room, cursing. He waited some, and watched the light changing outside. Dusk descended quickly on the tops of the pines. Minseok came back and didn’t know what to do with herself, so she gave him another glass of water. He sat and sipped, and Minseok went out again, standing on the front porch, coming back inside, waiting until the gravel outside crunched as a car approached.
The sound of the engine died, and the door opened and closed. Kris tramped into the house, laying his briefcase on the table. He unbuttoned his jacket as he entered the kitchen, heading straight to the fridge and taking out a beer. That was before he noticed Yixing at the table, tracing the patterns in the wood, not looking at him. Yixing bit the inside of his mouth. Kris stood for a moment, opened the fridge and put the beer back.
“What do you want.” He sounded tired.
He opened his mouth but couldn’t summon anything to say. Kris studied him, an inscrutable expression on his face. Minseok, twined around the door like a housecat, scoffed. She slid around the doorframe into the other room without saying anything further.
Kris leaned against the benchtop, stooping slightly.
“Baekhyun found a wolf,” Yixing said, looking Kris in the eye. Kris stared at him, inscrutable.
“We took him in. Still a pup, practically. He was badly beaten, more than half-starved, signs he’d been- raped.” Yixing coughed, unsure as how to continue.
Kris tilted his head. He looked like he didn’t care. Yixing knew he did, but it startled him how difficult it was to read the other man. There were tells that he remembered seeing that were the same. Kris was the same; maybe Yixing was different.
“He was red-corded.” Kris blinked. “Fan-”
“No, Yi- No.” Yixing could read the confusion, disbelief and anger in his voice. What the point was of denials, he didn’t presume to understand. Kris looked at him fixedly, as if committing his statements - him? - to memory. Then he caught himself, visibly, and his face hardened into what Yixing called his ‘alpha mask’. Kris rose to his full height. “Go. Just go.”
There was no point in reasoning with Kris if he was going to be like this.
“She’s going to keep him, you know. Touch the pup and she’ll kill you.”
Kris growled behind his back, and Yixing unlocked the side door. The night’s cold had a sharp bite, the vestiges of the snows that had plagued them all January. Yixing halted for a moment, resting his hand on the doorframe, remembering and regretting. Yixing had made his choice by leaving the Sleeper pack with Baekhyun, and now it seemed that Kris had made his.
“Do any of the others ever call you by your name, Wufan?”
Kris moved behind him. Yixing shed Jongdae’s shirt, throwing it onto the dewy grass. He walked into the forest.
Sehun sat by Zitao on the kerb, the light of the twenty-four hour convenience store on their backs. She took a swig of energy drink, and set the can down between her feet. Zitao chewed on his granola bar, watching her play with her fingers.
“Fucking piece of shit day,” Sehun muttered. “Prentiss was a dick and Baek - ”
“You wanna run?” Zitao interrupted. As a wolf, he meant, as usual. Sehun had been on edge all night. Maybe letting her wolf out would take the edge off.
As usual, Sehun shook her head. “Nah, the other wolves will just drive us off.”
“You shouldn’t hold it in.”
Privately, he thought the way Sehun acted was dangerous to herself and others. The wolf was only tame within a person if they worked with it, let it out to run and hunt as it was meant to do. But as far as understanding her fear, he was lost - and she was afraid tonight, the scent seeping through her clothes in bitter waves.
Sehun chugged the rest of her energy drink and crumpled it with one hand, gasping. “Let’s go, Zitao, I feel like punching someone.”
Zitao hauled her to her feet, tugging her hoodie straight. Sehun dusted off the seat of her pants. He’d known, since she’d called him abruptly at eleven, that she was spoiling for a fight. That was her way of working through things, and while Zitao wished Sehun had a healthier approach, he figured he wasn’t entitled to an opinion - not with the shit she’d gone through.
“It’s only, like, twelve, right?” she mumbled.
They walked together down to Park Street, where all the bars were. Sleeper wasn’t so big that they had more than a few good bars, let alone clubs. A few truckers came and went, filling the little pubs and bars with quiet, restless folk. Sehun didn’t bother with the kinds of places that old men liked. She itched to get her hands dirty, and there were enough young drunks around for her not to need to.
“The less drunk they are, the better,” she mumbled, half to herself. Zitao rolled his eyes. That was good. That meant they’d have some sense to keep out of Sehun’s way.
Part of her problem was that she didn’t look like much. She was bony all over, planes of wiry muscle rather than curves, and swamped by her oversized clothes. She looked like an easy target, even with her mean face and bitter eyes. Zitao stuck his hands in his pockets. A couple of young guys, maybe a year or two older than them, walked towards them, clinking beer bottles under the yellowing street-light.
“Hey, shitface!” Sehun called out, voice cutting through the cold air. She was swaggering, in a way she’d probably picked up by copying the way Yixing-ge walked. Tao whistled lowly. Sehun wasn’t pulling any punches, getting straight to the part where they got pretty fucking pissed off at her. The pack of drunks stopped. Zitao could see the information ticking over in their alcohol-dulled brains before one of the bigger ones, a blonde with a five o’clock shadow, lurched toward her. Sehun grinned, all teeth and ice, letting his fingers brush the front of her shirt before stepping back.
“The fuck did you say, bitch?”
“Are you deaf as well as butt ugly?”
They didn’t need much more prompting. In that staggering-through-viscous-liquid way that drunks tended to move, he pulled back a fist up right next to his ear, throwing all his weight forward in a haymaker. Zitao clucked. Terribly bad form. Sehun was no martial arts master, but she was fast and this was going to be a piece of cake for her. She skipped back, grinning and giving them double middle fingers. The rest of the boys ground into noisy, uncoordinated motion, and she darted across the street. Zitao trotted after her, taking his hands out of his warm pockets.
“We’ll take ‘em on an instructive tour of where momma’s boys should never go in the middle of the night,” Sehun barked, teeth still bared, glinting with sharp points. She eased into a slow run, and Tao matched her step for step. They ran slowly enough for the drunk boys to be able to keep up, which was slow enough for Sehun to get impatient.
Zitao knew the itch. It was the kind of thing that got to him too, around the full moon. Difference was he'd been born with it, so he was used to it. Sehun had maybe twenty-five, twenty-six moons under her belt and he'd had two hundred or more. She got restless easily, and now she thought she might as well get her fun out of it. It was what got her turned in the first place. Sehun had told him she regretted sneaking out in the middle of the night to sneak to the homecoming bonfire - just fifteen, thinking she was invulnerable - but naught was to be helped now.
He sensed it before she did, but Sehun stopped faster, pivoting neatly on the ball of one foot and skidding a couple of steps. She cursed and jammed her hands in her pockets.
“Dead end,” she hissed.
“No shit,” he muttered back. “How do you feel about momma's boys now, genius?”
She blinked at him. A slow, vicious smile split Sehun's face, and Zitao shivered. “How good's your dancing, Taozi?”
“Passable,” he shrugged. The drunk boys came tearing around the corner. Sehun lunged.
As it broke one a.m., they collapsed on the kerb outside the library laughing like anything, much too loud for the still night air.
“You're still sloppy as hell, Sehun,” Zitao said, prodding her with a finger. “You can't fight hand-to-hand to save your life.”
“Bitch,” Sehun sneered. “Just because you're some big champion kung-fu fighter or something doesn't mean I'm any old shit. And if I'm shit you're the one who taught me, how about that, Taozi?”
“Wushu,” he said, correcting her out of reflex. Sehun shoved him, wincing as her lip split. She wasn't as careful as him; her cheekbone was turning a lovely purple. Zitao punched her shoulder.
“They're going to call you up to the principal's office and give you detentions if you go like that.”
“Well, I have plenty of concealer,” she mumbled, “and I can forge Baekhyun's signature anyway.”
He punched her again when she did a stupid aegyo face and v-sign. Zitao hoisted Sehun to her feet and dragged her to her apartment.
“Just sleep first. Don't you dare go out again tonight.”
He lingered around the corner, hearing the lock click shut, and the a hesitation before it clicked open again and the door too. Sehun stuck her head out, looking up and down the corridor. She closed and locked the door again. Only then did he leave. Zitao sauntered around the back of her shitty apartment block and walked up the hill to the backwoods over the ridge. As soon as he hit the tree cover, he shed his things and bundled them up as best he could, shaking free of his human skin and dropping to all fours. Zitao picked up his clothes and trotted further in the dark, nose lifted and ears alert to signs of others. The Splinter pack didn't run here, but he preferred to avoid them as a pack. There were a few smaller packs of two or three that didn't warrant names, and if the Splinter wolves didn't make it a habit to encroach on the Sleeper pack's territory then neither would they.
Zitao ran east, weaving through the undergrowth. When he sensed a shift, more instinctively than anything, he stopped briefly and howled once. Minseok answered. She was hunting small game, probably, to keep herself sharp. He called out, signalling that he'd head to the house. The downstairs lights were on when he bounded onto the grass around, nudging open the back door and changing in the hall closet before he went in.
Luhan was resting in the lounge, sprawled over the sofa watching a soccer game.
“Hey, Lu-ge,” Zitao said, throwing himself down beside the older man. Luhan grunted in response.
“Rough day at the shop?”
“You wouldn't believe,” he muttered. “Customers suck. Customers are from hell.”
He cracked a grin. “I don't know how Minseok-jie stops herself from shooting them when she's surrounded by guns and ammo on a near-daily basis.”
They fell into silence, gazing at the analogue TV without really watching it.
Someone slammed a door upstairs, and tramped down.
“Kris, don't walk off in the middle of a conversation-!” It was Joonmyun calling, and he was at his wits' end. The aforementioned stalked past Luhan and Zitao toward the coat-rack, yanking at his tie and shirt. Luhan's eyes went round with surprise, and he let out a low whistle. Kris was usually unflappable- certainly a little angry-looking, but otherwise composed. Joonmyun tore down the stairs in his socks and a frightful sweater, planting his feet apart in the hallway. His stance was decidedly militant, hands on hips and scowling fiercely at the taller man's back.
“Wufan!” Joonmyun yelled after Kris. Kris whirled on him mid-change, a wolfish head on a long, smooth body. Zitao blinked, taken aback.
“Don’t call me that,” Kris snarled, in the triple timbre of alpha that made Zitao’s skin crawl with the urge to obey. Joonmyun swallowed but set his jaw stubbornly. He wouldn’t let Kris tear into him for his own amusement, even if he was angry.
“Don’t take that tone with me, Wufan. You elected me beta for a reason, and beta’s job is to deal with pack affiliations, and don’t you think I’m some green pup, I know that you can’t interfere with Baekhyun’s pack no matter what red cord-”
Zitao blinked. He’d heard his alpha moving, but he hadn’t seen him pin the smaller beta to the wall. One of Kris’ hands clamped around Joonmyun’s neck, forcing him to bare it. The alpha showed his teeth, snarling in Joonmyun’s ear.
“When I tell you to stop, you obey,” he snarled, and Zitao nearly slid out of his seat and onto his knees with the resonance of Kris’ alpha timbre. He was scared, he realised with shock, he was pretty fucking scared and Joonmyun was too, by how he went white. His hands went futilely to Kris’ arm, scratching at it desperately as he choked and struggled.
Joonmyun was a replacement, a beta Kris had taken out of necessity, and he knew it. Joonmyun wouldn’t ever be the same as the one before. Luhan’s posture remained slouched and free. He was older than Kris, and he’d ranked high in his family’s pack before he split. Yet his hand still clawed into the arm of the sofa, and the strain of resisting Kris’ alpha authority showed in his face.
Kris shoved Joonmyun bodily again, and dropped him. Joonmyun crumpled, sliding down the wall and gasping. He curled both his hands protectively around his throat, struggling to breathe.
Kris left quickly, scattering his expensive clothes on the grass. Luhan got up quickly and ducked into the kitchen. He’d change and find Minseok-jie in the woods before she could cross Kris. Minseok-jie didn’t stand up for much nonsense, even from Kris, so she might step wrong without knowing. Zitao got up and guided Joonmyun to the sofa, steadying him with one hand on his back as he curled up.
“Hyung, are you okay?”
Joonmyun opened his mouth and started coughing. He hacked into his hand, rubbing his throat and wincing. Zitao’s face was earnest as he knelt by the elder, a hand on his shoulder. When the fit subsided, Joonmyun nodded quickly, sniffing. Zitao hesitated and patted his own cheek, wondering if Joonmyun knew that he was weeping. Joonmyun looked at him a bit weirdly, so Zitao guided his hand to his face so he could feel the wetness. He seemed surprised, and laughed shortly.
“Are you okay?” Zitao asked again. Joonmyun gave him a faltering smile and nodded.
“I- I’m sorry I’m so weepy,” he said, laughing wetly, “It’s just stress tears, honest.”
Zitao let him go, watching him almost limp with embarrassment and hurt to the downstairs bathroom. He was suddenly and insanely angry with Kris-ge. Joonmyun-hyung didn’t deserve that kind of treatment just because he was angry and wanted to take it out on someone, but once he was like that there was no reasoning with him. What had he done to be this angry? The last time was when Baekhyun-jiejie had- left.
He shut that part of his brain off and went to the kitchen, looking for a beer. Luhan had left the kitchen door open.
Zitao sat at the kitchen table and stared at the drops of condensation forming on his beer until Minseok stalked in, yanking her t-shirt down over her head. Luhan closed the door behind him, bare-chested with his own shirt balled in one hand.
“What did he tell you?” Minseok demanded, turning on both men. Zitao cocked his head.
Luhan shook his head. “Nothing. Alpha argued with Joonmyun and stormed out.”
Her eyes closed tightly; Minseok fisted her hands in the roots of her hair. “Oh, Kris… He really…?”
How quickly she went from seething anger to seeming so pained. Minseok dragged out a chair and sat in it, crossing her legs and tucking her feet under. Luhan appropriated Zitao’s beer and took a drink, setting it back on the table.
“Yixing came this afternoon,” she said. Luhan sucked a breath in through his teeth. Oh. Kris’ rage became… if not justifiable, at least with reason. “Yixing said Baekhyun found a pup yesterday night, fuck knows how - badly abused as well. She claimed him for the Splinter pack even though he was red-corded.”
Suddenly Zitao felt the loss of Yixing and Baekhyun as a sharp ache, intensified by Yixing’s good as open declaration of allegiance with the Splinter pack. They all knew what it was to miss the two former members of their pack, but maybe Kris more than most.
Luhan choked mid-swallow. Grimacing as he cleared his throat, he said, “I’m sorry, I must have misheard. I swear I just heard you say the pup was red-corded?!”
Minseok nodded. “That’s the report.”
Luhan laughed slightly hysterically. “Oh, of course. Of all the ballsy things to have done! Ignore a red cord!”
“No wonder he was so brutal,” Zitao said softly.
Minseok frowned. “Did he fight with Joonmyun again?”
Zitao nodded, averting his eyes. “I think he’s still in the downstairs bathroom, if you want to check on him.”
She left the kitchen and padded down the narrow hallway. Zitao surrendered his beer to Luhan and followed her quietly. The door was ajar, and he peered inside. They sat on the side of the tub, Minseok rubbing circles on Joonmyun’s back as he pressed his face into her shoulder. The beta’s shoulders shook as he tried to control his breathing. The marks of Kris’ fingers were already purpling on Joonmyun’s neck.
Minseok guided the beta to her bed, in the room across the hall, once he had calmed down. Shutting the door softly behind her, Minseok turned to face Zitao.
“Jie,” he started. Zitao blinked, and found he had nothing to say.
Minseok ran her hand through her hair, her anxious tic. “I’m worried about him, Taozi.”
“No, well, both of them really - him and Kris,” she said. “I don’t want Kris to turn bad, and I don’t want Joonmyun to suffer for it.”
It settled between them. Every once in awhile an alpha could turn ‘bad’, as they called it. They went mad off their power, became solitary, easily angered, and then abusive.
“Kris-ge has changed,” Zitao said softly. He was pulling away from them. When Baekhyun and Yixing left, it seemed like a part of Kris had left too, one that was sorely needed to keep the other, more savage parts of the alpha in check. With his focus diverted to his own problems, Kris had let the pack drift. Kyungsoo hardly came to the house anymore, and Jongdae had retreated behind an abrasive demeanour.
“He’s changed a lot,” Minseok agreed.
It was not just Baek-jiejie and Yixing-ge that Zitao missed.
Chapter 3: moonlight and shadows
Several cups of strong coffee later, Minseok trudged out of the house and hopped on her motorbike, going downtown to Kyungsoo’s garage. Nestled between a larger, national franchise and a run-down family-owned place, his workshop was painted a dark blue and neatly kept. He rented the garage from a retired lifetime mechanic, and refurbished it with the savings he made on the capital outlay for the property; still Kyungsoo made enough money to live comfortably as the only European and luxury vehicle specialist in a sixty mile radius, even though his clients were few. Several cars sat out in the small, fenced forecourt, covered up. Minseok drove her motorcycle into the lot and parked it.
“Kyungsoo?” Minseok called tentatively. The gate was unchained and the garage door was open, so that meant the shop was probably open for business, even that early in the morning. The younger man rolled out from under a yellow Lotus Elise, wiping his hand on a rag tucked into his back pocket. He was already slightly smutched with motor oil, a black streak against his pale cheekbone.
“Minseok,” he said, “What’s up?”
“I need a ride,” she said, “and I need to give you a heads up.”
He dropped the rag on the workbench at the side of his garage. “Heads up? For what?”
Minseok prodded between his shoulderblades with a finger and watched as his rounded shoulders straightened.
“If you’d stand straight then your shoulders wouldn’t look so narrow,” she teased. He grunted in response, looking at her from under the bits of fringe that hung in his eyes.
Minseok propped her hand on her hip. “You should avoid the house, and the Splinter. A load of shit went down and Kris is in a snit because of it.”
“I’m friends with you for your sparkling wit and all, but it isn’t even nine in the morning yet and I haven’t had a coffee,” Kyungsoo replied. “What do you mean?”
Minseok related the story, and Kyungsoo leaned on the bench with his eyes closed as if the whole matter was already too tiring. She hesitated, but continued with the rest that Luhan had told her- the alpha’s anger, what he’d done to Joonmyun.
Kyungsoo pinched the bridge of his nose. “You said duizhang was in a snit. A snit.”
Minseok shrugged. “I still need that ride out.”
“Where do you need to go?”
Minseok told him the address. Kyungsoo closed up shop and drove her south across the state border in his black Jeep. Minseok sincerely hoped that he had enough battery on his phone to keep himself occupied, because she wasn’t here on a strictly pack sanction. Most of Jongdae’s family down here knew her, but they didn’t treat well to the smell of easterners. It was uncanny how west coast wolves could smell the east coast on Kyungsoo, and despite his size he could be a vicious bastard when confronted. Minseok would rather not deal with that sort of mess if she could avoid it.
She stripped and shoved her clothes into a nylon sack. Shifting to all fours, Minseok looped the strap around her neck and set off at a trot into the pine forest. The forest was well marked with the scent of wolves of all ages, from those in their first moons to those white around the muzzle. The scent of strong, healthy adults overpowered most of the others.
A howl signalled her from the southwest, and she responded quickly and clearly. Minseok shifted behind a tree and yanked her shirt and underpants on, waiting for the wolf to arrive and bring her back to the Kim pack’s house. She saw a glimpse of a large, brindled chocolate wolf before it shifted at the other side of the clearing. Minseok picked her nails as she waited.
“You’re on Kim pack territory,” he said, crossing his arms over his bare chest as he stepped out.
“Yeah,” he said, inclining his head so that his fringe fell in his eyes.
“We were on-and-off fuck buddies for more than a year, Soohyun Kim,” Minseok said, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t remember me?”
Soohyun blinked. “Minseok?”
“That’s me,” she said. Minseok tilted her head to one side.
He whistled lowly. “How many years has it been, three? You changed a lot.”
It had been a while. The last time she came had been years ago, and Soohyun had still been in college then.
“Four,” she said. “We had a good run, but I'm not here for that. I’m here to collect Jongdae.”
They shifted and ran to the house together, Soohyun still towering over Minseok by at least a hand at the shoulder. The house was empty but a television was on, which Soohyun, shifted back to human, noted with a scoff.
“Stupid kids,” he muttered, bending over to pick up a stray sock and the remote control from the coffee table. Naked in the doorway, Minseok admired the view of his bare ass and tried not to think about how much the Kim brothers resembled one another. Now that they’d established the fact that they had experienced mutual nakedness with frequency, there seemed little point in putting clothes on after shifting back.
“Are you gonna take the kid back upstate with you?” Soohyun pushed his hair out of his face and disappeared into one of the bedrooms.
“Probably,” she called, pulling on her underwear in the living room. “What, is he being a nuisance?”
“I forgot exactly how much of one he could be,” he shouted back. “Jongdae’s a noisy little menace. How do you deal with him every day of the year?”
“Practice and vodka.”
“Good formula.” He reappeared and plopped down on the sofa next to her.
“Your pack is good with ours, right?” Minseok asked.
Soohyun looked at her sidelong and shrugged. “I guess. You’d have to ask the alpha.”
“But the alpha trusts you, right? Enough to give you the authority to say whether or not we might put in a call if we need your help?"
Soohyun raised an eyebrow. "You sound way too serious to be talking about a hypothetical."
“Do I have you on-board?”
“What are you talking about?”
Minseok combed her fingers through the ends of her hair. “Look, I can’t tell you what’s happening but I have a feeling that something bad is going to happen in the near future and I want to know if I can rely on you for some help, fall-back I guess.”
“You’re scaring me, Minseok,” Soohyun said, pulling away from her. “What is it?”
“Just - forget it,” she said. “Look, if I don’t call, just forget it.”
The front door crashed open and a horde of teenage wolves stampeded into the house. Jongdae was in their midst, cackling like madman. Soohyun whistled and beckoned him with one hand. Jongdae scowled at his brother’s very offhand method of calling, but waded out of the mess of teen wolves and pups.
“Pack your stuff up, Jongdae,” Soohyun said blandly. “I’m kicking you out.”
Jongdae whistled like an outraged teakettle. “What? You can’t kick me out! This isn’t even your house! What do you mean, kicking me out- Oh, hey noona.”
“He’s just messing with you, Jongdae,” Minseok said, raising an eyebrow. “No, you’re not getting kicked out. I’m bringing you back up.”
Minseok stood up. “Pack your stuff first. I’ll get Kyungsoo to bring the car up to the house.”
“Come on, noona, tell me,” Jongdae whined, tugging on her hand. Minseok inclined her head to Soohyun, who nodded but didn’t move from his relaxed posture on the couch.
“It’s a long story,” Minseok said. “I’ll tell you on the drive back.”
There was something in Baekhyun that something in her that couldn’t stand the thought that the two youngest of her pack were at odds. It was dangerous for the pack and for Jongin to have Sehun so off-side. He followed behind her quietly that Tuesday morning, with the hood pulled over his head as if it could block him out of other people’s vision. Baekhyun hammered at Sehun’s door, disregarding the doorbell.
“Sehun Oh! Open up!” she said through the wood. It took a while, but Sehun finally staggered to the door and opened it, squinting at them.
“What?” she snapped, thick with sleep. Jongin flinched as she narrowed her eyes at him.
“I need to go to work and I can’t leave Jongin on his own,” she said, nudging Jongin at Sehun.
“You’re putting me on babysitting duty?” Sehun scoffed. “I have school, Baek, I can’t take the day off to watch him! I knew I was going to be omega when I signed up but this is way out of-”
“Sehun,” Baekhyun said, pressing the younger girl’s shoulder. “He is pack. Don’t talk to be about being out of line because you are, right now. He hasn’t done anything to you and you’re going to have to learn to cooperate some time or other because this is a permanent arrangement and I really need to go to work. I’ll pick Jongin up later.”
Baekhyun left, jogging down the stairs and leaving Jongin standing in the doorway, chewing on his bottom lip. Sehun glared at him some more, and then sighed, running her hand through her hair.
“You better fucking come in before anyone sees you and accuses me of procuring,” she snapped, throwing open the door for the boy. He hesitated, but submitted to her glaring with downcast eyes and obedience. He shuffled into her tiny living room and she didn’t miss the way Jongin’s eyes wandered and widened in surprise.
“What?” she sneered. “I live in a shithole. At least I clean, otherwise it’d be Hurricane Katrina in a shithole.”
Jongin flinched and shifted from foot to foot with his toes curling into the floor.
“Sit, stand, lie down, I don’t care what you do,” she said. “I’m going to school. Don’t expect me back until four.”
She hastily cleaned herself up and grabbed the last slice of bread that she had in the kitchen. Sehun rolled it up and jammed it in her mouth as she locked the door, shutting Baekhyun’s newest stray in her apartment and out of her mind.
School filled her with a clawing sort of misery that made her feel like she was drying up from the soul first. The teachers, especially Mr Prentiss, had long ago decided that she was a lost cause, and treated her like one. It was hard to believe in getting an education when she was treated more like a criminal than a student. It seemed to take an age for the school day to end, but the irony was that she could hardly remember any of it as she walked home alone.
Sehun hardly acknowledged the other wolf when she arrived home, stalking back to her room. Sehun stripped of her dirty clothes and flopped on the bed face first, sprawling into the blankets. She stuffed herself between the pillows and tugged the comforter over her shoulder, mutinously ignoring the existence of that omega out in the living room. She tossed and turned and grabbed for her phone, but no familiar song could soothe her to sleep again, despite her overwhelming feeling of exhaustion. She tossed and turned some more.
She rolled out of bed reluctantly when her back started to pinch. She dressed and pulled her sleeves over her hands, tucking them in the pocket of her hoodie. The boy hadn’t moved from the sofa- he’d sat, and then slumped sideways when he’d fallen asleep. She crouched by his face, remembered how soft the skin of his neck had been when she’d smelt him a few days ago. Sehun was promptly disgusted with herself. He was trouble- if not in himself, then he would bring trouble to them. Baekhyun had taken a huge fucking risk just ignoring a red cord like that. The boy snuffled in his sleep. She swallowed the acid rising up her throat.
Enough of the day had been wasted, she decided. She worked on her biology prac write-up and some English essay she hadn’t finished before she decided it was time for dinner- premade gnocchi and some packaged cheese sauce, which she threw into a dish with some cheese on top. It was a pathetic attempt to recreate her aunt’s well-loved classic, but she was a pathetic cook and just looking at the boy was giving her a sympathetic crick in her neck. Sehun set the toaster oven to the proper time and temperature and put the dish in. He was going to think she was being nice to him, a proper fucking domestic goddess and all that she was.
She scratched the back of her head as she propped herself up on the bar stool. The apartment was dark- she hadn’t bothered to open any of her curtains. The toaster oven ticked away quietly. The boy- Jongin- woke with a quiet groan, and stretched. He rubbed the side of his neck and slumped so that his elbows rested on his knees.
“Princess woke up, finally,” she drawled. He seemed startled, scrambling to the other end of the sofa. “C’mon, stop acting like I’m going to eat you or something.”
He blinked at her. God, was this boy a wolf or a baby animal?
“Dinner’s done,” Sehun said, waving at the table. “I’m not going to starve you, idiot.”
He slunk to the table, eyeing Sehun as if she were about to jump at him at any moment. She scooped some gnocchi onto his plate and handed him a fork, before moving onto her own serving. It was good, not even burnt.
They ate in silence - not an awkward silence, but not quite companionable. Their forks scraped quietly on the mismatched plates. The boy scooped up a bit of sauce and cheese with each gnocchi and chewed each one slowly, as if savouring the taste of his last meal.
“What’s your name again?”
“Jongin,” he mumbled.
“Jongin, huh.” Sehun put her fork down and pushed away from the table. “Tell me, do you think I’m an asshole? A jerk?”
Silence. Jongin nodded shyly.
Sehun startled into a bark of laughter. “You act all shy but you really are a wolf, aren’t you?”
He lowered his gaze.
“Then the wolf in you will understand,” Sehun said softer. She leaned across the table and gripped his jaw, forcing him to look at her. “I don’t know why you came to Baekhyun, but if you bring harm to anyone in this pack, I will kill you. Omega be damned, I will kill you. Do you understand?”
Sehun’s face was so close to Jongin’s that she could count his lashes, and detect the slight quiver in his full lips. He flinched away from her, but her grip was strong, almost to the point of pain. Jongin’s pupils were wide, fixed on hers, as she studied his face for any hint of his thoughts.
She exhaled through her lips and released him.
Sehun scooped her plate off the table and dropped it into the sink as someone - probably Baekhyun- pounded on the door again.
“What,” she said, ducking as Baekhyun nearly smashed her on the nose again.
“You didn’t accidentally kill him, did you,” the alpha asked, looking at her suspiciously.
Sehun pointed at herself. “Me? Psh, no. We got on swimmingly.”
Baekhyun looked past her into the dark apartment. “Jongin?”
The other wolf responded to her call, and ducked under Sehun’s arm to join the alpha outside.
“You didn’t kill him?” Baekhyun’s gaze flicked between Sehun and Jongin. Sehun swallowed. She had a bad feeling about this.
Baekhyun put her shoulder bag down with a sigh, stretching the kinks out her sore neck and shoulders. Her being a junior paralegal at the law firm in the next town over paid well, and gave her time to study the practical nuances of the job that hadn’t been covered by her certificate. She had been lucky in the first place that her grandmother had put some money in trust for her, so that she could study what she wanted, but hunching over a desk all day over transcripts, case files and her own study notes killed. It was good to be home.
Jongin puttered around in the living room, straightening her couch pillows and settling in front of the television.
“Did Sehun feed you?” Baekhyun called, taking off her leather jacket and hanging it up in the hall. Jongin was silent for a few seconds, and belatedly voiced an affirmative as if he’d forgotten that she couldn’t hear nodding.
She collected a change of clothes from her bedroom and locked herself in the bathroom. A hot shower would help her ease the stress out of her muscles, and give her time to think about everything that was currently occupying her life. Baekhyun wasn’t a naturally organised person, but once she’d assumed the alpha role she’d been forced to see the benefit of categorising and compartmentalising her thoughts. Sehun had been the biggest test of her ability to thrash out solutions to problems on her own so far, but Jongin was gearing up to be just as difficult, if not worse. There were so many things to consider before Baekhyun could really figure out what to do with him. She stripped and turned on the hot water, entering the shower.
Where had he come from? That pressed on Baekhyun’s mind as she rinsed her hair. He’d come out of the forest and into her home, seemingly without a point of origin. He was probably from further south, but she hadn’t thought to ask, and the horrors of his past pack seemed too fresh and raw to revisit.
Jongin’s old pack, if they were to infringe on Sleeper territory, were going to become a big problem. She pressed at the knots in her neck. Baekhyun was sure that there was something deeply wrong with the alpha of Jongin’s old pack, if not the rest of its wolves, for the boy to have been red-corded and abused to that extent. If an alpha didn’t care for and respect their own pack, there was no way that they’d respect other packs, their territories, and their alliances.
And speaking of alliances, there was now the small problem of Baekhyun having broken one of the inviolable rules of pack life - ignoring a red cord. Red cords were rare since wolves as a people favoured exile over execution as a punishment for serious crimes. Red cords were used only as a final measure, to mark out wolves who were better out of the world than in it, for themselves, for other wolves, or for the humans as well. Once a pack had marked a wolf with the cord it was open season to hunt them.
Not that she was too concerned about the few small packs occupying Sleeper territory with their knowledge and permission. She was worried about the ire of the Sleeper pack itself, especially - well, mainly - alpha Kris. Most of the other wolves were influenced by his traditionalism, but they were fair and moral people. if she could explain the circumstances of her actions to them, they might accept. Kris was more difficult to predict. That was part of what made him such a good alpha.
Baekhyun growled and scrubbed her hands through her tangled hair. She stepped out of the shower, dried herself and dressed quickly. Baekhyun needed more information.
Yixing had texted her. He hadn’t checked in since he’d gone to notify Kris of what had come to pass, but Baekhyun was confident he could handle himself.
territory incursion from outsider pack - possibly connected to the pup? Baekhyun smacked herself on the forehead. How could she have missed that?
Baekhyun finger-combed the tangles out of her wet hair. Jongin had curled into the side of the couch, his legs stretched in front of him as he traced the threadbare needlepoint pattern on her grandmother’s cushions. The boy was so engrossed in the pattern of roses and thorns that he startled when she plopped loudly down beside him. Jongin’s dark eyes met hers momentarily before he averted them, fingers creasing the pillow cover tightly.
“Are you okay?” Baekhyun asked tentatively. When it came out of her mouth, Baekhyun realised how silly her question sounded. On the other hand though, she supposed she needn’t stress the boy out more with blunt questions, to which there were no easy answers.
Jongin shrugged. “I guess.”
“So… how was your day?” she fumbled. Jongin stared at the pillow, but moved onto playing with the corded trim around the edge. Baekhyun cracked her neck to one side.
Again he shrugged. “I don’t really remember much. I was… sleeping for most of it. And Sehun didn’t say much.”
Jongin flinched a little. Baekhyun offered her hand to him. He stared at it, before walking his fingers across the pillow to rest across hers.
“What did they do to you?” she wondered aloud.
Jongin ducked his head. “I don’t - “
Baekhyun leaned a little closer to him and sighed. She hated this. “I need to know how close they are when they were with you last - and anything you can tell me of them. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need to know what we might be facing.”
The skeleton clock on the mantelpiece ticked quietly as Baekhyun waited for Jongin’s answer. He pulled his knees up to his chest and tucked the pillow behind him.
“They came from the north over the big hill on the other side of the ridge that sections off the little forest across the road.” Jongin paused and looked her in the eyes, irises flashing a pale jade as he shivered. “Fifteen of them. Chasing me, ‘cause I - ran, away from the rest of the pack, but they caught me before I could get too far and gave me the cord. Then I shifted as soon as they stopped holding me down.”
He sounded numb, but at the same time on the verge of tears. Baekhyun felt an invisible knot tightening under her breastbone. “You couldn’t even get rid of your clothes?” They had been drenched in scent. He must have known that his chances were poor with them on, like a beacon to the finely honed lupine nose.
Jongin shook his head, locking his fingers together. “I ran maybe three days? Or four days, ‘cept they nearly caught me just outside the little forest. But then there was a big howling, and the pack started to split. I crossed the ridge across into the other territory while they were busy and looped around until I lost them. I don’t think they could smell me among the other wolves’ scents.”
They had hunted him for four days? Baekhyun looked at Jongin with astonishment and a newfound respect. For all he acted the shy and helpless pup, he had come out the other side of being hunted by a big pack alive - which was more than could be said for most wolves his age.
Baekhyun had assumed that they’d stumbled on the Sleeper pack’s territory too soon and been forced to abandon their prey. She had never considered that he’d survived the hunt. Her knowledge of pack lore on the red cord stopped around where the hunt started.
“Did they leave the area?” Baekhyun asked, feeling distinctly like she was demanding too much and too soon of Jongin.
He shook his head. “I don’t remember. I think I must have blacked out. I can’t remember how I got here, I can’t - ”
“You don’t remember anything else,” she repeated.
Jongin shook his head and looked at his hands helplessly.
She took a better hold of his hand and was overwhelmed with a deep and sudden sadness.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, and rubbed circles over the back of his hand with her thumb.
Baekhyun struggled to find the words. “For everything you’ve endured.”
Jongin tilted his head, puzzled. “But you had nothing to do with it.”
“You were meant to come to us,” Baekhyun said. “Somehow we were meant to find you and you were meant to be ours. And I’m sorry we didn’t find you earlier.”
The bond was already there. And Jongin knew that she meant the whole pack, and he could feel the beginnings of it too. It was not yet clear how; the pack needed him as much as he needed them, and had always needed him.
The Splinter pack would need to mark their territory against the intrusion of the pack that had trespassed and Jongin’s old pack, if they came from wherever they were. And there was the dilemma of what was to be done with the pup, the law she had broken, and the unprecedented fact of his survival. She sent out a mass text and brought Jongin to bed with the beginnings of a tension headache pounding behind her eyes.
When Baekhyun showed up with Jongin in tow the next morning, Sehun’s terrible feelings were confirmed.
“Watch him for me,” Baekhyun said cheerfully, striding off with her sensible flats slapping against the mouldy carpet. Sehun started at her, agape.
“Wait! I have school! Baek!”
Jongin stared at her helplessly, clutching a bagged loaf of white bread in one hand and a plastic grocery bag in the other. Sehun growled and threw her hands into the air, gesturing for him to get inside.
“Oh, my God,” she muttered, shoving her feet into her boots and tightening the laces. “Just - sit! Occupy yourself with the TV or something, just don’t leave the apartment, got that?”
Sehun barely made it to her first class on time, sliding into her seat as her homeroom teacher walked in. Seulgi flashed her a cheeky grin and mimed wiping sweat off her brow from the seat on her left as Mr Prentiss began taking attendance. When he found Sehun present, he scowled.
School was a royal snoozefest. Sehun didn’t care for Government or English, and they weren’t doing much in Calculus and Biology that day. Gym was marginally better, given the opportunity to hand the other team their asses in dodgeball. In short, Sehun wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep off the epic brain cramp she got from seven straight hours of boredom.
“Hey, Seh, do you wanna get some ice cream?” Seulgi asked her, following her to her locker. Sehun raised an eyebrow at the other Korean girl, and shrugged.
“I dunno, Seul, I kinda just want to sleep,” she said.
“C’mon, Sehun, you ran off straight after school for like, the last week. What’s up with sisters before misters? Or are you too good for us, all of a sudden, because you have a college boyfriend?” Seulgi looked at her mock-sternly, but a smile pulled at the corner of her mouth.
Sehun slapped Seulgi on the arm. “What the fuck, Seul, Tao’s not my boyfriend!”
“But you even have a nickname for him,” she teased.
“We’re just bros!” Sehun defended, but once Seulgi had an idea in her head it was probably not within her power to banish it.
They grew quiet.
Seulgi sucked her lower lip into her mouth. “But seriously, I’ve hardly seen your face. What happened to hanguksaram of a feather stick together?”
Sehun winced. Seulgi stopped her with a hand on her shoulder, looking up into her face with earnest dark eyes. In her lilting, clumsy Korean she said, “I’m worried about you, Sehun. You’re always somewhere else, doing something with someone that you won’t tell us. Just… me and Brian and Yookyung, you can talk to us, you know.”
“Gwaenchanayo,” Sehun replied, squeezing Seulgi’s hand. There weren’t many Asians in their school, and only a few Koreans. Seulgi was probably as close to a friend as Sehun was going to get with the kids in her school, and she didn’t want to alienate her. “Really, I’m fine.”
They shielded their eyes against the afternoon sun as they left the building. Sehun clasped Seulgi’s hand once more in reassurance, urging her to join Yookyung, who waited at the front gate –
“Oh my god,” Seulgi gasped, grabbing Sehun’s arm and pointing. “Who is that?”
Sehun froze. “Um.”
Jongin continued to stand there obliviously, with his tousled brown hair, chambray shirt and sinful lips and fuck. Sehun was a second away from flipping some serious shit with him.
“He’s hot, and I mean like, K-pop hot, not hairy varsity football hot,” she said. “Sehun? Hey, are you okay?”
Sehun hurried to Jongin and dragged him to the side, behind a tree and out of sight.
“What the fuck are you doing? Don’t you listen?” she hissed. Jongin blinked at her. “I told you to stay put for a reason. What do you think I’d do if you got yourself kidnapped or run over, huh? Baek would flay me alive if something happened to you and you – “
“Do you two know each other?”
Sehun jumped. Seulgi scrutinised them both – Sehun fumbling for an answer and Jongin ducking to hide behind Sehun.
“He’s – a friend’s… cousin! From interstate! Uh, and he’s staying with me right now,” Sehun blurted. Seulgi looked at them both suspiciously, and Sehun cursed internally. Shit, she had to be smarter than that! Pleadingly, she looked Seulgi in the eyes. “Please, Sseul, don’t ask? Just this once. I swear I will come out with you more, I won’t skip, just don’t try to find out any more.”
She looked unsure. Her eyes flicked between Sehun and Jongin, but Seulgi finally closed her eyes and relented. “Alright. Be careful, Sehun.” With that, she rejoined Yookyung, glancing back at her from the gate.
They walked back to Sehun’s apartment in silence. Sehun went up the stairs behind Jongin in case he got any bright ideas and snuck off when she wasn’t looking. She grabbed one of his hands as she was unlocking the door, shoving him ahead of her and slamming the door behind her.
Sehun shoved Jongin into the wall. “Jesus fucking Christ, don’t you listen?”
The other wolf stumbled and hunched his shoulders.
“What the fuck were you thinking? Didn’t I tell you to stay inside?” she snarled. “One, Baek would have my ass just because you didn’t goddamn think. You’re my problem when she dumps you on me, get it? I’m on the line if you get yourself hit by a car or knifed in an alley somewhere!”
Jongin ducked his head, refusing to meet her eyes.
Sehun seethed. He - had the guts to ignore his direct rank senior and didn’t even think about his own safety, let alone the pack. “And two! What the hell do you think would happen if some other wolf, someone from your old pack, found you wandering around and traced you back to us, huh? Pack is one for all, all for one, you don’t think they wouldn’t take us out too if they wanted you dead? Because I’m ninety nine percent sure that they wouldn’t dump you red-corded in the backwoods and leave without making sure the job was done!”
When Jongin’s head snapped up and Sehun saw his eyes had turned jade, she knew she’d crossed a line.
“Don’t talk about my old pack,” he growled. His voice rose and something dangerous, something really wolf-like flickered in Jongin's eyes. “You don’t know what they did.”
Damn it all, Sehun though, they were never going to work as members of the one pack anyway - not when she’d declared her opposition from the start. There was no use in her backpedalling. “I don’t know? I don’t have a right to talk? It’s packs like yours, and alphas like yours, that got me turned in the first place - and I don’t have that right?”
Something dark and hot flared in Sehun’s vision and all of a sudden her knuckles hurt like hell and Jongin’s nose was bleeding and he lurched at her - then they were crashing into the walls, wrestling with one another, snapping at each other’s necks. Jongin’s fist smashed into her stomach and she drove her shoulder into his chest, sending him toppling onto the creaky couch. His elbow hit her cheekbone so hard that the vision in her left eye went white with pain for a moment, before she was scrambling to punch him again. Jongin’s other hand yanked at her hair and Sehun yowled, headbutting him under the chin. The two of them struggled, pushing hands into each other’s faces, grappling with their arms locked together tightly and their legs tangled.
Jongin fought like a wild animal. They both tumbled off the couch as Sehun locked an arm around his neck. Jongin rammed the back of his head into her nose, and she reeled away. Her mouth ran blood as she accidentally bit into her bottom lip with extended canines. She snarled and, swivelling on the ball of one foot, launched herself in a tackle at Jongin’s stomach. Sehun’s momentum sent them both crashing into the cheap bookcase against the other wall.
Jongin yelled as textbooks and folders rained on them. A falling hardback struck Sehun’s brow, and she hissed as the whole shelf teetered dangerously. A hand on the back of her collar yanked her out of the way in time - just - to avoid being hit by the falling structure.
For a moment the only sound in the room was that of their ragged breathing. Sehun was face-down on the carpet, her head turned so that the nylon carpet stung her cheek and she could see Jongin flat on his back, panting.
“Fuck,” she hissed, touching her split brow gingerly. Sehun huffed a soft laugh into the carpet.
Jongin glanced at her, propping himself up on one elbow. The whole lower half of his face was awash with blood. The front of his borrowed shirt was stained with it.
“Your shelf,” Jongin finally ventured. Then he giggled a bit, and started laughing.
Sehun laughed too, and when she forced herself to sit up she saw she’d left a blood-blotch on the carpet.
When Baekhyun came to pick Jongin up, he still hadn’t washed his face and neither had Sehun. They’d been too busy trying to re-sort Sehun’s textbooks. When Sehun answered the door Jongin was still sitting on the floor trying to figure out which peg went where to support which shelf of her ruined bookcase.
“I leave you alone for a day and you try to kill each other,” Baekhyun said incredulously. Jongin smiled shyly and conspiratorially at Sehun. The side of Baekhyun’s mouth quirked. “As long as you don’t actually kill each other. C’mon, clean up and we’ll go out to the forest."
Sehun turned on the kitchen tap and splashed her face with cold water before grabbing a change of clothes from the heaped laundry basket in her bedroom. Jongin had washed his face too, by the time she returned, though a little blood was still crusted around his nostrils. His shirt was balled in one hand and the skin of his arms goose-pimpled where it was exposed by the short sleeves of his t-shirt.
Jongin and Sehun exchanged a look, assessing one another. Baekhyun crossed her arms and leaned in the doorframe. They seemed to come to a tacit accord, and followed her out the door.
Baekhyun led Jongin to the usual meeting place by the hand, navigating the undergrowth with the ease of long practice. The evening cold stung their bare arms and faces, as the undergrowth pricked at their legs. Sehun had stripped down to her shorts and tank top and wandered ahead of them, unusually keen to run.
Jongin’s eyes turned jade when the wolf in him began to surface. The new moon didn’t have the same pull on that place in them where the wolf rested, hidden in a cocoon of human thoughts and emotions, as the full moon did. Baekhyun supposed she was grateful for that. The full moon always scared Sehun the most, and she got violent when she felt like she wasn’t in control of herself. Baekhyun had been born a wolf, so the dark of the moon mattered little; the pull was as natural as breathing. Chanyeol told her it was like the beginning of needing to pee, and Yixing never spoke about what it was to him. But he changed between forms like he was stepping through a door from one room into another. The change was rougher on Sehun than it was on the rest of them, though. Her flesh and bones hadn’t been born to it.
The rest of the pack were stripping in the clearing, thoughtfully turned away from them so the pup wouldn’t get an eyeful on his first run with them. Baekhyun had easily slipping into thinking of their newest adopted stray as the pup, and of the pack order as having changed. The others seemed to have settled in their new places, though the pack-bond would cement with their first full-moon run.
Sehun peeled off her tank top and shoved it into a bag with Yixing and Chanyeol’s shirts clothes. She crossed her goose-pimpled arms over her bare chest and scowled at Baekhyun and Jongin.
“Hurry up, it’s freezing,” she complained, slotting herself against Chanyeol’s side to leech off his body heat. The older wolf slung an arm around the girl and grinned, ruffling his hat-hair into loose spikes and waves.
“Clothes, please,” Yixing said mildly, offering them the bag. Baekhyun shucked off her own shirt and shorts, giving a vigorous shiver as the chill hit her naked body full force. None of them really had any compunction about being naked around each other any more - not within the pack. Baekhyun knew the others’ bodies as well as she knew her own by that point. Jongin seemed shocked by their openness and hesitated, tugging at the hem of his borrowed shirt. “We can turn around if you need to,” Baekhyun offered.
Jongin shook his head and slowly removed his shirt, then his shorts. His injuries seemed to have healed better than she had expected; threadlike scars had formed along the lines of the cuts on his shoulder.
Yixing offered him the bag and tightened the drawstring when Jongin’s clothes were safely tucked inside. The older man stuffed the bag into the hollowed log at the edge of the clearing before shifting into his wolf. He shook out his black-brindled tan coat and stood with his left paw slightly lifted, gazing at the rest of them expectantly. Chanyeol shifted seamlessly into his own wolf, wagging his shaggy red tail and nosing at Yixing’s ear. Sehun had more difficulty, hunching over as the bones in her torso changed; she fell forward as her knees reversed and her leg bones shrank down. When she was done she shivered slightly before trotting to join Chanyeol and Yixing.
Baekhyun’s change slid over her like being submerged in water. Her vision changed, so that the colours were dimmer but the whole clearing sharper and brighter. Jongin knelt in front of her, shaking in the cold. He reached a tentative hand out to touch her fur. Baekhyun butted her head into his hand, encouraging him. Jongin stretched forward onto all fours, grounding himself in the earth. He glanced toward the sky, and let the pull take him.
Jongin was as black as a starless night, his pale eyes gleaming from the darkness. He was nearly as tall as Chanyeol, but his fur seemed to hang loosely from his flesh. Yixing and Chanyeol approached him, nudging and nipping at his sides and flank. The pup’s tail rose slowly as Chanyeol flopped his head over the back of the pup’s neck, and Yixing pawed at his leg. Sehun hung back, but Baekhyun tossed her head and urged the girl into the forest. The other two and the pup followed her lead, slipping out of the clearing and into the underbrush.
It was good forest for wolves.
They ran in a rough cluster, darting around the trees, so many swift-footed shadows in the underbrush. To Baekhyun’s lupine eyes, the space beneath the canopy of the pines was as bright as day. She let Chanyeol lead them out into the forest over the ridge so that she could observe how Jongin ran with the rest of the wolves. But the cold air in her face, the soft dirt on her pads, God did it make her feel at home in her other skin.
Sehun split off a little way from the rest of the pack, clearing a fallen log in an arcing leap. Her legs were almost too long for her body, but she never had trouble with the run, or the hunt - only the change. Jongin, by his change, seemed to have been born to his wolf. Chanyeol let out a howl, and the pack responded, veering closer together as Chanyeol led them smoothly into a full run. Baekhyun grinned as much as her wolf face would allow. This was a pack game of sorts - they’d race each other to the old fir tree on the border of their territory and the Sleeper pack’s.
Yixing raced past Baekhyun, catching her eye for a second, before veering into the undergrowth where she couldn’t see him. Sehun snarled and bounded after Chanyeol, who howled in amusement at his slyly engineered head start. Baekhyun snickered mentally and concentrated on herding Jongin, who had steadily kept pace with her, in the direction of the fir tree. It seemed she was out of the race tonight. Baekhyun barked at Jongin and upped her pace. The pup merely put his head down and ran faster, ears pricked for the noise of the others.
Chanyeol and Sehun burst into the clearing in an eruption of leaf litter and snapped twigs, tumbling and tripping over each other’s legs, only to find Yixing seated in the middle of it. The older wolf’s ears merely twitched in amusement as Sehun play-fought with Chanyeol for the rights to second place. Jongin, so concentrated was he in his tracking of the two wolves, missed the fact that he’d found them and ran straight into the middle of the play-fight.
Sehun, of course, rounded on him immediately.
No wonder they’d looked so thoroughly thrashed that afternoon. When Jongin and Sehun fought, they fought like they meant it. Chanyeol slipped away and joined Yixing, sensing the risk to his person. Baekhyun barked a warning, just as a black blur exploded into the clearing, headed straight for Sehun and Jongin. The wolf dove between the entwined forms of the black and silver wolves, shoving Sehun off and rolling Jongin onto his back. Jongin defended himself instinctively, but the outsider had him pinned with his neck bared.
“Tao, no!” Sehun’s yell seemed too shrill amidst the growling and snarling of the fighting wolves. Yixing and Chanyeol both dropped their wolf forms as the rest of the Sleeper pack ran into the clearing. Jongin’s wolf form seemed to have been pulled along with the rest of the pack’s; he lost his fur as Tao maintained his, his yellow eyes aflame and lips drawn back in a clear threat. The Sleeper pack seemed reluctant to break them up. Kyungsoo’s strange little eyebrow markings drew together, but he hung back at the edge of the clearing as Kris came to a halt. Minseok and Luhan stuck close to one another, and Jongdae was conspicuously absent. The new beta, Joonmyun, settled in a half-crouch behind Kris.
It was odd to look at them from the other side. Baekhyun remembered standing by Kris’ side with the rest of the pack. They were hers, and she theirs, and now she was not.
Zitao changed in the blink of an eye; his eyes still blazed yellow. His gaze immediately met Sehun’s - the girl look stricken, before her mouth creased into a mullish line and she stalked over. Sehun shoved Zitao off Jongin, chin trembling slightly in Baekhyun’s lupine vision. A flash of something crossed Zitao’s face, but it disappeared beneath a stony mask. To Minseok, Zitao’s face was an open book for a split second, and she hissed in Luhan’s ear.
The rest of the packs shifted as the alphas did, moving to flank their leaders. Minseok took Luhan’s hand and squeezed it harshly. Her eyes were still fixed on the wordless exchange occurring between Zitao and Sehun. Luhan sensed Minseok’s unease and soon realised it too. They knew, of course, that Zitao had been seeing someone without the others knowing - but they hadn’t known it had been a wolf, and they hadn’t known it was Sehun. The way he looked at her - no, no. Minseok shied from the thought that Zitao had chosen her. The girl didn’t even know it; she crouched over the stray pup with fire in her eyes and defiance etched in every line of her body. Hurt and disbelief had shown in Zitao’s face. Then he had repressed it with the skill of long practice.
“Kris,” Baekhyun said. The alpha inclined her head to Kris in greeting.
“Baekhyun.” He jerked his chin at Sehun and the pup. “Explain. Why is the exile still living?”
The hidden question was why she’d ignored a central pillar of wolf law. She was no newly-blooded youngling.
Baekhyun considered it. She was trying to make an answer that would please Kris, Minseok thought, but she had never been any good at bullshitting to make other people happy. A subtle grimace (so familiar) betrayed to Minseok the fact that Baekhyun was settling for an honest answer, no matter how angry it would make the other alpha.
“He’s no exile. He’s mine,” Baekhyun replied. She stared Kris in the eye, unwilling to back down. “That red cord was an easy way for his pack to dispose of him to hide their own crimes, and you know it.”
Kris snarled. “The law is the law. Cull him.”
“I won’t,” Baekhyun replied. Her voice was firm, too calm for the situation. “He’s pack. He survived the hunt. The law stops there.”
“He was never supposed to survive. You don’t know what crimes he’s guilty of.”
“But he has. You don’t know what they did to him,” Baekhyun muttered darkly.
Kris’ eyes flashed yellow. WIthout warning, he changed; his powerful, golden form stretched out in a lunge for Jongin. Zitao darted out of the way. Kris growled, canines bared, and the boy froze. Baekhyun’s wolf overpowered her human form with the need to defend her pack.
Sehun beat her to Kris. Her knees were still turned forward and her fingers yet too long to be wolf toes. The omega barrelled into the other pack’s alpha sidelong, carrying him across the clearing before they lost their feet and tumbled over one another. Sehun stumbled to her feet, snarling openly at Wufan, but the alpha raised a huge paw and batted her aside. The girl wouldn’t stay down. Sehun struggled upright again, growling and barking in open challenge. The alpha’s eyes burned with his rage, and he bristled, readying to attack the omega for her insubordination.
Then, Zitao and Minseok were in Kris’ path, hackles raised and teeth bared. Baekhyun stared. Yixing, who she hadn’t even realised had shifted, came to press himself against her flank. Chanyeol growled, but stayed a fair distance away from the confrontation.
The alpha seemed confused as to how to react. His own pack were defying him in defence of an omega, who’d attacked him to save the life of an exile. The stillness of the night air seemed to hold them all in limbo in the clearing. Baekhyun knew that the fragile peace settled between the packs had been ruptured; they were teetering on a knife’s edge. It seemed Sehun had decided which way they would jump.
To the west, a trio of wolves stole through the deep shadows of the conifers. They skirted the edge of the no-man’s-land and forayed into the resident pack’s, searching. The wolf at the very front of the pack let out a soft bark, signalling its two companions.
The trees and ground cover thinned as the two wolves trotted to join their packmate. The packed dirt was churned with the marks of claws, and the trees gashed. The wolves put their noses to the ground and scented old blood and the trail of their packmate. The packmate hovered close to the foot of one of the pines, shuffling restlessly.
Three lupine bodies were piled in between the tree’s roots, throats torn open and gashed with tooth and claw marks. The wolves nudged the rotting corpses of their fallen packmates for any sign of life.
Amongst the distant pines, the chorus howl of a pack on the run rose to the moon. The wolves lifted their heads, listening until the cries faded to silence.
The smallest wolf whined at its packmates and turned back along the trail they’d followed to the clearing. Swiftly, the three of the travelled to the edge of the forest, waiting until the distant streetlights dimmed in the dark of pre-dawn. They stuck to the shadows as they slunk through the darkness to the abandoned theatre at the edge of town. The old building had fallen to disrepair. Its neon lights had long lain dim, and the front doors were locked with a heavy chain. That was not the wolves’ destination.
The rear door of the theatre, opening on an alley behind the main building, had been propped open with a broken pallet. The chain holding it shut had rusted away and dangled from one door; one by one the wolves entered. They shifted as they emerged in the main hall, where the rest of the pack were scattered around the mildewed seats.
“Alpha,” the smallest, a dark-haired woman with bruise-like circles under her eyes, called. “You’re not gonna like this.” She scooped a dirty bundle of clothes from one of the seats close to the door.
“Robin found the three,” one of the males called. The female scout nodded grimly. “This town’s pack got them.”
“What should we do, Alpha? They got three of us, we should hit them back,” the third said.
A blonde female, curled up on one of the armchairs on the stage, laughed. “Don’t be stupid, Scott. If those idiots got themselves killed, that’s nothing to do with Alpha.”
The two males looked at each other uneasily, as the rest of the pack muttered amongst themselves. Some of them seemed to find it funny that the blonde had washed her hands of the dead three and implied that they’d deserved it in the one breath. In the far corner, the last female of the pack gripped the armrest of her chair hard. Her mate had been among the three of them that had been missing.
“That’s enough, Lena,” Robin snapped. “Shut the hell up.”
There was a faint creaking and a grumble from the shadows. The Alpha stirred. “Do they know about the rest of us?”
Lena stopped laughing, bowing her head in the Alpha’s direction. She turned her head and shot a sharp glance at the three scouts. They were silent. There was no way of knowing -
The Alpha growled. “I asked if they know about the rest of us!”
From behind the stage, a baby began to cry. Robin swore as the cry rose into a wail.
“Which of you fuckers was supposed to be watching the pups?”
“Answer my question!” the Alpha roared.
“No,” Robin replied. Another baby started crying, followed by an older child. “They don’t know about us.”
“Keep it that way,” the Alpha snarled. “And someone shut up those goddamn pups!”
Hi guys! I'd like to make a special note on the one month anniversary of publication of 'Out of the Woods' to thank everyone who has read, commented, subscribed, and given kudos for supporting this fic. Sorry for the late update; school got pretty busy in the past couple of weeks and I didn't get a chance to do final edits and post this chapter.
'Out of the Woods' has been a work in progress since September 2013. When I first started writing it, I was intending for the project to hit 30k maximum, and to be done with it in a few months at most. However, as it always does, life got in the way, and I managed to graduate high school and my first year of university in the intervening period, all whilst sitting on this for about a year and a half without serious plans of publishing it. I'm not sure why I suddenly decided to get serious about finishing it off, but I started working harder on 'Pack', as it was working-titled, in the middle of November last year. I wrote most of the second half in a concentrated burst in February, and I'm now trying to complete the last two parts.
None of this would have been possible without the continuing support of a certain demon babe who has been there for me since the inception of 'Out of the Woods', and its many, unpublished, and unfinished predecessors. I thank you sincerely.
It's been a while. I really hope that you'll join me on this journey to the finish.
Chapter 5: washing machine
When Baekhyun, Jongin and Sehun arrived at Yixing and Chanyeol’s apartment, Chanyeol greeted them with a little flourish and three pairs of silly San-X slippers.
“Welcome to casa de Chanyeol,” he grinned, “Last homely house east of the sea, my friends, so shoes off, come in and rest your weary feet.”
“Hey, I pay half the rent too, you big nerd,” Yixing yelled from inside. “So it’s as much casa de Yixing as it is de Chanyeol .”
Baekhyun ushered the pups inside before she toed off her own trainers and came in. Chanyeol led Jongin to the linen cupboard, presumably rooting for a spare pillow to designate as his when he stayed over. Sehun made a beeline for the nest of pillows and blankets Yixing was putting the finishing touches on, piled on the sofa and in front of the TV. She dropped her overnight bag in the corner and flopped face-first on the sofa. Yixing sighed exasperatedly, bopping her with a throw cushion over the head before wandering into the kitchen. Baekhyun snickered and poked the girl in the foot. Sehun grunted and swung her feet out of the alpha’s reach.
“Sehun-ah,” Baekhyun cooed, feeling silly and strangely fond. She draped herself over Sehun’s lower half, mercilessly tickling at the girl’s sensitive sides. Sehun burst into helpless giggles, squirming to escape.
Chanyeol, seeing the opportunity to dogpile, collapsed on Baekhyun without warning. She let out an oof! of shock, before retaliating with a twist of Chanyeol’s ear and more tickling. Jongin, hovering at the arm of the couch, dodged Chanyeol’s flailing legs and hid giggles behind his hand.
After the disaster that had been their first run , Yixing thought, the pack deserved a little lighthearted silliness and play . Several days had passed in a state of tension; he half-expected that Kris would be knocking on their doors at any moment and suspected that Baekhyun felt similarly. The alpha had scarcely let Jongin out of her sight, apart from handing him off to Sehun during the days. He supposed it had something to do with strengthening the bond between them. The then-omega had fought Jongin’s inclusion in the pack the most. He ducked back into the kitchen, checking on the last batch of mac and cheese left in the oven. Yixing shook his head fondly. The mac and cheese was Chanyeol’s idea and creation, probably dragged out from some distant corner of the internet while he was procrastinating his actual work - making websites and graphics for local small businesses.
He pulled the mac and cheese out of the oven and set it down on the table. The tiny thing creaked, laden as it was with steamed corn and sweet potatoes; the Korean fried chicken from lone, tiny Korean joint in town; Baekhyun’s favourite steamed eggs; and egg-fried Spam slices that were a hit with all of them. Amidst the steam curling from the dishes and the sound of laughter from the other room, Yixing imagined he was content.
He pushed the traitorous feeling of guilt away from him. He’d made his choice. His pack was good, and better to him than he deserved. Yixing pinched the skin on the inside of his elbow to distract himself and attempted a smile for the rest of them.
“Guys, dinner’s done,” he called, sticking his head out into the lounge. Chanyeol lifted his head from where it was trapped in Baekhyun’s headlock, struggling to answer through his laughter. Jongin, gingerly perched on the arm of the sofa, turned his head to Yixing. His soft brown eyes were crinkled with his hidden smile. Sehun scrambled into a sitting position. Yixing could practically see her ears pricking up.
Chanyeol twisted out of Baekhyun’s headlock and scooped the smaller alpha up bridal style. Baekhyun screamed and grabbed Chanyeol’s shoulders, laughing as he swung her side to side with a mock-snarl and silly growls. Yixing smiled and offered a hand to Jongin, who shyly accepted it and folded his hand around Yixing’s. Jongin sniffed, scrunching his nose up.
“Chicken?” he asked quietly. Yixing nodded, and Jongin smiled again, ducking his head.
“Oh, Xing ,” Sehun moaned, seeing the spread on the kitchen table. “You didn’t.”
“I did,” Yixing replied, at the same time as Chanyeol said, “I made him.”
Yixing snorted. “He made me run out into the rain and buy the chicken, and made me make the mac and cheese.”
“I don’t care who’s responsible,” Sehun proclaimed, digging a spoon from one of the drawers and scooping a mouthful of mac and cheese straight from the dish. “Jesus fuck .”
Baekhyun rolled her eyes. Chanyeol hefted her in his arms and the alpha let out a yelp of shock, grabbing at the gamma’s neck. The two of them waddled to the cabinet. Baekhyun passed a plate down to Jongin, who silently handed it on to Sehun. She filled it in less than a minute and tromped into the living room, yelling something about having first pick of the movies. Jongin took a little bit of everything, neatly sectioned into separate piles on his plate. Yixing moved to take his plate off him, and Jongin looked up with a startled expression.
“You need to eat more,” he said, adding to Jongin’s plate. The boy seemed relieved to have it returned, quickly following Sehun to claim a seat in the blanket nest.
“Put me down, Chanyeol!” Baekhyun lightly kicked her heel into the ticklish spot under his ribs; Chanyeol relented.
Sehun had already fast-forwarded through the opening credits of one of Chanyeol’s awful horror movies by the time Yixing carried his plate into the lounge. He rested his plate on the right armrest of the sofa as the others settled down. Within fifteen minutes Sehun had gotten up for another plateful, while Baekhyun had set her dish aside and tucked her feet up on the sofa, pressed against Yixing’s side.
Somewhere between Chanyeol budging Sehun aside to shove Gingerdead Man into the DVD and Sehun fighting him off with a copy of Tombs of the Blind Dead , alcohol appeared; Baekhyun had been so frazzled by the events of the past week that she didn’t even make a token complaint when Sehun opened two cans of beer, one for each of them. Jongin sipped hesitantly at Chanyeol’s beer. Sehun laughed and slapped the table when he sprayed his first mouthful all over the coffee table, before grimacing and taking another swig. Chanyeol squawked and reclaimed his beer, pushing an unopened can toward the pup. The scandalised expression Jongin gave him was priceless.
They pushed the coffee table out of the way and shifted their blankets and pillows to the floor.
“Let’s play truth or dare,” Chanyeol slurred, stuffing a pillow behind his back and slumping onto Baekhyun’s shoulder. The alpha whined a wordless complaint and shoved him half-heartedly. Baekhyun was a little flushed; Yixing knew that she'd be pleasantly buzzed. As for himself, alcohol made everything seem warmer, took the edge off his melancholy.
“Fuck, let’s not even dare,” Sehun groaned, waving her hands around. “I can’t even see how many fingers I have. Like, seven, each hand.”
“Okay, truth,” Chanyeol said, fishing a bottle of Smirnoff and some shot glasses from somewhere. “Take a shot if you pass.”
“Fucking asshole,” Sehun replied, nodding in approval. “Top shit.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Yixing heard himself saying. He snuffled a drowsy laugh. Sehun squinted under her bangs at him, waving a hand still. Jongin slumped against the sofa, taking in the whole spectacle between slow blinks.
“All G, alpha?” Chanyeol asked.
Baekhyun shrugged and grinned, canines coming on all pointy. Yixing could see the alpha was at the top of a slippery slope. “G, kosher, chill, whatever.” She downed the rest of her third can in one gulp, crumpling it in her hand and spreading her arms in a broad gesture.
“Truth or truth, Sehun?” Chanyeol asked, struggling to open the bottle of vodka.
Baekhyun wrestled it off him and managed to unscrew the metal top. She misjudged her strength, though, crushing it in her grip. The alpha giggled. “Oops.”
“Whatever. Which truth would you truth, Seh,” Chanyeol repeated, waving the bottle.
“Uh, the truth truth?” Sehun deadpanned.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he replied, “ Alright , truth: have you ever wanted to have sex with one of your teachers?”
“What the fuck?” Sehun sat bolt upright, but the change of position had her head spinning. The omega collapsed onto Jongin’s lap. From there came the indignant exclamation, “Does wanting to stick a chainsaw up Prentiss’ ass count?”
“Butt stuff, okay.” Chanyeol made a show of shaking his head and waggling his finger. “Such a naughty student, Miss Oh.”
They laughed raucously; even Jongin lifted his hand to his mouth to hide his smile. The questions got more and more outlandish the more they drank. Sehun confessed to having tasted her own period blood. Chanyeol had once cross-dressed as his sister to try to see if he could get her asshole boyfriend to break up with ‘her’. Baekhyun took a shot when Sehun asked her whether she’d ever been in a threesome, but there was a glint in her eye that spoke of untold wild nights. When she’d managed to have them was a mystery to Yixing. He’d been running with her since she’d returned to Sleeper when her grandmother had died, to take up the house on the edge of the forest. As they got more and more drunk Yixing was struck with a nauseating sense of unease. The pack’s laughs got bolder and brassier, but they trod more carefully around Jongin. They answered every question thrown their way without taking shots. The wolf metabolism was starting to burn off the numbing effect of the beer they'd already consumed. The questions that they asked Jongin were shallow, innocent. The room was starting to blur. Yixing couldn’t remember the last time they’d asked him a question. The three of them, gamma, alpha, and omega, were forcing - pretending -
“Okay, everyone, truth.”
Chanyeol blinked up at him from the floor. Yixing hadn’t even registered that he’d stood.
“How’d you all join this pack?” he blurted.
For a moment, there was silence. The menu screen of Chanyeol’s B-movie was still playing in the background, grating on his ears with repeats of the same generic suspense music. Greyish-blue light splashed the pack, blocked into stripes by the shadows of his body. The moon pulled at him from behind the sparse cloud cover and the night’s cold was starting to creep in. Sehun wouldn’t look at him and Chanyeol wouldn’t stop. Baekhyun put down her shot glass. Jongin’s eyes darted around the room, lighting on the exits.
The alpha opened her mouth, but her eyes did the talking. She wasn't drunk enough to think it was an innocent request, but too drunk to place exactly why. Chanyeol deferred to the alpha for permission and Baekhyun nodded slightly.
“I joined the pack before Sehun,” he stuttered, eyes wide with disbelief. “Uh - I - um, I left home after I finished high-school and roamed for a while as a loner until I made it up here and Baekhyun found me. Doing like, odd jobs. Computer stuff, mostly. Still good at it I guess.” The gamma was rambling. “Not like I work with my hands much any more, but…”
Yixing sat shakily as Chanyeol’s mouth ran. The words he wanted wouldn’t come out. Chanyeol sensed that he had to begin, to do shield Sehun and Baekhyun and now the pup from the trauma of remembering. His story was not empty of pain, but his pain was the least, and had scarred over.
“I had to leave,” Chanyeol mumbled, bowing his head. “I shifted by accident when I was fifteen and I figured, I was a freak of nature and I had to leave to protect my family if I had an accident and lost it or something. My mom tried to stop me but I told her everything, I forced her to see that I had to go. Then she told me. Me and my sister, we both look like my mom, so no-one could tell that we didn’t have the same dads. But my dad must have been a wolf, and I couldn’t live with that.”
The gamma took a swig of vodka straight from the bottle, suddenly disgusted. It was probably at Yixing’s selfishness in asking them to relive, the beta thought.
Sehun wrapped her arms around herself. Chanyeol offered her the bottle but she pushed it away. Jongin looked like he wanted to vanish into the floor. Yixing saw that the trauma of the pup’s all-too-recent joining with the pack was swimming before his eyes.
“I was a fucking stupid little kid,” she murmured. “Sophomore year of highschool, I was done with everything. School, my parents, my stupid little brother crawling all over me all the time. So I got in with a bad set at school, went to every house party I could just to say, fuck you to everything, I’m grown and I can live how I like. My parents found out just before homecoming and they grounded me for a year. I got so angry , I snuck out again to the homecoming bonfire. I didn’t even make it half-way there before an alpha - caught me, and he turned me and left me to fight out my first change in some freezing back alley.” Sehun’s lip trembled, but she swallowed back the catch in her throat with a snarl. “So fucking stupid. An arrogant, stupid little kid.”
Yixing sat as still as he could, vision blurry and throat closing with his rising panic. Off-balance and edgy as they were, nothing good could come of the question. Yet Yixing had asked. He knew but he’d asked anyway, hoping that listening again to how they’d come together would give him the answers to a question he’d been asking himself - desperately, alone, and in greater and greater confusion.
The pack was silent. One by one, their eyes drifted to Baekhyun. The alpha looked between her pack-mates slowly, mulling over her part in the formation of the pack.
“I was born here,” she said. Baekhyun paused contemplatively, resting her hands on her knees. “My parents raised me here until my Gramps died, when I was thirteen. After Gramps died my uncle took control, started talking about moving the pack south. Grams wanted the pack to stay, because this place was always ours, but she couldn’t keep us here. She didn’t have enough alpha in her.”
As Baekhyun spoke, Yixing’s body tensed further. He was a mess and the room was spinning. The pack was starting to blur into one. They were inextricably tied together, even Jongin. The pup clutched Sehun’s wrist, staring at him with pale eyes full of sadness. They could understand why he wanted them to repeat the stories of how they’d come together as a pack, but they could not possibly understand . How could they? Yixing could hardly understand himself.
“I came back when she died, with the house left to me in her will. In the years before she died Kris had come down and filled the hole my family had left, started attracting wolves that had left when there was no alpha presence to keep them there. I knew the land like the back of my hand from my childhood, and the returnees from the families that left when mine did.” Baekhyun closed her eyes. “So I became Kris’ gamma.”
Baekhyun met his eyes. “Two years back Kris offered to court me, to make me alpha female, but I refused him. I mean, it wasn’t as if being gamma was a good fit, but… I cut loose a week or so after I turned him down, and Yixing came with me.”
Chanyeol and Sehun understood, if only instinctively. The sundering of a pack-bond by choice was no small thing. It was only after Yixing followed Baekhyun that Kris had turned cold towards the both of them.
The weight of the decision Yixing had made hit him in the chest with all the force of a blow. He had chosen to break off ties with the Sleeper pack, absolutely so. Only, his choice had dragged Baekhyun with him into exile in their homeland. It was pure masochistic impulse to relive his choice through the rest of the pack’s words. Yixing had no right. He was looking for truth that they couldn’t give him. He had no right to go back and try to understand why he’d done what he’d done, in hopes of understanding why his pack-bond with the Splinter pack was - now, as before - crumbling and falling away.
There was a roaring, and a long moment of blackness before he burst out into the street on unsteady legs. Yixing sagged against a streetlight, breathing clouds of condensation into the air. The cold air overwhelmed him. The curls floating in the yellow light reminded him sadly of the wisps of steam that rose from a warm meal, shared among people who loved one another.
“Yixing!” He could barely catch his breath before his throat was closing up again. Yixing thrust himself away from his support, staggering across the street. But damn her if she wasn’t anything but persistent. Baekhyun seized his arm and spun him around to face her.
“Yixing, talk to me,” she pleaded. Yixing jerked his arm, desperately trying to escape her. “Please.”
“I can’t,” he said. Baekhyun gave up fighting him and instead engulfed him in a bear hug, crushing him to her. “Baekhyun.”
He struggled, but he had no heart to hurt the alpha for his freedom. The tighter she held onto him, the more he felt the bond slipping and splintering. Yixing bent his head. There was a dull ache in his chest, just under his ribs.
“Where have you been?” she murmured into his shirt. “Where are you going? Why are you never here anymore?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered, burying his face in her hair. “I’m lost. I’m lost.” Then, he wept.
Luhan closed the back door softly, cutting off the warm light spilling from inside the house in the forest. The wolf paused with his hand on the door handle, watching Zitao’s silhouette for a reaction. The younger remained still and seated on the grass in the little clearing, lost in thought.
“Hey,” Luhan called. The silence in the wood was enough to make his voice carry.
Zitao lifted his head in acknowledgement. Luhan came to sit beside him, ignoring the beginnings of the night’s dew dampening his pants. Together they watched the pines and the deep shadows. Inside, Minseok had left the television on at maximum volume so that Joonmyun would not be allowed to slip into brooding. Kris had not returned to the house. Minseok had asked Kyungsoo a favour and had him check on Kris’ apartment in town, but there had been no sign of the alpha.
Luhan propped his arm up on his knee. Zitao barely registered his change in position; if he saw Luhan looking at him, he ignored it. The younger’s eyes flashed yellow in the darkness.
“So...” Luhan opened, leaving the rest of the sentence unspoken. He’d thought about it all day, but there was no comfortable way of broaching the subject. “Sehun, huh.”
Sehun had only come into the picture after Baekhyun had left the Sleeper pack with Yixing. Sleeper was a small town, enough that bumping into one another was unavoidable. It was sore enough that Baekhyun and Yixing were constantly there as reminders of their weakened pack-bond, but bringing Sehun into their fledgling pack was practically a slap in the face. The girl was newly turned, didn’t know pack lore, could barely shift and yet - Baekhyun took to her so immediately that Luhan himself had wondered if what they’d been through together as the Sleeper pack had meant nothing. Chanyeol, another stray, knew nothing. Just like the girl.
When Luhan had bumped into Sehun in the town, it had never ended well. The girl was defensive, always ready to bite back, and wrapped up in her own little bundle of unresolved anger and instability.
“What about Sehun?” Zitao’s voice was dispassionate.
Luhan shifted uncomfortably. “You know her.”
Zitao only turned to look at him then. It was strange to see the wolf eyes in a human face, true wolf eyes with the irises stretched to where the whites would be. “I know her well.”
One incident stood out to Luhan. It had been a full moon day. Luhan would have rathered he not be in town, but the owner of the music store he worked in had fallen ill. None of the other employees could cover. Luhan had dragged himself in, even though he felt like crawling out of his skin. His skin and the beds of his nails itched all day; by the time he closed up, he’d picked his cuticles raw. He remembered distinctly the slap of the winter air against his bare face in the cold and cloudless night. The previous night’s snowfall had turned into a greyish sludge, piled against the curb. Luhan tucked his hands into his pockets and set off at a brisk walk for the edge of town.
Sehun had crashed out of an alley and into him, running full-tilt. Luhan staggered, braced himself and yanked the other wolf back to standing. The girl had met his eyes and her face had been as open to him as he’d ever seen. A fresh bruise swelled her cheek and a split in her brow ran blood into her eye. Her smell had given her away - the wolf surfacing through the human, fresh peroxide bleach, fear. Then the shutters slammed down behind her eyes; her whole face changed into something more dangerous. Shouting and clattering rang out from the alley she’d just left. Sehun had shoved him hard, and run. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds.
“Are you sure about that?”
Zitao frowned. “What do you mean?”
Was he sure that Zitao knew her? Luhan knew it would simply be casting aspersions on Zitao's character to imply that he didn't. He was smarter than that. That flash of emotion across his face that Luhan had seen in the clearing, as the omega faced Kris down, told him that Zitao was keenly aware of Sehun's weaknesses, and terrified for her because of them. At the same time, there was no better way that Luhan could think of to voice his worries.
"I've known her for years," Zitao said softly, still frowning. He turned back to the forest. "Because of school, I guess."
Luhan blinked. Objectively, it should have been obvious. He'd always assumed that Zitao would have ignored the younger wolf when their paths would have crossed.
"You met through class?"
"Nah." Zitao flopped onto his back, careless of the damp grass. "I guess it was around the end of my junior year. Some other sophomore had pissed her off and she was this close to slinging him into the lockers. She was so angry she could have really hurt him."
Luhan tried to cut in, but Zitao put up his hand, asking to be heard out. "I stopped her, of course. I had to. But she wasn't bad, really, just - cornered. This kid he and his friends had been bullying her for months, and her homeroom teacher hated her enough to be bullying her too. She was scared and angry. I think she still is. Sehun's - " Zitao paused, scrunching his fingers in the grass " - she's not really a danger to anyone besides herself."
Zitao's voice was so full of emotion that Luhan's stomach twisted. The young wolf knew how unstable the Splinter pack's omega was, and yet he had gotten attached. Luhan swallowed his impulse to tell Zitao that he should have known better.
"That was the one time, then. How'd you become… friends?"
"It wasn't just the one time," Zitao replied. "I guess I just started looking out for her."
"You still do that?"
Zitao turned to him as if it were obvious.
Luhan fumbled for words, because it was, and he wanted to warn Zitao without making himself or the younger look stupid. "She has her pack to do that for her. If they're not, then that's a breach of their duty of care."
Zitao shook his head. "It's not that. Baekhyun signs as her legal guardian at school and they all pay for her to be able to live in her own place. They take her to run as often as they can, but - I can't explain - "
He sat up abruptly, raking a hand through his hair roughly. "I can't explain this at all. They do their best by her. I know that. I trust them. I know logically that she doesn't need me, but I need to be there for her - as long as she needs me - but then I don't know if she does but she does, but I can't assume that of her."
Luhan opened his mouth but nothing would come out. Zitao folded his legs up to his body. The moment spiralled into silence, as if Zitao's thoughts were running away from him. When he started to speak again, it was in a rushed whisper of winter nights spent wandering the town, and talks in the dark where everything was said but nothing revealed.
"The exile," Zitao muttered, "he brings back a lot of bad memories for her. She was better before this. Just after New Year's we ran out past the big ridge to the river and played in the snow."
Zitao was well on a roll now, talking out his frustration.
"She's so afraid of herself and the others don't understand. She's isolated at school and she pushes everyone away and I just…" Zitao looked down at his hands helplessly. "I don't know what else to do other than to show her I'm willing to be there."
"You don't mean…" Luhan nearly whispered. This was all wrong. Mating across packs - it couldn't be done. Mating in the truest sense couldn't happen one-sidedly.
Zitao nodded. "Yeah. If she'll have me."
The night's cold stillness seemed to sharpen in the dead air around them. The vibration of Zitao's phone broke the silence, and Luhan saw Sehun's name flashing on the screen as Zitao took it out of his pocket. The younger answered the call; before Luhan had a chance to say any more, he disappeared into the forest.
“Sehun!” Tao yelled. “Sehun?”
He bent over, bracing his hands on his knees as he panted in the middle of the road. Where was she? Gritting his teeth, Zitao straightened and forced himself into a jog. He had to find her soon. She was in the town, that was all he had caught from the tumble of noise over the phone. There wasn’t much left of it for him to search.
His voice rang in the cold streets, beating back the silence. Zitao’s bare feet slapped against the asphalt, in time with his sharp breaths. The wolf helped with his endurance, but he’d been zigzagging across town for the past hour and a half. He turned the corner and lurched to a stop. The burning in his lungs eased, as if part of the feeling was knowing that she was afraid and alone and angry. Sitting on the curb in front of their convenience store, swaying side to side and hitting her forehead with the inside of her wrist, was Sehun.
“Sehun,” he shouted. Zitao found his balance, and the steps he took towards her lengthened into strides. Having a destination infused him with new purpose.
The younger wolf looked up at him with bloodshot eyes and a red face.
“You found me,” Sehun said, a note of wonder in her voice. Then she laughed, and the sound made Zitao’s heart hurt.
“Sehun,” Zitao repeated, coming to sit beside her. She reeked of alcohol. Sehun’s laugh turned into something more of a howl, until she was screaming into the black skies. He wanted to cover his eyes. There was something sanctified about her pain, as if he were looking on a forsaken god. Her eyes were watery when she looked at him again.
“I hate him,” she mumbled, clenching her fist and pounding her forehead. “He did this to me.”
Had the exile hurt her? There was no love lost between them that he could see, and her pack never knew how to deal with her. There were a million and one little cracks in her which could have split open at some inconsequential word or action“What happened?”
“My pack. Jongin. Everything.”
“What happened ?”
She laughed again. “It was some stupid game of drunk truth and it came up how we became a pack. I think the rest thought they had to tell him, because we’re damaged all one way or another. They all know how the pack was formed, so couldn’t one of them just have told him themselves?”
Zitao knew then that her pack had reminded her of the darkest point in her life, when the change had torn her from the life she knew.
“I hate him. I hate him so much. This one’s the same. This alpha is going to come down and destroy us and - “
“Sehun, stop it,” he said, grabbing her hand and forcing open her fist. Deep red marks were scratched into her palms, and Zitao tangled his fingers with hers. By reflex, her nails bit into the backs of his hands. He bore it, so that she wouldn’t be in pain. “Your pack is strong. You shouldn’t underestimate Kris, either. He wouldn’t let a bad alpha on his territory.”
“You don’t understand. They always win. These alphas always win and what, I’ve already been turned, what else could they do to me now? A lot .”
Zitao struggled with what to say next, holding her hand tighter. “I thought you’d stopped thinking about that. It’s already happened. There’s nothing you can do to change it. If you think the exile is such a danger to the pack, then make them see that he is. Baekhyun will respect your wishes.”
“It’s not that simple. He didn’t ask Baekhyun to take him in.” she mumbled, looking at her hands. “He didn’t make that alpha - God , I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“Do you believe in him?” Zitao asked her.
Sehun shook her head, swiping at her eyes. “Who, God or Jongin?” She snorted. “I don’t believe in anything.”
Zitao gingerly encircled her shoulders with his arm. “Believe in yourself, if nothing else.”
She laughed again. “Who am I to believe in myself? When I’m nothing but what that alpha forced on me?”
“Don’t be like that. The wolf isn’t a curse.”
Sehun pushed his arm away. “It’s not a curse?” she demanded. “Do you think I wanted to live this way? Like an animal? Always being afraid of whether or not I’ll hurt myself or someone I - ”
Sehun crumpled in on herself, gasping a sob. She wrapped her arms around her body with her fingers pressing into her back. Zitao automatically smoothed his hand down her spine. Sehun shook violently.
“I know you didn’t choose this,” he murmured. “But you don’t need to be scared. You’ve mastered the change. You can run in the wolf’s skin.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she choked out. “I’m an alien in my own body. You don’t know how it feels to have thoughts in your mind that aren’t yours, and having your arms and legs move when you didn’t tell them to. You’ll never know.”
The accusation hit him like a slap. Zitao flinched away from her. Something changed in him, in that moment. What was he supposed to say? He would have given whatever he could to make her stop this self-destruction, but he found he’d given too much already.
“Is that how you’ve always thought?” His voice sounded distant to his own ears. Zitao stood. His body shook involuntarily.
Zitao sucked in a breath. He couldn’t understand, try as he might. Because he couldn’t, then he couldn’t help her. Everything he’d said to Luhan rattled in his head, but Sehun could cut him to pieces without even knowing. Animal. He’d never know. His head spun and his vision lengthened into a dark tunnel, at the end of which was Sehun, moving farther away.
"The world is a washing machine," she slurred, hiding her face between her knees. "I’m spinning and spinning, until I don't know which way is up and which way is down. I think I’m going to drown."
What Kris always seemed to forget was the Joonmyun was a wolf, too.
The beta drew his legs up against his body as he sat on the closed toilet seat. The sun was out, for a change; the slants of light fell through the window above the shower, blinding. The warmth couldn’t shake the chill that he carried in his bones. Through the wall he could hear Kris and Kyungsoo talking in the study. The door was shut, the windows too, probably, but Kris always forgot. There was no privacy when you lived with wolves, and Joonmyun had some of the best hearing of all of them.
“What are you going to do?” Kyungsoo asked. Kris didn’t reply for a while. Joonmyun imagined him standing at the window, arms crossed, and the sunlight silhouetted his frame. Kyungsoo liked to prop himself against the bookcases or the corner of the desk. The small man frowned by default, now, but Joonmyun pictured the wrinkle between his brows being deeper today.
“Get rid of the exile,” he finally rumbled. “Tell Baekhyun that she has to get rid of him.”
“Doesn’t work like that,” Kyungsoo said. “Not your pack, you can’t tell Baekhyun what to do with hers.”
“I was the one that let her become alpha. She should know that I outrank her.”
“Again, doesn’t work.” The delta let a note of exasperation creep into his voice. “Once you cut them off, you lost any chance of holding authority over them.”
“It was their choice,” Kris muttered, but Kyungsoo snorted, as if to tell him that that was bullshit and they both knew it.
Joonmyun bit his lip. This again. The rest of the pack never talked about Baekhyun and Yixing around him. They let things slip, when they thought he wasn’t listening, but only bits and pieces that didn’t fit. Kris had cut them off, but it had been their choice to leave. Kris had kicked them out because of some sort of infraction, but Minseok had replied that they hadn’t been to blame. Joonmyun had tried to ask Kris about it, but the alpha had snapped at him that it was none of his business.
“That’s our business. It’s in the past. Don’t ask about it again,” he’d snarled. Joonmyun watched him turn down the corridor and leave the apartment, feeling distinctly as if he were chasing ghosts as he tried his best to keep the pack from falling apart. Goddamnit , why wouldn’t they let him do his job ?
“She’s training to become a fucking paralegal, for God’s sake,” Kris said, smacking his hand on something hard. “Can’t she follow a simple law? A red cord is a red cord.”
“She was right about the law stopping after the hunt.” Joonmyun’s family had a genealogy that could be traced back seven generations, and from each to each a knowledge of the laws had been passed down. Kyungsoo was right about Baekhyun being right.
“How the hell would she know if he’d survived the hunt or not? We only have her word for it. She could be making up shit.”
“What the hell are you saying, Kris?” Kyungsoo’s voice had gone from coldly rational to being full of disbelief. “She had the grace to tell us she’d found an exile in the first place. Why would she lie? If she didn’t think you needed to be involved, if she thought it mightn’t have bigger repercussions for both our packs, then why would she have told us?”
“Spite,” the alpha spat.
Joonmyun pulled the sleeves of his sweater down over his hands, running his tongue over his abused lower lip.
“If she didn’t care about the rest of us - as you’re saying, if she wanted to spite you, purely spite you - then she wouldn’t have said anything, covered her own ass, and if trouble came raining down then she’d be long gone before we’d have a chance to connect it to her or her exile. Baekhyun’s not stupid . She’d not evil either,” Kyungsoo argued. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I don’t like it.”
The beta curled in tighter on himself. He didn’t like it, either.
Kris stewed in silence for another minute until the lock clicked, and Kyungsoo opened the door. “Fine. If you don’t want to listen to what I have to say, that’s fine. Just don’t expect to drag me into whatever you’re planning for this pack. I’m not the one you want to call when you want someone to roll over and be your bitch on this, and everything else.”
Joonmyun flinched as the delta slammed the door and stalked past the bathroom. Another slammed door told Joonmyun that Kyungsoo had left the apartment, no longer able to deal with Kris’ foul temper. The beta’s eyes stung. He knew exactly to whom Kyungsoo was referring.
He couldn’t deal with this anymore. Joonmyun carefully unfolded himself from his perch and padded out of the bathroom, shoving his feet into the first pair of trainers that he saw before leaving. Luhan might have called him from the living room, where he was wrapping Tao’s frostnipped feet, but he couldn’t stop. He started crying halfway down the stairs. Joonmyun stopped when he reached ground level, crouching behind the last flight of stairs as he tried to get his breathing under control. When Joonmyun got a grip on himself, he got up unsteadily and stumbled through the lobby and onto the street.
The pack’s apartment was in a nicer part of town, renovated when Kris bought it. It was a trek to Minseok’s workplace, near Kyungsoo’s shop on the other side of town. The walk forced Joonmyun to stop dwelling on the suffocating feeling in his throat, though the cold air seemed to burn on each inhale. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, keeping his head down to avoid meeting the gazes of the people going about their business. Some of them must have thought he was crazy - it wasn’t spring yet, but there he was in a thin white sweater and jeans and nothing else.
Joonmyun was shivering by the time he entered the gun shop. The bell over the door tinkled merrily, and Minseok shouted something from the back room before she came out into the shop proper, lugging a large cardboard box.
“Hi, Joon - wait, what happened?” Minseok hurriedly set the box down on one of the glass display cases arranged around the shop, striding the door and changing the ‘open’ sign to one that said that they’d be back in fifteen minutes.
Joonmyun tried to find the words, but ended up standing just inside the door, shaking and tugging at the sleeves of his sweater. Minseok’s mouth thinned into a displeased line. She took hold of his elbow and, with the other hand resting against his back, guided him into the back room. She plucked her thick bomber jacket from the hook on the back of the door, draping it carefully around his shoulders. Joonmyun sat heavily on the little stool near the door.
“Let me guess,” Minseok said, propping her hands on her hips. “Alpha again?”
Joonmyun looked at the floor.
“C’mon, Joon. You don’t have put on that whole act with me.”
“Do you think I should leave?”
Minseok stared at him. Joonmyun pulled the bomber jacket tightly around him. It was the perfect size. Minseok liked to wear her jackets large and loose.
Joonmyun tipped his head back against the wall and blinked rapidly, feeling his eyes burning. He wouldn’t cry again today. “The pack, Minseok. Should I leave the pack?”
“Why?” she asked, crouching before him. The look on her face was concerned but grim.
“Why not?” He managed a weak chuckle. “Kris doesn’t respect me. I don’t even think he likes me. I don’t know anything about the pack’s history, and I don’t know anything about Baekhyun and Yixing and that seems to be the crux of the matter, and because of that I can’t even do my job and - “
“Do you really want to know?” Minseok interrupted.
Joonmyun cut her off, voice rising with equal parts anger and hysteria. “It’s not that. That doesn’t matter. It’s that none of you trust me enough to let me really be a member of your pack.”
Minseok looked at him as if he’d slapped her. Joonmyun buried his face in his hands, trying to collect himself. No, he hadn’t meant that. Some of them did, Minseok the most and Luhan and Tao after her, but the bond had never really cemented with Jongdae, Kris was Kris, and Kyungsoo rarely wanted anything to do with any of them.
“This morning…” he murmured. “They were talking, you know? Kris and Kyungsoo, about what to do with our relations with the Splinter pack. I was in the bathroom next door thinking, what kind of world is this where the alpha will take his delta in confidence over his beta? I came here because I was meant to be a beta. That’s what I’ve always been meant to do, that’s who I am. But Kris won’t let me be that.”
Joonmyun swallowed around the lump in his throat, shoulders bowed. What Kyungsoo had said hurt too much to repeat. Minseok gently took one of his hands and squeezed it, an uncharacteristically soft look on her face. He yanked her in for a hug, hiding his face in her shoulder and breathing in her spicy scent. Minseok’s arms wound around him tightly, fingers tangled in the hair at his nape.
“What should I do?” he whispered. Minseok only hugged him tighter.
The shop’s bell tinkled unexpectedly. Minseok released him, standing up with a frown on her face.
“What’s going on? I put up the back in fifteen sign,” she said. Joonmyun was still hunched over, overcome. “Stay here. I’m going to see what’s going on.”
She went out of the back room and closed the door. There was a man in the shop that she’d never seen before, dressed in a stained windbreaker. He seemed to be looking intently at an antique hunting rifle in the case in the middle of the store.
“I’m sorry, but we’re not open right now. If you come back in ten minutes I’ll be happy to help you,” Minseok said, studying the arrival. He had long hair that hung lankly around a weather-beaten face. His clothes seemed far too big for him, as if he’d lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, and they were dirty with all sorts of things. Minseok sniffed. She resisted making a face, but the man stank. Underneath the smell of paint thinner, rat droppings, and dead flesh was something that she had difficulty pinning.
“Excuse me? Sir?” Minseok called again. The man ignored her, still looking at the hunting rifle. It was a handsome thing, a circa 1930s Westley Richard hunting rifle with etched silver mounts. It was a collector’s piece more than a practical one, solely because of its beauty, and had been waiting in that case for the last six months for the right person to come along. Minseok had a feeling that the man looking at it so intensely was not the right person.
No , she thought, when the man finally acknowledged her, that wasn’t right - the man was wrong.
“Can I help you?” she asked again, frowning.
The man grinned at her, revealing too many teeth crowded into his mouth. “I’m looking for a hunting rifle.”
“What kind of game are you looking at?” It was in the middle of late season for cougars as far as she knew. Minseok moved behind the main counter of the shop, where most of the rifles meant for .243 caliber rounds were hung. A good hunter with the proper bullet placement could take a cougar with that sort of caliber. She herself preferred not to tangle with cougars, but then again hers was a different sort of hunting.
“I’m looking for a gun for wolves,” he said.
Minseok turned very slowly, a carefully neutral expression on her face.
“Wolves are protected in Washington State.”
“I’m just passing through. Heading to Wyoming with a couple other hunters,” the man said. The scent that Minseok couldn’t identify was getting stronger. She dug her fingers in her thigh, fighting not to shake with revulsion.
“Season’s closed by now,” she replied. “It’s been closed for nearly two months.”
The man shrugged, looking her in the eye. His lips curled back over his teeth again, more a grimace than a smile. “I can wait.”
The man’s eyes were a flickering, predatory yellow, and the scent was clear now - sickness, thick and sour, running in wolf’s blood.
Minseok’s hand moved to grip the Glock 17 she kept secured under the counter.
“You’ll be waiting a long time,” she said evenly.
The wolf’s teeth, unconsciously or not, began to rearrange themselves in his mouth, wiggling in his too-red gums. “I can wait,” he repeated. He turned, putting his hands in his pockets, and left the shop.
She stared at the door until it stopped swinging on its hinges. Minseok realised belatedly that she had drawn the Glock and had a white-knuckled grip on it, finger on the safety. She pushed the safety back into position and slid the gun back into its position, before changing her mind and taking it with her into the back room.
Joonmyun looked at her expectantly, before his gaze dropped to the gun in her hand. “Who was that, out there?”
Minseok took the plastic crate full of personal gear off the middle shelf and pulled out her thigh holster, securing it to her belt and then around her leg. She tucked the Glock into place, turning to look at Joonmyun.
“I think it’s better if you stayed in the shop with me for the time being,” she said.
“Because of Kris?” Joonmyun asked.
Minseok shook her head. “There’s a bad wind blowing through town. Bad wolves.”
Sehun awoke with a gasp. The dream had come back. She cracked an eye and regretted it immediately. Sunlight lanced in through the blinds, striping across the stained carpet. Sehun screwed her eyes shut and fumbled for pillow to stuff her head under, until she realised that she’d passed out on the couch. She buried her face in the armrest of the couch and let out a long groan. It felt like a buzz-saw was bouncing around the inside of her skull.
Her head gave a particularly unpleasant throb as last night’s events came back to her. Sehun forced herself to sit up and shuffle to the bathroom, taking a scalding shower as she pressed at the knots in her shoulders. Her thoughts were noisy, today. She hadn’t had the nightmare in months. There were different ones. Sometimes she dreamed of drowning as her hometown flooded with saltwater, sometimes of everything she touched turning into dead leaves, sometimes of being chased - but the nightmare that she’d had was a memory, really. She’d be walking down a street in total silence when the alpha that had turned her would jump out from the shadows and bite her - savage her - in photorealistic detail. Her head would crack against the floor and then the alpha would climb on top of her. Everything would be silent. Her mouth would be open and her vocal cords straining; the alpha would laugh, their mouth a slash of red. Sometimes his face changed to those of people she knew. Last night, it had been Tao’s face, laughing and bloody.
No, she was wrong. It wasn’t the usual dream. Last night there had been a voyeur on her change. Standing on the street corner was Jongin, handsome face neutral and eyes flickering jade. Sehun had screamed out to him when the alpha’s teeth were lodged in the flesh of her shoulder, begging him to help her, to run, to save himself, and then he was the alpha and Tao was watching, the same expression on his face as he’d worn on when he faced her in the night. Everything photoreal, the nuances showing something shutting down behind his eyes, a palpable feeling that he was drawing away from her. An intense pain, a panic.
Sehun shook her head, resting her forehead against the tile. The water was running cold.
She dry-swallowed an Advil before slinking into the merciful darkness of her bedroom. Sehun collapsed on the bed and curled into the pillows, wanting everything to go away.
Baekhyun turned over in bed. Consciousness pricked at her, and she frowned as last night’s aches made themselves known. Jongin, who had curled around her in his sleep, made a soft noise and hugged her closer.
“Jongin?” she whispered, hoarse with sleep. She slowly opened her eyes, adjusting to the dim light. The sunlight was warm and bright, but thankfully muted by the blinds. The younger wolf didn’t seem to hear her, frowning in his sleep and mumbling incoherently. She recognised the signs of a bad dream clearly. Sehun had been the same when she’d first come into Baekhyun’s care. Baekhyun could still clearly remember how the the younger girl’s horrible screaming had slowly faded to shouts, and the whimpers, whispers, and the occasional twitch.
Jongin’s nightmares ought have been the fresh, screaming kind, but he tensed instead and tucked his face into the pillow, muffling a whimper. Baekhyun had no clue as to whether he knew what he was doing; she placed her hand on his shoulder and Jongin immediately recoiled, bolting into a semi-upright position and skidding a foot away from her on the bed. His eyes were wild with unspoken terror.
“Easy, Jongin,” she said softly, holding out a hand. “it’s just me. Just me, here.”
Jongin seemed to take several seconds to remember where he was. Then he collapsed back onto the bed with a soft whump, hiding his face from the light. One of his hands came to press at his temple. Baekhyun sensed that it was alright to touch him, and gently rubbed a hand down his back. It was hard to believe that only a little more than a week had passed since Jongin had come to her from the forest.
A week. It struck her just how much could change.
“How are you feeling?” She could feel the knobs of his spine through the fabric of Chanyeol’s shirt. A week was not long. “Got a headache?”
Jongin nodded into the pillow. Baekhyun patted his shoulder. She got up and wandered into the kitchen, downing an aspirin and filling a glass for Jongin. The room was full of light, as she remembered it, and a momentary thought made it hard for her to breathe.
It had been the middle of winter in her thirteenth year, before her grandfather had died. The morning had been bright like this, and she’d found it hard to adjust her eyes when she’d padded in from the bedroom that she used at her grandmother’s. She remembered the side door opening and her grandmother being silhouetted in the brilliant light, smelling like greenery and dew. Grams had showed her the yuzu she had harvested from the tree in the little yard behind the house, smiling with a joy that Baekhyun had found strange and wonderful. They’d spent the morning making yucheong in old jam jars. The scent of honey and fresh citrus spread through the air, a golden scent to match the dancing light. Grams must have sensed that this would be one of the last untainted happinesses that she would have in her life. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the kitchen cupboard. Baekhyun could feel Grams with her, sometimes. Her love still reached beyond the grave, in the house, her small trust, the inheritance money that she’d put in a term deposit set to mature on Baekhyun’s twenty-second birthday. Grams had wanted her to be able to come back.
When she turned around to return to the bedroom, she nearly dropped her glass. Jongin had appeared in the doorway without her even noticing. He was watching her with an unreadable expression.
Baekhyun smiled and pulled out a chair. “Come sit.”
He looked at the floor, hesitating. Jongin curled his toes into the floorboards, squinting against the light. Eventually, he made his way to the kitchen table and sat with her in silence. Baekhyun place the glass of water and two aspirin tablets in front of him.
“Here. This should help,” she said. Jongin hesitated again. He closed his eyes as if in pain, and swallowed the pills quickly.
Baekhyun sat with him. The omega looked as if he hadn’t slept at all. Chanyeol’s clothes hung loosely on him, and Baekhyun frowned. They still had a ways to go before Jongin had recovered completely from the trials of his past life. She got up and opened the pantry, muttering a curse when she found that all that was there was oatmeal and a box of Cheerios that had long gone chewy.
“Do you want to go and find something to eat?”
Jongin studied the table. Baekhyun closed the pantry.
“Why are you doing this?” Jongin met her eyes.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Jongin’s lip trembled. “Why are you being nice to me?” He lapsed into silence again, struggling with himself for words.
For a while, Baekhyun tried to put her feelings to words, but nothing seemed sufficient to describe the feeling of rightness that Jongin had brought to the pack.
“Because,” she finally managed, “I told you. You were meant to be with us. I couldn’t leave you alone.”
“It’d be easy,” he said. “I could disappear. All you’d have to do is forget about me.”
“Jongin, what are you talking about?”
“What if something happens to you, and the rest of the pack? What if they’re still here, somewhere?”
“What? Where is this coming from?” Baekhyun grasped Jongin’s shoulders. He flinched.
“She didn’t know what my pack had done, and you don’t know either, what they can do. It’s dangerous.”
“Jongin!” she said sharply. “Did Sehun say something to you?”
“No,” he whispered. “No, forget about it.”
“No, I don’t want to. Tell me, then, if I don’t know. What did your pack do?” she asked. “Did you live in the towns or in the forests?”
“The pack roamed all over, mainly in the forests. They found me when they were roaming, once, and took me with them.”
Wild packs were not as common as they used to be. It was curious, but not what Baekhyun wanted to know. It was not what Jongin wanted to say, either. He took a deep breath, hands clenching into fists.
“The alpha was - not a good one,” he said shakily. “There was a lot of infighting in the pack. No-one ever seemed to know who’d turn on them next, not even the alpha. He went on rampages, sometimes killed wolves for little mistakes. No-one could trust each other, so the fighting got worse. That’s why they needed me.”
Baekhyun hugged him. She didn’t need to hear - she regretted asking. Jongin gripped the hem of her shirt with one hand, trembling in her arms. Baekhyun closed her eyes, holding him close. How could it be that the innocence in him, that ought to have been long destroyed, emerged at moments like these - when the worst of his past came into the open?
“You don’t have to go on,” she murmured. Jongin clung to her with his other arm.
“No,” he whispered. “No-one was afraid of the alpha anymore because he liked - me. What he could do to me. And they didn’t want to fight each other anymore when there was an easier target. That was the only way they needed me.”
Baekhyun stared at the kitchen cupboards, struggling to process what Jongin had said to her. It was unthinkable for a pack to be like that, but he had no reason to lie. The truth was written on his body. She hid her face in his hair, committing his scent to memory. Baekhyun tried to imagine how he had lived, and came up blank. It was too alien to imagine. A pack was a family, if not by the water of the womb, then by the blood of the covenant.
Baekhyun cupped Jongin’s face, and planted a kiss on his forehead.
“We need you,” she told him. “We need you here to complete our family. Not because you’re convenient, or because we need a scapegoat, but because somehow you were destined to be one of us.”
The uncertainty in Jongin’s face put a bitter taste in her mouth. Later, when Jongin had stepped in to take a shower, Baekhyun left the house and crossed the road to copse that led into the main part of the forest. It was only in this privacy that Baekhyun allowed her fury to bubble to the surface. Overwhelmed, she let out a wordless cry, punching the trunk of the tree closest to her. Jongin was theirs, and as long as he was, Baekhyun was determined that nothing would hurt him again. Their pack was family, no matter what he’d lived like before. She was resolved to make it so for him.
On Monday morning, Baekhyun turned up with Jongin at Sehun’s apartment again. Sehun thought she was prepared, with the spare key in hand to give to the other wolf, in case he went wandering again. She’d even made an effort to wake up earlier, not willing to risk being held up by Jongin’s arrival. Mr Prentiss hated her already. She didn’t want to give him reasons to give her detention. Sehun had been opening the door to leave when she ran into Baekhyun and Jongin.
Sehun had thought wrong.
Jongin’s face made Sehun’s stomach turn. For a second all she could see was his face in her dream. It seemed somehow stupid to her how much the fight between her and Jongin had changed, and yet how little around them had. His pack was a threat. Jongin himself could hardly be trusted, but the physicality of their encounter had had an unexplainable effect on her. While they were grappling like that, Sehun felt like she could understand him.
Yet something had changed. Last week, that first morning, he had seemed so unreadable, but now a new vulnerability showed in his expression. It was as if some dam wall deep in his subconscious had been released, and things that he hadn’t even known he felt had come pouring out. The torrent had taken its toll on him. His eyes darted down the hall, to her face, to the floor. Like a child he clung to Baekhyun’s sweater. As awful as it was, it reassured Sehun. She hadn’t been certain of Jongin’s true intentions when he hadn’t - or hadn’t been able to - revealed what he’d felt. The numbness had taken over, and now he was surfacing. That she could understand that, when she hardly knew herself, loosened something in her chest that had been tightly knotted for some time.
Sehun insisted that Baekhyun go ahead of them. The alpha was going to be late for work, and Sehun was going to be late for school, if she insisted on seeing Jongin inside and making him comfortable. Baekhyun did a lot for the whole pack, and had a sense for exactly what they needed at the right time, but when the stress got to her she mother-henned relentlessly.
“Seriously, Baekhyun,” Sehun complained, “We’ll be fine. Go to work! You’re going to be late.”
“Are you sure? Has Jongin got enough to eat while you’re at school?” Baekhyun fussed, looking over Sehun’s shoulder to where Jongin was lingering inside.
“You practically shoved the entire grocery store into a plastic bag and brought it with you, Baek,” Sehun said, raising an eyebrow. She stepped out and made a big show of locking the door. “Are you fattening him up to roast him or something? Go, go!”
“Alright, alright, I’m going!” The alpha hit her shoulder lightly and departed down the hall.
“Bye!” Sehun called, waving enthusiastically. Baekhyun turned around and stuck her tongue out at the younger girl, walking backwards until she reached the stairs. Sehun rolled her eyes. She wondered, sometimes, really.
She waited a minute before unlocking the door. Jongin had migrated to his usual perch on the lumpy sofa, sitting with his knees primly together and hands in his lap.
“Hey, are you coming or what?” Jongin jumped, jerking sideways on the couch. Sehun crossed her arms, leaning against the doorway. “C’mon. You’re going to follow me sometime or other, so I might as well show you the quick way back here.”
No, she wasn’t doing him any favours beyond that. If it so happened that her letting Jongin tag along would stop him from brooding, then that was just a fortunate coincidence.
“Here,” Sehun said, pressing the spare key into the other wolf’s hand. Jongin stared at the key, and then at her face. “Hey. Are you going to cry over a key?”
Jongin blushed and shook his head. “No. Of course not.”
Suddenly he was looking everywhere but at her. Sehun shrugged and unfolded herself from her pose against the doorframe. She stepped into the hall and beckoned Jongin along. He locked the door behind them, tucking the key carefully into the pocket of his jeans.
The walk to school was mostly silent, though Sehun did show Jongin the zig-zag pattern of alleys that she used to cut a whole block’s worth of walking out of her trip. Sehun kept her eyes on the roads. Jongin periodically scuffed his tattered Chucks against cracks in the sidewalk, surveying his surroundings.
“Do you need to - “ Sehun grimaced. The words were unbearably awkward in her mouth. “ - talk about anything? Did Baekhyun say something to you?”
Jongin actually rolled his eyes at her. “She asked me if you had said anything to me.”
Sehun snorted in response. “What? So I threatened you. Anyone in their right mind would.”
He chuckled. Sehun blinked. The sound was entirely foreign to her. Jongin lapsed into silence for a long moment, before summoning a small smile to his face. “It’s strange. I can understand that better than I can understand Baekhyun being nice to me.”
“Congratulations. You’re not an idiot,” she said, kicking at a stray plastic bag being blown down the sidewalk by the slight morning breeze. “Not naive, at least.”
Jongin stopped walking, catching her eye unflinchingly. “You don’t like me.”
“No,” she admitted.
He considered it for a moment, before shrugging. “Fair.” He turned and kept walking straight, crossing the road at the corner.
Sehun barked out a laugh. This wolf was really full of surprises.
“Where are you going, stupid? School’s this way,” she called, jerking a thumb to the left.
Jongin turned on his heel and walked purposefully in the direction she’d indicated, as if he’d always meant to go that way. Sehun rolled her eyes. She crossed the road and trotted after Jongin, tapping his shoulder before he missed another turn and wandered off into the old part of town. Wisely, he followed her from that point, until they reached the edge of the block that the school occupied.
“Well, this is it,” she said. Jongin brushed his hair out of his face and waited for her to continue. “Really. You can go back now. If you lose your way you should still be able to follow our scent trail. It’s good for another twenty minutes at least.”
“Okay,” he said. “See you, then.”
“Yeah, she replied. “Bye.”
Sehun strode off before there was time for silence to weigh on them. Surprisingly, she was early. She scrunched her nose at the prom flyer stuck on her locker door. There was an age to go before prom, and longer still for graduation. There were still exams to take. Sehun found it difficult to process the hype. With the events of the past week, and the shitstorm that was her life, it seemed surreal that her senior prom loomed somewhere in the distance, waiting for her to happen upon it. When she had first realised the consequences of the change, she had completely abandoned hope of a normal life. It was a miracle, and a testament to Baekhyun’s determination to do right by her youngest pack-mate, that Sehun even had to opportunity to graduate.
Seulgi seemed shocked to see her in the hallway, and scurried up to her as Sehun rippled the flyer off her locker door.
“Do you want this?” Sehun asked, offering the flyer to Seulgi.
She shook her head. “No, I’m all set. You should probably take that. If you want to go to prom you should probably organise.”
“Who says I want to go to prom?” Sehun shot back.
Seulgi gave her a pointed look. “C’mon, be serious.”
“It’s going to be a big deal,” Sehun argued. “I don’t like that kind of stuff.”
“How much of a big deal can they make it when our graduating class has barely ninety people in it?” Seulgi asked. Her tone turned a little pleading. “Consider it? It wouldn’t be the same without you, and if nothing else you can spend the night with Yookyung and Brian and snipe at those annoying kids from Prom Committee running around acting like big shots.”
Sehun harrumphed, crossing her arms, but tipped her head in acknowledgement. Seulgi only had good intentions.
“Wait,” she frowned. “Spend the night with ‘Kyung and Brian? What about you?”
Seulgi flushed. “Jae’s coming up for prom and the weekend, and then he’s coming back after graduation. We’re going on a trip to New York together.”
“You teased me for having a so-called college boyfriend when you had one all along? Wow, Seulgi,” Sehun joked, putting on her best betrayed expression. She could have seen Jae Park coming from a mile away.
Seulgi coloured even more deeply. “I didn’t want everyone to know because everything’s so new - we’ve been officially together for, what, two months? And it’s long distance right now, and you know how long distance is.”
Sehun placed her hand on Seulgi’s shoulder. “Hey, I was joking. I’m really happy for you, honest. Jae’s a good guy.” He’d graduated a year ahead of them and had seemed unabashedly elated at having broken free of small town life, but he had cherished his ties with Seulgi. She hadn’t known that those ties had turned into something else.
The first bell rung and Seulgi looped her arm through Sehun’s shuffling her to class. At first, she struggled, but gave in. By the time they swept into class, both of them were giggling. It was nice. She hadn’t been this way with Seulgi in a while. The older girl invited her for ice-cream again after school, but Sehun declined, begging off to study.
Jongin was waiting at the street corner, leaning against a lamp-post. The key dangled from his fingers, and he flashed her a shy smile.
“C’mon,” she said gruffly, walking past him. “Let’s go.”
He followed her faithfully. It took a week and a half for let’s go to turn into let’s go home .
“It’s him! I swear it is!”
Robin yanked the other wolf back against the wall by his collar, hissing a warning. “Shut up, Scott! They’re going to spot us if you keep waving around like that.”
Scott shook his head, a snarl appearing on his lips. “That little fucker - I bet he had everything to do with those three. We could take him, easy. Two of us, one of him. He’d be dead before he knew what hit him.”
Robin cuffed him around the head, sending his lank hair whipping into his face. She got up and stalked down the alley, away from where they’d seen the omega walk past. He’d been alone, cleaner and healthier-looking than she’d ever seen him. Obviously he had a benefactor in these parts.
The woman grunted and waved a dismissive hand. Scott scowled. The omega was still walking when three of theirs were dead. It was wrong in his mind. He trotted to catch up to her, following her back to the abandoned theatre.
She turned suddenly, whirling and jabbing a finger at his chest. “Don’t even think about doing anything about the omega. You know Lena’s got her eye on you. Alpha won’t do anything if she decides she doesn’t like having you around anymore, so keep your mouth shut and don’t say anything . Got it?”
Scott grimaced but nodded. “Fine.”
“Good,” Robin said, marching inside. Scott cracked his neck to the side and slunk in after her.
The rest of the pack were lazing inside, slumped on the theatre seats in various states of awareness. Scott scanned the hall with a wary eye for Lena, but found the blonde napping on the stage and the female he was looking for absent. Quietly, he made his way backstage. The female had claimed a dressing room at the far end of the theatre, cradling one of the newborn pups to her chest as she curled up on the moth-eaten chaise.
“Melissa,” he said. The female looked up at him with hollow eyes. Scott paused awkwardly. It was if she could see right through him with her clear grey eyes. He cleared his throat and recounted what he’d seen in town - both the omega and the wolf in the gun shop - and what his plans were, to her. Her grip on the sleeping pup was gentle and secure, but the claws of her other hand slowly extended to bite into the fabric of the chaise’ armrest.
“How is that fair?” she whispered, breaking eye contact. Scott let out a breath of relief, but looked around to check that Robin wasn’t hanging around where she could hear them. Or the Alpha. A shiver crept down his spine. There was something about the man that was beyond words.
The scout wouldn’t be happy, but Melissa was right. It wasn’t fair. The omega had a reckoning coming to him for just not dying , for joining that town pack.
“It’s not. I’m saying, let’s get the rest of the boys. Watch him, quietly. Don’t tell Lena or Robin. And when we figure out where he’s going every day, we’ll figure out where this pack is, and then we kill them all,” he said. “Bring them to the mercy of the Alpha. Tie up our loose ends.”
The pup began to whimper at Melissa’s breast, and then she turned to look at him with fire in her eyes.
please don't kill me